Ill Manors should be cordoned off like an exploding fireworks factory. Ben Drew, alias rapper Plan B, has made the most exciting British first feature in recent memory. It is so exciting I was surrounded by several critics hating it. If they have kids, they probably suffer enough of this at home: noise, violence, hyperkinesis, rap music. If they don’t have kids, they may not want to relate to it at all.
What should they do to love this film? Leave home (imaginatively). Go to the party. See the point of the party. Drew connects an insane-seeming number of plot strands like a master electrician wiring a house: they all light up in turn, sometimes simultaneously. He is derisive, in his lyrics, of David Cameron’s “broken Britain” – that broken-record election mantra – and sees a nation simultaneously more complex, terrible, tremendous and elemental. Violence is the default setting in an England distilled into the danger zone of his own Forest Gate, where “civilisation” is a housing over a terminally faulty junction. Here are the drug dealer (Ed Skrein), the hit-seeking junkie prostitute (Anouska Mond) and the ex-dealer back on the streets (Keith Coggins). Here are the gangsters, youngsters and pretenders, spun about in a centrifugal plot like a Catherine wheel. The most sinister energy may be the stillest centre; everyone and everything else are hurled out like sparks into the night.
There is so much music it’s like a Brecht opera gone rap. But Drew no sooner lures you into thinking you are being lectured, even harangued – sold into didacticism with a song – than he opens up more levels of humanity. There is a scene of feral horror in which a boy is forced to stab a fellow gunpoint victim; then the gun is trained on the boy himself. In this film, when you fear the worst, you often get it. Alternatively, when you fear you are being express-railed into melodrama, Drew switches points and diverts you into dark farce. In a brilliant drawing-together of plots near the end, a sex-traffic victim and single mother (Natalie Press) rows with the publican and wife who have taken her tot, while a handful of major thugs converge on the pub, moth-like, just when a careless occupant upstairs sets it aflame. It’s like Fawlty Towers gone pyroclastic.
Drew uses so many style devices – jump-cutting, slo-mo, surreal camera angles – that you can’t count them. Not once are they redundant to purpose. When two grown-ups have a seriocomical set-to over a pram, it is seen, brilliantly, from the baby’s viewpoint. From inside that infant brain we observe the Babel idiocy of the quarrel; we are not distracted by wrongheaded attempts to understand wrongheadeness. The august film magazine Sight & Sound, summing up the opposition, has said: “It remains difficult to glean any cogent thesis from Ill Manors.” Yes? It is pretty difficult to glean a cogent thesis from King Lear too, or Anna Karenina, or Mahler’s 6th Symphony. Genius isn’t in the business of cogent theses. It is in that of opening your eyes: opening them to life’s complexity and giving you new ways to see, puzzle and marvel over it.
Woody Allen: A Documentary was put together by Robert B. Weide, who directs TV’s Curb Your Enthusiasm. Curb’s Larry David, closest to a Woody heir, is among those spouting praise, like a fire-fighting boat in a flotilla of interviewees sailing past the object of worship.
It is very like last Sunday’s royal river pageant on the Thames. His Majesty King Woody waves in humble appreciation, looking a touch cold and depressed. Even though he sits in a Manhattan penthouse reminiscing himself – it was at age five he first understood mortality and became “grumpier and sourer” – he seems battered by the world’s attention. His reign, though, has been 60 glorious years, from selling gags as a schoolkid to being an un-gaggable filmmaker today, who still refuses (despite some reviews) to stop making a movie a year.
I could have watched this armada forever. The clips alone, from Sleeper, Annie Hall, Zelig and others, pageant his greatness. There are also the early stand-up vignettes, hysterically funny even though Allen insists he hated going on stage. Diane Keaton and Mariel Hemingway testify to the treats and torments of being a Woody muse. “He was short and he was cute” is how Keaton explains the enigma of falling in love with a nerdy-looking nebbish. He made her laugh too. He would. There surely wasn’t a funnier man in the whole last century.
Weide’s film has the taste and discrimination to crop its old TV footage and Academy-ratio movie clips so they aren’t shown in Distort-o-Vision on the wide screen. I walked out of the week’s other celebrity documentary Sing Your Song (12A, Susanne Rostock): excruciatingly, its subject, the singer-activist Harry Belafonte, gets the fairground mirror treatment. The 50s/60s TV excerpts are projected wide, making Belafonte look like Alfred E. Neuman, Mad magazine’s cover gargoyle. This philistinism is endemic in much of America today. They still turn out narrow-format programming for wide TV sets. Were these people brought up in a sensory ghetto? Did they go to the Procrustes Orphanage for Herniating Young Sensibilities? Please join me in the protest movement I am starting today.
Elsewhere this week, we have clearly cut the ribbon on the silly season. The Pact starts promisingly: a horror film set in humdrum Californian suburbia. A young woman vanishes from the house her mother has just died in; the younger sister arrives, puzzled by the sibling’s absence; a cousin turns up. Cue strange noises and frissons d’oeil: a man’s shadow on a wall, a shape flitting past a doorway. The blood turns cold a couple of times, then settles for medium-cool. The same tricks don’t bear repeating; the explanations when they come are a bit daft. The female leads are uniformly characterless, as if Central Bimbo Casting has been told, “Keep sending in the next interchangeable blonde.”
Will Ferrell speaks Spanish throughout Casa de mi Padre. It’s a one-joke film and that’s the joke. Co-written by Ferrell, this spoof Mexican action-melodrama should have gone to Woody Allen to be workshopped. It needed more than the lovingly cardboard sets and designer-grotty reel changes (we get enough of those from Quentin “Retro” Tarantino), let alone the fast-fizzling fun of Ferrell’s foreign fluency.
Red Tails is about those magnificent black men – the Tuskegee air aces – in their second world war flying machines. Like many films honouring the memory of honourable minorities in the grim days before civil rights, this George Lucas-produced war epic is an insomnia cure. If you survive the worthiness, you’ll be downed by the ak-ak, or yak-yak, of the bromidic dialogue. If you survive both you deserve a medal.