In terms of unappetizing prospects, an adaptation of Arthur Ransome’s 1930’s book about children on a jolly boating adventure is hard to beat; it’s so old-fashioned it makes Enid Blyton’s Famous Five and Secret Seven look as hard-boiled as a Jim Thompson novel. Credit Dear Frankie screenwriter Andrea Gibb for adding a few select espionage elements to this BBC prodiction which manage to give it more of the flavor of classic spy-story The Riddle of the Sands. Philla Lowthorpe directs and there’s a strong supporting cast including Kelly Macdonald, Rafe Spall, Harry Enfield, Andrew Scott and Jessica Hynes. The sunny feel of the Swallows and their rivalry with the Amazons is well caught, but the careful integration of real-world issues is deftly handled and revitalizes a fairly hoary old property to good effect.
Another expensive-to-realise, hard-to-relate-to premise is featured in Ron Howard’s seafaring adventure; who wants to hear the true story that inspired Moby Dick? But Howard is a craftsman, and even his weaker efforts have some fun elements. A framing story, featuring Herman Melville (Ben Wishaw in a stuck-on beard) interviewing Tom Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson) about his past, is complete gibberish, but has a lovely background of a New England town. Things perk up when Liam Hemsworth swashbuckles his way centre-stage as Owen Chase, whose ship is sunk by a giant white whale, and then tail off into a unsatisfying story about cannibalism. But where In The Heart of the Sea fails as drama, it gets points for originality; it’s as high, wide and handsome as the hero, and evokes the spirit if not the letter of Melville’s work.
There’s no reviews for Harry Potter films on this blog; they may have been huge at the box-office, but cinematically, they’re all pretty much the same. So Fantastic Beasts seemed like a welcome proposition; take away the familiar characters, but keep the imagination of the JK Rowling world. David Yates’s film is certainly more interesting for its steam-punk NYC aesthetic, and an unfamiliar storyline as Newt (Eddie Redmeyne) arrives in town with a suitcase full of trouble. The CGI is cute enough, and the idea of a city divided by belief in magic has some charm. But even with a few old-stagers like Jon Voight thrown into the mix, some flat performances (Samantha Morton, Colin Farrell, Katherine Waterson) suck out a lot of the goodwill. While Fantastic Beasts is pleasing enough as a time-passer, there’s a lack of engagement on offer that bodes ill for an extended five film franchise. But for now, Yates’s film has enough energy and expense to be a painless if uninspiring watch for those undazzled by Harry’s magic.
Horror specialist Michael Dougherty was probably the ideal candidate to direct this campy Christmas thriller about a demonic Santa Claus. Pulling a story from German/Austrian folk-lore, Krampus works up a head of steam as a family-get together is turned into a siege as the demon seeks to punish Adam Scott, Toni Colette, David Koechner and an over-qualified but undeniably game cast. Krampus attempts to provide the kind of evil knockabout of the first Gremlins film, dismantling notions of Xmas cheer in favour of malicious nastiness, and manages to hit most of its targets. For disgruntled mid-teens, Krampus probably hits the spot, delivering some laughs and a little gore with a festive cheerfulness.
In retrospect, making a horror film set in 1630’s New England is an obvious idea; modern horror is so starved of new ideas that going back to source materials promises that at least the usual clichés can be body-swerved. Robert Eggers writes and directs this intense story of possession and witchcraft as Katherine and William (Kate Dickie and Ralph Ineson) attempt to transplant their family to a new home, only to find that their daughter Thomasin (Anna Taylor-Joy) is acting strangely. The family’s goat, Black Phillip, steals the show, and The Witch finishes on a few memorable flourishes, even if it ends where one might have hoped that it would start. Nevertheless, the slow burn is effective, and Eggers deserves credit for ploughing a fresh furrow in the annals of witchcraft film-making.
Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele have been such a boon to comedy through their Comedy Central work, it’s easy to see why a feature film would be a no brainer. And while it doesn’t have the punch of some of their sketches, Keanu is one of 2016’s best comedies, pitting two mild-mannered, middle class dorks into a gangster world which they unexpectedly take to. Their mission is to track down the missing moggy of the title, running into Method Man as a gangster and Anna Faris as herself along the way. A few sequences jump out, like the one in which Rell and Clarence attempt to teach a crew of aspiring gangsters how to act on the street, and there’s some commendable verve in the tension generated as the friends get over their depth. Ultimately, the two-guys-who-look-like-tow gangsters motifs is an ancient one which Key and Peele manage to blow some life into, and bodes well for future cinematic escapades.
The genre mash-up cross-breeding of literary or historical texts with splatter culture hasn’t set the cinematic world alight; neither Pride and Prejudice and Zombies nor Abraham Lincoln; Vampire Hunter seem to have found much of an audience. While neither film is a world-beater, each film is interesting in the war they attempt to spin out a simple sketch idea into a full feature. Writer/director Burr Steers, adapting the Quirk Books imprint, sees Elizabeth and Darcy (Lily James and Sam Reily) engaging in a tentative romance against the background of a full zombie apocalypse, and the violence is deliberately juxtaposed with the more sensitive feelings on show. The result is clever and nicely done, even if horror or literary fans are likely to be confused, it should be remembered that Steers’ film is a spoof, and has no other intent other than to showcase it’s own oddness.