Monday 29 May 2017

War Machine, Detour, The Damned: Don't You Wish That We Were Dead: Your Week In Film (May 29-June 4)

Brad timing: Pitt's General McMahon comes a cropper in Afghanistan

UK home entertainment picks for the next seven days... 

The most surprising thing about Detour (cinemas and VOD) WW is that it is written and directed by Christopher Smith, the talented British filmmaker who, a few years ago, gave us the underrated Severance and the wonderfully deranged Triangle. Alas, this – a more mainstream offering – isn't in the same league as either of those films, its overly tricksy structure and visuals working overtime to disguise the fact it has little substance or originality.

The film features three talented, up-and-coming young actors in Tye Sheridan, Emory Cohen and Bel Powley, nods to the likes of Tarantino and Hitchcock, but ultimately ends up as a rather vanilla version of Gregg Araki's gloriously transgressive The Doom Generation

Sheridan is rich-kid Harper, whose mother is in a coma following a car accident and clearly not long for this world. He suspects his step-father (True Blood's Stephen Moyer) of foul play and, during a long dark night of the soul, drunkenly offers bad-boy Johnny Ray (Cohen) a lot of money to kill him. Suffice to say, Harper's plan doesn't proceed smoothly, not helped when he develops an attraction for Cherry (Powley), the stripper girlfriend Johnny treats like dirt.

Smith tries to keep you on the backfoot with all sorts of feints and fakes (early on you wonder if you're watching a take on Sliding Doors, only for it to pivot off in a different direction), but he fails to elevate the material beyond that of a standard thriller with characters straight out of central casting. Cohen (Brooklyn) and Sheridan (The Stanford Prison Experiment) deserve better, while the excellent Powley (The Diary Of A Teenage Girl) does her best in a nothing role when, by now, she should be well on her way to the Hollywood A-list.

Wrong direction: Detour is a disappointing thriller

The Damned: Don't You Wish That We Were Dead (DVD, Blu-ray and VOD) WWW is Lemmy director Wes Orshoski's documentary about the titular British punk band who last year celebrated their 40th anniversary together. Well, I say 'together', but the truth of the matter is that the band's chequered history is made up of as many bust-ups and line-up changes as it is great music, unlikely reinventions, and bizarre digressions (see guitarist Captain Sensible's Happy Talk mega-hit).

Of The Damned's classic original line-up, which gave us the world's first punk-rock single, New Rose, and its first punk-rock album, Damned Damned Damned, only lead singer Dave Vanian has been an ever-present. Sensible left the band at the height of his solo success, only to return to its bosom somewhat chastened, while drummer Rat Scabies jumped ship in 1995 and songwriter/guitarist Brian James as early as 1977. An attempt at a reunion with all four of them in 1991 was a short-lived disaster.

Filmed in 2015, a framing device sees Vanian, Sensible and Co. playing dates on a world tour with the latter memorably turning 60 in Japan. All four originals feature prominently here, as do members old and new (The Damned seem to have gone through bassists like Spinal Tap did drummers). Despite the internecine aggro, this is a mostly positive and upbeat whistle-stop tour of the band's history, from the early days in London's nascent punk scene, through goth and neo-prog periods, to their status today as rock's great survivors and perhaps one of the most underrated bands of the last 50 years (celebrity fans such as Dave Gahan and Jello Biafra certainly seem to think so). 

It does attempt to delve beneath the surface of the main players with mixed results. We already knew Sensible was a likeable fool and Vanian an enigma, but James seems fragile and perhaps still scarred by the whole Damned experience, while Scabies is disappointingly angry and bitter. For all their absurdity and self-sabotage over the years, The Damned fully deserve their position as one of punk's unholy troika with The Sex Pistols and The Clash. Orshoski's film dares to take them seriously with a parade of talking heads lining up to pay homage to their full-throttle, trousers-down rock'n'roll and "have a good time all the time" ethos. Altogether now... Smash it up, you can stick your frothy lager, Smash it up, and your blow wave hairstyles!

Damned on the run: Punk-rock pioneers in the spotlight

I know there isn't a lot of serious competition but, as films based on the ill-fated 'War On Terror' go, David Michod's satirical War Machine (Netflix) WWW is one of the better ones. Set in 2009, during the occupation of Afghanistan, garlanded four-star General Glen McMahon (Brad Pitt) is despatched to the country in a bid to bring the ongoing, and increasingly embarrassing, conflict to a speedy resolution. Despite being told in no uncertain terms that he can't have any more troops and advised to stay clear of the notoriously dangerous Helmand Province, McMahon comes up with a foolproof plan to finally defeat the Taliban and win the war... um, 40,000 extra troops and an all-out assault on Helmand. The General's biggest headache, though, is about to be the Rolling Stone reporter who has somehow been granted access to him and his loose-lipped team...

Writer/director Michod (Animal Kingdom) treats the whole thing as a broad and rather bizarre farce, cleverly mixing fact and fiction and nodding more than once to the likes of Armando Iannucci's In The Loop and Barry Levinson's Wag The Dog. Meanwhile, Pitt turns in a performance that is only a hop, skip and a jump away from an all-out cartoon - his face pulled into an quizzical gurn, his voice a macho rasp, his hand a weird claw, as if he were holding an invisible cigar. It's a odd turn that works surprisingly well in a story as much about the general's mighty hubris as it concerns itself with a conflict that was by turns unnecessary, heart-breaking and surreal.

Loosely based on Michael Hastings' book about General Stanley McChrystal (The Operator: The Wild And Terrifying Inside Story Of America's War In Afghanistan), War Machine has laughs aplenty, some sharp lines ("Men are imperfect creatures. Left to their own devices, all they really want to do is play with their dicks and eat chicken"), and a parade of fine supporting turns - I particularly enjoyed Ben Kingsley as President Karzai. At two hours and change it's perhaps a bit longer than it needed to be but nevertheless skewers the absurd dichotomy at the heart of US counter-insurgency in Afghanistan. As Pitt tells his men early on, "We can't help them and kill them at the same time, it just ain't humanly possible."

Mean Machine: Brad Pitt takes on the Taliban

This week's TV picks...
1. Le Havre (Tuesday, Film4, 1.50am)
2. Marilyn Monroe Marathon - six of the iconic actress' best-loved roles including The Seven Year Itch and Some Like It Hot (Thursday, Sky Cinema Select, from 9.10am)
3. It Follows (Friday, Film4, 10.55pm)
4. The Sapphires (Saturday, BBC Two, 10pm)
5. Apocalypto (Sunday, Channel 4, 12.10am)

What I shall be watching this week: I'm off into London to finally catch Colossal. I shall also see Wonder Woman with the kids.

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

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