MOVIE ROUND-UP:From Fri May 3

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

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The Fall Guy (12A)

Taking the 80s TV series of the same name as its inspiration (the pre-credits scene has two cameo homages and the end credits feature Blake Shelton’s cover of  the series’ Unknown Stuntman  theme song originally performed by its star Lee Majors ), this puts the focus on the unsung heroes of movies, the stunt double who does all the dangerous stuff for the star. Here, it’s Colt Seavers (Ryan Gosling), the longtime stand-in for internationally famous action star diva Tom Ryder (Aaron  Taylor-Johnson channelling Matthew McConaughey). However, when he’s badly injured when a  stunt goes wrong, he blames himself and drops out of the business and also walks away from camera operator love interest Jody Moreno (Emily Blunt), taking up a job as a Mexican restaurant valet. However, eighteen months later, he gets a call from Ryder’s producer Gail Meyer (Hannah Waddingham), who tells him that Jodys is making her directorial debut with a sci-fi action romance called Metalstorm and has specifically asked for Colt to be Tom’s stunt man. Seeing a  chance to rekindle the flame, he heads to Sydney only to find Jody, still angry over the break-up,  isn’t best pleased to see him and that she never asked for him and puts him through stunt repeat after repeat as payback as she airs her grievances disguised as plot points via a bullhorn.

Instead, it turns out Gail   wanted him there because Tom, who’s fallen in with a bad crowd, has gone awol and she wants him to track him down before the studio finds out and cancels the movie. Not wanting to scupper Jody’s debut, he agrees only, after a run in with Ryder’s sword-wielding girlfriend  co-star Iggy Starr (Teresa Mary Palmer), to find a dead body on ice in Ryder’s hotel apartment bathroom. This, it turns out was his stunt replacement but, when he takes the police to the scene, the body has gone. Without giving away much more, suffice to say, just as he and Jody were getting it back together, in a plot that involves Colt’s face being  deep faked as Tom’s so he can claim he did all his own stunts, he’s now the fall guy in more than one sense. There’s also a bunch of gun toting goons who are murderously intent on getting their hands on footage on Tom’s phone. And that earlier accident may not have been the accident it seemed.

Directed by David Leith, who started out as a stunt double before making films like Atomic Blonde and Deadpool 2, with a  screenplay by Iron Man 3’s Drew Pearce and the effortlessly cool and charismatic, wisecracking Gosling on a high after Barbie, it’s a wonderfully self-aware  screwball action romcom that  features, a witty  split screen sequence while he and Jody talk about using a split screen, the ever reliable Winston Duke as Colt’s best friend stunt coordinator Dan trading lines from the movies, and  Stephanie Hsu  as Tom’s personal assistant and wannabe producer Alma. That plus a constant stream of explosions, somersaulting cars, fights aboard a  speeding dumpster and a helicopter, a  running joke about Colt’s thumbs up  after each stunt and even an action dog called Jean-Claude that only responds to commands in French and a hallucinated unicorn. Oh, and, one of the names on the sticky notes plastered all over Tom’s apartment – Jason Momoa

Gosling and Blunt generate terrific chemistry, both in terms of romance and comedic sparring, Waddingham makes the most chewing any available scenery and Taylor-Johnson is a first-rate asshole and, to a soundtrack that includes Taylor Swift’s All Too Well and the riff to Kiss’s I Was Made For Lovin’ You, the film romps along as the twists and reveals pile up while making sure the audience is well aware of how important the stunt team are to such movies with their wires and roll with the  punches moves. Indeed, the end credits include montage of the real stunt work and performers involved (no AI here), though Gosling, sporting a Miami Vice jacket, unlike Ryder, can truthfully claim that many of the stunts he did do himself.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Omniplex Great Park; Reel; Vue)

Kidnapped (12A)

Following on from The First Omen and Immaculate, the Catholic Church gets more bad press, here for anti-Semitism and child abuse, with an Italian melodrama based on the true story of Edgardo Mortara. Living with his Jewish parents and assorted siblings in  Bologna,  when he fell ill as a baby, his Catholic nursemaid, fearing he’d die and go to limbo, secretly baptised him. Then in 1858, when he was six (Enea Sala), this came to light (the servant, sacked for stealing, revealed what she’d done, with money changing hands) and the Inquisition authorities, led by the implacable Father Feletti (Fabrizio Gifuni),under the command of Pope Pius IX (Paolo Pierobon), following the laws of the Papal States forbidding a Christian to be raised by non-Christians, forcibly took him away from his family to live in a Rome boarding school for converted Jews and be raised as a Catholic priest, as well as the Pope’s pet and pawn (he personally gave him a  second baptism) in his battle  against anti-papal nationalists, who saw him as an impediment to the Unification of Italy, and the Jews, to whom he was also in considerable debt. Although not initially barred from seeing him, albeit within church confines, Edgarto’s parents (Fausto Russi Alesi, Barbara Ronchi), along with the foreign press, fought a  lengthy campaign to have him returned (this would only be allowed if they too converted) and even a failed kidnapping (that went down badly with the Rome Jewish community) while, at the same time, although telling  his mother he still recites the Shema Yisrael, he was being brainwashed into becoming a dutiful priest and partisan Catholic (Leonardo Maltese), a following he continued for the rest of his life.

It’s an engrossing story, if at times given to sentimentality, the film pulling off some nice touches such as parallel scenes with the boy hiding under his mother’s skirt and, later, the Pope’s cloak, that twins the abduction and Pier Feletti being put   on trial and   acquitted over the Mortara case with a political power struggle that sees riots forcing the Pope out of Bologna and the end of the Papal States with Rome becoming part of the Kingdom of Italy. Whether it has an audience outside of Italy is another matter entirely.  (Mockingbird)

Lassie: A New Adventure (PG)

Making her first appearance in an 1859 short story that set the Lassie saves the day template, the collie (generally played by a male dog) is the most famous canine in both the movies and on television, with eleven previous films and five TV series, two of which were animated. This is the twelfth big screen outing and comes for years after Lassie Come Home and is, like that, a   German  film dubbed into English (I think the dogs bark in either). It also again stars Nico Marischka as Lassie’s owner Florian Maurer, here spending the summer holidays together with his Aunt Cosima (Katharina Schüttler) and her foster children   Kleo (Anna Lucia Gualano) and Henri (Pelle Staacken) on her farm in the South Tyrol with their.  However, there’s been a spate of dognapping in the area with various pedigree pooches going missing with Lassie’s Jack Russell pal Pippa eventually joining the list.

Even before it’s revealed, it’s pretty obvious the pair responsible are the couple, one of whom  has an allergy to dogs, so probably not the best crime career choice, working at the local hotel They’re planning to hold a pedigree closed dog auction. Of course, they’ve not reckoned on the canny canine who, along with the kids, sets off to the rescue, allowing herself to get captured so she can free the others.

As blandly wholesome and old-fashioned as it is predictable, the acting is functional at best (the dogs have more charisma than the human cast) but it looks nice and dog-loving eight year olds who’ve never come across a mutant ninja turtle will probably enjoy it even if thе grown-ups will want to go walkies. (Vue)

Love Lies Bleeding (15)

Set in 1989,   lesbian Lou (Kristen Stewart) reads books called Macho Sluts and variously divides her time between masturbating and unblocking the toilets in the New Mexico gym she manages. To which comes Jackie (Katy O’Brian), a  square-jawed vagrant in skimpy shorts and tank top and whose over-reaction buttons are easily triggered. She’s heading to Las Vegas to compete in a bodybuilding competition, to which end, an immediate spark between them (a sort of you had me when you decked the harassing redneck), she scores both sex and a free pass to the gym, Lou persuading Jackie to take steroids to help bulk up.

There are, of course, some complications  to the ensuring romance which inevitably send things down a dark path. Jackie gets a job at a local shooting range owned by Lou’s estranged father Lou Sr (a straggly haired Ed Harris), a powerful local criminal kingpin who has cops in his back pocket and also owns the gym. Then there’s Lou’s sister Beth (Jena Malone)   and her abusive husband JJ (Dave Franco), who works for Lou Sr and turns out to be the guy Jackie had sex with prior to meeting Lou. When Beth ends up in hospital after a beating, Jackie takes matters into her own hands, she and Lou then having to dispose of the body, rather unwisely opting to dump it at a ravine where evidence of Lou Sr’s murders are waiting to be uncovered. Meanwhile, there’s the problem of a psychologically hyper Daisy (Anna Baryshnikov), who has an obsessive crush on Lou and saw her driving JJ’s car with Jackie following behind in Lou’s truck on the might of the killing. Suffice to say, there’s more blood ahead.

The title relating to a flower with blood-red petals, playing rather like a queer and more violent Thelma and Louise, directed by Rose Glass, who made Saint Maude, it’s familiar pulpy B-movie territory but gets an intense Southern film noir workout here, anchored by compelling turns from Stewart,   O’Brian (a real-life former bodybuilder)  and a creepy Harris. Tonally somewhat messy, it does, however, try a little too hard to ring some chances in Jackie’s increasing addiction to steroids and the roid rage that causes a meltdown in L.A., a bizarre hallucination in which she vomits up Lou and an ill-advised and borderline risible closing act scene where she goes full on She-Hulk. Even so, it sweats a heady suspense. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Mockingbird; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Omniplex Great Park; Vue)

Tarot (15)

Generic horror to a fault, this ticks the boxes as it goes. A diverse collection of college friends satisfying the ethnic and gender fluid diversity requirements -check. A creepy remote house – check. Ignoring the sign that says ‘keep out’ – check. The cursed artefact that unleashes the evils spirits – check. Shadowy figures – check. Rote jump scares – check. The characters gradually being killed off – check. The eccentric expert to explain the curse backstory (a revenge seeking grieving medieval mum called the astrologer) – check. And so on and so on.

Devoid any sense of self-awareness, genre originality or half-decent dialogue, the derivative plot involves the characters renting the place for a birthday weekend and, looking for booze, coming upon a box with a bunch of scarily illustrated tarot cards. To which end, Haley (Harriet Slater) who’s into all this, is persuaded to give readings to her friends: her just broken-up with-boyfriend Grant,  birthday girl Elisa, Paige (Avantika Vandanapu from the Mean Girls reboot), nice guy Lucas, Madeline, all of whom have no personality to speak of,  and annoying motormouth Paxton (Spider-Man’s Jacob Batalon the nearest to a name). After they leave the house, they then start dying (in frankly unimaginative fashion save for a darkly amusing moment where one is murdered to the ironic sound of I Saw You) in keeping with their tarot/horoscope readings, leading to the survivors having to go back and try and destroy the cards. The film was originally to be called Horrorscope after the book on which it’s based, but the choice of the eventual title seems quite fitting or at least in terms of the last three letters.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Vue)

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Abigail (18)

Initially, it seems like your standard kidnap movie. A bunch of disparate characters , break into the house awaiting the return of a young ballerina (Alisha Weir), drug her and then drive to another house where she blindfolded and  handcuffed to a bed. The idea is that, as set up by  their mysterious employer, Lambert (Giancarlo Esposito), who relieves them of their cell phones and pseudonymously  names them  after the members if the Rat Pack, they’re going to ransom her to her father for $50 million, each of them getting a $7 million cut. The gang comprise bored rich girl hacker Sammy (Kathryn Newton), dim Catholic muscleman Peter (Kevin Durand), drunk dickhead driver Dean (the late Angus Cloud),  cool and collected army sniper veteran Rickles (William Catlett), empathetic former military medic and ex-junkie single mum Joey (Melissa Barrera) and  the shouty,  smart-ass group leader, ex-cop Frank (Dan Stevens).

Things start to sour pretty quickly, Abigail warning Joey they don’t know who they’re messing with. Her dad, who she says doesn’t care for her so won’t pay, is, it transpires is a brutal crime boss named Lazar. A name enough to scare the shits out of the kidnappers. But, hey, it’s just 24 hours, so what can go wrong. The answer to that comes when, as genre buffs will have sussed from Abigail dancing to Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, the music played over the opening credits to Bela Lugosi’s Dracula, the kid’s a vampire (the film’s working title was Dracula’s Daughter) with a fine set of razory teeth, and, finding the mansion locked down with no way out, it’s all been a set-up (there’s a whole slew of motivations, machinations and character backstories explained as the film develops) but, essentially, as Abigail puts it, she likes to play with her food.

Directed by Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett, who made the last two Scream outings, as a sort of horror comedy vampire version of Clue, it’s not exactly plot heavy, largely a case of throwing in buckets of blood and gore as the kidnappers are whittled down while they try and kill the vampire using the usual tools (there an amusing gag as Sammy mistakes onions for garlic), a couple themselves getting turned (one involuntarily, another less so) before it climaxes with a pretty literal bloodbath and the cameoing arrival of Matthew Goode. A far cry from her last title role in Matilda: The Musical, Weir quite literally sinks her teeth into the part while the rest of the cast generally play the stock characters as written, only Barrera getting much of human dimension. Subtle it’s not, but it should certainly pirouette it way into horror buff hearts. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Omniplex Great Park; Vue; Until Sun: Mockingbird)

American Fiction (15)

A scathing and wickedly funny satire on white stereotyping of Blacks in popular culture where  trauma, poverty and felons dominate the narratives and how Black writers pander to those and a white liberal audience in order to get success,   writer-director Cord Jefferson’s feature debut and Oscar winner for his adaptation  of Percival Everett’s 2001 novel Erasure, is an early contender for the year’s best of list.

Jeffrey Wright gives  a career peak performance as Thelonious “Monk” Ellison (one wonders perhaps why, on a different jazz riff,  he wasn’t nicknamed Mose?), a curmudgeonly, smugly self-righteous  and inwardly self-hating college professor and respected intellectual author from a middle class family who’s struggling to find a publisher for his latest book (a dry reworking of Aeschylus’s The Persians) internally bristling at having to deal with passive aggressive attitudes at work (one of his students storms out when he tries to teach Flannery O’Connor’s The Artificial Nigger, for which he’s given a  forced leave of absence) and on the street. He’s constantly ridiculed for his taste in white wine and white women. Distancing himself from lazy perceptions of being Black, declaring that he doesn’t believe in defining art or people by race, he takes umbrage on finding his novels placed in a bookstore’s African American section, raging that the only things Black about them is the ink.

So he’s incandescent when fellow middle class Black author Sintara Golden (Issa Rae) is feted by the literary establishment and the media for her  best-selling novel about inner city Black women called We’s Lives in Da Ghetto, which, while a life she’s never known, panders to all the clichés of character and Black narrative that appeal to her white readership or, as she puts it, “giving the market what it wants”.

Letting off steam, for a joke and to prove a point to himself, he churns out his own parodic novel in the same vein, part inspired from having watched 50 Cent’s Get Rich or Die Tryin’. Titling it  My Pafology as a send-up of Golden’s supposed street language and about drugs, ne’er-do-well fathers  and gang shootings, he  has his agent (John Ortiz) send it out under the pseudonym of  Stagg R. Leigh. To his shock – and indeed confirmed horror – he’s offered a deal worth more than he’d earn in a lifetime. Needing money to pay for nursing home care for his ailing mother Agnes (a lovely understated turn by Leslie Uggams) who’s  showing signs of Alzheimer’s, he agrees, pushing the joke further by having his agent say that Leigh is a wanted fugitive.  The publishers and, inevitably, Hollywood,  are in raptures. His having had to leave a meeting with movie producer Wiley (Adam Brody) to avoid being recognised, only further bolsters the mystique behind his fantasy self.

Eventually, feeling it’s all getting out of control, during a conference call to the publishers, he tells them he wants to retitle the book. He wants to call it Fuck. It barely takes a heartbeat before they’re enthusiastically agreeing, calling it a  bold and radical statement. A movie deal is also moving forward. However, matters get complicated when Monk is asked to be part of a New England Book Association’s Literary Award panel, alongside Golden,  to decide the book of the year, and it’s decided that Fuck should be included for consideration. Despite he and Golden making persuasive arguments to reject it, their white fellow judges are unanimous in placing it top of the list. All of which builds to an awards ceremony that, in the proposed screenplay, comes with three different endings. It’s a no brainer as to which one Wiley  opts for.

Peppered with barbed humour, spiked irony (Wiley’s new film is Plantation Annihilation, a Blaxploitation starring, as in an joke,  Ryan Reynolds where   a white couple marry on a plantation and are murdered by the ghosts of  former slaves) and sheer laugh out loud lines, Jefferson also grounds the narrative in the Boston-set family and domestic melodrama. This involves  Monk’s relationships with his confrontational, substance-abusing gay doctor brother Clifford (Sterling K. Brown), divorced after being found cheating with a man, his sister Lisa (Tracee Ellis Ross), also a doctor,  who makes an early exit, his mother’s long-time live-in carer Lorraine (Myra Lucretia Taylor who gets her own story finding love with Raymond Anthony Thomas’s cop),  and his public defender  across the street neighbour turned girlfriend  Coraline  (Erika Alexander, excellent), while the ghost of his suicide father haunts his repressed feelings. While, in terms of its target audience, it may have  its cake and eat it, it’s a real classic. (Amazon Prime)

Argylle (12A)

Ignore the savage reviews, the latest screwball spy caper from Matthew Vaughn is a barrel of fun that never takes itself seriously and comes with more twists than something that is very twisty indeed. Bryce Dallas Howard is introverted Elly Conway, the best-selling author of a series of spy novels featuring the adventures of  her suave titular hero, Agent Argylle. Her latest has him uncovering a secret league of rogue agents, her reading of the  fifth  instalment intercut with imagined scenes (a la Sandra Bullock’s author in The Lost City) featuring Aubrey Argylle (Henry Cavill sporting a ludicrous square hairdo) who, in the opening scenes staged to Barry White’s “You’re the First, the Last, My Everything, finds his cover blown when trying to arrest enemy agent LaGrange (Dua Lipa) and has to be rescued by his techie Keira (Ariana Debose), only for her to be killed. Ordered in a blink and you’ll miss it cameo by Richard E Grant  to capture LaGrange, who’s escaped on a  motorbike, there follows a wonderfully ridiculous car chase before she’s plucked, literally, from her bike by Argyll’s sidekick Wyatt (John Cena), she revealing a secret file that will bring down the Division before committing suicide. The story’s to be continued in book six but Elly has hit a  creative block, her mother (Catherine O’Hara) disparagingly dismissing the cliffhanger as a cop out).

Boarding a train to visit her and get some input, taking along her sole companion, Alfie, a  Scottish Fold furball (Claudia Schiffer’s cat Chip apparently), in a backpack, she becomes the target of a fellow passengers legion of a would be assassins and is saved by the straggle-haired Aidan (Sam Rockwell proving his leading man credentials) who, it turns out is a real spy (quick fire editing having Elly variously see  him as himself and Argylle) and, the pair eventually parachuting from the train, explains that she’s being pursued by an organisation known as the Division (headed  up  by Bryan Cranston) because her book somehow predicts the future and they want her to write the next chapter so they can get their hands on a coded file called The Masterkey. The pair (Elly too scared to have ever flown before) travel  to meet  her folks in London to find the file and where hordes of heavily armed goons  turn up to take them out.

Now if all this feels a lot to take in, then what comes next is a complete rug puller as twist follows twist as it heads down assorted rabbit holes with no one   who  you  – or indeed they – think they are, Cranston turning up as another character entirely and the screenplay introducing a backstory between the confused Elly and the scruffy Aidan and a visit to France to meet former CIA deputy director Alfred Solomon (Samuel J Jackson) who reveals Argylle isn’t as fictional as she thinks.

To say more – or let the cat out of the bag so to speak – would spoil the inventive surprises as true identities are revealed and fictional characters turn out to be real, and Sofia Boutella puts in an appearance as the mysterious The Keeper, the film closing up with another book reading where Cavill turns up in the audience (with an ever more preposterous haircut) and a mid-credits sequence that links it directly to Vaughn’s Kings Man universe and sets up manner of possible sequels. Less violent that Vaughn’s usual fare (there’s a wry scene where Aidan tries to explain how Elly should squish a bad guys head and she can’t bring herself to do it) but still loaded with frantic wall to wall action. It’s utter nonsense of course, but frankly any film that can include both a slo-mo shoot-out amid coloured smoke  choreographed as a dance routine to The Beatles Now And Then and a balletic figure-skating knife fight on an oil slick just has to be seen. (Apple TV+)

Asteroid City (12A)

Shot in widescreen washed out pastel colours, drenched in retro nostalgia, deadpan dialogue, and heavily stylised with a self-aware sense of artifice, set in a  red-rock Southwest American desert town in 1955, this is quintessential Wes Anderson. With its single phone booth, one pump gas station and 50s diner and motel, Asteroid City (pop 87)  is also the site of a giant meteorite crater tourist attraction, intermittent atom bomb tests and the annual Junior Stargazers convention where teenage science geeks gather for their awards.

When his car breaks down, war photographer Augie Steenbeck (Jason Schwartzman on peak form) is stranded in town with his four kids, Stargazer Woodrow (Jake Ryan) and his three eccentric  young sisters, Andromeda, Pandora and Cassiopeia (Ella, Gracie, Willan Faris), who he’s yet to tell their mother died three weeks earlier and he has her ashes in a Tupperware tub, prompting the arrival of his wealthy father-in-law  Stanley (Tom Hanks) to collect them.

