MOVIE ROUND-UP, From Fri Dec 25

With cinemas still closed under Tier 3 restrictions, until things change this column will focus on films being made available on the various streaming platforms.

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Soul (PG)

Directed by Pete Docter, this is up there with the very best of Pixar’s animation, a film which, like Inside Out and Up, offers different levels for both children and adult audiences with its cocktail of absorbing narrative, physical comedy, emotional depth and profound intelligence as it addresses, basically, the meaning of life.

Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx) is a bespectacled,   New York middle-school music teacher  with dreams of being a jazz piano player like his father, much to the disapproval of his seamstress mother who just wants him to get a  job with security.  As fate would have it, both opportunities come on the same day. He’s awarded a full time post at school and, thanks to an old pupil, also gets to audition tinkling the ivories for jazz saxophonist star Dorothea Williams (Angela Bassett). She offers him a place with her quartet for that night’s jazz club show, but, as he’s walking home, high on happiness, he falls down a manhole and finds himself a blue blob no nose soul on, quite literally, a stairway to heaven, although here referred to as the Great Beyond. It’s an inter-dimensional realm managed by shape shifting incorporeal beings which look like that 2-dimensional Cubic drawings and are called Jerry (variously voiced by, among others, Alice Braga, Wes Studi and Richard Ayoade), where as yet unborn souls are assigned personality traits at the You Seminar before earning their spark, or purpose, that will give them a pass to begin a life on Earth. Mistakenly assumed to be a mentor, Joe’s assigned to 22 (Tina Fey), a troublesome soul in waiting with a voice “that annoys people “who, despite the best efforts of   Mother Teresa, Copernicus and Gandhi, has no desire to be born at all or transition to Earth. However, with Joe’s body in a coma in hospital, he’s determined to return and, with the help of a Moonwind (Graham Norton), an astral plane pirate captain soul whose human body is aged hippy guru sign spinner on Earth, so he does, except, 22 accidentally dragged along, Joe ends up in the body of Mr. Mittens, the therapy cat, and 22 in his. Now, 22 discovering living isn’t as terrible as she’d imagined, the reluctant buddies must embark on an existential fish-out-of-water quest to switch their souls before 7pm so he can play the gig, but, meanwhile, finding himself one short, soul counter Jerry (Rachel House) is on Joe’s trail to fulfil his quota.

Echoing elements of A Matter of Life and Death, What Dreams May Come as well as Pixar’s own Wreck It Ralph, it’s a spellbinding film, funny and moving by turn, filled with such wonderful set pieces as 22 as Joe’s visit to a barbershop which speaks about finding happiness in what you do even it wasn’t what you original dream and how obsession can cut you off from having a life.

Rich with a seamlessly integrated jazz score (Joe’s talent for improvisation serving him well away from the piano too), it’s as vivid in detail and colour as it is profound in its philosophising on what constitutes the essence of out very soul as well as pointed observations such as “You can’t crush a soul here. That’s what life on Earth is for!” In a virtual Disney heresy, as Joe comes to learn his true talent might be as a teacher not a musician, it also says that, sometimes, achieving your dream might not be all you hoped for. But that, as Soul so poignantly observes, is what life is all about.  (Disney +)

 

The Midnight Sky (12)

Directed by George Clooney who also  co-stars (not never alongside) Felicity Jones, this is a post-apocalypse sci fi set shortly after a cataclysmic ‘event’ that has rendered a radiation swathed Earth virtually uninhabitable. One of the few survivors, but depending on daily blood transfusions to stay alive, Clooney is heavily bearded astronomer and exoplanet expert Augustine Lofthouse who, rather than join the rest of the team seeking  refuge, has opted to remain as the sole member of the Arctic observatory. At least he assumes he’s alone until a mute child named Iris (Cailinn Springhall) turns up in the kitchen. Given the station’s radio signal isn’t strong enough, this complicates his mission to as they need to cross the frozen wastes to another observatory so he can make contact with a five man spaceship returning from a successful mission to establish whether life is possible for humanity on one of Jupiter’s moons. Its crew comprises mission leader Tom (David Oyelowo),  soulful fellow astronauts  Sanchez (Demián Bichir) and Mitchell (Kyle Chandler), the sparky Maya (Tiffany Boone) and Sully (Jones), his pregnant partner in charge of comms. As the last hope for mankind, Lofthouse needs to make contact to stop them returning to Earth and inevitable death.

Intercut with flashbacks to the younger Lofthouse (Ethan Peck, looking confusingly nothing like Clooney) and his failed relationship with a fellow scientist (Sophie Rundel), the connection to which is only revealed in the final moments, it cuts back and further between his and Iris’ perilous journey (screenwriter Mark L. Smith recycling  his work on The Revenant but also drawing on Cormac McArthy’s The Road)  and events aboard the spaceship where a malfunction throws them off course into an uncharted area of space, prompting a space walk repair scene set to Sweet Caroline that subsequently leads to tragedy.

Adapted from Lily Brooks-Dalton’s 2016 novel Good Morning, Midnight, it’s visually impressive, especially the scenes in space and the sight of blobs of blood floating  gravity free. Unfortunately, while mournfully melancholic and sombre, it’s also somewhat dramatically inert as it trudges from one scene to the next before the final twist back on Earth and a coda as the ship’s remaining crew plot their future and the continuance of life, even if, logically, that’s going to entail multi-generational incest. (Netflix)

Sylvie’s Love  (12)

An affectionate (but coloured-led) tribute to 50s and 60s studio romances, writer-director Eugene Ashe delivers a heartwarming story of love surviving a series of trials and tribulations set predominantly in New York in 1957. It opens in 1962 with Sylvie (Tessa Thompson) waiting outside a Nancy Wilson concert for a friend when who should appear but Robert Holloway (Nnamdi Asomugha), an old flame, at which point the film flashes back to summer 1957 with the emergence of rock and roll, as represented by Bill Haley, about to depose jazz as America’s favourite music. Here, Sylvie Johnson is working at her father’s Harlem record shop, largely so she can watch TV, which her well-to-do etiquette teacher mother (Erica Gimbel) won’t allow at home, dreaming of becoming a TV show producer. Seeing a staff wanted sign in the window, in comes Robert, a saxophonist in a rising jazz quartet, who purchases a Thelonius Monk album and, after some playful banter, is hired by her father, himself a former saxman.

Even though she’s engaged, her fiancé off fighting in the Korean War, drawn together initially by a  shared love of jazz and her wide knowledge of music, it’s the start of a lengthy romance that begins with a kiss at her front door after she attends one of the band’s shows and, despite her protestation that it was just a one-off, grows deeper as, over the following six years, she’s  hired as the assistant to a  black female producer on her favourite cookery show, he and the band are taken on by a hustling English white manager (Jemima Kirke) who lands them a  prestigious club residency which, in turns, earns them an offer to play in Paris. All of which variously bring out star-crossed lovers together and conspires to keep them apart through variously a series of misunderstanding and selfless sacrifices for each other’s happiness.

When we see Sylvie throwing up shortly after she and Robert first have sex, the reason is  obvious, but she chooses to keep the truth from him, eventually marrying her wealthy fiancé, and it’s not until much later that her dying father tells Robert that he has a daughter. Meanwhile, her career on the up, Sylvie is forced to make a decision between being who she wants to be and what her husband expects of her.

None of this is given a  melodramatic treatment and the rocky road to true love unfolds in a perhaps contrived but nevertheless believable manner, even if, when they eventually get together as the film returns to its opening, it feels like overdoing things when fate conspires against them yet again as Robert, his dreams of a Coltrane-like recording career of his own rebuffed, is apparently offered a sax playing job at Motown which would involve a move to Detroit.

Luminous in their individual moments, Thompson and Asmogha also have a wonderful chemistry in their scenes together while the film also features strong support work from Lance Reddick as Sylvie’s father, Aja Naomi King as her cousin Mona,  and, albeit something of a cameo,  Eva Longoria as vivacious musician’s wife Carmen. The screenplay also drops in some racial issues references, such as Sylvia’s husband getting a high paying ad exec job because his bigoted employer needs to fill a quota and Mona part of a campaign for voting rights in the South, but, like the film’s design and use of music, Technicolour and costume, this all feels organic rather than  forced or overdone. A valentine retro romance with heart and soul, this  is a must.  (Amazon Prime)

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1917 (15)

Drawn from stories told by director Sam Mendes’ grandfather, this bravura first world war drama is about two young soldiers ordered to take a message across No Man’s Land and behind enemy lines to call off an attack that, lured into a German trap, can only end in disaster.

It’s been misleadingly touted as being one continuous take, whereas it’s actually a series of very lengthy takes (some shot up to eight times to get it right), seamlessly edited together as a fluid travelling narrative. Lance Corporals, Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Schofield (George MacKay) are woken from their peaceful naps and given the task by their General (Colin Firth) to deliver the order to stand down to Colonel Mackenzie (Benjamin Cumberbatch), the officer in charge, who, believing the Germans are on the retreat, intends to launch an assault, unaware of reconnaissance information revealing a new enemy line manned by heavy artillery. If not prevented, it will result in the massacre of the 1,600 men in his division, among them Blake’s older brother (Richard Madden). And they only have until the following morning to do so. To get there involves them crossing a devastated landscape of mud and ruined buildings, strewn with corpses of men and horses, infested with rats, tangled in barbed wire, littered with fallen trees  and pitted with shell craters, never quite sure as to whether the Germans have all left or not. And much of it must be undertaken in daylight.

At times unbearably tense and punctuated with sudden jolting moments, it grips throughout as the friends navigate through the exposed countryside and booby trapped abandoned enemy trenches (far better equipped than their own, with even the rats bigger), the camera sometimes following, sometimes in front of them, sometimes panning across the horrors that surround them. Without spoiling it too much, suffice to say that, following a  remarkable and agonising scene involving a crashed German plane, ultimately, only one of them makes it to Mackenzie, the perilous trek seeing him shot at by snipers, finding a brief moment of calm with a young Frenchwoman (Claire Duburcq) and a motherless baby (one of several almost surreal moments, another involving cherry trees), having to confront stray enemy soldiers, being swept along in a  raging river and racing across a battlefield under bombardment.

In the early part, it’s almost a two-hander between MacKay and Chapman, the film drawing you into their friendship and fears, but as the journey progresses there are several brief cameos, among them Mark Strong as an officer en route with his men to the bombed out village of Écoust, a staging point on the vital mission, that gives way to the surviving messenger stumbling out into night-time vision of hell.

Driven by a swelling score from Thomas Newman, it never trumpets anything resembling glory in wartime (at one point an officer sarcastically observes “Nothing like a patch of ribbons to cheer up a widow”) and its heroism is very much that of the courage of ordinary men facing extraordinary circumstances, and wishing they were anywhere else. Calling to mind other such war classics as Paths of Glory, War Horse and Saving Private Ryan, it’s poignant (most especially the still scene of a lone soldier singing Wayfaring Stranger to his comrades before they go into battle), tragic, thrilling and horrifying all at the same time, the human waste and needless destruction part of the fabric rather than a pointed agenda. Simply breathtakingly brilliant. (Amazon Prime)

Arkansas (15)

Actor Clark Duke turns writer-producer-director for this quirky Southern crime dramedy that, adapted alongside Andrew Boonkrong from John Brandon’s novel,  comes with more than a few laconic shades of the Coens in its shift from leisurely pacing to sudden violence, but still has a flavour of its own.

Told in chapters, it follows the accidental misadventures of garrulous, wispy moustachioed oddball  Swin (Duke) and the less loquacious and unruffled but more impatient Kyle (Liam Hemsworth, who, in the opening narration, notes that organised crime in the South is “a loose affiliation of deadbeats and scumbags”), am odd couple reluctantly thrown together as menials at the bottom of a large drug operation run by a mysterious figure called Frog, who they never knowingly meet and who, in the course of ferrying a shipment, brings them under the thumb of Bright (John Malkovich gleefully chewing the scenery), who uses his job as a park-ranger job as cover for his role as the middle-manager in Frog’s drug-running smuggling outfit sending them on trips to Louisiana or Texas in between tending the park. As the pair discover, the operation also involves a woman who goes only by the name of Her (Vivica A. Fox) who provides packages for them to deliver.

As the film ambles amiably along, contrary to Bright’s instructions, Swin strikes up a romance with local nurse Johnna (Eden Brolin) while, after he and Kyle are followed back from a deal, both Bright and his lowlife assailant (Chandler Duke) end up dead, leaving the pair uncertain what to do next with all the money, never sure if Frog knows what’s going on or not.

Switching back and forth in time and with scenes revisited in hindsight, in a chapter dedicated to his rise from selling bootleg cassettes in 80s Memphis to become a drugs boss, we meet Frog (Vince Vaughn) who first gets a job with and then stitches up a smalltime  Little Rock dealer Almond (Michael Kenneth Williams) and takes over operations before, as a subsequent chapter reveals, taking on lunkhead twin brothers Tim and Thomas (Brad William Henke, Jeff Chase) to whom he, in turn, passes on the business and retires to become the pawn shack owner whose path Swin and Kyle unwittingly cross.  Ultimately, as the threads come together, it ends up with a considerable body count.

Mixing sudden violence and droll whimsical humour with its deadpan throwaways, extending to cameos by Devendra Banhart who wrote the score and The Flaming Lips who appear as a bar band murdering  a George Jones classic as well as providing soundtrack versions of The Night They  Drove Old Dixie Down and Larry Gatlin’s All The Gold In California, it is, perhaps, at times a little too eccentric for its own good, but even so it’  very entertaining watch.  (Amazon and others)

Artemis Fowl (PG)

This adaptation of Eoin Colfer’s first of eight Artemis Fowl novels about the teenage Irish doesn’t arrive trailing exactly enthusiastic reviews, but despite its many faults – among them some wooden acting, clunky dialogue and anonymous direction from Kenneth Branagh – it ends up being quite fun, at least for the target audience.

