Now 74, it’s taken Martin Scorsese some 30 years to bring Shūsaku Endō’s novel about a 17th Century Jesuit missionary in feudal Japan and the struggle he wrestles with as to whether to apostatise (renounce God and his faith) in order to save those villagers who have converted from torture or death. As you might imagine, it’s as much intense and deeply profound film as it is a book, itself based in actual events and previously adapted for both stage and screen, addressing as it does such questions as free will, faith, martyrdom, doubt and the nature of belief.
Learning from a long-delayed letter that their mentor, Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson), apparently renounced God to save his life when his fellow missionaries were being killed and has gone Japanese, fervent young Portuguese priests, Sebastião Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and the slightly more intense Francisco Garrpe (Adam Driver) persuade their superior (Ciaran Hinds) to let them go and learn the truth, despite the danger they will face from the Japanese samurai, wary of the threat Christianity and its attendant colonialism poses, and the inquisitor Inoue (Issei Ogata) as they hunt down the peasant converts, forcing them to recant (by placing their foot on an image of Christ) or be executed.
The padres’ first encounter with a Japanese is Kichijiro (Yôsuke Kubozuka), a villager who makes a habit of apostatising whenever he’s in danger (even though, the first time, it cost his family’s lives) and subsequently coming back for forgiveness. He’s essentially Judas to Rodrigues’ Christ, the latter driven by a desire to find glory by emulating Christ’s martyrdom, although, ultimately (thanks to the smilingly devious Inoue) it’s the converts rather than he who tend to make the ultimate sacrifice for their faith.
At nearly three hours, it can be a bit of a repetitive slog, particularly in the second half when Driver disappears from the narrative (until a brief object lesson return towards the end) as the pair are forced to split up and the film focuses in on Rodriguez’s internal and external dilemmas and crises of faith.
It’s a very violent film, albeit in a detached matter that involves boiling water, drownings on crosses, burnings, being suspended head first over a pit to bleed to death and one sudden decapitation that speaks about the Samurai mentality in much the same way that The Railway Man spoke about Japanese PoW camp commanders, Inoue and his interpreter (Tadanobu Asano) smiling graciously while ordering or watching sadistic tortures.
A subtly nuanced and committed performance from Garfield downplays the presumptuous character’s arrogance in the book and instead focuses on the consuming doubt that comes from the silence he’s met with when calling on God to explain why the villagers must suffer. However, where The Mission and The Last Temptation of Christ were fairly clear, here the philosophical and spiritual musings, especially in the austere third hour, are likely to prove too complex and rarefied for the average film audience to interpret. Indeed, when Neeson reappears and argues why Christianity doesn’t work in Japan, rather than viewing him as one last device to break Rodriguez, he seems to make perfectly logical sense. The powerful scene where the tormented padre ‘hears’ the voice of Christ justifying his acceding to the inevitable, is also somewhat undercut by the pragmatic Christian artefact witch hunt he and Ferreira subsequently take up. Even so, commandingly acted, visually striking and serious-minded, it’s a film that haunts, even as it challenges. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Electric; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)
Assassin’s Creed (12A)
The transition of video game to big screen embraces a history that ranges from shortcomings (Tomb Raider, Resident Evil, Prince of Persia,) to outright disasters (Doom, Bloodrayne, Super Mario Bros, Mortal Kombat) with just the occasional success (Angry Birds, Warcraft) to encourage studios to keep trying. Launched in 2007and now on its 17th version, Assassin’s Creed has proven one of the most popular and durable of console games. But, unless you’re a dedicated player, despite its high profile cast and mega-budget, this live action adaptation from director Justin Kurzel (who previously directed a brilliant version of Macbeth), based largely around the original game, but reinterpreted as dystopian sci fi, is going to prove confusing bordering on incoherent.
Although it changes the name of the protagonist from bartender Desmond Miles to convicted murderer Callum Lynch (an intensely serious Michael Fassbender), whose Assassin mother was killed by his own father (Brendan Gleeson as the older version) when he was just a child, the premise remains pretty much intact. Lynch is a descendent of the Assassin bloodline, an ancient secret society formed during the Spanish Inquisition to prevent the Knight Templars getting their hands on an artefact from Eden (here some sort of techno-apple containing the secret to free will) they want to use to eradicate all violence and bring mankind under their control.
To locate it, his execution faked, Cal is ferreted away from death row to a secret high-tech mountain-top Madrid facility run by Alan Rikkin (Jeremy Irons), CEO of Abstergo Industries and member of the current Knights Templar (headed bv Charlotte Rampling), whose scientist daughter, Sophia (Marion Cotillard, who co-starred with Fassbender in Macbeth), is engaged on a programme called the Animus, that, strapped to a harness with an implant in his neck, can send him back in time (at least virtually) to inhabit the memories of his Assassin ancestor Aguilar de Nerha. So, back in Spain, 15th century he finds himself a sort of 15th century parkour expert, bouncing off walls and vicariously fighting alongside fellow Maria (Ariane Labed), a fellow Assassin, to rescue Prince Ahmed de Granada, who has been kidnapped by Templars leader, Torquemada, to force his Sultan father into handing over the Apple of Eden, only to wind up captured by Torquemada’s enforcer, Ojeda, and condemned to the stake.
