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Posts Tagged ‘Olivia Wilde’

Any sensitive person would be forgiven a certain degree of wariness when it comes to the value of democracy nowadays – the track record of major votes in certain English-speaking countries over the past few years has not exactly been stellar. And so I permitted myself the odd moment of foreboding when, in the absence of an obvious candidate, the popular vote as to which film our happy little band should go to see on our weekly cinema trip went almost unanimously to Olivia Wilde’s directorial debut, Booksmart. (Then again, the only other serious alternative – and I use the word ‘serious’ inaccurately – was Ryan Reynolds in Detective Pikachu, and, you know, frankly, no.)

You may have heard of Olivia Wilde; certainly, I can’t hear her name without thinking of a scene in Cowboys and Aliens with a bonfire, and another one from a film called Alpha Dog that has been widely shared on the internet… but I digress. I kind of get the impression that Cowboys and Aliens marked the end of her association with big, broad studio movies (though then again, she was in Rush, but I’d forgotten about that) and she’s been ploughing her own furrow doing a mixture of roles in lower-profile films and making documentaries. Booksmart, while maybe a bit too full-on to be entirely mainstream, is certainly a film aimed to appeal to a wide audience.

Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever play Molly and Amy, a couple of intelligent, dedicated, wide-awake young women just on the cusp of graduating from high school in the time-honoured fashion. Both of them have prioritised academic success over self-indulgent hedonism for the past four years and are feeling rather smug about it, accepting their reputation as a couple of joyless geeks is a reasonable price to pay for going to much better colleges than any of their peers.

Except… it doesn’t quite seem to have worked out that way. All their fun-loving, popular contemporaries also seem to be going to very good colleges, or taking other equally attractive routes in the next stage of their lives, despite having enjoyed themselves fully. Molly in particular is absolutely traumatised to learn this, finding it grossly unfair, and in an effort to redress this decrees that the two of them will be attending the biggest party they can find, there to behave wildly and prove that they are fun people to hang out with. (The fact that both of their crushes will also be attending may have something to do with this new resolution, too.) Amy is a bit less keen on this plan, but goes along with Molly as usual. There is of course the problem of how to actually get to a party they don’t know the location of, but they are, as they keep reminding themselves, officially the two smartest girls in school…

I know there are some readers of the blog who take a special interest in the views of my good friend Olinka about the films we end up going to see; some of them are not even Olinka herself. So I imagine that Olinka’s verdict of ‘That was terrible… I was cringing all the way through,’ will carry particular weight with them. I should quickly add that it is not Olinka’s view or mine that Booksmart is actually a bad film, just that it brilliantly and vibrantly depicts a teenage world of social embarrassment and self-inflicted disasters. This is, I would suggest, not a film for Granny, for it contains various scenes of drug abuse, heavy drinking, and minority strumpy-pumpy, all held together by a script with an F-bomb total probably heading for four figures.

You might think be thinking this sounds like a spiritual companion piece to Eighth Grade, which came out a few weeks ago – Twelfth Grade, maybe. Well, the two films do obviously have something in common, but whereas Eighth Grade was implicitly critical of modern society and almost felt quite bleak in places, Booksmart turns out to be a joyous, upbeat, very, very funny film. Certainly it does have things to say about modern society, and it does poke fun at some young people’s obsession with identity politics (not to mention nearly every other kind of politics). But these are friendly pokes, not mean-spirited at all; this is not a reactionary film, and it is firmly on the side of its protagonists.

Booksmart certainly belongs to a popular tradition of American high-school comedies, and I suppose it will be hailed as the first entry to the genre to be written and directed by and star women; well, this may be so, but as noted the film does not labour the point and remains notably light-footed throughout. This isn’t to denigrate the quality of the script, which is consistently pacy and clever throughout, and works as well as it does mainly because of the way it’s not afraid to be completely absurd. All of the characters are caricatures to some extent, but they’re written and played to the hilt by the cast, who know when to go big and when to rein it back for a moment of something approaching genuine emotion.

