MOVIE ROUND-UP:From Fri Jul 29

The Gray Man (2022). (L to R) Ana de Armas as Dani Miranda, Ryan Gosling as Six. Cr. Paul Abell/Netflix © 2022

This column will review films both screening theatrically and/or on various streaming platforms.

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The Gray Man (15)

After taking a relative step back from the bombastic, high octane action of their Avengers movies with Tom Holland PTSD drama Cherry,  the Russo Brothers dive back into the adrenaline pool for this high speed espionage thriller that moves so fast and so frantically you have little time to so notice the generic nature of the narrative which pretty much follows a similar route as to the Jason Bourne and John Wick movies.

Adopting a familiar laconic manner akin to his role in Drive, Ryan Gosling is Court Gentry, serving time for murder (it’s not until late in the film that the justifiable circumstances are revealed) when he’s visited by CIA bigwig Donald Fitzroy (Billy Bob Thornton looking younger in every film) who offers to commute his sentence if he agrees to bring his distinctive skill sets to work for a covert wing of the agency as a ‘gray man’ under Fitzroy and bureau chief Margaret Cahill (Alfre Woodard), tasked with eliminating hostile targets. From this point on he’s known only as Sierra Six, or Six.

His latest assignment takes him to Bangkok where his mission is to take out his target before he concludes a deal to pass on material against the interests of the US. To which end, he’s partnered with a CIA contact, Dani Miranda (Ana de Armas), who provides the weaponry and the kill site. However, things don’t go according to plan and, in a subsequent fight, Six discovers his target is a fellow Sierra agent, Four who passes on  evidence of agency corruption at the highest level before dying. Now Six finds himself marked for elimination by Fitzroy and Cahill’s replacement, the ruthlessly ambitious Denny Carmichael (Rege-Jean Page) and his assistant, Suzanne Brewer (Jessica Henwick), who’s been using the Sierra project to destabilise governments and give himself sway.

At which point, the film basically becomes a location hopping chase movie as Six avoids one attempt on his life after another until Carmichael ups the stakes by bringing in sociopathic private contractor Lloyd Hansen (Chris Evans chewing scenery in tight trousers and Freddy Mercury ‘tache), who puts a price on his head, Miranda now forced to go rogue to help Six survive and expose the evidence. All of which variously involve a frenetic cherry red Audi RS7car chase, exploding helicopters, shoot outs, a mid-air battle to the death over Turkey, Prague turned into a combat zone, and, just to add to things, a mission to rescue Fitzroy’s teenage niece (Julia Butters) with a  heart problem who’s being held as leverage by Hansen. Two supporting characters wind up doing to the self-sacrificing thing with a grenade in the process.

Riding a flood of testosterone and snappy patter, it rarely pauses to catch its breath en route to the inevitable Croatia showdown between the two stars, the Russos choreographing the action like a finely-tuned machine, but leaving room for Gosling to give Six a coating of humanity and a propensity for dry world-weary humour as well as affording another solid argument for De Armas headlining her own action movie. Bigger on brawn than brain perhaps, but it’s unrelentingly exciting viewing and the good news is that a sequel and a spin-off are already in development. (Netflix)

DC League of Super Pets (PG)

First introduced into the comics in 1955, Krypto was Superboy’s pet dog, send off into space on a test run prior to baby Kal-El making his way to Earth. The super-powered pooch has cropped up in comics and cartoons in various incarnations over the years, but has never been part of the big screen live action DC Universe. However, he now takes centre stage in his own Justice League animated-spin off (based on the Legion of Super-Pets) about him and a team of  four-legged  companions who find themselves bestowed with super powers and called upon to rescue Superman and the other Justice League members when they’re captured by a megalomaniac villain.

The opening sequence explains how, when young Kal-El was placed in a spaceship, his pet jumped in too, growing up to fight crime alongside Superman (John Krasinski), and with a similar nerdy secret-identity. However, our canine crimefighter (voiced by Dwayne Johnson) is having a  bit of an anxiety crisis because Superman’s about to ask Lois (Olivia Wilde) to marry him, meaning he’ll no longer hold the same place in his master’s life.  However, then Lulu (Kate McKinnon), a narcissistic hairless purple-eyed guinea pig associate of Lex Luthor (Marc Maron) acquires a variety of different forms of kryptonite, one of which she uses to give herself and a bunch of animals caged in the Tailhuggers Animal Shelter superpowers. These include tough but insecure bulldog Ace (Kevin Hart), PB (Vanessa Bayer), a size-expanding pig who wants to be super-cool,  hyper squirrel Chip (Diego Luna) and myopic turtle Merton (Natasha Lyonne) who gets to be super-fast. Now, with Lulu having imprisoned the Justice League, they and Krypto have to join forces to save the day.

Sporting  similar comic sensibility to the Lego parodies, it’s clearly targeted at the kiddies but there’s plenty of delights for older audiences too, not least a tongue-in-cheek Keanu Reeves voicing an ultra-serious Batman (and questioning whether certain bat-toys are licensed) while a kitten who coughs up hairball grenades pretty much captures the whole spirit of absurdity and fun that’s hard to resist. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Vue)

Joyride (15)

When thirteen-year-old  Mully (Charlie Reid) swipes the money raised for cancer charity in honour of his late ma to stop his ne’er-do-well dad (Lochlann Ó Mearáin) appropriating it, he makes his getaway by stealing an idling taxi, only to discover it comes with two passengers, crashed out local solicitor Joy (Olivia Colman) and a newborn baby girl. Joy demands he take her to catch the ferry and a plane, declaring she’s moving forward not back, revealing that she intends to offload her unwanted child on her friend and then take off to Lanzarote.

And so the film becomes a road movie as the unlikely travelling companions traverse County Kerry by way of a series of borrowed vehicles or lifts (including a lorry amusing transporting  a giant baby head for reasons revealed in the final stretch), the part variously bonding and squabbling, pursued by Mully’s dad, encountering an assortment of colourful characters along the way as flashbacks provide a backstory as to Joy’s childhood and why she doesn’t want to be a mother.

From its groaningly ironic title on, it has all the makings of an Irish shaggy dog story and director Emer Reynolds grates the gears  and the tone with every mile it travel. Quite what persuaded Colman to take such as thankless role defies explanation but to be fair she does her best as the unlikely, colourfully  sweary solicitor with her unconvincing accent while young Reid has a certain artful dodger appeal as an adolescent whose dialogue and wisdom are well beyond his years.  However, what fatefully sinks this isn’t the surfeit of clichés (, the contrived whimsy and metaphors (the baby’s dubbed Robin after Joy sees, well, a robin) or the  melodrama but the unfathomable fact that, in the current social context, for a film written and directed by women, it has a pubescent male character instructing its female lead in the nature of motherhood and even how to breastfeed.  Awful. (Cineworld NEC; Mockingbird)

 

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The Adam Project (12)

“The future is coming sooner than you think”, harassed mother Ellie Reed (an underused Jennifer Garner) tells her all-attitude 12-year-old son Adam (Walker Scobell) after he’s suspended following an altercation with the school bully. And indeed it is, but not in quite the way she imagined.  His father having died in an accident two years earlier, young Adam has buried his grief in being mouthy and giving his mom a hard time. While she’s out on a date, he investigates a noise in the woods outside their home and, returning to the house, finds the garage open and in it a wounded pilot (Ryan Reynolds) who seems to uncannily know  a lot about him, the house and even the name of his dog, Hawking. Not surprisingly really, since he’s actually his future self who, as seen in the opening sequence, has fled from 2050, where’s he’s being chased by another spacecraft, and wound up in 2022, four years on from when he’d intended.

Reuniting Reynolds with Free Guy director Shawn Levy, this has a similar self-aware playful style with Reynolds again doing his snarky, irreverent quick fire patter to hugely entertaining effect, the film cheerfully acknowledging its  borrowings from Back To The Future, Star Wars (Adam wields a double-sided light sabre) and Spielberg’s Amblin universe.  Older bearded Adam has come from the future in search of his wife Laura (Zoe Saldaña) who, supposedly, was killed trying to return from 2018, something he simply doesn’t buy (rightly so, since she turns up to save him). His other reason for trying to get back to 2018 was to stop his father, Louis (Mark Ruffalo), developing time travel, his creation having been usurped his then partner, Maya Sorian (Catherine Keener), who has used it to take control of the future that, as Adam describes it is like Terminator 2 on a good day, and, it would seem, have Laura killed.  So now, older Adam and younger Adam have to join forces (his wound, which farts blood,  means he needs his young self’s DNA to unlock his craft) to fight off Sorian’s forces and get back in time to prevent their father’s creation ever taking place.  Sorian, meanwhile, links up with her own younger self (who she helped amass a fortune through knowing what investments would pay off), to ensure that doesn’t happen,

This, of course, is just the action-driven plot (sequences set to rock classics like Gimme Some Lovin’, Boston’s Long Time and Led Zeppelin’s Good Times, Bad Times) on which to hang the film’s real narrative about loss, grief, how you handle it and how it can change you, the two Adams, the brain and the brawn,  giving each other life-lessons about their father issues and getting in touch or reconnecting with their feelings as the film rolls along, turning its own logic upside down  as Louis warns them that meeting themselves (and an eight-year-old Adam makes it all the more complicated) can cause all sort of cosmic chaos.

As such, Scobell and Reynolds have a great time riffing off each other while, when they both get reunited with their befuddled not yet dead dad, the film cranks up the emotional level as everyone gets to confront and put to rights the absent-father syndrome that has shaped their personalities.  Short and fluffily slight it may be, but it’s one of the year’s most enjoyable films so far. (Netflix)

The Bad Guys (U)

Essentially Ocean’s Eleven with animals (with an opening scene nodding to Reservoir Dogs), Dreamworks delivers a fun adaptation of the graphic novels involving a gang of bad guys with a difference. They’re headed up by Mr Wolf (Sam Rockwell), the snappily-dressing lupine answer to George Clooney, with Marc Maron as his sarcastic, scaly safe-cracking sidekick BFF Mr Snake in a  Hawaiian shirt, snarky ace hacker Ms Tarantula (Awkwafina), also known as Mata Hairy,  diminutive hot-blooded muscleman Mr Piranha (Anthony Ramos) and Mr Shark (Craig Robinson) who, incredulously, is a master of disguise (a highlight scene has him posing as a pregnant woman).

Master criminals who  effortlessly evade the police, their lair is stuffed with loot (a Mona Lisa here, a priceless diamond there), but Mr Wolf is a little tired of always being seen as well, the big bad wolf. They just need to pull off one last big heist so they can retire from their life of crime. This will be the theft of the Golden Dolphin presented at an annual charity gala  for the year’s most outstanding Good Samaritan. However, in the attempt, their luck finally runs out and they’re apprehended, much to the glee of their long time human police chief nemesis Luggins (Alex Borstein). But, unexpectedly, the intended recipient, guinea pig philanthropist Professor Marmalade (Richard Ayoade) suggests that rather than sending them to jail, they under an experimental reform course, a proposal to which the Mayor, Diane Foxington (Zazie Beetz), agrees, offering the crew one last chance to  turn over a new leaf. Given he’s already felt the tingle of what being good might be like after helping an old lady rather than stealing her handbag, causing his tail to wag, Mr Wolf is genuinely up for it, his colleagues somewhat less convinced. Under Marmalade’s coaching, the aim is to use their skills for good; however, it soon transpires that not everything or everyone are what or who they seem.  Suffice to say, the plot involves kitten rescue missions, another gala heist, the theft of a power source meteor, mind control, the gang falling out, double  and triple-crosses,  a betrayal, the reveal of a superthief,  and thousands of marauding zombie guinea pigs pulling off armoured car robberies as  Mr Wolf and his remaining cronies try and stop the mastermind’s diabolical plan. All with an underlying message about not judging a book by its cover, or animals by the bad reputations they’ve been labelled with.

