This column will review films both screening theatrically and/or on various streaming platforms.
The Blackening (15)
Taking its cue from both the self-aware send ups of the Scream series and the contrived perils of Saw by way of the whole cabin in the woods scenario, director Tim Story takes a tilt at the Black culture informed horror of Jordan Peele, the title derived from how it’s the Black character who usually dies first in horror movies.
It sets things up with the early arrival of Morgan (Yvonne Orji) and Shawn (Jay Pharoah) for a ten year college Juneteenth reunion and their discover of a basement games room and the titular talking board game with its Sambo-faced dial that demands they answer its racially-themed questions correctly or die. Shawn fails. Prologue over, the rest of the motormouth group of stereotypes arrive, reformed gangsta King (Melvin Gregg), who has a white wife, militant bi-racial Allison (Grace Byers), straightlaced Lisa (Antoinette Robinson), and her gay best friend Dewayne (co-writer Dewayne Perkins) who’s not best pleased to learn her cheating ex, Nnmandi (Sinqua Walls), has been invited. After a misunderstanding with Ranger White (Diedrich Bader) about them being there, they’re subsequently joined by the rumbustious Shanika (X Mayo) and Clifton (Jermaine Fowler), the nerdy bespectacled classmate she ran into at a gas station run by a creepy disfigured redneck. Never one of the crowd, and clearly the odd one out (he has no idea how to play Spades), no one quite knows why he’s there or who invited him.
Fired up by drugs, they settle in for the partying until they took stumble on the game and find themselves in the same predicament, with both their lives and that of Morgan, seen on a crackly TV screen tethered to a chair, on the line. The game, with such African-American culture questions as black characters that survive horror films and how long dark Aunt Viv was in Fresh Prince of Bel Air before being replaced by light Aunt Viv, goes well until one about Friends seals Morgan’s fate and they’re told to sacrifice one of the group based on who they deem to be “the blackest”. Confessing he voted for Trump, twice, Clifton gets sent out to die, leaving the others trying to survive a crossbow-wielding killer in a black mask.
Not everything works, but there’s more than enough gags and in-jokes about horror movie tropes (such as splitting into two groups, squabbling among themselves) and Black clichés that do and while never especially scary, it does have a third act twist you don’t see coming, as well as one last wicked mid-credits sight gag, that make this well worth picking a card. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Vue)
The Dive (15)
Director Maximilian Erlenwein’s first English-language feature swims in pretty much the same race-against-time waters as The Shallows (2016) or 47 Meters Down (2017), a two-hander in which one character has to save another from a watery grave. Here it’s two sisters, Drew (Sophie Lowe) and May (Louisa Krause), seasoned divers who apparently ritualistically get together each year for a shared dive. Except, while Drew is as excited as ever, May is emotionally disengaged with a jaded demeanour she won’t talk about. Entering the waters off an isolated mountainous European coastline, all is well until, while exploring cave, a rock fall traps May. Now, their air limited, Drew has to return to the surface to replenish the tanks and get something to leverage the rock. Needless to say, all efforts prove futile.
With the set-up taking around 15 minutes, the rest of the film looks to crank up the tension as the clock ticks down and Drew has to risk her own life to save May’s, she having to try and stay calm while contemplating death, Erlenwein stretching out this somewhat limiting scenario with flashbacks to the sisters’ adolescence their relationship with their somewhat domineering father and the gulf that, in the wake of his passing, has come between then, neither especially clued up as to the other’s work or love life. As such it’s a sort of sibling rebonding tale, the rescue here both metaphorical and literal. As with the recent Fall, except underwater as opposed to atop a tower, the actors are pivotal to making things work and the dynamic between both Lowe and Krause has exactly the right intensity and vulnerability to pull it off, the use of The Platters’ Only You, the song the one loves and the other hates, adding an extra emotional resonance to the claustrophobia of the setting. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Vue)
The feature debut of writer-director Charlotte Regan’s plays like a checklist of Film School tropes as it navigates an uneasy path between Ken Loach/Shane Meadows working class kitchen sink realism and a more sentimental, magical vision, emblemised by the row of pristine pastel painted terraced frontages on a run-down East London council estate. One such is the home to 12-year-old Georgie (Lola Campbell), the spiky no-nonsense kid who lives alone after her young mother’s death, having convinced social services she’s being cared for by her uncle, Winston Churchill. Telephone calls to the social workers are ingeniously contrived with the help of the local corner store owner and her affable if easily led best mate Ali (Alin Uzun), with whom she steals bicycles to flog to the local fence.
Her world is thrown into disarray, however, with the arrival of her long estranged father Jason (Harris Dickinson) with his part dyed-blond hair and track suit, who ran off when he got Georgie’s mum pregnant and has been working selling club tickets in Ibiza. Though still immature, he’s now, for never really explained reasons, decided he wants to be part of her life, she’s less than thrilled. Inevitably, after series of prickly incident and confrontations, the father-daughter bond gradually forms, though, equally inevitably, at some point her bluff to social services is called.
Awkwardly mixing documentary (humorous to camera scenes with the clueless welfare officers and Georgie’s fence), and narrative drama makes for an uneven structure and tone (there’s also a glaring continuity gaff involving her hearing aid), not to mention the mind-bogglingly ill-advised inclusion of whimsical subtitled spiders, but, anchored by terrific (and often improvised) turns from Campbell and Dickerson, it also offers a touching observation of grief and healing (she ticks off the steps on her Five Stages of Grief poster and watches footage of her mother on her mobile phone)), the heart of which is symbolically anchored in the tower of junk Georgie’s building in her late mother’s off-limits bedroom, as well their mutual coming of age.
Comparison to Aftersun is unavoidable, but while its uneven nature means it never hits those same heights, the bittersweet, unsentimental poignancy carries it through. (Electric; Wed: Vue)
Spring Lakes (18)
Directed and co-written by Birmingham’s Ranjeet S. Marwa, and seemingly the only screening in the country, filmed locally, this is a frequently crazed horror with uneven tone and performances and an over-extended two hour running time, and yet it still casts a compulsive spell. A failed filmmaker, Marcus Wright (James Jaysen Bryhan) is asked by his dotty mother Mary (Rosalind Stockwell) to look for his junkie sister Sheila who has gone missing in the nearby woods of Spring Lakes, the home of ‘the enlightened people’ and a place with a forbidding reputation for strange goings on.
That would be deservedly so given that during his search Marcus variously encounters a deranged priest (David Lamont) who he sees slice a baby in half and lick its entrails (and later going into a demented naked rage), a woman in black and various figures in hooded white robes belong to some sort of Satanic cult. Meanwhile, back at mum’s, she’s up to no good with her voodoo and axe, resulting in nasty fates for Marcus’ best mate Caleb (Warren Hicks) and father (Oris Erhueo).
Interspersed with random gruesomeness and characters, it never makes a great deal of sense or attempt to explain itself (such as who or what is the masked figure lurking in the shadows at Mary’s), while the acting is all over the place, Bryan seemingly as befuddled as his character, looking in vain for cue sheets on how he’s supposed to react while Stockwell with her expressively life seasoned face, is genuinely terrifying in her quiet cruelty. Touching in the likes of The Wicker Man and Blair Witch and with an ending that suggests the emergence of Mary as some kind of demonic cult leader, it may be baffling and barking, but you can’t say its ever boring. (Mockingbird)
Theater Camp (12A)
Opening with footage of co-writers Ben Platt and Noah Galvin as child performers before they found fame in Dear Evan Hansen and The Bear, co-directed by fellow co-writers Molly Gordon and Nick Lieberman, this is a mockumentary in the manner of Christopher Guest’s Waiting For Guffman and A Mighty Wind set in AdirondACTS, a lakeside musical arts summer camp for precocious theatre kids founded by Joan Rubinsky (Amy Sedaris).
Unfortunately, she falls into a strove-induced coma while watching a middle-school performance of Bye Bye Birdie, leaving her vlogger son, self-styled en-troy-preneur” Troy (Jimmy Tatro) to step in, totally oblivious of musical theatre and totally unaware that the place is facing financial ruin. Each year the camp residents perform a musical written by overly serious long-time teachers and co-dependent best friends acting coach Amos (Platt) and music teacher Rebecca-Diane (Gordon), themselves former campers, who, this year, decide to do one in honour of the camp matriarch’s legacy entitled Joan, Still. As such, captured by an unseen documentary crew, the film follows everything from scratch, involving the kids in various classes, auditions, Troy’s discovery of looming foreclosure and desperate attempts to stave off a takeover by scheming Camp Lakeside rival Caroline Krauss (Patti Harrison) before ending, a la The Nativity and Pitch Perfect films, with the performance of the completed show, including a re-enactment of Studio 54.
There’s plenty of in jokes for musical theatre buffs but, played deadpan, the comedy is broad enough for everyone as it takes in splintering relationships, thespian rivalries and self-discovery, much played with the emphasis on the camp of the title with a clutch of queening gay characters, hilariously enacted by Nathan Lee Graham’s dance instructor and acerbic costume designer Owen Thiele. A particular highlight is Noah Galvin as third-generation stage manager Galvin whose dreams of being in the spotlight finally come true in the spectacular finale.
But all the cast are spot on, among them The Bear’s Ayo Edebiri as a completely underqualified local hire bluffing expertise in fight training, and while it’s probably unfair to single out individual from the universally talented young performers, particular plaudits must go to particularly Bailee Bonick, Luke Islam, Donovan Colan, Kyndra Sanchez and Alexander Bello who can belt out a show tune with the best of them and Alan Kim as an aspiring agent. Devoid of even a hint of cynicism and with an obvious affection for the subject matter, culminating in a great gotcha, this is an utter joy. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Vue)
When she was a child, Amanda (Benedetta Porcaroli) toppled from her airbed into the pool at her family’s villa in Turin, her older sister reading obliviously on a sunbed, and was saved by the South American maid, Judy. Now a 25 year-old fuck-up, she’s returned from Paris where, we learn, she spent her free time watching films on her own. Socially awkward, anti-conformist and with no dress sense (she’s forever wearing black boots and a frumpy crotched waistcoat), she had no boyfriend and, indeed no friends. She still doesn’t. Instead, blaming everyone else for her not having a life, she relies on the middle-aged Judy. Judy, however, reckons it’s time she moved on. But it’s clear Amanda has no idea how, half-heartedly fantasising a relationship with a guy (Michele Bravi) she mistakes for a drug dealer but actually hands out free condoms at raves, hanging out at ill-advised venues with the closest bond she makes being with a neglected old horse. Her corporate pharmacy mother, Sofia (Monica Nappo) looks to make an intervention, reconnecting her with Rebecca, (Galatea Bellugi), the daughter of her friend Viola (Giovanna Mezzogiorno), who, it turns out, was Amanda’s best friend when they were two. However, Rebecca has her own issues, locking herself in her bedroom, reusing to interact with anyone while her heavily medicated mother busies herself in the garden or making huge cakes. So, in-between bickering with her impassive, distanced mother and arguing with her now successful socialite sister (Margherita Maccapani Missoni) who regards her a self-absorbed brat, she makes it her mission to force Rebecca to be her friend. The two begin hanging out as the film unfolds to have Amanda involve in horse stealing, a quest to get enough supermarket points buying energy drinks to obtain an electric fan she can sell online (rather than working in the family business), getting a job in an electrical store and immediately sidelining her boss.
The feature debut by writer-director Carolina Cavalli, drawing on influences such as Noah Baumbach, Greta Gerwig and Wes Anderson channelled through an Italian lens, it’s a wry and somewhat mannered coming of age comedy populated by eccentrics about the need to be loved and connected, even when the impulse is to deny it. Although Amanda is needy (putting a spin on that near drowning moment), self-absorbed, petulant, grudge-carrying with a sense of privilege, Porcaroli’s performance as she gradually mellows breaks down resistance to generate a feeling of empathy and have you rooting for both her and Rebecca to find their place in the world, although, arguably, the scene-stealing but uncredited turn comes from Amanda’s eight-year-old Jesus obsessed niece. (Curzon Home Cinema)
Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret (12A)
Published in 1970, Judy Blume’s coming-of-age novel about an 11-year-old girl raised without any religious affiliation by her Jewish father and Christian mother having to deal with moving home and school, and early adolescent anxieties about menstruation, boys and bras, became an instant – thought not uncontroversial – classic among both young and older readers for the way it dealt frankly with the issues. For49 years, Blume rejected offers to adapt it for the screen, but now, produced by James L Brooks and written and directed by Kelly Fremon Craig, the team behind The Edge Of Seventeen, it finally arrives and proves well worth the wait.
Abby Ryder Fortson, who played Cassie Lang in the first two Ant-Man films, is Margaret Simon, the daughter of Herb (a gently charming Benny Safdie) and aspiring artist Barbara (Rachel McAdams) who, on returning from summer camp, learns that her father’s promotion means they moving from their New York apartment to the New Jersey suburbs, something she resents, partly because she loves the city and is anxious about making new friends, but mostly because it means leaving behind her fun but at times overbearing paternal grandmother, Sylvia (Kathy Bates) with whom she shares a close bond.
