Thursday, July 13, 2017
Trey Edward Shults’s second feature film is an austere and controlled enquiry into what happens when— … No, wait. Almost wandered into spoiler territory there.
The genius of ‘It Comes at Night’ is that is takes a set of immediately recognisable genre tropes and— … Bollocks! Almost did the spoiler thing again.
It’s going to be very difficult to talk about this film in anything but the vaguest terms without inadvertently giving something away. Or rather giving away the one incisive point that every aspect of the film is moving toward, and to which every aesthetic decision by its writer/director contributes.
Subject of its writer/director: Shults is twenty-eight. This is his second film. It’s almost sickeningly well made. He worked on Jeff Nichols’s modern classic ‘Midnight Special’. The star of that film – Joel Edgerton – took the lead role in ‘It Comes at Night’ and lent weight to the project by acting as producer. Trey Edward Shults – I say this again – is twenty-eight. Talented bastard!
The film opens in Romero territory with a small group of people – in this case a family – holed up in a farmhouse in the backwoods. It’s either the present or the very near future. Some form of virus is sweeping America, possibly the world. Patriarch Paul (Edgerton) has adapted to the crisis by the application of strict routine and rigorous self-discipline, the better to protect his wife Sarah (Carmen Ejogo) and son Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr). Measures include donning gas masks when venturing outside, obsessive personal hygiene, and maintenance of a small armoury in case of attempted intrusion. One such intrusion is by Will (Christopher Abbott), who mistakenly believes that the house is abandoned. Swiftly disarmed by Paul, Will tells him that his family are holed up at a residence some miles away and while they have sufficient food they are running low on water. His incursion was to scavenge for same. Paul and Sarah discuss the situation, the latter being of the opinion that moving Will and his family and whatever supplies they have into their house offers strength in numbers against possible other intrusions. Against his better judgement, Paul accompanies Will on a journey through a stretch of woodland that might not be entirely empty of antagonist.
That’s really all I can say. What follows relies on character dynamics and interactions. There’s Paul and Sarah’s interracial marriage – no big deal in the twenty-first century, huh? But the sight of Paul (white, bearded, rifle slung across his shoulder) barking orders at his (black, wary, slightly subservient) wife and son gives the audience something uncomfortable to think about. The contrast between Paul and Will is handled effectively; in a screenplay that doesn’t waste words, every scrap of dialogue between them accumulates meaning. Nuances, pauses, a slip that could be lie, half-truth or simple misunderstanding – these things keep the audience unsure. Where, if anywhere, do your sympathies lie? Then there’s Travis, on the cusp of adulthood, vulnerable to the attentions of another father figure, not to mention— … ah, but I very nearly went waltzing down Spoiler Street again.
‘It Comes at Night’ is cannily scripted and, once you get past a draggy and rather po-faced first 15 minutes, generates slow-burn tension with a single-minded focus. Shults perhaps overuses Travis’s recurring nightmares to generate a horror movie vibe; the “jump” scares he effects by such means are the most generic aspects of the film and not as effective as the genuine moments of horror that are derive from the darker corners of the human psyche. Nor is he quite as acute a chronicler of the way men behave around each other as, say, Sam Peckinpah or Walter Hill, but that might be down to his comparative youth. Shults has talent to burn two years shy of thirty. There’s nothing to suggest that he won’t, in the coming years, deliver some outright masterpieces.
If ‘It Comes at Night’ doesn’t quite stretch its toe into masterpiece territory, it’s still damn good. Shults is smart enough to take his time and let his characters drive the narrative rather than the other way round (a failing of plenty of filmmakers twice his age). He knows how to stage a scene for maximum squirmy tension, how long to hold a shot and when to cut away. Self-evident stuff, you might think, but done with such intuitive confidence that half an hour into the film I hitched up onto the edge of my seat and, despite all of the bleakness and lack of hope on offer, grinned in anticipation of how it would play out, knowing that I was in the hands of a filmmaker who really knows what he’s doing.
