Monday 24 July 2017

City Of Ghosts, Kong: Skull Island, and Scribe: Your Week In Film (July 24-30)

A time to kill: City Of Ghosts offers a horrifying account of ISIS in Raqqa 

The best and worst of this week's home entertainment releases on DVD, Blu-ray, and VOD. All films featured are available to buy/rent/stream now, unless otherwise stated.

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

If you have a long memory, you may remember me saying nice things on here a couple of years back about Cartel Land, Matthew Heineman's startling and revelatory documentary exploring Mexico's war on drugs. Now, the US filmmaker returns with another visceral, eye-opening piece of work, this time focusing on citizen journalists in the Syrian city of Raqqa, which was seized by ISIS in 2013, during the country's seemingly interminable civil war.

City Of Ghosts (VOD and cinemas) WWW½ is, by turns, horrifying and inspiring as our band of journos risk life and limb (quite literally) bringing the world news from inside Raqqa as ISIS strengthen their grip on the populace and its infrastructure, going so far as to order all TV satellite dishes to be taken down to leave the city increasingly isolated. The early minutes of Heineman's film are tough to watch, as Islamic State soldiers carry out public executions and punishments. If you're in any way squeamish, this really isn't the film for you. There's one particular image that is going to stay with me for a long time. The journalists – a collective operating under the name Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently – are eventually compromised, some members captured, tortured and executed, others publicly identified and having to flee to Turkey and Germany in fear for their lives.

The second half of the film concentrates on those who escaped and how they use their new base in Germany to help spread RBSS's information, while avoiding possible reprisals from lone-wolf ISIS nuts and trying to cope with a rising tide of anti-immigrant sentiment in their adopted country. In many ways, this is the most powerful and poignant part of the film as young men such as Hamoud, Hassan and Hussam can only watch what is happening in Raqqa in impotent despair and fury. There's one sequence in which the violent fate of a relative is revealed that is beyond heart-rending.

I suppose you could say, other than telling us that Assad and ISIS are bad, City Of Ghosts neglects to ask the members of RBSS what they'd ultimately like to see happen in their country and whether they, themselves, have connections to any of the country's multifarious groups or factions. Their thoughts would have been useful, I think, especially to a western audience struggling to understand what is actually going on in Syria. Still, in 90 minutes and change, Heineman does more to capture the sheer madness and malevolence of ISIS than anything I've yet seen. It's an astonishingly ugly but essential film.   

Under the gun: Citizen journalists battle Islamic State in Syria 

I'm not sure I've had as much fun in a cinema this year as I did watching Kong: Skull Island (DVD, Blu-ray, and VOD) WWW. As a kid, the original King Kong (1933) was my favourite film (well, tied with Jason And The Argonauts), and it was not only my first monster movie but also the one that taught me about injustice (how else would you describe the great ape's fate at the end?). There's a hint of that here too, as bitter Vietnam vet Samuel L Jackson and his gung-ho helicopter squadron drop bombs all over Kong's home, Skull Island, then launch further assaults against the mighty gorilla when he hits back hard.

It's 1973, Richard Nixon is in the White House and the Vietnam War has just ended. Bill Randa (John Goodman) and Houston Brooks (Corey Hawkins) – representatives of a top-secret organisation called Monarch – persuade the US government to fund an expedition to Skull Island, a mysterious, uncharted land mass in the Pacific Ocean. Accompanied by Lieutenant Colonel Preston Packard (Jackson), former SAS tracker James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston), pacifist photojournalist Mason Weaver (Brie Larson), and battalions of soldiers and scientists, they hope to secretly flush out something 'interesting'. However, they get rather more than they bargained for – Kong, a 100-foot ape, who is very pissed off.

There's a definite and deliberate Apocalypse Now vibe to Jordan Vogt-Roberts' movie and that, plus some very fine action set-pieces, comfortably make it one of 2017's best blockbusters. This monster-movie-meets-war-film is certainly a big step up from Gareth Edwards' Godzilla (2014), the first instalment in the new 'Monsterverse', with far better enemies (the nightmarish skullcrawlers) and a couple of compelling characters, of which Jackson's Colonel Kurtz-esque soldier is one, and John C Reilly's loveable, long-lost pilot is another. If there's a criticism, though, it's that the cast is rather too large and some of them either get lost in the crowd (Brooks' monster hunter and Tian Jing's biologist) or drawn too thinly to be truly memorable (Hiddleston's SAS tracker and Larson's photojournalist). 

Gorilla warfare: Kong channels Apocalypse Now 

French conspiracy thriller Scribe (VOD and cinemas) WW is two-thirds impressive but ultimately undermined by a rushed and muddled final act. Clocking in at barely an hour and a half, this is that rare modern film; one that could have actually done with an extra 10 or 15 minutes to let its various twists and turns breathe a bit.

François Cluzet (The Intouchables) is Duval, an unemployed former accountant and recovering alcoholic who, out of the blue, is offered a mysterious new job. He is instructed to go to a room every day and transcribe conversations gleaned from telephone taps. Striving to get back on his feet, Duval looks this particular gift horse in the mouth and soon regrets it. What initially seems innocuous, takes on a darker tone, when he hears something he shouldn't have. Cue various spooks and wrong 'uns on his tail as he fights to stay one step ahead of a grisly fate.

Thomas Kruithof's film lays out its groundwork expertly, drawing on '70s Hollywood touchstones such as The Conversation and Marathon Man as it builds tension and ushers in its subplots. But then disaster, as Kruithof keeps adding elements to the story, until the whole thing becomes ungainly and keels over like a drunken Frenchman on Bastille Day. At times, I even found myself thinking, "Hang on, who's that bloke working for again?' and 'I haven't the faintest idea what all this stuff about kidnapping and hostages is.' Worse still, diminutive Duval becomes the 'worm that turned', suddenly growing a pair of big brass balls as he threatens to transform into the unlikeliest of action heroes. Ultimately, Scribe doesn't live up to the elegance of its original French title, La Mécanique de L'ombre (The Mechanics Of The Shadow) and that's a shame.

Mr Write: thriller Scribe runs out of steam before the end

Finally, there's To The Bone (Netflix) W, a soppy and unconvincing drama about anorexia, written and directed by Buffy The Vampire Slayer alum, Marti Noxon. The promising Lily Collins (Okja, Rules Don't Apply) is Ellen, a young woman battling the disease who seeks treatment under Keanu Reeves' unconventional doctor at a live-in rehab clinic. I know the subject matter is one very personal to Noxon but that doesn't make her film any less self-conscious or limp. Characters exchange clunky dialogue that no one would ever say in real life, and Alex Sharp's Luke – a weird and wacky Brit – is so annoying you wish the reassuringly wooden Reeves would turn into John Wick and put a bullet between his eyes.

The whole thing reaches a climax of cringe when Ellen allows her estranged mother (Lili Taylor) to feed her milk from a bottle, while she sits on her lap like a baby. If you're interested in seeing a better film about the same subject, give Sanna Lenken's My Skinny Sister (2015) a go instead.

Slim pickings: To The Bone is well intentioned but cringeworthy

What I shall be watching this week: Last time I took the kids to watch a Christopher Nolan film – 2014's Interstellar – they said it was the most boring movie they'd ever seen. Let's hope we have a bit more luck with Dunkirk.

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