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Wednesday, 2 May 2018

Avengers: Infinity War - Hero-stuffed MCU juggernaut is hugely entertaining

Chincredible: Thanos has come to destroy the MCU... well, half of it 

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

This review contains spoilers for Avengers: Infinity War (but none of the really big ones)

Avengers: Infinity War
Directors: Anthony Russo, Joe Russo
Starring: Robert Downey Jr, Chris Hemsworth, Josh Brolin
Running time: 149 mins

I've read enough comic-books over the years to know exactly what makes for a successful multi-part, multi-character, multi-team superhero crossover event. You need a huge threat, you need genuine stakes, you need a crazy-arsed story that nevertheless makes some kind of sense, you need beloved characters (who perhaps haven't met before) interacting entertainingly and, of course, you need colossal action scenes. Avengers: Infinity War – the 19th film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe – delivers on nearly all those counts.

Forget the company's previous big crossover movies, such as Captain America: Civil War, and the first two Avengers films, none of them can hold a candle to the sheer dizzying scope of this film's ambition. Nor its quality. Yes, at two hours, 29 minutes it's punishingly long. Yes, there are a ridiculous number of characters to keep track of (all 20+ heroes on the movie poster, plus various villains and supporting cast). And, yes, you probably need to have seen a good few of the previous 18 MCU films (starting with 2008's Iron Man) to understand exactly who everyone is and get the most out of what is going on. It could have been a sprawling, confusing mess, but instead is a pristinely crafted epic. 

The stakes in many superhero movies rarely seem particularly high. If Black Panther loses the throne of Wakanda or The Avengers have to do as the government tells them, is it really that big a deal? Even in those films when the fate of the Earth/galaxy/universe is at stake, you never believe for a moment anything truly bad will ever be allowed to happen. Here, all of that goes right out of the window. There's a palpable sense of dread that grabs you by the short and curlies within the film's first 10 minutes, as Thanos (Josh Brolin beneath some seriously impressive CG) and his minions lay waste to the survivors of the Asgard conflagration we saw at the end of Thor: Ragnarok, including The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Loki (Tom Hiddleston) and the thunder god (Chris Hemsworth) himself. That sets up Thanos very nicely as the most imposing threat The Avengers and their allies (the Guardians Of The Galaxy, Dr Strange, Black Panther and Spider-Man) have yet faced, especially when you discover our Big Bad's end game is to gather six super-powerful infinity stones (they fit into the big gold gauntlet he wears on his left hand) and use them to wipe out half the universe.

Directors Anthony and Joe Russo the brothers who brought us the last two Captain America movies and take over The Avengers franchise from Joss Whedon here keep that sense of foreboding at fever pitch as the action switches first to Earth as we see Dr Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr) and the newly-returned Hulk face off against more Thanos minions, before zipping back into deep space where the Guardians encounter a beaten and bloodied Thor. Ahead of a climax in Wakanda that couldn't possibly be more sturm und drang if it tried, we also undertake a whistle-stop tour of the universe, visiting a variety of places with names you only ever find in SF or fantasy (Knowhere, Nidavellir, Vormir). It's breathlessly paced but that works to the film's advantage. There's a palpable sense of panic here – of time running out – as our far-flung heroes race to stop Thanos's insane master plan.

The thunder god's encounter with the Guardians is a particular delight, provoking as it does jealousy in Star Lord (Chris Pratt) and awe in everyone else (Dave Baustista's Drax: "It's like a pirate had a baby with an angel"). In fact, many of the film's highlights are contained in interactions between characters who we've never seen on screen together before Dr Strange and Tony Stark relentlessly bicker, Thor and Rocket (Bradley Cooper) make an instant connection, Thanos and his "daughter" Gamora (Zoe Saldana) undergo a heart-breaking reunion. You could argue some characters are a little too marginalised (and a couple of notable MCU luminaries are missing altogether), but that's balanced by previously uninteresting heroes Vision (Paul Bettany) and Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) not just being allowed a turn centre-stage, but flourishing in that spotlight.

