Tuesday 26 September 2017

Film review: Portman's First Lady perfection

Jackie Cert: 15A. Now showing

Natalie Portman is hypnotic as America's most famous First Lady in the astounding biopic Jackie
Natalie Portman is hypnotic as America's most famous First Lady in the astounding biopic Jackie
James McAvoy is positively beastly as crazed kidnapper in Split

Accents are a delicate balancing act. Overly commit yourself (think Tom Hardy in… anything) and there might be no escaping the thing. Remain within stage-school "received pronunciation" and you risk dulling a character's colour scheme.

Enter Natalie Portman.

In Pablo Larrain's extraordinary biopic of Jackie Kennedy, Portman goes for a straight-up imitation of the iconic widow's breathless mid-Atlantic whine.

Her mimicry melts into the fibre of what is one of the great acting performances of the decade. At the same time, she can wield it as a dramatic device in itself.

This will go some way to securing Portman the little gold man on February 26 but it would count for nothing if she couldn't floor you while her mouth was shut too. Few scenes in cinema - this year or any - will contain such hypnotic gravity as that in which Larrain follows Jackie around an empty White House in the aftermath of her husband's assassination, with only Mica Levi's unsettled strings for accompaniment.

While brilliant French cinematographer Stephane Fontaine paints the picture, Noah Oppenheim's screenplay makes you wonder why it's taken so long to essay this endlessly fascinating historical figure.

Larrain immerses us in the hours and days between shooting and funeral, all framed by a Life magazine interview a week after Dallas.

We see a dutiful First Lady, a grieving wife, a worried mother, a state-funeral organiser, a blood-spattered PTSD sufferer and a CEO fighting to protect the Camelot brand they built together.

A famous hairdo and a polished accent is suddenly a heroine of Shakespearean complexity. This is why the world needs cinema.

★★★★★

Hilary A White

Split

Cert: 15A. Now showing

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James McAvoy is positively beastly as crazed kidnapper in Split

Stick James McAvoy wherever you like - Filth, the X-Men franchise, the abominable Victor Frankenstein - and you can be guaranteed the Scottish dynamo will end up drenched in his own supercharged exertion. So while Casey Affleck mopes glumly towards Oscar contention with Manchester By The Sea, spare a thought for McAvoy, who in this camp mystery horror gets to indulge his brand of fifth-gear ham to unearthly effect.

He is the tool of M Night Shyamalan, the notorious writer-director whose nine lives are now in short supply after a series of turkeys released since mighty debut The Sixth Sense (1999). The upward curve hinted at by 2015's commendable The Visit continues here, you feel.

Casey (The Witch's Anya Taylor-Joy) is one of three high school girls kidnapped in a parking lot by Kevin "Wendell" Crumb (McAvoy). They come to in a soundproofed cell and suffer a bizarre series of interactions with their captor. Kevin, you see, has dissociative identity disorder, moving between 24 radically different personalities. The girls may be able to tap into one or two of these to help them escape before Kevin's most monstrous incarnation, "the Beast", shows up.

The silliness that Split descends into in the third act (with its obligatory "Shyamalan twist") oddly suits it. McAvoy is in his element mincing about and scaring Taylor-Joy, while Shyamalan channels Hitchcock at his deviant best.

★★★★★

Hilary A White

Lion

Cert PG: Now showing

In 1986 five-year-old Saroo (Sunny Pawar) falls asleep on a decommissioned train and wakes 1,600 kilometres later in Calcutta. He speaks Hindi - not Bengali - and knows neither his mother's name nor where he is from. He dodges the worst threats that can befall a street child before being adopted in Australia. There he lives a good life with the Brierleys (Nicole Kidman and David Wenham) but 20 years later Saroo (Dev Patel) wonders about his barely remembered roots.

Garth Davis's film is best in the first part, losing energy in the second. But the story, based on Saroo Brierley's memoir, although a little thin and scoots too fast over issues of roots and identity, is nice. The award-baiting performances are really good and it is beautifully shot by cinematographer Greig Fraser.

★★★★

Aine O'Connor

xXx: Return of  Xander Cage

Cert 12A: Now Showing

There's a little joke towards the end of this film about how Darius Stone (Ice Cube) has been waiting for 12 years for someone to dial 9. Then he joins the shootout.

It pretty much sums up DJ Caruso's film; his humour, movie violence, and the 12 years that have elapsed since the last, second instalment of the series. Although better than the 2005 film, it's still strictly for fans of high-octane, old school action movies.

Extreme athlete turned undercover operative Xander Cage (Vin Diesel) has been hiding out in the Dominican Republic. NSA head Jane Marke (Toni Collette) finds him to help her track down the makers of a satellite hijacking system. He assembles a crew (including Ruby Rose, Rory McCann and Deepika Padukone) and they bash people and do stunts. The plot is thin, the characters one-dimensional and the action non-stop.

★★

 Aine O'Connor

Sing

Cert G: Now showing

If the idea of singing animals appeals to you, then Sing will make you happy.

Beasts belt out tunes new and old in a funny animation that will amuse younger kids of both sexes and keep adult feet tapping throughout.

Garth Jennings writes, directs and voices one of the characters, Miss Crawly, aged lizard PA to down-on-his-luck but not-on-hope theatre impresario Buster Moon (Matthew McConaughey).

It is a slip-up by Miss Crawly which leads to a $1,000 prize fund for a singing competition becoming a $100,000 one, thus enticing thousands of entrants to the competition.

Buster has only established the competition to save his bankrupt business and can barely pay the original prize, much less the inflated one. But his hope springs eternal and preparations for the show go on.

The characters who will perform are the downtrodden piggy mama Rosita (Reese Witherspoon), punk porcupine Ash (Scarlett Johansson), snarky crooning mouse Mike (Seth McFarlane) and Gorilla Johnny (Taron Egerton), each of their stories feed into the main one and, although not terribly original, it is sweet and fun.

★★★

 Aine O'Connor

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