Young guns: Sand Castle is yet another film about the Iraq War
Home entertainment highs and lows for the coming seven days, with this week's focus firmly on Netflix UK. All films mentioned are available to stream now...
Does the word 'tramp' mean something very different in the US to here in the UK? I only ask because the two splendidly gorgeous young leads in indie dramedy Tramps (Netflix UK) WWW look nothing at all like the bearded, booze-swilling gentlemen of the road I fondly remember from my youth. In fact, if you're thinking of streaming Adam Leon's film in full expectation of spending 90 minutes in the company of barely coherent old geezers shouting obscenities at passers-by, while wrestling to keep up their trousers, then this probably isn't for you.
Instead, it sees wannabe chef Danny (Callum Turner) become embroiled in low-level illegality when his jailbird brother gets him wrapped up in a scheme involving the theft of a briefcase. Danny - a sweet kid unused to finding himself on the wrong side of the law - screws up the plan and loses the case. Turning to standoffish getaway driver Ellie (Grace Van Patten) for help, the pair are soon hunting the missing object in the moneyed suburbs of New York, where her initial iciness slowly gives way to something else...
The leads are both utterly charming as is the entire production. Van Patten is especially good and Ellie - up from Pittsburgh and hoping to earn enough cash to start afresh - is beautifully written. She's a young woman who has been through some bad times (although it is never made explicit exactly what) and finds people hard to trust. She isn't sure how to take Danny because, unlike the other men in her life, he is precisely as he seems - just a nice kid trying to make his way in the world but not having much luck. The respect and warmth he shows her are totally disarming, and although she initially tries to keep him at arm's length (she just wants her money for the getaway job), it soon becomes clear the pair have a connection. Indeed, Van Patten and Turner have an easy chemistry together that would put much bigger stars in much bigger films to shame.
Comedian Mike Birbiglia doesn't even come close to stealing the film but his supporting role as Scott, quite possibly the most hopeless criminal in New York, is a joy. He's a bumbling man-child who'd struggle to take candy from a baby. In fact, I loved the way writer/director Leon treats criminality here - a low-level game for incompetents, and a million miles away from the likes of Goodfellas or The King Of New York. There's a kind of bathos at work here. You keep expecting moments of threat or violence to materialise but they never do because the film simply isn't about that. The criminal 'masterminds' behind the briefcase heist are more likely to voice their disapproval with an exasperated sigh or panicked insult, and such a seemingly counterintuitive move is genuinely refreshing and frequently damn funny.
Grace and favour: Van Patten is brilliant in Tramps
The appearance of a new Adam Sandler film usually thrills me about as much as finding a lump on my testicle might, but Sandy Wexler (Netflix UK) WW - a romantic comedy of sorts - is rather more endearing than the likes of The Cobbler and The Ridiculous 6. Set in ' 90s Hollywood, Sandler plays the titular Wexler, an eccentric talent manager with a reputation for being economical with the truth. His client list is made up of the usual collection of oddballs and losers, including an incompetent daredevil and a creepy ventriloquist, but when Wexler discovers singer/songwriter Courtney Clarke (Jennifer Hudson, who surely deserves better than this), his fortunes look set to improve as her career soon goes stellar. Not only is she his meal ticket but Wexler is besotted with her.
There are a fair few genuinely amusing moments (mostly sight gags, truth be told) and it's rare to see a mixed race romance front and centre in a movie pitching so hard for the mainstream, but mostly it consists of Sandler putting on a nails-down-a-blackboard Jerry Lewis voice and stealing ideas from Woody Allen's vastly superior Broadway Danny Rose. Steven Brill's film (written by Sandler) just about gets over the line, though, thanks to an old-fashioned corniness it wears like a badge of honour (it's what's inside that counts!) and a feelgood finale - Wexler singing There's No Business Like Show Business, in a room full of Hollywood B-listers - that would normally bring me out in pustules. Maybe I was just in a good mood when I saw it.
