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Wednesday, 26 July 2017

Trey Edward Schults retools horror movie tropes in It Comes At Night, a startling post-apocalyptic thriller suffused with paranoia

The big sick: Disease has decimated the population in It Comes At Night 

Ratings guide: WWWW - Wonderful  WWW - Worthwhile  WW - Watchable  W - Woeful

Please note: this review contains spoilers

It Comes At Night

Director: Trey Edward Schults
Starring: Joel Edgerton, Christopher Abbott, Carmen Ejogo
Running time: 91 minutes

There's a directness and an urgency about It Comes At Night that grabs you hard by the lapels in its first few minutes – all of which are disturbing – and doesn't let go again until its haunting closing shot around an hour and an half later. Like a catchy pop song that starts with a huge singalong chorus or a Formula One Grand Prix with a crash at its first corner, Trey Edward Schults' film gets right up in your business from the start. Those 90+ minutes fly by, too, barely giving you the chance to catch your breath.

We're in a dystopian post-apocalyptic America in which some sort of hideous virus has had its wicked way with the population (that's pretty much all you can surmise because hard info is thin on the ground). Those lucky/unlucky enough to have survived are seemingly few and far between; there are no more communities, just atomised families holed up in heavily-boarded houses tens of miles apart.

We first meet Paul (Joel Edgerton), Sarah (Carmen Ejogo), and Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr) as they are taking an elderly man (Sarah's father, Travis's granddad) from their home, out into nearby woods. His skin is covered with lesions, his eyes black, he's bleeding copiously from the mouth, and, though alive, clearly has contracted whatever dreadful lurgy has prompted the family to don gas masks and thick gloves around him. Travis and Paul say their goodbyes, before the latter shoots him in the head, pushes him into a shallow grave and sets light to his body. Cheerio, grandpa!

As introductions go, this is a doozy, setting up an immediate sense of utmost jeopardy. Clearly, this is a world in which no one is safe. To survive, this seemingly loving family will sacrifice a beloved relative without breaking sweat. You wonder what they've had to do to still be alive at this point. We don't get much chance for such reverie, though, as soon the house has been broken into by another man – Will (Christopher Abbott). After initial fisticuffs, he is able to persuade Paul to allow him – plus his wife Kim (Riley Keogh) and young son Andrew (Griffin Robert Faulkner) – to move in with them. Alas, frictions born of paranoia, misunderstandings and madness quickly set the two families against one another.

The waking dead: Joel Edgerton versus the apocalypse

It Comes At Night borrows a lot of its moves from horror cinema but isn't really a horror film as such. If anything, it's a pure psychological thriller with its pitch-black corridors, flickering lanterns, creaking floorboards, and spooky woods really just there to help heighten the tension between the two families. If it reminded me of anything, it was perhaps last year's low-budget British indie The Survivalist, whose plot is almost identical (in a post-apocalyptic Britain, a woman and her daughter seek refuge with a potentially dangerous loner). This is a lot more polished than Stephen Fingleton's film, though, a lot less rough and ready, perhaps to its detriment because I believed in The Survivalist's blighted world more than I did It Comes At Night's, in which everyone (apart from the sick old man) looks surprisingly healthy.

Where Schults' film does win out, though, is in its exploration of these characters' mental and emotional states. What is the 'It' that comes at night? As it turns out, nothing physical or supernatural but delusion, exhaustion, insomnia and night terrors – a conglomeration of everything these poor bastards have suffered since whatever balloon went up resolving itself into a virulent fug of darkness and mental illness. Paul and Sarah's teenage son, Travis, is particularly affected by it all. He suffers terrible nightmares, draws disturbing images of skeleton creatures and creeps about the house when everyone else is asleep. At 17, he should be all about trying to hook up with cheerleaders and badgering his old man to buy him a car, not helping kill his granddad and teetering on the edge of a nervous breakdown. The way he looks at Kim is creepy and tragic all at the same time; rampant teenage hormones, his frustration and confusion tangible.

Humanity's penchant for paranoid self-sabotage is the oldest trope in the post-apocalyptic handbook but it packs more of a punch here than in anything I've seen in some time. Paul and Sarah have suffered such privation, been through so much shit, that they've almost forgotten how to be human. They find it impossible to trust people and have no idea how to empathise or communicate with outsiders, perhaps not even with their own clearly anguished son. All they can think of is how to stay alive, and if that involves harming or killing other people, so be it. There is genuine tragedy here as a result and Schults' writing and direction – plus some fine performances – ensure you feel every excruciating bit of it. It's no exaggeration to say the last 20 minutes are as riveting as any film I've seen all year, as we realise the director has performed a clever bait and switch – we've been watching the film from the bad guys' point of view all along.

It doesn't take a genius to work out that It Comes At Night is, in reality, a parable for worrying times, in which entrenched and mutually hostile political philosophies are a fact of life, especially in Trump's America and Brexit Britain. When we lose the ability to communicate with each other, when we fail to empathise with our neighbours, we're only a hop, skip and a jump away from real disaster is the film's clear message. The fact the director serves up such a downbeat ending suggests he's far from optimistic about our chances.

Rating: WWW½

It Comes At Night should still be in UK cinemas, if you're quick

Monday, 24 July 2017

City Of Ghosts, Kong: Skull Island, and Scribe: Your Week In Film (July 24-30)

A time to kill: City Of Ghosts offers a horrifying account of ISIS in Raqqa 

The best and worst of this week's home entertainment releases on DVD, Blu-ray, and VOD. All films featured are available to buy/rent/stream now, unless otherwise stated.

Ratings guide: WWWW - Wonderful  WWW - Worthwhile  WW - Watchable  W - Woeful

If you have a long memory, you may remember me saying nice things on here a couple of years back about Cartel Land, Matthew Heineman's startling and revelatory documentary exploring Mexico's war on drugs. Now, the US filmmaker returns with another visceral, eye-opening piece of work, this time focusing on citizen journalists in the Syrian city of Raqqa, which was seized by ISIS in 2013, during the country's seemingly interminable civil war.

