Out on Friday 16 September
Adam Wingard goes back to the woods. Taika Waititi embarks on a bush-bonding romp. Bridget's back for bun and games.
Yes, here's this week's new releases. Click on for our reviews of Blair Witch, Hunt for the Wilderpeople, Bridget Jones's Baby, The Infiltrator, Set the Thames on Fire, The Clan, Two Women, Sour Grapes, Anarchy: The McLaren Westwood Gang, The Beatles: Eight Days a Week – The Touring Years. El Sur, The Brother, and The Neighbour.
For the best movie reviews, subscribe to Total Film.
Deep in the Black Hills Forest surrounding Burkittsville (formerly Blair), Maryland, is a blackened tree that’s been broken in two. It was hit by lightning, legend has it, which “burnt it from the roots up”. While we can’t confirm the meteorological accuracy, metaphorically this is exactly what Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez’s The Blair Witch Project (1999) did to the horror genre. Operating a scorched-earth policy – no plot, no budget, no monster, just genuine fear etched on real faces – it all-but-invented the modern found-footage genre, made $250m thanks to a genius grassroots marketing campaign, and changed film history.
Such success left potential follow-ups stuck in a corner, like Mike (Michael C. Williams) from the original’s lost-in-the-woods trio of filmmakers. Rushed, ruinously meta sequel Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 (2000) was made by genuine documentarian Joe Berlinger (yay) but butchered by the studio (boo). And it wasn’t until 15 years later that director Adam Wingard and writer Simon Barrett, both experts at respectful revisionism (see You’re Next and The Guest), secretly took up the mantle, on the pretence they were working on a project called The Woods. This subterfuge was revealed a couple of months before Blair Witch’s release, begging the question, how do you creep up on people who know you’re coming?
Religiously copying the intriguing/annoying/terrifying beats of the first film, Blair Witch contains one genuine surprise: it’s very good. A familiar font tells us we’re watching tapes found in May 2014, near Burkittsville, before we meet a new group of filmmakers, headed by director Lisa (Callie Hernandez) and subject James (James Allen McCune), whose sister Heather (Heather Donahue) lost her shit, and the rest, in the Black Hills Forest in the 1994-set original. Along for the ride is ’90s cliché Peter (Brandon Scott), his girlfriend Ashley (Corbin Reid), plus local weirdos Lane (Wes Robinson) and Talia (Valorie Curry).
Although horror staples haven’t really changed – hello ignored warnings and splitting up – the world around them has. Thanks to technological improvements – acknowledged here in internet videos; some pretty but pointless drone footage; and the group’s intercut head-cam footage – it’s shrunk. “Someone’s died everywhere at some point,” offers a totally-over-it Peter. And he’s right.
By now, everyone knows the legend of 17th-Century witch Elly Kedward and 1940s child killer Rustin Parr, and all the characters immediately deconstruct everything they see. As a glitchy DV Lionsgate logo reminds us: we simply can’t trust images. While the original (unseen) Blair Witch fooled (some) viewers into believing she was real, the 2016 version even has her own stunt double. Indeed, bar an overwhelming sense of one-upmanship – pus in boots rather than snot in camera, massive stick figures as well as tiny ones, a creepy witch house with (structurally unwise) tunnels under the basement – we might as well be watching a remake. So why bother?
From the chilly grief of A Horrible Way to Die (2010) to the visual dazzle of V/H/S (2012), Wingard and Barrett are one of the most reliable pairings in modern horror. Amid the usual found-footage longueurs and sudden jolts, Wingard finds time for snatches of genuine tenderness, such as when Lisa and James cling together, terrified, their breath fogging the lens. Barrett, meanwhile, creates compelling explanations for those trademark stick figures, and Rustin Parr’s insistence that his victims stand in the corner. There are also hints that the film’s fragmented narratives are more multi-layered than they first appear.
Sophistication is often the enemy of terror, but you’ll find a pretty good facsimile here. There’s something about the endless blurring trees that forces you to search for faces that aren’t there, and when things eventually kick off (call it the witch hitting the fans), a few of the scares almost match [REC] and Lake Mungo for being the genre’s most alarming.