Slickly animated with a strong cartoonish style and written by Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa’s Etan Cohen, there’s plenty of twists and turns in its frenetic pacing and youngsters not paying attention might easily end up confused,  but, while it follows a fairly predictable and well-worn path, there’s more than enough slapstick and farting (Mr Piranah emits green gas when he lies) by way of recompense. (Rakuten TV)

The Batman (15)

The second reboot  of the character following The Dark Night trilogy (though, strictly speaking, the undeservedly rubbished Ben Afflek never starred in an actual Batman movie), while Matt Reeves’ vision may not quite measure up to  Christopher Nolan’s, it is by far the darkest, both thematically and visually (Dune cinematographer Greig Fraser pretty much shoots every scene at night and even the daylight is wan), not only with  a Chinatown-like depiction of Gotham riddled with corruption up the highest levels  but also a  shocking revisionist take on Thomas and Martha Wayne.

Transforming from vampire to a bat, you hear Robert Pattinson’s vigilante before you see him, both in voiceover as he talks about being the shadows in which fear lurks and in the metallic, crunching sound of his boots and armour as he emerges to take out a gang of street hoodlums.  Relegating the origin story to some brief exposition, sporting a distinctive floppy hair style Pattinson’s emotionally complex, self-destructive emo Bruce Wayne is a more troubled and traumatised soul (both physically and psychologically scarred) than even Christian Bale’s, rarely seen in public and consumed with an obsession to rid Gotham of crime, despite acknowledging it to be an almost impossible task and that he might be making no difference. So, by night, he dons the cape, suit (arguably the most impressive to date) and black eye shadows  (with contact lenses that work as video cameras) and prowls the city like someone in a film noir of his own mind.  When asked who he is (though he’s been doing his vigilante thing for two years by now), he declares himself as Vengeance, but there’s someone out there who gives the word a whole new level, first taking out incumbent mayor (Rupert Penry-Jones) by bashing in his skull, and leaving the cryptic message No More Lies on his bloodied face and a card and a cipher addressed to The Batman. Yes, clearly echoing Se7en and Zodiac, it’s The Riddler (Paul Dano as unsettlingly deranged as in There Will Be Blood), but, until  the finale, only ever seen via his video messages, speaking in distorted tones from behind a gimp-like combat mask (which, somewhat unfortunately recalls Bane) who has set himself the task of killing the high ranking corrupt officials (including Peter Sarsgaard’s DA) who are all linked in one way another to the bust of a notorious drugs baron and/or Gotham crimelord Carmine Falcone (John Turturro), for whom Oz aka The Penguin (an unrecognisable Colin  Farrell) works, running a dodgy nightclub within a nightclub and running street drugs called drops. And so, enter catloving cat burglar Selina Kyle (Zoe Kravitz, uncannily recalling previous Catwoman Halle Berry) in her black leather outfit and mask who has her own vengeful crusade against Falcone and dirty cops following the disappearance of her friend who, like her, worked Penguin’s club. Naturally, at some point cat and bat end up working together, and sparking romantic interest, though their moral compasses tend to point in different directions in how they get to the truth.

Stretching to almost three hours (with overextended endings), tapping into the zeitgeist cynicism about society’s institutions and the political climate, and punctuated with some decidedly brutal violence (hence the certificate), Reeves turns the notion of the superheroes’ mask upside down, in that the characters here wear them not to hide who they are but because the person behind the mask is their true self, just as the Wayne’s impenetrable armour serve as a metaphor for his emotions.

Save for an amusing line where someone asks “do you live in a  cave?” there’s no humour here (though those who sit through the credits for the bonus scene will feel sucker punched) as, to a soundtrack variously taking in Nirvana, tribal drums and Ave Maria, the electrifying  intensity builds to its almost operatic apocalyptic climax, taking in an epic car chase with the new Batmobile along the way (though he mostly rides his motorbike), the support cast featuring  a strong contribution from Jeffrey Wright as Jim Gordon and a rather less memorable one by Andy Serkis as Alfred with a final Arkham Asylum cameo by Barry Keoghan as a laughing inmate setting up things for the sequel.  Overlong but unrelentingly thrilling,  Batman begins again. (Rakuten TV)

The Black Phone (15)

His first role as the bad guy, Ethan Hawke makes a chilling impression as The Grabber (though, to be fair, he’s greatly assisted by some genuinely scary-looking horned masks, one of which has a manic grin and comes in removable sections), who dresses as a black clad magician with chalk white face make-up and drives around in a black van with Abracadabra on the side into which he abducts the town’s adolescent boys, releasing black balloons as a signature. Directed by Scott Derrickson of Sinister (in which Hawke also starred) and Doctor Strange fame, it’s based on a short story by Joe Hill, who has clearly inherited father Stephen King’s ability to chill.

Set in 1978 Colorado, it opens with 13-year-old  Finney Shaw (Mason Thames), pitching at the town’ Little League game. Unfortunately, after two strikes, his third pitch costs his team the game,but he’s congratulated by the batter, Bruce (Tristan Pravong). Other than his good arm, Finney’s the school dork, constantly on the end of the bullies’ fists, except for when his new martial arts  best friend Billy (Jacob Moran) is around to protect him. Shortly after the game ends, Bruce becomes the fourth kids to go missing. Then Billy. The abductions shot in grainy Super 8.

Finney lives with his protective and wonderfully foul-mouthed younger sister Gwen (Madeleine McGraw), who has psychic powers that manifest through dreams,such as of the abducted children and black balloons,something that grabs the investigating cops’ attention given that they’re not public knowledge. Unfortunately, Finney and Gwen’s father  (Jeremy Davies) has become an abusive alcoholic since his wife, who was also so gifted,committed suicide, and, fearing Gwen has  inherited that power, takes his belt to her to force her to say they’re just dreams.

Inevitably, Finney becomes the sixth small town kid to go missing, and it’s on his abduction that the film focuses as he awakens to find himself locked in a soundproof basement, scared and not knowing what the Grabber,who says he intends no harm and provides food and drink, wants or why. Other than a mattress, the room also has a disconnected black phone on the scarred and cracked wall, which the Grabber says doesn’t work. Except, when Finney’s alone it starts to ring  and eventually he starts to hear the voices of the previous victims, Bruce and Billy among then, warning him and trying to help him escape. Meanwhile, Gwen is having more dreams and cursing Jesus for not helping her find her brother.

To say more about how the plot unfolds would ruin the tension as it builds to a violent climax as Finney finally gets to stand up for himself, the reveal of the location and the introduction of Max (James Ransone), an amateur detective trying to figure out where the Grabber operates from, introducing a note of ironic and grim humour. Where the film elevates itself is by never offering up any simplistic explanations for the killer’ actions or motives, though a warning Finney gets about not being a naughty boy and the shot of Hawke sitting, bare chested, at the top of the stairs waiting to punish Finney does chime with the parental abuse them elsewhere.

Derrickson ratchets up the tension without overplaying the drama (a moment with a combination lock is heartstopping), while, mostly understated in his performance until the final bloody moments, Hawke is terrific in his subtle evocation of horror and the two young leads add extra lustre to the film’s compelling and gripping nature as it builds to  wholly satisfying finale that, thankfully, doesn’t tease a sequel. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC; Empire Great Park; Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Vue)

Brian and Charles (PG)

Your tolerance for whimsy will be fully tested in this feature length extension of a 2017 short by writer-actors David Earl and Chris Hayward and directed by Jim Archer. Brian Gittens (Earl) is an eccentric, socially challenged inventor who, recovering from some sort of depression (“I was very low” is the extent of his backstory) lives like a hermit in a  stone Welsh cottage inherited from his parents where he spends his time in a converted cowshed creating a series of frankly useless Heath Robinson-like inventions, such as a belt for keeping eggs in, a bag with pine-cones glued to it and a flying bicycle which he proposes to use to fly above the village and keep the locals informed. Inevitably, it bursts into fire when he first tries it.

But then, discovering a glove and a mannequin’s head, he decides to build himself a robot, using a washing machine as its body and dressing him with glasses, a cardigan and bow tie. Taking a cue from Frankenstein, following a storm, he is astonished to find that his creation can talk (he puts it down to his resident mouse ‘assistant’, Mr Williams, accidentally connecting two wires). And not just talk but assimilate knowledge at an amazing rate. The tall, ungainly robot (Hayward) decides he wants to be called Charles Petrescu and informs Brian that he is his friend. However, being a curious, free-thinking robot, Charles is soon wanting to know how far outside goes, while Brian is keen to keep him a secret away from the villagers.

Naturally, that doesn’t last long, a trip in the car leading to Hazel (Louise Brealey), a local fellow misfit who lives with her controlling mother and has a crush on him, becoming privy to Charles’s existence and then, more dangerously, the village bully Eddie (Jamie Michie) and his family who first demands the timid Brian sell him and then steals Charles to labour on his farm, all leading up to a showdown involving  Eddie’s annual bonfire.

It’s a very British take on AI sci fi with a knowing sense of silliness, Brian at times speaking with a nervous giggle to an unseen camera, giving it an inconsistent mockumentary feel. The early going is somewhat light and comic, although the developing friendships that brings Brian out of his shy shell and loneliness are nicely handled, and it’s not until things take on a darker more menacing tone with the arrival of Eddie that the film really find a solid footing with its friend to the rescue and underdog stands up for himself narrative (amusingly Charles sees off Eddie with a bombardment of cabbages). A small wispy-haired head on a giant body, Charles is an engaging, childlike (and at times with the petulance of a teenager) but wise figure, Hayward providing deft physical comedy, speaking in a light sing-song voice with Stephen Hawking mannerisms and with the appearance of an oversized ventriloquist’s dummy, while a bearded, insecure Earl looks and feels like the antithesis of Ricky Tomlinson’s Jim Royle.

A deadpan, gently melancholic, odd couple man and machine bromance that, soundtracked to things like Happy Together, touches on themes of growing up and letting go (like Gepetto and Pinocchio, Brian eventually has to let Charles follow his own path), it may at times be somewhat patience testing, but its unsentimental exploration of the need to build human connections and a legacy is undeniably and upliftingly endearing. (Electric; Mockingbird)

 

Coda (12A)

The title an acronym for “child of deaf adults”, , despite a somewhat generic plot that takes in such staple tropes as high school comedy, disability drama, inspiring-teacher, coming-of-age, blue collar America  and struggle for independence from family, the remake of 2014 French dramedy La famille Bélier, about the sole hearing member of a deaf family who discovers she’s a gifted singer is an undeniably a terrific and at times highly moving feelgood work. And, unlike the original, features deaf actors as three of its leads, namely Troy Kotsur  as Frank Rossi, Marlee Matlin as his equally cantankerous wife Jackie and  Daniel Durant as smartass son Leo who struggle to making a living as fishermen in Gloucester, Massachusetts, in the face of punitive rates for their catch and financially crippling monitoring of their boats.  The only hearing member of the family is somewhat shy but well-adjusted teenage daughter Ruby (a luminous Emilia Jones, daughter of Alex), who serves as their ASL interpreter but is faced with choosing between family and following her dreams when, auditioning for the school choir (she’s first seen singing Etta James’ Something’s Got a Hold on Me while working on the boat), is singled out by her tough love teacher (and fellow outsider) Mr. V (Eugenio Derbez), alongside fellow student (and inevitable romantic interest – they spark rehearsing You’re All I Need to Get By) Miles (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo), to audition for his former alma mater, Boston’s  Berklee College of Music. Fleshing out the cast is Ruby’s only friend, the brassy pal Gertie (Amy Forsyth), who has her sights set on bedding Leo

Writer-director Sian Heder doesn’t really bring anything new to the table but her script and actors ground the formula  in an unfussy warm and authentic portrait of  a believable and engaging feisty family with all its eccentricities and fractiousness (Frank and Jackie can’t keep their hands off each other, despite being told by the doctor to be celibate for three weeks, Leo feels himself in his sister’s shadow) as well as the frictions between the deaf and hearing communities and, being deaf, her parents’ inability  to fully understand what music means to Ruby. Inevitably climaxing at the audition where Ruby delivers a tears-inducing reading of Both Sides Now (Jones clearly inhering dad’s musical DNA), it’s funny, emotional (especially the wrenching scene where Ruby asks her mother if she wishes she’d been born deaf) and hugely inspirational (Apple TV)

Doctor Strange In The Multiverse of Madness (12A)

Director Sam Raimi returns to the MCU fold  for the first time since Spider-Man 3 back in 2007 to deliver what is by far the most out there and mind-bending incursion into superhero territory yet, a dazzling cornucopia of CGI and special effects yet also driven by a strong sense of drama, character and intense human emotion. Not to mention a wealth of playful Easter Egg in-jokes about and nods to the whole interlocked franchise.

