MOVIE ROUND-UP, This week’s new film reviews, Fri 13 Nov

Cinemas again closed for a month as part of the new national lockdown, until then this column will focus on films being made available on the various streaming platforms.

NEW

Relic (15)

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

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

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

 

A Christmas Feast (12)

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

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

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

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

Nuclear (15)

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

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

 

NOW SHOWING

1917 (15)

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

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

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

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

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

A Christmas Gift From Bob (12A)

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

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

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

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

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

Arkansas (15)

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

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

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

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

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

Artemis Fowl (PG)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Carmilla (15)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Da 5 Bloods (15)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dark Waters (12A)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Greyhound (12) 

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

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

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

Gags The Clown (15)

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

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

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

Hubie Halloween (12A)

Adam Sandler is Hubert ‘Hubie’ Dubois, a sweet-natured, clueless, mumbling middle-aged man-child who still lives with his protective aged mother (June Squibb) in Salem, Massachusetts, the town, infamous for its witch trials, where pretty much everyone, from the priest (Michael Chicklis) down to his supermarket co-worker (Karan Bra) bullies or mock him, the kids throwing food or anything that comes to hand as he cycles through the streets.  The only one to look kindly on him is his old high school crush and the film’s romantic interest, Violet Valentine (Julie Bowen), formerly married to the local police sergeant (Kevin James) and foster mum to three kids college freshman Tommy (Noah Schnapp), Danielle (Sadie Sandler) and Cooky (Susie Sandler).

Every Halloween, Hubie, who has invented a sort of Swiss Army thermos that serves as a telescope, vacuum and even contains an umbrella,  acts as the holiday’s monitor, ensuring no one pulls any real nasty tricks and don’t take more treats than they’re allowed. This year, however, things take on a sinister note. A patient has escaped from the local mental asylum, Hubie’s oddball new neighbour Walter (Steve Buscemi) might well be a werewolf and several residents, among them town bigwig Landolfa (Ray Liotta) and old classmates the Hennesseys (Tim Meadows,  Maya Rudolph), have all disappeared – all of them Hubie’s biggest bullies. Meanwhile, as Halloween arrives, Tommy has a date with Megan (Paris Berelc), one of the few nice folk in town, who try to protect Hubie from one of the many pranks pulled on him.

With  cameos that include   Ben Stiller, Shaquille O’Neal, Rob Schneider and George Wallace, like most Sandler comedies, this is low brow stuff and parents might find the many sexual innuendos (most of them on the t-shirts Hubie’s unaware mum wears, boner becoming a running joke), a little too much for younger kids, but mostly it’s harmless, occasionally slapstick styled fun with the final revelation of who’s behind the abductions all in the spirit of Scooby Doo and a positive message about not bullying, especially those who are too vulnerable to fight back. (Netflix)

I’m Thinking of Ending Things (15)

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

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

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

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

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

 

Koko-di Koko-da (18)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mogul Mowgli (15)

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

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

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

Mulan (12A)

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Old Guard (15)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Project Power (15)

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

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

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

Radioactive (12)

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

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

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

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

Rebecca (12A)

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

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

Rocks (12A)

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

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

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

Saint Frances (15)

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

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

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

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

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

The Secret Garden (PG)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Summerland (12A)

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Trial of the Chicago 7 (15)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Waiting For The Barbarians (15)

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

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

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

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

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

The Witches (PG)

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

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

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

At times genuinely scary for younger viewers with witches exploding and the three mice running through the hotel vents trying to escape the Grand High Witch’s ever extending arms, unlike the previous film it also sticks to Dahl’s bittersweet ending about inevitable mortality, but adds a montage of their America-hopping witch hunts, this is gleeful frightening fun. 106 mins (Amazon Prime; Sky; Virgin Movies)

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