Out on Friday 2 December
Tom Hanks flies into the Hudson. The Dardennes present a murder mystery. Spike Lee returns with a musical. Miles Teller takes a hard knock.
Yes, here's this week's new releases. Click on for our reviews of Sully, Moana, The Unknown Girl, Chi-Raq, Bleed for This, The Edge of Seventeen, Half Way, Blue Velvet, The Dreamed Ones, I Am Bolt, The Search for Simon, Molly Moon and the Incredible Book of Hypnotism, The Heritage of Love, and The Weekend,.
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The real-life events of Flight 1549 might have been tailor-made for a Clint Eastwood movie. On 15 January 2009, a US Airways Airbus, having just taken off from LaGuardia en route to Charlotte, North Carolina, ran into a flock of Canada geese whose ingested bodies disabled both engines.
Veteran pilot Chesley ‘Sully’ Sullenberger, realising he had neither the height nor the speed to make it back to LaGuardia nor to any adjacent airport, decided to land his plane on the Hudson River – without losing a single one of the 155 passengers and crew members, who were all safely taken off by boat after evacuating onto the plane’s wings and inflatable slide.
Sully (played by – who else? – Tom Hanks), calm, unpretentious, above all utterly professional, is a hero after Eastwood’s own heart. Indeed, Clint himself is just that kind of filmmaker, making Sully a worthy celebration of professionalism at its modestly understated best. It’s well-made and impeccably acted by all concerned, while the re-enactment of the emergency landing itself – which we get to see twice – is convincing down to the last detail.
It’s undeniably exciting, too: the passengers casting terrified glances at each other, the stewardesses yelling “Brace! Brace!”, the water hurtling up to meet us. The only problem is that the film, with its famous, headline-dominating storyline, is predictable from start to finish.
OK, most of us know what happened on that January day, and those that don’t will soon be reminded. So there’s a certain amount of adrenaline in seeing the watery touch-down brought off so perfectly, but no tension: no one’s gonna die.
Realising this, Eastwood and his screenwriter, Todd Komarnicki (working from Sully’s own published account of events, Highest Duty: My Search For What Really Matters), shift their focus to the aftermath of the incident: when Sully and his co-pilot, Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart), are hauled up in front of a National Transportation Safety Board panel headed by a grim-faced Mike O’Malley (Concussion, R.I.P.D.) to be bombarded with hostile questions – were they sober, were they distracted by any personal preoccupations and, most crucially, why didn’t they try to make it to an airport? Just to add to the pilots’ ordeal, the NTSB claimed that the plane’s left-hand engine was still capable of functioning.
The dramatic irony here is strong. In public, in the press and on television screens all around the world, Sully and Skiles are being hailed as heroes, guys who kept their cool where a second’s hesitation, let alone panic, could have proved fatal.
Privately, meanwhile, before the panel, every decision they took is being called into question – to the point at which even Sully himself starts to have doubts, nightmares about the disaster that might so easily have happened. “What if I did get this wrong?” he asks his wife Lorraine (Laura Linney) when he phones her from his hotel room. “I’ve delivered a million passengers over 40 years, but in the end I’m going to be judged on 208 seconds.”
The film is at its most intriguing when we’re shown the elaborate reconstructive processes behind the panel’s inquisitions. First off we get the computer simulations, from which it appears that there would have been time to make it to an airport. This is then confirmed by live re-enactments carried out – and filmed – in a flight simulator at the aircraft-maker’s HQ in Toulouse.
At this point it seems as if things are going against our pilot heroes. But here, too, we can already foresee the outcome. First because if Sully and Skiles really had been disciplined, we’d have all heard about the worldwide outcry; and second, because who could imagine an Eastwood movie in which selfless, seasoned professionals wind up getting crapped on by a bunch of industry bureaucrats?
At 96 minutes, Sully is by some measure the shortest movie Eastwood has directed to date, and even then it feels a little padded out. A couple of flashbacks to Sully’s past – his initial training as a pilot, and his wartime flying experience – don’t add much.
