With cinemas still closed, until things change this column will focus on films being made available on the various streaming platforms.
Directed by and featuring Amy Poehler, this is an engaging high school dramedy with a fairly light touch that pivots around a theme of female empowerment in the face of institutionalised sexism and male chauvinism. BFF with Claudia (Lauren Tsai), equally introverted Oregon junior year student Vivian (Hadley Robinson) has her radical streak awakened with the arrival of African-American new girl Lucy (Alycia Pascual-Peña) who, after arguing they should be reading more contemporary relevant books than The Great Gatsby, is immediately targeted for bullying by the obnoxious boorish Mitchell (Patrick Schwarzenegger) whose behaviour is tolerated by the don’t rock the boat school principal (Marcia Gay Harden) as he’s the star of the school’s showcase football team, even though the underfunded girls’ team are far better players.
Following a show piece game during which everyone’s texted an anonymous list ranking students in derogatory terms of things like Best Ass, Best Rack, Most Bangable, Designated Drunk and Future MILF in which Lucy’s particularly subjected to vitriol, motivated by the outspoken Lucy’s defiant attitude and inspired by her own mom’s (Poehler) teenage riot grrrl rebel past (emblemised by dancing around to Bikini Kill’s Rebel Girl), Vivian puts together a photocopied zine she titles Moxie (a favourite word of the principal’s) attacking Mitchell and the school’s misogynistic climate anonymously distributing it around campus.
It’s an immediate hit with the other girls who’ve spent their school life as basically extras in a film starring the boys, inspiring many to equally take stand against the sexism (such as one being sent home for wearing tank top that highlighted her bosom) and, Vivian prompted to produce a second issue (presumably she has unlimited funding to pay for all this) and Moxie quickly becomes a movement.
Interlaced with this is a friendship crisis with Claudia, who feels sidelined by Lucy and whose strict mother keeps her from joining in the protests, and a budding romance with impeccably woke pro-feminist classmate Seth (Nico Hiraga), the only one who becomes aware she’s the one behind the zine. There’s also a minor subplot involving her discovering mom’s own new romance with that nice guy they met in the supermarket (Clark Gregg) that prompts a diner table tantrum in the wake of Vivian’s questioning her own self and values and that feminist revolution requires more than good intentions.
In variously tackling diversity, bully, sexism, the patriarchy and, in the final stretch, rape, while there’s some funny, snappy dialogue and Ike Barinholtz is amusing as the amiable, quietly supportive English class teacher, it perhaps inevitably lacks the wider humour of similar films such as Booksmart, Mean Girls (in which Poehler also played a cool mom) and Election. But nor is it overly earnest in putting across its message, leaving the narrative with poignancy and sweetness in equal measure while dutifully checking the dance scene, clothes shopping and other genre staple boxes.
Backed by a solid ensemble cast of characters from a variety of gender, ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds that allows individual personalities to shine through, Robinson and Pascual-Peña deliver knockout performances while Poehler ensures the energy and emotional thrust never flag, resulting in an inspirational and entertaining film that speaks not only to its intended teenage girls youth audience but all women who live under the pressure of a culture of toxic masculinity. (Netflix)
The Burnt Orange Heresy (15)
It’s been almost twenty years since Mick Jagger appeared in a feature film. Watching him play ridiculously wealthy art-collector Joseph Cassidy (and looking unsettling like Schwarzenegger) in director Giuseppe Capotondi’s adaptation of Charles B. Willeford’s 1971 art fraud novel, you can see why. Fortunately, his screen time’s limited to top and tailing sequences and his co-stars, Claes Bang, Elizabeth Debicki and Donald Sutherland, provide the substance in-between.
Bang is James Figueras, an art critic who’s never quite fulfilled his ambitions, now reduced to giving book promoting talks to a handful of gullible American amateur enthusiasts wherein he delights in telling them everything he’s told them has been a lie. It’s at one such talk in Milan that he meets the enigmatic Berenice (Debicki), whom he invites to accompany him to Cassidy’s palatial Lake Como home where he’s presented with an offer he can’t refuse (not least since Cassidy has some dirt on him), namely the chance to interview cult artist Jerome Debney (a twinkle-eyed, rascally Sutherland), who’s not been seen in public since him home and all his work wet up in flames 50 years ago and now lives on the estate. The trade-off is that James has to acquire one of Debney’s fiercely guarded new paintings. And so the scene is set for a narrative that plays out with deception, betrayal, arson and even murder.
As James’ opening talks underlines, things aren’t always what they seem and the film weave in and out of shadows and suggestions as the characters shift and change along with the twists in the plot. Like the smart, quick witted Berenice, the film has glacial coolness to it, one that inevitably evokes thoughts of Hitchcock, and certainly rises to the comparison. It unfolds slowly, allowing you to try and catch the threads, but you’ll be unlikely to see the twists coming even when they’re almost staring you in the face. (Amazon Prime, CHILI, Google Play, iTunes Rakuten TV, Sky Store, TalkTalk TV, Virgin Movies)
Coming 2 America (12)
Thirty-two years after the hugely successful John Landis original and it’s almost exclusively Black cast and almost two decades on from the career catastrophic The Adventures of Pluto Nash, an on form Eddie Murphy resurrects his character of Prince Akeem (along with the other three roles he played under heavy makeup), now back in the kingdom of Zamunda and happily married to Lisa (Shari Headley) and with three feisty daughters, Meeka (KiKi Layne), Omma, real-life daughter Bella Murphy) and Tinashe (Akiley Love).
What he doesn’t have is a son and heir, since by law women cannot inherit the throne. However, prior to his death, Akeem’s father, King Joffer (James Earl Jones) reveals that he does, in fact, have a son, the bastard offspring resulting from a drugged sexual encounter engineered by Akeeem’s aide Semmi (Arsenio Hall also playing Witch Doctor Baba and two others) during that visit to Queens. And so, the pair duly return to America where they discover Lavelle (Jermaine Fowler), a street smart hustler living with his brash mother Mary (Leslie Jones as Lavelle) and his uncle Reem (Tracy Morgan), transporting mother and son back to Africa to groom Lavelle for his new role (including having to snip the whiskers off a lion). It’s a situation General Izzi (a wildly hamming Wesley Snipes), the warmongering leader of Nextdoria and brother of the woman (Vanessa Bell Calloway) Akeem declined to marry in the last movie and is still barking like a dog, is keen to exploit by marrying him off to his daughter Meeka (Kiki Layne). Much to the dismay of his wife and daughters, Akeem agrees. Lavelle, however, has fallen for royal groomer Mirembe (Nomzamo Mbatha), throwing up further complications and culminating in yet another trip back to Queens where Akeem’s reminded about following your heart..
With several other returning characters from the original along with a plethora of cameos playing themselves (among them Morgan Freeman, Salt N Pepa, John Legend and Gladys Knight) and assorted song and dance sequences, despite feeling the need for some unnecessary vulgarity, directed by Craig Brewer (who coaxed a towering performance from Murphy in Dolemite Is My Name), it may have largely dispensed with the originals theme of Black identity and dismantling stereotypes, this is funnier more often than not. Just not as often as it might have been. (Amazon Prime)
Cheerfully sporting its Tarantino and John Michael McDonagh influences, directed by Barnaby Thompson and written by Preston Thompson, this comedy thriller set in Co. Sligo, is great fun. The step-daughter of local drugs baron gangster Dermot O’Brien (Colm Meany), the spunkily ruthless but irresistible Pixie (Olivia Cooke) sets out to avenge her dead mother and score the money she needs to go to San Francisco, setting in motion a plot that involves her new lover Fergus recruiting her ex, Colin (Rory Fleck Byrne), to steal a consignment of MDMA from a syndicate of drug dealing Catholic priests, headed up by her step-father’s old rival, Father McGrath (Alec Baldwin). This leaves the priests dead and, subsequently, the jealous Colin putting a bullet in Fergus’s head, heading off with the bagful of drugs to have words with Pixie and himself ending up in the boot of a car driven by the naïve Harland (newcomer Daryl McCormack) who’s sitting outside her house waiting for his directionless best mate, Frank (Ben Hardy, Roger Taylor in Bohemian Rhapsody) who’s inside supposedly getting shagged. And that’s just the start.
Now they and Pixie find themselves thrown together with Colin’s body in the boot, first trying to offload the drugs to a local dealer’s Dingle-based uncle (Dylan Moran) and then on the run across the county, Pixie’s step-brother, who reckons dad’s lost his grip, looking to bring her down using the family’s pet hitman (Ned Dennehy), before setting up a deal with McGrath that culminates in a rival gangs shoot-out in an abandoned church.
Taking its cue from Westerns, it romps along with a copious supply of blood, violence and knowingly spark dialogue as the various characters seek to outmanoeuvre on another, before you get to the revelation about Pixie’s mother’s death and how it ties everything together. It makes a couple of unnecessary plot detours, such as snogging threeway between Pixie, Frank and in which the latter realise the extent of their bromance, but, putting a fresh spin on some old clichés, it otherwise proves a welcome escapist delight, not least for the sight of a gun toting nun. Father Ted was never like this. It had me at gangster priests. (Amazon Prime)
Wander Darkly (15)
Unwed partners and proud parents of a new baby girl, gallerista Adrienne (Sienna Miller) and carpenter craftsman Matteo (Diego Luna) are on their way home from an event and start bickering over her talking to an ex-boyfriend and whether, given the dysfunctional relationship, they should even be together. He distracted, the car is involved in a head on collision. She wakes up, covered in blood, in a hospital, looking own at her body in a bed and hears herself pronounced dead. She’s horrified and, not yet ready to cross over, successive scenes see her witnessing her distraught parents, her mother (Beth Grant) taking care of the baby, and Matteo unable to deliver the funeral oration.
As the film develops, she discovers he can see her and together they relive and re-enact memories of their time together, one giving way to another, although, tellingly, these don’t always share the same perspective, affording insights into the more complex and deeper nature of their relationship, while she’s conscious of being stalked by some hooded figure.
It’s familiar territory, though less often told from a female viewpoint, but, while the chemistry between the leads sparks the narrative, the dialogue by writer-director Tara Miele is often laboured and clumsy it not entirely hard to figure out the twist to which it’s leading, although the poignantly closing scene certainly compensates. (Amazon Prime, CHILI, Google Play, iTunes Rakuten TV, Sky Store, TalkTalk TV, Virgin Movies)
Drawn from stories told by director Sam Mendes’ grandfather, this bravura first world war drama is about two young soldiers ordered to take a message across No Man’s Land and behind enemy lines to call off an attack that, lured into a German trap, can only end in disaster.
It’s been misleadingly touted as being one continuous take, whereas it’s actually a series of very lengthy takes (some shot up to eight times to get it right), seamlessly edited together as a fluid travelling narrative. Lance Corporals, Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Schofield (George MacKay) are woken from their peaceful naps and given the task by their General (Colin Firth) to deliver the order to stand down to Colonel Mackenzie (Benjamin Cumberbatch), the officer in charge, who, believing the Germans are on the retreat, intends to launch an assault, unaware of reconnaissance information revealing a new enemy line manned by heavy artillery. If not prevented, it will result in the massacre of the 1,600 men in his division, among them Blake’s older brother (Richard Madden). And they only have until the following morning to do so. To get there involves them crossing a devastated landscape of mud and ruined buildings, strewn with corpses of men and horses, infested with rats, tangled in barbed wire, littered with fallen trees and pitted with shell craters, never quite sure as to whether the Germans have all left or not. And much of it must be undertaken in daylight.
At times unbearably tense and punctuated with sudden jolting moments, it grips throughout as the friends navigate through the exposed countryside and booby trapped abandoned enemy trenches (far better equipped than their own, with even the rats bigger), the camera sometimes following, sometimes in front of them, sometimes panning across the horrors that surround them. Without spoiling it too much, suffice to say that, following a remarkable and agonising scene involving a crashed German plane, ultimately, only one of them makes it to Mackenzie, the perilous trek seeing him shot at by snipers, finding a brief moment of calm with a young Frenchwoman (Claire Duburcq) and a motherless baby (one of several almost surreal moments, another involving cherry trees), having to confront stray enemy soldiers, being swept along in a raging river and racing across a battlefield under bombardment.
In the early part, it’s almost a two-hander between MacKay and Chapman, the film drawing you into their friendship and fears, but as the journey progresses there are several brief cameos, among them Mark Strong as an officer en route with his men to the bombed out village of Écoust, a staging point on the vital mission, that gives way to the surviving messenger stumbling out into night-time vision of hell.
Driven by a swelling score from Thomas Newman, it never trumpets anything resembling glory in wartime (at one point an officer sarcastically observes “Nothing like a patch of ribbons to cheer up a widow”) and its heroism is very much that of the courage of ordinary men facing extraordinary circumstances, and wishing they were anywhere else. Calling to mind other such war classics as Paths of Glory, War Horse and Saving Private Ryan, it’s poignant (most especially the still scene of a lone soldier singing Wayfaring Stranger to his comrades before they go into battle), tragic, thrilling and horrifying all at the same time, the human waste and needless destruction part of the fabric rather than a pointed agenda. Simply breathtakingly brilliant.(Amazon Prime)
Making his transition from art department to writer-director, Britain’s Gavin Rothery delivers an impressive debut with this sci-fi AI thriller. Somewhere in the remote Japanese countryside, George Almore (Theo James) works alone in a “mothballed facility”, keeping from his micromanaging boss (Rhona Mitra) his progress in developing robots with their own intelligence. His first prototype, J-1, which he does show her, is a clunky affair, but the second, J-2, is smaller, sleeker and can talk, think and apparently even dream. He is, however, working on a third, more refined model, J-3. that, while currently minus legs, has a woman’s shape. In the facility is a big black box, a technological development known as the archive which can store the consciousness of those who have died, the living able to communicate with them by phone and a video link, the dead unaware that they are, until the archive, which is analog not digital, eventually expires. The archive in the facility contains the ‘soul’, if you will of George’s wife Jules (Stacy Martin, who also voices J-2) who died in a tragic accident.
He’s working on his new project so he can transfer her mind, matters complicated by J-2’s obvious jealousy at the attention being given elsewhere, and, more so, when he finally completes the pilot model (Martin again) with whom he interacts and who is less than keen on giving up her new life to make way for his wife.
With Toby Jones also among the cast, there’s touches of Frankenstein, Solaris, Moon (on which Rothery worked) and Ex-Machina, as it muses on mortality and the nature of identity, but if it doesn’t break new ground it is, nevertheless, a very individual and intellectual piece of work that comes with a totally unexpected third act twist that catches you completely off-guard. (Amazon Prime, CHILI, Google Play, iTunes, Rakuten, Sky Store, TalkTalk TV, Virgin Movies)
Actor Clark Duke turns writer-producer-director for this quirky Southern crime dramedy that, adapted alongside Andrew Boonkrong from John Brandon’s novel, comes with more than a few laconic shades of the Coens in its shift from leisurely pacing to sudden violence, but still has a flavour of its own.
Told in chapters, it follows the accidental misadventures of garrulous, wispy moustachioed oddball Swin (Duke) and the less loquacious and unruffled but more impatient Kyle (Liam Hemsworth, who, in the opening narration, notes that organised crime in the South is “a loose affiliation of deadbeats and scumbags”), am odd couple reluctantly thrown together as menials at the bottom of a large drug operation run by a mysterious figure called Frog, who they never knowingly meet and who, in the course of ferrying a shipment, brings them under the thumb of Bright (John Malkovich gleefully chewing the scenery), who uses his job as a park-ranger job as cover for his role as the middle-manager in Frog’s drug-running smuggling outfit sending them on trips to Louisiana or Texas in between tending the park. As the pair discover, the operation also involves a woman who goes only by the name of Her (Vivica A. Fox) who provides packages for them to deliver.
As the film ambles amiably along, contrary to Bright’s instructions, Swin strikes up a romance with local nurse Johnna (Eden Brolin) while, after he and Kyle are followed back from a deal, both Bright and his lowlife assailant (Chandler Duke) end up dead, leaving the pair uncertain what to do next with all the money, never sure if Frog knows what’s going on or not.
Switching back and forth in time and with scenes revisited in hindsight, in a chapter dedicated to his rise from selling bootleg cassettes in 80s Memphis to become a drugs boss, we meet Frog (Vince Vaughn) who first gets a job with and then stitches up a smalltime Little Rock dealer Almond (Michael Kenneth Williams) and takes over operations before, as a subsequent chapter reveals, taking on lunkhead twin brothers Tim and Thomas (Brad William Henke, Jeff Chase) to whom he, in turn, passes on the business and retires to become the pawn shack owner whose path Swin and Kyle unwittingly cross. Ultimately, as the threads come together, it ends up with a considerable body count.
