Out on Friday 6 May
Meryl Streep sings a trill a minute. A dip into Terrence Malick’s not-so-magic hour. A Hank Williams biopic that’s Hidds and miss.
Yes, here's this week's new releases. Click on for our reviews of Florence Foster Jenkins, Bad Neighbours 2, Knight of Cups, I Saw the Light, Evolution, Truman, Johnny Guitar, Robinson Crusoe, These Final Hours, and The Sky Trembles and the Earth Is Afraid and the Two Eyes Are Not Brothers.
For the best movie reviews, subscribe to Total Film (opens in new tab).
FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINS
You wait ages for a film about the eponymous American socialite and amateur operatic soprano who was ridiculed for her godawful squawking (sure you do… no? well, just go with it) and then two come along. While French offering Marguerite (opens in new tab) was first out of the gate and, with its darker take on the material, arguably superior, Florence Foster Jenkins is the rendition that will pack punters in (sort of).
Directed by Stephen Frears, this is the kind of sophisticated comedy that’s rarely seen these days outside of the movies of Woody Allen and Whit Stillman. Set among New York’s elite, Florence’s deep passion for opera and even deeper pockets see her act as a patron to the city’s musos and warblers. Thing is, those who take so plentifully must also give back, meaning pasting on their rictus grins and applauding when Florence herself takes to the stage to caterwaul.
It’s essentially a one-joke movie and watching Meryl mince and maul threatens to wear as thin as her reedy voice (in truth, Streep’s a half-decent vocalist). But the material is elevated by the touching take on the relationship between Jenkins and her husband, failed actor St Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant, funny and tender), who has a mistress (Rebecca Ferguson) but nonetheless cares deeply for his generous-hearted, deluded wife. Private moments between the couple are genuinely touching, as is St Clair’s willingness to do whatever it takes to support Florence.
Add in the beautifully decorated interiors, a finely judged turn from Simon Helberg as Jenkins’ snivelling vocal coach and a running gag about potato salad, and this hits enough high notes to warrant an appreciative audience.
THE VERDICT: With Streep on grandstanding form and Grant given a rare chance to show his range, this is an intelligent dramedy that moves and amuses.
Director: Stephen Frears; Starring Meryl Streep, Hugh Grant, Rebecca Ferguson, Simon Helberg; Theatrical release: May 6, 2016
BAD NEIGHBOURS 2
Like the dildo dressed as a princess here, Nicholas Stoller’s sequel to 2014’s frat-attack romp applies only a flimsy cover-up to its basic purpose. Gender switcheroo aside, the Radners’ return exists mainly to hit comic g-spots: a mission often fulfilled, but sometimes so fumbled its under-dressed plot looks more exposed than Zac Efron’s pendulous ball-sack.
Efron gets a good twist, his ex-fratboy Teddy now languishing in post-hip limbo with his mid-’30s ex-nemeses Mac (Seth Rogen) and Kelly Radner (Rose Byrne). The neighbouring wildlings terrorising the Radners this time are a sorority fronted by Shelby (Chloë Grace Moretz), a gender spin that nods to campus sexism… then extends little further than a) a cheeky movie in-joke and b) tampons weaponised for parents-v-students warfare. On-target skits involving zip-wires and phone-cords keep things rib-ticklish but the plot shortfall shows mid-film, as weed/smartphone set-pieces howl hectically off-track.
With the onus on the cast to hold the line, it’s a shame Moretz’s return to mischief disappoints; less Hit-Girl, more tame near-miss. The guests (Kelsey Grammer, notably) and old gang save the day, especially Efron, whose bond with his gay buds and sweet confusion over boiling eggs show a rare light touch. Otherwise, it’s done-to-death dildo gags all the way.
THE VERDICT: Messier than a raging kegger, but game leads and a high gag-count keep the comedy-sequel comedown at bay. Just.
Director: Nicholas Stoller; Starring: Seth Rogen, Zac Efron, Rose Byrne, Chloë Grace Moretz, Dave Franco; Theatrical release: May 6, 2016
KNIGHT OF CUPS
Awaiting the new Terrence Malick film used to be like contemplating the blank sky for the arrival of a dazzling comet. The first 38 years of his career gave us five films, all of them masterpieces or thereabouts, and the stretches of silence – 20 years between Days of Heaven (opens in new tab) and The Thin Red Line (opens in new tab) – only added to the experience.
