The Heat (Paul Feig, 2013)


The Heat
Although I enjoyed each of the recent films I saw I have to admit, when I come to write them up, that I am getting a little tired of the saminess of so many of them. So many competent films having so few surprises.

So, to this, a buddy-cop movie with the ‘twist’ being that the buddies are female. There is a horrible sexism pretty obviously in play when the gender of the leads (but only when they’re female) becomes the USP.

Sarah Ashburn (Sandra Bullock) is a hyper-competent, hyper-confident but obsessive-compulsive and relationship-free FBI officer who, to break a drugs ring, is sent to Boston where she encounters, and is forced to work with, the slobby Shannon Mullins (Melissa McCarthy). Mullins knows the streets but is a maverick (sigh!) cop who gets things done (ditto) and Ashburn discovers from Mullins the value of family, of friendship and of getting drunk.

If I seem really down on this film, I’m probably misrepresenting it. I did enjoy it, mostly, though some scenes were too stupidly broad for my taste and coarsened the overall tone – perhaps not surprising when the poster blazes that it’s from the director of Bridesmaids, another film with some overly broad brushstrokes spoiling the overall canvass somewhat. It’s just that, oestrogen aside, there was nothing new to see.

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Mud (Jeff Nichols, 2013)


Mud

Two boys, Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and “Neckbone” (Jacob Lofland) sneak off in a borrowed boat to an island on the Mississippi to look at a local marvel, a boat that has been stranded by floodwater into a tree. They plan to make this their own secret den, but are horrified to find that it is inhabited. Running back to their ‘borrowed’ boat, they meet the inhabitant of the suspended one, a mysterious stranger calling himself “Mud” (Matthew McConaughy), who makes a deal with them: they provide him with food and supplies, and he’ll leave them the boat when he meets up with a friend, as he shortly plans to do.

As Ellis’ friendship with Mud grows, his home life looks like it’s going to collapse, his parents about to separate and his mother to leave for the city, which means that they’ll lose the houseboat that is both his home and the source of his father’s living on the river. The circumstances of Mud’s life are shown also to be a little more complicated than Ellis and Neckbone first thought as Mud is on the run, both from the police and from some other hunters, and as the ‘friend’ he was waiting for turns out to be the love of his life, a girl called Juniper (Reese Witherspoon).

When Ellis and Neckbone see Juniper in a nearby supermarket, they are drawn in to being Mud’s intermediaries with her and come into danger from a menacing stranger. And Ellis starts to develop his ideas about love.

This is a beautiful looking film – even on the crappy airline screen on which I saw it – and it has a wonderful atmosphere. It seems to draw on a number of other books and films (Tom Sawyer/Huckleberry Finn, Stand by Me, The Go-between and even Robinson Crusoe all sprung to mind immediately) but it fashions a narrative and message all it’s own. It has that beautiful, to me, melancholy of some of the best ‘first love’ tales but I did feel that the end was a little bit of a cop-out, if not entirely taking the easy way.

Admission (Paul Weitz, 2013)


Admission

Portia Nathan (Tina Fey) is an Admissions officer at Princeton, fending off inappropriate requests for favouritism and trying to identify the very best candidates to take each year to maintain the University’s prestige at the very top (or, as Princeton is listed as second-most prestigious at the time of film, regain top) of the educational establishment in the US.

Her boss, Clarence (Wallace Shawn), is shortly to retire and Portia is in a no-holds-barred struggle with fellow admissions administrator Corinne (Gloria Reuben) for his job. She is also in a relationship with an English professor, Mark (Michael Sheen) which is going nowhere and seems stale, and her relationship with her mother (Lily Tomlin) would be non-existent were it not for the hostility within it.

Into this world comes a former classmate John Pressman (Paul Rudd), who travels the world with his adopted son Nelson (Travaris Meeks-Spears), doing good works and currently helping teach at a start-up school. He has identified a prodigy, Jeremiah (Nat Wolff) who, he is convinced, would thrive at Princeton but whose CV is not sufficiently high-powered to gain admission in the first place.

This is another ‘join-the-dots’ movie, whose plot has been written from a template common to nearly all modern rom-coms. It’s pleasant enough, with the characters generally being likeable and the themes discussed being important ones (family, responsibility, integrity and elitism) but it doesn’t go very deep into them and there are some unconvincing coincidences as plot contrivance (though there are a few genuine curveballs amongst them).

Good, not great.

The Bling Ring (Sofia Coppola, 2013)


the Bling Ring
Another ‘based on true events’ film, this one is rather different from the various war and terrorism ones I’ve watched in recent months.