Mixing sudden violence and droll whimsical humour with its deadpan throwaways, extending to cameos by Devendra Banhart who wrote the score and The Flaming Lips who appear as a bar band murdering a George Jones classic as well as providing soundtrack versions of The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down and Larry Gatlin’s All The Gold In California, it is, perhaps, at times a little too eccentric for its own good, but even so it’ very entertaining watch. (Amazon and others)
Artemis Fowl (PG)
This adaptation of Eoin Colfer’s first of eight Artemis Fowl novels about the teenage Irish doesn’t arrive trailing exactly enthusiastic reviews, but despite its many faults – among them some wooden acting, clunky dialogue and anonymous direction from Kenneth Branagh – it ends up being quite fun, at least for the target audience.
Of course, Colfer fans will doubtless complain that it’s got ahead of the series and, rather than the 12-year-old criminal mastermind in the original first few books, young Artemis (a somewhat stiff Ferdia Shaw) is already the plucky hero he becomes later, but really that’s neither here nor there and the film does nod to that by having the elder art dealer Artemis (Colin Farrell) being accused of being an international thief whose been stealing precious artefacts from around the world and storing them in his remote clifftop sprawling mansion where he lives with his son and bodyguard Butler (Nonso Anozie) and, brought in for added protection (even if she vanishes from the plot for long stretches and doesn’t really seem to do much), Butler’s niece Juliet (Tamara Smart).
Well, yes and no. He has, but in order to protect the world from a dangerous magic. You see, he’s apparently the only human who knows of the existence of a subterranean fairy world populated by trolls, goblins, dwarfs and the like, from which he’s stolen something called the Aculos to prevent it from being used to by dark forces to destroy all humans and dominate fairydom.
He’s also been teaching young Artemis (initially coming across as a bratty whiz kid) all about leprechauns and the other fairy legends as if they were real which, when dad disappears (abducted by some mysterious hooded figure who wants the Aculos to do exactly what I mentioned above), he quickly learns it is when, after subduing rampant troll marauding through a wedding (all humans put into a time freeze in the process and then mind-wiped), young (well, 84 years is teenage in fairy years) LEPrecon operative Holly Short (a perky elfin Lara McDonnell), the daughter of the late supposed traitor Beechwood, a friend of Fowl Sr who helped purloin the Aculos, disobeys orders and winds up his captive.
This prompts the LEPrecon Commander Root (Judi Dench dressed in lime green, sporting elf ears and speaking like she has gravel in her throat) to time freeze Fowl Manor and send in the winged troops to rescue her, and find the Aculos in the process. However, having bonded, Artemis and Holly are now working together to find where dad’s hidden it and rescue him.
All of this is told in flashback by giant dirt-eating dwarf digger Mulch (Josh Gad) who’s being interrogated by some sort of British secret service and who also plays a major role in the battle at the manor.
The obvious influences, chiefly Men in Black (Artemis dresses in a black suit and wears shades), Harry Potter (Mulch as surrogate Hagrid) and Star Wars (Farrell’s captor akin to Palpatine), do it no favours by comparison, but despite some confusing transitions, it rattles along quickly enough to keep its target audience distracted and the visual effects are definitely impressive. Like the ill-fated The Golden Compass 2007 adaptation before it, it ends setting up the main characters for the next stage in the adventure. That never saw light of day, but, perhaps Disney’s new streaming platform may yet give Fowl a fair chance of magicking up a franchise after all. (Disney +)
Following the likes of Charlize Theron, Jessica Chastain is the latest actress to take on a gritty calculating lone wolf, hired gun, kick ass role, her as a Bostonian contract killer for some mysterious organisation run, as we eventually discover, by Simon (Colin Farrell) and with Duke (John Malkovich) as her concerned fatherly handler.
Naturally, Ava (whose backstory is condensed into the opening credits) comes with plenty of baggage, an ex-military black ops assassin recovering alcoholic with daddy issues whose jilted ex-lover (Common) is now living with her estranged sister (Jess Weixler), who’s angry she didn’t come back for their father’s funeral (understandably, given he outed her as an addict when she threatened to expose his affair), finally returning home after a lengthy absence (they think she works for the UN) to discover her aloof, sharp-tongued mother (Geena Davis) is in hospital.
We first meet her as she carries out her latest hit (Ioan Gruffud), insisting her mark confess why he’s been targeted before she pulls the trigger, something she’d been ordered not to do and which, starting with a Saudi Arabia shoot-out where her cover’s blown, has now classed her as a risk to be eliminated. All of which leads up her showdown with Simon (following Farrell and Malkovich’s own rough and tumble) by way of digression in which she gets into a catfight with Toni (Joan Chen), the owner of the gambling den where Michael’s running up huge debts.
Directed by Tate Taylor, who made Ma, it’s proficient and brisk, despite being weighed down with an underwrtitten B-movie screenplay with redundant subplot and far too many family drama and personality issues, and Chastain is slickly efficient as the killer whose cool composure is starting to come apart, but it can’t stop it feeling like a pilot for a series that was never commissioned. (Amazon Prime)
A minimalist animation for adults, this remarkable film is a quite literal one man job, the debut feature of Latvian director Gints Zilbalodis who also served as writer, animator, producer, editor and composer. Completely devoid of dialogue, but with sound effects and bird chirps punctuation the score, it’s divided into chapters, opening with a young man who, having parachuted from a doomed aircraft, has the misfortune to get tangled up in the branches of the only tree for miles.
As he hangs there a giant black figure with vacant white eyes approaches and reaches out for him. Realising this isn’t a rescue, he gets free and runs off into the unknown landscape, the figure slowly following behind him. Entering some kind of tropical oasis, he sees the giant unable to pass through the entrance, but standing there waiting. Within this strange island he finds an abandoned motorcycle and a bag with the keys and a flask for water. He also befriends a yellow bird who tags along with him on a journey that takes him from the lush vegetation to a mirror lake in a frozen tundra and to a geyser in a jungle of tombstones guarded by identical black cats guarding a natural geyser. And, despite sending it plummeting down into a ravine, the black figure keeps coming.
There’s a dream sequence involving the plane, but no indication as to who or what any of these characters or the island (purgatory perhaps) are, all of which adds to the surreal nature and musings on whether this is about death, life, fears or what. The slightly blurry animation, clearly influenced by Studio Ghibli, is visually entrancing, especially the sequence as he travels across the lake reflecting the flock of birds flying overhead, the abrupt ending leaving you unenlightened but somehow soothed. (Amazon Prime, Google, Microsoft, Rakuten, Sky Store, Sony)
Baby Done (15)
A New Zealand pregnancy romcom starring comedienne Rose Matafeo and directed by Curtis Vowell, the title comes from the adage married, house, baby, done that supposedly sums up a woman’s ambitions. Well, that’s not the case for Zoe, an Auckland arborist with a reputation as the tree climbing woman who’s set on winning the World Tree Climbing competition in Canada. Unfortunately, a spanner’s thrown into the work when she discovers she’s pregnant by her live-in boyfriend and tree surgeon boss Tim (Matthew Lewis), something that would prevent her from flying let alone competing. So, she doesn’t tell him. He does, of course, find out about ‘speck’, as they call the embryo, setting the film up for an amusing gender reversal where’s he’s the concerned overthinker taking charge, booking the antenatal classes and carefully monitoring what she does and doesn’t do, while she, headstrong and reckless to a fault, is pretty much in denial, determined not to let it crimp her lifestyle, work or the bucket list to be ticked off before the birth, to the extent that, at some point, the relationship comes to an inevitable head. Being what it is, of course, there’s always going to be the upbeat happy ending as she comes to her senses about the two of them, but even so there’s an engaging mix of laughs and tears along the way, the former especially so in an early scene at a friend’s baby shower (at which point she’s still staying, er, mum) involving pink balloons, a phallic game with a sink plunger and toilet roll and Zoe’s best friend Molly (Emily Barclay), Nic Sampson as Brian the “pregaphile” she takes up with during the hiatus and a glitter cannon mishap in the labour ward. There’s also a nice moment when Zoe pretends to a fellow-worker’s mother in an interview with the Principal to readmit him to school, sly underlining the maternal nature she otherwise resists.
Sophie Henderson’s screenplay is peppered with zingers with smart observations about conflicting feelings about pregnancy (“I want to have a baby. I just don’t want to turn into a mum”), with Matafeo surging along like a comedic force of nature but then turning on an emotional dime. A labour of love, indeed. (Amazon Prime, iTunes, Sky, Virgin)
Barb and Star Go To Vista Del Mar (12)
Slight, silly but kinda sweet, Bridesmaids co-writers Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo reteam for female buddy romcom with a dash of revenge-bent villain adventure. Respectively widowed and divorced, Barb (Mumolo) and Star (Wiig) live in smalltown Nebraska where they share a house and work at a home furnishing store where they regularly sit on a display sofa to swap banalities, the highlight of their social week being the ladies-only Talking Club overseen by the controlling Debbie (Vanessa Bayer).
However, when they learn the store if shutting own, they decide to take up a friend’s suggestion to book a Florida vacation at Vista Del Mar where, after first finding their dream hotel (where guests are welcomed with a song and dance number) isn’t actually where they’re staying, they do eventually wind up there. Here they meet the handsome but somewhat dim Edgar (Jamie Dornan), the besotted henchman to master criminal Sharon Gordon Fisherman (Wiig), a white-clad albino with a razor-cut bob who, assisted by Yoyo (Reyn Doi), plans to unleash lethal mosquitoes on the resort in revenge for being humiliated at a local pageant contest as a teenager. She’s despatched Edgar to Via Del Mar with the transmitter that will attract the insects, along with bumbling spy Darlie Bunkle (Damon Wayans Jr.) when he loses the first one. However, his affections for Fisherman never reciprocated, when he meets Star he realises she’s the one with whom he wants to be an “official couple”, and they embark on a clandestine relationship, causing a rift in the two women’s friendship. However, his boss has no intention of letting her plan fail.
Decked out in garish colours, it’s all played with zany cartoon-type knockabout and punctuated by two cheesy musical interludes not to mention culottes, a talking crab and a couple of alligators and, while the dizzy banter can become tiresome and the jokes groaningly dumb, there’s enough zing in Wiig and Mumolo’s performances and Dornan’s gleeful self-spoofing to warrant chuckles. (Amazon Prime, Google Play, iTunes, Rakuten, Sky Store, TalkTalk TV, Virgin Movies)
Recently divorced and alienated from his kids, Greg (Owen Wilson) who spends most of his time in the office doodling idyllic scenes, is summoned by his boss and informed that he’s being fired. He then accidentally kills him and, hanging him from the widow hidden behind a curtain, quickly makes his exit and heads to the bar across the street for a stuff drink. Here, he’s accosted by a mysterious woman, Isabel (Salma Hayek), who declared him to her guy and says she can help, using her powers to have his boss’s body fall to the street. She then takes him back to her makeshift encampment home and tries to explain that he, like her, is real and that the world in which he thinks he lives, along with his daughter Emily (Nesta Cooper), is a simulation populated by FGBs, fake generated people (or NCPs in video game talk), which they can control with some yellow crystals, demonstrating this by taking him roller skating where they cause a rink full of FGBs to fall over.
There’s a great deal of waffling about, the pair hanging out while his daughter tries to track him down, but, eventually, Isabel gives him some blue crystals to snort and he wakes up in some high-tech lab where it seems he’s a fellow scientist who invented a “thought visualizer” and has been part of some experiment she’s been conducting, the post-apocalyptic but paradisiacal world in which they live the same as in his drawings, populated by both real people and ghostly holograms.
He’s a tad confused, but not as much as the audience will be in a film that probably seemed like a good idea when hatched over a few drinks but doesn’t seem to have a grip on what it wants to be about, contriving to create suspense that just falls flat and with a catastrophic lack of chemistry between the two leads. The production design is impressive, but coming on like a fumbling, leaden Matrix knock-off everything else is a disaster. At one point Greg remarks that it feels like Isabel’s making it up as she goes along. The same holds true of the whole film. (Amazon Prime)
Blithe Spirit (12)
Written in the 40s by Noel Coward and with many film versions, the first and most notable being in 1945 with Rex Harrison and Margaret Rutherford, this one, which tweaks the plot and dispenses with most of Coward’s dialogue, adding a dollop of clunky innuendo, comes from Downton Abbey director Edward Hall and screenwriting trio Piers Ashworth and Nick Moorcroft, who scripted the St Trinian’s reboots, and Meg Leonard with whom they collaborated on Fisherman’s Friends. Hopes then should be duly set low.
The plot, should you not know, has Charles Condomine (Dan Stevens) as a bestselling author with a writer’s block, here struggling to adapt his crime bestseller for the screen (cue ‘appearances’ by Hitchcock, Greta Garbo, Clark Gable and Hedda Hopper) to be directed by his wife Ruth’s father. Ruth (Isla Fisher) is, in fact, his second wife, his first, Elvira, having died in an accident seven years ago. Unfortunately, she was the brains behind his writing.
Having attended a show by the Madame Arcati (Judi Dench), a travelling medium, that ends in disaster and humiliation, he decides to rework the story with a ghost as the lead character and invites her to hold a seance at his home, to get a grasp of the “ tricks of the trade”. Unfortunately, for once Arcati really does make contact and to Charles’ horror he is confronted with the ghost of Elvira (Leslie Mann) who only he can see (cue a series of people assuming he’s shouting at them) and, Ruth being made aware of her presence, proceeds to make life difficult as she sets out to reassert herself into the marriage, although there is the advantage of her serving as a quite literal ghostwriter on his script. And if she can’t have Charles in life, maybe she can have him in death. So, Charles needs Arcati to send her back when she came from.
The cast, Mann especially, are all game and there’s a backstory to Arcati’s wish to contact the deceased that (thanks to Dench’s nuanced performance) adds a poignant tough, but even they can’t polish a screenplay that can’t decide whether Elvira can handle physical objects (such as shears to ruin Ruth’s garden) or, indeed, have sex with the ex beside his sleeping wife. It opens with Stevens quite literally chewing the scenery. Don’t say you’ve not been warned. (Sky)
The Broken Hearts Gallery (12)
It may be a sort of Sundance-lite predictable girly romcom, but, the feature debut by writer-director Natalie Krinsky, this is nevertheless a hugely enjoyable, at times disarmingly poignant little gem, sprinkled with some delightful banter and founded on a hugely endearing and likeable turn from Australian-Asian Bad Education star Geraldine Viswanathan.
She plays Lucy, a quirky 26-year-old New York art gallery assistant whose love life has been marked by a series of break-ups, from each of which she has kept a memento to remind her of her ex, anything from old shoelaces and a pink rubber piggy bank plastic toy to even a used condom. There’s also a Monopoly thimble, although the signifigance behind this is kept back until much later in a particularly moving moment.
The narrative gets under way following her latest disaster which saw her being dumped by wealthy upscale two timing gallery worker Max (Utkarsh Ambudkar), and, as a direct consequence, being fired from her job at the prestigious gallery run by celebrity art dealer Eva Woolf (Bernadette Peters). All of this she drunkenly relates to Nick (Dacre Montgomery), into whose car she’s climbed thinking he’s her Uber driver.
It’s followed by a second meet cute as he intercedes as bustles her out of a café as she’s about to cause a scene with Max and his reunited ex, and, naturally, thrown together by fate, their relationship grows from thereonin. Nick, it transpires, is transforming and old Brooklyn YMCA into a boutique hotel. “a place that feels like the spots I fell in love with when I first moved to New York” He’s not got much money to do this, a friend offering his services for free, as does Lucy, who, in turn, will be able to open her own ‘gallery’ in the lobby where, inspired by her own mementoes of lost relationships (kicking off with Max’s tie), people will donate their own bittersweet nostalgic keepsakes by way of closure.
Punctuated by a series of to-camera confessions from assorted donors (who all make a contribution for the gallery’s uptake), the novelty of the idea soon goes viral, making Lucy something of a celebrity herself, prompting Max’s rekindled interest. Meanwhile, she and Nick have a close platonic friendship that, as in all movies of this kind, is waiting for the moment they realise it’s something more, but the path to that epiphany is still a rocky one when Nick fails to secure a needed loan and Lucy meets Chloe, the woman after whom the hotel (Nick’s broken heart memento) is named.
In all of this, the film features several scenes involving Lucy’s Sex In The City-styled childhood best friends and roommates, lesbian Nadine (Phillipa Soo), and Amanda (Molly Gordon), a law student who lives with her hipster boyfriend (Nathan Dales) who never says a word until the film’s almost over, the chemistry and snarky repartee between the three girls sprinkled with Nora Ephron and Woody Allen stardust.
