This column will review films both screening theatrically and/or on various streaming platforms.
Bodies Bodies Bodies (15)
Directed by Halina Reijin, this pitch black horror comedy for Gen Z is one of the year’s best. Accompanied by her enigmatic working-class new Eastern European girlfriend, Bee (Borat’s Maria Bakalova), recovering addict Sophie (Amandla Stenberg) turns up at a weekend hurricane party at the secluded mansion home of wealthy but toxic (“I look like I fuck. It’s my whole vibe”) childhood friend David (Peter Davidson), much to the surprise of the other spoiled brattish guests who include David’s drama queen actress girlfriend Emma (Chase Sui Wonders), airhead podcaster (“Hanging out with your smartest, funniest friend”) Alice (Rachel Sennott, her bemused 40-year-old new Tinder boyfriend Greg (Lee Pace), and Sophie’s ever sceptical old flame Jordan (Myha’la Herrold). Another, Max, left earlier following a fight with David.
Tensions are clearly evident, to which end, the others fuelled by drink and drugs, she suggests they play the titular murder in the dark-style game in which each player slaps their friend across the face and takes a shot. After which, one of them is randomly appointed as the killer. However, the slaps rather less than playful, Greg, a group outsider like Bee, decides to retire early and David, who the others have decided is the killer, storms off after another fight with Emma. Only, the power out, to appear at a window clutching at his throat. Now, Sophie’s car battery dead, it’s down to the others to work out who the real killer is as they explore the house by the light of cellphones and flashlights. At some point a gun surfaces.
Riffing on themes of false friendships, paranoia, distrust, jealousy, faux activism and white feminism and making effective use of the claustrophobic lighting and score, it builds the tension as the body count continues to rise as secrets are revealed and the rocky relationships between the group unravel, though to reveal more would spoil the revelations. Peppered with smartly comic dialogue along with the high pitched drama and some bloody violence, the entire cast bring solid, compelling performances to their characters although its Davidson, Sennott and Bakalova who, in their different ways, shine the brightest. Even if the final moments are slightly anti-climactic, wholly unexpected last act twist throws the group dynamics into stark relief while reinforcing the core themes it’s been exposing. This is what happens when you’re cut adrift from your social media and the real world erupts. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Everyman; Mockingbird; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel; Vue)
Clerks III (15)
Six years on from Clerks II and following a spate of rather less successful outings, Smith returns to wrap up his quasi-autobiographical (he narrates his own backstory over the end credits) slacker franchise with a singularly self-reflexive bittersweet comedy that skewers the nature of filmmaking while celebrating his consistent theme of friendship. At the end of the previous film, long-time friends Dante (Brian O’Halloran) and Randal (Jeff Anderson) had taken ownership of the Jersey Quick Stop grocery store where they worked while the former had married the pregnant Becky (Rosario Dawson). Some years on, Becky has died (but makes regular ghostly dream appearances) and there’s no child while a heart-attack brush with death (as Smith experienced in 2018) wakes Randal, now approaching 50, up to how his life has amounted to nothing. So, mirroring Smith’s premise for Clerks in the first place, he decides to make a film (“I see myself more like retail’s Richard Linklater”) of his, and by default Dante’s, life set in the Quick Stop, featuring their real life friends as themselves. Among them slacker stoner duo Jay (Jason Mewes) and Silent Bob (Smith). Thus, basically, Clerks.
Again mixing coarse comedy and pathos, the film deftly recaptures the chemistry between the bickering buddies, riffing on themes of mortality, loss and friendship alongside commentary on autobiographical filmmaking, would be diva actors and, well, life really and how cruel it can sometimes be. O’Halloran gets a striking meltdown scene as he erupts in suppressed rage. There’s more nods to Star Wars as Dante, who serves as producer, concerns over exactly what part he’s going to play while Trevor Fehrman as Elias from Clerks II gets his own spotlight with an array of changing costumes and facial make up as he transitions from Christian (and inventor of the Jesus kite) to Satanist, now with his own sidekick in Austin Zajur’s Blockchain. Back too is Marilyn Ghigliotti as Dante’s original girlfriend Veronica, not impressed by being portrayed as a slut in the screenplay while among the casting auditions there’s a string of amusing cameos from Ben Affleck, Sarah Michelle-Gellar, Fred Armisen and Danny Trejo. But beyond the gags and a surprise dance sequence, the heart of film lies in a sober and emotional meditation on growing older and both what lies ahead and what lay behind, making this Smith’s most satisfying work in years, even though the touching resolution seems it unlikely that a Clerks IV will be on the cards. (Tue: Mockingbird; Tue-Sun; Cineworld 5 Ways)
Crimes Of The Future (18)
Recycling the title from an earlier work, his first film in eight years finds writer-director David Cronenberg returning to the body horror genre with which he made his name and which reached its peak in Crash. This, which has much in common with Videodrome and its ‘new flesh’, seems likely to be equally audience divisive with some viscerally graphic scenes that will require a fairly strong stomach.
Set in an unspecified future where people no longer feel bodily pain and biotechnology has created machines and computers that can directly interface with bodily functions, it opens with a horrified mother suffocating her young son, Brecken, whose digestive tract has mutated so that he can eat plastic, leaving the body to be found by her ex-husband Lang (Scott Speedman).
The focus then shifts to Saul Tenser (Viggo Mortensen), who seems permanently clad in a black cloak like some Star Wars villain or perhaps Death, and partner Caprice (Léa Seydoux), whose celebrated performance art act entails her tattooing and then surgically removing the new vestigial organs he’s grown inside his body. However, his “accelerated evolution syndrome” leaves him in constant pain with acute respiratory and digestive problems, leaving him reliant on a variety of different biomechanical devices, including a skeletal like chair that massages his limbs and helps him eat. Government regulations require Tense to have his new organs catalogued and stored by the National Organ Registry run by functional bureaucrat Wippet (Don McKellar, where the breathy, nervy assistant Timlin (Kristen Stewart) confides in him, after his latest show, that she thinks surgery is the new sex.
Meanwhile, Lang re-enters the picture, asking Tenser and Caprice to perform a public autopsy on his dead son to reveal that his evolution was natural and not a technological alteration, and it’s also revealed that a shady New Vice officer (Welket Bungué) is using Tenser, without Caprice’s knowledge, to infiltrate a faction of radical evolutionists, who manufacture a purple confection that is poisonous to others, one of whom (Yorgos Pirpassopoulos) creates a zipper in Tenser’s stomach for the “Inner Beauty Pageant” and on which Caprice, who has decorative cosmetic surgery carried out on her forehead, subsequently performs oral sex.
It’s not without some perverse whimsy (Ear Man is a dancer covered in human ears). but otherwise it’s a serious (and perhaps a tad po-faced) exploration of the fear of human evolution and technology, of governmental control of our lives and a swipe at gratuitous cosmetic surgery. With a support cast that includes Lihi Kornowski as Brecken’s mother and Tanaya Beatty and Nadia Litz as a pair of henchwomen, it’s exactly the extreme, provocative challenging extreme stuff you’d expect from the Cronenberg of old, whether that’s an invitation or a caution is up to you. (Cineworld 5 Ways; Electric; Empire Great Park; Mockingbird)
Her Way (15)
Call My Agent’s Laure Calamy lights up the screen as Marie, a self-reliant French fortysomething sex worker and single mother who works the street corners of Strasbourg where she can choose her clients and hours, and is the somewhat confrontational single mother to Adrien (Nissim Renard), a lethargic, sullen and defeatist 17-year-old who (seemingly unconcerned about what mum does for a living) wants to be a chef but has just been expelled from cookery school. Following a client’s tip, she persuaded him to apply for a private and prestigious college, who aren’t bothered about his past record, her transgender lawyer friend (Romanin Brau) coaching him for the interview. He’s accepted but the school charges €9,000 euros in tuition. €5000 of which she has to stump up for the end of the year, in just a few weeks. And the bank’s not forthcoming because her tax returns don’t justify a loan. To which end, losing business to immigrant Black girls who charge less (introducing a note of racial tension), Marie swallows her pride and principles and heads across the German border to Offenburg, calling on a favour from an old acquaintance Bruno (Sam Louwych), and gets a job working at glowing concrete club cum brothel. However, dreams of quickly boosting her income are shattered when she discovers it’s actually a shabby dive with poor paying customers and high expenses for room use and the like. The arrest of a fellow worker presents an unexpected acquisition of some much needed cash, but, inevitably, as with everything in Marie’s life, nothing goes as smoothly as hoped, and every hint of light at the end of the tunnel is quickly extinguished.
The debut feature by writer-director Cécile Decrocq it doesn’t romantics the sex worker profession but nor is it in any way judgemental, presenting Marie and her fellow hookers (who organise a public protest demanding better rights and pay) as independent spirits who choose their career (though there’s latter hints that some have no option), resulting in a humane, empathetic snapshot of a mother’s struggle to do the best for her son that reflects far wider scenarios, ending on a poignantly bittersweet note as Adrien is seen embarking on a bright new future while Marie finds herself returning to a past without one. (Curzon; Rakuten TV)
See How They Run (12A)
Not the 1944 Philip King farce, but definitely borrowing some of the genre’s traditions (people passing each other in and out of doors), directed with verve by Tom George, making good use of split screen playing up the theatrical artifice, and penned by Mark Chappell this ingeniously gets round Agatha Christie’s stipulation that her play The Mousetrap could not be turned into a film until after its run ended. It opened in 1952 and it’s still in the West End after some 28,000 performances.
Back in 1956, British producer John Woolf (Reece Shearsmith), who had made The African Queen, bought the film rights, assuming the play would soon close, and it’s around that misjudgement that this superbly crafted and highly amusing whodunit homage is based. Woolf has hired (fictional) sleazy Hollywood filmmaker Leo Köpernick (Adrien Brody, who narrates) to direct, but he’s at loggerheads with the gay screenwriter, Mervyn Cocker-Norris (David Oyelowo), and wants to rework it with a murder in the opening moments and a wholly different ending, which he’s storyboarded.
As Köpernick observes, in these plays it’s always the most obnoxious character who gets murdered, and so it is that, following a fight with Richard Attenborough (an affectionate portrait by Harris Dickinson), the first actor to play Sgt Trotter, and upsetting several others, he meets his demise during the backstage party marking the 100th performance and his body is dumped on the set.
Assigned to investigate is jaded, boozy Inspector Stoppard (Sam Rockwell) who’s partnered with WPC Stalker (Saoirse Ronan, with her natural accent and true comic delight) as his assistant, an enthusiastic rookie who writes everything down in her notebook, with a memo to not jump to conclusions, something the film, with its various misdirections, slyly insists the audience doesn’t do either. There are, naturally a wealth of suspects among a cast of characters that includes Ruth Wilson as theatre impresario Petula Spencer, Pippa Emma-Bennet as Woolf’s mistress-assistant Ann and Sian Clifford as his wife, and Jacob Fortune-Lloyd as Mervyn’s petulant Italian ‘nephew’ Gio with Tim Key as the smarmy Commissioner and Shirley Henderson as Christie herself.
It’s gleefully full of in-jokes (Rockwell’s character is named after Tom Stoppard whose The Real Inspector Hound, which he wrote as a parody of things like The Mousetrap, is referenced), while he’s assigned to the case because Scotland Yard is busy investigating the murders at 10 Rillington Place in which, of course, Attenborough starred), and cinema meta gags (a character in a flashback bemoans flashbacks and interscene titles immediately followed by one). All that plus straightfaced but wickedly funny lines, and an ending that wonderfully mirrors everything in Köpernick’s storyboards. There’s a slight tonal stumble when, in a serious moment, referencing how Christie’s play was inspired by a real life case, there’s a scene about having to tread carefully when you’re turning people’s lives into entertainment, but otherwise this is a laugh out loud romp.(Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Electric; Empire Great Park; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel; Vue)
The Adam Project (12)
“The future is coming sooner than you think”, harassed mother Ellie Reed (an underused Jennifer Garner) tells her all-attitude 12-year-old son Adam (Walker Scobell) after he’s suspended following an altercation with the school bully. And indeed it is, but not in quite the way she imagined. His father having died in an accident two years earlier, young Adam has buried his grief in being mouthy and giving his mom a hard time. While she’s out on a date, he investigates a noise in the woods outside their home and, returning to the house, finds the garage open and in it a wounded pilot (Ryan Reynolds) who seems to uncannily know a lot about him, the house and even the name of his dog, Hawking. Not surprisingly really, since he’s actually his future self who, as seen in the opening sequence, has fled from 2050, where’s he’s being chased by another spacecraft, and wound up in 2022, four years on from when he’d intended.
Reuniting Reynolds with Free Guy director Shawn Levy, this has a similar self-aware playful style with Reynolds again doing his snarky, irreverent quick fire patter to hugely entertaining effect, the film cheerfully acknowledging its borrowings from Back To The Future, Star Wars (Adam wields a double-sided light sabre) and Spielberg’s Amblin universe. Older bearded Adam has come from the future in search of his wife Laura (Zoe Saldaña) who, supposedly, was killed trying to return from 2018, something he simply doesn’t buy (rightly so, since she turns up to save him). His other reason for trying to get back to 2018 was to stop his father, Louis (Mark Ruffalo), developing time travel, his creation having been usurped his then partner, Maya Sorian (Catherine Keener), who has used it to take control of the future that, as Adam describes it is like Terminator 2 on a good day, and, it would seem, have Laura killed. So now, older Adam and younger Adam have to join forces (his wound, which farts blood, means he needs his young self’s DNA to unlock his craft) to fight off Sorian’s forces and get back in time to prevent their father’s creation ever taking place. Sorian, meanwhile, links up with her own younger self (who she helped amass a fortune through knowing what investments would pay off), to ensure that doesn’t happen,
This, of course, is just the action-driven plot (sequences set to rock classics like Gimme Some Lovin’, Boston’s Long Time and Led Zeppelin’s Good Times, Bad Times) on which to hang the film’s real narrative about loss, grief, how you handle it and how it can change you, the two Adams, the brain and the brawn, giving each other life-lessons about their father issues and getting in touch or reconnecting with their feelings as the film rolls along, turning its own logic upside down as Louis warns them that meeting themselves (and an eight-year-old Adam makes it all the more complicated) can cause all sort of cosmic chaos.
