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Goosebumps

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For kids that grew up in the 1990s, Goosebumps – the best-selling series of horror-lite novels by R.L Stine – represents a ubiquitous cultural signpost. The rate at which Stine turned out entries in not only the aforementioned but other series including Fear Street, Point Horror and a choose-your-own Goosebumps suggested less the impetus of an almighty creator than a sweatshop factory-line.

Rob Letterman’s new adaptation picks up on that abstraction by positioning Stine as a character within the film. Played by Jack Black, Stine is less a concept by which we measure our own fear than he is engendered by the veneer of a child molesting weirdo. If this is bad by default, it also means Black keeps his typical obnoxiousness to a minimum, which is good.

When Zach (Dylan Minnette) and his mum (Amy Ryan) move to a new town, Zach becomes besotted with Hannah (Odeya Rush), the girl next-door, though perturbed equally by her reclusive father (Black). Fearing some travesty has been importuned on the unfortunate Hannah, Zach organises a break-and-enter with his new best friend Champ (Ryan Lee) only to set a series of disastrous events in motion. Discovering a shelf full of padlocked Goosebumps manuscripts, they ken that their nefarious neighbour is none other than R.L Stine whose monstrous creations, in fact, are real, and imprisoned within the manuscripts which they have the misfortune to open.

While conceptually, Goosebumps benefits from witty self-referential humour, the decision to amalgamate all of Stine’s creations into a single movie means they are allowed neither the time or nuance to scare or develop as singular entities, making this less a bona-fide adaptation than a conglomerate homage. Rather, too much of the film is occupied by faceless CGI artefacts chasing humans amid carnage and not much more. While kids will still have fun with this, it sadly lacks the imaginative capacity which should have been its strong point and would have made it a more endearing tribute to its source material.

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The Danish Girl

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Nearly a century before Caitlyn Jenner was heralded a modern transgender icon, Danish painter, Einar Wegener, became an accidental activist in gender-reassignment surgery, as the first person to undergo the operation. A cynic may see the telling of Einar’s story now as an attempt to cash in on the current cultural zeitgeist, but it quickly becomes clear that this film has its heart in the right place.

After earning an Oscar for his turn as Stephen Hawking, Eddie Redmayne once again proves his immense talent for transformation in essaying Einar, and also Lili Elbe, the woman who gradually emerges throughout the film. Our first glimpse of Lili is when Einar’s beloved wife and fellow painter, Gerda (Alicia Vikander), asks her husband to pose for her in stockings and heels, and it clearly stirs something in him. At first, Gerda encourages Einar’s feminine side, even going so far as to instigate a girl’s night out on the town with “Lili.” Gerda, however, soon comes to realise that this is far more than a game to her husband, and Lili is here to stay.

As one would expect from the Oscar winning director behind The King’s Speech and Les Miserables, Tom Hooper transforms this story into the most gorgeous and accessible film that you could make given the subject. While he may skim over the grittier details, the filmmaker doesn’t skim over the nuance, and there’s so much to absorb here. Redmayne is sure to score another Oscar nomination for his undeniably fantastic lead turn(s), but Vikander shines just as brightly as Gerda. Arguably the film’s most intriguing character, Gerda is a rock to her husband even when her own world is crumbling. Theirs is one of the year’s most fascinating and deeply touching love stories.

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Star Wars: The Force Awakens

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Has any filmmaker borne such a brunt of expectation as J.J. Abrams has with Star Wars: The Force Awakens? Already a ticket-burning record setter, the film has been tagged as a possible eraser for the memories of George Lucas’ unfairly derided prequel trilogy, and also as a springboard for a whole host of new Star Wars films, and possibly even TV series too. Could any film really live up to that kind of hype and pressure? Unbelievably and joyfully, the answer to that is a resounding yes. And while Mad Max: Fury Road and Jurassic World proved that a dormant franchise could be effectively resuscitated and brilliantly reconfigured, both of those success stories came partially out of left field. With Star Wars: The Force Awakens, however, there is nowhere to hide. But with this gargantuan effort, J.J. Abrams will have no problem standing tall and in plain sight.

