Out This Week
James White (Soda, cert 15)
Josh Mond was a producer on Martha Marcy May Marlene and now makes his feature debut with the sort of grown-up seriously accomplished filigree drama that more or less guaranteed no cinema release in the UK – wot, no guys in costumes? Instead here it is in what used to be the ignominious “straight to DVD” category. There’s a long ramble to be had here about the best films these days being more likely not to get theatrical releases, but let’s not go into that now. Instead let’s take a look at the film, which stars a seriously good “from the inside out” performance by Christopher Abbott as White, a 20something slacker dude first encountered having recently lost his dad, in emotional freefall, and with his mother (Cynthia Nixon, all Sex and the City sins forgiven) now handed the black spot by cancer. Mond gives us scenes from White’s life and leaves us to connect them up. James grieves, he drinks at a club, he gets into a fight, he goes on holiday to Mexico, meets a foxy woman, they take an acid trip together, they have sex, they get married. All done matter of fact, simply, yet Mond’s Altmanesque decision not to join all the dots forces us to lean in and commit to the film. Where does it go? Is James’s faintly louche life going to lead this good-hearted-but-wrong-headed guy right off the rails? Or is he going to hit the straight and narrow? Can he see that this girl he’s lucked into is way too good for him? Is he going to fight to keep her? Or not? Is mum going to get sick again? Yes, it’s simple. But it’s intense. James White feels very much like real life. Webslinging does not feature.
Brooklyn (Lionsgate, cert 12)
In every generation of my Irish family going back to at least the mid-1800s, one or more of us has gone to make a life in the USA. My brother lives there currently, also an uncle and aunt, and before them one of my grandfather’s brothers, and there was another Morrissey before him, at which point the trail goes a bit cold, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there was one more before that, propelled by the potato famine of the 1840s. But even with this personal connection, I was reluctant to watch this film starring Saoirse Ronan as Eilis, the Irish colleen heading for 1950s New York, away from a lovely though threadbare Ireland and towards a bustling New World of possibility. The grim thought of it being Angela’s Ashes Part 2. Well, I was wrong on every count there, because Brooklyn functions, at some level at least, as a corrective to Alan Parker’s rain-lashed 1999 adaptation of Frank McCourt’s memoir, director John Crowley and writer Nick Hornby dredging everything with light and fairy dust, donning the rosy specs as lovely new arrival Eilis encounters a well meaning priest (in the shape of avuncular Jim Broadbent), a severe but twinkling landlady (Julie Walters doing her old lady thing), gossipy girls, strapping but decent lads, everyone and every thing gleaming like a jewel in a New York that’s civilised and with civic institutions as solid and functional as the big square buildings they’re housed in. It seems odd to describe the acting as lovely, but it is, with beautiful old-fashioned touches from Ronan, Ethan Emory (her Italian boyfriend in New York) and, best of all, Domhnall Gleeson as the lad back in Ireland who would tempt Eilis away from her new life. Just the way Gleeson stares at his boots or picks up a pint makes him look like someone from another era, and that’s analogous for the whole film, which attempts to situate us, rosiness to one side, inside the minds of people who lived those lives back then – deferential to the church and authority of whatever sort. Any suggestion that there’s a coded message to politicians of today – a country built on the back of immigrant sweat, whoever heard of such a thing – must be pushed to the back of the mind.
The Intern (Warner, cert 12)
Here’s Robert De Niro in a kindly old chevalier role as a 70-year-old returning to the workplace – like a shark it’s keep going or die, he reckons – as a suited-and-booted intern working for tech-head and reluctant equal-opportunities employer Anne Hathaway. It’s a comedy and it’s fairly charming and it’s De Niro, so we expect a bit of coasting too, and it’s a Nancy Meyers film so it’s observational comedy of a faintly Nora Ephron-esque sort with its weight firmly on the side of the older party. So, no, there’s no inappropriate relationship between Hathaway and De Niro. Instead he gets to teach her, and everyone around him, how to live, and that gadgets (a digital clock, pens, a calculator in his case; the computer, tablet and smartphone in theirs) have nothing to do with it. It’s about old school manners and respect, in a nutshell. The PJ O’Rourke book Age and Guile Beat Youth, Innocence and a Bad Haircut is its philosophical foundation, and there is the constant suggestion that Meyers is trying too hard – the scene where company masseuse Rene Russo gives De Niro a quick shoulder rub at his desk and he indicates to his co-workers that he has an erection…There are several other moments when you might want to make the gag sign too, but on the whole this is a decent exploration of largely unexplored territory, played well by its leads, though I could do without its lessons in gender politics in the 21st century, from a Hathaway who suddenly gets an attack of “authorial voice” while drunk – it’s why can’t a man be more like a man, in a nutsack, sorry, nutshell. No, that terrible Vince Vaughn/Owen Wilson Google film was called The Internship.
Sleeping with Other People (Icon, cert 15)
Described by its writer/director as ‘When Harry Met Sally… for assholes’, Sleeping with Other People is a standard rom-com dressed up in slutty clothes. Jason Sudeikis and Alison Brie are the updated Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan, a couple who meet at a sex-addicts group and decide that, since they fuck up every relationship based on fucking, they’ll not go there. Cue extended cinematic foreplay by writer/director Leslye Headland as the two dance the will they/won’t they while talking almost exclusively about sex and trading tips such as the best way for a woman to masturbate. These supposedly “I can’t believe he/she just said that” moments might have the founding fathers of Hollywood turning in their graves but they’re unlikely to shock Generation Tinder. Sudeikis is well cast as a guy who could, let’s face it, be easily mistaken for a sex pest, and Brie is just as good as him at making the dialogue – and there’s a lot of it – seem to bubble out of the mouth like… searches for inappropriate simile and decides to drop it. Ernst Lubitsch would understand what’s going on here. And he’d appreciate that it’s hard to get this sort of thing right, and that messing with the screwball formula doesn’t generally work. But, in spite of all its sex-toy trappings, Sleeping with Other People does follow the strict old-time recipe – the gendered roles (he’s a tech start-up king, she teaches young kids), the ricochet repartee, the funny sidekick, the romantic impediment, and so on. It’s beginning to sound like I didn’t like it. But I did. Lots. It’s a romantic comedy that works as a romance and as a comedy. That’s not too common.
