MOVIE ROUND-UP: From Fri Sept 24

With cinemas now open this column will review films both screening theatrically and/or on various streaming platforms.

 

NEW

The Many Saints of Newark (15)

Set in New Jersey and New York between 1998 and 2007, a multi-award winning series, The Sopranos ran for eight years, unfolding the story of an Italian-American crime family headed up by Tony Soprano, played by the late James Gandolfini. So, it helps if you at least have a working knowledge going in to this prequel which, directed by Alan Taylor (who helmed 9 TV episodes) and co-written with Sopranos’ creator David Chase, follows Tony’s childhood and teenage years, growing up in 60s Newark, the bulk of the narrative centring around the `67 race-fuelled Newark riots. It opens in a cemetery with a voice over from beyond the grave by Christopher Moltisanti (Michael Imperioli), the father of Dickie Moltisanti (Alessandro Nivola), the neighbourhood tough guy, father to Christopher (protégé of and later murdered in the series by Tony) and ‘uncle’ to Anthony, both as a young boy (William Ludwig) and as a teenager (Michael Gandolfini, the spitting image of his dad) when his father, ‘Johnny’ (Jon Berthal) is serving time.

Although offering an insight into how Tony grew into the crime boss on the series, it’s Dickie who serves as the film’s focus.  The extended family are a dysfunctional and violent bunch where murder, fratricide included, are pretty much everyday events  Dickie’s volatile father ‘Hollywood Dick’ (Ray Liotta) arrives  off the boat from Italy with his new young trophy wife Giuseppina (Michela De Rossi) and there’s immediately a sexual spark between her and Dickie, who shares his father’s temper (a moral ambiguity with which he wrestles throughout, wanting to “a good deed”), she later (after Dick’s demise, covered up by the riots) becoming his mistress, her sexual appetite ultimately proving to have fatal consequences after she beds Harold McBrayer (Leslie Odom Jr), who heads of a local African-American gang, initially working for the mob collecting betting money but determined to run their own operations (cue more bloodshed). Meanwhile,   initially sheepish and innocent A-student with a desire to be a good kid, Anthony is already cutting his criminal teeth hijacking an ice cream truck to give away free cones and running a numbers racket at school.

Fleshing out the colourful cast of characters, there’s merciless bewigged Corrado “Uncle Junior” Soprano (Corey Stoll), sociopathic Paulie “Walnuts” Gualtieri (Billy Magnussen), Silvio Dante (John Magaro “Big Pussy” Bonpensiero (Samson Moeakiola) with Liotta doing double duty as Dickie’s imprisoned jazz nut murderer uncle while Vera Farmiga is terrifyingly fierce as Tony’s haughty and psychologically disturbed mother Livia who became a matriarchal monster in the series. Clips of   Bogart and Edward G Robinson’s Key Largo underscore how they see mob culture as a glamourous macho life, something clearly undercut by the brutality by which they live it.

Visiting many sites that will be familiar to fans of the show, the film has a somewhat sprawlingly episodic framework to which the riots (scored to Gil Scott Heron’s Me and the Devil and The Revolution Will Not Be Televised), with shops looted, cars burning and the military on the streets serve as a somewhat undeveloped backdrop to mirror the increasing tensions between the African-American gangs and the Italians’ increasingly fragile empire. There’s an energy and unpredictability to events that make this compelling viewing, but devotees might feel that it’s really only a prelude to a further prequel that really shows how Tony became the man he was  later to be. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Vue)

The Ballad of Billy McCrae (15)

Returning home to Wales after going bust in Canada and being accused (but acquitted) of murdering his swindling partner, Chris Blythe (Ian Virgo) is wangled a job on a local quarry site where his dad used to work. It’s owned and run by “old bastard” hard man Billy McCrae (a scary David Hayman), someone you cross at your peril, an early scene having him smash a shovel into the face of a worker who answered back. Billy has a daughter, Elen (Sianad Gregory) and, inevitably, a relationship sparks up, her controlling father making it clear Chris shouldn’t hurt her. At the same time, asked to run a check over Billy’s receipts, Chris becomes involved with her father on a business level, one that, naturally, isn’t strictly legal, on the assumption that it’s a 50/50 split. It comes as no surprise, Billy being the manipulative, ruthless liar that he is, this doesn’t turn out well. And, without giving too much away about the last act twist, such traits apparently run in the family.

Narratively, it follows a fairly familiar trajectory, peppering the darkness of the drama with some sudden brutal violence and, while the belated revelations unveiled by a bloke at the wedding caption feel like black comedy (might it not have been an idea to mention all this earlier) and the ending is clumsily handled, this is a watchable addition to the catalogue of gritty British melodramas. (Cineworld NEC)

The Green Knight (12A)

Adapted from the anonymous epic 14th-century poem which related how the court of King Arthur (Sean Harris) is visited one Christmas Day by a mysterious green knight (Ralph Ines on), who, looking like some tree deity, challenges the knights to  give him a  blow on him, on the provision he returns the same one year hence. Looking to earn himself hero stripes, Gawain (Dev Patel), the nephew of the king and queen (Kate Dickie), strikes off the knight’s head, only for the body to pick it up and ride off to await a return visit in the Green Chapel.

As written and directed by David Lowery, this is not, however, the sort of sword and sorcery film you might expect. Rather, it’s an arty, mystical meditation on themes of honour, masculinity and the desire for immortality, Patel’s Gawain first seen as an unambitious dissolute ne’er do well given to booze and brothels   who takes up the challenge (using Excalibur, though neither it nor Arthur are referred to by name) as a quick way to elevate his status and become a knight, his regular shag, Essel (Alicia Vikander), dreaming of being his “lady”.

After a  year of basking in his notoriety, but conscious of what fate may await, as Christmas approached he sets out to keep his bargain, armed with the Green Knight’s giant axe and a magic girdle given him his sorceress mother  (Sarita Choudhury), that, a bit of a cheat,  will keep him from harm. As he goes upon his Pilgrim’s Progress-like journey, he finds his courage, morality and convictions tested by those he encounters, among then a bandit trickster (Barry Keoghan) who robs him and leaves him for dead, a woman asking him to recover her decapitated head from a lake, and a flirtatious Lord (a sly Joel Egerton) and his alluring Lady (Vikander again), the latter of whom seeks to tempt him to her bed (and gets him to ejaculate over the magic girdle she has someone acquired and returned) before finally arriving at his appointed destiny.

Lowery conjures a world characterised by decay, both physical and moral, in a transition between pagan and Christian, that makes for an atmospheric backdrop, but rather tends to overdo the otherworldly mystery with the likes of the blindfolded old woman at the Lord’s castle, Gawain’s mother’s spells and fellow witches,  the talking fox companion he acquires and the sight through the morning mist of a breastfeeding giant walking across the land with her fellows, none of which are ever explained and some of which, like Gawain’s vision of his future if he defaults on his bargain, may all be in his head.

Patel makes for a compelling flawed vulnerable hero beset by doubt, insecurity and internal confusion while the support cast afford a tapestry of subtle colours as Lowery weaves an intoxicating visual magic even as his cryptic telling resists easy access, its deep pleasures only truly surfacing as you look back after viewing. (Amazon Prime; Everyman)

The Guilty (15)

A remake of the claustrophobic Danish thriller of the same name and played out pretty much note for note, directed by Antoine Fuqua, this is a largely (and electrifying) one-man turn by Jake Gyllenhaal as Joe Baylor, an asthmatic LA police officer resentful of having been demoted to the job of a 911 call handler while awaiting trial for a never specified misdemeanour.  His marriage has also fallen apart, and he can’t get to speak to his young daughter.

It’s the night shift and his routine involves taking calls from assorted drunks, a man robbed by a sex worker, those caught up in the wildfire and others who want their problems solved, ascertaining location and then assigning the appropriate services. Then, he gets one from a woman, Emily (Riley Keough), who, in frightened tones, tells him she’s been abducted and is in the car, pretending she’s phoning her toddler daughter, Abby, to reassure her she’s okay.  Joe’s instincts kick in and he makes desperate calls to try and find her, eventually speaking to her daughter, establishing she’s in a white van, that she’s been taken by her ex-husband, who did time for assault, that he has a knife and that the children, the little girl and a baby, are home alone and one has been seriously injured.

As the clock ticks away and the crisis, like the fires, heats up, Joe becomes ever more concerned and ever more intense in his efforts, losing it with fellow officers, those he calls who don’t seem to be  responding as quickly as he wants and Emily’s ex, Henry (Peter Sarsgaard), when he gets him on the line, and Gyllenhaal, on headset and iPhone, ramps up the emotions and delivery accordingly, while also juggling calls to his estranged wife and a persistent reporter who wants his side to the story being trialled the next day.

Those who’ve seen the original will know about the devastating surprise third act twist, but if not I’ll say nothing to spoil the shock other than it throws a new light on the film’s title. With   Ethan Hawke adding to the disembodied voices as Joe’s former sergeant, the support cast deliver solid support but, often shot in sweaty close up, it is Gyllenhaal who is front and centre throughout, his efforts to save Emily clearly some sort of attempt at personal salvation amid the fuck up he’s made of his life, adding an extra edge to the final sequence. Riveting. (Empire Great Park)

Romeo and Juliet (12A)

Filmed on the National Theatre stage, without an audience, over seventeen days during the pandemic, directed by Simon Godwin with Josh O’Connor and a broadly accented Jessie Buckley in the title roles, opening with the actors gathered around the set in their everyday clothes for a run through,  this is a  heavily abridged (93 minutes rather than the two hours announced in the prologue) and reimagined take on Shakespeare’s tragedy, one which contains the bare bones of the doomed love story but otherwise tramples over the thematic nuances. It also makes so many bizarre and baffling revisions, seemingly just for the sake of experimentation and audacity, that the original text is rendered almost unrecognisable.

Most crucially, in the scene where Juliet declares she will not wed Paris, rather than her father throwing a hissy fit, it’s Lady Capulet (a quietly chilling Tamsin Grieg), an ineffectual figure in the original play, who castigates her, taking on the role of a controlling Machiavellian figure. Likewise, it’s a bit of a shock when the camera abruptly cuts away from Romeo and Juliet about to kiss  to Mercutio (Fisayo Akinade) and Benvolio (Shubham Saraf) unleashing their passions upon one another.

That the romance ends in twin grief-struck suicides is common knowledge, so the decision to introduce brief flash forward images of bloody hands and vials of poison seems at best clumsy and at worst crass. There are some nice touches, the masked ball plays out like a dance club with the guests getting down with the beats and Romeo spotting Juliet singing behind the microphone, while the fights are well-staged and the marriage scene in Friar Lawrence’s cell nicely littered with flickering candles. Although it dumps the ‘what light from yonder window breaks?’ speech, the balcony scene is also effective, but, while Buckley gives it her all, O’ Connor is more placid, their mismatched performances lacking the necessary chemistry, and rushing through the subsequent storyline for a virtual potted resume means there’s no depth, diminishing the couple’s passion and tragedy and draining it of the emotions it should elicit. A misfire on so very many levels, it may have a certain curiosity value, but purists and GCSE students would be well-advised to give it a miss.  (NOW, Sky Arts; Tue: MAC)

AVAILABLE NOW 

12 Mighty Orphans (12A)      

Back in 1938, under the guiding hand of WWI hero and successful football coach Rusty Russell (Luke Wilson), a scrappy team of teenagers from the local Fort Worth orphanage sensationally  upset America’s sporting world and served as a symbol of inspiration amid the Great Depression (cue a background shot of someone reading Of Mice And Men) by making their way to the state championships, defeating far more qualified and experienced teams, and  introducing an innovative game play offence strategy that (inspired by one of his young daughter’s drawings) would revolutionise the sport. It’s a believe in yourself underdog triumph story about American resiliency custom built for an old-fashioned feelgood  family movie which is exactly what director and co-writer Ty Roberts has  assembled here.