Oddly enough, though, my favourite thing here is something that doesn't happen rather than something that does. Iron Man/Tony Stark and Captain America/Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) two characters who we're desperate to see together again after their massive fall out and punch-up in Civil War are deliberately kept apart for the duration. Obviously, there will be an emotional reunion in next May's as-yet-untitled Avengers 4, but that will be a full three years since they beat the tar out of each other at the end of 2016's film. It's a canny piece of storytelling and something that speaks to the patience with which this decade-spanning story has been put together. 

Stark reality: Star Lord (Chris Pratt) meets Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr)

Another impressive element of Infinity War is its tone. Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely's script expertly manages to juggle GOTG/Ragnarok-style humour with the darker material a plot in which 50 per cent of the universe is about to be wiped from existence requires. At times it reminded me of Buffy, The Vampire Slayer in its pomp, which is ironic seeing as how Whedon, who wrote and directed the first two Avengers films, never came close to matching his work on the iconic TV show in either movie.

One of my issues with the MCU has been that its villains rarely live up to expectations. Loki was great but all-too-quickly converted into a loveable antihero, even with James Spader's voice The Avengers' comic-book arch-nemesis Ultron disappointed, while Zemo was resourceful, vengeful... and thoroughly ordinary. Thor: Ragnarok's Hela and Black Panther's Killmonger were big steps in the right direction and Thanos continues the trend. In fact, the "Mad Titan" is far more intriguing and complex a character than his various cameos in MCU films over the years have suggested. He may be a homicidal maniac, but at least Thanos is conflicted, can feel proper emotion, and has a point of view, as flawed as that may be. He believes that halving the population of the universe will make life better for everyone who is left and restore balance to all things. Although that doesn't make him "sympathetic" as some reviewers and commentators have suggested, it makes him Super Hitler.

And, while we're on the subject, Thanos's plan doesn't actually make a scrap of sense. Thanos tells Strange that by wiping out half of existence he'll ensure the survival of a universe threatened by overpopulation. To which you can only say, "Dude, you do know just how BIG the universe actually is, right? I doubt overpopulation is going to be a big deal any time... ever." Besides, even killing off 50 per cent of everyone still wouldn't eradicate poverty, exploitation and the scarcity of resources because political systems – including capitalism – depend on precisely those things to thrive. If half of the US population was somehow killed off tomorrow, people would still be poor because the rich wouldn't suddenly become more benevolent and keen to share their wealth. Yes, you might have a period when wages and conditions would improve because work would be plentiful, but it wouldn't be long before things were back to normal. In fact, with even more resources up for grabs, the 1% would probably become even greedier and more venal. Perhaps The Avengers should have given Thanos some Noam Chomsky to read instead of punching him in the face.

I was also left wondering how this "destroying half of all existence with a snap of his fingers" schtick was meant to work exactly. What if Thanos killed off too many doctors or nurses or teachers or engineers or builders? And how are the peoples of the universe meant to come to terms with the massive collective shellshock of losing half the population of their worlds, including friends and families? How does any of that translate into the "paradise" Thanos boasts his actions will result in? How exactly does it "preserve the balance of the universe"? Or perhaps I'm just overthinking it...

We've had enough superhero team movies now for certain tropes to have become somewhat overused. All three Avengers movies feature our heroes having to battle an army of some kind – the Chitauri in The Avengers, killer robots in Age Of Ultron, and alien monster thingies set upon them by Thanos's minions here. It gives the CG guys a chance to run wild and allows our heroes to actually let loose with their powers and kill something, but has already become something of a cliché. In fact, it would be an interesting exercise to count up just how many times this type of sequence happens across the various MCU and DCU movies. In a third of the films? Half? More?

