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Monday, 29 August 2016

The Last 5 Films I've Seen

Wild, wild west: the excellent Meek's Cutoff

There's no Your Week In Film column this time, please accept some reviews in its place. Normal service should be resumed next week...

Every week I watch a bunch of movies then write about five of them here. Some are films I've never seen before, some are old favourites I'm watching for the umpteenth time, others are pictures I've maybe seen once but haven't been entirely convinced by. From Buñuel to Bay, I'm happy to give anything a chance...

1. Meek's Cutoff (2010): The BBC's recent Top 100 films of the 21st Century poll was fascinating and mostly on the money, I think, but there were of course a few omissions that genuinely had me tearing out my hair. If Nicolas Winding Refn's Drive was the most egregious oversight, Kelly Reichardt's fantastic alt-western wasn't far behind. Set in 1845 and based on a real incident, it follows three families as they journey across a vast desert on the notoriously arduous Oregon Trail. Their guide Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood), a self-aggrandising frontiersman full of tall stories, gets them hopelessly lost and a trek which should have taken a fortnight suddenly becomes five weeks with no end in sight. The group, which also includes characters played by Michelle Williams, Shirley Henderson and Paul Dano, soon become more desperate – hungry, thirsty, exhausted, dirty, depressed and frightened for their lives. They capture a Native American, with whom they can barely communicate, and hope he'll lead them to water rather than into a trap. Meek's Cutoff is one of those films that takes a while to bring you under its spell but, keep watching, and it will utterly beguile you. Reichardt's a terrific storyteller and she really takes her time laying out her characters' predicament here in painstaking detail. There's little melodrama – it just concentrates on the slow but ceaseless erosion of the families' hope: the incessant sun on their backs, coupled with the trudge across pitiless terrain, doesn't just drain their energy, it takes their personality and humanity from them too. They bicker about whether to kill the Native American, discuss whether Meek has deliberately led them astray and start taking foolish risks. Filmed in the old square academy ratio to really emphasise the nature of their dilemma (trapped in a wide-open space – oh, the irony!), this is a masterful slow-burn affair which shows you the dirt under its protagonists' fingernails and the sweat on their brows. The old west has rarely seemed so alien or unforgiving. Rating: WWWW

All is lost: Reichardt's old west is an unforgiving place

2. Dheepan (2015): Jacques Audiard (A Prophet, Rust And Bone) returns with an odd but effective tale of three Sri Lankan immigrants fleeing the country's civil war to France. The trio (including former Tamil Tiger soldier Dheepan) pose as a family – despite barely knowing each other – but quickly discover their past isn't so easy to forget and discard. The film starts off as a serious arthouse drama keen to explore the impact of war and dislocation on our trio as they struggle to make ends meet in their new adopted country. But, late on, it morphs into something only a hop, skip and a jump away from Taken or Death Wish. The sudden gear change – provoked when Dheepan (Jesuthasan Antonythasan) clashes with drug dealers on the rundown estate where he lives and works – is jarring, disorienting and I was unsure of its message: the all-pervasiveness of violence and conflict perhaps or, more simply, never mess with a pissed-off Tamil Tiger. However, the most baffling thing about Audiard's enjoyable but flawed work remains how it ever won the Palme d'Or at last year's Cannes over the far superior Son Of Saul. Rating: WWW

A history of violence: Dheepan boasts a brutal final act

3. The Commune (2016): With his fellow Dane, Lars Von Trier, director Thomas Vinterberg founded the influential and gratifyingly punk-rock Dogme 95 movement, which gave the world the likes of Festen and The Idiots. Since then Vinterberg has struck out for more commercial waters, culminating in last year's solid but by-the-numbers adaptation of Far From The Madding Crowd. The Commune sees him on slightly less mainstream ground in a melodramatic tale of communal living and romantic betrayal. Set in 1970s Copenhagen, it sees stick-in-the-mud Erik (Ulrich Thomsen) inherit a huge house and, after a little prodding from his wife Anna (Trine Dyrholm), invite friends and strangers alike to move in with them. Matters soon become fraught, however, when the lecturer commences an affair with one of his students; a woman who could comfortably pass for Anna's daughter or far younger self. The rest of the film deals with the impact on the couple, their actual daughter and their house-mates, but most of all Anna herself, who soon falls into a destructive spiral of booze and self-loathing. It's all about selfishness and personal desire versus community and collectivism, and Vinterberg – who lived in a commune as a child  – is even-handed in his appraisal. Communal living can offer people enormous love and support, but such social experiments are also fraught with danger, especially when the needs of the group come into conflict with those of one or more of its individual members. Dyrholm is raw, compelling and utterly sympathetic as poor cast-aside Trine, a beautiful, successful woman suddenly made to feel old and undesirable. No one does unreasonable bastard quite like Thomsen (as evidenced in trashy US TV show Banshee, in which he played an Amish gangster), while Martha Sofie Wallstrøm Hansen is also terrific as daughter Freya, a young woman who clearly adores her parents and fellow house-mates, but is quietly perplexed and appalled by them too. Rating: WWW

