Friday, March 28, 2014

Weekly Film Round-up – Friday 28th March, 2014

Film of the Week: Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Total films seen so far this year: 97
Films seen in the last week: Captain America: The Winter Soldier (again), Muppets Most Wanted, The Borderlands, Dangerous Acts, The Fold, A Thousand Times Goodnight

Top 10 Films On Release This Week (as recommended by me) 

There are twelve new films out this week, though two of them (The Legend of Hercules and Almost Married) weren't screened for press and I didn't manage to see Leave The World Behind. Of the twelve new releases, a whopping six of them have made it into this week's Top Ten. They include: Marvel's superhero sequel (though it works as a stand-alone thriller) Captain America: The Winter Soldier, writer-director Asghar Farhadi's follow-up to A Separation, The Past (starring The Artist's Bereniece Bejo and A Prophet's Tahar Rahim), Finnish documentary My Stuff, Muppet sequel Muppets Most Wanted, British found-footage horror The Borderlands and Oscar-winning backing singers documentary 20 Feet From Stardom. I will also put in good words for both Veronica Mars and The Zero Theorem, both of which are likely to disappear from their single venues very soon. A full round-up of this week's releases appears after the Top Ten below.

1) The Grand Budapest Hotel
2) Under the Skin
3) Captain America: The Winter Soldier
4) The Past
5) Starred Up
6) The Borderlands
7) Veronica Mars
8) Labour Day
9) My Stuff
10) 20 Feet From Stardom

This week's new releases in full:

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (4 stars)

Hugely enjoyable sequel to 2011's Captain America: The First Avenger, starring Chris Evans as Steve Rogers / Captain America, who teams up with the Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and mechanical-winged agent The Falcon (Anthony Mackie) to take on mysterious assassin The Winter Soldier (identity a SPOILER) and a high-level conspiracy with a deadly master-plan. My review for The List is here.

The Past (4 stars)

French drama, written and directed by Asghar Farhadi, starring Ali Mosaffa as an Iranian man who returns to France when his separated wife (Berenice Bejo) asks him for a divorce so she can move on with her new partner (Tahar Rahim). My review for ViewLondon is here.

My Stuff (four stars)

Finnish documentary directed by Petri Luukainen, who decides he has too much stuff in his life so he locks away every single one of his possessions in storage and restricts himself to retrieving just one item a day for a year. My ViewLondon review of it is here.

Bonus feature! Interview with My Stuff director Petri Luukainen: Interview with My Stuff director Petri Luukainnen.

Muppets Most Wanted (four stars)

Follow-up to 2011's hugely successful reboot The Muppets, in which Kermit and company face the tricky decision of what to do for the sequel. The opening song (”We're Doing A Sequel”) acknowledges the difficulty they're facing (“Everyone knows the sequel's never quite as good”) and so it proves, though there are more than enough gags, songs, celebrity cameos and general Muppet mayhem to keep fans happy. The plot (suggested during the aforementioned song) is that the Muppets embark on a World Tour after employing new manager Dominic Badguy (Ricky Gervais). However, once they reach Berlin, Kermit is kidnapped and replaced by Constantine, the World's Most Dangerous Frog, who is working in cahoots with Dominic in a series of Da Vinci Code-style heists aimed at stealing the Crown Jewels. And once Constantine and Dominic have pulled off their first robbery, the Muppets find themselves under investigation by Sam the Eagle and Clouseau-like Interpol agent Jean Pierre Napoleon (Ty Burrell). Meanwhile, Kermit is shipped off to a Russian gulag run by Nadya (Tina Fey) and ends up directing fellow prisoners Ray Liotta, Danny Trejo and Jemaine Clement in the annual Gulag Revue. With most of the same team from The Muppets on board (director James Bobin, co-writer Nicholas Stoller, songwriter Bret McKenzie), this does at least deliver the goods in terms of its high gag rate (both verbal and visual) and musical numbers – fans of Flight of the Conchords should note that the songs are even more Conchord-like this time round, with Interrogation Song and I'll Get You What You Want (Cocktaoo in Malibu) standing out as particular highlights. Similarly, Ty Burrell and Sam The Eagle make an enjoyable double act and there are lots of good throwaway jokes, such as a line about comedy heists never working, a subtle reference to the original Muppet movie sequel, 1981's The Great Muppet Caper. Things get trickier with Ricky Gervais, whose constant mugging and grimacing wears thin very quickly, while the constant stream of celebrity cameos is so ridiculous (many of them, like Tom Hiddleston and Saoirse Ronan, don't even have any lines) that you strongly suspect that's actually the joke. (That said, it's worth it for moments like “And now, Christoph Waltz dances the Waltz!”). On top of that, it's probably fair to say that the film is a little too long at 113 minutes and some of the gulag stuff could easily have been cut, as should a terrible CGI effect at the end of the film that reunites all the film's cameos.

