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Monday, 5 December 2016

White Girl, Suicide Squad, and The Shallows: Your Week In Film (December 5-11)

Gone Girl: The excellent Morgan Saylor plays naïve and privileged Leah

Perhaps I'm becoming a prude in my old age but the first thing to strike me about White Girl (Netflix, available now) WWW was the startling regularity and seeming gratuitousness of its sex scenes. Morgan Saylor - the very promising young actress who plays Leah, the film's sort-of protagonist - seems to spend most of her time 'on the job' or at least partially naked (that's when she isn't snorting industrial amounts of cocaine). Leah reveals her breasts like the rest of us scratch our noses or fiddle with our hair - frequently. It's all very 'male-gazey', too, which is a surprise because White Girl is actually written and directed by a woman, Elizabeth Wood.

I'm going to give Wood the benefit of the doubt, though, because her movie is very deliberately one in which everything is permanently turned up to 11 and hyper-intense. An innocent bit of kissing and canoodling, or under-the-blankets fumbling, simply wouldn't fit White Girl's hedonistic 'have a good time, all the time and screw the consequences' ethos.

Based on Wood's real-life experiences, the film sees pretty, entitled New York college student Leah getting in well over her head when she begins a relationship with Blue (Brian Marc), the small-time Puerto Rican coke dealer who hangs out with his mates on the street where she lives. Interning at some awful hipster magazine over the summer, Leah discovers she can hook up Blue with a more affluent clientele for his produce but, when he is busted by an undercover cop and faces a long-stretch in prison, she resolves to do whatever it takes to free him.

Check your hedonism: White Girl turns it up to 11

White Girl is a raw, breathless piece of work that doesn't stop still for a moment, Wood's wandering camera perfectly capturing the scuzziness of big city life and the euphoric mania of the NYC club scene. The movie belongs to Saylor, though, and hers is a brave performance - not just because she spends a lot of it in various states of undress but because Leah often isn't terribly sympathetic. Her philosophy is simple: there's no problem that can't be solved by sex, drugs or cold, hard cash. As a result she's reckless, manipulative and frequently downright foolish.

Wood invites you to dislike her protagonist pretty much from the get-go (even White Girl's title carries a hint of contempt). Leah is someone from the American Midwest who has clearly led a fairly cossetted life (her mum still sends her care packages) and just dives headfirst into every bit of craziness on offer once she reaches New York - fucking and drugging like there's no tomorrow. Unfortunately, being young, silly and privileged, she doesn't realise her actions can have dire consequences for those around her (consequences far worse than she would ever have to suffer). There are times when you can't help but feel sorry for her and you'd have to be incredibly cruel or an arch misogynist to believe Leah is entirely the architect of her own troubles. But Wood never lets her character off the hook, even when you think maybe she should, just for a little bit.

The stuff I liked about Suicide Squad (DVD, Blu-ray and VOD) W½ can be dealt with in short order: Margot Robbie, Will Smith, Viola Davis and Jared Leto, the latter adding much needed danger and unpredictability to proceedings every time his Joker (Sid Vicious channelling Al Capone) put in an appearance. The problem with the rest of David Ayer's film is that it's a bog-standard s̶u̶p̶e̶r̶h̶e̶r̶o̶ super-villain flick when its trailers promised something spikier and cooler. I expected punk rock and got a pantomime.

Girl v Shark thriller The Shallows (DVD, Blu-ray and VOD) WW isn't a whole lot better. Blake Lively is depressed medical-student-cum-surfer Nancy, catching some waves at a secret beach in Mexico, following the death of her beloved mother. A few hundred yards from shore she's attacked by a great white shark (it's never a hammerhead or one of those ones with the really big mouths, is it?) and not only badly injured but stranded too. Can she make it back to dry land? Can she summon help? It's a smart and simple set-up and everything initially goes rather swimmingly (boom-tish!).

Unfortunately, the entire enterprise gets rather soggy and starts to sink when we come face to fin with the shark itself, an unconvincing CGI creation that you never believe is real, even for a moment. Still, at least it wasn't in a tornado or possessed by the devil.

Lacks bite: Blake Lively in The Shallows

Pete's Dragon (DVD, Blu-ray and VOD) WWW sees an altogether more life-affirming coming together of human and beast. This charming remake of Disney's 1977 live action/animation adventure sees five-year-old Pete adopted by a ruddy great dragon – who he names Elliot – after his parents die in a car crash and he, the wreck's only survivor, gets lost in the woods. Kid and creature remain undiscovered within the forest's dense canopy for six years until a logging operation brings them into contact with humanity – some kind (Bryce Dallas Howard's forest ranger, and her dad Robert Redford, who'd encountered the dragon many years before), some with a villainous glint in their eye (ruthless logger Karl Urban).

The plot's ebbs and flows are fairly predictable (boy gets dragon, boy loses dragon, rinse and repeat) but David Lowery's film is a real treat despite that. It's sweet and sentimental but never cloyingly so – simple, straightforward, and refreshingly old fashioned too. Despite the presence of a colossal mythical beast and a seat-of-your-pants final act, this is a small story – one that's really about family, friendship and imagination.

Mud glorious mud: Aleksey German's Hard To Be A God 

In my round-up of 2015, I named Hard To Be A God (MUBI, from today) WWW as the maddest film of the year and I not only stand fully behind that assessment but am happy to extend it into this year too. Late Russian director Aleksey German's magnum opus is set on an alien planet stuck literally in the Dark Ages. A group of Earth scientists are present to study the natives but are clearly becoming slowly but surely assimilated. Cue three hours of sex, mud, brutality, spit, mud, blood, shit, mud and piss. It's an extraordinary film in many ways and a real cinematic experience (even on the small screen), but it's also an exercise in endurance. Did I mention the mud?

