Monday 23 January 2017

The Girl With All The Gifts, Heaven Knows What, and Wiener-Dog: Your Week In Film (January 23-29)

Gifted: Sennia Nanua is the 'frightened but ferocious' Melanie

The next seven days in DVD, Blu-ray and VOD...

I'm not sure why but traffic on this blog has increased at least five-fold since Christmas, which is very encouraging and altogether lovely. If you're one of my new readers, welcome, and please feel free to make yourself at home. You can leave comments about the stuff I post here or even give me a shout about contributing a guest column - all film-related subjects considered. Anyway, let's see what this week's batch of films has in store for us, eh?

The Girl With All The Gifts (DVD, Blu-ray and VOD) WWW is yet another zombie movie but one that at least tries to do something interesting in a sub-genre that long ago grew stale. Gemma Arterton is Helen, a teacher at a military base where undead children, including Melanie (Sennia Nanua), are used as lab rats in a bid to find a cure for the fungal infection that has transformed them into human-eating 'hungries'. Of course, the base is soon under attack by a veritable army of the creatures and a band of survivors (including Helen, young Melanie, and Glenn Close's sinister scientist) have to venture out into a much-changed world in a bid to find a new safe place.

There are some smart visual ideas here courtesy of screenwriter Mike Carey (what he does with London's BT Tower is particularly inspired), director Colm McCarthy proves himself a master of mood and atmosphere, and Cristobal Tapia de Veer's score is a thing of otherworldly beauty. Newcomer Nanua is terrific as the frightened but ferocious Melanie, and it's been a while since the underrated Arterton was given such a meaty role to sink her teeth into. Ultimately, though, a lot of it feels just a little too familiar, whether from George Romero's original Dead trilogy, 28 Days Later, or the interminable Walking Dead TV show. McCarthy's film never quite manages to escape the sub-genre's trappings but it does come awfully close, especially during an absorbing first half before the diktats of plot take hold.

Girl meets world: Melanie craves human flesh

If I had to nominate 2016's most unfairly overlooked film then Heaven Knows What (DVD and Blu-ray) WWWW would certainly be in the running. It popped up for a limited run in UK cinemas last April, appeared on View On Demand around the same time, then disappeared without trace. I seem to recall only seeing it on one 'best of the year' list, although it did make #26 on mine. Perhaps Josh and Benny Safdie's drugs drama is simply too bleak for audiences who need something a little lighter in their lives right now (and who could blame them?).

Arielle Holmes (who co-wrote the screenplay) is vulnerable, damaged Harley, a homeless heroin addict living from high to high on the streets of New York. She's involved in a bizarre, mutually-destructive relationship with Ilya (Caleb Landry Jones), who, the first time we meet them, orders his girlfriend to prove she loves him by slashing her wrists. Harley duly obliges.

The fact you're told nothing about Harley's past and made to witness her every painful, self-sabotaging act is a smart bit of storytelling because it invites you to condemn her behaviour and lifestyle. To see her and her friends as less than the desperate human beings they are. This lack of context is a provocation, but a forcefully delivered one, and I can't wait to see what everyone involved in Heaven Knows What does next.

Heaven up here: Arielle Holmes is Harley

Until recently I'd have, without hesitation, described myself as a Todd Solondz fan. But I've come to the conclusion that I only really love Happiness, the oddball director's transgressive masterpiece from 1998, and that every other movie of his I've seen covers similar ground only less engagingly. And so it goes with Wiener-Dog (DVD and VOD) , an ill-fitting jumble of four stories all linked by the appearance of the titular dachshund. Solondz's trademark misanthropy is high in the mix again (one character names her pooch 'Cancer') but laughs - even mean-spirited ones - are in short supply and the whole enterprise feels a bit ramshackle and half-baked. Danny DeVito, at his prickly best as a bitter screenwriter, perhaps makes it worth a look though.

Barking up the wrong tree: Solondz's Wiener-Dog

As I mentioned last week, online platforms such as Curzon Home Cinema and MUBI have again partnered with UniFrance (the organisation which promotes Gallic cinema worldwide) to showcase "a talented new generation of filmmakers" in the seventh annual My French Film Festival. I'm slowly working my way through the movies on offer this year and have turned up a couple of gems - Moka and Parisienne (both WWW).

The former stars Emmanuelle Devos as a grief-stricken mother searching for the couple who ran over and killed her son (the film's title, Moka, comes from the colour of the car involved in the hit-and-run accident). It's a deeply affecting character study and Devos is absolutely riveting as tormented but tough Diane. Frédéric Mermoud's film starts off as a standard revenge thriller but transforms into something rather more satisfying by its close, via some nicely worked twists and turns.

French filmmakers have been keen of late to explore the experience of immigrants travelling to their country (we've had Divines, Girlhood and Dheepan to name but three examples in the last 18 months alone). Parisienne continues that trend. Set in Paris in the 1990s, Danielle Arbid's film follows Lebanese student Lina (Manal Issa), who walks out on her aunt and uncle when the latter makes a pass at her. However, she soon realises being a penniless student a long way from home is almost as miserable as the war-torn life she's left behind.

Lost in Paris: Student Lina battles adversity

Like Moka, Parisienne is elevated considerably by the power of its central performance. Issa (soon to be seen in the critically-acclaimed Nocturama) is an indefatigable presence as Lina; beautiful, scrappy, resourceful, vulnerable, optimistic and determined. You practically punch the air with every small step forward she makes, while her frequent setbacks (like when she's deflowered and abandoned by her wealthy lover) brought a tear to my eye.

UK directors seem to have all but stopped making movies about the lives of immigrants to these shores (if they ever really began), which is not only odd but also a little worrying.

What I shall be watching this week: I'll be venturing out into the big wide world to see Manchester By The Sea (finally!) and T2 Trainspotting.

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

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