Film reviews round-up: Early Man, 12 Strong, Maze Runner: The Death Cure, Last Flag Flying, The Cinema Travellers

Aardman is back in business, Chris Hemsworth goes to war, the final Maze Runner film, Richard Linklater’s latest, and a magical documentary

Geoffrey Macnab@TheIndyFilm
Thursday 25 January 2018 10:17
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Chris Hemsworth (left) and his men take to the saddle in the Afghanistan-set ‘12 Strong’
Chris Hemsworth (left) and his men take to the saddle in the Afghanistan-set ‘12 Strong’

Early Man (PG)

★★★★☆

Dir Nick Park, 84 mins, voiced by: Eddie Redmayne, Tom Hiddleston, Maisie Williams, Timothy Spall

Aardman has always been the antidote to Hollywood. The Bristol-based animation studio may have worked with the US majors on films like Chicken Run and Flushed Away but its vision remains reassuringly, at times even parochially, British.

Early Man, Nick Park’s first feature as a director since The Curse Of The Were-Rabbit more than a decade ago, is crammed full of puns and in-jokes that won’t make much sense to anyone not well versed in British culture and humour. You need to know a bit about the British obsession with digestive biscuits and Match of the Day to catch some of the references.

In spite of its prehistoric and Bronze Age dressings, Early Man turns out to be a football film. That is not a genre which invites much confidence but the screenplay by Mark Burton and James Higginson is witty enough to ensure that this never seems like Escape To Victory done in loincloths.

The film begins in mock-portentous fashion, as if it is lampooning some Stanley Kubrick-style epic about the dawn of time, when volcanos exploded and dinosaurs fought one another. We are then introduced to the Stone Age tribe living happily in their valley, hunting rabbits.

The mop-headed young hero Dug (voiced in breathless fashion by Eddie Redmayne) thinks the tribe could be a bit more adventurous and maybe pursue a mammoth. Chief Bobnar (Timothy Spall), a blustering, good-natured, very ancient figure (all of 32 years old) with an enormous Walrus-like moustache, disagrees.

Early Man - Trailer

We may be thousands of years in the past but the characters here are very similar in looks and behaviour (if not clothing) to those toothsome animals and humans Aardman fans will remember fondly from Creature Comforts and Wallace & Gromit.

There is a very homely feel to the storytelling. The Stone Age tribe discovers that it is living next to Bronze Age neighbours led by the sneering, villainous Lord Nooth (voiced by Tom Hiddleston with a French accent so pronounced that it would make Maurice Chevalier blanch). Nooth’s plan is to send the Stone Age tribesmen down the mines while he takes over their territory.

He inflicts pain and suffering but experiences plenty of it too at the hands of his mother, Queen Oofeefa (a haughty Miriam Margoyles). He communicates via a “Message Bird”, a squawking creature with formidable powers of mimicry.

The bird (voiced by Rob Brydon) remembers everything it hears and then repeats it to the recipient in exactly the same voice and with the same gestures as it was originally delivered.

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In truth, the plotting here is pretty feeble. All the drama hinges on a football match between the Stone Age nincompoops and “Real Bronzio”, the crack team of narcissistic, overpaid mercenaries brought together by Lord Nooth.

If the Stone Age team loses, it will forfeit its valley forever and Dug and his family will be sent to work down the mines. If it wins, Dug and co will be allowed to resume their idyllic existence and forget that the Bronze Age ever happened.

The team needs a “ringer” to stand any chance – and the film needs a strong female character just in case the humour is beginning to seem too laddish. This is where Goona (voiced by Maisie Williams), enters the scene. She’s a feisty young rebel who not only knows how to play football but is an excellent coach as well.

In their lesser moments, the football scenes resemble those in Juan José Campanella’s animated film Football (featuring table football characters sprung to life.) It’s hard to make a decent live action football movie, let alone an animated one.

The match itself is anti-climactic and very predictable. Where the film is much more successful and ingenious is in showing how football became a key part of early man’s development.

The cave paintings drawn thousands of years before didn’t depict scenes of hunting or of wild animals. Instead, they featured goal keepers hurling themselves to keep ball-like objects from crossing the line. Dug’s ancestors had the same obsession with the beautiful game as he does.