Finally, there's Midnight Special (Sky Cinema Premiere, 14:15 and 20:00, from Friday) WW, Jeff Nichols' Spielbergian sci-fi about a young boy with superhuman powers. The film starts strongly enough but rather falls apart in its final act. Michael Shannon's as watchable as ever though and, in the spirit of the season, I'm happy to forgive its flaws and give it another go.  

WWWW - Wonderful
WWW - Worthwhile
WW - Watchable
W - Woeful

Wednesday, 30 November 2016

The Birth Of A Nation, La La Land and more (The 60th BFI Film Festival Part 2)

Get up, stand up: Nate Parker's The Birth Of A Nation

Certain critics and commentators have urged a boycott of The Birth Of A Nation WW½, debutant filmmaker Nate Parker's drama about a real-life slave uprising in West Virginia in 1831 - and it's easy to see why. In the fallout from the #Oscarssowhite brouhaha, it was touted as an Academy Award frontrunner but soon became mired in controversy with the revelation that Parker - its star, writer and director - had been tried but acquitted of raping a young woman while he was at college some years before. The woman in question took her own life years later and, to put it mildly, the filmmaker has badly fumbled his attempts at damage limitation since.

I'm usually an advocate of separating an artist from his art but that is extremely difficult here, especially as Parker's attitudes to women are as problematic in his movie as they appear to be in real life.

Deliberately taking its name from DW Griffiths' influential but poisonously racist silent film of the same name, Birth follows Nat Turner (Parker), a literate slave and preacher, whose cash-strapped 'master' (Armie Hammer) hires him out to the owners of other cotton plantations hoping his sermons might calm the ire of fellow captives (Turner uses passages from the Bible to legitimise their suffering). However, following the savagery he witnesses on his travels and ultimately endures himself, Turner snaps and plans a bloody armed insurrection against the slave owners and their families (interestingly, he finds scripture that give this course of action the thumbs-up too).

A difficult Birth: Parker's film is stirring but problematic

Birth clearly owes a debt to Steve McQueen's superior 12 Years A Slave but the final half-hour is genuinely rousing and heart-breaking, culminating in a defiant image that probably deserved the standing ovations the film received at Sundance on its own. The problem is that there have now been enough movies and TV shows about slavery to have generated their own clichés and that is definitely the case here - so we have a whipping scene, a parade of monstrously one-dimensional white characters, a wedding which culminates in the bride and groom jumping a broomstick and an awful lot of cotton being picked. Less forgivably, considering Parker's aforementioned history (which, by the way, also includes an accusation of indecent exposure), are two instances of rape.

Now, neither is shown on screen and it's documented fact that the sexual assault of slave women was routine but here the incidents are used as little more than plot fodder to fire up Turner and the other male slaves, and thereby speed the story into its momentous final act. The women are given no agency whatsoever, their pain all but forgotten once the real action starts. The story of the West Virginia uprising is an important one but it's difficult to shake the feeling that perhaps it should have been told by someone without quite so much distasteful baggage.

On considerably less controversial ground is La La Land WWWW, a warm and witty romantic musical and director Damien Chazelle's follow-up to Whiplash. We're in modern-day Hollywood and Emma Stone is a struggling actress, Ryan Gosling a down-on-his-luck jazz pianist. But when the pair fall in love their passion becomes rocket fuel for their creativity and ambition. Unfortunately, Gosling's success as part of a (frankly god-awful) jazz-fusion band initially outstrips Stone's and their bond soon starts to fracture.

I feel using the word 'lovely' as a superlative is much underrated but lovely is what this is - old-fashioned, kind-hearted and shot through with longing. Additionally, you'd be hard pressed to find two leads as eminently likeable as Stone and Gosling, and the pair possess that lightning-in-a-bottle crackle of true chemistry certain other films this year would kill for (I'm looking at you, Allied).

It's a love letter to Hollywood, a love letter to jazz, a love letter to creativity and following your dreams. More than anything, though, it's a love letter to love - how it can make you walk on air one minute (quite literally here) and plumb the depths of despair the next.
There's a breathless, bravura 'What if?' scene right towards the end of the film that is simply stunning and if La La Land isn't amongst the Oscars I'll eat my hat (the horrible woolly blue one that would taste disgusting). Chazelle has conceded his film's debt to the likes of Singing In The Rain and The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg, and I'm sure some critics are going to lambast him for being corny and perhaps a tad indulgent. But the rest us will fall and fall hard for his movie's seemingly inexhaustible supply of bittersweet charm.

As for the songs, having only seen the film once, it's hard to tell if they are strong enough to make La La Land a copper-bottomed classic but I suspect it's awfully close.

Dancing in the street: Stone and Gosling in La La Land

On the subject of love, Toni Erdmann WWW arrived at the festival on a wave of critical adoration (its exclusion from any of the prizes at Cannes was met with absolute fury in some quarters). But while director Maren Ade serves up a couple of genuinely hilarious set-pieces, this German comedy does sag somewhat in the middle.

Chronicling the fractured relationship between Winfried, a fun-loving father (Peter Simonischek) for whom no prank is too silly, and his workaholic businesswoman daughter Ines (Sandra Hüller), it's really about the horrors of corporate life; how Ines and her similarly uptight colleagues are never off duty. If they aren't in the office, they're having drinks with clients or checking emails at home. Their job isn't so much a part of them, it is them.