Not anymore. Malick’s new movie, Knight of Cups, is his third in five years, with two more already in the can. Shot through with beauty and awe, it confirms, after To the Wonder (opens in new tab), that this extraordinary filmmaker’s current work is more intimate and reflective than ever. Unfortunately it’s also hollow, simplistic (especially in its portrayal of women) and open to charges of self-plagiarism.
The plot, such as it is, sees Christian Bale’s Hollywood screenwriter, Rick, undergoing a spiritual crisis. flitting between Los Angeles and Las Vegas, he’s forever trailed by beautiful women (Natalie Portman, Teresa Palmer, Imogen Poots, Freida Pinto and, playing Rick’s ex-wife, Cate Blanchett) as he stares at architecture, wades into the sea and ambles in the desert. Occasionally Rick’s overbearing father (Brian Dennehy) and younger brother (Wes Bentley) drift into view, their incessant arguing at one point muted as Malick allows forlorn classical music to swell on the soundtrack by way of comment.
Man discombobulated and disconnected – from the natural world, from God (this is Malick’s most overtly Christian film) – is again the theme, and Emmanuel Lubezki’s gorgeous floaty-cam once more captures pirouetting women, a child on a swing and other now-clichés, while fragments of voiceover add murmur to the shimmer.
This is Malick turning graceful, ever-decreasing circles, though there’s a thrill to seeing him traverse hotel rooms and studio lots, nightclubs and strip clubs, after a career wrapped up in the period and pastoral.
THE VERDICT: Idle impressionism, or a great artist doodling. Like protagonist Rick, Malick feels in need of reinvention – a return to the narrative cinema of Badlands (opens in new tab), perhaps?
Director: Terrence Malick; Starring: Christian Bale, Cate Blanchett, Natalie Portman, Brian Dennehy, Wes Bentley; Theatrical release: May 6, 2016
I SAW THE LIGHT
One of the biggest icons of country music, Hank Williams is considered a national treasure anywhere they still whistle folksy classics like ‘Lovesick Blues’, ‘Hey, Good Lookin’’ and ‘I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry’. Unsurprisingly, Hank’s fans (and relatives) weren’t too happy to hear that the Westminster-born, Eton-educated Tom Hiddleston would be playing him in Marc Abraham’s long-gestating biopic.
Employing a thick gravy‘n’biscuits accent that only occasionally slips into RP, Hidds doesn’t sound too far from Alabama – and, of course, it doesn’t really matter whether or not he can sing like Hank because nobody can sing like Hank, which is sort of the whole point. What matters more is that the film isn’t very good.
Less a biopic than a dramatised Wikipedia page, every fact, plot point and character beat is played directly on the nose, with Hank going from poor drunken asshole to rich drunken asshole in the least eventful way possible.
Bracketed by a clumsy framing device that sees Bradley Whitford pretending he’s in a documentary, ISTL begins with Hank’s marriage to honky-tonk queen Audrey Sheppard (Elizabeth Olsen) and follows him through his rocky rise to post-war fame as ‘The Hillbilly Shakespeare’. Wives come and go, gigs are played, hits are made, drinks are drunk… and all of this plods along without any of the deft storytelling of Hank’s own songs.
When Abraham leaves the camera on Hiddleston and Olsen long enough to let them chew on their characters, the film offers flashes of something much more interesting: a handful of domestic scenes prove that the actors, not to mention Hank, would’ve been much better served by a ballsier script and braver direction.
THE VERDICT: Poor Tom Hiddleston – he spent months perfecting his southern accent for a biopic that lets him down almost as much as it does hank Williams.
Director: Marc Abraham; Starring: Tom Hiddleston, Elizabeth Olsen, David Krumholtz, Bradley Whitford, Cherry Jones; Theatrical release: May 6, 2016
Twelve years on from the dreamy unease of her 2004 debut, girls’ boarding-school enigma Innocence, Lucile Hadžihalilovic re-confirms her visionary promise. Her second film flips the gender script with a focus on boys, and in other ways that shouldn’t be spoilt. But what holds firm is her flair for controlled provocation, embedded in brain-teasing ideas and images as searing as the retina-scalding sun with which she opens.
That sun bears down on a matriarchal seaside community, where young Nicolas (Max Brebant) returns from a swim to tell his mum (Julie-Marie Parmentier) about a body found underwater. But mother has other things in mind, like cooking gross concoctions for her boy. Or administering the medicine he needs for the changes boys go through. You know, like lizards.
The secrets unveiled demand to be experienced rather than explained, so suffice to say they range from a strange starfish to the local mums’ nocturnal pastimes, which resemble some Lovecraft-ian ritual of the flesh. Then things get really weird as the boys are taken to a hospital, where truths emerge in an immersively scored mix of dream film and body horror.
