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Thursday, 30 November 2017

Justice League might have been a lot better without the reshoots and revisions

Major League: DC's superheroes unite to take on a new cosmic threat

Justice League (2017)
Director: Zack Snyder
Starring: Ben Affleck, Gal Gadot, Henry Cavill
Running time: 2hrs

There's a scene early on in Justice League which came close to convincing me the omens of doom and gloom that had surrounded the picture might, after all, turn out to be about as accurate as a newspaper horoscope.

Steppenwolf (Ciaran Hinds), the movie's bad guy, had just crashed in on the Amazons of Themyscira (Wonder Women's place of birth) and tried to steal a super-powerful device called a "Mother Box". The Amazons swiftly absconded with the McGuffin as the cosmic villain gave furious chase, the fast-moving sequence soon turning into something approximating a super-powered game of rugby, as the women, some on horseback, switched the box from one to the other, Steppenwolf gaining all the time. It's actually quite thrilling, but over too soon and, ultimately, a false dawn, as nothing else in this latest superhero slugfest comes anywhere near matching it.

In fact, the plot is so thin for the fifth movie in DC's embattled Extended Universe, it could have a successful career on the catwalk. After Superman (Henry Cavill) died at the end of Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice, Earth is suddenly vulnerable to attack from all manner of cosmic ne'er-do-well. One of these, the aforementioned Steppenwolf, wants to unite three Mother Boxes which will give him immense power to conquer planets, subjugate peoples and presumably jump the queue at Legoland. Batman (Ben Affleck) and Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) put together a team to combat the threat, which includes king of the oceans Aquaman (Jason Momoa), super-speedster The Flash (Ezra Miller), and half-man/half-robot Cyborg (Ray Fisher), but it seems they might have to find a way of bringing back a certain fallen comrade to stand a chance of victory in the coming conflagration.

As we know, director Zack Snyder had to leave the project unfinished after suffering a personal tragedy, with The Avengers' Joss Whedon drafted in to handle the post-production and a number of reshoots deemed necessary to lighten the mood of the film. Despite taking $873million at the worldwide box-office and making a perfectly reputable profit of over $100m, apparently Snyder's dark vision for Dawn Of Justice scared the horses (snooty critics, internet big mouths) too much, and what Warner Bros now wanted instead was something a little more quippy, a bit more "Avengersy". So they've got Whedon to add a few scenes of light-hearted bantz here and there, like one where Aquaman pours out his heart to the rest of the group, only to discover he's been sitting on Wonder Woman's "lasso of truth" all along. Oh, my sides!

The film's problems run deeper than an uneven tone and some weak gags though. The villain Steppenwolf is, for want of a better word, rubbish. An entirely CG creation, he's just another dull, all-powerful rotter who spews clichéd dialogue about conquering and destroying. On the best day of his life, he's a villain of the week on Supergirl, a Poundland version of Wonder Woman bad-guy Ares. Jesse Eisenberg's annoying but at least intriguing Lex Luthor was deemed beyond the pale for this Dawn Of Justice sequel, but what he's been replaced with is a lot worse – Steppenwolf is bland, even with an army of weird insect people (Parademons) to command. 

Joss-tice League: Whedon plus Snyder is not a good fit

And say what you like about BVS but at least it felt big, bold and epic. Yes, it was all over the place and absurd at times. But its free-wheeling messiness, and throw-enough-mud-at-the-wall philosophy, just added to its appeal. Here, everything is very linear, straightforward, and settled inside two hours, with a certain clarity but little to no vision. Instead of a $200m blockbuster, it felt for all the world like an episode of Green Arrow or Legends Of Tomorrow – its startlingly so-so CG effects were certainly of a similar quality.

I don't understand Warner Bros' insistence on a 120-minute running time either (although Snyder's intended 2hr 50 magnum opus would have been taking the piss). Has there been some internet clamour I'm not aware of to make blockbusters shorter? If so, no one has been listening – Wonder Woman comes in at 2hr 21, Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol.2 at 2hr 16, Thor: Ragnarok at 2hr 10, and Logan at 2hr 17. If you have more story to tell – and Justice League clearly did – what's the problem with a few extra minutes, especially when this film's intended audience is well used to binge-watching entire series on Netflix in one or two sittings?

More positively, Affleck continues to grow into his role as Bruce Wayne/Batman (his gruff Bat-voice isn't half as silly as Christian Bale's for a start) and Gadot remains perfectly cast as Diana Prince/Wonder Woman. There are some nice bits with Superman Cavill, too, as we finally see him channelling Christopher Reeve's note-perfect take on the character. Meanwhile, Ezra Miller's Barry Allen/The Flash, a super-fast Sheldon Cooper, is easily the pick of the newcomers. Apart from looking butch, Momoa's Arthur Curry/Aquaman doesn't have much to do, although he's more interesting than brooding bore Victor Stone/Cyborg (Ray Fisher). It's right and proper there's an African-American character on the team, but DC comics are full of so many more interesting people of colour they could have chosen instead, including the Green Lantern John Stewart, Vixen, and Black Lightning.

Justice League isn't a total write off (I certainly enjoyed it more than I did Suicide Squad or Man Of Steel), but I wish Warner Bros would have had the courage of Snyder's convictions. For all his faults, they should have stuck by the director's vision for the film because what they've got now the dust has settled is a clumsy compromise (a "Frankenstein", according to one insider) that feels small, truncated and unnecessarily mucked about with (the saga of Cavill's moustache is a whole other blog entry on its own). The critics have still been brutal and the box office hasn't been great – can anyone say with any certainty the reaction would have been any worse had Whedon not been involved?

