This Week on Demand: 07/04/2013

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I did find inspiration.


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48 Hrs.

Widely credited as the movie that spawned the buddy cop subgenre, Walter Hill’s recklessly fun 48 Hrs. pairs the gruff Nick Nolte with an energetic Eddie Murphy in his big screen debut. The former an unorthodox cop, the latter a suave criminal who may be the only clue to a suspect’s whereabouts, the duo’s tension is the source of the film’s humour as they race to catch the killer within the titular time allotment. Nolte and Murphy are better than the gags the script gives them; with a weaker pairing the film would never have attained the slightly exaggerated status it now holds. It’s an entertaining crime comedy, if not an exemplary one, neither of those constituent elements deployed to the height of their potential: while Hill’s action direction excels as ever, he’s never given a truly great set piece to work with, nor Nolte and Murphy a massively memorable routine. WORTH WATCHING.


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Another Day in Paradise

Positioned between the equally exploitative Kids and Bully, Larry Clark’s sophomore effort Another Day in Paradise is not nearly so inflammatory as either of those films, perhaps primarily because the controversial director for once sees fit to keep his camera away from the nether-regions of his female cast. My pronounced distaste for Clark’s other work should make all the more impressive the fact that I enjoyed this offering, chiefly thanks to the reliably compelling work of James Woods, who also acts as producer. He plays Mel, a minor criminal who recruits the young junkie Bobbie and girlfriend Rosie to his makeshift gang as they attempt to establish themselves through a series of robberies. Captivating from the start, it’s an intimate and aggressive portrait of the romantic allure of crime, not inclined to shy away from the grim reality of this way of life. Yet for all the strength of Woods and co, it’s not unfair to say we could stand to learn a little more about these characters. WORTH WATCHING.


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Bully

Prompting one of the widest public outcries against the outdated operation of the MPAA in many a year, documentarian Lee Hirsch makes his feature debut in Bully, an emotionally frank examination of the epidemic of aggression in the American school system. Framing his discussion through the stories of a select group of students—some ongoing victims, some suicides—and their families, Hirsch elicits as much anger as he does upset, calling into question why this problem is so widespread with his frustrating footage of parents and principals who seem clueless as to what they can do to help. That’s as much the film’s weakness as it is its strength: while the open conclusions rightly highlight the problem and the lack of a dedicated effort to solve it, it also calls into question the aims of the film; Hirsch’s work, while engrossing and—to a degree—important, is curiously absent of a statement that isn’t implicit in the topic itself. RECOMMENDED.


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Butterfly’s Tongue

From Rossellini with Germany Year Zero to Tarkovsky with Ivan’s Childhood, filmmakers have long looked at the horrors of war through the eyes of a child, using the simplified viewpoint of a young protagonist to highlight the utter idiocy of human conflict. Particularly rich in Spanish cinema, from The Spirit of the Beehive right through to Pan’s Labyrinth and Black Bread, this trend finds touchingly simple expression in José Luis Cuerda’s Butterfly’s Tongue. Centred on the close relationship between a shy young boy and the kindly old teacher he admires, it’s a political parable dressed in a coming-of-age tale, the onset of fascism neatly coinciding with the maturation of this little kid. Beautifully fragile performances all round—particularly from Fernando Fernán Gómez, who conveniently played the father in The Spirit of the Beehive—make all the more emotional an inherently engrossing tale. At times it’s simple to a fault; at others, Butterfly’s Tongue is as moving a story as you could want. RECOMMENDED.


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Fatal Attraction

Earning six Oscar nominations along the way, Adrian Lyne’s cautiously paced psychological thriller takes the consequences of toying with another’s emotions to the extreme, casting Glenn Close as the manic lover whose weekend tryst with Michael Douglas’ married attorney leads to much more than he bargained for. Adapting from his own short film, James Dearden gives us one of the strangest screen credits in “Screenplay by James Dearden based on his original screenplay”, but an otherwise intriguing drama rife with accusatory undertones. Lyne makes the experience a terribly tense one, his editing making the most mundane action seem of the utmost importance. It’s a shame, then, that the ending is so very very wrong, the reshot conclusion trading a satisfying summit to this psychological study for a violent finale as morally meaningless as it is overblown. WORTH WATCHING.