That’s the thing about Booksmart: I turned up expecting another loud, agitprop-y comedy more concerned with ticking the right political boxes than actually serving its story, and an hour in I realised I was watching something consistently funny, frequently over-the-top, highly inventive, and with a central relationship that was totally believeable and that I had somehow become honestly invested in. It’s the warmth and heart of Booksmart that pushes it over the line from good film to great film – it’s not just that you care about Molly and Amy, and feel for them when various social and personal disasters overtake them, although this is the case. This is a rare example of a film where pretty much every character eventually turns out to be a decent, likable human being – again, all credit to a cast which includes Jessica Williams as their class teacher, Skyler Gisondo as the class goon, and Billie Lourd as a drug-crazed free-spirit.

There are not many films I have come out of recently feeling quite as buoyant as I did after Booksmart. The phrase ‘instant classic’ gets tossed around fairly glibly these days, but in this case it does feel justified. It’s interesting that a film that wears its progressive credentials very lightly and simply concentrates on delivering solid laughs ends up feeling much more positive than any number of studiously right-on dramas and documentaries. Funny old world sometimes; but this is a very funny new film.

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In the past I’ve always been a bit wary of sports movies, partly because I’m largely indifferent to sport in general, but also because the nature of the movie industry means that any such film getting a decent UK release is either going to be something parochial and probably done on the cheap, or made with at least one eye on an American audience and therefore about baseball or American football or something else I don’t have the slightest familiarity with.

One of the very few sports I have occasionally followed is Formula One, which – rather to my surprise – is now the subject of a major movie, Rush, directed by Ron Howard. Quite how much the success of Senna a couple of years ago is responsible for Rush being produced I don’t know, but I’d be a little surprised if there wasn’t some connection.

RUSH UK Quad final

Anyway, Rush is the story of the epic rivalry between racing drivers James Hunt and Niki Lauda, leading up to and during the 1976 Formula One world championship. Hunt is played by Chris Hemsworth (the 70s setting allows him to keep his Thor hairstyle), and depicted – quite accurately by all accounts – as a womanising hellraiser and general debauch, massively charismatic and ferocious behind the wheel of a car (his combative driving style leading to the nickname ‘Hunt the Shunt’). Lauda (Daniel Bruhl), on the other hand, is not blessed with great personal charm, but possesses phenomenal mechanical aptitude and the willingness to approach every aspect of racing with meticulous thoroughness.

On their first meeting in 1970, Hunt is victorious, and the film follows their careers and personal lives in parallel until 1976, when Lauda (driving for Ferrari) is defending his world title and Hunt (for Maclaren) is mounting a serious challenge. Central to the film is the race at the Nurburgring in August 1976, in which Lauda crashed and was horrifically burned – only to return to racing six weeks later and take on Hunt in the decisive final race of the season…

Despite all appearances to the contrary, F1 these days is relatively safe (to the extent that going round in circles at 200mph in something not especially structurally robust can be), and it’s startling to be reminded that in the 1970s, the annual casualty rate amongst drivers was running at somewhere between five and ten percent. The film doesn’t directly address the question of why on earth anyone would choose to participate in what was essentially a blood sport, but instead considers the characters of two men who did.

I’m not sure to what extent Niki Lauda and James Hunt’s family have been involved in the making of this film – Bruhl-as-Lauda provides a narration, but whether this consists of Lauda’s own words is unclear – but it is admirably honest in its presentation of the two men warts-and-all. Hunt is presented as a man who lives hard, a drinker and a rapacious womaniser: a driven man as well as a driver. Lauda’s own coldness and ruthlessness are also plainly depicted. And the film doesn’t attempt to evade the fact that this was a rivalry between two men who – to begin with at least – genuinely hated each other.

In the end, of course, what they realise is that their rivalry served to push them both to become someone better than they would otherwise have been, and an element of mutual respect and understanding enters their relationship. That Lauda’s rapid return to racing was largely motivated by his determination not to lose his title to Hunt is also made clear.

