Life and Lyrics

Ashley Walters in Life and Lyrics

 

Ashley Walters first became well known as Asher D in the London garage/grime outfit So Solid Crew. Since it was a gigantic collective of competing egos two things were on the cards – the band was unlikely to produce enough revenue to support all 19+ members, or it was going to fall apart spectacularly. Either way spelt trouble. Luckily for Walters, he had a second line of work, having been acting even before the band became well known with their single 21 Seconds. Its success got Walters better job offers on TV and he gradually progressed from bit parts to leading roles, usually playing the streetwise London youth you probably didn’t want to be on the wrong side of. Life and Lyrics reinforces the trend established by 2004’s Bullet Boy, with Walters as the DJ of a South London rap crew who falls for a girl in a rival outfit, to the sound of much sucking of teeth.

It’s a very familiar plot – see Romeo and Juliet – though not a bad film, with street slang (I watched it with the subtitles on, I admit) and, generally speaking, an attention to realism that papers over a few of the dramatic cracks. This is best brought home by the various crews antagonistically rapping at each other, in club scenes heavy with an atmosphere that suddenly breaks when someone comes up with something genuinely funny. It’s done for real, surely? Wordplay aside, the guns, the bling and the bragging don’t tip the scales much towards originality, and at times even some of the actors look a bit dubious about what they’re expected to do and say – qualms about “keeping it real” perhaps – though the fact that Walters’ lot, the Motion Crew, are multi-ethnic at least points to the reality of modern London. And the fact that his Juliet, Carmen in fact (Louise Rose), is a trainee barrister is also a welcome acknowledgement that black people, too, might want to be middle class. In movies, usually, they don’t. Though admittedly Carmen’s personal ambition doesn’t seem that high on the film’s political agenda.

So, a bit this and a bit that – gauche and funny, clichéd yet fast paced, held together muscularly by Walters and soundtracked by a very mid-noughties roster of artists, Sway and Estelle, Deep Varacouzo and loads more I’ve never heard of.

It’s not for me. Of course it’s not. But I enjoyed its swagger. Maybe if you were the target demographic you’d give it an extra star. Or knock one off.

 

Life and Lyrics – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2006

 

 

 

To Write Love on Her Arms

Kat Dennings in To Write Love on Her Arms

 

 

Is there anything more life-sapping than listening to a druggie talking about drugs? Yes, a film about one, and it’s not less boring but more if it also offers a redemptive ta-daa. To Write Love on Her Arms is a film about one such, a young woman, played twixt K-Stewart sulk and ScarJo pout by Kat Dennings, an actor with a face straight from Babylonian antiquity and a career trajectory which surely guarantees she won’t be paddling in these waters again too soon.

 

And, having had these thoughts, and affronted by what felt like an assault by the god squad for the long 118 minutes of this melodrama, I felt such a heel when the real Jamie Tworkowski popped up at the end, with a personal advertisement for the TWLOHA Foundation, which “still responds to every message” from young addicts and self-harmers and which, through the story of Renee Yohe (Dennings), this film is about.

 

Yohe is a real person too, a young woman who is introduced clumsily in opening scenes by a mother figure encouraging her to take her bipolar meds. A couple of standard-issue plot jumps later and Yohe is out of high school, well into the sex and drugs and given to waking dreams, if not visions. A signifier of how low she has sunk is that she is living with a Native American, who treats her roughly.

 

She has become a crack fiend, and is self-harming as she goes until a crisis throws her into the orbit of David McKenna, a former addict and music producer who encourages her into rehab. But thanks to its puritanical Catch 22 modus operandi, the local rehab centre won’t take her in until she’s clean. So she heads off to stay with… you’re ahead of me.

 

The fact that McKenna is played by Rupert Friend, after Starred Up another Mother Teresa role (I say “after” though this film was made before Starred Up, in 2011), and that he’s a good-looking young man, suggests we’re heading for romance. But to this film’s credit it sticks with the facts, and introduces Chad Michael Murray as Jamie Tworkowski, the roommate of McKenna who will eventually write up Yohe’s obscene-to-clean story and launch a foundation (and YA phenomenon) off the back of it.

 

Here the film simultaneously becomes unbearable and interesting. Unbearably right is Murray’s playing of Tworkowski as the sort of do-gooder who wears slackerish clothes and whose facial hair and dude-ish hat betoken a man who is clearly protesting too much. He also stays up really late! He uses slang!

 

Interesting, yet dropped almost as soon as it’s picked up, is the notion that Yohe might not be entirely happy with Tworkowski’s use of her as the poster girl for abuse and recovery. For a brief moment the film becomes a critique of glib self-help rehab dramas and of the Tworkowskis of the world, dairymen specialising in the milk of human kindness.

 

And then, interesting wobble over, it goes back to the usual rehab shtick, the arc completing when Yohe is able to heal someone close to her who has fallen off the wagon. No spoilers.

