Out on Friday 20 May
The X-Men take on Apocalypse. Tom Hanks is a desert worrier. John Carney does it once again.
Yes, here's this week's new releases. Click on for our reviews of X-Men: Apocalypse, A Hologram for the King, Sing Street, Heart of a Dog, Journey to the Shore, Chicken, The Silent Storm, The Call Up, Ivan's Children, Romeo and Juliet, and Departure.
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“At least we all agree, the third one is always the worst,” concludes Jean Grey (Sophie Turner), leaving the multiplex after seeing Return of the Jedi with her fellow Gifted Youngsters.
It’s a bold gag, but X-Men: Apocalypse never quite disproves her assertion. That’s not to say we’re in The Last Stand territory, as far as X-trilogy closers go, but this never quite reaches the high bar set by First Class and Days of Future Past, prequels that threw Marvel’s mutants into period settings with élan.
Directed by Bryan Singer, the franchise’s trusted leader, Apocalypse doesn’t lack ambition, pitting the superteam against their biggest opponent yet. The titular big bad is an ancient Egyptian, believed to be the very first mutant, with godlike powers and a following to match. His knack for transferring his consciousness into younger vessels as required makes him damn near immortal.
A full-pelt opening set in the Nile Valley, 3600 BCE, sees Apocalypse in the midst of taking over a younger body (Oscar Isaac, briefly glimpsed out of make-up), before rebels interrupt the ceremony, trapping him underground for millennia. He reemerges in 1983, looking to recruit ‘Four Horsemen’ to assist in his plan to cleanse the world of its weaklings before starting afresh (it’s his thing, apparently).
Meanwhile, Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) is hiding in non-blue human form after becoming a mutant icon for saving President Nixon at the end of the last film, some 10 years ago; Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) is enrolling new recruits into his school; and Erik ‘Magneto’ Lensherr (Michael Fassbender) is living an idyllic family life in Poland, keeping a low profile with factory work. And that’s not to mention a whole other bunch of familiar faces, both new and returning… The roster is vast enough to make Civil War look like a two-hander. Apocalypse comfortably feels like the biggest X-Men movie yet, and Singer, master of the ensemble, does a decent job of keeping it all just about coherent as we globetrot from plot strand to plot strand.
The action is similarly huge, from the pyramid-razing antics of the opening sequence to a final multi-mutant smackdown on a scale that dwarfs previous entries in the franchise. When you have a villain who’s all but omnipotent, it takes a lot of heroes to go up against him. In fact, there’s so much going on that it becomes a bit exhausting at times, and anyone lacking a half-decent grasp of the mythology thus far should probably sit it out. It doesn’t exactly welcome newcomers.
With so many characters to serve, some are inevitably shortchanged. It helps that First Class was so well cast, with McAvoy, Fassbender and Lawrence slipping back into their roles with ease, bringing gravitas to go with the backstory baggage. The new class is also extremely appealing; Tye Sheridan makes for a cooler Cyclops than James Marsden, Kodi Smit-McPhee is a spot-on Nightcrawler (turns out that bamf-ing is still a hell of a lot of fun), and Game of Thrones’ Turner brings the required poise and angst to Jean Grey. Of the Horsemen, Psylocke (Olivia Munn), Storm (Alexandra Shipp) and Angel (former EastEnder Ben Hardy) certainly look the part, but there’s no time to give them anything like discernible character traits.
Apocalypse similarly fails to carve out much in the way of distinctive characteristics. Isaac has recently been proving himself one of the most versatile actors of his generation, but buried as he is under masses of make-up and impressive body armour, he’s unable to convincingly sell the baddie’s motivation or powers. Quite why he actually needs the Horsemen is never particularly clear. And when his world-ending plan starts to come into effect, there’s little in the way of perspective to put it into context, making it hard to appreciate the magnitude of the stakes in a way that never troubled the history-specific climaxes of its predecessors.
With their sprawling casts, the X-Men movies have always been at their strongest in the smaller beats between the big set-pieces. Apocalypse features some surprisingly dark violence (Angel’s ‘upgrade’ will have younger viewers squirming), balanced out by some nice one-liners. With armageddon imminent, the humour never completely disappears. Quicksilver (Evan Peters) even gets to reprise his slo-mo superspeed, even if it’s not quite as thrilling as DOFP’s standout sequence.
By the end, we’re still some way from joining up with Singer’s 2000 X-Men, so there’s plenty of scope for plugging the gap. On the evidence of this offering, it might be wise to spend a little more time focusing on the core line-up at the X-mansion before looking outwards again: going home before going bigger.
THE VERDICT: The biggest X-Men movie yet doesn’t scrimp on carnage, but lacks the heft of Singer’s previous instalments. Slightly naff baddie too.
