Thursday 1 March 2018

Mute, Marshall, and Thor: Ragnarok: Your week in film (February 26-March 4)

Muted reception: Duncan Jones' latest has been met with critical hostility

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

Mute (Netflix) WW has been eviscerated by critics (it's currently at 10% on Rotten Tomatoes), but Duncan Jones' fourth feature (after Moon, Source Code and Warcraft: The Beginning) is a far stranger and more interesting piece of work than it's being given credit for. Granted, its subject matter and setting are a little too familiar, but, somehow, the film's faults and off-kilter vibe ultimately work in its favour. It's a bit of a head scratcher and I'm not sure there's anything wrong with that.

Leo (Alexander Skarsgård), a mute barman brought up Amish back home in the States, searches for his missing girlfriend Naadirah (Seyneb Saleh) in a cyber-punky future Berlin. During his quest, he butts heads with a variety of ne'er do wells, including a pair of Brit goons (Noel Clarke and Robert Kazinsky), local gangster Maksim (Gilbert Owuor), a hostile sex worker (an unrecognisable Robert Sheehan), and two rogue surgeons, Cactus Bill (Paul Rudd) and Duck (Justin Theroux). Cactus channelling MASH's Hawkeye Pierce at one point, complete with scrubs and a martini glass is desperate to get himself and young daughter, Josie, out of Berlin, but can only do so once Maksim comes through with phony IDs. As it turns out, Cactus a nasty piece of work effectively essayed by Rudd is every bit as crucial to the narrative as Leo, their stories dovetailing nicely.

Apparently inspired by his late father David Bowie's seminal '70s 'Berlin period' (Low, "Heroes", and Lodger), Mute borrows from lots of other sources too, especially Blade Runner, Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange, and Luc Besson's The Fifth Element. But this is one neon-noir detective story that, despite taking visual cues from elsewhere, manages to just about hang on to its own identity. Jones gives us plenty of world building, some of which is successful (communism seems to have made a comeback, or perhaps never been vanquished, in this version of Berlin), some of it less so (the weird sex robots are astoundingly unerotic, like someone has just stuck some dildos onto a couple of old Doctor Who monsters). It also takes place in the same universe as Jones' debut feature Moon, which means Sam Rockwell's character(s) pops up on TV screens now and again, although, it has to be said, to no great purpose.

There's a lot going on – perhaps too much – but all the characters are interesting in some way, even Clarke and Kazinsky's laddish yobs. You feel for Leo – an innocent who progressively becomes rather less so, and are initially drawn to Cactus's anti-heroic ways, before realising his roguishness actually hides an infinitely darker side. Jones handles the mystery element well, keeping his cards close to his chest, and introducing one or two red herrings as Leo's search for the missing Naadirah deepens.

Originally mooted to be Jones' first film, and 16 years in the making, the director has talked about how Mute explores "aspects of parenthood", and it does that impressively. It's dedicated to Bowie and Jones' former nanny, Marion Skene, but neither of the characters we see here as kids are treated well. Young Leo's religious parents refuse to allow him an operation, which would restore his ability to speak, while Josie is dragged from pillar to post by Cactus. Maybe what it's really about is finding the strength to forgive your parents and guardians their imperfections. And, God knows, there are a few on display here. 

The quiet man: Alexander Skarsgård stars as Leo in Mute

After the interminable and patchy Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol.2 (congratulations on killing off your best character, dummies), I was just about ready to give up on Marvel superhero movies. I wouldn't say Thor: Ragnarok (DVD, Blu-ray and VOD) WWW entirely restored my enthusiasm (it took Black Panther to do that), but Taika Waititi's film certainly put a big smile on my face.

This third and easily best instalment of the Thunder God's adventures sees death goddess Hela (Cate Blanchett) launch a decidedly hostile takeover of Asgard, with Thor (Chris Hemsworth) ending up cast out into the void, eventually coming to rest on a planet ruled by bad guy du jour, the Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum), who puts him to work fighting in a gladiatorial arena. As luck would have it, Thor's evil(ish) step-brother Loki (Tom Hiddlestone) is also on hand, as is old Avengers buddy the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo). They team up with boozy warrior woman Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson), with a view to escaping the Grandmaster's clutches and heading back to Asgard to deal with Hela and her minions. 

Ragnarok sets off at a cracking pace, contains an endless supply of sharp one-liners, and boasts eye-popping visuals that look like they've leapt straight out of the pages of the Thor comic-books (the good ones by Jack Kirby and Walt Simonson). The comedic tone fits the material perfectly and the cast is terrific, but the whole thing is probably stolen by an hilarious rock monster, called Korg, voiced by Waititi himself. The director serves up a final half-hour that is thrilling, heartbreaking and entirely satisfying. Less positively, the decision to split the story into two separate strands (Hela in one, Grandmaster in the other) means there isn't quite as much Blanchett as I'd have liked, and just occasionally the need to cram as many gags in as possible wears a bit thin, particularly in the scenes featuring just Thor and Hulk. That said, this is one of Marvel's better movies, and I shall certainly look forward to seeing Valkyrie and Korg again. 