Stronger together: Vinterberg's The Commune

4. Pete's Dragon (2016): Young orphan boys being found in the wild by CGI animals has been a bit of a theme in films this year. There was Mowgli (discovered by wolves) in The Jungle Book, Tarzan (stumbled across by apes in The Legend Of Tarzan) and now here's five-year-old Pete being adopted by a ruddy great dragon in Disney's charming remake of their 1977 live action/animation adventure. How come this stuff never happens to girls? Pete is found by the dragon – who he names Elliot – after his parents die in a car crash and he, the wreck's only survivor, gets lost in the woods. Boy and beast remain undiscovered within the forest's dense canopy for six years until a logging operation brings them into contact with humanity – some kind (Bryce Dallas Howard's forest ranger, and her dad Robert Redford, who'd encountered the dragon many years before), some with a villainous glint in their eye (ruthless logger Karl Urban). The plot's ebbs and flows are fairly predictable (boy gets dragon, boy loses dragon, rinse and repeat) but David Lowery's film is a real treat despite that. It's sweet and sentimental but never cloyingly so – simple, straightforward, and refreshingly old fashioned too. Despite the presence of a colossal mythical beast and a seat-of-your-pants final act, this is a small story – one that's really about family, friendship and imagination. To call it lovely might sound like I'm damning it with faint praise but that's really not my intention. That said, Howard, Redford and Urban – all fine actors – are only permitted one character trait each (nice, eccentric and nasty, respectively), and it certainly won't be challenging The BFG or The Jungle Book in the Best Visual Effects category come Oscar time. But, when you have the jaw-dropping beauty of New Zealand's Redwoods Forest (doubling for the US) as your backdrop, who needs artifice? Rating: WWW

Hit and myth: Pete's Dragon is simple and lovely

5. Bait (2012): Silly B-movie about a pair of great white sharks running (swimming) amok in a flooded supermarket after a tsunami leaves an Australian seaside town under several feet of water. The premise is as intriguing as it is ridiculous but the film is scuppered by risible dialogue, poor pacing, wooden acting and bargain-basement CGI. Those survivors of the disaster fighting for their lives in the flooded store and its underground car park are the usual cardboard cutouts these films seem to thrive upon  the bad girl and her disapproving cop dad, the star-crossed lovers, the bickering couple, the geek, the misunderstood villain (Julian McMahon, the only actor I recognised in the entire thing). There are far too many characters and not nearly enough of them are gorily despatched before the end credits, while the charm that usually gets this type of caper over the line is in very short supply. In fact, the only thing that made me smile was the fact its ending is practically identical to the one in last year's San Andreas, right down to the final line of dialogue. Rating: W

Great white dopes: Bait failed to entice me in 

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

Tuesday, 23 August 2016

The Last 5 Films I've Seen

Read all about it: Godard's hugely influential debut

Every week I watch a bunch of movies then write about five of them here. Some are films I've never seen before, some are old favourites I'm watching for the umpteenth time, others are pictures I've maybe seen once but haven't been entirely convinced by. From Buñuel to Bay, I'm happy to give anything a chance... 

1. À Bout De Souffle (1960): Jean-Luc Godard ushered in the French New Wave with this ridiculously cool and hugely influential homage to Hollywood gangster films. Jean-Paul Belmondo is Michel: handsome, cocksure, stylish and a shit of legendary proportions. On the run in Paris, the murderer/thief/liar/womaniser plans to flee to Rome if only he can collect the money he is owed by a criminal acquaintance and persuade old flame Patricia (the radiant Jean Seberg) to go with him. Despite its dark subject matter (Michel shoots and kills a policeman in the first five minutes), À Bout De Souffle is light on its feet, fully living up to its anglicised title – Breathless – as Godard ups the pace with deliberately jarring jump cuts, and Michel and Patricia flit from Parisian landmark to seedy bolt-hole, staying just one step ahead of the gendarmerie. Unfortunately, when you live your life on fast forward, it's likely to end sooner rather than later... Rating: WWWW

French bliss: À Bout De Souffle

2. NEDS (2010): Set in 1970s Glasgow, writer/director Peter Mullan's hard-hitting film tells the story of John McGill (Conor McCarron), a bright, studious schoolboy who is slowly dehumanised by exposure to bullying teachers, violent street gangs and familial friction. His transformation is heartbreaking as he goes from a boy who has his head permanently buried in a book to one who thinks nothing of almost killing a school-mate who had previously bullied him. Although McGarron is excellent and reminded me at times of a young Ray Winstone, the problem is that I never quite bought into the way in which John devolves into one of the Non-Educated Delinquents of the title almost overnight. I suspect the idea is that McGill – having reached an emotional and mental critical mass – has suffered some kind of breakdown, but the sudden, massive behaviourial shift just doesn't quite ring true. It's like the real McGill has been replaced by an alien doppelganger or evil clone. That said, the film's point – that a brutal society produces brutal, brutalised people – is a very powerful one. Mullan – a fine actor who you may recall from the likes of War Horse and Tyrannosaur – proves adept as both writer and director, adding some inspired images and storytelling flourishes, none more so than John's bizarre and hilarious punch-up with Jesus Christ. Rating: WWW

