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Monday, 20 March 2017

The Salesman, Arrival, and Deidra and Laney Rob A Train : Your Week In Film (March 20-26)

Being human: Amy Adams stars in Denis Villeneuve's Arrival

This week's most noteworthy films on DVD, Blu-ray, VOD, and TV...

In amongst the controversy and madness surrounding the finale of last month's Oscars ceremony, you'd be forgiven for forgetting that films other than Moonlight and La La Land actually won awards. The Salesman (cinemas and Curzon Home Cinema) WWW took home the prize for Best Foreign Language Picture, although its writer and director Asghar Farhadi boycotted the ceremony in protest at Trump's travel ban, which had included his home country Iran.

It was Farhadi's second Oscar win (following 2012's for A Separation) and further established the 44-year-old - who switched from TV work to movies with 2002's Low Heights - as one of the most garlanded and respected filmmakers in the world. That said, The Salesman isn't his strongest work and only really sparks into life in its final half-hour.

Emad  (Shahab Hosseini) and Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti) are actors, currently starring in a production of Arthur Miller's The Death Of A Salesman at a Tehran theatre, and forced to move home when the block of flats they live in starts to collapse. The husband and wife end up in an apartment recently vacated by a prostitute, a turn of events which directly leads to Rana being sexually assaulted by one of the woman's former clients. After discovering the truth, vengeful Emad embarks on a mission to track down and punish the guilty party.

It's a real slow-burn, this, perhaps rather too much of one. It takes Emad an age to discover what has really happened to his wife and then we see his rage, at what he considers a personal affront, build and build over the film's second half, his fury even seeping out when he is performing on stage. (Apparently, Farhadi decided to incorporate Miller's play into his film because themes of "humiliation" are contained in both stories).

What's most interesting here is the way in which Rana ultimately becomes a bystander in her own drama - husband Emad determined to take revenge to make himself feel better, regardless of her protestations at his increasing foolhardiness. The film's finale is powerful stuff as the culprit is revealed and Emad's behaviour becomes so awful, you come close to sympathising with the target of his ire. The Salesman is about the ugliness of wounded male pride, ego and entitlement. In many ways, Rana is treated as an object as much by her husband as her assailant.

Tears for Sale: Emotions run high in Iranian drama

I've always been a bit agnostic when it came to the work of director Denis Villeneuve. His films are often interesting in some way but have rarely succeeded in truly grabbing me by the scruff of the neck, especially 2015's overpraised Sicario, which turned the horror of Mexico's drug wars into a bog-standard revenge thriller and whose 'lead character' (Emily Blunt's FBI agent) it relegated to the sidelines with undue haste.

Rather better, though, is Villeneuve's Arrival (DVD, Blu-ray and VOD) WWWW, a handsome, humanistic and thoroughly rewarding first-contact sci-fi tale, based on a short story by Ted Chiang. It stars Amy Adams as a linguistics professor recruited by the US military to communicate with the denizens of a vast extra-terrestrial spaceship hovering a few metres above Montana. One of 12 such vessels dotted all over the globe, Adams' main task is to discover the nature of the creatures' purpose on Earth before Chinese suspicions about them transform into outright aggression.

This is another film that begs your indulgence while its ideas, themes and secrets are slowly uncovered. Arrival might look like just another "alien invasion" movie at first sight but scrutinise it a little harder and you'll see it's really about the need for communication and co-operation between countries and people in an increasingly chaotic world, as well as a call for tolerance and understanding when encountering outsiders, no matter how unusual they may seem. Ultimately, it's also about making terrible choices, with awful consequences, and learning to live with them.

When Adams encounters the creatures - or "heptapods", as they are christened - for the first time, she really nails what it must be like to experience such an extraordinary moment - fear, wonder and awe are etched on her face and are audible in her voice. It's a fine performance and one I found a lot more engaging than the rather inert one she gave in Tom Ford's Nocturnal Animals, Adams' other lead role from last year.

