Jun 7, 2018

Teen Movie Thursdays: Nordic coming of age movies

Right On, Man
Dir: Tapio Suominen
This realist Finnish coming of age film, with what seems to be a largely non-professional cast, doesn't appear to have traveled much, but it will be of interest to fans of Aki Kaurismäki, because it features the screen debut of his frequent collaborator Kati Outinen, though in a relatively small part.

The film focuses on a secondary school class for problem kids, all of them boys except for Outinen's Lissu. Initially, it explores the dynamics between the class, but as the film goes on the focus narrows to concentrate first on the dynamic between Jussi (Esa Niemelä) and Pete (Tony Holmström), as they drift further from the class and from their families, then solely on Jussi, as he isolates himself more and more, before potentially looking to Lissu to find a way back in.

Right On, Man paints a fairly bleak picture of teenage life. You get the sense of these kids as drifting, even before we spend an extended evening with Jussi and Pete, as they roam the streets, drinking and spending the proceeds of a robbery that Jussi pulled off. What hits home, even through sometimes uncertain performances, is the credibility of the whole thing. The dialogue has a natural feel, from the way the kids relate to each other to their dismissive attitude to their teacher (Lissu has a habit of walking away, so much so that in the class portrait that gives us the actor's names in the opening credits, Outinen's is over an empty chair).

Tapio Suominen gives the film a strong sense of time and place. We get a feel for the environment these kids are growing up in and the sense that they probably don't see particularly prosperous future. The dramas here are small, but Suominen builds a couple of threads that run through the narrative, even though they are largely off screen. The bad impression Jussi makes on a beat cop and Jussi's potential interest in Lissu (and hers in him) are both seeded early, only to come back around in a sequence that draws together well.   

If you're coming to the film for Kati Outinen, it's worth noting that she's barely in it until fifteen minutes from the end, when Jussi and Lissu re-connect. It's a lovely sequence and Outinen is charming and natural in it, it's easy to see why she might have been noticed, but this is a very small part. Fortunately, Right On, Man offers many other rewards; it's a well observed teen movie with a sense of verisimilitude and an unobtrusive style that draws you into the story and characters. It deserves to be better known.

Lars Ole, 5C
Dir: Nils Malmros
As far as I can tell, Nils Malmros is barely known among English speaking audiences. That needs to change. While he has moved outside the genre, Malmros has, for fifty years now, specialised in coming of age films. The best known is Kundskabens Trae (Tree of Knowledge), listed by the Danish Film Institute as one of the country's 100 greatest films, but this - his second feature - seems to be the film that established Malmros' reputation.

Drawing heavily from his own life, Malmros tells a low key story of 12 year old Lars Ole (Søren Rasmussen) and his classmates. There are petty rivalries, first crushes and moments of childlike mischief, but Malmros' concern isn't big events but the tiny things that shape day to day life when you're somewhere between childhood and adolescence.

Shot on grainy black and white 16mm, the film has a feeling of something observed more than it is staged. Frequently, moments that would have much more emphasis in another film are allowed to play out quietly, often in the background. A good example of Malmros' restraint comes when Lars Ole is being a pain, playing the wrong notes while his sister is practicing the piano, when he makes her cry, the camera views her through the door, before silently showing Lars Ole realising he's upset her more than he meant to. It's a beautifully subtle bit of acting and camerawork that makes us feel as if we are privy to a real moment.

We see a lot of these subtleties in the way the film depicts the politics of the playground, the games of tag and which kids are allowed to play or not, the dominance that older kids are able to exert. This is never more felt than in the way relationships are navigated. Early on we see that Lars Ole has a crush on Inger (Judith Nysom), who is 'dating' Hanse (Lars Randrup Mikkelsen), the way the camera often dwells on the space between them is clearly designed, yet feels totally natural, even in the final sequence when, at a dance, we see Lars Ole join in a square dance, changing partners as he goes and waiting for his brief chance to dance with Inger.

The relationships between the kids, whether it's the rivalry between those who live in a certain apartment complex and those who don't, the pettiness of who is allowed to play tag or not or the teasing and games in the classroom, ring completely true. The performances - all by non-professionals who seem not to have acted again - feel completely unforced, nobody seems to be playing a character or reaching for an emotion at any time.

