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Monday, 18 September 2017

The Villainess, Alien: Covenant, and First They Killed My Father: Your Week In Film (September 18-24)

Car wars: The Villainess is one of the year's best action movies

The highs and lows of this week's home entertainment releases, on DVD, Blu-ray, and VOD. All the films mentioned here are available to rent, buy or stream now, unless otherwise stated.

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

The Villainess (VOD and cinemas) WWWW begins with an insanely violent, first-person action sequence. Like Takashi Miike directing Call Of Duty, it sees a mysterious figure – well, their hands and weapons – shooting and stabbing their way through several dozen bad guys in the lair of an unseen big boss figure. It is only late on in this extended set-piece that we realise the relentless bringer of carnage is none other than a beautiful young woman, in her twenties and barely 90Ib wet through. It's one of three breathtaking action set-pieces that punctuate Jung Byung-gil's film but, astoundingly, not even the best one.

A twisty revenge thriller from South Korea, The Villainess focuses on Sook-hee (Ok-bin Kim), an assassin seeking the man who murdered her father in front of her, when she was only a child. She has a short-lived marriage to fellow traveller Shin Ha-kyun (Lee Joong-sang), before he too is killed, and she ends up being recruited into a clandestine intelligence agency, who provide her with an apartment and an unlikely career as a stage actress, while she awaits new missions. Living in the apartment with her young daughter, Sook-hee marries an undercover agency man, Jung Hyun-soo (Sung Joon), who is sent to spy on her as the search for her father's killer continues...

As hinted, the film's audacious action scenes are the star here – the climactic chase and confrontation on a fast-moving bus just pipping the samurai sword fight on motorcycles as my favourite. But none of that would work nearly as well if you didn't believe in Sook-hee's ability to dish out some serious ultra-violence. She's tiny but possesses an on-screen savagery that makes John Wick look like Gandhi. To Sook-hee, vengeance isn't a concept but a super power, and she seems capable of taking any amount of physical punishment as long as she eventually emerges victorious. In the course of the film, she's shot, stabbed, thrown through windows, bashed on the head and beaten to a pulp, but it barely slows her down, let alone stops her. This is a film far too extreme and blood-soaked for young girls to see but, if they did, I'd like to think Sook-hee's utter relentlessness and refusal to succumb to supposedly superior forces would be their takeaway. Not a wonder woman, not an atomic blonde, but a force of fucking nature.

After the frenzy of the opening 45 minutes, Jung Byung-gil slows the pace as he painstakingly sets things up for the epic finale. We focus on Sook-hee's family life with her young daughter and new husband. In lesser hands, such a switch would derail proceedings but it only raises the stakes here, making you realise just how much Sook-hee has to lose if her ultimate revenge mission goes south. Admittedly, The Villainess's structure is all over the place with lots of flashbacks but if Jung's intention is to keep you on the backfoot, he succeeds, especially when his movie's big twist is so good. Perhaps less forgivable is the director's weird blood fetish. There's rather a lot of the old claret, spurting all over the shop, particularly onto Sook-hee's face. It's all rather, um, "porny", to be honest with you. Still, despite its occasional eccentricity, this is an electrifying action movie – perhaps even the year's best. 

Kill list: Sook-hee is on a mission of vengeance in The Villainess

The Alien franchise – nearly 40 years old now – reminds me of one of those hoary old rock bands whose career stretches on and on well past its sell-by date. The first couple of albums are classics (Alien and Aliens), before the creative returns rapidly diminish (Alien 3 and Alien: Resurrection). An ill-fated attempt at a new direction ends in embarrassment (the non-canonical AVP pair), and a detour into slightly more esoteric territory is similarly unfulfilling (Prometheus). To really work the analogy into the ground, let's think of Alien: Covenant (DVD, Blu-ray, and VOD) WW½ as a contract-fulfilling remix album. A couple of original tracks that are perfectly passable and a slew of old favourites jazzed up to appear new when they are no such thing. 

Eighteen years before the ill-fated Nostromo lands on planetoid LV-426, colony ship The Covenant is on its way to set up home on a new world, when it is diverted from its course by a "rogue transmission" that sounds a lot like John Denver's Take Me Home Country Roads. Keen to investigate, the crew – including Katherine Waterston's terraforming chief and Michael Fassbender's android Walter – end up on a small Earth-like planet. There they encounter David (Fassbender again), the AI we last saw in Prometheus, as well as various flavours of murderous xenomorph. A desperate attempt to survive and escape ensues as the creatures run wild.

As it happens, Covenant isn't bad. But what's the point of an Alien movie that "isn't bad"? It's like having a quiet Slipknot album or a Ferrari that only does 70mph. I want an Alien movie that plucks my heart from my chest and stomps on it in front of me, grabs me by the lapels and shouts RRRRRAAAARRRGGGHHHH into my face, not one that only serves to remind me how vastly superior the original movie and its sequel were. Waterston – mesmerising in pretty much everything I've ever seen her in – is wasted here as a sort of Ripley-lite, while the rest of the Covenant crew (with the possible exception of Danny McBride's Tennessee) are instantly forgettable. Just compare that with the men and women of the Nostromo, which included John Hurt's Kane, Tom Skerritt's Dallas, Ian Holm as Ash, and Brett, played by Harry Dean Stanton. And that's before you even get to Sigourney Weaver's iconic Ellen Ripley.

In the plus column, there's a prototype xenomorph (called a "neomorph") that is creepy as hell but not around long enough to get truly under my skin, a couple of bits of inventive gore, and Fassbender is impeccable in his double role. There's tension and excitement, just not enough of it. And while you see the movie's cruel but satisfying twist coming a mile off, it's still well worked. But surely the great Ridley Scott has better things to do than bashing out underwhelming facsimiles of his old hits. Despite the occasional and entirely calamitous misstep (Exodus: Gods And Kings), he's so much better than that. 

