Tuesday 17 April 2018

Gook, I Am Not An Easy Man, Come Sunday, Better Watch Out, and Brigsby Bear (Your Week In Film: April 16-22)

We're a bit tied up: Better Watch Out puts a smart horror spin on Home Alone

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

Certain reviewers have sought to compare Gook (DVD and VOD) WWW with Kevin Smith's Clerks (1994). But apart from taking place in and around a shop and being filmed in black and white, Gook is a far more serious-minded and dramatic enterprise than Smith's profane, freewheelin' debut.

Set during the 1992 Los Angeles riots, which exploded across the city following the acquittal of four police officers involved in the infamous beating of Rodney King, Justin Chon's film focuses on Eli (Chon himself) and Daniel (David So), two bickersome Korean-American brothers struggling to keep their late father's shoe store open. Racial tensions in the area are high and the brothers are frequent targets of abuse and worse from local African-American and Hispanic street thugs; "Gook", an offensive term for East Asians, is spray-painted across the bonnet of Eli's car at one point. Seemingly, their only friend is Kamilla (Simone Baker), a young black girl who helps out at the store when she is supposed to be at school.

Fictional and documentary takes on the LA Riots usually and entirely understandably focus on the city's African-American community and its scandalous treatment at the hands of local law enforcement, but this offers a very different perspective. It's clear LA's Korean-Americans felt just as under siege as their black counterparts, but for very different reasons. Owning businesses in predominantly African-American neighbourhoods, they were often seen as interlopers only there to exploit the local community, something that led to ill will on all sides. This resentment and mutual enmity occasionally transformed into something altogether uglier, such as the fatal shooting of 15-year-old Latasha Harlins in 1991, by a Korean convenience store owner, during an altercation over alleged shoplifting. These were not communities that lived side by side with any great affection for each other and it is that friction which Gook explores.

You could argue Chon's film paints the local blacks and Hispanics as the bad guys, but, to the Koreans, that is how they must have seemed. Besides, this isn't a film about apportioning blame or stirring up more distrust, but about the tragedy of misdirected rage. It isn't an angry movie, but rather a very sad one; its tone starts off quite light but becomes darker and more melancholic the further in we go. The final 15 minutes are just plain heart-breaking. The riots are barely glimpsed, but, nevertheless, play a pivotal role in the movie, as lawlessness spread across the city from South Central, out to engulf the brothers' shoe store. 

Chon's second feature as director, after years as an actor and a couple of shorts, is nicely shot; he has a good eye for the gnarled beauty of urban decay and clearly gets a kick out of filming weathered concrete and cracked pavements, while one repeated sequence in which Kamilla dances beside a building engulfed in flames is haunting and poetic. But the decision to film in black and white keeps you at arm's length a bit too much. LA robbed of the crackle of its vibrant colour palette isn't LA at all. Maybe it was a financial consideration or perhaps Chon was trying to underline the fact all this happened in the past (almost like old newsreel footage). I rather suspect, though, he was seeking to make a point about the alienation suffered by these characters both from each other and the city itself. 

I predict a riot: Gook is a compelling study of racial tension

Regular readers of this blog might be forgiven for thinking I have a downer on Netflix, but nothing could be further from the truth. Yes, a fair few of their original movies are terrible (Bright, Irreplaceable, Game Over, Man!), but I appreciate the fact the streaming giant provides so much new content, is willing to take risks, and is committed to producing and releasing work in a wide variety of genres. Take this week's two new Netflix Originals, which couldn't possibly be more different.

I Am Not An Easy Man WWW is a satirical French rom-com of sorts which sees Damien (Vincent Elbaz), an arrogant, chauvinistic app designer, bashing his head and waking up in a world in which gender roles are totally reversed. Women are dominant, with men subservient and frequently marginalised. There he meets and falls for successful but reckless author Alexandra (Marie-Sophie Ferdane), whose love-'em-and-leave-'em attitude to relationships mirrors his own.

Eleonore Pourriat's film based on her 2010 short, Oppressed Majority succeeds because it's genuinely funny and incredibly smart. She plays with gender stereotypes, isn't afraid to get silly when she has to, and crams in a lot of jokes for good measure. My favourite gag reimagines the most famous scene from Jean-Luc Godard's classic of French cinema, Le M├ępris (1963), with a male actor laying face down on a bed, pert bottom on display, in place of the original's Brigitte Bardot.

The film's leads are both excellent. Elbaz has a ball with his character's transformation from boorish alpha male to committed metrosexual, while the statuesque Ferdane – a woman so suffused with Gallic cool she probably eats Gauloises for breakfast – has charisma to burn, owning every scene she is in. There's a pleasing meticulousness to I Am Not An Easy Man too – you see every bit of the hard work that went into putting it together right there on screen – from its casting, to its world building, to its script, to its soundtrack, which includes a particularly fine version of 'You're The One That I Want', from Grease. Pourriat's might not be the most original premise in the world (Brits of a certain age will remember The Two Ronnies' similarly-themed The Worm That Turned from 1980), but its intriguing take on matters of misogyny is pretty much irresistible all the same.

