MOVIE ROUND-UP: From Fri Feb 9

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

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The Iron Claw (15)

The title referring to their trademark pressure grip, written and directed by Sean Durkin, this relates the triumphs and tragedies of the Von Erichs, regarded as the finest in American wrestling history.  It opens in the late 1950s, as Jack ‘Fritz’ Von Erich (Holt McCallany), who, born  Adkisson, changed his name to his mother’s  so as to play the sport’s villainous ‘heel’, takes down his opponent and finishes him off with his signature move. Leaving the match, he shows his Doris religious wife (Maura Tierney) a new car and promises he’s going to reach the top. Fast forward to  Dallas, living on a ranch not in a trailer, and, retired from the ring, he now runs the   World Class Championship Wrestling organisation he founded, hosting his  own tournament circuit at his Sportatorium mini-arena, bent on making the Von Erich name synonymous with the sport. To which end, an embittered man who complains he was denied his own shot at glory, on the field and in the ring, he’s pressured his sons into following in his footsteps with a brutal training regime, and uncompromising vision with the aim of finally bringing home a World Championship belt.

Initially, the focus is on Kevin (a bulked up Zac Efron looking like a He-Man stretch toy), but eventually he’s joined in the ring by brother David (David (Harris Dickinson), his father’s favourite, who demonstrates a flair for showmanship, then, after losing his chance to compete in the 1980 Summer Olympics when President Carter ordered a boycott, discus champion Kerry (Jeremy Allen White),  and, eventually, sensitive middle brother Mike (Stanley Simons) whose ambition to be a musician are railroaded by both his mother (who refuses to intercede over her husband’s dictatorial ways) and father. By the end of the film, only Kevin remains, two of his brothers having committed suicide (one having previously lost a  foot in a bike accident, the other suffering brain damage after a  coma) and the third dying of enteritis while on tour in Japan.

Marrying Pam (a luminous Lily James), a fan who approaches the shy (and indeed virginal) Kevin after he wins the Texas championship belt and asks for a date, he tells her of the supposed Von Erich Curse, triggered by his father’s name change, that also claimed the life of his oldest brother Jack Jr. as a child. He swears he doesn’t believe it but still changes his newborn son’s name to Adkisson. Understandably, given the string of tragedies alongside issues in the ring and with Jack’s running of the WCCW, the family falls apart amid recriminations, resentments and accusations.

If all this sounds punishing, it’s actually less intense than the real story in which a fourth brother, Chris, also killed himself (Durkin rightly felt this was narrative overload), Jack was a  physically and verbally abusive father and husband and there was controversial (only briefly alluded to here) use of steroids.  But even without these, it’s a relentlessly downbeat watch, the dynamically staged physical action in the ring (which recreates several of the family’s celebrated bouts) counterpointing the gruelling emotional toll outside it as they wrestle with demons of a different kind.

The intensity of the performances matches that of the narrative, Efron, bulked up but also tender and vulnerable, like you’ve never seen him before while a broodingly internalised White continues the stellar ascendancy  he ignited in The Bear.  It falters somewhat in the penultimate sentimental scene where Kevin envisions all his brothers being reunited in the afterlife, but the closing note as he collapses in tears telling his own sons he’s no longer a brother is wrenchingly moving. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Omniplex Great Park; Reel; Vue)

Gassed Up (15)

Taking its title from and the term meaning having an over-inflated ego and inspiration from London’s continuing tide of  snatch and grab moped crimes,  documentarian George Amponsah makes his feature directorial debut  with an energetic but, despite winning the LFF Audience Award,  ultimately predictable  and clichéd tale of a gang an inner city youths who, a  dysfunctional extended family, get caught up in things out of their league.

The gang, which also includes Kabz (Mohammed Mansaray) and Mole (Tobias Jowett),is  led by Dubz (co-writer Taz Skylar) and Ash (Stephen Odubola), the two actors sharing a Boiling Point connection, one the TV series and one the film. Stealing mobile phones and the like, it’s partly for the rush and partly  for the cash they get working for  a local crime family run by Dubz’s Albanian cousin Shaz (Jelena Gavrilovic with overstated accent). Ash has a more pressing reason as, his father long gone and having to look after his precocious younger sister (Rawdat Quadri), he needs to raise a substantial amount to pay for his mostly absent (and never seen) mother’s rehab.

Things are going well until, the volatile loose cannon Roache (Craige Middleburg), the son of an abusive violent father and also Ash’s best mate, throws acid in the face of a garage mechanic (Ash’s mother’s former  lover and his surrogate uncle) in a robbery gone wrong, driving a rift between then, and, ever worse, the stakes get higher when gang fall foul  of the Albanians and, armed with machetes,  are ordered to knock off a jewellery store (which inevitably goes pear-shaped) and then find  themselves confronted by Shaz’s even less amenable successor.