Lauda’s crash and its consequences are central to the final section of the film. There isn’t a correspondingly big story in Hunt’s racing career and so in order to balance the film, earlier on there’s a subplot about Hunt’s brief marriage to a model (played by Olivia Wilde). This serves okay to illuminate Hunt’s character, but I couldn’t quite shake the impression that this was just here to insert a well-known actress into the film and try to make the whole thing feel less relentlessly masculine.

This doesn’t really work. Rush is a film about men obsessed with doing manly things – but that doesn’t make it dumb and it doesn’t make it bad. Quite the opposite, in fact, because Rush is one of the more impressive films I’ve seen this year. The performances by the two leads are great (Hemsworth has never been better), the racing sequences are genuinely exciting, the look of the thing manages to subtly evoke the 70s without being too obvious, and the script is intelligent and accessible without overdoing the sports movie cliches. Quite how much all of this will translate into mainstream success, I’m not sure – obviously Rush should do well in the UK, and probably in other F1-friendly territories too – but I think it deserves to be seriously successful, both commercially and critically.

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I have been following, with a mixture of interest and bemusement, the saga of the bit-part actors who are suing the venerable and generally trustworthy IMDB on the grounds that it has released their real ages into the public domain. This, say the thesps in question, is going to seriously impact upon their ability to get work, as Hollywood and the rest of the industry is only interested in people who are perceived as being young and fresh, and no-one is ever offered a job playing a character younger than they really are.

What causes a mildly raised eyebrow on my part is that the actors don’t seem to have a problem with the industry itself (casting directors, producers, and the like) having this attitude – or if they do, they seem to have accepted that it’s inevitable and beyond the power of anyone to change. But for the IMDB to facilitate it, even inadvertantly? It’s litigation time! I am reminded of the morally-minded group who, following a shooting spree which they believed was provoked by a violent movie, left the local gun store in perfect peace and proceeded to picket their video rental outlet.

Well, it’s not a fair nor especially logical world and this fact is the subject of Andrew Niccol’s new movie In Time, which has its own take on the intersection between youth and money and suchlike. This is a SF movie set in an indeterminate future in which human biology has been rewritten so everyone stops aging at the age of 25. To reiterate: everyone is physically 25 in perpetuity. The drawback is that society now uses lifespan as a currency – wages are paid in the form of hours, days and months, your current balance is recorded in a glowy green clock on your arm, and should your time tick down to zero you croak, usually dramatically.

Niccol’s movie does a good job of establishing this slightly demanding premise and introduces us to factory-working everyman Will (Justin Timberlake, actual age 30) and his mum (Olivia Wilde, actual age 27). Will’s general resentment of the system finds an outlet when he rescues a world-weary member of the super-rich (Matthew Bomer, 34) from a local gangster (Alex Pettyfer, 21 – eh?). Will finds himself with a lot of time on his hands as a result, but also – due to an unexpected tragedy – a desire to make the rich pay.

So off he trots to the preserves of the super-wealthy where he meets tycoon Weis (Vincent Kartheiser, 32) and his spoilt daughter Sylvia (Amanda Seyfried, 25 – fair enough in this case). However he is also being pursued by incorruptible lawman Leon (Cillian Murphy, 35), who believes Will’s stolen all the time he now has to play with. But Will’s exposure to both extremes of the system has opened his eyes to its injustice and he is now a man on a mission…

Slightly mind-bogglingly, a lot of commentators are describing In Time as cerebral, thought-provoking SF very much in the same vein as Inception. Come on… once you get your head around the basic premise, this movie isn’t much more cerebral than Logan’s Run, which it superficially resembles in many ways. It’s a very Seventies-style piece of SF: not an awful movie, but nothing very special either.

It looks fine – the film-makers have created an austere, abstract world of some style, but this seems to have been inspired by the characters, who are all pretty much ciphers, designed to facilitate the plot. Timbo does a workmanlike job as the lead but the romance between him and Seyfried fails to stir and as a result most of the movie feels like a rather mechanical succession of plot developments and set pieces instead of an engaging narrative. (The climax is very contrived, too.)