A film about letting go, of following your dreams and looking to the future rather than being weighed down by the past, yes it’s a frothy trifle, but that’s really something you need on the menu right now. (Amazon Prime)
Loosely based on Sheridan LeFanu’s 1872 lesbian vampire gothic horror (predating Dracula by 26 years), writer-director Emily Harris keeps the vampiric elements ambiguous (though aversion to crosses is notable), but certainly ramps up the Sapphic theme, the film positively awash with repressed desires and sexual tensions.
Her mother having died when she was young, the teenage Hannah Rae is Lara lives on a sprawling country estate owned by her landed father, Mr Bauer (Greg Wise), but is almost exclusively supervised by her strict governess and tutor Miss Fontaine (Jessica Raine), a devout, superstitious woman who insists on regularly tying her charge’s left hand – regarded as the devil’s – behind her back to prevent her using it.
It’s clear from the start that Hannah is something of a troubled personality, secretly poring over pictures of the male anatomy in one of her father’s books, subject to sexual curiosity, something of a masochist (she tests her hand over a candle flame) and obsessed with ideas of death and corruption. Likewise, Fontaine is so sexually repressed you suspect she’ll explode into hysteria at any moment.
One night, Hannah hears a commotion. A carriage has crashed near the house, the coachman killed and the sole passenger, a teenage girl ((Devrim Lingnau), taken in to be treated by the local doctor (Tobias Menzies). The girl, with her red hair and strange accent, appears to not know who she is and Bauer’s enquiries round and about elicit no answers. Although ordered by her governess not to get involved with their house guest, fuelled by the fact that her intended summer companion has inexplicably fallen ill and is wasting away with some unexplained complaint, the lonely Lara’s curiosity cannot be controlled and, naming her Carmilla, the pair are, much to Fontaine’s patent disapproval and unease, soon cavorting around the grounds.
Drawn to the mysterious new arrival, Lara begins having intense and disturbing dreams involving body horror, blood and sex, the latter two rapidly becoming part of the physical relationship between the girls, their closeness bringing Fontaine’s own frustrated desires and carnal jealousy ever nearer the surface, the scene at the breakfast table as she awaits a tardy Lara, exhausted after the night’s secret passions, crackled with electricity. Having found a pornographic booklet in the carriage, Fontaine’s persuaded the new girl is a vampire and must be dealt with.
Moodily and oppressively atmospheric with its use of shadows and flickering candles, Ellis accentuates the Gothic air with brooding sound design and close up images from nature such as skittering ants, a writhing mass of frenzied maggots, burrowing worms and ladybirds in heat, all turning up the sexual temperature. Balancing Fontaine’s chilly nature with the palpable heat between Lara and Carmilla, the film’s exploration of the fear of ‘the other’ and the ‘unnatural’ builds to a dramatic and bloody climax, before ending on an unsettling coda that continues to haunt long after the credits. (Amazon Prime)
Come Away (PG)
An inspired but ultimately ill-advised mash-up of two classic children’s stories, the live action debut of Brave director Brenda Chapman, this reimagines Peter Pan (Jordan Nash) and Alice (Keira Chansa) as biracial brother and sister (sometimes clad in familiar blue and white) who, along with elder brother David (Reece Yates), live with their parents, Rose (a n irritatingly mannered Angelina Jolie) and Jack (David Oyelowo) Littleton in the English countryside, frolicking in the woods where they imagine all sorts of make-believe adventures. One day, down by the lake, where they’ve been told not to go, they discover an old rowing boat, which in their imagination (and on screen) becomes a pirate galleon.
Tragically, however, it also results in David’s death (preceded of course by the skies darkening and thunder), throwing the family into emotional chaos, Rose suffering some kind of breakdown, starts secretly drinking and withdrawing from her role as mother, prompting her wealthy sour, interfering Red Queen-like sister Eleanor (Anna Chancellor) to insist that, since she can no longer send David to boarding school as planned and her brother-in-law’s lower-class trash, she take charge of rearing Alice in a manner befitting a proper English lady, only to turn her (albeit briefly) into a snob.
Meanwhile, Jack, a maker of model ships, who’s struggling for money after a client (Derek Jacobi) goes elsewhere, falls off the gambling wagon and, following a bad luck streak playing a magnificently moustachioed Michael Caine, is thrust back into contact with the shady London gang run by his scary estranged brother James (David Gyasi) while Peter, blaming himself for his brother’s death, imagines himself part of the Lost Boys, deciding to leave reality behind and become the boy who never grew up in Neverland. But not, however, before hatching a plan to help his dad that, as he and Alice visit an addled pawnshop owner (Clarke Peters in the Mad Hatter role) to sell an heirloom, only makes family matters worse.
Introduced and narrated by Gugu Mbatha-Raw as the grown-up Alice Darling to her own children, named, what else, Wendy, Michael and John, it works overtime to cram in as many references to the original stories as possible, some, such as Rose giving Alice a tiny bell she calls Tink saying it’s her own personal fairy, are disarmingly poignant, but most just seem awkwardly laboured such as a Drink Me moment when Alice swigs from her mother’s hidden stash, while the whole film is littered with stuffed white rabbits, tea parties, pocket watches, looking glasses, shadows and some embarrassing CGI swirls of the “dream dust” of the imagination.
On the plus side, the cinematography is gorgeous and, while the acting may wobble, the two young leads give the film a heart that all too often threatens to be swamped by its self-aware cleverness. Ultimately, however, the trowelling on of grief, loss, gambling, mutilation, mental illness, guilt and alcoholism makes this all rather heavy going for a young audience, even if it does eventually contrive a happy ending, while its unsubtle, clunky nature seems unlikely to captivate the grown-ups. Sometimes rabbit holes and second stars to the right should be left where they belong. (Amazon, BT, Google, iTunes, Rakuten, Sky Store, Virgin, Xbox)
County Lines (15)
Inspired by stories he heard while working in an East London pupil referral unit and based on his 2017 short, New Zealand-born, London-based writer-director Henry Blake makes his feature debut with this powerful examination of the impact and damage involved in the use of teenagers and young children as drug mules, trafficking across county boundaries.
It focuses on Tyler (an outstanding turn by newcomer Conrad Kahn), a disaffected east London 14-year-old who, angry, frustrated and resentful, lives with his younger sister and single mother, Toni (Ashley Madekwe), essentially the man of the house while she works nights as a hotel cleaner and brings home far from suitable pick-ups. Disengaged and bullied at school, where he’s in the pupil referral unit, he falls under the influence of Simon (Harris Dickinson), a local ‘entrepreneur’ who initially intervenes when Tyler’s being bullied in the local chicken chippie, seeking him out, impressed by his relatively flashy lifestyle and, through being meals and nice trainers, eventually being chillingly groomed to smuggle drugs, concealed in his rectum (a product placement Vaseline could have done without), to clients down at the coast.
The film opens with a close-up on a blank, often distracted Tyler as the voice of a female social worker informs him that, in that line of work, he’s what businesses refer to as an acceptable loss, the scene replayed later in the film, only this time with his social worker in the frame. In-between, Blake charts how exposure to the often brutal world of suppliers and users, an abused young female addict in particular, both shocks and hardens Tyler, his experiences then mirrored in his own life as he adopts a machismo attitude to the extent that, at one point, he rounds on and physically attacks his mother, who is increasingly desperate at and unable to cope with her son’s refusal to cooperate with the support the school tries to offer and, having lost her job, is trying to get work to make ends meet.
Visually stark and with effective use of harsh music to compound the punishing environment, it is disturbing, unsettling, often harrowing but never exploitative and always compelling viewing that pointedly, while offering Tyler physical and emotional rescue, refuses to compromise with a pat, moralistic and upbeat ending. (BFI Player, Curzon Home Cinema)
The Craft:Legacy (15)
Released in 1996, the original movie was a young horror about a coven of teenage high school girls who use witchcraft against those who anger them, until things begin to go badly wrong. Written and directed by Zoe Lister-Jones this is part remake and part coming of age continuation, wherein teen outsider Lily (Cailee Spaeny), moves state with her therapist mother Helen (Michelle Monaghan) to live with mom’s boyfriend Adam (David Duchovny), an author who teaches about reclaiming masculinity, and his three sons. Enrolling in the local school, her first day’s a nightmare when he has her period mid-class and bleeds on the floor (it’s not the only Carrie reference), naturally making her the target for bitchy jokes. She is, however, befriended by three other school misfits, Frankie (Gideon Adlon), African-American Tabby (Lovie Simone) and transgender Lourdes (Zoey Luna) who, when they see her send resident bully boy Timmy (Nicholas Galitzine) flying without apparently touching him decide she’s the fourth member, West and Water, they need to complete their coven.
Understandably bewildered by all this, Lily’s happy to go along, happy to have friends for once, and it’s not long before their powers take flight with them freezing time during a woodland ritual. Fed up with Timmy’s bullying, they concoct a charm to make him ‘woke’, one that works perfectly to the extent he’s soon tagging along with them, expounding on Princess Nokia and Janet Mock, developing a better taste in music and opening up about his deepest secrets. Lily develops a crush and, taking his sweater to bed, conjures a masturbatory love charm, which, inevitably sets off a whole chain on darker events that include an apparent suicide and she being ostracised from the coven.
It takes a while to get to the point where anything dramatic happens, but between Adam’s simmering toxic masculinity (come on, the name’s a giveaway, and he keeps snakes) and Helen telling Lily to embrace being different, it’s clear that dark deeds and revelations of Lily’s past are living up to fall into place. It’s unfortunate than that the climactic moment, which disappointingly has little connection to Lily’s visions, is something of a let-down in which our witches (“we are the weirdos, mister”) come across more like new mutants (one can spark flames from her fingers) battling the misogynist bad guy who wants the power for himself. Unlike the original, the four are definitely the heroes here.
Likewise, while Lily is obviously the centre of the narrative interest (and Spaeny anchors the film), it wouldn’t have gone amiss to afford the other girls at least some background, just as Adam’s boys seem to be here more as place settings than actual characters (a scene where the eldest ‘sleepwalks’ into Lily’s bedroom comes from nowhere and is never mentioned again), but at least Timmy is given some depth, something Galitzine makes the most of with a memorable performance. Still, it’s entertaining enough and it ends with a brief cameo that finally links Lily back to the original film, suggesting the legacy might only just be starting.
(Amazon Prime, Apple TV, Google Play, Microsoft)
Da 5 Bloods (15)
Opening with Muhammed Ali’s famous 1978 speech about refusing to be drafted for the Vietnam War and proceeding through a collage of footage of African American soldiers in the conflict, Kwame Ture’s declaration that “America has declared war on black people” and Angela Davis warning that “If the link-up is not made between what’s happening in Vietnam and what’s happening here, we may very well face a period of full-blown fascism very soon,” all set to Marvin Gaye Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler) with its line about “trigger-happy policing”, it’s clear that Spike Lee’s latest resonates loudly with the current protests in America and beyond.
That, however, remains a subtext to this thematically sprawling, tonally inconsistent but undeniably compelling tale of a group of African-American veterans reuniting many years later to revisit Vietnam. Ostensibly, the reason is to recover the remains of their former squad leader, Stormin’ Norman (Chadwick Boseman), who was killed during an operation, and return them for burial. However, through a flashback to the mission, it’s quickly revealed that the overriding motive for most of them is to recover the caseful of US gold bullion intended for the South Vietnamese allies which they stumbled upon and buried to reclaim later since, as Norman puts it, “the USA owe us. We built this bitch.”
The four middle-aged buddies comprise Otis (a soulful Clarke Peters), Melvin (Isiah Whitlock Jr) and Eddie (Norm Lewis) and Trump-supporting Paul (Delroy Lindo), the latter the most troubled of the group, haunted by guilt nightmares and suffering PTSD for reasons only revealed (not easy to surmise) in the final stretch when he loses it completely. Joining them, much to his father’s displeasure, is Paul’s concerned teacher son David (Jonathan Majors) while their guide for the trip is Vinh (Johnny Trí Nguyễn).
To get the gold out, through Tien (Lê Y Lan), a former prostitute who was Otis’ lover during the war (and by whom he discovers he has a daughter), they strike a deal with shady French businessman Desroche (Jean Reno), while, later in proceedings they cross paths with Hedy (Mélanie Thierry), founder of a landmine removal organisation, and her two colleagues. You don’t have to be a genius to know that, as the plot twist and personalities, motives and paranoias clash, there’s be fallings out, double crosses and at least one incident involving buried mine.
Nodding to a range of touchstones, among them Treasure of the Sierra Madre and, inevitably, Apocalypse Now (even down to using Ride of the Valkyries), it rattles along between the present quest and flashbacks to the fateful mission as the group dynamics swing from one extreme to another, one minute addressing the estranged father/son relationship, the next focusing on how Blacks were exploited as the war’s cannon fodder (cue a recreation of Hanoi Hannah broadcasting her propaganda) while maintaining a basic action movie narrative as it heads for the inevitable showdown between the Bloods, those who want to take the gold and Paul’s meltdown (a sterling turn by Lindo) as the truth of what happened to Norman back in the day emerges.
Co-written Lee’s BlacKkKlansman co-writer Kevin Willmott, its convoluted and narratively messy, but, between an amusing nightclub dance sequence, a scene where two elderly ex-Viet Cong buy the Bloods a round and the powerful central performances, it keeps you glued throughout its two hours plus. (Netflix)
Dark Waters (12A)
Treading corporate malfeasance and courageous lone crusader territory familiar from Erin Brockovich, Silkwood and The Insider, writer-director Todd Haynes turns attention to the DuPont chemical company which, it was revealed had, in the manufacture of Teflon and the chemical it contained, from the early 1950s, been knowingly (from their own research) systematically poisoning its employees and the American public for decades. Naturally, when it comes down to choosing between profit (at one point Teflon products were generating $1 billion per year) and health and safety, human life becomes collateral damage.
Things came to light when Wilbur Tennant (Bill Camp), an Appalachian farmer and one of his grandmother’s West Virginia neighbours in Parkersburg, approached Robert Bilott (Mark Ruffalo, who also produced), a reliable, convention and generally unspectacular soon to be made partner at the high flying law firm of Taft Stettinius & Hollister (headed up by Tim Robbins) specialising in defending chemical companies, asking him to take on his case, claiming that his herd of cattle had been poisoned by pollutants feeding into Dry Run Creek, which DuPont (run by Victor Gerber as the smarmy CEO) used as a waste dump for the nearby plant.
Initially reluctant to get involved, having visited the farm and seen the evidence (“You tell me nothing’s wrong here” growls Tennant), Bilott persuaded the firm to let him take on the case and sue DuPont as a simple case of damage control, expecting for a quick resolution. What happened, as he found more and more evidence in the boxes full of DuPont’s files of their complicity and cover-up, led to a string of whistle-blowing revelation, major courtroom class-action lawsuits, triumphs and reversals that were eventually documented in the New York Times Magazine story The Lawyer Who Became DuPont’s Worst Nightmare on which the film is based. He also had to battle with a resentful community since DuPont, who had no oversight from government, was the biggest employer around Parkersburg and the impact of his single-minded determination to get justice on his own wife and family.
It’s a solid, worthy and predictable piece of work that, setting the sense of unease with an opening 1970s skinny dipping scene in the polluted waters, doggedly ploughs through the timeline of events (17 years from 1998) in documentary-like fashion while, although Anne Hathaway is cast as Bilott’s supportive good Catholic wife, she has so little to do the role could have been played by anyone. However, the more facts it throws up the more horrifying becomes the scale of the poisoning, with pretty much everyone on the planet having some level of residue of the chemical known as PFOA in the body, and which cannot be removed, not only acting as an indictment of corporate greed but also serving as commentary on how willing we are to accept things that make our lives easier, without questioning the science behind it. Ultimately, it’s not up there with the films mentioned earlier, but it is engrossing and full of outrage and, if nothing else, it might make you more wary of those non-stick frying pans in the kitchen. (Amazon Prime)
The Dig (12)
A polite and genteel very English period drama directed by Australia’s Simon Stone, this is based around real life events and the Sutton Hoo discovery in 1939, with war looming, of an 89-foot Anglo Saxon burial ship and is treasure buried beneath a mound in a Sussex field.
It was the most significant Anglo Saxon find until the discovery of the Staffordshire Hoard seventy years later. The land belonged to the relatively young and recently widowed Edith Pretty (Carey Mulligan) who, with an interest in archaeology and an intuition about the mounds in the back garden, engaged taciturn, self-taught pipe-smoking working-class ‘excavator’ archaeologist Basil Brown (Ralph Fiennes with a broad accent, unlike the refined speaking voice of the other main characters), a freelancer for the Ipswich Museum, to dig away and see what he found.