The only way is Wexler: Adam Sandler woos Jennifer Hudson
Until they have something original or interesting to say about the Iraq War, maybe filmmakers should seriously consider leaving well enough alone for a bit. Sand Castle (Netflix) W is a sumptuous-looking affair, with an eye-catching cast (Nicholas Hoult, Henry Cavill, Glen Powell), but serves up the same menu of tone-deaf, patriotic tosh we've already suffered in the likes of American Sniper and The Hurt Locker.
Hoult is Matt Ocre, a young Private who only joined the army to earn money so he could eventually go to college. Then 9/11 happened and, midway through 2003, he finds himself on the frontline in Iraq. Desperate for a way out, he deliberately injures his hand but, along with the rest of his platoon, is nevertheless sent to help repair a broken water system in a remote village riddled with ruthless insurgents. The ruined water system is clearly meant to represent Iraq in microcosm - only by working together can the US army and locals fix the pipes (damaged in the first place by American bombs) so they can all move forward together to a happy-clappy Halliburton future.
Of course, Sand Castle chooses to miss out one rather crucial piece of information - Iraq was a sovereign nation subject to (possibly) illegal invasion and occupation by an aggressive foreign power. Yes, the insurgents employ barbaric methods to try and drive the US forces out of their country and punish those who collaborate with them, but so did just about every resistance movement in history (do you think the French resistance just told off collaborators?). At times Sand Castle is like watching a World War II movie from Germany's point of view.
Director Fernando Coimbra occasionally threatens to offer up some critique of the war or understanding of the country Iraq was before the American invasion, but such notions quickly dissipate as we swiftly return to our all-too-familiar tale of courage, duty, and tedious willy waving. In fact, Sand Castle is one of the most overbearingly male films I've seen in ages - the only women in it are Iraqi and permitted a choice of two characteristics: stern or wailing in grief. I can't fault its acting or direction but there's an ugliness here that left a very nasty taste in my mouth.
Flop gun: Nicholas Hoult plays Private Matt Ocre
I'd wrongly assumed How I Spent My Summer Vacation (aka Get The Gringo) W½ was a previously-unreleased Mel Gibson movie, one of those new fangled 'Netflix Originals'. But it turns out the Adrian Grünberg directed action comedy is actually from 2012, back when Gibbo was still on the Hollywood naughty step and therefore probably sneaked into select cinemas in brown paper bags under cover of darkness.
It starts off quite promisingly - Gibson's character (whose real name we never discover) has been arrested by Mexican police for ripping off some rich gangster to the tune of several million dollars and thrown into one of the country's more unpleasant jails. It turns out the prison is like a mini city, with men, women and children all under one vast roof, complete with all sorts of infrastructure such as a school and a bustling market. This early stuff is the most interesting as Gibson explores his new surroundings and gets into a variety of entertaining scrapes and punch-ups.
Unfortunately, a plot soon rears its ugly head, involving a nasty bad guy, a cute kid and a liver transplant. Proceedings go swiftly south from there and reach their nadir when Gibson pretends to be Clint Eastwood in a phone conversation to secure a meeting with someone on the outside world he has to kill. It's all good trashy fun, I suppose, but one positive thing about Gibson's past indiscretions being forgiven by the La La Land cognoscenti is that he no longer has to make movies like this to pay the bills.
Cruel Summer: Mel Gibson gets banged up in Mexico
1. Predestination (Tonight, 9pm, Film4)
2. Attack The Block (Friday, 12.10, Channel 4)
3. Sausage Party (Saturday, 1.05pm and 9.30pm, Sky Cinema Premiere)
4. Queen Of Earth (Sunday, 10.10am and 6.15pm, Sky Cinema Premiere)
5. Drive (Sunday, 11pm, BBC2)
What I shall watching this week: A British cinema double bill, with trips to see The Sense Of An Ending and Their Finest.
WWWW - Wonderful
WWW - Worthwhile
WW - Watchable
W - Woeful