Talking Movies

May 11, 2016

Green Room

Writer/director Jeremy Saulnier follows up the succes d’estime of his second feature, 2013 revenge thriller Blue Ruin, with an equally visceral assault on mainstream horror.

green-room-is-a-must-watch-brutally-insane-movie-sundance-review

The Ain’t Rights wake up in their tour van to find they’re out of gas and off the road. Pat (Anton Yelchin) and Sam (Alia Shawkat) cycle to a parking lot to siphon gas. Rescuing the stranded Reece (Joe Cole) and Tiger (Callum Turner) they head to a disastrous afternoon gig after which apologetic DJ Tad (David W Thompson) sets them up with a backwoods gig for gas money. They are troubled to find a certain neo-Nazi vibe there, and so naturally lead off with a provocative Dead Kennedys number. But when they walk offstage to find Amber (Imogen Poots) and Werm (Brent Werzner) standing over the dead body of Emily (Taylor Tunes) in the green room, provoking neo-Nazis goes from a risky proposition to a lethal one as Gabe (Macon Blair) imprisons them, waiting for supremo Darcy (Patrick Stewart)…

Green Room recalls 2008’s Eden Lake. Saulnier’s writing and directing are spare and taut and the shlock horror practical FX are exemplary. Eden Lake was an equally superb technical achievement that belied its small budget and announced James Watkins as a notable talent. Reviewing Eden Lake, however, I couldn’t think of a single reason to recommend watching it. It was horror without humour, without the supernatural, without hope or relief; horror that could actually happen, and to you. Green Room is an equally plausible nightmare. You are stapled to your chair by dread and tension, even though there is humour in Macon’s nice guy thug, and the band’s agonising over their Desert Island Discs picks. Stewart is a gruff presence but Poots steals the film with the best lines (“Madonna. … And Slayer”) and a casual facility with extreme violence.

Green Room is not an easy watch. Once Big Justin (Eric Edelstein) is insinuated into the green room to guard the band the clever edits, memorable imagery, and character moments of touring musicians become a distant memory. Dogs rip out throats, box-cutters slice open stomachs, heads explode with shotgun blasts, arms are broken asunder, and a Gotham-aping mutilation occurs. This is where the lack of supernatural or glee becomes a problem. The Kingslayer losing his sword-hand for acting morally in Games of Thrones horrifies in a way that Ash losing his hand in Evil Dead 2 does not, not only because of differences in overall tone but also because it’s his self-definition. Saulnier goes grand guignol gross-out on the mutilation, then backpedals on its life-altering horror by visually covering it up, as if belatedly concerned it’s excessive enough to distract.

Green Room is undeniably an indelible cinematic experience, but not one that will leave fond memories. We await Saulnier’s impending MR James adaptation Red Rune with an awed anticipation.

3/5

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October 12, 2012

Ruby Sparks

The directors of Little Miss Sunshine return with a comedy-drama cross between Pygmalion and Stranger than Fiction that fails both as comedy and as drama.

Calvin Weir-Fields (Paul Dano) is a former literary wunderkind who set the book world alight with an epic novel when he was 19, but has since produced only short stories and is in analysis trying to crack his writer’s block. Dr Rosenthal (Elliott Gould) forces him to write about a woman who likes Calvin’s dog Scottie, as an exercise. Calvin starts to write about Ruby (Zoe Kazan), a girl in a dream who likes Scottie but is also very combative verbally. Soon he has written half a novel about her, and then she physically appears in his house as the perfect girlfriend conjured up by his imagination… Calvin think he is losing is mind, a conclusion heartily endorsed by his obnoxious sports agent brother Harry (Chris Messina). But a startling encounter with a literary groupie (Alia Shawkat) proves Ruby’s real…

Ruby Sparks is terribly unfunny, especially when set beside 2006’s Stranger than Fiction. There are good lines at long intervals, but only an amusing sequence where Ruby becomes insanely clingy actually lingers in the memory. Despite the fantastical set-up this is a game played with the oldest deck of rom-com cards. The man knows something the woman doesn’t, he wrote her, he doesn’t tell her, they fall in love, she finds out, they break up; can he make a grand gesture to win her back? Who cares? Ruby never sparkles enough to convince as the ideal woman, and Calvin isn’t remotely a loveable everyman. Chris Messina’s role is an empty cipher and he can’t showboat as all the script gives him are tiresomely predictable crude sexual remarks. Gould is tragically underused while Steve Coogan barely registers as Calvin’s pompous rival.

Instead of gags we’re given endless psychobabble masquerading as insightful drama. An awkward visit to Calvin’s mother (Annette Benning) and step-father (Antonio Banderas) is excruciating, especially as its sole (contradictory) purpose is to allow Ruby shrink her creator as ‘controlling’. Unfortunately Ruby hasn’t noticed that Calvin’s mother has been completely reshaped by her new husband, while the analysis buzzwords spouted by Ruby are almost identical to the self-justifying nonsense proffered by Lila (Deborah Ann Woll), who callously left Calvin weeks after his father’s death. Ruby Sparks is this week’s second release starring a couple, one of whom wrote the script, but this lacks even Hit and Run’s good heart. This is a quite insulting attempt to examine the male psyche by a female screenwriter who thinks such scrutiny means accusing men of not appreciating women.

By the end you’ll wish Calvin would just type ‘A grand piano falls on Ruby, the rope attached to it leads to an anvil that falls on Calvin, Road Runner appears and goes meep-meep’.