Rating: WW

Justice League is in UK cinemas now

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

Monday, 27 November 2017

Beach Rats, Wet Woman In The Wind, and The Work: Your Week In Film (November 27-December 4)

Rat pack: Frankie is keeping a secret from the members of his gang

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

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

It's been a year for films in which young men wrestle with their sexuality, most notably in Barry Jenkins' masterful Moonlight. Beach Rats (VOD and cinemas) WWW has certain similarities with the Best Picture Oscar winner, particularly in the way it seeks to tackle notions of masculinity and the idea you can't be a "real" man and gay at the same time. It's about self-denial, guilt, and, ultimately, trying to come to terms with who you are. Moonlight's Chiron is a little more successful at that than our protagonist here though.

Set in Brooklyn, Eliza Hittman's film focuses on Frankie (Harris Dickinson), a troubled, working class teenager experimenting with drugs and sex, as his dad slowly but surely succumbs to cancer. Frankie spends most of his time hanging around at the beach with a small group of friends, all tough-talking, aggressively heterosexual males but, on his own, has started talking to men in chat rooms and meeting them for sex. He also starts seeing Simone (Madeline Weinstein), an attractive young woman who hits on him at a fairground, but it quickly becomes clear his heart simply isn't in their relationship. He prefers men but cannot come out to either his supposed friends or mum, who he figures has quite enough trouble on her hands, caring for his dying father.

It's a sad film in many ways. Frankie is trapped and has to live a lie. He can't be who he wants to be, and isn't entirely sure what that is anyway. He's trying to figure stuff out, but the pace of life and the trials it keeps throwing his way, won't give him time and space to do that. Hittman – and the excellent Dickinson – impressively capture Frankie's confusion and flailing around for meaning. They are also confident enough to not always make him particularly sympathetic either. If Beach Rats is a coming-of-age story, it's one that refuses to offer up easy answers and "everything will work out just fine" platitudes. It accepts that life is tough and, for Frankie, might only get tougher. 

Rat race: Life seems to have it in for teenager Frankie

Wet Woman In The Wind (Mubi) W is the first of two new releases from Nikkatsu, the company whose films dominated the Japanese soft porn market during the 1970s and '80s. These new features, which also include Antiporno (in UK cinemas now), were made with the same creative rules as the original movies – they have to be under 80 minutes long, shot in a week or less, and include at least one nude or sex scene every 10 minutes.

Here, a free-spirited and sexually voracious young woman, named Shiori (Yuki Mamiya), pesters Kosuke (Tasuku Nagaoka), a successful Tokyo playwright turned hermit, to have sex with her. Disillusion with past relationships is the reason he lives a remote and solitary life, so Kosuke sends her on her way. He soon comes to regret the decision, however, when he sees Shiori having sex with other men, one a surfer she takes back to Kosuke's shack in the forest and screws in his bed. Will the two ever get it together to do the "horizontal tango"? It's a real head-scratcher...

Unfortunately, Wet Woman's crazily evocative title is the best thing about Akihiko Shiota's film, a seemingly good-natured but actually rather grubby affair, which seems to think sexual assault is perfectly acceptable fodder for shits and giggles. There's an actual rape (albeit implied but never commented on again), an attempted rape, and a verbal threat of rape during its mercifully brief 77 minutes. This stuff isn't ever acceptable but seems even more egregious in the current climate. Admittedly, there are a couple of funny slapstick moments and the cast all give it 100 per cent (especially in the numerous "beast with two backs" scenes), but this is crummy, old-fashioned fare from which we've surely all moved on. What's next, a reboot of Robin Askwith's Confessions films? Phwoar!

Rising damp: Wet Woman In The Wind is an old-fashioned dud

Jairus McLeary and Gethin Aldous's documentary The Work (DVD) WWWW takes place in Folsom State Prison, California (yes, the one made famous by Johnny Cash), and follows three members of the public – all men – who have volunteered to participate in a radical and intense four-day group-therapy session, side-by-side with long-term felons locked up for all manner of violent crimes, including murder, kidnap and armed robbery.

Facilitators are on hand to kickstart the sessions, with the idea being for the men – felons and non-felons – to open up emotionally about their frustrations, regrets and the "betrayals" they feel they have faced throughout their lives. Despite their tough façade and awful crimes, it quickly becomes clear the prisoners are in fact rather fragile human beings, who have been hurt terribly but are incapable of processing their pain or letting it out. They've found a way to prevent themselves hurting and are emotionally stunted as a result. One inmate has never properly grieved the death of his sister, another is contemplating suicide because he can't see his son, a third is increasingly repulsed by his own propensity for violence. Whatever these men have done, this stuff is heartbreaking, and their commitment to guiding each other through it admirable (especially when you consider some are members of rival gangs within the prison).

The group encourages its members to go to the darkest places they can imagine ("the wound"), and unearth the most distressing memories they find there. Suffice to say, proceedings get very raw as they cry, howl, kick out and breakdown. Facing what has been done to them and what they have done is too much for some, but ultimately leads to catharsis and maybe even a step on the way to rehabilitation. In such emotionally charged circumstances, the prisoners are often more sympathetic than the three "outsiders", whose own tales of woe are small potatoes in comparison to what the incarcerated men have been through. Their presence is important, though, as they help us see the inmates as human beings, albeit ones who have lost their way and are responsible for horrible acts. Set almost entirely in one room within Folsom's walls and never averting its gaze from the often quite upsetting scenes it witnesses there, documentary filmmaking is rarely this visceral or challenging.  

Men at Work: Folsom Prison inmates work through their issues

Finally, I was planning to talk about the 4K restoration of Dario Argento's '70s horror classic, Suspiria, which is about to get a swanky new collectors' edition. Unfortunately, its release has been pushed back to next week, so instead I'll quickly mention another Argento film, Four Flies On Grey Velvet WW, which is showing on Mubi until midnight on Wednesday. The Italian master's 1971 giallo forms the middle part of his "animal trilogy" (with The Bird With The Crystal Plumage and Cat O'Nine Tails) and tells the story of Roberto (Michael Brandon), a rock star being stalked and blackmailed after accidentally killing a man who had also been following him. It isn't a patch on Suspiria but has enough directorial style, preposterous twists and odd humour to compensate for its inadequacies elsewhere. Ennio Morricone, rather than Goblin, provides a suitably haunting score.

