Out on Friday 7 April
Riz Ahmed leads a London noir. A horror with a delicious script and meaty performances. Arnie goes serious for a grief-stricken drama.
Yes, here's this week's new releases. Click on for our reviews of City of Tiny Lights, Raw, Aftermath, The Boss Baby, I Am Not Your Negro, Neruda, A Quiet Passion, Mad to be Normal, A Dark Song, and Table 19.
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City of Tiny Lights
For those who’ve seen Riz Ahmed in HBO’s New York-set The Night of, Pete Travis’ beguiling noir will feel like a London companion piece. Adapted by Patrick Neate from his own 2005 novel, it centres on Ahmed’s Tommy Akhtar, a private eye who returns to his west London family home to look after his cricket-mad father (Roshan Seth), who has recently been diagnosed with cancer.
Soon enough, he gets embroiled in a case that leads him back to his own teenage years when high-class escort Melody (Cush Jumbo) hires him to find her missing Russian flatmate. (“I charge £300 a day,” he mutters. “I charge £300 an hour,” she retorts.) His search leads him to a Mayfair hotel; the flatmate is nowhere to be found but her client, a Pakistani businessman, is dead as a proverbial doornail.
Clues soon point towards Tommy’s old friend-turned-property developer Haafiz (James Floyd). Past and present further intertwine when Shelley (Billie Piper), friends with both during their adolescent years, comes back on the scene. Now a single mother working as a hostess in a glitzy bar, Shelley represents what might have been.
In the rain-and-neon soaked streets, Travis conjures an air of regret that’s pure Raymond Chandler. But if the world-weary voiceover and corrupt politicos feel like well-worn noir tropes, the setting freshens things up: Tommy’s investigation takes him into a Muslim community rife with economic instability, street drugs and pockets of Islamic extremism. One particular encounter with the head honcho of an Islamic Youth Group (Alexander Siddig) is chilling, but screenwriter Neate is careful not to turn this into an overly political tract.
With Ahmed every bit as compelling here as he is in The Night of, City sees him continuing to grow as a performer. Fresh from her acclaimed stage turn in Yerma, Piper is also spot on. The British-born Travis (Dredd, Vantage Point) also seems to revel in the UK locale, seizing the chance to put a new spin on familiar gumshoe territory.
Much of the vibrancy comes from the director’s collaboration with cinematographer Felix Weidemann, who offers up a poetic depiction of night-time London: eschewing the usual fly-over shots of the Eye and Parliament, COTL treats us to an intoxicating street-level view. The capital city hasn’t felt this alive on film in years.
Some will baulk at the too-eager use of flashbacks, a slightly indulgent running time and even a rather-too-obvious villain. But small gripes aside, this is a unique and evocative mystery with a modern and hugely relevant edge. The first Muslim noir? More please.
THE VERDICT: A rich, rewarding crime film, shot with real skill. Riz Ahmed confirms his status as one of the most exciting Brit actors of his generation.
Director: Pete Travis; Starring: Riz Ahmed, Billie Piper, Cush Jumbo, James Floyd, Roshan Seth; Theatrical release: April 7, 2017
Every so often a horror comes along that redraws the map, redefines the genre and renders its contemporaries rather bloodless by comparison. That’s not to say Raw – a sharp, sexy and eye-poppingly gory French-Belgian cannibal number – isn’t already marinated in some pretty tasty stock.
With nods to Carrie, Ginger Snaps and Teeth, this is very much from the ‘monstrous, burgeoning female sexuality’ school – movies drawing corollaries between the stinky, messy, awkward stuff of adolescence, and the truly Other. And yet writer and director Julia Ducournau’s debut feels astonishingly fresh and bold. Surely destined for cult-classic status, it may very possibly have unrepentant carnivores developing a taste for Linda McCartney’s soya sausages.
Tracing the startling turn of events that occur after strict vegetarian student vet Justine (a blistering Garance Marillier) is forced to eat a rabbit kidney in a hideous college hazing ritual, Raw’s every transgressive frame is filled with (often darkly funny) bestial allusions, yet retains a very human poignancy and depth.
It also comes front-loaded with that ultimate seal of approval – reports of fainting audiences. While seasoned horror-watchers know to take such things with a pinch of finest Himalayan rock salt, in this instance, do consider yourself extremely warned...
THE VERDICT: A bracing and brilliant original, with a delicious script and meaty performances.
Director: Julia Ducournau; Starring: Garance Marillier, Ella Rumpf, Rabah Nait Oufella, Laurent Lucas; Theatrical release: April 7, 2017
Inspired by an incredible and rather depressing true story, Elliott Lester’s (Blitz) sombre drama is an odd proposition. Not an actor normally associated with complex emotions, Arnold Schwarzenegger plays Roman Melnyk, an ordinary man who loses his wife and pregnant daughter in a freak plane crash.
The disaster is caused – debatably – by air-traffic controller Jake (Scoot McNairy, somewhat nimbler than Arnie). Both men subsequently fall apart, their fates inextricably linked, and the film is most intriguing when dealing with the immediate fallout, such as when Roman volunteers to pick through the plane wreckage for bodies.