Beginning with that iconic expository scene-setting title crawl, Star Wars: The Force Awakens sends you back to that galaxy far, far away with jolting immediacy, describing a new galactic power structure, where The First Order has risen from the ashes of Darth Vader’s empire, and The Resistance still stands steadfast under the leadership of General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher). We then meet a trio of likeable and engaging new characters – cocky Resistance pilot, Poe (Oscar Isaac); runaway Stormtrooper, Finn (John Boyega); and young scavenger, Rey (Daisy Ridley) – before the show stopping arrival of Mount Rushmore-worthy cinematic icons, Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew). They have a menacing adversary in the form of masked Force practitioner, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), and a missing touchstone in mythic Jedi fighter, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hammill).

After his successful reboot of Star Trek, Star Wars: The Force Awakens will make J.J. Abrams the most loved man in cinematic sci-fi. The Force is indeed strong with this one. Scripting with Lawrence Kasdan (who penned The Empire Strikes Back and Return Of The Jedi) from an original draft by Michael Arndt (Toy Story 3, Little Miss Sunshine), Abrams gets everything right here. The nods and winks to the beloved initial trilogy come thick and fast (there are Stormtrooper sight gags, a trash compactor mention, and visual echoes galore, along with a plot obviously templated by the original films), but they’re never laboured or gratuitous.

Everything in Star Wars: The Force Awakens is there to serve the story, whether it’s the appearance of treasured vintage characters, or the moments of genuine shock and surprise that punctuate the narrative. Though there is plenty here for the fans, they are never cheaply pandered to: seeing Han and Leia again is a true delight, but seeing them in the middle of a story to which they are key is even better. Their performances are full bodied and real too, with Ford once again channelling the charm and rebellious sass that made him famous in the first place. The film’s new stars – Oscar Isaac, John Boyega, Daisy Ridley, and Adam Driver – match them at every turn (though Andy Serkis’ CGI string-pulling, monstrous bad guy is a little distracting), and provide great optimism for the franchise’s future. With its breakneck pacing; intelligent and measured reverence for the original films; punchy action sequences; and ambitious plotting, Star Wars: The Force Awakens is a near perfect continuation of the most beloved movie franchise of all time.

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The Good Dinosaur

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If Randy Newman had been available 65 million years ago, he would have grabbed some coconuts and banged out a jaunty tune espousing the virtues of dinosaurs.  The title of Pixar’s new feature is a slight misnomer, because as it turns out, most of them are pretty good: a conservative and surprisingly dexterous species who live on a diet of corn maize, family values, and old fashioned hard work, less the spiritual antecedents of Steven Spielberg than the Cleavers or the Nelsons.

The Good Dinosaur tells the story of young Arlo (Raymond Ochoa), a timid Apatosaurus and the runt of his litter who goes astray from his family while chasing a young human wildling named Spot (Jack Bright) away from the corn stash.  Forced together in order to survive, Arlo and Spot soon form a deep bond founded on the knowledge that their differences are only skin deep but their similarities boundless.  Travelling in search of Arlo’s home on Clawtooth Mountain, they must find the courage to confront the daunting predators and boundless wilderness that awaits them.

If The Good Dinosaur bears some suspiciously similar plot elements to 1988’s The Land Before Time, what distinguishes it is the astonishingly beautiful animation, based in part on new technology implementing United States topographical survey scans to render backdrops.  The gravitas of that visual sense is almost enough to distract from the uneven tone of the film, but not quite, because while it is consistently sweet, that also means it lacks the acerbic quality that diverts other Pixar movies from banal territory.  In other words, while it is never anything less than charming, only towards the end is The Good Dinosaur actually exciting, where mostly it just ambles on politely.

An awesome technical feat, The Good Dinosaur is a very good Pixar film, but not quite a great one, even if it is highly likeable all the same.

