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Saturday, 21 October 2017

London Film Festival Despatch #3: The Shape Of Water, Downsizing, and Happy End

Chain reaction: The Shape Of Water is an unusual love story

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

Watching Michael Shannon in The Shape Of Water WWWW makes you realise just how rare truly great screen villains have become. Shannon (Midnight Special) plays Strickland, the sadistic, candy-crunching, Bible-quoting head of a top-secret military research facility, who has captured an amphibious creature (Doug Jones) not entirely dissimilar to Hellboy's Abe Sapien or The Creature From The Black Lagoon. He tortures the poor beast with an electrified cattleprod, not because it holds information he requires or poses any particular threat, but rather because he enjoys inflicting pain upon something he considers an abomination. Strickland is a bastard's bastard, an unpleasant douchebag of epic proportions, and a real contrast to the parade of insipid CG-enhanced super-baddies we see trundled out in ever-greater numbers in blockbusters of all stripes. Finally, a villain you can love to hate again. The fact he'd be a shoo-in for a seat in Trump's cabinet is just a bonus.

Impressively, Shannon isn't the best thing about Guillermo Del Toro's early-'60s-set follow-up to the pretty but vacuous Crimson Peak. That honour belongs to Sally Hawkins, an actress who is truly at the height of her powers, as evidenced this year both here and in the underrated Maudie. Her character Elisa is a lonely mute, who works as a cleaner at the military facility where Strickland is holding what he refers to as "The Asset". Hawkins never speaks a word but the expressiveness of her face and body tells you everything you need to know. Sneaking into the room where the creature is kept, she makes contact, and they bond over hard-boiled eggs and big-band music, communicating via sign language. When Strickland announces the beast is to be vivisected, Elisa, plus neighbour Giles (Richard Jenkins), work colleague Zelda (Octavia Spencer), and Robert (Michael Stuhlbarg), a Russian spy posing as a US scientist, resolve to help him escape. 

In many ways, The Shape Of Water is peak Del Toro, covering ground we've seen him tackle before, both stylistically and in terms of its subject matter. The usual eye-popping visuals and fairytale tone are both present and accounted for, as is a powerful sense of time and place, and the way he uses the fantastical as a metaphor to talk about real people and the imperfect world they inhabit. Like Pan's Labyrinth (2006) before it, this is a creature feature for grown-ups. The difference this time, though, is that Shape feels more urgently contemporary than his previous work. It might be set in the 1960s but this is a plea for tolerance and kindness in the here and now. It would be easy to view Elisa as a saintly figure but she isn't really - she's only doing what anyone with an ounce of decency should do: stand up to bullies, push back against hatred and intolerance, defend the rights of those unable to defend themselves. I really don't need to draw you a diagram of who and what the director is taking aim at here.

Is it perfect? No. There are plot holes (security at the facility is lax to the point of total implausibility), while Spencer is lumbered with the same "sassy big sister" role she seems to play in everything (will someone hurry up and cast her as a serial killer?). And there's one sequence when the director takes the fairytale whimsy just a little too far. These are tiny niggles, though, when set alongside everything Del Toro's spectacular, emotional film gets perfectly right. Not just his most impressive work since Pan's but perhaps second only to it on a list of his best films to date.

Making a splash: Del Toro is finally back to his best

Half an hour into sci-fi comedy Downsizing WWW, you're confident of where its heading. Norwegian scientists have found a way to shrink people to only a few inches in height and, in a bid to lessen the impact of overpopulation and increasingly scarce resources, the procedure has been rolled out to anyone who can afford it. Enter Matt Damon and Kristin Wiig, a typical middle-class couple, who decide to go through the process so they can enjoy the lifestyle they've always wanted. They plan to move to a miniaturised community, where their savings and assets mean they have enough to live on for the rest of their tiny lives. But then, around a quarter of the way in, Alexander Payne's film spins off at a tangent, turning, in just a few scenes, from a lighthearted comedy, built on smartly-delivered sight gags and impressive CGI, to an altogether darker satire. All is far from well in this tiny would-be panacea, with Payne (Nebraska) taking aim at consumerism, exploitation, the misuse of technology, and the seeming inevitability of climate-based disaster. Some of the points the film strives to make are a little ham-fisted and there are times it is easy to forget Damon and Co aren't all just living in a regular-sized world. But, for the most part, it's engaging, entertaining and nicely told, with the great Christoph Waltz and Inherent Vice's Hon Chau stealing the show in meaty supporting roles.

