MOVIE ROUND-UP: From Fri Dec 31

With cinemas now open this column will review films both screening theatrically and/or on various streaming platforms.

 

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Licorice Pizza (15)

Loosely based on the life of his friend Gary Goetzman, writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson returns to the mid-70s Los Angeles San Fernando Valley setting of Boogie Nights, but minus all the sex, for a sweet and often very funny slowly blossoming love story unfolding over an unspecified number of years  that conjures thoughts of vintage Cameron Crowe. Mixing together fictional and real life characters and titled after a now defunct record store, opening with  meet cute in 1973, it’s anchored by two wonderful screen debuts and terrific chemistry by  Cooper Hoffman, the son of the late  Philip Seymour Hoffman evoking not only his father but a  certain other Hoffman too, and Alana Haim (resembling a Jewish Soairse Ronan)  of siblings pop rock trio Haim (her sisters and parents play her screen family), he as mature for his age 15-year-old, pimply, smooth talking child actor Gary Valentine getting his high school photo taken and she as the photographer’s less assured 25-year-old  assistant who he tries to talk into a date (and declares to his younger brother he will marry). She turns him down, then turns up at the diner, and so, kicking off with her accompanying him as chaperone to New York for a live reunion of  the screwball comedy Under One Roof  (Christine Ebersole playing Lucy Doolittle, clearly based on Lucille Ball from 1968 comedy Yours, Mine and Ours), the scene is set for a series of vignettes as her insistence of a platonic friendship and his determination for romance travel a rocky road as, a savvy businessman,  Gary first becomes involves  selling  the new craze for waterbeds and, later, taps into new legalisation to open a pinball machine parlour, all set to a soundtrack that includes. Let Me Roll It by Wings, Chris Norman and Suzi Quatro’s  Stumblin’ In, Life On Mars (cue lawmen seen beating up the wrong guy when Gary’s mistakenly arrested for murder), If You Could Read My Mind, Sonny & Cher’s  But You’re Mine and The Congregation’s 1971  hit Softly Whispering I Love You.

The narrative’s constructed around a variety of interwoven subplots. Gary has to contend with an older rival as Alana starts dating his former co-star, Lance (Skylor Gisondo), a threat deftly seen off at a disastrous Kane family dinner, while she finds herself jealous when he starts seeing a girl of his own age. The pair are involved with his mother’s PR work for Jerry Frick (John Michael Higgins), a real Los Angeles businessman who opened the Mikado Hotel and restaurant in 1963, her caricatured as a restaurateur with a series of Japanese wives and speaking in an exaggerated Asian accent a la Mickey Rooney in Breakfast At Tiffanys. Alana subsequently goes to work for Gary selling waterbeds, leading to their hilarious involvement, in the middle of the fuel crisis and a stolen truck, with Barbra Streisand’s preening, narcissistic hairdresser boyfriend Jon Peters (a hysterically over the top Bradley Cooper), decides she fancies acting and, advised to say yes to anything she asks,  is introduced to Gary’s agent (a scene stealing turn by Harriet Sansom Harris as real life Hollywood child talent agent Mary Grady), in turn leading  to her auditioning for (and flirting with) Hollywood action man Jack Holden (Sean Penn channelling William Holden) and drunkenly recreating a motorbike stunt from one of his films on the Van Nuys Golf Course directed by Rex Blau (Tom Waits) that results in Gary and Alana back in each other’s arms. From which she then gets involved in politics working on the mayoral campaign for real life Los Angeles politician Joel Wachs (Benny Safdie) before discovering his secret gay relationship, heading to the inevitable big running into each other’s arms finale.

With a cast list that also includes cameos from Maya Rudolph, Leonardo Di Caprio’s father George, Spielberg’s daughter Sasha, Tim Conway Jr. (whose dad performed with Anderson’s father) and John C. Reilly as Fred ‘Herman Munster’ Gwynne, it recreates the period (including the once famed Tail O’ the Cock restaurant) but never overdoses on nostalgia (though it does include a shot of Eric Segal’s Love Story and a movie theatre showing Live And Let Die); whimsical but never silly, sweet but never sugary it’s the perfect upbeat coming of age joy to welcome in the new year. (Cineworld 5 Ways)

 Don’t Look Up (15)

Critically castigated, while undeniably flawed this, direct Adam McKay’s stab at Dr Strangelove-style satire about those in power playing with the fate of the planet,  is nowhere near as terrible as the reviews might suggest. Jennifer Lawrence is PhD candidate Kate Dibiasky who, working in an observatory, is excited to discover a new comet. Until, that is, her mentor, Dr. Randall Mindy (a dowdy Leonardo DiCaprio) does the math and realises that, given its size and trajectory it will collide with Earth and wipe out all life in just six months’ time. What ensues involves the pair trying to get President Orlean ( (Meryl Streep) to take action to try and destroy the comet, but she and her Chief of Staff son (Jonah Hill) are more concerned about the upcoming midterms and a potential vote-disaster scandal, leading them to turn to the New York Times and an appearance on a morning chat show where, of course, the vacuous anchors Brie (Cate Blanchett) and Jack (Tyler Perry), treat it as just another  news bit, of less interest than the romantic problems of pop star Riley B. (Ariana Grande). with her cheating boyfriend (Kid Cudi) regarding Kate as a hysterical the end is nigh hothead.

When Orlean finally decides the stats are real and proposes action, she’s blindsided by cell-phone tycoon Peter Isherwell (Mark Rylance), who wants to take over operations to mine the comet for precious metal, Randall, who’s having an affair with Brie, joins the government ranks,  resulting in Kate giving up the fight and surrendering to the inevitable.

With the cast list also featuring Timothee Chalamet, Himish Patel, Melanie Lynskey (as Randall’s wife) and Ron Perlman (running the comet busting mission), it can be a bit of a blunt instrument at times and the New Eden pay-off  simply peters out, but, even so, its cynical lens on media, politics and public perceptions does offer engaging moments. (Netflix)

The Electrical Life Of Louis Wain (12A)

It’s a fair bet that the name Louis Wain will mean nothing to most people today. However, without him, cats would never have become family pets and would certainly not be the subject of countless YouTube clips. Anchored by another awards-worthy performance from Benedict Cumberbatch, it opens in the late 19th century, introducing Wain as a two-handed freelance artist doing sketches of country houses and livestock at agriculture shows for the London Illustrated News. An English oddball and an amateur boxer (he spars with Bendigo), he lives with his widowed mother (Phoebe Nicholls) and five demanding sisters, the household run by the eldest, Caroline (Andrea Riseborough), who, is horrified to learn he’s turned down a full time job offered by the magazine’s editor Sir William Ingram (Toby Jones) when they are in such dire financial straits, especially given she’s just taken on Emily Richardson as governess (Claire Foy) for the younger Wains. She forces him to find a steady income while he, much to his surprise, finds himself falling for Emily (who, ten years older, also likes painting), a trip to the theatre and a traumatic reliving of a childhood nightmare resulting in both social snobbery scandal and the couple’s marriage.

It’s their taking in of a stray cat. Peter, that sparks Wains rise to fame. Having already drawn a cat for a fellow passenger (Adeel Akhtar)  back at the start, Louis is inspired to start sketching whimsical  pictures of Peter, ultimately resulting in a double page spread, “A Kittens’ Christmas Party”, in the 1886  Christmas special of the paper, his anthropomorphised satirical drawings of  cats in human poses (a sort of feline answer to Beatrix Potter), resulting in subsequent celebrity status (he was eventually made chairman of  the National Cat Club), cats now becoming a prerequisite of Victorian households.  However, things soon take a dark turn. Lacking any business savvy, Louis is again hit with debts after failing to copyright his illustrations while Emily is diagnosed with terminal breast cancer, her parting wisdom to her husband being to see the beauty in the world.  The family moving into  property loaned by Ingram, aged 30, Louis’s youngest sister, Marie (Hayley Squires) is declared insane and carted off to an asylum, while, sponsored by William Randolph Hearst and encouraged by Max Case (Taika Waititi),  he  moves to New York hoping to find success there, only to be forced to return when his mother dies, the family being evicted on Ingram’s death and having to move to a poky London flat, Louis going into a coma after falling off a bus, and, inspired by a  dream of 1999,  awakening to design his celebrated future cat toys.

Weighed down by the deaths of those close to him, Caroline passing in 1919, he suffers a series of mental breakdowns and, compounded by his crackpot theories about the role of electricity in shaping people’s lives (something peculiar to the film’s narrative, such as that cats might turn blue, walk upright and speak English), is diagnosed with schizophrenia and institutionalised, a fund raising campaign led by HG Wells (Nick Cave) allowing him to move to a better hospital and have a cat companion, the film ending, after a brief psychedelic sequence,  in a serene English watercolour like recreation of  Emily’s vision of their countryside idyll that calls to mind What Dreams May Come .

Narrated by Olivia Colman and transitioning from its whimsical opening to dark melodrama in its depiction of  a doomed eccentric and a judgemental society, while decidedly not a happy story, there is nevertheless a certain sense of light and joy counterpointing the litany of tragedies it unfolds, complemented by the often dazzling visuals and some 40 real cats. It’s not purrfect and its audience seems decidedly limited, but like the title, there’s a spark that lights up the experience. (Cineworld 5 Ways, Solihull)

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Army Of Thieves (15)

Although having killed off all but one of the characters, a sequel to Zack Snyder’s Army of The Dead is in the works, for now co-writer Shay Hatten has provided the screenplay for a prequel. So, this  jumps back in time to the initial  days of the zombie apocalypse to focus on the original team’s nerdy, socially awkward tousle-haired German safecracker Ludwig Deiter, then known as Sebastian Schlencht-Wöhnert, played as endearingly dorky by Matthias Schweighöfe who also takes up the directing reins.

A bullied misfit at school,  young Sebastian spent his days learning to crack safes and now has YouTube blog where he posts videos on his passion, he latest being a starstruck account of Hans Wagner (Christian Steyer), a Munich locksmith wo, after the death of his wife and child,  devoted huis ,life to constructing four impenetrable circular wall safes, each named after the operas in Richard Wagner’s  The Ring Cycle before committing suicide by sealing himself inside a fifth, buried in the ocean as his tomb, the present whereabouts of the safes unknown. Rather inevitably, his blog has zero followers, until, that it, he gets one reply, inviting him to put his money where his mouth is. Turning up at a secret Berlin location he finds himself taking part in and winning a safecracking contest, becoming besotted with a woman he sees in the crowd smiling at him. Engineering a meeting at his regular morning coffee shop stop, she reveals herself to be Gwendoline (Nathalie Emmanuel from The Fast and the Furious), an internationally wanted jewel thief, who wants him to join her heist team for a task only he can pull off. Nightmares of zombie attacks and yet another day in his monotonous job as a bank teller, prompt him to agree and, meeting up with the others in her crew, expert hacker Korina (Ruby O. Fee), oddball bearded getaway driver Rolph (Guz Khan) and self-styled real live action hero Brad Cage (a Hugh Jackman-esque Stuart Martin) – an amalgam of Brad Pitt and Nicolas Cage, real name Alexis – , he learns they’ve located three of the safes, the  Rheingold, the Valkyrie and Siegfried, in Paris, Prague and St. Moritz, Switzerland, but, with concerns over the zombie outbreak in America, they have only four days to crack them before they’re removed and decommissioned.

So, with a tip of the hat to The Italian Job, the film unfolds into a triple-heist movie with a narrative that variously takes in shy Sebastian’s mooning over Gwendoline (who’s more interested in becoming a legend than the loot), three daring safecracking jobs (all accompanied to opera excerpts on Sebastian’s cellphone, one  carried out in the back of a moving truck), chases by and narrow escapes from the cops, and double-crosses, all the while being pursued by Interpol in the form of French agent  Delacroix (Jonathan Cohen), obsessed with bringing Gwendoline down, and  long suffering associate Beatrix (Noémie Nakai).

Nodding to heist movie traditions, such as the flashforwards as the heist plan is explained a la the various Oceans films, and with a stylistic look that involves wipes, quick cuts, fats and slow motion,  graphics and at times conjures thoughts of Wes Anderson, and, even if the focus on the tentative Gwendoline and Sebastian chemistry ends up sidelining, the other characters it romps along in breezy, playful and enjoyable time-wasting fashion before a coda that, featuring two cameos and a blueprint for the fourth safe, Gotterdammerung, sets the scene for the original film. (Safe) cracking fun. (Netflix)

Being The Ricardos (15)

Recorded in front of a studio audience and broadcast for six seasons, with a total 180 episodes between 1951 and 1957, starring Lucille Ball and her real life power behind the scenes Cuban husband Desi Arnaz, a one-time band leader and savvy businessman, as Ricky Ricardo, I Love Lucy averaged 60 million viewers per week and, with its pioneering use of three cameras, is regarded as one of the most influential TV comedies of all time.

However, in 1953, the week of filming their 68th show, influential broadcaster Walter Winchell ended his radio show by announcing that the most famous woman on television was being investigated by The House On Un-American Activities as being a Communist.  Ball was not named, but it was clear who he meant: America’s redheaded sweetheart. There was some truth to the claim, as she had been registered as a party member by her grandfather when she was just seven, but had never voted Communist or attended any meetings. The same day a newspaper article appeared with a photo suggesting Desi had been cheating on her. The facts regarding the photo were wrong (though not the accusations of philandering), but it was clear there were problems in the marriage, with Desi spending more night away from home.