Also gathered are world  weary TV star Midge Campbell (Scarlet Johannsen, terrific), J.J. Kellogg (Live Schreiber), Sandy Borden (Hope Davis) and Roger Cho (Stephen Park) whose respective kids,  botany wiz Dinah  (Grace Edwards), rebellious Clifford (Aristou Meehan), sceptical Shelly (Sophia Lillis) and anti-authority Ricky (Ethan Josh Lee), are all award winners. There’s also Montana (Rupert Friend), stranded there with his fellow cowboys when the bus left and who’s attracted to June (Maya Hawke), a science teacher with her church group pupils, local scientist Dr. Hickenlooper (Tilda Swinton) who sponsors the awards, and General Gibson (Jeffrey Wright) who’s due to present them.

However, the ceremony is interrupted by the arrival of an alien who steals a meteorite fragment and flies off, prompting a quarantine of everyone there and a rebellion by the Stargazers to make contact, Augie’s photo being leaked to the media. Meanwhile, various romances bubble up.

Except, as seen from the start and in subsequent black and white sequences, what we’re actually watching is a television behind-the-scenes and recreation of the first staging of a play called Asteroid City by esteemed New York playwright Conrad Earp (Ed Norton), who’s in a relationship with one of the cast, presented by The Host (Bryan Cranston) as directed by the womanising Schubert Green (Adrian Brody) with all the characters being the actors who, under their real names, auditioned for and appeared in the stage production (save for Margot Robbie whose role – her lines movingly re-enacted with Augie/Jones – as the mother was cut).

Constructed as a series of tableaux, meditations on bottled up grief interweave with themes of storytelling and being aliens in our own skins and,  of course, the meaning of life (or understanding the play) And while emotion is deliberately kept at arms-length, there’s still a certain poignancy as the stories unfold. There’s also a swathe of good gags, both visual  (a recurring cops vs crooks car chase) and  verbal, among them a vending machine that sells plots of land out in the desert. Adding to the star-studded cast there’s Steve Carrell as the motel manager (inexplicably toting a pistol), Matt Dillon as the mechanic and Jeff Goldblum who has one line in the black and white sequences as the actor playing the alien. All that and a great memory party game.  At the end of the day, the dazzling style may triumph over the obtuse substance, but even so it’s an intoxicating experience. Glad to meteor indeed. (Peacock/Sky Cinema)

Back To Black (15)

The latest in what seems like a never-ending stream of musician biopics, director Sam Taylor-Johnson turns the spotlight on the five time Grammy winner, the title taken from her classic second and final album inspired by her tumultuous relation with ex-boyfriend and future husband Blake Fielder-Civil after he dumped her to return to his former girlfriend. It doesn’t go into the same depth as Asif Kapadia’s documentary and, in many ways, is something of a generic rise and fall tale of someone who briefly burns bright only to burn up, but, largely down to a spot on turn by Marisa Abela, who brilliantly captures Winehouse’s look, mannerisms, humour, attitude and, indeed, music, it’s a compelling watch.

A sassy working-class Jewish girl from Camden, into the jazz greats, devoted to her former ’50s nightclub singer nan, Cynthia (Lesley Manville), the inspiration for her eventual trademark beehive hairdo, the daughter of separated parents  taxi driver dad Mitch (Eddie Marsan) and troubled mother Janis (Juliet Cowan), she’s talent spotted by future manager Nick (Sam Buchanan) who, impressed her song Stronger Than Me dissing her emasculated boyfriend,  hooks her up with Simon Fuller’s  19 Entertainment, whose stable  included The Spice Girls (which she spells out in no uncertain terms she has no intention of being anything like), and from there a contract with Island Records. The debut album, Frank,  is a huge success but the failure of the title track to make the Top10 sees the label refusing to release it in America and suggesting she stop playing guitar and work on her stage presence, prompting one of the film’s standout scenes as Amy makes her feelings abundantly clear, declaring she need to live the experiences that will fuel her follow-up

Already overly fond of booze and weed, the slippery slope begins when she meets likely lad production assistant Blake (played by Jack O’Connell as a sort of latter day Alfie),  in a pub and is immediately attracted by his bad boy charm, he eventually dumping girlfriend Becky and turning up at Amy’s for a euphemistic cup of tea. He introduces her to the music of the Shangri-Las by way of Leader Of The Pack, a 60s girl group which specialised in songs of doomed love and, while she initially tells him it’s the drug of mugs, cocaine and then heroin.  It’s to prove an on-off  mutually toxic relationship marked by physical and verbal fights, copious bottles of vodka, a stream of tattoos, bulimia, the break-up that sparks Back To Black, a reunion, Miami marriage, his conviction of assault and eventually divorce. Throughout all of which, she’s constantly harried by the paparazzi looking to get shots of her looking her worst.

Mixing in tender moments such as she and Mitch duetting on Fly Me To The Moon and scenes with Cynthia alongside those showing the shocking  physical and emotional fall-out from her hedonistic life style and relationship, and while it omits many characters and personal and career events along the way, the core of the film is raw, intense and poignant  with Abela’s musical performances (her own vocals not lip-synched) proving electrifying, especially her Grammy Award rendition of Rehab (she had to do it from London on account of failing  a drug test) and the live lounge take of Valerie.

The suggestion that Winehouse, here often speaking of her maternal desires, went back on the booze after learning Blake’s new girlfriend was pregnant, is a somewhat controversial suggestion, but there’s little doubt that heartbreak could be listed as one of the causes of death, joining the dead at 27 ranks of Joplin, Hendrix, Cobain and Morrison, the film reclaiming her from the tabloid self-destructive addict image reminding she was a complex, flawed and very real woman. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Omniplex Great Park; Reel; Vue; until Sun: Mockingbird)

Barbie (12A)

Directed by Greta Gerwig and co-written with her partner Noah Baumbach, getting 8 Oscar nominations, Best Picture included, but notably not Best Director or Actress, this is almost too wonderful for words. Opening with Helen Mirren narrating a send of up 2001 A Space Odyssey’s monolith scene as little girls smash their dolly babies upon seeing the adult Barbie, an inspired supersaturated colour, postmodern meta cocktail of subversive satire, razor-sharp whimsy, feminism and  musical numbers, it sets up the idea that there exists Barbieland, populated with an array of different versions of the iconic toy doll and  their opposite number, Ken (including Simu Liu, Kingsley Ben-Adir, Scott Evans and Ncuti Gatwa), each Barbie linked to a child’s doll in the Real World. where, as far as they believe, women  are in charge and, like the dolls, little girls can be anything they want. Even President.

In Barbieland every day  is a good day, especially for Stereotypical Barbie (Margot Robbie snubbed in the Oscar nominations) who wakes each morning in her pink dream house, greets her fellow  Barbies (among them Issa Rae, Dua Lipa, Hari Nef, Alexandra Shipp, Nicola Coughlan and Emma Mackey),  hangs out with wannabe boyfriend Beach Ken (Supporting Actor Ryan Gosling), whose only function is to stand around and look good,  and generally radiates perfection. Until that is, amid a choreography party, she brings things to a screeching halt when she wonders aloud  about dying. The next day, she falls rather than floats to the floor, has bad breath and, catastrophically, finding herself walking flatfooted and not on tip toe. Clearly, something’s amiss. A visit to Weird Barbie Kate McKinnon), mutilated and drawn on by her real world child),ends up with her being told she must go to the Real World, connect with the child who owns her doll, and put things right, especially the cellulite on her thigh. With Ken stowing away in the back of her, naturally, pink car they travel by boat, bicycle, and rocket until they rollerskate into the human world where, she quickly discovers it’s men who hold all the power. She’s horrified, Ken (who has already shown signs of discontentment of being just an accessory, jealous of the attention she gives another Ken  and being rebuffed in suggesting sex – if he knew what that was; as Barbie points out she has no vagina and he no penis), rather less so.  He rather likes the idea of men lording it over women and, pumped up with ideas about big trucks and stallions, decides to return home and establish his own fascist patriarchy in Barbieland. Meanwhile Barbie heads to the HQ of Mattel, the Barbie toy company, to try to sort things out and is taken aback to find there’s no women executives. And when  the CEO (Will Farrell) tries to  persuade her to get back in the box, with a little help from an elderly lady (Rhea Perlman in a touching last act insider reference to Barbie’s origins) in a hidden office, she takes off and is rescued by Gloria (Oscar nominee America Ferrara), a Mattel employee who, it turns out is the owner of Barbie’s toy counterpart, rather than her spikey and sullen teenage daughter (Ariana Greenblatt).

However, when they get to Barbieland, everything has changed. The Kens, led by Beach Ken, have taken over and the girls are now all Stepford Barbies, there only to serve their every whim. Can Barbie, with the help of Gloria, Sasha, Weird Barbie and Alan (Michael Cera, launched in 1964 as Ken’s buddy, and  put everything back in the pink!

Overflowing with clever jokes along with themes of female empowerment, sexism, gender equality, toxic masculinity and aggression, the impossibility of perfection, conforming to expectations, the complexity of being a woman, who men want to be both whore and mother, being defined by your looks and finding value in who you are, it bursts with energy. It also takes digs at Mattel’s less successful lines, like Pregnant Barbie, the gender demeaning Teen Talk Barbie and Growing Up Skipper with her inflatable boobs. But it wouldn’t be half as good without the irresistible radiant star power of Robbie and Gosling (who again gets to show off his dance moves) who bring their plastic incarnations to vivid and very human life. There cameos from John Cena and Rob Brydon, a reference to Zach Snyder’s Justice League, a clip from The Godfather, and a sound track that includes new numbers by Billie Eilish Oscar winner What Was I made For? Ken’s’ I’m Just Ken showcase  and a nice  use of The Indigo Girls’  Closer To Fine as sung by Brandi and Catherine Carlile.  This is the definitive toy story. (Now)

The Beautiful Game (12)

A real thing, the Homeless World Cup is an annual international four-a-side football tournament in which, as one of the criteria, the players, as the name suggests, are homeless (or have been in the qualifying year). The film, however, is only loosely based around this rather than, as with Next Goal Wins,  retelling an actual  tournament, the players or results. Directed by   Thea Sharrock and written by Frank Cottrell-Boyce, it stars Bill Nighy in familiar shrug-shouldered pathos mode, as Mal, the coach for the England team, who recruits Vinny (Micheal Ward) as a striker for that year’s completion in Rome. Once a West Ham contender, he carries a he chip on his shoulder and, though he’s been thrown  out by his wife and is living in his car, won’t admit he’s homeless (setting up a sharply emotional scene later when he blows up after learning his young daughter has chosen him as for her class talk on heroes).

Inevitably, he has no team spirit and rubs his motley but enthusiastic crew of fellow players Jason (Sheyi  Cole), Syrian refugee Aldar (Robin Nazari), Nathan (Callum Scott-Howells) and Kevin (Tom Vaughan-Lawlor) up the wrong way, rejecting their extended hands of friendship and particularly getting the back up of Cal (Kit Young) who, also a striker, resents him potentially edging him out. In Rome, Vinny displays his skills to winning effect, but gives the others the cold-shoulder  to the extent he goes off to sleep on a bench rather than in the team quarters.

There’s a flirtatious dalliance between the widowed Mal, Rome bring back memories of his honeymoon, and Italian competition organiser Gabriella (a delightful Valeria Golino), who promises to buy him dinner if the team, regarded pretty much as rank outsiders, win. Indeed with South Africa, the favourites (Susan Wokoma scene stealing as their nun manager), missing their match due to bureaucratic red tape back home, that might actually be a possibility assuming Mac can get them to work together. There again they’ll be up against Italy, another firm favourite.

With the plot involving generous sporting gestures, Vinny winding up as a substitute for one of the other team’s players, a revelation about Mal’s past connection to the young Vinny, a romantic spark between Jason and American goal scorer Rosita (Cristina Rodlo) for whom winning would prevent extradition, Adar’s refusal to play against Italy due to ethnic hostilities with one of their players, and  the Japanese team’s amusing sightseeing and moment of glory, it follows a fairly predictable underdog sports movie of redemption and being a winner in yourself regardless of any cup. The influence of things like The Full Monty are evident but never in a way that diminishes the film or the characters, all of whom are very likeable, even if at times selfish, with the interactions off the pitch the heart of the film rather than the action on it.  It’s slight but full of charm and easily earns its place on the podium. (Netflix)

BlackBerry (15)

Following on from films about Facebook, Tetris, Nike shoes, GameStop,  McDonalds and Beanie Babies, inspired by Jacquie McNish and Sean Silcoff’s book, Losing the Signal, director Matt Johnson, who also co-wrote the screenplay with  Matthew Miller and is one of the film’s stars,  brings to the screen a partly fictionalised satirical account of the rise and fall of the BlackBerry, the mid-90s handheld precursor of the iPhone. The brainchild of meek Mike Lazaridis (Jay Baruchel) and slobby headband-wearing Douglas Fregin (Johnson), a pair of computer geeks who ran Canadian company Research in Motion, it was a pioneering smartphone with a thumb operated QWERTY keyboard with its click sound buttons. However, while they had the tech knowledge, they had no conception of marketing.

Enter Jim Ballsillie (Glenn Howerton), a driven executive and hockey buff who, sensing the pair are on to something, jumps ship from his current job (it turns out later he was fired) and agrees to come on board in return for a 50% cut and being named CEO. Much to Fregins’s horror, the more pliable Lazardi, impressed by his ruthless energy and intimidating charisma and discovering  their deal with US Robotics was designed to bankrupt them, agrees to co-CEO and a third share of RIM. Fast forwarding to 2003, with Ballsillie a balding shark in a suit who never seems to rest, he’s soon bombarding potential investors with talk of making millions, while pressuring his partners into rapidly coming up with a workable demo (cobbled together from pocket calculators and Speak & Spell toys of what’s initially called PocketLink) while they try and figure out how to get vast numbers of phones to use the free cellular network without crashing the system. Paying ridiculous fees to hire on poached engineers and sending the sales force out to sell, sell, sell, it’s not long before it becomes a feeding frenzy with the phone so addictive it gets dubbed CrackBerry.  However,  created in response to Apple’s iPhone, the 2007 touchscreen Storm version, outsourced to China, proved to be virtually inoperable (amusingly Howerson’s seen manually trying to stop them all from buzzing). Then along comes  an investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission into RIM’s dodgy hires using backdated stock options.

It races through the company’s whirlwind rise, making effective use of montages and amusing scenarios, Jim pushing Mike into an act of betrayal and his own obsessed attempts to buy his own hockey team, the  Pittsburgh Penguins, with the downfall the result of a mix of hubris, greed, overreaching ambition and sheer stupidity. Its hand-held approach, smart dialogue (inspired by Aaron Sorkin and David Mamet and actually referencing Glengarry Glen Ross), true life absurdity, sterling support from the likes of Michael Ironside as RIM’s scary operations enforcer Charles Purdy who stamps all over its hitherto hippie, slacker nature,  Saul Rubinek’s Verizon exec, Cary Elwes as Palm CEO Carl Yankowski threatening hostile takeover, and the electrifying performance from  Howerson, fixated with trying to stop the phones buzzing, it glues you to the screen like smartphone version of Succession. A morality tale about the fear of becoming irrelevant, in 2011, there were 85 million BlackBerry subscribers worldwide with 45% of the market share. Today it’s 0% and they’re no longer manufactured.  (Sky Cinema/Now)

Blank (15)

Described in one review as Misery meets Ex-Machina (with a whiff  of The Shining and Repulsion), the sci fi feature debut by director Natalie Kennedy stars Rachel Shelley as Claire Rivers, a best-selling thrillers author suffering a bad case of writer’s block with a deadline looming and nothing but blank pages to show for it. She’s persuaded to check into a  writing retreat, which, staffed only by AI projections and androids and with a fridge well-stocked with wine (and in which Claire indulges massively),  aims to kickstart and assist her writing. Initially all is fine, her every  need catered to by her hologram cyberspace host ‘Henry’ (Wayne Brady) and her personal android housemaid, Rita (Heida Reed), vaguely looking like Rachael in Blade Runner. But then there’s a glitch and the software goes on the frazzle, Claire finding herself locked in the room and Rita, who resets every night and greets her next morning like a Stepford Wives Groundhog Day loop, refusing to let her out until she finishes the book.

All this is punctuated with flashbacks to Claire’s childhood where, in a parallel set-up, her younger self (Annie Cusselle) was imprisoned at home having to care for her cruel, abusive blind aspirant writer mother Helen  (Rebecca-Clare Evans), forced to transcribe her stories, experiences that have clearly left her traumatised as she tries to tap into those memories as fuel for the book.

Kennedy infuses both flashbacks and present day scenes   with a real creepiness that’s well-served by the largely two woman cast, Claire falling apart in hysteria as she tries to find the acceptable right ending (at one point she types The EndThe EndThe End over and over) and Rita becoming an emotionally blank sociopath in carrying out her programming, passively-aggressively repeating “You seem distressed. Maybe you should have a lie down”. There’s some nice visual  touches, among them a typewriter POV shot, and, well served by the two leads, the screenplay effectively mines present day AI paranoia as it builds to its climax. (Google Play,  iTunes)

Boy Kills World (18)

Rivalling Monkey Man for its copious bloodbaths and ultra-violence as well as its revenge-driven plot, working from an original screenplay not based on a comic or videogame, the directorial debut by Moritz Mohr doesn’t know the meaning of the words restraint or subtle, but it positively explodes with kinetic style.  Set  in an unspecified land in some distant future, Bill Skarsgård plays the titular Boy, a deaf mute (his inner voice, spoken by H. John Benjamin, channelling a character in an arcade game he used to play) who  (Cameron/ Nicholas Crovetti as his younger selves) saw his mother and kid sister  Mina (Quin Copeland) executed by the  psychotic dictator Hilda van der Koy (Famke Janssen) as part of an annual ceremony called The Culling in which, with Hunger Games echoes,  troublemakers are rounded up by her goons and slaughtered on live television sponsored by a popular breakfast cereal.

Rescued   from hanging (his tongue cut out and eardrums burned) and raised by a Mr Myagi-like martial arts expert known as the Shaman (The Raid’s Yayan Ruhian), he’s brutally trained to become a living weapon so he can kill the reclusive Hilda, though that will first mean taking down her murderous sister    Melanie (Michelle Dockery), brother-in-law   Glen (Sharlto Copley), who hosts the television events, and brother Gideon (Brett Galman) who’s her operations manager in charge of rounding up the victims. Plus there’s Hilda’s unstoppable head of security, June 27 (Jessica Rothe), whose thoughts flash up as words on her helmet’s visor.

He’s joined in his quest by   fellow dissidents Basho (action star Andrew Koji playing comic relief) and Benny (Isaiah Mustafa), Boy’s inability to lip read the latter’s gibberish providing a running gag. He also has regular chats with the imagined smart ass ghost of his dead sister who, at one point dresses up as a butterfly fairy and flies into the thick of battle. Skulls are caved in, limbs and heads severed and bodies shredded with a cheese grater as it builds to climatic scenario in a wintry TV studio set, by which point Boy’s red jacket, and indeed his whole body, is drenched in blood. For all this, it still plays everything with tongue firmly in a Deadpool-like self-aware cheek, a charismatic Skarsgård, whose face and abs do  his acting,  cheerfully mugging   (at one point he takes a break from killing to scoff a plateful of macarons) while everyone else gleefully vamps it up, devouring the scenery as they go.

Then, when it comes to the final act, while revenge remains the motivation, even though one reveal’s no real surprise, it turns everything on its head and audaciously raises the stakes in totally unexpected ways.  Wonderfully gleeful B movie trash, like Boy, it absolutely kills it. (Cineworld 5 Ways; Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; until Tue: Mockingbird)

Challengers (15)

Written by Justin Kuritzkes, the husband of  Past Lives writer-director Celine Song, and directed by Luca Guadagnino who made the erotically charged Call Me By Your Name   and Bones and All, this is an electrifying love-triangle, straight and homoerotic,  screwball dramedy set against a   tennis circuit backdrop.  Art (Mike Faist) and Patrick (Josh O’Connor)  are longtime friends and court rivals who trained together at the same boarding school Academy, playing both with and against each other.

As the film opens in 2019, Art, who’s won every grand slam  but never the U.S. Open, has lost his mojo, losing games to patently inferior players and is considering throwing in his racquet and retiring. To try and keep him on track his wife and coach, Tashi (Zendaya), a former star  player, has persuaded him to compete in the ATP Challenger Tour in New Rochelle, N.Y., the winner  getting to qualify for the Open, where, faced with a string of no-hopers, he reckons winning will reignite the spark. However, also taking part is wild card bad boy Patrick who, down on his luck, credit maxed out and reduced to sleeping in his car (he has to seduce women so he can get a  place to stay, his legendary huge penis clearly an advantage), who, it transpires, was once Tashi’s lover and for whom she may still have feelings. He reckons that he can win her back by defeating his former friend. Or is it perhaps Art he really loves and wants to win back?

