Thursday 15 February 2018

The Ritual, Rock'n Roll, and When We First Met: Your Week In Film (February 12-18)

Into the woods: Death stalks Rafe Spall and friends in The Ritual 

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

I could quite happily live the rest of my days without ever again seeing another film in which a group of friends gets lost in a spooky forest and is picked off one-by-one by an unseen monster. The Ritual (DVD and VOD) WW based on Adam Nevill's novel of the same name is yet another entry in that particular horror sub-genre, but is saved by some solid ideas and an impressive creature design.

Four blokey British friends, including Rafe Spall (The Big Short), go hiking in a remote area of Sweden to honour the memory of Rob (Paul Reid), a friend murdered during an attempted robbery at an off-licence. Spall's character Luke carries terrible guilt with him over the incident because he hid when Rob was being attacked. During their trek, one of the party injures his foot and the group is forced to take a shortcut through a forest to reach help. But it soon becomes clear they are not alone...

David Bruckner's film wears its influences on its sleeve a little too much (The Wicker Man, The Blair Witch Project, King Kong), but Luke's guilt played out in a series of hallucinations is effectively explored. However, the film only really sparks into life towards the end, when we finally see what has been stalking the group and learn something of its nature. This is a low-budget project, but the creature is well realised and genuinely nightmarish. The problem is, once it turned up, I lost interest in pretty much everything else. Never mind Spall and his cannon-fodder friends, I wanted to know more about the beast. In fact, as long as it didn't involve four more doofuses wandering around in the woods, I'd watch a prequel exploring The Ritual monster's origins in a heartbeat.

Take a hike: David Bruckner's film sees four pals suffer a holiday from hell

We should also call a moratorium on movies that rip off the premise to Groundhog Day. In the last year alone, we've had Netflix "comedy" Naked (awful), and teen horror Happy Death Day (rather better). When We First Met (Netflix) WW is a romantic comedy that, at first, sticks pretty closely to elements of Harold Ramis's 1993 classic but, thankfully, eventually finds its own voice.

Adam Devine is Noah, a business school dropout who now plays piano at a jazz bar (shades of La La Land). He meets Avery (Alexandra Daddario) at a Halloween party and falls for her immediately, only to see his object of desire meet and connect with dullard Ethan (Robbie Amell), before he can tell her how he feels. As luck would have it, a magical photo booth enables Noah to go back in time over and over again, as he attempts to inveigle his way into Avery's affections.

When We First Met only really engages when it starts taking serious liberties with the idea that the past can or even should be changed. In some ways, Ari Sandels' movie ends up as a riposte to the conclusions of Groundhog Day fixating on one would-be love interest is unhealthy, weird, and could even be preventing you from meeting the person you're meant to be with. It's a nice twist and takes the film off in a direction I wasn't expecting, following a first half notable only for Devine's insufferable Jack Black-esque vocal inflections and facial contortions. The young actor was charming and funny in the first Pitch Perfect, but that seems like an awfully long time ago.

Picture imperfect: When We First Met has an originality problem

This year's My French Film Festival draws to a close on Monday (February 19), so you only have a few days left to check out the 13 features and 16 shorts on offer at the event's website (some of the films can also be found on Mubi and Curzon Home Cinema). My favourite of the movies I've seen so far is Rock'n Roll (VOD) WWW, an inventive and amusing satire on fame and ageing from veteran actor Guillaume Canet, who directs, writes and stars as a version of himself.

Although not particularly well known in the UK, Canet is a big star in France and, in his early 40s, has seemingly developed a reputation for playing safe roles in safe films. Worse still, his partner is Hollywood superstar Marion Cotillard (both here on screen and in real life), whose success in the likes of La Vie En Rose (for which she won a Best Actress Oscar) effortlessly eclipses his own. When Camilla Rowe, Canet's co-star in a new film in which he plays her father, tells him he's past it, the actor takes it very badly and sets out on an entirely ill-advised journey to prove he can still "rock".

Rock'n Roll could have been a self-indulgent disaster, a vanity project in which Canet (who you might recognise from films such as The Program and The Beach) can laugh at himself while secretly aggrandising his life and accomplishments. The thing is, though, it's all done with such gusto and an unmistakeable sliver of honesty that you get quickly caught up in every bizarre plot turn as Canet's behaviour quickly sends his career down the dumper. And just when proceedings start to slow, the film suddenly heads off in an even more audacious direction to deliver an ending every bit as absurd as it is satisfying.

Cotillard sends herself up a treat too (she's only interested in taking on roles that feature "a disability or an accent"), while the supporting cast (all playing themselves) reads like a who's who of current French cinema. Johnny Hallyday dubbed the French Elvis delivers a cameo, rendered bittersweet following the veteran rocker's death in early December.

She's Cott it all: Marion sends herself up in Rock'n Roll

Finally, there's Seeing Allred (Netflix) WW, a documentary portrait of Los Angeles-based civil rights lawyer, Gloria Allred. The no-nonsense 76-year-old is famous in the States for her tireless campaigning for women and the LGBTQ community, as well as trying to bring alleged celebrity sex offenders, such as Bill Cosby, to book. Roberta Grossman and Sophie Sartain's film offers a solid enough portrait for those of us unfamiliar with Allred's troubled life and glittering career, but I'm not sure her fans of which there are many will learn anything new (she keeps frustratingly schtum about her second marriage to convicted fraudster William Allred, which ended in ugly divorce proceedings). 

I've no doubt Allred is a thoroughly decent human being, who has helped a lot of vulnerable people and championed some fantastic causes, but this is little more than hagiography. It needed a couple of more critical voices to balance the constant cheerleading from the likes of Gloria Steinem. I realise many of her sternest detractors are misogynists and homophobes, but surely the filmmakers could have tracked down someone with an IQ above 20 to offer a slightly less gushing appraisal of her tactics and politics.

Red alert: Documentary only scratches the surface of its subject

Film of the week: Rock'n Roll

What I shall be watching this week: Richard Linklater's Last Flag Flying (a spiritual sequel to Hal Ashby's 1973 movie The Last Detail) was only in UK cinemas a couple of weeks ago, but has already landed on Amazon Prime Video.

This week's Top 10 Blu-rays and DVDs (movies only)
1. Blade Runner 2049
2. Kingsman: The Golden Circle
3. Victoria And Abdul
4. It (2017)
5. Dunkirk
6. Fifty Shades Darker
7. Despicable Me 3
8. Kingsman: The Secret Service/The Golden Circle
9. Flatliners
10. Batman: Gotham By Gaslight

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