Rabbit Hole (2010)

“Does it ever go away?” whispers Becca (Nicole Kidman) towards the end of John Cameron Mitchell’s wrenching, enriching testimony on grief. Those who’ve ever lost a loved one will feel her pain. Cocooned in a house groaning with memories, Becca’s shell-shocked, exposed, drifting – her young son has just died in a road accident, leaving her and husband Howie (Aaron Eckhart) alone to pick up the pieces. Each cope differently – Becca goes inward, her flinty interactions concealing deep ache. Howie goes outward, searching, hoping.

If all this sounds like an A-list episode of Hollyoaks, it isn’t. Helmed by Shortbus and Hedwig director Mitchell, Rabbit Hole represents a U-turn in form for the openly gay filmmaker. Reigning in the explicit sex and power wigs, Mitchell directs deftly, quietly, creeping into the lives of our pugnacious couple and watching without judgement.

All the best indie buzz words apply: restrained, poignant, moving. But Rabbit Hole isn’t content to be just another indie film with an A-class cast and Big Issues. As it tracks Becca’s journey, it wraps her brittle experiences in mordant wit, ensuring that what could be a drab, maudlin slog is as vibrant as the flowers over which Becca so affectionately fawns.

Vitally, Rabbit Hole’s musings never ring false. Beautifully adapted by David Lindsay-Abaire from his own stageplay, Kidman rises to the demands of his vivid script, leading an impeccable cast that betrays no weak links. Eckhart exudes soul and Sandra Oh elicits sniggers, while Oscar winner Dianne Wiest as Becca’s mother is nothing short of miraculous – both kind and knowing. Amidst them all, Kidman remains coarse, frail and sincere in her finest turn since The Hours. Rabbit Hole is emotional, raw stuff managed with warmth and poise, and we wouldn’t be surprised if it ended up on the Academy Awards short list. 4/5

Via Out In The City

127 Hours (2010)

Could you hack off your own arm if the situation demanded it? That’s the predicament facing climber Aron Ralston (James Franco), whose one-man hiking excursion to the wilds of Utah ends abruptly when he becomes trapped in a canyon, his arm pinned under a collapsed boulder. There he stays for five whole days, clinging to life as he brainstorms an exit strategy from the nightmarish quandary – and finally comes to that inevitable, bloody conclusion.

If the story sounds familiar, it’s because it hit the headlines in 2003, when a man by the name of Aron Ralston really did get himself stuck in the sand-blasted canyons of Utah and – yes – sliced off his own arm to escape. Interesting story. But as a movie? Odder still, as a movie directed by Danny Boyle, the man who swept the Oscars clean last year with unexpected feel-good smash Slumdog Millionaire?

Where Slumdog was a frenetically-paced globe-trotter, 127 Hours at first seems to be the opposite. A single-location, mostly one-man show, it’s an intimate journey into the mind of a man on the edge as his increasingly frazzled brain escapes into fantasy. The links between the two, though, lie in the Boyle’s ever-energetic delivery, which is charged with his characteristic batty visuals, adrenaline-pumped edits and a head-thumping soundtrack.

When those Boyle tropes join hands with an achingly charismatic James Franco, 127 Hours becomes arresting cinema. Chartering a course through byzantine emotional beats, Franco transforms before our eyes into the star we all knew he could be: funny, moving, real. His performance – and the movie – comes to an inescapable head with that horrendous hack scene, a blizzard of gore and ear-bursting sonic screams. But while the ‘arm bit’ is what 127 Hours will ultimately be remembered for, it’s Franco who makes the movie. A-

Via Out In The City

The Next Three Days (2010)

For all his alleged crotchety encounters with the press and fiery disposition, muscle man Russell Crowe has a soft side. From Gladiator to A Beautiful Mind, Crowe’s films boast an action slant, but they’re usually about family men on the brink. Adding to that collection of desperate chaps, The Next Three Days finds the Aussie taking on his most interesting role to date.

John Brennan (Crowe) is happily married to wife Lara (Elizabeth Banks) – until she’s charged with murder and sentenced to life imprisonment. While John attempts to raise their young son alone, Lara maintains she’s innocent. But when she attempts suicide, having had her final appeal rejected, John realises there’s only one way to save his family – by busting Lara out of prison.

