Films of the week
Hunky Dory (15) / This Means War (12A) (3/5, 1/5)
Starring: Minnie Driver, Aneurin Barnard, Darren Evans, Robert Pugh / Starring: Tom Hardy, Reese Witherspoon, Chris Pine
The long hot summer of 1976 is the crucible of romantic and familial meltdown in Marc Evans's likeable but uneven Hunky Dory. We are transported, on a wing and a flare, to a comprehensive school in South Wales (a bit Swansea, a bit Port Talbot) where the kids are rehearsing a musical based on The Tempest but set on Mars. David Bowie, as the title indicates, is a central influence, though there seems more of a determination on the film-makers' part that anything Glee can do we can do better.
Better? That would be a big call. It's certainly different from Glee's high-definition grooming and professionalism. Partly that's to do with the 1970s setting. The teenage complexions on show are pasty rather than glowing, and the school uniforms lend it a vaguely Grange Hill quaintness. The stage costumes look like they've been run up on mum's sewing machine. Yet there's an innocence about Hunky Dory and its amateurishness that feels closer in spirit to Todd Graff's delightful stage-school movie Camp (2003), whose presiding genius was Stephen Sondheim. Bowie's not a bad substitute, and what this lacks in finesse it makes up for in honest-to-god enthusiasm.
Minnie Driver takes the role of Viv, the feisty drama teacher who's so much on the side of "the kids" that her headmaster (Robert Pugh) has to keep reminding her of the necessary "boundaries" – smoking with the pupils must be discouraged. Prune-faced social-studies teacher Haydn Gwynne practically regards the pupils as criminals in waiting. Viv oversees the fractious atmosphere of rehearsals like a trouper, but she's also agony aunt to the show's lovelorn lead, Davy (Aneurin Barnard), and to sensitive skinhead Kenny (Darren Evans). Driver, not a naturally endearing presence, is good as the (go on, groan) "inspirational" teacher, and might have been even better if Laurence Coriat's script had offered more help – as it is, Viv does a lot of rolling her eyes heavenwards in that teacherly give-me-strength manner.
How Evans faked the steamy temperatures of 1976 in modern Wales is a mystery, though Charlotte Bruus Christensen's photography gets the right sun-stunned look of the era, as teenagers slyly check one another out and cool their hormonal furies with a dip in the lido. The narrative, spread thin, lacks a good deal in urgency, but it keeps springing to life with its musical numbers – not just Bowie ("Life on Mars?", "The Man Who Sold the World") but Nick Drake, the Beach Boys, and two terrific ELO songs, "Strange Magic" and a roof-raising "Livin' Thing". Again, it hasn't the note-perfect finish that an American equivalent would boast, and sometimes sounds distinctly rough around the edges; but the earnest playing of the orchestra and the lo-fi warbling touch the heart in a way that a more polished production might not. When the school concert hall burns down it seems all their efforts have been in vain. Can a last-minute venue be found for the show? It would be very wrong of the film to deny us at this stage, and, proudly unafraid of a cliché, it all proves hunky dory.
This Means War is two movies rolled into one. The first is a romantic comedy starring Reese Witherspoon. The second is a buddy movie – or bromance as we must now call it – starring Chris Pine and Tom Hardy as top CIA agents. Both of these are movies are terrible, but let's go through the set-up anyway. FDR (Pine) and Tuck (Hardy) are pouty modelisers who go from dicing with death on a Hong Kong skyscraper to kicking their heels in the office: their boss (Angela Bassett) has just carpeted them for fouling up an undercover op and letting an international villain (Til Schweiger) escape. So, with time to spare, they both go in search of love and end up dating – by hilarious coincidence! – the same woman. That would be Lauren (Witherspoon), who of course doesn't know that FDR and Tuck are best buddies and now competitors for her.
What she also couldn't know is that the two men have deployed a full range of espionage technology to keep her under surveillance, rigging her apartment with spycams and tracking her with satellite. Did it not occur to the writers Timothy Dowling and Simon Kinberg that this stratagem might come over as a bit creepy? Apparently not, but then their entire screenplay suggests barely a passing acquaintance with what we understand by real life. I'm not sure what CIA agents earn these days, but it's unlikely they could afford Pine's bachelor apartment, wherein the glass ceiling looks up to a swimming pool. And what sort of evil mastermind goes to a Savile Row tailor with a swatch of cloth that will help him identify his prey? Isn't that what computers are for?
That director McG (Charlie's Angels) smears every scene with shouty, grinding rock is no surprise, nor that Pine and Hardy fail to raise a single laugh between them. Pine goes the extra mile into imbecility with his classic chat-up line, "I know movies and I know women." Actually, all he knows is how to behave like a git.
The one really unpleasant surprise of the movie is Reese Witherspoon. Back in 1999 she starred in Election as Tracey Flick, one of the funniest, smartest and scariest anti-heroines in all cinema. Thirteen years later she's playing the perky stooge to a couple of jerks who can barely read their own tattoos. "What's the worst thing that can happen?" asks Lauren's girlfriend of her dating two guys at once. In career terms, Reese, this is the worst thing that can happen.
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