Small wonder: Alexander Payne returns with Downsizing

If the humour in Michael Haneke's Happy End WWW were any blacker, they'd send miners underground to dig it up to burn as fuel. Set in Calais, it focuses on various members of the Laurent family, a wealthy but fractious bunch, which includes suicidal patriarch Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant), businesswoman Anne (Isabelle Huppert), her philandering brother Thomas (Mathieu Kassovitz), and disturbed son, Pierre (Franz Rogowski). When her mother is hospitalised, the group is joined by young Eve (Fantine Harduin), Thomas's daughter from a previous marriage, who may well be the most screwed up of the lot of them. Haneke lays out their trials and tribulations in a rather soapy way, but seems to have little empathy with these people, their bourgeois indulgences or self-inflicted woes. The fact the Amour director sets his film in Calais is very deliberate, as its port is the gathering place for many hundreds of asylum seekers desperate to make the crossing from France into the UK. What Haneke is keen to focus on is the obliviousness of France's moneyed classes to anyone's plight but their own. As a result, immigrants are practically invisible and silent in this film - but that speaks volumes about what he's trying to say. We glimpse them just twice - the second time towards the end as a sublime bit of farce unfolds at a glitzy wedding reception. Haneke's films are often quite chilly, alienating affairs (I'm thinking specifically of The Piano Teacher and Cache). However, the bleak but quite broad humour he brings to bear here makes Happy End one of his most accessible pieces of work. Critics have been sniffy, saying the director is going over ground he has covered before, but that's entirely forgivable when the results are this rewarding. 

F is for family: The Laurents battle their demons in Happy End

Finally, I want to mention a few movies I've reviewed for Film Inquiry (here and here) but that are simply too good not to devote some space to on this blog as well. Chief among them is You Were Never Really Here WWWW, Lynne Ramsay's punishing adaptation of Jonathan Ames's short story of the same name. mother! director Darren Aronofsky recently spoke about an idea he'd had for a Batman film and how he'd wanted Joaquin Phoenix to play the Dark Knight. That movie never happened but if Phoenix's beyond-intense performance here is anything to go by, he'd have been perfect for the role. The Inherent Vice actor is Joe, a Gulf War veteran turned hired muscle, who specialises in rescuing underage girls from sex traffickers. Armed only with a hardware-store hammer, he brutalises anyone who gets in his way, while wrestling with the mental and emotional consequences of a past and present steeped in such violence. Plot and action aren't what's important here, though, as director Ramsay (We Need To Talk About Kevin) focuses more on Joe's damaged psyche than anything else. It reminded me of Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver and I'm not sure there's any higher recommendation than that.

Hammer time: Joaquin Phoenix impresses as a disturbed Gulf War vet

Almost as essential is Norwegian director Joachim Trier's Thelma WWWW, a supernatural coming-of-age story with shades of Carrie. It sees the titular character, played by Eili Harboe, leaving her devoutly religious parents for university in Oslo, where she meets and falls in love with Anja (Kaya Wilkins). But the onset of a series of debilitating seizures threatens to end Thelma's new life of freedom, especially when they lead her to manifest strange and terrifying psychic powers. This is no mere super-powered CG fest, as Trier (Louder Than Bombs) focuses as much on Thelma's angst and awkwardness at growing up and coming out as he does on her burgeoning - and possibly malign - abilities. Last but certainly not least is Claire Denis's bleak romantic comedy, Let The Sun Shine In WWW, which features a sterling return to form from Juliette Binoche as a lovelorn Parisian artist. She has a string of suitors - including an awful banker and pretentious actor - and cries herself to sleep every night in frustration and torment at her inability to land someone truly special. Denis seems to take issue with the whole notion of romantic love and the idea of "finding the one", but such gratifying cynicism never undermines the empathy you feel for Binoche and her seemingly naïve, not to mention endless, quest.

What a Carrie on: Thelma develops terrifying psychic powers

My Top 10 new films of the festival...
1. 120 BPM (Beats Per Minute)
2. The Shape Of Water
3. You Were Never Really Here
4. Mudbound
5. Thelma
6. Brigsby Bear
7. Happy End
8. Redoubtable
9. Let The Sun Shine In
10. Good Time

Monday, 16 October 2017

London Film Festival Despatch #2: Blade Of The Immortal, 120 Beats Per Minute, and Battle Of The Sexes

Ton up: Blood Of The Immortal marks Takashi Miike's 100th film

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

120 Beats Per Minute WWWW is writer/director Robin Campillo's semi-autobiographical third feature, and the follow-up to his 2013 movie Eastern Boys. The powerful and compelling docu-drama is set in the early 1990s, amongst the activists of Act Up-Paris, a direct action group dedicated to combating the spread of AIDS. Their methods are non-violent but extreme, whether its drenching in fake blood the offices of a pharma company dragging its feet over the trial of a new drug, or invading a school in the middle of lessons to hand out pamphlets containing safe sex advice. Most of the characters to whom we're introduced are HIV-positive, so there is an urgent reason for their no-nonsense approach – they are, quite simply, running out of time to affect real change.

The opening scene set at one of the group's rather formal meetings is so naturalistic it took me a couple of minutes to catch on that I wasn't watching a documentary. In fact, it was only when I recognised Adèle Haenel, from Les Combattants and The Unknown Girl, did I realise these were actors, and very impressive ones at that. The fact it all rings so true, that you can feel its grit under your fingernails, is crucial to 120 BPM's success. Campillo begins with a large cast, more or less getting the same amount of screen time, before focusing in, more and more, on just two – Sean (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart), who has developed AIDS, and his lover Nathan (Arnaud Valois). As the group continues its activities, we see the former – a passionate, abrasive young man – start to fade away, in painful increments, as the disease takes hold of him. Culled directly from Campillo's own experiences as a self-confessed Act Up militant in the '90s, Sean's decline is heartbreaking, the writer/director's treatment of it impressively tender and loaded with empathy. He never loses sight of the fact his characters are people first and not just the victims of a disease. They have lives, in which they dance, drink and love, argue, fall out and make up. 

