Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘comedy’

The day before my sister turned 21 I travelled down to visit her and, as we had a bit of free time, decided to rent a video before going out for the evening (this sort of indicates how old my sister is, but I’m sure she’ll be fine with that). After the usual wrangling and discussions over what to see (what used to happen in video rental stores now happens while looking at the front end of Netflix or Mouse+, that’s progress for you) we ended up watching The Meaning of Life, which – of course – also included the supporting feature, The Crimson Permanent Assurance. I remember enjoying this enormously and commenting to my sibling on how very Terry Gilliamish it was.

She is less versed in the ways of film (and, indeed, Python) than me, and admitted that she didn’t actually know what that meant. I, on the other hand, will happily turn up to see anything made by Gilliam, always assuming it gets a proper cinema release wherever I’m living at the time. (This is quite a big qualification as I don’t recall Tideland or Zero Theorem showing up at all, while The Man Who Killed Don Quixote only scraped a small release in an independent cinema.) And generally I have a pretty good time, and occasionally a great one.

The only Gilliam film I didn’t get the first time I saw it was The Fisher King, his 1991 film. This is arguably a bit of an outlier in the Gilliam canon anyway, as it was a film he made as a deliberate change of pace after some stressful experiences in the 1980s – he is even on record as having said he didn’t want to make another ‘Terry Gilliam film’ while shooting it. He was much more of a directorial gun for hire on this movie, as opposed to the auteurial role he usually plays.

The movie takes place in New York City in the present day (which is to say, in the late 80s and early 90s) and the protagonist is one Jack Lucas (Jeff Bridges), a radio ‘shock jock’ and provocateur. In true late 80s style Jack is callous, materialistic and self-obsessed, and believes his career is about to really start going places. He is correct – but not the places he is hoping for. An unstable listener takes one of Jack’s rants rather too seriously and is spurred to commit a spree killing in which several people die.

Several years on Jack is at a low ebb: his broadcasting career is over and he is working as a clerk in the video store of his girlfriend Anne (Mercedes Ruehl) – it is perhaps not entirely surprising that posters advertising Brazil and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen are prominently displayed around the place. Anne clearly adores him, but he is too drunk to notice this most of the time.

While contemplating suicide one night, he is set upon by thugs who believe he is homeless, but rescued by Parry (Robin Williams), an actual homeless person who believes himself to be a knight of the Round Table on a quest to retrieve the Holy Grail. (The Holy Grail is in the library of a wealthy architect on the Upper East Side, naturally.)

Jack’s initial gratitude and bemusement become something more significant when he learns that Parry used to be a successful and happily-married historian until he was widowed in the spree killing Jack was partially responsible for. He feels a sudden responsibility towards Parry, and perhaps the need to redeem himself. Maybe getting Parry together with the woman he is infatuated with (Amanda Plummer) could be a start…?

So, yes, this is the third sort-of Arthurian movie we’ve talked about in the last couple of months. Why should this be? Well, I’m still a bit peeved about The Green Knight having its release postponed, and these other films are filling the gap until (we may hope) it eventually appears. Also, my friends and I are playing King Arthur Pendragon at the moment, so anything with a whiff of Camelot about it is grist to my mill.

The Fisher King sounds like the name of a grand fantasy movie – at least, it does if you know your Arthuriana. The thing is – and I think this may be why I didn’t really take to it on my first viewing – it’s not actually a fantasy film in the traditional sense at all. The only thing epic about it is the length (which is arguably a little bit excessive). The Fisher King legend as related here does not bear much resemblance to the one traditionally associated with the Arthur cycle, and even then it is mainly just a metaphor for the central relationship in the film (it’s not even immediately apparent who is playing the role of the Fisher King in the story).

Instead, this is almost more like a slightly hard-edged Woody Allen comedy-drama about the lives and loves of various New Yorkers (albeit of a lower social stratum than usual), with occasional contributions to the art direction by Hieronymus Bosch. Gilliam seems to have been born several centuries too late and appears to gravitate towards mediaevally-inclined projects – he was the knight with the rubber chicken in Python, co-directed Holy Grail, did Jabberwocky on his own and creates some magnificent knights in this film and his version of Don Quixote – the fire-breathing Red Knight which pursues Parry (a metaphor for the real world, with all the pain and sorrow that involves) is one of Gilliam’s finest bits of conjuring.

If you approach The Fisher King fully cognisant of the fact that it’s only tangentially about the legend in question and more a piece of magic realism than full-on fantasy, I think the film is rather winning, and very worthwhile. It is humane, thoughtful, and quite happy not just to broach the topic of homelessness in the US, but to present homeless characters as sympathetic and intelligent people. The relationships between the four main characters are convincing and, without exception, extremely well played – Robin Williams gets top billing, but Jeff Bridges is at least as good in what’s arguably the central role, while Mercedes Ruehl deserved all the awards she won for a properly layered and utterly convincing performance as his girlfriend.

It’s a little odd to watch a Terry Gilliam film which is basically people just walking around and talking to each other, but the maestro finds plenty of opportunities to bring some visual distinctiveness to the film – quite apart from the Red Knight, there’s the lovely scene in which the crowd in Grand Central Station all start waltzing as Parry stumbles after the woman he’s fallen for. Given the slightly frenetic grimness which occasionally popped up in Gilliam’s films from the 1980s, it’s rather lovely that this one is so genuinely charming and romantic; it suggests he has a range as a director which he has never really got to fully explore (it’s perhaps slightly facile to make comparisons between Terry Gilliam and Orson Welles, but I think there are certainly parallels).

As I said, the film is probably about twenty minutes too long, considering the slightness of the story, but apart from the slightly languid pacing this is a really well-made, thoughtful film for adults. Before watching it recently, it was never really one of my favourite Gilliam films, simply because it doesn’t have that obvious Gilliamishness which is so obvious in The Crimson Permanent Assurance and his earlier feature films. However, it turns out that Terry Gilliam is still a great director even when he isn’t trying that hard to be Terry Gilliam.

Read Full Post »

Is it time for another potentially embarrassing confession? Could be. I have mentioned before that I never really had a favourite rock group or band growing up; I didn’t really get into music at until my late teens. That role was played by, amongst other things, comedy, which I was just as obsessive about as any Oasis or Take That fan. Forget all that ‘comedy is the new rock ‘n’ roll’ stuff people were spouting in the early 90s when David Baddiel and Rob Newman were selling out arenas – Monty Python were my favourite group a good six or seven years earlier. And yet – and here’s the thing – much as I loved the TV series when I finally got to see it properly, much as I fell about laughing when Monty Python and the Holy Grail finally came on TV, much as I followed the other projects of the group members – Fawlty Towers and Ripping Yarns, obviously; Michael Palin going around the world; any Terry Gilliam film you cared to mention – when I finally got to watch Monty Python’s Life of Brian, ten years or so after its 1979 release, I was distinctly underwhelmed by it.