If the football match itself turns out to be a dead end, many incidental episodes in Early Man are delightful. The creature who steals every scene in which he appears is Hognob, Dug’s shaggy haired pet boar (whose grunts and mumbles are provided by Nick Park himself).

One comic highlight involves Hognob giving Lord Nooth a very rough massage, using his trotters to pummel the evil potentate’s neck. The boar also acts as guide when Dug and the rest of the tribe try to hunt down the elusive rabbit, which is infinitely more sharp-witted than they are.

Early Man has a reported budget of $50m, a huge amount for a European film but chicken feed compared to the $200m spent on most big Hollywood animated features. It’s an underdog story, made by underdogs.

Much of the pleasure in Aardman films has always lain in their gently ironic, Alan Bennett-like humour. They take very exotic characters and subject matter but then deal with them in a matter-of-fact fashion. They make a virtue out of their own relative modesty. Early Man isn’t the flashiest animated feature that you’ll see this year but it is certainly the most likeable.

12 Strong (15)

★★★☆☆

Dir Nicolai Fuglsig, 130 mins, starring: Chris Hemsworth, Michael Shannon, Michael Peña

12 Strong combines formidable technique with a very simple-minded and jingoistic perspective on the American war on terror. Afghanistan, we are told more than once, is a graveyard for foreign invaders. It isn’t exactly welcoming for Hollywood filmmakers either.

They struggle here to tell an upbeat story about events that are bloody, chaotic and have no obvious resolution, whatever the final reel heroics. Danish director Nicolai Fuglsig opts for an approach somewhere between a conventional war movie and an old fashioned western, complete with drum rolls, cavalry charges and Sam Peckinpah-style slow motion during the shoot-outs.

After a montage of newsreel footage which takes us through previous terrorist attacks on US targets, the film begins in earnest with 9/11. Special Forces captain Mitch Nelson (Chris Hemsworth) is about to start an office job with the military and has stood down from his command.

He, his wife and their young daughter have just moved into a new home. He is highly respected by his men, even if he has never seen action. After the razing of the Twin Towers, Nelson is desperate to resume his command and go after Osama bin Laden.

In these early scenes, we see Mitch and his men saying emotional goodbyes to their families. In Afghanistan, they’re chosen for the first mission to take down the Taliban. “Five weeks ago, 19 men attacked our country. Twelve of you will be the first ones to fight back,” they’re told as they’re flown by helicopter into a remote part of the country. Here, they will meet with a warlord who’ll help them reach the Taliban-controlled town, Mazar-i-Sharif.

The warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum (Navid Negahban) is scornful of Mitch, telling him that, unlike his second-in-command Cal (Michael Shannon), he doesn’t have “killer’s eyes”. The men learn, to their dismay, that they will be travelling on horseback. They’ve been provided with six horses – so only half of them can travel.

As a brutal contrast to the US-set domestic scenes which open the film, we’re shown the Taliban leader (Saïd Taghmaoui) killing a woman in front of her young daughters for the simple reason that she tried to teach them maths and reading.

Under the Taliban, no woman over the age of 8 is permitted to be educated. It’s a horrific moment but is the one scene in the entire movie in which we are given a perspective other than that of the American soldiers.

After all those years of playing Thor in marvel movies, Hemsworth is a commanding screen presence here as Mitch. It’s he kind of role you could imagine Errol Flynn or John Wayne playing in World War Two movies.

12 Strong - Trailer

He seldom raises his voice but his intelligence and courage are such that the other men are ready to follow him anywhere. One of them, school history teacher turned dog of war soldier Sergeant Sam Diller (Michael Peña), tells him as much.

The central relationship here is that between Mitch and the warlord. They’re suspicious of one another, goad each other all the time but, sure enough, eventually earn each other’s respect. There isn’t much time for exploring this relationship, though. Both are too busy blasting the Taliban.

This is a gritty, naturalistic drama that purports to give a soldier’s eye view on the war. With Jerry Bruckheimer as producer, it also has plenty of spectacular explosions.

The screenplay by Ted Tally (best known for scripting Silence of the Lambs) and Peter Craig tries to go beyond war movie clichés but doesn’t really succeed. Characters speak in terse one-liners. “There is no playbook for this mission,” we are told at one stage, as it becomes clear that Mitch and his men will have to improvise.

