This column will review films both screening theatrically and/or on various streaming platforms.
While undeniably visually dazzling, the latest from Pixar Fire recycles some very well-worn themes and messages about family, prejudice, working together, tolerance, opposites attract, self-discovery and finding your courage. It’s set in a world of characters formed of the four elements, with fire elements Bernie (Ronnie Del Carmen) and Cinder (Shila Ommi) Lumen (clearly Chinese) emigrating to Element City looking for a better life where, despite encountering xenophobia from the other elements and struggling to find a home (the landlords are all earth, tree-like figures who see fire as a hazard), they eventually set up a convenience store called the Fireplace with a symbolic Blue Flame representing their heritage and traditions, selling things like coal nuts. They have a daughter, the dutiful if headstrong Ember (Leah Lewis), whom Bernie intends to take over the store when he retires. But first she had to learn to control her fiery temper. When a difficult customer causes that to flare up, she takes refuge in the basement, accidentally causing a water pipe to break, flooding the place and bringing water element Wade Ripple (Mamoudou Athie), into her life. A city inspector, he has to report the faulty plumbing to his cloud-like air element boss Gale Cumulus, meaning the Fireplace will get shut down. But he’s also a soppy romantic and he persuades Gale to let them both try and find and stop the source of a series of recent floods. If they can seal the leak, the shop can remain open.
Discovering a hole in a dam that lets through water from passing ships, and, first using sandbags and then Ember’s power to create glass, they appear to have solved the problem. And, in the process, a, ahem, spark, develops between them, discovering they can touch each other without causing any harm. But, while Wade’s upmarket family welcome her into their home, Ember’s ailing father seems highly unlikely to accept a Fire and Water relationship , on top of which, Ember comes to realise her dreams for herself are not the same as his. She wants to study glassmaking. But it’s her duty to obey. And then the fix in the dam gives way, catastrophe looms and love might quite literally evaporate.
Aside from the characters’ names, it’s awash with visual and verbal puns (two of the best being a literal Mexican wave and thought bubble) and, despite gaping holes in the logic (why would fire opt to go and live in a water-based city, why doesn’t Ember set the cardboard boxes alight?), it combines a spry sense of fun ( the Ripple family’s crying game is a joy) along with the usual romantic and emotional complications, the blossoming love story involving Wade taking Ember into the flooded Garden Central Station to see the Vivisteria flowers she never saw as a child. As such, while the youngsters will enjoy the vividly coloured visuals and the enjoyable silliness of the air and earth figures (though hope they don’t ask parents to explain ‘pruning’), this is very much a grown up star-crossed love story that touches on living in a multicultural melting pot society. A rare case of the parents persuading the kids to let them take them to see it. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe. West Brom; Reel; Vue)
Insidious: The Red Door (15)
Continuing an increasingly underwhelming franchise, this is even less scary than the threadbare horrors of The Last Key. The directorial debut of star Patrick Wilson, it’s set up as a ten years later sequel to 2013’s Chapter 2 (the two subsequent films being prequels), opening with the funeral of Josh Lambert’s (Wilson) mother and apparently something lingering in the background. Cut then to the film proper with Lambert’s semi-estranged sulky son Dalton (a blandly one dimensional Ty Simpkins) now off to art college where one of the assignments from his professor (Hiam Abbass) is to create art from digging into his emotions. Among his assorted gory paintings, he draws a red door and soon starts to have terrifying visions and astral projection encounters related a trauma he experienced when he was 10 and spent a year in a coma. The door is the gateway to the Further, a dark astral realm filled with tortured souls and ruled by a red-faced demon (Joseph Bishara, credited as, I kid you not, Lipstick Demon). So, father and son have to work through their strained relationship and go back in to end the nightmare forever, Josh discovering why his father abandoned the family, with his now ex-but still on good terms wife (despite having tried to hammer her to death while possessed) Renai (an underused Rose Byrne), and late mother keeping secrets from him.
A capable if workmanlike actor, Wilson brings the same middling skills behind the camera, setting up a series of jolts and jumps, but never really catching fire, not least due to the unfocused mess that passes as a screenplay while Sinclair Daniel falls loudly flat as Ty’s comic relief female fellow student. Co-writer Leigh Wannell and Angus Sampson get to briefly reprise their ill-advised roles as bungling spook investigators Specs and Tucker while, despite being killed off in the first film, Lin Shaye still manages to pop up again as the psychic Elise Rainier. You’ll recalls how Josh and Ty had their memories suppressed in the earlier film. You may want yours done after seeing this. Shut that door on the way out. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe. West Brom; Reel; Vue)
Smoking Causes Coughing (15)
Written and directed by Quentin Dupieux, this is a wonderfully bonkers deadpan French absurdist horror pastiche of super-hero movies that comes with a social commentary subtext. Drawing on such obvious influences as Power Rangers, Ninja Turtles, Thunderbirds and early Star Trek, Nicotine (Anaïs Demoustier), Ammonia (Oulaya Amamra), Benzene (Gilles Lellouche), Mercury (Jean-Pascal Zadi), and Methanol (Vincent Lacoste) are Tobacco Force, who, dressed in matching powder-blue outfits, battle monsters, giving them cancer, and tell kids to not take up the habit. After their latest battle, with a giant turtle called Tortusse that ends up in splattering some curious tourists in gore, and then posing for a selfie, their boss, Chief Didier (Alain Chabat), an inexplicably sexually irresistible womanising rat puppet who drools green ooze, sends them on a team building retreat with their new robot assistant, to replace the suicidal Norbert 500, inside an antiseptic white bunker with a 24-hour supermarket – and checkout assistant – in their fridge.
Here, they take turns telling scary stories. These mini films within the film include a woman whose nephew gets trapped in a wood chipper and she accidentally reduces him to a pair of lips in a bucket, two vacationing couples who discover a 1930s “Thinking Helmet” that climaxes in a murder spree, and another fish-eye view of river pollution, comprise the majority of the running time and provide copious amount of gore. At one point a little girl wanders into their campfire with her own contribution. Things are interrupted, however, when Didier messages them to say that Lézardin, Emperor of Evil (Benoît Poelvoorde), has decided to annihilate Earth, sending the team on a chainsmoking bender.
A barkingly weird, meandering shaggy dog yarn that has no real logic, is forever interrupting itself and suggests all involved had been on the wacky baccy, it’s unlike anything else you’ll see this year. Inhale deeply and may the farce be with you. (Electric)
When she was a child, Amanda (Benedetta Porcaroli) toppled from her airbed into the pool at her family’s villa in Turin, her older sister reading obliviously on a sunbed, and was saved by the South American maid, Judy. Now a 25 year-old fuck-up, she’s returned from Paris where, we learn, she spent her free time watching films on her own. Socially awkward, anti-conformist and with no dress sense (she’s forever wearing black boots and a frumpy crotched waistcoat), she had no boyfriend and, indeed no friends. She still doesn’t. Instead, blaming everyone else for her not having a life, she relies on the middle-aged Judy. Judy, however, reckons it’s time she moved on. But it’s clear Amanda has no idea how, half-heartedly fantasising a relationship with a guy (Michele Bravi) she mistakes for a drug dealer but actually hands out free condoms at raves, hanging out at ill-advised venues with the closest bond she makes being with a neglected old horse. Her corporate pharmacy mother, Sofia (Monica Nappo) looks to make an intervention, reconnecting her with Rebecca, (Galatea Bellugi), the daughter of her friend Viola (Giovanna Mezzogiorno), who, it turns out, was Amanda’s best friend when they were two. However, Rebecca has her own issues, locking herself in her bedroom, reusing to interact with anyone while her heavily medicated mother busies herself in the garden or making huge cakes. So. in-between bickering with her impassive, distanced mother and arguing with her now successful socialite sister (Margherita Maccapani Missoni) who regards her a self-absorbed brat, she makes it her mission to force Rebecca to be her friend. The two begin hanging out as the film unfolds to have Amanda involve in horse stealing, a quest to get enough supermarket points buying energy drinks to obtain an electric fan she can sell online (rather than working in the family business), getting a job in an electrical store and immediately sidelining her boss.
The feature debut by writer-director Carolina Cavalli, drawing on influences such as Noah Baumbach, Greta Gerwig and Wes Anderson channelled through an Italian lens, it’s a wry and somewhat mannered coming of age comedy populated by eccentrics about the need to be loved and connected, even when the impulse is to deny it. Although Amanda is needy (putting a spin on that near drowning moment), self-absorbed, petulant, grudge-carrying with a sense of privilege, Porcaroli’s performance as she gradually mellows breaks down resistance to generate a feeling of empathy and have you rooting for both her and Rebecca to find their place in the world, although, arguably, the scene-stealing but uncredited turn comes from Amanda’s eight-year-old Jesus obsessed niece. (Curzon Home Cinema)
Asteroid City (12A)
Shot in widescreen washed out pastel colours, drenched in retro nostalgia, deadpan dialogue, and heavily stylised with a self-aware sense of artifice, set in a red-rock Southwest American desert town in 1955, this is quintessential Wes Anderson. With its single phone booth, one pump gas station and 50s diner and motel, Asteroid City (pop 87) is also the site of a giant meteorite crater tourist attraction, intermittent atom bomb tests and the annual Junior Stargazers convention where teenage science geeks gather for their awards.
When his car breaks down, war photographer Augie Steenbeck (Jason Schwartzman on peak form) is stranded in town with his four kids, Stargazer Woodrow (Jake Ryan) and his three eccentric young sisters, Andromeda, Pandora and Cassiopeia (Ella, Gracie, Willan Faris), who he’s yet to tell their mother died three weeks earlier and he has her ashes in a Tupperware tub, prompting the arrival of his wealthy father-in-law Stanley (Tom Hanks) to collect them.
Also gathered are world weary TV star Midge Campbell (Scarlet Johannsen, terrific), J.J. Kellogg (Live Schreiber), Sandy Borden (Hope Davis) and Roger Cho (Stephen Park) whose respective kids, botany wiz Dinah (Grace Edwards), rebellious Clifford (Aristou Meehan), sceptical Shelly (Sophia Lillis) and anti-authority Ricky (Ethan Josh Lee), are all award winners. There’s also Montana (Rupert Friend), stranded there with his fellow cowboys when the bus left and who’s attracted to June (Maya Hawke), a science teacher with her church group pupils, local scientist Dr. Hickenlooper (Tilda Swinton) who sponsors the awards, and General Gibson (Jeffrey Wright) who’s due to present them.
However, the ceremony is interrupted by the arrival of an alien who steals a meteorite fragment and flies off, prompting a quarantine of everyone there and a rebellion by the Stargazers to make contact, Augie’s photo being leaked to the media. Meanwhile, various romances bubble up.
Except, as seen from the start and in subsequent black and white sequences, what we’re actually watching is a television behind-the-scenes and recreation of the first staging of a play called Asteroid City by esteemed New York playwright Conrad Earp (Ed Norton), who’s in a relationship with one of the cast, presented by The Host (Bryan Cranston) as directed by the womanising Schubert Green (Adrian Brody) with all the characters being the actors who, under their real names, auditioned for and appeared in the stage production (save for Margot Robbie whose role – her lines movingly re-enacted with Augie/Jones – as the mother was cut).
