Unless you live in China you can, at least for the time being, only watch this latest Disney live-action remake on a home device. Even so, magnificently directed by Niki Caro, its spectacle and majesty shine through.
Working from the 1998 animation as well as the Hua Mulan legend on which that was based, but minus the song and, thankfully, the sidekick dragon (though there is an ever-present phoenix, the family’s totem, climaxing in a particularly striking visual moment), it opens with the young Mulan (Crystal Rao), living with her younger sister Xiu (Elena Askin), flapping mother (Rosalind Chao) and lame war hero father (Tzi Mah), practising her martial arts skills much to dad’s pride and mum’s annoyance who reckons she should act like other girls and bring honour to the family as a dutiful wife.
Fast forward several years as the now teen Mulan (Liu Yifei) unintentionally causes havoc as the village matchmaker is trying to teach her grace and deportment, at which point an emissary from the Emperor (an unrecognisable Jet Li) arrives to inform that each family must supply one man to join the army in fighting against the marauding Bori Khan (Jason Scott Lee) who, abetted by a powerful shape-shifting witch (Zang Yimou’s muse and Oscar-nominated Farwell My Concubine star Gong Li) is laying waste the country in revenge for the death of his father at the Emperor’s hands.
Having no son, despite his injured leg and failing health, Mulan’s father offers himself as a recruit. However, fearing for his life, she steals his sacred sword and armour and, disguising herself as a boy, rides off to join the Imperial Army under the name of Hua Jun. Then, following an assortment of impressive combat training scenes and her determined efforts to not be revealed as a girl (the punishment for which would be death or, at best disgrace), as Khan sweeps all before him, the film builds to its exciting climax as she finally casts off her disguise, accepts her true self and becomes the legendary warrior who saves the Emperor and China.
Her first leading role in a major Hollywood film, Liu is the film’s heart and soul, struggling with the deception she is practising but also tapping into her inner chi to become the warrior events need, the moment she rides into battle, her armour gone, hair now down and flowing, is a breathtaking scene. She’s well served by an impressive support cast too, headed up by Donnie Yen as the imposing high ranking Commander Tung, her cadre of fellow soldiers (and often comic support), the hapless Cricket, Ling, Yao, Chien-Po and, most importantly Chen Honghui (Yoson An) who serves as Mulan’s eventual ally and romantic interest. Sporting scars and a ferocious beard, Lee makes for a powerful, driven and resourceful villain while Gong Li shines as the ambiguous sorceress – and Mulan’s dark counterpart who seeks to have her join forces – whose motivations underpin the film’s misogynistic themes of men’s fear and suppression of powerful women. There’s also a cameo appearance by Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s Ming Na-Yen who, of course, was the voice of Mulan in the original animation.
Glowing with an emotional depth to match its electrifying combat scenes, which involve twirling in mid-air, running up walls and other acrobatic feats, it’s an exhilarating and involving spectacle likely to induce cheers in the living room demanding that you see it on the biggest screen going at the earliest opportunity. (Disney +)
I’m Thinking of Ending Things (15)
Credited only as Young Woman though at one point referred to as Lucy, Jessie Buckley is driving through the harsh winter weather with her boyfriend of six weeks, Jake (Jesse Plemons channelling Philip Seymour Hoffman) to meet his parents. She’s clearly distracted and her inner thoughts confess she’s not entirely sure the relationship is going to last much longer. Understandably perhaps since she’s an artist, poet (at one point she recites a striking work called Bone Dog) and Quantum Physics student and he’s frankly dull. At one point she muses “I’ve never mentioned Jake to my parents and I guess I never will.”
They eventually arrive at his parents’ farm and, after showing her around the outbuilding and describe in graphic details the death of the pigs, they go inside and, after an interminable delays, manic mum (Toni Collette) and oddball dad (David Thewlis) finally come downstairs and immediately present themselves as a very odd and eccentric couple indeed as they sit round he table for a very awkward dinner during which she receives a stream of texts from a friend called Lucy and Jake becomes increasingly hostile towards his folks and their embarrassing chatter and ways, losing it over his mother’s insistence on referring to the Genius as opposed to Genus, edition of Trivial Pursuit
It’s from this point, and having introduced the basement with scratch marks on the door and the likely dark secret within, that the film takes surreal flight into territory than even David Lynch might find hard to follow. The first immediately obvious hints of how director Charlie Kaufman, working from an adaptation of a Canadian novel by Iain Reid, messes with time is the plaster on Thewlis’s forehead shifts, it’s not a continuity error. And as the film continues clothes, hair colour, pretty much everything, transitions from one state to another, punctuated by flashes of an elderly high school janitor (Guy Boyd, who may or may not be a future version of Jake) going about his job while students rehearse for a production of Oklahoma and watches a (not real) romantic comedy by Robert Zemeckis featuring a woman called Yvonne, the name which also appears on Buckley’s phone texts.
Eventually, the pair drive back through a snowstorm, during which Jake mentions a series of events she doesn’t remember, including lengthy discussion about John Cassavetes’s A Woman Under the Influence, stop to buy an ice cream from an isolated parlour and wind up in the school as versions of them dance in a dream ballet from the musical. It all ends with an older Jake giving a Nobel Prize acceptance speech at the school to an audience that includes ‘Lucy’, made up to look older, before launching into a song from Oklahoma.
Extending beyond the two-hour mark it’s at times quite scary, but generally just utterly baffling, impressionistic and weird for no apparent reason other than being weird as it explores alienation, hopelessness and loneliness, so full credit to the central players, Buckley especially, delivering compelling performances that keep you watching even as your mind would like to end things and watch something more straightforward like a Bunuel movie. (Netflix)
The Roads Not Taken (15)
A once celebrated if self-centred writer, Leo (Javier Bardem) now has dementia. Twice divorced, he lives alone in small Brooklyn apartment, tended to by a daytime caregiver. It is clear, however, he’s going to need more than this. Hence, his devoted freelance journalist daughter (Elle Fanning), her name pointedly not revealed until a final moving scene, is doing what she can. Set over the course of a single day, she struggles to get him to the dentist and the optometrist, during the course of which she has to change his trousers and buy a new pair after he wets himself and get him to a hospital as he falls out of a moving taxi and bangs his head.
Doctors and the like keep asking if her dad is ‘all there’, at the hospital they are concerned about what a scan reveals, and, in response to her father’s ramblings, she gets her mother (Layra Linney) to come visit him in the ward.
Through all this the film keeps flashing to different memories in Leo’s head, of living with his first wife, Dolores (Salma Hayek) in Mexico and an argument over his refusal, through a toxic combination of grief and anger, to visit a Day of the Dead shrine to honour their son , killed by a motorist, and of his time on a Greek island, leaving his second wife and infant daughter behind to try and write and his flirting with a young tourist who incredulously remarks “You sacrificed your family for a book?” These are not, however, flashbacks, but rather, as the film’s title has it, his hallucination of possible outcomes of the roads not taken.
Written and directed by Sally Potter (who also composed the score), it draws strong performances from Javier and Fanning, albeit the former at times slightly mannered in his drifting in and out of lucidity, but despite the father-daughter relationship it depicts, it rarely connects on an emotional level, never evoking empathy for Bardem’s character and succumbing to overwrought melodrama in Mexico even if it does make up for this in the final scene, resulting in a somewhat glacial film that is well wrought and looks good but remains frustratingly at a distance. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Showcase Walsall; Vue)
Waiting For The Barbarians (15)
Given a headline cast of Mark Rylance Johnny Depp and Robert Pattinson alongside famed cinematographer Chris Menges, it’s surprising that this, from of the Serpent Colombian Embrace director Ciro Guerra, has flown so below the radar. Adapted by Nobel Prize-winning South African author JM Coetzee from his own 1980 novel, it’s set in the colonial desert outpost of some unnamed European empire around the early years of the twentieth century. It’s overseen by the mild-mannered, compassionate Magistrate (a stupendous Rylance), who treats the appreciative indigenous population well and spends much of his time in his library poring over archaeological artefacts. His comfortable life is disrupted, however, by the arrival of Colonel Joll (Depp) and his men from state security who has gotten it into his head that the local tribesmen, the barbarians, are planning some sort of insurrection and has come to gather information. This he sets about doing through “patience and pressure”, as in brutal torture of two prisoners suspected of sheep-stealing, but probably only there to get medicine, leaving one of them dead, and eliciting ‘confession’ about a coming war, before setting out with the other to capture further informants.
Needless to say, the Magistrate is horrified at his actions, but is in no position to do anything about it other than voice his opposition. After returning from his mission with a group of elderly prisoners, men and women, who are again brutalised, Joll departs, bring the opening chapter, Summer, to a close. Although he returns in the closing chapter, Depp, dressed in rigid black (as opposed to Rylance’s loose beige linen) sporting distinctive circular sunglasses (which he amusingly predicts everyone will someday wear) gives such an intense performance of arrogance and cold colonial cruelty that his chill remains even when he’s physically absent.
