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Tuesday, 20 June 2017

The Great Wall, Moonlight, and La Strada: Your Week In Film (June 19-25)

Another brick in the Wall: Matt Damon is mercenary William

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

This week's UK home entertainment picks on DVD, Blu-ray and VOD. All films are available now unless otherwise stated...

I had meant to mention The Great Wall (DVD, Blu-ray and VOD) WWW last week but ran out of time so let's sing its praises now instead. Just when blockbusters seem to be growing longer and ever more convoluted, Yimou Zhang's film is relatively short at 103 minutes and nicely focussed throughout.

It's the olden days and Matt Damon is William, a mercenary whose accent suggests he might be English. Or Scottish. Or maybe Irish. Or even Australian. Anyway, he and his pal Pero (Pedro Pascal) are on the lookout for gunpowder but instead encounter a monster. William lops off its leg and they are soon exhibiting said limb for Commander Lin Mae (Tian Jing) and other members of the Nameless Order, warriors charged with preventing the creature - and the alien army to which it belongs - breaching the Great Wall and laying waste to the rest of China.

Although they are very different films, it reminded me a tiny bit of Mad Max: Fury Road. Both have incredibly simple premises that can be summed up in a single word - "chase" in Fury Road's case, "siege" here, both tear along at one hell of a clip, and both films are fuelled by some impressive visual ideas. The colour-coded costume design denoting different battalions within the Nameless Order is extremely effective while the Crane Troop and their breathtaking swoops down the side of the Wall to combat the aliens is a real highlight, and just the sort of thing you'd expect from House Of Flying Daggers director Zhang. 

It isn't perfect - Damon is miscast; his pudgy baby face just doesn't say "grizzled mercenary" to me and I'd have been happier if they'd made Jing's character the film's main focus (she's great). And, while visually ambitious, the CG effects never quite live up to some of the gratifyingly mad ideas behind them. The aliens - called Tao Tei - are a bit disappointing too; an amalgam of lots of more interesting creatures we've seen elsewhere over the years. The best monsters have a "personality" and an "ick factor". These don't. Still, simple ideas done (mostly) well are rare in big-budget moviemaking (The Great Wall cost $150million) and, for that reason alone, this is well worth checking out.

Monster fun: The Great Wall is a cut above other blockbusters

Having lambasted Empire magazine's 100 Greatest Movies poll in yesterday's column for being too Hollywood-centric, I'd like to recommend a couple of foreign-language classics that are back in the spotlight this week. Both films might be in black and white with subtitles but contain stories, situations and characters just as accessible as almost anything you're likely to find in your local multiplex. 

La Strada (DVD and Blu-ray) WWWW is a powerful melodrama made by Federico Fellini in 1954. The Italian master became best known for his more challenging later work (the term ''Felliniesque' entered the movie lexicon because of the likes of 8½ and Amarcord) but this is a small, simple and perfectly heart-breaking tale.

Giulietta Masina - Fellini's wife and the star of several of his films - is Gelsomina, a child-like young woman sold by her impoverished mother to the brutish circus performer Zampanò (Anthony Quinn). She becomes his wife and assists with his faintly ridiculous strongman routine that he tours about the Italian countryside. He treats Gelsomina appallingly, sleeping with other women and knocking her about. Every time she decides to leave him, he somehow pulls her back within his orbit. The pair encounter The Fool (Richard Basehart), a fellow performer, free spirit and the exact opposite of Zampanò. Suffice to say, the men spend their entire time at loggerheads and their mutual antipathy ends in tragedy.

The film won the first-ever Foreign Language Oscar and it's easy to see why. It's beautifully written, acted, and scored (by regular Fellini collaborator Nino Rota), with Masina a revelation as she channels Chaplin's Little Tramp in a performance full of pathos. But, if you don't want to take my word for it, at least take Martin Scorsese's (contains spoilers)...

Scorsese talks La Strada and his friendship with Fellini

Showing on MUBI for the next few weeks is the equally accessible The Exterminating Angel WWW½, Luis Buñuel's biting, surrealist satire on Spain's ruling class. Made in 1962, it takes place at a lavish dinner party thrown by Señor Edmundo Nóbile (Enrique Rambal) and his wife, Lucia (Lucy Gallardo). The pair and their wealthy guests are an unpleasant bunch - disloyal, venal, sniping and superior. When the party winds down in the early hours of the following morning, however, they all find it impossible to leave the music room to which they had adjourned - as if some unknown force was holding them in place. They're trapped and as hours give way to days and weeks, their predicament becomes more and more desperate. They stink like hyenas, there's a rotting corpse in the cupboard, and their only access to clean water is from a pipe they managed to smash in the wall. The room is small, its inhabitants restless, unwashed and living on top of each other - Buñuel forces you to feel their claustrophobia and desperation.

You're torn between schadenfreude and wondering what on earth might have happened to these people and quite where it will all end up. Are they dead and in hell? Has one of those put-upon servants we saw dismissed at the beginning of the film slipped something mind-altering into their food? Buñuel never quite gives the game away but I suspect they are in a horror of their own making, rather than the victims of the supernatural or vengeful former employees. This reactionary, bourgeois bunch wants the order of things to remain the same in perpetuity - so it does, quite literally.

With the rise of the 1% and the opposition they have provoked, I'm amazed some bright spark in Hollywood - or elsewhere - hasn't attempted a remake. Fifty-five years on, Buñuel's skewering of the rich and powerful somehow seems more timely than ever.  

Moon boy: Barry Jenkins' film was a worthy Oscar winner

The first time I heard about Moonlight (DVD, Blu-ray and VOD) WWWW, I thought it sounded like one of those cynical "Oscar-bait" movies that cram as many "issues" as they can into their premise in a bid to hoover up awards and acclaim. I was expecting big speeches, relentless melodrama, overwrought performances, hugging and learning. Bloody hell, how wrong I was. Barry Jenkins' film is far cleverer and infinitely more subtle than that. In a rare outpouring of taste from the Academy, somehow it still won Oscars, including for Best Picture (you may remember hearing a thing or two about that earlier in the year).

In three separate segments, it follows an African-American boy, named Chiron, first as a child (Alex Hibbert), then as a teenager (Ashton Sanders) and finally as a man (Trevante Rhodes). He's quiet, an outsider and relentlessly bullied by his peers. His father isn't around and his mum is a crack addict (she ultimately turns to prostitution to feed her habit). He befriends local drug dealer Juan (Mahershala Ali) and his girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monáe), and they are soon providing the familial support so lacking at home, while Chiron starts to contemplate his sexuality.