Great Scott? No, more like slightly-above-average Scott

On the surface, there's a lot to recommend First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers (Netflix) WW½, but despite its fine writing, strong performances and sumptuous photography, something crucial is missing from its DNA. Angelina Jolie's film – her fourth and the follow-up to the unfairly derided By The Sea – is based on human-rights activist Loung Ung's memoir of the same name. Set in Cambodia in 1975, it details the rise of Pol Pot's vicious Khmer Rouge regime, as seen through the eyes of Ung's five-year-old self (Sareum Srey Moch).

Unfortunately, all too frequently, it feels more like a rote list of awful events (family members sent to labour camps – check, I'm made to train as child soldier – check, we come under fire by rebel militia – check) than Ung's personal experience of it, and I suspect some of her authorial voice has been mislaid between page and screen, even though she shares a writing credit with Jolie. There are scenes here which should be heartbreaking, devastating even, but because you struggle to forge a strong enough connection with Ung or her family, the horrors visited upon them never seem as raw and visceral as Jolie would like. 

That you see and experience the Khmer Rouge exclusively through little Ung's eyes is a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, Jolie is able to capture the girl's horror and confusion as the madness and misery swirls about her. On the other, it robs the entire situation of any context. In fact, Pol Pot's foot soldiers – with their almost comical revolutionary zeal and stern demeanours – are so one dimensional they make the Nazis in Where Eagles Dare look like fully rounded characters. Jolie gives us clues to why the Khmer Rouge might have risen to prominence but never offers any more than that and whilst I'm sure that remains true to the content of Ung's novel, it is nevertheless frustrating. 

More positively, Jolie improves as a director with every film she makes (this is a quantum leap on from the likes of Unbroken) and her ambition here is only to be applauded. Making a foreign language movie (First They Killed... is in Khmer with English sub-titles) about a tricky subject is hard enough, without the added stylistic limitation of trying to do it from the perspective of a child, complete with a great many first-person shots in which the camera is placed only a few feet off the floor to approximate Ung's eyeline. On the subject of eyes, Jolie has a very good one and her film has so many terrifically composed shots that you stop counting after the first couple of dozen. It is therefore a shame that Netflix demonstrates such antipathy to screening its films in cinemas because, on a big screen, this would be a real visual treat.

Girl afraid: Jolie's new film offers a child's perspective of war 

Film of the Week: The Villainess.

What I shall be watching this week: I still haven't seen It and need to remedy that ASAP.

Top 10 best-selling DVDs/Blu-rays (films only)
1. Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol.2
2. Sing
3. Sleepless
4. Snatched
5. Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol.1 & 2
6. The Boss Baby
7. Hacksaw Ridge
8. A Dog's Purpose
9. La La Land
10. Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them

Friday, 15 September 2017

On Second Thoughts #3: The Shawshank Redemption (1994)

Shaw thing: Frank Darabont knows how to conjure a magical visual image

Welcome to On Second Thoughts..., an occasional column in which I look back at a movie I didn't much care for on first viewing and give it another chance. Most of the films I cover in these columns will be ones I haven't seen in years, so there's a good chance my opinions and feelings about them may have changed over time. Well, that's the idea, anyway...

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

Please note: This article contains spoilers for The Shawshank Redemption

What is it? 
Frank Darabont's prison drama, adapted from a Stephen King novella (Rita Heyworth And Shawshank Redemption), starring Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman. It is perhaps most famous for Freeman's stirring narration, and the fact it was a box-office flop, before going on to become one of the most beloved movies of all time.

What's it about? It's 1947 and Andy Dufresne (Robbins) - the vice president of a US bank - is found guilty of murdering his wife and her lover, and sent to the brutal Shawshank prison to serve two life terms. There he meets Red (Freeman), a convicted murderer turned Mr Fix-It, who he pays to smuggle in a small geologist's hammer and a poster of movie queen Rita Heyworth. The two slowly become friends. A gifted accountant, Dufresne starts advising prison staff on financial matters, while building up the institution's meagre library, but is soon put to work helping the crooked governor cook the books. After the best part of two hours, talk finally turns to escape...

Glove story: Red (Freeman) and Andy Dufresne (Robbins) become good friends

Why didn't I like it first time round? Here's the thing - I did like it first time round. I must have seen Shawshank for the first time on VHS in 1996 on the recommendation of a work colleague. I remember enjoying it plenty but thinking it a bit too syrupy to really knock my socks off. I'd never in a million years have considered it a "great" movie. Besides, upon its theatrical release in 1994, it had been a box office flop, although it did snag seven Oscar nominations, without winning in any category. Slowly but surely, though, something rather surprising happened. Shawshank's reputation started to grow and grow. It started regularly making all-time greatest film lists and, in 2008, overtook The Godfather to reach #1 on IMDb's user-generated Top 250. It has been there ever since and currently has a rating of 9.3 (out of 10). In short, in the 23 years since its original release, Shawshank has become a cultural phenomenon, something that down the years I've found puzzling and infuriating. As a result, my memories of the film started to become rather less positive, to the point where I'd airily dismiss it as over-sentimentalised, middle-brow tosh, whenever someone brought it up in conversation. I ultimately realised, though, that it wasn't the film I had a problem with but rather its inflated reputation and my own prejudices.

Why am I rewatching it now? Shawshank was recently voted the #4 best film of all time in Empire magazine's The 100 Greatest Movies readers' poll, while Stephen King adaptations are set to become all the rage again, following It's impressive box office ($123million on its opening weekend). Besides, this column is all about second chances and I wanted to see how I felt about Shawshank as a movie, rather than the cultural juggernaut it has become. I tried to put aside all the baggage that surrounds it and my perhaps unfair negative feelings towards it, and just watch Darabont's film as a piece of art.

