4 Stars

Growing up in roller skates

Katie Meyer really wants to take up roller blading

Whip It
Directed by Drew Barrymore, 2009
111 minutes
I’ve never had an interest in rollerblading, but watching Whip It instilled in me an urge to buy a pair of skates, find an underground roller rink, and invent a ridiculous derby name for myself.  Such is the effect of Drew Barrymore’s directorial debut, a comic coming of age tale in which Bliss Cavendar (Ellen Page) transforms from a repressed beauty queen into Babe Ruthless, derby star.

Barrymore introduces Bliss at a beauty pageant in her conservative hometown of Bodeen, Texas, as she takes her first stab at self-expression by dying her hair blue, earning a hysterical reaction from her mother, a superbly cast Marcia Gray Harden.  Bliss is a misfit in pageants and at school, demonstrated by requisite scenes of haranguing by a clichéd group of rich kids, and her best friend Pash (Alia Shawkat) is the only person she can be herself with.

Self-conscious and shy, Bliss surprises both of them by trying out for a failing roller derby team in Austin, The Hurl Scouts. With the support of the team’s matriarch (an uncharacteristically unfunny Kristen Wiig), Bliss becomes Babe Ruthless on the track, and uses her newfound strength to push back against the bullies she faces at school and at home.

Barrymore seems to feel that her silly slapstick role provides all the comedy necessary, but the painful earnestness of the girl-power roller derby scenes sometimes stifles their humour.  Funnier moments occur at the diner where Bliss and Pash waitress, but they never seem long enough.  A cringe-worthy romantic plotline and a flat rivalry between two derby teams distract from the building tension between Bliss and her parents, who believe her new extracurricular is an SAT class, which is far more entertaining and poignant.

Nevertheless, genuinely hilarious moments and the compelling depiction of Blisss empowerment makes Whip It a strong debut film for Barrymore, not the disappointment many critics anticipated.

Whip It will be in UK theatres 7 April 2010.


“Funny how fallin’ feels like flyin'”

Ross Dickie reports on an Oscar contender from the Glasgow Film Festival
Crazy Heart
Directed by Scott Cooper, 2009
112 minutes

In Scott Cooper’s directorial debut, the inimitable Jeff Bridges takes on the role of Bad Blake, a country singer who faded away before he had the chance to burn out. Resigned to the bowling alley circuit and enslaved by the bottle, Blake stumbles from small stage to small stage in an almost permanent state of inebriation. The films dark mood shifts when the washed up musician agrees to an interview with Jean Craddock (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a young journalist who he meets in Santa Fe. The chemistry between the two is immediately apparent and although both actors deliver outstanding individual performances, the film is at its best when they share the screen.
Receiving his first Oscar nomination in 1972 for his role in The Last Picture Show, it seems about time that Bridges gained the recognition that he so thoroughly deserves with a nomination this year. His main contender is undoubtedly Colin Firth, who recently picked up a BAFTA for his understated performance in A Single Man much has been made of the scene in which Firths character learns of his lovers death. Bridges portrayal of Bad Blake is equally subtle: the slightest grimace says more of the world-weary singer than any line could possibly convey. Its a tight race, but wouldnt it be great if The Dude won an Oscar?
Credit must also be given to the late Stephen Bruton who, along with T-Bone Burnett, composed and produced such an incredible soundtrack. Songs such as Fallin & Flyin and The Weary Kind provide an important sense of realism and history to Blakes character. Hijacking a Toby Keith concert for one of the movies biggest scenes, Cooper has clearly gone to great lengths to give the story a feeling of authenticity. With the expert vocal coaching of Roger Love, Bridges and Farrell performed all of their own songs. If there is lip-syncing, it is so well executed that it never detracts from the music itself.
One minor criticism could be made of Coopers first shot at writing and directing relates to the quality of the screenplay. This isnt to say that its bad, but the dialogue is nothing special. Without the magnetic screen presence of Bridges and Gyllenhaal, not to mention compelling supporting performances from Colin Farrell and Robert Duvall, the film would be relatively unexceptional. As things stand, it’s one of the best films Ive seen so far this year.
Crazy Heart had its Scottish premiere at the Glasgow Film Festival last week, and is now in theatres across the UK.