Moonlight's a character study more than anything else, about a child becoming a man and struggling with all aspects of his identity every inch of the way. It mostly eschews big splashy drama. In fact, there are plot points (a surprise death, time in prison) that would be massive in any other film that aren't even shown here; they happen between the segments and are instead relegated to little more than passing asides. It's an incredibly brave move on writer/director Jenkins' part but one that nevertheless works as it forces you to fill in the blanks yourself. It isn't the external things that happen to Chiron that Jenkins wants to discuss here but Chiron's internal journey - how he battles with who he really is, how he self-sabotages to deny it and how, finally, he just might find a way to come to terms with himself.

This is a sad, haunting but ultimately hopeful film and, unlike a lot of Best Picture winners, one whose cache will only increase in the years ahead.

What I shall be watching this week: It's taken me a while to get to but I'm due a cinema visit to see My Cousin Rachel.

Monday, 19 June 2017

Empire's 100 Greatest Movies list contains few bad films, but is undermined by a chronic lack of diversity and too many baffling omissions

"You heard right, sir, The Shawshank Redemption really is in at #4..."

For the last few days I've been gently fulminating over the results of Empire magazine's readers' poll to find the 100 Greatest Movies of all-time [1]. You can go take a look at the whole wretched thing here, but to give you a flavour, this is the Top 10 in all its, um, glory.

1. The Godfather (1972)
2. Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
3. The Dark Knight (2008)
4. The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
5. Pulp Fiction (1994)
6. Goodfellas (1994)
7. Raiders Of The Lost Ark (1981)
8. Jaws (1975)
9. Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope (1977)
10. The Lord Of The Rings: The Fellowship Of The Ring (2001)

I happily accept that Empire is aimed at and consumed by the multiplex generation who love popcorn blockbusters and all things nerd – Batman, The Lord Of The Rings, Marvel, Star Wars, Spielberg etc. More than that, I've seen all 100 movies and few of them are bad (Forrest Gump at #61 is probably the worst of it). And, credit where due, Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather is a fine choice at #1. But, even allowing for all that, this is a terribly myopic and incurious list. 

For a start, there are only five foreign language films in the 100 [2], of which Guillermo Del Toro's admittedly splendid Pan's Labyrinth is the highest placed at #55. Seven Samurai (#73), Oldboy (#78), Spirited Away (#80), and Amélie (#98) all follow. But where are Jean-Luc Godard, Federico Fellini, Roberto Rossellini, Krzysztof Kieslowski, Ingmar Bergman, Wong Kar-wai, Claude Chabrol, Claire Denis, François Truffaut, Takashi Miike, Jim Jarmusch, Luis Buñuel, Fritz Lang, Michael Haneke, Eric Rohmer, Pablo Almodovar, and Andrei Tarkovsky? It's a list I could carry on making all day but the point is a simple one. These directors may be foreign and some of their work may be difficult or challenging, but it's readily available for anyone who wants to find it. You don't need membership of an exclusive club or a special decoder ring to gain access to this stuff. When you have a top 100 that excludes even audience-friendly foreign language fare such as City Of God, The Lives Of Others and Cinema Paradiso, you know something has gone wrong somewhere.

It isn't as if there wouldn't be room for at least a few of these directors and their films either, not when Steven Spielberg has seven entries, Christopher Nolan five, and David Fincher, George Lucas, James Cameron, and Ridley Scott three each. That's nearly 25 per cent of the entire list right there!

There's no room for Woody Allen on Empire's list -  not even Annie Hall

There are no Woody Allen films in this top 100. I'll say that again because it bears repeating. There are no Woody Allen films in this top 100. No Annie Hall. No Crimes And Misdemeanors. No Manhattan. No Love And Death. No Hannah And Her Sisters. No Radio Days. For all the scandal in his personal life and variable quality of his later films, Allen has a body of work comparable with just about any director who has ever lived. But, hey, fuck that guy, here's Avengers Assemble in at #65 with its explosions and super people.

In fact, there's hardly any comedy featured full-stop. No Duck Soup, When Harry Met Sally, Ferris Bueller's Day Off, This Is Spinal Tap, Groundhog Day, Airplane, Life Of Brian, Borat, Anchorman, The Jerk, His Girl Friday, Clueless, Trading Places, or Young Frankenstein. It's a list that somehow manages to be low-brow and utterly po-faced at the same time. There's little in the way of horror either – no David Cronenberg or James Whale, no Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Evil Dead or Nosferatu. To give you some notion of just how safe it all is, the list can't even find room for Tim Burton or Paul Verhoeven – surely two of the most interesting directors working in mainstream Hollywood during the '80s and '90s. No Ed Wood, Edward Scissorhands, Beetlejuice, Robocop, Total Recall, or Starship Troopers.

Steven Spielberg has seven entries in the top 100, including Jaws

Like the thread on a cheap Primark jumper, once you start pulling you can't stop, and the whole thing soon completely unravels. No Roman Polanski (not even Chinatown), Robert Altman or anything directed by Clint Eastwood. Where are Mike Nichols' The Graduate, John Ford's The Searchers and Oliver Stone's Platoon? Why no room for brilliant Brits such as Alan Clarke, John Boorman, Ken Russell, Carol Reed, Mike Leigh, Terry Gilliam, Terence Davies, Lindsay Anderson, Ken Loach, Nicolas Roeg, or Jonathan Glazer? Where the ruddy heck are Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger?

Furthermore, if you absolutely have to have two films by Edgar Wright in the 100, surely Scott Pilgrim vs The World should be one of them? And if Steven Spielberg gets to have seven entries, how come Duel and Close Encounters aren't among them but Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade is? Out of his four entries, why is Martin Scorsese's The Departed in there but the vastly superior The King Of Comedy isn't? Where are the mavericks and madmen? John Waters, Werner Herzog, Alejandro Jodorowsky, Gaspar Noé, Lars von Trier, Guy Maddin, Leos Carax? The crazy risk-takers who surprise, appal and delight whilst continuing to move the medium forward?

Perhaps most damning of all, though, is the fact that out of 100 films only one of them is directed by a woman – Sofia Coppola's Lost In Translation, in there at a lowly #94 [3]. No Kathryn Bigelow, Kelly Reichardt, Andrea Arnold, Penny Marshall, Lynne Ramsey, Celine Schiamma, Ava DuVernay, Chantal Akerman, Patty Jenkins, Amy Heckerling, Mary Harron, Jane Campion or Agnès Varda [4]. And have a guess how many black filmmakers have directed a film on Empire's list. Yes, that's right, a big fat zero with no room even for Spike Lee.

