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I attended the world premiere of "Starter for Ten" at the Toronto
International Film Festival. First things first. Just as director Tom
Vaughan did in introducing the film, let's get the explanation of the
title out of the way. The plot centers around a group of university
students competing on "University Challenge," a popular UK quiz show in
which the host begins by announcing, "Starter for Ten..." The American
equivalent would be, "I'll take Famous Armadillos for 20, Alex." Now
that we're set in place, let's get set in time.
This is a period piece -- 1985, to be exact. And make no mistake about it -- the filmmakers went all out to recreate the mid-80's -- sets, costumes, hair and, most importantly (for this writer, anyway) the music. And oh, what great songs. That had me from the word "go." Finally, we need a protagonist. One who is captivating enough to command 90 minutes of our time. And this is, perhaps, the crowning achievement of this film. His name is James McAvoy, and he had no less than three films screening in Toronto this year. Talk about prolific. Though a bit older than the character Brian Jackson, he's convincing as a teenager off to discover himself and of what he is capable, in school, life, and affairs of the heart. He wins us over because he commands the screen and the script, and has the eyes of innocence and vulnerability with which we can all identify. He is everyman -- every boy/man -- and no doubt we see our own coming-of-age through his eyes. Throw all those elements together with a compelling love story and you have a formula for success. I asked McAvoy after the screening what his most difficult scene was. Without giving anything away, I'll just say that he becomes emotional at times, and quite convincingly. He told me that he had to keep reminding himself that it was Brian who was sad, not James. That's powerful stuff. This is a sweet, moving film which left me wanting more. I'll take "Starter for Ten," and I think you will, too.
Surveying the wreckage of numerous other such films - burdened at their
outset with flimsy premises, one-dimensional characters, stale gimmicks
that coast on the fumes of pop cultural trends, and implausible
"meet-cute" situations - which could not be sustained even with
big-name talent, inestimable budgets, and plague-like advertising
campaigns, I was understandably sceptical as to how the "romantic
comedy" aspect of this film might play out when I first sat down to
watch it. In retrospect, I honestly couldn't have been more pleased.
Rare indeed is the occasion when I have walked out of a theatre feeling
unambiguously good about what I saw, believing that it was well worth
the time and money I spent to watch it.
The story forming the basis of "Starter for 10" is handled with a great deal of humour, sensitivity, and intelligence. At no time did any part of it feel forced or contrived, nor was it condescending. Testament to this film's openness and accessibility, the emotional connection that I formed with the primary character (James MacEvoy - may he have a long and distinguished career ahead of him) was subtly cultivated throughout, reinforced by simple - yet heartachingly truthful - moments of confusion, awkwardness, uncertainty, and disappointment of the kind anyone might experience (and probably has) in similar circumstances. "Starter for 10" masterfully captures the spirit of that time in one's life wherein a person fully enters the world and begins to establish her- or himself as an individual.
So often, and unfortunately, it is the case that I see people on the screen with whom I cannot identify, in situations to which I cannot relate (this is typically due in part to the performers' overblown celebrity status and the general "Hollywood" gloss that is spread thickly over the top of everything). Not so where "Starter for 10" is concerned.
Perhaps it's no coincidence that "Starter for 10" references "The Graduate," since I believe it shall, in time, prove itself a worthy descendant of that film's legacy and subsequently receive the higher profile that it deserves.
I just seen this film at a surprise screening in Glasgow and I would recommend it to all. For one it features the amazing talents of James macavoy who doesn't disappoint in this slightly coming of age, slightly romance, slightly comedy drama which turns the world of relationships inside education upside down from deep crushes to background influences. The main appeal of this film was its ability to assault the viewer with pieces of hilarious wit that seemingly come from nowhere and features an amazing 80's soundtrack including the cure, undertones and new order. Its main downers however is a host of other actors that don't really get the attention they deserve such as the room mates that seemed to be quite interesting characters and even the female lead was given less of a personality and more of a distant "that girl you view from afar who you may or may not get at the end of the movie" and she wasn't necessarily poorly acted I just felt there could have been more development to her. But other than that the film was filled with witty and somewhat realistic situations that you could compare with to some extent which added to that air of authenticity that the good ol' British movie is good for. 8 stars for acting, writing, great soundtrack and well shot. -2 stars for less character development and being somewhat predictable near the climax.
Starter For Ten (three stars)
Director Tom Vaughan Writer David Nicholls Stars Ian Bonar, Alice Eve, Rebecca Hall, Catherine Tate Certificate 12A Running time 96 minutes Country UK / USA Year 2006
Don't let the pathetically weak opening scene - a flashback of a university applicant as a boy, watching University Challenge and guessing the answers - put you off. Starter For Ten actually manages to get better. Although nominally about qualifying to be on the TV famous game show, the film is really a light-hearted coming-of-age drama set in the 80s. It has convincing performances and a lovingly recreated period of Thatcher Britain, when corduroy was cool and Kate Bush was for intellectuals.
