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Monday 20 November 2017

Film Reviews: Cake, Blackhat, The Duke of Burgundy and Kumiko

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Cake, Blackhat, The Duke of Burgundy and Kumiko the Treasure Hunter are all under the microscope this week

CAKE

(Drama. Jennifer Aniston, Adriana Barraza, Anna Kendrick, Sam Worthington, Mamie Gummer, William H. Macy, Chris Messina. Directed by Daniel Barnz. Cert 15A)

When the nominations for this year's Oscars were announced it was hard to escape the feeling that there was a certain amount of gloating in the air that Jennifer Aniston failed to   secure a Best Actress nod for her role in Cake. After all, a glamorous leading lady deglamorising for a serious role was surely a blatant attempt to woo Academy voters - how dare she?

All of this was rather unfair, truth be told, given that Aniston is in possession of major acting chops - comedy being one of the hardest disciplines to master, lest we forget - and showed her serious side just over a decade ago in the overlooked The Good Girl, a film which should have led on to a much more interesting career path than that which unfolded. A path which Cake clearly points toward.

Here she plays Claire Bennett, a bitter, broken woman who's suffering from chronic pain following an accident, the import of which is gradually revealed as the story develops.

Ejected from a support group due to her attitude and caustic verbal put-downs, she's clearly something of a handful, having alienated her husband Jason (Chris Messina) and just about keeping onside Silvana (a great Adriana Barraza), her Hispanic carer/housemaid.

As if the physically and emotionally scarred Claire wasn't having enough to deal with, she's haunted by visions of Nina (Anna Kendrick), the foul-mouthed ghost of a woman from her therapy group who committed suicide, leaving behind a grieving husband (Sam Worthington) and young son (Evan O'Toole).

Patrick Tobin's screenplay doesn't really stretch too far in terms of an engrossing storyline, a subplot involving Claire and Silvana helping a runaway teenager from Idaho could have been ditched completely and left the audience none the worse or wiser, but what it does do is allow Aniston and Barraza scope to explore a believable friendship which feels both true and rather touching.

For all the talk of Aniston 'going ugly' what's really on show here is her talent at portraying a woman who's suffered greatly as a result of a traumatic incident and is juggling between trying to get her life back on track and ending it completely.

It's an outstanding performance, laced with bitter comic barbs and abetted greatly by an equally fine if unshowy support slot from Barraza.

Cake may be more of an extended character study than a great film but it reminds the world just what a fabulous actress Jennifer Aniston is given the right material to work with. More of this please. Rating: ***

BLACKHAT

(Thriller. Starring Chris Hemsworth, Tang Wei, Viola Davis, Ritchie Coster, Holt Mc Callany, Wang Leehom, John Ortiz. Directed by Michael Mann. Cert 15A)

One of the problems any new Michael Mann movie faces is that it will, inevitably, be compared with the director's past work. When that CV includes Manhunter, Last of the Mohicans, Thief, Collateral, Ali, The Insider and Heat then the bar is raised higher than it would be for most directors, but given that in the last nine years his output has consisted of the awful Miami Vice and the just-about-watchable Public Enemies expectations for Blackhat are rather less than they normally would be.

Good to report then that what we have here is a stylish if exceedingly silly cyber-thriller which looks fabulous in places and features some wonderfully-shot, viscerally violent set-pieces.

The story begins with Mann's camera taking us through the workings of a computer as a hacker uploads a virus into the safety protocols of a nuclear power plant in China, causing a meltdown.

Naturally, this causes panic among security agencies in both China and the US so an FBI team, led by Viola Davis, liaises with their Asian counterparts, headed up by Wang Leehom and his sister, Tang Wei.

Naturally, you'd need a superhero computer wizard somewhere in the mix here and so we get imprisoned code-breaking genius Nick Hathaway (Chris Hemsworth, aka Thor) released to lend a hand and, who'd have thought, get jiggy with the hot Chinese girl within two scenes.

Once you suspend your disbelief that a computer hacker could show amazing prowess at hand-to-hand combat against professional criminals and allow that the chief aim of the master villain is to manipulate the share prices of tin then you should have a grand old time here, with Mann indulging in his fondness for lovely nightscapes of exotic-looking cities. Foolish but good fun. Rating ***

 

THE DUKE OF BURGUNDY

(Drama. Starring Sidse Babett Knudsen, Chiara D'Anna, Eugenia Caruso, Fatma Mohamed, Monica Swinn. Directed by Peter Strickland. cert 18)

Well, you wait years for a movie about about dominance and submission to appear and then two of the things arrive in the space of a week.

Alas, the utter tripe that is Fifty Shades of Grey will, of course, win out at the box office but Peter Strickland, who gave us Katalin Varga and the fabulous Berberian Sound Studio, has delivered the superior and far more intriguing offering.

Taking its inspiration from Spanish and Italian erotic films of the early 1970s, The Duke of Burgundy begins with a sumptuous and extremely stylish title sequence (kudos too to Cat's Eyes for the magnificent soundtrack) before we see Evelyn (Chiara D'Anna) arrive at the country house of Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen from Borgen) to begin work as a maid.

It quickly becomes clear that Evelyn is slave to Cynthia's mistress, being humiliated by the older woman, who also spends her time lecturing on lepidoptery before audiences made up exclusively of women.

Strickland lobs plenty of visual and narrative sleights-of hand into the movie and as the story develops we see that things in Cynthia and Evelyn's relationship are not exactly as we first thought. Despite the sexual and S&M practices, both suggested and on display, there's actually a more thoughtful and nuanced idea about the balance of power in relationships at work here, not least in a deeply moving scene towards the close of the film when Knudsen really shows us the depth of her acting talents. Rating ****

KUMIKO, THE TREASURE HUNTER

(Drama. Starring Rinko Kikuchi, Nobuyuk Katsube, Shirley Venard, Nathan Zellner, David Zellner, Brad Pather. Directed by David Zellner. Cert 15A)

David Zellner's offbeat feature focuses on Kumiko (Rinko Kikuchi), a troubled young Japanese woman who becomes obsessed with a video of the Coen brothers' Fargo and travels to North Dakota in an attempt to find the money buried by Steve Buscemi's character in that film, she believing that film to be a true story. Off the wall but worth a look. Rating: ***

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