The success of Aardman Animations’ movies can generally be gauged by whether or not they star Gromit (or at least his look-a-look from Shaun the Sheep). Sadly, stop-motion’s undisputed supremo Nick Park’s Early Man doesn’t have the resourceful and heroically loyal hound, though it does feature a pig called Hognob talented enough to play the harp. It’s not quite the same thing of course, and technically Hognob (voiced by Park himself) may be a warthog. But whatever, he does make a lot of dog-like noises and behaves in a distinctly Gromit-like way. He’s the faithful sidekick of Dug (Eddie Redmayne), a cheerful but dim Neanderthal cave man whose contented life is interrupted by the arrival of some Iron Age troops intent on raping and pillaging his tribe’s idyllic valley for its ore riches. There’s all the usual Aardman mad slapstick, cleverness and charm that guarantee Early Man will both be another cult hit amongst adult animation fans and popular with parents, and I especially liked the idea that all #StopAdani has to do to keep coal in the ground do is challenge the miners to a game of football. Now why hasn’t Shut The Gate thought of that? Though of course, much of its subtext and its multi-layered sly jokes will go above the heads of the early primary-school age kids it’s aimed at. At the family screening I attended, there was laughter on cue when the pompous king farted and someone got splattered in duck poop, but the verdict of the 7-year-old I overheard leaving the cinema may be the one that sticks. “It was ok, but I’ve definitely seen better movies.” Parents, looking around at the other dire holiday fare they may have to sit through, will almost certainly disagree. Take our word for it, and choose this one. PG from April 5 on wide release. Palace Norton St and Dendy Newtown are screening previews over the Easter weekend. ★★★★
The Other Side of Hope
As a secular version of Easter’s message of hope and love, Aki Kaurismaki’s distinctively minimalist The Other Side Of Hope is pretty damn good. It’s set in contemporary Helsinki – smack in the down-at-heel middle of a city that like so many others in Europe, is struggling with the ongoing refugee crisis. And if that hot-button issue raises alarms bells that you’re about to be lectured, given a sermon or subjected to sappy sentimentalising, then relax – there’s none of that in the Finnish writer/director’s famously deadpan movies, ever. What you get here instead is a witty and dryly humorous shaggy dog story about a Syrian immigrant’s (Sherwan Haji) efforts to make a new life and find his lost sister tied in with a struggling and drably forlorn restaurant owner’s (Sakari Kuosmanen) hilarious efforts to stay in business. And a dog, (of course there is a dog – an adorable dog… And cars that could only have existed in 1950’s America or Brezhnev’s Russia, plus sad country & western songs performed by aging melancholic hipsters. Somehow that’s all wrapped up in deeply humanistic film about the inherent goodness and incidental heroism of Europe’s working class. Not a fashionable message, nor one we’re used to hearing nowadays (they’re supposed to be right-wing xenophobes aren’t they?) It takes a very skilled storyteller to pull it off convincingly, which Kaurismaki does – as entertainingly and wittily as ever. M from Mar 29 at inner west cinemas Palace Norton St, Palace Central and Dendy Newtown ★★★★
* Just announced – David Stratton will be presenting a retrospective of 10 Aki Kaurismaki films at the Sydney Film Festival in June.
Paul: Apostle of Christ
Less abstract and rather more conventional in every way, Sony Pictures’s faith-based Affirm division has released Paul: Apostle of Christ just in time for Easter. However locals will need to head out of the famously agnostic inner west to catch it (Macquarie Centre or Entertainment Quarter are its closest screens). Unfortunately for those looking for a bit of light relief after the Easter service, Andrew Hyatt’s account of the last days of Saint Paul’s (James Faulkner) life is a leaden affair – about as heavy-going to digest as last year’s hot cross buns. It’s set in the time of Nero’s most sadistic excesses – but there are no Christians being thrown to the lions here, just a lot of talking and one minor medical miracle. There isn’t a lot of action in Mary Magdalene either, but for those for whom “preaching to the converted” isn’t a vast turn-off, that remains by far the better cinematic experience. M from Mar 29 ★★
Also opening this week
No easter bunny – Peter Rabbit (our warning here) is an obnoxious jerk not unlike that rat from Nut Job 2. Good luck in trying to steer the kids away – the movie is being promoted extensively and generously marketed, and often that’s all that matters… Sherlock Gnomes (the famous sleuth as a garden gnome, unpreviewed, but other reviewers have not been kind) offers alternative Easter entertainment for kids; while their older siblings may be tempted by Oprah and Disney’s A Wrinkle In Time. Crikey’s critic called that one “a double dose of confused, good for you messages”. Teens will no doubt be flocking to the similarly uplifting and universally-praised Love, Simon, ignoring my slightly jaundiced verdict, or maybe Spielberg’s Ready Player One. Meanwhile inner west’s political tragics should definitely queue for The Death Of Stalin – but do watch your back!
Reviews – Russell Edwards