On discovering the remains of the ship, the big boys descended in the form of pompous British Museum archaeologist Charles Phillips (Ken Stott) and his team to take charge and send Brown packing. Petty refused to let him go and (later publically ensured he receive full credit) Phillips agreed he could remain, but not work on the excavation as the treasures are unearthed revealing the Anglo Saxons to have been a far more sophisticated lot than assumed, with art and currency.
Other than some social class snobbery on the part of the London mob and Pretty’s quiet refusal to be browbeaten just because she’s a woman, even when she’s diagnosed some terminal illness, which she naturally keeps to herself, there’s not a lot more for the film to explore in this particular scenario, although it does spend some time on Edith’s young son, Robert (Archie Barnes), who sees Brown (who lives in and only returns to his stoical supportive wife at weekends) as a sort of surrogate dad,
Consequently, mid-way in, the narrative focus expands to take in a romantic subplot involving Margaret ‘Peggy’ Piggott (Lily James), the wife of fellow archaeologist Stuart (Ben Chaplin) who both form part of the British Museum team, the latter, at least here, invited because she doesn’t weight much, so won’t break the relics. Her husband being somewhat indifferent to her sexually, preferring the company of the lads, Peggy (who was the aunt of the source novel’s author John Preston) finds herself attracted to Pretty’s (fictional) handsome cousin Rory (Johnny Flynn) who assigned to photograph the dig (this somewhat negating the film’s low key feminist threads, given the find was documented by two female photographers), only for him to be called up when war’s declared.
Beautifully shot against a rolling verdant rural landscape with a couple of very striking sequences, it’s tasteful to a fault, the ending musing on the legacy of the past and what we in turn will leave behind us, it may not have as much depth or earthiness as the dig itself, but of its kind it is a kind of treasure. (Netflix)
Foster Boy (15)
A lawyer specialising in personal injury cases, Jay Paul Deratany had something of a change of direction when he took on a for-profit foster agency that hid the sexual abuse history of a child before placing him in a home when he committed sexual assaults on multiple other children. That experience is now transformed into the screenplay for this well-intentioned but over overwrought courtroom melodrama unsubtly directed by Youssef Delara and with sledgehammer dialogue that never avoids stating the obvious.
Having just won another of his corporate cases, divorced slick lawyer Michael Trainer (Matthew Modine) is railroaded by the judge (Louis Gossett Jr.) into taking on a pro-bono case involving Jamal (Shane Paul McGhie), a young African-American whose been shunted from foster home to foster home and in and out of jail before being adopted and, just completing a drug possession sentence, is now bringing a $20 million lawsuit against Bellcore, a high flying privatised foster care company, and their manager, Pamela Dupree (Julie Benz), who he accuses of covering up his rape as a child.
Trainer naturally is hardly delighted at being forced to take on a client he immediately assumes to be some sort of street thug and wants him to settle as soon as possible to get things over with. Jama; refuses, meaning Trainer has to do courtroom battle with the defence layer (Evan Handler) for a case in which he has no interest.
Except, of course, with his black assistant Keisha James (Lex Scott Davis) serving as his moral conscience, Trainer comes to see the person behind his initial perceptions, unravelling what happened and a trail of foster care corruption in a familiar rote tale of the white saviour riding to the rescue of exploited and abused black victim who, in turn, serves as the catalyst for his own moral enlightenment and the reigniting of his passion for justice.
It’s hardly John Grisham and as revelations of corporate malfeasance mount up it becomes increasingly melodramatic with an attempted hit and run, prison assaults, phone hacking, police intimidation and more. McGhie, who in a novel moment, gets to rap out his diary entries about his experiences, is either aggressively loud or sympathetically vulnerable with little shading between while Modine walks through the part of transforming from soulless shark to compassionate crusader without any real sense of conviction to the performance. The subject matter is fuelled with righteous anger, but it deserved a far better film. (Amazon Prime, Chili, Google Play, iTunes, Sky Store, TalkTalk, Virgin)
Surprisingly, when life on Earth is threatened with extinction by a comet dubbed Clark headed straight for Florida along with innumerable stadium-sized “fragments” due to impact over a wider area, Gerard Butler doesn’t get to save the planet in the usual disaster movie scenario a la Geostorm. Instead, as Scottish-born Atlanta structural engineer John Garrity he gets a message from Homeland Security saying that, as an essential worker, he, his wife and son have been selected for emergency shelter in a classified location, which, of course, is in Greenland. Garrity, who’s out shopping in a supermarket with 7-year-old Nathan (Roger Dale Floyd) for his birthday party, is estranged from his wife, Allison (Morena Baccarin), but that’s not going to stop him spending the rest of the film trying to get them to safety. His efforts are impeded, however, at the transport plane stage when they get separated when John goes to get their son’s insulin they’ve left in the car and then Nathan is declared ineligible by the military as he’s diabetic. And, if that’s not bad enough, while apart Allison and her son are first picked up a couple (David Denman and Hope Davis) offering to take her to her father’s where it’s assumed John will head, but then she’s dumped and the pair take off with Nathan to use him as their ticket to safety now the general public have got wind of the selected survival plan.
The obstacles to the family getting aboard the plane and flying to sanctuary mount up in a somewhat contrived and at times confused fashion, and even when they do arrive, those comet fragments are still coming, even to Greenland, but the screenplay roots the film in human emotions rather than big heroics. There’s a powerful moment when, because of the regulations, Garry and his wife have to refuse to take a neighbour’s daughter with them, equally so the scenes that unfold around the ranch of Allison’s widowed father Dale (Scott Glenn), who offers them his truck but refuses to leave himself.
There’s little slack in the pacing and the effects are well-handled, the Eiffel Tower once again becoming a casualty as the whole world is devastated, and, of course, the whole rebuilding theme is patently evidenced in John and Allison mending the rift between them to become a whole family once more. Several steps down from War Of The Worlds or Contagion and with dialogue that rarely engages with subtlety, but reasonably rooted in recognisable everyday humanity and parental responsibility and devotion, it’s a watchable B-movie for the times. (Netflix)
A long-time project for Tom Hanks, he both adapted C.S. Forester’s 1955 novel The Good Shepherd and stars as Ernie Krause, a devoutly religious U.S. Navy Captain whose first command is to take charge of the Greyhound, leader of the light warships charged with overseeing a convey of 37 supply ships as cross the Atlantic to Britain, in 1942, a voyage with entails 48 hours without air support in a region known as the Black Pit where they are at the mercy of Nazi U-boats.
There’s a brief opening flashback to a scene between Krause and his long-time sweetheart (Elisabeth Shue) as they meet prior to his taking up command and she suggests now’s not the right time to get engaged, but other than that virtually the entire film takes place on the bridge of the Greyhound as Krause and the crew variously seek to hunt down and destroy or evade the marauding Grey Wolf pack of enemy submarines, including a taunting message from an unseen U-boat commander (Thomas Kretschmann) that comes across as unintentionally cartoonish.
As such, the featured cast is limited to Hanks, Stephen Graham as his navigator, Rob Morgan as the ship’s African-American cook, forever bringing the captain coffee and sandwiches, gunnery officer Manuel Garcia-Rulfo and Hanks’ son Chet as the sonar operator. And yet, it’s only Krause that has any real character depth, a mixture of insecurity at his first time of testing, his faith and, being Hanks, is deep humanity. Likewise, there’s not a great deal of scope for narrative development and, when not staging action sequences upon the turbulent digitised ocean (mostly dark and at night) as they either hunt or narrowly evade the subs, or a near miss between the Greyhound and an oil tanker, it revolves around the cast looking seriously at each other and trotting out various naval terms like “Hard rudder left!” Basically, it’s a single scene repeated several times with just some minor variations. And while, directed by Aaron Schneider, it has a claustrophobic intensity and affords Hanks another chance to go minimalist and do his familiar stoicism, sincerity and integrity, it doesn’t exactly make for compelling viewing. (Netflix)
Hope Gap (12)
Titled after a beach in Seaford, East Sussex, writer-director William Nicholson’s drama picks apart the end of a 29-year marriage in which neither partner was ever really suited to or understood the other. Their anniversary looming, Edward (Bill Nighy), a history teacher who spends his free time correcting errors on Wikipedia, and wife Grace (a perfectly English-accented Annette Bening), a retiree putting together a poetry anthology that runs the gamut of human experience, live a somewhat oxygen-starved relationship in their airless cottage, he agreeing to anything for a quiet life, she frequently flaring up at his lack of engagement. It’s adapted from Nicholson’s play The Retreat From Moscow, Edward being fascinated by the Napoleonic Wars and especially the disastrous Russian invasion, the accounts of the retreat and how the wounded where abandoned so the others could survive serving as a powerful metaphor for the collapse of the marriage.
Opening with a flashback to his childhood, remembering their trip to the cove, it’s narrated by their son, Jamie (Josh O’Connor), now living in London and rarely visiting. He is, however, asked by his father, to come for the weekend, unaware that the reason is Edward, who’s become a ghost in his own life, has resolved to tell Grace he’s leaving and has fallen in love with another and he wants their son there to cushion the blow.
It’s an agonisingly painful moment and, in its aftermath, having to spend more time with his mother and caught between both sides, Jamie comes to realise how little he actually knows about either of them, and starts fearing he’s turning into his father. She wants to make a fight of it to save things (and if not then she wants surrender on her terms, pointedly getting a dog and naming it Edward), he wants to quietly slip away. Aside from Grace’s occasional outbursts (the scene at the lawyer’s to discuss the divorce settlement being especially good), it’s an understated, tasteful and melancholic drama anchored in the steady, grounded and deeply felt lead performances that examine why things have come to pass rather and apportioning blame.
It offers no profound answers as to why marriages fall apart, but there is a wonderful conversation between father and son as the former recounts how he and Grace met, because he got on the wrong train. A cruel trick of cosmic fate or a spiteful God perhaps that plays out over nearly three decades, it’s a bittersweet, downbeat but very human film. (Amazon Prime, Curzon Home Cinema)
Having mined the internet for Friended and Unfriended, horror now enlists Zoom for this ingenious and electrifyingly effective POV corona virus scarefest which unfolds entirely on computer screen windows as a group of friends (Haley Bishop, Jemma Moore, Emma Louise Webb, Radina Drandova, Caroline Ward) share screens to hold a lockdown seance which, inevitably, deadly consequences. Nodding to Blair Witch with the characters all using their actual first names, working remotely, director and co-writer Rob Savage unfolds events in real time (56 minutes) as six university friends (one American, five British) log in following Haley’s suggestion they hold a virtual séance with the assistance of her go to Scottish psychic (Seylan Baxter). Playing a drinking game where they take a shot whenever Seylan says “astral plane”, it’s all a bit of a joke. Until it’s not.
Lights go on the blink, there’s noises off and hints of something in the background. Then it gets more intense, a clown mask floating in mid-air behind one of the participants, for example. At one point, they realise that one of their number has vanished and what they’re watching is a video background screensaver of her. Yup, some malicious spirit from beyond has logged itself in.
Pared down to the basic fright-inducing necessities, there’s nothing surplus to requirements (not even one of the girl’s fathers or the male friend crashing the all-girls night in) as it digs into each of their personalities, the shared dynamic and the latent fears, punctuating the narrative with some sudden jolting scares and making spine-shivering use of the app’s technology and the familiar glitches. You won’t approach your next remote conference call in quite the same way. (Amazon, BFI Player, BT, Google, iTunes, Microsoft, PlayStation, Rakuten, Sky, Talk Talk, Virgin)
I Am Woman (12)
Unless you’re a feminist of a certain age or a devotee of 70s easy listening, there’s a good chance the song, recorded in 1972 by Australian singer Helen Reddy and after which the film is titled, will mean nothing to you. It failed to dent the Top 100 here, Reddy only charted in the UK with 1974’s Angie Baby, reaching No.5, and, seven years later, with the minor hit I Can’t Say Goodbye To You. It was a different story in America where it became the first of three No 1s,selling over a million and, with its “I am strong, I am invincible” lyrics, being taken up as an anthem for the women’s liberation movement, at the time advocating for the Equal Rights Amendment.
Aside from her three chart toppers, Reddy had a further 17 American hits, the first being a cover of I Don’t Know How to Love Him from Jesus Christ Superstar in 1971, originally the B-side to her debut until it started getting airplay in Canada. At the peak of her success, Reddy became the first Australian to top the Billboard Hot 100 and win a Grammy for Best Female Pop Performance, had her own TV show and played sell out shows in Vegas.
All this feeds into director Unjoo Moon entertaining of a little bland biopic, opening with Reddy (an almost constantly smiling bobcut Tilda Cobham-Hervey), a single mother after a brief marriage, arriving in New York in 1966 with her young daughter looking to get a recording contract after winning a competition only to find the prize was just an audition and that, with the arrival of The Beatles, no label wanted her sort of music.
Living in a cheap hotel and resorting to singing songs about women’s subservience to men in half-empty clubs to disinterested punters to make a living, the film sees her meeting up with fellow Australian, rock journalist legend and feminist Lillian Roxon (Patti Cake$ star Danielle Macdonald), who, becoming her lifelong friend, encourages her not to give up on her dreams, and then Jeff Wald (Evan Peters), an agent for William Morris and, after a whirlwind romance and a move to LA, her husband and manager who dedicates himself to getting her a break, badgering the head of Capitol Records until he agrees to record a single, the Superstar cover that launched her on the path to fame.
While hardly a warts and all telling, it doesn’t gloss over the darker aspects, such as her volatile marriage with Wald who initially saw her as a second string to his bow (he also managed Tiny Tim and Deep Purple) and had a major cocaine problem, with several scenes showing their fierce arguments. Likewise, the tragic death of Roxxon in 1973.
For the most, though, the film celebrates Reddy’s refusal to be beaten down, but, despite her self-penned call for female empowerment (at her Grammy acceptance speech she thanked “God, because she makes everything possible”), she was decidedly more entertainer than activist. Indeed, there’s very little seen here of any engagement with or voice for the women’s movement, her subsequent hits being generally mainstream pop about unrequited love.
Despite the screenplay only offering surface insights into her character (or any pre-1966 background) and barely touching on her absent mother relationship with her kids, Cobham-Hervey gives a sparky performance (though her vocals are dubbed by Chelsea Cullen) and has solid presence even when the film itself lumbers or lapses into trite cutaways of Wald hoovering up coke. However, while highlighting her career peaks, the film too quickly fast forwards to the domestic abuse years, financial problems and Reddy’s disappearance from the spotlight until coming out of retirement to sing that song at a National Organization for Women rally in 1989. Reddy died last September, making the end credits updates somewhat unfortunate.
Visually, it does a good job of capturing the period but, other than that hit it does little to explain to the uninitiated why she was such a massive star in the 70s or why her musical legacy is worth exploring. If, indeed, it actually is. (Netflix)
I Care A Lot (15)
Golden Globe winner Rosamund Pike electrifies the screen in this return to thriller form by J Blakeson, the British writer-director of The Disappearance of Alice Creed. Pike plays Marla Grayson, a latter day Gordon Gekko with a severe bob cut and a vaping habit who, by greasing the right palms, from doctors (Alicia Witt) to administrators (Damian Young), has carved a lucrative scam for herself and her business partner cum girlfriend Fran (Eiza Gonzalez) by having vulnerable senior citizens declared incapable and, with the help of an admiring judge, placed into care with herself and her firm appointed as legal guardian. At which point they proceed to plunder their estate and savings under the guide of necessary expenses and administration fees.
Just how smoothly she works her Kafkaesque schemes things is shown in the first courtroom scene where she gets the son of one of her ‘clients’ barred from visitation rights after he caused a scene at the care home. Looking for their next mark, the pair target Jennifer Peterson (Dianne Wiest), a wealthy senior showing early mild signs of dementia and with no apparent family to take responsibility. A ‘cherry’. The next thing Peterson knows is that, without warning or any court appearance, she’s being bundled out of her home by social services and the police and taken off to be placed under the charge of one of Marla’s creepy care home administrator accomplices, stripped of her cell phone, and pumped with tranquilisers. Marla, meanwhile, puts the house up for sale and discovers a fortune in diamonds in a safety deposit box.
It’s at this point that what initially appeared to be a caustic satire on rampant and ruthless capitalism, the treatment of the elderly and the flaws in America’s legally appointed guardianship system suddenly pulls a genre flip into a deadly cat and mouse thriller. Peterson, you see, does have family. A son she sees once a year on a prearranged date. He’s Roman Lunyov (Peter Dinklage), a ruthless businessman who just happens to be a former Russian mafia kingpin. And he doesn’t take kindly to having his mother locked away. As Peterson coldly informs her “”I’m the worst mistake you’ll ever make”.
Marla’s initially unaware of any of this of course, only that a snappily dressed lawyer (Chris Messina) turns up offering $150,000 for Peterson’s release and making hardly veiled threats when she, looking to hold out for a bigger payoff, turns him down.