Himself an orphan, Russell moves his family to Fort Worth, he and his wife (Vinessa Shaw) taking teaching Math and English, respectively, at the Masonic Home orphanage and immediately butts heads with avaricious and cruel administrator Frank Wynn (Wayne Knight in the cartoon villain role), who reckons football’s a waste of time and cuts into his lucrative business of using the boys as forced labour on the school printing press. Rusty does, however, have support from Doc Hall (Martin Sheen), the orphanage’s crusty medic with a fondness for the booze.

With the arrival of a new orphan, the bitter Hardy Brown (Jake Austin Walker), who saw his father shot to death and turns out to be a powerful runner, Rusty sets about turning the ragtag collection of ill-suited boys into a proper team – and giving them a sense of self-worth in the process – despite initially having no field or indeed a ball, developing their academic abilities as part and parcel of their progress.

It plays out exactly as you would expect, what with a sneery rival coach (co-writer Lane Garrison) heading up their Polytechnic main rivals, Wynn’s attempt to sabotage their chances, assorted personal crises and clashes among the boys,  and the involvement of local press baron Amon Carter (Treat Williams) and even Franklin D Roosevelt himself when things looks lost.  Robert Duvall also puts in a brief cameo and an optimistic backer for the dogged dozen while the narrative is interspersed with Rusty’s traumatic flashbacks to his time in the trenches that serve as somewhat heavy handed metaphors.

Awash with a nostalgic glow and inoffensively bland in the telling a la Dead Poets Society or The History Boys, it affords the likes of scrappy Fairbanks (Levi Dylan) and skinny Snoggs (Jacob Lofland) a moment on the narrative spotlight, although Hardy is the main focus as he transforms from hothead to team anchor. It ends with screen titles revealing the glittering careers Russell and the real life orphans went on to achieve, a stirring testament to a can-do mentality, but, ultimately, a film that seems highly unlikely to make it to the box office touchdown.  (Cineworld Solihull)

Black Widow (12A)

Thirteen years on from the launch of the MCU, director Cate Shortland finally gives the Avengers’  Black Widow a long overdue origin story co-written by WandaVision’s Jac Schaeffer. Echoing The Americans, it opens in 1995 Ohio as with young blue-haired tomboy Natasha (Ever Anderson)   playing with her younger sister Yelena (Violet McGraw),  as part of  Russian sleeper cell with their fake family, mom Melina (Rachel Weisz) and  dad Alexei (David Harbour providing the comic relief), aka The Red Guardian,  the Soviet answer to Captain America. Their cover blown, they’re forced to flee from S.H.I.E.L.D., ending up in Cuba where the two girls are taken away by Dreykov (Ray Winstone with mangled accent) to become part of his army of female assassins. Cut to the immediate aftermath of the events in Captain America: Civil War, with Romanoff (Scarlett Johannson) wanted by the authorities, headed up by Secretary Ross (William Hurt), leading her to follow an ‘invitation’ to track down the estranged Yelena (Florence Pugh proving an action-woman natural), the world’s greatest child assassin apparently, who, as an earlier sequence shows, has, by means of some chemical red mist compound, now broken free of Dreykov’s mind control, and is  holed up in Budapest on the run for her former fellow Widows.

Suffice to say, some thrilling fisticuffs and explosions later, the orphan ‘sisters’  set off to track down Dreykov, whom Romanoff believed she’d killed, along with his young daughter as collateral damage, in his Red Room headquarters, and liberate the other assassins using a stash of the vials and put a  stop to his plans for world domination, a plan that involves rescuing the oafish Alexei from his high security prison  and reuniting with Melina who works for him as a mind control scientist (she’s got a bunch of trained pigs), and facing down Dreykov’s personal costumed and shield-slinging killer, the Taskmaster, who can mimic their opponents’ skills.

As such, it’s a fairly straightforward narrative, but, being Marvel, its invested with some serious emotional heavy lifting between the spectacular action sequences – several borrowed from Moonraker (it even features a clip and snatch of the music) – involving themes of family, sisterhood, identity crisis, sibling rivalry, free will, guilt and regret. Pugh and Johannson have terrific chemistry, with the former giving the film a real soul, as well as an amusing self-referential observation on Romanoff striking her trademark hair-flipping super-hero pose as well as observing how Thor doesn’t need to take ibuprofen after he’s been in a fight, while the latter’s background is further filled in on learning about her true biological mother and how she herself came to be part of the ‘family’ spy network.

Thrilling, action-packed, emotional and witty, it ends with the inevitable post credits scene which brings the timeline up to date with Yelena visiting Natasha’s grave and a meeting that sets up Pugh’s continuing role in the franchise and her next appearance as part of the Hawkeye TV series. Get bitten. (Disney +;  Vue)

Candyman (15)

Released in 1992, directed by Bernard Rose, the original, involving an urban legend about a spirit with a hook for a hand who, raised by speaking his name five times in front of a mirror, would appear and kill whoever summoned him, was a slasher horror with a loose racial undertone about black marginalisation, the ghostly killer the son of a slave, murdered in the late 19th century for his relationship with the daughter of a wealthy white man. Brushing aside the two crappy cash-in sequels, it will come as little surprise to learn that, co-written and produced by Get Out’s Jordan Peele, that, directed by Nia DaCosta, the undertone bubbles right to the surface in this race and class social satire update.

Again rooted in Chicago’s Cabrini-Green urban housing projects, The Trial of the Chicago 7’s Yahya Abdul-Mateen II stars as Anthony, a promising Chicago painter who, despite being encouraged and funded by his art gallery girlfriend Brianna (Teyonah Parris), has a case of  artist’s block. However, happy to compromise his principles so as to attract white clients who can’t get enough of works about black poverty, he decides to embark on a new work based around the now long since underfunded and abandoned ghetto. During his research he hears about  Helen Lyle, the grad student in the first film, and of the candyman legend from remaining longtime resident  and failed artist William (Colman Domingo), who, as an early flashback reveals, encountered the monster (the role reprised by Tony Todd), who handed out sweets laced with razor blades before the cops beat him to a  pulp, and rashly duly sets in motion events that will summon him back with increasingly blood consequences, kicking off with the  obnoxious gallery owner (Brian King)  who hosts Anthony’s mirrored Say My Name installation.

It’s not overly subtle, Anthony and Brianna live a life of wealthy privilege off the back of  servicing wealthy white clients, oblivious to the surrounding poverty, while he’s more than happy to play up to perceptions of him coming from an impoverished background if it makes his work more valuable and seemingly authentic. Needless to say, he learns a very bitter lesson as the body count mounts and a bee sting (the insect a recurring motif) incurred early one gradually ravages his hand and body in a visual metaphor of his selling-out guilt and inner racial anger.

Along with charting the power inequalities that elevate one group and keep others suppressed, and underscoring how white America sees and teats Black as monsters, the screenplay’s laced with subtexts about policy brutality and art world  pretentiousness (Rebecca Spence’s snotty female white critic gets her comeuppance, shot at a lengthy distance) that thicken the satire and tension.  Keeping the gore to a minimum and largely off camera (as with a somewhat gratuitous scene were a bunch of high school girls learn first-hand not to indulge in urban legends), it’s even more effective, as is the ominous score and shadow puppet scenes that permeate the film.

DaCosta overextends herself somewhat in the final act, over-explaining matters and working too hard to deliver another twist, but, anchored by Abdul-Mateen II’s fierce, complex performance, ending, as he becomes his own fear, with the anguished instruction “Tell everyone”.  Box office success suggests it’s doing just that. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Vue)

Copshop (15)

As much influenced by 70s action thrillers (and their soundtracks) as Tarantino, in his first since Liam Neeson wolf movie The Grey, director and co-writer Joe Carnahan serves up a cocktail of quips and carnage in this efficiently lean, muscular and compellingly engaging shoot em up that’s set almost entirely in a single location over a single night. That’ll be the Nevada police precinct in which, on the run from those who want him dead, Teddy Murretto (Frank Grillo), a weaselling con artist who double crossed and stole from his crime syndicate employers, contrives to get himself locked up by punching rookie cop Valerie Young (Alexis Louder) where he believes he’ll be safe. Not so, as Bob Viddick (Gerald Butler), the coolly ruthless hitman on his tail fakes being DUI so as to get banged up in the cell opposite, having put in place an ingenious plan to free himself and fulfil his contract.

Layered on top of this, the narrative also takes in a dirty cop (Ryan O’Nan) in bed with the mob, corrupt Feds and the murder of an attorney general, plus another, more psychopathic hitman, Anthony (a scenery-chewing Toby Huss), who, also out to collect the bounty on Muretto’s head, turns up carrying a bunch of party balloons and proceeds to shoot everyone in sight. Except, that is, Young who, though wounded, manages (after a tense scene changing the digital keypad password) to lock herself behind the armoured door to the cells where (weighing the moral scales) Muretto and Viddick each seeks to persuade her they’re her best bet to survive.

Inevitably calling to mind the similarly claustrophobic Assault On Precinct 13, the screenplay’s peppered with knowingly droll dialogue, such as discussion as to what déjà vu means and Muretto’s man-bun prompting reference to “Tom Cruise in that samurai film nobody watched”, alongside an ever rising body count and spent cartridges as it builds to a three way cat and mouse climax where you don’t count characters out unless you see the dead body.

Ostensibly, the underplaying Butler is the headline name with the more slippery Grillo as his co-star, but the film is stolen from them by Louder, recently seen in The Tomorrow War and The Watchmen TV series, as the determined, calm under pressure and smart greenhorn with a shaved head and a fascination for antique firearms, the coda as she sets off in pursuit of her fellow survivor setting up a promising potential sequel. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel; Vue)

 

The Courier (12A)

Based on real life events, written by Tom O’Connor and directed by Dominic Cooke, Benedict Cumberbatch gives a solid, underplayed performance as  Greville Wynne, a salesman representing various  manufacturing companies, who, at the height of the Cold War, was recruited by MI6 and the CIA (respectively represented by Angus Wright and Rachel Brosnahan) to travel to Moscow and make contact with Oleg Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze), a Soviet colonel who, alarmed by Kruschev’s increasingly volatile nuclear rhetoric, has indicated he’s ready to pass on information to help prevent  mutually assured destruction. The thinking is that, as someone with no obvious political connections, Wynne is unlikely to attract KGB attention.

Unable to tell his wife (Jessie Buckley) the real reason for his regular trips to Russia, she suspects he’s having another affair while Penkovsky’s wife also remains oblivious to her husband’s actions in smuggling photos out by Wynne in the build up to the Cuban Missile Crisis. Unfolding with a cool tension in secret meetings where the fear of discovery or being bugged is ever present, it sits well alongside similar espionage  films like Bridge of Spies and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. As history tells, the subterfuge was eventually uncovered, leading to a darker third act when Cumberbatch, shaved headed and looking increasingly emaciated, is banged up in a Russian prison, being interrogated to confess he actually knew what he was carrying for Penkovsky (it’s suggested he didn’t, hence plausible deniability) before the British government negotiated an exchange for his release.

Sharply scripted and with a strong chemistry between Cumberbatch and Ninidze as the two men develop a genuine friendship (Wynne called him Alex), Wynne secretly rather enjoying his adventure, ticking the usual genre conventions without them appearing like clichés, the film revealing the heroic – and costly – role he and Penkovsky (codenamed Ironbark by the CIA) played in ending the Cuban standoff, Oleg remarking over a shared meal “We are just two people, but this is how things change.”

