The Screen Critic: An old-style biopic spectacle, a colourful animated musical and a loving profile of a screen legend

Dec 01, 2023
Join our screen critic as he explores the latest offerings from the world the world of entertainment. Source: Supplied.

The military, political and personal battles of the only French leader to have a layered puff pastry named after him are lavishly depicted in Napoleon, a grand, magnificently mounted, thoroughly entertaining bio epic from Ridley Scott, the director who gave us Gladiator, Alien, Blade Runner, American Gangster and The Martian (along with many others).

Charting his rise from gifted gunnery officer to brilliant battlefield strategist and political master, the sprawling film is anchored by a typically committed performance from Joaquin Phoenix in one of his best turns yet.

As you’d expect from a director so familiar with staging spectacles, the battle sequences in Napoleon are orchestrated on a massive scale and in vivid detail, showing the bloodshed of close quarters combat as cannons and muskets deprive soldiers of limbs and heads.

Away from the carnage of war, we see a more vulnerable Napoleon trying to cope with Josephine (Vanessa Kirby), the tumultuous love of his life whose promiscuity became front-page fodder and a source of humiliation. There’s not a dull moment across the film’s two-and-a-half-hour duration and its global box office success in its first week of release suggests, along with Oppenheimer, that old- school historical epics are nudging superhero films to one side.

And that’s welcome news.

There’s lots of music, movement, and a scattering of laughs in Trolls Band Together, the third in the Trolls animated film franchise that simply refuses to stop. The premise here is that the big-haired band of trolls decide to retire, then need to hurridly reunite so they can rescue a brother who has been captured by big-eyed musical rivals.

Colourfully animated with a few jokes poking fun at the music industry, the film is a pleasant enough time killer but zips by at such a dizzying pace there’s too little time for restless kids (and accompanying adults) to feel enough for the characters to stay in their seats.

For a somewhat wilder animation ride check out The Boy and the Heron, the latest surreal offering from Hayao Miyazaki, one of the founders of the storied Japanese animation house Studio Ghibli. With traditional hand-drawn images – no gleaming digital animation here – and dubbed into English by an A-list cast (Christian Bale; Florence Pugh; Willem Dafoe; Mark Hamill; Robert Pattinson) the story starts slowly, then gets crazier and crazier.

Set in 1943, a distraught boy moves in with his father and new wife a year after losing his mother in a bombing raid. Harassed by a giant heron he embarks on a journey through a series of dreamscapes, many of which are inhabited by giant parakeets. Fans of the studio’s work will love it. Those unfamiliar should find it mesmerising. (Opens 6 December).

Now, a quick caution: if you happen to see any signage for the alleged comedy Bottoms and feel the urge to purchase a ticket, do yourself a huge favour and run in the opposite direction.

A prime example of a failed satire, the silly story involves two American high school girls who set up a self-defence club hoping to attract other high school girls they can get romantic with. What could have been an edgy, raunchy,1980s-style adult comedy falls flat at every turn, with terrible performances and gags that are as funny as a head cold. It’s awful.

The current jewel of the arthouse circuit is The Old Oak, a strong, topical social drama from legendary British director Ken Loach who, at 87, has said is his final film. Set in 2016 the film charts the impact Syrian refugees have on the residents of a small town in the north of England.

For some, the new arrivals are innocent people seeking a new life after escaping a repressive, murderous regime. To others, they are interlopers who are bringing stress and division to a town that is already dying. Caught in the middle is TJ Ballantyne (Dave Turner), the ageing owner of a decrepit pub whose patrons are mostly against the refugees. This puts him in a tough position as he does volunteer work for the local aid agency as a delivery driver.

He forms a cross-cultural friendship with Yara (Ebla Mari), a vociferous young Syrian photographer who works with the locals to bring the two communities together. Reeking with realism, The Old Oak is a bittersweet, emotional tale that taps into current events without ever losing focus on the central story of a lonely man doing his best to do good in the conflict zone of his home town.

The bumpy career of Sylvester Stallone gets a good going over in Sly, a self-produced bio-documentary that slices through his movie life, looking at the good, the bad, and how he ended up doing Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot.

Built around interviews with Stallone as he prepares to move house, the film charts his early life, his desire to act, and his rise from bit parts to his unlikely triumph with Rocky, the underdog film that has defined his work as well as his life’s journey.

The film features a wide range of terrific interviews, including some golden quips from Arnold Schwarzenegger who looks back on their rivalry with deep amusement. Catch it on Netflix.

For more visit and @jimschembri on X for updates.

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