Empire readers love blockbusters - all three Lord Of The Rings movies made the list

Elsewhere, there's a disappointing lack of interest in anything pre-1970. Thirty-two movies on this list were released on or after 2000 (that's almost a third), only 13 before 1970, only nine from before 1960, only three predate 1950, and there are none from before 1940. No Wizard Of Oz, Gone With The Wind, or M. No Bringing Up Baby, Modern Times, or It Happened One Night. Even the older films that make the list are the obvious ones – Casablanca, Citizen Kane, Some Like It Hot, Psycho, It's A Wonderful Life.

As I say, I mostly have no problem with the individual films on this list, and I'm delighted to see Nicholas Winding Refn's Drive on there at #45, Studio Ghibli animation Spirited Away at #80, and a young director like Damien Chazelle getting both Whiplash and La La Land in at #57 and #62 respectively. It's the top 100 when viewed in its entirety that has given me a migraine. I'm no snarky film snob either – Jason And The Argonauts and National Lampoon's Animal House would both probably make my own personal Top 10, neither of which are exactly high-brow. But I spend a lot of time watching movies and there's always excitement when I come across something new and think, "Ooh, I wonder what that's like?" If you're a film buff or cinephile, I imagine you have much the same reaction. But there's a lack of curiosity and adventure about many of the choices here; it's all so horribly square, safe and vanilla. If this list were a colour it would be beige, if it were a band it would be Huey Lewis And The News (although American Psycho didn't make the 100 either).

Nicholas Winding Refn's Drive made it to #45 on Empire's list

With streaming services of one kind or another and a world of downloads (legal and otherwise) at your fingertips, there are no excuses for not exploring a bit. I'm not asking you to download Apichatpong Weerasethakul's entire back catalogue, or watch all seven-plus hours of Bela Tarr's Satantango, but for heaven's sake at least take a look at something other than mega-budget Hollywood fodder or cosy childhood favourites from the '80s and '90s. You're grown-ups (presumably), venture out of your comfort zone once in a while.

You might argue that Empire's list is a much-needed corrective to that of Sight & Sound, whose own greatest film survey (voted for mostly by critics once a decade) almost totally eschews modern blockbusters and popcorn movies in favour of foreign, arthouse and older works. You may even have a point, but at least with those S&S lists you get the impression the people making them watch a wide range of material, that they aren't worried about getting cooties if they slip Multiple Maniacs or Werckmeister Harmonies into their DVD player. You get the exact opposite impression from Empire's.

I subscribe to the magazine and believe it has improved a good deal in the last 18 months under a new editor. And any poll that attracts the votes of 20,000 people certainly isn't to be sniffed at. But whilst I'm sure Empire's readers are happy to call themselves film fans or even cinephiles, they really aren't anything of the sort. They love modern Hollywood movies made by white men and very little else. To paraphrase Dorothy Parker: "This is not a list to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force."

[1] Readers of UK movie magazine Empire were invited to send in votes for their top 10 favourite films of all time earlier this year. The last time Empire polled its readers was 2014, when The Empire Strikes Back came out on top.
[2] In the poll's favour, it's worth pointing out there are more foreign directors than foreign-language movies on this list. The likes of Sergio Leone (The Good, The Bad And The Ugly #27 and Once Upon A Time In The West #52), Milos Forman (One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest #43), and Luc Besson (Leon #85) all feature but as directors of English-language films.
[3]  No, you can't make a case for the inclusion of Lily and Lana Wachowski as female directors in this case because they both still identified as male in 1999 when The Matrix (#24) was released.
[4] For an incredibly comprehensive list of films directed by women, go here.

Tuesday, 13 June 2017

Your Week In Film: John Wick Chapter 2, Berlin Syndrome, and Shimmer Lake (June 12-18)

John Wick: Always outnumbered but never outgunned

This week's home entertainment picks on DVD, Blu-ray and VOD. All films mentioned are available to watch, buy or stream now, unless otherwise stated...

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

John Wick Chapter 2 (DVD, Blu-ray, and VOD) WW is utterly preposterous but that's part of the Keanu Reeves-starring franchise's considerable charm. In the first film we saw retired master assassin Wick drawn back into the fray after members of the Russian mafia killed his dog and stole his car. Taciturn Reeves was perfectly cast as the reluctant but relentless angel of vengeance in a film that was knowing, gloriously violent and often surprisingly camp. It was an almost perfect synthesis of '80s action movie bombast and the frenetic chop-socky of Gareth Evans' The Raid films. The term 'high-octane' could have been coined to describe it.

Bringing Wick back for a second go-round proves slightly trickier because director Chad Stahelski and his team have to find another way of forcing the character out of retirement and it was never going to be as satisfyingly simple as in the debut instalment. So, this time we have a figure from Wick's past - Santino D'Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio) - rocking up at his front door to call in an old debt. Wick ends up in Rome, there to bump off D'Antonio's sister, who is blocking the ambitious Mafioso's chances of progress in the criminal hierarchy. Of course, D'Antonio is a total rotter and it's him who Wick ends up going after in the second half of the film when he's back on home turf.

There is a dizzying amount of shooting, fighting and stabbing here but nothing to quite top the bravura night-club dust-up from the first film. That said, a terrific opening sequence in which Wick is reunited with his stolen car, and a brutal and brilliantly choreographed fight between the titular character and vengeful Cassian (rapper-turned-actor Common) are worth the price of entry on their own. As in the first film, though, the stuff I enjoyed most was that which went on around the edges of the main story. Like magic in the Harry Potter universe, the world of the assassins exists but a heartbeat away from regular society whilst remaining under the radar. It has its own infrastructure and currency, its own rules and etiquette, its own gatekeepers and guides (Ian McShane's Winston here and in 2014's first chapter). It's a very impressive bit of world building that critics and fanboys would be falling over themselves to praise if it existed in a more serious-minded film franchise. It's further exploration certainly makes the inevitable John Wick Chapter 3 a more enticing prospect than another two hours of gun porn and ultra-violence might on their own.