Without going into details, Infinity War serves up some genuinely shocking moments and a cliffhanger finale devastating enough to make Han Solo being sealed in carbonite at the end of The Empire Strikes Back look like small potatoes. But along with all the horror of those final minutes must come a warning. Marvel (the comic-book publisher) has become increasingly derided for the fact they "kill off" their characters only to bring them back months, years, or, in some cases, decades later to the point where death has become meaningless and, at times, no more inconvenient than a bad cold. I'd hate to see the MCU go the same way and hope that whatever reset button is coming in the next film it doesn't undo everything that happens here. That would be a terrible cop out.

Rating: WWW

* Check out my review of horror movie Pyewacket at Film Inquiry here.

Tuesday, 17 April 2018

Gook, I Am Not An Easy Man, Come Sunday, Better Watch Out, and Brigsby Bear (Your Week In Film: April 16-22)

We're a bit tied up: Better Watch Out puts a smart horror spin on Home Alone

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

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

Certain reviewers have sought to compare Gook (DVD and VOD) WWW with Kevin Smith's Clerks (1994). But apart from taking place in and around a shop and being filmed in black and white, Gook is a far more serious-minded and dramatic enterprise than Smith's profane, freewheelin' debut.

Set during the 1992 Los Angeles riots, which exploded across the city following the acquittal of four police officers involved in the infamous beating of Rodney King, Justin Chon's film focuses on Eli (Chon himself) and Daniel (David So), two bickersome Korean-American brothers struggling to keep their late father's shoe store open. Racial tensions in the area are high and the brothers are frequent targets of abuse and worse from local African-American and Hispanic street thugs; "Gook", an offensive term for East Asians, is spray-painted across the bonnet of Eli's car at one point. Seemingly, their only friend is Kamilla (Simone Baker), a young black girl who helps out at the store when she is supposed to be at school.

Fictional and documentary takes on the LA Riots usually and entirely understandably focus on the city's African-American community and its scandalous treatment at the hands of local law enforcement, but this offers a very different perspective. It's clear LA's Korean-Americans felt just as under siege as their black counterparts, but for very different reasons. Owning businesses in predominantly African-American neighbourhoods, they were often seen as interlopers only there to exploit the local community, something that led to ill will on all sides. This resentment and mutual enmity occasionally transformed into something altogether uglier, such as the fatal shooting of 15-year-old Latasha Harlins in 1991, by a Korean convenience store owner, during an altercation over alleged shoplifting. These were not communities that lived side by side with any great affection for each other and it is that friction which Gook explores.

You could argue Chon's film paints the local blacks and Hispanics as the bad guys, but, to the Koreans, that is how they must have seemed. Besides, this isn't a film about apportioning blame or stirring up more distrust, but about the tragedy of misdirected rage. It isn't an angry movie, but rather a very sad one; its tone starts off quite light but becomes darker and more melancholic the further in we go. The final 15 minutes are just plain heart-breaking. The riots are barely glimpsed, but, nevertheless, play a pivotal role in the movie, as lawlessness spread across the city from South Central, out to engulf the brothers' shoe store. 

Chon's second feature as director, after years as an actor and a couple of shorts, is nicely shot; he has a good eye for the gnarled beauty of urban decay and clearly gets a kick out of filming weathered concrete and cracked pavements, while one repeated sequence in which Kamilla dances beside a building engulfed in flames is haunting and poetic. But the decision to film in black and white keeps you at arm's length a bit too much. LA robbed of the crackle of its vibrant colour palette isn't LA at all. Maybe it was a financial consideration or perhaps Chon was trying to underline the fact all this happened in the past (almost like old newsreel footage). I rather suspect, though, he was seeking to make a point about the alienation suffered by these characters both from each other and the city itself. 

I predict a riot: Gook is a compelling study of racial tension

Regular readers of this blog might be forgiven for thinking I have a downer on Netflix, but nothing could be further from the truth. Yes, a fair few of their original movies are terrible (Bright, Irreplaceable, Game Over, Man!), but I appreciate the fact the streaming giant provides so much new content, is willing to take risks, and is committed to producing and releasing work in a wide variety of genres. Take this week's two new Netflix Originals, which couldn't possibly be more different.