Just because you can’t beat perfection, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t revisit it. Whether swooping from the trees or haunting one of the most eerily set-designed cabins in the woods we’ve seen, Blair Witch is still properly scary. It can’t top the original, but doesn’t ruin it either. It’s a contradiction: both an excellent sequel, and a reminder that, however well you conduct it, lightning never strikes twice.
THE VERDICT: Wingard and Barrett’s surprise – and surprisingly strong – sequel earns its scares. An effective follow-up to a film that can’t be matched.
Director: Adam Wingard; Starring: James Allen McCune, Callie Hernandez, Brandon Scott, Corbin Reid, Wes Robinson; Theatrical release: September 15, 2016
Hunt for the Wilderpeople
In good news for Thor-watchers, Ragnarok helmer Taika Waititi has strong form in making familiar-looking material his own. With 2014’s What We Do in the Shadows, the Kiwi energised vampire, found footage and bro-com staples with rich-blooded reserves of madcap comedy and outsider empathy. For his follow-up, he’s infused a standard odd-couple coming-of-ager – grumpy old bugger and awkward teenager bond on a wild adventure – with just the kinds of wonky humour, natural charm and generous spirit required to disarm all-comers.
Waititi gets just the right note of unforced poignancy from relative newcomer Julian Dennison as hip-hop obsessive Ricky, a ‘troubled’ teen deposited by over-zealous child-welfare workers with farming foster parents Bella (Rima Te Wiata) and Hec (Sam Neill). Ricky likes Bella, who knows how to handle a hog and brims with skew-whiff kindness. He’s less sure about Hec – until tragedy forces Ricky closer to the old grouch.
One accident and several misunderstandings later, the Tupac-loving teenage haiku-writer and illiterate mountain man are forced on the lam together, with a prickly air between them, the law behind them and a lot of mountain bush all around.
As for what’s ahead, you don’t need a map of New Zealand’s North Island to know where this testy twosome are headed. (Memories of Pixar’s Up and Neill’s Jurassic Park character will give you some clue). But over-familiarity hardly matters when the sparks of chemistry needed to heat up old genre coals are so winningly struck by Dennison and Neill. In his most likeable lead since he was a good dog in 2008’s Dean Spanley, Neill locates the warmth behind Hec’s exasperated glances with lovely ease.
A slew of lively cameos, meanwhile, and off-piste action/comedy gambits don’t just keep us alert: they also illuminate the main narrative in more engaging ways than a literal, message-bashing approach might. Hairy encounters with wild boars and tension-stoking chases (fronted by a gamely OTT Rachel House as child-services nutjob Paula) should silence any MCU mavens concerned about Waititi’s ability to combine action with focused character investment.
As for cameos, Waititi’s hysterical skit as a vicar sums up his comic pitch: ribbing, but never cruel. That kindly spirit is shared by Tioreore Ngatai-Melbourne’s turn as a sausage-bearing friend to Ricky, while Waititi’s more crackers wit gets a vigorous showing in Rhys Darby’s Psycho Sam, a bonkers conspiracy theorist with more thematically on-point things going on under his tin hat than we might suspect.
Although Waititi’s plot zigzags erratically, his sympathies sit surely with society’s outsiders, not the mainstreamers dismissed by Sam as “form fillers”. Whether or not Waititi can bring that spirit to Asgard, it comes across lovingly here.
THE VERDICT: Warm, witty and occasionally wild, Waititi’s bush-bonding romp is a kind, generous-spirited winner.
Director: Brad Furman; Starring: Julian Dennison, Sam Neill, Rima Te Wiata, Rhys Darby, Rachel House; Theatrical release: September 16, 2016
Bridget Jones's Baby
The world has changed since the last time we saw Bridget in 2004. Now we have Tinder, Pokemon GO, emojis, the smoking ban, iPhones, the Sirt diet, JOMO, hashtag culture and a snobbish disdain for Chardonnay. How could the gloriously imperfect Miss Jones and her 20th century obsessions elbow their way clumsily back into our 24-hour, cynical world?
Easily, as it turns out. Based on Fielding’s Independent columns rather than her third novel, BJB re-joins Bridge (Renee Zellweger) after her romance with Mark (Colin Firth) has fizzled and dalliance with professional heel Daniel (Hugh Grant, out of the picture) is dead in the water. Now at her goal weight and a senior TV producer, Bridget nevertheless continues to fall over, say the wrong thing and take disheartening phone calls from her mother (now inexpertly Facetiming).
