Star Wars: The Force Awakens
Here it is — set to be the biggest film of the year, or maybe the decade. It’s the movie that many think George Lucas should have given us in 1999, instead of the massive creative mistake that was the prequel-trilogy beginning with The Phantom Menace. This is technically Episode VII, the first of a new trilogy, set around 30 years after Return of the Jedi, bringing back Chewie, R2-D2 and C-3PO (all ageless) and a more distinguished-looking Han Solo, Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia (now with a military title: General Leia Organa). Adam Driver plays dark warrior Kylo Ren and Oscar Isaac is Poe, an X-Wing pilot. This could turn Christmas into one big comic convention.
Todd Haynes’s superbly directed and designed movie is based on the novel by Patricia Highsmith and features outstandingly intelligent performances from Cate Blanchett as the elegant, soon-to-be-divorced Carol in 1950s New York and Rooney Mara as Therese, the young department store assistant who falls in love with her. It’s a subversive lesbian love story with something almost narcotic in its dreamy sensuality. It is a fascinating and deeply intelligent commentary on Highsmith’s work and also a pleasing homage to David Lean’s Brief Encounter.
Snoopy & Charlie Brown: The Peanuts Movie
The new Peanuts animation is co-written by Craig and Bryan Schulz, respectively son and grandson of the strip’s original creator, the late Charles M Schulz. It will be intriguing to see whether the new feature can capture the sharp wit of the original drawings; the TV shows and feature-length cartoons of the 1970s now seem tame, with their laid-back feel and faintly muzak-jazzy musical score. But there’s an enormous amount of goodwill to draw on.
A Christmas Horror Story
This horror-comedy gives us the dark side of Christmas. According to ancient European folklore, Krampus is the evil twin, or wicked brother, or anyway the dark mirror-image of Santa Claus himself. He is Mr Hyde to Santa’s Dr Jekyll. Where Santa rewards good little boys and girls with presents, Krampus will punish wrongdoers horribly. A little boy, depressed by the arguments of his dysfunctional family, turns his back on Christmas and summons the horrifying Krampus into his unhappy home.
James Bond is back and Daniel Craig is back in a terrifically exciting, spectacular, almost operatically delirious 007 adventure — endorsing intelligence work as old-fashioned derring-do and incidentally taking a stoutly pro-Snowden line against the surveillance that undermines the rights of a free individual. It’s pure action mayhem with a real sense of style. Ralph Fiennes’s M finds himself battling a cocky new colleague as Bond plans to track down a certain sinister Austrian kingpin, played with gusto by Christoph Waltz, at the heart of an evil organisation called Spectre. The script has great twists and turns and gags. Ben Whishaw has developed the perennially stressed quartermaster and tech supremo Q into an enjoyable comic character. Spectre is deeply silly but uproariously entertaining. The Gift The actor Joel Edgerton’s directorial debut is a tremendously sly, insinuating thriller that takes the social transgressions of cult favourites The Cable Guy and Chuck & Buck into subtler, more shaded territory. Jason Bateman and Rebecca Hall play Simon and Robyn, an upwardly mobile LA couple settling into their new modernist home when the dishevelled Gordo (Edgerton), a long-forgotten classmate of Simon’s, shows up — and keeps showing up, leaving increasingly extravagant housewarming presents on their doorstep. The debutant director applies himself with the same quiet assurance and attention to detail he’s displayed in his acting projects, with a steely psychological edge rarely seen in the multiplex.
The Lady in the Van
Maggie Smith gets the chance to play someone grander than the Dowager Countess of Grantham, although with the same piercing stare of disapproval, pinched lips and bird-like head movements, as she assesses the unsatisfactory nature of everything around her. She plays Miss Shepherd, the “lady in the van”, in this very enjoyable film directed by Nicholas Hytner and adapted by Alan Bennett from his memoir about the haughty, cantankerous homeless woman who bullied him into having her chaotic camper van in his driveway for 15 years. Smith’s performance, honed from the previous stage and radio versions, is terrifically good. Alex Jennings gives a sharp and sympathetic performance as Bennett, arguing with himself in split-screen, like a one-man married couple, and gradually and interestingly uncovers Bennett’s reasons for allowing Miss Shepherd to walk all over him.
The Little Prince
The new animated adaptation of the Antoine de Saint-Exupéry tale, with Kung Fu Panda’s Mark Osborne directing, is not a direct adaptation. This is a Disneyfied empowerment yarn about a nine-year-old girl whose life is overturned by an eccentric neighbour. Osborne animates the “present” in big-eyed CGI and the old man’s storytelling in a beautiful rustling-paper stop-motion technique. It’s very effective. Where difficulties arise is in the sheer proliferation of narratives and motifs. The superstructure is complex enough, the whole almost too intoxicating. — © Guardian News & Media Ltd 2015