Out on Friday 20 January
Natalie Portman is the First Lady. James McAvoy finds 23’s a crowd. Google Earth saves the day for Dev Patel.
Yes, here's this week's new releases. Click on for our reviews of Jackie, Split, xXx: Return of Xander Cage, Lion, and Goodfellas.
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Take a look at this year’s batch of awards-friendly biopics (Lion, A United Kingdom, Queen of Katwe) and you’ll see they tend to close with footage or pictures of the real people they’re based on. Jackie, Pablo Larraín’s gutsy, non-linear portrait of Jacqueline Kennedy in the run-up to her husband’s assassination, and the aftermath, goes one better by weaving actual archive with its ingenious fabrications, almost as if it’s daring us to spot the join.
Witness its recreation of A Tour of the White House with Mrs. John F. Kennedy (1962), a seminal television special in which the First Lady unveiled the results of a $2m restoration project she personally spearheaded. Up close it’s Natalie Portman, flawlessly replicating Jackie’s breathy delivery regal demeanour and wariness in front of the camera. But in long shot it’s Kennedy herself, silently participating from beyond the grave.
Anyone who saw Larraín’s 2012 film No will know how deftly the Chilean director can piece together compelling big-screen stories from historical facts. Yet his English language debut represents a quantum leap, offering a bold new take on one of the 20th Century’s most emotive episodes from the viewpoint of the person nearest it.
Like Sully, this is a 90-minute film that revolves around a few fateful seconds. Yet screenwriter Noah Oppenheim finds an artful way of forestalling it by having Jackie interrogated by an unnamed reporter (Billy Crudup) who gently coaxes his brittle interviewee into sharing her perspective on the events of 22 November 1963.
As we build up to the assassination, we watch snapshots of what went before and after: a musical performance beside her husband (uncanny lookalike Caspar Phillipson), a traumatised Jacqueline accompanying his coffin out of Dallas, and a jaw-dropping sequence of her wandering through an eerily vacant White House, backed by Richard Burton burbling Lerner and Loewe’s ‘Camelot’. We also watch Lyndon B. Johnson (John Carroll Lynch) being sworn in on Air Force One, leaving Mrs. Kennedy out in the cold before she’s even had a chance to wash the blood from her hair.
Less integral is a pace-sapping dialogue between Jackie and a priest (John Hurt) in which matters of faith and fidelity are toyed with. That, fortunately, does nothing to diminish Portman’s majestic performance, an act of inhabitation whose embodiment of raw, lacerating grief is matched by the indomitability she displays as America’s First Widow.
Determined JFK will stand in posterity alongside Washington and Lincoln, Jackie fights through her anguish to give him the funeral he deserves. Larraín, you feel, has crafted her the cinematic tribute she deserves, too.
THE VERDICT: Portman’s Oscar-worthy work crowns an unconventional study of an icon, while Mica Levi’s score is sublime.
Director: Pablo Larraín; Starring Natalie Portman, Billy Crudup, Peter Sarsgaard, John Hurt; Theatrical release: January 20, 2017
Meet Dennis. He wears glasses, has OCD and kidnaps girls from parking lots. Dennis lives in a windowless basement with Hedwig, a nine-year-old who loves Kanye West (“He’s my main man!”) and keeps hamsters. Dennis and Hedwig are kept in line by Patricia, a prim matriarch who likes sweaters, brooches and carving knives. And then there’s Barry, a wannabe fashion designer who freely admits he has “feelings of being overwhelmed”.
Then again, Barry might be Dennis. Or Jade, or Samuel, or any one of the other “alters” that live inside Kevin (James McAvoy), a troubled young man whose dissociative identity disorder (DID for short) means he has 23 distinct personalities fighting for his body.
Small wonder that his prisoners Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy), Marcia (Jessica Sula) and Claire (Haley Lu Richardson) are as bemused as they are terrified. Not only do they not know why they’ve been abducted, they also don’t know by whom.
