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Monday, 17 October 2016

The Clan, Mascots, 13th and The Greasy Strangler: Your Week In Film (October 17-23)

Family guy: Guillermo Francella (centre) in The Clan

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

Having watched The Clan (DVD and VOD) WWW, I'd assumed its unnerving star Guillermo Francella was an Argentine dramatic actor specialising in crime lords and serial killers. His piercing eyes and stony demeanour would have surely made him a shoo-in. Turns out his career has been mostly spent in comic roles, which makes his utterly frightening turn here, in a film based on a true story, even more impressive.

Francella plays Arquímedes Puccio, the head of a seemingly respectable, middle class Buenos Aires family in the early 1980s. The end of Argentina's fascist military junta is in sight but this isn't good news for Arquímedes, who has done rather well out of the regime. To bolster his earnings as an intelligence officer, the patriarch - with the forced cooperation of his rugby star son Alex (Peter Lanzani) - has been kidnapping wealthy locals and holding them for ransom. However, as democracy returns to the country, it isn't long before his support networks start to crumble and he has the law breathing down his neck.

Director Pablo Trapero's film has been compared favourably with Martin Scorsese's work but, certainly subject matter-wise, it reminded me a little of David Michôd's Animal Kingdom and, to a lesser extent, Ben Wheatley's Down Terrace (although it lacks the latter's bleak humour). 
These are all tales of ordinary monsters and Arquímedes is their king - sitting down for a family meal or helping his kids with their homework, before popping to the cellar to rough up a victim whose family can't come up with the ransom. It's thrilling and disturbing, but I'm not sure on-screen crime has ever looked so gratifyingly grubby and unglamorous.

A new Christopher Guest comedy is always welcome, even if it's one as slight as Mascots (Netflix) WW½. Set in the world of competitive sports 'mascotry', the director and co-writer covers similar ground to his superior Best In Show, as we're introduced to a variety of endearing eccentrics all preparing to compete for the prestigious Gold Fluffy at the 8th annual World Mascot Association Championships.

It's likeable, knockabout stuff with some fine comic turns from the likes of Love & Friendship's Tom Bennett (who you also might recognise from this) and Chris O'Dowd as bad-boy ice hockey mascot The Fist. Many of Guest's usual collaborators, including Jane Lynch, Fred Willard, Ed Begley Jr and Parker Posey, are all present and accounted for too, although only the latter feels like she gets enough screen time. Sadly, though, Mascots never quite catches fire and, if anything, it really just made me want to go back and rewatch the likes of A Mighty Wind and Waiting For Guffman, whose Corky St. Clair character the director briefly reprises here.

Guest of honour: Mascots is on Netflix now

You'll find laughs of a rather more extreme nature in bizarro comic-horror The Greasy Strangler (cinemas, DVD, Blu-ray and VOD) WWW. When Big Ronnie (Michael St Michaels) isn't giving highly inaccurate 'disco walking tours' of Los Angeles to bemused tourists with son Big Brayden (Sky Elobar), he's out murdering people as the Greasy Strangler - a killer who is, literally, covered head to toe in a thick layer of grease. When Brayden gets his first girlfriend - Janet (Eastbound & Down's Elizabeth De Razzo) - Ronnie is furious with jealousy and resolves to steal her from him.

Chock-a-block with catchphrases ("Bullshit artist!") and lines of dialogue you can imagine half-cut students bellowing at midnight screenings, Jim Hosking's film - an unholy marriage between Troma and Harmony Korine - clearly fancies itself a future cult classic. It would all seem a bit contrived and cynical if it wasn't genuinely funny, gratifyingly repulsive (even the soundtrack made me queasy) and riotously entertaining. There's just something about the entire unhinged project that tickled me - starting with its title.

Grease is the word: Definitely not safe for work

The week's most essential - but discomfiting - viewing comes in the form of 13th (Netflix) WWWW, Ava DuVernay's excoriating documentary about the massive over-representation of African-Americans (particularly men) in US jails.

The Selma director starts her analysis with the abolition of slavery in 1865 and the US constitution's 13th amendment which wrote it into law: "Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime where of the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction."

DuVernay's controversial but powerfully argued contention is that rather than being abolished, slavery was merely "redesigned", the line that says "
except as a punishment for crime" deployed as a weapon against America's black population in the form of mass incarceration.

Only released in the States on October 7 (13th is the first documentary to open the New York Film Festival), it features a parade of diverse and impressive talking heads, including Black Panther activist-turned-tenured professor Angela Davis and former Republican speaker of the house Newt Gingrich.