12 Strong may play like a typical boy’s own action hero fantasy but it is based on a true story. It was adapted from Doug Stanton’s book, Horse Soldiers: The Extraordinary Story of a Band of US Soldiers Who Rode to Victory in Afghanistan.

The soldiers’ heroic actions only came to light several years after the event, when information about their mission was declassified. You have the nagging feeling that the film is trying to create a triumphalist narrative out of a war in which any victories the US forces did achieve were of a strictly short-term nature.

Maze Runner: The Death Cure (12A)

★★☆☆☆

Dir Wes Ball, 140 mins, starring: Dylan O’Brien, Kaya Scodelario, Aidan Gillen, Will Poulter

The Maze Runner trilogy comes to an end in messy but spectacular fashion in this very convoluted final instalment. Director Wes Ball doesn’t bother with any niceties (like reminding us who the characters are or recapping what happened in the first two films). He plunges us straight into the action.

The Mad Max-like opening, in which youngsters in trucks chase a fast-moving train, highlights the strengths and weaknesses of Ball’s approach. He knows how to crank up the tension. Shots of the rescuers clinging to the train as helmeted soldiers shoot at them are cut together with footage of one of the trucks being chased across the desert by a giant, low-flying plane.

Maze Runner: The Death Cure - Trailer

It’s fun in its own harum scarum fashion but also deeply contrived. Whenever any of the leading characters is in extreme danger, someone will always turn up out of the shadows to rescue them.

As those who’ve seen the previous Maze Runner films will just about remember, a plague has wiped out most of humanity. The survivors are under the control of the fascistic WCKD (World In Catastrophe: Killzone Experiment Department) and have taken refuge in a sleek, modernist and very heavily guarded city where they are desperately trying to develop a cure. Outside the walls, the infected “cranks” (arm-waving zombies) are running amok.

Some of the youngsters are immune to the disease, which is why the scientists want to kidnap them and make a serum from their blood. The hero Thomas (Dylan O’Brien) and two of his friends try to infiltrate the city to rescue their friend, Minho (Ki Hong Lee), who is being experimented on by his erstwhile sweetheart, Teresa (Kaya Scodelario).

One of the disconcerting elements here is that characters who were villains in the previous instalment are now fighting alongside the good guys. In the last film, Will Poulter’s Gally seemed as devious and cruel as the thuggish cop he played in Detroit but, in this film, he has somehow rediscovered his selfless and heroic side. One figure who is every bit as malevolent as before is Aidan Gillen’s softly spoken but conniving and evil Janson.

Most set-pieces here are familiar from other sci-fi or action movies. We’ve seen young heroes jump out of skyscrapers and land in swimming pools below or escape in lifts just as the doors close countless times before. Early on, an aeroplane comes to the rescue by winching a train carriage off the ground and towards safety. Late on, we have a near identical scene, but this time involving a giant crane.

At least, Ball brings energy to proceedings. Whether it’s fights with zombies, delirious dream sequences, scenes of rebel forces attacking the city or of Thomas and his friends dressing up as storm trooper-like guards to infiltrate WCKD headquarters, the tempo is always kept very high.

Of the three recent book-to-film franchises based on young adult sci-fi novels, The Maze Runner lags behind the Divergent/Insurgent films and The Hunger Games. It has felt a little clunky and derivative throughout but at least it signs off with a little swagger –the thrill quota here should be high enough to keep the attention of the teen audience at which it is aimed.

Last Flag Flying (15)

★★★☆☆

Dir Richard Linklater, 124 mins, starring: Bryan Cranston, Steve Carell, Laurence Fisburne

Ricard Linklater’s Last Flag Flying is set in late 2003, during the Iraq War, but is made in the same anarchic spirit as the great Hal Ashby films of the 1970s. That isn’t a surprise given that its co-screenwriter Darryl Ponicsan, on whose novel the film is based, also wrote The Last Detail, which Ashby made into a famous 1975 movie featuring one of Jack Nicholson’s most irrepressible performances.

The problem is that Last Flag Flying doesn’t have the energy of its predecessor. That reflects the venerable age of its three leading characters and their job in hand. They are Vietnam veterans who come together after not having met for many years to accompany the body of one of their sons, killed in Iraq, to his home town in New Hampshire, where he will be buried.

