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Monday, 10 April 2017

Rogue One, The Void, Neruda, and The Discovery: Your week in film (April 10-16)

Suicide squad: Jyn Erso and her team take on the Empire

UK home entertainment thrills and spills for the coming seven days. All films available now, unless otherwise stated...

Calling Rogue One (DVD, Blu-ray and VOD) WWW my favourite Star Wars film since The Empire Strikes Back is a lot like calling Barack Obama my favourite US president since JFK - it sounds like faint praise because I really didn't care for any of the ones in between very much.

But Gareth Edwards' sci-fi heist flick is actually a clever, compelling prequel to George Lucas's original 1977 film, with posh Brit Felicity Jones (The Theory Of Everything) smartly cast as Jyn Erso, a head-strong young renegade with a grudge against the Empire, joining a suicide mission to steal plans for the Death Star from under the noses of Darth Vader and Co.

The franchise's cultural ubiquity annoys the life out of me for the most part but even a Skywalker-sceptic knows intriguing characters when he sees them. Erso's a proper old-school sci-fi heroine - resourceful, brave, loyal, feisty, smart. If I was a 10-year-old girl, my room would be a shrine to her. And, as someone who comes out in hives at the very mention of C-3PO, I found the amusingly rough and ready K-2SO (Alan Tudyk) a real tonic. Add a blind Jedi warrior (Donnie Yen), his mercenary companion (Jiang Wen), plus Riz Ahmed's pilot defector and Diego Luna's Rebel captain, and you have a Dirty (Half) Dozen worth rooting for.

Star Wars has always been about more than spaceship battles and exotic aliens. Self sacrifice for the greater good and familial strife are motifs that loom large in the cannon, and you get both in abundance here, especially when it transpires Jyn's long-lost father Galen (Mads Mikkelsen, in another rather underwritten role) has been forced into working for the Empire on its monstrous Death Star programme. 

I could have done without Peter Cushing's CGI resurrection as the first film's Grand Moff Tarkin (a horrible, unconvincing misstep), but Rogue One is pretty close to cracking otherwise. It even holds its nerve to deliver an ending that is at first satisfyingly bleak, then thrillingly uplifting, as it segues seamlessly into the beginning of the very first Star Wars movie. It's been called "pointless" and "self-referential" by some, but "lost tales" that fill in continuity gaps are a staple of any fictional universe. Perhaps not essential, then, but pretty close.

Mission Impossible: Steal the plans to the Death Star 

I've given up trying to understand Netflix. Films pop up like weeds on a lawn - you know they're coming but have no idea when, where, or what variety you're going to get. Now the streaming service has introduced this new thumbs up/thumbs down ratings system, which informs me some sappy Jennifer Aniston comedy, called Mother's Day, is a 98% match for me. Go home, Netflix, and this time lay off the meth.

Sometimes, though, either through dumb luck or endless scrolling of obscure lists named things like 'Edgy US comedies featuring a goat, a blancmange and a fight scene in a toilet', I turn up a gem, and The Discovery WWW½ certainly fits that category. Snapped up by Netflix during this year's Sundance Film Festival, it's a sci-fi love story set in a world in which scientist Thomas Harbor (Robert Redford) has proved beyond doubt that the afterlife exists. However, this knowledge has had terrible consequences. Hoping for a better life on the 'other side', millions of people worldwide have committed suicide.

Despite the mounting death toll, Harbor (whose wife killed herself a couple of years before his big discovery), has continued his research into the phenomenon and, ensconced in a vast mansion populated by a cultish community of suicide survivors, believes he has even found a way to record what happens to the deceased once they pass over. Stepping into this bizarre scenario is Harbor's son Will (Jason Segal), who has saved the life of a troubled young woman (Rooney Mara) and brought her to the mansion to convalesce.

