CHARLIE BARTLETT * * * *
Cert 15, 96 mins
His well documented addictions may have once threatened to sink his career but these days a clean and sober Robery Downey Jr is using the experiences to mesmerising movie effect, bringing a resonant personal edge and sense memory passion to his characters. Already flying high as the heavy tippling Tony Stark in Iron Man, he also parlays his former drink problems to solid effect as the disenchanted borderline alcoholic Principal Gardner in this subversive cocktail of Ferris Fueller’s Day Off and The Breakfast Club.
His dad ‘away’ and his mother (a crushingly sad Hope Davis) clinically depressed, when he’s expelled from his latest private school for making fake IDs to get other kids to like him, emotionally needy Charlie (Anton Yelchin) winds up at his local high school. Here he’s quickly targeted by the resident bully (Tyler Hilton) and just as quickly turns things around by recruiting him as his business partner selling prescription drugs (scamming from his mom’s shrinks by faking ADD and other illnesses) to other students looking to get high and escape their downer lives.
As part of the service, Charlie also sets up counselling sessions in the boys’ toilets and before long there’s queues around the corridor.
One of his patients is drama group leader Susan (Kat Dennings) who has some serious father issues. Dad, naturally, happens to be the Principal which, of course, put him and Charlie on a collision course as lack of authority and need for popularity meet head on.
With Yelchin and Downey sparking off each other as well as delivering commanding individual performances, it’s often wickedly funny. But it also comes with serious commentary about the medical profession’s propensity to dish out pills rather than deal with the root causes of teenage angst and alienation as well touchingly insightful observations about kids forced to grow up to soon, trying to fit in and needing a friendly ear to talk out their troubles. And, as Charlie (who is clearly not in the right here) learns (at gunpoint), that popularity comes with its own requirement of responsibility to others.
The suicidal loner, the bully with the soft side and the promiscuous girl with deep insecurities may be cliches, but the film makes them very human and while it may ultimately succumb to sentimentality, its epiphanies are hard won and all the more touching for that.
CARAMEL * * *
Cert PG, 95 mins, Subtitled
I have it on good authority that women like a gossip when they have their hair done. That seems to apply whether it’s in Birmingham or Beirut. Thirtysomething singleton Layale (Nadine Labaki, who also wrote and directed) runs the Lebanese beauty salon where an assortment of women gather to commiserate with each other about their messy love lives.
There’s her employees: tomboyish Rima (Joanna Moukarzel) whose latent lesbianism is awakened when a gorgeous brunette starts coming in for a regular head massage; and Nisrine, (Yasmine Al Masri), a young Christian girl who’s due to marry and is worried about how to avoid her Muslim fiancé discovering she’s not a virgin. Then there’s the customers: Jamale (Gisele Aouad), an ageing actress scared of being passed over for younger faces (she used sellotape to hide her wrinkles) and in menopause denial; and Rose (Sihame Haddad), the elderly neighbouring seamstress who is being courted by a dignified silver-haired gent but whose life is constrained by having to care for her mentally disabled sister Lili.
And there’s Layale herself, stuck in a going nowhere affair with an unreliable married man (whose wife turns up as a customer and proves to be utterly likeable) and oblivious to the fact that the handsome, good-natured local traffic cop (Adel Karam) harbours a crush that everyone else can see from a mile off. The scene where she scrubs clean the dingy hotel room for her latest tryst only to be left alone and disappointed is heartbreakingly sad.
Not much happens and, rather like an ongoing soap, only one storyline is resolved. But Labaki imbues each sub-plot and character with care and affection, raising laughs and prompting tears in equal measure as she celebrates the resilience of women. The title refers to the sugary solution used in the Lebanon for leg waxing, but it’s also a perfect description of this warm, sweet confection from a filmmaker with a bright future.
SHUTTER * *
Cert 15, 85 Mins
Another week, another rubbish Hollywood remake of an Asian ghost horror. Although made in 2004, the Thai original didn’t actually surface here until last year, by which time audiences had pretty much had their fill of vengeance seeking white-faced girl ghosts with long dark hair and a creepy habit of appearing in mirrors. Even so, despite its genre cliches it still delivered some creepy scares.
Cranked out in pedestrian manner by J-horror hack Masayuki Ochiai, there’s none of that here. Set in Tokyo, although some character details have been tweaked, the basics of the plot remain pretty much faithful to the original. Shortly after arriving in Japan, fashion photographer Ben (Joshua Jackson) and new wife Jane (Rachel Taylor) run down a young woman who emerges from nowhere on the deserted, dark road. However, there’s no sign of blood or a body. And he thinks she imagined the whole thing.
Shortly afterwards, ghostly images start appearing on his photos and friends start killing themselves. Ben reveals the spectral figure to be that of a girl (Megumi Okina from The Grudge) with whom he had a brief fling and who then became a stalker. Naturally, Jane suspects there’s a bit more to the story he’s not telling. Especially since the ghost images are also present on their wedding photos, taken before they arrived in Tokyo.