I Am Not An Easy Man WWW is a satirical French rom-com of sorts which sees Damien (Vincent Elbaz), an arrogant, chauvinistic app designer, bashing his head and waking up in a world in which gender roles are totally reversed. Women are dominant, with men subservient and frequently marginalised. There he meets and falls for successful but reckless author Alexandra (Marie-Sophie Ferdane), whose love-'em-and-leave-'em attitude to relationships mirrors his own.

Eleonore Pourriat's film based on her 2010 short, Oppressed Majority succeeds because it's genuinely funny and incredibly smart. She plays with gender stereotypes, isn't afraid to get silly when she has to, and crams in a lot of jokes for good measure. My favourite gag reimagines the most famous scene from Jean-Luc Godard's classic of French cinema, Le Mépris (1963), with a male actor laying face down on a bed, pert bottom on display, in place of the original's Brigitte Bardot.

The film's leads are both excellent. Elbaz has a ball with his character's transformation from boorish alpha male to committed metrosexual, while the statuesque Ferdane – a woman so suffused with Gallic cool she probably eats Gauloises for breakfast – has charisma to burn, owning every scene she is in. There's a pleasing meticulousness to I Am Not An Easy Man too – you see every bit of the hard work that went into putting it together right there on screen – from its casting, to its world building, to its script, to its soundtrack, which includes a particularly fine version of 'You're The One That I Want', from Grease. Pourriat's might not be the most original premise in the world (Brits of a certain age will remember The Two Ronnies' similarly-themed The Worm That Turned from 1980), but its intriguing take on matters of misogyny is pretty much irresistible all the same.

Just about the only thing Come Sunday WW½ has in common with I Am Not An Easy Man is that it features a lead character seemingly full of certainties suddenly made to question everything about them. In this case, it's Chiwetel Ejiofor's preacher Carlton Pearson, who shocks America's evangelical establishment when he gives a sermon suggesting that Hell does not exist and that saint and sinner alike all go to Heaven. Suffice to say, there is uproar as Pearson's followers desert him in droves and he is branded a heretic.

Based on a true story, Joshua Marston's powerful but low-key drama invites viewers to really think about what Pearson is saying and interrogate their own religious views as a result. It also captures every nuance of his spiritual quandary, with Ejiofor ridiculously convincing as the conflicted preacher. In fact, Come Sunday's starry cast, which also includes Martin Sheen, Lakeith Stanfield, Danny Glover, Condola Rashad, and Jason Segel, all deliver performances that are pitch-perfect. The film's most compelling scenes are those in which its focus is narrowed to explore Pearson's fraught relationships with his wife (Rashad), his right-hand man (Segel), and a gay youngster struggling with his sexuality (Stanfield). In the wrong hands, Come Sunday could have been self-righteous and every bit as hectoring as one of Pearson's sermons. The fact it instead exudes so much decency and humanity is to be applauded.

Taking it Easy: Vincent Elbaz stars in an unusual French rom-com

Brigsby Bear (DVD, Blu-ray, and VOD) WWW is a sort of Dogtooth for nerds, which begins with Kyle Mooney's James being freed from the couple who had kidnapped him as a baby 25 years before. James' "parents" – Mark Hamill and Jane Adams – kept him completely isolated from other people for all that time and fed him a warped version of reality to control, educate and distract him, including a fictional TV show called Brigsby Bear Adventures, with which he is completely obsessed. Finally free, he struggles to come to terms with his new family and life, especially as it means a future without his beloved Brigsby.

Produced by The Lonely Island crew – including Andy Samberg – and directed by Dave McCary (Saturday Night Live), Brigsby is an unexpected joy from beginning to end. A charming, funny celebration of obsession, and a most unusual coming-of-age tale, it also tackles notions of "putting aside childish things", and the fear of change, with great sensitivity and warmth. The incredible care and invention that has clearly gone into creating Brigsby's fictional universe is perhaps most impressive of all though.