As such, Scobell and Reynolds have a great time riffing off each other while, when they both get reunited with their befuddled not yet dead dad, the film cranks up the emotional level as everyone gets to confront and put to rights the absent-father syndrome that has shaped their personalities. Short and fluffily slight it may be, but it’s one of the year’s most enjoyable films so far. (Netflix)
Essentially Jaws with a mane, directed by Iceland’s Baltasar Kormákur and shot by Oscar-winning cinematographer Philippe Rousselot, this is a lean, low budget survival movie that pits Idris Elba against a murderous line. He plays Dr. Nate Samuels who, when his ex-wife does of cancer takes his teenage daughters, Meredith (Iyana Halley), a photographer like her mother, and the younger Norah (Leah Sava Jeffries), to South Africa in an attempt to heal the rift caused by his being distant in their time of need. Here the visit the village where their mother grew up and the gave reserve managed by his old friend Martin (Sharlto Copley), who introduced the couple and who in on chummy terms with a bunch of lions
Out on a tour of the reserve’s restricted areas, they come across a village where pretty much everyone is dead, apparently the result of an attack by a lion. Attempting to track the animal, Martin is mauled and Nate and the girls attacked in their jeep, which ends up getting crashed, Norah stabbing the lion with a tranquilizer dart while Meredith recovers Martin, leaving them at the animal’s mercy (no cell phone coverage, naturally, just walkie talkies) as Nate attempts to protect his daughters.
The film opens with a bunch of poachers massacring pride of lions, the survivor understandably enraged, hence its vengeance-fuelled crusade to kill anything on two legs. More poachers resurface later in the film, ostensibly looking like a rescue until the lion attacks once again, leaving Nate and the girls fleeing in their truck, Meredith in the interim having lacerated her leg escaping and Martin sacrificing himself, with everything ending up as the lion stalks them in abandoned schoolhouse and Nate going fist to paw with it until, well, remember those other friendly lions.
The simplistic plot with its creature feature and family soap ingredients is as basic as the dialogue, but, even if the rushed ending is anticlimactic, the tension keeps it together, even if Elba trying to punch out a frenzied lion rather pushes credibility. The young actresses, relative newcomers, are good and given more to do than just scream at a digital effect, even if they follow the old routine of placing themselves in danger when told to stray where they are, while a tough but vulnerable Elba looking to earn back his daughters’ respect exudes the sort of presence and star power that made Luther such a success. Ultimately, it’s just competent, disposable popcorn thrills, but sometimes you just need a snack not a banquet. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Vue)
The Black Phone (15)
His first role as the bad guy, Ethan Hawke makes a chilling impression as The Grabber (though, to be fair, he’s greatly assisted by some genuinely scary-looking horned masks, one of which has a manic grin and comes in removable sections), who dresses as a black clad magician with chalk white face make-up and drives around in a black van with Abracadabra on the side into which he abducts the town’s adolescent boys, releasing black balloons as a signature. Directed by Scott Derrickson of Sinister (in which Hawke also starred) and Doctor Strange fame, it’s based on a short story by Joe Hill, who has clearly inherited father Stephen King’s ability to chill.
Set in 1978 Colorado, it opens with 13-year-old Finney Shaw (Mason Thames), pitching at the town’ Little League game. Unfortunately, after two strikes, his third pitch costs his team the game,but he’s congratulated by the batter, Bruce (Tristan Pravong). Other than his good arm, Finney’s the school dork, constantly on the end of the bullies’ fists, except for when his new martial arts best friend Billy (Jacob Moran) is around to protect him. Shortly after the game ends, Bruce becomes the fourth kids to go missing. Then Billy. The abductions shot in grainy Super 8.
Finney lives with his protective and wonderfully foul-mouthed younger sister Gwen (Madeleine McGraw), who has psychic powers that manifest through dreams,such as of the abducted children and black balloons,something that grabs the investigating cops’ attention given that they’re not public knowledge. Unfortunately, Finney and Gwen’s father (Jeremy Davies) has become an abusive alcoholic since his wife, who was also so gifted,committed suicide, and, fearing Gwen has inherited that power, takes his belt to her to force her to say they’re just dreams.
Inevitably, Finney becomes the sixth small town kid to go missing, and it’s on his abduction that the film focuses as he awakens to find himself locked in a soundproof basement, scared and not knowing what the Grabber,who says he intends no harm and provides food and drink, wants or why. Other than a mattress, the room also has a disconnected black phone on the scarred and cracked wall, which the Grabber says doesn’t work. Except, when Finney’s alone it starts to ring and eventually he starts to hear the voices of the previous victims, Bruce and Billy among then, warning him and trying to help him escape. Meanwhile, Gwen is having more dreams and cursing Jesus for not helping her find her brother.
To say more about how the plot unfolds would ruin the tension as it builds to a violent climax as Finney finally gets to stand up for himself, the reveal of the location and the introduction of Max (James Ransone), an amateur detective trying to figure out where the Grabber operates from, introducing a note of ironic and grim humour. Where the film elevates itself is by never offering up any simplistic explanations for the killer’ actions or motives, though a warning Finney gets about not being a naughty boy and the shot of Hawke sitting, bare chested, at the top of the stairs waiting to punish Finney does chime with the parental abuse them elsewhere.
Derrickson ratchets up the tension without overplaying the drama (a moment with a combination lock is heartstopping), while, mostly understated in his performance until the final bloody moments, Hawke is terrific in his subtle evocation of horror and the two young leads add extra lustre to the film’s compelling and gripping nature as it builds to wholly satisfying finale that, thankfully, doesn’t tease a sequel. (Rakuten TV; Vue)
Bullet Train (15)
While directed by Deadpool 2’s David Leitch, this feels much more like a Guy Ritchie movie with its plethora of one-liners, laconic performances, high octane action and guest star cameos, tweaked here and there with a splash of Tarantino. Adapted from the Japanese bestseller pulp novel MariaBeetle by Kotaro Isaka, it’s set aboard the titular high speed train as it travels from Tokyo to Kyoto, making only a few stops of one minute duration along the way. Among the passengers are a parcel of hitmen, headed up by Brad Pitt’s luckless assassin who, dubbed Ladybug by his handler Maria (Sandra Bullock, putting in a last minute appearance), is trying to find a more peaceful, Zen-like approach to his work (he’s forever rattling off self-help aphorisms). He’s been assigned to recover a metal briefcase from the train. This is currently in the custody (or rather in the luggage compartment) of bickering ‘twin’ hitmen Lemon (Bryan Tyree Henry) and Tangerine (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), the former forever likening people to characters from Thomas The Tank Engine, who have been charged with returning both it and his kidnapped son (Logan Lerman) – the case contains the ransom money – to Yakuza boss White Death (Michael Shannon). The pair, or specifically Lemon, have a history with Ladybug dating back to a bloody mission some years earlier. Also on the train is The Prince (Joey King), a murderous miss done up in pink as a schoolgirl, who also wants the briefcase and who has lured on board Yuichi Kimura (Andrew Koji), the son of another Japanese samurai, The Elder (Hiroyuki Sanada), whose wife was killed by White Death, by pushing his six-year-old off a roof , as part of her plan to kill White Death, who is seeking revenge for the death of his own wife. There’s also, briefly, another assassin known as The Wolf (Bad Bunny) who also boards the train in search of revenge, only to be quickly added the bodycount following a fight with Ladybug in the restaurant kitchen. Oh yes, and there’s also a poisonous snake whose venom can kill in 30 seconds by making you bleed from every orifice. Plus another assassin called The Hornet (Zazie Beetz) who’s masquerading behind a very unlikely disguise.
Upping the ante on Agatha Christie, this is Murder On The Occidental Express as this clutch of quirky characters (identified by on screen labels) variously try and take each other out in a series of imaginative and impressively choreographed martial arts fights, gun and knife battles and stand-offs, punctuated by assorted flashbacks to various bloodbaths, with Ladybug looking to improvise his way out of trouble rather than kill anyone unless necessary.
Mixing in comedy with the graphic violence (including an amusing is it a sex thing cameo by an uncredited Channing Tatum as well as a scene with smart toilet), it eventually pulls all the pieces and the characters together for the over the top climax aboard the speeding train, a sort of live action anime cartoon that may be light on substance but is most definitely one hell of a ride. (Cineworld NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Vue)
DC League of Super Pets (PG)
First introduced into the comics in 1955, Krypto was Superboy’s pet dog, send off into space on a test run prior to baby Kal-El making his way to Earth. The super-powered pooch has cropped up in comics and cartoons in various incarnations over the years, but has never been part of the big screen live action DC Universe. However, he now takes centre stage in his own Justice League animated-spin off (based on the Legion of Super-Pets) about him and a team of four-legged companions who find themselves bestowed with super powers and called upon to rescue Superman and the other Justice League members when they’re captured by a megalomaniac villain.
The opening sequence explains how, when young Kal-El was placed in a spaceship, his pet jumped in too, growing up to fight crime alongside Superman (John Krasinski), and with a similar nerdy secret-identity. However, our canine crimefighter (voiced by Dwayne Johnson) is having a bit of an anxiety crisis because Superman’s about to ask Lois (Olivia Wilde) to marry him, meaning he’ll no longer hold the same place in his master’s life.
Meanhile, Lulu (Kate McKinnon), a narcissistic hairless purple-eyed guinea pig associate of Lex Luthor (Marc Maron), acquires an orange variety of kryptonite, which she uses to give herself and, accidentally, a bunch of animals caged in the Tailhuggers Animal Shelter superpowers. These include tough but insecure bulldog Ace (Kevin Hart), PB (Vanessa Bayer), a size-expanding pig who wants to be super-cool, electricity-firing hyper squirrel Chip (Diego Luna) and myopic turtle Merton (Natasha Lyonne) who gets to be super-fast. Now, with Lulu having imprisoned the Justice League and created an army of super-powered guinea pigs, they and Krypto have to join forces to save the day.
Sporting similar comic sensibility to the Lego parodies, it’s clearly targeted at the kiddies but there’s plenty of delights for older audiences too, not least a tongue-in-cheek Keanu Reeves voicing an ultra-serious Batman (and questioning whether certain bat-toys are licensed) while a kitten who coughs up hairball grenades pretty much captures the whole spirit of absurdity and fun that’s hard to resist. (Rakuten TV; Cineworld NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Vue)
Doctor Strange In The Multiverse of Madness (12A)
Director Sam Raimi returns to the MCU fold for the first time since Spider-Man 3 back in 2007 to deliver what is by far the most out there and mind-bending incursion into superhero territory yet, a dazzling cornucopia of CGI and special effects yet also driven by a strong sense of drama, character and intense human emotion. Not to mention a wealth of playful Easter Egg in-jokes about and nods to the whole interlocked franchise.
It opens with Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch on multiple excellent form) battling and fatally failing to save a mysterious young woman (feisty newcomer Xochitl Gomez) who’s being chased by a monster. Then he wakes up. It’s just a nightmare but one which almost immediately becomes real when a giant one-eyed octopus-like creature attacks New York in pursuit of a very familiar-looking young girl, saving her with the help of Wong (assured presence Benedict Wong), the Sorcerer Supreme. The girl turns out to be America Chavez who possesses the power to travel between multiverses, which is what her as yet unrevealed pursuer wants for themselves.
Seeking to get to the bottom of things, and recognising indications of witchcraft Strange visits Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) for help, which turns out to be a bad move because, possessed by the Darkhold and obsessed with being reunited with her two young sons Billy and Tommy (Julian Hilliard, Jett Klyne), as seen in WandaVision, she’s become The Scarlet Witch and it’s she who’s out to take America’s powers to enable her to ‘dream-walk’ to other versions of Earth – specifically Earth-838, and replace the Wanda who still has her children. Thus, starting with a ruthless assault on Kamar-Taj, the stage is set for a series of confrontations between her and Strange as he searches for the Book of Vishanti, which lies in the space between universes and will enable him to destroy the Darkhold, in a plot that leaps between different versions of Earth (our is apparently 661) as well as different incarnations of Strange, each with their own different fates and tragedies (one himself corrupted by the Darkhold), including, in the final scenes, a zombie version of the Defender Strange killed in the opening scene, which turns out to have been real and not a dream.
Trying to explain further would only confuse matters more, but suffice to say in the course of the narrative Strange gets to meet two versions of his old flame, Christine (Rachel McAdams), whose wedding he attends at the start, one of whim is now a scientist, be betrayed by former mentor Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) who believes Strange triggered an incursion that threatens all universes and meet the Illuminati, a tribunal comprising – in a sewing together of assorted MCU characters – the Inhumans’ Black Bolt (Anson Mount), Reed Richards (John Krasinski) from the Fantastic Four, that Earth’s Captain Marvel (Lashana Lynch reprising her 2019 role as Maria Rambeau), Captain Carter (Hayley Atwell), a UK version of Captain America, and Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart), all of whom get to take on The Scarlet Witch in a spectacular set piece.