The second chapter, Autumn, focuses on The Girl (Gana Bayarsaikhan), left cripped and almost blind by the brutality of Joll’s men, she’s begging in the streets and the Magistrate takes her in, tends her feet and allows her to stay as his concubine, although (unlike the novel) there’s no suggestion it’s anything but platonic. Offering to return her to her nomadic people, though wishing she would stay, they set off to the mountains, and, on his return, the Magistrate finds Officer Mandel (Pattinson) running things, if anything even crueller than Joll , who has him arrested for supposedly consorting with the enemy, stripped of his position and thrown in in a cell.
Attempting to intervene in another of Joll’s tortures, he’s questioned and beaten , left dispossessed with only the household’s cook (an underused Greta Scacchi) to care for him, as Joll and his forces take off to subdue the barbarians. Rather inevitably, in a rework of the book’s coda, the outcome sees Mandel abandoning the fort, leaving the Magistrate to reassume his former role to await whatever is to come.
Akin to Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, its message about how colonialism create the enemy it then seeks to conquer (“We have no enemy, unless we ourselves are our enemy”, Rylance observes) and just who the true barbarians are isn’t exactly buried away, but that doesn’t diffuse the film’s understated and quietly gathering power; may proceed slowly, but is makes for compelling viewing. (Amazon Prime)
The Broken Hearts Gallery (12A)
Lucy (Geraldine Viswanathan, from Bad Education) is a twenty-something New York art gallery assistant working for a celebrity art dealer (Bernadette Peters). She meets and falls for Nick (Dacre Montgomery), who’s transforming an old YMCA into a boutique hotel akin to the places he loved when he first came to the Big Apple, but is still hung up on Max (Utkarsh Ambudkar), the gallery worker who two-timed her with his ex. So, given her habit of, every time a romantic relationship ends, holding onto a memento of it, anything from a shoelaces to a pink rubber piggy bank, decides to set up her own pop up museum of lost love in the hotel, allowing, of course, the opportunity for all those who bring their own heartbreak souvenirs to tell their own stories to camera.
The debut of writer-director Natalie Krinsky, exec produced by Selena Gomez and featuring Phillipa Soo and Molly Gordon as Lucy;s scene stealing roommates, it doesn’t exactly reinvent the romcom but it does give it a nice shine. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Shcase Walsall; Vue)
The debut of writer-director Sam Kell, this gets under the skin of New Zealand’s gang culture, part observation of a marginalised criminal subculture and part examination of masculinity. Spotlighting three defining moments in the life of its facially tattoed protagonist, Danny, Jake Ryan), also known as Damage, who works for club president, Moses (John Tui), it opens in 1989 with him punishing a thief. From here it flashes back to him as the nine-year-old son of a devoutly Christian abusive farmer, to 1965 and his time as a juvenile convict in and then 1972 as he joined Savages gang as they begin their ascent to power, showing his transformation across the years.
Rife with casual brutal violence but simmering with a complex undercurrent of emotional and psychological complexities as Danny is torn between loyalty to Moses and his lost family, it promises a visceral watch. (Cineworld 5 Ways; Vue)
Set almost entirely within a commercial airliner cockpit and, for the most part, a solo tour de force Joseph Gordon-Levitt, told in real time this German-made thriller by director Patrick Vollrath unfolds an attempted Berlin to Paris midflight hijacking. Gordon-Levitt is Tobias Ellis, the American first officer, and the early scenes establish his relationship with the affable Captain, Michael Lutzmann (Carlo Kitzlinger) and stewardess Gokce (Aylin Tezel), his partner and mother of his two year-old son. The mundane is quickly shattered when, shortly after takeoff, two Islamic terrorists attempt to storm the cockpit armed with blades made from glass. Ellis manages to force one back, but the other, more elderly of the two, wounds both Lutzmann and Ellis before being overpowered and tied up.
Alerting air control that they’ve had a 7500, it’s now Ellis’s job to make an emergency landing at Hanover. However, it’s not going to be that easy. First, Lutzmann dies and then, contacting him over the intercom, a particularly violent terrorist threatens to kill one of the passengers until Ellis opens the cockpit door. Which, of course, he is forbidden to do, piling on the pressure as he’s conflicted between duty and morality.
It’s not too difficult to guess how another hostage situation develops, but then matters take a dramatic swerve when the captive terrorist escapes and allows his younger colleague (Omid Memar) to gain access, setting up a new dynamic between the three of them, especially given the teenager is less persuaded he wants to die for the greater good.
Other than scenes played on the black and white door monitor, it all takes place within the cockpit, ramping up the tension and claustrophobia as the power dynamics shift back and forth. There’s no conventional Hollywood heroics although the screenplay does take a slightly predictable clichéd turn in the final stretch, though not without diluting the violence and tension. Gordon-Levitt delivers a persuasive naturalistic performance while the ending is suitably anti-climatic in the numbness of the aftermath. (Amazon Prime)
Actor Clark Duke turns writer-producer-director for this quirky Southern crime dramedy that, adapted alongside Andrew Boonkrong from John Brandon’s novel, comes with more than a few laconic shades of the Coens in its shift from leisurely pacing to sudden violence, but still has a flavour of its own.
Told in chapters, it follows the accidental misadventures of garrulous, wispy moustachioed oddball Swin (Duke) and the less loquacious and unruffled but more impatient Kyle (Liam Hemsworth, who, in the opening narration, notes that organised crime in the South is “a loose affiliation of deadbeats and scumbags”), am odd couple reluctantly thrown together as menials at the bottom of a large drug operation run by a mysterious figure called Frog, who they never knowingly meet and who, in the course of ferrying a shipment, brings them under the thumb of Bright (John Malkovich gleefully chewing the scenery), who uses his job as a park-ranger job as cover for his role as the middle-manager in Frog’s drug-running smuggling outfit sending them on trips to Louisiana or Texas in between tending the park. As the pair discover, the operation also involves a woman who goes only by the name of Her (Vivica A. Fox) who provides packages for them to deliver.
As the film ambles amiably along, contrary to Bright’s instructions, Swin strikes up a romance with local nurse Johnna (Eden Brolin) while, after he and Kyle are followed back from a deal, both Bright and his lowlife assailant (Chandler Duke) end up dead, leaving the pair uncertain what to do next with all the money, never sure if Frog knows what’s going on or not.
Switching back and forth in time and with scenes revisited in hindsight, in a chapter dedicated to his rise from selling bootleg cassettes in 80s Memphis to become a drugs boss, we meet Frog (Vince Vaughn) who first gets a job with and then stitches up a smalltime Little Rock dealer Almond (Michael Kenneth Williams) and takes over operations before, as a subsequent chapter reveals, taking on lunkhead twin brothers Tim and Thomas (Brad William Henke, Jeff Chase) to whom he, in turn, passes on the business and retires to become the pawn shack owner whose path Swin and Kyle unwittingly cross. Ultimately, as the threads come together, it ends up with a considerable body count.
Mixing sudden violence and droll whimsical humour with its deadpan throwaways, extending to cameos by Devendra Banhart who wrote the score and The Flaming Lips who appear as a bar band murdering a George Jones classic as well as providing soundtrack versions of The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down and Larry Gatlin’s All The Gold In California, it is, perhaps, at times a little too eccentric for its own good, but even so it’ very entertaining watch. (Amazon and others)
Artemis Fowl (PG)
This adaptation of Eoin Colfer’s first of his eight Artemis Fowl novels about the teenage Irish doesn’t arrive trailing exactly enthusiastic reviews, but despite its many faults – among them some wooden acting, clunky dialogue and anonymous direction from Kenneth Branagh – it ends up being quite fun, at least for the target audience.
Of course, Colfer fans will doubtless complain that it’s got ahead of the series and, rather than the 12-year-old criminal mastermind in the original first few books, young Artemis (a somewhat stiff Ferdia Shaw) is already the plucky hero he becomes later, but really that’s neither here nor there and the film does nod to that by having the elder art dealer Artemis (Colin Farrell) being accused of being an international thief whose been stealing precious artefacts from around the world and storing them in his remote clifftop sprawling mansion where he lives with his son and bodyguard Butler (Nonso Anozie) and, brought in for added protection (even if she vanishes from the plot for long stretches and doesn’t really seem to do much), Butler’s niece Juliet (Tamara Smart).
Well, yes and no. He has, but in order to protect the world from a dangerous magic. You see, he’s apparently the only human who knows of the existence of a subterranean fairy world populated by trolls, goblins, dwarfs and the like, from which he’s stolen something called the Aculos to prevent it from being used to by dark forces to destroy all humans and dominate fairydom.
