LITTLE VOICE (R) ^ * * * ^ (http://www.miramax.com) ^ Michael Herman’s follow up to “Brassed Off” is a mostly enjoyable but ultimately frustrating experience. While the film is bursting with energy and strong visuals Herman’s marvelously frenetic direction is much more successful than his storytelling. Laura, aka Little Voice, is a pathologically shy young woman spending her life in her room playing her dead father’s records and avoiding her kaleidoscopically extroverted mother, Mari. When Ray Say, Mari’s seedy talent scout of a lover, hears LV’s angelic singing voice he thinks he’s finally found his ticket to the big time. LV, on the other hand, isn’t particularly thrilled about being ripped from her protective dream world, thrust in front of a group of strangers, and ordered to perform. ^
The screenplay has a strong sense of fun but after establishing its concept and characters it doesn’t know where to take them. Admittedly, it must have been a real challenge to bring cinematic qualities to Jim Cartwright’s play about a girl who never leaves her room. Unfortunately, Herman chooses to do this by moving the focus of the film away from LV and towards Mari and Ray Say. While those two are certainly interesting characters Little Voice isn’t their story, and this change of focus causes LV to fade into the background. By the third act the narrative has disintegrated. The “revelations” at the end aren’t even slightly surprising and feel blunt and contrived, as does LV’s “love at first sight” style relationship with quiet pigeon fancier Bill, played earnestly by Ewan McGregor. Jane Horrocks, as LV, does a fantastic job with her underwritten role. She sings all her own songs and her imitations of Shirley Bassey, Marilyn Monroe and Judy Garland are spot on. Brenda Blethyn is wonderfully over the top as Mari while Michael Caine brings an added layer of empathy to floundering, opportunistic Ray Say.
HIDEOUS KINKY (R) ^ * * * * ^ “Hideous Kinky” is a sensual, involving film beautifully directed by Gilles MacKinnon (Small Faces, Regeneration). Julia, a young woman seeking spiritual enlightenment, travels to Marrakech with her two small daughters. When the expected check from the children’s absent father fails to arrive, Julia is forced to sell homemade dolls in the street. After a brief love affair with a troubled Moroccan man, Julia is forced to come to terms with the reality that abandonment of the ego isn’t compatible with raising children. ^
Kate Winslet, back on form after “Titanic,” gives a mature performance making her somewhat self-centred character sympathetic. Carrie Mullan and Bella Riza are both completely believable extremely cute as Julia’s daughters. Through their characters the film presents a uniquely authentic view of childhood without softening the perspective because it’s female. Disappointingly, Billy MacKinnon’s script deviates from Esther Freud’s autobiographical novel and her first draft screenplay in that it chooses to move the central perspective from the girls to their mother. Nevertheless, the story flows well containing only a few plausibility hiccups in an otherwise smooth and involving narrative. Gillies MacKinnon’s direction brings the setting vividly and tangibly to life in all it’s teeming dirt and colour. Whilst one somewhat empathises with the woman who tells Winslet’s character that she’s selfish and crazy for bringing up two English girls in a wild, African country one also can’t help but envy the children’s experiences.
WAKING NED DEVINE (PG) ^ * * ^ (http://www.ofg.com/films/waking_ned/index.html) ^ Waking Ned is an ensemble British comedy in a similar vein to The Englishman who Went up a Hill but Came down a Mountain. Instead of mountains, however these small town folk are interested in money and instead of being Welsh they’re Irish. When Jackie O’Shea discovers that one of his fellow villagers has won the lottery he enlists the help of his old friend Michael O’Sullivan to track down the lucky sod. They find the winner, Ned Devine, in bed clutching the winning ticket with a stiffening smile plastered across his face. After playing the lottery all his life he’s finally died from the shock of actually winning. Jackie and Michael then enlist the help of the entire town to trick the Lotto representative into believing that Michael is actually Ned so they can collect Ned’s winnings. ^
This is award wining commercial director Kirk Jones’ first feature film. It contains several funny scenes and one downright hilarious one involving a mean old lady and a phone box. While one can detect a genuinely amusing screenplay somewhere under the flat direction and mysteriously stiff performances, the film is tediously slow. The actors seem to pause too long between lines and the storytelling is far too smooth. Jackie and Michael establish their goal and encounter only a few glitches, but no real setbacks, on the way to achieving it. The story makes a couple of unconvincing attempts to show how the money will help this or that person pull their lives together, but this doesn’t change the reality that Waking Ned is about a town full of people chasing money they don’t really need. Basically, Jones garnered a cute story concept from a news clipping but was unable to take it anywhere.