That’s about as lucid as it gets. For reasons that are never made apparent (either to the audience or, presumably, the befuddled cast), the shambolic plot sees the facility also housing various other inmates (Michael K Williams among them) who are apparently the descendents of other assassins (which seemingly contradicts the earlier assertion that Callum is the last one) and some guff about having to enter the Animus willingly in order not to get burned out.
Irons wisely plays things with a twinkle in his eye and tongue in cheek, giving the film what few sparks of humour it has, but Fassbender buys into the film’s po-faced seriousness and portentous dialogue with a Hamlet-like intensity. Cottilard, on the other hand, simply looks totally bewildered by the whole thing. Throw in assorted hallucinations, Christopher Columbus, quite literal Leaps of Faith and the supposed last words of 11th-century Persian missionary Hassan-i Sabbah (“Nothing is true, everything is permitted”) as the foundation of the Creed, which operates in the dark to do the work of the light, and what you get a puree of the Da Vinci Code and The Matrix served up with a side order of smoke-shrouded frantically kinetic action sequences shot through a moodily lit murky gauze. Admittedly, some of it looks impressive and images of darkly hooded figures with bladed gauntlets diving from tall buildings have a sort of frisson, but that’s more than undercut by the ineptitude of the screenplay and constant enigmatic (i.e. meaningless) symbolic shots of an eagle swooping across landscapes past and present. It’s not completely jaw-droppingly awful, but it does make you positively yearn for Resident Evil: The Final Chapter. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)
During the 90s, Spike Lee could do no wrong. He was, arguably, the first African-American A List director, reeling off such box office and critical successes as She’s Gotta Have It, Do The Right Thing, Clockers, Summer of Sam, Mo’ Better Blues and, of course, Malcolm X. But then, with flawed satire Bamboozled, things started to go wrong and he spent most of the next decade making (often acclaimed) TV documentaries, between misfires like She Hate Me, the overlooked 25th Hour and mainstream heist thriller concession Inside Man.
This is his first feature offering since the twin disasters of Da Sweet Blood of Jesus and the remake of Oldboy, bankrolled not by a Hollywood studio but Amazon. It’s also a return to the passionate angry filmmaking of his early work, a rework of Aristophanes’ Green comedy Lysistrata, in which the omen from warring sides deny their husbands sex unless they agree to peace, reimagined in gangster culture Chicago, or Chi-Raq as its dubbed here, a city where black-on-black gun deaths in the past 15 years outnumber American deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan combined.
With Samuel L Jackson serving as Dolmedes, the chorus, and adopting the classical use of rhyme, it opens with Nick Cannon’s powerful rap Pray 4 My City, the lyrics appearing on the otherwise black screen, before introducing Cannon as Demetrius Dupree, the head of the purple-clad Spartans, and his woman., Lysistrata (Teyonah Parris), the gang in deadly rivalry with the orange-clad Trojans, led by the one-eyed Cyclops (Wesley Snipes).
When a young girl is killed in crossfire and no witnesses will come forward, the grief of the mother (Jennifer Hudson) and peace-activist Miss Evans (Angela Bassett), , inspires Lysistrata to emulate the 2003 sex strike led by Leymah Gbowee which helped end the Liberian Civil War, and engage the Trojan women in a plan to end the fighting, one succinctly summed up in the slogan, No Peace, No Pussy.
Often highly theatrical with highly choreographed dance routines (as in the church service for a murder victim and an erotic dance routine to the Chi-Lites), and featuring John Cusack as the local preacher declaring how “We go from third-rate schools to first-class, high-tech prisons”, it’s blunt, often crude, sometimes glaringly obvious (guns as phallic symbols) and unapologetically didactic, but it’s also Lee’s best in a over a decade. (Tue-Thu; MAC)
Life, Animated (PG)
Directed bv Oscar-winning documentary film-maker Roger Ross Williams, this tackles the subject of autism by detailing the life of Owen Suskind, as told in the book by his father, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Ron. Diagnosed as autistic aged three, Owen was unable to communicate until his parents realised that he was using animated Disney films to make sense of the social cues in the world around him (he also learned to read from the films’ credits) and they began to use dialogue from films like The Lion King, Bambi and The Jungle Book to talk to him. Through this Owen, who is now 23 and living independently, was also able to respond and form friendships. Mixing narration and animation, it offers an illuminating and inspiring insight in the world of autistics with all its emotional highs and lows as well as the power of storytelling. (Mon/Tue: MAC)
It’s been almost twenty years since the last thoughtful and intellectually serious film about first contact (that being Jodie Foster is Robert Zemeckis’ Contact), but, following up Sicario, director Denis Villeneuve has delivered a masterful contribution to the genre that is up there with both that and Close Encounters, and which, like them, is more focused on its human characters than its aliens.
When a dozen elliptical black obelisks suddenly appear over different sites around the world, England, Russia, India, China and the US among them, and just hover there doing nothing (media hysteria and public panic inevitably grow. Meanwhile, US Army Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) enlists top linguist Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) to join a multinational team, along with maverick theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), and help decipher the language, essentially noises, they have recorded from the occupants, dubbed heptapods on account of their squid-like appearance with seven tentacle limbs at the base of their towering bodies.
