Some staff DVD picks to round out the year- an acclaimed HBO drama, Italian comedy, Japanese animation, German horror, and an in depth examination of the Cimemax oeuvre. We will be back early next year with the picks of our favourite DVDs of 2016.
The night of.
Critically acclaimed HBO drama starring John Turturro and Riz Ahmed. New York student Naz (Ahmed) embarks on a wild night of drugs and sex with a mysterious woman after picking her up in his father’s cab. The next morning he wakes to find her stabbed to death in her bed. With no recollection of the previous night’s events, Naz flees the scene but is quickly brought in by the city’s police and identified as the main suspect for the murder. Scuffling precinct- crawling defence lawyer John Stone (Turturro) finds himself in the right place at the right time to take Naz’s case, and after initially thinking of it as a way to lift his own fortunes, he comes to believe in his clients innocence. Based on the UK series Criminal Justice, it had initially been a passion project of James Gandolfini, who was to play the part of lawyer Jack Stone before his untimely death. However Turturro steps up instead and delivers a knockout performance. Scripted by novelist Richard Price, it succeeds on every level. Recommended. (Mark)
Our kind of traitor.
A civilian couple (Ewan McGregor & Naomie Harris) on vacation in Marrakesh to work on their marriage befriend a flamboyant and charismatic Russian named Dima (Stellan Skarsgard), who, unbeknownst to them, is a financial wizard/money launderer for the Russian mafia. When Dima confides to his new friends that he plans to escape from the mob, they agree to be the go-between for him with MI6. He promises the accounts and names of prominent British Politicians receiving bribes to open a new London based bank that will be a front for Russian Mob money, in exchange for asylum for himself and his family. But with MI6 officer Damien Lewis running an operation unsanctioned & opposed by his political bosses, how can they get Dima and his family out? While it perhaps lacks the gravitas of The Constant Gardener, or A Most Wanted Man, this is a solid adaptation of the John Le Carré novel from 2010. McGregor & Harris are good as the ordinary couple, Skarsgard chews scenery as the larger than life Dima, and Damien Lewis is excellent as the clinical upper-crust MI6 agent. Definitely worth a watch. Perhaps the main issue it has, is that it had the misfortune to be made/released around the same time as the excellent The Night Manager, which showed just how much Le Carre’s tales benefit from a longer running time and a more detailed approach. (Mark)
My Mother = Mia madre.
Margherita is a renowned film director but struggling to complete her latest film. She’s broken up with her partner and doesn’t have the slightest idea what her daughter has been up to. Her life is in tatters, and furthermore and most importantly, her beloved mother is dying. Italy’s leading film maker Nanni Moretti (The Son’s Room, We have a Pope)’s new film is about facing mortality. The theme is naturally sombre but Moretti, who is one of the unique auteurs of today, shows his flair of comedy and ingenious skill to make it a tender, charming family drama. It’s a perfectly constructed film in which every detail is in the right order, and has a beautiful balance of melodrama and comedy. Before we know it, we share the story rather than watching it. After all, we are all someone’s children. (Shinji)
Eerie German ‘horror’ film sees 9 year old twins Lukas & Elias living in an idyllic isolated summer cottage waiting for their Mother to return from having plastic surgery. When she returns her face is covered in bandages, and slowly little things emerge about her seem that seem off. Gradually their suspicions increase… Is that really their mother under the bandages? Some have criticised that the twist is telegraphed far too early & easy to guess. Maybe so, but the film isn’t really about the twist, it’s about the insular nature of the world of ‘childhood’ , the slow build of tension & atmosphere. More for those who are into the new ‘wave’ of non-slasher horror films as represented by films like It Follows, Babadook & Under The Skin. (Mark)
Down-on-their-luck punk rockers ‘The Ain’t Rights’ agree to a last-minute gig in a backwoods Oregon roadhouse. The gig soon takes a sinister turn as the band members stumble upon a grisly murder scene and find themselves trapped in the Roadhouse, targeted by a ruthless club owner and his associates, determined to eliminate all witnesses. Effective indie thriller sees the talented Anton Yelchin in one of his final roles, and a nasty turn from Patrick Stewart as the leader of a bunch of Neo-Nazi’s. Makes the most of its claustrophobic setting. Definitely worth a watch. (Mark)
The tale of the Princess Kaguya.
