May 30, 2013 5:28 pm

Cinema reviews: The Purge, Byzantium, Populaire, The Comedian

Gripping future-suspense; Neil Jordan’s vampires; speed-typing rom-com; odd tale of love and comedy
Ethan Hawke in 'The Purge'

Ethan Hawke in 'The Purge'

The Purge has no business being as good as it is. There is no justification for a film with a gimmicky, catchpenny premise and much showy, wham-bang violence to be enjoyable, gripping and even – in its simpleton-savant way – artistic.

But that is Hollywood. You think you have American cinema’s nonsensicality by the tail and then it bites you with teeth attached to a head containing, goodness us, an actual brain. Writer-director James DeMonaco screenwrote The Negotiator and Assault on Precinct 13 (the remake). He is no slouch at suspense tales that put a fresh turn-of-the-screw on old material. The Purge is a home invasion story – think Straw Dogs, Night of the Living Dead – as security systems salesman Ethan Hawke and his family shutter their mansion against hooligans on the night of the Annual Purge.

It is America, 2022 A.D. To stem crime and violence during the rest of the year, one evening is set aside for lawful delinquency. The police will stay off-duty; killings will be licensed; no one will be punished for what happens between 7pm and 7am. The Purge’s standard-design screen family makes us fear the worst in formula film-making: macho dad, a loving mum (Lena Headey), one teenage child of each sex. But predictability erodes with time. We do not expect the uncannily scary masks worn by the besiegers, who demand the surrender of the bleeding black runaway whom Hawke’s techno-geek son has raised the shutters to let in. Nor do we expect the siege leader to be a droll and brilliantly played riff on – surely – Norway’s mass killer, Anders Breivik. (Actor Rhys Wakefield is blond, unflappable, stylishly sneery and says, with the fixity of eye of the truly mad, things like “You have failed to deliver the homeless swine.”)

Cleverly too, dad begins as the worst yet most understandable form of coward. “Monster!” cries his son as Hawke all but tortures the fugitive into compliance. (The family will be spared the enemy’s bombs and battering rams if they deliver the sanctuary seeker.) But the cleverest twists of all follow the resolution of the main battle. In American suburbia you are never safe, least of all when you think you are. Keep your friends close and your fellow ’burb-dwellers closer. As Robert Frost almost said: good defences make good neighbours.



It is hard to keep up with delivery services in modern culture. A new form of “post” comes through the door daily. After the postmodern came the post-structural, then the post-ironic. After post-gothic screen romance – Twilight – we get Neil Jordan’s Byzantium. Post-gothic; post-romantic; post early for Halloween DVD night.

The film is a shambles and not a pretty one. What happened to Jordan’s sense of humour? No one asks that this time-hopping horror melodrama about two centuries-old vampire kinswomen (Gemma Arterton, Saoirse Ronan), conducting survival and reprisal business in an English coastal town (Hastings, vaunting its photogenic burnt pier), be funny. We just ask that it be aware, and wary, of its risibility potential. But no. The bathos monster moves through every scene, manifested now as portentous dialogue by screenwriter Moira Buffini adapting her stage play (“I walk and the past walks with me ... ”), now as another of multiple ham-dram, grand guignol murder scenes. Decapitating cheese wire; talon to the jugular; Byzantine sword: “You have no f***ing idea what I do for you,” says one of the overexercised heroines. (Perhaps the film would be better as a comedy).

The momentary eruptions of watchability hurt rather than help. If Jordan can do an eerily beautiful shot of a cabbage field – purpling, wintry, magic-houred – why can’t he make other scenes or tableaux memorable? If, in a supporting role, the demi-newcomer Caleb Landry Jones (Antiviral) can hauntingly sketch a haunted youth, ragged of voice and ravelled-up with fear, why do the likes of Sam Riley and Johnny Lee Miller perform like costume dummies wired for speech? We beg for tension, drama, development. The only suspense lies in wondering where the next bad line will come from. And little suspense even there. It will come from the next open mouth.



It is hard not to like Populaire, though the odds seem stacked against. A French romantic comedy about national and regional speed-typing contests? Styled like a 1950s quota quickie – cheap-looking, cheery, with cheesy band music – the story makes it through the obstacle course of early audience scepticism, then hits the home straight as a Pygmalion or My Fair Lady-style romance. The martinet boss (Romain Duris, who used to look like Martin Amis but with a 50s-style Brylcreeming moves closer to Montgomery Clift) compels his pretty, lovestruck secretary (Déborah François) to learn fast typing, with many a hit-the-rocks hiatus or hissy fit between. Bérénice Bejo, this week’s Cannes Best Actress, adds class in a cameo role. It’s a speed comedy: snappy, inoffensive, mechanical, but mostly hitting the right keys.



The world is reaching out to gay romance right now. But it takes a lot of reaching to like Tom Shkolnik’s The Comedian, or even to understand what it is saying. By day an insurance telemarketer, Ed (Edward Hogg) is by night a London stand-up club comic – dying like Custer when we witness him – and a love-seeker ready to shrug off a folk-singing girlfriend. He falls for a sweet-natured black guy (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett). The film stammers and darts between Ed’s different lives and IDs, like a computer arrow that has lost mouse control. It ends with a long, non-sequitur-filled chat in a night taxi as if, having given up all else, Shkolnik has decided to make a dash for elective free-form non-narrativity, Jim Jarmusch-style.


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