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Monday, 18 September 2017

The Villainess, Alien: Covenant, and First They Killed My Father: Your Week In Film (September 18-24)

Car wars: The Villainess is one of the year's best action movies

The highs and lows of this week's home entertainment releases, on DVD, Blu-ray, and VOD. All the films mentioned here are available to rent, buy or stream now, unless otherwise stated.

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

The Villainess (VOD and cinemas) WWWW begins with an insanely violent, first-person action sequence. Like Takashi Miike directing Call Of Duty, it sees a mysterious figure – well, their hands and weapons – shooting and stabbing their way through several dozen bad guys in the lair of an unseen big boss figure. It is only late on in this extended set-piece that we realise the relentless bringer of carnage is none other than a beautiful young woman, in her twenties and barely 90Ib wet through. It's one of three breathtaking action set-pieces that punctuate Jung Byung-gil's film but, astoundingly, not even the best one.

A twisty revenge thriller from South Korea, The Villainess focuses on Sook-hee (Ok-bin Kim), an assassin seeking the man who murdered her father in front of her, when she was only a child. She has a short-lived marriage to fellow traveller Shin Ha-kyun (Lee Joong-sang), before he too is killed, and she ends up being recruited into a clandestine intelligence agency, who provide her with an apartment and an unlikely career as a stage actress, while she awaits new missions. Living in the apartment with her young daughter, Sook-hee marries an undercover agency man, Jung Hyun-soo (Sung Joon), who is sent to spy on her as the search for her father's killer continues...

As hinted, the film's audacious action scenes are the star here – the climactic chase and confrontation on a fast-moving bus just pipping the samurai sword fight on motorcycles as my favourite. But none of that would work nearly as well if you didn't believe in Sook-hee's ability to dish out some serious ultra-violence. She's tiny but possesses an on-screen savagery that makes John Wick look like Gandhi. To Sook-hee, vengeance isn't a concept but a super power, and she seems capable of taking any amount of physical punishment as long as she eventually emerges victorious. In the course of the film, she's shot, stabbed, thrown through windows, bashed on the head and beaten to a pulp, but it barely slows her down, let alone stops her. This is a film far too extreme and blood-soaked for young girls to see but, if they did, I'd like to think Sook-hee's utter relentlessness and refusal to succumb to supposedly superior forces would be their takeaway. Not a wonder woman, not an atomic blonde, but a force of fucking nature.

After the frenzy of the opening 45 minutes, Jung Byung-gil slows the pace as he painstakingly sets things up for the epic finale. We focus on Sook-hee's family life with her young daughter and new husband. In lesser hands, such a switch would derail proceedings but it only raises the stakes here, making you realise just how much Sook-hee has to lose if her ultimate revenge mission goes south. Admittedly, The Villainess's structure is all over the place with lots of flashbacks but if Jung's intention is to keep you on the backfoot, he succeeds, especially when his movie's big twist is so good. Perhaps less forgivable is the director's weird blood fetish. There's rather a lot of the old claret, spurting all over the shop, particularly onto Sook-hee's face. It's all rather, um, "porny", to be honest with you. Still, despite its occasional eccentricity, this is an electrifying action movie – perhaps even the year's best. 

Kill list: Sook-hee is on a mission of vengeance in The Villainess

The Alien franchise – nearly 40 years old now – reminds me of one of those hoary old rock bands whose career stretches on and on well past its sell-by date. The first couple of albums are classics (Alien and Aliens), before the creative returns rapidly diminish (Alien 3 and Alien: Resurrection). An ill-fated attempt at a new direction ends in embarrassment (the non-canonical AVP pair), and a detour into slightly more esoteric territory is similarly unfulfilling (Prometheus). To really work the analogy into the ground, let's think of Alien: Covenant (DVD, Blu-ray, and VOD) WW½ as a contract-fulfilling remix album. A couple of original tracks that are perfectly passable and a slew of old favourites jazzed up to appear new when they are no such thing. 

Eighteen years before the ill-fated Nostromo lands on planetoid LV-426, colony ship The Covenant is on its way to set up home on a new world, when it is diverted from its course by a "rogue transmission" that sounds a lot like John Denver's Take Me Home Country Roads. Keen to investigate, the crew – including Katherine Waterston's terraforming chief and Michael Fassbender's android Walter – end up on a small Earth-like planet. There they encounter David (Fassbender again), the AI we last saw in Prometheus, as well as various flavours of murderous xenomorph. A desperate attempt to survive and escape ensues as the creatures run wild.

