The Night Listener

Robin Williams and Toni Collette

 

When he switches off the mouth, Robin Williams can be an incredibly effective actor. This is one of those turns, yet it’s ironically about a man who is a professional mouth, a DJ with a late-night show who uses his graveyard phone-in to tell and listen to stories. It’s another of Williams’s characteristics as an actor that he’s happy, let’s say willing, to play characters who either aren’t likeable or are downright nasty, One Hour Photo being the ultimate proof of that. Again ironically, he’s neither here, though he is playing a character despised in much of society – a gay man. There’s a dark almost Hitchcockian feel to the path that leads off from this starting position, as this avuncular “listener” with relationship problems of his own one evening takes a call which knocks a sense of perspective into his own rather meagre life. He learns about a 14-year-old boy who is dying of Aids, thanks to the years of sexual abuse he has been subjected to by his parents and their inner circle – for his eighth birthday this kid got syphilis. The story is a true one – not that of the boy, we’ve no idea about the bones of that case – but about this concerned man forced by a troubled conscience into trying to find then help this poor kid. All he’s got to go on is the prompting of the boy’s carer (Toni Collette), who is blind and so isn’t as much help as she might be. Or possibly, we realise as things wander along, it’s not even beginning to be as simple as all that. The original story is by Armistead Maupin, of Tales of the City fame, who gives himself just enough space to explore the territory he wants – whether it is possible for a middle-aged gay man to reach out and help a pubescent boy without social prejudices kicking in. He concludes… well, that’s the film and I won’t ruin it, having already said a bit too much. Because it is a very slight drama, just solid enough to carry its theoretical payload, but director Patrick Stettner and cinematographer Lisa Rinzler drench everything in an oversexualised creepiness, Williams and Collette both deliver as people whose lives on the margins – his sexually determined, hers by disability and job status – have had an effect on their personalities, and there’s a welcome colour-blind aspect to the multi-ethnic casting decisions. It feels real, in other words.

 

The Night Listener – Watch it/buy it now at Amazon

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2006

 

 

 

 

The Best Films of 2014

Scarlett Johansson in Under the Skin

 

Of the 350+ films I saw this year, these are the best ones. Some of them were released last year and I’ve been a bit slow getting round to them. Some of them were released even longer ago. The criteria are – I watched them in 2014 and I liked them. That’s it.

 

 

 

The Best

 

Computer Chess (2013, dir: Andrew Bujalski)

Andrew Bujalski, inventor of mumblecore, proved there’s life in the old beast yet with this retro-verité drama about geeks meeting in the 1980s to pit their programs against a chess-playing computer. Shooting on original video cameras in fuzzy-edged boxellated black and white, Bujalski catches the moment when the let-it-all-hang-out era died and our brighter, geekier world was born.

 

In a World… (2013, dir: Lake Bell)

A comedy of modern manners strung onto a plot about voice artists vying for the throne of the newly dead king of the hill. The savviest, screwballiest Hollywood comedy in years came from left-field, from writer/director/star Lake Bell, playing the daughter of a famous voiceover artist trying to get out from under dad’s reputation. It’s sentimental in all the right ways too.

 

The Canyons (2013, dir: Paul Schrader)

The sensational Lindsay Lohan’s “right, I’m back” movie is also Paul Schrader’s best for decades, a turning over of the paving slab to see what low-lifes slither about beneath. It’s The Canyons, not The Hills, so don’t expect Hollywood to come out smelling of anything but bad drugs, mercenary sex and broken dreams.

 

Stranger by the Lake (2013, Alain Guiraudie)

Don’t watch if you can’t take the sight of gay male sex. If you can you get a remarkable French drama about a killer at large on a nudist beach where homosexual omerta guarantees him a free ride, in any way he fancies. It’s beautifully composed, dramatically as taut as you like and even the soundscape is a thing of wonder.

 

Under the Skin (2013, dir: Jonathan Glazer)

How odd that Scarlett Johansson suddenly cornered the female sci-fi market (with this, the Avengers movies, Her and Lucy). This is the best of the bunch, with ScarJo playing a killer (in every sense) alien who cruises round Glasgow, Scotland, enticing men into her white van and then taking them back to her lair. Shot painstakingly with real, unsuspecting Glaswegians picked up off the street playing the dupes, it’s a triumphant return to movies for writer/director Jonathan (Sexy Beast) Glazer.

 

Of Horses and Men (2013, dir: Benedikt Erlingsson)

There are scenes in this elemental Icelandic movie that you will never have seen before, some hilarious, others just jaw-droppingly wha? It’s a unique rural drama that seems to suggest that people are at their happiest and least stressed when they behave most like animals. Watch that young woman swish her tail when the visiting Spaniard shakes his mane. Brilliant.

 

Norte, The End of History (2013, dir: Lav Diaz)

A four hour epic shot in long continuous beautifully framed takes, about a rich young law student and the poor street-pedlar woman whose life he affects maximally without even realising what he’s done. Wait two hours for the first “what the hell just happened” moment, and then another 90 minutes for the second, while a new (to me) master Lav Diaz casts his spell.

 

 

Only Lovers Left Alive (2013, dir: Jim Jarmusch)

If you were going to cast the supercoolest vampire film ever, you’d want Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston in it. And you’d want Jim Jarmusch to direct it, wouldn’t you? That’s exactly what you get with this aching paean to immortal hipsterism shot in crumbling Detroit and labyrinthine old Tangier. No one ever says “I feel so very very tired,” as they do in cornier movies, but that’s the spirit. Plus jokes, hipster jokes.

 

 

Goodbye to Language (2014, dir: Jean-Luc Godard)

At one level Jean-Luc Godard’s boy-meets-girl drama of collaged visual styles and overlapping dialogue looks like the result of using every preset on Final Cut Pro software; at another it’s a brilliant exercise in trying to reformulate film syntax. Genius.

 

Edge of Tomorrow (2014, dir: Doug Liman)

Tom Cruise as a soldier repeatedly being killed, each time back to life a little bit tougher, sharper, wiser in Doug Liman’s sci-fi extravaganza that looks, feels, smells like something Arnold Schwarzenegger would have graced in the 1980s.

 

Welcome to New York (2014, dir: Abel Ferrara)

Abel Ferrara’s drama about/not about Dominic Strauss Khan and his sexual escapades in New York looks like it was shot entirely on one camera, stars Gérard Depardieu and Jacqueline Bisset and suggests obliquely that the people who run the planet are sociopaths.