But anyone expecting a party political broadcast on behalf of the Democrats will be sorely disappointed as DuVernay turns some of her fiercest fire on former president Bill Clinton and his wide-ranging crime bill of 1994, which led to prison overcrowding amongst other unintended consequences. Impressively up to date - including coverage of the Black Lives Matter movement and Trump's bid for the White House - if 13th doesn't make you fizz with anger, I'm not sure what will. 

Behind bars: Ava DuVernay's powerful documentary

A Welshman sits alone in a car for 90 minutes jabbering increasingly frantically into a mobile phone as his world implodes around him. It's hardly an elevator pitch up there with Alien’s ‘Jaws in space’, is it? Still, what Locke (23:30, Saturday, Channel 4) WWW½ lacks in spectacle and action, it more than makes up for in Tom Hardy’s assured, sympathetic performance. Steven Knight's film is short and sharp and - unusually for a Saturday night on Channel 4 - being shown at an almost reasonable time.

What I'll be watching this week: I'm having a bit of a cinema catch up with The Girl On The Train and War On Everyone both on the agenda.

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

Monday, 10 October 2016

Under The Shadow, Race, and Warcraft: The Beginning: Your Week In Film (October 10-16)

Djinn and bear it: Under The Shadow is a scary treat

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

With the likes of The Witch and The Babadook wowing audiences and critics alike, slow-burn psychological horror is very much back in vogue. Under the Shadow (in cinemas and on VOD) WWW½ is another fine example of the form, starting off at a languid pace then gathering speed, tension and atmosphere as it builds to a genuinely bat-shit crazy - not to mention frightening - final act.

The film - in Farsi (with subtitles) by Iranian/British writer/director Babak Anvari - is set in Tehran in 1988, during the Iran/Iraq war. Shideh (Narges Rashidi), a former medical student kicked out of university for political agitation during her country's revolution, is left home alone with daughter Dorsa (Avin Manshadi) after husband Iraj (Bobby Naderi) is shipped off to do his military service. When Shideh's apartment block is hit by an Iraqi missile, something nasty - a djinn spirit - gets in through the resultant hole in the roof. The supernatural creature takes an immediate interest in Dorsa...

Like all the best horror films, Under The Shadow isn't really about ghosts and monsters but merely uses them to talk about real-world concerns, in this case a mother's terror at the prospect of losing her daughter and husband to the bloody war raging outside their door. Shideh also fears for her own future under a regime she clearly despises, especially after her chance to pursue a career in medicine is denied her.

As the film progresses and the war intensifies, more and more of Shideh's neighbours flee, ultimately leaving mother and daughter alone in the apartment complex. It is in these moments of intense isolation and vulnerability that Anvari ramps up the chills, hitting you with several moments guaranteed to send a big fat shiver down your spine.  

I've seen a thousand horror films over the years so these days it takes something really special to get under my skin. This did. 

Ghost world: Mother and daughter under attack

Nineteen-thirties track and field legend Jesse Owens - one of the greatest US Olympians of all time - deserves a biopic with a much bigger budget and a far starrier cast but, for now, Race (DVD and VOD) WWW will do just fine. 

Initially Stephen Hopkins' movie comes across as a rather by-the-numbers affair, as we follow Owens (Stephan James) to Ohio State University then, under coach Larry Snyder (Jason Sudeikis), see him break a number of world records in the 100m, 200m and long jump. He qualifies for the American Olympic team to compete in Berlin in 1936 but is soon under pressure to pull out in protest at Germany's Nazi regime. Of course, the irony is that Owens - a black man living in a time of segregation and rampant racial discrimination - is treated almost as badly in his own country as he would be under Adolf Hitler.

Catch me if you can: Owens biopic has its moments

Race becomes rather more interesting once we reach Berlin and see Owens wiping the floor with all-comers as he takes home a clutch of gold medals in front of Hitler himself. In fact, the Nazis command quite a bit of screen time, most notably in a subplot involving a feud between filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl (Game Of Thrones' Carice van Houten) and the regime's minister of propaganda, Joseph Goebbels (a chilling portrayal from Barnaby Metschurat). Goebbels is clearly vile but Hopkins impresses as he seeks to find decency and humanity even in a country about to plummet headlong into the moral abyss. Riefenstahl and German long-jump star Lutz Long both treat Owens with more courtesy and respect than practically anyone (well, anyone white) back home. 

Hopkins' film is entertaining, provocative and even inspiring, but far from perfect. The obvious budgetary constraints result in some distinctly ropey-looking CG effects while the extent of the prejudice Owens faced in the US - even amongst his supposed team-mates - is downplayed. 

