Tuesday 2 May 2017

Suntan, Small Crimes, and Casting JonBenet: Your Week In Film (May 1-7)

Bad penny: Nikolaj Coster-Waldau is a corrupt ex-cop in Small Crimes 

A day late because of the May Day bank holiday, here are your home entertainment highs and lows for the next seven (well, six) days. All films available now, unless otherwise stated...

The story of a lonely middle-aged man's obsession with a young tourist on a tiny Greek island might not sound like cinematic gold but Suntan (VOD and cinemas) WWW½ defies expectations at every turn and takes you to some very dark places as it does so.

Makis Papadimitriou (excellent in 2015's Chevalier as well as here) is Kostis, doctor to the few hundred inhabitants on Antiparos. He's a maladroit, repressed creature who carries the burden of some previous and unspecified emotional trauma like a monkey on his back. He struggles to fit in with the locals but appears to get lucky when befriended by a group of hedonistic holidaying teens, including Anna (Elli Triggou), with whom he falls head over heels.

Argyris Papadimitropoulos's film begins as a comedy of sorts. Kostis's self-indulgent misery during the island's winter months and his cringe-making attempts at ingratiating himself with his new friends are amusing, although a tinge of sadness is never far from proceedings. But Suntan steadily becomes more uncomfortable to watch. Kostis isn't just needy, he's deeply damaged, and when rejected by Anna and her friends (a bunch of goonish halfwits, to be honest) he is mortally wounded and out of his mind with grief and fury.

Of course, it isn't just Anna's looks or personality he finds so delightful – it's her youth, lack of inhibitions, optimism and the fact so much of her future is unwritten. Surrounded by Antiparos's parade of the old and decaying in his day job, Kostis is like a drowning man reaching for a life raft. He sees the group of friends as his last attempt at recapturing something vital - and long ago lost - from his own youth. It can't end well and the film's final 15 minutes are like something out of a Universal monster movie. All it needed was a pitchfork-wielding mob.

Doctor strange: Makis Papadimitriou is the disturbed Kostis

Small Crimes (Netflix UK) WW is a rather old-fashioned, erm, crime drama, which sees disgraced former cop Joe Denton (Game Of Thrones' Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) released from prison after doing a six stretch for the attempted murder of a lawyer. His plan to avoid drink, drugs and trouble falls apart immediately as he is dragged back into his old life and bad habits, including running afoul of Gary Cole's corrupt police lieutenant and a ruthless mobster (Pat Healy).

Director Evan Katz (Cheap Thrills) brings a hard-boiled sensibility to proceedings - seedy motel rooms, deserted parking lots, grey-hued mean streets – but the whole thing (based on David Zeltserman's novel of the same name) feels a bit too familiar, a little too "so what?", like a mid-season episode of a US cop show or some inferior Elmore Leonard knock-off.

Blue Ruin's Macon Blair - who co-wrote the screenplay and has an important supporting role – has done better work, most recently as writer/director on I Don't Feel At Home In This World Anymore. But the film boasts a fine cast (Molly Parker and Robert Forster also star) and contains one darkly comedic idea that sustains it to the end. Joe – played with a wild-eyed recklessness by Coster-Waldau – isn't just a bad penny, he's the equivalent of a human black hole: anyone unlucky enough to wander into his orbit is surely doomed. It's practically a super power.

Cop out: Post-prison life doesn't agree with Joe Denton  

Truth is unknowable and death stalks us all. No one can say Kitty Green's Casting JonBenet (Netflix UK) WWW is afraid of tackling the big questions.

Ostensibly about the infamous unsolved 1996 murder of six-year-old beauty queen JonBenét Ramsey in Boulder, Colorado, it doesn't contain footage of anyone actually involved in the case – not the victim, her family, investigating officers, coroners, medics or local reporters. That's been done a hundred times over.

Instead, Australian documentarian Green put out a casting call to Boulder residents to audition for various parts (the Ramsey family plus a police detective) in a fictional movie about the case. She then recorded the auditions and interviews with the actors and non-actors that resulted. You'll immediately think, "Hang on, that sounds a lot like Louis Theroux's My Scientology Movie" but, in truth, this is a much stronger, far more challenging, piece of work.

Mercifully, the film is no prurient attempt at retroactively solving the crime, it's more about the way in which a heinous act continues to affect a community and its people years – or in this case, decades – later. The residents' reminiscences bring forth some fairly outlandish notions (everyone has an opinion on who did it), but drag up painful memories for those interviewed too. You soon realise just how many of these people have been struck by tragedy themselves; the woman who'd lost three of her children, the guy who woke up to find his girlfriend dead beside him. No one has a monopoly on pain, and death, whether tragic or natural, connects us all.