However, no sooner have they arrived than Margaret is swept up by her queen bee neighbour Nancy Wheeler (Elle Graham) and recruited to join her class clique alongside Gretchen Potter (Katherine Kupferer) and Janie Loomis (Amari Alexis Price), all of whom have the pubescent hots for floppy-haired school romeo and budding jerk Philip Leroy (Zack Brooks), though Margaret is more taken with the shy Moose (Aidan Wojtak-Hissong). Hanging out with Nancy comes with its rules and demands, among them having to not wear socks (cue blisters), having to wear a bra (cue humiliating shopping trip for grow with you one) and competing to see who is the first to have a period, the latter leading to an embarrassing shopping trip to buy sanitary towels and Margaret practising wearing them. Added to her problems is a year-long assignment given by their new teacher Mr Benedict (Echo Kellum), who, learning she dislikes religious holidays, which her parents don’t observe, wants her to research and write about religion. In the course of things she learns that the reason she’s never met her other grandparents, Paul and Mary, is because , devout Christians, they disowned Barbara for marrying Jew, which is why they made the decision to not pressure Margaret into being one or the other until she was ready to choose for herself. Sylvia, on the other hand, seizes on Margaret’s assignment as an excuse to take her to temple, inevitably setting in motion friction with her son and daughter-in-law and, when Barbara’s parents do finally turn up for reconciliation, a heated confrontation over dinner as to what Margaret should be. She, meanwhile, is busy checking out other faith aspects, among them a fraught visit to a Catholic confessional. All this alongside getting her first kiss from Peter at a spin the bottle party, the girls trying to expands their busts and her regular calls on God to fix things for her, not least in getting that all important period. And questioning his existence when nothing happens.
Alongside its adolescent angsts and issues of bigotry and religion, the film broadens its scope to address the sacrifices, frustrations and humiliations that come with it being a woman and a theme of finding out who you are and where you fit in. It’s one that extends beyond Margaret and her three friends to also embrace wallflower classmate Laura Danker (Isol Young), who, lanky and more physically developed, is ostracised as a slut for supposedly letting boys ‘feel her up’, Barbara, struggling to adapt to the role of suburban mum and master the basics of cooking, volunteering for every PTA committee going, as well as Mr Benedict in his first teaching job. That and the bittersweet observation of seeing your child grow up before your eyes.
All of which is beautifully handled by Craig’s screenplay and her cast. Eyes full of wonder and wariness, her shoulders speaking a body language of their own, Fortson is an absolute joy, witty without being snarky, insecure yet self-willed, as she navigates the messy waters of puberty while, the character considerably expanded from the book, at her most fluidly natural McAdams is remarkable, and you can’t help for feel for her when her artistic talents are reduced to cutting out fabric stars for the school hall (for Nancy’s equally queen bee mum). And, while she might not be a wholly convincing Jewish mother, Bates brings her own effervescence to Sylvia.
Funny and poignant in equal measure (a brief scene involving removing the middle section of a dinner table speaks emotional volumes), it may leave teenage boys cold, but for their counterparts and their mothers this is an absolute must. (Amazon Prime, Apple TV, BFI Player, BT TV Store, Chili, Google Play, Microsoft Movies, Rakuten TV, Sky Store, Virgin Store)
Asteroid City (12A)
Shot in widescreen washed out pastel colours, drenched in retro nostalgia, deadpan dialogue, and heavily stylised with a self-aware sense of artifice, set in a red-rock Southwest American desert town in 1955, this is quintessential Wes Anderson. With its single phone booth, one pump gas station and 50s diner and motel, Asteroid City (pop 87) is also the site of a giant meteorite crater tourist attraction, intermittent atom bomb tests and the annual Junior Stargazers convention where teenage science geeks gather for their awards.
When his car breaks down, war photographer Augie Steenbeck (Jason Schwartzman on peak form) is stranded in town with his four kids, Stargazer Woodrow (Jake Ryan) and his three eccentric young sisters, Andromeda, Pandora and Cassiopeia (Ella, Gracie, Willan Faris), who he’s yet to tell their mother died three weeks earlier and he has her ashes in a Tupperware tub, prompting the arrival of his wealthy father-in-law Stanley (Tom Hanks) to collect them.
Also gathered are world weary TV star Midge Campbell (Scarlet Johannsen, terrific), J.J. Kellogg (Live Schreiber), Sandy Borden (Hope Davis) and Roger Cho (Stephen Park) whose respective kids, botany wiz Dinah (Grace Edwards), rebellious Clifford (Aristou Meehan), sceptical Shelly (Sophia Lillis) and anti-authority Ricky (Ethan Josh Lee), are all award winners. There’s also Montana (Rupert Friend), stranded there with his fellow cowboys when the bus left and who’s attracted to June (Maya Hawke), a science teacher with her church group pupils, local scientist Dr. Hickenlooper (Tilda Swinton) who sponsors the awards, and General Gibson (Jeffrey Wright) who’s due to present them.
However, the ceremony is interrupted by the arrival of an alien who steals a meteorite fragment and flies off, prompting a quarantine of everyone there and a rebellion by the Stargazers to make contact, Augie’s photo being leaked to the media. Meanwhile, various romances bubble up.
Except, as seen from the start and in subsequent black and white sequences, what we’re actually watching is a television behind-the-scenes and recreation of the first staging of a play called Asteroid City by esteemed New York playwright Conrad Earp (Ed Norton), who’s in a relationship with one of the cast, presented by The Host (Bryan Cranston) as directed by the womanising Schubert Green (Adrian Brody) with all the characters being the actors who, under their real names, auditioned for and appeared in the stage production (save for Margot Robbie whose role – her lines movingly re-enacted with Augie/Jones – as the mother was cut).
Constructed as a series of tableaux, meditations on bottled up grief interweave with themes of storytelling and being aliens in our own skins and, of course, the meaning of life (or understanding the play) And while emotion is deliberately kept at arms-length, there’s still a certain poignancy as the stories unfold. There’s also a swathe of good gags, both visual (a recurring cops vs crooks car chase) and verbal, among them a vending machine that sells plots of land out in the desert. Adding to the star-studded cast there’s Steve Carrell as the motel manager (inexplicably toting a pistol), Matt Dillon as the mechanic and Jeff Goldblum who has one line in the black and white sequences as the actor playing the alien. All that and a great memory party game. At the end of the day, the dazzling style may triumph over the obtuse substance, but even so it’s an intoxicating experience. Glad to meteor indeed. (Peacock/Sky)
Avatar: The Way Of Water (12A)
Thirteen years in the waiting, James Cameron finally returns to Pandora for the first of three sequels that looks visually spectacular with its breathtaking effects and motion capture but doesn’t narratively justify its three hours plus running time. Picking up the story some ten years on, former human marine Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), who went native with sparkly blue body and pointy ears to join the Na’vi, and his wife Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) now have two sons, Neteyam (Jamie Flatters) and the younger Lo’ak (Britain Dalton), young daughter Tuk (Trinity Jo-Li Bliss) and the adopted Kiri (a de-aged digitised Sigourney Weaver), the daughter of the avatar of the late Dr. Grace Augustine (Weaver) who can apparently communicate with the assorted flora and fauna. The extended family also include the dreadlocked semi-feral Spider (Jack Champion), a human kid who had to be left behind when the other Sky People colonisers were sent packing. He’s the son of Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang), the ruthless marine Jake killed at the end of the first film. However, his consciousness has been resurrected in an avatar body, and he and his equally avatared men have been despatched back to Pandora, ordered by the operations commander (Edie Falco in exo skeleton) to retake the planet and kill Sully, which of course has very personal revenge motive for him too.
Having rescued the kids (though not Spider) when they’re taken prisoner (something that happens to them on a highly repetitive basis), Sully determines that the only way to keep both his family and the Na’vi safe is for them to leave their home and seek shelter among one of the planet’s other ecologically-conscious tribes, the Metkayina, a more aquamarine-coloured Maori-like people who live in harmony with the water and its creatures as opposed to the jungle.Taken in by their chief, Tonowari (Cliff Curtis, and, more reluctantly, his pregnant wife Ronal (Kate Winslet), they set about starting a new life, learning the new culture and its idiosyncracies, their kids inevitably seen as ‘freaks’ by their opposites before all becoming friends. Life’s all nice and cosy, until, that is, an accident to Kiri (she overloads on a psychic connection to her mother) and her subsequent treatment signals their rough location and it’s not long before Quaritch turns up on the doorstep, guns blazing.
The action sequences are dynamite, especially the extended climax aboard Quaritch’s ship where Neytiri gets to let rip her ferocious bow and arrow warrior, but the lengthy dreamy second act is a bit like The Blue Planet in space involving Sully and family learning to live with the water, master riding water creatures, Lo’ak bonding with a giant whale-like creature who’s a misunderstood outcast from his fellow Tulkans, Kiri gazing in wide-eyed wonder at the ocean’s creatures and tapping into their essences in between an incipient teen romance and some brotherly rivalry for dad’s approval.
Themes of family are writ large and, amid the expected eco messages, there’s also one about whaling with Brendan Cowell as a swaggering Australian who, along with his conflicted marine biologist (Jemaine Clement), and hi-tech gear (impressive crab-suits), is hunting the Tulkan to extract some goo that prevents ageing.
Technically it’s mind-boggling (even more so in 3D), the underwater sequences especially, but, adopting a videogame like structure, there’s far too few occasions (one being a death) where it connects emotionally, dazzling the eyes but not the heart.“The Way of Water has no beginning and no end” explains one of the characters; it’s undeniably thrilling but there are times when you may feel the same way. (Disney+; Microsoft Store)
Directed by Greta Gerwig and co-written with her partner Noah Baumbach, this is almost too wonderful for words, already a strong contender for, among others, next year’s Best Screenplay. Opening with Helen Mirren narrating a send of up 2001 A Space Odyssey’s monolith scene as little girls smash their dolly babies upon seeing the adult Barbie, an inspired supersaturated colour, postmodern meta cocktail of subversive satire, razor-sharp whimsy, feminism and musical numbers, it sets up the idea that there exists Barbieland, populated with an array of different versions of the iconic toy doll and their opposite number, Ken (including Simu Liu, Kingsley Ben-Adir, Scott Evans and Ncuti Gatwa), each Barbie linked to a child’s doll in the Real World. where, as far as they believe, women are in charge and, like the dolls, little girls can be anything they want. Even President.
In Barbieland every day is a good day, especially for Stereotypical Barbie (Margot Robbie) who wakes each morning in her pink dream house, greets her fellow Barbies (among them Issa Rae, Dua Lipa, Hari Nef, Alexandra Shipp, Nicola Coughlan and Emma Mackey), , hangs out with wannabe boyfriend Beach Ken (Ryan Gosling), whose only function is to stand around and look good, and generally radiates perfection. Until that is, mid a choreography party, she brings things to a screeching halt when she wonders aloud about dying. The next day, she falls rather than floats to the floor, has bad breath and, catastrophically, finding herself walking flatfooted and not on tip toe. Clearly, something’s amiss. A visit to Weird Barbie Kate McKinnon), mutilated and drawn on by her real world child),ends up with her being told she must go to the Real World, connect with the child who owns her doll, and put things right, especially the cellulite on her thigh. With Ken stowing away in the back of her, naturally, pink car they travel by boat, bicycle, and rocket until they rollerskate into the human world where, she quickly discovers it’s men who hold all the power. She’s horrified, Ken (who has already shown signs of discontentment of being just an accessory, jealous of the attention she gives another Ken and being rebuffed in suggesting sex – if he knew what that was; as Barbie points out she has no vagina and he no penis), rather less so. He rather likes the idea of men lording it over women and, pumped up with ideas about big trucks and stallions, decides to return home and establish his own fascist patriarchy in Barbieland. Meanwhile Barbie heads to the HQ of Mattel, the Barbie toy company, to try to sort things out and is taken aback to find there’s no women executives. And when the CEO (Will Farrell) tries to persuade her to get back in the box, with a little help from an elderly lady (Rhea Perlman in a touching last act insider reference to Barbie’s origins) in a hidden office, she takes off and is rescued by Gloria (America Ferrara), a Mattel employee who, it turns out is the owner of Barbie’s toy counterpart, rather than her spikey and sullen teenage daughter (Ariana Greenblatt).
However, when they get to Barbieland, everything has changed. The Kens, led by Beach Ken, have taken over and the girls are now all Stepford Barbies, there only to serve their every whim. Can Barbie, with the help of Gloria, Sasha, Weird Barbie and Alan (Michael Cera, launched in 1964 as Ken’s buddy, and put everything back in the pink!
Overflowing with clever jokes along with themes of female empowerment, sexism, gender equality, toxic masculinity and aggression, the impossibility of perfection, conforming to expectations, the complexity of being a woman, who men want to be both whore and mother, being defined by your looks and finding value in who you are, it bursts with energy. It also takes digs at Mattel’s less successful lines, like Pregnant Barbie, the gender demeaning Teen Talk Barbie and Growing Up Skipper with her inflatable boobs. But it wouldn’t be half as good without the irresistible radiant star power of Robbie and Gosling (who again gets to show off his dance moves) who bring their plastic incarnations to vivid and very human life. There cameos from John Cena and Rob Brydon, a reference to Zach Snyder’s Justice League, a clip from The Godfather, and a sound track that includes new numbers by Billie Eilish and Lizzo, Ken’s’ I’m Just Ken showcase and a nice use of The Indigo Girls’ Closer To Fine as sung by Brandi and Catherine Carlile. This is the definitive toy story. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Electric; Empire Great Park; Everyman; Mockingbird; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Vue)
Blue Beetle (12A)
Although the character first appeared in 1939 and went through various incarnations over the years, this is based on Jamie Reyes (Cobra Kai star Xolo Maridueña), the most recent version (from 2006) and the first Latino superhero in the DC universe. Here he’s a recent Gotham University law graduate who, returning to his Texas home in the futuristic Palmera City, finds prospects are few and his Mexican family, grandmother Nana (Adriana Barazza), mum Rocio (Elpidia Carrillo), dad Alberto (Damián Alcázar) and conspiracy nut high tech expert uncle Rudy (George Lopez), who live in a poor neighbourhood, are about to lose their home. While out house cleaning with his sister Milagro (Belissa Escobedo) at the Kord mansion he sparks a connection with subsequent romantic interest Jenny Kord (Bruna Marquezine), whose aunt Victoria (a sterling Susan Sarandon, checking super-hero movie villain off her bucket list ) stole Kord Industries from her father, Ted, and has RoboCop-styled plans to forge a privatised police force called One-Man Army Corps. However, Jenny manages to steal a crucial part of the project and slip it to an unsuspecting Jamie who, returning home, discovers to his surprise that the fast food box she gave him contains a blue metallic scarab. Even more of a surprise is that it attaches itself to him, fusing with his mind and body, covering him in armour with a pair of blue pincers on his back, the ability to fly and, as the voice inside his head of Khaji-Da (Becky G), which controls the scarab, tells him, create any weapon he can imagine. He’s a regular super-hero. There’s just two downsides. The only way to be rid of it is to die. And Victoria wants it back. Now, together Jamie, Jenny and his family (nana revealing an unexpected secret past) need to obtain a key to her father’s old lab (his version of the BatCave) from Kord Tower and defeat Carapax (Raoul Max Trujillo),an OMAC prototype, all culminating in an explosive climax on an island just off Cuba.