City Of Ghosts (VOD and cinemas) WWW½ is, by turns, horrifying and inspiring as our band of journos risk life and limb (quite literally) bringing the world news from inside Raqqa as ISIS strengthen their grip on the populace and its infrastructure, going so far as to order all TV satellite dishes to be taken down to leave the city increasingly isolated. The early minutes of Heineman's film are tough to watch, as Islamic State soldiers carry out public executions and punishments. If you're in any way squeamish, this really isn't the film for you. There's one particular image that is going to stay with me for a long time. The journalists – a collective operating under the name Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently – are eventually compromised, some members captured, tortured and executed, others publicly identified and having to flee to Turkey and Germany in fear for their lives.

The second half of the film concentrates on those who escaped and how they use their new base in Germany to help spread RBSS's information, while avoiding possible reprisals from lone-wolf ISIS nuts and trying to cope with a rising tide of anti-immigrant sentiment in their adopted country. In many ways, this is the most powerful and poignant part of the film as young men such as Hamoud, Hassan and Hussam can only watch what is happening in Raqqa in impotent despair and fury. There's one sequence in which the violent fate of a relative is revealed that is beyond heart-rending.

I suppose you could say, other than telling us that Assad and ISIS are bad, City Of Ghosts neglects to ask the members of RBSS what they'd ultimately like to see happen in their country and whether they, themselves, have connections to any of the country's multifarious groups or factions. Their thoughts would have been useful, I think, especially to a western audience struggling to understand what is actually going on in Syria. Still, in 90 minutes and change, Heineman does more to capture the sheer madness and malevolence of ISIS than anything I've yet seen. It's an astonishingly ugly but essential film.   

Under the gun: Citizen journalists battle Islamic State in Syria 

I'm not sure I've had as much fun in a cinema this year as I did watching Kong: Skull Island (DVD, Blu-ray, and VOD) WWW. As a kid, the original King Kong (1933) was my favourite film (well, tied with Jason And The Argonauts), and it was not only my first monster movie but also the one that taught me about injustice (how else would you describe the great ape's fate at the end?). There's a hint of that here too, as bitter Vietnam vet Samuel L Jackson and his gung-ho helicopter squadron drop bombs all over Kong's home, Skull Island, then launch further assaults against the mighty gorilla when he hits back hard.

It's 1973, Richard Nixon is in the White House and the Vietnam War has just ended. Bill Randa (John Goodman) and Houston Brooks (Corey Hawkins) – representatives of a top-secret organisation called Monarch – persuade the US government to fund an expedition to Skull Island, a mysterious, uncharted land mass in the Pacific Ocean. Accompanied by Lieutenant Colonel Preston Packard (Jackson), former SAS tracker James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston), pacifist photojournalist Mason Weaver (Brie Larson), and battalions of soldiers and scientists, they hope to secretly flush out something 'interesting'. However, they get rather more than they bargained for – Kong, a 100-foot ape, who is very pissed off.

There's a definite and deliberate Apocalypse Now vibe to Jordan Vogt-Roberts' movie and that, plus some very fine action set-pieces, comfortably make it one of 2017's best blockbusters. This monster-movie-meets-war-film is certainly a big step up from Gareth Edwards' Godzilla (2014), the first instalment in the new 'Monsterverse', with far better enemies (the nightmarish skullcrawlers) and a couple of compelling characters, of which Jackson's Colonel Kurtz-esque soldier is one, and John C Reilly's loveable, long-lost pilot is another. If there's a criticism, though, it's that the cast is rather too large and some of them either get lost in the crowd (Brooks' monster hunter and Tian Jing's biologist) or drawn too thinly to be truly memorable (Hiddleston's SAS tracker and Larson's photojournalist). 

Gorilla warfare: Kong channels Apocalypse Now 

French conspiracy thriller Scribe (VOD and cinemas) WW is two-thirds impressive but ultimately undermined by a rushed and muddled final act. Clocking in at barely an hour and a half, this is that rare modern film; one that could have actually done with an extra 10 or 15 minutes to let its various twists and turns breathe a bit.

François Cluzet (The Intouchables) is Duval, an unemployed former accountant and recovering alcoholic who, out of the blue, is offered a mysterious new job. He is instructed to go to a room every day and transcribe conversations gleaned from telephone taps. Striving to get back on his feet, Duval looks this particular gift horse in the mouth and soon regrets it. What initially seems innocuous, takes on a darker tone, when he hears something he shouldn't have. Cue various spooks and wrong 'uns on his tail as he fights to stay one step ahead of a grisly fate.

Thomas Kruithof's film lays out its groundwork expertly, drawing on '70s Hollywood touchstones such as The Conversation and Marathon Man as it builds tension and ushers in its subplots. But then disaster, as Kruithof keeps adding elements to the story, until the whole thing becomes ungainly and keels over like a drunken Frenchman on Bastille Day. At times, I even found myself thinking, "Hang on, who's that bloke working for again?' and 'I haven't the faintest idea what all this stuff about kidnapping and hostages is.' Worse still, diminutive Duval becomes the 'worm that turned', suddenly growing a pair of big brass balls as he threatens to transform into the unlikeliest of action heroes. Ultimately, Scribe doesn't live up to the elegance of its original French title, La Mécanique de L'ombre (The Mechanics Of The Shadow) and that's a shame.

Mr Write: thriller Scribe runs out of steam before the end

Finally, there's To The Bone (Netflix) W, a soppy and unconvincing drama about anorexia, written and directed by Buffy The Vampire Slayer alum, Marti Noxon. The promising Lily Collins (Okja, Rules Don't Apply) is Ellen, a young woman battling the disease who seeks treatment under Keanu Reeves' unconventional doctor at a live-in rehab clinic. I know the subject matter is one very personal to Noxon but that doesn't make her film any less self-conscious or limp. Characters exchange clunky dialogue that no one would ever say in real life, and Alex Sharp's Luke – a weird and wacky Brit – is so annoying you wish the reassuringly wooden Reeves would turn into John Wick and put a bullet between his eyes.

The whole thing reaches a climax of cringe when Ellen allows her estranged mother (Lili Taylor) to feed her milk from a bottle, while she sits on her lap like a baby. If you're interested in seeing a better film about the same subject, give Sanna Lenken's My Skinny Sister (2015) a go instead.

Slim pickings: To The Bone is well intentioned but cringeworthy

What I shall be watching this week: Last time I took the kids to watch a Christopher Nolan film – 2014's Interstellar – they said it was the most boring movie they'd ever seen. Let's hope we have a bit more luck with Dunkirk.