Those there for the kinetic thrills and eye-popping visuals are well-served and more (especially a scene that literally uses musical notes as weapons), while for those seeking deeper engagement, Olsen’s outstanding portrayal of a mother driven to madness by the loss of her children, making her an understandable if not excusable villain (“I am not a monster|” she screams), and the underlying themes of regret and a desire for second chances are the emotional weight that bedrocks the very best of the Marvel films. As ever, it wouldn’t be a Raimi film without a cameo by his muse, Bruce Campbell, who pops up in one of the universes as a street vendor of pizza balls and is enchanted by Strange into slapping himself. Likewise there’s the inevitable mid-credits sequence (with Charlize Theron as sorceress and comic book love interest Clea taking Strange – now with third eye – off to another dimensional battle) and, for those who appreciate a sucker punch joke, one more right at the very end. Exhilarating and poignant to the max, Spider-Man: No Way Home could well be toppled from its throne. (Disney+)
As highly melodramatic as it is stylised, Baz Luhrmann’s biopic of Elvis Presley pretty much follows the adage of going with the myth (or perhaps fairy tale) when it’s better than the facts. As such, much is brushed over or ignored (his affair with Ann-Margret, , his meeting with Nixon demanding action against the lefties, no mention by name of his legendary backing musicians Scotty Moore and DJ Fontana and while there’s the pills but no Fat Elvis cheeseburger binges), while other parts polish the realities (the young Elvis – Chaydon Jay- may indeed have had his R&B education by hearing Big Boy Crudup singing That’s Alright Mama in a juke joint or gospel by sneaking into a revival meeting, but, despite what the film shows, he and B.B. King weren’t best buddies who hung out together on Beale Street, though they were famously photographed together). Ultimately though, while overlong, this is a solid if flashy portrait of how he became the best-selling solo music artist and a legend whose influence continues to this day set against his relationship with his manipulative svengali manager Col. Tom Parker whose contract stipulated 50% of all earnings, eventually, after Presley’s death, being charged with financial abuse.
Parker, an illegal Dutch immigrant named Andreas Cornelis van Kuijk who claimed to be American and earned the honorary title of Colonel after assisting Jimmie Davis’s campaign to become Governor of Louisiana, was a carnival snake oil showman – or snowman – who got into the music business managing Hank Snow before ‘discovering’ Presley after hearing his Sun recording of That’s Alright Mama and seeing dollar signs to learn that the singer was white not black and seeing how his gyrations exploded sexual frenzy in his teenage girl audience (“She’s having feelings she wasn’t sure she should enjoy”, Parker notes). He’s played here under heavy jowelled prosthetics by Tom Hanks with an accent that sounds nothing like Parker but does, appropriately enough, conjure up the rasp of the serpent from Eden (though the visual suggestions he was Jewish are unfounded) while opposite him Austin Butler delivers a star-making turn in the title role, capturing his passions, his insecurities, vulnerability and trusting innocence, his voice a close approximation of Presley and looking spookily like him in the iconic poses, although more often he resembles a young John Travolta with the same electrifying charisma.
Although (unreliably) narrated with a running commentary by Hanks as the ailing Parker after Presley’s death, justifying his role and rejecting accusations that he exploited him and essentially caused his death, the screenplay, clearly makes him out to be the villain of the piece, using his flimflam skills, promises of wealth and fame and, ultimately, emotional and financial blackmail, to maintain his control of Elvis even when he was briefly fired in order to secure the money to feed his gambling habit (he negotiated Presley’s five year cash cow deal to be perform at the International in Vegas in return for having his debts cancelled, a point hammered home with the ‘caught in a trap’ line from Suspicious Minds) while his not having a passport being the reason he scuppered any plans for Presley’s international tours. In his commentary, Parker rejects being responsible for the star’s death, going to far as blaming the fans and their obsessive desire to see him keep performing.
As usual for Luhrmann, its delivered in a dizzying rush of over-saturated colour, dissolves, chronological acrobatics and even animation (though the decision to include contemporary hop on the soundtrack is a major misfire). It touches – albeit not in any great depth – on the contentious issue of whites appropriating black music (Presley’s frequently shown in the company of Black performers like King (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), Little Richard and Sister Rosetta Tharpe, clearly a fan of their music, alongside segregation (childhood poverty meant his family had to live in neighbourhoods meant only for people of colour) and the impact on him of Martin Luther King’s assassination. Ticking the biographical boxes of his army service (apparently engineered by Parker to avoid him being jailed for degeneracy), the inane conveyor belt movies, his devotion to his mother Gladys (Helen Thomson), his inept business manager father Vernon (Richard Roxburgh), his marriage to (and eventual divorce from) Priscilla (Olivia DeJonge), and, of course, Gracelands.
A stand out section is the 1968 Elvis comeback special, intended by Parker (to please the sponsors) to be a cosy Christmas special with seasonal sweaters and fireside, but which Presley, in cohorts with director Steve Binder (Dacre Montgomery), turned into his rock n roll resurrection in black leathers and ending, following Bobby Kennedy’s shooting, with his stark performance of If I Can Dream. Likewise the recreation of the lavish Vegas performances, though perhaps not as dramatically effective as the scenes of the young Elvis discovering the sexual magnetism in his swivelling hips.
Musically leaving the building ending with Elvis singing Unchained Melody in his final Vegas season before the end captions wrap up his death and Parker’s comeuppance, while superior to Bohemian Rhapsody (though Butler’s an Oscar contender) and ultimately coming in second place to Rocketman, this is Luhrmann’s best since Moulin Rouge and will undoubtedly see Elvis once again back at the top of the album charts. (Empire Great Park; Reel; Vue)
Stranded atop a 2000 foot tower with your best friend and with no way down is probably not the best place to discover she had a pre-marital affair with your late husband. But that’s just one of the many tried and tested twists that cowriter and director Scott Mann puts to effective use in this unrelentingly tense two-handed , single location survival thriller. Even more so if you have a thing about heights.
It starts with Becky (Grace Caroline Currey), husband Dan (Mason Gooding) and best friend Hunter (Virginia Gardner) free climbing when an accident send him hurtling to his death. Eleven months later, Grace is still in pieces, drinking heavily, pushing her concerned father (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), away and about to take an overdose when Hunter turns up at her apartment, now a celebrity extreme stunts YouTuber who’s come to pull her back from the brink and embrace life again. And clearly the best way to do that is to scale a decommissioned 2000 foot TV tower (based on a real structure) in the middle of the desert.
Persuaded to join her, and to throw Dan’s ashes from the top, they duly head out into the middle of nowhere California and start the ascent, climbing up the ladders inside the structure. To amp up any sense of vertigo you may be having, half way the ever perky Hunter remarks that they’ve now scaled the same height as the Eiffel Tower. Much of the second leg involves them using ladders on the outside of the tower in order to reach the satellite dishes and then the platform. A few hear stopping scenes later they duly make it, but those shots of rusty rivets and creaking metal, and having seen one rung already give way, let you know going back down isn’t going to be quite as smooth. Indeed, as Becky begins to climb from the platform, the ladder falls away, Hunter having to haul her back to safety.
So, now they’re trapped. There’s no signal for their phones and the bag with the water has fallen on to one of the dishes. When an attempt to send a message by lodging Hunter’s phone in a show and dropping it fails, she risks lowering herself by a rope to retrieve the bag and the film constantly offers up hopes of being seen and rescued only to dash cruelly them. And then there’s those vultures (a set up early in the film like the speeding truck they almost drive into) who’ve taken interest in Becky’s wounded leg.
It is, of course, wonderfully ridiculous and as such Mann pulls the audience in as the suspense ratchets up and then draws on such derivative conventions as the it was just a nightmare jolt to tease the audience before a dramatic big unreliable-narrator reveal in the final stretch. An attempt to send an SOS via Hunter’s drone challenges internal logic when you put the pieces together, but so compelling are the film, the way Mann creates the perspective of the height and the two performances as they navigate themes of friendship and confronting and that you don’t think about it until you’re metaphorically back on solid earth. The pacing could have been be tighter and the timescale pared back, but ultimately it does what it sets out to with white knuckle intensity. (Cineworld NEC; Empire Great Park; Mockingbird; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Vue)
Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore (12A)
The third of the planned five films in JK Rowling’s Fantastic Beasts franchise is a welcome and darker (and in one scene very gruesome) step up from the entertaining but far from magical The Crimes of Grindelwald, again directed by David Yates and with a quietly intense Mads Mikkelsen brilliantly stepping into Gellert Grindelwald’s shoes after the grandstanding Johnny Depp was requested to depart. However, while the storyline is more focused its so complicated you need to be extremely au fait with The Wizarding World to place the many characters and their roles within it and, again, it can, especially in the first two-thirds, sometimes prove confusing, not to say incoherent, in keeping up with the dizzying narrative switches.
Working with co-writer Steve Kloves, Rowling has scaled back the role of Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston) to a mere cameo but bumped up that of Charms Professor “Lally” Hicks (Jessica Williams complete with eccentric enunciation) to become an essential member of the team assigned to bring down Grindelwald, who, recruited by Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law), here revealed as his former lover and who cannot fight him himself on account of a magical blood pact, also line up as magizoologist Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), his brother Theseus (Callum Tuner), head Aura from the British Ministry of Magic, French wizard Yusuf Kama (William Nadlyam) whose half-sister was killed at a Grindelwald rally, Newt’s assistant Bunty Broadacre (Victoria Yeates) and muggle baker Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), still heartbroken after his mag lover, Queenie (Alison Sudol), Tina’s sister, believing he’d help her marry him, threw in her lot with Grindelwald.
Opposing them, alongside Grindelwald is, among others, Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller), who, at the end of the last film, was revealed to actually be Aurelius Dumbledore, the illegitimate son of Albus’s inn-owning brother Aberforth (Richard Coyle), who, since he can’t do it himself, has been ordered by Grindelwald to kill his newly discovered uncle.
The magical menagerie has also been downsized, reduced to just a few (living twig Pickett and the Niffler return), including a bunch of scorpion-like creatures that afford an amusing scene for Newt (rescuing his brother) to demonstrate limbic mimicry and, more importantly, the qilin, which can look into to people’s souls to see who has a pure heart. As such, it plays a pivotal role in the film which is set around the upcoming elections for the new Supreme Head. Thus, following the prologue flashback between Albus and Grindelwald, the film cuts to Newt attending the birth of the new qilin, only for the mother to be killed by Credence and his crew and the baby kidnapped so his master can harness its powers of precognition. What they don’t know is that the mother had twins. Now, to stop Grindelwald, who has been exonerated of his crimes and declared a third candidate for the election against Brazilian Minister Santos (Maria Fernanda Cândido) and Chinese Minister Liu (Dave Wong), by employing “countersight” – deliberately misleading to create confusion and hide their actual intentions (a similar ploy to be found in the upcoming Operation Mincemeat), Albus and his team have to ensure it remains safe and that they themselves aren’t killed in the process.
That’s the nuts and bolts of the plot, the secrets of the title relating to the entire Dumbledore family (including a dead sister adding to the tragedies) rather than just Albus, as each of the team carry out their allocated parts of the plan, the locations variously switching between London, Austria, New York, Berlin, Bhutan and, yes, Hogwarts, while Grindelwald’s campaign to fuel and exploit the hatred and bigotry bubbling up clearly has as many resonances with today’s world as in the Nazi 30s. Themes of the outsider and the abandoned loom large, often to emotionally affecting power, while naturally it’s awash with spectacular visual effects, thrilling chases, electrifying action and all manner of wand face-offs (Jacob is even gifted his own by Dumbledore) before and an ending that is both radiantly happy but, for one character, a reminder that they are forever alone. As such, while an exhilarating roller-coaster ride for the faithful, it might have been a better idea to have killed off Grindelwald here and ended the series, since what follows leading up to the ultimate showdown can surely only feel like an over-extended anti-climactic afterthought. (Rakuten TV)
Fisherman’s Friends: One and All (12A)
A family friendly good-humoured telling of how a bunch of Cornish fishermen from Port Isaac became mega-selling sea shanty recording artists, the original Fisherman’s Friends had an engaging comedic charm and a message about friendship and community. A sequel was inevitable. But while more of the same, it’s also less. James Purefoy returns as Jim, but he’s not in good shape having turned to drink after the death of his father and the group’s co-founder Jago (David Hayman, returning quite literally in spirit). Though, understandably, being dressed up as fish fingers for publicity purposes would be enough to send anyone to the bottle. Then he bristles at the arrival of new member, Morgan (Richard Harrington) who’s not only a farmer but, even worse, Welsh. Eventually, despite the best efforts of label manager Leah (Jade Anouka), his boozing gets the band dropped from their label when he loses it during a press conference, quits and takes off to sulk and chat up B&B guest Aubrey Flynn (Imelda May), a former Irish pop star hellraiser. Jim’s not the only liability though with another of the group’s senior figures, Leadville (Dave Johns), making inappropriate comments to a female journalist, and others pretty much serving as ammunition for cancel culture.
It’s Jim’s mum (Maggie Steed) who comes to the rescue with a plan to have the band play Glastonbury (while pretty much everything else is fictionalised, they did indeed play the Pyramid Stage in 2011), but given that’s not really enough to fill up a feature, the narrative throws in such digression as rescuing a child stuck down an abandoned mineshaft, one of the group getting ejected by the missus after she reads a groupie’s text. Plus of course plenty of singing to go with let’s all get along together message. Undemanding but enjoyable, if you’re not looking for anything dicier than double entendres about pasties, then this is your lozenge. Be warned though, there’s a Chris Evans cameo as himself. (Cineworld Solihull; Empire Great Park; Mockingbird;Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel; Vue)
The Forgiven (18)
Having spread his wings six years ago with War On Everyone taking him to America, Irish director John Michael McDonagh now moves to Morocco with this slow burning, but intelligent psychological thriller adapted from a 2012 novel by Lawrence Osborne but veined with hints of Conrad and Fitzgerald, set in the present but with a heavy 40s ambience.
An American children’s writer whose books have fallen out of fashion, Jo (Jessica Chastain) and her husband David Henninger (Ralph Fiennes), a British surgeon whose career is under something of a cloud, are travelling across North Africa to attend a weekend party hosted by his sneery, degenerate schoolfriend Richard (Matt Smith) at the opulent villa fortress in the Atlas Mountains he’s had built and shares with offensive, decadent and drunk American boyfriend Dally (Caleb Landry Jones).