This despite the fact that at least one member of the group considers it the pinnacle of their work together; this despite the general acclamation the film has received (as well as numerous writs for blasphemy). It’s almost enough to make one doubt one’s own opinion. But not quite, though.

The movie is of course another of those Terry Jones projects which managed to get itself banned in Ireland on its initial release. It opens with a tried and tested Python gambit – opening ‘straight’ and sustaining a note of serious authenticity for as long as possible, before something silly happens. In this case it is the Three Wise Men turning up at a stable in Bethlehem, in search of the new-born Messiah – only to be confronted by Mandy (Jones), perhaps the apotheosis of all those ratbag old women he played in the TV series, and her infant son Brian. Suffice to say the Wise Men have unwisely come to wrong stable, just around the corner from one where a more famous nativity scene is in progress.

Cue animated titles and the (rather magnificent) ‘Brian Song’, which leads us into a genuinely impressive recreation of Judea in the first century (shot in Tunisia, sometimes on sets left behind by Zeffirelli when he finished making Jesus of Nazareth – something the Italian director was apparently hopping mad about when he found out). Brian (Graham Chapman) and his mother lead fairly ordinary lives, until a shock discovery about his own origins challenges everything Brian believes in, and incites him to rebel against the Roman occupation.

Here’s one of the odd things about Life of Brian – you can summarise the plot in broad strokes and it doesn’t actually sound that funny. Brian attempts to join a local resistance group, the People’s Front of Judea, but ends up as the only survivor of a raid on the palace of Roman administrator Pontius Pilate (Michael Palin). While escaping from the Roman pursuers with the unwitting aid of some passing aliens (all right, this bit sounds quite funny), Brian finds himself mistaken for the Messiah and pursued by a large following. Can this help him deal with his various travails? One thing is certain: it’s never not a good idea to take a positive view of the world.

Needless to say, the various Pythons play various parts (John Cleese gets some juicy moments, Terry Gilliam contributes a couple of the gargoyle-like grotesques he seemed to specialise in at this point in his career, and while Eric Idle doesn’t get a single really memorable character, he does get to sing the closing number (which, stripped of its context and blackly comic impact, has nevertheless gone on to become hugely popular as a sort of vaguely jolly song).

It almost goes without saying that there are many sequences in this film which are very funny indeed and which have, in some cases, embedded themselves in popular culture – the unfailingly funny stoning scene, the ‘What have the Romans done for us?’ routine, the closing number, Spike Milligan’s cameo (demonstrating, as others have previously observed, the art of upstaging John Cleese and Michael Palin simultaneously – no small feat). But the odd thing about them is they do feel like sketches grafted onto a more extended narrative with varying degrees of success.

This, I think, is the main difference between Life of Brian and the Python films and TV shows that preceded it – it has a confidence and cinematic quality to it that the previous films often lacked, but at the same time the structure and nature of the film is more conventional – it doesn’t have the fake credits or non-ending that marked Holy Grail out as being essentially a continuation of the TV series, which often featured similar gags and conceits. Life of Brian actually has a fairly coherent story, with a moral premise of sorts, and even genuine moments of sincere feeling and pathos (only very occasionally, of course).

The movie is also surprisingly on-the-nose about its message, as well. It’s essentially about ideology, particularly the absurdity of fanaticism – something shared by Brian’s followers and the various squabbling terrorist groups he encounters in the course of the film – and the Pythons are not afraid to lay it on a bit thick in this department. ‘You’re all individuals! You don’t have to follow anyone!’ yells Brian to the pursuing throng, and the editorial message is so clear you almost expect a caption poking fun at the lack of subtlety at this point.

Not that anyone was paying much attention to the film’s subtext back in 1979, of course. I suspect that much of the stature of Life of Brian owes to the kerfuffle that greeted its release, some elements of which have virtually become folklore – Strom Thurmond attempted to ban it in South Carolina on his wife’s insistence, while many other bans succeeded – it remained banned in Aberystwyth for thirty years, at which point the mayor repealed it (the mayor’s own nude scene in the film may or may not have been a factor). Cleese and Palin’s skirmish with Malcolm Muggeridge and the Bishop of Southwark on a chat show very quickly became the stuff of satire itself.

How much the Pythons were genuinely shocked by the strength of the reaction to the film is somewhat unclear. ‘Next year we will have to live with the impact of the film… there will be something of a sensation,’ predicted Michael Palin in his diary at the end of 1978. Nowadays the team are very clear that the film does not ridicule Jesus (he is played dead straight by Kenneth Colley, in a tiny cameo) and it’s more about challenging doctrinaire belief systems and parodying biblical epics, but this does strike me as a little disingenuous – especially as they are also on record describing cut material in which Jesus has trouble booking a table for the last supper and later helps out with the carpentry of the crucifixion. The presence of a number of biblical personages, and the use of some significant imagery (most obviously in the crucifixion sequence) also makes the claim that the film has nothing to do with the origins of Christianity sound a little disingenuous.

Maybe the film is still as shockingly irreverent (even heretical) as it sets out to be; I don’t know – maybe we’re all just too familiar with it now. As I say, there are some very funny sequences, but other sections of the film don’t make me laugh as hard or as long as other things they’ve done. For me it’s lacking the essential Python willingness to tear the formal conventions apart; it has a beginning, a middle, an end, character development, and all the usual stuff. Which make it a better conventional film, I suppose – but I come to Python looking for something completely different. It’s still a cherishable movie with some very funny moments, but it’s not really amongst my favourites as far as their work is concerned.

Read Full Post »

Some kind of threshold in the delexicalisation of the word irony was surely passed when the Original Film Company announced it was going to release… well, take your pick, really: Sonic the Hedgehog, the Total Recall remake, any of the Fast and Furious movies… not that all of these films are necessarily bad, of course. It’s just part of a larger trend, anyway, and one which we have discussed before: such is the expense and exposure involved in making a major tentpole summer blockbuster these days, that the big studios invariably hedge their bets by backing properties with a history of success – which translates as doing sequels, remakes, and adaptations of properties from other media (TV shows, comic books, video games, theme park rides).

It’s a slightly dismal state of affairs even when, as noted, some of the sequels, remakes, adaptations, etc, stand up pretty well on their own terms. The arrival of a big popcorn movie which is none of these things is always therefore a noteworthy occasion (especially if it’s not been directed by Christopher Nolan).

That said, I wasn’t particularly grabbed by the early publicity for Shawn Levy’s Free Guy, partly because it didn’t honestly look all that much like an actually original film (a grab-bag of ideas and visuals from elsewhere, really) and also because it’s a star vehicle for Ryan Reynolds, who has undeniable ability as a light comedian and leading man, but also often comes across as a bit smarmy. Still, you know, sometimes you just want to see something colourful and lively and not too demanding on the higher brain functions.