 

Too much of the film is platitudinous (“wherever you go, you’re always there” kind of thing), too much of it relies on tired visual clichés (Yohe and friends lying on the bonnet of a car parked at the end of an airport runway and woo-hooing as planes scream overhead – the exhilaration of the simple stuff, huh) and it really hasn’t the faintest idea how to incorporate into its story Yohe’s old high school friends (played by Mark Saul, Juliana Harkavy) with her new rehab companions. Yet there is a touching sincerity to the entire enterprise, its lumpiness coming from a desire not to make things up, and if you can put away your cynicism, which I clearly am struggling with, the acting might win you over too.

 

Just don’t include me on any mailing list.

 

 

 

 

To Write Love on Her Arms – Buy it/watch it at Amazon

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2015

 

 

 

 

 

26 January 2015-01-26

Hayley Atwell and André Benjamin in Jimi: All Is by My Side

 

 

Out in the UK This Week

 

 

Jimi: All Is by My Side (Curzon, cert 15)

Imagine a Jimi Hendrix record without any of his guitar pyrotechnics. That’s the feeling you get from this efficient, workaday biopic about the godlike genius who came and went so quickly, leaving behind enough music for us to know how good he was. The film follows Hendrix’s transformative year in London 1966-67, makes glancing references to his influences and to his ethnicity (as you might expect from a film directed by 12 Years a Slave writer John Ridley). The ethnicity, it claims, Hendrix chose to ignore, which almost brings into focus a man who might have been remarkably forward-thinking culturally, a prototype of the “post racial”, or maybe he just didn’t want to get involved in anything outside music, man. That’s the film’s problem – what was Hendrix really about? – and it’s a nut it just can’t crack, mostly, I suspect, because it’s unwilling to put words in Hendrix’s mouth that he never actually uttered. It’s a pity because if overly respectful it’s not a bad film, with André Benjamin a remarkably believable Jimi, and he’s surrounded by quality turns Imogen Poots, as the posh rock chick who “found” him, Hayley Atwell as the more working class rock chick who became his girlfriend, and a particularly winning Andrew Buckley as Chas Chandler, the former Animals bassist who became his manager. The music is pretty electrifying too.

Jimi: All Is by My Side – Buy it/watch it at Amazon

 

 

 

Honeymoon (Arrow, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD/digital)

The cabin in the woods film has life left in it yet. As Joss Whedon’s The Cabin in the Woods proved all you need is a good high concept and a determination to follow it through. In the case of Honeymoon it’s a honeymoon, of a loving but struggling couple (Harry Treadaway and Rose Leslie), the newlyweds using the out-of-the-way cabin because their budget doesn’t stretch to two weeks at Sandals on St Lucia. Actually, the honeymoon isn’t the concept at all, but I’m not telling you what is; why spoil a good movie? I will just say that the honeymooners’ relationship suffers, and that no matter what weird stuff is going on outside in the primal woods, there’s worse going on in the heads of the young marrieds. Writer/director Leigh Janiak marks herself out as a name to watch with this debut, which is impressive for three reasons. It looks like the work of someone who isn’t a first timer; it moves with genuine pace and economy and doesn’t waste any time with the sort of wheel-spinning scenes that cabin-in-the-woods movies usually go for (bongs, or old vinyl records or earnest late-night talks about the meaning of life, or permutations thereof); it has a genuinely good idea behind it, rooted in one of those fears we all have, the sort that make us wake up sweating in the night. Fourth thing: Harry Treadaway and Rose Leslie’s entirely committed, not-to-camera performances. Oh go on, fifth thing – Heather McIntosh’s suggestive, spooky soundtrack.

Honeymoon – Buy it/watch it at Amazon

 

 

 

Two for the Road (Eureka, cert PG)

Here’s a famous film from 1967 that’s fallen by the wayside a bit. This 1080p restoration (if you’re watching on the Blu-ray of this dual-pack released by Eureka) is entirely what it needs, sharpening up the visuals of a film designed to operate at the lush end of the spectrum – Stanley Donen directed Singin’ in the Rain and what he doesn’t know about colour, framing and showbiz pizzazz… Add to that the soundtrack by Henry Mancini, clothes by Paco Rabane and Mary Quant, colour by Technicolor and you’ve got a film heading in one direction. Coming at us from the other direction is Frederic Raphael’s script, a sour and dyspeptic analysis of a marriage gone wrong, a look at 1960s free love for the too-old parents of the kids who were living it. It’s probably this ironic disjuncture that’s stopped the film’s accession to classic status, but I think it makes it. Plus there’s the performances by Audrey Hepburn and Albert Finney, as the couple we meet in three timelines travelling across Europe – falling in love, falling out of love, falling apart – Hepburn a brittle bird who catches the artificiality of it all (as she did in Donen’s Charade), Finney a bluff dog with a nice line in deadpan. Both are too old for the younger sequences, and the film’s insistence on dressing Hepburn as a mannequin is occasionally distracting (who doesn’t travel in a pvc wet look trouser suit?). Or maybe that’s the point of it. Think of it maybe as a prototype for François Ozon’s 2004 romance-in-reverse 5X2, but done with bitter gaiety, made by the finest frontroom and backroom boys in the world.

