Sunday 11 December 2016

A hopeless journey to the heart of America's lost underclass

* American Honey (16, 163mins), 3 Stars
* Storks (G, 87mins), 2 Stars
* The Flag (12A, 84mins), 2 Stars

Published 15/10/2016 | 07:00

Funny: Kelsey Grammer provides a voiceover in 'Storks'
Funny: Kelsey Grammer provides a voiceover in 'Storks'

I'm a great admirer of British indie film-maker Andrea Arnold's work, in particular her 2009 kitchen sink drama, 'Fish Tank'. Ms Arnold is a lyrical and intensely visual director, and the miseries of her stories are tempered always by her artist's eye. That's certainly the case with her new film, American Honey, which catalogues in sumptuous fashion the lives of a forgotten underclass.

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Star (Sasha Lane) decides to escape the trailer park misery of her childhood when she meets a charismatic stranger called Jake (Shia LaBeouf). He travels around the American Midwest with a crew of disaffected youngsters who go door-to-door selling magazine subscriptions and stealing what they can along the way.

They are ruled with a rod of iron by Krystal (Riley Keough, granddaughter of Elvis Presley), a sharp-tongued harpy who brooks no opposition and soon identifies Star as a potential rival. Jake has a thing for Star, and as they work and steal and con together, they begin to fall in love.

Andrea Arnold's film has big things to say about America's societal iniquities, and paints a grim picture of a hopeless, clueless and shockingly ignorant underclass. It's impeccably photographed, and at times looks like a nightmarish music video populated by beautiful losers. Ms Arnold spotted Sasha Lane in a bar, and almost all the actors are non-professionals, which adds to the film's authenticity, though Shia LaBeouf's sometimes overripe performance does not. It's an interesting and, at times, an exceptional film, a kind of latter-day 'Oliver Twist', but ultimately fails to justify its self-indulgent length.

Squeamish parents once told kids that all babies arrived via stork, but in Nicholas Stoller's rather frantic animated comedy, the lanky birds have branched out into bigger things. Eighteen years ago, baby production was shut down by the storks' bombastic CEO Hunter (voiced with his usual aplomb by Kelsey Grammer), in favour of a more profitable postal delivery service.

The last baby to be made at Cornerstore was never delivered, and has grown up among the birds. Tulip (Katie Crown) is now becoming curious about meeting her parents, but Hunter is having none of it and orders his second-in-command Junior (Andy Samberg) to fire her. Junior hasn't the heart, and hides her away in a back office, but disaster strikes when she accidentally starts the baby-making machine, creating an infant Junior feels honour-bound to deliver.

This rather tenuous concept might have been turned into a likeable animation if its makers had slowed down a bit, and given it a little more thought. Instead Storks proceeds at a frenetic pace, as joke after joke is flung at the audience by oddly charmless animations. It's funny in places, but left me feeling like I'd eaten too much cake.

The Flag is an old-fashioned Irish film, and not in a good way. Directed by Declan Recks, written by Eugene O'Brien, it stars Pat Shortt as Harry Hambridge, an Irish builder working in London who's forced to reassess his life when he gets fired. Harry seems like a man whom time has left behind: he stills listens to the Frank and Walters, and relives the glories of the Charlton era with anyone who'll listen to him in the pub.

He's a potentially interesting character, but not for long, because as soon as Harry returns to Ireland for a break, The Flag turns into a broad and unsubtle farce. An old family story has it that grandfather Hambridge was the man who raised the Tricolour atop the GPO in 1916, and when Harry hears the same flag is hanging upside down in a British army barracks in southern England, he decides to revive the family's honour by liberating it.

There are good actors at work here, not least Mr Shortt and the normally excellent Ruth Bradley. But all flounder in the service of a film that indulges in the kind of national stereotypes we would find deeply offensive if the boot were on the other foot, and feels a bit like an Irish 'Carry On' film. That's not a good thing, by the way.

Irish Independent

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