Tuesday, July 04, 2017
I went into Edgar Wright’s ‘Baby Driver’ not knowing what to expect – the trailer couldn’t have been more generic if it had tried – but with the mindset that all it had to do was be a damn good car chase movie. It’s been too long since we’ve had a good car chase movie. (And anyone who’s rehearsing a “but the ‘Fast and Furious’ franchise” argument can leave by the garage door: those things are what a Michael Bay movie would be if the Transformers stayed as vehicles; they’re porn with Turtle Wax instead of cum shots.)
‘Baby Driver’ is the opposite of porn: it’s a pure romance. It’s a love letter to cinema. A love letter to music. A love letter to movement – be it a car chase, a foot chase, or some ad hoc dance moves on a city street – and the exuberant energy of things simply being in motion. A love letter to enigmatic loners who don’t say much and the winsome girls who fall for them anyway. A love letter to smart-talking crims and meticulously planned heists. A love letter to abandoned warehouses and underground car parks. A love letter to the city and the freeway.
It’s almost a romantic musical and certainly a love letter to a city, and it does a damn sight better job in both respects than ‘La La Land’.
And at its absolute best – at its purest and most joyously infectious – it’s an abstract work of cinema that meshes kinetics and soundtrack for the sheer love of what it can do with music and motion, iconography and editing. As such, there’s little point in talking about the plot (a wholly derivative affair) or the acting except to note that everyone turns in a performance that is exactly what the film requires to sustain its non-car-chase bits. Kevin Spacey is typically deadpan, John Hamm ought to have a bigger film career, and Eiza González wins the Agitation of the Mind Girls With Guns Award for being a total badass and hot as hell with it.
Where ‘Baby Driver’ finds itself on shakier ground its during the last half hour or so where Wright suddenly remembers that he’s supposed to be making a genre film and the tyre-squealing fun gets cudgelled and locked in the trunk and the film goes on a slow plod through the demeaned streets of Cliché Town. Wright clearly wants to have his cake and eat it à la Ben Wheatley’s ‘Free Fire’, another film-as-experiment where the genre trappings provide a comfort zone for a mainstream audience; but whereas Wheatley mines a cynical vein of gallows humour that is integral to his film’s aesthetic (there is a streak of cruelty that runs through all his work), Wright never fully convinces when he piles on the macho thrilleramics in the last act. It just comes across as hollow posturing. Likewise, the series of flash-forwards that conclude the protagonist’s story are just plain dull: the moment Ansel Elgort slides from behind the wheel or doesn’t have Lily James’s too-sweet-to-be-true waitress to interact with, he ceases to hold any interest for the viewer.
It’s not a bad enough ending to derail the film entirely (I’m looking at you, ‘The Forest’!), but it certainly undoes some of the good work that’s gone before. In a perfect world, there’s a 90 minute cut of ‘Baby Driver’ with 50% less dialogue, where the cars get star billing and Eiza González firing off two machine pistols fulfils the quota of gunplay. That film would be a pop-art masterpiece.
Sunday, June 25, 2017
Julien Temple’s ‘The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle’ posits that there’s no such thing as rock ‘n’ roll. It does so by mapping out a fictive account of the Sex Pistols’ formation and rise to notoriety, every aspect stage managed and the band’s popularity nothing but a money-grabbing con job. When even something as working class and reactionary as punk is little more than another establishment sleight of hand, Temple seems to be asking, what can you trust?
Paul Sng’s ‘Dispossession: The Great Social Housing Swindle’ asks a similar question: when the very concept of affordable housing is unmasked as anything but, what hope is there for the working class, the poor, the vulnerable, the disenfranchised? What quality of life for those whose only aspiration is a roof over their head?
The similarity in titles is no coincidence: Sng’s previous film ‘Sleaford Mods: Invisible Britain’ showcased the UK’s angriest band kicking against the country’s political culture of austerity. Sng is keyed into the reality of life lived without support, sympathy or safety net. Two films into his career and he emerges, already, as an exemplary chronicler of the social underbelly and the establishment’s investment in keeping the poor and vulnerable poor and vulnerable.
