THE participation of Nicole Kidman in Grace of Monaco so soon after her friend Naomi Watts became a laughing stock with Diana does make it seem as if the A-listers made a bet with each other to see who could make the most fatuous film about a royal destined to die in a car crash.
Grace of Monaco (PG)
Directed by: Olivier Dahan
Starring: Nicole Kidman, Tim Roth, Roger Ashton-Griffiths
For sheer soapy tastelessness Watts perhaps has the edge as the Princess of Wales (not least because Diana included the tragic ending) but, as Grace Kelly in this film, Kidman certainly gives one of her worst performances.
Homing in on Kelly’s life after giving up her movie career to become Princess Grace of Monaco, she’s unintentionally funnier here than when she was when trying to be funny in her remake of The Stepford Wives – a film that also springs to mind thanks to the way this movie sets Grace up as strong independent woman suddenly forced to play the societal role of the pretty, eager-to-please robo-wife. The irony is that if there’s a knack to conveying the tragedy of trading one life of privilege for another, Kidman – who’s done interesting work in recent years in the likes Rabbit Hole, Stoker and The Paper Boy – doesn’t have it. Her performance here is automaton-like, with emotions barely registering on a face that, when not bathed in opulent light, is frequently framed in extreme close-ups that come no closer to conveying what this woman might have been thinking.
As a result, Kidman – who is almost 15 years older than Kelly was at this point in her life – never disappears into the role. She’s Grace Kelly because the film tells us she’s Grace Kelly; she doesn’t look or sound particularly like her and it’s only when Alfred Hitchcock (played by Roger Ashton-Griffiths) turns up offering her a plum part in Marnie – opposite a young up-and-coming movie star by the name of Sean Connery – that you remember that she’s supposed to have had a life and a career before this juncture.
The film throws this stuff in early, but it’s a bit of a bait-and-switch, designed to hook us with the prospect of a juicy Hollywood story before we realise the film is actually going to be a dreadfully dull tale about a tax dispute between the French government and a principality that has become a haven for fantastically wealthy plutocrats. Not that another behind-the-scenes film about Hitchcock would necessarily have been any better.
Perhaps it’s karma for being such a hard taskmaster on set, but Hitch seems destined have his name besmirched these days by filmmakers with zero ability to match his cinematic prowess making him a character in their rubbish period films. In this case, Olivier Dahan – who made the Oscar-winning La Vie en Rose – uses him as a father figure for Grace, someone whose sole function is to articulate how this particular life of luxury might be a little suffocating for someone used to getting her own way – particularly after enjoying the life of luxury that comes from growing up the daughter of a self-made millionaire and then becoming a millionaire in her own right as a Hollywood movie star.
The appropriateness of Princess Grace returning to Hollywood to make Marnie does become a plot point of sorts in the film, it’s just not a very scintillating or high-stakes one. And nor is the plot devised by her detractors to destabilise her marriage to the Prince (Tim Roth, smoking his way towards a performance). Instead, everything takes a back seat to the transformative moment in which she decides to stand by her man and become the best princess she can be regardless of her own happiness – a decision that leads to perhaps the film’s only truly so-bad-it’s-good sequence when she embarks on a Rocky-style training montage full of elocution lessons, deportment classes and a cringeworthy series of shots in which Grace, asked to convey a various emotions written on the back of flash cards, proceeds to give practically the same look in each case.
Maybe in years to come people will look back on this as some kind of camp classic, but don’t bet on it.
Fruitvale Station (15)
Directed by: Ryan Coogler
Starring: Michael B Jordan, Melonie Diaz, Octavia Spencer
* * * *
The titular train station is in Oakland, California, insignificant and nondescript, save for the terrible events that occurred there on New Year’s Eve, 2008. That’s when a young, unarmed African-American man named Oscar Grant was shot and killed by transit police. On the crowded train, revellers returning from a night out in San Francisco watched, outraged, as events unfolded, filming everything on their phones – an instinctive reaction in the dawning age of the obsessive citizen videographer, but one informed by the legacy of Rodney King and the depressing history of heavy-handed, racially profiled policing in California.