Reynolds plays Guy, who is a bank clerk in Free City. Guy thinks Free City is a utopia, the greatest place to live in the world, even though it objectively seems to be a dismal, insanely violent, crime-ridden hellhole, where the streets are filled with outlandishly-dressed violent psychopaths all wearing sunglasses and intent on non-stop mayhem and slaughter. But Guy still likes it there. But is there something missing from his life of cheery routine? (Wake up – grab coffee – go to work – be robbed six or seven times a day – go home etc.) Perhaps there is.

He gets an inkling of what it may be when he encounters a mysterious woman (Jodie Comer), one of the sunglasses-wearing faction. This provokes him to break with the old routine, stop doing all the usual things, and even – his best friend is appalled by the thought – get a pair of sunglasses for himself. To say the world takes on a whole new hue when he pops them on is an understatement.

The audience is a step ahead of Guy by this point, anyway, as the movie doesn’t hang around in elaborating on its central conceit: Free City is the setting for a computer game (something like a MMORPG version of Grand Theft Auto) and Guy is one of the background, non-player characters (NPCs) whose main function is to be brutalised by the players (the psychopaths in sunglasses). But something has happened to Guy, allowing him to evolve beyond his designed function and take control of his actions…

This concerns and baffles the people maintaining the game systems, but is also of great interest to two programmers in particular (Comer again and Joe Keery). Comer’s character believes the Free City game includes code illegally swiped from one of their own productions, and is seeking evidence for a lawsuit against the tycoon responsible (the increasingly ubiquitous Taika Waititi). Can Guy have something to do with all this?

I will concede that for a theoretically original film, there is a lot about Free Guy which feels suspiciously derivative: you could make a very long list of all the films which it feels like it owes a debt to, one way or another, starting with Westworld and going on to take in movies as diverse as They Live, The Truman Show, The Matrix, Gamer and Ready Player One. (This is before we even consider some of the crowd-pleasing pop-culture references Reynolds has managed to sneak in courtesy of his relationship with Marvel and Disney.) But it manages the very neat trick of taking all its influences and combining them to produce something which doesn’t feel like it’s obviously ripping off any of them in particular.

The result is a very clever and visually dense film – the corners of the screen are filled with little gags and throwaway details – as well as one which is solidly structured and written (managing to handle some of the issues with this type of scenario with notably more grace than some of its donors). It’s not just clever as a piece of entertainment, either – it manages to take big and potentially unwieldy ideas and smuggle them in front of the camera, usually disguised as jokes or incidental detail. There’s a lot of satire of computer game norms and gamer culture in general, but also more thoughtful and even philosophical ideas about free will and the nature of reality. That the world around us is not what it initially seems is a foundational premise of much great science fiction; which means that Free Guy easily qualifies as one of the best SF films in ages.

Smart summer blockbusters are rare enough, but the other thing which really makes this film stand out is that it has a genuine sweetness and positivity about it which is, to be perfectly honest, incredibly rare in a major studio movie these days. What makes Guy stand out and get noticed as he begins his quest to improve himself is that he is attempting to be a hero in a world where the default assumption is that everyone will behave like a sociopath. He is cheery and upbeat and often apologises to people after finding himself required to do violence upon them. Reynolds finds a way to do this without coming off as bland or saccharine or preachy; I can’t think of a better performance from the actor. But then the whole film is notably well-cast as well as being well-written; the closest thing to a stereotype is Waititi’s grasping businessman, but then he is largely there to symbolise the evils the film is setting out to challenge (he even gets a line about how originality isn’t profitable and that sequels and IP are where the money is).

A film flying the flag for creativity and new ideas, and doing so while suggesting there is indeed value in doing the right thing, would get my support no matter what (well, maybe not if it seemed to be acted by drones, edited by chimps and directed by a committee) – but for a film to do these things while being consistently engaging, clever and funny is virtually miraculous these days. Free Guy, rather unexpectedly, turns out to be a real treat and almost certainly the best popcorn film of the summer.

Read Full Post »

Once or twice in the past we have discussed the quaint phenomenon where something gets slapped with a definite article which it had not, generally speaking, possessed – at least not for a long while. This is usually done with the goal of imparting a (probably spurious) sense of maturity and gravitas to something generally regarded as quite silly. The more devoted type of fan is particularly fond of this kind of thing; and, knowing that devoted fans are more likely than normal people to buy multiple tickets and DVD releases for the same film, film producers follow suit, for sound capitalist reasons. Hence the second film about Hugh Jackman’s metal-skeletoned eviscerator was The Wolverine, the forthcoming Robert Pattinson-starring film about a billionaire with an odd hobby is The Batman, Jason Momoa’s character in the DC movie series was occasionally referred to as the Aquaman, and so on. To me it always smacks of a desperate need to be taken seriously, but I suppose it’s harmless enough.

Hence we now have the sequel to 2016’s Suicide Squad, named (you guessed it) The Suicide Squad, for which original director David Ayer has been replaced by James Gunn. Fond as I am of Gunn’s work as a director and producer, the words ‘maturity’ and ‘gravitas’ are not necessarily the first ones to spring to mind when considering his previous movies, so this may just have been the easiest way to distinguish the new film from the old one.

The premise remains the same, and is drawn from the comic series created by John Ostrander (who cameos) in 1987: imprisoned supervillains are offered a reduction in their sentence if they agree to go on insanely dangerous missions for a covert branch of the US government, with compliance ensured by the insertion of an explosive device into their skulls. It’s a good premise for a comic book, perhaps not quite such a good one for a movie – I said five years ago that choosing to make a film about a collection of second- and third-string villains from Batman and the Flash when you haven’t actually made a proper Batman or Flash film yet is a really weird choice. And that still applies – I can’t help thinking of that saying about doing the same thing repeatedly yet expecting different results.

But is this quite the same thing? On paper it seems like it is. Convicted mercenary Bloodsport (Idris Elba) is coerced into joining the Squad for a new mission: a military coup in the island nation of Corto Maltese (the shadow of The Dark Knight Returns remains inescapable, it seems) means that a dangerous research project has fallen into the hands of an unstable new junta, and the stated objective is to break into a high-security facility and shut it down.

Joining Bloodsport in this endeavour are various other characters who are also psychopathic, not to mention mostly idiots or profoundly unstable, or both: Peacemaker (John Cena), a man so dedicated to peace he will commit any atrocity to achieve it; Ratcatcher 2 (a new version of an obscure Batman character, played by Daniela Melchior); anthropomorphic selachian King Shark (voiced by Sylvester Stallone); and Polka-Dot Man (another new version of an obscure Batman character, this one played by David Dastmalchian). Reprising their roles from the original film are Viola Davis as the ruthless director of the squad, Joel Kinnaman as field commander Rick Flag, Margot Robbie as homicidal pole-dancer Harley Quinn, and Jai Courtney as absurd national stereotype Captain Boomerang, while there are also appearances from a bunch of other minor characters, most notably Michael Rooker as Savant and Nathan Filion as the Detachable Kid (don’t even ask).