About 30 minutes in, unfortunately, comes what we’ll call omelette-gate. To convey the cavernous depths of his depression, McNairy serves his young son eggs so uncooked they would shame a Saturday Kitchen guest, while wife Christina (Maggie Grace) begs him to stop. It’s a terrible bit of writing, and the film never really recovers, moving from glum to silly and back again.
Besides the occasional robotic line reading (“You’re fired!”), and the sight of his naked behind, Schwarzenegger offers his most dignified performance for many a year, but he needs a film with a surer grasp of tone before he starts clearing that awards shelf. Let the Arn-aissance commence.
THE VERDICT: Reducing promising material to movie-of-the-week status, Aftermath is well meaning, but anonymously made.
Director: Elliott Lester; Starring: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Maggie Grace, Scoot McNairy; Theatrical release: April 7, 2017
The Boss Baby
Tom McGrath, director of Megamind and the Madagascar trilogy, here births an animation that kicks with visual invention and screams with retina-scorching colours. If only it wasn’t so desperate to suck on the teat of script-writing formula.
The perfect world of seven-year-old Tim (Miles Christopher Bakshi) is rocked by the arrival of a baby bro – more so when this suit-wearing, briefcase-wielding tot reveals himself to be a cunning infiltrator with a full-grown mind who’s intent on stopping puppies from overtaking babies in people’s affections.
As voiced by Alec Baldwin, bawling Boss Baby nails the blowhard drivel spouted by corporate sociopaths, but it’s only a matter of time until the boys grow ga-ga for each other and platitudinous messages spew forth (family over business, the importance of sharing). Still, the ’70s setting is neatly captured without fetishising the fashions (the look-back tale is narrated by adult Tim, voiced by Tobey Maguire) and there are gloriously imaginative interludes.
THE VERDICT: Less geared to adults than Pixar movies, but enough fun to prevent toys being thrown out of prams.
Director: Tom McGrath; Starring: Alec Baldwin, Steve Buscemi, Jimmy Kimmel; Theatrical release: April 7, 2017
I Am Not Your Negro
Narrated by Samuel L. Jackson, this striking documentary essay from Haitian filmmaker Raoul Peck pays tribute to late American writer and activist James Baldwin.
With every word taken from Baldwin’s own prolific literary output and public appearances, the film couldn’t be more timely in presenting a despairing analysis of how racial injustice bedevils American society.
Director: Raoul Peck; Starring: Samuel L. Jackson; Theatrical release: April 7, 2017
Before Jackie, Pablo Larraín tackled another 20th Century icon: the poet Pablo Neruda, portrayed by Luis Gnecco as a sensualist whose communist sympathies don’t stop him enjoying life to the full.
In recreating his 1948 banishment from Chile, though, Larraín gives equal screen time to the detective on his trail (Gael García Bernal): a Clouseau-esque bumbler whose determination not to be a footnote lends tragi-comic heft.
Director: Pablo Larraín; Starring: Gael García Bernal, Alfredo Castro, Luis Gnecco; Theatrical release: April 7, 2017
A Quiet Passion
“You have a life, I have a routine,” says Emily Dickinson (Cynthia Nixon) in Terence Davies’ biopic of the reclusive poet. Nixon captures the frustration of a woman out of her time, raging against religion, sexism and war, and imbuing Dickinson with a wry sense of her own fate.
“I am a kangaroo amongst beauties,” she teases. “Let us hope any man who courts me has an interest in zoology.”
Director: Terence Davies; Starring: Cynthia Nixon, Jennifer Ehle, Duncan Duff, Keith Carradine, Jodhi May; Theatrical release: April 7, 2017
Mad to be Normal
R.D. Laing was a psychiatrist who built a unique London community in the ’60s, living among schizophrenics in a medication-free retreat. In this touchingly funny, quietly heartbreaking biopic, David Tennant excels as the complex and flawed Laing.
Superb support from Elisabeth Moss as his frustrated partner, plus inpatients Michael Gambon and Gabriel Byrne.
Director: Robert Mullan; Starring: David Tennant, Elisabeth Moss, Michael Gambon, Gabriel Byrne; Theatrical release: April 6, 2017
A Dark Song
Magic and loss merge with feeling in writer/director Liam Gavin’s commanding debut. A grieving mum (Catherine Walker) hires a bitter occultist (Steve Oram) to contact her dead son. Over an intense six-month ritual, questions emerge: are their motives pure?
With the scares stealthy, Gavin’s parable draws power from the heart’s shadows: the climax may alienate some, but its audacity is earned.
Director: Liam Gavin; Starring: Steve Oram, Catherine Walker; Theatrical release: April 7, 2017
Thanks to your standard creaky-sitcom logic, Eloise (Anna Kendrick) ends up at the loser’s table at her best friend’s wedding. The kooky group of misfits and weirdos (including Lisa Kudrow, Stephen Merchant and Craig Robinson) bond in a film that promises raunch but delivers emo.
If the goal here was to replicate the banal horror of wedding-attendance obligations, then Table 19 nails it.
Director: Jeffrey Blitz; Starring Anna Kendrick, Craig Robinson, June Squibb, Lisa Kudrow, Stephen Merchant, Tony Revolori, Wyatt Russell, Amanda Crew; Theatrical release: April 7, 2017