Comic book nerds will enjoy the references to the two earlier Blue Beetles as well as The Bug, an armoured VTOL vehicle with yellow fly-like eyes built by Ted Kord, while, despite some uneven pacing mid-way, director Ángel Manuel Soto carries along newcomers with a potent mix of high octane (and at times quite violent) action and the emotional undercurrent of family being there for each other, serious when the narrative requires it (dropping in swipes at immigration policy and student debt issues) but also with a light-hearted humour reminiscent of the first Ant-Man. Maridueña energetically plays Jamie, bewildered by what’s happening to him, with a combination of ingenuousness and grit while the largely unknown support cast all hold up their end of proceedings to solid and engaging effect with the visual effects suitably spectacular. As a launch of a new chapter in the DC universe, this should leave you truly bug-eyed. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Vue)
Creed III (15)
As well as reprising the title character, Michael B. Jordan also confidently takes up the directing reins for this third instalment in the Rocky spin-off, one that muddies the clear cut moral waters of the previous outings in both franchises. Now retired from the ring, he’s enjoying the fruits of his success , running a gym and living in a plush L.A. mansion with his successful pop star wife Bianca (Tessa Thompson), herself now in quasi-retirement due to hearing loss, and their deaf daughter Amara (Mila Davis-Kent), with whom he communicates in sign language. Bianca’s now writing and producing songs for others, while Adonis is mentoring hot-headed new heavyweight champion, Felix Chavez (Jose Benavidez). But then his world’s upended with the arrival of a figure from the past, Damian “Dame” Anderson (Jonathan Majors), fresh from spending 18 years behind bars for reasons shown in the opening sequence of their delinquent childhood and various subsequent flashbacks that add extra detail as to what happened when the young Adonis (Thaddeus James Mixson Jr.) beat up an old nemesis outside a liquor store, Dame (Spence Moore II) intervened with a gun when he was being grappled with and the cops showed up.
A former amateur Golden Gloves champ, Diamond Dame now wants his shot at the big time, the unwitting Adonis, in a mix of guilt and friendship, and stung by a retort reminding him of how he got his own shot as a contender, offering to train him at the gym under Duke (Wood Harris), who sagely suggests it’s not perhaps a good idea given how he’s driven by anger and resentment.
When, following a record release bash where an incident brutally removes Viktor Drago (Florian Munteanu) from the upcoming world title bout, Adonis gives Dame his shot, pummelling Chavez to win the title, given the formulaic nature of such films, it’s not hard to predict that the two former friends will end up in the ring together, one in black one in white in Westerns tradition. However, the journey there, one which involves the inevitable training montages, Adonis confronting his past, the discovery of prison letters from Dame he never saw and the exit of a Creed family member from the series, is nonetheless dramatically powerful. As well as ramming the punches home with slow motion rippling flesh as body blows land, Jordan also finds a way to bring something new to the big showdown as the boxing arena transforms into something more existential as the crowds vanish and the ring ropes are replaced by prison bars.
Thompson is somewhat sidelined, but Jordan again brings dynamite charisma to the screen, even so he’s outshone by Majors, delivering a double whammy following his current turn as Kang The Conqueror, in an electrifying embodiment of passive-aggressiveness, arrogance and anger fuelled by a long simmering feeling of being betrayed and abandoned and his future snatched from out of his gloves.
It’s hard to see where Jordan could take Adonis’s story from there, but hey, maybe those scenes with him giving the plucky young Amara pointers on how to deliver a punch might yet resolve into a gender-switch sequel some years down the line. (Amazon Prime; Sky Store)
While undeniably visually dazzling, the latest from Pixar Fire recycles some very well-worn themes and messages about family, prejudice, working together, tolerance, opposites attract, self-discovery and finding your courage. It’s set in a world of characters formed of the four elements, with fire elements Bernie (Ronnie Del Carmen) and Cinder (Shila Ommi) Lumen (clearly Chinese) emigrating to Element City looking for a better life where, despite encountering xenophobia from the other elements and struggling to find a home (the landlords are all earth, tree-like figures who see fire as a hazard), they eventually set up a convenience store called the Fireplace with a symbolic Blue Flame representing their heritage and traditions, selling things like coal nuts. They have a daughter, the dutiful if headstrong Ember (Leah Lewis), whom Bernie intends to take over the store when he retires. But first she had to learn to control her fiery temper. When a difficult customer causes that to flare up, she takes refuge in the basement, accidentally causing a water pipe to break, flooding the place and bringing water element Wade Ripple (Mamoudou Athie), into her life. A city inspector, he has to report the faulty plumbing to his cloud-like air element boss Gale Cumulus, meaning the Fireplace will get shut down. But he’s also a soppy romantic and he persuades Gale to let them both try and find and stop the source of a series of recent floods. If they can seal the leak, the shop can remain open.
Discovering a hole in a dam that lets through water from passing ships, and, first using sandbags and then Ember’s power to create glass, they appear to have solved the problem. And, in the process, a, ahem, spark, develops between them, discovering they can touch each other without causing any harm. But, while Wade’s upmarket family welcome her into their home, Ember’s ailing father seems highly unlikely to accept a Fire and Water relationship , on top of which, Ember comes to realise her dreams for herself are not the same as his. She wants to study glassmaking. But it’s her duty to obey. And then the fix in the dam gives way, catastrophe looms and love might quite literally evaporate.
Aside from the characters’ names, it’s awash with visual and verbal puns (two of the best being a literal Mexican wave and thought bubble) and, despite gaping holes in the logic (why would fire opt to go and live in a water-based city, why doesn’t Ember set the cardboard boxes alight?), it combines a spry sense of fun ( the Ripple family’s crying game is a joy) along with the usual romantic and emotional complications, the blossoming love story involving Wade taking Ember into the flooded Garden Central Station to see the Vivisteria flowers she never saw as a child. As such, while the youngsters will enjoy the vividly coloured visuals and the enjoyable silliness of the air and earth figures (though hope they don’t ask parents to explain ‘pruning’), this is very much a grown up star-crossed love story that touches on living in a multicultural melting pot society. A rare case of the parents persuading the kids to let them take them to see it. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Mockingbird; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Vue)
Extraction II (15)
At the end of the first film, having been shot in the neck, former Australian Special Forces mercenary Tyler Rake (Chris Hemsworth) tumbled from a Bangladesh bridge into the river, apparently dead. Now, however, ignoring the final teasing swimming pool scene, reunited screenwriter Joe Russo and stuntman-turned director Sam Hargrave race through a montage that has him wash up and be rushed to some state of the art hospital in Dubai where, under the watchful eye of his handler Nik (Golshifteh Farahani, getting to kick more ass this time around) before being relocated to a secluded cabin in the woods and reunited with his dog for a lengthy recuperation. Retirement is brought to an end when an unnamed mystery man (a cameoing Idris Elba) shows up to tell him his ex-wife (Olga Kurylenko) wants him to rescue her sister Ketevan (Tinatin Dalakishvili) and her kids Sandro (Andro Japaridze) and Nina (Mariami and Marta Kovziashvili) from the Georgian prison where they’re being held, supposedly for their protection, by her inmate terrorist husband Davit Radiani (Tornike Bziava), and his even more ruthless brother Zurab (Tornike Gogrichiani). So, Rake, Nik and her brother Yaz (Adam Bessa) duly set off on the mission, all of which goes smoothly until it turns out Santos, brainwashed into wanting to follow in the family gangster tradition, doesn’t want to go (setting up a third act confrontation). Davit winds up being killed and an exhilarating digitally-stitched-together ‘one shot’ 21 minute escape sequence ensues involving navigating through a prison yard full of rioting prisoners and guards and onto a train racing across the tundra pursued by helicopters and taking on heavily armed thugs with guns, knives, fists and whatever comes to hand. They make it to safety, but now Zurab, a textbook Eastern European villain, is out for revenge.
While there is some character development and redemptive emotion-wringing backstory (Rake is plagued by guilt for leaving his young dying cancer victim son to deploy in Afghanistan) and not all the main cast (who deliver with due gravitas) prove indestructible, as well as flashes of humour with Rake’s passing interest in Eurovision and raising chickens, this is basically just three long and undeniably thrilling and very violent action sequences with bullets raining down like a plague of locusts, one of which involves hanging by the fingertips from a high rise’s collapsing glass roof and another in a candlelit church. It ends with another Elba cameo setting up the already confirmed threequel. Bring it on. (Netflix)
Gran Turismo: Based On A True Story (12A)
Masterminded by Kazunori Yamauchi, launched in 1997 Gran Turismo is an iconic PlayStation racing simulation game, accurate down to the finest details and which, to date, has seven incarnations and millions of followers. Directed by Neill Blomkamp, this tells the true story of one of them, Jann Mardenborough (Archie Madekwe), a mixed race teenager from Cardiff, son of Birmingham born former professional footballer Steve (Djimon Hounsou) who played, among others, for Coventry, Wolves and Cardiff City (whose bluebird logo plays an emotional role) and mother Lesley (a thankfully underused Geri Halliwell, displaying all those acting skills you loved in the Spice Girls movie), who, from an early age dreamed of becoming a racing driver. With that being financially out of the question, as his father hammers home, he settled for becoming a top Gran Turismo player.
Staying generally true to the facts, things kick in when Danny Moore (Orlando Bloom), a motorsport marketing executive at Nissan (based on Darren Cox who founded the GT Academy) pitches his bosses the idea of giving their fading car market a boost by staging an international competition for Gran Turismo players, the winners of which would be awarded a spot in the GA Academy and the chance to compete in real races. As such, he recruits Black Sabbath devotee Jack Salter (David Harbour), a (fictional) former racing driver who gave it up after a tragedy at Le Mans, as the tough love mentor whose job is to get the 10 finalists (out of 90,000 entrants) up to snuff in the transition from game console to actual steering wheel with the ultimate winner getting a Team Nissan contract as one of their drivers. That will be the soft-spoken Jann (at one point Moore wants to scratch him as he lacks marketable charisma) then, who chills out before each race by listening to Kenny G and Enya.
It will come as no surprise to learn this ticks pretty much all the sports underdog movie boxes, with Salter becoming Jenn’s surrogate father (his pragmatic own dad not supporting his son’s dreams), the confidence crisis (following the spectacularly filmed recreation of the 2015 car flipping crash at Germany’s Nürburgring circuit that killed a spectator), the encouraging love interest (Maeve Courtier-Lilley), hostility from the real racers, the egotistical unscrupulous rival (Josha Stradowski as Nicholas Capa, the film’s equivalent of Rocky’s Drago), the come-back and the split second chequered flag Le Mans climax (where the film does indulge in some wish fulfilment champagne popping tampering with the truth).
At two plus hours, it’s overlong and often feels like a marketing campaign for Nissan and PlayStation, but fuelled by solid performances from Madekwe and Harbour and directed by Blomkamp puts cynicism on the back burner for an inspirational tale of triumph against the odds that, like Top Gun on wheels, makes you feel you’re hurtling around the track low to the ground at 300mph (the real Mardenborough served as Madeweke’s stunt driver) as the healing settles in. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Vue)
Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol 3 (12A)
While the two mid-credit scenes suggest there is the potential for a further instalment with a new roster or, at least, a prime character spin-off, this definitely brings the curtain down on director James Gunn’s saga of the dysfunctional team of malcontent heroes while also serving as an origin story for Rocket (Bradley Cooper). Still bristling at being called a racoon, he spends most of the film in a coma, hovering on the edge of death after being wounded by the golden-skinned Adam Warlock (Will Poulter), his friends unable to heal him after discovering his body has an in-built kill switch. Flashbacks to how he became who he is today are scattered throughout, revealing him to be part of a genetic experiment by the High Revolutionary (a scenery-chewing Chukwudi Iwuji in generally bellowing default mode) to mutate animals into anthropomorphic beings to populate his vision of a new, ideal, peaceful Earth-like planet; though he’s not above cruelty and the murder of his subjects to achieve that. Rocket, or 89P13 as he’s referred to, proved to have advanced intelligence and an unexplained success in taming his creations’ urge for violence and, having escaped (in a heartbreaking scene in which his new genetically engineered friends do not), the High Evolutionary now wants him recovered so he can access the secrets stored in his brain. To which end, to save him, Peter Quill aka Star Lord (Chris Pratt), Mantis (Pom Klementieff), Drax (Dave Bautista), Nebula (Karen Gillan) and Groot (Vin Diesel), have to somehow infiltrate Orgoscope, the High Evolutionary’s fleshy space lab station, and get the key to disable the kill switch with the help of their Knowhere comic relief associates Kraglin (Sean Gunn) and Cosmo the Space Dog (Maria Bakalova), while preventing Warlock, spurred on by his mother, Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki), from abducting the wounded Rocket.