Told in a volley of flashbacks and flashforwards, narratively lobbed back and forth, it shows how the three first came together 13 years earlier, they, as teenagers,  having  just won the men’s doubles in the junior division at the Open and then watching her  win her championship singles match. They attend her Adidas-sponsored post-win party, both attracted to her and culminating in a sexually charged hotel bedroom scene   ending up in first a three-way kiss and then the boys snogging each other, she declaring she doesn’t want to be a homewrecker. The film then follows how it all fell apart, covering the collapse of the Tashi/Patrick relationship,  the injury that led to her retirement and the simmering friction between her and Art over their respective ambitions or lack thereof.

There’s rows, infidelities, tense grudge matches,  a car park sex-based negotiation  about throwing a match (scored to an angelic boys’ choir singing Welsh hymn Levy-Dew) and much more, all interspersed with some highly kinetic tennis with the balls flying straight to camera. Everyone’s motivations and actions are questionable, but the screenplay never has you siding with one against the other, all three clearly complex and emotionally and psychologically wounded characters. A case of love all, love everything, love nothing.

The constant back and forth across the net and the years can become confusing (hairdos and clothes provide signposts), but, with a techno score by Atticus Ross and Trent Reznor, it never once loses its grip as it heads to its incredible climax. Both Faist and O’Connor are dynamite while, crackling with sexual lightning and burning up the screen,  Zendaya, coy, flirtatious, scheming and calculating, often in the same moment, seems on course to get her first Oscar nomination. Wimbledon was never like this. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Everyman; Mockingbird; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Omniplex Great Park; Reel; Vue)

Chicken Run: Dawn Of The Nugget (PG)

Back in 2000, Aardman Animation released their first feature film, the story of a bunch of chickens escaping from their captivity in a chicken farm, going on to become the highest-grossing stop-motion animated film in history.  Now,  23 years later comes the sequel. And if the first film was parody of The Great Escape, the template this time, as is made clear from one of the lines, is Mission Impossible.

Living in a self-governing island community, secreted away from humans,  Ginger (now voiced by Thandiwe Newton), who led the escape, and her  American rooster hubbie Rocky (now voiced by Zachary Levi),the self-styled Lone Free Ranger, are thrilled when they become proud parents to their first chick, Molly (Bella Ramsey). Molly, like her mother, is rebellious with a  sense of adventure, but is firmly told she must never venture across to the mainland and a “world that finds chickens so … delicious”. It’s a warning that becomes even more important when Ginger sees humans clearing the trees on the opposite shore and a Fun-Land Farm truck with an image of a chicken in a bucket.

Needless to say, mum having told her she’s  a big brave girl, Molly pays no attention and sneaks away to find out more, meeting up with curly-haired Liverpudlian chicken Frizzle (Josie Sedgwick-Davies),who persuades her to join her and infiltrate this apparent chicken blue sky utopia (a sort of Barbieland meets Teletubbies landscape) with all the corn you can eat and where every chicken gets their own bucket and lives a life of supreme happiness.

Except, of course, it proves to be anything but and the slogan “Where chickens find their happy endings” has a definite irony. The collars the chickens wear turning them into blank, hypnotised zombies who just can’t wait to climb the staircase to the glowing sun, to the accompaniment of Cliff Richard’s Summer Holiday, oblivious that they’re going to be turned into chicken nuggets.

So now, having broken out of a farm in the first film, Ginger now leads a mission to break into one. To which end she’s joined by both Rocky and her returning feathered friends, knitting enthusiast Babs (Jane Horrocks), Busty (Imelda Staunton), Mac (Lynn Ferguson) and the elderly Fowler (now voiced by David Bradley) who can’t stop talking about his wartime exploits. Back too are scavenger rats the cynical Nick and his dimwit accomplice Fetcher, this time round voiced by Romesh Ranganathan and Daniel Mays, lending a hand to save their ‘niece’ Molly.

Once within the heavily fortified compound, which looks like a Bond villain lair (robotic mole sentries, pop-up vacuum tubes and laser-guided iron ducks), it’s a race against time before evil scientist Dr  Fry (Nick Mohammed) delivers the promised supply of nuggets to Reginald Smith (Peter Serafinowicz), the owner of the Sir Eat-A-Lot fast food franchise. Which is when Ginger gets the shock of her life to discover Dr Fry’s wife and partner is none other than Mrs Tweedy (Miranda Richardson), the owner of the farm they escaped from and who she thought had fallen to her death. And when Tweedy realises Ginger is leading an attempt to free these chickens, it all gets very revenge personal. And when all seems lost, ingeniously popcorn proves to have more uses than just stuffing your face.

Naturally it’s full of puns and old fashion humour (there’s a couple of bottom jokes for the young sniggerers) with clever contemporary gags involving a retinal scanner (and eye-pad) as well as nods to the likes of The Truman Show and Squid Game for the grown up along with a message to mums and dads about their children spreading their wings   but keeping them safe at the same time. It may not bring about a mass avoidance of KFC, but it might just prompt a few thoughts about where those breadcrumbed bites come from. (Netflix)

Civil War (15)

There’s no backstory as to why or how, but, unlikely political allies, Texas and California have joined together under a  two-star flag as the Western Forces, in an act  of secession which, as the film opens, has led to a civil war that is now in its final stages, they, despite protestations by the fascist President (Nick Offerman) bombastically proclaiming the contrary (“Some are already calling it the greatest victory in the history of mankind”), and the “Florida Alliance”  also closing in, emerging as the victors. Given the deliberate resonances of the President with  Trump, it might feel less a work of fiction than a prophecy of what might follow if he loses – or indeed wins – the upcoming election.

But, written and directed by Alex Garland, this is not, as the trailers might suggest, an action blockbuster. Indeed, it’s only in the final act, when the apocalyptic fighting reaches the Washington DC war zone, that the bombs and bullets really let rip in electrifying manner. Rather, this is a gripping tribute to the courage of journalists and photographers who risk their lives to report on conflicts, here taking the form of a road trip through a country torn apart, with bodies hanging from bridges, makeshift refugee camps in abandoned stadiums, suicide bombers and murderous militia. Taking the journey are  battle-scarred photographer Lee (Kirsten Dunst), who, named for an modelled on WWII photojournalist Lee Miller, gained fame in covering  the “ANTIFA massacre”, and boozy Reuters reporter writer Joel (Wagner Moura), their being to secure an interview with the President while he’s still breathing, along with veteran wisdom-dispensing old school journo Sammy (Stephen McKinley Henderson). The group’s rounded out with  Jessie (Cailee Spaeny), an eager, aspirant cub photojournalist who hero worships Lee, she, having saved her during a protest riot in NYC, becoming her reluctant mentor after Joel invites her to tag along.

As such, the screenplay offering bits of exposition as it goes, it follows their friendships and ordeals as they head closer to DC, the film developing their characters as it goes and how journalists such as they struggle to remain objective given the things they are documenting while maintaining a grip on their humanity. At one point, as they stop to get fuel just short of  check point,  Jessie wanders off and stumbles upon two men strung up for looting, an armed hick asking her to decide what their fate should be.  While on the road they are also pinned down by a sniper, go shopping in a town that seems deceptively normal and removed from the conflict and, in the most shattering scene, are involved in a standoff with a group of murderous loyalists (led by a chilling Jesse Plemons in fatigues and red sunglasses), duping bodies in a mass grave who casually shoot two journos simply on account of where they’re from.

Finally, another death added to the tally, they reach Washington, photographing the fierce fighting at the Lincoln Memorial (the film switches between the live action and the black and white photos) before venturing inside the White House where the President’s making his last stand.

Crafted around massive set pieces and more small scale intimate moments, brilliantly lensed by  Rob Hardy in  mostly verité style, every second sweats with suspense while delivering the embedded message (“Every time I survived a war zone, I thought I was sending a warning home: Don’t do this. But here we are”, says a disillusioned Lee)   never romanticising what it depicts, where even the ‘good guys’ are capable of atrocity, it’s absolutely stunning. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Everyman; MAC; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Omniplex Great Park; Reel; Vue)

The Creator (15)

While this may tap into current concerns about artificial intelligence, a more basic theme of director Gareth Edwards and co-writer Chris Weitz’s sci fi epic is fear of the other. Essentially restaging the Vietnam War in 2070 New Asia, with the Americans looking to eradicate  simulants, human-like robots that can be lookalikes of their human templates, here presumably standing in for  communists. This is on account of how, a decade or so earlier,   AI software detonated a nuke in Los Angles (the actual explanation is delivered as almost an aside towards the end), leading to the USA (and its allies) banning all forms of AI. It remains legal, however, in New Asia, hence why Josh Taylor (John David Washington),  a US army special forces operative with a cybernetic arm and leg, is working undercover to find and kill Namada, the mastermind behind the AI. To do so, he’s targeted Namada’s daughter, Maya (Gemma Chan), but things have got complicated in that he’s gone native, married her and she’s pregnant. Things all go pear-shaped when a sudden US attack bows his mission and cover, resulting in Maya apparently being killed when Nomad, the hovering US military installation wipes out the compound.

Extracted, Taylor is given the chance to redeem himself  by going back in and finding and destroying the rumour superweapon Namada’s developed, his commanding officer Andrews (Ralph Ineson) and ruthless anti-AI mission leader Howell (Allison Janney playing against type) telling him Maya is actually still alive. A mission is duly set up and, although it all goes to shit, Taylor manages to infiltrate the  vault containing the weapon, which turns out to be a child simulant (seven-year-old Madeleine Yuna Voyles)  with the ability to disrupt electronics. Naturally, this triggers Taylor’s paternal instinct with Alphie, as he names  her, becoming  his surrogate daughter, looking to protect her against  Howell and her team (that one holds a gun to a  puppy’s head denotes what bad guys they are) who, warmongering Americans,  are determined to kill her along with the rest of the AI population (simulants.  flat-headed androids or those with Amar Chadha-Patel’s face who work as the police) and their human kin,  he and Howell hoping she can lead him to Maya (aka Mother).

The influence aren’t hard to spot with elements of The Terminator, Akira, Apocalypse Now, Blade Runner and Star Wars, the film climaxing as a variant on Luke  destroying the Death Star while Alphie’s power is its version of The Force. It’s also not hard to read a Christian parallel with Maya the Virgin Mary, Josh as Joseph and Alphie the AI saviour with a  purpose to bring peace to the world (asked at  one point what she’d like, as in to eat, she replies for robots to be free).

Given Edwards’ special effects background, it’s no surprise that up there in the Avatar league the film looks incredible, but it also taps into a deep emotional vein  too in its exploration of family, morality, xenophobia. The chemistry between Washington and Voyles, who as the adorable innocent Alphie is the soulful heart of the film, summoning her powers by placing her hands together in prayer like some AI take on the Dalai Lama. A scene between her and Taylor talking about heaven is  terrific and comes back in the final moments with a piercing poignancy.

There’s moments of humour such as the kamikaze robo-bombs that stomp to their destruction with an “it’s been a honour to serve you” and robots watching  holograms of exotic AI dancers, but mostly this keep up the dynamic intensity as the action piles up with a relentless drive as the simulants (headed up here by  Ken Watanabe) are driven to a last stand. Derivative it may be, but there’s no denying it delivers everything it promises.  (Disney+)

Damsel (12)

Something of a step backwards for Millie Bobby Brown whose star has risen rapidly since  coming to prominence in Stranger Things and getting rave reviews for her two Enola Holmes outings, this casts her as Elodie in director Juan Carlos Fresnadillo’s drawn out and clunky medieval fantasy adventure. She’s the daughter of Lord Bayford (Ray Winstone in a terrible wig), ruler of a famine-stricken land, who’s chosen to become the bride of Prince Henry (a blandly good looking Nick Robinson) from the kingdom of  Aurea. Being dutiful, she agrees and the family, which includes her step-mum (Angela Bassett with bizarre English accent) and  adoring younger sister Floria (Brooke Carter), set off to meet her betrothed and his parents Queen Isabelle (Robin Wright) and King Roderick (a barely sentient Milo Twomey). Initially showing little spark, the two start to bond, however, over a shared love of  wanting to travel and so it’s on to the nuptials. However, after her dad emerges from a meeting with Isabelle looking less than over the moon, mum’s gut instinct  and the queen’s frosty response to any extended familial relationships has her telling Elodie to call it all off.  There is, she feels, something not quite kosher.

And indeed there isn’t as, Henry taking his new bride up the nearby mountain, on which she’s seen fires glowing, to take part in what he describes as an ancient ritual, ends up with him tossing her down a  pit. It turns out that  hundreds of years earlier   a previous king and his men killed three newborn baby dragons, the understandably aggrieved mother (voiced by Shohreh Aghdashloo) sparing his life on condition that, for every successive generation, three princesses (acquiring royal status in a mingling of blood)  are to be sacrificed. And guess who lives in the cave.

And it’s in the cave that the film spends most of the remaining running time, Elodie variously climbing and falling from rocks, running away from the fire-breathing dragon and stumbling on the remains of previous sacrifices and clues as to how to maybe escape. And, when, with help from her  repentant father (who has had second thoughts about trading her life for  his country’s prosperity), she finally does, a furious Isabelle decides to substitute her with the next best thing, Floria.

There’s a degree of tension in the underground scenes, but that’s undermined by utter predictability of the generic subverted fairy tale plot and the general lifelessness of the performances with a clearly bored Winstone, Bassett and Wright hamming up their one note characters and Brown barely concealing her embarrassment as, in repeated scenes, she  cuts her hair, rids herself of corseted bondage for a more practical look and wields daddy’s sword  as turns herself into an empowered warrior and strikes up a wholly unlikely How To Tame Your Dragon alliance after clocking on to the truth about what went down. She’s not the damsel in distress, the film is. (Netflix)

Dumb Money (15)

If you think shorting has something to with an electrical fault, then this probably isn’t for you. Directed by I Tonya’s Craig Gillespie, it’s an adaptation of  Ben Mezrich’s The Antisocial Network which documented the 2021 GameStop financial soap opera, a David and Goliath battle between Wall Street and  amateur investor (from whence the title term insult comes) Keith Gill (Paul Dano), who, as  Roaring Kitty,  used the Reddit and YouTube social media to spark interest in stocks  in  GameStop, a chain that specialised in reselling computer games,  and which the Wall Streets sharks were betting against, shorting, to make a killing when it collapsed.  Written by Rebecca Angelo and Lauren Schuker as high drama, it does its best to make things comprehensible for the layman but even so it might be a good idea to take along a financial adviser to explain as it goes.

Reckoning GameStop was undervalued (during the pandemic it was allowed to stay open as “essential workers”), supported by wife Caroline (Shailene Woodley) and much to the bafflement of his underachieving brother Kevin (Pete Davidson), using Robin Hood, a non-commission software app devised by tech billionaires Vlad Tenev (Sebastian Stan) and Baiju Bhatt (Rushi Kota), Gill decided to invest his $53,000 life savings, soon attracting hundreds of others to also buy in, among them here GameStop   worker Marcus (Anthony Ramos)  financially strapped  Pittsburgh single mum   nurse Jenny (America Ferrera) and lesbian lover  students Harmony (Talia Ryder) and Riri (Myha’la Herrold) saddled with ever-increasing loans. Ranged against them were high profile traders Gabe Plotkin (Seth Rogen), Steve Cohen (Vincent D’Onofrio) and Ken Griffin (Nick Offerman), who, as the Game Stop investors saw their wealth soar, were faced with catastrophic losses, Plotkin’s Melvin Capital having to bailed out stop it collapsing. Eventually, Tenev and Bhatt were leaned on to put a stop to Gill using their software, shutting down his access to wallstreetbets,  leading to the stock falling and threatening him and his followers with ruin and leading to a congressional hearing (the end credits featuring actual footage).

Gillespie keeps things moving, using onscreen titles to keep you up to speed with the financial scores, in a film which takes the events to show how the system is rigged against the small fry, getting you rooting for the nerdy, headband wearing Gill and hissing at his despicable opposite numbers while underlying it with a personality-driven story of self-belief. Headed up by Dano, the cast, which also includes Clancy Brown as Gill’s father and, a mostly PPE masked,  Dane DeHaan as Marcus’s rules-citing boss, are on cracking form and the script leavens the mounting tension with a substantial vein of humour (such as Plotkin’s advisors suggesting his wine collection might not be the best backdrop to the online hearing interview) and refraining from any big speech moments about the ugly face of capitalism, and while it may not have the intensity of Boiler Room or The Big Short, investing  brings rich entertainment rewards. (Netflix)

Dune: Part Two (12A)

Given there’s no ‘previously on’ styled catch up, you’ll hopefully have taken a refresher course in Part One since director Denis Villeneuve leaps right in with the bodies of the massacred House of Atreides   are torched by Harkonnen flamethrowers with the first words spoke, by way of what little exposition there is, by Princess Irulan (a new character, played by Florence Pugh), daughter of the Emperor (Christopher Walken), who conspired with the Bene Gesserit, a sect of psychic witches headed by the devious Reverend Mother (Charlotte Rampling) to commit genocide and hand control of mining the Arrakis  spice, basically the currency that underpins power, over to the baldheaded Harkonnens  led by the sadistic, bloated Baron Harkonnen (Stellan Skarsgård) with his brutal nephew  Glossu Rabban (Dave Bautista) charged with overseeing operations.

Of course, the House of Atreides hasn’t been entirely wiped out, with Paul (Timothée Chalamet), the son of the Duke, having survived (as well as three other unfortunates who become fodder for a  subsequent Gladiator-style celebration of the Baron’s other nephew and hairless heir, the psychotic Feyd-Rautha (played with lascivious relish and blackened teeth by Austin Butler). Paul has taken refuge among the Arrakis desert dwellers, the Fremen, and taken under the wing of their leader, Stilgar (Javier Bardem), who believes him to be the prophesised (white saviour) messiah or Kwisatz Haderach.

The action kicks in quickly with an ambush on  Stilgar, Paul and his mother, Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), his late father’s concubine. She will subsequently drink of the blue water of life (you really don’t want to know where it comes from, nor indeed how water’s obtained from dead Harkonnen) and, face tattooed, take the place of the tribe’s dying Reverend Mother (with all the knowledge that encompasses), and who is also pregnant with Paul’s sister, Alia, who talks to her from the womb (and, played by Anya Taylor-Joy, appears towards the end speaking to Paul in a vision). Despite suspicion among the Fremen, Paul’s taken in and is trained in the art of riding the giant sandworms (here making a full-blooded appearance after being teased in the first film) with the help of Freman warrior and growing romantic interest Chani (Zendaya,) even if she does think all the prophecy talk is just hokum.

The film is, at root, about whether he is indeed the Lisan al Gaib or if his actions are a self-fulfilling prophecy to gather followers for him to take revenge for his clan’s murders, Chani worried that power will corrupt (drawing him to the dark side, Dune being a prime influence n Star Wars) while he fears the visions of devastating tragedy should he venture South.

It’s a lot to keen track off  not to mention  a wealth of Christian and other religious allegory, and there’s times when you may find yourself wondering what the hell’s going on and why (and you’ll need to also remind yourself of Josh  Brolin’s role as Gurney Halleck,   Paul’s former mentor who pups up unexpectedly). But as it unfolds it also slips in more backstory details such as Paul’s true lineage and, in something of a throwaway line, why the saga’s titled Dune, as it heads the final confrontation between Paul, Gurney and the Fremen  with Feyd-Rautha and the Emperor and what Paul has to give up in order to bring peace.

Visually its off the scale with minute attention to detail as well as massive explosive set pieces, all driven by a stupendous Hans Zimmer score and Greig Fraser’s brilliant cinematography, while that’s more than matched by the strength of all the major players (Léa  Seydoux and Souheila Yacoub are also new additions as, respectively, Lady Margot Fenring, one of the Bene Gesserit, and   Shishakli, Chani’s closest ally) as the connections between the characters, Paul and Chani, as the film’s moral centre,  in particular, are deepened (Chalamet’s  arc from Part One to the end of this is transfixing to watch). At 165 minutes it’s perhaps a touch overextended but, ending with the other Houses refuses to accept Paul’s new status, thereby setting up a Holy War, it’s nevertheless blockbuster epic filmmaking at its finest, but the prospect of another two years before the conclusion is going to be truly frustrating.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC;  Omniplex Great Park; Vue)

Femme (18)

The territory is familiar: a closeted gay man adopts a virulently homophobic persona but ends up in an intense relationship with someone he victimised. Here, as directed by first-timers Sam H Freeman and Ng Choon Ping, that’s  George MacKay and Nathan Stewart-Jarrett, the former  Preston (MacKay), a heavily tattooed thug who hangs out with a similar crowd, the latter Jules, popular drag artist Aphrodite at a London club who shares a flat with fellow queers plain-speaking Alicia (Asha Reid) and messed-up Toby (John McCrea), who has unrequited feelings for him.  Jules spots Jules outside the venue and but  he stalks off when he smiles at him. Later, ill-advisedly still wearing his gear, Jules goes to a  late-night pharmacy, Preston and his mates turn up and a brutal beating ensues.

Subsequently, he sees him at a gay sauna and makes an approach. Not recognising him out of costume, they have sex and a secret relationship begins, Preston taking him for an expressive Chateaubriand dinner and inviting him back to his flat, Jules bluffing things out by claiming they’re old mates from prison when his gang turn up unexpectedly.  Jules, it would appear, is setting up a  carefully planned revenge (significantly he wears the same yellow hoodie  Preston had on during the attack and which, of course, echoes that of Uma Thurman in Kill Bill). Or is this turning into something else entirely?

