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The Water Diviner

You know him as a surly lunk of slab-faced Aussie manhood. But Russell Crowe shows his squishy side as the director of this soft-hearted war melodrama. He also stars as Connor, a farmer whose three sons are missing presumed dead on the WWI battlefield of Gallipoli. Coming on like Liam Neeson without the leather jacket, four years later he travels to Turkey, dad-on-a-mission style, to bring home the bodies of his boys. Once there, he encounters the obligatory sneering British officer who orders him back to Australia.Crowe has worked with some of the best, and it’s rubbed off. ‘The Water Diviner’ is solid and old-fashioned – the kind of film you can imagine watching with the family on Boxing Day, eyes half-closed. And it’s even-handed, showing the Turkish side of the story. Directing gives Crowe plenty of chances to show off his chiselled, rock-hard-at-50 physique. But the film pulls in too many directions – including a soppy, sappy romance with a young Turkish war widow (Olga Kurylenko) who reads his future in a coffee cup. Still, it might be overdone, but it’s never boring.

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Tinkerbell and the Legend of the NeverBeast

The seventh and final instalment in the DisneyToon Studios fairy franchise proves surprisingly lively, even if the title is a bit misleading: it’s actually Tink’s big-hearted pal Fawn (voiced by a spirited Ginnifer Goodwin) who takes centre stage. Fawn adopts a cute baby hawk without realising that the bird may grow up to snack on the fairy population of Pixie Hollow. She gets a telling-off from Queen Clarion, yet soon she’s tending to a mysterious furry grey monster with a thorn in its paw. Clearly taken with the big guy, she refuses to believe he’s the destructive force the legend of the NeverBeast says he is.The film plumbs no great depths. But it snappily combines frisky aerial action, a sprinkling of fairy dust and much cuddly bonding with the massive furball of the title (a sweetie at heart despite appearances). It’s expertly crafted for very young kids, and the snappy length (67 minutes!) makes it a useful option for parents seeking a U-certificate family diversion over the holidays.

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Suite Française

This is a handsome and intelligent adaptation of the writings of Irène Némirovsky – the Russian-born French writer who died in Auschwitz and whose two unpublished novellas emerged in 2004 as one book, ‘Suite Française’. In her late thirties at the time of writing, Némirovsky fictionalised the lives of people around her in German-occupied France.Taking the novel’s lead, Saul Dibb’s nuanced, compelling film offers an intriguing close-up portrait of Bussy, a northern French village forced to host a garrison of Nazi soldiers. At the film’s heart is a sort-of romance between timid Lucile (Michelle Williams), and a cultured, piano-playing Nazi officer, Bruno (Matthias Schoenaerts). But more lasting than the film’s romantic angle is the snapshot that Dibb (‘Bullet Boy’, ‘The Duchess’) offers of a class-ridden society under the spotlight of occupation.The themes of collaboration, compassion and betrayal run through the film, and characters who initially seem to be one thing, like Lucile’s hard-hearted mother-in-law (Kristin Scott Thomas), emerge as more complex. Even the film’s portrayal of the Nazi soldiers is satisfyingly complicated. Also refreshing is a sense that we’re thrown into the middle of the uncertainty of war; ‘Suite Française’ works hard to free itself from the benefit of hindsight. The film is not without its problems – Michelle Williams is an elusive lead, and a wide array of characters come at the expense of depth – but it’s a knotty, thoughtful piece of work nonethe

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Shaun the Sheep the Movie

Only Aardman – the British creators of Wallace & Gromit, Morph and other lovable, mouldable characters – could find an irresistible movie in industrial amounts of clay and a story of an amnesiac farmer and his flock at loose in the big city. Much of the beauty of this big-hearted, stop-motion-animated caper (a spin-off of the insanely successful kids TV series) is the entire absence of decipherable language (instead imagine grunts, mumbles, bleats and screams) as Shaun the Sheep tries to engineer a day off from Mossy Bottom Farm and instead causes the often-bewildered farmer to bang his head and wander off into the metropolis (which looks a lot like Bristol, where Aardman has its HQ). Amid the chaos, it’s sometimes hard to work out exactly which sheep is Shaun, but that doesn’t matter when there are great slapstick scenes in a hospital, a hair salon, a fancy restaurant and an ominous animal pound. Maybe an hour would have been enough, but even the slower patches have charm to burn.