But the problems run deeper than this, to the very heart of the film’s premise. Normally I tend to be hard on movies where the future is utterly identical to the here and now barring the single innovation on which the plot is predicated, but in the case of In Time this would be missing the point, which is that the similarity between the movie’s world and the real world is intentional. (The movie doesn’t bother trying to explain the precise details of how its world came into being, for what I suspect is the same reason.)

Well, look. If my engagement with In Time as a film of ideas and with a statement to make had taken the form of a conversation, it would have gone something like this:

In Time: ‘So here is the world of the story. Multitudes carry on desperate existences of privation and hardship so that a few can live in luxury.’

Awix: ‘Gotcha.’

IT: ‘The majority are crushed by the poverty of the time they have, while a tiny minority are dehumanised by the excess which surrounds them.’

A: ‘Still with you.’

IT: ‘And it doesn’t have to be this way! The whole system is an artificial construct supported by the vested interests of the few and the power structures they manipulate!’

A: ‘Right…’

IT: ‘And… the real horror at the centre of this story is… (pauses for effect) That the world in which we live is exactly the same!’

IT sits back, beaming and nodding sagely.

A: ‘…sorry, is that all you’ve got?’

IT: ‘What?’

A: ‘Is that supposed to be profound, or a surprise, or something? I figured out this was a fairly unsubtle allegory for modern society in the first ten… well, actually the first time I saw the trailer for the movie. It’s not exactly deep.’

IT: ‘Umm… well… I bet a few people will look slightly differently at the world around them now. You never know, it may open a few eyes to the facts of existence.’

A: ‘Well, maybe, but what kind of person wanders around in the world and achieves an age where they can go to the cinema without realising the nature of our modern economic model?’

IT: ‘People who go to see a movie just because Justin Timberlake’s in it?’

A: ‘Hmm, shrewd casting.’

…but seriously, folks. I’m as contemptuous of western capitalism as anyone else with eyes and a brain and a soul, and if you’re pitching me the notion that it surely can’t be beyond the collective wit of humanity to come up with a fairer and more humane way of organising our lives, then I’m buying, but In Time has nothing to offer on this front beyond some very superficial observations and an overwhelming belief in its own profundity. The artificial nature of the allegory it presents also prevents it from having to come up with a coherent alternative system for Timbo and Seyfried to put in place come the end, but in the real world things are different.

All credit to Niccol for getting such a subversively-themed movie made at all, but the very inanity and shallowness of its ideas really mean that in the end it’s nothing but a bundle of good intentions with no real insight or anything meaningful to say. It’s a proficiently made movie, but nobody involved really gets the opportunity to shine. If you think that putting up a pup tent outside Saint Paul’s Cathedral is the key to bringing down the world system and bringing about a new utopia, then I expect you will think In Time is a classic of challenging and intelligent SF cinema. For the rest of us, it’s a passable piece of entertainment with distinct delusions of grandeur.

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…which is to say that the Wild one meets its Final cousin in Jon Favreau’s Cowboys & Aliens – a self-consciously silly title which the film, for some reason, does its best to belie.  Nevertheless, this is what it sounds like: a mash-up of the venerable old Western genre with its upstart (and some would say illegitimate) offspring, the sci-fi action movie. (More on this later.)

Clearly working hard to establish the right tone of quintessentially American ruggedness, Favreau has cast a British actor best known for playing someone posh in the lead role. Daniel Craig plays a tough, rootin’-tootin’ kinda guy who wakes up in the desert, bereft of his memory but possessing a jazzy wristband, a photo of a woman and a funny-looking wound. Making his way to the nearest town he learns he is in fact feared outlaw Lonergan.

Lonergan is on the hit list of ruthless cattle baron Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford), who pretty much owns the town, and whose son is a public nuisance there. The sheriff slings Lonergan in the town jail, ready to be shipped off to the federal marshal with Dolarhyde’s son.

A showdown threatens when Dolarhyde and his men ride in, demanding both prisoners be handed over to them, but things are disrupted by the arrival of – and it’s not quite as abrupt and bizarre as it sounds on paper – alien ships, also intent on making a nuisance of themselves. The mash-up threatens to become a literal one as the aliens start behaving like cowboys and the cowboys start acting like aliens. The aliens start physically lassoing the townsfolk and dragging them off while Lonergan discovers a death ray about his person and rapidly learns how to use it.