Jo and David have been married 12 years and the cracks are showing, he’s a privileged alcoholic snob and she’s a sarcastic harpy. During an argument while trying to find a turning in the middle of the night they run straight into an Arab boy, Driss (Omar Ghazaoui), seen earlier digging for fossils to mount and sell to Westerners. The Henningers eventually arrive at Richard’s and go in to grab a drink and freshen up, leaving him and his Moroccan head of staff (a dry Mourad Zaoui), who seems to constantly speak in enigmatic proverbs, to deal with the unidentified body in the car.
The police turn up and, thanks to Richard’s connections, David does his best to appear contrite and everything is duly brushed under the carpet, an unfortunate accident, after all, as David observes, the boy’s “a nobody”, an inconvenient crimp in the weekend’s festivities. The incident, however, refuses to away and the dead boy’s father (Ismael Kanater), turns up at the gate to collect the body and ‘requests’ that David accompany him back to the village for the burial. Naturally, David’s not keen (”They could be fucking Isis”) but is persuaded it’s the done thing, and besides he thinks he can pay them off, at which point the film turns into two narratives, that involving David, the father and his translator Anouar (Saïd Taghmaoui), who dreams of escaping to somewhere cold like Sweden, and, back at the resort, while the cat’s away, a fling between Jo and the smooth-talking financial analyst Tom (Christopher Abbott).
Navigating the cultural abyss between the characters, McDonagh deftly balances both the strands, building the tension as you wonder what’s in store for David as he learns more about the local culture and begins to reflect on his actions with the possibility of some form of redemption while caustically capturing the racist white privilege attitudes of other shallow, self-absorbed and pretty much uniformly awful coke snorting (the drugs and the swearing the reason for the certificate) debauchee interlopers back at the resort, among them a vacuous Australian party girl model (Abbey Lee), a sanctimonious New York Times French photographer (Marie-Josee Croze), and a British aristocrat (Alex Jennings) and his young female entourage.
It stumbles somewhat in the final stretch at its ends to his jolting climax, but, driven by a top of his game performance from Fiennes as he explores the emotional nuances of his character and solid turns from the rest of the central cast, Kanater in particular, it’s not one that you’ll shake off in a hurry. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC; Empire Great Park; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel)
Good Luck To You, Leo Grande (15)
Directed by Sophie Hyde and written by Katy Brand, this is a two-hander that plays very much like a stage play of three acts and an epilogue and is structured entirely around the conversations between its two characters. These are Leo Grande (Daryl McCormack), a good-looking,well-toned young Irish Black man who runs a business service as a sex-worker, and his client, Nancy Stokes (Emma Thompson), a recently widowed fiftyish ex-teacher, who has booked a plush hotel room to have sex. Naturally, neither are using their real names. He’s smooth, polite,articulate, non-judgemental and well-versed in how to interact with people,she’s insecure and nervous, confessing that she’s never had – and thinks herself unable to have – an orgasm and only ever had sex with her late husband. He experienced, she far from it,the first session is mostly a cat and mouse game about the two getting to know each other, he trying to calm her anxieties, she finding reasons not to go through with what she’s hired him for.
It’s funny but also piercingly sad as she gradually opens up about her disappointments, the stagnation of her marriage, her husband’s unchanging and brief sex routines, her feelings about her son and daughter and her general view of herself as a failure. In end with them finally concluding the deal. At the next session,she’s seemingly more confident,having drawn up a fuck-it list of what she wants, staring with oral sex. However, she continues to prevaricate while, over the course of this and the third session, the focus shifts more to Leo, who she presses on his life outside work,his relationship with his mother and sibling,something he’s reluctant to discuss as we come to realise that behind his self-assured persona, his life too his engrained with disappointments, hurt and insecurity (he’s seen checking himself out in the mirror on several occasions,and not for vanity).
It eventually comes to a head where, not understanding how boundaries work, she confronts him with his real name and we learn the heartbreaking reality of his background before he storms out. The epilogue is a final meeting, the relationship between them somehow changed, and introduces a third character, a hotel waitress that Nancy (who reveals her real name in a wry filmic in-joke) used to teach.
Slowly learning more about Leo and Nancy’s inner worlds and emotional scars is part and parcel of what makes this such a terrific work and to give away more would ruin the pleasures and poignancy of the screenplay and the performances with their tremendous chemistry. Suffice to say, embracing shame, frustration, body image, the nature of sex workers, parent-child conflicts, desire, and sexual healing/therapy, it’s a wonderfully compassionate and very human work. McCormack, previously seen in Peaky Blinders delivers a magnetic star-making turn that conveys depth and complexity in the most simple of physical gestures while, in her first nude scene, Thompson, bristling with nervous energy and navigating a lifetime marked by lack of self-worth, guilt, unhappiness and disappointment, gives a luminous, multi-faceted performance that is unquestionably the finest of a stellar career. From foreplay to climax, this will leave you with a glow of satisfaction. (Rakuten TV)
The Gray Man (15)
After taking a relative step back from the bombastic, high octane action of their Avengers movies with Tom Holland PTSD drama Cherry, the Russo Brothers dive back into the adrenaline pool for this high speed espionage thriller that moves so fast and so frantically you have little time to so notice the generic nature of the narrative which pretty much follows a similar route as to the Jason Bourne and John Wick movies.
Adopting a familiar laconic manner akin to his role in Drive, Ryan Gosling is Court Gentry, serving time for murder (it’s not until late in the film that the justifiable circumstances are revealed) when he’s visited by CIA bigwig Donald Fitzroy (Billy Bob Thornton looking younger in every film) who offers to commute his sentence if he agrees to bring his distinctive skill sets to work for a covert wing of the agency as a ‘gray man’ under Fitzroy and bureau chief Margaret Cahill (Alfre Woodard), tasked with eliminating hostile targets. From this point on he’s known only as Sierra Six, or Six.
His latest assignment takes him to Bangkok where his mission is to take out his target before he concludes a deal to pass on material against the interests of the US. To which end, he’s partnered with a CIA contact, Dani Miranda (Ana de Armas), who provides the weaponry and the kill site. However, things don’t go according to plan and, in a subsequent fight, Six discovers his target is a fellow Sierra agent, Four who passes on evidence of agency corruption at the highest level before dying. Now Six finds himself marked for elimination by Fitzroy and Cahill’s replacement, the ruthlessly ambitious Denny Carmichael (Rege-Jean Page) and his assistant, Suzanne Brewer (Jessica Henwick), who’s been using the Sierra project to destabilise governments and give himself sway.
At which point, the film basically becomes a location hopping chase movie as Six avoids one attempt on his life after another until Carmichael ups the stakes by bringing in sociopathic private contractor Lloyd Hansen (Chris Evans chewing scenery in tight trousers and Freddy Mercury ‘tache), who puts a price on his head, Miranda now forced to go rogue to help Six survive and expose the evidence. All of which variously involve a frenetic cherry red Audi RS7car chase, exploding helicopters, shoot outs, a mid-air battle to the death over Turkey, Prague turned into a combat zone, and, just to add to things, a mission to rescue Fitzroy’s teenage niece (Julia Butters) with a heart problem who’s being held as leverage by Hansen. Two supporting characters wind up doing to the self-sacrificing thing with a grenade in the process.
Riding a flood of testosterone and snappy patter, it rarely pauses to catch its breath en route to the inevitable Croatia showdown between the two stars, the Russos choreographing the action like a finely-tuned machine, but leaving room for Gosling to give Six a coating of humanity and a propensity for dry world-weary humour as well as affording another solid argument for De Armas headlining her own action movie. Bigger on brawn than brain perhaps, but it’s unrelentingly exciting viewing and the good news is that a sequel and a spin-off are already in development. (Netflix)
There are, it would appear, only to missile interceptor bases in America meaning that if one or both were rendered inoperable, then there would be nothing to prevent a nuclear strike on American cities. And that’s the premise of this low budget but entertaining directorial debut by Matthew Reilly. It opens with an attack on the (real) Fort Greely base in Alaska by an unidentified force which somehow manages to kill all the troops stationed there, before shifting to the (fictional) offshore site in the Atlantic Ocean where the rest of the film unfolds. It’s to here that tough and tactical army captain JJ Collins (model turned actress former Fast and the Furious co-star Elsa Pataky, wife to exec producer Chris Hemsworth who puts in amusing cameo) is assigned, returning to service after a suicide attempt in the wake of a concentrated torrent of abuse and death threats after she accused a senior officer of sexual harassment (naturally, they took his word).
No sooner has she arrived, however, than the commanding officer and all bar three of the crew are killed by a group of terrorists who’ve infiltrated the base, led by alpha male Alexander Kessel (Luke Bracey from the Point Break remake), a former US military intelligence officer with daddy and patriotism issues. His plan is to take the interceptors out of commission so that his employers can launch the 16 nuclear missiles they’ve somehow managed to steal from the Russians and wipe out America. To do so, however, he and his men have to get into the command centre in which Collins has locked herself along with two tecchies, Shah (Mayen Mehta), and asshole Beaver (Aaron Glenane), the latter knocked out by stray bullet. Now it’s basically a battle to keep Kessler, whose smooth talking is offset by shooting the sole surviving officer and Collins’ father, back in his veteran’s retirement home, from getting in, involving taking out one of the mercenaries who pops up through the hatch. That and, when Kessler, through an inside man’s help, gets through, trying to shoot down the missile he has launched and then a single handed race against the clock to stop the other 15. Meanwhile, back in America, Madam President and her advisers are communicating by video link and biting their nails down to the quick while the American public are horrifyingly watching Kessler’s live feed of their impending annihilation.
Alternating between functionally staged fight scenes and Collins’ and Kessler’s bickering banter, it never rises beyond its generic 80s B-movie roots and the climax falls somewhat flat, but Pataky steps up to the physical mark commendably enough, even if she’s less effective in the verbal sparring, now all she needs is better script and a director with a firmer hand to move her up into the current action woman leagues. (Netflix)
The Invitation (18)
Films released without screening to critics almost always prove to be disastrous; however, originally titled The Bride, directed by Jessica M Thompson and co-written by Blair Butler and with largely all-female production team, this feminist vampire thriller is far better than you might suspect. Her mother recently deceased, struggling New York ceramicist – and jobbing catering crew worker – Evie (Nathalie Emmanuel) decides to use the trace your ancestry DNA kit in a goodie bag from her recent gig and discovers she has a cousin Oliver (Hugh Skinner) who conveniently happens to be in town. He invites her to meet and then insists she come to England for an upcoming wedding to meet the rest of the family who can’t wait to welcome her into their bosom. And so it is she fetches up a stately pile .owned by the impossibly wealthy Walter (Thomas Doherty), for whom Oliver and various her local families all work. After initially getting off on the wrong foot with both him and the butler (Sean Pertwee as a sort of haughty, murderous Allred), a romance inevitably starts to brew. Naturally, Walt and the others, especially the bridesmaids, Viktoria (Stephanie Corneliussen) and Lucy (Alana Boden), are now who or indeed what they appear to be and it’s not long before Evie’s imaging she’s seeing creepy figures in her room. Plus the hired serving help seem to be dwindling rapidly.
Anyone vaguely familiar with Bram Stoker will, of course, be well aware of what’s going from the moment they learn Walt lives in Whitby and the mansions called New Carfax. Indeed, the whole film plays like a teasing Easter egg hunt for Dracula fans, even cheekily introducing characters called Mina and Jonathan Harker, albeit here batting for the other side. Oh yes, and, like the villain in 101 Dalmatians, Walt’s punning surname is DeVille. There is indeed a wedding on the cards, but it’s Evie who’s designated to take the place of the original mistress of the house who killed herself in the opening scene. So, Bride of Dracula then.
But knowing all this just adds to the fun as the blood supply waitresses keep vanishing and Thompson playfully milks the genre clichés before the big reveal and a fiery wedding ceremony climax that initially suggests they might have had thoughts of turning this into a female Blade franchise. Though at least in a coda one of the surviving conspirators is about to be reunited with a now transformed badass Evie – along with best friend Grace (Courtney Taylor reappearing after sitting out the rest of the film).
Alongside Dracula, another touchstone is Ready Or Not, another country house feminist thriller with a woman having to fight back against her new family , and as such there’s plenty of cellars, dark corridors and hidey holes to propel the action and, while there’s no surprises once you cotton on, it’s a perfectly serviceable and enjoyable, well-polished horror romp. (Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Vue)
Jurassic World: Dominion (12A)
Touted as the final instalment in the saga that kicked off in 1993 with Jurassic Park, set four years after the events of Jurassic World and its Fallen Kingdom sequel that left the dinosaurs free to roam, directed by JW’s Colin Trevorrow, the selling point is the return of three of the original film’s central characters, palaeontologist Alan Grant (Sam Neill), environmentalist romantic interest Ellie Sadler (Laura Dern) and chaos theory doomsayer Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum). Their reappearance is down to a new breed of locusts with prehistoric DNA that threaten to destroy the food chain. They’re ravaging all the grain in America, except, that is, crops grown by Biosyn, a corporate that has exclusive rights regarding the containment and protection of the reptiles. It’s headed up by another Jurassic Park returnee, Lewis Dodgson (this time played by Campbell Scott), who bribed Dennis Nedry to steal embryos and who, thanks to a tip off from Malcolm, who works as a Biosyn consultant, Sadler believes to be behind things and recruits Grant to help investigate.
