Monday 21 October 2019

Heading to the cinema? All the big movie releases screening this week reviewed

Aquaman or Mary Poppins?

Bumblebee
Bumblebee
Paul Whitington

Paul Whitington

Paul Whitington reviews all the big releases (and one or two not-so-big releases) in cinemas until January 31.

Bumblebee

4 stars

12A, 114 mins

Sometimes, in nightmares, I imagine that I am stuck in a never-ending screening of a Transformers film. Of all the summer blockbusters that afflicted us over the last decade or so, these were the most tiresome: loud, bombastic, pointless Cgi festivals witlessly presided over by that master of cinematic finesse, Michael Bay.

There were five of them, they all ran for over two and a half hours, they made lots of money, and none were any good. But, apparently, it needn't have been that way because this perky prequel is one of the best family films I've seen all year.

As the planet Cybertron is being overrun by Decepticons (bad robots!), Optimus Prime, barrel-voiced leader of the Autobots (the good ones), orders his most trusted lieutenant, B-127, to travel to Earth to scout the place out: in time, his comrades will follow.

But when the machine arrives on our planet he's treated to the usual friendly human welcome, is shot and half destroyed and retreats into a forest to recover. As those of you with small boys will know, Autobots can transform, and B-127 takes on the unassuming shape of a battered Volkswagen Beetle in the hopes of going unrecognised.

But when a clever teenage girl called Charlie (Hailee Steinfeld) acquires the car and finds out what it really is, she christens him 'Bumblebee' and watches in awe as he uses snippets from the radio to communicate with her. But this touching bonding session is rudely interrupted by the arrival of two Decepticon assassins.

Beautifully directed by Travis Knight (Kubo And The Two Strings) with a light, almost Spielbergian touch, Bumblebee is a delight from start to finish.

John Cena is great fun as an aggrieved army man, Steinfeld brings warmth, humanity and a fine comedic touch to her performance, and the Cgi is used sparingly, but very well. Sometimes Mr Bay, less is more.

Mary Poppins Returns

3 stars

G, 130 mins

Given that we live in the age of remakes, reboots, relaunches and re-hashes, it was I suppose inevitable that Disney would get around to making a sequel to their 1964 classic Mary Poppins one day.

Fifty four years later, they’ve sprung into action with this big, glossy, family-friendly production that adopts a respectful and even reverential approach to the original film, which seems to mean a lot to quite a lot of people.

Whenever I have cynically raised my eyes to heaven at the prospect of going to see it, people of a certain age, mainly but not exclusively female, have given me a right chewing before describing how important the 1964 original was to them.

It’s one of those films people grow up on, and in fairness was pretty special in its way. While the story’s creator P.L. Travers might have been horrified by the whole affair, the Disney film caught the magic of her stern but magical nanny, the sequences combining live action and animation were beautifully rendered, and what about those Sherman and Sherman songs. In a recent review of this film, the Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw suggested that ‘Let’s Go Fly a Kite’ was not a great song: he might want to consider acquiring a tuning fork. Cheesy, yes, but surely irresistible.

Among this remake’s biggest challenges, though, was how to cast a role so synonymous with Julie Andrews, and at least they got that part right. Emily Blunt is pitch perfect as a slightly older and more worldly but equally formidable Poppins, who descends from the skies just in time to save the Banks family from disaster - again.

Michael Banks (Ben Whishaw), the little boy from the original film, has grown up to have a family of his own, and still lives at No. 17 Cherry Tree Lane. He is, however, in imminent danger of losing it, as a loan he took out on the house has now fallen due, and his meagre salary at the bank won’t be enough to save them from eviction. Meanwhile, his three young children are running wild, and when one of them hoists an old kite into the skies above the nearby park, it comes back down with a nanny attached to it.

Mary is not impressed by the general state of the household, and it doesn’t take her long to put manners on the nippers, though she also treats them to regular doses of magic courtesy of that enchanted Gladstone bag. But she also notices that Michael is doing his best as a parent, but struggling in the aftermath of his wife’s recent death.

Emily Mortimer plays Jane Banks, who’s now a socialist and women’s rights activist like her mother, while Lin-Manuel Miranda is the Dick Van Dyke proxy, an irrepressibly chirpy ‘cockney’ lamplighter and Mary’s loyal ally.