Wick pic: Keanu Reeves returns as the master assassin

There's nothing especially original about the latest, um, 'Netflix Original', Shimmer Lake WWW. A crime noir of sorts, we've certainly seen the movie's tricksy backwards structure many times before (see Memento, Irreversible, and (500) Days Of Summer), but it gets over the line with a winning mix of broad comedy and melodrama, plus a nicely-delivered twist.

Written and directed by Oren Uziel (22 Jump Street), it sees small-town sheriff Zeke Sikes (Benjamin Walker) on the hunt for three bank robbers: his own brother Andy (Rainn Wilson), slow-witted Chris (Mark Rendall) and former high-school football hero Ed (Wyatt Russell). The three have been granted easy access to the local bank's vault after blackmailing its manager (John Michael Higgins) with evidence of his assignations with a young male prostitute. Things are further complicated by the arrival of two lacklustre FBI agents (Rob Corrdry and Ron Livingston), Ed's Machiavellian wife Steph (Stephanie Sigman), and an awful event from the past that seems to cast a pall over the entire town.

The story unfolds in reverse order over a five-day period and Uziel makes use of that structure very well, setting up jokes, call-backs and references that then pay-off later in the movie but earlier in the timeline. It all builds towards an everything-you-know-is-wrong denouement that is both clever and satisfying. Admittedly, Shimmer Lake owes something of a debt to Fargo - the film and TV series - as well as heist movies such as Welcome To Collinwood and Things To Do In Denver When You're Dead. But if you can forgive the fact it wears its influences on its sleeve a bit too much, you'll find a lot to enjoy. A short scene involving Wilson, Rendall and a car radio had me laughing like an idiot as did a later moment when Wilson (an underrated comic actor of rare talent) attempts to turn off the bank's security cameras. In many ways, Shimmer Lake is a rather bleak film as past sins, small-town frustrations and stifled ambitions loom large. The fact Uziel integrates such material with laugh-out-loud comedy so adeptly is an achievement not to be sniffed at. 

Rainn man: Wilson stars in crime noir Shimmer Lake

To judge by recent movies, young women of the world should clearly avoid Berlin at all costs. In 2015's Victoria, an innocent Spanish girl was seduced into a life of crime on the city's mean streets. Now, in Berlin Syndrome (cinemas and Curzon Home Cinema) WW, an Australian backpacker is held prisoner by a deranged teacher in the titular German capital. I'm beginning to wonder if there's something Rough Guide has been keeping from us all these years.

Teresa Palmer plays budding photographer Clare, an Aussie passing through Berlin on a whistle-stop tour of European cities. She meets and has a one-night stand with Max Riemelt's Andi (never trust a man who spells Andy with an 'i'). However, when she tries to leave his apartment the following morning, she realises he's locked her in. Returning from work, he initially laughs off her concerns but it quickly becomes clear he has no intention of letting Clare leave and soon has tattooed 'Mine' on her shoulder, stolen the sim card in her phone, and trussed her up on a mattress. Worse still, Clare discovers she isn't his first victim...

It's a tense psychological thriller that, at almost two hours, perhaps goes on too long and doesn't really provide enough twists and turns to keep you truly hooked. Some of the symbolism is a bit obvious too (Clare finds a wolf mask lying in the street just after she first meets Andi) and the ending feels rushed. That said, Cate Shortland's direction is genuinely eye-catching, her use of small windows, low ceilings, odd angles and narrow corridors ramping up the feeling of claustrophobia to gasping point, while her colour palette (lots of greys and flaking, faded paint) brings an ugliness to proceedings that smartly reflects the dire straits Clare finds herself in.

Based on a 2011 novel, presumably inspired by the Elisabeth Fritzl and Natascha Kampusch kidnapping cases, ultimately Berlin Syndrome isn't a patch on Room, Lenny Abrahamson's 2015 film that does something genuinely different - and surprisingly uplifting - with similar subject matter.

What I shall be watching this week: What has two thumbs and tickets to see Baby Driver, plus a Q+A with director Edgar Wright straight afterwards? This guy!

Monday, 12 June 2017

A clunky finale comes close to derailing Patty Jenkins' otherwise impressive Wonder Woman

Prince valiant: Gal Gadot goes to war in Patty Jenkins' Wonder Woman

This review contains major spoilers - see the film and come back once you have. Look out for regular column Your Week In Film here tomorrow...

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

Wonder Woman
Director: Patty Jenkins
Starring: Gal Gadot, Chris Pine, David Thewlis
Running time: 2hrs 21mins

Whilst Wonder Woman is a substantially better film than Man Of Steel or Suicide Squad, and a far more focused one than Batman v Superman: Dawn Of Justice, it comes close to falling off a cliff in its final half-hour. Inventing compelling, genuinely different finales for superhero movies can't be easy (there always has to be a big CGI fight, right?) and there are few which truly deliver. Marvel's Ant-Man and Doctor Strange are hardly masterpieces but at least their endings try to think outside the box. Wonder Woman – the fourth live-action DC film since the Zack Snyder reboot – chucks in a couple of decent twists (including a surprise death), but still stumbles badly down the final straight.

When the movie's big bad – Ares, God of War – is finally revealed, it's almost as if no one knows quite what to do with him. Our Amazonian heroine Diana Prince (the words 'Wonder Woman' aren't uttered once here) and her antagonist exchange blows and throw stuff at each other for a bit in a fairly uninspiring procession of CGI time-filling. The UK film critic Mark Kermode often talks about how modern movie special effects often appear "weightless", a criticism he most recently levelled at X-Men: Apocalypse but it's certainly the case here too. It's all a bit video gamey. All a bit insubstantial.

Worse still, just when it looks like Ares has her on the ropes, Diana has an epiphany: she realises how noble and self-sacrificing mankind is (exemplified by Chris Pine's love-interest airman) and as a result gets to harness her inner goddess – lightning bolts and all – to take down her foe and win the day. Yes, it's one of those trite and awful 'power of love' endings just like we've seen a thousand times before in other films, TV shows and comic-books. It's a shame because, up until that point, Wonder Woman is pretty impressive.

Unlike those other DC movies, Wonder Woman isn't set in the present day. In fact, it's a standalone affair which only hints at a wider continuity in a framing sequence at the beginning and end. During the dark days of World War I, United States airman Captain Steve Trevor (Pine) crash lands on the shores of a hidden island – Themiscyra. There he encounters a race of Amazon warrior women including Diana (Gal Gadot), the daughter of Zeus and Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen). Fascinated by Trevor (she's never seen a man before) and keen to hunt down and kill Ares, who she suspects is behind the conflict, Diana accompanies the soldier back to 'man's world'. Fish-out-of-water antics and much punching of Germans ensues before Diana and her quarry come face to face in final battle...

