Monday 6 March 2017

Certain Women, Doctor Strange, and Hell Comes To Frogtown: Your week in film (March 6-12)

The Doctor is in: Strange is the latest addition to Marvel's superhero ranks 

This week's highlights on DVD, Blu-ray, VOD, and in cinemas...

I don't know whether it's a backlash against bigger, brasher, faster blockbusters but movies that are low-key and slow-burning are definitely all the rage right now. Moonlight and Spotlight - the last two Best Picture winners at the Oscars - are both subdued, leisurely-paced affairs, while films such as Loving, Arrival, and Manchester By The Sea have racked up plenty of awards, nominations and critical plaudits, too. Even Logan, the latest instalment in the long-running X-Men saga, eschews super-powered pyrotechnics for a darker, deeper, altogether more brooding tone.

Kelly Reichardt (Meek's Cutoff) has been making small, intricate, thoughtful films for years and her latest, Certain Women (in cinemas now) WWW, is therefore very timely. Set in Montana and based on Maile Meloy's short stories, it features three loosely linked tales of four women. Laura (Laura Dern) is a lawyer trying to rid herself of Fuller (Jared Harris), an unstable client obsessed with his unfair dismissal case, while Michelle Williams plays Gina, a hard-nosed business owner more interested in building her "authentic" Montana dream home than saving her failing marriage. Finally, there's Beth (Kristin Stewart), an overworked lawyer (yes, another one) making an eight-hour round trip twice a week to teach an adult-education class she really doesn't have time for. A young Native American rancher - brilliant newcomer Lily Gladstone - develops a crush on her.

These aren't character studies as much as warts-and-all snapshots of the women's lives. The stories are all very different but, if there is one thing these people share, it's a certain disaffection; Laura is frustrated that, after badgering her for eight months, Fuller wants the second opinion of a male lawyer, Gina's relationships with her husband and daughter are in turmoil, harried Beth barely has time to think straight while Gladstone's character (known only as 'The Rancher') exudes awkwardness and loneliness in equal measure. With the exception of Gladstone, they aren't always the most sympathetic bunch either. Dern is conducting an affair with a married man, Gina is trying to finagle a pile of sandstone out of a vulnerable elderly man, and Beth lives in her own head so much she doesn't see, or perhaps even care, about The Rancher's obvious feelings towards her.

The first two segments are compelling in their own ways (especially when Laura becomes involved in a hostage situation that Reichardt plays for laughs) but it isn't until we get to the Stewart/Gladstone story that the film really fizzes into life. Unrequited love is, of course, a staple of all kinds of fiction but I haven't seen its resultant longing and heartache articulated on screen quite so winningly in a while. Reichardt's preference for slow pacing and long takes is perfect for Gladstone's clumsy attempted courtship of the young lawyer, especially in the film's most perfect scene as the pair ride one of The Rancher's horses together. Conducted at night, in silence, it's a lovely moment that the director gives all the time and space it needs to breathe. Elsewhere, particularly in Gina's segments, proceedings and relationships feel a little less perfectly cooked but this is a real return to form for Reichardt after 2013's clumsy eco-terrorist drama, Night Moves.

Wonder Women: Kelly Reichardt is back on form 

When it comes to those aforementioned "bigger, brasher, faster blockbusters" few do it better than Marvel. But Doctor Strange (DVD, Blu-ray and VOD) WW isn't up there with the company's best efforts (Iron Man, Guardians Of The Galaxy). It boasts a great cast (including Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Tilda Swinton) and some truly mind-boggling effects (of which more in a moment). But, frustratingly often, Scott Derrickson's film is little more than a bunch of smart set-pieces in need of a better script, and a real hotchpotch of different influences (everything from Doctor Who to Harry Potter via Inception). Worse still, some of that great cast are either given little to do (Rachel McAdams) or straddled with lifeless characters (Mads Mikkelsen).

