Happiest Season

The family (plus guest) line up for a Christmas photo

Gooey, sentimental Richard Curtis movies are the template for this wannabe starring Kristen Stewart and Mackenzie Davis as Abby and Harper, a romantically linked couple going back to Harper’s parents’ for Christmas.

Being a mainstream movie about homosexual love – Lesbians, Actually – these young women are not in-your-face dyke-on-a-bike Sapphics but nice young women who just want to be accepted for what they are. Neither is heroic – Abby’s parents are dead and so she never had to come out to them; Harper has never told her parents.

And that’s the hook on which this film hangs. Is Harper going to fess up and simultaneously re-apprise them of the identity of her “friend” Abby? Or are the parents going to find out anyway, in some French farce, whoops-there-go-my-panties kind of way, or otherwise?

There’s a lot of good stuff in this film – Stewart and Davis can do no wrong, nor Alison Brie, who plays Davis’s ice-bitch sister. Victor Garber and Mary Steenburgen are reliably cosy as the parents obsessed with projecting the image of the perfect family against which the great unfolding is going to happen. On top of that Garber’s Ted is a local politico, so squeeze that fact for all the ironic juice it’ll yield when it comes to putting on a false front.

The screenplay is by Clea DuVall and Mary Holland, both of them better known for acting than writing. It’s competent enough, hits the beats, and knows how these things are structured, but it’s a timid beast so wary of giving offence that it ends up draining any dreg of personality out of Abby and Harper. Stewart (the toughie) and Davis (the sweetie) struggle to put flavour back in with biggish acting but they know there’s only so much they can do before things start to look ridiculous.

Kristen Stewart and Mackenzie Davis
Out (or not) on the town: Abby and Harper


Holland also has an acting role, and Richard Curtis fans will be quietly mouthing the name of the late lamented Emma Chambers as Harper’s sister Jane (Holland) goes through a familiar set of giddy, dizzy, over-sharing, standing-on-one-foot ploys. She is, it must be said, very good at it, and provides the film – a comedy? – with some much appreciated laughs. Dan Levy’s doing something similar, and extremely well, as Abby’s gay best friend, who offers camp advice and an eye roll whenever the orthodox queer-eye-for-the-straight-audience viewpoint is needed.

Does Aubrey Plaza need to be in this film? Not really. And she’s got to be there as some sort of favour to someone involved, a bit more power to add to the left-field marquee. She plays Harper’s one-time hometown lover and has a few scenes with Stewart, all of which give off the vibe of a couple who don’t get on that well. Which is a bit of a problem because we’re meant to be half forming the idea that there is some romantic frisson between the two, aren’t we? (YouTube promo clips and interviews don’t back up this “don’t get on” theory, I must say, but something isn’t quite right – maybe they were just in a rush).

The imdb’s trivia page tells us that it’s based on DuVall’s experience, so I had a quick look at her wikipedia page. And there, in her entry under Personal Life are only four words: “DuVall is a lesbian.” Which seems like a rather thin way of describing someone.

And that’s the problem with Happiest Season. A lack of detail. Sill, there’s romance (a bit), laughs (a few) and drama (ish).

Happiest Season – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2020

Camp X Ray

The new recruits are briefed

One of three 2014 Kristen Stewart films that seemed designed to shift her image out of Twilight territory and into something with a bit more actorly grunt, Camp X Ray works better as brand realignment than as drama.

The other two were Clouds of Sils Maria and Still Alice, the first a Juliette Binoche arthouse flick, the other starring Julianne Moore as an English professor with early onset dementia. In both Stewart was second billing to a major league dramatic actor and metaphorically sat at the feet of the star and took notes.

She didn’t have to do it. At the time she was one of the highest paid actress in the world (Forbes says number eight, having been number one in 2012) and is every bit as skilled as either Binoche or Moore. Here, though similar “rebranding” considerations are in play – this is a low-budget movie by a debuting director – she’s undoubtedly the star, playing Cole, a rookie private assigned to Guantanamo Bay.

There, flint-faceted Cole develops a friendship with one of the detainees (not “prisoners” she informs fellow rookie Rico early on, otherwise the Geneva Convention would apply to the detainees’ treatment), a garrulous, intelligent and sensitive man whose crimes are never enumerated.

Playing the Islamic detainee Ali, who we’ve seen snatched from his home, cuffed, hooded and transported by plane, boat and truck to Gitmo eight years before Cole has even turned up, is Payman Maadi.

Cole first meets Ali when she’s on library duty, and she and the prisoner (sorry, detainee) start discussing books. He likes a wide range of books, from Emily Dickinson to Harry Potter (no mention of the Twilight books). Here, and in almost all of their later scenes together, the film is fabulous. Essentially a fraught chamber piece, it’s about two people edging warily towards each other, testing boundaries, trading tiny scraps of emotion, with Maadi and Stewart clearly actors on the same “less is more” register.

The camera is fabulous too, right in their faces on either side of a pane of glass, to catch the nuances of a transactional micro-drama.