Despite sickness and death being two of the film's main themes, 120 Beats Per Minute is an uplifting piece of work. The comradeship the activists share is truly inspiring and their determination to set the agenda on the treatment of AIDS and its victims was crucial at a time when government (in France and elsewhere) was failing to act decisively, whilst paying lip service to homophobes. Act Up helped shake things up and Campillo's wonderful film is the tribute it deserves.

Class Act: Campillo's 120 BPM is powerful and compelling

Michel Hazanavicius's Redoubtable WWW isn't at all what you'd expect from a biopic of Jean-Luc Godard, the grandaddy of modern French cinema. Rather than serious, sombre and reverential, The Artist writer/director goes seriously off-message – in fact, this is frequently cheeky, mocking, and iconoclastic. Set during the Paris uprisings of 1967, it catches the left-wing director (played by Louis Garrel) at a key juncture, as he high-handedly declares "Fin de Cinéma", and vows in future to make films that don't rely on traditional means of production, distribution or exhibition. As well as railing against the ruling class and bickering with students, Godard woos and marries young actress Anne Wiazemsky (Stacy Martin), the star of his most recent film, a largely plotless but bitingly satirical piece, called La Chinoise, in which she plays a Maoist student (Redoubtable is loosely based on the late Wiazemsky's autobiography). This Godard is like the Woody Allen of Stardust Memories; fans tell him how much they love his "early, funny" movies, but there's also a touch of Basil Fawlty about him, his pomposity and hypocrisy skewered to hilarious effect (the sitcom feel even extends to a running gag in which Godard keeps breaking his glasses). However, this is far from a hatchet job. Underneath the caustic jabs, it's clear Hazanavicius has enormous affection for his subject's work, with various nods and winks to Godard's films peppered throughout, including a lovely recreation of Vivre Sa Vie's Joan Of Arc scene. That said, you don't need to be a Godard expert to enjoy Redoubtable – its smart script, fine performances and surprisingly evocative recreation of time and place see to that.

The God-father: Redoubtable takes aim at Jean-Luc

Legendary Japanese director Takashi Miike's 100th film (yes, really) is a flawed but entertaining adaptation of Hiroaki Samura's Blade Of The Immortal WW, a long-running manga which ceased publication in 2012 after 19 years. As the title implies, Blade tells the tale of a mighty samurai – Manji (Takuya Kimura) – cursed by a witch to walk the Earth forever. He takes pity on a young girl, Rin (Hana Sugisaki), and vows to be her instrument of vengeance against Anotsu (Sôta Fukushi) and his band of master swordsmen, who murdered her father. The opening sequence – filmed in moody black and white as Manji "dies" before receiving his curse – is truly electrifying, but, due to its extended running time and repetitive action sequences, Blade sags somewhat in the middle. However much you love well-choreographed, ultra-violent sword fights, with high body counts and lopped-off limbs, there comes a point where you just think, "Any chance Manji could do something else for a bit – maybe a spot of shopping or some gardening?" Thankfully, Miike pulls it all together in time for an impressively over-the-top grand finale, featuring Manji, Rin, Anotsu, and a few of the colourful supporting characters we've met along the way.

Slice of life: Blade is packed with sword-fighting action

Oscar-winner Emma Stone plays tennis legend Billie Jean King in the light but likeable comedy-drama Battle Of The Sexes WW. Set in the early 1970s and based on real events, it sees King duking it out with her sport's ruling body for prize-money parity with male players. She and other rebel female stars set up their own tour in opposition to the authorities but proceedings take a turn for the pantomimic when ageing former men's No.1 Bobby Riggs (Steve Carrell) challenges King to a match. Riggs is a huckster, gambler and showman, selling himself as the ultimate "male chauvinist pig" to shift tickets and put his fading career back on the map. After he cruises to victory against women's champ Margaret Court (Jessica McNamee), King agrees to take him on. Carrell is perfectly cast as the roguish Riggs but his rivalry with King is only a sideshow to this movie's wider preoccupations: the fight for women's rights (the tennis world provides a microcosm of what was going on in wider US society at the time, including Roe vs Wade) and married King's struggle to come to terms with her attraction to another woman (Andrea Riseborough's Marilyn). The frothiness of directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris's delivery, nor the circus-like tennis finale, detract from the serious issues under the microscope here, while Stone lends King a quiet but palpable strength.

