Out on Friday 8 April
Jeff Nichols conjures up supernaturalism for sceptics. Jacques Audiard packs quite a punch. A final lead performance from Robin Williams.
Yes, here's this week's new releases. Click on for our reviews of Midnight Special, The Huntsman: Winter's War, Dheepan, Boulevard, Hardcore Henry, Nasty Baby, Couple in a Hole, The Absent One, Calamity Jane, The Last Man on the Moon, The Man Who Knew Infinity, The Passing, and I Am Belfast.
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When John Carpenter's The Thing flopped at cinemas, Universal booted him off an adaptation of Stephen King's Firestarter, about a father and his pyrotechnic daughter on the run from government types desiring to harness the child's gift/curse.
Now, 34 years on, writer/director Jeff Nichols (Take Shelter, Mud) at last allows us to see, pretty much, how that film might have turned out – Midnight Special taps into the Carpenter mood (Starman is a key influence) as a father and his mysterious son flee US agents. Plot-wise, there's not much more to it, with Nichols drip-feeding only the barest of information.
Just why eight-year-old Alton (Jaeden Lieberher) is the subject of an NSA boyhunt headed up by Sevier (Adam Driver, as compelling here as he was as Kylo Ren) is not initially clear, though our curiosity is piqued by the dark goggles strapped over his eyes and the need to travel only at night.
Dad Roy (Michael Shannon) is aided on the road by Lucas (Joel Edgerton) and Sarah (Kirsten Dunst), whose connections to the action will also emerge with time, while another threat to Alton arrives in the form of Calvin Meyer (Sam Shephard), the leader of a religious sect. Here, mood is all. Nichols might wholly embrace the paranormal that he before flirted with in Take Shelter, but Midnight Special is his most grounded film to date.
Reality and mundanity are built from the ground up: dusky, dust-bowl landscapes; sober performances; utilitarian motels used as safe houses; a few ominous piano keys by way of score; and an economic camera style that needs only a slow pan or a shift of focus to rustle up an excitement that Michael Bay could only dream of. Which isn't to say that shit don't get crazy.
The set-pieces, when they erupt, are spectacular (and that applies as much to a common fistfight as some otherworldly phenomena outside a gas station), and the climactic revelation, though reliant on conspicuous CGI, is a conceptual treat.
Whether Midnight Special adds up to anything beyond a supremely well-crafted piece of genre filmmaking is questionable, though it does recognise the human need for hope, love and meaning. But taken as a throwback to the thrillers of Carpenter and Spielberg's cinema of wonder, it is special indeed. Not least because it honours its influences and yet remains, first and foremost, a Jeff Nichols film.
THE VERDICT: Supernaturalism for sceptics: teaming up for the fourth time, Nichols and Shannon deliver another slow-burn, grounded triumph.
Director: Jeff Nichols; Starring: Michael Shannon, Jaeden Lieberher, Joel Edgerton, Kirsten Dunst; Theatrical release: April 8, 2016
THE HUNTSMAN: WINTER'S WAR
"Love is nothing more than a fairytale," intones Liam Neeson's gravelly voiceover in The Huntsman: Winter's War. Well, try telling that to Eric the Huntsman (Chris Hemsworth), last seen helping defeat the evil Queen Ravenna (Charlize Theron) in 2012’s Snow White and the Huntsman. As fans will recall, Eric had a lost love, Sara. And so with Snow White sidelined – she's off governing her new kingdom, apparently – in she comes. Played by Jessica Chastain, Sara isn't the only newbie to this fairytale franchise. Once upon a time, Ravenna had a sister, Freya (Emily Blunt).
The story starts with Freya all sweetness and light until her baby goes up in a puff of smoke and she unleashes her inner anger – an ice storm that'd put Frozen's Elsa to shame. Retreating to her own ice palace, Freya gathers an army of moppets (including the younger Eric and Sara), training them to be deadly Huntsmen and women. The embittered Freya lays down the law – "Do not love!" – but Eric and Sara disobey, until their icy Queen discovers their treachery and splits them apart.
Still, The Huntsman: Winter's War isn't all backstory; flashing forward seven years, we meet Eric again, who runs into the Prince (Sam Claflin), informing him that Snow White is ill and that 'fairest of them all' magic mirror has gone missing. Containing the evil essence of Ravenna, the mirror must be found before Freya gets her hands on it.