Monday, 17 July 2017

David Lynch: The Art Life, The Levelling, and The Circle: Your Week In Film (July 17-23)

Endless Circle: Emma Watson and Karen Gillan star in an overlong Netflix nasty

The week's best and worst new films on DVD, Blu-ray, and VOD. All movies are available to buy, rent or stream right now, unless otherwise stated...

Ratings guide: WWWW - Wonderful  WWW - Worthwhile  WW - Watchable  W - Woeful

With the Twin Peaks revival in full swing and Mulholland Drive receiving a swanky new 4k restoration and reissue only a few months ago, the release of David Lynch: The Art Life (cinemas and VOD) WWW½ couldn't be more timely. But anyone expecting to see the cult director's classic TV show or critically-adored movie (the best film of the 21st Century, according to a BBC poll) given house room in this intimate portrait of the man, may well be disappointed. Jon Nguyen and Rick Barnes' documentary focuses exclusively on Lynch's early life and takes us no further than his debut feature, Eraserhead, made in 1977. Despite that, however, it provides a unique window into Lynch's personal history, his working process, and thoughts on art and life.

One of the things I love about Lynch – now 71 – is the contrast between the dark and disturbing nature of his work and the personable, undemonstrative figure he cuts in interviews. Here he is simply put in front of a microphone and asked to talk about his life, starting with his very early years. If Nguyen and Barnes ask questions or feed him prompts, you never see or hear them as the movie dances to the tune of Lynch's voice, whether he is soberly discussing his upbringing (surprisingly happy), or working on his latest painting. It's sometimes easy to forget that art is as big a part of Lynch's work as his movies or TV shows, and this film is keen to redress that balance. The directors place his paintings front and centre throughout, and the title itself – The Art Life – merely underlines that intention. 

As you'd imagine, Lynch has a wealth of fascinating anecdotes to impart. I was particularly struck by his descriptions of 1970s Philadelphia, where he admits to being scared quite a lot of the time but also incredibly inspired by the sheer dystopian malaise of the place. He goes on to tell a great story about his dad, Donald, paying him a visit in the city, and being taken down to the basement to check out the young artist's latest projects and experiments, some of which involved rotting fruit and dead birds. On the drive back to the airport, his dad (who'd clearly been discomfited by his son's work) turned to him and said: "Dave, I don't think you should ever have children." 

I guess the temptation when making a documentary about Lynch must be to make it as odd and difficult as some of his films but Nguyen and Barnes do the exact opposite – this is an accessible, linear and thoroughly enjoyable piece of work and I sincerely hope we get a second instalment in the near future.

Art attack: David Lynch talks about his life and career

I've given up trying to keep track of when the latest Netflix Original will drop on the increasingly infuriating streaming service, so The Circle W½ could have been on there three days, three weeks or three months, for all I know. Based on a novel by Dave Eggers, it sees Beauty & The Beast's Emma Watson landing her dream job at the titular Facebook-style social media and tech company in Silicon Valley, but quickly finding her life and identity taken over by its corporate strictures and demands. Under the watchful eye of The Circle's head honchos (Tom Hanks and Patton Oswalt), Watson ends up going "fully transparent", i.e. having her every move (outside of bathroom breaks) beamed live to a massive global audience 24 hours a day.

It kicks off quite well - a bit Steve Jobs, a bit The Truman Show – with some well-aimed barbs at corporate culture and the erosion of privacy. Unfortunately, about halfway through, proceedings take a turn for the melodramatic and something that had already started to lose my interest, became a challenge to finish. Sure, there's directorial flourish here from James Ponsoldt (who co-wrote the screenplay with Eggers) and for once the computery on-screen visuals (messages, icons, emojis etc) are quite well integrated into the live action. Ultimately, though, if The Circle lacks anything, it is pace. There are odd digressions and at least two characters who are literally nothing more than the thinnest of plot devices.

I struggle with Watson – she was fine in The Bling Ring (directed by Sofia Coppola, how could she not be?) and certainly manages a passable American accent here. There's just something very ordinary about her – something unengaging and uncharismatic. I wasn't really that bothered about her character, Mae, her struggling parents (played by Bill Paxton and Glenne Headly), or dull potential love interest (Boyhood's Ellar Coltrane). In truth, Karen Gillan – as her best friend – isn't a whole lot better in a fairly thankless role. And will someone please give Oswalt something more meaty than this peripheral second-banana stuff? His fine turn in Young Adult seems an awful long time ago now.

In fact, the best thing about the whole shebang is – predictably – Hanks, a creepy Steve Jobs-esque figure who, with his dress-down Friday attire and matey bonhomie, captures that faux man of the people/heartless capitalist bastard vibe perfectly. He should play rotters more often.

Logging off: Tom Hanks is the best thing about The Circle

Like Manchester By The Sea, The Levelling (DVD, Blu-ray, and VOD) WWWW begins with its main character returning home following the death of a sibling. Whilst Kenneth Lonergan's film leavened its darker moments with occasional stabs of humour, though, Hope Dickson Leach's superb debut affords viewers no such respite. And whilst it lacks Manchester's sheer emotional gut punch, The Levelling makes up for that with a thematic heft and oppressive atmosphere that fair takes the breath away.

Set in 2014, after the real-life floods that devastated parts of Somerset, the film sees young veterinary student Clover (Game Of Thrones' Ellie Kendrick) return to the small dairy farm owned by her family. Her older brother Harry (Joe Blakemore) has committed suicide and she walks into a scene of utter turmoil, her father Aubrey (David Troughton) in deep denial about his son's death. Having had no insurance, and their home destroyed by the flood, Aubrey is now living in a trailer on the grounds of the farm and struggling badly to keep his head above water, both financially and mentally. There is distance between father and daughter, too: she calls him Aubrey, never dad, and he's clearly resentful that she went away to college rather than stay to work on – and eventually inherit – the farm.

So far, so bleak Channel 4 drama. The most impressive thing about The Levelling, though, is how it is more than the sum of its social-realist parts. In fact, there's almost something horrific about it. Its characters aren't being stalked by a madman with an axe or some alien monstrosity, but by the sheer bloody capriciousness and random awfulness of life itself. Troughton is a revelation as Aubrey – a wounded bear, drinking too much, under terrible pressure and approaching breaking point. He is a man all-but taken apart by rotten luck and cruel circumstance. Death, decay and foreboding are omnipresent here – glowering skies, flocks of screeching birds, illegally-shot badgers, mud and shit as far as the eye can see, and the damp innards of the flooded house. It should depress the hell out of you but is suffused with such skill, precision and craft that the film simply bowls you right over instead.

