There are martial arts movies and there are martial arts movies. The Assassin isn't either.
The film follows a trained killer, who has no problem
dispatching targets. Then, one day, they flinch, after an assignment finds them face to face with a child. It's something that could be straight out of a Jason Bourne film, or another conventional blockbuster, except our killer is a young girl and our tale takes place in 7th-century China.
But even then, Hou Hsiao-Hsien doesn't follow the conventions you would expect from a wuxia film. Ang Lee and Zhang Yimou have presented the genre as an art form of quick, elegant action, but The Assassin is as slow and deliberate as the eight-year gap since the director's last film.
Following her failed mission, Yinniang (Shu Qi) is given another more challenging task: go back to her hometown to kill governor Tian Ji'an (Chang Chen), to whom she was once betrothed. Old passions! New wounds! Again you might expect something heated or charged, but again, The Assassin refuses to play ball. There's a constant sense of restraint underlying the whole affair - something that gives events a grounded, understated tone.
That's reinforced by Hsiao-Hsien's decision to shoot everything in what seems like 4:3 ratio - from the black-and-white opening presetend in a decidedly non-widescreen, this is arguably the least cinematic martial arts movie ever to grace the big screen. At times, the effect is almost like watching a documentary.
What unspools is a gradual revealing of corruption and emotional conflict, as other parties emerge with their own designs upon the governor's position. But beneath the quiet surface lies beauty in abundance: shots of misty lakes and silver forests feel all the more enchanting for their believable realism. The action, meanwhile, is all the more breathtaking: fights are not extravagant, operatic set pieces, but rather short, sharp bursts of violence. You've never seen martial arts like this. The Assassin is a showcase for stunning choreographed brutality, made brutally efficient; After all, Yinniang is so strong, would why she bother to string battles out?
The incredible Shu Qi is central to that powerful stillness. Through all of the confrontations, there no clunky, dramatic exchanges, which means she must convey her character's shifting feelings through movements rather than words. The result is challenging in its detachment, but engrossing in its mystery; an intoxicating gem precisely because it doesn't try to intoxicate. The only explicit insight into her turmoil comes from a conversation with her mentor (against a subtly gorgeous landscape). "Your skill is matchless," says her teacher. "But your mind is hostage to human sentiments." The first part is undoubtedly true.
Director: Adam McKay
Cast: Ryan Gosling, Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Brad Pitt
What are the odds that someone would make a piece of light entertainment about the US housing market crash? What are the odds that it would be a comedy? And what are the odds, even then, that it would be funny, accurate and nominated for multiple Oscars?
Film review: Star Wars: Episode VII: The Force Awakens
Written by Ivan Radford
Wednesday, 23 December 2015 12:08
"It's true. All of it," says Han Solo (Ford) to the young whippersnappers opposite him in the middle of The Force Awakens. It's a moment that marks the baton being passed from one generation to the next - a recognition of what's behind in order to move forwards.
That balance of old and new is something of a recurring theme in Hollywood this year, as franchises return, reboot and are otherwise rejigged for a fresh audience. The Force Awakens arrives in the shadow of SPECTRE, two titles that knowingly acknowledge the phantom of history. Even JJ Abrams comes to the project with an attempt to do something similar for the Starship Enterprise hanging over him. Where both failed, though, Star Wars succeeds: Episode VII is the film that SPECTRE and Star Trek Into Darkness wanted to be.
It's no mistake that original trilogy writer Lawrence Kasdan penned the script, alongside Toy Story 3's Michael Arndt and Abrams. Together, the trio pull off the balancing act that eluded James Bond and Captain Kirk before them: they manage to be self-referential, but also reverential; a mix of awareness and humour, coupled with respect and pathos.
When jokes (and there are many) are made at Star Wars' expense, they're not the meta gags of fans and writers, but are driven by the characters. At one point, former stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega) talks to Solo about how they're going to achieve a seemingly impossible mission. "We can figure it out. We'll use the Force," he suggests. "That's not how the Force works, kid," comes the deadpan reply. When Rey (Daisy Ridley) encounters the Millennium Falcon, she gasps. "It made the Kessel Run in 14 parsecs!" "12," mutters Solo.