I've now seen six of Nils Malmros' films, and this is early evidence of his instinctive feel for how to tell a story from a young person's point of view. It's a beautifully constructed film, you feel Malmros' direction rather than seeing it, in that his choices are affecting and clearly purposeful, but barely seem designed. If you have even a passing interest in coming of age cinema, this is a filmmaker you need to discover and Lars Ole, 5C is a perfect entry point to his exceptional filmography.

May 27, 2018

Solo [2D] [12A]

Dir: Ron Howard
I am of a generation that just missed out on seeing the original Star Wars films (in their original versions) at the cinema. When Return of The Jedi came out in 1983 I was two and by the time the Special Editions rolled around in 1997 I was turning sixteen and the films, while I’d seen them many times as a child, were already something I felt myself growing out of. It’s been a sense of duty as a movie fan, more than anything, that has kept me watching the films since the debacle that was The Phantom Menace in 1999. That sense of duty lapsed when it came to seeing The Last Jedi, but the first of the standalone Star Wars Story films, Rogue One had surprised me by delivering a compelling side story with a tone different to that of the films in the Skywalker saga. Still, I was more curious than optimistic when it came to the prospect of Solo.

It has been no secret that there were serious bumps in the road to Solo. The film was to be directed by 21 Jump Street and The Lego Movie's Chris Miller and Phil Lord, but they were replaced after, by all accounts, a substantial amount of the film was theoretically completed. It seems that the tonal approach they were going for was deemed too far against the grain for the Star Wars brand and Ron Howard - a fine director, but a reliable pair of hands more than he is an auteur - was brought on board. Howard is said to have reshot around 70% of Lord and Miller's material, but that's not to say the film is 30% theirs, as Howard and his team added and altered characters and shot material unique to this version. We'll likely never know what this film might have been, but that's beside the point, let's consider what it is.

Solo picks up with Han (Alden Ehrenreich) as he and his girlfriend Qi'ra (Emilia Clarke) try to escape from their lives as pawns of a criminal gang on Corellia. Han manages to get away, but Qi'ra is captured at the last minute and he vows to get back to her. Three years later Han, wanting to become a pilot, has found himself conscripted into the imperial army but sees another chance to escape and get back to Corellia when he meets Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson) and his crew of smugglers. When things go wrong the crew are indebted to Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany), who insists they repay him by taking on a dangerous mission and take along his right-hand woman - Qi'ra.

There is, I think, a fundamental challenge in prequels, one that is all the more acute with a series as iconic as Star Wars. Practically every film fan who is in their late 40s or younger grew up, to some degree, with Star Wars. Almost every one of those fans will have placed themselves in the roles of their favourite characters and many of them will have imagined where those characters came from, who they were before we met them. In a lot of ways, Solo is fighting a losing battle from the get-go. If, for instance, they didn't assume it was his given name, fans will have had their own ideas about how Han came by his name, and I bet 99 percent of them were more satisfying than the version we're shown here. The question is so much more interesting than the answer, and that's something the film comes up against time and again.

The other issue with prequels is that they are inherently low stakes. We know there is no actual peril, that things have to go a certain way in order to put us in a position to find the character where we meet them in the films we've already seen. We know how their personality will change, we know who they are going to encounter and how those relationships will play out, we even know exactly how certain events will play down to small details (ask a Star Wars fan about how Han's Kessel run worked out). We know, eventually, we're destined for square one (though this film, to make room for sequels, ends with us on square minus one). For much of its running time, Solo manages its way around these inherent challenges. It's following the formula, it's taking few risks, if any, but it's largely amiable fun. 

You have to feel for Alden Ehrenreich, he's been handed an almost impossible task. Replacing Harrison Ford as Han Solo is about as poisoned as chalices come. If you do an impression and do it well, then all you're doing is an impression, do it badly and you're insulting an iconic performance. Go your own way and even if you're great, you're just not 'Han'. To his credit, Ehrenreich walks this line as well as anyone possibly could. He captures the flavour of Ford's Han without copying him, he has a few moments where he leans into something close to Ford's voice, but again he never takes it to a place of doing an impression, it's more in the cadence, a hint of Ford's inflections. On his own merits, Ehrenreich is good here,  convincing as a roguish character who is generally looking out for number one, but would prefer to basically be one of the good guys along the way. He nails the tone and hits the humour without winking at the audience while proving a charismatic anchor for the film. For me though where he really convinces as Han is in the relationship with Chewbacca (former basketball player Joonas Suotamo inheriting the hairy suit form Peter Mayhew), which we see the founding of here and which immediately settles in to the dynamic familiar from the original trilogy.