The Levelling is a clever title, referring at once to both the area in which the film is set – the Somerset Levels – and the way in which these characters have been reduced to the same 'level' as the livestock they farm. Penned into his small mobile home, out of choices and waiting for the axe to fall, poor Aubrey has no more agency than the male dairy calf Clover kills in one of the film's most powerful moments. Yes, it's a bloody hard watch but an incredibly rewarding one.

Cold comfort farm: The Levelling is bleak but brilliant

Finally, there's Slack Bay (MUBI) , an insufferable French comedy from director Bruno Dumont (Camille Claudel 1915). Set in 1910, it sees an affluent family arrive at their lavish holiday home for the summer, only to find themselves embroiled in a police investigation into a series of mysterious disappearances. It's quite intriguing and mildly amusing for the first half-hour but quickly becomes tiresomely wacky. People fall over a lot, the two lead cops look like Laurel and Hardy for some reason, and there's even a family of cannibals. I suspect it's all some sort of commentary on class conflict but any message is buried beneath a mountain of terrible overacting, especially from the usually dependable Juliette Binoche (I actually cheered when her character, Aude, was knocked unconscious late on in the film). In fact, there's so much chewing of scenery going on, at times I wondered if I was watching a really weird episode of MasterChef.  

What I shall be watching this week: When Sofia Coppola has a new movie out – in this case, The Beguiled – I am there.

Monday, 10 July 2017

Logan, Trespass Against Us, and A Cure For Wellness: Your Week In Film (July 10-16)

Claws for alarm: Logan and Professor X are on the run in Logan

Last week was a skip week because of my Top 25 of 2017 list taking precedence, so we have lots to catch up on in an extra-length column this time. As ever, it's a round-up of the best and worst in UK home entertainment releases on DVD, Blu-ray and VOD. All films mentioned are available to buy or stream now, unless otherwise stated.

Ratings guide: WWWW - Wonderful  WWW - Worthwhile  WW - Watchable  W - Woeful

There's a faint whiff of desperation about Logan (DVD, Blu-ray and VOD) WW½, a needy desire to be taken seriously and thought of as far more "adult" than the X-Men films' usual mix of mutant mayhem and video-game-style CGI. So, here you have a hard-boiled future version of Hugh Jackman's Wolverine, in a movie full of bad language, ultra-violence, references to the 1953 western Shane ("There's no living with the killing"), and, to really underline its grown-up credentials, a pair of bare lady breasts. BAM! KAPOW! Superhero movies aren't just for kids anymore!

Logan - old, knackered and losing his mutant healing factor - is trying his best to navigate a dark, dusty and dystopian world in which the X-people are all, well, ex, and Professor Charles Xavier, aka the world's most powerful telepath, has a very dangerous form of Alzheimer's. Of course, trouble comes looking for the pair in the form of Laura (Dafne Keen), a young mutant whose abilities mirror Logan's own. She's the first of her kind born in 25 years and is therefore very valuable to the usual collection of shadowy corporate bad guys. Only Logan and the Prof can keep her safe, as they all strike out for Eden, a possibly apocryphal mutant safe haven in North Dakota.

Once James Mangold's film gets all the showing off out of the way and the novelty of Professor X saying "fuck" begins to fade, there are several moments when it calms down to genuinely earn its "mature viewers" stripes, making this a genuine cut above the super-powered norm. The most gripping sequence is set on a farm belonging to the ill-fated Munsons, a close-knit family who have made the mistake of taking our three fugitives in. Unfortunately, the bad guys - including X24, a savage clone of Logan - aren't far behind and the result is both merciless and heartbreaking. When it's operating at that level - like the gritty western or uncompromising action movie it wants to be - Logan is a triumph. When it's coming on like an uppity 12-year-old with a cigarette in its hand, it falls rather flat.

Logan unlucky: Jackman's Wolverine is in a world of trouble

If I tell you that A Cure For Wellness (DVD, Blu-ray and VOD) is a bit David Cronenberg, a bit Hammer Horror, and a bit Shutter Island, you might get all excited. So, let's, before we go any further, curb your enthusiasm, and instead point out that Gore Verbinski's film is rather less than the sum of its influences. It is, in fact, a spectacular tsunami of terrible old guff. 

Dane DeHaan (soon to be seen in Luc Besson's eagerly-awaited Valerian And The City Of A Thousand Planets) is Lockhart, an ambitious but troubled executive sent to an exclusive Swiss wellness spa to make contact with his company's CEO and return him to New York. As you'd expect, Lockhart stumbles into sinister goings on and is soon being held at the spa against his will. There is body horror, mysteries galore, an off-kilter fairy-tale vibe (shades of Tim Burton), Jason Isaacs chewing the scenery as the spa's twisted owner, and, for reasons that I'm still not entirely clear on, a shit load of eels. The otherworldly Mia Goth (The Survivalist) also turns up and is comfortably the best thing in it.

The first half-hour's passable, the last half-hour's solid, it's the interminable and very silly 80-odd minutes in the middle that I have a problem with. Any satire on quackery (which, under all the eels and campery, is what this is) is to be applauded, I guess, but Wellness is so absurdly over the top that its actual point gets lost amidst the histrionics.

Keeping it eel: A Cure For Wellness is very silly indeed

Michael Fassbender is a very fine actor. I know this because after spending multiple films pretending to be a bad guy with the powers of a magnet and fetching up in terrible old bilge such as Assassin's Creed, he's still utterly believable and totally mesmerising in Trespass Against Us (DVD, Blu-ray and VOD) WWW, a low-budget British crime movie set in and around a West Country Traveller camp.

Fassbender is Chad Cutler, disaffected son of Brendan Gleeson's Colby, the leader of the camp who struts about the place doling out orders like a shell-suited Mussolini. There is friction between father and son, because Chad is under pressure from Kelly, his wife (Lindsay Marshal), to leave and strike out on their own - away from Colby's pernicious influence. Colby, a controlling bully, wants his son to remain, mainly because his driving skills are key to the old man's various criminal enterprises.

Gleeson and Fassbender have rarely been better, the former full of brooding malice and child-like belligerence, the latter a fairly weak man desperate to escape but not having a clue how to slip the ties that bind. Director Adam Smith (Doctor Who, Skins) grabs your attention from the very first scene in which Chad's seven-year-old son Tyson (Georgie Smith) drives a packed car full-pelt through a field in pursuit of a hare, and holds it thereafter. In many ways, this is a powerful character study of the two men but Smith and screenwriter Alastair Siddons cram so much more into its 90+ minutes, including a simmering feud between Chad and Rory Kinnear's local copper. There's a real focus to it, which means hardly a frame or line is wasted. Trespass doesn't end up where you expect it to either and it's always good to be wrong-footed.

Alas, while there's a seeming authenticity in the language and milieu, I found the depiction of the Travellers problematic. At times, Trespass's parade of thieving, cussing, brawling, wrong 'uns made the banjo-twanging inbreds in Deliverance look like members of the Algonquin Round Table. I'm not asking for the members of this ever-controversial group of people to be depicted as angels or paragons of virtue but a little more nuance, and fewer burning piles of car tyres, would have been appreciated. This is close to be being a cracking little film but is holed beneath the water by some unpleasant and lazy stereotypes. 

Fass and furious: Michael has daddy issues in Trespass Against Us

Based on Stephen Fry's 1994 comic novel of the same name, The Hippopotamus (DVD, Blu-ray and VOD) WW½ is one of those films that starts off as one thing, before pinging off at a not-entirely-agreeable tangent. The wonderful Roger Allam (who I loved best as the Ken Clarke-esque leader of the Tories in TV's The Thick Of It) is Ted Wallace, a failed poet turned venomous theatre critic and high-functioning alcoholic. (His generous proportions and fondness for soaking in baths explain the film's title). Wallace is fired from his job after an unpleasant but hilarious altercation at a performance of Titus Andronicus, and it looks like the rest of the film will be about him struggling to conquer his demons before staging a suitably rousing comeback. 

However, a curve ball enters proceedings in the shape of Jane (Emily Berrington), Wallace's monied but perhaps terminally-ill god-daughter who despatches him to Swafford Hall in pursuit of the miracles she believes happen there. "You'll know them when you see them," she tells her godfather cryptically, much to Ted's bemusement and frustration. A farce of sorts entails, featuring the kind of characters you only ever find together in stories set in posh English stately homes, including a rich rotter, an outrageous homosexual, a sexy foreigner, and a strange teenager. It's only a juicy murder away from being a game of Cluedo.

I'd have happily sat through Allam raining down hate-filled scorn on London luvvies for 90 minutes without a single bit of plot in sight and things are never quite as much fun again as they are in the film's first 20 minutes. Four writers are credited with the screenplay but, let's face it, Fry's authorial voice is by far the loudest. If The Hippopotamus is about anything it's the novelist digging religion in the ribs again, as he attacks the very notion of the supernatural, whilst fingering miraculous happenings as something all too human in origin and usually rather grubby. When the film's big revelation comes, it's as disturbing as it is clunky. Elsewhere, though, John Jencks' film is witty and laugh-out-loud funny, and that will do just fine.

Roger and out: Allam's Ted has problems with his career and booze 

Finally, I've waxed lyrical about Paul Verhoeven's Elle WWWW several times, since first encountering it last October, particularly here and here. It's finally out on DVD, Blu-ray and VOD from today and you should do all you can to see it. It'll make you laugh, it'll make you gasp, it'll make you think. Film of the year, hands down.

What I shall be watching this week: I have a Wednesday morning date lined up with either horror-flick It Comes At Night or Warren Beatty's Rules Don't Apply. Choices, choices, choices...

Wednesday, 5 July 2017

My 25 favourite films of 2017 so far: Part Two #10-1

After yesterday's appetiser, here's the main course - my top 10 favourite films of the year so far. To be considered, movies had to have been released into UK cinemas between 1 January and 30 June 2017. Releases exclusive to VOD, Blu-ray and DVD did not qualify for inclusion.

10. Prevenge
Director: Alice Lowe UK release date: 10 February
Director/writer/star Lowe makes the tricky art of comedy-horror look easy in her filmmaking debut, shot when she was seven months' pregnant. She plays Ruth, newly widowed and bearing a child that exhorts her to take bloody revenge on those responsible for her partner's death. Yes, it's funny (Lowe earned her comedy chops on the likes of Garth Marenghi's Darkplace, so how could it not be?) but Prevenge is also joyously grisly, at times channelling the likes of Rosemary's Baby and
Andrzej Zulawski's deranged Possession to great effect. I can't wait to see what she does next. 

9. I Am Not Your Negro
Director: Raoul Peck UK release date: 7 April
Narrated by Samuel L Jackson, Peck's fascinating documentary about black novelist, playwright, poet and activist James Baldwin focusses mainly on an unfinished book - Remember This House - which was to feature his memories of three great black American leaders: Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, as well as ruminations on US history. Baldwin - a startlingly brilliant orator and formidable intellect - knew all three men well and stood by horrified as one by one they met violent ends during the 1960s. As a result there's a mixture of anger and sadness in Peck's film, feelings perfectly articulated in Baldwin's oratory, particularly lines such as: "The story of the negro in America is the story of America. It is not a pretty story." Bringing Baldwin's writing bang up to date, Peck shows us how that story hasn't got any prettier.

8. Personal Shopper
Director: Olivier Assayas UK release date: 17 March
Kristin Stewart reunites with Clouds Of Sils Maria director Assayas for this strange and horror-inflected meditation on grief and loneliness. Stewart is an American living in Paris and working as a general dog's body for a ghastly celebrity model. She is also a medium, desperate to make contact with the spirit of her dead twin brother, who has passed away following a heart attack (she shares his condition). A lengthy scene in which Stewart goes to London and back again on Eurostar, all the while exchanging texts with a mysterious person or entity, is Assayas at his most playful and audacious 

7. La La Land
Director: Damien Chazelle UK release date: 13 January
Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone can't sing or dance like Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds but this musical love letter to old Hollywood, romance and jazz is utterly charming. Gosling's a struggling pianist, Stone an unloved actress, but the pair's passion for each other acts as rocket fuel for their ambition and self-belief, much improving their career fortunes even as the relationship founders. Yes, it's corny and whilst Gosling and Stone certainly have chemistry, their actual relationship is oddly chaste. That said, the song and dance numbers are mostly terrific (especially the opener, Another Day Of Sun), and Chazelle serves up a bravura ending a million miles from the saccharine-fest I was expecting.

6. Get Out
Director: Jordan Peele UK release date: 17 March
Anyone who only knows US comedian Peele from his part in last year's limp cat comedy, Keanu, is likely to be knocked out of their seat by this whip-smart combination of horror and satire that has its sights firmly trained on the notion that, since Obama, America is a post-racial society. British actor Daniel Kaluuya is in a mixed race relationship with his white girlfriend (Allison Williams) and one weekend she takes him to meet her moneyed, progressive parents at their remote country estate. They're initially friendly but clearly uncomfortable in his presence and that soon gives way to something far more sinister. Peele (previously best known in the US for the Key & Peele sketch show) puts liberal white America under the microscope and really doesn't like what he sees there.

5. Raw
Director: Julia Ducournau UK release date: 7 April
"Visceral" is a word thrown around by film critics to describe any bit of old tat with some violence in it these days. It's a word that has lost its power through repetition but one that nevertheless fits this extraordinary French cannibal film like a bloodied glove. A teenage vegetarian (Garance Marillier) is made to eat a rabbit heart as part of her initiation at a veterinary college and soon develops a taste for meat, including the human variety. Ducournau's unsparing film can be viewed as a straight-no-chaser horror flick or a coming of age yarn about a young woman transitioning into dog-eat-dog adulthood, but it adroitly juggles many other themes too, including sexual awakening, teenage rebellion, and sibling rivalry.  

4. Moonlight
Director: Barry Jenkins UK release date: 17 February
Jenkins' Best Picture Oscar winner is probably too subtle for its good at times and it certainly took me a couple of watches before his movie's considerable charms inveigled their way into my heart. But, once you get past those early doubts, Moonlight is a beautifully judged and entirely powerful piece of work boasting great performances (especially Naomie Harris, Mahershala Ali, and Alex R Hibbert) and superb storytelling. It follows the same character, Chiron, at three different stages of his life as he strives to come to terms with his difficult upbringing and also with his sexuality. It's a delicate, low-key film, and I was therefore astonished - but delighted - the Academy gave it the nod over La La Land.

3. The Handmaiden
Director: Park Chan-wook UK release date: 14 April
Sumptuous adaptation of Sarah Waters' novel, The Fingersmith, which relocates the action from Victorian England to 1930s Korea. As part of a criminal scheme, a young pickpocket (Kim Tae-ri), is sent to work for a Japanese heiress (Kim Min-hee) betrothed to her repulsive uncle (Cho Jin-woong). Instead of fleecing her employer, however, she falls in love with her and the two commence an affair. The Handmaiden is all about deception - during the film's three separate chapters, it time and again picks the pocket of your expectations. Park deliberately withholds information and skews perspectives, making for a discombobulating ride that keeps you on your toes every step of the way.

2. Manchester By The Sea
Director: Kenneth Lonergan UK release date: 13 January
Excoriating, heart-rending drama starring Best Actor Oscar winner Casey Affleck as a grief-stricken janitor returning home to the titular Massachusetts seaside town following the death of his older brother. There he has to confront a terrible secret from his past whilst struggling to forge a path into a more hopeful future. Director Lonergan's sharp script balances the bleakness with occasional stabs of wry humour, Michelle Williams is dependably superb in a supporting role and Affleck turns in one of 21st Century Hollywood's great performances. You'll cry, you'll laugh, you'll cry some more. You'll carry on crying until you realise everyone in the cinema is looking at you...

1. Elle
Director: Paul Verhoeven UK release date: 10 March
An outrageous and audacious revenge fantasy of sorts which sees Isabelle Huppert's icy video game executive raped in her Paris apartment before commencing a strange and erotically-charged game of cat and mouse with her attacker. It's an incredibly divisive film that no one seems to entirely agree upon. Is it suggesting that women secretly like sexual violence? Or is it an anti-rape statement skewering the male need to subjugate difficult, powerful women? On the surface, Elle is only a short walk away from the likes of Basic Instinct (director Verhoeven's 1992 potboiler starring Sharon Stone) but it's a far more complex and rewarding work than that, helped enormously by Huppert's total immersion in one of modern cinema's most unreadable characters. Oh and, SPOILER ALERT, I think she knows who her attacker is from the moment she first lays eyes on him.

Finally, a few mid-year awards...
Best straight to VOD/DVD/streaming film: Macon Blair's I Don't Feel At Home In This World Anymore on Netflix.
Most pleasant surprise: Matt Damon is miscast as a grizzled mercenary and the quality of the CGI is variable but The Great Wall gives good blockbuster. 
Tip for the top: Julia Ducournau, the director of Raw (see #5), is going to be HUGE.
Worst film: Take your pick from Assassin's Creed or Power Rangers (although I'm yet to see Transformers: The Last Knight).
Biggest disappointment: Edgar Wright's Baby Driver is a lot of fun but hardly worth all those five-star reviews. See also Toni Erdmann.
Most ill-advised acting choice: Jake Gyllenhaal as a grotesque Aussie TV animal-wrangler in Okja. Ruined the whole film and reminded me of Robert De Niro's similarly OTT turn in The Adventures Of Rocky & Bullwinkle. Not a good look, mate. 
Wish for the rest of the year: That adult fans of comic-book movies finally start to engage their critical faculties and stop declaring every bit of super-powered tat that comes their way  "awesome" or "amazing".

Tuesday, 4 July 2017

My 25 favourite films of 2017 so far: Part One #25-11

The first six months of the year pretty much flew by, didn't they? It doesn't seem like five minutes ago that it was January and I was sat in my local multiplex watching A Monster Calls - my first new movie of 2017. Since then we've had the usual parade of the good, the bad and the downright terrible (I'm looking at you Assassin's Creed). This is Part One of my top 25, with Part Two - featuring my top 10 - following tomorrow. If you see anything you violently disagree with, feel free to let me have it in the comments below...

To qualify for inclusion, films had to have been released into UK cinemas between 1 January-30 June 2017. Just because a film was released in the US or other territory last year doesn't preclude it from inclusion on this list. Movies that went straight to DVD, Blu-ray or VOD (including releases exclusive to Netflix and Amazon Prime) are not eligible for inclusion...