The result is a feeling that it's not just the movie mantle being passed down, but also the mythology - and the familiar faces, from Carrie Fisher's Leia to R2-D2 and C-3PO, really are the stuff of legend. Set years after Return of the Jedi, those events have now passed into myth, details forgotten, others misinterpreted. It's telling that each character has their own understanding of what the Force is, and how it relates to them. With Vader gone and Luke Skywalker missing, there's a sea of confusion across the galaxy: good guys are rumoured to have gone bad, bad guys feel the pull of the Light Side on their conscience, and Mark Hamill has a beard. There's a balance to the Force, but not necessarily in how people perceive it.
All of that detail lingers in the background, but it's never spelled out for audiences; this is blockbusting at its smartest and most subtle. It's only natural, for example, that the plot should echo what's gone before, albeit with a twist. For the first time, we glimpse under a stormtrooper helmet. We understand in more detail how a Death Star might work. We have a father figure in the form of Solo's craggy veteran, rather than a Sith or Jedi master. We even get a funky take on a Lightsaber, complete with hand guard.
The backdrop has also evolved: we gaze, open-mouthed, at our first hand-to-hand duel in a snow-filled forest. We witness the new generation of fighter pilots - in the form of Oscar Isaac's Poe Dameron (who wins our affection with only a few minutes of screen-time). And, throughout, we see women everywhere, from officers on the bridge of battleships to leading villain Captain Phasma (Gwendoline Christie). Even our young Jakku scavenger, Rey, shrugs off the sexism of decades ago. "I can run without you holding my hand," she snaps at her male counterpart, as she dashes through the desert.
The newcomers are natural successors to their starring roles. Ridley has the same hopeful optimism, and apparent gifts, that once defined Luke Skywalker - less a "Mary Sue" and more a progressive interpretation of the genre's traditional hero archetype; Adam Driver's Kylo Ren has as much complexity and depth as his stunning hair; John Boyega, meanwhile, moves from Attack the Block to space with the confidence of an experienced Hollywood A-lister, his charisma and natural comic timing fused with a wide-eyed enthusiasm about everything around him. "Did you see that?!" he cries, after shooting a TIE fighter. You can almost hear Han shouting back from 1977: "Don't get cocky."
The key, though, is in making all that seem so effortless. Ford slips back into his roguish boots with undeniable charm, while Fisher easily brings emotion and authority to her combat general. Only a subplot involving R2-D2 feels forced and overly convenient; the rest is as sleek as Abrams' modern visuals, yet grubby as your childhood memories of George Lucas' saga. Through this battered, beaten-up universe coasts a contemporary wave of creativity - led by the gleeful rolling of the droid BB-8. (Only in Star Wars can a piece of metal steal the show without it being a bad thing.)
The result has the feel of something ancient given a rough polish; the kind of recycled vibe that has always defined Star Wars, from the rebuilt Death Star in Episode VI (how fitting that the villains should lack the imagination to come up with a different plan) to Luke's repaired speeder in Episode IV. Episode VII sits right alongside those first three films, both for pacing, plotting and sheer entertainment. It's a hard line to hit, the one between the past and the future, but The Force Awakens nails it like Luke Skywalker hitting a womb rat in a T-16 Skyhopper. Unlike Star Trek Into Darkness and SPECTRE, the only thing it leaves you wanting is more - more details about these new characters and how they fit in. More dogfights. More Lightsabers. And more BB-8. As the box office figures keep on climbing around the world, the hype is only set to do the same. The magical thing? It's true. All of it.
Director: Paul Weitz
Cast: Lily Tomlin, Julia Garner, Marcia Gay Harden
"Where can you get a reasonably priced abortion in this town?" That's the kind of grandmotherly advice you can expect from Elle (Lily Tomlin). 76 years of age, she's not afraid to say what she thinks - even in sweetest of situations. So when her granddaughter, Sage, turns up pregnant on her doorstep, she's as harsh as she is helpful.
What follows is an 80-minute jaunt around town, as the pair try to raise the funds for an abortion. It's funny, it's feisty and surprisingly feel-good.
Of course, even the foul-mouthed granny has become something of a familiar sight over the years, but it's the incredible performance by Lily Tomlin that makes it seem real. The veteran is joyously acerbic, firing out insults with a sharp tongue that you never see coming. If life gives you lemons, give them to Lily Tomlin and she'll squeeze every bitter drop out of them: she's sour, cantankerous and constantly purses his lips like she's just smelled rotten fish.
