British-born director Asif Kapadia is now best known for his award-winning documentaries Amy and Senna but he ambitiously opted to shoot his first feature in the deserts of Rajasthan and the Himalayas. Kapadia’s influences are immediately evident — the warriors in service of a a tyrannical lord echo the samurai films of Akira Kurosawa (an early draft was set in Japan) whilst the stunning desert landscapes draw from Sergio Leone’s Westerns. Blending these styles in a new location feels sufficiently fresh, and Kapadia crafts a meditative and mythic atmosphere around a lone warrior seeking redemption. The titular warrior, Lafcadia, is the role that established Irrfan’s Khan’s career at a time he was considering quitting the profession, and he is perfectly suited to it — with scant dialogue, The Warrior relies on his world-weary face to do much of the storytelling, and Kapadia rarely misses an opportunity to focus on the weight behind Khan’s eyes. This requires the audience to fill in the narrative history and much of his inner struggle. In one scene the sight of a knife and the swell of music seem to incite Lafcadia to violence but what makes The Warrior stand apart is that he is ultimately a man finding his way to peace rather than vengeance.
“You cannot reason with a tiger when your head is in its mouth.”
At a time when Churchill has rightly been undergoing a reevaluation, Darkest Hour disappointingly skirts any controversial topics by focusing on a few weeks at the start of his premiership, deciding as France falls whether to engage in peace talks with Germany. In a masterful, Oscar-winning performance, Gary Oldman entirely disappears into Churchill’s visage, aided by prosthetics but sold through the physicality of his mannerisms and intonation. It is a complex portrayal that incorporates the irrascible man of words, iconically defiant against the odds, but also a privately wavering man, weakened by alcoholism, and a man who lied to the British people in his first broadcast as prime minister. The film constructed around it, however, is the most banal patriotism, content simply to deify him as a rousing orator. Most jarring is a transparently fabricated sequence in which Churchill rides the underground to seek the public’s opinion, his Macaulay quotation completed by a black Londoner in a rose-tinted portrayal of multiculturalism and British fearlessness. It is saccharine Oscar-bait, and undermines the verisimilitude that pervades much of Darkest Hour. The cinematography suits the title, scenes grimly bathed in shadow and desaturated, frequently near-monochrome, much occuring within the confines of the subterranean War Rooms. There are brief sequences of war in France, and Joe Wright revisits the Dunkirk evacuation (though never in so striking a fashion as his astonishing long take in Atonement). In Wright’s hands, this is all highly competent and compelling filmmaking but, Oldman’s peformance aside, Darkest Hour is a hagiography that serves little purpose with no fresh perspective.
“Look, people can be terrible about things they don’t understand.”
This soft reboot of the Transformers franchise often feels like a cars-and-robots take on How To Train Your Dragon, similarly centred around an outsider bonding with a powerfully destructive but kind and damaged creature. Michael Bay’s films revelled in robotic carnage, whilst scenes featuring humans were generally an afterthought (it’s evident from Bay’s filmography that he doesn’t really get or care about humans). That is inverted here, with humanity at the core of the film. Between True Grit and The Edge of Seventeen, Hailee Steinfeld has swiftly become one of my favourite actors of her generation. She has less to work with here, but her warmth and charm routinely make us forget she is acting against a central character that wasn’t present; it is this, as much as ILM‘s wizardry, that brings Bumblebee to life. Bumblebee may be largely predictable family-friendly fare, but beneath the metallic sheen is humanity that the franchise has sorely lacked.
“Aunt Lucy said: if we’re kind and polite, the world will be right.”
With Paddingtonserving as an origin story for the Peruvian bear in London, its sequel is able to launch straight into a delightful adventure that will leave both children and adults beaming. If the original was an immigrant story, Paddington 2 highlights the importance — and difficulty — of maintaining contact with one’s roots. It is less dependent on Hugh Bonneville than its predecessor, with Hugh Grant hamming up a mercurial actor talking to himself in outlandish disguises, whilst Brendan Gleeson is the intimidating inmate that the diminutive bear must win over when wrongly incarcerated. Those prison scenes are some of the film’s best, showcasing Paddington’s charming openness as more than simple naiveté. The unrecognisably neighbourly version of London can be harder to swallow than a talking bear, but the film never dwells too long on its more saccharine elements. The style may be less fresh than last time, but there is still plenty of creativity on display like Paddington waltzing through the illustrations of a pop-up book. The rapid pacing also benefits from having most of the key characters already established, though it makes space for moments of quieter emotion and humour too. The result is simply the best live-action family adventure in years.
Keira Knightley always seems most comfortable in a period piece. Although centred around a romance in the 1930s, Atonement is more a story about perspective, misunderstanding and consequences. We see a pivotal scene at a fountain from two perspectives, allowing us to appreciate how it was misconstrued by a child. Joe Wright’s camerawork allows the audience inside characters’ heads, used most notably in a sprawling six-minute long take on the Dunkirk beach. The film’s conclusion feels slightly rushed but still maintains the book’s tragic reveal, an ending that will undoubtedly be off-putting to some but should be little surprise for an adaptation of an Ian McEwan novel.
“If you must blink, do it now. Pay careful attention to everything you see and hear, no matter how unusual it may seem.”
I have no excuse for my tardiness in catching the latest stop-motion animation from Laika, the studio who produced Coraline. The decision to focus solely on this overlooked art form allows them to develop new technology that drives the medium forward from one film to the next. The scale of some of the puppetry here is incredible, though size can be deceptive on-screen. Strong art direction coupled with stunning lighting separates the film visually from the average family animation, though it is likely to appeal more to older children. The meta-narrative about Eastern storytelling through origami figurines is a nice touch for the beauty of what they physically produced, even if it only remains in ephemeral film.