Thursday 28 December 2017

Critical Week: Odd couple

One nice thing about the films I've seen this week is that I haven't needed to write long reviews for each one. So here are shorter comments on the movies I've caught up with over the holidays so far, starting with the one pictured above (that's Will Smith with, yes, Joel Edgerton)...

dir David Ayer; with Will Smith, Joel Edgerton 17/US *.
Perhaps there was something interesting in Max Landis' script for this fantasy cop thriller, but director David Ayer brings his usual sledgehammer approach, obliterating any character nuance or plot intrigue with a barrage of bullets, explosions and relentless machismo. The one decent twist in the tale is badly telegraphed from the start, and it's all so blunt that it leaves the actors lost. Smith can survive this kind of thing with his wits, but Edgerton's excellent acting chops are swamped by his excessive makeup. This eliminates any chance of proper camaraderie as they play human Ward and orc Jakoby, cops partnering in a parallel reality Los Angeles in which a psychotic elf (Noomi Rapace) is plotting to resurrect a dark lord, but first needs to track down her missing wand, which can only be touched by a bright like the young Tikka (Lucy Fry), whom Ward and Jakoby have rescued. Along with endlessly dull mythology in the dialog, scenes are packed with incoherent chases, shootouts, fights and lots of magical nonsense. Even the solid cast, which includes Edgar Ramirez, Jay Hernandez and Margaret Cho, can't save this one.

dir-scr Julia Ducournau; with Garance Marillier, Ella Rumpf 16/Bel ****
A chillingly original take on the coming-of-age story, this French drama takes a series of almost outrageously gruesome twists and turns. There's a dark undercurrent of meaning here, but writer-director Julia Ducournau seems mainly interested in freaking out the audience with some extreme femininity. It's the story of teen Justine (Marillier), who is enduring a particularly painful week of hazing as she starts veterinary school, following the footsteps of her big sister Alex (Rumpf). A strict vegetarian, the worst thing for Justine is being forced to eat a bit of raw meat. And she's horrified to discover she now has a craving for meat, including the human kind. Ducournau kind of taunts the audience with unfinished scenes and lots of waking up unaware of what happened the night before. But the film is gleefully grisly and darkly provocative. A true original.

dir-scr Kleber Mendonca Filho; with Sonia Braga, Zoraide Coleto 16/Br ***.
Brazilian filmmaker Mendonca isn't terribly subtle with this over-long drama about the clash between old-world humanity and present-day commercialism, but the film has a loose energy that makes it worth a look. And Sonia Braga shines in the central role. She plays retired journalist Clara, a woman who has had a long, full life then finds herself the last occupant of the seaside apartment block in Recife where she raised her children with her late husband. Now she's the only thing stopping the developers from knocking down the building so they can construct a gleaming tower in its place. But she has no intention of going, so simply gets on with her life, spending time with her friends, children, grandson and a favourite nephew, continuing her lifelong bond with housekeeper Ladjane (Coleto) and enjoying her extensive, eclectic music collection. All of this meanders a bit, and the final act feels both heavy-handed and oddly unfinished. But watching Braga is sheer joy.

dir-scr Brett Morgen; with Jane Goodall, Hugo van Lawick 17/US ***.
Using a treasure trove of unseen footage from the early 1960s, this documentary traces the life and pioneering work of Jane Goodall. It's fascinating to watch her as an untrained 26-year-old head into the wilds of Tanzania with only her innate curiosity and patience to work with. She was specifically selected for those qualities - and for her lack of scientific education - and as a result her observations of chimpanzees told the world things no one ever knew, in the process changing the definition of what it means to be human. This may not be a particularly original observation, but filmmaker Brett Morgan assembles this doc beautifully, making the most of the footage skilfully shot by Goodall's husband Hugo van Lawick. And since it's narrated by the luminous 83-year-old Goodall herself, it's full of pointed personal commentary. Her life journey is moving and important.

The Work
dir Jairus McLeary, Gethin Aldous; with Brian, Charles, Dark Cloud 17/US ***.
There's rather a lot of navel gazing in this involving documentary about a group of men working through their deep-seated issues in a California prison support group. Intriguingly, the film follows several non-inmates as they join the prisoners in Folsom and find themselves right in the middle of the cathartic experience. All of these men have serious issues with their fathers, expressed through their lives in a variety of ways. And how they confront them varies from man to man, sometimes through baring the soul and sometimes through making the struggle a physical one. Each of them is in tears at some point. It's all rather intense, and extremely over-serious. But it's also a remarkably honest look at the way masculinity is expressed in American culture. And it's shot in a strikingly observational way that gets very, very personal. It's a view of male identity that's rarely if ever seen on-screen.

I also watched the superb Irish drama Sanctuary and the acclaimed German thriller In the Fade starring Diane Kruger, as well as a couple of Christmas films, including the Victoria Christmas movie, Sarah Jessica Parker in The Family Stone (2005) and Jodie Foster's Home for the Holidays (1995), which I'd never seen before.

And there are a few more films I need to see this coming week, before the final round of voting in a couple of awards, and also just to wrap up my year - things like Angelina Jolie's First They Killed My Father and the British dramas Lies We Tell and Journey's End. If I have time....

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