This Week on Demand: 03/06/2012

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Credit where it’s due: Netflix really understands how an apology should be made. After last week’s remarkably unremarkable crop of releases, this week offers us many a great title to make amends, from classic Coppola to top-notch modern Middle Eastern cinema to niche documentary to Hollywood thriller to Asian horror and everything else imaginable in between. With a huge variety unleashed in the last seven days, I’ve done my best to distil the huge flow down into a manageable sample space for all your instant watching desires. Whether you seek intellectual engagement, an innocent chuckle, emotional intensity, or even gruesome nonsense, you should find your needs more than sated below.


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A touching Greek drama solidified by the strength of a powerful lead, Apnea explores the burden of loss and the way it affects the life of a young man in training to be a champion swimmer. Originally cast for his underwater ability, Sotiris Pastras proves an extremely adept actor too, his physical restraint never failing to sell the seething emotions beneath. His character is a deceptively complex one, torn between a selfless dedication to making his family’s life that little bit easier and a latent desire to more fully enjoy his life. The titular metaphor—the film is told through the reminiscences of Pastras’ character as he holds his breath underwater—provides a fine overarching structure, even if the flashbacks get rather too complicated at times. Perhaps it never quite reaches the levels of character complexity and dramatic impact it flirts with, but it’s nonetheless a strong dramatic piece held together by a surprise talent. RECOMMENDED.


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Acknowledged widely as Coppola’s fourth masterpiece in as many attempts, and the fitting conclusion to arguably the most consistently astounding decade of work for any filmmaker, Apocalypse Now is rightly regarded as one of the finest war films ever produced. Famed as much for its storied, allegedly accursed production history as for its powerful take on the Vietnam war, it boasts what might well be Martin Sheen’s defining performance as the army captain sent to take out a rogue colonel commanding a force deep within the jungles of Cambodia. Right from its startling opening the film grips you in a horrific embrace, laying bare the maddening inhumanity of warfare and the utter monstrosity humankind is capable of. A dizzying, disturbing, distressing odyssey, Apocalypse Now is seminal cinema every step of the way. (Also newly available is the 2001 extended “Redux” edition, adding some 50 minutes of deleted scenes.) MUST SEE.


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Structured around a series of interviews with average Joes who just happen to find themselves attracted to large hairy men, Bear Nation is a candid documentary centred on a particular gay subculture that still manages more than its fair share of universal ideas. Enlightening every step of the way, it traces the growth of “bear pride” movements in Chicago and London with fascinating insights into the importance of a sense of communal identity. Being financed by View Askew productions, it’s sure to shoehorn in an interview with executive producer Kevin Smith, whose perspectives on the matter gradually wander away from the issue at hand to his own struggle to deal with being fat. At its best when tracing the struggle of ordinary people to accept themselves and strive for happiness, this documentary may focus on a very particular niche, but its message of love and harmony couldn’t be more universally applicable. RECOMMENDED.


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Taking its cue from the improv-heavy shooting of This is Spın̈al Tap, Christopher Guest’s Waiting for Guffman marked the beginning of one of America’s funniest comedy troupes. Their second outing together sees Guest and co-writer Eugene Levy satirising the world of dog shows with the aid of regular collaborators Ed Begley Jr, Bob Balaban, Harry Shearer, Michael McKean, Catherine O’ Hara, Parker Posey, Jane Lynch, and many more besides. Crafting between them a phenomenal wealth of hilarious characters and ludicrous situations, the group work off each other with remarkably intuitive skill and comic timing, their interactions always uncomfortably awkward and uncompromisingly silly. The success of the humour comes from the reality of the characters, Guest’s hugely unique directorial style breeding a naturalism of the utmost comic effect. Fred Willard might take home the blue ribbon for the best lines of all, but this is unmistakeably one of the finest ensemble comedy films of our time. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.


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More a straightforward morality play than the cat and mouse thriller it purports to be, Changing Lanes pits an unusually restrained and everyman Samuel L. Jackson against ruthless corporate attorney Ben Affleck after the two crash on a freeway and the latter speeds away, leaving the former unable to make the court hearing to decide custody of his children. Jackson and Affleck both do the somewhat strained storyline great justice, their performances equally matched to craft a compelling rivalry that speaks to themes of injustice and, albeit very thinly, race. Treading a particularly safe and clear path, the film’s impact is often hampered by its mildness, the issues it tries to explore never looked at in quite as much detail as they deserve. Still, it’s entertaining to watch two talented actors doing their best to embody a world of moral dilemmas, and supporting turns from Sydney Pollack, Richard Jenkins, and Dylan Baker do much to round out a very  solid cast. WORTH WATCHING.