Before all this, however, a prologue reveals that Banks has suffered tragedy, her marriage having fallen apart and having seen her baby daughter Hannah grow up only to die young of cancer, flashbacks of which regularly enter her mind when she’s trying to communicate with the two aliens, whom she and Ian dub Abbott and Costello, as they seek to decipher the inky swirl hieroglyphs that are their written language. As you might assume, those flashbacks have a significant role to play. Meanwhile, as she and Donnelly seek to uncover the purpose of the aliens’ visit, some countries, headed up by China and Russia, are getting edgy and, on the basis of their own linguists’ interpretations of the aliens use of the term ‘weapon’, are moving towards military confrontation, their CIA liaison wants to shut operations down and the clock is ticking.
As with the best sci fi, the film isn’t about aliens but humanity and the big questions of life as the screenplay addresses themes of love, loss, time, communication and perception in serious-minded, but never heavy-handed fashion. Relying on audiences’ familiarity with screen narrative conventions, the film cleverly harbours an M Night Shyamalan-like twist that, although the hints do gather in the final stretch, is virtually impossible to see coming and which delivers a breathtakingly audacious and heartfelt emotion-laded resolution.
Although effective enough Renner and Whittaker are, to a large extent, peripheral and the film is very much anchored by a terrific internalised, restrained and ultimately deeply moving performance from Adams that should safely see her among next year’s Oscar nominations. (Vue Star City)
An orphan girl with a dream, the best friend with a secret crush, the rival doing their best to see she doesn’t achieve, all the tried and trusted elements are there in this follow your heart animation. But the familiarity doesn’t mean it’s not worth watching, although I suspect the audience is going to rather limited to young little girls with dance dreams.
Set in France towards the end of the 19th century, Félicie Milliner (Elle Fanning) is a resident at a Brittany orphanage where the Mother Superior does her best to discourage dreams, because they never come true and only cause you misery. Possessed of a ballerina musical box, the only legacy of her mother, Félicie dreams of being a dancer, even more so when her wannabe inventor best friend, Victor (Dane DeHaan) shows her a postcard of the Grand Opera House in Paris. He promises to take her there, if they escape together. Which they duly due with the aid of a pair of his chicken-inspired wings, narrowly escaping the clutches of the Orphanage supervisor. However, arriving in Paris, where the Eiffel Tower is just starting to be built, the pair get separated and, wandering into the Opera House, Félicie is befriended by cleaner Odette (Carly Rae Jepsen), herself a former dancer whose career was ended when she hurt her leg.
Odette works for a Cruella deVil-like woman who is determined her brattish daughter Camille (Maddie Ziegler) will not only learn ballet at the Opera House under famed choreographer Merante (Terrence Scammell), but dance a pas de deux opposite the prima ballerina in the forthcoming production of The Nutcracker.
However, after Camille breaks her treasured musical box, Félicie intercepts the invitation to join the school and passes herself off as her. Despite Merante declaring she’ll be the first to be expelled, needless to say, she impresses him enough with her energy and determination to succeed that she remains to the final selection, which is when, of course, her deception is uncovered, leaving her to compete against the real and better trained Camille for the star prize. Naturally, Odette, who’s become a surrogate mother, plays her part in training her to match technique to the passion in her heart. Meanwhile, Victor has got himself a job working for Gustav Eiffel and is not best pleased when the company’s star male dancer, a blonde handsome Russian prince, starts making moves on Félicie.
Needless to say, incorporating a climactic chase up a work in progress Statue of Liberty, everything ends just as you would expect, although there is an unexpected touch following a spectacular dance battle between Camille her and Félicie, as the film’s be true to your dreams message rings out loud and clear.
It doesn’t have the visual panache of Pixar or DreamWorks, but it does have plenty of heart (and rather far too many head banging/falling over moments) and Fanning gives an engaging vocal performance, so it’s shame the filmmakers felt it necessary to lather it with anonymous modern pop songs rather than something more suited to the period. It takes a while to find its feet, but, like Félicie, its charm will win you over. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)
Collateral Beauty (12A)
Three years after the death of his six-year-old daughter and his subsequent divorce, Howard (Will Smith) is no longer the dynamic, inspirational force of the New York ad agency of which he holds the majority shares. Cue a hamfisted visual metaphor about him building massive domino structures and then toppling them. His friends, Whit (Edward Norton), a divorced dad whose young daughter resents him, Claire (Kate Winslet), a single workaholic who looks longingly at sperm donor pamphlets, and Simon (Michael Pena), a family man with a tell-tale cough, are all concerned about his disconnection from life. As executive partners in the firm, they’re also concerned that his behaviour is putting the company in jeopardy. They want to sell it to save it, but Howard has the majority shares. So he needs to be ruled incompetent to vote.
A casting call encounter with actress Amy (Keira Knightley) inspires Whit to hire her and her colleagues, streetwise Raffi (Jacob Latimore) and imperious but worldly-wise Brigitte (Helen Mirren, hamming up the luvvie) to play the roles of, respectively, Love, Time and Death (Howard’s former mantra for life) to whom Howard has apparently been writing letters, admonishing them over his child’s death. The idea is to ‘gaslight’ him into believing he’s really talking to these metaphysical abstractions and film him acting in a way to show the board he’s mentally unsound, and, if it helps him find his way back and move on, all the better too.
