Monday 14 August 2017

The Sense Of An Ending, Tom Of Finland, and Souvenir: Your Week In Film (August 14-20)

Sing it on: Isabelle Huppert stages a pop star comeback in Souvenir

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

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

The Sense Of An Ending (DVD, Blu-ray and VOD) is a British film with impeccable credentials. It's adapted from a Julian Barnes novel, directed by Ritesh Batra, whose 2013 film The Lunchbox was a delight, and stars Jim Broadbent and Charlotte Rampling. Sadly, it somehow still manages to be duller than a vegan's lunchbox.

Broadbent is Tony, a grumpy divorcee who reconnects with old flame Veronica (Rampling), when her mother passes away and leaves him a mysterious document in her will. There is unsavoury history between Tony and Veronica, as she started seeing his best friend Adrian (Joe Alwyn) after their affair ended. Angry and bitter, Tony wrote the pair a poisonously-worded letter but, soon after, was made to regret it when his former friend committed suicide. It's an interesting premise and its tangled web only gets more tangled as the story unfolds. Despite that, Batra's film is so slow it makes your average episode of the Antiques Roadshow look like Atomic Blonde.

Bits of it do work quite well (especially an expertly delivered twist) but, apart from its pace, the film's main problem is that Tony is such an awful old git. Often, a curmudgeon can be a fun character to have around, whether to prick the pomposity of others or by simply saying the unsayable. Tony, though, is just plain unpleasant – rude, abrupt, entitled – the sort of unseemly oaf who won't even exchange pleasantries with his postman. It is therefore rather difficult to give much of a stuff about him, his silly camera shop or his affairs of the heart. The Sense Of An Ending is also cloyingly middle class – everyone's white, went to a good university and ponces about in leafy north London like their farts smell of lavender. It gave me a sudden urge to shop at Poundland and cultivate an interest in dog fighting.

Stop making Sense: Impeccable credentials, dull film

There's a scene in Tom Of Finland (VOD and cinemas) WWW which reminds me of that Doctor Who episode where Vincent van Gogh is transported through time and space to 21st-Century London, there to witness first-hand his work's iconic place in modern culture. It's a wonderful, emotional, lump-in-the-throat twist as this poor, beleaguered artist realises just how beloved he has become in the 120-odd years since his death. Tom's 'Vincent moment' isn't quite so dramatic as he is whisked from oppressive 1970s Finland to laidback, shag-happy Los Angeles and New York. In those cities' bars and clubs, however, he sees the extraordinary impact his erotic drawings of musclebound, leather-clad men have had on gay culture. Just like Van Gogh, he is taken aback, humbled and empowered all at once; it's like he's died and gone to heaven (or, indeed, Heaven). It's perhaps the best bit in an intriguing biopic of an artist who the mainstream seems to have shunned – or at least sidelined – whilst being indisputably influenced by his aesthetic.

Pekka Strang is the titular Tom, aka Touko Laaksonen, a Finnish officer in WWII who returns to his home country after the war disturbed and marginalised. He has killed a Russian soldier, a savage act which hangs heavily upon him, and is struggling to keep his sexuality a secret from both his sister (Jessica Grabowsky) and the authorities who demonstrate their displeasure with homosexuals by beating them half to death. An artist, he commences employment at an ad agency, while working on a series of erotic drawings that he submits with some success to an American magazine, the editor of which – looking for an interesting angle to hook his readership – christens him 'Tom Of Finland'. And so a gay icon is born...

In the last few years, we've become used to biopics that take genuine risks with their subject matter – I'm particularly thinking of Pablo Larrain pair Jackie and Neruda, as well as Don Cheadle's madcap Miles Ahead. Dome Karukoski's film is therefore surprisingly straightforward and, bearing in mind its subject matter, oddly chaste. The director, I suspect, was more interested in the kind of man Tom was than the amount of sex he had, but surely that was quite a large part of his identity? And, yes, taking him and his work seriously is important and refreshing, but the whole thing could have been a little more celebratory, a little lighter. There's a real playfulness and humour to Tom's pictures that doesn't often come through here. That said, Strang is terrific as the titular character – reserved, tortured, frustrated and brave, genuinely multi-faceted, while Karukoski's intention to document and comment upon the evolution of gay rights and culture in Finland via Tom's life and career is an intriguing idea, for the most part compellingly realised. 