Director: Bryan Singer; Starring: James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Oscar Isaac, Nicholas Hoult, Rose Byrne, Tye Sheridan, Sophie Turner, Olivia Munn, Lucas Till, Evan Peters, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Alexandra Shipp, Josh Helman, Lana Condor; UK theatrical release: May 18, 2016
A HOLOGRAM FOR THE KING
Clearly still in a musical mood after guest-starring in Carly Rae Jepsen’s ‘I Really Like You’ video, Tom Hanks opens A Hologram for the King with a bizarre spoken-word rendition of Talking Heads’ ‘Once in a Lifetime’. It’s an odd intro to a film based on Dave Eggers’ Beckettian, Kafkaesque novel, which dumps an IT salesman in the middle of the desert to reflect on the empty aftermath of the American century. But then Tom Tykwer’s adaptation is odd through and through.
Opting for an uneven balance of black comedy and mid-life melancholy to sieve the book’s big themes, Tykwer casts Hanks adrift in a film that doesn’t quite know what to do with its big star. Luckily, the big star knows exactly what to do – and the end result is a mix of great ideas, loose ends and one seasoned pro on top form.
Hanks plays Alan Clay – a sadsack it stooge who convinces his boss to send him to Saudi Arabia to sell conference-calling software to the King. The rest of the movie plays like Waiting For Godot meets Eat Pray Love, with Alan lost and lonely in the middle of a deserted building site with no king, no wifi and an ugly growth on his back that he keeps poking with a fork.
Some of it works, some of it doesn’t, but eventually, the film finds its groove, and the last act soars when it zeroes in on clay’s journey of self-discovery – and on Hanks’ own fine performance.
THE VERDICT: Strand Hanks on a desert island, a pirate ship or in a well-intentioned film without much focus and he’ll still find a way of turning it around.
Director: Tom Tykwer; Starring: Tom Hanks, Ben Whishaw, Sarita Choudhury, Tom Skerritt, Sidse Babett Knudsen; Theatrical release: May 20, 2016
A remix of the (Oscar-)winning formula that reaped dividends in Once (2007), John Carney’s feelgood musical comedy follows another down-on-his-luck Dubliner writing songs to escape – and impress a girl. The kicker this time is that our singer is a) not yet much cop (unlike Once’s Glen Hansard, whose golden tones could make stones weep); and b) 14 years old.
In dismal mid-1980s Dublin, young Cosmo (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) is condemned to change schools to the rundown Synge Street because his family (dad Aidan Gillen, mum Maria Doyle Kennedy, little sister Kelly Thornton and older brother Jack Reynor) is falling apart. Picked on by the other pupils – not to mention the priests – he forms a pop band, Sing Street, to catch the eye of rebellious Raphina (Lucy Boynton).
Surprisingly silver-tongued, despite his sensitive nature, Cosmo somehow persuades her to star in the band’s videos, beginning with a Duran Duran pastiche called ‘riddle of the model’. Against all odds, it works – as does the first hour of the film, which is funny and touching. Walsh-Peelo and Boynton prove likeable performers, and Reynor’s bedroom-philosopher dispenses pop-cultural nuggets such as: “No woman can ever truly love a man who listens to Phil Collins.”
Crucially, Cosmo and Raphina really do seem to care about each other: “Sometimes I want to cry just looking at her,” he admits. As he’s proved in the past (see also Begin Again), Carney is good at showing songs – and people – coming together, and Sing Street’s music is just ramshackle enough to convince.
If only the same could be said of the last reel, which evaporates all-too-readily into wish fulfilment, via a song that reminds us a bit too closely of Carney’s past glories. But if Sing Street doesn’t quite reach Once’s award-magnet heights, it’s still a more than welcome reprise.
THE VERDICT: Like the best pop bands, Sing Street is more than the sum of its parts; like the canniest pop songs, it transcends a familiar formula with charm.
Director: John Carney; Starring: Ferdia Walsh-Peelo, Lucy Boynton, Jack Reynor, Aidan Gillen, Maria Doyle Kennedy; Theatrical release: May 20, 2016
HEART OF A DOG
Dog lovers rejoice at musician and multimedia artist Laurie Anderson’s canine home movie. It is, of course, far more than just clips of her rat terrier Lolabelle (although you do get to see her pooch play a miniature keyboard).
Mixing animation, music and Anderson’s voiceover, it’s a meandering meditation on life, death, art, literature and politics. Along the way, Anderson gives us a glimpse of artist Julian Schnabel, lets us hear her ex Lou Reed and ponders the state of post-9/11 America. Not for everyone, yet packed with personality.
