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Monday, 2 October 2017

Gerald's Game, Killing Ground, and Daphne: Your Week In Film (October 2-8)

Beech joy: Emily Beecham is terrific as the titular character in Daphne

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

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

Please note: Some of these reviews contain spoilers 

Another week, another Stephen King adaptation. Hard on the heels of The Dark Tower and It, comes an effective but imperfect film version of the horror author's 1992 novel Gerald's Game (Netflix) WW½, with Mike Flanagan (Oculus, Ouija: Origin Of Evil) in the director's chair.

A simple set-up sees a well-heeled couple, Jess (Carla Gugino) and the titular Gerald (Bruce Greenwood), travelling out of town to their remote lake house, in a bid to put a bit of zing back into their moribund marriage. The bullying, misogynistic Gerald has a sex game in mind which involves handcuffing Jess to the bed, something she really isn't comfortable with but accedes to anyway. The pair argue, Gerald has a bad reaction to a Viagra pill he's popped and, before you know it, he's lying dead on the floor. There's no one for miles around, Jess can't reach the key for the cuffs or her mobile phone, and things look bleak. Vulnerable, terrified and in increasing pain, she starts to hallucinate...

Flanagan is very good at setting out Jess's awful predicament - he homes in on the phone and keys, agonisingly beyond her grasp, the remoteness of the lake house, the way the curtains throw disconcerting shapes on the floor and walls as night falls. Through a series of close-ups, he puts you right there, in that room, with her. You feel her panic, exhaustion and desperation, as she converses with visions of both herself and her dead husband. Soon enough, you also feel her resolve as Jess's memories dig up impossibly painful moments from her past. Ultimately, Gerald's Game is about a survivor doing the thing they're best at... finding a way to come through the horrors life throws at them.

It'd be quite easy to draw parallels with King's Misery, in which another of his characters spends a good deal of a story tied to a bed. But Jess is a prisoner not of a deranged stranger - not even, really, of the handcuffs - but rather of the men she should have been able to trust the most, but who let her down terribly; namely husband Gerald and her father. The realisation she's been held captive most of her life, and what she does with that knowledge, provides her with a possible but discomforting path to salvation.

Greenwood is perfect here as the mephitic Gerald - you can practically smell the booze on his breath and expensive cologne on his leathery skin. But, as you'd hope and expect, it's the underrated Gugino's film. Jess is a woman who has put up with a lifetime of shit, surviving by keeping her mouth shut and making excuses for her abusers, but who is now in the biggest mess of her life. Gugino (Sucker Punch, Watchmen) can do the "tough but vulnerable" woman routine until the cows come home but it's her character's transformation that catches the eye here. You believe in her at the end just as much as you do at the start, although the two are very different women. One battered by adversity but somehow still standing, the other its conqueror.

It's a shame, then, that Gerald's Game goes off the rails towards the end. A seemingly supernatural element is introduced into the film as, cuffed to the bed, Jess thinks she encounters an embodiment of death, called Mr Moonlight. As just another of her hallucinations, this would have been a perfectly interesting story swerve. Unfortunately, in the final 10 minutes, we're buried under an avalanche of exposition, amongst which Mr Moonlight's appearance is clumsily rationalised (although at least foreshadowed early on). It's completely unnecessary because the film's themes and ideas really couldn't be clearer and didn't need any further narrative embroidery. Maybe it all worked better in the book...

Game of death: Carla Gugino as Jess battles for survival

Self-destructive young women struggling to find their place in the world is a character type well covered over the last few years in the likes of Lena Dunham's Girls and Phoebe Waller Bridge's extraordinary Fleabag - both successful, critically-acclaimed TV shows. Daphne (cinemas and VOD) WWW½, marks out similar territory, although it does so in a subtler, rather more low-key style than its television counterparts

Emily Beecham (who I'm trying but failing to remember from Hail, Caesar!) plays the titular character, a 31-year-old chef living in London, who doesn't particularly enjoy either her career or life in general. She avoids her mum (Geraldine James), drinks too much, snorts coke, sleeps with the odd stranger who stumbles onto her radar, and seemingly spends much of her alone time reading. So far, so familiar. Proceedings take a turn for the worse, though, when she witnesses a shop-owner being stabbed by a would-be robber. It makes her question everything about herself. Why doesn't she feel more for the victim? Why didn't she hold his hand while they were waiting for the ambulance? Why does she find it so difficult to truly connect with anyone? What's the point of it all, anyway? The trauma clearly affecting her creeps up on Daphne in heartbreaking increments until, following a drunken meltdown at work, she's clearly on the verge of nervous collapse.