With all the favourites back for more – the friends, that flat, those PJs – plus sly updates (sweary kids, buzz-kill hipsters, awkward work moments), Bridget decides that she needs more random sex in her life. And consequently ends up pregnant, not knowing whether the key night was a festival frolic with American charmer Jack (Patrick Dempsey) or a pissed-up nostalgia-shag with Mark. And that, deliciously, leads to Emma Thompson’s scene-stealing medic and classic Jones shenanigans...
To give the writer-actor even more credit, one of the most successful aspects of BJB is her doctoring of the passed-around script. Thompson was brought in to polish after various iterations; the resulting romp is brisk, witty, warm, emotional and critically, relevant.
Though there’s clever modernisation with current cameos and age-related anxieties, director Sharon Maguire (who helmed the 2001 original) and Thompson never lose affectionate sight of the core character or the larger female experience. So while we still get the physical comedy of two sparring men (manifested in a brilliantly bungled revolving-door moment), we also get bullseye jokes about childbirth, sex, parenting and work that will have either gender snorting.
Of course, much of the charm of celluloid Bridget originally was down to Zellweger herself and it’s joyous to see that that twinkle in her eyes, funny little shrug and sing-song RP cadence is still very much intact. As is the push-pull of the gents: again managing to replicate the success of the Darcy/Cleaver conundrum by making both suitors equally persuasive. And just in case you’re not feeling warm and fuzzy enough, Maguire chucks in a well-judged flashback montage to make fans blub while also bringing novices into the fold.
The only blue soup in this delightful confection is a too-neat, traditional ending that doesn’t feel brave or modern enough for Miss Jones and her flouting of her mother’s expectations. But quibbles about patriarchal conservatism aside, Maguire and her charming cast have essentially managed a Creed – cleverly revisiting a beloved character without completing reinventing or re-hashing.
THE VERDICT: A warm, witty and welcome return – intelligently evolved and an absolute hoot. As Bridget would say: ‘v.good’.
Director: Sharon Maguire; Starring: Renée Zellweger, Colin Firth, Patrick Dempsey, Jim Broadbent, Gemma Jones, Emma Thompson; Theatrical release: September 16, 2016
Anyone who has caught Netflix’s Narcos knows Pablo Escobar was one mean hombre. But that didn’t stop federal agent Bob Mazur going undercover to undermine the Colombian drug lord’s operations – not by seeking to seize his product, but by busting the bankers who laundered Escobar’s ill-gotten gains through ‘legitimate’ business channels.
In Brad Furman’s dramatisation, this assignment has Bob (Bryan Cranston) work with a hotheaded partner (John Leguizamo), a faux fiancée (Diane Kruger) and ’80s gadgetry straight out of The Americans to ingratiate himself with his quarry’s number two (Benjamin Bratt). But it also has him increasingly drawn to his alter-ego’s lifestyle, inviting comparisons not just to Donnie Brasco but also to Breaking Bad.
There’ll be more comparisons when Tom Cruise’s upcoming American Made arrives; Cruise plays pilot turned informant Barry Seal, here played by Michael Paré in a debauched cameo. But taken on its own merits, The Infiltrator succeeds as a taut thriller whose bloody bouts of Medellín mayhem never diminish its all too human portrait of a flawed man forever in danger of being in over his head
THE VERDICT: Cranston shines in a fact-based yarn that treads well-worn ground with enough panache to excuse the déjà vu.
Director: Brad Furman; Starring: Bryan Cranston, John Leguizamo, Diane Kruger; Theatrical release: September 16, 2016
Set the Thames on Fire
Conjuring a dystopian fantasy on an impressively thin shoestring, first-timer Ben Charles Edwards presents a drowned future London full of grotesques for his “Agony in Three Acts” – the pretentious attempts of a hobo pianist (Michael Winder) to take down the system. The whimsy almost suffocates, but it refreshes to see a new name armed with so many ideas.