Constructed as a series of tableaux, meditations on bottled up grief interweave with themes of storytelling and being aliens in our own skins and, of course, the meaning of life (or understanding the play) And while emotion is deliberately kept at arms-length, there’s still a certain poignancy as the stories unfold. There’s also a swathe of good gags, both visual (a recurring cops vs crooks car chase) and verbal, among them a vending machine that sells plots of land out in the desert. Adding to the star-studded cast there’s Steve Carrell as the motel manager (inexplicably toting a pistol), Matt Dillon as the mechanic and Jeff Goldblum who has one line in the black and white sequences as the actor playing the alien. All that and a great memory party game. At the end of the day, the dazzling style may triumph over the obtuse substance, but even so it’s an intoxicating experience. Glad to meteor indeed. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC; Electric; Empire Great Park; Everyman; MAC; Mockingbird; Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe)
Avatar: The Way Of Water (12A)
Thirteen years in the waiting, James Cameron finally returns to Pandora for the first of three sequels that looks visually spectacular with its breathtaking effects and motion capture but doesn’t narratively justify its three hours plus running time. Picking up the story some ten years on, former human marine Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), who went native with sparkly blue body and pointy ears to join the Na’vi, and his wife Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) now have two sons, Neteyam (Jamie Flatters) and the younger Lo’ak (Britain Dalton), young daughter Tuk (Trinity Jo-Li Bliss) and the adopted Kiri (a de-aged digitised Sigourney Weaver), the daughter of the avatar of the late Dr. Grace Augustine (Weaver) who can apparently communicate with the assorted flora and fauna. The extended family also include the dreadlocked semi-feral Spider (Jack Champion), a human kid who had to be left behind when the other Sky People colonisers were sent packing. He’s the son of Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang), the ruthless marine Jake killed at the end of the first film. However, his consciousness has been resurrected in an avatar body, and he and his equally avatared men have been despatched back to Pandora, ordered by the operations commander (Edie Falco in exo skeleton) to retake the planet and kill Sully, which of course has very personal revenge motive for him too.
Having rescued the kids (though not Spider) when they’re taken prisoner (something that happens to them on a highly repetitive basis), Sully determines that the only way to keep both his family and the Na’vi safe is for them to leave their home and seek shelter among one of the planet’s other ecologically-conscious tribes, the Metkayina, a more aquamarine-coloured Maori-like people who live in harmony with the water and its creatures as opposed to the jungle.Taken in by their chief, Tonowari (Cliff Curtis, and, more reluctantly, his pregnant wife Ronal (Kate Winslet), they set about starting a new life, learning the new culture and its idiosyncracies, their kids inevitably seen as ‘freaks’ by their opposites before all becoming friends. Life’s all nice and cosy, until, that is, an accident to Kiri (she overloads on a psychic connection to her mother) and her subsequent treatment signals their rough location and it’s not long before Quaritch turns up on the doorstep, guns blazing.
The action sequences are dynamite, especially the extended climax aboard Quaritch’s ship where Neytiri gets to let rip her ferocious bow and arrow warrior, but the lengthy dreamy second act is a bit like The Blue Planet in space involving Sully and family learning to live with the water, master riding water creatures, Lo’ak bonding with a giant whale-like creature who’s a misunderstood outcast from his fellow Tulkans, Kiri gazing in wide-eyed wonder at the ocean’s creatures and tapping into their essences in between an incipient teen romance and some brotherly rivalry for dad’s approval.
Themes of family are writ large and, amid the expected eco messages, there’s also one about whaling with Brendan Cowell as a swaggering Australian who, along with his conflicted marine biologist (Jemaine Clement), and hi-tech gear (impressive crab-suits), is hunting the Tulkan to extract some goo that prevents ageing.
Technically it’s mind-boggling (even more so in 3D), the underwater sequences especially, but, adopting a videogame like structure, there’s far too few occasions (one being a death) where it connects emotionally, dazzling the eyes but not the heart.“The Way of Water has no beginning and no end” explains one of the characters; it’s undeniably thrilling but there are times when you may feel the same way. (Disney+; Microsoft Store)
The Banshees of Inisherin (15)
It’s 1923 and over on the Irish mainland civil war is in full force (we know this because there’s some occasional smoke and sound of gunfire), but on the beautiful island of Inisherin life is calm and peaceful, the folk going about their (and sometimes other people’s) business and gathering in the pub at 2pm for a glass of the hard stuff and a chat. Which is what Pádraic (Colin Farrell), a mild-mannered farmer with a couple of dairy cows, a horse and his beloved donkey Jenny, who lives with his sister Siobhán (a quietly compelling BAFTA Best Supporting Actress winner Kerry Condon), has been doing for years with his fiddle-playing best mate Colm (Brendan Gleeson). However, on the day the film opens, Colm declares he doesn’t like him anymore and wants nothing more to do with him. Pádraic is bemused and confused. He believes himself to be a nice guy, though he may go off on one after a whisky or two. Has he done or said something? Apparently not, it seems that Colm, sunk in despair, has contemplated mortality and wants to get on with writing his music and not spend the rest of his days with someone he regards as dull with nothing to offer but inane chatter and protestations of being nice. When Pádraic continues to push for explanation, initially thinking it was an April Fool jape, Colm declares that, if he talks to him again, he will cut off one of his fingers and send it to him. It’s not a bluff. Five fingers later there’s been parental child abuse, a prediction of doom from the local crone (Sheila Flitton), an animal choking to death on a severed digit, a drowning, a leaving and a conflagration.
Reuniting with his In Bruges stars, the title taken from Colm’s new tune, again mining the theme of obsession wwriter-director Martin McDonagh addresses in Three Billboards, it’s a black comedy of male pride and loneliness that balances darkness and whimsy (with everybody feckin’ this and feckin’ that) equal measure as it builds to an act of violence. As such, he’s ably supported by a sterling support cast that includes David Pearse as the mean priest, Gary Lydon as bullying copper Kearney who is turned on by the idea of being paid six shilling to oversee an execution on the mainland and regularly batters and molests his mentally challenged son Dominic (a superb Best Supporting BAFTA winner Barry Keoghan), who fancies Siobhán and just wants the company of someone who doesn’t abuse him.
It doesn’t quite pull off its parable of events reflecting the “bleakness and grudges and loneliness and spite” of a wider and equally self-mutilating conflict and, at the end of the day and the escalation, all it seems to be asking for is a little peace and quiet with your own thoughts. Winner of Best British Film, it’s a quiet, slow burning masterpiece with a banshee wail that will pierce the heart. (Disney+)
Beautiful Disaster (15)
Adapted from the young teen romance novel by Jamie Maguire, this reunites co-writer and director Roger Kumble with his After We Collided star Dylan Sprouse for what feels like a pick and mix of genres that co-stars Fall’s Virginia Gardner. She plays Abby Abernathy, a child poker prodigy tagged Lucky 13, who, as the film begins, is, tired of bailing him out, cutting out on her fallen star LA gambler father Mike (Brian Austin Green) and heading to join her best friend America (Libe Barer) at college in Sacramento. Here she meets tattooed campus bad boy Travis Maddox (Sprouse), the brother of America’s boyfriend Shepley (Austin North), a cage fighter in his spare time whose relationship are only ever for one night. She immediately declares she’s not interested, so naturally the rest of the film involves them inevitably coming together, largely driven by her losing a bet over one of his fights that means she has to spend a month living in his room in the apartment he shares with Shepley and America. There’s a meet cute with his dad and other assorted brothers, a brief dalliance with another would-be suitor, a drunken birthday party with a great vomit scene, and the obligatory fall out and make up arc. But then, the last third takes off in a completely unexpected direction as an LA double-cross thriller as Abby is forced to resume her poker career to prevent a casino boss breaking her dad’s legs, only to be called out as underage (Vegas requires you to be over 21) and Travis stepping up to take on a fighter called Chernobyl to try and save the day.
Punchier than you might expect from a romantic teen drama with some smart dialogue and Gardner and Sprouse making a lively double act, it’s not a great film but it is an undeniably entertaining one. (Amazon Prime)
The Blue Caftan (12A)
Set in Morocco where homosexuality is a criminal offence, director Maryam Touzani has tackled the taboo and crafted a tender, bittersweet love story, one with an unexpected and moving twist. Halim (Saleh Bakri) is a maalem, a master tailor of the old school who makes hand-embroidered women’s caftans and refuses to use machinery, something that infuriates his impatient wealthy customers. He’s gay and visits the local baths or hammam when he feels the need to satisfy his sexual urges behind closed doors, as discreetly indicated by Touzani. He has a handsome, keen to learn new apprentice, Youssef (Ayoub Missioui) to whom he is attracted and who clearly has reciprocal feelings, though neither make any explicit moves. That’s because Halim is also married to Mina (Lubna Azabal) who runs the shop in the Salé medina. Together for 25 years and childless, she’s aware of his sexuality but the marriage is no sham. Although when she wants sex he dutifully responds, albeit with lack of passion, they genuinely love and care for each other. She is, however, ill (we learn later she had breast cancer) and increasingly unable to cope with the work, hence his hiring of Youssef, something that stirs feelings of jealousy in her (at one point she accuses him of stealing some pink silk but says nothing when she learns it’s her mistake). Generally, however, she’s good natured, witty (making sharp comments about their picky clientele) and, as her illness progresses, looks to seize what time remains to her, such as visiting a café she’s always passed but never entered, for tea and to watch soccer.
The film takes its title from a commission for a gold-thread braided petroleum blue caftan (not royal, as he scolds a customer who wants him to sell it her at a better price) on which he and Youssef are meticulously working, Mina declaring it the most beautiful outfit you’ve made in years”. She’s worried though about the future of both the business and her husband, especially when he takes time off to look after her, telling her Youssef is minding the store when it’s actually shuttered. Eventually, he and Youssef admit their feelings and the caftan comes to play a vital role in Halim, who spends most of his life inside or in the shadows, demonstrating his love for Mina to the world.
Meticulously designed with a slow burn narrative and intimate close ups suffused with unspoken meaning, it never slides into the melodrama you might expect given the context, even though there’s a moment when, returning from the café, Halim and Mina are harassed for their IDs, and ends on an image that mirrors an earlier scene to profoundly touching and upbeat effect. (Sat: MAC)
The Boogeyman (15)
Loosely based on a 1973 short story by Stephen King, adapted by A Quiet Place writers Scott Beck and Bryan Woods and directed by Rob Savage, drawing on the childhood night-time fears staple of the monster in the closet or under the bed, this is another tale in which a supernatural force feeds on and targets a family’s suffering and where light switches in houses either don’t work, people don’t turn them on or, if they do, the place is lit by bulbs with the lowest possible power, meaning pretty much everything unfolds in the dark.
Their artist mother killed in a car crash, high school student Sadie Harper (Yellowjackets’ Sophie Thatcher) and her little sister Sawyer (Vivian Lyra Blair) are still consumed by grief but trying to deal with their emotions (Sadie wears her mother’s dress to school, resulting in an incident with a snide classmate); however, while trying to maintain a sense of normality, therapist father Will (Chris Messina), has closed himself off and isn’t dealing well with things.
One day, after having a session with Sadie (I’m not sure it’s ethically acceptable to be counsellor to your own daughter, though he does later arrange for another grief counsellor), he gets a visit from the troubled Lester Billings (David Dastmalchian), seeking treatment following the death of his three children. Things end in Billings apparently committing suicide in the closet, but not before he’s shown Will a drawing by one of his daughters showing the creature, the boogeyman, she claimed to be terrorising them and (in the same manner as Pennywise in It) warns that “It’s the thing that comes for your kids when you’re not paying attention”. And so it does.
Mostly it preys on Sawyer, who can’t persuade Sadie, who’s got problems dealing with her own mean girl monsters, it’s real, with effective scenes of her alone in her bedroom, rolling a light globe along the floor to see what’s lurking but, when, having found Billings’s sketchbook, Sadie realises this isn’t all in Sawyer’s imagination the focus shifts to her as she sets out to try and save sister and father with the help of Billings’s widow who, her house booby trapped and lined with candles, reckons she knows how to kill it. Suffice to say, it’s not that easy.