Warcraft: The Beginning (DVD, Blu-ray and VOD) WW½ took a bit of a critical shellacking on its cinema release and the movie's US box office was disappointing. Yes, Duncan Jones' long-awaited adaptation of the World Of Warcraft fantasy online role-playing game is unwieldy and silly at times, but ultimately transcends its Dungeons & Dragons/Lord Of The Rings influences to deliver one of the summer's better blockbusters. The CG is excellent (the Orc v human battle scenes have a real physical 'crunch' to them), while Jones serves up some pleasing twists and turns, including a fiendish but nicely worked ending. Sequel, please.

If ever a film deserved the description 'visceral' it is surely Amat Escalante’s drug-war drama Heli (Tuesday morning, 01:30, Film4) WWW. The titular character is a young Mexican whose family is targeted by a local cartel after his 12-year-old sister and her older boyfriend conceal stolen packages of cocaine. When the crime is discovered the revenge perpetrated upon these kids is terrible to behold (torture, rape and murder). Escalante’s film shows how the cartels’ mephitic presence seeps into every area of their victims’ lives and the ways in which it foments hatred and criminality. A drug war story with vengeance at the centre of its jet-black heart, Heli possesses an uncompromising ugliness that puts similarly-themed but vanilla Hollywood fare such as Sicario firmly in the shade.

Hel on Earth: The drug war has never seemed uglier

Finally, there's Grandma (Wednesday, 21:00, Sky Cinema Select) WW½, which sees irascible septuagenarian Elle (Lily Tomlin) battling, bullying and begging to raise enough cash to fund her grand-daughter's abortion. Paul Weitz's film is brave and likable, even though the 'tough old boot with a heart of gold' trope has surely been done to death at this point.

What I shall be watching this week: Bizarro horror The Greasy Strangler (DVD, Blu-ray and VOD), Ava DuVernay's prison documentary The 13th (in cinemas and on Netflix), and as many movies as I can fit in at the London Film Festival.

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

Monday, 3 October 2016

Woody Allen, Amanda Knox and Macbeth: Your Week In Film (October 3-9)

Sleeper hit: Woody gets the boxset treatment in Six Films

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

Crisis In Six Scenes (Amazon Prime Video), Woody Allen's first TV gig in 20+ years, is a long way from the writer/director/actor's best work but he is nevertheless enjoying a bit of a renaissance at the ripe old age of 80. Allen's most recent film Café Society - a smart and bittersweet romantic comedy starring Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart - was a real return to form after a couple of post-Blue Jasmine duds, and then there's Woody Allen: Six Films - 1971-1978 (Blu-ray) WWWW, the first in a series of three boxsets devoted to collecting a number - but not all - of his older movies.

I don't know whether there were problems obtaining the rights to What's Up, Tiger Lily? and Take The Money And Run (Allen's first two films as director) but this collection kicks off with Bananas (1971), his third outing. Allen is Fielding Mellish, a disaffected college drop-out who gives up his job as a tester of ridiculous products and ends up becoming the president of fictitious South American country, San Marcos. Some of the humour hasn't aged well (with the benefit of hindsight a gag about "advanced child molesting" seems especially egregious) and it is in reality just a series of sketches and sight gags married to a free-wheeling plot. But, with its satirical edge, references to philosophy and sexual politics, plus some clever set-pieces (getting real-life sports reporter Howard Cosell to top and tail the film was a stroke of genius), there are clear hints of just what Allen was capable of and where he was heading. 

His work grew more sophisticated with 1972's inventive Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex *But Were Afraid to Ask (Gene Wilder's love affair with a sheep the highlight of seven amusing vignettes), outrageous sci-fi spoof Sleeper (1973), and Love And Death (1975), in which Allen drove a coach and horses through Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy to hilarious effect. This early period culminated in the sublime Annie Hall (1977) - probably still the director's best-loved movie. In a little over 90 breathless minutes, Allen hits us with everything he's got - flashbacks, subtitles, fourth-wall breaking, animation, a cameo from Marshall McLuhan - and it's a wild, wonderful ride full of memorable lines ("La-di-da" is the least of it) and more belly laughs than some comedians manage in a lifetime. It wouldn't be nearly as good without Diane Keaton as the spoiled, mercurial and somehow utterly magnetic titular character though. 