Working class Brian was not born clever - he has to work at it. Gaining entry to a posh university, he meanders through undergraduate days with a classic dilemma: do you fall in love with the intellectually attractive brunette or the blonde goddess? Karl Marx, Freud and John Lennon, like smoking hash and learning how to do blowbacks, are all part of the social landscape of what is trendy and what isn't. Half way in, the film subject matter allows plenty of social commentary on the irksome British class divisions that penetrate romance, friendship and the University Challenge team.
Versatile Catherine Tate puts in an amiable performance as Brian's ever supportive and cooing mother: she's having an affair with the ice-cream van man ("you can hear him coming"). This enjoyable no-brainer of a movie is aided and abetted by a blistering 80s soundtrack with bands such as The Cure, Psychedelic Furs, Buzzcocks, Yazoo, The Smiths, Tears for Fears, The Undertones - and Kate Bush.
Starter for Ten is not searing drama, but it does make a pleasant and worthwhile trip down nostalgia lane. The characters are ones we can love and care about and the movie mostly avoids predictability and cheese. If "the most important questions in life are the ones we already know the answer to," and are not exactly rocket science, the subject matter of Starter For Ten is a welcome and unpretentious antidote to the plethora of similar American teen comedies. If you like the music, it's worth going for that alone.
Tom Hanks knows what he's doing when he puts his ha'penny's worth in as
an executive producer - this has had sleeper hit written all over it
from day one.
Lovingly made, with a nicely observed, but still sweet, story of social and socialist morals in the Eighties, it is evocative and rings (mostly) true. The performances are solid, the director gets the era right; but, and here it scores great points: it also has some real soul, and though in places an exercise in capturing its time it has a real wit, and intelligence as well as deprecating humour that serve it well.
Funny, intelligent, and definitely deeply romantic - it is also an amazing nostalgia trip for those of us who were around in Britain at that time. The production design has obviously been at great odds to make this work; from the posters in the student bedsit to the clothing it is very well thought through. Aided by a very competent script, that is just too worked through and lacks some real teeth to be really outstanding - it is much better than most American romantic comedies as it is so much more than boy meets (two) girls (and well you know the rest)...it actually touches a much wider world, and questions some values that are worth remembering. Moreover, even at its most manipulative it still somehow has real heart, and just carries you along.
It would have been great to have balanced the many laughs with some more complex dilemmas - but this is a surprisingly rounded comedy - a definite must for those who remember Britain in 1985 - without bashing at the politics endlessly - but it is just as enjoyable as a great romantic drama-comedy in its right... the Wedding Singer with much bigger brains...
Overall, impressive for its evocation of a lost age - before brands and spending took over the world - and it is guaranteed to make you grin - especially if you were there - and to sing - along. The theme of University Challenge alone will reduce a whole generation to wobbly nostalgic has beens. Excellent stuff, and one to be simply enjoyed.
If you don't like this movie, you just don't have a heart. I read some of the reviews here and they claim it's an American movie with an American budget and it does not portray england as it is/was. give me a break. It's a wonderful movie. I suppose you can say something like that about every movie. I live in Bangkok, do I think 'the beach' is the real Thailand? Hollywood has done far worse. Movies are movies, and thanks god this one is a great movie, with a great leading man/boy. He is probably a bit too old for the role, but he plays so well, that you forget about his age and you will enjoy this movie. Don't believe the negative reviews.
A very funny film that does not patronise.You believe enough in the
characters to care and because of that the gags work.Killer
performances and a soundtrack to die for.
I don't know when it's due for release. it was meant be November but at the screening I went to they were very tight lipped about such a date. I hope it's not too far off as it's looking like a good year for u.k. films in general.
I never went to University myself(where the film is set)but I felt I got all the jokes and enjoyed seeing into a world I didn't know. And if all the girls at Uni look like Hall and Eve then I'm thinking of a bit of mature studentship might be just the thing.
I really really enjoyed this film. No, it wasn't an in-depth "gritty"
drama, probing the dark side of the mundane, nor did it hold any strong
political or social message. But this is a sweet, touching and, most of
all, funny film.
Starter for Ten relies heavily on the charm and comedy of the characters in the film to carry it over a fairly weak plot, but seeing as the outcome is such a cheerful and good natured film, i have no complaints! My own favourite character was Patrick, the oh-so serious leader of the team, but all of the cast were strong and the characters all likable in their own ways.
S.for.Ten left me with a big smile on my face- a silly, feel good British comedy which doesn't take itself too seriously. Enjoy!
Though he's been acting since 1995, young James McAvoy is poised to
become the next great European import based on his kindly faun Mr.
Tumnus in The Chronicles of Narnia and his wide-eyed work in The Last
King of Scotland alongside Forest Whittaker's fierce Idi Amin. Yet
sometimes a performer's measure isn't in their solid ensemble acting,
but how they carry a minor work with the sheer force of talent or
McAvoy's turn in Starter for Ten as frosh geek Brian Jackson, at University in 1985, is wondrously physical and inspired. He's graced with an infinitely pliable, benevolent face that's both plain and handsome. As a smart, shy working class boy, still reeling from the loss of his father years ago, McAvoy wields Jackson's intelligence as both sword and shield he draws you to him with his wit, and keeps you at arm's length with the same. For all his smarts, he's at a loss when drawn to both the enigmatic Julie (the piercingly funny Catherine Tate) a partner on the school's quiz team and the politically active Rebecca (the gangly beauty Rebecca Hall who hits low vocal notes reminiscent of Emma Thompson).
