Saturday 10 December 2016

Cinema - now showing: Traders - insubstantial but fun

Cert: 16. Now showing

Hilary A White and Aine O'Connor

Published 14/03/2016 | 02:30

Anomalisa mixes the wacky with hard, uncompromising realism.
Anomalisa mixes the wacky with hard, uncompromising realism.
Kung Fu Panda

Harry Fox (Killian Scott) is a credit-rich young professional who is cast adrift when his company goes under in the economic downturn. Suddenly his consumer power, the defining attribute of his urban identity, is under threat. A former colleague called Vernon (John Bradley, or Sam from Game of Thrones, as he'll forever be known) gets in touch and reveals that he has happened upon a get-rich-quick scheme that Harry may like the sound of - trading.

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Forget market floors and hopping phones, however. This type of trading sees two consenting adults turn up in a remote lot somewhere, each carrying an agreed amount of cash in a hold-all. A fight to the death ensues and the winner doubles his money after burying the loser. Simples, as the kids like to say these days.

Wiry Harry finds he has quite a knack for this and begins clocking up ever-increasing payloads through wasteland throttlings. Vernon, on the other hand, is miffed that his chubby build disqualifies him from trading glory, and has to work outside of the rulebook to get ahead. If you think this recessionary noir has a happy ending, you haven't been paying attention.

Black dramas with such a serrated nihilistic edge often spiral into chaotic indulgence by their finale, and why should Traders be any different. Writer-director duo Rachael Moriarty and Peter Murphy have years of collaborating on film shorts together and hatch a gritty, Zeitgeist-prodding premise that is just silly enough to stay afloat. Scott, who has been knocking on the door for some years now with eye-catching turns in Calvary, Love/Hate and '71, clasps his opportunity in both hands in a committed front-and-centre role. Bradley is, well, little more than Sam in a suit and all the better for it. Insubstantial but fun. 3 Stars

Hilary A White

Anomalisa

Cert: 15A. Now showing

We've missed Charlie Kaufman. Seven years is a long time to be without one of the most singular writers in modern cinema but that is what we've endured since his directorial debut, Synecdoche, New York bombed at the box office. His films are hilarious, surrealist, metafictional and often contain veiled, postmodern versions of himself (ie fumbling menopausal males). In the case of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) and the brilliant Adaptation (2003), the results can make for life-affirming cinema.

Despite being depicted in co-director Duke Johnson's distinct stop-motion animation, Anomalisa is as "Kaufman" as it gets. A big screen adaptation of his 2005 play, it features a glum middle-ager with grey hair and a grey life (a customer service guru called Michael). It has an existential and romantic crisis forced to the surface by way of said despondent fugue. Michael (voiced by the reedy whine of David Thewlis) is in Cincinnati to give a talk at a conference. Everyone in his orbit sounds exactly the same to Michael (all voiced by Tom Noonan), from his wife and son to the hotel bellboy.

After a romantic grapple with Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a frumpy conference-goer staying on his hotel floor, he falls hard, convinced that she is the remedy to his many midlife-crisis ills. As he does, shards of Noonan start to creep in to Lisa's voice, hinting that only Michael can fix Michael.

There's much to take from Anomalisa that belies its soft-eyed dolls and dry wit, not least its meticulous mix of the whacky with hard, uncompromising realism. Even Thewlis's bleating feels like "textbook Kaufman", which is saying something. It's great to have him back. 5 Stars

Hilary A White

The Witch

Cert 15A; now showing

There is something inherently creepy about the 1600s, an inbetweeny time when the aspiration to civilisation justified any means to achieve what it was interpreted to be. Writer-director Robert Egger capitalises on this to create a beautiful looking, excellently delivered and acted, atmospheric and inherently creepy film.

The story takes places in New England around 60 years before the Salem witch trials and offers a snapshot of the sin-obsessed, self-loathing misogyny that led to Salem. Religious differences cause English immigrants Will (Ralph Ineson), Kate (Kate Dickie) and their five children to be ejected from their Puritan community and they set up alone on the edge of a wood. As her prayers indicate, their pubescent daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) already knows she is full of sinful potential. Her mother singles her out for chores and correction, her father capitalises on that to save his own skin and she is the object of curious admiring glances from her brother Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw).

When the unbaptised newborn Sam disappears whilst in Thomasin's care the family is plunged into grief. Combined with their isolation, beliefs, fear and hunger as the crops fail, the unit becomes a hothouse of suspicion and paranoia, their world shrinking as their fear grows.

Based on well-researched beliefs about witchcraft, The Witch suggests rather than shows and leaves much to audience interpretation. For a horror film, it is mostly psychological; there are no jump moments and not much gore. It's clever and atmospheric and creepy. 4 Stars

Aine O'Connor

Divergent: Allegiant

Cert 12A  2*

It is now almost de rigeur for franchises to split their series finales into two parts, and the Divergent series is no exception. Part one of the final instalment sees a new dawn that looks remarkably like the old one. In a post-apocalyptic Chicago, the reign of murderous Janine has been replaced by that of Evelyn (Naomi Watts), who seems just as intent on eliminating her enemies. She also does a U-turn on her promise to open the wall, once again imprisoning the citizens.

With tactics her former allies cannot accept, faction leader Johanna (Octavia Spencer) declares war and Divergent heroine Tris (Shaleine Woodley) escapes over the wall into whatever lies beyond. Together with Four (Theo James), Christina (Zoe Kravitz), Caleb (Ansel Elgort) and Peter (Miles Teller) they discover the world run by David (Jeff Daniels) and the message of the film becomes more about eugenics than sociology. There are changes from Veronica Roth's book and returning director Robert Schwentke delivers a rather long, messy CGI-heavy film. It is no Hunger Games, but existing fans should enjoy it. HH

Aine O'Connor

Kung Fu Panda 3

Cert PG; now showing 

It is hard to think of a more reliable franchise than Kung Fu Panda. Yes, it is an incredibly lucrative one but that is not necessarily a guarantee of quality and reliability with other franchises. They take their time between sequels - with Kung Fu Panda, the last one was in 2011 - and deliver what, although following an arc, are standalone pieces of clever, sweet and funny kids' cinema.  Fortunately the third outing maintains the standard and for adult audiences is about as funny as most comedies aimed at an older audience.

This time round Po (Jack Black) is comfortable as local hero but uncomfortable when asked to take on the role of leader from Shifu (Dustin Hoffman). They all realise it is a role that will require time, something which first faces the challenge of the arrival of Po's long lost father Li (Bryan Cranston) who wants to show Po who he is and where he is from. Then there's the deadlier challenge of Kai (JK Simmons). Kai has returned from the spirit world and plans on stealing everyone's chi so that he can use it for dodgy ends. But no one except the pandas know the secret of chi harnessing, or do they?

Po's clumsy bumbling does get stuff done so he is not a frustrating hero. It's a role that Jack Black, who co-wrote, clearly relishes. Angelina Jolie, Seth Rogen and Jackie Chan all return for what is a predictable but enjoyable, heart-warming story with lots of nice details and gorgeous colour. In 2D and 3D. HHHH

Aine O'Connor

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