This column will review films both screening theatrically and/or on various streaming platforms.
Based on Elvis and Me, Priscilla Presley’s 1985 memoir of her marriage, Sophia Coppola’s film touches on themes of exploitation, control, marital loneliness, gaslighting, misogyny and toxic celebrity. As superbly played by Cailee Spaeny, her second starring role after The Craft: Legacy, Priscilla Beaulieu is a bored 14-year-old schoolgirl living on a West German military base with her Air Force officer father Paul (Ari Cohen) and mother Ann (Dagmara Domińczyk). Sitting sipping a milkshake, she’s approached by a young soldier who asks if she likes Elvis, who’s there doing military service, and, informing her that he knows him, invites her to a party at his home in Bad Nauheim. Her parents are initially reluctant to have her go, but ultimately relent and, on meeting, recently having lost his mother (cue idea of arrested emotional development), Elvis (Saltburn’s Jacob Elordi who has the voice and mannerisms though – deliberately – not necessarily the look) is awkward and flustered, clearly taken with this sweet, naïve teenager.
Ten years her senior and a perfect gentlemen, he meets her father and persuades him his intentions are honourable, the pair getting to increasingly hang out, Priscilla dating Elvis by night and going to school with her giggling friends by day. The couple kiss and cuddle, but there is no sex. When Elvis’s service ends (““Stay the way you are” he insists on the way to the airport), they stay in contact by phone, her parents eventually allowing her to visit Memphis in 1962 for a short stay on condition she’s always chaperoned. However, rather than Memphis, Elvis took her to Las Vegas where she is first introduced to the amphetamines and sleeping pills that have become part of his life. In 1963, her parents agree to let her move to Graceland, Vernon Presley (Tim Post) acting as loco parentis and under the care of grandmother Minnie Mae Presley aka ‘Dodger’ (Lynne Griffin), attending a Catholic high school where she becomes both an object of fascination and derision among the other girls.
In 1966, reminded by the Colonel (never seen on screen) of the morality clause in his contract, Elvis proposes, marrying in a brief ceremony at a Vegas casino in May 67, with Priscilla falling pregnant and giving birth to Lisa Marie in early 1968, while he’s prepping for his NBC comeback special. However, by now the marriage is collapsing under Elvis’s increasing use of drugs and his much publicised affairs with the likes of Ann-Margret and Nancy Sinatra while away in Hollywood filming, Priscilla confined – or more accurately imprisoned – in Graceland, and having an affair with her karate instructor Mike Stone (Evan Annisette). Following Elvis’s drunken attempt to force himself on her during a visit to his hotel room, Pricilla filed for divorce.
With immaculate attention to background detail, Coppola unfolds all this in chronologically linear short episodes, each step charting Priscilla’s transition from innocent schoolgirl to a life of uppers and downers, and (part of his flirtation with Eastern religions) at one point LSD, and effectively domestic abuse and servitude, controlled by both a cruelly mean Vernon and Elvis himself, who refrained from having sex with his child bride while being rather less celibate with a string of other women, telling her to accept this went with the job. Hanging out with his Memphis Mafia entourage, he also insists on her having a black bouffant and eye make-up makeover, controlling her image (at one point he makes her try on numerous dresses before choosing the one he thinks work for his projection of her), something with which she is uncomfortable but is powerless to challenge. Locked away in her own heartbreak hotel, she’s caught in a trap from which she can’t break free.
Though taken from Pricilla’s memoirs, the portrayal of Elvis in a less than flattering light, a controlling, insecure and increasingly infantile narcissist has inevitably caused controversy, the late Lisa Marie particularly refuting how her father is depicted, an accusation upheld by her daughter Riley Keough, the film moving from the creepy courting of the early scenes to the downright chilling nature of the later ones. He may love her, but it’s far from tender. Denied permission to use Elvis recordings, the soundtrack nevertheless makes effective use of Jerry Reed’s original Guitar Man, Tommy James’ Crimson and Clover, a cover of Frankie Avalon’s Venus and the anachronistic opening which segues from Alice Coltrane’s Going Home into The Ramones cover of Baby I Love You, ending with Priscilla pointedly driving away from Graceland to Dolly Parton’s original I Will Always Love You.
Ultimately, emotionally and psychologically more surface than depth compared to her award winners Lost In Translation and The Beguiled, nonetheless, the subject matter and the captivating performance from Spaeny, who should find herself with an Oscar nomination after her Best Actress win at Venice, should still leave you all shook up. (From Mon: Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Everyman; Mockingbird; Omniplex Great Park)
Directed by Wim Wenders, this is a non-fictional dramatised documentary about Anselm Kiefer, the German artist playing his older self as, smoking cigars, he strides or bicycles around his warehouse studios, in the south of France with its sculpture gardens, organising, arranging and working on his paintings, photographs, illustrated book artefacts and colossal installations. At one point he takes a flamethrower to straw on canvas to create a charred look of devastation. Fantasy scenes offer up scenes of his younger years (with Wenders’ great-nephew Anton), elsewhere addressing criticisms of his use of transgressive images engaging with fascism, and the Holocaust in his country’s culture of silence, (archive footage has him repudiating accusations or defending his 1969 work Occupations in which he photographed himself giving a Nazi salute at European historical sites in his father’s Wehrmacht uniform) while also discussing his love of the poetry of the Romanian Paul Celan or the philosopher Martin Heidegger.
It’s visually striking in the way it captures his work, such as the Women of Antiquity series, and the giant concrete towers that surround his studio complex in Barjac, such as the 40-hectare atelier studio in Barjac, elevating this beyond its niche target audience. (Wed/Thu: MAC)
One Life (PG)
Known as the British Schindler, when, in 1938, with British blessing, the Nazis began to occupy Czechoslovakia, responding to a request for help from Jewish activist Marie (here Marta) Schmolka and English humanitarianist Doreen Warriner, instead of going skiing, a 29-year-old London stockbroker of German-Jewish parentage, Nicholas Winton (anglicised from Wertheim) visited Prague to help his friend Martin Blake, an associate of the British Committee for Refugees from Czechoslovakia, with his Jewish welfare work. Horrified at the conditions he encountered, working from a hotel in Wenceslas Square with volunteers such as British former teacher Trevor Chadwick, and Canadian assistant Beatrice Wellington (absent from this telling) alongside the Committee, when, in November 1938, the House of Commons approved a measure to allow entry into Britain of refugees younger than 17, provided they had a place to stay and a deposit of £50 per person for their eventual return, he began, with the help of his mother back home, to arrange for children to be relocated to foster homes in the UK.
Although the final, ninth kinderstransport was prevented when the Nazis invaded Prague, together, a litany of visas, trains, fundraising, record-keeping and legal red tape, Winton and his colleagues succeeded in rescuing 669 Czech-Jewish children. Modest to a fault, his work, however, went virtually unacknowledged until 1988 when, tasked by wife Grete (Lena Olin) to clear out all the detritus of the past he’s hoarded, looking to find a home for a suitcase containing a scrapbook documenting the work and the children saved – and those not – for historical and educational purposes, it ended up, via Robert Maxwell’s wife Betty, a Holocaust researcher with That’s Life!, a lighthearted satirical consumer affairs BBC TV programme hosted by Esther Rantzen. Unaware of what was planned, Winton appeared on the show and was reunited with one of the women he had rescued and, following public response, was invited back for a second, the studio audience consisting entirely of now grown refugees.
As directed by James Hawes making his feature debut and based on the book by Winton’s daughter Barbara (Ffion Jolly), this is a solid, conventional and unsentimental but emotionally moving account (it’s unfair to describe scenes of distraught children leaving their siblings and parents as manipulative) with the narrative split between 1938 London and wartime Prague with the young Winton played by Johnny Flynn and 1987 Maidenhead with his older self inhabited in a typically heartfelt performance by Anthony Hopkins whose eyes carry the regret of not saving more. They’re bolstered by equally solid period set work – if underdeveloped characterisation – from Antonie Formanová as Marta, Romola Garai as Doreen and Alex Sharp as Trevor with Helena Bonham-Carter haranguing bureaucratic Whitehall consciences as Winton’s mother and Jonathan Pryce as the older Blake (and Ziggy Heath his younger self) while Samantha Spiro makes a reasonably convincing Rantzen lookalike. It has an undeniable BBC TV drama feel to it all, but the story it tells certainly warrants the big screen. (From Mon: Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Omniplex Great Park; Reel; Vue)
The Peasants (15)
Following up their Oscar-nominated Loving Vincent, directors DK Welchman and Hugh Welchman again employ an animation approach in which live action footage is then painstakingly painted over in oils and rotoscoped. The source material here is a condensing of the 1924 Nobel prize-winning epic four part novel by Władysław Reymo, a two-hour story of how, Jagna (Kamila Urzędowska), a spirited young woman in 19th-century rural Poland is her village’s repressive patriarchy and petty-minded jealousies, her own impulsiveness and poor judgement not helping matters as the narrative spans from a harsh winter to aa drought-stricken summer.
Although in love with married farmhand Antek (Robert Gulaczyk), Jagna accepts an offer of marriage from his elderly widowed father Maciej (Mirosław Baka) in exchange for six acres of his best land, something Antek, who has a heated disagreement with his father about land ownership, and wife Hanka disapprove of and are ordered to leave the farm. Jagna, however, continues bedding his son, at one point dad setting fire to the hay barn where the couple are having sex. The continuing affair doesn’t go down well in the village with the women tagging her promiscuous, the men trying to bed her and all superstitiously declaring her affair will bring about a bad harvest.
Meanwhile, Maciej is troubled by a decision of the landowners’ court to cut down forests belonging to the peasants and is seriously injured in an ensuing fight, Antek taking brutal revenge and arrested by Russian troops. When springs arrives, the mayor offers to help free Antek, but in the process gets Jagna drunk and unsuccessfully tries to rape her , while, his father dying from his wounds, Antek now returns to take over the farm and himself rapes his erstwhile lover. When she refuses to marry a village carpenter, the locals decide to banish her with Antek, now its first farmer, allowing it to happen.
Pulling together Polish traditions and notions of national identity, involving gloriously colourful folk dances and costumes, it explores the dangerous opposition of private desire and public moralising, capturing the problematic conflict between sisterhood and submission, with Jagna’s paper cut artworks of birds in flight being a prominent metaphorical motif (as is the use of red echoing Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter). Scenes of sexual assault are no less unsettling through being viewed through the lens of animation, indeed, if anything, they are even more so, especially the final moments when, in the final scenes, she’s stripped naked and left in the rain. Unlike the previous films, there’s a greater depth to the animation and the power of the performances behind the painting crackles with electricity, producing a truly compelling experience. (Until Tue MAC)
Rebel Moon: Part One: A Child of Fire (12A)
The first half of writer-director Zack Snyder’s sci fi saga (with an extended version and Part 2 due in 2024), this is basically a cobbling together of Star Wars and The Magnificent Seven (or Seven Samurai if you’re more arty). Set in the far future where an evil Empire, loyal to a king (Cary Elwes) assassinated along with his wife and healing-powered daughter Issa at the latter’s coronation, command being taken by the senator Balisarius (Fra Fee) who now ruthlessly seeks to conquer the rest of the galaxy, and with the aid of sadistic and not entirely all-human Admiral Atticus Noble (Ed Skrein), who commands the Imperium, the Motherworld’s infantry, put down the rebel insurgency known as Clan Bloodaxe.
It opens on Veldt, a near barren planet where, struggling to raise a harvest, a community of farmers are visited by Noble to appropriate the resources, killing the leader, Father Sindri, as an example, ordering them to have the grain ready when he returns. However, seeing a band of soldiers about to rape a young girl, Kora (Sofia Boutella), a stoical woman rescued some years back from a crashed craft and, as is revealed in chunks of exposition, having a backstory as a high ranking officer in the Imperium forces, fights back, killing them with the help of disillusioned soldier Private Aris (Sky Yang) and, warning that when Noble returns he will destroy everything, teaming up with defiant farmer Gunnar (Michiel Huisman) on a mission to recruit a band of fighters to resist them.
With black marketer and mercenary Kai (Charlie Hunnam in what initially seems to be the Han Solo role), they planet hop as, through individual episodes, one of which involved a child-killing mutant female spider-creature (Jena Malone), they swell the ranks with beast tamer blacksmith Tarak (Staz Nair), cyborg swordswoman, Nemesis (Doona Bai), disgraced Imperium commander General Titus (Djimon Hounsou) and, finally, Darrian Bloodaxe (Ray Fisher) who brings along half his crew while sister Devra (Cleopatra Coleman) remains in charge of the other. Come the end of the first half, as Noble and his army come calling and there’s an unexpected act of betrayal, not everyone survives for Part Two.
Unabashedly derivative, generic and unavoidably attracting unfavourable comparisons to the film’s it pillories, even so it does deliver a solid dose of high octane action and slo mo battle scenes, even if the character development seems to have been held back for the longer cut, setting up an assortment of narrative threads to be developed in the sequel along with, one suspects, a bigger role for Anthony Hopkins who provides the voice for the peace-seeking Jimmy, the last of a race of mechanical knights, who, sporting a garland of flowers round his head, is recruited by Kora. Having rather laboriously delivered over two hours of set-up, hopefully The Scargiver will be a pay-off worth waiting for. (Netflix)
Sweet Sue (15)
The feature debut of writer-director |Leo Leigh, son of Mike Leigh and Alison Steadman, suggests the apple hasn’t fallen far from the tree with this slice-of-life East London tragicomedy in which, like in dad’s films, the cast improvised the storyline and dialogue before filming.
A pre-credits sequence introduces us to Sue (Maggie O’Neill), a middle-aged blonde with a fondness for red wine who own a drab party supplies shop and wear a red pleather jacket, as she sits in an Italian restaurant awaiting her date, only to get a text saying he’s not coming and breaking things off. Visiting her elderly encroachingly senile mother (Anna Calder-Marshall) in a care home she’s rebuffed, mum wanting to see her son Peter and stuck up daughter-in-law Kathy (Hannah Walters) instead. Pete, however, is ill and soon dies, and it’s at his funeral, attended by his old biker buddies, that she starts up a conversation with morose monosyllabic divorcee Ron (Tony Pitts) and, much to Kathy’s disgust, takes off with him for a ride.
A tentative relationship develops but that’s thrown into disarray when she discovers he has a son, Anthony (Harry Trevaldwyn), a himbo drama queen aspiring dancer (part of a troupe managed by his sharp-tongued mother) and influencer with an older sugar daddy (Jeff Rawle). Initially, the pair hit it off, the three going clothes shopping together, trying to give Ron’s wardrobe more colour, with Anthony delighted that “my Ronald” has got a girlfriend. But when Sue can’t help laughing as he rehearses his kitschy dance moves for her, it all quickly turns sour, the ensuing tension threatening to derail everything.
The story of three lonely people looking for connection and approval, it has some nice character touches, especially with Ron proving something of a history nerd and sensitive soul behind his tough guy persona (he always puts on his helmet when he can’t deal with emotional situations) and scenes such as a ‘family’ Thai takeaway dinner and Sue and Ron’s seaside visit to his mate Gordon (Nick Holder) who lives in his late mother’s dated home (“a microcosm of a forgotten England”) and steals dogs for a living.
The irony-tinged title recalling his father’s Life Is Sweet and with a similar tonal feel, the dysfunctional triangle never at ease with and often mocking each other’s traits, while peppered with at times cruel humour, it never quite fully kicks into emotional gear or digs deep below the surface of the character’s personalities or hones in on any focused theme, but Leigh does echo his father’s vein of compassion for these life misfits and, while not actually resolved, the denouement does have a quite redemption that makes the journey worth the watching. (Mockingbird)
Adapted by Call The Midwife’s Heidi Thomas from the 2018 Alan Bennett play, directed by Richard Eyre and with a stellar cast that includes Judi Dench, Jennifer Saunders, Russel Tovey, Derek Jacobi and David Bradley, it’s hard to see how this grey pound dramedy about cuts to the NHS could fail. But fail it does. Set in Wakefield in a fictional community hospital where various wards are named after celebrities who donated to its upkeep, the Bethlehem, or the Beth, as it’s affectionately known, is facing closure as part of cuts by the never named but clearly Tory government which wants cost-efficient centres of excellence with high profile success rates. What it doesn’t want is things like the Shirley Bassey geriatric ward where the old folk have music therapy sessions (the title prompting the party piece Get Happy ), the impossibly charming Dr Valentine (Bally Gill), actually Valiyaveetil but no one can pronounce it – who oozes kindness and compassion on his rounds, declaring how much he loves old people, while the pragmatic Sister Gilpin (a wavering accent Saunders), who’s about retire and get a medal for her long service, concerns herself with which patients are on the incontinence list. Maybe the film budget was tight but they, resolutely chipper Nurse Pinkney (Jesse Akele) and sullen work experience Andy (Louis Ashbourne Serkis) appear to be the only staff.
The friends of the Beth are running a campaign to keep it open and a local TV crew are here to make a documentary about the fight to save it, interviewing the preening CEO (Vincent Franklin) and the predictably eccentric patients, among them pompous, grammar-pernickety former English teacher Ambrose (Jacobi chewing scenery), retired librarian Mary (Dench) more interested in the marginalia of reader’s annotations than books themselves and to whom the world of iPads is alien, the flirty Lucille (Marlene Sidaway) with her innuendos and Joe (David Bradley)m a cantankerous ex-miner who’s been transferred there to deal with an infection (and is in no hurry to go back to his previous hospital). He also happens to be father of Colin (Tovey), a consultant to the Health Minister who recommended the closure, from whom he’s estranged on account of his son being gay and right wing, though it’s debatable which he resents most. Colin’s in town to visit the old man and make his final assessment for recommendations (and that he has a change of heart is a no brainer) while further problems arise when a newly admitted dementia patient (Julia Mackenzie) who’s had a fall, unexpectedly dies, this prompting the wrath of her daughter and son-in-law who wanted her to hang for inheritance tax reasons and now demand an enquiry. Indeed, the mortality rate on the ward seems to be rather high, three of them popping their clogs in just a few days, which is where the play takes a not entirely surprising swerve into The Good Nurse territory.
Vestiges of Bennett’s dry humour remain to inject a few laughs into the otherwise terminal dialogue, though a running gag abut bedpans is surely taking the piss, but the social commentary is about as subtle as an enema, not least for a bolted on Covid coda and a jarring to camera monologue from Gill that only just falls short of asking the audience to bang some pots. It’s quaintly watchable enough but is probably better suited to a Sunday evening on TV with a mug of Horlicks. (Sky Cinema)
Anyone But You (15)
With Love Again, Rye Lane, Love At First Sight, What’s Love Got To Do With It? and What Happens Later all having underperformed at the box office, it seems audiences have yet to reignite their spark for romcoms, and it’s unlikely that this, directed and co-written by Will Gluck is about to change things. Loosely inspired by Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing (lines from which literally appear on the sets) and taking a cue from 30s screwball comedies, it opens with a coffee shop meet cute where, as the equivalent of Benedick and Beatrix, financier Ben (Glenn Powell, last seen as the smirking Hangman in Top Gun:Maverick)) pretending to be Boston University law student Bea’s (Sydney Sweeney) husband intercedes when she can’t persuade the barista to give her the washroom key. From this they end up spending the day and night together but don’t have sex; however, in the morning, her relationship insecurity (although she spent her entire childhood imagining getting married) kicks in and she sneaks away. Changing her mind she returns and overhears him, putting on a front because he thinks she’s ghosted him, telling his stoner best buddy Pete (GaTa) that he’s well rid of her.
