Verdict: Another Pixar triumph
Worrying for those of us who remember it the way it was yesterday, or at least the day before yesterday, this year has been a quarter of a century since Pixar invaded the consciousness of cinema visitors with the sublime Toy Story.
Since 1995, these extremely gifted animators, writers and directors have released animations of almost one a year, making their latest number 22. It also scores quite high, certainly the top ten from Pixar.
A few, such as three or perhaps all four Toy Story films, The Incredibles, Inside Out and Finding Nemo, are indisputably at the top of that illustrious list.
But Onward contains much of what makes the Pixar factory such a valued asset to the all-dominating Disney empire that it acquired in 2006 for just $ 7.4 billion (£ 5.7 billion).
Onward contains much of what makes the Pixar factory such a valued asset to the all-dominating Disney empire, writes BRIAN VINER
The film, directed and co-written by Dan Scanlon, is beautifully made and hugely fun, with a few moments of emotion that will pierce all but the stoniest hearts, as a pair of teenage eleven brothers try to bring their dead father back to life.
Scanlon was moved by the death of his own father to make this film. He was the youngest of two brothers, whose father died when they were children.
If you would just surrender, I would suffer a similar loss. I was 14 when my father died suddenly and notice that I think of him more and more as I sneak closer to age when he makes his abrupt departure. I never knew him on an adult basis, so if he came back one day, what would we say to each other? I often wonder.
That is the exact starting point of Onward, but is combined with the usual humor and visual invention of Pixar against allegations of excessive sentimentality. Ian Lightfoot (narrated by Tom Holland) is our hero, a 16-year-old elf who grows up in the city of New Mushroomton. He has no memories of his father, Wilden (Kyle Bornheimer), and has to record them second-hand from his older brother, Barley (Chris Pratt).
Useless, Barley is just as exuberant as Ian is gently introspective – fanatic about the mystical heritage of elves, even though they now live in a world that is less Central Earth, more Central America. This produces a lot of great visual gigs, including unicorns that roam around in garbage cans such as urban foxes.
Meanwhile, the brothers’ mother, Laurel (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), has a traffic cop boyfriend (Mel Rodriguez) who happens to be a centaur.
The film, directed and co-written by Dan Scanlon, is beautifully made and hugely fun, with a few moments of emotion that will pierce all but the stoniest hearts, as a pair of teenage eleven brothers try to bring their dead father back to life, BRIAN writes VINER
And an old, fire-breathing dragon-like creature named Manticore (Octavia Spencer) has stopped burning its enemies in favor of running a theme restaurant from the Middle Ages.
As for the quest to bring Wilden back from the dead, it takes shape when Laurel gives her sons a magical staff that he leaves behind.
Ironically, it turns out to be Ian, not Barley, who has the powers of sorcery, although it only works half as he conjures up a spell to animate Wilden for 24 hours.
Their father properly materializes only from the waist up. To bring the rest of him back, they have to find an enchanted gem that moves them on a crazy adventure against the clock that, very moving, reinforces their fraternal bond.
Furthermore, simplistic is described as “Frozen for boys”, although, as concise summaries go, that is not a bad one. There are worse things for an animated film.
Yes, if the accusation of sentimentality does not hold, an accusation of non-originality could. Although Ian Lightfoot is not really a pointy ears Harry Potter, there is sometimes a bit of a distracted boy wizard glistening around him.
But never mind. Furthermore, it is still magical.
Military women (12A)
Judgment: hits the right notes
So, in a very different way, are military women. It is inspired by the story of the first of those military women’s choirs, which began before choir leader Gareth Malone and the BBC turned them into a cultural phenomenon.
The film by Peter Cattaneo hits the right tones, with Kristin Scott Thomas and Sharon Horgan perfectly cast as two army women leading a colorful group of women all the way to the Memorial Festival in the Royal Albert Hall.
Military Wives is inspired by the story of the first choir of those military women, which began before choir conductor Gareth Malone and the BBC turned it into a cultural phenomenon, writes BRIAN VINER
Cattaneo also made the hit The Full Monty in 1997, and this film has much of the same charm. It indeed follows a remarkably similar formula: an uplifting triumph, contrary to expectation, of a seemingly poorly matched collective, some of whom are also involved in personal unrest.
It even takes place in Yorkshire, such as The Full Monty.
But what makes this photo so nice is not only what it is, but also what it is not. It could have been irreparably corny, cheesy, sentimental.
It also could not have solved a clear problem: the crushing emotional stories from the real life of these choirs have already been convincingly documented on television; a slightly fictional version might have felt unnecessary.
Instead, it feels excitingly relevant, for which appropriate credit belongs to screenwriters Rosanne Flynn and Rachel Tunnard, as well as Cattaneo and a tip-cast.
