REVIEW: Sightseers Starring Steve Oram, Alice Lowe. Directed by Ben Wheatley. R16. 3 and 1/2 stars
It initially may sound like a romantic road movie - a thirtysomething couple get away together for a week touring the British countryside - but Sightseers quickly becomes a murderously dark black comedy about serial killing.
Its demented, wicked and violent tale is steeped in deadpan gallows humour but is more farcical than disturbing - this is no Badlands or Natural Born Killers.
The couple is Chris and Tina, played by co-writers Steve Oram and Alice Lowe. Tina - who lives with her guilt-inducing mother - is about to embark with Chris in his caravan for such destination delights as a tramway museum, a pencil factory and a viaduct, plus some caravan-rocking sex.
But Tina's mother doesn't want her to go - and little does she know how right she is, for the wrong reasons. Basically, she doesn't want to be left alone, and tells Tina how she distrusts Chris and worries about their safety while travelling. She even calls Tina "a murderer", a reference to how her dog died, which is comically revealed in a flashback.
Away Chris and Tina go - to the sound of Soft Cell's Tainted Love - but soon their trip accidentally, or maybe not, takes a turn for the worse, and from there intentionally heads in a deadly direction.
Chris is controlling and domineering, and a nastiness emerges when he gets upset. Tina wants to please Chris, even if it means trying to imitate his actions.
Black comedy can be a difficult genre for movie success. It needs the right mix of surprise, discomfort and dark, awkward humour/satire to make its malevolent content entertaining.
Famous successful black comedies include Fargo, Pulp Fiction, American Psycho, Delicatessen and Dr Strangelove. British black comedies include Shallow Grave and Four Lions. The recent New Zealand film Two Little Boys was a black comedy, as was the Kiwi-flavoured Aussie movie Death in Brunswick.
Even the Coen brothers' first killer film, Blood Simple, is considered a black comedy, while the suspense thriller Psycho is viewed by many, including its director Alfred Hitchcock, as also being a black comedy.
Directed by Ben Wheatley (Kill List, Down Terrace), Sightseers merrily becomes unhinged as its underpinning idea takes full flight: what if people just killed anyone who annoyed them or got in the way - or even, as in one instance, to try to impress someone else? It has fun with littering, dog excrement, dog-napping, and an inventive bed cocoon for a cyclist.
It's main problems are that the two lead characters and their romance aren't that appealing, and the movie's momentum sometimes struggles without a driving force other than curiosity about how it will end (which it does nicely, in the spirit that has sustained it). Nevertheless, it's a black comedy that could gain a cult following.
Quartet Starring Maggie Smith, Tom Courtenay. Directed by Dustin Hoffman. M. Three stars.
In 2007, the American documentary Young@Heart chronicled how involvement in a community choir gave meaning and joie de vivre to people nearing the end of their lives. It was a wonderful movie - brought to mind by Quartet, a British film based on a similar premise.
Quartet is set in a home for retired musicians, with several such real-life retirees used in supporting roles (watch the credits), and tells how the arrival of one-time diva Jean Horten (Maggie Smith) upsets one resident, her first husband Reg (Tom Courtenay).
But the bulk of the story is about how proud Reg and friends Wilf (Billy Connolly), a good-natured flirt, and cheerful Cissy (Pauline Collins), who has bouts of dementia, want to resurrect the past by recruiting Jean to sing again, in a quartet performing Verdi's Rigoletto at the home's fundraising gala concert. Haughty Jean, though, is reluctant to expose how ageing has affected her voice.
Debut director Dustin Hoffman gives the four leads - and Michael Gambon, as the concert's director - room to act in Ronald Harwood's adaptation of his stage play, and their performances are the best part of a film that is otherwise a bit too dawdling, bland, trite and sentimental to be uplifting, and a light comedy in the sense of being light on comedy.
Will Jean be willing and able to sing? Will the home raise the money it needs to stay open? The answers are not important. Instead, the point is that it's better to be involved in life in old age (if able) than to be a spectator.
Young@Heart persuasively portrayed that point in an inspiring, poignant, real-life context, while Quartet often seems more like a transplanted Hollywood escapist retirement fantasy for boomers approaching old age.
- © Fairfax NZ News