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The Belier Family

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The titular family of four here runs a farm in rural France. Their lives would be fairly prototypical, were it not for one crucial distinction: all but one of them are deaf. Consequently the parents, Rodolphe (Francois Damiens) and Gigi (Karin Viard), rely on their daughter, Paula (Louane Emera), as an interpreter in certain public contexts such as markets and – uncomfortably, but amusingly for the viewer – at gynaecological appointments.

It’s an equable and enjoyable lifestyle for the most part, though it’s threatened when the obnoxious local mayor tries to buy up and dispose of all the agricultural land. Rodolphe stands for election against him, and the other Beliers help out. But when Paula – a gifted singer – decides to train for admission to a Paris conservatory, the family’s internal cohesion is itself put into jeopardy. Her parents are initially appalled by the prospect of her “abandoning” the farm for the big city, despite her obvious talent and ambitions…

Louane Emera employs her own natural singing voice for the film, and it’s sublime – as are some of the songs by French singer-songwriter, Michel Sardou, that she performs. As for her acting, it’s so convincing and naturalistic that it’s easy to forget that it is acting.  There’s also a scene that gives an unsettling insight into just what it must feel like to be deaf. Suffice to say that you won’t forget it in a hurry. The Belier Family is that rare thing: an (essentially) feel-good movie without any of the minuses that usually come with the territory. The humour – there are quite a few good one-liners – and the warmth, the charm, the pathos, and the topic make it a pleasure.

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Suffragette

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In the early twentieth century, the word Suffragette was synonymous with extreme political activism. The word has faded into history, perhaps largely because (in the Western world at least) the battles for women to be allowed to vote have moved on. Thus Sarah Gavron’s finely made drama has to resist being merely trapped in history.

Using a seasoned cast, Gavron fashions a story which is steeped in history but interesting to us moderns. The film is anchored in the life of Maud Watts (the typically riveting Carey Mulligan), a fictional composite there to condense the big themes that defined the era. Maud works in a harsh women’s laundry under the watchful eye (and groping hands) of her boss. Her husband, Sonny (Ben Whishaw), struggles with her dissatisfaction, and reminds her firmly that he defines her first duty as being his wife. When she goes along to a “votes for women” meeting, Maud falls under the spell of activist, Violet (Anne Marie Duff), and comes to realise that the vote will only be granted if the women force the issue with direct action. At this point, Maud comes to the attention of Inspector Steed (the wonderful Brendan Gleeson) who, fresh from infiltrating the IRA, knows a thing or two about how to break secret organisations.

The early Suffragettes were often imprisoned, and Gavron doesn’t shy away from the brutality that surrounded them. Both Gleeson and Mulligan are actors of considerable range and subtlety, and the scenes between them not only advance the moral debate, they are also the best in the film. Incidentally, there is a cameo from the great Meryl Streep as a rather grand Emmeline Pankhurst. It’s Mulligan’s picture all the way though, and once again, she shows the depth and range that makes her one of the leading British actors of her generation.

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Youth

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A fragmented elegy to desire, sex, ageing, and death is an unexpected turn for Michael Caine, whose recent roles have mainly been in big budget Christopher Nolan films. Caine is a performer who’s never shied away from admitting that he’s taken a job purely for the pay cheque, but with Youth, he delivers a nuanced performance of quiet poignancy that’s marks some of the best work that he’s ever done.

The film tells the story of Fred Ballinger (Michael Caine), a renowned composer enjoying his annual stay at a Swiss alpine hotel spa with his friend, esteemed film director, Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel). The men muse on the state of their urinary function, and make observations on other hotel guests, old flames, missed opportunities, their children’s troubles, and their careers. Fred’s daughter, Lena (Rachel Weisz), wrestles with a failing marriage to Mick’s son, Julian (Ed Stoppard), while Fred forms a light friendship with fellow hotel guest, Jimmy Tree (Paul Dano), an A-list actor preparing for his next role. Also in the mix is Mick’s most famous leading lady and muse, Brenda (Jane Fonda), who visits him at the hotel to discuss a new role and, in one incendiary sequence, delivers an evisceration of his career, legacy, and self-regard.