The set comes to a dark and downbeat full stop with Interiors (1978), a fulsome homage to the work of Ingmar Bergman and perhaps Allen's only out-and-out film drama. Three sisters (Keaton, Kristin Griffith and Mary Beth Hurt) battle to keep their family together after the trio's father (EG Marshall) walks out on their mentally ill mother (Geraldine Page). It's a flawed but emotionally powerful work in which only Page's Eve is genuinely sympathetic. Everyone else (white, wealthy, privileged, arty) seems to suffer from a serious case of First World Problems, be it writer's block, umbrage at hostile critics or a simple lack of creative talent.

Page was Oscar-nominated for the role and it is the rawness of her performance that elevates the material every time she is on screen and holds the film together. Seeing - and enjoying - Interiors again after 20-odd years made me wonder why Allen hasn't returned to the well of pure drama (maybe the travails of his real life are dramatic enough). A second boxset, featuring the likes of Manhattan and Broadway Danny Rose, is promised for December.

Interior monologue: Geraldine Page is raw and powerful

Allen has endured more than his fair share of infamy in the last couple of decades but it's nothing compared to the subject of Netflix documentary Amanda Knox WWW. Knox is, of course, the young American woman twice convicted then acquitted of the 2007 Perugia murder of fellow exchange student Meredith Kercher, and whilst Rod Blackhurst and Brian McGinn's talking heads-led film probably won't win any awards for style or originality it's a crucial and fascinating watch nonetheless. 

That's mainly because it features Knox talking, in depth, about the murder itself and its terrible impact on her and co-accused former boyfriend Raffaele Sollecito, but also because it makes you wonder how on Earth a case based on such flimsy evidence and near-as-damn-it forced confessions (Knox was subjected to a 53-hour interrogation by police, containing physical and verbal abuse) could ever have made it out of the starting gate. 

The filmmakers strike (fool's) gold in their interviews with the Kercher case's prosecutor Giuliano Mignini, a man who styled himself after Sherlock Holmes (even filmed ostentatiously smoking a pipe at the original trial) and was convinced of Knox and Sollecito's guilt, mainly because of what he decided was their "inappropriate behaviour" (also known as 'kissing') after the crime's discovery. If Mignini's contributions are infuriating and exasperating, they are small potatoes compared to those of Nick Pisa, a slimy Daily Mail 'journalist' who'd be expelled from the National Association of Gutter Press for his distinct lack of class. His series of salacious 'revelations' (also known as 'fiction') involving sex games gone wrong and even satanic rituals helped convict Knox and Sollecito in the court of public opinion. And it wasn't long before a real court followed suit, sending the pair to prison until they were freed on appeal four years later (turns out that DNA evidence wasn't just flimsy, it was hugely contaminated).

I'd have liked a bit more detail (what was it like for the pair in prison? How did their families cope?) but Amanda Knox is a powerful corrective to the tide of errant nonsense and calumny that still passes for serious comment about the case. Of course, it's easy for Brits like me to mock the Italian authorities and their lax investigative skills but cases such as those of Barry George and the Birmingham Six prove that miscarriages of justice have no borders.

Murder in mind: Amanda Knox was rightly acquitted  

Subscription service Mubi have really upped their game this year, no longer just screening a range of interesting or rare old films but offering a number of exclusives too. Baden Baden WW½ was only in UK cinemas a couple of weeks ago but has already surfaced on the online platform, along with two of writer/director Rachel Lang's short films, For You I Will Fight and White Turnips Make It Hard To Sleep. All three feature the same character - Ana Och (Salomé Richard) - a directionless young woman with a big heart, who flits from job to job, place to place and relationship to relationship, without ever really finding her niche in life. Richard is excellent as boyish every-girl Ana while Lang perfectly captures that 'what the bloody hell am I supposed to do now' moment of panic that hits post-teens when they realise adulthood might not be for them after all.   

The last 20 minutes of Macbeth (Wednesday 5th, 21:00, Film4) WWW are probably the most visually stunning of any film I've seen in the last couple of years, as Birnam Wood does indeed come to Dunsinane and Michael Fassbender's murderer king faces off against his nemesis Macduff. Elsewhere, Snowtown director Justin Kurzel's adaptation of Shakespeare's 'Scottish play' is a broodingly gothic, brutal and nightmarish affair, buoyed by suitably intense performances from Fassbender, and Marion Cotillard as Lady Macbeth. Kurzel has an interesting take on the central character - he isn't just an ambitious monster spurred on by a pushy wife - but a battle-weary warrior unhinged by the death of his young son. It's a nice twist but one that fails to humanise the character as much as the director would clearly like it to.