Bear necessities: McCary's Brigsby is an unexpected joy

I'm going to choose my words carefully about Better Watch Out (DVD, Blu-ray, and VOD) WWW because the film contains a really big twist before the halfway mark, and the fewer hints I drop about its nature the better. Set at and originally released in cinemas at Christmas, Chris Peckover's movie is a spiteful little horror confection that centres on Luke (Levi Miller), a frustrated 12-year-old with a major crush on his older babysitter, Ashley (Olivia DeJonge). When his parents go out for the night, Luke sees it as the perfect opportunity to share his feelings and seduce her. Of course, proceedings don't run smoothly as the pair are soon under threat from a person or persons unknown trying to get into the house...

There's never a dull moment as Peckover and screenwriter Zack Kahn keep things ticking over at an impressively frenetic rate. It reminded me of Home Alone at times, but this is a far more troubling affair, its violence not so much cartoonish as just plain visceral. Watching a Christmas movie in the middle of April might seem a little weird, but Better Watch Out is worth sitting through any number of cheesy festive songs for (although the inclusion of The Ramones' 'Merry Christmas (I Don't Want To Fight Tonight)' is to be applauded).

Horror films such as Ghost Stories and A Quiet Place have been quite rightly critically lauded, but the likes of Better Watch Out, Happy Death Day, and Netflix's The Babysitter are just as successful on their own, perhaps more traditional terms. These movies are unlikely to appeal to an arthouse crowd, but that doesn't mean they aren't inventive, smart and thoroughly enjoyable. Just a word to the wise: Better Watch Out's trailer (below) dances around the movie's big twist to the point where you might be able to guess what it is, so proceed with caution...


Season's beatings: Better Watch Out is surprisingly visceral

Film of the week: It's an unusually strong week, but, if I absolutely have to pick a winner, it's I Am Not An Easy Man. To be honest, though, any one of the films mentioned here is well worth checking out.

What I will be watching this week: Love, Simon 

Top 10 UK DVD/Blu-rays (movies only)
1. Star Wars: The Last Jedi
2. Paddington 2
3. Justice League
4. Wonder
5. Moana
6. Thor: Ragnarok
7. Murder On The Orient Express
8. Daddy's Home 2
9. The Boss Baby
10. Paddington 1 & 2

Monday, 9 April 2018

Star Wars: The Last Jedi, The Disaster Artist, Suburbicon, and 6 Balloons (Your Week In Film: April 9-15)

Top Ren hit: Adam Driver's charismatic anti-hero makes The Last Jedi a must-see

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

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

Despite the terrible prequels, the daft teddy-bear thingies in Return Of The Jedi, and the fact The Force Awakens was little more than a cynical rehash of A New Hope, Star Wars: The Last Jedi (DVD, Blu-ray, and VOD) WWW½ has upset certain fans of the franchise more than anything else in its chequered history. They don't like the diversity of its new cast, hate the liberties taken with the original movies' characters, especially Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), and can't abide some of the film's storytelling twists. Not only are these people wrong, but to quote Reynolds Woodcock from Phantom Thread, they should be "spanked in public".

The Last Jedi is, simply put, the best Star Wars film since The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and the reasons for that are almost entirely down to all the things the reactionaries dislike so much. The new cast members – some introduced during The Force Awakens, others seen here for the first time – are an intriguing bunch, every bit as brave, selfless and inspiring as Han, Leia and Luke were way back when. The fact more of them are women (Daisy Ridley's Rey, Laura Dern's Vice Admiral Holdo and Kelly Marie Tran's Rose Tico) and some are non-white (Tran again and John Boyega's Finn) has to be the most ridiculous and offensive reason to take against them imaginable, especially when matters of gender or ethnicity are never mentioned here. It's easy to get angry with racists and misogynists, but perhaps healthier to just pity them.