Tomlin's achievement, though, is to bring out the emotion behind that amusing anger: she's not just entertaining; she's believable. As we rake up old skeletons from her past, she gets worse with every encounter. She dismisses her ex, Olivia (a wonderfully sincere Judy Greer), and, in one of the movie's stand-out scenes, bruises a former partner (played with hindsight turned up to 11 by the gravelly Sam Elliott) by parachuting back into his life.
Paul Weitz's seemingly slight script, meanwhile, is deceptively bold: behind the spiky humour lies a frank tribute to the right of women to decide whether to keep a baby - a subject that is rarely discussed on screen in detail and even more rarely in such tender, sympathetic and funny ways. (This would make an excellent double-bill with Jenny Slate's Obvious Child.) Throughout, Tomlin's interactions with Sage confirm Julia Garner every bit the star that broke out in Electrick Children. Garner's innocence, shock and admiration bring out Elle's gentle side - without ever making her seem nice. No matter how much bonding goes on, Tomlin is resolutely horrible: the kind of woman who'd beat a boy up with a hockey stick without giving it a second thought. "You need to be able to say 'screw you' sometimes," she advises her young ward. It's not just being cruel to be kind: Grandma understands that sometimes in life, they're exactly the same thing.
Director: Steven Spielberg
Cast: Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance
How do you make a Steven Spielberg film starring Tom Hanks better? Hire Mark Rylance. The Wolf Hall star is a veteran of the stage - and a relative rarity on camera. In his 55 years, he's been in just 13 films, including the upcoming adaptation of BFG. To see him even stand up on screen, therefore, is something of a treat.
Hanks, on the other hand, is the consummate everyman, a darling of Hollywood - and everyone else besides. He can talk the talk like nobody's business. The pair are perfectly cast in Bridge of Spies, the true tale of a lawyer hired to defend a Russian spy at the height of the Cold War.
That alone guarantees Spielberg's drama to be a success.
We first meet Hanks' James Donovan as he's verbally sparring with a rival in a bar, his words leaping high-jumps over his opponents' arguments. Matt Charman's script gives the Forrest Gump star a chance to show off his comic timing; Hanks has rarely been funnier in his career. He's charmingly witty and endearingly honourable - in other words, the perfect guy to root for, as he stands up to the noble task of giving legal defence to an anti-American.
As things progress, Hanks is sent over to Berlin to negotiate a swap: the Russian for captured US pilot Gary Powers. It's an optimistic deal, but he's an optimistic guy, cheerfully blowing his nose even as he's faced with bizarre fake relatives, slimy lawyers (a top-notch Sebastian Koch) and street gangs.
That upbeat mood sets Bridge of Spies apart from cinema's military norm - it's not often, particularly in modern times, that a war flick can be genuinely uplifting. But before you start hearing alarm bells in your head, along comes Rylance as Rudolf Abel. Rylance's Soviet dials down Spielberg's sentimental streak by underplaying every scene: while Hanks gesticulates, he stays quiet and still.
The stage actor's performance, as you would expect, is physical to the last. The opening of the movie, which begins with him rather than Hanks, is notably silent, relying solely on Rylance's shambling walk and sunken shoulders to do the exposition for us. He carries the presence of Alain Delon in Le Samurai, with Spielberg at his most restrained in years.
When Mark does open up, it makes each line all the more effective - you can practically see Hanks leaning into him, waiting on his every word. In an era of explosions and loud gunfire, Bridge of Spies appreciates the rat-a-tat of dialogue - for both Abel and Donovan, speech is the artillery of choice. When the whole historical conflict boils down to it, all we're doing is watching two opposing sides exchange words. It's riveting to watch. "Aren’t you worried?" asks Hanks. Rylance shoots back. "Would it help?"
Director: Scott Cooper
Cast: Johnny Depp, Joel Edgerton
Who doesn't love a heavy-hitting drama? Scott Cooper clearly does, switching from Crazy Heart to this Boston tale of corruption. His folk flick featured fantastic acting from Jeff Bridges and Colin Farrell and here, he draws two similarly gripping turns from Johnny Depp and Joel Edgerton.