Jingle bells in WWII Japan

Teresa McIntyre and David Bowie have a different kind of Christmas

Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence
Directed by Nagisa Oshima, 1983
124 minutes

Don’t break out your Santa hat just yet – this isn’t your typical Christmas film, but one that should make it onto your holiday wish list. Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence is directed by the renowned Japanese auteur Nagisa Oshima. Oshima is best known for his 1976 film In the Realm of the Senses , based on the controversial true story of fatal sexual obsession in 1930s Japan that to this day is heavily censored.

Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence explores the relationships between four men in World War II Japan. David Bowie impresses as the rebellious and alluring prisoner of war Jack Celliers, who while imprisoned is reunited with an old war comrade, Colonel Lawrence (Tom Conti). Lawrence, who speaks fluent Japanese, acts as the bridge between the prisoners and their Japanese guards, and in so doing comes to understand his captors beliefs and values. He forms a peculiar relationship with the Japanese Sergeant Hara, played by internationally celebrated Japanese director and actor Takeshi Kitano. Lawrence and Hara surmount cultural differences to find that ultimately they are both simply men trapped at war, prisoner and captor alike, melancholic for the lives they once knew.

In contrast to Hara and Lawrence’s touching affinity for one another, Hara’s compatriot Captain Yonoi (Ryuichi Sakamoto, also the producer of the film’s popular soundtrack) develops a more malign relationship with Celliers. He clings desperately to the samurai code as his homoerotic infatuation with Celliers develops, the two later clashing in a moment of desperation.

Lawrence and Celliers have a revelatory conversation towards the end of the film in which Oshima justifies their sentiments and actions to the audience. This explanation, supported by Conti and Bowie’s exceptional performances, gives the film a clarity that it is otherwise lacking due particularly to the sometimes implausible conduct of the Japanese. Whether or not their behaviour was meant to emphasise the cultural divide is left ambiguous.

Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence is a complex study of human relations and social conventions. The experience of watching the film is troubling: paradisiacal settings are disturbed by hara-kiri (samurai suicides) and dying prisoners. Oshima’s characters are at once brutal and sympathetic, and justice does not reign over injustice. In these ways the film is a realistic and fascinating portrayal of our world at war, one that should not be missed.

The DVD is available free from the library on a three-day loan.

Angry at capitalism?  So’s Steven Soderbergh

Katie Meyer sympathizes with The Informant!

The Informant!
Directed by Steven Soderbergh, 2009
108 minutes

Did you see Che? How about The Good German? Nine years and many tepidly received features after 2000’s Traffic, director Steven Soderbergh came back in full, puzzling force this summer with The Girlfriend Experience, and this fall, The Informant!. The comedy, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, is a perfectly-timed satire of the 90s American corporate culture behind the recession.

Based on a true story, The Informant! stars Matt Damon as Mark Whitacre, a pudgy biochemist turned businessman who can’t pronounce Porsche, but owns two. Whitacre is Vice President of Archer Daniels Midland, a corn conglomerate engaged in a global price-fixing scheme that Whitacre feels is wrong. Damon’s Whitacre is a bumbling toddler, with a bouncy voice and walk that match his childish crusade as 0014 (“because I’m twice as smart as 007”) to cleanse the company of wrong-doing. Whitacre gets carried away as a white hat, enlisting the help of the FBI but ignoring their advice by speaking to the media, and failing to reveal everything hidden underneath his innocent slouchy suits and ill-fitting toupee.

Soderbergh captures Whitacre’s moral malaise with the office in dim yellows and browns, managing to make Red One footage look like film. He frames shots to emphasize the symmetry and order—where good can easily be separated from evil—the young executive wishes to restore to the company he loves so much. The film dives into Whitacre’s confused, anxious conscience with hilarious monologues and a fun soundtrack, by veteran children’s film score composer Marvin Hamlisch, that pumps bombastic? spy music over his attempts at espionage. On the other end of Whitacre’s tape recorder, two FBI agents—comedically frustrated Scott Bakula and Joel McHale—groan along with the audience. Damon’s pitch-perfect voiceovers kept viewers laughing hard well into the film’s somewhat lagging second half , when Whitacre’s white hat (and toupee) comes off.

The Informant! is a smart jab at the corporate bubble-blowing that caused the recession, and the inept regulation—moral blindness masquerading as stupidity—that allowed it to persist. If you’re mad at capitalism, or just really, really like Matt Damon, The Informant! will have you laughing back at an economic system that has made a mockery of you, the consumer, since the crash.


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