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last update 3.Jun.14
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Benny & Jolene
dir-scr Jamie Adams
prd Jamie Adams, Jon Rennie
with Charlotte Ritchie, Craig Roberts, Rosamund Hanson, Tom Rosenthal, Dolly Wells, Nick Mohammed, Ian Smith, Laura Patch, Nicola Reynolds, Ben McGregor, Keiron Self, Gary Knowles
roberts and ritchie
release 6.Jun.14
14/UK 1h20
Downhill There are some hilarious lines in this improvised mock-doc comedy, but since virtually nothing happens in the story the film feels meandering and aimless. In addition, writer-director Adams finds most of his humour in contrived, pathetic behaviour, which makes the characters impossible to like.

Jolene (Ritchie) is a rising-star musician who has just signed a record deal with her sidekick Benny (Roberts). Although she's so obsessed with herself that she doesn't notice he has a crush on her. To promote their upcoming album, they hit the road for a series of concerts leading to an improbably large music festival in Wales. In their tour camper, they're accompanied by manager Adrian (Smith) and publicist Nadia (Hanson), neither of whom have experience in this sort of thing. So of course nothing goes as planned.

Frankly, this film feels about as badly planned as Benny and Jolene's tour, rattling along without any sense of direction. There are amusing moments along the way, thanks to some absurd Spinal Tap-style dialog from the sharp cast members, but without any overriding context the elements simply never add up to anything. And since everyone is far too jokey to generate any sense of chemistry or sympathy, the embarrassing set-pieces never amount to much.

Roberts has plenty of presence, while Ritchie is at least hapless enough to worry about. Others like Hanson, Rosenthal (as the too-cool manager) and Wells (as one of Jolene's mums) play every scene for a big laugh that never quite emerges. It really feels as if the actors were only given the barest of details for each scene, so they generate a strong sense of camaraderie using subtle comedy touches, knowing glances and verbal sparring. But all of this hangs in the air without any momentum. Even Benny and Jolene's songs feel like jokes without punchlines.

And this too-loose structure means that Adams has to strain to find some semblance of a plot, so he continually crosscuts between two or three scenes in the hopes that there will be some madcap synergy. But this merely diffuses it even more. And it all leads to a bizarrely slick, sappy ending that feels like it was shot much later and then added in an attempt to salvage something from the non-story that went before. But it's far too little and way too late.

15 themes, language, innuendo
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The Dirties
dir Matt Johnson
scr Matt Johnson, Evan Morgan
prd Matt Johnson, Matthew Miller, Evan Morgan, Jared Raab
with Matt Johnson, Owen Williams, Krista Madison, Josh Boles, Brandon Wickens, Alen Delain, Paul Daniel Ayotte, Shailene Garnett, David Matheson, Jay McCarrol, Jordan Foster, Alison Arnot
williams and johnson release Can 4.Oct.13,
US Sep.13 aff, UK 6.Jun.14
13/Canada 1h20
The Dirties There's a raucous originality to this darkly disturbing film that makes it both thoroughly engaging and almost unbearably unnerving. A high school comedy shot as if it were filmed by the students themselves, it's silly and absurd enough to keep us laughing even as we begun to understand that it's heading somewhere very, very dark.

Matt and Owen (Johnson and Williams) are so fed up with being bullied at school that they've decided to make a movie about their tormenters, whom they call the "Dirties". But the rampant profanity and violence in their revenge fantasy thriller disturbs their teacher (Matheson) and only fuels the cruelty they suffer from the bullies. So Matt and Owen start planning an even nastier sequel in which they will stalk and kill the Dirties one-by-one. The problem is that Matt forgets that they're shooting a fictional film.

Cleverly shot and edited, the film knowingly plays on movies made with hand-held camerawork. Many of the sequences are shot by an unseen crew (occasionally acknowledged by the actors), although we're never sure why. And this footage somehow ends up in the project Matt and Owen are making. In other words, the whole movie is a joke about both the ease of making your own film using the most basic tools available as well as the gimmicky style of found-footage movies.

But it's the heart-stopping subject matter that really catches hold as the story progresses. We are watching two utterly normal kids at work here, bullied mercilessly for just being themselves. They seem to take it in stride, but when their efforts to diffuse the tense situation don't help, it's hardly a surprise that they consider a more drastic solution. It's also very understandable that no one around them has a clue what they're considering.

Johnson and Williams are startlingly good as high school students who are geeky but hardly deserving of their outcast status. They're instantly likeable, even when they reveal the characters' darker sides, and we understand their need for peace and tolerance, as well as someone who will recognise that they have something valuable to contribute. Yes, this is ultimately an important film that, without resorting to sentimentality or sensationalism, addresses its urgent themes with a strong punch to the gut.