For the children, JonBenét's murder is already ancient history – a dark fairy-tale about a pretty little girl taken far too soon in mysterious circumstances. Seeing the kids auditioning to play the six-year-old is actually quite upsetting. Here they are – 20 years on from the killing – so full of precocious life and promise. You can't help wondering what JonBenét would be like now as a woman in her mid-twenties, perhaps still a beauty queen but more likely a lawyer, a doctor, or a successful businesswoman (her family were worth a few bob).

Green is also keen to interrogate the whole notion of truth – how it is constructed and in who's interest, yes, but also how profoundly elusive it is. Sure, some of the notions articulated here by the Boulder residents are fanciful at best, crazy at worst, but then the idea no charges were ever brought in the case is perhaps the most bizarre element of the entire sequence of events, especially as Patsy and John Ramsey's account of their daughter's death is so full of holes it boggles the mind.

The filmmaker permits herself a single moment to cut to the heart of the matter as perhaps she sees it. In one of the film's most memorable scenes, right after one of the talking heads has suggested a nine-year-old boy (such as JonBenét's brother, Burke) couldn't fracture someone's skull with a flashlight, we see a couple of young auditionees beating the pulp out of a melon somewhat disproving the notion. It's the closest the film gets to a J'accuse moment.

Elsewhere Green brings an off-kilter dreamlike quality to proceedings, never more so than when we see multiple versions of the same characters on a stage set rehearsing lines and scenes like something out of Synecdoche, New York. Charlie Kaufman's 2008 film was another in which fiction and truth became inseparable, and I suspect Green invites that comparison quite deliberately.

Memories of murder: JonBenét Ramey was found dead in 1996

Slipping onto Netflix UK with rather less fanfare than Casting JonBenet is Oklahoma City WWW. Barak Goodman's documentary – which received a limited theatrical release in the US, before being shown on PBS – soberly and meticulously tells the horrifying tale of Timothy McVeigh, the former soldier who blew up the eponymous US city's Alfred P Murrah Federal Building in 1995, killing 168 people (including 19 children), and injuring many hundreds more. It remains the worst atrocity committed by a home-grown terrorist in American history.

Presented in three chapters – The Spark, The Flame, and The Inferno –  it focuses on why and how McVeigh, a young man purported to have hated bullies his entire life, became radicalised after seeing gun-toting, god-fearing civilians lose their lives in armed clashes with US authorities at Ruby Ridge, in 1992, and the following year's notorious Waco siege. Although McVeigh was clearly allied with America's white supremacist movement (like the victims at Ruby Ridge), he seemed more concerned with what he perceived as government tyranny than fighting a race war.

As you'd expect, there are moments here to chill the blood. The film opens on an audio recording of a meeting taking place in the Murrah building on the morning of the attack. You know what's coming but the ferocity of the explosion that almost certainly killed everyone in the room still made me jump. Footage of the dead and dying being pulled out of the ruined building – its entire front torn off like a chocolate bar wrapper – is hard to watch as first responders relate their tales of bravery and bedlam. Then there's McVeigh himself – unrepentant, defiant and convinced of his own moral superiority. You'd perhaps expect a flicker of something in his voice – fear? anger? – but not a bit of it. After his arrest, he discusses death and destruction with all the emotion of someone planning a trip to the chip shop.

Goodman's film has the pace of a thriller as it cuts back and forth between the story's various strands (it's particularly strong on McVeigh's planning of the operation), but never tips over into prurience or over-dramatisation. I'd like to have seen the white supremacist movement of the 1990s discussed more fully, while the behaviour of US law enforcement at Ruby Ridge and Waco gets far too much of a free pass. But this is nevertheless a powerful, pretty much essential, piece of filmmaking, that doesn't seek to make an entertainment out of a day of infamy but to understand and contextualise it. A lot of McVeigh's beliefs – the government is coming to take our guns, Christianity is under attack – are, in these days of Trumpian derangement, practically mainstream. Maybe that's the most chilling thing of all.

UK TV highlights...
1. The Counsellor (Film4, 11.20pm, Tuesday)
2. Bridesmaids (Film4, 9pm, Friday)
3. Nightcrawler (BBC2, 9pm, Saturday)
4. Idiocracy (Syfy, 9pm, Sunday)
5. Kajaki. The True Story (BBC2, 10pm, Sunday)

What I shall be watching this week: Looking forward to seeing Julian Barratt comedy, Mindhorn.

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

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