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Sunday, 26 February 2017

Prevenge: Alice Lowe's directorial debut is a blood-soaked, laugh-packed delight

Lowe on a high: Alice's directorial debut is a cut above

Please note: Review contains mild spoilers

Director: Alice Lowe
Starring: Alice Lowe, Jo Hartley, Kayvan Novak
Running time: 88 minutes

The world needs another revenge movie like it needs a head-on collision with an asteroid, and another slasher flick even less so. But if Prevenge doesn't sound particularly promising on paper, in reality it soars.

Writer/director/star Alice Lowe famously completed the screenplay in a fortnight and shot the film in 11 days spread over three weeks, all whilst seven months pregnant. She plays Ruth, a mother-to-be whose partner has been killed in a climbing accident. Now, big kitchen knife in hand, she's out to get even with all those she blames for his demise. Or, rather, Ruth may be doing the actual murders but it's the inhabitant of her womb who is pulling the strings - urging on his/her mother in a scary little alien voice, only we and Ruth can hear, to take bigger risks and commit ever-more violent acts.

Lowe has been an increasingly essential presence in British comedy for the last dozen or so years - whether it's TV work such as Garth Merenghi's Dark Place and Horrible Histories, or movies such as Sightseers (which she co-wrote) and the underrated Black Mountain Poets. She has a perfect comedy face - eyes that go from sorrowful to psycho in a flash, a downturned mouth that encapsulates a certain British discontent, and a magnificent chin. It's all topped off by that West Midlands burr - an accent that is pretty much comic gold all on its own (it's okay for me to say that, I was born just down the road from Lowe's hometown, Coventry). Prevenge, though, is the point at which she goes from cultish character actor and gifted screenwriter to a genuine player. Expect her now to be linked with all manner of dreadful Hollywood horror sequel but I suspect - and hope - she'll continue to do her own thing.

Over the last few years, the horror/comedy bar has been lifted again and again by movies like What We Do In The Shadows and Tucker And Dale vs Evil, plus TV shows such as the BBC's Inside No.9 and Netflix's recent Santa Clarita Diet. The days of Lesbian Vampire Killers and half-arsed Fright Night remakes, starring former Doctor Whos, are mercifully long gone. What those behind the good stuff understand - and Lowe gets spot-on - is that genuine horror (guts, gore, suspense, chills, and atmosphere) has to be as high in the mix as the gags and the slapstick. Having a killer electronic soundtrack helps, and Prevenge comes packing one of those, too.

Child's play: Ruth's unborn baby urges her to kill

Initially, the killings are played for laughs as our up-the-duff slasher goes about her bloody work. These include the slaughter of a sleazy seller of exotic animals, a flint-hearted office manager, and a cocksure, middle-aged DJ - Disco Dan - who lives with his mum. Even during these seemingly knockabout moments, though, it's obvious the film's style and tone are informed as much by Dario Argento and John Carpenter as they are by good, old-fashioned British character comedy. The latter scene set in Disco Dan's flat is one of the strongest in the film, not just because it's very funny, but because it's also shocking, bloody and graphic (Ruth doesn't hang about when it's time to get stabby). More than that, Lowe even manages to show us a gentler side of her protagonist here, as she not only helps her victim's dementia-afflicted mother back to bed but puts her washing on, too. We like Ruth, even sympathise with her... apart from all the killings and that.

Lowe's script is satisfyingly economical (at 88 minutes, so is the film). She doesn't waste a word nor any of our time spelling out plot points that are obvious if you just think about them for a second. Better yet, the jokes (and there are many) are never over-egged and her characters are all fully formed (albeit short-lived). The ensemble Lowe has gathered about her contribute enormously and are practically a who's who of under-appreciated British acting talent, including Kate Dickie (The Witch), Kayvan Novak (Fonejacker), Tom Davis (Murder In Successville), Jo Hartley (David Brent: Life On The Road), and Dan Renton Skinner (aka Angelos Epithemiou). All of them have that 'haven't I seen you before somewhere?' quality and more than make the most of their limited screen time.

Scream queen: Alice Lowe writes, directs and stars in Prevenge

As the film proceeds, Ruth becomes increasingly ill at ease with what she is being bidden to do by the tiny sociopath in her womb, especially when one intended victim is actually kind to her. You also start to get the distinct impression that not all is as it seems, and wonder what significance the old black and white film to which she keeps returning - 1934's Crime Without Passion - might have (quite a bit, is the answer). Slowly but surely, Lowe is setting up what becomes Prevenge's masterstroke: an expertly executed thematic switch towards the end. What begins as a loud, lairy and gloriously unsubtle exploration of an expectant mother's fear that her body is no longer her own, actually ends up as more a meditation on the corrosive nature of grief and betrayal. Amidst the murder and mayhem, Prevenge is quite poignant.

Lowe's film is impressive for its restraint. There must have been a temptation to up the amount of story content - maybe add a subplot in which the police, or a crime reporter, are hot on Ruth's trail, leading to a big climactic confrontation. But Prevenge clearly isn't intended to be that movie - if anything, it's a character study of a woman teetering on the edge of mental and emotional oblivion and its simplicity is the key to its success in many ways.