Following the death of his old dog, Winfried surprises Ines with a visit in Bucharest, but all attempts at bonding with his frosty offspring are rebuffed. However, instead of flying home to Germany as intended, he assumes a new identity (the Toni Erdmann of the title, resplendent in ridiculous wig and comedy teeth) and sticks around to get under her skin. 

The first hour is terrific, as are the final 40 minutes or so, and it is genuinely very funny at times (Hüller's rendition of 'The Greatest Love Of All' was my personal favourite of the comic set-pieces although the naked birthday brunch ran it close). But Ade's problem is simply that at two hours, 42 minutes, her film is decidedly flabby and could have done with a hard edit. Some people actually walked out of the screening I attended
and I don't think it was because they were laughing too hard. It was because they were bored.

If anything, it reminded me of one of those '80s Hollywood comedies, usually starring John Candy, in which an overbearing but preternaturally wise man-child uses unorthodox means to teach the squares (parents, bureaucrats, fuddy-duddies) an important life lesson. Thing is, unlike Toni Erdmann, the likes of Uncle Buck didn't come garlanded in enough positive critical baggage to sink a battleship. They never ran close to three hours in length either.

The odd father: Toni Erdmann is hilarious but too long

If Toni Erdmann could have done with a chop then what of American Honey WW½, which runs even longer? Andrea Arnold's sprawling road movie resists a couple of obvious opportunities to bring itself to a neat end; instead, eventually, it just sort of shrugs and gives up the ghost like a knackered marathon runner.

Filmed in the old-fashioned, but seemingly quite hip again, square academy format (see Mommy, Meek's Cutoff and Ida), it focuses on Star (promising newcomer Sasha Lane), a young woman facing a bleak future as she 'skip dips' for food, accompanied by grubby kids that aren't even hers, and fends off the boozy advances of an older man who may or may not be her partner. After a chance encounter at a supermarket with Jake (Shia LeBeouf) and his gang, Star abandons her old life and jumps into their van, setting off across the American Midwest to, um, sell magazine subscriptions to people who really don't want or need them.

Apart from its punishing length, my biggest bugbear is that pretty much everyone in it is profoundly annoying and unsympathetic. The kids with whom Star shares her great subscription-selling adventure are just awful - a gibbering, braying, squealing, drugging, boozing, boring collection of unmitigated gits you'd leave the country to avoid. Oh look, here's the weird one who goes on about Darth Vader a lot, and here comes the one who keeps getting his cock out for some reason.

The chance to travel across the States with little money in a smelly van packed to bursting with some of the most objectionable people on Earth is not my idea of fun. Christ, if this is what modern American youth has come to it's little wonder that Trump got in. And that, I suspect, is precisely the point Fish Tank director Arnold is trying to make here - this is what 21st Century US capitalism has done to its working class young; marginalised them, and made them desperate. Just how desperate is something the British filmmaker returns to again and again in the course of her movie and suffice to say it isn't pretty.

There may be shortcomings, then, but American Honey does boast a very fine soundtrack (Rihanna, Mazzy Star and a bunch of great hip-hop) and, most significantly of all, Riley Keough is superb as Krystal, the gang's flint-hearted boss. She may be every bit as unpleasant as the other characters, but at least has the decency to be a fascinating force of nature with it. The movie's most memorable scene features Krystal wearing a skimpy Confederate flag bikini as she barks instructions at LeBeouf, who she is making apply suntan lotion to her body while Star watches in horror and embarrassment. The corporate ladder-climbers in Toni Erdmann might be made to suffer for their supper, but it has nothing on this.

A taste of Honey: Newcomer Sasha Lane

UK cinema release dates
The Birth Of A Nation: December 9
La La Land: January 13 2017
Toni Erdmann: February 3 2017
American Honey: in cinemas now (DVD, Blu-ray and VOD February 20 2017)

WWWW - Wonderful
WWW - Worthwhile
WW - Watchable
W - Woeful

Monday, 21 November 2016

Your Week In Film: Dog Eat Dog, Divines, and Ghostbusters (November 21-27)

Barking mad: Dafoe, Cage and Cook in Dog Eat Dog

A critical breeze through this week's most notable new films on DVD, Blu-ray, VOD and TV...

No one - not even Guy Ritchie - makes films like Dog Eat Dog (VOD and cinemas) WW½ any more and, while that may be a good thing, there's still plenty to enjoy in Paul Schrader's blackly comic and irredeemably scuzzy crime caper.

Coming off like one of those post-Reservoir Dogs flicks from the '90s in which mismatched villains talk shit and murder people with impunity, this sees three struggling ex-cons - Nicolas Cage, Willem Dafoe and Christopher Matthew Cook - running into big trouble when, desperate to make one last big score before fleeing to Hawaii, they become involved in a plot to kidnap a baby. Suffice to say they screw it up completely but, just as I thought the film was heading into Things To Do In Denver When You're Dead territory, it pivoted rather nicely in an entirely different direction.

No, our three Reservoir Idiots aren't undone by a vengeful criminal kingpin but by their own paranoia, stupidity and incompetence. If anything, then, Dog Eat Dog could be read as a rebuke to those earlier movies - there are no colourful characters spouting pithy one liners here, just a trio of sociopathic fools on the road to nowhere good. These are deeply dysfunctional men for whom even conducting a simple one-night stand with willing partners proves impossible.

The tone is set early on with Dafoe's character Mad Dog as he murders an old flame and her teenage daughter (his daughter too, I think). Although the scene is monstrously comic, complimented by some smart visuals, you immediately realise this is not a man with whom you can easily empathise. Despite his character's cartoonish traits, Dafoe is the pick of the leads. Mad Dog is a psychopath who is fully aware of that fact and likes it not one bit. And yet, despite that self-knowledge and resultant self-loathing, he carries on shooting and stabbing regardless.