Again, as is so often the case, the horror work best when you don’t actually see the monster, given only glimpses or a pair of eyes and, again you’re left questioning how a demonic creature can be despatched by earthly means (keep an eye on Sadie’s mother’s cigarette lighter). However, despite the fact people in the same house apparently can’t hear the others scream, Savage crafts a solid sense of suspense and makes effective use of what little flashes of light the film has, but, resorting to standard jump scares and the usual half-open doors, dark corners and creepy whispers, it’s ultimately predictable and generic. Inevitably, the final shot teases a sequel, but perhaps it might be better if some things stay in the closet. (Vue)
Creed III (15)
As well as reprising the title character, Michael B. Jordan also confidently takes up the directing reins for this third instalment in the Rocky spin-off, one that muddies the clear cut moral waters of the previous outings in both franchises. Now retired from the ring, he’s enjoying the fruits of his success , running a gym and living in a plush L.A. mansion with his successful pop star wife Bianca (Tessa Thompson), herself now in quasi-retirement due to hearing loss, and their deaf daughter Amara (Mila Davis-Kent), with whom he communicates in sign language. Bianca’s now writing and producing songs for others, while Adonis is mentoring hot-headed new heavyweight champion, Felix Chavez (Jose Benavidez). But then his world’s upended with the arrival of a figure from the past, Damian “Dame” Anderson (Jonathan Majors), fresh from spending 18 years behind bars for reasons shown in the opening sequence of their delinquent childhood and various subsequent flashbacks that add extra detail as to what happened when the young Adonis (Thaddeus James Mixson Jr.) beat up an old nemesis outside a liquor store, Dame (Spence Moore II) intervened with a gun when he was being grappled with and the cops showed up.
A former amateur Golden Gloves champ, Diamond Dame now wants his shot at the big time, the unwitting Adonis, in a mix of guilt and friendship, and stung by a retort reminding him of how he got his own shot as a contender, offering to train him at the gym under Duke (Wood Harris), who sagely suggests it’s not perhaps a good idea given how he’s driven by anger and resentment.
When, following a record release bash where an incident brutally removes Viktor Drago (Florian Munteanu) from the upcoming world title bout, Adonis gives Dame his shot, pummelling Chavez to win the title, given the formulaic nature of such films, it’s not hard to predict that the two former friends will end up in the ring together, one in black one in white in Westerns tradition. However, the journey there, one which involves the inevitable training montages, Adonis confronting his past, the discovery of prison letters from Dame he never saw and the exit of a Creed family member from the series, is nonetheless dramatically powerful. As well as ramming the punches home with slow motion rippling flesh as body blows land, Jordan also finds a way to bring something new to the big showdown as the boxing arena transforms into something more existential as the crowds vanish and the ring ropes are replaced by prison bars.
Thompson is somewhat sidelined, but Jordan again brings dynamite charisma to the screen, even so he’s outshone by Majors, delivering a double whammy following his current turn as Kang The Conqueror, in an electrifying embodiment of passive-aggressiveness, arrogance and anger fuelled by a long simmering feeling of being betrayed and abandoned and his future snatched from out of his gloves.
It’s hard to see where Jordan could take Adonis’s story from there, but hey, maybe those scenes with him giving the plucky young Amara pointers on how to deliver a punch might yet resolve into a gender-switch sequel some years down the line. (Amazon Prime; Sky Store)
As highly melodramatic as it is stylised, Baz Luhrmann’s biopic of Elvis Presley pretty much follows the adage of going with the myth (or perhaps fairy tale) when it’s better than the facts. As such, much is brushed over or ignored (his affair with Ann-Margret, , his meeting with Nixon demanding action against the lefties, no mention by name of his legendary backing musicians Scotty Moore and DJ Fontana and while there’s the pills but no Fat Elvis cheeseburger binges), while other parts polish the realities (the young Elvis – Chaydon Jay- may indeed have had his R&B education by hearing Big Boy Crudup singing That’s Alright Mama in a juke joint or gospel by sneaking into a revival meeting, but, despite what the film shows, he and B.B. King weren’t best buddies who hung out together on Beale Street, though they were famously photographed together). Ultimately though, while overlong, this is a solid if flashy portrait of how he became the best-selling solo music artist and a legend whose influence continues to this day set against his relationship with his manipulative svengali manager Col. Tom Parker whose contract stipulated 50% of all earnings, eventually, after Presley’s death, being charged with financial abuse.
Parker, an illegal Dutch immigrant named Andreas Cornelis van Kuijk who claimed to be American and earned the honorary title of Colonel after assisting Jimmie Davis’s campaign to become Governor of Louisiana, was a carnival snake oil showman – or snowman – who got into the music business managing Hank Snow before ‘discovering’ Presley after hearing his Sun recording of That’s Alright Mama and seeing dollar signs to learn that the singer was white not black and seeing how his gyrations exploded sexual frenzy in his teenage girl audience (“She’s having feelings she wasn’t sure she should enjoy”, Parker notes). He’s played here under heavy jowelled prosthetics by Tom Hanks with an accent that sounds nothing like Parker but does, appropriately enough, conjure up the rasp of the serpent from Eden (though the visual suggestions he was Jewish are unfounded) while opposite him Austin Butler delivers a star-making turn in the title role, capturing his passions, his insecurities, vulnerability and trusting innocence, his voice a close approximation of Presley and looking spookily like him in the iconic poses, although more often he resembles a young John Travolta with the same electrifying charisma.
Although (unreliably) narrated with a running commentary by Hanks as the ailing Parker after Presley’s death, justifying his role and rejecting accusations that he exploited him and essentially caused his death, the screenplay, clearly makes him out to be the villain of the piece, using his flimflam skills, promises of wealth and fame and, ultimately, emotional and financial blackmail, to maintain his control of Elvis even when he was briefly fired in order to secure the money to feed his gambling habit (he negotiated Presley’s five year cash cow deal to be perform at the International in Vegas in return for having his debts cancelled, a point hammered home with the ‘caught in a trap’ line from Suspicious Minds) while his not having a passport being the reason he scuppered any plans for Presley’s international tours. In his commentary, Parker rejects being responsible for the star’s death, going to far as blaming the fans and their obsessive desire to see him keep performing.
As usual for Luhrmann, its delivered in a dizzying rush of over-saturated colour, dissolves, chronological acrobatics and even animation (though the decision to include contemporary hop on the soundtrack is a major misfire). It touches – albeit not in any great depth – on the contentious issue of whites appropriating black music (Presley’s frequently shown in the company of Black performers like King (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), Little Richard and Sister Rosetta Tharpe, clearly a fan of their music, alongside segregation (childhood poverty meant his family had to live in neighbourhoods meant only for people of colour) and the impact on him of Martin Luther King’s assassination. Ticking the biographical boxes of his army service (apparently engineered by Parker to avoid him being jailed for degeneracy), the inane conveyor belt movies, his devotion to his mother Gladys (Helen Thomson), his inept business manager father Vernon (Richard Roxburgh), his marriage to (and eventual divorce from) Priscilla (Olivia DeJonge), and, of course, Gracelands.
A stand out section is the 1968 Elvis comeback special, intended by Parker (to please the sponsors) to be a cosy Christmas special with seasonal sweaters and fireside, but which Presley, in cohorts with director Steve Binder (Dacre Montgomery), turned into his rock n roll resurrection in black leathers and ending, following Bobby Kennedy’s shooting, with his stark performance of If I Can Dream. Likewise the recreation of the lavish Vegas performances, though perhaps not as dramatically effective as the scenes of the young Elvis discovering the sexual magnetism in his swivelling hips.
Musically leaving the building ending with Elvis singing Unchained Melody in his final Vegas season before the end captions wrap up his death and Parker’s comeuppance, while superior to Bohemian Rhapsody and ultimately coming in second place to Rocketman, this is Luhrmann’s best since Moulin Rouge. (Amazon Prime; Sky Cinema)
Extraction II (15)
At the end of the first film, having been shot in the neck, former Australian Special Forces mercenary Tyler Rake (Chris Hemsworth) tumbled from a Bangladesh bridge into the river, apparently dead. Now, however, ignoring the final teasing swimming pool scene, reunited screenwriter Joe Russo and stuntman-turned director Sam Hargrave race through a montage that has him wash up and be rushed to some state of the art hospital in Dubai where, under the watchful eye of his handler Nik (Golshifteh Farahani, getting to kick more ass this time around) before being relocated to a secluded cabin in the woods and reunited with his dog for a lengthy recuperation. Retirement is brought to an end when an unnamed mystery man (a cameoing Idris Elba) shows up to tell him his ex-wife (Olga Kurylenko) wants him to rescue her sister Ketevan (Tinatin Dalakishvili) and her kids Sandro (Andro Japaridze) and Nina (Mariami and Marta Kovziashvili) from the Georgian prison where they’re being held, supposedly for their protection, by her inmate terrorist husband Davit Radiani (Tornike Bziava), and his even more ruthless brother Zurab (Tornike Gogrichiani). So, Rake, Nik and her brother Yaz (Adam Bessa) duly set off on the mission, all of which goes smoothly until it turns out Santos, brainwashed into wanting to follow in the family gangster tradition, doesn’t want to go (setting up a third act confrontation). Davit winds up being killed and an exhilarating digitally-stitched-together ‘one shot’ 21 minute escape sequence ensues involving navigating through a prison yard full of rioting prisoners and guards and onto a train racing across the tundra pursued by helicopters and taking on heavily armed thugs with guns, knives, fists and whatever comes to hand. They make it to safety, but now Zurab, a textbook Eastern European villain, is out for revenge.
While there is some character development and redemptive emotion-wringing backstory (Rake is plagued by guilt for leaving his young dying cancer victim son to deploy in Afghanistan) and not all the main cast (who deliver with due gravitas) prove indestructible, as well as flashes of humour with Rake’s passing interest in Eurovision and raising chickens, this is basically just three long and undeniably thrilling and very violent action sequences with bullets raining down like a plague of locusts, one of which involves hanging by the fingertips from a high rise’s collapsing glass roof and another in a candlelit church. It ends with another Elba cameo setting up the already confirmed threequel. Bring it on. (Netflix)
Fast X (12A)
Opening with a flashback to 2011’s Fast Five and the sequence as Dom Toretto (Vin Diesel, still not possessing a shirt with sleeves) and Brian O’Conner (the late Paul Walker whose daughter Meadow gets to cameo here as a flight attendant) steal the vault belonging to drug lord Reyes (Joaquim de Almeida), climaxing in him being killed on a Rio de Janeiro bridge, the scenes now insert Jason Momoa as the bad guy’s son, Dante, who survives his SUV being sent into the ocean. Now he’s out for revenge. So, cut to the present as Dom, wife Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) and their young son Brian (Leo Abelo Perry) are living a quiet family life, reuniting for dinner with the crew Roman (Tyrese Gibson), Tej (Ludacris), Ramsey (Nathalie Emmanuel), Han (Sung Kang) and Dom’s grandmother Abuelita Toretto (Rita Moreno). While the others are sent on a mission to Rome by the agency, Dom and Letty stay behind, only to have an unexpected visitor in the shape of a wounded cyberterrorist Cipher (Charlize Theron), who reveals Dante forced her men to turn against her and that he’s out for payback. When Little Nobody (Scott Eastwood) arrives to take her into custody he confirms her story. But also says he never assigned the team any mission. Clearly it’s all a trap.
And so, now directed by Louis Leterrier taking over from Justin Lin, comes the first of the spectacular set pieces with mass vehicular destruction as Dom and Letty arrive, and they and the team, Taj and Ramsey locked in a truck controlled remotely by Dante, find themselves trying to stop a giant ball-shaped bomb from barrelling through the city on its intended course to blow up the Vatican. Blamed for the destruction, and Letty in custody, they now find themselves wanted fugitives being hunted by the Agency’s new leader, Aimes (Alan Ritchson), resulting, in rapid succession, with Dom’s brother Jakob (John Cena) rescuing Brian, who’s being looked after by his aunt Mia (Jordana Brewster), from Aimes’s men, Mr Nobody’s daughter Tess (new addition Brie Larson) rescuing Letty (who sits out much the remaining film with Cypher), and Dom returning to Rio (and shots of scantily clad twerking female backsides) for a narratively nonsensical race against Dante who informs them he’s planted bombs on two of the other cars (driven by F5 returnee Luis Da Silva as Diogo and Daniela Melchior as Isabel, the sister of that film’s murdered Elena), taunting that he can’t save everyone.
