‘Isle of Dogs’

IsleOfDogsFirstLookA visual treat from auteur Wes Anderson (Grand Hotel Budapest, Fantastic Mr Fox) in his latest stop-motion animation.

It’s quirky, humorous and wholly imaginative as young Akiri goes on an odyssey in search of his dog. Akiri’s guardian is the corrupt mayor of the Japanese city of Nagasaki – and it is he who has banished all dogs.

Beautifully crafted – and in spite of its seeming whimsy there’s a message lurking just beneath the surface.

Rating: 81%

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‘Ready Player One’

readyplayeronePredominantly CGI, what it lacks in character development it more than makes up for in its upbeat, action-packed energy.

Unexpectedly immersive, Spielberg (Jurassic Park, Raiders of the Lost Ark) lets his avatars play their quest to find the egg hidden in the reality game – and stop Ben Mendelssohn (Rogue One – A Star Wars Story, Darkest Hour) from creating a gaming monopoly in the real world.

It’s a visual spectacle, with enough grunge reality to provide respite as Tye Sheridan (Mud, X-Men Apocalypse) and Olivia Cooke (Me & Earl & the Dying Girl, The Limehouse Golem) find adventure and love. True, Spielberg avoids commentary on the darker elements of a world controlled by technocracy, but as a piece of escapist entertainment, there’s little faulting Ready Player One.

Rating: 66%

‘A Quiet Place’

quiet_place_xlgHusband and wife team John Kranski (13 Hours, TV’s The Office) and Emily Blunt (Sicario, The Devil Wears Prada) play a convincing husband and wife in this post-apocalyptic survival story.

No explanations as to why and where from (and the stronger for it) – all we know is that ‘they’ are blind but respond to the slightest sound, ending in an immediate and gory death. We start at day 95 and end at day 460-something. In the interim, Kranski and Blunt and two of their kids have constructed a life of virtual silence on their farm, surviving in hiding and in a state of constant dread.

It’s that claustrophobic quiet that creates a deep sense of foreboding and fear – but the strength of A Quiet Place is the balance of horror with a genuine family drama.

Rating: 71%

‘Red Sparrow’

red sparrowIt’s overlong (140 minutes), solid rather than thrilling but Red Sparrow is still an entertaining espionage story – particularly when Jennifer Lawrence (Silver Linings Playbook, The Hunger Games) is playing both the Russians and the Americans. She leaves you guessing.

As a ‘red sparrow’, operatives trained to use the art of seduction as a weapon, Lawrence is out to find the high-ranking Russian mole: the CIA player is Joel Edgerton (The Great Gatsby, Black Mass). It’s their chemistry together that keeps the film engaging if not exactly riveting.

Director Francis Lawrence (The Hunger Games, I Am Legend) has created an elegant adaptation of the novel, but less ‘Cold-War’ dialogue and a few more hawkish moments would have been welcome.

Rating: 60%

‘The Death of Stalin’

the-death-of-stalin-british-movie-posterThe humour may be sporadic and a little too often writer/director Armando Ianucci’s (In the Loop, TV’s Veep) irreverent political satire falls into slapstick. But The Death of Stalin is, at times, genuinely laugh-out-loud funny.

The individual members of the Secretariat position themselves to take control of the Soviet Union at the death of their leader. Politician Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi – Fargo, Armageddon) and Lavrenti Beria (Simon Russell Beale – The Deep Blue Sea, The Legend of Tarzan), head of the secret service, emerge as favourites. No stone is left unturned as the two jockey to gain the upper hand.

Events become more and more farcical as the two become more and more desperate – and Rupert Friend (The Young Victoria, Boy in the Striped Pyjamas) as Stalin’s alcoholic son, Vasily, is a complete misfire. But the savage comedy, when it works, works very, very well. Pity it wasn’t consistent.

Rating: 58%

‘Annihilation’

annihilationAt once unsettling and at times ravishingly beautiful, director Alex Garland’s follow-up to the excellent Ex-Machina is something of a disappointment – a mishmash of visuals, science-fiction, existential ideas and a flat, tacked-on ending.

Biologist (and ex-military) Natalie Portman (Black Swan, Thor) teams up with three other female scientists (including an enjoyable Jennifer Jason Leigh – The Hateful 8, Mrs Parker & the Vicious Circle) to enter The Shimmer – an area sealed off from the rest of the world and where the rules of nature no longer apply.

Survival in the jungle (or more specifically an ever-mutating Florida swamplands) is as key to understanding the source of The Shimmer and whilst Annihilation builds tension with cutaways to immediate past events, that ending just leaves too many questions unanswered.

Rating: 42%

‘The Florida Project’

The_Florida_ProjectLife on the margins – and director Sean Baker (Tangerines, Starlet) immerses us in the everyday of six year-old Moonee and her friends.

Newcomer Brooklynn Prince is sensational as the street-savvy kid smart-arsing her way round the run-down motel blocks on the outskirts of Disneyland. Heavily-tattooed mom, Bria Vinaite, hustles cheap perfume, knock-off Disney passes and, eventually, herself to make ends meet. As motel-manager, Willem Defoe (Spider Man, John Wick) can only look-on with a sense of powerless hopelessness.

Baker gives us magic in the mundane, a voyeuristic experience of brattish behaviour (by adults and children alike) that highlights the cycle of poverty and crime. The Florida Project unfolds quietly in a series of non-judgemental, semi-observational vignettes that focus on character rather than didactic commentary. The result is warm, humorous but ultimately tragic.

Rating: 80%

‘Black Panther’

Black-Panther-poster-main-xlThere’s no question that the latest in the Marvel Comic franchise is politically important with its virtually all-black cast. And director Ryan Coogler (Creed, Fruitvale Station) has bought more than a touch of meaningful social commentary with him. But you can’t help thinking that Black Panther is more than a little over-hyped.

It’s an incredibly slow start with its origin story and photogenic African savannah panoramas. And while the court of King T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman – Get On Up, Captain America: Civil War) livens up considerably, a sluggish Black Panther is upstaged by his senior general, Danai Gurira (Mother of George, All Eyez On Me), as well as the villain of the peace, Michael B Jordan (Fruitvale Station, Creed).

Rating: 61%

 

‘Molly’s Game’

v1.bTsxMjU1NTM5NztqOzE3NjUwOzEyMDA7MTk0NDsyODgxA superior piece of storytelling based on the true story of a former Olympic-hopeful skier running the most exclusive LA and New York high stakes poker game.

As one would expect from scribe Aaron Sorkin (writer of The Social Network, Moneyball alongside TV’s West Wing and The Newsroom), the dialogue drives the narrative. There’s little cinematic gymnastics as Jessica Chastain (Zero Dark Thirty, The Help) engages us from the off as she hires Idris Elba (Thor, Beasts of No Nation) as her lawyer to protect her from the FBI witch hunt to name names.

Rating: 64%

‘Lady Bird’

lady_bird_ver2_xlgWarm and quirky, Greta Gerwig’s directorial debut is a coming-of-age narrative as 17 year-old Christine ‘Lady Bird’ McPherson struggles to come to terms with living in Sacramento, California rather than New York.

As Lady Bird, Saoirse Ronan (Atonement, Brooklyn) nails it as the eccentric, generous yet ultimately self-centred teenager determined to get what she wants – even if it pits her against her loving but exasperated mom (a superb Laurie Metcalf – Stop-Loss, Fun With Dick and Jane), a supportive dad (Tracy Letts – The Big Short, August: Orange County) and school friends.

Personal and honest, Lady Bird is a lightweight gem.

Rating: 79%