Long Shot 2019 ***

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When Seth Rogen first appeared in a puff of dubious smoke, he offered a new type of male lead for the 2010’s. A slob, a stoner, but also a decent guy and a buddy, someone to pal around with, Rogen’s charms worked well in Knocked Up, Pineapple Express and Bad Neighbours, but less so when squeezed into vehicles like The Green Hornet. Long Shot is a romantic comedy set in the world of politics, re-uniting Rogen with director Jonathan Levine, who worked with him on 50/50. The role of Fred Flarsky, a shambolic political activist/journalist who ends up writing speeches for Charlotte Field (Charlize Theron) suits Rogen fine, but more problematic elements let Long Shot down.

Probably the biggest issue here is that 2019’s political landscape is so extreme that fiction can hardly keep up; a throwaway line about ‘gay marriage causing earthquakes’ is about as close at Long Shot gets to addressing Donald Trump’s tenure. Instead, there’s a very weak joke about the president (Bob Odenkirk) wanting to give up the White House to re-ignite his acting career; such quaint vanities are not the ones an audience will likely recognise as current. As Fred and Charlotte navigate various foreign backdrops and put aside their differences to fall in love, there’s little satire or commentary, just some fairly goofy rom-com antics. Things liven up when corporate forces attempt to blackmail Charlotte into dumping Fred, and a positive message about truth just about gets out. But the equation of Fred’s enthusiasm for self-stimulation with the hidden mistresses of US presidents feels like a stretch, and repeated use of Roxette’s It Must Have Been Love from Pretty Woman suggests a bald attempt to push the audience’s buttons by evoking ancient glories in the rom-com genre.

Worse still, a sequence in which Charlotte has to defuse a potentially life-threatening hostage situation while ‘accidentally’ under the influence of molly is exactly the kind of tired, contrived wackiness that Rogen’s blunt approach once seemed to be the perfect antidote to. Two likable stars keep Long Shot watchable, but it’s a shame the script goes low when it should be soaring high.

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The Little Hours 2017 ****

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Aubrey Plaza’s role in Park and Recreation could have set her up in a rut; her dour demeanour and caustic attitude inspired countless memes, but ran the risk of making Plaza something on a one-trick pony. Thankfully her film work has established that she’s anything but. Films like Safety Not Guaranteed and Ingrid Goes West show a diverse range, but her role as producer and star in writer/director Jeff Baene’s The Little Hours suggests there’s more to come. Based on The Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio, it’s a medieval comedy which covers some of the same ground as Pasolini’s celebrated film, and has a similarly improvised style. The Little Hours features naughty nuns, randy mutes, and all sorts getting into amorous and sexual escapades in the Italian countryside. Plaza seems to have brought her client book from her Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre days, with comic icons Nick Offerman, Dave Franco, John C Reilly, Molly Shannon and Paul Reiser amongst a very recognisable cast. The results are generally charming and occasionally hilarious; Reilly has a great scene discussing sin, and Fred Armisen has a brilliant cameo as a scolding Bishop.

Holmes & Watson 2018 ***

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Some films seem destined to be whipping boys; like Bohemian Rhapsody, Holmes & Watson had Sasha Baron Cohen for a lead for a while, only to be reworked for the established duo of Will Ferrell and John C Reilly, from Step-Brothers and Talladega Nights. The public flocked to those films while shunning Etan Cohen’s take on Conan Doyle’s character, and yet it’s probably not that different a proposition. Ferrell plays Holmes as an idiot, Reilly even more so with Watson, and most of the jokes come from anachronisms, like a Make American Great Again hat, a Victorian gym with a 21st century ethos, or the blithe use of cocaine or heroin. Ferrell and Reilly go for it, and the supporting cast includes Ralph Fiennes, Hugh Laurie, Rebecca Hall, Steve Coogan and Rob Bryden. Comedy is so rare that Holmes & Watson’s old-school gags deserved a better reception; despite the critical obloquy, there’s plenty to amuse here.