There’s a warm sense of camaraderie between Hanks and Eckhart, swapping affectionate banter (even if poor Linney, who never shares the screen with Hanks, gets stuck with the ‘worried but supportive wife on telephone’ role), and some heartening shots under the end-credits of the real Captain Sully meeting up with a few of the passengers whose lives he saved. But ultimately – and oddly enough, given that this is a largely faithful account of rare real-life heroism – it all just seems a little too comfortable.
THE VERDICT: Sully is a skilfully made reconstruction of a recent real-life feat of heroic professionalism. But narrative tension is sorely lacking.
Director: Clint Eastwood; Starring: Tom Hanks, Aaron Eckhart, Laura Linney, Mike O’Malley; Theatrical release: December 2, 2016
Out go princes and primping on this Disney Princess voyage. In comes seafaring and world-saving in a visually dazzling, big-hearted crowd-catcher. Moana, Disney’s first Polynesian princess, is a feisty chieftain’s daughter, determined to save her dying island by finding exiled trickster demigod Maui and forcing him to replace the heart-jewel he stole long ago from the island goddess Te Fiti.
Cheekily self-aware and culturally sensitive, the movie insists she’s not royalty but the ocean’s Chosen One, its Pacific waters parting Moses-style around her to create a shimmering aquarium. Although, as Dwayne Johnson’s Maui observes, “If you wear a dress and have an animal sidekick – you’re a princess.”
Using meaty South Sea myths to craft a strong but simple story, the film initially resembles a pretty patchwork of past Disney hits (like many a Mouse House protagonist, the island-trapped Moana yearns for freedom).
That’s perhaps unsurprising, given directors Ron Clements and John Musker are veterans of the ’90s Disney Renaissance (they crafted Aladdin, Hercules and The Little Mermaid). But that era’s girl-power animation also feels nimbly rebooted here, via Moana’s Pocahontas-style leadership and Mulan pluck.
The energy soars, however, when Johnson’s selfish, boastful but amiable Maui shows up to give her the run-around, hell-bent on regaining his lost powers without her pesky quest. In another Disney Princess first, theirs is an odd-couple adventure rather than a love story, more True Grit than true romance.
Spoofing his he-man persona, Johnson’s feckless Maui sparks great buddy chemistry with newcomer Auli’i Carvalho’s engagingly stubborn Moana. As they power their raft across the ocean into exhilarating action sequences, taking on marauding coconut-clad mini-pirates or battling a sky-filling lava monster, the adrenalin levels surge way past animated fairytale norms.
But while it’s a more than worthy successor, Moana substitutes adventure and empowerment for Frozen’s emotional heft. With an eco-conscious story favouring redemption over outright villainy, there’s just a bit less tugging on your heartstrings. As Disney baddies go, Jermaine Clement’s giant treasure-crazed crab Tamatoa is a ball of fun (‘Shiny’, his Bowie-ish disco celebration of all things bling, is a highlight). But he’s no Ursula the Sea Witch.
Still, the tunes in this toon are tip-top, partly crafted by Hamilton creator Lin Manuel Miranda. The standout earworm? ’You’re Welcome’, a sly world-building boast that proves Johnson has pipes as well as pecs.
Coupled with the extraordinary lush visuals and fluid camerawork – moulding the ocean’s many moods and textures till it’s practically a character – Moana essays a rich, vivid feel. It might not be a whole new world, but it’s a fantastic voyage.
THE VERDICT: Despite Dwayne Johnson’s solid scene-stealing, the wave-taming Moana gets a true hero’s journey in this South Seas stunner.
Directors: Ron Clements, Don Hall; Starring: Auli'i Cravalho, Dwayne Johnson, Rachel House; Theatrical release: November 30, 2016
The Unknown Girl
Are art-house darlings Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne going mainstream? In Two Days, One Night, Marion Cotillard went on a quest to save her job. Now, another leading French actress – rising star Adèle Haenel – is playing detective, only this time there’s no deadline. Call it Many Days, Endless Nights.
When the titular woman is found dead, it sparks a crisis of conscience for doctor Jenny Davin (Haenel), who didn’t answer when the girl knocked on her door. What follows is an unusual detective thriller, as Jenny sets out to find out the victim’s identity, not for justice but to absolve her sense of guilt.