Cole with troublesome Mahmoud
Cole with the troublesome Mahmoud (Marco Khan)


As Cole becomes closer to Ali, she moves further away from her fellow US soldiers, notably Corporal Ransdell (Lane Garrison), a jockish asshole with scant regard for the dignity of the detainees, with Ransdell eventually taking action to prevent the Cole/Ali relationship going any further. It is a prison, after all.

We’re on course for a great film. But hang on… is Ali guilty of something? He’s a Muslim, though not a particularly devout one, and we learn that he was living in Bremen, Germany, before being subjected to extraordinary rendition. He seems like a nice man, but as a passing reference to Hannibal Lecter has already established, a few charming interchanges between an authority figure and a man in a cell can be misleading.

Without more knowledge about Ali, this is a film about a soldier getting friendly with someone and then getting pissed off when her job as his jailer gets in the way. Which is fine as far as it goes, but given that we’re in Guantanamo Bay, one of the most contentious sites of detention in recent decades, it’s reasonable to expect more than a drama about a soldier having a fit of pique, surely?

Talking of which, I don’t know much about Guantanamo Bay, aka Camp X Ray, but, here at any rate, the regime does seem to be majorly benign – the food’s a bit pedestrian, and they will force-feed you if you refuse to eat, but on the whole the prisoners are left alone, there is no torture, not even a mild interrogation.

It’s all a bit vanilla. Allied to the “Is that it, really?” aspect of Cole’s personal drama this is a great shame, because the acting by Stewart and Maadi has been both subtle and intense (the support players pretty damn good too) with director Peter Sattler keeping a grip on the dynamics until things get away from him in a speechy last act.

Still, it helps move our heroine – increasingly smoky-eyed and rosy-lipped for a soldier as Camp X Ray winds to a teary conclusion – out of K-Stew territory and into more adult regions.

Camp X Ray – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2020



Still Alice

Kristen Stewart and Julianne Moore in Still Alice

 

 

A super confident woman, top of her game, a linguistics professor, one day discovers herself grasping for a word while she’s giving a lecture. This being the movies, where a cough in one scene leads to coughing up blood in the next, we automatically suspect she’s got Alzheimer’s. The title providing another nudge (why Still?). And so it turns out, in a movie that seems determined to put a polish on the disease of the week movie, and largely succeeds.

 

Polish number one is that it’s not just any old Alzheimer’s but familial Alzheimer’s, in which the gene – should you have been unlucky enough to have inherited it from an affected parent – means you have 100 per cent chance of getting Alzheimer’s yourself.

 

But really the claims for genre transcendence are made by the quality of cast that writers/directors Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland have attracted to the project. Julianne Moore plays the unlucky Dr Alice Howland and in the scenes set in the doctor’s consulting room, where the camera rests entirely on her face as she told one awful truth after another, the wisdom of that casting decision becomes obvious. Matching her in strength and subtlety is Alec Baldwin as her uxorious but never sappy husband, Kate Bosworth as her prickly daughter, Hunter Parrish as the largely superfluous son and Kristen Stewart, clearly making a decision to step back from the spotlight, as the youngest daughter, who finds herself promoted to more of a caring role as the rest of the family quietly shuffle backwards.

 

It’s also an unusually nuanced film, and gives its victim far more agency than we’re used to in this sort of thing. So, alongside gruesome scenes like the one in which Alice pisses her light grey joggers – not a good look – and fails to recognise her daughter, there are others where she clearly uses her advancing condition to her advantage, ducking out of a dreary dinner party, or reading her youngest daughter’s diary and putting it down to “my illness”.

 

They’re an unusual duo, Glatzer and Westmoreland, who you might remember as the names behind 2001’s The Fluffer, a well acted, quirky gay rom-com. And might not remember as the names behind 2013’s The Last of Robin Hood, which cast an excellent Kevin Kline as Errol Flynn in his final skiddy years (and, incidentally, gave a small role to Errol’s grandson, Sean). That’s when they’re not working as producer/consultants on America’s Next Top Model.

 

That TV background will count against them in some quarters, where this film will be pegged as a disease of the weeker not worthy of even a first look. It’s irrefutable: that is exactly what it is, and the plaintive piano and string quartet soundtrack isn’t trying to deny it either. But no matter how mangey and emotionally manipulative, every dog has its day. And this, ladies and gents, is that canine.