Love match: Battle Of The Sexes explores King's sexuality

Five years after Safety Not Guaranteed, Aubrey Plaza finally lands another film role worthy of her talents, in black comedy Ingrid Goes West WW½. Plaza plays the titular Ingrid, mentally fragile and desperately lonely, following the death of her mother. After being left $60,000 in her mum's will, she moves to Venice Beach aiming to make friends with glamorously ghastly Taylor Sloane (Elizabeth Olsen), whose pretentious and vainglorious Instagram page she obsessively follows. A Single White Female situation quickly develops as Ingrid and Taylor become fast friends, but the arrival of Taylor's equally wretched brother Nicky (Billy Magnussen) puts a big fat fly in the ointment as he discovers Ingrid's multitude of deceptions. Matt Spicer's feature debut treats Ingrid's mental health issues with just enough due care and attention to avoid serious criticism but sometimes you're unsure whether you're meant to be laughing with Ingrid or at her, and the humiliating depths plumbed by her stalkerish behaviour. Plaza, who has a refreshing unpredictability and air of danger about her, could have had the part of Ingrid written for her so perfectly does it fit, while Olsen delights in sticking a metaphorical boot into California's army of boho beach blondies. Part character study, part biting satire, Ingrid Goes West asks some pretty tough questions about social media and the detrimental effect it can have on the self esteem of vulnerable people. 

California scheming: Aubrey Plaza has plans to make a new friend

Despatch #3 will include reviews of The Shape Of Water, Happy End, and Downsizing. Your Week In Film will return next Monday (October 23).

Thursday, 12 October 2017

London Film Festival Despatch #1: Brigsby Bear, Mudbound, and How To Talk To Girls At Parties

Bear necessities: Brigsby is a warm, sensitive and very funny tale of obsession

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

You regularly hear of professional critics sitting through five films in a single day and, god knows, I admire their stamina. In my first three days at the 61st London Film Festival I managed 11 movies and have been a gibbering husk of humanity ever since, my dreams colonised by talking bears, punk rockers and aliens, all set to a punishing musical score, courtesy of Goblin.

As I write, I'm yet to see any new movie which has truly blown my socks off in the same way Elle or Personal Shopper did last year, but a couple have certainly come close. One of those is director Dee Rees' Mudbound WWWW, a boldly ambitious and beautifully told tale of two American families – one white, one black – in the years before, during and after the Second World War. Yes, it's a period piece, but the film's meditations on white privilege and racism make it very timely.

Mudbound contains a multitude of noteworthy scenes, characters and moments but is perhaps most satisfying in its final third, when black army sergeant Ronsel (Straight Outta Compton's Jason Mitchell) and white airman Jamie (Garrett Hedlund, from Unbroken) return from the conflict changed men. Dissatisfied with the lives they're expected to just pick up on the Mississippi farm where the film is mostly set, the pair bond over booze and war stories, and become friends. Of course, this is the 1940s, in the deep south, and interracial friendships are not just discouraged but violently suppressed. 

They are both fascinating, complex characters. Jamie is clearly suffering from PTSD and buries the painful memories of combat with alcohol, while Ronsel pines for the white German woman he had to leave at the end of the war, and rails against the violent prejudice he still faces on his return to the US. Mudbound is an evocative title – every character is stuck, quite literally, in the thick brown sludge of the farm both families share, but also by bad choices or poor fortune, as well as the consequences of race, gender and prejudice.

In a little over two hours, Rees covers an astonishing amount of ground and yet most of the principal characters – including those essayed by Carey Mulligan and Mary J Blige – are afforded generous screen time and their own sub-plots. Despite its large cast and multiple narrators, Mudbound – based on Hillary Jordan's novel of the same name – never feels overstuffed or uneven. In fact, it is perfectly paced, with the climactic melodrama and its fallout providing scenes both memorable and horrifying.

Moreover, i
ts performances are uniformly superb (Mitchell, especially) and it would be remiss of me not to mention Breaking Bad's Jonathan Banks, as hate-spewing patriarch Pappy. If there's a more chilling evocation of pure undiluted racism in modern cinema, I've yet to see it.

There will be Mud: Dee Rees serves up a powerful period drama

If cloying earnestness won you Oscars, then Wonderstruck would surely sweep the board. Todd Haynes' overlong, over-sentimental tale of two deaf children alone in New York – one in 1927, the other in 1977 – tries to say something profound about the magic of life, nature and the senses, but comes across as gloopy gong bait of the worst kind. Mercifully, the film has two saving graces. One is Millicent Simmonds, as Rose, who doesn't utter a single word but says more with a wide-eyed gaze or hurt look than the rest of Wonderstruck manages in two hours and change. The other is Haynes' penchant for period detail. The austere black and white of the scenes set in the 1920s provide a startling visual contrast with the warm, technicolour palette of the '70s, although HBO TV show The Deuce's grubbier version of that particular era feels more authentic. Haynes has given us many treasurable films over the years – not least 2014's sumptuous Carol – but Wonderstruck feels uneven and laboured. It's a rare misstep.

Little wonder: Todd Haynes' latest is a disappointment

Brigsby Bear WWW is a sort of Dogtooth for nerds, which begins with Kyle Mooney's James being freed from the couple who had kidnapped him as a baby 25 years before. James' "parents" – Mark Hamill and Jane Adams – kept him completely isolated from other people for all that time and fed him a warped version of reality to control, educate and distract him, including a fictional TV show called Brigsby Bear Adventures, with which he is completely obsessed. Finally free, he struggles to come to terms with his new family and life, especially as it means a future without his beloved Brigsby. Produced by The Lonely Island crew – including Andy Samberg – and directed by Dave McCary (Saturday Night Live), Brigsby is an unexpected joy from beginning to end. A charming, funny celebration of obsession, and one of the year's most unusual coming-of-age tales, it also tackles notions of "putting aside childish things", and the fear of change, with great sensitivity and warmth. The incredible care and invention that has clearly gone into creating Brigsby's fictional universe is perhaps most impressive of all though.