With fluid elegance, the Dardennes’ handheld sequence shots balance narrative tension with insight into a flawed character. Jenny is kind and capable, but also a workaholic incapable of accepting anything other than perfection.
As a detective thriller, it’s arguably a little too tidy. Not for the Dardennes the insoluble conundrums of Michael Haneke: once the cast’s biggest Euro-star arrives, the odds are slashed on Jenny solving the crime. Yet Haenel justifies her buzz with a tough/tender performance that keeps the Dardennes’ remarkable run of social-realist fables on track.
THE VERDICT: The Dardenne brothers deliver a perceptive portrait of professional integrity under pressure.
Directors: Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne; Starring: Adèle Haenel, Jérémie Renier; Theatrical release: December 2, 2016
Spike Lee doesn’t do subtle, but then he’s hardly cracking nuts. Chi-Raq, set in Englewood, Chicago, is a state-of-the-union address on America’s hot issues of gangs and guns. Full of righteous anger packaged in signature swagger, it’s his most purposeful and provocative film in years.
Updating Greek play Lysistrata to the windy city (where more Americans have been killed in the last 15 years than in the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts combined), Chi-Raq sees rival gangs the Spartans and Trojans trading bullets.
With no end in sight, Lysistrata (a terrific Teyonah Parris), the girlfriend of the Spartans’ leader, persuades womenfolk on both sides of the divide to take control of the situation. “No peace, no pussy,” goes their slogan, with the ladies modelling bling-tastic chastity belts until all weapons are discarded.
The satire is more sledgehammer than scalpel and Chi-Raq is both sententious and offensive, but then what do you expect – or, indeed, want – from a Spike Lee joint?
With its rhyming couplets, bursts of rap, swathes of broad humour, rampant machismo and a garishly suited Samuel L. Jackson serving as a one-man Greek chorus, this throbs with the kind of passion and (people) politics that so energised Do the Right Thing.
THE VERDICT: Right from the first frame the urgency rarely wanes as Lee juggles fireworks, firearms and feminism.
Director: Spike Lee; Starring: Teyonah Parris, Nick Cannon, Wesley Snipes, Samuel L. Jackson; Theatrical release: December 2, 2016
Bleed for This
The true-life story of Vinny Pazienza (played with conviction by Miles Teller) is remarkable: lightweight champion of the world in 1987, he broke his neck in a car crash only to defy medical opinion and get back in the ring. Even more remarkable is how it took Hollywood 30 years to turn it into a movie.
Trouble is, this sort of triumph-against-all-odds tale has fuelled dozens of sports movies, a fair few of them centred on plucky pugilists. The youthful arrogance smashed to pieces, the sozzled, grizzled coach (superbly played by an almost unrecognisable Aaron Eckhart), the training montage, even the fractious Italian-American family… all have been seen before, and many times over, meaning events of a miraculous nature feel somewhat banal.
Still, Bleed for This is made with palpable commitment by all involved and there are scenes to jolt viewers out of their déjà vu – none more so than the sickening car crash, though some queasy business involving the metal contraption screwed to Paz’s head also cuts through any comfort that comes with watching tried-and-tested tropes. The fight scenes, like the film itself, are solid but nothing new.
Director: Ben Younger; Starring: Miles Teller, Aaron Eckhart, Ciarán Hinds, Katey Sagal; Theatrical release: December 2, 2016
The Edge of Seventeen
Hailee Steinfeld gives a winning turn in this frothy coming-of-ager as outcast Nadine, a 17-year-old whose feelings of insecurity are scarcely alleviated by her friend (Haley Lu Richardson) copping off with her brother (Blake Jenner).
Grownups are no help, be they Nadine’s widowed mum or a curmudgeonly history teacher; and nor does romance do the trick. What’s a girl to do? Clearly no stranger to John Hughes movies, writer-director Kelly Fremon Craig brings a spiky wit and a warm-hearted, nerd-friendly finale to a comedy that wants for nothing but a little substance.
Director: Kelly Fremon Craig; Starring: Hailee Steinfeld, Haley Lu Richardson, Blake Jenner; Theatrical release: November 30, 2016
“How many council people does it take to change a lightbulb?” asks director Daisy-May Hudson’s mum. Before adding, “This is not a joke – this is deadly serious,” referring to the Kafkaesque process to get a duff bathroom fitting replaced when you suddenly find yourself in a homeless hostel.
