By BRUCE DENNILL
The Angry Birds Movie / Directed by Fergal Reilly & Clay Kaytis / PG 7
Testament Of Youth / Directed by James Kent / PG 8
Race / Directed by Stephen Hopkins / PG 7
Carol / Directed by Todd Haynes / 13DNS 6
Never underestimate a scriptwriter. Pirates Of The Caribbean is on its fifth instalment, with a whole cinematic universe based on a fairground ride. The inspiration here is a fairly mindless computer game in which little round birds are catapulted – literally – into any number of structures that have been built by a group of pigs, with more destruction equalling more points. No, it doesn’t make any sense, and yes, it’s massively popular. The Angry Birds Movie is, happily, far more nuanced than the game, with the birds beginning in a generally good mood, rather than being perpetually furious. Most of the population believe they are in a utopia of sorts, always cheerful to the point of banality. Red, the film’s protagonist, is an exception, being relegated (along with some other outcasts) to therapy sessions for having a temper. The pigs arrive later, sailing in on a ship and introducing the island’s sheltered denizens to the excitement of a range of new activities and ideas. Red’s cynicism of their intent is thought to be part of his generally grumpy nature, so when a more sinister agenda is uncovered, his warnings go unheeded. The fact that there are no expectations in terms of a storyline – missiles aimed at structures in a game doesn’t, you’d think, allow for much creativity – means that everything that happens feels like a bonus, and the development of amusing characters like super-speedy, super-curious Chuck and the lackadaisical god figure Mighty Eagle adds genuine interest to proceedings. The instant connection younger viewers feel with the concept as a result of their playing the game also means there’s a level of attentiveness from get-go, with enough sophisticated humour for adults to make the piece a great option for family viewing.
Based on a memoir by Vera Brittain, the period drama Testament Of Youth stays true to its relatively serious, thoughtful tone throughout, never pandering to a wider audience by making choices that might appeal to a wider – but less cerebral – viewership. Vera (Alicia Vikander) is a woman ahead of her time, set to study at Oxford in an era when that was a socially controversial thing to do. World War One is kicking off and Vera’s male friends and relatives and relatives, further increasing pressure on the ever-capable young woman to take on extra responsibilities on the home front. Responsibility is not something she’s ever been afraid of, but she exercises it in a different way, choosing to be a nurse on the frontline. The story follows Vera through that traumatic experience, as well as the complex relationships formed before, during and after the conflict – a war film that’s also an epic examination of the times and the issues affecting Europe at the time. This includes the situation at the end of the war when the Allies’ attitude to Germany laid the groundwork for World War Two, an under-examined aspect in most similar films. Rich in detail and featuring excellent performances from a cast that also includes Dominic West, Emily Watson and Miranda Richardson. And the writing gives a real – and therefore devastating – sense of what it was like to live, love and lose in one of the most intense periods in recent history.
Jesse Owens was a once-in-a-generation athlete. Coming from a poor background, driven by ambition and aided by pure natural talent, he rose to the top of his chosen niche – track and field athletics – winning four gold medals at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. That date, and the places in which Owens (played with the requisite intensity by Stephan James) is forced to operate, first as a novice and then as the USA’s top medal hope, add a permanent air of tragedy to his story in Race. The US was, at the time, one of the most segregated nations on Earth, but one of the few less friendly places for a black man to go to was Nazi Germany. The 1936 Games were conceptualised by Joseph Goebbels (a supremely sinister Barnaby Metschurat) as a showcase for the racist policies championed by Hitler and his cronies, and with influential filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl (Carice Van Houten) creating the dramatic propaganda he wanted to present to the world, Goebbels was set up for success. Owens rather ruined that narrative with his record-breaking performances and popularity, and Riefenstahl – an artist first and a Nazi collaborator later – could hardly ignore the spectacle unfolding in front of her. Jason Sudekis puts in a fine performance as Owens’ coach Larry Snyder and Jeremy Irons and William Hurt convince in small roles. Some of the minor details are embellished for effect, but the story as it happened is remarkable enough. Race is a compelling historical primer, a reminder of a terrible period in our shared past and of an individual who managed to transcend institutionalised evil and – for a period – give millions hope when it was sorely needed.
A penetrating slow-burner, Carol is a claustrophobic Fifties period piece that is impressively genuine in both the attention to detail regarding the era in which it is set and in the multi-faceted struggle against institutionalised homophobia that its protagonists face. Carol (Cate Blanchett) is an icily sophisticated socialite who is outwardly succeeding in all areas of her life, but who is wading through a loveless marriage and grappling with homosexual tendencies her social circles would never abide. Therese (Rooney Mara) is a young photographer who must work banal jobs to support her art and who is enchanted by the older woman’s poise and beauty. Director Todd Haynes allows the pair’s rapport to develop slowly and delicately, reaching an erotic apex before, predictably, matters become more complicated. It’s not easy to watch, mostly because Carol, the nucleus around which the whole project is gathered is not a particularly likeable person. She’s selfish, arrogant and brittle – high maintenance to the point where it’s difficult to believe that anyone would want to invest their emotional energy in her for a sustained period of time. Like her, the film looks incredible, but it’s difficult to love.