Its low key, period thriller nature might not be a big audience grabber, but as an inspiring story of human decency and sacrifice for the greater good, it’s one that deserves to be told and deserves to be seen.  (Everyman; Vue)

The Croods : A New Age (PG)

A belated sequel to the 2013 animation about a stone-age family, following a quick reminder,  this picks up  shortly after the original with overprotective dad Grug (Nicolas Cage) still not happy with the idea that teenage daughter Eep (Emma Stone) has struck up a romantic relationship with  more evolved outsider, Guy (Ryan Reynolds). Here, though, we learn more about him in an opening sequence in which  his late parents send him off in search of his tomorrow before they’re drowned in tar. Giving Eep an eternity rock, they  plan to set off on their own path and way from the smelly sleep pile, until, as they, Grug and the rest of the family, wife Ugga (Catherine Keener), numbskull son Thunk (Clark Duke), Gran (Cloris Leachman) and feral five-year-old Sandy  are out foraging with  their giant pet sabretooth, Chunky, in search of a new home after their cave was destroyed,  come across a walled day-glo Eden stuffed with watermelons, berries and all manner of food.

This, it turns out, is the home of The Bettermans, Phil (Peter Dinklage) and Hope (Leslie Mann) and their daughter Dawn (Kelly Marie Trann), an advanced new agey  flip-flops-wearing family who’ve invented  nicer pale blue clothes, agriculture, irrigation, showers, lifts, indoor plumbing (cue toilet gag) and live in set of a luxury tree apartments. They, it transpired, knew Guy as a child and it was here that his parents were sending him. Now, socioeconomic snobs, they want to pair Dawn off with Guy and be red of the Croods as soon as possible, all under the guise of being friendly and doing it for their new guests’ best interests of a bright future beyond the garden.

Meanwhile, Eep and Dawn bond and take off on Chunk on the latter’s first adventure beyond the walls, proudly scoring her first scar, Thunk has become a prehistoric app social media zombie watching the world through his ‘window’ and Phil has a manipulative man to man chat with  Grug in his man cave sauna, persuading him to agree to them taking Guy off his hands.  The climax hinges on Grug defying Phil’s sole rule and eating all the bananas which, turns out to be a bad thing, since they are in fact the only thing keeping the Bettermans’ paradise safe from a tribe of quick to learn punch monkeys and, in turn, a giant mandrill-like answer to King Kong.

Naturally, all this builds up to messages about family, parenting, acceptance, living in harmony and, as, led by Gran, a warrior in her day, the women come to the rescue as the Thunder Sisters,  a  big dose of female empowerment.  There’s some great sight gags, such as Guy poring over a scrapbook of old family cave drawings as well as big action sequences like the Croods battling the predatory kangadillos  as they race through a canyon all set against an often surreal and psychedelic looking landscape inhabited with things like  land sharks and Wolf-Spiders. The voice work is excellent, Cage, Stone and Dinklage taking the honours, the banter witty,  satirical, knowing and peppered with in jokes. If you are of a mind, you can even read into it a political message about a divided America,  but probably best to just be a kid,  ride the prehistoric rollercoaster and enjoy the silliness. And the peanut toe. (Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel; Vue)

Don’t Breathe 2 (15)

Released in 2016, produced by Sam Raimi and directed by Fede Alvarez, the original film put an ingenious spin on the home invasion genre as a blind ex-Navy Seal took out a bunch of  hapless economically-challenged burglars in a plot that eventually revealed his own secret, a woman held prisoner in his Detroit basement he’d artificially inseminated to replace the daughter lost to a traffic accident.  Well, now directed by original co-writer Rodo Sayagues, it seems lightning strikes twice as, that whole seedy  rapist subplot  seemingly erased, Nordstrom (an imposing Stephen Lang), here more of a heroic   figure, again finds himself battling  intruders , although his time round their intent has nothing to do with robbing him.

Given his original plan to  acquire a surrogate daughter went sour, it seems that he rescued a young girl  when her druggie parents chemicals went up in flames and burned down the house, presumably killing them. The (more a long stretch nameless) 11-year-old  (Madelyn Grace) now calls him father, but he’s overly protective and she longs to be able to play with the other kids from the local children’s home that she sees in the park.

One day, while out with former Army Ranger Hernandez (Stephanie Arcila),  Normandson’s only contact with society, she encounters a guy hanging around the rest room who subsequently follows her home. He turns out to be  Raylan (Brendan Sexton III), who heads up a drugs gang and is also her real dad. And so he send his stooges and  his Rottweiler to abduct her (Normandson lured out of the house to find his missing dog),  for reasons that prove rather less than paternalistic and, in an unpleasant but very silly twist, link to an earlier news item about the search for  an organ trafficker.

While, trained by  Normandson,  the kid proves  resourceful at hiding and his  confrontations with the tugs are gruesomely inventive (at one point he superglues someone’s (Bobby Schofield) mouth and nose shut, prompting his psycho brother (Adam Young) to pierce his cheek with a screwdriver so he can breathe, they also become numbingly repetitive and dull. At least, after the survivors make off with the girl (who goes willingly after  the truth about her ‘father’ is explained), the film expands its location from the claustrophobic house (which itself goes up in flames, though fire services seem to be absent in Detroit) to a final showdown with Raylan and, her yes, the kid’s not dead but wheelchair confined and dying mom, in some abandoned building. But even here it’s again more of the same, our indomitable avenger  dragging himself back up after numerous beating stabbing and shootings to protect the girl.

Lang reprises the role solidly enough, but the screenplay and workmanlike direction do neither him nor the rest of the cast any favours and while, a post credits scene  hints we may not have seen the last of the blind warrior, I wouldn’t hold your breath. (Vue)

Extinct (U)

Flummels are ring-doughnut shaped creatures with a hole in their middle and who travel like rolling tyres, they live on one of the Galápagos Islands where brother and sister  Op (Rachel Bloom) and Ed (Adam Devine) are the tribe’s misfits,  she always creating a mess and he a grumpy pessimist who longs to fit in. However, vain flummels leader Jepson (Henry Winkler) and bossy assistant  Mali (Alex Borstein) aren’t about to let that happen, Ed being consigned to be friend at the end, a straggler in the upcoming 10th annual flower festival procession. But even that’s denied him when they inadvertently cause a friendly whale to swamp the beach, Op and Ed being consigned to sit the festival out on desolation rock.

Looking to find a way to redeem themselves, Op leads Ed up the far side of the mountain to the forbidden zone in search of some extra special blooms  and, falling into a  glowing flower, find themselves magically transported to present day  Shanghai. Here, lost and confused,  they’re helped by   Clarence (Ken Jeong), a small white mix-breed Pomeranian that belonged to a now missing scientist who discovered seeds that enabled him to travel in time and visit historic events. He reveals the dreadful truth that, shortly after they left, a volcanic explosion wiped out all flummels, but says that, through  Dr Chung’s (Benedict Wong)  time terminal he can help them travel back and save their species.

Unfortunately, another Op and Ed accident throws Clarence into a random portal (where he becomes one of explorer Edward Shackleton’s thuggish sled dogs) along with the 1835 seed, leaving them at a loss at what to do. At which point they meet The Extinctables (an in-joke nod to Stallone’s The Expendables), a group of extinct creatures, dodo Dottie (Zazie Beetz), Tasmanian tiger Burnie (Jim Jefferies), Macrauchenia Alma (Catherine O’Hara) and Hoss (Reggie Watts), a baby Triceratops,  rescued by Chung, who now live in the time terminal library. They offer to help Op and Ed visit various times to try and find Clarence, eventually recovering the seed that will save the flummels. However, an argument sees Op returning on her own and,  at this point, there’s an unexpected twist where Clarence’s motives turn out to be something entirely different to what first appeared.

With a plot that involves time travel loops that Doctor Who might find complicated and the introduction of such characters as a cyclops, the captain of The Beagle (Nick Frost) and his passenger Charles Darwin (Tom Hollander) on its 1917 voyage of discovery, as well as offering snippets of historical information, this is directed by David Silverman who made The Simpsons Movie and written by three of The Simpsons scriptwriters. As such, while  aimed at youngsters and borrowing from films like Ice Age, there’s also plenty of sly – and at times risqué – humour for the adults too (Clarence says his mom was ‘social’, an interspecies romance and, a laugh out loud   cannibal-joke as  Op bites into an actual doughnut and splatters a horrified Ed with jam), plus of course it comes with an upstanding message about courage, being true to yourself and the power of friendship and all the characters have very definite personalities.  An unexpected delight.  (Sky Cinema)

Free Guy (12A)

Every day, Guy (Ryan Reynolds) wakes up in his Free City apartment to the sound of Mariah Carey’s Fantasy, puts on his regular blue shirt, tie and buff trousers, wishes his goldfish good morning, gets his usual coffee from the diner, sees his friend’s store getting robbed and goes to work as teller in a bank, his mantra “Don’t have a good day, have a great day”, where his best buddy, Buddy (Lil Rel Howery), is a security guard.  Every day someone comes in shooting off a gun and robs the place. They are always wearing sunglasses, because, in Free City, a place characterised by random acts of violence, war machines and the like, the people in sunglasses are a special type, not like ordinary folk, like Guy. But Guy has an emptiness and fantasises of meeting his ideal woman. Then, one day, she passes him by in the street. She’s wearing sunglasses, so, according to Buddy, out of his league. But he goes after her and eventually learns she’s called Molotov Girl (Jodie Comer), a British-accented assassin, and is apparently on a mission.

He also learns that he is, in fact, not real. And nor is Free City. It’s a computer game and, as referred to by two cops (one dressed as pink bunny) who come after him, he’s an NPC, a non-player character, one of those generic figures that populate the game for the actual players to interact with (i.e. generally shoot, maim or the like) on their missions. But somehow, he’s acting counter to his programming. Hence the cops, real-world gamers, looking to shut him down. Molotov Girl too is a player, and, in the real world, she’s Millie who, along with her genius ex-colleague Keys (Joe Keery) created the code on which Free City is based, and which was stolen by gaming corporate  megalomaniac Antwan (a scenery-chomping Taika Waititi), and she needs to enter the game and secure the evidence to prove this.

Now sporting his own glasses, which enable him to see Free City through the eyes of a player, told he needs to level up before he’s of any use to her, Guy sets about becoming Blue Shirt Man, stopping crime and generally being a hero before eventually joining her on her mission. And a romance blossoming over bubblegum ice cream and swings.  However,  readying to launch Free City 2, and in the process consign the original to oblivion, Antwan,  is determined to prevent her and to eliminate Guy, by ordering Keys’ friend Mouser (Utkarsh Ambudkar) to reboot it, or even totally destroy the whole set-up.

An exuberant cocktail of Ready Player One and The Truman Show with a smidgeon of Groundhog Day and Sims for good measure, it’s a colourful high-energy eager to please affair that uses its protagonist’s existential crisis as a springboard rather than a heavyweight issue, with Guy actually an algorithm designed by Millie and Keys that has hyperevolved into a  pixelated AI with free will. Stuffed with background sight gags and the explosions and visual effects going off like firecrackers  on New Year’s Eve, directed by Shawn Levy, it has great fun with the whole gamer’s universe, such as  nerd living in his mum’s basement whose avatar is a tough-guy played by Channing Tatum, and gaming conventions such as boosting your weaponry by accessing bonuses along the way, while other gleeful celeb cameos include a masked player voiced by Hugh Jackman,  and, in very funny nod to the MCU  as Guy takes on a dim-witted He-Man version of himself named Dude, even one of  The Avengers cast themselves.