It’s a question the film, mostly set at night lit with harsh neon,  teases throughout with a twisting edge of the seat noir tension alongside the uninhibited sex scenes, Mackay and Stewart-Jarrett bringing complexity and depth to their characters, both of whose lives are a kind of performance (although the supporting cast are less well illuminated), as it builds to an end that is both devastating and disarmingly poignant. (Netflix)

The First Omen (15)

With a Catholic Church conspiracy plot that’s pretty much identical to Immaculate, even down to the Boys From Brazil touches, this offers up a prequel to the 1976 horror in which, told his child died in birth, the baby of an American diplomat is secretly substituted for another, born at 6 a.m. on the sixth day of the sixth month, the antichrist, who he names Damien. Directed by Akasha Stevenson and set in 1971 Rome amid civil unrest, taking a female perspective with pregnancy anxieties as a motif, this provides the backstory to the child’s birth, engineered by a rogue order of nuns and complicit priests who serve the Devil and, in a variation on the motives in Immaculate, are looking to bring about the antichrist to fuel a resurgence in the popularity of the church, to which people, the young especially, will turn to for help.

Enter American novitiate Margaret (Game Of Thrones star Nell Tiger Free in suitably intense mode ), who, under the auspices of her  deceptively kindly guardian, Cardinal  Lawrence (a sleepwalking Bill Nighy), arrives at the Vizzardeli Orphanage in Rome  where, under the Mother Superior  (Sônia Braga) she teaches the children, all girls apparently. One in particular, Carlita Scianna (Nicole Sorace), who is regarded as difficult, often locked in solitary and draws pictures of a girl hovering over a gaggle of nuns and of being restrained, attract her attention and, with a shared bond of disturbed childhood hallucinations,   she takes her under her wing.

The film having opened with a harrowing birth scene of a girl, her head covered in  black lace, made pregnant but not by human means, her child destined to spawn the antichrist, there’s a whole deal of misdirection as to whom the chosen one is (apparently, but for no explained reason. they must have the 666 mark  on their head as opposed to anywhere else on their body, as well as Margarita being taken out for a night on the town prior taking the veil by   fellow, more liberated roommate Luz (Maria Caballero). Margaret witnessing some unnatural grotesque childbirths (a claw emerges from the birth canal) within the orphanage and  disturbed Sister Anjelica immolating  and then hanging herself having declared “it’s all for you” all add to the somewhat slow to catch on Margaret’s sense that all is not quite right. That’s confirmed when she meets Father Brennan (Ralph Ineson) the Irish priest impaled in the original film who we first see taking confession from a cameoing Charles Dance before he suffers death by shattered stained glass soon to be, who reveals the murky plot. She dismisses that as paranoia until the finds the truth, involving any number of Sciannas and the real identity of the intended diabolic offspring.

It’s all suitably creepy with the now obligatory dark chambers and flickering candles as it builds to its frenzied birth climax, but, while horror is in ample supply, the inherent predictability rather dissipates the tension while the introduction of the antichrist’s sister sibling seems to rather obviously setting up a nuns on the run action sequel.  (Odeon  Broadway Plaza Luxe; Omniplex Great Park; Vue)

Flora and Son (12)                                                            

Irish writer-director John Carney knows what he’s good at and sticks to it. So, after Once and Sing Street here’s another Dublin-set tale of misfits connecting through music. This time round it’s Flora (Bono’s daughter Eve Hewson), a sweary, clubbing young working class single mother who makes a few quid nannying and estranged from her musician ex-husband Ian (Jack Reynor), who’s now got a new live in lover  of dubious Spanish stock, beds pretty much anyone she meets, She also frequently at odds with her electro-music loving sullen teenage son Max (Orén Kinlan) who’s just one petty theft away from juvenile detention. However, seeing a  discarded guitar in a skip, she has it fixed and gives it to him as a cheap belated birthday present, He’s not interested (he’s no aspiration to be another “Ed Fookin’ Sheeran”) but Flora decides to try and learn,  hooking up  for Zoom lessons with LA-based guitar teacher and failed musician Jeff (Joseph Gordon-Levitt).

From this point it plays out pretty much as you might expect, with a long distance flirtation between Flora and Jeff (the film nicely has fantasy sequences as he joins her to sing on a  Dublin rooftop), he teaching her to play (shooting down her love of James Blunt’s You’re Beautiful and introducing her to Joni Mitchell’s Both Sides Now), she reigniting his creative spark (they co-write a song), and mother and son working together making dance and rap music on his laptop, music, as ever for Carney, being a transformative force.

There’s distant echoes of Wild Rose, but, while both are sweet and uplifting, with the central figure finding self-worth and playing to an appreciative audience, this is a softer, more sentimental film in the way it touchingly captures the mother-son dynamic and Flora’s search for herself. Often evoking parallels with Once in its music as mutual healing theme, it may not be in quite the same league but, fuelled by Hewson’s star-making performance,  it’s a truly warm and emotionally engaging film that deserved far wider exposure than its limited streaming only fate. (Apple TV+)

Ghostbusters- Frozen Empire (12A)                           

Within  the first 20 minutes, the film rolls out a couple of old favourites (the Slimer and a bunch of baby Stay Puft figures, now reconfigured as a sort of Marshmallow Minions ) to remind  you of how good the original was.   The rest of the film does too, but not in a good way.

Again directed by Gil Kenan and co-written with Jason Reitman, it opens   with a flashback to 1904 New York where a bunch of firefighters burst into an ice cold room to find everyone inside frozen to death and discover a mysterious green metallic orb in the possession of a chain-mail veiled figure.  Cut to the present as, once again, after  capturing the Hell’s Kitchen Sewer Dragon terrorising the city, the  Ghostbusters, former science teacher Gary (an unfunny Paul Rudd), significant other  Callie (an almost pointless Carrie Coon), Spengler’s daughter, and her kids   Phoebe (a perky Mckenna Grace) and   Trevor (Finn Wolfhard, dull), who’ve moved Ecto-1 back to the NY fire station HQ, are confronted by the ball-busting mayor  (William Atherton) after the collateral infrastructure damage  who announces his determination to shut down both them and the building and effectively bans science whiz kid Phoebe, as a minor (there’s a running – or rather limping – gag with Trevor pointing out he’s now an adult), from playing any part in busting.

There’s also the problem that their ghost containment cell is full to bursting, but fortunately former ‘buster turned philanthropist and sponsor Winston (straight man Ernie Hudson) and his team, deadpan Aussie boffin Lars (James Acaster) and Lucky (Celeste O’Connor) have built a bigger, better one where they have a device that can separate entities from objects to which they have an emotional connection. Which is where, eventually, the central plot kicks in as loser Nadeem (a welcome scene stealing Kumail Nanjiani)  offloads some of his late grannie’s possessions to Ray (Dan Aykroyd, one of the few who seem to actually be enjoying things) who’s in the market for the sort of objects Winston’s lab tests. Ray’s especially interested in one in particular, a green metallic ball covered in ancient script.

Inside, as Patton Oswalt’s nerdy netherworld scholar conveniently explains, lurks the spirit of the pre-Sumerian death god Garraka who’s contriving to use both a human and a ghost  to get free, regain his horns and  consign the whole world to a frozen death. He can even freeze the proton pack beams. His scheme involves Melody (Emily Alyn Lind), who Phoebe meets in Central Park as her ghostly chess opponent, who died along with her folks in a fire (flames flicker from her spirit form), the film toying with the suggestion of some sort of paranormal same sex attraction, while it turns out that Nadeem also has a vital role to play as the Fire Master, a descendent of early ghostbusters.

Along with Annie Potts returning as Janine, Bill Murray is back cameoing on autopilot  as  Peter Venkman,  but both feel like just another shrugging nod to the franchise. There’s a constant stream of action and livelier than  the  turgid Afterlife, but there just doesn’t feel any sense of energy on the screen and nothing about the busting makes you feel good. Time to disconnect the line I think. (Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Vue)

Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire (12A)

Having battled each other in Godzilla vs Kong, the radioactive lizard and the giant ape now team up, albeit not until the climax, in this sequel returning director Adam Wingard fills the screen with eye-popping visuals and action sequences, but with convoluted (and at times knowingly silly) plot that finds little room for dialogue that isn’t just exposition or filling, or anything more than one-dimensional characters and a perfunctory quest for family theme. Although not actually connected, it feels like an entire second series of Monarch: Legacy of Monsters blown up for the big screen. Minus any depth. Godzilla Minus One it’s not,

Kong now living in Hollow Earth, it opens with him fighting of a pack of jackal-like predators and a viscerally gruesome moment as he tears one in two and gets drenched in green good. The same scene is mirrored when Godzilla enters the picture, tearing apart marauding Titan Scylla and getting splattered with yellow gunk before heading to the Colosseum to take a nap).

Meanwhile, the Monarch base in Hollow Earth is having issues with the equipment while up on the surface, Jia (Kaylee Hottle), the lone survivor of the   Iwi people from Skull Island and the now adoptive daughter of Monarch scientist Dr. Ilene Andrews (Rebecca Hall), is having visions of and drawing three peaking black triangles. And wouldn’t you know it, these turn out to be an exact match for the print-outs from the base. This leads Andrews to call on whistleblower-turned-conspiracy-blogger   Bernie Hayes (Brian Tyree Henry) who, along with dentist Trapper (Dan Stevens), called into extract Kong’s damaged tooth and implant a replacement when he comes to the surface world, joins her, Jia and a swiftly eliminated grunt pilot, on a journey into Hollow Earth to find the source of these transmissions, which seem to be some sort of SOS. In addition, Godzilla has been absorbing copious amounts of radiation (turning his scales pink) and is heading for the Arctic where he ends up battling the Titan Tiamat.

And below the surface both Kong and Jia find they’re not the last of their kind after all. Having had a run-in with a ginger kid gorilla named Suko whose trust he eventually wins, Kong discovers a whole tribe of apes ruled by the blotchy red haired evil Skar King who, mirroring Kong’s axe, sports a skeletal bone whip tipped with a crystal blade through which he controls Shimo, an ice-powered Titan, who harbours plans to reach and conquer the surface. And, venturing into an Uncharted Zone, the group encounter, would you believe it, a whole tribe of telepathic Iwi ( headed by Fala Chen as their Queen), from who Jia is descended, having been sending the signals and whose ancient carvings somehow have predicted the girl’s coming to awaken Mothra, yet another Titan and Godzilla’s one-time nemesis, and save them.

And so it all builds to a full on CGI showdown in Rio De Janeiro between Skar King, Shimo, Kong (now fitted with mechanical knuckledusters), Suko, Godzilla and Mothra that ticks the necessary blockbuster boxes, with added doses of violence and viscera (the sight of Kong chewing on serpent entrails is pretty revolting), but is ultimately just big, loud and empty popcorn bombast and if that’s all you want, then this is a gargantuan bucketful. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Omniplex Great Park; Reel; Vue)

Good Grief (15)

Written and directed by and starring Dan Levy of Schitt’s Creek fame,  this is a nicely polished bittersweet gay-based story of grief,  loss and recovery. Levy plays Marc, a London-based illustrator (who forsook his aspirations for higher things) for his charismatic husband, Oliver (Luke Evans), whose young adult books have become Hollywood blockbusters, the film opening with a Christmas Eve party at their home. Oliver, however, is off to Paris for a signing, the pair kissing goodbye on the doorstep only for, minutes, later, Oliver to be killed in a  car crash. Marc’s life falls apart. And to rub salt in the wound, Oliver’s lawyer (Celia Imrie) tells him the American publishers will want their advance repaid. She suggests, he could raise money by selling their Paris apartment. Except Marc had no idea they had one. And that’s not the only secret Oliver had. A younger dancer for example.

Thus, without revealing anything,  Marc and his two best friends, commitment-phobic Sophie (Ruth Negga stealing the honours) and Thomas (Himesh Patel), a former lover, head off to Paris looking for closure (and some nice new clothes) where, finally opening last year’s Christmas card, he unsurprisingly learns Oliver was seeing someone else. And that’s essentially the framework upon which Levy hangs his tale of love, grief,  friendship , family and commitment with the three characters working through their self-centred feelings, insecurities, fears and other hang ups, Marc having a fling with a  Frenchman  (Arnaud Valoito) who bought him a drink at a London performance art party, arrive at peace and acceptance.

Despite the at times overcooked dialogue and self-absorption of the trio, there’s a strong emotional tug (and hint of Richard Curtis) as the characters open up to each other and themselves as Levy heads to his message that “to avoid sadness is also to avoid love” (though perhaps playing Neil Young’s Only Love Will Break Your Heart seems tad unsubtle) while   David Bradley has a heartbreaking moment as he delivers a eulogy reflecting on  mistakes made in  raising a gay son. Heavy-handed perhaps, but the sincerity still shows through.  (Netflix)

Gran Turismo: Based On A True Story (12A)

Masterminded by Kazunori Yamauchi, launched in 1997 Gran Turismo is an iconic PlayStation racing simulation game, accurate down to the finest details and which, to date,  has seven incarnations and millions of followers. Directed by Neill Blomkamp, this tells the true story of one of them, Jann Mardenborough (Archie Madekwe), a mixed race  teenager from Cardiff, son of Birmingham born former professional footballer Steve (Djimon Hounsou) who played, among others, for Coventry, Wolves and Cardiff City (whose bluebird logo plays an emotional role) and mother Lesley (a thankfully underused Geri Halliwell, displaying all those acting skills you loved in the Spice Girls movie), who, from an early age dreamed of becoming a racing driver. With that being financially out of the question, as his father hammers home,  he settled for becoming a  top Gran Turismo player.

Staying generally true to the facts, things kick in when Danny Moore (Orlando Bloom), a motorsport marketing executive at Nissan (based on Darren Cox who founded the GT Academy) pitches his bosses the idea of  giving their fading car market a boost by staging an international competition for Gran Turismo players, the winners of which would be awarded a spot in the GA Academy and the chance to compete in real races. As such, he recruits Black Sabbath devotee Jack Salter (David Harbour), a (fictional) former racing driver who gave it up after a tragedy at Le Mans, as the tough love mentor whose job is to get the 10 finalists  (out of 90,000 entrants) up to snuff in the transition from game console to actual steering wheel with the ultimate winner getting a Team Nissan contract as one of their drivers. That will be the soft-spoken Jann (at one point Moore wants to scratch him as he lacks marketable charisma) then,  who chills out before each race by listening to Kenny G and Enya.

It will come as no surprise to learn this ticks pretty much all the sports underdog movie boxes, with Salter becoming Jenn’s surrogate father  (his pragmatic own dad not supporting his son’s dreams), the confidence  crisis (following the spectacularly filmed recreation of  the  2015 car flipping crash  at Germany’s Nürburgring circuit that killed a spectator), the encouraging love interest (Maeve Courtier-Lilley), hostility from the real racers, the egotistical unscrupulous rival (Josha Stradowski as Nicholas Capa, the film’s equivalent of Rocky’s Drago), the come-back and the split second chequered flag Le Mans climax (where the film does indulge in some wish fulfilment champagne popping tampering with the truth).

At two plus hours, it’s overlong and often feels like a marketing campaign for Nissan and PlayStation, but fuelled by solid performances from Madekwe and Harbour  and directed by Blomkamp puts cynicism on the back burner for an inspirational tale of triumph against the odds that, like Top Gun on wheels, makes you feel you’re hurtling around the track low to the ground at 300mph (the real Mardenborough served as Madeweke’s stunt driver) as the healing settles in.  (Netflix)

Immaculate (18)

A novitiate (the film clumsily refers to her as Sister before she’s taken her vows) ,   Cecilia (Sydney Sweeney), arrives from Detroit to take up a new position at My Lady of Sorrows, a  remote  Italian convent where aged nuns spend their final days, despite the fact she speaks very little of the language. She’s welcomed by the Mother Superior (Dora Romano) and Priest-in-Residence Father Sal Tedeschi (Álvaro Morte), a former biologist, but gets a frosty reception from the stern by-the-book Sister Isabelle (Giulia Heathfield Di Renzi). She’s befriended though  by  the rebellious  (she smokes and wonders if Cecilia’s come because of some indiscretions by a priest back home) Sister Gwen  (Benedetta Porcaroli), and settles down to follow her calling, believing she was chosen by God after surviving a childhood accident in a frozen lake.

However, given the film opens with a nun trying to escape and being dragged back by three nuns in red masks (a creepy image that’s never explored) and then sealed in a coffin, it’s clear there’s dodgy work afoot.  To Cecelia’s understandable distress, she starts having visions and then morning sickness and, while a virgin, is declared to be pregnant just a day after arriving. Naturally, this immaculate reception is greeted with delight by all, Cecelia chosen to be the vessel for the Second Coming. Well, not all.  Sister Isabelle tries to drown her, screaming it should have been her, and then throws herself off the convent roof. And then Sister Grace is written out too.  Cecilia finds herself increasingly concerned. She’s told part of the building are off limits, the Mother Superior has a red file with her photo in it, and one of the old sisters, who pops up with warnings, is perhaps not as senile as she seems.

Directed by Michael Mohan, it’s an ungainly religious horror that, contriving to have a nail relic from the crucifixion with some of Christ’s DNA, plays like Rosemary’s Baby meets The Boys From Brazil will all kinds of genetic experiments going on in the vaults and as the truth dawn on Cecilia and she tries to make a break, via the catacombs, all hell breaking lose.

Although called on to do little but quiver her lips, Sweeney, whose choice of films has taken a largely downward spiral since Reality,  at least seems to be involved in the decidedly undeveloped screenplay, and gives pretty impressive scream and the final gonzo visceral moments. But everyone else has a sort of been there, seen that, where’s the cheque attitude as, visually flat and devoid of much tension, it stumbles from one horror cliché (bird flies into window) to another (creepy dolls, fingernail falls off).

It takes a swipe at the Catholic patriarchy (the Cardinal forces her to kiss his ring – not a euphemism – when she becomes a bride of Christ) and tacks on a woman’s reproductive right to choose message almost as an afterthought but it’s a total misconception. (Omniplex Great Park; Vue)

Io Capitano (15)

Adding to an impressive filmography that includes Gomorrah, Reality, Dogman and Pinocchio, Italian director Matteo Garrone now turns his attention people smuggling and refugees, adopting a   naturalistic approach as, inspired by true stories, he traces one man’s  difficult immigrant journey from West Africa to Europe.

Senegalese sixteen-year-old    Seydou (Seydou Sarr making his acting debut) lives with his mother in Dakar but he and his cousin   Moussa (Mustapha Fall)  have secretly saved up the money they need to make their way to Europe to become pop stars. Ignoring the horror stories, they sneak away without telling their mothers on a journey that, using fake passports, will take them through Mali and Niger and then trekking across the Sahara to Libya, encountering opportunists, bandits and militias who variously torture them and take their cash along the way. In Libya, Moussa is arrested and carted off to prison, and then Seydou ends up in a Mafia-run jail too, being tortured rather than call his mother for money.  He does, however, become friends with Martin who, at a slave auction, passes the both off as bricklayers, getting work that eventually secures a passage to Tripoli, where they part ways, Seydou staying behind to try and find Moussa, the need for medical care leading   to him being forced to captain (hence the film’s title) a boatload of immigrants across the Mediterranean to Sicily.

Sometimes introducing  delirium fantasy sequences into the harsh reality, it’s a powerfully immersive experience with Sarr (who also did the songs along with Fall) bringing a compelling mix of physicality and vulnerability to his character, the heart of the film’s humanity as, after abandoning his mother, he takes on a growing sense of responsibility for  those whose lives are in his hands. With vibrant sequences of dancing and drumming balancing with the darker aspects, it’s a definite emotional rollercoaster and, even when they finally make land, there’s no indication as to whether their troubles are over or not. The power of the film is that you really hope they are. (MAC)

John Wick : Chapter 4 (15)      

Spin-offs and prequel appearances notwithstanding, the emotional final scene would pretty much seem to confirm this is  the final chapter in the series, bowing out in with a   flamboyant 169 minute (word is a 225 minute version may surface later)  clipped dialogue epic tsunami of fire, fist, knives and sword fights that may be overstuffed but never drags.

Hiding out  in the New York lair of the Bowery King (Laurence Fishburne) from the High Table to whom he still has an obligation and who have placed a $2million bounty on his head, antihero assassin Wick (Keanu Reeves at his Clint Eastwood drawl finest) is planning his revenge. This takes him to Morocco (cue homage to David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia) where he kills the Elder, resulting in the fascist rich kid Marquis Vincent de Gramont (Bill Skarsgård), the current New York High Table top dog, taking revenge by stripping Winston (Ian McShane), who failed to kill Wick, of his role as manager of the Continental, killing his concierge Charon (the late Lance Reddick) and blowing up the building.  Then, threatening to murder his daughter, he forces blind retired assassin Caine  (martial arts virtuoso Donnie Yen), just one of many biblical references, into accepting the hit on his old friend. Cut to Tokyo where Wick’s taken refuge at the Osaka Continental, run by loyal old friend Shimazu Koji (a quietly charismatic Hiroyuki Sanada) and his daughter Akira (pop star Rina Sawayama who sings the film’s theme song), but it’s not long before the High Table enforcers, led by the Marquis’s seemingly indestructible right-hand man Chidi (Marko Zaror), and Caine arrive, demanding Wick be given up, leading to the first of a series of knowingly over-the-top extended fight sequences that ends up with one wounded,  one dead and Wick again on the run.