Things very quickly turn murderously nasty in what develops into a battle of wits and power between Marla and Roman, Peterson as her leverage, as she looks to negotiate a better deal than he’s offering, and he decides to simply eradicate the annoyances.
While it’s hard not be impressed by Marla’s smarts and resilience, while both apparently care for their respective lover and mother, neither of the film’s despicable protagonists are intended to grab your sympathies, each lacking in the most basic humanity in their ferocious determination to succeed and become obscenely wealthy. Balancing a tightrope between compellingly nasty thriller and jet black satire, Blakeson rattles the action and tension along with barely a pause for breath as the stakes continue to rise before an unexpected resolution that returns to the predatory toxicity of the American Dream and a last minute comeuppance for at least one of those concerned.
Weist, Dinklage and Gonzalez are all terrific, but none can hold a candle to Pike who, making her Gone Girl performance seem like soft-pedalling tears into the screenplay like a wolf, toying with the dialogue before ripping it to shreds yet never once losing her chilly calm composure. In the opening voiceover, remarking how there are two types of people: predators and prey, lions and lambs, she declares “My name is Marla Grayson and I am no lamb. I am a fucking lioness.” Watch her roar. (Amazon Prime)
I’m Thinking of EndingThings (15)
Credited only as Young Woman though at one point referred to as Lucy, Jessie Buckley is driving through the harsh winter weather with her boyfriend of six weeks, Jake (Jesse Plemons channelling Philip Seymour Hoffman) to meet his parents. She’s clearly distracted and her inner thoughts confess she’s not entirely sure the relationship is going to last much longer. Understandably perhaps since she’s an artist, poet (at one point she recites a striking work called Bone Dog) and Quantum Physics student and he’s frankly dull. At one point she muses “I’ve never mentioned Jake to my parents and I guess I never will.”
They eventually arrive at his parents’ farm and, after showing her around the outbuilding and describe in graphic details the death of the pigs, they go inside and, after an interminable delays, manic mum (Toni Collette) and oddball dad (David Thewlis) finally come downstairs and immediately present themselves as a very odd and eccentric couple indeed as they sit round he table for a very awkward dinner during which she receives a stream of texts from a friend called Lucy and Jake becomes increasingly hostile towards his folks and their embarrassing chatter and ways, losing it over his mother’s insistence on referring to the Genius as opposed to Genus, edition of Trivial Pursuit
It’s from this point, and having introduced the basement with scratch marks on the door and the likely dark secret within, that the film takes surreal flight into territory than even David Lynch might find hard to follow. The first immediately obvious hints of how director Charlie Kaufman, working from an adaptation of a Canadian novel by Iain Reid, messes with time as the plaster on Thewlis’s forehead shifts, it’s not a continuity error. And as the film continues clothes, hair colour, pretty much everything, transitions from one state to another, punctuated by flashes of an elderly high school janitor (Guy Boyd, who may or may not be a future version of Jake) going about his job while students rehearse for a production of Oklahoma and watches a (not real) romantic comedy by Robert Zemeckis featuring a woman called Yvonne, the name which also appears on Buckley’s phone texts.
Eventually, the pair drive back through a snowstorm, during which Jake mentions a series of events she doesn’t remember, including lengthy discussion about John Cassavetes’s A Woman Under the Influence, stop to buy an ice cream from an isolated parlour and wind up in the school as versions of them dance in a dream ballet from the musical. It all ends with an older Jake giving a Nobel Prize acceptance speech at the school to an audience that includes ‘Lucy’, made up to look older, before launching into a song from Oklahoma.
Extending beyond the two-hour mark it’s at times quite scary, but generally just utterly baffling, impressionistic and weird for no apparent reason other than being weird as it explores alienation, hopelessness and loneliness, so full credit to the central players, Buckley especially, delivering compelling performances that keep you watching even as your mind would like to end things and watch something more straightforward like a Bunuel movie. (Netflix)
I’m Your Woman (15)
One night, Jean (Rachel Brosnahan) is, as is often the case, sitting alone waiting for her husband, Eddie (Bill Heck), to come home, when he walks in holding a baby which he announces as theirs. Confused, nevertheless, having earlier announced in voiceover she can’t have kids, she happily takes on the role of a mother, the naming the baby Harry. It’s not until much later in the film that writer-director Julia Hart offers any explanations to the child’s origin or the reason for the name, but then keeping the audience guessing is all part of how this absorbing 70s set thriller works.
Not long after the baby’s arrival, three friends turn up and Eddie announces he’ll be back late again. However, instead of Eddie, one of his colleagues turns up in the middle of the night telling Jean to pack a bag, fills it with thousands of dollar stashed in the cupboard, and tells her she and the child have to leave immediately. There’s no reason given, no information on what’s happened or where Eddie is. Bundled outside, she’s met by Cal (Arinzé Kene), a mysterious figure whose background is again withheld, but who clearly has parenting skills, who drives them away as her new protector.
Clearly Eddie’s a criminal, something of which Jean is aware, but Cal reveals he’s more than some thief. Again no details are forthcoming. Cal sets her up in a ‘safe house’, well stocked then they arrive, telling her not to talk to anyone, but, in case of emergency, there’s a phone (a pink one) in the drawer and she’s to dial the number he gives her. Emergency duly arrives, people are killed, and Jean and Harry are transferred to a remote cabin to which subsequently come Cal’s more dynamic and kick ass wife, Teri (Marsha Stephanie Blake), her young son and father, Art (Frankie Faison), the latter teaching Jean how to shoot. More background to all the new arrivals in Jean’s life, their relationships to each other finally emerge, further complicating rather than clarifying the picture. Leaving her father with the kids, Teri takes Jean to a nightclub that has links to Eddie, and that’s when things really get interesting and bloody.
Both a character-driven drama exploring themes of self, motherhood and marriage as well as a suspenseful if murky crime thriller, it daringly continues to tease the audience, feeding information tiny morsels at a time, something that is both frustrating and compelling. Brosnahan, the star of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, proves she’s far more than a successful comedic actor with an understated but deeply rich performance that, as she takes more command of her life, carries things through the less involving moments, while Kene is equally strong as the enigmatic, ambiguously framed Cal.
In all honesty, the film becomes less compelling the more the narrative explains, turning into a somewhat routine woman in distress find her inner steel/bad guys fall out set-up while the ending doesn’t have the emotional clout to which it clearly aspires. Even so, it keeps you with until the final frame. (Amazon Prime)
Somewhat outstripped by events, nonetheless there’s much to enjoy in this cynical political satire written and directed by Jon Stewart and set in the aftermath of the 2016 American election as the Democrats seek to reverse their fortunes by weighing in on Wisconsin mayoral election after a video of Col. Jack Hastings (Chris Cooper), an apolitical single father in the small town of Deerlaken, haranguing the incumbent mayor at a heated town hall meeting about proposals to deny illegal immigrants financial aid or employment goes viral.
Back in Washington, licking his wounds after the Trump victory, political strategist Gary Zimmer (Steve Carell) sees Hastings as a way to revive his career by persuading him to run for mayor in a stand against the entrenched conservative ideals. And so, he sets off to Deerlaken where he duly persuades Col Jack (“like Bill Clinton with better impulse control”) to throw his hat in the rig and, with the help of Hastings’ daughter Diana (Mackenzie Davis) and some enthusiastic supporters sets about devising a campaign strategy that will capture national attention.
At which point, enter his Republican strategist arch rival Faith Brewster (Rose Byrne) who steams in to support the incumbent Mayor Braun (Brent Sexton), the two of them ramping up their electioneering game to multi-million dollar stakes and pulling all kinds of dirty tricks to discredit the opposition as polling day counts down.
It’s not exactly subtle and, while taking pops at both sides of the political spectrum, lacks the bite of Wag The Dog. However, largely down to Carrell and a scenery-chewing Byrne, it is frequently very funny (especially in Natasha Lyonne, as one of Zimmer’s team, targeting a zone of single women with contraception policy leaflets only to learn why they’re single) and pointedly skewers how cynically neither Gary or Faith (who crackle with sexual tension- at one point she licks his face) are actually in this for the hicks they claim to be representing (Zimmer crams up on Deerlaken from Wikipedia on his private jet). With the cast also including Topher Grace, a cameo by Bill Erwin as a cyborg donor, the film pulls a wholly unexpected twist in the final act that totally turns the tables a la The Sting, finally making the point it’s been leading up to to crowd-pleasing effect. (Sky)
Koko-di Koko-da (18)
Three years after the holiday in which their daughter died the morning following her mother’s bout of food poisoning, her eighth birthday, Elin (Ylva Gallon) and Tobias (Leif Edlund) are setting off on a camping trip, though she’s considerably less enthusiastic than her husband, who curtly refuses to contemplate a B&B and she complains he bought her the wrong ice cream. From once being blissfully happy, they are now patently dysfunctional.
Having stopped in the woods well off the beaten tracks, he pitches the tent and, in the early hours, she says she needs to peer and, stopped by a tree, is attacked by a bizarre trio of characters and their attack dog, a cane-carrying dandy (60s Danish pop star Peter Belli) in a white suit and straw boater, a silent big-haired girl (Brandy Litmanen) with gun and a giant strongman (Morad Baloo Khatchadorian) carrying a dead white dog. They then turn on the tent and Tobias. The camera pulls back for an aerial shot and, Groundhog Day style, the sequence begins again. As it does several times, each one changing the set-up as the pair argue en route, the manner in which the psychopaths kill them and, scared by the recurring nightmare, how Tobias reacts each time, on one occasion cowering in the car while Elin is attacked.
There’s also an early animated shadow puppet show sequence involving three stick-figure rabbits (the couple and their daughter were made up as bunnies on the holiday), the baby of which wanders off, is carried away by a rooster and wind up dead. The film returns to this towards the end as, following a white cat, Elin winds up in an isolated house where red curtains part to reveal a screen as she watches the sequence unfold,
As written and directed by Johannes Nyholm, the title refers to lines in a Nordic children’s song, Vår tupp är död, which translates as Our Rooster’s Dead, the same tune as played by the musical box they’d bought for their daughter’s birthday and on which the same three death-dealing motiveless murderers were painted.
It is, needless to say, pretty creepy, notably so as the dandy sings Ohio Express hit Yummy, Yummy, Yummy while the dog sets about licking up the petrified Elin’s urine, conjuring inevitable thoughts of David Lynch’s nihilism and Twin Peaks. Clearly, though never explicitly, it is an allegory about death, grief, anger and guilt and how it affects people, how sometimes you can be dead inside while still living and breathing, the horrors experienced here as much psychological as actual.
Although he teases you into thinking doom has been evaded, Nyholm refuses to provide any sense of closure, the film ending unresolved on the same note of eerie dread with which began, an atmospheric work that mesmerises and unsettles as much as it frustrates, and one which will long linger in your own dreams. (BFI Player)
The Life Ahead (15)
A screen icon from the late 50s through the 60s and the first to win a Best Actress Oscar for a foreign-language performance, at the age of 86 Sophia Loren returns to the screen in her first leading role since 2009 for what may likely prove her swansong, potentially adding another Oscar to her tally. Based on Romain Gary’s 1975 book The Life Before Us (previously adapted as 1977’s Madame Rosa starring Simone Signoret) and co-written and directed by her son Edoardo Ponti, Loren stars as Rosa, old and frail but, like Loren herself, still an elegant beauty, an aged Holocaust survivor (she has a secret den – her ‘batcave’ – of mementos to which she retreats when the trauma overwhelms) and former prostitute who now takes in and temporarily cares for the children of local sex workers in the poor quarter of Bari, a port city in present day Puglia.
Largely told in flashback, Her current charges are Iosif (Iosif Diego Pirvu), whose mother seems to have abandoned him, and Babu (Simone Surico), the young daughter of her transgender downstairs neighbour Lola (Abril Zamora) who, as a man, was a middleweight boxing champion. Out in the market one day, looking to sell a pair of candlesticks to help pay the rent, she’s robbed by a street urchin. However, shortly after, her elderly doctor, Dr. Coen (Renato Carpentieri), turns up with both the candlestick and the culprit, Momo (outstanding 14-year-old newcomer Ibrahima Gueye), a tough kid Senegalese Muslim whose mother as killed by his father when she refused to prostitute herself anymore. The doctor asks her to take him and in, and after some haggling, she duly does, although things don’t exactly get off to a good start. In addition, Momo lands himself the job of chief dealer selling weed for the local drugs boss (Massimiliano Rossi), making enough money to buy himself a bicycle which he rides through the streets with undisguised joy.
He’s angry and hostile, she’s cranky and imperious, and yet, as the weeks go by, a genuine friendship and mutual respect blossoms between them, he revealing the soft heart behind his street wise attitude and she showing a warm generosity behind her often prickly personality, arranging for him to spend a couple of days a week working for a kindly local store-owner (Babak Karimi) who introduces him to his Islamic heritage and gets him to repair an antique rug with a lion motif. However, times when the children find her sitting catatonic, staring into space, indicate signs of growing dementia and the film essentially charts how, as the film returns to its starting point Momo helps her face the end, keeping a promise in the event she’s taken into hospital, the prospect of which brings make the horrors of the war.
At times venturing into magic realism as Momo fantasises a lioness who cares for a protects him, at others rooted in the rawness and tragedy of life that rises above its coating of sentimental Italian melodrama, the chemistry between Loren and Gueye and the inner lives they so effectively portray the glue that holds it all together. (Netflix)
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (15)
Following on from Fences, directed by George C Wolfe, driven by a score from Branford Marsalis with a sharp screenplay from Ruben Santiago-Hudson, this is the second adaptation from The Pittsburgh Cycle, a collection of ten plays by the late August Wilson chronicling the African-American community in the 20th century. Written in 1984, set in 1927, it was inspired by legendary blues singer Ma Rainey, dubbed the Mother of the Blues, played here in powerhouse form by Viola Davis, who won a Supporting Actress Oscar for the previous film. However, the dramatic focus and, inevitably, the film’s most compelling attraction, is that it co-stars the late Chadwick Boseman (with whom Davis appeared in Get On Up) delivering a volcanic, highly physical live wire performance in his final Golden Globe winning role as her band’s fictional trumpet player, Levee, an ambitious, cocky figure determined to make a name for himself but also troubled by a traumatic past.
First seen on his way to the recording studio, his attention’s caught by a pair of flash, yellow leather shoes which he buys and proudly shows off to his colleagues, and which will prove the catalyst to the film’s sudden, tragic ending. The youngest and a new addition to the ranks, he’s at the Chicago recording studio owned by Sturdyvant (Jonny Coyne), along with bassist Slow Drag (Michael Potts), veteran piano player, Toledo (Glynn Turman) and highly religious trombonist Cutler (Colman Domingo) the band’s de facto leader, to rehearse in the basement ready to lay down material for Ma’s next records, among them her signature tune Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, He, however, has his own ideas for the arrangement they should play, a swing intro designed to hook an audience looking for livelier, more danceable music. His swagger is buoyed by the fact Sturdyvant, seeing crossover potential, has agreed and also expressed interest in his own compositions with a view to recording, a step towards Levee forming his own band and becoming a star in his own right.
However, as Cutler points out, this is Ma’s music and Ma’s band and what she says goes. It’s clear from her first appearance, sporting gold teeth and overdone makeup, arriving in a swanky car driven by her nephew Sylvester (Dusan Brown) along with her latest flirty young pick-up, Dussie Mae (Taylour Paige), and immediately involved in an altercation with another driver, that she’s a blowsy, imperious diva used to getting her own way. Under no illusions as to her status in a white America, she also knows that the sales of her records give her the power to call the shots, something she makes very clear by her late arrival and the demands she makes during the session, declaring “they gonna treat me the way I want to be treated no matter how much it hurt ‘em”, much to the exasperation of her long suffering white manager Irvin (Jeremy Shamos).
Inevitably, then, she immediately slaps down Levee’s proposals, insisting that Sylvester will do the song’s spoken introduction (despite the fact he stutters) and they’ll play it the way it’s always been played. It’s not the only time during the session that Levee’s hopes will be taken away from him.
Much of the drama takes place in the rehearsal room where, in a mix of playful banter and more serious concerns, the conversation variously takes in fashion sense, the history of black oppression, Toledo’s views on the futility of trying to change things (“The coloured man, he’s the leftovers”, he declares after his African Stew monologue), Levee’s seemingly sycophant attitude to white folk, and, tellingly, the story of black man who sold his soul to the Devil and became untouchable. It’s here that, driven by the friction between Levee and Cutler that Boseman’s most electrifying, blisteringly intense scenes take place, first in recounting the childhood trauma of seeing his mother violated by a gang of white ‘crackers’ (who only stopped after scarring his chest with a blade) and what he learnt from his father’s revenge and, subsequently a physical knife-bearing confrontation with Cutler and a subsequent ferocious calling out of God for abandoning him (given added resonance since Boseman was by now dying of cancer) and never intervening to save his mother.