Hole lotta love: Shawshank is one of the most beloved movies of all time

Has my opinion changed? No, my opinion of the movie is pretty similar to what it was 20 years ago - it's a perfectly decent, frequently powerful but ultimately rather flawed drama. The cast are uniformly great (particularly Freeman), director Darabont conjures some magical and memorable visual images, the ending is uplifting, and its themes of hope, friendship and personal integrity certainly hit home. There are three moments in particular that really impressed me - a superbly written two-hander between Robbins and Freeman in which the former says he effectively killed his wife by driving her into the arms of another man, and a scene in which Dufresne introduces his fellow inmates to Mozart (see below). Best of all though is the extended and entirely heartbreaking sequence in which a long-term inmate (James Whitmore's Brooks) is released from prison after 50 years, only to find life on the outside world every bit as impossible to cope with as he feared it would be. If the entire film was as good as these scenes, it would be quite something.

But it's too long, some of the plot twists are clumsy (oh look, completely out of the blue, here's someone who can prove Dufresne isn't a murderer), it lacks focus until the last half-hour or so, and Robbins' character is oddly unknowable. Some pretty bad stuff happens to Dufresne at Shawshank (he's repeatedly raped early on) but we never see how it actually affects him, physically, emotionally or mentally. Freeman's narration doesn't really help any - it effectively acts as a barrier between Dufresne and the viewer. He tells us what is happening when we should be seeing it and feeling it. And whilst I understand Shawshank is a film about male friendship, as much as anything else, it doesn't make the fact the only female characters are those featured on posters on the wall of Dufresne's cell any easier to swallow.

The greatest film of all time? Nope. In fact, it isn't even the greatest film of 1994, the year that gave us Pulp Fiction, Three Colours: Red, and Ed Wood.

Scene you should check out on YouTube right now: The aforementioned moment when Dufresne introduces his fellow jailbirds to Mozart's sublime The Marriage Of Figaro.

Rating then: WWW
Rating now: WWW

Coming soon: The Dark Knight

Thursday, 14 September 2017

White saviours ahoy! Wind River is a pacy, atmospheric thriller... with one big problem

An ill Wind: Olsen and Renner team up to find the killer of a teenage girl

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

Please note: This review contains spoilers

Wind River
Director: Taylor Sheridan
Starring: Jeremy Renner, Elizabeth Olsen, Graham Greene           
Running time: 107mins

Hollywood never learns, does it? In Monday's Your Week In Film column, I drew attention to the critical shellacking received by Sean Penn's The Last Face, a movie set during Liberia's second civil war that relegated every African character in it to the status of an extra, while Charlize Theron and Javier Bardem got on with the important work of falling in love and saving the world. Taylor Sheridan's Wind River commits a similar - although not quite so egregious - crime. Set on a Native American reservation in Wyoming, it sees Jeremy Renner's professional hunter helping Elizabeth Olsen's fish-out-of-water FBI agent investigate the rape and murder of a young woman. Alas, the Native American characters are little more than bit-part players and victims. Could a leading role not have been written for a Native American actor? Yes, Graham Greene's reservation police chief has quite a few lines but most of them are expository and he doesn't make it to the end of the film, something Renner and Olsen's characters barely acknowledge. It's the 21st Century and high time this 'white saviour' nonsense was put out to pasture for good.

It's a shame because, if you can forgive such an entirely avoidable misstep, Wind River is an effective, atmospheric thriller that makes excellent use of its vast, snowbound setting and boasts a fine central performance from Renner. I've always been something of a sceptic when it comes to The Hurt Locker's Oscar nominee, and god knows his awful TV ad for BT didn't help ("That was cool, right?). But he's entirely convincing here as Cory Lambert, a grieving father and all-round badass outdoorsman. When he turns down the Hawkeye cockiness a few notches, Renner's a compelling, empathetic actor. Despite his all-action hunting/shooting/tracking persona, you feel the weight of Lambert's melancholy every step of the way, none more so than when he shares the story of his daughter's death, three years before, with Olsen. In fact, a mournful air hangs over the entire movie, something only enhanced by the stillness of the Wyoming fastness (brought to vivid life by Ben Richardson's photography) and Nick Cave and Warren Ellis's elegiac score.

Snowed in: Director Sheridan makes the most of Wyoming's icy landscape

Olsen is a little lower in the mix (this is very much Renner's film) and her FBI agent Jane Banner is nothing we haven't seen before. Naïve but feisty - check. Butting heads with a culture she doesn't understand - check. Scared, but refusing to give in to her fear - check. Almost certainly attracted to the hunky but emotionally scarred lead character - check. Despite Banner's limitations, it's a solid performance from Renner's The Avengers co-star but I'm beginning to wonder when she'll once again hit the heights of 2011's Martha Marcy May Marlene. In truth, writing women is far from Sheridan's strongest suit. Apart from a couple of walk-on parts – Margaret Bowman's fantastically crotchety T-Bone waitress among them – women were mostly missing from Hell Or High Water, while Emily Blunt was ultimately sidelined in Sicario, despite supposedly being the main character. 

Sheridan, who wrote as well as helmed this, does a solid job on his directorial debut, the action scenes nicely staged and suitably kinetic, every one of the big emotional set-pieces perfectly satisfying. I doubt I'm going out on a limb here to suggest Sheridan likes his westerns because their DNA is all over everything he does, whether as a screenwriter or here as both that and director. In Sicario, what is Benicio Del Toro's character if not a variation on one of Clint Eastwood's Men With No Name, riding into town to do the dirty work no one else is capable of? While Hell Or High Water - Texas, Jeff Bridges' cowboy cop, seat-of-your-pants bank hold-ups - speaks for itself. And so it goes in Wind River, with Renner's decent but damaged good guy in one scene riding to Olsen's rescue dressed head to toe in brilliant white (the ultimate white-hat), in between calmly taking out the whimpering one-note villain and bestowing tough-love wisdom on everyone around him, like a touchy-feely John Wayne or Gary Cooper with sensitivity training. The director even gives us a blizzard right out of McCabe & Mrs Miller, although he provides an ending rather more upbeat than the one that brings down the curtain on Robert Altman's 1971 classic. 