He’s also been teaching young Artemis (initially coming across as a bratty whiz kid) all about leprechauns and the other fairy legends as if they were real which, when dad disappears (abducted by some mysterious hooded figure who wants the Aculos to do exactly what I mentioned above), he quickly learns it is when, after subduing rampant troll marauding through a wedding (all humans put into a time freeze in the process and then mind-wiped), young (well, 84 years is teenage in fairy years) LEPrecon operative Holly Short (a perky elfin Lara McDonnell), the daughter of the late supposed traitor Beechwood, a friend of Fowl Sr who helped purloin the Aculos, disobeys orders and winds up his captive.
This prompts the LEPrecon Commander Root (Judi Dench dressed in lime green, sporting elf ears and speaking like she has gravel in her throat) to time freeze Fowl Manor and send in the winged troops to rescue her, and find the Aculos in the process. However, having bonded, Artemis and Holly are now working together to find where dad’s hidden it and rescue him.
All of this is told in flashback by giant dirt-eating dwarf digger Mulch (Josh Gad) who’s being interrogated by some sort of British secret service and who also plays a major role in the battle at the manor.
The obvious influences, chiefly Men in Black (Artemis dresses in a black suit and wears shades), Harry Potter (Mulch as surrogate Hagrid) and Star Wars (Farrell’s captor akin to Palpatine), do it no favours by comparison, but despite some confusing transitions, it rattles along quickly enough to keep its target audience distracted and the visual effects are definitely impressive. Like the ill-fated The Golden Compass 2007 adaptation before it, it ends setting up the main characters for the next stage in the adventure. That never saw light of day, but, perhaps Disney’s new streaming platform may yet give Fowl a fair chance of magicking up a franchise after all. (Disney +)
Bad Boys For Life (15)
A so so turn in Aladdin aside, Will Smith hasn’t made a truly decent movie since Hancock back in 2008, hardly surprising then to see this reboot of arguably his most successful, though not necessarily best, work. Directed by little known Belgian duo Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah, taking over from Michael Bay (who gets a cheeky cameo), with a screenplay that involved three writers, including old hands Peter Draig and Joe Carnahan, he reteams with Martin Lawrence after 17 years to revive the partnership of apparently incredibly well paid maverick Miami narcotics detectives Mike Lowrey (Smith) and Marcus Burnett (Lawrence), still on the streets bringing down the bad guys, even if a few grey hairs and some added weight are showing.
Mike behind the wheel of his blue Porsche, the film kicks off with they swapping banter during a frantic car chase involving several squad cars and bikes, though amusingly (albeit downright recklessly) not in pursuit of some villains but to get Marcus to the hospital where his grandson (who’s named after him) is being born. It’s an epiphany that sees Burnett decide to retire and put his feet up while Lowrey insists on carrying on (cue comparison scenes of the two friends going about their different daily lives), “running down criminals until I’m a hundred.” But then he’s almost killed in a drive-by shooting by a helmeted man in black on a motorbike, leading Marcus to tell God he’ll give up violence if his buddy pulls through and setting in the motion the core narrative in which recent prison escapee Mexican witch Isabel Aretas (Kate del Castillo), the widow of a cartel boss, sends her sociopathic sniper son, Armando (Jacob Scipio), to assassinate everyone involved in the case, leaving Lowrey to last (though he does try and jump the gun), in revenge.
With Marcus now having retired and Mike ordered by the captain (Jo Pantoliano) to get involved, the case is hand over to the newly formed AMMO tactical squad, headed up by one of Lowrey’s old flames, Rita (Paola Núñez), and featuring the regulation mix of one dimensional colourful oddballs, snarky Rafe (Charles Melton), an underused Vanessa Hudgens as ballistics expert Kelly and ripped tech guy Dorn (Alexander Ludwig) who has also renounced violence. Naturally, Mike’s not going to sit back and do nothing, so it’s not long before things are getting blown up and the body count rising as they try and track down who’s responsible.
All of this is formulaic stuff, but it’s given a darker, harder and more emotive edge when the somewhat far-fetched third act reveals Mike’s backstory and a connection between those seeking his death that is about more than it first appears. Smith and Lawrence skip comfortably back into their roles and clearly seem to be having fun rather than just taking the paycheque, riffing on the franchise with constant repeats of their mantra and the theme song. Although most of the target audience were still toddlers when the last instalment came out, there’s no attempt to reinvent anything here, just to reignite the fun and put a little more grit and thought into the fuel. And, as such with the end credits setting up what promises to be an unusual family alliance sequel, it does just that. (Empire Great Park)
Black Panther (12A)
Back in cinemas in memory of its star, Chadwick Boseman, the Black Panther is T’Challa, who became King of the African nation of Wakanda and took on the animal spirit powers passed down through the generations of its rulers when his father as killed during the attack on the Vienna International Centre. The world believes Wakanda to be Africa’s poorest nation, one of Trump’s shithole countries, but, hidden behind a veil of technological secrecy there exists a hugely advanced and prosperous country, a melding of the futuristic and the ancient dubbed Afrofuturism, complete with sonic-powered railways and insect-inspired aircraft, founded upon vibranium, the hardest metal known to man, from a comet that crashed to Earth millennia ago and gave birth to the purple flower from which the potion endowing the Black Panther’s strength and speed are derived. It’s also the metal that forged Captain America’s shield. However, like his father before him, T’Challa intends to keep all this secret, protecting Wakanda from incursion and subsequent chaos by the outside world.
However, others are of a different opinion. His gutsy sometime girlfriend Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), first seen rescuing kidnapped girls from a Boku Haram-styled scenario, believes it is her responsibility to help less fortunate African countries, though nevertheless respects his wishes. But then there’s Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), a CIA assassin from Brooklyn who, it is revealed, has personal ties to the Wakandan throne and wants to use vibranium to instigate a global race war to over throw those who have oppressed Blacks for centuries, to which end he’s struck a deal with Klaue (Andy Serkis), the rogue Afrikaner mercenary who stole a supply of vibranium way back, from which he’s crafted his weaponised artificial arm, and has been itching to get his hands on the rest.
As such, while the basic oppositions remain true, this isn’t your usual super-hero movie, playing out more in the manner of a Greek tragedy that involves fratricide, flawed fathers, misguided nobility and betrayal alongside issues that embrace isolationism vs internationalism, racism, colonialism, refugees and the opposing policies of passive resistance and militarism that pointedly evokes the contrast in thinking between Martin Luther King and Malcolm X.
Following the historical prologue as to the origins of Wakanda, the film shifts to 1992 Oakland as two men, both of Wakandan origin, ready plans to carry out an armed assault, only to be interrupted by “two Grace Jones lookin’ chicks”, the spear-wielding bodyguards of King T’Chaka (John Kani), T’Challa’s father, who, to protect one of the men kills the other, his own brother, thereby setting in motion a quest for vengeance that will lead to the present day narrative.
It’s directed by Ryan Coogler who made the true-life based Fruitvale Station and Creed, the one dealing with racial tension and prejudice the other about a young black man coming to terms with his heritage, themes which coalesce here in an Afrocentric fusion of the modern and folklore. Save for some minor extras, Serkis and Martin Freeman (returning as CIA agent Everett K. Ross), are the only white characters in a film heavy with black acting talent, which, in addition to those mentioned, includes Danai Gurira as General Okoye, commander of the all-female elite bodyguards; Daniel Kaluuya as T’Challa’s allegiance-shifting ally, W’Kabi; Winston Duke as M’Baku, the leader of a rival tribe who challenges T’Challa for the throne in traditional ritual combat on the edge of a steep waterfall; Forest Whitaker as Zuri, basically the Wakandan medicine man; Angela Bassett as T’Challa’s mother, Ramonda; and, especially, Letitia Wright as his wisecracking techno-whizz kid sister Shuri who’s designed the upgraded kinetic energy absorbing version of the Black Panther costume and is essentially Q to his 007.
Boseman provides the film’s gravitas, a conflicted leader faced with difficult decisions regarding the future of his people and, in scenes which involve two visits to a mystical afterlife to meet with T’Chaka, comes to learn his father, faced with similar choices, was not all he had assumed him to be. Naturally, balancing such heavyweight concerns, there’s a ready supply of blockbuster gadgetry and action, including a casino shoot-out, a remotely-driven car chase through Busan, South Korea and a final all-out battle between T’Challa and Killmonger’s supporters that involves armour-plated rhinos, finally climaxing in the showdown between the two rivals for Wakanda’s future and its poignant coda.
