Movie reviews: DVDs and downloads

Saturday night is movie night. It is in the MMM household at any rate. Mind you, so is Monday night, Tuesday night, Wednesday night and… you get the picture. The motion picture. So we watch an awful lot of films; murder mysteries, sci-fi fantasy, noir (Nordic and otherwise); mainstream, indie, art-house and B-movies. Here’s just a few recent screenings from Ryan Gosling, Tom Hardy, Harvey Keitel, Ethan Hawke, Sean Penn and Jake Gyllenhaal…

LOST RIVER: subtle, strange art-house cinema

LostRiverAlthough Lost River is described as a thriller, and certainly has its gory moments, it falls into the psychological, slow-burn category. It’s most definitely not action / adventure, and the pace will feel way too slow for many viewers. This is art-house move-making, at times presenting a surreal series of disconnected images, riffing on the theme of urban decay, desolation, and characters mired in social deprivation by the unremitting grip of their miserable pasts.

It contains moments of visual brilliance, nuanced performances, outright weirdness and freakery and no small amount of sadness. You can definitely feel the influence of other film-makers with whom Gosling has worked (especially in the kinky club with its retinal-searing red light). But Lost River also demonstrated a soul of its own.

Not mainstream. Not predictable. But with a surprising core of integrity and optimism. 8/10

BY THE GUN: second rate gangster flick

ByTheGunThis is very much a wannabe B-movie. It so much wants to be Goodfellas, But it’s too smooth, too self-conscious, too modern. It mistakes style for substance. It mimics almost to the point of parody what it worships. No heart. And that’s pretty much the sum of the story.

There are some interesting aspects, especially the ‘end of an era’ storyline. This reveals how the dregs of the old Italian families are on their last legs, out-gunned, out-numbered and out-manoeuvred by a brutal new generation of thugs, crooks and robbers who don’t hold to the old code. Harvey Keitel puts in a decent performance as Sal, one of the last men standing – but in many ways his considerable screen presence just underlines the central character’s lack of charisma. And one of the subordinate wise-guys, Tony, appears to be channelling the ghost of Bobby De Niro in a painfully derivative scene in a strip-joint.

Afterwards, when you stop to consider the plot, there are holes so huge you could build a casino in them. So while there are many decent moment in here, there’s little to enthral you. Even so, it’s far from terrible. Not bad viewing on a rainy weekend. 7/10

PREDESTINATION: Sneakily superior speculative drama

PredestinationAn intelligent and entertaining psychological sci-fi drama. Not stuffed with SFX, spaceships, slo-mo fight sequences or action adventure. Instead it’s a thoughtful exploration of destiny through time travel, with most of the plot revolving around an extended interaction between the two core characters. Felt like a mash-up of Tilda Swinton’s Orlando and Chris Nolan’s Memento.

Ethan Hawke gives a quietly solid performance, in which his dilemma becomes painfully apparent as the plot unfurls. Many of the twists are guessable – or indeed transparent – but even so there were a couple of moments of revelation which we hadn’t seen coming. The directors obviously felt it was necessary to give everyone a recap near the end, just to clarify things. So don’t worry if you do get confused…

Ideal if you enjoyed all those time-paradox episodes of Star Trek, or the ever-evolving multiverse of Fringe. 8/10

THE GUNMAN: silly shoot ’em up

TheGunmanHad high hopes for this. Maybe, we thought, it’ll be like the Taken trilogy, but with a bit more brain. Seeing as how Sean Penn is such a smart chap. In fact, The Gunman makes Taken3 look like an intellectual endeavour, blessed with brilliance. What a total waste of some serious acting talent. Ray Winstone, Javier Bardem and Idries Elba did their best to add some gravitas but they’re woefully under-used in cringe-inducing cameos.

The plot is naïve, the action unbelievable, the bull-fight completely unnecessary. Ho. Hum. Harmless Saturday night entertainment but, y’know, I wouldn’t pay proper money for it. 6/10

NIGHTCRAWLER: nastily near to perfection

NightcrawlerThis is an ugly film about an ugly subject, made all the more powerful for its beautiful performances, razor-sharp script and stunning cinematography. It’s a bundle of brutally honest observations about modern society, honed into verbal shrapnel, delivered with absolute conviction by Jake Gyllenhaal whose extraordinary performance captures the attention for almost two hours.

Ostensibly a story of an amoral young man who’ll stop at nothing to succeed as a freelance news hack, Nightcrawler actually condemns every single person who appears in it. Each and every character is complicit in the moral corruption summed up by the central character – even down to one of the first incidental  bit-players we meet, a scrap metal merchant. He won’t employ a thief – but he’ll happily buy stolen goods from him. That moral hypocrisy is reflected at every stage in the film, as Gyllenhaal’s character progresses way beyond mere larceny and sordid voyeurism to manipulation, complicity and eventually murder. But the film never lets us get away with thinking that he’s the only person to blame, here: the nightcrawler is only part of a system which exists to feed the desire of the masses. He doesn’t create the need for nasty, invasive, demeaning news coverage – he’s just a quick learner who rapidly understands that he can be successful by fulfilling that need. It’s the American dream, skewed through a glass, darkly.

Think on that next time you click on a lurid headline.

Brilliant film. Hard to watch: not your average thriller. Reno Russo as the struggling TV news producer plays a superb supporting role to Gyllenhaal; in one scene where he offers her appalling footage of an actual shooting you would believe she’d have his babies on the spot. And Gyllenhaal himself as the sociopathic, self-taught, buzzword businessman is riveting, if considerably unsettling.

Hard to find a flaw in the whole film, so (unusually): 10/10

THE DROP: look out for the quiet guys

TheDropThis character-driven crime-drama is typical of Dennis Lehane’s story-telling: gritty, authentic and sneakily subtle. It’s not an action/adventure thriller, but instead delivers almost two hours of plot twists and mounting tension amid moments of coldly calculated brutality.

The Drop showcases a series of stand-out performances, some of which conform exactly with expectations of the genre. This is backstreets bar-room New York, so third generation, low-level Italianate wise-guys and new blood Eastern European Mafioso fit right in. But the characters in The Drop are much more than two-dimensional stereotypes: the storyline explores the realities of grabbing and holding territory – whether that territory is a bar, or a girl, or even a puppy.

The three lead actors deliver superb turns, Tom Hardy reminding us that he’s more than capable of creating a nuanced character: James Gandolfini in a fitting farewell as a yesterday’s man making one last bid for self-esteem. But the supporting cast deserve more than just nod, too, because it’s their performances which reveal much of the back-story and which give the film its texture and depth. Check out the bar-guy being interviewed by the police detective, and the throw-away line about ‘thanks for dragging me out in front of the guys, making me look like a snitch.’ It means nothing to the plot but that kind of attention to detail means everything to the atmosphere.

The finale is entirely satisfying; a neat conclusion to a morality tale. There just happen to be several dead bodies, a couple of armed robberies and an entirely unsentimental romance along the way.

Well worth watching more than once, to pick up on all the clues and hints you missed first time around… 8/10

All reviewed by Rowena Hoseason: feel free to add your own comments below on any of these… or something we should be watching!

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