Rating: WW½

Monday, 11 September 2017

Colossal, The Last Face, and Nocturama: Your Week In Film (September 11-17)

Big fun: Colossal is an unusual and original monster movie

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

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

Creature features, from the original King Kong down, often contain a subtext that suggests "man is the real monster", but I'm not sure such a notion has ever been spelled out so explicitly or originally as it is in Nacho Vigalondo's Colossal (DVD, Blu-ray, VOD) WWW½. 

Anne Hathaway plays alcoholic Gloria, who, after losing her job and being kicked out by her boyfriend (Dan Stevens), is forced to return from New York to her sleepy hometown. There she reconnects with old school friend Oscar (Jason Sudeikis) and even gets a job in the bar he owns. At the precise same time Gloria is making her less than triumphant hometown comeback, a monster – or "kaiju", as we nerds call them – starts stomping its way across Seoul, leaving death and destruction in its wake. Gloria quickly realises that she and the creature are linked in some weird way and that she can even control its actions. Things just get stranger and wilder from there...

Of course, Colossal's subtext is screamingly obvious. It is really about the toxic effect Gloria's drunken behaviour has on other people – how her bad choices impact those around her, especially long-suffering boyfriend, Tim. It's about selfishness and depression, about how being drunk all the time makes you a colossal pain in the arse, how your lies compel even those who love you to turn their backs. When inebriated, Gloria is, quite literally, a monster. As it turns out, she isn't the only one. Films about drunks are mostly very, very serious, whether that's Leaving Las Vegas, Clean And Sober or Krisha, but Spanish indie director Vigalondo turns all that on its head to pleasing effect as he expertly mixes comedy, melodrama and action, whilst hitting us with some cleverly worked twists. 

Despite her Oscar success for Les Mis, I've always considered Hathaway a rather underrated actress. Gloria is a deceptively complex character, one who attempts to wear her despair and self-loathing lightly, and Hathaway really nails that dichotomy. I've always had a soft spot for Sudeikis too, even when he's playing insufferable wise ass characters in the middling likes of Horrible Bosses and We're The Millers. He's great here, a study in bullying, boorish, toxic masculinity, the result of unrequited love and small-town frustration.

Upon its theatrical release, some critics suggested Colossal falls apart towards the end but I'm not having any of that. Vigalondo (Timecrimes) smartly raises the stakes, offers up a gratifyingly wacky explanation for Gloria's kaiju connection, and even gives her redemption, as another entity linked to a different character enters the fray as her monster's nemesis. In fact, the only thing I didn't like about the movie is Hathaway's wig, which is every bit as abominable as the creatures menacing Seoul.

Appetite for destruction: Anne Hathaway has a Colossal problem

Nocturama WW½ has arrived on Netflix with precisely the sort of fanfare you'd imagine the streaming service might reserve for a French arthouse film about a terrorist attack on Paris – none whatsoever. I doubt director Bertrand Bonello will mind too much though as the notoriety it has gained in the past year or so guarantees his seventh feature is certain to make a splash. It was snubbed at last year's Cannes (not invited, never mind screened), and that's understandable really as France had suffered the Charlie Hebdo and Bataclan atrocities at either end of 2015. Understandably, no one was much in the mood for a rather arch, unknowable movie about blowing people up. Despite that, Nocturama is perhaps the most hotly-debated foreign language film of the past couple of years.

Bonello (Saint Laurent) spends much of the first hour introducing us to a large group of characters – all young, multi-ethnic, and attractive – as they go about their business, riding the Paris subway, passing around mysterious packages, and generally putting things in place for the co-ordinated assault on a number of targets – including a corporate office and a government building – that follows around halfway through. The group – minus a couple who run into trouble – then retire to an opulent Harrod's-style Parisian department store to lie low for 24 hours, before trying to make their escape, as the police close in.

The filmmaker at no stage lets you into his characters' heads – not David's (Finnegan Oldfield), Yacine's (Hamza Meziani), Sabrina's (Manal Issa) nor any of their comrades'. You therefore have precisely no idea what the group's attack is meant to achieve, or in who's interest it has been carried out. None of them call up a newspaper to claim responsibility for it. Moreover, they seemingly have no demands they wish to extract from the French state and none of the group mentions politics or religion – in fact, they don't have much to say at all and barely a single personality between them (getting such oddly "blank" performances from his cast can't have been easy for Bonello). In fact, these are the sort of fresh-faced kids you're more likely to encounter at an undemanding pop concert than on a highly-charged political demo or on their way to an ISIS training camp in Syria. 

Despite being so deliberately opaque, Nocturama has the urgency and tension of a bonafide thriller, even in its meticulous, slow-burn first half, but Bonello leaves you to draw your own conclusions about his characters' motives. Are they lashing out at capitalism, only to be seduced by it later when they reach the department store, with its flash designer clothes and expensive TVs? Are they merely a bunch of bored, mixed-up kids for whom blowing stuff up is just another lifestyle choice? Is Nocturama even about terrorism at all, and is it in fact meant to be more of a scream into the void at the way in which the young are perceived and treated in 21st Century western society? They are required to get jobs they hate, consume "stuff" they don't need, and any rebellion against that will inevitably bring down the full sanction of the state upon them. To be honest, I have no idea, and no one else seems to either, which is, of course, the film's blessing and curse.

Nocturnal animals: Young terrorists launch multiple attacks on Paris

I don't know whether The Last Face (DVD and VOD) W is quite as dreadful as the reviews have suggested (the film currently sits at a derisory five per cent on Rotten Tomatoes), but it's certainly damned close. Charlize Theron and Javier Bardem are doctors – she the head of an international aid agency, he a dashing surgeon – conducting a fraught romance, amidst the murder and mayhem of Liberia's second civil war in 2003.

Actor-turned-director Sean Penn (Into The Wild) occasionally conjures images both haunting and powerful from the violence, and his film exhibits a woozy, dreamlike quality that calls to mind Terrence Malick. Unfortunately, everything else about The Last Face is horribly clumsy and cloyingly earnest. Despite being set in West Africa, not a single black character is granted any agency whatsoever – the Liberians, cast either as victims or savages, are little more than extras in what should be their story. Meanwhile, Jean Reno, Jared Harris and Adèle Exarchopoulos are wasted in nothing supporting roles, the film proceeds at a snail's pace, and some of the dialogue is cringe-making ("She leaks urine, but she's dancing"). It's a well-intentioned but profoundly wrong-headed holiday in other people's misery, from which Bardem and Theron only just about emerge with their dignity intact.