Depp plays notorious gangster Jimmy "Whitey" Bulger, a part that could seem similar to his role in Public Enemies, were it not for Depp's transformed appearance. Looking more like a vampiric Christopher Walken than a drug dealer, he sports his slicked hair and blue contacts with a chilling stare that speaks volumes about Bulger's ruthlessness. Edgerton, meanwhile, proves himself one of the best character actors around with another generous performance as John Connolly, an FBI agent who works with Bulger to bring down the Mafia - only to unwittingly strengthen his boyhood friend's grip on the local crime scene.
Edgerton's is the more interesting character - his increasingly gelled hair visibly rising as his moral integrity sinks - but Cooper's film doesn't seem to realise it: Bulger, true to form, steals the thing from under Connolly's feet. The result is a unfocused landscape of low-lives, as the uneven script can't quite decide which male to make the alpha.
In lesser hands, this could prove fatal, but Black Mass remains engrossing on the sheer merits of its cast alone, let alone the polished work elsewhere. Each actor's role is well performed: one scene at a dinner table, in which an FBI agent is grilled about his family's secret recipe, is nail-biting yet hilarious. Even Benedict Cumberbatch, who is unnecessarily hired to play Jimmy's political brother, Billy, brings clout to his bit part. Stitched together with superb editing, from title years and ominous voice-over testimonies to beautiful crossover fades that see cars driving on rivers and cities filling up faces, Black Mass ultimately loses weight by being over-stuffed - but if it can't choose between its leads, that only emphasises the similarities between them: crime isn't just limited to the famous names on the Most Wanted list. This is a saga with impressive heft.
Film review: The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 2
Written by Ivan Radford
Thursday, 19 November 2015 22:01
Director: Francis Lawrence
Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth
The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 2. The name trips as elegantly off the tongue as the third book limped off the page. Suzanne Clarke's sci-fi trilogy, which wove together politics, romance, reality TV and archery, never quite pulled off its grand finale: in admirably juggling all of its elements, it felt uneven and, by insisting on a serious pay-off for its plotting, a bit of an anti-climax.
So while the decision to split the book in two for the screen seemed like a commercial cash-grab, it turns out to be Mockingjay's saving grace, paying off in dividends throughout both halves. Mockingjay Part 1 was given the time to breathe and fully explore its themes of propaganda and manipulation - the result was a natural blend of the personal and political. Mockingjay Part 2 doesn't quite reach those heights, but plays out like a recap of the best bits of the rest of the franchise: the gulf between rival suitors Gale and Peeta is clearer than ever, thanks to their conflicting ideologies; the clash between dictatorship and democracy is brutally violent; and the action sequences buzz with thrill and ingenuity not seen since Catching Fire.
Most striking of all, though, is the pace: thanks to Part 1 giving all the exposition we need for the final stretch, Katniss and District 13's assault on the Capitol becomes the main thrust of this film - and it unfolds at a breathless rate.
Director Francis Lawrence and his team have excelled at production design throughout the series' final three entries, building a world so convincing that even flying through its deserted streets is immersive. That attention to detail extends right down to the clothes worn by Donald Sutherland's President Snow, who retains his loathsome air of luxury as he continues to manipulate his subjects - his smoking jacket is a smokin' jacket. In this dystopia, it's about surface as well as depth.
In stark contrast to his wolfish smile is Lawrence's Katniss, who remains blank-faced as she numbly stumbles through the trauma of war. With the emotional investment in her family and friends already established, that bland expression (always at odds with the flashiness of the Capitol) means the losses that could unfold at any moment still retain the potential shock of Rue's death - a threat amplified by some seriously scary visual effects during one monstrously chilling sewer sequence.
For all the 12A-troubling action, though, the other reason The Hunger Games series has been unsuitable for younger viewers is far more commendable: the films have never shied away from examining the notions of corruption and control via the media. Even when Julianne Moore's President Coin takes the podium, she sports a cloak that brings to mind a Sith Lord more than a liberal hero.
That commitment to the novels' adult subject - this is about loyalty as much as love, both national and individual - makes Mockingjay Part 2 an ambitious conclusion to a quietly bold saga. Freed from the structure of the novel, the ups and downs of overthrowing one system to try and replace it with another are thorny without being cumbersome. The inclusion of conversations that take place away from Katniss' limited perspective, meanwhile, add to the thick greys in this forest of shady morals - Woody Harrelson's sober Haymitch and Philip Seymour Hoffman's softly spoken spin doctor are highlights.