This is cross-fertilised with a narrative strand from the JW series involving dino wrangler Owen Grady (Chris Pratt), his dinosaur rights activist partner Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard) as their cloned step-daughter Maisie Lockwood (Isabella Sermon, also playing her mother’s younger self in a video flashback), the granddaughter of Dr. John Hammond’s former partner in cloning Benjamin Lockwood. Her genetics are the reason Grady and Dearing are keeping her off the grid and why she’s been hunted by a bunch of mercenaries, headed up by Soyona Santos (Dichen Lachman who simply disappears from the storyline) hired by Biosyn so that head scientist Dr Wu (BJ Wong back again) can use her unique DNA. She’s captured, along with Beta, a baby velociraptor she’s tamed, setting her parents and pilot-adventurer for hire Kayla Watts (DeWanda Wise) on a rescue mission that, after a globetrotting jaunt and a raptor-motorbike chase in Malta, eventually brings all the main cast together at Dodgson’s gigantic dinosaur-filled valley facility in the Dolemites where, in a frankly tangled web of who’s on who’s side involving Dodgson’s assistant (Mamoudou) Athie), they end up battling assorted genetically engineered dinosaurs, including new creatures such as the Giganotosaurus and Pyroraptor, who, in turn, battle with each other.
It’s all very busy with its chase and fight sequences, but nothing ever really comes into a coherent focus while, fatally, the dinosaurs themselves become secondary characters in their own story, while the final scene between Grady and the mommy raptor is just too cheesy for words. Undeniably big screen spectacular with plentiful nods to the overall saga, it never bores but that sense of awe that Spielberg captured 29 years ago is lost in the ticking of boxes. (Rakuten TV; Vue)
The Lost City (12A)
Essentially a revamp of Romancing The Stone (which it dutifully references), co-directors Aaron and Adam Nee make no attempt to disguise the implausibility of the plot, but fully immerse themselves in the spirit of old time Saturday matinee adventure romps. Sandra Bullock is the Kathleen Turner figure, a bestselling but lonely romance novelist Loretta Sage who has lost enthusiasm for her work since her archaeologist husband died. And so, having been persuaded by her publicist Beth (a fun Da’Vine Joy Randolph) and social media wrangler (a wonderfully deadpan Patti Harrison) to take on a promotional tour for her latest book, The Lost City Of D, during which, wearing sparkly figure-hugging pink jumpsuit and high heels, she announces that, if there’s a follow-up, she’s going to kill off its heartthrob hero, Dash, modelled on her late husband, which comes as something of shock to Alan Caprison (Channing Tatum), the not too bright but hunky model (she calls him a talking body wash commercial) who has been the franchise’s blond-wigged cover star and a big hit with the ladies.
However, they soon have bigger things to worry about when billionaire Abigail Fairfax (Daniel Radcliffe rehashing his Now You See Me 2 villain with added daddy issues) kidnaps her believing that, as her books are based on historic research she did with her deceased husband, she can decipher the characters on a map fragment that will lead him to the fabled Crown of Fire, a priceless diamond headdress described in the book and supposedly hidden in the lost city he’s discovered on a remote Atlantic island, but which is about to be destroyed by an active volcano. He carts her off to the island while Alan, who harbours a secret crush, enlists Zen adventurer Jack Trainer (a tousled Brad Pitt), a former Navy SEAL turned CIA operative, to meet him at the island (tracking her via her Apple watch) and rescue her, insisting on tagging along. Jack does indeed rescue her from the compound in a display of derring-do, but an unexpected development quickly leaves her and Alan to fend for themselves, lost in the jungle, Loretta trying follow the clues on the map, pursued by Fairfax’s goons. Meanwhile, with help from an eccentric cargo pilot (Oscar Nunez), Beth is also on the trail.
There’s not much more to the plot than that; as you’d expect a connection begins to spark between the pair, each learns more about themselves, there’s chases, fights and a Raiders Of The Lost Ark styled climax when the treasure is found and its secret revealed, while, along the way, Loretta has to pluck leeches off the water-allergic Alan’s naked body with the inevitable innuendos that entails.
Bullock and Tatum have fizzing chemistry, swapping banter as they go, while she again demonstrates her physical comedy skills to good effect, the film romping entertainingly along without requiring audiences to engage their brain, although the now inevitable mid-credits sequence does rather spoil the film’s biggest OMG moment. (Amazon Prime)
Minions: The Rise of Gru (PG)
While essentially an origin story for Gru, as the title suggests, this Despicable Me prequel is nevertheless more focused on the yellow Twinkie-shaped characters in goggles and blue dungarees that have become a seemingly unstoppable commercial force, ranging from toys to all manner of merchandise as well as an endorsement for Sky.
The story is set in 1976 where the world’s top supervillain team, the Vicious 6, evil Viking Svengeance (Dolph Lundgren); Nun Chuck (Lucy Lawless), a nun who wields her crucifix as a weapon, lobster-limbed Jean Clawed (Jean-Claude Van Damme), Stronghold (Danny Trejo) and Belle Bottom (Taraji P. Henson), set out to steal the Zodiac Stone, an amulet that will give them world conquering power. However, when their leader, Wild Knuckles (Alan Arkin) manages to survive the defence mechanisms and escape with it, the others literally cut him loose, sending him plunging to his death.
Now short of a member they advertise for a replacement. Enter young Gru (Steve Carell), a friendless schoolkid, mostly ignored by his yoga mad mother (Julie Andrews), who wants to grow up to be the world’s best supervillain, who applies to join and is invited for an interview at the gang’s secret lair beneath the Criminal Records store run by a certain Doctor Nefario (Russell Brand from Despicable Me). Laughed at and humiliated at the interview (“Evil is for adults, not for tubby little punks”, says Belle), using Nefario’s sticky fingers invention, Gru steals the amulet and takes off, setting up the rest of the plot whereby, the bulk of the action unfolding in San Francisco, he’s pursued by the gang and finds himself captured by and ending up joining forces with Knuckles, his favourite supervillain, who has survived and is now out for revenge on his former colleagues. Meanwhile, the Minions, tall skinny Kevin, one-eyed Stuart, attention-deficit Bob and new addition Otto (Pierre Coffin ), who traded the amulet for a pet stone at a kids’ birthday party and has to then get it back off the biker (RZA) who takes him to San Francisco, have embarked on a rescue mission.
As well as other nods to the original film (Will Arnett as Bank of Evil president Mr Perkins and Steve Coogan’s Anti-Villain League boss Ramsbottom), the film tells how Gru and the Minions came together (they answered a help wanted ad and he adopted them all, but there’s still no explanation of their origins) and, directed by Kyle Balda it romps along at a manic pace like some sort of Looney Tunes with loads of slapstick cartoon violence and fart gags for the kiddies. The main Minions get their own spotlight sequences involving flying a plane to San Francisco and, in a subplot that runs on far too long, learning Kung Fu from acupuncturist Master Chow (Michelle Yeoh), before it all winds up in a Chinese New Year showdown and a funeral to the sound of The Stones’ You Can’t Always Get What You Want.
Given the setting, it’s wall to wall with 70s in-joke references, from nods to martial arts, Bond (including a spoof theme song) and Blaxploitation movies to hit songs from the day (Knuckles uses disco as a torture tool), which will mean nothing to the target audience or indeed likely most of their parents, but are nevertheless all part of the fun along with the throwaway incidental gags. Despite the short running time, the film does rather wear out its welcome before the post-credits bonus scene, but its colossal success suggests they won’t be retiring anytime soon.(Rakuten TV; Cineworld NEC; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Vue)
Nightmare Alley (15)
Guillermo del Toro has remade the 1947 dark Tyrone Power thriller adapted from William Lindsay Gresham’s pulp novel as a cynical Depression-era moral fable about human nature and how it’s coldly exploited by a world made up of con artists and shysters.
It opens with Stanton Carlisle (a stupendous Bradley Cooper never playing for sympathy) lowering wrapped up corpse into a hole in a farmhouse floor and then setting fire to the place, a scene to which the film with flashback on several occasions before revealing who and why. He surfaces following a dwarf to at travelling carnival of fellow outcasts and misfits where the boss, Clem Hoatley (a devilish Willem Dafoe) gives him a job and a floor to sleep on. Here he uses his charm, wiles and natural showman skills to win Clem over by helping improve some of the acts and avoiding an awkward moment when the cops turn up investigating one of the carny’s attractions, The Geek (a homeless man drugged, sent mad and exhibited as a freak biting the head off a live chicken). He also strikes up a friendship with mentalist act clairvoyant Zeena (Toni Collette) and her creaky boozed up partner Pete (David Strathairn), keen to learn how to read people and the tricks of the trade and even keener to get his hands on Pete’s book of codewords.
One of the acts he buffs up is that of Molly (Rooney Mara), who apparently conducts electricity through her body in front of the jaw-gaping rubes, but while she’s clearly taken by him, her self-appointed guardian, strongman Bruno (Ron Perlman) makes it abundantly clear what will happen of Stan hurts her.
Suffice to say, however, after ‘accidentally’ poisoning Pete, armed with the stolen black book the arrogant Stan and naive Molly take off into the film’s second 1941-set act to start their own mentalist act using the tricks he’s stolen, playing more upmarket clubs in his driven need for validation, fame and wealth, whatever the cost to his soul. It’s at the Copacabana where he comes into contact with psychiatrist Lilith Ritter (an icily magnetic, razor sharp Cate Blanchett),. who is under no illusion that Stan is the real thing. However, they strike up a dark arrangement, whereby he agrees to therapy and she provides him with details of her wealthy clients whose grief and need for commune with the dead he can exploit, sharing a cut of his fees with her. He reckons he’s playing her, but, as the film reveals, a calculating femme fatale, she’s sharper at the power playing games than he thinks. Things eventually go pear-shaped when, ignoring Pete’s advice to not go down the spook show route, Stan enlists Molly to pose as his shame-ridden industrialist mark’s (Richard Jenkins) dead loved one, sending him back on the run as the film comes full circle with a devastating irony and a final line that will haunt long after the credits.
All this de Toro weaves together with the art of a master of misdirection, the detail of such things as pickled foetuses and hand-painted sideshow banners adding to the film’s unsettling lurid ambience and its world of callous grifters and hustlers to deliver a film that ranks up there alongside dark noir classics like LA Confidential and There Will Be Blood. (Disney+)
Jordan Peele has stated that, overflowing with mirrors, cameras, and eyes, his follow up to Get Out and Us, metaphorical horror movies about being Black in America, is about our addiction to spectacle and the nature of attention (At one point, introducing what he promises to be a life changing spectacle to a handful of bemused watchers, a characters declares “We are being surveilled by an alien species I call the Viewers”). A commentary on filmmaking and Hollywood and, to sustain a through line, and the sidelining of the contribution of Blacks to cinema history. However, you can’t help feeling that this is a case of making the movie and then interpreting themes rather than the other way round. This is Peele’s sci-fi movie, a film about aliens in the sky abducting humans as snacks. Yes, there’s nods to Spielberg’s Close Encounters, but the film is far closer to M Night Shyamalan’s Signs and, less commendably, The Happening.
It opens with a scene of carnage on the set of a TV comedy as a chimp in human clothing and wearing a party hat pokes an obscured figure’s dead foot. Nothing more is explained at this point, but the full story serves as an elaborate flashback scene later. The focus then shifts to siblings, taciturn OJ (Daniel Kaluuya), who wears a hoodie from The Scorpion King, and sassy attention-seeking motormouth sister Emerald (Keke Palmer), who run the only Black-owned Hollywood horse training ranch, inherited from their father Otis Haywood (Keith David) who dies on his horse when, in an early scene, objects suddenly start flying through the air and a nickel slices through his eye. Emerald claims they’re descendants of the unnamed Black jockey seen riding a horse in an 1878 animated short by English photographer Eadweard Muybridge, the first film ever made, but these days the business has fallen on hard times, OJ reduced to training horses to be ridden by faded actresses in TV commercials.
To keep things afloat, OJ’s selling off his stock to Ricky “Jupe” Park (Steven Yeun), the former child star from that opening clip, a 1990’s sitcom titled Gordy’s Home, the adopted Asian child in a white family alongside Gordy, the chimp, who killed two fellow actors when he was spooked by a balloon popping. These days keeps a blood-stained shoe from a dead actress in a private room to which he charges admission, just as OJ keeps the nickel, and runs Jupiter’s Claim, a cheesy, low-budget Western theme attraction that has an inflatable cowboy mascot and a wishing well with a camera that takes souvenir portraits (both of which play a vital part in the climax). He’s the one staging the Star Lasso Experience (attended by his fellow survivor, her scarred face hidden by a veil), planning to lure UFO into sight by feeding it a horse.
Earlier on, OJ thinks he sees a spaceship and, his sister looking to cash in on any discovery with that ‘Oprah moment’, they buy a bunch of surveillance cameras from the local electronics store, techie salesman Angel Torres (Brandon Perea) becoming their self-imposed partner in trying to film evidence of the alien visitors, hidden in an unmoving cloud, who cause power outages whenever they appear to feed off the local livestock. Unable to get the footage they need, Emerald recruits Antlers Holst (Michael Wincott), a commercial director renowned for getting “the impossible shot”, luring the craft with billowing ‘tube’ men.
Framed as chapters, after teasing the audience with hints and glimpses, eventually Peele pulls back the curtain as the aliens hip finally manifests itself, sucking up Jupe and his audience, spewing the debris and blood over the ranch, realising the Biblical quote at the start of the film (“I will cast abominable filth at you, make you vile, and make you a spectacle”), building to the climax as Angel, OJ and Emerald seek to destroy the flying saucer, dubbed Jean Jacket, which can change its shape from a white disc with a gaping black maw, looking a bit like an eye in the sky, to a diaphanous, angel-like loops with a square green ‘viewfinder’.