Schrader - a celebrated writer/director who, lest we forget, penned the screenplays for Taxi Driver and Raging Bull - has said of his new movie: “I’ve been fortunate over my career to be involved in some important and prestigious films. Dog Eat Dog is not one of them.” For all its faults, you should take that as a recommendation.

Ruff justice: Schrader's crime caper is blackly comic

Say what you like about Netflix but its original film programming really does have something for everybody. Hard on the heels of 13th (Ava DuVernay's documentary about the mass-incarceration of black men in the US) and True Memoirs Of An International Assassin (a Kevin James "comedy"), comes Divines (available now) WWW.

First-time director Uda Benyamina's French-language film focuses on Dounia (Oulaya Amamra), an ambitious young woman embracing criminality in a bid to transcend her rotten life on a Parisian estate. She and her BFF Maimouna (Déborah Lukumuena) begin working for local drug dealer Rebecca (Jisca Kalvanda) but things become complicated when Dounia falls for dancer Djigui (Kevin Mischel). Spotting the chance to escape her increasingly fraught existence, Dounia decides to take a big risk when Rebecca sends her to retrieve money she is owed by a rival.  

I'm not sure I've seen a better performance this year than the one 20-year-old Amamra gives as Dounia. A feisty, fiery ball of aggression, ambition and desperation, she lights up Divines like a sunrise. The scene in which Dounia finally decides to quit school amidst a massive row with a teacher trying to initiate her in the arcane ways of the job interview is funny, brutal and disturbing. Dounia's desire for "money, money, money" is perhaps crass but perfectly understandable when she and her alcoholic mother know nothing but struggle.

Lukumuena and Kalvanda are similarly excellent, while Benyamina brings some real directorial flair to proceedings, especially in a sequence when Dounia and Maimouna drive an imaginary Ferrari on their estate, and later on when Dounia lies in a bath full of money like she's in a gangster version of American Beauty.

All that said, Divines isn't perfect. It's a bit uneven, has a tendency to lurch headlong into melodrama (especially in its final act) and is full of, if not clumsy, then certainly fairly obvious metaphor (dancing is freedom and escape). Amamra's performance - her film debut - makes it a real must-see though.

Simply Divine: Oulaya Amamra's astonishing debut

This week's biggest home entertainment releases are probably The BFG and Ghostbusters (both out today on DVD, Blu-ray and VOD). The former - directed by Steven Spielberg - boasts some remarkable visuals and a bravura turn from Mark Rylance in the title role, but is ultimately a somewhat ponderous affair that sands down too many of Roald Dahl's spiky storytelling edges and replaces what's left with treacle and cosiness. Even the denizens of Giant's Island - Fleshlumpeater and Childchewer amongst them - are little more than big, ugly bullies rather than the malicious, monstrous creatures they really needed to be. WW

Meanwhile, Ghostbusters might not be a patch on the beloved '80s original but with Paul Feig (Bridesmaids, The Heat) in the director's chair, Parks & Recreation's Katie Dippold on script duties and Melissa McCarthy and Kristen Wiig leading the cast, it's more than just another pointless remake. In fact, there's a real sense of joy to this female-centric blockbuster that had me smiling from beginning to end, and laughing out loud on at least a couple of occasions.

High spirits: Ghostbusters returns after 30 years

There's an awful lot of other stuff worthy of your attention this week but, lest this column turn into an unwieldy epic, all I can spare them is a quick mention. Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt star as a couple battling to save their marriage in the underrated By The Sea (from today, 20:00, Sky Cinema/NOW TV) WWW. Jolie wrote and directed the film and, considering recent events, you can't help wonder if she was trying to tell us something. Cracking Aussie horror The Babadook (Tonight, 21:00, Film4) WWW½ features a superb turn from Essie Davis as a frazzled, grieving mum, with Noah Wiseman only slightly less perfect as her disturbed young son. Leonardo DiCaprio finally won the Best Actor Oscar for his performance in The Revenant (from Friday, 11:45 and 20:00, Sky Cinema/NOW TV) WW½ but Emmanuel Lubezki's cinematography is the real star. Hunt For The Wilderpeople (VOD, from Friday) WWW is a very funny and utterly charming odd-couple comedy from New Zealand directed by Taika Waititi, who gave us What We Do In The Shadows. And finally, don't miss A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (from Sunday, Amazon Prime Video) WWWW which was one of my favourite films of last year. If you think you've seen every kind of vampire film imaginable... think again.

Go Wild in the country: Sam Neill's aim is true

What I shall be watching this week: South Korean horror film The Wailing on VOD (from Friday), Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them at the cinema with the kids and, on Blu-ray, the newly-restored Napoleon, Abel Gance's silent classic from 1927.

WWWW - Wonderful
WWW - Worthwhile
WW - Watchable
W - Woeful

Monday, 14 November 2016

100 Streets, Independence Day: Resurgence, and Imperium: Your Week In Film (November 14-20)

Pretty vacant: Resurgence is full of forgettable new characters

The week's most noteworthy films in a variety of formats...

Following a week in which my gaze was fixed firmly on America's demoralising election, a film about smelly, sweaty, messed-up, magnificent old London Town is as welcome as a summer breeze. 100 Streets (in cinemas and on VOD) WWW uses the city as a backdrop to explore the lives of three main characters - Idris Elba's washed-up former rugby hero, Franz Drameh's frustrated young drug dealer, and Charlie Creed-Miles's salt-of-the-earth cabbie. The three live parallel existences in very different areas of the capital - from Elba's leafy Chelsea to Drameh's sink estate - but every now and then there's a bit of overlap, although perhaps not quite as much as I'd hoped there would be.