The knife, naturally, has, along with the shoes, a further part to play as the anger within Levee boils over in the wake of Rainey’s veto of his arrangement (his revenge is to have sex on the piano with Dussie Mae) and Sturdyvant’s rejection of his songs (and recording sessions) as of no commercial worth, the final intercut scenes, of course, underling white exploitation of black music as we see them being recorded by an all white line-up. The film will be celebrated and remembered as Boseman’s final and finest hour, but it’s also much more than that. (Netflix)
Malcolm and Marie (15)
While laying itself open to accusation of having a white writer-director addressing the racial politics of Hollywood and film criticism, written and made over few days in lockdown, filmed in crisp monochrome, Sam Levinson, son of Barry, has, influenced by John Cassavetes and perhaps taking a cue from Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf (as well as a toilet shot from Eyes Wide Shut), delivered a provocative, theatrical and dialogue heavy drama that never pulls its emotional punches.
A two-hander, it boasts titanic work from John David Washington and Zendaya in the title roles, the film opening with the couple returning from the premiere of the movie he’s directed, he high on the effusive positive response and, though he’d prefer being tagged the new William Wyler than the new Spike Lee or Barry Jenkins, looking to celebrate, she clearly pissed off over something or other, Initially refusing to say why, he presses her and she tells him she’s annoyed that he never included her in his list of pre-screening thanks. He apologised at the time and does so again, it was just an oversight. But clearly there’s more rankling her than that. Such as the fact that she argues that the lead character a 20-year-old black drug addict, was based on her. He tries to turn it back against her, she’s needy, jealous. He rescued her, now she’s attacking him.
But, as the film unfolds, accusations are tossed back and forth and scars opened up, the screenplay digs deeper into their relationship while the framing emphasises their disconnection from one another. He’s self-absorbed and conceited, she’s dangerously insecure. He trots out intellectual bullshit about racial politics, about the movie industry, about critics (he goes off on one when he reads the glowingly effusive review from “the white lady from the L.A. Times”, declaring she has no idea bout filmmaking, has stereotyped him as Black filmmaker and is seeing political comment when he claims none existed). She can barely keep from laughing.
Both characters declare they love each other, but this is a clearly toxic relationship and yet perhaps emotionally sadomasochistic in the way that they need each other and the delicate power balance that on which it pivots. Caustic and sharply funny by turns, with a very smart use of music as narrative commentary, both stars give career best performances, the scene where Zendaya demonstrates what authenticity is really about is as good as any Oscar winning moment of the past two decades. (Netflix)
During the Golden Age of Hollywood in the 30s and 40s, screenwriter Herman J Mankiewicz churned out many a motion picture, often without getting any screen credit. Then, in 1941, Orson Welles (Tom Burke), who, for his film debut, had been given carte blanche by RKO studios to make whatever he wanted, with whoever he wanted and with absolute control. So, he enlisted Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman) to write what would turn out to be Citizen Kane.
The only problem was that Mankiewicz, a garrulous ex-journalist, was a notorious drunk who had rubbed many a Hollywood executive the wrong way, getting fired on several occasions, and, on top of which, in the psychodrama version directed by David Fincher from his late father’s screenplay, he’s just broken his leg in a car accident. So, as told in vintage black and white (complete with the ‘burns’ in the corner that were used to indicate a reel change), he’s shipped out to a ranch house in the Mojave desert, ministered to by a German housekeeper, monitored by John Houseman (Sam Troughton) and dictating his script to English secretary Rita Alexander (Lily Collins), all of whom are charged with keeping him away from the booze. Welles, it would seem, has generously provided him a case of whiskey as a reward at the end of the day’s work, except it’s actually Seconal, to knock him out. It may not be what actually happened, but it makes for a compelling narrative.
Told in a series of flashbacks, each introduced with screenplay notes, it shifts back and forth between the writing of the script and the cynical, dishevelled Mankiewicz’s self-sabotaging drunken antics as, the court jester, he acerbically wisecracks his way around tinsel town, and, especially Metro Goldwyn Mayer studios, headed up by the manipulative Louis B. Mayer (Arliss Howard). Mayer tolerates his behaviour until it threatens the studio’s relationship with newspaper magnate Randolph William Hearst (Charles Dance) who, of course, served as the template for the film’s publishing giant Charles Foster Kane.
An affectionate (poison pen) love letter to old Hollywood, it balances the playful and mischievous (a bunch of writers improvising a Frankenstein plot to David O. Selznick) with the much darker side, notably Mank’s fury at learning, between them, the ultra-conservative Meyer and Hearst had, in California’s 1934 gubernatorial election, authorised fake newsreel footage to discredit socialist candidate Upton Sinclair, its fictional director Shelly Metcalf unable to live with what he did. All of which, of course, fed into the screenplay.
It’s a stellar cast with luminous performances from Amanda Seyfield as Marion Davies, a Hollywood comedienne star and the trophy girlfriend of the much older Hearst, who wanted to transform her into as dramatic actress, and with whom Mankiewicz has a platonic romance, alongside Tuppence Middleton as Mank’s long-suffering wife ‘Poor’ Sara, and Tom Pelphrey as his more successful brother Joe. However, it’s Oldman who magnetises the screen with his energy as the dissolute, at times bitter, at others compassionate, erratic genius, falling foul of Welles when, going against their contract, he declares, that he wants a credit, something that sees him almost bumped off the project. The film won one Oscar, Best Screenplay, shared between Mankiewicz and Welles, neither of whom was there to accept, the final moments of Fincher’s film playing out the interview where Mank delivered a brilliant last word on the matter. (Netflix)
The Map of Tiny Perfect Things (12)
A sort of teenage Groundhog Day (to which it makes frequent reference), adapted by Lev Grossman from his 2016 short story, Kyle Allen stars as Mark, a 17-year-old aspiring art student, who shares his home with a younger sister (Cleo Fraser), a workaholic mother he rarely sees and a father (Josh Hamilton) who, apparently, quit work to work on a Civil War the answers to dad’s crossword puzzle. He can also cycle through town preventing mishaps before they occur. That’s because he’s living the same day over and over, resetting like rewinding videocassette, but only he knows it. The advantage is that he can work on different ways to attract the attention of girl (Anna Mikami) to whom he gave directions before she asked when he next meets her at the local pool and stop a ball from hitting her. Until, that is, another girl disrupts the pattern by catching it. Fascinated, he starts to follow her.
This is Margaret (Kathryn Newton), she dreams of working for NASA, has a thing about the fourth dimension and is stuck in the same “temporal anomaly”. Although, initially, she’s not interested, he persists and eventually they start to hang out and decide to ‘collect’ all the small moments, the ‘perfect things’ that happen to people over the course of the day each time it resets: an old lady dancing for joy at winning cards, an eagle swooping on a lake to catch a fish, bikers stopping traffic for a turtle to cross the road, working on the belief that once he’s mapped them all the anomaly will cease and normal time resume. However, for some reason, Margaret refuses to divulge any personal information, is unwilling to progress the friendship into romance and always has to leave at 6pm to take phone call from a hunky doctor named Jared.
There’s a particularly poignant explanation that Mark eventually stumbles on and which explains why she’s in no hurry to close the loop, the film gradually showing him learning not to be blinkered to what’s happening to people other than himself, such as the real reason’s dad’s not at work and, as such, the film carries a certain message as well.
It doesn’t all work, scenes with Mark’s videogamer best friend Henry (Jermaine Harris) feel surplus and his constructing a moon trip experience for Margaret in the school gym is just a little too cheesily cute, but, thanks to the chemistry between the two leads, the emotional punch of the third act and the sheer charm, it’s a loop you’ll be happy to put on repeat. (Amazon Prime)
Max Winslow and the House of Secrets (12)
Sporting a definite hint of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, director Sean Olson’s tweenage romp stars Sydne Mikelle as the titular Max(ine), an anti-social teenager with abandonment issues (the result of her dad having left when she was young) and a knack for coding, who becomes one of five schoolkids invited to take part in a competition, accounted when he hacks into the school computers, to win a sprawling mansion owned by high-tech billionaire Atticus Virtue (Chad Michael Murray). Her rivals are school bully Aiden (Emery Kelly), narcissistic and social media-obsessed Queen Bitch Sophia (Jade Chynoweth), short-arsed games addict Benny (Jason Genao), and school jock Connor (Tanner Buchanan, resembling a young Travolta), who’d’ rather be the music guy than the lacrosse guy his parents want him to be, and on whom Max has crush.
Arriving at the mansion, they’re greeted by Haven (Marina Sirtis), its version of Alexa, and the robot knight butler Sir Mordred and informed that the games, the riddles they have to solve, will soon begin. Since you’ve already figured out that a la The Breakfast Club, all the teens have some sort of recognisable hangup or fear they need to face and overcome it becomes fairly obvious where the plot trajectory is going as, variously, in assorted visual effects set pieces, Benny’s trapped in a virtual reality shooter game, Sophia ends up locked in a bathroom with her creepy accusatory bitchy mirror reflection, Aiden is confronted by a baseball moment with his bullying dad, Connor finds himself in a black and white quiz show where he has to tell is parents – and the world – the truth about himself, and Max relives over and over the moment her father left, gifting her just a memory stick as a memento.
Finally banding together to overcome the tyrannical – if well-intentioned – Haven and rescue the apparently imprisoned Virtue, there’s a not entirely persuasive therapy twist thrown in at the end, but otherwise this, while ultimately forgettable and overly familiar, is good fun while it lasts. (Amazon Prime, Google Play, iTunes, Microsoft, Sky Store, Virgin)
The Midnight Sky (12)
Directed by George Clooney who also co-stars (not never alongside) Felicity Jones, this is a post-apocalypse sci fi set shortly after a cataclysmic ‘event’ that has rendered a radiation swathed Earth virtually uninhabitable. One of the few survivors, but depending on daily blood transfusions to stay alive, Clooney is heavily bearded astronomer and exoplanet expert Augustine Lofthouse who, rather than join the rest of the team seeking refuge, has opted to remain as the sole member of the Arctic observatory. At least he assumes he’s alone until a mute child named Iris (Cailinn Springhall) turns up in the kitchen. Given the station’s radio signal isn’t strong enough, this complicates his mission to as they need to cross the frozen wastes to another observatory so he can make contact with a five man spaceship returning from a successful mission to establish whether life is possible for humanity on one of Jupiter’s moons. Its crew comprises mission leader Tom (David Oyelowo), soulful fellow astronauts Sanchez (Demián Bichir) and Mitchell (Kyle Chandler), the sparky Maya (Tiffany Boone) and Sully (Jones), his pregnant partner in charge of comms. As the last hope for mankind, Lofthouse needs to make contact to stop them returning to Earth and inevitable death.
Intercut with flashbacks to the younger Lofthouse (Ethan Peck, looking confusingly nothing like Clooney) and his failed relationship with a fellow scientist (Sophie Rundel), the connection to which is only revealed in the final moments, it cuts back and further between his and Iris’ perilous journey (screenwriter Mark L. Smith recycling his work on The Revenant but also drawing on Cormac McArthy’s The Road) and events aboard the spaceship where a malfunction throws them off course into an uncharted area of space, prompting a space walk repair scene set to Sweet Caroline that subsequently leads to tragedy.
Adapted from Lily Brooks-Dalton’s 2016 novel Good Morning, Midnight, it’s visually impressive, especially the scenes in space and the sight of blobs of blood floating gravity free. Unfortunately, while mournfully melancholic and sombre, it’s also somewhat dramatically inert as it trudges from one scene to the next before the final twist back on Earth and a coda as the ship’s remaining crew plot their future and the continuance of life, even if, logically, that’s going to entail multi-generational incest. (Netflix)
Miss Juneteenth (15)
It’ll mean nothing here, but it’s a big deal in Texas where Juneteenth marks the end of slavery on June 19th, 1865, two years after Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. It’s around this celebration and the Miss Juneteenth Pageant that first time writer/director Channing Godfrey Peoples bases her mother-daughter drama set in Fort Worth and with an almost exclusively African-American cast.
Each year local teenagers compete for the title, the winner receiving a scholarship to the historically Black university of her choice. Fifteen years ago, single mother Turquoise Smith (Nicole Beharie) was crowned, but unintended pregnancy meant she was unable to take up her prize. Now, semi-estranged from her mechanic baby father Ronnie (Kendrick Sampson), although he still calls round for some TLC, she’s struggling with debt and working two, waitressing at the shabby Wayman’s BBQ & Lounge, as a cosmetician at a funeral home where its owner (Akron Watson) has both plans for expansion and romantic aspirations. All this is to earn the money she needs to pay for the expensive pageant fees and dress so that her daughter, Kai (Alexis Chikaeze) can follow in her footsteps and take up the opportunity she couldn’t. Kai, however, would rather be part of her school’s competitive dance team that having to study the old school etiquette contestants are supposed to master, supervised by the very organiser (Phyllis Cicero). And hanging out with a disreputable boyfriend is a no no.
Matters are further complicated by Turq’s brittle relationship with her alcoholic ultra-religious mother (Lori Hayes) who heads up the local church and hasn’t forgiven her youthful indiscretion or an earlier choice of employment about which Kai remains ignorant. Then, just as she’s getting together enough cash to pay off the $800 dress she’s got reserved, Ronnie winds up needing bail money.
With both mother and daughter determined to follow their own path of self-determination, a clash is inevitable, but its credit to both actresses and People’s screenplay that this never feels contrived and plays out with a genuine emotional heft, subtly laced with observations about what it’s like to be Black, and especially a Black woman, in the South, climaxing with Kai’s transfixing performance of Maya Angelou’s Phenomenal Woman at the competition final. It’s a very limited release, but well worth seeking out. (Amazon Prime, BFI Player)
Mogul Mowgli (15)
Co-written by Riz Ahmed along with director Bassam Tariq, this is a loosely autobiographical, powerful if at times overly impressionistic film about diaspora cultural identity crisis as embodied in the title with the Mogul referencing a rich heritage and Mowgli the man cub lost in the jungle. Ahmed plays MC Zed (An Americanisation of his real name Zaheer, and to which his devout relatives object) is an aspirant British-Pakistani rapper who, while big in New York, has gone about as far as he can without getting that big break. That comes when he’s offered the support slot on a huge tour, his girlfriend suggesting he uses the time before then to reconnect with his family in Wembley, who he hasn’t seen in two years.
Unfortunately, his return home and a scuffle with a fan sees him diagnosed with possibly genetic autoimmune condition that renders him unable to walk and with his place on the tour being taken by his rival. There’s an experimental treatment, but infertility is a likely side effect, something his disapproving conservative father (Alyy Khan), mistrustful of Western medicine, is unwilling to countenance given the cultural importance of maintaining the family line. The film subsequently follows Ze’s determined efforts to, quite literally, get back on his feet, the treatment leading to him being plagued by hallucinatory fever dream visions (and their cacophonous score) involving figure with a garland of flowers masking his face chanting Toba Tek Singh (an area of the Punjab), as well as flashbacks to the horrors of the 1947 partition to which that refers. It’s all a consequence of being unable or unwilling to face the demons related to questioning who he is (someone disparagingly calls him a coconut), his links to the inherited past and the ambitions for a future far removed from such traditions.
Ahmed, who has his own side career as a successful rapper with the Swet Shop Boys, delivers a fiercely magnetic performance, even when his character is at his most selfishly dislikeable, that carries the film over the confused and more minimalistic elements of the screenplay and the at times familiarly father son melodramatics. (BFI Player)
Working from the 1998 animation as well as the Hua Mulan legend on which that was based, but minus the song and, thankfully, the sidekick dragon (though there is an ever-present phoenix, the family’s totem, climaxing in a particularly striking visual moment), Niki Caro’s magnificent Disney live-action remake opens with the young Mulan (Crystal Rao), living with her younger sister Xiu (Elena Askin), flapping mother (Rosalind Chao) and lame war hero father (Tzi Mah), practising her martial arts skills much to dad’s pride and mum’s annoyance who reckons she should act like other girls and bring honour to the family as a dutiful wife.
Fast forward several years as the now teen Mulan (Liu Yifei) unintentionally causes havoc as the village matchmaker is trying to teach her grace and deportment, at which point an emissary from the Emperor (an unrecognisable Jet Li) arrives to inform that each family must supply one man to join the army in fighting against the marauding Bori Khan (Jason Scott Lee) who, abetted by a powerful shape-shifting witch (Zang Yimou’s muse and Oscar-nominated Farewell My Concubine star Gong Li) is laying waste the country in revenge for the death of his father at the Emperor’s hands.
