Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll


Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll

"If you're gonna make it in this world, you gotta look stylish my son"

(2010) Musical Biography (Tribeca) Andy Serkis, Naomie Harris, Ray Winstone, Olivia Williams, Noel Clarke, Toby Jones, Mackenzie Crook, Bill Milner, Arthur Darvill, James Jagger, Tom Hughes, Shakraj Soornack, Joe Kennedy. Directed by Mat Whitecross

 

Ian Dury was a New Wave/punk-era singer/songwriter who while well-known in his native England remains unappreciated here in the States. In an era when musicians were thumbing their nose at traditional rock music idioms, Dury was happily wearing his musical influences on his sleeve, from funk to jazz to British Music Hall.

He had been afflicted with polio as a child and walked with a cane most of his life; however while his disability certainly got in his way once in awhile, he tended to use it more as a statement; he thought that the attitudes of most governments and international organizations towards those with disabilities to be condescending and arrogant. He flaunted his limp and incorporated it into his act.

He was a force of nature, one that sometimes rained down rage on those who cared about him but there was no doubt that as pop stars go, he had more personality and charisma in one finger than a thousand “American Idol” winners would ever have put together. It’s a shame he didn’t make it on this side of the Atlantic (he was way too English for us to really get him) but songs like “Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick,””What a Waste” and “Reasons to Be Cheerful” got into my head early on and have stayed there ever since.

He is played here by Andy Serkis with the subtlety of a rampaging bull. Serkis perfectly captures the essence of Dury, at least how I imagined him to be. Serkis’ malleable face is a mirror for Dury’s who often used his facial expressions as a kind of language of its own. He wasn’t always an easy man to get along with – Chaz Jankel (Hughes), co-writer of many of Dury’s best songs and one of the original Blockheads (Dury’s backing band) was constantly leaving Dury’s band and then returning  – and Dury was sometimes guilty of subtle and not-so-subtle cruelties in his relationships. He is depicted here as conducting a rehearsal with his first band, Kilburn and the High Roads, in his downstairs living room while his first wife Betty (Williams) is giving birth upstairs (which is apparently a myth), and he leaves Betty shortly to move in with a teenaged fan (Harris).

Dury’s relationship to his son Baxter (Milner) is shown as being bittersweet. Baxter has a bit of a case of hero-worship when it comes to his dad (what young boy doesn’t?) and Dury tries very hard to be a good father to his boy as flashbacks show us that Dury’s own father (Winstone) was not the best father in the world either. The Baxter-Dury relationship is really the central heart of the movie, and the scenes with the two of them are mostly when the film is at its best.

I think Whitecross is trying to tell the story the way Ian Dury himself might have told it, with a good deal of flash and sass and not a little bit of sleight o’ hand. At times it becomes confusing with dream sequences, flashbacks and timeline-jumping, which left me a bit mystified at times. Still, one has to give props to the film that had the balls to let Serkis sing with the original Blockheads providing musical accompaniment. That must have been very strange for them. Kudos also for the opening titles being done by Peter Taylor, who did some of Dury’s album covers and was his teacher and mentor when Dury was at art school

The manic energy of Dury is captured and reflected by the film which takes no prisoners and makes no apologies. American audiences, who showed little interest in Dury while he was alive (he died of cancer in 2000 at age 53) showed little in his movie and for that reason perhaps the movie isn’t really made for Americans – many of the references are firmly on the side of the UK. Still, this is a well-made film and Serkis’ performance as Dury is well worth watching. He proves that he is much more than Gollum – and much more than the motion capture king.

WHY RENT THIS: Dury was a fascinating character and Serkis captures his manic energy perfectly.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Some of the references sail far over the heads of American audiences. A bit hard to follow at times.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s plenty of sex, it’s fair share of drugs and a crapload of rock and roll, and just a bit of the violence to keep matters in hand.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The single “Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll” for which the movie is named, is Dury’s signature track but never charted (while many of his other songs did). It was banned by the BBC after its release.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s a featurette on director Mat Whitecross’ experiences at the Tribeca film festival.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $530,392 on an unreported production budget; I’m thinking that the movie was likely a bit of a flop.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Casanova

The Ghost Writer


The Ghost Writer

A day at the office is no day at the beach for Ewan McGregor.

(2010) Thriller (Summit) Ewan McGregor, Pierce Brosnan, Kim Cattrall, Olivia Williams, Tom Wilkinson, Timothy Hutton, Eli Wallach, Robert Pugh, Desiree Erasmus, Daniel Sutton, Marianne Graffam, James Belushi, Kate Copeland. Directed by Roman Polanski

Politics make strange bedfellows with just about everything but particularly with art. Although we have an affinity for topical movies, political thrillers are often about as empty and soulless as…as…a politician.