We’re used to fiendish plots emanating from M. Night Shyamalan, the precocious wunderkind behind The Sixth Sense and Signs whose career became a rocky road since The Village (2004). Split, though, might well be his most compellingly warped concoction to date, its genre trappings – think Room meets The Missing at 10 Cloverfield Lane – acting merely as gateway drugs to the altogether more demented thriller taking place within Kevin’s noggin.
The film’s torment of its female leads does border at times on exploitation; on the other hand, it does pave the way for Casey to come into her own, the character’s history of abuse giving the nous she’ll need if she’s to survive this subterranean nightmare.
Taylor-Joy, so impressive in The Witch, is even finer here as a deceptively docile captive whose passivity masks both intelligence and gumption. Yet it would be foolish to suggest this is anything but James McAvoy’s movie.
In a role that’s effectively a dozen performances in one, the X-Men actor is simply astounding. Chillingly cold one moment, malevolently mumsy the next, he offers the modern equivalent of Alec Guinness’ turn in Kind Hearts and Coronets: a masterclass in physical dexterity and vocal control that builds towards a volcanic eruption of bestial, vein-bulging ferocity when yet another, submerged personality comes bubbling to the surface.
(He is also very funny, grace notes such as Patricia’s conspiratorial winks and Hedwig’s lisp – “eck-thetawa!” – ensuring each persona can both tickle and unsettle.)
It’s too early to say if Split marks the beginning of a return to form for Shyamalan; after all, he’s let us down before. But by the end, those who’ve stuck with him throughout will have ample cause to feel their faith was justified.
THE VERDICT: This is a Shyamalan movie through and through. And it’s his best in some time, thanks to a magnetic McAvoy.
Director: M. Night Shyamalan; Starring: James McAvoy, Anya Taylor-Joy, Haley Lu Richardson, Jessica Sula, Betty Buckley; Theatrical release: January 20, 2017
xXx: Return of Xander Cage
Having skipped the best-forgotten 2005 sequel, Vin Diesel is back as extreme sports super spy Xander Cage in this unnecessary and patently unloved threequel. Brought in from the cold to retrieve a technological mega-macguffin by CIA suit Jane Marke (Toni Collette, scenery chomping), Cage recruits a team of snipers, sexy tech geeks, stuntmen and DJs.
Somewhat impressively, it’s even stupider than this outlandish synopsis sounds, with action that makes the F&F movies look grounded, “hip” dialogue that induces spasms of embarrassment and a shockingly casual disregard for human life. Donnie Yen doing his thing proves the film's sole saving grace.
Director: D.J. Caruso; Starring: Vin Diesel,Nina Dobrev, Ruby Rose, Samuel L. Jackson, Toni Collette, Donnie Yen, Deepika Padukone; Theatrical release: January 19, 2017
Based on a true story, Lion centres on Saroo (Sunny Pawar), an Indian boy who, after getting lost on a Calcutta train, ends up being adopted in Australia. Twenty years on, our hero (now Dev Patel) scours Google Earth for clues to his lost family…
Commercials director Garth Davis’ debut is a touch over-stretched but impossible to resist – a classy crowd-pleaser with an especially magical first half.
Director: Garth Davis; Starring: Sunny Pawar, Dev Patel, Nicole Kidman, Rooney Mara; Theatrical release: January 20, 2017
Scorsese at his all-cylinders best, this 1990 classic charts the rise of real-life wannabe mobster Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) under the wing of a bunch of older wise guys (Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, Paul Sorvino).
The set-pieces are deservedly famous: the Oscar-winning Pesci’s meltdowns, the nightclub Steadicam shot, Hill’s frantic final day. “To be a gangster was to own the world,” says Hill. You almost believe him.
Director: Martin Scorsese; Starring: Ray Liotta, Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, Paul Sorvino; Theatrical release: January 20, 2017