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Movie reviews: Every frame of 'The Boy and the Heron' exudes warmth, wonder, poignancy and poetry

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THE BOY AND THE HERON: 4 STARS

Imaginative and visually beautiful, "The Boy and the Heron," a new film from Japanese animator, filmmaker and manga artist Hayao Miyazaki, now playing in theatres, is a unique look at life, death and friendship.

The twelfth film by Miyazaki and the 23rd film from Studio Ghibli centres on Mahito Maki (Soma Santoki), a 12-year-old boy whose mother is killed in a 1943 Tokyo hospital bombing. A year later, Mahito's father Shoichi (Takuya Kimura), owner of an air munitions factory, marries his late wife's sister Natsuko (Yoshino Kimura) and moves to her country home. Still racked with grief over his mother's death, Mahito has a tough time in his new home and does not get along with his step-mother/aunt.

Then there is the Grey Heron (Masaki Suda) who bedevils him daily.

Mahito feels lost, cut adrift from everything he once knew until he discovers a mysterious tower, built on the property by his granduncle, a famous architect who went missing.

The chatty Heron tells Mahito that his mother is inside, and if he wants to find her, all he has to do is go have a look. Inside is a mystical, alternate universe inhabited by the living and the dead. With the heron at his side, Mahito enters a world of wonder, with strange creatures, like man-eating parakeets, souls waiting to be born, secrets and just possibly, a path to happiness.

"The Boy and the Heron" is a work of great texture. Miyazaki infuses every frame with warmth and wonder, poignancy and poetry. The story can be convoluted and introspective, but at its heart, it is a simple tale, with an "Alice in Wonderland" vibe, of coming to grips with heartbreak.

The hand drawn animation is beautiful. Miyazaki uses symbolism, metaphor and fantasy to draw out his themes of grief, loneliness and fear. It's a complex movie, with equal measures of whimsy and pathos, that shows that octogenarian Miyazaki is still working at the top of his game.   

LEAVE THE WORLD BEHIND: 3 ½ STARS

"Leave the World Behind," a new end of the world drama starring Julia Roberts, Ethan Hawke, Mahershala Ali and Myha'la, now streaming on Netflix, is a strange tale of how people become friends in trying times and the power of the sitcom "Friends."

Based on the 2020 novel by Rumaan Alam, the movie sees Julia Roberts and Ethan Hawke as A-type Amanda and go-with-the-flow Clay, New Yorkers and parents to teenagers Rose (Farrah Mackenzie) and Archie (Charlie Evans). On a whim Amanda rents a luxury weekend retreat in Long Island, to get away from the stresses of the city.

"I figured if I made the reservation and packed our bags," Amanda says, "it would eliminate most of the reasons to say no."

They arrive to find a beautiful modernist home waiting for them, complete with interesting art, a lavish gift basket and an inviting pool in the backyard. It's a paradise, although Rose, who has been binging "Friends" online, is annoyed that the spotty Wi-Fi is preventing her from watching the last episode of the series. But tha'’s nothing that some fresh air and a dip in the pool can't fix.

"Oh, this is nice," Clay says. "The kids look so happy."

Later that night, after dinner with lots of wine and well after nightfall, the doorbell rings.

"Get a bat," says the edgy Amanda. At the door are strangers G.H. Scott (Ali) and his daughter Ruth (Myha'la), who apologize for stopping by so late. "We were driving back to the city," G.H. says, "then something happened."

G.H. owns the home, and wants to spend the night in safety with his daughter. Turns out there is a blackout, or something happening in the city. With no internet, radio or television service, there is no way to know for sure what is going on. Amanda is immediately suspicious.

"Something is happening," she says. "I don’t trust them."

But, as strange things begin to happen, trust becomes essential if they are to survive.

Despite its luxurious trappings, "Leave the World Behind" is as bleak as any movie we are likely to see this year. It's a "Twilight Zone"-esque story that comments not only on societal collapse, but our reaction to it, and, as usual, the human aspect is the monstrous part. The idea of a cyberattack is scary enough, but the aftermath, the ripple effect of how humanity deals with implosion, is truly terrifying. While there are some scenes that approach action—planes dropping from the sky, an oil tanker that runs aground, and aspects of nature gone wild—this is a psychological drama with very high stakes.

After a slow start, director Sam Esmail heaps on the tension, ensuring the audience and the characters are on an equal plane. We don't know anything more than they do, so we speculate along with them. It’s a clever ploy to draw the viewer into the story, to personalize the situation, and make us wonder what we would do in a similar situation.

An edgy score by composer Mac Quayle adds to the feeling of unease, but it is the performances that drive it home. It's a character study in how these audience proxies respond, whether it is with racism, violence, greed or down the rabbit hole of conspiracy theories.

Roberts plays against type, edgy and racist, a coiled spring ready to unwind at any moment. Amanda wears her biases on her sleeve, seemingly unaware of the power of her words. She's oblivious to her micro and macro aggressions, a misanthrope who excuses her behaviour with a simple mantra: "I hate people." Plus, the look on her face when G.H. calls the couple's Brooklyn N.Y. neighborhood "affordable" is a highlight.

The script offers more subtlety to Hawke. Ruth says he looks like the kind of guy things come easily to. But when he is faced with real crisis, he is forced to make an extraordinary confession: "I am a useless man." In finely tuned work, Hawke calibrates the performance, allowing desperation to sink in bit by bit until there is nothing left but fear and helplessness.

The movie really finds its feet, however, when G.H. Scott and Ruth emerge. Their appearance sets the action in motion, and introduces the film's two most interesting characters.

G.H. is a bit of a man of mystery. Suave and obviously very wealthy, he has a gravitas that makes him an oasis of calm, but as the story progresses, it's clear he knows more than he is letting on. He's the only character who seems to understand the big picture, and is the conduit by which the movie fully explores the issues of technology's stranglehold on the world, trust, race, class and international intrigue. Ali pulls off a neat trick, giving G.H. warmth and empathy, while building tension with the character's fundamental unknowability.

The two daughters, Ruth and Rose are polar opposites. As Ruth, Myha'la is spirited, unwilling to put up with Amanda's passive aggressive prejudice, while Mackenzie is a wide-eyed innocent, more concerned with what happens to Rachel and Ross on her favorite show, than the collapse of society.

The film tackles many big subjects, but is most compelling when it zeroes in on the interpersonal interactions between the two families, set against the backdrop of a divided America.

"Leave the World Behind" is an elegant post-apocalyptic film that asks far more questions than it answers. It is thought provoking, but the ending (which I loved) may leave some viewers wishing for more.

EILEEN: 3 STARS

In "Eileen," a 1960s-set, Hitchcockian psychological thriller starring Thomasin McKenzie and Anne Hathaway, a lonely woman's life takes a sinister turn when she meets a glamorous new co-worker.

McKenzie is the title character, a lonely and unhappy 20-something secretary at a small-town Massachusetts juvenile detention centre. She lives with her ex-cop father (Shea Whigham), a widower with a nasty drinking problem and a personality to match.

"Get a life, Eileen," he says to her. "Get a clue."

To pass the days she daydreams of having relations with her co-workers and, at night, is a voyeur, spying on couples making out in their cars at Look Out Point.

She is invisible at home and at work; a blank slate.

"Some people, they’re the real people," Eileen's dad says. "Like in a movie. They’re the ones you watch, they're the ones making moves. And other people, they're just there, filling the space. That's you, Eileen. You're one of them."

A ray of light in the form of Dr. Rebecca St. John (Anne Hathaway) illuminates the dark corners of Eileen's life. Stylish and vivacious, the detention centre's new counsellor is everything Eileen isn't. A glamorous vision, squeezed into a red dress, topped with a burst of blonde hair, Rebecca drinks and smokes— "It's a nasty habit," she says, sparking up a fresh Pall Mall, "that's why I like it." —and her arrival inspires Eileen to examine her own wants and desires.

As Rebecca takes an interest in Sam Polk (Lee Nivola), a young inmate convicted of a gruesome crime, revealing a dark secret, Eileen shows there is more to her than meets the eye.