That footage – fuzzy and obscure – sets the scene in debut filmmaker Ryan Coogler’s deft and distressing Fruitvale Station; what follows provides the context as he reverts to more classical docudrama techniques to trace the last 24 hours in Oscar’s life. Though necessarily fictionalised for the purposes of the film, there’s nothing remarkable or out-of-the-ordinary about Oscar. Played with restraint and quiet frustration by Michael B Jordan, he’s a man who’s done some jail time, but is trying to get his life back on track.
Though no angel – use of flashbacks to Oscar’s time inside suggest the extent to which his choices have hurt those that love him most – he’s no cliché either. Eager to make up for past mistakes, and as susceptible to making new ones as anyone else, he’s intent on trying to live his life in a way that feels right. What’s great is that Jordan doesn’t play Oscar with a sense of foreboding and nor does Coogler exploit the dramatic irony inherent in the set up to artificially up the stakes. As Oscar sets about his last day – trying to talk his way back into a job he’s lost, taking care of his kid, helping his family organise a party – it’s the relatable mundanity of his life that makes the film so compelling, and which makes the manner in which it ends so pointless and tragic. This is socially aware cinema at its most nuanced, humane and complex.
The Sacrament (18)
Directed by: Ti West
Starring: AJ Bowen, Joe Swanberg, Amy Seimetz
* * * *
Dumped on video on demand and in a handful of cinemas, The Sacrament’s ignominious release this weekend belies its status as one of the most unsettling horror films around. The latest from Ti West (House of the Devil) is a modern day riff on the Jonestown Massacre, revolving around two video journalists for Vice magazine (AJ Bowen and Joe Swanberg) as they investigate a religious commune in an undisclosed tropical location where their photographer colleague’s sister (Amy Seimetz) has taken refuge. West uses the Vice house style to riff on the ubiquitous found footage device and give it more of a professional sheen, something that aids his ability to build up a coherent picture of the cult’s inner workings so that when the inevitable descent into insanity comes, it’s sharp, shocking and plausibly horrific.
Cheap Thrills (15)
Directed by: EL Katz
Starring: Pat Healy, Ethan Embry, David Koechner, Sara Paxton
* * * *
The second good horror film released this week comes courtesy of EL Katz, making his directorial debut after a handful of indie horror writing credits. With Cheap Thrills he certainly delivers on his title, serving up plenty of crude, suggestive, low-budget shocks while simultaneously exploiting the freedom afforded by the genre to take an inventively nasty little idea and turn it into a potent commentary on contemporary life. The way desperate economic times force people to behave irrationally is the general theme here as a pair of former high school buddies randomly run into each other in a bar and end up drinking with a rich couple who offer to pay them to carry out a series of dares. As the pranks escalate, so too do the rewards, and so too does the enmity between these equally desperate friends as the extent to which they’re each willing to debase themselves to escape their respective financial ruts intensifies.
The results aren’t pretty, but there’s a sly intelligence underscoring the gross-out fun that makes this a deeper and darker film than expected.
The Dirties (15)
Directed by: Matt Johnson
Starring: Matt Johnson, Owen Williams, Alen Delain
* * * *
Fascinating horror film number three this week is even more socially minded, exploring as it does a high school shooting, told from the perspective of a couple of bullied film geeks who decide to document the misery of their academic lives on camera as a way of validating their own existence. Putting yet another interesting spin on the found-footage device, co-writer/director/star Matt Johnson – who embedded himself in a real high school to film much of the improvised footage – turns what could have been a Scream-style riff on the shaky-cam genre into a more disquieting exploration of the blurred realities of the always-on selfie generation. In the wake of the recent Isla Vista shootings, the film has an eerie resonance too – with the home movie footage subtly changing from goofy to grim as the boys start experimenting with firearms, and the unidentified cameraman filming the action craftily implicating the audience for its own passivity.
Benny & Jolene (15)
Directed by: Jamie Adams
Starring: Craig Roberts, Charlotte Ritchie, Dolly Wells
A music industry themed mock-doc about an indie folk sensation on the cusp of success, Benny & Jolene is a wilting, woeful effort in which the comedy comes nowhere close to being turned up to 11. In a genre that’s now completely played out, the likeable Craig Roberts and Charlotte Ritchie fight a losing battle in roles that never feel remotely authentic.