Tuesday 27 June 2017

Patriots Day, 20th Century Women, and Nobody Speak: Trials Of The Free Press - Your Week In Film (June 26-July 2)

Making his Mark: Wahlberg impresses in Patriots Day

UK home entertainment picks, on DVD, Blu-ray and VOD, for the next seven days. All films are available to buy, stream or download now, unless otherwise stated...

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

I'm not sure home-releasing a film about 2013's Boston Marathon bombing in a period when the UK has seen three separate terrorist attacks - one in Manchester, two in London - is the cleverest marketing strategy. But then, with such acts an increasingly regular occurrence in this country, is any time really a "good time".

Patriots Day (DVD, Blu-ray and VOD) WW is a mostly satisfying mix of the fictional and the factual. Mark Wahlberg plays Sergeant Tommy Saunders, presumably an amalgam of several different cops involved in the tragedy. As is the way with these things, he's a bit of a maverick and made to do security duty at the marathon after committing some infraction or other. Wahlberg imbues Saunders with working-stiff decency and resolve. He's tough but compassionate, a goof but quick-thinking; he's got a banged-up knee but carries on regardless, his limp as much a badge of honour as it is an injury. This kind of role is meat and potatoes for the underrated Wahlberg, and you're rooting for his character within seconds of first meeting him.

Director/co-writer Peter Berg sets up a lot of different plot threads early on. The stories of real people not just caught up in the bombing but also involved later when the two perpetrators (I'm not going to dignify them with names) are on the run and planning a second atrocity. It's a smart bit of storytelling because, if you don't know how these events played out in real life, you're going to be on the edge of your seat waiting to see just how Chinese student Dun Meng (Jimmy O Yang) or MIT cop Sean Collier (Jake Picking) become involved, and genuinely concerned about what happens to them (sadly, not all of their stories end well).

The problem I often have with films based on real-life events, particularly terrorism, is one of context, and the same holds true here. To defeat Islamic extremism we first must understand it and there's no attempt at getting into the minds of the two perpetrators to discover why they should have committed such a vile act. On the run, the pair offer up some garbled nonsense about 9/11 not being carried out by real Muslims but, other than that, they have nothing to say about their motives. In fact, they have substantially less complexity than that of a Marvel super-villain. Filmmakers should treat us as adults - we can handle the fact terrorists have beliefs, can articulate them, and imagine themselves the heroes of their own stories. More positively, Berg and his team handle the atrocity as sensitively as they can whilst delivering a genuinely gripping thriller. The ending - a paean to the strength of Boston and its community - is genuinely uplifting.

City under siege: Boston found strength in adversity

Brian Knappenberger's documentary Nobody Speak: Trials Of The Free Press (Netflix) WWW is like taking a dip in raw sewage, dealing as it does with the legal case Hulk Hogan, real name Terry Bollea, brought against the Gawker website after it published two minutes of a sex tape involving the former WWE wrestler and the wife of US radio 'personality' Bubba the Love Sponge (a tedious right-wing blowhard, who once slaughtered a wild boar live on air).

Long story short, Gawker (a sort of TMZ with A-levels) lost big and went bankrupt, but questions about who had funded Hogan's lawsuit and to what end were soon being asked. It was eventually revealed Silicon Valley billionaire Peter Thiel (an enthusiastic Trump fan) was the culprit and the whole thing was a cleverly orchestrated takedown to get revenge on Gawker, presumably for articles published on the site over the years about Thiel's sexuality and business practices. Essentially, then, a very rich man had used his wealth and power to destroy a media outlet he didn't like - blew it out of the water to shut it up once and for all. Whatever you think of Gawker (and I was never a fan) that's downright scary but, as Knappenberger goes on to reveal in his fascinating, eye-opening film, hardly an isolated case.

In the second - better - half of Nobody Speak, the filmmaker turns his attention to the Las Vegas Review-Journal, a serious-minded newspaper with a long history of running stories critical of casino magnate and prominent Republican donor Sheldon Adelson. One day the paper's journalists are called into a meeting and told it has been bought out by persons unknown. It doesn't take long for them to join the dots and reveal the new owner is none other than the Adelson family. Suffice to say, the reporters rebel in the only way they know how - publishing a story about the takeover and many of them resigning in protest.

There are big differences between Gawker and the Review-Journal but that's at least part of Knappenberger's point. It doesn't matter whether a news outlet is high-brow or low-brow, learned or stupid, serious or scurrilous, they have a right to exist without the threat of some angry one-percenter - fuelled by Trump's anti-press rhetoric - turning his/her heavy artillery on them. Gawker nor the Review-Journal had published lies. They had published stuff more powerful people than them didn't like and were then silenced by those very same people. Knappenberger's film is articulate and absorbing with an impressive array of talking heads. It's also something of a wake-up call for all those who believe in a free press.

Hulk Smash!: Hogan helped destroy the Gawker website

Filmmaker Mike Mills has had an intriguingly varied career, working with bands such as Air and Pulp on music videos and even making a documentary about the anti-depressant industry in Japan (2007's Does Your Soul Have A Cold?). He's probably known best, though, for his 2005 indie comedy-drama Thumbsucker, an underrated gem that perfectly articulated the gulf in understanding that can exist between parents and their adolescent children. His latest, 20th Century Women (DVD, Blu-ray and VOD) WW½, continues that theme.

A semi-autobiographical piece set in late '70s Santa Barbara, it sees Annette Bening's bohemian mum Dorothea struggling to bring up and understand her teenage son Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann). Deciding she needs the input of younger women, she enlists his school friend and No.1 crush Julie (Elle Fanning), and Abbie (Greta Gerwig), a photographer wrestling with health issues who rents a room in her house, to help raise the boy and smooth his transition into manhood. Alas, in the midst of a pregnancy scare, Julie is struggling to raise herself, let alone Jamie, while Abbie's attempts at introducing the boy to feminism lead to conflict with Dorothea.

It's a smartly written and frequently funny character piece, with a fine ensemble cast (also including Billy Crudup) and complex characters who aren't always likeable. Mills, as he demonstrated in Thumbsucker, understands the frictions and fallings out between parents and their offspring better than anyone. The film's '70s setting is nicely realised without being overbearing and the soundtrack is all killer no filler (Siouxsie & The Banshees, Talking Heads and The Clash).

Like a lot of US indie dramas, though, there is a certain amount of 'so what' about 20th Century Women. It's all a bit safe, white and middle class. With its Californian sunshine and boho characters, it's the sort of thing that would be lapped up at the Sundance film festival. Ultimately, it's easy to like but difficult to love, a film that starts strongly but runs out of juice towards the end of its rather elongated two-hour running time.

Certain women: Fanning, Gerwig and Bening form an impressive cast

What I Shall Be Watching This Week: Bong Joon-ho's Okja hits Netflix on Wednesday.

Coming soon: My favourite 20 films of the year so far...

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