Hudson’s excellent fly-on-the-wall documentary, filmed while she, her mum and younger sister were between homes, is urgent, powerful, eye-opening stuff.
Director: Daisy-May Hudson; Theatrical release: December 2, 2016
Plot-wise at least, David Lynch’s 1986 masterpiece now seems positively conventional given the noggin-noodlers to come – Lost Highway, Mulholland Drive, Inland Empire. But this detective noir/fairytale most grim is anything but straightforward, as two teens (Kyle MacLachlan and Laura Dern) follow the trail left by a severed ear to deep-dive into as uburban netherworld of kidnapping, murder and S&M.
Isabella Rossellini’s singer Dorothy is a heart-rending open wound, Dennis Hopper’s Frank Booth one of cinema’s great nutjobs, and Lynch’s control a thing of nightmarish beauty.
Director: David Lynch; Starring: Kyle MacLachlan, Laura Dern, Isabella Rossellini, Dennis Hopper; Theatrical release: December 2, 2016
The Dreamed Ones
Ruth Beckermann’s remote but rewarding film centres on an affair conducted via letters between mid-20th Century Jewish poet Paul Celan and Austrian writer Ingeborg Bachmann.
You crave more intensity of feeling, but shots of the actors (Anja Plaschg, Laurence Rupp) resting provide room for reflection in an intimate, nuanced performance piece.
Director: Ruth Beckermann; Starring: Anja Plaschg, Laurence Rupp; Theatrical release: December 2, 2016
I Am Bolt
A year in the life of Usain Bolt, as the superstar sprinter prepares for the Rio Olympics. Granted comprehensive access to Bolt and his team, British filmmakers Benjamin and Gabe Turner capture the gruelling training required for elite-level athletics.
It’s not the most probing doco, but the man himself, mobbed wherever he goes, emerges as a genuinely charismatic, likeable individual.
Directors: Benjamin Turner, Gabe Turner; Theatrical release: November 28, 2016
Molly Moon and the Incredible Book of Hypnotism
Playing like supernatural Tracy Beaker fan fiction, this is the kind of cheesy kids’ film that gives parents nightmares. The eponymous Molly is an orphan who masters hypnotism, using her powers for fame and freedom.
Celia Imrie and Emily Watson are a breath of fresh air and lead Raffey Cassidy fares better than most of the kids, but it’s not enough to save this dreary caper.
Director: Christopher N. Rowley; Starring: Dominic Monaghan, Emily Watson, Raffey Cassidy; Theatrical release: December 2, 2016
The Search for Simon
There’s a scrappy, amateurish charm to this sci-fi comedy, a story about a man (director Martin Gooch) who’s convinced that his long-lost brother has been abducted by aliens.
Gooch, who cast himself for budget reasons, is fairly jarring next to more natural actors, including former Doctor Who companion Sophie Aldred, but does land a few deadpan laughs.
Director: Martin Gooch; Starring: Millie Reeves, Matt Hookings, Sophie Aldred; Theatrical release: November 30, 2016
The Heritage of Love
This cumbersome Russian romance follows two love stories set a century apart: one in contemporary Paris, between Andrey (Dima Bilan) and Vera (Svetlana Ivanova); the other between their ancestors, a soldier and a duchess during Russia’s Civil War.
Soaring strings and dramatic glances tell you they are in love, but director Yuriy Vasilev never really shows it.
Director: Yuriy Vasilev; Starring: Aleksandr Adabashyan, Aleksandr Baluev, Marat Basharov; Theatrical release: December 2, 2016
This light-hearted, occasionally broad comedy sees student Derrick (a likeable Joivan Wade) and his two pals come across a rucksack stuffed with £50 notes. The jokes frequently land and Wade and his co-stars (Percelle Ascott, Dee Kaate) are amusingly hyperactive.
Shame, then, that character development takes a backseat to the more generic business of the trio dodging gangsters who want their dosh back.
Director: Sheridan De Myers; Starring: Joivan Wade, Percelle Ascott, Dee Kaate; Theatrical release: December 2, 2016