Clocking in at a taut 82 minutes, ‘Dispossession’ economically deals with over half a century of social history, charting the progressive achievements of Clement Attlee’s post-war Labour government to provide for its least-advantaged citizenry, to the free-market driven attitude of the Thatcher era. The right-to-buy scheme turned council houses into pieces in a huge property game, and the prevalent socio-political model was one that rewarded greed, divided communities and trampled on the underprivileged.
Thatcherism is something Britain has never quite recovered from: last year’s referendum scratched the surface of the country and right-wing belligerence came bubbling up; since then, Theresa May’s increasingly out-of-touch leadership has seemed more and more like a Z-grade Margaret Thatcher tribute act. The cluster of disasters on her watch during, and just after, the ill-advised snap election culminated in the Grenfell Tower fire. I saw ‘Dispossession’ at Nottingham’s Broadway cinema just days after the Grenfell disaster and it gave an already hard-hitting documentary even greater relevance.
Sng focuses on the St Anns estate in Nottingham, Tower Hamlets and Cressingham Gardens in London, and Govanhills and the Gorbals in Glasgow. In respect of the latter, Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon appears in interview and admits that improvements are unlikely to happen along a timeline that residents would wish for. She presents as calm and reassuring but Sng’s DoP Nick Wood captures images that tell a different story. Still, kudos to Sturgeon for appearing; she and Green Party leader Caroline Lucas are the only MPs who contribute.
Elsewhere, councillors and property developers (and those with fingers in both pies) decline to put forward their side of the story. The silence is particularly damning from those behind the Cressingham Gardens redevelopment, where the current residents, who put forward a “People’s Plan” to regenerate the estate, are ignored despite their plan being highly workable and their protests visible. The proposed redevelopment will see the estate bulldozed and replaced by luxury flats. Of the 1034 homes that look set to be demolished – ‘Dispossessed’ ends with Cressingham residents vowing to continue the fight – only 82 of a proposed 2704 new residences are earmarked for social housing. The result will be the death of a community, with families (as well as single and/or vulnerable residents) scattered and rehoused in any number of far-flung places. The only winners here will be the property developers.
But that’s what this is all about. We haven’t come that far from the slum clearances and dodgy landlords of the Victorian era, a fact that ‘Dispossession’ identifies with palpable bitterness. The film also tackles the concept of gentrification, noting that historically this was a gradual process of social development. Gentrification nowadays is a bullyboy council wielding a compulsory purchase order on behalf of a property developer with an eye on overseas investment.
With the odds stacked in the establishment’s favour, what can be done? Education, to begin with – see the film, visit the website, read up on the various campaigns. Then be active: support said campaigns, badger your MP, use social media. Get angry. Demand that the government be held to account.
Narrated by Maxine Peake (one of the most socially conscious and politically active talents in British cinema), ‘Dispossession’ is a film for our times. I can’t think of a single more important documentary feature to come out of Britain in the last decade.
Sunday, June 18, 2017
As a director, Tommy Lee Jones isn’t exactly prolific: four features in just over twenty years, two of them – ‘The Good Old Boys’ and ‘The Sunset Limited’ – for television. His big screen directorial debut was ‘The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada’ (2005), a contemporary western concerned with revenge and redemption that has about it more than a touch of Peckinpah. It’s a damn good movie; close as all hell to being a modern classic.
‘The Homesman’ is a western set in the 1850s concerned with failure and redemption that has about it more than a touch of Michael Cimino. In both films, Jones acknowledges his influences and draws on them subtly and respectfully in the service of the story he’s telling. ‘The Homesman’ has the stateliness and the visual grandeur of Cimino circa ‘Heaven’s Gate’ – cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto is the film’s unsung hero – the better to contrast with the dour narrative and its unsettling accretion of detail.
The film opens with three women in a hardscrabble Nebraska township emerging from a particularly vicious winter having succumbed to mental illness. “Mad women”, as the townsfolk are quick to label them. The parson, Reverend Dowd (John Lithgow), arranges for their care to be given over to a preacher’s wife in Iowa and calls upon one of his flock to make the journey: an undertaking of several weeks. When farmer Vester Belknap (William Fichtner) – husband to the afflicted Theoline (Miranda Otto) – refuses to take part in a drawing of lots to determine who gets the job, spinster of the parish Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank) takes his place.
