Monday 22 May 2017

Your Week In Film: Hacksaw Ridge, Live By Night, and The Happiest Day In The Life of Olli Mäki (May 22-28)

Shoot the messenger: Andrew Garfield in Hacksaw Ridge

The highs and lows of UK home entertainment for the next seven days. All films available to buy, stream or watch now, unless otherwise stated...

I'm not sure Ben Affleck was ever 'cool' as such but these days he seems about as cutting edge as your mum and dad dancing down the front at a Nickelback gig. I've no idea when this sorry state of affairs came to pass. Despite the Oscars for Argo, did he truly ever recover from that whole excruciating 'Bennifer' business? Or has the malaise been a more recent phenomenon, perhaps prompted by the likes of Batman v Superman, The Accountant and his latest box-office flop Live By Night (DVD, Blu-ray and VOD) WW½?

The latter - a sprawling Prohibition-set mob drama with a revenge twist - isn't half bad actually but does suffer from a couple of major shortcomings. Firstly, it isn't very memorable. I only saw it a few months ago and, before writing this column, struggled to recall much of what happened or why. That's because the film is so plot heavy, lifting it could be an event in one of those World's Strongest Man contests. Secondly, Affleck - who directs, produces and stars - isn't the right choice for the lead. As mob enforcer Joe Coughlin, he's supposed to exude unshakeable confidence and menace, but instead spends the entire film looking a bit fed-up, like someone who's splashed out on a new pair of expensive trainers only to step in a big pile of dog muck the minute he puts them on. Frankly, Affleck couldn't do 'gangster' if his life depended on it.

All that said, there's something rather admirable about Live By Night's old-fashioned, deliberately-paced nature and slightly po-faced seriousness. Affleck's a better director than actor these days and his sumptuously-appointed 1920s-set film certainly looks the part. He also gets fine performances out of a terrific cast, especially Chris Cooper and Elle Fanning, as a self-loathing Sheriff and his troubled daughter.

Original gangster: Ben Affleck directs, produces and stars

Homeland and the aforementioned Argo may have been pulling our legs. It turns out that Iranians don't generally spend all their time burning the American flag and screaming "Death to the Great Satan" in Tehran's main square after all. In fact, whisper it, some of them drive cars, speak to each other on mobile phones, hold down jobs and own businesses. If Inversion (VOD) WWW is anything to go by, they also have huge rows with their families.

Behnam Behzadi's film centres on Niloofar (Sahar Dolatshahi), a 30-something businesswoman who runs her own clothing alterations shop in Tehran. She's single but romance seems set to blossom when an old school friend re-enters her life. Unfortunately, around the same time, her ageing mother's respiratory condition goes from bad to life threatening, and a doctor decrees the woman must leave the heavily polluted city for the cleaner air up north. Because she is unmarried and without children, Niloofar's brother and sister conspire to bully her into leaving Tehran to care permanently for their stricken mum. Niloofar resists...

If you've seen any of Asghar Farhadi's work you'll have some idea of the middle-class milieu to expect here, but Inversion is rougher round the edges than the likes of A Separation or The Salesman. It is a small but compelling, character-driven film with the odd soapy moment lobbed in for good measure. Dolatshahi is terrific and sells her predicament to perfection while Ali Mosaffa, as her scheming brother Farhad, is a noxious study in selfishness and misogyny.

I know it's a cliché to talk about cities being characters in their own right in certain films but Tehran is an important player here. Its smoggy atmosphere, jammed roads and pollution-stained buildings concoct an oppressive 'fug' that is mirrored by Niloofar's situation, both within her family and perhaps in Iranian society as a whole.

Family plot: Niloofar fights for her future in Inversion

Cinemagoers are surely so used to every 'true story' adapted for film being described as 'extraordinary' or 'astonishing', that we've become desensitised to it. But forget all those tales of soulless entrepreneurs and overrated entertainers, Hacksaw Ridge (DVD, Blu-ray and VOD) WWW is the real deal.

Andrew Garfield is Desmond Doss, a World War II medic and staunch pacifist, who went into the hell of battle completely unarmed. Up against guns, bayonets, knives, grenades and lord knows what else, he didn't have so much as a pointed stick with which to defend himself or his comrades.

Mel Gibson's Oscar nominee is very much a film of two halves; the first sees Doss struggling to rein in his violent, alcoholic dad (Hugo Weaving), wooing a local nurse (Teresa Palmer) and fighting the US military brass for the right to serve; the second pitches him right into Okinawa's heart of darkness, a hell of mud, blood, explosions and mangled limbs. Of course, it is in this latter scenario that the young medic truly comes into his own. Gibson does too because few can do jaw-dropping, stomach-churning violence quite like he can. The controversial director's depiction of death and destruction has been criticised for its graphic nature but I'd say it's necessary to lend credence to Doss's moral standpoint, to show precisely why the idea of killing another human being repulsed him so much.

Meanwhile, Garfield - a reserved study in stoicism, decency and profound bravery - turns in what had been his finest screen performance until Martin Scorsese's Silence came along. Yes, it's all a bit 'Oscar-baity' and the film's depiction of the Japanese (frothing lunatics to a man) is problematic to say the least, but this is often a more complex film than it is given credit for, with Gibson keen to highlight the problems with Doss's pacifism as much as his extraordinary acts of courage.

Death before dishonour: Garfield fights the good fight

One true story you could never describe as 'astonishing' or 'extraordinary' is The Happiest Day In The Life of Olli Mäki (MUBI) WWW, a lovably low-key film about a real-life Finnish boxer in the weeks leading up to a big world title fight. His preparations are derailed when he falls in love with his friend Raija (Oona Airola). Suddenly she's all the titular Mäki (Jarkko Lahti) can think about, and beating the tar out of his opponent or posing for corny photos with sponsors seem less and less appealing.

Set in the early 1960s and shot in gorgeous black and white, Juho Kuosmanen's film is an anti-boxing movie, not in the sense it rails against the sport, but because it breaks just about every rule this particular sub-genre usually insists upon. Yes, there's sparring, training and weigh-ins, but Mäki spends most of his time looking ill at ease, bored or worse (I don't recall a moment in any of Rocky's numerous training montages when he stuck his fingers down his throat to make himself throw up into a toilet in a bid to lose weight).

The former amateur fighter - nicknamed the 'Baker of Kokkola' - has stopped enjoying what he does, hates the constant glad-handing and compromises of the professional game, and is heartily sick to death of Elis (Eero Milonoff), his controlling trainer-cum-manager. He's a modest, humble man and dealing with documentary crews and press conferences is more than he can bear. When Olli falls for Raija, she's like a ray of light in his darkness and you instantly care more about their future together than you do about the climactic title bout. It's an effective and delightfully unusual love story in which the real Olli and Raija have a cameo.

Boxing clever: Kuosmanen's film is 'delightfully unusual'

This week's TV highlights
1. Django Unchained (Channel 5, Tonight, 10pm) 
2. United 93 (ITV4, Tuesday, 11.55pm) 
3. Bad Moms (Amazon Prime Video, from Thursday)
4. Rams (Film4, Thursday/Friday am, 12.40am)
5. Sex, Lies And Videotape (MUBI, from Saturday)

What I shall be watching this week: Everyone and his wife seems to hate Guy Ritchie's King Arthur: Legend Of The Sword but I remain optimistic...

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

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