Amazon prime: Wonder Woman takes on the Germans

Despite a lengthy running time, Wonder Woman never drags (even that problematic final act flies by). It's pacy and punchy, nicely combines melodrama and action with amusing interludes, and Gadot and Pine have good chemistry (their characters' obvious feelings for each other aren't layered on thick either). It would have been the easiest thing in the world to appease the fanboys by casting some younger, big-bosomed actress in the role but 32-year-old Gadot (Lynda Carter was 24 when she took the role) turns out to be a brave and ultimately perfect choice. Building on her impressive debut in BvS, not only can the former model act – she radiates innocence, decency and inner strength – she also has a wiry athleticism about her that almost makes you believe she could deflect bullets and bench-press a couple of tons without working up a sweat.

Gadot is clearly beautiful and her costume is skimpy and yet you never once feel she's being sexualised or exploited. Of all the things I liked about Patty Jenkins' film, I think this is its most impressive component. The male gaze is entirely absent and it's worth comparing and contrasting that with the way Scarlett Johansson's bum and boobs are on almost constant display in her Black Widow jumpsuit in The Avengers and Captain America films. Finally, girls and women have a heroine who feels like she's entirely theirs, someone who isn't there to make up the numbers or provide nerds with a few cheap thrills.

In interviews, Gadot has discussed how the film attempts to pay homage to Christopher Reeve's Superman films from the late '70s and early '80s (the revolving door scene in WW is apparently a tiny tip of the hat to the one in Richard Donner's original movie) and how, inspired by the late actor, Jenkins was keen to explore Diana's "goodness". I think that's problematic, mainly because Diana kills quite a few people in the course of the film, including running one of the villains right through with an enormous sword ('The Godkiller'). In fact, she has rather more in common with the Superman of Man Of Steel than she ever does Reeves' big blue boy scout. To be fair, a sword-wielding warrior woman that doesn't kill may well have seemed absurd anyway, especially in a war film.

I've argued before that one of my big problems with superhero movies – both Marvel and DC – is often the quality of the bad-guys. But the evildoers here are a cut above the likes of Ultron or The Enchantress. Danny Huston always gives good villain. His turn as the vampire leader Marlow in the underrated 30 Days Of Night was terrifying and he brings a little of that menace to bear here as Erich Ludendorff, a warmongering German general plotting to sabotage an attempted armistice. His sidekick, a brilliant but deranged scientist called Doctor Maru (Elena Anaya), aka Doctor Poison, is a little underused by comparison but is nevertheless an intriguing mix of sinister and tragic. In fact, the only weakness is Ares himself and that has nothing to do with actor David Thewlis and everything to do with the aforementioned CGI and the fact he's shoved centre stage at the end like the boss in a video game rather than a fully-formed character in his own right.

Air America: Star Trek's Chris Pine plays Captain Steve Trevor

Apart from Pine (a generous actor equally at home as a lead or, in this case, little more than a love interest-cum-plot device), the supporting cast is a disappointing collection of country-specific clichés. Oh look, there's Trainspotting's Ewen Bremner playing a drunken Scotsman, and there's The Office's Lucy Davis as a scatty English lady, and here comes Eugene Brave Rock as a Native American called, um, The Chief. In a film well over two hours in length there should have been a tiny bit more wriggle room for character development.

Jenkins – whose last big-screen movie was Monster way back in 2003 – isn't known for being an action director, but she takes on that mantle most impressively. There's a terrific extended scene that sees Diana smack-bang in the heat of battle – the trenches of Belgium's Western Front. In an attempt to reach an occupied village, she ventures out into No Man's Land and immediately comes under heavy bombardment from bullets and bombs, with only her sword, shield and magic bracelets to protect her.

It's the first time we see Diana really cut loose as she smashes the German armaments to bits before liberating the village and its people. In many ways it's the movie's pivotal sequence, not just because it's a bravura action set-piece but also for its symbolism. One of the world's most powerful feminine icons walloping the bejeebus out of her would-be male oppressors. No Man's Land, indeed.

Rating: WW½

Monday, 5 June 2017

Your Week In Film: Split, Jawbone, and BLAME! (June 5-11)

Night shift: The Sixth Sense director Shyamalan returns with Split

UK home entertainment highlights on VOD, Blu-ray and DVD for the next seven days. Films are available to buy or stream now, unless otherwise stated...

Whilst no masterpiece, Split (DVD, Blu-ray and VOD) WW is rather better than a lot of the stuff M Night Shyamalan has served up over the years. I'm thinking particularly of The Lady In The Water, Avatar: The Last Airbender and, worst of all, The Happening, a film so bad it briefly made me hate Mark Wahlberg just for being in it. Split is substantially superior to those clunkers but is still silly, uneven, and not a patch on the director's best work (The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable).

What saves it is a terrific turn – or rather, turns – from James McAvoy. He plays Kevin, a man with 23 distinct personalities, who kidnaps young women (in this case The Witch's Anya Taylor-Joy, plus Hayley Lu Richardson and Jessica Sula), intending to feed them to the most savage of his alter-egos, a creature known only as The Beast. McAvoy's personalities include 'Barry', the dominant identity, 'Hedwig', a nine-year-old boy, a woman named 'Patricia', and 'Dennis', a disciple of The Beast, who wants to seize control. McAvoy throws himself into every one of them with real gusto, a mischievous glint in his eye at all times as if to say, "I know this is bloody ridiculous but it's also a lot of fun". He even gets to play 'Dennis' pretending to be 'Barry' in one scene which is even more impressive.

I also liked the idea that Kevin's personalities have formed themselves into factions (pro- and anti-Beast) and are warring for dominance. Unfortunately, at two hours, Split outstays its welcome and there's a subplot with Kevin's psychiatrist (Betty Buckley) that just kills the film's pace stone dead every time it crops up. Worse still, the explanation for The Beast's origins are ridiculous, and whilst the ubiquitous twist will keep old-school Shyamalan fans happy, it feels like a cheat, as if the director couldn't come up with a genuine last-minute shocker so instead used it to set up a sequel.

