This column will review films both screening theatrically and/or on various streaming platforms.
Don’t Worry Darling (15)
While somewhat overshadowed by claims of onset friction between director Olivia Wilde (this her sophomore feature following Booksmart) and star Florence Pugh involving co-star and Wilde’s partner Harry Styles, there’s more than enough going on here to make you forget the Hollywood gossip mill, even if Katie Silberman’s script has a habit of telegraphing the underlying twists. Set, apparently, in the 50s with a retro design featuring some B&W TV and some classic tailfin American cars, the tellingly named Alice (Pugh) lives the life of a happy housewife serving dinner, whiskey and sex to her English hubbie Jack (Styles, who also wrote the pivotal theme song) in a perfectly manicured California desert community experiment called Victory with its identical houses, created and run by his cult-leader like boss Frank (a sadly underused Chris Pine), with support from his imperious wife Shelley (Gemma Chan), who runs the women’s ballet classes stressing “There is beauty in control”, along with all the other employees; the men all work on some top secret engineering project developing ‘progressive materials’ they cannot talk about (but which sometimes causes crockery-rattling mini quakes) which has them driving off every morning to some off—limits-to-wives mountain location in the desert while their wives busy themselves as perfect domestic spouses.
Except it’s clear from the off that there’s something askew here, an early metaphor being the eggs Alice breaks in her hand, all perfectly formed shell and nothing inside (which, if you’re harsh, could also sum up the film). Then, directly borrowing from Get Out, Margaret (KiKi Layne), one of the enclave’s two Black women who once wandered into the forbidden zone and returned without her child, has an outburst declaring Frank’s lying to everyone and is duly regarded as having a breakdown, her subsequent fate reinforcing Alice’s growing suspicions, especially after an experience on the remote HQ after thinking she saw a plane crash. All of which has you waiting for the reveals that are inevitably waiting in the wings with any number of Alice’s hallucinatory visions (notably a black and white Busby Berkeley routine emulating an eye opening and closing) further teasing the mystery behind this paranoid thriller.
As things develop, Jack gets promotion (accompanied by a dance routine at Frank’s somewhat fascist rally with his ‘whose world is it’ mantra), there’s a confrontation scene between Alice and Frank where he drops his perma smile façade and she’s treated for psychosis before a third act reveal pulls back the technology curtain that shows what’s down the rabbit hole or behind the looking glass depending on which Lewis Carroll book you favour.
With a gender politics subtext about a controlling patriarchy, the film undeniably has narrative and stylistic ambition, the set design is outstanding, as is the cinematography by Matthew Libatique and, while Styles’s at times hammy/stiff performance and accent isn’t wholly explained by the revelation concerning his character, he does a decent enough job, while Pugh delivers an intense Oscar nomination worthy performance as a woman consumed by doubts and fears and Wilde herself is excellent as her waspish friend and neighbour Bunny who, it transpires, isn’t as oblivious about Victory as the other wives. However, the end result is an awkward and overly obvious cocktail of ideas and tropes from Stepford Wives, The Matrix, The Prisoner, The Truman Show, Wild Palms, Black Swan (which Libatique also shot) and even Pugh’s own recent Midsommar, spiced with a Shyamalan-like big twist, in its themes of manipulation, deception, gaslighting and altered reality but never quite knowing how to cohesively thread them together or, with a desert car chase included, actually end the film with any sense of closure. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Electric; Empire Great Park; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Vue)
Funny Pages (18)
Evoking Ghost World, Crumb and American Splendor variously in terms of tone and context, the directorial debut by The Squid and the Whale star Owen Kline (son of Kevin) charts familiar alienated youth coming-of-age territory in a grungy, unsentimental comedy. Set in modern-day but retro-feeling New Jersey, Robert (Daniel Zolghadri) is the youth in question. A spoiled, caustic-tongued 17-year-old high schooler in need of someone to guide him, he works part-time in a comic store populated by dour obsessive nerds and draws his own subversive cartoons in the style of names like Robert Crumb – i.e. sexually crude with a plethora of tits and dicks, and is ace at caricaturing the people around him. When his encouraging obese art teacher mentor Mr. Katano (Stephen Adly Guirgis), who advises him to quit school and get published as soon as possible, preferably in MAD, strips off for an impromptu life drawing session at school. Feeling uncomfortable, Robert makes his excuses and leaves, resulting in Katano being killed in a car accident.
Having persuaded his, socially awkward, acne-riddled, less talented aspiring cartoonist friend Miles (Miles Emanuel), who, unlike him, favours soul over form, to help him ‘recover’ Katano’s artwork, Robert’s busted and, while acquitted, decides to quit school and move from his emotionally distant parents’ (Maria Dizzia, Josh Pais) comfortable suburban Princeton home to the underbelly of Trenton to make it in the world of comics, Here he takes up lodgings with an couch in an illegal sublet apartment basement where his eccentric balding sweaty landlord Barry (Michael Townsend Wright) keeps the temperature at boiling hot levels and has a mottled green fishtank, the occupants of which are long dead, sharing a bedroom with Barry’s equally strange friend Steven (Cleveland Thomas Jr), an odd couple who watch old movies and swap cultural comments.
He also gets a job with Cheryl (Marcia DeBonis), the cheery public defender in his case, who hires him as a courtroom sketch artist and to type out her conversations with clients as they happen. This, in turn, sees him cross paths with fifty-something Wallace (Matthew Maher) who’s been charged with assaulting pharmacist and, to Robert’s delight, turns out to have once worked as a colour separator for (real-life) cult underground comics brand Image co-founded by Todd McFarlane.
While the unstable, anti-social Wallace isn’t keen on having a ‘fan’ or student, he agrees to let Robert pay him for lessons in return for staging an incident at the pharmacists to get evidence of his supposed belligerence. As such, Robert invites him to his unwitting parents for Christmas Day pancakes. Rather inevitably, things do not go well.
Clocking in at under 90 minutes, it somewhat stumbles towards the rushed downbeat anti-inspirational, defeatist ending, but, largely down to the interaction between Zolghadri and Maher, and the oddballs that orbit their lives, among them cameos by Ron Rifkin his befuddled grandfather and Louise Lasser as a foul-mouthed wheelchair-bound opiate addict, he meets at the pharmacy. Light years removed from Marvel, this is the real grubby world of comic books. (Mockingbird)
The Adam Project (12)
“The future is coming sooner than you think”, harassed mother Ellie Reed (an underused Jennifer Garner) tells her all-attitude 12-year-old son Adam (Walker Scobell) after he’s suspended following an altercation with the school bully. And indeed it is, but not in quite the way she imagined. His father having died in an accident two years earlier, young Adam has buried his grief in being mouthy and giving his mom a hard time. While she’s out on a date, he investigates a noise in the woods outside their home and, returning to the house, finds the garage open and in it a wounded pilot (Ryan Reynolds) who seems to uncannily know a lot about him, the house and even the name of his dog, Hawking. Not surprisingly really, since he’s actually his future self who, as seen in the opening sequence, has fled from 2050, where’s he’s being chased by another spacecraft, and wound up in 2022, four years on from when he’d intended.
Reuniting Reynolds with Free Guy director Shawn Levy, this has a similar self-aware playful style with Reynolds again doing his snarky, irreverent quick fire patter to hugely entertaining effect, the film cheerfully acknowledging its borrowings from Back To The Future, Star Wars (Adam wields a double-sided light sabre) and Spielberg’s Amblin universe. Older bearded Adam has come from the future in search of his wife Laura (Zoe Saldaña) who, supposedly, was killed trying to return from 2018, something he simply doesn’t buy (rightly so, since she turns up to save him). His other reason for trying to get back to 2018 was to stop his father, Louis (Mark Ruffalo), developing time travel, his creation having been usurped his then partner, Maya Sorian (Catherine Keener), who has used it to take control of the future that, as Adam describes it is like Terminator 2 on a good day, and, it would seem, have Laura killed. So now, older Adam and younger Adam have to join forces (his wound, which farts blood, means he needs his young self’s DNA to unlock his craft) to fight off Sorian’s forces and get back in time to prevent their father’s creation ever taking place. Sorian, meanwhile, links up with her own younger self (who she helped amass a fortune through knowing what investments would pay off), to ensure that doesn’t happen,
This, of course, is just the action-driven plot (sequences set to rock classics like Gimme Some Lovin’, Boston’s Long Time and Led Zeppelin’s Good Times, Bad Times) on which to hang the film’s real narrative about loss, grief, how you handle it and how it can change you, the two Adams, the brain and the brawn, giving each other life-lessons about their father issues and getting in touch or reconnecting with their feelings as the film rolls along, turning its own logic upside down as Louis warns them that meeting themselves (and an eight-year-old Adam makes it all the more complicated) can cause all sort of cosmic chaos.
As such, Scobell and Reynolds have a great time riffing off each other while, when they both get reunited with their befuddled not yet dead dad, the film cranks up the emotional level as everyone gets to confront and put to rights the absent-father syndrome that has shaped their personalities. Short and fluffily slight it may be, but it’s one of the year’s most enjoyable films so far. (Netflix)
Essentially Jaws with a mane, directed by Iceland’s Baltasar Kormákur and shot by Oscar-winning cinematographer Philippe Rousselot, this is a lean, low budget survival movie that pits Idris Elba against a murderous line. He plays Dr. Nate Samuels who, when his ex-wife does of cancer takes his teenage daughters, Meredith (Iyana Halley), a photographer like her mother, and the younger Norah (Leah Sava Jeffries), to South Africa in an attempt to heal the rift caused by his being distant in their time of need. Here the visit the village where their mother grew up and the gave reserve managed by his old friend Martin (Sharlto Copley), who introduced the couple and who in on chummy terms with a bunch of lions
Out on a tour of the reserve’s restricted areas, they come across a village where pretty much everyone is dead, apparently the result of an attack by a lion. Attempting to track the animal, Martin is mauled and Nate and the girls attacked in their jeep, which ends up getting crashed, Norah stabbing the lion with a tranquilizer dart while Meredith recovers Martin, leaving them at the animal’s mercy (no cell phone coverage, naturally, just walkie talkies) as Nate attempts to protect his daughters.
The film opens with a bunch of poachers massacring pride of lions, the survivor understandably enraged, hence its vengeance-fuelled crusade to kill anything on two legs. More poachers resurface later in the film, ostensibly looking like a rescue until the lion attacks once again, leaving Nate and the girls fleeing in their truck, Meredith in the interim having lacerated her leg escaping and Martin sacrificing himself, with everything ending up as the lion stalks them in abandoned schoolhouse and Nate going fist to paw with it until, well, remember those other friendly lions.
The simplistic plot with its creature feature and family soap ingredients is as basic as the dialogue, but, even if the rushed ending is anticlimactic, the tension keeps it together, even if Elba trying to punch out a frenzied lion rather pushes credibility. The young actresses, relative newcomers, are good and given more to do than just scream at a digital effect, even if they follow the old routine of placing themselves in danger when told to stray where they are, while a tough but vulnerable Elba looking to earn back his daughters’ respect exudes the sort of presence and star power that made Luther such a success. Ultimately, it’s just competent, disposable popcorn thrills, but sometimes you just need a snack not a banquet. (Cineworld NEC, Solihull; Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Vue)
The Black Phone (15)
His first role as the bad guy, Ethan Hawke makes a chilling impression as The Grabber (though, to be fair, he’s greatly assisted by some genuinely scary-looking horned masks, one of which has a manic grin and comes in removable sections), who dresses as a black clad magician with chalk white face make-up and drives around in a black van with Abracadabra on the side into which he abducts the town’s adolescent boys, releasing black balloons as a signature. Directed by Scott Derrickson of Sinister (in which Hawke also starred) and Doctor Strange fame, it’s based on a short story by Joe Hill, who has clearly inherited father Stephen King’s ability to chill.
Set in 1978 Colorado, it opens with 13-year-old Finney Shaw (Mason Thames), pitching at the town’ Little League game. Unfortunately, after two strikes, his third pitch costs his team the game,but he’s congratulated by the batter, Bruce (Tristan Pravong). Other than his good arm, Finney’s the school dork, constantly on the end of the bullies’ fists, except for when his new martial arts best friend Billy (Jacob Moran) is around to protect him. Shortly after the game ends, Bruce becomes the fourth kids to go missing. Then Billy. The abductions shot in grainy Super 8.