Glasgow kiss: Peter Mullan's brutal NEDS

3. Black (2015): Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah are two Belgian film-makers well on their way to the big time. This, their debut feature, brought Hollywood to their door and the pair were quickly handed directing duties on Snowfall – a TV pilot for US cable network FX – and Eddie Murphy's return to the big screen in Beverly Hills Cop 4. Black is the story of two immigrant street gangs in the Brussels district of Molenbeek: the Congolese Black Bronx and the Moroccan 1080s. But what happens when – West Side Story style  a Black Bronx girl falls for a 1080s boy? Nothing good is the answer. It's a very slick and hard-hitting piece of work, full of powerful, perfectly composed images (the final shot is an absolute doozy), while night-time Brussels – all shimmery neon and foreboding shadows  is like something straight out of a pop video. The two leads – Martha Canga Antonio and Aboubakr Bensaihi – are both newcomers and sell their budding relationship perfectly. That said, whilst Black may have been compared to Mathieu Kassovitz's masterful La Haine, it doesn't contain enough of that film's charm, humanity or political edge. Many of the characters – especially the members of Black Bronx – are portrayed as little more than savages, most notably during a gang-rape (the film contains two such scenes) which is a truly unpleasant mix of the horrifying and the crassly titillating. Rating: WW½

Kiss Kiss Gang Gang: Black is compelling but flawed

4. Scouts Guide To The Zombie Apocalypse (2015): We've had zombies versus cockneys, strippers, Santa Claus and plants, so I suppose it was only a matter of time before the undead got around to menacing boy scouts. Surprisingly, though, this is a lot of fun: a great big dumb gross-out comedy with the odd gory thrill chucked in for good measure. The plot couldn't be more basic: for some reason or other, there's a zombie outbreak and three teenage scouts – plus their gun-toting, abundantly-chested stripper pal – are caught up in the middle of it. The gags are uniformly crass, almost all obsessed with genitalia and boobs, but at least have the decency to raise a chuckle or two. Among the hackneyed George A Romero homages, there's a sliver of the anarchy Dan O'Bannon brought to bear in 1985's The Return Of The Living Dead, including one genuine 'WTF Have I Just Seen?' moment. Rating: WW

Dead good: Scouts Guide is hilariously crass

5. The BFG (2016): I'd have probably liked Steven Spielberg's rather ponderous movie a whole lot more if I hadn't, only a couple of years ago, reacquainted myself with the brilliant Roald Dahl story upon which it is based. Like most of the late writer's tales, The BFG – a story of friendship between a lonely giant and the young orphan girl he kidnaps – is shot through with savage black humour, the inventiveness and daffiness of its language concealing something both raw and disturbing. Spielberg's film, on the other hand, sands down too many of those spiky edges and replaces what's left with treacle and cosiness. My alarm bells started ringing the moment I realised it was set in 'American London', that mythical place where mist hangs permanently in the night air and people threaten to "call the coppers" on drunken louts. Furthermore, in Dahl's story the monstrous giants that menace the BFG and Sophie are truly the stuff of nightmares – their names alone make you flinch: Fleshlumpeater, Bloodbottler, Childchewer, Gizzardgulper. Here they're little more than big ugly bullies, about as terrifying as Raymond Briggs' Fungus The Bogeyman. On the plus side, though, Mark Rylance as the eponymous giant and newcomer Ruby Barnhill as Sophie are an utter delight, while the eye-popping CGI deserves every plaudit that has come its way. Rating: WW

Big deal: The BFG is a visual treat if little else

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

Monday, 22 August 2016

The Jungle Book, Weiner, and Star Wars: The Force Awakens: Your Week In Film (August 22-28)

Animal magic: Jon Favreau's The Jungle Book

Monday 22nd: I was surprised by just how much I enjoyed Jon Favreau's The Jungle Book (DVD, Blu-ray and VOD), a rich and rewarding adaptation of Rudyard Kipling's original stories that also pays fulsome homage to the beloved 1960s animation (The Bare Necessities, Trust In Me and I Wan'na Be Like You all get an airing). You'd be hard pressed to find more immersive CG anywhere and the voice cast is uniformly terrific (Idris Elba, Ben Kingsley, Bill Murray, Scarlett Johansson). Rather less savoury is Weiner (DVD), a candid documentary chronicling the fall of disgraced US politician Anthony Weiner. The appropriately-named Democrat was forced to resign from Congress in 2011 after sending 'dick pics' of himself to women via social media. Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg's excellent film picks up his story two years later with Weiner running to be Mayor of New York. Suffice to say, old habits die hard and it isn't long before he and his long-suffering wife - Huma Abedin, an aid to Hillary Clinton - are under siege from the media as his reputation is trashed all over again. I can't wait to reacquaint myself with Ken Russell's Women In Love (Blu-ray) which I haven't seen in an age. Based on a novel by DH Lawrence and most famous for the nude wrestling scene between Alan Bates and Oliver Reed (although we must not overlook Glenda Jackson's Oscar win), here it gets a swanky 4K restoration courtesy of the BFI on a disc packed with extras. TV-wise, The Survivalist (22:25, Sky Cinema Premiere) is a bleak but gripping British post-apocalypse drama that works wonders on a low budget.