It opens with Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch on multiple excellent form) battling and fatally failing to save a mysterious young woman (feisty newcomer Xochitl Gomez) who’s being chased by a monster. Then he wakes up. It’s just a nightmare but one which almost immediately becomes real when a giant one-eyed octopus-like creature attacks New York in pursuit of a very familiar-looking young girl, saving her with the help of Wong (assured presence Benedict Wong), the Sorcerer Supreme. The girl turns out to be America Chavez who possesses the power to travel between multiverses, which is what her as yet unrevealed pursuer wants for themselves.

Seeking to get to the bottom of things, and recognising indications of witchcraft Strange visits Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) for help, which turns out to be a bad move because, possessed by the Darkhold and obsessed with being reunited with her two young sons Billy and Tommy (Julian Hilliard, Jett Klyne), as seen in WandaVision, she’s become The Scarlet Witch and it’s she who’s out to take America’s powers to enable her to ‘dream-walk’  to other versions of Earth – specifically Earth-838,  and replace the Wanda who still has her children. Thus, starting with a ruthless assault on  Kamar-Taj, the stage is set for a series of confrontations between her and Strange as he searches for the Book of Vishanti, which lies in the space between universes  and will enable him to destroy the Darkhold, in a plot that leaps between different versions of Earth (our is apparently 661) as well as different incarnations of Strange, each with their own different fates and tragedies (one himself corrupted by the Darkhold), including, in the final scenes, a zombie version of the Defender Strange killed in the opening scene, which turns out to have been real and not a dream.

Trying to explain further would only confuse matters more, but suffice to say in the course of the narrative Strange gets to meet two versions of his old flame, Christine (Rachel McAdams), whose wedding he attends at the start, one of whim is now a scientist, be betrayed by former mentor Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) who believes Strange triggered an incursion that threatens all universes and meet the Illuminati, a tribunal comprising – in a sewing together of assorted MCU characters – the Inhumans’ Black Bolt (Anson Mount), Reed Richards (John Krasinski) from the Fantastic Four, that Earth’s Captain Marvel (Lashana Lynch reprising her 2019 role as Maria Rambeau), Captain Carter (Hayley Atwell), a UK version of Captain America, and Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart), all of whom get to take on The Scarlet Witch in a spectacular set piece.

Those there for the kinetic thrills and eye-popping visuals are well-served and more (especially a scene that literally uses musical notes as weapons), while for those seeking deeper engagement,  Olsen’s outstanding portrayal of a mother driven to madness by the loss of her children, making her an understandable if not excusable villain (“I am not a monster|” she screams), and the underlying themes of regret and a desire for second chances are the emotional weight that bedrocks the very best of the Marvel films.  As ever, it wouldn’t be a Raimi film without a cameo by his muse, Bruce Campbell, who pops up in one of the universes as a street vendor of pizza balls and is enchanted by Strange into slapping himself. Likewise there’s the inevitable mid-credits sequence (with Charlize Theron as sorceress and comic book love interest Clea taking Strange – now with third eye – off to another dimensional battle) and, for those who appreciate a sucker punch joke, one more right at the very end.  Exhilarating and poignant to the max, Spider-Man: No Way Home could well be toppled from its throne. (Disney+)

The Duke (12A)

Were it not a true story, it would be dismissed as unbelievable, but, in 1961, Kempton Bunton, a disabled 60-year-old pensioner from Benwell in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, was put on trial for stealing Francisco Goya’s painting Portrait of the Duke of Wellington from the National Gallery in London, allegedly holding it to ransom for £140,000 (the sum the British Government had paid to prevent it going to America)  to fund television licences for pensioners.  His story’s now told by director Roger Michell as an Ealingesque  underdog true-crime caper driven by a terrific performance by Jim Broadbent that can’t help but call to mind Dave Johns in Ken Loach’s  I, Daniel Blake with which it shares a social conscience.  Here we first meet him confronted by a  pair of officials for not paying his TV licence, claiming he  doesn’t have to saying he’s removed the wiring that provides the BBC. He spends two weeks in jail.  A wannabe playwright and soapbox revolutionary, he prefers Chekhov to Shakespeare, reads Orwell, gets fired for not charging a disabled soldier  a taxi fare, sets up a petition  for free licences for the over 70s, gets fired from the bakery for calling out racial bullying,  and even takes his protest to Westminster. While in London, he cases the National Gallery, gets in through a bathroom window, nicks the painting (which he declares to not be very good) and takes it back home where he and his youngest son, Jackie (Fionn Whitehead), hide it behind a false back in the wardrobe.

As in reality, the police, in their televised press conference declare the theft to be the work of a professional international gang, although a handwriting expert pretty much nails Bunton’s personality from the scribbled note he sends. When the authorities ignore him, he sends the Daily Mirror proof of possession but, his secret discovered by the girlfriend of his other ne’er do well son, Kenny (Jack Bandiera), who tries to blackmail him for the reward money, he takes it back to London and is duly arrested and committed to trial.

Starring alongside Broadbent is Helen Mirren all crimped hair and big glasses as his long-suffering wife Dolly, who works as a cleaner for Mrs. Gowling (Anna Maxwell Martin), a councillor’s wife and the only one to sign Kempton’s petition, and is naturally horrified to discover a  stolen masterpiece in the back bedroom. Despite her nagging, there’s a touching moment when the two of them show their love for one another, singing and dancing to Gracie Fields’ A Nice Cup Of Tea in the kitchen.

The heart of the film, though, takes place in court where, given a public stage, the irascible Kempton entertains jurors, barristers, clerk (Heather Craney), judge (James Wilby) and those in the gallery alike with his quips. Defended by Jeremy Hutchinson QC (a twinkling Matthew Good) , the husband of Dame Peggy Ashcroft, on the grounds he only ‘borrowed’ the painting,  he delivers his Everyman speech about how “it’s me that makes you and you that makes me”, a  vision of community and solidarity that ends in the gallery bursting into a rendition of Jerusalem.

Sentimental but not schmaltzy, the film condenses events into a few months when, in fact, it stretched  to four years, Bunton actually leaving the painting in  a left-luggage office at Birmingham New Street , surrendering six weeks later. While the subplot about his feeling of guilt over the death of their teenage daughter in a bicycle accident and his wife’s refusal to talk about feels dramatic contrivance, it’s actually true, as is the surprise twist  about the theft. There’s also an amusing  sly clip from Dr No, released in 1962, in which Sean Connery spots the Goya in the villain’s hideaway.  A  touch too cute at times, perhaps, but, its heart and politics firmly in the right place, it’s a joy to watch.(Rakuten TV)

Elvis (12A)

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 (though Butler’s an Oscar contender) and ultimately coming in second place to Rocketman, this is Luhrmann’s best since Moulin Rouge and will undoubtedly see Elvis once again back at the top of the album charts. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;Electric;  Empire Great Park; Everyman; MAC; Mockingbird; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel; Vue)

Everything Everywhere All At Once (15)

If Doctor Strange’s trip through the multiverse had you head spinning, this will likely cause your brain to explode. Directed by Daniels (Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert) whose previous film was Swiss Army Man starring Daniel Radcliffe as a semi-sentient farting corpse,  it stars Michelle Yeoh in career-best form as Evelyn, a Chinese-American for whom life has been one long line of disappointments after leaving home and being disowned by her disapproving father to marry the enthusiastic but hapless Waymond (a quietly heartbreaking Ke Huy Quan from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom), the couple now running a California laundromat that’s seen better days. Although she doesn’t know it, he has drawn up divorce papers in the hope it will shock her into saving the marriage, she has a sulky teenage daughter, ironically named Joy (Stephanie Hsu, outstanding), with whom she seems to be constantly at loggerheads (currently because mom won’t acknowledge Becky as her white gay girlfriend), her aged, ailing and demanding father, Gong Gong (James Hong) has come to live with them and, right now, they’re being audited by the IRS in the form of frumpy Deirdre Beaubeirdra  (Jamie Lee Curtis in knowing form) who wears her despondency like a crown of thorns.

However, all this is about to be thrown into a whirlpool as, riding the elevator, Waymond suddenly snaps into a different person, Alpha Waymond and tells her he’s come from another reality, the Alphaverse, in search of her because an entity called Jobu Tupaki (formerly Alpha Joy), can experience all universes at once and is threatening to destroy them all with her black hole bagel having decided that oblivion is better than living unhappily.

In his universe, the late Alpha Evelyn developed “verse-jumping”, a technology that allows people to access the skills, memories, and body of their multiverse counterparts, and now he needs this Evelyn to save everyone. Not because she’s The One but because she’s the Zero, the joyless sum of unrealised potential and missed opportunities having failed at everything in her life.

And so the film plunges into a dizzying absurdist fever dream as her Waymond and the Alpha Raymond switch consciousnesses, the latter taking on a bunch of IRS security guards with a fanny pack, while the confused Evelyn gets flashes of the many different lives she could have led, each one and each reality the result of a decision taken or not. These include her as a Peking singer, someone spinning a pizza advertising sign, a teppanyaki chef, an actress (the film features footage from Yeoh’s promotional tour for Crazy Rich Asians), a piñata and, most of all, a martial arts expert, that skill proving very useful in talking on a possessed Deirdre as well as all the jumpers summoned by Alpha Gong Gong to destroy both Jobu Tobaki and Evelyn, who’s decided she must gain the same powers as her in order to stop her.

Like an ADHD rollercoaster on amphetamines, over its part subtitled three chapters it careens through dozens of realities, including one where they’re cartoon drawings, one where people have hot dog sausages for fingers (and Evelyn and Deirdre are lovers), and an unexpectedly moving one where she and Joy are (subtitled) rocks on a world devoid of life that brilliantly captures the dynamic of the mother daughter relationship where one reaches out and the other pulls away.