Beastie boy: James McAvoy enjoys himself in Split

If, disappointed by Split, you're looking for a proper pant-wetting twist, look no further than Diabolique (Blu-ray) WWW½, the latest upmarket release from the Criterion Collection. Director Henri-Georges Clouzot's influential horror-thriller sees the wife (Vera Clouzot) and mistress (Simone Signoret) of a bullying headmaster (Paul Meurisse) team up to murder him. They drug him, drown him in the bath, then dump his body in a swimming pool, only for it to disappear overnight. Has someone moved the cadaver or is he still alive and plotting revenge? The 1955 film has a more leisurely pace than modern thrillers but when its shocks and twists hit home they do so most powerfully. The final few minutes are about as good – and terrifying – as this sort of stuff gets and led to its producers adding an end title that said: "Don't be diabolical yourself. Don't spoil the ending for your friends by telling them what you've just seen. On their behalf – thank you!" Sound advice, I'd say.

Criterion's first year in the UK has been a bit up and down with fans complaining that several of its releases have replicated stuff already available here (Cul-De-Sac, Solaris, 12 Angry Men). Diabolique will do little to dispel such complaints as the Arrow version is still easy to get hold of – and at a cheaper price – despite the company losing its rights to the film. The one thing you can always rely on Criterion for, though, is exclusive extras and these certainly don't disappoint. As well as a new digital restoration of the film, you get a selected-scene commentary by French-film scholar Kelley Conway, a new video introduction by Serge Bromberg, co-director of Clouzot’s Inferno, a new video interview with novelist and film critic Kim Newman, the original theatrical trailer, plus an essay by film critic Terrence Rafferty. Not a bad package for £18, I'd say.

Murder most foul: Diabolique is full of thrills and twists

Jawbone (DVD, Blu-ray and VOD) WWW is a compelling but low-key British boxing movie that succeeds despite containing elements of the 'battling underdog with a big heart' storyline we've seen an awful lot in similarly-themed films over the years. The excellent Johnny Harris (whose best work has been on British TV in the likes of This Is England and The Fades) plays London boxer Jimmy McCabe, a formidable prospect in his youth who's now a shambling alcoholic, struggling to keep a roof over his head. Ian McShane's shady promoter offers him a couple of grand to take part in an unlicensed fight "up north" against a younger, stronger opponent, which, desperate to catch a break, McCabe readily accepts.

Harris's barnstorming performance provides the electricity upon which the entire film runs. His McCabe is a proper hard nut but hopelessly lost too, and Harris – face-punchingly furious one minute, Uriah Heap-obsequious the next – captures that dichotomy to perfection. He is helped by a terrific supporting cast, including McShane, yes, but also Michael Smiley and Ray Winstone, the latter at his brooding, taciturn best as tragic gym-owner Bill. 

Director Thomas Napper's boxing scenes are frenetic, the climactic bout a blur of bludgeoning blows and blood, nailing its lack of Queensbury rules to wince-inducing perfection. We hardly ever see the film's London Docklands setting in proper daylight – it's deep shadows and cheap neon lights adding to the downbeat mood. Harris wrote the script himself and it's a smart bit of stripped-back storytelling, a real no-frills character piece with little in the way of subplots. He never goes out of his way to make you like the film's protagonist and part of that is refusing to provide him with an inspiring backstory or cuddly Rocky-style character. You have to take McCabe exactly as you find him and that's not at all easy. Harris's dialogue suffers from being a bit repetitive (I think he's going for 'naturalistic') but that quibble never comes close to derailing a film that might not reinvent the boxing movie but subverts the template just enough to make it well worth your time.

Punch drunk: Johnny Harris fights for his life in Jawbone

Netflix has done its usual trick of sneaking something new and exciting into its catalogue with minimal advance publicity. This time it's an anime adaptation of Tsutomu Nihei's manga, BLAME! (pronounced 'Blam!') WWW. I'm no expert when it comes to this sort of material but I do know beautiful animation when I see it and Hiroyuki Seshita's film is full to bursting with it.

Set in a perfectly-realised dystopia, a future city has gained self-awareness and rebelled against its human masters, locking them out of its systems and using sinister robot exterminators to hunt them down. The city has expanded exponentially in all directions, with many thousands of levels, leaving the remaining humans to live like savages and forage for food ('sludge') from service pipes. On one such expedition, a young girl named Zuru (big eyes, slim frame, brave heart) encounters enigmatic badass Killy the Wanderer, a mysterious stranger on a quest to restore the world to its natural order. 

There's a great deal of exposition, only a few of the characters are in any way memorable and the plot is all over the shop, yet it's also crammed with ideas, features a couple of terrific action set-pieces and, as I say, looks stunning. These Netflix Originals are starting to get very interesting (Bong Joon-ho's Okja arrives on June 28) and I fervently hope we see more BLAM! (the manga ran to 10 volumes so there's plenty to adapt).

Future shock: BLAME! boasts beautiful animation

Finally, Alice Lowe's excellent comedy/horror Prevenge WWW½ is also released on DVD, Blu-ray and VOD today. It's only getting a quick mention here because I reviewed it at length on its cinema release. You can find that review here.

Oh, and just a reminder that this blog has its very own Facebook page, here. I'm going to be giving it a bit of a revamp this week with a couple of new features, including a Film Of The Day, every day...

What I shall be watching this week: I'll be re-watching a few recent favourites ahead of my 'Favourite 20 films of 2017 so far' list, which will appear here in a few weeks' time. 

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

Monday, 29 May 2017

War Machine, Detour, The Damned: Don't You Wish That We Were Dead: Your Week In Film (May 29-June 4)

Brad timing: Pitt's General McMahon comes a cropper in Afghanistan

UK home entertainment picks for the next seven days... 

The most surprising thing about Detour (cinemas and VOD) WW is that it is written and directed by Christopher Smith, the talented British filmmaker who, a few years ago, gave us the underrated Severance and the wonderfully deranged Triangle. Alas, this – a more mainstream offering – isn't in the same league as either of those films, its overly tricksy structure and visuals working overtime to disguise the fact it has little substance or originality.

The film features three talented, up-and-coming young actors in Tye Sheridan, Emory Cohen and Bel Powley, nods to the likes of Tarantino and Hitchcock, but ultimately ends up as a rather vanilla version of Gregg Araki's gloriously transgressive The Doom Generation

Sheridan is rich-kid Harper, whose mother is in a coma following a car accident and clearly not long for this world. He suspects his step-father (True Blood's Stephen Moyer) of foul play and, during a long dark night of the soul, drunkenly offers bad-boy Johnny Ray (Cohen) a lot of money to kill him. Suffice to say, Harper's plan doesn't proceed smoothly, not helped when he develops an attraction for Cherry (Powley), the stripper girlfriend Johnny treats like dirt.