Of course, Colfer fans will doubtless complain that it’s got ahead of the series and, rather than the 12-year-old criminal mastermind in the original first few books, young Artemis (a somewhat stiff Ferdia Shaw) is already the plucky hero he becomes later, but really that’s neither here nor there and the film does nod to that by having the elder art dealer Artemis (Colin Farrell) being accused of being an international thief whose been stealing precious artefacts from around the  world and storing them in his remote clifftop sprawling mansion where he lives with his son and bodyguard Butler (Nonso Anozie) and, brought in for added protection (even if she vanishes from the plot for long stretches and doesn’t really seem to do much), Butler’s niece Juliet (Tamara Smart).

Well, yes and no. He has, but in order to protect the world from a dangerous magic. You see, he’s apparently the only human who knows of the existence of a subterranean fairy world  populated by trolls, goblins, dwarfs and the like, from which he’s stolen something called the Aculos to prevent it from being used to by dark forces to destroy all humans and dominate fairydom.

He’s also been teaching young Artemis (initially coming across as a bratty whiz kid) all about leprechauns and the other fairy legends as if they were real which, when dad disappears (abducted by some mysterious hooded figure who wants the Aculos to do exactly what I mentioned above), he quickly learns it is when, after subduing rampant troll marauding through a wedding (all humans put into a  time freeze in the process and then mind-wiped), young (well, 84 years is teenage in fairy years) LEPrecon operative Holly Short (a perky elfin Lara McDonnell), the daughter of the late supposed traitor Beechwood, a  friend of Fowl Sr who helped purloin the Aculos, disobeys orders and winds up his captive.

This prompts the LEPrecon Commander Root (Judi Dench dressed in lime green, sporting elf ears and speaking like she has gravel in her throat) to  time freeze Fowl Manor and  send in the winged troops to  rescue her, and find the Aculos in the process. However, having bonded, Artemis and Holly are now working together to find where dad’s hidden it and rescue him.

All of this is told in flashback by giant dirt-eating dwarf digger Mulch (Josh Gad) who’s being interrogated by some sort of British secret service and who also plays a major role in the battle at the manor.

The obvious influences, chiefly Men in Black (Artemis dresses in a black suit and wears shades), Harry Potter (Mulch as surrogate Hagrid) and Star Wars (Farrell’s captor akin to Palpatine), do it no favours by comparison, but despite some confusing transitions, it rattles along quickly enough to keep its target audience distracted and the visual effects are definitely impressive. Like the ill-fated The Golden Compass 2007 adaptation before it, it ends setting up the main characters for the next stage in the adventure. That never saw light of day, but, perhaps Disney’s new streaming platform may yet give Fowl a fair chance of magicking up a franchise after all. (Disney +)

Ava (15)

Following the likes of Charlize Theron, Jessica Chastain is the latest actress to take on a gritty calculating lone wolf, hired gun, kick ass role, her as a Bostonian contract  killer for some mysterious organisation run, as we eventually discover, by Simon (Colin Farrell) and with  Duke (John Malkovich) as her concerned fatherly handler.

Naturally, Ava (whose backstory is condensed into the opening credits) comes with plenty of baggage, an ex-military black ops assassin recovering alcoholic with daddy issues whose  jilted ex-lover (Common) is now living with her estranged sister (Jess Weixler), who’s angry she didn’t come back for their father’s funeral (understandably, given he outed her as an addict when she threatened to expose his affair), finally returning home after a  lengthy absence (they think she works for the UN) to discover her aloof, sharp-tongued mother (Geena Davis) is in hospital.

We first meet her as she carries out her latest hit (Ioan Gruffud), insisting her mark confess why he’s been targeted before she pulls the trigger, something she’d been ordered not to do and which, starting with a Saudi Arabia shoot-out where her cover’s blown, has now classed her as a risk to be eliminated. All of which leads up her showdown with  Simon (following Farrell and Malkovich’s own rough and tumble) by way of  digression in which she gets into a catfight with Toni (Joan Chen), the owner of the gambling den where Michael’s running up huge debts.

Directed by Tate Taylor, who made Ma, it’s proficient and brisk, despite being weighed down with an underwrtitten B-movie screenplay with redundant subplot and far too many family drama and personality issues, and Chastain is slickly efficient as the killer whose cool composure is starting to come apart, but it can’t stop it feeling like a pilot for a series that was never commissioned. (Amazon Prime)

Carmilla (15)

Loosely based on Sheridan LeFanu’s 1872 lesbian vampire gothic horror (predating Dracula by 26 years), writer-director Emily Harris keeps the vampiric elements ambiguous (though aversion to crosses is notable), but certainly ramps up the Sapphic theme, the film positively awash with repressed desires and sexual tensions.

Her mother having died when she was young, the teenage Hannah Rae is Lara lives on a sprawling country estate owned by her landed father, Mr Bauer (Greg Wise), but is almost exclusively supervised by her strict governess and tutor Miss Fontaine (Jessica Raine), a devout, superstitious woman who insists on regularly tying her charge’s left hand – regarded as the devil’s – behind her back to prevent her using it.

It’s clear from the start that Hannah is something of a troubled personality, secretly poring over pictures of the male anatomy in one of her father’s books, subject to sexual curiosity, something of a masochist (she tests her hand over a candle flame) and obsessed with ideas of death and corruption.  Likewise, Fontaine is so sexually repressed you suspect she’ll explode into hysteria at any moment.

One night, Hannah hears a commotion. A carriage has crashed near the house, the coachman killed and the sole passenger, a teenage girl ((Devrim Lingnau), taken in to be treated by the local doctor (Tobias Menzies). The girl, with her red hair and strange accent, appears to not know who she is and Bauer’s enquiries round and about elicit no answers. Although ordered by her governess not to get involved with their house guest, fuelled by the fact that her intended summer companion has inexplicably fallen ill and is wasting away with some unexplained complaint, the lonely Lara’s curiosity cannot be controlled and, naming her Carmilla, the pair are, much to Fontaine’s patent disapproval and unease, soon cavorting around the grounds.

Drawn to the mysterious new arrival, Lara begins having intense and disturbing dreams involving body horror, blood and sex, the latter two rapidly becoming part of the physical relationship between the girls, their closeness bringing Fontaine’s own frustrated desires and carnal jealousy ever nearer the surface, the scene at the breakfast table as she awaits a tardy Lara, exhausted after the night’s secret passions, crackled with electricity. Having found a pornographic booklet in the carriage, Fontaine’s persuaded the new girl is a vampire and must be dealt with.

Moodily and oppressively atmospheric with its use of shadows and flickering candles, Ellis accentuates the Gothic air with brooding sound design and close up images from nature such as skittering ants, a writhing mass of frenzied maggots, burrowing worms and ladybirds in heat, all turning up the sexual temperature. Balancing Fontaine’s chilly nature with the palpable heat between Lara and Carmilla, the film’s exploration of the fear of ‘the other’ and the ‘unnatural’ builds to a dramatic and bloody climax, before ending on an unsettling coda that continues to haunt long after the credits. (Amazon Prime)

The Christmas Chronicles II (PG)

A sequel to the 2018 Netflix film, directed by Chris Columbus, this sees Kurt Russell return as the elvish-speaking Santa Claus while expanding the role of wife Goldie Hawn as Mrs. Claus who live cloaked by a magical barrier at the North Pole where they and their countless elves (cute CGI figures somewhere been Trolls and Minions) work to bring Christmas cheer to the world’s children

One who is feeling a  decided lack of that is precocious Kate (Darby Camp) from the original film, who, still mourning the loss of her father a year ago, and not at all happy to be spending Christmas in the tropical crimes of Cancun with her older brother, Teddy (Judah Lewis), who just wants to hang out with the girls, her mother Claire (Kimberly Williams-Paisley), mum’s  new boyfriend Bob (Tyrese Gibson), and his scaredy-cat son, Jack (Jahzir Bruno). So, a True Believer, she makes a wish for Santa to get her out of there, deciding then to take things into her own hands a fly back home while everyone else is off doing something else.

Offered a lift to the airport, only to discover Jack’s clambered aboard the golf cart too, the pair find themselves thrown through a wormhole and emerging in the icy cold North Pole where, fortunately, Santa’s out with his reindeer chasing the Yule Cat, rescues them and takes them back home where Mrs Claus warms them and up they’re given a grand tour of Santa’s Village (or, as Jack would have it, Mrs. Claus’s Village).

It’s like a dream come true for Kate, but things are about to become a nightmare, because the person who gave them a lift was actually Belsnickel (Hunt For The Wilderpeople star Julian Dennison), once Santa’s protégé who, when he became disgruntled and felt he was being ignored, started acting very naughtily and was cursed to be transformed into what he hated most, a human.

Now, using Kate’s belief in Santa, he’s returned and, using his inventions, intends to sabotage Santa by stealing the magic Christmas-tree star that, infused with holy light from the Star of Bethlehem, provides the source of his power so he can set up his own South Pole operation, using a magic powder to turn all the elves against Santa. With Dasher injured by the Yule Cat that  Belsnickel controls, now, it’s up to action man Santa, with a lot of help from Kate, to try and save, not just their village, but Christmas itself. Not easy when Belsnickel sends them on a sleigh ride into the past, stranding them at an airport Boston in 1990, where the Christmas spirit is at an all-time low.

Managing to find room for a gospel musical number featuring Russell and Darlene Love and spreading a warm seasonal message about the importance of family and finding your inner courage, its glossy, energetic and not a little sentimentally cheesy, but isn’t that what Christmas is all about?   (Netflix)

A Christmas Feast (12)

Titled Feast of the Seven Fishes in America and based on a coming of age rom-com graphic novel cum cookbook by writer-director Robert Tinnell, set in 1983, this follows the preparations for the traditional Italian Christmas feast by an extended West Virginia  Italian-American Oliverio family.  In charge of the kitchen is Johnny (Paul Ben-Victor) aided or sometimes hindered by his brothers,  the lazy Carmine (Ray Abruzzo) and the hustling Frankie (show-stealer Joe Pantoliano), meanwhile his grandson Tony (Skyler Gisondo) works at  his parents’ butchers but dreams of going to art school in Pittsburgh, for which he’s been accepted, but which he’s resigned to never doing as he’s expected to carry on the family business.

Persuaded to join his cousin Angelo (Andrew Schulz) on a double date with his girlfriend, mutual friend Sarah (Jessica Darrow), he’s introduced to Beth (Madison Iseman), the non-Italian daughter from a wealthy family, back home from Ivy League for Christmas and whose preppie boyfriend has gone off skiing for the holidays. As the night unfolds it becomes clear they’re attracted to each other. Ending up with the two of them sleeping (in separate chairs) in his shed studio (which prompts his aged widowed great grandmother (Lynn Cohen) to hurl Italian insults at her) and she joining the family for the Christmas Eve feast.

Also stirred into the narrative is Katie (Addison Timlin), Tony’s high school ex who’s still in love with him (she sleeps with his sports jacket on her bed) and, devastated by the break-up (“I didn’t just lose Tony. I lost the whole family!”), takes a job as a stripper to prompt his protective side, and the local bespectacled good natured intellectual nerd joke (Josh Helman) who doesn’t want to be alone at Christmas.

As you’d imagine from the above, it’s a warmhearted film about family and the community of Christmas shared, peppered with mouthwatering scenes of cooking and punctuated with graphic novel touches like speech bubbles. There’s always a danger of such seasonal fare overdoing the sentimentality, but Tinnell generally keeps this in check, creating a believable family who squabble and snipe but are, ultimately, always there for one another. Like the food, it’s prepared and served with love. (Amazon Prime, Google Play, iTunes, Microsoft, Sky Store)

A Christmas Gift From Bob (12A)

An early arriving seasonal sequel to A Street Cat Named Bob, this is based around two books by former homeless heroin addict James Bowen, A Gift from Bob and The Little Book of Bob, about himself and the titular stray he took in who not only helped him get clean but also  set him on the path to becoming an internationally best-selling author.

Again starring Luke Treadway as James and Bob, who sadly passed away in June, as himself, it picks up the story following the successful launch of his first book as, returning home from a backslapping publisher’s party (where he gets to  be complimented by Jacqueline Wilson), he sees, Ben (Stefan Race),  a Covent Garden busker and rough sleeper being hassled by a couple of officious  street wardens, one of whom (Steven Plester) he has a history with. Which sets for the scene for James to recount to the lad a story about a Christmas when, having kicked the drugs, he was living in sheltered accommodation and still busking and selling The Big Issue, trying desperately to make ends meet to feed both Bob and the electricity meter, usually accompanied by his feline companion and attracting a crowd of admirers.

Without going into too much detail, suffice to say the storyline involves his aforementioned nemesis, at this time an animal welfare officer, looking to have Bob removed from James, Bob getting sick and James spending the night with him as he fights for his life, the suspicion that a fellow Big Issue seller has set the animal welfare brigade on him, though, naturally, it all works out happily with a tear-jerking ending about friendship and kindness.

Joining the cast are the hugely entertaining Phaldut Sharma as James’ newsagent friend Moody who, despite his own backstory of tragic loss, is always ready with a shaggy dog story and uplifting moral  message, KristinaTonteri-Young as Bea, a selfless volunteer at the local shelter determined to bring festive cheer to London’s homeless and James in particular, and a cameo appearance by Anna Wilson-Jones as an upmarket woman James helps and who you just know will return for that final angel at the top of the tree moment.

It’s a conventional and very familiar tale, though not without some social comment bite, and, to be honest, Bob doesn’t get to do a great deal this time around, though he does high five again, but its warm, fuzzy theme of togetherness and compassion is exactly the sort of cheer we need right now. (Amazon, Apple TV, Chili TV, Google Play, Microsoft Store, Rakuten TV,  Sky Store, Talk Talk, Virgin Movies).

Christmas On The Square (PG)

A holiday musical (originally a stage production) from country star Dolly Parton who plays  homeless lady begging with a box labelled ‘change’ who is, in fact, actually angel who’s come to bring change to the  resident Scrooge, Regina Fuller (Christine Baranski) who, following her father’s passing, as decided to sell off the entire town of Fullerville, which dad founded, to make way for a giant shopping mall, the film opening as she and her apologetic assistant (Jeanine Mason as basically the film’s version of Clarence from It’s A Wonderful Life) make their way among the celebrating locals handing out eviction notices.  Among those told to pack up and move out are old flame Carl (Treat Williams), old friend Margeline (Jenifer Lewis) and the town’s pastor (Josh Segarra) who, with his wife (Mary Lane Haskel), organise everyone to resist her plans. However, it’s only when an accident befalls Violet (Selah Kimbro Jones), the young daughter of local single father bar owner Mack (Matthew Johnson), that Regina’s realises the errors of her ways.

You could write the predictable plot on a Christmas cracker motto and still have room left over for the joke, but (though it does squeeze in throwaway references to infertility and possible brain tumour) there’s no denying the exuberance and upbeat verve as everyone sings, dances and emotes and, of course, Dolly gets to showcase a tune or two on her own. One of the songs’ lyrics goes “Christmas is a time for caring, being at your best/Christmas is a time for sharing, knowing you’ve been blessed”, which pretty much sums it all up. (Netflix)

County Lines (15)

Inspired by stories he heard while working in an East London pupil referral unit and based on his 2017 short, New Zealand-born, London-based writer-director Henry Blake makes his feature debut with this powerful examination of the impact and damage involved in the use of teenagers and young children as drug mules, trafficking across county boundaries.

It focuses on Tyler (an outstanding turn by newcomer Conrad Kahn), a disaffected east London 14-year-old who, angry, frustrated and resentful,  lives with his younger sister and single mother, Toni (Ashley Madekwe), essentially the man of the house while she works nights as a hotel cleaner and brings home far from suitable pick-ups.  Disengaged and bullied at school, where he’s in the pupil referral unit, he falls under the influence of Simon (Harris Dickinson), a local ‘entrepreneur’  who initially intervenes when Tyler’s being bullied in the local chicken chippie, seeking him out, impressed by his relatively flashy lifestyle and, through being meals  and nice trainers, eventually being chillingly groomed to smuggle  drugs, concealed in his rectum (a product placement Vaseline could have done without), to clients down at the coast.

The film opens with a close-up on a blank, often distracted Tyler as the voice of a female social worker informs him that, in that line of work, he’s what businesses refer to as an acceptable loss, the scene replayed later in the film, only this time with his social worker in the frame. In-between, Blake charts how exposure to the often brutal world of suppliers and users, an abused young female addict in particular,  both shocks and hardens Tyler, his experiences then mirrored in his own life as he adopts a machismo attitude  to the extent that, at one point, he rounds on and physically attacks his mother, who is increasingly desperate at and unable to cope with her son’s refusal to cooperate with the support the school tries to offer and, having lost her job, is trying to get work to make ends meet.

Visually stark and with effective use of harsh music to compound the punishing environment, it is disturbing, unsettling, often harrowing but never exploitative and always compelling viewing that pointedly, while offering Tyler physical and emotional rescue, refuses to compromise with a pat, moralistic and upbeat ending. (BFI Player, Curzon Home Cinema)

The Craft:Legacy (15)

Released in 1996, the original movie was a young horror about a coven of teenage high school girls who use witchcraft against those who anger them, until things begin to go badly wrong. Written and directed by Zoe Lister-Jones this is part remake and part coming of age continuation, wherein teen outsider Lily (Cailee Spaeny), moves state with her therapist mother Helen (Michelle Monaghan) to live with mom’s boyfriend Adam (David Duchovny), an author who teaches about reclaiming masculinity, and his three sons. Enrolling in the local school, her first day’s a nightmare when he has her period mid-class and bleeds on the floor (it’s not the only Carrie reference), naturally making her the target for bitchy jokes. She is, however, befriended by three other school misfits, Frankie (Gideon Adlon), African-American Tabby (Lovie Simone) and transgender Lourdes (Zoey Luna) who, when they see her send resident bully boy Timmy (Nicholas Galitzine) flying without apparently touching him decide she’s the fourth member, West and Water, they need to complete their coven.

Understandably bewildered by all this, Lily’s happy to go along, happy to have friends for once, and it’s not long before their powers take flight with them freezing time during a woodland ritual. Fed up with Timmy’s bullying, they concoct a charm to make him ‘woke’, one that works perfectly to the extent he’s soon tagging along with them, expounding on Princess Nokia and   Janet Mock, developing a better taste in music and opening up about his deepest secrets. Lily develops a crush and, taking his sweater to bed, conjures a masturbatory love charm, which, inevitably sets off a whole chain on darker events that include an apparent suicide and she being ostracised from the coven.

It takes a while to get to the point where anything dramatic happens, but between Adam’s simmering toxic masculinity (come on, the name’s a giveaway, and he keeps snakes) and Helen telling Lily to embrace being different,  it’s clear that dark deeds and revelations of Lily’s past are living up to fall into place. It’s unfortunate than that the climactic moment, which disappointingly has little connection to Lily’s visions, is something of a let-down in which our witches (“we are the weirdos, mister”) come across more like new mutants (one can spark flames from her fingers) battling the misogynist bad guy who wants the power for himself. Unlike the original, the four are definitely the heroes here.

Likewise, while Lily is obviously the centre of the narrative interest (and Spaeny anchors the film), it wouldn’t have gone amiss to afford the other girls at least some background, just as Adam’s boys seem to be here more as place settings than actual characters (a scene where the eldest ‘sleepwalks’ into Lily’s bedroom comes from nowhere and is never mentioned again), but at least Timmy is given some depth, something Galitzine makes the most of with a memorable performance. Still, it’s entertaining enough and it ends with a brief cameo that finally links Lily back to the original film, suggesting the legacy might only just be starting. (Amazon Prime, Apple TV, Google Play, Microsoft)

Da 5 Bloods (15)

Opening with Muhammed Ali’s famous 1978 speech about refusing to be drafted for the Vietnam War and proceeding through a collage of footage of African American soldiers in the conflict, Kwame Ture’s declaration that “America has declared war on black people” and Angela Davis warning that “If the link-up is not made between what’s happening in Vietnam and what’s happening here, we may very well face a period of full-blown fascism very soon,”  all set to Marvin Gaye Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler) with its line about “trigger-happy policing”, it’s clear that Spike Lee’s latest resonates loudly with the current protests in America and beyond.

That, however, remains a subtext to this thematically sprawling, tonally inconsistent but undeniably compelling tale of a group of African-American veterans reuniting many years later to revisit Vietnam. Ostensibly, the reason is to recover the remains of their former squad leader, Stormin’ Norman (Chadwick Boseman), who was killed during an operation, and return them for burial. However, through a flashback to the mission, it’s quickly revealed that the overriding motive for most of them is to recover the caseful of US gold bullion intended for the South Vietnamese allies which they stumbled upon and buried to reclaim later since, as Norman puts it, “the USA owe us. We built this bitch.”

The four middle-aged buddies comprise Otis (a soulful Clarke Peters), Melvin (Isiah Whitlock Jr) and Eddie (Norm Lewis) and  Trump-supporting Paul (Delroy Lindo), the latter the most troubled of the group, haunted by guilt nightmares and suffering PTSD for reasons only revealed (not easy to surmise) in the final stretch when he loses it completely. Joining them, much to his father’s displeasure, is Paul’s concerned teacher son David (Jonathan Majors) while their guide for the trip is Vinh (Johnny Trí Nguyễn).

To get the gold out, through Tien (Lê Y Lan), a former prostitute who was Otis’ lover during the war (and by whom he discovers he has a daughter), they strike a deal with shady French businessman Desroche (Jean Reno), while, later in proceedings they cross paths with Hedy (Mélanie Thierry), founder of a landmine removal organisation, and her two colleagues. You don’t have to be a genius to know that, as the plot twist and personalities, motives and paranoias clash, there’s be fallings out, double crosses and at least one incident involving buried mine.

Nodding to a range of touchstones, among them Treasure of the Sierra Madre and, inevitably, Apocalypse Now (even down to using Ride of the Valkyries), it rattles along between the present quest and flashbacks to the fateful mission as the group dynamics swing from one extreme to another, one minute addressing the estranged father/son relationship, the next focusing on how Blacks were exploited as the war’s cannon fodder (cue a recreation of Hanoi Hannah broadcasting her propaganda) while maintaining a basic action movie narrative as it heads for the inevitable showdown between the Bloods, those who want to take the gold and Paul’s meltdown (a sterling turn by Lindo) as the truth of what happened to Norman back in the day emerges.

Co-written Lee’s  BlacKkKlansman co-writer Kevin Willmott, its convoluted and narratively messy, but, between an amusing nightclub dance sequence, a scene where two elderly ex-Viet Cong buy the Bloods a round and the powerful central performances, it keeps you glued throughout its two hours plus. (Netflix)

Dark Waters (12A)

Treading corporate malfeasance and courageous lone crusader territory familiar from Erin Brockovich, Silkwood and The Insider, writer-director Todd Haynes turns attention to the DuPont chemical company which, it was revealed had, in the manufacture of Teflon and the chemical it contained, from the early 1950s, been knowingly (from their own research) systematically poisoning its employees and the American public for decades. Naturally, when it comes down to choosing between profit (at one point Teflon products were generating $1 billion per year) and health and safety, human life becomes collateral damage.

Things came to light when Wilbur Tennant (Bill Camp), an Appalachian farmer and one of his grandmother’s West Virginia neighbours in Parkersburg, approached Robert Bilott (Mark Ruffalo, who also produced), a reliable, convention and generally unspectacular  soon to be made partner at the high flying  law firm of Taft Stettinius & Hollister (headed up by Tim Robbins) specialising in defending chemical companies, asking him to take on his case, claiming that his herd of cattle had been poisoned by pollutants feeding into Dry Run Creek, which DuPont (run by Victor Gerber as the smarmy CEO) used as a waste dump for the nearby plant.

Initially reluctant to get involved, having visited the farm and seen the evidence (“You tell me nothing’s wrong here” growls Tennant), Bilott persuaded the firm to let him take on the case and sue DuPont as a simple case of damage control, expecting for a quick resolution. What happened, as he found more and more evidence in the boxes full of DuPont’s files of their complicity and cover-up, led to a string of  whistle-blowing revelation, major courtroom class-action lawsuits, triumphs and reversals that were eventually documented in the New York Times Magazine story The Lawyer Who Became DuPont’s Worst Nightmare on which the film is based. He also had to battle with a resentful community since DuPont, who had no oversight from government, was the biggest employer around Parkersburg and the impact of his single-minded determination to get justice on his own wife and family.

It’s a solid, worthy and predictable piece of work that, setting the sense of unease with an opening 1970s skinny dipping scene in the polluted waters, doggedly ploughs through the timeline of events (17 years from 1998) in documentary-like fashion while, although Anne Hathaway is cast as Bilott’s supportive good Catholic wife, she has so little to do the role could have been played by anyone. However, the more facts it throws up the more horrifying becomes the scale of the poisoning, with pretty much everyone on the planet having some level of residue of the chemical known as PFOA in the body, and which cannot be removed, not only acting as an indictment of corporate greed but also serving as commentary on how willing we are to accept things that make our lives easier, without questioning the science behind it. Ultimately, it’s not up there with the films mentioned earlier, but it is engrossing and full of outrage and, if nothing else, it might make you more wary of those non-stick frying pans in the kitchen. (Amazon Prime)

Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga (12A)

There may not have been an actual Eurovision this year, but, directed by David Dobkin,  this Will Ferrell comedy perfectly captures the contest’s self-parodying multi-cultural kitsch. Unfortunately, it takes an often laborious two hours for what is essentially a  sketch that, at best, should never have gone beyond 90 minutes. Obsessed with Eurovision from the moment he saw ABBA perform Waterloo on TV in 1974 as a child in his small fishing village, obliviously naïve Lars Erickssong (Ferrell in long blonde wig) has had only one goal, to win for Iceland. Though derided by his buttoned-up fisherman father (Pierce Brosnan, playing it relatively straight with a wink in the eye), who reckons his son’s wasted his entire life and the villagers, who only want to hear them play their banal risqué ‘hit’ Ja Ja Ding Dong, it’s a dream shared by Sigrit Ericksdotti (Rachel McAdams), his elves-believing childhood best friend and platonic sweetheart who’s also his musical partner in Fire Saga.

Katiana (Demi Lovato) is already the foregone conclusion as the country’s entry, the rules see Fire Saga randomly selected to make up the numbers and failing badly. But, when the boat on which all the other contestants are partying explodes, killing everyone on board, the selection committee find themselves who choice but to enter the duo and their song Double Trouble, much to the relief of Victor Karlosson, the Central Bank of Iceland governor, who reckons winning would bankrupt them.

Arriving in Edinburgh for the contest, they get to meet all the other country’s entrants, most specifically Russia’s preening, fake tan lothario Alexander Lemtov (a brilliant Dan Stevens) with his homoerotic entry Lion of Love who sets his sights on seducing Sigrit, getting Greek contestant Mita Xenakis (Melissanthi Mahut) to distract Lars. The whole romantic subplot (Sigrit wants love, Lars is too scared to get involved) lumbers badly as the relationship strains at the seams, McAdams feeling somewhat constrained and uncomfortable in her performance while, by contrast,  Ferrell again serves up his silly man child excesses and penis jokes that have long ceased to be particularly funny.

There is, though, much fun to be had in the over the top costumes and musical elements, kicking off with Fire Saga’s wonderfully ridiculous Volcano Man video with Lars in Viking costume and running through the different country’s entries (any of which could have been actual Eurovision songs, such as Swedish hip-hop outfit Johnny John John’s Coolin’ With Da Homies) to the giant hamster wheel disaster during the duo’s semi-finals performance and the big finale where, hitting her semi-mythical “speorg note,”  Sigrit gets to sing her self-penned Icelandic anthem, Homeland.

There’s also an exuberant ‘song-along’ sequence at Lemtov’s house as all the guests, who include actual former Eurovision stars, among the Austrian drag queen winner Conchita, in a mash-up of Believe, Ray of Light, Waterloo and I Gotta Feeling, while 2017 Portuguese winner Salvador Sobral cameo as  piano-playing busker.  It slips up on some of the technical details (Eastern European hosts in Edinburgh?), but at least Graham Norton appears as his sarcastic self as the UK commentator, whose observations on the Icelandic entry might well also apply to the film itself.  (Netflix)

Fatman (15)

Putting a somewhat different spin on the usual Father Christmas movies, this stars Mel Gibson as the grizzled Santa who, with his cookie-baking wife Ruth (Marianne-Jean Baptiste) lives in snowy Canada where his gift-giving operation is funded by the government, However, have grown increasingly grumpy over the years, increasingly disillusioned with the overcommercialisation of Christmas and nursing  a drinking problem, the fact he’s handed out more coal than goodies means his budget has been cut and he’s struggling to meet overheads.  To which end, he’s forced into agreeing a contract with the US military who wants to use his workshop elves to make fighter plane control panels.

