This Week on Demand: 30/03/2014



Editor’s Note: Reviews this week are by Ronan Doyle and Jaime Burchardt

Apologies couldn’t come quick enough to the—literally—pairs of you left in the lurch by this long, loathsome absence of This Week on Demand from your lives. Exciting changes are underway here at the headquarters, and between the teething troubles of organising those and the sheer shock of realising we’ve hit the two year mark I’m afraid to say we rather lost the run of ourselves. No matter! Here we are with a bumper edition to offer apologies and to celebrate that second anniversary: in the course of two years of new-to-Netflix coverage we’ve now reviewed over 1,150 movies, a frankly obscene amount that honestly just scares us more than anything else. Keep the eyes peeled for the first of the 2014 releases to arrive upon us. We’ll be back very soon with another bloated batch, and some new pals with whom to start year three.


Camille Claudel 1915 (Read our full review)

The prominence of names on the poster is apt: between an actress revered for the fearless passion of her portrayals and a filmmaker known for the bleak disregard of his worlds emerges a compassionate portrait of an artist as a human. If it’s arguably the director’s most humane work to date, his ever-aloof camera doesn’t care to confess it; as in Outside Satan before it, the characters of Camille Claudel 1915 bow in regard of a force Dumont’s direction fiercely disavows, seeing we humans—for all our excuses—as the agents of our own existence. But Binoche, as the increasingly irate sculptor sent by her brother to a rural religious institution, shows that this needn’t preclude sympathy. Her primarily silent impression of Claudel evokes Jean Falconetti, an apt accompaniment to her director’s invocation of Bresson. It’s for good reason this feels like so many other classics of French cinema. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED. ~RD



Potential oozes from Contracted like pus from its protagonist’s increasingly alarming array of weird wounds. Eric England’s film starts with a sexually transmitted disease and strives for much more, its muted macabre tone a nice transplantation of genre tropes to the very real concern of date rape culture. Would that it had the strength of its convictions and the resources to realise them: all the intention on Earth can’t overcome the limitations of the movie’s cast and the dreadful dullness of the script, which struggles as much with its dialogue as with the increasingly ill-advised denouement to which it regretfully builds. Fine special effects work at least renders the body horror effectively enervating; like all else of promise in the picture, it’s sadly wasted on a story whose eventual embrace of convention is little more than disavowal of the difference independent horror desperately needs. AVOID IT. ~RD


Girl on a Bicycle

Nuance, it seems, is not to be expected from The Notebook scribe Jeremy Leven: he directed as well as wrote Girl on a Bicycle, whose eponymous heroine is struck from her vehicle by a besotted bus driver who proceeds, naturally, to move into her apartment and nurse her to health. That neither “romantic” nor “comedy” are words that come at all to mind in the course of the film isn’t as much a problem as the grotesque sexual politics at play in a movie that eventually asks us to root for the man when his fiancé is so “unreasonably” upset at his actions. Twenty years passed between Leven’s first directorial gig and this; the same again would be much, much too soon: Girl on a Bicycle is the kind of garishly over-scored tripe that makes people decry the rom-com as dead. It isn’t, but you’d be forgiven for wishing it so after this. AVOID IT. ~RD


High School Record

Goodness knows, sometimes, what motivates Netflix’s licensing wing: more people are likely to encounter High School Record entirely by accident than would ever actively seek out the film. Neither has much hope of walking away satisfied. It’s not for no reason that nobody’s heard of this near-decade-old movie, which stars a handful of non-actors in an equally innocuous and uninteresting mockumentary on high-school life. Writer/director Ben Wolfinsohn has made a few other films as low-key and low-budget as this, and it comes as no surprise he’s not progressed: the dry style of his humour lacks the absurdity to be at all funny, leaving the film to seem little more than terribly dull. It’s too bland to be bad, but equally too boring to be bothered with; the idea of anyone encountering it and lasting more than ten minutes is really rather amusing. AVOID IT. ~RD


jOBS (Read our full review)

