This Week on Demand: 21/07/2013

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My oh me oh my, what a week. Usually we can count on a relatively even distribution of quality across the board, a handful of great movies and a smattering of rubbish spread amidst a whole lot of mediocrity. Not so this time, which has—for the most part—only said mediocrity to offer. It’s a frustratingly average bunch of films, so unanimously unremarkable that it’d almost be preferable to have a few awful titles thrown in, just so we could have something to get angry about. Luckily, the sole exception—the only film worth recommending this week—is a very fine one indeed. Given that it stands alone among the movies below, you have no reason not to check it out.


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Apartment 4E

Pitching a suitably intense two-hander in this, his directorial debut, writer/director Russell Leigh Sharman draws strong performances from Nicole Beharie and Christopher J. Domig in telling the story of a manic depressive woman and the man who arrives at her door intent on talking her out of the suicide she threatens. Brief, beguiling flashbacks aside, the action of Apartment 4E is confined entirely to its titular setting, with neither characters’ identity or allegiances entirely clear to us, or to each other. Beharie and Domig play off each other perfectly, a handful of minor detours into mutual hysteria notwithstanding; these are performances of performances, the characters playing roles as much as their actors. It’s a shame, then, that Sharman can’t quite manage to do anything interesting like them. Much like Buscemi’s Interview, this is a frustratingly cyclical affair, winding round and round and round without ever seeming to arrive anywhere. SO-SO.


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Come Out and Play

Remaking the ’70s cult favourite Death is Child’s Play, the mononymous Makinov makes a filmmaking debut as devoid of nuance as is his insistence on anonymity by way of wearing a red hood, even whilst directing his actors. Following a pair of American tourists whose arrival on a Mexican island coincides with the seeming disappearance of all human life, Come Out and Play is a pleasingly low-key but perpetually dull affair, its atmospheric efforts finding success only in an appealingly eerie score. The eventual reveal of the chief conceit steers the film into the reliable old realms of paedophobic horror, which it abuses more than uses with a misguided belief that kids are naturally creepy. If only Makinov had paid as much attention to the construction of the movie as to that of his persona, perhaps this might be a more frightening film. As it is, it’s just frightfully boring. AVOID IT.


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Deficit

The first—and, to date, only—feature directed by Gael García Bernal, Déficit proposes to look at the prominent class distinction in Mexican society, its narrative following a young man whose parents’ weekend absence gives him free reign over their lavish villa. He, played by Bernal himself, is the film’s protagonist, and it’s the somewhat conspicuous compassion the script feels for him that makes the movie particularly hard to enjoy. His arc is not without its sympathetic aspects, indeed, yet beside the staff with whom he’s constantly contrasted, it’s difficult to feel too bad for a man so privileged. Kyzza Terrazas’ writing struggles to reconcile the key theme of social inequality with its fondness for its central character and his academic career’s dwindling prospects; Bernal, too busy struggling—largely unsuccessfully—with shot composition, does little to assuage these issues. Fine performances aside, Déficit is much too confused in its aims to ever make much of an impact. SO-SO.


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Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame

If you’re going to make a narratively murky, tonally erratic blockbuster, you might as well do so with a generous helping of unbridled oddity. Such is evidently the thinking of those behind Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame, which sees the eponymous investigator tackling a case involving spontaneous combustions, talking animals, and improbably tall Buddha statues. There’s a certain campy sensibility to the movie’s scale that makes wonderfully wacky fun of its very many fight sequences, though never enough to circumvent the impending sense of tedium that surrounds its increasingly baggy plot. It’s a very weird film, blending fantasy with history in an almost garishly haphazard way. A consistently heavy reliance on subpar CGI hardly helps matters, and it’s the ever unappealing digital aesthetic that becomes the final nail in Detective Dee’s coffin. There’s a lot to be loved here, mind, just not quite enough. SO-SO.


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Done the Impossible

If the mark of a good documentary is its ability to hook someone wholly uninterested in the subject at hand, I am perhaps ill-equipped to fairly judge Done the Impossible, a cheery look at the unyielding efforts of short-lived TV series Firefly’s fans—or Browncoats, as they call themselves—to revive the show, which they famously did in the form of 2005’s Serenity. Or perhaps not: that a documentary by, for, and about the fans of a particular fiction struggles to hook those very people is telling; Done the Impossible’s unabashed, earnest efforts largely fall flat. Structurally messy, it’s punctuated by cast member Adam Baldwin dryly recounting the story before a plain background, a sure momentum-killer if ever there was one. Short interviews with each of the major players do little to up the ante, such is their surface-skimming nature, and few of the questioned fans manage to add much either. SO-SO.


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Intolerable Cruelty

Largely regarded, alongside The Ladykillers, as the Coen brothers’ weakest offering, Intolerable Cruelty’s somewhat diminutive stature isn’t difficult to understand, but that doesn’t stop it from being an enjoyably witty affair at the same time. Even at their worst, Joel and Ethan are capable of some of the sharpest movies around, and amidst a whole lot of baggage this tale of a famed divorce attorney and the woman in whom he meets his match offers no shortage of smart fun. George Clooney and Catherine Zeta-Jones maintain consummately enjoyable chemistry as their characters do their utmost to outsmart each other, and it’s a joy to watch performers of this calibre having quite so much fun. A strong supporting cast, as ever, is thrown in for good measure, and while Intolerable Cruelty hardly manages the staying power of its directors’ better works, it remains a strong testament to their reckonable talents. WORTH WATCHING.