Smith tries to keep you on the backfoot with all sorts of feints and fakes (early on you wonder if you're watching a take on Sliding Doors, only for it to pivot off in a different direction), but he fails to elevate the material beyond that of a standard thriller with characters straight out of central casting. Cohen (Brooklyn) and Sheridan (The Stanford Prison Experiment) deserve better, while the excellent Powley (The Diary Of A Teenage Girl) does her best in a nothing role when, by now, she should be well on her way to the Hollywood A-list.

Wrong direction: Detour is a disappointing thriller

The Damned: Don't You Wish That We Were Dead (DVD, Blu-ray and VOD) WWW is Lemmy director Wes Orshoski's documentary about the titular British punk band who last year celebrated their 40th anniversary together. Well, I say 'together', but the truth of the matter is that the band's chequered history is made up of as many bust-ups and line-up changes as it is great music, unlikely reinventions, and bizarre digressions (see guitarist Captain Sensible's Happy Talk mega-hit).

Of The Damned's classic original line-up, which gave us the world's first punk-rock single, New Rose, and its first punk-rock album, Damned Damned Damned, only lead singer Dave Vanian has been an ever-present. Sensible left the band at the height of his solo success, only to return to its bosom somewhat chastened, while drummer Rat Scabies jumped ship in 1995 and songwriter/guitarist Brian James as early as 1977. An attempt at a reunion with all four of them in 1991 was a short-lived disaster.

Filmed in 2015, a framing device sees Vanian, Sensible and Co. playing dates on a world tour with the latter memorably turning 60 in Japan. All four originals feature prominently here, as do members old and new (The Damned seem to have gone through bassists like Spinal Tap did drummers). Despite the internecine aggro, this is a mostly positive and upbeat whistle-stop tour of the band's history, from the early days in London's nascent punk scene, through goth and neo-prog periods, to their status today as rock's great survivors and perhaps one of the most underrated bands of the last 50 years (celebrity fans such as Dave Gahan and Jello Biafra certainly seem to think so). 

It does attempt to delve beneath the surface of the main players with mixed results. We already knew Sensible was a likeable fool and Vanian an enigma, but James seems fragile and perhaps still scarred by the whole Damned experience, while Scabies is disappointingly angry and bitter. For all their absurdity and self-sabotage over the years, The Damned fully deserve their position as one of punk's unholy troika with The Sex Pistols and The Clash. Orshoski's film dares to take them seriously with a parade of talking heads lining up to pay homage to their full-throttle, trousers-down rock'n'roll and "have a good time all the time" ethos. Altogether now... Smash it up, you can stick your frothy lager, Smash it up, and your blow wave hairstyles!

Damned on the run: Punk-rock pioneers in the spotlight

I know there isn't a lot of serious competition but, as films based on the ill-fated 'War On Terror' go, David Michod's satirical War Machine (Netflix) WWW is one of the better ones. Set in 2009, during the occupation of Afghanistan, garlanded four-star General Glen McMahon (Brad Pitt) is despatched to the country in a bid to bring the ongoing, and increasingly embarrassing, conflict to a speedy resolution. Despite being told in no uncertain terms that he can't have any more troops and advised to stay clear of the notoriously dangerous Helmand Province, McMahon comes up with a foolproof plan to finally defeat the Taliban and win the war... um, 40,000 extra troops and an all-out assault on Helmand. The General's biggest headache, though, is about to be the Rolling Stone reporter who has somehow been granted access to him and his loose-lipped team...

Writer/director Michod (Animal Kingdom) treats the whole thing as a broad and rather bizarre farce, cleverly mixing fact and fiction and nodding more than once to the likes of Armando Iannucci's In The Loop and Barry Levinson's Wag The Dog. Meanwhile, Pitt turns in a performance that is only a hop, skip and a jump away from an all-out cartoon - his face pulled into an quizzical gurn, his voice a macho rasp, his hand a weird claw, as if he were holding an invisible cigar. It's a odd turn that works surprisingly well in a story as much about the general's mighty hubris as it concerns itself with a conflict that was by turns unnecessary, heart-breaking and surreal.

Loosely based on Michael Hastings' book about General Stanley McChrystal (The Operator: The Wild And Terrifying Inside Story Of America's War In Afghanistan), War Machine has laughs aplenty, some sharp lines ("Men are imperfect creatures. Left to their own devices, all they really want to do is play with their dicks and eat chicken"), and a parade of fine supporting turns - I particularly enjoyed Ben Kingsley as President Karzai. At two hours and change it's perhaps a bit longer than it needed to be but nevertheless skewers the absurd dichotomy at the heart of US counter-insurgency in Afghanistan. As Pitt tells his men early on, "We can't help them and kill them at the same time, it just ain't humanly possible."

Mean Machine: Brad Pitt takes on the Taliban

This week's TV picks...
1. Le Havre (Tuesday, Film4, 1.50am)
2. Marilyn Monroe Marathon - six of the iconic actress' best-loved roles including The Seven Year Itch and Some Like It Hot (Thursday, Sky Cinema Select, from 9.10am)
3. It Follows (Friday, Film4, 10.55pm)
4. The Sapphires (Saturday, BBC Two, 10pm)
5. Apocalypto (Sunday, Channel 4, 12.10am)

What I shall be watching this week: I'm off into London to finally catch Colossal. I shall also see Wonder Woman with the kids.

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

Monday, 22 May 2017

Your Week In Film: Hacksaw Ridge, Live By Night, and The Happiest Day In The Life of Olli Mäki (May 22-28)

Shoot the messenger: Andrew Garfield in Hacksaw Ridge

The highs and lows of UK home entertainment for the next seven days. All films available to buy, stream or watch now, unless otherwise stated...

I'm not sure Ben Affleck was ever 'cool' as such but these days he seems about as cutting edge as your mum and dad dancing down the front at a Nickelback gig. I've no idea when this sorry state of affairs came to pass. Despite the Oscars for Argo, did he truly ever recover from that whole excruciating 'Bennifer' business? Or has the malaise been a more recent phenomenon, perhaps prompted by the likes of Batman v Superman, The Accountant and his latest box-office flop Live By Night (DVD, Blu-ray and VOD) WW½?