Despite being saddled with a contrived romantic subplot to boost his conflicted anti-hero portrayal when he gets involved with Kelly (2023 Eurovision entrant Mae Muller),  Odubola does his best with the undernourished screenplay, capturing Ash’s fears, self-loathing and erratic moods to solid effect, but he’s adrift in a world of well-worn plot twists and one-dimensional characters and a film that finds itself struggling to find any sort of moral compass.  Amponsah fancies it as his own Mean Streets, but while the moped snatches are exhilaratingly – and at times wittily – filmed, the film, in actuality a low grade Top Boy,  is mostly just running on fumes. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Omniplex Great Park; Reel; Vue)

The Settlers (15)

The feature debut by Chilean director Felipe Gálvez Haberle, this quietly brutal and brooding  revisionist Western  draws on the “settling” of Tierra del Fuego in the early years of the 20th century in which  the indigenous population was massacred to satisfy his country’s expansionist ambitions. Its tone is set from the start when Alexander MacLennan (Mark Stanley), a Scottish former soldier (he claims to have been a  lieutenant) sporting a red British army red tunic, coldly shoots a worker who has lost an arm while setting up fences to separate the pampas of Chile from neighbouring Argentina. He’s employed by José Menéndez (Alfredo Castro), a real-life Spanish landowner who wants to forge a path to the sea for his herds of   sheep and, as such, orders   MacLennan (known as the ‘red pig’) to check out the unknown territory, teaming him with  Bill (Benjamín Westfall),  an American mercenary who hunted down   Comanche and Apache and now works for Texas.

As a third gun, MacLennan enlists the crackshot mixed-race Segundo (Camilo Arancibia). A drunk, a racist and a native with good reason to hate both the others, it’s a combustible combination but, despite mutual suspicions, they work together in charting the Patagonian landscape and, more significantly, murdering a group of Indigenous men, women and children during a thick fog (the killing take place offscreen), although Segundo never shoots any of them and, ordered to rape a female survivor, strangles her (in a  particularly upsetting scene) to put her out of her misery.

After first encountering a bunch of  Argentine soldiers and a scientist exploiting the natives for  personal gain and engaging in  machismo physical prowess competitions, they eventually come across a Colonel Martin (Sam Spruell), who proves far more deranged than even McLennan and has a penchant for sodomy.  Bill exits the picture (shot for confusing Scottish with being English) and Martin orders Kiepja (Mishell Guaña),   a captive Selk’nam woman, to join the pair as they continue their journey.

At this point, the film fastforwards several years as, hypocritically seeking to make amends, the central government  despatches Vicuña (Marcelo Alonso) as an envoy of the country’s president,  to document what happened. Expository dialogue tell us of McLennan’s death and how of he was supposed to have poisoned hundreds of natives at a beach barbecue before  Vicuña’s investigations lead him to  Kiepja, now wed to Segundo, and the pair are, in a carefully staged  moment, filmed as the latter is forced to reveal  the true extent of the  atrocities McLellan committed and his own involvement in them. Kiepja refuses to speak and the film closes with the camera on her implacable gaze.

Set against stunning landscapes with beautiful cinematography that, complemented by Harry Allouche’s Morricone-like score,  only serve to amplify the genocidal horrors committed upon them, it’s an unsparingly difficult  but compelling account of colonial brutality with echoes that sound much further than just Chile. (Mockingbird)

 

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All Of Us Strangers (15)

An adaptation of Taichi Yamada’s novel Strangers and directed by BAFTA nominee David Haigh, this stars Andre Scott as Adam, a   writer who lives in the self-imposed isolation of a London high-rise apartment complex where the only other resident appears to be Harry (Paul Mescal) who the brazenly shows up at his door following a  fire alarm offering whisky or whatever else Adam might fancy. He rebuffs both, but later reconsiders and the pair become lovers.

Struggling with a   a screenplay based on his parents (he says he feels he has a knot in his chest), Adam revisits his old suburban Croydon home and spends the evening talking to his mum (BAFTA nominee Claire Foy) and dad (Jamie Bell). He later returns, coming out to her (she responding with 1980s concerns  about AIDs and prejudices, he telling her things are better for gays now) and talking to his dad about childhood traumas. The twist, however, is that they died in 1987 when he was almost 12, killed in a car crash and remain they age they were then, he now their contemporary. More than memories and less than  ghosts, they (or perhaps he) accept that these reunions can’t go on forever, they also raise unreliable narrator questions about Adam’s relationship with Harry and the whole emotional shutdown impact of grief and fear of intimacy.

Echoing similar metaphysical works such as Field Of Dreams, Truly, Madly, Deeply and, more recently, Joanna Hogg’s The Eternal Daughter making subtle use of mirrors and reflections and with a queer pop soundtrack that pointedly includes   The Power Of Love by Frankie Goes To Hollywood (as well as the different Jennifer Rush one) and, with an unexpected emotional force, The Pet Shop Boys’ version of Always On My Mind, it’s a quietly touching film about loss, grief, sexuality and the child-parent relationship. Beautifully played by the two stars, the scenes between Mescal (who got a BAFTA nod) and Scott (who inexplicably didn’t, the film also totally subbed by the Oscars) are both intense in the physical sex and tender in the emotional connection while Adam talking to his parents about how they died is piercingly sad. It ends with a moment of heartbreaking cathartic release, though perhaps not in the way you might have expected. (Cineworld 5 Ways,  Solihull; Electric; Everyman; MAC; Mockingbird;  Omniplex Great Park; Vue)

Allelujah (12A)

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)

American Fiction (15)