Two for the Road – Buy it/watch it at Amazon

 

 

 

What We Did on Our Holiday (Lionsgate, cert 12)

If you’ve ever seen the BBC comedy Outnumbered, you’ll know immediately what its creators, Guy Jenkin and Andy Hamilton, are doing here. Outnumbered relied on the adults sticking to written scripts while the children were merely told a vague outline of the scene and were then left to fend for themselves. The results when they worked were spectacular, with five-year-olds asking unanswerable questions, making cute profound remarks and forcing the adults to sweat buckets to answer them or keep a straight face. Exactly the same technique is used here, as we follow a family on a visit to ailing grandpa Billy Connolly. Parents Abi (Rosamund Pike) and Doug (David Tennant) are no longer living together but are making as if they are because, we learn, grandpa isn’t expected to last very long. All the kids have to do is not give the game away. Again, it works brilliantly, the improvising kids in effect ganging up on the adults – exactly as happens in big families. I’m not going to say what transpires up there in Scotland, with grandpa, Doug’s uptight, very rich brother and his vinegary wife (Ben Miller, Amelia Bullmore), but the whole thing has an Ealing-esque sense of feelgood (and slight overplaying), and until it missteps near the end by adding too many plot turns in too short a time, it’s a funny, entirely enjoyable film. And notice how freely and joyously Connolly interacts with the kids – a lifetime in freeform stand-up counts for something.

What We Did on Our Holiday – Buy it/watch it at Amazon

 

 

 

The Boxtrolls (Universal, cert PG)

This animated adaptation of Alan Snow’s book Here Be Monsters! is by the Laika studio (set up by Nike founder Phil Knight). And like their two previous biggies, Coraline and ParaNorman, it’s remarkably well animated – steampunk meets Wallace & Gromit meets Jan Svankmajer. Rich with arcane detail, funny and with a good bit of edge, in other words. The story is fine too, reminiscent of something Dickensian – Oliver Twist or Great Expectations – about Eggs, a kid who has been brought up by the feral, nocturnal but benign Boxtrolls (Borrowers who resemble cardboard boxes) until machinations above ground and a glimpse of an attractive human girl throw Eggs into danger. Maybe it is the lack of an actual feeling of danger that lets this film down for the older viewer, but I can imagine young kids enjoying the story, and the extreme detailing of Laika’s stop-motion animation (with a lot of digital assist, I’m guessing) will give them plenty to rediscover on repeated viewings. I had the same slight “meh” about the actual storytelling aspect of both Coraline and ParaNorman too, though here you can’t fault the voice cast, Ben Kingsley in particular giving it his all as bad guy Archibald Snatcher. And Richard Ayoade, Elle Fanning, Jared Harris and Nick Frost all also doing for the voices what the animators are doing for the film’s look: giving it colour.

The Boxtrolls – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

The Riot Club (Universal, cert 15)

The Riot Club is the story of a select club of appallingly entitled members of the British upper class, who meet to say “ra”, shout “arse biscuits” and trash any tavern that will entertain them. The club has been going since the days of wigs and capes, as we see in the opening scene in which a posh person is caught casually deflowering the wife of a man who is his social inferior, and we then fast-forward to the present day where young, democratically inclined but posh Oxford student Miles (Max Irons) is recruited into the Club and then has his conscience tested as its members behave in increasingly outrageous fashion, culminating in the laying to waste of a gastropub. Some critics have objected to the simplistic nature of this film, as if it wasn’t meant to be simplistic, and there’s not much point watching if you don’t want a bash-the-rich screed which is aimed at similar real-life clubs (the Bullingdon, whose former members include current British prime minister David Cameron, springs to mind). My objections were that I was constantly struggling to work out who was who, such was the cardboard-template nature of Posh Boy A or Posh Boy B. Douglas Booth stood out, more I suspect because he seems to have borrowed Rudolf Nureyev’s cheekbones and lips than because of anything he did. In fact there’s are a lot of good looking chaps here, as well as good looking but badly underused girls (Jessica Brown Findlay, Holliday Grainger) who, being females and from the lower orders are lucky to be in it at all, what? Expect very little and you might be entertained, and remember that as a weapon in the class war The Riot Club is a blunderbuss, not a neutron bomb.

The Riot Club – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Kinetta (Second Run, cert 15)

Yorgos Lanthimos’s 2005 debut is finally released, off the back of the success of his Dogtooth and Alps and in hot anticipation of The Lobster later this year (whose cast list alone – Léa Seydoux, John C Reilly, Olivia Colman, Rachel Weisz, Colin Farrell – is hellishly intriguing). There was no such a cast lining up to take any role for Lanthimos in 2005, this film being right there at the start of the Greek Weird Wave and probably just looking plain wrong then rather than the deliberately alienated, cool and taciturn it looks now. I suppose Aki Kaurismaki might be a reference point, as Lanthimos introduces us to a string of individuals – a photographer, a car salesman, a rather blank looking maid, an organiser of pageants – whose connections to other people are always mediated. The photographer by his camera, the maid by her acting out auto-asphyxiation in the rooms she’s meant to be cleaning. Shades of Alps there. Like a lot of debut films by gifted individuals, there is clearly something going on here, lots of fascinating stuff, and Lanthimos’s overcast shooting style seems already fully developed – this isn’t the sunny Greece of white cubic buildings and azure seas. But it can’t be denied that Kinetta is a frustrating film too, Lanthimos deliberately withholding details that would enable us to make an emotional connection. Perhaps best seen as an “it all started here”.

