The Kids Are All Right () is that rarity, a new-age relationship movie that doesn’t make us feel very old. Old not as in “this is too modern for us” but as in “this is too priggish and holier-than-thou”. Nothing wears an audience down faster than a messianic tract of political correctness.
Lisa Cholodenko’s lesbian parenting drama could have been just that. Annette Bening and Julianne Moore live together as Nic and Jules, an alpha couple with alpha careers (doctor, budding landscape gardener) and Christian names that swing both ways gender-wise. Even their sex lives boast a pendulum liberation from convention: they make out in bed while watching gay male porn on TV. Early on I wanted to say to Cholodenko “Look, I like Bening and Moore and I like you” – she made the darkly witty lesbian serio-comedy High Art – “but don’t give me an Ideal Home photo spread about the righteous lives of the rich and nuptially revisionary”.
No need to despair: the film gets better and better, powered by a sharp, wise script and superlative acting. Nic and Jules’s idyll develops cracks when one of their two children, Joni (Mia Wasikowska), Jules’s biological daughter, seeks out her anonymous sperm-donor father. Paul (Mark Ruffalo) proves to be a tousle-headed organic farmer/restaurateur who rides a motorbike, lives like an overgrown hippy and annoys Bening’s intermittently rigid, rule-making Nic. Annoyance becomes worse when Nic stumbles on evidence, later, that the relationship between Paul and Jules is not what she thought.
By then we are in the characters’ lives, minds and hearts. Like all good comedy dramas, this one thrives on paradox and contradiction. Ruffalo’s Paul is a planet-groomer whose everyday life has split ends. Moore as Jules is the marriage’s meek junior who shows sass and defiance. Bening is the keep-it-together partner who comes apart. The dinner at which she learns the deadly secret is a tour de force, a piece of squally social weather that starts out sunny and becomes a teary tornado.
The family that implodes together stays whole together. We have all done it; we have all emerged, at least once in our lives, from the smoking near-ruin of a relationship still relationship-whole, because somehow we managed to synergise our self-incinerations. This process of healing might have been boring on screen, like the advance prospect of the whole movie. But Moore and Bening are so winning, the first an overgrown teenager forever clutching at passing wisdoms, the second a template for self-possession who can become a tetchy she-cat, that they may be in danger of becoming double-act material for a long-running soap or sitcom. God forbid. Let’s all stand between the movie screen and the TV talent scouts.
Involuntary () is a delectably deadpan Swedish comedy that has won prizes worldwide, or west-wide, from Stockholm to Palm Springs. Writer-director Ruben Östlund – who came to film-making, surreally, from downhill skiing – zigzags between five stories that are barely stories, just sad, funny, wryly perceptive observations of group activity.
The power of peer pressure; the fear of losing face; the peril of crossing social lines. A self-righteous woman teacher riles her colleagues between schooling her pupils on the dangers of conformity. A tour bus comes to a standstill when the driver demands that the perpetrator of a petty vandalism identify himself. (Day turns to night; no one owns up.) A party host hit in the eye by a firework carries on hosting; a bunch of overgrown hiking lads have a brief discomfiting gay skirmish; two teenage girls out on a group rave nearly come to grief.
Östlund’s refusal to steer the film in a clear direction – a bit like the coach driver, in his case waiting (perhaps) for an audience admission of complicit human fallibility – makes it a brilliantly sustained tease. In part it’s a comedy of embarrassment, a Scandinavian-ensemble answer to Ricky Gervais or Alan Partridge. Yet the very obliquity keeps wrong-footing us. Are we being told it is better not to “cross the line” – or better not to fear doing so? Should we find comfort in the group or just a sinister coerciveness? An unknown cast acts with dazzling conviction. Östlund films in longish takes, alternating close-in and far-off shots like a master golfer varying viewpoints as he sizes up each putt.
A long prison sentence, we now know, can win you a Nobel Peace Prize. In nations light on human rights – whether China or in This Prison Where I Live () Burma – it can also win you a quixotic, captivating documentary. The poet and stand-up comic Zarganar, after years of satirising the military junta and after one previous jail spell, is now serving a 59-year sentence for treason. British filmmaker Rex Bloomstein logged an interview with him just before he was sent down and uses snippets as an extended prologue. The burly baldpate cracks jokes like hard-boiled eggs, while fully aware (we sense) that he may be the next egg to be cracked by fate.
The rest of the film narrates Bloomstein’s return to Burma, with German stand-up comedian and Zarganar fan Michael Mittermeier (who also produced the film) as a frontman. The focus is a bit muddled. The field trip’s programme starts falling through when Zarganar’s friends fail to honour interview appointments. (The junta has warned them off.) Finally – yet compellingly – Bloomstein and Mittermeier are reduced to contraband camerawork, taking drive-by shots of Zarganar’s prison from car and motorbike.
Are they in peril of arrest? Probably not. But these scenes stir some much-needed “action” into a film Beckettian, at times, with inanition. Waiting for Zarganar. Or perhaps, in weird kinship with wannabe biographer Ian Hamilton’s famous Salinger hunt, In Search of Zarganar. It’s a charming, courageous film even at its most maddening. Fittingly it ends with the appalling postscript – a parody of optimism fit for a military state – that Zarganar’s sentence has now been “reduced” to 35 years.
From Iran, Rafi Pitts’s The Hunter () is another outsider’s testimony from a despotic land. Iranian-born, Pitts now lives in Europe. He went home some years ago to make the strong, stark It’s Winter, an angry cry about injustice and bereavement. His new film feels muted, even muffled by comparison. A strong, shocking central sequence – the “hero” (played by Pitts) sniper-shooting at cops from a hill in revenge for a wife’s death in a street rally – fails to radiate out to other scenes. The story dulls into a cat-and-mouse pursuit narrative, with Pitts’s own inexpressive performance one weakness among many.
Burke and Hare () is that worst of misses, a bad-taste comedy that isn’t funny. By all means make us gasp or squirm at the spectacle of two true-life multiple murderers (Simon Pegg, Andy Serkis) played for knockabout. But if we don’t laugh too – and at this witless script crammed with celebrity cameos (Ronnie Corbett, Christopher Lee, Michael Winner) we don’t – we feel as stiffed by the filmmakers as the poor Edinburgh down-and-outs, Burke and Hare’s victims, were stiffed by those errand boys for medical science.