Tuesday 13 June 2017

Your Week In Film: John Wick Chapter 2, Berlin Syndrome, and Shimmer Lake (June 12-18)

John Wick: Always outnumbered but never outgunned

This week's home entertainment picks on DVD, Blu-ray and VOD. All films mentioned are available to watch, buy or stream now, unless otherwise stated...

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

John Wick Chapter 2 (DVD, Blu-ray, and VOD) WW is utterly preposterous but that's part of the Keanu Reeves-starring franchise's considerable charm. In the first film we saw retired master assassin Wick drawn back into the fray after members of the Russian mafia killed his dog and stole his car. Taciturn Reeves was perfectly cast as the reluctant but relentless angel of vengeance in a film that was knowing, gloriously violent and often surprisingly camp. It was an almost perfect synthesis of '80s action movie bombast and the frenetic chop-socky of Gareth Evans' The Raid films. The term 'high-octane' could have been coined to describe it.

Bringing Wick back for a second go-round proves slightly trickier because director Chad Stahelski and his team have to find another way of forcing the character out of retirement and it was never going to be as satisfyingly simple as in the debut instalment. So, this time we have a figure from Wick's past - Santino D'Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio) - rocking up at his front door to call in an old debt. Wick ends up in Rome, there to bump off D'Antonio's sister, who is blocking the ambitious Mafioso's chances of progress in the criminal hierarchy. Of course, D'Antonio is a total rotter and it's him who Wick ends up going after in the second half of the film when he's back on home turf.

There is a dizzying amount of shooting, fighting and stabbing here but nothing to quite top the bravura night-club dust-up from the first film. That said, a terrific opening sequence in which Wick is reunited with his stolen car, and a brutal and brilliantly choreographed fight between the titular character and vengeful Cassian (rapper-turned-actor Common) are worth the price of entry on their own. As in the first film, though, the stuff I enjoyed most was that which went on around the edges of the main story. Like magic in the Harry Potter universe, the world of the assassins exists but a heartbeat away from regular society whilst remaining under the radar. It has its own infrastructure and currency, its own rules and etiquette, its own gatekeepers and guides (Ian McShane's Winston here and in 2014's first chapter). It's a very impressive bit of world building that critics and fanboys would be falling over themselves to praise if it existed in a more serious-minded film franchise. It's further exploration certainly makes the inevitable John Wick Chapter 3 a more enticing prospect than another two hours of gun porn and ultra-violence might on their own.

Wick pic: Keanu Reeves returns as the master assassin

There's nothing especially original about the latest, um, 'Netflix Original', Shimmer Lake WWW. A crime noir of sorts, we've certainly seen the movie's tricksy backwards structure many times before (see Memento, Irreversible, and (500) Days Of Summer), but it gets over the line with a winning mix of broad comedy and melodrama, plus a nicely-delivered twist.

Written and directed by Oren Uziel (22 Jump Street), it sees small-town sheriff Zeke Sikes (Benjamin Walker) on the hunt for three bank robbers: his own brother Andy (Rainn Wilson), slow-witted Chris (Mark Rendall) and former high-school football hero Ed (Wyatt Russell). The three have been granted easy access to the local bank's vault after blackmailing its manager (John Michael Higgins) with evidence of his assignations with a young male prostitute. Things are further complicated by the arrival of two lacklustre FBI agents (Rob Corrdry and Ron Livingston), Ed's Machiavellian wife Steph (Stephanie Sigman), and an awful event from the past that seems to cast a pall over the entire town.

The story unfolds in reverse order over a five-day period and Uziel makes use of that structure very well, setting up jokes, call-backs and references that then pay-off later in the movie but earlier in the timeline. It all builds towards an everything-you-know-is-wrong denouement that is both clever and satisfying. Admittedly, Shimmer Lake owes something of a debt to Fargo - the film and TV series - as well as heist movies such as Welcome To Collinwood and Things To Do In Denver When You're Dead. But if you can forgive the fact it wears its influences on its sleeve a bit too much, you'll find a lot to enjoy. A short scene involving Wilson, Rendall and a car radio had me laughing like an idiot as did a later moment when Wilson (an underrated comic actor of rare talent) attempts to turn off the bank's security cameras. In many ways, Shimmer Lake is a rather bleak film as past sins, small-town frustrations and stifled ambitions loom large. The fact Uziel integrates such material with laugh-out-loud comedy so adeptly is an achievement not to be sniffed at. 

Rainn man: Wilson stars in crime noir Shimmer Lake

To judge by recent movies, young women of the world should clearly avoid Berlin at all costs. In 2015's Victoria, an innocent Spanish girl was seduced into a life of crime on the city's mean streets. Now, in Berlin Syndrome (cinemas and Curzon Home Cinema) WW, an Australian backpacker is held prisoner by a deranged teacher in the titular German capital. I'm beginning to wonder if there's something Rough Guide has been keeping from us all these years.

Teresa Palmer plays budding photographer Clare, an Aussie passing through Berlin on a whistle-stop tour of European cities. She meets and has a one-night stand with Max Riemelt's Andi (never trust a man who spells Andy with an 'i'). However, when she tries to leave his apartment the following morning, she realises he's locked her in. Returning from work, he initially laughs off her concerns but it quickly becomes clear he has no intention of letting Clare leave and soon has tattooed 'Mine' on her shoulder, stolen the sim card in her phone, and trussed her up on a mattress. Worse still, Clare discovers she isn't his first victim...

It's a tense psychological thriller that, at almost two hours, perhaps goes on too long and doesn't really provide enough twists and turns to keep you truly hooked. Some of the symbolism is a bit obvious too (Clare finds a wolf mask lying in the street just after she first meets Andi) and the ending feels rushed. That said, Cate Shortland's direction is genuinely eye-catching, her use of small windows, low ceilings, odd angles and narrow corridors ramping up the feeling of claustrophobia to gasping point, while her colour palette (lots of greys and flaking, faded paint) brings an ugliness to proceedings that smartly reflects the dire straits Clare finds herself in.

Based on a 2011 novel, presumably inspired by the Elisabeth Fritzl and Natascha Kampusch kidnapping cases, ultimately Berlin Syndrome isn't a patch on Room, Lenny Abrahamson's 2015 film that does something genuinely different - and surprisingly uplifting - with similar subject matter.

What I shall be watching this week: What has two thumbs and tickets to see Baby Driver, plus a Q+A with director Edgar Wright straight afterwards? This guy!

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