The Black Panther isn’t Hollywood’s first black super-hero, but, ranking alongside the very best of the Marvel canon, he’s its most important. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Showcase Walsall; Vue; Sun: Everyman, Tue-Thu)
Black Water: Abyss (15)
Director Andrew Traucki delivers a belated sequel to 2007’s Black Water. However, where that was a highly effective, tense thriller in which three holidaymakers are trapped in an Australian mangrove swamp by a hungry croc, this, pretty much repeating the set-up, except in a flooded underground cave with two couples and a tour guide is a moribund, uninspired affair, not helped by the fact that it recalls two far superior films with shared ingredients, The Descent and Crawl. Even the waterlogged 47 Meters Down: Uncaged was better,
Opening with a prologue as two lost Japanese tourists plunge into the jungle cavern and are summarily chomped, two couples,Eric (Hemsworth-lite Luke Mitchell) and Jennifer (Jessica McNamee) and Viktor (Benjamin Hoetjes) and Yolanda (Amali Golden) go off to explore the aforementioned cave only for a storm to cause it to flood and, as they eventually discover (after a mind-numbing eternity of them splashing around), bringing in an aggressively territorial croc.
It’s no spoiler to mention that (as in the first film) the narratively superfluous guide is the first to go, leading you to bet on who of the four make it to the end credits. Given they’re uninvolving characters, you don’t really much care, but to try and liven things up Viktor is made to be an asthmatic whose inhaler’s floating in the water and, though he doesn’t know it,Yolanda is pregnant. Given Jennifer tells her she and Luke have been going through a bad patch, you don’t need a degree to see here this is heading as the scripts flails around trying to inject some drama into the proceedings, presumably to compensate for the sparse actual appearances of the croc and the incoherent, confusing way in which its attacks are staged.
The ludicrous ending shows a certain bravura on Traucki’s part, but it really doesn’t compensate for having sat through the rest of the clichéd inanity. (Vue)
Da 5 Bloods (15)
Opening with Muhammed Ali’s famous 1978 speech about refusing to drafted for the Vietnam War and proceeding through a collage of footage of African American soldiers in the conflict, Kwame Ture’s declaration that “America has declared war on black people” and Angela Davis warning that “If the link-up is not made between what’s happening in Vietnam and what’s happening here, we may very well face a period of full-blown fascism very soon,” all set to Marvin Gaye Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler) with its line about “trigger-happy policing”, it’s clear that Spike Lee’s latest resonates loudly with the current protests in America and beyond.
That, however, remains a subtext to this thematically sprawling, tonally inconsistent but undeniably compelling tale of a group of African-American veterans reuniting many years later to revisit Vietnam. Ostensibly, the reason is to recover the remains of their former squad leader, Stormin’ Norman (Chadwick Boseman), who was killed during an operation, and return them for burial. However, through a flashback to the mission, it’s quickly revealed that the overriding motive for most of them is to recover the caseful of US gold bullion intended for the South Vietnamese allies which they stumbled upon and buried to reclaim later since, as Norman puts it, “the USA owe us. We built this bitch.”
The four middle-aged buddies comprise Otis (a soulful Clarke Peters), Melvin (Isiah Whitlock Jr) and Eddie (Norm Lewis) and Trump-supporting Paul (Delroy Lindo), the latter the most troubled of the group, haunted by guilt nightmares and suffering PTSD for reasons only revealed (not easy to surmise) in the final stretch when he loses it completely. Joining them, much to his father’s displeasure, is Paul’s concerned teacher son David (Jonathan Majors) while their guide for the trip is Vinh (Johnny Trí Nguyễn).
To get the gold out, through Tien (Lê Y Lan), a former prostitute who was Otis’ lover during the war (and by whom he discovers he has a daughter), they strike a deal with shady French businessman Desroche (Jean Reno), while, later in proceedings they cross paths with Hedy (Mélanie Thierry), founder of a landmine removal organisation, and her two colleagues. You don’t have to be a genius to know that, as the plot twist and personalities, motives and paranoias clash, there’s be fallings out, double crosses and at least one incident involving buried mine.
Nodding to a range of touchstones, among them Treasure of the Sierra Madre and, inevitably, Apocalypse Now (even down to using Ride of the Valkyries), it rattles along between the present quest and flashbacks to the fateful mission as the group dynamics swing from one extreme to another, one minute addressing the estranged father/son relationship, the next focusing on how Blacks were exploited as the war’s cannon fodder (cue a recreation of Hanoi Hannah broadcasting her propaganda) while maintaining a basic action movie narrative as it heads for the inevitable showdown between the Bloods, those who want to take the gold and Paul’s meltdown (a sterling turn by Lindo) as the truth of what happened to Norman back in the day emerges.
Co-written Lee’s BlacKkKlansman co-writer Kevin Willmott, its convoluted and narratively messy, but, between an amusing nightclub dance sequence, a scene where two elderly ex-Viet Cong buy the Bloods a round and the powerful central performances, it keeps you glued throughout its two hours plus. (Netflix)
Dark Waters (12A)
Treading corporate malfeasance and courageous lone crusader territory familiar from Erin Brockovich, Silkwood and The Insider, writer-director Todd Haynes turns attention to the DuPont chemical company which, it was revealed had, in the manufacture of Teflon and the chemical it contained, from the early 1950s, been knowingly (from their own research) systematically poisoning its employees and the American public for decades. Naturally, when it comes down to choosing between profit (at one point Teflon products were generating $1 billion per year) and health and safety, human life becomes collateral damage.
Things came to light when Wilbur Tennant (Bill Camp), an Appalachian farmer and one of his grandmother’s West Virginia neighbours in Parkersburg, approached Robert Bilott (Mark Ruffalo, who also produced), a reliable, convention and generally unspectacular soon to be made partner at the high flying law firm of Taft Stettinius & Hollister (headed up by Tim Robbins) specialising in defending chemical companies, asking him to take on his case, claiming that his herd of cattle had been poisoned by pollutants feeding into Dry Run Creek, which DuPont (run by Victor Gerber as the smarmy CEO) used as a waste dump for the nearby plant.
Initially reluctant to get involved, having visited the farm and seen the evidence (“You tell me nothing’s wrong here” growls Tennant), Bilott persuaded the firm to let him take on the case and sue DuPont as a simple case of damage control, expecting for a quick resolution. What happened, as he found more and more evidence in the boxes full of DuPont’s files of their complicity and cover-up, led to a string of whistle-blowing revelation, major courtroom class-action lawsuits, triumphs and reversals that were eventually documented in the New York Times Magazine story The Lawyer Who Became DuPont’s Worst Nightmare on which the film is based. He also had to battle with a resentful community since DuPont, who had no oversight from government, was the biggest employer around Parkersburg and the impact of his single-minded determination to get justice on his own wife and family.
It’s a solid, worthy and predictable piece of work that, setting the sense of unease with an opening 1970s skinny dipping scene in the polluted waters, doggedly ploughs through the timeline of events (17 years from 1998) in documentary-like fashion while, although Anne Hathaway is cast as Bilott’s supportive good Catholic wife, she has so little to do the role could have been played by anyone. However, the more facts it throws up the more horrifying becomes the scale of the poisoning, with pretty much everyone on the planet having some level of residue of the chemical known as PFOA in the body, and which cannot be removed, not only acting as an indictment of corporate greed but also serving as commentary on how willing we are to accept things that make our lives easier, without questioning the science behind it. Ultimately, it’s not up there with the films mentioned earlier, but it is engrossing and full of outrage and, if nothing else, it might make you more wary of those non-stick frying pans in the kitchen. (Vue)
Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga (12A)
There may not have been an actual Eurovision this year, but, directed by David Dobkin, this Will Ferrell comedy perfectly captures the contest’s self-parodying multi-cultural kitsch. Unfortunately, it takes an often laborious two hours for what is essentially a sketch that, at best, should never have gone beyond 90 minutes. Obsessed with Eurovision from the moment he saw ABBA perform Waterloo on TV in 1974 as a child in his small fishing village, obliviously naïve Lars Erickssong (Ferrell in long blonde wig) has had only one goal, to win for Iceland. Though derided by his buttoned-up fisherman father (Pierce Brosnan, playing it relatively straight with a wink in the eye), who reckons his son’s wasted his entire life and the villagers, who only want to hear them play their banal risqué ‘hit’ Ja Ja Ding Dong, it’s a dream shared by Sigrit Ericksdotti (Rachel McAdams), his elves-believing childhood best friend and platonic sweetheart who’s also his musical partner in Fire Saga.
Katiana (Demi Lovato) is already the foregone conclusion as the country’s entry, the rules see Fire Saga randomly selected to make up the numbers and failing badly. But, when the boat on which all the other contestants are partying explodes, killing everyone on board, the selection committee find themselves who choice but to enter the duo and their song Double Trouble, much to the relief of Victor Karlosson, the Central Bank of Iceland governor, who reckons winning would bankrupt them.
Arriving in Edinburgh for the contest, they get to meet all the other country’s entrants, most specifically Russia’s preening, fake tan lothario Alexander Lemtov (a brilliant Dan Stevens) with his homoerotic entry Lion of Love who sets his sights on seducing Sigrit, getting Greek contestant Mita Xenakis (Melissanthi Mahut) to distract Lars. The whole romantic subplot (Sigrit wants love, Lars is too scared to get involved) lumbers badly as the relationship strains at the seams, McAdams feeling somewhat constrained and uncomfortable in her performance while, by contrast, Ferrell again serves up his silly man child excesses and penis jokes that have long ceased to be particularly funny.