Based on the 2015 novel by Ottessa Moshfegh, "Eileen" begins as a character study, a slice-of-life look at a floundering woman, and becomes a multi-pronged psychological thriller in its final third. The film takes an audacious turn, one that changes the film's power dynamic, and closes things off with a bang (and a tremendous performance from Marin Ireland as Rita Polk, but no spoilers here).

Until then, it is a slow burn, a film that luxuriates in its characters. McKenzie balances the character's bored exterior with her bombastic inner life, creating Eileen, a ticking time bomb of emotion, careening toward a life defining moment (no spoilers here). It's finely tuned work that cuts through the film's dark ennui.

Hathaway has the showier role as Hitchcockian icy blonde Rebecca. Intelligent, enticing and ultimately empathic, she stands in stark contrast to the movie's deliberately dull backdrop. Rebecca is a polar opposite to Eileen, the catalyst that gives the movie its spark.

"Eileen" is more about what's left unsaid, than it is about the obvious story points (keeping it vague and spoiler free here). The suggestion of a budding relationship as a hand brushes against a knee, a shared slow dance in a bar and stolen looks, is ultimately more suspenseful than the pulpy twist at the film's end. The end, while impactful, is more conventional than we might have expected from this moody period piece.

CHICKEN RUN: DAWN OF THE NUGGET: 3 ½ STARS

"Chicken Run: Dawn of the Nugget," a new stop motion animated film from Aardman Animations and playing in theatres this week before moving to Netflix next week, comes with great eggs-pectations. The original film, 2000s "Chicken Run," is a beloved classic of British humour, heartwarming and heavy on the charm.

But can a sequel, twenty-three years in the making, be all it's cracked up to be or will it lay an egg?

The new film picks up years after revolutionary chicken Ginger (Thandiwe Newton) and American circus rooster Rocky (Zachary Levi) escape the prisoner-of-war style Tweedy's Industrial Farm. The happy couple now celebrate their freedom, living on an island bird sanctuary, far from the dangers of humanity, with friends Babs (Jane Horrocks), elderly rooster Fowler (David Bradley), Bunty (Imelda Staunton) their rat BFFs Nick and Fetcher (Romesh Ranganathan and Daniel Mays) and daughter Molly (Bella Ramsey).

"Life doesn't get better than this," Ginger says. "We've put the past behind us. We have Molly to think about now."

It's a wonderful life, but Molly, who has her mother's rebellious spirit, feels fenced in. "You can't make me stay here," she tells Ginger.

Molly flies the coop, eager to check out Fun-Land Farms, a new operation on the mainland. With her feather-brained friend Frizzle (Josie Sedgwick-Davies) they soon discover the new farm is a processing plant for, you guessed it, chicken nuggets.

"Behold the dawn of the nugget," says evil plant owner Mrs. Tweedy (Miranda Richardson).

It's up to Ginger, Rocky and Company to come to the rescue. "Last time we broke out of a chicken farm," says Ginger. "This time we're breaking in."

Like so many sequels, the story has bloated from the simplicity story of the 2000 film. But despite the food-for-thought subtext involving fast food and heavier plotting, "Chicken Run: Dawn of the Nugget" is still nimble and action packed.

The original "Chicken Run" was a riff on World War II "The Great Escape"-style films. "Chicken Run: Dawn of the Nugget" pays homage to the first movie, but leans into the James Bond and "Mission Impossible" franchises as inspirations for the wild poultry action.

Most of all, there is something welcoming about the Aardman stop motion animation. The house style is bold and beautiful, vivid and uncluttered, but it is the eccentric characters that really appeal. With their large eyes and exaggerated mouths and eyebrows, the Plasticine characters brim with personality and unmistakably come from the same creators that gave us the cheese-loving inventor Wallace and his mute and long-suffering canine side-kick Gromit. Shot one frame-at-a-time, the animation feels handcrafted and organic, and has a warmth most CGI kids flicks don’t have.

"Chicken Run: Dawn of the Nugget" is an entertaining family-friendly mix of charm and craft.

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