First of all, an apology. The mad build-up to Oscars night, as well as a tonne of screenings in recent weeks, has meant that I have not been able to keep these round-ups as up to date as I would have liked. With that in mind, here’s a bumper addition of the review round-up, covering the last three weeks of movie releases.
W/B 4th February
The Lego Movie 2
Back in 2014, everything was awesome when The Lego Movie hit cinemas. Despite the prejudice of fearing it would be a corporate cash-in, the film managed to win over everybody thanks to the whip-smart humour of the Jump Street duo of Phil Lord and Chris Miller. They’re back on scripting duties for the sequel, but have ceded directorial control to Mike Mitchell.
Thankfully, the script is every bit as sharp as the first one, though admittedly lacking the surprise factor of the first movie’s real world twist. This time around, the brick world and the flesh-and-blood reality intertwine in a number of quite inventive ways as Chris Pratt’s Emmet and the rest of his buddies face invasion from the ‘Systar System’, in service of its incredibly sinister queen (Tiffany Haddish).
The Lego Movie 2 is a witty and intelligent animated movie that delivers memorable set pieces and a tonne of instantly quotable dialogue. It’s every bit as funny as the first and has the added benefit of an entire songbook of memorable musical numbers, including the life-ruining earworm ‘Catchy Song’. It might not have the first film’s sense of surprise, but it’s a worthy follow-up.
VERDICT: There’s no reason really for this to be such a successful franchise, but The Lego Movie 2 is another very enjoyable entry in this arena. It’s silly, funny and pops with enough colourful energy to help the audience forget they are essentially watching a mega-budget commercial for a load of kids’ toys.
(Dir: Mike Mitchell, 107 mins, Cert: U)
Alita: Battle Angel
Often, sci-fi movies get a little lost in their own influences. It’s difficult to do a near-future dystopia without nodding to Blade Runner, and the work of Paul Verhoeven also feels like an obvious touchstone for many cyberpunk stories. Those influences are certainly strong in Alita: Battle Angel – a manga pet project of producer James Cameron, with Sin City helmer Robert Rodriguez in the director’s chair.
Rosa Salazar, along with an enormous pair of CGI anime eyes, plays the titular cyborg in a world dominated by quasi-police ‘Hunter Warriors’ and the violent sport of Motorball. Christoph Waltz is her human sort-of father and, despite his wishes, she becomes embroiled in the deadly world of cyborg assassins. Mahershala Ali and Jennifer Connelly slum it in thankless and under-written villain roles.
Alita is a film that drowns in its influences, with a utopian sky city reminiscent of Elysium and the Motorball sport so similar to Rollerball that I’ve been using the names interchangeably since I saw the movie. With no originality to speak of and an abject mess of tangling threads where the plot should be, this is a pretty miserable viewing experience.
VERDICT: Rosa Salazar’s thoughtful performance provides a compelling anchor for Alita, but it never finds the excitement within its elegantly rendered cyberpunk dystopia.
(Dir: Robert Rodriguez, 122 mins, Cert: 12A)
All is True
When you’re making a Shakespeare movie, the first person you call is Kenneth Branagh. He’s a man whose career on stage and on film has been built around Shakespeare’s back catalogue, so it’s only natural that he’s on directing and starring duties for All is True. It follows Shakespeare after the Globe fire, in the final years of his life.
It’s a gentle and melancholic movie, powered by Branagh’s central performance. His Shakespeare, complete with gargantuan fake nose, is a faded wit, capable of firing on all intellectual cylinders when the time demands it, but more concerned with crafting a lovely garden at his Stratford home. There’s some deliciously overwrought melodrama, as well as a delightful cameo from Ian McKellen to administer a verbal smackdown to Will.
There’s little that’s ground-breaking about this movie, written by Ben Elton with considerably less comedic punch than his Shakespearean sitcom Upstart Crow. However, the performances are stellar and the story enjoyable enough that it amounts to a pleasant evening at the cinema.
VERDICT: With one of the nation’s most accomplished purveyors of the Bard on both sides of the camera, All is True is an affectionate and charming take on the final years of Shakespeare’s life. And that nose is Oscar-worthy on its own.
(Dir: Kenneth Branagh, 101 mins, Cert: 12A) [MY FULL REVIEW AT FLICKERING MYTH]
If Beale Street Could Talk
Barry Jenkins shocked the world when his film Moonlight was (eventually) awarded the Best Picture prize at the Oscars. Two years later, he’s back with James Baldwin adaptation If Beale Street Could Talk – an elegant and melancholic poem of a movie.