Magnificent obsession: James (Kyle Mooney) can't leave Brigsby behind

Josh and Benny Safdie follow up 2014's ferocious Heaven Knows What with Good Time WWW, a fast-paced, '70s-influenced heist flick with rather more going on under the bonnet than it first appears. Robert Pattinson is Connie, a reckless criminal who brow-beats his mentally-impaired brother Nick (Benny Safdie) into joining him in a bank robbery. As is the tradition, the clumsy hold-up goes wrong and Nick is quickly arrested and imprisoned. On the run and growing ever more desperate, Connie plots to break him out. There are ingenious thrills and spills aplenty, plus a twist halfway through that still makes me giggle every time I think of it, but the further we get into Good Time, the more it becomes a character study of the two brothers. Connie – despite his roguish charm – is a human black hole, who destroys or damages anyone foolish enough to stray into his gravitational field. His choices are always bad, his profound lack of judgement almost comical. In contrast, Nick just wants to be left alone and is sick of being told what to do. Choices are something his vulnerabilities deny him. Theirs is, at its core, an abusive relationship, with the most heinous crime perpetrated here being not the robbery nor various acts of violence, but the way in which Connie exploits his brother. 

Criminal minded: Robert Pattinson stars in Good Time

How To Talk To Girls At Parties WW is a "punk romance" set in 1977, the year of the Queen's Silver Jubilee and The Sex Pistols' Never Mind The Bollocks. Based on a Neil Gaiman short story of the same name, it features Elle Fanning as an alien learning how to be human, Nicole Kidman as an ageing punk queen, complete with erratic cockney accent, and three horny teenage punks (including To The Bone's Alex Sharp) desperate to get off with any poor unsuspecting girl/extra-terrestrial who looks their way. It's madcap, inventive and charming for the most part but loses focus somewhat during a frenetic conclusion. Fanning and Kidman – last seen together in Sofia Coppola's The Beguiled – are clearly having the time of their lives and it's that sense of anarchic, anything-goes fun that gets this over the line. Coming-of-age tales are ten-a-penny but John Cameron Mitchell's film succeeds in bringing something a little less predictable to the table.

Being human: Elle Fanning is literally out of this world 

Finally, we welcome the return of an old friend... a sick, deranged old friend. Suspiria WWWW is not only the reddest film ever made but also one of the most bizarre, and here it is as good as new in a lovingly assembled 4K restoration. Suzy (Jessica Harper), a young American ballerina, travels to study at an exclusive German dance academy in Dario Argento's giallo classic, only for one of her fellow students to be butchered shortly after. Suzy and her new friend Sara (Stefania Casini) start to investigate the murder, leading to just the sort of dark revelations you'd suspect and fervently anticipate. The film's hysteria dial is turned up to 11 from the rain-swept beginning and barely drops below that during its 92-minute running time, Suspiria's lurid colour palette, Goblin's ear-pummelling score, and a series of grisly deaths making for a psychedelic horror experience like no other. The acting is stiff, the dialogue stilted and the weirdness of some scenes made audience members laugh out loud at the screening I attended. And yet, 40 years after its original release, Suspiria still casts a spell as it speeds towards a finale both sinister and unhinged. With all due respect to Luca Guadagnino, who is remaking the movie with Chloë Grace Moretz, Dakota Johnson, and Tilda Swinton, he's inviting a world of pain from fans and critics. The director might have better actors and better writers at his disposal than Argento ever did, but the chances of matching the manic intensity of this glorious original are surely remote.

A cut above: Suspiria gets a swanky restoration on its 40th anniversary

Next: Despatch #2 will include reviews of 120 Beats Per Minute, Blade Of The Immortal, and Ingrid Goes West...

Monday, 2 October 2017

Gerald's Game, Killing Ground, and Daphne: Your Week In Film (October 2-8)

Beech joy: Emily Beecham is terrific as the titular character in Daphne

The best and worst of this week's new home entertainment releases on DVD, Blu-ray and VOD. All films available to buy, rent and/or stream now, unless otherwise stated.

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

Please note: Some of these reviews contain spoilers 

Another week, another Stephen King adaptation. Hard on the heels of The Dark Tower and It, comes an effective but imperfect film version of the horror author's 1992 novel Gerald's Game (Netflix) WW½, with Mike Flanagan (Oculus, Ouija: Origin Of Evil) in the director's chair.

A simple set-up sees a well-heeled couple, Jess (Carla Gugino) and the titular Gerald (Bruce Greenwood), travelling out of town to their remote lake house, in a bid to put a bit of zing back into their moribund marriage. The bullying, misogynistic Gerald has a sex game in mind which involves handcuffing Jess to the bed, something she really isn't comfortable with but accedes to anyway. The pair argue, Gerald has a bad reaction to a Viagra pill he's popped and, before you know it, he's lying dead on the floor. There's no one for miles around, Jess can't reach the key for the cuffs or her mobile phone, and things look bleak. Vulnerable, terrified and in increasing pain, she starts to hallucinate...