Finney lives with his protective and wonderfully foul-mouthed younger sister Gwen (Madeleine McGraw), who has psychic powers that manifest through dreams,such as of the abducted children and black balloons,something that grabs the investigating cops’ attention given that they’re not public knowledge. Unfortunately, Finney and Gwen’s father (Jeremy Davies) has become an abusive alcoholic since his wife, who was also so gifted,committed suicide, and, fearing Gwen has inherited that power, takes his belt to her to force her to say they’re just dreams.
Inevitably, Finney becomes the sixth small town kid to go missing, and it’s on his abduction that the film focuses as he awakens to find himself locked in a soundproof basement, scared and not knowing what the Grabber,who says he intends no harm and provides food and drink, wants or why. Other than a mattress, the room also has a disconnected black phone on the scarred and cracked wall, which the Grabber says doesn’t work. Except, when Finney’s alone it starts to ring and eventually he starts to hear the voices of the previous victims, Bruce and Billy among then, warning him and trying to help him escape. Meanwhile, Gwen is having more dreams and cursing Jesus for not helping her find her brother.
To say more about how the plot unfolds would ruin the tension as it builds to a violent climax as Finney finally gets to stand up for himself, the reveal of the location and the introduction of Max (James Ransone), an amateur detective trying to figure out where the Grabber operates from, introducing a note of ironic and grim humour. Where the film elevates itself is by never offering up any simplistic explanations for the killer’ actions or motives, though a warning Finney gets about not being a naughty boy and the shot of Hawke sitting, bare chested, at the top of the stairs waiting to punish Finney does chime with the parental abuse them elsewhere.
Derrickson ratchets up the tension without overplaying the drama (a moment with a combination lock is heartstopping), while, mostly understated in his performance until the final bloody moments, Hawke is terrific in his subtle evocation of horror and the two young leads add extra lustre to the film’s compelling and gripping nature as it builds to wholly satisfying finale that, thankfully, doesn’t tease a sequel. (Rakuten TV)
Bodies Bodies Bodies (15)
Directed by Halina Reijin, this pitch black horror comedy for Gen Z is one of the year’s best. Accompanied by her enigmatic working-class new Eastern European girlfriend, Bee (Borat’s Maria Bakalova), recovering addict Sophie (Amandla Stenberg) turns up at a weekend hurricane party at the secluded mansion home of wealthy but toxic (“I look like I fuck. It’s my whole vibe”) childhood friend David (Peter Davidson), much to the surprise of the other spoiled brattish guests who include David’s drama queen actress girlfriend Emma (Chase Sui Wonders), airhead podcaster (“Hanging out with your smartest, funniest friend”) Alice (Rachel Sennott, her bemused 40-year-old new Tinder boyfriend Greg (Lee Pace), and Sophie’s ever sceptical old flame Jordan (Myha’la Herrold). Another, Max, left earlier following a fight with David.
Tensions are clearly evident, to which end, the others fuelled by drink and drugs, she suggests they play the titular murder in the dark-style game in which each player slaps their friend across the face and takes a shot. After which, one of them is randomly appointed as the killer. However, the slaps rather less than playful, Greg, a group outsider like Bee, decides to retire early and David, who the others have decided is the killer, storms off after another fight with Emma. Only, the power out, to appear at a window clutching at his throat. Now, Sophie’s car battery dead, it’s down to the others to work out who the real killer is as they explore the house by the light of cellphones and flashlights. At some point a gun surfaces.
Riffing on themes of false friendships, paranoia, distrust, jealousy, faux activism and white feminism and making effective use of the claustrophobic lighting and score, it builds the tension as the body count continues to rise as secrets are revealed and the rocky relationships between the group unravel, though to reveal more would spoil the revelations. Peppered with smartly comic dialogue along with the high pitched drama and some bloody violence, the entire cast bring solid, compelling performances to their characters although its Davidson, Sennott and Bakalova who, in their different ways, shine the brightest. Even if the final moments are slightly anti-climactic, wholly unexpected last act twist throws the group dynamics into stark relief while reinforcing the core themes it’s been exposing. This is what happens when you’re cut adrift from your social media and the real world erupts. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Mockingbird; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel; Vue)
Bullet Train (15)
While directed by Deadpool 2’s David Leitch, this feels much more like a Guy Ritchie movie with its plethora of one-liners, laconic performances, high octane action and guest star cameos, tweaked here and there with a splash of Tarantino. Adapted from the Japanese bestseller pulp novel MariaBeetle by Kotaro Isaka, it’s set aboard the titular high speed train as it travels from Tokyo to Kyoto, making only a few stops of one minute duration along the way. Among the passengers are a parcel of hitmen, headed up by Brad Pitt’s luckless assassin who, dubbed Ladybug by his handler Maria (Sandra Bullock, putting in a last minute appearance), is trying to find a more peaceful, Zen-like approach to his work (he’s forever rattling off self-help aphorisms). He’s been assigned to recover a metal briefcase from the train. This is currently in the custody (or rather in the luggage compartment) of bickering ‘twin’ hitmen Lemon (Bryan Tyree Henry) and Tangerine (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), the former forever likening people to characters from Thomas The Tank Engine, who have been charged with returning both it and his kidnapped son (Logan Lerman) – the case contains the ransom money – to Yakuza boss White Death (Michael Shannon). The pair, or specifically Lemon, have a history with Ladybug dating back to a bloody mission some years earlier. Also on the train is The Prince (Joey King), a murderous miss done up in pink as a schoolgirl, who also wants the briefcase and who has lured on board Yuichi Kimura (Andrew Koji), the son of another Japanese samurai, The Elder (Hiroyuki Sanada), whose wife was killed by White Death, by pushing his six-year-old off a roof , as part of her plan to kill White Death, who is seeking revenge for the death of his own wife. There’s also, briefly, another assassin known as The Wolf (Bad Bunny) who also boards the train in search of revenge, only to be quickly added the bodycount following a fight with Ladybug in the restaurant kitchen. Oh yes, and there’s also a poisonous snake whose venom can kill in 30 seconds by making you bleed from every orifice. Plus another assassin called The Hornet (Zazie Beetz) who’s masquerading behind a very unlikely disguise.
Upping the ante on Agatha Christie, this is Murder On The Occidental Express as this clutch of quirky characters (identified by on screen labels) variously try and take each other out in a series of imaginative and impressively choreographed martial arts fights, gun and knife battles and stand-offs, punctuated by assorted flashbacks to various bloodbaths, with Ladybug looking to improvise his way out of trouble rather than kill anyone unless necessary.
Mixing in comedy with the graphic violence (including an amusing is it a sex thing cameo by an uncredited Channing Tatum as well as a scene with smart toilet), it eventually pulls all the pieces and the characters together for the over the top climax aboard the speeding train, a sort of live action anime cartoon that may be light on substance but is most definitely one hell of a ride. (Cineworld NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Vue)
Clerks III (15)
Six years on from Clerks II and following a spate of rather less successful outings, Smith returns to wrap up his quasi-autobiographical (he narrates his own backstory over the end credits) slacker franchise with a singularly self-reflexive bittersweet comedy that skewers the nature of filmmaking while celebrating his consistent theme of friendship. At the end of the previous film, long-time friends Dante (Brian O’Halloran) and Randal (Jeff Anderson) had taken ownership of the Jersey Quick Stop grocery store where they worked while the former had married the pregnant Becky (Rosario Dawson). Some years on, Becky has died (but makes regular ghostly dream appearances) and there’s no child while a heart-attack brush with death (as Smith experienced in 2018) wakes Randal, now approaching 50, up to how his life has amounted to nothing. So, mirroring Smith’s premise for Clerks in the first place, he decides to make a film (“I see myself more like retail’s Richard Linklater”) of his, and by default Dante’s, life set in the Quick Stop, featuring their real life friends as themselves. Among them slacker stoner duo Jay (Jason Mewes) and Silent Bob (Smith). Thus, basically, Clerks.
Again mixing coarse comedy and pathos, the film deftly recaptures the chemistry between the bickering buddies, riffing on themes of mortality, loss and friendship alongside commentary on autobiographical filmmaking, would be diva actors and, well, life really and how cruel it can sometimes be. O’Halloran gets a striking meltdown scene as he erupts in suppressed rage. There’s more nods to Star Wars as Dante, who serves as producer, concerns over exactly what part he’s going to play while Trevor Fehrman as Elias from Clerks II gets his own spotlight with an array of changing costumes and facial make up as he transitions from Christian (and inventor of the Jesus kite) to Satanist, now with his own sidekick in Austin Zajur’s Blockchain. Back too is Marilyn Ghigliotti as Dante’s original girlfriend Veronica, not impressed by being portrayed as a slut in the screenplay while among the casting auditions there’s a string of amusing cameos from Ben Affleck, Sarah Michelle-Gellar, Fred Armisen and Danny Trejo. But beyond the gags and a surprise dance sequence, the heart of film lies in a sober and emotional meditation on growing older and both what lies ahead and what lay behind, making this Smith’s most satisfying work in years, even though the touching resolution seems it unlikely that a Clerks IV will be on the cards. (Mockingbird)
DC League of Super Pets (PG)
First introduced into the comics in 1955, Krypto was Superboy’s pet dog, send off into space on a test run prior to baby Kal-El making his way to Earth. The super-powered pooch has cropped up in comics and cartoons in various incarnations over the years, but has never been part of the big screen live action DC Universe. However, he now takes centre stage in his own Justice League animated-spin off (based on the Legion of Super-Pets) about him and a team of four-legged companions who find themselves bestowed with super powers and called upon to rescue Superman and the other Justice League members when they’re captured by a megalomaniac villain.
The opening sequence explains how, when young Kal-El was placed in a spaceship, his pet jumped in too, growing up to fight crime alongside Superman (John Krasinski), and with a similar nerdy secret-identity. However, our canine crimefighter (voiced by Dwayne Johnson) is having a bit of an anxiety crisis because Superman’s about to ask Lois (Olivia Wilde) to marry him, meaning he’ll no longer hold the same place in his master’s life.
Meanhile, Lulu (Kate McKinnon), a narcissistic hairless purple-eyed guinea pig associate of Lex Luthor (Marc Maron), acquires an orange variety of kryptonite, which she uses to give herself and, accidentally, a bunch of animals caged in the Tailhuggers Animal Shelter superpowers. These include tough but insecure bulldog Ace (Kevin Hart), PB (Vanessa Bayer), a size-expanding pig who wants to be super-cool, electricity-firing hyper squirrel Chip (Diego Luna) and myopic turtle Merton (Natasha Lyonne) who gets to be super-fast. Now, with Lulu having imprisoned the Justice League and created an army of super-powered guinea pigs, they and Krypto have to join forces to save the day.
Sporting similar comic sensibility to the Lego parodies, it’s clearly targeted at the kiddies but there’s plenty of delights for older audiences too, not least a tongue-in-cheek Keanu Reeves voicing an ultra-serious Batman (and questioning whether certain bat-toys are licensed) while a kitten who coughs up hairball grenades pretty much captures the whole spirit of absurdity and fun that’s hard to resist. (Rakuten TV; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe)
Doctor Strange In The Multiverse of Madness (12A)
Director Sam Raimi returns to the MCU fold for the first time since Spider-Man 3 back in 2007 to deliver what is by far the most out there and mind-bending incursion into superhero territory yet, a dazzling cornucopia of CGI and special effects yet also driven by a strong sense of drama, character and intense human emotion. Not to mention a wealth of playful Easter Egg in-jokes about and nods to the whole interlocked franchise.
It opens with Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch on multiple excellent form) battling and fatally failing to save a mysterious young woman (feisty newcomer Xochitl Gomez) who’s being chased by a monster. Then he wakes up. It’s just a nightmare but one which almost immediately becomes real when a giant one-eyed octopus-like creature attacks New York in pursuit of a very familiar-looking young girl, saving her with the help of Wong (assured presence Benedict Wong), the Sorcerer Supreme. The girl turns out to be America Chavez who possesses the power to travel between multiverses, which is what her as yet unrevealed pursuer wants for themselves.