Switching between the real and the virtual, it’s more in your face than even Disney in trumpeting its self-awareness be who you really are and what you can be message (delivered as such by Guy to his assembled fellow NPCs) while naturally including the staple romcom subplot of the character who doesn’t realise their true love has been staring them in the face all along. As in Killing Eve, Comer deftly switches between her two personas while Reynolds delivers his familiar amiable joker routine with rapid fire quips, albeit dialled down to a gentler level than Deadpool and with a far sweeter demeanour, while the support cast (which include a bank customer whose arms are always in hold up position)  dive in with undisguised glee.   It never aims to be more than it is, hyperactive candy floss and sherbet dip for the digital generation, and, as such, it’s irresistible fun. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Vue)

Gunpowder Milkshake (15)

Abandoned (for her own good) as a youngster  (Freya Allan) by her contract killer mother Scarlet (Lena Headey) when a job involving some nasty Russians went sour,  Sam (a cool Karen Gillan) now works doing likewise  for the same  shady organisation of businessmen gangsters, The Firm,  whose overseer, Nathan (Paul Giamatti), took her under his wing. She’s very good at what she does, and after each job she likes to unwind at the neutral zone diner   with a large ice cream milkshake.

Unfortunately, history repeats itself when, on her latest contract to recover some stolen Firm money,  she unwittingly kills the son of a powerful Russian  mobster whom her employers don’t want to upset, thus removing the protection she enjoys, and sending her on the run, during the course of which she acquires a cute 8-year-old, 8 Emily (My Spy’s Chloe Coleman) whose dad stole the money to pay her ransom and who she killed (though, to be fair, she shot him in a tussle and did take him to the hospital)  and reunites with her ‘aunts’ in The Sisterhood, Anna May (Angela Bassett), Florence (Michelle Yeoh)  and Mathilde (Carla Gugino), three fellow assassins who run The Library, a brilliantly imagined sanctuary where assorted weapons are stored inside  the books on the shelves. Needless to say, at some point, after 15 years, mum resurfaces too.

A sort of female action spin on John Wick  with liberal helpings of Kill Bill and Bad Times at the El Royale that plays with the same wink in its eye, it rattles along as Sam is pursued by both an army of Russian goons and The Firm’s bumbling enforcers (taking them on while her arms are temporarily paralysed and they’re under the influence of laughing gas), rescues Emily from the kidnappers  by way of a bravura sequence at  a bowling alley using a bowling ball as a deadly weapon, a guns blazing, chain, hammers and tomahawk-wielding shoot out at The Library To the sound of The Animals cover It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue  and a final showdown at the diner. Also thrown into the mix is Ralph Ineson as Sam’s decidedly off his head father and a fight involving a suitcase handle.  With an ending that demands both a  sequel and prequel,  it knows it’s just colourful, blood spattered popcorn fun and clearly relishes every mouthful. (Sky Cinema/NOW)

Herself (15)

Following on Mamma Mia and The Iron Lady, director Phyllida Lloyd takes a more low key approach  to this bleak but ultimately uplifting story about surviving domestic abuse and the minefield of Dublin’s not fit for purpose housing policies.  Badly beaten by her abusive husband Gary (Ian Lloyd Anderson), a traumatic incident witnessed by one of her young daughters, Sandra (Clare Dunne) finally summons up the strength and courage to leave, in the process finding herself  and her two children, Emma (Ruby Rose O’Hara) and Molly (Molly McCann) temporarily homeless, bundled around a series of state-funded grubby hotels, one of which is near the airport where she ordered to use the  service door at the back so as not to offend the won’t upset the affluent pilot clientale.

She also has a cleaning job, one of her long-time clients being Peggy (Harriet Walter), a wealthy woman whose house her mother cleaned before her, who is invalided following a broken him. Secretly accessing her laptop, Sandra learns of a help-to-build housing scheme,  and, when her proposal to borrow the €35,000 is turned down flat by the council benefits department (despite it saving them money in the long run), she’s offered a lifeline by Peggy who gifts her land in her garden and lends her the money.  A chance encounter down the local DIY store also leads to Aido (Conleth Hill) a retired builder, being won over and coming aboard to help, recruiting several  others to lend  willing hands, among them his  Down syndrome Francis (Daniel Ryan),single mother Rosa (Anita Petry) and carpenter Dariusz (Dmitry Vinokurov).

Meanwhile, a parallel narrative strand involves Gary’s visiting rights, he putting on a veneer of charm for the children’s benefit,  which further strains on matters when, while Emma is okay with visiting, Molly, traumatised by what she saw refuses and, following a minor injury, at the building site, prompts a custody hearing where he seeks to have Sandra declared an unfit mother and which prompts a stirring monologue as to why she didn’t leave earlier.

The narrative is rather overconvenient and tone somewhat uneven, not helped by the rather literal soundtrack and songs such as Chandelier and Bulletproof, as it switches from upbeat female empowerment montages to emotional collapses and PTSD flashbacks, but Dunne, who co-write the screenplay, takes command of the role while Law and Hill provide commendable support and young O’Hara suggests a very bright future, the film ending with both a major setback and a pat but hopeful resolution.  (Cineworld NEC, Solihull)

Jungle Cruise (12A)

It used to be that the film spawned the theme park ride, but these days it’s more often the other way round.  This, set in 1917,  is the seventh to be based on a Disney theme park attraction, although  cine-literate audiences will recognise it’s also heavily influenced by the Bogart and Hepburn classic The African Queen, the roles here taken by Dwayne Johnson and Emily Blunt. She’s Lily Houghton, a trousers-wearing British botanist who’s determined to find a legendary ancient tree, hidden somewhere in the depths of the Amazon, the petals of which, the Tears Of The Moon, will heal any illness. Wearing the same sort of hat as Bogart, he is Frank Wolff, the cynical skipper of a ramshackle river boat who, in hock to the local Italian businessman (Paul Giamatti), runs cruises up and down the Amazon, given to making dreadful puns and something of an opportunistic con artist staging assorted ‘perils’ for his gullible  Western tourists. Lily having stolen a mystical arrowhead which, along with an old map, she believes will lead her to the tree, heads for Brazil along with her impractical foppish brother MacGregor (Jack Whitehall) where, after assorted antics (including a staged attack by Frank’s tame jaguar), she ends up hiring him to skipper them on their mission. She calls him Skippy, he calls her Pants.  However, she’s not the only one after the petal and, as the travel up the Amazon, they’re pursued by Prince Joachim (an accent mangling Jesse Plemons), apparently one of the Kaiser’s sons, in his  submarine, who wants to use its powers to help the German army win the war.

It should, at this point, be mentioned that there’s also a curse attached to the legend, dating back to the 16th century when, led by Aguirre (Edgar Ramírez), a bunch of Spanish Conquistadors came in search of the petals, massacred the natives who protected the tree and ended up being forever trapped by the jungle, their zombie selves being liberated and teaming up with Joachim.

Shamelessly pilfering from not only The African Queen, but also Romancing The Stone, Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Mummy and Pirates of the Caribbean  (and for art house devotees, Aguirre, Wrath Of God) , it could have profitably have been trimmed by 15 minutes (ditching some baggage as Frank does with MacGregors’), but you can’t say director Jaume Collet-Serra’s doesn’t give value for the price of admission, what with telepathic bees, snakes, rapids,  plunging waterfalls, running over collapsing structures, swinging from ropes, dart-blowing natives, headhunters, explosions  and much more. And along the way there’s  the inevitable burgeoning romance between Lily and Frank (he has a secret, so let’s just say it’s probably good if she prefers older men) as well as a sensitively handled scene where MacGregor (Whitehall rising above his initial comic relief role)  confesses to Frank that his affections are not directed at women.

Blunt and Johnson play off each other well, though it’s fair to say she scores the most points, and both throw themselves into the film’s physical demands with great gusto, and, at the end of the day, it’s all a good hearted rollercoaster ride through old fashioned Saturday matinee adventure escapism and none the worse for that.  (Disney +; Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Vue)

Kate (15)

Directed by Cedric Nicolas-Troyan,  this mines similar territory to Jason Statham’s Crank, DOA and 24 Hours To Live in a race against the clock Tokyo-set thriller in which, following a one night stand quickie before being sent on a new mission that will be her final job, female assassin Kate (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) finds she’s been given  fatal radiation poisoning. Now, with the help of adrenalin boosting shots, she has just 24 hours to track down those responsible, which she believes to Kijima (Jun Kunimura), the  elderly Yakuza boss who was her mark and whose younger brother she killed 10 months earlier. Tracking him down involves kidnapping his niece, Ani (Miku Patricia Martineau), a mouthy teenager who, it transpires, is the daughter of the man she killed back in Osaka some years earlier, which has left her with a guilty conscience over breaking the ‘no kids’ rule. Unaware of Kate’s involvement, when she discovers that she’s been deemed expendable by her uncle’s lieutenant, Renji (Tadanobu Asano), impressed by Kate’s deadly prowess (she calls her a Terminator – cue a red bloodshot eye), she becomes a willing and eager sidekick as the pair set out to track down Kijima and exact revenge.

Inevitably, tracing themes of family, loyalty and double-crosses, the plot throws in a not entirely unpredictable third act twist involving him, Renji and Varrick (Woody Harrelson), Kate’s father-figure handler who groomed her lethal skills from when she was orphaned, but, anchored by a solid gritty but human action woman turn from Winstead discovering her maternal instincts towards the girl she orphaned (see Gunpowder Milkshake too) as she staggers through events, coughing up blood and getting battered, and some engaging comedic input from Martineau as the brattish but ultimately likeable Ani.  With plenty of punchy regulation fight scenes and car chases to drive things along inbetween the character moments and emotional pulses, it makes for a watchable popcorn and a beer Friday night. (Netflix)

The Last Bus (12A)

Although in practical terms, the journey it depicts would have involved considerably more planning than shown, director Gillies MacKinnon offers a gentle, slow burn tale in which,  using only local bus routes on his free bus pass, retired engineer Tom (Timothy Spall) retraces the country-spanning path he and his late wife Mary  (Phyllis Logan) took when, following a family tragedy hinted at but not revealed until towards the end, they (Ben Ewing, Natalie Mitson) relocated from Land’s End in Cornwall to John O’Groats in the northerly tip of Scotland in their first year of marriage, visiting the same café and staying at the same B&B along the way.

Experiencing both the cruelty (a drunken racist, an officious English bus conductor) but mostly the kindness of strangers (a couple who take him in when he injures himself), as well as dispensing life wisdom to those that need it, a knowing smile here, a comforting arm there, unknowingly Tom becomes something of a viral social media figure along the way, culminating in a final scene as he arrives at his destination still carrying the suitcase containing the two touching reasons for his visit (one is easily guessed, the other not so much so).

The heartwarming encounters punctuated by assorted flashbacks to the couple’s youth as well as his final days with the dying Mary, it’s a wistful, touching an at times softly humorous affair that’s part travelogue part emotional journey through the past fuelled by a deep love that may take its time arriving but offers stops to see humanity at its best en route. (Reel)

 

Malignant (18)

Horror maestro James Wan steps back into the director’s seat as he looks to add another string to his Saw, Insidious and Conjuring franchises. Unfortunately, this isn’t one of his finer moments, never quite pulling its plot together despite a kitchen sink and all third act. It opens at a spooky hilltop (where else) psychiatric hospital where an unseen patient is having something of a bloodily murderous episode, the doctor declaring that it’s time to cut out the cancer”.

Cut to the present where, pregnant again after a series of miscarriages, Madison (Annabelle Wallis) is attacked in a fit of anger by her abusive husband, causing a wound at the back of her head that somehow never seems to stop bleeding, and, going downstairs the next morning find him brutally murdered and herself attacked by some dark figure, subsequently waking up in hospital with her sister Sydney (Maddie Hasson.) by her side to learn she’s lost the baby.