Likewise, it  romps between pathos (film star Evelyn and businessman Waymond’s star-crossed lovers) to moments of low brow humour such as Joy’s taking out security guards with phallic rubber dildos and a battle in which Evelyn takes on two opponents who have butt plugs up their arses as jumping platforms. It’s also peppered with filmic references, among them 2001 A Space Odyssey, The Matrix, In The Mood For Love, any number of Chinese kung fu movies and, hilariously, Ratatouille where, in chef Evelyn’s reality, it’s Raccacoonie  (voiced by Randy Newman), At its heart though, for all the silliness, action sequences (one of which involves a woman using a  dog on a leash as a projectile) and universe jumping, while tapping in to 21st century anxieties the film ultimately comes down to an emotional tale about unconditional love, kindness, family and mothers and daughters, about not wanting the one to become like the other, but having the opposite effect by repeating the past, thinking they know what’s best and, basically, not listening. While arguably too indulgent  for its own good, even if the two plus hours (complete with faux credits midway) flash past, it’s unquestionably an  experience like nothing you’ll have  had this side of the wildest  hallucinogenics you can imagine.(Mockingbird)

The Eyes of Tammy Faye (12A)

Her name will likely mean little to UK audiences (likely explaining why it’s opening on only one local screen), but in the 60s and 70s she and her husband Jim Bakker were two of the most influential figures on America’s televangelist scene, until their fall from grace in the 90s when they were arrested for financial malfeasance,  diverting funds from the ministry to their own use. Directed by The Big Sick’s Michael Showalter and based on the documentary of the same name, this offers a somewhat revisionist account of  the trillingly voiced Tammy Faye in which she’s seen  an innocent oblivious to her husband’s  fraud (echoing her mother’s warning “When you follow god blindly, in the end, all you are is blind”) though undeniably happy to enjoy the luxuries it brought, redeemed by her crusading work on behalf of the LGBT community and her call for its acceptance  by her fellow Christians, while he’s clearly an ambitious empire builder with an eye on the main prize calling on God’s name to bankroll his schemes.

Opening on a close up of an aged Tammy Faye (a nigh unrecognisable Oscar winning Jessica Chastain) in a makeup artist’s chair explaining her garish eyelid and lip tattoos), it flashes back to her Minnesota childhood as Tammy Faye Messner, eager to join her stern mother (Cherry Jones) in praising the Lord at their local Pentecostal church.  Quite possibly faking speaking on tongues, she’s soon elevated to something of prodigy, going on to a bible college in Minneapolis where she meets equally extrovert devotee Jim Bakker (an equally impressive baby-faced Andrew Garfield), who doesn’t believe being devout means living poor, the two impulsively marring and starting their own travelling preaching circuit to kids, Tammy Faye singing and using sock puppets. Fate brings them into the orbit of The Christian Broadcasting Network and through it celebrity Baptist televangelist  (and future failed Presidential candidate) Pat Robertson (Gabriel Olds), becoming founding members of The 700 Club,  creating a children’s puppet  ministry, and presenting  their  Jim and Tammy TV show.  Then, in 1974, the couple launched The PTL Club, a televangelist Christian news  and entertainment programme that  reached inclusivity of homosexuals and, in a particularly fun scene, includes her  demonstrating a penile erection pump. A highlight was her mid-1980s interview with  Steven Pieters (Randy Havens), a gay Christian minister, during which they discussed his sexuality, coming out, diagnosis with AIDS, and the death of his partner, Faye calling on her fellow Christians to embrace everyone.  The show was a phenomenal success, even eliciting personal thank you from Ronald Regan. It did not, however, sit  well with highly influential conservative activist  Jerry Falwell (Vincent D’Onofrio  more Godfather than God), later to become founder of the Moral Majority, even if he’s not adverse to taking advantage of their worldwide mass audience via Bakker’s PTL Satellite Network.

By now, Jim is actively practising his prosperity gospel preaching, calling on subscribers – or rather partners – to increase their cash pledges, funnelling the money into funding their own network  and, luring in real estate developer Roe Messner (Sam Jaeger) Christian retreat and theme park Heritage USA as well as bankrolling the couple’s opulent lifestyle.  Inevitably, the secular press begin digging and the bubble eventually bursts, a combination of fraud and revelations of Jim’s infidelity and homosexual overtures  erupting in a scandal (she had a platonic affair with her Nashville record producer, largely as a response to feeling sidelined by Jim, and became hooked on Ativan) that has them bankrupted and estranged, Jim eventually committed to trial and 45 years in prison.

Deftly balancing its dramatic biopic nature with a knowing wink at the lifestyle, fashion and hairstyle excesses, it has a decidedly episodic structure that at times feels like an evangelist version of Dynasty, climaxing in an undeniably moving moment when, now old and bruised by life,  invited to Oral Roberts University, she delivers a rendition of Battle Hymn of the Republic (complete with imagined mass choir) that plays like a spiritual redemption. It deserves an amen. (Disney+l Rakuten TV)

Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets  of Dumbledore (12A)

The third of the planned five films in JK Rowling’s Fantastic Beasts franchise is a welcome and darker (and in one scene very gruesome) step up from the entertaining but far from magical The Crimes of Grindelwald, again directed by David Yates and with a quietly intense Mads Mikkelsen brilliantly stepping into Gellert Grindelwald’s shoes after the grandstanding Johnny Depp was requested to depart. However, while the storyline is more focused its so complicated you need to be extremely au fait with The Wizarding World to place the many characters and their roles within it and, again, it can, especially in the first two-thirds,  sometimes prove confusing, not to say incoherent, in keeping up with the dizzying narrative switches.

Working with co-writer Steve Kloves, Rowling has scaled back the role of Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston) to a mere cameo  but bumped up that of Charms Professor “Lally” Hicks (Jessica Williams complete with eccentric enunciation) to become an essential member of the team assigned to bring down Grindelwald, who, recruited by Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law), here revealed as his former lover and who cannot fight him himself on account of a magical blood pact,  also line up as magizoologist Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), his brother Theseus (Callum Tuner), head Aura from the British Ministry of Magic, French wizard Yusuf Kama (William Nadlyam) whose half-sister was killed at a Grindelwald rally, Newt’s assistant Bunty Broadacre (Victoria Yeates) and muggle baker Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), still heartbroken after his mag lover, Queenie (Alison Sudol), Tina’s sister, believing he’d help her marry him, threw in her lot with Grindelwald.

Opposing them, alongside Grindelwald is, among others, Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller), who, at the end of the last film, was revealed to actually be Aurelius Dumbledore, the illegitimate son of Albus’s inn-owning brother Aberforth (Richard Coyle), who, since he can’t do it himself, has been ordered by Grindelwald to kill his newly discovered uncle.

The magical menagerie has also been downsized, reduced to just a few (living twig Pickett and the Niffler return), including a bunch of scorpion-like creatures that afford an amusing scene for Newt (rescuing his brother) to demonstrate limbic mimicry and, more importantly, the qilin, which can look into to people’s souls to see who has a pure heart. As such, it plays a pivotal role in the film which is set around the upcoming elections for the new Supreme Head. Thus, following the prologue flashback between Albus and Grindelwald, the film cuts to Newt attending the birth of the new qilin, only for the mother to be killed by Credence and his crew and the baby kidnapped so his master can harness its powers of precognition. What they don’t know  is that the mother had twins. Now, to stop Grindelwald, who has been exonerated of his crimes and declared a third candidate for the election against Brazilian Minister Santos (Maria Fernanda Cândido) and Chinese Minister Liu (Dave Wong), by employing “countersight” –   deliberately misleading to create confusion and hide their actual intentions (a similar ploy to be found in the upcoming Operation Mincemeat), Albus and his team have to ensure it remains safe and that they themselves aren’t killed in the process.

That’s the nuts and bolts of the plot, the secrets of the title relating to the entire Dumbledore family (including a dead sister adding to the tragedies) rather than just Albus,  as each of the team carry out their allocated parts of the plan, the locations variously switching between  London, Austria, New York, Berlin, Bhutan and, yes, Hogwarts, while Grindelwald’s  campaign to fuel and exploit the hatred and bigotry bubbling up clearly has as many resonances with today’s world as in the Nazi  30s. Themes of the outsider and the abandoned loom large, often to emotionally affecting power, while naturally it’s awash with spectacular visual effects, thrilling chases, electrifying action and all manner of wand face-offs (Jacob is even gifted his own by Dumbledore) before and an ending that is both radiantly happy but,  for one character, a reminder that they are forever alone.  As such, while an exhilarating roller-coaster ride for the faithful, it might have been a  better idea to have killed off Grindelwald here and ended the series, since what follows leading up to the ultimate showdown can surely only feel like an over-extended  anti-climactic afterthought. (Rakuten TV)

Interceptor (15)

There are, it would appear, only to missile interceptor bases in America meaning that if one or both were rendered inoperable, then there would be nothing to prevent a  nuclear strike on American cities. And that’s the premise of this low budget but entertaining directorial debut by Matthew Reilly. It opens with an attack on the (real) Fort Greely base in Alaska by an unidentified force which somehow manages to kill all the troops stationed there, before shifting to the (fictional) offshore site in the Atlantic Ocean where the rest of the film unfolds. It’s to here that tough and tactical army captain JJ Collins (model turned actress former Fast and the Furious co-star Elsa Pataky, wife to exec producer Chris Hemsworth who puts in amusing cameo) is assigned, returning to service after a suicide attempt in the wake of a concentrated torrent of abuse and death threats after she accused a senior officer of sexual harassment (naturally, they took his word).

No sooner has she arrived, however, than the commanding officer and all bar three of the crew are killed by a group of terrorists who’ve infiltrated the base, led by alpha male Alexander Kessel (Luke Bracey from the Point Break remake), a former US military intelligence officer with daddy and patriotism issues. His plan is to take the interceptors out of commission so that his employers can launch the 16 nuclear missiles they’ve somehow managed to steal from the Russians and wipe out America. To do so, however, he and his men have to get into the command centre in which Collins has locked herself along with two tecchies, Shah (Mayen Mehta), and asshole  Beaver (Aaron Glenane), the latter knocked out by  stray bullet.  Now it’s basically a battle to keep Kessler, whose smooth talking is offset by shooting the sole surviving officer and Collins’ father, back in his veteran’s retirement home, from getting in, involving taking out one of the mercenaries who pops up through the hatch. That and, when Kessler, through an inside man’s help, gets through, trying to shoot down the missile he has launched and then a single handed race against the clock to stop the other 15. Meanwhile, back in America, Madam President and her advisers are communicating  by video link and biting their nails down to the quick while the American public are horrifyingly watching Kessler’s live feed of  their impending annihilation.

Alternating between functionally staged fight scenes and Collins’ and Kessler’s bickering banter,  it never rises beyond its generic 80s  B-movie roots and the climax falls somewhat flat, but Pataky steps up to the physical mark commendably enough, even if she’s less effective in the verbal sparring, now all she needs is better script and a director with a firmer hand to move her up into the current action woman leagues. (Netflix)

Jurassic World: Dominion (12A)

Touted as the final instalment in the saga that kicked off  in 1993 with Jurassic Park, set four years after the events of Jurassic World and its Fallen Kingdom sequel that left the dinosaurs free to roam, directed by JW’s Colin Trevorrow, the selling point is the return of three of the original film’s central characters, palaeontologist Alan Grant (Sam Neill),  environmentalist romantic interest Ellie Sadler (Laura Dern) and chaos theory doomsayer Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum). Their reappearance is down to a new breed of locusts with prehistoric DNA that threaten to destroy the food chain. They’re ravaging all the grain in America, except, that is, crops grown by Biosyn, a corporate that has exclusive rights regarding the containment and protection of the reptiles. It’s headed up by another Jurassic Park returnee, Lewis Dodgson (this time played by Campbell Scott), who bribed  Dennis Nedry to steal embryos and who, thanks to a  tip off from Malcolm, who works as a Biosyn consultant, Sadler believes to be behind things and recruits Grant to help investigate.