Seeking to get to the bottom of things, and recognising indications of witchcraft Strange visits Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) for help, which turns out to be a bad move because, possessed by the Darkhold and obsessed with being reunited with her two young sons Billy and Tommy (Julian Hilliard, Jett Klyne), as seen in WandaVision, she’s become The Scarlet Witch and it’s she who’s out to take America’s powers to enable her to ‘dream-walk’ to other versions of Earth – specifically Earth-838, and replace the Wanda who still has her children. Thus, starting with a ruthless assault on Kamar-Taj, the stage is set for a series of confrontations between her and Strange as he searches for the Book of Vishanti, which lies in the space between universes and will enable him to destroy the Darkhold, in a plot that leaps between different versions of Earth (our is apparently 661) as well as different incarnations of Strange, each with their own different fates and tragedies (one himself corrupted by the Darkhold), including, in the final scenes, a zombie version of the Defender Strange killed in the opening scene, which turns out to have been real and not a dream.
Trying to explain further would only confuse matters more, but suffice to say in the course of the narrative Strange gets to meet two versions of his old flame, Christine (Rachel McAdams), whose wedding he attends at the start, one of whim is now a scientist, be betrayed by former mentor Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) who believes Strange triggered an incursion that threatens all universes and meet the Illuminati, a tribunal comprising – in a sewing together of assorted MCU characters – the Inhumans’ Black Bolt (Anson Mount), Reed Richards (John Krasinski) from the Fantastic Four, that Earth’s Captain Marvel (Lashana Lynch reprising her 2019 role as Maria Rambeau), Captain Carter (Hayley Atwell), a UK version of Captain America, and Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart), all of whom get to take on The Scarlet Witch in a spectacular set piece.
Those there for the kinetic thrills and eye-popping visuals are well-served and more (especially a scene that literally uses musical notes as weapons), while for those seeking deeper engagement, Olsen’s outstanding portrayal of a mother driven to madness by the loss of her children, making her an understandable if not excusable villain (“I am not a monster|” she screams), and the underlying themes of regret and a desire for second chances are the emotional weight that bedrocks the very best of the Marvel films. As ever, it wouldn’t be a Raimi film without a cameo by his muse, Bruce Campbell, who pops up in one of the universes as a street vendor of pizza balls and is enchanted by Strange into slapping himself. Likewise there’s the inevitable mid-credits sequence (with Charlize Theron as sorceress and comic book love interest Clea taking Strange – now with third eye – off to another dimensional battle) and, for those who appreciate a sucker punch joke, one more right at the very end. Exhilarating and poignant to the max, Spider-Man: No Way Home could well be toppled from its throne. (Disney+)
As highly melodramatic as it is stylised, Baz Luhrmann’s biopic of Elvis Presley pretty much follows the adage of going with the myth (or perhaps fairy tale) when it’s better than the facts. As such, much is brushed over or ignored (his affair with Ann-Margret, , his meeting with Nixon demanding action against the lefties, no mention by name of his legendary backing musicians Scotty Moore and DJ Fontana and while there’s the pills but no Fat Elvis cheeseburger binges), while other parts polish the realities (the young Elvis – Chaydon Jay- may indeed have had his R&B education by hearing Big Boy Crudup singing That’s Alright Mama in a juke joint or gospel by sneaking into a revival meeting, but, despite what the film shows, he and B.B. King weren’t best buddies who hung out together on Beale Street, though they were famously photographed together). Ultimately though, while overlong, this is a solid if flashy portrait of how he became the best-selling solo music artist and a legend whose influence continues to this day set against his relationship with his manipulative svengali manager Col. Tom Parker whose contract stipulated 50% of all earnings, eventually, after Presley’s death, being charged with financial abuse.
Parker, an illegal Dutch immigrant named Andreas Cornelis van Kuijk who claimed to be American and earned the honorary title of Colonel after assisting Jimmie Davis’s campaign to become Governor of Louisiana, was a carnival snake oil showman – or snowman – who got into the music business managing Hank Snow before ‘discovering’ Presley after hearing his Sun recording of That’s Alright Mama and seeing dollar signs to learn that the singer was white not black and seeing how his gyrations exploded sexual frenzy in his teenage girl audience (“She’s having feelings she wasn’t sure she should enjoy”, Parker notes). He’s played here under heavy jowelled prosthetics by Tom Hanks with an accent that sounds nothing like Parker but does, appropriately enough, conjure up the rasp of the serpent from Eden (though the visual suggestions he was Jewish are unfounded) while opposite him Austin Butler delivers a star-making turn in the title role, capturing his passions, his insecurities, vulnerability and trusting innocence, his voice a close approximation of Presley and looking spookily like him in the iconic poses, although more often he resembles a young John Travolta with the same electrifying charisma.
Although (unreliably) narrated with a running commentary by Hanks as the ailing Parker after Presley’s death, justifying his role and rejecting accusations that he exploited him and essentially caused his death, the screenplay, clearly makes him out to be the villain of the piece, using his flimflam skills, promises of wealth and fame and, ultimately, emotional and financial blackmail, to maintain his control of Elvis even when he was briefly fired in order to secure the money to feed his gambling habit (he negotiated Presley’s five year cash cow deal to be perform at the International in Vegas in return for having his debts cancelled, a point hammered home with the ‘caught in a trap’ line from Suspicious Minds) while his not having a passport being the reason he scuppered any plans for Presley’s international tours. In his commentary, Parker rejects being responsible for the star’s death, going to far as blaming the fans and their obsessive desire to see him keep performing.
As usual for Luhrmann, its delivered in a dizzying rush of over-saturated colour, dissolves, chronological acrobatics and even animation (though the decision to include contemporary hop on the soundtrack is a major misfire). It touches – albeit not in any great depth – on the contentious issue of whites appropriating black music (Presley’s frequently shown in the company of Black performers like King (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), Little Richard and Sister Rosetta Tharpe, clearly a fan of their music, alongside segregation (childhood poverty meant his family had to live in neighbourhoods meant only for people of colour) and the impact on him of Martin Luther King’s assassination. Ticking the biographical boxes of his army service (apparently engineered by Parker to avoid him being jailed for degeneracy), the inane conveyor belt movies, his devotion to his mother Gladys (Helen Thomson), his inept business manager father Vernon (Richard Roxburgh), his marriage to (and eventual divorce from) Priscilla (Olivia DeJonge), and, of course, Gracelands.
A stand out section is the 1968 Elvis comeback special, intended by Parker (to please the sponsors) to be a cosy Christmas special with seasonal sweaters and fireside, but which Presley, in cohorts with director Steve Binder (Dacre Montgomery), turned into his rock n roll resurrection in black leathers and ending, following Bobby Kennedy’s shooting, with his stark performance of If I Can Dream. Likewise the recreation of the lavish Vegas performances, though perhaps not as dramatically effective as the scenes of the young Elvis discovering the sexual magnetism in his swivelling hips.
Musically leaving the building ending with Elvis singing Unchained Melody in his final Vegas season before the end captions wrap up his death and Parker’s comeuppance, while superior to Bohemian Rhapsody (though Butler’s an Oscar contender) and ultimately coming in second place to Rocketman, this is Luhrmann’s best since Moulin Rouge and will undoubtedly see Elvis once again back at the top of the album charts. (Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham)
Stranded atop a 2000 foot tower with your best friend and with no way down is probably not the best place to discover she had a pre-marital affair with your late husband. But that’s just one of the many tried and tested twists that cowriter and director Scott Mann puts to effective use in this unrelentingly tense two-handed , single location survival thriller. Even more so if you have a thing about heights.
It starts with Becky (Grace Caroline Currey), husband Dan (Mason Gooding) and best friend Hunter (Virginia Gardner) free climbing when an accident send him hurtling to his death. Eleven months later, Grace is still in pieces, drinking heavily, pushing her concerned father (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), away and about to take an overdose when Hunter turns up at her apartment, now a celebrity extreme stunts YouTuber who’s come to pull her back from the brink and embrace life again. And clearly the best way to do that is to scale a decommissioned 2000 foot TV tower (based on a real structure) in the middle of the desert.
Persuaded to join her, and to throw Dan’s ashes from the top, they duly head out into the middle of nowhere California and start the ascent, climbing up the ladders inside the structure. To amp up any sense of vertigo you may be having, half way the ever perky Hunter remarks that they’ve now scaled the same height as the Eiffel Tower. Much of the second leg involves them using ladders on the outside of the tower in order to reach the satellite dishes and then the platform. A few hear stopping scenes later they duly make it, but those shots of rusty rivets and creaking metal, and having seen one rung already give way, let you know going back down isn’t going to be quite as smooth. Indeed, as Becky begins to climb from the platform, the ladder falls away, Hunter having to haul her back to safety.
So, now they’re trapped. There’s no signal for their phones and the bag with the water has fallen on to one of the dishes. When an attempt to send a message by lodging Hunter’s phone in a show and dropping it fails, she risks lowering herself by a rope to retrieve the bag and the film constantly offers up hopes of being seen and rescued only to dash cruelly them. And then there’s those vultures (a set up early in the film like the speeding truck they almost drive into) who’ve taken interest in Becky’s wounded leg.
It is, of course, wonderfully ridiculous and as such Mann pulls the audience in as the suspense ratchets up and then draws on such derivative conventions as the it was just a nightmare jolt to tease the audience before a dramatic big unreliable-narrator reveal in the final stretch. An attempt to send an SOS via Hunter’s drone challenges internal logic when you put the pieces together, but so compelling are the film, the way Mann creates the perspective of the height and the two performances as they navigate themes of friendship and confronting and that you don’t think about it until you’re metaphorically back on solid earth. The pacing could have been be tighter and the timescale pared back, but ultimately it does what it sets out to with white knuckle intensity. (Cineworld NEC; Vue)
Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore (12A)
The third of the planned five films in JK Rowling’s Fantastic Beasts franchise is a welcome and darker (and in one scene very gruesome) step up from the entertaining but far from magical The Crimes of Grindelwald, again directed by David Yates and with a quietly intense Mads Mikkelsen brilliantly stepping into Gellert Grindelwald’s shoes after the grandstanding Johnny Depp was requested to depart. However, while the storyline is more focused its so complicated you need to be extremely au fait with The Wizarding World to place the many characters and their roles within it and, again, it can, especially in the first two-thirds, sometimes prove confusing, not to say incoherent, in keeping up with the dizzying narrative switches.
Working with co-writer Steve Kloves, Rowling has scaled back the role of Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston) to a mere cameo but bumped up that of Charms Professor “Lally” Hicks (Jessica Williams complete with eccentric enunciation) to become an essential member of the team assigned to bring down Grindelwald, who, recruited by Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law), here revealed as his former lover and who cannot fight him himself on account of a magical blood pact, also line up as magizoologist Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), his brother Theseus (Callum Tuner), head Aura from the British Ministry of Magic, French wizard Yusuf Kama (William Nadlyam) whose half-sister was killed at a Grindelwald rally, Newt’s assistant Bunty Broadacre (Victoria Yeates) and muggle baker Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), still heartbroken after his mag lover, Queenie (Alison Sudol), Tina’s sister, believing he’d help her marry him, threw in her lot with Grindelwald.
Opposing them, alongside Grindelwald is, among others, Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller), who, at the end of the last film, was revealed to actually be Aurelius Dumbledore, the illegitimate son of Albus’s inn-owning brother Aberforth (Richard Coyle), who, since he can’t do it himself, has been ordered by Grindelwald to kill his newly discovered uncle.
The magical menagerie has also been downsized, reduced to just a few (living twig Pickett and the Niffler return), including a bunch of scorpion-like creatures that afford an amusing scene for Newt (rescuing his brother) to demonstrate limbic mimicry and, more importantly, the qilin, which can look into to people’s souls to see who has a pure heart. As such, it plays a pivotal role in the film which is set around the upcoming elections for the new Supreme Head. Thus, following the prologue flashback between Albus and Grindelwald, the film cuts to Newt attending the birth of the new qilin, only for the mother to be killed by Credence and his crew and the baby kidnapped so his master can harness its powers of precognition. What they don’t know is that the mother had twins. Now, to stop Grindelwald, who has been exonerated of his crimes and declared a third candidate for the election against Brazilian Minister Santos (Maria Fernanda Cândido) and Chinese Minister Liu (Dave Wong), by employing “countersight” – deliberately misleading to create confusion and hide their actual intentions (a similar ploy to be found in the upcoming Operation Mincemeat), Albus and his team have to ensure it remains safe and that they themselves aren’t killed in the process.
