Film Review of the Week


100% Wolf (PG)

Review: A top dog requires the biggest heart not the shiniest coat or sharpest teeth in director Alexs Stadermann’s life-affirming computer-animated adventure. Based on the 2009 book by Jayne Lyons, 100% Wolf howls familiar life lessons about individuality, self-expression and friendship within the framework of a teenager’s coming-of-age in the aftermath of personal loss. Fin Edquist’s script plays up narrative similarities to The Lion King: a self-doubting heir who must temporarily abandon his kingdom to discover the courage to fight for his inheritance, a scheming uncle determined to seize a throne he doesn’t deserve, a cliff-top tragedy and hard-fought redemption.

Life as man’s best friend provides Stadermann’s film with fart gags and obvious chuckles like when the hero, trapped in the body of a poodle, discovers the dizzying pleasure of dragging his bottom along the floor. Young audiences could lap up the underlying shaggy dog story but parents may find it harder to wag tails at such simplistic delights. Vocal performances are largely forgettable except for a virtuoso turn from Rhys Darby as the antagonist who enjoys two-way conversations with his stuffed monkey Scoops. He plays gleefully with the character and steals every colourfully drawn scene with his madcap antics.

Awkward teenager Freddy Lupin (voiced by Ilai Swindells) is heir to a long bloodline of werewolves led by his uncle Hotspur (Rupert Degas), who assumed the role of pack leader after Freddy’s father Flasheart (Jai Courtney) perished during a cliff-top tussle with ice cream van man Foxwell Cripp (Darby). On his 14th birthday, Freddy prepares to step into a shaft of moonlight as part of the warfing ceremony to confirm him as the pack’s new high howler. The boy recalls his father’s words – “The moon spirits decide what kind of wolves we become” – and is horrified when he morphs into a diminutive, fluffy poodle.

“It’s a wardrobe malfunction!” pleads Freddy but Hotspur persuades the pack that his nephew is cursed because he lost a treasured moonstone ring to Foxwell after Flasheart’s fateful fall. Pack elders give the distraught teenager until next moonrise to prove his worth as a wolf or be cast out forever. Permanently trapped in the guise of a poodle, Freddy races into the city to retrieve the missing ring. En route, he befriends streetwise stray Batty (Samara Weaving) and clashes with the fearsome Commander (Jane Lynch) of Coldfax dog shelter.

In the words of a pack elder, 100% Wolf is “a spirited little cub”. Animation is solid including a couple of competently executed chase sequences but Stadermann’s picture doesn’t flirt with the creative boundaries of the medium let alone plush them. Character design opts for cuteness over realism and paw-dropping detail including a climactic slaughter of four-legged friends in a Wallace & Gromit-style contraption that conveniently takes place off screen.

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Summerland (12A)

Review: Taking its title from Norse mythology’s notion of heaven as an astral plane where souls linger invisibly after they depart the mortal realm, Summerland is an elegantly constructed drama set on the Kent coast under threat from the Luftwaffe. Olivier Award-winning playwright Jessica Swale makes her feature film directorial debut with a self-penned meditation on womanhood and female empowerment, broadening her canvas beyond the confines of the stage to ebb and flow between three timeframes: 1926, 1940 and 1975. She reunites with Gemma Arterton and Gugu Mbatha-Raw, who both starred in her boisterous and bawdy 2016 play Nell Gwynn, to chart forbidden romance in a time of conflict and self-sacrifice, when two women in love was considered wickedness and a sin.

The lead actresses catalyse simmering on-screen chemistry and Swale reflects discriminatory behaviour towards the couple in gentle brush strokes without labouring the point. Salty humour punctuates the measured introspection – an opening punchline about Help The Aged sets the tone magnificently – delivered with impeccable timing by an ensemble British cast that includes national treasures Sir Tom Courtenay and Dame Penelope Wilton.

Alice Lamb (Arterton) lives alone in a remote cottage in a close-knit community not far from the white cliffs of Dover, where anyone who dares to set themselves apart from the gossip-mongering crowd risks being labelled a Nazi spy. She devotes her waking hours to investigating folklore, using rigorous science to dispel the existence of magic. Alice’s current fascination is the fata morgana optical illusion named after enchantress Morgan le Fay from Arthurian legend, which causes mirages of islands and cities to shimmer in the sky. She is rudely dragged away from her thesis by the unexpected arrival of rosy-cheeked London Blitz evacuee Frank (Lucas Bond) as part of Operation Pied Piper.

Alice refuses to take the boy but local do-gooder Mrs Lawrence (Amanda Root) strikes a deal: “If you really can’t find it in your heart to keep him, bring him to the school in a week and we’ll make arrangements. A week, that’s all.” Frank’s sense of wonder, untainted by cynicism or grief, slowly penetrates Alice’s prickly exterior and reawakens her sense of adventure. She dares to unlock bittersweet memories of studying history in Oxford alongside the last person to stake a claim to her wounded heart: Vera Wilbond (Mbatha-Raw).

Summerland makes splendid use of sun-dappled Kent locations as a backdrop to Alice’s soul-searching. Still waters run deep in Arterton’s purse-lipped curmudgeon, providing the actress with a rich and fulfilling character arc. Young co-star Bond is an endearing foil. Plot machinations in the film’s tear-drenched final third skirt perilously close to emotionally manipulative contrivance but Swale retains a firm grip on the rudder to chart a satisfying course back to calmer emotional waters.