Rok and a hard place: Thunder God Thor fights evil on two fronts

On the subject of Marvel superheroes, fans of the company's latest blockbuster, Black Panther, will surely be interested in seeing that film's star, Chadwick Boseman, in a very different but equally heroic role. In Marshall (DVD, Blu-ray and VOD) WW½, Boseman plays the titular – and very real – Thurgood Marshall, a celebrated NAACP lawyer, who went on to become the first African-American Supreme Court Justice.

Reginald Hudlin's film – set in the early 1940s – focuses on one of the cases that made Marshall's reputation, in which a black chauffeur (Sterling K Brown) is accused of raping the wife (Kate Hudson) of his employer. The Judge (James Cromwell) in the case refuses to allow Marshall to defend his client (because he's from "out of state"), so a reluctant local attorney, Sam Friedman (Josh Gad), is drafted in instead. The only problem is that Friedman – an insurance lawyer by trade – has no experience of defending such cases and has to be heavily coached by his NAACP counterpart.

It's good to see the talented Gad finally getting meatier roles, after slumming it in the likes of Pixels and The Wedding Ringer, earlier in his film career. He's great here as a decent Jewish family man, torn between doing the right thing and really not wanting the aggravation he knows the rape case will bring to his door. The way Hudlin develops the friendship between Friedman and Marshall is especially satisfying, and the film makes a point of drawing specific parallels between the prejudice shown to those of the Jewish faith and people of colour in the US at the time. Dan Stevens (who also appeared with Gad in Beauty And The Beast) is perfectly loathsome as a prosecution lawyer, who will stop at nothing to achieve victory, while Boseman continues his march to superstardom with a winning turn as a complicated man.

Marshall – who travelled the country defending African-Americans who could not afford legal representation – is, in many ways, just as ruthless as Stevens' character, the film even suggesting he sometimes put the NAACP's agenda ahead of what was necessarily best for his clients. As Friedman tells him,"You just sweep through town, stirring up all kinds of ugliness, then move right on. No one will ever even remember you were here."

Hudlin evinces its '40s setting subtly and convincingly but, if the film has a shortcoming, it's that it all feels a little too familiar and predictable. Even if you've never heard of Thurgood Marshall, after the first five minutes you have a pretty good idea how this is going to end up, and what kind of scenes are going to play out. And although having Friedman defend Marshall's client is an unusual twist on the usual courtroom drama proceedings, it robs us of seeing the titular character in action, which, because the film is supposedly about him, seems an odd decision. Over the course of a glittering career, Marshall took up many cases – including several in the Supreme Court, segregation in public schools famously being one of them – and I don't understand why one of these couldn't have been the focus of the movie instead. Maybe they're saving it for a sequel...

Marshall law: Boseman is in fine form as the famous US lawyer

Finally, a film I first mentioned here back in October, after seeing it at the London Film Festival. Norwegian director Joachim Trier's Thelma (DVD, Blu-ray, and Mubi) WWWW, is a supernatural coming-of-age story with shades of Brian De Palma's Carrie.

It sees the titular character, played by Eili Harboe, leaving her devoutly religious parents for university in Oslo, where she meets and falls in love with Anja (Kaya Wilkins). But the onset of a series of debilitating seizures threatens to end Thelma's new life of freedom, especially when they lead her to manifest strange and terrifying psychic powers.

This is no mere super-powered CG fest, as Trier (Louder Than Bombs) focuses as much on Thelma's angst and awkwardness at growing up and coming out as he does on her burgeoning and possibly malign abilities. Like Mute, it's a film that directly addresses parent/child relationships, in this case how a repressed upbringing can spectacularly and permanently screw someone up. It's a haunting, occasionally horrific, piece of work and I really can't recommend it enough.

Carrie-d away: Thelma owes a debt to De Palma's horror classic

Film of the week: Thelma

What I will be watching this week: Snowmageddon permitting, it'll be Red Sparrow and Lady Bird.

I've written a few words about Bedknobs and Broomsticks for Film Inquiry's feature on sentimental childhood favourites. Check it out here.

Due to deadlines elsewhere, there won't be a new column next week, but I will probably pop by to post something Oscars-related after Sunday's ceremony.

This week's Top 10 DVDs/Blu-rays (movies only)
1. Geostorm
2. The Snowman
3. Blade Runner 2049*
4. The Ninjago Lego Movie
5. Kingsman: The Golden Circle
6. My Little Pony: The Movie
7. Happy Death Day*
8. Victoria And Abdul
9. Brimstone
10. Dunkirk*

* = Recommended

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