That’s the nuts and bolts of the plot, the secrets of the title relating to the entire Dumbledore family (including a dead sister adding to the tragedies) rather than just Albus, as each of the team carry out their allocated parts of the plan, the locations variously switching between London, Austria, New York, Berlin, Bhutan and, yes, Hogwarts, while Grindelwald’s campaign to fuel and exploit the hatred and bigotry bubbling up clearly has as many resonances with today’s world as in the Nazi 30s. Themes of the outsider and the abandoned loom large, often to emotionally affecting power, while naturally it’s awash with spectacular visual effects, thrilling chases, electrifying action and all manner of wand face-offs (Jacob is even gifted his own by Dumbledore) before and an ending that is both radiantly happy but, for one character, a reminder that they are forever alone. As such, while an exhilarating roller-coaster ride for the faithful, it might have been a better idea to have killed off Grindelwald here and ended the series, since what follows leading up to the ultimate showdown can surely only feel like an over-extended anti-climactic afterthought. (Rakuten TV)
Good Luck To You, Leo Grande (15)
Directed by Sophie Hyde and written by Katy Brand, this is a two-hander that plays very much like a stage play of three acts and an epilogue and is structured entirely around the conversations between its two characters. These are Leo Grande (Daryl McCormack), a good-looking,well-toned young Irish Black man who runs a business service as a sex-worker, and his client, Nancy Stokes (Emma Thompson), a recently widowed fiftyish ex-teacher, who has booked a plush hotel room to have sex. Naturally, neither are using their real names. He’s smooth, polite,articulate, non-judgemental and well-versed in how to interact with people,she’s insecure and nervous, confessing that she’s never had – and thinks herself unable to have – an orgasm and only ever had sex with her late husband. He experienced, she far from it,the first session is mostly a cat and mouse game about the two getting to know each other, he trying to calm her anxieties, she finding reasons not to go through with what she’s hired him for.
It’s funny but also piercingly sad as she gradually opens up about her disappointments, the stagnation of her marriage, her husband’s unchanging and brief sex routines, her feelings about her son and daughter and her general view of herself as a failure. In end with them finally concluding the deal. At the next session,she’s seemingly more confident,having drawn up a fuck-it list of what she wants, staring with oral sex. However, she continues to prevaricate while, over the course of this and the third session, the focus shifts more to Leo, who she presses on his life outside work,his relationship with his mother and sibling,something he’s reluctant to discuss as we come to realise that behind his self-assured persona, his life too his engrained with disappointments, hurt and insecurity (he’s seen checking himself out in the mirror on several occasions,and not for vanity).
It eventually comes to a head where, not understanding how boundaries work, she confronts him with his real name and we learn the heartbreaking reality of his background before he storms out. The epilogue is a final meeting, the relationship between them somehow changed, and introduces a third character, a hotel waitress that Nancy (who reveals her real name in a wry filmic in-joke) used to teach.
Slowly learning more about Leo and Nancy’s inner worlds and emotional scars is part and parcel of what makes this such a terrific work and to give away more would ruin the pleasures and poignancy of the screenplay and the performances with their tremendous chemistry. Suffice to say, embracing shame, frustration, body image, the nature of sex workers, parent-child conflicts, desire, and sexual healing/therapy, it’s a wonderfully compassionate and very human work. McCormack, previously seen in Peaky Blinders delivers a magnetic star-making turn that conveys depth and complexity in the most simple of physical gestures while, in her first nude scene, Thompson, bristling with nervous energy and navigating a lifetime marked by lack of self-worth, guilt, unhappiness and disappointment, gives a luminous, multi-faceted performance that is unquestionably the finest of a stellar career. From foreplay to climax, this will leave you with a glow of satisfaction. (Rakuten TV)
The Gray Man (15)
After taking a relative step back from the bombastic, high octane action of their Avengers movies with Tom Holland PTSD drama Cherry, the Russo Brothers dive back into the adrenaline pool for this high speed espionage thriller that moves so fast and so frantically you have little time to so notice the generic nature of the narrative which pretty much follows a similar route as to the Jason Bourne and John Wick movies.
Adopting a familiar laconic manner akin to his role in Drive, Ryan Gosling is Court Gentry, serving time for murder (it’s not until late in the film that the justifiable circumstances are revealed) when he’s visited by CIA bigwig Donald Fitzroy (Billy Bob Thornton looking younger in every film) who offers to commute his sentence if he agrees to bring his distinctive skill sets to work for a covert wing of the agency as a ‘gray man’ under Fitzroy and bureau chief Margaret Cahill (Alfre Woodard), tasked with eliminating hostile targets. From this point on he’s known only as Sierra Six, or Six.
His latest assignment takes him to Bangkok where his mission is to take out his target before he concludes a deal to pass on material against the interests of the US. To which end, he’s partnered with a CIA contact, Dani Miranda (Ana de Armas), who provides the weaponry and the kill site. However, things don’t go according to plan and, in a subsequent fight, Six discovers his target is a fellow Sierra agent, Four who passes on evidence of agency corruption at the highest level before dying. Now Six finds himself marked for elimination by Fitzroy and Cahill’s replacement, the ruthlessly ambitious Denny Carmichael (Rege-Jean Page) and his assistant, Suzanne Brewer (Jessica Henwick), who’s been using the Sierra project to destabilise governments and give himself sway.
At which point, the film basically becomes a location hopping chase movie as Six avoids one attempt on his life after another until Carmichael ups the stakes by bringing in sociopathic private contractor Lloyd Hansen (Chris Evans chewing scenery in tight trousers and Freddy Mercury ‘tache), who puts a price on his head, Miranda now forced to go rogue to help Six survive and expose the evidence. All of which variously involve a frenetic cherry red Audi RS7car chase, exploding helicopters, shoot outs, a mid-air battle to the death over Turkey, Prague turned into a combat zone, and, just to add to things, a mission to rescue Fitzroy’s teenage niece (Julia Butters) with a heart problem who’s being held as leverage by Hansen. Two supporting characters wind up doing to the self-sacrificing thing with a grenade in the process.
Riding a flood of testosterone and snappy patter, it rarely pauses to catch its breath en route to the inevitable Croatia showdown between the two stars, the Russos choreographing the action like a finely-tuned machine, but leaving room for Gosling to give Six a coating of humanity and a propensity for dry world-weary humour as well as affording another solid argument for De Armas headlining her own action movie. Bigger on brawn than brain perhaps, but it’s unrelentingly exciting viewing and the good news is that a sequel and a spin-off are already in development. (Netflix)
Hallelujah:Leonard Cohen, A Journey, A Song (12A)
Covered by a plethora of artists, John Cale (on the Shrek soundtrack) Rufus Wainwright()the soundtrack re-recording) and Jeff Buckley among them, arguably Cohen’s most famous song, recorded when he was 50 Hallelujah was originally rejected by his record company (he claimed he wrote 150 verses), and only became a hit after Cale’s 1991 recording, Cohen’s version not charting until after his death. Inspired by Alan Light’s 2013 book, The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley, and the Unlikely Ascent of “Hallelujah”, Daniel Geller and Dayna Goldfine’s documentary extensively covers Cohen’s life from his growing up in Quebec through to the early Nineties before picking up with his return to recording and touring in the early 2000s, focusing in details on the song, how long it took to write (five years), his thoughts on it (“a desire to affirm my faith in life”), the covers in all their different interpretations, and so on. Along with archive Cohen footage, interviewees include Judy Collins, Brandi Carlisle, Bob Dylan, Glen Hansard, Sharon Robinson and ‘Ratso’ Sloman, while a rendition by k.d. lang from Tower of Song: A Memorial Tribute to Leonard Cohen concert from 2017, is the icing on the cake.
Her Way (15)
Call My Agent’s Laure Calamy lights up the screen as Marie, a self-reliant French fortysomething sex worker and single mother who works the street corners of Strasbourg where she can choose her clients and hours, and is the somewhat confrontational single mother to Adrien (Nissim Renard), a lethargic, sullen and defeatist 17-year-old who (seemingly unconcerned about what mum does for a living) wants to be a chef but has just been expelled from cookery school. Following a client’s tip, she persuaded him to apply for a private and prestigious college, who aren’t bothered about his past record, her transgender lawyer friend (Romanin Brau) coaching him for the interview. He’s accepted but the school charges €9,000 euros in tuition. €5000 of which she has to stump up for the end of the year, in just a few weeks. And the bank’s not forthcoming because her tax returns don’t justify a loan. To which end, losing business to immigrant Black girls who charge less (introducing a note of racial tension), Marie swallows her pride and principles and heads across the German border to Offenburg, calling on a favour from an old acquaintance Bruno (Sam Louwych), and gets a job working at glowing concrete club cum brothel. However, dreams of quickly boosting her income are shattered when she discovers it’s actually a shabby dive with poor paying customers and high expenses for room use and the like. The arrest of a fellow worker presents an unexpected acquisition of some much needed cash, but, inevitably, as with everything in Marie’s life, nothing goes as smoothly as hoped, and every hint of light at the end of the tunnel is quickly extinguished.
The debut feature by writer-director Cécile Decrocq it doesn’t romantics the sex worker profession but nor is it in any way judgemental, presenting Marie and her fellow hookers (who organise a public protest demanding better rights and pay) as independent spirits who choose their career (though there’s latter hints that some have no option), resulting in a humane, empathetic snapshot of a mother’s struggle to do the best for her son that reflects far wider scenarios, ending on a poignantly bittersweet note as Adrien is seen embarking on a bright new future while Marie finds herself returning to a past without one. (Curzon; Rakuten TV)
Jurassic World: Dominion (12A)
Touted as the final instalment in the saga that kicked off in 1993 with Jurassic Park, set four years after the events of Jurassic World and its Fallen Kingdom sequel that left the dinosaurs free to roam, directed by JW’s Colin Trevorrow, the selling point is the return of three of the original film’s central characters, palaeontologist Alan Grant (Sam Neill), environmentalist romantic interest Ellie Sadler (Laura Dern) and chaos theory doomsayer Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum). Their reappearance is down to a new breed of locusts with prehistoric DNA that threaten to destroy the food chain. They’re ravaging all the grain in America, except, that is, crops grown by Biosyn, a corporate that has exclusive rights regarding the containment and protection of the reptiles. It’s headed up by another Jurassic Park returnee, Lewis Dodgson (this time played by Campbell Scott), who bribed Dennis Nedry to steal embryos and who, thanks to a tip off from Malcolm, who works as a Biosyn consultant, Sadler believes to be behind things and recruits Grant to help investigate.
This is cross-fertilised with a narrative strand from the JW series involving dino wrangler Owen Grady (Chris Pratt), his dinosaur rights activist partner Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard) as their cloned step-daughter Maisie Lockwood (Isabella Sermon, also playing her mother’s younger self in a video flashback), the granddaughter of Dr. John Hammond’s former partner in cloning Benjamin Lockwood. Her genetics are the reason Grady and Dearing are keeping her off the grid and why she’s been hunted by a bunch of mercenaries, headed up by Soyona Santos (Dichen Lachman who simply disappears from the storyline) hired by Biosyn so that head scientist Dr Wu (BJ Wong back again) can use her unique DNA. She’s captured, along with Beta, a baby velociraptor she’s tamed, setting her parents and pilot-adventurer for hire Kayla Watts (DeWanda Wise) on a rescue mission that, after a globetrotting jaunt and a raptor-motorbike chase in Malta, eventually brings all the main cast together at Dodgson’s gigantic dinosaur-filled valley facility in the Dolemites where, in a frankly tangled web of who’s on who’s side involving Dodgson’s assistant (Mamoudou) Athie), they end up battling assorted genetically engineered dinosaurs, including new creatures such as the Giganotosaurus and Pyroraptor, who, in turn, battle with each other.
