Monday 5 December 2016

White Girl, Suicide Squad, and The Shallows: Your Week In Film (December 5-11)

Gone Girl: The excellent Morgan Saylor plays naïve and privileged Leah

Perhaps I'm becoming a prude in my old age but the first thing to strike me about White Girl (Netflix, available now) WWW was the startling regularity and seeming gratuitousness of its sex scenes. Morgan Saylor - the very promising young actress who plays Leah, the film's sort-of protagonist - seems to spend most of her time 'on the job' or at least partially naked (that's when she isn't snorting industrial amounts of cocaine). Leah reveals her breasts like the rest of us scratch our noses or fiddle with our hair - frequently. It's all very 'male-gazey', too, which is a surprise because White Girl is actually written and directed by a woman, Elizabeth Wood.

I'm going to give Wood the benefit of the doubt, though, because her movie is very deliberately one in which everything is permanently turned up to 11 and hyper-intense. An innocent bit of kissing and canoodling, or under-the-blankets fumbling, simply wouldn't fit White Girl's hedonistic 'have a good time, all the time and screw the consequences' ethos.

Based on Wood's real-life experiences, the film sees pretty, entitled New York college student Leah getting in well over her head when she begins a relationship with Blue (Brian Marc), the small-time Puerto Rican coke dealer who hangs out with his mates on the street where she lives. Interning at some awful hipster magazine over the summer, Leah discovers she can hook up Blue with a more affluent clientele for his produce but, when he is busted by an undercover cop and faces a long-stretch in prison, she resolves to do whatever it takes to free him.

Check your hedonism: White Girl turns it up to 11

White Girl is a raw, breathless piece of work that doesn't stop still for a moment, Wood's wandering camera perfectly capturing the scuzziness of big city life and the euphoric mania of the NYC club scene. The movie belongs to Saylor, though, and hers is a brave performance - not just because she spends a lot of it in various states of undress but because Leah often isn't terribly sympathetic. Her philosophy is simple: there's no problem that can't be solved by sex, drugs or cold, hard cash. As a result she's reckless, manipulative and frequently downright foolish.

Wood invites you to dislike her protagonist pretty much from the get-go (even White Girl's title carries a hint of contempt). Leah is someone from the American Midwest who has clearly led a fairly cossetted life (her mum still sends her care packages) and just dives headfirst into every bit of craziness on offer once she reaches New York - fucking and drugging like there's no tomorrow. Unfortunately, being young, silly and privileged, she doesn't realise her actions can have dire consequences for those around her (consequences far worse than she would ever have to suffer). There are times when you can't help but feel sorry for her and you'd have to be incredibly cruel or an arch misogynist to believe Leah is entirely the architect of her own troubles. But Wood never lets her character off the hook, even when you think maybe she should, just for a little bit.

The stuff I liked about Suicide Squad (DVD, Blu-ray and VOD) W½ can be dealt with in short order: Margot Robbie, Will Smith, Viola Davis and Jared Leto, the latter adding much needed danger and unpredictability to proceedings every time his Joker (Sid Vicious channelling Al Capone) put in an appearance. The problem with the rest of David Ayer's film is that it's a bog-standard s̶u̶p̶e̶r̶h̶e̶r̶o̶ super-villain flick when its trailers promised something spikier and cooler. I expected punk rock and got a pantomime.

Girl v Shark thriller The Shallows (DVD, Blu-ray and VOD) WW isn't a whole lot better. Blake Lively is depressed medical-student-cum-surfer Nancy, catching some waves at a secret beach in Mexico, following the death of her beloved mother. A few hundred yards from shore she's attacked by a great white shark (it's never a hammerhead or one of those ones with the really big mouths, is it?) and not only badly injured but stranded too. Can she make it back to dry land? Can she summon help? It's a smart and simple set-up and everything initially goes rather swimmingly (boom-tish!).

Unfortunately, the entire enterprise gets rather soggy and starts to sink when we come face to fin with the shark itself, an unconvincing CGI creation that you never believe is real, even for a moment. Still, at least it wasn't in a tornado or possessed by the devil.

Lacks bite: Blake Lively in The Shallows

Pete's Dragon (DVD, Blu-ray and VOD) WWW sees an altogether more life-affirming coming together of human and beast. This charming remake of Disney's 1977 live action/animation adventure sees five-year-old Pete adopted by a ruddy great dragon – who he names Elliot – after his parents die in a car crash and he, the wreck's only survivor, gets lost in the woods. Kid and creature remain undiscovered within the forest's dense canopy for six years until a logging operation brings them into contact with humanity – some kind (Bryce Dallas Howard's forest ranger, and her dad Robert Redford, who'd encountered the dragon many years before), some with a villainous glint in their eye (ruthless logger Karl Urban).

The plot's ebbs and flows are fairly predictable (boy gets dragon, boy loses dragon, rinse and repeat) but David Lowery's film is a real treat despite that. It's sweet and sentimental but never cloyingly so – simple, straightforward, and refreshingly old fashioned too. Despite the presence of a colossal mythical beast and a seat-of-your-pants final act, this is a small story – one that's really about family, friendship and imagination.

Mud glorious mud: Aleksey German's Hard To Be A God 

In my round-up of 2015, I named Hard To Be A God (MUBI, from today) WWW as the maddest film of the year and I not only stand fully behind that assessment but am happy to extend it into this year too. Late Russian director Aleksey German's magnum opus is set on an alien planet stuck literally in the Dark Ages. A group of Earth scientists are present to study the natives but are clearly becoming slowly but surely assimilated. Cue three hours of sex, mud, brutality, spit, mud, blood, shit, mud and piss. It's an extraordinary film in many ways and a real cinematic experience (even on the small screen), but it's also an exercise in endurance. Did I mention the mud?

Finally, there's Midnight Special (Sky Cinema Premiere, 14:15 and 20:00, from Friday) WW, Jeff Nichols' Spielbergian sci-fi about a young boy with superhuman powers. The film starts strongly enough but rather falls apart in its final act. Michael Shannon's as watchable as ever though and, in the spirit of the season, I'm happy to forgive its flaws and give it another go.  

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

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