Inter-film references can be dangerous things in criticism: you might have seen a lot of films that feed into Embrace of the Serpent (Peccadillo, 12) – Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo, even Miguel Gomes’s Tabu – without ever having seen anything quite like it. Colombian director Ciro Guerra’s Oscar-nominated trip into the Amazon is a singular vision and I use “vision” (and “trip”, for that matter) in the slightly unearthly sense. As two white explorers, 30 years apart, are drawn into the heart of the jungle in pursuit of healing and enlightenment, the ghosts of the region’s colonial past are raised in vivid, disquieting fashion. Shot in lustrous, deep-toned black and white, Guerra’s film functions as a muscular adventure tale quite aside from its complex political undertow: outwardly imposing, it proves utterly immersive.
Somewhere along the line, and we may never know exactly how this came to pass, Zac Efron came to be one of the best comic actors in current American film, with a self-effacing disregard for his own matinee-idol stainlessness that is both endearing and cruelly funny. He’s on oddly bittersweet form in the otherwise raucous sequel Bad Neighbours 2 (Universal, 15), playing a former fraternity bro who knows his glory days are already behind him and is beginning to realise they weren’t all that glorious to start with. The film, for its part, slyly complicates the crude generational battle of its predecessor, satirising millennial-era feminism and identity politics by introducing Chloë Grace Moretz’s sorority outcast to proceedings.
Two new John le Carré adaptations hit our screens this year: while Susanne Bier’s sleek, riveting The Night Manager became whatever the equivalent of appointment TV is in this unscheduled era, over in cinemas, Susanna White’s Our Kind of Traitor (Studiocanal, 15) made scarcely a ripple. Some would use this as ammo in the recently fashionable telly-over-film debate, but White’s shrug of a spy thriller hardly gives cinema a chance; adapted from Le Carré’s most classically suspense-driven novel of recent years, it’s colour-by-numbers film-making in which every number calls for a moody shade of beige.
As The Night Manager demonstrated, that’s the kind of territory for which Tom Hiddleston was essentially born. Playing rootsy Alabama-born country music legend Hank Williams? Not so much, though let it be said that Hiddleston plays compellingly against his own natural presence in every scene of the rather dusty biopic I Saw the Light (Sony, 15). It’s a twitchy, twangy, hard-working performance, even if it’s not quite a natural one, and gives some oddball energy to the otherwise rote backstage-drama mechanics the film has applied to Williams’s deeply sad story.
One of those reliably careworn character actors whose face has been begging for just the right showcase, Vincent Lindon earns his Cannes plaudits fair and square in The Measure of a Man (New Wave, PG), a determinedly low-key but cumulatively shattering portrait of an unemployed factory worker cruelly thrust into the job market at 51. It’s plainly styled social realism, rightly stripped back to foreground on Lindon’s quietly wrenching work.
If you like your French drama a little sunnier and more scenic, Catherine Corsini’s Summertime (Curzon Artificial Eye, 15) is a sweetly played romance between a naive farm girl and a liberal feminist activist, even if I liked their story more than I believed it; it would pair up nicely with Michal Vinik’s warm, funky, coming-out tale Blush (TLA, 18), in which Israeli-Palestinian tensions spike the more universal adolescent drama.
We stick with an LGBT theme for this week’s streaming pick: South Korean transgender noir Man on High Heels is a spiky curio from last year’s festival circuit that I wasn’t expecting to see show up even on Netflix’s catholic playlist. But there it is and while this brash, wildly veering story of a hard-bitten cop yearning for a sex-change operation occasionally loses its own tail in its mash-up of issue drama, comedy and grisly shoot-’em-up, I’m glad it’s on the loose.