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Not unlike this year’s The Raven, Wim Wenders’ 1980s neo-noir focuses on the adventures of a real-life writer caught up in a world disturbingly close to the nature of his own fiction. Here it’s Maltese Falcon scribe Dashiell Hammett whose work comes forth from the page, Wenders casting him as the tough-talking detective consumed amidst a myriad of dangerous women and deception. Much like The Raven, unfortunately, this central conceit is never exploited to the best of its post-modernistic abilities; this story would function no differently were it any old private dick at the centre. Brimming with the usual combination of shadowy chiaroscuro lighting, a jazz-heavy soundtrack, and a cynical central character, Hammett has very little to offer to distinguish it from the noirs of yesteryear. That said, even the most average of noirs has a good deal to admire, and Wenders’ certainly isn’t a bad film, it just struggles to live up to its namesake’s reputation. WORTH WATCHING.


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A lesser Eastwood western, but by no means a bad one, Joe Kidd follows the reluctant titular hero who inevitably finds himself convinced to join a posse to capture a Mexican revolutionary. Robert Duvall is the posse’s leader, bringing a fine touch of class to relatively standard proceedings. Certainly nothing particularly memorable, Elmore Leonard’s script is composed of standard western tropes with a dash of moral uncertainty: a nice touch that contributes some greater meaning to a story with little new in and of itself. The standout is Eastwood’s creative way of dispatching his foes, his trademark snarl worn throughout as he effortlessly does away with assailant after assailant. Quite nicely shot by Bruce Surtees, whose eye for the wild west Eastwood put to better use on High Plains Drifter, The Outlaw Josey Wales, and Pale Rider, Joe Kidd is a perfectly good bit of good ol’ fashioned Western fun. WORTH WATCHING.


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A misogynistic bastard of an author meets his match in a critic who fails to be wooed by his typical moves or his latest novel in this dreary drama stuffed with soporific self-pitying. It marks a turning point for him where suddenly women are more than just sexual playthings, and thus begins his evolution from slovenly sexist to sensitive schlub. The entire film hinges on our believing this sudden turnaround in the character’s personality, a turnaround it struggles valiantly but unsuccessfully to support. I don’t know about you, but I need quite a lot more before I can forgive someone being quite so hideous a human. Scott Caan is a very decent lead, and his work in the film’s latter half (titled “After”) is greatly admirable, but his script just doesn’t make his character accessible enough to ground the movie. The quick cameo from famous father James livens things briefly, but this sincere effort is by then long past the point of no return. SO-SO.


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A nasty satire on the cult of fandom from the pen of Stephen King, Misery won Kathy Bates a deserved Oscar for her portrayal of lunatic obsessive Annie Wilkes, whose dissatisfaction with author Paul Sheldon’s decision to kill off his most famous character motivates her to kidnap him and force him to bring her back. A chilling tale featuring one of cinema’s most famously squeamish moments, it’s a strong character-centric thriller with many a knowing wink to King’s own fanbase. Caan’s growing despair as the entrapped writer adds plenty to the claustrophobic tension that drives the film, his multitudinous efforts to reason with his maniacal captor giving way to nail-biting escape efforts. Skillfully mingling the script’s more humourous scenes with the horror thrills it’s most remembered for, director Rob Reiner once more demonstrates his ability to flow freely between very different genres, delivering a cracking viewing experience as fun as it is frightening. RECOMMENDED.


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Coppola’s first film after the sprawling disaster of Apocalypse Now’s production took a similarly difficult series of turns, his insistence on recreating Las Vegas wholly on his Zoetrope Studios soundstages bloating the budget far above and beyond the original two million intended and eventually forcing him to declare bankruptcy. The film itself emerged a good deal less battered than its director, the endearing story it tells of lost love in a place of falsity and façade making it far more enjoyable than the meagre box office takings might suggest. Frederic Forrest and Teri Garr are a wonderful pairing as Hank and Frannie, a couple who separate after five years together but soon find themselves underwhelmed by life apart. Heavily working with the soundtrack by Tom Waits, Coppola crafts what might almost be considered a musical. Expansive set design and creative lighting arrangements allow for some impressive scene changes without the use of cuts, making One from the Heart as interesting visually as it is romantically. RECOMMENDED.