It is perhaps appropriate, given their characters' relationship, that Ehrenreich ends up having quite a few scenes stolen from him by Donald Glover as the young Lando Calrissian. His scenes are probably the film's best, he charms the audience as effectively as he does many of the characters. Also stealing most of his scenes is Paul Bettany, cast by Howard in a role that was apparently filled by a different character altogether (played by Michael K. Williams, who couldn't return for the reshoots) in Lord and Miller's film. His bad guy turn as Dryden Vos is fairly one note, but Bettany plays it with richly apparent relish and gets to take part in the film's best fight. 

Ron Howard keeps proceedings moving, executing the action sequences with the assurance you'd expect. The thing is, Howard doesn't seem to bring much that is individual to the table. The look, the tone, the blend of elements, it's all very safe, very Star Wars. It contributes to the feel of Solo as a content delivery system rather than anything particularly interested in finding its own way within an established world. It's never dull, but even in its best moments, Solo fails to do anything that would grab us and shake us. It never makes us look at an established character differently, nor does its own smaller scale and smaller stakes narrative do anything to truly surprise us.

Perhaps the least 'Star Wars' thing about Solo is Woody Harrelson. His character name - Tobias Beckett - sounds more like the posh kid you went to primary school with than it does a Star Wars character and, while his performance is fine, he doesn't do anything more than play Woody Harrelson. Emilia Clarke's godawful acting is one of the main reasons I haven't watched Game of Thrones beyond the first season. She's improved a bit from that and her disastrous turn in Terminator: Genisys, in that she's not distractingly bad here, but she's also not especially good. She and Ehrenreich have little chemistry and Qi'ra's character development falls flat because that's how Clarke plays everything. Better, but underused, is Thandie Newton as Val, who does convince us of her character's history with Beckett, giving us one of the film's very few emotionally charged moments in the middle of an early action setpiece. I can't decide where I stand on Lando's droid co-pilot, L3. Phoebe Waller-Bridge does a great job with what she's got; she's funny and engaging from the off, but the social commentary the film uses the character for is clangingly unsubtle (which isn't to say it doesn't make sound points). This is the element of the film that seems most likely to have come from Lord and Miller's work - it's not bad, but just feels oddly out of step with the film around it.

The word that comes to mind when I think about this film is 'competent'. It delivers. The action is fun, the comedy largely plays well, the actors give their best and are generally doing a solid job. Bradford Young's cinematography keeps the film feeling like it belongs to the same universe as the others while throwing up some striking images. Towards the end of the film it seeds an interesting idea (no, not THAT twist). It does all this and yet, it all feels quite inconsequential. This is a film that exists because audience analysis suggested it would be a good idea, financially, if it existed. There's no sense that it adds anything to our understanding of Han or the Star Wars universe, it's hard to invest because we know going in what's likely to happen and which characters are likely to matter in the long term. If you want to know what happened to Han Solo before A New Hope then this could have been a lot worse, but it still, fundamentally, feels less interesting to know than to wonder.

May 13, 2018

How To Talk To Girls At Parties [15]

Dir: John Cameron Mitchell
When you’re a teenage boy, girls might as well be an alien species, so the fact that Zan (Elle Fanning) is literally out of this world doesn’t make her any more unusual to Enn (Alex Sharp). Not that he realises she's an alien, he thinks she’s escaping from a cult. It’s 1977 and Enn and his friends are teenage punks in Croydon. Stumbling into what they think is an afterparty for the gig they have just been to, the end up at an abandoned house that Zan and the other beings from the six colonies that make up her species have taken over. Fascinated when Enn tells her about punk Zan, rebelling against her colony, leaves the house with him, hungry for new experiences in her new human form.

John Cameron Mitchell’s adaptation and expansion of Neil Gaiman’s short story is an eclectic mix of genres and influences: a punk sci-fi coming of age comedy, with a sex and kink positive message and, at its heart, a genuinely affecting love story. Mitchell and co-screenwriter Philippa Goslett mash these disparate elements together into a narrative that is sometimes chaotic, but always full of energy and ideas, be they in the film’s story or its wildly colourful and inventive design.