It's towards her movie's climax that Lowe starts to show off a visual flair, and really grow into her role as director. Ruth dresses up as a hellish geisha to attend a Halloween fancy-dress party and walks across the city (Prevenge was filmed in Cardiff) to her destination, encountering other costumed horrors along the way. Shot mostly from her, first-person, perspective, it has a dream-like quality, as if Ruth is having an out-of-body experience and has finally had all control of her actions wrested away. The blurry, impressionistic, whirl of out-of-focus street lights, drunken revellers and foreboding tower blocks brings a distinctly Carpenter-esque unease to proceedings. (Her nod, in an earlier scene, to Andrzej Zulawski's utterly bonkers Possession is further proof that she clearly knows her onions when it comes to disquieting movies likely to bring you out in a cold sweat).

Pregnancy is a theme that continues to loom large in the horror movie genre (recent examples including Grace, Devil's Due, Delivery, Proxy, and Inside), but Prevenge brings something a little different to the table - not just black comedy and a penis-lopping scene, but a bit of proper emotional heft, too. Appreciate and cherish Alice Lowe while you still can because, chances are, it's only a matter of time before Hollywood comes calling with an offer to write and direct Paranormal Activity 14: Even More Ghosts 'n' Shit.

Rating: WWW½

Prevenge is in UK cinemas now and released on DVD/Blu-ray on 5 June. In the US, it will be available on the Shudder horror streaming service from 24 March

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Monday, 20 February 2017

Free State Of Jones, Tanna, and American Honey: Your Week In Film (February 20-26)

Break Free: Matthew McConaughey is Civil War deserter Newt Knight

Movie picks for the next seven days on TV, DVD, Blu-ray, VOD, and in cinemas...

Why did Free State Of Jones (DVD, Blu-ray and VOD) WWW bomb at the box office and get nary a look-in during awards season? Well, for a start, it carries the undeniable whiff of Oscar bait and, at two hours 19 minutes, goes on a bit. But I suspect the main reason for its failure lies elsewhere. Maybe following 2016's #oscarssowhite controversy there was little appetite for a film about the Civil War and slavery with a white lead. Now, while that's certainly a sentiment I understand, it's also a shame because Free State is, more often than not, powerful, worthwhile stuff.

Based on a true story, Gary Ross's film sees disillusioned Confederate army deserter Newt Knight (Matthew McConaughey) flee to Mississippi, where he hides out in a swamp with fellow deserters and runaway slaves. It isn't long before he's organising this raggle-taggle band into an effective fighting unit and inspiring an uprising against the corrupt local Confederate government. Told over several decades, Free State is perhaps at its best during an uplifting but heart-breaking final third in which Ross explores slavery's corrosive legacy; the continued rise of the Ku Klux Klan and how plantation owners could bend the law to keep African-Americans under their control (something also recently put under the microscope in Ava DuVernay's bravura documentary, 13th).

The problem is that despite the film's subject matter, McConaughey is front and centre at all times, while black actors such as Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Belle) and Mahershala Ali (Moonlight) are relegated to the sidelines a little too much. As has surely become apparent since the 'McConaissance' started in earnest, you don't cast the Dallas Buyers Club actor in your movie if you intend to allow anyone else to get a word in edgeways. And so it goes here. Still, Free State's heart is clearly in the right place, even if its execution is imperfect.

The State we're in: More than just another Civil War drama

Surprisingly nominated for a Best Foreign Language Oscar over the likes of Elle and Julieta, Tanna (in cinemas and on Curzon Home Cinema) WWW is set on the eponymous South Pacific island and depicts the true story of a young couple who defied the strict 'arranged marriage' traditions of their tribe and planned to wed for love. It's a Romeo And Juliet affair shot entirely on location, but what makes Aussie duo Martin Butler and Bentley Dean's film interesting is that all the actors are from the tribal village itself. Not only had none of them acted before but, until their contact with Butler and Dean, they'd never seen a film either.

As it turns out, the tribespeople are absolute naturals, especially young Marceline Rofit, who plays Selin, the sister of bride-to-be Wawa (Marie Wawa). A loveable scamp, the camera clearly adores her and, given half a chance, I suspect Hollywood casting agents would be queued up outside her door.

Tanna is smartly told, compelling and possessed of charm in abundance, while the island's sumptuous fauna (including an active volcano) offers Dean the opportunity to really flex his muscles as a cinematographer. In truth, though, it lacked a bit of emotional heft and, at times, felt like the characters were playing second fiddle to the demands of the plot rather too much.

Treasure island: Tanna boasts sumptuous visuals

Despite being a fan of writer/director Andrea Arnold (Fish Tank, Red Road), American Honey (DVD, Blu-ray, and VOD) WW½ left me a little cold on the big screen. A sprawling, interminable road movie, filmed in the old-fashioned square academy format, it sees down-on-her-luck Star (newcomer Sasha Lane) abandoning her old life to set off across the American Midwest in a van with Shia LaBeouf and his gang. Are they an out-of-control rock band on tour? A criminal gang plotting a big score? No, they're off to sell magazine subscriptions door-to-door, silly!

Apart from its punishing length (just 17 minutes shy of three hours), my biggest bugbear is that pretty much everyone in American Honey 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. It does, however, have something interesting to say about America's directionless youth and boasts a very fine soundtrack (Rihanna, Mazzy Star and a bunch of great hip-hop), while Riley Keough is superb as Krystal, the gang's flint-hearted boss. Maybe I'll warm to it on a second viewing...

Taste of Honey: Sasha Lane impresses as Star

Since Sky Movies rebranded as Sky Cinema last year, there has been a definite uptick in the number of interesting, under-the-radar movies showcased on its various channels. This week is very much a case in point. The Goob (from today, 10pm, Sky Cinema/NOW TV) WW½ is a gloomy coming-of-age drama set in the Norfolk Fens. It focuses on the titular Goob (Liam Walpole), a teenage boy struggling to come to terms with not only impending adulthood but also the behaviour of his step-dad, a deeply unpleasant bully played to evil-eyed perfection by Sean Harris. Writer/director Guy Myhill conjures a potent but dispiriting vision of what it is to be young and trapped by poverty and circumstance.

