A teenage soldier becomes separated from his platoon in the cauldron of violence that is 1971 Belfast in Yann Demange’s nail-biting survival thriller.
Punctuated by kinetic action sequences that relentlessly tighten the knot of tension in our stomachs, ’71 is a dazzling debut from the TV director, who made the acclaimed Channel 4 series Top Boy.
Demange puts leading man Jack O’Connell through the physical wringer as he explores the sectarian divide through the eyes of a wet-behind-the-ears recruit, who is marked for death by the provisional IRA and supposed allies.
Juddering handheld camerawork during chase sequences and a nerve-racking game of hide-and-seek keep us uncomfortably close to the carnage, and only a few hours after the stricken soldier has foolishly assured his kid brother that this first tour of duty will be a breeze: “I’m not leaving the country so you’ve got nothing to worry about.”
’71 masterfully sustains tension without getting bogged down in the thorny politics of the era.
Nerves are shredded to tatters in the opening half hour and screenwriter Gregory Burke wrings every drop of suspense from his neat set-up.
A detour to a loyalist pub is orchestrated and edited with brio.
O’Connell follows up his bruising portrayal of a young offender in Starred Up with another emotionally charged performance, holding his character’s fears at bay until that particular dam bursts and sobs rack his aching body.
Lines between allies and adversaries are repeatedly blurred, stacking the odds heavily against Gary as he ducks for cover, and we hunker down with him, brows beaded with sweat and knuckles white with fear.
Star Rating: 4/5
RottenTomatoes.com Rating: 93%
The Maze Runner
Based on the bestselling novel by James Dashner, The Maze Runner is a testosterone-fuelled survival thriller cast from the same robust mould as The Hunger Games and Divergent.
Like those dystopian nightmares, Wes Ball’s film centres on naive characters, teetering on the cusp of adulthood, who are forced to make stark choices between life and death to secure freedom.
Only here, adolescent males are trapped in the moral mire and forced to establish a microcosm of self-governing society a la Lord Of The Flies in which the strongest take charge and the meek keep their heads down.
While The Hunger Games and Divergent expended valuable time establishing character back stories and motivations, this opening salvo of The Maze Runner employs a nifty cheat: amnesia.
All of the protagonists are stripped bare of memories including their identity, emerging from the darkness of a lift shaft into an enclosed green space called The Glade as blank slates.
For the opening hour, The Maze Runner is lean and taut, rattling along at breakneck speed to the beat of composer John Paesano’s propulsive score.
The threat of bloodshed hangs in the air but it’s only when Thomas strays into the labyrinth that the film unveils a surprisingly nasty streak, despatching the good-looking cast in a shockingly cold, clinical fashion.
Director Ball doesn’t succumb to squeamishness or sentimentality: death comes quickly and gruesomely, and the strongest, most noble and endearing characters are prime fodder for the rampaging Grievers.
The film earns its 12A certificate without flinching.
Dylan O’Brien and Aml Ameen anchor the young ensemble with fine performances, with sterling support from Lee, Brodie-Sangster and Poulter, the latter fleshing out his punishment-fixated bully with aplomb.
Scodelario is noticeably short-changed but presumably, she will play a pivotal role – from beyond the grave or in the flesh – in next year’s fleet-footed sequel, The Scorch Trials.
Burn, baby burn.
Star Rating: 3½
RottenTomatoes.com Rating: 64%
Oscar-winning actor and screenwriter Emma Thompson returns to the stifled emotions and rigorous social etiquettes of 19th-century English society for her script based on the real-life marital woes of Victorian art critic John Ruskin and his teenage bride, Euphemia Gray.
A love triangle comprising the unhappily married couple and charming artist John Everett Millais only really comes to the fore in the film’s overwrought final act.
Before then, Thompson builds our sympathy for the eponymous heroine as she weathers a barrage of callousness from her husband and his spiky parents.
Dialogue is well crafted – “If imperfection is your ideal, you must think me very beautiful,” simpers Effie – but for all its prosaic wonder, Richard Laxton’s film lacks the emotional sucker punch that seems to be coming from the dreamy opening frames.
Indeed, the closing scenes heart should have our tears flowing with a fury, but the saltwater deluge never comes.
Effie Gray has the right ingredients for a swoonsome, bosom-heaving period romance but something doesn’t quite gel in Laxton’s picture.
Dakota Fanning is a touching heroine, mustering courage in her hour of need with encouragement from Thompson in an eye-catching supporting role as the catalyst for female empowerment.
Greg Wise has little to do besides the occasional sneer.
Julie Walters and David Suchet make their mark in limited screen time, adding daubs of colour to the film’s palette.