And, with Dante vowing to make Dom suffer by killing all his extended family and friends before getting round to him, and it just gets more and more tangled and over the top, with betrayals, more returning characters (Jason Statham’s Shaw with brief cameos by Helen Mirren, Gal Gadot, a photo of Kurt Russell and, bringing it full F5 circle, an end credits Dwayne Johnson as Hobbs), and, inexplicably, an appearance by Peter Davidson, the comic who made a bad taste crack about Walker’s death some years ago , suggesting the punches he gets from two of the cast might well be persona. Plus the constant stream of automobile armageddons, high speed chases with apparently indestructible cars, armoured, trucks, helicopters and planes, and any number of fights and shoot outs with Agency goons and Dante’s men. Not to mention a couple of gratuitous punch ups between one another.
Location hopping between L.A., Naples, Rome, Portugal, London and Antarctica, there’s nothing as jawdroppingly, physics-defyingly ridiculous as the car in space from F9, but Dom racing down the side of an exploding dam or dragging two helicopters behind him as wrecking balls and Jakob’s two man convertible with wings come pretty close. An amusing touch is Roman’s remote controlled toy car with a nodding head of himself.
As ever, themes of family are writ large with dialogue that’s carved rather than written while the performances range from the knowingly mock serious to Diesel’s extensive range of growling and glaring as he dispenses homilies (“No-one starts at the finish line”, “Fear is the best teacher”), the coup de grace being the scene-stealing Momoa who, having apparently watched Jack Nicholson’s Joker on repeat, is flamboyantly, gleefully over the top, not so much chewing scenery as devouring it wholesale, strutting like a peacock, adopting a Christ the Redeemer stance as he surveys his destruction, licking blood off a knife and painting the toenails of a corpse in some a demented garden party.
As much fun as it is wildly absurd (and a blast in IMAX), it ends, or rather doesn’t, with a cliffhanger for the two planned future sequels to brings the franchise to the end of road, though quite what sort of octane it’s going to need in the tank after this defies imagination. (Vue)
The Flash (12A)
Yet another delve into the multiverse, talked up as the highly anticipated saviour of the DC Universe movies, this starts out as a sort of mini Justice League caper with insouciant, anal Central City forensic scientist Barry Allen (a soulful Ezra Miller) getting a call from Alfred (Jeremy Irons), midway through ordering an energy restoring sandwich, to help with an attack in Gotham. Batman (Ben Affleck) is off chasing the bad guys and with Superman, Wonder Woman (a Gal Gadot cameo with an amusing lasso of truth gag) and Aquaman (you have to wait until the end credits scene) otherwise engaged, it’s up to The Flash to rescue a literal baby shower as a high-rise hospital wing collapses. An extended sequence has him ingeniously saving the tots, a nurse and a therapy dog, giving a taste of the sense of fun that frequently percolates the film.
Things get serious, however, with the impending appeal by his father (Ron Livingston) against his miscarriage of justice conviction for murdering his wife. With footage that might have proven his innocence turning out to be useless, Barry starts wondering about using his speed to go back in time and change events so his mum wasn’t murdered. And if we’ve learnt anything about time travel and messing with the past, it’s that it has unpredictable consequences for the future. And so it is that, averting the murder by simply adding the can of tomatoes she forgot to her basket, the tragedy never happens, allowing him to reconnect with his parents. Unfortunately, it turns out that he’s not the only Barry Allen (Miller) in this timeline, the other being a young, immature and annoyingly flip screw-up with a floppy fringe who, of course, he now has to interact with, without saying why he’s there. Worse, Barry 2 means Barry 1 no longer has his powers, so the former has to recreate the incident so that the latter gets them, again setting up an amusing sequence involving Barry 2 ending up naked in the middle of the street. It also entails a running gag about Back To Future, which, in this reality had Eric Stoltz as Marty McFly
However, it also brings about the arrival of a spacecraft under the command of renegade Kryptonian General Zod (Michael Shannon reprising his role from Man Of Steel, though the character also figured in the 1978/1980 films) who intends to terraform Earth to make it a new Krypton. And in this reality there’s no Superman to stop him. Or indeed a Wonder Woman or Aquaman. There is, thankfully a Batman, albeit this Bruce Wayne (an imposingly charismatic Michael Keaton returning to the cape after 30 years, his first appearance in costume along with the iconic Batmobile and Batplane delivering an electrifying charge) is a bearded recluse who needs to be persuaded to come out of retirement. And, in order to stop Zod, Batman and the two Flashes have to find Superman who, it turns out, is being held captive in a secret Russian lab and, in fact, is actually Kal-El’s cousin Supergirl (Sasha Calle). An act of desperation now requires Batman trying to restore Barry 1’s powers.
To say more would spoil the surprises and thrills, but suffice to say that, directed by Andy Muschietti, there’s a whole pile of explosive super-hero action as Zod’s plans (which involve Supergirl’s blood), and the repeated resetting of the timelines to try and prevent characters’ deaths, look set to cause the destruction of the many different Earths, setting up a fan-pleasing sequence that includes footage of the original Golden Age Flash and Superman, Christopher Reeve, Helen Slater’s Supergirl and the much reported chance for Nicolas Cage to fulfil a long-standing ambition. Ultimately, Barry comes to realise that the only way he can save things is by not saving his mother, leading to a genuinely heartbreaking scene. Though, he does, subsequently, make one tiny adjustment that will affect the appeal and, in a brilliant final twist, sets up a fabulous cameo in the final moments. In the cold light of day, it may not make a lot of sense, but from the opening to the closing credits it delivers an adrenaline rush of excitement and roller coaster emotions that will take your breath away. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe,; Vue)
Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol 3 (12A)
While the two mid-credit scenes suggest there is the potential for a further instalment with a new roster or, at least, a prime character spin-off, this definitely brings the curtain down on director James Gunn’s saga of the dysfunctional team of malcontent heroes while also serving as an origin story for Rocket (Bradley Cooper). Still bristling at being called a racoon, he spends most of the film in a coma, hovering on the edge of death after being wounded by the golden-skinned Adam Warlock (Will Poulter), his friends unable to heal him after discovering his body has an in-built kill switch. Flashbacks to how he became who he is today are scattered throughout, revealing him to be part of a genetic experiment by the High Revolutionary (a scenery-chewing Chukwudi Iwuji in generally bellowing default mode) to mutate animals into anthropomorphic beings to populate his vision of a new, ideal, peaceful Earth-like planet; though he’s not above cruelty and the murder of his subjects to achieve that. Rocket, or 89P13 as he’s referred to, proved to have advanced intelligence and an unexplained success in taming his creations’ urge for violence and, having escaped (in a heartbreaking scene in which his new genetically engineered friends do not), the High Evolutionary now wants him recovered so he can access the secrets stored in his brain. To which end, to save him, Peter Quill aka Star Lord (Chris Pratt), Mantis (Pom Klementieff), Drax (Dave Bautista), Nebula (Karen Gillan) and Groot (Vin Diesel), have to somehow infiltrate Orgoscope, the High Evolutionary’s fleshy space lab station, and get the key to disable the kill switch with the help of their Knowhere comic relief associates Kraglin (Sean Gunn) and Cosmo the Space Dog (Maria Bakalova), while preventing Warlock, spurred on by his mother, Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki), from abducting the wounded Rocket.
Matters among the crew are complicated by the subplot involving Quill grieving the death of his lover Gamora (a commanding Zoe Saldaña), at the hands of her step-father Thanos and unable to handle the fact that the cold resurrected version has no recollection that they were a couple and is now a member of the Ravagers (led by Sylvester Stallone), of whom he himself was once a part.
The film hops from one storyline and spectacular set piece to another, climaxing with an explosive finale on both the High Evolutionary’s ship (where cages of children are found, affording a new side of Drax to appear) and Counter-Earth, an 1980-designed biosphere based on Star-Lord’s home planet populated by genetically mutated humanimals, with Rocket now back in full on mode, the action intercut with the franchise’s familiar wisecracking and squabbling banter between the team, set to a rock music mixtape (Radiohead’s Creep playing a significant part).
Frequently teasing the possibility that any of the team could die, Gunn juggles themes about family, friendship, animal experimentation and playing God (“There is no God! That’s why I’m taking charge!” declares the High Evolutionary) and not judging by appearances (a trio of monstrous creatures that seem to threaten Mantis, Drax and Nebula turns out to be rather cuddly). It may never quite explain Warlock’s backstory and his somewhat confusing switchback of motivations and actions and, while a nice surprise, the moment when Groot proves to have more than one phrase in his vocabulary does break with character, but it never lets go of its emotional or visceral grip, delivering a hugely satisfying send-off with the end credits featuring images of everyone who’s been involved in the saga, from Kurt Russell and Michael Rooker to Kevin Bacon and even a sly photo of Stan Lee. What the future brings remains to be seen, but for now this is the best MCU movie since Avengers Endgame. (Empire Great Park)
Indiana Jones And The Dial Of Destiny (12A)
He may be 80, but, in his final outing as the adventuring archaeologist, Harrison Ford still has the same mix of gruff charisma and twinkle-in-the eye mischief as when he first brought the character to the screen back in 1981. The franchise, however, has not aged quite as well. The first not to be directed by Steven Spielberg, here James Mangold is in charge of an unfocused screenplay that took four people to write and a running time some 30 minutes longer than any of its predecessors.
Reprising the Nazis as the bad guys, it opens back at the end of WWII with a de-aged Ford taken prisoner while trying to locate some artefact the Fuhrer is desperate to get his hands on, prompting the discovery that, while that is a fake, the loot includes a more valuable McGuffin, the Antikythera, half of a fabled device created by Archimedes, that has Nazi scientist Jurgen Voller (Mads Mikklesen) all hot and bothered. Cue an overlong fight sequence through and (with some dodgy CGI) atop the speeding train between Voller, Jones and the latter’s friend, Oxford archaeologist Basil Shaw (Toby Jones), one of several new old characters from Indie’s past, before the trail derails, the bridge is bombed and the two take off with the device.
Cut to 1969 and the day of the moon landing when Jones, drinking in a bar after having retired from his professorship lecturing bored students and being divorced by Marion (Karen Allen) is approached by a woman from his past, who, it transpires, is Helena ‘Wombat’ Shaw (Phoebe Waller-Bridge), the goddaughter he’s not seen in 18 years. She, to cut things shorter than the film does, it turns out, sells artefacts on the black market and she’s after the Antikythera which he’d promised her late father he’d destroy. And she’s not the only one. Also back on the trail is Voller who, under his new identity as Professor Schmitt, has been part of the Apollo programme, and his psycho killer henchmen Klaber (Boyd Holbrook) and Hauke (Olivier Richters) who are, in a muddled subplot, in league with US government agent Mason (Shaunette Renée Wilson). Anyways, Helena makes off with the device, leading to an overextended series of chases (mostly involving stolen vehicles, or, indeed, a horse) that, moving to Tangiers, has Jones, Helena and her young street thief accomplice Teddy (Ethann Isidore) pursued by Voller and co before winding up in Greece as they search for the other half of the device which, when paired, reputedly has the power to locate fissures in time. In a nod to Raiders (and The Last Crusade), along with some snake substitutes, John Rhys-Davies reprises his role as Indie’s Egyptian friend Sallah, now a New York taxi driver, while Antonio Banderas cameos as another newly minted old friend and deep sea diver.