The sad death of one of America’s greatest innovators almost felt too soon when it was announced that a film would be made the man’s life and legacy. There were many scoffs as well when it was announced that Ashton Kutcher would play Steve Jobs. While jOBS certainly doesn’t disgrace the man himself in any fashion, it also doesn’t compete well with, oh let’s say, a biographical book with ten times the passion. The main part of his life that’s given the spotlight, besides his powerful rise, is the trouble he had in college. From that point on, the film does its best to convey the lowest of his lows and vice-versa, and you can feel that it wants to do it well. While Kutcher gives an overall fine performance (almost against the odds), the film is just that impactful to make a real impression. The man does deserve better. SO-SO. ~JB



Before making a name for himself in TV directing episodes of Six Feet Under, True Blood, and Homeland, director Michael Cuesta caught the attention of the indie film world back in 2001 with this unflinching drama about the wrong kind of love. L.I.E. tells the story of Howie (a young, brilliant Paul Dano), a fifteen year-old kid that can’t help but get into trouble due to his life being unbalanced overall. He breaks into people’s houses, and one day he breaks into the house of an ex-Marine named Big John (an also brilliant Brian Cox), who knows Howie’s gay friend Gary all too well. After Howe’s father gets arrested, he stays with Big John, and their feelings can’t help but be manifested in some form. It’s not the most comfortable sort of thing for watch, but the boldness Cuesta gives off can’t help but be admired. However, the film is nothing without Dano and Cox. They’re simply outstanding. RECOMMENDED. ~JB


Mud (Read our full review)

It was for the wrong film that the McConaissance earned Oscar recognition, but that’s no great surprise. Nor, either, is anything that happens in Mud, a Southern drama so classical in its construction it’s a wonder it doesn’t feel worn out. Most viewers will be by the end: this is a tale told terrifically well, structured and served with such consummate cinematic craft that its director is cemented as one of America’s best. He is Jeff Nichols, and here the bold tales of broken men he told in Shotgun Stories and Take Shelter give way to an enthralling image of nascent masculinity. Tye Sheridan tells it all with his face: he is a terrific young talent, used tremendously here to cut to the roots of the American male psyche. Accusations of misogyny miss the nuance of Nichol’s direction, and how it frames the developing gaze. Mud is much smarter than that. Mud is a masterpiece. MUST SEE. ~RD


My Brother the Devil (Read our full review)

If Mud emerges a triumphant analysis of men by way of their relationships with women, My Brother the Devil does the same by way of each other. The bond of fraternity is front-and-centre in this feature directorial debut from Sally El Hosaini, who could hardly have introduced herself to us any better. James Floyd and Fady Elsayed command our attention equally as the pair whose British Arab teen life offers an in for El Hosaini’s subversive study of masculinity in a gangster genre context. Hers is a brilliant conceit revealed with sensitivity and poise, an ingenious coup that invigorates convention with fresh new meaning. Affecting and intelligent in equal measure, the film’s relative radicalism hinges on the emotional impact Floyd and Elsayed ensure so well; if El Hosaini is to be credited with infiltrating these tired tropes, they ought to be touted as her inside men. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED. ~RD


Out in the Dark

“Well you know, a dick’s a dick.” Would that the world were as simple as that, but as Michael Mayer’s arresting debut tragically attests, the vagrant violence and hate rife in our sort deprives us of even the simplest pleasure of sex. Israeli-Palestinian romance is nothing new to screens, nor even of the gay variety; it’s to its credit, then, that Out in the Dark can stand along and apart from movies like The Bubble in bringing effective new iterations to framing the conflict through the lovers it keeps apart. Gorgeously scored, Mayer’s movie is buoyed by the strength of its central relationship, given an adorably awkward start in the loaded interactions of leads Nicholas Jacob and Michael Aloni. If the framework’s familiar, their freshness forgives it; even hitting classic beats, Out in the Dark is compelling and compassionate enough to earn its characters our concern. RECOMMENDED. ~RD


Parting Glances

Bill Sherwood’s AIDS-related death in 1990 wasn’t necessary to confirm the lived-in veracity of his first—and, alas, only—film four years prior: Parting Glances is deservedly recalled as a paragon of gay and AIDS cinema both, perhaps chiefly for its refusal to exist as an “issue” film in relation to either. Steve Buscemi’s interim fame is to blame for his prominence on the poster, but it’s a role that earns such attention anyway; his Nick, whose dealing with the disease underscores the drama of lead couple Michael and Robert, belongs among any list of his finest creations, a character of contradictory coolness and catastrophe. Principal players John Bolger and Richard Ganoung are very fine too, the latter sharing a late scene with Buscemi that aptly embodies the enormous emotional potency of the film. Aesthetically ill-aged, it’s a movie that looks a cheap product of its time; in a way, that’s almost appropriate. RECOMMENDED. ~RD