Visits to a spirit photography magazine and a psychic investigator simply feel like the film’s going through the motions while neither Jackson nor Taylor can summon up the enthusiasm for more than one note performances. There’s a genuine shiver in the epilogue, which seems to have strayed in from a MR James ghost story, but otherwise this is just overexposed and underdeveloped.
OUTPOST * * *
Cert 18, 90 Mins
Another ghost story of sorts, this feature debut by Blackpool-born director Steve Barker was originally destined for Neil Marshall. For whatever reason, he dropped out and went off to shoot his career in the foot with Doomsday, clearing the way for Barker to make a name for himself with this clever, if more than a touch incoherent thriller.
Shot in Scotland and set somewhere in war torn Eastern Europe, it revolves around a motley crew of cynical mercenaries with a crust to earn who, led by ex-Royal Marine DC (Ray Stevenson), have been enlisted by mysterious scientist Hunt (Julian Wadham) for a quick in and out to locate and retrieve some maguffin or other.
The search leads them to an underground bunker where they discover a pile of fresh corpses, one of whom (Johnny Meres) turns out to be still alive but completely blanked. Further exploration reveals the site to be an old WWII Nazi laboratory where, as a handy newsreel explains, they were using the machine Hunt’s been sent to find to create indestructible super-soldiers.
Unfortunately there seems to have been some side effects. So, starting with one of them being shot by an unseen assailant using a bullet too old to have been fired, DC’s team are gradually whittled down by undead Nazis as they’re slowly cornered in the bunker.
There’s some waffle about quantum physics bending time and space, but it never really explains what the silently murderous soldiers are. Are they ghosts, zombies, astral bodies or what? How can they go anywhere to kill their victims in one scene but are unable to get through a locked door when the plot requires it? And just who are the unknown forces that have forced Hunt to carry out this mission and will kill everyone’s families if they abandon it?
Reminiscent in parts of Jamie Bell supernatural war horror Deathwatch, it feels a lot like one of those old EC horror comics or some Twilight Zone episode. And if you can ignore the plot holes there’s some solid suspense, creepy moments and a fair amount of gore, and while the mercenaries tend to be one trait stereotypes, the cast do manage to rise above the usual superficial characterisation of such films to make you want at least one of them to emerge alive.
SMART PEOPLE * *
Cert 15, 95 mins
Like The Squid and the Whale and Wonder Boys, this is another tale about emotionally blocked academics and their dysfunctional middle class families. Just not a very good one.
Lawrence Wetherhold (Dennis Quaid) is the Pittsburgh prof with the problem. He may have lost the spark of life since his wife’s death and become jaded with his career, but the film makes it clear he’s been indifferent to his students (he makes it a point never to remember their names) and their abilities for some years. He’s also oblivious to the needs of his kids and their own loss; overachieving driven Vanessa (Ellen Page) and estranged sensitive James (Ashton Holmes). Nor does he have time for his sponger adoptive brother Chuck (Thomas Haden Church).
But then he suffers concussion which, in short order, reunites him with former student Janet (Sarah Jessica Parker), who’s now a doctor and still nurses a crush, and, because he’s banned from driving, forces him to accept Chuck as his live in (unreliable) chauffeur.
And while Lawrence continues to be oblivious to both the protocol of dating (ie don’t talk about yourself all night) and his children’s needs and achievements, Chuck proves an understanding ear to Vanessa. However, an impulsive moment on her part after a night of tipsy confessionals, makes their relationship increasingly awkward.
There’s some occasionally witty dialogue but with Quaid buttoned down behind his beard and Parker so bland as to be almost invisible, there’s no dynamic or chemistry between them. Consequently, it’s hard to accept that she can turn his self-absorbed life around.
Meanwhile, Holmes barely figures in the narrative and while Church and Page spark well together, you’ve already seen better variations of their characters in Sideways and Juno.
YOU THE LIVING * * *
Cert 15, 93 mins, Subtitled
A mere seven years after Songs From The Second Floor (his film first in 25 years) shared the Jury Prize at Cannes, Swedish director Roy Andersson returns with another tableaux of interconnected vignettes about the misery of human existence.
Filmed using painted backdrops, it exchanges its predecessor’s political targets for musings on the human condition which, as Andersson sees it, is a pretty bleak affair plagued by anxiety, gloom and despair. The film, however, is not. Comprising a series of irreverent comic sketches and fantasy interludes, it’s surreal, absurdist and often totally barking.
Characters wallow in gloom then burst into song, there’s a lot of drinking, lousy weather, the Louisiana Brass Band, a woman having sex while wearing a Viking helmet, a funeral, monologues, a Muslim barber’s revenge, a man being executed for cocking up a party trick and a wedding between a goth girl and a punk guitarist who ride off on their honeymoon in a moving building. As the recurring bartender keeps shouting as he invites his depressed drinkers to place last orders, ‘tomorrow is another day.’ So cheer up, things could get worse. Funny, sad, cruel and utterly beguiling.