Mangold does his best to invoke the Saturday morning serials that fuelled Raiders Of The Lost Ark while also playing to the modern blockbuster crowd, but it’s hard to escape a workmanlike sense of been there, seen that with the trail of clues in historic locations all too reminiscent of National Treasure. Mikkelsen does decent sneer but isn’t a particularly memorable villain and, while Ford, in good physical shape, does his grizzled adventurer best, despite the trademark hat, whip and droll humour, too often bolstered by CGI rather than authentic stunts, this weathered, world weary Indie has a certain missing spark (though the introspective scene where he talks of wishing he could go back in time to stop his son enlisting and getting killed in Vietnam has an emotional grip). Good news then that, while not enough’s made of their relationship, Waller-Bridge brings things alive with the smart-tongued Helena who, as handy with her fists as she is her brain, injects copious adrenaline into the action. Ultimately, it’s undeniably good fun and seeing Jones back in his other iconic role is a thrill, but every time that John Williams theme tune starts up, it’s a reminder that some memories should perhaps be left in the past. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Electric; Everyman; Mockingbird; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe. West Brom; Reel; Vue)
Marking the debut of then 20-year-old writer-director Fridtjof Ryder, this is an enigmatic British folk horror come psychological drama that takes itself far too seriously, while audience are likely to be just baffled. It opens with a young boy calling out for his mother in the middle of the Forest of Dean before cutting to the now grown never named character (Rory Alexander), a troubled young man who, just out of a psychiatric facility, turns up at the home of Dunleavy (Mark Rylance), a whiskery philosophising garage mechanic who speaks in an intensely irritating manner (“You silly billy – did they fix you? Are you fixed?”) who was a close friend (or more) of his mother, who gives him a job and offers his a place to stay, though he insists on sleeping in the car outside the house. Going for a drink in a pub cum brothel called The Faerie Queen with the other workers (Shaun Dingwall heading an equally odd and annoying bunch), he’s fascinated by a collection of alabaster white statues seemingly suspended in mid-air and connects with a sex worker who reminds him of (or may be) his mum, Lizzie Herron, a woman of nomadic Romani descent with a deep connection with the natural world who he’s persuaded may be watching him from the trees, Kathryn Hunter proving voiceover narrative about how her relationship with her son is at odds with her inner self as well as reciting creepy nursery rhymes.
With flashbacks to and dream-like sequences in the wood it’s a frustratingly oblique exploration of a fractured psyche, Freudian hang-ups and identity confusions on an introspective journey that is far too reliant on Lynchian influences and overly obvious portentous symbolism such as a bird dropping dead after hitting his windscreen.
The rural setting, dim lighting and the camerawork create an effective atmosphere and it’s clear Ryder has potential, but this remains an awkward, emotionally distanced first step along his path. (Until Wed: MAC)
John Wick : Chapter 4 (15)
Spin-offs and prequel appearances notwithstanding, the emotional final scene would pretty much seem to confirm this is the final chapter in the series, bowing out in with a flamboyant 169 minute (word is a 225 minute version may surface later) clipped dialogue epic tsunami of fire, fist, knives and sword fights that may be overstuffed but never drags.
Hiding out in the New York lair of the Bowery King (Laurence Fishburne) from the High Table to whom he still has an obligation and who have placed a $2million bounty on his head, antihero assassin Wick (Keanu Reeves at his Clint Eastwood drawl finest) is planning his revenge. This takes him to Morocco (cue homage to David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia) where he kills the Elder, resulting in the fascist rich kid Marquis Vincent de Gramont (Bill Skarsgård), the current New York High Table top dog, taking revenge by stripping Winston (Ian McShane), who failed to kill Wick, of his role as manager of the Continental, killing his concierge Charon (the late Lance Reddick) and blowing up the building. Then, threatening to murder his daughter, he forces blind retired assassin Caine (martial arts virtuoso Donnie Yen), just one of many biblical references, into accepting the hit on his old friend. Cut to Tokyo where Wick’s taken refuge at the Osaka Continental, run by loyal old friend Shimazu Koji (a quietly charismatic Hiroyuki Sanada) and his daughter Akira (pop star Rina Sawayama who sings the film’s theme song), but it’s not long before the High Table enforcers, led by the Marquis’s seemingly indestructible right-hand man Chidi (Marko Zaror), and Caine arrive, demanding Wick be given up, leading to the first of a series of knowingly over-the-top extended fight sequences that ends up with one wounded, one dead and Wick again on the run.
Returning to New York, he learns from Winston that there is a way to bring things to an end. Under High Table traditions, he can challenge the Marquis to single combat and be freed of all obligations. The only problem is that he first needs to accepted back into the Berlin crime family the Ruska Roma and to do so he first has to kill Killa (Scott Adkins), the overweight, lavender-suited German Table head with gold gangsta teeth who murdered his adoptive sister Katia’s (Natalia Tena) father. And even having done that (cue another amped up sequence set amid a sea of night club dancers), there’s still the small matter of getting to the Sacré-Cœur in Paris before sunrise to carry out the duel, which, if he fails to do, will result in his and Winston’s execution, as his second, which means, armed with a top end gun and a wearing a ballistic suit, surviving Chidi, the High Table muscle and the dozens of freelance assassins all looking to collect the $20million and rising bounty, and soundtracked on their way by an on air DJ spinning things like Nowhere To Run. One of whom is Mr Nobody (Shamier Anderson), a cool and composed tracker, who with his lethal dog sidekick (which becomes an important plot turning point), has been keeping tabs on Wick, keeping him alive until the Marquis agrees to the fee he’s asking. All of which culminates in the reluctant Caine, who the Marquis has nominated to act in his place, and Wick facing down each other in a pistol duel moderated by the Harbinger (Clancy Brown).
Opening with shots of a fist hitting a bloodied punchbag, stunt choreographer turned director Chad Stahelski stages an increasingly elaborate and inspired sequence of balletic fights, among them a thrilling blazing guns car chase around the Arc de Triomphe, one filmed in an overhead doll’s-house view in a labyrinthine building and, finally, the spectacular climax set on the Rue Foyatier in Montmartre, the 222-step stairway leading to the Basilica and down which Wick is sent tumbling at least twice as the hordes continue to come. After nine years, during which time the narrative has got bigger and more complex, this is one big eye-popping gift-wrapped thank you to the legions of fans who have transformed it into an iconic franchise. Will you love it? Yeah. (Amazon Prime; Microsoft Store)
The Little Mermaid (PG)
The 1989 original having revitalised Disney’s animation, directed by Rob Marshall this now acts as a defibrillator to the studio’s live action remakes which have steadily gone from the awesome Mulan to the turgid Pinocchio. You’ll be familiar with the story, driven by curiosity, headstrong dreamer teenage mermaid Ariel (Halle Bailey) ignores her father, Triton (Javier Bardem), King of the Seas, who, after her mother was killed, forbids her to go to the surface or, worse, make contact with humans. As such, during a storm, she saves the life of Prince Eric (Jonah Hauer-King) and is taken with his kindness (he rescues a dog from the burning galleon) and good looks, while, hazily glimpsing her as he lies on the shore, he’s equally smitten. When dad finds out, he’s furious, destroying her grotto of human artefacts and ordering her to forget about him. Which is where his evil octopus sister Ursula (Melissa McCarthy cackling madly and chewing the seaweed scenery), the Sea Witch, assisted by her electric hencheels Flotsam and Jetsam, sees her opportunity and strikes a deal with Ariel; she’ll use her magic to make her human for three days but, if she and Eric haven’t had a true love kiss by the third sunset, she’ll be bound to her forever. And just to load the deck, she takes away Ariel’s siren voice (with which she saved Eric) and casts a spell to make her forget all about smooching. On land and with feet, she’s reunited with Eric but he doesn’t recognise her as the girl he’s looking for and she can’t speak. So, it’s down to her briny friends, tropical fish Flounder (Jacob Tremblay), Caribbean-accented red crab Sebastian (Daveed Diggs) and dim-witted gannet Scuttle (Awkwafina) to try and make the kiss happen before it’s too late.
Reworking Ariel’s sisters in a feminist makeover from giggling guppies to rulers of each of the seven seas , adding in new characters in the form of Eric’s adoptive mother, the Queen (Noma Dumezweni), and her factotum Grimsby (Art Malik), an amusing joke given Grimsby’s a noted fishing port, and making Eric more soulful than in the cartoon, while pretty much faithful to events in the original it also adds an extra hour to the running time, filling it out with stunningly beautiful underwater sequences and, Grimsby turning a blind eye, Eric and Ariel’s day out mixing and dancing the locals.
To be honest, Hauer-King is a little flat in the charisma stakes and his solo musical number, Wild Uncharted Waters, doesn’t come close to the performances elsewhere, most notably Diggs’ rendition of the calypso Under The Sea or, joined by Tremblay and Awkwafina, Kiss The Girl, while, with new lyrics (as on several other songs by Lin-Manuel Miranda, McCarthy makes a meal of Poor Unfortunate Souls. There’s also a couple of new songs from Miranda and Alan Menken, Awkafina and Diggs on the speed rap Scuttlebut and For The First Time sung by the wide-eyed Bailey (a five-time Grammy nominee with her sister Chloe), who, in her first leading role proves to be an incandescent discovery and knocks the showstopper Part Of Your World out of the ocean ballpark.
Looking stunning on the widescreen (and even more so in Imax) with jawdropping digital details such as Ariel’s shimmering rainbow tail, there moments that might prove dark and scary for younger audiences (Ariel and Flounder chased by a shark, the shipwreck, Ursula’s forbidding cave and her monster-sized finale), but, with its inevitable message about living in harmony rather than division, this is generally a fairy tale tsunami of unbridled joy that invites you to be part of its world. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Vue)
An English language remake of Kurosawa’s 1952 masterpiece Ikiru about a Tokyo bureaucrat stoically searching for meaning in the last months of his life, directed by South Africa’s Oliver Hermanus with a screenplay by Kazuo Ishiguro the setting is transposed to 1950s London and is centred on veteran London County Council civil servant Mr Williams, as portrayed by Bill Nighy in an understated but profoundly moving, career best performance.
He shares his home with his son Michael (Barney Fishwick) and daughter-in-law Fiona (Patsy Ferran) in a patently strained relationship (beautifully captured in a dinner scene involving a soup tureen) where they have their eyes on their inheritance. Every morning, sporting traditional pinstripe and wearing bowler hat, he joins the train with his fellow workers, but never in the same carriage, travelling to the dingy Public Works office where he sits behind his desk surrounded by his underlings (among them Alex Sharp as new arrival Peter Wakeling, still idealistic and not fallen into the art of dodging responsibility) overseeing proceedings and filing documents away (“there, it can do no harm”) in a constant cycle of buck-passing.
From an early age, all the deeply shy Mr. Williams ever wanted to be was a “gentleman”, and in pursuing that goal and the reserved lack of passion it entails, it seems to have sucked all the life out of him. But then, one morning his doctor gives him the bad news. He only has months left. His composure shaken, he resolves, like Ebenezer Scrooge, to make the most of the time remaining. While unable to break the news to his son, he does confess to Sutherland, a boozy playwright (Tom Burke) in the seaside town he takes off to after withdrawing half his savings, who tells him to live a little (to which he replies “I don’t know how” and introduces him to the debauchery of the Oliver Reed side of life. And, following a brief encounter in the street and a Fortnum & Mason lunch, to his former secretary, the guileless, innocently flirtatious Margaret Harris (Sex Education’s Aimee Lou Wood) who quit her job to try something new. She tells him her nicknames for her former colleagues. He’s somewhat tickled to learn his was Mr Zombie.
The couple strike up a platonic relationship, going to the cinema and pubs, and there is something about both her and Sutherland’s lust for life that determines him to push through the forever stalled planning permission for a group of mothers to transform an East End bombsite into a children’s playground, much to the bewilderment of his fellow workers, refusing to take no for an answer when confronted by red tape and stonewalling.
Evoking an atmosphere and bittersweet mood of sadness and newfound joy akin to his screenplay for remains Of The Day and touching in similar themes of repression and coming alive, while understandably jettisoning the gangster plot, Ishiguru remains faithful to much of the original film, most especially the heartbreaking scene involving a song, swing and snowflakes, a third act structured around flashbacks and colleagues talking about how he achieved his aim while backstory grace notes include black and white childhood memories and a rendition of the Scottish ballad The Rowan Tree.
