Out on Friday 10 February
Will Arnett’s Bale-inspired Bats packs plenty of laughs. Denzel Washington goes post-al. Alice Lowe delivers a bouncing bundle of prenatal splatter-core joy. Mike Mills goes short on plot but long on heart.
Yes, here's this week's new releases. Click on for our reviews of The Lego Batman Movie, Fences, Fifty Shades Darker, Prevenge, 20th Century Women, LoveTrue, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, Le Parc, and Taxi Driver.
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The Lego Batman Movie
Just when it appeared we’d reached peak superhero, those wily folks at Warner Bros find another way to re-package the Caped Crusader and the other denizens of the DC Comics stable – one that also manages to ally them to the world’s most popular toy brand. (Ker-ching!) The result is a riotous follow-up to 2014’s The Lego Movie.
It also goes some way towards dispelling the lingering stink from last year’s Dawn of Justice and Suicide Squad disappointments, films this one has no qualms about adding to its list of satirical victims. (“Get criminals to fight criminals? That’s a stupid idea!” mutters Batman at one point.)
Marvel too gets its fair share of ribbing (check out the password required to enter the Batcave), as do the conventions of superhero movies themselves. (The film kicks off with Zach Galifianakis’ Joker hijacking a plane full of munitions operated by McGuffin Airlines.)
Yet the chief target is the Dark Knight himself, hilariously voiced by Will Arnett as a grumpy churl and preening egotist that helmer Chris McKay (Robot Chicken) delights in undercutting at every opportunity. Our hero’s lonely idea of downtime, we learn, is to microwave lobster thermidor and rewatch Jerry Maguire.
Batman clearly needs a bat-buddy, one who duly arrives in the form of orphan Dick Grayson (Michael Cera). The Bat has bigger fish to fry, though – the Joker’s latest scheme to open the Phantom Zone and have its prisoners destroy Gotham forever.
How can he be a single parent when everything from Voldemort, the Gremlins and the Creature from the Black Lagoon are dismantling his town? Well, it helps if you have manservant Alfred (Ralph Fiennes) at your side, not to mention “sick new vehicles, codenames… and a kick-ass theme tune!”
McKay’s MO is to throw everything at the screen in the hope most of it sticks, be it a Justice League anniversary party or a homage to the Adam West TV show’s habit of word-illustrating its fight scenes.
But he could do all of these things without Lego, very much a spare part in a film that makes only limited use of the toy’s universe-building properties. So bereft is The Lego Batman Movie of instant-assembly set-pieces that a scene in which a ‘Scuttler’ vehicle is thrown together comes as a genuine surprise.
Still, it’s tough to get nit-picky with a film that finds chortles in everything from the Batmobile’s lack of seat-belts to Robin’s lack of trousers. Maybe DC will take the hint and inject a little more humour into their live-action fare…
THE VERDICT: An entertaining, if frenetic, vehicle for Arnett’s Bale-inspired Bats that packs plenty of laughs.
Director: Chris McKay; Starring: Will Arnett, Zach Galifianakis; Theatrical release: February 10, 2017
Three decades on from its Broadway premiere, August Wilson’s Pulitzer-winning play finally arrives on the big screen with its two leads – Denzel Washington and Viola Davis – reprising their Tony-grabbing performances from a 2010 revival that was one of New York’s hottest tickets.
Small wonder the film, which Washington also directs, exudes brio and authority, most of it emanating from the actor’s powerhouse portrayal of a garbage collector in 1950s Pittsburgh who takes out his frustrations on his family.
Garrulous, grandiloquent and fond of his gin, Troy Maxson was once a baseball player in the so-called Negro leagues that briefly flourished between the wars. But his career never took off, leaving him angry, resentful and only too ready to crush his son’s own hopes of a career in sports.
He has, laughs friend and co-worker Bono (Stephen Henderson), “More stories than the devil got sinners.” But he also has a secret: a marital betrayal that, when disclosed, threatens to destroy the slender equilibrium between him and long-suffering wife Rose (Davis).
