Skip to main content

What do you do in the group?

Starred Up
(2013)

(SPOILERS) Jack O’Connell can do no wrong right now, it seems. Except maybe taking a supporting role in a 300 prequel. In the space of a couple of years he’s earned his place as the next big British star. The trio of Starred Up, ’71 and Unbroken (Angelina came-a-calling) have cemented a rightfully acclaimed reputation as an immediate and visceral performer. He’s got gigs with Jodie Foster and (maybe, touch wood) Terry Gilliam coming up; it’s probably just as well he didn’t land Reed Richards. Which is a round about way of getting to his performance in Starred Up. It’s a powerhouse turn, one that almost, but ultimately can’t, make up for a movie unable to decide if it’s a serious picture about rehabilitation or your shiv-wielding genre staple replete with vicious guards, duplicitous prison overlords (not Noel Coward), and psycho wardens.


What’s surprising about this, perhaps, is that screenwriter Jonathan Asser has based the picture on his own experiences working with offenders. There’s definitely a sense of a more engaged picture emerging from the folds of a standard nick thriller every time we enter the session groups. Oliver (Rupert Friend) comes into the incarceration situation almost unbelievably ill equipped; he’s well-educated and intimidated. The sort of guy who wouldn’t last five minutes in stir. So we’re as curious as Eddie (O’Connell) about why his group seem so devoted to his methods. And why he is seized to help Eddie in particular.


In tandem with this is the set up of Eddie being incarcerated with his lifer dad Neville (Ben Mendelsohn), a man disinclined to give the son he’s hardly seen any special treatment, but who nevertheless feels the paternal bond. Neville’s inability to express himself (his one attendance at the group leads to its dissolution) is effective, but there’s a strong sense of great performances overcoming the artifice of the set up here. Eddie has come up from young offenders prison for being too much of a handful (“starred up”) and seems set to cause similar disruption. Prison Mr Big Dennis (Peter Ferdinando, memorable as the Black Knight in the none-too memorable Snow White and the Huntsman) instructs Neville to mentor Eddie, so his son’s behaviour doesn’t disrupt the dirty business line Dennis has going with the crook deputy governor Haynes (Sam Spruell).


From that, it may seem as if there’s a lot going on. And there is, too much really. Just a film about Oliver’s anger management classes could have been fascinating; even a film where the focus is as much on the malign bureaucracy of those who don’t want to help offenders as on the offender (Eddie) himself. I don’t think Neville’s presence, as good as Mendelsohn is, is strictly necessary. It brings additional elements of melodrama that undercut the more serious themes. Along with the standard prison tropes, this helps turn Starred Up into another exploitation picture.


The final scenes between father and son are touching, but Asser and director David Mackenzie (whose career has been on the unfocussed side, material-wise) precede this an action-packed, adrenalised finale that speaks the message “there’s nothing quite so effective for bringing a dad and his boy together as beating 7 shades of shit out of some screws”. Mackenzie even douses the attempted hanging of Eddie in a red filter and adds an eerie, horror-movie soundtrack. Spruell’s Deputy Governor may as well be Donald Sutherland in  Lock Up, so unspeakably motiveless Machiavellian is he.


And there are the signs of a screenplay that bends itself every which way in order to meet the demands of the moment. Eric’s eloquent insights into his situation and those around him show an empathy beyond his boundless rage, and suggest he’s in touch with his inner self before he starts attending Oliver’s groups. Indeed, when he enrages Oliver, who admits he wants to hurt him, Eric agrees to come to the meeting following the tritest of exchanges (“Good, now we’re getting somewhere”). Stallone could have been so subtle.


On the other hand, the therapy sessions are engrossing, and extremely well performed (one thing I can’t fault here are the performances). Anthony Welsh, David Ajala, Ashley Chin and Gershwyn Eustache Jnr are there for the necessary induction (“It can take a session or two to get used to it”), so it’s a shame that, just as we are gaining an insight into Asser’s method, he decides to move onto matters more lugubrious.


Unfortunately, Starred Up allows the clichés to win out. If it were that kind of film through-and-through, this wouldn’t matter. But Asser really appeared to have his mind on higher things (I’m less sure of Mackenzie’s motives). What are we to take away when Oliver loses his temper with the warden and so kills his programme? It makes for a dramatic scene, but it serves to undermine his process. Maybe Eric and his fellow groupies will make better situations for themselves due to Oliver’s influence, but in the end the focus is more on father-son reconciliation. The authenticity of filming in an actual prison is resounding in terms of the overall mood and atmosphere, but it isn’t as if that’s a rarity for banged up cinema. If Asser had the courage of his characters’ convictions, Starred Up might have really got its teeth into something. Instead, it gets down tearing new holes.



Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

Imagine a plant that could think... Think!

The Avengers 4.12: Man-Eater of Surrey Green
Most remarked upon for Robert Banks-Stewart having “ripped it off” for 1976 Doctor Who story The Seeds of Doom, although, I’ve never been wholly convinced. Yes, there are significant similarities – an eccentric lady making who knows her botany, a wealthy businessman living in a stately home with an affinity for vegetation, an alien plant that takes possession of humans, a very violent henchman and a climax involving a now oversized specimen turning very nasty… Okay, maybe they’re onto something there… – but The Seeds of Doom is really good, while Man-Eater of Surrey Green is just… okay.