Marc (Israel Broussard) turns up at a new school after a year of home-schooling. Outcast and scorned by most of the school, he is befriended by Rebecca (Katie Chang), a fellow student who invites him to a party and is impressed by Marc’s unusually detailed knowledge of women’s fashions. Finding that one of Marc’s few, and not particularly close, other friends is away, Rebecca asks Marc where the house is and leads the pair to the empty property which the couple rob. This is Rebecca’s hobby. Soon, using Marc’s internet Google skills, they start identifying celebrity houses to rob, taking both money and items to sell, but also souvenirs and status items for themselves. Joined by friend Nicki (Emma Watson) and a small band of associates, they embark on a spree of celebrity-house burglaries, boasting to their friends at parties of what they’ve taken and, most importantly, who it had belonged to.

Taking the character of Marc as the central one is an interesting decision. Although the only male in the group, this is not a sexist decision. Marc’s sexual orientation is not absolutely specified (or if it was, I missed it) but it seems to me that he is probably gay but what matters more is that, even when he finds his place among the ‘bling ring’, he is still the outsider so is the nearest thing to our ‘in’ to this world, the person whose experiences give us our key to understanding it.

This is a very interesting film in general, to me at least. The characters are not particularly sympathetic – they are celebrity-obsessed and shallow, judging themselves and others on the labels worn. And they are unashamed thieves. And yet…

Nicki and her adoptive sister are shown being brought up to these values as they are home-schooled to a repulsive materialistic religion. Marc is unfairly ostracised when he first turns up at school but, when he starts wearing expensive and designer clothes, he becomes both self-confident and popular. And, when everything starts to go wrong, as it is clear from the outset it will, we see that they are still in reality children, unprepared for real-world consequences.

Coppola was given permission to use Paris Hilton’s real house for this film, which would, on the surface of it, suggest that Hilton thought Coppola would show her in a good light. While not directly criticising her, Coppola does clearly infer the ridiculous vanity and outrageous consumerism of Hilton and her ilk, and the portrayal of this as somehow aspirational by the media, is the rotten heart of the society in which the children were raised and, if they are not blameless (Nicki’s self-justifications are particularly loathsome), we shouldn’t be surprised when they behave in accordance with the twisted values they have inherited.

Whip It (Drew Barrymore, 2009)


Whip It

As the film opens, Bliss Cavendar (Ellen Page) works at a smalltown diner near Austen with her friend Pash (Alia Shawkat) and their (only just about) boss Birdman (Carlo Alban). The tedium of this should be offset by Bliss’ hobbies but her mother, Brooke (Marcia Gay Harden), monopolises her time and energy entering her for regional beauty contests, the obsession of her own youth. Her younger sister Shania (Eulala Scheel) idolises Bliss and seems set to follow her down the beauty queen path when Bliss’ time is done, all too quickly as Brooke warns her.

On a shopping trip for clothes for the next upcoming pageant, Bliss sees a pair of boots, more Doc Martin than haute couture, and determines to buy them despite her mother’s opposition and, while there, sees a flyer for a nearby roller derby. She persuades Pash to give her a lift to it and is immediately smitten with the sport, and is intrigued by racer Maggie Mayhem’s (Kristen Wiig) suggestion to try out for her team. Digging out her old roller skates, she starts to practice and turns out to be rather good, taking more after her sporty father Earl (Daniel Stern) in her tastes, even if her obstinacy in going after what she wants more resembles mother Brooke.

After getting a place on the “Hurl Scouts” team with Maggie by lying about her age, actually being too young to compete, Bliss (now renamed “Babe Ruthless”) performs promisingly, earning the enmity of the leader of the current champions, “The Holy Rollers”, and the current ‘poster girl’ of the sport, Iron Maven (Juliette Lewis) and determines to beat her.

Much of the plot, including a ‘first love romance’ is obvious and could be drawn from a Hollywood pattern (and probably was), but this was more enjoyable than most such films. For a start, the performances. Ellen Page is a remarkable actress, and it helps that she looks younger than she is so that she can get away with playing a 17-year old pretty convincingly. She therefore puts in more complexity and depth than we’d normally expect from a teen character and comes across as sympathetic rather then whiney. Marcia Gay Harden and Daniel Stern, as her parents, also give nicely nuanced acts, clearly identifying their parental ‘type’ but with always a touch more to them just under the surface. Even the team players and beauty queen pageant contestants are given enough character to ‘live’ in their own right.

The direction was also pleasingly adept. Barrymore, also playing one of the roller derby players (Smashley Simpson), keeps everything on an even keel and the film is nicely paced. There is an outtake reel at the end of the film that, in addition to the normal ‘bloopers’ takes, and some footage of what looks like skating practice, also contains takes from scenes that didn’t make the final film, giving an impression of some of the different shapes the film could have taken.

Finally, the film opened up an interesting subculture I was not much aware of, although I will be going to see a bout at the next opportunity, as I know someone who takes part. How much of the current growth of the sport is due to how much fun this film was?

Anna M (Michel Spinosa, 2007)


Anna M
This opens with a young, pretty archivist, Anna (Isabelle Carré) taking her dog for a walk, tying the dog to a tree and stepping out in front of a car.