Washington has some great scenes in Fences. There’s the moment when he takes youngest son Cory (Jovan Adepo) to task, answering his accusations of parental neglect with a cutting, “Who says I got to like you?” Then there’s the scene where he upbraids “Mr. Death” during a lightning storm, furiously scolding the Grim Reaper for daring to take away a loved one.
Yet there’s nothing here to match Davis’ reaction to discovering Troy’s adultery, a howl of rage that brings the movie to a shattering emotional crescendo. The problem is that it comes two-thirds of the way in, delivering a knock-out punch when there are still some rounds to go.
Equally problematic is Troy’s brother Gabriel (Mykelti Williamson), a brain-damaged former soldier whose habit of wandering in and out of the story to deliver savant-ish words of wisdom continually reminds us this is a product of the stage.
The same might be said of Washington’s reluctance to move the action away from Troy’s house and the cramped yard behind it: a sign of deference to the play’s late creator that contrasts strikingly with his assuredness in front of the camera.
Yet as a record of what may have been its definitive theatrical treatment, Fences is tough to fault. And it’s heartening to find a cinematic release so celebratory of the spoken word, especially at a time when bombastic effects and splashy visuals are so much to the fore.
At one point, Troy tells Cory that he’s “got to take the crookeds with the straights”. Audience members should heed that advice and accept there’s a lot of meandering en route to Fences’ powerfully memorable flashpoints.
THE VERDICT: Denzel Washington and Viola Davis excel in a well-crafted drama that’s sure to bring the late August Wilson’s words to a much wider audience.
Director: Denzel Washington; Starring: Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, Jovan Adepo, Russell Hornsby, Mykelti Williamson; Theatrical release: February 10, 2017
Fifty Shades Darker
Bonkbuster season has arrived, and with it the 18-rated promise that this Fifty Shades sequel will be dirtier, Dorn-ier and, yes, Darker than its risible-but-nevertheless-watchable predecessor. Frustratingly, it's a series that's still fumbling around under the sheets, trying to hit the spot.
Having hightailed it out of sado-city, Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) once again falls for the aggressive advances of BDSM billionaire Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan). But with the contract out the window, and a veritable rogues’ gallery of nutjobs attempting to drive them apart, the road back to the Red Room is far from easy.
Give Darker the benefit of the doubt and it comes dangerously close to the kind of camp classic that plays in midnight movie theatres where patrons throw spoons at the screen. But po-faced solemnity takes hold too often, the peculiarly uneventful plot picking up only when the latest outlandish curveball is thrown. Worst of all the film’s “kinky f***ery” is conservative and coy, an odd shortcoming for a series that proves sex sells.
Johnson’s winning charisma just about carries her through unscathed, and Dornan looks far more comfortable in his skin the second time round. But ultimately this is an adaptation that can't escape its trash-fiction roots.
THE VERDICT: The self-aware humour and winning central performances will (just about) get you through, but otherwise this is only to be enjoyed ironically.
Director: James Foley; Starring: Dakota Johnson, Jamie Dornan, Hugh Dancy, Eric Johnson; Theatrical release: February 10, 2017
In Ben Wheatley’s satire Sightseers, co-writer/star Alice Lowe helped bring out the homicidal underside of British holidays. In Prevenge, she subverts platitudes just as eagerly, with a darkly comic zest that’s all her own. Writing, directing and starring while pregnant, Lowe’s delivered a bouncing bundle of prenatal splatter-core joy: a mothers ’n’ horror (à la Goodnight Mommy, The Babadook) genre twist with its own cruelly funny flavour.
Lowe makes blithely riotous work of Ruth, a mum-to-be nursing bilious feelings towards both slimy men and pregnancy clichés. “Baby knows best,” pipes Jo Hartley’s midwife. But baby wants blood: and the little devil soon goads Ruth towards gutting the sleazy, the patronising and the “hipster sop” alike.
If the plotting is more scattershot than a newborn’s bowels, that only suits the sense of transgressive abandon in Ruth’s no-nonsense takedowns. She doesn’t hold back: DJ Dan’s (Tom Davis) comeuppance is a right mess and Kate Dickie’s frosty businesswoman learns what “harsh cuts” really mean.