Russell restored: Women In Love hits Blu-ray 

Tuesday 23rd: Online subscription service Mubi adds Franklin J. Schaffner’s sci-fi thriller The Boys From Brazil to its catalogue today. Gregory Peck. Laurence Olivier and, erm, Steve Guttenberg star in the adaptation of Ira Levin's novel which sees Dr Josef Mengele (Peck) alive and well in South America and putting together a bizarre plot to clone Hitler and create the Fourth Reich. Olivier is the Nazi hunter hot on his trail. Tony Scott directs Man On Fire (13:25, Film4), a brutally efficient thriller with Denzel Washington's washed-up bodyguard rampaging through Mexico City to get at the ruthless gang who have kidnapped his nine-year-old charge (Dakota Fanning).  

Fired up: Denzel Washington's on a mission

Wednesday 24th: Have to say, I don't know much about Japanese manga adaptation Tokyo Tribe (22:25, Sky Cinema/NOW TV) but, if it lives up to its Sky listing, it should be an absolute hoot: "A cannibalistic yakuza boss and his bloodthirsty lieutenant declare all-out war on the rival gangs of near-future Tokyo. Madcap kung fu musical." The trailer is pleasingly unhinged too. Altogether less "madcap" is Pedro Almodóvar's Bad Education (01:25, Film4). One of the Spanish director's most personal and multi-layered films, it tells the harrowing tale of sexual abuse at a Spanish boarding school in the 1960s. Gael García Bernal, Gael García Bernal and Fele Martínez star.

Two tribes: Japanese gangs sing each other to death

Thursday 25th: Camp sci-fi thrills are the order of the day in Mike Hodges' stupidly brilliant Flash Gordon (14:25, Film4), a film that flopped on its original release in 1980 but has since become the epitome of the term cult classic (although use of the term 'classic' might just be pushing it a bit). Sam Jones is Flash, Melody Anderson is Dale Arden, and Brian Blessed puts on some wings and bellows "GORDON'S ALIVE!" In The Film Programme (16:00, BBC Radio 4), Antonia Quirke meets two groups who are trying to save their local cinemas, while poet Don Paterson continues his series on great movie speeches with Jack Nicholson's "You can't handle the truth!" spiel from A Few Good Men.

King Jack: Nicholson's on top form in A Few Good Men

Friday 26th: I was obsessed with Star Wars as a kid - revered the first couple of films, collected the comics (the action figures were too expensive) and even remember reading the novelisation of A New Hope (which wasn't actually called A New Hope back then, of course). Somewhere between The Empire Strikes Back and Return Of The Jedi, though, I just lost interest and never regained it. I caught The Phantom Menace but have never seen Attack Of The Clones or even Revenge Of The Sith all the way through. Sad to say, Star Wars: The Force Awakens (13:10 and 20:00, Sky Cinema Premiere and NOW TV) did very little to rekindle my interest in the franchise, being little more than a rerun of the very first movie with a couple of promising new characters and one wholly unnecessary death. I'm holding out hope Rogue One might be a little more interesting. At the cinema, there's Mila Kunis comedy Bad Moms, Stephen King adaptation Cell, brutal political satire in Purge: The Election Year, and Julieta, which is being billed as a return to form for director Pedro Almodóvar (although, to be honest, I wasn't aware he'd been out of form). Mubi has Guys And Dolls, a thoroughly enjoyable adaptation of the Broadway musical starring Frank Sinata as Nathan Detroit and Marlon Brando as Sky Masterson. If you don't sing along with Lucky Be A Lady, you simply have no soul. Kermode And Mayo's Film Review (14:00, BBC Radio Five Live) returns at its proper time with its proper presenters. Robbie Collin is a more than capable stand-in for Mark Kermode but I'll take laid-back Simon Mayo over Edith Bowman's gushing Saturday Superstore style of presentation any day of the week.

Mom & bad: Mila Kunis goes over to the dark side

Saturday 27th: Matt Damon returns as Jason Bourne in The Bourne Ultimatum (21:30, ITV). In the third of the series, the amnesiac rogue assassin has his memories reawakened by a journalist researching the organisation responsible for turning him into a killing machine. Paul Greengrass directs a terrific cast, which also includes Joan Allen, Julia Styles, David Strathairn, Paddy Considine and Albert Finney. No, I still haven't seen any of the Bourne films but I did pick up the first three (two quid the lot) in Cex a couple of weeks ago so I'm getting closer. Neil Jordan's atmospheric Byzantium (01:30, Film4) stars Gemma Arterton and Saoirse Ronan as a vampire mother and daughter, and should be a lot better known than it is.

Blood relatives: Neil Jordan's Byzantium

Sunday 28th: Frank Sinatra directs and co-stars in None But The Brave (14:00, BBC 2). Ol' Blue Eyes' one and only foray into the director's chair sees a team of US marines crash-landing on a tiny Pacific island during World War II, only to find it already occupied by a Japanese unit. The film is no classic but went down in history as the first American/Japanese co-production. Steve Carell is super-villain Gru in the hugely charming animation Despicable Me (16:55, ITV). Made in 2010, a time when people weren't heartily sick to death of the Minions. Joel and Ethan Coen have made much better films than Burn After Reading (23:00, Gold) but even the brothers' lesser works are still worth a look. This comedy caper sees John Malkovich's disgruntled former CIA agent writing a tell-all memoir but the computer disc upon which it is stored falls into the hands of two gym employees (Brad Pitt and Frances McDormand) who concoct a cack-handed blackmail plan.