Gunn owes his current profile as a director to the success of the Guardians of the Galaxy movies he made for Marvel Studios; the fact he’s done this one is mainly due to the fact that Marvel temporarily parted company with Gunn after he got twitter-mined a couple of years ago. Looking at Gunn’s record as a director, he doesn’t seem like someone particularly inclined towards repeating himself, but it seems like a safe bet that DC took him on in the hope that he would do for them exactly what he did for their competitors: take an unpromising project about a team of obscure, morally-ambiguous characters and transform it into a crowd-pleasing hit packed with off-beat humour and general weirdness.

Certainly the parallels between Gunn’s Marvel movies and the new film are many and frequently obvious: a gang of oddballs who meet in prison squabble and bicker their way through spectacular set pieces as they find themselves gradually becoming a team, before discovering a latent spark of heroism as a terrible threat emerges. There’s a comedy CGI tank with a limited vocabulary voiced by a big-name star, a rodent, Michael Rooker, and so on, and so on. People who enjoyed Guardians of the Galaxy will probably find a lot to enjoy here too, especially if they feel that Marvel movies don’t feature enough scenes in which people are graphically ripped in half.

That said, this is still a film which is as wildly inconsistent and tonally chaotic as we have come to expect when James Gunn is writing as well as scripting. Much of it is very funny, albeit in a ‘this is horrible, why am I laughing?’ kind of way, but the knowing silliness of the film means that the more emotional and serious beats, when they make their rare appearances, often fail to land. On the other hand, he gets good performances out of the leading cast members – it’s fairly obvious that Idris Elba’s character was originally written for Will Smith as Deadshot, but Elba’s underplayed mixture of exasperation and despair at the excesses of his colleagues means he makes the role his own. As for Margot Robbie, she gets shuffled off into her own subplot for much of the movie, which she carries quite well – it’s safe to say that this is the least annoying Robbie has ever been as Harley Quinn. She comes very close to being upstaged by Daniela Melchior, though.

I have to say that, once the film settled down and got into its groove, I thoroughly enjoyed it: much more than the first one. Partly this is because the jokes and action are generally very good, but also because – well, it starts off looking like this is going to be a movie channelling the essence of the gloomiest period in comic book history, the late 80s and early 90s, when homicidal cynicism ruled the world. But by its end, The Suicide Squad is celebrating the fantastical and garish excesses of the Silver Age of Comics, even as it gently pokes fun at them – the climax features an astonishingly faithful and well-staged portrayal of a classic DC comics antagonist. The film is really in its stride by this point and suddenly it seems as if Gunn has found a way to make this kind of film work without just aping the Marvel template – he makes a lot of the competition’s films look awfully strait-laced and over-cautious by comparison.

As noted, if the definite article added to the title of The Suicide Squad is meant to indicate it is a more serious and grown-up film, then this is false advertising: it’s astoundingly violent and often profane, but it also revels in its own extravagant silliness and thoroughly embraces the craziness of a lot of comic books from many years ago. It’s a bit of a mixed bag, but then that’s always going to be an issue with a Gunn script – in the end, the positives greatly outweigh the negatives. There is an awful lot to enjoy here if you can take the pace.

Read Full Post »

When we talk about genre movies we’re usually talking about highly distinctive genres with very definite conventions – something can be a good example of a western, or a rom-com, or a martial arts movie. These kinds of films often get looked down somewhat – I remember being rather condescendingly nicknamed Genre Boy by a colleague whose own tastes in film were, they clearly felt, somewhat more elevated and refined. At the risk of sounding like a cross between China Mieville and Bertrand Russell, I don’t have much time for this: if the concept of genre is to have any validity, then it applies to everything. You can’t write a book that doesn’t belong to a genre; nor can you make a non-genre film – it’s just that the genre conventions are looser and less obvious in some cases.

‘Drama’ is one of those loosely-defined genres; ‘comedy’ may well be another. It’s not that often that we see one of the less reputable genres smashing into either of them; your genre mash-up is usually something like a kung fu-western or a horror-road movie. But such a thing is possible, and Anders Thomas Jensen’s Riders of Justice (title pa Dansk: Retfærdighedens Ryttere) is a pretty good example of it.

Mand dagens Mads Mikkelson plays Markus Hansen, a veteran officer in the Danish army – ‘tough guy’ doesn’t begin to do him justice; he is as hard as stone. This doesn’t always make him the easiest person to live with, but his wife and daughter Mathilde (Andrea Heick Gadeberg) seem quite fond of him anyway. However, everything changes when Mathilde and her mother are caught up in a train crash, which only Mathilde survives.

Markus flies home on compassionate leave and the two of them attempt to process their loss, which is probably easier for her than him. Something unexpected enters the situation with the arrival at their door of Otto (Nikolaj Lie Kaas), a statistician who was on the train as well, and who gave up his seat for Markus’ wife. He believes the accident – which caused the death of a man due to give evidence against a biker gang involved  in organised crime – was too improbable to be anything of the sort, and the gang – the Riders of Justice – were responsible.

Markus wants to see Otto’s evidence, of course, which involves bringing his associates into the picture: fellow computer and data experts Lennart (Lars Brygmann) and Emmenthaler (Nicolas Bro). Soon the nucleus of a very unlikely vigilante revenge squad is forming, with the others in awe of and possibly slightly frightened by Markus’ hard-man charisma, and him dependent on them to get him where he needs to be…

We were talking very recently about the phenomenon of the bus-pass bad-ass movie, which this is sort of heading towards being (Mikkelson is 56 this year), but – the fact he’s the father of a teenage girl notwithstanding – the movie isn’t really about his age as much as the fact he’s a man with a certain set of skills and a very compelling incentive to use them. From some angles it looks very much like a straight down the line revenge thriller, complete with suitably heinous villains to be dealt with.

However, looked at another way, this is a very different kind of film – or at least, a combination of two or three very different kinds of film. Otto, Lennart and Emmenthaler are a trio of oddballs and misfits, much given to geekish squabbling over absurd minutiae and obsessing over niche details (Lennart has some sort of monomania when it comes to well-constructed barns, for instance, though there are hints that this stems from his own very troubled past). Their various fallings out are absolutely played for laughs, and are all the funnier for being set against Mikkelson’s baleful restraint. It’s a bit like the Punisher going into action backed up by Dad’s Army or the characters from The IT Crowd.

But it’s not just a simple black comedy-thriller: throughout the film the script takes a keen interest in the chain of cause and effect, and the reasons why things really happen, and appears to conclude that while the world is deterministic and comprehensible, this doesn’t occur on a scale which is accessible to the human brain. We may never know exactly why things happen, tragedies included: the deaths of our loved ones will always seem savagely random.