KiKi Layne and Stephan James play young lovers Tish and Fonny, torn apart when he is arrested and imprisoned for a rape he could not possibly have committed. We follow their courtship through flashbacks and also explore their families’ attempts to clear Fonny’s name – most notably Tish’s mother (Regina King), who travels great distances in order to investigate.
This is a beautiful film, with every emotion painted across the intense facial close-ups so beloved of Jenkins. The narrative is loose and unruly, which allows the performers to portray the full range of possible emotions. It’s an angry film about what it means to be black – Beale Street is a catchall term for anywhere black people are born – but also an intimate story about two people in love. That’s where it finds its power.
VERDICT: After the surprise Oscar success of Moonlight, Barry Jenkins has delivered another example of sheer cinematic poetry. If there’s any justice, KiKi Layne and Stephan James will both move on to superstardom. They’re that good.
(Dir: Barry Jenkins, 119 mins, Cert: 15) [MY FULL REVIEW FROM LFF]
W/B 11th February
Stand-up comedy is something that has been seen quite a bit in cinema – most notably in the terrific De Niro/Scorsese collaboration The King of Comedy – but it has seldom joined forces with British social realism. That’s what happens in writer-director James Gardner’s feature debut Jellyfish, in which Liv Hill plays a young carer who channels her anger at the world into on-stage outbursts.
Hill is utterly perfect in the lead role. She’s exasperated at her mother’s up and down moods, but aware that her younger siblings rely on her to fill the gap their mother isn’t able to fill. She balances school and work in an amusement arcade – a grim symbol of the gap between the holiday feel of her seaside home and the prison it has become for her.
It’s her performance that helps to prop up the slightly less watertight elements of the story, selling a love for stand-up that only gets a few scenes to form. The eventual performance scene itself is a triumph of subtlety. She’s not a triumphant underdog shining in the spotlight, or someone crashing and burning in dramatic fashion. It has the rough, ramshackle feel of a genuine first stand-up gig, and that’s not something that’s easy to replicate.
VERDICT: As far as grim British social realism goes, Jellyfish is one of the most interesting and powerful examples of the genre we have seen in recent years, powered by Liv Hill breaking out as a bona fide star of the future.
(Dir: James Gardner, 101 mins, Cert: 15) [MY FULL REVIEW AT FLICKERING MYTH]
Happy Death Day 2U
Happy Death Day immediately went down in the history books as one of the most enjoyable and inventive horror films to emerge from the Blumhouse machine. With a terrific breakout performance from Jessica Rothe in the lead role and a refreshingly simple time loop premise, it managed to inject some much-needed energy into the rather tired slasher format.
This time, Rothe’s character somehow finds herself back in the same loop she escaped in the first movie. The person trying to kill her, though, is completely different and there are a number of things that don’t quite feel right. Israel Broussard is back as her love interest and there’s even more room for Rothe to play genuine emotion alongside the horror-comedy beats.
And Happy Death Day 2U must be noted for its willingness to play with genre. This is arguably not a horror movie at all and certainly puts a lot more emphasis on its comedy and sci-fi elements. But this separates it from the first film and enables the talented comic performers in the cast to take advantage of the inherent absurdity of the premise. If you told me they were making a third movie, I’d happily step into the loop again.
VERDICT: By subverting the genre expectations created by his original movie, Christopher Landon has produced something that’s as enjoyable as it is completely bizarre. Time travel is often complicated, but it’s seldom as much fun as this.
(Dir: Christopher Landon, 100 mins, Cert: 15) [MY FULL REVIEW AT VULTUREHOUND]
When the marketing materials for Instant Family started to arrive, the movie seemed to fit into exactly the oeuvre of director Sean Anders, who is best known for the Daddy’s Home films and those of a similar ilk. The actual film, though, is something with far more heart and just the right amount of sickly sweet sentiment.
Mark Wahlberg and Rose Byrne play a couple who decide to foster a teenage girl – played by Sicario 2 star Isabela Moner – and then discover her two younger siblings will be joining her. The result is a standard fish out of water setup, and there are some great comic set pieces, but the film is more interested in exploring the emotional impact.
Wahlberg and Byrne are excellent, with the latter especially flying high when the time comes to play comedy. Moner, too, continues to mark herself out as a young actor with real range and ability. There are few prizes for guessing where this story goes, and it certainly makes friends with cliché along the way, but the finale has genuine heft and emotion behind it. A pleasant surprise!
VERDICT: This isn’t just a broad comedy about a couple thrown into parenthood, it’s a genuinely touching story that has lashings of humour. By toning down the goof factor of his previous work, Anders has constructed something with genuine heart.