 The Burn ultimatum: Blackmail mayhem from the Coens

Monday, 15 August 2016

Eye In The Sky, Men & Chicken, and David Brent: Life On The Road: Your Week In Film (August 15-21)

Game of drones: Eye In The Sky is a gripping, real-time thriller

UK TV, radio, DVD, Blu-ray, VOD and cinema picks for the next seven days...

Monday 15th: Eye In The Sky (DVD, Blu-ray and VOD) utterly gripped me from first to last (and I say that as the kind of pacifist pinko who is no fan of the military). Helen Mirren is Colonel Katherine Powell, the commander of an operation to combat an extremist threat in Kenya but her mission goes from capture to kill when it becomes clear the terrorists are planning an imminent attack. However, the appearance of a young girl selling bread in the strike zone complicates matters and leads to an escalating international row involving politicians, drone pilots, covert agents, and military brass. Played out in real time, Gavin Hood's film is an incredibly tense examination of modern drone warfare, which is also surprisingly complex and refreshingly even-handed (especially coming in the wake of 2014's clumsily liberal Good Kill, which even Ethan Hawke couldn't save). Eye also boasts terrific performances from Mirren and, in his final screen role, the late Alan Rickman. If you're looking for something a little more peculiar, you could do a lot worse than Men & Chicken (DVD, Blu-ray and VOD), 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. If I hadn't already sat through Evolution, Anders Thomas Jensen's film would be the strangest thing I've seen all year. The kids are still on their summer break so stick 'em in front of Megamind (Netflix UK), an enjoyable animated superhero romp which cleverly flips the script so the titular bad-guy is forced into doing good for the first time in his life. The voice cast is impressive - Will Ferrell, Jonah Hill, Tina Fey, David Cross, Brad Pitt - and it's a bloody sight better than the similarly-themed Suicide Squad.  
Chicken fun: Mikkelsen stars in a bizarre black comedy 

Tuesday 16th: Like Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Jurassic World, Creed (Netflix UK) goes the 'requel' route. Ryan Coogler's film is part Rocky sequel, part reboot, and at times borrows wholesale from the original 1976 picture and its various follow-ups. That said, it's a definite cut above other recent boxing flicks, such as last year's Jake Gyllenhaal-starring Southpaw, while Michael B Jordan and Sylvester Stallone have genuine chemistry. I wrote a fairly exhaustive review of the film when it hit UK cinemas in January, and you can read it here. In The Naked Gun (22:00, ITV4), the late Leslie Nielsen is Frank Drebin, a detective so hopeless he makes Inspector Clouseau look like Sherlock Holmes. I'm sure I don't have to tell you this big-screen adaptation of Police Squad! is a hoot as Drebin battles to foil a plot to assassinate the Queen. Nice Beaver!

Kiss, kiss, bang, bang: Leslie Nielsen is Frank Drebin

Wednesday 17th: A Man for All Seasons (Netflix UK) charts the breakdown of the relationship between Henry VIII and his chancellor Thomas More, following the king's decision to break with Catholicism so he can divorce and remarry. Devoutly religious, More resigns his post and hopes to live out his days away from Henry's machinations. But the monarch won't hear of it and pushes More to give his public approval to the king's plans - something his former chancellor is not prepared to do. Released in 1966, Fred Zinneman's film won six Oscars (including Best Picture, Best Actor and Best Director) and featured one of cinema's finest dramatic performances - Paul Scofield as More himself. Black Souls (01:10, Film4), Francesco Munzi's atmospheric Italian-French crime noir, is about the Sicilian mob but, with its mostly rural setting and melancholy vibe, eschews the dirty glamour of many Mafia movies. Instead, it focuses on a cast of rich, complex characters, a simple but gripping story in which the stakes and violence grow bigger and scarier as the film proceeds, and a truly heart-stopping denouement. In other words, it's a hidden gem that Film4 has seen fit to bury midweek at a ridiculous time of day. Set your Tivo/Sky+ box - you won't be disappointed.

Mob rule: Black Souls is a hidden gem

Thursday 18th: I always laugh when I recall the name of Tina Turner's character in Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (Amazon Prime Video): Aunty Entity. Aunty bloody Entity. Fortunately, such silliness doesn't spoil what is a rousing finale to George Miller's original trilogy of MM films. Set around 15 years after Mad Max 2, this time Mel Gibson is battling to liberate a place called Bartertown from Aunty's vice-like grip. Max's punch up with the monstrous Blaster in the Thunderdome arena and a cracking desert chase are the highlights. And, despite the ridiculous moniker, Turner isn't bad either. In The Film Programme (16:00, BBC Radio Four), poet Don Paterson continues his series on great speeches in movie history with Rutger Hauer's philosophical monologue in Blade Runner. "I've seen things you people wouldn't believe..." 