It’s a tough film to do justice in a review because it’s structured more as music than a straight narrative. Director Paolo Sorrentino’s (The Great Beauty, This Must Be The Place) light touches of eroticism, deeply wrought drama, and comic flourishes starkly juxtapose with inflections of soaring Fellini-esque imagery, thanks to Luca Bigazzi’s stunning lensing and a terrific orchestral score by David Lang. Youth functions effortlessly on a hypnotic ebb and flow, and climaxes in a final sequence that is resonant and moving. We watch films in the hope that we get to have experiences like this.

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The Revenant

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Obviously wanting to spread his cinematic wings after the largely interior Birdman, Mexican writer/director, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, goes into the wild with The Revenant, shooting almost entirely on location, and dragging forth a visually stunning but gruesomely primal tale of survival and revenge that recalls masters like Sam Peckinpah, Walter Hill, Werner Herzog, and Terrence Malick. In this mini-epic of dirt, grit, and blood, beauty and horror bash against each other at will, and the human spirit is revealed in all of its nobility and brutality. And at its centre is a group of actors who literally go to the bottom of the well to deliver a collection of highly committed, deeply felt performances that go beyond mere acting and push into something else altogether.

Working with limited dialogue, Leonardo DiCaprio wholly inhabits the character of Hugh Glass, an experienced wilderness tracker working as guide to a bedraggled crew of fur trappers plying their trade in The Rockies in the 1820s. After being mauled by a bear (in a staggeringly rendered scene of protracted, horrific violence and physical violation rivalled only by Monica Bellucci’s desecration in Irreversible), the barely alive and practically mute Glass is then betrayed and left for dead by Tom Hardy’s trapper, John Fitzgerald, a revoltingly insensitive and avaricious misanthrope who rates as one of the most despicable villains to metaphorically twirl his moustache in years. His body battered and eviscerated, the determined and highly skilled Hugh Glass then begins a long and torturous journey back to what passes for civilisation, where he hopes to have a few angry words with the aforementioned John Fitzgerald…

As a technical achievement, The Revenant is a work of art beyond compare. The images conjured by cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki, are painterly but horribly immediate, bathed in natural light and literally shimmering off the screen. The special effects are expertly woven through this visual tapestry, with the CGI blending in seamlessly with the natural surroundings, creating a sense of breathless realism. And while not previously a proponent of action cinema, Inarritu crafts a number of set pieces that will blow audiences back in their seats, with an early attack on the trappers by a Pawnee tribe rattling with a Saving Private Ryan-style mix of horror, confusion, and body-blasting violence. At 156 minutes, however, The Revenant is tough going, and screams out for a judicious edit. Hugh Glass’ journey is a long and painful one, and at times, the film mirrors that too intently, with this broken but dogged mountain man’s litany of hardships becoming almost unbearable to witness. When he climbs into a gutted horse carcass for warmth, the damage is near irreparable. But with that agony comes equal ecstasy: it might be an endurance test, but the rewards of The Revenant are plentiful. This is big, brave, and borderline deranged filmmaking, reaching with arms outstretched for the heavens while its boots are stuck in the mud and the muck.

 

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Sisters

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The hipsters got their party movie with The Great Gatsby, the kids got to drain the keg in Project X, and now the fortysomethings have their turn at the bar with the gut-busting Sisters, the new comedy vehicle for Tina Fey and Amy Poehler. Walking the same raunch-plus-relatability-and-heart territory as Trainwreck and Bad Neighbours, this foul-mouthed thigh-slapper lets its gifted leading ladies off the leash, and offers new comic delights from both, as they effectively swap their traditional roles, with the usually buttoned-down Fey playing the wild child to Poehler’s peppy but uptight stiff.

