Reviewed this week are Miss Julie, Straight Outta Compton, 45 Years, Hitman: Agent 47 and We Are Your Friends.
Films adapted from books don't always, or often, work, but even at their worst you can't see the pages turn. Films based on plays, however, can be very stagey, and such is the case with Liv Ullmann's adaptation of August Strindberg's play, and it does ask the question, why make a film of a play if you're going to keep it like a play?
The story is transplanted from Sweden to Fermanagh, and all of the action takes places in a manor house in 1890. As we see from the opening scenes Miss Julie (Jessica Chastain) has long spent much of her time alone. Now an adult, and with her father The Baron often away from home, she keeps company with the servants. The cook, Kathleen (Samantha Morton) has a keen sense of her place in the world and is wary of her mistress's penchant for hanging with the help. She is also wary of her mistress's interest in her fiance, the butler John (Colin Farrell.) As the story unfolds, it is clear that Kathleen's wariness is justified, for Miss Julie is not only bored and lonely, but playing complex power games about class and gender. And in John she meets a willing combatant.
There are some interesting and very relevant issues raised by the piece, but emotionally it is a bit all over the place. It is too long, rather self-indulgent, the directing focussed, I suspect, more on the acting than on the images. The actors all do a great job, it's lovely to see lovely Colin get a chance to show his chops, but while he and Chastain are required to seriously emote, and they deliver admirably, it is Morton who quietly steals the show.
Now showing at the IFI and selected cinemas
Director F Gary Gray is straight outta South Central and cut his teeth on music videos, including for Dr Dre and Ice Cube, before carving a quietly successful career in action films. His sensibilities are perfect for Straight Outta Compton, the story of how ground-breaking rappers NWA went global, taking Middle American youth with them, and inspiring terror amongst the bastions of safe sensibility. Many of us first heard of NWA attached to horrified news stories generated by those bastions, so it's great to see a contextualised version of where NWA came from and how their most famous song, F*** Tha Police was not an incitement to anarchy, but a roar of outrage.
In the 1980s in South Central LA, a group of friends were experimenting with 'reality rap'. Eazy E (Jason Mitchell) invested some of his drug money with Dr Dre (Corey Hawkins), Ice Cube (O'Shea Jackson Jr - aka Ice Cube's real son), DJ Yella (Neil Brown Jr) and MC Ren (Aldis Hodge) and set up Ruthless Records with manager Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti). With Dr Dre, Ice Cube and Eazy E's widow as producers it is safe to say this is an authorised version of events. Their attitude to women is portrayed as healthy, ah-sure-who-wouldn't womanising with no mention of the misogyny for which gangsta rap is infamous. The moment in Detroit where they defied an order not to perform F*** Tha Police is over-egged (they were questioned in a hotel room.) But the story of a rise and crumble, although it has too many strands to be entirely satisfactory, works well. And over-egged or not, the social factors that influenced NWA remain pertinent 25 years later.
With a 45th wedding anniversary looming, retirees Geoff (Tom Courtenay) and Kate (Charlotte Rampling) appear to have weathered all the storms of married life successfully. Living in biscuit-tin England, they are the epitome of rural bourgeois, all wellington boots, walkies with their beloved dogs and civilised crosswords at the kitchen table.
All this is stealthily rocked to the core when Geoff receives a letter out of the blue informing him that the body of an old lover has been discovered in a glacier, decades after she had fallen to her death during an excursion with him. In Geoff, the news awakens a kind of starry-eyed nostalgia for those days of young love, and for a time, Kate entertains this and expresses empathy, albeit through gritted teeth.
It's not long, however, before this ghost from the past (mischievously named "Katya") stirs up Kate's emotional insecurities to the surface. Seismic ripples begin to spread through the relationship.
In terms of naturalist drama, 45 Years is one of the finest in its class since Mike Leigh turned his gaze away from the English kitchen sink. Director Andrew Haigh, here adapting David Constantine's short story, is quietly forensic in his observation of the sexes and how the angles of cognition can be so very different between a man and woman who have known each other for a lifetime.
The rich but understated symbolism - Kate being haunted by Geoff's keepsakes from up in the draughty attic, spookily pertinent songs on the radio, Geoff's sudden obsession with climate change - plays a key supporting role to the childless couple's comings and goings, to the point that you may find yourself breaking out in a knowing grin at times.
This is Haigh's achievement, but it is in his two leads that 45 Years mines rich and rare treasures. Rampling, her hooded eyes saying much throughout, gives a masterclass in body language while Courtenay belies his character's doddery mutterings with a possessed focus that veers from discomforting to hilarious. If there is any justice, awards nominations will beckon next spring. Not to be missed.
Selected cinemas, Volta.ie
We've been down this road once or twice: slo-mo shoot-em-up scenes punctuated by magazine cartridges sailing in and out of semi-automatics, all to a jarring dubstep soundtrack. Take your pick from any number of Matrixes or Equilibriums, splice in elements of Terminator and the Bourne franchise, and shake around in a slick, digital rhythm. Hey presto, Hitman: Agent 47 is what plops out the other side, and somehow no one is meant to notice.
Berliner Aleksander Bach makes his debut with this second film outing for the hit video game after 2007's critically panned Hitman. That film did a decent trade at the box office for 20th Century Fox, so it's back we go.
Playing the cravatted super-assassin this time around is Rupert Friend. Excellent in Starred Up and The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas, Friend's remit here is to look dead-eyed and clean-shaven as genetically enhanced killer "47". He embarks on a mission with one Katia van Dees (Hannah Ware) to locate her scientist father (Ciaran Hinds) before he falls into the hands of the nefarious Syndicate International. Zachary Quinto plays 47's more bushy opposite number and tries (and predictably fails) to take them down on behalf of the evil cabal.
There is every chance that globe-trotting, high-tech spy games and corn-syrup splatters are your thing, in which case Hitman Agent 47 proves perfectly adequate. On the other hand, tired tropes and a flat, uninvolving complexion that cares more about finish than feel render it ultimately forgettable.
Ware and Friend do their best with their characters' limited dimensions, and one or two set pieces achieve something resembling white-knuckle territory. But the whole visual and aural palette is, like many game adaptations, far too busy, which can never compensate for the threadbare plot.
It is testimony to Zac Efron's likeability that, having been forced to endure all High School Musical films repeatedly, my soul does not curdle when I see him. He seems nice, he submits to ridicule on TV shows and yes, he is pretty. I presume he isn't being offered too many very serious roles, but still he has chosen some interesting projects with which to plot his career path from singing and dancing teen star to serious, grown-up actor. And whilst We Are Your Friends is fluffy and predictable it is another clear step on Efron's path.
Cole (Efron) and his friends Mason (Jonny Weston), Ollie (Shiloh Fernandez) and Squirrel (Alex Shaffer) are childhood friends from (apparently) uncool San Fernando Valley. We meet them at the point in their early twenties where their shiny dreams of stardom are starting to tarnish. During one of the club nights that they promote, and where Cole DJs for free drinks, he meets beautiful Sophie (Emily Ratajkowski) and world-famous DJ James (Wes Bentley) who takes him on a PCP-laced trip and shows him both all he could be and all he does not have. Which includes Sophie who is, it emerges, James' girlfriend.
The plot is entirely predictable, the story arc and character evolutions evident from the beginning. But it's not too long, debut director Max Joseph adds some interesting flourishes and the music isn't bad. Electronic music/Efron fans should enjoy it fine.
Sunday Indo Living