There is, though, much fun to be had in the over the top costumes and musical elements, kicking off with Fire Saga’s wonderfully ridiculous Volcano Man video with Lars in Viking costume and running through the different country’s entries (any of which could have been actual Eurovision songs, such as Swedish hip-hop outfit Johnny John John’s Coolin’ With Da Homies) to the giant hamster wheel disaster during the duo’s semi-finals performance and the big finale where, hitting her semi-mythical “speorg note,” Sigrit gets to sing her self-penned Icelandic anthem, Homeland.
There’s also an exuberant ‘song-along’ sequence at Lemtov’s house as all the guests, who include actual former Eurovision stars, among the Austrian drag queen winner Conchita, in a mash-up of Believe, Ray of Light, Waterloo and I Gotta Feeling, while 2017 Portuguese winner Salvador Sobral cameo as piano-playing busker. It slips up on some of the technical details (Eastern European hosts in Edinburgh?), but at least Graham Norton appears as his sarcastic self as the UK commentator, whose observations on the Icelandic entry might well also apply to the film itself. (Netflix)
A long-time project for Tom Hanks, he both adapted C.S. Forester’s 1955 novel The Good Shepherd and stars as Ernie Krause, a devoutly religious U.S. Navy Captain whose first command is to take charge of the Greyhound, leader of the light warships charged with overseeing a convey of 37 supply ships as cross the Atlantic to Britain, in 1942, a voyage with entails 48 hours without air support in a region known as the Black Pit where they are at the mercy of Nazi U-boats.
There’s a brief opening flashback to a scene between Krause and his long-time sweetheart (Elisabeth Shue) as they meet prior to his taking up command and she suggests now’s not the right time to get engaged, but other than that virtually the entire film takes place on the bridge of the Greyhound as Krause and the crew variously seek to hunt down and destroy or evade the marauding Grey Wolf pack of enemy submarines, including a taunting message from an unseen U-boat commander (Thomas Kretschmann) that comes across as unintentionally cartoonish.
As such, the featured cast is limited to Hanks, Stephen Graham as his navigator, Rob Morgan as the ship’s African-American cook, forever bringing the captain coffee and sandwiches, gunnery officer Manuel Garcia-Rulfo and Hanks’ son Chet as the sonar operator. And yet, it’s only Krause that has any real character depth, a mixture of insecurity at his first time of testing, his faith and, being Hanks, is deep humanity. Likewise, there’s not a great deal of scope for narrative development and, when not staging action sequences upon the turbulent digitised ocean (mostly dark and at night) as they either hunt or narrowly evade the subs, or a near miss between the Greyhound and an oil tanker, it revolves around the cast looking seriously at each other and trotting out various naval terms like “Hard rudder left!” Basically, it’s a single scene repeated several times with just some minor variations. And while, directed by Aaron Schneider, it has a claustrophobic intensity and affords Hanks another chance to go minimalist and do his familiar stoicism, sincerity and integrity, it doesn’t exactly make for compelling viewing. (Netflix)
The Invisible Man (15)
All the best horror films know that’s it’s what you don’t see is the scariest, letting the imagination build the tension. That’s the premise of writer-director Leigh Whannell’s reimagining of the HG Wells classic as a thriller that, for all its increasingly far-fetched developments and plot holes, is a genuinely suspenseful watch, the use of long shots and empty space adding to the creepiness in suggesting someone watching unseen.
The film opens in the middle of the night with architect Cecilia (Elizabeth Moss) surreptitiously gathering her things and sneaking out of the high-tech and high security house she shares with her controlling, abusive boyfriend, Adrian (Oliver Jackson-Cohen),an inventor who specialises in light, leaving him drugged in bed. She’s met by her sister, Emily (Harriet Dyer), driving off just as Adrian arrived and attacks the car.
Some weeks later, she’s taken refuge at the home of her Bay Area police detective friend James (Aldis Hodge) and his teenage daughter, Sydney (Storm Reid), too scared to step outside the house. But then Emily arrives to say Adrian’s apparently committed suicide, so good news all round. She’s then surprised to learn from his attorney brother Tom (Michael Dorman), that he left her $5million, to be paid in monthly instalments, part of which she immediately puts into an account to pay for Sydney’s college. But then she starts feeling uneasy, as if someone’s watching her and, diagnosed as having excess Diazepam in her blood after fainting at an interview, her architectural drawings mysteriously no longer in her portfolio, she find the pills bottle she dropped in fleeing now in her bathroom and realises that someone Adrian is stalking her, somehow alive and invisible (using a suit and advanced digital imaging it’s later explained) rather than from beyond the grave.
Naturally no-one believes her and given events for which she’s seemingly responsible, including murder, she’s duly diagnosed as crazy and locked up in a mental hospital, unable to clear her name. And it just gets worse until she finally begins to fight back.
While Adrian is clearly gaslighting her, the film makes it clear that she’s not paranoid and imaging things, something that wouldn’t work if Moss, fresh from The Handmaid’s Tale, wasn’t so convincing when she’s shown struggling with an invisible presence throwing her around the room and in also investing Cecilia with such emotional intensity as she, understandably, unravels. The supporting cast are disappointingly one-dimensional and only really there to serve the narrative, Whamell drawing on some tried and tested horror tropes such as doors opening by themselves and blankets being pulled of a bad to add to the chills, but also underlaying the screenplay with a commentary on abuse victims often being invisible themselves and remaining terrorised long after the abuser has vanished from the scene. It falls apart slightly at the all too conveniently pat ending, but otherwise it’s a case of what you don’t see really getting you. (Vue)
Koko-di Koko-da (18)
Three years after the holiday in which their daughter died the morning following her mother’s bout of food poisoning, her eighth birthday, Elin (Ylva Gallon) and Tobias (Leif Edlund) are setting off on a camping trip, though she’s considerably less enthusiastic than her husband, who curtly refuses to contemplate a B&B and she complains he bought her the wrong ice cream. From once being blissfully happy, they are now patently dysfunctional.
Having stopped in the woods well off the beaten tracks, he pitches the tent and, in the early hours, she says she needs to peer and, stopped by a tree, is attacked by a bizarre trio of characters and their attack dog, a cane-carrying dandy (60s Danish pop star Peter Belli) in a white suit and straw boater, a silent big-haired girl (Brandy Litmanen) with gun and a giant strongman (Morad Baloo Khatchadorian) carrying a dead white dog. They then turn on the tent and Tobias. The camera pulls back for an aerial shot and, Groundhog Day style, the sequence begins again. As it does several times, each one changing the set-up as the pair argue en route, the manner in which the psychopaths kill them and, scared by the recurring nightmare, how Tobias reacts each each time, one one occasion cowering in the car while Elin is attacked.
There’s also an early animated shadow puppet show sequence involving three stick-figure rabbits (the couple and their daughter were made up as bunnies on the holiday), the baby of which wanders off, is carried away by a rooster and wind up dead. The film returns to this towards the end as, following a white cat, Elin winds up in an isolated house where red curtains part to reveal a screen as she watches the sequence unfold,
As written and directed by Johannes Nyholm, title refers to lines in a Nordic children’s song, Vår tupp är död, which translates as Our Rooster’s Dead, the same tune as played by the musical box they’d bought for their daughter’s birthday and on which the same three death-dealing motiveless murderers were painted.
It is, needless to say, pretty creepy, notably so as the dandy sings Ohio Express hit Yummy, Yummy, Yummy while the dog sets about licking up the petrified Elin’s urine, conjuring inevitable thoughts of David Lynch’s nihilism and Twin Peaks. Clearly, though never explicity, it is an allegory about death, grief, anger and guilt and how it affects people, how sometimes you can be dead inside while still living and breathing, the horrors experienced here as much psychological as actual.
Although he teases you into thinking doom as been evaded, Nyholm refuses to provide any sense of closure, the film ending unresolved on the same note of eerie dread with which began, an atmospheric work that mesmerises and unsettles as much as it frustrates, and one which will long linger in your own dreams. (BFI Player)
Les Miserables (15)
Related to the Victor Hugo 19th century classic in name only (though the dialogue does reference it), it does, however, share the fact that it’s set in a tinder-box Paris, here the multi-cultural suburb of Montfermeil (where parts of Hugo’s novel unfolded), shortly after France’s 2019 world cup victory. However, despite that brief celebration of national unity, the threat of violence is always simmering in the background here and a restless underclass is pitched against injustice.