No prizes for guessing who ends up playing chauffeur to the disturbed women?
In addition to Theoline, Mary Bee’s charges number Arabella Sours (Grace Gummer) and Gro Svendson (Sonja Richter). I’ll not reveal that nature of their mental illness: an unflinchingly blunt sequence early in the film – fleshed out by a couple of flashbacks around the midway point – spells out their suffering. Mary Bee – brittle, pious, frustrated in her attempts to find a husband – isn’t the ideal candidate for the company of the demented. Early in the journey, the incessant wailing of one of her charges drives her to despair. The hard realities of the journey don’t sit well with her, and the arrangement she enters into with petty criminal George Briggs (Jones) to assist on the trail as recompense for saving him from hanging is also fraught; they’re opposites in gender, age, social standing, theological views and general outlook on life.
As the journey progresses, Jones – co-scripting as well as directing (film is based on a novel by Glendon Swarthout*) – maps the gradual thawing of their relationship, only for things to take a sharp and unexpected turn. Again: I’m remaining tight-lipped. Suffice it to say that the last third of ‘The Homesman’ plays out under the shadow of the event in question, giving it the feel of an extended coda … notwithstanding one scene of stone cold ruthless violence that is cathartic only to a point.
‘The Homesman’ is a fascinating piece of work, primarily because of its focus on mental illness. It’s a theme that wrong-foots you as a viewer, subverting what you expect from a western even as the production design, cinematography and music evoke the genre as classically as in anything by Ford, Cimino or Eastwood. Inasmuch as Jones can only portray his female cast in terms of the few social roles that the rampant patriarchy of frontier life afforded women, ‘The Homesman’ can also be considered a feminist western. Jones as director has great respect for the film’s treatment of its anti-heroines and even two scenes depicting the grubby realism of personal hygiene on a long trial are shot without recourse to exploitation.
Any film so strongly grounded in character succeeds or fails by its performances. Jones gives a minimalist, elegiac variation on a type of character he’s played several times before and can play to perfection. Except where Briggs is required to be the focal point for a scene’s dynamic, Jones he is careful to keep himself to the side – if not in the background – and cede the film to his co-stars. Swank is as brilliant as you’d expect: I don’t think anyone else could have played Mary Bee.
Otto, Gummer and Richter, notwithstanding that they barely have a word of dialogue between them, turn in genuinely affecting character work. Streep, in a five minute cameo, does her best work since Eastwood’s ‘Bridges of Madison County’. Hailee Steinfeld, popping up at the end to literally be nothing more than an indicator of Briggs’s capacity for good, suggests soulful depths to a character that is pretty much one-dimensional on the page.
Everything else about ‘The Homesman’ works beautifully and in concert. It is a stunningly well-made film, glacially paced as befits its narrative; a film of telling minutiae and elegantly nuanced grace notes; it is mature, intelligent and deserves to be seen by as wide an audience as possible. Which, sadly, it failed to find on the big screen. But that’s what DVD, streaming and on-demand are for. Seek this one out, engage with it on its own terms, go through what its characters experience. It’s transformative.
*Robert Rossen’s ‘The Came to Cordura’, Henry Levin’s ‘Where the Boys Are’, and Don Siegel’s autumnal classic ‘The Shootist’ are all based on Swarthout’s work.
Wednesday, June 14, 2017
Pete Travis’s ‘City of Tiny Lights’ – adapted by Patrick Neale from his own novel – does three things superbly well, fumbles the ball elsewhere, and outright drops a bollock in two places. On of these bollock-drops is crucial, the other an annoyance.
Here’s what ‘City of Tiny Lights’ does best: it gives Riz Ahmed a gift of a lead role and gives him the space to knock it out of the park. I’ve yet to see Ahmed give even a lazy performance; he’s certainly come nowhere near a bad one. The guy has charisma to burn and an effortlessness in front of the camera. I’m convinced he can play pretty much any character. Here, he essays the role of Tommy Akhtar, a chain-smoking ex-cop eking out a precarious living as a private detective.