It is director Jim O'Hanlon's first feature, although he has a television CV as long as your arm, including Shameless, Coronation Street and Charlie Brooker's excellent detective spoof, A Touch Of Cloth. And he and writer Leon Butler have concocted a very likeable drama which boasts a great cast (also including Gemma Arterton, Ken Stott, and the underrated Kierston Wareing), a decent script and characters you actually care about (even Elba's appallingly-behaved man-child). One thing I often notice about films with numerous, distinct storylines is that there's always one that's head-and-shoulders more interesting than the others and you sort of groan when the action moves away from them. There's none of that here - all three strands are compelling, with supporting characters easily as interesting as the leads.

That said, it doesn't all work. Elba's storyline takes a very clumsy turn towards the end and, although it's encouraging that two of 100 Streets' leads are people of colour, it would be nice to see more British films in which no black character has any link to drugs, guns, gangs or, in this case, all three. Still, let's be positive, this is good stuff on the whole and I'm genuinely intrigued to see what both director and writer do next.

Streets of ire: Idris Elba is having a very bad day 

From the streets of the Smoke to outer space, but I think I'd rather endure the terror of a real alien invasion than have to sit through Independence Day: Resurgence (DVD, Blu-ray & VOD) W again. I saw 1996's original movie for the umpteenth time a few months back and, despite the dodgy ending and iffy dialogue, I loved the way it built the extra-terrestrial threat slowly but surely, as it introduced us to a cast of intriguing characters. It also boasted some smart, ahead-of-its-time FX work, and the scenes set at the Area 51 base are all terrific.

This unnecessary and inferior sequel, on the other hand, is an ungodly mess lacking any of the original's charm. Jeff Goldblum is as watchable as ever but there's a big Will Smith-sized hole here that the next generation of alien fighters (a collection of dullards you'd struggle to recall even with a death-ray to your head) never comes close to filling. Terrible films regularly do good box office but, I'm delighted to say, this wasn't one of them.

Deep cover: Radcliffe must prevent a terrorist outrage

There have been two notable movies featuring Daniel Radcliffe this year. One is the baffling and irritating Swiss Army Man, in which the former Harry Potter plays a corpse. The other is the vastly superior but rather more sober Imperium (DVD, Blu-ray and VOD) WWW. Guess which one got the most publicity?

Radcliffe is Nate Foster, a nerdy FBI agent who goes undercover in a bid to prevent a terrorist plot hatched by American neo-Nazis. Unusually for this type of film, Foster doesn't inveigle himself into the sieg-heilers' inner circle by being a badass prepared to break a few heads but by using his superior intellect and extensive research to say the right things at the right time. Brute force might hurt white supremacists, Imperium seems to suggest, but it takes guile and genuine smarts to properly take them down.

Toni Collette as Foster's ruthless FBI handler is reliably superb if somewhat under-utilised, while Radcliffe himself gives easily his most nuanced performance to date. Foster is by turns scared, frustrated and even conflicted and Radcliffe sells all of that most convincingly. It all adds up to an intelligent, impressively researched and realised crime thriller that is one part entertainment, another part wake-up call. Perhaps a sequel could see Radcliffe's character infiltrate Trump's cabinet.

Up in the air: Society falls apart in High-Rise

Finally, there's Ben Wheatley's High-Rise (from Friday, Amazon Prime Video) WW½. The Kill List director's take on the supposedly unfilmable JG Ballard novel is riotously entertaining but loses a bit of focus about halfway through. The movie's sumptuous design and game cast (including Tom Hiddleston at his most reptilian) make it worth seeking out though. Oh, and before I forget, set your PVRs for sci-fi classic Silent Running (Thursday morning, 02:00, Channel 4) WWWW, easily the best film you'll find on terrestrial TV this week. The tale of a botanist (Bruce Dern) battling to save his vast space-station greenhouse from destruction, it was the first movie I saw as a child that really hit me hard emotionally. I suspect it would have exactly the same effect now.

What I shall be watching this week: Still haven't got round to Arrival - Wednesday, for sure... and I like the look of Divines (from Friday, Netflix), Houda Benyamina's film about two young French girls going on a crime spree. It's been described as "part-gangster thriller, part-female buddy movie" and looks right up my street.

WWWW - Wonderful
WWW - Worthwhile
WW - Watchable
W - Woeful

Monday, 7 November 2016

X-Men: Apocalypse, Things To Come, and I Am The Pretty Thing That Lives In The House: Your Week In Film (November 7-13)

Kind of blue: Oscar Isaac's Apocalypse spells trouble for the X-Men

With the US election tomorrow, a movie with the word 'Apocalypse' in its title seems rather apposite, especially if the unthinkable happens and a certain tangerine Mussolini wins the keys to the White House. To be fair, though, the titular villain in X-Men: Apocalypse (DVD, Blu-ray and VOD) WW causes more destruction for our merry mutants to clean up than even The Donald could muster.

Like Doctor Strange, this boasts a stellar cast with Oscar Isaac joining X-franchise regulars Jennifer Lawrence, Michael Fassbender, Nicholas Hoult and James McAvoy. Unfortunately, buried under a ton of make-up and latex, and given zero personality by a clunky script, Isaac is rather wasted here as the film's big bad. Supposedly the world's first mutant, Apocalypse is a supremely powerful, god-like creature resurrected in the 1980s, where this instalment is set. Around him he gathers 'Four Horsemen', including Fassbender's Magneto, plus Storm (Alexandra Shipp), Psylocke (Olivia Munn) and Angel (Ben Hardy), to destroy humanity for some reason or other.