Oscar-winning Crash director Paul Haggis doesn’t let Crowe phone this one in. Putting him at the centre of every scene, we watch as Brennan goes from a broken man to one with a plan, while wondering at the consequences of his undertaking such a devastating challenge. It’s one of Crowe’s most versatile performances yet as he plays the doting father, the dutiful husband and the desperate man – all with conviction. Just how far will this man go? It’s a question both Haggis and Crowe have fun toying with.

But the prison break is the film’s main hook and highlight, Haggis playing it out with just the right blend of believability and reality-stretching. The result is a breathless segment twisted tight with tension. Unfortunately, from there, Haggis’ story runs overlong, with an unnecessarily protracted ending. And while Crowe is phenomenal, the rest of the cast are barely given room to breathe. Both a ticking time bomb thriller and an emotional domestic drama, Days is an accomplished if vaguely indulgent offering from Haggis and Crowe, and one that slightly outstays its welcome. 3/5

Via Out In The City

Loose Cannons (2010)

Family – can’t live with them, can’t kill them. Unless your unexpected emergence from the closet has prompted your father to suffer a near-fatal heart attack. Such is the plight of forty-something Antonio (Alessandro Preziosi), whose revelation sends an emotional riptide coursing through his close-knit Italian brood. But it’s visiting younger brother Tommaso (Riccardo Scamarcio) who has the bigger problem – he was planning on announcing his own man-love at the very same dinner that Antonio’s confession disrupted. Now, with Antonio banished, Tommaso’s left to shoulder the floundering family business (pasta manufacturing, naturally) as the company’s sole male successor.

Which just barely scrapes the surface of director Ferzan Özpetek’s vibrant filmic cocktail, the energetic plot also tracking the exploits of a saucy older aunt, a tempestuous female friend, and all manner of domestic disquiet. Özpetek, though, is no stranger to such outlandish premises, his previous dramas having sticky-fingered numerous awards and kudos (notably, Ignorant Fairies won big at the 2001 New York Lesbian and Gay Film Festival). With Cannons, he deftly twists humour and dramatic gay themes into a sumptuously-shot melange of witty banter and touching sentiment.

Italian cinema has long flirted with dicey dissections of the family unit (see also the operatic beauty of Tilda Swinton’s recent I Am Love), but here Özpetek nudges the formula into sunnier surrounds. Though the resultant near-farce at times wobbles through campy terrain (witness the arrival of Tommaso’s flamboyant friends, who struggle to put a lid on their sexuality), the film is anchored by its stellar cast – not least Ilaria Occhini as the family matriarch, whose own tragic past poetically collides with the present, most arrestingly in the film’s elegiac closing moments.

A chic, charming chuckler, Cannons proves particularly appealing as we wend our way into the winter months, offering the perfect place to soak up some warm Italian rays. 4/5

Via Out In The City

Whip It (2010)

Jammers score. Blockers block. And pivots… well, they sort of block too. If you’re feeling really saucy, you could always whip it. Make sense? If it does, you’re obviously a fan of that oestrogen-infused, hot-wheeled American pastime known as roller derby.

If not, fear not. Drew Barrymore and co are here to educate. Thrashing round a circuit track sporting miniskirts, tattoos and a fair few cross-me-and-die expressions, the gals in Whip It are championing girl power and attitude galore.

What’s it all in aid of? Well, it starts with a girl. Her name’s Bliss (Ellen Page). She’s feeling anything but – “Just defective, I guess.” Seventeen-years-old and her mother’s very own living doll, Bliss wants nothing more than to break free from the beauty pageants and concoct her own flavour of fun.

Which is when she happens upon roller derby. Pledging thrills, spills and frills; it’s everything that has been missing from Bliss’ life. So she secretly joins the ‘Hurl Scouts’ team and becomes brazen alter ego Babe Ruthless. But what will mummy dearest think?