If you're looking for something a little more peculiar, there's Men & Chicken (from Wednesday, 9.50pm, Sky Cinema/NOW TV) WWW, a Danish black comedy which stars Mads Mikkelsen and David Dencik as brothers who, following their father's death, seek out and attempt to connect with the family they never knew they had. Bizarre, hilarious and disturbing in equal measure, it's Monty Python meets The Island Of Doctor Moreau. Just as bonkers is bizarro comic-horror The Greasy Strangler (from Thursday, 10pm, Sky Cinema/NOW TV) WWW. Chock-a-block with catchphrases ("Bullshit artist!") and lines of dialogue you can imagine boozy students bellowing at midnight screenings, Jim Hosking's film - an unholy marriage between Troma and Harmony Korine - clearly fancies itself a future cult classic. This story of a serial killer who is, quite literally, covered head to toe in a thick layer of grease, 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. 

Grease monkeys: No one is safe from the strangler (NSFW)

Finally, don't forget that Sunday night is the Oscars or, if we're being formal, The 89th Annual Academy Awards. Sky have a dedicated channel for the event (Sky Cinema Oscars) with coverage from 11.10pm (the ceremony itself commences at around 01.30am on Monday morning). Will I be staying awake for it? Hell, no, but I'll be dreaming of acting gongs for Isabelle Huppert and Casey Affleck all the same...

What I shall be watching this week: Looking forward to seeing Jeff Nichols' Loving (Blu-ray), and I may well drag myself out for John Wick: Chapter 2 at the cinema.

I keep forgetting to mention that this blog has its own page on Facebook. For extra content of varying quality, be sure to visit us here:

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Monday, 13 February 2017

Blood Father, I, Daniel Blake, and Thumbsucker: Your week in film (February 13-19)

Father, dear father: Mad Mel's back and in the thick of the action

Movie picks for the next seven days on DVD, Blu-ray and VOD...

Say what you like about Mel Gibson (and I certainly have) but, on his day, he is a fine director and charismatic screen presence. The man who was Mad Max needs all of that latter quality in Blood Father (DVD, Blu-ray, and VOD) WW, an underwhelming action thriller in which he plays John Link, a recovering alcoholic and former jail bird who only wants two things in life: to find his missing teenage daughter and to stay out of trouble. Unfortunately, he can't have one without stepping into a whole heap of the other.

Director Jean-François Richet (Mesrine) offers only the most perfunctory of set-ups before we're plunged headlong into a succession of shoot-outs, punch-ups and vehicular chases. It turns out Link's offspring Lydia (Erin Moriarty) has fallen in with a very bad crowd, headed up by her drug-cartel-connected boyfriend, Jonah (Diego Luna). Addicted to cocaine and on the run from Jonah's gun-toting goons after a shooting incident, long-lost Lydia has but one place left to turn - her old man.

Having spent all those years as a no-nonsense badass in the Mad Max and Lethal Weapon franchises, I suppose it's only natural Gibson, at 61, might want a slice of Liam Neeson's 'Dadsploitation' action. Link is so grizzled he makes Grizzly Adams look like Prince George, but Gibson imbues him with depth. A world-weary pall of regret hangs over the ex-con and the movie's best moment comes early on with Link attending a meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous. "I did a lot of damage, lost a lot of people along the way," he tells his fellow addicts. "I can't fix everything I broke...  all I can do is not drink, so I won't do that today." The parallels with Gibson's real-life battles with alcohol are all too clear and deliberate.

When father and daughter are reunited, it looks we're going to be in for a fun ride. Link is a reluctant hero at first, desperate not to violate his parole conditions even as he takes up arms to defend Lydia. Unfortunately, Richet goes for brevity over heft (Blood Father is under 90 minutes in length) and so opportunities to develop the pair's relationship are squandered. We see glimpses of Link and Lydia's contrasting world views but these are never fully explored, while Link's former wife/Lydia's mum is never more than a disembodied voice on a mobile phone.

Bad dad: Mel Gibson is John Wick, er, Link

Dealing with violence of a rather more subtle kind is I, Daniel Blake (digital download) WWW½. Veteran socialist director Ken Loach's film isn't out on DVD and Blu-ray until 27 February but, after it won the Best British Film award at last night's BAFTAs ceremony, you may be keen to check it out a bit earlier. 

Last year's Palme d'Or winner at Cannes dissects the UK government's war on the vulnerable in an impassioned and unapologetic polemic. After suffering a heart attack, Dave Johns (as Blake) feels the full force of state bureaucracy and 'benefit sanctions', as he attempts to claim enough money to live on, while being bullied and frustrated by a parade of jobsworths. The scene set in a food bank, in which a penniless and starving young mum (the excellent Hayley Squires) eats cold baked beans straight from the tin, is as powerful as it is upsetting.

Rise people, rise: Ken Loach's I, Daniel Blake

Mike Mills' 20th Century Women, starring Annette Bening and Greta Gerwig, is in cinemas now but online subscription service MUBI have recently added the Californian writer/director's 2005 debut feature to their catalogue. Quirky coming-of-age dramas are 10-a-penny, but Thumbsucker WWW captures the confusion and terror of being a teenager better than most.