Written and directed by Aaron Sorkin, mixing mockumentary interviews with actors playing older versions of those  involved in the show with a dramatised recreation of events, the film condenses events to chart the week running up to the Friday night’s taping and stars a brilliantly cast Nicole Kidman as Lucy with Javier Bardem rather less physically akin to Desi. As such,  the narrative operates  on several levels; there’s the unspoked friction between the power couple with Desi, although not only the show’s co-star, but CEO of the production company and responsible for creative decisions feeling eclipsed by his wife’s fame, This plays out alongside the creative tensions between the couple, their co-stars, the acerbic Bill Frawley (J.K. Simmons) and Vivian Vance (Nina Arianda), who played their landlords Fred and Ethel  Mertz, chief writers Madelyn Pugh (Alia Shawkat) and Bob Carroll (Jake Lacy), executive producer/writer  Jess Oppenheimer (Tony Hale) and, most significantly, the episode’s hack director Don  Glass (Christopher Denham), specifically revolving round a hands-on and perfectionist Lucy wanting to change the opening and dinner table scene against Glass’s wishes.

Then, to throw another cat among the pigeons, along with the two simmering potential scandals, they announced that Lucy was pregnant, with Desi insisting on writing that into the show, a move vehemently opposed by the sponsors, cigarette giant Philip Morris, and CBS itself (repped by, among others, Clarke Gregg) declaring the American public did not want to see a pregnant woman on television, a clear commentary on media sexism.

Unfolding over each day leading up to the Friday night, from script read through to camera blocking and rehearsal, intercut with black and white footage of Ball’s imaginings of show scenes (such as the wine trampling episode) and flashbacks detailing her meet-cute  with Arnaz on the set of  rubbish  musical Too Many Girls, her short-lived moment as a Hollywood  star and rise to fame when CBS offered to turn her My Favorite Husband radio show in a TV sitcom (an early example of her flexing her popularity muscles to bring Arnaz onboard),  the snappy screenplay’s peppered with the characters bickering and bantering as it builds to the  sort of  triumphant climax involving a phone call to a senior figure you’d dismiss as contrived  fiction were it not actually true.

Sorkin’s script offers an insight into Ball’s mind with her intuitive understanding of what makes good physical comedy (Arnaz describes her as “kinetically gifted”) well served by Kidman’s performance which subtly hints at her controlling nature (she doesn’t want Vance to lose weight lest she appeared more attractive) and a more earthy, complex turn from Jardem, and, while modern audiences may not know Lucile Ball from Bobby Ball, this is well worth exploring. (Amazon Prime)

Boxing Day (12A)

An addition to but not connected with the  line of seasonal portmanteau  films that have included Love Actually, New Year’s Eve and Mother’s Day, this is a Black British festive rom com written, directed by and starring Aml Ameen from Kidulthood loosely based around his own family’s Christmas traditions. Here he plays British-Caribbean born Melvin, a former Grange Hill TV child star  now a rising author who’s been based in L.A. for the past two years, having taken off when, at the Boxing Day gathering, his parents announced that, given his now bar-owning Nigerian father Bilal’s (Robbie Gee) adultery and the resulting pregnancy, they were divorcing. His agent having booked him an appearance on a prestigious UK talk show to promote his new semi-autobiographical novel, he (somewhat reluctantly given the strained family relations) invites his casting agent American girlfriend Lisa (Aja Naomi King), to whom he’s just staged an extravagant proposal, somewhat marred by her throwing up (given he apparently hates kids she’s not told him she’s pregnant or that she’s  also been offered a job in New Zealand) to accompany him to London to meet his relatives.

Arriving in the UK, he goes off to the television studio while she checks into the hotel where she bumps into her idol, pop superstar Georgia (Little Mix star Leigh-Anne Pinnock) who’s just suffered a high profile bust up with her philandering rapper boyfriend Gorgeous (Melvin Gregg), aka Ian, an old friend of Melvin whom they encounter at the airport. What Lisa doesn’t know is that Georgia is in fact Melvin’s own ex, who he ran out on following that fateful Boxing Day, and her P.A. is his feisty sister Aretha (Tamara Lawrance) but  who still loves him and fantasises about them getting back together. Naturally, the truth comes out (cue a verbal cat fight across the table) when the couple get to mum’s house where everyone is assembling for the celebrations, Georgia being the daughter of his mum’s (white) best friend  (Claire Skinner) and her Caribbean husband,  ‘uncle’ Billy (Fraser James). Furthering the romantic complications, Melvin’s younger brother Josh (Sheyi Cole) has fallen for Alison, their cousin Joseph’s (Samson Kayo) ex, who, possessive to a fault, constantly beats him up as a result, while their mother Shirley (the film’s understated anchor, Marianne Jean-Baptiste), who embedded in her kids pride in being black, hasn’t told anyone that she has a white boyfriend, Richard (Stephen Dillane), a subplot that rather fizzles out. So secrets all round then.

Featuring some intentional nods to Love Actually (opening voice over, a scene involving  a character holding up a series of cue cards that upends that in the Curtis movie) and despite some clunky contrivances,  it’s a warm and big-hearted affair that, perhaps slightly overstuffed with larger than life characters, offers amusing  moments with Lisa Jafakean accent and even contrives to include a food fight between the assorted ‘aunties’ and ‘uncles’ as well as singing spotlight for Pinnock doing an acoustic I Say A Little Prayer) as well as the inevitable break up and make up plot line before the reconciliations and happy endings all round  in a celebration of love and family that’s well worth sharing a cracker over. (Vue)

Bruised (15)

Halle Berry’s directorial debut, in which she also stars, is an ambitious but ultimately formulaic addition to the catalogue of fighters overcoming personal demons to make a comeback and find redemption. Out of the game for four years, Jackie Justice (Berry) is a former Ultimate Fighting Championship star (a Mixed Martial Arts sport that uses fists and kicks) and now works menial jobs and lives with her volatile alcoholic boyfriend-manager, Desi (Adan Canto),              a life that basically involves them verbally and physically fighting, drinking and having sex. However, taken to a fight where she ends up laying out the winner, she’s approached by Immaculate (Shamier Anderson,), a promoter who offers her a second chance and recruits her for a title match against Lady Killer (real-life UFC Women’s Flyweight Champion Valentina Shevchenko), to be trained by the demanding Zen-practising Buddhakan (a warm Sheila Atim), who turns out to have a softer heart than appears as well as showing the love (in a needless development they get to sleep together) Jackie’s never found from Desi or her cold, heavy drinking mother Angel (Adriane Lenox), who allowed her to be sexually abused by a string of lovers and an uncle as a child (though the third act also affords her a softening and redemption).

Into all this is thrown Manny (Danny Boyd Jr.), the son she gave up as a baby, returned to her, an elective mute, following his father’s death, meaning she now has to overcome her own demons and learn to be a mother and rescue Manny from his own trauma. Berry invests time in all her characters, finding something redeeming in each (even, to an extent, Desi) and does well with the small, intimate moments, but is less confident with the bigger picture, the fight scenes brutal but scrappy and unconvincing while the editing and script (by first-timer Michelle Rosenfarb), stumble on several occasions, although Berry’s strong, focused performance never succumbs to melodrama. It’s no knockout, but it does land some effective blows.  (Netflix)

Clifford The Big Red Dog (PG)

Starting out life in 1963 as a series of children’s books by Norman Bridwell and spinning off over the years into a TV series, live musical, video games and an animated feature, the crimson canine now makes his live action big screen debut in this genial if predictable shaggy dog tale about love, family and acceptance.

Recently having moved into a Manhattan apartment, having to go out of town for a trial, lawyer single mum (Sienna Guillory) reluctantly enlists, her unreliable, unemployed and homeless (he lives in his van) younger brother Casey (Jack Whitehall) to babysit 12-year-old sixth grader daughter Emily Elizabeth (Darby Camp), who, as the new kid in class at her private school, is naturally being bullied by the wealthier snotty mean girl who disparagingly calls her Food Stamps.

Arriving at school, she sees Bridwell’s Animal Rescue tent pitched in the grounds opposite and is invited inside by the eccentric proprietor (John Cleese), a sort of Mary Poppins version of Dr Doolittle, to see his menagerie and, knowing a pet is just what she needs, introduces her to the bright red puppy we first saw being left behind when his mother and siblings were taken in by animal control. Immediately falling for him, she begs Casey to let her take him home, but, mindful of his sister’s instructions, he refuses.  But hey, arriving back from school she finds something inexplicably wriggling inside her back pack. Yes, somehow, the puppy has materialised in the apartment and, turning on her best pleading look, she convinces Casey to let him stay for the night and settles on the name Clifford. Then next morning, however, she’s in for another show. Having asked Bridwell how big the dog might grow, to which he replied as big as her love for him, Clifford is now a giant, naturally presenting all manner of problems in keeping the furniture from getting broken and hiding him from the apartment’s cranky ‘no pets’ supervisor (David Alan Grier).

Sneaking him out, they visit a vet (Kenan Thompson, understandably not keen on taking a rectal temperature) to have Clifford checked out, but, unfortunately, an incident in the park involving Clifford and an inflatable body ball goes viral, attracting the attention of the film’s bad guy, biotech CEO Tieran (Tony Hale) who is engaged in so far unsuccessful animal experiments (a two-headed goat, a bellicose sheep) in attempt to grow genetically modified oversized food and make a lot more money. Seeing Clifford, he thinks this is the answer to his prayers if he can extract whatever caused him to grow, and so the film becomes basically a chase movie as he and his minions persuade the local police that the dog belongs to him, escaped the lab and is a danger.  Meanwhile, Casey, Emily and new friend Owen (Isaac Wang) (whose shipping magnate dad offers to spirit Clifford out of the country) are trying to locate Bridwell, keep Clifford safe and stop mum finding out they’ve been evicted.

Assuming its young audience will take the magic on trust, it never really explains why Clifford is red or big, and just gets on with the comedy, including a chase sequence across Manhattan and the coming together of assorted characters, including Emily’s cantankerous condensed milk loving Russian neighbour (Tovah Feldshuh), wannabee magician Malik (Russell Peters), a pair of Latino café owners(Horatio Sanz, Paul Rodriguez) and the lawyer (Keith Ewell) whose  life Clifford saved when he fell from a  roof, to foil Tieran’s plans. Naturally, Emily’s tormentor gets her comeuppance too.

Veteran British comic Whitehall is a joy and provides the bulk of the comedy as he tries to keep a grip on the rapidly unravelling events, Camp is agreeable cute, Hale suitably pantomime villain, Cleese twinkling whimsy and the combination of puppetry and CGI  bring Clifford to adorable life, while there’s a blink and you’ll miss her cameo from Rosie Perez.  The it’s ok to be different and acceptance message is nicely played (even if somewhat spelled out at the end as Emily addresses the gathered crowds) and the film is mercifully light on the cloying schmaltz that might have swamped it. Nor does Clifford talk. And, since this is for kids, there’s naturally some mild rude humour with Clifford cocking his leg up a tree and spraying everyone, a dog bottom sniffing moment, smelly canine farts and a gross touch as Clifford swallows Owen’s dog and spits him back out again. It’s barking, but great fun. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park;  Everyman; Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Vue)

The Courier (12A)   

Based on real life events, written by Tom O’Connor and directed by Dominic Cooke, Benedict Cumberbatch gives a solid, underplayed performance as  Greville Wynne, a salesman representing various  manufacturing companies, who, at the height of the Cold War, was recruited by MI6 and the CIA (respectively represented by Angus Wright and Rachel Brosnahan) to travel to Moscow and make contact with Oleg Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze), a Soviet colonel who, alarmed by Kruschev’s increasingly volatile nuclear rhetoric, has indicated he’s ready to pass on information to help prevent  mutually assured destruction. The thinking is that, as someone with no obvious political connections, Wynne is unlikely to attract KGB attention.

Unable to tell his wife (Jessie Buckley) the real reason for his regular trips to Russia, she suspects he’s having another affair while Penkovsky’s wife also remains oblivious to her husband’s actions in smuggling photos out by Wynne in the build up to the Cuban Missile Crisis. Unfolding with a cool tension in secret meetings where the fear of discovery or being bugged is ever present, it sits well alongside similar espionage  films like Bridge of Spies and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. As history tells, the subterfuge was eventually uncovered, leading to a darker third act when Cumberbatch, shaved headed and looking increasingly emaciated, is banged up in a Russian prison, being interrogated to confess he actually knew what he was carrying for Penkovsky (it’s suggested he didn’t, hence plausible deniability) before the British government negotiated an exchange for his release.

Sharply scripted and with a strong chemistry between Cumberbatch and Ninidze as the two men develop a genuine friendship (Wynne called him Alex), Wynne secretly rather enjoying his adventure, ticking the usual genre conventions without them appearing like clichés, the film revealing the heroic – and costly – role he and Penkovsky (codenamed Ironbark by the CIA) played in ending the Cuban standoff, Oleg remarking over a shared meal “We are just two people, but this is how things change.”

Its low key, period thriller nature might not be a big audience grabber, but as an inspiring story of human decency and sacrifice for the greater good, it’s one that deserves to be told and deserves to be seen.  (BT Film Store, Sky Store, Virgin)

The Croods : A New Age (PG)

A belated sequel to the 2013 animation about a stone-age family, following a quick reminder,  this picks up  shortly after the original with overprotective dad Grug (Nicolas Cage) still not happy with the idea that teenage daughter Eep (Emma Stone) has struck up a romantic relationship with  more evolved outsider, Guy (Ryan Reynolds). Here, though, we learn more about him in an opening sequence in which  his late parents send him off in search of his tomorrow before they’re drowned in tar. Giving Eep an eternity rock, they  plan to set off on their own path and way from the smelly sleep pile, until, as they, Grug and the rest of the family, wife Ugga (Catherine Keener), numbskull son Thunk (Clark Duke), Gran (Cloris Leachman) and feral five-year-old Sandy  are out foraging with  their giant pet sabretooth, Chunky, in search of a new home after their cave was destroyed,  come across a walled day-glo Eden stuffed with watermelons, berries and all manner of food.

