Monday 23 October 2017

Your Week In Film: The Babysitter, Brawl In Cell Block 99, and The Mummy (October 23-29)

Sitting target: McG's back with an enjoyable comic-horror romp

This week's best and worst in home entertainment on DVD, Blu-ray, and VOD. All films mentioned here are available to buy, rent, or stream now, unless otherwise stated. This week's is an extra-length column, following its extended break... 

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

Under normal circumstances director McG's return to filmmaking, for the first time since 2014's critically-derided 3 Days To Kill, would be about as welcome as waking up to find Leatherface taking a dump on your duvet. But comedy-horror The Babysitter WWW (Netflix) – released just in time for Halloween – is enormous fun.

Australian actress Samara Weaving (soon to be seen in Martin McDonagh's Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri) is Bee, the titular 'sitter with a big secret. Judah Lewis (easily the best thing about 2015's Jake Gyllenhaal vehicle, Demolition) is 12-year-old Cole, left in Bee's supposedly capable hands when his parents go away for the weekend. The pair bond over old movies and swap nerd culture references but, when Cole decides to see what Bee gets up to when he's usually asleep, proceedings head off into far darker terrain. It turns out she isn't the sweet but tough young woman Cole has fallen head over heels with, but a cold-blooded killer in league with Satan (this isn't a spoiler, it's right there in the trailer).

The Babysitter has several things going for it: fine central performances, a short, sharp running time (85 minutes), and a surprisingly winning mix of charm and gore. Weaving has mostly done TV work so far (including 300+ episodes of Aussie soap Home And Away), but I suspect a spot on the Hollywood A-list will be her ultimate destination. She might have the looks of an All-American cheerleader but has a slightly off-kilter and otherworldly quality about her too, which suggests she could bring something unique to a whole range of parts. Here, her sudden switch from "cool big sister" figure to demonic psycho is genuinely discomfiting (the really chilling thing about the movie is not its violence but the fact someone you think you know and love is the polar opposite of what they seem). This is Weaving's film then, although Lewis acquits himself well as the bullied young milquetoast who has to step up when shit gets real, while McG suits this kind of wackily-inventive teen horror material far better than he ever did the likes of Terminator Salvation. 

The Devil's own: Satanists come a calling in The Babysitter

Writer/director Jeremy Rush has obviously seen Steven Knight's Locke (2013), starring Tom Hardy, and thought to himself, "What if this guy wasn't some Welsh construction manager, who's knocked up a woman on a one-night stand, but a getaway driver in over his head when a job goes south?" And so we have Wheelman (Netflix) WW, which nicks Locke's idea of setting almost an entire film inside a car, in the company of one main character.

Frank Grillo (The Purge: Election Year) is the Wheelman of the title (we never learn his real name), working for the mob to pay them off for "looking after him" in prison. When a bank robbery he's involved in blows up in his face, Wheelman realises he's been double-crossed and must find out why and by whom. His quest involves him racing about an unnamed city in his motor, taking call after call from a number of friends, foes and family, while wracking his brains for a way out of the mess.

The aptly named Rush channels everything from Michael Mann's Collateral to Nicholas Winding Refn's Drive, as he serves up a series of fast-paced, neon-soaked, night-time action sequences, ratcheting up the tension every time our protagonist receives a call from a mysterious threatening voice. Some of the twists and turns later on, involving Wheelman's daughter and estranged wife, are a bit predictable but grizzled Grillo's very good and the whole thing is effectively and economically told.

Locke and load: There's something familiar about Wheelman

Crime of a different kind informs S Craig Zahler's violent prison flick, Brawl In Cell Block 99 (cinemas and VOD) WWW. Vince Vaughn is former boxer-turned-drug runner Bradley Thomas, sentenced to seven years in prison when delivery of a consignment of narcotics goes catastrophically wrong, and, instead of escaping, he steps in to stop his partners-in-crime firing on police officers. But Thomas's heroics have pissed off the wrong people and soon his pregnant wife (Dexter's Jennifer Carpenter) has been kidnapped and he must engineer a move to a different, tougher jail to carry out a hit on another inmate to pay off his "debt".