Justin Cobb (Lou Pucci) is a typical 17-year-old boy; a bit unfocussed, drifting through school, struggling to fit in or find a girlfriend. Much to the horror of his parents (Vincent D'Onofrio and Tilda Swinton) and dentist (Keanu Reeves), he also sucks his thumb. Eventually diagnosed with ADD and prescribed medication, Justin is transformed into a model student and captain of the school debating team. He is no longer truly himself.

Mills' film boasts a fine cast (which also includes Benjamin Bratt and Vince Vaughn) and some smart, subtle writing with a hopeful message: if you just leave your kids alone and trust them to find their own path, they'll mostly be all right.

Under the thumb: Growing pains for teenager Justin

Kirsten Johnson has been working as a documentary cinematographer for 25 years and Cameraperson (DVD) WWW½ offers a glimpse into both her craft and life. Presented as a lengthy roll of clips and outtakes from the films she has worked on (everything from Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 911 to documentaries about boxing, Nigerian midwifery, and life in post-war Bosnia), they initially lack context, let alone subtext. But as the film continues you start to see links between the material - the humanity, the horror and the hope we all share. Johnson even turns the camera on her own family to document her beloved mum's deterioration and death from Alzheimer's. A compelling and inventive memoir.

What I shall be watching this week: I've been a fan of Alice Lowe since Garth Merenghi's Dark Place so can't wait to see her directorial debut, Prevenge.

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Saturday, 11 February 2017

Reviews: De Palma, The Handmaiden, Hacksaw Ridge, Jackie, and Denial

Coke is it: Al Pacino in Brian De Palma's Scarface

Time for a reviews catch-up - here are my thoughts on the last five movies I've seen (in order of preference). Please note, my reviews may contain the odd spoiler...

1. De Palma (2015)
Directors: Jake Paltrow and Noah Baumbach
Controversial director Brian De Palma takes us on a fascinating but breathless rummage through his life and career, explaining how he went from being a New Jersey "science nerd" as a kid, to shooting Pacino in Scarface and Cruise in Mission: Impossible. Bambauch and Paltrow keep it simple, training their camera on the director himself and leaving it there. Their questions and interjections are edited out, and there are no other talking heads to provide further context or even an opposing view. It's just straight-no-chaser De Palma - maverick, provocateur, supreme technician - and a ton of clips from pretty much everything he's made over the last 50+ years. Luckily, the 76-year-old is hugely articulate and utterly candid about his successes (The Untouchables) and failures (The Bonfire Of The Vanities). He's also full of great stories about his stars, collaborators, working process and lifelong passion for Hitchcock. It would have been good to see him challenged about the lurid, exploitative content of some of his films (Dressed To Kill, Body Double), but this is more a celebration of an extraordinary career than an attempt to put him on trial for the perceived shortcomings of his sexual politics. I'm not sure old-school fans of the director will learn anything new but, as an introduction to his work, it's hard to see how it could be topped. Rating: WWW½

Director's cut: De Palma under the microscope

2. The Handmaiden (2016)
Director: Park Chan-wook
Sumptuous adaptation of Sarah Waters' 2002 novel, The Fingersmith, which relocates the action from Victorian England to 1930s, Japanese-occupied Korea. A young pickpocket, Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri), is sent to serve as a maid for Lady Izumi Hideko (Kim Min-hee), a Japanese heiress betrothed to her repulsive uncle (played with villainous gusto by Cho Jin-woong). Sook-hee's employment is part of a criminal scheme set in motion by a conman, calling himself Count Fujiwara
(Ha Jung-woo). He plans to seduce Hideko, before having her committed to a mental asylum and pocketing her inheritance. Just one fly in the ointment: the two women fall in love. Like Fujiwara's plot, The Handmaiden is all about deception - during the film's three separate chapters, it time and again picks the pocket of your expectations. Park deliberately withholds information and skews perspectives, making for a discombobulating ride that keeps you on your toes every step of the way. There's a reason Waters' book has been adapted so often (a TV adaptation, stage play and this film since publication) and that's simply because her story is such a giddily entertaining - and sensuously erotic - romp, with much to say about patriarchy and female sexuality. Its romantic central message - that love always finds a way - may be corny and as old as the hills but its rarely been articulated as fulsomely or perfectly as it is here. Rating: WWW½

The con is on: Park Chan-wook's The Handmaiden 

3. Hacksaw Ridge (2016)
Director: Mel Gibson
Cinemagoers are surely so used to every 'true story' adapted for film being described as 'extraordinary' or 'astonishing', that we've become desensitised to it. But forget all those tales of soulless entrepreneurs and above-average sports people, this is the real deal. Andrew Garfield is Desmond Doss, a World War II medic and staunch pacifist, who went into the hell of battle completely unarmed. Up against guns, bayonets, knives, grenades and lord knows what else, he didn't have so much as a pointed stick with which to defend himself or his comrades. It's very much a film of two halves; the first sees Doss struggling to rein in his violent, alcoholic dad (Hugo Weaving), wooing a local nurse (Teresa Palmer) and fighting the US military brass for the right to serve; the second pitches him right into Okinawa's heart of darkness, a hell of mud, blood, explosions and mangled limbs. Of course, it is in this latter scenario that he truly comes into his own. Gibson does too because few can do jaw-dropping, stomach-churning violence quite like he can, while Garfield - a reserved study in stoicism, decency and profound bravery - turns in his finest screen performance to date. Yes, it's all a bit 'Oscar-baity' and the film's depiction of the Japanese (frothing lunatics to a man) is problematic to say the least, but this is often a more complex film than it is given credit for, with Gibson keen to highlight the problems with Doss's moral stance as much as his extraordinary acts of courage. Rating: WWW

