Film

Film Digest – January 24

Damon Smith, PA Film Critic

THE FABELMANS (12A)

In his most unabashedly personal film, Oscar-winning director Steven Spielberg continues to venerate the power of the family unit to overcome adversity while reflecting on his wonder years in 1950s New Jersey and Arizona.

The first flushes of his love affair with cinema are traced back to January 10, 1952, when Spielberg's six-year-old alter ego, Sammy Fabelman (Mateo Zoryan Francis-DeFord), stands nervously in front of his first cinema marquee – Cecil B DeMille's The Greatest Show On Earth – with parents Burt (Paul Dano) and Mitzi (Michelle Williams).

The bespectacled, electrical engineer father unintentionally deepens young Sammy's trepidation but his concert pianist mother, an undimmable force of nature, salvages the defining moment.

“Movies are dreams that you never forget,” she coos soothingly.

Spielberg never forgets his dreams in The Fabelmans, weaving narrative threads between personal recollections and his subsequent works of big screen fiction including Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, ET The Extra-Terrestrial and Saving Private Ryan.

Rating: Four stars

PLANE (15)

You won't need to fasten seatbelts during director Jean-Francois Richet's lacklustre action thriller, which pits the crew and passengers of a downed commercial flight against a sadistic militia leader on an island in the Sulu Sea.

Dramatic turbulence fails to materialise when Gerard Butler proudly retains his Scottish burr as the grizzled pilot, who risks life and limb to protect his passenger manifest of two-dimensional cardboard cut-outs including an obnoxious businessman and giggling gal pals.

The in-flight entertainment of a mid-air lightning strike quickens the pulse more than myriad gunfights or hand-to-hand fisticuffs in the jungle including a slickly choreographed one-on-one brawl between Butler and a nameless thug shot in sweat-drenched close-up.

Please turn off all personal electronic devices, including mobile phones, and switch your brain to flight mode.

Rating: Two stars

UNWELCOME (15)

An escape to the country transplants creeping dread from concrete tower blocks to a tumbledown house in an otherworldly thriller written by Mark Stay and directed by Jon Wright.

Steeped in Anglo-Scottish folklore, Unwelcome teases murderous, pointy-teethed goblins at large in an ancient wood, which surrounds a close-knit Irish community that upholds tradition to placate “the little people”.

Two English interlopers to this bucolic idyll dismiss fanciful talk of leprechauns and magical creatures until the one-hour mark when make-up effects artist Shaune Harrison, creature designer Paul Catling and visual effects supervisor Paddy Eason collectively realise diminutive denizens of the dark.

Screenwriter Stay glosses over the most interesting facet of lead characters' narrative arcs – the post-traumatic stress of a home invasion – to crudely shepherd most of the cast into one location for a bloodthirsty night-time showdown with the grotesque beasties.

Telegraphed scares are far milder than the film's 15 certificate promises.

Rating: Two stars

BABYLON (18)

In 2017 at the age of 32, Damien Chazelle became the youngest recipient of the Best Director statuette at the Academy Awards for his dizzying accomplishments behind the camera of La La Land.

With Babylon, an exuberant valentine to the golden age of American filmmaking when the industry transitioned from silents to talkies, Chazelle's reach finally exceeds his grasp.

For over three hours, he conjures a whirling, hallucinogenic fever dream of sensory excess that crashes and burns, reignites, then blazes uncontrollably to cinders again.

It's a white-knuckle rollercoaster ride with a big opening – namely the dilating sphincter of a distressed elephant – that refuses to pump the emergency brakes.

The French-American filmmaker swings big and repeatedly hits himself in the face.

Rating: Two stars

TAR (15)

Perception and reality clash like angry cymbals throughout writer-director Todd Field's masterful and discordant symphony to shifting power dynamics, silent abuses of privilege and cancel culture.

Every scene is exquisitely calibrated to set nerves on edge: a woman's anguished screams piercing the air during a morning run through Lietzensee Park in Berlin, the ticking of a metronome that mysteriously comes to life in a study cupboard, the hum of a fridge insisting on being opened.

Cate Blanchett is ferocious as celebrated orchestra conductor Lydia Tar, commanding the same unwavering attention as her morally flawed character, who breathes deeply an air of self-importance.

Director Field and cinematographer Florian Hoffmeister duet on elegantly framed vignettes that ebb and flow like movements of a symphony, reaching unexpected yet thrilling crescendos sometimes when we least expect them.

“God watches all of us,” Lydia warns in one charged scene. When His gaze falls on the maestro, she will be harshly judged.

Rating: Four stars

M3GAN (15)

M3GAN is a campy horror thriller from the twisted minds of Saw creator James Wan and screenwriter Akela Cooper, which pits an artificially intelligent, life-like doll costing 10,000 US dollars against its human creator and the toy company that intends to monetise the mind-blowing invention.

Director Gerard Johnstone's blood-soaked battle of wits borrows circuitry from Child's Play, Westworld, Jurassic Park and The Terminator to caution against a modern society that allows touchscreens and sleek technology to impinge on meaningful face-to-face interactions.

The eponymous android is deadly serious about carrying out its primary directive – to protect a biometrically paired child from harm – and Cooper's script introduces thinly sketched supporting characters that are ripe for slaughter.

Violence ping-pongs between dizzying extremes.

It's game over for originality from the snow-laden opening sequence but Johnstone's picture meets the demand for thrills and spills with a steady supply of ghoulish giggles.

Rating: Three stars

TILL (12A)

In August 1955, 14-year-old Emmett Till was lynched in Mississippi during a visit to his cousins. He was accused of making inappropriate advances to a white female shopkeeper.

Director Chinonye Chukwu's harrowing drama relives this shocking chapter in modern American history and the subsequent quest for justice spearheaded by Emmett's mother Mamie Till-Mobley.

Danielle Deadwyler electrifies every heart-breaking frame of Till as the grief-stricken matriarch, urging her boy to be on his best behaviour in Mississippi (“Be smart down there”) and passionately advocating solidarity at a Harlem rally (“The lynching of my son has shown me that what happens to any of us, anywhere in the world, had better be the business of us all”).

As a bruising parting shot, title cards remind us that lynching only became a federal hate crime in March 29, 2022 when President Joe Biden signed The Emmett Till Antilynching Act into law.

Chukwu's picture couldn't be more timely.

Rating: Four stars

A MAN CALLED OTTO (15)

Misery loves the company of Tom Hanks in director Marc Forster's English-language remake of the 2015 Swedish comedy drama A Man Called Ove, adapted from the novel by Fredrik Backman.

The two-time Oscar winner plays a socially awkward 60-something curmudgeon, who intends to take his own life so he can be reunited with his late wife but is repeatedly distracted from the grim task by unsuspecting neighbours.

Screenwriter David Magee transplants the darkly humorous subject matter from Scandinavia to the snow-laden American Midwest but retains the core emotional values of Hannes Holm's original script including a dewy-eyed resolution that targets tear ducts almost as ruthlessly as the fictional Dye & Merica real estate agency identifies elderly residents in Otto's neighbourhood for hasty relocation to the nearest care home.

A Man Called Ove was nominated for two Academy Awards including Best International Feature Film.

Despite an endearing lead performance from Hanks and a luminous supporting turn from Mariana Trevino, it's unlikely that Forster's picture will be troubling Oscar voters but A Man Called Otto still charms and uplifts without apology.

Rating: Three stars

EMPIRE OF LIGHT (15)

Writer-director Sam Mendes' unabashed love letter to the moving image unfolds in a fading picture house on the English coast in the early 1980s when an adult ticket cost £1.50 and a box of Maltesers from the concessions stand would set you back two shiny 10p pieces.

On the big screen, the Elwood brothers played by John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd loudly preached Everybody Needs Somebody To Love and on the streets of Thatcherite Britain, the National Front clashed violently with police.

Racial tensions provide the hastily sketched backdrop to Mendes's intimate character study informed by memories of his mother's struggles with mental illness, necessitating an abrupt change of tone that hinges on a dazzling performance from Oscar winner Olivia Colman.

She is perpetually luminous when Mendes' script feels dim and unfocused, navigating the mood swings of a diagnosed schizophrenic who stops taking her prescribed lithium and spirals in front of the one person who genuinely cares about her.

A workplace romance with co-star Micheal Ward is artfully shot but his character is underwritten and Mendes barely scratches the surface of bigotry of the era.

Rating: Three stars

CORSAGE (15)

A woman's worth is measured by her beauty in writer-director Marie Kreutzer's unromanticised character study of Empress Elisabeth of Austria, which dramatises a turbulent period when the noblewoman became profoundly aware of the ravages of time.

“At the age of 40, a person begins to disperse and fade, darkening like a cloud,” she ruminates sombrely in voiceover, barely allowing food to pass her lips at formal dinners where impeccably dressed guests chirrup about the media's infatuation with Her Majesty.

Kreutzer's script doesn't slavishly curry favour or sympathy for Elisabeth.

She is occasionally unkind with words and impulsive – dangerously so when the empress hauls her young daughter out of bed in the dead of night for a horseback ride that leaves the girl battling a fever.

Vicky Krieps is beguiling in the lead role, delivering a nuanced performance that paints Elisabeth as both a victim of her suffocating times and her own worst enemy.

Rating: Four stars

WHITNEY HOUSTON: I WANNA DANCE WITH SOMEBODY (12A)

Made with the blessing of The Whitney Houston Estate and her mentor Clive Davis, director Kasi Lemmons' glossy biopic charts the R&B singer's fortunes from the pews of New Hope Baptist Church to her accidental drowning in a bathtub at the Beverly Hilton hotel in Beverly Hills.

Whitney's romance with best friend Robyn Crawford (Nafessa Williams) is depicted explicitly for the first time and money-related disputes between John Houston (Clarke Peters) and his daughter light the fuse on fiery on-screen exchanges.

“You work for me,” she curtly reminds him.

Oscar nominee Anthony McCarten's script is peppered with melodic dialogue (“I'm exhausted. All black women are exhausted”) as London-born actress Naomi Ackie confidently surfs crashing emotional waves similar to yesteryear's musical biopic The United States Vs Billie Holiday in the title role.

If you wanna feel the heat of Houston's rise to glory, Lemmons' picture simmers beautifully.

Rating: Four stars

AVATAR: THE WAY OF WATER (12A)

In this opening salvo of four sequels, James Cameron expands digitally rendered horizons from Pandora's bioluminescent forests to the moon's teeming oceans and resplendent atolls, providing audiences with a compelling reason to immerse fully in eye-popping 3D and Imax.

Avatar: The Way Of Water is an unabashedly splashy and bombastic survival thriller that lives up to the cacophonous hype and delivers a more satisfying experience for the heart to match bountiful delights for the ears and eyes.

It's a dizzying sensory overload that can't be replicated at home or on a streaming service; a jaw-dropping, photorealistic spectacle that harnesses new software and technology to enable performance capture underwater for the first time.

Every rock, leaf and minuscule element of background detail feels exquisitely real and when characters venture beneath waves, Cameron and cinematographer Russell Carpenter play beautifully with shimmering light including a bombastic action set piece that revisits the swirling, water-logged terror of Titanic.

Like its predecessor, Avatar: The Way Of Water springs a few leaks in terms of plot and dialogue (one father-son dynamic is noticeably undernourished) but the script co-written by Cameron, Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver is more emotionally rich than the initial foray into Pandora.

Rating: Four stars

THE AMAZING MAURICE (PG)

Two of nature's sworn enemies – the cat and the rat – become willing accomplices in low-level crime in a computer-animated adventure based on Terry Pratchett's book The Amazing Maurice And His Educated Rodents.

Directed by Toby Genkel and co-directed by Florian Westermann, The Amazing Maurice merrily exploits storytelling convention to spin an entertaining yarn that preaches self-empowerment using a tongue-in-cheek framing device.

Pratchett's humour is woven into Terry Rossio's gently paced script like when the title character asserts that deception is hard-wired into the human condition.

“They are so keen on tricking each other they elect governments to do it for them,” he quips.

Genkel and Westermann's picture doesn't quite live up to the superlative of its title but this gently effervescent caper will feed families hungry for entertainment over the festive season.

Rating: Three stars

VIOLENT NIGHT (15)

According to the lyrics of Santa Claus Is Comin' To Town, “He knows if you've been bad or good/So be good for goodness sake”.

That plea certainly doesn't apply to the figurehead of Christmas in director Tommy Wirkola's giddily irreverent home invasion thriller.

The ample-bellied man in the red suit (David Harbour) is drunk and disorderly in charge of reindeer, unapologetically profane and deeply disrespectful of homeowners and their property (especially liquor cabinets).

He is also the hammer-wielding hero of Violent Night, the illegitimate love child of Bad Santa and Die Hard, which compels a hungover and disillusioned Saint Nick to dole out season's beatings when he should be delivering presents to sweetly slumbering children.

On-screen bloodletting is copious, including a close encounter with a wood chipper, but the tone is stylised and predominantly comical. Santa sleighs and slays again.

Rating: Three stars

ROALD DAHL'S MATILDA THE MUSICAL (PG)

Director Matthew Warchus reunites with composer and lyricist Tim Minchin and scriptwriter Dennis Kelly for a swashboggling, phizz-whizzing screen adaptation of their stage musical that retains the acidic tang of Roald Dahl's beloved 1988 children's novel.

Roald Dahl's Matilda The Musical trims 20 minutes from the theatre production's lesson plan by expelling Matilda's dim-witted older brother, Mrs Wormwood's flamboyant ballroom dance partner Rudolpho and a few songs to maintain a vice-like grip on attention spans.

Warchus savours the opportunity to expand his playbox.

Minchin's whistle-stop tour of the alphabet in School Song (“You will soon C/There's no escaping trage-D”) gallivants energetically through classrooms and hallways and the barn-storming anthem Revolting Children expands its deafening chorus to the entire student population of Crunchem Hall.

Aristotle spoke the truth: the roots of education are bitter, but the fruit is sweet. Warchus's picture is a peach.

Rating: Four stars

SHE SAID (15)

Directed by Maria Schrader, She Said powerfully dramatises a far-reaching 2017 newspaper investigation into Harvey Weinstein and the psychological toll on New York Times journalists Jodi Kantor (Zoe Kazan) and Megan Twohey (Carey Mulligan) as they gathered testimonies and documentation.

Screenwriter Rebecca Lenkiewicz's methodical and largely chronological approach recalls 2016 Oscar winner Spotlight, neatly distilling events with occasional cutaways to Kantor and Twohey's home life.

She Said underlines the power of investigative journalism to spark vociferous debate and catalyse lasting change.

Kazan and Mulligan both deliver impassioned performances but the words of Weinstein's on-screen accusers are the gut punches.

We feel them long after the end credits roll.

Rating: Four stars

STRANGE WORLD (PG)

There are many strange and wondrous sights in the world imagined by Don Hall's rollicking adventure including luminous pink terror-dactyls soaring over lizard-shaped inflatable clouds.

Perhaps the strangest of them all is that it has taken almost 100 years since Walt and Roy Disney co-founded their studio for an openly gay character to be at the emotional heart of a feature-length animation.

It's a long overdue, small step forward for diversity and LGBTQ+ representation in mainstream family-oriented media, treating a boy's sweet and goofy crush on a male classmate with the same humour and sensitivity as any other adolescent romance, as it should be.

Strange World harnesses its warmth and power from relatable family dynamics and a spirited odyssey that splices together an original story with strands of creative DNA from Journey To The Centre Of The Earth, Fantastic Voyage and Jurassic Park.

Tear ducts get a light workout compared with recent Disney offerings such as Encanto but action and comedy trade backslaps throughout in a similar fashion to Hall and co-director and screenwriter Qui Nguyen's previous collaboration, Raya And The Last Dragon.

Rating: Four stars

THE MENU (15)

The lofty pretentions of modern cuisine, which might reinvent the humble chip as a triple-cooked golden baton of Maris Piper dusted with nine-times roasted Korean bamboo salt, are gleefully skewered in a treacle-black satire concocted by screenwriters Seth Reiss and Will Tracy.

Morally corrupt and repugnant characters choke on just desserts, garnished with stomach-churning horror, as director Mark Mylod assembles a mouth-watering ensemble including Ralph Fiennes, Anya Taylor-Joy and Nicholas Hoult for a feast of lip-smacking cruelty.

The price of entry to the banquet of barbarity is four figures per head, promoting one shocked patron to snort: “What are we eating, a Rolex?”

No, the flavour profile of The Menu is salty and sour, served with bloodthirsty theatrical flourishes that confirm it won't just be organic, grass-fed livestock slaughtered as the centrepiece of one meticulously tweezered course.

Take it all with a pinch of that Korean bamboo salt.

Rating: Three stars

BLACK PANTHER: WAKANDA FOREVER (12A)

Returning writer-director Ryan Coogler and an army of collaborators pay rousing tribute to Chadwick Boseman in deeply moving sequences that bookend this muscular sequel, echoed by the soothing words of Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett): “T'Challa is dead but that doesn't mean he's gone.”

It's a visually stunning and sporadically thrilling memorial to the South Carolina-born actor that allows a diverse cast to express their loss in exchanges sodden with real, cascading tears.

Putting aside raw emotion, as difficult as that may be, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever falls noticeably short of its ground-breaking predecessor except for an unnecessarily bloated 161-minute running time that merits a few slashes of the title character's vibranium-enriched claws.

Coogler's second chapter is dramatically underwhelming, anchored to a curiously unsympathetic narrative arc for one key protagonist, and bombastic action sequences never approach the turbo-charged exhilaration of the night-time car chase through the streets of Busan in South Korea in the original film.

Admiration and affection for Boseman may carry the sequel past its predecessor in terms of worldwide box office takings but beyond the aching sentiment, the first Black Panther is still the big cat's whiskers.

Rating: Three stars

LIVING (12A)

Memories of my late mother's battle against cancer resurfaced during director Oliver Hermanus's exquisite English-language remake of Akira Kurosawa's 1952 drama Ikiru about a terminally-ill man, who acknowledges the emptiness of his existence just before it is cruelly snatched from him.

Relocated from post-war Japan to London by Nobel and Booker Prize-winning novelist and screenwriter Kazuo Ishiguro (The Remains Of The Day), Living wreaks emotional devastation in the lingering silences between characters who have kept calm and carried on since the Second World War.

Those moments when the right words don't materialise – between a dying father (Bill Nighy) and his clueless son (Barney Fishwick), between sharp-suited civil servants at the mercy of bureaucratic red tape – are heartbreaking, and Hermanus allows the time and space to feel each desolating blow.

A career-best central performance from Nighy, who will be a formidable contender for Best Actor at next year's Oscars, galvanises every elegantly crafted scene.

Touching interludes with co-star Aimee Lou Wood's work colleague, one of the few people to know his medical diagnosis and witness a renewed resolve in the shadow of death, glister like perfectly polished gemstones.

Rating: Five stars

THE BANSHEES OF INISHERIN (15)

Writer-director Martin McDonagh trades three billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri for a fractured friendship off the coast of 1920s Ireland in a deliciously barbed comedy with the potential to draw blood at next year's Academy Awards.

Laced with humour as black as a pint of freshly poured Guinness, The Banshees Of Inisherin uses a simple declaration of discontent – “I just don't like ya no more” – as the springboard for a close-quarters study of fraying fraternal bonds and bruised male pride.

McDonagh previously cast Brendan Gleeson and Colin Farrell as a veteran hit man and trigger-happy protege in his foul-mouthed 2008 crime caper In Bruges.

The two actors explore similar power dynamics here, armed with verbal grenades that cause maximum damage to their fatefully entwined characters in a close-knit island community.

The Banshees Of Inisherin lines up pints of melodic melancholy, exasperation, dismemberment and full frontal male nudity and we enthusiastically drink the bar dry over the course of two engrossing hours.

Rating: Four stars

BLACK ADAM (12A)

With the notable exception of Christopher Nolan's brooding Dark Knight trilogy, films torn from the pages of DC Comics have struggled to match the critical and commercial success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

It is perhaps inevitable that action-packed adventure Black Adam, a spin-off from the 2019 film Shazam!, should mimic the knockabout tone of the MCU replete with a wisecracking superhero team that comprises dead ringers for Falcon, Dr Strange, Storm and Ant-Man from the crowded ranks of the Avengers and X-Men.

This gung-ho gallivant through 5,000 years of Middle Eastern uprising strikes a pleasing balance between outlandish slow-motion action sequences, familial angst and irreverence.

A teenage boy dispenses pithy wisdom to Dwayne Johnson's clueless deity about superhero etiquette – catchphrase first then kill the bad guys – and eagerly appraises the leading man's gym-toned physique: “Batman, Superman, Aquaman… you're more stacked than all of them!”

Bigger, maybe, but not better.

Rating: Three stars

LYLE, LYLE, CROCODILE (PG)

Award-winning Canadian pop star Shawn Mendes provides the singing voice of a soulful, bath-loving reptile in a family-friendly musical comedy based on the best-selling book series by Bernard Waber.

Snappily directed by Will Speck and Josh Gordon, Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile melds live action and cutesy digital effects a la Paddington and Alvin And The Chipmunks to extend the concept of a modern family to all creatures great, small and scaly.

Wholesome messages of love and acceptance are underlined with an upbeat soundtrack of original songs written by The Greatest Showman's ringmasters Benj Pasek and Justin Paul.

Compared with the duo's exemplary work on La La Land and Dear Evan Hansen, the songbook here feels a tad derivative but the rousing duet Take A Look At Us Now still gets toes tapping and Top Of The World, co-written by Joriah Kwame, reaches for the stars in its exultant chorus.

The eponymous semiaquatic hero gels convincingly with teenage co-star Winslow Fegley and they are formidable when scriptwriter William Davies switches gears from slapstick to heartstring-tugging emotion for a courtroom showdown with only one outcome.

Rating: Three stars

THE WOMAN KING (15)

A real-life military regiment of all-female African warriors, which inspired Wakanda's valiant Dora Milaje in the Black Panther comics, angrily scythes through the 19th-century slave trade in a thrillingly orchestrated drama directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood.

Punctuated by bruising, blood-smeared battle sequences on foot and horseback reminiscent of Braveheart, The Woman King canters roughshod over historical accuracy to simplify warring factions into good and evil, squarely positioning the audience behind the imperious title character portrayed by Oscar winner Viola Davis.

Her fiercely committed performance, which required months of weightlifting, fight training and stunt co-ordination, fills every frame and crescendos with an obligatory inspirational speech on the eve of battle (“We are the spear of victory, we are the blade of freedom”).

Female characters are fully realised and actively propel forward the narrative with the same sense of chest plate-beating urgency as composer Terence Blanchard's score.

For sweat-drenched self-sacrifice, Prince-Bythewood's picture reigns.

Rating: Four stars

Topics

Categories

Film