That, however, is a wholly redundant sub plot that serves only to give the climax more firepower, the core of the film being that Billy (Chance Hurstfield), a wealthy entitled spoiled brat with an absent father, first engages hamster-loving contract killer  The Skinny Man (Walter Goggins) to put pressure on the girl who beat him to first prize at the science fair and then finds a lump of coal under the Christmas tree, engages him to take out Santa Claus. Given the hitman has his own long-standing beef with Kringle, it’s something he embraces with relish, tracking him down to his isolated hideout where the inevitable Western shootout unfolds.

Blackly comic with several tonal shifts and a diverse array of influences, but playing everything straight, and with fine turns from the three leads, it may not be your typical holiday bauble, but it’s still enjoyable festive fun. (Amazon Prime)

Greyhound (12) 

A long-time project for Tom Hanks, he both adapted C.S. Forester’s 1955 novel The Good Shepherd and stars as Ernie Krause, a devoutly religious U.S. Navy Captain whose first command is to take charge of the Greyhound, leader of the light warships charged with overseeing a convey of 37 supply ships as cross the Atlantic to Britain, in 1942, a voyage with entails 48 hours without air support in a region known as the Black Pit where they are at the mercy of Nazi U-boats.

There’s a brief opening flashback to a scene between Krause and his long-time sweetheart (Elisabeth Shue) as they meet prior to his taking up command and she suggests now’s not the right time to get engaged, but other than that virtually the entire film takes place on the bridge of the Greyhound as Krause and the crew variously seek to hunt down and destroy or evade the marauding Grey Wolf pack of enemy submarines, including a taunting message from an unseen U-boat commander (Thomas Kretschmann) that comes across as unintentionally cartoonish.

As such, the featured cast is limited to Hanks, Stephen Graham as his navigator, Rob Morgan as the ship’s African-American cook, forever bringing the captain coffee and sandwiches, gunnery officer Manuel Garcia-Rulfo and Hanks’ son Chet as the sonar operator. And yet, it’s only Krause that has any real character depth, a mixture of insecurity at his first time of testing, his faith and, being Hanks, is deep humanity. Likewise, there’s not a great deal of scope for narrative development and, when not staging action sequences upon the turbulent digitised ocean (mostly dark and at night) as they either hunt or narrowly evade the subs, or a near miss between the Greyhound and an oil tanker, it revolves around the cast looking seriously at each other and trotting out various naval terms like “Hard rudder left!”  Basically, it’s a single scene repeated several times with just some minor variations. And while, directed by Aaron Schneider, it has a claustrophobic intensity and affords Hanks another chance to go minimalist and do his familiar stoicism, sincerity and integrity, it doesn’t exactly make for compelling viewing.  (Netflix)

Gags The Clown (15)

Back in 2016, Wisconsin reported a spate of sightings of a mysterious clown holding balloons, which turned out to be a stunt  by director Adam Krause to promote his horror short Gags. Set over one night in Green Bay, he’s now turned it into a full-length feature, the latest addition to the found-footage genre. One that clearly reveals more is often less.

When the clown and his black balloons (apparently filled with some sort of powder) are first seen, he’s dismissed as some nut, but some butchery in a car park (not that we ever see who commits it) quickly sets the scene for what follows as his appearance spawns teenage copycats trying to scare the locals, the cops are sent out in search, the media run constant updates and a right wing vlogger (Charles Wright) sets out with his cameraman to take down Gags himself.

Krause clearly intends a social commentary satire on how media frenzy can take over and create fear where there’s no obvious cause, but the film tends to simply make the same point over and over and, as in most found-footage horrors, what you see doesn’t always make logistical sense. Nevertheless, he does often create a palpable tension with his atmospheric lighting and sleight of hand while Lauren Ashley Carter (looking a little like the young Helena Bonham Carter) provides the spark as snarky  ambitious on-camera TV news reporter and the unfortunate, but very funny gallows humour final payoff.  (Amazon Prime)

Happiest Season (12A)

While the plot bears a passing resemblance to 2018’s LezBomb, it’s fair to say this is the first mainstream lesbian Christmas romcom. Directed and co-written by actress Clea DuVall, it stars Mackenzie Davis as Pittsburgh journalist  Harper Caldwell whose live-in PhD student girlfriend Abby (Kristin Stewart) is planning to propose, despite the objection of  her obligatory gay best friend, John (Dan Levy), at subscribing to such  traditions. She’s delighted when Harper impulsively invites her to join her for Christmas with her upscale family . Rather less so when, en route, Harper confesses that she hasn’t actually come out to her perfectionist parents, so Abby is going to have to play roommate. Especially since her conservative councillor dad (Victor Garber) wants to run for mayor and any suggestion that the family’s not squeaky clean will scupper his chances.

It soon turns out they’re a pretty dysfunctional lot, while dad seeks to impress those whose support he needs and mum (a droll Mary Steenburgen) fusses around keeping everything in order, Harper’s puppyish aspiring fantasy author younger sister Jane (co-writer Mary Holland) is relentlessly peppy in compensation for being always sidelined while her uptight older sister Sloane (Alison Brie), who arrives with her African-American husband and equally icy  young mixed race kids, is constantly acerbic. And to make Abby’s discomfort worse, Harper’s parents have ensured her old boyfriend Connor (Jake McDorman) keeps turning up.

It plays our rather as you might expect, Harper’s efforts to please her folks causing Abby to reconsider her feelings, while the appearance of  Harper’s secret high school ex (Aubrey Plaza) and the backstory to their relationship further muddies the emotional waters. But despite that certain predictability, it’s consistently entertaining and involving as it addresses themes of family and  being true to and honest about who you are, punctuated with  running gags about the Caldwells’ patronisingly response to Abby being an orphan and  John’s misfortunes looking after her fish. The sentimental ending feels a little forced, but otherwise this is warming Christmas cheer, queer or otherwise.  (Amazon Prime, iTunes, Microsoft Store,Sky Store)

I’m Thinking of Ending Things (15)

Credited only as Young Woman though at one point referred to as Lucy, Jessie Buckley is driving through the harsh winter weather with her boyfriend of six weeks, Jake (Jesse Plemons channelling Philip Seymour Hoffman) to meet his parents. She’s clearly distracted and her inner thoughts confess she’s not entirely sure the relationship is going to last much longer. Understandably perhaps since she’s an artist, poet (at one point she recites a striking work called Bone Dog) and Quantum Physics student and he’s frankly dull. At one point she muses “I’ve never mentioned Jake to my parents and I guess I never will.”

They eventually arrive at his parents’ farm and, after showing her around the outbuilding and describe in graphic details the death of the pigs, they go inside and, after an interminable delays, manic mum (Toni Collette) and oddball dad (David Thewlis) finally come downstairs and immediately present themselves as a very odd and eccentric couple indeed as they sit round he table for a very awkward dinner during which she receives a stream of texts from a friend called Lucy and Jake becomes increasingly hostile towards his folks and their embarrassing chatter and ways, losing it over his mother’s insistence on referring to the Genius as opposed to Genus, edition of Trivial Pursuit

It’s from this point, and having introduced the basement with scratch marks on the door and the likely dark secret within, that the film takes surreal flight into territory than even David Lynch might find hard to follow.  The first immediately obvious hints of how director Charlie Kaufman, working from an adaptation of  a Canadian novel by Iain Reid, messes with time as the plaster on Thewlis’s forehead shifts, it’s not a continuity error. And as the film continues clothes, hair colour, pretty much everything, transitions from one state to another, punctuated by flashes of an elderly high school janitor (Guy Boyd, who may or may not be a future version of Jake) going about his job while students rehearse for a production of Oklahoma and watches a (not real) romantic comedy by Robert Zemeckis featuring a woman called Yvonne, the name which also appears on Buckley’s phone texts.

Eventually, the pair drive back through a snowstorm, during which Jake mentions a series of events she doesn’t remember, including lengthy discussion about John Cassavetes’s A Woman Under the Influence, stop to buy an ice cream from an isolated parlour and wind up in the school as versions of them dance in a dream ballet from the musical. It all ends with an older Jake giving a Nobel Prize acceptance speech at the school to an audience that includes ‘Lucy’, made up to look older, before launching into a song from Oklahoma.

Extending beyond the two-hour mark it’s at times quite scary, but generally just utterly baffling, impressionistic and weird for no apparent reason other than being weird as it explores alienation, hopelessness and loneliness, so full credit to the central players, Buckley especially, delivering compelling performances that keep you watching even as your mind would like to end things and watch something more straightforward like a Bunuel movie. (Netflix)

I’m Your Woman (15)

One night, Jean (Rachel Brosnahan) is, as is often the case, sitting alone waiting for her husband, Eddie (Bill Heck), to come  home, when he walks in holding a baby which he announces as theirs. Confused, nevertheless, having earlier announced in voiceover she can’t have kids, she happily takes on the role of a mother, the naming the baby Harry.  It’s not until much later in the film that writer-director Julia Hart offers any explanations to the child’s origin or the reason for the name, but then keeping the audience guessing is all part of how this absorbing 70s set thriller works.

Not long after the baby’s arrival, three friends turn up and Eddie announces he’ll be back late again. However, instead of Eddie, one of  his colleagues turns up in the middle of the night telling Jean to pack a  bag, fills it with thousands of dollar stashed in the cupboard, and tells her she and the child have to leave immediately. There’s no reason given, no information on what’s happened or where Eddie is. Bundled outside, she’s met by Cal (Arinzé Kene), a mysterious figure whose background is again withheld, but who clearly has parenting skills, who drives them away as her new protector.

Clearly Eddie’s a criminal, something of which Jean is aware, but Cal reveals he’s more than some thief. Again no details are forthcoming.  Cal sets her up in a ‘safe house’, well stocked then they arrive, telling her not to talk to anyone, but, in case of emergency, there’s a phone (a pink one) in the drawer and she’s to dial the number he gives her. Emergency duly arrives, people are killed, and Jean and Harry are transferred to a remote cabin to which subsequently come Cal’s more dynamic and kick ass wife, Teri (Marsha Stephanie Blake), her young son and father, Art (Frankie Faison), the latter teaching Jean how to shoot. More background to all the new arrivals in Jean’s life, their relationships to each other finally emerge, further complicating rather than clarifying the picture. Leaving her father with the kids, Teri takes Jean to a nightclub that has links to Eddie, and that’s when things really get interesting and bloody.

Both a character-driven drama exploring themes of self, motherhood and marriage as well as a suspenseful if murky crime thriller, it daringly continues to tease the audience, feeding information tiny morsels at a time, something that is both frustrating and compelling. Brosnahan, the star of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, proves she’s far more than a successful comedic actor with an understated but deeply rich performance that, as she takes more command of her life, carries things through the less involving moments, while Kene is equally strong as the enigmatic, ambiguously framed Cal.

In all honesty, the film becomes less compelling the more the narrative explains, turning into a somewhat routine woman in distress find her inner steel/bad guys fall out set-up while the ending doesn’t have the emotional clout to which it clearly aspires.  Even so, it keeps you with until the final frame.  (Amazon Prime)

Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey (PG)

Another early Christmas bauble, this one with all-singing all-dancing tinsel and an entirely African-American cast,  writer-director David Talbert unfolds a tale with strong echoes of Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium about a genius inventor whose life is ruined when, feeling overlooked,  his apprentice steals his greatest invention, a tiny living toreador doll intended as a prototype for children everywhere. Claiming as his own, he becomes the world’s greatest toymaker while his former employer sinks into despair, his wife dies, his daughter leaves and his Dickensian shop of wonders becomes a run-down pawnbrokers with the bills piling up.

It unfold as a bedtime story, The Invention of Jeronicus Jangle, told by Grandmother Journey (Phylicia Rashad), with a   storybook the pages of which opens up computer-animated automatons pantomime, the tale beginning with Justin Cornwell as the young Jeronicus, living happily with his wife Joanne (Sharon Jangle) and aspiring inventor daughter Jessica (Diaana Babnicova), on the cusp of revealing his greatest invention to the waiting world and financial backers). However, the preening mechanical Don Juan (Ricky Martin), aghast at not being one of a kind, persuades the disgruntled Gustafson (Miles Barrow) to make off with him and Jangles’ blueprints, at which point Jeronicus’s world falls apart.

Fast forward then to the now older, grey-haired Jangles (Forest Whitaker) stewing in grumpy misery, with businessman Mr Delacroix (Hugh Bonneville) pushing him to deliver the goods before he’s evicted, while Ms Johnston (Lisa Davina Phillip), who clearly has romantic intentions, tries to encourage him to rediscover the magic. However, it’s only when his granddaughter, aspiring inventor Journey (Madalen Mills), turns up, eventually followed by and his now grown estranged daughter (Anika Noni Rose), that her positivity begins to reawaken his talents and dreams. Which, of course, is when the older Gustafson (Keegan-Michael Key, clad in garish green), reappears to try and steal Jangles’ latest robotic toy, Benny 3000 who looks a lot like the lovechild of E.T and Number 5 from Short Circuit.

Taking its cue from brash British musicals like Oliver, Mary Poppins and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, though the songs – which take in hip-hop and Afrobeat – are nowhere near as memorable (the best being John Legend’s Make It Work), and punctuated with flashes of animation, it’s awash with exuberance and energy and a big message about family and never losing our sense of wonder. Which is more than enough to lift the spirits in these trying times. (Netflix)

Koko-di Koko-da (18)

Three years after the holiday in which their daughter died the morning following her mother’s bout of food poisoning,  her eighth birthday, Elin (Ylva Gallon) and Tobias (Leif Edlund) are setting off on a camping trip, though she’s considerably less enthusiastic than her husband, who curtly refuses to contemplate a B&B and she complains he bought her the wrong ice cream. From once being blissfully happy, they are now patently dysfunctional.