SITCOM (R) ^ * * * ^ (http://www.filmfestivals.com/cannes98/criticus8.htm)
Sitcom is a quintessentially French film in that American style cinematic devices such as character and story are of secondary importance to theme and dark humour. If you find the idea of a mother who seduces her Gay son to cure him of his homosexuality to be funny, then this is the film for you. But be warned – it relies entirely on the shock value of breaking taboos – incest, orgies, homosexuality, and animal eroticism – for its humour. It may not be too bold an assumption to assume that most Film Threat readers have been there and done that. The story follows the antics of a generic family after The Father, played by FranÂois Marthouret, brings home a white rat to serve as a family pet. The rat inspires each member of the family – The Mother, The Daughter, The Son, The Boyfriend, The Maid and The Maid’s Husband – to one by one act out their deepest darkest desires. ^
While writer/director Francois Ozon manages some clever manipulation of his audience’s built in expectations (dream sequences that look like real events and real events that are presented as dream sequences) the filmmaker’s over obvious intentions quickly become tiring. The film presents an interesting deconstruction of the family and the way it’s portrayed in film and TV but nothing all that fresh or truly shocking.
POLISH WEDDING (PG-13) ^ * ^ (http://www.foxsearchlight.com/polish/) ^ One would hope that a film that boasts a cast containing Gabriel Byrne, Lena Olin, and Claire Danes would have something entertaining to offer – an interesting performance or two at the very least. Unfortunately, writer/director Theresa Connelly’s debut feature is a messy conglomeration of unconvincing poetics and dull slapstick comedy. While there is no clear protagonist the story basically revolves around Chala Pzoniak, played forgettably by Danes, as a young second-generation Polish girl exploring her sexuality in Detroit. She’s elected to lead her church’s March of the Virgin days after discovering that she’s pregnant. Meanwhile, her parent’s marriage is slowly disintegrating primarily because Chala’s mother (Olin) is having an affair. Eventually the different tensions and events converge in a sloppy climax in which many people run around shouting. ^
As a character driven study of a family, the film tries to focus on the tension created by the merging of old and new worlds and values. The narrative, however, is haphazardly structured and never gives one any reason to be interested in the lives of the rather silly characters. Connelly’s awkward direction demonstrates no flair for the cinematic and she elicits stiff, jerky performances from normally impressive actors. The dialogue is simply bizarre and sprinkled with oddly anachronistic phrases. How likely is a teenager in contemporary Detroit to say, “scram,” or, “Stick that in your pipe and smoke it”? Ultimately, the story is uninvolving, indecipherable and dull with amateurish editing making some plot elements unintentionally mysterious.
B. MONKEY (R) ^ * * * ^ B. Monkey combines Something Wild with La Femme Nikita via Pulp Fiction. Beatrice – nicknamed B. Monkey because of her ability to break into any building – is a thrill seeking jewel thief. Alan is a mild mannered primary school teacher. They fall in love at first sight but soon discover that their very different lifestyles aren’t as compatible as they would have liked. Michael Radford’s direction of Carole King’s patchy and over processed screenplay is stylish but not entirely confident. Ultimately, the elements of the film feel exactly like what they are – a project in which the director was replaced half way through development and a story that was raped by the studio after audience test screenings. ^
Asia Argento – the apparent result of a cloning experiment involving Shirley Manson and Christina Ricci – handles her first staring role as Beatrice with confidence and style. She’s got oodles of presence and looks adorable on screen. Unfortunately, she’s about as believable as a gun toting jewel thief as Jennifer Lopez was as a US Marshal. Jared Harris (Happiness, I Shot Andy Warhol) is appropriately dull and unattractive as Alan, while Jonathan Rhys-Meyers (Velvet Goldmine) is charismatically odd and pretty as the friend who refuses to let Beatrice forget her past. The story interestingly mixes two different genres – the romantic comedy and the heist movie – with some success. Unfortunately, the narrative is sketchy, takes far too long to get going, and simply doesn’t make sense at some points. Nevertheless, the film does contain some wonderful moments – especially those involving Rupert Everett (who apparently begged for the part during a pre My Best Friend’s Wedding dry spell).