Returning home, she starts experiencing visions of people being murdered by the same figure, which inevitably turn out to be real, Madison apparently having some psychic link to the killer, although, of course, one of the cops on the case (Michole Briana White), naturally fingers her as the suspect.  As the screenplay flounders around trying to build some sort of backstory, it turns out Madison was adopted, that she had psychiatric treatment and that her birth mother may still be alive in plot which, ludicrous even for a supernatural horror, involves a demonic Siamese twin, repressed memories, possession and bloody revenge. A strand suggesting a romantic frisson between Sydney and the handsome cop (George Young) never gets off the ground, while the recurring gruesome kills and hallucinatory imagery fail to stop even the most inattentive viewer from figuring out who’s responsible. The kidnapping of a tour guide to an underground hidden city over which the other was built (cue glaringly obvious symbolism), who’s imprisoned in the demons’ den never makes any narrative sense, but then very little in the film does. It ends on a delirious, demented high, but the getting there is a real slog. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Vue)

Minari (12A)

A loosely autobiographical drama about Korean immigrants in the rural US  inspired by writer-director Lee Isaac Chung’s childhood, it stars  Steven Yuen as Jacob who, as the film starts, moves his wife Monica   (Yeri Han) and their two young kids, Anne (Noel Cho) and David (the scene-stealingly cute and wise Alan S. Kim), her young brother with a weak heart,  from California to live in a secondhand  mobile home, propped up on cinder blocks in the middle of nowhere Arkansas, using the money saved from years working sexing chickens in the city.

The family’s not best impressed, but while they work in the local chicken hatchery, Jacob’s determined to turn the accompanying land into a  farm, growing Korean vegetables to sell for his fellow ex-pats yearning for a taste of home. The soil, he tells his wife, is perfect. Unfortunately, the water supply isn’t.  But with the help of eccentric Pentecostal field hand Paul (Will Patton), things initially seem to be starting to look up. Until Jacob’s dream starts hoovering up all their savings. And then, to keep his wife sweet, he agrees for her mother (BAFTA  and Oscar Best Actress winner Youn Yuh Jung) to join them, the kids, who have become Americanised, not overly thrilled by the strange foods their mischievous Grandma brings with her. David, who has to share a room, reckons she smells Korean and takes  exception to her embarrassing him about his bedwetting issues (he gets his revenge in wickedly funny way). She does, however, bring with her the water celery seeds of the title that she sows in the nearby creek, a versatile crop that (serving as the film’s metaphor) can grow anywhere.

As Jacob’s American Dream falls apart around him and the promised land increasingly becomes less so, so does it impact on family life and the marriage, the film never overplaying the way the fault lines develop and keeping a strong focus on the interaction of the characters making its emotional impact honestly earned.  (Amazon Prime, Apple TV, Google Play, Vudu, YouTube)

The Mitchells v The Machines (PG)

Produced by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller who directed The Lego Movie and 22 Jump Street and produced Into The Spider-Verse and the other Lego movies with writer-director team Mike Rianda and Jeff Rowe making their feature debut (with characters based on their own family members), this is hugely entertaining fun animation with a solid message about embracing your inner weirdo and a cautionary tale about letting technology control you rather than the other way around.

When Mark Bowman, head of an Apple-like tech company, introduces his latest invention, an upgrade white humanoid robot servant version of his AI smartphone assistant, he’s not prepared for the Siri-like PAL (voiced by Olivia Colman) to take revenge for being consigned to history by taking control of the robots (who resemble Star Wars’ battle droids) and, Terminator-style, setting out to rid the planet of all humans.  She’s not, however, reckoned on the Mitchells.

An oddball family headed up by technophobe Rick (Danny McBride), who wishes everyone would leave their cellphones for at least a few minutes and actually talk to each other round the dinner table, and super-positive wife Linda (Maya Rudolph), they have two kids, young dinosaur-obsessed Aaron (Rianda)  who randomly calls people in the phone book to talk about  them, and teenage Katie (Abbi Jacobson), an aspiring filmmaker who, on the back of her home videos featuring their cross-eyed pug Monchi, has landed a place at film school in California.  However, her relationship with her dad is prickly since he just doesn’t get her and, for reasons explained later, tends to speak of potential failure rather than potential success.

Trying to make up for his comments and behaviour, Rick arranges to take the whole family on a road trip to Katie’s college in their battered orange station wagon and, stopping off at a rundown dinosaur attraction en route, they find themselves at the centre of the worldwide robot attack, rounding up humans and sending them off to their Silicon Valley HQ in flaying green boxes. And so it is the Mitchells end up as the last humans not in captivity and, with the aid of two robots (Fred Armisen,  Beck Bennett) whose programming has been send into a spin by being unable to decide if Monchie is a dog, a pig or a loaf of bread, they set out to save the world.

It’s a silly and as anarchic as it sounds and all concerned revel in the opportunity to go wild, both in the use of the animation, which at times includes real YouTube clips as well as cartoon drawings of the family and their escapades, and in a non-stop barrage of gags, none of which miss the target, along with any number of energetic action sequences, including a show down with the world’s biggest Furby in a shopping mall and Linda letting loose her inner Mulan against PAL’s killer robots.

Never losing sight of its central theme of family bonds,  father-daughter in particular, it rattles along with unflagging energy and a support cast that includes John Legend and Chrissy Teigen as the Mitchells’  supercool neighbours, this is an absolute joy. (Netflix)

The Nest (15)

Opening in mid-80s suburban America, director  Sean Durkin’s long anticipated follow up to Sundance winner Martha Marcy May Marlene is a slow burn drama about  the disintegration of a marriage and a family that cleverly insinuates horror movie suggestions without ever resorting to manifesting them as such.

While they have a comfortable life, wife Allison (Carrie Coon) runs a horse riding school and their kids, stepdaughter Samantha (Oona Roche) and Benjamin (Charlie Shotwell) are well-adjusted and happy, high flyer commodities broker, Rory O’Hara (Jude Law) is, however, tired of living in the States. As such, their fourth relocation in ten years, he arranges to move the family back home to England and hook back up with his old boss, Arthur Davis (Michal Culkin), to run his own division, where he says lucrative opportunities await.

Though understandably unsettled, the wife and kids go along with things, arriving to join Rory who has gone ahead and rented a huge Surrey countryside mansion where Led Zeppelin once rehearsed and where he’s going to have stables built for Allison so she can have her own riding school. All seems perfect, except, bolstered by Richard Reed Parry’s score and Mátyás Erdély’s cinematography, evoking 80s horror in the home movies,  Durkin’s dispassionate direction slowly and subtly, reveals this to be far from the case. Hints of the domestic rot are shown early as Rory arranges for Benjamin to attend a prestigious private academy, where he’s inevitably bullied, while Samantha is dumped in the local high school, further fuelling her growing resentment and rebelliousness. When cheques for the stables construction bound, it also becomes clear that Rory has over extended himself (he also talks of maintaining a  New York home and getting a London flat), things spiralling ever downwards as his planned Big Merger is dismissed by Davis,  the debts pile up and Allison feels increasingly stifled by her new environment.

Though obviously a manifestation of his insecurities , the film teases that Ben’s fear of the house may have a supernatural basis, compounded by Allison finding the front door inexplicably open one night, but, again, this simply adds to the  psychological terror, as does the sudden death of Allison’s horse, who she had shipped over from America (and which entails a deeply unsettling subsequent scene), all underscoring that, while it may not be haunted, the ‘nest’ serves as a metaphorical horror object that exacerbates and magnifies the growing cracks in the family.

Discovering Rory’s lies prompts a powerful scene involving business dinner with poetical Norwegian clients where she embarrassingly calls out his bullshit, before sweeping out and going to a local bar to get drunk and dance, while, having missed the train and with no cab fare, he’s left to walk home, where Sam has invited a rowdy bunch of local youths to a party.

While clearly a less than admirable figure, Rory is given a scene in which, visiting his estranged mother (Anne Reid) for the first time in a decade (she’s not aware he’s married or she has a grandson), which reveals his own working class background and implies an unhappy childhood that he’s been driven to rise above. As such, Law delivers a suitably nuanced performance that balances smooth-talking ruthlessness with a deep vulnerability, his family sacrificed to his personal ambitions, while Coon quietly magnetises the screen whenever she’s on camera.

Taking its time to unfold and closing with an open ending, it’s a precisely constructed and chilly film that requires patience, but one that offers rewards for the effort you take. (MAC)

The Night House (15)

The film opens a few days after Owen (Even Jonigkeit), the architect husband of caustic upstate New York schoolteacher Beth (Rebecca Hall), overwhelmed with depression, took a rowboat out on to the lake by the house he built for them and, naked, blew his brains out with “a gun that I didn’t even know we owned”, leaving behind a cryptic suicide note.  It’s not long before starts sensing a presence, hearing noises at night with bloody footprints appearing on the jetty, being woken with the stereo turning itself on, getting texts and calls from her dead husband and seeing shadowy figures.  Or is it a case that, waking up on the floor, she’s having grief-driven black outs and dreaming? Besides, she too suffered from depression and, as she later reveals, once briefly died, leaving her fully convinced there is no afterlife. Her friend and colleague Claire (Sarah Goldberg) is worried about her, as is her neighbour Mel (Vondie Curtis Hall), but Beth shrugs off their offers of help, pouring support from the brandy bottle instead.

Things take a sinister turn when she discovers photos on Owen’s phone of another woman who looks like her, an assistant at a local bookstore, as well as that he was secretly building another house just like their own and was likely dabbling in occult beliefs. Despite being married for 14 years, there’s clearly a lot she didn’t know about her other half. Mel admits he knew about the construction as well as Owen’s confession of an obsession and dalliance with Beth lookalikes, but says he kept quiet as it all seemed to blow over (though apparently wasn’t concerned that Owen turned up with blood on his hands, as the narrative becomes increasingly complicated and convoluted.
Director David Bruckner delivers a mounting sense of dread as, under a blood-red moon, it builds to a not entirely lucid poltergeist assault climax and over explanatory third act involving parallel worlds, doppelgangers and demons that seems to suggest death as something of a jealous lover who wants the bride taken from him. Atmospheric enough to keep you engaged despite the muddled storyline, largely down to a persuasive performance from Hall carrying the film as the bold, scared and not always entirely likeable Beth who lifts it beyond its ultimately shaky foundations. (Vue)

Our Ladies (15)

It’s 1996 and, under the supervision of  choirmaster Sister Condron (Kate Dickie), who they’ve dubbed Sister Condom, a choir of Catholic schoolgirls are, led by doctor’s daughter head girl Kay (Eve Austin), inevitably ostracised on account of her wealthier status,  off from their Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour convent school in the dead-end, desolate west-coast Highlands town of Fort William, where working in Woolworths is the height of ambition, to compete in a competition in Edinburgh.

However, rather than dreaming off coming home with first prize, close housing estate friends Kayla (Marli Siu), who fronts a crappy garage band, cynical ostensible gang leader Finoula (Abigail Lawrie), the sassy,  bullish Manda (Sally Messham), the impoverished but sexually experienced Chell (Rona Morison) still grieving her drowned father, and, a local celebrity having being apparently cured of leukaemia at Lourdes, Orla (Tallulah Greive), are a rebellious shag happy bunch who  are more interested in , changing into more ‘grown up’ provocative clothes, letting their hair – and hopefully knickers – down in their free time and getting home in time to hook up with the submarine sailors who are in town for the night.

In the course of the day there will be much drinking, smooth-talking of bouncers, two will come out as lesbians, one will be revealed pregnant, one will arrange to meet a local boy off the night train to lose her virginity and indulge her bondage fantasies, one will have drunken sex with an older self-assumed Don Juan, school uniforms will be stolen, a tragic secret will be confessed and there will be several fallings out among the girls.