Six months later they unexpectedly meet up again in a bar, as the film’s Claudius and Hero, Pete has a lesbian sister, Claudia (Alexandra Shipp) who’s getting married to, Halle (Hadley Robinson), who, it turns out, is Bea’s sister. Which means Bea and Ben, who each blame the other for what happened, find themselves awkwardly brought back together when they jet off to Australia for the wedding. With everyone assuming they’re a couple who broke up and are now at each other’s throats, Pete and his father Roger (Aussie veteran Bryan Brown), who’s married to American Carol ((Michelle Hurd) and at whose house everyone’s staying, and Claudia and Halle try to get them back together so their bickering doesn’t ruin the occasion. Meanwhile, Bea’s folks, Leo (Dermot Mulroney) and Australian wife Innie (Rachel Griffiths), who are unware she’s dropped out of law school, have invited along her ex-fiancé Jonathan (Darren Barnet) in the hope they’ll get back together. Also, also along to complicate the entanglement is Claudia’s cousin Margaret (Charlee Fraser), Ben’s former flame who broke up with him and is now dating dumb surf dude Beau (Joe Davidson), but may still be carrying a torch.
Realising what’s going on and annoyed at the interference, the pair decide to go along with things not just to not spoil the wedding but to make Margaret jealous and to put a stop to Bea’s parents reconciliation plans. You’ll have seen enough romcoms to know that the pair will ultimately realise they really do love each other and the screenplay rather drags out the inevitable, but there’s enjoyable enough fun along the way with moments that include snarky banter on the flight over, Ben stripping naked on a clifftop and Bea staring up his arse when he finds a spider down his trousers, their rehearsal dinner re-enactment of that iconic Titanic prow scene (with Bea falling overboard and both being rescued by coast guard helicopter) to a backdrop of Sydney Opera House and an end credits sequence with everyone singing Natasha Bedingfield’s Unwritten, Ben’s “serenity” song, though disappointingly the set-ups with Pete and a koala up a gum tree have no pay-off.
It’s an insubstantial screenplay and both the tone and humour are uneven, but Sweeney and Powell have substantial enough chemistry and comic timing to compensate and while it may not actually resuscitate the genre, it still manages to keep the heartbeat going until the end credits. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Omniplex Great Park; Vue)
Aquaman And The Lost Kingdom (12A)
Given its troubled journey to the screen, perhaps the best thing you can say about what seems likely to be the final instalment of the DC Universe before James Gunn’s reboot, is that, directed by James Wan, it’s not as terrible as you might expected. That said, it’s still essentially loud, busy and empty. Though at least Amber Heard’s role has clearly been largely excised down to the absolute necessities, such as spouting exposition.
Set a year or so after the first film, Arthur Curry (an always fun Jason Momoa) is now King of Atlantis, but spends most of him time on land with now domesticated housewife Mera (Heard) and their new baby son, who constantly pees on him and to whom he tells self-aggrandising violent stories, downing Guinness out with his human dad (Temuera Morrison) and battling pirates and occasionally taking part in cage fights. He wants to come clean to the surface world about the existence of Atlantis, but, echoes of Black Panther, the Council forbid it.
He soon has bigger things to think about when, seeking revenge for his father’ death, a permanently glowering David Kane (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) aka Black Manta, with the aid of conflicted scientist Dr Shin (Randall Park) sets out to restore his power suit (with a helmet that more resembles a fly than a ray) by stealing something called Orichalcum (an Atlantean substance that fuels his ship and, when burned, emits a green(house) gas that accelerated climate disasters) which is so dangerous it’s been hidden away in different locations. In the process of acquiring one batch, he comes upon the hidden ice-encased lost seventh kingdom and a black trident that belonged to its former ruler, Necrus, who transformed himself and his people into monsters before being defeated in battle and consigned to be frozen for eternity. Now, possessed by the skeletal Necrus, using him for his own revenge quest, he embarks on a mission to destroy Atlantis through amped up underwater climate change. The only way Aquaman can stop him is, with the help of a blue espionage-expert octopus, by freeing and, teaming up with his imprisoned half-brother Orm (Patrick Wilson), the former tyrannical King of Atlantis. Naturally, as they work together, Aquaman finds that, while he may have been a murderous despot, beneath it all, Orm’s really a good guy after all. Along with unlikely redemptive character arc and the accompanying lighthearted banter and bonding (at one group hug point Curry’s mermaid mum, Nicole Kidman, tells them to look after one another, while elsewhere Curry dupes him into eating a cockroach)), it’s often incoherent narrative and laughable dialogue stuffed to the gills with multiple chaotic action sequences variously involving giant bugs and zombie fishmen, set to a deafening Rupert Gregson-Williams score amid variable CGI as the brothers look to take down Black Manta and save Atlantis.
As well as a fairly redundant return by Dolph Lundgren bellowing away as Mera’s father Nereus, it’s also peppered with homages to/rip offs of numerous other movies, a mention of Azkaban here, a nod to Lord Of The Rings and War Of The Wolds there and, more specifically a visit to an aquatic version of the Mos Eisley cantina in Star Wars complete with a band of marine musicians and an amphibian gangster equivalent of Jabba The Hutt (Martin Short) while the rival brothers working together plot is filched straight from Thor: The Dark World, indeed at one point Momoa even jokingly calls Wilson Loki!
Despite Wan’s ADHD approach to directing, there are some visually impressive touches to the underwater scenery while there’s enjoyable chemistry between a knowingly self-aware Momoa and Wilson that at least make this reasonable fun. There is a mid-credits gag, but no second end teaser, all concerned presumably realising that Aquaman’s DCU tide is most definitely not coming back in. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Omniplex Great Park; Reel; V
Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret (12A)
Published in 1970, Judy Blume’s coming-of-age novel about an 11-year-old girl raised without any religious affiliation by her Jewish father and Christian mother having to deal with moving home and school, and early adolescent anxieties about menstruation, boys and bras, became an instant – thought not uncontroversial – classic among both young and older readers for the way it dealt frankly with the issues. For 49 years, Blume rejected offers to adapt it for the screen, but now, produced by James L Brooks and written and directed by Kelly Fremon Craig, the team behind The Edge Of Seventeen, it finally arrives and proves well worth the wait.
Abby Ryder Fortson, who played Cassie Lang in the first two Ant-Man films, is Margaret Simon, the daughter of Herb (a gently charming Benny Safdie) and aspiring artist Barbara (Rachel McAdams) who, on returning from summer camp, learns that her father’s promotion means they moving from their New York apartment to the New Jersey suburbs, something she resents, partly because she loves the city and is anxious about making new friends, but mostly because it means leaving behind her fun but at times overbearing paternal grandmother, Sylvia (Kathy Bates) with whom she shares a close bond.
However, no sooner have they arrived than Margaret is swept up by her queen bee neighbour Nancy Wheeler (Elle Graham) and recruited to join her class clique alongside Gretchen Potter (Katherine Kupferer) and Janie Loomis (Amari Alexis Price), all of whom have the pubescent hots for floppy-haired school romeo and budding jerk Philip Leroy (Zack Brooks), though Margaret is more taken with the shy Moose (Aidan Wojtak-Hissong). Hanging out with Nancy comes with its rules and demands, among them having to not wear socks (cue blisters), having to wear a bra (cue humiliating shopping trip for grow with you one) and competing to see who is the first to have a period, the latter leading to an embarrassing shopping trip to buy sanitary towels and Margaret practising wearing them. Added to her problems is a year-long assignment given by their new teacher Mr Benedict (Echo Kellum), who, learning she dislikes religious holidays, which her parents don’t observe, wants her to research and write about religion. In the course of things she learns that the reason she’s never met her other grandparents, Paul and Mary, is because , devout Christians, they disowned Barbara for marrying Jew, which is why they made the decision to not pressure Margaret into being one or the other until she was ready to choose for herself. Sylvia, on the other hand, seizes on Margaret’s assignment as an excuse to take her to temple, inevitably setting in motion friction with her son and daughter-in-law and, when Barbara’s parents do finally turn up for reconciliation, a heated confrontation over dinner as to what Margaret should be. She, meanwhile, is busy checking out other faith aspects, among them a fraught visit to a Catholic confessional. All this alongside getting her first kiss from Peter at a spin the bottle party, the girls trying to expands their busts and her regular calls on God to fix things for her, not least in getting that all important period. And questioning his existence when nothing happens.
Alongside its adolescent angsts and issues of bigotry and religion, the film broadens its scope to address the sacrifices, frustrations and humiliations that come with it being a woman and a theme of finding out who you are and where you fit in. It’s one that extends beyond Margaret and her three friends to also embrace wallflower classmate Laura Danker (Isol Young), who, lanky and more physically developed, is ostracised as a slut for supposedly letting boys ‘feel her up’, Barbara, struggling to adapt to the role of suburban mum and master the basics of cooking, volunteering for every PTA committee going, as well as Mr Benedict in his first teaching job. That and the bittersweet observation of seeing your child grow up before your eyes.
All of which is beautifully handled by Craig’s screenplay and her cast. Eyes full of wonder and wariness, her shoulders speaking a body language of their own, Fortson is an absolute joy, witty without being snarky, insecure yet self-willed, as she navigates the messy waters of puberty while, the character considerably expanded from the book, at her most fluidly natural McAdams is remarkable, and you can’t help for feel for her when her artistic talents are reduced to cutting out fabric stars for the school hall (for Nancy’s equally queen bee mum). And, while she might not be a wholly convincing Jewish mother, Bates brings her own effervescence to Sylvia.
Funny and poignant in equal measure (a brief scene involving removing the middle section of a dinner table speaks emotional volumes), it may leave teenage boys cold, but for their counterparts and their mothers this is an absolute must. (Amazon Prime, Apple TV, BFI Player, BT TV Store, Chili, Google Play, Microsoft Movies, Rakuten TV, Sky Store, Virgin Store)
Asteroid City (12A)
Shot in widescreen washed out pastel colours, drenched in retro nostalgia, deadpan dialogue, and heavily stylised with a self-aware sense of artifice, set in a red-rock Southwest American desert town in 1955, this is quintessential Wes Anderson. With its single phone booth, one pump gas station and 50s diner and motel, Asteroid City (pop 87) is also the site of a giant meteorite crater tourist attraction, intermittent atom bomb tests and the annual Junior Stargazers convention where teenage science geeks gather for their awards.
When his car breaks down, war photographer Augie Steenbeck (Jason Schwartzman on peak form) is stranded in town with his four kids, Stargazer Woodrow (Jake Ryan) and his three eccentric young sisters, Andromeda, Pandora and Cassiopeia (Ella, Gracie, Willan Faris), who he’s yet to tell their mother died three weeks earlier and he has her ashes in a Tupperware tub, prompting the arrival of his wealthy father-in-law Stanley (Tom Hanks) to collect them.
Also gathered are world weary TV star Midge Campbell (Scarlet Johannsen, terrific), J.J. Kellogg (Live Schreiber), Sandy Borden (Hope Davis) and Roger Cho (Stephen Park) whose respective kids, botany wiz Dinah (Grace Edwards), rebellious Clifford (Aristou Meehan), sceptical Shelly (Sophia Lillis) and anti-authority Ricky (Ethan Josh Lee), are all award winners. There’s also Montana (Rupert Friend), stranded there with his fellow cowboys when the bus left and who’s attracted to June (Maya Hawke), a science teacher with her church group pupils, local scientist Dr. Hickenlooper (Tilda Swinton) who sponsors the awards, and General Gibson (Jeffrey Wright) who’s due to present them.
However, the ceremony is interrupted by the arrival of an alien who steals a meteorite fragment and flies off, prompting a quarantine of everyone there and a rebellion by the Stargazers to make contact, Augie’s photo being leaked to the media. Meanwhile, various romances bubble up.
Except, as seen from the start and in subsequent black and white sequences, what we’re actually watching is a television behind-the-scenes and recreation of the first staging of a play called Asteroid City by esteemed New York playwright Conrad Earp (Ed Norton), who’s in a relationship with one of the cast, presented by The Host (Bryan Cranston) as directed by the womanising Schubert Green (Adrian Brody) with all the characters being the actors who, under their real names, auditioned for and appeared in the stage production (save for Margot Robbie whose role – her lines movingly re-enacted with Augie/Jones – as the mother was cut).
Constructed as a series of tableaux, meditations on bottled up grief interweave with themes of storytelling and being aliens in our own skins and, of course, the meaning of life (or understanding the play) And while emotion is deliberately kept at arms-length, there’s still a certain poignancy as the stories unfold. There’s also a swathe of good gags, both visual (a recurring cops vs crooks car chase) and verbal, among them a vending machine that sells plots of land out in the desert. Adding to the star-studded cast there’s Steve Carrell as the motel manager (inexplicably toting a pistol), Matt Dillon as the mechanic and Jeff Goldblum who has one line in the black and white sequences as the actor playing the alien. All that and a great memory party game. At the end of the day, the dazzling style may triumph over the obtuse substance, but even so it’s an intoxicating experience. Glad to meteor indeed. (Peacock/Sky)
Directed by Greta Gerwig and co-written with her partner Noah Baumbach, this is almost too wonderful for words, already a strong contender for, among others, next year’s Best Screenplay. Opening with Helen Mirren narrating a send of up 2001 A Space Odyssey’s monolith scene as little girls smash their dolly babies upon seeing the adult Barbie, an inspired supersaturated colour, postmodern meta cocktail of subversive satire, razor-sharp whimsy, feminism and musical numbers, it sets up the idea that there exists Barbieland, populated with an array of different versions of the iconic toy doll and their opposite number, Ken (including Simu Liu, Kingsley Ben-Adir, Scott Evans and Ncuti Gatwa), each Barbie linked to a child’s doll in the Real World. where, as far as they believe, women are in charge and, like the dolls, little girls can be anything they want. Even President.
In Barbieland every day is a good day, especially for Stereotypical Barbie (Margot Robbie) who wakes each morning in her pink dream house, greets her fellow Barbies (among them Issa Rae, Dua Lipa, Hari Nef, Alexandra Shipp, Nicola Coughlan and Emma Mackey), hangs out with wannabe boyfriend Beach Ken (Ryan Gosling), whose only function is to stand around and look good, and generally radiates perfection. Until that is, mid a choreography party, she brings things to a screeching halt when she wonders aloud about dying. The next day, she falls rather than floats to the floor, has bad breath and, catastrophically, finding herself walking flatfooted and not on tip toe. Clearly, something’s amiss. A visit to Weird Barbie Kate McKinnon), mutilated and drawn on by her real world child),ends up with her being told she must go to the Real World, connect with the child who owns her doll, and put things right, especially the cellulite on her thigh. With Ken stowing away in the back of her, naturally, pink car they travel by boat, bicycle, and rocket until they rollerskate into the human world where, she quickly discovers it’s men who hold all the power. She’s horrified, Ken (who has already shown signs of discontentment of being just an accessory, jealous of the attention she gives another Ken and being rebuffed in suggesting sex – if he knew what that was; as Barbie points out she has no vagina and he no penis), rather less so. He rather likes the idea of men lording it over women and, pumped up with ideas about big trucks and stallions, decides to return home and establish his own fascist patriarchy in Barbieland. Meanwhile Barbie heads to the HQ of Mattel, the Barbie toy company, to try to sort things out and is taken aback to find there’s no women executives. And when the CEO (Will Farrell) tries to persuade her to get back in the box, with a little help from an elderly lady (Rhea Perlman in a touching last act insider reference to Barbie’s origins) in a hidden office, she takes off and is rescued by Gloria (America Ferrara), a Mattel employee who, it turns out is the owner of Barbie’s toy counterpart, rather than her spikey and sullen teenage daughter (Ariana Greenblatt).
However, when they get to Barbieland, everything has changed. The Kens, led by Beach Ken, have taken over and the girls are now all Stepford Barbies, there only to serve their every whim. Can Barbie, with the help of Gloria, Sasha, Weird Barbie and Alan (Michael Cera, launched in 1964 as Ken’s buddy, and put everything back in the pink!
Overflowing with clever jokes along with themes of female empowerment, sexism, gender equality, toxic masculinity and aggression, the impossibility of perfection, conforming to expectations, the complexity of being a woman, who men want to be both whore and mother, being defined by your looks and finding value in who you are, it bursts with energy. It also takes digs at Mattel’s less successful lines, like Pregnant Barbie, the gender demeaning Teen Talk Barbie and Growing Up Skipper with her inflatable boobs. But it wouldn’t be half as good without the irresistible radiant star power of Robbie and Gosling (who again gets to show off his dance moves) who bring their plastic incarnations to vivid and very human life. There cameos from John Cena and Rob Brydon, a reference to Zach Snyder’s Justice League, a clip from The Godfather, and a sound track that includes new numbers by Billie Eilish and Lizzo, Ken’s’ I’m Just Ken showcase and a nice use of The Indigo Girls’ Closer To Fine as sung by Brandi and Catherine Carlile. This is the definitive toy story. (Amazon Prime, Sky Movies)
The Boy and the Heron (PG)
Initially announced as the final film from Studio Ghibli master animator Hayao Miyazaki, the creator of such anime classics as My Neighbor Totoro and Spirited Away, this is a soulful meditation on loss, grief, the afterlife, letting go and healing and again unfolds in a world adrift from time populated by his trademark anthropomorphic animals.
It opens in 1943 Tokyo with the sound of sirens as the young Mahito (the film’s Miyazaki surrogate) awakens to find his mother’s hospital has been firebombed. Racing to the scene, he witnesses – or imagines – her being consumed by – or becoming part of – the flames. Some years later, he is now living in a country estate by and his father, Shoichi, who owns a factory making aircraft parts, has married his late wife’s now pregnant sister Natsuko, something he dutifully accepts but remains coldly indifferent towards her. His father away, she and Mahito are in the care of a gaggle of elderly grannies (with typically oversized heads), but he’s restless and disturbed, especially by a heron that keeps coming to his window and which has its roost in an old abandoned tower the grannies warn him not to enter, its architect, Natsuko’s eccentric granduncle, having disappeared within it many years ago.
After a bullying incident at school, Mahito deliberately wounds his own head, promoting his father to keep him at home and, while convalescing, things begin to take a turn for the mysterious, the heron starts talking, saying his mother, Hisako, is alive and that it will take him to her, human teeth and gums now protruding from its beak. Almost suffocated by a swarm of toads and saved by Natsuko’s whistling arrow, he crafts his own bow and magical arrow, fledged with feathers from the heron. And, finding a copy of How Do You Live?, a book bequeathed him from his late mother, he resolves to learn whether she is still, indeed, alive. Meanwhile, Natsuko has disappeared from her sickbed. Thus Mahito, the now flightless heron-man and Kiriko, one of the grannies, enter the tower which proves to be a portal transporting them to another world populated by belligerent starving pelicans and human-like parakeets with a taste for human flesh, an ancient wizard, a messily overgrown shipwreck now home to the pillow-like white warawara who appear to be souls awaiting rebirth in another dimension. There is also a younger incarnation of Kiriko, a fisherwoman with the power of magic, Himi, a young woman who can control fire and who, it is later revealed, has very direct association with his mother.