Having stopped in the woods well off the beaten tracks, he pitches the tent and, in the early hours, she says she needs to peer and, stopped by a  tree, is attacked by a bizarre trio of characters and their attack dog, a cane-carrying dandy (60s Danish pop star Peter Belli) in a white suit and straw boater, a silent big-haired girl (Brandy Litmanen) with  gun and a giant strongman (Morad Baloo Khatchadorian) carrying a  dead white dog. They then turn on the tent and Tobias. The camera pulls back for an aerial shot and, Groundhog Day style, the sequence begins again. As it does several times, each one changing the set-up as the pair argue en route, the manner in which the psychopaths kill them and, scared by the recurring nightmare, how Tobias reacts each time, on one occasion cowering in the car while Elin is attacked.

There’s also an early animated shadow puppet show sequence involving three stick-figure rabbits (the couple and their daughter were made up as bunnies on the holiday), the baby of which wanders off, is carried away by a rooster and wind up dead. The film returns to this towards the end as, following a white cat, Elin winds up in an isolated house where red curtains part to reveal a screen as she watches the sequence unfold,

As written and directed by Johannes Nyholm, the title refers to lines in a Nordic children’s song, Vår tupp är död, which translates as Our Rooster’s Dead, the same tune as played by the musical box they’d bought for their daughter’s birthday and on which the same three death-dealing motiveless murderers were painted.

It is, needless to say, pretty creepy, notably so as the dandy sings Ohio Express hit Yummy, Yummy, Yummy while the dog sets about  licking up the petrified Elin’s urine, conjuring inevitable thoughts of David Lynch’s nihilism and Twin Peaks. Clearly, though never explicitly, it is an allegory about death,  grief, anger and guilt and how it affects people, how sometimes you can be dead inside while still living and breathing, the horrors experienced here as much psychological as actual.

Although he teases you into thinking doom has been evaded, Nyholm refuses to provide any sense of closure, the film ending unresolved on the same note of eerie dread with which  began, an atmospheric work that mesmerises and unsettles as much as it frustrates, and one which will long linger in your own dreams. (BFI Player)

The Life Ahead (15)

A screen icon from the late 50s through the 60s and the first to win a Best Actress Oscar for a foreign-language performance, at the age of 86 Sophia Loren returns to the screen in her first leading role since 2009 for what may likely prove her swansong, potentially adding another Oscar to her tally. Based on Romain Gary’s 1975 book The Life Before Us (previously adapted as 1977’s Madame Rosa starring Simone Signoret) and co-written and directed by her son Edoardo Ponti,  Loren stars as Rosa, old and frail but, like Loren herself, still an elegant beauty, an aged Holocaust survivor (she has a secret den – her ‘batcave’ – of mementos to which she retreats when the trauma overwhelms) and former prostitute who now takes in and temporarily cares for the children of local sex workers in the poor quarter of Bari, a port city in present day Puglia.

Largely told in flashback, Her current charges are Iosif (Iosif Diego Pirvu), whose mother seems to have abandoned him, and Babu (Simone Surico), the young daughter of her transgender downstairs neighbour Lola (Abril Zamora) who, as a man, was a middleweight boxing champion. Out in the market one day, looking to sell a  pair of candlesticks to help pay the rent, she’s robbed by a street urchin. However, shortly after, her elderly doctor, Dr. Coen (Renato Carpentieri), turns up with both the candlestick and the culprit, Momo (outstanding 14-year-old newcomer Ibrahima Gueye), a   tough kid Senegalese Muslim whose mother as killed by his father when she refused to prostitute herself anymore.  The doctor asks her to take him and in, and after some haggling, she duly does, although things don’t exactly get off to a good start. In addition, Momo lands himself the job of chief dealer selling weed for the local drugs boss (Massimiliano Rossi), making enough money to buy himself a bicycle which he rides through the streets with undisguised joy.

He’s angry and hostile, she’s cranky and imperious, and yet, as the weeks go by, a genuine friendship and mutual respect blossoms between them, he revealing the soft heart behind his street wise attitude and she showing a warm generosity behind her often prickly personality, arranging for him to spend a couple of   days a week working for a kindly local store-owner (Babak Karimi) who introduces him to his Islamic heritage and gets him to repair an antique rug with a lion motif.  However, times when the children find her sitting catatonic,  staring into space, indicate signs of growing dementia and the film essentially charts how, as the film returns to its starting point Momo helps her face the end, keeping a  promise in the event she’s taken into hospital, the prospect of which brings make the horrors of the war.

At times venturing into magic realism as Momo fantasises a lioness who cares for a protects him, at others rooted in the rawness and tragedy of life that rises above its coating of sentimental Italian melodrama, the chemistry between Loren and Gueye  and the inner lives they so effectively portray the glue that holds it all together.  (Netflix)

Lost At Christmas (12A)

Apparently the first ever Christmas movie to be set in Scotland, inspired by the short film Perfect Strangers  and directed by Ryan Hendrick who co-wrote with Clare Sheppard, it’s a light but  enjoyably appealing rom com as two strangers are thrown together on Christmas Eve in the Highlands.

at Christmas, is the story of an unlikely romance in the Scottish Highlands. Comedic, light-hearted and finished off with lashings of snow, Lost at Christmas is full of all of the things that make festive films great: the promise of magic, log fires and an exploration of the true meaning of Christmas. Jen (Natalie Clark) has travelled from Edinburgh to surprise her lover, only to be surprised to find he has a wife and kid, while Rob (Kenny Boyle) has just had his second proposal to his long-standing girlfriend rejected. They meet at the train station and, naturally, find all trains are cancelled. Looking to get back to Edinburgh, 100 miles away, in time for Christmas, she persuades him to join forces as she ‘borrows’ her now ex-lover’s classic car and, initially constantly bickering, they head off into the Glencoe hills, despite being warned by a passing policeman that the roads are impassable. And so they prove to be, resulting in them struggling through the snow and cold on foot, she with her guitar, until they finally come upon ClacHaig Inn, a remote Fort William  lodge run by landlord Sid (Sanjeev Kholi), where there’s just one room left, forcing them to share, and not much in the kitchen.

Also at the inn are a collection of guests who, for different reasons, don’t want to celebrate Christmas, have gathered to get away from it all, among them two old widowed friends, Ernie (Sylvester McCoy) and Sid (Fraser Hines), keeping up a long tradition, a divorced father spending his first Christmas in a while with his teenage daughter who’s attracted to the teenage boy at loggerheads with his single mother, and Anna (Clare Grogan), who’s all very tetchy for reasons revealed later. But, while the others may not be in a festive mood,  Jen, and her Christmas jumpers,  is determined to raise everyone’s spirits.

It’s a fairly predictable plot about Christmas being about sharing and being there for one another, but, spiced with some amusing dialogue, there’s some lovely interplay and chemistry between the cast that delivers some genuine tenderness and poignancy and with an ending that turns out to not be so predictable after all. (From Mon: Amazon Prime, Chili, Google Play, iTunes, Rakuten, Sky, Virgin)

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (15)

Following on from Fences, directed by George C Wolfe, driven by a score from Branford Marsalis with a  sharp screenplay from Ruben Santiago-Hudson, this is the second adaptation from The Pittsburgh Cycle,  a collection of ten plays by the late August Wilson chronicling the African-American community in the 20th century.  Written in 1984, set in 1927, it was inspired by legendary blues singer Ma Rainey, dubbed the Mother of the Blues, played here in powerhouse form by Viola Davis, who won a Supporting Actress Oscar for the previous film. However, the dramatic focus and, inevitably, the film’s most compelling attraction, is that it co-stars the late Chadwick Boseman (with whom Davis appeared in Get On Up) delivering a volcanic, highly physical live wire performance in his final role as her band’s fictional trumpet player, Levee, an ambitious, cocky figure determined to make a name for himself but also troubled by a traumatic past.

First seen on his way to the recording studio, his attention’s caught by a pair of flash, yellow leather shoes which he buys and proudly shows off to his colleagues, and which will prove the catalyst to the film’s sudden, tragic ending. The youngest and a new addition to the ranks, he’s at the Chicago recording studio owned by Sturdyvant (Jonny Coyne), along with bassist Slow Drag (Michael Potts), veteran piano player, Toledo (Glynn Turman) and highly religious  trombonist Cutler (Colman Domingo) the band’s de facto leader, to rehearse in the basement ready to lay down material for Ma’s next records, among them her signature tune Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, He, however, has his own ideas for the arrangement they should play, a swing intro designed to hook an audience looking for livelier, more danceable music. His swagger is buoyed by the fact Sturdyvant, seeing crossover potential,  has agreed and also expressed interest in his own compositions with a view to recording, a step towards Levee forming his own band and becoming a  star in his own right.

However, as Cutler points out, this is Ma’s music and Ma’s band and what she says goes. It’s clear from her first appearance, sporting gold teeth and overdone makeup, arriving in a swanky car driven by her nephew Sylvester (Dusan Brown) along with her latest flirty young pick-up, Dussie Mae (Taylour Paige),  and immediately involved in an altercation with another driver, that she’s a blowsy, imperious diva used to getting her own way. Under no illusions as to her status in a white America, she also knows that the sales of her records give her the power to call the shots, something she makes very clear by her late arrival and the demands she makes during the session, declaring “they gonna treat me the way I want to be treated no matter how much it hurt ‘em”, much to the exasperation of her long-suffering white manager Irvin (Jeremy Shamos).

Inevitably, then, she immediately slaps down Levee’s proposals, insisting that Sylvester will do the song’s spoken introduction (despite the fact he stutters) and they’ll play it the way it’s always been played. It’s not the only time during the session that Levee’s hopes will be taken away from him.

Much of the drama takes place in the rehearsal room where, in a mix of playful banter and more serious concerns, the conversation variously takes in fashion sense, the history of black oppression, Toledo’s views on the futility of trying to change things (“The coloured man, he’s the leftovers”, he declares after his African Stew monologue), Levee’s seemingly sycophant attitude to white folk, and, tellingly, the story of black man who sold his soul to the Devil and became untouchable. It’s here that, driven by  the friction between Levee and Cutler that Boseman’s  most electrifying, blisteringly intense  scenes take place, first in recounting the childhood trauma of seeing his mother violated by a gang of white  ‘crackers’ (who only stopped after scarring his chest with a blade) and what he learnt from  his father’s revenge  and, subsequently a physical knife-bearing confrontation with Cutler and a subsequent ferocious calling out of God for abandoning him (given added resonance since Boseman was by now dying of cancer) and never intervening to save his mother.

The knife, naturally, has, along with the shoes, a further part to play as the anger within Levee boils over in the wake of Rainey’s veto of his arrangement (his revenge is to have sex on the piano with Dussie Mae) and Sturdyvant’s rejection of his songs (and recording sessions) as of no commercial worth, the final intercut scenes, of course, underling white exploitation of black music as we see them being recorded by an all white line-up. The film will be celebrated and remembered as Boseman’s final and finest hour, but it’s also much more than that. (Netflix)

Mank (15)

During the Golden Age of Hollywood in the 30s and 40s, screenwriter Herman J Mankiewicz churned out many a motion picture, often without getting any screen credit. Then, in 1941, Orson Welles (Tom Burke), who, for his film debut, had been given carte blanche by RKO studios to make whatever he wanted, with whoever he wanted and with absolute control. So, he enlisted Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman) to write what would turn out to be Citizen Kane.

The only problem was that Mankiewicz, a garrulous ex-journalist, was a notorious drunk who had rubbed many a Hollywood executive the wrong way, getting fired on several occasions, and, on top of which,  in the psychodrama version directed by David Fincher from  his late father’s screenplay, he’s just broken his leg in a car accident. So, as told in vintage black and white (complete with the ‘burns’ in the corner that were used to indicate a reel change), he’s shipped out to a ranch house in the Mojave desert, ministered to by a German housekeeper,    monitored by John Houseman (Sam Troughton) and dictating his script to English secretary Rita Alexander (Lily Collins), all of whom are charged with keeping him away from the booze. Welles, it would seem, has generously provided him a  case of whiskey as a reward at the end of the day’s work, except it’s actually Seconal, to knock him out. It may not be what actually happened, but it makes for a compelling narrative.

Told in a  series of flashbacks, each introduced with screenplay notes, it shifts back and forth between the writing of the script and the cynical,  dishevelled Mankiewicz’s self-sabotaging drunken antics as, the court jester,  he acerbically wisecracks his way around tinsel town, and, especially Metro Goldwyn Mayer studios, headed up by the manipulative  Louis B. Mayer (Arliss Howard). Mayer tolerates his behaviour until it threatens the studio’s relationship with newspaper magnate Randolph William Hearst (Charles Dance) who, of course, served as the template for the film’s publishing giant Charles Foster Kane.

An affectionate (poison pen) love letter to old Hollywood, it balances the playful and mischievous (a bunch of writers improvising a Frankenstein plot to David O. Selznick) with the much darker side, notably Mank’s fury at learning, between them, the ultra-conservative Meyer and Hearst had, in California’s 1934 gubernatorial election, authorised fake newsreel footage to discredit socialist candidate Upton Sinclair, its fictional director Shelly Metcalf unable to live with what he did. All of which, of course, fed into the screenplay.

It’s a stellar cast with luminous performances from Amanda Seyfield as Marion Davies, a Hollywood comedienne star and the trophy girlfriend of the much older Hearst, who wanted to transform her into as dramatic actress, and with whom Mankiewicz has a platonic romance, alongside Tuppence Middleton as Mank’s long-suffering wife ‘Poor’ Sara, and Tom Pelphrey as his more successful brother Joe. However, it’s Oldman who magnetises the screen with his energy as the dissolute, at times bitter, at others compassionate, erratic genius, falling foul of Welles when, going against their contract,  he declares, that he wants a credit, something that sees him almost bumped off the project. The film won one Oscar, Best Screenplay, shared between Mankiewicz and Welles, neither of whom was there to accept, the final moments of Fincher’s film playing out the interview where Mank delivered a brilliant last word on the matter.  (Netflix)

Mogul Mowgli (15)

Co-written by Riz Ahmed along with director Bassam Tariq, this is a loosely autobiographical, powerful if at times overly impressionistic film about diaspora cultural identity crisis as embodied in the title with the Mogul referencing a rich heritage and Mowgli the man cub lost in the jungle. Ahmed plays MC Zed (An Americanisation of his real name Zaheer, and to which his devout relatives object) is an aspirant British-Pakistani rapper who, while big in New York, has gone about as far  as he can without getting that big break. That comes when he’s offered the support slot on a  huge tour, his girlfriend suggesting  he uses the time before then  to reconnect with his family in Wembley, who he hasn’t seen in two years.