Based on the novel Derby Girl by ex-roller athlete Shauna Cross, Whip It is the directorial debut of one Drew Barrymore. Uh-oh, schmaltz alert! But… wait. Despite having brightened up her fair share of blinding, Prozac-happy rom-coms, this once-rebel-without-a-cause does an admirable job of stripping back the gloss to forge something that ebbs with a cool, authentic indie vibe.

With its teen torment, carefully crafted romance, and Amazonian action heroines, Barrymore’s adaptation adeptly channels the spirit of the sport itself. Rough but heartfelt, her film boasts an edgy ’70s zeal – from no-fuss visuals to a head-banging soundtrack, which features the rockin’ likes of Tilly and the Wall, .38 Special and Goose.

The restrained approach is both a blessing and a curse. An empyrean underwater clinch, a cornfield romp and a moment of heartbreaking, well, heartbreak are all neatly handled. Here, Barrymore isn’t afraid to let these mostly wordless scenes play through images and music.

But when it comes to the sport itself, usually a bombastic blend of genuine athleticism and high camp, she tends to keep the lioness caged. Her biggest frivolity ends up being the unveiling of the circuit track, in which a blackout gives way to a glittering, suspended roller-skate.

At its most basic, Whip It is the story of a girl searching for her identity. Which, naturally, factors in the well-heeled drama of a mother-versus-daughter mêlée. But this threadbare lynchpin is given fresh legs by the combined thesp power of Marcia Gay Harden and teen queen Ellen Page. Harden, as ever, is a force to be reckoned with. Brittle and cold, yet loving and desperate, her interactions with Page’s likeable indie chick afford Whip It its strongest asset.

The addition of Juliette Lewis as bitch-on-wheels Iron Maven is also a masterstroke, though it’s frustrating that her character is kept on a PG leash, reducing her to a sideways snark that lacks the requisite bite.

In the cluttered sports movie sub-genre, it would be easy to diminish Whip It to Bring It On with balls (there’s even a similar bloody-faced ‘Is it bad?’ moment). But where the latter embraced saccharine dairy products (and there’s nothing wrong with that), Whip It establishes itself as a restless nomad with fire in its belly.

Anticipation: Roller-skates still exist? And they’re still cool? Wow! 3

Enjoyment: A killer soundtrack and a sassy, game cast make for a fun-filled roller-ride. 4

In Retrospect: A restrained but accomplished debut from Barrymore, who emerges with minimal bruising. 4

Via Little White Lies

The Scouting Book For Boys (2010)

An Education, Fish Tank, Nowhere Boy. If 2009 proved anything, it’s that British film truly is alive, kicking and breeding diverse projects of consistent brilliance.

Now, separated from last year’s flock but imbued with the same romantic-wet-weekend aura as An Education, and the harsh this-is-how-it-is reality of Fish Tank, comes The Scouting Book For Boys. Yes, really: there’s a film bearing the same title as that invaluable (yet decidedly uncinematic) tome that helps young lads navigate their way through the unruly wilds of nature.

Aha, there’s a penny somewhere, and it’s just dropped. So it’s metaphors we’re talking about here? You got it. Drawing on dismal caravan park culture and budget British holidays in Devon, director Tom Harper is more interested in plotting a course through the cumbersome growing spasms of his young leads than watching them make a tent out of mud, twigs and glow worm spit.

Carefully sidestepping Loach-Leigh realism, Harper expands on his youth-in-revolt Cherries short with the story of 14-year-olds David (This Is England’s Thomas Turgoose) and Emily (Holly Grainger). They describe themselves as “chosen brother and sister”, and are never apart. David is quiet and slightly gormless – “Captain Serious” the flighty, flirty Emily calls him.

At the holiday camp where they live, David’s father is an embarrassing crooner, while Emily’s mother is Amy Winehouse-channelling drunk shopkeeper Susan Lynch. When Emily discovers she’s being sent away to live with her father, she and David hatch a plan for her to run away. But things spiral out of control as the search led by local authorities and local people escalates.

Though many of the characters in Scouting Book fumble in the dark, beset and beleaguered by their own confusion/vices/secrets, Harper has a confident and firm grip on the film’s many disparate parts. Instilling the yarn with oh-so-slightly off-centre, distorted imagery, he gives voice to the quiet changes taking place behind almost-man Turgoose’s unreadable eyes.