War and peace: The amazing story of Desmond Doss

4. Denial (2016)
Director: Mick Jackson
Powerful dramatisation of the late-'90s libel action - and subsequent trial - brought by Hitler historian David Irving (Timothy Spall) against Professor Deborah Lipstadt (Rachel Weisz), the author who accused him of falsifying evidence to support his claims the Holocaust never happened. David Hare's screenplay is, out of necessity, a little on the nose at times (legal jargon and processes are integral to the plot) and there was one clumsy moment that actually made me cringe. But, for the most part, this is a very smart piece of work that finds intriguing conflicts between Lipstadt - a fiery, tough-talking American, who just wants the chance to take the stand and get stuck into Irving - and her cool-headed UK legal team (led by Tom Wilkinson and Andrew Scott), who plot a rather different and more sober course. There's a sequence filmed at Auschwitz that will chill your blood and, while Spall doesn't look much like Irving, he captures his hubris and arrogance to a T. At a time when the providence of truth is under assault in the Western world, this is a timely and perhaps even crucial film. Rating: WWW

Truth be told: Rachel Weisz as Deborah Lipstadt

5. Jackie (2016)
Director: Pablo Larrain
Natalie Portman is First Lady Jackie Beauvoir Kennedy in the days immediately following the assassination of her husband and US president, JFK. Chilean filmmaker Larrain (The Club) brings a real arthouse sensibility to a movie that in other hands (Steven Spielberg or  Ron Howard, perhaps) would have been a big dramatic potboiler. But the results are somewhat mixed. Technically, it's perfect and beautifully structured, with all manner of flashbacks inserted seamlessly and imaginatively into a framing device, which sees Jackie being interviewed by a reporter just a week after her husband's murder. It's gorgeously shot, too, and a couple of times I wanted to reach out, grab what was on screen, and put it in a frame. Somehow, though, for all its technical elan, Jackie lacks a soul. Portman gives us a note-perfect impersonation of the iconic First Lady but you never quite shake the knowledge she's putting on a rather mannered, over-rehearsed show. In fact, with its elegiac tone and Mica Levi's discordant score, this is a cold, somewhat distancing film, that should pack far more of an emotional punch than it does. Rating: WW½

Line of fire: Jackie Kennedy struggles with grief

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Monday, 6 February 2017

The Lego Batman Movie, Miss Peregrine's Home For Peculiar Children, and The Girl On The Train: Your Week In Film (February 6-12)

Bat's entertainment: Everything is awesome (again)

Movie picks for the next seven days on DVD, Blu-ray, VOD, TV, and in cinemas...

I've always been of the opinion that it is impossible to take a man dressed as a bat entirely seriously, which might explain my long-standing resistance to Christopher Nolan's po-faced Dark Knight trilogy and my adoration, since the age of five, of the gloriously deranged '60s Batman TV show. A fellow prancing about as a winged rodent, and fighting criminals called The Penguin and Clayface, is not Dirty Harry, he's not Bruce Willis in Die Hard, or Mel Gibson in Lethal Weapon. He's the runner-up in a costume parade with delusions of grandeur and a screw loose.

The Lego Batman Movie (in cinemas from Friday) WWW½ not only understands the character's innate silliness but celebrates it too. Relentlessly, breathlessly, in eye-damagingly-bright primary colours, for 100 minutes. There have been recent attempts to resurrect the manic pop thrill - the sheer giddy sugar rush - of the old TV show, in comic-book form and an animated movie starring Adam West and Burt Ward, but this comes far closer to capturing its screwy, subversive spirit.

Batman (Will Arnett) decides to finally fix the Joker (Zach Galifianakis) for good... by stealing a device from Superman that will send his nemesis into the Phantom Zone, an extra-dimensional prison for the worst bad guys ever. But the Clown Prince of Crime escapes and returns to Earth with an army of villains in tow, including the Eye of Sauron (The Lord Of The Rings), Voldemort (Harry Potter), King Kong, and a battalion of strangely-familiar "British robots". Despite being an embittered loner who recoils from almost all human contact, Batman teams up with Robin (Michael Cera), new police commissioner Barbara Gordon (Rosario Dawson) and Alfred the butler (Ralph Fiennes) to stop the bad guys destroying Gotham City...

The one liners, in-jokes, beautifully-animated sight gags, songs, and all manner of other inventive lunacy come thick and fast. So thick and fast, in fact, that I had trouble processing it all. At times it felt like trying to keep up with an Olympic sprinter after a midnight feast of deep-pan pizza and Special Brew. And whilst this spin-off might not quite scale the same dizzy heights as the original Lego Movie (or contain a song quite as catchy as Everything Is Awesome), at least we're spared a boring, serious bit with Will Ferrell.

The Joke's on you: Batman battles his old adversary

And on the subject of Batman...

Pity poor Tim Burton. He's become one of those 'Yes, but...' directors. Long before he'd even turned 40, Burton had given the world Edward Scissorhands, Beetlejuice, Batman, Batman Returns, and Ed Wood. Since then, despite the odd return to form with the likes of Corpse Bride or Frankenweenie, his work hasn't been nearly so well received. In fact, every time he makes a new movie these days, some bright spark pops up to say, 'Yes, but it isn't as good as his early stuff'. Continuing that fine tradition is Miss Peregrine's Home For Peculiar Children (DVD, Blu-ray and VOD) WWW, a perfectly decent and entertaining adaptation of the Ransom Riggs books, but one unlikely to set pulses racing in quite the same way as anything he made in the late '80s or early '90s.