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

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

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

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

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

Peppered with barbed humour, spiked irony (Wiley’s new film is Plantation Annihilation, a Blaxploitation starring, as in an joke,  Ryan Reynolds where   a white couple marry on a plantation and are murdered by the ghosts of  former slaves) and sheer laugh out loud lines, Jefferson also grounds the narrative in the Boston-set family and domestic melodrama. This involves  Monk’s relationships with his confrontational, substance-abusing gay doctor brother Clifford (Sterling K. Brown), divorced after being found cheating with a man, his sister Lisa (Tracee Ellis Ross), also a doctor,  who makes an early exit, his mother’s long-time live-in carer Lorraine (Myra Lucretia Taylor who gets her own story finding love with Raymond Anthony Thomas’s cop),  and his public defender  across the street neighbour turned girlfriend  Coraline  (Erika Alexander, excellent), while the ghost of his suicide father haunts his repressed feelings. While, in terms of its target audience, it may have  its cake and eat it, it’s a real classic. (Cineworld 5 Ways; Electric; Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Omniplex Great Park)

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; 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. (Vue)

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)

Argylle (12A)

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

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

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

To say more – or let the cat out of the bag so to speak – would spoil the inventive surprises as true identities are revealed and fictional characters turn out to be real, and Sofia Boutella puts in an appearance as the mysterious The Keeper, the film closing up with another book reading where Cavill turns up in the audience (with an ever more preposterous haircut) and a mid-credits sequence that links it directly to Vaughn’s Kings Man universe and sets up manner of possible sequels. Less violent that Vaughn’s usual fare (there’s a wry scene where Aidan tries to explain how Elly should squish a bad guys head and she can’t bring herself to do it) but still loaded with frantic wall to wall action. It’s utter nonsense of course, but frankly any film that can include both a slo-mo shoot-out amid coloured smoke  choreographed as a dance routine to The Beatles Now And Then and a balletic figure-skating knife fight on an oil slick just has to be seen. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Omniplex Great Park; Reel; Vue)

Asteroid City (12A)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Baghead (15)

Estranged from her widowed father (Peter Mullan), when he dies Iris (The Witcher’s Freya Allen) is surprised to learn that he’s left her his old pub, The Queen’s Head. She’s even more surprised (by way of a video dad conveniently recorded for her) to find that, locked away in the basement (with the usual ignored don’t go down there, don’t let it out instructions) is a shape-shifting 400-year-old female demon, its face concealed by an old sack, hence the titular nickname. It turns out that the creature can, for two minutes at a time, summon up the dead for a chat. But any longer than two minutes and their spirits are let loose into the land of living.  Naturally, like dad before her, the prospect of raking it in (a grand a minute) quickly displaces common sense. And when one desperate customer, Neil (Jeremy Irvine) gives pays her to speak to his dead wife and then goes over the limit, all hell inevitably breaks loose, leaving Iris and obligatory black best friend Katie (Ruby Barker) to destroy her before she destroys them.

It’s a promising horror premise, but ultimately that’s just squandered on the all too familiar jump scares, scurrying across ceilings, dark corridors, etc. to increasingly interest numbing effect. It’s not to be confused with the Dupflas Brothers 2008 horror comedy of the same name; though you might be better off if you do. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC;  Mockingbird; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Vue)

Barbie (12A)

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

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

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

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

The Beekeeper (15)

While still firmly in B(ee) movie territory, this is still a vast improvement on last year’s risible Jason Statham outings in Meg  2 and Expend4bles. As directed by David Ayer and written by  Kurt Wimmer, Statham, with familiar unidentifiable mid-Atlantic accent, is Adam Clay who, when we first meet him,  is  keeping beehives and making honey. However, when Eloise Parker (Phylicia Rashad ), the kindly old dear  (the only one who ever cared for him, he says) who’s leased him land on her farm, kills herself after having all her accounts and that of the charity she managed wiped out in a virus alert computer scam,  and the FBI have no leads, he decides to take revenge on her behalf.

Good news then that, as is usually the case in such films, he has a secret past as a former agent for as clandestine organisation known as The Beekeepers who, as the pun-riddled screenplay explains, are assigned to protecting the hive (aka the country).Not so good news though for the strutting Mickey Garnett (David Witts),  who, clearly having studied at the Wolf Of Wall Street school, personally orchestrated the same from his high-tech call centre, Clay paying a  visit, taking out the security, then blowing the place up and, after chopping off his fingers, sending Garnett flying into a harbour attached to a car. As such he becomes very much a person of interest to Eloise’s daughter, FBI agent Verona Parker (a solid but functional Emmy Raver-Lampman) who is immediately on his case, following a trail of destruction that next leads to taking down another call centre, this one run by another middleman (Enzo Cilenti) who, in turn,  provides the connection to the scam mastermind, Derek Danforth (a suitably obnoxious spoiled brat Josh Hutcherson). He just happens to not only be under the personal protection of former CIA head Wallace Westwyld (Jeremy Irons chewing scenery and mangling accent) but also the son of the American President (Jemma Redgrave). She’s the USA’s queen bee, but, extending the apian metaphors, when the queen fails the hive by producing defective offspring, a queen slayer has to take her out.

Peppered with lines like “You’ve been a busy bee” and “Who the fuck are you, Winnie-The-Pooh?”  and, yes, even “to bee or not to bee”, it cheerfully never takes itself seriously as Clay effortlessly wades through legions of security goons, Special Service agents, his psycho replacement  Beekeeper (they all seem to actually keep bees) and a bunch of mercenary assassins called in to take him out and headed up by Afrikaans-accented Taylor James.