The subtle shifts between boyhood, adolescence and beyond simmer in blinding, chlorine-addled sunlight and skulk in the shadows of the brief nighttime hours. Trading off the despondency, Skins writer Jack Thorne ensures the script is packed with laugh-out-loud zingers. “Here’s James Bond, the cunt who shagged me,” spits Lynch’s bitter mother, recipient of all the best lines. “Red rag day, is it?” is another highlight of her booze-bothered vernacular.

In the end, Scouting Book is a surprise delight, flawlessly cast and nimbly weathering its complex themes. Oh, and the original tome? It’s in all of one scene.

Anticipation: Confused, basically. But, my, hasn’t Turgoose grown? 2

Enjoyment: Dirty nails fumbling for affection, sunny visuals undercut by mournful indie music. Not what we were expecting. It’s much, much better. 4

In Retrospect: Cranking up the tension like a jack-in-the-box, Scouting Book is no botched DIY effort. Funny, brilliantly observed and unexpectedly heart-rending. 4

Via Little White Lies

The Merry Gentleman (2009)

Ex-Batman Michael Keaton has done something quite remarkable for his directorial debut. Ignoring the market that remembers his quirky ‘80s glory days, as well as those who know him for his myriad comedy roles, The Merry Gentleman sees Keaton muscling into previously unexplored territory – the emotional drama. Not only that, but he’s made the ambitious decision to take on the dual responsibility of director and leading man. A recipe for disaster?

It very well could be, and The Merry Gentleman is not without its faults. But playing Frank Logan, a man of dubious morals and even more dubious motives, Keaton has gifted himself his most rewarding character in years; and therein lies one of Gentleman’s quiet strengths.

Christmas is in the air, and Kate Frazier (Kelly Macdonald) is hoping to make a fresh go of it in Chicago. Having fled an abusive marriage, she’s got a new job, a new pad, and a fading black eye that she employs all manner of cover-up fantasies to explain away. When she spots a man standing on the roof-edge of the building across the street from her office, she yells out, and believes she has scared off a potential suicide attempt.

Unbeknownst to her, the man on the roof is Frank Logan, and he’s just shot one of Kate’s co-workers. An assassin by profession, Frank is suffering from pneumonia and a serious case of the festive blues. Drawn to Kate, he orchestrates a happenchance meeting, and a tentative friendship develops between the two. But can either of their pasts ever be forgotten, or forgiven?

Merry, this ain’t. Juxtaposing Kate’s constant victim with Frank’s constant killer is an interesting ruse, and Macdonald and Keaton gel admirably, each closed off to the world in their own ways yet hopeful of absolution and new futures. “You strike me as quite a private person,” notes Kate, “I’m quite a private person, too.” And she is, but she’s also – annoyingly – the sort of thankless character who exhibits scream-at-the-screen behaviour. A person to whom things happen, Kate is portrayed as the slightly gormless eye of an increasingly exasperating storm, despite Macdonald’s best efforts.

On the plus side, Keaton the director wisely draws a leaf from Clint Eastwood’s book. Keeping the framing neat, his style is the kind of unobtrusive classical filmmaking that is a dying breed in contemporary Hollywood. Unafraid of stillness, Keaton allows Gentleman’s leisurely plot to unravel a fraction too slowly, but proves a dab hand when it comes to character. Unsurprisingly, he’s an actor’s director, drawing a fantastic performance from Bobby Cannavale, and pitching an effective portrayal of assassin Frank as a disillusioned loner who’s lost all value in life.

Anticipation: Keaton in the director’s chair? Unusual. Will he be the new Sean Penn or the new Nicolas Cage? 3

Enjoyment: Keaton keeps it lean, never smothering his characters. It’s kind of slow, though. 3

In Retrospect: Surprisingly restrained and unflashy, Keaton’s directorial debut is classy if not overwhelming. 3

Via Little White Lies

Cold Souls (2009)

Google the word ‘soul’ and you’re flooded with 40 million links, all relating to jazz or religion. Cold Souls is interested in neither of these. With a trippy premise literally dreamed up by director Sophie Barthes, it is pensive and ponderous, offering a nod and wink to the likes of Philip K Dick and Charlie Kaufman. But it’s also peculiarly remote.