How people cope with grief and the cruelty of the world is really what this film is about: the revenge thriller bit is very engaging and the comedy business between the different characters extremely funny, but at its absolute heart this film deals with Markus’ inability to process his emotions and come to terms with the death of his wife, or establish any kind of bond with Mathilde. He refuses the offer of trauma counsellors for either of them; the irony is that he’s forced to pretend his new associates are exactly that, to explain what they’re all doing in the barn all day. The triumph of the film comes not just through the resolution of the biker gang revenge plotline, for this is a very ambiguous and dark kind of triumph, but through the bonds that have developed between Markus, Mathilde, her boyfriend, Otto and the others, and even a Ukrainian former sex slave they pick up in the course of the story.

The big challenge of this kind of film is to find some kind of consistency of tone, given the swift transitions between drama, comedy and action which occur throughout the film – Jensen pulls this off extremely well, unafraid to push the boundaries of each (some of the comedy is extremely droll and silly, some of the drama genuinely affecting, and some of the violence quite difficult to watch). There is a sense in which some of the connective tissue of the plot seems a little dubious – this is pretentious pretend film-critic talk for ‘the story depends on a couple of whopping coincidences to function’, but then again… I run the risk of committing spoilers here, so I must stop.

Riders of Justice gets more serious and less funny as it goes on, more or less, but it’s still a distinctive and highly original film filled with good performances and interesting ideas. It’s the sort of film I can imagine them remaking in America with only a fraction of the subtlety and wit, to considerably less effect, so it might be best to catch the original now while it remains unsullied. A very hard film to describe, but well worth seeing.

Read Full Post »

Retirement ages for film stars are not rigidly enforced, and so the phenomenon of the action movie starring someone really a bit too long in the tooth for it has been with us for a while – going back to the late 60s or early 70s at least. Here we must distinguish between films which are vehicles for an established star who is simply refusing to go gentle into the good night of actually acting their age, and those in which the long-in-the-toothness is an element of the story: part of the point of the film is that it’s about a person who’s getting on a bit. (For a reasonable example of the first, I would suggest the 1975 film Brannigan, and for the second the 1976 film The Shootist, both starring John Wayne.)

The question, of course, is really which category the slate of films made by Liam Neeson in recent years should go into: Neeson himself is 70 next year, but while the films do sort of acknowledge the fact that he seems like an unlikely person to be beating much younger actors up with quite such gusto, the issue of his actual age is usually skated over. Nevertheless, I have been known to refer to films of this type as ‘bus pass bad-ass movies’, as they are usually about vigilante pensioners or something of that ilk. (Not that they are necessarily bad films, I should add: Michael Caine’s Harry Brown is a fine example of the form, and a pretty good movie too.)

Heading sort of into this territory comes Ilya Niashuller’s Nobody, which really resembles a Liam Neeson movie as hybridised with John Wick (writer Derek Kolstad and producer David Leitch have form with the Keanu Reeves franchise about a short-fused hitman). The first odd thing about this film is that it is a star vehicle for Bob Odenkirk; this is strange because I had absolutely no recognition of his name or face before going into the movie. Men in their late 50s don’t just walk into the lead role of an action movie; at least, not normally they don’t. (It turns out Odenkirk’s star has been on the rise for a few years due to his being in Breaking Bad and its spin-off; clearly I should be watching more on TV than just re-runs of Civilisation and Space: 1999.)

Then again, the sheer nondescriptness of Odenkirk is really what the film is about; he is a slight chap, with an interestingly craggy face a bit reminiscent of Bob Peck but also of Hugo Weaving. In this film he plays Hutch Mansell, a middle-manager at a small family-run factory, with a nice wife (Connie Nielsen), nice kids, a nice house, and a life which is deeply mired in routine.

This changes one night when burglars break into the house and hold Hutch and his family at gunpoint. At one point Hutch has the opportunity to overpower them, but decides to resolve the situation non-violently and lets them go. (Hint: this is possibly the last time anything is done non-violently in the whole movie.) For this he is treated with condescension, pity, and contempt by his in-laws, neighbours, children, the police, and so on: a real man would have fought back, wouldn’t he?

It looks like Hutch initially manages to swallow his pride, but when it looks like his young daughter’s precious kitty-kat bracelet was accidentally taken by the burglars, something pops, or ignites, inside him. It turns out that – not entirely surprisingly – he has a bit of a past, and a set of skills he’s secretly dying to use again. He ends up sitting on a bus as a group of drunk young thugs get on, quietly praying they’re going to make trouble (the audience is probably hoping the same thing by this point). Suffice to say some top-notch violence ensues as the drab little manager puts the entire gang in the hospital, but it could be that Hutch has made a mistake – one of the victims of his righteous fury was the little brother of Russian Mafia boss Yulian (Alexei Serebryakov), who is a homicidal karaoke-loving psychopath, and now looking for an equally extravagant revenge…

Watching In the Heights was frequently a joyous experience, but I can’t remember the last time I saw a film which was quite as much fun as Nobody: it gets the fusion of accomplished, gritty action and droll black comedy just about spot-on. It’s not as stylised as John Wick nor as vicious as parts of Taken, and it’s a lot funnier than either of them.

Bob Odenkirk is consistently excellent value in the lead role, easily carrying the film. Not only is he funny, but he and the film also know when to drop in a grace note of pure seriousness as well, and this is something Nobody handles rather better than a lot of higher-profile films. There are many films about men with a history of violence who are looking to put it behind them, but find this kind of life impossible to escape. In most of them – Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine films, for instance – it’s all handled in a very po-faced sort of way, with the protagonist staring mournfully into the middle distance as they contemplate the fact they keep getting dragged into mayhem and carnage against their will.

Nobody does it differently. This film is quite open about the fact that there’s a part of Hutch which just really enjoys messing people up and destroying property, no matter how he tries to suppress it. More than once in the film he finds himself in a situation which could go one of two ways – and every time, you can see him really hoping it’s going to be the one involving property damage and a soaring body-count. Yet you also get a real sense of the conflict in him – the glimpses of regret and dismay in his face after he gives in to his darker impulses are unmistakeable.

Odenkirk’s performance gives unexpected heft and emotional weight to what’s otherwise a fairly silly, operatically violent action film, but it works superbly. He is surrounded by a great supporting cast and the action is superbly staged, and the plot, while being a bit convoluted in the early stages of the film, also hangs together. I feel compelled to mention in particular Christopher Lloyd’s extended cameo as Hutch’s shotgun-toting father – it’s another performance which is perfectly pitched for this particular film.

Quite often your mid-range action film is fairly forgettable filler, slapped together according to a formula with not a great deal of evidence of car being taken over it. Nobody feels like the work of people who appreciate that a mid-budget genre movie can still be a great film: it’s visually inventive, witty in all sorts of ways, maintains its tone with impressive ease, contains interesting characters, and is very well-paced too. I enjoyed it enormously; for once I am crossing my fingers for a sequel.