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

 

 

 

On the Road

Sam Riley and Kristen Stewart in On the Road

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

21 October

 

 

Jack Kerouac dies, 1969

On this day in 1969, the writer born Jean-Louis Kérouac died, from internal bleeding brought on by long-term alcohol abuse. He was the child of French Canadians and his first language was French, though he picked up English later and was fluent in his teenage years. He won a football scholarship to Columbia University, New York, but dropped out. There, in New York, he met Neal Cassady, Allen Ginsberg and William S Burroughs, among others, the core of the Beat Generation writers, the latest iteration of 20th century romantics. Discharged from war service in the Merchant Marine due to a “schizoid personality”, he set about writing in a style highly influenced by jazz, though it wasn’t until the 1950s that he started to make a name for himself, after the publication of The Town and the City. The work he is best remembered for these days, On the Road, started in French years before, followed. It was a semi-factual retelling of his travels with Neal Cassady and other Beats in the late 40s. Splurged out in semi-associative freeform recollection, the novel was typed out onto one continuous 120 foot (37 metre) long piece of paper, the better to catch the spontaneity that Kerouac craved (Truman Capote would later bitch, “That’s not writing, that’s typing”). On the Road struggled to get a publisher, because of its graphic drug scenes, sexual episodes, perceived amorality, and so on. Though Kerouac saw it as a book about Catholic guys looking for redemption. He wrote drafts of ten more novels while marrying and fleeing, travelling the USA, broke for the most part. In 1957 On the Road was published, Kerouac was proclaimed the voice of a generation, fame and fortune arrived, his previously unpublished works went into print, and Kerouac kept writing. And drinking. And writing. His post 1957 output includes Desolation Angels, The Dharma Bums, Big Sur and Vanity of Duluoz. All of his books remain in print.

 

 

On the Road (2011, dir: Walter Salles)

Taking his cue from Jack Kerouac’s jazz-flavoured prose style, Walter Salles goes for a loose improvisational adaptation of the Beat era’s most famous novel. Not everyone went a bundle on the casting – but of Sam Riley (as Jack Kerouac and his alter ego Sal Paradise), Garrett Hedlund (as Neal Cassady aka Dean Moriarty) and Kristen Stewart (as LuAnne Henderson aka Marylou), it’s only really Hedlund who seems slightly wrong, aiming for hipster cool and coming across a bit like a TV host. Stewart, internet trolls might be sad to hear, is excellent as the girlfriend of one guy who might well switch horses midstream, and catches that dangerous air of a girl who’ll do just about anything, and that includes going for the home and a baby. The plot is as freeform as the music it draws inspiration from, a series of long road trips in a big old Buick, kids lighting out to wherever – Chicago, San Francisco, Mexico. All the while Kirsten makes eyes she shouldn’t at Sam and Tom Sturridge (playing Allen Ginsberg) makes eyes at Garrett, who is adept at suggesting that while Neal/Dean might not be gay enough to go there too willingly, he is at least open to persuasion. It’s a prototype hippie journey, the Ken Kesey Magic Bus across America an entire generation earlier, when the doomy poverty of The Grapes of Wrath era still hung heavy and it was even more obvious that the sort of romantic liberation on offer was even more a man-only affair. If reality offered the biggest kicks to the men, the film provides an opportunity for female acting talent. Alongside the excellent Stewart, there’s Kirsten Dunst reminding us of how good she can be, and Amy Adams and Alice Braga are also worth spending time with. If the film lacks the fireworks that some people wanted from it, that’s partly because, like the book, it takes these people at their own self-aggrandising estimation of themselves. Plus the fact that, just by showing us the “liberation” project at one of its key mythic moments, it becomes all the more clear that this project has now run its course. And you can’t blame Kristen Stewart for that.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Lots of great performances – Kirsten Dunst is particularly fine
  • Kerouac – inspiration for people from Bob Dylan to Katy Perry
  • Eric Gautier’s beautiful cinematography
  • Livewire jazz, from Charlie Parker, Slim Gaillard et al

 

© Steve Morrissey 2013

 

 

On the Road – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

The Messengers

Kristen Stewart in The Messengers

 

 

 

Something weird is going on in the scary house out in the fields of North Dakota, where mom and dad have moved to make one last go of it, growing sunflowers. The kids can see it but the adults can’t. And so on. The Messengers is a bog standard American haunted-house movie with a twist. The twist is not the casting of a long-legged, tight breasted young Kristen Stewart as a heroine, nor the use of a genuine plank (Dylan McDermott) to play her dad. It’s the decision by producer Sam Raimi to get Hong Kong marvels the Pang brothers to direct. Oxide and Danny Pang struck sparks off the horror genre with The Eye in 2002 and use all The Eye’s whooshing, growling, funny-focus tricks here too. They even reference old favourites like The Innocents, The Birds, Amityville Horror and the Hammer genre for good measure. But, like John Woo before them, in the time it’s taken the Pangs to pitch up in Hollywood, every half decent horror director worth their salt has analysed their rather great early work and made it their own. Sorry, boys, your thunder has been stolen. This isn’t the film’s only problem. The casting of big John Corbett as a handyman who seems happy to work for buttons – the only character in the film who works close to but is not connected with the family, the only character who might be dodgy, in other words – is tantamount to not really bothering to write a proper horror film at all. Which is pretty much what we have here, beneath the gorgeous looks, the fields of sunflowers and those wide open spaces, something that just isn’t that bothered.

© Steve Morrissey 2007

 

The Messengers – at Amazon