Cinema: The Shape of Water - a green-tinged beauty of a film
Cert: 15A; Opens on Wednesday
Mexican filmmaker Guillermo del Toro loves his monsters. He explained recently that the reason for his fondness for creatures is their predictability, humans don't always deliver on their promise but monsters do. Humans can be deceptive, monsters cannot.
His much lauded latest film, The Shape of Water, is informed by that same theory but also asks what is a monster and what is monstrous?
A beautiful homage to cinema, its moral is far from subtle, but Sally Hawkins's wonderful performance raises it from cute oddity to emotional journey.
In 1960s Maryland Elisa (Hawkins) is a janitor in a large secretive company where her friend Zelda (Octavia Spencer) does all the talking for Elisa who cannot speak and only signs.
At home Elisa has a steady routine and another close friend Giles (Richard Jenkins). It's 1962, the Cold War is at its height and in an America defined by the pesky Ruskies, a mute woman, a black woman and a gay man are very much outsiders.
When The Asset, an amphibian man (Doug Jones) is captured and held in her workplace, Elisa is drawn to what everyone else sees as a monster, so inhuman it is sentenced to death by panto villain head of security Strickland (Michael Shannon). But Elisa, devoid of words has seen beyond appearances to form a deeper connection.
Essentially a 'who is the real monster' fairytale, Hawkins's wordlessly wonderful passionate portrayal gives it greater emotional resonance but the moral is delivered too heavy handedly at times.
But overall this green-tinged beauty of a film has lots of humour and much to enjoy as a magical ode to love and connection.
★★★★ Aine O'Connor
Cert: 12A. Now showing.
Colin Firth portrays Donald Crowhurst, who competed in 1968 to become the first sailor to single-handedly circumnavigate the globe. With David Thewlis's press officer handling the media back home in Blighty and wife Clare (Rachel Weisz) left to wring her hands, Donald sets off in an unfinished yacht looking to make up for a series of delays and hit the high seas with a plummy "tally-ho".
The Mercy begins as breezy as a summer holiday in Cornwall, with Eric Gautier's grainy cinematography gently murmuring of better times. Suddenly, however, the realities of Crowhurst's disastrous voyage are spelled out and afternoon teas, plucky British humour and Thewlis's smirk are replaced by madness, filth and isolation. A disjointed film that feels as if it decided to changed tack somewhere along the way.
★★★ Hilary A White
The 15:17 to Paris
Cert: 15A. Now showing.
If asked who'd play you in the story of your life, the one person you'd naturally rule out is yourself.
You can sympathise only so much with Spencer Stone, Anthony Sadler and Alek Skarlatos, the young US backpackers who in 2015 helped overpower a terrorist on board a train bound for the French capital. In a move that never looked like it was going to work out, director Clint Eastwood cast the three non-actors in a depiction of the real-life incident. What was he thinking?
Eastwood's red-state sensibilities are writ large over the project. Flashback scenes in "guns 'n' prayers" California show the boys meeting and bonding over a healthy disdain for authority and that love of ammo and warfare that we find baffling in this part of the world.
Stone and Skarlatos fulfil their ambitions to enlist and serve, with the former - the narrative axis of the film - having to bust a gut to reach his potential. They convene in Europe for some inter-railing, taking selfies and getting smiles from waitresses, all the while sighing lines like "you ever feel like life is catapulting you towards a higher purpose?" You can almost locate the point where Eastwood and the acting coaches give up and tell the men to just say the lines on the page.
By the time they're wrestling with a "generic Islamist baddie", you've forgotten the glimmers of hope early on where an effective sense of the everyman was transmitted by Eastwood. You just want it all to stop and for real actors and scriptwriters to be parachuted in.
★★ Hilary A White
Cert: 16; Selected cinemas
Andrey Zvyagintsev found wider regard in 2014 with the award-winning Leviathan. The Russian filmmaker's fourth feature was a masterclass in social-realist drama about the dog-eat-dog corruption in Russian society.
Loveless finds injustices nearer the kitchen sink and the effect is no less harrowing. Zhenya (Maryana Spivak) and Boris (Aleksey Rozin) are divorcing in bitterly acrimonious style and 12-year-old son Alyosha (Matvey Novikov) is in the crossfire. Neither wants much to do with the lonely boy and treat him like a burden to be avoided.
So wrapped up are they in new relationships that neither parent notices when Alyosha doesn't come home from school. A manhunt is instigated and this new stress brings certain skeletons out of the cupboard.
Rarely will you ever hear characters in a film utter such poisonous lines to each other as in the script by Zvyagintsev and co-writer Oleg Negin. Up until Alyosha's disappearance, there are some scenes of neglect and abuse that are not easy viewing.
Thus Loveless is probably not the best first-date flick in cinemas at the moment. But like Leviathan, itself the feel-bad hit of 2014, it is yet another piece of exemplary filmmaking by Zvyagintsev. Here, he draws out tantalising performances from his cast - look out for Natalya Potapova as Zhenya's unforgettably horrid mother - while making incredible use of elements beyond the frame of action to amplify seismic levels of human disquiet.
★★★★★ Hilary A White
Cert: 12A; Opens on Tuesday
The die hards have been out in force long before the latest Marvel/Disney heroes got on to the big screen, with race very much a motivating factor in some cases.
Somewhere in between lies Black Panther about which there is one undeniable truth, it is unheard of to see an almost exclusively black cast in such a big movie.
Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) returns to Wakanda to find he is now King T'Challa.
This secretly wealthy, peaceful and advanced African nation has always avoided interference in the outside world but a different view is represented from within by Nakia (Lupita Nyong'o) and without by mysterious enemy Erik Killmonger (Michael B Jordan) before events force change.
I confess to superhero fatigue but this diversity fest is refreshing - it takes on race and gender, it's quite serious, both in terms of politics and lack of humour, but it is well made by director Ryan Coogler, has lots of action and heart and my teen companions, perhaps best qualified to opine, absolutely loved it.
★★★★ Aine O'connor