15 themes, language, violence, drugs
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dir James Rouse
scr Torben Betts
prd Robert Campbell, Elli Gharbi, Benjamin Howell, Alexander Melman, James Rouse, Tom Shutes
with Richard Lumsden, Ned Dennehy, Jeremy Swift, Karl Theobald, Emma Pierson, Katie Lyons, Rupert Simonian, Madeleine Bowyer, Justine Bailey, John Doull, John Howarth, Charlie Concannon
Downhill release UK 30.May.14
14/UK 1h35
Downhill Mock-documentaries are rarely this seamless: the acting is never remotely visible in this enjoyable British comedy, and the filmmaking never violates the rules of the form. As a result, it feels utterly honest, with uninhibited humour coming from the characters and some real insight into friendship.

Before his 50th birthday, Gordon (Lumsden) decides to take a coast-to-coast walk across England with his buddies Steve and Keith (Swift and Theobold), plus his posh-drunk estranged friend Julian (Dennehy). With Gordon's 19-year-old son Luke (Simonian) documenting the trip on video, they set off from Cumbria for the 192-mile hike. Julian's inebriated antics get them in trouble from the start, while each of the guys deals with personal issues: Gordon is trying to save his unstable financial situation, Steve feels physically and emotionally unfit for the journey, and Keith finally admits that he's gay.

None of these things is overplayed at all, and even the wackier antics feel organic. Which means that our laughter comes from the gut, as does our emotional response. Meanwhile, the actors give such believable performances and create such realistic camaraderie that we feel like one of the gang. And when they take two American walkers (Pierson and Lyons) into the group, it's fascinating to feel the dynamic change around us.

Director Rouse and writer Betts clearly developed this project with a meticulous attention to detail. It may feel improvised and off-the-cuff, but movies like this don't feel truthful by accident. Each of these actors has the impeccable timing of a first-rate comedian as they carefully reveal tiny details about the characters. And their sharp banter exposes even more about their 20 years of friendship, shown in home-movie style cutaways that cleverly match the present-day footage.

There's also a terrific sense of English geography as this intrepid group makes its 12-day trek from the Irish Sea to the North Sea, each day punctuated by the evening meal and breakfast conversation. It's such a simple approach that we keep expecting it to fall to pieces. But it never does, and as it progresses we begin to get a sense of underlying truth here: that life is like a long journey that we can't complete without the help of our friends. It may sometimes require a bit of cheating, but we'll get there.

15 themes, language, innuendo
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Top Dog
dir Martin Kemp
scr Dougie Brimson
prd Jonathan Sothcott
with Leo Gregory, Vincent Regan, Ricci Harnett, Dannielle Brent, Lorraine Stanley, George Russo, Jason Flemyng, Susan Penhaligon, George Sweeney, Lee Asquith-Coe, Nicole Faraday, Greg Walsh
gregory release UK 23.May.14
14/UK 1h32
Top Dog Even if the Cockney-thug genre weren't already showing signs of exhaustion, this movie would still finish it off for good. Witless and underwritten, this thriller feels like a first rehearsal for an extended episode of East Enders. That's the only way to describe such half-hearted performances, limp direction and uninspired plotting.

As head of a firm of East London football hooligans, Billy (Gregory) feels pretty invincible. So he stands up to protection-money extorting gangster Mickey (Harnett) by chasing Mickey's goons out of the pub run by his aunt and uncle (Penhaligon and Sweeney). Billy also sets up a security service with best pal Graham (Russo) to help other local businesses. But things things go badly wrong, leaving Billy to faces the wrath of his unknowing wife Sam (Brent) and Graham's even angrier pregnant wife Julie (Stanley). Not to mention the Irish mob that backs Mickey.

There isn't an original idea in this plot: everything is obvious from the start, from the traitors in each gang to the tragedies that are clearly coming. This might not be a problem if the characters were even remotely likeable, but there isn't anyone on-screen who generates any proper interest. Stanley and Russo are the only actors who are allowed to play out a proper relationship, although cheesy dialog pushes Stanley over the top in the final reel.

Fans of the genre will probably enjoy the melodramatic plotting and corny fight sequences, as well as a hilariously cliched script in which the geezers call each other "bruv" (Billy even calls one guy "sunshine"). But the filmmakers never bother to establish either the settings or the relationships. The guys all seem to live in startlingly upscale, spacious homes while dressing like street thugs. And the loyalty between them feels paper thin.

As things progress to what will clearly be a violently grisly confrontation, the on-screen bravado becomes overpoweringly silly. Everyone swaggers and acts tough, but it just feels like an act. Brimson's script strains to make key events plausible, but it actually just wallows in the base instinct for brutal revenge. And Kemp's dull direction can't surmount the predictable, under-developed plot. And in the end, the pushy moral about greed and tit-for-tat violence is so shallow that even the filmmakers don't seem to believe it.

18 themes, language, violence, sexuality, drugs
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