 

 

 

 

 

Honourable mentions

 

Gary Bond sinks a beer in Wake in Fright
Gary Bond sinks a beer in Wake in Fright

 

Wake in Fright (1971, dir: Ted Kotcheff)

A restored 1971 Australian classic about a nice schoolteacher having a wild weekend of up-close Ocker masculinity out in the Outback of the Outback.

 

Blue Is the Warmest Colour (2013, dir: Abdellatif Kechiche)

Lesbian sex was its big sell but it’s the acting that’s the thing in this slow (as in Slow Food slow) French drama about a young girl’s sentimental education.

 

Klown (2010, dir: Mikkel Nørgaard)

The Danes do comedy in this road movie about two inadequate blokes and a ten-year-old boy on a “tour de pussy”. Inappropriate comedy fans, this is for you.

 

All Is Lost (2013, dir: JC Chandor)

Robert Redford is all at sea on a sinking yacht in the virtually wordless thriller from JC Chandor, who made the banking business sexy with Margin Call and proves lightning does strike twice here.

 

Fossil (2014, dir: Alex Walker)

A British couple in trouble are befriended by a lovey-dovey twosome in this four-hander that looks good, hits a few deep notes and goes as badly whacked-out as outsider-couple dramas generally do.

 

Back to the Garden (2013, dir: Jon Sanders)

Really? A film set in Kent (the “Garden of England”) and made for nothing? Yes, and you won’t find a better recent film about confronting that moment when you realise your parents’ generation are dead and your lot are next.

 

Dallas Buyers Club (2013, Jean-Marc Vallée)

Part of the McConaissance, with Matthew McC as the homo-hating cowpuncher who discovers he’s HIV+ and breaks the law to fix himself. A brilliant exercise in Hollywood storytelling economy.

 

The Past (2013, dir: Asghar Farhadi)

Asghar Farhadi casts The Artist’s Bérénice Bejo as the woman about to marry for the third time, to a man with a wife in coma. How the wife ended up in the coma is what this subversive, complexly plotted drama is all about.

 

The Lunchbox (2013, dir: Ritesh Batra)

A Mumbai desk jockey gets the wrong lunchbox at work and starts up a relationship with the neglected wife who prepared it. Life-changes all round in this lovely romance made with a very light touch.

 

An Episode in the Life of an Iron Picker (2013, dir: Danis Tanovic)

A dirt-poor Roma man tries to get medical help for his pregnant wife in this immensely sweet drama that comes with this seal of authenticity – it really happened, and to this lovely couple.

 

The Lego Movie (2014, dir: Phil Lord, Christopher Miller)

The incredibly smart Lego people got Phil Lord and Christopher Miller of 21 Jump Street to script/direct their movie, a fast-moving Star Wars-y affair with Liam Neeson and Will Ferrell its standout voices. Four viewings necessary.

 

Starred Up (2013, dir: David Mackenzie)

The best British jail drama since Scum, all those years ago, with a starry turn by Jack O’Connell as the new lag running into all the usual bad stuff inside. Spectacular.

 

Locke (2013, dir: Steven Knight)

Tom Hardy sitting inside a car for 90 minutes and making phone calls. That’s all there is to this super-high-concept drama that screws more tension out of the situation than you could imagine possible.

 

Blue Ruin (2013, dir: Jeremy Saulnier)

A hillbilly milquetoast is forced into an unlikely revenge-driven killing spree in a drama that grips from the first second and holds you there till the grisly end.

 

The Counselor (2013, dir: Ridley Scott)

Ridley Scott and Cormac McCarthy’s loquacious drama about a high-flying lawyer who hasn’t realised he’s swimming with the sharks (Javier Bardem, Brad Pitt). A sleek, ratchet-like thriller of pitiless inevitability.

 

Sofia’s Last Ambulance (2012, dir: Ilian Metev)

So simple, so effective, a documentary that follows a Bulgarian ambulance team and focuses entirely on them, never the people they’re treating. Tight, unusual, very humane.

X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014, dir: Bryan Singer)

The best of the X-Men movies gains a position in this list because of director Bryan Singer’s sheer ability to keep so many stories, characters and settings constantly in play. And his observation that the 1970s might as well now be an alien universe is interesting too.

 

 

 

 

The Underrated

 

Antonia Campbell-Hughes and Julian Morris in Kelly + Victor
Antonia Campbell-Hughes and Julian Morris in Kelly + Victor

 

Kelly + Victor (2012, dir: Kieran Evans)

A nice lad falls for a totally fucked up girl in this brilliantly acted, nicely observed Liverpool drama about a boy, a girl and a lot of bondage gear. No “ferry across the fucking Mersey” (the director’s words) visible. Hoo-fucking-ray.

 

Seduced and Abandoned (2013, dir: James Toback)

An exquisite and slyly clever documentary that’s not really a documentary at all, about old mates Alec Baldwin and James Toback talking to the movie world’s money men at Cannes. Fascinating, proper inside-Hollywood reveals.

 

Bad Grandpa (2013, dir: Jeff Tremaine)

Johnny Knoxville deserves the Sacha Baron Cohen award for bravery for the audacious stunts he pulls off as the titular grandpa, and Jackson Nicoll – what, 10-years-old maybe? – even more for his turn as the grandson. Yes, it’s a Jackass movie and that ship has sailed, but it’s also a very funny, one-of-a-kind affair.

 

Metro Manila (2013, dir: Sean Ellis)

A poor Filipino family moves to the big bad city and what looks like a drama about the innocent getting monstered turns into one of the best heist films of the year. Brilliantly made, brilliantly acted.

 

Safety Not Guaranteed (2012, dir: Colin Trevorrow)

Aubrey Plaza, one of those girls who can go from hot to not in the blink of an acting eye, dominates this no-budget smartly written mumblecore sci-fi about a rookie journalist chasing down a pudgy middle age guy who claims to have built a time machine. Fabulous.

 

Oldboy (2013, dir: Spike Lee)

Hated because a) it’s not as good as the original and b) people like to kick Spike Lee, who proves here he’s an intelligent, accomplished gun for hire, while Josh Brolin excels as the asshole incarcerated by person(s) unknown for 20 years and now wanting payback.

 

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013, dir: Ben Stiller)

Ben Stiller’s brilliantly crafted reworking of the story that Danny Kaye made a hit film with in 1947 – about a geek whose rich fantasy life starts to invade his real one – is too unclassifiable to hit the “best of” lists.

 

8 Minutes Idle (2012, dir: Mark Simon Hewis)

A simple British comedy about a Bristol call centre that’s clearly been written by someone who’s worked in one – the cameraderie of the drones is palpable, their maddened boredom too. And star Tom Hughes is great as a post-Uni slacker working out what to do next.