An odyssey to save mothers past and present, it’s a little slow and drawn out over two hours, the existential and the mystical elements not always easy to keep a grip on, but the visual imagination on display is entrancing and as it gradually build to its cathartic finale with its reveal about the different otherworld characters, the liberations and the letting go of resentments and malice, the emotions hit like a flood. Miyazaki has apparently decided to rescind his retirement, so it will be interesting to see where his flights of fancy take him next. (Dubbed/Subtitled: Cineworld 5 Ways; Electric; Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe)
Chicken Run: Dawn Of The Nugget (PG)
Back in 2000, Aardman Animation released their first feature film, the story of a bunch of chickens escaping from their captivity in a chicken farm, going on to become the highest-grossing stop-motion animated film in history. Now, 23 years later comes the sequel. And if the first film was parody of The Great Escape, the template this time, as is made clear from one of the lines, is Mission Impossible.
Living in a self-governing island community, secreted away from humans, Ginger (now voiced by Thandiwe Newton), who led the escape, and her American rooster hubbie Rocky (now voiced by Zachary Levi),the self-styled Lone Free Ranger, are thrilled when they become proud parents to their first chick, Molly (Bella Ramsey). Molly, like her mother, is rebellious with a sense of adventure, but is firmly told she must never venture across to the mainland and a “world that finds chickens so … delicious”. It’s a warning that becomes even more important when Ginger sees humans clearing the trees on the opposite shore and a Fun-Land Farm truck with an image of a chicken in a bucket.
Needless to say, mum having told her she’s a big brave girl, Molly pays no attention and sneaks away to find out more, meeting up with curly-haired Liverpudlian chicken Frizzle (Josie Sedgwick-Davies),who persuades her to join her and infiltrate this apparent chicken blue sky utopia (a sort of Barbieland meets Teletubbies landscape) with all the corn you can eat and where every chicken gets their own bucket and lives a life of supreme happiness.
Except, of course, it proves to be anything but and the slogan “Where chickens find their happy endings” has a definite irony. The collars the chickens wear turning them into blank, hypnotised zombies who just can’t wait to climb the staircase to the glowing sun, to the accompaniment of Cliff Richard’s Summer Holiday, oblivious that they’re going to be turned into chicken nuggets.
So now, having broken out of a farm in the first film, Ginger now leads a mission to break into one. To which end she’s joined by both Rocky and her returning feathered friends, knitting enthusiast Babs (Jane Horrocks), Busty (Imelda Staunton), Mac (Lynn Ferguson) and the elderly Fowler (now voiced by David Bradley) who can’t stop talking about his wartime exploits. Back too are scavenger rats the cynical Nick and his dimwit accomplice Fetcher, this time round voiced by Romesh Ranganathan and Daniel Mays, lending a hand to save their ‘niece’ Molly.
Once within the heavily fortified compound, which looks like a Bond villain lair (robotic mole sentries, pop-up vacuum tubes and laser-guided iron ducks), it’s a race against time before evil scientist Dr Fry (Nick Mohammed) delivers the promised supply of nuggets to Reginald Smith (Peter Serafinowicz), the owner of the Sir Eat-A-Lot fast food franchise. Which is when Ginger gets the shock of her life to discover Dr Fry’s wife and partner is none other than Mrs Tweedy (Miranda Richardson), the owner of the farm they escaped from and who she thought had fallen to her death. And when Tweedy realises Ginger is leading an attempt to free these chickens, it all gets very revenge personal. And when all seems lost, ingeniously popcorn proves to have more uses than just stuffing your face.
Naturally it’s full of puns and old fashion humour (there’s a couple of bottom jokes for the young sniggerers) with clever contemporary gags involving a retinal scanner (and eye-pad) as well as nods to the likes of The Truman Show and Squid Game for the grown up along with a message to mums and dads about their children spreading their wings but keeping them safe at the same time. It may not bring about a mass avoidance of KFC, but it might just prompt a few thoughts about where those breadcrumbed bites come from. (Netflix)
Dance First (12A)
Having done Stephen Hawking with The Theory Of Everything, director James Marsh now takes a bash at legendary Irish playwright and author Samuel Beckett, best known of course for his seminal Waiting For Godot. A race through his life, career and relationships, peppered with metaphysical contemplations, it takes its title from advice allegedly given to a student, to “dance first, think later”, a line that, in a different form also appeared in Godot.
Filmed in black and white until it gets to 1982, starring Gabriel Byrne as the sour Beckett, it opens in 1969 following his being awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature (an early misfire is having him declare it “a catastrophe”, whereas it was actually his wife Suzanne who said it), as he walks past the podium, climbs a ladder into the lighting and vanishes through a tunnel into a stony, cavern where he and his alter ego/conscience (Byrne again) embark on an acerbic self-castigating time-ranging conversation about his “journey of shame” as, through flashbacks, they reflect on who, among those he wronged, would be more deserving of the prize money.
And so we first get his early childhood (Caleb Johnston-Miller) in Dublin, his love of poetry encouraged by nurtured by his father William (Barry O’Connor) but and ridiculed by his disapproving, overbearing harpy of a mother May (Lisa Dwyer Hogg). Following (in this version of the chronology) his father’s death, the twentysomething Beckett (Fionn O’Shea) takes off for Paris where he persuades James Joyce (a twinkle-eyed Aidan Gillen) to become his mentor and take him on as an assistant and, in 1938, survives an almost fatal stabbing by a notorious pimp called Prudent, an incident which brings him back into contact with and eventual marriage to Suzanne Dechevaux-Dumesnil, with whom, played first by Léonie Lojkine and in later years by Sandrine Bonnaire, he shared a lifelong love-hate relationship of literary squabbles.
His welcome into the Joyce family (with Bronagh Gallagher as wife Nora) worn out when he rejects the announcement their wayward schizophrenic flapper daughter Lucia (Gráinne Good, bringing much needed life to proceedings) that they’re getting engaged, then comes friendship with fellow Joyce protégé Alfy Péron (Robert Aramayo), with whom he works to assist Joyce in completing Finnegan’s Wake and, in a relationship with Suzanne, fights as part of the French Resistance in Provence during the Second World War, leading to a lifetime of guilt when he’s killed. Divided into chapters, the final stretch concerns his affair with BBC script editor and translator Barbara Bray (Maxine Peake), all the while maintaining his involvement with Suzanne, finally ending with Beckett as a hospitalised old man.
There’s staged extracts from Godot (“Nothing happens, it’s a masterpiece”, declares Bray), and Play (with three characters in funeral urns representing a man, his wife and his mistress), but it never really gets inside his mind as playwright while Neil Forsyth’s screenplay with its self-aware Beckettian dialogue ladles on such clunky metaphors like the film’s Rosebud-styled memory of flying a kite with his dad where a morose Sam recalls “I willed it to stay in the sky because up there was hope and breath and freedom. And when it landed, there was nothing”.
Decently enough acted, Bonnaire being the stand out, and visually pleasing but ultimately lifeless and sluggish, you’ll really have to be a hardcore Beckett devotee to engage in its catastrophe. (Sky Cinema)
While undeniably visually dazzling, the latest from Pixar Fire recycles some very well-worn themes and messages about family, prejudice, working together, tolerance, opposites attract, self-discovery and finding your courage. It’s set in a world of characters formed of the four elements, with fire elements Bernie (Ronnie Del Carmen) and Cinder (Shila Ommi) Lumen (clearly Chinese) emigrating to Element City looking for a better life where, despite encountering xenophobia from the other elements and struggling to find a home (the landlords are all earth, tree-like figures who see fire as a hazard), they eventually set up a convenience store called the Fireplace with a symbolic Blue Flame representing their heritage and traditions, selling things like coal nuts. They have a daughter, the dutiful if headstrong Ember (Leah Lewis), whom Bernie intends to take over the store when he retires. But first she had to learn to control her fiery temper. When a difficult customer causes that to flare up, she takes refuge in the basement, accidentally causing a water pipe to break, flooding the place and bringing water element Wade Ripple (Mamoudou Athie), into her life. A city inspector, he has to report the faulty plumbing to his cloud-like air element boss Gale Cumulus, meaning the Fireplace will get shut down. But he’s also a soppy romantic and he persuades Gale to let them both try and find and stop the source of a series of recent floods. If they can seal the leak, the shop can remain open.
Discovering a hole in a dam that lets through water from passing ships, and, first using sandbags and then Ember’s power to create glass, they appear to have solved the problem. And, in the process, a, ahem, spark, develops between them, discovering they can touch each other without causing any harm. But, while Wade’s upmarket family welcome her into their home, Ember’s ailing father seems highly unlikely to accept a Fire and Water relationship , on top of which, Ember comes to realise her dreams for herself are not the same as his. She wants to study glassmaking. But it’s her duty to obey. And then the fix in the dam gives way, catastrophe looms and love might quite literally evaporate.
Aside from the characters’ names, it’s awash with visual and verbal puns (two of the best being a literal Mexican wave and thought bubble) and, despite gaping holes in the logic (why would fire opt to go and live in a water-based city, why doesn’t Ember set the cardboard boxes alight?), it combines a spry sense of fun ( the Ripple family’s crying game is a joy) along with the usual romantic and emotional complications, the blossoming love story involving Wade taking Ember into the flooded Garden Central Station to see the Vivisteria flowers she never saw as a child. As such, while the youngsters will enjoy the vividly coloured visuals and the enjoyable silliness of the air and earth figures (though hope they don’t ask parents to explain ‘pruning’), this is very much a grown up star-crossed love story that touches on living in a multicultural melting pot society. (Disney+)
Extraction II (15)
At the end of the first film, having been shot in the neck, former Australian Special Forces mercenary Tyler Rake (Chris Hemsworth) tumbled from a Bangladesh bridge into the river, apparently dead. Now, however, ignoring the final teasing swimming pool scene, reunited screenwriter Joe Russo and stuntman-turned director Sam Hargrave race through a montage that has him wash up and be rushed to some state of the art hospital in Dubai where, under the watchful eye of his handler Nik (Golshifteh Farahani, getting to kick more ass this time around) before being relocated to a secluded cabin in the woods and reunited with his dog for a lengthy recuperation. Retirement is brought to an end when an unnamed mystery man (a cameoing Idris Elba) shows up to tell him his ex-wife (Olga Kurylenko) wants him to rescue her sister Ketevan (Tinatin Dalakishvili) and her kids Sandro (Andro Japaridze) and Nina (Mariami and Marta Kovziashvili) from the Georgian prison where they’re being held, supposedly for their protection, by her inmate terrorist husband Davit Radiani (Tornike Bziava), and his even more ruthless brother Zurab (Tornike Gogrichiani). So, Rake, Nik and her brother Yaz (Adam Bessa) duly set off on the mission, all of which goes smoothly until it turns out Santos, brainwashed into wanting to follow in the family gangster tradition, doesn’t want to go (setting up a third act confrontation). Davit winds up being killed and an exhilarating digitally-stitched-together ‘one shot’ 21 minute escape sequence ensues involving navigating through a prison yard full of rioting prisoners and guards and onto a train racing across the tundra pursued by helicopters and taking on heavily armed thugs with guns, knives, fists and whatever comes to hand. They make it to safety, but now Zurab, a textbook Eastern European villain, is out for revenge.
While there is some character development and redemptive emotion-wringing backstory (Rake is plagued by guilt for leaving his young dying cancer victim son to deploy in Afghanistan) and not all the main cast (who deliver with due gravitas) prove indestructible, as well as flashes of humour with Rake’s passing interest in Eurovision and raising chickens, this is basically just three long and undeniably thrilling and very violent action sequences with bullets raining down like a plague of locusts, one of which involves hanging by the fingertips from a high rise’s collapsing glass roof and another in a candlelit church. It ends with another Elba cameo setting up the already confirmed threequel. Bring it on. (Netflix)
Fallen Leaves (12A)
Six years after he announced his retirement, Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki returns in typical droll style with a quintessential deadpan melancholic romance about two lonely souls that variously encompasses alcoholism, unemployment, isolation, despair and disappointment, but still manages to have an upbeat heart. Set in a defeatist looking contemporary Helsinki, but peppered with retro visual touches, Ansa (Alma Pöysti) is fired from her zero hours supermarket job for donating a pack of expired food to a hungry homeless man while Holappa (Jussi Vatanen) loses his job as a metalworker on account of his drinking. The two meet by a chance when he goes to a karaoke bar with his friend Huotari (Janne Hyytiäinen) (surely only Finnish karaoke bars would have punters singing Schubert and traditional folk songs) whose attempts to score by singing are shot down by being told he’s too old-looking. Despite numerous obstacles (Hollappa loses her phone number for starters and there’s also a coma), a tentative courtship begins to blossom (if going to see Jim Jarmusch’s The Dead Don’t Die can be deemed romantic, though she declares “I’ve never laughed so much”), she even goes and buys a second plate and set of cutlery so he can come over for dinner. But Ansa, who has, in fairly obvious symbolism, taken in a stray dog informs him they have no future unless he deals with his drinking, something that killed her father and brother. A bit of a challenge given the number of bars that feature in the film and the fact there’s always something to drown your sorrows over.
Things fall apart, things get back together. and throughout everything Kaurismäki keeps the dialogue to a minimum, the barest of facial expressions, a hint of a smile, almost a wink, providing what emotional cues there are. As a suitably downbeat backdrop, the plight of Finland’s labour rights is ever present and every time someone turns on the radio there’s reports of the invasion of Ukraine. Yet in the face of it all, the characters (beautifully brought to half life by the silences of the two leads) strive to cling to humanity and hope. The cinema the couple visit has posters for films by Robert Bresson and Jean-Luc Godard. but the most obvious touchstone here, as the ending as she gives her dog a new name makes clear, is Chaplin’s Modern Times. (Wed/Thu:MAC)
Opening with a brief black and white scratchy newsreel prologue from younger racing days and ten unfolding over three months, directed by Michel Mann from an adaptation of a 1991 Ferrari biography by Brock Yates by the late screenwriter Troy Kennedy Martin, this long gestating project is something of an underwhelming disappointment, suffering from inconsistent tone and narrative focus, often clunky dialogue, wavering accents and performances and, fatally, racing sequences that can’t hold a carburettor to those in Gran Turismo, Rush or Ford vs Ferrari. The crash sequence are pretty spectacular though.
As per the title, set in 1957 Modena, the film’s centre is Italian racing driver turned entrepreneur Enzo Ferrari (an uneven Adam Driver) aka Il Commendatore whose empire is on the verge of financial ruin, even his own workers running him down in the press, the only hope of salvation being if one of his candy-apple red cars can win the 1,000-mile cross-country race Mille Miglia, saving his reputation and sparking an upturn in sales. He’s also juggling a complicated personal life, married to but no longer romantically connected with his business partner Laura (Penélope Cruz), their marriage having fallen part following the death of their young son Dino from Duchenne muscular dystrophy the year before, for which she holds him responsible. He also has a mistress, Lina Lardi (Shailene Woodley failing to maintain her cod-Italian in a thankless undeveloped role), about whom Laura is ignorant, though she knows he has affairs, with whom, secreted away in a country estate, he has another son, Piero. Thus, Mann develops his story on two fronts, the fallout when Laura discovers Lina’s existence and convincing Laura to cede him power of attorney over her shares in the company in order to keep it alive without entering in a deal with a company like Ford and losing control, and the struggle to put together a team of drivers capable of winning the race. Of those, competing against the rival Maserati team, which includes Sterling Moss, the three central figures are British ace Peter Collins (Jack O’Connell), the veteran Piero Taruffi (Patrick Dempsey) and Alfonso De Portago (Gabriel Leone), whose autograph Piero keeps badgering dad to obtain. The latter comes on board when his predecessor is killed during practice (Ferrari blames the mother for encouraging him to date above his class, thereby distracting him) and its emblematic of Ferrari’s cold detachment that he immediately turns to Portago and tells him to report the next morning.
Ferrari’s emotions are generally constrained within the persona he wears like armour in contrast to the tempestuous Laura (Cruz varying between shouty anger and shouty hurt) who at one point fires a literal warning shot across his bows. This may well have a point, but it does little to evoke empathy.
There are some inspired moments, a scene at an opera that has the three major characters reflecting on their past, the letters the drivers write to their loved one before the race in the event they die, and most notably the catastrophic accident in the race when Portago’s tyre struck something in the road, causing it to burst and resulting in the death of nine spectators, five of whom were children, and his own body being torn in two. Generally, however, the film seems to be constantly motoring in third gear, the best moments and best lines all in the trailer. At one point Ferrari says “When things work better, they’re often more beautiful to the eye.” This is not beautiful to the eye. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Everyman; Mockingbird; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Omniplex Great Park; Reel; Vue)
How do you know you’re really in love? Or that you’re really loved? Is this the right relationship for you? These are questions that the futuristic Love Institute seeks to make irrelevant, developing technique that uses a couple’s extracted fingernails (which are often used to detect heart disease) to determine if they’re a match. A teacher, Anna (an achingly vulnerable low key Jessie Buckley) is in a steady relationship with Ryan (Jeremy Allen White nursing devotion and hurt in equal measure), the pair having tested positive three years earlier, but she’s feeling things may have lost the spark. It’s a sign of the wobble that she takes a job at the Institute, but tells him she’s got a new teaching post (she admits later, but these seeds are already sown).
At the Institute, run by distracted scientist Duncan (Luke Wilson), she assigned to shadow Amir (Riz Ahmed wearing a soulful sad aura despite claiming to be in a happy relationship), one of the top instructors in interviewing couples about their feelings for one another, their compatibility and, ultimately, revealing the results of their tests. He has loads of new ideas, about refining love relationships, including such activities as shared parachute jumps and watching the “I’m just a girl” scene from Notting Hill. The most fascinating is having someone sniff out his partner in a roomful of semi-naked couples. Somewhat inevitably, she gradually begins to have feelings for him, these further confused when Duncan assures her it’s impossible to love two people although she’s surreptitiously tested his and her nails with a 50% result. He too admits he has feelings for her. The only thing to do is persuade Ryan to take a retest. But what if the results don’t change? How does that explain or resolve things?
A bittersweet metaphysical exploration of how you can’t reduce love to scientific explanations or tests, directed with dry wit and surefooted empathy by Christos Nikou, it conjures a similar deep melancholy and longing to Past Lives as it works its way to a consummation of sorts, albeit with an ambiguously open ending. Cohen once sang there ain’t no cure for love. The film says there’s no algorithm for it either. (Apple TV)
Flora and Son (12)
Irish writer-director John Carney knows what he’s good at and sticks to it. So, after Once and Sing Street here’s another Dublin-set tale of misfits connecting through music. This time round it’s Flora (Bono’s daughter Eve Hewson), a sweary, clubbing young working class single mother who makes a few quid nannying and estranged from her musician ex-husband Ian (Jack Reynor), who’s now got a new live in lover of dubious Spanish stock, beds pretty much anyone she meets, She also frequently at odds with her electro-music loving sullen teenage son Max (Orén Kinlan) who’s just one petty theft away from juvenile detention. However, seeing a discarded guitar in a skip, she has it fixed and gives it to him as a cheap belated birthday present, He’s not interested (he’s no aspiration to be another “Ed Fookin’ Sheeran”) but Flora decides to try and learn, hooking up for Zoom lessons with LA-based guitar teacher and failed musician Jeff (Joseph Gordon-Levitt).
From this point it plays out pretty much as you might expect, with a long distance flirtation between Flora and Jeff (the film nicely has fantasy sequences as he joins her to sing on a Dublin rooftop), he teaching her to play (shooting down her love of James Blunt’s You’re Beautiful and introducing her to Joni Mitchell’s Both Sides Now), she reigniting his creative spark (they co-write a song), and mother and son working together making dance and rap music on his laptop, music, as ever for Carney, being a transformative force.
