Tuesday 29 August 2017

Death Note, Unforgettable, and Bushwick: Your Week In Film (August 28 - September 3)

To L and back: Netflix's Death Note is one to avoid

This week's highs and lows in UK home entertainment, on DVD, Blu-ray, and VOD. All films are available to buy, rent or stream now, unless otherwise stated.

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

You'd think an eight-foot tall demonic death god would fit right in amongst an American pantheon of horror monsters that includes the likes of Freddy, Leatherface, Jason, and Chucky. Unfortunately, Jason Wingard's adaptation of the manga/anime Death Note (Netflix) W isn't a thousandth as much fun as any of the iterations of A Nightmare On Elm Street, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Friday The 13th, or Child's Play. In fact, it's a humourless bore, whose sole interesting feature - the aforementioned death god, Ryuk (a stop-motion effect, voiced by Willem Dafoe) - is disappointingly underutilised.

For those unfamiliar with the original Japanese original (I have only a passing knowledge of it myself), Death Note is about a supernatural notebook that enables whoever owns it to kill a person of their choice, simply by writing their name onto one of its pages. In this US take on the material, in which the action is moved to Seattle, the book (accompanied by its demonic guardian) falls into the hands of Light Turner (Nat Wolff), a high school student who initially uses it to murder a boy who has been bullying him. He then shares his secret with Mia (Margaret Qualley), a fellow pupil he has a crush on, and the pair go on a killing spree, taking out hundreds of criminals and ne'er do wells the world over. But, when they start signing their handiwork, it brings them to the attention of a Sherlock Holmes-style investigating detective, L (Lakeith Stanfield), who travels to the US and is quickly on their trail.

The first half-hour's promising and, for a moment, I thought we might be about to get an interesting spin on Bonnie And Clyde or Natural Born Killers. Alas, Wingard (who was responsible for last year's underwhelming Blair Witch reboot) seems more interested in Light's relationships with Mia, and his dreary cop dad (Shea Whigham), than he does in serving up something that takes a few risks. One of the main problems is that it's difficult to care about any of the characters. Light's a dope, Mia's underwritten, L's annoying (just SIT on the chair, you wannabe ninja twerp!). And you can forgive plot holes in decent films (see last week's What Happened To Monday) but there's a doozy here: Light is meant to be super-smart but can't work out a way to kill L, because he never reveals his true name, so can't be the victim of a death note. Using the book, why can't Light simply compel someone else - like, perhaps, one of the dozens of criminals he has absolutely no problem tracking down - to murder him instead?

Its main shortcoming, though, is that Dafoe's Ryuk isn't used nearly enough. He turns up quite a bit at the start, then only appears intermittently for the rest of the film. Apart from exchanging a few unfunny barbs with Light, he actually does very little. If you have a massive demon as your film's visual centrepiece, might it not have been an idea to find stuff to keep him gainfully employed or at least give him a bit of backstory? When Ryuk is on screen, the movie is immediately more interesting, substantially less po-faced and infinitely less predictable. It's like making a new Elm Street film and leaving most of Freddy's bits on the cutting-room floor.

Light's out: Nat Wolff's killer fails to engage in Death Note 

Two beautiful women fight over a dullard who owns a micro-brewery in Unforgettable (DVD, Blu-ray and VOD) WWW. No, really, when you strip away all the bells and whistles, that's pretty much the plot of this insanely overwrought but thoroughly enjoyable thriller from Denise Di Novi, making her directorial debut after decades as a producer on everything from Heathers to Focus.

Rosario Dawson is Julia, newly engaged to aforementioned brewer David (Geoff Stults), a man so effortlessly tedious the Dull Men's Club should immediately make him its life president. Poor Julia has a secret: she once took out a restraining order on violent former lover Michael (Simon Kassianides), which is about to expire, and she is scared he may try to re-enter her life. David's jealous ex-wife - control freak Tessa (Katherine Heigl) - is desperate to wreck David's new relationship, so steals Julia's phone and uses the information contained on it about Michael to embark on an ambitious campaign of revenge. She turns Julia's life upside down but that's only for starters...

Unforgettable is like one of those venomous late '80s/early '90s psycho thrillers (Fatal Attraction or Basic Instinct), only with a generous side order of Dynasty-style cheese. Heigl - "attack breasts" straining against the fabric of the tight and starchy shirts she's poured into, like a couple of cruise missiles - is hilarious and brilliant here, one part Alexis Colby, one part Catherine Tramell. Her performance takes scenery-chewing to a whole new level and Di Novi indulges every bonkers minute of it. I particularly enjoyed the scenes where she's sat in her lair, lights dimmed, rain battering the windows, guzzling red wine, as she spins her web of Internet deceit. It's as if Cruella de Vil had joined Anonymous, and one of many moments in which the film becomes so camp it makes Behind The Candelabra look like Manchester By The Sea.

Underneath all the drollery, I suspect the movie wants to make a serious point about the changing nature of the family unit and perhaps cocks a snook at the American right. In those Reagan-era thrillers, it was always the white-bread nuclear family that was coming under assault from an outside threat - Glenn Close's disturbed Alex in Fatal Attraction, Sharon Stone's icy Tramell in Basic Instinct. Here, the aggressor isn't some toxic interloper but a seemingly fine, upstanding wife and mother. Di Novi goes to great lengths to illustrate just how different the two women are - not only in terms of career and life experience but also of race. Dawson, we know, is of Cuban and Puerto Rican heritage, while Heigl's Tessa is so white she makes Theresa May look like Aretha Franklin. Such considerations add an intriguing and serious layer to the glorious lunacy on show elsewhere.

Trouble brewing: Heigl and Dawson face off in Unforgettable

Bushwick (VOD and cinemas) WWW boasts an opening 10 minutes as strong as any I've witnessed this year. It sees grad student Lucy (Brittany Snow) thrown face first into a war zone when she emerges, with her soon to be ex-boyfriend, from the New York subway. An army of masked, black-garbed soldiers has launched a surprise assault on a number of American cities and even the titular Brooklyn neighbourhood of Bushwick hasn't been spared. Helicopters fill the sky, bombs explode, gunfire is exchanged, and poor Lucy is stuck smack-bang in the middle of it, with only Stupe, Dave Bautista's grizzled former marine for protection. Directors Cary Murnion and Jonathan Milott demand your attention from the get-go and, for the most part, keep it. This is not a big budget movie but the pair make a little go a long way, their grasp of sound design, a few ingeniously rationed digital effects, and some mightily impressive camerawork ensuring Bushwick is a film that punches way above its weight. 

It's a shame the identity of the invading army has been revealed in every plot summary and review I've seen for the movie (the trailer gives it away, too) because the filmmakers go to some lengths to keep it a secret. Murnion and Milott then give us a powerful unmasking scene around halfway through that nicely explains the entire situation (I won't be giving away the twist, even though it is the film's main talking point and USP). Bushwick doesn't get everything right. Some of the character moments between Lucy and Stupe are clumsily written and the whole thing starts to fall apart towards the end, as the story loses focus and becomes unnecessarily bleak. That said, lots of action movies have Bushwick's thrills and spills but few of them can boast its smarts and craft.  

Home invasion: Mysterious aggressors target US cities in Bushwick

What I shall be watching this week: I've been looking forward to Kathryn Bigelow's Detroit for ages.

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