First cut is the deepest: There's a killer on the loose in Four Flies On Grey Velvet

Film of the week: The Work

What I shall be seeing this week: George Clooney unearths one of the Coen Brothers old scripts for Suburbicon.

Heads up: I have a new review up on the excellent Film Inquiry website. This time I cast my gaze over powerful Victorian ghost Story, Angelica. Mitchell Lichtenstein's film (his third, following Teeth and Happy Tears) hasn't surfaced in the UK yet, but is currently on limited release in the US.

This week's top 10 UK DVDs/Blu-rays (films only)
1. Spider-Man: Homecoming
2. Trolls - Holiday
3. Despicable Me 3
4. Paddington
5. Cars 3
6. Beauty And The Beast
7. Moana
8. Baby Driver
9. Kenny
10. Fast & Furious 8

Friday, 24 November 2017

Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond, On Body And Soul, and The Killer: Your Week In Film (November 20-26)

Method man: Jim Carrey "channelled" Andy Kaufman on set during Man On The Moon

The best and worst of the week's UK new home entertainment releases on DVD, Blu-ray and VOD. All the films mentioned are available to buy, rent and/or stream now, unless otherwise stated. This is the second of two columns this week...

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

Watching Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond – Featuring a Very Special, Contractually Obligated Mention of Tony Clifton (Netflix) WWW, I was reminded of that (possibly apocryphal) story from the set of Marathon Man. Dustin Hoffman had been going full method, staying up 24 hours straight in a bid to realistically capture his character's dishevelment and exhaustion. Co-star Laurence Olivier asked why he was putting himself through such an ordeal, and Hoffman explained he wanted to be convincing. Sir Larry drily replied: "Try acting, dear boy."

It's a piece of advice Jim Carrey wouldn't have had any truck with on the set of Milos Forman's 1999 Andy Kaufman biopic, Man On The Moon, the making of which forms the basis of this fascinating documentary. Carrey went method to a degree that even Hoffman would have found head-spinning, staying "in character" as the late US comedian the entire time (even off-set) and generally being a colossal pain to other cast and crew as a result (there's a moment when Danny DeVito looks utterly exasperated by his behaviour).

Chris Smith's film consists of never-before-seen footage, shot at the time, intercut with a lengthy new interview with Carrey, in which he tries to explain what on earth was going on. It seems the star of The Mask and Ace Ventura: Pet Detective became convinced he was "channelling Andy" in some weird way and, possessed by his anarchic spirit, would do pretty much whatever came into his head, including picking fights with professional wrestler Jerry Lawler (Carrey ended up in hospital as a result) and spending long periods with a brown paper bag on his head as Tony Clifton, Kaufman's debauched alter-ego.

I'm not quite sure what is more disturbing – Carrey as he was then, convinced his body had been somehow hijacked by the puckish spirit of a dead man, or the actor as he is now, massive of beard, spouting all sorts of New Age mumbo-jumbo, and in semi-retirement from Hollywood. Whatever, I suspect Kaufman – who, despite his great talent, never seemed to take himself at all seriously – would have cracked a rib laughing at the whole absurd, but riotously entertaining, pantomime.

Bad Moon rising: Carrey runs amok and upsets cast-mates

Hungarian writer/director Ildikó Enyedi hadn't made a film since 1999's Simon, The Magician but more than makes up for her time away with On Body And Soul (MUBI) WWWW, quite the strangest love story you'll experience in this or any year.

Set for the most part in an abattoir (complete with images of animal slaughter), it tells the story of Endre (Géza Morcsányi), the company's financial director, and Maria (Alexandra Borbély), its newly-appointed quality controller. He has a disability, she has Asperger's. It transpires they share dreams of being together in an Eden-like forest as deer, and slowly, over the next two hours, this seemingly mismatched pair grow closer in the real world too. It's a film that doesn't sound that promising on paper but spend 20 minutes or so in its company and there's magic aplenty waiting to hook you in. You quickly come to care about Enyedi's characters, especially lonely, vulnerable Maria, whilst marvelling at the sheer chutzpah of the setting and a good deal of the storytelling too.

The slaughterhouse scenes and deer dreams perhaps take a bit of getting used to but act as metaphors for romantic love. The perfect stillness and beauty of the forest is love's ideal, the abattoir its stark and brutal reality. There's humour of the pitch-black variety here too, Enyedi taking some bold narrative risks that provoke a series of different emotions all at once. It's been a while since a film has prompted me to actually shout at the screen ("Noooooo!"), but that's precisely what I did here. On Body And Soul might be a slow burn, but it's also something of an emotional roller-coaster.

Enyedi is not well known in this country (checking amazon, My 20th Century, from 1989, is the only one of her previous films even available to buy), but I fervently hope that might change very soon. On Body And Soul was awarded the prestigious Golden Bear at this year's Berlin International Film Festival, and is Hungary's submission for the 2018 Oscars. I suspect we won't have to wait 18 years for what she does next.

Deer heart: Maria and Endre meet in their dreams

The Killer (Netflix) WWW is a down and dirty Brazilian revenge western that reminded me of Sergio Leone's Dollars trilogy – it has dirt beneath its finger nails, a mouth full of rotting brown teeth, and would happily shoot you in the head for a bottle of half-decent sipping whiskey. 

Something of a shaggy dog story (there's a framing sequence in which a mysterious cowpoke spins a yarn to two would-be assailants), this latest Netflix Original sees feared bandit-cum-assassin Seven Ears (Deto Montenegro) discover an abandoned child, Cabeleira (Diogo Morgado), who he raises as his own son. Many years later, fully grown but practically feral, Cabeleira leaves his remote desert home when Seven Ears goes missing. Eventually locating the nearest town, he starts looking into what might have happened to his guardian and is employed as a hired killer by the town's mayor, Monsieur Blanchard (Etienne Chicot). Of course, it doesn't take a genius to surmise that the corrupt Blanchard has something to do with Seven Ears' disappearance, and that as soon as the none-too-bright Cabeleira works that out too, sparks are going to fly.