When their parents (the impossibly handsome James Brolin and the utterly charming Dianne Wiest) sell their family home, sisters, Maura (Poehler) and Kate (Fey), decide to have one final blow-out, getting all of their high school friends and enemies (including John Leguizamo’s sleazy lech, and Maya Rudolph’s bitchy diva) back together for an age-defying smoke, snort, and guzzle fest. The party starts off slow, but eventually gets buckwild, allowing for dazzling comic interplay from regular collaborators, Poehler and Fey, who get their best big screen showcase here, riffing and improvising at will, as a host of comic scene stealers (most notably Poehler and Fey’s Saturday Night Live cast mate, Bobby Moynihan, and WWE superstar, John Cena) spins around them. Even Poehler’s standard love interest is given real comic life thanks to the funny and disarming everyman charm of Ike Barinholtz (The Mindy Project, Eastbound & Down).

Winningly and often filthily scripted by big screen debutante, Paula Pell (Saturday Night Live, 30 Rock), and zippily directed by Jason Moore (Pitch Perfect), the admittedly slight Sisters is a dirty delight, with Poehler and Fey proving that they can drop queef and taint jokes with just as much ribald precision as Amy Schumer or any of the other comic-crown-chasers out there. Fresh, funny, and heartfelt, Sisters makes up for what it lacks in plot with a rolling succession of tear-inducing jokes and a gaggle of hard-partying characters that you would actually want to buy a drink for.

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The Big Short

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The brilliance of The Big Short is that it doesn’t even pretend to be a story about good guys. Four market experts – brought to life by Christian Bale, Ryan Gosling, Steve Carell and Brad Pitt – glean the volatility of the soon-to-be 2008 subprime mortgage crisis. Each decides to bet against the market in an effort to secure a hefty pay-packet after everything comes crashing down. When one of the main characters tells another that “they (the banks) got greedy, and I can profit off their stupidity,” the platitude perfectly sets the tone for the film. Like thematic predecessors such as Wall Street, The Big Short is all about greed and making money. The audience can easily get caught up in the characters’ collective drive to prevail, which both sadly and exquisitely mirrors the many hapless mortgage-brokers portrayed in The Big Short whom we are told to detest.

A fairly typical Hollywood indictment on all involved, the film is so cleverly executed that it manages to be a story where you root for its central characters’ success, in spite of the knowledge that they are part of the very fraught system that the film bemoans. A reflective and consistently entertaining treatise on the crisis, The Big Short is most interesting in the ways that it renders the intricate subject matter accessible. The normalcy of an early scene featuring two characters discovering crucial material in a lobby is shattered when one breaks the fourth-wall – a regular device throughout the film – and tells us that what we saw was a lie, just a convenient plot device to explain things more clearly.

Likewise, the characters do not shy away from discussing the complexities of the financial crisis ala Margin Call, which will please devotees in the field who appreciate more than simplistic explanations of the issues. Again, the fourth wall is broken in decisive and surprisingly expository ways, with celebrity chef, Anthony Bourdain, for instance, creating a meal and talking explanatory finance direct to camera, and Margot Robbie doing the same in a bathtub. These sequences aren’t trite or overused, and while not achieving the deliberately incongruous tone set by The Wolf Of Wall Street, as apparently intended, it does the trick, conveying more complex concepts than those featured in the likes of 99 Homes or Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps.

The film, while excellent, does err in a few respects, most notably in Pitt’s casting. Inundated with analysts obsessed with making money off the ensuing crash, Pitt’s character, despite his complicity, appears to be the only one whose moral compass is fixed throughout. It’s not the only film where he has served as producer and cast himself, and as with 12 Years A Slave, Pitt plays an upstanding individual whose actions and morality contrast with all of the other characters. In The Big Short, this is not only more pronounced, but is also a distracting, inconsistent thread of the narrative. But despite its flaws, The Big Short is both an accomplished intellectual exercise and an accessible drama that will play well to a range of audiences. A refreshing and piercingly clever morality tale – whether you prefer the emotive, simplistic or in-depth depictions of what happened – the film hits its target.

 

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