Flanagan is very good at setting out Jess's awful predicament - he homes in on the phone and keys, agonisingly beyond her grasp, the remoteness of the lake house, the way the curtains throw disconcerting shapes on the floor and walls as night falls. Through a series of close-ups, he puts you right there, in that room, with her. You feel her panic, exhaustion and desperation, as she converses with visions of both herself and her dead husband. Soon enough, you also feel her resolve as Jess's memories dig up impossibly painful moments from her past. Ultimately, Gerald's Game is about a survivor doing the thing they're best at... finding a way to come through the horrors life throws at them.

It'd be quite easy to draw parallels with King's Misery, in which another of his characters spends a good deal of a story tied to a bed. But Jess is a prisoner not of a deranged stranger - not even, really, of the handcuffs - but rather of the men she should have been able to trust the most, but who let her down terribly; namely husband Gerald and her father. The realisation she's been held captive most of her life, and what she does with that knowledge, provides her with a possible but discomforting path to salvation.

Greenwood is perfect here as the mephitic Gerald - you can practically smell the booze on his breath and expensive cologne on his leathery skin. But, as you'd hope and expect, it's the underrated Gugino's film. Jess is a woman who has put up with a lifetime of shit, surviving by keeping her mouth shut and making excuses for her abusers, but who is now in the biggest mess of her life. Gugino (Sucker Punch, Watchmen) can do the "tough but vulnerable" woman routine until the cows come home but it's her character's transformation that catches the eye here. You believe in her at the end just as much as you do at the start, although the two are very different women. One battered by adversity but somehow still standing, the other its conqueror.

It's a shame, then, that Gerald's Game goes off the rails towards the end. A seemingly supernatural element is introduced into the film as, cuffed to the bed, Jess thinks she encounters an embodiment of death, called Mr Moonlight. As just another of her hallucinations, this would have been a perfectly interesting story swerve. Unfortunately, in the final 10 minutes, we're buried under an avalanche of exposition, amongst which Mr Moonlight's appearance is clumsily rationalised (although at least foreshadowed early on). It's completely unnecessary because the film's themes and ideas really couldn't be clearer and didn't need any further narrative embroidery. Maybe it all worked better in the book...

Game of death: Carla Gugino as Jess battles for survival

Self-destructive young women struggling to find their place in the world is a character type well covered over the last few years in the likes of Lena Dunham's Girls and Phoebe Waller Bridge's extraordinary Fleabag - both successful, critically-acclaimed TV shows. Daphne (cinemas and VOD) WWW½, marks out similar territory, although it does so in a subtler, rather more low-key style than its television counterparts

Emily Beecham (who I'm trying but failing to remember from Hail, Caesar!) plays the titular character, a 31-year-old chef living in London, who doesn't particularly enjoy either her career or life in general. She avoids her mum (Geraldine James), drinks too much, snorts coke, sleeps with the odd stranger who stumbles onto her radar, and seemingly spends much of her alone time reading. So far, so familiar. Proceedings take a turn for the worse, though, when she witnesses a shop-owner being stabbed by a would-be robber. It makes her question everything about herself. Why doesn't she feel more for the victim? Why didn't she hold his hand while they were waiting for the ambulance? Why does she find it so difficult to truly connect with anyone? What's the point of it all, anyway? The trauma clearly affecting her creeps up on Daphne in heartbreaking increments until, following a drunken meltdown at work, she's clearly on the verge of nervous collapse.

Daphne barely puts a foot wrong, boasting as it does a fascinating performance full of nuance from Beecham, a smart script with a bunch of memorable scenes courtesy of Nico Mensinga, and assured direction from debutant Peter Mackie Burns, who has a real eye for London life. The fact the film is penned and helmed by men might be problematic for some but I wonder if Beecham had a hand in some of the lines and scenes, perhaps improvising certain parts of it? It wouldn't surprise me at all, so natural and authentic is she.

Gone girl: Daphne's on the verge of a meltdown

Aussie horror Killing Ground (cinemas and VOD) WWW is another of those "nice couple menaced by evil strangers in a remote setting" films which seem to have carved out a sub-genre all their own (see Eden Lake, Preservation, and The Strangers). Damien Power's unnerving movie is a notch or two above the usual exploitation hijinks, though, mainly because its storytelling is so strong.

Sam (Harriet Dyer) and Ian (Ian Meadows) are a loved-up young couple on a camping trip to a secluded site by a picturesque river. Upon their arrival, they're surprised to find another tent all set-up but no one staying in it. What they don't know is that three members of the family there previously have been slaughtered by two local villains, Chook (Aaron Glenane) and German (Aaron Pedersen), with Sam and Ian earmarked next for the chop.

You take tension, terror, thrills and spills in this kind of caper for granted but Power gives all those elements a pleasing spin. Using a non-linear approach, he cuts constantly from Ian and Sam, to Chook and German, to the pair's first victims, expertly ratchetting up the suspense, increasing the pace, and filling in the backstory as he goes. Giving the story's antagonists their own slice of the narrative is unusual in itself but extremely effective. You almost kid yourself they're not as bad as they seem... before the murder and abuse starts.