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Fast & Furious 7

Released in the wake of star Paul Walker’s untimely death in a car wreck, ‘Fast & Furious 7’ was always going to lay it on thick with the nostalgic montages and slap on the back, hug-it-out, ‘I’m gonna miss you, dog’ macho bonding. But for all that, the filmmakers can’t quite get around the fact that, over recent episodes, Walker’s boy-next-door ex-cop Brian had become something of a second-string player, neither as memorably menacing as Vin Diesel’s Peperami-necked anti-hero Dom or as quick with the kiss-off one-liners as Dwayne Johnson’s latecomer lawman Hobbs. And now he’s got another smart-mouth beefcake to contend with: Jason Statham, chomping down great chunks of scenery as ‘legitimate British badass’ Deckard Shaw, on the trail of our heroes after they hospitalised his brother in the previous movie. The chase takes them to Tokyo, the Dominican Republic, Abu Dhabi, Azerbaijan (really?) and finally back to their home turf on the mean streets of LA, for a final showdown packed with helicopters, drone strikes, wrench fights and more glistening auto-porn than Jeremy Clarkson’s hard drive. If none of this is quite as blood-pumping as it ought to be, that is largely down to director James Wan’s decision to shoot every automotive action sequence in such juddery, relentless close-up that it’s often impossible to tell what’s going on. The effect can be like having your face shoved into a fan belt, and not necessarily in a good way. But the face-to-face punch-ups are a lot more

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Still Alice

Alzheimer’s disease is a Greek tragedy: preordained by genetics, the neurodegenerative disorder is an unfathomably cruel death march down a tunnel that disappears behind you and gets darker with every step. 'Still Alice', adapted by married couple Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland from Lisa Genova’s 2007 novel, is the rare film possessed with the courage required to shine a light into that abyss knowing full well that down is the only way out. For illustrious New York linguistics professor Dr Alice Howland (an astonishingly controlled Julianne Moore), the first symptoms are subtly ominous. Just 50 years old, Alice is too young to assume that a momentary lapse might be an early sign of dementia. And then, over the length of a single devastating close-up, Alice learns that the rest of her life will be devoted to what she later refers to as 'the art of losing'. After that bombshell diagnosis, there’s only one direction in which 'Still Alice' can go, and the film directly confronts the inevitability of its story. Profoundly moving but never exploitative, the script homes in on the mundane exchanges that form the foundation of our closest relationships and demolishes that bedrock in a series of masterfully precise explosions. Even the script’s more suspect choices, like a perpetual game of 'Words with Friends' shared between Alice and her oldest daughter (Kate Bosworth), become avenues for the kind of shattering details that make each case of Alzheimer’s its own struggle.

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Focus

If Will Smith’s recent remorse over the failure of 2013 sci-fi disaster ‘After Earth’ fooled you into thinking we were about to witness the all-guns-blazing rebirth of the original Fresh Prince, think again. His spiral into blandness continues with ‘Focus’, a predictably unpredictable tale of conmen (and women) complete with the industry-mandated quantity of fast cars, big scores, short skirts, sharp suits, sizzling locations, slippery billionaires and ‘Oh, it was that guy all along!’ plot twists. Big Willie plays Nicky, a seasoned trickster whose intricate scheme to rig the Buenos Aires Grand Prix is thrown into disarray when old flame Jess (Margot Robbie) sashays into town. Will he walk away with the girl and the cash, or could preening Formula One playboy Garriga (Rodrigo Santoro) throw a Spaniard in the works? The chassis may be slick and speedy, but under the hood ‘Focus’ lives up to its Ford-produced namesake: sturdy but not exactly stimulating.

