Sunday, 10 January 2010

Nowhere Boy; Uncle Buck; Is Anybody There?; Mary and Max

Nowhere Boy

This story of John Lennon's youth is initially jarring - the images of Liverpool as a prosperous, thriving city seem rose tinted until you realise that it's position from the 70s onwards (until its relatively recent prosperity) doesn't reflect the situation in the post-war years, as the city became an important area of industry in the 50s.

Whilst music is a main focus, particularly the pre-Beatles skiffle band The Quarrymen, the story hinges on the familial tensions with John raised by his aunt Mimi and only reintroduced to his mother (who is portrayed as mentally ill; though any diagnosis goes unnamed she seems to be suffering from manic depression) in his late teens. His uncle and father-figure dies early on in the film, and whilst the family drama undeniably has a large impact on the young Lennon, a lot of it does seem to manifest as so much teen disaffection, with lots of swearing, swaggering and slamming of doors. The young Beatle comes across as a bit of a dick, fairly selfish and egotistical.

Kirstin Scott-Thomas is great as the tightly wound Mimi, and Anne Marie Duff plays his mother mostly bursting with joy at having her son back in her life. David Morrisey also plays well as her long-suffering partner Bobby, concerned at the disruption of having John back in her life. Sam Taylor-Wood paints the scene of the era of rock n roll seeping into the culture of the late 50s convincingly, all Elvis quiffs and natty overcoats. Aaron Johnson is deceptively good; much has been made of his relationship with director Taylor-Wood and their age gap, and you would therefore expect the petulant teen act to come more naturally, but he manages to hold the attention and gel the whole film together, exuding the charm that Lennon had which mitigated his less palatable traits. By the time the film is over you feel that you want to see the Beatles start as a band proper, but then this is a Lennon biopic, not a Beatles history piece. You don't need to be a big Beatles, nor indeed Lennon fan, to get something out of Nowhere Boy, and one scene in particular is a genuine tear jerker by virtue of succesful character build up and emotional investment into the the film so that you do care for them. However, maybe as I'm not a big Beatles or Lennon fan I'm more inclined to forgive it any failings? At times it does feel like the focus may be a little tight, and for what is essentially a family drama in the same vein as a thousand decent UK TV productions or the Leigh/Loach features, it manages to engage though with perhaps a few too many soft edges.

While similarities aren't what biopics are all about, the lead does have a vague resemblance to Lennon so it's a bit shocking when the UK's own possible geek shorthand and Michael Cera equivalent, Thomas Sangster turns up as the mini-Mcartney. Really?
He does then go on to deliver a well balanced performance and shows Macca as a match for Lennon's ambition in his quiet confidence.

Nowhere Boy is not especially exciting but solid, something you would likely enjoy at the time but without the aforementioned Taylor-Wood/Johnson media spotlight, it's unlikely that you'd remember this by the end of the year.

Uncle Buck

A John Hughes film more child-focused than the teen pictures he was more famous for, there is still a discernible undercurrent of adolescence, both through Tia as the moody eldest daughter of the Russell family and Buck's niece, and then also with John Candy's Uncle Buck himself, the fully grown commitment-phobe manchild.

For all of the build up of Buck as a responsibility free zone, barring a couple of specific incidents (although his troubles with the washing machine are more of a smutty gag device than a flaw in domestic skills) he seems surprisingly adept at looking after a typical 80s WASP household. Having two well behaved and intelligent young kids surely helps, in Maizy and Miles, Miles being one of Macauley Culkin's first roles and showcasing his pint-sized wisecracking charms in a scene of verbal sparring with Candy. The discovery of Culkin no doubt prompted Hughes to write and produce the amazingly successful Home Alone a year later, which featured Candy in a cameo that had echoes of his role in Hughes' earlier Planes, Trains and Automobiles.
Besides Candy and Culkin, it's always good to see Laurie Metcalf appear in a film. Despite always getting the feeling that she's done well in films after Roseanne, her part in Uncle Buck took place during the first year or so of the eleven year run of Roseanne Barr's hit sitcom; Metcalf's role is more likely to originate in her numerous appearances on Saturday Night live which acted as the springboard for dozen of movie careers for comedians including Candy himself. Like you didn't know.