Meanwhile, Howard brings himself to visit the therapy group for bereaved parents run by Madeleine (Naomie Harris), except he can’t bring himself to say his daughter’s name, let alone talk about her death. Also divorced and having lost a child, she tells Howard how, while waiting at the hospital an old woman told her not to be blind to the collateral beauty around her. Howard doesn’t get what she’s talking about and, frankly, probably neither will the audience.
What with A Monster Calls and the forthcoming Manchester By The Sea, this seems to be the month for films about death, grief, loss, letting go and moving on with life. This, a blatantly sentimental spin on A Christmas Carol, directed by David Frankel and written by Alan Loeb (who gave the world sperm donor comedy Switch), is the least of the three.
Smith does unsmiling inner anguish well enough, but, for all the screenplay’s manipulation (which includes a ludicrous final twist), never really emotionally engages, while, given their mixed well-meaning/self-serving motivations, it’s hard to know whether to sympathise with or condemn Norton, Winslet and Pena’s characters, although, the screenplay works hard to make you realise they too are going through the emotional mill. Needless to say, the three actors (ooh, or are they!) all have insights and observations to offer them as well as the platitudes they serve up to Howard. There are a couple of genuinely affecting moments among the saccharine and half-formed subplots, but otherwise this is manipulative and mawkishly trite floss. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (12A)
J.K. Rowling makes a dazzling screenwriting debut as, with David Yates directing, she returns to the wizarding world for the first of five films based around the Hogwarts textbook of the title written by magizoologist and former student Newt Scamander (a superb Eddie Redmayne).
Expelled from Hogwarts over an incident regarding one such beast, at that time regarded as dangerous and feared by the wizarding community, the freckle-faced, tweed-jacketed and slightly clumsy Newt arrives in Prohibition-era New York carrying a suitcase containing a whole menagerie of creatures that he is trying to keep safe. Unfortunately, a faulty lock sees one of them, a Niffler (a sort of cross between a mole and a duck billed platypus with a penchant for collecting shiny objects) escapes and Newt’s search to recover it leads him to cross paths with Jacob Kowalski (a charming Dan Fogler), a portly No-Maj (as Muggles are called in America) factory worker with dreams of opening a bakery, with whom he accidentally switched cases. Soon there’s even more beasts on the loose and Newt is arrested by Porpentina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), a former aura with the Macusa (the US equivalent of the Ministry of Magic) trying to get back in its good books after an incident saw her demoted to clerical work.
With a dark wizard by the name of Grindelward waging a magical war on humans, things are edgy in America where the Macusa, headed by female president Seraphina Picquery (Carmen Ejogo), have outlawed all beasts and are doing everything to prevent their wizarding kind becoming known. Meanwhile, the puritanical Mary Lou Barebone (Samantha Morton), with her legion of adopted children, among them Credence (Ezra Miller) and his ‘sisters’ Modesty (Faith-Wood Blagrove) and Chastity (Jenn Murray), is crusading to expose the witches she claims to be threatening the American way of life, calling for a Second Salem.
Unbeknownst to her, Credence is having secret meetings with Percival Grace (Colin Farrell), a power-hungry senior aura looking to get his hands on the unidentified child host of the Obscurial (a swirling elemental force of dark magic) that is causing swathes of destruction throughout the city.
Now, joined by Joe, who he was unable to obliviate, Tina and her mind-reading sister Queenie (Alison Sudol), who takes a fancy to their Mo-Maj accomplice, Newt has to both recapture all the escaped creatures (one of whom just happens to be invisible) and prevent Grace from carrying out his hidden agenda.
The film keeps Newt’s backstory limited to just a few hints, allowing for more to develop over the course of the series, and keeps the focus very much on the central narrative, although it does find time for some stupendous diversions, such as the bank chase, a journey inside the suitcase to where the creatures are kept – one of whom, a sort of giant rhino, develops an unfortunate desire to mate with Joe – a magical dinner at Tina’s place and a visit to a wizarding speakeasy to get some vital info from low life goblin Gnarlack (Ron Perlman).
Barebone’s witch-hunt clearly serves as a political allegory for the fear and bigotry abroad in Trump’s America, providing for some very dark moments that include the murder of the Senator son of newspaper magnate Henry Shaw (Jon Voight) and the beatings of Credence by his ‘mother’. But, there’s much fun too and the breathtaking visuals mean there’s so much going on in the background you’ll need – and want – to see this over and over.
The closing reveal sets things up for the ongoing Potter/Voldermort styled battle between Scamander and Grindleward (a late Johnny Depp cameo), but, like the Potter movies, this is also a fully self-contained, toweringly spectacular adventure, and, dare I say it, even better than its Hogwarts predecessors. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)
I, Daniel Blake (15)
A sobering serio-comic tragedy for our benefit cuts times, Ken Loach returns to skewer the callousness of an uncaring system, opening with voice over tas recently widowed,59-year-old Newcastle joiner Daniel (Dave Johns) delivers a series of increasingly frustrated responses to the ‘health care professional’ assessing his entitlement to Employment and Support Allowance.
Inevitably, although his doctors and physiotherapists have told him not to return to work following his heart attack, he’s declared fit and his application’s denied. Duly visiting the job centre, he’s met with a minefield of implacable digital-by-default bureaucracy and threats of sanctions, the patronising staff ignoring his protestations that he can’t fill anything in online as he doesn’t have a computer or know how to use one. While there, he witnesses the treatment of a Katie (Hayley Squires), a young single mother and her two kids, recently relocated from London, who, late for an appointment, are refused benefits. He comes to her aid and both are duly ejected. Being a man of kindness and compassion, he helps her further, getting her food and doing repairs around her new flat and bonding with her and the children, the self-possessed Daisy (Briana Shann) and the younger, OCD Dylan (Dylan McKiernan).