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Unhinged (15)

Review: Rush hour road rage escalates into a bloodthirsty fight for survival in Derrick Borte’s wince-inducingly violent thriller. Punctuated by scenes of torture, Unhinged feels like a turbo-charged throwback to a slurry of 1990s’ potboilers, which pitted a fractured family against a psychopath whose campaign of terror often meant premature exits for household pets, nosy neighbours and winsome best friends. Scriptwriter Carl Ellsworth signals his sadistic intent in the opening 10 minutes with a horrific double murder and a ham-fisted attempt to destroy the crime scene with sloshes of petrol.

A glowering Russell Crowe with bulging, blood-shot eyes is the lunatic responsible for the inferno. The Australian Oscar winner is perfectly cast as the anger-fuelled, scenery-chewing everyman on the edge, who delivers a harsh lesson in manners on and off the road. Sympathy should be buckled tightly to the object of his frenzied obsession, played by Caren Pistorius. Unfortunately, her harried single mother is recklessness in motion: driving while talking on a mobile phone, pulling into free-flowing traffic without looking each way, turning to look at a passenger in the back seat while accelerating along a busy highway. It’s a miracle that Borte and his stunt team don’t unleash automotive carnage sooner.

Self-employed hairstylist Rachel (Pistorius) sleeps through her morning alarm and quickly dresses for an appointment with her most important client. En route, she is supposed to drop off son Kyle (Gabriel Bateman) at school but with gridlock predicted for the morning commute, he’s going to be late. Again. “Three tardies is an automatic detention,” he scolds his mother, who is distracted by the prospect of losing their home to her ex in acrimonious divorce proceedings. Rachel’s frustration boils over at a traffic light and there is an ugly altercation with a stranger called Tom (Crowe).

Her rudeness is a spark to the tinder box of his primal rage. “I don’t think you know what a bad day is,” Tom growls through the driver-side window, “but you are going to find out”. Red mist descends and Tom terrorises Rachel and Kyle on rain-slicked roads. Television news reports document Tom’s rampage as the increasingly deadly game of cat and mice ensnares Rachel’s brother Fred (Austin P McKenzie) and her lawyer Andy (Jimmi Simpson).

Unhinged doesn’t make any unexpected U-turns as the plot screeches at full pelt towards a predictably bruising final destination. Crowe menaces without breaking sweat while Pistorius tracks a familiar path from helpless victim to protective mother bear. Action sequences are well staged but show little restraint, with on-screen destruction including one unnecessarily grisly demise for a police officer. In that brutish sense, Borte’s film makes good on the promise of its title.

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The Vigil (15)

Review: Let there be light… less blurring of foreground details and a more satisfying payoff to confidently sustained tension in writer-director Keith Thomas’s modest supernatural horror. The Vigil unfolds predominantly on three floors of a dimly lit house in Borough Park in Brooklyn, New York, which is home to vibrant Hasidic and Orthodox Jewish communities. The religious practice of the shomer – typically a family member or friend who stands guard over the body of the deceased and recites the Psalms to ward off unseen evil – provides Thomas with a neat dramatic conceit to mine for jump-out-of-seat scares in the unending hours before the light of dawn banishes paranoia and fear.

Cinematographer Zach Kuperstein languishes in those shadowy nooks and crannies for extended periods, inviting us to imagine horrors lurking in the darkness. Australian composer Michael Yezerski’s heavy-handed score repeatedly encourages us to prepare for cheap shocks, which Thomas largely avoids to his credit. However, our reward for steadily cranked tension is meagre, including a nightmarish showdown between forces of good and evil that is so low-key, you feel certain it has to be a false dawn with a concealed last-gasp twist. Alas, the ace remains stuck up Thomas’s sleeve after the end credits rolls.

Yakov Ronen (Dave Davis) has tentatively stepped away from his Jewish roots following the death of his younger brother Burech (Ethan Stone). He is medicating to cope with post-traumatic stress and makes regular visits to therapist Dr Kohlberg (Fred Melamed) to plumb his deep well of residual guilt. Following a support group meeting with other Jews in transitional fazes of their lives, Yakov meets former rabbi Reb Shulem (Menashe Lustig), who has a job proposition. He is willing to pay Yakov 400 US dollars to act as a shomer for Holocaust survivor Rubin Litvak (Ronald Cohen).

“A good man, a little weird,” the rabbi cryptically observes about the deceased, whose wife (Lynn Cohen) is in the grip of dementia and is unfit to stand guard. As Yakov begins his five-hour shift, he discovers alarming evidence of a demonic presence called a Mazzik (Rob Tunstall). “It’s playing with you, the way a cat plays with a mouse,” whispers Mrs Litvak as the malevolent presence torments Yakov with memories of his little brother.

The Vigil is a haunted house thriller with modest ambitions and writer-director Thomas largely achieves them. Davis’s central performance, lit by the glow of a mobile phone screen or a flickering candle, wrings out the heartbreak between ominous creaks and groans while Cohen lends gravitas to her frail guardian of expository plot. A disappointingly low-key finale clings limpet-like to convention and leaves a basement door ajar for a potential sequel.

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