Meanwhile, Skywalker is far more fun as a bitter old misery guts, sick of bearing the weight of the Force upon his ageing shoulders, than he ever was as a fresh-faced but vanilla young hero, only made truly interesting by the matter of his paternity. The story's twists are all good ones, two in particular delivered so expertly they made audience members in the screening I attended audibly gasp. Writer/director Rian Johnson (Brick, Looper) takes a lot of risks, trying stuff that might not come off, and it's a credit to him so much of it does. It's surely a good thing when a story doesn't go the way you expect it to and The Last Jedi makes an enjoyable habit of confounding your expectations. He has a way with a visual too the climactic Skywalker v Kylo Ren lightsaber face-off is like something straight out of Kurosawa, while one character's ultimate sacrifice makes for a moment both heart-rending and mind-bending.

The movie's crowning glory, though, is Adam Driver's Ren, comfortably the most compelling anti-hero-cum-bad-guy we've seen in any blockbuster franchise for many a year. His journey from Vader-lite apprentice of the ludicrous Snoke in The Force Awakens into something altogether more dangerous and exciting is worth the price of admission on its own. Driver is probably the most charismatic young(ish) actor in Hollywood right now and The Last Jedi really belongs to him and Ridley's Rey, perhaps to the exclusion of other characters at times. And while this eighth entry in the main franchise might take a while to get going, it has given the Star Wars universe the bloody good shake up it sorely needed.

Force of nature: The Star Wars franchise is finally back to its best

The most memorable thing about Suburbicon (Amazon Prime Video) WW is its misleading trailer (see below) which, somehow, amidst all the blackly comedic japes about mob-related murder and mayhem, neglected to properly mention that a large chunk of the film involved a harrowing tale of small-town racism. It was as if the movie's producers thought including such a difficult subject in its highlights reel may put people off. As it turns out, the race plot on its own might have been a far more interesting subject for a movie than the rather clunky crime caper – based on an old Coen brothers script – served up here alongside it by director George Clooney.

Set in 1959, in a predominantly white suburban US town (the titular Suburbicon), it sees supposed family-man Gardner Lodge (Matt Damon) up to his neck in trouble after conspiring with the Russian mob to bump off his wife Rose (Julianne Moore). He even moves in her twin sister Margaret (also Moore), who wastes no time slipping into her dead sibling's role of partner and mother. A dodgy claim alerts Oscar Isaac's insurance man, which is a problem for Gardner as he needs the cash to pay off the Russians. The murder and its aftermath casts a pall over the town and its residents start looking for scapegoats, starting with the Mayers, the town's newly-arrived African-American family...

Suburbicon is saved by a strong cast (Moore and Damon are good, Isaac's extended cameo excellent), the occasional funny moment (most of which appear in the aforementioned trailer) and a script that expertly peels away the layers of Gardner's true self to reveal a 24-carat rotten bastard. It also has some timely points to make about the scapegoating of minorities and the ugliness of mob rule (you can imagine, I'm sure, what has inspired such notions). The problem is that the two parts of the story aren't an especially good fit and the black family have little agency. They're just victims with little to do outside of that (Mr and Mrs Mayers are given few lines and no first names either). Clooney's film (his sixth in the director's chair) is ambitious and certainly visually pleasing, but somehow never quite coheres into anything genuinely worthwhile or even particularly memorable.   

Without a Cloo: Director George's sixth movie underwhelms 

You don't need to have seen The Room to get a kick out of The Disaster Artist (DVD, Blu-ray, and VOD) WW½, but a working knowledge of Tommy Wiseau and his infamous movie would be a definite advantage. James Franco's debut as a director tells the story of how the "worst film ever made" came to be. It follows the mysterious Wiseau (Franco), as he meets partner-in-crime Greg Sistero (played by James's brother Dave), his eventual co-star in The Room, who went on to co-author the novel this film is based upon.

The pair are both struggling actors and when they fail to set Hollywood alight, wealthy Wiseau writes and finances a movie of his own, which becomes a cult success, despite being as terrible as anything the likes of Ed Wood or Uwe Boll ever came up with. Franco Senior is amusing and convincing as Wiseau, getting the filmmaker's bizarre mix of naivete and megalomania just right, and topping it off with that utterly preposterous Eastern European accent. The film itself is sporadically funny but, in reality, provides little more than a rummage through The Room's best bits, several of which are lovingly recreated here ("You're tearing me apart, Lisa", "Oh, hi Mark" etc). The real Wiseau pops up for a cameo in a funny post-credits sequence.

