Monday 29 January 2018

A Futile And Stupid Gesture, In Between, and Kingsman: The Golden Circle: Your Week In Film (January 29-February 4)

Gunning for success: National Lampoon's Doug Kenney gets a biopic

The best and worst of the week's UK home entertainment releases on DVD, Blu-ray and digital. All the films mentioned are available to buy, rent and/or stream now, unless otherwise stated. This is the first of two columns this week; look out for the second on Thursday...

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

I hate to dig out that hoary old LP Hartley quote "the past is a foreign country: they do things differently there" but it nevertheless pretty neatly sums up A Futile And Stupid Gesture (Netflix) WW. David Wain's film tells the story of the hugely influential US satirical publication National Lampoon, from its humble beginnings as university mag the Harvard Lampoon to its enormous mass-market success throughout the 1970s, spawning a host of spin-offs, including a radio show, a live show (Lemmings), and even movies such as Animal House and Caddyshack.

Based on Josh Karp's book of the same name, the film focuses mostly on co-founder Doug Kenney (Will Forte), which is problematic to say the least. Forte plays him as a smug and arrogant man-child who rarely entertains a serious thought in his silly head. Kenney's almost impossible to like and you struggle to care what happens to him, even when he succumbs to depression and addiction. The way he treats the women in his life is appalling and unfortunately that misogynistic attitude seeped into the pages of the Lampoon all too frequently. You could argue it's a "warts and all" portrayal but, ultimately, this is a film about a charmless – albeit tragic – dick, however you seek to dress it up.

It wouldn't be so bad if the film contained some kind of mea culpa but it doesn't, breezing over why the magazine had no black writers and only one woman (didn't think of looking for any), while admitting in one of its many meta moments that the characters you see portrayed were "way more racist and sexist" than how they appear on screen. Worse still, there's an image of a naked black woman featured in the film – as it was in the magazine – that is simply despicable. Just because you acknowledge your racism and sexism, doesn't make it any more palatable, especially when that acknowledgement seems so unapologetic.

All that said, A Futile and Stupid Gesture is frequently very funny, contains some winning performances (especially Domhnall Gleeson as pipe-smoking gadabout Henry Beard), and a fast-paced, free-wheeling structure that mostly disguises what is, deep down, a fairly run-of-the-mill tale about rich white guys getting even richer. The past is a foreign country, all right, and some things are perhaps better off left there.

I'm with Stupid: National Lampoon's 1970s success story

Considerably better is writer/director Maysaloun Hamoud's feature debut, In Between (DVD, VOD) WWWW, the powerful and thoroughly absorbing tale of three Palestinian women sharing a flat in Tel Aviv. The trio Leila (Mouna Hawa), Salma (Sana Jammelieh), and Nour (Shaden Kanboura) are all very different but have similar battles to fight as they struggle to balance the demands of their traditional cultures and religions (secular Muslim, Christian, and Muslim respectively) with the more modern lives they seek to lead.

When the film starts, criminal defence lawyer Leila and lesbian rave DJ Salma have been apartment-sharing for some time and are already good friends, so Nour is immediately cast as the outsider. Religious and assiduous, she is far more conventional than the other women, who drink, smoke, take drugs and have a large circle of male friends, all of which causes friction. However, as they and we discover more about Nour, attitudes change. She is studying to be a computer scientist and is engaged to be married to a man who wants her to forget her career and stay at home once they are wed. But, as she grows closer to her flat-mates, Nour rebels and calls off the marriage, something which has brutal and far-reaching consequences.

Hawa as hard-drinking, chain-smoking force-of-nature Leila is a revelation, but all three central performances are eye-catchingly superb, each character properly fleshed out and explored in dramatic but realistic and fulfilling ways. The manner in which the women's friendships evolve over the course of the film is particularly affecting and effective, while Hamoud is careful not to use her film to launch a broadside against religion per se, only the ways it can be utilised by imperfect, messed-up people (usually men) to exert control over others. 

Wonder women: Salma, Noor and Leila battle for independence

Finally, there's Kingsman: The Golden Circle (DVD, Blu-Ray, VOD) , the disappointing sequel to 2014's solid spy spoof Kingsman: The Secret Service, which introduced us to working-class geezer turned secret agent Gary "Eggsy" Unwin (Taron Egerton). Director Matthew Vaughn and screenwriter Jane Goldman both return along with most of the original cast but this is a lumpen, silly follow-up that junks much of the first film's knockabout charm for crass(er) humour, lots more explosions and a plot you'd call nonsensical if it were even that coherent.

This time, the titular British spy outfit are under assault from Julianne Moore's drug cartel leader Poppy Adams, who blows up Kingsmen HQ, forcing what's left of the agency (Eggsy and Mark Strong's Merlin) to find and team up with their American counterparts, the Statesmen (Jeff Bridges, Channing Tatum, Pedro Pascal, and Halle Berry). By poisoning her cartel's product and endangering the lives of its users, Poppy has a fiendish (i.e. stupid) plan to force America to call off its war on drugs. Or something. The huge spoiler in the trailer is a genuine own goal (as Vaughn has acknowledged), Moore phones it in, Halle Berry is wasted, and Elton John's perplexing extended cameo is just plain cringe-making. Paul Feig's similarly-themed Spy, from a couple of years ago, was so much better and funnier than this. Find that on Netflix and watch it instead.

This trailer contains an enormous spoiler - don't click it!

What I'll be watching this week: Steven Spielberg's The Post, which will leave only Lady Bird and Phantom Thread for me to see of this year's Best Picture Oscar nominees.

Top 10 UK DVDs and Blu-rays (movies only)
1. Victoria And Abdul
2. It (2017)
3. Dunkirk
4. Wind River
5. American Assassin
6. Mother
7. Paddington
8. Sing
9. La La Land
10. The Hitman's Bodyguard

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