Todd Haynes is something of a mercurial talent; Wonderstruck may be one of his least seen films, but is something of a wonder. Adapted by Brian Selznick from his own YA novel, Wonderstruck has twin narratives; in the first, set in the silent film era. Millicent Simmonds plays Rose, a young girl who runs away from home to spend time in the city, specifically searching for her mother (Julianne Moore) who is a successful stage and screen actress. In the second, parallel story, Ben (Oakes Fegley) is a 1970’s teenager who is hit by lightning and runs away from home to search for his father. He’s swiftly mugged for his cash, and ends up visiting the same museum that Rose visited decades earlier. There’s no time travel or fanciful narrative devices in Wonderstruck, but the whole picture is suffused by magic, and it’s an ideal transitory text for young people looking for something beyond fantasy. The 1920’s and 70’s eras are beautifully evoked, and the pay-off is lyrical and worthwhile. For such a good movie, it’s a shame that Wonderstuck wasn’t more widely seen, but hopefully streaming will connect it to the audience it deserves.
The cheerful minion pictured struggling to control a pack of dogs during the opening logos of Chris Renaud’s sequel tells a story; the Illumination studio is best known for the Despicable Me franchise, and must have breathed a collective sigh of relief when Secret Life of Pets proved a bona fide hit, the sixth biggest film of 2016. This animated follow-up offers much the same fare, with Patton Oswalt replacing Louis C.K. as the central character, Max, but the rest of the cats and dogs much the same as before. A new addition, Rooster (Harrison Ford) is on hand as a farm pooch who teaches Max to stand up for himself; elsewhere there’s diversions into the world of circus animals, while Jenny Slate’s Gidget provides the biggest laughs as the tiny dog passes herself off as a cat to infiltrate a cat lady’s cat-infested house. The sunny disposition that’s Illumination’s trademark so far is much in evidence here; The Secret Life of Pets franchise makes it look easy to entertain families, with simple, pleasing gags that offer universal appeal.
Ian Fleming’s less developed franchise has so far run to only one film; a pity, since Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is a strange and rather wonderful piece of work. Inventor Caractacus Potts (Dick Van Dyke) and squeeze Truly Scrumptious (Sally Ann Howes) restore an ancient Grand Prix car and head off with some kids on an adventure to child-less domain Vulgaria. Screenwriter Roald Dahl only based the sunny first half of the film on Fleming’s work; the second, a dark and frightening turn of events, is entirely Dahl’s own, and the creation of the Child-catcher (Aussie dance-whizz Robert Helpman) typifies Dahl’s macabre sense of humour. The overtones generally are far too dark for family audiences, but a slew of famous names supporting (James Robertson Justice, Benny Hill, plus many of the Bond cast) plus Ken Adam’s amazing set design and some singable songs make Ken Hughes’s film one you’ll get a Chitty Chitty Bang Bang from.
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.
The only directorial entry so far from actor Alan Rickman (there’s a second on the way), this adaptation of Sharman MacDonald’s play is a sensitive, beautifully told drama of small-town Scottish life. Recently widowed photographer Frances (Emma Thompson) is planning a migration to Australia when her mother Elsbeth comes to visit. Played by Phyllida Law, Elsbeth is concerned about her daughter’s listlessness; as the sea freezes over, a conflict emerges between the women, and a sense of understanding. The Winter Guest balances analysis of this mother/daughter power-struggle with the exploits of her son (Gary Hollywood) as he warders the beach, with Tom (Sean Biggerstaff) amongst those he encounters. Macdonald’s ability to accurately observe several generations serves her well in this intense, yet sometimes whimsical chamber piece, with wonderful photography by Seamus McGarvey.