 

The Monuments Men (2014, dir: George Clooney)

OK, so it’s not a Tarantino movie. But George Clooney’s amiable comedy about a crack team saving art before the Nazis destroy it isn’t meant to be. It’s meant to be Von Ryan’s Express/Hogan Heroes reimagined. Job very much achieved.

 

The Invisible Woman (2013, dir: Ralph Fiennes)

Felicity Jones is surely going to get an Oscar one day, but this film actually belongs to Ralph Fiennes (who also directs) playing her lover, Charles Dickens, as the world’s first media celeb. It’s a sweet film about love, in the end, with intelligent digressions.

 

Felony (2013, dir: Matthew Saville)

A gritty Oz cop melodrama written by its star, Joel Edgerton, the supercop who fucks up one night and spends the rest of the film getting further and further in the shit as he tries to wriggle free. Tom Wilkinson contributes another of his sneakily intelligent peformances as Edgerton’s superior.

 

All This Mayhem (2014, dir: Eddie Martin)

If you’ve never heard of the Pappas brothers, Ben and Tas, this excellent and shocking documentary about their 1990s rise and fall is well worth the ride, even if you’ve no interest whatsoever in skateboarding.

 

God Help the Girl (2014, dir: Stuart Murdoch)

A strangely 1960s-ish and intensely cute love letter by Belle and Sebastian frontman/director Stuart Murdoch to his star, Emily Browning, here fetishised in a boy-meets-girl Scottish musical recalling – if you’re fanciful – The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.

 

Chef (2014, dir: Jon Favreau)

Jon Favreau is one of the great under-revered directors of our era, and Chef – a road movie about a celebrity chef getting his mojo back – is exactly the sort of easy-looking, effortlessly digestible charmer he seems to be able to knock out at will.

 

Mystery Road (2013, dir: Ivan Sen)

An Aborigine cop tries to find out who killed an Aborigine girl – with stone-faced resistance from his white co-workers – in a beautifully shot Down Under cowboy thriller with one of the best shootout finales ever committed to film.

 

The Congress (2013, dir: Ari Folman)

Waltz with Bashir director Ari Folman pushes animation even further this time, with a psychedelic meditation on fantasy and reality starring Robin Wright as an actress who is digitised and inserted into any set-up the imagineers fancy. Highly highly unusual.

 

 

 

The Overrated

 

Emile Hirsch and Paul Rudd in Prince Avalanche
Emile Hirsch and Paul Rudd in Prince Avalanche

 

Prince Avalanche (2013, dir: David Gordon Green)

Two guys paint a road and David Gordon Green swerves back into George Washington territory in a film that’s Waiting for Godot with Girl Trouble. Tim Orr’s camera is lovely, 1970s and sun-dappled, but there’s a hole where the meaning should be.

 

Blue Jasmine (2013, dir: Woody Allen)

Another of Woody Allen’s overhyped “returns to form”, this time featuring a relentlessly over-acting Cate Blanchett as a super-entitled bitch whose ship has sailed. Watch instead Sally Hawkins.

 

Thor: The Dark World (2013, dir: Alan Taylor)

Everything that’s wrong with bad superhero films in one film – too many characters, too much gobbledegook, a lack of humour, though Tom Hiddleston’s Loki remains a fun watch. More to come (sigh).

 

The Butler (2013, dir: Lee Daniels)

Lee Daniels’s epic about the black butler (Forest Whitaker) to a whole bunch of POTUSes attempts to square the radical tradition with the gradualist conservative move towards black civil rights. Proficient, nothing more.

 

Saving Mr Banks (2013, dir: John Lee Hancock)

How Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) strongarmed PL Travers (Emma Thompson) into letting him film her Mary Poppins. The leads are genuinely fabulous and brilliant, but all that Travers backstory? Really?

 

Frozen (2013, dir: Chris Buck, Jennifer Lee)

On my own here, I know, a triumph for lovers of adenoidal singing of the sort of Broadway songs that Eric Idle spoofed so brilliantly with his Song That Goes Like This. The snowman and reindeer are funny but the central characters, what utter drips.

 

The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014, dir: Wes Anderson)

It still hasn’t sunk into Wes Anderson’s head that a) a little whimsy goes a long way and b) it has to be in the service of something, if only a good story. Here, though Ralph Fiennes is joyously funny as a devious owner of an old Mitteleuropean hotel, as a film it’s Sachertorte with cream, then more cream.

 

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014, dir: Marc Webb)

Marc Webb’s second pop at Spider-Man is immeasurably worse than the first, fails to weld live-action into increasingly cartoonish set-ups, has too many villains, and feels like little more than a franchise placeholder or a sop to fanboys who will buy any old crap.

 

22 Jump Street (2014, dir: Phil Lord, Christopher Miller)

The jokes were all done in 21 Jump Street – and Phil Lord and Christopher Miller’s extensive running gag in the closing credits, in which they trail the franchise’s development all the way to 34 Jump Street: Return of the Ghost – shows they know it. Jonah Hill, Channing Tatum remain a hot combo though.

 

And if you want to watch or buy any of the films, this Amazon link will allow you to do just that – enjoy!

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

 

Princes of the Yen

Downtown Tokyo

Halfway through watching this simple but fascinating documentary, by the same team that made the equally eye-opening 97% Owned, a friend turned up. Instead of saying “How are you?” or “Wanna cup of tea?” (I’m writing this in the UK), I said, “God, I’m watching this amazing documentary about economics in Japan and how the authorities there deliberately sabotaged the country’s economy, and the whole 1980s boom and bust was a fix, and the…” and on I burbled.

It’s not the reaction you’d expect to what is essentially a PowerPoint presentation, delivered in steady-as-she-goes voiceover. Yet the story the film (subtitle: Central Banks and the Transformation of the Economy) tells is remarkable, and is essential viewing if you’ve any interest at all in economics or politics.

And here’s the story it tells. The wrecked post-Second World War economy of Japan was restored to rude health not by the introduction of a free market economy (as the books tell us) but by the Bank of Japan (BoJ), which, using a system of “window guidance”, directed investment into whichever sector (or even company) that it saw fit.

Neo-classical economics dictates that a system like this will not, cannot, work. And yet Japan, with little in the way of natural resources and comparatively small in size, became the second largest economy in the world.

