Wednesday 21 February 2018

Happy Death Day, The Party, and Irreplaceable You: Your Week In Film (February 19-25)

Boss baby: Happy Death Day is a smart horror that transcends its influences

The best and worst of this 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.

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

Jessica Rothe – the star of superior slasher flick Happy Death Day (DVD, Blu-ray, and VOD) WWW  reminds me of Buffy The Vampire Slayer-era Sarah Michelle Gellar. At 30, Rothe's quite a bit older than Gellar was in her TV pomp, but nevertheless exudes that same, unmistakeable "don't mess with me" vibe. It's one that somehow convinces you a short-arsed blonde girl (Rothe is 5" 4) could smash your face in without raising a sweat. 

Rothe's character, Tree (short for Theresa), is murdered by a killer in a cartoon baby mask but, instead of staying dead, wakes up in the college dorm room of Carter (Israel Broussard), the boy she'd gone home with in a drunken stupor the night before her "death". It turns out she has to relive the day leading up to her murder which just happens to be her birthday over and over again, until she solves the mystery of who killed her and why. 

I've railed against the increasing number of Groundhog Day copyists in this column before, but Christopher Landon's film is one that proves you don't necessarily have to be original as long as you get everything else right. And he does. 

Despite its stabby premise, Happy Death Day is actually a lot more like Harold Ramis's 1993 classic than the likes of Naked or When We First Met. For a start, it remembers that Bill Murray's character Phil Connors did not begin the film as a nice guy and passes on that trait to Tree. It doesn't matter that she's drunken and promiscuous, but her penchant for stealing other people's crushes/partners, and generally being rude and obnoxious, are decidedly off-putting. If her get-out-of-death free card offers Tree a way to solve the riddle of her murder, it also gives her the chance to smarten up her act and start treating people a little better, too (yes, Tree is handed a chance to grow boom, tish!). At least she has an excuse for her crabby behaviour she's still grieving for her mum, who'd died three years previously.

Landon (whose riotous Scouts Guide To The Zombie Apocalypse I enjoyed back in 2015) gives us a film that contains zero gore and almost no blood, but still manages to be an effective slice of horror. He understands how to build tension, he understands not to press the jump-scare button too many times, he understands the need for tight direction, a strong script and a decent cast to deliver it all. He's also a dab hand with a twist or two and the ones served up here are all satisfying and deliciously unexpected. In the final scene, he even takes a moment to fully acknowledge his movie's debt to Groundhog Dog and it's a comparison from which Happy Death Day emerges surprisingly well. Sequel, please.

Groundhog slay: Death stalks Jessica Rothe over and over again

Several recent films have sought to give the dark hypocrisies of liberal society a good kicking The Killing Of A Sacred Deer, Happy End, and last year's Palme d'Or winner The Square being the most high-profile examples. Sally Potter's The Party (DVD, Blu-ray, and VOD) WW comes with similar intentions but lacks those other movies' inventiveness and off-kilter humour. Its staginess and length (barely 70 minutes) make the director's follow-up to 2012's Ginger & Rosa an unusual film, but its subject matter also feels a little old hat, especially in light of last year's UK general election, in which the kind of wishy-washy political centrism Potter seeks to skewer here, was roundly rejected at the ballot box. 

Janet (Kristin Scott Thomas) is an MP for an unnamed but clearly left-leaning political party, who has just been made shadow minister for health. To celebrate, she and husband Bill (Timothy Spall) have invited a few friends round for a soiree, including lesbian couple Martha and Jinny (Cherry Jones and Emily Mortimer), professional cynic April (Patricia Clarkson) and her new-age husband Gottfried (Bruno Ganz), plus Cillian Murphy's Tom, who has turned up without his wife but has brought both a gun and a bountiful supply of coke. Amidst the air-kisses and clink of champagne flutes, there's a certain tension in the air, and a series of announcements, starting with a doozy from Bill, soon turn the atmosphere toxic. 

Potter doesn't really give us fully-formed characters but a series of paper-thin vessels containing hypocrisies, resentments and betrayals. Tom is in finance so, naturally, he snorts coke and loves money, Gottfried is only a half-decent catchphrase away from being a character in a sitcom or sketch show, while April's presence confirms that "American" is still shorthand for a certain abrasiveness. You believe in the idea of these people but that's about as far as it goes. Worse still, if I hadn't already known Potter's intentions, I'd have assumed this was an attack on progressive politics from the right, as some of these characters could have stepped straight out of a Daily Mail editorial.

