Cuties aka Mignonnes

Fathia Youssouf and cast

 

The day I watched Cuties, 24 September 2020, it had 21,348 votes on the IMBD user ratings. 16,355 of those were one star reviews. And then I remembered that the film been caught up in one of those social media shitstorms, with its distributor the focus of a #CancelNetflix campaign. The overall 2.7/10 rating looked like the result of an orchestrated hit.

The campaign against the film drew support from across the political spectrum, though a trawl of Twitter suggests a lot of its supporters were outraged social conservatives. So much for Cancel Culture (a series of unrelated memes bundled together and then mis-sold as an actual culture) being an unsavoury aspect of the liberal/left (another grouping that doesn’t exist, but let’s not go into that here).

Had any of the voters seen the movie? It’s about a girl (the remarkable Fathia Youssouf as 11-year-old Amy) from a devout Islamic immigrant family who arrives at a new school in Paris, catches sight of precocious dancing dervish Angelica (the equally remarkable Médina El Aidi) – all legs, hair and moves – and busts a gut to be part of Angelica’s Mean Girls-y clique, who are all practising to be in a regional dance competition. Having being grudgingly admitted to the gang, Amy then surprises her hard-won new friends by introducing them to the more lurid end of the dance spectrum, moves Amy learnt from a smartphone she stole off her cousin.

 

Besties, for now: Angelica (Medina El Aidi) and Amy (Fathia Youssouf)

 

It’s a story of a young girl trying to fit in, overdoing it, losing her personal integrity and going off the rails. It’s also the story of a group of young girls trying to be grown up and getting it all wrong. Yes, the girls’ dances are fairly gnarly to start with, and once Amy has worked various twerky, booty-focused, lap-dancy moves into the routine (including that one where you appear to be having sex with the floor) things move into jailbait territory.

The film has two trajectories, and they are expertly intertwined by writer-director Maïmouna Doucouré in her feature debut. Amy’s involves her and her outwardly stoic, inwardly devastated mother (Maïmouna Gueye) coming to terms with the fact that Amy’s Senegalese father is about to take a second wife and will soon be moving her into the family’s small apartment – a special out-of-bounds bedroom has even been set aside for the new bride. On the way to what Amy sees as a violation of her mother and the family home, Amy has her first period and is declared – by mother and auntie (Mbissine Thérèse Diop, star of Black Girl, the groundbreaking Senegalese movie from 1966) – to be “a woman”. You can understand why she’s confused.

The girls, meanwhile, head towards their dance competition, grinding and winding away, eager to be taken seriously as grown-ups though they’re only 11, blundering around in territory they think they understand because they’ve seen sexual material online. But just how naive they are is beautifully caught in a vignette where the girls are playing together and one of them (Esther Gohourou) inflates and plays with a used condom, mistaking it for a balloon.

Does the film feature young girls raunching away like little Lolitas? For sure. Does it suggest this is a good thing? Far from it. In fact Doucouré goes out of her way to underline just how far out of their depth the girls are. If the condom scene hasn’t done it for you, as the girls perform for an actual live audience Doucouré throws in numerous shots of women in the audience reacting negatively.

Girls growing up in a sexualised society is what the film is about. Talk about shooting the messenger.

The hoo-hah has at least got the film noticed. And it deserves to be noticed, not just as a polemic but also as a piece of great film-making. The smart screenplay does not call at the usual way-stations – there is no female genital mutilation, no misogynistic angry imans – the acting is fresh and believable, and the cinematography clean, bright and attractive. Doucouré has avoided the temptation to make things too “street”.

It’s a film about 11-year-old girls, after all, and though the girls are confused this lively, funny and ultimately optimistic film never is. Which is more than you can say for the haters.

 

Sibyl

Sibyl in clingy sexy black dress

 

 

Billed as a drama, Sibyl is in fact a tragic comedy, a brilliantly dry and pitiless one Kafkaesque in its analysis of a person in self denial and also Kafkaesque in being almost opaque until that “ah-haa!” moment comes along.

Director and co-writer Justine Triet, a fan of Hitchcock and Polanski, dives right in. Even before the opening credits we’ve met Sibyl, a shrink and former novelist who now wants to get back in the writing game. “Don’t do it,” boiled down, is the advice she gets from an old editor friend. But Sibyl does it anyway.