Star Rating: 3/5
RottenTomatoes.com Rating: N/A
According to the opening credits of Annabelle, dolls have frequently been used as conduits of evil.
Modern filmmakers have had great fun transforming inanimate figures into demonic vessels.
Anthony Hopkins fell under the spell of a possessive ventriloquist’s dummy in Richard Attenborough’s 1978 thriller Magic and mannequins ran amok the following year in the gruesome horror, Tourist Trap.
In the late 1980s, audiences squealed with delight at opening instalments of the Child’s Play and Puppet Master series.
More recently on the small screen, Doctor Who and his plucky companions faced malevolent mannequins and creepy life-sized dolls.
This prequel to the 2013 supernatural horror The Conjuring fleshes out the blood-soaked history of a garish figurine called Annabelle, which sent chills down the spine in the first film and remains under lock and key in the home of real-life paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren.
Director John R Leonetti replays the opening scene of The Conjuring then rewinds 12 months to sun-baked 1967 Santa Monica, California where picture perfect couple John (Ward Horton) and Mia Gordon (Annabelle Wallis) are preparing to welcome their first child into the world.
Annabelle appropriates elements of Rosemary’s Baby and The Omen for an increasingly silly tale of demonic possession and maternal sacrifice.
Director Leonetti achieves a couple of decent scares but when it comes to burrowing deep beneath our skin, both he and scriptwriter Gary Dauberman fall short.
Visual effects are sparing which is more than can be said of Joseph Bishara’s deafening orchestral heavy that turns up the volume to 11.
Wallis works through a dizzying array of screams, shrieks and caterwauls as the plot careens out of control around her, and we eventually lose interest.
Star Rating: 2½
RottenTomatoes.com Rating: 32%
Twenty years ago, Hugh Grant donned his crown as floppy-haired prince regent of the romantic comedy in Four Weddings And A Funeral, winning a Bafta and Golden Globe for his efforts.
Notting Hill, About A Boy, Two Weeks Notice and Love Actually and a recurring role as a bounder in the Bridget Jones films have enforced his screen image as the bumbling bachelor, who inadvertently insults the girl but still wins her heart.
The Rewrite, which reunites Grant with director Marc Lawrence for the fourth time, won’t alter that perception.
Light, frothy and utterly forgettable, this flimsy tale of second-chance love and self-acceptance plays to the leading man’s strengths, endearing us to his morally flawed character despite a propensity for the occasional fib and social faux pas.
Grant could deliver this performance in his sleep so it’s fortunate that he is nuzzled by a solid supporting cast including the luminous Marisa Tomei as his potential love interest and the always glorious Allison Janney as a humourless Jane Austen scholar, who won’t tolerate unethical behaviour among her faculty colleagues.
The Rewrite is a gently effervescent confection that follows a predictable narrative arc and lightly tugs heartstrings as Grant’s cynical scribe overcomes his disdain for the teaching profession.
Tomei radiates maternal loveliness in an underwritten role and as the only eligible female of a similar age to Keith, she’s destined to fall for his dithering.
The supporting cast scene-steal, including JK Simmons as the proud family man and Desert Storm veteran who wells up when he talks about his children.
The script is peppered lightly with smart one-liners to ensure a lively tempo.
Star Rating: 2½
RottenTomatoes.com Rating: N/A
In selected cinemas…
Susan Sarandon delivers a strong performance as a small town police officer with a drink problem and an aversion to the rules in Jason Stone’s gritty crime thriller, based on the novel of the same name by Inger Ash Wolfe.
Hazel Micallef (Sarandon) lives in the rural Ontario community of Fort Dundas, solving occasional misdemeanours with the help of detective Ray Green (Gil Bellows).
When one of the locals raises the alarm about his elderly mother, Hazel reluctantly makes a house call and finds the owner murdered, with a deep slash to the throat.
Out of her depth but determined to crack the case, Hazel searches for clues with Ray and recently-transferred officer Ben Wingate (Topher Grace).
RottenTomatoes.com Rating: 53%
Writer-director Niall Heery follows up his 2007 debut Small Engine Repair with this comedy drama about bitter regrets and hard-fought reconciliation.
When his father falls ill and asks for a family reunion before he dies, Ray (David Wilmot) reluctantly agrees to return to his hometown to track down his ex-wife Alice (Kerry Condon) and their daughter Abbie (Maisie Williams).
It transpires that Alice has remarried Ray’s old high school PE teacher, Frank (James Nesbitt), who is now a fitness guru with a revolutionary technique that he believes could change long-distance running forever.
Ray’s efforts to rebuild bridges to his daughter go horribly wrong but he persists, determined that Abbie will see her grandfather one last time before he shifts his mortal coil.
RottenTomatoes.com Rating: N/A