Watching at home last week, I found ‘The Tale of the Princess Kaguya’ to be an absolute revelation. The film retells one of the earliest recorded Japanese folk-tales, a story of love and obligation which plays out between humans and the denizens of other realms. It blends the fantastic with the everyday, and handles both with deftness and great emotional charge. Coming from the famous Ghibli studios, its elegant design and thoughtful storytelling are a cut above even its famous stable-mates; the animation style is particularly striking, drawing on traditional modes of brush painting and contemporary digital techniques to produce some startlingly expressionistic and charged moments. The sound design is likewise exceptional, building an elegiac mood of dreamlike fantasy around the film’s stunning images. I have rarely been more moved by any film than by ‘The Tale of the Princess Kaguya’, which manages to draw memorable moments of great lightness, sublimity and humour, and weighty human realities, into one perfectly formed whole. Due to the film’s length, I wouldn’t recommend it for the smallest people, but it’s excellent for the thoughtful older child who loves a strong story, as well as adults of all ages. (Alex)
Currently riding high with the success of the adaptation of Max Allan Collins’ gritty Quarry crime novels which is getting favourable comparisons to the first season of True Detective, the following reviews are a look at the guilty pleasure of some of Cinemax’s (or ‘Skinemax’ as it is better known) attempts at legitimate TV programming…
Melissa George helms this Spy drama, created by X-Files alumni Frank Spotnitz, a joint production between the BBC & Cinemax. George plays Sam Hunter an operative for a private Intelligence/Security firm called ‘Byzantium’, who is ambushed after a rescue operation in Tangiers. Barely managing to survive she recuperates for a year in secret before returning to Byzantium, where her new assignment is to infiltrate the family of a wealthy British criminal who has leveraged his entire fortune into winning the bid on a Dam construction project in Upper Khyber. Paralleling this, Sam attempts to uncover which of her Byzantium colleagues was behind her assassination attempt, and why it seems to tie into a traumatic incident from her childhood. At only 8 episodes this slick spy show throws in a lot of plot, sometimes becoming overly convoluted, and most of the secondary characters don’t make much impact. However it’s entertaining enough if you’re looking for a post-Spooks spy fix with plenty of action. Dropped by the BBC after this series.
Strike back. Cinemax season one.
Two things are clear from then first moments of Cinemax’s ‘Strike Back’ Season 1. The first is that it has incredibly high production values, and the second is that it has almost zero intellectual content. The Cinemax series is technically Season 2 of this show, as it was originally a BBC Sky 2010 UK mini-series entitled Chris Ryan’s Strike Back (Reviewed here) which starred Richard Armitage in the lead role as John Porter, a member of Section 20 a secretive branch of the British Defence Intelligence service. Supposedly envisioned as a continuing role, that idea came to an end when Armitage left to work on the Hobbit movies. However American channel Cinemax decided to continue the series, rebooting it as a joint US/UK production with two new leads, Philip Winchester (an American playing a Brit) & Sullivan Stapleton (an Australian playing an American – who would later turn up as the lead in Blindspot). When Porter is kidnapped & killed by mysterious Pakistani terrorist Latif, who is masterminding a upcoming terror plot, Michael Stonebridge (Winchester) is tasked to find dishonourably discharged Delta Force operative Damian Scott (Stapleton), who is the only other person who can positively identify Latif. Scott is soon recruited into Section 20, and the five stories (10 episodes) are essentially stand alone, but all connected by the unifying search to find Latif. Sort of 24 minus the moral questions & hand-wringing, and with more gun fights & gratuitous sex scenes. Strike back would go on for 3 more Cinemax seasons: Cinemax Season Two, Cinemax Season Three & Cinemax Season Four before wrapping up.
Banshee. The complete first season.
Of the Cinemax series’ before Quarry ‘Banshee’ was the most critically & commercially successful. Created by writer Jonathan Tropper & produced by Alan Ball (creator/EP of True Blood) ‘Banshee’ is, if anything, more lurid and violent than ‘Strike Back’. It begins with a thief (Kiwi Antony Starr) just released from jail after serving fifteen years of hard time. He persuades his foul mouthed drag queen/computer expert friend (a hilarious Hoon Lee) to track down his ex-flame and partner-in-crime Anna (Ivana Milicevic), and the diamonds she got away with. Arriving in a crooked Pennsylvania town called Banshee he soon finds her living under an assumed name and married with 2 children, one of which could be his. Seeking solace in a bar on the outskirts of town he and bartender and ex-con Sugar (Frankie Faison) witness the brutal death of Banshee’s incoming sheriff Lucas Hood, whom no one in town knows. He then decides, while burying the body, that assuming Hood’s identify is this best way to disappear off the grid and stay near his ex-girlfriend [No spoilers, as this all takes place within the first 30 minutes]. This pretty much sets the tone for the rest of the show: in that it’s somewhat preposterous, but also addictive & incredibly intense. Each episodes is stuffed full of action, with brutally realistic fight scenes, gratuitous sex and intense character interactions. The arrival of ‘Hood’ causes decidedly mixed feelings in Milicevic’s Anna (now married to the local D.A) in that she still harbours feelings for him but is scared his presence will cause the mysterious Mr. Rabbit, the Ukrainian mob boss whose diamonds they stole, to find her. In turn Hood finds that the corrupt town, controlled by Amish overlord Kai Proctor (Ulrich Thomsen) is the perfect vehicle to dilute his barely contained anger, and proceeds to dispense some distinctly non-by-the-book Policing. Starr is excellent as Hood, his wounded countenance the perfect balance to the American Gothic hardboiled noir of the story. The hidden secrets, relationships, shifting alliances between the characters, Hoods Deputies, the local Indian Tribe, the Amish community & criminal factions all provide enough backdrop & character arcs for Banshee Season Two, Three & Four.
For more Cinemax see also The Knick Season 1 & Season 2, and the upcoming release of Robert Kirkman’s Outcast. (Mark)