Read Full Post »

What a pleasure it is to be able to visit the cinemas in and around Leicester Square once more – it’s like being let out of prison, even if doing so at the moment involves staggering through the streets of London rather like Edward Judd at the beginning of The Day the Earth Caught Fire. (Where can a person get a stillsuit when they need one?) Being able to see the big Hollywood releases is all very well and good, but the great all-song of cinema is incomplete without the quirky little themes and unlikely melodies provided by less mainstream fare you only find in independent cinemas.

With Quentin Dupieux’s Deerskin (F-title: Le Daim, which apparently translates as either The Deer or The Suede) we are certainly some way off the beaten track, drawn there, perhaps, by the star power of Jean Dujardin, who was rather famous around the world for The Artist a while back but has shown a creditable disregard for the siren song of American movies. Not that Dupieux is without a certain reputation of his own: in addition to writing and directing (amongst other things) 2010’s Rubber, the greatest film about a homicidal tyre with psychic powers ever made, he also had a sort of music career as the creator of Flat Eric and the Flat Beat (google at your peril: some things are best left forgotten).

As the film opens we find Dujardin on the road. He is playing an ordinary-seeming fellow named Georges, but it soon becomes clear he is perhaps not such an anonymous chap: stopping for a break, he abruptly decides to take off his coat (an inoffensive green corduroy number) and attempts to flush it down the lavatory, not very successfully. (There’s a story that Martin Fry of the pop group ABC once attempted to do the same thing with a gold lame suit.)

Anyway, the now-shirtsleeved Georges reaches his destination, where he is making a purchase from an old man. He’s buying a replacement jacket, made entirely of deerskin, and he seems absolutely delighted with it – despite the fact it is obviously too small and too short for him. Nevertheless, he coughs up more than 7000 Euros for the thing, receiving as a sort of bonus a small digital video camera.

Resplendent in his new jacket, Georges drives off to somewhere remotely Alpine and checks into a hotel, despite the fact his credit card has stopped working. Conning the staff into letting him stay on, he decides – despite a total lack of knowledge or expertise – to pass himself off as an auteur film-maker, and starts presenting himself as such at the local bar, where he befriends barmaid and aspiring editor Denise (Adele Haenel).

There is so clearly something not quite right about Georges that it doesn’t come as much of a surprise when he starts carrying on conversations with the jacket, supplying its contributions himself. It’s not even as if this is a case of a troubled man having found a friend, for the jacket has an ambition it wants Georges to help it achieve. Fortunately, Georges has his own dream, and – what are the chances? – the two things dovetail perfectly…

Yup, another tale of a man undergoing a mid-life crisis and forming an unhealthy co-dependent relationship with a psychotic piece of clothing: only from the director of Rubber could this really be described as a step towards more mainstream and accessible fare. At least it’s clear what this is: it’s a horror-comedy, or possibly a comedy-horror, albeit one with a very distinctive tone to it.

This is a real slow-burner of a film, which starts off looking relatively normal before slowly sliding into the realms of the truly bizarre. From the start it is completely deadpan, with perhaps the faintest touch of a knowingly tongue-in-cheek feel: as the story progresses and Georges’ behaviour becomes more and more outlandish, you’re increasingly aware that the story is completely ridiculous and implausible – never mind the farcical way in which Georges’ breakdown expresses itself, there’s the behaviour of all the other characters, and the mysterious non-appearance of the police or media (given a gory and substantial killing spree takes place).

And yet it stays very watchable and engaging, rather than becoming absurd to the point of complete silliness. This is mostly down to Jean Dujardin, who carries the majority of the scenes himself and brings an enormous amount of understated conviction to Georges: a peculiar and rather sad individual he may be, but he’s not unsympathetic, and it’s Dujardin’s portrayal of his vanity and cluelessness which really finds the veins of black comedy running through the film.

Helping very much is Adele Haenel, as someone theoretically sane but proving to be remarkably credulous as the film goes on and Georges’ tales of what he’s up to unravel. Unlike Dujardin, Haenel plays it entirely straight – or at least as straight as the material will permit – which just adds to the oddness of the film. Are we supposed to conclude that life in small-town France is so dreary she’s prepared to engage in a kind of folie a deux with Georges just because it offers the prospect of escape? (Possibly folie a trois if you count the jacket.)

Unfortunately, any resolution of all this is limited, at best: Deerskin lasts a brisk and peculiar 75 minutes or so and then ends, the story having come to an abrupt and largely unresolved stop. It’s not just another of the formal post-modern pranks which Dupieux inserted so many of into Rubber, as there is a vague attempt at conventional storytelling involved here (exposition is laid in well in advance). This doesn’t make the lack of closure any less unsatisfactory, though.

Oh well. I enjoyed Deerskin a lot more than Rubber, and frequently found myself laughing out loud at the sheer deadpan strangeness of it, mainly as manifested through Dujardin and his performance. This is about 75% of a really good film; the problem is not that the other 25% isn’t up to the same standard, it’s that it just isn’t there at all.

Read Full Post »

Mel Brooks’ 1967 movie The Producers opens in the appropriately seedy offices of seedy theatrical impresario Max Bialystock (Zero Mostel): once a successful producer, his recent shows have all been flops and he has been reduced to romancing little old ladies into parting with their money in order to keep himself afloat (‘romancing’ may be putting too fine a point on it: for frail-looking little old ladies, they turn out to be improbably libidinous).

Stumbling into the midst of this geriatric carnality comes the hapless figure of drab accountant Leo Bloom (Gene Wilder); this is apparently an intentional reference to Ulysses, unlikely as that sounds. Bloom has been sent to do Bialystock’s books, and discovers that an accidental bit of graft has occurred: the producer raised more money than he needed in order to mount his last show, and pocketed the excess. Normally this would be an offence, but as the show was a huge flop, none of the backers are expecting to get their money back anyway. Bloom idly observes that an unprincipled producer could probably make more money from a massive flop than a genuine hit, if the book-keeping were creative enough…

This seed of corruption falls into the fertile mulch of Max Bialystock’s brain and instantly takes root. Persuading Bloom to assist him, he sets about mounting the worst play it is in his power to stage, meanwhile raising a vastly excessive budget from private investors in return for selling the profits from the show two-and-a-half-thousand times over. But what kind of show could be the sure-fire disaster the scheme warrants?

They settle upon a script entitled Springtime for Hitler, a musical comedy written by a deranged Nazi immigrant named Franz (Kenneth Mars) which sets out to show the world ‘the real Hitler… the Hitler with a song in his heart’. Directorial duties are assigned to Roger de Bris (Christopher Hewitt), a gay transvestite, while the starring role is given to a drug-addled beatnik named Lorenzo St DuBois (aka LSD), played by Dick Shawn. The stage is (hopefully) set for a disaster of colossal proportions – what could possibly go right…?

