Love the Coopers (aka Christmas with the Coopers, 2015)

This may not be the worst movie this year, nor is it even the worst movie that my New Year’s Resolution has brought me to (that was probably Hot Pursuit), but it feels like the laziest. There are plenty of excellent actors involved in the large ensemble cast, but the whole enterprise is coated in a layer of treacly sentimentality so thick that it’s difficult to perceive some of the film’s likeable qualities (there are one or two amusing jokes, and I think there’s potential in the Olivia Wilde/Jake Lacy pairing), and by the end it had entirely squandered any goodwill I had towards it. Diane Keaton and John Goodman play the central couple, at whose home the traditional Christmas gathering is taking place, with stray members of the family travelling to get there. Everyone does the best they can, I suppose, but matching up Keaton with Marisa Tomei as her sister, or Alan Arkin with Amanda Seyfried as a (sort-of) love interest seem like bizarre choices. However, the worst choice was to have the film narrated by the family dog, voiced by a particularly unctuous Steve Martin. Not destined to be a holiday classic.

Love the Coopers film posterCREDITS
Director Jessie Nelson; Writer Steven Rogers; Cinematographer Elliot Davis; Starring Diane Keaton, John Goodman, Olivia Wilde, Ed Helms, Alan Arkin, Amanda Seyfried; Length 118 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Wood Green, London, Wednesday 16 December 2015.

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Drinking Buddies (2013)

I like beer, it must be said, and I like the new wave of craft breweries in the States (and here in the UK) that have sprung up over the last decade. It’s almost certainly to this film’s benefit that it doesn’t spend too much time actually talking about beer (aside from a few establishing shots of brewing taking place, there’s no in-depth discussions of hops, malts or mouthfeel), but the characters certainly do drink plenty of it. You might posit that it’s because of the relationship dramas occurring in their lives, but really it’s probably because, well, you know, beer is nice.

Given the central characters work at a craft brewery (or a microbrewery, as it once might have been called), the film sets itself very much in a gentrifying inner-city world where men wear beards and trucker caps, where young people hang out in bars which have a studiedly old-fashioned vibe, go hiking in the wilderness, play music from vinyl records, and, of course, drink beer just so long as it’s not mass-produced lager. In this respect, the poster is somewhat misleading, since you’d hardly recognise one of the film’s leads, Luke (played by Jake Johnson, second from right in the poster), who sports a slightly unkempt thick beard throughout the film.

The film’s real central character, though, is Kate (Olivia Wilde), who works in a marketing capacity at the brewery. She and Luke flirt throughout their working day, but each has a stable (if rather more straight-laced) partner that they live with. Kate is with the humourless Chris (Ron Livingston), while Luke is engaged to the serious-minded Jill (Anna Kendrick). After the two couples have returned from a holiday together at a rural cabin owned by Kate’s partner Chris, the latter break up, leading Luke to start wondering if he has deeper feelings towards Kate. One suspects at this early point that the film is heading towards partner-swapping territory, given that Chris and Jill also seem to hit it off quite well. However, nothing is quite so programmatic, and it ends up being quite a bit more subtle than the set-up initially suggests.

Of course, this kind of small indie interpersonal drama is hardly the stuff to break any cinematic moulds. Stylistically, it sets itself apart from earlier films in the same vein (like Swanberg’s Hannah Takes the Stairs) thanks to some expert lensing courtesy of cinematographer Ben Richardson, with cleanly-framed images taking their cue from the metallic sterility of the brewery and the modernism of Chris’s swanky apartment. Yet the key to any such enterprise is the quality of the ensemble cast, and in this case the four actors gel together really very well. Kendrick and Livingston are rather less showy in their smaller roles, given that their characters are written to be somewhat pedestrian, but Johnson nicely conveys his character’s charming goofiness with a very subtly combative edge. Best of all is Wilde, who holds the film together with a low-key improvisational acuity, avoiding the pitfalls of the ‘strong, free-spirited single woman’ clichés. On the part of the whole cast, it has to be said there’s a lot of drunk acting required, and none of this comes across as forced or embarrassing in the way these things sometimes can; there’s also thankfully no sententious moralising either.

What results is a very focused little drama that feels like it’s dealing with people I know (or have been) in recognisable situations. It’s very careful not to push the revelations too hard or wring them out for melodramatic purposes, finding an ending that feels organic to the characters without closing off anything too neatly. And that kind of thing is, for me, always refreshing to watch. Somewhat like beer is to drink, so I’m going to stop now and think about that for a while instead.

Drinking Buddies film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Joe Swanberg; Cinematographer Ben Richardson; Starring Olivia Wilde, Jake Johnson, Anna Kendrick; Length 90 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Enfield, London, Wednesday 6 November 2013.

Rush (2013)

Director Ron Howard has enjoyed a lot of mainstream success for his feature films over the past few decades, while screenwriter Peter Morgan has done plenty of good character work dealing with primarily British subjects. They collaborated a few years back on Frost/Nixon (2006), about the English broadcaster’s interviews with the disgraced American President, but this new film sees them dealing with a far more populist and entertaining subject, Formula 1 motor racing. And it is indeed very entertaining.

Morgan’s last foray into sports was The Damned United (2009), though its focus on an historical aspect within English football probably made it of marginal interest to the rest of the world. I’m given to understand that Formula 1 is not exactly a big draw in North America either, but I’m pretty sure you don’t have to know much about it to enjoy the film. I say that because I am largely ignorant of any of its details, aside from the fact that a bunch of low-slung very fast cars race around a track about 80 times. And while I’d heard the name of Austrian driver Niki Lauda, I didn’t know anything about him nor had I heard at all of the English driver James Hunt (the other protagonist of Rush) or of the two drivers’ rivalry.

It’s that rivalry which is at the heart of this film, particularly as it affected the race during the 1976 championship season in which Lauda was critically injured. Chris Hemsworth is energetic as the playboy James Hunt, rarely to be seen without a beer in his hand or dragging on a cigarette, and with a devil-may-care attitude to racing and to life. His rival is Lauda, played by Daniel Brühl as a mousy and unpleasant young man with a passion for tinkering with his cars. Neither of them — as seems to be the rule with Formula 1 drivers — are particularly nice people, being primarily addicted to the thrill of driving, but are given a bit of depth by the observant writing and Hemsworth and Brühl’s acting skills.

For all that I greatly enjoyed Rush, I haven’t really got a lot of knowledgeable things to say about it, I confess. Howard’s direction is polished as ever, attentive to his actors’ expressive faces, and to the grounding role played by the other drivers, their engineering teams, the money men who bankroll them all (for it is undeniably a very male-oriented sport), and by the women in their lives, particularly Lauda’s wife Marlene (a serene Alexandra Maria Lara). There’s some rather graphic medical detail — it is a dangerous sport after all — and the way the 1976 season unfolds is grippingly essayed.

For all that it’s a sports film or a film about high-speed cars, Rush is above all a well-tooled Hollywood-style blockbuster, with a finely-honed and effectively-conveyed sense of unfolding drama. It all zips by at a fair pace, and if I don’t find myself challenged exactly, it’s never egregiously offensive or boring. A fine rendition of a corner of recent sporting history that doesn’t get so much of an outing on the big screen, and I’d happily sit through it again.

Rush film posterCREDITS
Director Ron Howard; Writer Peter Morgan; Cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle; Starring Chris Hemsworth, Daniel Brühl, Alexandra Maria Lara, Olivia Wilde; Length 122 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Haymarket, London, Sunday 15 September 2013.