Tall as the Baobab Tree

Each year distribution difficulties for world cinema deepen: while certain titles often attain affirming success, there’s a tragic non-theatrical trend of very fine films that slip through the cracks in a world where digital release makes impact almost impossible. If ever this column served a purpose it was fighting that: Tall as the Baobab Tree might not be the best film new to Netflix this week, but it’s maybe the one most worthy of your attention. A dearth of distinct quality so far this year shouldn’t lessen the impact of its being one of 2014’s better releases to date. Scot filmmaker Jeremy Teicher directs the Senegal-set drama of a young girl struggling to save her sister from arranged marriage; gorgeously shot amidst the desert sands, it’s a moving and often amusing tale whose serious importance of subject matter doesn’t ever dampen its integral entertainment. Debut actress Dior Ka’s arresting performance is one highlight among many. RECOMMENDED. ~RD


The Big Wedding (Read our full review)

When Academy Award®-winning actress Diane Keaton desperately tries to hide as Academy Award®-winning actor Robert De Niro loudly announces his intent to perform cunnilingus on Academy Award®-winning actress Susan Sarandon, it’s not the scene’s attempts to be funny that might have us howling with laughter. If death is a dreadful reminder of our screen heroes’ humanity, it’s at least less demeaning than lousy career choices like The Big Wedding, a movie you’ll struggle to believe isn’t a perverse parody of what Hollywood will do for cash. It’s a remake—of course!—of a French comedy that might well have worked as continental caper; in the hands of the man who wrote One Chance and Marley & Me, it’s balkish sentiment atop bawdy humour atop a really bad idea. De Niro’s haggard appearance, unshaven and almost never out of shorts and sandals, is an apt image of his recent work ethic; it says it all that he’s among the better things here. AVOID IT. ~RD


The Grandmaster (Read our full review)

Like a fine painting’s protective pane streaked with grubby fingerprints, the controversial cut of The Grandmaster called for by Harvey Weinstein bears evidence of gross mishandling, but also still allows us to see the beautiful art beneath. Of course it would be preferable to have the original version of the Ip Man origin story as crafted by Wong Kar-Wai, one of contemporary cinema’s most extraordinary aesthetes; those with the means to import it are encouraged. The rest of us, alas, must make do with this: as awkward as the overlaid explanatory text and the chopped-up story structure might be, Harvey’s Grandmaster—overseen, it ought to be emphasised, by Wong—benefits no less from the director’s distinct visual style. His compositions are lessons in what a camera can do, his choreography—if overdone in its slo-mo affectations—and Phillipe Le Sourd’s Oscar-nominated cinematography gateways to a gorgeous biopic infinitely more interesting than Wilson Yip’s pair. RECOMMENDED. ~RD


The Light in Her Eyes

The conviction of Houda al-Habash can’t but be admired as she espouses the conservative foundations of her teaching in Julia Meltzer and Laura Nix’s informative documentary. The Muslim preacher’s Qur’an school for girls imparts invaluable impressions of self-worth to its students, all the while enforcing the text’s relegation of women to a primarily domestic role. There’s a fascinating dichotomy at work here that Meltzer and Nix are keen to explore; they do so chiefly without concessions to cinematic craft, but if the picture’s aesthetic indifference wastes the screen, the issues it explores at least don’t do the same for our time. Ever the intelligent, articulate figure, the arguable irony of her teaching isn’t lost on al-Habash. The view most viewers are likely to take into the film doesn’t go unchallenged, and while few will emerge convinced, The Light in Her Eyes earns its keep as a worthy platform. WORTH WATCHING. ~RD


The Perfect Wedding

There are far better films by which to remember James Rebhorn than The Perfect Wedding, but it’s a nice attestation, at least, of his ability to elevate material by his presence alone. He’s certainly not given a great deal to do in this comedy from debut director Scott Gabriel, which takes as its starting point a pair of exes and a pretend relationship thrown together over the course of a family Christmas. The minimal experience shared by the three writers accounts, perhaps, for the flimsiness of the material, which is as weak in its laughs as in its lacklustre plotting. Paltry production values hardly help, and Rebhorn and onscreen wife Kristine Sutherland aside, the cast can hardly claim a major credit between them. This is terribly trite and trying stuff, exactly as amateur as it seems. AVOID IT. ~RD


