Monday 10 October 2016

Under The Shadow, Race, and Warcraft: The Beginning: Your Week In Film (October 10-16)

Djinn and bear it: Under The Shadow is a scary treat

DVD, Blu-ray, VOD, TV and cinema highlights for the next seven days...

With the likes of The Witch and The Babadook wowing audiences and critics alike, slow-burn psychological horror is very much back in vogue. Under the Shadow (in cinemas and on VOD) WWW½ is another fine example of the form, starting off at a languid pace then gathering speed, tension and atmosphere as it builds to a genuinely bat-shit crazy - not to mention frightening - final act.

The film - in Farsi (with subtitles) by Iranian/British writer/director Babak Anvari - is set in Tehran in 1988, during the Iran/Iraq war. Shideh (Narges Rashidi), a former medical student kicked out of university for political agitation during her country's revolution, is left home alone with daughter Dorsa (Avin Manshadi) after husband Iraj (Bobby Naderi) is shipped off to do his military service. When Shideh's apartment block is hit by an Iraqi missile, something nasty - a djinn spirit - gets in through the resultant hole in the roof. The supernatural creature takes an immediate interest in Dorsa...

Like all the best horror films, Under The Shadow isn't really about ghosts and monsters but merely uses them to talk about real-world concerns, in this case a mother's terror at the prospect of losing her daughter and husband to the bloody war raging outside their door. Shideh also fears for her own future under a regime she clearly despises, especially after her chance to pursue a career in medicine is denied her.

As the film progresses and the war intensifies, more and more of Shideh's neighbours flee, ultimately leaving mother and daughter alone in the apartment complex. It is in these moments of intense isolation and vulnerability that Anvari ramps up the chills, hitting you with several moments guaranteed to send a big fat shiver down your spine.  

I've seen a thousand horror films over the years so these days it takes something really special to get under my skin. This did. 

Ghost world: Mother and daughter under attack

Nineteen-thirties track and field legend Jesse Owens - one of the greatest US Olympians of all time - deserves a biopic with a much bigger budget and a far starrier cast but, for now, Race (DVD and VOD) WWW will do just fine. 

Initially Stephen Hopkins' movie comes across as a rather by-the-numbers affair, as we follow Owens (Stephan James) to Ohio State University then, under coach Larry Snyder (Jason Sudeikis), see him break a number of world records in the 100m, 200m and long jump. He qualifies for the American Olympic team to compete in Berlin in 1936 but is soon under pressure to pull out in protest at Germany's Nazi regime. Of course, the irony is that Owens - a black man living in a time of segregation and rampant racial discrimination - is treated almost as badly in his own country as he would be under Adolf Hitler.

Catch me if you can: Owens biopic has its moments

Race becomes rather more interesting once we reach Berlin and see Owens wiping the floor with all-comers as he takes home a clutch of gold medals in front of Hitler himself. In fact, the Nazis command quite a bit of screen time, most notably in a subplot involving a feud between filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl (Game Of Thrones' Carice van Houten) and the regime's minister of propaganda, Joseph Goebbels (a chilling portrayal from Barnaby Metschurat). Goebbels is clearly vile but Hopkins impresses as he seeks to find decency and humanity even in a country about to plummet headlong into the moral abyss. Riefenstahl and German long-jump star Lutz Long both treat Owens with more courtesy and respect than practically anyone (well, anyone white) back home. 

Hopkins' film is entertaining, provocative and even inspiring, but far from perfect. The obvious budgetary constraints result in some distinctly ropey-looking CG effects while the extent of the prejudice Owens faced in the US - even amongst his supposed team-mates - is downplayed. 

Warcraft: The Beginning (DVD, Blu-ray and VOD) WW½ took a bit of a critical shellacking on its cinema release and the movie's US box office was disappointing. Yes, Duncan Jones' long-awaited adaptation of the World Of Warcraft fantasy online role-playing game is unwieldy and silly at times, but ultimately transcends its Dungeons & Dragons/Lord Of The Rings influences to deliver one of the summer's better blockbusters. The CG is excellent (the Orc v human battle scenes have a real physical 'crunch' to them), while Jones serves up some pleasing twists and turns, including a fiendish but nicely worked ending. Sequel, please.

If ever a film deserved the description 'visceral' it is surely Amat Escalante’s drug-war drama Heli (Tuesday morning, 01:30, Film4) WWW. The titular character is a young Mexican whose family is targeted by a local cartel after his 12-year-old sister and her older boyfriend conceal stolen packages of cocaine. When the crime is discovered the revenge perpetrated upon these kids is terrible to behold (torture, rape and murder). Escalante’s film shows how the cartels’ mephitic presence seeps into every area of their victims’ lives and the ways in which it foments hatred and criminality. A drug war story with vengeance at the centre of its jet-black heart, Heli possesses an uncompromising ugliness that puts similarly-themed but vanilla Hollywood fare such as Sicario firmly in the shade.

Hel on Earth: The drug war has never seemed uglier

Finally, there's Grandma (Wednesday, 21:00, Sky Cinema Select) WW½, which sees irascible septuagenarian Elle (Lily Tomlin) battling, bullying and begging to raise enough cash to fund her grand-daughter's abortion. Paul Weitz's film is brave and likable, even though the 'tough old boot with a heart of gold' trope has surely been done to death at this point.

What I shall be watching this week: Bizarro horror The Greasy Strangler (DVD, Blu-ray and VOD), Ava DuVernay's prison documentary The 13th (in cinemas and on Netflix), and as many movies as I can fit in at the London Film Festival.

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

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