Once in motion, it’s virtually non-stop fights and shoot-outs with Statham doing what Statham does to entertaining effect, while also among those lining up to take the paycheck without the need to expend much effort is Minnie Driver as the current CIA head. Pure disposable pulp action movie trash it may be, but it certainly gives you a  buzz. (Cineworld NEC; Everyman; Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Omniplex Great Park; Vue)

Blank (15)

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

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

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

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: Vue)

Chicken Run: Dawn Of The Nugget (PG)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Color Purple (12A)

Like Mean Girls, this has taken an adapative journey  from book to film to stage musical and back to film. Alice Walker’s novel about black sisterhood and male violence in 1900s Georgia being directed by Spielberg in 1985, then turned into a musical in 2005  which itself is now reworked by Ghanaian musician and director Blitz Bazawule. The original film launched Whoopi Goldberg’s career (she amusingly cameos here as a midwife) as Celie, history looking to repeat itself with the role now taken by Fantasia Barrino, reprising her Broadway  turn, in her screen debut.

Twice pregnant by her abusive store-owning father Alfonso (Deon Cole), who takes the babies from her, she’s then forced to marry the charismatic but equally abusive Mister (Colman Domingo), a father of three farmer who firmly puts her in her place with the spat out  “You Black, you poor, you ugly, you a woman”. Initially, their home is shared with her sister Nettie (Halle Bailey) who moves in after her father tries to molest her too, but she’s thrown out after resisting Mister’s drunken advances and disappears from the plot, her letters to Celie intercepted by Mister. Some years later, much to his disapproval, his son Harpo (Corey Hawkins) marries the fearsomely sassy force of nature that is Sofia (a powerhouse Danielle L Brooks reprising her stage role), builds her a house by the creek but that marriage too falls apart when he proves too much the son of his father. He then turns the house into a juke joint, his opening night  star attraction being returned home larger than life blues singer Shug Avery (Taraji P. Henson), his father’s former mistress for whom he still carries a torch. Further relationship complexities ensue, Harpo taking up with   Squeak (H.E.R.) and Celie and Shug briefly becoming lovers (cue scenes involving a giant record player and 78 disc and a black and white fantasy during a trip to the movies ) while other plot developments involve finding the letters Mister had hidden, revealing Nettie is now in Africa, Sofia sinking into depression after spending six years in jail following a fight when she refuses to work for the white mayor’s wife, and Mister’s fortunes collapsing after he’s cursed by Celia whose fortunes in turn rise when she learns some truth about her now  deceased father.

It’s a story packed with incident and revelations (though some of the harsher elements of the book, such as Shug’s drug issues, have been removed) as the women struggle to free themselves from male oppression and tyranny and, while the ending is perhaps overladen with reunions and redemptions, it exercises a compelling power, firmly anchored by its three central female leads. On top of which you now get the often spectacularly choreographed and performed musical numbers, a mix of classic Broadway and more modern influences, early highlights being the young Celie (a terrific Phylicia Pearl Mpasi) and Nettie on a beach strewn with tree trunks and Mpasi singing She Be Mine as the camera flows through a chain gang women scrubbing laundry by a waterfall and then progressing to   Shug’s electrifying entrance to and performance at Harpo’s sporting a red sequined dress and   red feathers and the two core showstoppers, Brooks’s  Hell No and, the film’s answer to And I Tell You I’m Not Going, Barrino’s cathartic I’m Here. This Purple reigns.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Vue)

The Creator (15)

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

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

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

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

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

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)

Dumb Money (15)

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

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

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

The End Where We Start From (15)

The title paraphrasing T.S.Eliot’s line “in my end is my beginning”, as directed by Mahalia Belo this is adapted by Lady Macbeth screenwriter Alice Birch from the book by Megan Hunter, a dystopian vision of survival (and eco parable) set in a post-apocalyptic Britain following devastating flooding. In her first starring feature role, Jodie Comer is on electrifying form as the unnamed woman who (very realistically) gives birth just after the flooding (it starts seeping under the door and then engulfs the whole house) hits her London home. She, her husband, R (Joel Fry) and new baby (Zeb, the only character with a name), head north seeking refuge with his parents (Mark Strong, Nina Sosanya), before further tragedy strikes, the narrative contriving to separate them (panicked, he abandons them)  with Comer’s character making friends with O (Katherine Waterson), a fellow new American mother who she meets in a shelter. The two hit the road, encountering the broken but not crushed AB (producer Benedict Cumberbatch), another survivalist looking to find his way, before finding their way to an island commune headed by Gina McKee. But home still calls.

With a subtext about the anxieties of motherhood, it’s a compelling but not wholly successful film, its circular narrative prone to illogical choices,  the energy sapping midway and, perhaps consciously given its feminist bedrock, the female characters (and performances) stronger than the male, but, grounded in reality rather than disaster movie effects, and sprinkled with lighter moments such as the women singing songs from Grease and Dirty Dancing, always refusing to let the darkness overwhelm the hope and light at the end of the road. (MAC)

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)

Fast  X  (12A)