Returning to New York, he learns from Winston that there is a way to bring things to an end. Under High Table traditions, he can challenge the Marquis to single combat and be freed of all obligations. The only problem is that he first needs to accepted back into the Berlin crime family the Ruska Roma and to do so he first has to kill Killa (Scott Adkins), the overweight, lavender-suited German Table head with gold gangsta teeth who murdered his adoptive sister Katia’s (Natalia Tena) father. And even having done that (cue another amped up sequence set amid a sea of night club dancers), there’s still the small matter of getting to the Sacré-Cœur in Paris before sunrise to carry out the duel, which, if he fails to do, will result in his and Winston’s execution, as his second, which means, armed with a top end gun and a wearing a ballistic suit, surviving Chidi, the High Table muscle and the dozens of freelance assassins all looking to collect the $20million and rising bounty, and soundtracked on their way by an on  air DJ spinning things  like Nowhere To Run. One of whom is Mr Nobody (Shamier Anderson), a cool and composed tracker, who with his lethal dog sidekick (which becomes an important plot turning point), has been keeping tabs on Wick, keeping him alive until the Marquis agrees to the fee he’s asking. All of which culminates in the reluctant Caine, who the Marquis has nominated to act in his place, and Wick facing down each other in a pistol duel moderated by the Harbinger (Clancy Brown).

Opening with shots of a fist hitting a bloodied punchbag, stunt choreographer turned director Chad Stahelski stages an increasingly elaborate and inspired sequence of balletic fights, among them a thrilling blazing guns car chase  around the Arc de Triomphe, one filmed in an overhead  doll’s-house view in a labyrinthine building and, finally, the spectacular climax set on the  Rue Foyatier in Montmartre, the 222-step stairway leading to the Basilica and down which Wick is sent tumbling at least twice as the hordes continue to come.  After nine years, during which time the narrative has got bigger and more complex, this is one big eye-popping gift-wrapped thank you to the legions of fans who have transformed it into an iconic franchise. Will you love it? Yeah. (Amazon Prime)

The Killer (15)

Reuniting with Se7en screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker, director David Fincher returns to serial killer territory with this adaptation of  French graphic novel Le Tueur, delivering a taut, deliberately clinical revenge thriller involving a cold and methodical hitman.   Michael Fassbender delivers a magnetic performance as the icy unnamed assassin, delivering an internal monologue voice over about his way of working (anticipate don’t improvise, show no empathy, stick to the plan, weakness is vulnerability, always ask what’s in it for me) who we first encounter holed up in an abandoned building in Paris, patiently waiting for the right moment to take out his target in the opposite hotel. To pass the time and relieve the boredom he does yoga, repeatedly checks his weapon, eats a McDonald’s and mentally goes through the rules to being an efficient killer. What the rules don’t allow for, however, is the unexpected, such as the target’s visiting hooker getting in the way just as you pull the trigger.

Asking himself “What would John Wilkes Booth do?”, coolly packing up his gear, he leaves, disposing of all the random tools of his trade as he makes his way through the Paris streets, eventually returning to his Dominican Republic hideaway only to find his client isn’t going to let it lie, retribution leading to the hospitalisation of the assassin’s lover after being attacked by a pair of hired thugs. Thus setting up  the subsequent globetrotting chapters (six along with the prologue and epilogue) and an array of different fake passports and storage units as, visiting Florida, New York and Chicago he proceeds to work his way up the chain of those involved.

Complemented by a score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross and an emotionally emblematic soundtrack of numbers by The Smiths the fastidious killer uses to calm his pulse rate, Fincher and cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt meticulously framing every scene, every shot, it follows an implacable body count trail, the violence gradually building as. toting a nail gun,  he calls upon the middleman Lawyer (Charles Parnell) and his assistant in New Orleans, the goons behind the attack  and, in a scene-stealing cameo across a café table, Tilda Swinton as The Expert, another contract assassin whose subtly sketched emotional complexity stand as a direct contrast to his blankness. Fincher never asks the audience to feel empathy for Fassbender’s ruthless killer, even when phantoms of a conscience seem to briefly trouble him, he then reminding himself of his mantra. Each encounter serves to strip back the carefully constructed faced he’s created, forced into improvisation when anticipation fails, such as the thrillingly choreographed fight with The Brute (Sala Baker) to the backdrop of Fiona Bruce on a TV programme.

Magnetic filmmaking  exercised with a steadily building propulsion and tension (and dry flashes of humour such as “I always dress like a German tourist. Nobody wants to interact with one of them”), it transfixes you to the screen, though it’s  hard to know which is the more chilling, Fassbender’s emotionless revenge or the fact that, for under £50, you can actually buy a fob copier off Amazon  to open an electronically protected door. (Netflix)

Killers Of The Flower Moon (15)

Based on David Grann’s 2017 nonfiction bestseller about the 1920s Osage murders in Oklahoma, the title  is derived from the Old Farmer’s Almanac in which each monthly full moon is given a different name, the Flower Moon referring to May, when the killings began.

Directed and co-written (with Eric Roth) by Marin Scorsese, his first since  The Irishman and three minutes shorter  at just under three and a half hours  marginally shorter by three minutes, it opens with Osage Indian Nation discovering that their reservation sits on a massive oil field, instantly making them oil millionaires (albeit requiring white ‘guardians’), black and white footage showing them with swanky clothes, private planes, and white chauffeurs for their luxury automobiles. Inevitably, with great wealth comes great danger from those who would take it for themselves. And it’s not long before Osage corpses start piling up in suspicious circumstances.

Into this comes the feckless and not overly bright but charming Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio), returning from serving as an army cook  who, in need of a fresh start and money, but a stomach condition making anything strenuous impossible, is taken under the wing of his cattle baron uncle William ‘King’ Hale (Robert DeNiro) who sets him up as a cabbie. One of his regulars is Mollie (Lily Gladstone), an Osage with three sisters, with whom he falls in love and marries. So far so apparently sweet. But appearances can be misleading. It’s no accident, however, that Mollie, sussing he’s out for money (every day the train brings opportunists looking for an Osage bride), refers to him as Coyote, the trickster of American-Indian mythology, and while Ernest’s intentions may start out honourably and innocently, more of a snake in this First Nation Eden,  it’s not long before he falls under the spell of his Machiavellian uncle who, may present himself as a white saviour philanthropist friend to the Osage, but behind the smile is a knife looking to carve its way into their wealth, declaring that their time has past and that of the white man has come.

He’s all for his sad sack’s nephew’s marriage to Mollie, primarily because in so doing Ernest, and by extension himself, will gain control of her ‘headrights’ to the oil deposits on her land. These are shared with her mother and siblings, so for the plan to work, they need to die. Mother (Tantoo Cardinal), and a sister (Jillian Dion) go from apparently natural causes, a wasting disease, two sisters (Cara Jade Myers, JaNae Collins) violently do not. Their deaths along with those of a husband (Jason Isbell) and private investigator (to which Ernest is party) brought into look into the brutal murder of Anna (Myers), ordered by Hale and facilitated by Ernest, his brother Byron (Scott Shepherd) , and assorted cowboy lowlifes. Mollie suffering from diabetes, Ernest, who genuinely loves her, is instructed to add a powder to her insulin shots (‘generously’ organised by Hale) to ‘calm’ her, never questioning why she seems to be getting worse.

As the Osage body count continues to rise and the elders become desperate as no police investigations are ever mounted, Mollie travels to Washington plead for help, leading to the arrival in Fairfax of Tom White (Jesse Plemons in the role initially intended for DiCaprio), part of the newly formed federal Bureau of Investigation under the auspices of J Edgar Hoover, to look into who’s behind the murders.

Now 80, Scorsese remains at the peak of his powers, guiding the film along an unhurried path as the twists, turns and horrors gradually accrue with DiCaprio, all downturned mouth, and DeNiro, both of whom he was worked with extensively, delivers subtle, nuanced powerhouse performances that rank among their greatest. As Mollie, making her feature starring debut, Gladstone, seen in TV series  Billions and Reservation Dogs, more than holds her own alongside her co-stars, her expressive face simultaneously holding love, hurt, anger, resolve and disappointment while Tatanka Means,  Yancey Red Corn and William Bellau loom large among the Native American cast, Sturgill Simpson, Charlie Musselwhite, Pete Yorn  and Jack White  join fellow musician Isbell in supporting roles  (the late Robbie Robertson created the score) and there’s courtroom cameos from Brendan Fraser and John Lithgow.

A harrowingly potent existentially horrific alternative vision (involving the Tulsa race riots, the KKK and the Masons) as to how the modern West was won with its themes of manipulation, deception, greed, moral compromise, systemic racism and betrayal, the wolves hiding among the sheep, it balances scenes of quiet beauty, such as Ernest and Mollie sitting alongside each other at the dinner table, with sudden brutal violence.

Likely designed to trim it back from a proposed four hour running time, it ends ingeniously with an epilogue which, instead of the usual what happened after end titles, sums the post-trial fates of the characters up in an episode of  radio drama True Crime Stories, a fictionalised Hoover-endorsed version of real programmes like This Is Your FBI, with live orchestra and, pointedly, white voice actors giving caricatured impersonations   of the Osage, the last being a  cameo by Scorsese himself, underscoring the trivialisation of Native American suffering, succinctly summed up earlier when someone notes there’s a “better chance of convicting a guy for kicking a dog than killing an Indian”, echoing the Black lives matter of America’s ongoing racial problems, the camera finally pulling away in an aerial shot of the gathered tribe performing a farewell ritual. This is epic, intelligent, provocative  filmmaking.(Apple TV+)

Kung Fu Panda 4 (12A)

One of the last films to be made by the soon to be shuttered DreamWorks Animation, after eight years this brings back Jack Black (whose band Tenacious D sings Britney Spear’s Baby One More Time over the end credits) to voice a fourth adventure by the dumpling-loving giant panda who has now become the celebrated Dragon Master protecting the Valley Of Peace and is setting up his own noodle restaurant. However, he’s taken aback to be told by his mentor, Master Shifu (a croaky Dustin Hoffman), that it is time to move on, become Spiritual Leader and pass the torch, or in this case Spirit Staff, to the one he chooses to be his successor (in a parade of candidates he ends up choosing himself).

Such mission, however, is distracted when he finds himself reluctantly teamed with a  streetsmart ninja fox thief named Zhen (Awkwafina, always fun), who he caught stealing from the Hall Of Mirrors, and in criminal-infested Juniper City (where no one’s heard of the Dragon Master), where Zhen’s pangolin cousin (Oscar winner Ke Huy Quan) runs the Den Of Thieves, and up against shape-shifting sorceress Chameleon (a nicely sinister Viola Davis) who is scheming to get his staff and bring back his vanquished enemies from the spirit realm, among them snow leopard Tai Lung (Ian McShane), so she can steal their powers and rule the world. Meanwhile, in what feels like a tacked-on subplot, Po’s two fathers, Mr Ping (James Hong) and  Pi (Bryan Cranston),  are on a quest to find their missing son. Li (voice of Bryan Cranston), decide to follow their boy.  Packed with butt-kicking action sequences, among them an inspired bar fight at the   Happy Rabbit Tavern as the building teeters atop a cliff, oddball new characters like  the insult-spewing Fish who lives in a pelican’s  gullet,  and vividly colourful, it’s most definitely energetic but it doesn’t have the emotional pull or the good jokes of the previous films nor, down to a smaller budget, does it include the Furious Five (apparently off on their own missions) other than for a final dialogue-free scene as it heads to the predictable selection of the new Dragon Master in what seems to be setting up a TV series spin-off. As a likely final big screen outing, it’s undemanding fun enough, but the old magic simply isn’t there. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Omniplex Great Park; Reel; Vue)

Leave The World Behind (15)

Mingling Hitchcock and Shyamalan,  written and directed  by Mr. Robot creator Sam Esmail, this collapse of civilization psychological sci fi thriller, adapted from Rumaan Alam’s novel. has three solid star turns from Julia Roberts, Ethan Hawke and Mahershala Ali (with Kevon Bacon making a  third act appearance) that keep you engaged even when the narrative feels like it’s struggling.

Jaded with everything (“I fucking hate people”), pretentious self-centred Brooklyn housewife  Amanda Sandford (Roberts) packs up husband Clay (Hawke) and the two kids, Friends-obsessed Rose (Farrah Mackenzie) and her old brother Archie (Charlie Evans), and heads off to a luxury Airbnb on Long Island, complete with heated pool. However, no sooner have they taken themselves down to the beach than a huge oil tanker ploughs up. Then, back home, that evening they lose all the Wi-Fi, radio and TV signals (pissing off Rose who hasn’t managed to watch the final Friends episode), they comes a knock at the door. It’s tuxedo-clad G.H. Scott (Ali) and his acerbic daughter Ruth (Myha’la) who are the house’s owners (though a bigoted Amanda finds that hard to believe)  and are seeking shelter at their own home following a blackout in New Work (something else Amanda has doubt about). She’s reluctant to have strangers – more specifically Black strangers – staying the night, but Clay is more accommodating (especially as G.H. pays him $1000), reckoning it all be sorted out come morning. Come morning and it certainly isn’t though they have picked up alerts that it might all be down to some hackers, who may have even hacked into the space satellites.

Is it an attack by foreign terrorists (out trying to reach town for information, Clay picks up a leaflet dropped from a plane with what seems to be Arabic writing which, as Charlie tells him, is titled Death To America) or is it something even more unsettling? Supernatural, perhaps. Meanwhile, Rose is transfixed by hundreds of deer that appear in the back garden while a flock of flamingos descend on the pool. The roads blocked by hacked driverless cars, plans plummeting from the sky (Ruth fears her mother, who was in Morocco, might have been on one) and occasional brief national emergency broadcasts about violence in Washington do little to calm the nerves. And G.H. is concerned that events are lining up as some top secret government plan he heard about from one of his highly connected clients.

Tapping into conspiracy theory and apocalyptic dread, it builds an air of tension and fear while also examining how people react and respond to one another under such scenarios (enter Bacon as a survivalist Clay turns to when Charlie needs medical help), the swooping and swirling camerawork exacerbating the gathering weirdness. Returning to its running Friends motif, it ends on an open cliff hanger (with no planned sequel) that seems certain to frustrate audiences, especially as it’s all questions and no answers, but in asking how we deal with things as they fall apart around us, those questions are unsettlingly timely. (Netflix)

The Letter Writer  (12A)

The directorial debut  by Layla Kaylif who, after establishing herself as an acclaimed singer-songwriter, now proves an equally impressive filmmaker.  Working from her own screenplay, set in 1965 in the twilight of the English colonial protectorate in then Trucial States, the precursor to the UAE,  it draws on both The Go-Between and Cyrano de Bergerac to tell the coming of age story of Dubai teenager Khalifa (Eslam Al Kawarit), who, in defiance of his father, who runs a failing pearl seller stall, sets himself up, along with a friend, writing  letters (“inquiries, complaints, follow-ups, recommendations, apologies, even divorce”) for the illiterate locals, he often paraphrasing in more blunt terms. One such is garment store owner Mohammad (Muhammad Amir Nawaz) who wants him to write a love letter in English (Khalifa’s tutor advises him to improve  his command of the language, being perfunctory at best) to a customer with whom he’s become infatuated, Elizabeth Warren (a rather flat Rosy McEwen), who, the niece of the outgoing governor and working for the Foreign Office,  has since returned to London, wanting to know when, she might return. Initially just writing gibberish until he’s rumbled, on seeing her photograph, which Mohammad keeps closely guarded and he then turns into a  shrine, he himself becomes besotted, couching the letters with his own clumsy expressions and, having discovered Shakespeare’s sonnets,  poetry. As a result, though engaged to be married to an English Colonel (Shane Dodd) who’s been posted  to the British compound near where Khalifa works,  Elizabeth starts to fall for, as she thinks,  Mohammad, her replies further intensifying Khalifa’s crush.

Intercut with the romantic misunderstandings, the film also explores the political climate of the time with the growing resentment of the British (in one scene Khalifa witnesses his mate pissing on the English flag), questions of Arab identity (couched in talk of Nasser, the future Egyptian president speaking English but still being an Arab) and unity, the value of education and generational aspirations.

It suffers from some of the usual first film issues (uneven pace,  tone and, especially in the unconvincing scenes set in London,  acting,  occasional clunky dialogue, excess subplots and underdeveloped characters), but Al Kawarit ably keeps it from sagging with a wry humour (at one point he starts dressing in furs after seeing Omar Sharif in Doctor Zhivago) and believable emotions that range from fiery anger to  tender yearning as his character struggles to find his purpose in the world in which he lives with his complicated family, a local girl (Marwa Al Hashimi),  he initially tries to woo, the middle-aged slave Buthayna (Faisa Al Moutha) seeking her freedom  and the frustration of virtually British occupation. Never less than engaging, it’s a promising debut and, as you might expect, the soundtrack includes the classic Love Letters, although, in a nice touch, it’s the version by Cilla Black rather than the Kitty Lester original. (Amazon Prime)

Love At First Sight (12A)

A meet cute romance, when, forever late,  20-year old American Hadley Sullivan (Haley Lu Richardson) misses her flight from New York to London for her father’s wedding, she is re-booked on the next. While waiting, she meets fellow traveller Oliver Jones (Ben Hardy), a British 22-year old Yale mathematics student who offers to lend her his charger when noticing her phone is dead. They get to chatting about their lives and idiosyncratic fears (they both hate mayonnaise, he hates surprises). On the plane, a faulty seatbelt ends up with him sitting next to her in business class, where they chat and flirt, she sharing that she’s uncertain about the wedding as she’s not really forgiven her dad (Rob Delaney) for divorcing her mother after he left to teach  in Oxford.

On seeing Oliver’s formal suit, she assumes he’s also returning for a wedding, which he neither confirms or denies. They almost kiss, but are interrupted. Arriving at Heathrow, they’re separated  into two passport control queues and delays mean that, when she finally gets through, he has already left for his appointment and she’s almost late for hers. And her phone being dead again, the number he texted didn’t come through.

Dad’s wedding goes well and she find she actually likes his new wife, Charlotte. Then, with four hours before the reception, on overhearing that a couple of guests are off to a memorial service for a  woman with cancer and two sons, one of whom has flown back from America, she puts two and two together and hops on a bus to Peckham  to find Oliver. Although it turns out that, her cancer returned and she refusing treatment,  his mum (Sally Phillips) and dad (Dexter Fletcher) are having her memorial while she’s still here, after all what’s the point of people saying nice things if you can’t hear them, everything having a Shakespeare fancy dress theme with younger son Luther (Tom Taylor) in jester garb doing the deejaying, the reunion doesn’t go as well as she’d hoped when she chides him for  always quoting statistics rather than being honest about his feelings. So, will they ever get back together?  Well, she does accidentally leave her bag behind.

Narrated both on screen and via voice over by Jameela Jamil as various characters (but essentially fate), it’s adapted from Jennifer E Smith’s book The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight and directed by Vanessa Caswill and, while neither she nor screenwriter Katie Lovejoy are in the Richard Curtis league, while utterly predictable (as are pretty much all romcoms), it’s nevertheless warmly charming, largely down to the chemistry between the two leads and a mix of twinkling humour and cheesy but touching messages about not letting things – love, life, death, reconciliations, slip by you in your self-absorption. (Netflix)

Maestro (15)

This marks  Bradley Cooper’s second excursion behind the camera, and, after A Star Is Born, another story with a musician at its centre. In this case, covering some 40 years,  it’s a biopic of the legendary composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein (Cooper), the first American-born conductor to lead a major American symphony orchestra (and namechecked in REM’s It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine), which is used with egotistical amusement here), one that focuses on the many dualities in his personal and professional life. A flamboyant showman wielding the baton, but reserved and introvert in writing his music, swinging between elation and despair, devotedly married to Costa Rican-Chilean actress Felicia Montealegre (Carey Mulligan), a prelude having him expressing his grief over her death,  but also (as she was well aware) a secretly promiscuous homosexual,  most notably in an early gay relationship with clarinettist David Oppenheim (Matt Bomer).

Following a nonlinear structure that makes extensive use of interview exposition and asides to provide background (West Side Story, arguably Bernstein’s greatest work, has just a fleeting mention), it opens with him getting his big break when, in 1943, he has to substitute for an ill Bruno Walter and conduct the New York Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall. This, like the bulk of the film, is shot in black-and-white with saturated technicolour colour scenes in the latter stretch, both conjuring movies from the 40s, the early scenes in a boxy aspect ratio before the more widescreen later ones, the framing also consistently emphasising the distances  between Leonard and Felicia.

This is dazzling bravura filmmaking peppered with striking set pieces, At one point a rehearsal scene for the ballet that would become On the Town unfolds into a fantasy sequence of  Leonard and Felicia dancing together, while the lengthy  sequence of him euphorically conducting the choir and Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony with the London Symphony Orchestra at Ely Cathedral in 1973, Felicia watching from the wings, is electrifying. Likewise, Bernstein liberatingly  dancing to Tears For Fears in a gay club and the single take scene of an excoriating Thanksgiving argument between the couple as a giant Snoopy balloon floats past the window of their New York apartment. More subdued but no less potent is a moment when Bernstein lies to his oldest daughter, Jamie (Maya Hawke), about the homophobic rumours going round about him.

