The Screen Critic: A high-end musical fantasy, two very funny Christmas treats and Julia Roberts faces the world’s end

Dec 15, 2023
Source: Timothée Chalamet in Wonka (Warner Bros); Eddie Murphy in Candy Cane Lane (Prime); Julia Roberts in Leave the World Behind (Netflix).

How good it is to report that all fears over whether Wonka would be dead-on-arrival evaporate within the first few scenes of this wonderfully bright, funny, energetic period musical.

With handsome production values and spirited direction by Paul King (who gave us the Paddington movies), Wonka is an original work filling in the backstory of the top-hatted chocolate entrepreneur made famous by the 1964 Roald Dahl book Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and, of course, the classic 1971 movie Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.

While the boisterous lead performance by Timothée Chalamet as the young Wonka can’t match the work of the late Gene Wilder, you can feel his exuberance coming through at every turn.

Arriving in a stylised version of London, Wonka sets about establishing himself using song, dance and magic. He is promptly targeted by three local chocolate-making rivals and falls deeply in debt to a corrupt hotelier (Olivia Colman).

A family-friendly crowd-pleaser made in the style of classic musicals such as Oliver, the film is a joy, features a scene-stealing performance from Hugh Grant as an Oompa-Loompa, and, believe it or not, runs for less than two hours. How did they manage that?

Lovers of high-quality action will adore every frame of Silent Night, the first Hollywood film in 20 years from influential Hong Kong director John Woo.

After his son is killed in a drive-by shooting, an enraged electrician (Joel Kinnaman) trains himself with guns, knives, and cars, then goes hunting for the LA gang members responsible. Filled with the type of top-shelf mayhem Woo is famous for (he made Face/Off, Broken Arrow, Hard Boiled, Mission: Impossible 2, among many others), the film has the novel twist of featuring no dialogue.

It’s a clever device that commands your attention and helps create tension amidst all the flying bullets and screeching cars.

If you’re hungry for a compelling end-of-world drama, Leave the World Behind is an absolute ripper. Keen to get out of New York City for a break, snarky mother Amanda Sandford (Julia Roberts) takes her husband Clay (Ethan Hawke) and two kids (Farrah Mackenzie & Charlie Evans) to a lavish rural house just outside of town.

But wouldn’t you know it? Just as they’re trying to relax the internet goes down, meaning no TV, no streaming and, worst of all, no phones. Then the home’s owner George (Mahershala Ali) and his daughter Ruth (Myha’la) suddenly turn up in the middle of all the mysterious chaos. Together they all try figuring out what is going on in the outside world.

Deliberately moving things at half-speed to build suspense, writer/director Sam Esmail (Mr Robot; The Resort) drops teasing details about what the threat to America is and how it will impact their survival.

Performances throughout are terrific, especially from Hawke and Kevin Bacon, who chimes in with a punchy cameo as a hardcore survivalist in an Armageddon scenario that is wildly different from what we usually get. Catch it on Netflix.

Also on Netflix is the Christmas comedy Family Switch, a very entertaining jaunt in which a curious event at an observatory sees two dorky parents (Jennifer Garner & Ed Helms) swap bodies with their teenage kids (Emma Myers & Brady Noon).

Naturally, the experience has everybody learning hidden things about everybody else, some causing embarrassment, some strengthening the family bond. Unfairly maligned by critics, Family Switch is quite fun, the best scenes involving the body swap between the baby and the family’s pet pooch. It’s so funny it could have been a movie on its own.

For a major festive treat, head over to Prime for Candy Cane Lane, a winning fantasy comedy starring Eddie Murphy as a beleaguered father who is determined to win the neighbourhood Christmas decorations contest.

While shopping with his daughter (Madison Thomas) he happens upon a magical pop-up shop run by a mischievous elf (Jillian Bell) who offers him a dark deal. Spiced by some wonderful animation that brings to life the tiny inhabitants of a decorative Christmas village, this warm embrace of a movie ranks as one of Eddie Murphy’s most satisfying family films, with plenty of laugh-out- loud moments.

There’s great work from the supporting ensemble, including Tracee Ellis Ross as the harried mother, Bell as the sneering elf (who is not into sports) and Timothy Simons & Danielle Pinnock as two hilarious TV commentators. What a hoot. Enjoy.

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