This isn't fun, it's scary and disgusting.

It (2017)
(SPOILERS) Imagine how pleased I was to learn that an E Nesbitt adaptation had rocketed to the top of the US charts, evidently using a truncated version of its original title, much like John Carter of Mars. Imagine my disappointment on rushing to the cinema and seeing not a Psammead in sight. Can anyone explain why It is doing such phenomenal business? It isn’t the Stephen King brand, which regular does middling-at-best box office. Is it the nostalgia factor (‘50s repurposed as the ‘80s, so tapping into the Stranger Things thing, complete with purloined cast member)? Or maybe that it is, for the most part, a “classier” horror movie, one that puts its characters first (at least for the first act or so), and so invites audiences who might otherwise shun such fare? Perhaps there is no clear and outright reason, and it’s rather a confluence of circumstances. Certainly, as a (mostly) non-horror buff, I was impressed by how well It tackled pretty much everything that wasn’t the hor…

You better watch what you say about my car. She's real sensitive.

Christine (1983)
(SPOILER) John Carpenter was quite open about having no particular passion to make Christine. The Thing had gone belly-up at the box office, and adapting a Stephen King seemed like a sure-fire way to make bank. Unfortunately, its reception was tepid. It may have seemed like a no-brainer – Duel’s demonic truck had put Spielberg on the map a decade earlier – but Carpenter discoveredIt was difficult to make it frightening”. More like Herbie, then. Indeed, the director is at his best in the build-up to unleashing the titular automobile, making the fudging of the third act all the more disappointing.

Don't worry about Steed, ducky. I'll see he doesn't suffer.

The Avengers 4.11: Two’s A Crowd
Oh, look. Another Steed doppelganger episode. Or is it? One might be similarly less than complimentary about Warren Mitchell dusting off his bungling Russian agent/ambassador routine (it obviously went down a storm with the producers; he previously played Keller in The Charmers and Brodny would return in The See-Through Man). Two’s A Crowd coasts on the charm of its leads and supporting performances (including Julian Glover), but it’s middling fare at best.

It could have been an accident. He decided to sip a surreptitious sup and slipped. Splash!

4.10 A Surfeit of H20
A great episode title (definitely one of the series’ top ten) with a storyline boasting all the necessary ingredients (strange deaths in a small village, eccentric supporting characters, Emma even utters the immortal “You diabolical mastermind, you!”), yet A Surfeit of H20 is unable to quite pull itself above the run of the mill.

Have no fear! Doc Savage is here!

Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze (1975)
(SPOILERS) Forget about The Empire Strikes Back, the cliffhanger ending of Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze had me on the edge of my seat for a sequel that never came. How could they do that to us (well, me)? This was of course, in the period prior to discernment and wisdom, when I had no idea Doc Savage was a terrible movie. I mean, it is, isn’t it? Well, it isn’t a great movie, but it has a certain indolent charm, in the manner of a fair few mid-‘70s SF and fantasy fare (Logan’s Run, The Land that Time Forgot) that had no conception the genre landscape was on the cusp of irrevocable change.

Why are you painting my house?

mother!
(SPOILERS) Darren Aronofsky has a reasonably-sized chin, but on this evidence, he’ll have reduced it to a forlorn stump with all that stroking in no time at all. And then set the remains alight. And then summoned it back into existence for a whole new round of stroking. mother! is a self-indulgent exercise in unabated tedium in the name of a BIG idea, one no amount of assertive psued-ing post-the-fact can turn into a masterpiece. Yes, that much-noted “F” cinemascore was well warranted.

Let the monsters kill each other.

Game of Thrones Season Seven
(SPOILERS) Column inches devoted to Game of Thrones, even in “respectable” publications, seems to increase exponentially with each new season, so may well reach critical mass with the final run. Groundswells of opinion duly become more evident, and as happens with many a show by somewhere around this point, if not a couple of years prior, Season Seven has seen many of the faithful turn on once hallowed storytelling, and at least in part, there’s good reason for that.

Some suggest the show has jumped the shark (or crashed the Wall); there were concerns over how much the pace increased last year, divested as it was of George RR Martin’s novels as a direct source, but this year’s succession of events make Six seem positively sluggish. I don’t think GoT has suddenly, resoundingly, lost it, and I’d argue there did need to be an increase in momentum (people are quick to forget how much moaning went on about seemingly nothing happening for long stretches of previ…

James Bond, who only has to make love to a woman and she starts to hear heavenly choirs singing.

Thunderball (1965)
Look up! Look down! Look out! Her comes the biggest Bond of all! So advised the poster for the fourth 007 cinematic feast. Biggest it most definitely was, but unfortunately in almost every other respect the finished film is inferior to its three predecessors. Nevertheless, the approach taken by the producers (a favourite of Hollywood generally) was to throw enough money at the screen in the hope it would result in higher box office receipts. Which proved a successful one on this occasion. It remains the highest grossing Bond film (inflation-adjusted), in the US.