It's X-Men-like premise sees the perfectly-cast Eva Green (Miss Peregrine) sheltering a group of children with strange abilities ('peculiarities') in a mansion that exists outside of regular time and space. They are in hiding from Samuel L Jackson and his evil Hollows - invisible creatures with more than a passing resemblance to Slender Man. But the arrival of Jake (Asa Butterfield), a boy whose peculiarity enables him to see the monsters, puts everyone in danger...

Burton's in his element for the most part, his usual 'old English gothic' schtick a perfect fit for the look and feel of the characters and their surroundings. He produces a couple of imaginative set-pieces too, one a beautifully-realised sequence set in the wreck of an old ship at the bottom of the ocean (you can see part of it in the trailer below). It all gets a bit CGI-heavy towards the end, when the film shucks its earlier whimsy for something a bit grittier, as the Hollows turn up in force for a climactic showdown in, um, Blackpool. But it kept me hooked until the end, despite the inevitable 'Yes, buts...'

More hit than miss: Eva Green is perfectly cast

You wait months for a disappointing film with the word 'girl' in the title and then two come along at once. The Girl On The Train (DVD, Blu-ray and VOD) WW is a supposedly edgy thriller starring Emily Blunt as an alcoholic implicated in the murder of a young woman, after she sees something sinister during her daily commute to work. Blunt convinces as the emotionally-fragile 'girl' of the title while Tate Taylor's woozy direction brings a genuine sense of mystery to proceedings. Unfortunately, it never quite catches fire and only really grabbed my attention towards the end when a smart twist takes centre stage. Sad to say The Unknown Girl (DVD, Blu-ray and VOD) WW - the latest from celebrated Belgian filmmakers, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne (Two Days, One Night) - is little better. Adèle Haenel is Jenny Davin, a doctor investigating the suspicious death of a distressed African teenager she could have helped but didn't. Davin - a rather stand-offish individual with few friends -  isn't terribly sympathetic or even very interesting; in many ways as much of an 'unknown girl' as the woman she failed to help. I'm sure the politically-savvy Dardennes sought to shine a light on white guilt and how disconnected indigenous Europeans are from the lives of the immigrants they rub shoulders with every day. Alas, it all falls flat as we're never invited to see nor understand the life of the deceased woman whose story this should be.

Slow train: Never quite gets out of the station

Crivens and By Jingo, it's Stephen Fry and he's once again hosting back-slapping luvvie-fest The BAFTAS (BBC1, 9pm, Sunday). Amongst the numerous anti-Trump speeches and awards for La La Land, the academy might just get around to handing out gongs for Best Short Film and Best Animated Short. All eight of the British projects up for those particular awards are now available to watch on Curzon Home Cinema in one big hit of about an hour and a half. In the Short Film category, I particularly enjoyed Home WWW, Daniel Mulloy's clever, powerful take on Europe's refugee crisis, starring Jack O'Connell. While, animation-wise, I loved Jennifer Zheng's Tough WWW½, a gentle meditation on ethnic identity and cultural misunderstanding. All of the nominated projects have something to recommend them, whether it's good writing (Standby), imaginative storytelling (The Alan Dimension), or sheer ambition (Mouth Of Hell).

What I shall be watching this week: Park Chan-Wook's The Handmaiden (DVD) and Matthew McConaughey chewing the scenery for all its worth in Gold (cinema).

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

Friday, 3 February 2017

Manchester By The Sea: A bleak, blistering drama in which 'redemption' is a dirty word

Deep blue Sea: Michelle Williams and Casey Affleck

Please note: This review contains mild spoilers

Manchester By The Sea

Director: Kenneth Lonergan
Starring: Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams, Kyle Chandler
Running time: 2 hours 17 minutes

If true horror is being trapped forever in a loop of grief, guilt and self-loathing, then Manchester By The Sea is, by any measure, horrific. Writer/director Kenneth Lonergan's third film is excoriating stuff; it's emotionally draining to watch, it burrows under your skin and digs its fingers into your very soul. Great cinema has always been able to make you feel, but this makes you hurt.

Casey Affleck is Lee Chandler, called home from Boston, where he works as a janitor, to the titular US seaside town after the sudden, but hardly unexpected, death of his older brother, Joe (Kyle Chandler). Lee is a bitter, angry and unlikeable man but the reasons for his abject demeanour and awful behaviour aren't immediately apparent (they involve ex-wife Randy, played by Michelle Williams, and are eventually revealed in full heart-shattering detail). In something of a shock for Lee, Joe's will stipulates he be named guardian of his teenage nephew, Patrick (Lucas Hedges), and return home to Manchester full-time to take care of him. But Lee can barely look after himself, let alone a headstrong young man whose thoughts rarely stray beyond girls and ice hockey...

You can just imagine how this would play out in some hands. There'd be learning, hugs, redemption, forgiveness, and a final scene with everyone sat round a Thanksgiving dinner table. If you're expecting that, please don't. Manchester By The Sea doesn't do heart-warming and it certainly doesn't do redemption. Lee has no idea how to function in the real world, what's more he doesn't want to function there either. He has pretty much given up. His character barely develops, not because Lonergan's writing is poor, but because he has been dealt a blow from which he can not only never recover but doesn't feel he has the right to. The purity of his suffering is almost religious, like something out of Martin Scorsese's Silence.