Peele knows how to suggest or withhold things to create suspense, though, despite the brilliant IMAX camera work of Hoyte Van Hoytema, he’s perhaps less assured in staging special effects action, though the banality of the denouement (which nods to the old Westerns) is a treat. When you leave the cinema, you can discuss the muddle of meanings about monetising the desire to see something crazy, the destructive nature of seeking attention set against the desire to see but not be seen, the power of the watcher, commentary on the nature of filmmaking and whatever else you can dig out, but while you’re in the thick of it, just switch off and take the wild ride. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Everyman; MAC; Mockingbird; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Vue)
Orphan: First Kill (15)
The central concept perhaps inspired by Don’t Look Now, back in 2009 Jaume Collet-Serra gave the world Orphan, in which Vera Farmiga and Peter Sarsgaard adopted Esther, an 8-year-old who, in a clever horrifying twist turned out to be a 33-year-old Estonian murderess named Leena Klammer, born with a hormonal disorder that stunted her physical growth.
Now, William Brent Bell presents a prequel, one that suffers from two major problems. First, anyone who saw the original will know the truth about Leena already and, more crucially, Isabelle Fuhrman returns to the role she first played when she was just 12. Now in her twenties, even with body doubles, digital trickery and some poor facial de-ageing, it’s hard to buy into her as an eight-year-old, often looking as if her head has been unconvincingly superimposed on a child’s body.
It opens with an overly extended sequence set in an Estonian mental hospital where Leena is an inmate, at least until she murderously engineers her escape and makes her way to America where she cons her way into persuading protective Tricia (Julia Stiles) and artist Allen (Rossif Sutherland) Albright that she’s their long missing daughter Esther. Now, where the first film drew inspiration from the true story of 34-year-old Barbora Skrlova, a violent orphan who was caught impersonating a 13-year-old boy, this one is rooted in The Imposter, a documentary relating how French con artist Frédéric Bourdin tricked a Texas family into believing he was their missing son.
Now, since it can’t pull off the same reveal twice, this has a twist up its sleeve that upends everything about the seemingly picture perfect Albrights, the truth behind the real Esther’s did appearance and the part played by her mother and teenage fencing prodigy brother Gunnar (Matthew Finlan). It’s a clever reversal of manipulations wherein Leena finds she may be in over her head, but falls somewhat short of its Hitchcock aspirations, descending into inevitably bloodshed (Hiro Kanagawa as the detective not persuaded Esther’s who she claims to be and a melodramatic climax atop the roof of a blazing building. That it works at all is down entirely to Stiles and Fuhrman who don’t let the essential contortions of the screenplay get in the way of committed performances despite the hammy horror camp surrounding them. (Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Vue)
Not put off by the piss-poor response to 2018’s The Predator, 10 Cloverfield Lane director Dan Trachtenberg and screenwriter Patrick Aison take up the challenge of rebooting the franchise, and incredibly pulls off the best in the franchise since the original. Rather than continuing the saga, it takes the bold step of going back to the start, the setting being America’s Northern Great Plains in 1719. Here, Naru (The Ice Road’s Amber Midthunder) is a young Comanche desperate to prove herself the equal of her tribe macho boys, most especially her brother Taabe (Dakota Beavers), under whose shadow she lives. An expert with a bow and throwing hatchet, knowledgeable in herbal medicine, she’s ready for her ritual hunt rite of passage. Naturally, her testosterone swamped peers don’t take her seriously, especially when she has to be rescued from a mountain lion, which her brother kills and is subsequently honoured as a war chief.
However, her chance to show her mettle comes when she discovers that there’s very different kind of beast out there, an alien hunter that, using its cloaking technology and hi-tech weaponry is stalking its prey. Having eviscerated the young bucks and what appears to be a small army of French trappers, Naru finds herself as the last defence.
Working on a small scale, Trachtenberg ramps up the tension and intensity, delivering some thrillingly brutal close quarters action as well as graphically visceral butchery in which arrows and flintlock firearms are no match for the alien technology, causing Naru to improvise in inspired ways. Played by the towering Dane DiLiegro, this sleeker, faster Predator with its glowing green blood is also back to basics with sheer physicality and just a skull mask rather than the more familiar face plate, while singlehandedly (albeit with her trusty canine companion) Midthunder electrifyingly commands the screen and the action with her body language, Trachtenberg assiduous in authentically recreating the period and all the necessary trapping, the bulk of the cast being played by Native American actors (the film will have a Comanche dubbed version).
An inspired addition to the current spate of female empowerment thrillers, it’s an exhilarating and reinvigorating fresh take on a franchise that seemed to have nowhere left to go and easily one of the year’s best action movies, making it all the more inexplicable as to why it’s been denied a theatrical release and consigned to subscriber streaming. With an end credits graphic suggesting a sequel, perhaps they’ll reconsider next time around. (Disney+)
The Railway Children Return (PG)
Released in 1970, the original film, adapted from E.Nesbit’s novel, with Jenny Agutter in the lead role as young Bobbie, became a classic of cosy British family viewing. A TV retelling appeared in 2000, with Agutter playing Bobbie’s mother, and she’s back again, this time as her original, now adult, character in a (somewhat misnamed) sequel to the first film co-written Jemma Rodgers and directed by Morgan Matthews.
Although now set in 1944, it’s pretty much a carbon copy in terms of narrative. In the first film, set in 1905, Bobbie, her two siblings and her mother relocated to the Yorkshire countryside when their father was convicted of treason and they became impoverished. Here another set of three children, Lily (Beau Gadsdon, looking like a teenage Felicity Jones), spunky younger sister Pattie (Eden Hamilton) and brother Ted (Zac Cudby), end up in the same village when they’re evacuated from wartime Salford and are taken in by Bobbie, who stayed on in Oakworth, and her daughter Annie (Sheridan Smith), the local headmistress whose husband is off in the RAF. Although there appears to be no interaction with the other evacuees outside of the classroom. the three kids become best friends with Annie’s young son Thomas (Austin Hayes), taking on the resentful gang of village children and playing hide and seek down the railway yard. Which is where they come across the pointedly named Abe (Kenneth Aikens), a Black American serviceman who has injured his leg (Lily sneaks out bandages for him and is knocked unconscious when a passing German plane dumps a surplus bomb) and tells them he’s on a secret mission and has to get to Liverpool. Naturally, that’s a fib. Younger than he claims and homesick, he’s actually gone AWOL on account of the racist abuse from the white US Military Police (who brutally object to African-Americans mixing with white English girls, one scene inspired the real life Battle of Bamber Bridge in Lancashire in 1943), and so Lily and the others offer to help him escape. And, exactly like the original film, it climaxes with a bunch of kids stopping a train to speak to a travelling important gentleman to put a stop to a miscarriage of justice (one also has to wonder if the MPs could actually handcuff a fourteen year old British civilian and ship them off to jail).
Alongside the somewhat simplified theme of racism, there’s also passing elements of tragedy involving the trio’s father (strikingly captured in Lily’s dream sequence) and Bobbie’s husband and brother, while the women try their best to protect the children’s innocence from the realities of war. It also introduces a new character to her family in her great-uncle Walter (Tom Courtney), who has an unspecified position in the War Office and does a passable Winston Churchill impression while, in a throwaway nod to what Bobbie’s been up to for the past 40 years, she says she was a suffragette. There a gentle comic touch too with John Bradley as the village stationmaster.
A throwback to the sitting room era of the Children’s Film Foundation, even with its shoehorning in of contemporary issues, it’s hard to image youngsters – or even their parents – weaned on Marvel movies, frantic animation, ubiquitous toilet humour (one kid does complain that his carer farts, though) will make of its old-fashioned, good-natured amiability, but I guess they could take the grandparents along as a treat. (Rakuten TV; Vue)
Sing 2 (PG)
A follow-up to the wildly successful 2016 animated musical this reunites pretty much all the original cast, Jennifer Saunders’ Nana among them, for what is essentially a spin on the original story. The animal performers from the first film are now a successful regional theatre troupe, but koala impresario Buster Moon (Matthew McConaughey) still aspires for bigger and better things and hopes that their latest show, a spectacular take on Alice In Wonderland, will land them a spot in Redshore City, the film’s equivalent to Las Vegas. However, when influential talent scout Suki walks out after the first half, declaring them not up to the big leagues, he and the gang head for Redshore to audition for Jimmy Crystal (Bobby Cannavale), a snarly white wolf hotelier magnate singularly unimpressed by any of the acts. He is, however, intrigued when Buster lies about having a connection to reclusive retired rock star lion Clay Calloway (voiced by Bono but clearly modelled on Robert Plant), and agrees to back the proposed new musical, space extravaganza Out Of This World pitched by Gunter (Nick Kroll). It just has to open in three weeks.
In it, porcine performer Rosita (Reese Witherspoon) is to play the lead, travelling four planets on a rescue mission, but, when she finds herself too scared to launch on the flying wire, the part is given to Crystal’s spoiled daughter Porsha (Halsey), who has undeniable presence but, as it turns out, can’t actually act.
Meanwhile, Crystal is pressuring Buster to come up with Clay and, after an initial attempt to recruit him by one-eyed chameleon named Miss Crawley (writer-director Gareth Jennings) fails miserably, he and porcupine rock singer Ash (Scarlett Johansson) try their luck instead, but even so, consumed with grief over his dead wife, Clay seems unlikely to agree.
And so, back in Redshore, things are rapidly falling apart, Crystal going ballistic when he thinks Porsha has been fired and embarrassed him, threatening to kill Buster. The only resort being for the crew to, yes, let’s do the show right here and win over the crowd.
Woven into this are a couple of sub-plots, Johnny the gorilla (Taron Egerton) is having trouble learning his dance moves under his demanding teacher Klaus Kickenklober and is befriended by local street performer Nooshy (Letitia Wright), while, never having had a romance, elephant Meena (Tori Kelly) can’t find the chemistry with her self-absorbed preening stage partner (Eric Andre) but has fallen for fellow pachyderm ice cream salesman Alfonso (Pharrell Williams).
With scenes staged to such as Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, Prince’s Let’s Go Crazy, I Say A Little Prayer, Higher Love, Bad Guy and I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking for, as well as featuring brand new U2 track Your Song Saved My Life, it’s a colourful, energetic affair with top rate animation, choreography and an infectious sense of fun that will leave you with a big smile on your face however old you are.(Rakuten TV)
Sonic The Hedgehog 2 (PG)
The live-action debut of the Sega game’s superfast sarcastic blue alien hedgehog proved far better than anyone expected, with even Jim Carrey back on form. Two years on and the sequel falls considerably short of that mark. Now happily ensconced with his adoptive Montana family, Green Hills sheriff Tom Wachowski (James Marsden) aka “donut lord and his wife Maddie (Tika Sumpter), Sonic (Ben Schwartz) secretly sets out to become the local superhero but, when he foils an armoured car robbery and causes chaos in the process, he’s told in no uncertain manner (and borrowed from Spider-Man) that power requires responsibility, and he’ll know his moment to shine when it comes.
Meanwhile, on Mushroom Planet to which he was banished, Dr. Robotnik (Carrey) engineers his escape by opening a portal, through which comes the big-fisted red and angry spiny ant-eater Knuckles (a drolly overly-serious Idris Elba), who blames Sonic for the extinction of his echidas tribe and is seeking revenge, naturally leading to he and Robotnik with his drone army teaming up to track down and take possession of the Master Emerald, green gem that bestows unstoppable power, the location of which (Siberia), it turns out, Sonic has a map. Adding to the character list is yellow young alien fox Tails (Colleen O’Shaughnessey) with his two-tails (which he uses to fly), an inventor and big admirer of Sonic who’s travelled to Earth to warn him about Knuckles.
Sidelining Tom and Maddie to Hawaii, where they’re attending her sister Rachel’s (a very funny Natasha Rothwell) wedding (cue the unsupervised Sonic partying wildly) , until the final act reunion with its FBI sting reveal and climatic showdown with a now hyper-powered Robotnik and his giant war-machine creation, the film spends most of its time in a series of chases and fights between the two opposing camps, reviving and expanding the role of Robotnik’s adoring sidekick, Agent Stone (Lee Majdoub) along the way.
Mixing in subtler comic touches with the more lowbrow kid-friendly knockabout and Carrey’s quite possibly improvised pop-culture quips while unashamedly piling up the product placement (Oreos and the Four Seasons hotels at the top of the list), it doesn’t warrant the extended two hour running time, resorting to repetition to stretch things out. However, while somewhat overly indulging Carrey’s manic energy and facial gurning, the animation and FX, marrying the digital work with the real world, are again impressive the messages about family, friendship, working together and what makes a hero get spelled out without being too in your face and the voice work brings the game characters to engaging life and deliver pretty much everything its audience wants. With a sequel and pin-off already in the works, the Blue Blur hasn’t run out of steam yet. (Amazon Prime; Rakuten TV)
Spider-Man: No Way Home – Even More Fun Stuff (12A)
Again directed by Jon Watts, this picks up directly after the events of Far From Home where, in a posthumous message claiming he was murdered, Mysterio outed Peter Parker as Spider-Man. Anticipation as to what came next was high, but no one could have possibly imagined this mind-bogglingly audacious threequel that plays like a two hour plus adrenaline orgasm. His identity revealed and the subject of a vilification campaign by J Jonah Jameson (JK Simmons reprising his role from the three Sam Raimi films), Peter (Tom Holland), girlfriend MJ (Zendaya), best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon) and Aunt May (Marisa Tomei), who, in the opening, has broken up with Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau), are arrested, interrogated and released (cue cameo by Charlie Cox from the Daredevil TV series) since the government can’t make anything stick. However, carrying on with life as normal is not on the table, Discovering he, MJ and Ned have been turned down for MIT because of events, in order to not ruin their lives he turns to Dr Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) to ask if he can readjust time so that things didn’t happen as they did. Strange says not, but, despite warnings from Wong (Benedict Wong), does offer to cast a spell to make everyone forget that Spider-Man and Peter Parker are the same. However, while weaving his enchantment, Peter keeps moving the goalposts to ensure those closest don’t forget, all of which sees things go haywire, causing a breach in the multiverse whereby villains from the previous films who knew his identity now materialise in his world, namely Doctor Octopus (Alfred Molina), The Green Goblin (Willem Dafoe), Sandman (Thomas Haden Church), Electro (Jamie Fox) and The Lizard (Rhys Ifans) who are as confused about him not being their Peter Parker as he is as to why they are after him. Suffice to say, while Strange wants to send them back to their fates (they all died), learning of the events that made them villains, Peter wants to try and cure/save them, giving them a second chance, a well-meaning intention that equally goes wrong, and involves his own battle with Strange to possess the magical doohickey that will return them to their own dimensions.