Daphne barely puts a foot wrong, boasting as it does a fascinating performance full of nuance from Beecham, a smart script with a bunch of memorable scenes courtesy of Nico Mensinga, and assured direction from debutant Peter Mackie Burns, who has a real eye for London life. The fact the film is penned and helmed by men might be problematic for some but I wonder if Beecham had a hand in some of the lines and scenes, perhaps improvising certain parts of it? It wouldn't surprise me at all, so natural and authentic is she.

Gone girl: Daphne's on the verge of a meltdown

Aussie horror Killing Ground (cinemas and VOD) WWW is another of those "nice couple menaced by evil strangers in a remote setting" films which seem to have carved out a sub-genre all their own (see Eden Lake, Preservation, and The Strangers). Damien Power's unnerving movie is a notch or two above the usual exploitation hijinks, though, mainly because its storytelling is so strong.

Sam (Harriet Dyer) and Ian (Ian Meadows) are a loved-up young couple on a camping trip to a secluded site by a picturesque river. Upon their arrival, they're surprised to find another tent all set-up but no one staying in it. What they don't know is that three members of the family there previously have been slaughtered by two local villains, Chook (Aaron Glenane) and German (Aaron Pedersen), with Sam and Ian earmarked next for the chop.

You take tension, terror, thrills and spills in this kind of caper for granted but Power gives all those elements a pleasing spin. Using a non-linear approach, he cuts constantly from Ian and Sam, to Chook and German, to the pair's first victims, expertly ratchetting up the suspense, increasing the pace, and filling in the backstory as he goes. Giving the story's antagonists their own slice of the narrative is unusual in itself but extremely effective. You almost kid yourself they're not as bad as they seem... before the murder and abuse starts.

Despite the harrowing subject matter, Power is surprisingly restrained in what he shows us. Yes, there are moments of real ugliness but a lot of the worst stuff remains off-camera. Having to work out what has happened only serves to make it even more horrible. He's also keen to demonstrate how "normal" people might react in such a terrible, life-threatening situation, with Ian and Sam's relationship potentially ruined by the terror, leading to inaction, of one of them. An unusual take on familiar subject matter, Killing Ground is one of the year's most satisfying chillers.

Trigger happy: A young couple are targeted in Killing Ground

Finally, there's Zoology (cinemas and VOD) WWW, a delicious slice of social satire from Russian director Ivan I. Tverdovskiy. The excellent Natalya Pavlenkova is Natasha, a put-upon middle-aged woman who works at a zoo in a grey coastal town, and still lives at home with her mother. Bullied by work-mates (a parade of grotesques to give Francis Bacon pause), she is thoroughly lonely, unfulfilled and doesn't fit in. In fact, Natasha has more meaningful relationships with the zoo animals than she does with any of the humans she encounters. Things improve somewhat when she suddenly - and inexplicably - grows a long, pink tail. Keen to embrace this outrageous turn of events, in no time at all she's having an affair with her young doctor, prancing about in her underwear to pop music, and behaving badly in public.

Zoology is funny and strange, yes, and can be enjoyed entirely at face value, or as a metaphor for something else entirely. I wondered at first if Natasha's tail might be a way for Tverdovskiy to discuss his character's sexuality, politics, religion (or lack of same). But I think his message might be simpler than all that: it's about individuality and owning the things that make you different, rather than hiding them or being ashamed of them. Simplistic? Maybe, but a point of view that should resonate not just in Russia, but anywhere on the planet people face attack or sanction merely for standing out.  

Film of the week: Daphne

What I shall I be watching this week: Starting later this week, I'm going to be spending seven days at the London Film Festival. As a result, there won't be a Your Week In Film column next Monday but I will be posting reviews of some of the new movies I see, including Mudbound, How To Talk To Girls At Parties, and Battle Of The Sexes. I'm seeing 18 films in my time at the festival, so will have a lot to talk about, I'm sure.

The UK's 10 top-selling DVDs/Blu-rays (films only)
1. Baywatch
2. King Arthur: Legend Of The Sword
3. Moana
4. Beauty And The Beast
5. Alien: Covenant
6. Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol.2
7. Kingsman: The Secret Service
8. Sing
9. Finding Dory
10. Zootropolis

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