There’s distant echoes of Wild Rose, but, while both are sweet and uplifting, with the central figure finding self-worth and playing to an appreciative audience, this is a softer, more sentimental film in the way it touchingly captures the mother-son dynamic and Flora’s search for herself. Often evoking parallels with Once in its music as mutual healing theme, it may not be in quite the same league but, fuelled by Hewson’s star-making performance, it’s a truly warm and emotionally engaging film that deserved far wider exposure than its limited streaming only fate. (Apple TV)
Godzilla Minus One (12A)
Next year marks the 70th anniversary of Godzilla, one of cinema’s most iconic monsters and, while the recent Monarch TV series looked to a post-apocalyptic future in the saga of the Titans, this subtitled live action Japanese feature from director Takashi Yamazaki looks back to 1946 as the War in the Pacific draws to a close with Japan on the edge of defeat. It opens with kamikaze pilot Koichi Shikishima (Ryunosuke Kamiki) faking plane trouble and landing at Odo Island airstrip for repairs, to avoid having to kill himself, which is when Godzilla emerges from the ocean, laying waste to the crew of mechanics, Shikisima to frozen with fear to operate his plane’s guns, leaving him and head Navy mechanic Sosaku Tachibana (Munetaka Aoki) as the only survivors.
Repatriated to Tokyo, he discovers his parents were killed in the bombing and is castigated by a neighbour whose children were also killed for not doing his kamikaze duty, he crosses paths with Noriko (Minami Hamabe), her parents also dead, who is caring for an orphaned baby Akiko (Sae Nagatani playing her as a toddler), and they form a not quite official family, as they and everyone around seeks to rebuild their lives. He gets a job working alongside former weapons engineer Kenji Noda (Hidetaka Yoshioka) and other veterans sweeping sea mines off the coast of Tokyo, which, it turns, out is part of a scheme to lure Godzilla out and try to destroy him. By now it’s 1947 and the nuclear tests at Bikini Atoll have mutated and enlarged Godzilla, who can now emit an atomic heat ray. Having narrowly escaped an attack that plays like Jaws with a dinosaur, Shikishima returns to Tokyo and opens up to Noriko about what happened on Oto, revealing the photos he carries of the dead men and their families as a symbol of his survivor’s guilt. Which is when Godzilla strikes again, devastating Ginza where Noriko is working as a secretary. She narrowly avoids death but, as Shikishima arrives to find her, Godzilla’s heat ray, cranked up by radioactive spines that project from his back, causes a nuclear explosion with Noriko caught in the blast.
Things now very personal, he joins Noda and others in a makeshift private task force, the US refusing to get involved because of tensions with Russia, in a do or die attempt to destroy Godzilla with decommissioned Imperial Japanese Navy vessels and a plan devised by Noda involving Freon gas, water pressure and inflatables, to which end, with the help of Tachibana, Shikishima needs to take to the skies again in a codged back together experimental plane for a kamikaze mission and a man v monster dogfight to rival Top Gun:Maverick.
The effects and action sequences are spectacular, the giant, lumbering Godzilla turning a city to dust, hurtling train carriages through the air, trashing battleships, but it’s very much the human story that is the film’s heart with its themes of guilt, regret, the abandonment of those who served now trying to scrape together a new life among the ruins, the battle offering a final shot at spiritual redemption and honour. All backdropped by an intense orchestral wall of sound score from Naoki Sato punctuated by deafening silences.
Going toe to toe with Hollywood’s Godzilla blockbusters for big screen thrills but outclassing them in terms of emotional engagement with the characters, this is a blast and, as that final regeneration shot suggests, the birthday boy clearly has more candles up his scaly sleeve. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Omniplex Great Park; Vue)
Gran Turismo: Based On A True Story (12A)
Masterminded by Kazunori Yamauchi, launched in 1997 Gran Turismo is an iconic PlayStation racing simulation game, accurate down to the finest details and which, to date, has seven incarnations and millions of followers. Directed by Neill Blomkamp, this tells the true story of one of them, Jann Mardenborough (Archie Madekwe), a mixed race teenager from Cardiff, son of Birmingham born former professional footballer Steve (Djimon Hounsou) who played, among others, for Coventry, Wolves and Cardiff City (whose bluebird logo plays an emotional role) and mother Lesley (a thankfully underused Geri Halliwell, displaying all those acting skills you loved in the Spice Girls movie), who, from an early age dreamed of becoming a racing driver. With that being financially out of the question, as his father hammers home, he settled for becoming a top Gran Turismo player.
Staying generally true to the facts, things kick in when Danny Moore (Orlando Bloom), a motorsport marketing executive at Nissan (based on Darren Cox who founded the GT Academy) pitches his bosses the idea of giving their fading car market a boost by staging an international competition for Gran Turismo players, the winners of which would be awarded a spot in the GA Academy and the chance to compete in real races. As such, he recruits Black Sabbath devotee Jack Salter (David Harbour), a (fictional) former racing driver who gave it up after a tragedy at Le Mans, as the tough love mentor whose job is to get the 10 finalists (out of 90,000 entrants) up to snuff in the transition from game console to actual steering wheel with the ultimate winner getting a Team Nissan contract as one of their drivers. That will be the soft-spoken Jann (at one point Moore wants to scratch him as he lacks marketable charisma) then, who chills out before each race by listening to Kenny G and Enya.
It will come as no surprise to learn this ticks pretty much all the sports underdog movie boxes, with Salter becoming Jenn’s surrogate father (his pragmatic own dad not supporting his son’s dreams), the confidence crisis (following the spectacularly filmed recreation of the 2015 car flipping crash at Germany’s Nürburgring circuit that killed a spectator), the encouraging love interest (Maeve Courtier-Lilley), hostility from the real racers, the egotistical unscrupulous rival (Josha Stradowski as Nicholas Capa, the film’s equivalent of Rocky’s Drago), the come-back and the split second chequered flag Le Mans climax (where the film does indulge in some wish fulfilment champagne popping tampering with the truth).
At two plus hours, it’s overlong and often feels like a marketing campaign for Nissan and PlayStation, but fuelled by solid performances from Madekwe and Harbour and directed by Blomkamp puts cynicism on the back burner for an inspirational tale of triumph against the odds that, like Top Gun on wheels, makes you feel you’re hurtling around the track low to the ground at 300mph (the real Mardenborough served as Madeweke’s stunt driver) as the healing settles in. (Netflix)
Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol 3 (12A)
While the two mid-credit scenes suggest there is the potential for a further instalment with a new roster or, at least, a prime character spin-off, this definitely brings the curtain down on director James Gunn’s saga of the dysfunctional team of malcontent heroes while also serving as an origin story for Rocket (Bradley Cooper). Still bristling at being called a racoon, he spends most of the film in a coma, hovering on the edge of death after being wounded by the golden-skinned Adam Warlock (Will Poulter), his friends unable to heal him after discovering his body has an in-built kill switch. Flashbacks to how he became who he is today are scattered throughout, revealing him to be part of a genetic experiment by the High Revolutionary (a scenery-chewing Chukwudi Iwuji in generally bellowing default mode) to mutate animals into anthropomorphic beings to populate his vision of a new, ideal, peaceful Earth-like planet; though he’s not above cruelty and the murder of his subjects to achieve that. Rocket, or 89P13 as he’s referred to, proved to have advanced intelligence and an unexplained success in taming his creations’ urge for violence and, having escaped (in a heartbreaking scene in which his new genetically engineered friends do not), the High Evolutionary now wants him recovered so he can access the secrets stored in his brain. To which end, to save him, Peter Quill aka Star Lord (Chris Pratt), Mantis (Pom Klementieff), Drax (Dave Bautista), Nebula (Karen Gillan) and Groot (Vin Diesel), have to somehow infiltrate Orgoscope, the High Evolutionary’s fleshy space lab station, and get the key to disable the kill switch with the help of their Knowhere comic relief associates Kraglin (Sean Gunn) and Cosmo the Space Dog (Maria Bakalova), while preventing Warlock, spurred on by his mother, Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki), from abducting the wounded Rocket.
Matters among the crew are complicated by the subplot involving Quill grieving the death of his lover Gamora (a commanding Zoe Saldaña), at the hands of her step-father Thanos and unable to handle the fact that the cold resurrected version has no recollection that they were a couple and is now a member of the Ravagers (led by Sylvester Stallone), of whom he himself was once a part.
The film hops from one storyline and spectacular set piece to another, climaxing with an explosive finale on both the High Evolutionary’s ship (where cages of children are found, affording a new side of Drax to appear) and Counter-Earth, an 1980-designed biosphere based on Star-Lord’s home planet populated by genetically mutated humanimals, with Rocket now back in full on mode, the action intercut with the franchise’s familiar wisecracking and squabbling banter between the team, set to a rock music mixtape (Radiohead’s Creep playing a significant part).
Frequently teasing the possibility that any of the team could die, Gunn juggles themes about family, friendship, animal experimentation and playing God (“There is no God! That’s why I’m taking charge!” declares the High Evolutionary) and not judging by appearances (a trio of monstrous creatures that seem to threaten Mantis, Drax and Nebula turns out to be rather cuddly). It may never quite explain Warlock’s backstory and his somewhat confusing switchback of motivations and actions and, while a nice surprise, the moment when Groot proves to have more than one phrase in his vocabulary does break with character, but it never lets go of its emotional or visceral grip, delivering a hugely satisfying send-off with the end credits featuring images of everyone who’s been involved in the saga, from Kurt Russell and Michael Rooker to Kevin Bacon and even a sly photo of Stan Lee. What the future brings remains to be seen, but for now this is the best MCU movie since Avengers Endgame. (Disney+)
The Hunger Games: The Ballad Of Songbirds And Snakes (12A)
Adapted from Suzanne Collins prequel to her bestselling series (Katniss Everdeen getting a sly reference), divided into three chapters this provides a backstory of how Coriolanus Snow, played by Donald Sutherland in the trilogy, rose up to become the tyrannical president of Panem. It opens with news that General Crassus Snow as been killed during the First Rebellion of the Districts. Fast forward ten years and the family (his grandmother and cousin Tigris Snow, who eventually becomes Katniss’s ally in the saga) have fallen on hard times, his now teenage son Coriolanus (Tom Blyth) determined to restore their fortunes and, like his fellow members of the Capitol Academy, is assigned to mentor one of the tributes in the upcoming 10th annual Hunger Games, a new addition by Head Gamemaker Dr Volumnia Gaul (Viola Davis sporting different coloured eyes and white-streaked frazzled hairdo) in an attempt to reverse the falling ratings. Named for the Wordsworth poem, Snow’s tribute is Lucy Gray Baird (Rachel Zegler from Spielberg’s West Side Story) from District 12 (though she’s not native there), a feisty country folk singer, the songbird of the title, with a drawled Southern accent who immediately grabs attention in the televised Reaping by slipping a snake down the back of the mayor’s daughter and delivering a powerful protest song. Snow is drawn to her (romance later blossoming) and determines to keep her alive, although Casca Highbottom (Peter Dinklage), Dean of the Academy and the originator of the Hunger Games alongside Snow’s father (with an ironic twist revealed as to how that came about), cautions him the Games, hosted for the first time by hosted by flamboyant Lucretious “Lucky” Flickerman (Jason Schwartzman), an ancestor of Stanley Tucci’s Caesar Flickerman, played out in the Capitol Arena as the tribute battle to the death, should be about spectacle not survival.
Spun out beyond two and a half hours, with the second chapter being the Games enacted in the Arena, demolished by a rebellion bomb, as the tributes kill each other, Snow’s fellow mentor and friend Sejanus Plinth (Josh Andrés Rivera), son of a bigwig in District 2 breaking the rules by going in to try and save his tribute, Jessop, also from District 12, while Snow himself cheats by providing Lucy Gray with means to survive both the other tributes who have teamed up as The Pack and the thousands of the titular snakes Gaul drops in their midst.
To which end both he and Plinth are demoted and exiled to serve as ordinary Peacekeepers in District 12 (Snow bribing his way to get there), the latter hoping to make a difference, the former hoping to reunite with Lucy Gray (who won the games) if she’s still alive. And. heading into Chapter III, she definitely is, now fronting the Covey, a nomadic folk group who were neutral in the civil war. However, Plinth’s sympathies for the rebels wind up in an act of betrayal, several executions and Coriolanus and Lucy Gray going on the run before things take a not entirely clear turn in the final act which sees Snow enacting his own revenge and calculating setting himself up to take over the Games and, ultimately, Panem.
Though it could well have been trimmed down (or turned into two films), it’s fair to say the running time doesn’t overly drag as it moves been machinations, manipulations, bloody battles and tender romance, the charismatic Zegler getting to deliver several more rather good vocal performances (including her version of The Hanging Tree sung by Katniss in Mockingjay) along the way. She and Blyth have solid chemistry, the latter, who goes from looking like a young Bob Geldof to a blonde cropped Draco Malfoy, subtly shading his character’s gradual transition from idealist to schemer and eventual series villain.
Given that in the novel Lucy Gray’s eventual fate is never revealed, it’s not impossible that a second transitionary sequel might be on the cards if this performs well – and Collins writes another book, which could be rather more welcome than you might have expected.(Cineworld NEC, Solihull; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Vue)
John Wick : Chapter 4 (15)
Spin-offs and prequel appearances notwithstanding, the emotional final scene would pretty much seem to confirm this is the final chapter in the series, bowing out in with a flamboyant 169 minute (word is a 225 minute version may surface later) clipped dialogue epic tsunami of fire, fist, knives and sword fights that may be overstuffed but never drags.
Hiding out in the New York lair of the Bowery King (Laurence Fishburne) from the High Table to whom he still has an obligation and who have placed a $2million bounty on his head, antihero assassin Wick (Keanu Reeves at his Clint Eastwood drawl finest) is planning his revenge. This takes him to Morocco (cue homage to David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia) where he kills the Elder, resulting in the fascist rich kid Marquis Vincent de Gramont (Bill Skarsgård), the current New York High Table top dog, taking revenge by stripping Winston (Ian McShane), who failed to kill Wick, of his role as manager of the Continental, killing his concierge Charon (the late Lance Reddick) and blowing up the building. Then, threatening to murder his daughter, he forces blind retired assassin Caine (martial arts virtuoso Donnie Yen), just one of many biblical references, into accepting the hit on his old friend. Cut to Tokyo where Wick’s taken refuge at the Osaka Continental, run by loyal old friend Shimazu Koji (a quietly charismatic Hiroyuki Sanada) and his daughter Akira (pop star Rina Sawayama who sings the film’s theme song), but it’s not long before the High Table enforcers, led by the Marquis’s seemingly indestructible right-hand man Chidi (Marko Zaror), and Caine arrive, demanding Wick be given up, leading to the first of a series of knowingly over-the-top extended fight sequences that ends up with one wounded, one dead and Wick again on the run.
Returning to New York, he learns from Winston that there is a way to bring things to an end. Under High Table traditions, he can challenge the Marquis to single combat and be freed of all obligations. The only problem is that he first needs to accepted back into the Berlin crime family the Ruska Roma and to do so he first has to kill Killa (Scott Adkins), the overweight, lavender-suited German Table head with gold gangsta teeth who murdered his adoptive sister Katia’s (Natalia Tena) father. And even having done that (cue another amped up sequence set amid a sea of night club dancers), there’s still the small matter of getting to the Sacré-Cœur in Paris before sunrise to carry out the duel, which, if he fails to do, will result in his and Winston’s execution, as his second, which means, armed with a top end gun and a wearing a ballistic suit, surviving Chidi, the High Table muscle and the dozens of freelance assassins all looking to collect the $20million and rising bounty, and soundtracked on their way by an on air DJ spinning things like Nowhere To Run. One of whom is Mr Nobody (Shamier Anderson), a cool and composed tracker, who with his lethal dog sidekick (which becomes an important plot turning point), has been keeping tabs on Wick, keeping him alive until the Marquis agrees to the fee he’s asking. All of which culminates in the reluctant Caine, who the Marquis has nominated to act in his place, and Wick facing down each other in a pistol duel moderated by the Harbinger (Clancy Brown).
Opening with shots of a fist hitting a bloodied punchbag, stunt choreographer turned director Chad Stahelski stages an increasingly elaborate and inspired sequence of balletic fights, among them a thrilling blazing guns car chase around the Arc de Triomphe, one filmed in an overhead doll’s-house view in a labyrinthine building and, finally, the spectacular climax set on the Rue Foyatier in Montmartre, the 222-step stairway leading to the Basilica and down which Wick is sent tumbling at least twice as the hordes continue to come. After nine years, during which time the narrative has got bigger and more complex, this is one big eye-popping gift-wrapped thank you to the legions of fans who have transformed it into an iconic franchise. Will you love it? Yeah. (Amazon Prime; Microsoft Store)
Joy Ride (15)
Making her directorial debut, working from a script by Cherry Chevapravatdumrong and Teresa Hsiao (whose credits include Family Guy, American Dad and Awkwafina Is Not From Queens), Crazy Rich Asian co-writer Adele Lim continues the winning streak of Asian-American driven films and, with an all-female cast, follows in the tradition of Bridesmaids and Girl Trip with a gloriously raunchy, rude and crude anarchic road trip comedy that, replete with swearing, sexual humour and projectile vomiting, also delivers a third act emotional wallop.
Opening in 1998 with one of the year’s best prologues, the only Chinese American kids in the small town of White Hills, Lolo Chan (Milana Wan) and Audrey Sullivan (Lennon Yee), the adoptee daughter of white parents, instantly connect as best friends when the former punches a little boy in the face for his racist comment. A collage takes us up the years to the 30s-something present with Audrey (Ashley Park) now an ambitious successful lawyer in an all-white Seattle firm (where her colleagues seem to be all called either Michael or Kevin) and the outspoken, more culturally connected Lolo (the wonderfully named Sherry Cola), trying to establish herself as a struggling sex-positive artist looking to subvert traditional gender roles (her work includes a sexual organ themed playground and a licking tongue variation on the familiar nodding cat), and living in Audrey’s guest house
Taking off for Beijing to seal a deal with a Chinese client (they assume she speaks Mandarin, she doesn’t) that will see her promoted to partner, Audrey is accompanied by Lolo, who will act as her translator and, much to her horror, Lolo’s socially-awkward introverted cousin Deadeye (non-binary stand-up comedian Sabrina Wu). Arriving, they also hook up with an old college friend, Kat (Everything Everywhere’s Stephanie Hsu), now a major TV actress and engaged to her co-star Clarence (Desmond Chiam, looking like an Asian Dwayne Johnson with hair) who, a devout Christian, resists sex, giving room for Jesus and believes she’s a virgin. With a proclaimed love of dick, she anything but and even has a tattoo on her vagina (a major subsequent plot catalyst that gets her tagged Pussy Tat)! Everything seems to be going well until, forced to down a revolting traditional drink with mouldering eggs, first Audrey throws up over her client (Ronnie Chieng) and then he expresses a deal-breaker concern that she has no Chinese family, at which point Lolo leaps into say how close she is to her birth mother. Unfortunately, he then invites Audrey to bring her to his mother’s birthday party. So now they have to track her down, something Audrey’s resisted, which, to briefly summarise, ends up with them being thrown off the train and accidently getting high on coke after a run-in with an American female dealer who steals the case with their passports, visiting Lolo’s grandmother, discovering the self-absorbed Audrey’s even less Chinese than she feels and, with help from Deadeye’s online friends, an overly energetic night with Chinese Basketball Association players (including NBA star Baron Davis as himself), and having to pretend to be a K-Pop girl group (with a gratuitous but fun take on Cardi B’s WAP), all of which sets up the third act’s friends fall apart and big emotional kick.