Where the art is: Tom Of Finland's life and work is celebrated

Despite critics falling over themselves to praise/dissect Elle and Things To Come (both excellent), Isabelle Huppert's most recent film Souvenir (DVD and VOD) WW½ crept into a small number of British cinemas back in June, before quickly disappearing. Its home entertainment release is similarly low-key with no Blu-ray available and little in the way of hype. That's rather a shame because whilst it is certainly one of the French actresses' more minor works, and not a patch on those recent films with Paul Verhoeven and Mia Hansen-Løve, Souvenir is very charming and effortlessly romantic.

Hard-working Huppert, who seems to make films with the regularity the rest of us reserve for eating and sleeping, is Liliane, aka Laura, a washed-up former pop star who, as France's entry, came second to Abba at the "European" Song Contest in 1974 ("The Swedes cheated," a supportive colleague tells her at one point). She now lives in seeming anonymity, working in a pâté factory by day and drinking too much by night, her career highlight as a singer not even recalled by a contestant on one of the TV quiz shows she watches in lieu of a real life. Enter Jean (Les Combattants' Kévin Azaïs), an aspiring young boxer working as a temp at the factory whose dad happens to be Laura's No.1 fan. He recognises her, persuades her to make a comeback and the seemingly mismatched pair – with at least 40 years between them – commence a relationship. As she bids for a phoenix-like return to the European Song Contest, what can possibly go wrong? 

Souvenir (named after Laura's surprisingly listenable 1974 song) is all about second chances, learning to live with failure, and how love can conquer pretty much anything, including alcoholism and a relationship that isn't so much May to December but February to New Year's Eve. Huppert is utterly convincing as Liliane and her chanteuse alter-ego Laura, exuding a fragility – on and off-stage – that we perhaps aren't used to seeing from her (it's certainly a hell of a contrast to her role in Elle). She's a mess, someone who isn't desperate for attention but who certainly craves affection. You almost get the impression she's only going along with the comeback so she can spend more time with Jean (who she clearly adores) and to escape the twin prisons of the factory and her apartment. Impressively, Huppert also handles all the singing herself, and not for the first time. There are times, though, when the storytelling in Bavo Defurne's film is rather clunky, and certain elements don't really make much sense (her ex, Tony (Johan Leysen), the guy who writes the number she sings on her comeback, is also on the judging panel for the 'search for a song' contest, which is surely cheating?). It's an odd and uneven film, then, but one that Huppert – as well as the promising Azaïs – certainly make watchable.

A star is reborn: Bavo Defurne's movie is clunky but charming

Finally, there's Naked (Netflix) W, a shameless rip-off of Groundhog Day that steals everything from Harold Ramis's 1993 comedy classic, apart from its great jokes and infinite charm. This latest 'Netflix Original', directed by Fifty Shades Of Black's Michael Tiddes, stars Marlon Wayans (yes, he of White Chicks and Littleman infamy) as Rob Anderson, a feckless, half-arsed substitute teacher marrying into a well-to-do family headed up by Dennis Haysbert's stern patriarch. When his bachelor party goes horribly wrong, Anderson wakes up naked in a lift and is then cursed to relive the hour before his wedding over and over again, until he shapes up and gives his wife-to-be (Regina Hall) the ceremony and husband she deserves.

The gags, such as they are, succeed or fail on how hilarious you find Wayans' bare bottom and other characters mentioning the fact they can see both it and his, ahem, 'junk'. Elsewhere, it's as insufferably predictable as you'd expect – mean dad Haysbert doesn't approve of 'loser' Rob, Hall's horrible but successful ex-boyfriend is still on the scene and there's even a moment when Rob realises he's lost the wedding ring (yes, that old comedy staple gets yet another airing). Movies with predominantly black casts are still all too rare so it's a shame this one is pretty much bereft of laughs and originality.

Barely watchable: Marlon Wayans in Naked

What I shall be watching this week: I'm going to try and find somewhere showing A Ghost Story. I suspect a journey into London will be required...

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