There’s nothing all that wrong with any of this, and indeed quite a lot right early on. An animated sequence in which the children take a bath which turns into a technicolor undersea kingdom is beautifully executed, as is a music hall number Mary performs to an audience of cartoon animals. Emily Blunt is extremely good as Poppins (so good in fact that one wonders who else could have been cast in the role), abandoning her own English accent for a strangulated regal tone that seems to suit the occasion perfectly. The songs are not bad either, though I can’t for the life of me recall a single one of them. And as I said, the film is scrupulously reverential to its predecessor throughout.

But maybe it’s too reverent, because it seems to me the the writers, producers and directors of this production were so fearful of tarnishing the good name of Ms. Poppins that they’ve created something competent, workmanlike, shiny and dead. In and of itself, Mary Poppins Returns never really comes to life, save in the moments when Ms. Blunt is given a stage to herself. It feels like someone was carefully ticking off the boxes - song here, animated bit here, cheery Cockney dance here - so that any incidental creativity was stifled.

Lin-Manuel Miranda may have a stellar reputation on Broadway, but is deadly dull here as Mary’s sidekick: he dances and sings well but blandly, and while the film has upheld the tradition of the dodgy cockney accent, his is merely slightly off and not the magnificently daft conversation piece created by Mr. Van Dyke.

It’s fine, I suppose, but is that enough? Poppins fans will enjoy the nostalgia of it all, but may feel a little deflated afterwards.   

Aquaman

2 stars

12A, 143mins

With all due respect to the DC cinematic universe, it’s very much the poor relation of the Disney/Marvel behemoth, and while its films always cost a lot of money, they rarely seem to make much.

Wonder Woman is the franchise’s glowing high point, but more typical of the DC output are the deadly dull Batman vs. Superman and the positively stinky Justice League. Aquaman is the sixth instalment, and at least promises some of the wry humour that so distinguished Wonder Woman.

Aquaman was introduced to us briefly during Justice League, as a long-haired, beer-swilling super-lout with a tenuous connection to the lost kingdom of Atlantis. In this film, we get his backstory.

Born Arthur Curry, he was the result of an unlikely union between a lighthouse keeper and, well, a fish-woman. Maine keeper Thomas Curry (Temuera Morrison) is standing on his front porch one evening when he spots a figure on the shore. He rescues a beautiful, unconscious woman who displays immense strength and kinetic energy when she wakes. She is Atlanna (Nicole Kidman), Queen of Atlantis, a sophisticated undersea kingdom that men don’t know exists. She’s wounded, and as Thomas slowly nurses her back to health, they get frisky, and young Arthur is the result.

This inter-species idyll is rudely interrupted by an Atlantan attack, and Atlanna is forced to return to the depths to face the music. So Arthur (Jason Momoa) grows up big and strong but both fish and man, and eventually takes to the water to battle the forces of aquatic evil. But he wants nothing whatever to do with Atlantis until one of its inhabitants comes looking for him.

Mera (Amber Heard) is a princess from a neighbouring undersea kingdom, and arrives on shore to warn Arthur that his half-brother Orm is about to declare war on mankind because of its destructive impact on the oceans. He’d get my vote, but Arthur is persuaded that only he can stop massive loss of human life, and journeys to Atlantis with Mera to face the sibling he’s never met. 

It’s silly stuff, awash with clumsy CGI, daft beyond compare. Sea men ride into battle on strangely compliant sharks, while dextrous octopuses accompany them on bongos. The fine line between who can breathe on land as well as in water baffled me, as did the simmering rivalries between the various undersea tribes, one of which seemed to be an unfortunate union of humanoid and crab.

Aquaman is an adventure without an anchoring character or idea, and suffers from the plodding stolidness of its lead actors. Mr. Momoa might look impressive, but he’s not much good at acting, and Amber Heard is stiff as a board as his fishy love interest. It starts off decently enough, but whenever the action drifts between the waves it gets overwhelmed with CGI, and becomes very hard to follow.

Nicole Kidman almost convinced me she was an under-sea queen, but Patrick Wilson is miscast and badly made-up as Aquaman’s screechy half-brother, and none of the other characters stand up to close inspection. The jokes fall flat, the story’s feeble and predictable, and the film’s 143-minute length would test the patience of a halibut. Not for me folks, and I like swimming.