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Footloose

Exceptionally and unashamedly ‘80s in approach, Footloose’s relentless rock ‘n’ roll sensibility pits city boy Kevin Bacon against the conservative outlook of small town reverend John Lithgow, who naturally happens to be the father of the girl with whom Bacon’s rebel falls in love. Often little more than a montage of music video montages, the film boasts a great soundtrack that it can’t hope to match in its entirely conventional story and exceptionally thin characters, particularly the frankly unlikeable love interest. Fun enough in a silly sort of a way, it treats its themes with so little seriousness that they might as well not be there, which makes utterly redundant those few scenes where Lithgow is made to look conflicted. Perhaps the title is a hint: Footloose was made for dancing, not for thinking; the characters may be uninteresting, the conflict may be underwhelming, but the music sure is toe-tapping. SO-SO.


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Lay the Favorite (Read our full review)

Far removed from the Oscar-nominated days of The Queen, Stephen Frears is on alarmingly awful form with Lay the Favorite, a Vegas-set gambling “comedy” as thoroughly unfunny as it is bewilderingly aimless. Rebecca Hall is the cocktail waitress turned gambling prodigy whose irrational moves from one agency to the next form the basis of the film’s increasingly unnecessary existence. Bruce Willis plays a character named Dink, and frankly deserves to too: he offers yet another phoned-in performance composed of sly smirks and occasional yells. Only Catherine Zeta-Jones does anything to salvage proceedings, her sneering performance as Dink’s jealous wife passably enjoyable, though that may only be in comparison to the relentless dullness which surrounds her. Managing somehow to become even more annoying once it moves the action to New York under the auspices of Vince Vaughan, Lay the Favorite is a catastrophic mess, and a fresh new low for all involved. AVOID IT.


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Man on the Moon

An underrated gem amidst the Jim Carrey filmography, Miloš Forman’s strangely compelling biography of the strangely compelling entertainer Andy Kaufman is as much a comedy as its subject was a comedian, which is to say it isn’t. Or maybe it is. A fascinating figure, Kaufman defied categorisation with his bizarre acts, and it’s its great strength—albeit a perplexing, even alienating one—that Man on the Moon succeeds so wildly in replicating his uniqueness. Carrey is ideal to embody this mercurial figure, an often infuriating enigma whose enforced mysteriousness eventually leads us to wonder if even he really knows who he is. Truly coming into its own in an unexpectedly emotional final act, Forman’s film might not bring us any closer to understanding Kaufman—how could it?—but it leaves us desperately wishing we were, completely entranced by this strange figure. Biographies are rarely so interesting, scarcely so unique: Man on the Moon is remarkably odd, and oddly remarkable. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.


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Pet Sematary

With its combination of ghosts and reanimated corpses, Indian burial grounds and dark family secrets, Pet Sematary should be too overstuffed with horror tropes to succeed on any level. It’s to the immense credit of director Mary Lambert and her wicked sense of the uncanny, then, that it does, and so very well too. Even transcending the limitations of its less-than-stellar cast, the Stephen King adaptation has enough in the way of legitimately creepy moments and underlying ruminations on the desperation of grief to be an unlikely success. Lambert has a startling talent for disturbing visuals, and she populates this tale of a family dealing with the death of their young son with no shortage of shockingly graphic moments. At times knowingly campy, at others wholly dedicated to the creation of pure terror, Pet Sematary is a masterful exercise in tonal juggling, and a King adaptation worthy of consideration beside the best. RECOMMENDED.


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Pi

A fitting beginning to a career defined by characters driven by obsession to the brink of insanity, Darren Aronofsky’s debut Pi is a magnificent thriller that finds more excitement in number theory than most movies can muster with any combination of guns and gadgets. Following a mathematician whose discovery of a mysterious number seems tied to the patterns of the stock market, it’s a highly theoretical work that touches on existential themes without ever allowing its alluring pace to slow. The influence of Lynch and Cronenberg is clear, the latter particularly manifesting toward the film’s increasingly horrifying final act. Aronofsky’s assurance is almost audacious as he conducts this bewildering symphony, taking on more than any first-timer ever should but somehow emerging unscathed. It’s a great testament to the talent he’s become that Pi is perhaps his weakest film; most directors would do well to have something this good as their best. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.