But what makes Military Wives so fun is not just what it is, but also what it isn’t. It could have been irreparably corny, cheesily sentimental, writes BRIAN VINER
Scott Thomas is especially wonderful. She plays Kate, whose husband, Richard (Greg Wise, also just right), is the Colonel in a Yorkshire garrison. The couple suffers a terrible mourning, but treats it on the stiff upper lip of both the army and their class.
Military Wives is full of social nuances, while Kate closes horns with Lisa (Horgan), who is married to the sergeant major regiment.
The two are trying to get a choir going while their men are serving in Afghanistan, but smooth, decent, well-meaning Kate is too bossy and buttoned to make a lot of contact with the other women. And Lisa, although much more clubable, has her own problems, largely in the form of her rebellious daughter (India Ria Amarteifio).
Will they eventually attach? Will the choir deal with news about a distant fatality, making it suddenly feel trivial, not to mention the lesser problem of a deaf member in his ranks?
If you’ve seen just about every British feel-good movie in the last 25 years, from The Full Monty and Brassed Off (1996) to Pride (2014) and Fisherman’s Friends (2019), you already know the answer.
But it is still very encouraging to see it happen.
Lack of love across generations
The photo (12A)
Verdict: romantic snapshot
This story of parallel love affairs unfolds lazily on a jazz-brunch soundtrack, while image-perfect New Yorkers Mae (Issa Rae) and Michael (Lakeith Stanfield) are pulled together by a connection that goes deep into the Louisiana past.
Mae’s mother, Christina, a Manhattan photographer, died and left two mysterious letters and a case of doubtful paternity for her child to investigate.
Michael is a magazine writer and comes across a photo of young Christina (Chante Adams) while interviewing a man in Louisiana.
You almost hear the “ker-ching!” While the plot simply clicks into place. Will the lovers make the same mistakes as the previous generation?
This story of parallel love affairs unfolds lazily on a jazz-brunch soundtrack, while image-perfect New Yorkers Mae (Issa Rae) and Michael (Lakeith Stanfield) are pulled together by a connection that goes deep into the Louisiana past, KATE writes MUIR
Director and writer Stella Meghie teases the flirtation, almost to the point of annoyance, and braids it with flashbacks. The story of Christina, as an African-American working class trying to make it in the artistic elite of New York, has been left annoyingly inexplicable. She takes the traditional Greyhound bus to freedom, and then we see her with a young daughter in a photo studio. We need some grit in the mix.
Instead, we float around in a romantic haze with Michael and Mae (left), following Christina’s footsteps in cool jazz bars, hanging out in trendy loft spaces, and debating the virtues of musicians Drake and Kendrick Lamar in candlelit restaurants. Mae is pro-Drake: “He is attuned to his feelings, my feelings, your feelings,” she says, while the film continues to glide into shiny, cliché territory.
Harrowing story misses battle
Sulfur And White (15)
The true story of David Tait is undoubtedly moving and moving.
Raised in South Africa, where his foreign English father worked in a bank, he was sexually abused by a group of his father’s friends. His mother, bullied by her pretentious husband, could not help.
He inevitably carried this terrible baggage into adulthood and destroyed his relationship with his wife and child.
Julian Jarrold’s Sulfur And White describes all this, with Mark Stanley as the adult David.
Anna Friel and Dougray Scott play his parents, and Emily Beecham is his wife. That’s a pretty impressive cast, but if a story like this has to be told on the screen, it must be told very well.
Unfortunately, Sulfur And White is not. While it swings back and forth on time, it never finds a way to empathize with adult David, so deeply unattractive that the final redeeming chapter of the film lacks the emotional blow it desperately needs.
Although there is much to admire here, it is undermined by a desperate clumsy dialogue and two-dimensional characterization. A disgrace.
Escape From Pretoria (12A)
Judgment: a failure
Escape From Pretoria plays a richly bearded Daniel Radcliffe, who plays Tim Jenkin, writes KATE MUIR. Pictured: Radcliffe at a screening of the film last month
Escape From Pretoria – also in South Africa, also based on a real-life story – is unfortunately also a failure.
It plays a richly bearded Daniel Radcliffe, who plays Tim Jenkin, an anti-apartheid campaigner who was sentenced to prison in the late 1970s for distributing “subversive” leaflets.
Together with two other prisoners, he comes up with a plan to break out of the central prison of Pretoria by making wooden replicas of the keys of the guards.
It is a good yarn, worth cinematic attention. But Francis Annan’s film is haunted by some dubious South African accents, too many caricatures and too many shots of keys turning, not turning and breaking into locks, while an unseen synthesizer, entirely unsuccessfully, strains to release tension to build.