It’s something of a superhero special here on this inescapably (but no less apologetically) belated edition of This Week On Demand, with Marvel adding a third to their Netflix collection of Avengers films, plus a documentary portrait of company figurehead Stan Lee. It’s the best of the week’s three documentaries, the others looking at a highly dysfunctional Montana family and the early poetic career of Leonard Cohen. Also on offer is the traditional terrible horror movie and a pair of Oscar-nominees, rounding out a week that’s decent, but far from great. Tune in on Sunday for yet another first-of-the-month bumper edition.
Belgium’s sixth Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Language Film, Bullhead thrives on the stunning central performance of Matthias Schoenaerts, who brings to the character of quiet but hulking cattle farmer Jacky an immense emotional reservoir. Eschewing for the most part dialogue, Schoenaerts screams anguish and loneliness with his eyes only, the gradual revelation of his storied past no surprise given the burning pain he evidently carries. Director Michaël R. Roskam brings to the film some equally affecting shots, his capturing of the sun just breaking over the rural landscapes a visual manifestation of Jacky’s brimming, brooding anger. Dark interiors abound, casting Schonaerts in an encompassing darkness that speaks more than he ever does. While the story—Roskam also wrote the script—might falter at times in criminal convolutions, the focus here is on the character; Bullhead emerges a haunting examination of masculinity and the stake society places in it. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
The best of the pre-Avengers Marvel movies by my reckoning, Captain America: The First Avenger may lack the sharp wit of Iron Man’s dialogue, but director Joe Johnston more than makes up for it in his flawless balance of campy comic sensibility and grounded human drama. Chris Evans is an inspired choice for weedy would-be army man Steve Rogers, whose unrelenting desire to serve his country in WWII and prove himself sees him chosen to test the military’s super soldier program. An amusing Tommy Lee Jones and a positively Herzogian Hugo Weaving lend enjoyably theatrical zeal to proceedings, balanced by the affecting—if disappointingly underdeveloped—drama of Rogers’ love interest. Spielbergian action abounds in an immensely entertaining Nazi-filled spectacle, meshing Marvel’s world with old-school adventure for a refreshingly different superhero movie that, despite its madcap nonsensicality, feels exactly as rooted in real people as it needs to be. RECOMMENDED.
The wispy whiteness of Robert Englund’s latter-life beard might suggest a wizened veteran of the horror genre, but it’s films the like of Inkubus that make one wonder whether the ludicrous trajectory of the Nightmare series hasn’t blinded him to what true horror really is. Taking the titular role of an ancient demon who arrives in a Rhode Island police station in the dead of night to confess his crimes, Englund is the best thing in a very bad film indeed, bestowing a menacing presence on a story unworthy of an actor of his stature. Director Glenn Ciano never manages to make it all seem anything other than silly, his scares limp and lifeless, his gore abundant and asinine, his plotting scattered and soporific. William Forsythe is uncharacteristically awful as the detective with prior experience of the demon’s mind games, doing very little to make his underwritten character any little bit more interesting. AVOID IT.
An interesting little short documentary profiling the now-famous musician when he was just a moderately successful Torontonian poet and stand up comedian, Ladies and Gentlemen… Mr. Leonard Cohen will doubtlessly intrigue fans of Cohen, but presents sufficient material of interest to satiate other viewers too. Its best moments are those simply capturing Cohen on stage: he is a captivating presence with a strong sense of humour and impeccable comic timing, delivering calculated punchlines that make the other, less interesting aspects of the film worth sitting through. Interviews with Cohen and poet friends capture a certain self-involved intellectualism that can grate, but they have some interesting points to make about various issues, and a bathtub scene with Cohen considering the candid nature of the shooting is particularly amusing. Coming in at just 45 minutes, Ladies and Gentlemen… Mr. Leonard Cohen is a perfectly watchable little piece, an interesting look at a big name before he became the man we know today. WORTH WATCHING.
When Paul McKerrow returned to his rural Montana hometown for a high-school reunion, the former quarterback and valedictorian brought with him a documentary crew to film what would become Prodigal Sons. Why? Because he was now a she by the name of Kimberley Reed, who wanted to register attitudes toward transgender individuals in her home community. The end product, however, far differs from Reed’s original intentions, and Prodigal Sons becomes much more about her brother—Marc—and his car crash-induced mental illness than about her gender change. There’s an uneasy sense of exploitation running through the film, as though Marc’s breakdowns and violent fits are being provoked for drama’s sake, and Reed at times seems almost selfish in her handling of the material. Issues aside, Prodigal Sons is a fascinatingly odd look at a family brimming with sibling rivalries and past traumas, with the strangest of tangents leading all the way to Orson Welles. RECOMMENDED.
Within perhaps five minutes, the majority of viewers will have made their mind up about Miranda July’s second film. It’s the sort of work to which one has an immediate gut reaction, either responding to the offbeat quirk with delightful appreciation or seething distaste. I’m afraid to say I found myself far more in line with the latter camp, though the film’s merits should not be ignored. July and Hamish Linklater do fine jobs as couple Sophie and Jason, who decide to adopt a cat; their apathetic mannerisms verge on annoying, but the impression of real characters is certainly made. That the narrative is a selection of performance pieces loosely strung together is abundantly clear, lazy plotting barely managing to mask the thinness of this story. Occasional bursts of genuine emotion and some inspired moments prevent The Future from being a total twee disaster, but a talking cat and a blindingly obvious ending are just a little too quirky to handle. SO-SO.
Following on from the Netflix debut of Rampart two weeks ago, Oren Moverman’s debut film may feature an Oscar-nominated turn from Woody Harrelson, but it’s the work of Ben Foster that really grabs the attention, making an already emotionally rich character all the more investing. That’s not to downplay the success of Harrelson, who earns his nomination and more playing the senior member of the casualty notification team to which Foster’s recovering soldier is assigned. A supporting cast featuring typically brilliant contributions from Samantha Morton and Steve Buscemi makes all the more human this difficult tale of grief and despair. As with Rampart, Moverman proves himself a better writer than he is a director, making some questionable directorial decisions that undermine to an extent the impact of his well-crafted script. An acting masterclass that rarely fails to connect, The Messenger is a fine debut from a filmmaker from whom great things can be expected. RECOMMENDED.
Familiar to millions more by the year courtesy of increasingly inspired cameos in big-screen adaptations of his oeuvre, Stan Lee is perhaps the most recognisable name in comic books, an entertainment industry legend as well-known as the plethora of superheroes he has unleashed upon the world. With Great Power: The Stan Lee story offers a nice overview of the man’s life and work, taking in plentiful interviews with his surviving collaborators, personal friends, and the many big movie names whose careers have been launched courtesy of his characters. Fleeting moments of tough emotion—the discussion of a daughter who died in youth, remembrance of the late Jack Kirby—bring some real resonance to a generally light-hearted portrait, taking the film to appropriately personal levels behind the professional aspects. Lee himself makes for a most enjoyable interviewee, his cheery manner revelling in the many memories of a life spent doing what he loves best. RECOMMENDED.