This is cross-fertilised with a narrative strand from the JW series involving dino wrangler Owen Grady (Chris Pratt), his dinosaur rights activist partner  Claire Dearing  (Bryce Dallas Howard) as their cloned step-daughter Maisie Lockwood  (Isabella Sermon, also playing her mother’s younger self in a video flashback), the granddaughter of Dr. John Hammond’s former partner in cloning Benjamin Lockwood. Her genetics are the reason  Grady and Dearing are keeping her off the grid and why she’s been hunted by a bunch of mercenaries, headed up by Soyona Santos (Dichen Lachman who simply disappears from the storyline) hired by Biosyn so that head scientist Dr Wu (BJ Wong back again) can use her unique DNA. She’s captured, along with Beta, a baby velociraptor she’s tamed, setting her parents and pilot-adventurer for hire Kayla Watts (DeWanda Wise) on a rescue mission that, after a globetrotting jaunt and a raptor-motorbike chase in Malta, eventually brings all the main cast together at Dodgson’s gigantic dinosaur-filled valley facility in the Dolemites where, in a frankly tangled web of  who’s on who’s side involving Dodgson’s assistant (Mamoudou) Athie), they end up battling assorted genetically engineered dinosaurs, including new  creatures such as the Giganotosaurus and Pyroraptor, who, in turn, battle with each other.

It’s all very busy with its chase and fight sequences, but nothing ever really comes into a coherent focus while, fatally, the dinosaurs themselves become secondary characters in their own story,  while the final scene between Grady and the mommy raptor is just too cheesy for words. Undeniably big screen spectacular with plentiful nods to the overall saga, it never bores but that sense of awe that Spielberg captured 29 years ago is lost in the ticking of boxes.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC; Empire Great Park;  Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel; Vue)

King Richard (12A)

Even before they were born, Compton sisters Venus and Serena Williams had their lives mapped out to become the world’s greatest women’s tennis players, a lengthy plan devised by their father, Richard, an amateur coach and part time security guard whose interest in the game had been piqued on realising the prize money, and started them playing when they were just four. Life tells us that Venus went on to win five Wimbledon singles titles, four Olympic gold medals and 14 Grand Slam Women’s doubles titles with Serena who, herself with four gold medals, won Wimbledon seven times (three of them against Venus), is rated as one of the all-time greatest female players with 23 Grand Slam singles titles to her name and is the highest earning female athlete ever. The film reminds us that none of this would have happened without the focused drive and tough love of their father who pushed them to their limits and beyond to ensure they achieved his dream of stardom and escaping the ghetto, being patronised and battling prejudice, snobbery and racism from white agents and coaches along the way.

Here, always seen in tennis shirts, he’s played with focused commitment by by slap happy   Oscar winner Will  Smith, the young Venus and Serena, who turned professional at just fourteen, consummately portrayed by Saniyya Sidney and Demi Singleton, respectively, with Aunjanue Ellis as their formidable mother, Oracene ‘Brandy’ Williams, herself a coach, and Jon Bernthal as Rick Macci, the hugely successful professional coach whom their father persuaded to take   on Venus, as well as financing the family’s move to Los Angeles and the girls’ education, forever finding himself up against Richard’s obstinate and wilful demands.

Directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green, it charts their rise from playing squalid local courts, being menaced by the local hoods (recreating the moment when Richard was beaten up in front of his underage daughters for telling them not to come on to them, later taking a gun to settle matters before fate intervenes) persuading Sampras and McEnroe’s coach, Paul Cohen (Tony Goldwyn) to train the girls then firing him when he argued against them being taken out of the junior tournaments, a traditional path to turning pro, in favour of concentrating in their education and upbringing after Richard seeing the record-breaking young star Jennifer Capriati being arrested for marijuana possession,  the film climaxing in 1994 with Venus’s professional debut against the world number two, Arantxa Sánchez Vicario.

With the sisters as co-producers, it’s an inevitably somewhat sanitised account, their father demanding in making them play in the rain in the night (a neighbour  calls child services at one point), scattering broken glass on the court to challenge them, being resolutely stubborn with agents looking to make a killing but offering relative peanuts (he registers his feelings by farting), taking decisions without consulting either his ‘ghetto Cinderellas’ or their mother, but even so he’s never less than a sweet, caring and often funny dad, something that doesn’t quite sit with accounts of his darker side and punishing disciplinarianism  from others and never quite gets under the skin of the insecurity that dogged him.

Along with Venus and Serena, he and Brandy had three other daughters from her former marriage, one, the older, academically gifted Yetunde, being shot dead in 2003, but they’re rarely more than set dressing here, giggling in the back seat of the battered red VW van (named Prince but far from fresh) their father drives. What’s never mentioned is the fact that he had five other daughters from a previous marriage, but, harder to understand is why, in the later stages of the film, Serena, who Macci doesn’t take on, is virtually sidelined (something the screenplay, like her father, casually acknowledges) with all the attention being on Venus, reminding her of the example she can set to Black girls all over the world.

The theme of race plays as an undercurrent, always there in the screenplay (and in footage of the Rodney King beating) but never forcefully in your face, preferring to focus on the determination to rise above the roots of your raising through your natural born talents – and a smooth – and, as such, other than one family flare up and the on court dynamics (the tennis is brilliantly staged), there’s almost no drama, no tension, yet, on the plus side, almost no resorting to sports movie cliché. The sisters’ triumphs, stepping out of their father’s

Licorice Pizza (15)

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

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

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

Lightyear (PG)

Quite possibly the first film to give a toy a backstory, this  is basically Pixar’s origin story for the Buzz Lightyear figure from the Toy Story series, who,in the first film, was under the delusion that he was an actual Space Ranger. This answers the question as to why such an action figure existed in the first place. According to the opening credits, in 1995 young Andy was given the toy as a present,  the main character from the film he’d just seen. This is, then, that film.

Unlike in the previous films, Buzz is voiced here by Chris Evans rather than Tim Allen, and unfortunately lacks that distinctive tone, humour and phrasing, but, the character is till the same, a cocksure  and somewhat egotistical Space Ranger pilot who reckons he can do everything himself (and certainly doesn’t need an irritating autopilot) and is forever narrating events into his Star Log, here on a mission with his commanding officer Hawthorne (Uzo Aduba) and a cargo of scientists in hibernation sleep, when the get signs of life from an uncharted planet. Landing their ship,which Buzz refers to as The Turnip on account of it shape, they soon discover that that life takes the form of  aggressive vines and some kind of flying insect. Trying to escape, Buzz miscalculates, leaving everyone stranded on the planet, working to rebuild the fuel crystal to achieve hyperspeed and achieve his mission of getting everyone home. However, when he takes off on a test run and fails, on his return he discovers that while he was away just four minutes, four years have passed in real time. This happens again and again, Buzz staying the same but everyone else growing older, Hawthorne gets married (to a female scientist, with the first same sex kiss in a Disney film), has a child and then  a granddaughter Izzy (Keke Palmer), Returning from another failed attempt, he learns Hawthorne has passed away,leaving behind  a matter-of-fact robot feline called Sox (Peter Sohn), and that her Star Command replacement is shutting down the mission, everyone having decided to stay on the planet with an energy wall  protecting them from the vines.

Well, naturally, since a Space Ranger never quits, Buzz is having none of that and, with Sox having calculated the right fuel mix, steals a ship and finally achieves hyperspeeed. However, returning with the good news, he discovers the base has had to sealed itself into the dome which is surrounded by giant robots  from a massive spaceship hovering above the planet. There’s just three rookies who have avoided such fate, Izzy, cantankerous ex-felonDarby Steel (Dale Soules), and the ultra-clumsy, nervy Mo Morrison (Taika Waititi). They it seems are Buzz’s team.Except, Buzz insists on working alone.

Matters are further complicated by the red-eyed giant robot that commands the alien craft, who Toy Story 2 fans will recognise as  Buzz’s nemesis Emperor Zurg (James Brolin) who gets his own origin with a  time travel twist, the film largely comprising of a series of chases and escapes involving the previous fuel crystal they need to leave the planet while Buzz learns to think and care about someone other than himself and the mission. There’s also an amusing joke about what a sandwich might look like in the future and, of course,a regulation Disney message about home.

As brilliantly animated as ever, it’s a fun adventure with snappy dialogue and thrills, but, by taking Buzz out of his toy world setting, it somehow loses some of that charm and magic. It may still aim for infinity, but it never really goes beyond. (Cineworld Solihull; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel; Vue)

Marry Me (12A)

Adapted from a graphic novel by Bobby Crosby, directed by Kat Coiro this is preposterous romcom fluff built upon manufactured sentimentality, but there’s enough charm to warrant at least one box of confetti. Jennifer Lopez is pop superstar Kat Valdez who is about to embark on her third marriage (one of several sly nods to the star’s own life), this time to equally famous Puerto Rican singer Bastian (Colombian pop star Maluma making his feature debut and suggesting a career change is not on the cards), the plan being to get wed to an audience of 20 million televised life on the last night of their tour named for co-write hit Marry Me. However, just before she takes to the stage, a video of him making out with her assistant goes viral. Caught unprepared, she tells the crowd of love is a lie, but you should be ready to try something different. At which point she looks into the audience and, reluctantly out there with his shy 12-year-old daughter Lou (Chloe Coleman), sees divorced dad maths teacher Charlie Gilbert (Owen Wilson who last shared the screen with her in Anaconda) holding Marry Me sign he’s been handed by his starstruck lesbian friend and colleague, Parker (Sarah Silverman, ironically sharing her character’s name with another Lopez film), and declares yes, she’ll marry him.

Much to the dismay of her Brit manager Colin Calloway (John Bradley, far better than in Moonfall), she decides not to pay him off but to stick with her decision, at least for a few months; if nothing else, it’s a photo opportunity gift. Charlie, who said yes because he felt sorry for her, is of course the quintessential aw-shucks nice guy in what is basically a  fairy tale rerun of Notting Hill and, while overwhelmed by all the sudden paparazzi attention (who bizarrely seem to suddenly lose all interest to the extent they can take his old bulldog for walk and no one bothers) and the glitzy showbiz world he’s suddenly become part of, goes along with things and, in a  subsequent deal whereby she has to go without her entourage, doing everything for her, agrees to climb aboard the social media bandwagon.

Anyone even vaguely acquainted with the genre will know exactly how this all pans out, the pair actually becoming a  couple before he says he doesn’t fit in her world and it seems she might be getting back with Bastian, given some extra colours with Kat bonding with Lou and helping her overcome her stagefright (cue the Mathalon final in Peoria, Illinois, where the unlikely lovers are finally reunited), getting all the kids in his Pi-Thons maths club up to dance along with her to I Just Got Paid and even doing a  turn at the school dance.

There’s a vague nod to feminism when Kat asks why women have to wait for men to propose and then take their name, but the film quickly dispenses with any such issues in favour of the candyfloss trimmings and, naturally, scenes where Lopez can perform her new songs (of which power ballad On My Way is rather good). While taking it all way too more seriously than it warrants, Lopez is on her best romantic form since Maid In Manhattan while, sharing a low simmering chemistry, with his familiar tousled hair and chewing velvet voice, Wilson is affably bland, the cast fleshed out by Michelle Bureau as Kat’s social media manager, Stephen Wallem as a glee club teacher and an over-extended cameo by Jimmy Fallon as himself, the film ending with a cute montage of real-life couples recounting how they met. It may not be wedded bliss, but nor is it the nuptial nightmare you might have assumed it would be. (BT TV Store, Sky Store, Virgin)

Minions: The Rise of Gru (PG)

While essentially an origin story for Gru, as the title suggests, this Despicable Me prequel is nevertheless more focused on the yellow Twinkie-shaped characters in goggles and blue dungarees that have become a seemingly unstoppable commercial force, ranging from toys to all manner of merchandise as well as an endorsement for Sky.