Kinetta – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2015

 

 

 

Kids in America

The cast of Kids in America strike a pose

 

 

How many America high school comedies have you seen? How many more do you want to see? Exactly my thoughts as I slid the DVD of Kids in America into the slot. But I was wrong and happy about it, because this is a smart and funny film, about smart and funny and intensely likeable teenagers who are shown giving nearly everything their best shot because it’s the first time they’ve done any of it.

The action revolves around a gang of seven students, more ethnically mixed than your average movie high school clique, who decide that something in their “everything verboten” school has got to change. And it’s not going to be them. So they set out to unseat the principal (Julie Bowen), who is running to be the state’s schools superintendent and therefore especially keen to crush all dissent – hence her expulsion of the Celibacy Club booster who had pinned condoms to her dress, the event which kicks off the rebellion in earnest.

This takedown of the ice-queen-bitch is pulled off with some panache by the plotters, and by the film’s writers, Andrew Shaifer and director Josh Stolberg, who apparently built their screenplay around actual newspaper stories of kids who got thrown out of school for various infringements of protocol, which is why, perhaps, there is a ring of bright truth about it all. But mostly they get the tone right, that entitled smartass whinge that teenagers think marks them out as adults and which makes actual adults want to hit them, or worse. As for the cast, you probably will know the odd face – there’s George Wendt and Adam Arkin and Elizabeth Perkins, and over there is Nicole Richie as Kelly Stepford, the cheerleader who actually has something up top (no, above that).

But mostly it’s an excuse to riff on high school movies generally and ring out a few zinging one-liners – “Trying to find talent at Booker High is like trying to find weapons of mass destruction in my anus.” OK, just me then.

But that line does bring us to the least satisfactory aspect of the film, its whole satire on Bush-era America and the loss of freedom since the passing of the Patriot Act. Fingers in ears, then, for the earnest references to the First Amendment, and then take them out again when things get back on track, which is most of the time.

 

 

Kids in America – Buy it/watch it at Amazon

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2006

 

 

 

 

19 January 2015-01-19

Ellar Coltrane as Mason, from five to 18

 

Out in the UK This Week

 

 

Boyhood (Universal, cert 15)

As I write Richard Linklater’s ambitious drama is picking up Golden Globes like it was made of Velcro and looks like it’s heading for Oscar glory too.

So what’s the deal? At first glance it looks like a gimmick, following the same actors for 12 years, Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette from their lush prime into early middle age, Ellar Coltrane as the boy of the title, who is five when Linklater turns the camera on, 18 by the time he’s done. So is Boyhood drama or structured reality?

It’s actually another go at the sort of freewheeling relationship drama of Linklater’s Before (Dawn, Sunset, Midnight) trilogy. But the added extra, what gives Boyhood its tang is that we share the sense that most parents have of wondering/worrying how Mason is going to turn out, as young Mason goes from the child wearing Spider-Man pyjamas to the young adult taking psychedelics out in a canyon with college friends.

The same sense of trepidation applies to the film – at halfway through I was beginning to worry whether it wasn’t a stunt. But by the end, as Linklater starts to tie more and more threads together, time has lent its perspective and we can see that this is not just about Mason: it’s also a circle-of-life story involving his estranged parents and his sister (Lorelei Linklater).

On top of this, over the dozen years Linklater taps the zeitgeist too – in the way that writer David Nicholls managed with One Day (the book, not the film) – playing us in with Coldplay’s Yellow and out with Family of the Year’s Hero. Perfect choices for a perfect film.

Boyhood – Buy it/watch it on Amazon

 

 

 

The Equalizer (Sony, cert 15)

A fistful of years ago Denzel Washington and director Antoine Fuqua teamed up to make Training Day, a dark cop drama that also gave a nice role to Ethan Hawke, as the squeaky rookie.

It’s nice to see that Washington has revived the Fuqua of old – a string of stinkers including King Arthur and Olympus Has Fallen were suggesting the director might have gone for good – because what we have here is also dark and urban and jangles with an almost 1980s vibe.

The plot bears little relation to the TV series on which it’s based, the one starring Edward Woodward as TV’s fattest action man. But the idea is the same – Washington is a vigilante do-gooder, but his routine of small acts of restitutional justice is thrown into the blender when a Mr Big’s sadistic henchman gets on his case.

Like the old feminist teabag – the one that only reveals how strong a woman is when it’s in hot water – Washington’s hero only discloses the full range of his skills once Marton Csokas (as a proper whackjob foreign nasty) starts pushing him to levels of Jason Bourne cat-and-mouse.