Rock on, Tommy: James Franco plays The Room creator Wiseau

There has been a recent debate about whether Netflix Originals count as "proper films", with even Steven Spielberg dismissing the streaming giant's features as "TV movies" and suggesting they should qualify for Emmy rather than Oscar consideration. I can't imagine this week's new Netflix releases will do much to change his mind. 6 Balloons WW½ is an economically told drugs drama (only 74 minutes long) that sees Broad City's Abbi Jacobson charging around southern California desperately trying to find her heroin-addicted brother (Dave Franco) a detox programme, but facing obstacle after obstacle. For the most part, it's smartly, inventively told by writer/director Marja-Lewis Ryan, while comedian Jacobsen excels in a dramatic role. Unfortunately, there's a drowning metaphor that is worked into the ground and Ryan fumbles the ball badly with a "tough-love" ending that at best lacks compassion and seems to misunderstand the nature of addiction.

Despite its faults, 6 Balloons has the edge on Orbiter 9 WW, a Spanish sci-fi movie about a lonely young colonist (Clara Lago's Helena) on a 40-year journey from Earth to a new planet called Celeste. Hatem Khraiche's film (his first) is one of those Everything You Know Is Wrong tales with a couple of decent twists and a nicely worked ending. Somehow, though, it never sets the blood racing, although Lago – who has a slightly unearthly quality – is very good.


Burst Balloons: Marja-Lewis Ryan's movie is a mixed bag

Finally, allow me to point you in the direction of a few films previously recommended here that have very recently popped up on Netflix. Click the links to check out my views on Valerian And The City Of A Thousand Planets, God's Own Country, and The Villainess.

Film Of The Week: Star Wars: The Last Jedi

What I will be watching this week: Ready Player One


UK Top 10 DVDs/Blu-rays (movies only)
1. Paddington 2
2. Justice League
3. Wonder 
4. Moana
5. Thor: Ragnarok
6. Daddy's Home 2
7. Murder On The Orient Express
8. Paddington 1 and 2
9. Beauty And The Beast (2017)
10. The Boss Baby

Monday, 2 April 2018

The Bachelors, Blade Of The Immortal, and Ravenous (Your Week In Film: April 2-8)

The hunger games: On the run from zombie-like creatures in Ravenous

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

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

Kurt Voelker clearly isn't a big fan of psychotherapy. J.K. Simmons, who plays distraught widow Bill Palet in the writer/director's second feature The Bachelors (Curzon Home Cinema) WW, is given all manner of counselling, medication and, at one point, a course of ECT, to cure his chronic depression, but none of it works. In fact, the whole process (including Harold Perrineau's therapist) is treated as something a little bit sinister and not to be trusted.

As it turns out, all maths teacher Bill had needed to get the black dog off his back was for son Wes (Josh Wiggins) to shout at him and hurl a glass full of soda at a wall. Whilst no expert, I'm not entirely sure this is how mental illness – or the alleviation of its symptoms – actually works. Surely, it's just a more extreme version of telling a patient to "pull themselves together", albeit with added broken glass and stained paintwork.

Bad brain science apart, as melodramas about troubled rich people go, The Bachelors isn't bad. It sees the Palet boys move to Los Angeles after the untimely death of wife/mother Jeanie (Kimberly Crandall). An old friend has offered Bill a job at his exclusive boys' school and it's a chance for father and son to start again, with the help of two new women in their lives – Bill's teacher colleague Carine (Julie Delpy) and student Lacey (Odeya Rush), who Wes helps with her French homework. Of course, you're waiting for the two relationships to blossom into more than friendship and Voelker throws in a few deft twists and turns as his story winds its way to an inevitable and uplifting conclusion.

