Tuesday, 17 April 2018

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

Director: Mike Newell 3 stars

The small audience at the Everyman preview burst into applause at the end of the viewing and they showed their appreciation throughout with much laughter at all the right places. Aaah, there’s nothing like a cuddly rom-com to give you that feel-good experience. Reminder: Mike Newell directed Four Weddings and a Funeral.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.pngIt is 1946 and Juliet (Lily James) is an author who is contacted by a handsome Guernsey pig farmer Dawsey (Michiel Huisman) and decides to visit the island to interview its book group for a newspaper article. The group was a hastily invented ruse to fool the German occupiers but it has kept going after the war. Now Juliet finds that there is a mystery which she offers to solve with the help of her American GI boyfriend, Mark (Glen Powell).  So we get rom-com with the added bonus of a nice little detective story.

This is a film that will do well at the box office and we will see it offered innumerable times on TV. It will soon be available on Netflix. It is in the same genre as Their Finest, Darkest Hour, Swallows and Amazons, The Best Marigold Hotel, Harry Potter and Call the Midwife. It’s about that imaginary time when things were apparently simpler and people had hearts of gold beneath their gruff exteriors or else were properly evil. In this case there are the horrid Germans and the one Good German, the stoical Islanders, a token American who is nothing like as brilliantly fascinating as he thinks he is, a cuddly old geezer (Tom Courtenay) and an isn’t-she-comical hippy-dippy character who brews and drinks her own gin. Children are sweet and docile.

In the real life Channel Islands it is still difficult to talk about the German occupation. There is shame, guilt and painful confusion, not just about the occupation itself but about the way the aftermath was handled because sometimes this was done without understanding, compassion or mercy.  In real life it is obvious now that there were complex reasons why women had liaisons with German soldiers and why both men and women were collaborators.  In real life, children whose mothers disappear are traumatized and act out, they don’t smile politely, as in this film, for all the world as though nothing terrible has happened.  

In the universe portrayed by so many rom-coms there are no taxing moral dilemmas or deep hurts and no shades of grey in human behaviour. It would be a simpler world if you believed in the rules of rom-coms, for instance as here, that the boyfriend with the smaller eyes is always the one you should avoid. And that you are well rid of a man who makes off with the champagne after you have rejected him – clearly he was always a rotter.

As the film ploughed on, its superficiality began to irritate me and I started to notice the details that felt wrong. How did Juliet get all those hand knitted sweaters into her one suitcase? Where did her typewriter come from?  Why were British people from 1946 using present day Americanisms where children are ‘raised’, phones are ‘picked up’ and people say ‘right now’ instead of ‘at the moment’? Where did Juliet get her eyeliner and brown eyeshadow as I don’t think they had it in 1946? How come her American boyfriend was able to commission a US warplane to make his romantic dash to Guernsey? Did he steal it?

Can you, all in one film, successfully combine historical narrative with a gripping detective story with romantic drama?  I guess you can’t and for me this film doesn’t.

Never mind. The costumes are terrifically authentic (Charlotte Walter) and congratulations to the finder of such splendid interiors along with the production designer (James Merifield).  They have all done a fine job along with the distinguished cast, especially Penelope Wilton.  However, if you go hoping to see a lot of picturesque Guernsey landscape prepare to be disappointed as I have a suspicion that most of it was shot elsewhere.

The actual highlight of the evening for me was in the ads, a process that I normally avoid by arriving late. The new Lloyds Bank ad, The Running of the Horses 
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=079qcLQkq1M is a stunning piece of art, directed by Sam Pilling. That sixty seconds lives on in my mind as conveying some kind of emotional truth, unlike the 124 minutes of the feature film itself which I will most likely have forgotten by the end of next week.

Tuesday, 10 April 2018

Another tired horror movie

Jenny gives Soderbergh's Unsane an excoriating 2 stars

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Back in the old days when I was at the BBC learning how to be a filmmaker, my department had a higher than usual percentage of women directors. We often amused each other by betting on how long it was on a shoot before the cameraman would comment that it was all very well having young women directors (clearly it wasn’t really and it was all a bit of a puzzle to them how on earth we had got to this giddy state of authority) but you could NEVER EVER have women cameramen (sic) could you? 

The reason was always the same. ‘A woman could never carry the camera up a 15-storey tower block where the lift had broken down, now could she? (Triumphant grin). True, the camera was heavy and it had to have its own butler in attendance, an assistant, male of course, who carried the spare magazines and the toolkit of screwdrivers and other bits of essential repair kit which  it needed a man to understand.

How bizarrely quaint that seems now when Steven Soderbergh has made an entire feature film on a camera which he can tuck into his breast pocket and where a screwdriver is unlikely to be helpful if it should suffer some kind of malfunction. 

It’s not the first time the iPhone 7 has been used this way but never so wholeheartedly or with such unabashed delight. See! You can do a sort of day-for-night on an iPhone! Look! You can do wide angle! Whether you like the resulting soft focus, flattened depth of field, lost details of people’s faces and heavily saturated colour is another matter, but hey! It’s 2018! Tech rules!

The film itself? I’m sure they must have had jolly good fun making it in about five minutes and on no budget, especially Claire Foy, released from her regal rictus as the Queen in two series of The Crown to become a sweary young American analyst terrified of a stalker (Joshua Leonard) and there is a nice little cameo part from Matt Damon as a security specialist.

The name of Claire Foy’s character puzzled me: surely no one is going to be called Soya Valentini  even if they happen to have a vegan mother? But no, it’s Sawyer and possibly this is Soderbergh’s first joke of many.  Casually making an appointment at a counselling facility in her lunch hour, Sawyer suddenly finds herself incarcerated first for a day and then for a week on the grounds that her protests are merely denial of her suicidal state and that her physical struggles - she a tiny, slim woman - with the tall, massively fat staff, are pure evidence that she is a danger to herself and others. Of course, as another inmate, Nate, (Jay Pharoah) comments sarcastically, it’s all an insurance scam. So far, so Cuckoo’s Nest; please come in Nurse Ratched and turn up the Gaslight. Is she or isn’t she crazy? Possibly there is an answer but the film is so full of yawning plot holes it’s impossible to be sure what we are meant to conclude.

In the end it all turns into yet another tired horror movie where helpless women are propositioned by their bosses, stalked, tricked, tortured, locked with an attacker into rooms that are supposedly safe, thrown into body bags, abducted, strangled, stabbed, murdered and buried in woods. It reminded me of nothing so much as the black and white B-movies that I adored and adored to mock as a teenager. Same cheap, notional sets, sketchy characters, wooden dialogue and pantomime villains. Maybe as a kid Soderbergh liked them too.

Perhaps this film was made before Weinstein and #MeToo? The agenda has changed and it’s changed for good but of course it takes Hollywood and maybe men in Hollywood an awful long time to catch up, as we have seen. This stuff looks as old fashioned in its views of women as those held by my cameramen buddies back in the seventies and no amount of crowing about the wonders of iPhones could disguise this for me.