The Ghost (McGregor) – who is never identified by name in the movie nor in the book that it is based on – is a talented and ambitious sort who has been waiting, none too patiently, for a plum job, the one that will get his career in gear. He finally gets it – former British Prime Minister Robert Lang (Brosnan) wants his memoirs ghosted. It seems that the old friend of Lang’s who had previously been working on the assignment had washed up on the beach, a victim of suicide or accidental drowning.

The Ghost ventures out to Martha’s Vineyard to Lang’s bunker-like complex which is in siege mode. Lang has been accused by one of his former ministers of being complicit of allowing prisoners to be tortured during an armed conflict begun during his regime. Obviously this makes the new book even more potentially lucrative and the Ghost is under pressure to finish the manuscript quickly.

Things are a bit strange though in the compound. Lang’s high-strung wife Ruth (Williams) is coming on to the Ghost, fully aware of the long-time affair her husband has been having with his assistant Amelia Bly (Cattrall). The original manuscript the Ghost has been hired to clean up and re-edit is under lock and key and may not be taken out of the office where the Ghost has been assigned to work.

And work he does, diligently. He soon discovers some contradictions and outright falsehoods in the manuscript. As he digs deeper to discover the truth, he finds out the shady dealings between Lang and a company called Hatherton. He also discovers some secrets that some would kill to make sure they remained secret. Now it’s not just a battle to meet a deadline; the Ghost must figure out a way to stay alive altogether.

Polanski is one of the best of his generation and creating an effective thriller. Chinatown and Rosemary’s Baby are just two examples of classic Polanski thrillers. This one, completed when Polanski was 76 years old, shows he hasn’t lost his touch. While it isn’t to the level of those just mentioned, it’s as good as any released by more contemporary directors.

Polanski manages to gather a strong cast around him. McGregor is a fine everyman hero, and while he seems far more passive-aggressive than the standard movie hero, he nonetheless is charming enough to carry his end of the water pole. The end carried by Brosnan, however, is much stronger. Brosnan who has mostly done affable and elegant action hero types (a la “Remington Steel”, James Bond and Thomas Crown) delivers one of his better performances ever here. He is both sinister and snake-like, clapping you on the back one moment and stabbing you in it the next. That dichotomy of charm and ruthlessness makes the character as fascinating a political figure as has ever been on the silver screen.

They are surrounded by a strong cast, including Hutton as the Ghost’s hyperactive agent and Wilkinson, an old classmate of Lang’s who knows far more about his chicanery than he lets on. Wilkinson in fact has few scenes but is in definite control of your attention whenever he’s on.

There are some twists and turns here. That is par for the course for a thriller, but few are telegraphed and none stretch the believability quotient. What Polanski does better than most directors is establish a mood, and he does so brilliantly here, making even characters seen in passing seem menacing and up to no good.

The movie didn’t do very well at the box office (see below), mostly due to Polanski’s arrest on a 34-year-old statutory rape charge and his subsequent fight to prevent extradition. I would imagine a number of movie-goers who might have ordinarily flocked to see this stayed away because of an unwillingness to support a rapist. I can understand the sentiment certainly but this isn’t a review of Mr. Polanski’s life but of a single film he created.

Political thrillers are hard to accomplish, particularly when they are as topical as this one is (the characters are extremely similar to former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, with other characters and entities – such as Hatherton substituting for Halliburton  – also carrying some similarities to people and things in the news). There is always the chance that in a very few years this will seem dated. However the movie is so well-crafted that long after the people and events that inspired it are forgotten, The Ghost Writer will hold up as a well-crafted, well-acted and well-written thriller.

WHY RENT THIS: Impressively tense. Fine performances from most of the cast but particularly from McGregor and Wilkinson.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The payoff is a bit anti-climactic.

FAMILY VALUES: Some rough language, a bit of violence, a bit of sexuality and a smidgeon of nudity and a drug reference.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although primarily set in the United States, Polanski was unable to film here due to his legal issues. Most of the movie was filmed in Europe except for a few second unit shots.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $60.2M on a $45M production budget; the movie lost money.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Buck

An Education


An Education

They'll always have Paris...

(2009) Drama (Sony Classics) Carey Mulligan, Peter Sarsgaard, Alfred Molina, Dominic Cooper, Rosamund Pike, Sally Hawkins, Olivia Williams, Emma Thompson, Cara Seymour, Matthew Beard, Amanda Fairbank-Hynes, Ellie Kendrick.  Directed by Lone Scherfig

There comes a point in all of our lives when we are just on the cusp of blossoming from awkward teenager into adulthood. The world is alive with possibilities then, and our future is positively limitless. There is a magic in that period, one that we never ever re-capture except in memory.