(Dir: Sean Anders, 118 mins, Cert: 12A) [MY FULL REVIEW AT VULTUREHOUND]
A Private War
War reporter Marie Colvin, who was killed in Syria in 2012, was renowned as one of the bravest and most dedicated foreign correspondents in the world. Her story seems tailor-made for the big screen and, if anyone’s going to tell that story, documentarian Matthew Heineman, is a good choice. With Rosamund Pike as Colvin, the constituent parts of A Private War are very strong indeed.
The film is constructed entirely around the inevitability of Colvin’s death, with title cards routinely telling us how many “years before Homs” the current scene is set. It’s a strangely reductive way to look at her life, as if her legacy is entirely defined by the way she died. Heineman also seems to hold the story somewhat at arm’s length, never really getting under the skin of Colvin as a result of its desire to skip through as much of her story as a two-hour running time allows.
Thankfully, though, Rosamund Pike is on career-best form. It’s an intense and vulnerable performance, with Pike as devoted to the physicality of embodying Colvin as she is to nailing the voice and the look. It’s a titanic acting display in desperate search of a better film.
VERDICT: Despite the terrific work of Rosamund Pike in the leading role, and Heineman’s devotion to the documentary feel, there’s something a little flat and distant about A Private War that holds it back from becoming a genuinely impressive biopic.
(Dir: Matthew Heineman, 110 mins, Cert: 15) [MY FULL REVIEW AT FLICKERING MYTH]
The Kid Who Would Be King
Seven years after the brilliant Attack the Block and in the wake of a number of stalled projects, Joe Cornish is finally back in the director’s chair for The Kid Who Would Be King. Inspired by the Amblin movies of his youth, Cornish has transplanted the traditional Arthurian legend into a British secondary school, with Louis Ashbourne Serkis as the Arthur figure, finding Excalibur on a building site.
What follows is an oddysey to Cornwall and then a return to the school for a final face-off with the undead hordes commanded by Morgana – a very underused Rebecca Ferguson. There are bright spots of goofy comedy in the film, but it’s otherwise a rather bloated tale that plays host to some pretty leaden action scenes. It isn’t until the climactic school siege that Cornish seems to find the directorial flair that made his first film such a wild ride.
Overall, it just seems like a movie lacking in ideas. Its initially interesting, if clumsy, Brexit parallels about divided nations ultimately don’t amount to anything more than their surface meaning. It’s not without charm, and the British feel is pleasing, but there’s something important missing.
VERDICT: It’s good to have Joe Cornish back, but it must be said that his powers feel somewhat muted here. There are good ideas at play and a talented young cast, but the humour is spread very thin and invention is in rather short supply.
(Dir: Joe Cornish, 120 mins, Cert: PG) [MY FULL REVIEW AT VULTUREHOUND]
Giallo homage is the preserve of many of cinema’s cool kids right now, and it seems The Eyes of My Mother director Nicolas Pesce is the latest to join those ranks. In Piercing, Christopher Abbott’s mess of repressed anger decides to hire a prostitute (Mia Wasikowska), planning to murder her with an ice pick. Needless to say, things don’t go to plan.
As anyone who saw Pesce’s previous film will expect, Piercing is an unusual viewing experience that repeatedly subverts and deflates the conventions of the genre. Wasikowska, in particular, takes great pleasure in a performance that allows her to mine the same darkness that powered her best performance to date in Stoker.
With a lean sub-90-minute running time, Piercing wastes no time in telling its story and, as a result perhaps, it feels a little under-cooked in its final moments, as if rushing to a conclusion. When its playing with genre, though, it shows a real, assured confidence.
VERDICT: There might not be an altogether satisfying conclusion to Nicolas Pesce’s weirdo giallo homage, but Mia Wasikowska’s beguiling work and a dash of macabre invention is enough to get the movie over the line in memorable fashion.
(Dir: Nicolas Pesce, 81 mins, Cert: 18) [MY FULL REVIEW AT VULTUREHOUND]
W/B 18th February
Of all of the films nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars tonight, Lebanese entry Capernaum is either the least or the second least likely to win. Make no mistake, though, that’s a reflection on the strength of the shortlist rather than a judgement as to the quality of Capernaum, which is a movie of fierce power.
Non-professional actor Zain Al Rafeea anchors proceedings as a 12-year-old boy who begins the film in court, suing his family for giving birth to him. It transpires that he has been convicted of a violent assault and blames his parents for inflicting this life upon him. Via extended flashbacks, seldom leaving Al Rafeea’s perspective, the audience learns of his turbulent existence, defined by poverty, desperation and mistreatment.
Nadine Labaki’s film is a tough odyssey of suffering, only occasionally leavened by moments of charm and wit. The direction is ground level, as if following the eye-line of the young protagonist, as if existing in the dirt and dust of the Lebanese streets. Its finale deals in enough vicious emotion to drag a tear from even the driest and most cynical of eyes.
VERDICT: By focusing on the old-beyond-his-years perspective of its young protagonist, Capernaum avoids becoming an ‘issues movie’ and instead delivers raw emotional power of the best kind.
(Dir: Nadine Labaki, 126 mins, Cert: 15) [MY FULL REVIEW AT FLICKERING MYTH]
Cold Pursuit is going to be a film with a permanent asterisk implied next to its title. “Oh yeah,” people will say, “that’s the film that made Liam Neeson tell the racist murder story”. Frankly, that’s more of a legacy than this tired movie deserves. Norwegian director Hans Petter Moland, remaking his own 2014 black comedy In Order of Disappearance, is far from a good fit for the Neeson formula.
The ageing action man plays a snowplow driver in Colorado, who turns vigilante when his son dies in mysterious circumstances that he soon traces to a local drug gang. Soon, Neeson is picking them off one by one and, for some reason, there’s a turf war with some rival Native American dealers brewing as well. The body count is high, and each killing is accompanied by a title card boasting the character’s criminal nickname. It’s a device that’s supposed to be darkly funny, but gets dull in a hurry.
If nothing else, snoozing your way through Cold Pursuit helps to illustrate just how important the director Jaume Collet-Serra has been to Neeson’s action career. There’s none of Collet-Serra’s energy and kinetic flair on show here, with unimaginative action scenes passing by via shrieking performances and Neeson looking very much like he’s on auto-pilot throughout. They also waste Laura Dern on what is essentially a glorified cameo. That’s truly a crime.
VERDICT: I miss Jaume Collet-Serra. And so should Liam Neeson.
(Dir: Hans Petter Moland, 119 mins, Cert: 15)
On The Basis of Sex
Felicity Jones plays Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who would go on to become a cult figure thanks to her forceful defence of equality in the Supreme Court of the United States. This film depicts one of her earliest legal fights, using a case of discrimination against a man as the test case for a potential raft of legal precedents highlighting the fact that discriminating on the basis of sex is unconstitutional and, therefore, illegal.
Jones is mostly great as Ginsburg, portraying her as spirited but inexperienced, questioning her ability to do what’s right whilst remaining entirely clear that it is indeed right. Only a rather wobbly Brooklyn accent sometimes lets her down. Armie Hammer does solid work as her husband, playing what is essentially the ‘supportive wife’ role in a neat gender reversal. The scenes of them together feature the movie at its best.
The problems come when the movie reaches for profound drama. The movie manages the difficult feat of making courtroom sequences boring, then stamps all over Jones’s biggest moments with an overwrought and distracting score that is too keen to dictate emotions at the audience. When it’s about its central figure, this movie knows how to fly.
VERDICT: Felicity Jones and Armie Hammer deliver strong performances in this rather workmanlike biopic of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, set before her time as a cult figure. Despite its pedigree, it often feels a little flat and as if the edges have been smoothed off.
(Dir: Mimi Leder, 120 mins, Cert: 12A)
Public schools in the UK are exceptionally weird, devoted to bizarre rituals and playing host to some seriously strange kids. Old Boys understands that, with director Toby MacDonald reworking the classic Cyrano de Bergerac story in a heightened posh school world. Alex Lawther is the gawky Cyrano analogue, while Jonah Hauer-King’s ‘Mighty Winch’ – described as a “labrador in trousers” – is the hunk he turns into the perfect match for the quirky Agnes (Pauline Etienne).
All three of the leads find room to push beyond their rather generic character traits, with Lawther in particular benefiting from a role that plays to his strengths, while allowing him to show a lighter side than some of his more well-known work in front of camera. It’s a tale of how people are often not equivalent to the image they choose to portray, which is a valuable lesson for anyone to learn.
MacDonald leans heavily on the weirdness of his central establishment, including its psychopathic rugby/water polo hybrid sport ‘Streamers’. The tone is offbeat and unusual to a fault and this may be off-putting to some audiences. For those who choose to go with it, though, there are plenty of rewards here.
VERDICT: It’s a little bit lightweight and silly, but that doesn’t prevent Old Boys from being a delightful schooldays comedy that benefits from Alex Lawther’s unique outsider charisma in the leading role.
(Dir: Toby MacDonald, 95 mins, Cert: 12A) [MY FULL REVIEW AT VULTUREHOUND]
What did you think of this week’s film releases? Let me know in the comments section and also take a look at last week’s review round-up.