It’s a pre-Bourne film in most ways though – Fuqua and cameraman Mauro Fiore (who also worked on Training Day) working the tracking shots and crepuscular lighting, the detail-rich sets into something Edward Hopper-esque, while Washington and Csokas play the two key characters like something out of Noh theatre, elemental.

The result is a brutal, fascinating reworking of almost every cliché in the book, the genre polished till it gleams (and a gigantic middle finger to Liam Neeson’s geri-actioners). And who knew that Denzel was so good with power tools (you might want to look away).

The Equalizer – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Obvious Child (Koch, cert 15)

Jenny Slate plays Donna, the stand-up comic whose shtick is to ramble on about what’s going on in her life.

As Obvious Child opens we see where this can get her: unhappy about the fact that she’s just flagellated him as well as herself in her set, her boyfriend dumps her right after she’s got off the stage, right there in the unisex toilets.

Donna is the sort of comedian who gets a laugh talking about her vagina, and the film basks in the same warm shallows, squeezing mirth out of farting, peeing in the street and Donna’s gal pal informing her that she’s going to do “a big stinky shit” while they’re having the sort of frank emotional conversation that men can only manage in the brief moment between downing a bottle of vodka and passing out.

Into this world of frank exchange and life-as-material, writer/director Gillian Robespierre injects a one night stand with a new guy, a geeky sort who wears a scarf and a woolly hat, and an unwanted pregnancy.

Obvious Child has been taken up in some quarters for political reasons, because it doesn’t take the movies’ usual moral route vis a vis termination nor indulge in hand-wringing once Donna decides what she’s going to do. Though I enjoyed it more as a stealth screwball rom-com – a Not Bringing Up Baby, perhaps, which seems almost reluctant to reveal just how sweet it is.

Obvious Child – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Stations of the Cross (Arrow, cert 15)

Something of a formal epic, Dietrich Brüggemann’s German drama has an almost tableau vivant simplicity to it.

In 14 scenes, captured on a lock-shot camera, he follows a modern German teenager who is a member of a breakaway Catholic sect – big on the Latin mass and the weakness of the flesh – as she undertakes her own Stations of the Cross, the progress in stages of Jesus Christ from Last Supper to crucifixion.

Each station is marked by a solemn intertitle – “Jesus falls for the first time”, “Veronica wipes the face of Jesus” etc – Brüggemann teasingly showing us how this might work out in the modern world as Maria (Lea Van Acken) essentially starves herself to death in order to show her total dedication to the denial of the body.

Call it an examination of religiosity if you like, but though it’s undeniably an achievement in terms of formal rigour and austere beauty, in its desire to generate antipathy towards rather than understanding of its characters it’s hard to see Stations of the Cross as anything other than propaganda. Yes, we nod sagely, the narcissism of fundamentalism (as we look sideways towards the Middle East). Powerful, though, undeniably.

Stations of the Cross – Buy it/watch it at Amazon

 

 

 

Zulu (Anchor Bay, cert 15)

I’m not sure of the gestation of this film, but there’s was probably quite a lot of activity passing over the desk of Orlando Bloom’s agent. Because this appears to be is Bloom’s attempt to re-launch his career.

Now pumped, unshaven and tatted and swigging from a bottle a little too often, he’s the Mel Gibson-style maverick cop to Forest Whitaker’s methodical Danny Glover, a pair of battle-scarred South Africans who can add “living with the aftermath of apartheid” to the usual run of cop-drama clichés.

This is no comedy, no Lethal Weapon, but thanks to Jérôme Salle, director of the lush, Bond-like Largo Winch, it’s a good-looking, bright and sharp film, with the added vibrancy that shooting in the full sun brings, and Salle keeps things moving as one stock scene piles up on another.

The plot has something to do with missing street kids, a Mr Big and the development of a drug so bad that it turns lab rats into ravening cannibals, an amusing scene updating the Reefer Madness nonsense for the modern era.

But it barely matters. Watch it as a drinking game is my advice, one swig for a “give me your badge” style box-ticker, another for every time you spot Bloom trying too hard.

Zulu – Watch it/buy it from Amazon

 

 

 

A Walk among the Tombstones (E One, cert 15)

Liam Neeson’s latest geri-actioner is a functional, competent detective movie, 1970s pastiche, with the big fella moving from one Marlowe-esque setup to the next like a latterday Jim Rockford, cracking wise and then getting beaten up for his trouble.

The plot revolves around drug traffickers and disappearing women and Neeson’s private eye is saddled with a streetwise teenager (Brian Bradley, aka the rapper Astro of X Factor USA), a likeable presence who sparks well with Neeson, even if the entire role could be excised without doing the film any harm.

Er… that’s it. No, hang on, director Scott Frank (who adapted Get Shorty, though here is working from a Lawrence Block novel) has a good eye for grubby New York locations – vacant lots, hoardings, rundown buildings. Like I say, 1970s pastiche.

A Walk among the Tombstones – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

The Giver (EV, cert 12)

Give me a second while I get something off my chest.