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Play it Again, Sam

Often unduly forgotten for the simple reason that it was directed by Herbert Ross and not Woody Allen, the neurotic talent’s second successful Broadway play came to the screen in 1972’s Play it Again, Sam, a delightfully cineliterate comedy that foreshadows the move into more mature cinematic territory that would come in his own directorial career with Love and Death three years later. Pairing with Diane Keaton for the first time, Allen stars as a lovelorn film critic who gets imaginary advice from Humphrey Bogart as he struggles to be as charismatic as his screen hero. Far funnier than any film Allen had until then made, Play it Again, Sam firmly established the screen persona he would go on to play for over four decades and made a classic couple of him and Keaton. A definitive highlight of his earliest work, perhaps even of his career as a whole, this is compulsory viewing for all Allen fans. RECOMMENDED.


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Streets of Fire

Doing for the spirit of the 1980s what his cult classic The Warriors did for the 1970s, Walter Hill creates a deliriously entertaining show in Streets of Fire, pairing neon noir with rock ‘n’ roll musical and over-the-top action. An absolute blast of a film, it’s like the energy of the time perfectly captured and preserved, its wonderfully strange story of an ex-soldier who decides to rescue his rock star former girlfriend from a gang of violent bikers giving way to a relentlessly fun adventure. As brilliantly soundtracked as The Warriors before it, it gleams with the excess of Hill’s touch, who contributes as much to the bookending concert scenes as he does to the big hammer-wielding showdown. Its cast is its weakest aspect, only Willem Dafoe making an impression as the hilariously odd leader of the bikers, but it’s impression enough. Like nothing else before or since, Streets of Fire is a bafflingly brilliant time capsule of a movie. RECOMMENDED.


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Survival of the Dead

The latest in horror legend George A. Romero’s zombie series, begun in 1968 with the genre classic Night of the Living Dead, Survival of the Dead has the appearance of a film made by a man who never saw that original, let alone made it. So far distanced from everything great that Romero once represented, this latest instalment is a criminally unfunny—it tries desperately to be a comedy—bore with painfully poor performances and dialogue one might scold the undead for scripting. Loosely concerning an old turf war between feuding families of alleged Irish heritage—the accents certainly don’t fit—it’s entirely lacking in the social subtext which made Romero’s earlier works such rich horrors. This, by contrast, is nothing short of a travesty; where all that talent, once so abundant, has gone is a mystery. Allegedly Romero has difficulty finding funding these days. After this, it’ll be a miracle if he gets any more at all. AVOID IT.


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The Dead

Perhaps it was his residence of nearly forty years in Ireland that made John Huston so well-suited a director to The Dead, which proved to be his final film. Adapted from a James Joyce short story, it’s an inherently Irish work that deals in the most deceptively simple manner with deep issues of identity and mortality as the jovial Epiphany party at its heart gives way to an astonishingly nuanced character study. Huston’s craftsmanship is phenomenal, his camera doing as much work to explore the many relationships in the film as do any of the actors, all of whom are perfectly tailored to their role. Anjelica Huston and Donal McCann are chief among them, offering movingly melancholy portraits of characters whom we come to know in increments slow and steady. Warmly comic atop its tragedian undercurrent, The Dead is a masterful evocation of buried emotion, a phenomenal character study whose immense restraint belies a probing incision. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.


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The Dead Zone

The second unexpectedly resonant King adaptation of the week, The Dead Zone has the author adapted by David Cronenberg in a rare studio outing for the horror filmmaker. It’s a fine pairing of material and director, Cronenberg foregrounding an emotional intensity only seen perhaps in The Brood before it. Christopher Walken is at the top of his game as the fragile bearer of an ability to see the future; his desperate attempts to escape what he sees as a curse drive the narrative far more than any sci-fi conceit, making this much more a character piece than a thriller. That’s compromised to an extent in a divergent third act that introduces political corruption and the threat of nuclear war, but Walken’s performance and the deeply sad man he creates remain the driving force above all. The Dead Zone is a well-acted work of genuine emotion, though it falls short of its director’s finest work. RECOMMENDED.


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The Frankenstein Theory

Given its direct-to-video release and uninspired use of the overwrought found footage format, it’s something of an achievement that The Frankenstein Theory manages to be only bad, not awful. Following a team of documentarians who accompany a disgraced professor to explore the theory that his family were the basis of Mary Shelley’s classic novel, its trek to the Arctic Circle in search of the mythical creature is decidedly unremarkable, composed of the typical staid interactions between thinly-sketched characters and occasional scary sounds in the dead of night. Often conspicuously close in structure, and even certain scenes, to the excellent Troll Hunter, it’s simply too dull and empty-headed to make any impact at all, not to mention free from a single genuine scare or even the mildest threat thereof. It’s a telling problem that the best compliment you can pay the movie is that it’s mediocrity is a pleasant surprise; this never had much of a chance at all. AVOID IT.