The story is set in 1976 where the world’s top supervillain team, the Vicious 6,  evil Viking Svengeance (Dolph Lundgren); Nun Chuck (Lucy Lawless), a nun who wields her crucifix as a weapon, lobster-limbed Jean Clawed (Jean-Claude Van Damme), Stronghold (Danny Trejo) and Belle Bottom (Taraji P. Henson), set out to steal the Zodiac Stone, an amulet that will give them world conquering power. However, when their leader, Wild Knuckles (Alan Arkin) manages to survive the defence mechanisms and escape with it, the others literally cut him loose, sending him plunging to his death.

Now short of a member they advertise for a replacement. Enter young Gru (Steve Carell), a friendless schoolkid, mostly ignored by his yoga mad mother (Julie Andrews), who wants to grow up to be the world’s best supervillain, who applies to join and is invited for an interview at the gang’s secret lair beneath the Criminal Records store run by a certain Doctor Nefario (Russell Brand from Despicable Me).  Laughed at and humiliated at the interview (“Evil is for adults, not for tubby little punks”, says Belle), using Nefario’s sticky fingers invention, Gru steals the amulet and takes off, setting up the rest of the plot whereby, the bulk of the action unfolding in San Francisco, he’s pursued by the gang and finds himself captured by and ending up joining forces with Knuckles, his favourite supervillain, who has survived and is now out for revenge on his former colleagues. Meanwhile, the Minions, tall skinny Kevin, one-eyed Stuart, attention-deficit Bob and new addition Otto (Pierre Coffin ), who traded the amulet for a pet stone at a kids’ birthday party and has to then get it back off the biker (RZA) who takes him to San Francisco,  have embarked on a  rescue mission.

As well as other nods to the original film (Will Arnett as Bank of Evil president Mr Perkins  and Steve Coogan’s Anti-Villain League boss Ramsbottom), the film tells how Gru and the Minions came together (they answered a help wanted ad and he adopted them all, but there’s still no explanation of their origins) and, directed by Kyle Balda it romps along at a manic pace like some sort of Looney Tunes  with loads of slapstick cartoon violence and fart gags for the kiddies. The main Minions get their own spotlight sequences involving flying  a plane to San Francisco and, in a subplot that runs on far too long, learning Kung Fu from  acupuncturist Master Chow (Michelle Yeoh), before it all winds up in a  Chinese New Year showdown and a funeral to the sound of  The Stones’ You Can’t Always Get What You Want.

Given the setting, it’s wall to wall with 70s in-joke references, from nods to martial arts, Bond (including a spoof theme song) and Blaxploitation movies to hit songs from the day (Knuckles uses disco as a torture tool), which will mean nothing to the target audience or indeed likely most of their parents, but are nevertheless all part of the fun along with the throwaway incidental gags. Even so, despite the short running time, the film does rather wear out its welcome before the post-credits bonus scene, so perhaps now may be time for Minions to take an extended break.(Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Vue)

Nightmare Alley (15)

Guillermo del Toro has remade the 1947 dark Tyrone Power thriller adapted from William Lindsay Gresham’s pulp  novel as a cynical Depression-era moral fable about  human nature and how it’s coldly exploited by a world made up of con artists and shysters.

It opens with Stanton Carlisle (a stupendous Bradley Cooper never playing for sympathy) lowering  wrapped up corpse into a hole in a farmhouse floor and then setting fire to the place, a scene to which the film with flashback on several occasions before revealing who and why. He surfaces following a dwarf  to  at  travelling carnival  of fellow outcasts and misfits where the boss, Clem Hoatley (a devilish Willem Dafoe) gives him a job and a floor to sleep on. Here he uses his charm,  wiles and natural showman skills to win Clem over by helping improve some of the acts and avoiding an awkward moment when the cops turn up investigating one of the carny’s attractions, The Geek (a homeless man drugged, sent mad and exhibited as a freak biting the head off a live chicken). He also strikes up a friendship with mentalist act  clairvoyant Zeena (Toni Collette) and her creaky boozed up partner Pete (David Strathairn), keen to learn how to read people and the tricks of the trade and even keener to get his hands on Pete’s book of codewords.

One of the acts he buffs up is that of  Molly (Rooney Mara), who apparently conducts electricity through her body in front of the jaw-gaping rubes, but while she’s clearly taken by him, her self-appointed guardian, strongman Bruno (Ron Perlman) makes it abundantly clear what will happen of Stan hurts her.

Suffice to say, however, after ‘accidentally’ poisoning Pete, armed with the stolen black book the arrogant Stan and naive Molly take off into the film’s second 1941-set act to start their own mentalist act using the tricks he’s stolen, playing more upmarket  clubs in his driven need for   validation, fame and wealth, whatever  the cost to his soul. It’s at the Copacabana where he comes into contact with   psychiatrist Lilith Ritter (an icily magnetic, razor sharp  Cate Blanchett),. who is under no illusion that Stan is the real thing. However, they strike up a dark arrangement, whereby he agrees to therapy and she provides him with details of her wealthy clients whose grief and need for commune with the dead he can exploit, sharing a cut of his fees with her. He reckons he’s playing her, but, as the film reveals, a calculating femme fatale, she’s sharper at the power playing games than he thinks. Things eventually go pear-shaped when, ignoring Pete’s advice to not go down the spook show route,  Stan enlists Molly to pose as his shame-ridden industrialist mark’s (Richard Jenkins) dead loved one, sending him back on the run as the film comes full circle with a devastating irony and a final line that will haunt long after the credits.

All this de Toro weaves together with the art of a master of misdirection, the detail of such things as pickled   foetuses and hand-painted sideshow banners adding to the film’s unsettling lurid ambience and its world of callous grifters and hustlers to deliver a film that ranks up there alongside dark noir classics like LA Confidential and There Will Be Blood. (Disney+)

Paris, 13th District (15)

Filmed in black and white save for one brief sequence, adapted from three stories by US graphic novelist Adrian Tomine (and titled Les Olympiades in French after the tower blocks of the setting),  director Jacques Audiard unravels a contemporary story of four  interconnected people looking for – or avoiding – love to a backdrop of the titular Paris district.

A free spirited , well-educated, sharp-tongued but vulnerable Taiwanese woman, Emilie (terrific newcomer Lucie Zhang) lives rent free in a flat owned by her  elderly dementia-sufferer  grandmother (whom she never visits in the nursing home, at one point offering rent reduction if a prospective tenant will take her place), works as a telesales operative  (from where she’s fired for being rude to clients) and uses her dating-app to maintain an active sex life without any attachments. Then along comes Camille (Makita Samba), a young Black high-school teacher who becomes first her lodger and then, turned on by the  cling film wrap she has around her stomach to lose weight,  her lover. They have regular steamy sex for a while as roommates-with-benefits., but then, while she becomes more emotionally involved, he cools and starts having an affair with a colleague who is taking over his job while he works on his PhD.

As it turns out, taking a break for academia, he stars managing an estate agents where he ends up employing Nora (Noémie Merlant), a serious-minded, solitary Sorbonne  law student who has come to Paris following a toxic  coercive relationship in her home town and lacks the confidence to fit in with her young fellow students. At a party, she wears a blonde wig and is mistaken for cam girl sex-worker ‘Amber Sweet’ (Jehnny Beth), phone footage by a  fan going viral and wrecking her university life.  She eventually becomes Camille’s latest lover, but is unable to experience an orgasm, the storyline blossoming out to reintroduce Emilie and Nora’s webcam connection with the heavily-tattooed Amber where the pair start to swap their stories. Audiard exploring the struggle to find love in an alienating digital age  as each character wrestles with their sense of identity and the persona they project to the world, a  subplot involving Camille’s relationship with his recently widowed father (Pol White) and stuttering teenage sister (Camille Léon-Fucien) and his dismissive attitude to her aspirations as a stand-up comic.  Beautifully acted and finely photographed, it builds to a warm cathartic if perhaps optimistic dénouement, and is well worth paying a visit.  (Rakuten TV)

The Power of the Dog (12A)

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

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

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

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

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

The Railway Children Return (PG)

Released in 1970, the original film, adapted from E.Nesbit’s novel, with Jenny Agutter in the lead role as young Bobbie, became a classic of cosy British family viewing. A TV retelling  appeared in 2000, with Agutter playing Bobbie’s mother, and she’s back again, this time as her original, now adult, character in a (somewhat misnamed) sequel to the first film co-written Jemma Rodgers and directed by Morgan Matthews.

Although now set in 1944, it’s pretty much a carbon copy in terms of narrative. In the first film, set in 1905, Bobbie, her two siblings and her mother relocated to the Yorkshire countryside when their father was convicted of treason and they became impoverished. Here another set of three children, Lily (Beau Gadsdon, looking like a teenage Felicity Jones), spunky younger sister Pattie (Eden Hamilton) and brother Ted (Zac Cudby), end up in the same village when they’re evacuated from wartime Salford and are taken in by Bobbie, who stayed on in Oakworth, and her daughter Annie (Sheridan Smith), the local headmistress whose husband is off in the RAF. Although there appears to be no interaction with the other evacuees outside of the classroom. the three kids become best friends with Annie’s young son Thomas (Austin Hayes), taking on the resentful gang of village children and playing hide and seek down the railway yard. Which is where they come across the pointedly named Abe (Kenneth Aikens), a Black American serviceman who has injured his leg (Lily sneaks out bandages for him and is knocked unconscious when a passing German plane dumps a surplus bomb) and tells them he’s on a secret mission and has to get to Liverpool. Naturally, that’s a fib. Younger than he claims and homesick, he’s actually gone AWOL on account of the racist abuse from the white US Military Police (who brutally object to African-Americans mixing with white English girls, one scene inspired the real life Battle of Bamber Bridge in Lancashire in 1943), and so Lily and the others offer to help him escape.  And, exactly like the original film, it climaxes with a bunch of kids stopping a train to speak to a travelling important gentleman to put a stop to a miscarriage of justice (one also has to wonder if the MPs could actually handcuff a fourteen year old British civilian and ship them off to jail).

Alongside the somewhat simplified theme of racism, there’s also passing elements of tragedy involving the trio’s father (strikingly captured in Lily’s dream sequence) and Bobbie’s husband and brother, while the women try their best to protect the children’s innocence from the realities of war.  It also introduces a new character to her family in her great-uncle Walter (Tom Courtney), who has an unspecified position in the War Office and does a passable Winston Churchill impression while, in a throwaway nod to what Bobbie’s been up to for the past 40 years, she says she was a suffragette. There a gentle comic touch too with John Bradley as the village stationmaster.

A throwback to the sitting room era of the Children’s Film Foundation, even with its shoehorning in of contemporary issues, it’s hard to image youngsters – or even their parents – weaned on Marvel movies, frantic animation, ubiquitous toilet humour (one kid does complain that his carer farts, though) will make of its old-fashioned, good-natured amiability, but I guess they could take the grandparents along as a treat.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza Luxe; Vue)

 

Sing 2 (PG)

A follow-up to the wildly successful  2016 animated musical  this reunites pretty much all the original cast, Jennifer Saunders’ Nana among them,  for what is essentially a spin on the original story.  The animal performers from the first film are now a successful regional theatre troupe, but koala impresario Buster Moon (Matthew McConaughey) still aspires for bigger and better things and hopes that their latest show, a spectacular take on Alice In Wonderland, will land them a  spot in Redshore City, the film’s equivalent to Las Vegas. However, when influential talent scout  Suki walks out after the first half, declaring them not up to the big leagues,  he and the gang head for  Redshore to audition for Jimmy Crystal (Bobby Cannavale), a snarly white wolf hotelier magnate  singularly  unimpressed by any of the acts. He is,  however, intrigued when Buster lies about having a connection to reclusive  retired rock star lion Clay Calloway (voiced by Bono but clearly modelled on Robert Plant), and agrees to back the  proposed new musical, space extravaganza Out Of This World pitched by Gunter (Nick Kroll). It just has to open in three weeks.

In it, porcine performer Rosita (Reese Witherspoon) is to play the lead, travelling four planets on a  rescue mission, but, when she finds herself too scared to launch on the flying wire, the part is given to Crystal’s spoiled daughter Porsha (Halsey), who has undeniable presence but, as it turns  out, can’t actually act.

Meanwhile, Crystal is pressuring Buster to come up with Clay and, after an initial attempt to recruit him by one-eyed chameleon named Miss Crawley (writer-director Gareth Jennings) fails miserably, he and porcupine rock singer Ash (Scarlett Johansson) try their luck instead, but even so, consumed with grief over his dead wife, Clay seems unlikely to agree.

And so, back in Redshore, things are rapidly falling apart, Crystal going ballistic when he thinks Porsha has been fired and embarrassed him, threatening to kill Buster. The only resort being for the crew to, yes, let’s do the show right here and win over the crowd.

Woven into this are a couple  of sub-plots, Johnny the gorilla (Taron Egerton) is having trouble learning his dance moves under his demanding teacher Klaus Kickenklober and is befriended by local street performer Nooshy (Letitia Wright),  while, never having had a romance, elephant Meena (Tori Kelly) can’t find the chemistry with her self-absorbed preening stage partner (Eric Andre) but has fallen for fellow pachyderm ice cream salesman Alfonso (Pharrell Williams).

With scenes staged to such as Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, Prince’s Let’s Go Crazy, I Say A Little Prayer, Higher Love, Bad Guy and I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking for, as well as featuring brand new U2 track Your Song Saved My Life, it’s a colourful, energetic affair with top rate animation, choreography and an infectious sense of fun that will leave you with a big smile on your face however old you are.(Rakuten TV)

Sonic The Hedgehog 2 (PG)

The live-action debut of the Sega game’s superfast sarcastic blue alien hedgehog proved far better than anyone expected, with even Jim Carrey back on form. Two years on and the sequel falls considerably short of that mark. Now happily ensconced with his adoptive Montana family, Green Hills sheriff Tom Wachowski (James Marsden) aka “donut lord and his wife Maddie (Tika Sumpter), Sonic (Ben Schwartz) secretly sets out to become the local superhero but, when he foils an armoured car robbery and causes chaos in the process, he’s told in no uncertain manner (and borrowed from Spider-Man) that power requires responsibility, and he’ll know his moment to shine when it comes.

Meanwhile, on Mushroom Planet to which he was banished, Dr. Robotnik (Carrey) engineers his escape by opening a portal, through which comes the big-fisted red and angry spiny ant-eater Knuckles (a drolly overly-serious Idris Elba), who blames Sonic for the extinction of his echidas tribe and is seeking revenge, naturally leading to he and Robotnik with his drone army teaming up to track down and take possession of  the Master Emerald,  green gem that bestows  unstoppable power,  the location of which (Siberia), it turns out, Sonic has a map. Adding to the character list is yellow young alien fox Tails (Colleen O’Shaughnessey) with his two-tails (which he uses to fly), an inventor and big admirer of Sonic who’s travelled to Earth to warn him about Knuckles.

Sidelining Tom and Maddie to Hawaii, where they’re attending her sister Rachel’s  (a very funny Natasha Rothwell) wedding (cue the unsupervised Sonic partying wildly) , until the final act reunion with its FBI sting reveal and climatic showdown with a now hyper-powered Robotnik and his giant war-machine creation, the film spends most of its time in a  series of chases and fights between the two opposing camps, reviving and expanding the role of Robotnik’s adoring sidekick, Agent Stone (Lee Majdoub) along the way.

Mixing in subtler comic touches with the more lowbrow kid-friendly knockabout and Carrey’s quite possibly improvised pop-culture quips while unashamedly piling up the product placement (Oreos and the Four Seasons hotels at the top of the list), it doesn’t warrant the extended two hour running time, resorting to repetition to stretch things out. However, while somewhat overly indulging Carrey’s manic energy and facial gurning, the animation and FX, marrying the digital work with the real world, are again impressive the messages about family, friendship, working together and what makes a hero get spelled out without being too in your face and the voice work brings the game characters to engaging life and deliver pretty much everything its audience wants. With a sequel and pin-off already in the works, the Blue Blur hasn’t run out of steam yet. (Rakuten TV; Reel)

Spider-Man:  No Way Home (12A)

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

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

Also featuring such returnees as Flash Thompson (Tony Revolon), Betty Brant (Angourie Rice), J.B. Smoove as Peter’s teacher, its  multi crossover of universes and franchises is carried off to exhilarating effect while delivering thoughtful commentary on notions of crime, punishment, heroism  and redemption, coalescing into a film that may at times be convoluted but which consistently delivers both fan buy thrills as well as maximum entertainment for the mass audience and, as a  coming of age drama, perhaps more than any of its predecessors, really defines what being Spider-Man really means.  (Rakuten TV)

Thor: Love and Thunder (12A)

Opening with the origin of Gorr the God Butcher (a pale Christian Bale with a creepy whisper) who, when his daughter dies, possessed of the Necrosword a mystical blade that kills gods but also corrupts its owner, swears to destroy all gods for abandoning their followers, Taika Waititi’s follow-up to Ragnorak takes the same path of mixing high drama and emotion with stirring action sequences and a rich vein of irreverent humour. In his fourth stand-alone outing as the God of Thunder, Chris Hemsworth plays to his comedic strengths and physical presence in equal measure with a knowing self-awareness. Narrated by Korg (Waititi), an extended intro finds him still hanging out with The Guardians of The Galaxy, engaging in bouts of meditation to try and find himself and saving an alien race from Gorr’s shadow spiders (albeit destroying the temple he was supposed to protect in the process) before a vision of a wounded Sif send him to her rescue and from thence back to New Asgard where, as it comes under attack too, he’s astonished to witness the return of his once shattered hammer Mjölnir, and even more astonished to find it’s now being wielded by a new Mighty Thor,  his former girlfriend (a montage explains how their separate lives led them to split), Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), the hammer following its former master’s instruction to look after her by giving her the strength (at a cost) she lacks in her human form, where she’s dying from cancer.  When the children from New Asgard are abducted by Gorr, she, Thor, Korg and the sardonic Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson), bored without battles,  set off on a  rescue vision in a longship drawn by two giant (and noisy) goats, one that sees the pair reignite their romance with electrifying chemistry (Thor taking on board Starlord’s (Chris Pratt) wisdom of wanting to feel shitty because that’s what love does to you) as well as visiting the Golden Temple for a meeting of the Gods (the God of Dumplings among them!) to try and raise an army, ending up in killing the pompous Zeus (a bizarrely accented Russell Crowe), surrounded by his Zeusettes (who swoon when Thor’s stripped naked)  and stealing his thunderbolt, then journeying to the Shadow Realm (for some black and white sequences) to stop Gorr before he gets to Eternity and wishes for all gods to die at once.

As such, it builds its emotional and dramatic weight as it builds to the inevitable love and sacrifice climax, the fight sequences gathering in spectacle and intensity as they go, at one point involving the kidnapped children, including Heimdal’s son (Kieron  L. Dyer) who insists on being called Axl (the film is rife with Guns n Roses tracks). On the comedic side, there a theatrical re-enactment of events in Ragnorak with Matt Damon as the Loki actor, Melissa McCarthy as Hela, San Neill as Odin and Luke Hemsworth as Thor and also a very amusing running gag that’s essentially a romantic triangle with Thor in the middle between Mjölnir and his jealous new axe, Stormbreaker, Thor forever trying to reassure the latter that he’s still ‘the one’.

It’s not until the final moments, with Thor in a new paternal role (you’ll be pleased to know Korg gets a mate, a Kronan dude named Dwayne and they sire a new rock baby), that the title of the film manifests itself, the mid-credits sequence setting the stage for the fifth instalment as a character declares revenge on Thor Odinson, ending with one more brief afterlife bonus scene featuring Idris Elba. Thunderingly good fun. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Vue)

Top Gun: Maverick (12A)

Thirty-six years on since the original took your breath away, Tom Cruise has bowed to public demand and returned 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 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 song coming from Lady Gaga, and while that’s  no Take My Breath Away, the film will most certainly have you needing oxygen masks. Turn and burn, baby. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park;  Everyman;  Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Vue)

The Tragedy of Macbeth (15)

Making his solo directorial debut, Joel Coen delivers an atmospheric, stylised and stripped down adaptation of Shakespeare’s  tragedy, filmed by Bruno Delbonnel  in stark black and white with an icy chill running through its monochromatic bones as ravens, those harbingers of death, take wing throughout.  Denzel Washington (who, like Branagh, makes the Bard’s lines flow with a natural rhythm) is typically mesmerising as the battle-weary Macbeth while, Coen’s wife Frances McDormand was surely born to play the power-driven, manipulative Lady Macbeth, the cast fleshed out by Brendan Gleeson as the doomed Duncan (his murder here played out on screen), Corey Hawkins as the self-hating  Macduff whose wife (Moses Ingram), child and retinue are slaughtered in his absence, Bertie Carvel as Banquo,  Harry Melling as the young Malcolm and Stephen Root as the drunken porter with his erectile dysfunction comic relief.

Coen makes some audacious decisions in his interpretation, not least in the casting of Kathryn Hunter, contorting her body as all three witches (presented as a single figure with two reflections in the water or apparitions fading into the mist) and the way in which the role of Ross (Alex Hassell) has been reworked to make him a more significant character (the third murderer) playing both sides and with a coda in which he retrieves the escaped Fleance. The dialogue too is given a new slant, monologues reimagined as conversations while Macbeth’s hallucinations of the dagger (here the handle on Duncan’s bedchamber) and Banquo’s ghost seen only by Macbeth and never the viewer.

The set design too is integral, the action set predominantly within  Macbeth’s castle, a disorienting claustrophobic modernist structure of  angular walls, corridors and courtyards that impart an expressionist ambience, reinforced by Carter Burwell’s unsettling soundscape, all combining with the unerring direction and razor-sharp performances to rank Coen’s  Macbeth alongside those by Orson Welles and Justin Kurzel.  (Apple TV)

Turning Red (PG)

Disappointingly not given a cinema release, the latest animation from Pixar is the first Disney release (and possibly also the first ever children’s film) to broach the topic of menstruation, although the bigger theme is puberty per se.  Set in the Chinese quarter of Toronto in the early noughties, Chinese-Canadian Mei Mei Lee (Rosalie Chiang) is a self-confident – if slightly annoying – over-achieving 13-year-old who excels at school, is close to her three besties, Miriam (Ava Morse), Priya (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan) and Abby (Hyein Park), has a Tamagotchi pet and adores five piece (!) boy band 4*Town. However, fun – like karaoke with her friends – always has to take a back seat to her chores, most specifically helping her controlling, uptight mother Ming (Sandra Oh) run the family’s ancestral temple dedicated to Sun Yee, a scholar, poet and, warrior who saved her village from its enemies by asking the gods to transform her into a  giant red panda. The Lee family believe the creature blessed subsequent generations with good fortune. However, Mei is about to find out that’s not the only thing that goes with the legend.