The latter - a sprawling Prohibition-set mob drama with a revenge twist - isn't half bad actually but does suffer from a couple of major shortcomings. Firstly, it isn't very memorable. I only saw it a few months ago and, before writing this column, struggled to recall much of what happened or why. That's because the film is so plot heavy, lifting it could be an event in one of those World's Strongest Man contests. Secondly, Affleck - who directs, produces and stars - isn't the right choice for the lead. As mob enforcer Joe Coughlin, he's supposed to exude unshakeable confidence and menace, but instead spends the entire film looking a bit fed-up, like someone who's splashed out on a new pair of expensive trainers only to step in a big pile of dog muck the minute he puts them on. Frankly, Affleck couldn't do 'gangster' if his life depended on it.

All that said, there's something rather admirable about Live By Night's old-fashioned, deliberately-paced nature and slightly po-faced seriousness. Affleck's a better director than actor these days and his sumptuously-appointed 1920s-set film certainly looks the part. He also gets fine performances out of a terrific cast, especially Chris Cooper and Elle Fanning, as a self-loathing Sheriff and his troubled daughter.

Original gangster: Ben Affleck directs, produces and stars

Homeland and the aforementioned Argo may have been pulling our legs. It turns out that Iranians don't generally spend all their time burning the American flag and screaming "Death to the Great Satan" in Tehran's main square after all. In fact, whisper it, some of them drive cars, speak to each other on mobile phones, hold down jobs and own businesses. If Inversion (VOD) WWW is anything to go by, they also have huge rows with their families.

Behnam Behzadi's film centres on Niloofar (Sahar Dolatshahi), a 30-something businesswoman who runs her own clothing alterations shop in Tehran. She's single but romance seems set to blossom when an old school friend re-enters her life. Unfortunately, around the same time, her ageing mother's respiratory condition goes from bad to life threatening, and a doctor decrees the woman must leave the heavily polluted city for the cleaner air up north. Because she is unmarried and without children, Niloofar's brother and sister conspire to bully her into leaving Tehran to care permanently for their stricken mum. Niloofar resists...

If you've seen any of Asghar Farhadi's work you'll have some idea of the middle-class milieu to expect here, but Inversion is rougher round the edges than the likes of A Separation or The Salesman. It is a small but compelling, character-driven film with the odd soapy moment lobbed in for good measure. Dolatshahi is terrific and sells her predicament to perfection while Ali Mosaffa, as her scheming brother Farhad, is a noxious study in selfishness and misogyny.

I know it's a cliché to talk about cities being characters in their own right in certain films but Tehran is an important player here. Its smoggy atmosphere, jammed roads and pollution-stained buildings concoct an oppressive 'fug' that is mirrored by Niloofar's situation, both within her family and perhaps in Iranian society as a whole.

Family plot: Niloofar fights for her future in Inversion

Cinemagoers are surely so used to every 'true story' adapted for film being described as 'extraordinary' or 'astonishing', that we've become desensitised to it. But forget all those tales of soulless entrepreneurs and overrated entertainers, Hacksaw Ridge (DVD, Blu-ray and VOD) WWW is the real deal.

Andrew Garfield is Desmond Doss, a World War II medic and staunch pacifist, who went into the hell of battle completely unarmed. Up against guns, bayonets, knives, grenades and lord knows what else, he didn't have so much as a pointed stick with which to defend himself or his comrades.

Mel Gibson's Oscar nominee is very much a film of two halves; the first sees Doss struggling to rein in his violent, alcoholic dad (Hugo Weaving), wooing a local nurse (Teresa Palmer) and fighting the US military brass for the right to serve; the second pitches him right into Okinawa's heart of darkness, a hell of mud, blood, explosions and mangled limbs. Of course, it is in this latter scenario that the young medic truly comes into his own. Gibson does too because few can do jaw-dropping, stomach-churning violence quite like he can. The controversial director's depiction of death and destruction has been criticised for its graphic nature but I'd say it's necessary to lend credence to Doss's moral standpoint, to show precisely why the idea of killing another human being repulsed him so much.

Meanwhile, Garfield - a reserved study in stoicism, decency and profound bravery - turns in what had been his finest screen performance until Martin Scorsese's Silence came along. Yes, it's all a bit 'Oscar-baity' and the film's depiction of the Japanese (frothing lunatics to a man) is problematic to say the least, but this is often a more complex film than it is given credit for, with Gibson keen to highlight the problems with Doss's pacifism as much as his extraordinary acts of courage.

Death before dishonour: Garfield fights the good fight

One true story you could never describe as 'astonishing' or 'extraordinary' is The Happiest Day In The Life of Olli Mäki (MUBI) WWW, a lovably low-key film about a real-life Finnish boxer in the weeks leading up to a big world title fight. His preparations are derailed when he falls in love with his friend Raija (Oona Airola). Suddenly she's all the titular Mäki (Jarkko Lahti) can think about, and beating the tar out of his opponent or posing for corny photos with sponsors seem less and less appealing.

Set in the early 1960s and shot in gorgeous black and white, Juho Kuosmanen's film is an anti-boxing movie, not in the sense it rails against the sport, but because it breaks just about every rule this particular sub-genre usually insists upon. Yes, there's sparring, training and weigh-ins, but Mäki spends most of his time looking ill at ease, bored or worse (I don't recall a moment in any of Rocky's numerous training montages when he stuck his fingers down his throat to make himself throw up into a toilet in a bid to lose weight).

The former amateur fighter - nicknamed the 'Baker of Kokkola' - has stopped enjoying what he does, hates the constant glad-handing and compromises of the professional game, and is heartily sick to death of Elis (Eero Milonoff), his controlling trainer-cum-manager. He's a modest, humble man and dealing with documentary crews and press conferences is more than he can bear. When Olli falls for Raija, she's like a ray of light in his darkness and you instantly care more about their future together than you do about the climactic title bout. It's an effective and delightfully unusual love story in which the real Olli and Raija have a cameo.

Boxing clever: Kuosmanen's film is 'delightfully unusual'

This week's TV highlights
1. Django Unchained (Channel 5, Tonight, 10pm) 
2. United 93 (ITV4, Tuesday, 11.55pm) 
3. Bad Moms (Amazon Prime Video, from Thursday)
4. Rams (Film4, Thursday/Friday am, 12.40am)
5. Sex, Lies And Videotape (MUBI, from Saturday)

What I shall be watching this week: Everyone and his wife seems to hate Guy Ritchie's King Arthur: Legend Of The Sword but I remain optimistic...

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