Writer/director Marcelo Galvão has a background in advertising and that makes sense because everything about The Killer is big, broad, loud and dramatic. If ever a movie could be accused of turning it up to 11, it is this one. Characters are boiled down to only a couple of simple traits, in many cases they are little more than caricatures. Blanchard is outrageously French and outrageously villainous, his son and wife sadistic monsters. There's an ugliness about these people, even the ones we're rooting for, including Seven Ears, who is named for what hangs on the necklace he wears. After a while, though, you learn to wallow in this world's toxicity – there's a weird purity about its sheer unpleasantness that is almost invigorating. The Killer is dubbed into English but, for the full gritty effect, you'd be wise to turn on the subtitles and instead watch it in Brazilian Portuguese – Galvão's film really isn't the same otherwise.

Natural born Killer: The down and dirty western is back

Film of the week: On Body And Soul

Monday, 20 November 2017

Baby Driver, Dark Night, Office Christmas Party: Your Week In Film (November 20-26)

Wheel deal? Edgar Wright's Baby Driver never quite hits top gear

The best and worst of the week's UK home entertainment releases on DVD, Blu-ray and VOD. All the films mentioned are available to buy, rent and/or stream now, unless otherwise stated. Apologies for this column's enforced hiatus last week - to make up for it, there will be TWO instalments this week...

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

You have to feel sorry for Edgar Wright. His fifth film Baby Driver (DVD, Blu-ray and VOD) WW½ was a bonafide box-office smash back in the summer, with critics falling over themselves to hurl four and five-star reviews in its direction. And then, just before its home entertainment release, the whole Kevin Spacey scandal blew up in the director's face. Your screen bad guy turns out to be a pretty shitty operator in real life too, and suddenly, that groovy heist movie everyone was so in love with a few months ago somehow seems a little less appealing, although probably more so than being stuck in a lift with Sex Luthor himself.

Seeing as how Wright didn't have time to digitally swap the former Keyser Söze for Christopher Plummer (as Ridley Scott is doing for All The Money In The World), Baby Driver will just have to do as it is – stylish, fast-paced and entertaining enough, albeit not a patch on Wright's best work (Shaun Of The Dead and Scott Pilgrim vs. The World). Ansel Elgort is the titular Baby, a hearing-impaired and decidedly reluctant getaway driver for Spacey's crime boss, Doc. When Baby meets, and falls for, bored diner waitress Debora (Lily James), he recognises a kindred spirit and decides his life of crime is over. But slipping out of Doc's clutches – as well as those of his criminal gang, which includes Jamie Foxx and John Hamm – might be a getaway beyond even Baby's abilities.

The idea of flipping the script on classic driving films (The Driver, Drive, Vanishing Point) by putting a young, tinnitus-afflicted music nerd front and centre, rather than the usual glowering, charismatic maverick, is a good one. Setting the whole thing to a glorious, uplifting soundtrack, which includes T.Rex, Jonathan Richman, and The Damned, is even better. But somehow Baby Driver never quite hits top gear. James is wasted as little more than a damsel in distress, the driving stunts have been done better elsewhere (although kudos to Wright for eschewing the use of CGI), and Baby himself is an oddly unlovable titular character. Style over substance can be enormous fun, and this certainly has some moves, but there's a distinct "is that all there is?" feel here that sets in about halfway through and is hard to shake. 

Lawless: Hearing-impaired Baby is desperate to escape his life of crime

The 2012 Aurora, Colorado cinema mass shooting, in which 12 people died at a midnight screening of The Dark Knight Rises, provides the inspiration for low-key indie oddity Dark Night (DVD and VOD) WW. Over the course of 80 or so minutes, we see half-a-dozen strangers – most of them young, all of them fictitious (this is no documentary or recreation) – going about the minutiae of everyday life, whether it's skateboarding, hanging out with loved ones, endless selfie-taking or working out, before heading off to see the titular movie, where most will face almost certain death or horrific injury.

Writer/director Tim Sutton doesn't over-dramatise these people's existences or even strive to make them especially interesting. He focuses on small moments, and there are a great many of them, as there would be for any one of us. The only real suspense comes early on when you are trying to work out which of the main characters is going to be the shooter – the former army veteran (Eddie Cacciola), the gun nut with the scary eyes (Robert Jumper), or the discomfiting loner (Aaron Purvis), being interviewed on camera with his mum, for reasons which are never made clear (I even wondered if his sequences were set AFTER the shooting, which would be a smart twist).

Dark Night does a fine job of showing how horror and tragedy can strike anywhere, at any time, and is keen to deviate from the usual drama template – these characters do not die heroic, meaningful deaths, they're gunned down by an evil fuck with too many weapons and a grudge against the world. They don't get a chance to say goodbye to loved ones, fulfil their promise, or even finish that novel or video game. If Sutton's film is about anything, it's life's terrible impermanence, a reflectiveness it shares with A Ghost Story and Marjorie Prime, both also released this year.

If there's a problem, it's that most of the director's characters are too thinly drawn to truly care about, the couple of exceptions difficult to empathise with. That said, some scenes pack a punch, particularly one in which our would-be killer puts his gun to an ex-girlfriend's window, while she is conducting a guitar lesson. Teacher and student are totally oblivious to the fact they are only the squeeze of a trigger from death. The rest of the film doesn't quite live up to this moment of heart-stopping menace, although Sutton's haunting third feature sticks around in your head for a few days after you first see it. In fact, the more you think about Dark Night, the better it becomes, pretty much the exact opposite of the horror that inspired it then.