Arguably, the screenplay doesn’t delve sufficiently into what makes the characters tick, but even so there’s a rich depth with the chemistry between Cooper (who, with the controversial prosthetic nose looks strikingly like Bernstein) and Mulligan, delivering her best work since An Education and arguably the film’s real star (she takes top billing above Cooper),  lighting up the screen. Glorious.  (Netflix)

The Marvels (12A)

Beset by delays and reshoots, directed and co-written by Nia DaCosta, the first Black woman behind a Marvel movie, this brings together  three female superheroes who all have, in different forms, the ability to harness the power of light. That’ll be Carol Danvers (Brie Larson) in a follow-up to Miss Marvel, now roaming the galaxy in her own spacecraft,  Monica Rambeau (Teyonah Parris), the now grown astronaut daughter of Carol’s late best friend Maria (Lashana Lynch), who works alongside Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson) in his new SABER organisation and gained her powers in WandaVision (and whose lack of a code name serves as a running gag), and New Jersey’s Pakistani-American schoolgirl Kamala Khan (Iman Vellani), from the  Disney+ TV series (its use of animation incorporated in introducing her here), an over-exuberant Miss Marvel mega-fan whose  powers come from a magical bracelet.

The bracelet, or quantum band, however, turns out to have a Kree origin and is one of a pair, the other being recovered at the start of the film by Dar-Benn (a compelling Zawe Ashton clearly having a lot of fun as the baddie) who has an understandable vendetta against Danvers – who the Kree know as The Annhilator for reasons explained later– and needs the two of them to restore life to her home planet of Hela. As such, her motives are sympathetic, her means, which include trying to wipe out the Skrulls, rather less so. Her acquisition of the bangle also causes the three Marvels to body-swap (quantum entanglement, apparently) every time they use their powers, initially creating havoc in Kamala’s home, then affording some skipping rope fun and later proving invaluable in the battle with Dar-Benn.

Despite a plot that involves intergalactic genocide and planet asset stripping, there’s a great deal of playful fun here, notably a sequence set on a world where Miss Marvel is a marriage of convenience princess and where everyone dances as they sing their dialogue (though her prince Park See-joon – is bi-lingual) and one where, in an effort to evacuated the space station, Fury has the crew ‘eaten’ up by a horde of Flerken kitties who spew purple tentacles that swallow things up, all scored to Midnight from Andrew Lloyd-Weber’s musical.

There’s also a great deal of hanging out and banter between the three heroes, all of whom have their own identity issues, the actresses making good use of their individual skill sets and personalities as the film digs into their characters. The problem is,  however, what with jump points opening up everywhere in the space, and the action leaping from planet to planet, the narrative is frequently borderline incoherent. Fortunately, unlike the recent slate of Marvel outings, this has a trim running time into which it packs an inordinate amount of plot, redemption and coming of age arcs and action sequences.

Zenobia Shroff, Mohan Kapur and Saagar Shaikh add extra comedic touches as Kamala’s concerned and long-suffering parents and older brother while Abraham Popool sports a nifty set of beard braids as SABER agent Dag and Tessa Thompson puts in a quickie crossover appearance as Valkyrie, the film closing up with the briefly united trio now on their individual plotlines, providing two mid-credits sequences; the first with a cameo from Hawkeye’s Kate Bishop (Hailee Stanfield) as Ms Marvel sets out to create a new team,  and the second, with Rambeau now in a  parallel universe, a new incarnation for Maria and the return of Kelsey Grammar’s Hank McCoy from the X-Men series. That’s at least three new sequels or spin-offs in the wings. There again, given its bomb at the box office, maybe not. (Disney+)

May December (15)

As directed by Todd Hayes, in 1992, married 36-year-old  mother Gracie Atherton-Yoo (Julianne Moore) was convicted and imprisoned for having sex with 13-year-old Joe Yoo at the  pet shop where they worked, giving birth to their first child while behind bars. Now, 23 years later, they’re married with three kids: college-aged Honor (Piper Curda) and senior high school twins Charlie (Gabriel Chung) and Mary (Elizabeth Yu) who she micromanages with an almost casual cruelty (“I want to commend you for being so brave and showing your arms like that”, she barbedly tells her daughter as she tries on graduation dresses). Gracie  sells  baked goods, Joe nurtures a collection of monarch butterfly larvae,  and her story is about to be turned into a television drama. To which end, actress Elizabeth Berry (Natalie Portman) arrives  at their suburban Savannah home to study them in preparation for the role. She wants to get to the character’s authenticity, Gracie wants to show the world the truth of her and Joe’s relationship.  She is, therefore, a tad uncomfortable, at Berry (who’s as screwed up as anyone) interviewing her friend, the townsfolk, relatively accommodating ex-husband (D.W. Moffett) and their embittered adult son Georgie (Cory Michael Smith)  about things she doesn’t feel warrant being part of the film, seeing it as unnecessary interference in the family’s lives. Nor is she keen on talking about the packages of dogshit that regularly turn up on their doorstep.

Infusing the melodrama with a  campy humour and a soundtrack that knowingly borrows from Michel Legrand’s music for Joseph Losey’s illicit affair classic The Go-Between, it places the marriage under the microscope (it’s not hard to see one particular development coming) as well as exploring the arrested development effect of Joe’s loss of childhood and innocence, and the fears and pain he has buried within, Melton’s understated performance, especially a rooftop chat with his son, especially fine. It’s a slow burn watch and the open ending might leave some feeling slightly shortchanged, but it wields its scalpel with surgical precision. (Sky Cinema)

Monkey Man (18)

Looking to buy a gun from an arms dealer, Dev Patel’s character, Kid, is asked “You like John Wick?” and offered a TTI Combat Master, one  of Wick’s signature handguns. It’s an amusing line but also a  recognition by Patel, here making his directorial debut  as well as being co-writer and one of the many producers (Jordan Peele among them), that comparisons would be inevitable so why not be upfront about it.  And indeed this is an incredibly violent Hindi John Wick that, also influence by Bryce Lee and The Raid, weaves within it a wealth of references to Hindu mythology.

The title has two meanings. One is the name under which, after being released from prison and wearing a gorilla mask,  Kid takes part in rigged boxing matches, in which he always loses, compered by  the sleazy  Tiger (Sharlto Copley) in the fictional Indian slum of Yatana. The other refers to the Hindu monkey god Hanuman, a  deity who is robbed of his powers,  but comes back stronger than ever, just one of several cultural motifs and references the film embraces along with its pointed political commentary.

At a basic level, it’s a revenge thriller, Kid looking to wreak vengeance on those responsible for his mother’s  (Adithi Kalkunte) death when he was young, she burning alive in a land grab   carried out by corrupt chief of police   Rana (Sikandar Kher), who is in the service of Baba Shakti (Makarand Deshpande), who masquerades as a spiritual guru to advance his political and power ambitions. Of course, before he can exact justice, Kid, whose hands bear the scars of those fires, has to go through the obligatory batterings (an early   bathroom brawl does not go well) and gruelling training sequences, under the guidance of the hijra, an ostracised “third-gender” community of warriors (led by Vipin Sharma), to get him up to physical and emotional scratch. Other ingredients stirred into this ultra-violent and visceral masala include Queenie (Ashwini Kalsekar), the ice cold manager of a high-end brothel into which Kid has to immerse himself to get to those responsible, Sita (Sobhita Dhulipala), an escort at Queenie’s club who catches his  eye, and street hustler Alphonso (Pitobash) who inadvertently finds himself becoming Kid’s sidekick (and the film’s comic relief).

There’s a surfeit of backstory flashbacks, mostly to Kid’s idyllic childhood before his world came crashing down, as well as  feverish dream elements, but mostly this is just crammed with a relentless and visually dizzying torrent of bone crunching and bloody action mayhem sequences, one particular highlight being an elevator knife fight using his mouth to plunge in the blade and another with a breathless turbocharged rickshaw chase. And of course it wouldn’t be complete without an exploding fish.

And yet for all this and despite a paucity of dialogue, Patel still manages to bring real character depth to Kid’s arc of redemption and confrontation with the trauma of his past (albeit less so to the others, who are more one-dimensional) as well as its power to the people commentary on sectarian violence and how the Indian Hindu elite treats its underclass, culminating in the last act unleashing a fury even  Keanu Reeves might find excessive. You like John Wick? You’ll love this. (Cineworld 5 Ways;  Odeon  Broadway Plaza Luxe;  Vue)

Napoleon (15)

Turning 85, Ridley Scott still has the stamina of directors half his age, as clearly evidenced in pulling together this two and a half hour epic biopic of Napoleon Bonaparte, a balance between his greatest hits (and failures) on the battlefield and his relationship with widowed aristocrat wife Josephine. Opening with the guillotining of Marie Antoinette following the French Revolution, witnessed by then lowly – and somewhat humourless – Corsican gunnery officer Bonaparte (Joaquin Phoenix in customary outstanding form), his rise to power begins with him, a master strategist,  liberating the town of Toulon from the occupying British forces in 1793, his cannons destroying their ships and with the help of his patron and friend Barras (Tahar Rahim) and following the downfall of Robespierre (Sam Troughton) and his Reign of Terror,  proceeds to chart his rise through the ranks, his Egyptian campaign (where he may or may not have actually  fired on the top of the pyramids), his promotion to general, elevation to become one of the three Consuls ruling France, and eventual crowning as Emperor before his disastrous 1812 campaign in Russia and subsequent exile to Elba, his return to power, the defeat at Waterloo (and a scene aboard HMS Bellerophon  wryly congratulating Rupert Everett’s Wellington, who has an even better sneer than himself,  on the quality of Royal Navy breakfasts) and exile to St Helena where he died.

Alongside this, it follows the ups and down of his marriage to the sensual and strong-wiled Josephine (an understated but quietly excellent Vanessa Kirby), her cuckolding him (he’s not great at sex and prefers rear entry quickies) while he’s away conquering Italy, her problematic inability to provide an heir, his bedding of a willing fertile volunteer, and the eventual divorce, albeit he never faltering in his love, and ensuring she continued with the life to which she was accustomed, even after marrying the teenage (and shorter) Archduchess of Austria, who dutifully supplies a son (he had, in fact, several children by assorted lovers). All of course wearing that distinctive bicorne hat and tricolour cockade.

The brilliantly staged action set pieces are as stunning and thrilling as they are gorily visceral (a shot of a horse’s chest being ruptured by a cannonball is truly jolting), the decimation of the Austrian and Russian forces, fictionalised on a frozen lake at Austerlitz the centrepiece standout, but ultimately, it never offers any deep insight into what made him tick or the politics in which he was involved  (it neglects to even mention his reintroduction of slavery in the West Indies or the massacre at the siege of Jaffa). Scott has announced he’s planning a  four-and-a-half hour director’s cut for streaming on Apple, so hopefully that will join the dots. Meanwhile, masterful though this is, its 20 years narrative feels like a 158 minute shorthand guide. (Apple TV+)

Nimona (PG)

Opening with the heroic Gloreth establishing an order of knights dedicated to protecting the world from the monsters that lurk outside its walls, this animated fantasy adventure fast forwards a 1000 years to a  futuristic city and, headed by The Director (Frances Conroy),  the Institute where the queen is about to appoint  new knights from the graduating cadets, among them Ambrosius Goldenloin (Eugene Lee Yang), a descendent of Gloreth, and Ballister Boldheart (Riz Ahmed). The latter is controversial given that he will be the first commoner accorded such an honour in the queen’s intention to give everyone a chance to be a hero and Ballister is understandably worried that, like  bullying fellow cadet Thoddeus (Beck Bennett) everyone will hate him. Instead, he’s met with cheers- until, that is, a laser ray shoots from his high-tech sword and kills the queen, leading to Ambrosius chopping off his  arm and Bal fleeing, a wanted murderer. But then, in hiding, he finds himself visited by Nimona (Chloë Grace Moretz), a rebellious punky teenager outsider who, assuming him to be a villain, declares herself his self-appointed sidekick (“Because I’m bored, and everyone hates me too”). She is, however, more than a sassy, sparky, streetsmart misfit teen. As he discovers when she rescues him from prison, she’s a shapeshifter capable of transforming into a pink rhino, bear,  bird, a whale and even a  dancing shark, who revels in causing chaos and smashing things up. She is, in fact, exactly the sort of monster the knights are supposed to destroy. Instead, the two now find themselves joining forces to clear Bal’s name and expose the real murderer. The identity of whom it’s not too hard to work out, but then, as the opening voiceover states, things have a habit of not having the simply resolved happy endings fairytales usually demand.

Adapted from a subversive graphic novel by ND Stevenson and rescued by Netflix after being cancelled by Disney,  this is very much a contemporary 2D-3D animation,  not just in its dazzling visuals but in its storyline and themes. It’s revealed early on that Bal and Ambrosius are gay lovers while, uncomfortable in her ‘normal’ skin,  Nimona is driven by a need to transition. Meanwhile, with the inventive narrative, twisting there’s also familiar messages about intolerance, irrational prejudice and how, in as world where kids “grow up believing that they can be a hero if they drive a sword into the heart of anything different”, if we treat people as monsters, they’re likely to become monsters.

With her catchphrase ‘metal’ and plans that rarely go beyond “Chaos, destruction, something-something-something, we win”, Nimona is a priceless animated anti-hero, her spirit and irreverent humour exuberantly captured by Moretz’s voice work while Ahmed brings the pathos and more serious notes. Driven by a punk-fuelled soundtrack that includes The Banana Splits and guitar riffs by former Sex Pistols Steve Jones, it barrels along with fast-paced action and an utterly infectious sense of anarchy and fun. The ending lays possible ground for a sequel, and one would be very welcome indeed. (Netflix)

No Hard Feelings (15)

In danger of losing her late single mother’s house in the increasingly gentrified beach hamlet of Montauk, Long Island, because of unpaid property taxes and her car repossessed by a tow truck driver (Ebon Moss-Bachrach)  ex-boyfriend resentful about her abrupt lack of communication,  meaning she can’t work as a Uber driver, 32-year-old Maddie Barker (Jennifer Lawrence)   answers a Craigslist ad placed by two wealthy helicopter parents Laird (Matthew Broderick) and Allison (Laura Benanti) Becker. Concerned that their  geeky, socially awkward virgin 19-year-old son Percy (Andrew Barth Feldman), lacks the necessary experience  prior to going to Princeton, they’re offering a brand new Buick in exchange for someone who will, as Maddie puts, “date his brains out”. Directed by Gene Stupnitsky and co-written by John Phillips, it pretty much follows just as you would expect from a  film channelling cringeworthy 80s sex comedies like Risky Business (though equally there’s a hint of Paul Thomas Anderson and Cameron Crowe). As in, naturally not revealing her job as a fuck for hire, under the ruse of wanting to adopt a dog from the rescue shelter where he volunteers, Maddie inveigles her way into Percy’s life who, of course, while shy, turns out to be not as much a nerd as he first appears, a relationship gradually blossoming although the crucial consummation keeps running into obstacles. Just as inevitably, the two having grown genuinely close, the truth will eventually come out, setting up the equally predictable dinner with parents scene, the break up and make up.

Pushing the edginess with Lawrence going full frontal (something even the enjoyably vulgar Porky’s resisted) in  a skinny dipping scene and subsequent fight with three teens stealing their clothes, it’s both peppered with laugh out loud gags, innuendos and embarrassing moments but also irresistibly sweet with a subtext about her relationship with the pure-hearted Percy opening up the insecure Maddie to moving on in her life (and any hopes that her estranged wealthy father will ever be part of her life) rather than remaining forever stuck in Montauk stasis.

Not everything works;  Percy’s overprotective former male nanny Jody (Kyle Mooney) feels a redundant   excuse for some  unnecessary homophobic jokes. However, Lawrence proves to have solid comic timing (both physical and verbal) as well as dramatic sass,  Feldman recalls a young Dustin Hoffman, an aspiring musician his ‘prom night’ restaurant serenading of Maddie with Hall & Oates’ Maneater is a treat, while Scott MacArthur and Natalie Morales, as his pregnant partner and Maddie’s restaurant co-worker, provide solid comic support. It may play the raunchy card, but ultimately this is a sweet, endearing and big-hearted tale of friendship and self-discovery.  (Sky Cinema)

Nyad (15)

Sports fans may recall Diana Nyad, a world class endurance swimmer who, aged 25, swam    around Manhattan in just under eight hours in 1975, becoming a celebrity and talk-show regular, even if given to a touch of not always factual self-aggrandising about her achievements. At 30, however, she retired having failed in her attempt to the open-ocean record by going from Cuba to Key West in Florida, a  60-hour, 103-mile journey in shark-infested waters one stroke at a time. She went on to host radio shows, write books, give motivational speeches and work as a sports broadcaster. But, her career ending failure nagging at her, turning 60, despite not having swum since, she resolved to try again. It’s no spoiler to say that, at the fifth attempt, she finally triumphed and, directed by Free Solo documentarians Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin, this biopic follows the struggles to pull that off.

Strapping on the goggles, swimsuit (and bizarre protective masks at different points), doing her own swimming sequences  Annette Bening is Nyad (from the Greek for water nymph) while playing opposite is  Jodie Foster in her first gay role as fellow lesbian, one time lover  and now best friend Bonnie Stoll. While thinking the whole idea is ridiculous and potentially fatal, she becomes her supportive coach, training her back into shape and following as part of the crew on Voyager I, skippered by the implacable Dee Brady) Karly Rotherberg), the now late navigator John Bartlett (Rhys Ifans) and shark expert Luke  Tipple (Luke Cosgrove), accompanying her attempts, the first four variously scuppered by bad weather, unpredictable Gulf Stream currents, toxic jellyfish and allergic reaction, the film emphasising the mindset required by all involved to pull things off.

The backstory flashbacks (which mix real archive footage with recreation) reveal Nyad’s difficult relationship with a demanding stepfather Aristotle, her sexual abuse as a teenager  (Anna Harriette Pittman) at the hands of her coach, Jack Nelson (who is still listed in the Hall of Fame despite numerous allegations from other girls), but the film’s core is firmly on the determination to complete what she set out to do decades earlier (she was 64 when she made the fifth attempt, her scored to Neil Young’s Heart Of Gold) and the repercussion on her and Stoll’s relationship. The central performances, Foster making everything seem effortless and Bening capturing Nyad’s at times prickly personality, are magnificent with real chemistry, with the end credits revealing just how closely they and Ifans resemble  their real life counterparts. It doesn’t mention that subsequent controversies or that her swim was ultimately denied ratification due to incomplete documentation, conflicting crew reports and retrospective rules, her entry The Guinness Book of World Records being revoked, but that doesn’t negate what she said in the inspirational speech recreated (and repeated in archive footage) here about it never being too late to dream big.   (Netflix)

Oppenheimer (12A)

Adapted from the 2005 biography American Prometheus, with seven Oscar wins (Film, Director, Actor and Supporting Actor among them) an, writer-director Christopher Nolan delivers his finest work to date, a triumphant biopic of Robert J. Oppenheimer, the man who created the Atom Bomb and, as the film unambiguously avers, consigned the world to eventual destruction at its own hand. As Oppenheimer quoted from the Bhagavad Gita “Now I am become Death, destroyer of worlds”.

Unfolding over a  gripping three hours that embraces courtroom procedural, character study  and thriller (a feeling accentuated by the score), it moves back in forth in time, framed by and intercutting with Fusion (filmed in black and white) and Fission (in colour). The former is a recreation of the 1959 Cabinet hearings to confirm Lewis Strauss (Supporting Actor nominee Robert Downey Jr.), former head of the US Atomic Energy Commission and a politician closely linked to Oppenheimer (Best Actor nominee Cillian Murphy), as Secretary of Commerce,  the latter the loaded behind closed doors McCarthy-era 1954 AEC enquiry driven by attorney Roger Robb (Jason Clarke) to determine if a scapegoated Oppenheimer was a loyal American and should retain his security clearance or not. The theme of American creating and then destroying its heroes when they become an annoyance has been done before, but rarely as well as this.

There’s a few scenes involving the younger Oppenheimer, an ambitious Jewish theorist in the new field of quantum physics, his on-off affair with  Jean (Florence Pugh),  a Communist Party member, an accusation also levelled at him (he was actually a political agnostic), and his early days teaching and working at the University of California and the California Institute of Technology with Ernest Lawrence (Josh Hartnett). The heart of the film, however, focuses on the 1940s when, following events leading up to the 1945 Trinity bomb test, he’s enlisted by General Leslie Groves (Matt Damon) to head up the Manhattan Project, which, at a secluded purpose built desert town of Los Alamos in New Mexico, gathered together America’s top scientists and engineers to build the first atomic weapon, initially to beat Nazi Germany to the punch and, when Hitler fell, dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, more as a demonstration of capability than to bring Japan to submission.