Paul Giamatti plays Paul Giamatti (wink), suffering through his own interpretation of Russian stage play Uncle Vanya. Rehearsals are not going well: “It’s like somebody put my heart in a vice,” the actor wheezes after playing out a particularly overwrought scene. “You take things too seriously,” his director reasons, and this is true of both the character and the actor. Pitched as a lonely, irritable spirit, Giamatti shifts gravitas in spades, heaving his leaden soul around like a yoke. He barely cracks a smile for the entire hour and a half.

Then he happens upon Soul Storage; a company that does exactly what it says on the tin. It offers to cleave a person’s immortal soul from them and store it away where it can bother them no more. No attempts at scientific clarification here – Cold Souls is embedded resolutely in its own off-kilter reality that smartly sidesteps explanation. So when we learn that something called ‘soul trafficking’ is rife, and the narrative splits to encompass Russian soul-ferrying ‘mule’ Nina (Dina Korzun), it makes a perfect kind of non-sense.

Which all sounds very profound. And it sort of is. Barthes channels her native French cinema to produce something beautiful and overtly dreamy, with flickers of humour that buoy proceedings. Take these gems: Giamatti is disheartened when he discovers that his extracted soul resembles nothing more than a chickpea; while his outrage at his soul being ‘rented’ is second only to his horror that a Russian wannabe-actress is using it to thesp up a soap opera (“She’ll destroy it!”).

But quips aside, and despite all its chatter about the human spirit, Cold Souls remains disappointingly disaffecting. The tragic, seemingly doomed Nina – whose exorbitant trafficking has left her with so much ‘soul residue’ that she can probably never take back her own soul – strains for sympathy, but never quite attains it. And not even a location jump to Russia enlivens the film’s lethargic final act, with a Bond villain character quickly offloaded and any tension evaporating in the face of a silly kidnap plot. “Hollow, light, empty,” Giamatti murmurs as he describes his feelings of post-extraction soullessness. Funny how those adjectives apply to his film, too.

Anticipation: Cool premise, and Giamatti is pretty dependable. 4

Enjoyment: Slow burning and strangely distant. Still, there are some interesting ideas. 3

In Retrospect: Thought provoking but elusive, Cold Souls’ theories blanket any feeling, making this all sadly soulless. 3

Via Little White Lies

Cloud 9 (2009)

‘You’re as young as the man you feel,’ the line goes. Which makes Inge (Ursula Werner) an astonishingly virile 76-year-old. Snared in her post-retirement routine, toiling in a suffocating blanket of iron steam and sewing chores, Inge (actually in her late ’60s) has been married for 30 years, and her misery is tangible. Then she meets Karl (Horst Westphal), the 76-year-old in question, and the two recognise in each other a mirrored loneliness. You can almost hear Barry White humming from beyond the grave.

And before you’ve taken a breath there’s the sex. In Cloud 9’s frankly shocking pre-credit five minutes, Inge and Karl engage in a staggeringly graphic display of geriatric gymnastics. He strokes her cheek with liver-spotted hands, they kiss awkwardly, he gets between her naked thighs… If you’ve turned green already, chances are you won’t survive these opening moments.

But that would be doing Cloud 9 a disservice. Yes, the in-your-face, fleshy fornication is at first galling – almost hysterically so. Do we laugh at this? Is it comedy? Horror? But German director Andreas Dresen is from the Mike Leigh school of thought. Nudity itself is only fleetingly provocative, and with Cloud 9, Dresen is more interested in a probing – and, yes, explicit – exploration of lives that are meant to be winding down. Together, Inge and husband Werner (Horst Rehberg) have raised children and made a home – they have done everything that society expects – but have they truly lived?

Sound like a drag? Well, Dresen saves proceedings from the doldrums by exploring the fertile, complex age issues with fascination. Like Leigh, he is a director interested in people and their unique internal/external worlds. Filming in a loose, documentary style, his natural lighting hides none of the ravages of time, and long, unforgiving takes force us to inhabit the world of our elderly romantics absolutely. When Inge stands before a full length mirror, naked as the day she was born, tentatively searching her ageing folds, we’re right there with her – morbidly fascinated and repulsed, as she is.