Director: Ben Charles Edwards; Starring: Lily Loveless, Sadie Frost, Noel Fielding, Sally Phillips; Theatrical release: September 16, 2016
Set in the ’80s aftermath of Argentinean dictator Jorge Rafael Videlas’ regime, Pablo Trapero’s jaw-dropping true-lifer centres on the Puccios (frighteningly led by The Secret in Their Eyes’ Guillermo Francella), a suburban family who kidnap friends and neighbours for ransom. It’s an increasingly bizarre story, but Trapero keeps you engrossed with a well-crafted script and terrific performances.
Director: Pablo Trapero; Starring: Guillermo Francella, Peter Lanzani, Lili Popovich; Theatrical release: September 16, 2016
Handsomely shot but rather inert adap of mid-19th-century play A Month in the Country, tracking Natalya (Anna Astrakhantseva) and her adopted teenage daughter Vera (Anna Levanova) as they both fall for tutor Alexei (Nikita Volkov). Other lovelorn characters orbit the main action, including mutton-chopped Mikhail (Ralph Fiennes). Fiennes spent eight hours a day perfecting his lines, only to be dubbed.
Director: Vera Glagoleva; Starring: Ralph Fiennes, Anna Astrahantseva, Sylvie Testud; Theatrical release: September 16, 2016
Jerry Rothwell and Reuben Atlas’ cogent documentary centres on the mysterious Rudy Kurniawan, a collector of fine wines jailed for 10 years for faking (and selling) rare vintages. While Kurniawan refused to be interviewed, others including novelist Jay McInerney line up to assess this so-called Gen-X Gatsby, who fooled some of the world’s top sommeliers. The result is a sparkling, cheeky delight.
Directors: Jerry Rothwell, Reuben Atlas; Theatrical release: September 16, 2016
Anarchy: The McLaren Westwood Gang
This docu-study of sloganeer, fashionista and punk innovator/opportunist Malcolm McLaren is well-researched, but over-egged at 141 mins. The Sex Pistols stretch steals it – but the build-up drags and the aftermath deflates. Interviewees (Boy George, Adam Ant) take up some slack, but this needed zippier cutting to match punk’s impact.
Director: Phil Strongman; Starring: Malcolm McLaren, Boy George, Sex Pistols; Theatrical release: September 16, 2016
The Beatles: Eight Days a Week – The Touring Years
“Hello? Can you hear me?” A miserable John Lennon in Shea Stadium, 1965 – and one reason why The Beatles stopped touring a year later. Yet Ron Howard’s doc is as much about the screaming fans too: a generation finding its feet amid a turbulent decade. Given the subject matter, this still feels fresh thanks to rare/unseen footage. Fab...
Director: Ron Howard; Starring: Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, John Lennon, George Harrison; Theatrical release: September 15, 2016
This 1983 re-release from director Victor Erice (Spirit of the Beehive) is a mesmerising meditation on childhood. It’s narrated by 15-year-old Estrella (Icíar Bollain), who reflects on her upbringing in 1950s northern Spain, particularly her relationship to her seemingly mysterious father Agustin (Omero Antonutti). A subtle look at how little we know about those closest to us, this is artfully made, tender and touching
Director: Victor Erice; Starring: Omero Antonutti, Sonsoles Aranguren, Iciar Bollain; Theatrical release: September 16, 2016
Canadian director Ryan Bonder decides a smattering of real-world mental-health issues is what’s needed to revive the British gangster film, giving one of his mobsters Alzheimer’s and another autism. It’s about as tasteless as it sounds, with Anthony Head and Tygh Runyan as father-and-son gun-runners who can’t quite remember their shady past. Bad bordering on offensive.
Director: Ryan Bonder; Starring: Anthony Head, Tygh Runyan; Theatrical release: September 16, 2016
White-knuckle tension benefits from character investment in this raw ’n’ rural thriller by horror vets (and Saw IV writers) Marcus Dunstan and Patrick Melton. John (Josh Stewart) and Rosie (Alex Essoe) are a criminal couple entangled in the drug business, but bad neighbour Troy (Bill Engvall) is running a nastier racket… A meaty stew of likeable leads, hard-kicking suspense and air-punching action.
Director: Marcus Dunstan; Starring: Josh Stewart, Luke Edwards, Bill Engvall, Jaqueline Fleming; Theatrical release: September 16, 2016