Unfortunately, his return home and a scuffle with a fan sees him diagnosed with possibly genetic autoimmune condition that renders him unable to walk and with his place on the tour being  taken by his rival. There’s an experimental treatment, but infertility is a likely side effect, something his disapproving conservative father (Alyy Khan), mistrustful of Western medicine, is unwilling to countenance given the cultural importance of maintaining the family line. The film subsequently follows Ze’s determined efforts to, quite literally, get back on his feet, the treatment leading to him being plagued by hallucinatory fever dream visions (and their cacophonous score) involving figure with a garland of flowers masking his face chanting Toba Tek Singh (an area of the Punjab), as well as flashbacks to the horrors of the 1947 partition to which that refers. It’s all a consequence of being unable or unwilling to face the demons related to questioning who he is (someone disparagingly calls him a  coconut), his links to the inherited past and the ambitions for a future far removed from such traditions.

Ahmed, who has his own side career as a successful rapper with the Swet Shop Boys, delivers a fiercely magnetic performance, even when his character is at his most selfishly dislikeable,  that carries the film over the confused and more minimalistic elements of the screenplay and the at times familiar father son melodramatics. (BFI Player)

Mulan (12A)

Unless you live in China you can, at least for the time being, only watch this latest Disney live-action remake on a home device. Even so, magnificently directed by Niki Caro, its spectacle and majesty shine through.

Working from the 1998 animation as well as the Hua Mulan legend on which that was based, but minus the song and, thankfully, the sidekick dragon (though there is an ever-present phoenix, the family’s totem, climaxing in a particularly striking visual moment), it opens with the young Mulan (Crystal Rao), living with her younger sister Xiu (Elena Askin), flapping mother (Rosalind Chao) and lame war hero father (Tzi Mah), practising her martial arts skills much to dad’s pride and mum’s annoyance who reckons she should act like other girls and bring honour to the family as a dutiful wife.

Fast forward several years as the now teen Mulan (Liu Yifei) unintentionally causes havoc as the village matchmaker is trying to teach her grace and deportment, at which point an emissary from the Emperor (an unrecognisable Jet Li) arrives to inform that each family must supply one man to join the army in fighting against the marauding Bori Khan (Jason Scott Lee) who, abetted by a powerful shape-shifting witch (Zang Yimou’s muse and Oscar-nominated Farewell My Concubine  star Gong Li) is laying waste the country in revenge for the death of his father at the Emperor’s hands.

Having no son, despite his injured leg and failing health, Mulan’s father offers himself as a recruit. However, fearing for his life, she steals his sacred sword and armour and, disguising herself as a boy, rides off to join the Imperial Army under the name of Hua Jun.  Then, following an assortment of impressive combat training scenes and her determined efforts to not be revealed as a girl (the punishment for which would be death or, at best disgrace), as Khan sweeps all before him, the film builds to its exciting climax as she finally casts off her disguise, accepts her true self and becomes the legendary warrior who saves the Emperor and China.

Her first leading role in a major Hollywood film, Liu is the film’s heart and soul, struggling with the deception she is practising but also tapping into her inner chi to become the warrior events need, the moment she rides into battle, her armour gone, hair now down and flowing, is a breathtaking scene. She’s well served by an impressive support cast too, headed up by Donnie Yen as the imposing high ranking Commander Tung, her cadre of  fellow soldiers (and often comic support), the hapless Cricket,  Ling, Yao, Chien-Po and, most importantly Chen Honghui (Yoson An) who serves as Mulan’s eventual ally and romantic interest. Sporting scars and a ferocious beard, Lee makes for a powerful, driven and resourceful villain while Gong Li shines as the ambiguous sorceress – and Mulan’s dark counterpart who seeks to have her join forces – whose motivations underpin the film’s misogynistic themes of men’s fear and suppression of powerful women.  There’s also a cameo appearance by Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s Ming Na-Yen who, of course, was the voice of Mulan in the original animation.

Glowing with an emotional depth to match its electrifying combat scenes, which involve twirling in mid-air, running up walls and other acrobatic feats, it’s an exhilarating and involving spectacle likely to induce cheers in the living room demanding that you see it on the biggest screen going at the earliest opportunity. (Disney +)

Noelle (PG)

Kris Kringle has passed away, leaving behind his wife (Julie Hagerty) and two grown children, the irrepressibly cheery card-designing Noelle (Anna Kendrick)  and her brother Nick (Bill Hader) who, of course is expected to take over the family business while she, like all the Kringle women, supports him.  Nick, however, is stressed because he doesn’t have the necessary twinkle and spirit and his Santa training is a disaster, so, when his sister suggests he take a few days off to unwind, off he goes. Except he doesn’t come back and there’s only a few days until Christmas. So, blamed for potentially wrecking the holiday season,  Noelle takes off for Phoenix with her elf nanny Polly (Shirley Maclaine), the sleigh and reindeer, including the enthusiastic baby Snowcone, to find him and persuade him to come back. Meanwhile, because obviously only a man can be Santa, the elf elders decide to appoint his cousin Gabriel (Billy Eichner) to take on the  job. However, without the necessary tools, he wants to outsource  the deliveries to Amazon Prime and, besides, he reckons most of the world’s children are on the naughty list (for not flossing for example) and sends them text messages saying they’re not getting presents an need to change their ways.

Back in Phoenix amid a series of fish out of water situations, Noelle enlists recently divorced dad  private eye Jake (Kingsley Ben-Adir), whose young  son she befriends, to help find Nick who, it turns out has found his calling  teaching yoga and has no desire to go back to the North Pole.

It doesn’t take a genius to see which way this female empowerment take on the Cringle family is heading, but written and directed by Marc Lawrence, at times reminiscent of Elf (but, frankly, far more enjoyable), Kendrick’s typically sparklingly infectious performance  infuses it with more twinkle than a forest of Christmas tree lights, her moment with a  deaf girl and her homeless mother enough to squeeze tears from a lump of coal.  (Disney+)

Nuclear (15)

The debut feature from director Catherine Linstrum, set in Wales this is an often incoherent and equally heavy handedly symbolic psychological thriller that opens in the woods as 14-year-old Emma (Emilia Jones) watches from hiding as her violent ex-con half-brother (Oliver Coopersmith) violently assaults her mother (Sienna Guillory). When he stalks off, she gathers mum up and drives her to a village inn apparently totally deserted Snowdonia where, after crashing their car, they take refuge in an empty cottage and she encounters a young man (George MacKay) into free climbing, who, warning her about swimming the nearby river, tells her he wants to scale the nearby disused nuclear power station.

It’s a film about being haunted in more ways than one and, as it goes on and addresses trauma, leads you to question just how much is real and how much imagined. But, like its ambiguous title, it’s a little too quirky for its own good, be it the fact that Emma is the only character with a name, the surreal nature of the green glowing inside of the power station or the mother’s hallucinations of the ghost of a Japanese woman who perished during the atom bomb attack in WWII.  Jones and MacKay give strong performances, but the film never quite does them justice. (Amazon Prime)

The Old Guard (15)

Following on from Mad Max and Atomic Blonde, Charlize Theron further underscores her cool action movie persona as Ancient Greece warrior Andromache of Scythia aka Andy, the head of a small group of immortal mercenaries that also comprises Booker (Matthias Schoenaerts), who gained immortality after dying in the Napoleonic Wars and Joe (Marwan Kenzari) and Nicky (Luca Marinelli) who became gay lovers while fighting on opposing sides in the Crusades.  Keeping a low profile so as not to attract attention to themselves, they’ve fought on the side of right through the centuries, to which end, brought back together after a year apart, although, disillusioned by humanity’s continued inability to redeem itself, she declares “The world can burn for all I care”, she’s persuaded by former CIA operative Copley (Chiwetel Ejiofor) to rescue 17 schoolchildren abducted in South Sudan.

However, this turns out to be a set up aimed at capturing them and harvesting their DNA engineered by pharmaceuticals CEO Merrick (Harry Melling, unrecognisable from his role as Harry Potter’s Dudley Dursley) who claims he wants to end cognitive decline, but whose actual motives are rather less altruistic.

The corporate villain has become something of a cliché and the film, self-adapted by Greg Ruckahich from his graphic novels and which sees director Gina Prince-Bythewood spreading her wings after romantic dramas, never seems as assured in the basic plot framework as it does in handling the character interplay and the action sequences.

The quartet are soon joined by a fifth member, American Marine Nile Freeman (KiKi Layne) who, much to her confusion and the unease of her fellow soldiers, recovers from a fatal neck-wound in Afghanistan without so much as a scar. A psychic bond between fellow immortals leads to Andy rescuing her from the military base and, after a mano a mano fight aboard a transport plane, recruiting her to the cause, though she remains understandably freaked out about the whole set-up.

Not that, with Merrick’s paramilitary squad on their tail, anyone has a great deal of time to sit around reflecting on the cost of immortality and rapid healing, and never knowing when your time will be up.  The character depth is thickened by the revelation that Andy is haunted by guilt over the fate of her first fellow immortal, Quynh (Van Veronica Ngo) following their capture during the witchcraft trials.

As such, the film jumps around from Africa and Southern Asia to rural Paris as the group elude pursuit and seek to track down Copley before, after a betrayal and two abductions for experimentation,  it all climaxes in an extended shoot-out at Mannix’s London HQ.

Dressed in black (though flashbacks have her in Amazonian armour) with a bob-cut, Theron strides confidently through the film, delivering action and conflicted character complexity and psychological baggage with equal skill, and she’s well-supported by her four peers, Layne especially strong while Schoenaerts provides soulful melancholia and Kenzari and Marinelli introduce a degree of humour and tenderness.

With one of the group apparently losing their immortality and a six months later end credits scene that sets up further mystery and intrigue, this is clearly envisioned as an ongoing narrative, both as  high octane action and exploring what it means to be human; it most certainly deserves a sequel. (Netflix)

Possessor (18)

While it adopts some of father David’s body-horror tropes, writer-director Brandon Cronenberg’s second feature is resolutely unique and equally resolutely brutal and horrific.  As it begins, we see an African-American woman insert an electrode into her skull and then proceed to a nightclub where, dressed as one of the staff she slashes the throat of one of the customers, then places a gun in her mouth, saying ‘pull me out’. However, she doesn’t pull the trigger and is, instead, cut down in a hail of police bullets.  Cut, then, to a secret installation where a woman lying on some sort of hi-tech platform is brought back to her reality. This is Tasya Vos (Andrea Riseborough), a contract killer for an organisation which has found a way to implant her consciousness into the bodies of others, using them to carry out the hit and, ostensibly, committing suicide.

Debriefed by her handler, Girda  (Jennifer Jason Leigh), to ensure she’s fully returned to her actual self  and is in control again, it’s clear she has some domestic issues, separated from her husband Michael and their 7-year-old son, and that this is having some sort of effect on her ability to fully focus. Something that comes to the fore on her next assignment when she takes over the body of Colin (Christopher Abbott), who’s about to marry Ava (Tuppence Middleton) the daughter of his wealthy obnoxious cokehead employer (Sean Bean), who uses his workers to date-mine people’s webcams, the plan being to have him   murder them both some the stepson can inherit and then Girda can blackmail him. Having carefully studied his mannerisms and speech patterns, to the extent of successfully fooling both Ava and Reeta  (Kaniehtiio Horn) her friend who he’s also slept with, Vos prepares to carry out the kill, using Colin’s body. Except, working to a three day deadline, she finds herself suffering mental blips (depicted with flashing strobe sequences) as she struggles to wake up and he begins to reassert his consciousness until it’s not entirely clear who is controlling and  things get increasingly out of hand as it moves to a shocking bloody climax  that involves not only the intended victims but her own family.

Exploring the concept of the killer within and questions of self-identity (Vos is seen rehearsing her own personality before visiting  her estranged husband)  in a violently graphic manner (stab wound close-ups, teeth being yanked out of bleeding mouths, bodies savagely mutilated), visual effects (bodies dissolving into each other), drenched in blues and reds  and anchored by intense performances from both Riseborugh and Abbot (essentially playing two characters), this may not always be easy to follow but it’s transfixingly compelling.  (Amazon Prime, BFI Player,Curzon Home Cinema, iTunes, Sky, Virgin Media)

Project Power (15)

Variously borrowing ideas and images from, among others, Limitless, Hourman, Captain America, Wolverine and The Hulk,  directors Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost  take a step up from the Catfish documentary, the third and fourth Paranormal films, and the thrillers Nerve and Viral to tackle the superpowers genre. Set in New Orleans, sporting the No. 37 jersey of New Orleans Saints legend Steve Gleason, maverick local cop Frank (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is unofficially working with streetsmart smalltime schoolgirl dealer and aspirant rapper Robin (Dominique Fishback) to clean up the city from the bigger dealers who are peddling a pill that can give you superpowers, albeit for just five minutes and not always in a good way. He’s looking to nail the man he thinks is the major supplier, Art (Jamie Foxx) although, in fact, he’s a former special forces soldier who, plagued with PTSD flashbacks, became a lab rat for the original Project Power and is now searching for the people who kidnapped his daughter Tracy (Kyanna Simone Simpson) to harvest her DNA with the aim of producing a more stable, permanent version of the pill. Needless to say, at some point they starting with rather than against each other.  Although illegal, and without his superior’s (Courtney B. Vance) knowledge, the savvy Frank also takes the pills to carry out his duties, giving him bulletproof skin.

Written by Mattson Tomlin, currently working on the next Batman, it has a suitably dystopian look with it wet, neon lit nighttime streets while he and the directors balance some highly effective comic book-style action sequences with psychological and emotional beats and, unusually for such films, there’s no central bad guy as such, just those looking to make a killing from the drug, like sleazy middleman Biggie  (Rodrigo Santoro)  and the clandestine organisation headed up by Gardner (Amy Landecker), the scientist who first experimented on Art,  making this more a film about the war on drugs than some megalomaniac with world domination aspirations.