Under the gun: Dark Night is a haunting and low-key indie drama

Like a lot of modern Hollywood comedies, Office Christmas Party (DVD, Blu-ray, and VOD) WW gets by on sheer likeability and a modicum of irascible charm. TJ Miller (formerly of Silicon Valley) is Clay Vanstone, a benevolent boss battling to keep the Chicago branch of his late father's tech company open, despite his venomous CEO sister (Jennifer Aniston) doing everything in her power to close it down. It's good capitalist versus bad capitalist, with a workforce including Jason Bateman, Olivia Munn, and Kate McKinnon caught in the crossfire.

In one last desperate bid to save their jobs, Miller and Co throw a Christmas party for a prospective client with pockets deep enough to keep the branch afloat. Things, of course, get out of hand, and it isn't long before a drugs, booze and sex-filled bacchanalia is in full swing, with wanton vandalism and extensive property damage thrown in for good measure.

The first hour, where it's all about the party shenanigans, is good fun, before boring old plot considerations take us out of the office and straight off a bridge (quite literally). You'll be unsurprised to hear Saturday Night Live's McKinnon, as the company's uptight head of HR, steals the show. I'd watch a sequel with her as its star in a heartbeat.

Snow fool: TJ Miller brings the chaos in Office Christmas Party

What I shall be watching this week: Film Stars Don't Die In Liverpool, Paddington 2, and Justice League.

The UK's Top 10 best-selling DVDs/Blu-rays (films only)
1. Despicable Me 3
2. Cars 3
3. Baby Driver
4. Paddington
5. Beauty And The Beast
6. Transformers: The Last Knight
7. Moana
8. Fast & Furious 8
9. The Mummy
10. Wonder Woman

Tuesday, 7 November 2017

Bad Santa 2, 6 Days, and Bobbi Jene: Your Week In Film (November 6-12)

Armed and dangerous: Jamie Bell is SAS man Rusty Firmin in 6 Days

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

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

There are more than a few clunky moments in 6 Days (Netflix) WW but, for the most part, Toa Fraser's film is an absorbing recreation of 1980's Iranian Embassy siege in west London, in which terrorists stormed the building and took everyone inside hostage. A six-day stand-off ensued as an army of journalists and photographers gathered outside and members of the SAS prepared to launch a daring rescue attempt, an operation that was ultimately broadcast live to millions of TV viewers.

The film divides up its time between four main characters and cuts back and forth between them: Mark Strong's chief negotiator DCI Max Vernon, SAS man Rusty Firmin, played by Jamie Bell, BBC reporter Kate Adie (Abbie Cornish), and Salim (Ben Turner), one of the embassy gun men. For the most part, this approach works really well, making for a tight 94-minute drama in which the pace rarely lags. Unfortunately, the moments with Adie feel a bit pointless because they do little to actually advance the story, and there were even times I found myself giggling helplessly at Cornish's weird attempt at capturing the reporter's accent. It's true that Adie is pretty much the only woman with a proper speaking role in the film (then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher remains off camera throughout) but surely they could have done a bit more with her or even focused on another female character instead; one of the hostages, perhaps? 

Some of the dialogue is a bit clumsy as well (at one point a tabloid journalist actually says the words "If it bleeds, it leads"), while you know the SAS men are rock-hard proper bloody blokes because they all say fuck, chew gum and have Burt Reynolds moustaches. They look so much alike, they could be brothers. That said, Strong brings gravitas to everything he's in (even insufferable tosh like that last Kingsman movie) and the moments when we see the SAS rehearsing possible tactics, and mostly fouling them up, really adds to the tension. It's also refreshing to see a film that actually takes a moment to explain why the gunmen had been motivated to act so violently in the first place (they were part of a nationalist movement trying to pressure the Iranian government into establishing an autonomous Arab state in an oil-rich part of the country). At times, though, 6 Days feels more like a gritty Channel 4 drama than a movie you'd actually pay to see at the cinema, but that's par for the course with a fair few of these Netflix Originals. I guess we should just get used to it. 

On a knife edge: 6 Days recreates 1980's Iranian Embassy siege

Bobbi Jene (MUBI) WWW was voted Best Documentary at the Tribeca Film Festival back in April and it is easy to see why. Elvira Lind's second film is a raw and intimate portrait of Bobbi Jene Smith, a contemporary dancer based at the acclaimed Batsheva company in Tel Aviv, Israel. When we first meet her, the then 30-year-old is planning permanent return to her US homeland after 10 years. There are two strands to Lind's film – Smith's desire to strike out and explore her art on her own terms, and the impact this has on her relationship with Israeli boyfriend and fellow dancer, Or, who does not make the trip to the States.

Smith clearly adores Or and the physicality of their attraction is something Lind captures perfectly, but the real love of her life is her craft. At one point she discusses how "gaga" – the tough dance discipline particular to Batsheva – helped her conquer an eating disorder and you don't doubt it for a moment, such is Smith's commitment to and immersion in its principles.

When the film begins it is easy to dismiss Smith's relocation dilemma as the most first world of first-world problems, but my respect for her steadily grew. Just seeing Smith warm up is exhausting, let alone watching her actually perform. She dances one self-choreographed piece completely naked which, even with a dancer's perfectly toned body, is an incredibly daunting undertaking in front of an audience only a few feet away. Lind's film unearths a fearless, ferocious artist and Bobbi Jene is therefore worthy of your attention, whether you know anything about contemporary dance or not.

The dance of reality: Bobbi Jene faces a big dilemma 

Terry Zwigoff's original Bad Santa (2003) was a perfect blend of black-hearted cynicism and unalloyed charm. It was a profane but sweet-natured joy, with Billy Bob Thornton's boozy conman Willie Soke spitting out foul but hilarious one-liners while trying to suppress fatherly feelings for Thurman (Brett Kelly), a supremely naïve young boy convinced department store Santa Soke was the real Father Christmas. It really didn't need a sequel but, here we are, 14 years on and Bad Santa 2 (DVD, Blu-ray and VOD) WW comes clattering down the chimney whether we like it or not.