Deathgasm (StudioCanal, cert 15)
Deathgasm is a comedy, of course, one about 1980s Australian teenage lads discovering that their revered heavy metal is, as the Christian fundamentalists used to suggest, a front for Satan himself. But is it any more than a funny title and a neat idea? Yes, as it happens, because writer/director Jason Lei Howden sets up a love triangle subplot to act as an ancillary motor. So as wimpy hero Brodie (Milo Cawthorne) leaves the stifling security of his uncle’s house – he’s there because his mother is now locked up after being “caught sucking off Santa in a mall” – and sets out on a quest to discover how a local metal hero, a forbidden dark dirge and an outbreak of zombiedom are all related, his “friend” Zakk (James Blake) is also trying to inveigle his way into the pants of Medina (Kimberley Crossman), the unattainably hot girl Brodie is keen on, even though she’s his cousin’s squeeze. That’s a love quadrilateral, technically, I realise. Other things in Deathgasm’s favour include a cheery approach to gore – when Zakk’s mechanic dad becomes a ravening monster, he and Brodie drop a car engine on his head, leading to Zakk opining that it’s probably the way dad would have liked to go. And Medina gets more to do than just stand there pointing her chest at the camera – she’s handier with an axe than the guys anticipate. Plus there’s sex toys used as offensive weapons – imagine trying to beat a zombie to death with a big prosthetic penis. In fact this clever crossing and re-crossing of the comedy/horror fault line is what gives this film its gas. If you’ve ever even vaguely nodded along to anything inspired by one of Tony Iommi’s lolloping basslines, this is probably for you. If you don’t know who Tony Iommi is, shame on you.
The Visit: an Alien Encounter (Metrodome, cert PG)
The last film by Michael Madsen – not the actor – was called Into Eternity and detailed the massive engineering project designed to facilitate the underground storage of nuclear waste for tens of thousands of years. Until long after our civilisation is finished, in other words. Its most notable aspect was the way it interrogated scientists and engineers about their attempts to future-proof their warning systems – what sign might a human from the 47th century recognise as meaning “Danger – Radioactivity!”? The Visit: an Alien Encounter proceeds in similar fashion, asking questions of scientists, military men and bureaucrats about how they would handle the arrival of a visitor from outer space. Did you know the UN has a department for Outer Space Affairs? Mazlan Othman is its director and is one of the people Madsen interrogates, posing as an off-screen alien to whom Othman delivers her answers. Other officials Madsen grills in similar style include the chair of the Panel on Planetary Protection, the director of Interstellar Message Composition at the SETI Institute, an astro-biologist, an expert on space law, an engineer at the International Space University – institutions and job descriptions that are all new to me. Perhaps this film’s most singular success is the way it shines a light on this shadowy area of human strategics, Madsen effectively creating a work of cinematic long-form journalism as he tries to tease out from the experts exactly what would happen if ET showed up. And the answer he comes up with… well I’m not going to spoil the enjoyment of watching. But I will say that sci-fi movies of the 1950s seem to provide the basic templates. And that the human tendency to panic when we don’t understand something doesn’t bode well. There’s a touch of the conspiratorial tone of an Adam Curtis documentary here, and Madsen is hamstrung to a slight extent by the lack of killer visuals that made Into Eternity such a wow. Even so, this is a fascinating and also faintly chilling exploration of a subject that should, you’d have thought, have been done long before this.
The Lesson (Frightfest, cert 18)
The Lesson is an odd film in that it starts off being about one thing – a gang of feral kids who delight in vandalising and bullying – but then it slips into something else entirely. The something else is torture porn, and why this late-arrival at a very tired party works so well is because it spends so long introducing its two key characters. There’s Fin (Evan Bendall), handsomer and smarter than his even thuggier older brother (Tom Cox), whose girlfriend (Michaela Prchalová) is forever giving Fin the eye. And there’s Joel (Rory Coltart), the cock-of-the-walk nasty piece of work. These two lads are horrible, but their unpleasantness springs not from innate evilness, rather it’s from the shitty way they in turn have been treated at home. So when Mr Gale (Robert Hands), the hapless teacher these lads have been routinely humiliating at school, bangs them over the head, hauls them off to his lair, cable ties them to a desk, then gets the DIY tools out for “the lesson”, our loyalties are fairly evenly split. Writer/director Ruth Platt does another bit of even cannier splitting in writing that catches both the rhythms of the chavvy lads and the stream-of-consciousness rambling of the erudite-but-bonkers Gale as he delivers a lecture on subjects he could never cover in class, ranging from Milton to Blake, Rousseau, Hobbes and Charlotte Bronte. “What does inspiration mean, Tindall?,” he asks Fin at one point. “Ten seconds or I nail your hand to the desk.” And on it goes in this manner – questions and punishment, like old-school teaching with extreme prejudice. Shot up close and obviously on a low budget, with simple blue and yellow lighting effects like a 1980s Smash Hits cover and a soundtrack that was probably put together in someone’s bedroom, this film could never have been made before the digital revolution. But here it is, handsome and solid, gripping and smart, funny and horrible, a feature debut deserving to be seen.
The Lesson – Watch it/buy it at Amazon
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© Stephen Morrissey 2016