John Lui, Film Correspondent recommends

Life, The Good Dinosaur, Carol, The Assassin

Dane DeHaan.
Dane DeHaan.PHOTOS: SHAW ORGANISATION, THE WALT DISNEY COMPANY

LIFE (M18)

112 minutes

3.5/5 stars

The relationship between an artist and his subject is not a new topic for cinema, but here, the dynamic is given some retro glamour.

James Dean (Dane DeHaan) is a young actor who, in 1955, is being groomed for stardom; Dennis Stock (Robert Pattinson) is a photographer who will make the Life magazine shots that capture the actor's spirit and define cool for generations.

Director Anton Corbijn (A Most Wanted Man, 2014; The American, 2010), known for his portraits of U2 and Joy Division, brings out great performances from both actors, especially DeHaan.


THE GOOD DINOSAUR (PG)

101 minutes

4/5 stars

In an alternate universe, where dinosaurs did not become extinct and have learnt to create communities, there is Young Arlo, who comes from a farming family. A raging river sweeps him far from home one day. He makes a return trek, dogged by a feral human he names Spot.

Just as you are about to relax into what looks like a movie for the under-10s, something happens to turn it all upside down.

In one of the best horror-movie character switch-ups to happen in recent times, someone who appears at first to be a friend does something that proves that first impressions can be fatally wrong.

First-time director Peter Sohn is ready to make scenes as strange and scary as a child's survival story need to be. The Good Dinosaur is a masterpiece of minimalism; there are almost no references to the present-day world unless it is to up-end expectations.

Because there is so little explanation, when Arlo meets someone new, he is as much in the dark as the audience is; there is a shared anxiety that never lets up.


CAROL (R21)

119 minutes

4.5/5 stars

It is the early 1950s and New York shopgirl Therese (Rooney Mara) attends to customer Carol (Cate Blanchett, above). The pair strike up a friendship, one that will grow into something deeper.

In this adaptation of Patricia Highsmith's 1952 novel The Price Of Salt, director Todd Haynes and screenwriter Phyllis Nagy adopt a detached, almost clinical approach.

So, while you have the stares of longing, the sideway glances and the coded speech of the classic repression romance, Haynes also makes the actors speak and move deliberately, their formality matching the meticulous 1950s set design.

This touch of theatricality puts a focus on the isolation of Therese and Carol, who live in a world they cannot fully inhabit, much less relax in. It's a reminder that in 1950s America, their lives had to be performed, not lived.


THE ASSASSIN (PG)

105 minutes

3.5/5 stars

There is little doubt that this is an important film - venerated Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-hsien hasn't released a feature in eight years and this take on the wuxia (historical martial arts) genre is his biggest-budget picture to date.

But this drama is no easy watch. The storytelling is dauntingly opaque. Scenes begin and end either too early or too late. Faces are impenetrable masks. Characters speak poetically or gnomically - usually both - alluding to events off-screen or in the past.

Yin Niang (Shu Qi, above) is an assassin, sent by her master to kill a man she once loved.

Hou's interests lie in timelessness, nature's rhythms and compositional elegance rather than in telling a ripping yarn. The winner of the Best Director award at the Cannes Film Festival for Hou and a nomination for the Palme d'Or, the festival's highest award, contains an austere beauty, but it's made by a cineaste for cineastes.

The Assassin is screening at The Projector, Golden Mile Tower.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 08, 2016, with the headline 'Film Picks'. Print Edition | Subscribe