Doctor Stephen Strange (Cumberbatch) is a rich, successful, brilliant and arrogant New York neurosurgeon whose career is destroyed when a car accident leaves his hands shattered. Desperate to get his old life back but beyond the help of regular surgery, Strange travels to Kathmandu, in hopes of discovering a miracle cure. There he encounters a powerful being called The Ancient One (Swinton), who inducts him into a head-spinning world of magic and alternative dimensions. He soon finds himself pitted against Kaecilius (Mikkelsen) - a former student of The Ancient One's - who has turned bad and plans to conquer the planet in the name of an immensely powerful creature.

Despite my misgivings, and the fact they won't look nearly so grand on the small screen, director Derrickson nevertheless serves up a couple of visual moments to treasure. The climactic battle between Strange and his monstrous foe, Dormammu, is a time-twisting treat but even better is an earlier scene in which Swinton's Ancient One blows the Doctor's mind with a gloriously trippy whistle-stop tour of the universe and its many dimensions - an experience so overwhelming even Timothy Leary might have baulked at it.

Stranger things: Cumberbatch casts his spell

Hell Comes To Frogtown (DVD) WWW is a long-lost classic of the Italian neorealist movement, which has been recently rediscovered and restored by... no, I'm kidding, it's a gloriously silly post-apocalyptic slice of low-budget sci-fi from 1988 (the Blu-ray came out back in December but the DVD has only been made available from today). Donald G Jackson and RJ Kizer's film is noteworthy for two reasons - the fact it stars They Live's cult wrestler/action hero 'Rowdy' Roddy Piper (who passed away in 2015) and also because it was so clearly the inspiration for last year's magnificent Mad Max: Fury Road.

Piper is Sam Hell (brother of 'Shia' and 'Evan', I sincerely hope), one of only a few fertile men left after nuclear Armageddon has wiped out two thirds of America's male population. He is captured by Med-Tech (a team of female scientists who seem to hold sway in this bleak new world), made to wear an explosive electronic codpiece and press-ganged into a mission to liberate a group of young women from their kidnappers in the mutant wasteland. (The idea is that Hell rescues these ladies, then gets them pregnant to help with the repopulation effort). Cue a race of frog people, gratuitous nudity, punch-ups, a surprising amount of dancing, explosions, and a script with its tongue wedged so firmly in its cheek, you'd need some sort of special tongue/cheek wrench to pry them apart again.

The film is daft in a way that is actually quite hard to pull off. Silly and camp, yes, but also rather knowing and, at times, quite clever. There's a great bit near the beginning featuring the Statue of Liberty that I won't spoil but perfectly illustrates what I mean. And Frogtown is full of such playful, pleasing moments - some visual, some spoken - that suggest everybody involved was not only in on the joke but also having the time of their lives, including Piper, a charismatic screen presence, for sure, but one barely on nodding terms with anything you'd call 'acting'.

It's amusingly odd that a film so obviously intended as a Mad Max spoof/homage/cash-in should end up inspiring Fury Road, director George Miller's finest and most successful instalment of the Road Warrior saga, whose adventures he kicked off in 1979. There's one particular sequence here that really gives the game away, when, having rescued the kidnapped women, Hell and his companions (including Cec Verrell's Centinella, a badass proto-Furiosa) are pursued by Frogtown's Commander Toty (Brian Frank). The resultant car chase may lack the ambitious acrobatics, unfettered imagination and bludgeoning violence of Fury Road's best moments but its influence on the multiple Oscar winner is as plain as the mullet on Piper's head.

Let's get Rowdy: Piper invades Frogtown

What I shall be watching this week: I haven't seen a good, old-fashioned monster movie in a while, so I'm hoping Kong: Skull Island will sate my creature feature needs... at least until someone finally gets around to releasing Shin Godzilla over here.

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


  1. I liked Doctor Strange but it did occur to me that nothing really happens in it.

    I hadn't spotted that Mad Max 4 borrows from Frogtown, but you're on to something there.

    I saw some arthouse cinema in Scotland was showing Shin Godzilla so I asked my local PictureHouse and got a disinterested reply. Sigh.

  2. I'm amazed Fury Road's Frogtown link wasn't mentioned more when it first came out, especially in the mainstream media who never miss a chance to stir things up. I hadn't actually seen the film until the other day otherwise I'd have mentioned it when I first reviewed MM:FR last year. Others were far more on the ball, though: