Those Who Wish Me Dead (NC16)
100 minutes, now showing
Ever since he penned the screenplay for acclaimed crime thriller Sicario (2015), Taylor Sheridan has made his mark as a film-maker who offers action cinema driven by social realism and emotion.
His screenplay for Hell Or High Water (2016), about a pair of robbers who target banks which have preyed on failing ranchers, is called a "neo-Western". But it is also as much about a landscape ravaged by the rich-poor divide. It is a movie the Oscar-winning Nomadland might have been if its creator Chloe Zhao had decided to make central character Fern a vengeful criminal instead of a job-hunting van-dweller.
With this movie, based on a 2014 novel by crime writer Michael Koryta but with a screenplay co-written by Sheridan, the setting is not the dry brush of Texas but the wooded wilderness of Montana. It is where Hannah (Angelina Jolie), a firefighter coping with past trauma, has her fire-spotting station. She finds Connor (Australian actor Finn Little in a standout performance), a boy hunted by assassins, played with chilling effectiveness by Aiden Gillen and Nicholas Hoult.
At the heart of the story is the familiar wolf-and-cub set-up seen in, say, superhero movie Logan (2017).. Similarly, there is a crucial lowering of emotional defences here between guardian and child.
Jolie, these days known for playing blue-bloods in fantasy films, looks out of place in the early scenes, when she tries to pass as a hard-drinking working joe. Luckily, when the story shifts to being about survival, she looks more at ease as a wilderness woman.
As can be seen in depictions of the law enforcement community in Sicario or the indigenous reservations of police procedural Wind River (2017), Sheridan makes communities come alive, warts and all. That detailed scene-setting has sadly been trimmed to make way for the manhunt while the plot falls apart if given more than a hard glance. But otherwise, the film's attempt at wrapping a chase thriller around an emotion-driven, mother-son core works.
My Octopus Teacher (G)
85 minutes, now on Netflix
Emotion-driven nature shows, especially ones with human protagonists, are an artefact of another era. Remember the 1960s films about lion cubs raised by people, or films about those who want to fly with the geese?
In a time when BBC-style documentaries are the gold standard - non-interfering camera crews, fact-laden voice-overs, no humans on screen - this film, recent winner of the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature, dares venture into the sentimental heart of a central human character.
Film-maker Craig Foster is going through an unspecified midlife crisis. While snorkelling around the kelp forest off the coast of South Africa with camera in hand, he meets the creature of the title, a female going about its daily business of hunting shellfish and fish while trying to not get eaten by sharks.
His intellectual fascination with the animal's playfulness, curiosity and cleverness deepens into an emotional bond. Along the way, cameras capture moments of life-and-death drama and tenderness, which Foster finds is helping him gain perspective on his own issues.
Directors Pippa Erlich and James Reed use narration by Foster to craft a story about nature as therapy. Yes, this can be read one man's extended "forest bathing" episode, to use the Japanese term for the healing power of going into the wild. And in some places, the centring of Foster's psyche feels excessive.
But skim over those bits and what is left is solid and entertaining proof, as if any were needed, that pandas might have the looks, but it is the octopuses who have got the smarts.
127 minutes, opens May 13, not reviewed
The monster movie Godzilla Vs Kong looked as if it was going to dominate its second weekend at the China box office when it was knocked off its perch by this low-budget family drama, which was shot mostly in Chengdu. Two women film-makers, director Yin Rouxi and screenwriter You Xiaoying, created this story about An Ran (Zhang Zifeng), a postgraduate student who loses her parents in a traffic accident. Her plans are thrown into disarray when she is made custodian of her six-year-old half-brother.
Nine Days (PG13)
124 minutes, opens May 13 at The Projector, not reviewed
Brazilian-Japanese film-maker Edson Oda's screenplay worked its way through the Sundance screenwriting labs and into the hands of actors such as Winston Duke (Black Panther, 2018), Zazie Beetz, Bill Skarsgard and Benedict Wong.
In this science fiction-tinged drama, souls are quizzed by supernatural being Will (Duke), who selects those allowed to inhabit bodies on the terrestrial plane. New soul Emma (Beetz), with her unconventional attitude to the selection process, causes Will to raise troubling questions about his own existence.