Ralph Breaks the Internet

3 stars

PG, 112 mins

Every now and then a sequel outdoes the original, and that’s certainly the case here.

Disney’s 2012 animation Wreck It Ralph imagined the inner lives of arcade video game characters, but somehow managed to be simultaneously frenetic and dull.

Not so this tardy follow-up, in which jovial giant Ralph (voiced by John C Reilly) travels into the murky depths of the internet with his friend Vanellope von Steetz (Sarah Silverman) in search of a second-hand steering wheel that will save her doomed game.

A high concept script pokes fun at our online obsessions and Reilly and Silverman resume their voice roles with aplomb.

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

5 stars

PG, 117 mins

The world doesn’t need another Spider-Man film. I know it, you know it, and I’m sure the folks behind this latest entry sure as hell know it.

It’s with this attitude, then, that I approached Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (now there’s a title and a half), a shiny, new animated entry, co-produced by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, aka, the brains behind The Lego Movie. So, you can imagine my surprise when the damn thing turned out to be nothing short of a triumph.

Miles Morales (Shameik Moore), a smart yet nervy New Yorker, who lives in a world where Peter Parker is already Spider-Man, has just started boarding school. He’s not having the best time of it and is struggling to connect with his police officer father. Young Miles finds comfort, then, in his cool uncle, Aaron (Mahershala Ali).

One night, the lads are out graffitiing walls, when Miles is bitten by a radioactive spider. You can guess what happens next. One thing leads to another and, when the ‘first’ Spider-Man becomes, er, indisposed, Miles takes it upon himself to carry the gauntlet. But there’s more.

The dastardly Kingpin (Liev Schreiber) has only gone and opened up a portal to alternate universes, and before we know it, the New York that Miles inhabits is soon over-run by various shades of cross-di­mensional Spider-People. There’s alternate Peter Parker (Jake Johnson).

Say hello to Spider-Gwen (Hailee Stein­feld). Oh, look, here comes Spider-Man Noir (Nicolas Cage). Is that Spider-Ham I see? It keeps going.

I know, it sounds bananas – but Spi­der-Verse is one of those rare superhero films that, though tricky on paper, plays out rather neatly on the screen, executing its complex story with a miraculous sense of ease, wonder and charm. Better still, the entire project – which, with its vibrant com­bination of 3D computer techniques, and old-school, hand-drawn craft, is stunning to look at - is in on the joke.

The whole thing is a zippy, frenetic and surprisingly meta commentary on the comic-book in­dustry – but it also has a heart, a fabulous voice cast, and comes equipped with some of the sharpest punchlines of the year.

Yes, I know what I said: the world doesn’t need another Spider-Man film. But when they’re as smart and as delightful as this one, then I’m sure we can make exceptions. The best superhero movie of the year.

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald

3 stars

12A, 134mins

Oh for the Midas touch of J.K. Rowling, with her divine knack for spinning yarns, and making money. The Harry Potter film franchise grossed almost $8billion, her Cormoran Strike crime novels have become an acclaimed BBC drama, and in 2016 her Potter prequel Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them was a huge box office hit.

That film marked her screenwriting debut, and she’s also the author of this sequel, a windy, fog-laden affair in which the otherworldly wizard Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) comes face to face with evil.

In his own good time, mind you. The 2016 film flew along at a satisfying pelt, and was bursting at the seams with visual invention. It was better than any of the Potter films in my opinion, but this time the beast is out of the bag, as it were, meaning all involved have to work much harder.

At the end of the first film we were introduced to the shape-shifting dark wizard Gellert Grindelwald (Johnny Depp), a fastidious maniac who wants to collapse the magical world order and substitute a new one of his own. As Fantastic Beasts 2 opens he’s cooling his heels in a Ministry of Magic prison in 1920s Manhattan when he seizes an opportunity to escape.

Grindelwald, who dresses gothically and is surrounded at all times by foppish flunkies who look like extras from a Marilyn Manson video, bears a particular animus towards Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law). They were once firm friends but fell out, and since Dumbledore (Jude Law) formed a blood pact with Grindelwald, he cannot now oppose him. And as Grindelwald prepares to unleash the dogs of war, the problem is, who will?

Happily, because she’s great fun, Alison Sudol’s ditzy New York sorceress Queenie returns, as does her hapless Muggle fiance Jacob (Dan Fogler), who accompany Scamander on a dangerous expedition to Paris. Newt might seem sexless, but is mighty keen on Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), a stern but handsome American Auror he formed a bond with in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. He also seems drawn to Leta Lestrange (Zoe Kravitz), a gifted but complexed old Hogwarts classmate. But she’s engaged to Newt’s brother, and that is only one of the complex relationships that will be sorely tested by Grindelwald’s scheming.

It will also test your patience. While the original film zipped along breathlessly, The Crimes of Grindelwald proceeds at an oddly funereal pace, dwelling lovingly on gloopy special effects that tend to occlude the actual drama. Eddie Redmayne is pretty good as Newt I suppose, though his diffident eccentricities seem a little more studied this time. And while Jude Law is surprisingly good as a young and virile Dumbledore, we don’t get to see that much of him, probably because he’s being held in reserve for the next instalment.

Unfortunately, we see lots and lots of Grindelwald. Has Johnny Depp forgotten how to act? Have five outings as the pantomime dame Jack Sparrow shattered his thespian compass and any residual sense of restraint?

He has chosen stillness as a weapon in this film: his Grindelwald inhabits the stage with pouting menace, whispering poison commands into the ears of his underlings. He speaks with a ‘British’ accent of course, and sounds like a Tory Brexiteer who’s been at the sherry. He’s impossible to take seriously, and leaves a gaping hole that a menace on the scale of Ralph Fiennes’s Voldemort should have occupied. It’s the biggest problem in a film that entertains in spots and does boast some impressive effects but is not a patch on its predecessor.

The Grinch

2 stars

G, 89 mins

Review by Chris Wasser

This should have been a hoot — it’s the greatest Dr Seuss story of them all. And, with the guys at Illumination Entertainment producing (they make the Despicable Me films), we can only hope that, at some point, this noisy, vibrant film knew what it was doing. Sadly, the end product appears to have lost its way.

Based on the 1957 children’s story, this new and unimproved version of The Grinch begins where it always does: in a cave, overlooking the town of Whoville. Our grumpy, green protagonist (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch) lives alone, with his canine companion, Max.

The Grinch hates Christmas, as you’ll know. And, this year, the residents of Whoville have decided to make Christmas “three times bigger”.

Naturally, the Grinch is enraged and, thus, hatches a plan to literally steal everyone’s Christmas. He’ll do so, by dressing up as Santa Claus, breaking into everyone’s houses and swiping their pressies. Unbeknownst to the Grinch, however, a young Whoville resident named Cindy Lou plans to stay up on Christmas Eve so as she can meet Santa. Guess how that one pans out.

Here’s a question: why hire Benedict Cumberbatch — a man with one of the best voices in the business — to play the Grinch, and then ask him to change his accent?

It’s a peculiar move, and I’m sorry to report that Fake American Cumberbatch brings absolutely nothing to this film. Such problematic casting, however, is the least of our worries.

Underwhelming, unimaginative and uninspired, this cold and careless adaptation is severely lacking in the zingers department. Very, very young viewers might find something to stay awake for, but the rest of us will wish that everyone involved had tried a lot harder.

Sorry, Illumination, but this is not the way to keep up with Disney/Pixar.

Creed II

4 stars

12A, 129 mins

Does Sylvester Stallone ever tire, I wonder, of playing his most famous character? Possibly not, because Rocky Balboa has been a formidable cash cow, the beating heart of a boxing franchise that will presumably only end when Stallone does (possibly not even then) and has already earned $1.5 billion. Creed II is likely to add substantially to that tally because it holds fast to the Rocky traditions and, though rather predictable, is utterly irresistible from the start.

In Ryan Coogler’s very impressive 2016 reboot Creed, we met Adonis ‘Donnie’ Creed (Michael B Jordan), the illegitimate son of Balboa’s old rival and friend Apollo who, as Rocky scholars will know, died at the hands of Soviet boxer Ivan Drago in Rocky IV. Donnie is a wild young man who bare-knuckle fights at the weekends and dreams of emulating his dad and turning pro. When he sought out Rocky, the old man agreed to become his trainer for a string of fights that turned him into a genuine contender.

As Creed II opens, things are looking good for Donnie: he’s the newly crowned heavyweight world champion and is engaged to his true love, singer Bianca (Tessa Thompson). Rocky has recovered well from the cancer scare he endured in the previous film and, in short, life couldn’t be better in the Creed camp until sinister forces stir in the Ukraine. A brutal young fighter called Viktor Drago (Florian Munteanu) has been knocking seven bells out of all-comers and now demands that Donnie face him. As Viktor is, of course, the son of Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren), Donnie feels honour-bound to avenge his father’s death, but Rocky’s not keen, and the two part company when he refuses to coach the kid.

Donnie should have listened because when he and Viktor fight in Las Vegas, Creed is given a right hiding. As he slowly recovers in hospital, Donnie wonders if he’ll ever fight again, but eventually he realises (as we did ages ago) that a rematch with Viktor is inevitable, and that his old coach needs to be in his corner.

Once we see the huge, chiselled head of Dolph Lundgren appear on the horizon, we know that Creed II is intent on playing the dangerous game of nostalgia.

The idea of a Russian villain is very 80s, and so is Brigitte Nielsen, the former Mrs Stallone, who turns up midway through playing poor Viktor’s feckless mother, whose departure some years ago may explain the young fellow’s bottomless pit of rage. You could laugh at all this over-neat remedial psychology, but there’s no time because Creed II rattles along at a very pleasing pace, and warmly embraces its moments of silliness. The fight sequences are very entertaining, skilfully edited action sequences enhanced by the hackneyed insights of the TV commentators in which every blow resounds like the hammer of Thor.

But Steven Caple Jr’s film, which was co-written by Stallone, is not dumb enough to rely solely on boxing and trash talk. There’s a moving sub-plot involving Donnie’s anxieties when he discovers he’s about to become a father, and then of course there’s his tempestuous relationship with Rocky, which entails more sulks, strops and tearful reconciliations than most marriages.

Back in the late 90s, in a film called Cop Land, Stallone revealed his best kept secret: that he could, only on special occasions mind, act. His portrayal of the elderly Rocky in these two Creed films has surprising poignancy, and depth: he watches the progress of his young protégé with a wise and watery eye, recognising that Donnie must make his own mistakes, but ever ready to step in to help when things get out of hand.

There’s an almost Shakespearean grandeur to his ringside presence: he’s the King Lear of the canvas, if you will, and his presence gives the films a vital core of emotion, and continuity. They work well, but wouldn’t work at all without him.

Bohemian Rhapsody

3 stars

12A, 134mins

If there's one thing everyone remembers about the 1985 Live Aid concert, it's Freddie Mercury. He and Queen emerged on the Wembley stage that sunny evening to blow away a star-studded field of rivals including The Who, Dire Straits, Elton John, David Bowie and a young U2 with a live performance of astonishing power and emotion. Freddie played his 70,000-strong audience like a violin, leading them in sing-songs and totally commanding the biggest stage the world had to offer. Up till that point, I'd wondered slightly what the point of Queen was, but thereafter, never.

He, and they, were unique, a strange blend of heavy rock and cheesy pop, with Freddie's operatic enthusiasms thrown in for good measure.

He died of an Aids-related illness in 1991, but his band's songs have remained big favourites on radio playlists and downloading sites, and his reputation as a pop genius has only grown. For all its faults, Bohemian Rhapsody may enhance it.

The project, which was first announced as long ago as 2010, has had a troubled history, including a mid-shoot change of director: it was on-set tensions that apparently led to the departure of Bryan Singer, with cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel and director Dexter Fletcher stepping in to finish the film.

Freddie's old band mates Brian May and Roger Taylor came up with the idea for Bohemian Rhapsody, which was originally to star Sacha Baron Cohen. Perhaps happily, we never got to see that questionable item of casting reach fruition, and instead it's Egyptian-American actor Rami Malek who takes on a challenging and difficult role.

Difficult, because Mercury had a restless, quicksilver quality that was always going to be hard to catch: too little welly in the performance and it just wouldn't seem like Freddie; too much and one risked an embarrassing caricature. Overall, Malek succeeds splendidly, and his energy and conviction overcome the dramatic dips of a film that's far from perfect, but very enjoyable.