Despite the harrowing subject matter, Power is surprisingly restrained in what he shows us. Yes, there are moments of real ugliness but a lot of the worst stuff remains off-camera. Having to work out what has happened only serves to make it even more horrible. He's also keen to demonstrate how "normal" people might react in such a terrible, life-threatening situation, with Ian and Sam's relationship potentially ruined by the terror, leading to inaction, of one of them. An unusual take on familiar subject matter, Killing Ground is one of the year's most satisfying chillers.

Trigger happy: A young couple are targeted in Killing Ground

Finally, there's Zoology (cinemas and VOD) WWW, a delicious slice of social satire from Russian director Ivan I. Tverdovskiy. The excellent Natalya Pavlenkova is Natasha, a put-upon middle-aged woman who works at a zoo in a grey coastal town, and still lives at home with her mother. Bullied by work-mates (a parade of grotesques to give Francis Bacon pause), she is thoroughly lonely, unfulfilled and doesn't fit in. In fact, Natasha has more meaningful relationships with the zoo animals than she does with any of the humans she encounters. Things improve somewhat when she suddenly - and inexplicably - grows a long, pink tail. Keen to embrace this outrageous turn of events, in no time at all she's having an affair with her young doctor, prancing about in her underwear to pop music, and behaving badly in public.

Zoology is funny and strange, yes, and can be enjoyed entirely at face value, or as a metaphor for something else entirely. I wondered at first if Natasha's tail might be a way for Tverdovskiy to discuss his character's sexuality, politics, religion (or lack of same). But I think his message might be simpler than all that: it's about individuality and owning the things that make you different, rather than hiding them or being ashamed of them. Simplistic? Maybe, but a point of view that should resonate not just in Russia, but anywhere on the planet people face attack or sanction merely for standing out.  

Film of the week: Daphne

What I shall I be watching this week: Starting later this week, I'm going to be spending seven days at the London Film Festival. As a result, there won't be a Your Week In Film column next Monday but I will be posting reviews of some of the new movies I see, including Mudbound, How To Talk To Girls At Parties, and Battle Of The Sexes. I'm seeing 18 films in my time at the festival, so will have a lot to talk about, I'm sure.

The UK's 10 top-selling DVDs/Blu-rays (films only)
1. Baywatch
2. King Arthur: Legend Of The Sword
3. Moana
4. Beauty And The Beast
5. Alien: Covenant
6. Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol.2
7. Kingsman: The Secret Service
8. Sing
9. Finding Dory
10. Zootropolis

Monday, 25 September 2017

King Arthur: Legend Of The Sword, The Bad Batch, and The Red Turtle: Your Week In Film (September 25-October 1)

A right Charlie: Hunnam is King Arthur in Legend Of The Sword

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

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

In a year of egregious box-office flops, one film stands head and shoulders above the rest as the floppiest flop by far. Some madman gave Guy Ritchie (Lock, Stock, And Two Smoking Barrels) $175million to make King Arthur: Legend Of The Sword (DVD, Blu-ray and VOD) WW, only to see it bomb spectacularly. When a $100m marketing budget is factored into the equation, The Hollywood Reporter reckons the film will end up losing around $150m. In parlance Ritchie would understand, "Blimey, soppy bollocks, you've made a right pig's ear of that, ain'tcha?"

As well as losing a horrifying amount of money, Legend Of The Sword suffered a critical kicking, confirming the film as a 24-carat, copper-bottomed disaster. Oddly enough, though, it really isn't anywhere near as terrible as we've been led to believe. It's no misunderstood classic, I'll grant you, but no worse than most other summer blockbusters in this or any other year. I'd certainly rather sit through it again than a single minute of Power Rangers, The Dark Tower, or The Mummy.

This is an origin story and Ritchie certainly isn't afraid to offer a very different take on the Arthurian legends. In his version, Arthur's uncle Vortigern (Jude Law) has killed Arthur's father Uther (Eric Bana) and seized his throne. Arthur (Charlie Hunnam) managed to escape and, unaware of his birthright, grows up and amasses a small fortune living outside the law. When Vortigern - paranoid that Uther's son will one day come looking for him - demands every adult male in his kingdom must attempt to pull the former king's enchanted sword Excalibur from its stone, Arthur shows up and does precisely that. Action, adventure, magic, sword play, and enough cockney accents to fill EastEnders for a month ensue.

Whilst you have to admire his chutzpah, Ritchie makes some odd choices. How do you update King Arthur for the 21st Century? According to the Sherlock Holmes director, you turn him into a sort-of superhero. Whenever he grips Excalibur two-handed, Arthur's eyes glow an uncanny blue and a strange hurricane thingy descends and throws all his enemies around. It's like he's a member of the X-Men or something. It's also a misstep to completely ditch Guinevere and Lancelot from the story. Surely one of the most intriguing facets of Arthurian lore is that while Arthur has the power and charisma to unite and rule an entire nation, he's incapable of keeping his missus from another man's bed. It makes the 'Once and future king' vulnerable, a right bloody big cissy, and something Ritchie therefore has no interest in.

