Monday 3 April 2017

Snowden, Allied, and Ghost In The Shell: Your Week In Film (April 3-9)

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang: Pitt and Cotillard team up in Allied

Film picks for the next seven days on DVD, Blu-ray, and VOD...

"This is not about terrorism - terrorism is the excuse. This is about economic and social control - and the only thing you're really protecting is the supremacy of your government." So says Joseph Gordon-Levitt as the titular NSA whistleblower, in Snowden (DVD, Blu-ray and VOD) WWW, laying out in the starkest terms imaginable what America's secret services had been up to post-9/11 and the flimsy justifications for their actions.

I suspect your enjoyment of the film will depend on whether you believe Edward Snowden is a hero or a traitor. As someone firmly in the former camp, I found Oliver Stone's film mostly gripping and not a little scary (yes, even now, when the revelations have been public knowledge for four years). The overreach, arrogance and anti-democratic impulses of the American government as depicted here are astounding, and Stone gives us some truly jaw-dropping moments. My favourite (if such things can be categorised as such) is when Rhys Ifans, unnervingly brilliant as senior spook Corbin O’Brian, informs Snowden that his girlfriend is definitely not cheating on him. He knows this because her email is being monitored. Ifans delivers the news over a video link, his head massive on the screen as it towers over our protagonist. An obvious allusion to Nineteen Eighty-Four's Big Brother but an extremely powerful one.

During the film's UK theatrical release, towards the end of last year, critics seemed to go out of their way to unfavourably compare it to Laura Poitras's excellent documentary, Citizenfour, but I fail to see how the two films are in competition. In fact, they make perfect companion pieces. Poitras's film captures a cataclysmic moment in time - when Snowden (holed up in a Hong Kong hotel room) released, initially via The Guardian website, documents he had stolen from the NSA proving they had been spying on innocent people and foreign governments all over the world. Snowden, on the other hand, is about the bigger picture - how the titular character went from Ayn Rand-loving conservative to Obama-supporting liberal, and his up and down relationship with girlfriend Lindsay (Shailene Woodley). It fills in a lot of the blanks that Citizenfour isn't really interested in and offers up a fuller portrait of the man himself.

Biography slips into hagiography towards the end and I could have done without the liberal love-in featuring former Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger and the real Ed Snowden in its final scenes. That said, I probably saw 50 films better than Snowden last year but I'm not sure any of them were as important.

Hero or traitor?: Oliver Stone's case for the defence

More secrets in Allied (DVD, Blu-ray and VOD) WW½, which starts off as a rollicking, old-fashioned World War II adventure set in Morocco, and then gets a bit bogged down as it relocates to London and turns into a slightly less nimble mystery-cum-melodrama. Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard are secret agents, teaming up in Casablanca to assassinate the German ambassador. As is the way with these things, they fall in love and, long story short, end up married with a baby together in London. But their romantic idyll is soon torpedoed when Pitt is handed the onerous task of investigating if Cotillard is, in reality, a Nazi who, some years before, assumed the identity of a French resistance fighter. Despite the jarring change of pace, director Robert Zemeckis (Back To The Future, Who Framed Roger Rabbit) keeps the suspense simmering and delivers a genuine gut-punch of an ending.

In truth, Cotillard and Pitt don't have a lot of chemistry (Bogie and Bacall they are not) and the idea of either of them living in a quaint London terrace together is faintly absurd, but such matters are forgivable, especially in light of a first half which boasts a couple of cracking set-pieces, including the assassination itself. In fact, had it appeared in a movie with a little more 'street cred', I suspect the sight of Cotillard in a posh frock blasting Nazis with a shotgun would be considered truly iconic.

Spy hard: Good set-pieces, little chemistry

The best thing about Moana (DVD, Blu-ray and VOD) WWW isn't the feisty titular character (played with gusto by Auli'i Cravalho), Dwayne Johnson as arrogant demigod Maui, its rousing theme song, How Far I'll Go, nor even the beautifully animated volcano demon who provides its central big bad. Nope, it's the gang of sentient coconuts, called Kakamora, that turn up in pirate ships about halfway through to menace Moana and Maui, then disappear again as quickly as they came. The Kakamora are brilliant, bonkers creations - like little anarchist refugees from Michael Bentine's Potty Time or demonic toddlers enjoying the biggest sugar rush of their lives.

No messing, this is some genuinely weird shit - if David Lynch put sentient coconut pirates with arms and legs and crazy skull faces in one of his films he'd be hailed a genius (again) but because it's in a Disney animation the whole deranged three-minute interlude passes without comment. I want more of the Kakamora - either in their own film or a TV series - do it now, Disney. Do. It. Now.

In the heart of the sea: Disney's magical Moana

Which leads us to animation of a very different kind. You may remember, a few weeks back, me raving in this column about a South Korean zombie movie, called Train To Busan. Seoul Station (DVD, Blu-ray and VOD) WWW is that film's animated prequel by the same director, Yeon Sang-ho, and whilst not a patch on its live action sibling, is nevertheless a pretty wild ride in its own right.

Set in and around the South Korean capital's titular transport hub, it starts off with the usual undead shenanigans - a homeless man with a terrible neck wound dies in a subway, before reanimating as a slavering zombie and attacking anyone it can lay its hands on. The infection spreads and soon you have a full-blown mini-apocalypse on the cards as the police and army move in.

Sang-ho's film focuses on three characters - a former prostitute, her boyfriend and her father. The latter pair are trying to locate the former as the world goes to hell around them. Sang-ho keeps the action localised and claustrophobic, cleverly uses zombies as a metaphor for the plight of South Korea's dispossessed, and serves up a very nicely worked twist that, for once, you really won't see coming. It doesn't have quite the same breathless velocity as Busan and its rampaging undead aren't nearly as disturbing, but it still bites big bloody chunks out of most other zombie fiction out there at the moment.

Dead rising: Zombies on the rampage in Seoul Station

More animation? Oh, go on then. In an understandable bid to cash in on the mostly terrific live-action version, starring Scarlett Johansson, the original Ghost In The Shell (DVD and Blu-ray) WWW½ anime has recently been re-released and is available for a budget price (I saw the BR in HMV for £8). Mamoru Oshii's 1995 film is a superior - and incredibly influential - slice of cyberpunk that spends as much time exploring notions of identity, memory and consciousness as it does on exciting action set-pieces. It was fun watching the original Ghost again to see which beautifully animated shots and scenes had been lifted and lovingly reproduced in Rupert Sanders' blockbuster (a fair few), which is more a radical remix of the original material than a straight adaptation. Both are well worth checking out though.

Ghost world: The original anime is worth Shelling out for

What I shall be watching this week: I really need to find somewhere showing Ben Wheatley's Free Fire.

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

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