25. Frantz
Director: Francois Ozon UK release date: 12 May
Haunting post-WWI drama from prolific French director Ozon (The New Girlfriend). A young German woman (Paula Beer), still in mourning for her dead fiancé, meets a mysterious Frenchman (Adrien Rivoire) at his grave. He has a devastating secret and the way Ozon handles that revelation and its consequences is never less than utterly compelling.    

24. Their Finest
Director: Lone Scherfig UK release date: 21 April
Gemma Arterton's best role in years sees her signed up as a screenwriter for Allied propaganda films during WWII. In this sexist milieu, she is assigned the task of writing the 'slop' (i.e. dialogue for women). Suffice to say, she soon shakes things up in an absorbing book adaptation that nicely balances broad comedy and heart-rending drama.

23. My Life As A Courgette
Director: Claude Barras UK release date: 2 June
Beautifully-realised animation from France about a young boy - the titular Courgette - sent to a children's home after the death of his alcoholic mother. Barras's film (with a screenplay by Girlhood's Céline Schiamma) handles some incredibly heavy issues with sensitivity, warmth and winning humour. Lovely.

22. Hacksaw Ridge
Director: Mel Gibson UK release date: 27 January
Gibson returned from the Hollywood naughty step with this powerful World War II epic about Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield), an army medic and staunch pacifist who refused to take a gun into the hell of Okinawa. Garfield's terrific, while the visceral nature of the battle scenes make his character's point about the horrors of combat better than any dialogue ever could. 

21. Colossal
Director: Nacho Vigalondo UK release date: 19 May
Alcoholic Anne Hathaway realises she is psychically linked to a monster rampaging through South Korea in this odd and highly original indie flick. Cut through the Kaiju hijinks, though, and Vigalondo's film is really about the affect self-destructive behaviour can have on those around you. Jason Sudeikis provides the toxic masculinity to give things an extra kick.

20. Suntan
Director: Argyris Papadimitropoulos UK release date: 28 April
Unsettling drama about an emotionally disturbed doctor (the excellent Makis Papadimitriou) on a small Greek island falling in love with a beautiful young tourist initially happy to play along with his obsession. An odd but satisfying mix of pitch-black humour with deluded middle-aged men in its sights and sheer, unadulterated creepiness.

19. Kong: Skull Island
Director: Jordan Vogt-Roberts UK release date: 9 March
The only blockbuster this year that had me gripped from beginning to end. A weird amalgam of monster movie and war film (Apocalypse Now's influence looms large), it may have wafer-thin characters but more than makes up for that deficiency with some terrific action set-pieces and a kickass Kong.

18. Neruda
Director: Pablo Larrain UK release date: 7 April
Off-kilter but visually sumptuous biopic of the famous Chilean poet, Nobel Prize winner and communist. Luis Gnecco's titular lead becomes a fugitive in his own country during the 1940s as he is pursued by Gael García Bernal's disturbed police officer. Larrain (Jackie) takes all sorts of liberties with real events, while his portrayal of Neruda is enjoyably unflattering.

17. Mindhorn
Director: Sean Foley UK release date: 5 May
Julian Barratt (The Mighty Boosh) is a washed-up former TV detective in this Isle Of Man-set comedy which comes on like a cross between Bergerac and The Six Million Dollar Man. Some critics suggested it petered out before the end but I think the opposite is true - the crazier it gets, the funnier it gets. Sequel, please!

16. T2 Trainspotting
Director: Danny Boyle UK release date: 27 January
Spud, Sick Boy, Begbie and Renton are reunited on Edinburgh's mean streets after 20 years in a nostalgia-soaked meditation on ageing and coming to terms with your past. It's certainly not as good as Boyle's original movie from 1996 but is extremely funny, endlessly entertaining and, ultimately, oddly moving.

15. Certain Women
Director: Kelly Reichardt UK release date: 3 March
The Meek's Cutoff director presents three loosely-linked stories about the lives of four very different women, the best of which sees a naïve young Native American (Lily Gladstone) desperately trying to forge a romantic connection with Kristin Stewart's oblivious teacher. Gorgeous-looking, low-key, and poignant.

14. Free Fire
Director: Ben Wheatley UK release date: 31 March
It turns out a 90-minute shoot-out in a filthy warehouse between two gangs of inept criminals is a hell of a lot better on the big screen than it sounds on paper. Michael Smiley, Sharlto Copley, Brie Larson, and Armie Hammer are all on top form in a violent and riotously funny piece of work that doesn't owe quite as much to Reservoir Dogs as you'd imagine.

13. The Levelling
Director: Hope Dickson Leach UK release date: 12 May
Compellingly dark British drama about a young woman (Ellie Kendrick) returning to her family's farm following the suicide of her younger brother. Director Leach conjures an atmosphere of dread and claustrophobia which is only a hop, skip and a jump away from proper horror. These are helpless people caught in life's vicious crosshairs.

12. Silence
Director: Martin Scorsese UK release date: 1 January
Based on Shûsaku Endô's novel, Silence sees two Catholic missionaries (Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver) searching for their lost mentor (Liam Neeson) in 17th Century Japan, at a time of great religious persecution. Bloated, self-important and old-fashioned? Maybe, but nobody does heavyweight epic with quite as much pizzazz as the Goodfellas director.

11. Lady Macbeth
Director: William Oldroyd UK release date: 28 April
The title's a warning about what to expect in this merciless Victorian-set drama about a young woman sold to a wealthy landowner as his wife. While he's away, she commences an affair with a stable-hand and, soon emboldened, her thoughts turn to darker matters. A blisteringly bleak meditation on class, race and sex based on the Nikolai Leskov novel.

Your Week In Film will return next week. Look out for #10-1 here tomorrow...

Tuesday, 27 June 2017

Patriots Day, 20th Century Women, and Nobody Speak: Trials Of The Free Press - Your Week In Film (June 26-July 2)

Making his Mark: Wahlberg impresses in Patriots Day

UK home entertainment picks, on DVD, Blu-ray and VOD, for the next seven days. All films are available to buy, stream or download now, unless otherwise stated...

Ratings guide: WWWW - Wonderful  WWW - Worthwhile  WW - Watchable  W - Woeful

I'm not sure home-releasing a film about 2013's Boston Marathon bombing in a period when the UK has seen three separate terrorist attacks - one in Manchester, two in London - is the cleverest marketing strategy. But then, with such acts an increasingly regular occurrence in this country, is any time really a "good time".