Which brings us neatly to the second thing the film does brilliantly: it allows itself to be as hard-boiled as fuck. Akhtar is cynical and world-weary and not adverse to using violence if need be, and all of these things spew from the still open wound of his defeated romanticism. Tommy Akhtar is a private eye in the grand tradition of Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe; his odyssey through the city’s underbelly is as dark and labyrinthine and as riddled with distrust and ghosts from the past as any of theirs. The narrative is almost deliberately complicated, the pinball of Akhtar’s investigation pinging from murdered call girls to low-level politics to crooked property deals by way of radicalisation and fundamentalism.
It’s a distillation of everything that’s wrong with a metropolitan city: corruption, careerism, capitalism, corporationism, racial disharmony and the arrogance and entitlement of power. With Josh Brolin or Jake Gyllenhaal in the lead role, you could easily imagine it unfolding against the neon soaked backdrop of New York. But no, we’re in London but that doesn’t stop Travis shooting the city as if were the rotten half of the Big Apple. He also shoots London without feeling the need to shoehorn any of the obvious landmarks into the background. This is a London that doesn’t recognise the Eye, Big Ben, Tower Bridge or the Spire. Even the most upwardly mobile of the film’s characters wouldn’t get within spitting distance of West India Quay.
Akhtar is variously aided, distracted and emboldened in his investigations by new client, high class call girl Melody (Cush Jumbo – who ought to be a major star in two years’ time if there’s any justice), old flame Shelley (Billie Piper, sadly underused) and his memory-addled, cricket-loving father Farzad (Roshan Seth). Subject of whom: third massive plus-point in the film’s favour. Seth is nothing short of awesome, imbuing his role with poignant dignity even as he provides comic relief in the early scenes. His pivotal moment in a tense scene late in the game is something I absolutely won’t spoil; suffice it to say he walks away with the film.
Here’s what the film doesn’t do so well (I’ll keep this part of the review brief, because I’d rather retain my positive impressions of ‘City of Tiny Lights’): It has a terrible title. Yes, I know it’s from a song by Frank Zappa, but Zappa never gets a mention and Akhtar isn’t established as a music fan in the way of, say, Inspectors Rebus, Resnik or Morse. It’s a good title for a song, but not for a film, and certainly not for a hard-boiled film. Unfortunately, it’s a title that seems to have inspired DoP Felix Wiedemann to go overboard with the focus pulls, the cityscapes behind Akhtar drifting, time after time, into a blur of … well … tiny lights. It’s a thudding example of a visual aesthetic bludgeoned into literalism, and after a while it becomes wearying. The decision, too, to render a couple of dramatic pursuits as an impressionist blur of colour and motion might have sounded conceptually brilliant during storyboarding, but just comes across as arty-farty and an impediment to the film’s pace. And during those moments where the film slows long enough to let you think about it too much – its 110 minute running time is excessive; it should have been a fast and brutal 90 minute thriller – it’s difficult to fathom any reason why Akhtar persists with his investigation in the face of at least two very convincing warnings-off.
Which brings me to the two big failings. For all that Billie Piper brings the star presence to the role of Akhtar’s lost love, the series of flashbacks prompted by her reappearance – which cumulatively account for about a fifth of the overall film – are both unconvincingly staged and only peripheral to the plot. The big thing that’s been haunting Akhtar all these years is revealed in decidedly ho-hum fashion, and the connection between his wasted youth in the 90s and a character he reencounters contemporaneously, could have easily been effected with recourse to the rampant melodrama on display here. The 90s scenes are terrible and come damn close to derailing the film.
The job is almost done for them by the very last scene. It’s one thing for an anti-hero to find personal redemption after encountering the very depths of human venality; just like it’s one thing for a terminal loner to find himself, at film’s end, with an ersatz family (Clint Eastwood’s ‘The Outlaw Josey Wales’ pulls this trick off perfectly, without ever being saccharine). Unfortunately, ‘City of Tiny Lights’ tries to deliver both in a single scene, ending on a truly god-awful final line. It sends you out of the cinema choking on a sugar lump of pure schmaltz.
