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Monday, 5 June 2017

Your Week In Film: Split, Jawbone, and BLAME! (June 5-11)

Night shift: The Sixth Sense director Shyamalan returns with Split

UK home entertainment highlights on VOD, Blu-ray and DVD for the next seven days. Films are available to buy or stream now, unless otherwise stated...

Whilst no masterpiece, Split (DVD, Blu-ray and VOD) WW is rather better than a lot of the stuff M Night Shyamalan has served up over the years. I'm thinking particularly of The Lady In The Water, Avatar: The Last Airbender and, worst of all, The Happening, a film so bad it briefly made me hate Mark Wahlberg just for being in it. Split is substantially superior to those clunkers but is still silly, uneven, and not a patch on the director's best work (The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable).

What saves it is a terrific turn – or rather, turns – from James McAvoy. He plays Kevin, a man with 23 distinct personalities, who kidnaps young women (in this case The Witch's Anya Taylor-Joy, plus Hayley Lu Richardson and Jessica Sula), intending to feed them to the most savage of his alter-egos, a creature known only as The Beast. McAvoy's personalities include 'Barry', the dominant identity, 'Hedwig', a nine-year-old boy, a woman named 'Patricia', and 'Dennis', a disciple of The Beast, who wants to seize control. McAvoy throws himself into every one of them with real gusto, a mischievous glint in his eye at all times as if to say, "I know this is bloody ridiculous but it's also a lot of fun". He even gets to play 'Dennis' pretending to be 'Barry' in one scene which is even more impressive.

I also liked the idea that Kevin's personalities have formed themselves into factions (pro- and anti-Beast) and are warring for dominance. Unfortunately, at two hours, Split outstays its welcome and there's a subplot with Kevin's psychiatrist (Betty Buckley) that just kills the film's pace stone dead every time it crops up. Worse still, the explanation for The Beast's origins are ridiculous, and whilst the ubiquitous twist will keep old-school Shyamalan fans happy, it feels like a cheat, as if the director couldn't come up with a genuine last-minute shocker so instead used it to set up a sequel.

Beastie boy: James McAvoy enjoys himself in Split

If, disappointed by Split, you're looking for a proper pant-wetting twist, look no further than Diabolique (Blu-ray) WWW½, the latest upmarket release from the Criterion Collection. Director Henri-Georges Clouzot's influential horror-thriller sees the wife (Vera Clouzot) and mistress (Simone Signoret) of a bullying headmaster (Paul Meurisse) team up to murder him. They drug him, drown him in the bath, then dump his body in a swimming pool, only for it to disappear overnight. Has someone moved the cadaver or is he still alive and plotting revenge? The 1955 film has a more leisurely pace than modern thrillers but when its shocks and twists hit home they do so most powerfully. The final few minutes are about as good – and terrifying – as this sort of stuff gets and led to its producers adding an end title that said: "Don't be diabolical yourself. Don't spoil the ending for your friends by telling them what you've just seen. On their behalf – thank you!" Sound advice, I'd say.

Criterion's first year in the UK has been a bit up and down with fans complaining that several of its releases have replicated stuff already available here (Cul-De-Sac, Solaris, 12 Angry Men). Diabolique will do little to dispel such complaints as the Arrow version is still easy to get hold of – and at a cheaper price – despite the company losing its rights to the film. The one thing you can always rely on Criterion for, though, is exclusive extras and these certainly don't disappoint. As well as a new digital restoration of the film, you get a selected-scene commentary by French-film scholar Kelley Conway, a new video introduction by Serge Bromberg, co-director of Clouzot’s Inferno, a new video interview with novelist and film critic Kim Newman, the original theatrical trailer, plus an essay by film critic Terrence Rafferty. Not a bad package for £18, I'd say.

Murder most foul: Diabolique is full of thrills and twists

Jawbone (DVD, Blu-ray and VOD) WWW is a compelling but low-key British boxing movie that succeeds despite containing elements of the 'battling underdog with a big heart' storyline we've seen an awful lot in similarly-themed films over the years. The excellent Johnny Harris (whose best work has been on British TV in the likes of This Is England and The Fades) plays London boxer Jimmy McCabe, a formidable prospect in his youth who's now a shambling alcoholic, struggling to keep a roof over his head. Ian McShane's shady promoter offers him a couple of grand to take part in an unlicensed fight "up north" against a younger, stronger opponent, which, desperate to catch a break, McCabe readily accepts.

Harris's barnstorming performance provides the electricity upon which the entire film runs. His McCabe is a proper hard nut but hopelessly lost too, and Harris – face-punchingly furious one minute, Uriah Heap-obsequious the next – captures that dichotomy to perfection. He is helped by a terrific supporting cast, including McShane, yes, but also Michael Smiley and Ray Winstone, the latter at his brooding, taciturn best as tragic gym-owner Bill. 

Director Thomas Napper's boxing scenes are frenetic, the climactic bout a blur of bludgeoning blows and blood, nailing its lack of Queensbury rules to wince-inducing perfection. We hardly ever see the film's London Docklands setting in proper daylight – it's deep shadows and cheap neon lights adding to the downbeat mood. Harris wrote the script himself and it's a smart bit of stripped-back storytelling, a real no-frills character piece with little in the way of subplots. He never goes out of his way to make you like the film's protagonist and part of that is refusing to provide him with an inspiring backstory or cuddly Rocky-style character. You have to take McCabe exactly as you find him and that's not at all easy. Harris's dialogue suffers from being a bit repetitive (I think he's going for 'naturalistic') but that quibble never comes close to derailing a film that might not reinvent the boxing movie but subverts the template just enough to make it well worth your time.

Punch drunk: Johnny Harris fights for his life in Jawbone

Netflix has done its usual trick of sneaking something new and exciting into its catalogue with minimal advance publicity. This time it's an anime adaptation of Tsutomu Nihei's manga, BLAME! (pronounced 'Blam!') WWW. I'm no expert when it comes to this sort of material but I do know beautiful animation when I see it and Hiroyuki Seshita's film is full to bursting with it.

Set in a perfectly-realised dystopia, a future city has gained self-awareness and rebelled against its human masters, locking them out of its systems and using sinister robot exterminators to hunt them down. The city has expanded exponentially in all directions, with many thousands of levels, leaving the remaining humans to live like savages and forage for food ('sludge') from service pipes. On one such expedition, a young girl named Zuru (big eyes, slim frame, brave heart) encounters enigmatic badass Killy the Wanderer, a mysterious stranger on a quest to restore the world to its natural order. 

There's a great deal of exposition, only a few of the characters are in any way memorable and the plot is all over the shop, yet it's also crammed with ideas, features a couple of terrific action set-pieces and, as I say, looks stunning. These Netflix Originals are starting to get very interesting (Bong Joon-ho's Okja arrives on June 28) and I fervently hope we see more BLAM! (the manga ran to 10 volumes so there's plenty to adapt).

Future shock: BLAME! boasts beautiful animation

Finally, Alice Lowe's excellent comedy/horror Prevenge WWW½ is also released on DVD, Blu-ray and VOD today. It's only getting a quick mention here because I reviewed it at length on its cinema release. You can find that review here.

Oh, and just a reminder that this blog has its very own Facebook page, here. I'm going to be giving it a bit of a revamp this week with a couple of new features, including a Film Of The Day, every day...

What I shall be watching this week: I'll be re-watching a few recent favourites ahead of my 'Favourite 20 films of 2017 so far' list, which will appear here in a few weeks' time. 

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

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