Mark Waters' film has a lot to live up to and, of course, fails to do so. That isn't to say it's terrible though. In this second instalment, Soke has returned to his life of rampant alcoholism and criminality after the original's "happy ending" quickly went sour. He is reunited with Marcus (Tony Cox), despite being betrayed and shot by him in the original movie. A welcome addition to the cast is Kathy Bates, playing Willie's mum Sunny, and the three of them plot to rip off a children's charity run by Christina Hendricks' frustrated Diane and her creepy husband, Regent (Ryan Hansen). Thurman returns from the first film all grown up but is rather underused.

It's astonishingly crass and incredibly vulgar but there are plenty of laugh-out-loud moments, even though you'll most likely hate yourself for cracking up at jokes so scatalogical they make Roy Chubby Brown sound like Joyce Grenfell. It has little of the original film's charm which means Bad Santa 2 eventually runs out of gas, but director Waters (Mean Girls) just about gets away with it because his cast clicks so well. Bates looks like she's having the time of her life as a woman so awful she refers to her only son Willie as "shit stick", while Thornton is as eminently watchable as ever. 

X-rated Xmas: Billy Bob Thornton returns as Willie Soke

Film of the week: Bobbi Jene

What I shall be watching this week: I'm not exactly excited about either Murder On The Orient Express or Breathe, but maybe one of them will surprise me.

My first full-length review for Film Inquiry went up last week. You can read it here.

Top 10 best-selling UK DVD/Blu-rays (films only)

1. Transformers: The Last Knight
2. The Mummy
3. Fast & Furious 8
4. Beauty And The Beast
5. Moana
6. Wonder Woman
7. Pirates Of The Caribbean: Salazar's Revenge
8. Hampstead
9. My Cousin Rachel
10. Paddington

Wednesday, 1 November 2017

My Cousin Rachel, Alone In Berlin, The Lure: Your Week In Film (October 30-November 5)

A fishy tail: The Lure is one of the strangest films you'll ever see

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

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

Release-wise, it's a funny old week, for the most part a mix of films I've either already covered (The Villainess, It Comes At Night) or am actively avoiding (Hampstead, Transformers: The Last Knight). As a result, this week's column is a bit of a mishmash of new stuff and titles from the last month I hadn't yet got round to covering...

My criticisms of the Criterion Collection haven't really altered any since the last time I mentioned it - the discs remain too expensive (£18) and the company's habit of releasing stuff already available in the UK can be downright annoying. That said, they have such a wide and impressive range of titles that you'd pretty much forgive them anything, especially when picture and sound quality are so high and the extras are never less than exemplary. Occasionally, the company's release schedule throws out a real curveball, too, which brings me to The Lure (Dual format) WWWW.

A Polish musical about mermaids, it comes on like the bastard child of David Lynch and Guillermo Del Toro, although, if The Shape Of Water is anything to go by, I suspect the latter is a big fan of Agnieszka Smoczynska's 2015 film. It sees two fish-tailed young women -  Srebrna (Marta Mazurek) and Zlota (Michalina Olszanska) - come ashore in Warsaw and join a seedily glamorous cabaret. They sing, they strip, they show off their impressively gigantic tails for boozed-up punters who probably think they've had one vodka too many. Srebna assimilates into human society with ease and even starts a relationship with a member of the house band, but Zlota is less willing to give up her species' traditions and it isn't long before she's stalking the Warsaw night looking for men to eat. Yes, these mermaids aren't exactly Daryl Hannah in Splash!

I'm not going to lie to you, this is a gloriously odd film with the frequent musical numbers (a version of Donna Summer's I Feel Love sets the tone) merely adding to its sense of derangement. The Lure has a woozy, fairy-tale quality and elements of horror flit in and out during a tight 92-minute running time. It's seedy and unsettling too, but is, at heart, a coming-of-age story about two naïve young women going to the big city and having their lives irrevocably changed by the experience. It's been a while since I've seen anything quite like it (Lucile Hadzihalilovic's Evolution or Jonathan Glazer's Under The Skin are fellow travellers) and would really urge you to get your hands on a copy. You'll thank me, really you will.

Siren song: Two mermaids join a Polish cabaret in The Lure 

We're well used to seeing resistance to Hitler and the Nazis depicted on screen from the perspective of plucky Brits, brave Yanks and stoic Russians. But it's somewhat rarer to witness it from the point of view of the Führer's own countrymen, who are usually characterised as little more than one-dimensional persecutors or cannon fodder. Vincent Perez's Alone In Berlin (DVD and VOD) WWW takes a small but impressive step to redress that imbalance, focusing as it does on a true story from the Second World War's early days.

It's 1940 and following the death of their only son in the conflict, working-class Berliners Otto (Brendan Gleeson) and Anna Quangel (Emma Thompson) commence a small-scale act of rebellion against their country's tyrannical leader and the war machine over which he presides. Otto writes a series of anti-Hitler slogans and screeds on postcards, and he and Anna surreptitiously leave them around the city for people to find. Of course, many are handed in to the authorities and Daniel Brühl's local policeman quickly comes under pressure from the Gestapo to root out the perpetrators.

Everyone just about gets away with their German accents, but, beyond that, the performances are quite something. Gleeson is a quiet ball of rage and grief, having to keep his heretical anti-Nazi thoughts to himself, but desperate to shout them from the rooftops. Thompson is if anything even more impressive, her seeming reserve disguising a spirit keen for revenge, however small that payback may be. Without going into spoiler territory, Brühl has the most difficult task and I'm not sure I quite bought into his character's journey. But that's a minor niggle in what is a low-key but powerful piece of work. Additionally, it offers a snapshot of Berlin society during wartime, mostly devoid of the over-rehearsed stereotypes of which we have become far too familiar. 