Bryan Cranston plays the Jack Nicholson-like ex-marine, Sal, a wisecracking, sardonic, near-alcoholic bar owner whose life is drifting away. It’s a superb performance in which Cranston always makes us aware of the self-loathing and anguish that goes hand in hand with Sal’s endless high jinks and practical jokes.

Last Flag Flying - Trailer

While Cranston has the license to be loud and abrasive, Steve Carrell is in much more muted form as “Doc”, the father whose son has been killed in Iraq. He’s a quiet and self-effacing figure. At times, it’s as if he is Cranston’s straight man. Doc dresses conservatively, hides behind his big moustache and glasses and rarely expresses any emotion. Back in Vietnam days, he clearly hero-worshipped the older Sal and still seems in thrall to him now.

Carrell plays him in nuanced and understated fashion, conveying his extreme but hidden grief in very subtle ways, through looks or tiny gestures.

The third of the old devils is Laurence Fishburne’s preacher, Richard Mueller. In their younger days, Mueller was wild and rebellious. He and Sal would frequent the brothels on the military base and use the medical morphine for their own pleasure, Now, he has become teetotal and very strait-laced indeed, in thrall to his strict wife. He has a pronounced limp and walks slowly with his ornate stick.

Linklater doesn’t rush his actors. In an era in which other filmmakers allow minimal time for characterisation, he basks in it. The plotting is secondary to the interplay between the three old-ish men as they make their picaresque journey across America. Sal drinks and misbehaves just as much as we expect he might; he insults US army officers, somehow makes car hire assistants think he is a terrorist, and persuades his two fellow travellers to invest in mobile phones (the subject of some forced comedy).

Fishburne’s preacher grumbles about Sal’s foul language and tries continually to sidle off back to his wife and congregation. Carrell’s Doc looks ever more forlorn. They have a young officer, Lance-Corporal Charlie Washington (J Quinton Johnson) accompanying them on the journey.

He was one of the dead man’s closest friends. Washington reminds the old-timers of their younger, more idealistic selves, when their lives hadn’t yet become so encrusted with cynicism and disappointment.

Like their protagonists, the filmmakers struggle to work out whether they should be proud or ashamed to be American. The three old men express scorn and despair when they see President George HW Bush on the TV. Doc is determined that his son won’t be buried in his uniform at Arlington Cemetery.

Instead, he wants to take the son home and dress him in his graduation suit. For all the men’s dismay about what has become of their country, their patriotism hasn’t been extinguished entirely. The very title of the film hints as much. The Stars and Stripes features prominently during the very emotional final scenes.

Last Flag Flying is a low-key affair that has been given a quiet reception very different to that accorded to Linklater’s multi-award-winning Boyhood (2014). Even its humour has a melancholy quality. Its reputation, though, is likely to grow over time. Linklater allows Cranston, Carrell and Fishburne to give performances of a richness and depth that you won’t find in their more obviously crowd-pleasing movies.

The Cinema Travellers

★★★★☆

Dirs Shirley Abraham, Amit Madheshiya, 96 mins

This magical documentary tells the story of the travelling showmen who criss-cross India, showing films on 35mm prints in villages and at fairs. They’re the equivalents of the exhibitors who used to do the same in Britain in the early days of cinema.

Writers and directors Shirley Abraham and Amit Madheshiya start and end by showing the rapturous awe in which the screenings are greeted. The documentary, though, has an elegiac feel. The exhibitors’ massive old projectors are breaking down.

Audiences are declining. However many prayers they say and however energetically they promote their movies, the digital revolution is about to engulf them too. The documentary treats its subjects with respect and gentle humour. There are many tragi-comic moments.

We see a strip from a movie that had been preserved carefully for many years with all the images washed away in the rain. Exhibitors are seen forlornly selling their projectors for scrap. One proudly switches to digital but then suffers yet more technical glitches and has to cancel his show anyway.

We meet a wise old projectionist/repair man who has invented his own fail safe system. He has big dreams but gradually realises that no one is going to buy the equipment.

Whatever the cynicism of the adults, the kids who swarm around the travelling shows still believe in the wonder of cinema. So do the directors of this poignant, funny and insightful film.

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