Opening with a flashback to 2011’s Fast Five and the sequence as Dom Toretto (Vin Diesel, still not possessing a shirt with sleeves) and Brian O’Conner (the late Paul Walker whose daughter Meadow gets to  cameo here as a flight attendant) steal the vault belonging to drug lord Reyes (Joaquim de Almeida), climaxing in him being killed on a  Rio de Janeiro bridge,  the scenes now insert Jason Momoa  as the bad guy’s son,  Dante, who survives his SUV being sent  into the ocean. Now he’s out for revenge. So, cut to the present as Dom, wife Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) and their young son Brian  (Leo Abelo Perry) are living a quiet family life, reuniting for dinner with the crew Roman (Tyrese Gibson), Tej (Ludacris), Ramsey (Nathalie Emmanuel), Han (Sung Kang) and Dom’s grandmother Abuelita Toretto (Rita Moreno). While the others are sent on a mission to Rome by the agency, Dom and Letty stay behind, only to have an unexpected visitor in the shape of a wounded cyberterrorist Cipher (Charlize Theron), who  reveals Dante forced her men to turn against her and that he’s out for payback. When Little Nobody (Scott Eastwood) arrives to take her into custody  he confirms her story. But also says he never assigned the team any mission. Clearly it’s all a trap.

And so, now directed by Louis Leterrier taking over from Justin Lin, comes the first of the spectacular set pieces with mass vehicular destruction as  Dom and Letty arrive,  and they and the team, Taj and Ramsey locked in a truck controlled remotely by Dante,  find themselves trying to stop a giant ball-shaped bomb from barrelling through the city on its intended course to blow up the Vatican. Blamed for the destruction, and Letty in custody, they now find themselves wanted fugitives being hunted by the Agency’s new leader, Aimes (Alan Ritchson), resulting, in rapid succession, with Dom’s brother Jakob (John Cena) rescuing Brian, who’s being looked after by his aunt Mia (Jordana Brewster),  from Aimes’s men, Mr Nobody’s daughter Tess (new addition Brie Larson) rescuing Letty (who sits out much the remaining film with Cypher),  and Dom returning to Rio (and shots of scantily clad twerking female backsides) for a narratively nonsensical race against Dante who informs them he’s planted bombs on two of the other cars (driven by F5 returnee Luis Da Silva as Diogo and Daniela Melchior as Isabel, the sister of that film’s murdered Elena), taunting that he can’t save everyone.

And, with Dante vowing to make Dom suffer by killing all his extended family  and friends before getting round to him, and it just gets more and more tangled and over the top, with betrayals, more returning characters (Jason Statham’s Shaw with brief cameos by Helen Mirren, Gal Gadot, a photo of  Kurt Russell and, bringing it full F5 circle, an end credits Dwayne Johnson as Hobbs), and, inexplicably, an appearance by Peter Davidson, the comic who made a bad taste crack about Walker’s death some years ago , suggesting the punches he gets from two of the cast might well be persona.  Plus the constant stream of  automobile armageddons, high speed chases with apparently indestructible cars, armoured, trucks, helicopters   and planes, and any number of fights and shoot outs with Agency goons and Dante’s men. Not to mention a couple of gratuitous punch ups between one another.

Location hopping between L.A., Naples, Rome, Portugal,  London and Antarctica, there’s nothing as jawdroppingly, physics-defyingly ridiculous as the car in space from F9, but Dom racing down the side of an exploding dam or dragging two helicopters behind him as wrecking balls and Jakob’s two man convertible  with wings come pretty close. An amusing touch is Roman’s remote controlled toy car  with a nodding head of himself.

As ever, themes of family are writ large with dialogue that’s carved rather than written while the performances range from the knowingly mock serious to Diesel’s extensive range of growling and glaring as he dispenses homilies (“No-one starts at the finish line”,  “Fear is the best teacher”), the coup de grace being the scene-stealing Momoa who, having apparently watched Jack Nicholson’s Joker on repeat, is flamboyantly, gleefully over the top, not so much chewing scenery as devouring it wholesale, strutting like a peacock, adopting a Christ the Redeemer stance as he surveys his destruction, licking blood off a knife and painting the toenails of a corpse in some a demented garden party.

As much fun as it is wildly absurd, it ends, or rather doesn’t, with a cliffhanger for the two planned future sequels to brings the franchise to the end of road, though quite what sort of octane it’s going to need in the tank after this defies imagination. (Sky Cinema)

Fingernails (15)

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)

Good Grief (15)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 Holdovers (15)

Having already scooped awards and both BAFTA and Oscar nominations, the first in six years by director Alexander Payne, with  an unsentimental debut screenplay by David Hemingson, is set in the 70s, and, shot in the style of the era, reunites Payne with his Sideways star  Paul Giamatti, again playing a teacher. Given to quoting Greek and Latin  authors to his disinterested class,  he’s the sour, curmudgeonly, smelly, secret drinker loner  Paul Hunham, a classics teacher at Barton Academy, a New England boarding school for the well-to-do, now run by one of his former pupils (Andrew Garman), who’s disliked equally by his fellow teachers and students (“lazy, vulgar, rancid little philistines”), whose work, believing in fairness not financial privilege (he failed the son of a wealthy donor who was then  rejected from Princeton),  he takes almost sadistic delight in disparaging.