That’s embodied in an inner-city crime unit comprising bullying crooked and racist squad leader Chris (Alexis Manenti, who co-wrote the script with first time feature director Ladj Ly and Giordano Gederlini), aka the Pink Pig, his regular, more taciturn partner Gwada (Djebril Zonga) and new arrival Stephane (Damien Bonnard), the film’s moral conscience, recently transferred from Normandy.
Unfolding over the course of one day, their beat entails a variety of colourful locals, among them the unofficial mayor of the block (Steve Tientcheu), a bunch of drug dealers, ex-con turned Muslim Brotherhood community leader Salah (Almamy Kanoute), who runs the local kebab shop, their assorted underlings, and a gang of street kids, notably trouble-prone Issa (Issa Perica). It’s the latter who sparks what follows when he steals a lion cub from the travelling circus, prompting its Gypsy owner (Raymond Lopez) to threaten gang war if the animal’s not returned.
Given the habit of all teenagers to post everything they do on social media, the squad have little trouble tracking down who’s responsible , except the cub’s run off and the confrontation when try and arrest him ends up in the accidental firing of a flash-ball gun, the incident unfortunately captured on camera by a drone owned by another of the kids (Al-Hassan Ly) who usually uses it to spy on the neighbouring girls. Something Chris naturally doesn’t want going viral, causing a clash between him and Stephane and ultimately leading to the final uprising by the local teenagers.
With barely any female presence (though what there is is significant), it wallows in male tribalism, conjuring thoughts of Training Day, social commentary playing out in an organic manner and the pace rarely slackening as things build to a climax and its provocative open ending. (Cineworld 5 Ways; Empire Great Park; Vue)
My Rembrandt (12A)
Unquestionably one for the art connoisseur audience, Oeke Hoogendijk’s documentary positions itself as an art world thriller as art historian Jan Six Jnr, the scion of a long line of respected Amsterdam-based art dealers sets out to convince his father (seen posing in front of the Rembrandt portrait of his 17th century ancestor) and prove that the painting he has just acquired, The Portrait of a Gentleman, is, rather than the work of a disciple from Rembrandt’s circle, in fact by the Dutch master himself.
Six is also seen exploring an earlier discovery, Let The Little Children Come To Me, featuring what he believes to be a partly hidden self-portrait of the young Rembrandt in the background of an overpainted group scene. But the film has other focuses in its Rembrandt canvas, such as the Scottish Duke of Buccleuch, who treats his painting, An Old Woman Reading, as part of the family and is seen looking for the best place to display her in his rambling castle, and American businessman Thomas Kaplan, aka ‘the vacuum’, who buys up any Rembrands that comes on the market and regards them almost as a lover’s conquests (he confesses to having actually kissed a Rembrandt portrait of a woman), though he does, at least, stage exhibitions for others to share their charms. Then there’s French baron Eric de Rothschild who had matching portraits of Maerten Soolmans and Oopjen Coppit on either side of his bed before selling them to pay has brother’s taxes, resulting in a diplomatic row between the Louvre and Holland’s Rijksmuseum as they each bid for them.
But it’s Portrait of a Gentleman that is at the film’s heart, Six convincing initially dismissive specialist Ernst van de Wetering that it really is a Rembrandt and, more sensationally, the row that erupts when art dealer Sander Bijl accuses Six of not playing fair in the acquisition by keeping his suspicions to himself, turning an otherwise dry topic into a work characterised by subterfuge and hidden secrets. You don’t have to be a Rembrandt nut to be caught up in the film, but it certainly helps. (Video on Demand)
The Old Guard (15)
Following on from Mad Max and Atomic Blonde, Charlize Theron further underscores her cool action movie persona as Ancient Greece warrior Andromache of Scythia aka Andy, the head of a small group of immortal mercenaries that also comprises Booker (Matthias Schoenaerts), who gained immortality after dying in the Napoleonic Wars and Joe (Marwan Kenzari) and Nicky (Luca Marinelli) who became gay lovers while fighting on opposing sides in the Crusades. Keeping a low profile so as not to attract attention to themselves, they’ve fought on the side of right through the centuries, to which end, brought back together after a year apart, although, disillusioned by humanity’s continued inability to redeem itself, she declares “The world can burn for all I care”, she’s persuaded by former CIA operative Copley (Chiwetel Ejiofor) to rescue 17 schoolchildren abducted in South Sudan.
However, this turns out to be a set up aimed at capturing them and harvesting their DNA engineered by pharmaceuticals CEO Merrick (Harry Melling, unrecognisable from his role as Harry Potter’s Dudley Dursley) who claims he wants to end cognitive decline, but whose actual motives are rather less altruistic.
The corporate villain has become something of a cliché and the film, self-adapted by Greg Ruckahich from his graphic novels and which sees director Gina Prince-Bythewood spreading her wings after romantic dramas, never seems as assured in the basic plot framework as it does in handling the character interplay and the action sequences.
The quartet are soon joined by a fifth member, American Marine Nile Freeman (KiKi Layne) who, much to her confusion and the unease of her fellow soldiers, recovers from a fatal neck-wound in Afghanistan without so much as a scar. A psychic bond between fellow immortals leads to Andy rescuing her from the military base and, after a mano a mano fight aboard a transport plane, recruiting her to the cause, though she remains understandably freaked out about the whole set-up.
Not that, with Merrick’s paramilitary squad on their tail, anyone has a great deal of time to sit around reflecting on the cost of immortality and rapid healing, and never knowing when your time will be up. The character depth is thickened by the revelation that Andy is haunted by guilt over the fate of her first fellow immortal, Quynh (Van Veronica Ngo) following their capture during the witchcraft trials.
As such, the film jumps around from Africa and Southern Asia to rural Paris as the group elude pursuit and seek to track down Copley before, after a betrayal and two abductions for experimentation, it all climaxes in an extended shoot-out at Mannix’s London HQ.
Dressed in black (though flashbacks have her in Amazonian armour) with a bob-cut, Theron strides confidently through the film, delivering action and conflicted character complexity and psychological baggage with equal skill, and she’s well-supported by her four peers, Layne especially strong while Schoenaerts provides soulful melancholia and Kenzari and Marinelli introduce a degree of humour and tenderness.
With one of the group apparently losing their immortality and a six months later end credits scene that sets up further mystery and intrigue, this is clearly envisioned as an ongoing narrative, both as high octane action and exploring what it means to be human; it most certainly deserves a sequel. (Netflix)
The latest outing from Pixar may not reach the emotional heights or inspired storytelling of the Toy Story series, but, even so, it’s still leagues above its rivals in the family animation stakes. It takes a familiar and well-tested coming-of-age scenario about chalk and cheese siblings learning to work together and understand each other as well as dealing with loss and hurt and gives it a fantasy setting in a world where magic once ruled but has fallen into disuse with the rise of technology such as lightbulbs and planes. Now unicorns scavenge in New Mushroomton’s dustbins and dragons are family pets.
Directed by Dan Scanlon the protagonists are elfin brothers Ian Lightfoot (Tom Holland), an awkward, insecure teenager overshadowed by his extrovert stoner-like metal-head older brother Barley (Chris Pratt), a snarky role-playing fantasy gamer and history nut who believes the games are based on old realities and drives a battered van he’s dubbed Gwniver. Together, they live with their outgoing widowed mom, Laurel (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), who’s dating macho centaur cop Colt Bronco (Mel Rodriguez).
On Ian’s 16th birthday, mom presents him with something left by their late father (Scanlon lost his own father when he was one and has no memories of him), which turns out to be a wizard’s staff, a gem and instructions on how to bring dad back to life for a day. Naturally, Barley assumes he has the necessary magic powers, but it turns out that they actually run in Ian’s DNA. Unfortunately, he’s not quite up to the task and the spell falls apart midway, leaving dad as just a pair of legs, prompting the brothers to set off on a quest to find a second gemstone to complete the spell and finally meet and say goodbye to their father before the sun sets.
So, dressing the trousers up Weekend at Bernie’s style with a puffy jacket floppy torso and sunglasses, the pair hit the road (Ian wants to take the shortest route, Barley the path of peril) as the film unfolds into an episodic quest adventure, Bronco and mom in pursuit, that variously involves a run in with a biker gang of tiny flightless pixies, the Manticore (Octavia Spencer), the fabled lion-scorpion-bat warrior whose titular tavern is now a cheesy themed fast food joint that contains the map to the gem’s location (she and mom teaming up as a formidable double act to get to the boys before they unwittingly unleash the curse) and a somewhat rushed climax that pits everyone against a giant rock dragon made up of the town’s demolished school. There’s some delightful moments en route, including a dance scene between brothers and dad’s legs and disguise cloak that only works if the wearer tells the truth (making for an awkward brotherly moment), as Ian learns to become more confident and eventually realise the strength of his relationship with Barley who’s essentially tried to be the dad he never had. It’s not Up, but it’s definitely facing the right direction. (Cineworld 5 Ways, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall)
Written in 1883 by Carlo Collodi, you’ll be familiar with the tale. A lonely aged carpenter carves out a puppet he calls Pinocchio, which comes to life but, a petulant, disobedient kid, runs away from his dad, becomes part of a puppet show, encounters a talking cricket who acts as his conscience, falls in with a couple of swindlers, gets turned into a donkey, is befriended by a fairy and ends up becoming a real boy. Oh, and of course, his nose grows when he lies.