As such, this element of the film is dense in its exploration of moral quandaries about the gulf between idea and application, Oppenheimer’s guilt-haunted but very real concerns about the potential for a nuclear arms race with Russia  and his opposition to the hydrogen bomb while the 50s section concerns the emotional and political fallout, the Cabinet hearings revealing his betrayal by the self-serving Strauss, the Salieri to his Mozart, smarting over an earlier humiliation at a congressional hearing,

Alongside a stunning and physically transformative haunting and haunted performance by Murphy with a mastery of a dead-eyed stare,  coming to realise the consequences of his arrogance, Downey Jr at the very peak of his powers and a wonderfully prickly Damon, the film is populated by solid supporting turns from the likes Rami Malik, Casey Affleck’s military intelligence officer, Benny Safdie as Hungarian physicist and H-bomb advocate Edward Teller), Gary Oldman as President Truman (scathingly dismissing Oppenheimer as a cry-baby) Kenneth Branagh as  physicist Niels Bohr, Oppenheimer’s sometime mentor, and Emily Blunt who, as Oppenheimer’s alcoholic wife Kitty, an ex-Party member, delivers a last act Best Supporting Actress nomination, while Tom Conti gets to cameo as a convincing Albert Einstein in a pivotal scene shown from three very different perspectives.

Avoiding CGI in favour of optical effects and punctuating the film with images of fiery infernos and exploding stars, it’s visually awe-inspiring and transfixing for every second of the running time. “Try not to set the sky on fire”, jokes Groves before the red button is pressed. Nolan has lit up the whole cinematic universe. (Sky Cinema/Now)

Past Lives (12A)

Unfolding over 24 years, in two 12-year intervals, played out in Seoul, Toronto  and New York, writer-director and erstwhile playwright Celine Song’s semi-autobiographical debut is a beguiling bittersweet thwarted love story about unresolved feelings. It opens with a voiceover pondering what three people in a New York bar are talking about and what their relationship may be. They are aspiring playwright Nora (Greta Lee), her fellow writer husband Arthur (John Magaro) and childhood friend and crush Hae Sung (Teo Yoo) and  to explore the connections, the film first flashes back 24 years to Korea where Nora, then Na Young (Seung Ah Moon), and   Hae Sung (Seung Min Yim), are academically competitive classmates and budding sweethearts. However,  romance is curtailed when her family announces they are  emigrating to Canada. The pair part on a somewhat sour note  and it’s 12 years before, he still living at home and hanging out with his mates, she now in Toronto, reconnect through Facebook, he tracking her down through her filmmaker father’s page,  and then Skype, conduction a flirtatious virtual romance (she recommends him to watch Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind ) before realising he’s never coming there and she’s not going back, she shuts it all down.

Twelve more years later, Nora now having married Arthur, who she met at a writing retreat, and rarely speaking Korean, Hae Sung, who has broken up with his girlfriend comes to New York, where she now lives,  for a few days, ostensibly as part of his engineering studies, and the two meet up, their meetings causing both to reassess how they feel about each other and what might have been. The title refers to the Buddhist concept of inyun, a belief that some souls are connected through time and past incarnations, somehow fated to be together.

Beautifully framed and photographed (the virtually wordless scene by the fairground carousel and  the pair riding a ferry boat around the Statue of Liberty are magical), sublimely directed by Song and exquisitely acted by the three leads,  the soulful, reserved Yoo, an understated Marago, who wryly  describes himself as   “the evil white American husband standing in the way of destiny”,  and the luminous Lee, it pulses with suppressed emotions, captured in longing looks or the subtle chance in a facial expression, but never falls prey to sentimentality as, subtly also exploring the immigrant experience and indemnity confusions,  it builds to a denouement that is both heartbreaking and glowing with joy.

You can feel the echoes of films like David Lean’s Brief Encounter, Richard Linklater’s  Before Sunrise,  and Wong Kar-wai’s  In the Mood for Love, but Song has created her own individual and unique vision of their timeless story. An unquestionable film of the year, as Nora and Hae Sung are given to saying when things overwhelm then,  ‘whoa’ indeed. (Apple TV+, Netflix)

Polite Society (12)

The feature debut by British writer-director Nida Manzoor, creator of the TV series We Are Lady Parts, mashes up a whole  bagful of genres, pouring coming-of-age high school comedy, Bollywood movie, martial arts flick and even references to Jane Austen into the blender and pouring out the results in a glorious smoothie that may not be nutritious but is crammed with fun and flavour.

With an almost entirely Pakistani cast, it’s set in London where, much to the mortification of her traditional career-seeking parents (Shobu Kapoor,  Jeff Mirza), teenager Ria Khan (engaging newcomer Priya Kansara) dreams of becoming a female stuntwoman – The Fury –  like her idol,  real-life British stuntwoman Eunice Huthart, whose signature flying kick   she consistently fails to pull off. She’s besties with her older sister, Lena (Umbrella Academy’s Ritu Arya) and constantly needles her to resume her art school studies after having dropped out in a self-confidence crisis, things often getting out of hand as they squabble.

So, she’s horrified when they’re both forced to attend an end of Eid party hosted by one of her mother’s wealthy acquaintances, the imperious and condescending Raheela Shan (Nimra Bucha) and even more so when she learns that Lena is not only dating her geneticist son of Salim (Akshay Khanna) but has also gotten engaged (she apparently has a perfect womb) and will be taking off to Singapore immediately after the wedding.

And so, with the help of her uncool school chums Alba and Clara (Ella Bruccoleri and Seraphina Beh adding solid comedic  support), she sets out on a  plan to sabotage things, initially looking to try diplomacy but rapidly escalating to trying to dig up dirt (including disguising themselves as men to infiltrate his gym)  and, when that fails, invent some (at one point she breaks into the house to scatter used condoms).

It is, as everyone observes, all totally out of proportion. Until, that is, Ria discovers exactly what Salim and Raheela are up to (a touch of Jordan Peele here), at which point it becomes a frantic  race by the three friends to stop the wedding before it’s too late.

With a winkingy gleeful and knowingly ludicrous  screenplay that, refreshingly peppered with all the sensibilities and sweariness of modern Pakistani youth  pulls together Bash Street Kids escapades, torture by waxing, all female martial arts fights (including one with well-trained beauticians), a Bollywood dance sequence and yellow chapter title  cards with a clear  nod to Tarantino/Rodriguez grindhouse. Vastly funnier than What’s Love Got To With It (and certainly with loads more stunts), further adventures by the Khan sisters would not go amiss. (Sky Cinema)

Rebel Moon: Part One: A Child of Fire (12)

The first half of writer-director Zack Snyder’s sci fi  saga (with an extended version and Part 2 due in 2024), this is basically  a cobbling together of Star Wars and The Magnificent Seven (or Seven Samurai if you’re more arty). Set in the far future where an evil Empire, loyal to a king (Cary Elwes) assassinated along with his wife and healing-powered daughter Issa at the latter’s coronation, command being taken by the senator   Balisarius (Fra Fee) who now ruthlessly seeks to conquer the  rest of the galaxy, and with the aid of sadistic and not entirely all-human Admiral Atticus Noble (Ed Skrein), who commands the Imperium, the Motherworld’s infantry, put down the rebel insurgency known as Clan Bloodaxe.

It opens on Veldt, a near barren planet where, struggling to raise a harvest, a community of farmers are visited by Noble to appropriate the resources, killing the leader, Father Sindri, as an example, ordering them to have the grain ready when he returns. However, seeing a band of soldiers about to rape a young girl, Kora (Sofia Boutella), a stoical woman rescued some years back from a  crashed craft and, as is revealed in chunks of exposition, having a backstory as a high ranking officer  in the Imperium forces,  fights back, killing them with the help of disillusioned soldier Private Aris (Sky Yang) and, warning that when Noble returns he will destroy everything, teaming up with defiant farmer Gunnar (Michiel Huisman) on a mission to recruit a band of fighters to resist them.

With black marketer and mercenary Kai (Charlie Hunnam in what initially seems to be the Han Solo role),  they planet hop as, through individual episodes, one of which involved a child-killing mutant female spider-creature (Jena Malone), they  swell the ranks with beast tamer blacksmith Tarak (Staz Nair),   cyborg swordswoman, Nemesis (Doona Bai), disgraced Imperium commander General Titus (Djimon Hounsou) and, finally,  Darrian Bloodaxe (Ray Fisher) who brings along half his crew while sister Devra (Cleopatra Coleman) remains in charge of the other. Come the end of the first half, as Noble and his army come calling and there’s an unexpected act of betrayal, not everyone survives for Part Two.

Unabashedly derivative, generic and unavoidably attracting unfavourable comparisons to the film’s it pillories, even so it does deliver a solid  dose of high octane action and slo mo battle scenes, even if the character development seems to have been held back for the longer cut, setting up an assortment of narrative threads to be developed in the sequel along with, one suspects, a bigger role for Anthony Hopkins who provides the voice for the peace-seeking Jimmy, the last of a race of mechanical knights, who, sporting a garland of flowers round his head, is recruited by Kora. Having rather laboriously delivered over two hours of set-up, hopefully The Scargiver will be a pay-off worth waiting for. (Netflix)

Rebel Moon  – Part Two: The Scargiver (12)

The second part of Zack Snyder’s Star  Wars meets The Magnificent Seven rip-off has received possibly the worst review of his career. Which seems a touch harsh given that, will knowingly derivative and generic, it’s actually  a more than decent, action-packed sci fi adventure.

It picks up from the end of the first part with Kora (Sofia Boutella), a fugitive  renegade with a hidden past – and identity – as a former royal bodyguard connecting her to the tyrannical Imperium commander Balisarius and the assassination of  Princess Issa following the murder of the King and Queen,  and her love interest as Gunnar (Michiel Huisman) celebrating having, with the help of their fellow fighters,  former general Titus (Djimon Hounsou) and  cyborg sword master Nemesis (Doona Bae), and the locals on farming planet  Veldt, defeated and killed Motherworld evil admiral Atticus Noble (Ed Skrein).

Except his body’s recovered and regenerated, the wound on his chest prompting Kora’s new nickname as The Scargiver, leading to yet another  all-out assault to crush the rebellion on Veldt, as the plucky band have to fight off the murderous Motherworld legions while Kora and Gunnar sneak aboard Noble’s ship to destroy it from the inside. All of which, save for some Kora backstory exposition and a couple of last act surprise revelations, is served up as a constant barrage of action set-pieces, in which, as per the source inspiration, not everyone survives. As such, it’s exhilaratingly explosive high octane stuff, this time providing more involvement for Anthony Hopkins voicing Jimmy the droid , with an ending that dutifully sets the stage for  third – and, who knows, maybe ever fourth, instalment, which will inevitably be met with critical  scorn and fanboy euphoria in equal measure. (Netflix)

Rustin (15)

While Martin Luther King is an iconic historical figure in the fight for civil rights, rather less well-known, but whose input was of equal significance, is Bayard Rustin, a man with a dream of his own. It was Rustin, a queer African-American  activist, who, in the face of resistance from opponents within the Civil Rights movement,  campaigned, fought for and organised the famous August  28 1963 peaceful protest march on Washington where King delivered his inspirational “I have a dream” speech.

Directed by George C. Wolfe, the film charts the long journey to that pivotal moment, starting back in   in 1960, when Rustin (a stupendous Colman Domingo), inspired by  Gandhi’s non-violence stance,  seeks to persuade his friend Martin (Aml Ameen) to lead a march of 5,000 people. However, the NAACP (The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), led by Roy Wilkins (Chris Rock), and Republic Senator. Adam Clayton Powell (Jeffrey Wright) are opposed to the plan and, whether or not   they were the source, rumours of a sexual relationship between “the King and his queen” leads him to tender his resignation, which, to his shock, King accepts, thereby breaching the friendship until Rustin swallowed his pride and called on King to work with him on the 1963 march.

Although the Supreme Court had rules segregation unconstitutional in 1954, in reality little had changed in the American South and Rustin believed that, bringing together people from across America,  his proposed march would show solidarity. Again, while trade unionist A. Philip Randolph (Glynn Turman), with whom he’d worked on an aborted similar protest in the 40s (setting up a flashback as to how a police beating disfigured his face), and fellow activist Medgar Evers (Rashad Demond Edwards) had his back,  the NAACP  dug their heels in. The film unfolds, then as Rustin, reunited with King, works to change minds and, with an army of volunteers, raise the money for buses to bring supporters to Washington, the initial two-day sit-in eventually reduced to one. Alongside this, the film also explores his homosexuality, primarily through an affair with Elias Taylor (Johnny Ramey), a fictional married Black preacher, and the  clear but unconsummated sexual tension with younger white assistant, Tom (Gus Halper). Peppered with a raft of cameos that include Da’Vine Joy Randolph as Mahalia Jackson, CCH Pounder as civil rights leader Dr Anna Hedgeman, and Audra McDonald as activist Anna Baker, it’s somewhat let down by its clumsy exposition and one-note pacing, but the story it tells and the charisma of its lead carry it through. (Netflix)

Saltburn (15)

Actress turned novelist turned Killing Eve head writer turned writer-director, Emerald Fennell follows up her Promising Young Woman debut with a very English caustically satirical psychological drama that turns the knife on the English class system, starting out as Evelyn Waugh journeying through Cruel Intentions and ending with a coda straight out Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr Ripley.

Set in 2006, Barry Keoghan is Merseyside teen Oliver Quick, who, the product of a working class broken home (disreputable dead, mum alcoholic) who has earned a scholarship to Oxford (Fennell’s own alma mater). A bright but awkward, shy outsider, he’s looked down on by his college contemporaries but is taken under the wing of aristocratic fellow student and party animal Felix Catton (Jacob Elordi) after lending him his bike when his own has a puncture. Touched by the sob story of his life and the fact his drug addict dad’s just died, Felix invites him to spend the summer at his resolutely blueblood eccentric (they gather round to watch Superbad) family’s palatial Saltburn estate (telling him that Waugh apparently used the family and house as his model for Brideshead Revisited). Along with the humourless butler (Paul Rhys) and assorted gardeners,  the sprawling mansion’s  populated  by his somewhat dim father Sir James (Richard E Grant clearly having huge fun), emotionally damaged bulimic sister Venetia (Alison Oliver), sponging American mixed-race cousin Farleigh (Archie Madekwe), a rival for Felix’s favours,   lingering faded glamour houseguest “poor dear Pamela” (a marvellous if almost unrecognisable Carey Mulligan)) and, in a gloriously showstopping performance of razor sharp comic timing and delivery, Rosamund Pike as blissfully privileged, prejudiced and stupid ex-model mother Elsbeth whose explanation as to why she gave up her flirtation with lesbianism is just one of her many hilarious straightfaced lines. She takes a shine to Oliver as, in a more physical way does Ventetia, who, though contemptuous of him,  hangs around under his window at night and is rewarded with some steamy oral sex despite being on her period, even though, as a scene lapping up his bathwater makes clear, he’d rather have sex with Felix. As the summer wears on, however, despite the  homoerotic electricity things eventually sour between the two friends when, in Felix taking him on a surprise well-meaning visit to  his now cleaned-up mother, it turns out Oliver’s not been entirely honest about his upbringing.

Shot in a square ratio, framed with to-camera recollections by Oliver and peppered with laugh out loud deadpan dialogue, there’s also some wonderful quirks such as carving the  name of family members and friends who die on a stone and tossing it into the water (let’s just say there’s a fair few extra pebbles by the end) and an audacious use of music that embraces Handel’s Zadok the Priest. the Cheeky Girls’ Have A Cheeky Christmas  and a toe-curling karaoke rendition of Flo-Rida’s Low.

Although Pike is the scene-stealer, the performances throughout are consistently sharp with Keoghan utterly magnetic in expressions that shift from doleful to toxic in a blink and bravely quite literally letting it all hang out in the final scene. It might not be quite as ingenious and provocatively original as its predecessor, but  even so it’s gold class filmmaking.   (Amazon Prime)

Scarygirl (PG)

Adapted from a children’s graphic novel by Australian illustrator Nathan Jurevicius, this animated yarn is undeniably bursting with colour, florescent orange  leaves in particular, and some nice touches  such as literally lightbulb-shaped mechanical bees, but otherwise it’s a somewhat charmless affair that offers little to its kiddie audience and even less to accompanying adults.

Living in an isolated peninsula, the titular technology-adept character is the goth-like Arkie (Jillian Nguyen) who, looking like she strayed in from a Tim Burton fantasy, has a tentacle arm, a hook on the other, black stitches on her lips and wears an eyepatch. Her dad is Blister (Rob Collins), a rare Giant Octopus with the ability to regenerate life and together they work to keep the local flora alive when their world is threatened by an inexplicable loss of sunlight.

This, it transpires, is being caused by the film’s mad scientist villain Doctor Maybee (Sam Neil) who, needing octopus life forces for his experiments to re-engineer his dead daughter, has offered a reward for whoever can bring him the rare Giant Octopus. To which end, encountering Arkie when their craft crashes, bounty hunters Bunniguru (Remy Hii) and Egg (who gets a crack in their shell) reckon she might also bring a sizeable prize. Meanwhile their blue hybrid Chihuahua  boss Chihoohoo (Tim Minchin) manages  to capture Blister, meaning Arkie has to  infiltrate the City of Light and rescue him, where various secrets relating to her, her dad and Maybee are all revealed.

With a character voice cast that also include   Deborah Mailman as the   tree of knowledge guardian Tweedweller (Deborah Mailman) and Anna Torv as The Keeper, it’s a familiar hero’s coming of age journey from the comfort zone safety into the dangers in the outside world, taking in emotional bonding and friendship themes along the way. Passable fun but wholly forgettable.  (Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Omniplex Great Park; Vue)

Scoop (15)

A recreation of the notorious car crash interview Prince Andrew gave to Newsnight in 2019 attempting to put to bed the  scandal about his relationship with the late convicted sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein, his sidekick Ghislaine Maxwell  and accusations of  having had sex with the underage Virginia Giuffre, as directed by Peter Martin  from a script by   Peter Moffat and Geoff Bussetil, adapted from   Scoops: Behind the Scenes of the BBC’s Most Shocking Interviews by former Newsnight producer Sam McAlister, this is less about the actual interview and, taking its cue from All The President’s Men and The Post, more a journalistic thriller about the behind the scenes efforts to secure it. When the infamous photo of  Andrew and Epstein walking in Central Park, taken in 2010 by   Jae Donnelly (Connor Swindells), who also captured a   young girl leaving the same private Manhattan home, finally surfaces in a newspaper in connection with   a young entrepreneurs event sponsored by the Prince Andrew (a convincing Rufus Sewell under a ton of prosthetics), McAlister reaches out to his Private Secretary    Amanda Thirsk (Keeley Hawes) proposing a possible interview with the programme’s imperious but highly intelligent anchor, Emily Maitlis (Gillian Anderson), for him to put his side of things. It’s eventually felt this is a perfect chance to change the narrative. History tells a different story.

With the action switching between both sides preparation for the face-to-face, negotiations on what will and won’t be on the table for discussion (Sam and Emily meeting with   Thirsk, Andrew and Princess Beatrice at Buckingham Palace), it builds a palpable tension even though the outcome is public record and, with a  supporting cast that includes Amanda Redman as McAlister’s mother (who gives a pep talk after Sam is seemingly sidelined), Romola Garai as Newsnight editor Esme Wren and Lia Williams as BBC Current Affairs Director Fran Unsworth, it is compelling viewing and a reminder of what good journalism is all about. A three part TV series, A Very Royal Scandal, is also currently in production with Michael Sheen as Andrew and Ruth Wilson as Maitlis told from the latter’s perspective. (Netflix)

Spaceman (12)

Adam Sandler again proves his serious dramatic chops as Commander Jakub Procházka, a Czech astronaut who is 6 months into a yearlong mission to investigate a mysterious purple cloud of dust, named Chopra, beyond Jupiter, before South Korea gets there. During a televised Q&A a girl asks if he’s lonely, top which he reels of platitudes about space exploration and says no. He is, though, struggling with the isolation, a malfunctioning toilet and the fact he can’t get in touch with his pregnant wife Lenka (Carey Mulligan). Indeed, she’s finally had enough of his constant physical and emotional distance and has sent a message saying she’s leaving him. This, however, has been blocked by the head of the Euro Space programme, Commissioner Tuma (Isabella Rossellini) and his controller Peter (Kunal Nayyar) fobs him off by saying the link is having technical issues.  Needless to say, Jakub doesn’t let on to ground control about his mental state

Shortly after,  having dreamt of a spider crawling from his mouth, Jakub actually discovers  a spider-like creature (voiced by Paul Dano like an arachnid HAL) with telepathic abilities inside one of the compartments who, eventually (and touchingly) named  Hanuš, explains he is the last of his race and was studying human life  when Jakub’s emotions caught his attention.  As Hanuš explores the memories of this “skinny human” we learn about Jakub’s past, how his father,   an informant of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia, and was killed when Jakub was young, and how he met Lenka but is riddled with guilt for the way he neglected her, not least in abandoning her for another mission when she had a miscarriage.

Directed by Johan Renck and adapted from Jaroslav Kalfar’s novel Spaceman of Bohemia, it clearly has aspiration to be a variant on Tarkovsky’s Solaris, viewers left to ponder if Hanuš is real or a projection of the self-absorbed Jakub’s guilt and anxieties, leading him to seek forgiveness, or indeed exactly what Chopra, which the dying spider says contains the Beginnings of the universe where every moment of time exists simultaneously, represents.

