Out on Friday 9 December
Nate Parker makes an impressive directorial debut. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is credible as Edward Snowden. Christopher Lloyd plays the neighbour from hell.
Yes, here's this week's new releases. Click on for our reviews of The Birth of a Nation, Office Christmas Party, Snowden, I Am Not a Serial Killer, The Black Hen, Krisha, Jet Trash, The Night Before Christmas, Life Animated, The Pass, The Coming War on China, Holy Cow, and The Ardennes.
For the best movie reviews, subscribe to Total Film (opens in new tab).
The Birth of a Nation
Sold for a record $17.5m after its award-winning Sundance premiere, Nate Parker’s stirring drama was all set to be this year’s 12 Years a Slave (opens in new tab). Until, that is, controversy relating to Parker’s acquittal from a rape case in 1999 hit the news, turning it into a PR nightmare. While the story may well have torpedoed the film’s chances, it shouldn’t detract from just how well-made this biopic of Virginia slave Nat Turner is.
Taught to read the Bible as a child, Turner (Parker, commanding) spends his adult years preaching to fellow slaves, after his cash-strapped master Samuel (Armie Hammer) takes his Baptist charge on tour. As Parker sees the extent of slavery and the daily horrors faced by its victims, he’s sickened enough to lead a bloody rebellion in 1831.
Parker doesn’t lay on the violence quite as thickly as Steve McQueen did in 12 Years (opens in new tab) – and the film is all the more effective for it, though one scene, in which a hunger-striking slave is force-fed, is the sort you’ll never want to watch again. With fine performances from Hammer and Jackie Earle Haley, as a vile slave patrol captain, it’s an astutely judged piece of filmmaking.
THE VERDICT: An impressive directorial debut – and acting turn – from Parker that deserves to be seen, despite the PR firestorm.
Director: Nate Parker; Starring: Nate Parker, Armie Hammer, Jackie Earle Haley, Penelope Ann Miller; Theatrical release: December 9, 2016
Office Christmas Party
Kate McKinnon. Yuletide knees-up. All bets off. Chuck a bow on it and you're looking at the perfect seasonal gift. Or would be, if only Office Christmas Party delivered its gags with a little more frequency.
Because despite throwing the big-screen bash to end all big-screen bashes (boozy water coolers, Christmas-tree jousting, IRON THRONE), this festive throwdown ultimately scores low on belly laughs. Not that it doesn't try.
Directors Will Speck and Josh Gordon (The Switch (opens in new tab)) surround Jason Bateman's dull internet company manager with a glittering cast of comedy co-workers – including Jennifer Aniston's CEO, a boss so hideous she makes Scrooge look like Mary Berry, and Kate McKinnon's brilliantly-named HR worker Mary Winetoss.
With boss Clay (TJ Miller, sort of loveable) throwing a yuletide shindig in an attempt to save the company, the plot dashes between prostitutes, sassy security guards and epic flirting fails to mixed effect. McKinnon, Aniston and Jillian Bell's smiley pimp run away with the show, and as the party wears on, it becomes increasingly, thrillingly surreal.
But note to Santa: next year, more Aniston pinning tough guys using Krav Maga, less Olivia Munn spouting boring techno-babble...
THE VERDICT: Happy Crass-mas! Office blowouts get the Hangover treatment, but only McKinnon and Aniston really know how to party.
Directors: Josh Gordon, Will Speck; Starring: Jason Bateman, Olivia Munn, TJ Miller; Theatrical release: December 7, 2016
A biopic about whistle-blower Edward Snowden should be tailor-made for Oliver Stone, yet Snowden isn’t as angry or accomplished as you might expect.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt is credible as the former NSA contractor, but Stone gets side-tracked by his relationship with Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley) and Rhys Ifans’ leering CIA suit. Still, Stone’s heart is in the right place.
Director: Oliver Stone; Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Shailene Woodley, Melissa Leo; Theatrical release: December 9, 2016
I Am Not a Serial Killer
Based on the novel by Dan Wells, Billy O’Brien’s mumblecore horror follows its own twisted path, much like its protagonist: teen sociopath/psychopath John Wayne Cleaver (Max Records). Whether dissecting people in his mother’s funeral parlour, or personality traits with his therapist (Karl Geary), he is constantly fighting the urge to kill.
Intelligent, original and committed, it’s also a little meandering. But Records cuts a strikingly amoral figure, and the sight of Christopher Lloyd intoning poetry over dying embers reminds us what a wonderful actor he is.
Director: Billy O’Brien; Starring: Christopher Lloyd, Laura Fraser, Max Records; Theatrical release: December 9, 2016
The Black Hen
A young friendship is tested by political turmoil and poultry-based trials in Nepalese filmmaker Min Bahadur Bham’s deeply felt, richly artful debut. Drawing on personal experiences of a youthful bond broken by class divisions, Bham teases touching performances from Sukra Raj Rokaya and Khadka Raj Nepali as lads trying to hang onto a hen (they need the eggs) during a Maoist insurgency.
Bham’s snapshots of life in wartime bristle with rugged, work-a-day conviction. Yet he’s equally potent on more intense episodes: a dream sequence brims with feeling and a climactic conflict steams with dreadful tension.