Just about the only thing Come Sunday WW½ has in common with I Am Not An Easy Man is that it features a lead character seemingly full of certainties suddenly made to question everything about them. In this case, it's Chiwetel Ejiofor's preacher Carlton Pearson, who shocks America's evangelical establishment when he gives a sermon suggesting that Hell does not exist and that saint and sinner alike all go to Heaven. Suffice to say, there is uproar as Pearson's followers desert him in droves and he is branded a heretic.

Based on a true story, Joshua Marston's powerful but low-key drama invites viewers to really think about what Pearson is saying and interrogate their own religious views as a result. It also captures every nuance of his spiritual quandary, with Ejiofor ridiculously convincing as the conflicted preacher. In fact, Come Sunday's starry cast, which also includes Martin Sheen, Lakeith Stanfield, Danny Glover, Condola Rashad, and Jason Segel, all deliver performances that are pitch-perfect. The film's most compelling scenes are those in which its focus is narrowed to explore Pearson's fraught relationships with his wife (Rashad), his right-hand man (Segel), and a gay youngster struggling with his sexuality (Stanfield). In the wrong hands, Come Sunday could have been self-righteous and every bit as hectoring as one of Pearson's sermons. The fact it instead exudes so much decency and humanity is to be applauded.

Taking it Easy: Vincent Elbaz stars in an unusual French rom-com

Brigsby Bear (DVD, Blu-ray, and VOD) WWW is a sort of Dogtooth for nerds, which begins with Kyle Mooney's James being freed from the couple who had kidnapped him as a baby 25 years before. James' "parents" – Mark Hamill and Jane Adams – kept him completely isolated from other people for all that time and fed him a warped version of reality to control, educate and distract him, including a fictional TV show called Brigsby Bear Adventures, with which he is completely obsessed. Finally free, he struggles to come to terms with his new family and life, especially as it means a future without his beloved Brigsby.

Produced by The Lonely Island crew – including Andy Samberg – and directed by Dave McCary (Saturday Night Live), Brigsby is an unexpected joy from beginning to end. A charming, funny celebration of obsession, and a most unusual coming-of-age tale, it also tackles notions of "putting aside childish things", and the fear of change, with great sensitivity and warmth. The incredible care and invention that has clearly gone into creating Brigsby's fictional universe is perhaps most impressive of all though.

Bear necessities: McCary's Brigsby is an unexpected joy

I'm going to choose my words carefully about Better Watch Out (DVD, Blu-ray, and VOD) WWW because the film contains a really big twist before the halfway mark, and the fewer hints I drop about its nature the better. Set at and originally released in cinemas at Christmas, Chris Peckover's movie is a spiteful little horror confection that centres on Luke (Levi Miller), a frustrated 12-year-old with a major crush on his older babysitter, Ashley (Olivia DeJonge). When his parents go out for the night, Luke sees it as the perfect opportunity to share his feelings and seduce her. Of course, proceedings don't run smoothly as the pair are soon under threat from a person or persons unknown trying to get into the house...

There's never a dull moment as Peckover and screenwriter Zack Kahn keep things ticking over at an impressively frenetic rate. It reminded me of Home Alone at times, but this is a far more troubling affair, its violence not so much cartoonish as just plain visceral. Watching a Christmas movie in the middle of April might seem a little weird, but Better Watch Out is worth sitting through any number of cheesy festive songs for (although the inclusion of The Ramones' 'Merry Christmas (I Don't Want To Fight Tonight)' is to be applauded).

Horror films such as Ghost Stories and A Quiet Place have been quite rightly critically lauded, but the likes of Better Watch Out, Happy Death Day, and Netflix's The Babysitter are just as successful on their own, perhaps more traditional terms. These movies are unlikely to appeal to an arthouse crowd, but that doesn't mean they aren't inventive, smart and thoroughly enjoyable. Just a word to the wise: Better Watch Out's trailer (below) dances around the movie's big twist to the point where you might be able to guess what it is, so proceed with caution...

Season's beatings: Better Watch Out is surprisingly visceral

Film of the week: It's an unusually strong week, but, if I absolutely have to pick a winner, it's I Am Not An Easy Man. To be honest, though, any one of the films mentioned here is well worth checking out.

What I will be watching this week: Love, Simon 

Top 10 UK DVD/Blu-rays (movies only)
1. Star Wars: The Last Jedi
2. Paddington 2
3. Justice League
4. Wonder
5. Moana
6. Thor: Ragnarok
7. Murder On The Orient Express
8. Daddy's Home 2
9. The Boss Baby
10. Paddington 1 & 2

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