Born in Zanzibar, raised in India, Farrokh Bulsara moved to London with his family at the age of 17, and when we first meet him in Bohemian Rhapsody he's unloading bags at Heathrow Airport. "I'm not from Pakistan," he patiently explains to the moronic co-workers who call him a 'Paki'. In fact, he's Parsi, an Indian-based Zoroastrian sect, and while his kindly traditional dad is hoping his son will follow a respectable path, Farrokh has other ideas.

He's already changed his name to Freddie, and his interest in music leads him to a dodgy pub gig, performed by a band called Smile. Afterwards, Freddie buttonholes the guitarist, Brian May, (Gwilym Lee) and the drummer, Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy), and tells them he should be their frontman. When they react dubiously, he bursts into song: Queen is born.

In amusing but rather shambolic fashion, the film charts the band's march towards global success: their first big hit, an eye-catchingly provocative Top Of The Pops appearance, and the fractious creation of their 1975 album A Night At The Opera. Amusingly, Mike Myers appears as a dubious EMI executive who will bitterly regret refusing to release the bizarre, six-minute epic Bohemian Rhapsody as a single.

After someone else does, Queen's popularity explodes, breaking America and establishing their reputation as possibly the best live rock 'n' roll act in the world. But it's not long before everyone, especially Freddie, has started to lose the run of themselves.

Read more: ‘He wasn’t with him for the fame and fortune – it was genuine love’ – Armagh actor Aaron McCusker plays Freddie Mercury’s Irish boyfriend in Bohemian Rhapsody

The film's quietest, most touching moments explore his relationship with Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton), a young woman he marries and will remain very close to, even after he and she accept that he is gay. But Bohemian Rhapsody is not big on subtlety: it tells Freddie's story loudly, taking dramatic shortcuts, over-neatly conflating events and reducing most of the surrounding characters to single dimensions. Some of the dialogue's a bit heavy-handed too, but I must say I was thoroughly entertained.

Malek handles a pair of dentures and Freddie's oddly plummy speaking voice with aplomb, and captures the cheeky, charming, outrageous persona with which Mercury both confronted the world and protected himself from it. Fittingly, the film ends with a stirring extended recreation of that Live Aid performance, with Freddie as Icarus, touching the sun but about to fall.  

Free Solo

4 stars

PG, 99 mins

I’m not the best with heights, and would rather swim with great white sharks than attempt the existential horror of climbing ‘free solo’. Aficionados of this unhinged hobby scale sheer cliff faces without ropes or safety gear, with sometimes fatal consequences.

That does not deter the subject of this fine documentary, rock climber Alex Honnold, from taking on El Capitan, a 3,000-metre monolith in Yosemite National Park that’s so steep, the task seems impossible.  Not to Honnold, who climbs New York skyscrapers for fun and seems to attain a zen-like calm when clinging to the sides of terrifying precipices.

Shoplifters

5 stars

A surprise win of the Palme d’Or at Cannes, Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Shoplifters is a film of rare depth and quality, which evokes everything from Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story to Oliver Twist. When we first meet husband and wife Osamu and Noboyu (Lily Franky, Sakura Ando), their boy, a half-sister and the ‘granny’ (the late, great Kirin Kiki) they live with, we assume they’re all related.

But all is not as it seems, and Osamu and Noboyu are career criminals who teach children how to steal. Cleverly, and with great patience, Kore-eda explores the meaning of family, and suggests that real parenthood is not given, but earned.

Sorry to Bother You

3 stars

16, 112 mins

A film full of cleverness and good ideas, Boots Riley’s angry satire has been getting rave reviews in the US, where it’s seen as the latest in a new breed of movies taking on the dark forces of American racism.

Young slacker Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield) is tired of being turned down for jobs because he’s black.When he finally lands one at a dodgy call centre, Cash discovers a talent for sounding white: he shoots up the sales board, but also attracts the attention of a sinister corporation.

When Riley’s film hits the mark, it can be very funny, but it’s also a bit of a mess, especially late on when it loses focus entirely.

The Old Man & the Gun

4 stars

12A, 97 mins

I always thought Robert Redford has been a totally underrated actor, whose minimalist, unfussy approach has tended to obscure the quality of his work. Since breaking through alongside his friend Paul Newman in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid in the late 1960s, Redford has remained one of the best leading men in Hollywood, displaying the kind of unshowy naturalism that wins no Oscars but serves the greater purpose of the finished film.

