Film reviews: No Sudden Move | The Velvet Underground | John and the Hole

A hardboiled tale of criminals double-crossing each other in 1950s Detroit, No Sudden Move is an entertainingly slick genre exercise, writes Alistair Harkness

No Sudden Move PIC: Claudette Barius

No Sudden Move (15) ****

The Velvet Underground (15) ****

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John and the Hole (15) ****

Steven Soderbergh’s latest film No Sudden Move sees the mercurial director put his own spin on hardboiled noir with a playfully violent tale about criminals double-crossing each other amid a larger story of real-life corporate malfeasance. The setting is Detroit, circa 1954, a time when fluctuations in the auto industry have intensified racial divisions, something Soderbergh sketches out by introducing us to the film’s main protagonist, Curt Goynes (Don Cheadle), as he strides purposely through his old neighbourhood streets while black-and-white photographs of more hopeful times intermittently flash up on screen like Proustian memories.

We soon learn that Curt is an ex-con whose need for a payday brings him into the sphere of the mysterious Jones (Brendan Fraser), a facilitator willing to pay him $5,000 to “babysit” the family of a General Motors pen-pusher (David Harbour) while he retrieves a document from his boss’s safe. It’s a sign of across-the-board racial inequality that even in the criminal fraternity Curt’s fee is notably less than that offered to Ronald (Benicio del Toro), whose services Jones has also retained. Yet when they’re forced to team up with yet another low-level criminal (Kieran Culkin’s live-wire Charley), it’s Curt who suspects a set-up, one that turns real bloody real quick.

As the stakes are raised and more people take an interest – among them John Hamm’s FBI agent and various rival gangsters and femmes fatales – the labyrinthine plot that unfurls can be a little tricky to keep track of (and may not always hold up to close scrutiny). But Soderbergh keeps things moving at such a rapid clip that any “huh?” moments feel like purposeful homages to classic noirs like The Big Sleep and other scrappier B-movies from the heyday of the Warner Bros crime movie back-catalogue. Bolstered by meaty supporting roles from the likes of Ray Liotta, Bill Duke, Julia Fox and Amy Seimetz (not to mention one uncredited cameo from a regular Soderbergh A-lister), it all makes for an entertainingly slick genre exercise.

Music documentaries rarely reflect their subjects in the way they’re made, but Todd Haynes (Velvet Goldmine, I’m Not There) takes an appropriately radical approach to The Velvet Underground with this eponymously titled film about the 1960s avant-garde rock band that brought together the disparate talents of Lou Reed, John Cale, Nico, drummer Mo Tucker, guitarist Sterling Morrison and pop art guru Andy Warhol.

The Velvet Underground

Making intriguing use of Warhol’s extensive archive of experimental films, he creates a kind of multimedia pop art collage, using split screens to contrast contemporary talking head interviews, audio interviews and stock footage with Warhol’s own filmic portraits of the band he came on board to both manage and art direct (famously designing the phallic "Banana” cover for their debut album).

As the Velvet Underground’s creative driving forces, Reed and Cale naturally dominate the film, with Haynes finding wonderfully expressionistic ways to convey the intersection between the queer underground that Reed was immersed in and the avant-garde classical scene out of which Cale’s droning soundscapes emerged. But with the addition of Morrison and Tucker, the band's ability to improvise live and create a sound that merged “R&B with Wagner” (as Cale puts it) became apparent and the film does a great job of conveying how revolutionary the S&M-themed Venus in Furs must have sounded to the few that took notice.

Warhol’s ascension as their manager and the recruitment of Nico (one of the stars of La Dolce Vita) brought good and bad creative tensions of their own. But Haynes doesn’t spoon-feed us a narrative, providing instead a kaleidoscopic portrait of a chaotic era that the Velvet Underground’s look, sound and aura helped reflect, shape and define.

A coming-of-age film done as an abstract horror movie, visual artist Pascual Sisto’s debut feature John and the Hole sets out its disturbing stall early with a drone shot of trees swaying in the wind suddenly being interrupted by said drone falling out of the sky. The drone’s operator is the titular John (Charlie Shotwell), a gangly, introverted 13-year-old whose decision to crash his new toy violently to the ground functions as an ominous sign of the nightmare he’s about to plunge his unsuspecting family into.

John and the Hole

Drugging his parents (Jennifer Ehle and Michael C Hall) and his older sister Laurie (Taissa Farmiga), he imprisons them in an abandoned concrete bunker in the woods near their lavish home, and proceeds to take more control over his own life. Written by Nicolás Giacobone (the Oscar-winning co-writer of Birdman), what follows is an intriguingly structured exploration of the psychological despair of adolescence, with John’s confusion at the encroaching realities of the adult world manifesting itself as some kind of disturbing existential experiment he can’t begin to comprehend.

That John surveys what he’s done with a kind of entomological coldness is reinforced by the different ways Sisto frames the film, and though he also veers into arthouse cliché by equating emotional distance with architectural affluence (the bourgeois trappings of John’s family home rival those in Funny Games and Parasite), the performances help transcend such stereotypes. As does the filmmaker’s decision to introduce a parallel narrative, one that seems to come out of nowhere but subtly reframes what we’re watching as a very dark fairytale.

No Sudden Move is streaming on Sky Cinema and NowTV from 8 October and available on digital download from 10 October; The Velvet Underground screens at the BFI London Film Festival on 8 & 9 October and is on select release in cinemas and streaming on AppleTV+ from 15 October; John and the Hole is on select release and digital download from 8 October.

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