Matters among the crew are complicated by the subplot involving Quill grieving the death of his lover Gamora (a commanding Zoe Saldaña), at the hands of her step-father Thanos and unable to handle the fact that the cold resurrected version has no recollection that they were a couple and is now a member of the Ravagers (led by Sylvester Stallone), of whom he himself was once a part.
The film hops from one storyline and spectacular set piece to another, climaxing with an explosive finale on both the High Evolutionary’s ship (where cages of children are found, affording a new side of Drax to appear) and Counter-Earth, an 1980-designed biosphere based on Star-Lord’s home planet populated by genetically mutated humanimals, with Rocket now back in full on mode, the action intercut with the franchise’s familiar wisecracking and squabbling banter between the team, set to a rock music mixtape (Radiohead’s Creep playing a significant part).
Frequently teasing the possibility that any of the team could die, Gunn juggles themes about family, friendship, animal experimentation and playing God (“There is no God! That’s why I’m taking charge!” declares the High Evolutionary) and not judging by appearances (a trio of monstrous creatures that seem to threaten Mantis, Drax and Nebula turns out to be rather cuddly). It may never quite explain Warlock’s backstory and his somewhat confusing switchback of motivations and actions and, while a nice surprise, the moment when Groot proves to have more than one phrase in his vocabulary does break with character, but it never lets go of its emotional or visceral grip, delivering a hugely satisfying send-off with the end credits featuring images of everyone who’s been involved in the saga, from Kurt Russell and Michael Rooker to Kevin Bacon and even a sly photo of Stan Lee. What the future brings remains to be seen, but for now this is the best MCU movie since Avengers Endgame. (Disney+)
Haunted Mansion (12A)
It would have seemed impossible to make a film that was worse than the Eddie Murphy-starring 2003 adaptation of the Disney theme ride. But, a decade on director Justin Simien comes pretty close. Helped to no small degree by screenwriter Katie Dippold who was responsible for the dismal all-female Ghostbusters reboot.
This time round, upping the Black actors quota, Rosario Dawson is the single mother who buys an antique Louisiana house intending to turn it into a desirable B&B. However, barely have they stepped over the threshold before she and her nine-year-old son Travis (Chase Dillon) discover it’s already occupied – by ghosts. And they won’t let them leave.
So it is that Father Kent (Owen Wilson) calls on Ben (LaKeith Stanfield), a grieving astrophysicist now running the ghost tour he took over from his late wife, who believed in such things, to bring his patent spook-camera and get evidence of the spirits. He’s sceptical until he’s visited by the ghost of a Mariner who forces him to return. Also enlisted are medium Harriet (Tiffany Haddish) and haunted house expert Professor Bruce Davis (Danny DeVito), from whom they steal the mansion’s blueprints, who, together, look to evict the ghostly residents. To which end, they also have a helping hand, or rather head, from Madame Leota (Jamie Lee Curtis) who the mansion’s original owner, William Gracey recruited Leota to contact the spirit of his dead wife Eleanor, the séances resulting in the release of hundreds of ghosts into the mansion. Gracey tricked by the Hatbox Ghost (Jared Leto) into committing suicide, Leota’s literally disembodied spirit was herself trapped inside a giant crystal ball. Now they need to stop the Hatbox Ghost amassing his 100th soul.
Along with easter eggs for fans of the ride, there’s some striking set design with corridors that go on forever, hidden rooms and the like, but, while Haddish and Lakefield at least do their best, DeVito wildly overacts and Wilson feels like he’s had all the life sucked out of him, the dialogue is flat, the CGI embarrassing and the film fails to even follow its own logic (dispensing with the fact that the characters are forced to stay in the motion whenever the screenplay requires otherwise). It picks up in the third act that finds a relatively steady emotional footing as it deals with grief, but with superfluous cameos (Winona Ryder, Marilu Henner) and the laughs and the frights few and far between, this doesn’t have a ghost in hell’s chance of scaring up an audience. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Vue)
Heart Of Stone (12)
An embarrassing Mission Impossible knock-off from the same production company with Gal Godot as the Ethan Hunt figure, Rachel Stone, an operative for an off the grid agency tackling problems governments can’t or won’t handle, directed by Tom Harper and location hopping between, among others, Portugal, Senegal and Iceland, this is written by Greg Rucka and Allison Schroeder who were, respectively, behind The Old Guard and Hidden Figures. As such, you might expect some class. Unfortunately, it would be easier to believe the screenplay was turned out by a bunch of junior schoolkids who’d been given the job of watching Grade B action movies as homework, resulting in the sort of dialogue no self-respecting actor should be forced to deliver, one scene in particular having characters serve up a concrete block of exposition about the aforementioned agency, named The Charter, and its mission statement.
We first meet Stone as a rookie hacker with an MI6 unit also comprising fellow agents Parker (Jamie Dornan), cat and Fleetwood Mac lover Bailey (Paul Ready) and Yang (Jing Lusi) who are in the Italian Alps to extract Mulvaney, a potential asset arms dealer and from a ski resort casino. Stone’s supposed to stay in the van but when circumstances call upon her to enter the casino to hack its security things go pear-shaped , culminating in Mulvaney apparently taking cyanide and Stone disobeying orders and blowing her cover to save her team revealing that the Charter is real not just some intelligence community rumour.
Indeed, operating from some high tech secret HQ (don’t ask how it was financed or by whom), agents are known by card suits and numbers (she’s Hearts 9) with the agency run by four Kings (including a cameoing Glenn Close who clearly had a spare half hour on her hands), her handler being Nomad (Sophie Okonendo) and tech support provided by Jack (Matthias Schweighöfer, forever waving his hands around controlling CGI displays). The heart of the Charter is the, ahem, Heart, a super advanced AI that’s located in an airship called The Locker, floating over Africa and which can hack into and control anything digital on the planet. So naturally the bad guys intend to steal it and take control themselves. The villain of the piece turns out to be one of her crew (no surprise and no spoiler since it’s the only other ‘star’ player) who has a grievance to settle with MI6 (cue a Chechnya backstory), aided by misguided 22-year-old Indian super hacker Keya (Alia Bhatt), also with a personal investment, and blond motorbike-riding assassin in chief known only as, yes, the Blond (Jon Kortajarena).
Not only is the central maguffin a dupe of the one in Dead Reckoning, but the whole film is peppered with set pieces stolen from the franchise, notably a Rogue Nation style motorbike chase and with Godot mirroring Cruise in freefalling from a plane. Except these are bargain basement copies with terrible CGI and absolutely no thrills. Plus cringe-inducing lines like “You own the heart, you own the world” and “I should have just listened to the heart”.
Delivering some physical action, Gadot does her best with her one-dimensional character, but she’s unfortunately closer to Red than Wonder Woman, while Doran chews scenery and Okonedo, Bhatt and Schweighöfer simply seem bewildered they signed up in the first place. You might feel much the same after watching it. (Netflix)
Hidden Strike (12)
If you can be easily satisfied watching action stars Jackie Chan and John Cena teaming up and don’t really care about the quality of the direction, acting, plot or dialogue, then you might just get a kick out of this. Finally emerging after five years in post-production, when it was initially intended to open in cinemas, from the meaningless title (presumably a vague attempt to recall previous Chain film First Strike) onwards this is a dull and frequently incoherent reluctant buddies action-comedy. With a bunch of Chinese scientists under siege by oil terrorists at their Iraq refinery, Commander Dragon Luo (Chan), the leader of Shadow Squad (no, really) is sent to extract them, one of whom is his estranged daughter, Mei (Chunrui Ma), ferrying them to Green Zone safety down the infamous Highway Of Death. En route, however, two of the buses, one of which is carrying the facility head, are abducted, during a man-made sandstorm, by a band of mercenaries who threaten to shoot her son unless she provides the all-important dongle and codes to unlock the oil so they can pump it into waiting freighters. Among them is Chris (Cena), a former special forces hunk with a heart of gold who agrees to take part in his brother’s mission (though not aware he’s in the pay of the bad guy – Pilou Asbæk), and insists on giving everyone a nickname, so he can raise the money he needs to provide water for the village where he’s a self-appointed protector who just loves playing catch with the kids. Learning he’s been double-crossed, he ends up joining forces with Luo to rescue the hostages and stop the oil being stolen.
A functional plot at best, designed simply to give the two stars a chance to face off against, first, each other and then everyone else, with some father-daughter emotional healing tossed in for good measure, it lumbers along, mostly through a bad CGI desert and clunky tonal shifts, taking forever to bring the two stars together and then forcing them to deliver ludicrously bad dialogue while engaging in lacklustre stunts. There is, to be fair, some decent chase footage with a rocket propelled truck (a running gag has Chris naming all his vehicles) a relatively amusing set piece with a still lithe Chan (who was 64 when he made it) taking on a tattooed mercenary amid a sea of foam, but, other than the confusions over hand signals, the supposed laughs as Chan and Cena interact are only evident in the obligatory outtakes and never make it into the main film. Hidden Strike strikes out. (Netflix)
A semi-autobiographical transgender drama from writer-director Emanuele Crialese, set in early 70s Rome and named for a 1967 Italian hit, this is a sort of Italian gender reversal answer to Ma Vie En Rose, here with Catholic proto-punk preteen Adriana (Luana Giuliani), telling his younger siblings, Gino (Patrizio Francioni) and Diana (a cute Maria Chiara Goretti), he’s actually descended from aliens, and thinks of himself as boy, telling those who don’t know that she’s called Andrea. One such is Sara (Penélope Nieto Conti), who lives in a Romani workers’ shanty town beyond the thicket of reeds that borders his parents’ apartment, and where the kids are forbidden to venture, with whom Adri begins a teenage flirtation.
With trangender issues compounding the usual teenage angst, Adri also has to cope with class prejudice, sexual harassment and domestic abuse, the marriage between her bullying promiscuous and increasingly violent father Felice (Vincenzo Amato) and adoring Spanish ex-pat mother, Clara (Penélope Cruz), on the verge of collapse.
A coming of age, self-discovery drama about identity leavened with notes of wry whimsy, it’s visually inventive, switching to black and white sequences such as Clara and her children watching Adriano’s flamboyant performance of the Italian satirical pop hit Prisencolinensinainciusol and subsequently Adri’s fantasy recreation with him/herself as Celentano and his mother as the bleached blonde back-up singer and dancer. Moments such as Adri telling the manic-depressive Clara to stop fooling round when she joins his cousins playing under the dining table add emotional complexity to Giuliani’s character, sensitive but simmering with suppressed anger. It can be a bit on the nose in putting across its message (at one point, in reference to cell anatomy, Adri asks his science teacher what’s more important: what’s on the inside, or what’s on the outside? and is told that inside everything is something different), but generally the emotional heft is honestly earned, a scene in which Adri has to wear a dress brilliantly capturing the discomfort.
Veering between vulnerable and defiant, defeated and a ball of energy, the embodiment of unconditional maternal love, Cruz is outstanding but, bearing an uncanny resemblance, Giuliani (a cisgender female in real life) is unquestionably the film’s heart and soul. Some may be disappointed by the film’s unresolved abrupt ending, but its echoes will linger long. (Electric)
Indiana Jones And The Dial Of Destiny (12A)
He may be 80, but, in his final outing as the adventuring archaeologist, Harrison Ford still has the same mix of gruff charisma and twinkle-in-the eye mischief as when he first brought the character to the screen back in 1981. The franchise, however, has not aged quite as well. The first not to be directed by Steven Spielberg, here James Mangold is in charge of an unfocused screenplay that took four people to write and a running time some 30 minutes longer than any of its predecessors.
Reprising the Nazis as the bad guys, it opens back at the end of WWII with a de-aged Ford taken prisoner while trying to locate some artefact the Fuhrer is desperate to get his hands on, prompting the discovery that, while that is a fake, the loot includes a more valuable McGuffin, the Antikythera, half of a fabled device created by Archimedes, that has Nazi scientist Jurgen Voller (Mads Mikklesen) all hot and bothered. Cue an overlong fight sequence through and (with some dodgy CGI) atop the speeding train between Voller, Jones and the latter’s friend, Oxford archaeologist Basil Shaw (Toby Jones), one of several new old characters from Indie’s past, before the trail derails, the bridge is bombed and the two take off with the device.
Cut to 1969 and the day of the moon landing when Jones, drinking in a bar after having retired from his professorship lecturing bored students and being divorced by Marion (Karen Allen) is approached by a woman from his past, who, it transpires, is Helena ‘Wombat’ Shaw (Phoebe Waller-Bridge), the goddaughter he’s not seen in 18 years. She, to cut things shorter than the film does, it turns out, sells artefacts on the black market and she’s after the Antikythera which he’d promised her late father he’d destroy. And she’s not the only one. Also back on the trail is Voller who, under his new identity as Professor Schmitt, has been part of the Apollo programme, and his psycho killer henchmen Klaber (Boyd Holbrook) and Hauke (Olivier Richters) who are, in a muddled subplot, in league with US government agent Mason (Shaunette Renée Wilson). Anyways, Helena makes off with the device, leading to an overextended series of chases (mostly involving stolen vehicles, or, indeed, a horse) that, moving to Tangiers, has Jones, Helena and her young street thief accomplice Teddy (Ethann Isidore) pursued by Voller and co before winding up in Greece as they search for the other half of the device which, when paired, reputedly has the power to locate fissures in time. In a nod to Raiders (and The Last Crusade), along with some snake substitutes, John Rhys-Davies reprises his role as Indie’s Egyptian friend Sallah, now a New York taxi driver, while Antonio Banderas cameos as another newly minted old friend and deep sea diver.