Serious sci-fi fans, well versed in this kind of stuff, might not be left gasping at Arrival's big reveal but will surely appreciate the way in which Eric Heisserer's screenplay drops clues and hints about exactly what is going on throughout the movie, including in its very first moments. All in all, it's an extremely smart piece of work, with a score and cinematography every bit the equal of its performances, writing and direction.

Loving the alien: Adams makes first contact 

I'm not quite sure Deidra and Laney Rob A Train (Netflix) WW knows what it wants to be. On the surface, it's a light-hearted high-school comedy about two Idaho sisters (brainiac Deidra and timid Laney), who embark on a life of crime when their mum is jailed and they can't pay the bills. On the other, it deals with some fairly heavy issues (crime, poverty, family breakdown), but treats them in a knockabout, none-too-serious manner. It's as if risking life, limb and liberty, just to thieve a box of iPhones, is no more out of the ordinary than playing Knock Down Ginger or scrumping apples, and seeing your mum banged up in America's famously horrible prison system is just a bit of an adventure, really. In fact, apart from the odd moment of bad language, this could easily be the kind of thing my kids would once have tuned into on Nickelodeon or the Disney Channel, which is a decidedly odd - and not entirely successful - way of approaching these subjects.

The other problem I had with Sydney Freeland's film is that Deidra and Laney (plus their jailbird mum) are black (practically the only black characters in the entire film, in fact) and seeing them embrace criminality so readily seems an entirely unhelpful message to send. The film's saving grace, though, is its two leads - Riverdale's Ashleigh Murray (as Deidra) and Rachel Crow (as Laney), both of whom are the personification of likeability and charm.

Train in vain: Ashleigh Murray turns to crime

The Fits (DVD and VOD) WWW is one of those films that proper critics call "mesmerising" and "beguiling", which is their way of saying, "I really have no idea what the bloody heck I've just seen". I'm not sure I can shed any more light on what Anna Rose Holmer's debut feature is actually about, but I do know I enjoyed being discombobulated by it.

The wonderfully-named Royalty Hightower is Toni, an 11-year-old tomboy struggling to fit in with her peers, and spending perhaps far too much time hanging around the local gym with her older boxer brother. Glimpsing a formidable local dance troupe practising in the same building, she is soon drawn into their world of punishing rehearsals and ultra-competitiveness. However, when members of the troupe suddenly start suffering fainting spells and mysterious physical fits, the local authorities become convinced there's something strange in the water...

Holmer at no point reveals what has brought on these 'fits' and so you are invited to speculate upon their nature. Is it really just something weird in the water supply, or simply an unusual coming-of-age metaphor? Have the dance steps the girls rehearsed a thousand times somehow altered their body chemistry, or are we talking about a full-blown supernatural - or perhaps even religious - event? Or did Holmer just see Carol Morley's 2014 film The Falling and think, "Ooh, I like the look of that". Whatever, this is an impressive debut full of ideas that accomplishes an awful lot on a tiny budget. I'd even be prepared to call it 'mesmerising' and 'beguiling', if that would convince you to see it.

Your highness: Royalty Hightower in The Fits

This week's best movies on TV can both be found on Film4. Richard Linklater's achingly human coming-of-age tale Boyhood (Tuesday, 9pm) WWWW is perhaps most famous for the way in which it was filmed - in stops and starts over a 12-year period, as its cast grew older. At two hours, 45 minutes in length, it requires a bit of investment but is more than worth it, firstly because, as ambitious cinematic experiments go, it's a very successful one and, secondly, because Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke are both superb in it.

It may have a similar title but Celine Sciamma's Girlhood (Thursday, 11:05pm) WWW½ couldn't be more different. A powerful French-language drama, set in and around a tough Parisian estate, it focuses on the members of a black girl gang, including resourceful but troubled Marieme (Karidja Touré). The group bonds over trips into the city, shoplifting clothes, punch-ups, and, in one of the film’s finest moments, miming along to Rihanna’s sublime Diamonds. Of course, membership of the gang only offers temporary respite from Marieme’s mounting woes...

What I shall be watching this week: Jordan Peele's social satire-cum-horror movie, Get Out. Also, Power Rangers!

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

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