It may prove the year’s cleverest comedy title. In addition to the cognoscenti who hear that Submarine is a funny, smart, inventive Wales-set comedy about growing up, the film will surely reel in, unwitting, some of the up-periscope crowd. “Tom Clancy undersea adventure!” they will crow hopefully. “U-boats at dawn!”
They are almost right. The title, carried over by first-time film-maker Richard Ayoade from the 2008 novel by Joe Dunthorne, fits with teenage hero Oliver’s life and life view, both fathoms-deep in fantasy. “We’re all travelling under the radar, undetected,” intones this compulsive diarist-commentator. As delivered by actor Craig Roberts, in a performance of perfect, deadpan nerdiness, his po-voiced pensées echo drolly down the Swansea streets. Think Adrian Mole; cross him with Holden Caulfield; add a graft of young Woody Allen.
Every adult is an enemy submarine, until Oliver decides he or she is an ally. Dad (Noah Taylor) is a depressed marine biologist. Mum (Sally Hawkins) has fallen for the deep and shallow charms of a New Age spiritualist (played with a doltish egotism by Paddy Considine). Oliver’s girlfriend Jordana sets about scuttling his virginity, then redirects her enemy-action skills towards a rival schoolmate.
In short: adolescent business as usual. But there is a dour intentness, often very funny, about Oliver’s dramatising diary skills (“a routine search of my parents’ bedroom … ”). And for an hour Ayoade, a comedian in his alternative career, mixes zany visual inventiveness and deadpan-perfect tonal holding patterns. Does the story go on too long? Just a bit. Subplots queue to be sorted. Love problems have to be resolved. (Oh, dear, have they? … ) My advice is stay for the best bits. Then catch an early return train from Swansea.
The phrase “young Woody Allen” carries, alas, a reminder of its opposite. Older Woody Allen, still re-seeking the elixir of genius. The response to You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger is, let’s hope not. Not if he/she is any one of Antonio Banderas, Josh Brolin, Freida Pinto or the other weirdly un-back-storied immigrant Thamesiders – even London has an identity (doesn’t it?), it isn’t just a black hole sucking in the deracinated – who people a plot about fortune-telling, love, marriage and generational tension.
The dialogue resembles first-draft efforts in a creative-writing class – “One way or another I want to move on with our lives” – while the voice-over narration is preppy, arch, overemphatic. When I saw the words “Tin Ear Production Company” in the end credits, I wasn’t sure if it was a joke or a piece of authorial honesty.
Who says everything is instant in the age of jet travel, cellphones and Twitter? Lance Hammer’s Ballast, a sombre backwoods drama, has taken three years to journey from the Berlin Film Festival to Britain. Good movies march on their stomachs, fed on scraps of word-of-mouth, while bad ones fly first-class.
Drugs, guns, attempted suicide. The Mississippi Delta is a watercolour landscape in duns and half-colours. Black poverty is turned over like the underside of the American dream. A dead man’s widow (Tarra Riggs) wars over love and property with a brother-in-law (Michael J Smith Sr) until sheer attrition – the struggle for survival – creates a kind of exhausted peace.
Hammer’s career background – as a digital effects designer (for films including Batman & Robin) – makes this realist labour of love even more magically improbable. The tone of quiet desperation is perfect. So are the calibrated verismo of the soundtrack (keening wind, crunching earth) and the stoical, simple, hungering, believable performances.
Route Irish is the latest proof that there are two different Ken Loaches. One makes humane tragicomedies, films unafraid to take the long and winding road to telling stories about real people (Riff Raff, Raining Stones).
The other makes agitprop political dramas ready to take any short-cut, no matter how undignified, to audience indignation. The only living and compelling character here is the main one, a returned-from-Iraq security contractor (strongly played by Mark Womack) who nurses – indeed suckles – his avenging rage over a friend-from-childhood’s suspected murder.
The friend died, supposedly at insurrectionist hands, on Baghdad’s infamous “Route Irish” from the Green Zone to the airport. Was he slain in fact by work colleagues, afraid he was about to gab about their little local barbarities? The faster it runs, the shallower this Liverpool-set story, scripted by Loach regular
Paul Laverty, becomes. There’s a dismally written girlfriend, all querulous commonplaces. (She is there to ask the questions the film-goer needs answered.) There are generic Iraqi “flashbacks”, serving scant function except to fire gunshots over our heads. And there is the almost inevitable scene on a golf links, the Pavlovian prompt to Loach audiences to hiss the fat cats in their privileged playground.
Matthew McConaughey is an actor at the crossroads of charm and smarm. Move him a little one way, he can be a dapper romcom Romeo.
Move him a little the other and he is the snake-oil hero of The Lincoln Lawyer. He serves justice – in his serpentine, oleaginous way – to rape-and-battery defendant Ryan Phillippe in a Los Angeles largely assembled from a clichés kit.
Michael Connelly wrote the source bestseller. The “usual suspects” supporting cast would be equally at home guesting in Columbo or CSI: Somewhere-or-Other (Marisa Tomei, William H. Macy, John Leguizamo).
Putting the moves on a set of villains as venal as any outside a Ken Loach film, McConaughey plies his elaborately hick southern accent. He sounds as if he spent his childhood doing door-to-door readings from Huckleberry Finn: maybe that is his appeal. He makes the film move briskly and watchably, though, with the same battered pretence at old world stylishness as his title-inspiring car.
Thirty-six years after the rumble in the jungle, Kinshasa stakes another claim to world fame. As Zaire’s capital it gave us Ali/Foreman. As Congo’s capital, it boasts an inner city – a “cardboard city” – where amid poverty and deprivation a group of polio-stricken old-timers have got together with street youths to make music. The success of this combo (homemade guitars, a boy playing a stringed-milk-tin lute, a paraplegic dancer) is celebrated in Benda Bilili!.
Renaud Barret and Florent de La Tullaye – names that sound as if they have strayed from an Edmond Rostand play – are the documentary’s directors. They also passed the tin round, their tin, to help Staff Benda Bilili (the band’s name) to its climactic tour, which ends in the snows of Oslo. The place looks terrifyingly cold. The music, and the musicians’ big-hearted charm, keep us warm.