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

A Single Man (2010)

Imagine what might have happened if Douglas Sirk had created his own fashion line. Conversely, imagine what kind of movie Donatella Versace might make given half a chance (on second thoughts, no, please don’t). Well, famously provocative designer Tom Ford has gone one better. He conquered the empires of Gucci and Yves Saint Laurent as a top trendsetter, got bored, and fixed his gaze on cinema instead. The result? A Single Man: the kind of confident debut that radiates personality and visual flair while retaining a quietly fluttering heart.

It’s evident from the outset that Ford’s involvement in A Single Man isn’t based on a frivolous impulse. Yes, the film is an experimental exercise, flaunting voguish superfluities. But scrape a little at its stylised veneer, and you uncover a film that swells with warmth.

Widely considered novelist Christopher Isherwood’s greatest work (and the author’s own favourite), A Single Man is the tale of grieving middle-aged lecturer George. Eight months ago, his partner of 16 years died. Unable to escape his melancholy, George (played here with tantalising refinement by Colin Firth) is coasting through life on the currents of memory. Deciding he can go on no longer, he resolves to end his life. We meet him here, on what could be his last day.

Streamlining Isherwood’s 1964 novel, Ford snips away any non-essential characters to concentrate on the central quartet of George, his lovey, midlife-crisis-consumed pal Charley (Julianne Moore), dead love Jim (Matthew Goode, seen in flashbacks) and young student Kenny (Nicholas Hoult). The result is a curious convergence of both men’s personalities. Isherwood’s penchant for pretty youths is retained in the form of Hoult’s beautiful, curious student, while Ford imbues Moore’s Charley with a distinctly British bent (there are definite whiffs of Ab Fab’s Patsy).

“When I die, people can look at this movie and know what I was about,” the director has said. And it’s true, his fingerprints are all over A Single Man; from George’s new surname (borrowed from Ford’s first love), anecdotes about shaved eyebrows (Ford’s own faux pas), even our lead’s dogs are played by Ford’s mutts.

It’s fitting that the filmmaker’s opulent imagery should repeatedly return to eyes, this being as near to a celluloid imprint of a man’s soul as it’s possible to get. Hyper-stylised but with careful nuance, A Single Man only stumbles in its third act as the visual tricks give way to a clumsy climax that feels strangely disconnected from the philosophy of what has gone before.

Anticipation: Firth has had good buzz, and the trailer suggests Ford’s fashionista savvy could translate well to cinema. 3

Enjoyment: A film about death that is bursting with life and passion. 4

In Retrospect: Film couture, dazzling in its optical majesty. Shame about the third act stumble, but A Single Man establishes Ford as an auteur in the making. Singularly brilliant. 4

Via Little White Lies

White Lightnin’ (2009)

“My life’s been a joke, a party and a tragedy,” opines Jesco White (Edward Hogg), the drug-addled, nimble-footed narrator in this blazing, paranoid fusion of biopic and delirious fantasy-gone-wrong. Preaching with the kind of countrified twang usually reserved for the likes of Dolly Parton, Jesco recounts his youth spent in the trailer trash wilds of Appalachia. The tearaway son of infamous dancer D Ray White (Muse Watson), Jesco’s drug-meddling took flight on the cusp of puberty, when his lighter fluid huffin’ resulted in incarceration at a reform school that did anything but.

Yes, this could very well be the Borat of Appalachia – a place not so much painted as grimed with the iconography of rough living and white trash destitution. Inspired by the real life story of Jesco ‘The Dancing Outlaw’ White, all the White hallmarks are there (the addiction, the dancing), but also something else. Something dreamed up out of a dank place of fire and brimstone. In the evocative mould of Todd Haynes’ I’m Not There, White Lightnin’ is obsessed with mood and the possibilities of character free from sterile factoids. It’s a Wikipedia version of a life freely edited by mad men.

So as the film leaves behind Jesco’s teenage years, it also takes leave of the facts. From reform school, a teenage Jesco finds himself institutionalised at the Bennett State Hospital, where he stays for another decade. And it’s here that we first meet Ed Hogg. Wide-eyed and naïve, he’s the lovechild of Jared Leto and David Tennant, at once meek and withdrawn, then boiling over with a red, screaming rage that wreaks 10 shades of hell.