It is London in 1961, not the swinging London of Carnaby Street but a London that is more 50s than 60s. The Beatles were still backing up Tony Sheridan then and the counterculture were brewing more in the American Beat generation than in the shores of the UK. It is a staid, conservative place and stifling for 16-year-old girls with stars in their eyes and dreams in the heart.

This exactly describes Jenny (Mulligan), whose parents Jack (Molina) and Marjorie (Seymour) want to get her into Oxford where she can put some of her intelligence to good use. They even have her join the student orchestra so that she has a better chance of matriculating there, but the thought of having her attend a concert to hear the music she’s learning to play never occurs to them. Jenny is tired of the pimply attempts at seduction by awkward boys and the trifling conversations of her peers. She wants more out of life.

Out of the rain comes David (Sarsgaard), a charming man nearly twice her age. He gives her a lift on a rainy day, taking her and her cello back home. They discuss the music of Edward Elgar and she finds him fascinating. He offers to take her to a concert; she agrees to it.

This might seem creepy, a 30-something man taking out a teenage girl – and it is – but Jenny is no ordinary teenager. She is fully aware that David’s attentions might turn to sex, but she’s adamant on waiting until she’s of legal age (which at the time was 17), and in the meantime she means to plunder every experience she can from the older man and he’s okay with that. They attend a series of art auctions and nightclub performances of jazz and classical music. He introduces her to champagne and cigarettes. He even takes her to Paris, promising her parents that they would be chaperoned by his aunt who lives there – and of course, someone whom she never actually meets. Her parents are as charmed by David as she is, but something like this can only end in tears and so it does.

Director Scherfig, who made the sadly underappreciated Italian for Beginners and the upcoming One Day, does a lot of things right here. She captures the period excellently, from the conservative suburban English attitudes of Twickenham to the sophistication of David and his friends Danny (Cooper) and Helen (Pike). She also cast very wisely, from brief but scintillating cameos by Thompson (as an uptight headmaster with subtle racist attitudes) and Hawkins, to meatier roles by Williams as a sad teacher who knows the waters Jenny is navigating well.

Molina, a veteran character actor who has many memorable performances to his credit, may have outdone himself here. Jack is naïve but his heart is in the right place; he is completely out of his depth and Molina captures that without getting maudlin. Seymour also hits all the right notes as the mother who may very well be living vicariously through her daughter the lifestyle she always wanted but never had. Sarsgaard oozes charm and snake oil as a character that is thoroughly rotten and knows it, but is just repentant enough to be relatable. His actions have no redeeming qualities, but the character does.

However, the movie belongs to Mulligan. She deserved the Oscar nomination she received here and although there was some grumbling that she was playing 16 as a 23-year-old, she truly brings Jenny to life, making her an indelible character that may well go down as one of the most memorable movie personalities in any single film of the decade. She has been compared to Audrey Hepburn by some critics, but I think it’s more accurate to say that Jenny is influenced by Hepburn, although Mulligan does share those gamine features that Hepburn was famous for. It is her transformation that makes the movie worth watching, and she carries it squarely on her shoulders. With the right roles, she could well be a star in the making.

The movie does rely a bit overly much on the charm of its actors and there is a low-key vibe that I think clashes with some of the serious aspects of the film. There is also a sexual frankness, mainly in dialogue, that might startle those who are sensitive about such things.

The movie is based on the memoirs of British journalist Lynn Barber, and it is worth noting that the screenplay was written by Nick Hornby, author of such books as “About a Boy” and “High Fidelity,” both of which were turned into pretty decent movies. I think it was Hornby’s doing that softened David up a bit and made him less of a creep and more of a pitiable creature; while Barber’s account treats her relationship a little bit more matter-of-factly, there’s a sense that the David-Jenny romance is being looked back upon with a bit of a sheen of sentimentality, which makes perfect sense. The education referred to here is not about Jenny’s romance with David – it’s about Jenny’s romance with life.

WHY RENT THIS: An Oscar-nominated performance by Mulligan and an overlooked supporting performance by Molina. Sarsgaard is also charming. Period capture is dead on.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Fairly low-key which handles a serious subject with a very light touch. Might be too sexually frank for some.

FAMILY VALUES: Some pretty adult thematic material as well as plenty of period smoking.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Orlando Bloom was initially cast as Danny but dropped out a week before shooting began; he was replaced by Cooper, who had previously been in talks for the role.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s some footage from the film’s Los Angeles premiere if you’re into that sort of thing.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $26.1M on a $7.5M production budget; the movie was a hit.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

TOMORROW: Kung Fu Panda 2

Hanna


Hanna

Soairse Ronan should get away from this movie as fast as she can.