The whole Young Adult thing, of which The Giver is a prime example. Does it not seem strange that young adults, rejecting childishness, turn their backs on fairy tales and move on to stuff like this, or The Hunger Games, or Twilight? That, in other words, they swap tales of real psychological complexity and symbolic depth for something this vapid and numbingly literal?

Rant over. The Giver stars Brenton Thwaites as a teenager who lives in a bright, clean futureworld where everyone obeys the rules and order is maintained by a system of mass medication, Thwaites being the one who is obviously going to buck the system. This dystopian future clearly fuelled by Ayn Rand fever dreams is well delineated by director Philip Noyce and his set builders, while Jeff Bridges (good guy) and Meryl Streep (bad guy) add a smell of quality to the affair.

But it’s slipshod in every other aspect, from particulars of its world-building (for example, the way that the insistence on precision of speech is picked up and dropped according to the diktats of the story) to the routine first act, rushed second one and a finale that promises action then fails to deliver it. Dull and tin-eared.

The Giver – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2015

 

 

 

The Great Ecstasy of Robert Carmichael

Dan Spencer in The Great Ecstasy of Robert Carmichael

 

 

A provocative and more or less relentlessly grim drama set in hoodie Britain that seems to ask the liberal establishment to look again at their “anything goes” attitudes.

Director Thomas Clay and co-writer Joseph Lang divide the world into two. One is middle class, in the shape of sleek celebrity TV chef Jonathan Abbott (Michael Howe) who whips up fancy food, lives in a lovely house, has a lovely partner and has a lovely life. Then we have Robert (Daniel Spencer). He lives in another part of the same small coastal town where there’s not much doing, but his parents are bringing him up to be a valuable member of society. He learns the cello, makes a passable stab at Elgar’s Cello Concerto but otherwise his life is a drab round of school/home/school/home. This is step up from the other local kids – for them it’s school/chip shop/war memorial/home. The middle-class idea being that one day the extra-curricular lessons will pay off, Robert will go to university, escape this place for ever, become middle class himself and get his hands on the good stuff – or that’s the trajectory written across the hopeful, fretting face of his mother (Lesley Manville).

And then he falls in with “the wrong crowd” among whom are Ryan Winsley as a feral hoodie, and Danny Dyer as an ex-con. Before you can say “who’s skinning up? Robert is in a world of drugs, petty crime, breaking and entering and much much worse. Without going into too much detail, the world of Robert and that of the TV chef’s wife (Miranda Wilson) – she’s pregnant – are going to intersect in scenes that should be preceded by a “look away now” warning.

Nuff said. She’s been doing a good job, Robert’s mum, inculcating the boy with Elgar, and in a blast to the sort of parenting that thinks kids turn out best, find their own way, if left to explore their own avenues, The Great Ecstasy of Robert Carmichael stands like the ghost of Christmas to come – doomy, warning and with an “it doesn’t have to be this way” look on its face.

But does it have to be quite so gruesome? That is the question after watching the harrowing finale. Clay and Lang not only overdo it, but they make attempts at larger social points – as if they’re not already making a large social point – by having the run-up to the Iraq War playing on TV in the background throughout, while using Winston Churchill features prominently at a moment in a way that’s so overblown it’s embarrassing. As for influences, A Clockwork Orange and Funny Games are the most obvious, though both Kubrick and Haneke had better actors to work with – here the rule is that the older they are, the more likely to suck. The youngsters, though, are almost uniformly great, believable.

What holds it all together is the cinematography of Yorgos Arvanatis, whose long single takes conjure a bleak beauty out of the wind-scoured streets of Newhaven, as well as a strong sense of place and a portentous atmosphere.

Here’s a film which makes the odd tonal mis-step but in terms of intention and execution can barely be faulted. The fact that it’s been so hated on the festival circuit, with regular walkouts and hostile Q&As with director and writer, says everything externally that the film is trying to say internally – it’s against the status quo. What next for this talented writer/director duo?

 

 

 

The Great Ecstasy of Robert Carmichael – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2006

 

 

 

 

The Spectacular Now

Shailene Woodley and Miles Teller in The Spectacular Now

 

 

Feeling, looking, sounding like a very dark John Hughes film (Breakfast Club, Ferris Bueller period), The Spectacular Now also has in Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley exactly the sort of actors Hughes might have cast – not the prettiest, but the most personable, the most “relatable” as we now say.

 

It’s Teller’s first starring role, after standing out in a series of supporting roles, notably adding a gloss to the comedy 21 & Over that the sub-standard joke writing certainly wasn’t delivering. And at first sight he’s playing a similar kind of character, the bright funny jock. Except this isn’t the successful jock the movies encourage us to pity – because of their muscular lack of sensitivity – but the jock in trouble, the life and soul of the party who simply won’t go home at the end of the night.

 

We meet Teller’s bright, funny, outgoing Sutter right after his blonde, go-getting and hot girlfriend (Brie Larson, blurring on and off a couple of times) has dumped him, for reasons that only gradually become apparent. And in one of cinema’s more unusual meet-cutes, we are introduced to the new girl in the his life, Aimee (Woodley), when she spots him one morning, unconscious drunk on someone’s lawn as she is delivering newspapers.