Subtexts about grief and revenge help anchor the plot, though the more decisive clincher is Lowe’s guiding imprint – a mix of scathing vernacular wit and genre savvy. Her sardonic offspring inside won’t be ignored: and nor should Lowe’s wickedly subversive voice.
THE VERDICT: Horror’s maternity ward births a treat. The story’s sketchy, but satire’s alive and the ending’s a scream.
Director: Alice Lowe; Starring: Alice Lowe, Gemma Whelan, Kate Dickie, Jo Hartley; Theatrical release: February 10, 2017
20th Century Women
Short on plot, but long on heart, Mike Mills’ well-crafted coming-of-age tale is a tender, semi-autobiographical love letter to his late mother, making a matching pair with Beginners (2010), his deft fictional portrait of his gay father’s coming out.
Mills is gifted with a blazingly smart and feisty turn from Annette Bening as doughty older single mum Dorothea, who enlists punky artist lodger Abbie (Greta Gerwig) and wild-child schoolgirl Julie (Elle Fanning) to help her troubled teenager Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) become a man.
Part of the film’s charm lies in its note-perfect recreation of ’70s California, at the tail-end of the hippie era. But its warmth comes from its uniformly nuanced performances, especially Gerwig’s wounded intensity, and Fanning’s fear beneath the bad-girl bravado.
If the dialogue’s a tad glib (“Wondering if you’re happy is just a shortcut to being depressed”), the characterisation is deep, with Mills’ trademark mixed-media collages of stills, archive footage and book extracts building detailed portraits. Undercutting all this playfulness is Zumann (Sinister 2), whose fed-up 15-year-old hero brings a shot of shrugging, Boyhood-style normality to the proceedings.
THE VERDICT: Acting honours go to Bening, but it’s Mills’ wit and originality that make this story-lite dramedy shine.
Director: Mike Mills; Starring: Annette Bening, Greta Gerwig, Elle Fanning, Billy Crudup; Theatrical release: February 10, 2017
Exec-produced by Shia LaBeouf, Alma Har’el’s (Bombay Beach) poetic doc explores different forms of true love.
We follow three relationships in exceptional circumstances, the most engaging of which involves Alaskan stripper Blake, who laments the lack of physical intimacy caused by her boyfriend’s rare bone disease. Blurring art and life boundaries, this is playful, thoughtful and beautiful.
Director: Alma Har’el; Theatrical release: February 10, 2017
Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk
Returning a hero after a YouTubed Iraqi firefight, Billy (Joe Alwyn) and his comrades reluctantly participate in a half-time show at a Thanksgiving football game. With its 120 frames per second, Ang Lee’s latest is an eye-popping spectacle.
Shame its war-is-hell platitudes are as unconvincing as the Destiny’s Child lookalikes its protagonists find themselves supporting.
Director: Ang Lee; Starring: Joe Alwyn, Garrett Hedlund, Arturo Castro; Theatrical release: February 10, 2017
A French drama of two halves. Initially a tender observation of awkward teenage love, it shifts dramatically into an extended surrealist reverie.
Evoking Tropical Malady, it’s confidently shot with an understated classicism and reaches for meaty themes, such as psychoanalysis and healing from trauma, but the second half is punishingly dull, exhausting the goodwill earned by the charming opener.
Director: Damien Manivel; Starring: Naomie Vogt-Roby, Maxime Bachellerie, Sobere Sessouma; Theatrical release: February 10, 2017
Watch this 4K restoration of Scorsese’s ’76 masterpiece, its colours a seeping virus, and marvel that he originally planned to shoot on black-and-white video.
It’s a spiritual film, tracking Robert De Niro’s ’Nam vet as he takes the wrong path towards cleaning New York’s streets, minds and souls. In Scorsese’s words, it’s “a cross between Gothic horror and the New York Daily News”.
Director: Martin Scorsese; Starring: Robert De Niro, Jodie Foster, Cybill Shepherd, Harvey Keitel; Theatrical release: February 10, 2017