When Ritchie isn't taking liberties with the source material, he's nicking ideas from all over the shop - Macbeth, Game Of Thrones, Reservoir Dogs, and John Boorman's Excalibur (the best King Arthur film) to name but a few. And while I wondered if the appearance of a giant snake might be a meta-commentary on the film's relentless laddishness, I ended up deciding it was probably just appropriated from the 1976 version of King Kong.

Despite its numerous shortcomings, though, Legend Of The Sword is never boring, and a lot of that is down to Ritchie's pacy, showy direction (particularly in a short but celeverly conceived scene, featuring the Lady of the Lake). Meanwhile, Law chews the scenery as the wretched Vortigern to pleasing effect, and it's always a treat to see the criminally underrated Neil Maskell (Kill List) again, especially when it's in a pretty meaty supporting role as Arthur's comrade in arms, Back Lack. Ritchie's movie does just about enough to ensure I'd have been on board for a sequel... although the chances of such a thing happening are probably on a par with Tommy Wiseau directing the next Bond picture.

Sword of vengeance: Arthur is out to reclaim his birthright

The Bad Batch (Netflix) WWW is a woozy, sun-baked, fever dream of a movie that could be called a cannibal love story, a dystopian sci-fi western in the mould of Mad Max, or simply a very odd black comedy. We should probably expect nothing less from the mind of writer/director Ana Lily Amirpour for the follow-up to A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night, her terrific horror-inflected debut from 2014, which was similarly keen to mix and match genres, sub-genres, and all sorts of seemingly contrasting ideas at will.

It's the future and all the criminals, ne'er-do-wells and oddballs (the titular 'Bad Batch') have been kicked out of the United States and confined to a vast desert area outside Texas. Soon after her arrival in this most hostile of environments, Arlen (British model Suki Waterhouse) is abducted by residents of a small town populated entirely by cannibals, including Jason Momoa's Miami Man. She loses an arm and a leg to her hungry hosts but, with the help of the mysterious, mute Hermit (an unrecognisable Jim Carrey), escapes to a blissed-out, drugged-up religious community under the leadership of The Dream (Keanu Reeves). When Miami Man's young daughter falls under The Dream's seemingly nefarious spell, Arlen puts aside her hatred for him and decides to rescue his kid.

Whilst it contains just as many ideas as Girl..., The Bad Batch never quite catches fire in the same way. Perhaps its influences seem a little easier to spot this time, while Arlen is nowhere near as intriguing a protagonist as Sheila Vand's Chador-clad creature of the night. Perhaps it's unfair to compare the two films but inevitable when both are very unconventional love stories, as well as movies about outsiders (vampires, cannibals, and criminals). That said, Lyle Vincent's photography is gorgeous, the soundtrack one of the year's best and Amirpour makes some good points about the way in which those who don't conform are brutalised and discarded. Proceedings only really threaten to derail towards the end, when Reeves takes centre stage, and starts talking about toilets. I expected Captain Underpants to show up at any moment.

The hunger games: Momoa turns cannibal in The Bad Batch

In a good week for off-kilter romance, there's also The Red Turtle (DVD, Blu-ray and VOD) WWW½, a wordless (but not silent) animated collaboration between the legendary Studio Ghibli and Oscar-winning Dutch animator Michaël Dudok de Wit. 

A simple but very moving story sees an unnamed man washed up on a desert island, presumably following a shipwreck. His attempts to escape on a series of wooden rafts are scuppered by a mysterious creature, which is eventually revealed to be a huge red turtle. When the great sea beast lumbers onto dry land, the man kills it in a fit of fury. It's at this point proceedings take a turn for the most peculiar and, what started off as a simple survival story, pitches headlong into the realms of purest fantasy.

One look at the trailer should give you an idea of just how beautiful De Wit's minimalist animation style is. The film is only 80 minutes long but it took me nearer to two hours to watch all the way through, because I kept hitting the pause button, so I could gaze admiringly at his figure work and gorgeous backgrounds. Dear god, it's lovely.

What The Red Turtle is actually about isn't easy to pin down and is probably all the better for it. De Wit isn't interested in spoon-feeding you explanations for what is going on and clearly wants his audience to make up their own minds. As a result, his film sticks around in your head for days afterwards (perhaps the only thing it has in common with Darren Aronofsky's mother!) as you mull over its possible meaning. Is it a dream? An exploration of man's relationship with nature? A celebration of life, love and death? I rather suspect it's all three and a lot more besides.

Turtle power: Another beautiful animation from Studio Ghibli

Film Of The Week: The Red Turtle

What I shall be watching this week: On Body And Soul - an unusual love story set in a Hungarian abattoir, from a director who hadn't made a film in 18 years - has intrigued me, so I'll be checking it out on Curzon Home Cinema.

UK's top 10 best-selling DVDs/Blu-rays (films only)
1. Alien: Covenant
2. Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol.2
3. Kingsman: The Secret Service
4. Sing
5. The Boss Baby
6. Hacksaw Ridge
7. Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them
8. Beauty And The Beast
9. La La Land
10.Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol.1 and 2

Monday, 18 September 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Film of the Week: The Villainess.

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

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

Friday, 15 September 2017

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

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

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

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

Please note: This article contains spoilers for The Shawshank Redemption

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating then: WWW
Rating now: WWW

Coming soon: The Dark Knight