Losing Face: Sean Penn's war drama is a wrong-headed mess

Finally, there's Suntan (Dual format) WWW½, a film I praised back in April when it received a simultaneous cinema and VOD release, and then again in July when it made #20 in my top 25 films of the year so far. It's out as a dual format Blu-ray/DVD this week, the first release from Montage Pictures, a new sub-label from indie distributor Eureka, intended to showcase "ground-breaking and thought-provoking world cinema from new and upcoming directors".

Argyris Papadimitropoulos's film (in Greek with English sub-titles) starts off as an offbeat black comedy about a lonely middle-aged doctor (Makis Papadimitriou's Kostis) relocating from the mainland to one of Greece's resort islands, and struggling to fit in with the locals. As summer comes, he falls in love with a carefree tourist, much younger than himself (Elli Tringou's Anna), and quickly inveigles himself with her friends. Of course, his clumsy infatuation leads to disaster as the movie's tone turns ever darker. It's original, creepy and disturbing, and hopefully indicative of the quality of films Montage will be bringing us in the months to come.

Doctor in trouble: Kostis's infatuation with a young tourist doesn't end well

What I shall be watching this week:
I need to catch up a bit this week, so It and Wind River.

Monday, 4 September 2017

Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2, Una, Little Evil, and Eat Locals: Your Week In Film (September 4-10)

Groot force: The Guardians are back but this time something's missing

The highs and lows of this week's UK home entertainment releases, on DVD, Blu-ray, and VOD. All films are available to buy, rent or stream now, unless otherwise stated.

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

Please note: The review of Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2 contains a couple of plot spoilers.

The history of the modern horror-comedy is a chequered one. For every What We Do In The Shadows, there's a Lesbian Vampire Killers, for every The Cabin In The Woods, there's a Little Nicky. Clearly it's a tricky balancing act to get right, a fact only underlined with the release this week of two new additions to a sub-genre that perhaps truly last hit the heights in the early 1980s, with the likes of The Evil Dead and An American Werewolf In London.

Little Evil (Netflix) W sees Parks And Recreation's Adam Scott marrying Evangeline Lilly's single mum and becoming step-father to her six-year-old son, Lucas (Owen Atlas) who, after a series of mysterious and violent episodes, he comes to believe is the Antichrist. The idea to use the set-up of The Omen as a way into exploring the difficulties of being a step-parent, and how your kids' awful behaviour can seem positively demonic, is a solid one, but writer/director Eli Craig – who helmed 2010's superb Tucker And Dale vs Evil – fails to take it anywhere interesting.

In fact, I don't really understand who his film is aimed at. Despite the odd bit of bad language, Little Evil is far too vanilla and unsophisticated for the kind of movie fan who'd enjoy, say, Slither or Shaun Of The Dead, and altogether too vulgar for a family audience. The horror isn't horrific and decent jokes are thin on the ground. Scott does his usual amiable but confused everyman turn, while Inside Amy Schumer's Bridget Everett is a force of nature hamstrung by a grating, one-note character. And just when you think Craig's film has grown quite insipid enough, up pops yet another "power of love" ending to make the prospect of Armageddon actually seem quite appealing after all.

Evil dud: Adam Scott can't save a limp comedy-horror

Rather better is Eat Locals (VOD and cinemas) WW½, the directorial debut from Jason Flemyng, the British actor you'll recognise from Lock, Stock And Two Smoking Barrels, X-Men: First Class and a ton of other stuff on screens both big and small. There has been a deluge of vampire fiction in the last decade or more, so coming across something a little different to what's already out there is rare, but I'm glad to say Eat Locals provides just that.

Every 50 years, the UK's vamp population – all eight of them – meet up to discuss whatever it is vampires need to discuss – the price of blood? Fang-sharpening services? How disappointing that Netflix adaptation of Castlevania was? Gathering at an isolated farmhouse, the eight (including Torchwood's Eve Myles, Doctor Who alum Freema Agyeman, and Daredevil's Charlie Cox) briefly consider the initiation of a new member (wideboy Sebastian, played by Billy Cook), before coming under surprise attack from a Special Ops team keen to take one of them alive for mysterious purposes. A siege ensues as the vampires – suddenly recast as the good guys – try to formulate a plan of escape.

Perhaps the gag rate isn't quite as high as it should be nor the horror hard-hitting enough, but what Eat Locals lacks in belly laughs and blood and guts, it just about makes up for with a certain rough and ready charm, some nice twists, and the sight of One Foot In The Grave's Annette Crosbie letting rip with a machinegun to the strains of The Damned's Smash It Up. Flemyng's vamps are very much in the horror movie tradition (they don't like sunlight nor show up in mirrors) but he – and screenwriter Danny King (Wild Bill) – still manage to keep things feeling fresh. It's a cross between Being Human (Toby Whithouse's UK version) and Neil Marshall's Dog Soldiers (2002), although it lacks the latter's palpable tension, gooey gore and relentless pace. Still, neither of those are bad company to be seen in, and I hope the end credits' hint at a sequel – Eat Global – happens sooner rather than later.

True blood: Eat Locals boasts a rough and ready charm

There's a lot to like about Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2 (DVD, Blu-ray, and VOD) WW½ but, after the note-perfect first film, James Gunn's sequel is nevertheless a disappointment. There are some lovingly crafted funny bits with Baby Groot and Rocket, the occasional slice of beautifully realised CG, and powerful character moments between feuding sisters Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and Nebula (Karen Gillan), while Michael Rooker steals the entire movie as loveable anti-hero Yondu. It's elsewhere – particularly in an interminable and effects-heavy final act – that things go awry.