(2011) Avant Action (Focus) Saoirse Ronan, Cate Blanchett, Eric Bana, Jason Flemyng, Tom Hollander, Olivia Williams, Jessica Barden, Martin Wuttke, Michelle Dockery, Tim Beckmann, Vicky Krieps, Mohamed Majd, Christian Malcolm. Directed by Joe Wright

Nature versus nurture, an age-old debate about the power of parenting. In some cases, a little bit of both can go a long way.

Hanna (Ronan) is a young girl who lives in Finland above the Arctic Circle with her father Erik (Bana), a former CIA operative who has a beard and talks with a German accent. He has taught her how to survive in nearly any situation – and how to kill in nearly every situation. She is an efficient little killing machine, whether out hunting for dinner or being hunted, which in fact is happening.

She needs to be efficient because there are some really bad, bad people after her. Chief among them is Marissa Viegler (Blanchett), a CIA operative slash ice queen who has a past with Erik. She is canny and paranoid – after capturing Hanna she sends in a look-alike (Dockery) whom Hanna proceeds to dispatch with almost comical ease. Once that’s done, Hanna goes on the run in Morocco and Europe.

She is also being chased by some outside contractors that Viegler has hired, led by the effeminate Isaacs (Hollander) who likes to whistle while he works. She also runs into a family of British hippies, whose father (Flemyng) is a bit of a curmudgeon and whose mother (Williams) has a case of terminal political correctness. The daughter Sophie (Barden) becomes Hanna’s friend, perhaps the first she’s ever had who didn’t have a beard and talk with a German accent. Not realizing Viegler isn’t dead, she heads for a rendezvous in Germany with her dad, unaware that those who want her dead are closing in on her.

There is a really good story in here. It’s a shame that the director, whose resume includes Atonement which netted Ronan an Oscar nomination, chose to do it like Baz Luhrmann might have. While it looks great visually, endless music video-style conceits constantly remind us that this is a movie being directed rather than a story being told. When that happens, it’s hard to get too involved in the story and the movie just becomes a collection of images. There are some nicely done sequences, such as a chase scene in a shipyard; however the climactic scenes, set in an abandoned Grimm’s Fairy Tales theme park, seems rubbing our faces in the allegory a little bit.

Ronan is actually very strong in the title role; she has to be very physical here and she looks quite lethal which is difficult enough for an adult actor to do let alone a teenage one. She can spout off facts memorized from her father about all kinds of esoterica but she has trouble negotiating even a basic conversation with ordinary people. It’s a winning performance, one that is sympathetic and kicks ass at once.

Blanchett is one of the best actresses of her generation, an Oscar winner who can be forceful and who can also be subtle. Here she plays Viegler wound so tight you half expect for her eyes to pop out of her head and her breasts to shoot out like missiles to detonate on target at the slightest touch of her red hair. There’s not a lot of humanity in the role – she’s ambitious and paranoid, someone well versed in both the high tension of field work as well as the politics of the agency bureaucracy. I’m still debating internally whether this was the right approach to the role and due to Miss Blanchett’s credentials, electing to give her the benefit of the doubt.

Bana is a leading man who is on the verge of being “A” list material. He has the charm and charisma to do it; what’s keeping him out of that rarefied air is the right role. He needs a blockbuster to cement his reputation and this is just frankly not it – and in any case his role is a supporting one to Ronan.

Something has to be said about the score by the British trip-hop band the Chemical Brothers. It’s intrusive, it’s abrasive and at the end of the day it detracts from the movie rather than enhance it. I’m fairly open-minded about alternative types of scores but I’m a bit old-fashioned in this regard – if you’re noticing the score to the point where you’re taken out of the movie by it, then it’s not a good score. This happens time and time again throughout the movie.

Critics have been falling all over themselves to praise this movie, including several that I respect a great deal. This is a case where the public actually gets one more correct than the critics; the box office has been tepid at best and quite frankly, deservedly so. I really wanted to like this movie too – the trailers were compelling and the story idea solid. Sadly, this is the type of film that belongs more projected on the wall of a European disco than on the screen of a multiplex.

REASONS TO GO: A fresh take on the cold war-style action espionage thriller.

REASONS TO STAY: Wright takes viewers out of the film far too often by reminding them he’s there. Worst. Score. Ever.

FAMILY VALUES: Quite a bit of sometimes intense violence, not to mention a bit of foul language and some sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Seth Lockhead wrote the original script on spec back in 2006. It appeared on the Black List (the annual list of bet unproduced Hollywood screenplays) that year and again in 2009.

HOME OR THEATER: You won’t lose anything by seeing this at home.

FINAL RATING: 4/10

TOMORROW: The Conspirator