It’s all very busy with its chase and fight sequences, but nothing ever really comes into a coherent focus while, fatally, the dinosaurs themselves become secondary characters in their own story, while the final scene between Grady and the mommy raptor is just too cheesy for words. Undeniably big screen spectacular with plentiful nods to the overall saga, it never bores but that sense of awe that Spielberg captured 29 years ago is lost in the ticking of boxes. (Rakuten TV)
The Lost City (12A)
Essentially a revamp of Romancing The Stone (which it dutifully references), co-directors Aaron and Adam Nee make no attempt to disguise the implausibility of the plot, but fully immerse themselves in the spirit of old time Saturday matinee adventure romps. Sandra Bullock is the Kathleen Turner figure, a bestselling but lonely romance novelist Loretta Sage who has lost enthusiasm for her work since her archaeologist husband died. And so, having been persuaded by her publicist Beth (a fun Da’Vine Joy Randolph) and social media wrangler (a wonderfully deadpan Patti Harrison) to take on a promotional tour for her latest book, The Lost City Of D, during which, wearing sparkly figure-hugging pink jumpsuit and high heels, she announces that, if there’s a follow-up, she’s going to kill off its heartthrob hero, Dash, modelled on her late husband, which comes as something of shock to Alan Caprison (Channing Tatum), the not too bright but hunky model (she calls him a talking body wash commercial) who has been the franchise’s blond-wigged cover star and a big hit with the ladies.
However, they soon have bigger things to worry about when billionaire Abigail Fairfax (Daniel Radcliffe rehashing his Now You See Me 2 villain with added daddy issues) kidnaps her believing that, as her books are based on historic research she did with her deceased husband, she can decipher the characters on a map fragment that will lead him to the fabled Crown of Fire, a priceless diamond headdress described in the book and supposedly hidden in the lost city he’s discovered on a remote Atlantic island, but which is about to be destroyed by an active volcano. He carts her off to the island while Alan, who harbours a secret crush, enlists Zen adventurer Jack Trainer (a tousled Brad Pitt), a former Navy SEAL turned CIA operative, to meet him at the island (tracking her via her Apple watch) and rescue her, insisting on tagging along. Jack does indeed rescue her from the compound in a display of derring-do, but an unexpected development quickly leaves her and Alan to fend for themselves, lost in the jungle, Loretta trying follow the clues on the map, pursued by Fairfax’s goons. Meanwhile, with help from an eccentric cargo pilot (Oscar Nunez), Beth is also on the trail.
There’s not much more to the plot than that; as you’d expect a connection begins to spark between the pair, each learns more about themselves, there’s chases, fights and a Raiders Of The Lost Ark styled climax when the treasure is found and its secret revealed, while, along the way, Loretta has to pluck leeches off the water-allergic Alan’s naked body with the inevitable innuendos that entails.
Bullock and Tatum have fizzing chemistry, swapping banter as they go, while she again demonstrates her physical comedy skills to good effect, the film romping entertainingly along without requiring audiences to engage their brain, although the now inevitable mid-credits sequence does rather spoil the film’s biggest OMG moment. (Amazon Prime)
Minions: The Rise of Gru (PG)
While essentially an origin story for Gru, as the title suggests, this Despicable Me prequel is nevertheless more focused on the yellow Twinkie-shaped characters in goggles and blue dungarees that have become a seemingly unstoppable commercial force, ranging from toys to all manner of merchandise as well as an endorsement for Sky.
The story is set in 1976 where the world’s top supervillain team, the Vicious 6, evil Viking Svengeance (Dolph Lundgren); Nun Chuck (Lucy Lawless), a nun who wields her crucifix as a weapon, lobster-limbed Jean Clawed (Jean-Claude Van Damme), Stronghold (Danny Trejo) and Belle Bottom (Taraji P. Henson), set out to steal the Zodiac Stone, an amulet that will give them world conquering power. However, when their leader, Wild Knuckles (Alan Arkin) manages to survive the defence mechanisms and escape with it, the others literally cut him loose, sending him plunging to his death.
Now short of a member they advertise for a replacement. Enter young Gru (Steve Carell), a friendless schoolkid, mostly ignored by his yoga mad mother (Julie Andrews), who wants to grow up to be the world’s best supervillain, who applies to join and is invited for an interview at the gang’s secret lair beneath the Criminal Records store run by a certain Doctor Nefario (Russell Brand from Despicable Me). Laughed at and humiliated at the interview (“Evil is for adults, not for tubby little punks”, says Belle), using Nefario’s sticky fingers invention, Gru steals the amulet and takes off, setting up the rest of the plot whereby, the bulk of the action unfolding in San Francisco, he’s pursued by the gang and finds himself captured by and ending up joining forces with Knuckles, his favourite supervillain, who has survived and is now out for revenge on his former colleagues. Meanwhile, the Minions, tall skinny Kevin, one-eyed Stuart, attention-deficit Bob and new addition Otto (Pierre Coffin ), who traded the amulet for a pet stone at a kids’ birthday party and has to then get it back off the biker (RZA) who takes him to San Francisco, have embarked on a rescue mission.
As well as other nods to the original film (Will Arnett as Bank of Evil president Mr Perkins and Steve Coogan’s Anti-Villain League boss Ramsbottom), the film tells how Gru and the Minions came together (they answered a help wanted ad and he adopted them all, but there’s still no explanation of their origins) and, directed by Kyle Balda it romps along at a manic pace like some sort of Looney Tunes with loads of slapstick cartoon violence and fart gags for the kiddies. The main Minions get their own spotlight sequences involving flying a plane to San Francisco and, in a subplot that runs on far too long, learning Kung Fu from acupuncturist Master Chow (Michelle Yeoh), before it all winds up in a Chinese New Year showdown and a funeral to the sound of The Stones’ You Can’t Always Get What You Want.
Given the setting, it’s wall to wall with 70s in-joke references, from nods to martial arts, Bond (including a spoof theme song) and Blaxploitation movies to hit songs from the day (Knuckles uses disco as a torture tool), which will mean nothing to the target audience or indeed likely most of their parents, but are nevertheless all part of the fun along with the throwaway incidental gags. Despite the short running time, the film does rather wear out its welcome before the post-credits bonus scene, but its colossal success suggests they won’t be retiring anytime soon.(Rakuten TV; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Vue)
Moonage Daydream (15)
An experimentalist documentary by Brett Morgen, who Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck, this plunges into the dizzying world of David Bowie, taking live concerts, behind-the-scenes footage, stills, archive interviews, and news reportage and swirling them into a trippy chopped up collage that, at one point, has luminous ink spreading across the screen for a blast of Sound and Vision, with music that opens with All The Young Dudes and includes a showstopping Heroes and a wealth of archive interviews, Bowie describing himself as having ‘A grasshopper mind’, his experimental video art and paintings, movie and stage work and archive interviews with the likes of Dick Cavett, Russell Harty, and Blue Peter’s Valerie Singleton. There’s no mention of Angie, but, while steering way from his private life. the film does touch on Inman and Bowie’s half-brother Terry whose mental illness he thought he’d inherited. This though is about the music at the height of his powers and as such essential for any and every fan. (Cineworld NEC, Solihull; Electric; Empire Great Park; Everyman; Mockingbird; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza; Reel; Vue)
Nightmare Alley (15)
Guillermo del Toro has remade the 1947 dark Tyrone Power thriller adapted from William Lindsay Gresham’s pulp novel as a cynical Depression-era moral fable about human nature and how it’s coldly exploited by a world made up of con artists and shysters.
It opens with Stanton Carlisle (a stupendous Bradley Cooper never playing for sympathy) lowering wrapped up corpse into a hole in a farmhouse floor and then setting fire to the place, a scene to which the film with flashback on several occasions before revealing who and why. He surfaces following a dwarf to at travelling carnival of fellow outcasts and misfits where the boss, Clem Hoatley (a devilish Willem Dafoe) gives him a job and a floor to sleep on. Here he uses his charm, wiles and natural showman skills to win Clem over by helping improve some of the acts and avoiding an awkward moment when the cops turn up investigating one of the carny’s attractions, The Geek (a homeless man drugged, sent mad and exhibited as a freak biting the head off a live chicken). He also strikes up a friendship with mentalist act clairvoyant Zeena (Toni Collette) and her creaky boozed up partner Pete (David Strathairn), keen to learn how to read people and the tricks of the trade and even keener to get his hands on Pete’s book of codewords.
One of the acts he buffs up is that of Molly (Rooney Mara), who apparently conducts electricity through her body in front of the jaw-gaping rubes, but while she’s clearly taken by him, her self-appointed guardian, strongman Bruno (Ron Perlman) makes it abundantly clear what will happen of Stan hurts her.
Suffice to say, however, after ‘accidentally’ poisoning Pete, armed with the stolen black book the arrogant Stan and naive Molly take off into the film’s second 1941-set act to start their own mentalist act using the tricks he’s stolen, playing more upmarket clubs in his driven need for validation, fame and wealth, whatever the cost to his soul. It’s at the Copacabana where he comes into contact with psychiatrist Lilith Ritter (an icily magnetic, razor sharp Cate Blanchett),. who is under no illusion that Stan is the real thing. However, they strike up a dark arrangement, whereby he agrees to therapy and she provides him with details of her wealthy clients whose grief and need for commune with the dead he can exploit, sharing a cut of his fees with her. He reckons he’s playing her, but, as the film reveals, a calculating femme fatale, she’s sharper at the power playing games than he thinks. Things eventually go pear-shaped when, ignoring Pete’s advice to not go down the spook show route, Stan enlists Molly to pose as his shame-ridden industrialist mark’s (Richard Jenkins) dead loved one, sending him back on the run as the film comes full circle with a devastating irony and a final line that will haunt long after the credits.
All this de Toro weaves together with the art of a master of misdirection, the detail of such things as pickled foetuses and hand-painted sideshow banners adding to the film’s unsettling lurid ambience and its world of callous grifters and hustlers to deliver a film that ranks up there alongside dark noir classics like LA Confidential and There Will Be Blood. (Disney+)
Jordan Peele has stated that, overflowing with mirrors, cameras, and eyes, his follow up to Get Out and Us, metaphorical horror movies about being Black in America, is about our addiction to spectacle and the nature of attention (At one point, introducing what he promises to be a life changing spectacle to a handful of bemused watchers, a characters declares “We are being surveilled by an alien species I call the Viewers”). A commentary on filmmaking and Hollywood and, to sustain a through line, and the sidelining of the contribution of Blacks to cinema history. However, you can’t help feeling that this is a case of making the movie and then interpreting themes rather than the other way round. This is Peele’s sci-fi movie, a film about aliens in the sky abducting humans as snacks. Yes, there’s nods to Spielberg’s Close Encounters, but the film is far closer to M Night Shyamalan’s Signs and, less commendably, The Happening.
It opens with a scene of carnage on the set of a TV comedy as a chimp in human clothing and wearing a party hat pokes an obscured figure’s dead foot. Nothing more is explained at this point, but the full story serves as an elaborate flashback scene later. The focus then shifts to siblings, taciturn OJ (Daniel Kaluuya), who wears a hoodie from The Scorpion King, and sassy attention-seeking motormouth sister Emerald (Keke Palmer), who run the only Black-owned Hollywood horse training ranch, inherited from their father Otis Haywood (Keith David) who dies on his horse when, in an early scene, objects suddenly start flying through the air and a nickel slices through his eye. Emerald claims they’re descendants of the unnamed Black jockey seen riding a horse in an 1878 animated short by English photographer Eadweard Muybridge, the first film ever made, but these days the business has fallen on hard times, OJ reduced to training horses to be ridden by faded actresses in TV commercials.
To keep things afloat, OJ’s selling off his stock to Ricky “Jupe” Park (Steven Yeun), the former child star from that opening clip, a 1990’s sitcom titled Gordy’s Home, the adopted Asian child in a white family alongside Gordy, the chimp, who killed two fellow actors when he was spooked by a balloon popping. These days keeps a blood-stained shoe from a dead actress in a private room to which he charges admission, just as OJ keeps the nickel, and runs Jupiter’s Claim, a cheesy, low-budget Western theme attraction that has an inflatable cowboy mascot and a wishing well with a camera that takes souvenir portraits (both of which play a vital part in the climax). He’s the one staging the Star Lasso Experience (attended by his fellow survivor, her scarred face hidden by a veil), planning to lure UFO into sight by feeding it a horse.