1/5

September 8, 2010

The Runaways

Twilight co-stars Dakota Fanning and Kristen Stewart re-unite for a biopic of 1970s all-girl rawkers The Runaways featuring a number of classic songs, by other bands…

Writer/director Floria Sigismondi’s opening image of a drop of menstrual blood falling on the ground, as an unprepared Cherie Currie (Fanning) dashes to a toilet during her first period, promises an innovative feminist rock flick. Instead we cruise along the boulevard of rock cliché as singer Cherie finds booze and pills the only way to handle the sudden transition from miming Bowie at school talent shows to rocking Japan after she joins Joan Jett (Stewart) in The Runaways. Jett is the feminist, refusing her patronising teacher’s insistence that she remain unplugged and learn ‘On Top of Old Smoky’, “I know you play ‘Smoke on the Water’. Teach me that one!”, but both girls are barely characterised beyond facile pop-psychology about flakey fathers driving them to rock.

Fanning and Stewart wring substantial emotion from the weak material but against these blankly inarticulate girls, Whip It! star Alia Shawkat is literally silent as ‘the bassist’ for legal reasons, Michael Shannon has little trouble in stealing the film as their mentoring (and deranged) producer Kim Fowley. He even articulates the trangressiveness of Fanning’s performance by exclaiming “Jail-f******-bait, Jack-f******-pot!” on learning Cherie is 15. Just in case you didn’t get the in-camera apology Jett later complains that Cherie will ruin them on their Japanese tour by performing in a Cabaret style suspenders and corset outfit. Sigismondi frustratingly alternates between such sledgehammer subtlety and elliptical dreaminess. Lines like “Girls don’t play electric guitar” herald ‘This is a Man’s World’ on the soundtrack, while she hilariously literalises endless critical ramblings about the homoerotic attraction between singers and guitarists by having a dreamy love scene between Cherie and Jett soundtracked by The Stooges’ ‘I wanna be your Dog’. This incident is then never mentioned again as Cherie goes back to sleeping with their roadie.

Such inconsequential vagueness afflicts everything. The impression that Cherie quit mid-way through recording their debut album and that 8 months later the band imploded having only had fleeting success in Japan is totally wrong, but this is a film where you never see The Runaways hang out with The Sex Pistols at CBGB’s, you just see Joan spray-painting Sex Pistols on her t-shirt while their music plays. Sigismondi’s biggest problem is that while The Runaways paved the way for The Bangles and L7 their music has been justifiably forgotten. ‘Cherry-bomb’ is the only song they perform here which rises above being merely efficiently crunching mid-1970s hard rock and Jett plucking out the riff of her solo hit ‘I Love Rock and Roll’ only emphasises that. There is a trio of fine performances at the heart of this film but like the band this film may be classified ‘important’ rather than good.

2.5/5

April 6, 2010

Whip It!

Drew Barrymore assembles a strong ensemble of comedic actresses for her directorial debut led by Juno and Hard Candy star Ellen Page in her first lead role since Juno.

Page stars as Bliss Cavendar, a teenager attending blue bonnet pageants to please her mother while simultaneously plotting her escape from 1950s throwback that is her hometown of Bodeen, Texas. A shopping trip to that liberal enclave Austin sees her encounter the fishnets wearing, eyeliner dripping members of the Texas Roller Derby. So begins a secret life as the new jammer for the perennial losers the Hurl Scouts led by Maggie Mayhem and Smashley Simpson (Barrymore’s ridiculous supporting role). Adopting the name Babe Ruthless, Bliss, as the fastest skater on the team whose job is to pass other players, soon becomes an integral part of the team and propels them to success and a rivalry with the reigning champions. Juliette Lewis takes a break from music to return to acting as Iron Maven, the wild child captain of that team, and is a joy.

Saturday Night Live’s Kristen Wiig is surely only one decent role away from being a film star as, following Adventureland, she is once again wonderful in support as Bliss’s self-proclaimed ‘cool aunt’ figure Maggie Mayhem. Only Maggie and Smashley are depicted as having a life outside the rink but that’s to quibble when life inside the rink receives so much screen-time in a series of games that never become repetitive thanks to Barrymore’s ultra-violent and very exciting choreography of the bone-crunching plays designed to take out rival skaters. It probably helped to have Quentin Tarantino’s favourite stuntwoman Zoe Bell as one of the Hurl Scouts…

The creaking of the plot mechanics does become a bit audible in the second act, as Bliss falls for a pretty boy rocker, and becomes estranged from best pal Pash (Alia Shawkat) and her mother to the strains of oh-so-hip indie music but this is redeemed by a third act which is pleasingly subversive on two counts. Barrymore, unsurprisingly as an actress turned director, coaxes fine performances from all the cast, especially the two most important males – Andrew Wilson’s exasperated coach and Daniel Stern’s supportive father – and even manages to rein in Marcia Gay Harden’s usual histrionics as Bliss’ mother so that you get a sense of the real love between mother and daughter even as she seeks to push Bliss down the road she herself abandoned.

Amid all the debate about Bigelow’s Oscar for a macho film it’s nice to see Barrymore quietly assemble a talented female cast to take on such a traditionally male genre and to do this a good job of subverting expectations. Whip It! is not a great film but it is an awful lot of fun and signals Barrymore as a director of note as well as actor/producer.

3/5

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