‘City of Tiny Lights’ has garnered cautious reviews at best, and struggled to finds its audience on the big screen. Maybe it will have an afterlife on DVD. I hope so, even though I know it’s not a film I’d get many repeat viewings out of. I would like to see Ahmed play Tommy Akhtar again, though; this time with a paired down script, directed with ruthless narrative drive, and free from even the vaguest strand of sentiment.
Sunday, May 07, 2017
High concept goes lo-fi in this British comedy that treads similar territory to 2013’s ‘Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa’. Hell, Steve Coogan’s in both of them. Here Coogan plays Peter Eastman, an actor who’s done rather well in a forensic detective TV drama called ‘Windjammer’, a spin off of 1980s hi-tech cop show ‘Mindhorn’ whose protagonist was played by insufferable egomaniac Richard Thorncroft (Julian Barratt) and which ended after three seasons when an embarrassingly drunk and coked up Thorncroft publically humiliated himself on a talk show, offended everyone associated with the show, dubbed the Isle of Man (the series’ setting) a “shithole”, and announced that he was off to Hollywood.
Twenty five years later, having abjectly failed to make it in Tinseltown, Thorncroft is reduced to making commercials, attending auditions for rubbish parts, and haranguing his long-suffering agent (Harriet Walter). When Paul Melly (Russell Tovey), the chief suspect in a murder case, contacts the Isle of Man Constabulary to say that he will only talk to Mindhorn, Chief Inspector Newsome (David Schofield) and D.C. Baines (Andrea Riseborough) reluctantly contact Thorncroft and ask him to resume his old role. What follows – as you’ll probably guess, given the involvement of both Coogan and ‘Mighty Boosh’ regular Barratt – is a comedy of embarrassments that is, by turns, genuinely funny, dispiritingly predictable and ploddingly laboured. The moments where it really hits its stride are certainly worth the ticket price, but ‘Alpha Papa’ it isn’t.
One of its funniest set pieces is the opening, which sets up the dynamic of the ‘Mindhorn’ TV show. Full of macho posturing, overly-dramatic line deliveries and opening credits delivered in a hideous font, it’s a spot on piece of spoofery. Imagine ‘Mindhorn’ as a cross between ‘The Six Million Dollar Man’ and ‘Bergerac’ with Thorncroft’s performance akin to that of “John Actor” playing Monkfish in the recurring ‘Fast Show’ sketches. (Mindhorn/Monkfish: I’m stating the obvious here, aren’t I?) Indeed, Thorncroft’s casual sexism recalls Monkfish’s “put your knickers on and make me a cup of tea” ethos.
Director Sean Foley, whose first film this is, mines a lot of humour from the cult of 1980s. A running gag about ‘Mindhorn’ merchandise pokes fun at any number of American hit shows of the era, while the ATV logo is sneakily inserted in the ‘Mindhorn’ opening credits. And there are a handful of bitchy jokes about ‘Bergerac’ (the John Nettles starrer that was set on Jersey). Essie Davis’s role as ‘Mindhorn’ co-star and romantic interest Patrica Deville is a thinly veiled nod to Louise Jameson’s nothing role on ‘Bergerac’.
But beyond nostalgic box-ticking for 80s TV fans, what does the movie have to offer? Sad to say that Barratt is probably the least of its attractions: not only does Thorncroft have to be an arrogant price for 90% of the running time to make the concept work, but Barratt seems to enjoy playing the façade a little too much, and when the time comes for the character’s redemption in the final act, it all feels very forced. Fortunately, everyone else is on form – Davis, Riseborough and an hilariously irascible Schofield are a delight to watch, Tovey takes a very trickily written character (Melly’s mental deficiency, while again necessary to the plot, verges on exploitative) and does fine work, and Simon Farnaby nabs the Agitation ‘Man of the Match’ award for his broadly comedic yet oleaginously creepy turn as Clive, Thorncroft’s former stuntman and now romantic rival.
The hour twenty five minute running time is just right. The pace is generally decent, except when Foley takes too long to set up a joke or labours the payoff (some business involving a switched videotape is a case in point). There’s one set-piece – an assassination attempt and a high speed getaway that are assumed to be part of a civic parade, a bored dignitary giving a running commentary on the whole thing – that is inspired in its concept and pitch perfect as an archetype of British humour. Had ‘Mindhorn’ scraped together another three or four moments this good, and Barratt redialled the performance just a tad, it could have been great. But there’s no reason why the same team, with just a slightly sharper approach, can’t deliver a bona fide belter next time round.