The Pool

Moving from the documentary success of American Movie and The Yes Men to altogether different territory, Chris Smith makes absorbing drama of the story of a poor young Indian boy who gets a glimpse of a better life as he tends the eponymous pool of a wealthy family. A Jury Award at Sundance is no real surprise: The Pool has Smith hitting familiar beats, if effectively, his Hindi-language drama largely ill-distinct from American independent cinema of its ilk. That’s not to say it isn’t engaging; Smith and regular collaborator Randy Russell’s script may stay within safe parameters, but it benefits from the alluring naturalism of a cast comprised primarily of newcomers. The dusty dryness of Parvez Pathan’s cinematography offers ample aesthetic highlights, aiding Smith’s atmospheric evocation of his protagonist’s stilted life. If a stretch too standard, The Pool is serviceable drama to the last. WORTH WATCHING. ~RD


The Prey (Read our full review)

What dreary desperation there is to the haphazard plotting of The Prey, a film that moves from prison drama to chase thriller without ever once stopping to craft a character. Aggressively as he scrunches his face mid-run, a Liam Neeson-like lead Albert Dupontel is not; there’s no sense of guilty glee to his on-the-run family man narrative, perhaps primarily thanks to the dreary drama in which equally inexperienced co-writers Laurent Turner and Luc Bossi opt to coat his story. Vincent Mathias’ garishly grey cinematography serves the few admirable set pieces poorly, though given the humdrum style of Eric Valette’s direction it hardly even matters. Alice Taglioni is wasted in a wearying supporting role, joining the long line of talented collaborators given not nearly enough to do here. The Prey is terribly disengaging stuff, the kind of chase film that has you wishing they’d all just stop running. AVOID IT. ~RD



It would be worthless to judge Towheads as anything but “the film by Derek Cianfrance’s wife”, and that, precisely, is the cornerstone of its considerable genius. Shannon Plumb has made a movie as meaningfully intelligent as it is absurdly funny, a deadpan distillation of her video art work into a domestic dramedy that rails against the relegation of woman to maternal role while never allowing us to consider its maker as anything but. Hers is a humour so sublimely silly and strange many may well be put off; those who aren’t will encounter a movie that teases genuine feeling from abstract funniness, rooting the domestic discomfort of its exhausted protagonist in a real sense of clueless desperation. It is enormously funny, but Plumb’s a comedian to suggest the clown’s tears without showing them; Towheads’ sketch-based structure may deprive it a rhythm, but me oh my how its heights do tower. RECOMMENDED. ~RD


We Are What We Are

The multitude of scenes in which We Are What We Are flashes back to the distant ancestors of its central family in efforts to establish the eerie cultish practices that drive the drama aren’t only an instant end to its atmosphere, they’re also a worthy illumination of what’s wrong with the rest of the film. Jim Mickle’s is a movie that gets awfully bogged down in the details, so keen to have us entirely on-board with the tensions at play in this cannibalistic Deep South household that it never accrues any sort of rhythm at all. Strong performances from Bill Sage as the bereaved patriarch and Julia Garner and Ambyr Childers as his daughters are a start, but never does the script from Mickle and Nick Damici allow the movie the room to breathe and come into its own. Still the effort’s appreciated; an absence of jump scares is as welcome as it is surprising. SO-SO. ~RD


White Reindeer

Held aloft by a handful at the end of last year as one of 2013’s undervalued gems, White Reindeer certainly has the potential to be such in its opening moments, as the cheery young couple at its heart prepare for the holiday season before he’s rapidly murdered leaving her alone and in grief over Christmas. Anna Margaret Hollyman turns in a terrific performance as the suburban housewife slowly coming to realise what her life was and now could be; it’s a shame Zach Clark’s script can’t quite give her the material she deserves to really enliven that transition. The film’s a strange mix of immensely dark—and often effective—humour and bleak bereavement drama, two disparate sides Clark’s direction struggles gamely to reconcile. He never quite manages it, and between the outré orgy-throwing neighbours our heroine befriends and her profound sense of dislocation lies a film that never finds the right way to express itself. SO-SO. ~RD


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.