The absence of the magnificent, ever-ambiguous Hoffman leaves the later moments struggling, while one final shot steps slightly too far into sentimental territory, but this last chapter bows out with a resounding reminder that The Hunger Games is a criticism of society and power first and foremost, wrapped up in a moving love triangle. The result is proof that blockbusters can treat young audiences with intelligence and that splitting a book in two can be a good thing. Mockingjay Part 2 has all the emotion of the ending and none of the anti-climax.
Director: Danny Boyle
Cast: Michael Fassbender, Kate Winslet, Katherine Waterston, Jeff Daniels, Michael Stahlburg
Years ago, a man changed the world by introducing it to the Apple Macintosh. Part-designer good, part-useful tool, it paved the way for a revolution in our relationship with technology; a personal computer so personal it could say hello. It may sound like an overstatement, but one only needs to glance around to see the impact Steve Jobs has had upon our everyday lives; whether Apple-made or not, a large portion of society now interacts primarily through handheld devices that we're told originated in one man's mind - a place of creative ingenuity, commercial savvy and ruthless ambition.
It's no wonder, then, that Steve Jobs the movie has been made. The biopic is a natural successor to David Fincher's The Social Network, the second part, if you will, in an ongoing saga of mythologising key figures from our modern history. Aaron Sorkin, who has written both, has become something of an official chronicler of these era-defining men, his recognisably stylised speech adding to the sense that we're witnessing legends being crafted on screen.
Danny Boyle's film is a triumph because it tries to do precisely the opposite of that.
Rather than give us the hagiographic take on a well-known name, Steve Jobs spends every second of its runtime cutting its subject down to size. We discover almost immediately that he's imaginative and ambitious - and also an asshole. He refuses point blank to give credit to those who built the Apple company before him, much to the annoyance of Steve Wozniak (Rogen). He threatens engineer Andy Hertzfeld (Stuhlbarg) to make sure his computer says hello during its launch, no matter what it takes. And he flat-out denies that Lisa, a girl deemed 90 per cent likely to be his daughter, is in any way his child.
One of the few to stand up to his petulant ego and get away with it is his assistant, Joanna Hoffman (Winslet), who is as honest as she is loyal. "What's the problem?" he asks between one of many fraught exchanges with those around him. "I don't know," she retorts, "but I'm sure it can be traced back to you."
The cast are uniformly excellent as their real-life characters, from Rogen - proving, once again, that he's nuanced performer who should be taken seriously more often - to Jeff Daniels as Jobs' weary mentor, Apple CEO John Sculley, and sometime firer.
Fassbender towers over them all as the iconic figure, shaking off any niggling thoughts that he doesn't look like Jobs in an instant. "What do you do?" demands Wozniak, as they stand in the orchestra pit in a theatre. "I play the orchestra," comes the magnanimous reply. He embodies that anti-social arrogance physically as well as verbally, from his wolfish grin to his cold stare. He's in every scene of the film and you can feel the pressure of his presence.
That's part of Sorkin's secret: while Steve is the star of the show, it's never at the expense of the others. In fact, it's their perspectives that we ultimately walk away with, showcasing Steve's selfish pride as a flaw rather than a benefit. The other is the script's taut, three-act structure, which only presents the action taking place just before the three defining press events of his career: the 1984 Macintosh launch, his educational follow-up, NeXT, and the iMac, a few years later. That theatrical device gives an urgency and a momentum to the fast-paced montage of confrontations, but it also places an emphasis on the personal life of Jobs versus the public sheen put on display. Apple products may be gloss and glamour, but these are the behind-the-scenes components he was so determined to lock away in the "end to end" design.
The cast revel in the writer's typically snappy dialogue, which flashes back within its artificial confines to tremendous effect - and finds both humour amid the tension and heart amid the cables. Thanks to a strong turn from Perla Haney-Jardine as Jobs' daughter in the final act, when the inevitably clunky mentions of iPads and iPods arrive, they're not sales pitches but emotional pledges, building up a personal meaning behind each product.