Having no son, despite his injured leg and failing health, Mulan’s father offers himself as a recruit. However, fearing for his life, she steals his sacred sword and armour and, disguising herself as a boy, rides off to join the Imperial Army under the name of Hua Jun. Then, following an assortment of impressive combat training scenes and her determined efforts to not be revealed as a girl (the punishment for which would be death or, at best disgrace), as Khan sweeps all before him, the film builds to its exciting climax as she finally casts off her disguise, accepts her true self and becomes the legendary warrior who saves the Emperor and China.
Her first leading role in a major Hollywood film, Liu is the film’s heart and soul, struggling with the deception she is practising but also tapping into her inner chi to become the warrior events need, the moment she rides into battle, her armour gone, hair now down and flowing, is a breathtaking scene. She’s well served by an impressive support cast too, headed up by Donnie Yen as the imposing high ranking Commander Tung, her cadre of fellow soldiers (and often comic support), the hapless Cricket, Ling, Yao, Chien-Po and, most importantly Chen Honghui (Yoson An) who serves as Mulan’s eventual ally and romantic interest. Sporting scars and a ferocious beard, Lee makes for a powerful, driven and resourceful villain while Gong Li shines as the ambiguous sorceress – and Mulan’s dark counterpart who seeks to have her join forces – whose motivations underpin the film’s misogynistic themes of men’s fear and suppression of powerful women. There’s also a cameo appearance by Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s Ming Na-Yen who, of course, was the voice of Mulan in the original animation.
Glowing with an emotional depth to match its electrifying combat scenes, which involve twirling in mid-air, running up walls and other acrobatic feats, it’s an exhilarating and involving spectacle likely to induce cheers in the living room demanding that you see it on the biggest screen going at the earliest opportunity. (Disney +)
News Of The World (12)
Set in 1870, five years after the Civil War, Tom Hanks makes his Western debut, reuniting with director Paul Greengrass for a film that evokes True Grit and The Searchers minus the racism, Hanks plays Capt. Jefferson Kyle Kidd, a former Confederate infantryman who, before the war, ran a newspaper printing company and now, that swept away and, traumatised by what he’s seen and done, has left his wife behind to travel, unarmed save for a rifle that shoots only birdshot, from one Texas town to another, eking out a living –perhaps finding atonement – by giving lively readings from newspapers to bring his audience, still hurting from the war, stories of events from far and wide as they’re called on to be part of the recovery effort.
En route to his next stop, he comes across a wrecked wagon and a trail of blood leading to a tree from where a lynched Black man hangs, tagged with a note that reads “Texas Says No! This is White Man’s Country.” A movement gets his attention and he chases down what proves to be a 10-year-old girl who, it transpires, was being transported, against her will, to her aunt and uncle’s hill country farm hundreds of miles away near San Antonio having been abducted and raised by Kiowa Indians after her settler family were killed six years ago, now orphaned a second time with her Kiowa parents killed by soldiers as part of the reservations being cleared to pave the way for the Pacific Railroad. The girl’s named Johanna (Helena Zengel), but, while German, now only speaks Kiowa. Instructed by passing soldiers to take her to the Indian Agency representative at Red River, he’s informed he can either take her home himself or wait for the Agent to return.
Having no experience in caring for a child, initially seeking to offload her to a shopkeeper couple (Ray McKinnon, Mare Winningham), the feral girl proves too much of a handful and, learning more of her background via kindly Dallas innkeeper Mrs. Gannett (Elizabeth Marvel) speaks some Kiowa, he resolves to ensure she’s safely reunited with her relatives.
Ad so begins a long incident packed journey as the unlikely companions grow to understand more about each other and the differences in the cultures in which they were raised (she learns about forks, he learns about connection to the natural world), forging a bond and reciprocal trust. Their trip’s variously punctuated by run ins with, first a predatory former Confederate soldier (Michael Angelo Covino) and his sidekicks who offer to buy her off Kydd and won’t take no for an answer, leading to a tense shootout in the bluffs (Kydd armed with only a gifted revolver). That’s followed by an encounter with a lawless settlement of renegades presided over by the cruel racist despot Farley (Thomas Francis Murphy), who insists Kydd read from his own self-aggrandising (fake) newsletter and takes umbrage when, instead, he cannily delivers an inspirational account of striking miners rising up against their exploitative taskmasters.
And, of course, eventually, after a stopover to the site of her family’s murder, they inevitably cross paths with the Kiowa, though this plays out far differently and far more hauntingly sad than you might have expected, before finally arriving at the farm, where he leaves her to return and make things right with his wife.
Naturally, given the way things have been set up and the relationship that’s developed, the film has one final predictable chapter that, while sentimental, speaks eloquently of family, love and healing. Essentially a two-hander, playing a man of moral decency is no stretch for Hanks, but his soulful, quietly understated performance never feels rote while Zengel, who only gets to speak a few words of English, is superlative, conveying depths of emotion with her eyes and facial gestures. There’s a brief but memorable turn too from Fred Hechinger as a slow-witted member of Farley’s crew whose eyes and good heart are opened by Kydd’s readings and Johanna’s plight. Needless to say, the landscape is stunning.
Arriving at a time that calls for national divisions to be repaired and the value of the news media has been brought into question, its message of making connections, putting the past behind and moving forward to find peace needed now more than ever. (Netflix)
The debut feature from director Catherine Linstrum, set in Wales this is an often incoherent and equally heavy handedly symbolic psychological thriller that opens in the woods as 14-year-old Emma (Emilia Jones) watches from hiding as her violent ex-con half-brother (Oliver Coopersmith) violently assaults her mother (Sienna Guillory). When he stalks off, she gathers mum up and drives her to a village inn apparently totally deserted Snowdonia where, after crashing their car, they take refuge in an empty cottage and she encounters a young man (George MacKay) into free climbing, who, warning her about swimming the nearby river, tells her he wants to scale the nearby disused nuclear power station.
It’s a film about being haunted in more ways than one and, as it goes on and addresses trauma, leads you to question just how much is real and how much imagined. But, like its ambiguous title, it’s a little too quirky for its own good, be it the fact that Emma is the only character with a name, the surreal nature of the green glowing inside of the power station or the mother’s hallucinations of the ghost of a Japanese woman who perished during the atom bomb attack in WWII. Jones and MacKay give strong performances, but the film never quite does them justice. (Amazon Prime)
The Old Guard (15)
Following on from Mad Max and Atomic Blonde, Charlize Theron further underscores her cool action movie persona as Ancient Greece warrior Andromache of Scythia aka Andy, the head of a small group of immortal mercenaries that also comprises Booker (Matthias Schoenaerts), who gained immortality after dying in the Napoleonic Wars and Joe (Marwan Kenzari) and Nicky (Luca Marinelli) who became gay lovers while fighting on opposing sides in the Crusades. Keeping a low profile so as not to attract attention to themselves, they’ve fought on the side of right through the centuries, to which end, brought back together after a year apart, although, disillusioned by humanity’s continued inability to redeem itself, she declares “The world can burn for all I care”, she’s persuaded by former CIA operative Copley (Chiwetel Ejiofor) to rescue 17 schoolchildren abducted in South Sudan.
However, this turns out to be a set up aimed at capturing them and harvesting their DNA engineered by pharmaceuticals CEO Merrick (Harry Melling, unrecognisable from his role as Harry Potter’s Dudley Dursley) who claims he wants to end cognitive decline, but whose actual motives are rather less altruistic.
The corporate villain has become something of a cliché and the film, self-adapted by Greg Ruckahich from his graphic novels and which sees director Gina Prince-Bythewood spreading her wings after romantic dramas, never seems as assured in the basic plot framework as it does in handling the character interplay and the action sequences.
The quartet are soon joined by a fifth member, American Marine Nile Freeman (KiKi Layne) who, much to her confusion and the unease of her fellow soldiers, recovers from a fatal neck-wound in Afghanistan without so much as a scar. A psychic bond between fellow immortals leads to Andy rescuing her from the military base and, after a mano a mano fight aboard a transport plane, recruiting her to the cause, though she remains understandably freaked out about the whole set-up.
Not that, with Merrick’s paramilitary squad on their tail, anyone has a great deal of time to sit around reflecting on the cost of immortality and rapid healing, and never knowing when your time will be up. The character depth is thickened by the revelation that Andy is haunted by guilt over the fate of her first fellow immortal, Quynh (Van Veronica Ngo) following their capture during the witchcraft trials.
As such, the film jumps around from Africa and Southern Asia to rural Paris as the group elude pursuit and seek to track down Copley before, after a betrayal and two abductions for experimentation, it all climaxes in an extended shoot-out at Mannix’s London HQ.
Dressed in black (though flashbacks have her in Amazonian armour) with a bob-cut, Theron strides confidently through the film, delivering action and conflicted character complexity and psychological baggage with equal skill, and she’s well-supported by her four peers, Layne especially strong while Schoenaerts provides soulful melancholia and Kenzari and Marinelli introduce a degree of humour and tenderness.
With one of the group apparently losing their immortality and a six months later end credits scene that sets up further mystery and intrigue, this is clearly envisioned as an ongoing narrative, both as high octane action and exploring what it means to be human; it most certainly deserves a sequel. (Netflix)
One Night in Miami (15)
On February 25, 1964, cocky 22-year-old Cassius Clay defeated Sonny Liston in Miami to become the world heavyweight champion. The race laws being he was unable to celebrate in the white part of town, he drove to the Hampton House Hotel in a black neighbourhood where he planned to party with his friends, singer Sam Cooke, NFL star Jim Brown and Nation of Islam spokesman Malcolm X. The latter, understandably paranoid and troubled, accompanied by his two bodyguards, had booked a room, but, ice cream the only refreshment, partying was the last thing on his mind.
Adapted by Kemp Powers from his acclaimed 2013 play and marking the feature directorial debut of Oscar-winning actress Regina King, the film imagines what might have down in the room that night, the X (British rising star Kingsley Ben-Adir) laying into Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr., who does his own singing), fresh from a humiliating experience of being ignored by the all-white audience for his Copacabana show, for not using his music to speak of social – and specifically black – issues (holding up Dylan’s Blowing In The Wind as a role model), but rather selling out to the white pop market. The night also sees Clay (Eli Goree) announce that he’s becoming a Muslim, but later accuses his mentor of using him to further his own agenda, while Brown (Aldis Hodge), who’s seen earlier experiencing racism when a Georgia grandee (Beau Bridges), a self-declared supporter and admirer, won’t let him past the porch because “we don’t let niggers in the house”, talks about how he’s looking to run a parallel career in the movies.
It turns into an evening of confrontations and discussions about racism, politics and black responsibilities, each man with their own insecurities, all of them on the edge of making a transition in their lives (Clay becoming Muhammed Ali, X quitting the Nation to form his own movement, Brown retiring from football, Cooke famously appearing on Johnny Carson to sing Change Is Gonna Come, the lost footage recreated here) and examining who they actually are.
It’s heavily dialogue driven, but the performances, Ben-Adir the engine, ensure it’s never dry or lacking in dynamic, while X’s suspicions about some white men he things are following him, his call home to his wife in Detroit to reassure her and a scene of them being firebombed all add to the tension and atmosphere, but there is also room for humour, be it Clay’s preening narcissism or one of the bodyguards’ fanboy request for autographs.
Knowingly theatrical, although opened up with a prologue where Clay’s beaten by Henry Cooper and with several scenes beyond the room’s four walls, but never stagey, it raises still highly charged issues and leaves you, as with its four icons, pondering how to address them. (Amazon Prime)
Penguin Bloom (PG)
In 2013, holidaying with her photographer husband Cam (Andrew Lincoln) and three young sons in Thailand, Sam Bloom (Naomi Watts), a 41-year-old from Sydney with a love of surfing, swimming and bicycling, fell 20 foot when a rotten wooden rail on a tower balcony gave way, leaving her paraplegic below the chest, confined to bed and a wheelchair.
Shortly after returning from hospital, back home in Australia, her eldest son, Noah (Griffin Murray-Johnston) found an injured baby magpie and took it back to the house to be cared for, naming it Penguin on account of its black and white colouring. In pain and consumed with depression at feeling she was now worth nothing, especially as mother, Sam was initially reluctant to have any involvement, but was eventually won over by the bird’s persistence and charisma, becoming engaged in looking after it (if she couldn’t care for the kids, she could care for the bird) until it was able to fly and, as such, finding inspiration to rise above her own injuries and take metaphorical wing herself.
Based on Bloom’s own story as told in the book of the same title by Cameron Bloom and Bradley Trevor Greive, narrated by Noah, who provides the backstory and exposition, the film isn’t subtle about its symbolism (at one point she pushes a jar of honey – the family kept bees – on to the floor representing her shattered life), but its story of a family recovering from tragedy – including Noah’s feeling of guilt for taking his mother up the tower –and is believably told without melodrama or sentimentality and, aided greatly but the beautiful Australian scenery has both charm and inspiration with a wide appeal, while the performances, which include Jacqi Weaver as Sam’s mother, are solid throughout. Although often upstaged by the various birds playing Penguin who have an endearing cheeky charm as they squawk and totter round the house, bonding with one of the boys’ raggy dolls and snuggling up to Sam (which actually happened),Watts is especially good as the woman who goes from the depths of despair to finding meaning in her new life, eventually persuaded to take up kayaking and, as the end credits tell us, going on to represent Australia in the para canoeing and para surfing world championships and winning gold in 2018 and 2020 at the World Para Surfing Championships. (Netflix)
Persian Lessons (15)
Disqualified as the Belarusian entry for the Oscars perhaps, but, released to coincide with Holocaust Memorial Day, Ukrainian director Vadim Perelman delivers a strong drama, apparently inspired by true events, that often plays like a black farce. Set in France, 1942, having swapped half his sandwich for a French-Farsi book of Persian folk tales with a fellow Jew picked up by SS, when the others are executed, Belgian rabbi’s son Gilles (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart) pleads that he’s not Jewish but Persian. Fortuitously, the concentration camp’s volatile head cook, Klaus Koch (Lars Eidinger), is desperate to find someone to teach him Farsi lessons as he plans to move to Teheran and open a restaurant after the war. And so it is that Gilles, renaming himself Reza, finds himself at the transit camp, working in the kitchens and, since he speak a word of Farsi, having to invent – and more importantly memorise – a gibberish language for his sessions with Koch.
However, while he may have persuaded Koch that he’s the real thing, Max (Jonas May), one of the soldiers who brought him in, isn’t convinced and determines to see him killed. All of which is played out against a bizarre romantic triangle and personal vindictiveness involving him and two of the female Nazi guards.
Although never descending into the mawkishness of Life is Beautiful, there’s a strange ambiguity of tone that doesn’t shrink from portraying the horrors or, in scenes of the guards flirting or singing while systematically involved in genocide, underlining the banality of evil, but also, through the character of Koch, as it reveals his backstory and he constantly saves Gilles from death, showing empathy and a certain humanity (although there’s a wryly amusing pay-off to his learning ‘Farsi’).
To remember the words he invents, some 600 in six months, enabling he and Koch to converse in his invented language, Gilles adapts the names of those who pass through the camp. With all records burnt by the fleeing Nazis, it’s something that delivers the film’s closing and most sobering moment. (Amazon Prime, CHILI, Google Play, iTunes, Rakuten, Sky Store, TalkTalk)
Pieces Of A Woman (15)
The English language debut of Hungarian director Kórnel Mundruczó and screenwriter Kata Wéber, who share joint credit, this is a sober melodrama which, told in chapters, each some months apart, makes effective visually metaphorical use of a Boston bridge gradually coming together even as the characters at the heart of the story grow ever apart.
They are rough round the edges but supportive white collar construction worker Sean (Shia LaBeouf) and, from a privileged background, more refined wife Martha (The Crown’s Vanessa Kirby) who, as the film opens are expecting the birth of their first child, a daughter, Martha having decided on a homebirth. It then proceeds through a grimly realistic twenty-three minute unbroken take that captures both the agony and the elation as Martha goes into labour and their elected midwife tied up elsewhere, a substitute, Eva (Molly Parker) arrives and, while at one point telling Sean, to call 911 when the baby seems in distress, eventually delivers their daughter. But then tragedy strikes.
The rest of the film follows the subsequent effects on the marriage, she seemingly in a daze with her emotions shuts down, her sense of identity lost, he, a former addict, slowly falling apart. Matters are not helped by Martha’s imperious domineering Holocaust survivor mother (Ellen Burstyn) who, although she’s never liked Sean, when Martha declares she intends to donate the baby’s body to science (a reaction again the misspelling of Yvette on the gravestone), manipulates him in order to bring sue Eva and bring a court case against her for negligence, the trial providing the film’s last act. Sexually frustrated at home, Sean has an affair with their lawyer (Sarah Snook), who also happen to be Martha’s cousin.