Directed by Tom Vaughan from an agile screenplay by David Nicholls, Starter for Ten is the best movie John Hughes would have made if he was English and set his comedies in college instead of high school. Though predictable and erratically paced, there's a real suggestion of university life in it. And McAvoy's creation wrings true emotion. He has a showcase scene in a restaurant where he goes from laughter to tears within the same sentence you're with him all the way. The movie is an entertaining piffle, but it serves notice that you just might be watching the birth of a star.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
"University Challenge" is a long-running quiz show on British
television, featuring contests between teams from different
universities. The title of this film is taken from the catch phrase
"your starter for ten
..", much used by the programme's original
presenter, Bamber Gascoigne. I have an interest to declare as in the
early eighties I myself appeared on the programme as a member of the
team from Magdalene College, Cambridge. I am also familiar with Bristol
University as, during the mid-eighties (the film is set in 1985/6), my
then girlfriend Melissa was a student there.
There has been a long literary tradition in Britain of novels about university life, although this has not always been reflected by the British cinema. There seem to be more films set in public schools; "Goodbye Mr Chips", "The Guinea Pig", "If .." and the two "Browning Versions" are all examples. The opening scenes of "Chariots of Fire" were set in Cambridge and those of the recent "Brideshead Revisited" in Oxford, although in neither case is academic life the real subject of the film. "Starter for Ten" is one of the few British films ("Lucky Jim" is another) to take university life as its main subject matter. (The subject has been much more extensively treated in American films).
In form the film is a romantic comedy. The main character is Brian Jackson, a working-class boy from Clacton (a seaside resort in Essex) who wins a place at the prestigious Bristol University. From his childhood Brian has had a passion for knowledge and learning for its own sake, and this earns him a slot on Bristol's "University Challenge" team. The romance element is provided by the two girls in Brian's life, Alice and Rebecca, who have very different personalities. The blonde Alice (a fellow-member of the quiz team) is sexy and glamorous but also shallow and fickle and wildly promiscuous. Or at least she claims to be wildly promiscuous; there is perhaps a hint that her stories of having slept with just about every man who has ever crossed her path were invented to impress the easily-impressed Brian. The brunette Rebecca is less obviously glamorous (although the actress who plays her is in fact very attractive) but more sincere and genuine than Alice; like Brian, she has an interest in left-wing politics.
Politics, in fact, play an important role in this film. Brian and Rebecca are seen demonstrating in favour of various fashionable eighties causes (anti-apartheid, nuclear disarmament, etc.), but even more important are the politics of social class. The working-class Brian often feels out of his depth among the more affluent students at Bristol such as Alice and Patrick, the captain of the quiz team who is played as a stuffy, pompous snob. Brian feels the need to remain in touch with his proletarian roots, especially his old school friend, Spencer, who cautions him not to become a "w*nker", by which he presumably means someone like Patrick. This, however, was one of the weakest aspects of the film. It is Spencer who is the real w*nker- an unpleasant and dishonest character, who sleeps with his mate's girlfriend and shamelessly confesses to benefit fraud and embezzling from his employer. Indeed, in the first scene in which he appears he throws a tape belonging to another boy into the sea, for no reason other than sheer devilment. I therefore found it rather disquieting, and patronising to all those who had to struggle with the problem of being unemployed during the eighties, that the scriptwriters seemed to treat Spencer as a working-class hero and the voice of Brian's social conscience.
Some of the characters- Alice, Spencer and above all Patrick- were rather clichéd and one-dimensional, but James McAvoy was good as Brian, an engaging and very believable mixture of intellectual precocity and naivety, even though, at twenty-seven, he seemed physically too mature to be playing an eighteen-year-old. This was not, however, his best performance- that must be either "Atonement" or "The Last King of Scotland". The comedienne Catherine Tate gave a nicely judged performance as Brian's widowed mother and Rebecca Hall made Rebecca a likable heroine, even though she was a bit too intense for my tastes. Mark Gatiss gave a pitch-perfect imitation of Bamber Gascoigne, even though in real life there is no physical resemblance between them. There were some very comic moments, especially Brian's disastrous visit to Alice and her seriously weird parents, the sort of people who walk round naked in front of guests but can be surprisingly uptight in other ways.
Much of the appeal of the film, at least for me, lies in its nostalgic recreation of the eighties, featuring not only the political causes of the era but also its fashions and hairstyles and, above all, its pop music, (even if some of the songs we hear were not released until after the date when the film is set). There are some similarities with "The History Boys", another film made in 2006 and also set in an educational establishment (in that case a grammar school) during the mid-eighties. (Dominic Cooper, who plays Spencer here, also appeared in "The History Boys"). I don't think "Starter for Ten" is quite as good as "The History Boys", in which scriptwriter Alan Bennett combined an often brilliant wit with some serious themes and sharp social observation, but it is an often amusing and generally enjoyable look at the Age of Thatcher. 6/10
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