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Cinderella

Enough with the feminism. Disney has clearly had enough of these uppity princesses getting all empowered and messing with their fairytales. After ‘Frozen’, and ‘Into the Woods’, it’s back to the basics of being a princess in director Kenneth Branagh’s lavish, sappily sweet version of ‘Cinderella’. That means microscopic waists, swooning bosoms and a happily-ever-after ending for this Cinderella (Lily James, the naughty cousin from ‘Downton’), or just plain Ella – the ‘Cinders’ bit comes later. The film opens shakily with scenes from Ella’s idyllic childhood acted in a style inspired by the surrounding forest. ‘Have courage and be kind,’ says Ella’s mother (Hayley Atwell) with a saintly deathbed smile, so cursing Ella to a lifetime of smiling sweetly and talking in sing-song to her CGI pet mice. Cate Blanchett is wickedly good as her evil stepmother Lady Tremaine, dressed to kill in the style of a 1940s femme fatale with Veronica Lake curls and blood-red lipstick. This is a pretty faithful retelling of the classic fairytale, but Branagh and screenwriter Chris Weitz (‘The Golden Compass’) have rustled up enough of a backstory to stop Lady T being a straight-up psycho-bitch villainess. Left widowed and bankrupt by her first husband, she’s now bitter about being married to a man still in love with wife number-one. You know the rest. Helena Bonham Carter is hilarious as the Fairy Godmother, a cross between Gok Wan and a toff racing-horse trainer after a few gin and tonics. ‘Woul

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Blackhat

‘The Insider’ and ‘Collateral’ director Michael Mann tackles an unusually timely topic with his latest thriller: computer hacking. And he wants us to take it seriously, as ‘Blackhat’ begins with a series of those tired shots that cruise along wires and through flashing microchips until we see a nuclear reactor’s cooling fans go belly-up. The resulting disaster deserves its own Bond villain to cackle at the mayhem while stroking his cat.But instead, Mann reverts to what he does best – ladling on the tech talk and creating the impression of something profoundly grown-up. A ‘remote-access tool’ is suspected, and we’re off to an American prison, where a criminal programmer (Chris Hemsworth, looking more like a layabout than a guru) languishes in his cell. They need him to crack some code. And if ‘Thor’ star Hemsworth sometimes has to take off his shirt and please the Marvel fanbase, so be it. Go ahead and call ‘Blackhat’ silly, but that’s missing the point. The movie is high-grade kids stuff, loaded with frantic keyboard poundings, an unlikely love affair (with Wei Tang) and shoot-outs in Asian markets. With this film Mann doesn’t tease out the unhinged performances he did from Al Pacino in ‘Heat’ and ‘The Insider’, but he’s back on familiar ground after the misfire of 2009’s ‘Public Enemies’.Style is hardly a side dish with Mann – it’s the main course. No one captures city lights at night or luxury cars slinking down the highway like the creator of ‘Miami Vice’. Synthesisers twi

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Selma

This 1960s-set, US civil-rights drama works brilliantly as both expert historical re-creation and a powerful reflection of what’s happening in the world right now. As recent events in Ferguson, Missouri show, there’s nothing ‘finished’ about the issue of racism in America or beyond. Fittingly, ‘Selma’, unlike so many great-man biopics, lures us into a web of unsettled arguments and shifting strategies as Dr Martin Luther King Jr (David Oyelowo) makes his landmark 1965 Alabama march a reality – at a terrible cost. The film plays like a great episode of ‘Mad Men’, pitch-perfect in its details yet totally lived-in: a universe of rolled-up shirt sleeves, sweaty brows and screams that sound horribly real. ‘Selma’ glides between moments big and small. Early on, the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in 1963 – an act of homegrown terrorism that inspired King's drive to action that followed – isn’t announced so much as eased into, as four impeccably dressed girls descend a stairwell, chatting about hairdos. Then we see King grumbling about his fancy tie, helped by his soothing wife, Coretta (Carmen Ejogo), before walking out to accept his 1964 Nobel Peace Prize. His work is far from done: even as his team makes its way to Alabama to set up an HQ there, King’s reputation precedes him, and he's punched in the face in a hotel lobby. But ‘Selma’ truly takes off in the way it describes the back and forth behind great events. Oyelowo brings massive conviction to King’s rousing sermons bu

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