Sibyl (Virginie Efira) is also a recovering alcoholic who really shouldn’t have another drink, and certainly shouldn’t be fantasising about the great times – and sex – she had when she was a boozer. Sibyl has a husband (Paul Hamy) and kids but it’s the guy from the alcohol years she’s fantasising about, in graphic scenes. And given that he’s played by Niels Schneider, you may well too.

But what really does it for Sibyl is the new patient she takes on even as she’s closing her practice to concentrate on the writing. Margot is an actor (it’s Adèle Exarchopoulos of Blue Is the Warmest Colour fame) and so desperately in need of counselling that Sibyl makes an exception and takes her on – in spite of a “don’t do it” from her husband.

Unbeknown to Margot, Sibyl starts recording the sessions, to use them as content for her new book – “don’t do it,” says an analyst colleague. Since Margot is an actress, and is pregnant by her leading man in her big-break movie, breaking professional ethics is worth it for material this meaty, in Sibyl’s mind at least.

From here the film forks a bit – we get some more details about teary Margot, her hotheaded lover Igor (Gaspard Ulliel) and the driven director (Sandra Hüller) of the movie they’re making. But mostly the focus is on Sibyl, who is trashing one boundary after another – shrink and writer, shrink and client, sister and sister, mother and daughter, friend and colleague, holiday and work and, at one point, acting and reality. I’m deliberately not going any further into the plot because a) the joy of the thing is in the watching of it and b) it would read as a flat series of events rather than the cosmic fuck-up that Triet turns it into.

 

Gaspar Ulliel, Adèle Exarchopoulos and Sandra Hüller
Gaspard Ulliel, Adèle Exarchopoulos and Sandra Hüller

 

A Sybil in ancient Greece was a prophetess who could foretell the future. In spite of warnings from every quarter, this ironically named Sybil blunders on, geographically winding up on the volcanic island of Stromboli as Margot’s on-set shrink for a climax of brilliant messiness which manages to hook in just about everyone involved in the film within the film.

Efira is one of those beautiful 40-something French women who look good in pretty much everything, and Triet deliberately, almost comically, poses her in a variety of outfits as if to prove it – skinny jeans, sober workwear, party gear, nightwear, hair up, hair down, with spectacles and without, make up on and off, clothed and naked. If nothing else it rings the changes while this maelstrom of self-destruction unwittingly brings the pain. If the “ah-haa” moment never arrives, the visuals are a consolation.

I was also much taken with Exarchopoulos, whose dangerously fragile actor might be modelled on Marilyn Monroe – at one point Margot wears a headscarf that seemed very Marilyn to me – and beneath the tears and suicidal tendencies is actually a tough nut.

You can’t say the same about Sibyl. Beneath the successful exterior, this woman who appears to be calling the shots as she negotiates a complete life change is living in state of blithe self-denial.

But the Furies, the cosmos, the Fates have a way of balancing things out. Sibyl sows the wind and reaps the whirlwind. The cosmic, Kafkaesque joke is on her.

 

Sibyl – Watch it/buy it on Amazon

 

I’m an Amazon affiliate and earn a (vanishingly small) amount if you buy using the above link

 

© Steve Morrissey 2020

 

 

The Avengers: Series 3, Episode 14 – Dressed to Kill

Leonard Rossiter as Robin Hood

 

So here we are, at Christmas 1963 (the 28 December, to be exact), with Dressed to Kill, a special seasonal episode written by Brian Clemens, who gets everyone into pantomime mode by setting the action on a train heading for a fancy dress party.  

 

Steed is on board, dressed in Wild West gear, and why he’s there isn’t explained immediately by the pre-credits sequence – a man lugging a big piece of equipment across war department land and setting off a Cold War nuclear attack siren deliberately.  

 

But back to the train, and we learn that the passengers are strangers meeting on the train for the first time, and they’re all off to a New Year’s party. Notable among this bag of social allsorts are John Junkin as a lottery winner eager to impress his social superiors as a sheriff whose gun unfurls a big “bang” pennant when he pulls the trigger. And there’s Leonard Rossiter, a self-made man also uneasy about his social position – a prototype of his sweaty, over-eager Rigsby (of 1970s sitcom Rising Damp) character clearly visible in his absurd leering Robin Hood.  