And, of course, if the rip in the multiverse means the character’s old villains resurface, it’s inevitable that (via Ned who has acquired portal powers from Strange) so too do the former Spider-Man stars from the two previous franchises, seeing Holland, Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield (far better than in his own Spider-Man films) working together (and sharing their stories of loss and tragedy as well the with great power mantra) as a team to carry out this dimension’s Peter’s plan atop the Statue of Liberty. There’s a whirlwind of dizzying webslinging action, eye-popping visual effects, snappy banter and any number of sly references to past plots and incarnations (including an amusing discussion about Maguire’s biowebs) and the connections to the Marvel Universe but also, focusing on soulful character depth, several scenes of emotional intensity as a pivotal character dies and Peter realises that, along with great responsibility great power also entails great sacrifice as he has to confront what it really means to be Spider-Man.
Also featuring such returnees as Flash Thompson (Tony Revolon), Betty Brant (Angourie Rice), J.B. Smoove as Peter’s teacher, its multi crossover of universes and franchises is carried off to exhilarating effect while delivering thoughtful commentary on notions of crime, punishment, heroism and redemption, coalescing into a film that may at times be convoluted but which consistently delivers both fan buy thrills as well as maximum entertainment for the mass audience and, as a coming of age drama, perhaps more than any of its predecessors, really defines what being Spider-Man really means. Now reissued with 11 mins of added footage that includes more of the three Spideys together, Peter climbing a gym wall at school, and more Matt Murdoch. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Vue))
Three Thousand Years Of Longing (15)
Filling the time before returning to Mad Max territory, writer-director George Miller offers up this visually captivating but narratively sprawling and at times tediously inert meditation on storytelling, love and being alive adapted by himself and daughter Augusta Gore from A.S. Byatt’s The Djinn In The Nightingale’s Eye.
A sensibly dressed, divorced, family-unencumbered, bespectacled north of England academic specialising in the nature of myth and stories, Alithea Binnie (Tilda Swinton), her name derived from the Greek for “truth”, is in Istanbul from London to deliver a lecture on narratology where she visits a local bazaar and buys a glass bottle, which she says, probably has an interesting story to it. Indeed it does, as she discovers when she accidentally knocks off the stopper and releases a pointy-eared, two-tone goatee djinn (Idris Elba) of initially mammoth proportions until he shrinks down to a size capable of wearing a hotel bathrobe. As per tradition, he offers her three wishes in return for his freedom, but wary that “there’s no story about wishing that is not a cautionary tale,” she demurs, leading him to prove he’s no trickster by recounting his backstory and how he ended up in his glass prison as a result of being a hopeless romantic.
And so Miller presents three sumptuously conceived Arabian Nights-styled flashbacks, to the time of the Queen of Sheba, beauty personified, where he finds himself being usurped by the arrival of Solomon (Nicolas Mouawad) and his magical living self-playing instrument, who deviously imprisons him in a brass lamp which winds up in the Red Sea, being encased in stone and eventually lodged in a castle wall at the court of Suleiman where it’s recovered and he’s released by Gulten (Ece Yüksel), a slave girl whose wish is to have the prince (Matteo Bocelli) fall in love with her and bear his child, only to have courtly intrigue scupper her plans, leaving her dying without asking her third which, hence consigning him to be trapped in the human world, his bottle concealed beneath a slab. The years pass and just as he leads the next heir apparent to the hiding place, the mother interrupts and the next thing you know he’s a cruel Sultan and mum’s locked his brother away in a room with an obese harem, one of whom finally ends up freeing the djinn with her corpulent bottom. Then it’s on to the Ottoman Empire where he falls for an elderly Istanbul merchant’s third wife Zefir (Burcu Golgedar), an aspiring scholar who, imprisoned in a locked room , wishes to have all the knowledge in the world, their relationship ending in a strop about possessiveness that sends him into the bottle from which Alithea releases him.
These stories are punctuated with scenes in the hotel room where she explores the meaning of his stories and the two of them variously discuss love, longing, loneliness and life (“We exist only if we are real to others”, muses Alithea), as a deep romantic connection forms between her dust and his fire (his skin literally smokes), she wishes them to be lovers (“You want us to make lovecraft?”, he asks) and she takes him back to London in another bottle and the relationship encounters another melancholic hurdle in the consequences of seeking connection and enchantment in a contemporary world of technology and there’s an amusing but pointless social commentary digression with her elderly xenophobic spinsterly neighbours.
Trudging between the CGI excess of its Eastern reveries and mild erotica of the contemporary settings, the film episodically dazzles but, despite a touching tenderness between the sexually magnetic Elba and the vulnerable Swinton, the chemistry never truly ignites, the film never really involves or summons the depth of feeling its seeks to express. It ends on a grace note, but the muddled and often ponderous journey there makes you wish it ended sooner. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Electric; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza LuxeVue)
Thirteen Lives (12)
On 23 June, 2018, when the monsoon rains came early, having gone into the Tham Luang Nang Non cave system as a birthday treat for one of them, 12 members of a Thai junior football team and their coach, a former Buddhist monk, became trapped by rising flood water. Over the course of the next 17 days, some 5000 volunteers from 17 countries along with Thai Navy Seals and government authorities worked tirelessly to pull off a seemingly impossible rescue mission.
Directed by Ron Howard, this is the third film to tell the story, hewing closely to the facts other than for some minor tweaking of the number of characters involved so as to maintain a degree of clarity, and never creating any heartstopping incidents for dramatic purpose. Given the global exposure the story had, and the incredible rescue of all thirteen alive, it’s almost impossible to crank up the sort of tension a fictional narrative with no known outcome might have engineered. Instead, while there are those pause for breath moments as ropes snag or equipment gets caught on rocks and, after they enter the cave, the boys aren’t seen again until their rescuers first appear, Howard primarily focuses on the combined efforts of all involved. Most especially the two British cave rescue divers, retired firefighter Rick Stanton (Viggo Mortensen) and IT consultant John Volanthen (Colin Farrell), who stepped up with their experience in such matters and who, along with their colleague, Richard ‘Harry’ Harris (Joel Edgerton), an Australian anaesthetist, embarked on a never before attempted plan to sedate the children (something of which the parents were unaware) and pass them along the tunnels “like package” in a six-hour dive, well-aware that if any of them woke up they would likely panic and drown. Assuming they didn’t die from too much or too little of the drugs. Meanwhile the rains were due to come again and even again diverting the waters from the mountain into the fields wouldn’t prevent the caves flooding totally. There was just three days to pull it off and all the frantic parents could do was watch from the sidelines and pray.
Reining in their natural screen charisma, Farrell and Mortensen play their characters as everyday men not action heroes, reluctant to involve with the press and concerned with just doing what they came to do. Tom Bateman and Paul Gleeson play additions to their team, Chris Jewell and Jason Mallinson, respectively, while among the Thai cast Sahajak Boonthanakit is the governor who finds himself fronting the crisis in the week he should be stepping down, Nophand Boonyai as the irrigation engineer, and Sukollawat Kanarot as Navy Seal Commander Saman Gunan, one of the two casualties when his oxygen ran out (the other died a year later from a blood infection caught during the rescue). There’s not a hint of ego to be seen anywhere.
An unsensationalised, unshowy telling of a story that gripped the world’s attention, it’s a tribute to real heroics and the way humanity can come together to work for a common goal and, even though you know how it ends, it remains a consistently compelling watch. (Amazon Prime)
Thor: Love and Thunder (12A)
Opening with the origin of Gorr the God Butcher (a pale Christian Bale with a creepy whisper) who, when his daughter dies, possessed of the Necrosword a mystical blade that kills gods but also corrupts its owner, swears to destroy all gods for abandoning their followers, Taika Waititi’s follow-up to Ragnorak takes the same path of mixing high drama and emotion with stirring action sequences and a rich vein of irreverent humour. In his fourth stand-alone outing as the God of Thunder, Chris Hemsworth plays to his comedic strengths and physical presence in equal measure with a knowing self-awareness. Narrated by Korg (Waititi), an extended intro finds him still hanging out with The Guardians of The Galaxy, engaging in bouts of meditation to try and find himself and saving an alien race from Gorr’s shadow spiders (albeit destroying the temple he was supposed to protect in the process) before a vision of a wounded Sif send him to her rescue and from thence back to New Asgard where, as it comes under attack too, he’s astonished to witness the return of his once shattered hammer Mjölnir, and even more astonished to find it’s now being wielded by a new Mighty Thor, his former girlfriend (a montage explains how their separate lives led them to split), Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), the hammer following its former master’s instruction to look after her by giving her the strength (at a cost) she lacks in her human form, where she’s dying from cancer. When the children from New Asgard are abducted by Gorr, she, Thor, Korg and the sardonic Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson), bored without battles, set off on a rescue vision in a longship drawn by two giant (and noisy) goats, one that sees the pair reignite their romance with electrifying chemistry (Thor taking on board Starlord’s (Chris Pratt) wisdom of wanting to feel shitty because that’s what love does to you) as well as visiting the Golden Temple for a meeting of the Gods (the God of Dumplings among them!) to try and raise an army, ending up in killing the pompous Zeus (a bizarrely accented Russell Crowe), surrounded by his Zeusettes (who swoon when Thor’s stripped naked) and stealing his thunderbolt, then journeying to the Shadow Realm (for some black and white sequences) to stop Gorr before he gets to Eternity and wishes for all gods to die at once.
As such, it builds its emotional and dramatic weight as it builds to the inevitable love and sacrifice climax, the fight sequences gathering in spectacle and intensity as they go, at one point involving the kidnapped children, including Heimdal’s son (Kieron L. Dyer) who insists on being called Axl (the film is rife with Guns n Roses tracks). On the comedic side, there a theatrical re-enactment of events in Ragnorak with Matt Damon as the Loki actor, Melissa McCarthy as Hela, San Neill as Odin and Luke Hemsworth as Thor and also a very amusing running gag that’s essentially a romantic triangle with Thor in the middle between Mjölnir and his jealous new axe, Stormbreaker, Thor forever trying to reassure the latter that he’s still ‘the one’.
It’s not until the final moments, with Thor in a new paternal role (you’ll be pleased to know Korg gets a mate, a Kronan dude named Dwayne and they sire a new rock baby), that the title of the film manifests itself, the mid-credits sequence setting the stage for the fifth instalment as a character declares revenge on Thor Odinson, ending with one more brief afterlife bonus scene featuring Idris Elba. Thunderingly good fun. (Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Vue)
Top Gun: Maverick (12A)
Thirty-six years on since the original took your breath away, Tom Cruise has bowed to public demand and returned to the role that made him a global superstar, the authority-bucking US Navy fighter pilot Pete ‘Maverick’ Mitchell. As directed by Joseph Kosinski, who was only 16 when the original appeared, and scripted by Ehren Kruger, Eric Warren Singer and Christopher McQuarrie, Maverick hasn’t changed a great deal in the interim. He’s relatively more centred, still single, still in top physical shape and still a captain, partly through choice, partly because he runs the top brass up the wrong way. Indeed, he does so right from the start when, learning the supersonic stealth fighter project he’s heading in the Mojave Desert is being shut down by a Rear Admiral dubbed The Drone Ranger (Ed Harris) as it hasn’t reached its Mach 10 target, he duly climbs into the cockpit and pushes it to the limit and beyond before he can be told in person. However, rather than being disciplined, he’s told to report to his old Fighter Weapons School aka Top Gun stomping ground where he learns an unnamed country is developing an unsanctioned uranium enrichment plant and the school’s best pilots are being recruited to carry out a Dam Busters-style mission to destroy it. Initially assuming he’s one of then, he’s informed instead, by Commanding Officer Beau ‘Cyclone’ Simpson (John Hamm), that he’s there to train them and select the best six. And also that (verging on obsolete) he wasn’t Simpson’s first, or any, choice, but is there at the request of his former rival, long-time friend and now Admiral, Iceman (Val Kilmer).
The hot shots candidates are all introduced in a somewhat unnecessarily extended barroom scene, the ones that matter lining up as nerdy Bob (Lewis Pullman), cockily arrogant Hangman (Glen Powell), spunky female pilot Phoenix (Monica Barbaro), Fanboy (Danny Ramirez) and Rooster (Miles Teller), the now grown son of Goose (Anthony Edwards seen in flashbacks), Maverick’s wingman who dies in action and who, along with many others, Pete himself included, blames as him for his father’s death, thus setting up a somewhat predictable arc between the two.
The same scene also introduces bar owner Penny Benjamin (Jennifer Connolly), mentioned but never seen in the original, now given a backstory as Maverick’s former on-off love interest who, now a divorced single mother, re-enters the romantic orbit. Of course, that’s a minor subplot as the film’s main focuses is on Maverick whipping his students into shape so that the chosen ones can fly dangerously low into the mountains under the radar to avoid the anti-aircraft missiles and superior enemy planes, destroy the target and get out again in a race against the clock. So cue all the expected young bucks v old fogey dynamics, pilot rivalries, run ins with Cyclone, and Maverick again bucking orders and pushing himself to breaking point to prove the mission is not impossible, inevitably ending up leading it himself with Rooster as his wingman.