Part two of the story tells how, in the 1980s, this amazingly successful system was deliberately sabotaged for ideological reasons by people in the BoJ who believed that Japan needed “structural reform”, and that reform wouldn’t become politically or socially acceptable without a crisis. So, the BoJ engineered that crisis, first by jacking up the window guidance credit quotas, which led to a lot of excess money sloshing about, which led to the huge 1980s property boom. The documentary pauses here to remind us of some of those absurd factoids that were all over the media in the late 1980s – that the value of the gardens around the Imperial Palace in Tokyo was more than the entire state of California, for example. And then it continues, telling us that in 1990 the crisis came – the stock market dropped 30 per cent in one year alone, leading to a protracted economic freeze which Japan is still recovering from now. Between 1990 and 2003 real estate prices fell 84 per cent, the stock market by 80 per cent, 212,000 companies went to the wall.

Part three tells of the BoJ’s bogus attempts to restart the economy in the 1990s – it pumped money in on one side, then took it all out again on the other – all the while burbling about the need for “structural reform”, this of an economy it had itself destroyed. Then the neo-con Prime Minister Koizumi was elected in 2001 and there followed a period of even more “structural reform”, during which the bank balances of local banks were wiped out as they were bankrupted and forced into nationalisation.

Enough explanation of what the film says. Though I will just say that it goes on to detail how this disastrous formula was first exported to South East Asia, where it killed the Asian Tiger economies, and was then repeated in Europe, where from 2004 the European Central Bank sat back as “bank credit growth in Ireland, Greece, Portugal and Spain increased at over 20 per cent per annum.” And which were the countries that needed the bailouts?

I might be mistaken but I there appears to be very little, if any, new footage in this documentary. If that is the case, then Princes of the Yen is a triumph of archive remixology. That doesn’t mean there isn’t plenty of authoritative input, thanks largely to the wealth of TV interviews given over the years by economist Richard Werner, the coiner of the phrase “quantitative easing” whose book Princes of the Yen provides the film’s title and thesis. The cogent, amusing and bright-eyed Werner’s arguments could be boiled down as “this is madness”, or even “this is treason” (my interpretation of his sentiments) and I wished at times the film had been more explicit about what it seemed to be suggesting: that this “structural reform” brand of economics is US cultural imperialism by another name. And I wished it had either better incorporated its bigger argument – about the dangerous unaccountability of central banks – or even left it for another day. But for people like me, who are interested in economics but don’t have the vocabulary or conceptual framework to take part in the discussion, Princes of the Yen fills in some of the gaps, without bamboozling with jargon, graphs or too many statistics. And even if you are flatly, 100 per cent sure that every word the film says is wrong, the questions it asks, considering the economic hole we are currently climbing out of, are ones that need answering.



Princes of the Yen – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2014

Enemy

Adam meets Anthony in Enemy

 

If there is such a thing as “what the hellness” then Denis Villeneuve’s latest film absolutely has it. But then the French-Canadian does have form. With Incendies Villeneuve managed to turn the conflict in the Middle East into a thriller with a reveal that disconcerted and amazed. In Prisoners he made us feel bad for suspecting that a lank haired, stuttering, educationally subnormal Paul Dano was a paedophile, and then made us feel bad for cutting such an obvious wrong’un too much slack.

The tricks are more playful in this latest exercise in duplicity. As with Prisoners, Enemy stars Jake Gyllenhaal, this time as Adam, a history professor who suddenly spots his spitting likeness in a movie he’s watching one night on his laptop when he should be snuggled up with his wife.

Instead of thinking “oh, that’s odd” and leaving it at that, Adam does a little digging, finds a few more films his doppelganger has been in, finds his agent, tracks down where he lives and then tentatively arranges a meeting, not realising that Anthony, the initially spooked actor also played by Gyllenhaal, might also have an agenda. Bizarrely, both men, when they meet, are so alike that there really is no gap between them, from the way they style their beards to the way they speak and react. And their partners (Adam’s is Mélanie Laurent; Anthony’s Sarah Gadon), each a good-looking blonde having a little relationship difficulty with her partner, seems to have the same problem too.

We’re very much in the sort of territory that late 1940s noir loved to wallow in – dark psychology, fractured personality, dreamscapes and hints of sexual deviancy. I haven’t mentioned the little vignettes that Villeneuve drops in of naked women in what looks like animal masks (it’s dark) slinking down long corridors? I have now.

At what point does the film leave reality behind? The answer is that it never really engages with it. It’s built inside a hall of mirrors – in real life there would be a thousand tells that would distinguish one person from another; here, Anthony even has a scar on his chest where Adam does. It doesn’t add up.

The plot is not the point though. It’s a vehicle for the mood of the thing. Has any recent film looked this queasily yellow? The colour of madness, cowardice, jaundice and death allied to a soundtrack of mournful clarinet, growling bassoon, honks of brass and nervous strings. The script is sparse, roads are empty, public spaces barely occupied, dialogue scarce but loaded. David Lynch is in there, in other words, though this is more “inspired by” than “lifted from”. And almost as proof here’s bizarro muse Isabella Rossellini as Anthony’s coolly unmaternal mother. Or was it Adam’s? Or are they the same person?

See it as an existential quest movie if you like – what is it that we are all searching for? Would having a doppelganger conveniently justify all our dark secrets, or scare the shit out of us? Both possibilities are examined in the closest that Gyllenhaal has got to this territory since Donnie Darko.

As for the ending, which suddenly makes all the psychological undertow overt in one laugh-out-loud shot, it’s Villeneuve’s raining-frogs-in-Magnolia moment, an abrupt full stop that signifies that he’s finished playing with us and we can all get back to whatever it was we were doing before. It’s going to irritate the hell out of people who haven’t been watching closely enough.

Enemy – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

 

 

 

29 September 2014-09-29

Emily Blunt and Tom Cruise in Edge of Tomorrow

 

Out in the UK This Week

 

 

Edge of Tomorrow (Warner, cert 12, digital)

As hyper-aware of his position in the culture as he is of a camera in relation to his three-quarter profile, Tom Cruise knows that a lot of people want to see him taking a kicking. Edge of Tomorrow (or Live. Die. Repeat: Edge of Tomorrow as it seems to have become) answers that demand, with Cruise playing a cocky jumped-up PR guy pressganged into the army (which answers the “how come a guy over 50 is still in any army?” question) who then relives the same day over and over again, after he gets contaminated with alien blood. What plays out is a smart, fast Groundhog Day style sci-fi, with Cruise getting the last laugh as the guy who becomes the most formidable fighting machine the army has ever produced. And if that isn’t exactly a surprise in a Cruise film, Emily Blunt as an action heroine is – the non-smiling, super-tough battle vixen role suits her. And she gets to kill Cruise repeatedly too, in the interests of making him better/stronger – because every time he comes back, he comes back with his memories intact. It is in many ways a 1980s action movie, with Bourne Identity director Doug Liman laying on the blue, smoky, flat colour palette as the script by Christopher McQuarrie (The Usual Suspects) and Jez and John-Henry Butterworth runs through a rake of 1980s standbys – the “you don’t know who you really are” plot, the time paradoxes, the Skynet future, the glorying in military hardware. Thirty years ago, Arnold Schwarzenegger would have been in this. Thirty years from now Edge of Tomorrow will probably get a remake, and the eightysomething Tom Cruise will probably be its star.