Wildly hysterical with a sharp running racial commentary on cultural assumptions and expectations, social stigma, identity crises, sex as a natural means of expression (and a sly objectification of the male body), and multi-dimensional lead characters who are more concerned with their dreams, heritage, and female friendships than men, propelled by four exuberantly enjoyable performances and genuine chemistry as each gets their chance to cut loose and shine. A huge joy ride indeed. (Amazon Prime, Google, iTunes, Kaleidescape, Sky Store).
The Killer (15)
Reuniting with Se7en screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker, director David Fincher returns to serial killer territory with this adaptation of French graphic novel Le Tueur, delivering a taut, deliberately clinical revenge thriller involving a cold and methodical hitman. Michael Fassbender delivers a magnetic performance as the icy unnamed assassin, delivering an internal monologue voice over about his way of working (anticipate don’t improvise, show no empathy, stick to the plan, weakness is vulnerability, always ask what’s in it for me) who we first encounter holed up in an abandoned building in Paris, patiently waiting for the right moment to take out his target in the opposite hotel. To pass the time and relieve the boredom he does yoga, repeatedly checks his weapon, eats a McDonald’s and mentally goes through the rules to being an efficient killer. What the rules don’t allow for, however, is the unexpected, such as the target’s visiting hooker getting in the way just as you pull the trigger.
Asking himself “What would John Wilkes Booth do?”, coolly packing up his gear, he leaves, disposing of all the random tools of his trade as he makes his way through the Paris streets, eventually returning to his Dominican Republic hideaway only to find his client isn’t going to let it lie, retribution leading to the hospitalisation of the assassin’s lover after being attacked by a pair of hired thugs. Thus setting up the subsequent globetrotting chapters (six along with the prologue and epilogue) and an array of different fake passports and storage units as, visiting Florida, New York and Chicago he proceeds to work his way up the chain of those involved.
Complemented by a score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross and an emotionally emblematic soundtrack of numbers by The Smiths the fastidious killer uses to calm his pulse rate, Fincher and cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt meticulously framing every scene, every shot, it follows an implacable body count trail, the violence gradually building as. toting a nail gun, he calls upon the middleman Lawyer (Charles Parnell) and his assistant in New Orleans, the goons behind the attack and, in a scene-stealing cameo across a café table, Tilda Swinton as The Expert, another contract assassin whose subtly sketched emotional complexity stand as a direct contrast to his blankness. Fincher never asks the audience to feel empathy for Fassbender’s ruthless killer, even when phantoms of a conscience seem to briefly trouble him, he then reminding himself of his mantra. Each encounter serves to strip back the carefully constructed faced he’s created, forced into improvisation when anticipation fails, such as the thrillingly choreographed fight with The Brute (Sala Baker) to the backdrop of Fiona Bruce on a TV programme.
Magnetic filmmaking exercised with a steadily building propulsion and tension (and dry flashes of humour such as “I always dress like a German tourist. Nobody wants to interact with one of them”), it transfixes you to the screen, though it’s hard to know which is the more chilling, Fassbender’s emotionless revenge or the fact that, for under £50, you can actually buy a fob copier off Amazon to open an electronically protected door. (Netflix)
Killers Of The Flower Moon (15)
Based on David Grann’s 2017 nonfiction bestseller about the 1920s Osage murders in Oklahoma, the title is derived from the Old Farmer’s Almanac in which each monthly full moon is given a different name, the Flower Moon referring to May, when the killings began.
Directed and co-written (with Eric Roth) by Marin Scorsese, his first since The Irishman and three minutes shorter at just under three and a half hours marginally shorter by three minutes, it opens with Osage Indian Nation discovering that their reservation sits on a massive oil field, instantly making them oil millionaires (albeit requiring white ‘guardians’), black and white footage showing them with swanky clothes, private planes, and white chauffeurs for their luxury automobiles. Inevitably, with great wealth comes great danger from those who would take it for themselves. And it’s not long before Osage corpses start piling up in suspicious circumstances.
Into this comes the feckless and not overly bright but charming Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio), returning from serving as an army cook who, in need of a fresh start and money, but a stomach condition making anything strenuous impossible, is taken under the wing of his cattle baron uncle William ‘King’ Hale (Robert DeNiro) who sets him up as a cabbie. One of his regulars is Mollie (Lily Gladstone), an Osage with three sisters, with whom he falls in love and marries. So far so apparently sweet. But appearances can be misleading. It’s no accident, however, that Molly, sussing he’s out for money (every day the train brings opportunists looking for an Osage bride), refers to him as Coyote, the trickster of American-Indian mythology, and while Ernest’s intentions may start out honourably and innocently, more of a snake in this First Nation Eden, it’s not long before he falls under the spell of his Machiavellian uncle who, may present himself as a white saviour philanthropist friend to the Osage, but behind the smile is a knife looking to carve its way into their wealth, declaring that their time has past and that of the white man has come.
He’s all for his sad sack’s nephew’s marriage to Mollie, primarily because in so doing Ernest, and by extension himself, will gain control of her ‘headrights’ to the oil deposits on her land. These are shared with her mother and siblings, so for the plan to work, they need to die. Mother (Tantoo Cardinal), and a sister (Jillian Dion) go from apparently natural causes, a wasting disease, two sisters (Cara Jade Myers, JaNae Collins) violently do not. Their deaths along with those of a husband (Jason Isbell) and private investigator (to which Ernest is party) brought into look into the brutal murder of Anna (Myers), ordered by Hale and facilitated by Ernest, his brother Byron (Scott Shepherd) , and assorted cowboy lowlifes. Mollie suffering from diabetes, Ernest, who genuinely loves her, is instructed to add a powder to her insulin shots (‘generously’ organised by Hale) to ‘calm’ her, never questioning why she seems to be getting worse.
As the Osage body count continues to rise and the elders become desperate as no police investigations are ever mounted, Mollie travels to Washington plead for help, leading to the arrival in Fairfax of Tom White (Jesse Plemons in the role initially intended for DiCaprio), part of the newly formed federal Bureau of Investigation under the auspices of J Edgar Hoover, to look into who’s behind the murders.
Now 80, Scorsese remains at the peak of his powers, guiding the film along an unhurried path as the twists, turns and horrors gradually accrue with DiCaprio, all downturned mouth, and DeNiro, both of whom he was worked with extensively, delivers subtle, nuanced powerhouse performances that rank among their greatest. As Mollie, making her feature starring debut, Gladstone, seen in TV series Billions and Reservation Dogs, more than holds her own alongside her co-stars, her expressive face simultaneously holding love, hurt, anger, resolve and disappointment while Tatanka Means, Yancey Red Corn and William Bellau loom large among the Native American cast, Sturgill Simpson, Charlie Musselwhite, Pete Yorn and Jack White join fellow musician Isbell in supporting roles (the late Robbie Robertson created the score) and there’s courtroom cameos from Brendan Fraser and John Lithgow.
A harrowingly potent existentially horrific alternative vision (involving the Tulsa race riots, the KKK and the Masons) as to how the modern West was won with its themes of manipulation, deception, greed, moral compromise, systemic racism and betrayal, the wolves hiding among the sheep, it balances scenes of quiet beauty, such as Ernest and Mollie sitting alongside each other at the dinner table, with sudden brutal violence.
Likely designed to trim it back from a proposed four hour running time, it ends ingeniously with an epilogue which, instead of the usual what happened after end titles, sums the post-trial fates of the characters up in an episode of radio drama True Crime Stories, a fictionalised Hoover-endorsed version of real programmes like This Is Your FBI, with live orchestra and, pointedly, white voice actors giving caricatured impersonations of the Osage, the last being a cameo by Scorsese himself, underscoring the trivialisation of Native American suffering, succinctly summed up earlier when someone notes there’s a “better chance of convicting a guy for kicking a dog than killing an Indian”, echoing the Black lives matter of America’s ongoing racial problems, the camera finally pulling away in an aerial shot of the gathered tribe performing a farewell ritual. This is epic, intelligent, provocative filmmaking. (Amazon Prime)
Leave The World Behind (15)
Mingling Hitchcock and Shyamalan, written and directed by Mr. Robot creator Sam Esmail, this collapse of civilization psychological sci fi thriller, adapted from Rumaan Alam’s novel. has three solid star turns from Julia Roberts, Ethan Hawke and Mahershala Ali (with Kevon Bacon making a third act appearance) that keep you engaged even when the narrative feels like it’s struggling.
Jaded with everything (“I fucking hate people”), pretentious self-centred Brooklyn housewife Amanda Sandford (Roberts) packs up husband Clay (Hawke) and the two kids, Friends-obsessed Rose (Farrah Mackenzie) and her old brother Archie (Charlie Evans), and heads off to a luxury Airbnb on Long Island, complete with heated pool. However, no sooner have they taken themselves down to the beach than a huge oil tanker ploughs up. Then, back home, that evening they lose all the Wi-Fi, radio and TV signals (pissing off Rose who hasn’t managed to watch the final Friends episode), they comes a knock at the door. It’s tuxedo-clad G.H. Scott (Ali) and his acerbic daughter Ruth (Myha’la) who are the house’s owners (though a bigoted Amanda finds that hard to believe) and are seeking shelter at their own home following a blackout in New Work (something else Amanda has doubt about). She’s reluctant to have strangers – more specifically Black strangers – staying the night, but Clay is more accommodating (especially as G.H. pays him $1000), reckoning it all be sorted out come morning. Come morning and it certainly isn’t though they have picked up alerts that it might all be down to some hackers, who may have even hacked into the space satellites.
Is it an attack by foreign terrorists (out trying to reach town for information, Clay picks up a leaflet dropped from a plane with what seems to be Arabic writing which, as Charlie tells him, is titled Death To America) or is it something even more unsettling? Supernatural, perhaps. Meanwhile, Rose is transfixed by hundreds of deer that appear in the back garden while a flock of flamingos descend on the pool. The roads blocked by hacked driverless cars, plans plummeting from the sky (Ruth fears her mother, who was in Morocco, might have been on one) and occasional brief national emergency broadcasts about violence in Washington do little to calm the nerves. And G.H. is concerned that events are lining up as some top secret government plan he heard about from one of his highly connected clients.
Tapping into conspiracy theory and apocalyptic dread, it builds an air of tension and fear while also examining how people react and respond to one another under such scenarios (enter Bacon as a survivalist Clay turns to when Charlie needs medical help), the swooping and swirling camerawork exacerbating the gathering weirdness. Returning to its running Friends motif, it ends on an open cliff hanger (with no planned sequel) that seems certain to frustrate audiences, especially as it’s all questions and no answers, but in asking how we deal with things as they fall apart around us, those questions are unsettlingly timely. (Netflix)
Love At First Sight (12A)
A meet cute romance, when, forever late, 20-year old American Hadley Sullivan (Haley Lu Richardson) misses her flight from New York to London for her father’s wedding, she is re-booked on the next. While waiting, she meets fellow traveller Oliver Jones (Ben Hardy), a British 22-year old Yale mathematics student who offers to lend her his charger when noticing her phone is dead. They get to chatting about their lives and idiosyncratic fears (they both hate mayonnaise, he hates surprises). On the plane, a faulty seatbelt ends up with him sitting next to her in business class, where they chat and flirt, she sharing that she’s uncertain about the wedding as she’s not really forgiven her dad (Rob Delaney) for divorcing her mother after he left to teach in Oxford.
On seeing Oliver’s formal suit, she assumes he’s also returning for a wedding, which he neither confirms or denies. They almost kiss, but are interrupted. Arriving at Heathrow, they’re separated into two passport control queues and delays mean that, when she finally gets through, he has already left for his appointment and she’s almost late for hers. And her phone being dead again, the number he texted didn’t come through.
Dad’s wedding goes well and she find she actually likes his new wife, Charlotte. Then, with four hours before the reception, on overhearing that a couple of guests are off to a memorial service for a woman with cancer and two sons, one of whom has flown back from America, she puts two and two together and hops on a bus to Peckham to find Oliver. Although it turns out that, her cancer returned and she refusing treatment, his mum (Sally Phillips) and dad (Dexter Fletcher) are having her memorial while she’s still here, after all what’s the point of people saying nice things if you can’t hear them, everything having a Shakespeare fancy dress theme with younger son Luther (Tom Taylor) in jester garb doing the deejaying, the reunion doesn’t go as well as she’d hoped when she chides him for always quoting statistics rather than being honest about his feelings. So, will they ever get back together? Well, she does accidentally leave her bag behind.
Narrated both on screen and via voice over by Jameela Jamil as various characters (but essentially fate), it’s adapted from Jennifer E Smith’s book The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight and directed by Vanessa Caswill and, while neither she nor screenwriter Katie Lovejoy are in the Richard Curtis league, while utterly predictable (as are pretty much all romcoms), it’s nevertheless warmly charming, largely down to the chemistry between the two leads and a mix of twinkling humour and cheesy but touching messages about not letting things – love, life, death, reconciliations, slip by you in your self-absorption. (Netflix)
An early contender for the Oscar nominations for director, screenplay and both actor and actress, this marks Bradley Cooper’s second excursion behind the camera, and, after A Star Is Born, another story with a musician at its centre. In this case, covering some 40 years, it’s a biopic of the legendary composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein (Cooper), the first American-born conductor to lead a major American symphony orchestra (and namechecked in REM’s It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine), which is used with egotistical amusement here), one that focuses on the many dualities in his personal and professional life. A flamboyant showman wielding the baton, but reserved and introvert in writing his music, swinging between elation and despair, devotedly married to Costa Rican-Chilean actress Felicia Montealegre (Carey Mulligan), a prelude having him expressing his grief over her death, but also (as she was well aware) a secretly promiscuous homosexual, most notably in an early gay relationship with clarinettist David Oppenheim (Matt Bomer).
Following a nonlinear structure that makes extensive use of interview exposition and asides to provide background (West Side Story, arguably Bernstein’s greatest work, has just a fleeting mention), it opens with him getting his big break when, in 1943, he has to substitute for an ill Bruno Walter and conduct the New York Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall. This, like the bulk of the film, is shot in black-and-white with saturated technicolour colour scenes in the latter stretch, both conjuring movies from the 40s, the early scenes in a boxy aspect ratio before the more widescreen later ones, the framing also consistently emphasising the distances between Leonard and Felicia.
This is dazzling bravura filmmaking peppered with striking set pieces, At one point a rehearsal scene for the ballet that would become On the Town unfolds into a fantasy sequence of Leonard and Felicia dancing together, while the lengthy sequence of him euphorically conducting the choir and Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony with the London Symphony Orchestra at Ely Cathedral in 1973, Felicia watching from the wings, is electrifying. Likewise, Bernstein liberatingly dancing to Tears For Fears in a gay club and the single take scene of an excoriating Thanksgiving argument between the couple as a giant Snoopy balloon floats past the window of their New York apartment. More subdued but no less potent is a moment when Bernstein lies to his oldest daughter, Jamie (Maya Hawke), about the homophobic rumours going round about him.
Arguably, the screenplay doesn’t delve sufficiently into what makes the characters tick, but even so there’s a rich depth with the chemistry between Cooper (who, with the controversial prosthetic nose looks strikingly like Bernstein) and Mulligan, delivering her best work since An Education and arguably the film’s real star (she takes top billing above Cooper), lighting up the screen. Glorious. (Netflix)
May December (15)
As directed by Todd Hayes, in 1992, married 36-year-old mother Gracie Atherton-Yoo (Julianne Moore) was convicted and imprisoned for having sex with 13-year-old Joe Yoo at the pet shop where they worked, giving birth to their first child while behind bars. Now, 23 years later, they’re married with three kids: college-aged Honor (Piper Curda) and senior high school twins Charlie (Gabriel Chung) and Mary (Elizabeth Yu) who she micromanages with an almost casual cruelty (“I want to commend you for being so brave and showing your arms like that”, she barbedly tells her daughter as she tries on graduation dresses). Gracie sells baked goods, Joe nurtures a collection of monarch butterfly larvae, and her story is about to be turned into a television drama. To which end, actress Elizabeth Berry (Natalie Portman) arrives at their suburban Savannah home to study them in preparation for the role. She wants to get to the character’s authenticity, Gracie wants to show the world the truth of her and Joe’s relationship. She is, therefore, a tad uncomfortable, at Berry (who’s as screwed up as anyone) interviewing her friend, the townsfolk, relatively accommodating ex-husband (D.W. Moffett) and their embittered adult son Georgie (Cory Michael Smith) about things she doesn’t feel warrant being part of the film, seeing it as unnecessary interference in the family’s lives. Nor is she keen on talking about the packages of dogshit that regularly turn up on their doorstep.
Infusing the melodrama with a campy humour and a soundtrack that knowingly borrows from Michel Legrand’s music for Joseph Losey’s illicit affair classic The Go-Between, it places the marriage under the microscope (it’s not hard to see one particular development coming) as well as exploring the arrested development effect of Joe’s loss of childhood and innocence, and the fears and pain he has buried within, Melton’s understated performance, especially a rooftop chat with his son, having already earned Best Actor awards an Oscar nomination talk. It’s a slow burn watch and the open ending might leave some feeling slightly shortchanged, but it wields its scalpel with surgical precision. (Sky Cinema; Wed:Mockingbird)
The Mother (12A)
Jennifer Lopez tools up as a military sniper turned underground arms deals broker turned FBI informant turned maternal badass in this pulpy but enjoyable action thriller. Never named, the film opens with Lopez in an FBI safe house striking a deal to give up her two former partners (both professionally and sexually) only for it to prove not so safe after all, leading to several agents getting killed and Adrian (Joseph Fiennes), one of her former lovers one of whom is likely the father, stabbing her pregnant belly. The baby’s saved but, to keep her safe, Lopez is forced to give her up, getting Cruise (Omari Hardwick), the agent whose life she saved to agree to keep an eye on her ( a sort of surrogate uncle) and send photographs on every birthday. Fast forward 12 years and, watched over by an old army buddy (Paul Raci), Lopez is living in the remote wilds of Alaska, but has to come out of hiding on learning that her other ex-associate, Hector (Gael Bernal Garcia) has abducted her daughter, Zoe (Lucy Paez), to lure her out of hiding.
From this point it’s all fairly generic, Lopez shooting, stabbing, punching with fists wrapped in barbed wire, riding a motorbike down city steps, rescuing Zoe from Hector’s Cuban hideout and then taking her out into the snowy wilds and, though she’s initially resentful and hostile about being abandoned, training her to be a sharpshooter and how to knife fight before Adrian re-emerges for the snowmobiles cat and mouse showdown.
Efficiently helmed by Niki Caro whose Whale Rider showed she knows how to direct female actors, it makes a decent fist of exploring the primal maternal instinct but, at the end of the day, it’s still the sort of shoot em up revenge thriller Jason Statham or Liam Neeson might have sleepwalked through. (Netflix)
Nandor Fodor and the Talking Mongoose (12)
Based on a bizarre true story, Simon Pegg plays the real-life Austrian-American expert on parapsychology who, in 1931, visited the Isle of Man with his long-time assistant, Anne (Minnie Driver) to investigate claims of a mongoose who lived on a local farm and spoke like a human. Opening with him being interviewed about what constitutes reality and indeed faith (if he says he can see a man in the corner and the others can’t does that mean the man isn’t there). Approached by a fellow distinguished scientist, Dr. Harry Price (Christopher Lloyd,), who describes Gef, the mongoose, and suggests it may actually be real, Fodor, who Price compares to Houdini, a debunker who wanted to believe, decides to see for himself.