But Danny Boyle emerges as the core of the whole piece. It takes a strong director to tackle a Sorkin screenplay and the Trainspotting and Sunshine veteran makes it his own. His camera is thrillingly dynamic, always moving forward like his enterprising subject, adding action to the static indoor locations. His frames are full of Dutch angles, adding an edge to the order and precision of the Apple production line; a striking visual echo of the chaos and claustrophobia that flood the minutes before the crucial events. Even the stock used for each act varies, from the soft 16mm of Jobs' rebellious youth and the cinematic feel of 35mm for 1988's dramatic comedown, to the the crisp HD of digital for 1998's finale.
If the visuals are the perfect accompaniment for Aaron's script - Elliot Graham's editing deserves an Oscar - it's Boyle's ability with actors that gives the film's processor extra power. Rehearsing each stage in-depth before shooting, the ensemble click smoothly together, with Winslet, in particular, whose Hoffman has a complex blend of Polish, Armenian and American accents, adding a touch of engaging humanity to all the back-stabbing machinations. The result is a gripping, fascinating study of a man and a machine that has shaped the 21st Century - precisely because it avoids singing their praises. For every blow to its subject's myth on-screen, Steve Jobs is another testament to the filmmaker's talent behind it. The designer may be an American legend, but this filmmaker is a British national treasure.
Director: John Cowley
Cast: Saoirse Ronan, Emory Cohen, Domhnall Gleeson, Jim Broadbent
How do you build a life in a new country? That's the question facing Eilis (Ronan) in Brooklyn - until it's replaced by another, equally tough question: what if you then realise you could have an equally perfect life back where you came from? Brooklyn manages to answer both, along with another, equally challenging question: how do you make a film about a place without actually filming there?
The visuals are carefully assembled, but the script is the key. Nick Hornby adapts Colm Toibin's novel for the screen with typical wit and heart, creating a story that manages to be full of both cheerful hope and painful nostalgia. Saoirse Ronan shines in the lead, the excellent make-up and costume team making her as plain and blank as possible against the vibrant, colourful New York scene. Her face, which so subtly shifts between emotions, is perfect for the conflicted part - ably matched by Cohen's swoonsome suitor, who, unlike our heroine, never feels less than certain about his feelings. You suspect Emory is one smile away from heartthrob stardom.
Cohen is as charming as Domhnall Gleeson's boy back in Ireland is polite - between Star Wars and Ex Machina, Gleeson is on roll right now. Spending as much time with each of the men, we feel Eilis' torn affection mentally as well as emotionally; as soon as we've gotten used to one romance, the plot wrenches us away to admire another. The jolt is smoothed by Julie Walters' hilariously uptight landlady, who also helps to juggle the simultaneously cheerful and sad mood.
It's the understanding of what makes a home, though, that gives Brooklyn its old-fashioned magic. Director John Crowley shoots the tranquility of Ireland's Wexford with a twinkle in his lens - there's no faking that genuine location - but it's the gradual assembling of clothes, cosmetics, work colleagues and confidence that convinces. That attention to period detail, the act of reconstructing New York in Montreal, becomes an intrinsic part of Eilis' journey; her character is pieced together in the same way that each part of her life falls into place. As Eilis looks more and more American, she feels more and more real - and her tale becomes more and more moving. The result is a funny and unabashedly sentimental tale of identity, belonging and starting over. It doesn't matter where you watch Brooklyn: you'll cry many times.
Director: Yorgos Lanthimos
Cast: Colin Farrell, Rachel Weisz, Olivia Colman, John C Reilly, Léa Seydoux, Ben Whishaw
Quiet, painful and occasionally funny, being single sucks. Well, it does if you exist in The Lobster. Director Yorgos Lanthimos' comedy is as darkly spiky as its name suggests.
The film is set in the near-future, where being single is illegal. Not coupled? Then you have to check in at The Hotel, where you have 45 days to find a mate. Succeed and you're moved to a yacht for a honeymoon before being sent out into the wider, married world. Fail and your stay comes to an end. Oh, and you're turned into an animal of your choosing.
It's an inspired conceit, cutting right through society's attitudes towards relationships; being in one is accepted as the end goal for all people, while those without partners are considered somehow abnormal. Writers Lanthimos and Efthymis Filippou tease out the tyranny of romantic conventions, forcing their hotel guests to fill in a form detailing everything about them. Homosexual or heterosexual David (Farrell) is asked, as he checks in with his dog. No, you can't put both.