Sharp is excellent as Wakeling, feeling Williams’ pain and aware of his easy it would be for him to wind up the same way, while , the embodiment of post-war optimism, Wood delivers a star-making performance. However, deep in existential crisis and experiencing a rebirth that frees his innate wit and kindness, this is unquestionably Nighy’s film, his subtle facial twitches, the half sighs, the internalisation of his sorrows all a masterclass in minimalism that will reduce you a sobbing puddle. (Netflix)
The Mother (12A)
Jennifer Lopez tools up as a military sniper turned underground arms deals broker turned FBI informant turned maternal badass in this pulpy but enjoyable action thriller. Never named, the film opens with Lopez in an FBI safe house striking a deal to give up her two former partners (both professionally and sexually) only for it to prove not so safe after all, leading to several agents getting killed and Adrian (Joseph Fiennes), one of her former lovers one of whom is likely the father, stabbing her pregnant belly. The baby’s saved but, to keep her safe, Lopez is forced to give her up, getting Cruise (Omari Hardwick), the agent whose life she saved to agree to keep an eye on her ( a sort of surrogate uncle) and send photographs on every birthday. Fast forward 12 years and, watched over by an old army buddy (Paul Raci), Lopez is living in the remote wilds of Alaska, but has to come out of hiding on learning that her other ex-associate, Hector (Gael Bernal Garcia) has abducted her daughter, Zoe (Lucy Paez), to lure her out of hiding.
From this point it’s all fairly generic, Lopez shooting, stabbing, punching with fists wrapped in barbed wire, riding a motorbike down city steps, rescuing Zoe from Hector’s Cuban hideout and then taking her out into the snowy wilds and, though she’s initially resentful and hostile about being abandoned, training her to be a sharpshooter and how to knife fight before Adrian re-emerges for the snowmobiles cat and mouse showdown.
Efficiently helmed by Niki Caro whose Whale Rider showed she knows how to direct female actors, it makes a decent fist of exploring the primal maternal instinct but, at the end of the day, it’s still the sort of shoot em up revenge thriller Jason Statham or Liam Neeson might have sleepwalked through. (Netflix)
Opening with the heroic Gloreth establishing an order of knights dedicated to protecting the world from the monsters that lurk outside its walls, this animated fantasy adventure fast forwards a 1000 years to a futuristic city and, headed by The Director (Frances Conroy), the Institute where the queen is about to appoint new knights from the graduating cadets, among them Ambrosius Goldenloin (Eugene Lee Yang), a descendent of Gloreth, and Ballister Boldheart (Riz Ahmed). The latter is controversial given that he will be the first commoner accorded such an honour in the queen’s intention to give everyone a chance to be a hero and Ballister is understandably worried that, like bullying fellow cadet Thoddeus (Beck Bennett) everyone will hate him. Instead, he’s met with cheers- until, that is, a laser ray shoots from his high-tech sword and kills the queen, leading to Ambrosius chopping off his arm and Bal fleeing, a wanted murderer. But then, in hiding, he finds himself visited by Nimona (Chloë Grace Moretz), a rebellious punky teenager outsider who, assuming him to be a villain, declares herself his self-appointed sidekick (“Because I’m bored, and everyone hates me too”). She is, however, more than a sassy, sparky, streetsmart misfit teen. As he discovers when she rescues him from prison, she’s a shapeshifter capable of transforming into a pink rhino, bear, bird, a whale and even a dancing shark, who revels in causing chaos and smashing things up. She is, in fact, exactly the sort of monster the knights are supposed to destroy. Instead, the two now find themselves joining forces to clear Bal’s name and expose the real murderer. The identity of whom it’s not too hard to work out, but then, as the opening voiceover states, things have a habit of not having the simply resolved happy endings fairytales usually demand.
Adapted from a subversive graphic novel by ND Stevenson and rescued by Netflix after being cancelled by Disney, this is very much a contemporary 2D-3D animation, not just in its dazzling visuals but in its storyline and themes. It’s revealed early on that Bal and Ambrosius are gay lovers while, uncomfortable in her ‘normal’ skin, Nimona is driven by a need to transition. Meanwhile, with the inventive narrative, twisting there’s also familiar messages about intolerance, irrational prejudice and how, in as world where kids “grow up believing that they can be a hero if they drive a sword into the heart of anything different”, if we treat people as monsters, they’re likely to become monsters.
With her catchphrase ‘metal’ and plans that rarely go beyond “Chaos, destruction, something-something-something, we win”, Nimona is a priceless animated anti-hero, her spirit and irreverent humour exuberantly captured by Moretz’s voice work while Ahmed brings the pathos and more serious notes. Driven by a punk-fuelled soundtrack that includes The Banana Splits and guitar riffs by former Sex Pistols Steve Jones, it barrels along with fast-paced action and an utterly infectious sense of anarchy and fun. The ending lays possible ground for a sequel, and one would be very welcome indeed. (Netflix)
No Hard Feelings (15)
In danger of losing her late single mother’s house in the increasingly gentrified beach hamlet of Montauk, Long Island, because of unpaid property taxes and her car repossessed by a tow truck driver (Ebon Moss-Bachrach) ex-boyfriend resentful about her abrupt lack of communication, meaning she can’t work as a Uber driver, 32-year-old Maddie Barker (Jennifer Lawrence) answers a Craigslist ad placed by two wealthy helicopter parents Laird (Matthew Broderick) and Allison (Laura Benanti) Becker. Concerned that their geeky, socially awkward virgin 19-year-old son Percy (Andrew Barth Feldman), lacks the necessary experience prior to going to Princeton, they’re offering a brand new Buick in exchange for someone who will, as Maddie puts, “date his brains out”. Directed by Gene Stupnitsky and co-written by John Phillips, it pretty much follows just as you would expect from a film channelling cringeworthy 80s sex comedies like Risky Business (though equally there’s a hint of Paul Thomas Anderson and Cameron Crowe). As in, naturally not revealing her job as a fuck for hire, under the ruse of wanting to adopt a dog from the rescue shelter where he volunteers, Maddie inveigles her way into Percy’s life who, of course, while shy, turns out to be not as much a nerd as he first appears, a relationship gradually blossoming although the crucial consummation keeps running into obstacles. Just as inevitably, the two having grown genuinely close, the truth will eventually come out, setting up the equally predictable dinner with parents scene, the break up and make up.
Pushing the edginess with Lawrence going full frontal (something even the enjoyably vulgar Porky’s resisted) in a skinny dipping scene and subsequent fight with three teens stealing their clothes, it’s both peppered with laugh out loud gags, innuendos and embarrassing moments but also irresistibly sweet with a subtext about her relationship with the pure-hearted Percy opening up the insecure Maddie to moving on in her life (and any hopes that her estranged wealthy father will ever be part of her life) rather than remaining forever stuck in Montauk stasis.
Not everything works; Percy’s overprotective former male nanny Jody (Kyle Mooney) feels a redundant excuse for some unnecessary homophobic jokes. However, Lawrence proves to have solid comic timing (both physical and verbal) as well as dramatic sass, Feldman recalls a young Dustin Hoffman, an aspiring musician his ‘prom night’ restaurant serenading of Maddie with Hall & Oates’ Maneater is a treat, while Scott MacArthur and Natalie Morales, as his pregnant partner and Maddie’s restaurant co-worker, provide solid comic support. It may play the raunchy card, but ultimately this is a sweet, endearing and big-hearted tale of friendship and self-discovery. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel; Vue)
The Old Way (12A)
It may come as a surprise to learn that this is the first time Nicolas Cage has made a Western. And while hardly a classic, this by the numbers directorial debut by Brett Dono who is serviceably enjoyable enough with Cage giving one of his more modulated performances. Set in Montana, he plays Colton Briggs, a feared gunslinger who, in the opening sequence, guns down both several officials and the men trying to prevent the hanging of Boyd McAllister, the brother of notorious bandit Walter. Suffice to say, when the smoke clears. Briggs has killed both brothers, leaving only Boyd’s young son James as witness to events.
Years later, having found love with a good woman and had a daughter, the now clean-shaven Briggs has hung up his guns and runs a small store. One morning he takes daughter Brooke (Ryan Kiera Armstrong) with him, leaving Ruth (Kerry Knuppe) back at home. As she’s hanging out the washing, four men turn up, Boots (Shiloh Fernandez), Big Mike (Abraham Benrubi), and Eustice (Clint Howard) and the now grown James McCallister (Noah Le Gros) who’s out for revenge. Returning home, Briggs is met by Jarret (Nick Searcy), a US Marshall, who’s on their trail and learns that Ruth has been murdered. Burying her while Brooke sits implacable in the porch, he then takes his guns out of storage, sets fire to the house and the pair set off for revenge, meaning he first has to outsmart and obstruct the Marshall and his posse who want to do things legally.
Anyone with a passing knowledge of the genre will have a pretty good idea of how it goes from here, dutifully working its reassuringly predictable, way through the clichés to the final shootout, naturally including the scene where he teaches his daughter how to shoot a gun (she’s crap with a rifle but a dead shot with a six gun), setting up the inevitable later scene where that comes in handy. Carl W. Lucas’s dialogue is heavy-handed and over-written, not least an interminable speech by McCallister detailing his grudge and a long-winded all around the houses last scene exchange between Jarret and Brooke. While, taking his laconic cue from Clint, Cage doesn’t chew the scenery to the extent has in recent outings, Le Gros, Benrubi, Searcy, and, especially, Howard all make up for this by hamming outrageously. Armstrong, however, proves a real delight, even if you can’t avoid thinking she must have watched Hailee Steinfeld in True Grit on a loop as preparation. The film never comes anywhere close to that, but it passes the time well enough. (Rakuten TV)
Operation Fortune:Ruse De Guerre (15)
Its planned cinema released scuppered by the bad timing of having Ukrainian villains, Guy Ritchie’s second venture into espionage territory after the underrated The Man from U.N.C.L.E. finally surfaces on a streaming platform, and, a quintessential Ritchie romp with Mission Impossible echoes, is pretty much worth the subscription in itself. The plot is a familiar recover a secret weapon that’s been stolen for sale on the black market, so that gives a good idea of what to expect in terms of rival operatives, double crosses and location-hopping, all of which the cast and screenplay milk to hugely enjoyable effect with a mix of high octane action and rapid bite banter. Almost inevitably, it involves Jason Statham who, as loose cannon freelance contractor Orson Fortune, is enlisted by the British government in the form of effete operation handler Nathan Jasmine (Cary Elwes) reporting to his ministerial boss Eddie Marsan, to recover “The Handle”, to which end he recruits a team comprising hacker Sara Fidel (Aubrey Plaza) and everyman J.J. Davies (Bugzy Malone) while, in the opposite corner is sneaky rival Mike (Peter Ferdinando) and his gang of heavies.
The middleman negotiating the weapon’s sale is billionaire arms dealer Greg Simmonds (Hugh Grant in Hugh Grant wisecracking pantomime bad guy mode) and to infiltrate his inner circle, Fortune ropes in Danny Francesco (Josh Hartnett), an action movie star with whom Simmonds is obsessed, Sara playing his girlfriend and Fortune his manager. With the events and action variously playing out in Cannes, Madrid, and Morocco with a car chase through a Turkish Cliffside, a finale in which Fortune climbs a glass tower and a mid-heist scene where he takes time out to watch the ‘Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head’ bicycle scene from Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid. Knowingly silly with tongues firmly in cheek and everyone clearly having a great time, it’s preposterously energetic and entertaining supercharged fun. (Amazon Prime)
Peter Pan & Wendy (PG)
The latest live action remake of a Disney animated classic goes back to the title of JM Barrie’s book, placing Wendy firmly in the spotlight alongside the boy who refused to grow up. Directed by David Lowery, who also did the live remake of Pete’s Dragon, keeps several details from the cartoon, notably Peter’s green hat and costume and the top hat and teddy bear associated with the Darling brothers Michael and John, but there’s some substantial updates too, such that, played by Yara Shahidi, Tinker Bell is now biracial, no longer an outdated stereotype Tiger Lily (Alyssa Wapanatâhk) gets a more heroic role and (as Wendy declares to her astonishment) the Lost Boys include Lost Girls too.
More significantly, Captain Hook (Jude Law, stealing the film) is completely reimagined to give a backstory with Peter that makes him a more poignantly sympathetic figure than any previous portrayals and also casts Peter in a very different, selfish and at times cynical light. Rather like what happens to Hook’s ship in the big swashbuckling climax, it turns their relationship upside down. There is, though, still the crocodile.
Adopting an often dark tone, literally and psychologically, it opens in Victorian England at the home of the Darlings where Michael (Jacobi Jupe) and John (Joshua Pickering) are acting out the swordfights from the bedtime stories of Peter Pan, but here older sister Wendy (Milla Jovovich’s daughter Ever Anderson) enthusiastically joins in, only to be reprimanded by her father (Alan Tudyk) and mother (Molly Parker) for not setting a good example. This Wendy, resentful of being about to be sent to boarding school, is also a touch feisty, snappily saying she wants her own life, not her mother’s. Later she will slap Peter in the face for being reckless.
That night, she and the brothers are awoken by a visit from Tinker Bell and Peter (a suitably impish-looking Alexander Molony), very much real and not just a character in a story, who’s come to recover his shadow and, responding to her wish to never grow up, and, with the help of pixie dust and happy thoughts, takes them flying off to Neverland (here accessed through a portal in Big Ben). However, no sooner do they arrive than they’re bombarded by Hook’s ship, John and Michael are captured, Tinker Bell and Peter are missing in action and Wendy washes up on the shore to be found by Tiger Lily and the ethnically diverse Lost Boys led by Slightly (Down’s syndrome teenager Noah Matthews Matofsky).
Though, naturally, everything works out happily, Lowery doesn’t refrain from scenes likely to scare youngsters, such as Hook ordering the children to be executed and tying John and Michael to Skull Rock to drown before Peter resurfaces and comes to the rescue. Some of the pirates also end up as croc-fodder.
There’s a couple of nice line reversals, pointing that, in returning to London, you need to actually take the second star to the left and go straight on ’til morning, and Wendy telling Peter that to grow up might be the greatest adventure of all, and, while it may have flaws, this is generally a compelling and – dare I say it – grown up telling of a tale about the ambiguities of both wanting to hold on to your childhood and also excited by the potential than the adult world might offer. (Disney+)
Pretty Red Dress (15)
Making her feature debut, writer-director Dionne Edwards brings warmth, humour, sadness and humanity to a film that explores notions of masculinity, well served by strong lead performances from theatre and television actor Natey Jones, singer Alexandra Burke and Temilola Olatunbosun all making their film debuts.
Out of jail on licence after doing time for dealing, returning to his Lambeth high-rise estate, Travis (Jones), a former DJ and music entrepreneur, hooks back up with partner Candice (Burke), a singer who performs in soul revues channelling Tina Turner when not working in a grocery store, and their daughter, troubled, rebellious teen Kenisha (Olatunbosun). Travis may be imposing enough to quieten the local flash youth simply with his presence, but, kindly and considerate he’s no tough guy. With Candice up for the role of Turner in a West End show, he swallows his pride and takes a job with his pompous restaurateur older brother Clive (Rolan Bell) in order to buy an expensive shimmering red sequinned dress for her to wear at the audition, However, alone, he’s seduced by its allure and puts it on, puts lipstick on and poses in front of the mirror, only to be caught by a shocked Candice who doesn’t buy his explanation that it was all a prank.
Despite promising never to repeat it, he can’t resist the temptation, resulting in an accident for which he persuades Kenisha to take the blame, she, ill-advisedly revealing dad’s secret to a friend (and prospective lesbian lover), which ends up with his cross-dressing (a no go for macho Black culture) becoming public and another issue for his daughter at school.
Aimed at the Black/LGBTQ+ audience but without overdoing its agenda or themes, but also touching home with more general issues of self-identity, self-confidence and self-acceptance, it draws you in to the family and gender dynamics, fully involving you with the characters and their problems and dreams. Burke gets to deliver some solid musical numbers and proves a more than capable actress, Jones subtly captures the nuances of his character’s confusions and emotions (“I don’t know what’s going on. I just like being pretty sometimes” he tells Kenisha) while Olatunbosun is suitably both spiky and vulnerable.
There’s a vague connection to Kinky Boots, and the scene as Travis steps out, proudly walking down the street in full drag (even if it is only in his mind) is upliftingly joyful, one it would be hard to manage an American equivalent capturing in quite the same way. Try it on for size, you may well find it’s a perfect fit. (Sun-Thu: MAC)
Not put off by the piss-poor response to 2018’s The Predator, 10 Cloverfield Lane director Dan Trachtenberg and screenwriter Patrick Aison take up the challenge of rebooting the franchise, and incredibly pulls off the best in the franchise since the original. Rather than continuing the saga, it takes the bold step of going back to the start, the setting being America’s Northern Great Plains in 1719. Here, Naru (The Ice Road’s Amber Midthunder) is a young Comanche desperate to prove herself the equal of her tribe macho boys, most especially her brother Taabe (Dakota Beavers), under whose shadow she lives. An expert with a bow and throwing hatchet, knowledgeable in herbal medicine, she’s ready for her ritual hunt rite of passage. Naturally, her testosterone swamped peers don’t take her seriously, especially when she has to be rescued from a mountain lion, which her brother kills and is subsequently honoured as a war chief.
However, her chance to show her mettle comes when she discovers that there’s very different kind of beast out there, an alien hunter that, using its cloaking technology and hi-tech weaponry is stalking its prey. Having eviscerated the young bucks and what appears to be a small army of French trappers, Naru finds herself as the last defence.
Working on a small scale, Trachtenberg ramps up the tension and intensity, delivering some thrillingly brutal close quarters action as well as graphically visceral butchery in which arrows and flintlock firearms are no match for the alien technology, causing Naru to improvise in inspired ways. Played by the towering Dane DiLiegro, this sleeker, faster Predator with its glowing green blood is also back to basics with sheer physicality and just a skull mask rather than the more familiar face plate, while singlehandedly (albeit with her trusty canine companion) Midthunder electrifyingly commands the screen and the action with her body language, Trachtenberg assiduous in authentically recreating the period and all the necessary trapping, the bulk of the cast being played by Native American actors (the film will have a Comanche dubbed version).
An inspired addition to the current spate of female empowerment thrillers, it’s an exhilarating and reinvigorating fresh take on a franchise that seemed to have nowhere left to go and easily one of the year’s best action movies, making it all the more inexplicable as to why it’s been denied a theatrical release and consigned to subscriber streaming. With an end credits graphic suggesting a sequel, perhaps they’ll reconsider next time around. (Disney+)
Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken (PG)
In legend, a kraken is a giant multi-tentacled sea monster that drags ships to their doom. In DreamWorks Animation, however, they’re misunderstood creatures who protect the oceans from such forces of evil as, well, mermaids. Notably, Nerissa, the queen who fought a devastating war against the kraken before being defeated and her trident of power hidden away. Fifteen years later, teenage maths nerd Ruby Gillman (Lana Condor) lives with her real estate mother Agatha (Toni Collette), dad Peter (Colman Domingo) and baby brother in Oceanside, a small town where the fact that they’re blue-skinned, only have four fingers, no nose, stretchable arms and gills for ears they explain away as being from Canada. They are of course, kraken who abandoned the sea to live as humans, Ruby being warned to never go into the ocean. However, when Connor (Jaboukie Young-White), the classmate she has a crush on and wants to invite to her prom (which her mum’s told her she can’t attend, because it’s being held on a boat), falls in she dives after to save him and find herself transformed into a giant kraken, something that only females can do. Naturally, the town is terrified, though, shrunk back to her normal self when she calms down, they do not know Ruby’s secret.
Learning from her visiting goofy Uncle Brill (Sam Richardson that she has a grandmother, something her mum’s kept quiet about, among many other things, she rebels and sneaks off to find her, discovering that Grandmamah (Jane Fonda) is, in fact, the queen of the kraken, and she herself royalty. She also bonds with Chelsea Van Der Zee (Annie Murphy), the new girl in school who took credit for rescuing Connor, who tells her she’s actually a mermaid, Nerissa’s daughter, and she wants Ruby’s help in retrieving the trident so they can put an end to the conflict between the two species, to which end Ruby turns to grandma to train her new powers, among which is the ability to shoot laser beams from her eyes. Suffice to say, Chelsea isn’t exactly who she claims to be, on top of which Gordon Lighthouse (Will Forte), crusty old sea captain obsessed with killing krakens, is determined to harpoon her.
Sharing a very similar theme about angsty pubescent girls going through bodily changes that was at the heart of Turning Red (Ruby turns purple) while drawing on the familiar teenage-monster movie, it follows a fairly predictable discover who you really are path but, vividly animated, it balances some exciting action scenes with more lower key emotional ones and, even if the ending feels rushed, this offers a lot of fun for younger audiences, not to mention a sly subverting of The Little Mermaid. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe. West Brom; Reel; Vue)
Spider-Man: Across The Spider-Verse (PG)
Five years ago, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse introduced cinema audiences to Miles Morales (Shameik Moore), a Black Hispanic Brooklyn teenager who gained superpowers when he was bitten by an electromagnetic spider and then found out he was just one of hundreds of spider-powered entities existing on a multitude of different Earths across the multiverse. It also revolutionised animation with its jawdropping mix of retro comic book, Cubism and pop art. The much anticipated sequel takes all that and hypercharges it into a trippy, at times hallucinogenic, kinetic rush that feels like maxed out ADHD that can be exhausting to watch but also delivering exhilaration to every fibre of your being.
It starts, though, on Earth-65 with moody rock drummer Gwen Stacey (Hailee Stanfield), the white-clad Spider-Woman of her world, who’s having problems with her law enforcement father (Shea Whigham) who believes her alter ego was responsible for the death of his daughter’s best friend, Peter Parker (who had transformed into The Lizard). When, following a battle with a DaVinci-sketch looking version of The Vulture, she finally reveals her secret identity, looking to explain and hoping for understanding, he just reads her her rights. Bitterly disappointed, she flees into the Spider-Verse using a device given to her by Jessica Drew (Issa Rae), a pregnant African-American Spider-Woman who helped subdue The Vulture, recruits her as part of the Spider-Society, a team policing the different dimensions.
Meanwhile, back on Earth-1610, now 15, while Spider-Man is famous superhero who was a guest host on Jeopardy and made a commercial endorsing baby powder), Miles is en route to a meeting with his school counsellor and concerned helicopter parents Rio (Luna Lauren Vélez) and newly promoted police captain Jefferson (Brian Tyree Henry) for which he’s already late, he’s sidetracked when he runs into someone robbing a local store, a faceless white figures covered in black splodges which are, in fact, portals, through which he or just parts of his body can travel, with whom he gets involved in a running battle. Calling himself The Spot (Jason Schwartzman), this new supervillain was once Jonathan Ohnn (Jason Schwartzman), a scientist who worked for Alchemax, who became what he is today as a result of the collider implosion caused by Miles in the first film. Now he’s looking for revenge by ruining Miles’s life, just as he ruined his. And he’s found his holes can take him into the multiverse.
The central thrust begins as Miles secretly follows Gwen into the Spider-Verse (including a visit to Lego Earth) where he’s reunited with his old mentor, Peter Parker Jake Johnson, who, married to Mary Jane, now has a baby called May, with similar powers, and is confronted by the scarred, humourless Miguel O’Hara (Oscar Isaac), the “ninja vampire” of Earth 2099 who runs Spider-Man HQ who explains that having, in an earlier sequence where he and Gwen wound up in Mumbattan and he saved the life of the police captain father of the girlfriend of Spider-Man India (Karan Soni), he disrupted a canonical event. In other words, each Earth’s arachnid adventurer have things in common, being bitten by a spider, the murder of Uncle Ben (or Uncle Aaron – Mahershala Ali – in Miles’s case) …and the tragic death of a police captain. Now he’s thrown everything off-kilter and put the integrity of the entire Spider-Verse at risk. More than that, Miles learns that he’s an anomaly and became Spider-Man by error, that he wasn’t the one the mechanoid was supposed to bite, meaning there is an Earth without a Spider-Man where the storyline unfolded in a much darker manner. Thus Miles is declared Spider Public Enemy No 1 and with Miguel and countless variations in pursuit, he, Gwen, and Hobie Brown aka Spider-Punk (Daniel Kaluuya), a Mohawked Londoner with a guitar strapped to his back who’s animated like a living Sex Pistols album cover, have to stop The Spot and save the entire Spider-Verse, not to mention his and Gwen’s fathers by preventing the canon from playing out.