As it happens, Covenant isn't bad. But what's the point of an Alien movie that "isn't bad"? It's like having a quiet Slipknot album or a Ferrari that only does 70mph. I want an Alien movie that plucks my heart from my chest and stomps on it in front of me, grabs me by the lapels and shouts RRRRRAAAARRRGGGHHHH into my face, not one that only serves to remind me how vastly superior the original movie and its sequel were. Waterston – mesmerising in pretty much everything I've ever seen her in – is wasted here as a sort of Ripley-lite, while the rest of the Covenant crew (with the possible exception of Danny McBride's Tennessee) are instantly forgettable. Just compare that with the men and women of the Nostromo, which included John Hurt's Kane, Tom Skerritt's Dallas, Ian Holm as Ash, and Brett, played by Harry Dean Stanton. And that's before you even get to Sigourney Weaver's iconic Ellen Ripley.

In the plus column, there's a prototype xenomorph (called a "neomorph") that is creepy as hell but not around long enough to get truly under my skin, a couple of bits of inventive gore, and Fassbender is impeccable in his double role. There's tension and excitement, just not enough of it. And while you see the movie's cruel but satisfying twist coming a mile off, it's still well worked. But surely the great Ridley Scott has better things to do than bashing out underwhelming facsimiles of his old hits. Despite the occasional and entirely calamitous misstep (Exodus: Gods And Kings), he's so much better than that. 

Great Scott? No, more like slightly-above-average Scott

On the surface, there's a lot to recommend First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers (Netflix) WW½, but despite its fine writing, strong performances and sumptuous photography, something crucial is missing from its DNA. Angelina Jolie's film – her fourth and the follow-up to the unfairly derided By The Sea – is based on human-rights activist Loung Ung's memoir of the same name. Set in Cambodia in 1975, it details the rise of Pol Pot's vicious Khmer Rouge regime, as seen through the eyes of Ung's five-year-old self (Sareum Srey Moch).

Unfortunately, all too frequently, it feels more like a rote list of awful events (family members sent to labour camps – check, I'm made to train as child soldier – check, we come under fire by rebel militia – check) than Ung's personal experience of it, and I suspect some of her authorial voice has been mislaid between page and screen, even though she shares a writing credit with Jolie. There are scenes here which should be heartbreaking, devastating even, but because you struggle to forge a strong enough connection with Ung or her family, the horrors visited upon them never seem as raw and visceral as Jolie would like. 

That you see and experience the Khmer Rouge exclusively through little Ung's eyes is a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, Jolie is able to capture the girl's horror and confusion as the madness and misery swirls about her. On the other, it robs the entire situation of any context. In fact, Pol Pot's foot soldiers – with their almost comical revolutionary zeal and stern demeanours – are so one dimensional they make the Nazis in Where Eagles Dare look like fully rounded characters. Jolie gives us clues to why the Khmer Rouge might have risen to prominence but never offers any more than that and whilst I'm sure that remains true to the content of Ung's novel, it is nevertheless frustrating. 

More positively, Jolie improves as a director with every film she makes (this is a quantum leap on from the likes of Unbroken) and her ambition here is only to be applauded. Making a foreign language movie (First They Killed... is in Khmer with English sub-titles) about a tricky subject is hard enough, without the added stylistic limitation of trying to do it from the perspective of a child, complete with a great many first-person shots in which the camera is placed only a few feet off the floor to approximate Ung's eyeline. On the subject of eyes, Jolie has a very good one and her film has so many terrifically composed shots that you stop counting after the first couple of dozen. It is therefore a shame that Netflix demonstrates such antipathy to screening its films in cinemas because, on a big screen, this would be a real visual treat.


Girl afraid: Jolie's new film offers a child's perspective of war 

Film of the Week: The Villainess.

What I shall be watching this week: I still haven't seen It and need to remedy that ASAP.

Top 10 best-selling DVDs/Blu-rays (films only)
1. Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol.2
2. Sing
3. Sleepless
4. Snatched
5. Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol.1 & 2
6. The Boss Baby
7. Hacksaw Ridge
8. A Dog's Purpose
9. La La Land
10. Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them

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