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

Monday, 26 September 2016

Imperium, Love & Friendship, and The Nice Guys: Your Week In Film (September 26-October 2)

Whiteout: Daniel Radcliffe on the march in Imperium

I've taken the odd potshot at Daniel Radcliffe's acting in this column but, credit where it's due, he is very good in Imperium (cinemas and VOD) WWW. The former Harry Potter plays 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.

Yes, there are several elements in Daniel Ragussis's film we've seen before - the close shaves where Foster's identity is almost compromised, the bad guy with whom our protagonist strikes up an unlikely bond - but the repetition of such tropes is easily forgivable. Apart from a couple of bonehead caricatures, it refuses to present the Nazis as cartoon monsters. These deeply flawed and thoroughly hateful people don't just have a world view but one they have thought about, read about and can properly articulate. What's more, they could be the woman next door (the wife of Sam Trammell's head honcho bakes cakes decorated with swastika icing), the bloke behind the bar in your local or even your new workmate - shaved head or not, the hatred burns just as intensely. 

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.

Normally, I'm no fan of costume dramas either but thoroughly enjoyed Whit Stillman's deliciously spiky Love & Friendship (DVD, Blu-ray and VOD) WWW, an adaptation of the Jane Austen novel, Lady Susan. Kate Beckinsale is Lady Susan Vernon, a high-maintenance Machiavelli who, following the death of her husband, is reduced to 'visiting' (moving in with) any friend or relative foolhardy enough to put up with her constant schemes, indiscretions and betrayals. Prepared to ride roughshod over anyone who gets in her way, she pursues her goal of netting wealthy husbands for herself and sappy daughter Frederica. In truth, the woman is utterly dreadful but Beckinsale's arch performance and Whitman's hilarious writing conspire to make Lady Susan someone you end up rather liking (although you'd trust her about as far as you could throw her). Her scenes with co-conspirator Chloë Sevigny are a delight but it's Tom Bennett who comes closest to stealing the entire film as Sir James Martin, perhaps the finest screen idiot since Tim McInnerny first pulled on a doublet and hose to become Lord Percy Percy in Blackadder.

Unfriended: Lady Susan is trouble with a capital T

Not quite in the same league laughs-wise is The Nice Guys (DVD, Blu-ray and VOD) WW. Ryan Gosling (a boozy private eye) and Russell Crowe (an unreconstructed thug) are terrific in Shane Black's retro buddy comedy set in 1970s Los Angeles, but are let down by a half-baked plot that isn't so much confusing as downright uninteresting. Kim Basinger – '80s stalwart of 9½ Weeks and Batman – is criminally underused.

Amazon Prime Video is making three of the year's most eye-catching films available to watch from Friday (Sept 30), including Spotlight WWW½. Tom McCarthy's Best Picture Oscar winner focuses on the Boston Globe newspaper's 2001 investigation into the local cover-up of child sexual abuse by Catholic priests. The film's absence of directorial flashiness or melodrama allows an excellent ensemble cast (including Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, Michael Keaton), sharp writing and methodical plotting to shine. Amazon also has Trumbo WWW, a thoroughly entertaining biopic of 1950s Hollywood screenwriter Dalton Trumbo (Roman Holiday, Spartacus), who was blacklisted and jailed for being a communist. Breaking Bad's Bryan Cranston is on fine scenery-chewing form as the titular character. Last but not least from Amazon is Youth WWW. Paolo Sorrentino's follow up to The Great Beauty stars Michael Caine as a retired composer waiting for the end at an exclusive Swiss spa. A tragicomic meditation on old age, grief and regret, Youth also contains a generous helping of eccentricity (like the moment Paloma Faith turns up, playing a singer called... Paloma Faith).

Sorrentino's oddness is small potatoes when set against Charlie Kaufman's directorial debut, Synecdoche, New York (Tuesday, 00:55, Film4) WWW. The much-missed Philip Seymour Hoffman is lugubrious threatre director Caden Cotard, a man in the throes of a permanent midlife crisis. Obsessed with death and illness - but still somehow able to form relationships with a string of absurdly attractive women (Michelle Williams, Catherine Keener, Samantha Morton) - he buys a vast warehouse and commences work on a hugely ambitious new play. As his creation grows bigger and bigger - spreading out into other warehouses, its own self-contained world - fiction and reality merge. Suddenly, there isn't just one Caden but several, including a version played by actress Deirdre O'Connell. It's surreal, funny, maddening and occasionally quite brilliant.

