The Whale (15, 117 minutes)
Verdict: Unconventional love story
Knock At The Cabin (15, 100 minutes)
Verdict: Utter hokum
There’s nothing funny about morbid obesity, yet its depiction on screen is usually in the service of comedy — Terry Jones as Mr Creosote in Monty Python’s The Meaning Of Life (1983) lumbers unavoidably to mind.
Hugely fat characters also populate horror and fantasy films, but it’s not often that you find one as the protagonist in a love story. Admittedly, Darren Aronofsky’s The Whale isn’t a conventional love story — it isn’t a conventional anything — but it’s about love nonetheless, both destructive and redemptive.
Charlie (Brendan Fraser) weighs over 40 st and is not just housebound but practically chairbound. He is a middle-aged academic who teaches creative writing online from his apartment somewhere in Idaho, but is so crippled by his colossal size that he cannot get to the front door without a walking-frame.
He picks things up from the floor with a grabber contraption like the ones children aim at furry pink rabbits in amusement arcades, and is sufficiently self-conscious about his appearance that when he teaches, he pretends that the camera on his laptop is broken. He can be heard over Zoom, but not seen.
BRIAN VINER: Charlie (Brendan Fraser) weighs over 40 st and is not just housebound but practically chairbound
We enter Charlie’s life with, it appears, very little of it to go. His fierce but devoted carer, Liz (Hong Chau), tells him that congestive heart failure will soon see him off, that he needs urgent hospital treatment to have any chance of survival. But Charlie doesn’t want to pay expensive medical bills, not least because he has no wish to survive. When he does think his death is imminent, he rather oddly begs a visiting missionary (Ty Simpkins) to read him extracts from an essay about Moby Dick.
The reason for this will emerge, but in the meantime Charlie is eating himself into an early grave with a daily intake of pizzas and sandwiches that would feed a hungry family of six.
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He wasn’t always so fat, but the suicide of his male lover — for whom he had left his wife, Mary (Samantha Morton), and daughter, Ellie (Sadie Sink) — triggered a spectacular binge-eating habit that he is neither able nor willing to control.
Charlie’s psychological demons become clearer when 17-year-old Ellie comes to see him for the first time in eight years. She is charmless at best, at worst vicious and manipulative, but Charlie, even though he has to bribe her to continue calling on him, sees only the good in her. Indeed, it is perhaps the chief irony in Darren Aronofsky’s bold drama that Charlie has a generous, almost childlike view of humanity in general that he cannot apply to himself.
I was no fan of Aronofsky’s last film, the ghastly, voyeuristic Mother! (2017). But he is certainly anything but anodyne as a director, and The Whale — adapted by Samuel D. Hunter from his own 2012 play — deserves all the attention it will continue to have up to Academy Awards night next month.
In many respects it is another exercise in audience voyeurism (you have been warned), and from where I was sitting, its intrinsic theatricality diminishes its value as a film. Apart from a couple of fleeting flashbacks, we don’t move beyond the confines of his home any more than sweet, self-loathing Charlie does.
But, with a nod for whoever looked after the fat suit and prosthetics, Fraser’s performance is genuinely stupendous. He is the favourite to win Best Actor at the Oscars, and I can understand why.
It’s less easy to understand why M. Night Shyamalan thought Knock At The Cabin — an adaptation of Paul Tremblay’s 2018 novel The Cabin At The End Of The World, a much better title — would be worth either his while or ours.
It’s slickly enough written and acted, but it’s a truly preposterous story about a gay couple and their adopted daughter. Pictured: The home invaders in Knock at the Cabin
It’s slickly enough written and acted, but it’s a truly preposterous story about a gay couple and their adopted daughter whose holiday home deep in the Pennyslvania woods is invaded by a modern and curiously polite incarnation of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.
This strange quartet, led by a kindly teacher (Dave Bautista) and also featuring Rupert Grint as a grumpy gas-fitter (with much to be grumpy about), must convince the family that they need to start sacrificing one another if they are to save the planet from impending doom.
It’s not really made clear why they’ve been chosen from 7.8 billion or so other people in the world, and I’m afraid the film is another dud from Shyamalan, who has never come close to matching his 1999 masterpiece The Sixth Sense.
In this movie he has given himself a Hitchcock-style cameo role, selling fried chicken on television . . . but perhaps he should have chosen turkey instead.
Antonio Banderas leads a heavyweight voice cast in the tremendously enjoyable DreamWorks animation, Puss In Boots: The Last Wish (PG, 102 mins, 4/5).
A sequel to the 2011 film Puss in Boots, itself a spin-off from the Shrek movies, this one gives us Florence Pugh as the voice of Goldilocks, with Olivia Colman and Ray Winstone as Mama and Papa Bear.
As you’ll have gathered, Joel Crawford’s film, like the original, boasts an eclectic mix of characters from legends and fairy tales: Jack Horner (John Mulaney) is an obese, hunchbacked villain, and there are cameos for Pinocchio, Jiminy Cricket, Excalibur and the Big Bad Wolf.
Antonio Banderas leads a heavyweight voice cast in the tremendously enjoyable DreamWorks animation, Puss In Boots: The Last Wish
It’s witty and beautifully animated, though be warned that younger children might want to hide under the seat when the wolf comes along.
Puss (brilliantly voiced by Banderas) is a swashbuckling, Zorro-style hero, fearless until the wolf ruins things by pointing out that he has used up eight of his nine lives.
If he can find the elusive Wishing Star alongside his old flame Kitty Softpaws (Salma Hayek), Puss can get his eight lives back. But everyone else is searching for the Wishing Star, too, including, for more nefarious reasons, the monstrous Jack Horner and the crime family of Goldilocks and the Three Bears. It’s very imaginatively done.
Puss in Boots: The Last Wish is in cinemas now.
From Matilda’s mum to Texas trash, Andrea’s the real deal
To Leslie (15, 119 minutes)
Verdict: Small film, big performance
As in Puss In Boots: The Last Wish (see below), there’s a fairytale ending of sorts in To Leslie — but a lot of bleakness precedes it, as the title character (Andrea Riseborough) lurches, broke and homeless, through a miserable, alcohol-sodden existence six years after winning the Texas lottery.
This low-budget film, a debut feature for British director Michael Morris, has been basking in some mostly welcome attention, after Riseborough (pictured) very unexpectedly landed a Best Actress Oscar nomination.
There’s a fairytale ending of sorts in To Leslie — but a lot of bleakness precedes it, as the title character (Andrea Riseborough) lurches, broke and homeless
I say ‘mostly’ because there are some crying foul, not to mention racism (the African-American actress Danielle Deadwyler, brilliant in Till, was overlooked), but there is no doubt it’s a performance worthy of acclaim, at the heart of a tale Patsy Cline might once have expressed in song.
Last seen gurning her way hilariously through the Matilda movie, Riseborough (a Tynesider, note) proves her impressive versatility by convincing utterly as a Texan deadbeat, who steals from her teenage son and seems beyond redemption before returning to her home town and, with the support of a good man, piecing her life back together.
To Leslie is available on Apple+ TV and Amazon Prime Video.
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