This, it turns out, is the home of The Bettermans, Phil (Peter Dinklage) and Hope (Leslie Mann) and their daughter Dawn (Kelly Marie Trann), an advanced new agey  flip-flops-wearing family who’ve invented  nicer pale blue clothes, agriculture, irrigation, showers, lifts, indoor plumbing (cue toilet gag) and live in set of a luxury tree apartments. They, it transpired, knew Guy as a child and it was here that his parents were sending him. Now, socioeconomic snobs, they want to pair Dawn off with Guy and be red of the Croods as soon as possible, all under the guise of being friendly and doing it for their new guests’ best interests of a bright future beyond the garden.

Meanwhile, Eep and Dawn bond and take off on Chunk on the latter’s first adventure beyond the walls, proudly scoring her first scar, Thunk has become a prehistoric app social media zombie watching hrough his ‘window’ and Phil has a manipulative man to man chat with  Grug in his man cave sauna, persuading him to agree to them taking Guy off his hands.  The climax hinges on Grug defying Phil’s sole rule and eating all the bananas which, turns out to be a bad thing, since they are in fact the only thing keeping the Bettermans’ paradise safe from a tribe of quick to learn punch monkeys and, in turn, a giant mandrill-like answer to King Kong.

Naturally, all this builds up to messages about family, parenting, acceptance, living in harmony and, as, led by Gran, a warrior in her day, the women come to the rescue as the Thunder Sisters,  a  big dose of female empowerment.  There’s some great sight gags, such as Guy poring over a scrapbook of old family cave drawings as well as big action sequences like the Croods battling the predatory kangadillos  as they race through a canyon all set against an often surreal and psychedelic looking landscape inhabited with things like  land sharks and Wolf-Spiders. The voice work is excellent, Cage, Stone and Dinklage taking the honours, the banter witty,  satirical, knowing and peppered with in jokes. If you are of a mind, you can even read into it a political message about a divided America,  but probably best to just be a kid,  ride the prehistoric rollercoaster and enjoy the silliness. And the peanut toe. (Amazon Prime)

Dune (12A)

Originating in 1965, Frank Herbert’s impenetrable allegorical science fiction beset-seller novel went on to spawn five sequels, various TV mini-series  and a 1984 big screen epic adaptation directed (and disowned) by David Lynch that proved a critical and box office disaster and is probably best remembered for the sight of Sting basically wearing a nappy.

It’s now been given a new lease of life at the hands of Denis Villeneuve with the sort of budget that could feed a small country for a century. The good news is that it’s money well spent, a monumentally-scaled spectacular that looks visually awesome and, unlike the original, has the perfect casting it needs to deliver the vision.

The last words spoken, by Fremen desert warrior Chani (Zendaya), are “This is only the beginning”, something which audiences only discover when the title card announces that this is Part 1 (Part 2 is yet to be filmed), the tale beginning by recounting how the planet Arrakis is the source of ‘spice’, a hallucinogenic substance that both extends life and fuels space travel. Mining it is a lucrative business, one which the ruthless House Harkonnen, headed by the floating Baron (Stellan Skarsgård) back on the stark Giedi Prime, and enforced by his brutal nephew (Dave Bautista),  has overseen for 80 years, repressing the native blue-eyed Fremen (among them Javier Bardem’s chief Stilgar) who regard them as exploiters and oppressors.

However, it’s now 10191 and the Emperor has decreed that stewardship of Arrakis should be handed over to House Atreides from the oceanic planet Caladan, in the person of Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac, assured) who, along with his longtime concubine, Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson, enigmatic) and son Paul (a quietly charisma exuding Timothée Chalamet), duly take up residence on the arid planet with its vast swathes of desert sand, unbearable heat and the deadly giant sandworms. The Duke is, however, under no illusions that this is some sort of gift, declaring that he’s been set up to fail and, with Atreides a growing threat to the Emperor’s rule, a step towards their annihilation.

Paul, however, is the stumbling block. While still unsure of himself, he’s a  skilled fighter trained by his father’s right-hand man Gurney Halleck (a grizzled and gruff Josh Brolin) and best buddies with   Duncan Idaho (a rare unbearded Jason Mamoa), the daring adventurer pilot of one of the dragonfly-winged aircraft, he’s been having dreams of Chani and visions of future events on Arrakis, and there is talk that he may be  the Chosen One  prophesised  by the mystic female order of the Bene Gesserit (of which his mother is one), though, despite an excruciatingly painful test,  their Truthsayer  (a visually obscured Charlotte Rampling) isn’t persuaded he’s yet ready.

Villeneuve takes his time to build the narrative, carefully layering visual cues concerning its subtext of industrial colonisation of third world countries alongside the political intrigue, eschewing exposition for carefully constructed character development and a gathering air of mystery that, in the figure of Paul, references both the New and Old Testament. But, when the action finally erupts with the invasion of Arrakis, it’s operatic in scale with    Rogue One: cinematographer Greig Fraser letting rip in literal explosive style while Hans Zimmer’s score resonates with an appropriate sonic vastness.

For those hungering to fill the void left after The Fellowship of the Rings and Game of Thrones, sharing an essence and intensity with Mad Max and Apocalypse Now (The Baron is like a hovering Kurtz), this is a feast indeed. Here’s hoping the box office yields a second helping. (BT Film Store, Sky Store,  Virgin)

Encanto (U)

Featuring music by Lin-Manuel Miranda, the latest Disney animation is set in Latin America and centres around the Madrigal family and the magic powers they possess. It starts with a tragedy as, escaping her home from armed conflict in Colombia, the young Alma Madrigal (María Cecilia Botero) loses her husband Pedro, but saves her three infant children, Pepa, Bruno and Julieta, using her magical candle to create a sentient Casita (a small house) for the family to live in. Over the years, a village grows up around it,  Alma’s children and grandchildren  gaining superhuman abilities, from super strength to the ability to talk to animals and, in her estranged son Bruno’s (John Leguizamo) case, precognition (although that turns out to pose a problem due to a misunderstanding). All that is except for Julieta’s (Angie Cepeda) youngest daughter, the bespectacled, curly-haired ever eager to help Mirabel (Stephanie Beatriz), who inexplicably, unlike her sisters,  the super-strong Luisa (Jessica Darrow), and Isabela (Diane Guerrero),  who can make flowers bloom, or cousin Dolores (Adassa), who has super-hearing,  has no special ability, making her something of an outsider. However, when the family’s magical powers start to fade and the Calista begins to fall apart, she is the one who’s blamed, but she might also be the only one who can save everything.

Vibrant and colourful, with stairs that turn into slide and tiles that serve as moving pathways,  and a wealth of catchy songs such as Feast of the Seven Fishes and the ballad Two Caterpillars,  it romps along with effervescent energy and charm and, being Disney, there’s also a cute animal (a clueless toucan voiced by Alan Tudyk) and at its heart is a familiar touching message about being true to yourself and the value of family bonds. (Disney+; Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park;  Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Vue)

Everybody’s Talking About Jamie (12)

Basically a drag queen Billy Elliot The Musical, this is a big screen adaptation of the West End coming of age hit based on the documentary about Sheffield teen Jamie Campbell who wanted to go to school prom in drag, is an exuberantly feelgood joy   directed by the Jonathan Butterell, who did the stage show and featuring the bulk of the original songs along with a stand out new addition. Winningly played by newcomer Max Harwood, the openly gay Jamie New lives with his supportive divorced mum Margaret (Sarah Lancashire) who, rather than see him hurt, hides the fact his homophobic father (Ralph Ineson) wants nothing to do with him, making excuses for no shows and faking birthday cards and presents.  Bullied at school, primarily by Dean Paxton (Samuel Bottomley) and disapproved of by his teacher (Sharon Horgan) who tells her pupils they need to have realistic dreams, he’s supported and encouraged in his dream of becoming a drag queen by Muslim best friend Pritti Pasha (an outstanding Lauren Patel), herself battling against petty bigotry as she studies to become a doctor, who persuades him to visit a local drag shop to find a dress to go with the ruby red stilettos his mum bought him. It’s here he meets the shop’s owner, Hugo Battersby (Richard E Grant, wonderful), a former drag queen star as Loco Chanel who becomes his mentor, sells him his legendary ‘blood red dress’ and sets him up for his drag show debut (where, overcoming nerves and the jeers of Paxton and his mates, he dazzles as well as being given his drag name as Mimi Mi). All seems to be going swimmingly, until Jamie meets his dad and learns exactly how he feels (leading to a bust up with his mother for lying to him) and his teacher firmly tells him he’s not going to be allowed into prom if he turns up in a dress.

All of which serves as a platform for some brilliant choreographed set musical pieces that include the original stage title song spectacular and Lancashire’s poignant He’s My Boy alongside the all new This Was Me, a tear-jerker disco ballad performed by Grant (but sung by Holly Johnson) that, an addition to the narrative,  affords a flashback to Hugo’s drag queen days backdropped by the AIDs epidemic, the street protests, police gay bashing, Princess Diana’s  to patients, and ending with the news of Freddie Mercury’s death.

Featuring appearances by Shobna Gulati as Margaret’s mate Ray and cameos from the theatre production cast by  Margaret Campbell who played mum and the original Jamie, John McCrea who plays the young Loco) alongside Drag Race star Bianca del Rio (as herself and the school art teacher) and Layton Williams, the touring version of Jamie, it’s  variously touching, funny, heartbreaking (the new addition of a football match where Jamie  confronts his father)  and inspiring, culminating  with the prom where Jamie becomes his true self, his classmates take a stand and Dean finds redemption and it ends with the company’s rousing self-acceptance and mutual tolerance message embodying performance of Out of the Darkness (A Place Where We Belong). Everybody’s talking about Jamie, and rightly so.  (Amazon Prime)

Extinct (U)

Flummels are ring-doughnut shaped creatures with a hole in their middle and who travel like rolling tyres, they live on one of the Galápagos Islands where brother and sister  Op (Rachel Bloom) and Ed (Adam Devine) are the tribe’s misfits,  she always creating a mess and he a grumpy pessimist who longs to fit in. However, vain flummels leader Jepson (Henry Winkler) and bossy assistant  Mali (Alex Borstein) aren’t about to let that happen, Ed being consigned to be friend at the end, a straggler in the upcoming 10th annual flower festival procession. But even that’s denied him when they inadvertently cause a friendly whale to swamp the beach, Op and Ed being consigned to sit the festival out on desolation rock.

Looking to find a way to redeem themselves, Op leads Ed up the far side of the mountain to the forbidden zone in search of some extra special blooms  and, falling into a  glowing flower, find themselves magically transported to present day  Shanghai. Here, lost and confused,  they’re helped by   Clarence (Ken Jeong), a small white mix-breed Pomeranian that belonged to a now missing scientist who discovered seeds that enabled him to travel in time and visit historic events. He reveals the dreadful truth that, shortly after they left, a volcanic explosion wiped out all flummels, but says that, through  Dr Chung’s (Benedict Wong)  time terminal he can help them travel back and save their species.

Unfortunately, another Op and Ed accident throws Clarence into a random portal (where he becomes one of explorer Edward Shackleton’s thuggish sled dogs) along with the 1835 seed, leaving them at a loss at what to do. At which point they meet The Extinctables (an in-joke nod to Stallone’s The Expendables), a group of extinct creatures, dodo Dottie (Zazie Beetz), Tasmanian tiger Burnie (Jim Jefferies), Macrauchenia Alma (Catherine O’Hara) and Hoss (Reggie Watts), a baby Triceratops,  rescued by Chung, who now live in the time terminal library. They offer to help Op and Ed visit various times to try and find Clarence, eventually recovering the seed that will save the flummels. However, an argument sees Op returning on her own and,  at this point, there’s an unexpected twist where Clarence’s motives turn out to be something entirely different to what first appeared.

With a plot that involves time travel loops that Doctor Who might find complicated and the introduction of such characters as a cyclops, the captain of The Beagle (Nick Frost) and his passenger Charles Darwin (Tom Hollander) on its 1917 voyage of discovery, as well as offering snippets of historical information, this is directed by David Silverman who made The Simpsons Movie and written by three of The Simpsons scriptwriters. As such, while  aimed at youngsters and borrowing from films like Ice Age, there’s also plenty of sly – and at times risqué – humour for the adults too (Clarence says his mom was ‘social’, an interspecies romance and, a laugh out loud   cannibal-joke as  Op bites into an actual doughnut and splatters a horrified Ed with jam), plus of course it comes with an upstanding message about courage, being true to yourself and the power of friendship and all the characters have very definite personalities.  An unexpected delight.  (Sky Cinema)

Finch (12)

Set in a post-apocalyptic future where the collapse of the ozone layer has rendered the planet a radioactive, burning hot hellhole ripped by extreme weather, Tom Hanks gives another (almost) one-man performance as, to his best knowledge, the last living human, a military engineer who escaped destruction by being in a bunker when calamity struck. Now, protected by a space suit, with the aid of his version WALL-E, he drives a converted RV listening to American Pie as he forages the ruins of Missouri in his for food for himself and his dog, Goodyear. However, Finch knows he’s dying and, before he goes, he wants to build a robot with artificial intelligence to look after the mutt. So, beavering away in his bunker, he assembles Jeff (Caleb Landry Jones), as the robot eventually decides to call himself, teaching him to walk, think and respond, before another superstorm sets them off on a road trip from St Louis to San Francisco, fuelled by a  postcard of the Golden Gate bridge.

Directed by Miguel Sapochnik, it’s a gentle, leisurely paced affair that takes in themes of redemption (as we  learn the story of how Finch came to adopt Goodyear) and friendship as the buddy storyline between Hanks and the robot develops with a mix of slapstick humour and deep feeling and plays out without any of the usual last act twists. Hanks is, well, Hanks,  delivering a familiarly reliable and well-shaded performance while the voice work by Jones, who also did the motion-capture) positions Jeff up there with such iconic robots as R2-D2, Gort, D.A.R.Y.L and The Iron Giant, while Seamus is absolutely adorably pawfect as Goodyear. It is exactly what it sets out to be, Finch and his mechanoid surrogate son radiating a warm, wistful melancholia and a beguiling charm that is well worth seeking out.  (Apple TV)

The French Dispatch (15)

While they may sometimes favour visual aesthetic and quirkiness over heart and soul, Wes Anderson’s films have a unique sensibility that would be impossible to mistake for any other writer-director. Set in the 60s in the fictional provincial French town of Ennui-Sur-Blasé , his latest, a tribute to the New Yorker and in many ways echoing Grand Budapest Hotel, is a compendium piece that hangs three stories  around the framing device of the titular newspaper, a satellite of  the Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun,  founded, edited and published Arthur Howitzer Jr. (Bill Murray), an eccentric who advises his reporters to “try to make it sound like you wrote it that way on purpose”,  whose office sports the sign “No crying” above the door and whose obituary provides another of its narratives.

It opens with a local colour travel piece as Owen Wilson bicycles around the town taking notes before the first ‘article’, “The Concrete Masterpiece”,  introduces Tilda Swinton as art critic  J.K.L. Berensen (detailing her profile of  and art lecture on  convicted killer turned modern-art bad boy Moses Rosenthaler (a straggly bearded Benicio del Toro). His abstract nude painting of his prison guard  (Léa Seydoux) attracts the interest of fellow inmate and art dealer Julian Cadazio (Adrian Brody) who pays a fortune for it and (with the help of his business partner relatives, Henry Winkler and Bob Balaban) subsequently turns Rosenthaler into a  cult figure sensation, leading up to commissioning a whole series of such works, only, three years later as he and a mob of artists force their way into prison,  to find the canvases are in fact frescoes and somewhat fixed in place.

The second, Revisions to a Manifesto set to backdrop of student protests that escalate into the “”Chessboard Revolution” and shot mostly in black and white,  is by politics writer Lucinda Krementz (Frances McDormand) who, journalist objectivity be damned, finds herself attracted to young radical Zeffirelli B. (Timothée Chalamet), whose campaigning for the right to free access to the girls’ dormitory, takes his virginity and knocks his manifesto into shape as they share a bed. Featuring Lyna Khoudri as Zeffirelli’s fellow activist   girlfriend, Juliette, and a cameo by Christoph Waltz as   a pretentious  art collector, events father to a siege and a tragedy as Zeffirelli becomes the symbol of the revolutionary movement.

The third, The Private Dining Room of the Police Commissioner, which features Willem Dafoe as an incarcerated  mob accountant and an animated chase sequence, entails a talk show interview by Liev Schreiber with  food writer Roebuck Wright (Jeffrey Wright), a James Baldwin-like gay dilettante with a photographic memory of every word he’s written whose nascent journalistic talent  Howitzer spotted and encouraged. Wright recalls the crazy kidnapping of the Commisaire’s (Mathieu Almaric) son by a gang that includes Edward Norton and Saoirse Ronan and an unlikely poisoned cuisine rescue involving police offer and chef Lt. Nescaffier (Stephen Park). Finally, narrated by Anjelica Huston,  comes the aforementioned obituary as the paper’s staff, also including cartoonist Jason Schwartzman and Griffin Dunne’s Legal Advisor, gather to plan the final edition.

With a  design that includes shifting stage scenery, cross-sections, painted backdrops, animation, split screen images of Ennui then and now, and a plethora of in jokes about the New York and Paris art scenes of the period (look for the Modern Physics pinball machine), it’s ultimately a patchwork of loosely connected shaggy dog stories in celebration of journalists and journalism in a modern world of fake news, ephemeral sound bites and banality in the quest for web hits. It may be more about style and substance, but it’s a real joy to get your fingers inky watching. (From Sun: MAC)

Ghostbusters: Afterlife (12A)

Evicted from their home, Callie (Carrie Coon) has no alternative but to take her two kids, fifteen-year-old Trevor (Finn Wolfhard) and his science-mad younger sister Phoebe (a stand-out Mckenna Grace) and move into the dilapidated remote rural Oklahoma mansion in Summerville where her long-estranged father recently died. Unlike her, still a turmoil of resentment sparked by old memories, the kids adjust quickly, Trevor getting a job at the local diner where he has a crush on fellow worker Lucky (Celeste O’Connor) and Phoebe enrolling in summer school, taught by amateur seismologist Gary Grooberson (Paul Rudd), whose lesson plans consist of getting the kids to watch horror movies, where she buddies up with a fellow science nerd who, armed with a camcorder, for obvious reasons calls himself Podcast (Logan Kim).

There, is, however, something strange going on at the long-abandoned mine (shades of Spielberg’s Devil Tower) over which hovers an ominous black cloud, part of the operations originally run by Gozerian cultist Ivo Shandor (JK Simmons) who has put in place plans for his resurrection, while, led by an unseen force, Phoebe finds  a hidden ghost trap in the basement and accidentally releases Muncher, a metal-eating ghost, one of Gozer’s entities, subsequently leading to her learning her  late grandfather was Egon Spengler, one of the original Ghostbusters who saved New York City from the demonic Gozer back in the 80s before abandoning his family and fellow spook chasers, taking off with all the gear and their signature Ectomobile.  She also finds his hidden lair and equipment, repairing Egon’s proton pack and setting out to recapture Muncher, all three kids ending up in jail, where Lucky’s dad (Bokeem Woodbine) is sheriff, for destroying property in the chase. So, who’s she going to call? Well, Ray Stantz (co-writer and franchise star Dan Ackroyd) who duly arrives to explain how Egon believed there was an apocalypse coming, thereby setting the third act into play wherein Carrie and Gary (who’s now dating her) are transformed into Gozer’s demonic servants ,Vinz Clortho and Zuul the Gatekeeper, and the kids, now joined by Lucky and wearing the trademark uniforms, with a timely appearance by the other two originals, Bill Murray and Ernie Wright (plus a touching technologically rendered cameo that explains the film title), set about  saving the world.

Originally released to blockbuster success in 1984 and spawning one sequel and assorted animated TV spin-offs, a 2016 attempt at a revival with all-female ghostbusters tanked badly, but this, directed by Ivan Reitman’s son Jason, pitched much more to the young adult market as Goonies meet Ghostbusters, albeit peppered with 80s references for the grown-ups, is a far more successful affair, even if it takes almost an hour before the first real ghost action, which, alongside the high octane confrontations also welcomes the return of the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man, albeit smaller, more of them and with an endearing Gremlins-like gooey self-destructive streak.

It ends on a sentimental but still poignant note of reconciliation, but stay for the credits and you also get Sigourney Weaver joining Murray for another cameo as Dana Barrett plus a reveal as to Winston’s new Ghostbusters business and a final hint at another sequel. Scare it up.  (Cineworld NEC; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Vue)

 The Green Knight (12A)

Adapted from the anonymous epic 14th-century poem which related how the court of King Arthur (Sean Harris) is visited one Christmas Day by a mysterious green knight (Ralph Ines on), who, looking like some tree deity, challenges the knights to  give him a  blow on him, on the provision he returns the same one year hence. Looking to earn himself hero stripes, Gawain (Dev Patel), the nephew of the king and queen (Kate Dickie), strikes off the knight’s head, only for the body to pick it up and ride off to await a return visit in the Green Chapel.

As written and directed by David Lowery, this is not, however, the sort of sword and sorcery film you might expect. Rather, it’s an arty, mystical meditation on themes of honour, masculinity and the desire for immortality, Patel’s Gawain first seen as an unambitious dissolute ne’er do well given to booze and brothels   who takes up the challenge (using Excalibur, though neither it nor Arthur are referred to by name) as a quick way to elevate his status and become a knight, his regular shag, Essel (Alicia Vikander), dreaming of being his “lady”.

After a  year of basking in his notoriety, but conscious of what fate may await, as Christmas approached he sets out to keep his bargain, armed with the Green Knight’s giant axe and a magic girdle given him his sorceress mother  (Sarita Choudhury), that, a bit of a cheat,  will keep him from harm. As he goes upon his Pilgrim’s Progress-like journey, he finds his courage, morality and convictions tested by those he encounters, among then a bandit trickster (Barry Keoghan) who robs him and leaves him for dead, a woman asking him to recover her decapitated head from a lake, and a flirtatious Lord (a sly Joel Egerton) and his alluring Lady (Vikander again), the latter of whom seeks to tempt him to her bed (and gets him to ejaculate over the magic girdle she has someone acquired and returned) before finally arriving at his appointed destiny.

Lowery conjures a world characterised by decay, both physical and moral, in a transition between pagan and Christian, that makes for an atmospheric backdrop, but rather tends to overdo the otherworldly mystery with the likes of the blindfolded old woman at the Lord’s castle, Gawain’s mother’s spells and fellow witches,  the talking fox companion he acquires and the sight through the morning mist of a breastfeeding giant walking across the land with her fellows, none of which are ever explained and some of which, like Gawain’s vision of his future if he defaults on his bargain, may all be in his head.

Patel makes for a compelling flawed vulnerable hero beset by doubt, insecurity and internal confusion while the support cast afford a tapestry of subtle colours as Lowery weaves an intoxicating visual magic even as his cryptic telling resists easy access, its deep pleasures only truly surfacing as you look back after viewing. (Amazon Prime)

The Guilty (15)       

A remake of the claustrophobic Danish thriller of the same name and played out pretty much note for note, directed by Antoine Fuqua, this is a largely (and electrifying) one-man turn by Jake Gyllenhaal as Joe Baylor, an asthmatic LA police officer resentful of having been demoted to the job of a 911 call handler while awaiting trial for a never specified misdemeanour.  His marriage has also fallen apart, and he can’t get to speak to his young daughter.

It’s the night shift and his routine involves taking calls from assorted drunks, a man robbed by a sex worker, those caught up in the wildfire and others who want their problems solved, ascertaining location and then assigning the appropriate services. Then, he gets one from a woman, Emily (Riley Keough), who, in frightened tones, tells him she’s been abducted and is in the car, pretending she’s phoning her toddler daughter, Abby, to reassure her she’s okay.  Joe’s instincts kick in and he makes desperate calls to try and find her, eventually speaking to her daughter, establishing she’s in a white van, that she’s been taken by her ex-husband, who did time for assault, that he has a knife and that the children, the little girl and a baby, are home alone and one has been seriously injured.

As the clock ticks away and the crisis, like the fires, heats up, Joe becomes ever more concerned and ever more intense in his efforts, losing it with fellow officers, those he calls who don’t seem to be  responding as quickly as he wants and Emily’s ex, Henry (Peter Sarsgaard), when he gets him on the line, and Gyllenhaal, on headset and iPhone, ramps up the emotions and delivery accordingly, while also juggling calls to his estranged wife and a persistent reporter who wants his side to the story being trialled the next day.

Those who’ve seen the original will know about the devastating surprise third act twist, but if not I’ll say nothing to spoil the shock other than it throws a new light on the film’s title. With   Ethan Hawke adding to the disembodied voices as Joe’s former sergeant, the support cast deliver solid support but, often shot in sweaty close up, it is Gyllenhaal who is front and centre throughout, his efforts to save Emily clearly some sort of attempt at personal salvation amid the fuck up he’s made of his life, adding an extra edge to the final sequence. Riveting. (Netflix)

Gunpowder Milkshake (15)

Abandoned (for her own good) as a youngster  (Freya Allan) by her contract killer mother Scarlet (Lena Headey) when a job involving some nasty Russians went sour,  Sam (a cool Karen Gillan) now works doing likewise  for the same  shady organisation of businessmen gangsters, The Firm,  whose overseer, Nathan (Paul Giamatti), took her under his wing. She’s very good at what she does, and after each job she likes to unwind at the neutral zone diner   with a large ice cream milkshake.

Unfortunately, history repeats itself when, on her latest contract to recover some stolen Firm money,  she unwittingly kills the son of a powerful Russian  mobster whom her employers don’t want to upset, thus removing the protection she enjoys, and sending her on the run, during the course of which she acquires a cute 8-year-old, 8 Emily (My Spy’s Chloe Coleman) whose dad stole the money to pay her ransom and who she killed (though, to be fair, she shot him in a tussle and did take him to the hospital)  and reunites with her ‘aunts’ in The Sisterhood, Anna May (Angela Bassett), Florence (Michelle Yeoh)  and Mathilde (Carla Gugino), three fellow assassins who run The Library, a brilliantly imagined sanctuary where assorted weapons are stored inside  the books on the shelves. Needless to say, at some point, after 15 years, mum resurfaces too.