The pair fetch up at the farm owned by the well-to-do Irving family, Mr Irving having kept a detailed journal about Gef’s doings which, Fordor reckons “rivals the Arabian Nights for the fantastic improbabilities it contains”. Despite the assertions of local witnesses, Fodor is not persuaded, his belief that it’s a hoax supported by Irving’s employee, Errol (Gary Beadle), the most plausible explanation being that Gef’s voice (supplied by Neil Gaiman) is provided by Irving’s daughter, an acknowledged ventriloquist. Yet Anne, who sees the daughter in action, is willing to consider the possibility that Gef is real and indeed memorised a poem by Years before it was actually published. Into all this, the screenplay inserts the relationship – and perhaps tentative romance – between Fodor and Anne.
Writer-director Adam Sigal never attempts to resolve the mystery, after all this is a film about belief, but, ably assisted by a wry Pegg, an utterly charming Driver and some lovely scenery, he does deliver a delightfully quirky, whimsical and engagingly entertaining exploration of the unknown workings of the world, the human mind, heart and the need to believe in things beyond its ken. (Amazon Prime)
Turning 85, Ridley Scott still has the stamina of directors half his age, as clearly evidenced in pulling together this two and a half hour epic biopic of Napoleon Bonaparte, a balance between his greatest hits (and failures) on the battlefield and his relationship with widowed aristocrat wife Josephine. Opening with the guillotining of Marie Antoinette following the French Revolution, witnessed by then lowly – and somewhat humourless – Corsican gunnery officer Bonaparte (Joaquin Phoenix in customary outstanding form), his rise to power begins with him, a master strategist, liberating the town of Toulon from the occupying British forces in 1793, his cannons destroying their ships and with the help of his patron and friend Barras (Tahar Rahim) and following the downfall of Robespierre (Sam Troughton) and his Reign of Terror, proceeds to chart his rise through the ranks, his Egyptian campaign (where he may or may not have actually fired on the top of the pyramids), his promotion to general, elevation to become one of the three Consuls ruling France, and eventual crowning as Emperor before his disastrous 1812 campaign in Russia and subsequent exile to Elba, his return to power, the defeat at Waterloo (and a scene aboard HMS Bellerophon wryly congratulating Rupert Everett’s Wellington, who has an even better sneer than himself, on the quality of Royal Navy breakfasts) and exile to St Helena where he died.
Alongside this, it follows the ups and down of his marriage to the sensual and strong-wiled Josephine (an understated but quietly excellent Vanessa Kirby), her cuckolding him (he’s not great at sex and prefers rear entry quickies) while he’s away conquering Italy, her problematic inability to provide an heir, his bedding of a willing fertile volunteer, and the eventual divorce, albeit he never faltering in his love, and ensuring she continued with the life to which she was accustomed, even after marrying the teenage (and shorter) Archduchess of Austria, who dutifully supplies a son (he had, in fact, several children by assorted lovers). All of course wearing that distinctive bicorne hat and tricolour cockade.
The brilliantly staged action set pieces are as stunning and thrilling as they are gorily visceral (a shot of a horse’s chest being ruptured by a cannonball is truly jolting), the decimation of the Austrian and Russian forces, fictionalised on a frozen lake at Austerlitz the centrepiece standout, but ultimately, it never offers any deep insight into what made him tick or the politics in which he was involved (it neglects to even mention his reintroduction of slavery in the West Indies or the massacre at the siege of Jaffa). Scott has announced he’s planning a four-and-a-half hour director’s cut for streaming on Apple, so hopefully that will join the dots. Meanwhile, masterful though this is, its 20 years narrative feels like a 158 minute shorthand guide.(Omniplex Great Park; Vue)
Next Goal Wins (12A)
The Polynesian football team from American Samoa, a small island in the South Pacific, hole the most ignominious record in World Cup history having been defeated by Australia 31-0 in a 2001 qualifier. It’s a story ripe for an underdog sports movie and Maori writer-director Taika Waititi (who also plays the local pastor) rises to the occasion for this often laugh out loud comedy which shares its DNA with Cool Runnings, another sports movie based on real events and people, namely the Jamaican bobsleigh team who found glory – if not medals – in the 1988 Winter Olympics. America Samoa never rose to such heights, but they did manage to lift themselves from the never scored bottom on the table, a position now occupied by Tonga.
That was thanks to the efforts of Dutch-American Thomas Rongen (Michael Fassbender displaying hitherto unseen comic chops), who, disgraced and let go as the US national coach after failing to qualify for the 2009 World Cup, was appointed to replace the American Samoa coach.
Adapted from the 2014 documentary of the same name, Waititi’s film stays close to the facts, albeit also fancifully playing up things like Rongen’s undisciplined nature, his tantrum outbursts, anger management issues, alcohol dependency and depression arising from his difficult relationship with ex-wife Gail (Elizabeth Moss) now dating Alex Magnussen (Will Arnett), his former boss. There’s naturally much fish out of water humour as a clueless Rontgen is uncomprehendingly met with Polynesian culture and traditions (they never play or practice on Sundays and work multiple jobs) as he struggles to lead them to the one goal they need to qualify, his initial ridiculing of their ineptitude not getting him off to a good start. But the heart of the film is one of redemption, of learning to believe in yourself despite the odds and expectations, and of bonding.
Its populated by numerous colourful real life characters (the end credits noting their subsequent careers and successes), most notably indefatigably optimistic Football Federation of American Samoa head Tavita (Oscar Kightley), Nicky Salapua (Uli Latukefu), the goalkeeper looking to put the Australia debacle behind him, and striker Jaiyah (trans actor Kaimana), a “fa’afafine,” or Samoan transgender woman (who became the first openly non-gender binary player to compete in a FIFA qualifying match), who refuses to be intimidated by Rontgen’s initial homophobic attitude.
Light and breezy but with a solid emotional centre, while there may be no ultimate Hollywood-styled ascendency to soccer triumph, the film’s warm feelgood nature, the character arcs and the comedy ensure this really hits the back of the net. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Electric; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Omniplex Great Park; Reel; Vue)
Opening with the heroic Gloreth establishing an order of knights dedicated to protecting the world from the monsters that lurk outside its walls, this animated fantasy adventure fast forwards a 1000 years to a futuristic city and, headed by The Director (Frances Conroy), the Institute where the queen is about to appoint new knights from the graduating cadets, among them Ambrosius Goldenloin (Eugene Lee Yang), a descendent of Gloreth, and Ballister Boldheart (Riz Ahmed). The latter is controversial given that he will be the first commoner accorded such an honour in the queen’s intention to give everyone a chance to be a hero and Ballister is understandably worried that, like bullying fellow cadet Thoddeus (Beck Bennett) everyone will hate him. Instead, he’s met with cheers- until, that is, a laser ray shoots from his high-tech sword and kills the queen, leading to Ambrosius chopping off his arm and Bal fleeing, a wanted murderer. But then, in hiding, he finds himself visited by Nimona (Chloë Grace Moretz), a rebellious punky teenager outsider who, assuming him to be a villain, declares herself his self-appointed sidekick (“Because I’m bored, and everyone hates me too”). She is, however, more than a sassy, sparky, streetsmart misfit teen. As he discovers when she rescues him from prison, she’s a shapeshifter capable of transforming into a pink rhino, bear, bird, a whale and even a dancing shark, who revels in causing chaos and smashing things up. She is, in fact, exactly the sort of monster the knights are supposed to destroy. Instead, the two now find themselves joining forces to clear Bal’s name and expose the real murderer. The identity of whom it’s not too hard to work out, but then, as the opening voiceover states, things have a habit of not having the simply resolved happy endings fairytales usually demand.
Adapted from a subversive graphic novel by ND Stevenson and rescued by Netflix after being cancelled by Disney, this is very much a contemporary 2D-3D animation, not just in its dazzling visuals but in its storyline and themes. It’s revealed early on that Bal and Ambrosius are gay lovers while, uncomfortable in her ‘normal’ skin, Nimona is driven by a need to transition. Meanwhile, with the inventive narrative, twisting there’s also familiar messages about intolerance, irrational prejudice and how, in as world where kids “grow up believing that they can be a hero if they drive a sword into the heart of anything different”, if we treat people as monsters, they’re likely to become monsters.
With her catchphrase ‘metal’ and plans that rarely go beyond “Chaos, destruction, something-something-something, we win”, Nimona is a priceless animated anti-hero, her spirit and irreverent humour exuberantly captured by Moretz’s voice work while Ahmed brings the pathos and more serious notes. Driven by a punk-fuelled soundtrack that includes The Banana Splits and guitar riffs by former Sex Pistols Steve Jones, it barrels along with fast-paced action and an utterly infectious sense of anarchy and fun. The ending lays possible ground for a sequel, and one would be very welcome indeed. (Netflix)
Sports fans may recall Diana Nyad, a world class endurance swimmer who, aged 25, swam around Manhattan in just under eight hours in 1975, becoming a celebrity and talk-show regular, even if given to a touch of not always factual self-aggrandising about her achievements. At 30, however, she retired having failed in her attempt to the open-ocean record by going from Cuba to Key West in Florida, a 60-hour, 103-mile journey in shark-infested waters one stroke at a time. She went on to host radio shows, write books, give motivational speeches and work as a sports broadcaster. But, her career ending failure nagging at her, turning 60, despite not having swum since, she resolved to try again. It’s no spoiler to say that, at the fifth attempt, she finally triumphed and, directed by Free Solo documentarians Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin, this biopic follows the struggles to pull that off.
Strapping on the goggles, swimsuit (and bizarre protective masks at different points), doing her own swimming sequences Annette Bening is Nyad (from the Greek for water nymph) while playing opposite is Jodie Foster in her first gay role as fellow lesbian, one time lover and now best friend Bonnie Stoll. While thinking the whole idea is ridiculous and potentially fatal, she becomes her supportive coach, training her back into shape and following as part of the crew on Voyager I, skippered by the implacable Dee Brady )Karly Rotherberg), the now late navigator John Bartlett (Rhys Ifans) and shark expert Luke Tipple (Luke Cosgrove), accompanying her attempts, the first four variously scuppered by bad weather, unpredictable Gulf Stream currents, toxic jellyfish and allergic reaction, the film emphasising the mindset required by all involved to pull things off.
The backstory flashbacks (which mix real archive footage with recreation) reveal Nyad’s difficult relationship with a demanding stepfather Aristotle, her sexual abuse as a teenager (Anna Harriette Pittman) at the hands of her coach, Jack Nelson (who is still listed in the Hall of Fame despite numerous allegations from other girls), but the film’s core is firmly on the determination to complete what she set out to do decades earlier (she was 64 when she made the fifth attempt, her scored to Neil Young’s Heart Of Gold) and the repercussion on her and Stoll’s relationship. The central performances, Foster making everything seem effortless and Bening capturing Nyad’s at times prickly personality, are magnificent with real chemistry, with the end credits revealing just how closely they and Ifans resemble their real life counterparts. It doesn’t mention that subsequent controversies or that her swim was ultimately denied ratification due to incomplete documentation, conflicting crew reports and retrospective rules, her entry The Guinness Book of World Records being revoked, but that doesn’t negate what she said in the inspirational speech recreated (and repeated in archive footage) here about it never being too late to dream big. (Netflix)
Operation Fortune:Ruse De Guerre (15)
Its planned cinema released scuppered by the bad timing of having Ukrainian villains, Guy Ritchie’s second venture into espionage territory after the underrated The Man from U.N.C.L.E. finally surfaces on a streaming platform, and, a quintessential Ritchie romp with Mission Impossible echoes, is pretty much worth the subscription in itself. The plot is a familiar recover a secret weapon that’s been stolen for sale on the black market, so that gives a good idea of what to expect in terms of rival operatives, double crosses and location-hopping, all of which the cast and screenplay milk to hugely enjoyable effect with a mix of high octane action and rapid bite banter. Almost inevitably, it involves Jason Statham who, as loose cannon freelance contractor Orson Fortune, is enlisted by the British government in the form of effete operation handler Nathan Jasmine (Cary Elwes) reporting to his ministerial boss Eddie Marsan, to recover “The Handle”, to which end he recruits a team comprising hacker Sara Fidel (Aubrey Plaza) and everyman J.J. Davies (Bugzy Malone) while, in the opposite corner is sneaky rival Mike (Peter Ferdinando) and his gang of heavies.
The middleman negotiating the weapon’s sale is billionaire arms dealer Greg Simmonds (Hugh Grant in Hugh Grant wisecracking pantomime bad guy mode) and to infiltrate his inner circle, Fortune ropes in Danny Francesco (Josh Hartnett), an action movie star with whom Simmonds is obsessed, Sara playing his girlfriend and Fortune his manager. With the events and action variously playing out in Cannes, Madrid, and Morocco with a car chase through a Turkish Cliffside, a finale in which Fortune climbs a glass tower and a mid-heist scene where he takes time out to watch the ‘Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head’ bicycle scene from Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid. Knowingly silly with tongues firmly in cheek and everyone clearly having a great time, it’s preposterously energetic and entertaining supercharged fun. (Amazon Prime)
Coming out of an abusive relationship, Kate (Beth Dover) is set up by her best friend Nickie (Ta’Rea Campbell) with a three month voluntary job with her ranger brother Earl (Ato Essandoh), with whom she has a strained relationship on account of her sexuality, as a fire tower watcher in the Idaho Mountains, a highly important gig given that, some years ago back, a forest fire nearly destroyed the entire area. Although her ex, Mike (Tim Neff), initially turns up, Kate locking herself in an outhouse to escape, things settle down, she making friends with frequent hiker Bertha ( Becky Ann Baker) and Reggie (Dylan Baker), a widowed local doctor who teaches her how to chop wood and giving her the run of his house while he’s off visiting the grandkids.
However, as things keep going wrong, Kate already tenuous grip on sanity begins to loosen further as paranoia takes hold, seeing threats everywhere, such as a possibly dodgy fellow ranger (Dallas Roberts) and a pair of hitchhikers who leave their camp fire smouldering, as she takes things murderously into her own hands as the body count rises.
Written and directed by Joe Lo Truglio making his feature debut, it’s teasingly never clear just how much is all in Kate’s mind and how much are is a genuine danger to her as the edges of reality blur, the film climaxing with her locked in the tower, upending the familiar trauma abuse survivor narrative into something of a far darker and brutal The Shining nature. Not, perhaps, something that will go down well in counselling groups, but as a psychological horror goes this blazes fiercely. (AppleTV; Amazon Prime; Google Play; RakutenTV; Sky Store; Virgin Store)
Past Lives (12A)
Unfolding over 24 years, in two 12-year intervals, played out in Seoul, Toronto and New York, writer-director and erstwhile playwright Celine Song’s semi-autobiographical debut is a beguiling bittersweet thwarted love story about unresolved feelings. It opens with a voiceover pondering what three people in a New York bar are talking about and what their relationship may be. They are aspiring playwright Nora (Greta Lee), her fellow writer husband Arthur (John Magaro) and childhood friend and crush Hae Sung (Teo Yoo) and to explore the connections, the film first flashes back 24 years to Korea where Nora, then Na Young (Seung Ah Moon), and Hae Sung (Seung Min Yim), are academically competitive classmates and budding sweethearts. However, romance is curtailed when her family announces they are emigrating to Canada. The pair part on a somewhat sour note and it’s 12 years before, he still living at home and hanging out with his mates, she now in Toronto, reconnect through Facebook, he tracking her down through her filmmaker father’s page, and then Skype, conduction a flirtatious virtual romance (she recommends him to watch Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind ) before realising he’s never coming there and she’s not going back, she shuts it all down.
Twelve more years later, Nora now having married Arthur, who she met at a writing retreat, and rarely speaking Korean, Hae Sung, who has broken up with his girlfriend comes to New York, where she now lives, for a few days, ostensibly as part of his engineering studies, and the two meet up, their meetings causing both to reassess how they feel about each other and what might have been. The title refers to the Buddhist concept of inyun, a belief that some souls are connected through time and past incarnations, somehow fated to be together.
Beautifully framed and photographed (the virtually wordless scene by the fairground carousel and the pair riding a ferry boat around the Statue of Liberty are magical), sublimely directed by Song and exquisitely acted by the three leads, the soulful, reserved Yoo, an understated Marago, who wryly describes himself as “the evil white American husband standing in the way of destiny”, and the luminous Lee, a major contender for the next Korean Oscar winner, it pulses with suppressed emotions, captured in longing looks or the subtle chance in a facial expression, but never falls prey to sentimentality as, subtly also exploring the immigrant experience and indemnity confusions, it builds to a denouement that is both heartbreaking and glowing with joy.
You can feel the echoes of films like David Lean’s Brief Encounter, Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise, and Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood for Love, but Song has created her own individual and unique vision of their timeless story. An unquestionable film of the year, as Nora and Hae Sung are given to saying when things overwhelm then, ‘whoa’ indeed. (Apple TV)
Polite Society (12A)
The feature debut by British writer-director Nida Manzoor, creator of the TV series We Are Lady Parts, mashes up a whole bagful of genres, pouring coming-of-age high school comedy, Bollywood movie, martial arts flick and even references to Jane Austen into the blender and pouring out the results in a glorious smoothie that may not be nutritious but is crammed with fun and flavour.
With an almost entirely Pakistani cast, it’s set in London where, much to the mortification of her traditional career-seeking parents (Shobu Kapoor, Jeff Mirza), teenager Ria Khan (engaging newcomer Priya Kansara) dreams of becoming a female stuntwoman – The Fury – like her idol, real-life British stuntwoman Eunice Huthart, whose signature flying kick she consistently fails to pull off. She’s besties with her older sister, Lena (Umbrella Academy’s Ritu Arya) and constantly needles her to resume her art school studies after having dropped out in a self-confidence crisis, things often getting out of hand as they squabble.
So, she’s horrified when they’re both forced to attend an end of Eid party hosted by one of her mother’s wealthy acquaintances, the imperious and condescending Raheela Shan (Nimra Bucha) and even more so when she learns that Lena is not only dating her geneticist son of Salim (Akshay Khanna) but has also gotten engaged (she apparently has a perfect womb) and will be taking off to Singapore immediately after the wedding.
And so, with the help of her uncool school chums Alba and Clara (Ella Bruccoleri and Seraphina Beh adding solid comedic support), she sets out on a plan to sabotage things, initially looking to try diplomacy but rapidly escalating to trying to dig up dirt (including disguising themselves as men to infiltrate his gym) and, when that fails, invent some (at one point she breaks into the house to scatter used condoms).
It is, as everyone observes, all totally out of proportion. Until, that is, Ria discovers exactly what Salim and Raheela are up to (a touch of Jordan Peele here), at which point it becomes a frantic race by the three friends to stop the wedding before it’s too late.