A sort of swearier Scottish take on Derry Girls set to a soundtrack of 90s hits (with Kayla delivering a crowd-rousing karaoke version of Tainted Love), it’s an emotionally compelling, very funny coming of age film about friendship and being true to who you are. Adapted from Alan Warner’s novel Sopranos and directed by Michael Caton-Jones (who nurtured the project for 20 years), it’s hard not to feel a whiff of middle aged male schoolgirl fantasies, but, the chemistry between the leads and their assured, powerful performances, the screenplay giving each their turn in the spotlight, give it a gritty and ultimately moving authenticity that pulls you into their lives, disappointments,  desperation and dreams, the what happened next end credits delivering one final kick.  (Vue)

Paw Patrol: The Movie (U)

Launched in 2013, PAW Patrol is a long-running animated TV series about a search and rescue team  made up of talking dogs, German Shepherd   police pooch Chase (Iain Armitage),  Dalmatian firefighter Marshall (Kingsley Marshall), helicopter pilot cockapoo Skye (Lilly Bartlam), mixed-breed handyman pup Rocky (Callum Shoniker), aquatic rescue Labrador Zuma (Shayle Simons) and bulldozer driving construction bulldog Rubble (Keegan Hedley), all headed up by 10-year-old boy Ryder (Will Brisbin) who finances operations selling official PP merchandise.

Now comes their big screen debut, as, called into help from their Adventure Bay seaside base when a truck winds up dangling from a bridge after avoiding a baby turtle, they find themselves up against Adventure City’s newly elected (as the only candidate) self-serving nemesis Mayor Humdinger (Ron Pardo) who hates dogs, is surrounded by cats, and whose promises of major infrastructure reforms consistently wind up as disasters, prompting the PAW patrol to come to the rescue.

In one such, passengers trapped on loop-de-loop subway system, Chase freezes as he attempts a rescue from atop a high building, leading to him being put on temporary leave and a confidence crisis (recalling his time as a stray pup in Adventure City) in which he casts aside his police uniform and ends up in a dog pound, captured by the mayor’s bumbling hirelings (Randall Park and Dax Shepard).  To the rescue comes Liberty (Marsai Martin), an excitable Adventure City daschund who dreams of being part of the patrol and who, along with Ryder, tells Chase that being a hero doesn’t mean not being afraid, it means overcoming the fear and being the best you can be.  Reunited, the patrol expose Humdinger’s ego-driven corrupt practises, put a stop to an out of control cloud sucking weather machine and, naturally, save the day.

Along with the main voice cast, there’s celebrity cameos too, notably Jimmy Kimmel as a bewigged news reporter,  Yara Shahidi as a verbose scientist, Tyler Perry as the imperilled trucker  and Kim Kardashian as a snooty poodle. Aimed at the pre-schoolers it may be, but, colourfully and energetically animated, the writers never patronsise their young audience and ensure there’s more than enough emotional heft, amusing sight gags, character driven plot  and witty dialogue to ensure watching is fun for the grown-ups too.  (Cineworld NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park;  Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Vue)

 

Peter Rabbit 2: The Runaway (PG)

There’s a curious case of having your cake and eating it to this sequel based around the Beatrix Potter characters in that, now married to McGregor (Domhnall Gleeson wildly overacting), Bea (Rose Byrne) is approached by a smooth-talking major publisher, Nigel Basil-Jones (David Oyelowo), who wants to bring her stories to a wider audience, but to do so would mean departing from their simple innocence, such as having them wear t-shirts, going surfing or even into outer space. Bea is seduced by the idea, especially after he gives her a snazzy car, but McGregor feels this is betraying her principles and the characters, which, of course, are based on the animals on and around the farm where they live.

And yet the film itself seeks to do the very same thing for the same reasons, exaggerating it all into a frantic caper movie based, rather obviously, on Oliver Twist (in case you miss it, Rose starts reading Charles Dickens).  In  his game plan, the publisher wants to give the various characters defined personalities, with Peter (James Corden) being cast as the Bad Seed (with, self-referential joke, an annoying voice), reinforcing his feeling that, despite a tentative peace between him and McGregor, he’s always getting blamed for everything by McGregor, even when he’s not bene up to mischief. So, when everyone troops off to Gloucester (and if you think this means introducing Potter’s The Tailor of Gloucester into the plot, pat yourself on the back), he takes off my himself and runs into Barnabas (Lennie James), an old friend of his father’s who’s stealing fruit from the market and invites him to become part of his gang. So, deciding that if he’s always going to be seen as the villain of the piece, then he might as well be, Peter joins up with Barnabas’s crew, including masterplanner Samuel Whiskers and rough and ready felines Tom Kitten and Mittens (Hayley Attwell).

After showing Peter the ropes in how to get yourself adopted by humans so you can raid their food cupboard, Barnabas announces his big plan is to steal the dried fruit from Gloucester’s weekly market, persuading Peter to rope in all his friends, Flopsy (Margot Robbie) and Mopsy (Elizabeth Debicki), Cottontail (Aimee Horne), Mrs Tiggy-Winkle (Sia), Jemima Puddle-Duck (Byrne), Pigling Bland (Ewen Leslie), Mr. Jeremy Fisher (Gleeson), Tommy Brock (Sam Neill) and even Felix D’eer (Christian Gazel), to help pull it off.

Throwing in assorted amusing moments along the way (Cottontail having his first sugar high on  jelly beans  – or the hard stuff a Whiskers calls them), McGregor rolling down the hill, the old gag about standing on each other’s shoulders in a raincoat to pass off as one person, D’eer on a parachute) as well as a car chase, it naturally spins a message about family, friendship, being true to yourself and judging others by your preconceptions of them as it heads towards its rather rushed big finish (Bea, Peter and McGregor having to rescue the others from their assorted fates after being sold on by the local pet shop).  McGregor even discovers Peter can talk.

While doing an equally good job of integrating the CGI animals alongside the actors, it lacks the charm and sweetness of Paddington and, like the books Basil-Jones wants to publish has very little in common with Potter’s stories, but the slapstick should keep the youngsters happy enough and, it has to be said, it does have a very clever spin on the obligatory lavatory gag. (Vue)

Pig (15)

After a stream of over the top performances in barking, bonzo B-movies, Nicolas Cage returns to something like his Oscar-winning Leaving Las Vegas form for this slow burning, understated feature debut by writer/director Michael Sarnoski. He plays Rob, a grizzled, straggly-bearded aged truffle hunter who lives a hermit’s life in the Oregon wilds with his prized truffle pig, his only contact with the outside world being regular Thursday visits by flashy young buyer Amir (Alex Wolff).

One night, however, he’s attacked and his pig stolen. Now, in his previous films this might have entailed Cage going off on a  berserk violent bender to retrieve the porker and kill those responsible. This is not that film. Instead, having discovered the big was stolen by two junkies at the best of some mystery buyer, he persuades a reluctant Amir to drive him into Portland where he knows someone who might know something where Sarnoski reveals that Rob was once Robin Feld, a former celebrity Portland chef before tragedy changed his life. To say more would spoil the carefully crafted narrative that involves Amir’s powerful widowed father Darius (Adam Arkin) who runs a truffle supply business of his own and features a mesmerising scene in which Robin confronts Derek(David Knell), a pretentious chef who runs the equally pretentious Eurydice restaurant who he once fired for overcooking the pasta, with the gulf between his original passionate gastropub dreams and the cold haute cuisine falsity of what he now does.

Building to a confrontation that involves Robin recreating  dish he once serves (he professes to remember every customer her served and every dish he cook) which harks back to a story Amir tells at the start about a meal that made his father happy, and closing with an understated redemption and reconciliation with the past, it’s a melancholic, existential affair about family, love, food, hurt, grief, obligations and being honest about yourself, a film where a whisper proves far more effective than a scream. (BT Store, Sky Store, Virgin)

Pixie (15)

Cheerfully sporting its Tarantino and John Michael McDonagh influences, directed by Barnaby Thompson and written by Preston Thompson, this comedy thriller set in Co. Sligo, is great fun. The step-daughter of   local drugs baron gangster Dermot O’Brien (Colm Meany), the spunkily ruthless but irresistible Pixie (Olivia Cooke) sets out to avenge her dead mother and score the money she needs to go to San Francisco, setting in motion a plot that involves her new lover Fergus  recruiting her ex, Colin (Rory Fleck Byrne), to steal  a consignment of MDMA from a syndicate of drug dealing Catholic priests, headed up by her step-father’s old rival, Father McGrath (Alec Baldwin). This leaves the priests dead and, subsequently, the jealous Colin putting a bullet in Fergus’s head, heading off with the bagful of drugs to have words with Pixie and himself ending up in the boot of a car driven by the naïve Harland (newcomer Daryl McCormack) who’s sitting outside her house waiting for his directionless best mate, Frank (Ben Hardy, Roger Taylor in Bohemian Rhapsody) who’s inside supposedly getting shagged. And that’s just the start.

Now they and Pixie find themselves thrown together with Colin’s body in the boot, first trying to offload the drugs to a local dealer’s Dingle-based uncle (Dylan Moran) and then on the run across the county, Pixie’s step-brother, who reckons dad’s lost his grip, looking to bring her down using the family’s pet hitman (Ned Dennehy), before setting up a deal with McGrath that culminates in a rival gangs shoot-out in an abandoned church.

Taking its cue from Westerns, it romps along with a copious supply of blood, violence and knowingly spark dialogue as the various characters seek to outmanoeuvre on another, before you get to the revelation about Pixie’s mother’s death and how it ties everything together. It makes a couple of unnecessary plot detours, such as snogging threeway between Pixie, Frank and  in which the latter realise the extent of their bromance, but, putting a  fresh spin on some old clichés, it otherwise proves a welcome escapist delight, not least for the sight of  a gun toting nun. Father Ted was never like this. It had me at gangster priests.  (Amazon Prime)

Raya and the Last Dragon (PG)

Disney’s first Southeast Asian heroine makes her  debut in this stirring animated adventure set in a mythical land in the ancient time of dragons and which serves up an inspirational message about the need for and power of trust.

Taking the shape of a dragon the map, Kumundra was once a united land, but, drawn perhaps by growing discontent among the peoples from its different regions, there came the monstrous Druun, a plague of tornado-like creatures that turned people to stone.  In one last valiant effort, the remaining dragons who protected the land combined their power in a gemstone which, before they too were petrified, they entrusted to Sisu who used it to destroy the Druun but who, apparently perished herself in doing so. Leap forward 500 years and the land has become fragmented, the regions, representing their position on the map, now divided into Heart, the densely forested Spine, market-town Talon, the desert wasteland Tail and, isolated and protected from the Druun by surrounding waters, Fang, with the dragon stone and its remaining magic safely protected by Benja (Daniel Dae Kim), leader of the Heart and father to young Raya (Kelly Marie Tran) who, in the opening scenes, earns her right to become one of its guardians. Beja’s dream is to reunite Kumandra, to which end he invites the different tribes to a feast and calls upon them to join together once again. However, duped into trusting Namaari (Gemma Chan), the princess daughter of the Fang leader,  Raya innocently leads her to the stone, only to be double-crossed, the gem broken into five pieces and stolen by the other tribes and, in turn, seeing the return of the Druun.

Saved by her father before he’s turned to stone, the story moved on six years as the now grown Raya, dressed in flowing cape,  carrying a pretty impressive sword and accompanied by her now equally giant pillbug Tuk Tuk (a sort of armadillo that can curl into  a ball which she rides like a spherical horse), is searching the land, seeking to find Sisu who, legend has it, still lives at the end of one of the many rivers, and recover the other gem fragments to destroy the Druun, restore her father to life and, possibly fulfil his dream.

Finally, she does indeed reawaken Sisu (an exuberant Awkafina), who turns out be a somewhat ditzy glowing blue teen dragon (“I gotcha girl. WHO’S your dragon?”) proud of her swimming skills. Unfortunately, Raya’s been followed by Namaari who has her own quest to recover all the gem shards to keep Fang safe and so the film unfolds into a sort of Tomb Raider road movie as Raya and Sisu, who can take on human form, joining forces with representatives from the different tribes, first young shrimp seller Boun (Izaac Wang) aboard his floating restaurant followed, after accompanying battles and escapades, a con  baby and her three thieving monkeys and   one-eyed warrior Tong (Benedict Wong), all of whom have lost family to the Druun, gathering the shards until only the one in Fang remains to be recovered. Not that Namaari is going to let her get her hands on that.