Edge of Tomorrow – Watch it now at Amazon

 

 

 

 

 

Norte, The End of History (New Wave, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD)

Short review: this is a masterpiece. It’s a four hour epic set in the Philippines and focusing on two individuals. On one side is Fabian (Sid Lucero), a supersmart law student with an interest in moral relativism, postmodernity, all the usual intellectual debates. On the other is Ading (Hazel Orencio), a poor woman whose hardscrabble life selling vegetables is made even tougher when her sweet, harmless husband is sent to jail for murder. I won’t say how these two lives intersect, because it takes two hours for the film to reveal the first of its dramatic switcheroos, and nearly another hour and a half before its second. But both are monumentally dramatic. In between times director Lav Diaz somehow, magically, keeps us transfixed with long, perfectly framed shots that must have been a bugger to compose yet look so effortlessly right. You can see Norte as a state-of-the-nation film, or as one about class, but more than that it’s a simple story of two people – one who has it all and can’t appreciate his good fortune, the other who works, works, works and doesn’t have time for self-pity. Granted, these rich=bad, poor=good positions are a bit schematic, but the acting is so natural and believable, the plot so organic that objections recede as the immersive drama closes over you.

Norte, the End of History – Buy it/watch it at Amazon

 

 

 

 

 

Lilting (Artificial Eye, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD)

In subject matter a little like Xavier Dolan’s Tom at the Farm, writer/director Khaou Hong’s London-set drama is about the aftermath of a gay young man’s (Andrew Leung) death and the attempts by his lover (Ben Whishaw) to explain the true nature of their relationship to his grieving mother (Cheng Pei-pei). The wrinkle here being that she is Chinese, speaks no English and has been prematurely put in sheltered accommodation “temporarily” by her son just before he died. Good though Whishaw is, it’s Cheng’s film, and she’s a welcome stern presence with questing eyes in her dealings with the over-eager Richard (Whishaw) and with Alan (a rather good Peter Bowles), the randy codger making stinky eyes at her. A bit stagey, but nice.

Lilting – Buy it/watch it at Amazon

 

 

 

 

 

Postman Pat: The Movie (Lionsgate, cert U, Blu-ray/DVD)

The British TV show for pre-schoolers gets the big-screen treatment, with Stephen Mangan now providing the voice of Postman Pat. The look and tone remain the same – bright, almost insanely cheerful (“Have a good day,” says Pat’s lovely wife. “I always do,” replies Pat) though Pat appears to have arrived in the world of restructuring, downsizing and all that with a plot that sees the post office taken over by a management wonk with a dastardly plan to outsource everything and replace the postpersons – part social worker, part police, part friend – with robots. Pat, meanwhile, has been persuaded to sign up for a TV talent competition, presided over by one Simon Cowbell. The film is written by Kim Fuller, brother of Simon Cowell’s former business partner Simon Fuller, but there appear to be no axes being ground in a fairly standard “Nasty Simon” portrayal of the big bad judge. As it should be – this is a film for young kids, who won’t care that the unaffected Pat’s singing voice is provided by the over-mannered Ronan Keating and that the odd “moral message” (technology has made us lose sight of the better things in life) seems aimed at their parents. Who might also half chortle at the fact that one of the bots, when being switched off, make a little 2001: A Space Odyssey reference. You know what it is. Cheerful.

Postman Pat: The Movie – Buy it/watch it at Amazon

 

 

 

 

 

Run & Jump (Wildcard, cert 15, DVD)

Here’s an Irish film with an American and a Brit in the key roles. No matter, they’re both talented, with Will Forte as the US shrink embedded in a hurly-burly Irish family, Maxine Peake the wife of the stroke victim he’s observing. So how long before they get into each others pants – that’s the clear expectation with any drama of this sort. But the canny thing about Run & Jump is how much it makes us run and jump as we rush towards what we see as the film’s obvious romantic conclusion. I can’t, in other words, tell you anything more about the plot. What I can say is that Forte, last seen by me in Nebraska, is fine as the mopey scientist but that Peake is miles better as the wife and mother whose bright demeanour is a brassy hat on top of a roiling world of worry. Without Peake, the fact that Run & Jump is a tiny bit long might have been more obvious.

Run & Jump – Buy it/watch it at Amazon

 

 

 

 

 

The Wind Rises (StudioCanal, cert PG, Blu-ray/DVD)

The great Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki says this is his farewell, and he appears to be going out with a highly personal subject – a film about the Japanese plane designer named Jirô Horikoshi (voiced in the English dub by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and the planes he designed in the run-up to (and including) the Second World War. The animation is a gorgeous as ever – the 2D style almost bereft of detail apart from one small, possibly not even that important, eye-grabbing item in every shot (tatami matting, a balustrade, the shadow of a train running along the ground). As for plot, it falls into two halves – the design stuff (based on actual events) and the personal stuff (entirely made up). I found the design stuff to be neither Arthur nor Martha – not detailed enough to engage, nor background enough not to intrude. But the personal stuff – Jiro’s romance with a woman (voice: Emily Blunt) he meets during an earthquake – the earth literally moved – was entirely charming, and the interlude set in a tuberculosis sanatorium which owes a large debt to Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain were also heartwarming and as sure a sign of Miyazaki’s Europhilia as the quotes from Paul Valéry and Christina Rossetti. As for the idea that Miyazaki isn’t addressing the issue of artistic culpability and the Second World War, that’s obviously been put about by people who are both blind and deaf.