Mangold does his best to invoke the Saturday morning serials that fuelled Raiders Of The Lost Ark while also playing to the modern blockbuster crowd, but it’s hard to escape a workmanlike sense of been there, seen that with the trail of clues in historic locations all too reminiscent of National Treasure. Mikkelsen does decent sneer but isn’t a particularly memorable villain and, while Ford, in good physical shape, does his grizzled adventurer best, despite the trademark hat, whip and droll humour, too often bolstered by CGI rather than authentic stunts, this weathered, world weary Indie has a certain missing spark (though the introspective scene where he talks of wishing he could go back in time to stop his son enlisting and getting killed in Vietnam has an emotional grip). Good news then that, while not enough’s made of their relationship, Waller-Bridge brings things alive with the smart-tongued Helena who, as handy with her fists as she is her brain, injects copious adrenaline into the action. Ultimately, it’s undeniably good fun and seeing Jones back in his other iconic role is a thrill, but every time that John Williams theme tune starts up, it’s a reminder that some memories should perhaps be left in the past. (Odeon Birmingham Plaza Luxe; Vue)
Insidious: The Red Door (15)
Continuing an increasingly underwhelming franchise, this is even less scary than the threadbare horrors of The Last Key. The directorial debut of star Patrick Wilson, it’s set up as a ten years later sequel to 2013’s Chapter 2 (the two subsequent films being prequels), opening with the funeral of Josh Lambert’s (Wilson) mother and apparently something lingering in the background. Cut then to the film proper with Lambert’s semi-estranged sulky son Dalton (a blandly one dimensional Ty Simpkins) now off to art college where one of the assignments from his professor (Hiam Abbass) is to create art from digging into his emotions. Among his assorted gory paintings, he draws a red door and soon starts to have terrifying visions and astral projection encounters related a trauma he experienced when he was 10 and spent a year in a coma. The door is the gateway to the Further, a dark astral realm filled with tortured souls and ruled by a red-faced demon (Joseph Bishara, credited as, I kid you not, Lipstick Demon). So, father and son have to work through their strained relationship and go back in to end the nightmare forever, Josh discovering why his father abandoned the family, with his now ex-but still on good terms wife (despite having tried to hammer her to death while possessed) Renai (an underused Rose Byrne), and late mother keeping secrets from him.
A capable if workmanlike actor, Wilson brings the same middling skills behind the camera, setting up a series of jolts and jumps, but never really catching fire, not least due to the unfocused mess that passes as a screenplay while Sinclair Daniel falls loudly flat as Ty’s comic relief female fellow student. Co-writer Leigh Wannell and Angus Sampson get to briefly reprise their ill-advised roles as bungling spook investigators Specs and Tucker while, despite being killed off in the first film, Lin Shaye still manages to pop up again as the psychic Elise Rainier. You’ll recall how Josh and Ty had their memories suppressed in the earlier film. You may want yours done after seeing this. Shut that door on the way out. (Vue)
John Wick : Chapter 4 (15)
Spin-offs and prequel appearances notwithstanding, the emotional final scene would pretty much seem to confirm this is the final chapter in the series, bowing out in with a flamboyant 169 minute (word is a 225 minute version may surface later) clipped dialogue epic tsunami of fire, fist, knives and sword fights that may be overstuffed but never drags.
Hiding out in the New York lair of the Bowery King (Laurence Fishburne) from the High Table to whom he still has an obligation and who have placed a $2million bounty on his head, antihero assassin Wick (Keanu Reeves at his Clint Eastwood drawl finest) is planning his revenge. This takes him to Morocco (cue homage to David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia) where he kills the Elder, resulting in the fascist rich kid Marquis Vincent de Gramont (Bill Skarsgård), the current New York High Table top dog, taking revenge by stripping Winston (Ian McShane), who failed to kill Wick, of his role as manager of the Continental, killing his concierge Charon (the late Lance Reddick) and blowing up the building. Then, threatening to murder his daughter, he forces blind retired assassin Caine (martial arts virtuoso Donnie Yen), just one of many biblical references, into accepting the hit on his old friend. Cut to Tokyo where Wick’s taken refuge at the Osaka Continental, run by loyal old friend Shimazu Koji (a quietly charismatic Hiroyuki Sanada) and his daughter Akira (pop star Rina Sawayama who sings the film’s theme song), but it’s not long before the High Table enforcers, led by the Marquis’s seemingly indestructible right-hand man Chidi (Marko Zaror), and Caine arrive, demanding Wick be given up, leading to the first of a series of knowingly over-the-top extended fight sequences that ends up with one wounded, one dead and Wick again on the run.
Returning to New York, he learns from Winston that there is a way to bring things to an end. Under High Table traditions, he can challenge the Marquis to single combat and be freed of all obligations. The only problem is that he first needs to accepted back into the Berlin crime family the Ruska Roma and to do so he first has to kill Killa (Scott Adkins), the overweight, lavender-suited German Table head with gold gangsta teeth who murdered his adoptive sister Katia’s (Natalia Tena) father. And even having done that (cue another amped up sequence set amid a sea of night club dancers), there’s still the small matter of getting to the Sacré-Cœur in Paris before sunrise to carry out the duel, which, if he fails to do, will result in his and Winston’s execution, as his second, which means, armed with a top end gun and a wearing a ballistic suit, surviving Chidi, the High Table muscle and the dozens of freelance assassins all looking to collect the $20million and rising bounty, and soundtracked on their way by an on air DJ spinning things like Nowhere To Run. One of whom is Mr Nobody (Shamier Anderson), a cool and composed tracker, who with his lethal dog sidekick (which becomes an important plot turning point), has been keeping tabs on Wick, keeping him alive until the Marquis agrees to the fee he’s asking. All of which culminates in the reluctant Caine, who the Marquis has nominated to act in his place, and Wick facing down each other in a pistol duel moderated by the Harbinger (Clancy Brown).
Opening with shots of a fist hitting a bloodied punchbag, stunt choreographer turned director Chad Stahelski stages an increasingly elaborate and inspired sequence of balletic fights, among them a thrilling blazing guns car chase around the Arc de Triomphe, one filmed in an overhead doll’s-house view in a labyrinthine building and, finally, the spectacular climax set on the Rue Foyatier in Montmartre, the 222-step stairway leading to the Basilica and down which Wick is sent tumbling at least twice as the hordes continue to come. After nine years, during which time the narrative has got bigger and more complex, this is one big eye-popping gift-wrapped thank you to the legions of fans who have transformed it into an iconic franchise. Will you love it? Yeah. (Amazon Prime; Microsoft Store)
An English language remake of Kurosawa’s 1952 masterpiece Ikiru about a Tokyo bureaucrat stoically searching for meaning in the last months of his life, directed by South Africa’s Oliver Hermanus with a screenplay by Kazuo Ishiguro the setting is transposed to 1950s London and is centred on veteran London County Council civil servant Mr Williams, as portrayed by Bill Nighy in an understated but profoundly moving, career best performance.
He shares his home with his son Michael (Barney Fishwick) and daughter-in-law Fiona (Patsy Ferran) in a patently strained relationship (beautifully captured in a dinner scene involving a soup tureen) where they have their eyes on their inheritance. Every morning, sporting traditional pinstripe and wearing bowler hat, he joins the train with his fellow workers, but never in the same carriage, travelling to the dingy Public Works office where he sits behind his desk surrounded by his underlings (among them Alex Sharp as new arrival Peter Wakeling, still idealistic and not fallen into the art of dodging responsibility) overseeing proceedings and filing documents away (“there, it can do no harm”) in a constant cycle of buck-passing.
From an early age, all the deeply shy Mr. Williams ever wanted to be was a “gentleman”, and in pursuing that goal and the reserved lack of passion it entails, it seems to have sucked all the life out of him. But then, one morning his doctor gives him the bad news. He only has months left. His composure shaken, he resolves, like Ebenezer Scrooge, to make the most of the time remaining. While unable to break the news to his son, he does confess to Sutherland, a boozy playwright (Tom Burke) in the seaside town he takes off to after withdrawing half his savings, who tells him to live a little (to which he replies “I don’t know how” and introduces him to the debauchery of the Oliver Reed side of life. And, following a brief encounter in the street and a Fortnum & Mason lunch, to his former secretary, the guileless, innocently flirtatious Margaret Harris (Sex Education’s Aimee Lou Wood) who quit her job to try something new. She tells him her nicknames for her former colleagues. He’s somewhat tickled to learn his was Mr Zombie.
The couple strike up a platonic relationship, going to the cinema and pubs, and there is something about both her and Sutherland’s lust for life that determines him to push through the forever stalled planning permission for a group of mothers to transform an East End bombsite into a children’s playground, much to the bewilderment of his fellow workers, refusing to take no for an answer when confronted by red tape and stonewalling.
Evoking an atmosphere and bittersweet mood of sadness and newfound joy akin to his screenplay for remains Of The Day and touching in similar themes of repression and coming alive, while understandably jettisoning the gangster plot, Ishiguru remains faithful to much of the original film, most especially the heartbreaking scene involving a song, swing and snowflakes, a third act structured around flashbacks and colleagues talking about how he achieved his aim while backstory grace notes include black and white childhood memories and a rendition of the Scottish ballad The Rowan Tree.
Sharp is excellent as Wakeling, feeling Williams’ pain and aware of his easy it would be for him to wind up the same way, while , the embodiment of post-war optimism, Wood delivers a star-making performance. However, deep in existential crisis and experiencing a rebirth that frees his innate wit and kindness, this is unquestionably Nighy’s film, his subtle facial twitches, the half sighs, the internalisation of his sorrows all a masterclass in minimalism that will reduce you to a sobbing puddle. (Netflix)
Meg 2: The Trench (12A)
After the 2018 original, a US-China co-production, scored, ahem, megabucks at the box office, it was inevitable that at some point, delivering is familiar sarcasm on autopilot, Jason Statham would again find himself up against a giant, prehistoric shark. And so it is that Brit filmmaker Ben Wheatley pits him against a whole bunch of them. However, anyone who admired his previous black comedy thrillers Sightseers, High Rise, Kill List and Free Fire, should lower their expectations because here he’s clearly just a director for hire, going through the paces with workmanlike efficiency for certainly not invested in what he’s doing. But then, given a cliché 101screenplay and dialogue, who can blame him.
It opens with Jonas Taylor (Statham) putting a stop to a bunch of scurvy knaves dumping toxic waste in the ocean, all just part of his eco commitment to some organisation with a mission to protect the world’s seas, at one point being referred to as a green James Bond, alongside his colleagues Mac (Cliff Curtis) and DJ (Page Kennedy), from the first film, and new addition Jess (Skyler Samuels). Meanwhile, Chinese action star Jing Wu joins the cast (but with only token stunt work) as billionaire philanthropist Jiuming, the owner of a high-tech oceanographic institute in Hainan (run by Sienna Guillory) and the brother of Suyin from the original who, along with her husband, are apparently now both dead. Which leaves him as the ward of his niece, the now 14 year old Meiyinh (returnee Shuya Sophia Cai) to whom Jason also plays surrogate dad. Jiuming also has a pet Meg, which he’s trained and even named, and developed a new high pressure suit for underwater exploration of the titular trench which lies beneath the cold zone above which Megs can’t venture.
However, when the two submersibles venture forth they both find themselves attacked by several Megs and also discover an illicit secret mining operation (apparently build without anyone noticing), with those behind it (cue corporate greed villains) keen to ensure Jonas and the three other survivors (including Melissanthi Mahut whose character arc is all over the place), who’ve managed to seek refuge in it (after losing team members you won’t remember) don’t return to the surface, a task assigned to one-dimensional cackling mercenary Montes (Sergio Peris-Mencheta) and a touch of sabotage from a trusted colleague.
Slow to start it builds almost no tension before plunging into the last act showdown involving armed mercenaries, dinosaurs, mediocre CGI giant sharks and even a humungous octopus as an array of island getaway partygoers become fish food (but not the cute dog you’ll be pleased to hear), dead bodies and harpoons fall victim to continuity errors and Jonas arms himself with a jet ski and makeshift exploding harpoons.
Littering the surprisingly bloodless film with knowing references to Jaws and Jurassic Park does it no favours and, while it does admittedly lived up slightly in the preposterous climax, this is really no fun at all, all big teeth and no bite. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel; Vue)
Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One (12A)
Tom Cruise saved last year’s box office with Top Gun: Maverick, and he’s doing it again now with the first part of the purported final outing for the IMF. It’s almost 40 years since The Terminator offered a vision of a world where artificial intelligence went rogue, and, again directed by Christopher McQuarrie, that’s the same premise underlining this, tapping into a very current issue of AI technofear. This time round the bad guy is a source code, an artificial intelligence named The Entity which has gone sentient and has the ability to control anything digital on a global scale. Understandably, every government in the world wants to get its hands on the interlocking two keys that can access it so they can weaponise it, and equally understandably Ethan Hunt (Cruise), who at one point is told he’s playing four-dimensional chess with an algorithm”, wants to destroy it.
It opens with a prologue in which a high-tech Russian submarine is undergoing manoeuvres using the software to render it invisible. Detecting an approaching hostile vessel, it fires its torpedoes. At which point the target simply vanishes and the torpedo turns back to destroy the submarine from whence it came, sending the bodies holding the two keys to the frozen surface. Fast forward and Hunt receives a new mission that sends him to the Namib desert where, pursued by a bunch of bounty hunters, sometime ally ultra cool former MI6 agent Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson) has one of the keys.