There’s a relentless ferocity about the single-minded way in which The Producers goes about getting its laughs, something which is perhaps mirrored by Zero Mostel’s uninhibited performance as Max: you could describe the film as a black comedy, a farce, or a satire, but one suspects that Mel Brooks really wasn’t thinking in these terms: he just wanted to get the audience laughing.

There’s a kind of artlessness about some aspects of the film, which perhaps arises from this. It begins with a lengthy, and really quite talky sequence set just in the office, which (once all the old ladies have been satisfied) boils down to a two-hander between Mostel and Wilder (Wilder seems somewhat subdued, and is definitely playing second banana throughout the film). Eventually it opens out and becomes more cinematic, but the feel of something with its origins in vaudeville persists: there’s something inherently theatrical about the story, after all.

The heart of the film is the opening number of Springtime for Hitler, which in addition to being a brilliant piece of black comedy is a spot-on parody of Broadway excesses: dancing SS officers and goose-stepping showgirls, performing a genuinely funny show tune. The Producers deserves its reputation for this sequence alone, but it hits a standard which the rest of the film really struggles to meet.

Doing jokes about Nazis has probably lost most of its shock value for a modern audience, anyway; this is one of the things that dates the film. What is likely to make the film slightly uncomfortable viewing for anyone discovering it these days is the cheery way in which it treats gay men and transvestites as figures of fun, and the manner in which Max’s new Swedish secretary (Lee Meredith) is blatantly objectified. In this sense at least, The Producers is actually coming from somewhere quite reactionary – the film was made in the late 1960s, but elements of then-contemporary youth culture and counter-culture are only referenced in order to be mocked.

This doesn’t stop it being amusing throughout, and often unexpectedly clever: you could even read the film as a slightly oblique examination of what it means to produce ‘good’ and ‘bad’ art; the central joke of the film is that it’s about two men in search of a flop who accidentally end up producing an enormous hit. Good art is not produced by accident, or so everyone assumes; that it happens here is the driver of the plot and the source of the humour in the film’s third act.

The trap that Max and Leo seem to fall into is that rather than simply producing something bad, they end up staging a play which enters the mythical realm of being so-bad-it’s-good. Much debate has occurred over whether this is a genuine phenomenon, and if you need to possess the dreaded ironic sensibility to appreciate it. What I think is the case is that if you self-consciously set out to make something which is so-bad-it’s-good, you’re likely going to fail and just end up creating slightly tedious dross; the collected output of the Asylum and the makers of the Sharknado films constitute a considerable corpus of evidence supporting this notion. Or perhaps Max and Leo just fail to appreciate that a bad idea well executed is far less entertaining than one produced ineptly.

In any case, The Producers has earned its place in the canon of significant movies, helped, no doubt, by winning the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay (Arthur C Clarke said he never forgave Mel Brooks for beating 2001: A Space Odyssey to the same award – the fact that two such different films were in competition for the same prize, and that 2001 lost, really does make one reflect on what function the Academy Awards are supposed to be fulfilling), and the existence of a full-on stage musical (with its own subsequent film version) as well. The fact it effectively launched Mel Brooks’ movie career (which includes, as well as comedies, accomplished films from other genres like The Elephant Man and Cronenberg’s The Fly) is also obviously in its favour. So it’s an easy film to like even if it’s an inconsistent one which in many ways has not aged well.

Read Full Post »

Another day, another Netflix movie which I guess is really aimed at a YA audience, a bit like A Week Away (I suppose). Today we are discussing Moxie, based on a novel by Jennifer Mathieu and directed by Amy Poehler. Normally I’d be a bit wary of approaching this kind of film, but revisiting Parks and Rec (starring, produced, and occasionally written and directed by Poehler) has been one of the things that’s kept me sane during the current lockdown, so I figured it was worth a look.

It starts off looking like a fairly routine high-school comedy-drama. Main character Vivian (Hadley Robinson) and her best friend Claudia (Lauren Tsai) are just starting eleventh grade; we see are the usual high-school tribes and characters, including a comedically jaded form room teacher and a less than entirely impressive principal (Marcia Gay Harden). There is also new girl Lucy (Alycia Pascual-Pena), who immediately makes an impression by questioning the choice of The Great Gatsby as an English lit text, as it is predominantly concerned with the lives and issues of wealthy white men.

This puts Lucy on the wrong side of wealthy white American football team captain Mitchell (Patrick Schwarzenegger), who sets out to annoy (in the words of his defenders) or persecute (in the words of everyone else) his victim. This only makes Vivian more aware of the entrenched unfairness of the high school system, especially when the jocks post their list of all the girls, ranked according to various demeaning criteria.

Vivian finds herself compelled to do something about this, but what? It turns out her mum (Poehler) used to be a bit of a rebel herself, and a fan of the early-90s radical feminist riot grrl movement. Vivian is inspired to anonymously publish a zine she calls Moxie, urging the young women of the high school not to accept the status quo, but to stand up and make their voices heard, finally…

So, once again it’s fair to say I am probably not in the primary target demographic for this movie – unless this notion itself is just another example of putting people into categories rather than judging them as individuals. It may be slightly counterintuitive to say so, but this is a rare example of a mainstream movie which doesn’t, on some level, have a feminist subtext. However, this is only because Moxie has an explicitly feminist text, albeit an inclusive one that suggests men can be feminists too (hey, you know what, I’m absolutely not even going there).

Now my a priori response to something like this would be to echo the old Sam Goldwyn (or possibly Humphrey Bogart, or Ernest Hemingway) line about how messages are for Western Union and this sort of thing is best done with a light touch. But here again I am forced to doubt myself and wonder if doing so isn’t itself being complicit in the misogynistic culture the film is rightly so critical of.

I suppose this in itself is a sign of the film’s success in raising awareness of the issues involved and making the viewer (i.e. me) think about what it’s saying. I was always aware I was having issues raised for my attention, and being gently (or not so gently, most of the time) guided towards a particular set of conclusions, but the film never feels especially shouty or strident: angry, yes, but justifiably so.

How does it manage this? Mainly by never losing track of the traditional storytelling virtues. It’s not just about issues and injustices: the characters are carefully drawn and played by the (fairly) young cast with conviction. None of them are established names, as far as I’m aware – with the exception of young Schwarzenegger, and this is a different sort of thing entirely. (Let’s be scrupulously fair here and judge Patrick Schwarzenegger on the merits of his own performance, which does everything the film requires, rather than his family connections or anything arising from them.) Good work, too, from the older cast members: Poehler gives a very nicely-judged turn, and she is supported well by Ike Barinholtz, Harden, and Clark Gregg (eagle-eyed viewers may spot a very tiny cameo by Helen Slayton-Hughes, whom Parks and Rec fans will recognise as long-suffered City Hall clerk Ethel Beavers).