Directed and co-written by Charlie McDowell (son of Malcolm), this is a smart and effecting piece of work that successfully merges lots of different genres and ideas. You can see its SF roots in movies like Another Earth, Triangle, and even glossy '90s potboiler Flatliners, but it's also a love story, a melodrama, and a mystery, with moments of pure black comedy thrown into the mix for good measure. In other hands, it would probably be an unholy mess but McDowell gives it real pace, despite its frequent melancholy, and delivers a canny twist at the end. The cast - which also includes Jesse Plemons and Riley Keough - are top-drawer, none more so than former sitcom stalwart Segal who, after this and 2015's The End Of The Tour, has proved himself a very fine dramatic actor indeed. It's a definite thumbs-up and 98% match for me.

Suicide solution: Sci-fi love story The Discovery

I'd rather hoped The Void (VOD now, DVD and Blu-ray 24 April) WW would be rubbish so I could accuse it of being deVOID of ideas and suggest you aVOID it like the plague. But, actually, it isn't at all bad, albeit made up of lots of bits and pieces from elsewhere, including the fiction of HP Lovecraft, and films such as Hellraiser, The Thing, and Assault On Precinct 13. Written and directed by Jeremy Gillespie and Steven Kostanski, it sees a diverse group of characters - including a small-town cop (Aaron Poole) and his estranged doctor wife (Kathleen Munroe) - holed up in a hospital laid siege by a group of knife-wielding cultists. Things are even more dangerous within the hospital itself as monstrous creatures from another dimension are using a portal in the building's basement to cross over and possess people in our plane of existence. It's breathless, barmy stuff, full of gross-out chills and a couple of neatly delivered twists. I usually prefer my modern horror movies a little subtler (The Witch, It Follows) but there's something about The Void's gore-filled exuberance that I rather enjoyed.

Enter The Void: Exuberant tentacle horror

For the first time since 2012's No, Chilean director Pablo Larrain delves into his home country's painful past in Neruda (cinemas and Curzon Home Cinema) WWW. It tells the story of titular Marxist poet/politician Pablo Neruda (Luis Gnecco), who became an enemy of the state in the years immediately after WWII, when communism was banned, its adherents routinely rounded up and imprisoned. Far from a full biopic, it concentrates on the years 1948 and '49 when Neruda was on the run from the Chilean authorities, flitting from one safe house to another, before attempting to cross the border into Argentina.  

But this is no overly-reverential, sombre reading of the poet's life during this time, as Larrain adds a cat-and-mouse element to proceedings in the form of Oscar Peluchonneau (Gael García Bernal), an oafish police officer, only a hop, skip and a jump away from Inspector Clouseau, who is determined to put Neruda behind bars. Peluchonneau not only gets roughly equal screen time with the titular character but also provides voiceover narration too. It at first appears to be as much his story as it is Neruda's but the policeman's true role is revealed towards the end in a masterful scene with the poet's wife, Delia (Mercedes Morán), as Larrain merges truth and fiction, and the rest of the film veers off at a bizarre but brilliant tangent.

Larrain has become a very interesting filmmaker who never does what you expect. I found his most recent film, Jackie, a cold, distancing affair at times but appreciated both its craft and desire to do something very different with subject matter (the Kennedy assassination) that has been picked over many times on the big screen and elsewhere. This is a much warmer, far more playful piece of work, that dwells as much on Neruda's poetry and politics as it does upon his contradictions and eccentricities. It also boasts superb central turns from Gnecco and Bernal, who also appeared together in the aforementioned and well worth checking out, No.

Poetry in motion: Pablo Larrain's Neruda

Previously recommended...
1. A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night (Tonight, 11.35pm, Film4)
2. The Brand New Testament (Sky Cinema Premiere/NOW TV, from Wednesday)
3. Selma (Good Friday, 9pm, BBC2)
4. The Neon Demon (Netflix UK, from Saturday)
5. The Babadook (Netflix UK, from Saturday)

What I shall be watching this week: A trip into London beckons to see feminist cannibal horror flick, Raw. And to finally catch Free Fire.

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

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