What's interesting, though, is how Lonergan teases the kind of movie this could be, before deftly disappearing off in another direction altogether. In fact, he delights in confounding your expectations at every turn. The contents of Joe's will (a way of trying to yank Lee back to some kind of reality) and Patrick, the scrappy nephew with whom Lee banters and bickers, are, on the face of it, typical Hollywood fare. There's even an opening scene in which we see 'Paddy' as a young boy on a boat, fishing and joshing with his uncle (dad Joe almost unseen in the background in a portentous bit of foreshadowing). You fully expect Manchester to centre entirely on Patrick and Lee's blossoming relationship and how this surrogate dad and his surrogate son save each other. But it doesn't, it's a far more turbulent, far grittier film than that, in which easy solutions are as rare as rocking horse poop.

Get your bleak on: Manchester is a tough watch at times

Flashbacks are often a blunt instrument when it comes to cinematic storytelling. I can think of several recent films where the way in which they are utilised is beyond clumsy, as if Edward Scissorhands had had one too many crème de menthes and stumbled into the editing suite. No such concerns here; Lonergan grants the past and present equal heft and importance, and the flashbacks seamlessly and organically bleed into the main narrative, as Lee recollects memories both painful and joyous. And it is a flashback that provides the movie's crucial scene. The lengthy sequence in which we are shown what happened to upend our protagonist's life, and its terrible aftermath, is suitably agonising, the fact it's set to Albinoni's beautiful Adagio in G minor only making it all the more so. (A couple of critics, including The New Yorker's esteemed Anthony Lane, have suggested this piece of music is overused in cinema and, whilst I'm inclined to agree with him, it's hardly a deal breaker. Let's just say Lonergan makes rather better use of Adagio than The Inbetweeners 2 or Flashdance ever did.)

Astonishingly, the big set-piece isn't even Manchester By The Sea's most powerful moment. That comes later on when Lee bumps into Randy in the street and the two share a brief and utterly torturous conversation that is notable not only for what is said but for what is left unsaid. It is a tough watch as two people who have hurt each other dreadfully try and find the words to make it all right again. Of course, Lee is at a loss here too, this shambling shell of a man who died a long time ago but never got around to informing his body of the fact. You'd think that such an inert character would give Casey Affleck little to work with but he makes a feast from such unappetising scraps. The haunted look in his eyes, the sag of his shoulders, the palpable self-loathing he wears like a badge of dishonour tell you everything you need to know about what Lee feels and all that he has endured. It is a raw, deeply moving performance. Williams is only in the film for a short time but her presence looms large in virtually every scene. We see little of her own suffering but somehow imagining it is far worse.

Manchester is only Lonergan's third film as a director in 16 years and it is comfortably his best work. It has certain similarities with his debut, 2000's underrated You Can Count On Me, which saw a troubled Mark Ruffalo returning home to a small town to tap his older sister (Laura Linney) for money. He bonds with her son - his nephew - while the siblings grow closer than they have been in years. But, ultimately, he decides to move on. It's bitter sweet with rather more of the latter than you'll find here. At times, Lonergan's latest also reminded me of Pedro Almodovar's recent Julieta - that overwhelming pall of grief, of absence, is similar but even more discernible in this case. Both are about finding a way to carry on, even after life has thrown its absolute worst at you.

Home is where the hurt is: Patrick and Lee both battle demons

Although Manchester is a bleak film in many ways, Lonergan leavens its darkness with the odd scene of relatable humour and clumsily human interaction. There's a great bit in which Lee forgets where he's left his car and he and Patrick have to tromp through the snow-bound streets of Manchester looking for it, whilst shivering ever more violently in the cold; and an intense disagreement about Star Trek is hilariously incongruous in the immediate aftermath of Joe's death. Lee's complete refusal/inability to engage with people is even mined for laughs occasionally, including in an excruciating sequence when the mother of one of Patrick's girlfriends (he has two) tries to make small talk. Lee is like a rabbit frozen in headlights and Lonergan makes great play of contrasting that reaction with how utterly at ease Patrick is in the company of women.

Perhaps it's a bit overwrought, maybe Lonergan slathers on the symbolism a little heavy-handedly at times ("Oh look, it's bitingly cold, just like the aching void of grief at the centre of Lee's shattered heart"), but these are minor matters that in no way derail a film as visually beautiful as it is emotionally brutal. The notion that life itself is a force of nature just as untameable as the weather or the ocean is hardly original but it's one that is articulated with great humanity and considerable elegance by Lonergan. You can see how easy it would have been for it to become 'pity porn' but it never does - its characters, situations and refusal to do the easy, crowd-pleasing thing are far too convincingly 'real' for that.

Of course, there's a shadow that hangs over Manchester By The Sea or, more specifically, Affleck. He has been accused of various acts of sexual harassment and some have quite rightly questioned why he has been nominated for an Oscar. With the pussy-grabbing POTUS ensconced in the White House, I totally understand that seeing an alleged sexual predator picking up a Best Actor nom just adds insult to injury. The problem is, if you block Affleck, where do you stop with the exclusions? Hacksaw Ridge is up for six Oscars, including best director for Mel Gibson, the man who memorably proclaimed: "Fucking Jews... the Jews are responsible for all the wars in the world." Now, he said those words and there's no allegedly about it. If we're ditching Affleck for something he might have done, surely we have to ditch Gibson for something - anti-Semitic hate speech - he definitely did. And if not, why not? Where's the line? Is there a statute of limitations on appalling behaviour? I've no idea and sure as hell wouldn't even know where to begin working it out. Until someone squares that circle (and good luck to them), it was right to nominate Affleck for his superlative work here, however distasteful many might find it.