As he mingles with the other inmates, that desperate need to pair off and put everyone in boxes turns them into walking checklists of likes and dislikes. With such a short window to find someone suitable, even physical traits become fair game: if you have a limp, your soul mate would obviously have one too, right?
The film takes its cool logic to bleak, hilarious extremes. Ben Whishaw's guest ("The Limping Man") starts injuring other parts of his body to much other people's ailments, while the ever-brilliant John C Reilly ("Lisping Man") is all too eager to join in the regular hunts, which earn guests an extra day's breathing space for every runaway or single person they can shoot in the surrounding woods.
The whole enterprise is overseen by Olivia Colman, who lords it up with deadpan restraint; even when she starts singing a duet with her husband, the mood is as unamorous as could be. The rest of the ensemble is equally understated, reinforcing the confined claustrophobia - a vacuum of affection that makes every laugh (and there are many) as amusing as it is heartbreaking.
Outside of the hotel, a gaggle of Loners try to overthrow this monogamistic monopoly. Led by the intensely brooding Léa Seydoux, they prove just as uselessly oppressive, demanding no bonding at all between members. Amid the clash of courting traditions, Farrell (who is at his best when playing such pathetic, vulnerable humans) and Rachel Weisz's "Short Sighted Woman" emerge as a cry for genuine intimacy. And yet even their sweet chemistry is undermined by the fact they both need glasses - a common affliction of which the hotel would no doubt approve - and Weisz's wonderfully blunt narration.
In an age of online dating, where we're encouraged to scour the world for potential matches using data and facts, The Lobster reels in these social rituals and catches how absurd they really are. It's a shame, then, that the second half sees the prickly clarity of its message become muddled and lost in the woods. Farrell's choice of animal is the eponymous crustacean, which lives forever and always remains fertile. It's a smart choice, not just for a new form but for the film's title: like its namesake, The Lobster is at its most satisfying when contained inside its shell.
Director: Rob Letterman
Cast: Jack Black, Dylan Minnette, Odeya Rush, Amy Ryan
Showtimes: 12.45, 18th
If you didn't grow up reading Goosebumps, R L Stine's kid-friendly horror stories, you'll have heard of them. The novels have sold thousands upon thousands of copies worldwide, creeping young teens out of their adolescent skins for years. It's perhaps a surprise, then, that it's taken so long for someone to make a full-blown, big-budget movie based on the franchise - the 12A-ready premise and built-in audience of young fans and nostalgic 90s kids make it a reliable hit. Even more surprising, though, is the approach the film takes.
Rather than adapt a single short story, the script puts all of Stine's monsters on the screen at once, as they unite to attack the sleepy town of Madison, Delaware - a place where Jack (Minnette) and his mum (Ryan) have just moved. Soon, he finds himself intrigued by the mysterious neighbour next door (Black), not least because of his daughter, Hanna (Rush).
You can hear the predictable romance coming a mile off, but it's fortunately drowned out by the noise of the spooky spectacle waiting to burst onto the screen. Director Rob Letterman lines up creature after creature with childlike glee, using top-notch effects to bring the monster mash to life with a playful peril that captures the experience of reading the books. The tone may be lighter, but care is taken to mount an impressive variety of ghouls and giggles: sinister garden gnomes wield mini-pickaxes, abominable snowmen tear down buildings, while Slappy the ventriloquist dummy runs around shouting bad puns at anyone who will listen.
The love for the material is most apparent in the script's over-arching narrative, which (not unlike The Pagemaster and Inkheart) places a welcome emphasis on the power of reading and imagination. As much as this is a money-maker for publishers Scholastic, there's a commendable chance that it could inspire youngsters not only to buy a book but also pick up a pen and start scribbling themselves.
For a film that values writing so highly, though, it's a shame that male screenwriters Darren Lemke, Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski fail so miserably when it comes to penning a female character. The cast are all good, from Black's hammy recluse to Minnette's likeable lead, but Odeya Rush is wasted in a role so two-dimensional it barely makes it off the page. Jillian Bell gets to be brave and funny as Jack's quirky aunt, Lorraine, but compared to her, Hannah feels like a non-entity. For pure entertaining chills, though, Goosebumps is a lot of fun and sure to drum fear into the hearts of kids of all ages.