Animation has become such a vast and active division of cinema in recent years that the word itself no longer feels specific enough. Kubo and the Two Strings (Universal, PG), the Laika company’s ravishing new stop-motion spectacle, has about as much in common formally, stylistically and narratively with a Pixar CG romp as with any live action film. Muddling Japanese folklore with its own manner of whimsy in a tale of a samurai’s son on a complicated, spirit-riddled quest to save his family and discover his legacy, Travis Knight’s debut boasts frame after ornately designed frame of gasp-inducing beauty. It looks and leaps like nothing else in its peer group, yet I wish I’d been as absorbed by its world as I was awed by it. There’s something distancing and overworked about its ambitious adventure plotting, with a protagonist who never quite lights up inside. It’s the craft that held me entirely rapt.
Sheer technical ballast provides many of the thrills in Anthropoid (Icon, 15), Sean Ellis’s thoughtful, conscientiously acted and initially slightly musty anatomy of the 1942 assassination of Nazi official Reinhard Heydrich by exiled Czech soldiers – a historical nugget coincidentally receiving another depiction in this year’s forthcoming HHhH. Things start creakily as agents Cillian Murphy and Jamie Dornan (on strong form) navigate their undercover life in Prague, complete with stiff Europudding accents and an oppressively gravy-like palette. But it sparks to visceral life once the operation gets under way; its climactic, cathedral-set standoff is shot and cut with exemplary action film-making elan and may ring in your ears for some time after.
Speaking of aural assault, Iggy Pop and the Stooges get a suitably brash, buzzed tribute in Gimme Danger (Dogwoof, 15), quiet quirkmeister Jim Jarmusch’s entertaining foray into rock doc territory – a film about as jumpy and crinkle-cut as Jarmusch’s recent Paterson was sweetly serene. To be honest, there’s less of an auteur stamp here than you might expect. The director is devoted entirely to his subject and little concerned with his experience of them. The result is an attentive, exhilarating fan valentine, amply filled with crunchy, carefully chosen archive footage, but not an improbable meeting of creative minds.
New Zealand oddball Taika Waititi has pulled off an audience charmer in Hunt for the Wilderpeople (Signature, 12), a jaunty buddy comedy pairing an indolent urban foster kid (Julian Dennison, a smart but not smart alecky performer) with Sam Neill’s grizzled bush veteran as they head, pursued by sceptical social workers, into the not-so-great outdoors. It’s a cute setup, best when the pair’s relationship is most fractious, but their ramble runs out of path about halfway through. Bumptious goodwill just gets it by.
I was more consistently won over by another droll, kind-natured story of an adolescent fish out of water. Rewarded at Sundance last year but sadly denied a UK cinema release, Chad Hartigan’s Morris from America (Studiocanal, 15) plants a hip-hop-fixated African American 13-year-old in the supremely unlikely surrounds of suburban Heidelberg, and observes the ensuing culture shock with tremendous empathy and wit. Sparky comedian Craig Robinson plays his single dad with perfectly rumpled tenderness.
Finally, following a festive season dominated by comfortingly familial programming, Mubi.com’s curators are in a more challenging mood this month, launching a highly welcome retrospective of the work of Ukraine’s Sergei Loznitsa, justly recognised as one of the great contemporary documentarians on the festival circuit, but rarely exposed to general audiences. The first film is his 25-minute 2000 short The Train Stop. A wry, surreal-to-real study of slumbering platform passengers undisturbed by passing trains, it’s an approachable introduction to his unmannered observational style and a beguiling gateway to his more imposing works. There’s good stuff to come.