Waking in hospital, she has been treated for her leg injuries but it seems that no one has realised this was a suicide attempt. Very quickly, she becomes obsessed with her kindly surgeon, André Zanevsky (Gilbert Melki) and begins to stalk him.

There is a wonderfully creepy atmosphere built as I didn’t know who to feel more scared for, the clearly unwell and delusional Anna or the well meaning but out of his depth Dr Zanevsky, and this felt like it was a realistic depiction of obsessional behaviour (whether it was or not, I really don’t know). About halfway through the film, Anna’s behaviour became more overtly sinister but this, oddly, made the film less scary as it started to look more like a more traditional ‘Hollywood-ised’ stalker film. Thinking I knew where it was going, I disengaged with the film and prepared for the routine build up to a violent and bloody confrontation.

It didn’t go there. It completely surprised me and went somewhere much more interesting instead, and ended with one of the most intriguing ambiguous endings I’ve seen for a while. It also played out the final scene with a beautiful musical track I had to immediately look up and buy (Stay Golden, by Au Revoir Simone.

The World’s End (Edgar Wright, 2013)


The World's End
I wish I could be more positive about this film. There are many things to like about it, and I did like it, mostly. But it also left me unsatisfied and I can’t help thinking that ‘The Cornetto Trilogy’ (the joke name given to Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz and this) is a diminishing one, each film less satisfying than the previous. And, continuing back, not so good as the TV series, Spaced, either.

Part of the problem is familiarity. Edgar Wright’s directorial style, as applied to Simon Pegg and his own writing, is less thrilling now we’ve seen it repeatedly. Yet Wright’s ‘solo’ outing, the underrated Scott Pilgrim vs the World, shows he has more tricks up his sleeve, and I still have hopes for Ant Man.

A brief precis of the set-up: A group of school leavers in the 1990s try to complete a pub crawl around their sleepy, small home town but fail to finish. Twenty years later one of them, Gary King (Simon Pegg), gets the group together to try again. Gary, originally seen as ‘the cool kid’ and the leader of the gang, is now a fuck-up, having not been able to move on or make anything of his life, while his friends (a superb cast, with Nick Frost being joined by Martin Freeman, Paddy Considine and Eddie Marsan) have all moved on and regard Gary, rightly, as someone best avoided. Despite their reservations, Gary manages to persuade them to indulge him but their pub-crawl doesn’t go to plan, as there is something odd about the townsfolk (plot-spoiler already given by all the pre-publicity for the film: they’re aliens).

One of the good things about the film is the role-reversal of Pegg and Frost, with Frost being given the opportunity to play the straight-laced type and Pegg a really quite unlikeable lead. There are plenty of good jokes, if no really great ones, well delivered by impeccable actors and the film rattles along nicely – until the threat arrives. When the aliens are introduced, most of the pathos and character disappears, and the humour from it, and is replaced by much running around, to no great effect. And the end of the film, while attempting to be both surprising and consistent with what went before, was to me unconvincing and disappointing, one of those that probably looked better on the page than it did on the screen.

One I liked, but not as much as I wanted to.

Blue Jasmine (Woody Allen, 2013)


Blue Jasmine
So, this year’s offering from Woody. It’s a far cry from his last good film, Midnight in Paris; that was a light-hearted and fluffy tale with a serious point (about nostalgia and the importance of living in the ‘now’), whereas this, ostensibly a comedy, is a serious and intense character study, occasionally leavened with a few jokes.

‘Intense’ is certainly the word that comes to mind. Cate Blanchett playes the eponymous heroine, who has changed her name from Jeanette in a bid to become more exotic, dropped her last year of school to marry a charismatic financier on his way up and lived the life of a wealthy Manhattan socialite. When we meet her, Jasmine is on a plane to San Fransisco to live with her, very working class, adoptive sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins) because Jasmine’s world has just fallen apart, her husband Hal (Alec Baldwin) having been convicted in a ‘Ponzi scheme’ type financial fraud, and all their assets taken.

Ginger is divorced with two children, though seeing a new man who wants to marry her and who the children get on with well. None of this suits Jasmine’s sense of what Ginger should be aspiring to, and she interferes even as she struggles to get her own life in order. We follow Jasmine’s attempts to make a new life, sometimes laudable, sometimes decidedly not, as well as the effects of her influence over Ginger, mostly not at all praiseworthy.

All the main players in this are excellent; Hawkins and Baldwin stand out, the latter seen in flashback, as Jasmine’s previous life is contrasted with her current one, and her character and self-image are scrutinised. And the minor characters also are fine. But the film belongs to Blanchett, unquestionably. She brings an almost unbearable intensity to the character that makes her the total focus of the film, even as we abhor many of her attitudes and choices.

There are problems with the film – some over-reliance on coincidence, some character behaviour that seems unlikely, and some story elements that seem a little melodramatic and unnecessary. Nonetheless, Blanchett’s playing and Allen’s writing of Jasmine really raise this to being one of Allen’s very best films.