Patriots Day (DVD, Blu-ray and VOD) WW is a mostly satisfying mix of the fictional and the factual. Mark Wahlberg plays Sergeant Tommy Saunders, presumably an amalgam of several different cops involved in the tragedy. As is the way with these things, he's a bit of a maverick and made to do security duty at the marathon after committing some infraction or other. Wahlberg imbues Saunders with working-stiff decency and resolve. He's tough but compassionate, a goof but quick-thinking; he's got a banged-up knee but carries on regardless, his limp as much a badge of honour as it is an injury. This kind of role is meat and potatoes for the underrated Wahlberg, and you're rooting for his character within seconds of first meeting him.

Director/co-writer Peter Berg sets up a lot of different plot threads early on. The stories of real people not just caught up in the bombing but also involved later when the two perpetrators (I'm not going to dignify them with names) are on the run and planning a second atrocity. It's a smart bit of storytelling because, if you don't know how these events played out in real life, you're going to be on the edge of your seat waiting to see just how Chinese student Dun Meng (Jimmy O Yang) or MIT cop Sean Collier (Jake Picking) become involved, and genuinely concerned about what happens to them (sadly, not all of their stories end well).

The problem I often have with films based on real-life events, particularly terrorism, is one of context, and the same holds true here. To defeat Islamic extremism we first must understand it and there's no attempt at getting into the minds of the two perpetrators to discover why they should have committed such a vile act. On the run, the pair offer up some garbled nonsense about 9/11 not being carried out by real Muslims but, other than that, they have nothing to say about their motives. In fact, they have substantially less complexity than that of a Marvel super-villain. Filmmakers should treat us as adults - we can handle the fact terrorists have beliefs, can articulate them, and imagine themselves the heroes of their own stories. More positively, Berg and his team handle the atrocity as sensitively as they can whilst delivering a genuinely gripping thriller. The ending - a paean to the strength of Boston and its community - is genuinely uplifting.

City under siege: Boston found strength in adversity

Brian Knappenberger's documentary Nobody Speak: Trials Of The Free Press (Netflix) WWW is like taking a dip in raw sewage, dealing as it does with the legal case Hulk Hogan, real name Terry Bollea, brought against the Gawker website after it published two minutes of a sex tape involving the former WWE wrestler and the wife of US radio 'personality' Bubba the Love Sponge (a tedious right-wing blowhard, who once slaughtered a wild boar live on air).

Long story short, Gawker (a sort of TMZ with A-levels) lost big and went bankrupt, but questions about who had funded Hogan's lawsuit and to what end were soon being asked. It was eventually revealed Silicon Valley billionaire Peter Thiel (an enthusiastic Trump fan) was the culprit and the whole thing was a cleverly orchestrated takedown to get revenge on Gawker, presumably for articles published on the site over the years about Thiel's sexuality and business practices. Essentially, then, a very rich man had used his wealth and power to destroy a media outlet he didn't like - blew it out of the water to shut it up once and for all. Whatever you think of Gawker (and I was never a fan) that's downright scary but, as Knappenberger goes on to reveal in his fascinating, eye-opening film, hardly an isolated case.

In the second - better - half of Nobody Speak, the filmmaker turns his attention to the Las Vegas Review-Journal, a serious-minded newspaper with a long history of running stories critical of casino magnate and prominent Republican donor Sheldon Adelson. One day the paper's journalists are called into a meeting and told it has been bought out by persons unknown. It doesn't take long for them to join the dots and reveal the new owner is none other than the Adelson family. Suffice to say, the reporters rebel in the only way they know how - publishing a story about the takeover and many of them resigning in protest.

There are big differences between Gawker and the Review-Journal but that's at least part of Knappenberger's point. It doesn't matter whether a news outlet is high-brow or low-brow, learned or stupid, serious or scurrilous, they have a right to exist without the threat of some angry one-percenter - fuelled by Trump's anti-press rhetoric - turning his/her heavy artillery on them. Gawker nor the Review-Journal had published lies. They had published stuff more powerful people than them didn't like and were then silenced by those very same people. Knappenberger's film is articulate and absorbing with an impressive array of talking heads. It's also something of a wake-up call for all those who believe in a free press.

Hulk Smash!: Hogan helped destroy the Gawker website

Filmmaker Mike Mills has had an intriguingly varied career, working with bands such as Air and Pulp on music videos and even making a documentary about the anti-depressant industry in Japan (2007's Does Your Soul Have A Cold?). He's probably known best, though, for his 2005 indie comedy-drama Thumbsucker, an underrated gem that perfectly articulated the gulf in understanding that can exist between parents and their adolescent children. His latest, 20th Century Women (DVD, Blu-ray and VOD) WW½, continues that theme.

A semi-autobiographical piece set in late '70s Santa Barbara, it sees Annette Bening's bohemian mum Dorothea struggling to bring up and understand her teenage son Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann). Deciding she needs the input of younger women, she enlists his school friend and No.1 crush Julie (Elle Fanning), and Abbie (Greta Gerwig), a photographer wrestling with health issues who rents a room in her house, to help raise the boy and smooth his transition into manhood. Alas, in the midst of a pregnancy scare, Julie is struggling to raise herself, let alone Jamie, while Abbie's attempts at introducing the boy to feminism lead to conflict with Dorothea.

It's a smartly written and frequently funny character piece, with a fine ensemble cast (also including Billy Crudup) and complex characters who aren't always likeable. Mills, as he demonstrated in Thumbsucker, understands the frictions and fallings out between parents and their offspring better than anyone. The film's '70s setting is nicely realised without being overbearing and the soundtrack is all killer no filler (Siouxsie & The Banshees, Talking Heads and The Clash).

Like a lot of US indie dramas, though, there is a certain amount of 'so what' about 20th Century Women. It's all a bit safe, white and middle class. With its Californian sunshine and boho characters, it's the sort of thing that would be lapped up at the Sundance film festival. Ultimately, it's easy to like but difficult to love, a film that starts strongly but runs out of juice towards the end of its rather elongated two-hour running time.

Certain women: Fanning, Gerwig and Bening form an impressive cast

What I Shall Be Watching This Week: Bong Joon-ho's Okja hits Netflix on Wednesday.

Coming soon: My favourite 20 films of the year so far...