It’s coming up Christmas and one of the staff contrives to ensure it’s Paul who has to stay behind as the supervising adult for those students who can’t go home. Given the school is his only world, he’s not that bothered by what is essentially punishment for his moral principles, but he could do without babysitting a bunch of brats who don’t respect him and will do anything to make life difficult given he insists on giving them work to do. As luck would have it, however, after six days  one of the fathers arrives by helicopter to whisk his obnoxious athlete son   and his mates (a Korean exchange student and  a timid Mormon you’d liked to have seen more of) off on a skiing holiday, leaving behind just the smart but troubled rebellious wiseass Angus (Dominic Sessa), who can’t get permission from his mother (Gillian Vigman), who cancelled their trip so she could go on honeymoon with her new hubbie (Tate Donovan). Aside from the caretaker, (Naheem Garcia), the only other person at the school is cafeteria manager, Mary (Da’Vine Joy Randolph), grieving her son, a former Barton pupil  who, unable to buy his way out, was killed in Vietnam.

Breaking his arm in the gym while running away from Paul who caught him trying to book into a hotel, an early hint of the bonding that’s to follow comes when he lies about his injury to protect Paul. The rest of the film follows a fairly predictable arc.  Invited to a Christmas Eve party at the house of the deputy headmistress, Lydia Crane (Carrie Preston), with whom Paul had earlier attempted to flirt at a restaurant, things take a downward turn when he sees her kissing someone and Mary gets drunk and has an emotional breakdown.

Chastened by his behaviour towards Angus, Paul arranges a quite seasonal celebration for the  three of them, getting Mary’s permission to take Angus off to Boston for a ‘field trip’, she visiting her sister, resulting in further bonding by way of ice skating, a visit to the Museum of Fine Arts and a screening of Little Big Man, over the course of which things are revealed about Paul’s academic past and Angus’s father before the three dysfunctionals gather round the table back at Barton for a ‘family’ New Year’s Eve dinner. The film ending with a poignantly bittersweet coda as school resumes and repercussions are meted out and new friendships sealed.

There’s nothing you won’t see coming, but, fuelled by the three terrific central performances (Giamatti and Randolph adding Oscar nominations to the GG wins), the warmth and sincerity it exudes and the many restrained emotional hits it delivers in exploring the characters’ vulnerabilities, often to the sound of Cat Stevens, more than compensate. Given the season  setting, it’s probably a little late, but the heart with which it beats is timeless. (Cineworld 5 Ways, Solihull; Electric; Everyman; Mockingbird; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Omniplex Great Park; Reel)

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)

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 (Supporting Actor nominee Robert DeNiro) who sets him up as a cabbie. One of his regulars is Mollie (Best Actress Oscar nominee Lily Gladstone but inexplicably subbed by the BAFTAs), an Osage with three sisters, with whom he falls in love and marries. So far so apparently sweet. But appearances can be misleading. It’s no accident, however, that Mollie, sussing he’s out for money (every day the train brings opportunists looking for an Osage bride), refers to him as Coyote, the trickster of American-Indian mythology, and while Ernest’s intentions may start out honourably and innocently, more of a snake in this First Nation Eden,  it’s not long before he falls under the spell of his Machiavellian uncle who, may present himself as a white saviour philanthropist friend to the Osage, but behind the smile is a knife looking to carve its way into their wealth, declaring that their time has past and that of the white man has come.

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

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

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

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

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

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)

Maestro (15)

Oscar nominated 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 (Oscar nominee Carey Mulligan), a prelude having him expressing his grief over her death,  but also (as she was well aware) a secretly promiscuous homosexual,  most notably in an early gay relationship with clarinettist David Oppenheim (Matt Bomer).

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

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

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

The Marvels (12A)

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

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

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

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

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

May December (15)

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

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

Mean Girls (12A)

Originally a 2004 high school satire adapted from the book Queen Bees and Wannabes and starring Lindsay Lohan, then turned into a  stage musical, things come full circle with Samantha Jayne and Arturo Perez Jr directed the film of the musical, the screenplay again by Tina Fay who also reprises her role as maths teacher Ms Norbury.

Taking on the Lohan role, Angourie Rice is Cady, the naïve teenager who, having been homeschooled in Kenya, persuades  her mum (Jenna Fischer) to relocate to America where she enrols in North Shore High School.  Here,  she’s befriended by queer misfits  art-punk Janis (Auliʻi Cravalho who voiced Disney’s Moana) and flamboyant (“too gay to function”) Damian Hubbard (Jaquel Spivey), who sing the set-up opening and point out the various cliques, warning her to avoid The Plastics, the titular mean girls so called on account of hard, fake exteriors, who comprise insecure  Gretchen Weiner (Bebe Wood), vapid Karen Shetty (Avantika) and blonde ‘queen bee’ Regina George (a force of nature Reneé Rapp who played the role on Broadway) who, in her opening number declares “My name is Regina George and I am a massive deal. I don’t care who you are, I don’t care how you feel”. To her surprise, Regina invites her to hang out with them, something Janis,, who wants revenge for Regina outing her, encourages so she can spy on them. Ostensibly, Regina  says she wants to ‘improve’ Cady (whose name everyone gets wrong) but, like getting her to wear pink stilettos, it’s all just a cruel practical joke. One that becomes crueller when Cady, a maths whizz, develops a crush on Aaron (Christopher Briney) in her calculus class, who used to be Regina’s boyfriend, she setting out to   steal him back.

As per its predecessors, discovering the Burn Book containing cruel comments about staff and students, Cady resolves to bring Regina down, fooling her into eating weight-gain bars and using lard as a cosmetic (cue pimple horror moment) and fooling Gretchen into revealing Regina’s secrets. Naturally, as Regina’s status at school crumbles following a  disastrous talent show turn, Cady’s rises, but in turn she also becomes the new mean queen bee, turning on her real friends and becoming another plastic.