While there’s scenes back in the command centre and with Lenka and her mother (Lena Olin), this is primarily a two hander between Sandler and Dano and, as such, both deliver terrific work in unfolding its existential musings on one’s place in the great scheme of things (with touches of humour such as Hanuš getting a taste for hazelnut spread and Jakub having to spot the sponsor’s AntiQuease commercial message before he broadcasts). There’s areas that could have been further developed in terms of back story and the related feelings, but, while slow to unfold, the cinematography and the core performances bring the melancholia home. (Netflix)

Spider-Man: Across The Spider-Verse (PG)

Five years ago, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse introduced cinema audiences to Miles Morales (Shameik Moore), a Black Hispanic Brooklyn teenager who gained superpowers when he was bitten by an electromagnetic spider and then found out he was just one of hundreds of spider-powered entities existing on a multitude of different Earths across the multiverse. It also revolutionised animation with its jawdropping mix of retro comic book, Cubism and pop art. The much anticipated sequel takes all that and  hypercharges it into a trippy, at times hallucinogenic, kinetic rush that feels like maxed out ADHD that can be exhausting to watch but also delivering   exhilaration to every fibre of your being.

It starts, though, on   Earth-65 with moody rock drummer Gwen Stacey (Hailee Stanfield), the white-clad Spider-Woman of her world, who’s having problems with her law enforcement father  (Shea Whigham) who believes her alter ego was responsible for the death of his daughter’s best friend, Peter Parker (who had transformed into The Lizard). When, following a battle with  a DaVinci-sketch looking version of The Vulture, she finally reveals her secret identity, looking to explain and hoping for understanding, he just reads her her rights. Bitterly disappointed, she flees into the Spider-Verse using a device given to her by   Jessica Drew (Issa Rae), a pregnant African-American Spider-Woman who helped subdue The Vulture, recruits her as part of the Spider-Society, a team policing the different dimensions.

Meanwhile, back on  Earth-1610, now 15, while Spider-Man is famous superhero who was a guest host on Jeopardy and made a commercial endorsing  baby powder), Miles  is  en route to a meeting with his school counsellor and concerned helicopter parents Rio (Luna Lauren Vélez)  and newly promoted police captain Jefferson (Brian Tyree Henry) for which he’s already late, he’s sidetracked when he runs into someone robbing a local store, a faceless white figures covered in black splodges which are, in fact, portals, through which he or just parts of his body can travel, with whom he gets involved in a  running battle.  Calling himself The Spot (Jason Schwartzman), this new supervillain was once Jonathan Ohnn (Jason Schwartzman), a scientist who worked for Alchemax, who became what he is today as a result of the collider implosion caused by Miles in the first film. Now he’s looking for revenge by ruining Miles’s life, just as he ruined his.  And he’s found his holes can take him into the multiverse.

The central thrust begins as Miles secretly follows Gwen into the Spider-Verse (including a visit to Lego Earth) where he’s reunited with his old mentor, Peter Parker Jake Johnson, who, married to Mary Jane, now has a baby called May, with similar powers, and is confronted by the scarred, humourless  Miguel O’Hara (Oscar Isaac), the “ninja vampire” of Earth 2099 who runs Spider-Man HQ who explains that  having, in an earlier sequence where he and Gwen wound up in  Mumbattan and he saved the life of  the police captain father of   the girlfriend of Spider-Man India (Karan Soni), he disrupted a canonical event. In other words, each Earth’s arachnid adventurer have things in common, being bitten by a spider, the murder of Uncle Ben (or Uncle Aaron – Mahershala Ali – in Miles’s case) …and  the tragic death of a police captain. Now he’s thrown everything off-kilter and put the integrity of the entire Spider-Verse at risk. More than that, Miles learns that he’s an anomaly and  became Spider-Man by error, that he wasn’t the one the mechanoid was supposed to bite, meaning there is an Earth without a Spider-Man where the storyline unfolded in a  much darker manner. Thus Miles is declared Spider Public Enemy No 1 and with Miguel and countless variations in pursuit, he, Gwen, and Hobie Brown aka Spider-Punk (Daniel Kaluuya), a Mohawked Londoner with a guitar strapped to his back who’s animated like a living Sex Pistols album cover, have to stop The Spot and save the entire Spider-Verse, not to mention his and Gwen’s fathers by preventing the canon from playing out.

The dazzling animation is eye-popping, often shifting styles and colours within the same scene, close-ups showing the comic-book dot textures of the characters’ skins, driving things along at hyperspeed but also finding time out for quieter, more tender moments such as Miles and Gwen hanging out (upside down) on the dome of the Williamsburg Savings Bank Tower that add further resonance to the film’s central theme about the weight of responsibility (an emotional depth that has always distinguished Marvel comics) and the painful journey to self-discovery. There’s a lot of fun too as, along with a joke about the redundancy of saying Chai tea,  it wheels out such web-slinging variations as Spider-Horse, Spider-Car, Spider-Cat, and the virtual reality Spider-Byte, interjecting the animation with live action that includes clips from both the Tobey Maguire and   Andrew Garfield movies, a brief visit to a convenience store in Eddie Brock’s world and a wordless cameo from Donald Glover as The Prowler (another variation of whom provides a last moments shocker).

Driven by a brilliant score and guaranteed Oscar glories, as the first of the two part sequel, it ends, of course on a cliffhanger setting up Beyond The Spider-Verse. That won’t arrive until next year, by which time your pulse rate might just have slowed down enough to handle it. (Amazon Prime)

Talk To Me (15)

Transitioning from YouTube horror, Australian twin brothers Danny and Michael Philippou make their directorial feature debut with an assured entry into the familiar don’t mess with the afterlife genre that brings a fresh approach to well-worn tropes and a whole new meaning to the phrase talk to the hand. Opening with a stabbing and a shocking violent suicide at a party and a genuinely disturbing night scene where a car hits a kangaroo which is left dying in the road ( a sure nod to the deer in Jordan Peele’s Get Out), the narrative hinges on the hand of a dead psychic which, encased in ceramics, those looking for a thrill are encouraged to clasp, making contact with a spirit and saying ‘Talk to me’ and then  ‘I invite you in’, whereby they’re taken over and have scary visions, but have to blow out the candle and let go after 90 seconds so that they don’t remain possessed.

One such is black teenager Mia (sterling newcomer Sophie Wilde) who was driving the car that hit the kangaroo and while her surrogate younger brother Riley (Joe Bird) begged her to end its misery, she was unable to bring herself to do so. Following her mother’s death, a gulf has opened up between Mia and her brooding father Max (Marcus Johnson), leading her to spend much of her time at Riley’s house with his big sister and her best friend (Alexandra Jensen), their take no shit mother  Sue (veteran Australian star Miranda Otto), working nights This allows them to sneak out to a party hosted by  Hayley (Zoe Terakes) and Joss (Chris Alosio),  who initiate a hand session, everyone  treating  the gross-outs like some sort of supernatural high and a big laugh to be shared on social media.

Naturally, it all goes to shit, staring off with Jade’s ultra-Christian boyfriend Daniel (Otis Dhanji) being taken over by a horny spirit (cue a later foot sucking scene),  Mia  becoming hooked and going back over and over and Riley volunteering and being possessed by Mia’s dead mother Rhea (Alexandria Steffensen) who tries to reconcile with her daughter, leading to the time limit being exceeded. All of which results in Mia being ostracised by Jade and Sue following two graphically violent convulsive suicide attempts by Riley whose spirit Mia is shown being tortured in limbo, with killing him the only way to set  him free, and her learning the truth behind her mother’s death.

With a subtext about bored youth seeking ever extreme kicks as they sink into addiction  (viral and otherwise) along with the trauma of guilt and loss, the pace never slackens as the intensity builds, and while the idea that the dead really are not to be trusted may be well-worn and the narrative is overtaken by the chaos, the brothers still manage to squeeze  some decent jolts before the big final twist that leaves things open for a sequel.  (Netflix)

Terminal (15)

Vaughn Stein’s hard-boiled noir pastiche, clearly taking its inspiration from Sin City (and Waiting For Godot) amd forerver referencing Alice in Wonderland, has accrued some particularly damning reviews, but it’s nowhere near as awful as they make it seem.  A futuristic sci fi plot twisting revenge thriller, it stars Margot Robbie as Bonnie, a femme fatale female assassin who sets out to win the business of a mysterious crime boss by proving she can turn his current hitmen for hire, Vince (Dexter Fletcher) and Alfred (Max Irons) against each other, to which end she also plays the role of sardonic but sweet diner waitress  Annie who lends a friendly ear and some pragmatic advice to Bill (Simon Pegg), an English teacher who’s dying of cancer and looking to end it quicker, and also hooks up with Alfred who, along with Vince, is holed up in a  hotel room waiting to be given their target.

Pretty much all of this takes place around a rundown railway station populated only by a limping janitor (Mike Myers in his first film in almost a  decade) who shuffles around whistling Danny Boy, and all of which is monitored by an unseen figure on a bank of television screens.  There’s also a lot of toing and froing involving briefcases concealed in the station lockers.

As it gathers to the climax, all manner of twists – one especially audacious – are rolled out that tie things together and, while the direction can be stiff and the dialogue cringeworthy, there’s enough of a potential cult air about it to warrant a place on the platform.  (Arrow)

There’s Still Tomorrow (15)

Filmed in black and white in the style of Italian neorealism with a comedic undercurrent and set   in post-war Rome in May 1946, first time writer-director Paola Cortellesi stars as Delia, married to an abusive husband, Ivano (Valerio Mastandrea), who goes out screwing at night, with three kids,  sweary young boys Sergio (Mattia Baldo) and Franchino (Gianmarco Filippini), and teenage daughter Marcella (Romana Maggiora Vergano), who show her little respect. She works four jobs, mending and doing laundry, but is forced to hand over (most of) her earnings to her husband. She also has to take care of her bedridden father-in-law Ottorino (Giorgio Colangeli, an obnoxious bullying misogynist who constantly tries to grope her.  Her only friends are   car mechanic Nino (Vinicio Marchioni), an old flame who still who loves her, and  market stall greengrocer Marisa (Emanuela Fanelli). Then she bumps into  William (Yonv Joseph), an African American soldier stationed in the city. He gives her chocolate, she sharing a bite with Nino (a lovely scene that has them smiling at each other with smeared teeth) but, when she gives it to the children, Ivano goes off on one, accusing her of being a whore, the children sent out as, in a scene of domestic abuse daringly staged as a dance number, he slaps  her around and nearly chokes her.

Things look up when    Marcella, who is expected to wed someone with money for the family’s sake rather than wasting money on an education,  announces she wants to marry   Giulio (Francesco Centorame), the son of a well-to-do family who own the local bar, a prospect Ivano relishes. Though  dubious about him and her future-in-laws coming around to their shabby home, Sunday lunch is duly arranged only for Giulio’s bossy behaviour to make Delia  realise that Marcella would be letting herself into a similar situation as herself. To which end, with some explosive help from William, she  scuppers any hope of financial improvement.

All this is set against the run-up the institutional referendum on June 2 and 3 to choose between a monarchy or a republic, the first time that women are given the opportunity to vote (Delia hides her voting card almost like it’s an illicit love letter), hordes of them flocking to elect the Constituent Assembly, although things are made complicated for her when Ottorino dies and the house is suddenly filled with relatives and friends that day before the polls.

Played out as female empowerment melodrama in the face of a patriarchal society, it follows a predictable arc but that’s more than compensated for by its well-managed tonal shifts and the potency of the lead performances from Cortellesi and Mastandrea, Ivano almost as much a victim of ingrained Italian attitudes as his wife, while the inclusion of rap and hip hop (a notoriously misogynistic genre) , including a track by Outkast, alongside old school Italian ballads gives it a contemporary snap. (Vue)

The Three Musketeers Pt 1: D’Artagnan (15)

Written in 1844 by Alexandre Dumas, there’s been over 40 big and small screen adaptations but this stirringly and sumptuously directed by Martin Bourboulon is the best in a long while, even if some of the actors do bear a passing resemblance to those in the BBC serial. Largely faithful to the novel (although here Porthos is bisexual and Athos’s marital backstory is somewhat reworked), it starts off in 1627 with the impulsive, puppyish Charles D’Artagnan of Gascony (a wildly charismatic François Civil) setting off   with a letter of recommendation to train as a Musketeer and serve Louis XIII. Before he gets there, however, he’s involved in an attack on a woman in a carriage and ends up being shot and buried in a shallow grave. Not actually wounded, however, he claws his way out and gets to Paris where he’s taken in as a cadet by the captain of the musketeers, Tréville (Marc Barbé), but he’s barely dismounted before he finds himself facing three separate (and banned) duels, his opponents all turning out to be the legendary musketeers, Athos (Vincent Cassel bringing due gravitas), the rumbustious Porthos (Pio Marmai) and Aramis (Roman Duris), who can’t seem to balance his womanising and spiritual duties.

However, after dispatching  the guards under the command of the duplicitous Cardinal Richelieu (Eric Ruf), he finds favour with the King (a spry Louis Garrel) and, more so, his (here unmarried) landlady, Constance (Lyna Khoudri), trusted confidante to the Queen (Vicky Krieps), Anne of Austria, the thrilling plot breathlessly unfolding to involve a conspiracy by the Protestants, loyal to England, and Richelieu to  bring down the monarchy and spark war with England, which Louis’s brother Gaston advises while being railroaded into marrying, Athos being framed for murder and sentenced to death,  and  D’Artagnan’s frantic dash to England to recover a diamond necklace given to the Queen by Louis, which she’s given to her English lover the Duke of Buckingham (Jacob Fortune-Lloyd), who’s insisting she wear it at the wedding. During which time his path frequently crosses that of Milady (the ever excellent Eva Green), Richelieu’s spy who’s also been charged with recovering the diamonds on his behalf.

The core cast sparking with chemistry, all of this rattles along with brilliantly staged long take swashbuckling derring-do action sequences that are on a period par with John Wick, meticulous costuming, smart repartee, dark skullduggery, unexpected twists, romance, superb widescreen and camera swooping photography  with its sepia tones and use of candles, a thrilling adrenaline ride that leaves you wanting more. The good news then being that Part 2, Milady, arrives in December. (Sky Cinema)

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry (12A)

Adapted by Rachel Joyce from her own 2012 novel  and directed by Hettie Macdonald, this tells how, learning his old work colleague Queenie (a briefly seen Linda Bassett) friend is in a hospice with cancer, retired pensioner Harold (Jim Broadbent), inspired by an anecdote about giving hope from a young woman in a petrol station, resolves to walk all the 500  miles (thankfully no Proclaimers on the soundtrack, the songs provided by folkie Sam Lee)  from his home in Devon to see her in Berwick-On-Tweed and hand deliver the letter he’d originally intended to post, much to the displeasure of his grouchy wife Maureen (Penelope Wilton, holding up her own with a finely tuned performance veined with pain, bitterness and grief).

It’s hard not to draw comparisons with 2021’s The Last Bus in which Tim Spall played a pensioner who, using his free bus pass, travels from John O’Groats to Land’s End England, to return to where he and his wife grew up and scatter her ashes, becoming, as here, a media event and accruing a virtual and physical following in the process.

That, however,  felt more credible than Harold’s journey (for which he’s poorly equipped without even a map) during which he sends his money and credit cards home and gets back to nature sleeping rough, eating wild fruit and accepting the charity of strangers, and, naturally, there’s an underlying back story revealed in flashbacks that involves a family heartbreak (cue flashbacks to a drug addict son), a marriage that’s gone off the boil that needs to recover the spark, and an attempt to regain a sense of purpose.

Like Spall, Broadbent disappears into his character, even if this is now rather familiar territory for him, and, the film keeps the tweeness dialled down as it present a warts and all snapshot of contemporary Britain, but ultimately, you may feel worn out long before Harold does.  (Sky Cinema)

Wicked Little Letters (15)

Rivalling The Great as the sweariest period dramady ever, but with a real sense of exuberance to letting rip, set in the West Sussex coastal town of Littlehampton, director Thea Sharrock’s dark comedy is actually based on a real life scandal from the 1920s.  A middle-aged spinster still living with her puritan mother Victorian (Gemma Jones) and domineering blustering father Edward (Timothy Spall), pious Edith Swan (Olivia Colman)  starts receiving foul-mouthed anonymous letters, the missives subsequently extending to numerous other residents.

The finger of suspicion points to Edith’s neighbour and former friend, Rose Gooding (Jessie Buckley), an Irish immigrant single mother with a young daughter (Alisha Weir), black lover (Malachi Kirby) and a fondness for drink and free-spirited ways, she being duly arrested, despite lack of any actual evidence, by the police in the shape of  officious prejudiced Chief Constable Spedding (Paul Chahidi) and his toadying subordinate Constable Papperwick (Hugh Skinner). Only WPC Gladys Moss (Anjana Vasan) is of the belief that Rose is innocent, but her ideas (like checking handwriting) are naturally pooh-poohed and she’s patronisingly dismissed by the patriarchy on account of being a woman (suffragettes should be locked up) and coloured. She, however, recruits a gaggle of local eccentrics (Joanna Scanlan, Eileen Atkins, Lolly Adefope) to help track down the real culprit.

Although the motives are never really examined, the reveal  as to the actual letter writer comes about midway and isn’t  that hard to guess, the narrative then moving to obtaining proof  while the sanctimonious Edith, seeing herself as a martyr (“By my suffering, do I not move closer to heaven?”), basks in her notoriety in the papers and the clock counts down to Rose’s trial (Jason Watkins as the prosecuting counsel) and a certain guilty verdict, with the ensuing loss of custody of her daughter.

The direction and Jonny Sweet’s screenplay loses impetus midway before regrouping for the eventual expose, but it never loses sights of its underlying subtexts of racism, hypocrisy, religious narrow-mindedness, domestic violence and  the misogynistic oppression of women. Colman and Buckley, who also co-starred in The Lost Daughter,  are of course superlative, digging deep into  characters that might be otherwise slightly one-dimensional, the former relishing the liberation of the expletives while Spall, barking them out in full voice,  is wonderfully monstrous as Edward and Vasan is an absolute delight as a woman who refuses to be handcuffed by the blinkered social attitudes of those in charge.  It could be funnier, it could be sharper and it could be better paced, but even so it’s still hugely entertaining. (Vue)

You Are So Not Invited To My Bat Mitzvah! (12)

One of Netflix’s biggest hits this year, though produced by Adam Sandler he takes a backseat as, adapted by Alison Peck from  Fiona Rosenbloom’s novel, he plays Danny Friedman, father to daughters Ronnie, the serious one, and the more immature Stacy, played respectively by his own daughters  Sadie and  Sunny, while reuniting with Uncut Gems co-star Idira Menzel as his wife.  The younger of the two, Sunny is approaching her bat mitzvah, the Jewish coming-of-age ritual at 13, in which she has to read passages from the Torah and devise a charity project. She, of course, is more concerned about the accompanying party as she and best friend Lydia (Samantha Lorraine), whose mother’s played by Sandler’s wife Jackie, enthusing over themes and what the future will hold, like adjoining homes in Taylor Swift’s Tribeca building. Lydia writes Stacy’s speech and she in turn offers to put together her entrance video biography.

Things, however, soon turn pear-shaped starting with Stacy leaping off a cliff into the water in order to impress her crush, class heartthrob Andy Goldfarb (Dylan Hoffman), resulting in a humiliating tampon moment, and a subsequent falling out with Lydia when she sees her kissing him, prompting the angry declaration of the title and a rather cruel revenge.

Comparisons with Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret are inevitable, not least in Stacy’s own chats with the Man Upstairs, while it also follows genre  conventions such as the school’s catty queen bees, the embarrassing parents (Danny’s dad jokes), the shopping sequences and all those girls want to be grown up moments, here largely embodied in  a geeky friend being excited to finally shave her legs.

Although it helps considerably if you’re familiar with Jewish  culture to get the references and appreciate the jokes involving Jewish mothers, dads, grannies and aunts, it’s nevertheless all very sweet and consistently funny, the entire Sandler clan having solid comedic chops (though Sunny is undoubtedly the star turn) while great support comes from Sarah Sherman as the perky Rabbi Rebecca (who gets to sing God Is Random in response to her class asking why He allows injustice) and Ido Mosseri as the wildly over the top DJ Schmuley.  Forget the invite, this is well worth crashing the party. (Netflix)

Screenings courtesy of Cineworld 5 Ways  & Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe

CINEMAS

Cineworld 5 Ways – 181 Broad St 0871 200 2000

Cineworld NEC – NEC 0871 200 2000

Cineworld Solihull – Mill Ln, Solihull 071 200 2000

The Everyman – The Mailbox 0871 906 9060

MAC – Cannon Hill Park 0121 446 3232

Mockingbird, Custard Factory 0121 224 7456.

Odeon Birmingham, 0871 224 4007

Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe – Ladywood Middleway 0333 006 7777

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

Omniplex Great Park, Rubery www.omniplexcinemas.co.uk/cinema/birmingham

Reel – Hagley Rd, Quinton, Halesowen 0121 421 5316

Vue Star City – Watson Road 08712 240 240

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