The relationship between the members of this impromptu family and the good natured rapport between Daniel and his chancer high-rise neighbour stand in direct contrast to the uncaring attitudes of those embodying the Department of Work and Pensions, although, there is one token job centre employee who does show sympathy and tries to help Daniel through the labyrinth.
Written by regular collaborator Paul Laverty, there are times when it edges into both sentimentality and caricature, but the central characterisations and performances are superb and both the act of protest that gives rise to the title and Daniel’s final testimony will make you want to cheer and cry respectively. At the end of the day, its social commentary about a Kafkaesque bureaucracy isn’t saying anything new, but, as the government’s war of attrition on the poor continues to gather force, it’s a movingly potent reminder that those on the other side of the desk, on the other end of the phone, aren’t clients or numbers, but people with feelings and rights, especially to their dignity and respect. (Fri-Sun: MAC)
The latest in Disney’s line of empowered princesses, Moana (Auli’i Cravalho) is the daughter of Sina (Nicole Scherzinger) and Tui (Temuera Morrison), the chief of her Polynesian tribe, who live on the Pacific island of Motunui. It’s paradise, everyone happily living off coconuts and fish and content with the way things are. Well, not everyone. Moana is drawn to the ocean and wants to know what lies out there. However, haunted by a past tragedy, dad firmly insists that no one ever venture beyond the reef and that Moana should focus her attention on preparing to take her place as his successor. She’s encouraged, however, by her eccentric gran, Gramma Tala (Rachel House) who reveals to Moana the secret of the tribe’s past that has been long kept hidden.
She’s also the one who, in the opening scenes, is telling toddler Moana (Louise Bush) and the other kids, about how shape-shifting demigod Maui (Dwayne Johnson) stole the jade-coloured heart of Te Fiti, the island goddess, unleashing lava monster Te Ka, who knocked him from the skies, sending his magical fishhook, the source of his powers, into the water. It is, of course, all just myth. Or so Moana thinks until, one day by the water’s edge, a wave comes to life and deposits a shiny green stone in her path. Which is when dad turns up and spoils everything.
Fast forward several years and things aren’t looking so good. The coconut trees are dying and there’s no fish. According to Gramma, the only way the curse can be lifted is if Maui returns the heart he stole. Fortunately, she’s been holding on to it all this time, waiting for the moment when Moana is ready to embrace her destiny as the ocean’s chosen one.
And so, telling no one, accompanied by her stowaway cross-eyed chicken Heihei (clucked by Alan Tudyk) and assisted by a helpful wave, she duly sets off to find the macho Maui, the film becoming a reluctant mismatched buddies quest as she learns to be who she is and he learns humility, of sorts. Marrying Disney’s staple have the courage to be who you are meant to be message with a cautionary ecological tale, it draws on Samoan, Tahitian and Fijian oral traditions to engaging effect. It is also self-aware enough to poke fun at the Disney clichés, such that when Moana protests she’s no princess, Maui quips “If you wear a dress and have an animal sidekick, you’re a princess” while, later he warns her against bursting into song.
Cravhalo brings a lively spark to Moana, while, his character sporting animated tattoos, including a Mini-Maui which serves as his conscience, Johnson is a self-mocking joy, providing the bulk of the film’s laughs, but also serving to explore nature of being a hero and the power of friendship. The film also comes with a couple of terrific set pieces, one involving the pair being attacked by an armada of diminutive pirates in coconut shells and the other a giant crab (Jemaine Clement) version of Gollum that collects pretty shiny things, Maui’s fishhook among them. And, to balance the new agey spirituality, there’s also some gags about peeing in the water.
The songs may not have the mass appeal of Let It Go, but nevertheless girl power anthem How Far I’ll Go is a belter and Clement’s Bowie-channelling Shiny another highlight. Whether it has the innovation to challenge Zootopia, also written by Jared Bush, for the animation Oscar remains to be seen, but it certainly knocks Finding Dory out of the water. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)
A Monster Calls (12A)
With a definite nod towards Guillermo Del Toro, Spanish director J.A. Bayona follows up The Impossible with a magic realism masterpiece about grief, fear, guilt and death with Patrick Ness’s adaptation of his own coming-of-age bestseller.
With dad (a brief but effective Toby Kebbell) relocating to America and remarried, 12-year-old Conor (Lewis MacDougall) lives in a small rural English town with his mom (Felicity Jones). “Too old to be a kid, too young to be a man”, not only is he regularly bullied at school, but his artist mum has cancer and is getting weaker and his somewhat chilly grandmother (Sigourney Weaver) wants him to come and stay with her. He also has vivid nightmares in which the church and local graveyard sink into the earth, he clinging to the ground while hanging on to his mother’s hand as she dangles over the abyss.
Following one nightmare, he’s terrified when the ancient yew tree in the churchyard uproots itself and, a sort of arboreal BFG, takes on monstrous humanoid form resembling a drawing Conor and his mother made, stomping to his bedroom window and, craggily voiced by Liam Neeson, saying that Conor has called out to him and now he has three stories to tell, after which, in return, Conor must tell him the story that holds to truth to his dreams.