Over a 60-year career (he’s 82) littered with outstanding performances, he’s been Oscar-nominated as an actor just once (for The Sting), and has never won.

He deserves another nomination at the very least for this winningly evocative collaboration with writer/director David Lowery.

Lowery is among the more original voices in American film-making at the minute, and in his last movie, the wonderfully oddball A Ghost Story, Casey Affleck played a man who dies in a road crash, comes back to haunt his wife, and watches in horror as she moves on and their home gets turned into an office block. Lowery and Redford first worked together on the director’s enchanting 2016 children’s film Pete’s Dragon, and in The Old Man & the Gun, the veteran actor takes on a whimsically anti-heroic role with pleasing echoes of the Sundance Kid himself.

Forrest Tucker (Redford) is a career criminal who’s been robbing banks with distinction since his teens, and has staged daring escapes from just about every prison he was sent to. It’s 1981, and he’s in his mid-70s, but his passion for bank jobs seems undimmed, and with the help of two ‘colleagues’, Forrest embarks on an ambitious spree, starting in Texas but continuing up country. Teddy (Danny Glover) does the driving, Waller (Tom Waits) is the beady-eyed lookout, while Tucker carries out the actual robberies — and, boy, does he do them suavely.

Wearing a natty suit, a broad-brimmed hat and a fake moustache, he ambles into sleepy branches, smiles warmly and asks to see the manager. He quietly tells them his real business and, though no one ever seems to actually see one, claims he’s carrying a gun. The robberies are transacted with quiet, almost soothing efficiency, and Tucker never so much as raises his voice to his victims, who afterwards invariably describe him as “a gentleman”.

When a Texan police detective called John Hunt (Casey Affleck) notices that these crimes form a pattern, he christens the culprits the ‘Over the Hill Gang’ and becomes fascinated by their elusive and charismatic leader. The two men are polar opposites, Hunt a plodding cop and dependable family man, Tucker a rootless drifter for whom settling down would represent the ultimate horror. He does, though, appear to toy with it as he winningly courts Jewel (Sissy Spacek), a farm-owning widow who ought to know better than to expect anything much from a man like Tucker.

Hunt hunts, Tucker robs, and the old man seems to relish the chase almost as much as the robberies. He seems at his happiest either sauntering out of a bank with a bag full of loot, or careering across country being chased by a cloud of wailing sirens. And although the film is partly based on a true story, Redford’s character seems mythic, part of the long-line of American outlaws who took one look at settled life, hit the road and kept on running forever.

The role is so appropriate to the actor that it’s hard to believe Lowery didn’t write it with him in mind: it plays to his strengths, fighting shy of too much detail or gritty verities, and allowing the character to drift like a laconic ghost through his own story.

The film, which is shot to feel like a movie of the period and is really quite beautifully made, makes constant subtle references to Robert Redford’s career. There are teasing clips of earlier films, and photos of a young Tucker showing the actor in his beautiful prime. We even see him on a horse at one point, a nostalgic moment that both evokes Sundance and underlines the sad fact that, even in the 1980s, Tucker is an anachronism.

Redford is wonderful in this will-o'-the-wisp role: his easy way with comedy is to the fore, his physical grace apparently undimmed by age. From a distance, his thick auburn hair fluttering in the breeze, you imagine him young and forget that he’s about to ride off into the sunset: then, with a melancholy sigh, you remember that he is.

Mortal Engines

2 stars

12A, 128mins

Produced by Peter Jackson, but crucially not directed by him, Mortal Engines is based on a fantasy novel by Philip Reeve and set a thousand years hence, when humanity has slowly recovered from a devastating tech war.

A hi-tech society with a medieval hierarchy has emerged and big cities have become mobile, trundling across Europe swallowing smaller communities.

Most rapacious of the lot is London, and Robert Sheahan plays a city librarian who realises that something’s wrong after meeting an underworld waif.

It’s an awful mess, boring and plot-light, and may be an elaborate metaphor for Brexit.

Check your local cinema for specific listings.

Read more: The Favourite movie review: 'A delightful film, funny, absurd, anarchic and profound'

Online Editors

Editors Choice

Also in Entertainment

Back to top