Having retrieved it, the action switches to the US and a meeting of the combined intelligence forces, The Community, headed by National Intelligence head Denlinger (Cary Elwes), among them IMF director Eugene Kittridge (Henry Czerny reprising the role from the first Mission: Impossible) where, infiltrating the meeting, Hunt learns about the danger The Entity poses and is warned the world he knows has changed forever. Thus he and his crew, Benji (Simon Pegg) and Luther (Ving Rhames) now have to recover the other key which is apparently in Abu Dhabi where it is to be auctioned to the highest bidder. However, matters are complicated when the key Hunt has is stolen by British pickpocket Grace (Hayley Atwell, a terrific addition to the franchise) while he himself is being hunted down by Briggs (Shea Whigham) and Degas (Greg Tarzen Davis), Community enforcers despatched by Kittridge to prevent him destroying the keys and take him into custody at any cost. Further problems present themselves in the form of Gabriel (Esai Morales), a mercenary who is acting as The Entity’s human agent and who, it turns out, was the one who killed a never identified woman close to Hunt prior to him joining the IMF. However, as he’s the only one with access to The Entity, personal vengeance will just have to wait. Gabriel, in turn, is working with Paris (Pom Klementieff, aka Mantis from Guardians), a French assassin whose mission is to take out both Hunt, who is working alone with Benji and Luther otherwise occupied (though both get their moments in the spotlight), and Grace, setting up a hair-raising car chase through Rome and also delivers some of the best laughs as the fleeing pair are, handcuffed together, forced to try and (in a nod to The Italian Job) escape in an unresponsive yellow Fiat 500. And then there’s another figure from the past, Alanna Mitsopolis (Vanessa Kirby), an international black market arms dealer who is also in a deal to sell the keys to Gabriel.
Almost like a baton-passing relay race, the electrifying action jumps from the Dubai airport cat and mouse chases (actually filmed at Birmingham’s Grand Central) to the streets of Rome to a swish party in Venice to the jaw-dropping sight of Hunt riding a motorbike off the top of a mountain (delivering dialogue while in freefall) so, in the climactic sequence, he can parachute on to the runaway Orient Express (the actual stunts fight atop the carriages makes the similar CGI scenes in Dial of Destiny look even more shoddy) carrying Gabriel, Paris, Briggs, Degas, Alanna and Grace, disguised as Alanna, and recover the keys. And with The Entity seemingly able to predict Hunt’s every move, any number of side switching and betrayals, and, between those IMF latex masks and digital manipulation, never always knowing who is who, it’s almost exhausting trying to keep up.
Given this is the first step towards wrapping up the franchises, be warned not everyone is going to make it to Part Two, affording the film quieter more emotional moments with, at one point, the team telling Hunt the mission means more than their lives while he tells Grace her lift matters more than his. At over two and a half hours, the time flies by and the wait until everything wraps up next June is going to be almost impossible to bear. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Everyman; Mockingbird; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Vue)
The Mother (12A)
Jennifer Lopez tools up as a military sniper turned underground arms deals broker turned FBI informant turned maternal badass in this pulpy but enjoyable action thriller. Never named, the film opens with Lopez in an FBI safe house striking a deal to give up her two former partners (both professionally and sexually) only for it to prove not so safe after all, leading to several agents getting killed and Adrian (Joseph Fiennes), one of her former lovers one of whom is likely the father, stabbing her pregnant belly. The baby’s saved but, to keep her safe, Lopez is forced to give her up, getting Cruise (Omari Hardwick), the agent whose life she saved to agree to keep an eye on her ( a sort of surrogate uncle) and send photographs on every birthday. Fast forward 12 years and, watched over by an old army buddy (Paul Raci), Lopez is living in the remote wilds of Alaska, but has to come out of hiding on learning that her other ex-associate, Hector (Gael Bernal Garcia) has abducted her daughter, Zoe (Lucy Paez), to lure her out of hiding.
From this point it’s all fairly generic, Lopez shooting, stabbing, punching with fists wrapped in barbed wire, riding a motorbike down city steps, rescuing Zoe from Hector’s Cuban hideout and then taking her out into the snowy wilds and, though she’s initially resentful and hostile about being abandoned, training her to be a sharpshooter and how to knife fight before Adrian re-emerges for the snowmobiles cat and mouse showdown.
Efficiently helmed by Niki Caro whose Whale Rider showed she knows how to direct female actors, it makes a decent fist of exploring the primal maternal instinct but, at the end of the day, it’s still the sort of shoot em up revenge thriller Jason Statham or Liam Neeson might have sleepwalked through. (Netflix)
Opening with the heroic Gloreth establishing an order of knights dedicated to protecting the world from the monsters that lurk outside its walls, this animated fantasy adventure fast forwards a 1000 years to a futuristic city and, headed by The Director (Frances Conroy), the Institute where the queen is about to appoint new knights from the graduating cadets, among them Ambrosius Goldenloin (Eugene Lee Yang), a descendent of Gloreth, and Ballister Boldheart (Riz Ahmed). The latter is controversial given that he will be the first commoner accorded such an honour in the queen’s intention to give everyone a chance to be a hero and Ballister is understandably worried that, like bullying fellow cadet Thoddeus (Beck Bennett) everyone will hate him. Instead, he’s met with cheers- until, that is, a laser ray shoots from his high-tech sword and kills the queen, leading to Ambrosius chopping off his arm and Bal fleeing, a wanted murderer. But then, in hiding, he finds himself visited by Nimona (Chloë Grace Moretz), a rebellious punky teenager outsider who, assuming him to be a villain, declares herself his self-appointed sidekick (“Because I’m bored, and everyone hates me too”). She is, however, more than a sassy, sparky, streetsmart misfit teen. As he discovers when she rescues him from prison, she’s a shapeshifter capable of transforming into a pink rhino, bear, bird, a whale and even a dancing shark, who revels in causing chaos and smashing things up. She is, in fact, exactly the sort of monster the knights are supposed to destroy. Instead, the two now find themselves joining forces to clear Bal’s name and expose the real murderer. The identity of whom it’s not too hard to work out, but then, as the opening voiceover states, things have a habit of not having the simply resolved happy endings fairytales usually demand.
Adapted from a subversive graphic novel by ND Stevenson and rescued by Netflix after being cancelled by Disney, this is very much a contemporary 2D-3D animation, not just in its dazzling visuals but in its storyline and themes. It’s revealed early on that Bal and Ambrosius are gay lovers while, uncomfortable in her ‘normal’ skin, Nimona is driven by a need to transition. Meanwhile, with the inventive narrative, twisting there’s also familiar messages about intolerance, irrational prejudice and how, in as world where kids “grow up believing that they can be a hero if they drive a sword into the heart of anything different”, if we treat people as monsters, they’re likely to become monsters.
With her catchphrase ‘metal’ and plans that rarely go beyond “Chaos, destruction, something-something-something, we win”, Nimona is a priceless animated anti-hero, her spirit and irreverent humour exuberantly captured by Moretz’s voice work while Ahmed brings the pathos and more serious notes. Driven by a punk-fuelled soundtrack that includes The Banana Splits and guitar riffs by former Sex Pistols Steve Jones, it barrels along with fast-paced action and an utterly infectious sense of anarchy and fun. The ending lays possible ground for a sequel, and one would be very welcome indeed. (Netflix)
No Hard Feelings (15)
In danger of losing her late single mother’s house in the increasingly gentrified beach hamlet of Montauk, Long Island, because of unpaid property taxes and her car repossessed by a tow truck driver (Ebon Moss-Bachrach) ex-boyfriend resentful about her abrupt lack of communication, meaning she can’t work as a Uber driver, 32-year-old Maddie Barker (Jennifer Lawrence) answers a Craigslist ad placed by two wealthy helicopter parents Laird (Matthew Broderick) and Allison (Laura Benanti) Becker. Concerned that their geeky, socially awkward virgin 19-year-old son Percy (Andrew Barth Feldman), lacks the necessary experience prior to going to Princeton, they’re offering a brand new Buick in exchange for someone who will, as Maddie puts, “date his brains out”. Directed by Gene Stupnitsky and co-written by John Phillips, it pretty much follows just as you would expect from a film channelling cringeworthy 80s sex comedies like Risky Business (though equally there’s a hint of Paul Thomas Anderson and Cameron Crowe). As in, naturally not revealing her job as a fuck for hire, under the ruse of wanting to adopt a dog from the rescue shelter where he volunteers, Maddie inveigles her way into Percy’s life who, of course, while shy, turns out to be not as much a nerd as he first appears, a relationship gradually blossoming although the crucial consummation keeps running into obstacles. Just as inevitably, the two having grown genuinely close, the truth will eventually come out, setting up the equally predictable dinner with parents scene, the break up and make up.
Pushing the edginess with Lawrence going full frontal (something even the enjoyably vulgar Porky’s resisted) in a skinny dipping scene and subsequent fight with three teens stealing their clothes, it’s both peppered with laugh out loud gags, innuendos and embarrassing moments but also irresistibly sweet with a subtext about her relationship with the pure-hearted Percy opening up the insecure Maddie to moving on in her life (and any hopes that her estranged wealthy father will ever be part of her life) rather than remaining forever stuck in Montauk stasis.
Not everything works; Percy’s overprotective former male nanny Jody (Kyle Mooney) feels a redundant excuse for some unnecessary homophobic jokes. However, Lawrence proves to have solid comic timing (both physical and verbal) as well as dramatic sass, Feldman recalls a young Dustin Hoffman, an aspiring musician his ‘prom night’ restaurant serenading of Maddie with Hall & Oates’ Maneater is a treat, while Scott MacArthur and Natalie Morales, as his pregnant partner and Maddie’s restaurant co-worker, provide solid comic support. It may play the raunchy card, but ultimately this is a sweet, endearing and big-hearted tale of friendship and self-discovery. (Vue)
Operation Fortune:Ruse De Guerre (15)
Its planned cinema released scuppered by the bad timing of having Ukrainian villains, Guy Ritchie’s second venture into espionage territory after the underrated The Man from U.N.C.L.E. finally surfaces on a streaming platform, and, a quintessential Ritchie romp with Mission Impossible echoes, is pretty much worth the subscription in itself. The plot is a familiar recover a secret weapon that’s been stolen for sale on the black market, so that gives a good idea of what to expect in terms of rival operatives, double crosses and location-hopping, all of which the cast and screenplay milk to hugely enjoyable effect with a mix of high octane action and rapid bite banter. Almost inevitably, it involves Jason Statham who, as loose cannon freelance contractor Orson Fortune, is enlisted by the British government in the form of effete operation handler Nathan Jasmine (Cary Elwes) reporting to his ministerial boss Eddie Marsan, to recover “The Handle”, to which end he recruits a team comprising hacker Sara Fidel (Aubrey Plaza) and everyman J.J. Davies (Bugzy Malone) while, in the opposite corner is sneaky rival Mike (Peter Ferdinando) and his gang of heavies.
The middleman negotiating the weapon’s sale is billionaire arms dealer Greg Simmonds (Hugh Grant in Hugh Grant wisecracking pantomime bad guy mode) and to infiltrate his inner circle, Fortune ropes in Danny Francesco (Josh Hartnett), an action movie star with whom Simmonds is obsessed, Sara playing his girlfriend and Fortune his manager. With the events and action variously playing out in Cannes, Madrid, and Morocco with a car chase through a Turkish Cliffside, a finale in which Fortune climbs a glass tower and a mid-heist scene where he takes time out to watch the ‘Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head’ bicycle scene from Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid. Knowingly silly with tongues firmly in cheek and everyone clearly having a great time, it’s preposterously energetic and entertaining supercharged fun. (Amazon Prime)
Adapted from the 2005 biography American Prometheus, writer-director Christopher Nolan delivers his finest work to date, a triumphant biopic of Robert J. Oppenheimer, the man who created the Atom Bomb and, as the film unambiguously avers, consigned the world to eventual destruction at its own hand. As Oppenheimer quoted from the Bhagavad Gita “Now I am become Death, destroyer of worlds”.
Unfolding over a gripping three hours that embraces courtroom procedural, character study and thriller (a feeling accentuated by the score), it moves back in forth in time, framed by and intercutting with Fusion (filmed in black and white) and Fission (in colour). The former is a recreation of the 1959 Cabinet hearings to confirm Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey Jr.), former head of the US Atomic Energy Commission and a politician closely linked to Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy), as Secretary of Commerce, the latter the loaded behind closed doors McCarthy-era 1954 AEC enquiry driven by attorney Roger Robb (Jason Clarke) to determine if a scapegoated Oppenheimer was a loyal American and should retain his security clearance or not. The theme of American creating and then destroying its heroes when they become an annoyance has been done before, but rarely as well as this.
There’s a few scenes involving the younger Oppenheimer, an ambitious Jewish theorist in the new field of quantum physics, his on-off affair with Jean (Florence Pugh), a Communist Party member, an accusation also levelled at him (he was actually a political agnostic), and his early days teaching and working at the University of California and the California Institute of Technology with Ernest Lawrence (Josh Hartnett). The heart of the film, however, focuses on the 1940s when, following events leading up to the 1945 Trinity bomb test, he’s enlisted by General Leslie Groves (Matt Damon) to head up the Manhattan Project, which, at a secluded purpose built desert town of Los Alamos in New Mexico, gathered together America’s top scientists and engineers to build the first atomic weapon, initially to beat Nazi Germany to the punch and, when Hitler fell, dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, more as a demonstration of capability than to bring Japan to submission.
As such, this element of the film is dense in its exploration of moral quandaries about the gulf between idea and application, Oppenheimer’s guilt-haunted but very real concerns about the potential for a nuclear arms race with Russia and his opposition to the hydrogen bomb while the 50s section concerns the emotional and political fallout, the Cabinet hearings revealing his betrayal by the self-serving Strauss, the Salieri to his Mozart, smarting over an earlier humiliation at a congressional hearing,
Alongside a stunning and physically transformative haunting and haunted performance by Murphy with a mastery of a dead-eyed stare, coming to realise the consequences of his arrogance, Downey Jr at the very peak of his powers and a wonderfully prickly Damon, the film is populated by solid supporting turns from the likes Rami Malik, Casey Affleck’s military intelligence officer, Benny Safdie as Hungarian physicist and H-bomb advocate Edward Teller), Gary Oldman as President Truman (scathingly dismissing Oppenheimer as a cry-baby) Kenneth Branagh as physicist Niels Bohr, Oppenheimer’s sometime mentor, and Emily Blunt who, as Oppenheimer’s alcoholic wife Kitty, an ex-Party member, delivers a last act Best Supporting Actress bid, while Tom Conti gets to cameo as a convincing Albert Einstein in a pivotal scene shown from three very different perspectives.