Presented in water colour animation, the first story tells of an old king who remarries a woman some call a witch. When the king dies, the queen determines to marry the prince, but he runs off with his commoner love, except there’s dark twist, that sees his lover murdered and his stepmother burned for the crime. The tree returning at the appointed hour of 12.07, its second story involves an ill-tempered apothecary who is persecuted by the parson whose yew tree he wishes to cut down to make medicines. The parson refuses, but when his daughters fall ill he comes begging the old man for help. Again, there is a dark twist. The third tale is about a man who, tired of being invisible to those who refused to see him, summoned a monster to get himself noticed. Things do not end well. As the monster says, there’s not always a good guy, nor are things always what they appear.
As you might imagine, all three tales relate to Conor’s own emotional turmoil, For example, when the monster destroys the parson’s house, Conor joins in only to suddenly find that he’s trashed his grandmother’s room while, in the third, he snaps and takes revenge for the bullying. Clearly, these stories are intended as moral lessons, offering the boy an insight into his anger and emotions. They are scary, yes, but their purpose is to enable Conor to face the truth that terrifies him and, in the process to heal. This is made clear in the fourth story, Conor’s, but to reveal anything would spoil the heartbreaking reveal.
Filmed almost entirely from Conor’s viewpoint, the film poignantly but unsentimentally addresses the painful reality of loss, tragedy balanced with welcome humour and suffused throughout with a sense of wonder.
While her appearances are fleeting, Jones is superb as the mother distraught at leaving her son behind, while, despite a somewhat stiff British accent, Weaver deftly juggles brittle facade and aching heart, but, in virtually every scene and called on to run through a gamut of conflicting emotions, it’s MacDougall who carries the film on his shoulders.
With echoes of The Iron Giant and the much underrated The Mighty, this could prove a tough watch for anyone who’s suffered loss, especially as a child, but it resonates deeply and its lessons are very human and, ultimately, very comforting. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Electric; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)
Monster Trucks (PG)
Just when you thought you’d seen the last of the Christmas turkey, along comes this misbegotten debacle, a film that had its origins in a conversation between the studio’s now ex president and his then four-year-old son, saw its release date constantly changed and which was written off as a massive financial disaster before it even opened.
Marking the live action debut of Ice Age director Chris Wedge, it pivots on the premise of having a huge demolition derby styled 4X4 powered, not by an engine, but a tentacled monster. Disbelief is suspended from the start by having 26-year-old charisma by-pass Lucas Till play high school teenage loser Tripp who, living with mom Cindy (a blink and you miss her Amy Ryan), works in a scrapyard (run by Danny Glover) where he’s looking to renovate his clapped out old pick up.
Meanwhile, smarmy villain Robe Lowe’s oil company boss orders work to continue when drilling hits water and, in the process, three bizarre creatures are blown to the surface, one of which escapes and takes refuge in, yes, the junkyard. To be precise, in the empty space where the engine should be in Tripp’s truck. The squid-like monster turns out to have a taste for oil and, fortuitously for Tripp, who imaginatively names it Creech, both the ability to power his truck and a thing for speed.
It’s yet another variation on the boy and his dog story that’s variously seen service with dragons and extra-terrestrials and, naturally comes with the bad guy (Holt McCallany) who’s looking to hunt down the kid’s bizarre buddy. Also thrown into the muddle is Barry Pepper as mom’s cop boyfriend and Jane Levy as Tripp’s science geek classmate who, inevitably, has to help him and Creech elude their pursuers. There’s also Tom Lennon providing some welcome understated humour as the eco-conscious scientist who works for Lowe. And since the title is plural, it comes as no surprise that Creech’s mates also get to play Fast and Furious too.
Borrowing ideas from, among other things Transformers, ET and Cars, it’s blandly directed and blandly acted with dodgy special effects (those digitally added tentacles to the trucks as they climb buildings or bounce across rocky terrain) that feel like the CGI equivalent of Plan 9 From Outer Space. It does have passing moments of stupid fun, but, for a film that purports to have an anti-fossil fuels eco-message, making its central character a cute gas guzzling monster seems like a bit of an own goal, For 5-year-old petrolheads only. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)
A castaways love story set on a mammoth space ship this has a promising set up. Somewhere in the future, corporate spacecraft the Avalon and its 255 crew are taking 5000 passengers to start new lives across the universe on the idyllic colony of Homestead II. Since it’s going to take 120 years to get there, they’re all in suspended animation while the ship charts its preset route. It has a shield to deflect meteors, but a collision with a large chunk of space rock sends things awry, waking up mechanic Jim Preston (Chris Pratt) 90 years too early.
Finding himself alone save for a perky corporate hologram, some cleaning bots and Arthur (Michael Sheen), a genial android barman, unable to reset the sleep pod or access the flight deck, Preston swings through a whole range of moods, from confusion and frustration to a sort of manic acceptance as he indulges in the amenities on offer (food, drink, basketball, disco dance pads, etc) until, a year and considerable beard growth later, he’s sunk into a state of depression to the extent of considering suicide. Which is when he spots a woman in one of the pods. His research tells him she’s Aurora Lane (Jennifer Lawrence), a journalist, and he gradually becomes more obsessed with her, having regular drinks with Arthur trying to talk himself out of waking her up to end his loneliness and save his sanity. Naturally, he fails to persuade himself to do the right thing and, when she emerges, telling her the pod malfunctioned like his, after she too goes through the same shock cycle, they inevitably strike up a romance, two lonely people marooned in space.