Best known via the 1940 Disney animation, this is a much darker affair that remains faithful to the grotesque and fantastical elements of the original story and which, directed by Matteo Garrone, is given a live action treatment with some effective special effects and makeup.
Roberto Benigni, who directed his own version and ill-advisedly also played the lead, is the woodcutter Gepetto who, given an enchanted log, carves out the puppet in the hope of making his fortune travelling the world and is both amazed and delighted when (played by child actor Federico Ielapi with wood grain makeup) it comes to life, rushing out into the Tuscan streets announcing he’s got a son. Typically Benigni overdoes the sentimentality, but is fortunately absent for most of the film which follows Pinocchio on his misadventures as, first becoming part of the Fagin-like Mangiafuoco’s (Gigi Proietti) travelling puppet-show, in which his fellow puppets are also alive, but on strings, he learns about the world and being good. Ielapi is excellent but, as I say, this doesn’t steer away from the darker elements of the book and the sight of the puppet having his feet burned off by sitting too close to the fire or being strung up from a tree by the two robbers, Cat (Rocco Papaleo) and Fox (co-writer Massimo Ceccherini), and left to die is probably not recommended be younger viewers.
Indeed, while a children’s cautionary tale about the consequences of misbehaving, lying and not respecting your parents, the film, echoing the likes of both Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Freaks, is much more inclined to an adult audience, preferably one that will embrace such elements as characters with animal-features, such as a huge female snail servant who leaves a trail of slime behind her and a gorilla judge (Teco Celio) who declares that it’s always the innocent who end up in jail. That’s not the only element of socio-political satire carried over from the book, the Blue Fairy (Marine Vacth) telling Pinocchio that “Those like you are born as puppets, live as puppets and die as puppets”. It ends of course with that magical transformation (Pinoccohio’s reborn in a stable, if you’re looking for symbolism) and the parent-child reunion, proving that he really is a chip off the old block after all. (Empire Great Park; Reel)
Project Power (15)
Variously borrowing ideas and images from, among others, Limitless, Hourman, Captain America, Wolverine and The Hulk, directors Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost take a step up from the Catfish documentary, the third and fourth Paranormal films, and the thrillers Nerve and Viral to tackle the superpowers genre. Set in New Orleans, sporting the No. 37 jersey of New Orleans Saints legend Steve Gleason, maverick local cop Frank (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is unofficially working with streetsmart smalltime schoolgirl dealer and aspirant rapper Robin (Dominique Fishback) to clean up the city from the bigger dealers who are peddling a pill that can give you superpowers, albeit for just five minutes and not always in a good way. He’s looking to nail the man he thinks is the major supplier, Art (Jamie Foxx) although, in fact, he’s a former special forces soldier who, plagued with PTSD flashbacks, became a lab rat for the original Project Power and is now searching for the people who kidnapped his daughter Tracy (Kyanna Simone Simpson) to harvest her DNA with the aim of producing a more stable, permanent version of the pill. Needless to say, at some point they starting with rather than against each other. Although illegal, and without his superior’s (Courtney B. Vance) knowledge, the savvy Frank also takes the pills to carry out his duties, giving him bulletproof skin.
Written by Mattson Tomlin, currently working on the next Batman, it has a suitably dystopian look with it wet, neon lit nighttime streets while he and the directors balance some highly effective comic book-style action sequences with psychological and emotional beats and, unusually for such films, there’s no central bad guy as such, just those looking to make a killing from the drug, like sleazy middleman Biggie (Rodrigo Santoro) and the clandestine organisation headed up by Gardner (Amy Landecker), the scientist who first experimented on Art, making this more a film about the war on drugs than some megalomaniac with world domination aspirations.
It makes some political points along the way (“You’re young. You’re Black. You’re a woman. The system is designed to swallow you whole” Art tells Robin) and there’s a few plot holes and undeveloped threads here and there, but climaxing in an all-out confrontation aboard a cargo ship with powered up henchmen this delivers with a charge that lasts for far more than five minutes. (Netflix)
Based on a graphic novel by Lauren Redniss, director Marjane Satrapi charts the story of Polish scientist Maria Sklodowska, better known after her marriage as Marie Curie, the woman who, along her husband Pierre (Sam Riley) created radium, a discovery that, although it was initially only offered to her husband, would earn her the Nobel Prize (twice, the only person to do so) and eventually be used as both a treatment for cancer and for the bombs that fell on Hiroshima (cue serene city and Japanese boy pointing to something falling from sky), and, of course, result in the Chernobyl disaster.
The film opens in 1934 Paris with Curie dying of radiation poisoning (she did, after all, sleep with a phial in her bed) and her story is then told in flashback, detailing her dedication to the facts after the death of her mother, spending a lengthy period reclusive and refusing to speak, her early research days in 1890’s Paris as she clashed with the pompous sexist member of the Academy, her support from Pierre who became both her professional and, leaving his wife, personal partner (his amusing pick up line here “Are you interested in microbiology?”), and, following his death under a horse’s hooves, her turning away from pragmatism to the mysticism he espoused.
Through all this, Rosamund Pike delivers a consummate and suitably prickly performance as the blunt but often self-doubting Curie, whether in flashes of anger at the snobbish French scientific community or in the hurt and defiance when, a widow with two children (daughter Irene – Anna Taylor-Joy, who herself won a Nobel for developing artificial radioactivity), she takes up an affair with her late husband’s married student Paul Langevin (Aneurin Barnard), and Paris –not to mention his wife, condemn her as a Polish whore. And yet, for all its feminist agenda, somehow the film is easier to admire than enjoy, the flashforward almost psychedelic sequences showing how her discovery was used disrupting the flow (a scene where the film imagines her kissing a dying Chernobyl fireman on the head seems particularly crass) and further muddying the debate about the positive and negative aspects of radiation.
There’s some nice touches, such as Marie grinding 40 tons of uraninite ore and how private entrepreneurs looked to cash in on this new discovery by adding it to toothpaste, chocolate, face cream and, talking of overegging the pudding, cigarettes, until users started coughing blood, but the plodding by the numbers narrative and dialogue like “being surrounded by death and radiation have brought me very little happiness” do it few favours. (Amazon Prime)
Saint Frances (15)
“I’m not an impressive person,” says directionless thirty-something Bridget towards the end of first time director Alex Thompson’s engaging character study, but that’s not something you could say about screenwriter and star Kelly O’Sullivan who shines in both capacities.
Having dropped out of her creative writing course, Bridget now works as a ‘server’, striking up a relationship with a fellow, but much younger, restaurant worker, Jace (Max Lipchitz), she meets at a party. They have sex in one of several matter of fact scenes that involve some messy bloody sheets and underwear, initially from her period and later as the aftermath of an abortion following an accidental pregnancy.
This, however, is not the film’s core relationship. That’s between Bridget and precocious 6-year-old Frances (Ramona Edith-Williams), the daughter of affluent mixed-race liberal Chicago lesbian parents Maya (Charin Alvarez) and Annie (Lily Mojekwu), to whom, after a previous rejection, she becomes nanny as the women juggle long work hours and Maya’s postpartum depression following the birth of Frances’ baby brother.
In many ways, the film follows a familiar narrative of an emotionally adrift adult learning to become responsible, grounded and feel self-worth through their relationship with a child wise beyond their years, but O’Sullivan’s script makes it feel fresh, the subplots involving her relationship with the impossibly sweet Jace (who keeps an emotional journal of feelings she refuses to address), an affair with Frances’ older guitar tutor, Maya’s depression and the resulting strain on the marriage all adding emotional depth as the film explores what being a woman and the different experiences involved can entail.
O’Sullivan is a delight and is perfectly matched with Edith-Williams who, in her early attempts to outsmart her inexperienced nanny and the bond that eventually grows, proves a natural screen presence which, compounded by the strong supporting cast, make this a small but charming delight. (Amazon Prime)
Sonic The Hedgehog (PG)
Surprisingly not the disaster that was anticipated, especially given it had to go back to the drawing board and redesign the look of its titular Sega character after fans were up in arms, this is the latest video game to become a live action feature film, and, mercifully, much better than the abject failure that was Super Mario Bros.