Davids Lynch and Cronenberg would approve, but comparisons can stop there because Hadžihalilovic’s steady approach to freaky bio-shit summons a unique mix of warmth, wonder and WTF-ery. Nor is she out to shock, as sometime collaborator Gaspar Noé (Love (opens in new tab), Enter the Void (opens in new tab)) has been accused of. While understated performances and careful pacing stave off hysteria and crude jolts, Hadžihalilovic leavens the taboo-trashing with a tender bond between Nicolas and Roxane Duran’s nurse, which takes us in surprising directions.
As we’re steered from nightmares to raptures, the mix of horror, sci-fi, puberty fable and gender-twisting perhaps strains the narrative. But two certainties hold: it’ll stick with you, and Hadžihalilovic is in total command of her evolution.
THE VERDICT: Hadžihalilovic’s return doesn’t disappoint: with poetic style and horror-shaped daring in sync, she mounts an unsettling mind-boggler. Dive in, but mind the starfish.
Director: Lucile Hadžihalilovic; Starring: Max Brebant, Roxane Duran, Julie-Marie Parmentier; Theatrical release: May 6, 2016
Death and comedy aren’t natural bedfellows, but this tale about two old friends sharing a final reunion is sweet, melancholic and, yes, gently funny. When Tomás (Javier Cámara) visits his cancer-stricken friend Julián (Ricardo Darín), the pair attempt to tie up loose ends before he passes.
Julián’s longing for youth, regret over past misdeeds and pained resignation to fate strikes a resonant contrast with Tomás’ unwavering support. If the result is unlikely to leave audiences bawling, it’s still a well-observed study of life and loss.
Director: Cesc Gay; Starring: Ricardo Darín, Javier Cámara, Dolores Fonzi; Theatrical release: May 6, 2016
If you’re old enough to read this then you’re probably too old for this bright and child-friendly animation. Made by Belgian animation studio nWave, it retells Daniel Defoe’s 1719 novel from the POV of the (talking) animals, on whose island the title character finds himself cast away.
It’s a tame but visually impressive effort with a genuinely imaginative use of 3D. That, perhaps, will be enough for kids, but adults may struggle with the flat script, which lacks the parent-pleasing wit of Pixar or Aardman.
Director: Ben Stassen, Vincent Kesteloot; Starring: Ilka Bessin, Dieter Hallervorden, Matthias Schweighofer; Theatrical release: May 6, 2016
THESE FINAL HOURS
An Aussie entry in the end-of-the-world sub-genre, TFH sees James (Nathan Phillips) leave his pregnant girlfriend Zoe (Jessica de Gouw) behind while he sets off to party hard before a meteor hits. En route, however, his plans change when he saves a 10-year-old girl (Angourie Rice).
Sure, the core tale of personal redemption is standard stuff but Zak Hilditch’s breathless, batshit-crazy thriller tears through orgies, mass suicides and murderous rampages to conclude on a scene as moving and terrifying as the climax of Melancholia (opens in new tab). Hold on tight.
Director: Zek Hilditch; Starring: Jessica De Gouw, Nathan Phillips, David Field; Theatrical release: May 6, 2016
Not too many westerns culminate in a six-gun showdown between two women – but then Nicholas Ray wasn’t your average filmmaker. His 1954 movie is named for Sterling Hayden’s wandering gunslinger, but Hayden’s merely an onlooker to the central relationship: the lethal rivalry between saloonkeeper Joan Crawford and butch cattle queen Mercedes McCambridge.
The film baffled American critics – but François Truffaut adored it, calling it “dream-like, magical, unreal to a degree, delirious”. He wasn’t far wrong, either.
Director: Nicholas Ray; Starring: Scott Brady, Sterling Hayden, Mercedes McCambridge, Joan Crawford; Theatrical release: May 6, 2016
THE SKY TREMBLES AND THE EARTH IS AFRAID AND THE TWO EYES ARE NOT BROTHERS
The title gives some idea of the near-impenetrable odyssey on offer from artist/filmmaker Ben Rivers. The loosely meta narrative sees a director shooting his masterpiece in Morocco and struggling to work with the local cast and crew.
Eventually he walks off set and is kidnapped by nomads who rip out his tongue and make him wear a suit of tin lids. There are lots of themes floating around but none have much impact.
Director: Ben Rivers; Starring: Oliver Laxe; Theatrical release: May 6, 2016