With a winkingy gleeful and knowingly ludicrous screenplay that, refreshingly peppered with all the sensibilities and sweariness of modern Pakistani youth pulls together Bash Street Kids escapades, torture by waxing, all female martial arts fights (including one with well-trained beauticians), a Bollywood dance sequence and yellow chapter title cards with a clear nod to Tarantino/Rodriguez grindhouse. Vastly funnier than What’s Love Got To With It (and certainly with loads more stunts), further adventures by the Khan sisters would not go amiss. (Sky Cinema)
The meaningless title aside, this is solid if formulaic noir procedural that sees director and co-writer Grant Singer transition from music videos for the likes of Ariane Grande to feature films. Producer and co-writer Benicio Del Toro, sporting a lush black barnet, provides the compelling centre as Tommy Nichols, a seasoned cop starting a new job in Scarborough, a suburb of Maine, after moving from Philadelphia where he was suspected of covering up for a corrupt partner, Nichols, however, is as honest as the day is long but also has a fierce loyalty to his fellow officers.
He’s happily married to the supportive Judy (Alicia Silverstone) who’s called in a favour from her police captain uncle (Eric Bogosian), who’s hiding the fact he is developing MS, to secure his new posting. He’s barely into the job when he and his rookie partner Dan Cleary (Ato Essandoh) have to investigate the killing of estate agent Summer (Matilda Lutz) at a property she was showing, stabbed to death with such ferocity the knife embedded itself in her pelvis, and found by her fellow estate agent boyfriend Will Grady (Justin Timberlake).
There are plenty of suspects. The boyfriend, obviously (it’s revealed she was cheating on him, though he has an alibi. Then there’s her creepy not entirely ex-husband (Karl Glusman) who makes art with human hair (and has few compunctions about how get gets it) and the embittered straggle-haired Eli (Michael Carmen Pitt) who has an axe to grind since his father committed suicide when the company for which Summer worked, owned and run by Will and his widowed mother Camille (Frances Fisher), took advantage of his financial straits to buy out the family farm. They also make their money by buying up properties that have been foreclosed due to drug seizures at knockdown prices. Meanwhile, swimming among all these possible red herrings are Tom’s fellow cops, straight arrow police chief Graeber (Mike Pniewski) and detective Wally (Dominick Lombardozzi), a loudmouth tough guy whose running a private security firm side hustle.
The deeper Tom gets into the waters the muddier they become as the twisting plot takes in corruption on a variety of levels, assorted people acting suspiciously, confrontations and assaults while the narrative (with Benjamin Brewer the third writer) also finds room for some dry humour, such as Tom, who spends his free time playing poker with the guys and line dancing with his wife, deciding to remodel his kitchen with a sensor tap after seeing one in the murder site. However, his jealous streak becomes aggressively apparent when he thinks the hunky handyman is paying Judy excess attention.
Singer doesn’t have the finesse of fellow noir director namesake Bryan, but he keeps things nicely on the boil and scores bonus points for the prominent use of the original version of Angel Of The Morning by Evie Sands on the soundtrack. (Netflix)
The Retirement Plan (15)
It would be cynical to suggest the title is an apt description for the plethora of films, most direct to streaming, that Cage has starred in over the past couple of years, frequently doing his familiar full on manic. Be that as it may, you can’t ever accuse him of phoning it in. This is one of his better quickies in which he plays Matt , or quite possibly Jim, a former government covert ops specialist who has retired to be a beach bum in the Cayman islands. However, his skillset is called back into action when his long estranged daughter, Ashley (Ashley Greene), who, oblivious as to his job and resentful of his never being there for them, has not spoken to him since her mother died. But then problems arise when, looking to improve their fortunes, her husband, Jimmy (Jordan Johnson-Hinds) Jimmy steals a hard drive containing valuable information from his crime lord boss Donnie (Jackie Earle Haley). Given Donnie answers to someone even more ruthless, he needs to get it back. However, before Ashley and Jimmy are captured, she puts in her 12-year-old daughter Sarah’s (Thalia Campbell) backpack and puts her on a plane to find and stay with her granddad, reckoning it’s the last place anyone will look.
Unfortunately, look they do with Donnie, despatching a team of bad guys who Matt, calling in some favours from his old bosses, duly disposes of with brisk and bloody efficiency. They seemingly endless supply of goons are led by Bobo (Ron Perlman), a soft-spoken Shakespeare-quoting philosophical killer whom Ashley has agreed to accompany to save Jimmy’s life, who then forms a bond with Sarah when he kidnaps her. Eventually, an increasingly exasperated Donnie turns up to take control himself, while there’s also cold blooded killer Hector (Grace Byers) on the trail.
With a cast that also includes Ernie Hudson, it may be a B-movie but it’s decidedly well-executed by writer-director Tim Brown who serves up a deft mixture of wisecracking and violence (guns, knives, hand-to-hand, you name it, as Matt gets to repair his relationship with Ashley , who gets to finally learn about his secret life, and forge one with Sarah. Cage is on cracking form, as indeed is Perlman who makes Bobo a more complex character than is usually the case for henchmen while Campbell more than holds her won alongside her adult co-stars and Harley compelling snarls his way through the scenery. Hugely entertaining and, if this somehow doesn’t thrill you, then you can bet Cage will have another along within the month! (Amazon Prime, Google Play, iTunes, Xbox)
Yet another Liam Neeson number where he’s the ordinary family man who finds himself caught up in a dangerous situation that has his children’s’ lives at risk, this time round he’s Matt Turner, a self-involved Berlin-based investment banker working for Anders Müller (Matthew Modine) whose workaholism has opened up a rift between him, wife Heather (Embeth Davidtz) and the kids, petulant Zach (Jack Champion) and annoying Emily (Lilly Aspell). Reluctantly agreeing to drive them to school, he spends most of the time talking down a nervous investor so as not to lose their money. However, before he can drop the kids off he gets a call on a phone secreted in the car telling him there’s a pressure-controlled bomb underneath his seat which will go off if he tries to get out or tries to tell anyone. Likewise the back seats. And just to show they’re not kidding, he’s made to watch a co-worker bet blown to bits. Now he’s forced to drive round Berlin carrying out instructions, among them getting Heather to retrieve €50,000 from his bank safety deposit box at the bank and then, changing the plan, give it to some random guy in a blue suit who the police then arrest, and another being to shoot his boss, while trying to work out it is who wants to get their hands on the €208 million slush fund he and Anders have in an “emergency collateral account” in Dubai. Meanwhile, the cops, led by Europol agent Angela Brickmann (Noma Dumezweni) on is trail, convinced he’s the bomber. So, it’s down to him to turn the tables.
A variation on Speed, the third remake of the Spanish thriller of El Desconocido (the others were German and South Korean), it requires a huge suspension of disbelief but, even though the true villain is pretty obvious early one, director Nimród Antal handles things efficiently and Neeson is such a pro at the genre now that, even if he’s bored senseless, he never looks as though he’s just going through the motions. Having been pursuing bad guys through planes, boats, snow ploughs and whatever, it may be time for Neeson to finally call enough, but for now, this is serviceable enough (Sky Cinema)
While Martin Luther King is an iconic historical figure in the fight for civil rights, rather less well-known, but whose input was of equal significance, is Bayard Rustin, a man with a dream of his own. It was Rustin, a queer African-American activist, who, in the face of resistance from opponents within the Civil Rights movement, campaigned, fought for and organised the famous August 28 1963 peaceful protest march on Washington where King delivered his inspirational “I have a dream” speech.
Directed by George C. Wolfe, the film charts the long journey to that pivotal moment, starting back in in 1960, when Rustin (a stupendous Colman Domingo), inspired by Gandhi’s non-violence stance, seeks to persuade his friend Martin (Aml Ameen) to lead a march of 5,000 people. However, the NAACP (The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), led by Roy Wilkins (Chris Rock), and Republic Senator. Adam Clayton Powell (Jeffrey Wright) are opposed to the plan and, whether or not they were the source, rumours of a sexual relationship between “the King and his queen” leads him to tender his resignation, which, to his shock, King accepts, thereby breaching the friendship until Rustin swallowed his pride and called on King to work with him on the 1963 march.
Although the Supreme Court had rules segregation unconstitutional in 1954, in reality little had changed in the American South and Rustin believed that, bringing together people from across America, his proposed march would show solidarity. Again, while trade unionist A. Philip Randolph (Glynn Turman), with whom he’d worked on an aborted similar protest in the 40s (setting up a flashback as to how a police beating disfigured his face), and fellow activist Medgar Evers (Rashad Demond Edwards) had his back, the NAACP dug their heels in. The film unfolds, then as Rustin, reunited with King, works to change minds and, with an army of volunteers, raise the money for buses to bring supporters to Washington, the initial two-day sit-in eventually reduced to one. Alongside this, the film also explores his homosexuality, primarily through an affair with Elias Taylor (Johnny Ramey), a fictional married Black preacher, and the clear but unconsummated sexual tension with younger white assistant, Tom (Gus Halper). Peppered with a raft of cameos that include Da’Vine Joy Randolph as Mahalia Jackson, CCH Pounder as civil rights leader Dr Anna Hedgeman, and Audra McDonald as activist Anna Baker, it’s somewhat let down by its clumsy exposition and one-note pacing, but the story it tells and the charisma of its lead carry it through. (Netflix)
Actress turned novelist turned Killing Eve head writer turned writer-director, Emerald Fennell follows up her Promising Young Woman debut, Oscar nominated for Best Director and Picture and winning Best Screenplay, with a very English caustically satirical psychological drama that turns the knife on the English class system, starting out as Evelyn Waugh journeying through Cruel Intentions and ending with a coda straight out Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr Ripley.
Set in 2006, in his first headlining role following his Best Supporting Actor BAFTA and Oscar nomination, Barry Keoghan is Merseyside teen Oliver Quick, who, the product of a working class broken home (disreputable dead, mum alcoholic) who has earned a scholarship to Oxford (Fennell’s own alma mater). A bright but awkward, shy outsider, he’s looked down on by his college contemporaries but is taken under the wing of aristocratic fellow student and party animal Felix Catton (Jacob Elordi) after lending him his bike when his own has a puncture. Touched by the sob story of his life and the fact his drug addict dad’s just died, Felix invites him to spend the summer at his resolutely blueblood eccentric (they gather round to watch Superbad) family’s palatial Saltburn estate (telling him that Waugh apparently used the family and house as his model for Brideshead Revisited). Along with the humourless butler (Paul Rhys) and assorted gardeners, the sprawling mansion’s populated by his somewhat dim father Sir James (Richard E Grant clearly having huge fun), emotionally damaged bulimic sister Venetia (Alison Oliver), sponging American mixed-race cousin Farleigh (Archie Madekwe), a rival for Felix’s favours, lingering faded glamour houseguest “poor dear Pamela” (a marvellous if almost unrecognisable Carey Mulligan)) and, in a gloriously showstopping performance of razor sharp comic timing and delivery, Rosamund Pike as blissfully privileged, prejudiced and stupid ex-model mother Elsbeth whose explanation as to why she gave up her flirtation with lesbianism is just one of her many hilarious straightfaced lines. She takes a shine to Oliver as, in a more physical way does Ventetia, who, though contemptuous of him, hangs around under his window at night and is rewarded with some steamy oral sex despite being on her period, even though, as a scene lapping up his bathwater makes clear, he’d rather have sex with Felix. As the summer wears on, however, despite the homoerotic electricity things eventually sour between the two friends when, in Felix taking him on a surprise well-meaning visit to his now cleaned-up mother, it turns out Oliver’s not been entirely honest about his upbringing.
Shot in a square ratio, framed with to-camera recollections by Oliver and peppered with laugh out loud deadpan dialogue, there’s also some wonderful quirks such as carving the name of family members and friends who die on a stone and tossing it into the water (let’s just say there’s a fair few extra pebbles by the end) and an audacious use of music that embraces Handel’s Zadok the Priest. the Cheeky Girls’ Have A Cheeky Christmas and a toe-curling karaoke rendition of Flo-Rida’s Low.
Although Pike is the scene-stealer, the performances throughout are consistently sharp with Keoghan utterly magnetic in expressions that shift from doleful to toxic in a blink and bravely quite literally letting it all hang out in the final scene. It might not be quite as ingenious and provocatively original as its predecessor, but even so it’s gold class filmmaking. (Amazon Prime; Mockingbird; Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Vue)
Spider-Man: Across The Spider-Verse (PG)
Five years ago, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse introduced cinema audiences to Miles Morales (Shameik Moore), a Black Hispanic Brooklyn teenager who gained superpowers when he was bitten by an electromagnetic spider and then found out he was just one of hundreds of spider-powered entities existing on a multitude of different Earths across the multiverse. It also revolutionised animation with its jawdropping mix of retro comic book, Cubism and pop art. The much anticipated sequel takes all that and hypercharges it into a trippy, at times hallucinogenic, kinetic rush that feels like maxed out ADHD that can be exhausting to watch but also delivering exhilaration to every fibre of your being.
It starts, though, on Earth-65 with moody rock drummer Gwen Stacey (Hailee Stanfield), the white-clad Spider-Woman of her world, who’s having problems with her law enforcement father (Shea Whigham) who believes her alter ego was responsible for the death of his daughter’s best friend, Peter Parker (who had transformed into The Lizard). When, following a battle with a DaVinci-sketch looking version of The Vulture, she finally reveals her secret identity, looking to explain and hoping for understanding, he just reads her her rights. Bitterly disappointed, she flees into the Spider-Verse using a device given to her by Jessica Drew (Issa Rae), a pregnant African-American Spider-Woman who helped subdue The Vulture, recruits her as part of the Spider-Society, a team policing the different dimensions.
Meanwhile, back on Earth-1610, now 15, while Spider-Man is famous superhero who was a guest host on Jeopardy and made a commercial endorsing baby powder), Miles is en route to a meeting with his school counsellor and concerned helicopter parents Rio (Luna Lauren Vélez) and newly promoted police captain Jefferson (Brian Tyree Henry) for which he’s already late, he’s sidetracked when he runs into someone robbing a local store, a faceless white figures covered in black splodges which are, in fact, portals, through which he or just parts of his body can travel, with whom he gets involved in a running battle. Calling himself The Spot (Jason Schwartzman), this new supervillain was once Jonathan Ohnn (Jason Schwartzman), a scientist who worked for Alchemax, who became what he is today as a result of the collider implosion caused by Miles in the first film. Now he’s looking for revenge by ruining Miles’s life, just as he ruined his. And he’s found his holes can take him into the multiverse.
The central thrust begins as Miles secretly follows Gwen into the Spider-Verse (including a visit to Lego Earth) where he’s reunited with his old mentor, Peter Parker Jake Johnson, who, married to Mary Jane, now has a baby called May, with similar powers, and is confronted by the scarred, humourless Miguel O’Hara (Oscar Isaac), the “ninja vampire” of Earth 2099 who runs Spider-Man HQ who explains that having, in an earlier sequence where he and Gwen wound up in Mumbattan and he saved the life of the police captain father of the girlfriend of Spider-Man India (Karan Soni), he disrupted a canonical event. In other words, each Earth’s arachnid adventurer have things in common, being bitten by a spider, the murder of Uncle Ben (or Uncle Aaron – Mahershala Ali – in Miles’s case) …and the tragic death of a police captain. Now he’s thrown everything off-kilter and put the integrity of the entire Spider-Verse at risk. More than that, Miles learns that he’s an anomaly and became Spider-Man by error, that he wasn’t the one the mechanoid was supposed to bite, meaning there is an Earth without a Spider-Man where the storyline unfolded in a much darker manner. Thus Miles is declared Spider Public Enemy No 1 and with Miguel and countless variations in pursuit, he, Gwen, and Hobie Brown aka Spider-Punk (Daniel Kaluuya), a Mohawked Londoner with a guitar strapped to his back who’s animated like a living Sex Pistols album cover, have to stop The Spot and save the entire Spider-Verse, not to mention his and Gwen’s fathers by preventing the canon from playing out.
The dazzling animation is eye-popping, often shifting styles and colours within the same scene, close-ups showing the comic-book dot textures of the characters’ skins, driving things along at hyperspeed but also finding time out for quieter, more tender moments such as Miles and Gwen hanging out (upside down) on the dome of the Williamsburg Savings Bank Tower that add further resonance to the film’s central theme about the weight of responsibility (an emotional depth that has always distinguished Marvel comics) and the painful journey to self-discovery. There’s a lot of fun too as, along with a joke about the redundancy of saying Chai tea, it wheels out such web-slinging variations as Spider-Horse, Spider-Car, Spider-Cat, and the virtual reality Spider-Byte, interjecting the animation with live action that includes clips from both the Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield movies, a brief visit to a convenience store in Eddie Brock’s world and a wordless cameo from Donald Glover as The Prowler (another variation of whom provides a last moments shocker).
Driven by a brilliant score and guaranteed Oscar glories, as the first of the two part sequel, it ends, of course on a cliffhanger setting up Beyond The Spider-Verse. That won’t arrive until next year, by which time your pulse rate might just have slowed down enough to handle it. (Amazon Prime)
The Super Mario Bros. Movie (PG)
Originating in Japan, one of the first platform video games and, owned by Nintendo, still hugely popular among all ages (at my screening there were two grown men dressed as the character), even if the name makes no sense as there’s only one brother called Mario,30 years on the foul odour of the live action adaptation with Bob Hoskins till remains. Reverting to animation, this revival looks to reboot the film franchise by sticking closely to the game’s mechanics involving jumping between platforms, avoiding obstacles and powering up by opening boxes marked with a ?
Following a prologue in which power-hungry Bowser (Jack Black), the king of the turtle-like Koopas, attacks and destroys a city of penguin-like creatures to get his hands on a power star that will enable him to conquer his entire universe, it cuts to Brooklyn as Mario (Chris Pratt) and Luigi (Charlie Day) trying to get their plumbing business off the ground, only to end up creating chaos. Then, when they attempt to fix a broken water mains, they’re sucked down a vortex into another dimension. Separated, Luigi ends up in a fiery realm and is taken prisoner by Bowser and as such sidelined for most of the film, while Mario, who hates mushrooms, ironically finds himself in the Oz-like Mushroom Kingdom (you have to suspect the writers indulged in some magic ones of their own) where, looking to find and rescue his more timid brother, he teams up with the tiny Toad (Keegan-Michael Key) and the warrior-spirited Princess Peach (Anya Taylor-Joy), who accidentally came there as a child. However, it transpires that the literally and metaphorically horny Bowser is deludedly determined to either marry Peach or destroy her Kingdom, to which end they have to persuade Cranky Kong (Fred Armisen) to loan them his army, which means Mario must first defeat his son, Donkey Kong (Seth Rogan) in gladiatorial platform combat, during which he transforms into a cat. And then defeat Bowser before he can sacrifice his prisoners (glowing star Debbie Downer among them) as a wedding gift to Peach.
Resolutely mirroring the game and loaded with inside references and songs like Holding Out For a Hero and Take On Me, devotees of the game are well-served, though in pretty much every other respect the target audience is 7-year-olds who just want a rush of cute characters, garish colours and non-stop action sequences. Mama mia, here we go again. (Sky Cinema)
Talk To Me (15)
Transitioning from YouTube horror, Australian twin brothers Danny and Michael Philippou make their directorial feature debut with an assured entry into the familiar don’t mess with the afterlife genre that brings a fresh approach to well-worn tropes and a whole new meaning to the phrase talk to the hand. Opening with a stabbing and a shocking violent suicide at a party and a genuinely disturbing night scene where a car hits a kangaroo which is left dying in the road ( a sure nod to the deer in Jordan Peele’s Get Out), the narrative hinges on the hand of a dead psychic which, encased in ceramics, those looking for a thrill are encouraged to clasp, making contact with a spirit and saying ‘Talk to me’ and then ‘I invite you in’, whereby they’re taken over and have scary visions, but have to blow out the candle and let go after 90 seconds so that they don’t remain possessed.