It’s a blinding performance from a one-time Heartbeat guest starrer. Inviting us into Jesco’s damaged, demented mind, Hogg goes to deep, dark places – before flashing a pitch perfect humorous aside. “Don’ fuck with mah fuckin’ hay-ed!” he howls at lover Cilla (a towering Carrie Fisher), meat cleaver in hand. Then, reprimanded for his profanity, he timidly reiterates, “She’s effin’ with mah effin’ hay-ed!”

Former documentary and short film director Dominic Murphy clearly revels in upping the ante for his feature debut. Blanching colour from the screen, leaving just the faintest memory of hue, Murphy confidently presents his visuals as nightmarish extensions of Jesco’s warped inner-mind. Blackouts, flickering, over-processed montage and distorted imagery are all paired with a soundtrack that gradually becomes more and more erratic, charting Jesco’s horrific descent into insanity.

“There’s a time when you’ve lived in your own head for too long that y’all have the privilege to go insane,” Jesco cheerfully mentions. And, at the halfway mark, White Lightnin’ fearlessly follows Jesco into his lunacy, entering a ponderous, dreamlike state that cultivates a cantankerous spirit of unease.

Seething with blighted fervour and over-ripe with religious wrath, the wild, elemental imagery generates something truly disturbing. With its strange religious overtones and inevitably fitful conclusion, White Lightnin’ is elusive and bleak, but magnetic filmmaking.

Anticipation: Jesco who? A film about mountain dancing? Next! 2

Enjoyment: Feverish, brilliantly evocative and effortlessly unsettling. 4

In Retrospect: Fantastic performances and a creeping sense of doom make this one to watch. Pure lightning in a bottle. 4

Via Little White Lies

Kisses (2009)

The opening moments of Lance Daly’s feisty, captivating coming-of-ager are uncompromisingly bleak. A dead dog lies rotting by the roadside. Busted bikes nestle amid festering, scattered debris. This could be hell, and for young tweens Dylan (Shane Curry) and Kylie (Kelly O’Neill) living on the outskirts of Dublin, it might as well be. Inhabiting a literally black-and-white world with little prospect, their neighbouring families are as bad as each other – scrapping and abusive, they put Shameless to shame. Not even Christmas alleviates their spirits. And after a bust-up with his brutish dad, Dylan sets out into the big city to find his AWOL older brother, with Kylie along for the haul.

Devoid of colour and up to its eyeballs in domestic turbulence, Kisses fosters a painful, monochrome melancholy. Then, as Dylan and Kylie take flight, skipping down river aboard a junk barge, the black and white blushes. Iridescent hues whisper into their surroundings. Gradually the colour builds until the screen is saturated with the glow of Dublin’s kaleidoscopic city lights. It’s a showy contrivance that is never gaudy, never puckers, tapping into the childish pleasures that our duo have rarely, if ever, experienced.

But if the whimsical visuals seem to suggest an escapist, wish-fulfilment adventure, think again. The more they wrench at their council estate leashes, the more futile our duo’s struggle appears. And as their twilight search/exploration wears on, the nefarious streetfolk that the kids encounter grow increasingly more dangerous. Childish fears quickly harden into something more real and terrifying. “There’s no devil, just people,” Kylie realises after one explosive, if overdramatic, encounter.

In their first ever acting roles, Curry and O’Neill are phenomenal. At once bullish, immature and naïve, their struggle for understanding, for more, is as moving as it is ultimately hopeless. It’s fitting that their journey is pitched to the strains of Bob Dylan; both kids inexplicably drawn to the counterculture king without ever knowing why. The film’s emblematic anti-theme tune, Dylan’s ‘Shelter from the Storm’, says it all.

By journey’s end, Daly’s fusion of youthful anxiety and child-like yearning has established itself as a beautifully realised epitaph to social unrest. Part celebration, part call to arms, it’s a sarky, quirky delight. “I’ve nothing else to give, only kisses,” explains one brief encounter. “When you kiss, you give or you take.” Kisses is a giver.

Anticipation: Looks a bit like This Is Ireland. 2

Enjoyment: These kids can act and they like Bob Dylan? Get to the head of the class, you beauts. 4

In Retrospect: A riveting, emotional spectacle with stacks of style and a song in its heart. 4

Via Little White Lies