I had problems with Zahler's last film, the horror-western Bone Tomahawk, but this is a nastily brutal treat, that starts off as something quite close to a character study, before exploding into skull-stamping, limb-shattering life in its breathlessly-paced second half. Vaughn is the best he's been in years - possibly since his breakthrough role in Swingers (1996). Thomas is a complicated, conflicted man; a seemingly decent, principled patriot, who is devoted to his wife, but who nevertheless runs meth and heroin for a living. Barely-supressed fury comes off him in waves, and Zahler reveals just enough of his protagonist's backstory for us to guess what might have happened in his past to make him so desperate to keep a lid on his rage. There's a brilliant scene early on when Thomas discovers that wife Lauren has been cheating on him. Instead of ranting and raving, or laying a hand on her, he beats up her car, his hands covered in long trails of blood as a result of punching out the poor motor's side window and headlight. It says more than any amount of exposition or heart-felt dialogue ever could.

Things perhaps become a little cartoonish after the halfway mark, especially when Don Johnson turns up as the cigar-chewing governor of the fearsome Red Leaf penitentiary. Dressed in all-black, he's like something out of the wild west, which is probably apposite, bearing in mind the sort of institution he runs and where the story heads after his introduction. You could say Brawl is a mish-mash of ideas and styles, and you'd certainly have a point. It can be read as a satire on America's notoriously hellish prison system, the family, and/or patriotism, but works just as well as a straight-up, pedal-to-the-metal exploitation film. There's an awful lot going on here, but it's Vaughn's wholehearted performance people are going to be talking about in the weeks, months and maybe even years ahead. 

Brawl the way: Vince Vaughn fights for his family's future

Dina (cinemas and VOD) WWW is a revealing documentary about a middle-aged woman on the autistic spectrum and her forthcoming nuptials to fiancé Scott, who has Asperger's. Dina has had a tough life, losing her first husband to cancer and lucky to come through being repeatedly stabbed by a former lover (she bears the scars all over her back). She's a survivor, her sweet, seemingly vulnerable, nature hiding the fact she's one tough cookie. In terms of life experience, Dina has substantially more of it than her husband-to-be and you're invited to wonder whether, somewhere down the line, this is likely to cause problems in their relationship.

The pair's contrasting outlook is showcased best on the evening of their bachelor/bachelorette parties. Scott takes a few buddies for a sedate spot of bowling, while Dina's get-together receives a visit from a male stripper, much to her rowdy delight. Anticipating trouble in the physical department, Dina also buys Scott, who, because of his condition, struggles with intimacy, a copy of The Joy Of Sex and he is even grilled about his masturbatory habits. Yes, this is fairly candid stuff at times but filmmakers Antonio Santini and Dan Sickles never lose sight of the couple's genuine affection for each other and, most importantly, never patronise them. In fact, the entire enterprise radiates warmth and respect for its subjects.

Life's a beach: Dina and boyfriend Scott are heading up the aisle

The home entertainment market moves so quickly nowadays, thanks to streaming services like Netflix and Amazon Prime, and the increasing prevalence of simultaneous day/date release, that films in cinemas only a few months ago can quickly feel like ancient history. A case in point is The Mummy (DVD, Blu-ray, and VOD) W½, which hit multiplexes back in June to what could be politely termed a striking lack of enthusiasm. Four months on, it feels even more irrelevant; just another failed blockbuster in a year chock-full of them. Alex Kurtzman's film is one part Tom Cruise vehicle, one part supposed starter kit for Universal's new monster-centric "Dark Universe", but doesn't really succeed as either. Some of its action set-pieces are passably entertaining, I suppose, but the film isn't a patch on the creepy Boris Karloff original (1932) or 1999's energetic rejig, starring Brendan Fraser. There's a substantially better Cruise film - Made In America - out to buy/rent on December 26. Wait for that. 

Cruise snooze: The Dark Universe gets off to a mediocre start

Finally, there's 1922 (Netflix) WW, a passable adaptation of a minor Stephen King ghost story from his 2010 collection, Full Dark No Stars. Thomas Jane (The Mist) hees and haws unconvincingly as Nebraskan farmer Wilfred James, who persuades his son Henry to help him kill his wife (the boy's mother), when she plans to split up the family by moving to the big city. Zak Hilditch's film builds nicely and is certainly lovely to look at, but, with its scurrying rats and decaying apparitions, all feels very familiar. 

Ghost of a chance: Farmer Wilf has murder on his mind

Film of the week: Brawl In Cell Block 99

The UK's Top 10 DVDs and Blu-rays (films only)
1. Fast & Furious 8
2. Wonder Woman
3. Pirates Of The Caribbean - Salazar's Revenge
4. Beauty And The Beast
5. Moana
6. Churchill
7. Baywatch
8. The Shack
9. Blade Runner
10. Sing

What I shall be watching this week: The Death Of Stalin and Happy Death Day (that's a lot of death).

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