A sort of female action spin on John Wick  with liberal helpings of Kill Bill and Bad Times at the El Royale that plays with the same wink in its eye, it rattles along as Sam is pursued by both an army of Russian goons and The Firm’s bumbling enforcers (taking them on while her arms are temporarily paralysed and they’re under the influence of laughing gas), rescues Emily from the kidnappers  by way of a bravura sequence at  a bowling alley using a bowling ball as a deadly weapon, a guns blazing, chain, hammers and tomahawk-wielding shoot out at The Library To the sound of The Animals cover It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue  and a final showdown at the diner. Also thrown into the mix is Ralph Ineson as Sam’s decidedly off his head father and a fight involving a suitcase handle.  With an ending that demands both a  sequel and prequel,  it knows it’s just colourful, blood spattered popcorn fun and clearly relishes every mouthful. (Sky Cinema/NOW)

The Harder They Fall (15)

Directed and co-written by British singer-songwriter Jeymes Samuel and featuring virtually all Black cast, this comes with all its Tarantino guns blazing (with bullets by Leone), from the homage to classic Westerns to  smart ass pop culture dialogue, a gleeful disregard for historical accuracy, stylised bloody violence, whimsical captions, a contemporary soundtrack (hip hop from Jay-Z, reggae and dub from Barrington Levy and Dennis Brown) and visual puns such as black towns having coloured buildings and a white town being quite literally all white. It might easily be a companion piece to Django Unchained.

It opens as a young Nat Love watches as his mother and preacher father are murdered by Rufus Buck (Idris Elba), who’s come to settle an old score, he himself let live but with a cross carved into his forehead. Fast forward and Love (Jonathan Majors) leads a gang of outlaws (who only prey on other outlaws) comprising cocky young quick-shooter Jim Beckwourth (RJ Cyler) and, sharpshooter Bill Pickett (Edi Gathegi), who ambush another, red-hooded, gang, who’ve just robbed a bank.

The loot was destined to go to Buck who, Love is horrified to hear, has been given a federal pardon (his gang liberate him from an iron vault on a train (named in tribute to Chadwick Boseman) guarded by corrupt soldiers) and is now intent on reclaiming the town of Redwood (where redwood trees are conspicuously absent) from a turncoat sidekick now sheriff  (Deon Cole) as his personal fiefdom alongside his core gang of Treacherous’ Trudy Smith (Regina King) and laconic quick draw Cherokee Bill (LaKeith Stanfield). So, linking up with his feisty saloon singer lover ‘Stagecoach’ Mary Fields (Zazie Beetz), her cross-dressing bouncer Cuffee (a marvellous Danielle Deadwyler) and Deputy Marshall Bass Reeves (Delroy Lindo), they set off for long overdue payback. In a very Tarantinoesque flourish, the names of  most of the central characters (some of whom figured in Samuels’ earlier Western short They Die By Dawn) all relate to real people from the time , although they never met and certainly were never involved in anything like the storyline here. Love, for example, was a prize winning professional cowboy.

A revisionist take on an era in American history films of which have been almost exclusively dominated by white heroes and villains, it moves surefootedly to its inevitable Redwood showdown between Love and Buck (and much gunplay that eliminates most of the supporting players) and a monologue that delivers an unexpected and audacious sting in the tail that finally explains what the score was Buck was settling.

The central players all rise to the occasion and each has their moment in the spotlight, Elba suitably brooding and ruthless, Majors relentlessly charismatic, Stanfield ultra-cool,  although a sassy King and Beetz, who get to have their own brutal; brawl, often threaten to steal it from their male co-stars. It may not be the defibrillator needed to fully revive the genre, but it’s more than enough fast paced, violet fun to keep the pacemaker ticking. (Netflix)

House Of Gucci (15)

In 1972, coming from humble origins, Patrizia Reggiani, the adopted daughter of an Italian haulier for whom she worked as a secretary, married Maurizio Gucci, the grandson of Guccio Gucci who founded the famous leather goods fashion-house, and the couple moved to New York. In 1995, a year after their divorce, she hired a hitman to murder him, consequently being sentenced to 29 years for arranging the killing.  Directed by Ridley Scott from a screenplay by Becky Johnston and Roberto Bentivegna adapted from Sara Gay Forden’s  non-fiction bestseller, shifting the time scale to have the meet cute in 1978 this sprawling biopic documents the ups and downs of the relationship, her rise to power within the Gucci empire, the manipulations, backstabbings, business machinations and   much more, bedrocked by another mesmerising performance from Lada Gaga as Patrizia and a somewhat diffident Adam Driver as Maurizio.

Meeting Maurizio, a law student with little interest in the family business,  at a disco party in 1970, Reggiani contrives to bump into him again, pushing into dating her and eventually proposing marriage, much to the opposition of his conservative father, Rodolfo (Jeremy Irons) who declares her a gold-digger and disinherits him, and, transitioning from the couple screwing on the office desk to the church ceremony, Maurizio ends up working for his father-in-law.  However, her ambitions are not to be so easily sidelined and so it is that, after an invite to the 70th birthday party of Maurizio’s more commercially minded uncle Aldo (Al Pacino), who runs stores in Paris, London and Rome and wants to break into New York, but has watered down the lines to a cheaper look.  and his nincompoop bald, overweight loser son Paulo (Jared Leto), a second rate designer (scathingly dismissed by Rodolfo as achieving the pinnacle  of mediocrity), that she masterminds her husband’s growing involvement in and eventual domination of the business, stitching up both uncle and cousin along the way, enlisting the latter to undermine the former, only to then cast him aside. Unfortunately, Maurizio, who inherits a 50% share when his now reconciled father dies (albeit the document left unsigned and forged by Patrizia),  and has transformed from  goofball nerd to power-crazed hedonist looking to take full control (ultimately, he was forced out and no Gucci is now connected with the empire), is also planning to sideline his wife in the Gucci affairs, not least after being reconnected with Paola Franchie (Camille Cottin) an old, upper-class flame, packing off wife and daughter back to Italy. Incensed at being cast aside as both spouse and business partner, Patrizia sets about arranging the hit (taking place to the strains of Madame Butterfly) Meanwhile, Gucci financial advisor, Domenico De Sole (Jack Huston) is keeping a  sharp eye on which way the wind is blowing.

As such, soundtracked to the likes of Faith, Here Comes The Rain and It’s The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year,  Scott plays it very much like a glossy soap opera pantomime along the lines of Falcon Crest or Dynasty, although, given  the hit was arranged through Patrizia’s professional psychic confidante Pina Auriemma (Selma Hayek), the truth is even more melodramatic than any fiction. It’s a tad overlong and the back and forth narrative switches can prove hard to follow, but Gaga’s electrifyingly ferocious command of the screen ensures you’ll be transfixed.  (Cineworld NEC; Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Vue)

Jungle Cruise (12A)

It used to be that the film spawned the theme park ride, but these days it’s more often the other way round.  This, set in 1917,  is the seventh to be based on a Disney theme park attraction, although  cine-literate audiences will recognise it’s also heavily influenced by the Bogart and Hepburn classic The African Queen, the roles here taken by Dwayne Johnson and Emily Blunt. She’s Lily Houghton, a trousers-wearing British botanist who’s determined to find a legendary ancient tree, hidden somewhere in the depths of the Amazon, the petals of which, the Tears Of The Moon, will heal any illness. Wearing the same sort of hat as Bogart, he is Frank Wolff, the cynical skipper of a ramshackle river boat who, in hock to the local Italian businessman (Paul Giamatti), runs cruises up and down the Amazon, given to making dreadful puns and something of an opportunistic con artist staging assorted ‘perils’ for his gullible  Western tourists. Lily having stolen a mystical arrowhead which, along with an old map, she believes will lead her to the tree, heads for Brazil along with her impractical foppish brother MacGregor (Jack Whitehall) where, after assorted antics (including a staged attack by Frank’s tame jaguar), she ends up hiring him to skipper them on their mission. She calls him Skippy, he calls her Pants.  However, she’s not the only one after the petal and, as the travel up the Amazon, they’re pursued by Prince Joachim (an accent mangling Jesse Plemons), apparently one of the Kaiser’s sons, in his  submarine, who wants to use its powers to help the German army win the war.

It should, at this point, be mentioned that there’s also a curse attached to the legend, dating back to the 16th century when, led by Aguirre (Edgar Ramírez), a bunch of Spanish Conquistadors came in search of the petals, massacred the natives who protected the tree and ended up being forever trapped by the jungle, their zombie selves being liberated and teaming up with Joachim.

Shamelessly pilfering from not only The African Queen, but also Romancing The Stone, Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Mummy and Pirates of the Caribbean  (and for art house devotees, Aguirre, Wrath Of God) , it could have profitably have been trimmed by 15 minutes (ditching some baggage as Frank does with MacGregors’), but you can’t say director Jaume Collet-Serra’s doesn’t give value for the price of admission, what with telepathic bees, snakes, rapids,  plunging waterfalls, running over collapsing structures, swinging from ropes, dart-blowing natives, headhunters, explosions  and much more. And along the way there’s  the inevitable burgeoning romance between Lily and Frank (he has a secret, so let’s just say it’s probably good if she prefers older men) as well as a sensitively handled scene where MacGregor (Whitehall rising above his initial comic relief role)  confesses to Frank that his affections are not directed at women.

Blunt and Johnson play off each other well, though it’s fair to say she scores the most points, and both throw themselves into the film’s physical demands with great gusto, and, at the end of the day, it’s all a good hearted rollercoaster ride through old fashioned Saturday matinee adventure escapism and none the worse for that.  (Disney +)

Kate (15)

Directed by Cedric Nicolas-Troyan,  this mines similar territory to Jason Statham’s Crank, DOA and 24 Hours To Live in a race against the clock Tokyo-set thriller in which, following a one night stand quickie before being sent on a new mission that will be her final job, female assassin Kate (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) finds she’s been given  fatal radiation poisoning. Now, with the help of adrenalin boosting shots, she has just 24 hours to track down those responsible, which she believes to Kijima (Jun Kunimura), the  elderly Yakuza boss who was her mark and whose younger brother she killed 10 months earlier. Tracking him down involves kidnapping his niece, Ani (Miku Patricia Martineau), a mouthy teenager who, it transpires, is the daughter of the man she killed back in Osaka some years earlier, which has left her with a guilty conscience over breaking the ‘no kids’ rule. Unaware of Kate’s involvement, when she discovers that she’s been deemed expendable by her uncle’s lieutenant, Renji (Tadanobu Asano), impressed by Kate’s deadly prowess (she calls her a Terminator – cue a red bloodshot eye), she becomes a willing and eager sidekick as the pair set out to track down Kijima and exact revenge.

Inevitably, tracing themes of family, loyalty and double-crosses, the plot throws in a not entirely unpredictable third act twist involving him, Renji and Varrick (Woody Harrelson), Kate’s father-figure handler who groomed her lethal skills from when she was orphaned, but, anchored by a solid gritty but human action woman turn from Winstead discovering her maternal instincts towards the girl she orphaned (see Gunpowder Milkshake too) as she staggers through events, coughing up blood and getting battered, and some engaging comedic input from Martineau as the brattish but ultimately likeable Ani.  With plenty of punchy regulation fight scenes and car chases to drive things along inbetween the character moments and emotional pulses, it makes for a watchable popcorn and a beer Friday night. (Netflix)

The King’s Man (12A)

Remaining true to the basic historical details, but setting them in different context, Matthew Vaughn serves up a revisionist account of WWI in his prequel to the two Kingsman movies about a secret British intelligence organisation whose members all have codenames relating to King Arthur and the Round Table. The film opens in 1902 with Orlando, the pacifist  Duke of Oxford (Ralph Fiennes), visiting South Africa with his right-hand  man  Shola (Djimon Hounsou), wife (Alexandra Maria Lara) and young son Conrad as part of a Red Cross mission to confront Kitchener (Charles Dance) over British military behaviour towards Boer War prisoners.  Tragically, an attack leaves her dead and him lame, the film cutting to several years later with the now 17-year-old Conrad (Harris Dickinson), whom he has sworn to keep out of harm’s way. However, there are rumblings of war, fuelled in this telling by a mysterious organisation headed up by a never clearly seen man with a broad Scottish accent who lives atop a mountain and rears goats and the machinations of Russian monk Rasputin (a magnetic Rhys Ifans) who’s contriving to bring down the British Empire.

When Orlando fails to foil a second attempt to assassinate the Arch Duke Ferdinand, the stage is set for war, pitting first cousins King George, Tsar Nicolas and Kaiser Wilhem  (all played by Tom Hollander), the German leader being manipulated by  Erik Jan Hanussen (Daniel Brühl),  against  one another, with Conrad determined to defy his father and enlist.

Behind the scenes, as his son’s later made privy to, Orlando reveals he’s not just suiting back but. with the help of Shula and family nanny Polly (a winningly kick ass Gemma Arterton), he’s running a spy network gathering  intelligence on the assorted intrigues and seeking to bring America, into the war, a move resisted by President Woodrow Wilson (Ian Kelly) on account of his being blackmailed over sex footage involving Mata Hari (Valerie Pachner), which ultimately sets up the climax in the mission to retrieve it.

This is not yet The Kingsmen of the earlier films, which, at this point, remains the gentleman’s Savile Row tailors where Orlando takes Conrad to be fitted for his first suit and where the boy meets Kitchener and his aide-de-camp Morton (Matthew Goode).

In an increasingly tangled and silly plot, we see the team visiting Russia where the Orlando battles Rasputin (who heals his leg by licking it) in a sword fight staged in balletic moves, and Conrad swapping identities with a Scottish corporal (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) so that he can stay on the frontline, resulting in a heroic but tragic recovery of vital information in a scene that could have been lifted from 1917 . This, in turn, is followed by a memorial service that entails a reading of  Wilfred Owen’s bitter Dulce et Decorum Est (several years before its publication and here purported to have been penned by Conrad),  Orlando’s subsequent wallowing in grief and booze and eventual restoration to man of action under Polly’s ministrations, culminating in the aforementioned mountain top battle where, along with Orlando demonstrating a new invention, the parachute,  the identity of the Shepherd, clearly conceived as a  Bond-like nemesis mastermind, is finally revealed.