It makes some political points along the way (“You’re young. You’re Black. You’re a woman. The system is designed to swallow you whole” Art tells Robin) and there’s a few plot holes and undeveloped threads here and there, but climaxing in an all-out confrontation aboard a cargo ship with powered up henchmen this delivers with a charge that lasts for far more than five minutes. (Netflix)

The Prom (12)

It may not have any especially memorable songs, but, directed by Ryan Murphy,  there’s no denying the bouncing off the walls energy that drives this adaptation of the cheesy 2018 Broadway musical in which four faded theatre stars set  out to raise their profile by appointing themselves celebrity champions of  out lesbian Indiana  high schooler Emma (Jo Ellen Pellman), whose declaration that she wants to take her girlfriend to prom, leads the PTA, headed up by the uptight Mrs. Greene (Kerry Washington),  to cancel the whole event rather than be accused of homophobia by banning her.  What she doesn’t know, of course, is that her daughter, Alyssa (Ariana DeBose), is Emma’s secret lover.

All of which comes to the attention of Broadway diva Dee Dee (Meryl Streep) and  her self-absorbed gay co-star Barry (James Cordon) whose latest turkey, Eleanor, based on FR Roosevelt’s crusading wife, has just closed on opening night. Seeing a publicity stunt opportunity to boost their credibility (“We’re gonna help that little lesbian, whether she likes it or not!” sings Barry), they, along with struggling Broadway queen Trent (Andrew Rannells) and perennial chorus girl Angie (Nicole Kidman), board the bus and head to Indiana, sweeping into James Madison High School to declare they’ve come to save the day, Dee Dee bursting into the self-delusional It’s Not About Me.

Knowingly old-fashioned while flying the  LGBTQ lag, it  revels in swishing through the clichés and its fish out of water narrative (the pampered stars find themselves checked into a hotel with, gasp, no spa, but, like Hairspray, it also has a political thrust, pertinently about a  divided America, while at the same time satirising the   liberal message movies that itself represents.

About a third in, the plot direction shifts as, while the prom is reinstated (Barry demanding to dress Emma), Mrs Green and her school council cohorts have a devious plan B, one that provides the film with one of its several piercingly emotional moments as it moves into its be true to who you are/tolerance phase, including a touching moment for Barry who didn’t  stay at home to be thrown out by his parents when he came out.

The cast, which includes Keegan-Michael Key as the school principal who, a major fan of Dee Dee, provides another romantic interest/redemptive arc, are clearly having a  whale of a time, the headliners each getting with their own spotlight turn, notably Rannells telling Emma’s  clean-cut, holier-than-thou classmates they can’t cherry pick which parts of the Bible to follow while, otherwise playing things understated, Kidman explodes with her solo showcase  Zazz.  Unashamedly high camp, Streep and Cordon playing to the hilt, it’s a prom date you don’t want to stand up. (Netflix)

Radioactive (12)

Based on a graphic novel by Lauren Redniss, director Marjane Satrapi charts the story of Polish scientist Maria Sklodowska, better  known after her marriage as Marie Curie, the woman who, along with her husband Pierre (Sam Riley), created radium, a discovery that, although it was initially only offered to her husband, would earn her the Nobel Prize (twice, the only person to do so)  and eventually be used as both a treatment for cancer and  for the bombs that fell on Hiroshima (cue serene city and Japanese boy pointing to something falling from the sky), and, of course, resulting in the Chernobyl disaster.

The film opens in 1934 Paris with Curie dying of radiation poisoning (she did, after all, sleep with a phial in her bed) and her story is then told in flashback, detailing her dedication to the facts after the death of her mother, spending a lengthy period reclusive and refusing to speak,  her early research days in 1890’s Paris as she clashed with the pompous sexist member of the Academy, her support from Pierre who became both her professional and, leaving his wife, personal partner (his amusing pick up line here “Are you interested in microbiology?”), and, following his death under a horse’s hooves, her turning away from pragmatism to the mysticism he espoused.

Through all this, Rosamund Pike  delivers a consummate and suitably prickly performance as the blunt but often self-doubting Curie, whether in flashes of anger at the snobbish French scientific community  or in the hurt and defiance when, a widow with two children (daughter Irene – Anna Taylor-Joy, who herself won a Nobel for developing artificial radioactivity), she takes up an affair with her late husband’s married student Paul Langevin (Aneurin Barnard), and Paris –not to mention his wife, condemn her as a Polish whore. And yet, for all its feminist agenda, somehow the film is easier to admire than enjoy, the flashforward almost psychedelic sequences showing how her discovery was used disrupting the flow (a scene where the film imagines her kissing a dying Chernobyl fireman on the head seems particularly crass) and further muddying the debate about the positive and negative aspects of radiation.

There’s some nice touches, such as Marie grinding 40 tons of uraninite ore and how private entrepreneurs looked to cash in on this new discovery by adding it to toothpaste, chocolate, face cream and, talking of overegging the pudding, cigarettes, until users started coughing blood, but the plodding by the numbers narrative and dialogue like “being surrounded by death and radiation have brought me very little happiness” do it few favours.  (Amazon Prime)

Rebecca (12A)

Unenthusiastically directed by Ben Wheatley, this is an good-looking but overwrought, remake of the Daphne DuMarier gothic horror novel (and Hitchcock classic) in which a young unnamed women (Lily James) is wooed and wed by a whirlwind romance in Monte Carlo with widower Maxim de Winter (Armie Hammer). Moving into Manderley, her new husband’s imposing family estate on a windswept English coast, she finds herself in a  battle of wills with his sinister housekeeper Mrs. Danvers (Kristin Scott Thomas), who’s unhealthily obsessed with keeping the legacy of the first Mrs De Winter, Rebecca alive, on top of which her husband’s manner changes as questions concerning his wife’s death begin to surface. Things build to a climax when deWinter’s suspected of murdering his wife, but then the discovery of decomposed corpse in a sunken boat throws a whole new mystery up in the air.

Keeley Hawes is badly underused as De Winter’s sister, Beatrice Lacy, and  twist of Maxim’s confession to his wife regarding Rebecca’s true nature and her murder when she claimed to be pregnant by her lover and cousin Jack (a slimy Sam Riley) jars given the subsequent revelations and the tidily wrapped up inquest verdict where forensics seem to play no part, and the new addition of Danvers’ fate is risibly melodramatic, all of which confirms screenwriter Jane Goldman’s dream of going to Manderley again should have been left as just that. (Netflix)

Relic (15)

A female-driven Australian art-house psychological haunted house horror from first time Japanese Australian director and co-writer Natalie Erika James, set at Christmas, this demands patience as it slowly unfurls to a backdrop of claustrophobic atmospheric visuals, unsettling sounds and  nerve-scraping music, but the end result pays off.

First seen in an overflowing bath in her home in a rural wooded area of Victoria, octogenarian Edna (Robyn Nevin) goes downstairs, naked, and disappears from the house. Arriving from Melbourne, her daughter Kay (Emily Mortimer) reports her missing, mentioning she’s been increasingly suffering from memory lapses. A police search reveals nothing, although a conversation with the father of Down syndrome boy (Chris Bunton) who used to visit the old woman suggests something happened to end the friendship. Kay’s daughter Sam (Bella Heathcote) remains at the house, her mother’s former bedroom a veritable museum of family history, where Post-it notes, written by Edna saying things like “Don’t follow it” add to the mystery.

Then, out of nowhere, her grandmother returns, either oblivious or refusing to say where she’s been, in good health but with a strange black bruise on her chest and prone to sleepwalking and talking to unseen figures. With the  irascible, spiky Edna’s erratic moods sometimes becoming suddenly violent, it’s clear that there’s a tense relationship between the three generations as the film slowly enters more surreal territory with nightmares about a dilapidated cottage on the grounds, inherited from  a disturbed great-grandfather, though a stained-glass window was rescued and built into the house’s front door, the increasing spread of mould  and decomposition and, as the house takes on a sinister life of its own,  Sam finding herself trapped inside rooms within rooms (and memories)  behind walls. Grounded in the three riveting lead performances, the psychological and physical horrors build as the house increasingly becomes a representation of Edna’s deteriorating mental state and a manifest of the fears within Kay and Sam of following the same path before it climaxes with a final scene that is simultaneously chillingly horrific and devastatingly tender.  (BFI Player)

Rocks (12A)

Rocks (newcomer Bukky Bakray) is a teenage British-Nigerian East London schoolgirl with a strong multi-ethnic support circle of friends, among them Sumaya (Kosar Ali) Agnes (Ruby Stokes),  Yawa (Afi Okaidja), Khadijah (Tawheda Begum) and Sabina (Anastasia Dymitrow).

She certainly needs them when, suffering from depression and medication issues, not for the first time, her widowed mother (Layo-Christina Akinlude) takes off leaving her and seven-year-old kid brother Emmanuel (D’angelou Osei Kissiedu) to fend for themselves. Which, of course, means Rocks has to prevent the authorities finding out so they’re not taken into care and split up, while carrying on as if everything’s normal.

Directed by Sarah Gavron, co-written by Theresa Ikoko  and Claire Wilson and developed in workshops, unfolding over the course of a week it has a natural, fluid feel in which the friendships that are a vital part of the story are organic rather than scripted, with Bakray anchoring the film as a force of nature. (Netflix)

Saint Frances (15)

“I’m not an impressive person,” says directionless thirty-something Bridget towards the end of first time director Alex Thompson’s engaging character study, but that’s not something you could say about screenwriter and star  Kelly O’Sullivan who shines in both capacities.

Having dropped out of her creative writing course, Bridget now works as a ‘server’, striking up a relationship with a fellow, but much younger, restaurant worker, Jace (Max Lipchitz), she meets at a party.  They have sex in one of several matter of fact scenes that involve some messy bloody sheets and underwear, initially from her period and later as the aftermath of an abortion following an accidental pregnancy.

This, however, is not the film’s core relationship. That’s between Bridget and precocious 6-year-old Frances (Ramona Edith-Williams), the daughter of  affluent mixed-race liberal Chicago lesbian parents Maya (Charin Alvarez) and Annie (Lily Mojekwu), to whom, after a previous rejection, she becomes nanny as the women juggle long work hours and Maya’s postpartum depression following the birth of Frances’ baby brother.

In many ways, the film follows a familiar  narrative of  an emotionally adrift adult learning to become responsible,  grounded and feel self-worth through their relationship with a child wise beyond their years,  but O’Sullivan’s script makes it feel fresh, the subplots involving her relationship with the impossibly sweet Jace (who keeps an emotional journal of feelings she refuses to address), an affair with Frances’ older guitar tutor, Maya’s depression and the resulting strain on the marriage all adding emotional depth as the film explores what being a  woman and the different experiences involved can entail.

O’Sullivan is a delight and is perfectly matched with Edith-Williams who, in her early attempts to outsmart her inexperienced nanny and the bond that eventually grows, proves a natural screen presence which, compounded by the strong supporting cast, make this a small but charming delight.  (Amazon Prime)

The Secret Garden (PG)

The seventh big screen adaptation of  Frances Hodgson Burnett’s 1911 English children’s literature classic,  screenwriter Jack Thorne  (who adapted His Dark Materials) expanding the backstory and delivers a more dramatic climax, but this still feels a bit of a charmless slog, the characters overshadowed by the visual effects, and the performances often feeling like a throwback to the days of the Children’s Film Foundation.

Opening with a  prologue set in India on the eve of partition, her parents dead and abandoned by the servants, 10-year-old Mary Lennox (Dixie Egerickx, recently seen in Summerland) finds herself shipped off to England become the ward of her hunchback uncle, Archibald Craven (Colin Firth with a very annoying floppy fringe), the cold, no-nonsense widower of her mother’s sister, at Misselthwaite Manor, is brooding estate on the Yorkshire Moors, and under the strict supervision of joyless housekeeper Mrs. Medlock (Julie Walters).

Initially something of a brat with a sense of entitlement, Mary eventually makes friend with the ethnic housemaid Martha (Isis Davis) and, while playing outdoors, encounters a Yorkshire terrier she names Jemimah, and discovers a hidden garden behind overgrown walls. In turn, she chums up with Martha’s wild-haired younger brother, Dickon (Amir Wilson), who she takes into the garden where a friendly robin leads her to the location of a hidden key.

Meanwhile, ignoring instructions to remain in her part of the house, she’s also discovered Colin (Edan Hayhurst), her equally spoiled and bossy cousin who has been confined to bed by his father, who rarely visits him, and is apparently unable to walk  on account of some genetic spinal condition. Suffice to say, they gradually become friend and she and Dickon secretly wheel him  out of the house into the garden, where its restorative powers do their business.

The garden of course, has its own secret, as this was the favourite spot for the two sisters and their youngsters, and where Colin’s mother died, his grief-struck fathers sealing it up and subsequently locking way any memories of his wife, his son included.

A film about grief, healing, friendship, family and the power of nature, it’s visually strikingly impressive and colourful, the William Morris-style floral design of the wallpaper in Mary’s shadowy room (which secretly adjoins that of her late aunt) patently foreshadowing the real thing later and also prompting one of several, rather jarring, flights into her imagination. The introduction of the ghosts of both Colin’s mother Grace (Jemma Powell) and her sister Alice (Maeve Dermody), who also figures ignoring her daughter in several flashbacks does little to enhance to narrative or evoke the emotions intended.

Egerickx is engagingly energetic and charismatic, even when being petulantly privileged, so it’s unfortunate her fellow child actors are so flat and dull, while Walters rarely registers as more than a dour cameo and Firth, despite  saving grace final moment of  epiphany, is all one note and lacking his usual spark. Nice flowers though. (Sky)

The Spongebob Movie – Sponge On The Run (U)

Bypassing cinemas to go straight to streaming and download platforms, the third Squarepants movie finds the irrepressible SpongeBob (Tim Kenny) living happily in Bikini Bottom with his pet snail Gary, hanging out with bozo starfish pal Patrick (Bill Fagerbakke) and working alongside grumpy octopus neighbour Squidward (Rodger Bumpass), serving up crab patties for Mr Krabs (Clancy Brown) and the Krusty Krab.