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The Hunger Games (Read our full review)

Much as it might have been praised for its provision of a strong female role model at a time when mainstream cinema could only offer a passive heroine in the form of Twilight’s Bella, The Hunger Games’ welcome balancing of the gender scales can only disguise its many problems so much. The achingly unsteady camerawork of its first act is our introduction to Gary Ross’ often garish direction. His overblown colour in the second act as the action moves from rural outskirts to urban centre undermines the impact of the source novel’s satire, overstating the social critique and rendering what little significant depth the film might have claimed undone. Where he does succeed, though, is in making thrilling action drama of this tale of children pitted against each other in a fight to the death, with Jennifer Lawrence’s Katniss a suitably strong and emotional core to the starkly chaotic violence that engulfs her. WORTH WATCHING.


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The Impostors

As fondly cinephilic a comedy as any I’ve seen, Stanley Tucci’s second film as director is a masterful confluence of comic influences, everything from its hilariously gripping silent opening scene to its absurdist audition and its farcical finale a hat-tip of some sort to one forebear or another. Tucci and Oliver Platt star—in roles as good as any they’ve ever had—alongside an incredible cast including Steve Buscemi, Billy Connolly, Richard Jenkins, Isabella Rossellini, Michael Emerson, Tony Shalhoub and more in a laugh-a-minute romp that’s unashamedly silly, and all the funnier for it. It’s remarkable that so many styles can be crammed together and still work; more than once—heck, more than five times—I was reduced to fits of tears at the insanity unfolding onscreen, my ribs bruising under the duress of sustaining so constant a stream of laughter. Why this is not considered among the greatest of comedies, I do not know. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.


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The Last Temptation of Christ

Opening with a disclaimer with which it distances itself from the Gospels, instead insisting its basis is in Nikos Kazantzakis’ novel, Martin Scorsese’s controversial The Last Temptation of Christ is an extraordinary evocation of the importance of faith. Its incredible power, only truly revealing itself in the astonishing closing act—among the most transcendent thirty minutes ever committed to film—lies in its universal meaning. Scorsese examines issues of faith through a figure central to so much of it, finding in Christ the perfect meeting point of humanity and spirituality, and daring to use him as a cipher through which to explore what it means to believe in something, in anything. Willem Dafoe’s performance may be his best; Jesus’ can’t be easy sandals to fill, but Dafoe does so with a crucial depth of humility and humanity. Scorsese shows the very same: none will see this picture quite the same; all will behold a master director at work. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.


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This Must Be the Place (Read our full review)

Valuable as an example of ensuring you have a good reason to collaborate, no matter how much you may want to, This Must Be the Place was reputedly born of Sean Penn’s intense desire to work with acclaimed Italian director Paolo Sorrentino. It’s a shame the pair didn’t feel as drawn toward a satisfying script as to each other. Penn plays Cheyenne, a long-faded rock star whose retirement in Ireland is disrupted by the death of his father in the United States and the subsequent quest to exact revenge on his Nazi tormentor. An old fashioned American road movie, as much about the interior journey as the exterior, This Must Be the Place has its heart in the right place—and very often its camera—but little else here ever feels right. As stunning a visual feast as Sorrentino makes of the story, it can’t mask the self-important emptiness of the kooky script, nor the maddening mannerisms of Penn. AVOID IT.


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Witness

The witness of Witness is Samuel, a young Amish boy who, hiding in the cubicle of a train station toilet, spies two men murdering another. So we would at first assume, anyway; perhaps the title refers to John Book, the cop who goes into hiding when his investigation of the crime reveals widespread corruption, and whose subsequent immersion in the Amish community sees him watch their way of life, and thus learn more about his. Peter Weir’s film is a quieter drama than its premise makes it sound, which makes the movie all the stronger. Harrison Ford is duly reserved as Book, his steely performance making more intriguing—and less beset by cliché—the romance that looms between him and the boy’s mother. It’s not a story that’s immune to familiarity, particularly not in its final act, but it embraces its characters and their relationships with a genuine warmth in a way few similar films would. RECOMMENDED.

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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.