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This week is a big one for Netflix originals as the service releases Halle Berry’s directorial debut Bruised, Robin Robin a new collaboration with Aardman, and the frankly incredible animated alpinist drama The Summit of the Gods.
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Robin Robin - Netflix
A new Aardman film still feels like a seasonal event regardless of the context of the film itself. Newcomers Michael Please and Dan Ojari, who have been raised on the studio’s work, embrace this with the short Robin Robin, a sort of nativity tale — complete with with songs (some about breaking into the homes of humans - pronounced “hooman” here - and stealing crumbs of stale bread) — set in the world of humble countryside creatures.
It’s immediately different in texture to other Aardman films purely due to its use of needle felt puppets rather than the studio’s usual modelling clay, and with that material comes lovely autumnal hues and warm lighting.
Watch a trailer for Robin Robin
As for the story itself, it’s adorable. Its plentiful visual gags are backed up by charming vocal performances (including Richard E Grant and Gillian Anderson, truly relishing their respective roles) as well as delightfully odd one-liners.
It’s also beautifully understated in the emotional beats of its story, of the Robin who longs to be like her adoptive mouse siblings (in one of the film’s cutest touches, the Robin has round mouse ears). A holiday treat, showing that the storied animation studio still has plenty of life in it yet.
Bruised - Netflix
The directorial debut of Halle Berry, Bruised follows Jackie Justice (Berry), an ageing, retired mixed martial arts fighter, who left her once-promising career behind after a particularly devastating loss. It’s immediately evident that fighting (sporting or otherwise) is not something she can keep herself away from, as it seeps into her life anyway. She's a deep well of frustration that turns into aggression on a dime.
An opportunity quickly arises for Jackie to make her way back into the UFC league, but at the same time, the child she once gave up for adoption unexpectedly comes back into her life. As expected Berry is excellent in front of the camera, convincing of her character’s physical might and contrasting that with the general broken mess of her life, shown mostly in flashes.
Other acting standouts are Stephen McKinley (who you might recognise from Lady Bird and Dune), and Sheila Atim — most recently seen in the TV series The Underground Railroad — here playing Jackie’s steely trainer ‘Buddhakan’, who helps her get back on her feet. Some other performances — Jackie’s mother and her manager / boyfriend especially — feel a lot less natural than them, however.
Behind the camera, things are a little shakier. It’s at its best when it keeps its dialogue sparse. Bruised often deals in cliched dialogue, mapping what a host of standard-issue kitchen sink drama plots onto its sports drama, constantly backed by the appropriately melancholic musical cues (and plenty of on-the-nose needledrops like 'Just the Two of Us' as Jackie walks around with her child).
Its roaming handheld style and underdog story might remind of Ryan Coogler’s excellent boxing drama Creed (this also takes place in Philadelphia) though that film handled the balance between personal drama and in-ring drama with a lot more deftness. Still, even when Berry’s direction or Michelle Rosenfarb’s script are lacking, Berry’s performance more than picks up the slack, there’s plenty enough in here to make it an invigorating sports movies, even as it hits predictable notes — after all, there’s a reason people still go back to these same wells.
The Summit of the Gods - Netflix (30 November)
An adaptation of the manga by the late artist Jiro Taniguchi and writer Baku Yumemakura (the manga itself is adapted from Yumemakura’s novel), The Summit of the Gods turns five volumes of story into a tight but epic 90 minutes.
Director Patrick Imbert maintains the emotional core of the obsessive man-vs-nature story as well as its relatively patient pace as it stands in awe of the terrible beauty of the landscapes its characters seek to conquer. “Manga adaptation” might imply something outlandish and heightened but Taniguchi and Yumemakura’s work is one of realist detail, something that Imbert honours through the film’s sound design as well as its visuals. There’s as much attention paid to urban spaces as there is to the natural world, the business of the city contrasted with the isolation of the wilderness.
The mountains creak and rumble with life, like a monster about to shake off the smaller creatures on its back, and that sense of peril is amplified by the character’s nuanced physical reactions. The excellent score brings such moments to a thrilling, heart-stopping peak, leaving one simultaneously in awe and terror of the pastimes these men obsessively pursue.
Also new on Netflix: Little Women
Big Trouble in Little China - Disney+
John Carpenter’s sly parody send-up of pulp fantasy and his 80s action hero contemporaries (mostly) remains just as sharp today, thanks in part to Kurt Russell’s canny and hilarious performance as likeable dope Jack Burton.
Burton is essentially a supporting character who thinks that he’s the lead; strung along by a plot that he barely understands, purely out of pride (as well as, perhaps, a genuine want to do good and be the hero). The plot itself is, of course, nonsense: the fiancé of Burton’s friend, Wang Chi, becomes the target of immortal sorcerer Lo Pan for her emerald green eyes (Lo Pan must marry a girl with green eyes so he can regain his physical form).
She’s kidnapped, and Wang Chi must rescue her, while Burton mostly tags along and tries to look tough. The joke is incredible and doesn’t really announce itself, allowing Burton’s irrelevance to gradually become more apparent overtime in its upending of Flash Gordon-esque orientalism. With Carpenter’s lean filmmaking and typically propulsive soundtrack — not to mention the charmingly goofy special effects — Big Trouble in Little China is an incredibly fun time.
Also on Disney+: Becoming Cousteau, Black Swan, The Rock