One such is black teenager Mia (sterling newcomer Sophie Wilde) who was driving the car that hit the kangaroo and while her surrogate younger brother Riley (Joe Bird) begged her to end its misery, she was unable to bring herself to do so. Following her mother’s death, a gulf has opened up between Mia and her brooding father Max (Marcus Johnson), leading her to spend much of her time at Riley’s house with his big sister and her best friend (Alexandra Jensen), their take no shit mother Sue (veteran Australian star Miranda Otto), working nights This allows them to sneak out to a party hosted by Hayley (Zoe Terakes) and Joss (Chris Alosio), who initiate a hand session, everyone treating the gross-outs like some sort of supernatural high and a big laugh to be shared on social media.
Naturally, it all goes to shit, staring off with Jade’s ultra-Christian boyfriend Daniel (Otis Dhanji) being taken over by a horny spirit (cue a later foot sucking scene), Mia becoming hooked and going back over and over and Riley volunteering and being possessed by Mia’s dead mother Rhea (Alexandria Steffensen) who tries to reconcile with her daughter, leading to the time limit being exceeded. All of which results in Mia being ostracised by Jade and Sue following two graphically violent convulsive suicide attempts by Riley whose spirit Mia is shown being tortured in limbo, with killing him the only way to set him free, and her learning the truth behind her mother’s death.
With a subtext about bored youth seeking ever extreme kicks as they sink into addiction (viral and otherwise) along with the trauma of guilt and loss, the pace never slackens as the intensity builds, and while the idea that the dead really are not to be trusted may be well-worn and the narrative is overtaken by the chaos, the brothers still manage to squeeze some decent jolts before the big final twist that leaves things open for a sequel. (Netflix)
Teenage Ninja Mutant Turtles – Mutant Mayhem (PG)
Created as a comic book by Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird in 1984 to parody superhero stories, three underwhelming live action adaptations arrived in the early 90s with a seeming last gasp fourth arriving as computer animation in 2007. Two animated reboots followed in 2014 and 2016, the first a huge success, the second a flop. Now comes another reboot which, directed by Jeff Rowe, who made The Mitchells vs The Machines, while computer animated wisely harks back to the hand-drawn look and scribbled lines of the original comics and the early animated TV series and, if not as wildly hyperactive and psychedelic as the Spider-Verse films, has a compelling dynamic visual energy to match a sharp script.
It goes back to the beginning to provide an origin story as, breaking with his employers and their military ambitions, scientist Dr Stockman (Giancarlo Esposito) created a bunch of mutant embryos in an underground lab and, when a Techno Cosmic Research Institute strike force was sent by his erstwhile boss Cynthia Utro (Maya Rudolph) to seize his work, he ended up dead while a vial of his mutant-inducing green goo (henceforth known as the ooze) seeped into the New York sewers, mutating for baby turtles and the rat that took them in. Fast forward 15 years and the now teenage turtles, named (but never explained in the film after Renaissance Italian artists) Donatello (Micah Abbey), Michelangelo (Shamon Brown Jr), Raphael (Brady Noon) and the self-serious Leonardo (Nicolas Cantu), live secretly in the sewers, only venturing out at night to obtain groceries – especially pizza – for themselves and their overprotective surrogate father, Splinter (Jackie Chan), who, after an initial attempt to mingle with humans ended in disaster, trained them in the martial arts and forbade them to reveal themselves to the world, warning that humans will want to capture them and “milk” them for their mutant DNA. They, however, yearn to be accepted, and go to school, sneaking off to watch a film or a concert (Beyonce gets namechecked) while out foraging. Such opportunity presents itself when they accidentally cross paths with April O’Neill (Ayo Edebiri), an aspiring high school reporter (nicknamed Puke Girl, but you need to see the hilarious gross out scene to know why) and set off to recover her motorbike when it’s stolen which, in turn, involves them in her quest to find out who’s behind a series of high tech thefts, reportedly the work of someone known as Superfly (Ice Cube), she filming their Turtles’ exploits to present them as heroes.
This, it turns out, is the grown version of Stockman’s original creation who saw off the attackers and escaped with the other creature he was experimented on and who now form his mutated followers Genghis Frog (Hannibal Buress), alligator Leatherhead (Rose Byrne), rhino Rocksteady (John Cena), bat Wingnut (Natasia Demetriou), manta Ray Fillet (Post Malone), warthog Bebop (Seth Rogen, also one of the co-writers), Mondo Gecko (a scene stealing Paul Rudd amusingly credited as “introducing”) and the indeterminate Scumbug. The Turtles are initially delighted to learn they have mutant cousins who also desire to be accepted, until they learn of Superfly’s plant to mutate all creatures and wipe out humans, leading up to an explosive climax as they, Splinter (who gets a far bigger action role this time), April and the others battle to defeat the now supermutated Superfly.
Channelling themes about acceptance, intolerance of difference, family, friendship, coming of age and the need to work together, the inspired casting of actual teenagers injecting relevance and authenticity into the Turtles’ banter, the film rattles along with a series of exhilarating action sequences intermingled with self-aware pop culture gags (a cardboard cut of Chris Prine’s Captain Kirk) and such sly black culture references as The O’Jays 1972 hit The Backstabbers and of course, the villain’s punning name a knowing nod to the 1971 Blaxploitation classic. It is, perhaps, excessively violent in places, especially the use of knives, for the young audience while the suggestions of interspecies sex (Leonardo fancies April, Splinter and Wingnut exchange a slobbery kiss) are as kinky as they are subversive. With the obligatory mid-credits scene setting up a Shredder sequel, the heroes in a half shell are back where they belong. (Sky Cinema)
Vaughn Stein’s hard-boiled noir pastiche, clearly taking its inspiration from Sin City (and Waiting For Godot) amd forerver referencing Alice in Wonderland, has accrued some particularly damning reviews, but it’s nowhere near as awful as they make it seem. A futuristic sci fi plot twisting revenge thriller, it stars Margot Robbie as Bonnie, a femme fatale female assassin who sets out to win the business of a mysterious crime boss by proving she can turn his current hitmen for hire, Vince (Dexter Fletcher) and Alfred (Max Irons) against each other, to which end she also plays the role of sardonic but sweet diner waitress Annie who lends a friendly ear and some pragmatic advice to Bill (Simon Pegg), an English teacher who’s dying of cancer and looking to end it quicker, and also hooks up with Alfred who, along with Vince, is holed up in a hotel room waiting to be given their target.
Pretty much all of this takes place around a rundown railway station populated only by a limping janitor (Mike Myers in his first film in almost a decade) who shuffles around whistling Danny Boy, and all of which is monitored by an unseen figure on a bank of television screens. There’s also a lot of toing and froing involving briefcases concealed in the station lockers.
As it gathers to the climax, all manner of twists – one especially audacious – are rolled out that tie things together and, while the direction can be stiff and the dialogue cringeworthy, there’s enough of a potential cult air about it to warrant a place on the platform. (Arrow)
The Three Musketeers Pt 1: D’Artagnan (15)
Written in 1844 by Alexandre Dumas, there’s been over 40 big and small screen adaptations but this stirringly and sumptuously directed by Martin Bourboulon is the best in a long while, even if some of the actors do bear a passing resemblance to those in the BBC serial. Largely faithful to the novel (although here Porthos is bisexual and Athos’s marital backstory is somewhat reworked), it starts off in 1627 with the impulsive, puppyish Charles D’Artagnan of Gascony (a wildly charismatic François Civil) setting off with a letter of recommendation to train as a Musketeer and serve Louis XIII. Before he gets there, however, he’s involved in an attack on a woman in a carriage and ends up being shot and buried in a shallow grave. Not actually wounded, however, he claws his way out and gets to Paris where he’s taken in as a cadet by the captain of the musketeers, Tréville (Marc Barbé), but he’s barely dismounted before he finds himself facing three separate (and banned) duels, his opponents all turning out to be the legendary musketeers, Athos (Vincent Cassel bringing due gravitas), the rumbustious Porthos (Pio Marmai) and Aramis (Roman Duris), who can’t seem to balance his womanising and spiritual duties.
However, after dispatching the guards under the command of the duplicitous Cardinal Richelieu (Eric Ruf), he finds favour with the King (a spry Louis Garrel) and, more so, his (here unmarried) landlady, Constance (Lyna Khoudri), trusted confidante to the Queen (Vicky Krieps), Anne of Austria, the thrilling plot breathlessly unfolding to involve a conspiracy by the Protestants, loyal to England, and Richelieu to bring down the monarchy and spark war with England, which Louis’s brother Gaston advises while being railroaded into marrying, Athos being framed for murder and sentenced to death, and D’Artagnan’s frantic dash to England to recover a diamond necklace given to the Queen by Louis, which she’s given to her English lover the Duke of Buckingham (Jacob Fortune-Lloyd), who’s insisting she wear it at the wedding. During which time his path frequently crosses that of Milady (the ever excellent Eva Green), Richelieu’s spy who’s also been charged with recovering the diamonds on his behalf.
The core cast sparking with chemistry, all of this rattles along with brilliantly staged long take swashbuckling derring-do action sequences that are on a period par with John Wick, meticulous costuming, smart repartee, dark skullduggery, unexpected twists, romance, superb widescreen and camera swooping photography with its sepia tones and use of candles, a thrilling adrenaline ride that leaves you wanting more. The good news then being that Part 2, Milady, arrives in December. (Sky Cinema)
The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry (12A)
Adapted by Rachel Joyce from her own 2012 novel and directed by Hettie Macdonald, this tells how, learning his old work colleague Queenie (a briefly seen Linda Bassett) friend is in a hospice with cancer, retired pensioner Harold (Jim Broadbent), inspired by an anecdote about giving hope from a young woman in a petrol station, resolves to walk all the 500 miles (thankfully no Proclaimers on the soundtrack, the songs provided by folkie Sam Lee) from his home in Devon to see her in Berwick-On-Tweed and hand deliver the letter he’d originally intended to post, much to the displeasure of his grouchy wife Maureen (Penelope Wilton, holding up her own with a finely tuned performance veined with pain, bitterness and grief).
It’s hard not to draw comparisons with 2021’s The Last Bus in which Tim Spall played a pensioner who, using his free bus pass, travels from John O’Groats to Land’s End England, to return to where he and his wife grew up and scatter her ashes, becoming, as here, a media event and accruing a virtual and physical following in the process.
That, however, felt more credible than Harold’s journey (for which he’s poorly equipped without even a map) during which he sends his money and credit cards home and gets back to nature sleeping rough, eating wild fruit and accepting the charity of strangers, and, naturally, there’s an underlying back story revealed in flashbacks that involves a family heartbreak (cue flashbacks to a drug addict son), a marriage that’s gone off the boil that needs to recover the spark, and an attempt to regain a sense of purpose.
Like Spall, Broadbent disappears into his character, even if this is now rather familiar territory for him, and, the film keeps the tweeness dialled down as it present a warts and all snapshot of contemporary Britain, but ultimately, you may feel worn out long before Harold does. (Sky Cinema)
The latest Disney animated venture from the director behind Frozen, this feels like a rehash of themes and ideas from the studios past and better films. It’s set in Rosas, a mythical Mediterranean island kingdom where, when they turn 18, the citizens hand over their biggest wish to not entirely benevolent self-taught self-absorbed sorcerer King Magnifico (Chris Pine doing his best but simply not good enough) who keeps them safe in bubbles in his castle conservatory, in the hope he will one day grant them, he insisting it’s a small price to pray for their safety.
However, when, having poked her nose where it didn’t belong in an audition to become his apprentice, Magnifico not only refuses to grant her grandfather Sabino’s (Victor Garber) wish (to play guitar and sing to people) for his 100th birthday but tells her it will never be granted (inspiring people’s too dangerous), feisty biracial 17-year-old Asha (Ariana DeBose), starts to question things. That night, wanting more for herself and her kingdom, she wishes on a star and suddenly along comes Star, a glowing cute little orb (and plush merchandising opportunity) that confers her pet goat Valentino (Alan Tudyk), as the obligatory anthropomorphic sidekick, and other assorted animals, with the power to speak and the three of them set about planning to free all the wishes Magnifico is holding captive.
While Magnifico is pretty much standard issue Disney villain, here he does have an initially sympathetic backstory and good intentions, but is seduced into his tyranny by using the power of dark magic, alienating him from his good-hearted Queen (Angelique Cabral), who leans towards Asha’s vision of a free and united kingdom. However, while DeBose is charming enough and Tudyk gets some snarky lines, the film is a decidedly lacklustre affair, with unmemorable songs and the Spider-Verse styled combination of 2D and 3D animation lacks sparkle. It also has an unfortunate habit of referencing previous Disney gems (Asha’s friends, among them Dahlia and comical cynic Gabo, are basically rehashes of the Seven Dwarfs, and there’s a deer called Bambi), extended to the end credits where characters like Pinocchio and Snow White appear as constellation-style twinkling stars, that simply reinforces how inferior it is. Wish for something better next time. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe;Omniplex Great Park; Reel; Vue)
Right up there at the top of quality street, celebrations are in order for this fabulous prequel to Charlie and the Chocolate Family, one that may be sweeter in tone to the average Roald Dahl story but still has room for his grotesque villains. Co-written by Paddington 2’s Simon Farnaby with director Paul King, it’s an origin story that opens with a young magician Willy Wonka (an effortlessly charming Timothée Chalamet in top hat and purple coat) returning home after seven years at sea to pursue his dream of becoming the world’s greatest chocolatier, one instilled in him by his late mother (Sally Hawkins), whose hand-signed chocolate bar he carries with him along with her promise that she’d be with him when he sold his first chocolate.
As such he sets off to Paris, intending to set up shop in the Galeries Gourmet only, thanks to kind heart, carelessness and a fine for daydreaming, he find himself penniless and is duped by the unscrupulous Dickensian yellow-toothed innkeeper Mrs. Scrubbit (Olivia Colman), who, with her dimwit henchman, Bleacher (Tom Davis), a couple surely inspired by The Twits, runs a scam whereby guests who don’t read the small print wind up as unpaid labour in her laundry business. Here he finds himself working along fellow victims former accountant, Abacus Crunch (Jim Carter), telephone operator Lottie Bell (Rakhee Thakrar), plumber Piper Benz (Natasha Rothwell), aspirant naff comedian Larry Chucklesworth (Rich Fulcher) and Noodle (a scene stealing Calah Lane), a smart orphan dropped down the laundry chute as an infant and “taken in” for a lifetime of servitude by Mrs. Scrubbit and whose backstory is a pivotal plot point.
However, she and Wonka come up with a plan that allows him to sneak out and try and sell his chocolates which, in turn, causes him to fall further foul of the chocolate cartel, Slugworth (Paterson Joseph), Prodnose (Matt Lucas) and Fickelgruber (Mathew Baynton), who retches evert time he hears the word poor, and who, along with the corrupt chocaholic chief of police (Keegan-Michael Key) and in cahoots with an equally corrupt priest (Rowan Atkinson), band together to ensure he’ll never be competition to their high-priced confectionary. He also finds himself with a problem in that at night his chocolates keep getting stolen by a tiny green-haired orange man, who, it transpires, is an Oompa Loompa, who’s on a mission to collect the debt Wonka owes for having unwittingly ‘stolen’ his island’s cocoa pods.
And when, with the help of his fellow laundry inmates, he does manage to open an emporium for his fantastical endorphins-packed mood changing chocolates (among them hoverchocs with encased bugs which make you fly), success turns to failure through the dirty tricks of Scrubbit and the cartel, the trio of villains forcing him to make a deal to leave town and, eventually, when they attempt to expose them, consigning Willy and Noodle to a literal death by chocolate.
A wildly colourful affair, crammed with contraptions (Willy’s suitcase is a chocolatier’s answer to Newt Scamander’s in Fabulous Beasts), comedy capers and all manner of exotic chocolates, not to mention a giraffe that Willy milks to make his candies, the selection box is also packed with a galaxy of fabulously choreographed and sung song and dance routines (Chalamet is a treat at both), reprising Pure Imagination from the 1971 film as well as Grant doing the Oompa Loompa alongside new numbers such as the catchy A World of Your Own by Neil Hannon of The Divine Comedy who, like King, clearly had Mary Poppins in mind as a template. Raising the bar for Christmas movies, it’s an absolute chocolate fountain delight that should become a seasonal staple. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Everyman; MAC; Mockingbird; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Omniplex Great Park; Reel; Vue)
You Are So Not Invited To My Bat Mitzvah! (12)
One of Netflix’s biggest hits this year, though produced by Adam Sandler he takes a backseat as, adapted by Alison Peck from Fiona Rosenbloom’s novel, he plays Danny Friedman, father to daughters Ronnie, the serious one, and the more immature Stacy, played respectively by his own daughters Sadie and Sunny, while reuniting with Uncut Gems co-star Idira Menzel as his wife. The younger of the two, Sunny is approaching her bat mitzvah, the Jewish coming-of-age ritual at 13, in which she has to read passages from the Torah and devise a charity project. She, of course, is more concerned about the accompanying party as she and best friend Lydia (Samantha Lorraine), whose mother’s played by Sandler’s wife Jackie, enthusing over themes and what the future will hold, like adjoining homes in Taylor Swift’s Tribeca building. Lydia writes Stacy’s speech and she in turn offers to put together her entrance video biography.
Things, however, soon turn pear-shaped starting with Stacy leaping off a cliff into the water in order to impress her crush, class heartthrob Andy Goldfarb (Dylan Hoffman), resulting in a humiliating tampon moment, and a subsequent falling out with Lydia when she sees her kissing him, prompting the angry declaration of the title and a rather cruel revenge.
Comparisons with Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret are inevitable, not least in Stacy’s own chats with the Man Upstairs, while it also follows genre conventions such as the school’s catty queen bees, the embarrassing parents (Danny’s dad jokes), the shopping sequences and all those girls want to be grown up moments, here largely embodied in a geeky friend being excited to finally shave her legs.
Although it helps considerably if you’re familiar with Jewish culture to get the references and appreciate the jokes involving Jewish mothers, dads, grannies and aunts, it’s nevertheless all very sweet and consistently funny, the entire Sandler clan having solid comedic chops (though Sunny is undoubtedly the star turn) while great support comes from Sarah Sherman as the perky Rabbi Rebecca (who gets to sing God Is Random in response to her class asking why He allows injustice) and Ido Mosseri as the wildly over the top DJ Schmuley. Forget the invite, this is well worth crashing the party. (Netflix)
Screenings courtesy of Cineworld 5 Ways & Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe
Cineworld 5 Ways – 181 Broad St 0871 200 2000
Cineworld NEC – NEC 0871 200 2000
Cineworld Solihull – Mill Ln, Solihull 071 200 2000
The Electric Cinema – 47–49 Station Street 0121 643 7879
The Everyman – The Mailbox 0871 906 9060
MAC – Cannon Hill Park 0121 446 3232
Mockingbird, Custard Factory 0121 224 7456.
Odeon Birmingham, 0871 224 4007
Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe – Ladywood Middleway 0333 006 7777
Odeon West Bromwich – Cronehills Linkway, West Bromwich 0333 006 7777
Omniplex Great Park, Rubery www.omniplexcinemas.co.uk/cinema/birmingham
Reel – Hagley Rd, Quinton, Halesowen 0121 421 5316
Vue Star City – Watson Road 08712 240 240