House of cards: Gleeson and Thompson take on the Nazis

Films concerning impossibly cute, outrageously precocious moppets are, under normal circumstances, my kryptonite. But Gifted (DVD, Blu-ray and VOD) WWW is so ridiculously charming, so well written and acted, that it inveigled itself into my affections in no time at all.

Chris Evans (Captain America) is Frank, a teacher-turned-boat-mechanic trying to give his late sister's mathematically gifted daughter, seven-year-old Mary (McKenna Grace), as normal an upbringing as possible. But when the girl's grandmother turns up (Lindsay Duncan), the pair clash over the direction her education should take, leading to legal action, deception and heartbreak.

This is family-based drama of the finest calibre with superb performances all round. Duncan (who elevates everything she is in) is terrific here as the scheming, manipulative Evelyn, who thinks she has her granddaughter's best interests at heart. The scenes in which she and Evans argue are the film's best, not because there is shouting or violence but because they ring so true - brutal one minute, affectionate the next, just like any family bust-up tends to be. Young Grace is the star of Marc Webb's film, though, turning in the best performance from a child actor I've seen since Jacob Tremblay in Room. Yes, she's really that good.

It's a Gift: Chris Evans stars in a likable, heartfelt drama

My Cousin Rachel (DVD, Blu-ray and VOD) WW is a passable but rather unmemorable adaptation of Daphne du Maurier's 1951 novel of the same name from Notting Hill (1999) director Roger Michell. Rachel Weisz (The Lobster) plays the titular character, a mysterious Contessa possibly responsible for the death of Ambrose (an uncredited Deano Bugatti), beloved guardian to Sam Clafin's Philip. When Rachel - a distant cousin of both men - appears at Philip's Cornwall estate, he intends to confront her, but is instead disarmed by the woman's charm and beauty. He of course falls in love with her and the rest of the film lets you mull over whether she is a cold, calculating femme fatale or an innocent victim of falsehood (Weisz is genuinely unreadable in the central role).

The whole thing rattles along agreeably with little to raise the hackles but, somehow, apart from the central guessing game, this gothic romance does little to truly draw you in either. It's nicely acted and nicely shot, but a premise that should grab you by the lapels only really does so in an impressively worked and melodramatic climax. It's easy to like, then, but difficult to love.

Kissin' Cousins: Is Rachel a scheming femme fatale?

Film of the week: The Lure

What I'm seeing this week: It's an indie double bill of Call Me By Your Name and The Killing Of A Sacred Deer for me.  

Top 10 UK DVDs/Blu-rays (films only)
1. The Mummy
2. Fast & Furious 8
3. Wonder Woman
4. Moana
5. Beauty And The Beast (2017)
6. Pirates Of The Caribbean: Salazar's Revenge
7. Diary Of A Wimpy Kid 4 - The Long Haul
8. Cult Of Chucky
9. Sing
10. Baywatch

Monday, 23 October 2017

Your Week In Film: The Babysitter, Brawl In Cell Block 99, and The Mummy (October 23-29)

Sitting target: McG's back with an enjoyable comic-horror romp

This week's best and worst in home entertainment on DVD, Blu-ray, and VOD. All films mentioned here are available to buy, rent, or stream now, unless otherwise stated. This week's is an extra-length column, following its extended break... 

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

Under normal circumstances director McG's return to filmmaking, for the first time since 2014's critically-derided 3 Days To Kill, would be about as welcome as waking up to find Leatherface taking a dump on your duvet. But comedy-horror The Babysitter WWW (Netflix) – released just in time for Halloween – is enormous fun.

Australian actress Samara Weaving (soon to be seen in Martin McDonagh's Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri) is Bee, the titular 'sitter with a big secret. Judah Lewis (easily the best thing about 2015's Jake Gyllenhaal vehicle, Demolition) is 12-year-old Cole, left in Bee's supposedly capable hands when his parents go away for the weekend. The pair bond over old movies and swap nerd culture references but, when Cole decides to see what Bee gets up to when he's usually asleep, proceedings head off into far darker terrain. It turns out she isn't the sweet but tough young woman Cole has fallen head over heels with, but a cold-blooded killer in league with Satan (this isn't a spoiler, it's right there in the trailer).

The Babysitter has several things going for it: fine central performances, a short, sharp running time (85 minutes), and a surprisingly winning mix of charm and gore. Weaving has mostly done TV work so far (including 300+ episodes of Aussie soap Home And Away), but I suspect a spot on the Hollywood A-list will be her ultimate destination. She might have the looks of an All-American cheerleader but has a slightly off-kilter and otherworldly quality about her too, which suggests she could bring something unique to a whole range of parts. Here, her sudden switch from "cool big sister" figure to demonic psycho is genuinely discomfiting (the really chilling thing about the movie is not its violence but the fact someone you think you know and love is the polar opposite of what they seem). This is Weaving's film then, although Lewis acquits himself well as the bullied young milquetoast who has to step up when shit gets real, while McG suits this kind of wackily-inventive teen horror material far better than he ever did the likes of Terminator Salvation. 

The Devil's own: Satanists come a calling in The Babysitter

Writer/director Jeremy Rush has obviously seen Steven Knight's Locke (2013), starring Tom Hardy, and thought to himself, "What if this guy wasn't some Welsh construction manager, who's knocked up a woman on a one-night stand, but a getaway driver in over his head when a job goes south?" And so we have Wheelman (Netflix) WW, which nicks Locke's idea of setting almost an entire film inside a car, in the company of one main character.

Frank Grillo (The Purge: Election Year) is the Wheelman of the title (we never learn his real name), working for the mob to pay them off for "looking after him" in prison. When a bank robbery he's involved in blows up in his face, Wheelman realises he's been double-crossed and must find out why and by whom. His quest involves him racing about an unnamed city in his motor, taking call after call from a number of friends, foes and family, while wracking his brains for a way out of the mess.