As you’d imagine, right from a recreation of the opening scene (complete with Kenny Loggins’ Danger Zone), there plenty of nods to the original along with such iconic Cruise moments as a front on show of him riding his motorbike (in his original Top Gun jacket) grinning like a Cheshire cat. He’s not above taking the piss out of himself either, retorting ‘it’s the only one I’ve got” when someone comments on giving ‘that look’. While better at the grins and the grit expression that registering deep emotion, nevertheless Cruise has a particular affecting and touching scene in a reunion with Kilmer, his character clearly not long for the world (thereby leaving Maverick without anyone in his corner).
Likewise, while playing down the jingoism element, Kosinksi is at his best when the action is in the air, whether in the simulated dog fights (shot in actual U.S. Navy F/A-18s, for which the cast went through a punishing training process) as Maverick pushes his team or the actual dog fights evading enemy jets in the aftermath of the mission, where old grievances and new enmities are all neatly resolved in big bromantic hugs, even if the original’s homoeroticism is decidedly downplayed here.
Cruise again demonstrates that he’s in a cinema superstar league of his own, an ‘event’ in his own right (as the film says, it all comes down to pilot in the box), a generous actor but inevitably putting others in the shade simply on account of who he is, though Teller at least gets to remind how good he was in Whiplash and Kosinski’s own firefighter drama Only The Brave. Along with a deft use of 70s hits, music’s provided by Harold Faltermeyer with the big song coming from Lady Gaga, and while that’s no Take My Breath Away, the film will most certainly have you needing oxygen masks. Turn and burn, baby. (Rakuten TV; Cineworld NEC; Empire Great Park; Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Vue)
Turning Red (PG)
Disappointingly not given a cinema release, the latest animation from Pixar is the first Disney release (and possibly also the first ever children’s film) to broach the topic of menstruation, although the bigger theme is puberty per se. Set in the Chinese quarter of Toronto in the early noughties, Chinese-Canadian Mei Mei Lee (Rosalie Chiang) is a self-confident – if slightly annoying – over-achieving 13-year-old who excels at school, is close to her three besties, Miriam (Ava Morse), Priya (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan) and Abby (Hyein Park), has a Tamagotchi pet and adores five piece (!) boy band 4*Town. However, fun – like karaoke with her friends – always has to take a back seat to her chores, most specifically helping her controlling, uptight mother Ming (Sandra Oh) run the family’s ancestral temple dedicated to Sun Yee, a scholar, poet and, warrior who saved her village from its enemies by asking the gods to transform her into a giant red panda. The Lee family believe the creature blessed subsequent generations with good fortune. However, Mei is about to find out that’s not the only thing that goes with the legend.
When she suddenly finds herself attracted to Devon, the tween who works down the local store, and starts drawing pictures of him (as a merman, with her, etc.) in her notebook (something that prompts a humiliating overreaction from mom), it’s a sure sign puberty is kicking in. And with it comes that change from girl to woman. However, rather than, as mom calls it, the blooming of the red peony, it manifests itself in a dramatically different way as, getting excited thinking of Devon she suddenly transforms into a giant red panda. Only when the hormones stop raging and she calms down does she revert back to normal. She’s horrified by her new self. She doesn’t want to be hairy! And she doesn’t want to smell! And it’s something she most definitely wants to keep secret from mom (who has high expectations for her daughter and reckons boys and pop music are basically manifestations of the devil – she’s a Celine Dion fan) and her put-upon easy going dad (Orion Lee). But when she finds her mother (who, as we later learn went through the same panda experience) has stalked her to school with a packet of sanitary pads, her inner panda simply erupts.
Fortunately, being around her three friends allows her to keep it in check, trying to persuade mom she’s in control so that she’ll let her go to the local 4*Town concert. Naturally mom’s having none of that, so the four girls plan to raise the ticket money themselves, Mei cashing in on the fact her schoolmates reckon her furry alter ego is super cool and are willing to pay for selfies, t-shirts and much more.
Unfortunately, it’s at this point that her grandmother (Wai Ching Ho) arrives with Mei’s aunties to perform the ritual that will cast out the panda, and it turns out that Mei’s not alone in having controlling mother issues. However, with the ritual the same night at the concert, Mei has to decide who she wants to be – the little girl her mother demands or her own person as the film heads to its SkyDome panda v panda showdown climax.
Sharing much with earlier Disney offerings Mulan, Brave and Moana (though Mei is not your usual princess) as well as influences from Studio Ghibli animations like My Neighbour Totoro, with Billie Eilish and her brother Finneas O’Connell contributing to the soundtrack, it’s a wonderful coming-of-age story that amusingly captures teenage rebellion (“I like boys, I like gyrating!” Mei screams at her mother) as the need for parental approval and breaking free clash, trumpeting its embrace your inner weirdo message as Mei reconciles with the messy side of her personality to declare “My panda, my choice, Mom”. Tweenage girls will adore it, their moms maybe less so. (Disney +; Rakuten TV)
The debut feature from writer/director Iris K. Shin, this draws on South Korean haunting horror while also exploring inherited generational trauma and dysfunctional mother-daughter issues and, if there are undeniably flaws with a somewhat pat ending, it’s also creepy and dark enough to keep you involved. Traumatised by her umma (Korean for mother) (MeeWha Alana Lee) as a child who would lock her in a cupboard when she was disobedient (and inflict a much worse punishment revealed in the last act), Amanda (a powerful Sandra Oh) now lives off the grid in a house where all forms of electricity are forbidden, keeping bees and running an increasingly successful honey-making business with her home-schooled non-Korean speaking daughter Chris (Fivel Stewart), herself regarded as a ‘weirdo’ by the kids in town, their only friend being local shopkeeper Danny (Dermot Mulroney), who acts as middle-man to sell the produce.
Amanda suffers nightmares and blackouts and things get worse when her uncle turns up to inform her her mother has died, accuses her of being a terrible daughter and leaves a suitcase containing mom’s remains and such artefacts as a heirloom mask and a kimono for her to perform a ritual ceremony to prevent her turning into a “gwishin”. Inevitably, her mother’s restless ghost starts putting in appearances, Amanda’s mental state further rattled by discovering Chris secretly wants to apply to go away to college, an act of ‘disobedience’ and threat of abandonment that, Chris enlightened by Danny’s niece (Odeya Rush) as to mom’s deceptions, tips her over the edge and almost quite literally turns her into her own mother.
While initially intense with its camerawork and spookiness, body horror, bee swarmings and a dark cellar and even an attic, Shim makes a common first timer mistake of repeating things and piling on exposition rather than letting the film speak for itself, while the predictable climactic confrontation between Amanda and her mother’s spirit is decidedly confused and confusing. It doesn’t really pull off its attempt to be an American-Korean answer to Jordan Peele, but even so it’s an impressive calling card. (Rakuten TV)
Some fifteen years in development, this finally sees the hugely successful PlayStation video game on the big screen, the result, however, is a decidedly anticlimactic experience that stuffs in a succession of action set pieces but fails to find any heart or soul.
A prologue sets up the foundation for what follows, with brothers Nathan and Sam Drake (supposedly descendents of Sir Francis), living in an orphanage after the death of their parents, sneaking out after dark night to rob antiquities from the local museum. When apprehended, Sam takes off into the night, never to seen again although, as the film later reveals, sends regular postcards to his brother.
Fast forward several years, and the now grown Nate (Tom Holland) is working in a trendy New York cocktail bar where he deftly picks the pockets of its wealthy customers. Enter Sully (Mark Whalberg, initially intended to play Nate) who proposes they join forces to hunt down the legendary lost gold of 16th-century gold explorer Ferdinand Magellan, which Sam told his brother about before disappearing. Initially reluctant, Nate changes his mind in pretty much a heartbeat, setting the main thrust of the narrative in motion and adding to the mix Chloe (Sophia Ali), Sully’s gold-hunter partner’girlfriend as the third wheel in the quest and martial arts warrior Braddock (Tati Gabrielle as a sort of bargain basement Grace Jones) who works for Santiago Moncada (Antonio Banderas), part of the shady Spanish family which, down the centuries, funded the Inquisition and the Franco regime, and is also obsessed with recovering the gold (to the extent of offing dad when he decided to longer cough up the funding).
As such, the plot kicks off with them having to steal an antique cross from an auction which, along with its counterpart (yes, it’s a double cross) provides the literal key to unlocking assorted secrets, vaults and the like, taking the adventurers on a globe-trotting romp that lifts from various instalments of the video game, avoiding booby traps and, in Nate’s case, surviving a fall from a transport plane aboard its cargo, before the third act climax has them and their rivals airlifting a couple of beached galleons from out of the Phillipines jungles.
The action sequences are, by and large, exciting but all the character stuff in-between is just flat and dull, with Moncada’s departure midway, promoting Braddock to chief villain, seeming more like Banderas exercising a contract exit clause rather than a narrative decision. Holland gives his best, but feels too light for the role even if he is supposed to be a younger Drake while Whalberg lets his furrowed brow do all the acting and Ali and Gabrielle never get to do much more than fulfil their one-dimensional purposes. Director Ruben Fleischer, who gave the world Venom, dresses it up in the manner of Thirties adventure movies and Saturday morning matinees, but, compounded by clunky dialogue, only succeeds in underlining how much better this was done by Raiders of the Lost Ark and National Treasure, both of which it evokes to its disadvantage. (Rakuten TV)
Where The Crawdads Sing (15)
As with the big screen version of The Lovely Bones, this adaptation of the bestselling novel by Delia Owens is an often underwhelming disappointment. Named for the species of lobsters (which don’t actually sing) that inhabit the North Carolina marshes where the story is set it mostly unfolds in 1969 as Catherine (Kya) Danielle Clark (Daisy Edgar-Jones) is arrested and put on trial for the murder of Chase Andrews (Harris Dickinson) Barkley Cove’s star quarterback, whose body is found at the foot of a fire tower and presumed to have been pushed through a gap in the gratings, facing the death penalty if found guilty. There is a lack of physical evidence, but Kya is the prime suspect, partly because the pair had a secret romance until she discovered he’d been lying to her but largely because she is regarded by the community as an outsider, derogatorily referred to as The Marsh Girl on account of her living alone out in the wilds.
Defended by kindly retired local attorney Tom (David Strathairn), clad in white linen suit, one of the few who befriended her as a child, the trial scenes are juxtaposed with flashbacks, starting off in 1953 with the young Kya (Jojo Regina) witnessing her mother (Ahna O’Reilly) and siblings suffering domestic violence at the hands of her abusive, hard drinking father (Garret Dillahunt), mom eventually disappearing into the night eventually followed by Kya’s brother and sisters, leaving her alone with her father, who, temporarily off the bottle, teaches her to fish and gives her a bag to keep her collection of shells and feathers .
At some point, he too leaves, Kya remaining to raise herself in the marshes, trading mussels harvested in the marshes with kindly Black storekeepers Mabel (Michael Hyatt) and Jumpin’ (Sterling Macer Jr) before encountering local young boy Tate (Luke David Blumm) when she gets lost in the marshes and who (now played by Taylor John Smith), some years later, teaches her to read and write (she spent only one day in school where she was humiliated and never returned), becomes her boyfriend and encourages her to send her drawings of the local flora and fauna off to a publisher. However, continuing her experience of abandonment, he leaves for college and never returns, at which point Chase enters her life, and with him the return of the toxic masculinity that is one of the narrative themes.
Indeed the film creaks under the weight of themes and genres, domestic abuse, prejudice against the less-fortunate, murder mystery, coming of age, courtroom drama, love story to the extent it never really reconciles them into a comfortable balance, too often falling into cliché or melodrama, leaving plot lines unresolved, sometimes on purpose, sometimes not. Edgar-Jones (last seen surviving her boyfriend’s cannibalistic tastes in Fresh) brings a fine mix of vulnerability and strength to the role but can do little to overcome such narrative mysteries of how quickly she goes from being illiterate to knowing the Latin names of species, engaging in deep intellectual conversations and always looking as, well, fresh as a daisy, given the feral circumstances in which she lives.
Prior to Chase’s death, Tate reappears on the scene asking for a second chance and adding to the several misdirections as to what might have happened on that night when Kya was away from town for a meeting with her publishers, although the prosecution argues she could still have got a bus back, committed the murder and the returned to her hotel.
A plotline about social services is introduced but never developed, as is the threat of developers buying up the marshlands where she lives, while, more crucially, the courtroom scenes lack tension and there is almost no chemistry between Edgar-Jones and a somewhat vanilla Taylor Smith, which doesn’t help in conveying how this is the love of her life while Dickinson is stuck in a one-dimensional bad boy role
Director Olivia Newman and cinematographer Polly Morgan capture the beauty of the marsh landscape with its Spanish moss and tranquillity, a refuge from the noise and hostility of the outside world, but the film never gets quite the same grip on the narrative, ending with a rapid montage of Kya’s later years and a final reveal and voice over comment about prey and predators and what did happen the night Chase died. By then, however, you might not really care. (Everyman)
Screenings courtesy of Cineworld 5 Ways
Cineworld 5 Ways – 181 Broad St, 0871 200 2000
Cineworld NEC – NEC 0871 200 2000
Cineworld – Mill Ln, Solihull 071 200 2000
The Electric Cinema – 47–49 Station Street, 0121 643 7879
Empire – Great Park, Rubery, 0871 471 4714
Empire Sutton Coldfield – Maney Corner, Sutton Coldfield
0871 471 4714
The Everyman – The Mailbox 0871 906 9060
MAC – Cannon Hill Park 0121 446 3232
Mockingbird, Custard Factory 0121 224 7456.
Odeon Birmingham -Birmingham, 0871 224 4007
Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe – Ladywood Middleway, 0333 006 7777
Odeon West Bromwich – Cronehills Linkway, West Bromwich 0333 006 7777
Reel – Hagley Rd, Quinton, Halesowen 0121 421 5316
Vue Star City – Watson Road, 08712 240 240