Avoiding CGI in favour of optical effects and punctuating the film with images of fiery infernos and exploding stars, it’s visually awe-inspiring (all the more so in IMAX) and transfixing for every second of the running time. “Try not to set the sky on fire”, jokes Groves before the red button is pressed. Nolan has lit up the whole cinematic universe. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Electric; Empire Great Park; Everyman; Mockingbird; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel; Vue)
Peter Pan & Wendy (PG)
The latest live action remake of a Disney animated classic goes back to the title of JM Barrie’s book, placing Wendy firmly in the spotlight alongside the boy who refused to grow up. Directed by David Lowery, who also did the live remake of Pete’s Dragon, keeps several details from the cartoon, notably Peter’s green hat and costume and the top hat and teddy bear associated with the Darling brothers Michael and John, but there’s some substantial updates too, such that, played by Yara Shahidi, Tinker Bell is now biracial, no longer an outdated stereotype Tiger Lily (Alyssa Wapanatâhk) gets a more heroic role and (as Wendy declares to her astonishment) the Lost Boys include Lost Girls too.
More significantly, Captain Hook (Jude Law, stealing the film) is completely reimagined to give a backstory with Peter that makes him a more poignantly sympathetic figure than any previous portrayals and also casts Peter in a very different, selfish and at times cynical light. Rather like what happens to Hook’s ship in the big swashbuckling climax, it turns their relationship upside down. There is, though, still the crocodile.
Adopting an often dark tone, literally and psychologically, it opens in Victorian England at the home of the Darlings where Michael (Jacobi Jupe) and John (Joshua Pickering) are acting out the swordfights from the bedtime stories of Peter Pan, but here older sister Wendy (Milla Jovovich’s daughter Ever Anderson) enthusiastically joins in, only to be reprimanded by her father (Alan Tudyk) and mother (Molly Parker) for not setting a good example. This Wendy, resentful of being about to be sent to boarding school, is also a touch feisty, snappily saying she wants her own life, not her mother’s. Later she will slap Peter in the face for being reckless.
That night, she and the brothers are awoken by a visit from Tinker Bell and Peter (a suitably impish-looking Alexander Molony), very much real and not just a character in a story, who’s come to recover his shadow and, responding to her wish to never grow up, and, with the help of pixie dust and happy thoughts, takes them flying off to Neverland (here accessed through a portal in Big Ben). However, no sooner do they arrive than they’re bombarded by Hook’s ship, John and Michael are captured, Tinker Bell and Peter are missing in action and Wendy washes up on the shore to be found by Tiger Lily and the ethnically diverse Lost Boys led by Slightly (Down’s syndrome teenager Noah Matthews Matofsky).
Though, naturally, everything works out happily, Lowery doesn’t refrain from scenes likely to scare youngsters, such as Hook ordering the children to be executed and tying John and Michael to Skull Rock to drown before Peter resurfaces and comes to the rescue. Some of the pirates also end up as croc-fodder.
There’s a couple of nice line reversals, pointing that, in returning to London, you need to actually take the second star to the left and go straight on ’til morning, and Wendy telling Peter that to grow up might be the greatest adventure of all, and, while it may have flaws, this is generally a compelling and – dare I say it – grown up telling of a tale about the ambiguities of both wanting to hold on to your childhood and also excited by the potential than the adult world might offer. (Disney+)
Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken (PG)
In legend, a kraken is a giant multi-tentacled sea monster that drags ships to their doom. In DreamWorks Animation, however, they’re misunderstood creatures who protect the oceans from such forces of evil as, well, mermaids. Notably, Nerissa, the queen who fought a devastating war against the kraken before being defeated and her trident of power hidden away. Fifteen years later, teenage maths nerd Ruby Gillman (Lana Condor) lives with her real estate mother Agatha (Toni Collette), dad Peter (Colman Domingo) and baby brother in Oceanside, a small town where the fact that they’re blue-skinned, only have four fingers, no nose, stretchable arms and gills for ears they explain away as being from Canada. They are of course, kraken who abandoned the sea to live as humans, Ruby being warned to never go into the ocean. However, when Connor (Jaboukie Young-White), the classmate she has a crush on and wants to invite to her prom (which her mum’s told her she can’t attend, because it’s being held on a boat), falls in she dives after to save him and find herself transformed into a giant kraken, something that only females can do. Naturally, the town is terrified, though, shrunk back to her normal self when she calms down, they do not know Ruby’s secret.
Learning from her visiting goofy Uncle Brill (Sam Richardson that she has a grandmother, something her mum’s kept quiet about, among many other things, she rebels and sneaks off to find her, discovering that Grandmamah (Jane Fonda) is, in fact, the queen of the kraken, and she herself royalty. She also bonds with Chelsea Van Der Zee (Annie Murphy), the new girl in school who took credit for rescuing Connor, who tells her she’s actually a mermaid, Nerissa’s daughter, and she wants Ruby’s help in retrieving the trident so they can put an end to the conflict between the two species, to which end Ruby turns to grandma to train her new powers, among which is the ability to shoot laser beams from her eyes. Suffice to say, Chelsea isn’t exactly who she claims to be, on top of which Gordon Lighthouse (Will Forte), crusty old sea captain obsessed with killing krakens, is determined to harpoon her.
Sharing a very similar theme about angsty pubescent girls going through bodily changes that was at the heart of Turning Red (Ruby turns purple) while drawing on the familiar teenage-monster movie, it follows a fairly predictable discover who you really are path but, vividly animated, it balances some exciting action scenes with more lower key emotional ones and, even if the ending feels rushed, this offers a lot of fun for younger audiences, not to mention a sly subverting of The Little Mermaid. (Mockingbird)
Spider-Man: Across The Spider-Verse (PG)
Five years ago, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse introduced cinema audiences to Miles Morales (Shameik Moore), a Black Hispanic Brooklyn teenager who gained superpowers when he was bitten by an electromagnetic spider and then found out he was just one of hundreds of spider-powered entities existing on a multitude of different Earths across the multiverse. It also revolutionised animation with its jawdropping mix of retro comic book, Cubism and pop art. The much anticipated sequel takes all that and hypercharges it into a trippy, at times hallucinogenic, kinetic rush that feels like maxed out ADHD that can be exhausting to watch but also delivering exhilaration to every fibre of your being.
It starts, though, on Earth-65 with moody rock drummer Gwen Stacey (Hailee Stanfield), the white-clad Spider-Woman of her world, who’s having problems with her law enforcement father (Shea Whigham) who believes her alter ego was responsible for the death of his daughter’s best friend, Peter Parker (who had transformed into The Lizard). When, following a battle with a DaVinci-sketch looking version of The Vulture, she finally reveals her secret identity, looking to explain and hoping for understanding, he just reads her her rights. Bitterly disappointed, she flees into the Spider-Verse using a device given to her by Jessica Drew (Issa Rae), a pregnant African-American Spider-Woman who helped subdue The Vulture, recruits her as part of the Spider-Society, a team policing the different dimensions.
Meanwhile, back on Earth-1610, now 15, while Spider-Man is famous superhero who was a guest host on Jeopardy and made a commercial endorsing baby powder), Miles is en route to a meeting with his school counsellor and concerned helicopter parents Rio (Luna Lauren Vélez) and newly promoted police captain Jefferson (Brian Tyree Henry) for which he’s already late, he’s sidetracked when he runs into someone robbing a local store, a faceless white figures covered in black splodges which are, in fact, portals, through which he or just parts of his body can travel, with whom he gets involved in a running battle. Calling himself The Spot (Jason Schwartzman), this new supervillain was once Jonathan Ohnn (Jason Schwartzman), a scientist who worked for Alchemax, who became what he is today as a result of the collider implosion caused by Miles in the first film. Now he’s looking for revenge by ruining Miles’s life, just as he ruined his. And he’s found his holes can take him into the multiverse.
The central thrust begins as Miles secretly follows Gwen into the Spider-Verse (including a visit to Lego Earth) where he’s reunited with his old mentor, Peter Parker Jake Johnson, who, married to Mary Jane, now has a baby called May, with similar powers, and is confronted by the scarred, humourless Miguel O’Hara (Oscar Isaac), the “ninja vampire” of Earth 2099 who runs Spider-Man HQ who explains that having, in an earlier sequence where he and Gwen wound up in Mumbattan and he saved the life of the police captain father of the girlfriend of Spider-Man India (Karan Soni), he disrupted a canonical event. In other words, each Earth’s arachnid adventurer have things in common, being bitten by a spider, the murder of Uncle Ben (or Uncle Aaron – Mahershala Ali – in Miles’s case) …and the tragic death of a police captain. Now he’s thrown everything off-kilter and put the integrity of the entire Spider-Verse at risk. More than that, Miles learns that he’s an anomaly and became Spider-Man by error, that he wasn’t the one the mechanoid was supposed to bite, meaning there is an Earth without a Spider-Man where the storyline unfolded in a much darker manner. Thus Miles is declared Spider Public Enemy No 1 and with Miguel and countless variations in pursuit, he, Gwen, and Hobie Brown aka Spider-Punk (Daniel Kaluuya), a Mohawked Londoner with a guitar strapped to his back who’s animated like a living Sex Pistols album cover, have to stop The Spot and save the entire Spider-Verse, not to mention his and Gwen’s fathers by preventing the canon from playing out.
The dazzling animation is eye-popping, often shifting styles and colours within the same scene, close-ups showing the comic-book dot textures of the characters’ skins, driving things along at hyperspeed but also finding time out for quieter, more tender moments such as Miles and Gwen hanging out (upside down) on the dome of the Williamsburg Savings Bank Tower that add further resonance to the film’s central theme about the weight of responsibility (an emotional depth that has always distinguished Marvel comics) and the painful journey to self-discovery. There’s a lot of fun too as, along with a joke about the redundancy of saying Chai tea, it wheels out such web-slinging variations as Spider-Horse, Spider-Car, Spider-Cat, and the virtual reality Spider-Byte, interjecting the animation with live action that includes clips from both the Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield movies, a brief visit to a convenience store in Eddie Brock’s world and a wordless cameo from Donald Glover as The Prowler (another variation of whom provides a last moments shocker).
Driven by a brilliant score and guaranteed Oscar glories, as the first of the two part sequel, it ends, of course on a cliffhanger setting up Beyond The Spider-Verse. That won’t arrive until next year, by which time your pulse rate might just have slowed down enough to handle it. (Vue)
Written by Dan Perrault channelling his inner schoolboy with crude sniggering, smutty playground jokes about sex, large penises, piss and poop about owners this talking animals road trip is decidedly not for Disney kids even with its staple themes of friendship and self-discovery. Voiced by Will Ferrell, whose no stranger to playing puerile, Reggie is a border terrier whose owner, Doug (Will Forte) only kept him to spite his ex-girlfriend who dumped him when the dog fetched her a pair of someone else’s panties. Doug is an unredeemable obnoxious loser who spends his days on his bong and jerking off, swearing at Reggie and trying to get rid of him by driving him miles out, throwing a ball to fetch and then driving off. Reggie reckons this is a game and Doug’s exclamation of ‘fuck’ when he turns up an expression of love.
That is until he’s dumped three hours away in a strange city where, alone and scared, he’s befriended by Bug (Jamie Foxx), a Boston terrier with a deep mistrust for humans (cue second act back story) and a derelict sofa sex-buddy, who tells him all the rules and benefits of being a stray and introduced him to his canine buddies Australian shepherd Maggie (Isla Fisher) with her enhanced sniffing skills and Great Dane Hunter (Randall Park), an insecure hospice therapy dog with a cone round his head.
Coming to realise that Doug never loved him, after a night on the town learning to hump garden statues and Reggie declares he’s going to go back home and bit his dick off, thereby setting up the film’s expletive riddled version of the Incredible Journey as the four pawed friends (with an inevitable visual reference to Reservoir Dogs) try to retrace Reggie’s journey. It’s a trip that variously involves getting high on magic mushrooms and inadvertently butchering a bunch of bunnies, being impounded and escaping with a quite literal shit show, a lost girl guide, abduction by a great eagles, shagging squirrels, a voice over narrator dog, a falling out and a last act reunion as the other chums come to Reggie’s rescue and Doug gets his just desserts. Oh, and a totally gratuitous Dennis Quaid cameo as himself.
The film actually has the animal behaviour nailed down and lurking somewhere amid the ‘side-splitting’ hilarity about sniffing arses and Hunter’s huge penis and a gross vomit-eating scene there’s actually thoughtful and emotional contemporary observations on normalising toxic abusive relationships, abandonment issues, the way we interconnect with each other, how we misinterpret others’ actions and just because no-one calls us a good boy or good girl doesn’t mean we aren’t.
The frequently improvised voice work undeniably brings the canine characters (mostly real dogs not CGI) to life with a shared chemistry and individual personalities, but subjecting them to mouth such relentlessly offensive language and sexual references surely borders on animal cruelty. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Vue)
The Super Mario Bros. Movie (PG)
Originating in Japan, one of the first platform video games and, owned by Nintendo, still hugely popular among all ages (at my screening there were two grown men dressed as the character), even if the name makes no sense as there’s only one brother called Mario,30 years on the foul odour of the live action adaptation with Bob Hoskins till remains. Reverting to animation, this revival looks to reboot the film franchise by sticking closely to the game’s mechanics involving jumping between platforms, avoiding obstacles and powering up by opening boxes marked with a ?