After a cursory back story explaining who this furry blue alien speedball is and why he’s on earth, director Jeff Fowler gets on with the film’s two narratives, the mismatched buddy one as the lonely Sonic (voiced by Ben Schwarz) accidentally causes a major power outage across the entire Pacific Northwest that sees him teaming up with Tom Wachowski (James Marsden), the sheriff in the small town of Green Hills who wants to move to San Francisco so he can get to save somebody’s life and who, dubbed the Do-Nut Lord, Sonic has been secretly stalking (along with Tom’s veterinarian wife, an underused Tika Sumpter) in order to feel part of a surrogate family. The second is, of course, the pursuit of the hero by the crazy megalomaniac bad guy, here in the form of cyber-genius Dr. Robotnik (Jim Carrey in, for once, enjoyably vintage over the top form with black coat and waxed panto villain moustache) and his drones, sent in by the military to capture the alien source.
All of which, after Tom pops Sonic with a tranquilizer dart that causes his bag of transporter rings to fall through a portal, means they have to head for San Francisco and recover them, Robotnik on their tail, bonding while checking off Sonic’s bucket list, which includes starting a bar fight with a bunch of bikers.
Lighthearted and hugely enjoyable, it romps along with some pretty decent visual effects and a constant stream of rapid fire quips from Sonic along with amusing in-jokes like him watching Speed on TV and reading Flash comics, as well as a message about the need for human contact. With a coda that promises a sequel that seems likely (and welcomingly) to happen, this may not be supersonic but it’s infinitely more fun than anyone could possibly have imagined. (Vue)
If phrases like ‘temporal pincer movement’ or a mission briefing that uses information received from another mission that has yet to take place make your brain hurt, then this, the latest mind-twister from writer-director Christopher Nolan probably isn’t for you.
It opens in the first of several eye-popping set pieces as terrorists invade the Ukraine Opera House just as the orchestra strikes up, and as the local military tool up and stride in, a team of CIA operatives infiltrates the operation to extract an American asset. This is when the first weirdness begins as a bullet flies up out of the floor and kills the soldier with the gun to the team leader’s head.
The next thing of significance is when the same agent (John David Washington), never referred to by name, only as The Protagonist, finds himself aboard a boat, theoretically dead after being captured and swallowing a suicide pill, to be informed by someone called Victor (Martin Donovan) from some mysterious agency, Tenet (which symbolically folds in on itself and can be read both ways) that he’s been recruited to prevent a looming global disaster. He’s then told by an agency scientist (Clémence Poésy) that someone has found a way to invert entropy, that is to switch the direction in which things travel in time (such as the bullets, the detritus from a future war) which, in the more straightforward aspect of the narrative has him teaming with another agent, rumpled ex-pat Neil (Robert Pattison), to strongarm a Mumbai arms dealer (scaling his building in reverse bungee manner) to find out who’s behind it, the finger pointing to Russian oligarch Andrei Sator (a chilling Kenneth Branagh delivering as graphic description of suffocating on your own severed testicles), who came up through one of hidden Soviet cities in the Cold War. He’s apparently getting his resources from the future and messing round with the time stream with the aim of unleashing something far worse the WWII and nuclear armageddon. To get close to him involves another set piece, this time crashing a 747 (for real) into an Oslo airport building in order to destroy a forged Goya Sator bought from his art dealer wife Kat (Elizabeth Debicki channelling cool Hitchcockian blondes) and is now using to blackmail her into staying with him.
So far, so James Bond, except 007 never had to deal with the present reversing itself or things that haven’t yet happened affecting things now. It’s like Inception with people dropping in and out of time instead of dreams. “Don’t try to understand it, feel it”, advises Poésy, which seems like good advice to anyone watching as the characters find themselves watching themselves doing things they haven’t done yet, moving forwards and backward in time as if someone switched the gears into reverse, as the team (here joined by a bearded Aaron Taylor-Johnson) seeks to prevent a plutonium device (which will complete a word-destroying bomb) falling into Sator’s hands, something that prompts a thrilling and brilliantly engineered on the road heist that makes the Fast and the Furious crew seem like amateurs.
Small details such as how inverters have to wear masks as normal air in the now is toxic, a cameo by Michael Caine’s MI6 spy advising Washington that he needs to wear better suits, Dimple Kapadia as the mastermind behind the whole arms dealing scenario, reversed sound effects and score sit alongside the spectacular action and high speed car stunts, while Washington and Pattison exude consummate cool without really giving anything away about their characters. And then there’s the whole grandfather paradox.
Exhilarating, bold, explosive, breathtaking and migraine-inducingly baffling, I’m going to have to see it again to try and put the pieces in order. But then, maybe I already have. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park/Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Bromwich; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue)
Trolls World Tour (U)
The sequel to the surprisingly fun 2016 hit, this brings back Anna Kendrick and Justin Timberlake as Queen Poppy and her best friend Branch who saved the Pop trolls world in the first film and now find themselves having to do it again. Except this time, it’s not just Pop world.
As Poppy’s dad reveals, they’re not the only trolls. In fact, there were once six tribes, all of whom had a different type of music, pop, country, techno, funk, classical and rock (with apparently sub-tribes involving yodelling and K-pop trolls) who lived together until they began to argue about which music was better, leading to them all being split up and confined to their own lands, each with the string embodying their music from the universal guitar, their new generations unaware of the others’ existence.
But now, however, Queen Barb by Rachel Bloom from the Rock trolls is determined to reunite them all under one music – Hard Rock! But to do this, she needs to eliminate all other musical forms, starting with an invasion of the Techno trolls’ underwater rave party.
What follows is a sort of sugar rush on steroids with explosions of swirling and pulsating colour, psychedelic musical sequences and a virtual non-stop jukebox of familiar songs, from Girls Just Want To Have Fun to The Scorpions’ Rock You Like a Hurricane and Daft Punk’s One More Time. Also back on board among the voice cast is James Corden as Biggie with his pet worm Mr. Dinkles, Gwen Stefani as DJ Suki and Ron Funches as Cooper, the pink, green-capped giraffe-like troll who discovers just why he’s always felt a bit different to the other Pop trolls, while joining them are Kelly Clarkson as the Country trolls leader Delta Dawn (a joke country fans will get), Sam Rockwell as Country troll named Hickory, Jamie Dornan as a Smooth Jazz troll, called what else but Chas, George Clinton and Mary J. Blige as King Quincy and Queen Essence from the Funk trolls, Kenan Thompson as Tiny Diamond, the newborn hip-hop son of glittery Guy, and, inevitably, Ozzy Osbourne as Thrash, one of the Rock trolls.
Naturally, amid all of this there’s a message about diversity, acceptance and inclusion being important (here, through music) if we want to live together as well as finding your inner happiness. Grown-ups might find it a bit of a headache to watch, but, in these days of gloom and isolation, realising that music can bring us all together has to be worth a watch. (Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel)
Life for single mum hairstylist Rachel (Caren Pistorius) isn’t going well. She’s been fired by her biggest client and harassed by her ex over the divorce and now, having overslept, she’s running late getting to work, her son in the car. It’s about to get worse when she has a confrontation with another driver (Russell Crowe) who, when he doesn’t move his massive pick-up when the lights turn green, honks hard on her horn, drives round his vehicle and gives him a hand gesture. Pulling up next to her at the next stop, he attempts to apologise and expects her to do likewise. She’s not giving one, words are exchanged. And he decides to show her what a bad day really is as, an extreme case of psychopathic road rage, he tails her, steals her phone and systematically sets out to murder all her contacts, generally proving her worst nightmare
With a pre-title sequence that has a scowling Crowe, seething over a bitter divorce, striding from his car, breaking down the front door of the nearest house, taking his axe to the couple inside and setting it on fire before driving off into the rainy night, you know you’re in for an intense trip, one that involves spectacular car crashes, explosions and vehicular mayhem. Crowe goes all out with an intensity that glues you to the screen as the carnage escalates and Pistorius embarks on increasingly elaborate fight back strategies. It’s a B movie running on high octane fuel. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC; Empire Great Park; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue)
Cineworld 5 Ways – 181 Broad St, 0871 200 2000
Cineworld NEC – NEC 0871 200 2000
Cineworld – Mill Ln, Solihull 071 200 2000
The Electric Cinema – 47–49 Station Street, 0121 643 7879 (currently closed)
Empire – Great Park, Rubery, 0871 471 4714
Empire Coldfield – Maney Corner, Sutton Coldfield
0871 471 4714 (currently closed)
The Everyman – The Mailbox 0871 906 9060
MAC – Cannon Hill Park 0121 446 3232 (reopens 2021)
Mockingbird, Custard Factory 0121 224 7456 (currently closed)
Odeon Birmingham -Birmingham, 0871 224 4007 (currently closed)
Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe – Ladywood Middleway, 0333 006 7777 (Fri-Sun only)
Odeon West Bromwich – Cronehills Linkway, West Bromwich 0333 006 7777 (currently closed)
Reel – Hagley Rd, Quinton, Halesowen 0121 421 5316 (currently closed)
Showcase Walsall – Bentley Mill Way, Walsall 0871 220 1000
Vue Star City – Watson Road, 08712 240 240