The aptly named Rush channels everything from Michael Mann's Collateral to Nicholas Winding Refn's Drive, as he serves up a series of fast-paced, neon-soaked, night-time action sequences, ratcheting up the tension every time our protagonist receives a call from a mysterious threatening voice. Some of the twists and turns later on, involving Wheelman's daughter and estranged wife, are a bit predictable but grizzled Grillo's very good and the whole thing is effectively and economically told.

Locke and load: There's something familiar about Wheelman

Crime of a different kind informs S Craig Zahler's violent prison flick, Brawl In Cell Block 99 (cinemas and VOD) WWW. Vince Vaughn is former boxer-turned-drug runner Bradley Thomas, sentenced to seven years in prison when delivery of a consignment of narcotics goes catastrophically wrong, and, instead of escaping, he steps in to stop his partners-in-crime firing on police officers. But Thomas's heroics have pissed off the wrong people and soon his pregnant wife (Dexter's Jennifer Carpenter) has been kidnapped and he must engineer a move to a different, tougher jail to carry out a hit on another inmate to pay off his "debt".

I had problems with Zahler's last film, the horror-western Bone Tomahawk, but this is a nastily brutal treat, that starts off as something quite close to a character study, before exploding into skull-stamping, limb-shattering life in its breathlessly-paced second half. Vaughn is the best he's been in years - possibly since his breakthrough role in Swingers (1996). Thomas is a complicated, conflicted man; a seemingly decent, principled patriot, who is devoted to his wife, but who nevertheless runs meth and heroin for a living. Barely-supressed fury comes off him in waves, and Zahler reveals just enough of his protagonist's backstory for us to guess what might have happened in his past to make him so desperate to keep a lid on his rage. There's a brilliant scene early on when Thomas discovers that wife Lauren has been cheating on him. Instead of ranting and raving, or laying a hand on her, he beats up her car, his hands covered in long trails of blood as a result of punching out the poor motor's side window and headlight. It says more than any amount of exposition or heart-felt dialogue ever could.

Things perhaps become a little cartoonish after the halfway mark, especially when Don Johnson turns up as the cigar-chewing governor of the fearsome Red Leaf penitentiary. Dressed in all-black, he's like something out of the wild west, which is probably apposite, bearing in mind the sort of institution he runs and where the story heads after his introduction. You could say Brawl is a mish-mash of ideas and styles, and you'd certainly have a point. It can be read as a satire on America's notoriously hellish prison system, the family, and/or patriotism, but works just as well as a straight-up, pedal-to-the-metal exploitation film. There's an awful lot going on here, but it's Vaughn's wholehearted performance people are going to be talking about in the weeks, months and maybe even years ahead. 

Brawl the way: Vince Vaughn fights for his family's future

Dina (cinemas and VOD) WWW is a revealing documentary about a middle-aged woman on the autistic spectrum and her forthcoming nuptials to fiancé Scott, who has Asperger's. Dina has had a tough life, losing her first husband to cancer and lucky to come through being repeatedly stabbed by a former lover (she bears the scars all over her back). She's a survivor, her sweet, seemingly vulnerable, nature hiding the fact she's one tough cookie. In terms of life experience, Dina has substantially more of it than her husband-to-be and you're invited to wonder whether, somewhere down the line, this is likely to cause problems in their relationship.

The pair's contrasting outlook is showcased best on the evening of their bachelor/bachelorette parties. Scott takes a few buddies for a sedate spot of bowling, while Dina's get-together receives a visit from a male stripper, much to her rowdy delight. Anticipating trouble in the physical department, Dina also buys Scott, who, because of his condition, struggles with intimacy, a copy of The Joy Of Sex and he is even grilled about his masturbatory habits. Yes, this is fairly candid stuff at times but filmmakers Antonio Santini and Dan Sickles never lose sight of the couple's genuine affection for each other and, most importantly, never patronise them. In fact, the entire enterprise radiates warmth and respect for its subjects.

Life's a beach: Dina and boyfriend Scott are heading up the aisle

The home entertainment market moves so quickly nowadays, thanks to streaming services like Netflix and Amazon Prime, and the increasing prevalence of simultaneous day/date release, that films in cinemas only a few months ago can quickly feel like ancient history. A case in point is The Mummy (DVD, Blu-ray, and VOD) W½, which hit multiplexes back in June to what could be politely termed a striking lack of enthusiasm. Four months on, it feels even more irrelevant; just another failed blockbuster in a year chock-full of them. Alex Kurtzman's film is one part Tom Cruise vehicle, one part supposed starter kit for Universal's new monster-centric "Dark Universe", but doesn't really succeed as either. Some of its action set-pieces are passably entertaining, I suppose, but the film isn't a patch on the creepy Boris Karloff original (1932) or 1999's energetic rejig, starring Brendan Fraser. There's a substantially better Cruise film - Made In America - out to buy/rent on December 26. Wait for that. 

Cruise snooze: The Dark Universe gets off to a mediocre start

Finally, there's 1922 (Netflix) WW, a passable adaptation of a minor Stephen King ghost story from his 2010 collection, Full Dark No Stars. Thomas Jane (The Mist) hees and haws unconvincingly as Nebraskan farmer Wilfred James, who persuades his son Henry to help him kill his wife (the boy's mother), when she plans to split up the family by moving to the big city. Zak Hilditch's film builds nicely and is certainly lovely to look at, but, with its scurrying rats and decaying apparitions, all feels very familiar. 

Ghost of a chance: Farmer Wilf has murder on his mind

Film of the week: Brawl In Cell Block 99

The UK's Top 10 DVDs and Blu-rays (films only)
1. Fast & Furious 8
2. Wonder Woman
3. Pirates Of The Caribbean - Salazar's Revenge
4. Beauty And The Beast
5. Moana
6. Churchill
7. Baywatch
8. The Shack
9. Blade Runner
10. Sing

What I shall be watching this week: The Death Of Stalin and Happy Death Day (that's a lot of death).