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Ian Fitzgibbon’s follow-up to the excellently absurd A Film with Me in it clearly resides in the shadow of In Bruges, seeming throughout desperate to replicate that film’s international success. More indebted than derivative, it does have a good deal of its own merits to bring to the table, not least of all the wonderful Jim Broadbent as a man convinced his death awaits as soon as he next sleeps. His son, played by Cillian Murphy, is the film’s hero, on the run from the titular Dublin gangster after he accidentally causes the death of one of his minions. The setup allows for a decent scattering of comic moments, and though the darker moments may not come off entirely successfully they do add some degree of depth to the characters. Jodie Whittaker is nothing but cursory as Murphy’s love interest, leaving a strong supporting cast that includes Brendan Gleeson and the ever excellent Liam Cunningham to pick up the pieces. WORTH WATCHING.


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Cautiously tackling the kind of dangerous territory very few films have dared to play with, Hany Abu-Assad’s story of two Palestinian suicide bombers is as sensitive as it is daring, as thought-provoking as it is boundary-pushing. The hotly contested specifics of its Best Foreign Language Oscar nomination are a good indication of the kind of tumultuous political situation it deals with; Abu-Assad is sure not to glorify these men, but nor is he quick to damn their cause. Giving voice to the concerns of the Palestinian people, he crafts a heart-breaking story that offers an underseen perspective on the long-running Middle Eastern conflict, being sure to endear us to these characters ever before we learn the true horrors of their actions to come. The mostly real-time film takes some unexpected narrative paths to its perfect denouement, these odd divergences ultimately leading the way to powerful and resounding points on the desperate actions prolonged subjugation inevitably breeds. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.


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With woeful performances, skimpy uniforms, and a tremendously unconvincing narrative, Sick Nurses might in its opening act be mistaken for a low-rent pornographic Thai film. Given the time to get down to business, though, this nasty piece of work does away with the inconvenience of story and characters and instead offers a full-on visceral gore experience that perfectly treads the line between comedy and horror. Centred on a group of nurses who illicitly harvest organs for a shady doctor, Sick Nurses is an unqualified mess when forced to set up a plot, but quickly moves past that to a blinding wave of spectacular splatter. The gore comes courtesy of the ghost of a former colleague whose threats to expose the underground operation earned her a place on the operating table, a fate she’s keen to avenge in the most decadently violent ways imaginable. Gorehounds hungry for a taste of original schlock should be more than satiated. RECOMMENDED.


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To have a film quite so violent, vindictive, and venomous come from the director of such comic delights as A Cock and Bull Story and The Trip is startling enough in itself, what’s even more distressing is that it just isn’t very good. Casey Affleck is charismatic enough to bring something to even the most restricted of roles; here though, his Texas deputy is so unwaveringly evil that there’s not much of interest that Winterbottom can find to do with the character. The graphic violence toward women that the film depicts brought more notoriety than it deserved, these admittedly difficult scenes serving little purpose in a movie that never seems to have anything it actually wants to say. It’s difficult to determine Winterbottom’s purpose in bringing this story to the screen: reasonably well-shot and acted though it is, it simply fails to leave much of an impression, the entire affair an interesting but directionless exercise in rambling violence. SO-SO.


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Even those who unfairly labelled Once nothing more than indie dirge would consider it a flawless masterpiece in contrast to writer/director John Carney’s frankly disgusting follow-up Zonad, a moronic comedy adapted from an earlier short by Carney and his brother. Detailing the exploits of an alcoholic escaped from rehab whose fancy dress costume fools a family into thinking him a visitor from another planet, the childishness of its humour would suggest family film material were it not for the creepily paedophilic attempts of its protagonist to seduce the family’s young daughter. Not content with just being hideously unfunny—I’ll be amazed if anyone laughs even once—it gleefully ticks multiple offensive Irish stereotype boxes along the way. Given his growing clout in American film and television of late, star Simon Delaney will be hoping this one remains little-known. I hope it doesn’t: he deserves the shame and disgrace of being in something so ghastly. UNWATCHABLE.

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About Author

Ronan Doyle is an Irish freelance film critic, whose work has appeared on Indiewire, FilmLinc, Film Ireland, FRED Film Radio, and otherwhere. He recently contributed a chapter on Arab cinema to the book Celluloid Ceiling, and is currently entangled in an all-encompassing volume on the work of Woody Allen. When not watching movies, reading about movies, writing about movies, or thinking about movies, he can be found talking about movies on Twitter. He is fuelled by tea and has heard of sleep, but finds the idea frightfully silly.