When she suddenly finds herself attracted to Devon, the tween who works down the local store, and starts drawing pictures of him (as a merman, with her, etc.) in her notebook (something that prompts a humiliating overreaction from mom), it’s a sure sign puberty is kicking in. And with it comes that change from girl to woman. However, rather than, as mom calls it, the blooming of the red peony, it manifests itself in a dramatically different way as, getting excited thinking of Devon she suddenly transforms into a giant red panda.  Only when the hormones stop raging and she calms down does she revert back to normal. She’s horrified by her new self. She doesn’t want to be hairy! And she doesn’t want to smell! And it’s something she most definitely wants to keep secret from mom (who has high expectations for her daughter and reckons boys and pop music are basically manifestations of the devil – she’s a Celine Dion fan) and her put-upon easy going dad (Orion Lee). But when she finds her mother (who, as we later learn went through the same panda experience) has stalked her to school with a packet of sanitary pads, her inner panda simply erupts.

Fortunately, being around her three friends allows her to keep it in check, trying to persuade mom she’s in control so that she’ll let her go to the local 4*Town concert. Naturally mom’s having none of that, so the four girls plan to raise the ticket money themselves, Mei cashing in on the fact her schoolmates reckon her furry alter ego is super cool and are willing to pay for selfies, t-shirts and much more.

Unfortunately, it’s at this point that her grandmother (Wai Ching Ho) arrives with Mei’s aunties to perform the ritual that will cast out the panda, and it turns out that Mei’s not alone in having controlling mother issues.  However, with the ritual the same night at the concert, Mei has to decide who she wants to be – the little girl her mother demands or  her own person as the film heads to its SkyDome  panda v panda showdown climax.

Sharing much with earlier Disney offerings Mulan, Brave and  Moana (though Mei is not your usual princess) as well as influences from Studio Ghibli animations like My Neighbour Totoro, with Billie Eilish and her brother Finneas O’Connell contributing to the soundtrack,  it’s a  wonderful coming-of-age story that amusingly captures  teenage rebellion (“I like boys, I like gyrating!” Mei screams at her mother) as the need for parental approval and breaking free clash, trumpeting its embrace your inner weirdo  message as Mei reconciles with the  messy side of her personality to declare “My panda, my choice, Mom”. Tweenage girls will adore it, their moms maybe less so. (Disney +; Rakuten TV)

Umma (15)

The debut feature from writer/director Iris K. Shin, this draws on South Korean haunting horror while also exploring inherited generational trauma and dysfunctional mother-daughter issues and, if there are undeniably flaws with a somewhat pat ending, it’s also creepy and dark enough to keep you involved.  Traumatised by her umma (Korean for mother) (MeeWha Alana Lee) as a child who would lock her in a cupboard when she was disobedient (and inflict a much worse punishment  revealed in the last act), Amanda (a powerful Sandra Oh) now lives off the grid in a house where all forms of electricity are forbidden, keeping bees and running an increasingly successful honey-making business with her home-schooled non-Korean speaking daughter Chris (Fivel Stewart), herself regarded as a ‘weirdo’ by the kids in town, their only friend being local shopkeeper  Danny (Dermot Mulroney), who acts as middle-man to sell the produce.

Amanda suffers nightmares and blackouts and things get worse when her uncle turns up to inform her her mother has died, accuses her of being a terrible daughter and leaves a suitcase containing mom’s remains and such artefacts as a heirloom mask and a kimono for her to perform a ritual ceremony to prevent her turning into a “gwishin”. Inevitably, her mother’s restless ghost starts putting in appearances, Amanda’s mental state further rattled by discovering Chris secretly wants to apply to go away to college, an act of ‘disobedience’ and threat of abandonment that, Chris enlightened by Danny’s niece (Odeya Rush) as to mom’s deceptions, tips her over the edge and almost quite literally turns her into her own mother.

While initially intense with its camerawork and spookiness, body horror, bee swarmings and a dark cellar and even an attic, Shim makes a common first timer mistake of  repeating things and piling on exposition rather than letting the film speak for itself, while the predictable climactic confrontation between Amanda and her mother’s spirit is decidedly confused and confusing.  It doesn’t really pull off its attempt to be an American-Korean answer to Jordan Peele, but even so it’s an impressive calling card. (Rakuten TV)

Uncharted  (12A)

Some fifteen years in development, this finally sees the hugely successful PlayStation video game on the big screen, the result, however, is a decidedly anticlimactic experience that stuffs in a succession of action set pieces but fails to find any heart or soul.

A prologue sets up the foundation for what follows, with brothers Nathan and Sam Drake (supposedly descendents of Sir Francis), living in an orphanage after the death of their parents, sneaking out after dark night to rob antiquities from the local museum.  When apprehended, Sam takes off into the night, never to seen again although, as the film later reveals,  sends regular postcards to his brother.

Fast forward several years, and the now grown Nate (Tom Holland)  is working in a trendy New York cocktail bar where he deftly picks the pockets of its wealthy customers. Enter Sully (Mark Whalberg, initially intended to play Nate) who proposes they join forces to hunt down the legendary lost gold of  16th-century gold explorer Ferdinand Magellan, which Sam told his brother about before disappearing. Initially reluctant, Nate changes his mind in pretty much a heartbeat, setting the main thrust of the narrative in motion and adding to the mix Chloe (Sophia Ali), Sully’s gold-hunter partner’girlfriend as the third wheel in the quest and martial arts warrior Braddock (Tati Gabrielle as a sort of bargain basement Grace Jones) who works for Santiago Moncada (Antonio Banderas), part of the shady Spanish family which, down the centuries,  funded the Inquisition and the Franco regime, and is also obsessed with recovering the gold (to the extent of offing dad when he decided to longer cough up the funding).

As such, the plot kicks off with them having to steal an antique cross from an auction which, along with its counterpart (yes, it’s a double cross) provides the literal key to unlocking assorted secrets, vaults and the like, taking the adventurers on a globe-trotting romp that lifts from various instalments of the video game, avoiding booby traps and, in Nate’s case,  surviving a fall from a  transport plane aboard its cargo,  before the third act climax has them and their rivals airlifting a couple of beached galleons from out of the Phillipines jungles.

The action sequences are, by and large, exciting but all the character stuff in-between is just flat and dull, with Moncada’s departure  midway, promoting Braddock to chief  villain, seeming more like Banderas  exercising a contract exit clause  rather than a narrative decision. Holland gives his best, but feels too light for the role even if he is supposed to be a younger Drake while  Whalberg  lets his furrowed brow do all the acting and Ali and Gabrielle never get to do much more than fulfil their one-dimensional purposes. Director Ruben Fleischer, who gave the world Venom, dresses it up in the manner of Thirties adventure movies and Saturday morning matinees, but, compounded by clunky dialogue, only succeeds in underlining how much better this was done by Raiders of the Lost Ark and National Treasure, both of which it  evokes to its disadvantage.  (Rakuten TV)

Where The Crawdads Sing (15)

As with the big screen version of The Lovely Bones, this adaptation of the bestselling novel by Delia Owens is an often underwhelming disappointment.  Named for the species of lobsters (which don’t actually sing) that inhabit the North Carolina marshes where the story is set it mostly unfolds in 1969 as Catherine (Kya) Danielle Clark (Daisy Edgar-Jones) is arrested and put on trial for the murder of Chase Andrews (Harris Dickinson) Barkley Cove’s star quarterback, whose body is found at the foot of a fire tower and presumed to have been pushed through a gap in the gratings, facing the death penalty if found guilty. There is a lack of physical evidence, but Kya is the prime suspect, partly because the pair had a secret romance until she discovered he’d been lying to her but largely because she is regarded by the community as an outsider, derogatorily referred to as The Marsh Girl on account of her living alone out in the wilds.

Defended by kindly retired local attorney Tom (David Strathairn), clad in white linen suit, one of the few who befriended her as a child, the trial scenes are juxtaposed with flashbacks, starting off  in 1953 with the young Kya (Jojo Regina) witnessing her mother (Ahna O’Reilly) and siblings suffering domestic violence at the hands of her abusive, hard drinking father (Garret Dillahunt), mom eventually disappearing into the night eventually followed by Kya’s brother and  sisters, leaving her alone with her father, who, temporarily off the bottle, teaches her to fish and gives her a bag to keep her collection of shells and feathers .

At some point, he too leaves, Kya remaining to raise herself in the marshes, trading mussels harvested in the marshes with kindly Black storekeepers Mabel (Michael Hyatt) and Jumpin’ (Sterling Macer Jr) before encountering local young boy Tate (Luke David Blumm) when she gets lost in the marshes and who (now played by Taylor John Smith), some years later, teaches her to read and write (she spent only one day in school where she was humiliated and never returned), becomes her boyfriend and encourages her to send her drawings of the local flora and fauna off to a publisher. However, continuing her experience of abandonment, he leaves for college and never returns, at which point Chase enters her life, and with him the return of the toxic masculinity that is one of the narrative themes.

Indeed the film creaks under the weight of themes and genres,  domestic abuse, prejudice against the less-fortunate, murder mystery, coming of age, courtroom drama, love story to the extent it never really reconciles them into a comfortable balance, too often falling into cliché or melodrama, leaving plot lines unresolved, sometimes on purpose, sometimes not. Edgar-Jones (last seen surviving her boyfriend’s cannibalistic tastes in Fresh) brings a fine mix of vulnerability and strength to the role but can do little to overcome such narrative mysteries of how quickly she goes from being illiterate to knowing the Latin names of species, engaging in deep intellectual conversations and always looking as, well, fresh as a daisy, given the feral circumstances in which she lives.

Prior to Chase’s death, Tate reappears on the scene asking for a second chance and adding to the several misdirections as to what might have happened on that night when Kya was away from town for a meeting with her publishers, although the prosecution argues she could still have got a bus back, committed the murder and the returned to her hotel.

A plotline about social services is introduced but never developed, as is the threat of developers buying up the marshlands where she lives, while, more crucially, the courtroom scenes lack tension and there is almost no chemistry between Edgar-Jones and a somewhat vanilla Taylor Smith, which doesn’t help in conveying how this is the love of her life while Dickinson is stuck in a one-dimensional bad boy role

Director Olivia Newman and cinematographer Polly Morgan capture the beauty of the marsh landscape with its Spanish moss and tranquillity, a refuge from the noise and hostility of the outside world, but the film never gets quite the same grip on the narrative, ending with a rapid montage of Kya’s later years and a final reveal and voice over comment about prey and predators and what did happen the night Chase died. By then, however, you might not really care. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Vue)

Screenings courtesy of Cineworld 5 Ways

CINEMAS

Cineworld 5 Ways – 181 Broad St, 0871 200 2000

Cineworld NEC – NEC 0871 200 2000

Cineworld – Mill Ln, Solihull 071 200 2000

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

Empire – Great Park, Rubery, 0871 471 4714

Empire Sutton Coldfield – Maney Corner, Sutton Coldfield

0871 471 4714

The Everyman – The Mailbox 0871 906 9060

MAC – Cannon Hill Park 0121 446 3232

Mockingbird, Custard Factory 0121 224 7456.

Odeon Birmingham -Birmingham, 0871 224 4007

Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe – Ladywood Middleway, 0333 006 7777

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

Reel – Hagley Rd, Quinton, Halesowen 0121 421 5316

Vue Star City – Watson Road, 08712 240 240

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