In truth, it's the weakest of the three X-Men films since the Fox-owned franchise was rebooted with 2011's First Class, but certainly has its moments, especially a couple of smart action set-pieces featuring Evan Peters' Quicksilver, who was also the highlight of previous X-movie, Days Of Future Past. Elsewhere, though, the CG looks decidedly ropey, especially when set against what we saw in Captain America: Civil War and the aforementioned Doctor Strange, not to mention non-superhero flicks such as The BFG and The Jungle Book. Hollywood once invited us to "believe a man can fly", these days we need to be convinced that a seven-foot-tall blue guy can lift a skyscraper into the air with his mind and smash it into the ground. X-Men: Apocalypse doesn't quite pull that off, I'm afraid.

Løve story: Isabelle Huppert in Things To Come

There's no widespread destruction in Mia Hansen-Løve's Things To Come (DVD, Blu-ray and VOD) WWWW, just devastation of a more personal kind. Isabelle Huppert is Nathalie Chazeaux, a philosophy teacher and author enjoying a comfortable family life in Paris. However, Nathalie's seemingly perfect existence is turned upside down when her mother dies, her husband leaves for another woman and she loses her publishing deal.

Hansen-Løve's last film Eden - which followed the lives of a pair of French rave DJs - was ultimately about failure and the way harsh reality has a habit of taking your dreams and crushing them underfoot. Although its protagonist's life is very different, Things To Come shares that theme to a certain extent. This time we're asked to consider the brutality of ageing, especially for women, and how it can condemn someone to the periphery in their work, in their relationships and in society as a whole. It's as if people reach a certain age and cease to matter in any way that is concrete and real.

What's more, the French writer/director refuses to offer Nathalie an easy way out of the cul-de-sac her life has driven down. In other, more eager to please, hands, our somewhat icy heroine would perhaps - Shirley Valentine-style - fall into an uplifting romance with a younger man (there's even one to hand in the shape of Roman Kolinka's Fabien), or embark on a great new adventure. But the French writer/director has no truck with such optimistic fripperies. Nathalie is clearly knocked sideways by events and, whilst soldiering on, struggles to come to terms with her changed circumstances and diminished status. Of course, the film's ominous title refers not just to Hansen-Løve's protagonist but, ultimately, to all of us.

If all that sounds a bit too downbeat, pacier, pulpier thrills are on offer in British spy drama Our Kind Of Traitor (from Saturday, Amazon Prime Video) WW½. Based on John le Carré's 2010 novel of the same name, it sees Ewan McGregor and Naomie Harris battling to repair their fractured marriage while on holiday in Antigua. However, instead of doing his best to make amends for an affair, McGregor gets the pair caught up with both the Russian mafia and British Secret Service. Oh, darling, you shouldn't have! Damian Lewis and Stellan Skarsgård deliver the pick of the performances in a tightly-plotted, entertaining romp.

Carré on spying: McGregor stars in Our Kind Of Traitor

Halloween may be gone but a frisson of unease lingers in these cold, dark final days of autumn. The perfect time, then, to check out I Am The Pretty Thing That Lives In The House (available now, Netflix) WW½, a dream-like ghost story starring Ruth Wilson (Luther, The Affair). A nervous and awkward young woman, Wilson's character Lily is a live-in nurse for successful but dementia-afflicted novelist, Iris Blum (Paula Prentiss). When Iris starts referring to Lily as Polly, after the character in her most successful book, it isn't long before the young nurse becomes aware she and the old woman aren't alone in the house.

Oz Perkins' film pushes a lot of the right horror buttons, and certainly conjures an unsettling atmosphere, but is never quite as scary as it needs to be. It lacks that sense of palpable dread celebrated movie ghost stories, such as The Others or The Innocents, have in spades. There's still a lot to admire, though, and Wilson is, as ever, excellent.

Ghost protocol: Ruth Wilson is menaced by spirits

Finally, chills of a rather more visceral nature are provided in Wes Craven's The Hills Have Eyes (Horror Channel, Saturday, 22:45) WWWW. When a family travelling to California in a motorhome breaks down in the desert, they come under attack from a band of monstrous mountain cannibals. Probably my favourite of all the late horror maestro's films, Hills is relentlessly brutal, surprisingly smart and also, somehow, laugh-out-loud funny. Meanwhile, Michael Berryman is surely one of the most memorable movie monsters of the last 50 years.

What I shall be watching this week: I've booked my tickets for Nocturnal Animals tomorrow and The Accountant on Thursday. Might try and squeeze Arrival in, too, at some point.

WWWW - Wonderful
WWW - Worthwhile
WW - Watchable
W - Woeful

Wednesday, 2 November 2016

Doctor Strange: The Rough and The Smooth

Doctor Strange
Director: Scott Derrickson
Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Tilda Swinton, Chiwetel Ejiofor
Running time: 115mins

Could it be magic? Um, no, not quite...

This review contains spoilers

Doctor Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a rich, successful, brilliant and arrogant New York neurosurgeon whose career is destroyed when a car accident leaves his hands shattered. Desperate to get his old life back but beyond the help of regular surgery, Strange spends his last dollar on a quest to Kathmandu, in hopes of discovering a miracle cure. There he encounters a powerful being called The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), who inducts him into a head-spinning world of magic and alternative dimensions.

Under her tutelage - and with the companionship of The Ancient One's assistants Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and Wong (Benedict Wong) - Strange soon starts to master the mystical arts. Instead of using his newly-acquired skills to heal his broken body and resume his medical career, however, he finds himself pressed into action against the forces of darkness. And that's just as well because Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) - a former student of The Ancient One's - has turned bad and plans to conquer the planet in the name of his master, Dormammu, an immensely powerful creature from the Dark Dimension.