The Party's main strength lies in its performances, especially Spall, whose character is the only one with a modicum of nuance or complexity. In fact, everyone attacks their roles with real gusto, even if the two-dimensional people they're playing don't really deserve such commitment. Set entirely in one house and its garden, the smallness of its world works to the drama's advantage, accentuating the tension and panic as they build and build. I'm unsure why it's in black and white (a comment on the moral drabness of these characters' lives perhaps), but I did appreciate Potter's well-worked final twist and the clear double meaning of her title.

Secrets and lies: No one's having fun in The Party

It's only February but I've already seen 2018's worst movie. Irreplaceable You (Netflix) W stars Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Abbie, and Michiel Huisman as Sam, childhood sweethearts planning their wedding and keeping their fingers crossed she has fallen pregnant.

Unfortunately, it turns out Abbie isn't with child but with tumour, has stage-four cancer, and only a short time to live. Worried that Sam, a clutzy science teacher, will struggle to find another woman after she croaks, Abbie commences a campaign to find him a new girlfriend. She goes onto Tinder, conducts interviews, and even surreptitiously organises a "mixer" at an art gallery, in an attempt to snag her beloved a new gal. When Abbie isn't planning out the rest of Sam's life for him, she attends a support group populated by Kate McKinnon, Steve Coogan, and Christopher Walken, all of whom might be politely described as "slumming it".

It's supposed to be a dramedy but the comedy is weak and self-conscious, the dramatic elements springing from situations that frequently feel absurd and forced, with characters who are either insufferable, unrealistic, or both (death would be a blessing after five minutes in the company of Abbie's chemo nurse, Dominic). The only scenes that come close to working are Mbatha-Raw's with Walken, who imbues his character, Myron, another cancer sufferer, with humour, wisdom and dignity. She certainly has little to no chemistry with drippy Sam, whose sole character trait is that he wears odd socks.

Under normal circumstances, I could forgive a film with such a strong cast a great many sins, but Irreplaceable You which is directed by Stephanie Laing, who has worked on TV show Veep also contains plot holes you could spot from the International Space Station. If Abbie set up Sam with someone on Tinder, how would their relationship have worked exactly? Would his potential new beau have had to hang about on the sidelines for weeks or months, until Abbie kicked the bucket, or would she have started dating Sam while the supposed love of his life was slowly but surely dying? Screenwriter Bess Wohl never tells us because the intrusion of logic into her silly plot would have torpedoed the whole thing.

Worse still, Abbie is supposed to have terminal cancer, goes through extensive surgery and chemo, yet somehow looks every bit as bright and beautiful at the end as she does at the beginning. I'm guessing no one involved in the making of the film went anywhere near a cancer hospice to witness the stark reality of what dying of the disease actually involved. One thing's for sure, you don't much look like a glamorous Hollywood actress at the end.

Dead On Arrival: Mawkish dramedy could be 2018's worst

Finally, there's The Snowman (DVD, Blu-ray, and VOD) WW, a by-the-numbers Norway-set thriller based on a Jo Nesbø novel and directed by Tomas Alfredson (Let The Right One In). It's beautifully shot and Michael Fassbender is dependably grizzled as Harry Hole, an alcoholic detective on the trail of the titular serial killer. The film is only really remarkable, however, for the fact Alfredson admitted, post-release, it was incomplete and time constraints had meant he was unable to shoot "10-15 per cent of the screenplay". This means there are plot elements just left hanging and scenes which make no sense whatsoever. I notice the cheeky buggers are still charging full price for it though...

Missing in action: The Snowman is incomplete... and it shows

Film of the week: Happy Death Day

What I will be watching this week: The Greatest Showman seems to have turned into a full-blown cultural phenomenon, so it's time to see what I've been missing out on.

This week's top 10 UK DVDs/Blu-rays (movies only)
1. The Lego Ninjago Movie
2. Blade Runner 2049
3. Kingsman: The Golden Circle
4. My Little Pony: The Movie
5. The Mountain Between Us
6. Victoria And Abdul
7. Dunkirk
8. It (2017)
9. Loving Vincent
10. Fifty Shades Darker

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