Sorry to Bother You 2018 ****

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Satire may have closed many a theatre show, but there is evidence that good cinematic offerings can find an audience. Sorry to Bother You is the first film by writer and director Boots Reilly, and follows in the tradition of Get Out’s brainy social critique. Business is under the microscope as Cassius Green (LaKeith Stanfield), an ambitious young man gets a call-centre job, but his skill in impersonating white voices leads him to a promotion that reveals uncomfortable truths about the company itself. Armie Hammer gives a nice turn as our chief villain, Worrycore’s Steve Lift, and the arc of the story is worthy of Lindsay Anderson’s O Lucky Man!, as are the grotesque physical embodiments that are discovered in his scabrous, angry take on modern mores. The way Reilly imagines his scenes so vividly, notably when each telephone call crashes Cassius through the ceiling of each house he calls, is refreshing and revitalising, and promises a fresh, original voice in our cinema’s future.

Eighth Grade 2018 ****

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Bo Burnham’s background on social media was one of the main selling points of his coming-of-age tale Eighth Grade, but the writer/director’s first film is a careful, tender and decidedly now film about a girl growing up in the digital age. Burnham smartly doesn’t over-emphasise this; Kayla has a blog, largely unseen, and expresses herself through her tech, but it doesn’t really change anything about her life rather than indexing her many anxieties. Kayla (Elise Fisher) has difficulties with boys are to be expected, but the sweet nature of her relationship with her father (John Hamilton) is far more affecting than might be guessed. All the conversations featured here feel real, like the mall-chat where Kayla’s age is discussed in terms of how mature she was when Snapchat became a thing. A throw-away scene in which the school-children sleepwalk through a drill for a school-shooter reveals Eighth Grade’s charm; the times may have changed, but the essence of childhood, having fun while yearning to be mature, remains much the same.

Easy A 2010 ****

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Emma Stone rips it up in a star-making performance in Will Gluck’s lively and well-constructed teen movie. Gluck’s Fired Up! demonstrated that he knew his way about campus, and working from a script by Bart L Layton than has the dense deft feel of a good spec, he turns a few clichés inside out here. Stone plays Olive, a smart, sassy girl who pretends to have lost her virginity at the weekend. The notoriety appeals to her, not least because she’s writing a report on The Scarlet Letter (the book, not the Demi Moore film). Soon she’s faking it all over school, or rather, she’s faking being sexually active in return for gift cards provided by boys keen to have a reputation of their own. It’s a scenario that works well at exposing male-female hypocrisy, and Stone gives it her all. There’s support from Malcolm MacDowell as the school head, and Lisa Kudrow as a counsellor with a line in unhelpful advice. The referencing for John Hughes and The Breakfast Club isn’t needed here; Easy A is a teen classic on merit.

End of Sentence 2019 ****

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Sometimes it’s the tiniest detail that sparks a good film into life; as Frank Fogle (John Hawkes) enters an American prison alongside his terminally ill wife, she’s asked to remove her head-scarf, revealing her bald head and suggesting how short her remaining time on earth will be. A small moment, but one that elicits sympathy and interest; her death and funeral are not seen, but it’s obvious that Frank is left bereft by her passing. When their son, Sean (Logan Lerman) is finally allowed back from behind bars, Frank manages to persuade Sean to accompany him on a trip to rural Ireland, with the intention of spreading her ashes. But Sean would rather be in California, and the parental clash is sharpened when Sean picks up a girl in the form of Jewel (Sarah Bolger).
Audiences might feel that if they’ve seen one bitter-sweet drama about a father and son’s unlikely road trip to spread their mother’s ashes, they’ve seen them all. But End of Sentence comes up fresh as a daisy under the direction of Elfar Adalsteins, with Michael Armbruster’s script given space to sing. Hawkes has been a powerful force in films as diverse as Winter’s Bone and The Sessions, and manages to convincingly depict Frank as a man strong in conviction, but weak in action. Just as good is Logan Lerman; in his Percy Jackson series, Lerman seems to have been encouraged to play up the Jack Nicholson in his looks, but here he dispenses with the mannerisms to make something dour and forceful about Sean’s inner demons. Bolger’s striking turn as a hitch-hiker with unexpected musical abilities completes an intriguing trio; End of Sentence ends up as a road movie in the vein of Five Easy Pieces, and that’s high praise indeed for a drama that skilfully turns some venerable indie clichés inside out. An Irish/Icelandic co-production, this comes from Samson Films, who hit big with Oscar-winner Once, and End of Sentence is every bit as good as that popular success.