Earlier on, OJ thinks he sees a spaceship and, his sister looking to cash in on any discovery with that ‘Oprah moment’, they buy a bunch of surveillance cameras from the local electronics store, techie salesman Angel Torres (Brandon Perea) becoming their self-imposed partner in trying to film evidence of the alien visitors, hidden in an unmoving cloud, who cause power outages whenever they appear to feed off the local livestock. Unable to get the footage they need, Emerald recruits Antlers Holst (Michael Wincott), a commercial director renowned for getting “the impossible shot”, luring the craft with billowing ‘tube’ men.
Framed as chapters, after teasing the audience with hints and glimpses, eventually Peele pulls back the curtain as the aliens hip finally manifests itself, sucking up Jupe and his audience, spewing the debris and blood over the ranch, realising the Biblical quote at the start of the film (“I will cast abominable filth at you, make you vile, and make you a spectacle”), building to the climax as Angel, OJ and Emerald seek to destroy the flying saucer, dubbed Jean Jacket, which can change its shape from a white disc with a gaping black maw, looking a bit like an eye in the sky, to a diaphanous, angel-like loops with a square green ‘viewfinder’.
Peele knows how to suggest or withhold things to create suspense, though, despite the brilliant IMAX camera work of Hoyte Van Hoytema, he’s perhaps less assured in staging special effects action, though the banality of the denouement (which nods to the old Westerns) is a treat. When you leave the cinema, you can discuss the muddle of meanings about monetising the desire to see something crazy, the destructive nature of seeking attention set against the desire to see but not be seen, the power of the watcher, commentary on the nature of filmmaking and whatever else you can dig out, but while you’re in the thick of it, just switch off and take the wild ride. (Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Vue)
Orphan: First Kill (15)
The central concept perhaps inspired by Don’t Look Now, back in 2009 Jaume Collet-Serra gave the world Orphan, in which Vera Farmiga and Peter Sarsgaard adopted Esther, an 8-year-old who, in a clever horrifying twist turned out to be a 33-year-old Estonian murderess named Leena Klammer, born with a hormonal disorder that stunted her physical growth.
Now, William Brent Bell presents a prequel, one that suffers from two major problems. First, anyone who saw the original will know the truth about Leena already and, more crucially, Isabelle Fuhrman returns to the role she first played when she was just 12. Now in her twenties, even with body doubles, digital trickery and some poor facial de-ageing, it’s hard to buy into her as an eight-year-old, often looking as if her head has been unconvincingly superimposed on a child’s body.
It opens with an overly extended sequence set in an Estonian mental hospital where Leena is an inmate, at least until she murderously engineers her escape and makes her way to America where she cons her way into persuading protective Tricia (Julia Stiles) and artist Allen (Rossif Sutherland) Albright that she’s their long missing daughter Esther. Now, where the first film drew inspiration from the true story of 34-year-old Barbora Skrlova, a violent orphan who was caught impersonating a 13-year-old boy, this one is rooted in The Imposter, a documentary relating how French con artist Frédéric Bourdin tricked a Texas family into believing he was their missing son.
Now, since it can’t pull off the same reveal twice, this has a twist up its sleeve that upends everything about the seemingly picture perfect Albrights, the truth behind the real Esther’s did appearance and the part played by her mother and teenage fencing prodigy brother Gunnar (Matthew Finlan). It’s a clever reversal of manipulations wherein Leena finds she may be in over her head, but falls somewhat short of its Hitchcock aspirations, descending into inevitably bloodshed (Hiro Kanagawa as the detective not persuaded Esther’s who she claims to be and a melodramatic climax atop the roof of a blazing building. That it works at all is down entirely to Stiles and Fuhrman who don’t let the essential contortions of the screenplay get in the way of committed performances despite the hammy horror camp surrounding them. (Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Vue)
Not put off by the piss-poor response to 2018’s The Predator, 10 Cloverfield Lane director Dan Trachtenberg and screenwriter Patrick Aison take up the challenge of rebooting the franchise, and incredibly pulls off the best in the franchise since the original. Rather than continuing the saga, it takes the bold step of going back to the start, the setting being America’s Northern Great Plains in 1719. Here, Naru (The Ice Road’s Amber Midthunder) is a young Comanche desperate to prove herself the equal of her tribe macho boys, most especially her brother Taabe (Dakota Beavers), under whose shadow she lives. An expert with a bow and throwing hatchet, knowledgeable in herbal medicine, she’s ready for her ritual hunt rite of passage. Naturally, her testosterone swamped peers don’t take her seriously, especially when she has to be rescued from a mountain lion, which her brother kills and is subsequently honoured as a war chief.
However, her chance to show her mettle comes when she discovers that there’s very different kind of beast out there, an alien hunter that, using its cloaking technology and hi-tech weaponry is stalking its prey. Having eviscerated the young bucks and what appears to be a small army of French trappers, Naru finds herself as the last defence.
Working on a small scale, Trachtenberg ramps up the tension and intensity, delivering some thrillingly brutal close quarters action as well as graphically visceral butchery in which arrows and flintlock firearms are no match for the alien technology, causing Naru to improvise in inspired ways. Played by the towering Dane DiLiegro, this sleeker, faster Predator with its glowing green blood is also back to basics with sheer physicality and just a skull mask rather than the more familiar face plate, while singlehandedly (albeit with her trusty canine companion) Midthunder electrifyingly commands the screen and the action with her body language, Trachtenberg assiduous in authentically recreating the period and all the necessary trapping, the bulk of the cast being played by Native American actors (the film will have a Comanche dubbed version).
An inspired addition to the current spate of female empowerment thrillers, it’s an exhilarating and reinvigorating fresh take on a franchise that seemed to have nowhere left to go and easily one of the year’s best action movies, making it all the more inexplicable as to why it’s been denied a theatrical release and consigned to subscriber streaming. With an end credits graphic suggesting a sequel, perhaps they’ll reconsider next time around. (Disney+)
The Railway Children Return (PG)
Released in 1970, the original film, adapted from E.Nesbit’s novel, with Jenny Agutter in the lead role as young Bobbie, became a classic of cosy British family viewing. A TV retelling appeared in 2000, with Agutter playing Bobbie’s mother, and she’s back again, this time as her original, now adult, character in a (somewhat misnamed) sequel to the first film co-written Jemma Rodgers and directed by Morgan Matthews.
Although now set in 1944, it’s pretty much a carbon copy in terms of narrative. In the first film, set in 1905, Bobbie, her two siblings and her mother relocated to the Yorkshire countryside when their father was convicted of treason and they became impoverished. Here another set of three children, Lily (Beau Gadsdon, looking like a teenage Felicity Jones), spunky younger sister Pattie (Eden Hamilton) and brother Ted (Zac Cudby), end up in the same village when they’re evacuated from wartime Salford and are taken in by Bobbie, who stayed on in Oakworth, and her daughter Annie (Sheridan Smith), the local headmistress whose husband is off in the RAF. Although there appears to be no interaction with the other evacuees outside of the classroom. the three kids become best friends with Annie’s young son Thomas (Austin Hayes), taking on the resentful gang of village children and playing hide and seek down the railway yard. Which is where they come across the pointedly named Abe (Kenneth Aikens), a Black American serviceman who has injured his leg (Lily sneaks out bandages for him and is knocked unconscious when a passing German plane dumps a surplus bomb) and tells them he’s on a secret mission and has to get to Liverpool. Naturally, that’s a fib. Younger than he claims and homesick, he’s actually gone AWOL on account of the racist abuse from the white US Military Police (who brutally object to African-Americans mixing with white English girls, one scene inspired the real life Battle of Bamber Bridge in Lancashire in 1943), and so Lily and the others offer to help him escape. And, exactly like the original film, it climaxes with a bunch of kids stopping a train to speak to a travelling important gentleman to put a stop to a miscarriage of justice (one also has to wonder if the MPs could actually handcuff a fourteen year old British civilian and ship them off to jail).
Alongside the somewhat simplified theme of racism, there’s also passing elements of tragedy involving the trio’s father (strikingly captured in Lily’s dream sequence) and Bobbie’s husband and brother, while the women try their best to protect the children’s innocence from the realities of war. It also introduces a new character to her family in her great-uncle Walter (Tom Courtney), who has an unspecified position in the War Office and does a passable Winston Churchill impression while, in a throwaway nod to what Bobbie’s been up to for the past 40 years, she says she was a suffragette. There a gentle comic touch too with John Bradley as the village stationmaster.
A throwback to the sitting room era of the Children’s Film Foundation, even with its shoehorning in of contemporary issues, it’s hard to image youngsters – or even their parents – weaned on Marvel movies, frantic animation, ubiquitous toilet humour (one kid does complain that his carer farts, though) will make of its old-fashioned, good-natured amiability, but I guess they could take the grandparents along as a treat. (Rakuten TV)
See How They Run (12A)
Not the 1944 Philip King farce, but definitely borrowing some of the genre’s traditions (people passing each other in and out of doors), directed with verve by Tom George, making good use of split screen playing up the theatrical artifice, and penned by Mark Chappell this ingeniously gets round Agatha Christie’s stipulation that her play The Mousetrap could not be turned into a film until after its run ended. It opened in 1952 and it’s still in the West End after some 28,000 performances.
Back in 1956, British producer John Woolf (Reece Shearsmith), who had made The African Queen, bought the film rights, assuming the play would soon close, and it’s around that misjudgement that this superbly crafted and highly amusing whodunit homage is based. Woolf has hired (fictional) sleazy Hollywood filmmaker Leo Köpernick (Adrien Brody, who narrates) to direct, but he’s at loggerheads with the gay screenwriter, Mervyn Cocker-Norris (David Oyelowo), and wants to rework it with a murder in the opening moments and a wholly different ending, which he’s storyboarded.
As Köpernick observes, in these plays it’s always the most obnoxious character who gets murdered, and so it is that, following a fight with Richard Attenborough (an affectionate portrait by Harris Dickinson), the first actor to play Sgt Trotter, and upsetting several others, he meets his demise during the backstage party marking the 100th performance and his body is dumped on the set.
Assigned to investigate is jaded, boozy Inspector Stoppard (Sam Rockwell) who’s partnered with WPC Stalker (Saoirse Ronan, with her natural accent and true comic delight) as his assistant, an enthusiastic rookie who writes everything down in her notebook, with a memo to not jump to conclusions, something the film, with its various misdirections, slyly insists the audience doesn’t do either. There are, naturally a wealth of suspects among a cast of characters that includes Ruth Wilson as theatre impresario Petula Spencer, Pippa Emma-Bennet as Woolf’s mistress-assistant Ann and Sian Clifford as his wife, and Jacob Fortune-Lloyd as Mervyn’s petulant Italian ‘nephew’ Gio with Tim Key as the smarmy Commissioner and Shirley Henderson as Christie herself.
It’s gleefully full of in-jokes (Rockwell’s character is named after Tom Stoppard whose The Real Inspector Hound, which he wrote as a parody of things like The Mousetrap, is referenced), while he’s assigned to the case because Scotland Yard is busy investigating the murders at 10 Rillington Place in which, of course, Attenborough starred), and cinema meta gags (a character in a flashback bemoans flashbacks and interscene titles immediately followed by one). All that plus straightfaced but wickedly funny lines, and an ending that wonderfully mirrors everything in Köpernick’s storyboards. There’s a slight tonal stumble when, in a serious moment, referencing how Christie’s play was inspired by a real life case, there’s a scene about having to tread carefully when you’re turning people’s lives into entertainment, but otherwise this is a laugh out loud romp.(Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel; Vue)
Three Thousand Years Of Longing (15)
Filling the time before returning to Mad Max territory, writer-director George Miller offers up this visually captivating but narratively sprawling and at times tediously inert meditation on storytelling, love and being alive adapted by himself and daughter Augusta Gore from A.S. Byatt’s The Djinn In The Nightingale’s Eye.