 

The last script of Clemens’s that had been broadcast was a loose re-working of the Old Dark House idea. Here, it looks like he’s dusting down Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express. That’s until the train comes to a premature halt and, before you can say TV studio, we’re at a secluded location, a very old world railway station. Here, after a bit more drinking and fannying about, Clemens’s actual inspiration becomes clear as people start dying one by one and the bones of another Christie story, Ten Little Indians, become visible. These people aren’t accidentally on this train together, they have been gathered by forces unknown for some kind of grisly payback.  

 

Exotic, ridiculous, in odd costumes and set well away from everyday life, this is The Avengers as it is remembered – camp, bizarre and fun, if you find random death fun.  

 

Bill Bain’s direction is as assured as Clemens’s script and Bain uses close-ups to good effect to concentrate our focus on important details and characters. There are few wide shots; Bain is also a dab hand at using TV’s square Academy ratio to good framing effect.  

 

Mrs Gale? She arrives incognito once this very Steed-flavoured episode is well advanced, in time to get busy in a fight scene that reinforces the feeling that what Clemens really wanted to be in life was a writer of jokes – at one point Gale hurls a man into a speak-your-weight machine, which pipes up, “You are six stone two and have a strenuous day ahead.”  

 

One more Clemens tendency reasserts itself at the end, after Steed and Gale have established just why this trainful of characters have been assembled, as they sip champagne and discuss its vintage – “45, the liberation of Paris and a very good year,” says Steed. Here, again, Clemens is trying to nudge Steed and Gale into the boozy, quippy territory of another whodunit writer – The Thin Man’s Dashiell Hammett. Why not? The repurposing of sleuthing boozers Nick and Nora Charles worked for Hart to Hart.  

 

Thoroughly enjoyable.        

 

 

The Avengers – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2019  

 

 

The Reception

Darien Sills-Evans in The Reception

 

 

The Reception is a film that seems to be heading gloriously in one direction, only to actually be heading disastrously in another. It tells the surely thorny enough story of Jeannette, a rich French-American woman (Pamela Holden Stewart) and her African-American lover Martin (Wayne Lamont Sims), who live in bucolic splendour in upstate New York, where he gains her financial patronage for his career as a (blocked) painter, in return for his companionship and quiescence about her drinking – the few glasses of red per night generally turning into a torrent. Then her daughter Sierra (Maggie Burkwit) turns up with her husband Andrew (Darien Sills-Evans) and the delicate balance is undone. It turns out that Martin and Jeannette aren’t that sort of a couple at all – he is in fact gay. And the fact that the new male arrival is also a black man leads to the horrible dawning suspicion that this isn’t an admirably colour-blind movie about human relationships, but a crypto-gay movie that will put black on black because transracial coupling is something that only goes on in real life, not the movies.

As the eccentric, self-obsessed Jeannette winds herself into monster mode, and the newly arrived Andrew reveals himself as an appalling snob, making his displeasure felt as Jeannette and Martin cross invisible borders of taste, things do crackle along. And the fact that the film cost only a few thousand dollars to make, was shot in a few days and the actors are people you’ve probably never heard of, these are all good reasons to be well disposed towards it. And I was. I enjoyed it even, early doors at any rate, and there’s lots to admire, especially the discomfited performances. But as the interpersonal relationships become more tangled, dark secrets become liberated thanks to alcohol and yet another character steps forward for a declamatory speech in which they get things off their chest – because in real life people say just exactly what they’re thinking, right? – the suspicion starts to build that Young is using the furniture of a “a searing chamber piece about complex personal relationships” to hide what is in fact a gay drama. The film is not “about” Jeannette and Martin, nor is it about Jeannette and daughter Sierra, no matter how loudly it proclaims that it is. It seems much more interested in what’s going on between the two men, who are introduced as and continue to be secondary characters. That’s where the action is though, often delivered via the grinding-buttock-ogram. I’m not objecting to the fact that this is a gay love story – though does it all have to be so half cock? – more the fact that I’ve been sold a pup. Or perhaps I’m feeling a sense of injustice that might be characterised as liberal white guilt – and these black guys (the characters and the actors) can look after themselves, surely. All I’m saying is Jeannette was interesting. Sierra too. And there was wild stuff always about to kick off over in that camp, I thought. See you next time, maybe.

 

The Reception – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2006

 

 

 

The Plague

Up close and personal with the Filth in The Plague

 

The story behind this film is that it was made for buttons (£3,500) by 20something Londoner Greg Hall, and was then beginning the long slow slide towards festival obscurity when Mike Leigh saw it, started championing it, and hey presto, it has a cinema release. The story at its front is about an culturally and ethnically mixed crew of young, urban Londoners from a council estate. They walk the line between high spirits and illegality, these self-assured youngsters, but suddenly get into trouble by straying beyond the world of tagging, pills and parties.

