Earth to Echo (PG, 91 mins)

Earth to Echo (PG, 91 mins)

Director: Dave Green

1 star

Family adventure Earth to Echo is an attempt at a Spielberg-style 1980s movie for the YouTube generation, one that comes up desperately short in almost every regard.

The main characters are a trio of suburban kids named - in a vain attempt to evoke something like The Goonies - Alex, Tuck and Munch.

They're best friends, though we're only ever told that is the case rather than it being demonstrated through decent writing.

They're about to be forced apart because their homes are being sold for the construction of a motorway.

But when their phones and devices start to go wonky on their last night together, the boys set out to investigate the source and find a mysterious object out in the desert.

This turns out to be a foot-high alien who needs to fix his spaceship to get home. Naming the alien Echo, they spend the night trying to help him find the bits and pieces required for his ship, all the while pursued by shady types, because that's what happened in ET and Super 8.

Unengaging kids is problem number one here, which is unusual in these types of films.

They're over-directed and lacking in any natural charm or believability, and while Echo himself is cute enough, he's off-screen for most of the movie and does almost nothing of note that is going to make an audience fall for him.

But the biggest crime perpetrated is the stylistic choice that everything we see has been shot by the kids using their mobile phones and video cameras.

This has become an increasingly popular approach in recent years, one that occasionally works well (Blair Witch, Cloverfield) but is more often than not pointless (most recent horror films).

Here it exists only as a cost-cutting exercise, a lazy and cheap gimmick that makes no storytelling sense or offers any benefit to a viewing audience.

It leads to contrivances in order for the footage captured to cover all the shots and angles required, and though supposedly done by the kids it's still full of film language of edits and points of view. And if was all shot by the boys, why is there music?

There's really nothing here at all in terms of story, fun or excitement. Imagine ET with all the charm, humour and emotion removed and you're left with Earth to Echo.

See it if you liked: Super 8, Chronicle, ET

Joe (15, 117 mins)

Director: David Gordon Green

4 stars

Rough and ready Joe (Nicolas Cage) is an ex-con who hires day labourers to help with a tree cull in this dusty backwoods drama set in a broodingly atmospheric world of drunks and drifters.

Among those Joe takes on is 15 year old Gary (Tye Sheridan), who struggles to cope with an abusive father who is little more than a vagrant.

With violence never far from the surface and all these forces circling each other, things are going to come to some sort of head and the results make for gripping viewing.

Surly and straight-talking, Joe is not necessarily a good man, but an upright and relatively honest one, and the surrogate father-son bond between him and Gary is strong.

Sheridan, who impressed last year in the not entirely dissimilar Mud, is terrific, and he's helped by what is undoubtedly Cage's best performance in a while.

See it if you liked: Mud, Kings of Summer, Beasts of the Southern Wild

The House of Magic (U, 85 mins)

Directors: Jeremy Degruson, Ben Stassen

2 stars

A kitten dumped by his owners is taken in by a kindly magician when he stumbles into his spooky mansion in this mediocre animation that borrows liberally from Toy Story.

It's not unpleasant, just mostly without ambition or craft or much imagination to the writing, with a need to always keep the screen busy to cover for deficiencies elsewhere.

The magician is also an inventor who has created sentient toys, and when the plot gives way to his slimy nephew trying to sell his house from under him, kitty and his toy pals try to save it.

Charmless and uninspired it may be, but it's not without atmosphere, though the animation is often lacking in detail and rather short on magic, given the title.

The House of Magic is not the worst animated effort from the people who brought you Sammy the Turtle and Fly Me to the Moon, but that's not saying much.

See it if you liked: Monster House, Fly Me to the Moon, Top Cat

The Purge: Anarchy (15, 103 mins)

Director: James DeMonaco

3 stars

Last year The Purge was a cheap-as-chips breakout hit and, even if no one ended up particularly liking it, the concept was a solid one and its success made a follow up inevitable.

This unexpectedly quick return to the material is set in 2023 in a USA where crime and unemployment is low thanks to the annual Purge, where all crime is legal for a period of 12 hours.

In the hours before the Purge begins, we meet those not purging as they go into lockdown, as a mother and daughter and a young couple are protected by a guy looking for revenge.

Moving up from a contained home invasion horror in the first film to a city-wide kill spree gives the premise much more room to breathe, and its impact increases as a result.

As satire it's blunt but effective, taking on gun control and wealth distribution with anger if not subtlety.

But as an action thriller it succeeds in the vein of John Carpenter's early work, providing heightening tension and some striking imagery in crisply directed and surprisingly exciting ways.

See it if you liked: The Purge, Assault on Precinct 13, In Time

Northwest (15, 89 mins)

Director: Michael Noer

3 stars

There are moments worth watching in this patchy Danish thriller as 18-year-old Casper gets drawn into crime and comes up against increasingly dangerous rivals as he tries to make a name for himself.

If you've spent any time watching European coming-of-age dramas, Northwest will seem all very familiar in terms of the set-up and the way that decisions are made and threats escalate, not to mention how Casper's younger brother gets drawn in too.

But that doesn't mean much of it isn't effective, thanks to the rawness and immediacy of the execution and the force of the performances. It's just a shame we've seen it all before.