Featuring brief appearances by Alison Steadman as part of the network and Stanley Tucci as the American Ambassador alongside such characters as Lenin and the Tsar’s assassin, Felix Yusupov (here Orlando’s cousin),  though somewhat sluggish in getting going Vaughn plays it as a straightforward spy-action caper with the obligatory action sequences (a sword fight shot like a video shooter game), stunts and effects but always with an awareness of its inherent silliness, the cast fully committed to the premise with a knowing twinkle in their eyes. It ends with, finally, the establishment of The Kingsmen round table and the inevitable mid-credits scene which,  with Hanussan as the new Shepherd wheeling on another moustachioed real life figure, sets up a potential WWII sequel. Hugely enjoyable nonsense.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park;  Everyman; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Vue)

Matrix Resurrections (15)

As comic book fans will know, killing off characters doesn’t mean they can’t return, and so, despite the deaths of Trinity (Carrie-Ann Moss) and Neo (Keanu Reeves) in Revolutions,  as the title implies, they’re back again here. As directed by Lana Wachowski,  it opens with Bugs (Jessica Nenwick), the blue haired, white rabbit tattooed captain of the Mnemosyne, discovering a program running old code regarding Trinity’s discovery of Neo’s location, before being attacked by Agents of the Matrix, only to be rescued by one of them who turns out to be the embodiment of Morpheus (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II replacing Laurence Fishburn), who she frees from the node.

Cut then to San Fransciso as  it sets up with a sly self-reflexive premise by which the first three films in the series are explained away as, indeed, films based on the computer games designed by Thomas Anderson (Reeves), with the parent company,Warners, now pressuring for a fourth with or without  his and Deus Machina CEO (Agent) Smith’s (Jonathan Groff) involvement (as the studio did in reality with Wachowski).

From this point on, adopting the philosophical conundrum of  whether you’re a human dreaming of being a butterfly or a butterfly dreaming of being human, nothing is fixed.  Andersons till has problems separating dreams from reality and is seeing a shrink (Neil Patrick Harris) who prescribes him blue pills and, naturally, turns out to be more than he seems. Then he encounters Morpheus, who offers him the red pill.

Frequenting a local coffee shop, Anderson meets married mother Tiffany (Moss), she sensing a connection. Meanwhile, Bugs and her team, trace Neo’s signal to Anderson, arriving in his reality to extract him from the simulation (and push him to ‘wake up’) to join the rebels fighting the new Matrix, explaining that sixty years have passed (cue a mirror reflection of bald Reeves), and to free Trinity from her pod.  By now you might  feel the need to take notes to keep up with all the plot twists and turns that variously involve  assorted anthropomorphic machines (notably a  robotic manta ray), the human sanctuary of Io (for the survivors of Zion) overseen by a now much older Niobe (Jada Pinkett-Smith), Sati (Priyanka Chopra Jonas), the exile programme who explains how the Anomaly was created after the Machine War and resurrected Neo and Trinity, but kept them isolated, and warns against  any rescue attempt, along with the not entirely surprising revelation of the Analyst mastermind behind the new Matrix  but the definitely unexpected intervention of an unlikely saviour. Oh, yes, and there’s a cat called Déjà Vu.

All that aside, this is essentially more of the same, albeit with a more self-referential awareness (such as the knowing incorporation of the trademark slow-mo bullet-time effect by the villain of the piece) along with assorted flashbacks to the previous film and the actors playing the earlier character incarnations, while Reeves gets to have both his Jon Wick straggly hair and beard as well as a clean-shaving look while plugged into the Matrix on the Mnemosyne. Arguably the love save all reunion between Neo and Trinity adds some emotional depth, but at heart this is all about delivering senses-warping effects and high-powered action sequences such as a thrilling motorbike chase. As such, you will most assuredly want to plug in and go down the rabbit hole once more. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park;  Everyman; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Vue)

 

No Time To Die (12A)

Daniel Craig quite literally bows out of his stint as 007 in a blaze of glory as, after several pandemic-caused delays the 25th (and longest) official James Bond movie finally arrives amid glowing reviews peppered with all the obvious catch phrase clichés. Scripted by Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and Phoebe Waller-Bridge and masterfully directed by Cary Fukunaga, it has several nods to the past franchise outings, most obviously in being bookended with Louis Armstrong’s All The Time In The World which was, of course, the theme to On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, George Lazenby’s only outing in the role and, pointedly, the film in which Bond found love and married.

He’s in love again here, this time with the enigmatic psychiatrist Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux, magnetic), as seen in Spectre, having retired from active service for domestic bliss, though  events following his visit to the tomb of Vesper Lynd to finally let go of the past quickly see such hopes dashed. Madeleine, announced in the previous film as the daughter of former Quantum member Mr White, is given a prologue back story here when, seeking revenge for her father murdering his family, the masked and facially scarred Lyutsifer Safin (a coolly chilling Rami Malek) arrives at their remote snowbound Norwegian home, kills her mother but ends up rescuing her from a frozen lake when she attempts to escape. Suffice to say, back in Matera in Italy and after a stupendous car chase and town square shoot out involving his tooled-up Aston Martin (seemingly MI6 allow agents to keep their deadly toys when they quit), Bond assumes he’s been betrayed again, puts her on a train walks away.

Cut to five years later and a murderous raid on a secret MI6 laboratory (cue comedic cameo from Hugh Dennis) sees Obruchev (David Dencik), a Russian scientist, supposedly kidnapped along with his data on something called Project Heracles, a bioweapon containing nanobots that allow to target specific DNA strands that M (Ralph Fiennes) has been running as a clandestine operation. Anyone infected with the virus then kills anyone they touch (an unintended COVID echo) who shares that DNA. Now living in Port Antonio, Jamaica (where Ian Fleming holidayed), Bond is contacted by his best buddy, CIA agent Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright), who, along with his all smiles colleague Logan Ash (Billy Magnusson) want him to help tracking down Obruchev to which, after a visit by Nomi (Lashana Lynch who, disappointingly never quite registers as a character beyond her testiness) his female black replacement as 007, and learning about Heracles, he eventually agrees. And so begins a complex and convoluted storyline that entails Bond linking up with Paloma (Ana  de Armas who appeared opposite Craig in Knives Out), a feisty Cuba-based CIA agent, the mass killing of all SPECTRE agents, at a gathering remotely hosted by the organisation’s imprisoned head, Blofeld (Christoph Waltz), using  Obruchev’s weapon, a deadly betrayal, a tense reunion with Swann, a Starling-Lecter-like face to face with Blofeld, to whom only Swann has access,  and the discovery that  Safin, who has the usual Bond villain world domination ambitions,  is behind everything. That and the fact that Madeleine has kept more than one secret from him; a cute 5-year-old called Mathilde (Lisa-Dorah Sonnet).

With integral appearances by Craig-era regulars Rory Kinnear as Tanner, Ben Wishaw as Q and Naomi Harris as Moneypenny, the film never feels its near three hour running time as twists and turns, abductions and just who has been infected and by whom keep you involved and on your toes as, via yet another thrilling car chase, it builds to an explosive climax on an old World War II   island base between Japan and Russia, where Safin has a lavish Japanese poison garden, that can’t help but recall Dr No.

Not only do Fukunaga and the writers outdo the previous Bonds in terms of visual spectacular and edge of the seat action, peppered with the trademark dry one liners and quips, they also offer a romantic, tender and sensitive side to Bond hitherto never fully seen or explored, something that Craig translates to the screen with compelling intensity and moving pathos, his final moments likely to leave you, sorry, shaken and stirred. At the end of the credits, it announces James Bond will return, as to who and how, that we’ll just have to wait and see. (Amazon Prime,  iTunes, Rakuten TV; Vue)

The Power of the Dog (12A)

Director Jane Campion’s first film since 2009’s Bright Star is a slow burning compelling and psychologically complex adaptation of the 1967 Thomas Savage novel (the title taken from a line in Psalm 22), veined with themes of toxic, corrosive masculinity, insecurity, frustrated passions and repressed sexuality. Set against  the windscreen vistas of 1925 Montana (notably a rock formation resembling a barking dog) but with a claustrophobically intimate feel, it’s founded on four electrifying performances, Kirsten Dunst as Rose Gordon, a woman widowed by suicide, now running a guest house and restaurant for cattle herders, her sensitive, effeminate lisping teenage son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee), Jesse Plemons as her future (and real life) husband, the stiff but refined George Burbank who looks after the administration of the family cattle ranch while his coarse, rugged brother Phil, a menacing Benedict Cumberbatch giving one of his best performances, looks after the more hands-on aspects, like castrating bulls and stripping the hides, which, in a pointed scene later in the film, he would rather burn that give to his Native American neighbours.

It’s clear there’s friction between them, Phil resentful that he’s the one with the degree from Yale now riding the range, while his brother, who never achieved academic success, keeps his hands clean, dresses in finery and never has to be told to wash up before sitting down to dinner. Rose enters their lives when she serves the crew dinner, Phil mocks Peter (calling him Miss Nancy) and the paper flowers he’s made, his mother’s subsequent tears prompting George’s courtship and, much to Phil’s shock, marriage. When she moves into the sprawling mansion, Phil makes no attempt to hide his contempt, dismissing her as a gold digger, cruelly ridiculing her attempts at the Radetsky March on the piano George has bought with his own far better banjo version and then humiliating her inability to play when George invites the Governor (Keith Carradine), his wife and the brothers’ estranged parents, only ever referred to as Old Gent (Peter Carroll) and Old Lady (Frances Conroy), to dinner.

But then something strange happens. After taunting Peter, who arrives during a break from studying medicine, Phil suddenly changes his attitude, takes the boy under his wing, teaches him to ride and starts making him a clearly phallic rope made out of cow hide strips, Peter, in turn becoming more confident. As such, Phil’s frequent reverential mention of the late Bronco Henry, who taught them the ranching trade and whose saddle he keeps in remembrance starts to take on a deeper meaning, reinforced by a scene of Phil sniffing one of Bronco’s old kerchiefs and masturbating and of Peter’s discovery of a stash of ‘art’ magazines of naked men hidden in the woods. The question simmering, however, is the motivations of the older and younger man, who is manipulating and who is manipulated. And why.

Meanwhile, succumbing to Phil’s campaign to make her feel unwelcome and her husband’s obliviousness to her unhappiness, the already fragile Rose is slipping further and further into alcoholism, stashing bottles around the house and in the alley for furtive swigs, observed with quiet satisfaction by her brother-in-law, as, pivoting around a diseased cow hide, the film moves towards its tragic and weightedly ambiguous finale.

Told in five unhurried chapters, the gathering dread set to Johnny Greenwood’s nervy score, featuring a supporting cast that includes Last Night In Soho’s Thomasin McKenzie as a young maid and regular Campion collaborator Genevieve Lemon as the intimidating no-nonsense housekeeper, it’s a haunting American Gothic war of attrition evocative of William Faulkner that lays out the pieces of the puzzle and invites you to fit them into place. (Netflix)

Red Notice (12)              

Reportedly Netflix’s most expensive production, largely on account of the globe-trotting locations and its high powered trinity of Hollywood stars, this is a derivative but nonetheless highly enjoyable heist movie in which Interpol’s second most wanted (a red notice) art thief, Nolan Booth (Ryan Reynolds) sets out to steal one of the two known surviving – and previously thought mythical – three ornate jewelled ‘eggs’ presented to Cleopatra by Mark Anthony, from a Rome museum only to run up against FBI profiler John Hartley (Dwayne Johnson), who’s been tipped off by mysterious underworld figure The Bishop, and is there along with Interpol inspector Urvashi Das (Ritu Arya) to stop him.

The arrest doesn’t quite go as planned, ending up with Hartley been framed and arrested when the egg, recovered in Bali, vanishes and his bank account become several millions bigger, being forced to team up with fellow inmate Booth to clear his name and, in the process, steal the second egg from billionaire arms dealer Sotto Voce (Chris Diamantopoulos), a private collector of artefacts, during a masked ball.

The film by now has also introduced the third wheel, Gal Gadot as The Bishop, the world’s first most wanted art thief who stole the first egg from under Interpol’s noses, is after the second egg and wants Booth to reveal the location of the third as part of her lucrative deal to bring all three together for a wealthy client’s wedding gift to his daughter, Cleopatra.

All of this variously involves escaping from a high security Russian fortress and (accompanied by its whistled theme tune) a Raiders Of The Lost Ark styled secret Nazi vault of stolen art treasures in the South American forest, Das always close behind and with a constant stream of typical wisecracking smartass banter from Reynolds winding up his reluctant bromance partner in crime. Plus, naturally, several twists, double and triple crosses as things are never quite what they seem to be as it gleefully borrows from the likes of National Treasure, Mission: Impossible, Entrapment, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, and other assorted con game movies, never attaining the same heights but still a solid evening’s worth of beer and popcorn in front of the television. (Netflix)

Ron’s Gone Wrong (PG)

Another animation about the importance of friendship, Barney Pudowski (Jack Dylan Grazer) is a friendless seventh grade  schoolboy embarrassed that his Bulgarian gran (Olivia Colman) gives him chicken feet in his lunch box, is bullied over his rock collecting hobby and wishes he had a B*Bot like all the other kids. A B*Bot is a new capsule-shaped high tech invention from the Bubble company, a Best Friend Straight Out Of The Box, programmed to like what you like and to find others of a similar mind to build a friendship network.