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Last Kind Words

It’s hard to pinpoint precisely what Last Kind Words is, its narrative’s closeness to horror not quite matched in the restrained tone of director Kevin Barker’s approach, which leans more toward mysterious drama. Its story is that of a teenager who moves with his family to a country farm, where he discovers both a beautiful girl and a succession of startling secrets. Barker has a way with the natural beauty of these environs, and his precise lighting is by far the film’s strongest suit. Less impressive is his scripting, which never seems able to align one aspect of the narrative with another: Brad Dourif appears to be in another movie altogether, his character too caught up with debt repayments to interact with the rest of the cast much at all. A very troubled final act ensures a problematic debut feature debut for Barker, though one not without its indications of talent waiting to be tapped. SO-SO.


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Lucky

A feature expansion of the 2005 BAFTA-nominated short of the same name, Lucky never feels like a film stretched to four times its original length; writer/director Avie Luthra has legitimate cause to adapt this material, his story of a newly-orphaned young boy in South Africa who forges an uneasy friendship with an Indian woman ripe with material for further investigation. Revolving primarily around the issue of race, and the sad fate to which all too many such children are resigned, this is a deeply affecting piece of work, hinged on the heartbreaking performance of first-timer Sihle Dlamini. He and Jayashree Basavaraj are triumphantly naturalistic presences, their immensely believable and often very funny relationship the heart of a film that never shies away from the darker truths of life. Luthra has made something special here, a determinedly honest and delightfully humorous little film that’s enlightening and entertaining in equal measure, from its tragic start to its pitch-perfect end. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.


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Morgan

What a frustrating movie Morgan is, its strong beginnings lost to the throes of melodrama as co-writers Michael D. Akers and Sandon Berg struggle to maintain the realism on which their characters were once built. They are the titular bicyclist and the man with whom he begins a reluctant romance after losing the use of his legs in a racing accident; theirs is an affecting relationship, well established in a fine opening act before being squandered entirely. Leo Minaya and Jack Kesy tend to fluctuate with the material, their performances losing their power right about the same time the story does, the awkward scripting perhaps distancing them from the characters as much as it does the audience. It’s just not believable drama: the conflict that arises between the men feels explicitly contrived, as though the writers could think of no better way to continue the film. A noteworthy sex sequence is a sumptuous saving grace. SO-SO.


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Red Flag (Read our full review)

There’s a lot that could go wrong with Red Flag, director Alex Karpovsky’s film about a director named Alex Karpovsky who goes on a mini-tour of several American cities to showcase one of his movies in the wake of the seeming dissolution of a long-term relationship. Fortunately enough, very little does, and Karpovsky neatly avoids the many possible pitfalls of self-obsession his concept presents with a healthy dose of self-effacing humour. With supporting roles for Onur Tukel and Jennifer Prediger, both so enjoyable in Tukel’s Richard’s Wedding, Red Flag is a delectably witty work whose comic successes do more than enough to overcome its occasional dramatic failures. Karpovsky makes for a very amusing protagonist, chiefly thanks to his relentless self-deprecation; how close this character is to the real filmmaker is unclear, but he’s never afraid to poke fun at himself, to exploit himself and his personality for a laugh. WORTH WATCHING.


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Rubberneck

Released together as a double bill with Red Flag, Rubberneck says more of Karpovsky’s ability as an actor than as a writer. Though impressively different in tone, this psychological thriller is by far the weaker film, its low-key character drama finding little consistent success in Karpovsky’s uneven script. He does well as Paul, a research scientist who reads too much into a one-night stand with a co-worker and becomes gradually obsessed with their every interaction, but struggles to give himself much of a satisfactory arc to work with. The escalation of their dynamic—at first so believable in its build—eventually loses its way, leaving the movie’s second half to play out with little of the sense of reality its first had in abundance. It’s a disappointing development, particularly given the decent dramatic developments Karpovsky has packed up his sleeve, which go largely wasted on a character now so far removed from our sympathies. SO-SO.


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The Achievers: The Story of the Lebowski Fans

Appropriately arriving the same week as Done the Impossible, The Achievers: The Story of the Lebowski Fans conveniently addresses the primary issues to which that documentary fell prey, its added focus on a choice few subjects making infinitely more interesting its discussion of the film and its relevance to those who love it. Even without the benefit of many cast and crew interviews—an amusingly candid Jeff Bridges is present, snatched before going on stage with his band—The Achievers delves deeply into the cult mythos of The Big Lebowski, and through it fandom in general. It’s certainly not perfect, but it’s perfectly engaging, its multi-year span as it centres on the popular Lebowski Fest allowing it a comprehensive portrait of the film’s fans and the way the Dude relates to their lives. A heavy, humorous use of clips is a very welcome, very funny addition to proceedings. WORTH WATCHING.


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Walking on Water

There’s a remarkable scene early in Walking on Water, the first narrative feature from Tony Ayres, where the gathered friends and family of a terminally ill man watch him die from the morphine overdose they’ve given him to end his suffering. It’s almost unbearable to hear his last gasps, to see the tears roll down his loved ones’ faces, to experience the final seconds of his life. The drama which ensues between those left behind, however, is a great deal less arresting, and Ayres’ fine direction can only go so far to overcome the issues in a thin first script from Roger Monk. Extramarital affairs; lingering regrets; interpersonal tension: all feature but few muster even a semblance of the impact that early scene provides. The problem, perhaps, is that the film peaks so early: left with little more to show us, it can only peter out quietly, living on the staying power of its one great moment. WORTH WATCHING.

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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.