Under the Dome: Mad Max brings the thunder 

Friday 19th I'm not the biggest fan of Ricky Gervais. He peaked early with The Office and it's been a case of diminishing returns ever since, culminating in the abysmal Special Correspondents earlier this year which he wrote and directed. David Brent: Life On The Road (cinemas) sees the funnyman (who was compared, absurdly, to Woody Allen in The Observer recently) return to his most famous creation, now working as a sales rep while touring with his band, Foregone Conclusion. The trailers look promising enough, although it's just more of the same, isn't it? Brent says something outrageous/inappropriate and the people around him look incredulously at the camera. Still, comedy careers have been built on considerably less (I'm looking at you, Jack Whitehall) so let's hope this is a return to form. Ridley Scott's The Martian (Sky Cinema Premiere/NOW TV) stars Matt Damon as an astronaut stranded on Mars when a manned mission to the red planet goes tits up. It's MacGyver in space, it's Cast Away meets Apollo 13, and although the final 20 minutes strain credulity and Damon's smartypants botanist never seems quite bothered enough by his predicament, it's a great deal of fun. 

Road warrior: Brent's back and as insufferable as ever 

Saturday 20th: Julie Walters narrates There's Something About Romcoms (21:00, Channel 4), a celebration of the "rich and varied history" of the titular movie sub-genre featuring contributions from the likes of Meg Ryan, Hugh Grant, Richard Curtis, Rupert Everett and Stephen Merchant. I shall probably tune in to see what they have to say about Nora Ephron/Rob Reiner's sublime When Harry Met Sally but suspect the rest (Bridget Jones, Four Weddings etc) might prove a bit of a slog. Elsewhere today, you'll find a couple of fine biopics: Richard Attenborough's epic, multiple-Oscar-winning Gandhi (13:05, Movie Mix) stars Ben Kingsley as the eponymous freedom fighter who, using non-violent means, led his country to independence from the British, while Salma Hayek is controversial Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, in Frida (17:00, amc).

Prize fighter: Gandhi won eight Oscars

Sunday 21st: Argo (Amazon Prime Video) is one of those Best Picture Oscar winners that should never have got within a million miles of the big prize (see also Crash, The King's Speech, Titanic... I could go on at length). Based on what is actually a fascinating true story, it sees Ben Affleck's CIA man team up with Alan Arkin's movie producer to concoct an outlandish, Hollywood-inspired plan to rescue a group of American hostages who'd fled the US embassy in Iran at the height of the country's 1979 revolution. Affleck's film (he also directs) takes some serious liberties with the truth and its depiction of the Iranian people is lamentable. But, if you can forgive its many shortcomings, there's an entertaining, occasionally thrilling movie in there somewhere. On terrestrial TV, there's Ian Dury biopic Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll (23:00, BBC2) which stars Andy Serkis as the late, great musician, and The Grey (23:00, Channel 4), a wolf-bothering survival thriller starring Liam Neeson.

Sunday, 14 August 2016

The Last 5 Films I've Seen

Sing when you're winning: John Carney's '80s-set film is a real joy

1. Sing Street (2016) John Hughes meets Roddy Doyle in writer/director John Carney's joyous tale of love, escape and music set in '80s Dublin. The wonderfully named Ferdia Walsh-Peelo is Conor, a smitten teenager who forms a band purely so he can spend time with aspiring model Raphina (Lucy Boynton). But his feelings for her bring out the pop star in him and it isn't long before the titular band are improving in leaps and bounds, finding their own identity, making videos, and even dreaming of the big time. There's so much warmth and wit here, and so much about Carney's screenplay that rings true, that it would take me all day to list its merits. Additionally, the young leads are terrific, ably abetted by Aidan Gillen, Maria Doyle Kennedy and Jack Reynor as Conor's dysfunctional family. One gripe? The rest of the band disappear well into the background after being introduced early on, which is a shame as they are interesting characters in their own right. It's a small criticism, though, for a film that quickly outstrips any suggestion it's just an exercise in cheesy '80s nostalgia (although even that element is fun) and one that left me with a great big smile on my face. Rating: WWWW

Model behaviour: Lucy Boynton lights up Sing Street

2. The Bronze (2015) If Sing Street is about youthful optimism and having the talent to take on the world, then The Bronze deals with its flipside - the frustration and bitterness of shattered dreams. Melissa Rauch has been the best thing about The Big Bang Theory for a while now and she enjoys herself here as Hope Ann Gregory, a former gymnast who – against all odds – won an Olympic bronze medal back in the day. Her career ended by injury, she's now a thieving, foul-mouthed has-been who clings for dear life to her small-town hero status, only agreeing to train a young gymnastic prodigy after a letter from her late coach promises a big cash prize for doing so. Yes, it's Eastbound & Down with a female lead but ultimately Bryan Buckley's film (co-written by Rauch with her husband) is a lot warmer than HBO's misanthropic sitcom. Gregory may be a nasty piece of work but there are reasons for her perma-scowl - Danny McBride's Kenny Powers, on the other hand, was really just an obnoxious arsehole. Beneath the abrasiveness, there's a palpable melancholy to Rauch's character - she has allowed her life's one success to totally define her, the old USA Olympic training top she wears a constant reminder of her inability to move on. But this is a story of redemption, above all else, and while the film could have done with a few more moments as laugh-out-loud funny as its much-discussed and improbably athletic sex scene, The Bronze is ultimately more Nadia Comaneci than 
Dong FangxiaoRating: WWW

