Monday 21 August 2017

Lady Macbeth, The Belko Experiment, What Happened To Monday, and Pawn Sacrifice: Your Week In Film (August 21-27)

For the chop: The Belko Experiment takes an axe to office politics 

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

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

Office Space meets Battle Royale in The Belko Experiment (DVD, Blu-ray and VOD) WWW, Wolf Creek director Greg McLean's savage, and indeed savagely funny, satire on office politics and modern corporate life. Written by James Gunn, whose penchant for pitch-black comedy permeates his pre-Guardians Of The Galaxy work in Slither and Super, it is set in Bogota, Colombia, and sees 80 American workers locked into their Belko Corporation office block and subjected to a sick social experiment.

A mysterious voice, coming from the company's intercom system, commands the employees to start killing each other or be killed themselves. Some take to the task with worrying enthusiasm (Scrubs' John C McGinley) or chilly practicality (Divergent's Tony Goldwyn), while others desperately try to formulate a Plan B (John Gallagher Jr's everyman hero Mike Milch), or simply collapse in panic and despair. Madness and violence reign as the body count piles up and Katniss Everdeen fails to show up to save the day.

Belko has all the subtlety of a brick but delights in its horror-show trashiness and enjoyably '80s-style gore effects. Better still, at a brisk 89 minutes, the film doesn't outstay its welcome. Indeed, McLean never takes his foot off the accelerator, delivering a number of shocking deaths, some smart twists and a couple of memorable set-pieces (including a terrific sequence in a lift shaft). Notions, such as demanding employers want to work you to death and your office colleagues are literally the worst people on earth, are hardly new or fanciful, but have rarely been so gruesomely or amusingly articulated. I particularly enjoyed the sight of a Sellotape dispenser being used as a lethal weapon and the bit near the end featuring an hilarious "exit interview". Despite the blood and brutality, this is a lot more fun than a 09:30am meeting with creepy Clive from accounts. 

Kill list: Work might just be the death of you in McLean's horror satire

The title is a warning. Just like the character of the same name in Shakespeare's "Scottish play", the young woman placed front and centre in Lady Macbeth (DVD, Blu-ray and VOD) WWWW is scheming and ruthless. In fact, so unforgiving is she, it's difficult to imagine her having so much as a twinge of guilt over her appalling behaviour or her own "Out, damn spot" moment. Suffice to say, William Oldroyd's film makes for uncomfortable viewing in its depiction of murder most foul, while its exploration of Victorian attitudes to race, sex and class are hardly an iota more consoling.

Based on the novel Lady Macbeth Of The Mtsensk District, by Nikolai Leskov, William Oldroyd's film relocates the action from 1865 Russia to England during the same period. Katherine (Florence Pugh) is sold into a loveless, sexless marriage to Alexander (Paul Hilton), and the pair live on a vast estate belonging to his ghastly, bullying father, Boris (Christopher Fairbank). Katherine isn't permitted to leave the house ("You will remain indoors, with your prayer book") and spends her days bored and resentful, until she falls for stable-hand Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis), a man she first encounters tormenting Boris's black maid, Anna (Naomie Ackie). With Alexander and Boris away on business, the pair commence a torrid affair but, when it is revealed, Katherine's thoughts turn from passion to poison. 

Here's a film so corrosive you could strip paint with it. At first you'd be forgiven for thinking Katherine's rebellion is a powerful act of proto-feminism but the longer it goes on, and the deeper she sinks into the amoral quagmire, you realise she's gone from fighting for survival to being the thing other characters are required to survive (to quote Breaking Bad, she is most certainly "the one who knocks"). Oldroyd – usually a director of theatre and opera, making his feature debut – shows her pent up and frustrated indoors, and the precise opposite once outside on the moors or in the woods. It's as if her suffering has unleashed something primal in her, made her a force of nature, someone who simply won't be fobbed off, stitched up or put back in her box. This is a very still, quiet film but Katherine's raging heart of darkness sits at its centre like a gigantic black hole, sucking everyone around her to their doom. Like her Shakespearean namesake, Katherine's ambition is to be queen of all she surveys; independent, in control, free from harm. She's frightening and frightful, and Pugh lends her a calm but unnerving intensity. It's a splendid performance in a film every bit as compelling as it is discomfiting.