Tia provides most of the friction with her indignant adolescent schtick, first directed at her mom, then when mom's dad suffers a heart attack and prompts the emergency need for Buck as baby sitter, her ire is focused on Buck himself. This creates some of the films more memorable scenes as Candy relishes the opportunity to play the no-nonsense, straight talking Buck dishing out put downs and pearls of down to earth wisdom to Tia's nasty boyfriend Bug and to Maizy's strict school principal.
It's hard to know just who the film is aimed at, too tame as it is for the usual Hughes teen audience but perhaps too much going on for kids to get? It's hard to think of a PG film shot in the last few years without a fantasy element to the story that features kidnap as a comedy moment. It's possible that kids were treated more like people in the 80s, or at least by Hughes, with a different approach to the "family" move than exists today.

In any case it's an enjoyable Candy vehicle even though you feel that he's hardly being stretched. Aside from Candy and Culkin it's business as usual - quite what people are nostalgic about the 80s for escapes me.

Is Anybody There?

It's strange to see Bill Milner in another 80s-set coming of age feature, but somehow this seems both more conventional and bolder than Son of Rambow.

Bill plays Edward, a ten year old whose parents run an old folks home, which is implied has made him a bit of a loner who is obsessed with the supernatural and the idea of life after death, spending time investigating ghosts and leaving tape recorders in the rooms of his parents charges just as it looks as if they will expire.
Michael Caine plays Clarence, the latest addition to the motley bunch of characters (played by a number of well known UK TV faces) in the home though more lively and cantankerous to boot. Initially the two clash but soon become friends, and although the joining of the young and old is a well-worn film plot cliché, there are scenes that dampen this. One in particular seems a prime opportunity for a spot grand emotional catharsis, if a little predictable, but instead is deflated by an episode of Clarence's encroaching senility. Milner and Caine are as good as ever, and ably supported by Anne Marie Duff and David Morrisey as Edward's mum and dad, desperately trying to make the home work even as dad goes through a bit of a dodgy mid-life crisis.

The lack of sugar coating to the message of the finality of death is one of the bold moves, avoiding any dealing with the supernatural or religious elements (and in fact having Leslie Philip's character at one point decry Christians. In another he is in blackface for Edward's fancy dress birthday party and is rarely seen outside of his chair, glass of brandy in hand).

There are some echoes here of the wonderful Venus, although Is Anybody There? deals more with the aged looking back at life rather than dealing with the affects of age on the day-to-day, but these differences are obviously attributed to the perspective, here age is seen from the perspective of an inquisitive ten year old rather than from Clarence, the old magician.

Is Anybody There? enjoys great performances from the leads and all of the supporting cast, and while it's not about to rewrite the rules of the family drama it is a film well worth watching.

Mary and Max

Winner of a bunch of awards in 2009, Mary and Max is a hugely enjoyable stop motion animation about the decades-long pen pal friendship between chubby, 8 year old loner Mary Daisy Dinkle from Melbourne, and 44 year old, obese, New Yorker with Asperger's, Max Jerry Horovitz. The story is wonderfully told with narration throughout, the content of which is on the more innocent side when compared to the images themselves. The claymation is used to great effect in creating the grotesque but cuddly characters, cloaked in hues of brown in Melbourne and grey in New York. Virtually every frame is packed with detail and bursts with life; it would be fair to say that the film is rife with eccentricity, and isn't without a great deal of pathos with no attempt to hide the more unpleasant aspects of human nature. As cute as the animation is, the film does feature a number of serious themes and I wouldn't really see this being a family feature.
It's funny and moving, what more do you want?
Dame Edna Everage, AKA Barry Humphries, delivers the narration, with Philip Seymour Hoffman playing Max and Toni Collette as Mary, all concocting excellent performances, with only Eric Bana in a supporting role instantly recognisable.
Oh, the soundtrack is also beautiful and fitting.
Honestly it's wonderful, and you won't regret catching it if it gains UK distribution this year.


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