However, tyrannical ocean ruler Poseidon (Matt Berry), who live in the garish Lost City of Atlantic City, needs snail slime to keep his green skin soft and supple – and he’s just used up his last one. So, looking to finally get his hands on Mr Krab’s secret formula and realising SpongeBob is the cause of all his failures, Plankton (Mr. Lawrence) snailnaps Gary, prompting SpongeBob and Patrick to set off to find him in a car driven by cantankerously self-willed robot invented by squirrel Sandy Cheeks (Carolyn Lawrence), winding up with them as Poseidon’s prisoners and facing public spectacle execution. Which, of course, is when their friends pile in to the rescue.

Featuring assorted flashbacks recounting how the friends all first met each other. like the previous films it mixes animation with live action cameos, here Snoop Dog who gets to do his thing during a Wild West dream sequence zombie dance routine in a cowboy saloon run by El Diablo (Danny Trejo) and an inspired appearance by Keanu Reeves dispensing generally unheeded wisdom and advice as Sage from inside a tumbling tumbleweed.

Exploding with colour, it is, of course, incredibly silly, but also very funny and packed with sly throwaway jokes with everyone (the voice cast also includes Awkwafina) clearly having a  great time and, of course, an upbeat message about the importance of friends and finding our inner courage, entertaining the kiddies while ensuring chuckles for the grown-ups too. (Netflix).

Summerland (12A)

One of the upsides of social distancing and lockdown isolation is that you can cry your eyes out over this soft-centred wartime drama without anyone knowing. Operating a flashback within a flashback structure, it opens in 1975 with the elderly Alice Lamb (Penelope Wilton) giving an earful to a couple of kids whose charity collecting has interrupted her bashing way on the typewriter. Cut to the younger Alice (Gemma Arterton) living in isolation in a small secluded coastal cottage in wartime Kent where she’s working on her latest scientific book providing rationale scientific explanations for mystical and  mythical phenomena, her latest being the phenomenon of “floating islands”.  The film title itself comes from the pagan concept of the afterlife.

A prickly loner who callously buys chocolate in front of a child whose mother doesn’t have enough coupons, leading the girl to think it’s for her, she’s understandably not much liked by the villagers, the local boys forever dumping twigs through her letterbox and calling her a witch. So, she’s not best pleased when she discovers she’s been landed with a London evacuee, the endearing if overly boisterous Frank (Lucas Bond), whose dad’s in the RAF and whose mother works for the Ministry, reluctantly agreeing to have him for a week while another placement is found.

Naturally, the film being what it is, as the days pass, she finds herself thawing towards him, explain her research and indulging his love of chips. Frank also becomes friends with spiky, self-styled maverick tomboy classmate Edie (upcoming The Secret Garden star Dixie Egerickx).

At this point the film starts flashing back to the 1920s where we learn that Alice struck up a lesbian interracial love affair with Vera (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), although, given the times, social attitudes and Vera’s maternal desires, it’s doomed not to last, hence explaining Alice’s current emotional barricades. Under his probing,  when she admits her old relationship to Frank, he’s  perfectly – if somewhat unbelievably – open-mindedly accepting of it all, deepening her feelings towards him.

Naturally, this being war, at some point there’ll be that dreaded news and the dilemma of how to break it, setting up the third act’s massive melodramatic revelation (though, if you pay close attention you can see it coming) and emotional payoff before returning to  where it started.

Written and directed by  Jessica Swale making her feature debut, it’s beautifully shot and  finely acted by Arterton and Bond, Tom Courtney providing a lovely turn as the local schoolmaster having to cope with Alice’s acerbic nature, the screenplay gently addressing themes of parenting and female independence, albeit from  a somewhat contemporary perspective.  Stock up on the tissues.  (Amazon Prime; iTunes; Sky)

The Trial of the Chicago 7 (15)

As in his screenplay for A Few Good Men, writer-director Aaron Sorkin delivers a powerful courtroom drama with his recreation of the 1969 trial of the seven protestors accused of inciting a riot against the Vietnam draft that proved to be one of the most infamous chapters in American legal history. While it does fictionalise some incidents, some of the seemingly most unlikely moments, such as the judge ordering a defendant to be bound and gagged or barring the testimony of the former Attorney General of the United States, are all taken from life.

When President Johnson order a doubling of the draft, from 17,000 to 35,000 per month, anti-war factions took to the streets in protest, planning to convene at and disrupt the Democratic National Convention in the summer of 1968 in Chicago. Among them were non-violence favouring Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne), leader of the Students for a Democratic Society; Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong) and Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen) from the Youth International Party (Yippies) and the older but equally committed David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch).

A year on from the Chicago Police and protesters violent clashing in and around Grant Park, the leaders, along with Lee Weiner (Noah Robbins), John Froines (Daniel Flaherty), Rennie Davis (Alex Sharp) Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), the national chairman of the Black Panther Party who had no actual connection to the others or involvement in the protest, and was only in Chicago to give a speech, were charged with conspiracy to cross lines with the intention of inciting riots.

Opening with a montage of historical events that take in the King and Kennedy assassinations, alternating between courtroom dramas, recreation of the protest and sessions at the home of liberal attorney William Kunstler (Mark Rylance) to plan strategy while rising legal star Richard Schultz (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) puts together the prosecution case, despite reservations as to whether there should even be a trial, the film gathers in power and indignation as  District Judge Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella) conducts  the courtroom as his personal fiefdom, walking roughshod over constitutional and legal rights, hammering home his clear prejudices and bias with a  gavel and contempt of court orders in his contempt for the accused and their representatives as they, understandably, protest about his handling of the trial.

Michael Keaton puts in a late appearance as former Atty. General Ramsey Clark, whose testimony to the jury was refused by Hoffman, although the film does reveal what he would have said and while certain events rejigged in the timeline and there’s degree of dramatic licence,  fuelled by commanding performances (a frizzy-haired Baron Cohen stealing the show – . “We’re not guilty because of who we are. “We’re guilty of what we believe” – and proving he’s more than a comedic actor) that fully engage you in proceedings even as Hoffman and Rubin play the courtroom farrago for laughs.

“This is the Academy Awards of protests,” says Weiner (Noah Robbins) as he takes his seat, “As far as I’m concerned, it’s an honour just to be nominated.” Come the actual Awards, it’s a fair bet many involved will be feeling the same way. (Netflix)

Uncle Frank (15)

Written and directed by Alan Ball, who wrote American Beauty, this (part based on his own father) is another film about secret gay relationships, this one set in  smalltown South Carolina in the late ’60s-early ’70s and narrated by Beth Bledsoe (Sophia Lillis) looking and acting like the young Sissy Spacek) about her literature professor uncle Frank (a stupendous Paul Bettany sinking his teeth into a real dramatic role rather than Marvel superhero), Persuade by him to rename herself  from Betty and go to college at NYU where he teaches, she turns up at a party at his home, egged on by her classmate who has his own agenda, and discovers he’s gay and in a  ten-year relationship with Saudi fellow academic Wally (Peter Macdissi) with whom he lives, along with an iguana called Rita Hayworth

Having been introduced to the family at the start of the film headed up  by tyrannical disdainful patriarch Daddy Mack (Stephen Root), it’s pretty obvious why he’s never come out, though, as the film unfolds and a teenage tragedy is revealed, it becomes clearer why he’s remained in the closet and who forced him to stay there. His secret is, however, agonisingly exposed when having to return home for his father’s funeral, the reading of will delivers the film’s most emotionally wrenching moment.

The cast rounded out with Margo Martindale as Frank’s mother Mammaw, sister Neva (Jane McNeill), younger brother  and Beth’s father Mike (Steve Zahn) who appears to be a chip off the old block,  sister-in-law Kitty (Judy Greer) and Aunt  Butch (Lois Smith) it has the feel of some   Carson McCullers novel and, while the healing and hugs ending feels somewhat forced and hackneyed, for the most part this is a terrific, funny, sad, moving and uplifting film. (Amazon Prime)

Unhinged (15)

Life for single mum hairstylist Rachel (Caren Pistorius) isn’t going well. She’s  been fired by her biggest client and harassed by her ex over the divorce and now, having overslept, she’s running late getting to work and her son to school. It’s about to get worse when she has a confrontation with another driver  (Russell Crowe) who, when he doesn’t move his massive pick-up when the lights turn green, honks hard on her horn, drives round his vehicle and gives him a hand gesture. Pulling up next to her at the next stop, he attempts to apologise and expects her to do likewise. She’s not giving one, words are exchanged. And he decides to show her what a bad day really is as, an extreme case of psychopathic road rage,   he tails her, steals her phone and systematically sets out to murder all her contacts, her lawyer, brother and his girlfriend included, generally proving her worst nightmare

With a pre-title sequence that has a scowling Crowe, seething over a bitter divorce,  striding from his car, breaking down  the front door of the nearest house, taking his axe to the couple inside and setting it on fire before driving off into the rainy night, you know you’re in for an intense trip, one that  involves spectacular car crashes, explosions and vehicular mayhem. Crowe goes all out with an intensity that glues you to the screen as the carnage escalates and an increasingly desperate Pistorius finally fights back, it’s a B movie running on high octane fuel. (Sky TV, Virgin)

Waiting For The Barbarians (15)

Given a headline cast of Mark Rylance, Johnny Depp and Robert Pattinson alongside famed cinematographer Chris Menges, it’s surprising that this, from of the Serpent Colombian Embrace director Ciro Guerra, has flown so below the radar. Adapted by Nobel Prize-winning South African author JM Coetzee from his own 1980 novel, it’s set in the colonial desert outpost of some unnamed European empire around the early years of the twentieth century. It’s overseen by the mild-mannered, compassionate Magistrate (a stupendous Rylance), who treats the appreciative indigenous  population well and spends much of his time in his library poring over archaeological artefacts. His comfortable life is disrupted, however, by the arrival of Colonel Joll (Depp) and his men  from state security who has gotten it into his head that the local tribesmen, the barbarians, are planning some sort of insurrection and has come to gather information. This he sets about doing through “patience and pressure”, as in brutal torture of two prisoners suspected of sheep-stealing, but probably only there to get medicine, leaving one of them dead, and eliciting  a ‘confession’ about a coming war, before setting out with the other to capture further informants.

Needless to say, the Magistrate is horrified at his actions, but is in no position to do anything about it other than voice his opposition. After returning from his mission with a group of elderly prisoners, men and women, who are again brutalised, Joll departs, bring the opening chapter, Summer, to a close. Although he returns in the closing chapter, Depp, dressed in rigid black (as opposed to Rylance’s loose beige linen)  sporting distinctive circular sunglasses (which he amusingly predicts everyone will someday wear) gives such an intense performance of  arrogance and cold colonial cruelty that his chill remains even when he’s physically absent.

The second chapter, Autumn,  focuses on The Girl (Gana Bayarsaikhan), left crippled and almost blind by the brutality of Joll’s men, she’s begging in the streets and the Magistrate takes her in, tends her feet and allows her to stay as his concubine, although (unlike the novel) there’s no suggestion it’s anything but  platonic. Offering to return her to her nomadic people, though wishing she would stay, they set off to the mountains, and, on his return, the Magistrate finds Officer Mandel (Pattinson) running things, if anything even crueller than Joll , who has him arrested for supposedly consorting with the enemy, stripped of his position and thrown in a cell.

Attempting to intervene in another of Joll’s tortures, he’s questioned and beaten , left dispossessed with only the household’s cook (an underused Greta Scacchi) to care for him, as Joll and his forces take off to subdue the barbarians. Rather inevitably, in a rework of the book’s coda, the outcome sees Mandel abandoning the fort, leaving the Magistrate to reassume his former role to await whatever is to come.

Akin to Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, its message about how colonialism create the enemy it then seeks to conquer (“We have no enemy, unless we ourselves are our enemy”, Rylance observes) and just who the true barbarians are isn’t exactly buried away, but that doesn’t diffuse the film’s understated and quietly gathering power; may proceed slowly, but it makes for compelling viewing.  (Amazon Prime)

The Witches (PG)

Thirty years on since Anjelica Houston vamped her way through Jim Henson’s adaptation of Roald Dahl’s tale, co-written by fantasy horror supremo Guillermo del Toro and Back To The Future director  Roger Zemeckis, this casts its own remake spell, staying faithful to the book but injecting a couple of new spins. This time round, set in late 60s Alabama, the unnamed ‘hero boy’ orphaned in a  car crash is a young African-American (Jahzir Kadeem Bruno), who goes to live with his grandma Agatha (Octavia Spencer) who plays and dances along to  Motown hits to try and cheer him up and also tells him stories about witches, who loathe children, have no toes, claws not hands and are bald, including how, as a child, her best friend was turned into  chicken.

Her grandson having encountered a witch in a supermarket, the pair take off to a plush seaside hotel for “rich white people,”  (Stanley Tucci more restrained as  the manager played by Rowan Atkinson in the original) only to find it’s hosting a convention by The Society For The Prevention Of Cruelty To Children, a cover for a witches’ gathering where the Grand High Witch (Anne Hathaway) reveals her plan to doctor sweets with a  potion that will turn children into “miiiiiiice” so they can squish them. Hiding under the stage with his pet mouse, Daisy, the boy is witness to this and sees chubby greedy Bruno (Codie-Lei Eastick) transformed before he himself is sniffed out and suffers a similar fate. Managing to escape with the help of Daisy (Kristin Chenoweth) who turns out to be another victim, the trio now have to get to Agatha, who is a healer with her own potions, so that, together, they can find a way of stopping the dastardly plan.

Bookended by narration by the now older rodent boy (Chris Rock) telling the tale to a group of kids, it’s a fast-paced romp that makes excellent use of prosthetics and CGI as a gleefully over-the-top Hathaway hovers in the air and has her face distort into a Joker-like grin while speaking in an accent that mangles German and Scottish together.

At times genuinely scary for younger viewers with witches exploding and the three mice running through the hotel vents trying to escape the Grand High Witch’s ever extending arms, unlike the previous film it also sticks to Dahl’s bittersweet ending about inevitable mortality, but adds a montage of their America-hopping witch hunts, this is gleeful frightening fun. (Amazon Prime; Sky; Virgin Movies)

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