Of course, it all resolves happily as everyone discovers and expresses their true selves, all accompanied by a series of  superbly choreographed musical numbers with Karen’s Halloween party Sexy staged via a series of TikTok screens, Regina’s dramatic Bond theme-like Someone Gets Hurt and Janis’s showstopping I’d Rather Be Me (“sometimes what’s meant to break you makes you brave”) notable highlights. Busy Phillips chews it up as Regina’s needy mother and Tim Meadows is the long-suffering principal while, along with Fey, there’s also cameos from Jon Hamm  giving sexual relations counselling, Megan Thee Stallion as herself in a social media montage and Ashley Park, who originated the stage role of Gretchen as Madame Park, the school French teacher and even Lohan herself.  Mean Girls just wants to have fun. (Cineworld NEC, Solihull; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Omniplex Great Park; Vue)

Migration (PG)

There’s a scene where a family of Mallards stumble upon a battery farm where ducks are reared in luxury before being shipped off to a chef that is ascloseasthis to the same set-up in Dawn Of The Nugget. Coincidence, of course, but the comparison does it no favours.

The Mallards in question are a family headed up by Mack ((Kumail Nanjiani), an overprotective father who refuses to let his more adventurous wife Pam (Elizabeth Banks), or curious kids, teen  son Dax (Caspar Jennings), and duckling daughter Gwen (Tresi Gazal), leave the safety of their New England pond, telling them nightmarish  bedtime stories so they’ll be too scared to try. However, when another family of ducks stop over en route to migrating to Jamaica, he’s badgered into agreeing to make the trip too, joined by their  grumpy Uncle Dan (Danny DeVito). Inevitably, they fly the wrong way and end up in New York where they run into a gang of pigeons, their leader, Chump (Awkwafina), happening to know a parrot, Delroy (Keegan-Michael Key), who knows the way to Jamaica from where he was taken. They just have to rescue him from the cage where he’s kept imprisoned by the aforementioned Chef (Boris Rehlinger) whose speciality is duck à l’orange and who, in his personal helicopter, is soon on their trail.

It’s a fairly thin plot with well-worn messages about family, overcoming narrow-mindedness and facing your fears, with constant references to being eaten and a meeting with a heron (Carol Kane) who might have ulterior motives to taking them in from a storm (she does offer them a frying pan to sleep in)  likely to give more sensitive toddlers  a restless night . Colourful but forgettable, it passes the time painlessly enough but there’s more fun to be had in the 10 minute Minions short Mooned that precedes this decidedly lame duck.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Omniplex Great Park; Reel; Vue)

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)

Nimona (PG)

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

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

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

No Hard Feelings (15)

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

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

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

Nyad (15)

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

Strapping on the goggles, swimsuit (and bizarre protective masks at different points), doing her own swimming sequences Oscar nominee Annette Bening is Nyad (from the Greek for water nymph) while playing opposite is Oscar nominee 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)

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. (Omniplex Great Park; Reel; Vue)

Oppenheimer (12A)

Adapted from the 2005 biography American Prometheus, with 13 BAFTA and Oscar nominations, firm favourite writer-director Christopher Nolan delivers his finest work to date, a triumphant biopic of Robert J. Oppenheimer, the man who created the Atom Bomb and, as the film unambiguously avers, consigned the world to eventual destruction at its own hand. As Oppenheimer quoted from the Bhagavad Gita “Now I am become Death, destroyer of worlds”.

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

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

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

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

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

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)

Poor Things (18)

Already hoovering up awards and with 11 BAFTA and 9 Oscar nominations, with Emma Stone pretty much guaranteed the Best Actress Oscar for a performance of staggering  proportions,  this is unquestionably unlike anything you’ll have seen in the past or likely will in again. Directed by Best Director nominee Greek surrealist Yorgos Lanthimos and adapted by Tony McNamara (who also wrote previous Lanthimos/Stone project The Favourite as well as the splendidly vulgar The Great) from Alasdair Gray’s 1992 novel, it’s an intoxicating, beautiful, grotesque fantasy steampunk allegorical two hour plus cocktail of Frankenstein, My Fair Lady, Metropolis, The Wizard Of Oz, Candide and Tod Browning’s Freaks.

Set in an alternative 1800 reality where the Victorian and retro-futurism sit side by side, having committed suicide by jumping from London Bridge, the body of a pregnant young woman (Stone) is recovered from the Thames by Dr Godwin Baxter (Willem Dafoe), a surgeon and scientist with a scarred patchwork face who was, as he frequently notes in deadpan asides, cruelly used and disfigured by his own father in the name of science, her brain replaced by that of her unborn infant and her body reanimated by electricity. Naming her Bella Baxter, with the help of his housekeeper  Mrs Prim (a wonderfully dry Vicky Pepperdine)  he raises her as a surrogate daughter, a grown woman with a child’s brain, He also hires one of his students, mild-mannered Max McCandles (Ramy Youssef), to monitor and log her progress in mobility and  language as she develops, she variously banging on the piano or stabbing a corpse’s eyes in her nascent medical ambitions. He gradually falls in love with her and Godwin  (or God as Bella tellingly refers to him) suggest they marry, to which she agrees, but on the condition they remain within his house.