Rating: WWWW

Manchester By The Sea is in cinemas now (UK), and released on DVD and Blu-ray on 21 February (USA)

WWWW - Wonderful
WWW - Worthwhile
- Watchable
- Woeful

Monday, 30 January 2017

War On Everyone, Christine, and Toni Erdmann: Your Week In Film (January 30-February 5)

Maniac cops: Peña and Skarsgård in War On Everyone

My pick of this week's movie releases on DVD, Blu-ray, VOD, and in cinemas...

The elegantly titled War On Everyone (DVD, Blu-ray and VOD) WWW manages to have its cake and shoot it in the face too. It glories in the corrupt, nihilistic behaviour of two US cops whilst, underneath all the amusing violence and f-word riddled banter, subtly references (often in seemingly throw-away lines) real-life incidences of police brutality, such as the chokehold killing of Eric Garner. It's hardly subtle but its satirical intent is much appreciated and surprisingly smart.

Michael Peña (Ant Man) and Alexander Skarsgård (The Legend Of Tarzan) are the officers in question – Bob Bolaño and Terry Monroe (yep, Bob and Terry, just like in The Likely Lads). The former is a smartly-dressed, highly intelligent, family man, the latter a boozy yob with a thing for Glen Campbell, who walks like someone left the coat-hanger in his suit jacket. The mismatched pair (short/tall, Latino/white, clever/dumb) are both spectacularly corrupt and seem to have taken that Rust Cohle quote from True Detective - "The world needs bad men. We keep the other bad men from the door" - a little too literally.

A wafer-thin plot revolves around their efforts to relieve a criminal gang - including a smarmy but dangerous English lord (Theo James) - of a million bucks in ill-gotten gains. Writer/director John Michael McDonagh (Calvary and The Guard) clearly loves his old-school cop TV shows and movies, as the influences of Starsky & Hutch, Police Squad and Clint Eastwood loom large. Caleb Landry Jones as Russell, War On Everyone's most memorable baddie, looks like he's just stumbled off a 1970s movie set. He's a louche, viciously camp version of Andy Robinson's Zodiac Killer from Dirty Harry, and you expect him to burst into Row Row Row Your Boat at any moment.

The characters are cartoonish, the violence pure slapstick, with matters of plot and relationships only taking a turn for the darkly serious towards the end when McDonagh chucks in a revenge mission curveball. Peña and Skarsgård have engaging, knockabout chemistry but Tessa Thompson (Dear White People) is wasted (again) as Terry's love interest. In truth, it's probably McDonagh's weakest film but is huge fun despite that.

Law and disorder: Starsky & Hutch gone bad

Before making Split, five gets you 10 that M Night Shyamalan revisited Brian De Palma's Raising Cain (Dual format) WWW½ just as often as he did Psycho. A breathless Hitchcockian thriller from 1992, Cain stars the great John Lithgow as a child psychologist suffering from a multiple personality disorder, which has turned him into a serial killer. You forgive its startling insensitivity, clunky plot, and a supporting character who turns up purely to deliver great big chunks of expository dialogue, because its brilliantly made and utterly bonkers. Lithgow has the time of his life inhabiting different characters, his over-the-top performance bringing a dash of pitch-black comedy to perfectly complement De Palma's feverish direction.

Arrow Video has released a limited edition, extras-packed, three-disc version of the film that comes with both the theatrical version and a director's cut, plus a host of new interviews (including one with Lithgow). It's an excellent package and one that is also perfectly timed - the Noah Baumbach/Jake Paltrow documentary about the filmmaker - simply titled De Palma - is also out on DVD and VOD from today, although I am yet to see it.  

Splitting image: John Lithgow in Raising Cain

Taking a rather more sympathetic approach to mental illness is Christine (VOD and cinemas) WWW, based on the real-life story of Christine Chubbuck, the Floridian TV news reporter whose on-air suicide shocked America and the world in 1974. Rebecca Hall (The Gift) is excellent as the eponymous character, an attractive, talented young woman who is, nevertheless, desperately lonely, frustrated at work, and clearly uncomfortable in her own skin. Worse still, she has previously suffered some sort of breakdown that is never fully detailed here but which has left her fragile and vulnerable.

Antonio Campos's film recounts the final days of Chubbuck's life as she clashes with her cynical, under-pressure boss ("If it bleeds, it leads"), chases unlikely promotion to a bigger, better TV station, and accepts what appears to be a dinner date from suave station anchorman George (Michael C Hall). Campos has a keen eye for period detail and the hustle and bustle of a busy TV newsroom, while Craig Shilowich's screenplay meticulously but sympathetically lays out Chubbuck's increasingly erratic behaviour as she is assailed by disappointment from all sides. It's a film that pretty much oozes sadness and melancholy, and ends the only way it can.

She's Hall that: Rebecca plays Christine

The critically-adored, Oscar-nominated Toni Erdmann WWW finally hits UK cinemas on Friday (3 February). I didn't love Maren Ade's German comedy, about an eccentric father trying to save his icy daughter from a life of corporate drudge, when I caught it at the London Film Festival, but I'm nevertheless looking forward to seeing it again. At two hours, 42 minutes, it's at least half-an-hour too long but the leads (Peter Simonischek and Sandra Hüller) are both terrific and director Ade serves up a couple of cracking comic set-pieces. The film seems to be getting a decent-sized release (100+ screens) so don't be surprised if it pops up in a multiplex near you. 

The odd father: German comedy Toni Erdmann

What I shall be watching this week: The aforementioned documentary De Palma, plus Lion and Jackie at the cinema.

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