Deftly mixing action, emotion and humour, the film rattles along, addressing such themes as greed, environmental crises, family and friendship before, prompted by the optimistic Sisu, finally returning to the central message that if you’re going to overcome shared problems, then you need to get past your differences and have trust to work together for a common cause. All that and some farting beetles for the kids. (Disney +)

Respect (12A)

Those who only know here for her run of international hits starting in 1967 might be surprised to learn that Aretha Franklin had released nine jazz-styled flop albums on Columbia under John Hammond (Tate Donovan) who wanted her to be a new Ella Fitzgerald before a switch to Atlantic under label boss and producer Jerry Wexler (Marc Maron) and linking up with the in-house white musicians at Muscle Shoals studio in Memphis turned her fortunes around.  As such, directed by Liesl Tommy working from Tracey Scott Wilson’s screenplay and Callie Khouri’s story, also takes its time getting to that breakout moment, variously ticking the familiar boxes of films about troubled musical geniuses, abusive husband, self-doubt, domineering parent, etc.

Having to all intents and purposes having portrayed Diana Ross in her Oscar winning film debut Dreamgirls, Jennifer Hudson now takes on the Queen of Soul and delivers an often electrifying performance, both in the dramatic narrative and her musical recreations of Franklin in the studio and on stage, such as her Madison Square Gardens triumph.

Along the way, starting from childhood (portrayed by first Neveah Moore and then Skye Dakota Turner), the film details Re’s (not shown) rape by one of the house guests,  overpowering Detroit preacher and civil rights activist father (an uncharacteristically wooden Forrest Whittaker) who uses her to fire up his church services and essentially seeks to control her life and music, her first husband Ted White (Marlon Wayans) who, not welcomed by her dad,  also sought to control her and who she divorced for domestic abuse, brother Cecil (LeRoy McClain) who took over as manager, tour manager Ken Cunningham (Albert Jones), gospel singer James Cleveland (Tituss Burgess), Martin Luther King (for whom she performed at several of his rallies) and her backing singer sisters Carolyn (Hailey Kilgore) and Erma (Saycon Sengbloh), the former writing Ain’t No Way and the latter recording the original version of Piece Of My Heart.

As such, it’s a somewhat episodic affair as the film charts Franklin’s growing self-confidence in taking charge of her own life (and, naturally, the lapse into diva behaviour and alcoholism), with particular highlights on a somewhat flat canvas being seeing how her signature song Respect came into being,  her recording of the self-penned I Never Loved A Man The Way I Loved You (written for White) with Spooner Oldham (David Simpson) on electric piano that first revealed the musical genius in waiting and the closing live recording of her Amazing Grace album that, despite Wexler’s fears,  would prove her biggest seller. Mary J Blige also puts in an overplayed cameo as Dinah Washington, throwing a strop as the young Aretha has the nerve to sing one of her hits in front of her.

A pity then that the hackneyed, generic film surrounding these (and which glosses over or omits details such as her second marriage to actor Glynn Turman and her three stepchildren) never rises to such heights, ending with a series of postscripts detailing her subsequent triumphs and footage of Franklin herself. For a film about the queen of soul, Hudson aside, soul is something it conspicuously lacks.  Less respect, more insult.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel; Vue)

Saint Maude (15)

Somewhat overly in thrall to Dario Argento perhaps,  but this inventive religious fervour gothic horror debut from writer-director Rose Glass with its taught 84 minute running time, undeniably gets under the skin.  Delivering an awards-worthy performance of intense complexity in her first lead role, Morfydd Clark is Maud, or at least that’s what she’s currently calling herself, a mousy born again palliative nurse with a Christ complex now working on an agency basis following an incident with a hospital patient. Based in an unnamed seedy British seaside town (it was filmed in Scarborough), her new client is Amanda Kohl (an outstanding Jennifer Ehle), a former celebrity dancer and choreographer now consigned to bed and wheelchair a la Norma Desmond with terminal spinal lymphoma and clearly not long for this world, although, hedonist to the end, she’s not about to forsake drink, cigarettes or lesbian sex (Lily Frazer). Patently unreligious, Maud sees it as God’s mission for her to save this lost soul and bring her to God in the same way she found salvation; however, while Kohl briefly plays long, pretending to feel the Holy Spirit orgasmically within her, it’s clear she’s just cruelly humouring Maud, something she makes abundantly clear at a party that ends in her dismissal. Maud, however, is not done with her yet.

An early indication of Maud’s mental state comes when she give money to a  beggar and walks away advising him not to waste his pain, advice she takes to heart as, echoing ascetics who would self-harm as a form of devout suffering, she inserts  a pad with drawing pins into her shoes in an excruciating scene to watch.  When the embittered Kohl calls her “the loneliest girl I’ve ever seen”, it’s not just mockery.

Along with the Argento flourishes, Glass’s impressionistic film also draws inspirations from Carrie, The Exorcist (a levitation scene is ambiguously misleading), Repulsion, Morvern Callar and Under The Skin , the brooding lighting and camera work and emphatic score  further accentuating the intensity as, varying its perspective from Maud’s internal psychological turmoil and (part driven by images from the Blake illustrations given her by Kohl) delusional out of body experiences (at one point the voice of a subtitled Christ talks to her in ancient Hebrew), it builds to a brace of horrific climaxes after a doubt-fuelled night of carnality on the town  as Maud’s sanity finally collapses. It could, perhaps, have done without the digital angel wings Maud imagines herself sporting, a sly halo allusion earlier is more effective, but this undeniably buries its way into your mind with a shudder. (Amazon Prime)

Shang-Chi And The Legend Of The Ten Rings (12A)     

Making his first appearance in 1973 in Master of Kung Fu, Shang-Chi is a minor Marvel Comics character, originally a Sax Rohmer spin-off as the son of Fu Manchu.  The comic with character being resurrected for, first Heroes For Hire, and, subsequently as a member of The Avengers. Now, as directed by Destin Daniel Cretton making his superhero bow, he’s the latest addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe , the film serving as both origin story and launch platform for an ongoing franchise.

It begins with a scene setting prelude set in 1996 and narrated and spoken in subtitled Mandarin, as, having subjugated pretty much everywhere else with the use of his magical ten rings, thousand-year-old  warlord Wenwu (Tony Leung) sets out to conquer the hidden mystical realm of Ta Lo, a village said to harbour creatures from Chinese mythology, but is defeated by its protector  Ying Li (Fala Chen), the two falling love as they battle, she eventually leaving her home and he renouncing his Ten Rings crime organisation to become parents of two children, Shang-Chi (Jayden Zhang/Arnold Sun) and Xialing (Elodie Fong) and all is hearts and flowers until, as we learn in subsequent flashbacks,  old rivals murder Li, plunging Wenwu back into his old ways, training his son in the martial arts to serve as an instrument of vengeance.

Cut to the present and the now grown Shang-Chi (Simu Liu), calling himself Shaun, is working as a parking valet alongside overqualified best friend Katy (Awkwafina) who knows nothing of his past, until that is, he’s attacked on a bus by a bunch of assassins, led by a Romanian with the self-descriptive name of Razor Fist (Florian Munteanu), who wants to steal the jade necklace his mother gave him. And so, loading up the exposition, it transpires they’re part of his dad’s army  who wants the pendant and that belong to his now grown daughter (impressive newcomer Meng’er Zhang) in order to return to Ta Lo where he believes his wife is imprisoned inside a mountain from where she has been calling to him.

All of which entails reluctant hero Shang-Chi and Katy heading to Macao, him reuniting  with his sister who runs  a fight club and isn’t initially best pleased to see him as he left her behind when he fled his father at 15, and the three of them setting off to mom’s village (meeting up Li’s sister, Michelle Yeoh and Katy getting trained as an archer) to warn them of Wenwu’s intentions, learning that, in fact, what’s imprisoned inside the mountain is actually a demonic soul sucker monster.

This all proceeds at a cracking pace with numerous dynamic martial arts fight sequences, ranging from the initial balletic one between  Wenwu and Li that evokes memories of those in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (in which Yeoh starred), the exhilarating crosstown bus battle with Katy behind the wheel, the siblings’ showdown, and the all-out climax between the Ta Lo warriors and the Ten Rings soldiers as they, and our intrepid trio, take on the freed soul-sucking monsters with the help of assorted mythological beasts, including one huge mother of dragon. And, of course, the ultimate confrontation between father and son with the fate of the world and the ten rings in the balance

It’s a breathless, thrilling set of action sequences, so it’s somewhat unfortunate that it was felt necessary to insert a lengthy and  frankly very silly comedic relief section in which a cheerfully hamming Ben Kingsley revives his Iron Man 3 role as Liverpudlian actor Trevor Slattery who was hired to impersonate The Mandarin (here now one of Wenwu’s identities), and, post-prison, is a reformed character and offers to guide them to Ta Lo with the help of his hundun companion Morris, a kind of furry winged cushion, who is from there, want to return home and knows the secret route in.

A Canada-based Chinese actor and martial arts trained stuntman, Liu makes for a solid conflicted action hero in the Marvel tradition, while Leong’s soulful performance successfully captures the ambivalence of his character, both cruelly ruthless in his actions but sympathetic in his overwhelming grief at loss of the wife and family he’s looking to restore, but perhaps inevitably, it’s Awkwafina who steals much of the film even though she’s playing a second string role.  Naturally there’s several connections to the wider MCU, from a reference to Thanos wiping out half of the world’s population in The Avengers to a mid-film cameo by Benedict Wong as Doctor Strange’s assistant, returning in the first of the end credit scenes alongside  Bri Larson (Captain Marvel) and Mark Ruffalo (Bruce Banner) that deepened the mystery of the ten rings, the second setting up the sequel as the cool and steely female-empowerment advocate Xialing resurrects her father’s organisation, this time with female warriors.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Vue)

Small World (18)

A specialist in Polish hardboiled thrillers, writer-director Patryk Vega  takes on the unsettling subject of child trafficking for this hard-hitting new film that (pointedly borrowing its title from the Disney warm and fuzzy kiddies’ water ride song) variously unfolds in Poland, Russia, Thailand and, er,  Rotherham. It opens in Poland as grizzled cop Robert Goc (Piotr Adamczyk) comes to the aid of a distraught mother whose four-year-old daughter Ola has been abducted by Russian mobsters but fails  to prevent them getting away. He vows to  find her and so it  is that three years later, the case is reopened when a gas explosion  in the Russians suburbs reveals the girl and four other missing children are living with their foster parent ‘uncle’ Oleg (Andris Keiss), who’s exposed as a (passive) paedophile. Goc arrives and joins forces with a female cop (Anastasiya Mikulchina), but again is too late to stop Oleg’s slimier brother (Aleksey Serebryakov) selling the kids off to Moldovian  sex traffikers.

The trail goes cold again until a pregnant 11-year-old’s suicide takes the wearier and more heavily bearded Goc to Rotherham and another female cop (broadly accented Sally Day) where they bust a session with  a paedophile ring  photographer (Katie Glaister) and, in a highly uncomfortable scene to watch, he’s flirted with by the pubescent ‘model’ who calls herself Candy, unware it’s the now 11-year-old sexually active Ola in a wig. She runs off and, thanks to child sex connections that go to the top, the woman’s released, leading Groc to take brutally matters into his own hands, resulting in sneaking into a pederasts’ masked ball orgy hosted by art gallery owner cum satanic cult leader Jasmine (Montserrat Roig de Puig) who attempts to turn him with enforced fellatio (and at one point conveniently trots out some statistics about trafficking) , This, in turn, sends him off to see a shrink fearing his obsession may have got under his skin and he’s now turned on by the very thing that revolts him. And the film’s only half way in as we then skip a few more years and the scene shifts to Bankok where the now older Orla (Julia Wieniawa-Narkiewicz) is shacked up with some abusive Russell Crowe lookalike sugar daddy (Enrique Arce). Still to come is a hymen restoration operation, a Bankok car chase back and a pregnancy that inexplicably brings about a sudden change of heart.