A sensibly dressed, divorced, family-unencumbered, bespectacled north of England academic specialising in the nature of myth and stories, Alithea Binnie (Tilda Swinton), her name derived from the Greek for “truth”, is in Istanbul from London to deliver a lecture on narratology where she visits a local bazaar and buys a glass bottle, which she says, probably has an interesting story to it. Indeed it does, as she discovers when she accidentally knocks off the stopper and releases a pointy-eared, two-tone goatee djinn (Idris Elba) of initially mammoth proportions until he shrinks down to a size capable of wearing a hotel bathrobe. As per tradition, he offers her three wishes in return for his freedom, but wary that “there’s no story about wishing that is not a cautionary tale,” she demurs, leading him to prove he’s no trickster by recounting his backstory and how he ended up in his glass prison as a result of being a hopeless romantic.
And so Miller presents three sumptuously conceived Arabian Nights-styled flashbacks, to the time of the Queen of Sheba, beauty personified, where he finds himself being usurped by the arrival of Solomon (Nicolas Mouawad) and his magical living self-playing instrument, who deviously imprisons him in a brass lamp which winds up in the Red Sea, being encased in stone and eventually lodged in a castle wall at the court of Suleiman where it’s recovered and he’s released by Gulten (Ece Yüksel), a slave girl whose wish is to have the prince (Matteo Bocelli) fall in love with her and bear his child, only to have courtly intrigue scupper her plans, leaving her dying without asking her third which, hence consigning him to be trapped in the human world, his bottle concealed beneath a slab. The years pass and just as he leads the next heir apparent to the hiding place, the mother interrupts and the next thing you know he’s a cruel Sultan and mum’s locked his brother away in a room with an obese harem, one of whom finally ends up freeing the djinn with her corpulent bottom. Then it’s on to the Ottoman Empire where he falls for an elderly Istanbul merchant’s third wife Zefir (Burcu Golgedar), an aspiring scholar who, imprisoned in a locked room , wishes to have all the knowledge in the world, their relationship ending in a strop about possessiveness that sends him into the bottle from which Alithea releases him.
These stories are punctuated with scenes in the hotel room where she explores the meaning of his stories and the two of them variously discuss love, longing, loneliness and life (“We exist only if we are real to others”, muses Alithea), as a deep romantic connection forms between her dust and his fire (his skin literally smokes), she wishes them to be lovers (“You want us to make lovecraft?”, he asks) and she takes him back to London in another bottle and the relationship encounters another melancholic hurdle in the consequences of seeking connection and enchantment in a contemporary world of technology and there’s an amusing but pointless social commentary digression with her elderly xenophobic spinsterly neighbours.
Trudging between the CGI excess of its Eastern reveries and mild erotica of the contemporary settings, the film episodically dazzles but, despite a touching tenderness between the sexually magnetic Elba and the vulnerable Swinton, the chemistry never truly ignites, the film never really involves or summons the depth of feeling its seeks to express. It ends on a grace note, but the muddled and often ponderous journey there makes you wish it ended sooner. (MAC)
Thirteen Lives (12)
On 23 June, 2018, when the monsoon rains came early, having gone into the Tham Luang Nang Non cave system as a birthday treat for one of them, 12 members of a Thai junior football team and their coach, a former Buddhist monk, became trapped by rising flood water. Over the course of the next 17 days, some 5000 volunteers from 17 countries along with Thai Navy Seals and government authorities worked tirelessly to pull off a seemingly impossible rescue mission.
Directed by Ron Howard, this is the third film to tell the story, hewing closely to the facts other than for some minor tweaking of the number of characters involved so as to maintain a degree of clarity, and never creating any heartstopping incidents for dramatic purpose. Given the global exposure the story had, and the incredible rescue of all thirteen alive, it’s almost impossible to crank up the sort of tension a fictional narrative with no known outcome might have engineered. Instead, while there are those pause for breath moments as ropes snag or equipment gets caught on rocks and, after they enter the cave, the boys aren’t seen again until their rescuers first appear, Howard primarily focuses on the combined efforts of all involved. Most especially the two British cave rescue divers, retired firefighter Rick Stanton (Viggo Mortensen) and IT consultant John Volanthen (Colin Farrell), who stepped up with their experience in such matters and who, along with their colleague, Richard ‘Harry’ Harris (Joel Edgerton), an Australian anaesthetist, embarked on a never before attempted plan to sedate the children (something of which the parents were unaware) and pass them along the tunnels “like package” in a six-hour dive, well-aware that if any of them woke up they would likely panic and drown. Assuming they didn’t die from too much or too little of the drugs. Meanwhile the rains were due to come again and even again diverting the waters from the mountain into the fields wouldn’t prevent the caves flooding totally. There was just three days to pull it off and all the frantic parents could do was watch from the sidelines and pray.
Reining in their natural screen charisma, Farrell and Mortensen play their characters as everyday men not action heroes, reluctant to involve with the press and concerned with just doing what they came to do. Tom Bateman and Paul Gleeson play additions to their team, Chris Jewell and Jason Mallinson, respectively, while among the Thai cast Sahajak Boonthanakit is the governor who finds himself fronting the crisis in the week he should be stepping down, Nophand Boonyai as the irrigation engineer, and Sukollawat Kanarot as Navy Seal Commander Saman Gunan, one of the two casualties when his oxygen ran out (the other died a year later from a blood infection caught during the rescue). There’s not a hint of ego to be seen anywhere.
An unsensationalised, unshowy telling of a story that gripped the world’s attention, it’s a tribute to real heroics and the way humanity can come together to work for a common goal and, even though you know how it ends, it remains a consistently compelling watch. (Amazon Prime)
Thor: Love and Thunder (12A)
Opening with the origin of Gorr the God Butcher (a pale Christian Bale with a creepy whisper) who, when his daughter dies, possessed of the Necrosword a mystical blade that kills gods but also corrupts its owner, swears to destroy all gods for abandoning their followers, Taika Waititi’s follow-up to Ragnorak takes the same path of mixing high drama and emotion with stirring action sequences and a rich vein of irreverent humour. In his fourth stand-alone outing as the God of Thunder, Chris Hemsworth plays to his comedic strengths and physical presence in equal measure with a knowing self-awareness. Narrated by Korg (Waititi), an extended intro finds him still hanging out with The Guardians of The Galaxy, engaging in bouts of meditation to try and find himself and saving an alien race from Gorr’s shadow spiders (albeit destroying the temple he was supposed to protect in the process) before a vision of a wounded Sif send him to her rescue and from thence back to New Asgard where, as it comes under attack too, he’s astonished to witness the return of his once shattered hammer Mjölnir, and even more astonished to find it’s now being wielded by a new Mighty Thor, his former girlfriend (a montage explains how their separate lives led them to split), Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), the hammer following its former master’s instruction to look after her by giving her the strength (at a cost) she lacks in her human form, where she’s dying from cancer. When the children from New Asgard are abducted by Gorr, she, Thor, Korg and the sardonic Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson), bored without battles, set off on a rescue vision in a longship drawn by two giant (and noisy) goats, one that sees the pair reignite their romance with electrifying chemistry (Thor taking on board Starlord’s (Chris Pratt) wisdom of wanting to feel shitty because that’s what love does to you) as well as visiting the Golden Temple for a meeting of the Gods (the God of Dumplings among them!) to try and raise an army, ending up in killing the pompous Zeus (a bizarrely accented Russell Crowe), surrounded by his Zeusettes (who swoon when Thor’s stripped naked) and stealing his thunderbolt, then journeying to the Shadow Realm (for some black and white sequences) to stop Gorr before he gets to Eternity and wishes for all gods to die at once.
As such, it builds its emotional and dramatic weight as it builds to the inevitable love and sacrifice climax, the fight sequences gathering in spectacle and intensity as they go, at one point involving the kidnapped children, including Heimdal’s son (Kieron L. Dyer) who insists on being called Axl (the film is rife with Guns n Roses tracks). On the comedic side, there a theatrical re-enactment of events in Ragnorak with Matt Damon as the Loki actor, Melissa McCarthy as Hela, San Neill as Odin and Luke Hemsworth as Thor and also a very amusing running gag that’s essentially a romantic triangle with Thor in the middle between Mjölnir and his jealous new axe, Stormbreaker, Thor forever trying to reassure the latter that he’s still ‘the one’.
It’s not until the final moments, with Thor in a new paternal role (you’ll be pleased to know Korg gets a mate, a Kronan dude named Dwayne and they sire a new rock baby), that the title of the film manifests itself, the mid-credits sequence setting the stage for the fifth instalment as a character declares revenge on Thor Odinson, ending with one more brief afterlife bonus scene featuring Idris Elba. Thunderingly good fun. (Vue)
Ticket To Paradise (12A)
The most famous smiles in contemporary Hollywood, George Clooney and Julia Roberts reunited for the sixth time for Mamma Mia! director Ol Parker’s rom com – their first together and her first in 20 years – as a long-divorced couple (David/Georgia) – married for five years until their lakeside house burned down – who find themselves having to travel to Bali and work together to prevent their just graduated daughter Lily (Booksmart’s Kaitlyn Dever) making the same impulsive mistake they did 25 years earlier by getting hitched to Gede (Maxime Bouttier), the charming local seaweed farmer who rescued her and best friend Wren ((Billie Lourd) when they were stranded at sea. Added to the mix is airline pilot Paul (Lucas Bravo), Georgia’s current boyfriend, who, having flown them to Bali turns up looking to seal the relationship. Those conversant with the genre will, of course, know, that old flames will be rekindled and new ones doused.
There’s not much of plot other than contriving to steal one of the rings needed or the ceremony, David trying to sow doubts in Gede’s mind about the marriage having long-term prospects (arguing Lily will want to return to America to become a lawyer – unaware she has no interest in the career), contriving various travel mishaps, and assorted gatherings with the bridegroom-to-be’s welcoming family and friends before it all resolves as assumed from the start. All light and frothy, Clooney and Roberts swap barbs and insults, there’s a splash of room swapping farce and a stream of scenes depicting Bali’s quaint if rather out of date ceremonies and rituals. Formulaic to a fault, Parker’s direction is workmanlike at best and the humour rarely comes to the boil, although there is an amusing scene as the prospective in-laws take on Lily and Gede in a variation on beer pong with a potent local brew that results in some embarrassing mum and dad dancing to retro disco and the inevitable waking up in the same bed together.
The ever smiling two stars sparkle even if the wattage is somewhat lower than you might have expected, while Dever and Bouttier make for an attractive if somewhat bland couple despite the underwritten characters, leaving Bravo and Lourd with undeveloped roles, the latter absent for many of the later scenes, all adding up to a pleasant but insubstantial frothy soufflé. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel; Vue)
Top Gun: Maverick (12A)
Thirty-six years on since the original took your breath away, Tom Cruise has bowed to public demand and returned to the role that made him a global superstar, the authority-bucking US Navy fighter pilot Pete ‘Maverick’ Mitchell. As directed by Joseph Kosinski, who was only 16 when the original appeared, and scripted by Ehren Kruger, Eric Warren Singer and Christopher McQuarrie, Maverick hasn’t changed a great deal in the interim. He’s relatively more centred, still single, still in top physical shape and still a captain, partly through choice, partly because he runs the top brass up the wrong way. Indeed, he does so right from the start when, learning the supersonic stealth fighter project he’s heading in the Mojave Desert is being shut down by a Rear Admiral dubbed The Drone Ranger (Ed Harris) as it hasn’t reached its Mach 10 target, he duly climbs into the cockpit and pushes it to the limit and beyond before he can be told in person. However, rather than being disciplined, he’s told to report to his old Fighter Weapons School aka Top Gun stomping ground where he learns an unnamed country is developing an unsanctioned uranium enrichment plant and the school’s best pilots are being recruited to carry out a Dam Busters-style mission to destroy it. Initially assuming he’s one of then, he’s informed instead, by Commanding Officer Beau ‘Cyclone’ Simpson (John Hamm), that he’s there to train them and select the best six. And also that (verging on obsolete) he wasn’t Simpson’s first, or any, choice, but is there at the request of his former rival, long-time friend and now Admiral, Iceman (Val Kilmer).
The hot shots candidates are all introduced in a somewhat unnecessarily extended barroom scene, the ones that matter lining up as nerdy Bob (Lewis Pullman), cockily arrogant Hangman (Glen Powell), spunky female pilot Phoenix (Monica Barbaro), Fanboy (Danny Ramirez) and Rooster (Miles Teller), the now grown son of Goose (Anthony Edwards seen in flashbacks), Maverick’s wingman who dies in action and who, along with many others, Pete himself included, blames as him for his father’s death, thus setting up a somewhat predictable arc between the two.