The dazzling animation is eye-popping, often shifting styles and colours within the same scene, close-ups showing the comic-book dot textures of the characters’ skins, driving things along at hyperspeed but also finding time out for quieter, more tender moments such as Miles and Gwen hanging out (upside down) on the dome of the Williamsburg Savings Bank Tower that add further resonance to the film’s central theme about the weight of responsibility (an emotional depth that has always distinguished Marvel comics) and the painful journey to self-discovery. There’s a lot of fun too as, along with a joke about the redundancy of saying Chai tea, it wheels out such web-slinging variations as Spider-Horse, Spider-Car, Spider-Cat, and the virtual reality Spider-Byte, interjecting the animation with live action that includes clips from both the Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield movies, a brief visit to a convenience store in Eddie Brock’s world and a wordless cameo from Donald Glover as The Prowler (another variation of whom provides a last moments shocker).
Driven by a brilliant score and guaranteed Oscar glories, as the first of the two part sequel, it ends, of course on a cliffhanger setting up Beyond The Spider-Verse. That won’t arrive until next year, by which time your pulse rate might just have slowed down enough to handle it. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Vue)
The Super Mario Bros. Movie (PG)
Originating in Japan, one of the first platform video games and, owned by Nintendo, still hugely popular among all ages (at my screening there were two grown men dressed as the character), even if the name makes no sense as there’s only one brother called Mario,30 years on the foul odour of the live action adaptation with Bob Hoskins till remains. Reverting to animation, this revival looks to reboot the film franchise by sticking closely to the game’s mechanics involving jumping between platforms, avoiding obstacles and powering up by opening boxes marked with a ?
Following a prologue in which power-hungry Bowser (Jack Black), the king of the turtle-like Koopas, attacks and destroys a city of penguin-like creatures to get his hands on a power star that will enable him to conquer his entire universe, it cuts to Brooklyn as Mario (Chris Pratt) and Luigi (Charlie Day) trying to get their plumbing business off the ground, only to end up creating chaos. Then, when they attempt to fix a broken water mains, they’re sucked down a vortex into another dimension. Separated, Luigi ends up in a fiery realm and is taken prisoner by Bowser and as such sidelined for most of the film, while Mario, who hates mushrooms, ironically finds himself in the Oz-like Mushroom Kingdom (you have to suspect the writers indulged in some magic ones of their own) where, looking to find and rescue his more timid brother, he teams up with the tiny Toad (Keegan-Michael Key) and the warrior-spirited Princess Peach (Anya Taylor-Joy), who accidentally came there as a child. However, it transpires that the literally and metaphorically horny Bowser is deludedly determined to either marry Peach or destroy her Kingdom, to which end they have to persuade Cranky Kong (Fred Armisen) to loan them his army, which means Mario must first defeat his son, Donkey Kong (Seth Rogan) in gladiatorial platform combat, during which he transforms into a cat. And then defeat Bowser before he can sacrifice his prisoners (glowing star Debbie Downer among them) as a wedding gift to Peach.
Resolutely mirroring the game and loaded with inside references and songs like Holding Out For a Hero and Take On Me, devotees of the game are well-served, though in pretty much every other respect the target audience is 7-year-olds who just want a rush of cute characters, garish colours and non-stop action sequences. Mama mia, here we go again. (Microsoft Store: Vue)
Vaughn Stein’s hard-boiled noir pastiche, clearly taking its inspiration from Sin City (and Waiting For Godot) amd forerver referencing Alice in Wonderland, has accrued some particularly damning reviews, but it’s nowhere near as awful as they make it seem. A futuristic sci fi plot twisting revenge thriller, it stars Margot Robbie as Bonnie, a femme fatale female assassin who sets out to win the business of a mysterious crime boss by proving she can turn his current hitmen for hire, Vince (Dexter Fletcher) and Alfred (Max Irons) against each other, to which end she also plays the role of sardonic but sweet diner waitress Annie who lends a friendly ear and some pragmatic advice to Bill (Simon Pegg), an English teacher who’s dying of cancer and looking to end it quicker, and also hooks up with Alfred who, along with Vince, is holed up in a hotel room waiting to be given their target.
Pretty much all of this takes place around a rundown railway station populated only by a limping janitor (Mike Myers in his first film in almost a decade) who shuffles around whistling Danny Boy, and all of which is monitored by an unseen figure on a bank of television screens. There’s also a lot of toing and froing involving briefcases concealed in the station lockers.
As it gathers to the climax, all manner of twists – one especially audacious – are rolled out that tie things together and, while the direction can be stiff and the dialogue cringeworthy, there’s enough of a potential cult air about it to warrant a place on the platform. (Arrow)
Top Gun: Maverick (12A)
Thirty-six years on since the original took your breath away, Tom Cruise returns to the role that made him a global superstar, the authority-bucking US Navy fighter pilot Pete ‘Maverick’ Mitchell. As directed by Joseph Kosinski, who was only 16 when the original appeared, and scripted by Ehren Kruger, Eric Warren Singer and Christopher McQuarrie, Maverick hasn’t changed a great deal in the interim. He’s relatively more centred, still single, still in top physical shape and still a captain, partly through choice, partly because he runs the top brass up the wrong way. Indeed, he does so right from the start when, learning the supersonic stealth fighter project he’s heading in the Mojave Desert is being shut down by a Rear Admiral dubbed The Drone Ranger (Ed Harris) as it hasn’t reached its Mach 10 target, he duly climbs into the cockpit and pushes it to the limit and beyond before he can be told in person. However, rather than being disciplined, he’s told to report to his old Fighter Weapons School aka Top Gun stomping ground where he learns an unnamed country is developing an unsanctioned uranium enrichment plant and the school’s best pilots are being recruited to carry out a Dam Busters-style mission to destroy it. Initially assuming he’s one of then, he’s informed instead, by Commanding Officer Beau ‘Cyclone’ Simpson (John Hamm), that he’s there to train them and select the best six. And also that (verging on obsolete) he wasn’t Simpson’s first, or any, choice, but is there at the request of his former rival, long-time friend and now Admiral, Iceman (Val Kilmer).
The hot shots candidates are all introduced in a somewhat unnecessarily extended barroom scene, the ones that matter lining up as nerdy Bob (Lewis Pullman), cockily arrogant Hangman (Glen Powell), spunky female pilot Phoenix (Monica Barbaro), Fanboy (Danny Ramirez) and Rooster (Miles Teller), the now grown son of Goose (Anthony Edwards seen in flashbacks), Maverick’s wingman who dies in action and who, along with many others, Pete himself included, blames as him for his father’s death, thus setting up a somewhat predictable arc between the two.
The same scene also introduces bar owner Penny Benjamin (Jennifer Connolly), mentioned but never seen in the original, now given a backstory as Maverick’s former on-off love interest who, now a divorced single mother, re-enters the romantic orbit. Of course, that’s a minor subplot as the film’s main focuses is on Maverick whipping his students into shape so that the chosen ones can fly dangerously low into the mountains under the radar to avoid the anti-aircraft missiles and superior enemy planes, destroy the target and get out again in a race against the clock. So cue all the expected young bucks v old fogey dynamics, pilot rivalries, run ins with Cyclone, and Maverick again bucking orders and pushing himself to breaking point to prove the mission is not impossible, inevitably ending up leading it himself with Rooster as his wingman.
As you’d imagine, right from a recreation of the opening scene (complete with Kenny Loggins’ Danger Zone), there plenty of nods to the original along with such iconic Cruise moments as a front on show of him riding his motorbike (in his original Top Gun jacket) grinning like a Cheshire cat. He’s not above taking the piss out of himself either, retorting ‘it’s the only one I’ve got” when someone comments on giving ‘that look’. While better at the grins and the grit expression that registering deep emotion, nevertheless Cruise has a particular affecting and touching scene in a reunion with Kilmer, his character clearly not long for the world (thereby leaving Maverick without anyone in his corner).
Likewise, while playing down the jingoism element, Kosinksi is at his best when the action is in the air, whether in the simulated dog fights (shot in actual U.S. Navy F/A-18s, for which the cast went through a punishing training process) as Maverick pushes his team or the actual dog fights evading enemy jets in the aftermath of the mission, where old grievances and new enmities are all neatly resolved in big bromantic hugs, even if the original’s homoeroticism is decidedly downplayed here.
Cruise again demonstrates that he’s in a cinema superstar league of his own, an ‘event’ in his own right (as the film says, it all comes down to the pilot in the box), a generous actor but inevitably putting others in the shade simply on account of who he is, though Teller at least gets to remind how good he was in Whiplash and Kosinski’s own firefighter drama Only The Brave. Along with a deft use of 70s hits, music’s provided by Harold Faltermeyer with the big Oscar nominated song coming from Lady Gaga, and while that’s no Take My Breath Away, the film, earning Best Picture nod, will most certainly have you needing oxygen masks. Turn and burn, baby. (Paramount +; Rakuten TV)
Transformers: Rise Of The Beasts (12A)
Although the Hasbro toys date back to 1996 and the update to the animated TV series, this marks the first time that the Maximals (transformers who inexplicably adopt the form of jungle animals) have featured in the big screen series. They’re introduced in a preamble in which they face down the planet-devouring Unicron (Colman Domingo), a kind of living metallic space ship, and his henchbot Scourge (Peter Dinklage), the leader of the Terrorcons, as their leader gives his life so the others, the gorilla-bot Optimus Primal (Ron Perlman), peregrine falcon Airazor (Michelle Yeoh), Rhinox (David Sobolov) and Cheetor (Tongayi Chirisa) can escape with the Transwarp Key, a device which can open portals through space and time and which Unicron needs for his intergalactic feeding.
Cut to 1994 Brooklyn where, unable to get a job and needing money to pay the medical bills for his younger brother Kris (Dean Scott Vazquez), Hispanic ex-military electronics expert Noah Diaz (Anthony Ramos) is persuaded by his buddy to steal a luxury car from some upmarket event. However, the Porsche he chooses turns to out to be Mirage (Pete Davison), a rebellious, fast-talking undercover trickster Autobot, which ends up with Noah hooking up with Optimus Prime (Peter Cullan doing his best Liam Neeson), after whom Optimus Primal is named, Arcee (Liza Koshy) a red-white Ducati 916 motorcycle Autobot sharpshooter, and yellow-black 1970s Chevrolet Camaro, Bumblebee, who have assembled as a result of an energy pulse, accidentally released by Elena Wallace (Dominique Fishback), a museum intern whose boss always takes credit for her work, while examining an ancient artefact bearing the Transformers logo. Hidden inside was half of the Transwarp Key which Unicron has now despatched Scourge and his sidekicks to retrieve, but which is also the only way the Autobots can return to their home planet of Cybertron. So, save it or destroy it?
And so, following an explosive battle in which Airazor turns up to help save the day but in which Bumblebee is killed, they head for Peru where Elena has worked out the other half of the key is hidden, and get to team up with the other Maximals as well as two more Autobots, rusty old cargo plane Stratosphere (John DiMaggio) and Wheeljack (Cristo Fernández) a 1970s VW with a Mexican accent. Further mayhem ensues as Noah (who is intent on destroying the key) and Elena get to help save the world, there’s deaths and rebirths and themes of friendship, family, loyalty and sacrifice are woven in-between the mechanoid battles.
Pumped up by a hip hop soundtrack, it’s all you’d expect from the long-running franchise but while inevitably the bulk of the film is all about digital special effects, Ramos brings at human dimension to proceedings (at least in the first third) that goes some way to compensating for the hollow bombast at its core. Gifted with an exo-suit by Mirage, an end credits sequence also sets him up for a GI Joe crossover spinoff that might actually be worth anticipating. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel; Vue)
Screenings courtesy of Cineworld 5 Ways
Cineworld 5 Ways – 181 Broad St, 0871 200 2000
Cineworld NEC – NEC 0871 200 2000
Cineworld Solihull – Mill Ln, Solihull 071 200 2000
The Electric Cinema – 47–49 Station Street, 0121 643 7879
Empire – Great Park, Rubery, 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