Arriving at the factory too late buy one, his oblivious widowed dad (El Helms)  an inventor of naff contraptions no one wants to buy, acquires one that literally  ‘fell off the back of a lorry’. Unfortunately the glowing white toy with its ever detachable arms and on the fritz expressions, which he names Ron (Zach Galifianakis), is defective, lacking some its programming (he calls Barney Absalom because his name list doesn’t go beyond A), such as the algorithm to stop him harming humans, which, as it turns out, is quite fortunate in giving the bullies a taste of their own medicine.

As such, in the ET-like bonding between the two, the screenplay (co-penned by Alan  Partridge veteran Peter Baynham) touches on some important theme of being isolated from your peers and of the need for friendship, but overlays this with some rather clunky plot tangents such as a critique of teenagers’ obsession with technology  and social media rather than real friendships as well as, rather inevitably, corporate villainy as, unlike his well-meaning geeky partner Mark, who invented them, the company’s child-hating co-founder, Andrew (Rob Delaney), intends to use  the B*Bots to harvest consumer data from their owners so they can sell more. The fact Ron is operating offline, and is affecting the other bots’ programming, threatens the stock price and, therefore, he must be destroyed.

Despite some obvious comparisons to Big Hero 6, Short Circuit, The Iron Giant and How To Train Your Dragon, it’s an amiable affair with several affecting scenes, such as Barney training him to learn about  him so they can have fun, a friendship ultimately earned rather than engineered, and a scene where the two hide out in the woods,  while there’s an obligatory toilet gag as a girl obsessed with social media followers finds the  downside of  going viral when an image  of her emerging from the butt of a rogue B*Bot assemblage earns her the name PoopGirl.  No classic, but your software would be malfunctioning if you didn’t enjoy it.  (Disney+)

Shang-Chi And The Legend Of The Ten Rings (12A)     

Making his first appearance in 1973 in Master of Kung Fu, Shang-Chi is a minor Marvel Comics character, originally a Sax Rohmer spin-off as the son of Fu Manchu.  The comic character being resurrected for, first Heroes For Hire, and, subsequently as a member of The Avengers. Now, as directed by Destin Daniel Cretton making his superhero bow, he’s the latest addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe , the film serving as both origin story and launch platform for an ongoing franchise.

It begins with a scene setting prelude set in 1996 and narrated and spoken in subtitled Mandarin, as, having subjugated pretty much everywhere else with the use of his magical ten rings, thousand-year-old  warlord Wenwu (Tony Leung) sets out to conquer the hidden mystical realm of Ta Lo, a village said to harbour creatures from Chinese mythology, but is defeated by its protector  Ying Li (Fala Chen), the two falling love as they battle, she eventually leaving her home and he renouncing his Ten Rings crime organisation to become parents of two children, Shang-Chi (Jayden Zhang/Arnold Sun) and Xialing (Elodie Fong) and all is hearts and flowers until, as we learn in subsequent flashbacks,  old rivals murder Li, plunging Wenwu back into his old ways, training his son in the martial arts to serve as an instrument of vengeance.

Cut to the present and the now grown Shang-Chi (Simu Liu), calling himself Shaun, is working as a parking valet alongside overqualified best friend Katy (Awkwafina) who knows nothing of his past, until that is, he’s attacked on a bus by a bunch of assassins, led by the self-descriptively named Romanian Razor Fist (Florian Munteanu), who wants to steal the jade necklace his mother gave him. And so, loading up the exposition, it transpires they’re part of his dad’s army  who wants the pendant and that belonging to his now grown daughter (impressive newcomer Meng’er Zhang) in order to return to Ta Lo where he believes his wife is imprisoned inside a mountain from where she has been calling to him.

All of which entails reluctant hero Shang-Chi and Katy heading to Macao, him reuniting  with his sister who runs  a fight club and isn’t initially best pleased to see him as he left her behind when he fled his father at 15, and the three of them setting off to mom’s village (meeting up their aunt, Michelle Yeoh, and Katy getting trained as an archer) to warn them of Wenwu’s intentions, learning that, in fact, what’s imprisoned inside the mountain is actually a demonic soul sucker monster.

This all proceeds at a cracking pace with numerous dynamic martial arts fight sequences, ranging from the initial balletic one between  Wenwu and Li that evokes memories of those in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (in which Yeoh starred), the exhilarating crosstown bus battle with Katy behind the wheel, the siblings’ showdown, and the all-out climax between the Ta Lo warriors and the Ten Rings soldiers as they, and our intrepid trio, take on the freed soul-sucking monsters with the help of assorted mythological beasts, including one huge mother of dragon. And, of course, the ultimate confrontation between father and son with the fate of the world and the ten rings in the balance

It’s a breathless, thrilling set of action sequences, so it’s somewhat unfortunate that it was felt necessary to insert a lengthy and  frankly very silly comedic relief section in which a cheerfully hamming Ben Kingsley revives his Iron Man 3 role as Liverpudlian actor Trevor Slattery who was hired to impersonate The Mandarin (here now one of Wenwu’s identities), and, post-prison, is a reformed character and offers to guide them to Ta Lo with the help of his hundun companion Morris, a kind of furry winged cushion, who is from there, want to return home and knows the secret route in.

A Canada-based Chinese actor and martial arts trained stuntman, Liu makes for a solid conflicted action hero in the Marvel tradition, while Leong’s soulful performance successfully captures the ambivalence of his character, both cruelly ruthless in his actions but sympathetic in his overwhelming grief at loss of the wife and family he’s looking to restore, but perhaps inevitably, it’s Awkwafina who steals much of the film even though she’s playing a second string role.  Naturally there’s several connections to the wider MCU, from a reference to Thanos wiping out half of the world’s population in The Avengers to a mid-film cameo by Benedict Wong as Doctor Strange’s assistant, returning in the first of the end credit scenes alongside  Bri Larson (Captain Marvel) and Mark Ruffalo (Bruce Banner) that deepens the mystery of the ten rings, the second setting up the sequel as the cool and steely female-empowerment advocate Xialing resurrects her father’s organisation, this time with female warriors.  (Disney+)

Spider-Man:  No Way Home (12A)

Again directed by Jon Watts, this picks up directly after the events of Far From Home where, in a posthumous message claiming he was murdered, Mysterio outed Peter Parker as Spider-Man. Anticipation as to what came next was high, but no one could have possibly imagined this mind-bogglingly audacious threequel that plays like a two hour plus adrenaline orgasm. His identity revealed and the subject of a vilification campaign by J Jonah Jameson (JK Simmons reprising his role from the three Sam Raimi films), Peter (Tom Holland), girlfriend MJ (Zendaya), best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon) and Aunt May (Marisa Tomei), who, in the opening, has broken up with Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau), are arrested, interrogated and released (cue cameo by Charlie Cox from the Daredevil TV series) since the government can’t make anything stick. However, carrying on with life as normal is not on the table, Discovering he, MJ and Ned have been turned down for MIT because of  events, in order to not ruin their lives  he turns to Dr Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) to ask if he can readjust time so that things didn’t happen as they did. Strange says not, but, despite warnings from Wong (Benedict Wong), does offer to cast a spell to make everyone forget that Spider-Man and Peter Parker are the same. However, while weaving his enchantment, Peter keeps moving the goalposts to ensure those closest don’t forget, all of which sees things go haywire, causing a breach in the multiverse  whereby villains from the previous films who knew his identity now materialise in his world, namely Doctor Octopus (Alfred Molina), The Green Goblin (Willem Dafoe), Sandman (Thomas Haden Church), Electro (Jamie Fox) and  The Lizard (Rhys Ifans) who are as confused about him not being their Peter Parker as he is as to why they are after him. Suffice to say, while Strange wants to send them back to their fates (they all died), learning of the events that made them villains, Peter wants to try and cure/save them, giving them a second chance, a well-meaning intention that equally goes wrong, and involves his own battle with Strange to possess the magical doohickey that will return them to their own dimensions.

And, of course, if the rip in the multiverse means the character’s old villains resurface, it’s inevitable that (via Ned who has acquired portal powers from Strange) so too do the former Spider-Man stars from the two previous franchises, seeing Holland, Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield (far better than in his own Spider-Man films) working together (and sharing their stories of loss and tragedy as well the with great power mantra) as a team to carry out this dimension’s Peter’s plan atop the Statue of Liberty. There’s a whirlwind of dizzying webslinging action, eye-popping visual effects, snappy banter and any number of sly references to past plots and incarnations (including an amusing discussion about Maguire’s biowebs) and the connections to the Marvel Universe but also, focusing on soulful character depth, several scenes of emotional intensity as a pivotal character dies and Peter realises that, along with great responsibility great power also entails great sacrifice as he has to confront what it really means to be Spider-Man.

Also featuring such returnees as Flash Thompson (Tony Revolon), Betty Brant (Angourie Rice), J.B. Smoove as Peter’s teacher, its  multi crossover of universes and franchises is carried off to exhilarating effect while delivering thoughtful commentary on notions of crime, punishment, heroism  and redemption, coalescing into a film that may at times be convoluted but which consistently delivers both fan buy thrills as well as maximum entertainment for the mass audience and, as a  coming of age drama, perhaps more than any of its predecessors, really defines what being Spider-Man really means.  And don’t dare leave before the end credits or you’ll miss both Tom Hardy in barroom scene linking to the latest Venom film and a full-length trailer for the next Dr Strange that includes The Scarlet Witch and, as a result of his actions here, sets up the introduction of his evil doppelganger. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park;  Everyman; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Vue)

Supernova (15)      

Written and directed by Harry Macqueen this is a chamber piece centring on the relationship between a sixtysomething long-term gay couple, quizzical American author Tusker (Stanley Tucci) and reserved English classical pianist Sam (Colin Firth, himself playing Elgar’s Salut d’Amour in the closing scene) who has called a halt to his career to take care of his partner who is suffering from progressive dementia.

The narrative is anchored around a road trip to the Lake District to visit Sam’s sister Lilly (Pippa Haywood), Tusker having persuaded him to give a small recital as well as revisiting Sam’s family while he can still appreciate who they are. However, as we, and Sam, learn, Tusker, who has purposely left his medication behind, has a hidden agenda to the trip and the recital, one that will test Sam’s love for him to the fullest. Although there’s a surprise dinner party scene at Lilly’s, the film  primarily centres around its two stars, be they affectionately bickering the camper van en route, spending the night in a Spa car park, revising favourite lake that holds special memories, or engaging in intimate intense conversations in their rented cottage as Tusker talks about his fear of losing control (“I’m becoming a passenger,” he says, “And I’m not a passenger”) and of wanting to be remembered for who he was not who he’s becoming while Sam also breaks down and confesses his own fears, of finding himself unable to cope, of being left alone, and of wanting to be there to the bitter end.

Despite the downbeat melancholic nature of the subject matter, the film is nevertheless suffused with light as it contemplates the nature of grief, mortality and life, of denial and delay, and also leavened with humour, even if at times of a gallows nature, such as Tusker joking how you’re supposed to mourn someone when they’re dead, not while they’re still alive.  The title, of course, comes from Tusker’s love of astronomy, at one point he shows Sam how to navigate the constellations while in another wonderful moment he explains to Lilly’s teenage daughter how we’re all comprised of atoms from stars that died and went supernova, a poetic, romantic image about the way life endures even after death. Heartbreakingly magnificent. (BT Film Store, Sky Store, Virgin)

Sweet Girl(15)

When his wife dies from cancer because a pharmaceutical company withdrew the potentially cheap life-saving drug, Ray Cooper (Jason Momoa), whose background is never detailed, sets out  to fulfil his television chat show phone in vow of holding company CEO Simon Keeley (Justin Bartha) responsible and killing him with his bare hands. Approached by a journalist who says he has evidence of a conspiracy involving Keeley’s crooked partner (Raza Jaffrey), they meet on a train, Cooper, unknowingly followed by his teen daughter Rachel (Isabela Merced), where the journo is killed and he himself injured by the knife-wielding hitman (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo).

What follows, Rachel insistently accompanying him despite his protestations, charts Cooper’s determined quest to expose the conspiracy and get revenge on those responsible, the film opening with a scene of him atop Pittsburgh’s PNC Park pursued by FBI agent Sarah Meeker (Lex Scott Davis), before plunging into the waters, flashing back to events leading up to this moment before, bringing into focus  anti-Big Pharma congresswoman Diana Morgan (Amy Brenneman), the last act throws in a wholly unexpected role reversal twist as the real figure behind the conspiracy is exposed.

Twist aside, it’s a predictable and fairly generic affair with Momoa largely going through the man on the run action  motions punctuated by some rote emotional angst, but first time director Brian Andrew Mendoza never lets things flag, Merced proves solid casting and, while disbelief needs to be suspended from a very high pole, it does what it sets out to do with commendable efficiency. (Netflix)

Titane (18)

In the opening sequence, bored with the car journey, a young girl named Alexia unfastens her safety belt and, when her father turns round to tell her off, the car crashes, resulting in her ending up in hospital and (in an unflinching operation sequence)  having a titanium implant in her skull and a scar over her ear.  When she leaves, the walks up to the car and kisses it. Cut to several years later and the now punky adult Alexia (Agathe Rousselle) is a dancer-model  at a motor show where she and the other girls give a whole new meaning to autoeroticism. One night, a minor celebrity in her sleazy world, she’s approached by a  fan who forcibly kisses her, ending up with her metal hairpin through his head as a result, Alexia calmly showering and disposing of the body. As news reports suggest, this might not be her first victim.  Following a blood bath where she kills a co-worker and her house mates, one escapes, exposing Alexia and forcing her to go on the run (though not before locking her parents in a  room and burning down the house), eventually breaking her own nose so as to pass  herself off as the now grown version of the young boy from the missing posters and, wrapping her breasts in tape to conceal them, being taken in by the lad’s  tough but tender anguished father  Vincent (Vincent Lindon), who heads up a first responder fire crew (and has to inject steroids into his bruised buttocks every night), and persuades himself this mute stranger is his lost son, Adrien. There’s an added complication, however. Alexia is also pregnant. By the car she had sex with after the aforementioned killing,  causing her to lactate and bleed motor oil.  So, an attempt at self-induced abortion a failure,  she needs to conceal her ever growing belly too. And the metal plates forming beneath the skin.

