By BRUCE DENNILL
Brooklyn Brothers / Directed by Ryan O’Nan / 13L 7
Goddess / Directed by Mark Lamprell / PGL 6.5
The To Do List / Directed by Maggie Carey / 16LS 2
Schuks! Your Country Needs You / Directed by Gray Hofmeyr / PGL 4
Films about musicians – especially those who are struggling with their calling – often do well because the combination of creativity, drive, despair and vision displayed by this sort of people makes for compelling characters. Relative unknown Ryan O’Nan writes, directs and stars in Brooklyn Brothers, an intimate portrait of a singer-songwriter named Alex (O’Nan) who’s mired in ennui until he meets the idiosyncratic Jim (Michael Weston), who retains the spark required to keep striving for a breakthrough as a professional musician, and is completely different from Alex in almost every way, which intrigues and occasionally inspires the latter. The pair embarks on a road trip to find their fortune, which in the conventional sense they don’t, of course – that would be too simple a premise. They invent a new and very likeable kind of folk-pop, contrasting Alex’s melancholic lyrics and singing against Jim’s innovative soundscapes, generated using children’s toys and other assorted unusual gadgets. Dialogue is sharp and fresh and there’s an enjoyably alternative romance involving a cynical groupie (Arielle Kebbel) Alex and Jim meet along the way. It’s a small, left-of-mainstream story that satisfies, and the music at the heart of all the characters do is enjoyable too.
Throw the word “musical” into a description of a film and people’s minds leap to the big titles – The Sound Of Music, Mary Poppins, Les Miserables; everything from there to Chitty Chitty Bang Bang via Chicago. Goddess drops to the opposite end of the scale, looking at the impact of unexpected fame on a rural housewife in outback Australia somewhere. Said housewife is played by Laura Michelle Kelly, a formidable musical talent, winner of Best Actress in a Musical Olivier Award for playing the lead in Mary Poppins on the West End. Support is provided by Ronan Keating as her often absent husband – he’s a researcher on a ship that travels the far reaches of the oceans ensuring that everyone knows all there is to know about the environment – so there’s absolutely no shortfall in talent. The story behind the music is not particularly sophisticated: mother and wife has her head turned by the bright lights of success and has to decide to dedicate herself to a new career or stay as involved as she always been with her partner and kids, who are, like actual people, lovable but complicated. But the movie, typified by Kelly’s performance, is charming. It romps along, with the music good enough that you look forward to each new interlude and the characters likeable enough that you’re pulling for them as they muddle through their issues. Mould-breaking? No. But good to look at and great to listen to? Yes.
America has a lot to answer for in terms of the models its stars provide for youth around the world. When it’s kids in Ghana being named “Elvis” or Chinese teens buying “Team Aniston” T-shirts and not having the slightest clue what the slogan means, it’s worrying in heritage terms but not, for most, the end of the world. However, when the phrase “Western civilisation” is defined – in the minds of the less than discerning – by B-grade bargain-bin fodder that postulates that self-worth should be based on a glib list of inanities, there is a problem. High school and its challenges are a regular theme in American cinema and the best films in the genre (from Breakfast Club to Taps) draw the mixture of triumph and terror many youngsters feel when developing friendships and dealing with peer pressure. But the majority of such films are sad, superficial efforts that use titillation to drive ticket sales and offer little or no depth. There’s certainly a valid argument from viewers who want to relax and turn off in front of a DVD, but The To Do List is about dumbing down its subject matter. A smart but socially awkward girl (Aubrey Plaza) is worried that she won’t fit in at college because she was behind the curve sexually at school. She decides to fill in the gaps in a myriad foolish ways. That a) the perceived norm involves a level of promiscuity and b) that base, crude gags without any real wit are often the default means of exploring potentially interesting issues is a disappointing reality – ironic, given that movies are often about escaping reality. There are are better films than this on almost every level. Go for something with smarter writing, something with better performances or something that respects its theme and its viewers a little more.
It’s just as well that Leon Schuster’s films, pretty much without exception, make obsene amounts of money, because there’s no easy way to give critical credence to the structural and narrative mess many of his projects are. In this offering he returns to the format that brought him to prominence – slapstick candid camera skits. That should be a good thing, as plots have always been at best a superficial conceit around which prosthetics and prejudice-poking humour can be layered. And if the production had been nothing more than a series of sequences of Schuster and his co-stars tricking passers-by into making fools of themselves, that might have been okay (if predictable). But Schuster and co-writer and director Gray Hofmeyr add a plot that patently makes no sense, even if only taking one point into account. That issue is that Schuster plays himself, while comedian Rob Van Vuuren plays his son – a curious mixture of fiction and non-fiction that could have been avoided by making the newcomer a hired actor or production assistant rather than a relative. Van Vuuren, unsurprisingly given his experience as a comedy stage and television performer, handles himself well in the physical comedy moments. But the more interesting aspect of his involvement has to do with the idea of succession. In the film, Schuster feels he might be getting past it as a filmmaker and there are those who argue that the same is soon going to be true off-screen. Van Vuuren has the comedy chops, the intelligence and the work ethic to fill the whole the older man will one day leave in the South African film industry. As a stepping stone towards that potential occurrence, Schuks! Your Country Needs You is interesting. As a project designed to amuse and engage, it is far less so.