The Rough
1. Mads Mikkelsen and Rachel McAdams (who plays Strange's love interest) aren't given nearly enough to do. The former is a typical Marvel movie bad guy, full of expository dialogue and zero personality, whose really only there to guide our protagonist to the movie's 'boss level'. It's a criminal waste of a terrific actor. The latter does little apart from simper after Strange, despite being a capable doctor in her own right. 
2. Unusually for a Marvel film, the humour feels a bit laboured. Cumberbatch isn't a natural when it comes to reeling off the supposedly snappy banter, and some of the jokes - including one about Beyoncé - are just plain clunky and unfunny.
3. The movie struggles to find its own identity and often comes across as little more than a hot-potch of influences. Batman Begins, Doctor Who, Star Wars, Inception, Harry Potter, and even a certain scene in the first Christopher Reeve Superman film are all visible in its DNA. Consequently, there's a 'seen it all before' vibe to parts of the movie.
4. The film's biggest problem is its use of the tired old 'light side versus dark side' trope that was fine 40 years ago in Star Wars but is looking decidedly threadbare these days. The script - an exposition-heavy cornucopia of nerd gobbledegook about alternate dimensions, mystical talismans and spells - doesn't help a whole lot.
5. Doctor Strange does not run anywhere - ever. He's the master of the mystic arts, not Usain bleedin' Bolt.
6. At no point does Strange use any of his comic-book catchphrases. There's no 'Hoary Hosts of Hoggoth' nor 'Crimson Bands of Cyttorak'. This really will not do.

Spellbound: Doctor Strange boasts eye-popping effects

The Smooth
1. Not all of them are given much to do (see #1, above) but Doctor Strange boasts perhaps the most impressive cast of any superhero film to date. Just check out this lot: Oscar winner Swinton, Oscar nominee Cumberbatch, Oscar nominee McAdams, Oscar nominee Ejiofor, Cannes Best Actor winner Mikkelsen, and Primetime Emmy nominee Benjamin Bratt (okay, I may be reaching a bit with the last one). That's the kind of heavyweight acting talent Christopher Nolan or Alejandro G. Iñárritu would sacrifice a puppy for. Doctor Strange helmer Scott Derrickson (Sinister) must have thought all his Christmases had come at once.
2. The special effects are just that - special. Yes, some of the reality-folding stuff you'll recognise from the trailer owes a bit too much to Inception (not to mention MC Escher), but there's a scene just after Strange meets The Ancient One for the first time that is both spectacular and psychedelic. The good doctor's final confrontation with Dormammu is a treat, too, as is a punch-up his 'astral form' has with one of Kaecilius's goons. For once, I wish I'd forked out the extra to see it all in 3D.
3. I almost cheered when Dormammu turned up in the film's final act - finally, a proper old-school Marvel villain, even if he wasn't around nearly long enough and Strange's means of defeating him was straight out of a Stephen Moffat-scripted episode of Doctor Who
4. Despite the understandable controversy created by Swinton's involvement (The Ancient One is an elderly Asian man in the comics), the cast is impressively diverse, with big roles for Ejiofor (comic-book Mordo is white) and Wong, whose namesake character is given a lot more to do here than he was ever granted in the comics as Strange's valet. 
5. I'm a sucker for a story of redemption and Doctor Strange delivers a pretty good one as our protagonist goes from selfish arsehole to selfless hero. I also liked the fact Strange isn't some special 'Chosen One foretold in the book of blah blah' and actually has to master magic the hard way - blood, sweat and a ton of practise.
6. Stan Lee's cameo is mercifully brief and, for once, actually amusing (he's reading Aldous Huxley's mescaline-fuelled The Doors Of Perception).
7. I really hate post-credits scenes and resent having to wait all the way to the bitter, bloody end of a movie. BUT the mid-credits and post-credits sequences here do set things up very nicely for Thor: Ragnarok and, presumably, Doctor Strange 2

Result: Rough 6 Smooth 7 - Doctor Strange nicks a narrow victory. It isn't a patch on Marvel's best movies (Iron Man, Guardians Of The Galaxy), but some eye-popping special effects and a cast to die for just about paper over a weak script and hackneyed storyline.

Monday, 31 October 2016

The Neon Demon, Elvis & Nixon and The Legend Of Tarzan: Your Week In Film (October 31-November 6)

Fashion beast: The Neon Demon is a transgressive treat

DVD, Blu-ray, VOD and TV highlights for the next seven days...

Nicolas Winding Refn is at his most fuck-you divisive in The Neon Demon (DVD, Blu-ray and VOD) WWWW, a film that merges horror, satire, high camp and the occult to thrillingly transgressive effect. Elle Fanning plays Jesse, newly arrived in Los Angeles with big ambitions to make it in the cutthroat world of fashion modelling. Her disarming youth and rabbit-in-the-headlights innocence prove an instant hit with photographers, agents and stylists, and it isn't long before she's beating more experienced models to the top jobs. How they loathe and envy her.

Refn takes his time showing Jesse's career ascent but there's an unease tick, tick, ticking away in the background that no amount of cloudless LA skies or beautifully composed tableaux can eradicate. Death and danger permeate every frame here - from the opening shots of Jesse covered in blood for an amateur photo shoot to the recurring images of predatory big cats. You know something bad's coming, it's just a matter of when and how. And when Refn eventually turns up the batshit crazy to maximum, it's well worth the wait - a final half-hour involving cannibalism and necrophilia that fair takes the breath away (Jena Malone will still be asked about one particular scene if she lives to be a hundred).