The Borderlands (four stars)

Written and directed by Elliot Goldner, The Borderlands is a found-footage British horror (no, wait, come back, etc) set in a remote West Country village. Gordon Kennedy (best known as a comedic actor) plays world-weary Deacon, a Vatican investigator sent to look into claims of a miracle at a dilapidated mediaeval church. He's accompanied by blokey techie Gray (Ben Wheatley's collaborator Robin Hill, best known for his role in Down Terrace) and, eventually, by his sanctimonious boss Mark (Aidan McArdle). Gray's job is to set up recording equipment all over both the church and their base (a nearby house), as well as to ensure that all three men wear their camera headsets at all times, the footage presumably transmitting to a hard drive, hence the eventual finding of the footage. The script is excellent, successfully combining the scariest elements of The Blair Witch Project, Paranormal Activity and The Descent without ever feeling derivative; there's also a darkly funny streak running throughout that's reminiscent of Wheatley's Kill List. The performances are equally good: Kennedy and Hill make an effective double act and their gradually softening relationship is nicely handled, while there's strong support from Luke Neal as troubled local vicar Father Crellick. Similarly, Goldner's direction is assured throughout, expertly building tension until its brilliantly creepy and frankly terrifying finale. Superb location work too.

20 Feet From Stardom (four stars)

Morgan Neville's Oscar-winning documentary focuses on the female backing singers to some of rock's greatest hits, from Ike and Tina Turner's River Deep Moutain High to The Rolling Stones' Gimme Shelter to David Bowie's Young Americans. Many of the singers have been a key factor in some of the most famous songs of all time, yet their contribution to rock history has gone largely unacknowledged (it's Merry Clayton who sings “Rape! Murder! Is just a shot away...” on Gimme Shelter, by the way, and the sequence with Mick Jagger recounting how he first heard her sing that is one of the highlights of the film). Neville's film includes candid interviews with the likes of Darlene Love, Táta Vega, Judith Hill, Merry Clayton and Lisa Fischer and their stories are equally heart-warming and upsetting, since many of the women also tried and failed to find success as solo artists. This leads to a number of intriguing questions about talent, passion, the nature of the industry and finding your place as a musical artist – it's heart-breaking to hear Tata Vega (who sang with Madonna, Michael Jackson and Stevie Wonder, among others) reveal how she's repeatedly turned away from auditions for being too fat or too old, for example. That said, the tone of the film is largely positive overall, celebrating both the women themselves and their extraordinary voices. Incidentally, this would make a great double-bill with Muscle Shoals, another excellent recent music doc that took a similar approach to the session musicians at the Muscle Shoals studio.

The Fold (three stars)

Low-budget British drama starring Catherine McCormack as Rebecca Ashton, a priest who moves to a small Cornish village with her teenage daughter Eloise (Dakota Blue Richards). Struggling to cope with the recent death of Eloise's older sister, Rebecca becomes fixated with improving the life of self-harming migrant worker Radka (Marina Stoimenova), who clearly reminds her of her lost daughter. However, Radka has emotional problems of her own. This is a superbly acted drama (McCormack is terrific as Rebecca) with a strong sense of place and well-meaning points to make about grief and obsession, though the conclusion is slightly underwhelming and Richard's character is curiously underwritten throughout. Worth seeing though.

Dangerous Acts Starring The Unstable Elements Of Belarus (three stars)

New York-based filmmaker Madeleine Sackler directs this urgent and moving documentary about the eight members of the underground Belarus Free Theatre troupe, who are dedicated to protesting against the dictatorship of “President” Alexander Lukashenko, despite the constant threat of arrest or police raids. Eventually, the members of the group leave the country and take their provocative act to Manhattan, via an award-winning show at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, with some members choosing to remain in exile while others return. This is an engaging film that's by turns moving, inspirational and genuinely shocking. There's also a touching cameo of sorts by Philip Seymour Hoffman at the end.

Afternoon Delight (four stars)

Enjoyable US comedy starring Kathryn Hahn as a frustrated wife and mother who hires a stripper (Juno Temple) as a live-in nanny. I agree with Jennie Tate's ViewLondon review of it here.

Also released:

Almost Married (not screened for press)
Leave The World Behind (not seen)
The Legend of Hercules (not screened for press)

There now follows the weekly plea to See Smaller Films First (#SSFF). If you are planning on seeing The Borderlands, My Stuff, The Past, The Fold, Dangerous Acts, Afternoon Delight or 20 Feet From Stardom this week, then please, please, please, PLEASE see them this weekend as smaller films need opening weekend support to survive and the likes of Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Muppets Most Wanted will be around for several weeks yet.

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