Rather more conventional, Steven Spielberg's Cold War thriller Bridge Of Spies (from Friday, 14:20 and 20:00, Sky Cinema Premiere/NOW TV) WW½ is a perfectly likeable advertisement for liberal decency, with Tom Hanks all effortless charm and unflappable resolve. Hanks plays James B Donovan, an insurance lawyer pressed into defending a captured Russian spy (Oscar winner Mark Rylance) and then travelling to communist Berlin in a bid to exchange the man for a downed airman and incarcerated student. Based on a true story, it's good solid fare but, in truth, lacks a sense of real jeopardy and both Spielberg and Hanks have done much better work.

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

Monday, 19 September 2016

Everybody Wants Some!!, Green Room and The Hurt Locker: Your Week In Film (September 19-25)

Motor mouths: Jocks go wild in Everybody Wants Some!!

Films to look out for in the coming seven days on DVD, Blu-ray, VOD and TV...

Everybody Wants Some!! (out now on DVD, Blu-ray and VOD) WWW is Richard Linklater's spiritual sequel to his 1993 coming-of-age classic, Dazed And Confused. This time the Boyhood director focuses on the members of a 1980 Texas college baseball team. Beer is downed, weed is smoked, trash is talked, and occasionally these likeable jocks get around to hitting a ball or two. 

There is little in the way of plot  this is very much a character piece. Jake (Glee's Blake Jenner) is a freshman at a fictional Texas university on a baseball scholarship. His team is put up not in dorms like the other students, but in a ramshackle old house. They are unsupervised by the college authorities and, despite warnings not to consume alcohol on the premises or permit female guests upstairs, their domicile very quickly becomes party central. In the brief period before the start of the new college year, Jake grows closer to his new team-mates (male bonding and the urge to compete are the film's main themes), while striking up a relationship with performing arts student Beverly (Zoey Deutch).

Occasionally, you think the plot is going to move in a more dramatic direction but Linklater is keen never to make confrontation a focus of his story. He wants you to like his characters and you do, especially pipe-smoking gadabout Finn (Glen Powell), cologne-drenched uber-competitor McReynolds (Tyler Hoechlin) and stoner-with-a-secret Willoughby (Wyatt Russell). It's all good clean fun, albeit bathed in enough rose-tinted nostalgia to float a battleship. (You can read my original review of the film here).

Blast from the past: Linklater waxes nostalgic

There is nothing 'rose-tinted' about Jeremy Saulnier's brutal horror/thriller Green Room (out now on DVD, Blu-ray and VOD) WW½, in which a US rock band – The Ain't Rights – finish up an unsuccessful tour with a gig at a backwoods club whose clientele Dead Kennedys once wrote a song about - 'Nazi Punks Fuck Off'. 

The group – which includes Arrested Development's Alia Shawcat and the late Anton Yelchin – stumble in on a murder scene and the rest of the film sees them desperately trying to escape before the club's nasty-bastard owner (Patrick Stewart, clearly relishing a turn for the villainous) and his mob of sieg-heilers can silence them. It's tense, intermittently thrilling, and vicious enough to make you flinch, but somehow feels a bit lightweight and straightforward when set against the perceptive exploration of revenge the director offered in Blue Ruin, his far better previous film.

Chronic (from Monday, Amazon Prime Video) WWW sees Tim Roth consign the likes of United Passions and Grace Of Monaco to the dustbin of history as he turns in his finest performance for many years. In Michel Franco's powerful but off-kilter character study, the Reservoir Dogs actor plays a palliative care nurse working with patients in Los Angeles. He's an odd, and clearly disturbed man, who gets altogether too close to those he looks after, whilst struggling to forge meaningful relationships in his personal life. It's this dislocation that Roth and writer/director Franco are keen to poke about in and they do so very effectively.
Gérard Depardieu is another veteran actor who has enjoyed something of a renaissance in recent times and he is simply immense (in so many ways!) in Welcome To New York (from Wednesday, 22:05, Sky Cinema Premiere) WWWW. Depardieu plays Devereaux, a thinly-disguised version of disgraced former head of the IMF, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, in what is a horrible, unflinching, forensic examination of a powerful sociopath whose every act is steeped in misogyny and selfishness. Abel Ferrera's underrated movie is hard going at times but well worth sticking with.

A monster calls: Depardieu in Welcome To New York

The Big Short (from Friday, Netflix UK) WWW also has the behaviour of the one per cent firmly in its sights. Adam McKay's dramedy is a breathlessly entertaining dissection of 2008's global financial meltdown, seen through the eyes of the men who knew it was coming and got filthy rich as a result. Steve Carell, Christian Bale, Brad Pitt and Ryan Gosling are all great and McKay must be applauded for the inventive, fun ways in which he explains some pretty tricky concepts. Smug? A bit. Smart? Most definitely.

