Under the Shadow; Blair Witch; The Magnificent Seven and more – review

Babak Anvari’s Tehran terror is the star attraction in a week marked by so-so sequels and Sundance sundries

Its Netflix premiere may have beaten its DVD release by a couple of weeks, but now that Under the Shadow (Signature, 15) is available in either format, you have no excuse not to catch it. Pristinely controlled and darkly suggestive, Bafta-nominated neophyte Babak Anvari’s slow creep of a horror film eschews frantic scares. Rather, it gradually drains air and heat from the room until paralysing panic sets in. Set in post-revolutionary 1980s Tehran, it tightly circles a mother and daughter tormented by an unknown, insidious domestic presence; the political allusions are at once heady, astutely unforced and wholly frightening.

I certainly felt chillier a few minutes into Anvari’s film than I did through the entirety of Blair Witch (Lionsgate, 15), an initially playful, promising revival of the lo-tech sticks-and-stones horror phenomenon that eventually dumps all its nudge-nudge updating of the original’s found-footage conceit for simple imitation. It may jitter and jump in the right places, but this is a disappointment from gifted horror stylist Adam Wingard. File under “capable but superfluous rehashes” alongside The Magnificent Seven (Sony, 12), a diverting, well-dressed but drastically plastic remake of the 1960 save-the-town western. The “original” was drawn from Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, and thus had a more inventive sense of purpose than Antoine Fuqua’s film can muster even at its rowdiest point.

Colm McCarthy’s The Girl With All the Gifts (Warner, 15) looks just as played out: another post-apocalyptic zombie nightmare in a ruined London? Get past the outward familiarity, however, and this tight, on-the-hoof thriller, adapted by MR Carey from his own novel, tweaks just enough of the rules to keep things interesting, principally through the hybrid perspective of the girl in question, a zombie victim holding on to her humanity for dear life.

Sennia Nanua in Colm McCarthy’s The Girl With All the Gifts.
Sennia Nanua in Colm McCarthy’s The Girl With All the Gifts. Photograph: PR IMAGE

As the Sundance film festival continues this week, a batch of last year’s standouts from the fest, Under the Shadow included, coincidentally hit the shelves at once. The Sundance quirk factor is high in Matt Ross’s crowd-pleaser Captain Fantastic (eOne, 15), an ambiguously celebratory ode to unconventional parenting. It’s given some gumption and soul by Viggo Mortensen’s turn as an outdoorsy Pacific north-west widower determined to raise his brood of six in the most organic, most unplugged way possible. As this approach causes widening fractures in the maturing family, however, Ross’s script goes in a far less earthy direction, with pat comedy and tidy emotional turnabouts.

Viggo Mortensena and Annalise Basso in Captain Fantastic.
Viggo Mortensena and Annalise Basso in Captain Fantastic. Photograph: Allstar

Cruelly landing in the wake of Trump’s inauguration, Richard Tanne’s lightly charming debut Southside With You (Soda, 12) may turn eyes a bit mistier now as it dramatises Barack and Michelle Obama’s first date in 1989 Chicago. Sonita (Drakes Avenue, PG), one of Sundance 2016’s big documentary winners, serves up some spiky feminist resolve in its portrait of a teenage Afghan refugee in Iran with a knack for topical hip-hop.

Todd Solondz’s singular brand of highly composed, corrosively comic misanthropy gets its most satisfying workout in over a decade in Wiener-Dog (Spirit, 15), a short-legged road movie that carries the eponymous dachshund through a succession of dysfunctional human carers, culminating in a vicious, creosote-dark vignette with Ellen Burstyn that ranks among the director’s greatest moments.

The Sundance roundup concludes with one that bypassed UK cinemas. Starring Rachel Weisz as a woman of chronically changing identity raising hackles at a well-to-do dinner party, Complete Unknown (Sony, 15) sees director Joshua Marston, the stark, sincere realist behind Maria Full of Grace, vertiginously change stylistic course. Ideally attuned to Weisz’s enigmatic star persona, it’s a sleek, trickily folded puzzle, frustrating by design.

The ‘confounding and dazzling’ Francofonia.
The ‘confounding and dazzling’ Francofonia. Photograph: Zero One Fil/Rex/Shutterstock

This week’s non-Sundance arthouse offerings are more stimulating still: 15 years after the ingenious Russian Ark, stony Russian formalist Aleksandr Sokurov once more turns museum guide with the alternately confounding and dazzling Francofonia (Curzon Artificial Eye, 12), a discursive history of the Louvre as jam-packed with ideas and creative impulses as the institution in question. US indie cinema, meanwhile, takes its most abrasive form in Josh and Benny Safdie’s Heaven Knows What (Axiom, 18), a vision of doomed, drugged love on the skids that emphatically separates heroin from chic; the focus isn’t new, but the sheer aggression of execution is bracing.

Finally, Mubi.com’s discovery of the week is freshly plucked from last year’s Locarno festival. Swiss director Frédéric Mermoud’s Moka elegantly channels Claude Chabrol for a lithe, low-key revenge tale, given blood and a pulse by Emmanuelle Devos’s ace turn as a bereaved mother seeking morally dicey closure. After some of this week’s more strenuous viewing options, it’s a breeze, albeit a cool one.


Guy Lodge

The GuardianTramp

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