Eric, meanwhile, teams up with a quartet of dwarves: Nion (returnee Nick Frost); Gryff (Rob Brydon), Doreena (Alexandra Roach) and Mrs Bromwyn (Sheridan Smith). Brydon is a hoot ("Have you ever seen a female dwarf? Horrifying!") but it's Smith who almost steals the show, making eyes at Eric.
Directed by first-timer Cedric Nicolas-Troyan, the first film's visual effects supervisor, Winter's War thankfully isn't CGI saturated. There's a great-looking Goblin King looks great, while the background details – creatures, fairies, furry snakes and so on – delight. But with a wraparound narrative that never really strikes a balance between past and present, all that axe-flinging, ice-casting action makes a modest impact.
Blunt is credible as Freya, but Hemsworth and Chastain, hampered by their distracting Celtic accents, have minimal chemistry. Thankfully, when Ravenna does return (it's in the trailer, spoiler-haters), Theron kicks serious ass. But even she can't save a middling third act where the emotional stakes never really pay off.
THE VERDICT: A film about backstory was always going to struggle. But while the narrative loses power as it unfolds, the cast and FX give it some sparkle.
Director: Cedric Nicolas-Troyan; Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Charlie Theron, Emily Blunt, Nick Frost, Sam Claflin, Rob Brydon, Jessica Chastain; Theatrical release: 8 April 2016
Like 1995's La Haine, Dheepan is a slice of social realism set in a run-down Parisian housing project. And despite some significant differences from Mathieu Kassovitz's iconic black-and-whiter, it packs a similarly fearsome punch. But then you'd expect nothing less from Jacques Audiard, the Gallic director behind awards magnets The Beat That My Heart Skipped and A Prophet.
This latest urban drama, which won the Palme d'Or when it bowed in Cannes last year, is equally incendiary. The story begins, briefly, in Sri Lanka, where three strangers are thrown together and, after being given passports belonging to those already dead, form a 'fake' family to help escape a country ravaged by civil war.
Arriving in France, these refugees cling to each other in hopes of survival. A former Tamil Tiger fighter, Dheepan (Jesuthasan Antonythasan) soon finds a job as the caretaker in a bleak Paris banlieue, while his 'wife' Yalini (Kalieaswari Srinivasan) takes on cooking and cleaning for an ailing resident. With their 'child' Illayaal (Claudine Vinasithamby) attending school, hardships are endured and normality sought, the trio trying to make the best of their tough situation.
But when Brahim (Vincent Rottiers), the leader of a local gang of drug dealers and nephew to the man Yalini cares for, returns from a stint in prison, the dynamic changes; already simmering below the surface, violence erupts – although how things play out may well come as a surprise.
Some will find the stylised, Scorsese-esque finale out of leftfield, but Audiard arguably leads us to it; the housing estate where much of the action takes place begins to take on a hellish Dante-like feel to it, thanks to cinematographer Éponine Momenceau's impressionistic visuals. Extracting credible performances from his leads – gentle, tender but capable of the reverse – Audiard and his team have crafted a story that feels utterly relevant to the refugee crisis that has gripped Europe this past year.
THE VERDICT: Another powerful, provocative drama from Audiard. The ending will be divisive, but there's an undeniable sense of urgency here.
Director: Jacques Audiard Starring: Jesuthasan Antonythasan, Kalieaswari Srinivasan, Vincent Rottiers, Marc Zinga Theatrical release: April 8, 2016
Some films can't help but be defined by external circumstances. As one of the late Robin Williams' final lead roles, this carries a resonance far beyond what is otherwise a by-rote tale of belatedly coming out. Williams plays Nolan, an apparently content bank employee and husband to Joy (Kathy Baker).
But beyond the jovial dinner parties, the couple sleep in different rooms and barely co-exist. Faced with the prospect of his father dying and the chance of promotion at work, Nolan's bubble bursts and he defies a lifetime's repression by picking up street hustler Leo (Roberto Aguire) on the titular thoroughfare. While it does Williams a disservice to ponder the psychological significance of playing a man burdened by inner demons, there's an undeniable finality to his choice of role here.
This film reinforces the direction of travel in Williams' later career towards challenging dramatic roles. It's hard to imagine many stars – of his or any other generation – capable of displaying such self-effacing discomfort while still retaining our sympathies. It's a shame, though, that nothing else matches Williams' work. Like a boulevard, this is arrow-straight in reaching its narrative destination, offering little of interest in its depiction of coming out.