The Wind Rises – Buy it/watch it at Amazon

 

 

 

 

 

Goltzius and the Pelican Company (Axiom, cert 18, Blu-ray/DVD/digital)

After Nightwatching, the second in Peter Greenaway’s Dutch Masters series is big-scale film making, the sort you might remember from his The Thief, the Cook, His Wife and Her Lover. A story about an acting troupe playing out just the naughty bits from the Bible (Sodom & Gomorrah, Salome and John the Baptist, David and Bathsheba etc) gives Greenaway all the canvas he needs to put on a lavish, theatrical and punishingly symmetrical display of painterly mis-en-scenes, a renaissance tale of puckish fancy in which neither the establishing frame – F Murray Abraham’s central European court – nor the stories within it are immune from disruption. It is all very 1980s, though there’s no denying Greenaway’s eye for an arresting image and his actors’ enthusiasm for taking their clothes off (especially the gents with the larger endowments), Abraham’s booming voice somehow grounding everything when the assemblage of nakedness, hysteria, arthouse splatter, varying levels of reality and front- and back-projection threatens to disappear up its own back passage. Welcome back, Mr G.

Goltzius and the Pelican Company – Buy it/watch it at Amazon

 

 

 

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Grandmaster

Zhang Ziyi and brothel women in The Grandmaster

 

There are misgivings even during the opening scene of this decade-straddling epic about Ip Man, generally described as “the man who trained Bruce Lee”. There’s legendary martial artist Ip Man (the impassive Tony Leung) in a stylish straw hat taking on a phalanx of uglies in a torrential nighttime downpour. Slo-mo rain. It’s the sort of visual cliché you might expect from Uwe Boll rather than one of the most gifted film-makers in the world.

But, a bit of plot. The film kicks off in the 1930s when, Leung’s voiceover tells us, Ip Man is about 40, a content, wealthy resident of Foshen with a lovely wife and a rich cultural life. This is all kicked into the air after a bake-off between competing branches of kung fu called by the retiring Master Gong, who has in tow his beautiful, skilled and icy daughter Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi, of Crouching Tiger fame) and wayward disciple Ma San (Zhang Jin). Over the intervening years the Japanese invade, the nationalists come and go, and the era of Mao begins, with Gong Er and Ma San both re-appearing in Ip Man’s life like punctuation marks.

Why is Wong Kar Wai making a biopic about Ip Man, whose story has already been told many times before (notably by Donnie Yen in two films)? I suspect it’s his attempt to outdo Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. And maybe in the original four hour edit it does. But in this incomprehensible two hour ten minute edit (Wong says he will “never” release the original version) little makes sense, and Wong’s choices always tend towards the visual rather than the dramatic. In short, half the time it’s difficult to know who everyone is.

There are two distinct ways of shooting physical action in movies. When it’s people who know their stuff, say Donnie Yen or Fred Astaire, the camera stays back, letting the viewer take in the spectacle – real bodies doing really amazing things in real space and time. When the actors don’t know their stuff, say Bruce Willis or the cast of Chicago, then the smoke and mirrors of the edit suite takes over.

Leung trained for 18 months to do this movie, but even so is no grand master. Wong reciprocates with an ingenious shooting style that is a little bit Astaire, a little bit Willis. And he comes up with something that does actually work: impressionistic blurs of movement, fast edits and swivel pans pausing periodically to focus on a decisive tactical moment – often a “push” move of the hands or feet. It’s very effective and, now and again, breathtaking.

Wong stages these fights in locations that are chocolate boxy in the extreme – a lush high end brothel, a station wreathed with locomotive smoke, a snowy landscape.

But never mind all that, the martial arts fans will be saying, who did the fight choreography? The answer is Yuen Woo-Ping, of Kill Bill and The Matrix fame, and Yuen does put on some mighty fine shows, though I was often not sure who Ip Man, or Gong Er, was fighting, and why – except when the two leads fought each other and all was abundantly clear. This was chop-socky courtship.

With this romantic Ip Man/Gong Er strand Wong is aiming specifically for the withheld love vibe of In the Mood for Love, his most famous film, which he also tried to re-bottle in his Blueberry Nights. And it doesn’t work here either, this time because Wong has introduced Ip Man’s wife early on and then not clearly explained the nature of their relationship. Or maybe all was explained in the four hour version. And who is this guy Razor who pops up here and there, spoiling for a fight? Again the four hour edit might have the answer.

But never mind all that, Wong appears to be saying in his editing decisions, look at all the pretty pictures. In this he’s directly in the tradition of David Lean after his work jumped the shark (about halfway through Lawrence of Arabia) when his visual eye started to get the better of his storytelling brain.

This is a heroically beautiful film but a godawful mess in all other respects. I followed it up with Lav Diaz’s epic Filipino masterpiece Norte, the End of History – a four hour epic I sat through with my eyes glued to the screen. Did Wong Kar Wai not trust audiences with the full banquet? Perhaps he should think again.

 

The Grandmaster – Watch it now at Amazon

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

The Page Turner

Catherine Frot and Déborah François in The Page Turner

 

 

It’s often forgotten how much genre output the French make, and how well they do it. This icy thriller in a Chabrolesque mould has two brilliant performances at its centre. On the one side we have Déborah François as Mélanie, a young girl from a poor family whose ambition to become a pianist is ruined at an audition which goes so badly that she gives up playing for good. And on the other side we have Catherine Frot as the reason it went so badly, as Ariane, the famous pianist who is so blithely unaware of what the audition means for Mélanie that she signs an autograph for an adoring fan halfway through, thus shattering Mélanie’s hard-won composure. Years later the two women meet again, though Ariane doesn’t know the history of the young woman who is now her nanny, and who just happens to read music, and, yes, would be delighted to be her page turner at an upcoming comeback concert. Has Mélanie spent years working to get herself “accidentally” into this position? Well, this is a film, so the betting is that she has. But this matters very little because once Ariane has wandered into the trap set by history and an icy Mélanie, the game is on and we can only hang back and watch, and remember to breathe.

Director Denis Dercourt has a musical background (as a concert viola player) and brings an understanding of the neuroses that high-level playing foster. But the skills he shows in weaving a tense thriller with an overtone of All About Eve go well beyond familiarity: this is real expertise. Realising that less is more, he gives us barely an indication of the true workings of Mélanie’s possibly pathological mind-set, keeps us pretty much in the dark about Ariane too – was her autograph faux pas a moment of thoughtlessness or the product of aloofness borne of class contempt? And he weaves a magical, sexual spell between the two women, as Mélanie beguiles and seduces her employer (and, separately, her employer’s son, who she is also enticing along a path to we know not where).

And all this in the most exquisite style, Jérome Peyrebrune’s camera elegantly swinging through Antoine Platteau’s production design, which seems concerned with reminding us of the enormous influence of the style anglais on the moneyed BCBG set in France. The women, meanwhile, all legs and dress sense, maintain a poker-face about their true feelings – is the pianist falling for her page turner; is her page turner softening as her employer’s vulnerabilities become more obvious? Add in the obvious class element, seesawing against the older/younger woman dynamic, and things seem set for something tasteful but explosive. In fact the finale comes as a bit of a “wha…?” and is one of the film’s few disappointments. But Dercourt gets us there in high style, and in a remarkably short 81 minutes. You can hold your breath for 81 minutes?