The main weapon in The Bachelors' armoury is a fine cast. You can't go wrong with Simmons and Delpy, but the kids are good too, especially Rush, who finds new dimensions to explore in amongst her character's "beautiful but disturbed" tropes. Lacey's family aren't in it very much but give the film its best scene all sat round a table during an excruciating dinner that Wes has been invited to. Lacey's mum and dad are going through a divorce and the pair's disdain for each other crackles off the screen as they take verbal pot-shots at each other. They're hilariously awful and should have been in this far more.


Bachelor boys: J.K. Simmons and Josh Wiggins play a grieving father and son


Legendary Japanese director Takashi Miike's 100th film (yes, really) is a flawed but entertaining adaptation of Hiroaki Samura's Blade Of The Immortal (DVD, Blu-ray, and VOD) WW, a long-running manga which ceased publication in 2012 after 19 years.

As the title implies, Blade tells the tale of a mighty samurai – Manji (Takuya Kimura) – cursed by a witch to walk the Earth forever. He takes pity on a young girl, Rin (Hana Sugisaki), and vows to be her instrument of vengeance against Anotsu (Sôta Fukushi) and his band of master swordsmen, who murdered her father.

The opening sequence – filmed in moody black and white as Manji "dies" before receiving his curse – is truly electrifying, but, due to its extended running time and repetitive action sequences, Blade sags somewhat in the middle. However much you love well-choreographed, ultra-violent sword fights, with high body counts and lopped-off limbs, there comes a point where you just think, "Any chance Manji could do something else for a bit – maybe a spot of shopping or some gardening?" Thankfully, Miike pulls it all together in time for an impressively over-the-top grand finale, featuring Manji, Rin, Anotsu, and a few of the colourful supporting characters we've met along the way. 



There will be blood: Miike's 100th movie is violent but repetitive


Netflix adds so much new content to its catalogue these days that it's easy for something rather good to slip through the cracks unnoticed. The fact that latest "something" is a zombie movie, called Ravenous (Netflix) WWW, is surprising because, let's face it, the undead horror sub-genre hasn't exactly been renowned of late for its gems, hidden or otherwise.

Robin Aubert's film doesn't particularly do anything outrageously original – a band of survivors in upstate Quebec are menaced by an army of undead – he just does it very well. The characters are all interesting (especially Monica Chokri's Tania), it's directed with style and imagination, and the creatures themselves have one or two intriguing quirks to mark them out from the usual limb-chewing throng. In fact, I don't know whether it's right to call them zombies at all, as the fast-moving monsters here are more redolent of those from 28 Days Later or The Girl With All The Gifts.

We all know what zombies look like – and it's got a bit boring – but Aubert is more interested in what they sound like. His creatures let out a terrible, soul-piercing shriek that reminded me of the inhuman sound emitted by the alien duplicates in Invasion Of The Body Snatchers (1978). It's like nails down a chalkboard and genuinely unsettling, especially in a film set amidst the peace and stillness of Quebec's countryside.

The longer the movie goes on, the further it strays from the undead template, becoming stranger and more artful as the exploration of ideas takes over from straightforward storytelling. Aubert leaves us with a lot to ponder (some reviews have suggested rather too much), but figuring out the hows and whys of this particular apocalypse is half the fun. Ravenous leaves you with some powerful images – the creatures build weird piles of furniture and technology for some unfathomable reason – and that awful shriek in your head. Although it isn't quite in the same league, it reminded me a little of Julia Ducournau's extraordinary Raw from last year. Take that as a recommendation.



Cutting edge: Ravenous reinvents the zombie movie
Film of the week: Ravenous
What I will be watching this week: Journeyman

UK Top 10 DVDs/Blu-rays (movies only)
1. Justice League
2. Paddington 2
3. Wonder
4. Thor: Ragnarok
5. Murder On The Orient Express
6. Daddy's Home 2
7. Paddington 1 and 2 (boxset)
8. Moana
9. Beauty And The Beast (2017)
10. Cars 3