However, in overseeing the agreements, his caddish sleazy English lawyer, Duncan Wedderburn (Supporting Actor nominee Mark Ruffalo in hilarious panto villain mode), appeals to Bella’s  desire for adventure and persuades her to run off with him, planning to have his way with her before duping her in Europe. Things don’t quite work out that way. Having already discovered how to pleasure herself with fruit, she proves to have an insatiable desire for ‘furious jumping’ and he becomes besotted not to mention physically exhausted. However, as they travel around Europe, she discovers philosophy and  becomes   repulsed by his neediness, and, put ashore in France after she gives away all his money to care for Alexandria’s poor and he’s unable to pay for their cruise, she cuts him loose in Paris when he admonishes her for selling her body to raise cash. Indeed, her sexuality at hyperintensive levels, she takes up whoring full time, the go to choice in the brothel run by tattooed Madame Swiney (Kathryn Hunter).

Meanwhile, back in London, Godwin has embarked on a new experiment with Felicity (Margaret Qualley), Bella’s “younger sister” but is also dying of cancer, leading to Bella’s return and a third act revelation of her past that results in taking some rather extreme surgical measures of her own.

Wickedly and darkly funny, exuberantly raunchy with full frontal nudity and vigorous fucking  as Bella discovers liberated female sexuality and extends her grasp of language and self-purpose and lavishly adorned with wild imagery and details that variously embrace engineered creatures such as a duck with a dog’s head, the futuristic world of Lisbon and Bella’s wittily elaborate costumes with billowing shoulders that warrant a credit of their own, Godwin burping gastric juice bubbles, it’s an eye-popping visual orgasm.  Shot in both black and white akin to 30s horror movies and lurid colour, employing the director’s trademark use of fish-eye lens, every note is pitch perfect, but, Ruffalo’s gloriously comic turn notwithstanding, this is utterly Stone’s film. Speaking fractured syntax, walking with legs jerkily stiff and straight, arms windmilling, head swivelling and eyes forever alert and thirsty for knowledge and experience, she’s utterly mesmerising with a physical performance for which the term career best doesn’t come close to capturing. Poor Things is mindbogglingly awesome on steroids. (Electric; Everyman; Mockingbird; Omniplex Great Park;  Vue)

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)

Reptile (15)

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)

Retribution (15)

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)

Rustin (15)

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

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

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

Saltburn (15)

Actress turned novelist turned Killing Eve head writer turned writer-director, Emerald Fennell follows up her Promising Young Woman debut, 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, BAFTA nominee  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 BAFTA nominated-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)

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. (Now, Sky Go)

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)

Terminal (15)

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

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

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

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)

Wish (PG)

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 NEC; Mockingbird; Vue)

Wonka (PG)

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 NEC, Solihull; Mockingbird;  Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Omniplex Great Park; 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)

The Zone Of Interest (12A)

Rudolf Höss (Christian Friedel) is a caring father to his five children while his wife Hedwig (Sandra Hüller) runs the luxurious house and tends to their garden.  They picnic by the riverside. She entertains friends and other  wives, they have parties where the other children play on the water slide, and when her mother visits she’s much impressed with their successful lifestyle, with fine glasses  and devoted servants. It’s a bucolic life.

Except on the other side of the garden wall, on which Hedwig has trailed plants to hide things, lies Auschwitz and Höss  is its commander, the chimneys belching out some from the crematoriums and he  sitting down with Nazi architects to calmly discuss building a bigger and more efficient set of ovens to “Burn, cool, unload, reload” and boost the ‘yield’. When, in Hitler’s favour,  he’s promoted to oversee all the extermination camps and the Final Solution, and has to relocate, she, the Queen of Auschwitz, arranges to stay at the house

Loosely adapted from Martin Amis’s Holocaust novel but here based on the life of the real  Höss, for his long anticipated follow-up to Under The Skin, British writer-director Jonathan Glazer is here working in subtitled German, shooting on location (with a perfect recreation of the home) in flat tones and maintaining a detached observational and emotionally cold approach with very few close-ups as he addresses the banality of evil. We hear gunshots, we hear dogs, we hear cries, but we never see over the wall other than those smoke clouds, although there is a sequence when Höss takes the kids down to the river with his birthday kayak before rushing them out when he realises the water’s contaminated with the ashes of the dead. Only in the final moments does it venture inside, but only as a silent coda as the camera traces the harrowing exhibits in the modern day  museum.

The horrors are all suggested; the fur coat Hedwig tries on, taken from a Jewish prisoner, the gold teeth the son plays with at night. Nor do we see any Jews other than those enlisted to work in the house of gardens. There are though three sequences shot in polarised black and white when the film shifts from the mundane reality into an almost dreamlike world with  a young Partisan  girl  hiding fruit for camp prisoners.  Fuelled by disquieting naturalistic performances, jarring burst of sound and suffused with a quiet, unspeakable anger for which words and graphic images are not enough (it opens with a seemingly interminable completely black screen), and  while there are echoes of similarly located The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas it’s quite unlike any previous Holocaust film and it is chilling beyond belief. (Cineworld 5 Ways, Solihull; Electric; Mockingbird; Omniplex Great Park)

Screenings courtesy of Cineworld 5 Ways & Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe

CINEMAS

Cineworld 5 Ways – 181 Broad St 0871 200 2000

Cineworld NEC – NEC 0871 200 2000

Cineworld Solihull – Mill Ln, Solihull 071 200 2000

The 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

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