Wading into the pit of vipers that was the Iraq War rarely ends well for American filmmakers and so it proves for director Kathryn Bigelow in The Hurt Locker (Sunday, 23:05, Channel 4) WW. Jeremy Renner is Sergeant First Class William James, a member of an elite bomb disposal unit based in Baghdad after the US invasion. And guess what? Yes, he's a bit of a maverick, happy to put himself and his comrades at risk as he goes into battle against IEDs, snipers and other evil Johnny Foreigner tricks designed to drive him and his brave comrades out of the country.

Clichés abound but there is still much to admire here: the 'man v bomb' scenes are powerfully shot and every bit as intense as you'd hope, while Bigelow's decision to eschew going big on plot to focus on these men's extraordinary day-to-day lives pays dividends. James and Co are, quite literally, one mistake away from being blown to pieces and Bigelow sells that fear-cum-thrill with real aplomb. It served her well, as The Hurt Locker won six Oscars and she became the first woman to emerge victorious in the Best Director category.

Unfortunately, the film really comes a cropper in its treatment of the Iraqi people themselves. Almost to a man, they are depicted as little more than terrorists, idiots or aliens in their own country. Gee willikers, don't these ungrateful wretches appreciate the freedom Uncle Sam has handed them, even though Saddam Hussein had no weapons of mass destruction and sod all to do with 9/11? Invasion of a sovereign nation without proper UN authorisation, you say? Shut up and accept your 'liberation' or you'll end up in Abu Ghraib.

Blow-up: Stakes are high in The Hurt Locker

Bigelow apologists might argue the Iraqis are being depicted precisely as they appear to the US soldiers themselves and there is certainly evidence for such a view contained within the film. However, when you characterise victims as little more than bystanders or aggressors in what should be THEIR OWN STORY you are doing them  not to mention reality and history  a huge disservice. 

As Frankie Boyle had it, "Not only will America go into your country and kill all your people. But what's worse, I think, is they'll come back and make a movie about how killing your people made their soldiers feel sad." That's The Hurt Locker all over, I'm afraid.

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

Thursday, 15 September 2016

Review: Not even Jake Gyllenhaal can paper over the cracks in Demolition

Falling down: Gyllenhaal has done far better films than Demolition

Demolition (2015)
Director: Jean-Marc Vallée
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Naomi Watts, Judah Lewis
Running time: 101mins

Jean-Marc Vallée's follow-up to Wild is a companion piece of sorts. The earlier film saw Reece Witherspoon desperately trying to find herself after a family tragedy sent her spinning off the rails. Demolition sees Jake Gyllenhaal desperately trying to find himself after a family tragedy sends him spinning... you get the picture.

Thing is, while Wild was gutsy and raw (helped enormously by a bravura turn from Witherspoon), Demolition is quirky and contrived. We understand that Gyllenhaal's dull investment banker, Davis, is left numb after the death of his wife in a car accident but a character wandering through the rest of the film in a daze of stunned silence and existential crisis is not exactly the stuff of box-office success or awards-season nods. 

Instead, we get Gyllenhaal – playing a grieving widower for the second time recently following the dreadful Southpaw – engaging in several different flavours of quirkiness. He totally dismantles various objects, including his entire house and contents (he needs to destroy his old life so he can build a new one, you see), dances like no one's watching in a crowded street to the tunes on an iPod and, most importantly to our plot, writes endless letters of complaint to the vending machine company whose faulty appliance swallowed his change at the hospital just after his wife passed away. It's through this latter contrivance he meets Naomi Watts's customer service rep who, as is the way with such things, is touched by his story and, despite already being in a relationship, offers him friendship and ultimately salvation. 

Despite my reservations, Demolition isn't bad – it just isn't nearly as good as either the under-appreciated Wild or Vallée's best-known film, Dallas Buyers Club. Gyllenhaal and Watts turn in perfectly solid displays but have both been better in vastly superior films, the former as recently as 2014's Nightcrawler, the latter in the likes of While We're Young and Eastern Promises (although her last truly great role was well over a decade ago in Mulholland Drive). In fact, the film is stolen from under the noses of its stars by young Judah Lewis, who plays Watts' gay 15-year-old son. The teen's struggle with, and ultimate acceptance of, his sexuality is one of the few elements that rings true in the entire movie. Rating: WW

Demolition is available now on VOD

Pure mourning: Gyllenhaal plays a grieving husband... again

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

Monday, 12 September 2016

Don't Breathe, Embrace Of The Serpent and The Measure Of A Man: Your Week In Film (September 12-18)

Breathless: Fede Alvarez cranks up the tension in Don't Breathe

Films worth checking out at home and in cinemas over the next seven days...