Naturally, at some point, she learns what actually happened, causing a rift between them. But, when the ship’s systems all start malfunctioning, they have to work together to try and survive. Fortuitously, they have a helping hand from one of the senior crew (Laurence Fishburne) who also wakes prematurely and is around long enough to open the flight deck, reveal the systems are all shutting down and pass on his authorisation bracelet before the pair find themselves on their own again. Now, it’s a race against the clock to stop the ship going into meltdown and killing everyone on board.
With some Robinson Crusoe, a splash of Gravity and a dash of Titanic, it’s an interesting premise, but, for all its musing on life and loneliness, ultimately the story has nowhere to go. The tone too is uneven. Much of the first half plays comedic notes, but then everything goes serious and dramatic once Aurora finds Jim screwed her life and the systems go haywire. Lawrence and Pratt do their best, but director Morten Tyldum has no feel for the spectacular, rendering both the couple’s tethered romantic venture into deep space and the climactic attempt to shut down the reactor all rather ho hum. Ultimately the film ends up rather like its two characters, passengers stranded on an empty vehicle on autopilot. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (12A)
The signature John Williams theme may be absent, but the first of the standalone Star Wars spin-offs sets a high standard , serving as a prequel to 1997’s A New Hope (hope being a word that occurs repeatedly) to detail how Princess Leia came to be in possession of the knowledge about the fatal flaw that enabled the rebellion to destroy the Death Star.
As with last year’s The Force Awakens, George Lucas’ contribution is limited to inspiration and acknowledgement, and, like its predecessor, the film is all the better for it. Directed by Nuneaton-born Gareth Edwards, taking an even greater leap into the blockbuster leagues after 2014’s Godzilla, and with a screenplay by Chris Weitz (Cinderella) and Tony Gilroy (the Bourne films), it opens on the volcanic planet of Lah’mu with Imperial-scientist-turned-farmer Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen) being tracked down by the hissably terse white-caped Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn), the man in charge of the Death Star project, and, his wife murdered, forced to return to finish the work he began on the weapon of mass destruction. His young daughter, however, escapes capture and is rescued and raised by Rebel fighter Saw Gerrera (Forest Whittaker).
Fast forward 20 years and, going under an alias, the now grown Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) is a thief doing time on a labour camp prison, until, that is, she’s broken out by Rebellion spy Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) and his scene-stealing hulking reprogrammed Imperial security droid K-2SO (drolly voiced by Alan Tudyk providing the bulk of the spare sarcastic comedic lines).
It seems that her father persuaded an Imperial fighter pilot, Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed), to defect, giving him a message about the Death Star to pass to Gerrera, now a maverick zealot, with several mechanical body parts. The Rebellion need Jyn to get to Gerrera, to find out what the message contains.
In many ways, this is an old fashioned war movie (particularly in the aerial combat sequences as the film cuts from one Group Leader to the next, each delivering their couple of lines of gung ho dialogue) and, in many ways, the plot to infiltrate the Imperial base to find Jyn’s father and retrieve the vital information recalls the likes of ultimate sacrifice WWII dramas such as The Heroes of Telemark, Where Eagles Dare or even The Dirty Dozen.
While there’s references to the Jedi, there aren’t actually any in the film, although you do get blind Jedha monk Zatoichi martial artist Chirrut Imwe (Donnie Yen) striving to connect to the Force and who, along with sidekick Baze Malbus (Wen Jiang), eventually forms part of the Rogue One team leading the assault on the Imperial stronghold.
Likewise, not until the final moments is there even a glimpse of a lightsabre, although it has to be said, the moment it appears, flashing red in the hands of one of the two brief appearances by Darth Vader (voiced again by James Earl Jones), the thrill is palpable.
Although you do get a cameos by C-3PO and R2-D2, there’s none of the playing young tone evident in the original Episodes, indeed, from Cassian shooting an informant in the back (Daniel May’s performance well deserving his fate) to the slaughter-crammed climax, this is predominantly very dark and grown up. Edwards handles the set pieces well and the special effects rise to the occasion, not least in the Hiroshima-like destruction of Jedah and the spectacular attack by the Rebel X-wing fighters on the Imperial fleet. However, by far the most impressive is the digital resurrection of Peter Cushing, who died 20 years ago, playing Death Star commander Moff Tarkin, the role he took back in 1977. Indeed, his is one the film’s best performances. Given the fact it’s been splashed all over the media, it’s no spoiler to say there’s also another digital cameo, with a brief final shot of the young Carrie Fisher as Leia.