The focus on Nolan reduces the impact because other characters are so underwritten; Leo is little more than a cipher, while only Baker's steely performance stops Joy from being an afterthought. What lingers is the curiously despairing tone of Dito Montiel's (A Guide To Recognising Your Saints) direction.
In a sub-genre that tends towards the celebratory (think of Christopher Plummer in Beginners) this is a sombre affair of measured camera movements and plaintive pauses, although Better Call Saul's Bob Odenkirk – as Nolan's laissez-faire pal – provides much-needed humour. Given what we know now, the film has an eerily funereal aspect that makes the out-of-the-blue note of fragile hope in its ending doubly heartbreaking.
THE VERDICT: A flimsy, contrived drama, sure – but as Robin Williams' sensitive final lead performance the story gains a weight it scarcely deserves and a resonance nobody ever wanted.
Director: Dito Montiel; Starring: Robin Williams, Kathy Baker, Roberto Aguire, Giles Matthey, Eleonore Hendricks; Theatrical release: April 8, 2016
Whatever you think of it, Hardcore Henry lives up to its name. One of the most violent movies ever made, with a body count so high you’ll need a calculator to keep track, this high-concept film is not so much a first-person shoot-’em-up as a stab-’em-up, blow-’em-up and dismember-’em-up, as Henry slaughters dozens and dozens of goons in any way possible. That one poor soul is credited as ‘Tray-in-The-Head John in Brothel’ rather sums up the myriad ways the ‘bad guys’ are dispatched.
After a pre-credits sequence (featuring Tim Roth), the film begins as Henry wakes up in a lab, unable to speak, being soothed by Haley Bennett’s boffin as his severed arm and leg are replaced by mechanical limbs. Who has created this RoboCop 2.0 and why? The answer has something to do with his nemesis, psychotic albino Akan (Danila Kozlovsky), who just happens to have levitation powers. And an airship. With escape pods.
Shot entirely from Henry’s perspective, so we see his arms, legs and torso but never a full-length body shot (Henry himself is ‘played’ by the camera and stunt team rather than one particular actor), it’s an astounding opening, like Call Of Duty jacked up on steroids. But while there are some remarkable real-world stunts along the way (a chase over a bridge, climbing up buildings), this 18-certificate videogame format swiftly becomes tedious.
True, there is a plot of sorts, as Henry soon meets Jimmy (Sharlto Copley), who promises to help him before his mechanical innards expire, only to get shot dead – then re-appear, and keep re-appearing, in different guises. Adding to our confusion about who Henry is, this gives Copley free rein to go wild, playing everything from a dope-smoking hippie to a jolly British WW2 army officer. It’s intriguing enough to keep you watching, but amid the carnage, the scattershot ideas never mould into a cohesive whole.
Director: Ilya Naishuller; Starring: Sharlto Copley, Tim Roth, Haley Bennett, Danila Kozlovsky, Andrei Dementiev; Theatrical release: April 8, 2016
Chilean writer-director Sebastián Silva (Magic Magic) heads to Brooklyn for this sly little tale, in which he stars as Freddy, a gay man who decides to start a family with his best friend Polly (Kristen Wiig). With Freddy's juice not up to the job, a sperm donor is required – but that's just the start of their problems in an increasingly off-kilter story.
Veering off in a totally unexpected direction, it features a key role played by House Of Cards' Reg E. Cathey as a local crazy... but to say more would ruin the pleasures this barbed comedy has to offer.
Director: Sebastián Silva Starring: Kristen Wiig, Sebastián Silva, Tunde Adebimpe Theatrical release: April 8, 2016
COUPLE IN A HOLE
Middle-aged Scottish couple (Paul Higgins, Kate Dickie) are living rough in a makeshift shelter in the woods of the French Pyrenees. Gradually we discover the tragic event that led to their situation. Belgian writer/director Tom Geens' first English-language feature builds slowly, piling up underlying darkness, hinting that further tragedy can't be far off.
In a tiny cast, Higgins stands out as a man desperately trying to nurture and protect his traumatised wife. Sam Care's photography and a haunting electronic score abet the atmosphere. Too bad about the easily misconstrued title, though.