The Page Turner – Watch it now at Amazon

 

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2006

 

 

 

22 September 2014-09-22

Ingvar Eggert Sigur∂sson in Of Horses and Men

 

Out in the UK This Week

 

 

Of Horses and Men (Axiom, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD/digital)

The jacket photo of the DVD shows a man sitting on a mare that’s being mounted by a stallion. The look of passive acceptance on the mare’s face, randy enthusiasm on the stallion’s and stubborn resistance on the man’s says much of what you need to know about this instant classic, the debut by Benedikt Erlingsson. The mounting incident is the first of several discrete stories that eventually tie together, detailing life in rural Iceland, where a horse is still a valuable commodity and humans are seen, to a large extent, as at their best when they accept their animal natures. I guarantee something in this film will make your jaw drop. For me it was the big burly guy spurring his horse into the freezing sea, then forcing it to swim a good distance out to a passing trawler and shouting “Vodka?! Dollar!” as he gets near. The comedy is as bone-dry as the images are arresting, and under it all there’s a fabulously warm, humane spirit at work, with a spare aesthetic that calls to mind the offbeat work of the Swede Roy Andersson.

Of Horses and Men – at Amazon

 

 

 

Before the Winter Chill (Metrodome, cert 18, DVD)

Like his I’ve Loved You So Long (Il y a longtemps que je t’aime), Philippe Claudel’s film is one sort of genre hiding within another. It looks like the story of a middle aged man having a fling with a younger woman, and of the spurned wife at home. In fact it’s a thriller, and I really can’t say any more than that without ruining it. Daniel Auteuil plays the brain surgeon whose achingly tasteful life with stay-at-home wife Kristin Scott Thomas is thrown into the blender when he hooks up with an ex patient (well, she says she is an ex patient), played by Leïla Bekhti, and starts an affair that’s initially tentative, then increasingly passionate. A beautifully made film of a very French sort that will disappear for good once Claudel, Auteuil and Scott Thomas’s generation have gone, it’s full of so many beautiful character touches (Auteuil’s fat fingers with his wedding band on so tight it would have to be cut off), gorgeous establishing shots (so many piles of autumnal leaves – symbolism alert) and acting of the “I speak; you pause” sort, that it’s easy enough to stay entertained until the movie’s real intentions declare themselves. Too elegant? Yeh, probably.

Before the Winter Chill – at Amazon

 

 

 

The Lost Patrol (Kaleidoscope, cert 15, DVD)

A Brazilian Second World War film. Rare enough. But it’s a good one with its own distinct tone, unlike almost any war film I’ve seen. Though the story is fairly routine – a Brazilian engineering corps lost in wintry Italy and worried that they’re going to be accused of desertion winds up de-mining a strategically important road (the Estrada 47 of its original title), with a photojournalist and a wounded Nazi along for the ride. No, that’s not your routine story either, is it? And its execution is even more out there – sober, deliberately quiet, intimate, spending a lot of time establishing its characters and so averse to big noises that even when a mine goes off it’s shown from way way back. And there’s even a nice, Martin Sheen-style Apocalypse Now voiceover delivered by its good-looking star Daniel de Oliveira, who can probably book himself a ticket to Hollywood, if he fancies it.

The Lost Patrol – at Amazon

 

 

 

The Short Game (Kaleidoscope, cert E, DVD/digital)

A documentary about young golfers which shows that Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy didn’t just come from nowhere. In tried and tested manner director Josh Greenbaum introduces us to a number of seven- and eight-year-olds before we head into the tournament they’re all competing in. Among them are Zam Nxasana, the South African whose parents see him as a beacon for their post-apartheid country, Jed Dy, the Filipino whose extreme aversion to publicity of any sort gives the lie to the notion that these kids are all attention-seeking brats. And there’s Allan Kournikova, brother of Anna, who is the number one seven-year-old golfer in the world. This is a real film of two halves – in part one we meet these gifted boys and girls, in part two the film devolves into what looks and sounds like standard sports coverage of their tournament, complete with the usual inane “how did you feel about that” post-match interview (which the kids are already adept at handling) and it starts to drag. It’s 20 minutes too long and there’s little insight but it is a fascinating intro to a bizarre world. And my god they all have a great swing.

The Short Game – at Amazon

 

 

 

A Jester’s Tale (Second Run, cert U, DVD)

Here’s an example of the dreaded picaresque movie – no plot, just incident – Karel Zeman’s 1964 Polish comedy set during the Thirty Years War. Loosely, it’s a Good Soldier Schwejk affair following two guys, Petr (Petr Kostka) and Matej (Miroslav Holub), as they find themselves on one side or the other as the battle thrums and the winners become temporary losers and vice versa. Petr is your D’Artagnan figure, all virility, impetuosity, and with a comely face that wows the ladies (mostly in the shape of Audrey Hepburn-alike Emília Vásáryová), while Matej is Athos, Porthos and Aramis all rolled into one, all fists-on-hips laughter and cornball wisdom. And dreaded the film would be if you just watched it for its one-damn-thing-after-another plot. Which would be to miss the sheer technical brilliance of it, and why it’s been a key influence on film-makers at the fantastical end of the scale, Terry Gilliam and Wes Anderson to name but two. A mad assemblage of live action mixed with animation, cutouts, surreal comp shots, it builds to a majestic and fairly insane conclusion in its last 20 minutes, during which Zeman overlays image after image (pre-digital, this can only lead to severe degradation, though the remarkably crisp restoration really helps) which are as audaciously creative as they are beautifully composed.

A Jester’s Tale – at Amazon

 

 

 

A Touch of Sin (Arrow, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD)

Jia Zhang Ke’s loose Altman-esque drama lifts the lid on modern China – showing us sweatshops, the corruption and the whorehouses, the whole such a portrait of negativity that it’s a mystery how it got to be made at all, given the Party’s stranglehold on cultural production. Beginning with the shooting of a trio of hammer-wielding thugs, moving on to the sight of a man beating his horse until it collapses, pausing to watch as a duck has its throat slit and its blood is run into a cup, it starts out as the story of a bitter hothead (Jiang Wu) who goes on a rampage of violence in an attempt to unseat the corrupt village chief. The level of splatter is high, which sits oddly with the pace of the thing, which seems to have Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia as some kind of structural and tonal reference, while its loosely connected (or not) various stories feature people at crunch moments – the man and woman discussing the end of their affair, the prostitute being taunted by a client, the garment worker causing a colleague to drive a cutting blade into his hand. However, it’s a tough watch, not because of the violence, but because the characters are held at arm’s length and we’re never quite sure who we’re meant to be rooting for.