When the dust settles the aliens have been driven off, but not without having taking numerous local worthies with them. Quite properly, Dolarhyde decides to raise a posse and go in pursuit (his son being amongst the abductees), recruiting Lonergan to his cause, along with the local preacher (Clancy Brown), the barkeep (Sam Rockwell), and various others – including one of those tediously enigmatic young women (on this occasion, Olivia Wilde) who you just know will be reporting for exposition duty somewhere in the second act.

Well, to some extent this is a combination of excerpts from the Big Book of Sci-Fi Cliches with a selection from its little-read Western counterpart, but as genre fusions go it’s a curiously unsuccessful affair. This seems odd, as there is a long and fairly distinguished history of splicing Western DNA into SF stories: Westworld itself, the Tatooine section of the first Star Wars, Outland, Battle Beyond the Stars, and more recently Firefly have all partaken of Western themes and imagery (let’s not mention Wild Wild West). Having said that, none of these films have what you’d honestly describe as an American west setting, which to me suggests that what true Westerns are really about is nothing to do with deserts and six-shooters and hats, but personal freedom and morality, and the clash of different values.

Cowboys & Aliens isn’t about anything like that, really. It works hard to establish an authentically nasty and grimy Western atmosphere – the films it reminded me of most were Unforgiven and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, both great movies even if the latter isn’t a very typical Western – but the characters are all very thin and anonymous, the cast resembling people on a Wild West dress-up holiday. The only person who effortlessly convinces is Harrison Ford, who’s an impressively nasty piece of work to begin with, that familiar old growly whisper modulated into a vicious rasp. But as soon as the aliens show up he turns into a bit of a cut-out and really doesn’t get the material that such an icon really deserves.

For this kind of film to work, both the donor genres really need to have a strong identity of their own. You would think this wouldn’t be a problem with the case of the Western and the SF film, but as I’ve already mentioned the Cowboy element is wholly superficial, and the Alien element… well, it’s not really a proper SF movie, but an effects-driven summer blockbuster, a style of film which is fundamentally superficial anyway.

(The Aliens here, by the way, are an anonymous bunch, their glistening appendages and deceptively-weathered technology marking them out as close cousins of the ones in Independence Day and Spielberg’s version of War of the Worlds. Why have they come to Earth and started behaving so badly? I will refrain from giving away too much of the plot, but suffice to say that when the expositing eventually occurs, Ford’s character responds by snarling ‘That’s just ridiculous!’ and I was with him all the way.)

So what we end up with is a fairly empty-headed FX blockbuster with some strange tonal and pacing problems: the film-makers seem desperately keen to show this is a Proper Western on some level, resulting in long sequences where everyone’s a bit dour and homespun and not much happens, involving aliens or not. It’s not visually very surprising, nor is the plot particularly involving. It’s all a bit dull, if I’m honest, without much humour or indeed a sense of fun about itself. Occasionally there’s a briefly arresting moment (the one inevitably springing to mind is when Olivia Wilde walks naked out of a bonfire, but that may just be me) but on the whole there’s nothing here you won’t have seen before.

And I suppose on some level you could argue that all this really is, is an attempt to mash a genre up with itself: many people having argued that – in cinematic terms – the rise of the sci-fi blockbuster in the late seventies coincided rather neatly with the demise of the western as a going concern, with the resulting conclusion being that one simply transformed into the other. I’m not completely sold on that, to be perfectly honest, but beyond it simply being a coincidence I’m not quite sure how to explain it.

Anyway. Cowboys & Aliens probably sounded like a great idea for a movie, and there may indeed be a good film to made around the theme of extraterrestrials in the old west. But this isn’t it: the story and characters are too thin for it to engage as a drama, and it just isn’t fun enough to work solely as a blockbuster (needless to say, Favreau’s Iron Man did both). Given the talent involved this is really a disappointment, and one of the weaker movies of the summer.

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