Rauch and roll: Melissa is solid gold in The Bronze  

3. The Brand New Testament (2015) God lives in Brussels with a wife, who he bullies, and a young daughter - Ea (Pili Groyne) - who has grown to hate the appalling way he treats humanity. Breaking into his vast computer room, she releases the 'death dates' of everyone on Earth and runs away to assemble a team of six new apostles with a plan to "rewrite the world". Apoplectic, God (Benoît Poelvoorde) gives chase. Jaco Van Dormael's gleefully provocative film is a magical realist satire that has religion firmly in its sights. This supreme being is a capricious monster who visits torment on his creations both because he can and because he enjoys it. It's hardly an original notion but Van Dormael interrogates his subject with black humour both sharp and surreal, so the various twists and turns never feel hackneyed or dogmatic. Each of the new apostle's stories are served up as vignettes as Ea visits each one in turn, the strangest of which sees Catherine Deneuve's unfulfilled wife commencing a passionate affair with a circus gorilla. Bound to drive conservatives mad, Le Tout Nouveau Testament (it's original French title) is a rich, off-kilter call to arms full of optimism and imagination. Rating: WWW

Gorilla warfare: God under fire in Brand New Testament

4. Disorder (2015) Matthias Schoenaerts is Vincent, a soldier suffering with PTSD who, between missions, gets a job as a private security guard for Jessie (Inglourious Basterds' Diane Kruger), the glamorous wife of a troubled arms dealer in over his head with some very nasty people. When the husband is arrested while travelling abroad, Vincent suspects his charge and her young son are in danger. Is he right or merely paranoid? Take a wild guess. Whilst we've seen this kind of set-up before in The Bodyguard and Someone To Watch Over Me, Disorder stands out because it keeps the obvious attraction between Vincent and Jessie firmly on the back burner and concentrates instead on building an atmosphere of unease punctuated by the occasional burst of flinch-inducing brutality. I don't recoil like everyone else seems to when Schoenaerts steps out of his Bullhead comfort zone to tackle less physical roles in A Little Chaos or The Danish Girl, but he's best as an arse-kicking taciturn lump and certainly doesn't disappoint here. Some critics have tried to sell Disorder as a kind of psychological thriller but that's only half right. Alice Winocour's film is certainly thrilling (taut and stripped back, too) but whether PTSD-impaired Vincent is imagining the threat to Jessie and her son isn't something that is left hanging for long. You know exactly where the story is heading but it is none the weaker for that. If anything, Disorder is really an exploration of violence - its rank ugliness and occasional necessity. Rating: WWW

Welcome to the punch: Schoenaerts takes no prisoners

5. Suicide Squad (2016) The stuff I actually liked about Suicide Squad can be dealt with in short order: Margot Robbie, Will Smith, Viola Davis and Jared Leto, the latter adding much needed danger and unpredictability to proceedings every time his Joker (a punk-rock Al Capone) put in an appearance. The problem with the rest of David Ayer's film is that it's a bog-standard s̶u̶p̶e̶r̶h̶e̶r̶o̶ super-villain flick when its trailers promised something spikier and cooler. I expected Nirvana and got Nickelback. The problems start to mount in an interminable first 20 minutes as some of the characters are clumsily introduced, complete with their own somewhat on-the-nose 'entrance music' (Sympathy For The Devil for government black ops bad ass Davis, You Don't Own Me for Robbie's Harley Quinn). That feeling of clunkiness hangs around and sticks to the film like glue. It affects the main villain (the Scarlet Witch's dull goth sister), various plot strands (one character is introduced purely to be killed off 10 minutes later), the CG (ugly, unconvincing) and at least a couple of the team themselves (Jai Courtney's Captain Boomerang contributes nothing, Karen Fukuhara's Katana little more). When Leto pops up it's like he's reminding us what we could have had – Ben Affleck's Batman (who gets a cameo here) duking it out with Mr J and Harley in a gangster-packed Gotham. That's a film I'd have wanted to see. This one? Not so much. Rating: W½

Worst. Heroes. Ever? Pretty much, yes.

