Tuesday 27 March 2018

Film Stars Don't Die In Liverpool, Game Over, Man!, Roxanne, Roxanne, and Justice League: Your Week In Film (March 26-April 1)

Lame Game: Die Hard-inspired "comedy" is an absolute stinker

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

Roxanne Roxanne (Netflix) WWW is a brave, bold and occasionally brilliant biopic of Roxanne Shante, the trailblazing female hip-hop star who had Stateside hits with the likes of 'Roxanne's Revenge' and 'Go On Girl' in the 1980s. She wasn't nearly as well known in this country, although a couple of her singles did make the UK Top 50. Michael Larnell's film starts off as a typical rags-to-riches tale, before becoming something quite different and altogether darker.

Young Roxanne (real name Lolita Gooden and played here by impressive newcomer Chanté Adams) is a bright but troubled 14-year-old from Queens, New York, who escapes her hard-scrabble existence by taking on and defeating all comers in local rap battles. She hooks up with neighbourhood producer Marley Marl (Kevin Phillips) to cut a record and, before she knows it, is being played all over the radio and heading out on tour with fellow rapper Sparky Dee (Cheryse Dyllan). What the film is more interested in exploring, though, is Shante's difficult relationship with her mother, Ms Peggy (the superb Nia Long), and the damage inflicted upon them both by the men in their lives.

Shante and her three younger sisters already have an absentee father when Ms Peggy's boyfriend disappears having stolen an envelope stuffed with cash she had saved up to move her family out of the projects. Devastated by the betrayal, Peggy takes to drinking as she and Shante's bond becomes ever more strained. The rapper, in turn, is seduced by malevolent older-man Cross (Moonlight's Mahershala Ali), who beats her up with such startling regularity that when he tells her: "I only hit you because I love you", it's almost a catchphrase. There's one shocking scene in which Shante is at a photoshoot being urged to smile, only to testily explain she can't move her mouth because her jaw is broken.

Told with great sensitivity and real visual style by Larnell, this is powerful, unsettling stuff, but while it's absolutely crucial this story is told, it does somewhat overshadow everything else in the film. We lose sight of Roxanne's achievements in the music business or even what made her so special in the first place. As a celebration of "Shante the survivor" it is nigh-on perfect, but as an exploration of what she brought to the table as a ground-breaking hip-hop artist, Roxanne, Roxanne falls a little short.

Rap battle: Hip-hop star Shante suffered domestic abuse   

As neologisms go, I always thought teen-pop bible Smash Hits' "swoonsome" took some beating. Most often used to describe dishy lead singers or intensely emotional love songs, it's a perfect descriptor for Film Stars Don't Die In Liverpool (DVD, Blu-ray, and VOD) WWWW too, a film so achingly, tragically, perfectly romantic, it had broken my heart three times before the halfway point.

Based on a true story – and the book it inspired – the film sees faded Hollywood star Gloria Grahame (Annette Bening) slumming it in a London stage play in the late 1970s, her Oscar-winning glory days of the '50s far behind her. She meets a struggling Liverpudlian actor, Peter Turner (Jamie Bell) and, despite being old enough to be his mum, they fall in love and conduct a passionate affair. The relationship turns sour for reasons we are not immediately privy to, and Peter doesn't hear from her again until a couple of years later, when he receives a call saying Gloria's been taken ill on stage in Lancaster and is asking for him...

If you overlook Victor Frankenstein, director Paul McGuigan has a decent CV, filled with the likes of Gangster No.1, Lucky Number Slevin, and a few episodes of Sherlock, and he really brings his A game here. Film Stars has visual brio to burn, as McGuigan effortlessly and imaginatively transitions between locations (London to Liverpool to New York to California) and time periods, evoking something unique and memorable about them all. This is a film steeped in nostalgia, longing, faded glamour and working-class grit, with Liverpool an almost mythical place where even an ageing, poorly former film star believes she can become whole again.

The film would be nothing without Bell and Bening who, despite an age gap of almost 30 years, have palpable chemistry. You believe in them, want the unlikely flame kindled between them to grow, and feel keenly the ache of their separation. Bening's Grahame is a complicated, capricious woman, oversensitive about her age and the maker of many mistakes, including four failed marriages, one to her former stepson. She has an Everest-sized mountain of emotional baggage and yet Bening – shamefully overlooked for an Oscar nom – imbues Grahame with such warmth and pathos, you are soon every bit as smitten with her as Peter is. 

Film Stars is a classic romantic drama and a real crowd pleaser, which boasts a fine supporting turn from national treasure Julie Walters, leaving me at a loss to explain why it seems to have gone so far under the radar. Hopefully, McGuigan's swoonsome movie will eventually find the large and passionate audience it so fully deserves. 

Falling Star: Annette Bening is superb as Gloria Grahame

If creating bad art was a crime, the makers of Game Over, Man! (Netflix) ½ would be looking at a very long stretch in one of those US prisons you see on hard-hitting documentaries, where everyone is doing weights in the "yard" hoping they can get through another day without being stabbed in the face. 

A gross-out comedy take on Die Hard, Kyle Newacheck's film sees Adam DeVine, and two other people whose names I can't even be arsed to look up on IMDB, working at a posh hotel when it is taken over by armed terrorists. A tsunami of splattery violence and scatological humour follows, including a man having his, ahem, "salad tossed", an exploding Chihuahua, and an appearance from – dear god, scour my eyes with bleach – DeVine's meat and two veg.

The Room was rubbish but forgivably so because it was inadvertently funny and made by a naïve lunatic with delusions of grandeur. This is equally terrible, only cynical, horrible, ugly, utterly mirthless and created by people who hate you as well as themselves. If it isn't the worst movie I've ever seen, it's certainly in the top five.

Dire Hard: DeVine and Co in Game Over, Man!

Finally, there's Justice League (DVD, Blu-ray, and VOD) W½, the Zack Snyder/Joss Whedon superhero chimera that became more famous for the CG required to hide Superman Henry Cavill's moustache than it did for boring old stuff like its story or characters. That's probably just as well because it isn't terribly good, Snyder's sprawling Sturm und Drang and Whedon's quippy, glib character work making incompatible bedfellows.

There's a thrilling sequence early on when Wonder Woman's Amazons try to keep a cosmic Macguffin, called a Mother Box, from crap visual-effect villain Steppenwolf, but that's where the excitement begins and ends. Ezra Miller – scarily intense a few years back in We Need To Talk About Kevin – is wasted here as Poundland Peter Parker, The Flash. Instead of bringing in Whedon to make massive alterations to Snyder's original movie, they should have left well enough alone. Yes, it would have been a rambling, madly eccentric dumpster fire like Batman v Superman: Dawn Of Justice, but it might at least have contained a modicum of personality. 

Minor League: Henry Cavill returns as Superman

Film of the week: Film Stars Don't Die In Liverpool, but you should seek out Roxanne, Roxanne too.

What I will be watching this week: The Easter holidays are upon us, which means I'll be taking my children to see the likes of A Wrinkle In Time, Tomb Raider, Ready Player One, and Pacific Rim: Uprising. I will enjoy these films more than my kids do.

I've been reviewing more movies for Film Inquiry. Click the links to check out my thoughts on Cardboard Gangsters, The Vanishing Of Sidney Hall, and Finding Your Feet

UK Top 10 DVDs/Blu-rays (movies only)
1. Paddington 2
2. Daddy's Home 2
3. Thor: Ragnarok
4. Murder On The Orient Express
5. Paddington 1 & 2
6. Moana
7. Rex
8. Paddington
9. Beauty And The Beast
10. Film Stars Don't Die In Liverpool

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