Iron Lady: Florence Pugh is not a woman to be messed with

What Happened To Monday (Netflix) WWW½, is a crazy, campy slice of sci-fi and probably the most fun I've had watching a Netflix Original, well, ever. Noomi Rapace (Prometheus) stars as seven sisters, all named after a different day of the week, including the titular Monday. They live in a dystopian, over-populated future in which families are only allowed to have one child, a measure ruthlessly enforced by Glenn Close's Child Allocation Bureau (CAB). Rather than allow six of the girls to be taken by the authorities and placed in "cryosleep", their grandfather (Willem Dafoe) comes up with an ingenious (read: utterly ludicrous) plan.

The women all share one identity, Karen Settman, and take turns being her on the day of the week that corresponds with their name. They each live one-seventh of a life and spend the rest of the time lying low in the family's spacious apartment. The scheme works well for 30 years as the girls grow up, go to school and start work, but when Monday fails to come home one night, everything changes and their very existence is threatened.

There are plot holes in Dead Snow director Tommy Wirkola's film to keep Honest Trailers in business for a month and the premise is admittedly absurd. But What Happened To Monday is carried off with such energy and invention, you'd forgive it pretty much anything. The underrated Rapace is clearly having the time of her life and imbues all seven hastily-sketched women with just enough depth to make you care for them. The film has a healthy sense of its own silliness but takes itself just seriously enough to satisfy as both a black comedy and a bonafide action thriller. There are moments that are laugh-out-loud funny, moments that are genuinely shocking, and even a couple of moments that ask you to consider the meaning of identity, like a gloriously trashy version of Bergman's Persona. It's uneven and all over the place but somehow still manages to come out on top, helped considerably by some sterling work from its effects team ("Seven Noomi Rapaces? No problem!"). A future cult classic, or I'll eat my hat.

Manic Monday: Noomi Rapace is great as seven sisters

Finally, there's Pawn Sacrifice (VOD and cinemas) WWW½, Edward Zwick's fascinating biopic of American chess genius Bobby Fischer. Made in 2014 and shown pretty much everywhere else in the world over the last two years, before limping unheralded into British cinemas and onto streaming platforms this month, it stars Tobey Maguire (Spider-Man) as Fischer and Liev Schreiber (Spotlight) as his great Russian rival Boris Spassky. Although the film touches on Fischer's life before and after, it mostly concerns itself with the 1972 series of matches between the pair to be crowned world champion. Their clashes – and Fischer's errant behaviour during them – hit newspaper front pages all over the world and briefly made chess the new rock and roll. 

Fischer was a troubled man – arrogant, demanding, at times even megalomaniacal, but also suffering with undiagnosed mental illness. He struggles with wild mood swings, and intense paranoia about "Jews and communists" plotting against him, but is nevertheless encouraged and indulged by US authorities (including the Nixon White House), who are desperate to get one over on the Soviets as the Cold War continues to rage. Fischer is, essentially, the pawn sacrifice of the title.

This is one of Maguire's very best performances as he brings real nuance to a complicated, difficult but patently brilliant man, one who is clearly haunted by the fact he never knew his father and whose relationship with his mother implodes as she abandons him to move from New York to California. It's a film with real pedigree, too, exuding quality from top to bottom. Not just from Maguire, Schreiber and Zwick (Glory, Defiance) but also co-writer Steven Knight, who penned and directed Locke, and co-stars Peter Sarsgaard (Jackie), Michael Stuhlbarg (Trumbo) and Lily Rabe (Redemption Trail). Precisely how and why such a movie has been so shabbily treated in this country is therefore beyond me. 

Checkmate: Tobey Maguire is chess master Bobby Fischer

What I shall be watching this week: Despite the hideous reviews (16 per cent on Rotten Tomatoes), I shall be giving The Dark Tower a look.

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