This isn’t just softcore porn for the over 70s; Dresen is visibly peeling back the layers of society’s older patrons, exposing their hopes and fears through the heightened dramatics of a love story. As our technology-obsessed era closes in around them – wind turbines obscure their country jaunts, planes power overhead – just where do our arthritic trio belong?

Sadly, melodrama threatens to unbalance the second half of this carefully constructed opus when, inevitably, the romantic tryst is exposed. But if the only argument against the dramatic developments is that Ursula Werner’s hysterical sobbing is too real, too harrowing, you know you’re clutching at knitting needles. Quirky observations, jokes about old age (failed erections and female masturbation among them) and some neat visual tricks make Cloud 9 a surprisingly poignant experience. You’ll never look at your granddad the same way again.

Anticipation: German OAPorn? Gulp! 1

Enjoyment: By turns fascinating and repulsive, but always oddly moving. 3

In Retrospect: Daring stuff for those with the stomach. 3

Via Little White Lies

Todd Stephens – (Not Just) Another Gay Movie Director

“Something’s got to change,” rabbits director Todd Stephens. We’re on the blower discussing the state of Hollywood’s relationship with homosexuals. More specifically, the number of gay actors still cowering in the closet, scared to come clean about their orientation. “If all the gay actors in Hollywood came out at the same time, the world would have to deal with that reality. That some of their idols are gay. But I don’t see that happening any time soon.”

Something of an authority on gay film, Stephens has made a name for himself directing runaway indie hits Edge of Seventeen and both Another Gay Movie flicks. Right now, he’s here to chat about Gypsy 83, a free-spirited road trip flick starring Sara Rue (her off Popular and Less Than Perfect) and Goth cutie Kett Turton. But that’s not before he lets us know how he feels about those closet doors. “I used to be against Perez Hilton outing people, but now I’m kind of up for it. Like, fuck it. In the case of Another Gay Sequel, I had a couple of guys who were in the first one who dropped out at the very last minute because their agents staged an intervention and told them not to play more gay parts. Some of them are gay in real life but they’re not out.”

Anyway, back to Gypsy 83. Shot in 2001, it’s been a while hitting UK shores thanks to short-sighted distributors who “didn’t think it was gay enough, they didn’t know what the movie poster was”. An intimate dramedy with a soundtrack set to the rock-out refrains of Stevie Nicks, the plot follows Gypsy (Rue), who decides to break out of her small-town apathy by driving to New York with gay best friend Clive (Turton) and enter the renowned Night of a Thousand Stevies contest. “I really wanted to explore the relationship between gay men and straight women,” Stephens reveals. “That sort of amazing bond that we often have as gay people. Our diva best friends. There’s a connection, and a love, and an intimacy, but no sex. Yeah, it’s very complicated.” And trivia fans prick up those ears, apparently Chris Evans of ‘Fantastic Four’ originally auditioned for a role in the film as a gay jock. “He wanted to be in the film and I gave the part to somebody else. I could kick myself now,” laughs Stephens.

A deep thinker with a celluloid soul, Stephens is just as interested in shooting cute guys doing naughty things as he is exploring the myriad gay issues that marshal our community. With Another Gay Movie – a queer American Pie that fuses teen angst with gross-out gags – he enjoyed toying with gay stereotypes. “I tried to do a lot with the feminine character of Nico,” he says. “I really wanted to celebrate that and sexualise him. I feel like the queen never gets to get laid. It bothers me that a lot of gay people are bothered by portrayals of effeminate gay men; that’s just part of the rainbow of our community.”

Up next, the director is pulling together funds for his “dream project”, a film entitled Flamingos. “I’m sort of fascinated by gay stories that haven’t been told,” he divulges. “What it’s like to get older and deal with aging in the gay community is something that fascinates me. I envision it as a kind of gay Golden Girls.” And who would he want to star? “I’d love to get people like Morgan Freeman to play gay. People who are really established and willing to take a chance. Jack Nicholson as a queen would be hilarious.” Now that would be a coming out to remember.