Still, this is a more serious piece of work in every respect than the kind of thing Poehler is best-known for. It would be deadly for this to come across as too much of a single-issue movie, though, and Poehler dodges the pitfall by ensuring it is nuanced and character-driven. Loud and angry protesting doesn’t come easily to everyone: one of Vivian’s closest friends has a different cultural background and as a result has a slightly different set of issues to deal with. There’s also the fact that being a perpetual state of anger is exhausting and risks alienating otherwise-sympathetic people around you.  The film recognises that, no matter how glaring and egregious an injustice may be, it doesn’t necessarily follow that the solution to it is simple, straightforward, or will come without sacrifices.

The only times the film falls down are when it loses track of this, and becomes more simplistic, even verging on the melodramatic: the disinterest of the school principal is essential to the framing of the story – this is young rebels versus the establishment, after all – but it just doesn’t seem credible, post-Weinstein, for a female character in a position like this to be quite so indifferent to some of the abuse going on. There’s also a third-act plotline about a sexual assault which feels just a tiny bit glib and contrived. We could also talk about the problematic way in which white men are inevitably demonised, to some extent at least, in this kind of narrative, but this is a big and complex topic.

Given that Netflix have, as noted, also recently funded a faith-based musical romance of almost ferocious innocuity, one has to wonder the extent to which its commitment to feminism agitprop is equally calculated. The two films couldn’t be more different: but this is by far the superior of the two. It’s not perfect, but then axe-grinding films like this one almost never are. Nevertheless it manages to be an engaging piece of entertainment as well as an openly angry and political film, and this is a considerable achievement.

Read Full Post »

If you’re looking to make an uplifting family-friendly musical, starting off with your protagonist being pursued by the police is not the most obvious choice, but it’s the one that director Roman White makes at the start of A Week Away (currently showing on a Netflix account near you). Yes, our hero is a lad named Will (played by a dude named Kevin Quinn, whose striking similarity to a young Zach Efron it seems to be compulsory to mention). The script has a tricky balance to strike, in that the plot requires Will to have a long history of trouble with the authorities, while the general tenor of the film (not to mention its target audience) means that he must also be, in the final analysis, essentially wholesome and non-threatening.

The compromise they hit upon is that a) we don’t actually see Will doing anything naughty, the film just starts with him being pursued by a cop and b) at least some of his misdemeanours are presented in a ho-ho-ho slightly ironic way (he has supposedly put his high school on Craigslist, for instance). Anyway, he is duly nicked and we get some background: orphan, long list of expulsions from various schools and foster homes, and so on, but his most recent exploit – stealing a police car – has landed him in particularly hot water.

Normally I would have said the essential non-naturalism of the movie musical was epitomised by the fact that people keep singing and dancing about every few minutes. This does happen in A Week Away, but it is still somehow rather more realistic than a young male stealing a cop car in the US and pretty much being let off, which is what happens here. Will’s social worker does a lot of more-sorrowful-than-angry head-shaking and offers him a tough choice: he can go to Juvie, or… he can spend a week at camp with one of the foster parents (Sherri Shepherd) and her family. Hmmm, poser.

So off they go to family-friendly camp, which is run by the only person in this movie I can ever recall having seen before, David Koechner (previously in the Anchorman movies and Snakes on a Plane). Will bunks with his new foster mum’s son (Jahbril Cook), who is a nice guy but terribly uncool and hopes Will can give him advice on getting it together with one of the girls there (Kat Conner Sterling). Will, however, is rather preoccupied by Koechner’s character’s daughter (Bailee Madison). But given her thorough-going perky wholesomeness, how will she react if she eventually learns of Will’s scallywag past…?

The word ‘wholesome’ has cropped up a few times so far, along with ‘family-friendly’. It should therefore come as no surprise if I reveal there is a bit more to this movie than just a sort of chaste take on the Dirty Dancing-style holiday-romance plot structure. The first big musical number, only a few minutes into the movie, opens unexceptionally enough until Shepherd starts belting out lyrics about ‘the grace of God’ which the chorus all enthusiastically join in with.

This turns out to be a motif in the songwriting of A Week Away. The songs are not painful to listen to, and the performances are decent if not outstanding (in a similar vein, the choreography is hardly up to Gene Kelly standard but performed with gusto). Most of the numbers cover commendable themes encouraging teenagers to have confidence and self-esteem, but you can’t help but notice that the grace of God does get mentioned quite a lot. There’s another song called something like ‘Whoa, God is Awesome’ and one of the oldies smuggled onto the soundtrack – the kids in the target audience will be too young to recognise this – is ‘Baby Baby’, by arch CCM-pop-crossover star Amy Grant. In short: yes, this is a faith-based movie.

Full disclosure: I’ve never found a religion that actually worked for me, though only a fool would dismiss the importance of the great faiths to world history and culture. Faith-based movies? Not so much. These things tend to get pretty brutally reviewed, on the whole, and the only one I’d actually watched prior to A Week Away – just to see if it was quite as bad as its crits – was Last Ounce of Courage (yes, it was). I’m not sure why it should be such an iron law that faith-based movies are invariably so bad, but then of course I’m sure that many people of faith must find them entirely satisfying entertainment in the way that non-faith-based entertainment presumably isn’t. Perhaps we touch upon a deep truth about how one’s belief system colours one’s perceptions of the world here. Nevertheless, to paraphrase someone off Roger Ebert’s website, even the best of these films put me in mind of a commercial for a product which everyone in the target audience already owns.

And, to be fair, A Week Away isn’t anything like as bad as Last Ounce of Courage. True, early on I did catch myself wondering if I could somehow throttle myself into unconsciousness and get to the end a bit quicker that way (in the end I just ended up playing a lot of 2048 while watching it just to keep my higher brain functions busy), but it’s sort of amiable and unmistakably good-hearted, even if the requirements to be wholesome and family-friendly mean that it is almost totally innocuous, lacking drama, tension, or any sense of threat. It’s almost as if near-total blandness is a genre convention for this kind of film. Jokes which poke very gentle fun at faith-based organisations probably count as edgy, subversive material in this kind of film. (Not that there isn’t the odd particularly weird moment: at one point the leading couple experience a moment of shared triumph by wreaking havoc together on the paintball course, which feels rather tonally wrong – there are various other points where the film seems to be trying a bit too hard to seem cool.)

Oh well. In the end, this kind of film really isn’t my kind of thing, but it’s bright and colourful and some of the songs are pleasant enough. I suspect that Netflix (who are streaming it) don’t feel any great ideological affinity with it either, but the Christian-movie audience is large and juicy and they probably need the subscriptions right now. I wonder how Christian movie-watchers feel about being exploited and/or pandered to in this way? It’s hard not to conclude that Netflix’s investment in this film is ultimately quite cynical and calculated. There are strong and less-strong ways of running your movie streaming service – and I can’t help but think that this is a weaker way.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »