Allied 2016 ***


Despite the star-power on offer, Robert Zemeckis’ WWII thriller seems to be destined to be a flop. That’s a shame, because it’s a reasonable shot at reviving some old-school melodrama, garnished with the director’s typical visual tricks. Brad Pitt is Max Vatan, a Canadian paratrooper who falls for Marianne (Marion Cotillard) while on an assassination mission in Casablanca. Back in Blighty, the two agents set up a chicken-coop in Hampstead, but suspicions are raised that Marianne might be a Nazi agent and Pitt is charged with setting a trap for her. The look of Allied recalls late 70’s WWII dramas like Eye of the Needle or Yanks, and Pitt and Cotillard certainly look the part. But unlike Pitt’s war-comic Fury, Allied seems determined to play the war-is-hell card in a revisionist way, with cocaine-snorting officers, openly lesbian couples and all kinds of odd details along the way to the startling if hardly pleasing conclusion.

The Conjuring 2

the-conjuring-2-6After sitting out the prequel, Annabelle, ghost-busting due Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga return as paranormal investigators Lorraine and Ed Warren in James Wan’s sequel to The Conjuring. Wan wisely shifts the action to the UK and taps into the real-life drama of the Enfield Poltergeist to add some frissions if not credibility to the action. The dingy atmosphere of 1970’s Britain is well caught at times, with false teeth, Margaret Thatcher and The Goodies on television and David Soul/Joanna Lumley posters on the wall of the terrorized girl. There’s even time for a Elvis-inspired performance of Can’t Help Falling In Love With You by Wilson, but as the horrors pile up and demonic nuns shriek across the screen, The Conjuring 2 still manages to deliver the plentiful jump-scares that its audience demands.

The Girl on the Train 2016

girl-trainEmily Blunt turns out to be the major plus and saving grace of this Tate Taylor adaptation of Paula Hawkins‘s bestseller. With the action unwisely shifted from the UK to the US, Blunt plays Rachel, a permanently plastered woman who finds herself drawn to the mysterious actions inside a house she can see from her daily commute. Why is Megan Hipwell (Hayley Bennett) missing? Is Luke Evans up to something? Is Blunt shielding herself from the truth about her own actions? And why is Lisa Kudrow from Friends in this? The answers are all unraveled round about the half-way point, and even if some of the initially storytelling is muddled, that can be excused as matching Rachel’s own befuddled state of mind. What could be a mediocre thriller is saved by Blunt, as empathetic as ever, and making a decent fist of a tricky, unreliable heroine.

Truth 2015

truthThe most notable quality of Truth is that nobody seemed interested in seeing or screening it; despite top talent in the form of Cate Blanchett and Robert Redford as 60 Minutes producer and star Mary Mapes and Dan Rather, this tough-minded drama found few takers. Truth takes on a thorny topic; how tv investigative journalists discovered discrepancies within, and then were investigated themselves, over George Bush Jr’s military record. Perhaps Spotlight stole their thunder in terms of the awards race, but more likely, the subject matter seemed to be cold potatoes to the audience. In the ‘post-truth’ debate after the 2016 election, Truth seems a more significant film than before, and is well worth exhuming from the growing pile of worthy, politically minded flops over the last decade.

Welcome to Me 2014 ***

welcome-to-me-reviewKristen Wiig’s choices post-Bridesmaids have defied any attempt to categorize her as a light comedienne. The lengthy scenes of dog-castration in Welcome to Me are only part of a sustained attempt to avoid cuteness in this very off-beat drama about Alice Kleig (Wiig) who wins the lottery and decides to host her own chat show. The result is a debacle, but one which lines the pockets of her bosses. As Kleig’s show gets progressively weirder, the exposure also threatens her mental health, and Wiig impressively immerses herself in her character’s downfall. In spite of the oddness, there’s not many laughs in Shira Piven’s film, but that’s not the point; in examining how media exposure might engage and divert the attentions of a fragile-minded woman, Welcome to Me can make some claims to being the Network of the social-media era.

Hell or High Water 2016 ****

hell-or-high-waterScottish director David Mackenzie has made his fair share of head-scratchers, from his poor concert rom-com  You Instead to his baffling sci-fi opus Perfect Sense. The further he gets from home, the better his films get, and his follow-up to Starred Up is his best to date. Jeff Bridges plays Marcus, the grizzled Texas Ranger on the trail of two bank-robbers Tanner and Toby (Ben Foster, Chris Pine), brothers who have reluctantly decided to operate on the wrong side of the law since their mother passed away. Taylor Sheridan’s script is peppered with memorable scenes and characters, including a couple of pithy waitresses, and neat reversals of expectations. And when the finale comes, it’s got the drive and violent verve of the best dime-store novels. Dismissed by some as a Coen Brother knock-off, Hell or High Water is an intense, thoughtful thriller with a unique atmosphere of its own.


Anthropoid 2016 ***

anthropoidThe truth about the execution of SS General Reinhard Heydrich and the aftermath has been told before, notably Operation Daybreak. Writer/director Sean Ellis attempts to breathe new life into a familiar story with Anthropoid, which takes its name for the operation’s coded title. Cillian Murphy and Jamie Dornan are the two paratroopers who arrive in Prague on a deadly mission, with Toby Jones along to assist. Anthropoid differs from most WWII dramas in giving substantial screen-time to examining the consequences of the assassination, and notably the high price paid by those Czechs who assisted. There’s a brief lapse into sentiment that might have been better avoided, and the final church siege seems a little overblown. But for much of it’s length, Anthropoid is an effective update on one of WWII’s most brutal events.

Sully 2016 ****

220856-sully-movieThe story of the Miracle on the Hudson is the kind of material that could make a great tv movie; in the hands of Clint Eastwood, it makes for a great cinema experience. Following a similar structure to Flight, Sully opens with Tom Hank’s airline pilot having nightmares about the successful emergency landing he just carried out over NYC. In a fabricated bit of business that drives the story, the airline authorities somehow take a dim view of his heroic behavior, causing a series of flashbacks from various points of view that unravel exactly why Sully’s actions were so extraordinary. Eastwood avoids bloating the material and takes a sober, factual approach to the near-disaster, aided by a perfectly understated performance from hanks and good support from Aaron Eckhart, whose moustache is worth the price of admission. A model of economy, Sully is a meaty drama that contrives to use a dramatic lie to get at an astonishing truth.


Victoria 2015 *****

victoriaAnyone who ever feels bored with cinema should give Victoria a look; it’s an adrenalin shot of a kind that’s never been achieved before. Sebastian Schipper’s film was shot in one take, and lasts over two and a half hours. It’s not an art movie but a heist story in a Michael Mann vein; Victoria (Laia Costa) falls in with a group of local criminals after a night out, and gets involved in a robbery that goes wrong with deadly consequences. The gang’s leader, Sonne, is played by Frederick Lau with a Brando-esque intensity that should break him as an international star. Schipper keeps the action moving after a slow start, and Victoria somehow manages to be more than the sum of its parts. The sheer rush of watching the actors play out the drama in real time matches the desperate energy of the heist, and the result is a hyper-real thriller that leaves you shattered and moved. A one-off, Victoria is the kind of film that it’s a pleasure to stumble upon; it’s recommended viewing for anyone open to the possibilities of cinema at its best.

Sausage Party 2016 ****

sausageparty-frank-excitedSeth Rogen’s work can be an acquired taste; the shambolic nature of This Is The End or Observe and Report are hard texts to get excited about. Perhaps animation has brought the best out of him; although Sausage Party has an all-star cast, they seem more tightly reined in than usual, and the animation, while hardly Pixar, is watchable enough. But it’s the unusual high-concept that’s the big selling point here; the story of a sausage (Rogen) who seeks to escape from the supermarket, Sausage Party manages to mix low comedy with clever satire, as the various consumables and perishables are viewed as a microcosm of society, allowing for plenty of politically incorrect humour. Sausage Party is rude, crude and funny; even the musical sequence at the start is executed with on-point gusto.