FIRST LOVE, LAST RITES (R) ^ * * * * ^ First Love, Last Rites is about the exquisite pain and confusion of first love. City boy Joey, played by Giovanni Ribisi, spends his summer in a meltingly hot town in the Louisiana bayou with his young girlfriend Sissel (Natasha Gregson Wagner). They spend their days and nights in their womblike one room apartment making love, listening to 45’s and avoiding Sissel’s obnoxious younger brother. Little by little, however, reality – in the form of Sissel’s screwed up parents and the young lovers’ own insecurities and lack of ability to communicate with each other – gnaws its way into their intimate world causing emotional chaos and disillusionment. ^
Ex Lemonhead bassist Jesse Peretz’s subtle, sensual filmmaking style perfectly evokes the outer and inner lives and emotions of his characters. The film is moody and languorously paced demonstrating the director’s clear passion for the medium and strong sense of visuals. It has a naturalistic style yet is exquisitely framed and shot with careful attention paid to details like lighting and colour. The sex scenes are both beautiful and utterly realistic. The screenplay, co-written by Peretz and David Ryan, is based on the short story by British writer Ian McEwan. Giovanni Rissi gives an affecting, visceral performance while Natasha Gregson Wagner is appropriately sultry and mysterious if a bit too consistent in her choices. Ultimately, First Love, Last Rites is a refreshingly honest and communicative film that presents both the ecstasy and horror of first love.
DEAD LETTER OFFICE ^ * * ^ When questioned as to why he chose to concentrate on the character and backstory of a male supporting character at the expense of his female protagonist Australian director John Ruane replied, “Yes, I think that’s probably one of the film’s weakest areas.” He then proceeded to list more – the film needs more comedy and lacks a strong moral. He’s not particularly impressed with his own film and expects that it will be broadcast on British television but never released theatrically. Dead Letter Office tells the story of Alice who has been writing letters to her absent father for twenty years only to have them returned stamped with the logo of the Dead Letter Office. She decides to get a job at the Office, thinking this will make it easier for her to find her father. Once there she meets a variety of misfits and becomes obsessed with the pain and desperation expressed in letters sent to God, dead relatives and lost lovers. At first her naâ€¢ve optimist clashes with the controlled pragmatism of, Frank, her sexy but haunted South American boss, but soon he’s teaching her how to salsa. ^
Miranda Otto is chirpy and engaging as Alice but she’s let down by a stiff performance from George Del Hoyo as, Frank. The film glosses over some dark and potentially interesting ideas about loss in favour of shallow and irritatingly formulaic genre conventions. The ending of the never believable story is painfully contrived and overly sentimental.
ALL THE LITTLE ANIMALS ^ * * * ^ (http://www.jment.com/jmlittle.htm) ^ All the Little Animals is a sweet, earnest but ultimately schizophrenic film with a strong environmental message. It tells the story of Bobby, a
childlike man in his mid twenties who was left brain damaged after a car accident. His mother’s death leaves him to the mercy of her horrible
husband, De Winter, who Bobby has dubbed “The Fat.” When De Winter threatens to institutionalise Bobby, he flees to the countryside and meets up with Mr. Summers, an eccentric recluse who spends his days burying road kill and cursing the human race. As Bobby has always had a soft spot for creatures, the two of them get along like a house on fire. That is, until Bobby’s past threatens to intrude into his new-found idyll. ^
Christian Bale is utterly sympathetic and engaging as Bobby. He convincingly communicates both the simplicity and chaos of his character’s personality and gives the film a strong emotional core. While John Hurt, as Mr. Summers, gives a typically strong performance he strangely fails to occupy the same narrative space as Bale. The two actors just don’t connect leaving the most important relationship in the story feeling rather ineffectual. Daniel Benzali, as Bobby’s evil but not particularly fat step-father, further weakens the film by choosing to go for dull quiet menace when a lot of stomping about and red-faced screaming are required. This film is producer Jeremy Thomas’ first foray into the world of directing. Unfortunately, he isn’t able to bring Eski Thomas’ wonderful screenplay based on Walker Hamilton’s novel fully to life. After the stirring opening shot of an older, wiser Bobby sitting in golden field as the wind blows through his hair, the direction goes downhill. The camera never feels as if it is in control of the story or the scenery. The film’s strength is in its unusual subject matter. While the environmental message is somewhat heavy handed the story does bring up interesting ideas about the different values we place on various kinds of life. One imagines that it could have been brilliant in a more experienced director’s hands.