While not, perhaps, as physical or charismatic a performance as Daisy Ridley’s Rey, Birmingham-born Jones is undeniably very good in what is, essentially, very much an ensemble cast, while Luna, Ahmed, Mendelsohn and, albeit slightly underused, Whittaker, are all impressive finding depth in their sometimes lightly sketched characters. Long time fans also get to see Genevieve O’Reilly reprise her Revenge of the Sith role as Rebellion Senator Mon Mothma. A rare occasion of the prequel being better than the film it sets up, this may well prove to be the very best of the Star Wars franchise (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Electric; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; MAC; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)
Sully: Miracle On The Hudson (PG)
On Jan 15, 2009, US Airways Flight 1549 set off from LaGuardia airport in New York for Charlotte in North Carolina. Three minutes into the flight, at 3.27pm, in an unprecedented event, a flock of birds flew into both engines, knocking them out. Faced with having to make an immediate decision on what to do, Capt. Chesley Sullenberger, a pilot with over 40 years experience, deciding the aircraft was unlikely to make any of the airport recommended by flight control, set down in the middle of the Hudson River. Hailed as the miracle on the Hudson, all 155 passengers and crew survived and Sully was duly feted as a hero by the media and the public at large.
In the following enquiry, the offhand and often smirking National Transportation Safety Board investigators (represented by Mike O’Malley, Anna Gunn and Jamey Sheridan) were less enthusiastic and more sceptical, feeling that he should have followed protocol and, by undertaking a forced water landing, had put everyone’s lives in danger. According to their simulations, the plane could have safely made it back to either LaGuardia or the nearby Teterboro Airport.
It’s a matter of record that Sully’s actions were ultimately vindicated, rather undercutting any sense of dramatic tension to Clint Eastwood’s film which ultimately turns into a sort of NTSB hearing version of a courtroom drama complete with the equivalent of the last minute surprise witness as Sully asks them to take the human factor into account in their simulations.
And, indeed, focusing on the aftermath rather than the event, it is the human factor that the film’s about, exploring the idea of a ‘hero’, Sully (played impeccably by a white-haired Tom Hanks) protesting that he was simply a man doing the job he was trained to do and that, anyhow, it was a crew effort.
For an Eastwood film, despite a brisk 96 minutes running time, it has a somewhat bitty structure, cutting between the post crash events and what happened during the flight (keeping shots of the actual forced landing –well worth seeing in IMAX – and plane evacuation until towards the end) with neither the pointless flashbacks to Sully’s early years as a pilot nor the phone conversations with his worried wife (Laura Linney) really adding much to proceedings.
Hanks is, as you would assume, excellent as a man asking himself whether he might have done things differently (he’s tormented by visions of the plane crashing into a New York skyscraper) and patiently enduring the bureaucratic red tape of the investigation. And although Aaron Eckhart provided solid support (as well as the jokes and the ripostes to the enquiry suits ) as loyal co-pilot Jeff Skiles, his is a far more backseat performance, while, despite a couple of attempts at character sketches (an elderly golf dad and his son) the passengers and the rest of the crew are rarely more than extras. As a celebration of a professionalism and a salute to “ just a man doing a job”, trusting his instincts, but nevertheless having the humility to question the decisions he makes, along with a subtext that questions the reliance on computer technology over human experience, it’s a rather old-fashioned affair that cruises at engaging low altitude, but never really soars. (Empire Great Park; Vue Star City)
Why Him? (15)
Screenwriter John Hamburg pretty much mined to death the chalk and cheese father and prospective son-in-law bromantic comedy in Meet The Parents/Fokkers, but, this time also adding director to his credits, he’s giving it another whirl with what, given the language, might well be termed Meet The Motherfokkers.
Not best known for his broad comedy skills, Bryan Cranston is Ned Fleming, a traditional, middle-class CEO of a struggling print company who, at his 55th birthday party, discovers that his Harvard student daughter Stephanie (amiably bland Zoey Deutsch) is dating someone called Laird Mayhew (James Franco), although the only sight everyone gets of him is his bare buttocks on the video link.
Invited to spend Christmas with the couple in California, buttoned-up Ned, wife Barb (Megan Mullally) and their pubescent aspiring businessman son Scotty (Griffin Gluck) arrive to discover that Laird is in fact the obscenely wealthy owner of a video game company who lives in a high tech palatial mansion with bison and llamas roaming the grounds, an artificial intelligence system with the voice of The Big Bang Theory’s Kaley Cuoco and Gustav (Keegan-Michael Key, mining most of the laughs), an Austrian personal assistant who serves as both his therapist and Cato to his Clouseau (a gag Hamburg feels obliged to explain for those unfamiliar with The Pink Panther). But, a red rag to analog era Ned, absolutely no paper.
He’s also a shirtless, heavily tattooed, grinning, puppy dog, free spirit man-child idiot whose artworks include a dead moose in a tank of its own urine (no prizes for guessing what happens to that) and assorted paintings of animals copulating, and who has no filter between brain and mouth, forever dropping the F word and inappropriate comments. Scotty’s impressed, his old fashioned father rather less so.
He’s even less enthused when, in one his intended bonding chats, Laird asks Ned for permission to marry Stephanie. Naturally, the horrified dad says no, leading to a challenge whereby Laid, desperate for approval (and a father figure) says that he if hasn’t won him over by Christmas Day, then he won’t propose.
With Cranston playing it dryly deadpan to Franco’s gonzo cartoon, what follows is a sort of macho pissing content, some of it funny, much of it laboured, almost all of it shop worn and over extended (though teabagging by moose is a new one) that proceeds in jerky fits and starts to a wholly predictable (well, perhaps, save for embarrassing cameos by Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley as part of an extended Kiss homage) ending. Given the dearth of decent comedies doing the rounds, this is worth a look, but don’t blame me if you come out just thinking Why Did I Bother? (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)
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