Stéphane Brizé's incredibly powerful
 The Measure Of A Man (DVD) WWWW didn't receive anything like the attention it deserved on its UK cinema release back in June. The film uses France's economic downturn to explore the effects of austerity on the male psyche; specifically how it can emasculate, humiliate and ultimately dehumanise even the most resolute. 

Veteran French actor Vincent Lindon (who I last saw a couple of years ago in Claire Denis's excellent Bastards) is Thierry Taugourdeau, a former factory worker struggling to keep his family's head above water after two years of unemployment. But even when he finally lands a job as a security guard at a supermarket, he struggles with the compromises his new position forces him to make. 

Comparisons to the Dardenne Brothers' Two Days, One Night and, I suspect, Ken Loach's forthcoming I, Daniel Blake are inevitable as all three films explore the human cost of the financial crisis. Lindon is quite brilliant here (he deservedly won the Best Actor award at last year's Cannes) and the whole enterprise is shot through with both authenticity and anger.

Measuring up: Vincent Lindon is down on his luck

Embrace Of The Serpent (DVD, Blu-ray and VOD) WWWW is a foreign language picture of a somewhat different stripe. Colombian director Ciro Guerra's film is a hard sell  it's subtitled, black and white and contains two separate but linked story strands that run alongside each other. But please don't let any of that put you off. It chronicles the relationship (sometimes friendly, sometimes not) between a shaman, Karamakate, and two European scientists  40 years apart  as they descend into the Amazon's heart of darkness searching for a mythical plant with great healing properties. 

Big themes, rich cinematography and moments both disturbing and thrilling make for an intoxicating brew indeed. It's been compared to Herzog and Coppola, but I'm not sure I've ever seen anything quite like it. You'll start off intrigued and end up fully mesmerised.

Amazon prime: Ciro Guerra's film is worth embracing

Half an hour into Don't Breathe (cinemas) WWW, I'd decided it was going to be one of those modern horror films with an intriguing premise and a couple of decent jump-out-of-your-skin moments but little else to write home about. Then director Fede Alvarez delivered a nasty little surprise which elevated the whole thing and at no point did it look back thereafter. 

Rocky (Jane Levy), Money (Daniel Zovatto) and Alex (Dylan Minnette) are three unlikeable young Detroit criminals who burgle the homes of people for whom the latter's oblivious father is supposed to provide security. Receiving a tip-off from an underworld acquaintance about a Gulf War veteran (Stephen Lang), who lives alone with $300,000 on the premises, they decide to pull off one last job before legging it to California. It's a big mistake because, while their intended victim may be totally blind, he is also strong, ruthless and, following the death of his daughter in a car accident, quite mad.

I really didn't care for Alvarez's entirely unnecessary Evil Dead remake but this is substantially better as the director keeps the tension bubbling, slathering on a whole variety of twists, turns and fake-outs for good measure. 
It helps enormously that Lang's The Blind Man – despite having few lines – is such an impactful character, his relentlessness, viciousness and sheer physicality imbuing him with a touch of the supernatural that makes a sequel featuring more of his backstory inevitable.

Blind fury: Stephen Lang terrifies in Don't Breathe

Since Sky Movies rebranded as Sky Cinema, it has really made an effort to broaden the range of films it shows on its main channel. The fact something as eccentric and 'difficult' as Rams (from Wednesday, 22:00, Sky Cinema Premiere) WWW is given house room is proof positive of that. Grímur Hákonarson's film is an Icelandic oddity, concerning two elderly and long-estranged brothers forced to put aside their differences when disease threatens their livelihoods as sheep farmers. At times bleakly funny, at others just plain bleak, this is a tragicomic character study that invites you to root for its sibling protagonists however unreasonable and cantankerous their behaviour. Ultimately, it's also rather touching. 

Less obtuse but only slightly is Welcome To Me WWW½ (from Sunday,10:55 and 20:00, Sky Cinema Premiere), which features an outstanding turn from Kristen Wiig (Ghostbusters) as a bipolar woman who scoops $86million in the lottery and uses the cash to buy her own (bizarre) talk show. It's surreal, sad, funny and human but most importantly refuses to patronise or infantilise its protagonist.

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