On the run from an alien race called the Sovereign, our team of super-powered space heroes encounter Ego (Kurt Russell), a god-like being who, it turns out, isn't just the father of Peter Quill, aka group leader Star Lord (Chris Pratt), but also an unhinged megalomaniac and "living planet", with plans to reshape the entire universe in his image. He wants Quill – who has inherited some of his old man's powers – to help him with his plan of conquest and won't take no for an answer. There's a big fight.

The main problem is that a lot of the stuff that was so good about 2014's first film isn't carried off nearly as well this time. The gags certainly aren't as strong, with some of the exchanges (particularly those involving Dave Bautista's boorish, honking Drax) feeling a bit forced. Apart from a couple of choice cuts, the soundtrack's a damp squib too (the inclusion of Looking Glass's wretched Brandy (You're A Fine Girl) is a joke, right?), while the "friends as family" stuff, subtly handled in the original movie, is slathered on here to the point where I thought I might in fact be watching a weird new addition to the Fast & Furious franchise. Worst of all, though, is a finale that doesn't know when to quit. Civilisations rise and civilisations fall but on and on it goes, before finally reaching a CG-soaked crescendo, complete with a suitably shocking character death. To be honest, these epic pay-offs have all got a bit samey and Guardians isn't the first movie this year to be spoiled by one (I'm looking at you, Wonder Woman), nor probably the last. 

Rocket science: Star Lord and the gang battle Ego, The Living Planet

When it comes to disturbing, gut-wrenching drama, vampires, the Antichrist and an evil living planet have nothing on the haunting human conflict that unfolds in Una (VOD and cinemas) WWW½. Adapted from David Harrower's 2005 play, Blackbird, this impressive Brit flick stars Rooney Mara as the titular character, an office worker in her late twenties, who turns up, out of the blue, at the workplace of Ben Mendelsohn's Ray. She's there to confront the much older man about the fact he had groomed, raped and seemingly abandoned her when she was just 13 years old. Ray had planned to flee with the girl to Europe but was arrested and imprisoned for four years before they could cross the Channel. Una – a pent-up ball of confusion, self-loathing and fury – is seeking closure on the thing that has, up to now, utterly defined her life. Ray – now calling himself Pete – has seemingly moved on, with a good job, a big house, and a glamorous, successful wife his own age. 

Mostly a two-hander, Mara convinces and mesmerises as the rather lost young woman who's teenage years were ripped from her, while Mendelsohn gives us a truly unsettling ordinary monster. Ray/Pete isn't just a paedophile, he's a practised liar, a man so steeped in falsehood, you're certain he actually believes his own bullshit, however outrageous. He's horribly good at it too and it's no surprise Una fell for his patter as a kid or that, post-prison, he's been able to cover his tracks, bounce back and succeed. Underneath the matey bonhomie and oh-so-reasonable excuses and mea culpas, he's a snake. This duality is perfectly nailed by Mendelsohn, in a performance up there with his very best. 

Rooney and Mendelsohn will get most of the credit for Una, and deservedly so, but director Benedict Andrews's contribution is equally crucial. Plays adapted for film are often a bit "stagey" and directors struggle to reinvent them for the big screen (if you've seen Denzel Washington's rather static Fences, you'll know what I mean). Andrews – making his directorial debut here, after a career in theatre and opera – has no such problems. The Australian cleverly utilises different areas of Ray's vast warehouse workplace, as well as flashbacks and other locations, to make it a very different proposition to the one-room claustrophobia of Blackbird

One odd thing about the film is the way I've seen its plot described in some reviews and even on its IMDB page. It should be pointed out that Ray and Una do not have a "sexual relationship" because, as a 13-year-old child, Una is incapable of making that choice. She is sexually abused by Ray – plain and simple. It's something Andrews' film makes abundantly, forensically clear and I'm puzzled why there seems to be some confusion about it.

Childhood's end: Rooney Mara mesmerises as Una

Finally, a quick word about this year's London Film Festival, which takes place in the capital between 4-15 October. Now in its 61st year, this time the LFF boasts an eye-straining 242 feature films over 12 days, including new work from Alexander Payne (Downsizing), Martin McDonagh (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri) and Claire Denis (Let The Sunshine In), as well as Andy Serkis's directorial debut (Breathe). You can find details of the full programme here. I shall be perched over my computer keyboard on Thursday morning hoping to bag tickets for as many movies as I can afford...

What I shall be watching this week: Sundance hit, Patti Cake$.

Tuesday, 29 August 2017

Death Note, Unforgettable, and Bushwick: Your Week In Film (August 28 - September 3)

To L and back: Netflix's Death Note is one to avoid

This week's highs and lows in UK home entertainment, on DVD, Blu-ray, and VOD. All films are available to buy, rent or stream now, unless otherwise stated.

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

You'd think an eight-foot tall demonic death god would fit right in amongst an American pantheon of horror monsters that includes the likes of Freddy, Leatherface, Jason, and Chucky. Unfortunately, Jason Wingard's adaptation of the manga/anime Death Note (Netflix) W isn't a thousandth as much fun as any of the iterations of A Nightmare On Elm Street, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Friday The 13th, or Child's Play. In fact, it's a humourless bore, whose sole interesting feature - the aforementioned death god, Ryuk (a stop-motion effect, voiced by Willem Dafoe) - is disappointingly underutilised.

For those unfamiliar with the original Japanese original (I have only a passing knowledge of it myself), Death Note is about a supernatural notebook that enables whoever owns it to kill a person of their choice, simply by writing their name onto one of its pages. In this US take on the material, in which the action is moved to Seattle, the book (accompanied by its demonic guardian) falls into the hands of Light Turner (Nat Wolff), a high school student who initially uses it to murder a boy who has been bullying him. He then shares his secret with Mia (Margaret Qualley), a fellow pupil he has a crush on, and the pair go on a killing spree, taking out hundreds of criminals and ne'er do wells the world over. But, when they start signing their handiwork, it brings them to the attention of a Sherlock Holmes-style investigating detective, L (Lakeith Stanfield), who travels to the US and is quickly on their trail.