Director: Min Bahadur Bham; Starring: Khadka Raj Nepali, Sukra Raj Rokaya, Jit Bahadur Malla; Theatrical release: December 9, 2016
Scottish director Charles Henri Belleville returns with this stylish Goa-set tale of friendship and betrayal. Based on Simon Lewis’ novel Go, it centres on Lee (Robert Sheehan) and Sol (Osy Ikhile), backpack drifters chilling in the Indian beach paradise until their past catches up with them.
Craig Parkinson brings menace as the nightclub owner with an axe to grind, while Kingsman (opens in new tab)’s Sofia Boutella evolves her role far beyond mere love interest. But alongside Sheehan’s charms, it’s Belleville’s intoxicating visuals that truly fire the imagination. India has rarely seemed so seductive.
Director: Charles Henri Belleville; Starring: Sofia Boutella, Robert Sheehan, Craig Parkinson; Theatrical release: December 9, 2016
A family Thanksgiving reunion starts with a flurry of “so good to see yous” and ends in expletive-laden recriminations in this brilliantly feel-bad debut from name-to-remember Trey Edward Shults. It’s home for the hellidays as estranged sister/aunt/ mother and recovering alcoholic Krisha (Shults’ own aunt Krisha Fairchild, superb) arrives, re-awakening old resentments.
The drama gets overwrought but Shults stages the fallout artfully, stressing choppy montages and a nerve-rattling sound mix as tensions erupt, Bill Wise’s Doyle yelling at Krisha, “You are disaster incarnate!” Shults’ next film is a horror: be afraid.
Director: Trey Edward Shults; Starring: Krisha Fairchild, Robyn Fairchild, Bill Wise; Theatrical release: December 9, 2016
The Nightmare Before Christmas
Both Tim Burton and Henry Selick have strived to out-spook their 1993 collaboration in the two decades since, the former with Corpse Bride (opens in new tab) and Frankenweenie (opens in new tab), the latter with Coraline (opens in new tab).
None though, improved upon the ratio of shivers to titters achieved by this Halloween/Yuletide crossover, a stop-motion charmer whose 3D makeover only enhances the grisly array of ghouls, ghosts and ogres that attend its story of a Pumpkin King’s takeover of Christmas. Danny Elfman’s perky score offers another reason to have this Nightmare on the big screen once more.
Director: Henry Selick; Starring: Danny Elfman, Chris Sarandon, Catherine O'Hara; Theatrical release: December 9, 2016
An autistic boy who stopped talking at the age of three is coaxed out of isolation through his love of Disney cartoons in a documentary that unexpectedly champions the House of Mouse as a life-changing force for good. To Owen Suskind, the likes of Bambi, Simba and Peter Pan are not just resourceful heroes but useful guides to empathy and self-awareness: qualities he will need as he prepares to trade the nest for sheltered accommodation.
The clips are a delight, as are the cameos from two of Aladdin’s voice actors. Best of all, though, is the mini-animation fashioned out of Suskind’s Walt-inspired scribblings.
Director: Roger Ross Williams; Starring: Jonathan Freeman, Gilbert Gottfried, Alan Rosenblatt; Theatrical release: December 9, 2016
Russell Tovey delivers a career-best performance in Ben A. Williams’ sexy, disturbing and poignant film, which sees promising footballer Jason (Tovey) aiming for the big league.
The Pass is narratively simplistic but psychologically complex, pivoting on Jason’s relationship with Ade (Arinzé Kene), a teammate and potential lover. Williams crafts a tragicomic atmosphere and plays deftly with expectations.
Director: Ben A. Williams; Starring: Russell Tovey, Arinzé Kene, Lisa McGrillis; Theatrical release: December 9, 2016
The Coming War on China
America’s preparing for war against China, according to veteran journalist John Pilger, whose doco is a passionate if long-winded polemic on America’s presence in the Pacific.
He explores America’s ’50s nuclear tests in the Marshall Islands, talks with protesting locals and dives into China’s cultural evolution. Interesting, but hardly subtle.
Director: John Pilger; Theatrical release: December 9, 2016
Low-key doc about an Azerbaijani man who dreams of providing for his family by owning a European cow, much to the chagrin of his conservative village elders. Debut director Imam Hasanov allows his moo-er to symbolise hope and possible escape from the grinding privation of the post-Soviet state.
A refreshing concept, but it’s a shame the heft of these themes is undercut by scenes that feel overly staged.
Director: Imam Hasanov; Theatrical release: December 9, 2016
Belgium’s selection for the Oscars’ Foreign Language category is a bleak crime drama. Shooting in dull, wintry colours, the mood is set for a story that can only end badly.
There’s something grimly comic about dour-faced Dave’s (Jeroen Perceval) attempts to hide his relationship with his volatile ex-con brother’s (Kevin Janssens) girlfriend (Veerle Baetens), until things spiral towards a cheerless conclusion.
Director: Robin Front; Starring: Kevin Janssens, Jeroen Perceval, Veerle Baetens; Theatrical release: December 9, 2016