Director: Tom Geens Starring: Paul Higgins, Kate Dickie, Jérôme Kircher Theatrical release: April 8, 2016
THE ABSENT ONE
If Mikkel Nørgaard's noirish The Keeper Of Lost Causes seemed none-more-Nordic, wait until you see the sequel. An old cop's suicide renews the interest of basement-dwelling cop duo, Carl (Nikolaj Lie Kaas) and Assad (Fares Fares), in a 20-year-old murder.
The heavy investigation involves junkie girls, posh men, boarding-school secrets and surprise foetuses. Lie Laas' furrowed lead and Nørgaard's taut orchestration of flashback-pumped plotting help flesh out old clichés – at least until the climax takes a glum turn for the overwrought.
Director: Mikkel Nørgaard Starring: Nikolaj Lie Kaas, Fares Fares, Pilou Asbæk Theatrical release: April 8, 2016
What could be better than watching Doris Day reprise her signature role, whip-cracking away in buckskin as the deadwood stage comes a-rolling in over the hills? Joining in, of course: an option afforded by this sing-along edition of Warner Bros' unabashed 1953 attempt to cash in on Annie Get Your Gun's success three years earlier.
From the intricate patter of 'Just Blew in From the Windy City' to gay anthem 'Secret Love', Sammy Fain's hummable tunes and Paul Francis Webster's lyrics merit full-throated accompaniment. Don't shoot us down, though, for finding Howard Keel's Bill Hickok more mild than wild.
Director: David Butler; Starring: Doris Day, Howard Keel, Allyn Ann McLerie, Philip Carey, Gale Robbins, Dick Wesson; Theatrical release: April 8, 2016
THE LAST MAN ON THE MOON
Only 12 people in history have ever set foot on the Moon. This excellent doc points its telescope at just one of them – Gene Cernan, the last NASAA astronaut to pull shut the Lunar Module door. Most of the story will be familiar to anyone with an interest in the Apollo programme, but what makes this special is the focus on one extremely charismatic man.
Beyond the history, stunning archive footage and talking heads, the film gets deep into Cernan's mind to reveal the sacrifices the Apollo guys – and their families – made to ensure they had the right stuff.
Director: Mark Craig; Starring: Gene Cernan, Alan Bean, Dick Gordon, Jim Lovell; Theatrical release: April 8, 2016
THE MAN WHO KNEW INFINITY
The beautiful mind in this biopic of a troubled mathematical genius belongs to one Srinivasa Ramanujan (Dev Patel), a clerk from madras whose facility with figures earns him a place at Cambridge. There he receives tutelage from Jeremy Irons' pipe-puffing professor and racist contempt from everybody else, putting strain on his constitution as he formulates a theory for divining prime numbers.
An intriguing story told in generic fashion, Infinity gets good value from irons and a dignified swansong from the late Richard Johnson. By the close, alas, we're no closer to understanding Ramanujan's brilliance than we are at the beginning.
Director: Matt Brown Starring: Jeremy Irons, Dev Patel, Toby Jones Theatrical release: April 8, 2016
Like 10 Cloverfield Lane pitched at a whisper, TV director Gareth Bryn's rustic three-hander is a steady-handed exercise in slow-horror secrecy, distinguished by more than its Welsh-language script. Mark Lewis Jones gets its sparse measure as Stanley, a taciturn local who takes in a couple (Annes Elwy, Dyfan Dwyfor) when their car crashes near his house.
As tension between them simmers, spooky touches and ambiguous asides suggest mysteries both spectral and corporeal. The twists are guessable, but Bryn makes seductive work of the route there, every candle-lit corridor and harrowed tree holding our gaze. Director: Gareth Bryn; Starring: Mark Lewis Jones, Dyfan Dwyfor, Annes Elwy; Theatrical release: April 8, 2016
I AM BELFAST
After his trip into Hiroshima's history for the BBC's Atomic, critic/filmmaker Mark Cousins comes home with this fluent and forceful quasi-doc dialogue with Belfast. Imagining the city as an ageing woman (played by Helena Bereen), Cousins engages place/person in exchanges about past and present, Titanic and Troubles, folklore and future hopes.
His faux-poeticism can grate, but Cousins and DoP Chris Doyle's painterly images brim with grit and mystery, and darker material isn't dodged. Even when he lapses into whimsy, Cousins' approach summons a portrait of great colour, complexity and originality.
Director: Mark Cousins; Starring: Helena Bereen, Richard Buick, Shane McCaffrey; Theatrical release: April 8, 2016