The first half-hour's promising and, for a moment, I thought we might be about to get an interesting spin on Bonnie And Clyde or Natural Born Killers. Alas, Wingard (who was responsible for last year's underwhelming Blair Witch reboot) seems more interested in Light's relationships with Mia, and his dreary cop dad (Shea Whigham), than he does in serving up something that takes a few risks. One of the main problems is that it's difficult to care about any of the characters. Light's a dope, Mia's underwritten, L's annoying (just SIT on the chair, you wannabe ninja twerp!). And you can forgive plot holes in decent films (see last week's What Happened To Monday) but there's a doozy here: Light is meant to be super-smart but can't work out a way to kill L, because he never reveals his true name, so can't be the victim of a death note. Using the book, why can't Light simply compel someone else - like, perhaps, one of the dozens of criminals he has absolutely no problem tracking down - to murder him instead?

Its main shortcoming, though, is that Dafoe's Ryuk isn't used nearly enough. He turns up quite a bit at the start, then only appears intermittently for the rest of the film. Apart from exchanging a few unfunny barbs with Light, he actually does very little. If you have a massive demon as your film's visual centrepiece, might it not have been an idea to find stuff to keep him gainfully employed or at least give him a bit of backstory? When Ryuk is on screen, the movie is immediately more interesting, substantially less po-faced and infinitely less predictable. It's like making a new Elm Street film and leaving most of Freddy's bits on the cutting-room floor.

Light's out: Nat Wolff's killer fails to engage in Death Note 

Two beautiful women fight over a dullard who owns a micro-brewery in Unforgettable (DVD, Blu-ray and VOD) WWW. No, really, when you strip away all the bells and whistles, that's pretty much the plot of this insanely overwrought but thoroughly enjoyable thriller from Denise Di Novi, making her directorial debut after decades as a producer on everything from Heathers to Focus.

Rosario Dawson is Julia, newly engaged to aforementioned brewer David (Geoff Stults), a man so effortlessly tedious the Dull Men's Club should immediately make him its life president. Poor Julia has a secret: she once took out a restraining order on violent former lover Michael (Simon Kassianides), which is about to expire, and she is scared he may try to re-enter her life. David's jealous ex-wife - control freak Tessa (Katherine Heigl) - is desperate to wreck David's new relationship, so steals Julia's phone and uses the information contained on it about Michael to embark on an ambitious campaign of revenge. She turns Julia's life upside down but that's only for starters...

Unforgettable is like one of those venomous late '80s/early '90s psycho thrillers (Fatal Attraction or Basic Instinct), only with a generous side order of Dynasty-style cheese. Heigl - "attack breasts" straining against the fabric of the tight and starchy shirts she's poured into, like a couple of cruise missiles - is hilarious and brilliant here, one part Alexis Colby, one part Catherine Tramell. Her performance takes scenery-chewing to a whole new level and Di Novi indulges every bonkers minute of it. I particularly enjoyed the scenes where she's sat in her lair, lights dimmed, rain battering the windows, guzzling red wine, as she spins her web of Internet deceit. It's as if Cruella de Vil had joined Anonymous, and one of many moments in which the film becomes so camp it makes Behind The Candelabra look like Manchester By The Sea.

Underneath all the drollery, I suspect the movie wants to make a serious point about the changing nature of the family unit and perhaps cocks a snook at the American right. In those Reagan-era thrillers, it was always the white-bread nuclear family that was coming under assault from an outside threat - Glenn Close's disturbed Alex in Fatal Attraction, Sharon Stone's icy Tramell in Basic Instinct. Here, the aggressor isn't some toxic interloper but a seemingly fine, upstanding wife and mother. Di Novi goes to great lengths to illustrate just how different the two women are - not only in terms of career and life experience but also of race. Dawson, we know, is of Cuban and Puerto Rican heritage, while Heigl's Tessa is so white she makes Theresa May look like Aretha Franklin. Such considerations add an intriguing and serious layer to the glorious lunacy on show elsewhere.

Trouble brewing: Heigl and Dawson face off in Unforgettable

Bushwick (VOD and cinemas) WWW boasts an opening 10 minutes as strong as any I've witnessed this year. It sees grad student Lucy (Brittany Snow) thrown face first into a war zone when she emerges, with her soon to be ex-boyfriend, from the New York subway. An army of masked, black-garbed soldiers has launched a surprise assault on a number of American cities and even the titular Brooklyn neighbourhood of Bushwick hasn't been spared. Helicopters fill the sky, bombs explode, gunfire is exchanged, and poor Lucy is stuck smack-bang in the middle of it, with only Stupe, Dave Bautista's grizzled former marine for protection. Directors Cary Murnion and Jonathan Milott demand your attention from the get-go and, for the most part, keep it. This is not a big budget movie but the pair make a little go a long way, their grasp of sound design, a few ingeniously rationed digital effects, and some mightily impressive camerawork ensuring Bushwick is a film that punches way above its weight. 

It's a shame the identity of the invading army has been revealed in every plot summary and review I've seen for the movie (the trailer gives it away, too) because the filmmakers go to some lengths to keep it a secret. Murnion and Milott then give us a powerful unmasking scene around halfway through that nicely explains the entire situation (I won't be giving away the twist, even though it is the film's main talking point and USP). Bushwick doesn't get everything right. Some of the character moments between Lucy and Stupe are clumsily written and the whole thing starts to fall apart towards the end, as the story loses focus and becomes unnecessarily bleak. That said, lots of action movies have Bushwick's thrills and spills but few of them can boast its smarts and craft.  

Home invasion: Mysterious aggressors target US cities in Bushwick

What I shall be watching this week: I've been looking forward to Kathryn Bigelow's Detroit for ages.