WHATEVER (R) ^ * * * * ^ (http://www.spe.sony.com/classics/whatever/index.html) ^ A refreshingly honest coming of age tale told from a female perspective. Anna is a high school senior trying to figure out what to do with her life. While her pretty best friend Brenda lets herself get gang banged at keg parties Anna is a virgin who’s never smoked pot. The film follows her as she tests the boundaries of her world and undergoes some rude awakenings but ultimately discovers a core of personal strength beneath her teenage confusion. ^
The film contains the kind of marvellously naturalistic, completely believable performances of the kind that only seem to be found in independent films. Liza Weil, a sort of gritty version of Claire Danes, is particularly empathetic as Anna while Chad Morgan skilfully reveals the desperation beneath screwed up Brenda’s slick facade. The story is quite simple and not particularly original but the attention to detail, smart dialogue and spot-on characterisations flesh it out. If one ignores the one unfortunate lapse into melodrama it works very well. While this is Susan Skoog’s first feature film one wouldn’t know it to look at it. Skoog’s filmmaking style is smart and professional, realistic but never self-consciously dark or gritty. In the discussion after the film she claimed that with Whatever she was aiming for something between a John Hughes candy floss vision of high school and the “we’re all going to die horribly” nihilism of Kids. What’s she’s created contains elements with which any American who went to high school during the eighties will be able to identify.
GIRL ^ * ^ (http://kushner-locke.com/pages/girl.htm) ^ Girl is a low rent teen comedy/drama hovering somewhere between Clueless and an amalgamation of the first season of Beverly Hills 90210. It contains mediocre directing, charmless performances and a plot that feels as if it were conceived during an extended bathroom break. Andrea is a bubble-headed good girl living in a suburb of Seattle. While slumming in a squat populated by cheerful homeless people she bumps into Todd Sparrow, the lead singer of local band The Color Green, and is instantly smitten. Despite her friends’ warnings she tosses out her cardigans in favour of skin-tight animal prints and becomes a full-fledged groupie. Along the way to the utterly formulaic and contrived ending she and her friends deal with losing their virginity, date rape, growing apart, teen suicide, bullying, lesbianism and abusive parents. ^
Dominique “Lolita” Swain is a cute little thing but she’s got the screen presence of a Twinkie. The rest of the cast is primarily forgettable with the exceptions of Patrick Sean Flannery as Todd Swallow (Kurt Cobain without the heroin or the angst) and Portia de Rossi as his long-suffering sister, Carla. The incredibly silly screenplay based on Blake Nelson’s novel was written by David Tolchinsky and directed by first timer Jonathan Kahn. Admittedly, the film does have a number of funny moments. Of course, you’ll only get to the funny moments if the constant superfluous and utterly annoying voice over narration doesn’t drive you screaming from the theatre first. The quality moments only end up contributing to the film’s overall tonal schizophrenia in which one moment young Andrea’s parents are showing her how to put a condom on a banana and in the next one of her close friends commits suicide. Instead of concentrating on the slim but sufficient groupie/coming of age storyline the film bizarrely tries to deal with each and every teen dilemma in existence. This leads to some astonishingly shallow and glib handling of issues such as date rape, bulimia and teen suicide. Ultimately, the story says very little as the plot is far too messy and contrived to successfully support it’s rather trite message about doing it for oneself.
SPEAK LIKE A CHILD ^ * * * ^ As the title suggests, Speak Like a Child is about the process of growing up and letting go of the past. Three childhood friends who share a dark secret reunite as adults. Their differing motivations and desires for the future result in both further tragedy and, finally, catharsis. Documentary filmmaker John Akomfrah and cinematographer Jonathan Collinson have shot a beautiful looking film with exquisite use of colour, light and composition. However, the disjointed unfocussed narrative makes it difficult to receive the full-intended emotional impact. The story, based loosely on actual events from screenwriter Danny Padmore’s life, is one you’ve most likely seen before. While select scenes and images hold significant power they aren ‘t strung smoothly together. Several scenes are simply superfluous and distracting. The end of the film ties together most of the seemingly disparate narrative elements but it’s a long, cold journey to get to that point. ^