Monday 26 September 2016

Imperium, Love & Friendship, and The Nice Guys: Your Week In Film (September 26-October 2)

Whiteout: Daniel Radcliffe on the march in Imperium

I've taken the odd potshot at Daniel Radcliffe's acting in this column but, credit where it's due, he is very good in Imperium (cinemas and VOD) WWW. The former Harry Potter plays Nate Foster, a nerdy FBI agent who goes undercover in a bid to prevent a terrorist plot hatched by American neo-Nazis. Unusually for this type of film, Foster doesn't inveigle himself into the sieg-heilers' inner circle by being a badass prepared to break a few heads but by using his superior intellect and extensive research to say the right things at the right time. Brute force might hurt white supremacists, Imperium seems to suggest, but it takes guile and genuine smarts to properly take them down.

Yes, there are several elements in Daniel Ragussis's film we've seen before - the close shaves where Foster's identity is almost compromised, the bad guy with whom our protagonist strikes up an unlikely bond - but the repetition of such tropes is easily forgivable. Apart from a couple of bonehead caricatures, it refuses to present the Nazis as cartoon monsters. These deeply flawed and thoroughly hateful people don't just have a world view but one they have thought about, read about and can properly articulate. What's more, they could be the woman next door (the wife of Sam Trammell's head honcho bakes cakes decorated with swastika icing), the bloke behind the bar in your local or even your new workmate - shaved head or not, the hatred burns just as intensely. 

Toni Collette as Foster's ruthless FBI handler is reliably superb if somewhat under-utilised, while Radcliffe himself gives easily his most nuanced performance to date. Foster is by turns scared, frustrated and even conflicted and Radcliffe sells all of that most convincingly. It all adds up to an intelligent, impressively researched and realised crime thriller that is one part entertainment, another part wake-up call.

Normally, I'm no fan of costume dramas either but thoroughly enjoyed Whit Stillman's deliciously spiky Love & Friendship (DVD, Blu-ray and VOD) WWW, an adaptation of the Jane Austen novel, Lady Susan. Kate Beckinsale is Lady Susan Vernon, a high-maintenance Machiavelli who, following the death of her husband, is reduced to 'visiting' (moving in with) any friend or relative foolhardy enough to put up with her constant schemes, indiscretions and betrayals. Prepared to ride roughshod over anyone who gets in her way, she pursues her goal of netting wealthy husbands for herself and sappy daughter Frederica. In truth, the woman is utterly dreadful but Beckinsale's arch performance and Whitman's hilarious writing conspire to make Lady Susan someone you end up rather liking (although you'd trust her about as far as you could throw her). Her scenes with co-conspirator Chloë Sevigny are a delight but it's Tom Bennett who comes closest to stealing the entire film as Sir James Martin, perhaps the finest screen idiot since Tim McInnerny first pulled on a doublet and hose to become Lord Percy Percy in Blackadder.

Unfriended: Lady Susan is trouble with a capital T

Not quite in the same league laughs-wise is The Nice Guys (DVD, Blu-ray and VOD) WW. Ryan Gosling (a boozy private eye) and Russell Crowe (an unreconstructed thug) are terrific in Shane Black's retro buddy comedy set in 1970s Los Angeles, but are let down by a half-baked plot that isn't so much confusing as downright uninteresting. Kim Basinger – '80s stalwart of 9½ Weeks and Batman – is criminally underused.

Amazon Prime Video is making three of the year's most eye-catching films available to watch from Friday (Sept 30), including Spotlight WWW½. Tom McCarthy's Best Picture Oscar winner focuses on the Boston Globe newspaper's 2001 investigation into the local cover-up of child sexual abuse by Catholic priests. The film's absence of directorial flashiness or melodrama allows an excellent ensemble cast (including Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, Michael Keaton), sharp writing and methodical plotting to shine. Amazon also has Trumbo WWW, a thoroughly entertaining biopic of 1950s Hollywood screenwriter Dalton Trumbo (Roman Holiday, Spartacus), who was blacklisted and jailed for being a communist. Breaking Bad's Bryan Cranston is on fine scenery-chewing form as the titular character. Last but not least from Amazon is Youth WWW. Paolo Sorrentino's follow up to The Great Beauty stars Michael Caine as a retired composer waiting for the end at an exclusive Swiss spa. A tragicomic meditation on old age, grief and regret, Youth also contains a generous helping of eccentricity (like the moment Paloma Faith turns up, playing a singer called... Paloma Faith).

Sorrentino's oddness is small potatoes when set against Charlie Kaufman's directorial debut, Synecdoche, New York (Tuesday, 00:55, Film4) WWW. The much-missed Philip Seymour Hoffman is lugubrious threatre director Caden Cotard, a man in the throes of a permanent midlife crisis. Obsessed with death and illness - but still somehow able to form relationships with a string of absurdly attractive women (Michelle Williams, Catherine Keener, Samantha Morton) - he buys a vast warehouse and commences work on a hugely ambitious new play. As his creation grows bigger and bigger - spreading out into other warehouses, its own self-contained world - fiction and reality merge. Suddenly, there isn't just one Caden but several, including a version played by actress Deirdre O'Connell. It's surreal, funny, maddening and occasionally quite brilliant.

Rather more conventional, Steven Spielberg's Cold War thriller Bridge Of Spies (from Friday, 14:20 and 20:00, Sky Cinema Premiere/NOW TV) WW½ is a perfectly likeable advertisement for liberal decency, with Tom Hanks all effortless charm and unflappable resolve. Hanks plays James B Donovan, an insurance lawyer pressed into defending a captured Russian spy (Oscar winner Mark Rylance) and then travelling to communist Berlin in a bid to exchange the man for a downed airman and incarcerated student. Based on a true story, it's good solid fare but, in truth, lacks a sense of real jeopardy and both Spielberg and Hanks have done much better work.

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

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