It’s a harrowing subject, but, dragged out to two hours,  the film needed a much surer hand behind the camera and the script (such as Stephen Frears’ organ trafficking drama Dirty Pretty Things, for example), instead what you have is some truly risible dialogue, clunky acting, embarrassingly hamfisted and unintentionally laughable moments such as Goc touching up a Thai five-year-old in a water park, and a ludicrous climax as he returns to the satanic mansion guns blazing.  Jarringly garish, cringingly maudlin  and hugely disappointing. (Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe)

Space Jam: A New Legacy (PG)

To mark the 25th anniversary of the original movie in which basketball star Michael Jordan teamed up with Looney Tunes animated characters, among them Daffy Duck, Bugs Bunny, Porky Pig, Tweety Pie and Elmer Fudd to free them from an evil corporate overlord, the hoop has been passed to LeBron James. Opening in 1998 with the young LeBron playing his Game Boy on his Ohio high school basketball court, this time round, an Amazonian warrior Lola Bunny now voiced by Zendaya, the cartoon crew’s joined by Fred Flintstone and Yogi Bear when, having refused to have his animated self be part of LeBron of Thrones, LeBron and his younger son Dom (Cedric Joe) are zapped into Warner Bros’ 3000 Server-Verse, a super computer containing an archive of the studio’s former movies. Here, in a virtual space ruled by ruthlessly ambitious  attention-seeking  corporate Al-G Rhythm (Don Cheadle),  an A.I. algorithm, in order to rescue his son (who actually seems to be enjoying himself) and escape, the now cartoon LeBron and his now 3D CGI Tunes mates have to win a basketball game, devised by Dom, against the Goon Squad, a team of virtual super-powered monster-like  avatars of professional NBA and  WBNA champions based on and variously voiced by Klay Thompson (the self-explanatory Wet-Fire), Anthony Davis (Cro-Magnum vulture The Brow), Damian Lillard (robotic Chronos),Diana Taurasi (serpent-like White Mamba) and Nneka Ogwumike (the spidery Arachnneka). Plus Dom as part of the father-son subplot with him complaining his dad never lets him be himself.

Peppered with nods to or clips from Superman, Batman, Mad Max (into which Roadrunner and Wile E Coyote are inserted) , Austin Powers, Harry Potter, King Kong, Wonder Woman and even Casablanca  (with play it again pianist Yosemite Sam)  with a  rap and R&B heavy soundtrack (Porky Pig is now a rapper – the Notorious PIG), it’s a madcap brightly coloured frantic frenzy that cheerfully send itself up, Bugs Bunny, who’s  been left all alone in Tune World,  quipping how it all “Sounds awfully familiar” while LeBron remarks “Athletes acting? That never goes well.”

Actually, fast-paced, visually impressive and big on dunking spectacles, while overlong it goes better than expected and movie buffs will have fun spotting background figures from the likes of  It, A Clockwork Orange and The Mask among the crowd watching the hyper-stylised basketball showdowns while young kids can discover a whole bunch of cartoon celebrities they might not know. Now, how about David Beckham meets The Minions? (Odeon  Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Vue)

Spirit Untamed (PG)

Nineteen years after DreamWorks animated adventure Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron proved a critical and  commercial success, based around ongoing TV spin-off  Spirit: riding Free, the titular free-spirited mustang returns to the big screen to delight a new generation of young fillies.

As with the Netflix TV version, unlike the original film (which featured Matt Damon providing equine vocal duties), the stallion, the offspring of the original Spirit, doesn’t speak and the plot’s  essentially a computer animated origin retread of the series wherein 12-year-old  Fortuna “Lucky” Esperanza Navarro Prescott relocates from the city  to the small frontier town of Miradero where, aboard the train, she first sees Spirit  racing alongside with the others from the herd and later tames and bonds with the horse, freeing him from the  wranglers that had captured him and tried to ‘break’ him, becoming pals with fellow horsey girls Pru and Abigail in the process.

It is, however, considerably fleshed out, with a backstory that reveals Lucky (Isabela Merced aka Isabela Moner from Dora and the Lost City of Gold ) as the daughter of a trick rider circus performer who dies after an accident in the ring, sent back East  as a 2-year-old to live with her aunt Cora (Julianne Moore) and railway magnate grandfather (Joe Hart) after, unable to cope with his loss, her widowed father, Jim (Jake Gyllenhaal), took off. However, when an incident with a  squirrel wrecks her grandfather’s campaign launch to run for governor, accompanied by Cora, she’s packed off to be reunited with dad in Miradero, where she meets young riders Pru (Marsai Martin) and Abigail (Mckenna Grace) and discovers the stallion  and the other horses she saw have been captured by Hendricks (Walton Goggins), a  wanted outlaw who, with his gang, is working as a horse wrangler for her father’s friend (and Pru’s dad) Al, and secretly intends to steal the herd and ship them off for auction to the highest bidder.

Although, because of what happened to his wife, Jim doesn’t want Lucky involved with horses, as in the TV show, advised by her new chums on how to approach things, Lucky bonds with the stallion by feeding him apples and names him Spirit, but, in trying to ride him, he escapes from the corral and takes off into the mountains, Pru and Abigail only just saving Lucky from falling from a cliff. At which point, the plot sort of repeats itself with Lucky and her new friends embarking on a mission to rescue the horses from Hendricks culminating in an action-packed showdown aboard the boat.

While fans of the girl-power TV series might feel they’ve seen it all before, there’s enough kiddie-friendly humour, action, sweetness, songs and liberal   messages about friendship, nature, finding who you are and being free for them to enjoy the ride alongside newcomers saddling up for the first time.(Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel)

The Suicide Squad (15)

With its opening credits spelled out from the blood of one of many corpses that litter the film, it’s clear that Guardians of the Galaxy director and writer James Gunn’s take on the DC  supervillains team, is going to be everything David Ayers’ underwhelming original was not. Neither reboot nor sequel, just another mission and  a clutch of new characters joining those returning, it positively explodes from the screen as, sent on a mission to infiltrate the South American island nation of Corto Maltese,  all bar two of the squad meet a bloody end,  the pre-credits opening sequence despatching Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney), Savant (Michael Rooker), Blackguard (Pete Davidson), TDK (Nathan Fillion), Javelin (Flula Borg), Mongal (Mayling Ng) and Weasel (Sean Gunn), leaving just Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman) and Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie, subsequently getting her own princess subplot) alive.

It is, however, just a diversion to the real mission, ruthless black-ops head Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) having sent another squad to destroy a heavily fortified  laboratory called Jotunheim, where dastardly Nazi-like experiments are being carried out as part of something called Project Starfish (involving a giant, telepathic, pink alien echinoderm called Starro) under the supervision of the Thinker (Peter Capaldi sporting diodes sprouting from his skull) now that a coup d’etat has replaced the America-friendly dictator and his family with a military junta. Needless to say, there’s a hidden agenda).

This newly recruited dysfunctional team is headed up by Bloodsport (Idris Elba),  a killing machine mercenary sharpshooter who hospitalised Superman, who’s  been pressured into taking part to keep his estranged wayward daughter (Storm Reid) out of jail, the rest of the motley crew being pathologically patriotic Peacemaker (John Cena)  another can kill  with anything merc (cue one-upmanship gags with Elba),  Ratcatcher 2 (a delightful Daniela Melchior), a petty Portuguese criminal with technology that controls rats (about which Bloodsport has a phobia), introvert Polka-Dot Man (scene stealer David Dastmalchian), the toxin-infected product of an experiment gone wrong who projects lethal, er, polka-dots (imaging the enemy is his mother) and, basically, the film’s answer to Groot, Nanaue aka  Killer-Shark, an intelligence-challenged, mumbling  shark on legs voiced in gleeful self-spoofing  style by Sylvester Stallone. Naturally, subsequently joined by Flag and Quinn, not everyone makes it to the end.

Along the way, however, going utterly insane Gunn delivers an often brutal smorgasbord of  visceral bloody action with bodies decapitated, sliced in half and blown to mush punctuated by a steady stream of the sort of banter and quips that made Guardians such a joyride, while also investing time to bring the characters alive rather than simply comic book figures, giving each their turn to shine as the film gathers to its spectacularly unhinged climax which can only be described as a Godzilla-like city trashing mass destruction, but with a giant starfish rather than a gorilla, one that sends out starfish drones to take over the population’s minds. Ablaze with directorial genius, awesome visuals (including truly inventive scene titles and burst of psychedelic flowers when Harley goes on a bullets-spraying bender), bruising action and dynamite performances, laced with a suitably cynical view of American geopolitics (“I cherish peace with all my heart — I don’t care how many men, women, and children I need to kill to get it” says Peacemaker, stone-faced).

Featuring a cameo from Alice Braga as a revolutionary leader, a cute friendly rat (in fact the much maligned rats turn out to be the eventual saviours) and, typically Gunn, an inspired soundtrack that kicks off with Jim Carroll’s People Who Died, it’s unashamedly silly and never really takes itself too seriously (the Squad’s uniforms conveniently keep reappearing when they need to go into battle and there’s a fabulous visual gag about Bloodsport’s ever expanding gun. A sequel with a new team of misfits joining the survivors from this go round is a must. (Odeon Birmingham)

Sweet Girl(15)

When his wife dies from cancer because a pharmaceutical company withdrew the potentially cheap life-saving drug, Ray Cooper (Jason Momoa), whose background is never detailed, sets out  to fulfil his television chat show phone in vow of holding company CEO Simon Keeley (Justin Bartha) responsible and killing him with his bare hands. Approached by a journalist who says he has evidence of a conspiracy involving Keeley’s crooked partner (Raza Jaffrey), they meet on a train, Cooper, unknowingly followed by his teen daughter Rachel (Isabela Merced), where the journo is killed and he himself injured by the knife-wielding hitman (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo).

What follows, Rachel insistently accompanying him despite his protestations, charts Cooper’s determined quest to expose the conspiracy and get revenge on those responsible, the film opening with a scene of him atop Pittsburgh’s PNC Park pursued by FBI agent Sarah Meeker (Lex Scott Davis), before plunging into the waters, flashing back to events leading up to this moment before, bringing into focus  anti-Big Pharma congresswoman Diana Morgan (Amy Brenneman), the last act throws in a wholly unexpected role reversal twist as the real figure behind the conspiracy is exposed.

Twist aside, it’s a predictable and fairly generic affair with Momoa largely going through the man on the run action  motions punctuated by some rote emotional angst, but first time director Brian Andrew Mendoza never lets things flag, Merced proves solid casting and, while disbelief needs to be suspended from a very high pole, it does what it sets out to do with commendable efficiency. (Netflix)

CINEMAS

Cineworld 5 Ways – 181 Broad St, 0871 200 2000

Cineworld NEC – NEC  0871 200 2000

Cineworld  – Mill Ln, Solihull 071 200 2000

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

Empire – Great Park, Rubery, 0871 471 4714

Empire  Sutton Coldfield – Maney Corner, Sutton Coldfield

0871 471 4714

The Everyman – The Mailbox 0871 906 9060

MAC – Cannon Hill Park 0121 446 3232

Mockingbird, Custard Factory  0121 224 7456.

Odeon Birmingham -Birmingham, 0871 224 4007

Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe – Ladywood Middleway, 0333 006 7777

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

Reel – Hagley Rd, Quinton, Halesowen 0121 421 5316

Vue Star City – Watson Road, 08712 240 240

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