Along with costume designer Sandy Powell, Mitchell creates a distinctive look for the aliens, both as a species and within their individual colonies. All of them are dressed in skin-tight latex, but each has their own colour and their own look. The Stellas, for instance, are the most sexualised, with the females wearing different coloured material to highlight their bodies, while another group are dressed somewhat more conservatively, the same material fashioned into blue suits. This way of distinguishing between the various colonies extends into their behaviour and even their movement. There are sure to be many subtleties here to pick up on subsequent viewings.

Set against this colourfully strange world there is the Croydon of 1977 (Sheffield subs for the exteriors). In many ways, punk and Zan serve similar functions in Enn’s life; injecting colour and excitement into a dull, grey, time and place. This is where Elle Fanning is perfect casting. I’ve said before that I think Fanning may be the most naturally gifted actress of her generation, and this is one of her best and most finely detailed performances. As she has observed, there is a risk inherent in playing a character who is engaging with the world for the first time that they appear to be stupid, thanks to their misunderstandings of language and social codes. This is not what we get from her as Zan. Yes, there is humour inherent in her telling Enn “I would like to go to the punk now” or telling his mother that she is going to the toilet for the first time, but what we get from Fanning is a sense of Zan’s boundless curiosity and enchantment with everything she is discovering, particularly her own sense of freedom, which is restricted in her colony.

There are the expected broad strokes to Fanning’s performance, but it’s the subtleties that make it. The way she moves is especially interesting; at first there’s a stiffness, she’s getting used to being in this body, but she loosens her physicality as Zan spends more time among humans, both because she is learning to mimic their movement and because she is adjusting to her new form. This is something we also see in the way she observes the world, Fanning has that rare gift of being able to let us see the character thinking. That’s another thing she first shows as pronounced. In the beginning, Zan’s observations are obvious, and often stated as well as simply made, but this is something else that gets naturally folded into her persona, as she becomes more comfortable around people. We get so much of the character through Fanning’s physicality, but she also exhibits great comic timing with her dialogue, and an unforced chemistry with Alex Sharp that aids the film’s love story. Sharp also delivers a strong performance, lifted by Fanning and by Ethan Lawrence and Abraham Lewis, who play Enn’s best friends. The dynamic between them is believable and fun and, while it’s a different generation depicted here, there was much in the way they interact that felt familiar from my own teenage years.

In a largely excellent supporting cast, Ruth Wilson stands out as PT Stella, bringing a deadpan comic sensibility that I didn’t know she had. She’s particularly funny at the end of the film when she too begins to rebel. On the downside, there is Nicole Kidman. Tone is important in comedy, and Kidman is the only actor who, for me, misses it. As Queen Boadicea she’s a punk matriarch for whom the movement came too late. As an actress, she’s trying too hard. The accent is laughably broad and she overplays every moment to the hilt. It’s especially interesting to see her strain her every acting muscle in her few moments with Fanning, whose unaffected work has much more impact and embodies the character rather than performing it. Only in one moment, a stare down with Ruth Wilson, does Kidman stop working long enough to be similarly effective.

Mitchell and Goslett’s screenplay strikes a good balance between fish out of water comedy and the growing connection between Enn and Zan. The jokes largely hit and the love story is touching and feels organic; as Zan comes to love Earth and people she grows to love Enn in particular. It’s a rather beautiful thing, believing through Fanning’s performance that this is the first time this being, who is likely thousands of years old and has been through many life cycles, has experienced these emotions. The film also hits some truth about our relationship to music; the community that surrounds certain scenes and the sense of belonging that engenders, as well as the transporting nature of finding a song or a band that means something to you. This last aspect Mitchell takes in a way that is both literal and trippy.

I’m genuinely shocked by how divisive How To Talk To Girls At Parties has been. I can see how its tone will either work for you or not. I found it involving and moving as well as very funny. What I can’t see is how you can fail to appreciate how well designed it is, how Mitchell creates a whole offbeat world for his aliens inside their house. Nor do I get how you can fail to appreciate the many deft touches in Elle Fanning’s performance. Ultimately I think this is destined to be a cult item, appreciated by a group of fans I imagine will grow once the film lands on home formats after its disappointingly limited cinema run. At least, I hope that’s what happens.