 

So here he is, a suburban high school legend whose catchphrase is “we are the party”, and here’s her, an academic, optimistic but fragile flower bowled over when his thanks for rousing him off the turf morphs into something that looks faintly, possibly, like a cool ardour.

 

Maybe it’s Sutter’s permanent tipsiness, we don’t know, but this strange meeting and the even stranger hooking up of these two over the following weeks works because we never quite know how serious he is about her. Is he just spinning the wheels until Her Hotness returns? Is Aimee going to be OK? More existentially, is Sutter?

 

After those jokey-jock supporting roles that he could easily have become too associated with (see Seann William Scott and Stifler), the eye-opener is Teller, who has the wryness and intelligence of a young Bill Murray. Woodley we already know from a bunch of TV and The Descendants, and she’s even better than him – watch out for the multi-layered look she gives Teller at the end of the film and start counting down the days till she wins an Oscar.

 

Director James Ponsoldt gives his actors plenty of freedom, and in scenes relying heavily on long, though not ostentatiously long, takes they repay the confidence with moments of interaction that look so right that you’d swear they were improvised. It’s emotional tightrope walking – at parties, at the pool, at school, out on the street, particularly in the bedroom where one of the most tender and believable love-making scenes plays out. Yes, I thought, that is how it is the first time.

 

Ponsoldt and co keep us hanging over the will they/won’t they precipice. And complementing this through-the-fingers romance is the sense that Sutter is out of control to an extent even he isn’t aware of, and that Aimee is a precious creature who needs to be protected from him but who, bright girl, might have her own not entirely selfless agenda.

 

I could do without Sutter’s backstory and the stuff including the search for his father, not because Kyle Chandler isn’t great as the jock’s good-old-boy drunken feckless dad but because we don’t need telling there’s something lurking in the woodshed. By this point Sutter has been berated by and fallen foul of very male authority figure in the film – teacher, boss, what have you – so we kind of know, we know.

 

So there’s an occasional overrun here, an emotional handbrake turn there, and now and again the plot gabbles on just a touch too conveniently, for the purposes of the film rather than its characters.

 

But as the band Phosphorescent’s Song for Zula echoes over the closing credits, its yearning, hopeful U2/Simple Minds vibe is a reminder that this too is how John Hughes used to do it, in the days when John Cusack would hold up a boombox to a sweetheart’s window.

I know that was Cameron Crowe directing Say Anything, but it’s the same achey-breaky thing.

 

 

 

The Spectacular Now – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2015

 

 

 

 

 

Two Night Stand

Analeigh Tipton and Miles Teller in Two Night Stand

 

 

 

Two Night Stand takes the boy wins girl/boy loses girl formula, gives it a millennial spin and then lets its stars, Miles Teller and Analeigh Tipton charm the pants off us as they rip the pants off each other.

 

Genuinely fresh and cute, refreshingly forthright and even sexy – most sex comedies, let’s face it, aren’t – its simple two hander story sees Tipton’s sofa-surfing slacker having rebound sex with stoner Teller, then attempting to sneak away from his place in the early hours, only to find they’re snowed in together. Which is embarrassing considering the “fuck you, too” farewells they’ve just been bidding each other.

 

And that’s it: a boy, a girl, a confined space and a simmering row that’s going to wheel – this, surely can’t be a spoiler – through 180 degrees over the coming 90 minutes. Ah, the 90 minute movie, remember them?

 

It helps enormously that the boy is Miles Teller, the stealth star who has suddenly cornered the attractive average guy market in a series of films – The Spectacular Now and Whiplash most recently. As for Analeigh Tipton, more of an unknown quantity, physically in that Emma Stone/Aubrey Plaza territory, the attractive average girl (Hollywood average being a good leap above average average – Tipton is a former model so let’s not get too disconnected from reality). She’s also got a Mary Tyler Moore coathanger mouth, something of her glass-etching whine, as well as MTM’s spitfire comic timing.

 

Though very little that Teller and Tipton talk about after their first and supposedly only night of sex would have made it onto any show Moore was associated with – masturbation, faking orgasm, the ideal thrusting speed to get a girl off, kind of thing. All done with a surprising innocence, because it’s honest, the characters are unusually non-aspirational (he has an impassioned mini-speech against the concept of enjoying your job) and the two actors are just so likeable. And here they are in their very own romcom, so these two actors have also clearly arrived.

 

Most notable about the film is the amount of agency it gives to the Tipton – it’s she who looks for a one-night stand and finds a hook-up, it’s she who’s trying to sneak away the next morning (generally a boy’s trick), it’s she who taunts Teller with his sexual inadequacies and it’s she who later calls him out when he’s giving her “googly eyes”.

