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Tuesday, 20 June 2017

The Great Wall, Moonlight, and La Strada: Your Week In Film (June 19-25)

Another brick in the Wall: Matt Damon is mercenary William

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

This week's UK home entertainment picks on DVD, Blu-ray and VOD. All films are available now unless otherwise stated...

I had meant to mention The Great Wall (DVD, Blu-ray and VOD) WWW last week but ran out of time so let's sing its praises now instead. Just when blockbusters seem to be growing longer and ever more convoluted, Yimou Zhang's film is relatively short at 103 minutes and nicely focussed throughout.

It's the olden days and Matt Damon is William, a mercenary whose accent suggests he might be English. Or Scottish. Or maybe Irish. Or even Australian. Anyway, he and his pal Pero (Pedro Pascal) are on the lookout for gunpowder but instead encounter a monster. William lops off its leg and they are soon exhibiting said limb for Commander Lin Mae (Tian Jing) and other members of the Nameless Order, warriors charged with preventing the creature - and the alien army to which it belongs - breaching the Great Wall and laying waste to the rest of China.

Although they are very different films, it reminded me a tiny bit of Mad Max: Fury Road. Both have incredibly simple premises that can be summed up in a single word - "chase" in Fury Road's case, "siege" here, both tear along at one hell of a clip, and both films are fuelled by some impressive visual ideas. The colour-coded costume design denoting different battalions within the Nameless Order is extremely effective while the Crane Troop and their breathtaking swoops down the side of the Wall to combat the aliens is a real highlight, and just the sort of thing you'd expect from House Of Flying Daggers director Zhang. 

It isn't perfect - Damon is miscast; his pudgy baby face just doesn't say "grizzled mercenary" to me and I'd have been happier if they'd made Jing's character the film's main focus (she's great). And, while visually ambitious, the CG effects never quite live up to some of the gratifyingly mad ideas behind them. The aliens - called Tao Tei - are a bit disappointing too; an amalgam of lots of more interesting creatures we've seen elsewhere over the years. The best monsters have a "personality" and an "ick factor". These don't. Still, simple ideas done (mostly) well are rare in big-budget moviemaking (The Great Wall cost $150million) and, for that reason alone, this is well worth checking out.

Monster fun: The Great Wall is a cut above other blockbusters

Having lambasted Empire magazine's 100 Greatest Movies poll in yesterday's column for being too Hollywood-centric, I'd like to recommend a couple of foreign-language classics that are back in the spotlight this week. Both films might be in black and white with subtitles but contain stories, situations and characters just as accessible as almost anything you're likely to find in your local multiplex. 

La Strada (DVD and Blu-ray) WWWW is a powerful melodrama made by Federico Fellini in 1954. The Italian master became best known for his more challenging later work (the term ''Felliniesque' entered the movie lexicon because of the likes of 8½ and Amarcord) but this is a small, simple and perfectly heart-breaking tale.

Giulietta Masina - Fellini's wife and the star of several of his films - is Gelsomina, a child-like young woman sold by her impoverished mother to the brutish circus performer Zampanò (Anthony Quinn). She becomes his wife and assists with his faintly ridiculous strongman routine that he tours about the Italian countryside. He treats Gelsomina appallingly, sleeping with other women and knocking her about. Every time she decides to leave him, he somehow pulls her back within his orbit. The pair encounter The Fool (Richard Basehart), a fellow performer, free spirit and the exact opposite of Zampanò. Suffice to say, the men spend their entire time at loggerheads and their mutual antipathy ends in tragedy.

The film won the first-ever Foreign Language Oscar and it's easy to see why. It's beautifully written, acted, and scored (by regular Fellini collaborator Nino Rota), with Masina a revelation as she channels Chaplin's Little Tramp in a performance full of pathos. But, if you don't want to take my word for it, at least take Martin Scorsese's (contains spoilers)...

Scorsese talks La Strada and his friendship with Fellini

Showing on MUBI for the next few weeks is the equally accessible The Exterminating Angel WWW½, Luis Buñuel's biting, surrealist satire on Spain's ruling class. Made in 1962, it takes place at a lavish dinner party thrown by Señor Edmundo Nóbile (Enrique Rambal) and his wife, Lucia (Lucy Gallardo). The pair and their wealthy guests are an unpleasant bunch - disloyal, venal, sniping and superior. When the party winds down in the early hours of the following morning, however, they all find it impossible to leave the music room to which they had adjourned - as if some unknown force was holding them in place. They're trapped and as hours give way to days and weeks, their predicament becomes more and more desperate. They stink like hyenas, there's a rotting corpse in the cupboard, and their only access to clean water is from a pipe they managed to smash in the wall. The room is small, its inhabitants restless, unwashed and living on top of each other - Buñuel forces you to feel their claustrophobia and desperation.

You're torn between schadenfreude and wondering what on earth might have happened to these people and quite where it will all end up. Are they dead and in hell? Has one of those put-upon servants we saw dismissed at the beginning of the film slipped something mind-altering into their food? Buñuel never quite gives the game away but I suspect they are in a horror of their own making, rather than the victims of the supernatural or vengeful former employees. This reactionary, bourgeois bunch wants the order of things to remain the same in perpetuity - so it does, quite literally.

With the rise of the 1% and the opposition they have provoked, I'm amazed some bright spark in Hollywood - or elsewhere - hasn't attempted a remake. Fifty-five years on, Buñuel's skewering of the rich and powerful somehow seems more timely than ever.  

Moon boy: Barry Jenkins' film was a worthy Oscar winner

The first time I heard about Moonlight (DVD, Blu-ray and VOD) WWWW, I thought it sounded like one of those cynical "Oscar-bait" movies that cram as many "issues" as they can into their premise in a bid to hoover up awards and acclaim. I was expecting big speeches, relentless melodrama, overwrought performances, hugging and learning. Bloody hell, how wrong I was. Barry Jenkins' film is far cleverer and infinitely more subtle than that. In a rare outpouring of taste from the Academy, somehow it still won Oscars, including for Best Picture (you may remember hearing a thing or two about that earlier in the year).


In three separate segments, it follows an African-American boy, named Chiron, first as a child (Alex Hibbert), then as a teenager (Ashton Sanders) and finally as a man (Trevante Rhodes). He's quiet, an outsider and relentlessly bullied by his peers. His father isn't around and his mum is a crack addict (she ultimately turns to prostitution to feed her habit). He befriends local drug dealer Juan (Mahershala Ali) and his girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monáe), and they are soon providing the familial support so lacking at home, while Chiron starts to contemplate his sexuality.

Moonlight's a character study more than anything else, about a child becoming a man and struggling with all aspects of his identity every inch of the way. It mostly eschews big splashy drama. In fact, there are plot points (a surprise death, time in prison) that would be massive in any other film that aren't even shown here; they happen between the segments and are instead relegated to little more than passing asides. It's an incredibly brave move on writer/director Jenkins' part but one that nevertheless works as it forces you to fill in the blanks yourself. It isn't the external things that happen to Chiron that Jenkins wants to discuss here but Chiron's internal journey - how he battles with who he really is, how he self-sabotages to deny it and how, finally, he just might find a way to come to terms with himself.

This is a sad, haunting but ultimately hopeful film and, unlike a lot of Best Picture winners, one whose cache will only increase in the years ahead.

What I shall be watching this week: It's taken me a while to get to but I'm due a cinema visit to see My Cousin Rachel.

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