If it isn’t tied up maybe as well as it should be, The Plague has enough of a plot to act as a frame for some very attractive work. The acting is unusually good, especially for a debut film, and Hall appears to have followed Mike Leigh’s practices to some extent – rehearse your actors, give them enough knowledge of their characters, then let them improvise the scenes naturalistically. Paco Sweetman’s editing is also very strong, a bit jump-cut happy occasionally, but he has a natural gift (could be him or Greg Hall, not sure who) for coming into a scene late and leaving early. This doesn’t just pique our interest, it gives the film a forward drive, as if the whole thing were leaning into the future, and us with it. Ensemble scenes are well handled, particularly the ones where the girls just sit around, chatting, sending texts, putting on make-up, swigging Bacardi Breezers, while in the boys’ camp we learn just how hard it is to break up a big block of hashish for resale – little but telling details. Drugs are everywhere in The Plague.

Of course it’s a cautionary tale, which is a slight disappointment, a Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels done with much of the comedy hosed off, though there are still plenty of humorous moments – except here we’re much more likely to be applauding the characters’ lightning comebacks than laughing at their failure to be Mensa smart. For the most part, though, it’s a tangle of loose, conversation-over-conversation scenes, rich in street atmosphere, so individually pungent that the big-drama finish, when it arrives, does seem to pop up out of nowhere. The same focus on people rather than drama also explains the other lapse: side characters are sketchy at best – enter the cardboard coppers.

It’s not a perfect film, in other words, but the good bits are so good, the talent so raw and right, the conjuring of character and mood and milieu so well executed that The Plague‘s odd weakness can be forgiven. If the test of any debut is that you want to see what the director is going to do next, then The Plague easily passes.

 

 

The Plague – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2006

 

 

The Guardian

Ashton Kutcher in the swimming pool in The Guardian

 

The career of Kevin Costner seems to have come and gone. After having a run of mad popular success with The Untouchables, Field of Dreams, Dances with Wolves, JFK and The Bodyguard (even the Robin Hood movie: Prince of Thieves did pretty well), he followed up with two epic failures. First Waterworld, which went down like the Titanic. Then The Postman, which was so vainglorious – this is the one in which our hero restores civilisation to a post-apocalyptic America – that it stunned reviewers into a kind of embarrassed silence. These belly flops seem to have busted Costner back down to private and since then he’s gone for more modest assignments. The Guardian is one such, a “hell I used to be that guy” mentoring drama directed by Andrew Davis, who is a sound choice for Costner, having made Steven Seagal look good in Under Siege and turned a workaday chase movie into something special with The Fugitive. Davis does it again with The Guardian, a wearisomely familiar tale about a brave yet tragic US Coast Guard instructor (Costner) of rescue swimmers and his friction-filled training of a new kid on the block (Ashton Kutcher). At 27 Kutcher is at the top age limit for US Coast Guard applicants but he has a swimmer’s build and youthful looks, so… Meanwhile, director Davis guides the rookie and the pro through a screenplay that most of us could block out if asked to – the drill training, the locker-room machismo, the “sir, yes sir” dialogue, the crypto-homoeroticism and even the “hell, you remind me of me” scene, with of course each man learning something about life and himself on the way. And yet, in Davis’s hands, it all seems, if not fresh, then at least remarkably watchable, the action movie cliches and Top Gun homages (Kutcher even wears Ray Ban Aviators) piling up on each other with a certain degree of kinetic finesse, Davis’s stock in trade. Costner reminds us and possibly himself how he became a star in the first place – because he is so good at playing average guys. And Kutcher keeps the sullen braggadocio this side of unattractive and rises to the challenge of a more serious role than he’s used to – dude, where’s my career. Having started with a quick resume of Costner’s rise and fall, it’s necessary to point out that this isn’t really his film, or Kutcher’s. It’s the baton’s – this is all about one generation graciously ceding to the next, which is hungrily grabbing at what isn’t being offered quite fast enough. And on this level – and Davis lets looks and gestures rather than the dialogue do a lot of the work here – it rises right above the cliche, and the fact that this is a film containing a training montage set to rock music (Kasabian’s Club Foot) becomes almost forgivable.

 

The Guardian – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2006

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

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