Thursday, March 15, 2007

New Stuff: Starter for 10, Black Snake Moan, The Wind That Shakes the Barley

New Stuff

A few years ago, there was a middling film called The Baxter that told a romantic comedy from the point of view of the Other Guy - you know, the one the female lead is dating/engaged to who has nothing wrong with him, but just isn't exciting enough for her.

Watching Starter for 10, I wonder about the possibility of the coming-of-age film told from the point of view of the Obviously Pretty Girl - the one played here by Alice Eve, who is blonde and busty but, of course, not nearly as cool as the smart brunette who is fairly pretty herself. Starter for 10 does a better job than usual in making the Obviously Pretty Girl a fun character in her own right, but it strikes me that there's got to be some fun way to turn the cliché on its head.

Starter for 10

* * * (out of four)
Seen 8 March 2007 at Landmark Kendall Square #1 (preview)

There is almost nothing in Starter for 10 which isn't somewhat familiar from nearly every coming of age film ever made: The dorky yet kind of good looking narrator, the awkward parents, the weird friends, the obviously pretty girl and the cooler (but also pretty) girl. You can see what's coming a mile away. That's not exactly a bad thing; it just means the movie has to make up for its lack of creativity with execution, and it does all right there.

The dorky narrator is Brian Jackson (James McAvoy), a bloke from Essex starting at Bristol College. He meets Rebecca Epstein (Rebecca Hall) at a "tarts and vicars" party his first night there, and then meets Alice Harbinson (Alice Eve) when they both sign up for the "University Challenge" team (he remembers random facts, she wants to be on television). Alice proves impossible to resist, and even though a Christmas break spent at her family's cottage shows he's more interested in her than vice versa, it's not quite so simple to jump to the other girl.

It's pretty obvious where all this is going, so it's important that the getting there be enjoyable. It is, mostly because writer David Nicholls has provided the cast with a bunch of amusing characters to play. Aside from the main three, there's Dominic Cooper and James Corden as Spencer and Tone, Brian's friends from back home who are worried about university making him a complete wanker; Spencer is in the leather jacket and too cool for the room while Tone is the excitable one in the jean jacket. Patrick (Benedict Cumberbatch) is precisely the sort of wanker they're talking about, a Challenge-obsessed grad student who freezes up on camera and is more than a bit of an upper-class snob. That Brian is better at this than him confuses Nigel, and he tends to respond with a hilarious blank stare. The students' parents are also a stitch: Catherine Tate is charmingly maternal as Brian's mother, with John Henshaw as the ice cream man she's taken up with. Charles Dance and Lindsay Duncan are Alice's parents, bohemian types who insist on being called by their first names and who completely fail to understand Brian's dorky pop-culture jokes - vacation goes straight to hell after the inevitable Graduate reference. And then there's the guy at every party who just got back from India...

Full review at HBS.

Black Snake Moan

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 10 March 2007 at AMC Fenway #4 (first-run)

Craig Brewer has my respect - this is his second film in a row that has delivered more than I expected. That's impressive, really - after all, not only does his new film have a couple of actors I like in Samuel L. Jackson and Christina Ricci, but it's the new film from the maker of Hustle & Flow. Anyone who can get me to like a movie about a pimp trying to make it as a rapper is going to have high expectations the next time around.

This time, Brewer gives us a couple of people with self-control trouble. Rae (Ricci) is a nymphomaniac, collapsing with sexual need as soon as her boyfriend Ronnie (Justin Timberlake) is out of sight on the way to his hitch in the National Guard; she's soon looking for relief from others. Lazarus (Jackson) is a farmer who used to be a blues singer. His wife has just left him for his best friend - whom Lazarus nearly kills in a fit of temper when they meet up in a bar. Their paths collide when a messed-up Rae laughs at the wrong guy's manhood and his response is to beat her and leave her for dead near Lazarus's front door. Lazarus nurses her back to health, but is determined to cure more than her cough and bruises - even if that means chaining her to his radiator.

The movie's set-up promises exploitation, and there's no shortage of shots that would make good pulp-magazine covers, as those who've seen its advertising will attest. Brewer spends some time delivering on that promise, too, with Jackson howling about getting right with God and the camera tracing every inch of Ricci's curvy, barely-dressed body as she practically sweats sex. You want the Angry Black Man and the Wanton White (Trash) Woman, you've got it. Or at least you do on the surface; the film's not about race at all. It just uses the strong emotional response race can create to get off to a running start. It's the same with the sex; the audience that hoots a little at Rae falling down to pleasure herself even as Ronnie drives away may look back on that scene and see more despair than sex appeal.

Full review at HBS.

The Wind That Shakes the Barley

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 11 March 2007 at the Brattle Theater (Sunday Eye Opener)

There's a school of thought that says that every conflict comes down to economics at some level - the haves pushing around the have-nots and the have-nots rebelling. There's a certain amount of truth to this thinking, but taking it too literally can make for some relatively dry entertainment. Ken Loach's interest in presenting Ireland's fight against the British Empire in the 1920s as a fundamentally socialist rebellion - or at least, one that should have been - saps a little life from the film's last act. Not all, or even most of it, but the abstract nature of the conflict makes it somewhat less powerful than it could be.

It's a shame, because the film is, at its heart, a story about brothers, and squandering even the least bit of their role reversal is a shame. As the film starts, Cillian Murphy's Damien is apolitical; he's studied to be a doctor and is about to travel to a London hospital for his internship. Padraic Delaney's Teddy is not; he's in with the IRA. A front-row seat to various abuses by British and mercenary troops - a friend is beaten to death after refusing to give his name in English, his train's driver is arrested for following his union's edict not to transport armed troops - he joins up. Being a soldier in a secret army has its costs, though: Sometimes, you have to kill Irish as well as English; sometimes you can only hide and watch as troops burn your beloved's family home. And you may not agree on when victory can be declared.

Loach and the writer, Paul Laverty, make the audience work a bit in the early going. Teddy and Damien aren't introduced as brothers, and it's some time before they're revealed as such. The Irish accents are also laid on rather thick in the first twenty minutes or so - one audience member wished for subtitles, and it took me a moment to realize that the man killed early in the film was in fact speaking Gaelic rather than heavily accented English. I'm glad Loach (and the film's American distributor) chose not to use subtitles, as has occasionally been done when the accent is thick and the dialect working-class; soon enough my ear was trained. I suspect the accents were deliberately thicker in the early going to highlight the contrast between the two sides; once that was done, they back off a bit with a few exceptions (mostly older characters).

Full review at HBS.

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