Saturday, April 08, 2017
Let’s be honest: under any set of objective analytical criteria, ‘Going in Style’ is a pretty average movie. Its screenplay isn’t just predictable: you can literally cue in every narrative beat on a scene by scene basis. Matters pertaining to the gift of a watch and the capturing of a specific bit of CCTV footage are set up in such thunderously obvious style that their later relevance is something you can see coming like an ocean liner on a duck pond. The look of the film and its production design are entirely utilitarian. And with the exception of one whirlingly terrific scene where the sketching out of a bank’s floorspace segues into a “planning the job” montage, helmer Zach Braff doesn’t bring a single directorial flourish to the table. Had ‘Going in Style’ been made with a lesser cast than Morgan Freeman, Michael Caine, Alan Arkin, Christopher Lloyd, John Ortiz and Ann-Margret (who, at 75, still has more va-va-voom than many starlets a third her age), it wouldn’t have had much to recommend itself beyond the obvious anti-establishment satisfaction of watching a bunch of old dudes pull off a heist. (And let’s face it, Arkin’s contemporary Frank Langella set the seal on that concept in fine style with ‘Robot & Frank’ five years ago.)
That Caine and Freeman would play off each other in fine style was a done deal. That Arkin would bring his deadpan sarcasm A-game, ditto. Eccentric, scene-stealing supporting work from Lloyd? Guaranteed. Ortiz being cool just by underplaying? The man has the patent on it. Now throw in perfectly acceptable work by Matt Dillon as a determined FBI guy, Peter Serafinowicz (an actor often denied sympathetic roles) as Caine’s son-in-law, and Joey King as Caine’s granddaughter. Everyone’s engaged and, for the most part (Josh Pais as an unctuous banker is the over-egged exception), the cast pitch their performances to each other’s strengths; sure, Freeman, Caine and Arkin are the top billed talent, but ‘Going in Style’ is inarguably an ensemble piece.
The plot shouldn’t need a rehash for anyone who’s seen the trailer (hell, even a glance at the poster would probably do the job), but for the sake of completeness, here goes: three OAP buddies who worked at the same steel plant together are robbed of their pension when the firm undergoes financial restructuring; family commitments, health problems and an increasing awareness of their own mortality add to their woes. When one of their number is witness to a bank robbery, one that the media widely reports the perpetrators as getting away with, they decide to pull a similar job. That the bank is administrating the steel plant’s restructuring is the decider: they agree to take only what was depleted from their pension, superannuated by their assumed remaining lifespan (the scene where they each speculate how much longer they have is one of the best moments the film delivers).
Hands up everyone who’s pegged ‘Going in Style’ as ‘Hell and High Water’ with a free bus pass. Yeah: me too.
It’s derivative as all hell. At one point, Braff has his protagonists watch ‘Dog Day Afternoon’ on TV (“I don’t want to see the ending” one them muses) and the inclusion of footage from such an edgy and powerful classic almost sinks ‘Going in Style’. Elsewhere, the tone veers from meditations on the indignity of ageing that wouldn’t be out of place in ‘The Straight Story’ to knockabout farce that makes the average ‘Keystone Kops’ two-reeler look like Tom Stoppard.
And yet … and yet … despite everything – despite the fact the screenplay presents less a fluid narrative than a shunted-together collection of vignettes; despite the fact that the performances from the name-above-the-title triumvirate constitute screen work they could do in their sleep; despite the poundingly unsubtle sops to the audience’s emotions – it works. ‘Going in Style’ somehow finds a way to benefit from its hoariness, its obviousness, its lack of originality. It reminded me of ‘Papadopoulos & Sons’ in its conversion of comfort-food aestheticism into a fictive zone in which the characters are presented to you like old friends, their journey unfolds exactly as you expect (and moreover want) it to, and you’re simply allowed to enjoy the ride.