Much as it might please me to take the credit myself, it’s more the fault of a particularly sparse week of new releases that the dozen films here covered represent the entirety of the addition to the Netflix canon this time around. Perhaps it’s an effort on the part of the company to clear the field for Mitt, the third in their line of original documentaries (reviewed at length here); more likely it’s mere coincidence, after all it had to happen eventually that we managed to get to everything. A shame, then, that it couldn’t be a better week: true duds below are few and far between, but alas true greats… well they’re nowhere to be seen.
Assault on Precinct 13
A prominent stepping stone in the evolution of the western genre to the modern American action picture across the course of the 1970s, John Carpenter’s sophomore feature takes cues from Howard Hawks in its story of a newcomer cop holding down a disused precinct from the assault of an almost supernatural street gang. His slightly busy plot aside, Carpenter is remarkably economic here both on the page and on the screen, capably constructing a host of memorable characters and throwing them together in a commendably well-paced clash that takes evident inspiration from Night of the Living Dead. Shared too is that film’s admirable approach to race relations: there’s an undercurrent of unimposed social commentary to the diversity of Carpenter’s heroes and villains both that few modern films can boast. All of which, of course, is secondary to the excellently-crafted action fun for which Assault on Precinct 13 has earned its lingering appreciation as an action classic. RECOMMENDED.
A True Story (Read our full review)
True? It might be. Interesting? It’s certainly not. That’s the real problem of A True Story, a self-aware screenwriting comedy penned by co-leads Jon Gries and Malcolm Goodwin, which never quite manages to reconcile its gross quasi-sexism with the sceptical view it takes of its protagonists. For make no mistake, much as the film might come to judge them a touch, that is what they are: protagonists, characters whom the movie appreciates and expects us to, too. It’s often an easy task given the sharpness of the script, which has the roommates trading barbs and variously being awkward and ultra-confident to amusing effect, yet too often do the writers fall back into an uneasy outlook on the woman who becomes the central conflict between their characters. It hardly helps that the meta-narrative conceit is framed so flimsily; A True Story’s factuality, like the film, is just never terribly interesting to consider. AVOID IT.
Beyond the Walls
The essence of any romantic movie is in making us as attached to the lovers as they are to each other, and often in exploiting that fact to have us yearn for them to be together. That’s precisely the effect of Beyond the Walls, the debut feature of Belgian filmmaker David Lambert, and a bravura showcase for the excellent leads he finds in Matila Malliarakis and Guillaume Gouix. They are Paulo and Ilir, moonlighting musicians whose whirlwind romance is captured with an alluring intensity by Lambert’s camera before swiftly being denied us as the latter is imprisoned and the yet-young relationship is subjected to a terrible test. Lambert could stand to pace his tale a tad better, but such is the enormity of Malliarakis’ work that you might well be too consumed to notice. His a performance of the ilk to elevate the film that contains it; his nuances are Beyond the Walls’, and my are they many. RECOMMENDED.
Cockneys vs Zombies (Read our full review)
All too often is exploitation a case of a promising title given a treatment beneath that the audience deserves. Not so—at least not excessively—with Cockneys vs Zombies, which does well to translate the East-End-meets-undead oddity of its premise to a passable action comedy that’s enjoyable to the last. Commercial director Matthias Hoene makes a fine feature debut shepherding his cast of seniors, though it’s more often in the company of the younger characters led by Harry Treadaway that the film finds firmest footing; they, free from certain contrived old-people-saying-naughty-stuff comedy, foreground the film’s focus on over-the-top bloodshed as the most fun to be had here, deploying a wealth of creative dispatches to keep us happy as the unsurprising plot chugs toward its conclusion. Alan Ford is an ‘ighlight as the young protagonist’s rowdy grandfather, whose ass-kicking antics make for an unlikely old-age action hero. Cockneys vs Zombies is a whole lot of very silly fun. WORTH WATCHING.
The flimsy conceit of squabbling statues is a strange wraparound for an otherwise enjoyable comedy in Garibaldi’s Lovers, Silvio Soldini’s affable state-of-the-nation romp that never lets political commentary get in the way of the nonsensical fun it wants first and foremost to be. That commentary, broached primarily by the way of the aforementioned ineffective banter between monuments to Italian figures of disparate political philosophies, is indicative of a movie that often thinks itself rather more important than it is; Soldini fares far better when indulging in the antics of his sprawling ensemble cast. They play a wonderfully weird yet resoundingly real group of characters, whose overlapping interactions offer an array of constantly-crossing dynamics that render the plot as much a puzzle to be solved as anything else. It may miss the mark in its efforts to say anything much of the country that spawned it, but Garibaldi’s Lovers has plenty in the way of gags to make it up. WORTH WATCHING.