Following a prologue in which power-hungry Bowser (Jack Black), the king of the turtle-like Koopas, attacks and destroys a city of penguin-like creatures to get his hands on a power star that will enable him to conquer his entire universe, it cuts to Brooklyn as Mario (Chris Pratt) and Luigi (Charlie Day) trying to get their plumbing business off the ground, only to end up creating chaos. Then, when they attempt to fix a broken water mains, they’re sucked down a vortex into another dimension. Separated, Luigi ends up in a fiery realm and is taken prisoner by Bowser and as such sidelined for most of the film, while Mario, who hates mushrooms, ironically finds himself in the Oz-like Mushroom Kingdom (you have to suspect the writers indulged in some magic ones of their own) where, looking to find and rescue his more timid brother, he teams up with the tiny Toad (Keegan-Michael Key) and the warrior-spirited Princess Peach (Anya Taylor-Joy), who accidentally came there as a child. However, it transpires that the literally and metaphorically horny Bowser is deludedly determined to either marry Peach or destroy her Kingdom, to which end they have to persuade Cranky Kong (Fred Armisen) to loan them his army, which means Mario must first defeat his son, Donkey Kong (Seth Rogan) in gladiatorial platform combat, during which he transforms into a cat. And then defeat Bowser before he can sacrifice his prisoners (glowing star Debbie Downer among them) as a wedding gift to Peach.
Resolutely mirroring the game and loaded with inside references and songs like Holding Out For a Hero and Take On Me, devotees of the game are well-served, though in pretty much every other respect the target audience is 7-year-olds who just want a rush of cute characters, garish colours and non-stop action sequences. Mama mia, here we go again. (Microsoft Store: Vue)
Talk To Me (15)
Transitioning from YouTube horror, Australian twin brothers Danny and Michael Philippou make their directorial feature debut with an assured entry into the familiar don’t mess with the afterlife genre that brings a fresh approach to well-worn tropes and a whole new meaning to the phrase talk to the hand. Opening with a stabbing and a shocking violent suicide at a party and a genuinely disturbing night scene where a car hits a kangaroo which is left dying in the road ( a sure nod to the deer in Jordan Peele’s Get Out), the narrative hinges on the hand of a dead psychic which, encased in ceramics, those looking for a thrill are encouraged to clasp, making contact with a spirit and saying ‘Talk to me’ and then ‘I invite you in’, whereby they’re taken over and have scary visions, but have to blow out the candle and let go after 90 seconds so that they don’t remain possessed.
One such is black teenager Mia (sterling newcomer Sophie Wilde) who was driving the car that hit the kangaroo and while her surrogate younger brother Riley (Joe Bird) begged her to end its misery, she was unable to bring herself to do so. Following her mother’s death, a gulf has opened up between Mia and her brooding father Max (Marcus Johnson), leading her to spend much of her time at Riley’s house with his big sister and her best friend (Alexandra Jensen), their take no shit mother Sue (veteran Australian star Miranda Otto), working nights This allows them to sneak out to a party hosted by Hayley (Zoe Terakes) and Joss (Chris Alosio), who initiate a hand session, everyone treating the gross-outs like some sort of supernatural high and a big laugh to be shared on social media.
Naturally, it all goes to shit, staring off with Jade’s ultra-Christian boyfriend Daniel (Otis Dhanji) being taken over by a horny spirit (cue a later foot sucking scene), Mia becoming hooked and going back over and over and Riley volunteering and being possessed by Mia’s dead mother Rhea (Alexandria Steffensen) who tries to reconcile with her daughter, leading to the time limit being exceeded. All of which results in Mia being ostracised by Jade and Sue following two graphically violent convulsive suicide attempts by Riley whose spirit Mia is shown being tortured in limbo, with killing him the only way to set him free, and her learning the truth behind her mother’s death.
With a subtext about bored youth seeking ever extreme kicks as they sink into addiction (viral and otherwise) along with the trauma of guilt and loss, the pace never slackens as the intensity builds, and while the idea that the dead really are not to be trusted may be well-worn and the narrative is overtaken by the chaos, the brothers still manage to squeeze some decent jolts before the big final twist that leaves things open for a sequel. (Electric; MAC; Mockingbird; Vue)
Teenage Ninja Mutant Turtles – Mutant Mayhem (PG)
Created as a comic book by Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird in 1984 to parody superhero stories, three underwhelming live action adaptations arrived in the early 90s with a seeming last gasp fourth arriving as computer animation in 2007. Two animated reboots followed in 2014 and 2016, the first a huge success, the second a flop. Now comes another reboot which, directed by Jeff Rowe, who made The Mitchells vs The Machines, while computer animated wisely harks back to the hand-drawn look and scribbled lines of the original comics and the early animated TV series and, if not as wildly hyperactive and psychedelic as the Spider-Verse films, has a compelling dynamic visual energy to match a sharp script.
It goes back to the beginning to provide an origin story as, breaking with his employers and their military ambitions, scientist Dr Stockman (Giancarlo Esposito) created a bunch of mutant embryos in an underground lab and, when a Techno Cosmic Research Institute strike force was sent by his erstwhile boss Cynthia Utro (Maya Rudolph) to seize his work, he ended up dead while a vial of his mutant-inducing green goo (henceforth known as the ooze) seeped into the New York sewers, mutating for baby turtles and the rat that took them in. Fast forward 15 years and the now teenage turtles, named (but never explained in the film after Renaissance Italian artists) Donatello (Micah Abbey), Michelangelo (Shamon Brown Jr), Raphael (Brady Noon) and the self-serious Leonardo (Nicolas Cantu), live secretly in the sewers, only venturing out at night to obtain groceries – especially pizza – for themselves and their overprotective surrogate father, Splinter (Jackie Chan), who, after an initial attempt to mingle with humans ended in disaster, trained them in the martial arts and forbade them to reveal themselves to the world, warning that humans will want to capture them and “milk” them for their mutant DNA. They, however, yearn to be accepted, and go to school, sneaking off to watch a film or a concert (Beyonce gets namechecked) while out foraging. Such opportunity presents itself when they accidentally cross paths with April O’Neill (Ayo Edebiri), an aspiring high school reporter (nicknamed Puke Girl, but you need to see the hilarious gross out scene to know why) and set off to recover her motorbike when it’s stolen which, in turn, involves them in her quest to find out who’s behind a series of high tech thefts, reportedly the work of someone known as Superfly (Ice Cube), she filming their Turtles’ exploits to present them as heroes.
This, it turns out, is the grown version of Stockman’s original creation who saw off the attackers and escaped with the other creature he was experimented on and who now form his mutated followers Genghis Frog (Hannibal Buress), alligator Leatherhead (Rose Byrne), rhino Rocksteady (John Cena), bat Wingnut (Natasia Demetriou), manta Ray Fillet (Post Malone), warthog Bebop (Seth Rogen, also one of the co-writers), Mondo Gecko (a scene stealing Paul Rudd amusingly credited as “introducing”) and the indeterminate Scumbug. The Turtles are initially delighted to learn they have mutant cousins who also desire to be accepted, until they learn of Superfly’s plant to mutate all creatures and wipe out humans, leading up to an explosive climax as they, Splinter (who gets a far bigger action role this time), April and the others battle to defeat the now supermutated Superfly.
Channelling themes about acceptance, intolerance of difference, family, friendship, coming of age and the need to work together, the inspired casting of actual teenagers injecting relevance and authenticity into the Turtles’ banter, the film rattles along with a series of exhilarating action sequences intermingled with self-aware pop culture gags (a cardboard cut of Chris Prine’s Captain Kirk) and such sly black culture references as The O’Jays 1972 hit The Backstabbers and of course, the villain’s punning name a knowing nod to the 1971 Blaxploitation classic. It is, perhaps, excessively violent in places, especially the use of knives, for the young audience while the suggestions of interspecies sex (Leonardo fancies April, Splinter and Wingnut exchange a slobbery kiss) are as kinky as they are subversive. With the obligatory mid-credits scene setting up a Shredder sequel, the heroes in a half shell are back where they belong. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Mockingbird; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Vue)
Vaughn Stein’s hard-boiled noir pastiche, clearly taking its inspiration from Sin City (and Waiting For Godot) amd forerver referencing Alice in Wonderland, has accrued some particularly damning reviews, but it’s nowhere near as awful as they make it seem. A futuristic sci fi plot twisting revenge thriller, it stars Margot Robbie as Bonnie, a femme fatale female assassin who sets out to win the business of a mysterious crime boss by proving she can turn his current hitmen for hire, Vince (Dexter Fletcher) and Alfred (Max Irons) against each other, to which end she also plays the role of sardonic but sweet diner waitress Annie who lends a friendly ear and some pragmatic advice to Bill (Simon Pegg), an English teacher who’s dying of cancer and looking to end it quicker, and also hooks up with Alfred who, along with Vince, is holed up in a hotel room waiting to be given their target.
Pretty much all of this takes place around a rundown railway station populated only by a limping janitor (Mike Myers in his first film in almost a decade) who shuffles around whistling Danny Boy, and all of which is monitored by an unseen figure on a bank of television screens. There’s also a lot of toing and froing involving briefcases concealed in the station lockers.
As it gathers to the climax, all manner of twists – one especially audacious – are rolled out that tie things together and, while the direction can be stiff and the dialogue cringeworthy, there’s enough of a potential cult air about it to warrant a place on the platform. (Arrow)
Top Gun: Maverick (12A)
Thirty-six years on since the original took your breath away, Tom Cruise returns to the role that made him a global superstar, the authority-bucking US Navy fighter pilot Pete ‘Maverick’ Mitchell. As directed by Joseph Kosinski, who was only 16 when the original appeared, and scripted by Ehren Kruger, Eric Warren Singer and Christopher McQuarrie, Maverick hasn’t changed a great deal in the interim. He’s relatively more centred, still single, still in top physical shape and still a captain, partly through choice, partly because he runs the top brass up the wrong way. Indeed, he does so right from the start when, learning the supersonic stealth fighter project he’s heading in the Mojave Desert is being shut down by a Rear Admiral dubbed The Drone Ranger (Ed Harris) as it hasn’t reached its Mach 10 target, he duly climbs into the cockpit and pushes it to the limit and beyond before he can be told in person. However, rather than being disciplined, he’s told to report to his old Fighter Weapons School aka Top Gun stomping ground where he learns an unnamed country is developing an unsanctioned uranium enrichment plant and the school’s best pilots are being recruited to carry out a Dam Busters-style mission to destroy it. Initially assuming he’s one of then, he’s informed instead, by Commanding Officer Beau ‘Cyclone’ Simpson (John Hamm), that he’s there to train them and select the best six. And also that (verging on obsolete) he wasn’t Simpson’s first, or any, choice, but is there at the request of his former rival, long-time friend and now Admiral, Iceman (Val Kilmer).
The hot shots candidates are all introduced in a somewhat unnecessarily extended barroom scene, the ones that matter lining up as nerdy Bob (Lewis Pullman), cockily arrogant Hangman (Glen Powell), spunky female pilot Phoenix (Monica Barbaro), Fanboy (Danny Ramirez) and Rooster (Miles Teller), the now grown son of Goose (Anthony Edwards seen in flashbacks), Maverick’s wingman who dies in action and who, along with many others, Pete himself included, blames as him for his father’s death, thus setting up a somewhat predictable arc between the two.
The same scene also introduces bar owner Penny Benjamin (Jennifer Connolly), mentioned but never seen in the original, now given a backstory as Maverick’s former on-off love interest who, now a divorced single mother, re-enters the romantic orbit. Of course, that’s a minor subplot as the film’s main focuses is on Maverick whipping his students into shape so that the chosen ones can fly dangerously low into the mountains under the radar to avoid the anti-aircraft missiles and superior enemy planes, destroy the target and get out again in a race against the clock. So cue all the expected young bucks v old fogey dynamics, pilot rivalries, run ins with Cyclone, and Maverick again bucking orders and pushing himself to breaking point to prove the mission is not impossible, inevitably ending up leading it himself with Rooster as his wingman.
As you’d imagine, right from a recreation of the opening scene (complete with Kenny Loggins’ Danger Zone), there plenty of nods to the original along with such iconic Cruise moments as a front on show of him riding his motorbike (in his original Top Gun jacket) grinning like a Cheshire cat. He’s not above taking the piss out of himself either, retorting ‘it’s the only one I’ve got” when someone comments on giving ‘that look’. While better at the grins and the grit expression that registering deep emotion, nevertheless Cruise has a particular affecting and touching scene in a reunion with Kilmer, his character clearly not long for the world (thereby leaving Maverick without anyone in his corner).
Likewise, while playing down the jingoism element, Kosinksi is at his best when the action is in the air, whether in the simulated dog fights (shot in actual U.S. Navy F/A-18s, for which the cast went through a punishing training process) as Maverick pushes his team or the actual dog fights evading enemy jets in the aftermath of the mission, where old grievances and new enmities are all neatly resolved in big bromantic hugs, even if the original’s homoeroticism is decidedly downplayed here.
Cruise again demonstrates that he’s in a cinema superstar league of his own, an ‘event’ in his own right (as the film says, it all comes down to the pilot in the box), a generous actor but inevitably putting others in the shade simply on account of who he is, though Teller at least gets to remind how good he was in Whiplash and Kosinski’s own firefighter drama Only The Brave. Along with a deft use of 70s hits, music’s provided by Harold Faltermeyer with the big Oscar nominated song coming from Lady Gaga, and while that’s no Take My Breath Away, the film, earning Best Picture nod, will most certainly have you needing oxygen masks. Turn and burn, baby. (Paramount +; Rakuten TV)