 

It’s modern, in other words, but lean, smart, funny and touching too. You want boy to meet girl and stay with her. You’re aware that the obstructions in the way are genre obstructions but you banish that evil thought from your mind and surrender to the emotional logic of Mark Hammer’s screenplay – did I imagine it was faintly reminiscent of Breakfast at Tiffany’s? or that Hammer might also have seen Andrew Haigh’s fabulous romcom Weekend, which had a similar boiler-room premise?  If they are blueprints then Hammer has digested and then moved on, his script never bending itself into unlikely shapes to get where it’s got to go. Two Night Stand is obviously going to be a big hit and, thankfully, it looks sequel-proof. So no Two Night Stand Two.

 

 

 

 Two Night Stand – Buy it/watch it at Amazon

 

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2015

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Marie Antoinette

Kirsten Dunst as Marie Antoinette

 

 

It’s tempting to look at writer/director Sofia Coppola’s biopic about Marie Antoinette as a coded self-portrait – young woman born into immense privilege, continuing in the family business, expected to have an understanding of the hoi polloi though with no experience thereof, allowed to indulge her whims, and so on.

 

Perhaps it’s a better film seen that way, because as a straightforward biopic it’s full of problems, chief of those being the inertia at the centre, where Kirsten Dunst’s Marie – the Austrian princess bought in by the French to produce an heir – and her spouse the Dauphin (Jason Schwartzman) sit like a pair of bland puddings while around them wheel a menagerie of exotic creatures. Rip Torn’s baritone adds fruitcake richness to his portrayal of King Louis XV, old but still full of priapic desire for his mistress, Mme Du Barry, played by Asia Argento with a look on her face like she’s got a boiler-room of naughtiness going on between her legs. There’s also Danny Huston, as Marie’s worldly wily older brother, drafted in to help the Dauphin work out what to do in the bedroom – the Dauphin might be gay, terminally inbred or just bored, who knows? And around them a court of looks and whispers. These exotics and intriguers apart, it’s a languid portrait of inert, disconnected people that at every turn threatens to become inert and disconnected itself. Coppola knows this, hence the ripeness of the supporting characters, hence the use of modern pop music (Aphex Twin, New Order, The Cure) on the soundtrack, the largely 1980s choices being another hint that this is really more about Ms C, who became a teenager in the middle of that decade.

 

It drifts along, the Dauphin doing a bit of hunting, Marie getting back to nature in the model farm she set up at the Trianon palace – where she indulges in the sort of mock bucolic playing about with cows and sheep that well-to-do young women now ape with their organic foods and working holidays on farms. And then, waking up as if from a “what the hell was I doing?” reverie, Coppola gets a spurt on with a finale that packs in the “the peasants are revolting”, “let them eat cake”, “off with their heads” headlines in one urgent rush.

 

Coppola isn’t delivering a history lesson. And the way that she covers the well known events, merely acknowledging their existence, makes that abundantly clear. The clothes are splendid, the locations genuine (some of it was even shot at Versailles), the acting superb, and it’s a fabulously rich summoning of an atmosphere of suffocating protocol. Dramatic, though? Hardly.

 

 

 

Marie Antoinette – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2006

 

 

 

The Host

Bae Doo-na, Byun Hee-bong and Song Kang-ho in The Host

 

In Memories of Murder, the South Korean director Bong Joon-ho made an interesting point about the police procedural – that no matter how “tortured” the cop/protagonist, no matter how broken his background, how fractured his family life, how severe his problem with drink, he always remains a hero. Not in Memories of Murder he doesn’t. Nor did the case get solved by inspiration, Sherlock Holmes-ian deduction, or even solid police work – it was mostly luck, that’s when the cops weren’t beating information out of people. The Host is Bong’s observations on the creature feature, another home for the hero. But, again, not here. Bong first gives us a bit of Godzilla-style backstory – toxic waste pouring into Seoul’s River Han has caused a hideous mutation to take place. Meanwhile, on dry land, we meet the family that’s going to be most closely affected once the creature decides to crawl out of the river and go postal – among them a drunken, no-good dad, a horrible sniping brother and a worthy, decent sister who, we learn, was an Olympic archer. In Hollywood there would be only one possible outcome here – that the decent girl would eventually rise to become the hero character. But will she in South Korea? What, for instance is the significance of the fact that she only won a bronze medal when she was at the Olympics? Is the monster going to offer her a chance to go for gold?

Bong takes time to introduce his characters, works within the obviously limited budget to deliver a creature that’s a piece of work, all tail and mouth, as horrible as it is athletic as it is intriguing. And then he plays the intrigue game with the characters, shifting the focus and our expectations from one to the next, sharing out redemption between them, because redemption and heroism are also often linked, he’s making clear. But like Memories of Murder, the strength of The Host is that you can ignore all this “commentary on a genre” aspect entirely and watch it as a straight-out creature feature and it’s very good indeed – fresh, thrilling, tense, humane, even funny now and again – there’s nothing arched or forced.

Films like this are often referred to as a Hollywood calling card, which is a tremendously Victorian way of putting things, but in Bong’s case his film is more like fan-fiction – he clearly knows his sources but is taking things into his own universe, in his own way, as well as he can with the money to hand. If Hollywood wants him, it’s most likely going to be on his terms.

 

 

 

The Host – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2006