Gratuitous? No, simply the perfect conclusion to the themes and ideas Refn (Drive) has laid out so masterfully throughout the rest of the film. We live in a culture that chews up and spits out youth and beauty - quite literally in The Neon Demon's case.

Elle for leather: Jesse is drawn into danger in LA

Necrophilia of a different kind now as The Pelvis and Tricky Dicky are dug up and put centre stage for the umpteenth time in Elvis & Nixon (DVD and VOD) WW. Loosely based on a true story and a famous photograph, Liza Johnson's film imagines what really happened when the King of Rock 'n' Roll turned up at the White House one December morning in 1970 to directly petition the president to make him an 'FBI agent at large' (Elvis thought he could go undercover to turn the kids of America away from drugs and radical politics). A broad comedy from which neither character emerges unscathed, it has a certain breathless pantomimic appeal, and Michael Shannon and Kevin Spacey acquit themselves well in the titular roles.

The Legend Of Tarzan (DVD, Blu-ray and VOD) WW features another blast from the past as Fantastic Beasts director David Yates becomes the latest filmmaker to have a go at adapting Edgar Rice Burroughs's most famous creation for the big screen. The main problem, I suspect, is that the idea of a white English posho lording it over black Africans is, in these more enlightened times, seen as somewhat racist. Yates and his team tackle this obstacle head on and make a decent fist of repositioning Tarzan (Alexander Skarsgård) as an honourable cove with nothing but love and respect for the tribes he and wife Jane (Margot Robbie) encounter. Putting the iniquities of the 19th Century slave trade front and centre – and giving Samuel L Jackson a sizeable role in proceedings – help too. Skarsgård is suitably butch and brooding as the titular character and Christoph Waltz adds another bravura villain turn to his CV. In a year that has given us the visual delights of The BFG, Doctor Strange and The Jungle Book, some of the CGI wasn't always convincing though.

TV-wise this week you could do a lot worse than check out Joy (from Friday, Sky Cinema Premiere, 13:45 and 20:00) WWW, David O Russell's underrated biopic of Miracle Mop inventor Joy Mangano, an American celebrity who isn't particularly well known in the UK. It boasts a great cast (Jennifer Lawrence as the titular character, Robert De Niro and Bradley Cooper) and has some interesting things to say about the entrepreneurial spirit and American capitalism too. Far from being an unalloyed endorsement of the latter, as some critics suggested, Russell's film explores the murky side of business and how dipping your toes into that world can make a person not just tenacious and determined but utterly ruthless too. It's a story of lost innocence in which Lawrence is, of course, terrific.

Strictly business: Joy Mangano gunning for success

Downton Abbey's Dan Stevens is all ripped abs and convincing Yank accent in The Guest (Saturday, Film4, 21:00) WW as David, a soldier with a very dark secret. It’s one of those “stranger-danger” thrillers so popular in the ’80s in which an innocent family, couple or person is first befriended then menaced by some insidious outsider (see Fatal Attraction, Single White Female, Pacific Heights etc). Action-packed and genuinely funny in parts (Stevens, it turns out, can do comedy too), The Guest lands a couple of slyly satirical jabs square on the jaw of the US army which is probably what I liked about it most.

There's nothing remotely funny or satirical about the soldiers featured in Kathryn Bigelow's Zero Dark Thirty (Friday, More 4, 21:00) WWW. The film, which details the CIA's decade-long hunt for Osama Bin Laden following the 9/11 attacks on New York, was rightly hauled over the coals upon its release for implying information obtained by torture had been utilised successfully in the investigation (it hadn't). However, if you can get over that fairly large obstacle, a slow-burning but genuinely gripping piece of work is your reward.

The excellent Jessica Chastain is Maya, a CIA black ops agent who becomes slowly more obsessed with tracking down the Al Qaeda bogeyman (if Zero Dark Thirty is about anything, it's about obsession). Chastain's role is an astonishingly unglamorous one as she spends the entire film either angry, exhausted or both. Maya is given no external life to speak of - her mission defines her utterly. That kind of narrative austerity is of a piece with the rest of the movie which, far from being the gung-ho spectacle I'd anticipated, lays out the ugliness of the 'Get Bin Laden' operation in some detail.

We see alleged terrorists tortured and brutalised, we see men and women gunned down in cold blood by US Navy SEALS, we see young children terrified for their lives - all in the name of bringing down one man. It's nasty, tawdry work and Bigelow offers up little to cheer, even after Bin Laden's elimination. The Hurt Locker may have won her an Oscar but this is a much better film.

Manhunter: Bin Laden is the target in Zero Dark Thirty

A couple of quickies to end with: Sigourney Weaver returns as Ripley in James Cameron's thrill-a-minute Alien sequel, Aliens (Sunday, Syfy, 21:00) WWWW, while online subscription service MUBI have just the thing for that Halloween night binge-watch - the original Scream trilogy WWW, which does the meta horror thing better than anything before or since.

What I'll be watching this week: Ken Loach's Palme d'Or winner I, Daniel Blake must be doing something right as reactionary pond life (Camilla Long, Toby Young and Iain Duncan Smith) are queuing up to condemn it. Also, Film 2016 (Wednesday, BBC1, 23:15) returns for a new run of eight shows. Presenter Claudia Winkleman is gone, to be replaced, Have I Got News For You-style, with a different host each week. Zoë Ball kicks things off, with Danny Leigh and The Independent's Ellen E Jones on hand to provide critical insights into the week's new releases, which include Nocturnal Animals and The Light Between Oceans. Plus, director Damien Chazelle talks about his new musical, La La Land (which is marvellous).

WWWW - Wonderful
WWW - Worthwhile
WW - Watchable
W - Woeful