As you’ll have gathered, this, the latest from provocative French director  Julia Ducournau, is firmly positioned within the  sci-fi body horror genre alongside the likes of Japan’s Tetsuo and Cronenberg’s Crash. As such, for all its outrageousness and horror (sex with a fire truck falling into at least one of those categories) and the pounding industrial score, this  ultimately plays out as a tender gender fluid story of a growing love/parent-child story between two outcasts who desperately need each other, peppered with observations on predatory males, female exploitation, the ugly side of pregnancy and a whole lot more. Perhaps not a festive treat, but certainly not one you’ll forget in a hurry. (Cineworld 5 Ways; Mockingbird)

 

The Unforgivable (15)

Originally a three-part TV series set in Yorkshire, as directed by Nora Fingscheidt the story has been retitled, adapted, condensed and transposed to Seattle but otherwise remains pretty much the same.  After serving 20 years for shooting the local sheriff when social services came to evict her and take her five-year-old sister (Neli Kastrinos) into care (their mother died and the dad committed suicide), Ruth Slater  (Sandra Bullock) is released and looks to rebuild her life, placed in a  rundown halfway house hostel populated by addicts and thieves,  taking a job on the graveyard shift of a fish gutting factory and, later, putting her prison-learnt carpentry skills to work on a renovation project.  She naively thinks that, having done her time, she can make a new start, but as her parole officer Vincent (Rob Morgan) tells her, “You’re a cop killer everywhere!”

Her prime objective, however, is to get back in touch with her now grown sister, Katie (Aisling Franciosi) with whom she’s had no contact since that fateful day and letters sent have been unanswered.  Told she was adopted, but that she can be given no information, Ruth returns to the old family home, now owned by mixed race couple Liz (Viola Davis) and John (Vincent D’Onofrio) Ingram and their two sons. John, it transpires is a lawyer and she persuades him to look into the case, discovering that Katie was adopted by Michael (Richard Thomas) and Rachel (Linda Emond) Malcolm, and renamed Lucy, and has an adoptive sister called Emily (Emma Nelson) Ruth pushing to try and arrange a meeting. That doesn’t go well, the Malcolms reasonably arguing that a reunion would serve no purpose and would likely derail Lucy’s life. However, discovering the unread letters, Emily looks to try and help.

Meanwhile, Lucy, who, in the opening scenes, is involved in a car crash and briefly comatose, is starting to have flashbacks, but, as a result of the original trauma, has no memory of what happened or of Ruth. Ruth, in turn, becomes involved in a tentative relationship with fellow worker Blake (Jon Bernthal), but is also being stalked by Keith Whelan (Tom Guiry), the son of the officer she killed. He wants revenge but, married with a young baby and not looking to ruin his own life, his brother Steve (Will Pullen) initially tells him to let it lie, before contriving to meet Ruth and changing his mind given her apparent lack of remorse.  He’ll exact an eye for an eye.

Entwining three plot strands, it’s  a complex web with recurring flashbacks to the day of the murder,  Ruth’s past being revealed to her workplace with inevitable results  and a couple of confrontations with Liz, who doesn’t share her husband’s notion of second chances. However, finally, we learn what actually happened when the sheriff broke into the house, which pretty much turns everything on its head as the film builds to a dramatic rescue attempt following Steve’s kidnapping.

It’s pretty much unrelentingly downbeat and dour, a perpetually scowling, dead-eyed Bullock delivering hard to read vanity-free performance  and packing so much into the running time often results in other characters being given somewhat short shrift in the characterisation department (a scene involving Steve’s wife and his brother feels unnecessarily melodramatic) while the social/racial  backdrop (Liz tells her husband their black sons would never get another chance) is never really explored. Nonetheless, as it turns into more of a thriller, it keeps you with it to the final catharsis.  (Netflix)

Venom: Let There Be Carnage (15)

And carnage it indeed is. Carnage of the script, the direction and the acting. The first Venom had some of the worst reviews of any Marvel movie, but this makes it look like a masterpiece. Directed, if you can use such a term here, by Andy Serkis, it picks things up shortly after the end of the previous film, the alien symbiont now fully at home in the body of haggard-looking journalist Eddy Brock (Tom Hardy) in what Serkis and Kelly Marcel’s screenplay have fashioned as a mismatched buddy relationship, Venom frequently popping out to make sarcastic jibes at his host, complaining about not being allowed to eat human brains, not even bad guys, and existing on a diet of chocolate and chicken (which wander around Brock’s apartment). It’s a knockabout comedic tone that simply doesn’t gel with what by rights should be  more of a horror movie. Worse, it’s not especially funny.

As part of the subplot, ex-girlfriend Anne (Michelle Williams), who knows all about his alien bodymate, arranges to meet Eddy at a restaurant, he’s thinking reconciliation until she flashes her engagement ring, cue yet another round of Venom putdowns.  The main thrust, however, involves Eddy getting to do the interview with serial killer Cletus Kasady (Woody Harrelson) trailed at the end of the first film, running an article that winds  up with him getting Kasady to reveal where the bodies are buried and, consequently, seeing the death penalty reinstated. An understandably pissed Kasady manages to bite Eddy’s finger, whereby he too winds up with a multi-armed,  bloodthirsty symbiont in his body, aka Carnage, albeit this one’s red not black, leading to a jailbreak massacre as he sets up to find,  rescue and marry his girlfriend, Frances Barrision (Naomie Harris doing her best with a cipher of a role), aka the mutant Shriek, who’s introduced at the opening  flashback to their teenage years where she befriends him at the orphanage and they become lovers, before the obligatory clandestine agency  whisk her away to a top secret facility containment cell as a lab rat.

Meanwhile, the film goes from one ill-judged development to another as Venom and Brock have a falling out, and the former quits his host body, and stomps off to the local bars, ludicrously crashing a costume part as himself and becoming a cool hit with the punters, body surfing through assorted hosts before Anne and her fiancé track him down and get him and Eddy to kiss and make up, just in time for the big and visually incoherent Venom vs Carnage showdown in an old church.

Hardy plays things like a man who can’t find an escape clause in his contract, Harrelson outdoes Nic Cage in the deranged and barkingly OTT stakes and Stephen Graham drifts bewilderedly through the narrative and plot holes as police detective Mulligan while all around them the set pieces and visual effects crash from one clumsy mess to another.

It’s mercifully short, probably because huge chunks ended up  in the editing room bin, but even then it feels interminable, the mid-credits scene, after the twosome have taken off to a tropical  beach for a little r&r, that links to the Spider-Man multiverse more of a warning than a tease. Simply quite awful, but at least the first Venom movie won’t now be the most reviled in the MCU. (Microsoft Store)

West Side Story (PG)

Adapted from the 1957 Stephen Sondheim/Leonard Bernstein stage musical in 1961  and directed by Robert Wise, and itself based around Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, working from a new screenplay Steven Spielberg, making his first musical, offers up an exuberant, dynamic retelling that, while there are several scene tweaks, stays faithful to the original in its telling of New York neighbourhood gang rivalry between the Sharks and the Jets and the doomed romance between  white Tony and Puerto Rican Maria.

It opens with the camera panning over a demolition site of debris and construction vehicles, part of a gentrification project that will become the Lincoln Centre as Riff (Mike Faist), leads his fellow gang members, a cocktail of Irish, Polish and Italian losers in daubing paint over a mural of the Puerto Rican flag inevitably resulting in a brawl when the Sharks (first seen singing their country’s national anthem), led by Bernardo (David Alvarez), arrive to stop then before being separated by resentful New Yok cop Officer Krupke (Brian D’Arcy James) and  the racist Lieutenant Schrank (Corey Stoll), both white.  The Jets then set off down the streets, stealing from Puerto Rican stores and vandalising property with the first song and dance sequence to When You’re A Jet.

Bernado is involved in a tempestuous romance with his live in paying lodger Anita (Anita (Ariana DeBose) and fiercely protective of his sister Maria (Rachel Zegler), newly arrived after spending five years caring for their father, while Riff’s best friend is Tony (Ansel Elgort) who (in this telling), having served time for assaulting a Puerto Rican teenager, is now  reformed and working  for elderly drugstore owner Valentina (Rita Moreno, who won an Oscar as Anita in the original), a new character and the Puerto Rican widow of ‘gringo’ Doc from the original,  who lets him sleep in the basement. Riff wants to draw Tony back into the gang, particularly for the upcoming rumble between the two rivals, however, at a local dance (The Dance at the Gym), which turns into another confrontation, Maria and Tony meet, sparks fly and their fates are sealed as the Rumble, set in a salt factory, results in the deaths of both gang leaders and marks Tony as a target for revenge by Chino (Josh Andrés Rivera), Maria’s former would-be suitor.

Spielberg makes several changes to the staging and sequencing, here America no longer sung on a rooftop but as a full blooded  dance number through the streets led by Anita on the morning after the dance, Somewhere is now sung wistfully by Valentina rather than Conseulo before being reprised by Tony and Maria as he visits her following Bernado’s death, Cool is sung here by Tony and Riff, after the former insists there are no weapons at the Rumble, as opposed to being a call for calm by Ice after Riff’s death, while I Feel Pretty (which, Sondheim’s last favourite,  still sounds like it belongs in something like My Fair Lady rather than this grittier tale takes place during Maria’s night shift as a department store cleaner as opposed to in the bridal workshop.  But these are just re-adjustments  to serve the narrative flow rather than drastic revisions and both the urgency and vibrancy of the dance choreography and the singing carry you away, even if, as evidenced in the Maria and Tonight (balcony or rather fire escape scene) numbers, a disappointingly uncharismatic Elgort isn’t perhaps the finest of vocalists. Zegler and DeBose, however, are superb, as witness their duet A Boy Like That. In addition, in a  nod to the recent Broadway revival, when characters speak Spanish there are no subtitles while there’s clearly more prominent subtexts of race and class running through the storyline. On the other hand, turning the tomboy Anybodys (Iris Menas) into a clearly non-binary character seems a tad too conscious a woke nod.

The digital recreation of 50s New York is fabulous, with the sets not looking like sets but arguably, for all the big production numbers, the film is at its strongest in the quieter, more intimate moments and close ups, such as the depth of emotion encapsulated in Maria’s eyes, ultimately offering an exhilarating revival for a new generation.  (Cineworld  NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; MAC; Mockingbird; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel; Vue)

Wrath Of Man (15)

Director Guy Ritchie reunites with Lock, Stock star Jason Statham for the first time since 2005 Revolver for this rework of the French heist thriller Le Conveyeur . Statham plays  the enigmatic Patrick Hill who, five months after an opening scene in which two guards and a bystander are killed during an armoured truck robbery by men posing as construction workers, gets a job  with Fortico, an armoured-car company that moves millions of dollars in cash and jewels daily. Eddie Marsan plays his supervisor, Terry, who tells him not  to take chances, while Holt McCallany is the company trainer, Bullet, who gives him his nickname, H. Barely scraping through the tests, on his first run, working with Bullet and fellow guards Dana (Niamh Algar) and “Boy Sweat” Dave (Josh Hartnett), the latter who should have been driving the van  seen at the start,  his truck’s attacked, Bullet’s taken hostage  and, rather than not resist  and let them take the money, he calmly kills everyone, a feat decidedly at odds with his training scores.

From here the plot naturally thickens. While Terry tries to get him to take desk duty for a while, H is hailed as a hero by the company boss and promoted, and, investigating the  attempted robbery, the police identify H as someone the FBI, headed up here by Agent King (Andy Garcia ), have been looking for for 25 years.  A second attempted robbery sees the thieves doing a  runner the moment they see H’s face, further adding to the mystery about his past, the connection between the robberies, his involvement, a revenge motive, disgruntled military veterans, and corruption within the ranks and Hill’s real identity  as flashbacks gradually reveal more about what went down. It’s a tangled and often hard to follow narrative of double crosses and hidden agendas, but Statham’s a charismatic enough action man to pull it off  and, while not in the same league as his recent The Gentleman, Ritchie is an old hand at this sort of things and keeps his foot to the pedal, delivering the action and snappy dialogue to entertaining effect. (Amazon Prime)

CINEMAS

 

Cineworld 5 Ways – 181 Broad St, 0871 200 2000

Cineworld NEC – NEC 0871 200 2000

Cineworld – Mill Ln, Solihull 071 200 2000

The Electric Cinema – 47–49 Station Street, 0121 643 7879

Empire – Great Park, Rubery, 0871 471 4714

Empire Sutton Coldfield – Maney Corner, Sutton Coldfield

0871 471 4714

The Everyman – The Mailbox 0871 906 9060

MAC – Cannon Hill Park 0121 446 3232

Mockingbird, Custard Factory 0121 224 7456.

Odeon Birmingham -Birmingham, 0871 224 4007

Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe – Ladywood Middleway, 0333 006 7777

Odeon West Bromwich – Cronehills Linkway, West Bromwich 0333 006 7777

Reel – Hagley Rd, Quinton, Halesowen 0121 421 5316

Vue Star City – Watson Road, 08712 240 240

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