A Touch of Sin – at Amazon

 

 

 

Miss and the Doctors (Drakes Avenue, cert 15, digital)

Two brothers, both of them doctors, fall for the same woman (Louise Bourgoin) after the brothers have been called out to deal with the absent mother’s diabetic daughter. Which one is she going to go for – is it going to be the nice smooth one (Laurent Stocker) or the gruff, offhand one (Cédric Kahn)? Hang on a second, both of them called out to a patient? This seems unlikely, and a wasteful use of a valuable resource, but the two brothers do indeed seem to work in tandem, just the first of many unlikelihoods that plague what should be a nice romantic drama with some sibling complications. One of the brothers, the nice one, is also an alcoholic, a fact we’re introduced to but which seems to have no bearing on anything that subsequently happens. In fact nothing has any real bearing on anything and there’s no real drama, but then, fittingly for a medically themed story, the characters are all x-rays and absolutely nothing in any area rings true. It looks great though, all plummy, woody shades, burnt oranges and ambers, as does Bourgoin, who you might have seen in The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec but is entirely wasted here.

Miss and the Doctors – at Amazon

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

 

 

Dead Man’s Cards

Paul Barber in Dead Man's Cards

 

 

There’s a grimy directness to the Liverpool gangster drama which substitutes Scouse sarcasm for the lairiness of the mockney geezer equivalent. Made by debut director James Marquand and starring its co-writer, James McMartin, it’s the story of a washed-up boxer with a low sperm count who takes a job as a bouncer, falls out with his wife (Samantha Janus), has a fling with a barmaid and gets on the wrong side of the local heavies, making friends with a fellow bouncer (Paul Barber) as he goes.

The “dead man’s cards” of the title are aces and eights, and they were the cards held by Wild Bill Hickok when he was shot in the back, or so says Billy the Cowboy (Tom Bell, in his final film role), owner of Billy’s Bar, the ropey boozer/club where Paul (Barber) and new boy Tom (McMartin) work the door. This overlay of a western ethos feels like a slightly desperate attempt to signal that this is a different kind of British crime drama. In fact it isn’t. It’s the familiar story of a new boy getting out of his depth and the old hand who introduces him (and us) to his new world. However, no need for apologies – in its small details the film convinces us of its Liverpudlian credentials, such as the sign on a shop doorway that reads “No Kosavo’s, Thieves or Smackheads” (grammar all their own; apologies if I’ve mistranscribed), overtones of Alan Bleasdale, the king of the grim scally comedy (see the 1991 TV series GBH). Though for the most part it’s shooters, drugs, bare knuckle fighting, gangsters, pretty much the usual. The acting is wildly variable, and it’s only when the superb Tom Bell’s mouth is operational that I felt I could completely settle back and go with the film. Dead Man’s Cards needs more actors of his calibre. Was it made in a rush? I don’t know, but Paul Barber’s line readings are so off that you wonder at times how he ever credibly held down a regular gig on a long-running soap (Brookside); he’s only periodically convincing as an ex-soldier with a few tours of Northern Ireland under his belt. In spite of this Barber (you might remember him from The Full Monty) has got a natural presence that also gives the film some bottom, allowing it to slide through on a shrug until it finally develops its own swing. This is in the final act, when Marquand and McMartin’s script starts, poker-style, to show its hand. Revealing a far more intelligent film than the acting and shaky set-up have led us all to expect.

 

 

Dead Man’s Cards – Watch it now at Amazon

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2006

 

 

 

 

Starter for 10

Alice Eve, James McAvoy and Rebecca Hall in Starter for 10

 

 

Write what you know, they say, and David Nicholls certainly does that here. An adaptation of his 2003 best-seller about a 1980s working class kid going to university, written by a 1980s working class kid who went to university, this comedy is full of period flavour and has the tang of authentic experience. Nicholls and director Tom Vaughan haven’t left success to chance, however, they’ve pumped all this bittersweet detail into the most durable of genre plots – the romantic comedy – with James McAvoy playing the Nicholls avatar, Brian Jackson, a fresher at the high-end Bristol university (Nicholls’s own alma mater) who is slightly out of his social class and so signs up to join the University Challenge quiz team. Where he meets leggy blonde head-turning posh tease Alice (Alice Eve), seemingly just minutes after having met the bright, socially committed Rebecca (Rebecca Hall), who is more in his league.

The drama then consists of watching young Brian throw himself to little avail against Alice’s ramparts while under his nose, waiting if only he knew it… you’re ahead of me. But this really is a case of “never mind the plot, feel the detail” with Nicholls’s screenplay taking time to paint the sense of freedom that leaving home brings, but also the gulf it opens up between the old life and the new.

This is where McAvoy comes in, the go-to guy for a certain sort of well-brought-up British male (Scottish accent optional), he is to the aspiring working class and lower middles what Danny Dyer is to the contentedly working class, a seemingly effortless charmer, playing a series of smart, likeable, cocky but vulnerable characters people identify with. So we are on Brian’s side when he goes home to find there’s a distance between him and his lone-parent mother (Catherine Tate) who made sacrifices so he’d get on, and that his down-to-earth best mate at home (Dominic Cooper) now seems, in comparison to his new university friends, a bit gauche. And we’re on Brian’s side too when he encounters the socially superior lah-di-dah types you meet in the groves of academe (Benedict Cumberbatch’s quiz team captain). Nicholls and Vaughan also score well on painting a picture of the first weeks at university, as uprooted teenagers work out which new group they fit into – the pseuds, the dudes, dressers up, the lumpen others, and so on.

And it’s the 1980s, so The Cure feature heavily on the zeitgeisty soundtrack – as anyone who’s read Nicholls’s One Day will know, music is key to his capture of period – and the patron saints of 1980s awkwardness seem never more appropriate than here.

Does it all end happily? Well that would be giving away too much of the plot, but as readers of One Day will also know, Nicholls is as much about exploiting genre as polishing it, so don’t get too cosy with what looks at first glance like a British version of a John Hughes underdog romance. As for the title, that’s one of the catchphrases of the TV show University Challenge – based on the US show College Bowl – in which opposing teams test their status-defining cultural knowledge, while audiences at home watch the interplay between the social classes. Which is kind of what the film does too.

 

 

Starter for Ten – Watch it now at Amazon

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2006