What a strange, strange film is Judas Kiss, whose opening act features its protagonist—a filmmaker with more trips to rehab than features under his belt—unwittingly seducing his younger self. Not so much a conceit as a determinedly unexplained contrivance, the time-travel plot machination on which J.T. Tepnapa’s debut feature is hinged is, perhaps rightly, never given nearly as much attention as the characters themselves. Yet such lax clarity is troubling in a film whose essential plot has a character fuck himself before realising he needs to fuck himself over lest he fuck himself over, as it were. Tepnapa, co-writing with Carlos Pedraza, has only the best intentions in mind—as evidenced by a very sweet chunk of mid-credits text—yet their wild plot inanities are joined by flat direction and a host of hardly passable performance to make of Judas Kiss nothing but a mildly disastrous—not to mention mildly morally disconcerting—mess. AVOID IT.
Man of Tai Chi (Read our full review)
It’s little surprise to learn that scripting duties on Man of Tai Chi were handled by a man more known for his video game work: Michael G. Cooney’s story gives the sense that it might be a merry romp to play, but to merely sit back and watch it is, more often and not, to feel frustratingly uninvolved. Keanu Reeves’ directorial debut is a competently mounted and even attractively shot effort, Yohei Tanada’s production design and Elliot Davis’ lensing lending a pleasant visual panache to overcome the more egregious action of Derek Hui’s editing. Some questionable late-stage visual effects join plot problems aplenty to make the movie’s second half feel far removed from the erstwhile enjoyable martial arts action of its first. The hectic mesh of genres the film represents may grow increasingly unstable as it progresses, but there’s no denying it’s fun while it lasts; Man of Tai Chi is unexpectedly enjoyable right up until it isn’t. SO-SO.
Song for Marion
Perhaps it’s because of its proximity to “Mars”, that box office poison word you ought to talk to John Carter about, that the name Marion was axed from the title of Paul Andrew Williams’ musical comedy; everything else about the movie, at least, stinks of seeking the widest possible audience. That’s not necessarily a bad thing: Unfinished Song, as it’s labelled here despite the title card retaining the original title, might be messily transparent in its efforts to appeal to the whole family, but it’s nice at least to see a film that can do so without being wholly reduced to sentimental sap. Terence Stamp’s Eastwood-esque gruffness is primarily to thank there: as the widower-to-be grumbling his way through his ailing wife’s choir group rehearsals, he’s a compelling crotchety centre for flimsy drama that forgets, in the end, to deal with half its strands. The movie might be a good deal more annoying without him about to save it, if only slightly. SO-SO.
The Muslims Are Coming!
It’s the material that allows The Muslims Are Coming! to become more than the glorified TV special its aesthetic seems intent on reminding us it might be; for as much as this stand-up tour documentary might be desperately uncinematic, co-directors Negin Farsad and Dean Obeidallah have found an impressive, impactful balance in their presentation of this unusual outing. They lead the show, a whistle-stop tour of conservative American areas by a host of Muslim comics intent on challenging Islamophobic attitudes with a breed of culturally-aware comedy. Lending just enough time to the show itself, often very funny, they have effectively edited their travel diaries to a perfectly palatable film enriched by the often emotional commentaries they provide throughout. Indeed, The Muslims Are Coming! is at its best proving the transformative power of comedy: offhand humour might be the means, but it couldn’t be to a more serious, more necessary end. WORTH WATCHING.
There’s little such similar importance to Trash Dance, Andrew Garrison’s innocent but eventually just uninteresting chronicle of the efforts of choreographer Allison Orr to literally create art from rubbish as she stages a show based around the “beauty and grace” of garbage trucks. While the candid interviews Garrison captures with the workers who reluctantly take part in Orr’s offbeat effort may offer occasionally enlightening titbits, there’s no great sense of an overarching editorial effort to enrich this film with anything but a series of incidental observations. The result is a movie that’s inoffensively watchable at best, overstaying its welcome even at just over an hour and amounting to little more than an uneasy ennobling of people—the film suggests—we might think of as working the worst kind of job. And hey, who’s to say they don’t deserve that? What they also deserve, all the same, is a better movie to be showcased in. SO-SO.
Peruvian gay ghost stories are a dime a dozen, but spa— oh wait no, this is really unusual, isn’t it? Never for a moment is Javier Fuentes-León’s drama anything but sober and sombre in employing its narrative novelty, and nor indeed should it be: as creaky as certain aspects of Undertow’s supernatural storytelling might be, this tale of a closeted married man dealing with the death of his secret lover in a conservative coastal culture is never anything less than deeply affecting. That’s thanks, in no small part, to Cristian Mercado’s hugely humane central performance, which does no disservices to the difficulty of this situation for his character on all fronts. He may even be outmatched by Tatiana Astengo as his wife, who manages equally to embody the claustrophobic pressure of this society’s expectations and the genuine hurt of a jilted lover. Even missing an opportune ending doesn’t prevent Undertow from concluding a provocative piece of work. RECOMMENDED.