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

Saturday, 6 August 2016

Summer break

This blog will be taking a short summer break next week which means there will be no Your Week In Film on Monday. I shall endeavour to post a Last 5 Films later in the week and things will return to normal on Monday, August 15. In the meantime, next Friday sees some intriguing-looking films arriving in cinemas - I shall be trying to check out Blake Lively versus shark movie The Shallows (above), Huppert and Depardieu in Valley Of Love, and Todd Solandz's Wiener-Dog

Friday, 5 August 2016

The Last 5 Films I've Seen

Bloody Elle: Fanning plays ingenue Jesse in The Neon Demon 

1. The Neon Demon (2016) Nicolas Winding Refn is at his most fuck-you divisive in a film that merges horror, satire, high camp and the occult to thrillingly transgressive effect. Elle Fanning plays Jesse, newly arrived in Los Angeles with big ambitions to make it in the cutthroat world of fashion modelling. Her disarming youth and rabbit-in-the-headlights innocence prove an instant hit with photographers, agents and stylists, and it isn't long before she's beating more experienced models to the top jobs. How they loathe and envy her. Refn takes his time showing Jesse's career ascent but there's an unease tick, tick, ticking away in the background that no amount of cloudless LA skies or beautifully composed tableaux can eradicate. Death and danger permeate every frame here - from the opening shots of Jesse covered in blood for an amateur photo shoot to the recurring images of predatory big cats. You know something bad's coming, it's just a matter of when and how. And when Refn eventually turns up the batshit crazy to maximum, it's well worth the wait - a final half-hour involving necrophilia and cannibalism that fair takes the breath away. Gratuitous? No, simply the perfect conclusion to the themes and ideas he has laid out so masterfully throughout the rest of the film. We live in a culture that chews up and spits out youth and beauty - quite literally in The Neon Demon's case. Rating: WWWW

Angels and demons: Director Refn at his most divisive

2. Born To Be Blue (2015) Boyhood's Ethan Hawke stars as Chet Baker in a "semi-factual, semi-fictional" biopic focussing on the legendary West Coast jazz trumpeter/vocalist's long road to redemption after a drug dealer he owes money punches out his front teeth. The injury badly affects the star's ability to play his instrument and he has to start again from scratch, while also fighting heroin addiction. The only bright spot in his life? Girlfriend Jane (Carmen Ejogo), who is trying to kickstart her acting career while helping the '60s jazzman battle his demons. I suspect the 'reimagined' nature of some of the material will put off Baker purists but Robert Budreau's film is no hagiography. The musician is depicted as driven and incredibly talented but weak and selfish, his addiction both a blessing and a curse. I know little of Baker or his oeuvre but still thought it terrific - a powerfully redemptive tale of a man who loses everything and moves heaven and earth to win it back, with no sacrifice too big. In a 30-year film acting career, I'm not sure Hawke has ever been better. Rating: WWW

Kind of blue: Ethan Hawke stars as Chet Baker

3. The Informant! (2009) Bourne star Matt Damon shows his impressive range as Mark Whitacre, the Ned Flanders-esque vice president of an American agricultural corporation accused of widespread price fixing. Seeing himself as some kind of super-spy, Whitacre turns informant but his FBI contacts (nicely played by Scott Bakula and Joel McHale) soon grow frustrated, and ultimately exasperated, by their inside-man's increasingly tall tales and bizarre behaviour. Steven Soderbergh's '90s-set comedy (based on a true story) is both funny and farcical, with every new twist and turn ratcheting up the absurdity to new levels. It's worth seeing alone for Whitacre's thoughts on a host of subjects (delivered in an amusingly monotone voiceover), including polar bear noses, Tokyo 'panty dispensers' and an unfortunate horse-related incident at a Renaissance Festival. Rating: WWW

Spy hard: Matt Damon is The Informant!

4. Elvis & Nixon (2016) Loosely based on a true story and a famous photograph, Liza Johnson's film imagines what really happened when the King of Rock 'n' Roll turned up at the White House one December morning in 1970 to directly petition the president to make him an 'FBI agent at large' (Elvis thought he could go undercover to turn the kids of America away from drugs and radical politics). A broad comedy from which neither The Pelvis or Tricky Dicky emerges unscathed, it has a certain breathless pantomimic appeal, and Michael Shannon and Kevin Spacey acquit themselves well in the titular roles. Ageing and culturally all but irrelevant at this point, there's a real melancholia to Presley, his boredom and capriciousness as obvious as his wealth. Perversely, the script lands more jabs on Elvis than it does Nixon, particularly the former's alleged appropriation of black music. At times it feels like there isn't enough material to justify its 86-minute running time (Elvis wants to meet Nixon, has to wait to meet Nixon, meets Nixon) but the film's undeniable wit and charm just about get it over the line. Rating: WW

Elvis is in the building: Tricky Dicky meets The King

5. Possession (1981) It's been a while since I've seen a film as odd or disturbing as Andrzej Zulawski's Possession. Set in Cold War Berlin, Mark (Sam Neil) returns home from a lengthy business trip to find his wife Anna (Isabelle Adjani) is about to leave him for another man (kung-fu libertine, Heinrich). However, neither is aware there is a fourth presence in their relationship - a terrifying tentacled creature that Anna keeps hidden away elsewhere in the city and visits for sex. Is Anna being controlled by a genuine Lovecraftian beastie from beyond or is the monster really just a metaphor for the ugliness that infects her relationships? Possession is a big shouty melodramatic pantomime with Neil and Adjani overacting for all they are worth, the film's grim mood made even more oppressive by its Berlin setting. There is a scene in which Anna has a violent fit on her way home from a shopping trip that is genuinely upsetting as is a later sequence in which we see her 'coupling' with the creature. It might be brilliant, it might be terrible, I really have no idea, to be honest with you. Rating: WW

Drowning in Berlin: Possession is odd and disturbing

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