Monday, 28 August 2017

Cold War spy thriller Atomic Blonde takes an age to hit top gear but, once it does, you'll be glad you stuck around

Blonde fury: Theron wreaks havoc in East Berlin as MI6 agent Broughton

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

Please note: This review contains mild spoilers

Atomic Blonde
Director: David Leitch
Starring: Charlize Theron, James McAvoy, John Goodman
Running time: 1hr 55mins

There's an extended action sequence just over halfway through that lights up Cold War spy caper Atomic Blonde like a Christmas tree. Charlize Theron's MI6 ice queen is in East Berlin trying to protect a wounded defector ("Spyglass", played by Eddie Marsan) from crack KGB agents and the resulting staircase battle – plus a cracking car chase that seamlessly follows it – are brutal and merciless. The brawl (either shot in one take or 'Birdmanned' with clever edits) is fought with guns, knives, fists, feet and, in one wince-inducing moment, a heavy-duty portable hot plate. Theron cracks it onto the shins of one of her assailants with the kind of blunt force Shahid Afridi used to reserve for hitting sixes. The bone-crunching violence is just as you'd expect from director David Leitch, a former stuntman and stunt co-ordinator, who directed parts of John Wick (shall we guess which ones?). It ends with Theron and Marsan in a fast-sinking car in Berlin's River Spree, as a film that is slow out of the blocks finally finds its feet, then makes an impressive dash for the finish line to grab, if not gold, certainly a commendable silver.

It's 1989 and a very bruised and battered Lorraine Broughton (Theron) is being debriefed in London by her MI6 boss Eric Gray (Toby Jones) and his CIA counterpart Emmett Kurzfeld (John Goodman). She is newly returned from East Berlin – just days after the collapse of the Wall – where her mission to find a highly-incriminating who's who of western spies, concealed in a wristwatch, has seemingly gone horribly wrong. We're told the list is so incendiary it could extend the Cold War by 40 years, and witness her mission go south in flashback. Broughton was "made" by KGB agents as soon as she entered the city and spent practically her entire time there fighting to stay alive, her only support coming from the mercurial head of MI6's Berlin desk, David Percival (James McAvoy), and Delphine Lasalle (Sofia Boutella), an inexperienced member of the French secret service. The list in the wristwatch has been stolen but Spyglass has been able to memorise the entire thing, and must now be smuggled through Checkpoint Charlie to the west. As Broughton recounts her tale of woe, the twists start to mount, enough of them, in fact, to give Chubby Checker an aneurysm. 

The first half of this graphic novel adaptation clunks and clanks like a clapped-out Trabant as Leitch and his screenwriter Kurt Johnstad take a little too long to set everything up, preferring instead to show us over and over how edgy their movie is with a symphony of swearing, sex, violence and artful, lingering shots of Theron's buffed-up body. There's lots of exposition flying around, a couple of punch-ups which turn out to be little more than amuse-bouche for the main event outlined above, and a distracting '80s soundtrack that couldn't be more "on the nose" if it was a pair of spectacles (Re-Flex's The Politics Of Dancing plays in a nightclub because people are, um, dancing and the fall of communism is all political and stuff).

The biggest problem in Atomic Blonde's first hour, though, is Broughton herself. Theron is as game as ever but she's playing someone who is pretty much unknowable – a blank canvass – which might be perfect for a spy but is a bit less interesting if you're a character in a movie that you want people to engage with. In place of a personality, she instead struts around in sunglasses, looking haughty, punching the occasional central-casting communist and having unconvincing sex with Boutella. Leitch and Co are keeping their cards close to their chests because there's a lot they don't want us to know about her – not quite yet anyway. As a result, that first hour or so is sure to work better on a second viewing (once you see how the rest of the film plays out) but its lack of substance and studied trashiness doesn't make it any easier to wade through first time round.

Spy hard: Director Leitch provides action and thrills aplenty

Initially, then, you have to rely on Percival's geezerish charms to nurse the film along. McAvoy has taken on a lot of cartoonish roles in cartoonish movies over the last few years, and I don't know whether his MI6 man has any more genuine depth than Professor Charles Xavier (in the X-Men films), bent copper Bruce (in Filth) or any of the characters he plays in M Night Shyamalan's likeably silly Split, but he's certainly good value here. Because of the twisty plot's diktats, he's in many ways every bit as opaque as Broughton but a lot better written. In fact, Percival doesn't feel like someone from the glum late '80s at all but more a product of the 'have a good time all the time', laddish Loaded '90s – one part Arthur Daley, one part Liam Gallagher, his flat full of contraband goods, as he swaggers drunkenly around Berlin like he owns the place. He's a hoot, in other words, although, like everyone else in the movie, trusting anything he says or does is not an option.  

Percival's grip on Atomic Blonde only recedes once the staircase sequence sparks the film into nose-breaking, shin-splintering life, and everything finally starts to click satisfyingly into place. (They are very different films but the notorious "finger scene" in Julia Ducournau's Raw provides a similar function, lighting the blue touch paper on the movie's faster-paced, stronger second half). Leitch puts you on the back foot almost constantly from hereon in, as definitions of good, bad, right, wrong, east and west become increasingly tricky to get a handle on. The curves, zigzags and fake-outs grow ever more outrageous as the body count rises, in a giddy, gutsy finale that leaves you guessing right up to its sucker-punch denouement. 

Atomic Blonde is a somewhat schizophrenic film, capable of being head-scratchingly dumb – exemplified by a bit in which The Clash's London Calling begins on the soundtrack just before we cut to, um, Paris – but also smart enough to get a little bit meta now and again. There's an extended nod to Andrei Tarkovsky's Stalker (a 1979 sci-fi classic that imagines a world analogous to Cold War-era East and West Berlin), while a seemingly throwaway line about music sampling sees Leitch acknowledging his movie's magpie tendencies. No Way Out and De Palma's Mission: Impossible, as well as a wealth of British spy fiction, from Le Carré and Fleming down, are clearly visible in its DNA but, if Atomic Blonde isn't the most original or consistent film you'll see all year, it at least delivers one of 2017's most inventive and visceral action set-pieces, as well as an ending both ingenious and wholly satisfying.  

Rating: WWW

Atomic Blonde is in UK cinemas now