The same scene also introduces bar owner Penny Benjamin (Jennifer Connolly), mentioned but never seen in the original, now given a backstory as Maverick’s former on-off love interest who, now a divorced single mother, re-enters the romantic orbit. Of course, that’s a minor subplot as the film’s main focuses is on Maverick whipping his students into shape so that the chosen ones can fly dangerously low into the mountains under the radar to avoid the anti-aircraft missiles and superior enemy planes, destroy the target and get out again in a race against the clock. So cue all the expected young bucks v old fogey dynamics, pilot rivalries, run ins with Cyclone, and Maverick again bucking orders and pushing himself to breaking point to prove the mission is not impossible, inevitably ending up leading it himself with Rooster as his wingman.
As you’d imagine, right from a recreation of the opening scene (complete with Kenny Loggins’ Danger Zone), there plenty of nods to the original along with such iconic Cruise moments as a front on show of him riding his motorbike (in his original Top Gun jacket) grinning like a Cheshire cat. He’s not above taking the piss out of himself either, retorting ‘it’s the only one I’ve got” when someone comments on giving ‘that look’. While better at the grins and the grit expression that registering deep emotion, nevertheless Cruise has a particular affecting and touching scene in a reunion with Kilmer, his character clearly not long for the world (thereby leaving Maverick without anyone in his corner).
Likewise, while playing down the jingoism element, Kosinksi is at his best when the action is in the air, whether in the simulated dog fights (shot in actual U.S. Navy F/A-18s, for which the cast went through a punishing training process) as Maverick pushes his team or the actual dog fights evading enemy jets in the aftermath of the mission, where old grievances and new enmities are all neatly resolved in big bromantic hugs, even if the original’s homoeroticism is decidedly downplayed here.
Cruise again demonstrates that he’s in a cinema superstar league of his own, an ‘event’ in his own right (as the film says, it all comes down to pilot in the box), a generous actor but inevitably putting others in the shade simply on account of who he is, though Teller at least gets to remind how good he was in Whiplash and Kosinski’s own firefighter drama Only The Brave. Along with a deft use of 70s hits, music’s provided by Harold Faltermeyer with the big song coming from Lady Gaga, and while that’s no Take My Breath Away, the film will most certainly have you needing oxygen masks. Turn and burn, baby. (Rakuten TV; Cineworld NEC; Empire Great Park; Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe)
Turning Red (PG)
Disappointingly not given a cinema release, the latest animation from Pixar is the first Disney release (and possibly also the first ever children’s film) to broach the topic of menstruation, although the bigger theme is puberty per se. Set in the Chinese quarter of Toronto in the early noughties, Chinese-Canadian Mei Mei Lee (Rosalie Chiang) is a self-confident – if slightly annoying – over-achieving 13-year-old who excels at school, is close to her three besties, Miriam (Ava Morse), Priya (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan) and Abby (Hyein Park), has a Tamagotchi pet and adores five piece (!) boy band 4*Town. However, fun – like karaoke with her friends – always has to take a back seat to her chores, most specifically helping her controlling, uptight mother Ming (Sandra Oh) run the family’s ancestral temple dedicated to Sun Yee, a scholar, poet and, warrior who saved her village from its enemies by asking the gods to transform her into a giant red panda. The Lee family believe the creature blessed subsequent generations with good fortune. However, Mei is about to find out that’s not the only thing that goes with the legend.
When she suddenly finds herself attracted to Devon, the tween who works down the local store, and starts drawing pictures of him (as a merman, with her, etc.) in her notebook (something that prompts a humiliating overreaction from mom), it’s a sure sign puberty is kicking in. And with it comes that change from girl to woman. However, rather than, as mom calls it, the blooming of the red peony, it manifests itself in a dramatically different way as, getting excited thinking of Devon she suddenly transforms into a giant red panda. Only when the hormones stop raging and she calms down does she revert back to normal. She’s horrified by her new self. She doesn’t want to be hairy! And she doesn’t want to smell! And it’s something she most definitely wants to keep secret from mom (who has high expectations for her daughter and reckons boys and pop music are basically manifestations of the devil – she’s a Celine Dion fan) and her put-upon easy going dad (Orion Lee). But when she finds her mother (who, as we later learn went through the same panda experience) has stalked her to school with a packet of sanitary pads, her inner panda simply erupts.
Fortunately, being around her three friends allows her to keep it in check, trying to persuade mom she’s in control so that she’ll let her go to the local 4*Town concert. Naturally mom’s having none of that, so the four girls plan to raise the ticket money themselves, Mei cashing in on the fact her schoolmates reckon her furry alter ego is super cool and are willing to pay for selfies, t-shirts and much more.
Unfortunately, it’s at this point that her grandmother (Wai Ching Ho) arrives with Mei’s aunties to perform the ritual that will cast out the panda, and it turns out that Mei’s not alone in having controlling mother issues. However, with the ritual the same night at the concert, Mei has to decide who she wants to be – the little girl her mother demands or her own person as the film heads to its SkyDome panda v panda showdown climax.
Sharing much with earlier Disney offerings Mulan, Brave and Moana (though Mei is not your usual princess) as well as influences from Studio Ghibli animations like My Neighbour Totoro, with Billie Eilish and her brother Finneas O’Connell contributing to the soundtrack, it’s a wonderful coming-of-age story that amusingly captures teenage rebellion (“I like boys, I like gyrating!” Mei screams at her mother) as the need for parental approval and breaking free clash, trumpeting its embrace your inner weirdo message as Mei reconciles with the messy side of her personality to declare “My panda, my choice, Mom”. Tweenage girls will adore it, their moms maybe less so. (Disney +; Rakuten TV)
The debut feature from writer/director Iris K. Shin, this draws on South Korean haunting horror while also exploring inherited generational trauma and dysfunctional mother-daughter issues and, if there are undeniably flaws with a somewhat pat ending, it’s also creepy and dark enough to keep you involved. Traumatised by her umma (Korean for mother) (MeeWha Alana Lee) as a child who would lock her in a cupboard when she was disobedient (and inflict a much worse punishment revealed in the last act), Amanda (a powerful Sandra Oh) now lives off the grid in a house where all forms of electricity are forbidden, keeping bees and running an increasingly successful honey-making business with her home-schooled non-Korean speaking daughter Chris (Fivel Stewart), herself regarded as a ‘weirdo’ by the kids in town, their only friend being local shopkeeper Danny (Dermot Mulroney), who acts as middle-man to sell the produce.
Amanda suffers nightmares and blackouts and things get worse when her uncle turns up to inform her her mother has died, accuses her of being a terrible daughter and leaves a suitcase containing mom’s remains and such artefacts as a heirloom mask and a kimono for her to perform a ritual ceremony to prevent her turning into a “gwishin”. Inevitably, her mother’s restless ghost starts putting in appearances, Amanda’s mental state further rattled by discovering Chris secretly wants to apply to go away to college, an act of ‘disobedience’ and threat of abandonment that, Chris enlightened by Danny’s niece (Odeya Rush) as to mom’s deceptions, tips her over the edge and almost quite literally turns her into her own mother.
While initially intense with its camerawork and spookiness, body horror, bee swarmings and a dark cellar and even an attic, Shim makes a common first timer mistake of repeating things and piling on exposition rather than letting the film speak for itself, while the predictable climactic confrontation between Amanda and her mother’s spirit is decidedly confused and confusing. It doesn’t really pull off its attempt to be an American-Korean answer to Jordan Peele, but even so it’s an impressive calling card. (Rakuten TV)
Where The Crawdads Sing (15)
As with the big screen version of The Lovely Bones, this adaptation of the bestselling novel by Delia Owens is an often underwhelming disappointment. Named for the species of lobsters (which don’t actually sing) that inhabit the North Carolina marshes where the story is set it mostly unfolds in 1969 as Catherine (Kya) Danielle Clark (Daisy Edgar-Jones) is arrested and put on trial for the murder of Chase Andrews (Harris Dickinson) Barkley Cove’s star quarterback, whose body is found at the foot of a fire tower and presumed to have been pushed through a gap in the gratings, facing the death penalty if found guilty. There is a lack of physical evidence, but Kya is the prime suspect, partly because the pair had a secret romance until she discovered he’d been lying to her but largely because she is regarded by the community as an outsider, derogatorily referred to as The Marsh Girl on account of her living alone out in the wilds.
Defended by kindly retired local attorney Tom (David Strathairn), clad in white linen suit, one of the few who befriended her as a child, the trial scenes are juxtaposed with flashbacks, starting off in 1953 with the young Kya (Jojo Regina) witnessing her mother (Ahna O’Reilly) and siblings suffering domestic violence at the hands of her abusive, hard drinking father (Garret Dillahunt), mom eventually disappearing into the night eventually followed by Kya’s brother and sisters, leaving her alone with her father, who, temporarily off the bottle, teaches her to fish and gives her a bag to keep her collection of shells and feathers .
At some point, he too leaves, Kya remaining to raise herself in the marshes, trading mussels harvested in the marshes with kindly Black storekeepers Mabel (Michael Hyatt) and Jumpin’ (Sterling Macer Jr) before encountering local young boy Tate (Luke David Blumm) when she gets lost in the marshes and who (now played by Taylor John Smith), some years later, teaches her to read and write (she spent only one day in school where she was humiliated and never returned), becomes her boyfriend and encourages her to send her drawings of the local flora and fauna off to a publisher. However, continuing her experience of abandonment, he leaves for college and never returns, at which point Chase enters her life, and with him the return of the toxic masculinity that is one of the narrative themes.
Indeed the film creaks under the weight of themes and genres, domestic abuse, prejudice against the less-fortunate, murder mystery, coming of age, courtroom drama, love story to the extent it never really reconciles them into a comfortable balance, too often falling into cliché or melodrama, leaving plot lines unresolved, sometimes on purpose, sometimes not. Edgar-Jones (last seen surviving her boyfriend’s cannibalistic tastes in Fresh) brings a fine mix of vulnerability and strength to the role but can do little to overcome such narrative mysteries of how quickly she goes from being illiterate to knowing the Latin names of species, engaging in deep intellectual conversations and always looking as, well, fresh as a daisy, given the feral circumstances in which she lives.
Prior to Chase’s death, Tate reappears on the scene asking for a second chance and adding to the several misdirections as to what might have happened on that night when Kya was away from town for a meeting with her publishers, although the prosecution argues she could still have got a bus back, committed the murder and the returned to her hotel.
A plotline about social services is introduced but never developed, as is the threat of developers buying up the marshlands where she lives, while, more crucially, the courtroom scenes lack tension and there is almost no chemistry between Edgar-Jones and a somewhat vanilla Taylor Smith, which doesn’t help in conveying how this is the love of her life while Dickinson is stuck in a one-dimensional bad boy role
Director Olivia Newman and cinematographer Polly Morgan capture the beauty of the marsh landscape with its Spanish moss and tranquillity, a refuge from the noise and hostility of the outside world, but the film never gets quite the same grip on the narrative, ending with a rapid montage of Kya’s later years and a final reveal and voice over comment about prey and predators and what did happen the night Chase died. By then, however, you might not really care. (Odeon Birmingham)
Screenings courtesy of Cineworld 5 Ways
Cineworld 5 Ways – 181 Broad St, 0871 200 2000
Cineworld NEC – NEC 0871 200 2000
Cineworld – Mill Ln, Solihull 071 200 2000
The Electric Cinema – 47–49 Station Street, 0121 643 7879
Empire – Great Park, Rubery, 0871 471 4714
Empire Sutton Coldfield – Maney Corner, Sutton Coldfield
0871 471 4714
The Everyman – The Mailbox 0871 906 9060
MAC – Cannon Hill Park 0121 446 3232
Mockingbird, Custard Factory 0121 224 7456.
Odeon Birmingham -Birmingham, 0871 224 4007
Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe – Ladywood Middleway, 0333 006 7777
Odeon West Bromwich – Cronehills Linkway, West Bromwich 0333 006 7777
Reel – Hagley Rd, Quinton, Halesowen 0121 421 5316
Vue Star City – Watson Road, 08712 240 240