Director: Laurie Anderson; Theatrical release: 20 May, 2016
JOURNEY TO THE SHORE
A melancholy ghost story from Kiyoshi Kurosawa (Tokyo Sonata). Three years after he drowned himself in the sea, Mizuki’s husband Yusuke returns. He’s dead, but doesn’t look it, and is visible to anybody. He takes her on a journey to meet some of the people who’ve been good to him since he died; some of them also dead, some not.
It’s an intriguingly different take on the supernatural, with Eri Fukatsu and Tadanobu Asano appealing as the leads, but Kurosawa draws it out to the point of tedium. An overemphatic score doesn’t help either.
Director: Kiyoshi Kurosawa; Starring: Eri Fukatsu, Tadanobu Asano, Masao Komatsu, Akira Emoto; Theatrical release: May 20, 2016
Of Mice and Men meets Kids in a lo-fi Brit flick about Richard (Scott Chambers), a young man with learning difficulties, a loutish big brother (Morgan Watkins) and a best friend in the form of a chicken.
Set in a rural backwater of junkyards, dilapidated caravans and violence, Joe Stephenson’s adap of Freddie Machin’s play offers a brief respite from miserabilism in the appealing friendship that develops between Richard and new arrival Annabell (Yasmin Paige). Shame, then, that viewer patience is tested by an incestuous plot twist that’s motherclucking demented.
Director: Joe Stephenson; Starring: Scott Chambers, Morgan Watkins, Yasmin Paige; Theatrical release: May 20, 2016
THE SILENT STORM
Bond custodians Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson are among the exec producers of this overwrought period drama, which doesn’t want for notable names but does cry out for a script rejig. Set on a bleak Scottish island in the 1950s, it finds Damian Lewis fit to burst as a fire-and-brimstone preacher who takes out his fury at an understandably depleted congregation and his spouse.
Into this hotbed of marital discord comes Fionn (Ross Anderson), a youth offender from Glasgow who soon wishes he was anywhere else. The feeling’s soon mutual.
Director: Corinna McFarlane; Starring: Andrea Riseborough, Damian Lewis, Kate Dickie, Ross Anderson; Theatrical release: May 20, 2016
THE CALL UP
Filled with action, intrigue and snazzy visuals, writer/director Charles Barker’s first feature impresses, even if the concept is hard to swallow. Taking an obvious cue from Call of Duty, it sees top online gamers mysteriously called together to compete in a lifelike VR shoot-’em-up involving futuristic tech outfits.
Once the visors are down, a clinical environment transforms into a gritty battleground; but things get serious when it becomes apparent the deadly consequences of the game extend to real life too. If only it weren’t so easy to see so many logic glitches in Barker’s script.
Director: Charles Barker Starring: Max Deacon, Parker Sawyers, Morfydd Clark; Theatrical release: May 20, 2016
Even after 54 years, there are few films to match Andrei Tarkovsky’s debut for its portrayal of war and loss, with the early years of 12-year-old Russian scout Ivan (Kolya Burlyaev) proving its greatest tragedy.
Heading a touring programme of digital restorations of the Russian auteur’s work, it presents Ivan’s world as a fluid, fragmented nightmare. No one paints a stark landscape like Tarkovsky, but we’re not just talking surface beauty; the director shows a rare understanding of the consequences of combat.
Director: Andrei Tarkovsky; Starring: Nikolay Burlyaev, Valentin Zubkov, Evgeniy Zharikov; Theatrical release: May 20, 2016
ROMEO AND JULIET
Breaking new ground for a screen treatment, Franco Zeffirelli’s 1968 film of this classic tragedy casts the star-crossed lovers close to the age the Bard specifies. Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey were mid-teenagers at the time and the inexperience shows, but there’s a fresh eagerness that animates their performances.
Less faithfully to the original, Zeffirelli chops out half the text, and treats the rest to a lush, over-upholstered production that slows and cloys the action. Still, the Italian locations look glorious, and Nino Rota (The Godfather) contributes one of his finest scores.
Director: Franco Zeffirelli; Starring: Michael York, Leonard Whiting, Olivia Hussey; Theatrical release: May 20, 2016
Andrew Steggall’s sensitive debut is pitched between raging teenage hormones and midlife regret. Alex Lawther is a steady lead as 15-year-old Elliot, who we meet packing up a family holiday home with mum Bea (Juliet Stevenson). As both share romantic interests in a local lad, Steggall indulges watery metaphors, but draws emotive work from Stevenson and pinpoints the uncertainty of life’s tipping points.
Director: Andrew Stegall; Starring: Juliet Stevenson, Alex Lawther, Finbar Lynch, Phenix Brossard; Theatrical release: May 20, 2016