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Turbo Kid

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Veterans of the video age (aka the ‘80s) ought to find plenty of familiar signifiers in this deliberately schlocky Canadian/New Zealand tribute to low budget, high concept sci-fi.

In the dark, post-apocalyptic future of 1997, a plucky, BMX-riding survivor known only as The Kid (Munro Chambers) has his humdrum, hardscrabble existence upset when he has to save his new friend, the quirky Apple (Laurence Laboeuf) from the tyrannical warlord, Zeus (Michael Ironside, and that’s a perfect bit of casting right there).

There’s a bit more to it, but Turbo Kid is more concerned with aesthetic over narrative – specifically, the gonzo aesthetic of such VHS mainstays as Metalstorm: The Destruction Of Jared-Syn, Spacehunter: Adventures In The Forbidden Zone, Ice Pirates, and any of a dozen more cheapie epics which tried to turn a desert location and a shopping spree at the Salvos into a quick buck.

It’s gloriously gory at times – the film takes pride in its beautifully brutal practical effects – but at heart, Turbo Kid is a charming little oddity that makes an asset of its low budget (it was financed by a Kickstarter campaign). Chambers and Laboeuf bring the right amount of earnestness to match the deliberately winking tone, while old warhorse Ironside could do this sort of stuff in his sleep, and his rogues gallery of freakish henchmen look like they’ve just stepped off the set of an Italian Mad Max knock-off – and they’re supposed to. It may not be worth a second look, but for fans of B-grade genre fare, Turbo Kid definitely rates a first.

 
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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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Elstree 1976

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You might think that everything that could be said about the original Star Wars (or A New Hope if you’re, you know, one of those guys) has been said, but then along comes Jon Spira’s crowdfunded documentary Elstree 1976 to show you that you’re wrong.

Spira takes a boots-on-the-ground look at the classic film, eschewing the Hamill/Ford/Fisher triumvirate and instead tracking down a host of bit players to tell their story. The two biggest subjects at hand are Jeremy Bullock (Boba Fett) and David Prowse (Darth Vader – or at least his body) but the former X-Wing pilots, Stormtroopers and aliens Spira digs up are much more interesting. Certain elements of Star Wars lore are reaffirmed – pretty much everyone involved thought it was a kids’ film, and not a very promising one – but what really stands out is the picture of mid-‘70s British show business that Elstree 1976 builds up, populated with dancers, chancers, wannabe actors and near-miss pop stars.

At times, Elstree 1976 – named for the studio where much of the original Star Wars was shot – is a bittersweet affair: few of the subjects interviewed amounted to much in the entertainment world after their brief turns in Star Wars, and it’s only that film’s enduring cult that keeps them in the spotlight, albeit largely at fan conventions hawking their autographs and anecdotes. Still, all seem happy with their lot and eager to share their stories.

The casual viewer might be nonplussed by Elstree 1976, but Star Wars fans – and Lord knows there’s more than a few of them – should find plenty of value.

 
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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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Fallout 4 (Game)

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I’m trudging through an irradiated swamp in the wasteland on the way to a community under attack by feral ghouls. My robot butler, Codsworth, chats amiably about nothing in particular as I make sure I’ve got enough ammo for the battle to come. I avoid the gigantic mosquitoes and ready my hunting rifle… when suddenly the heavens issue an almighty bang! A UFO, damaged and flaming, comes streaking out of the sky, flies over the swamp and crashes with a concussive thud nearby.

“You know, ma’am, I rather think we should investigate that,” Codsworth dryly observes. I walk over to the flaming wreckage. Nothing’s inside the craft but there’s blood, green in colour, leading in slimy streaks away from the crash site. I follow and eventually enter a cave. Inside is an alien, pissed off, who starts blasting at me, but I’m ready. I fire my rifle and explode his tumescent, extra-terrestrial head. Digging through his pockets I find a unique Alien Blaster. I add the weapon to my inventory and head back out into the wasteland.

Welcome to Fallout 4, Bethesda’s latest iteration in the beloved series about a post-apocalyptic, alternate reality earth. This time, the action takes places in what remains of Boston, in the year 2287, on a quest that is initially about finding your stolen son in a world gone mad. However, anyone who has ever played a Bethesda game, like Fallout 3 or Skyrim, will tell you the main story is largely a backdrop for the random encounters and strange journeys you embark upon in this massive, open-world action RPG.

When it comes to size and sheer volume of content, Fallout 4 does not disappoint. The game is huge. Even just playing the main story missions with no side quests would take a good few days of uninterrupted play, but when you factor in the various side quests and exploration, crafting options for DIY settlements (a new addition for this iteration) and just wandering about, getting lost and discovering things for the hell of it, Fallout 4 offers potentially hundreds of hours of play.

On the downside, the RPG elements have been stripped back and simplified this time around. This means that levelling up is less meaningful and, curiously, the emphasis of playstyle seems almost exclusively action-based, with most problems being solved via shooting. There’s nothing wrong with shooting in video games, mind you, but one of the exciting elements of Fallout 3 and Fallout: New Vegas was you could quite often talk or use guile to extricate yourself from a sticky situation, lending more depth to the proceedings.

Presentation-wise there are also a few niggling problems. The graphics and environments are beautiful-looking, especially on high-end PCs, but the character models and facial animations are oddly stiff, heading into uncanny valley territory. This is a problem that is particularly noticeable in 2015, when Witcher 3 proved RPGs can be as beautiful as they are massive. It may seem like a surface-level problem, but it’s hard to emotionally connect to a character who looks like a slightly baffled mannequin.

Still, in terms of offering a persistent, strange and darkly humorous world, Fallout 4 is hard to beat. Exploring the ruined remains of a once proud and thriving society is always poignant and the level of immersion and intrigue is likely to keep you hooked for many dark days and radioactive nights.