All the performances, which also include Iliza Shlesinger and Benny Safdie as Martha’s sister and car salesman brother-in-law, are strong but it’s Burstyn and an intensely committed Kirby who deliver the masterclass, each with their own spotlight tour de force mother-daughter confrontational moment of which Oscar contender clips are made, the line “if you’d done it my way, you’d be holding your baby in your arms right now” hitting like a hammer blow of insensitivity.
A film about loss, grief and what it can do to people, but, finally, as the bridge is completed, about crossing divides and making connections even if the healing also comes at a cost, one which, the film suggests, would eventually have been paid regardless. The symbolism, the bridge, Martha’s neglected houseplants, her obsession with apples and an attempt (a bit Earth mother) to germinate pips, is a tad overly in your face, but, and despite a contrived dinner part discussion about The White Stripes and an unnecessary tagged on coda to send audiences off on an up note, this if you’ve a taste for Cassavetes or Bergman, this will run sandpaper across your nerves. (Netflix)
While it adopts some of father David’s body-horror tropes, writer-directorBrandon Cronenberg’s second feature is resolutely unique and equally resolutely brutal and horrific. As it begins, we see an African-American woman insert an electrode into her skull and then proceed to a nightclub where, dressed as one of the staff she slashes the throat of one of the customers, then places a gun in her mouth, saying ‘pull me out’. However, she doesn’t pull the trigger and is, instead, cut down in a hail of police bullets. Cut, then, to a secret installation where a woman lying on some sort of hi-tech platform is brought back to her reality. This is Tasya Vos (Andrea Riseborough), a contract killer for an organisation which has found a way to implant her consciousness into the bodies of others, using them to carry out the hit and, ostensibly, committing suicide.
Debriefed by her handler, Girda (Jennifer Jason Leigh), to ensure she’s fully returned to her actual self and is in control again, it’s clear she has some domestic issues, separated from her husband Michael and their 7-year-old son, and that this is having some sort of effect on her ability to fully focus. Something that comes to the fore on her next assignment when she takes over the body of Colin (Christopher Abbott), who’s about to marry Ava (Tuppence Middleton) the daughter of his wealthy obnoxious cokehead employer (Sean Bean), who uses his workers to date-mine people’s webcams, the plan being to have him murder them both some the stepson can inherit and then Girda can blackmail him. Having carefully studied his mannerisms and speech patterns, to the extent of successfully fooling both Ava and Reeta (Kaniehtiio Horn) her friend who he’s also slept with, Vos prepares to carry out the kill, using Colin’s body. Except, working to a three day deadline, she finds herself suffering mental blips (depicted with flashing strobe sequences) as she struggles to wake up and he begins to reassert his consciousness until it’s not entirely clear who is controlling and things get increasingly out of hand as it moves to a shocking bloody climax that involves not only the intended victims but her own family.
Exploring the concept of the killer within and questions of self-identity (Vos is seen rehearsing her own personality before visiting her estranged husband) in a violently graphic manner (stab wound close-ups, teeth being yanked out of bleeding mouths, bodies savagely mutilated), visual effects (bodies dissolving into each other), drenched in blues and reds and anchored by intense performances from both Riseborough and Abbot (essentially playing two characters), this may not always be easy to follow but it’s transfixingly compelling. (Amazon Prime, BFI Player, Curzon Home Cinema, iTunes, Sky, Virgin Media)
The Prom (12)
It may not have any especially memorable songs, but, directed by Ryan Murphy, there’s no denying the bouncing off the walls energy that drives this adaptation of the cheesy 2018 Broadway musical in which four faded theatre stars set out to raise their profile by appointing themselves celebrity champions of out lesbian Indiana high schooler Emma (Jo Ellen Pellman), whose declaration that she wants to take her girlfriend to prom, leads the PTA, headed up by the uptight Mrs. Greene (Kerry Washington), to cancel the whole event rather than be accused of homophobia by banning her. What she doesn’t know, of course, is that her daughter, Alyssa (Ariana DeBose), is Emma’s secret lover.
All of which comes to the attention of Broadway diva Dee Dee (Meryl Streep) and her self-absorbed gay co-star Barry (James Cordon) whose latest turkey, Eleanor, based on FR Roosevelt’s crusading wife, has just closed on opening night. Seeing a publicity stunt opportunity to boost their credibility (“We’re gonna help that little lesbian, whether she likes it or not!” sings Barry), they, along with struggling Broadway queen Trent (Andrew Rannells) and perennial chorus girl Angie (Nicole Kidman), board the bus and head to Indiana, sweeping into James Madison High School to declare they’ve come to save the day, Dee Dee bursting into the self-delusional It’s Not About Me.
Knowingly old-fashioned while flying the LGBTQ lag, it revels in swishing through the clichés and its fish out of water narrative (the pampered stars find themselves checked into a hotel with, gasp, no spa, but, like Hairspray, it also has a political thrust, pertinently about a divided America, while at the same time satirising the liberal message movies that itself represents.
About a third in, the plot direction shifts as, while the prom is reinstated (Barry demanding to dress Emma), Mrs Green and her school council cohorts have a devious plan B, one that provides the film with one of its several piercingly emotional moments as it moves into its be true to who you are/tolerance phase, including a touching moment for Barry who didn’t stay at home to be thrown out by his parents when he came out.
The cast, which includes Keegan-Michael Key as the school principal who, a major fan of Dee Dee, provides another romantic interest/redemptive arc, are clearly having a whale of a time, the headliners each getting with their own spotlight turn, notably Rannells telling Emma’s clean-cut, holier-than-thou classmates they can’t cherry pick which parts of the Bible to follow while, otherwise playing things understated, Kidman explodes with her solo showcase Zazz. Unashamedly high camp, Streep and Cordon playing to the hilt, it’s a prom date you don’t want to stand up. (Netflix)
Project Power (15)
Variously borrowing ideas and images from, among others, Limitless, Hourman, Captain America, Wolverine and The Hulk, directors Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost take a step up from the Catfish documentary, the third and fourth Paranormal films, and the thrillers Nerve and Viral to tackle the superpowers genre. Set in New Orleans, sporting the No. 37 jersey of New Orleans Saints legend Steve Gleason, maverick local cop Frank (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is unofficially working with streetsmart smalltime schoolgirl dealer and aspirant rapper Robin (Dominique Fishback) to clean up the city from the bigger dealers who are peddling a pill that can give you superpowers, albeit for just five minutes and not always in a good way. He’s looking to nail the man he thinks is the major supplier, Art (Jamie Foxx) although, in fact, he’s a former special forces soldier who, plagued with PTSD flashbacks, became a lab rat for the original Project Power and is now searching for the people who kidnapped his daughter Tracy (Kyanna Simone Simpson) to harvest her DNA with the aim of producing a more stable, permanent version of the pill. Needless to say, at some point they starting with rather than against each other. Although illegal, and without his superior’s (Courtney B. Vance) knowledge, the savvy Frank also takes the pills to carry out his duties, giving him bulletproof skin.
Written by Mattson Tomlin, currently working on the next Batman, it has a suitably dystopian look with it wet, neon lit nighttime streets while he and the directors balance some highly effective comic book-style action sequences with psychological and emotional beats and, unusually for such films, there’s no central bad guy as such, just those looking to make a killing from the drug, like sleazy middleman Biggie (Rodrigo Santoro) and the clandestine organisation headed up by Gardner (Amy Landecker), the scientist who first experimented on Art, making this more a film about the war on drugs than some megalomaniac with world domination aspirations.
It makes some political points along the way (“You’re young. You’re Black. You’re a woman. The system is designed to swallow you whole” Art tells Robin) and there’s a few plot holes and undeveloped threads here and there, but climaxing in an all-out confrontation aboard a cargo ship with powered up henchmen this delivers with a charge that lasts for far more than five minutes. (Netflix)
Based on a graphic novel by Lauren Redniss, director Marjane Satrapi charts the story of Polish scientist Maria Sklodowska, better known after her marriage as Marie Curie, the woman who, along with her husband Pierre (Sam Riley), created radium, a discovery that, although it was initially only offered to her husband, would earn her the Nobel Prize (twice, the only person to do so) and eventually be used as both a treatment for cancer and for the bombs that fell on Hiroshima (cue serene city and Japanese boy pointing to something falling from the sky), and, of course, resulting in the Chernobyl disaster.
The film opens in 1934 Paris with Curie dying of radiation poisoning (she did, after all, sleep with a phial in her bed) and her story is then told in flashback, detailing her dedication to the facts after the death of her mother, spending a lengthy period reclusive and refusing to speak, her early research days in 1890’s Paris as she clashed with the pompous sexist members of the Academy, her support from Pierre who became both her professional and, leaving his wife, personal partner (his amusing pick up line here “Are you interested in microbiology?”), and, following his death under a horse’s hooves, her turning away from pragmatism to the mysticism he espoused.
Through all this, Rosamund Pike delivers a consummate and suitably prickly performance as the blunt but often self-doubting Curie, whether in flashes of anger at the snobbish French scientific community or in the hurt and defiance when, a widow with two children (daughter Irene – Anna Taylor-Joy, who herself won a Nobel for developing artificial radioactivity), she takes up an affair with her late husband’s married student Paul Langevin (Aneurin Barnard), and Paris –not to mention his wife, condemn her as a Polish whore. And yet, for all its feminist agenda, somehow the film is easier to admire than enjoy, the flashforward almost psychedelic sequences showing how her discovery was used disrupting the flow (a scene where the film imagines her kissing a dying Chernobyl fireman on the head seems particularly crass) and further muddying the debate about the positive and negative aspects of radiation.
There’s some nice touches, such as Marie grinding 40 tons of uraninite ore and how private entrepreneurs looked to cash in on this new discovery by adding it to toothpaste, chocolate, face cream and, talking of overegging the pudding, cigarettes, until users started coughing blood, but the plodding by the numbers narrative and dialogue like “being surrounded by death and radiation have brought me very little happiness” do it few favours. (Amazon Prime)
A Rainy Day in New York (12)
Arriving on streaming several months after its DVD appearance, originally released in 2019, his 49t film, this isn’t vintage Woody Allen but, set over one rainy day, even so there’s enough of his early years at work to make it an enjoyable engaging and amusing affair. The Allen stand-in here is Timothée Chalomet as Gatsby Welles, the clever if eccentric son of wealthy New York parents who, though a student at Yardley College, spends more of his time as a successful gambler.
His girlfriend is Ashleigh Enright (a wonderful bubbling ingénue turn by Elle Fanning),a journalist major who lands an interview for the campus newspaper with leading indie filmmaker Roland Pollard (Liev Schrieber), necessitating her travelling to Manhattan, Gatsby tagging along for what he intends as a romantic weekend, at the same time trying to avoid his parents’ gala. Cooling his heels while the interview extends far beyond the initial plan, he’s inveigled by an old schoolfriend to stand-in for a small part in the film he’s shooting, a scene that entails him kissing Chan Tyrell (Selena Gomez), the down-to-earth younger sister of a former girlfriend. At this point, it’s fairly clear where the film’s going, as he and Chan hang out more and more while Ashleigh finds herself further entangled with Pollard, who is having a creative crisis, and his screenwriter Ted Davidoff (Jude Law) and his marital problems. She also hooks up with film star Francisco Vega (Diego Luna), and is tagged by the media as his latest lover, Gatsby, meanwhile, hiring an escort to impersonate her at the gala. All of which leads to a series of family revelations that add further to the film’s farcical nature before winding up exactly as you imagined in a perfect 50s Hollywood kiss.
Frothy and bittersweet and populated with some lovely performances and a warm glow of nostalgia even if it is set in a world of cell phones, this is well worth splashing out on. (Amazon Prime)
Unenthusiastically directed by Ben Wheatley, this is an good-looking but overwrought, remake of the Daphne DuMaurier gothic horror novel (and Hitchcock classic) in which a young unnamed women (Lily James) is wooed and wed by a whirlwind romance in Monte Carlo with widower Maxim de Winter (Armie Hammer). Moving into Manderley, her new husband’s imposing family estate on a windswept English coast, she finds herself in a battle of wills with his sinister housekeeper Mrs. Danvers (Kristin Scott Thomas), who’s unhealthily obsessed with keeping the legacy of the first Mrs De Winter, Rebecca alive, on top of which her husband’s manner changes as questions concerning his wife’s death begin to surface. Things build to a climax when deWinter’s suspected of murdering his wife, but then the discovery of a decomposed corpse in a sunken boat throws a whole new mystery up in the air.
Keeley Hawes is badly underused as De Winter’s sister, Beatrice Lacy, and twist of Maxim’s confession to his wife regarding Rebecca’s true nature and her murder when she claimed to be pregnant by her lover and cousin Jack (a slimy Sam Riley) jars given the subsequent revelations and the tidily wrapped up inquest verdict where forensics seem to play no part, and the new addition of Danvers’ fate is risibly melodramatic, all of which confirms screenwriter Jane Goldman’s dream of going to Manderley again should have been left as just that. (Netflix)
A female-driven Australian art-house psychological haunted house horror from first time Japanese Australian director and co-writer Natalie Erika James, set at Christmas, this demands patience as it slowly unfurls to a backdrop of claustrophobic atmospheric visuals, unsettling sounds and nerve-scraping music, but the end result pays off.
First seen in an overflowing bath in her home in a rural wooded area of Victoria, octogenarian Edna (Robyn Nevin) goes downstairs, naked, and disappears from the house. Arriving from Melbourne, her daughter Kay (Emily Mortimer) reports her missing, mentioning she’s been increasingly suffering from memory lapses. A police search reveals nothing, although a conversation with the father of Down syndrome boy (Chris Bunton) who used to visit the old woman suggests something happened to end the friendship. Kay’s daughter Sam (Bella Heathcote) remains at the house, her mother’s former bedroom a veritable museum of family history, where Post-it notes, written by Edna saying things like “Don’t follow it” add to the mystery.
Then, out of nowhere, her grandmother returns, either oblivious or refusing to say where she’s been, in good health but with a strange black bruise on her chest and prone to sleepwalking and talking to unseen figures. With the irascible, spiky Edna’s erratic moods sometimes becoming suddenly violent, it’s clear that there’s a tense relationship between the three generations as the film slowly enters more surreal territory with nightmares about a dilapidated cottage on the grounds, inherited from a disturbed great-grandfather, though a stained-glass window was rescued and built into the house’s front door, the increasing spread of mould and decomposition and, as the house takes on a sinister life of its own, Sam finding herself trapped inside rooms within rooms (and memories) behind walls. Grounded in the three riveting lead performances, the psychological and physical horrors build as the house increasingly becomes a representation of Edna’s deteriorating mental state and a manifest of the fears within Kay and Sam of following the same path before it climaxes with a final scene that is simultaneously chillingly horrific and devastatingly tender. (BFI Player)
The Rental (15)
The directorial debut of James Franco’s baby brother Dave starts out well. To celebrate acquiring seed money for his company, Charlie (Dan Stevens) rents a secluded Oregon clifftop villa for the weekend as a treat for himself, wife Michelle (Alison Brie), underachieving ex-con brother Josh (Jeremy Allen White), and his Middle Eastern heritage girlfriend Mina (Sheila Vand), who’s also Charlie’s business partner. After a somewhat brusque encounter with the caretaker, Taylor (Toby Huss), who does little to disguise his racist attitudes, they settle down to enjoy the stay with some booze, drugs, walks and a hot tub. By the time of the second night there will have been cheating sex in the shower, the discovery of hidden cameras, a missing dog and a dead body in the bath.
Up until this point, the film does a good job of teasing out the relationships between the four characters, throwing in small but effective twists, such as the fact that at least one of them has kept secrets from their other half, and building the suspense once the cameras are discovered, with the threat that exposure of the footage presents. But then the screenplay reverts to tired horror clichés with the homicidal maniac in a mask appearing out of the mist carrying a hammer and, while there a nice touch in watching the never fully seen killer dismantling his surveillance, the film just expires along with its cast, the coda setting up a repeat scenario in another home feeling less like setting up a sequel and more that Franco had no idea how to end it. (Amazon Prime)
Rocks (newcomer Bukky Bakray) is a teenage British-Nigerian East London schoolgirl with a strong multi-ethnic support circle of friends, among them Sumaya (Kosar Ali) Agnes (Ruby Stokes), Yawa (Afi Okaidja), Khadijah (Tawheda Begum) and Sabina (Anastasia Dymitrow).
She certainly needs them when, suffering from depression and medication issues, not for the first time, her widowed mother (Layo-Christina Akinlude) takes off leaving her and seven-year-old kid brother Emmanuel (D’angelou Osei Kissiedu) to fend for themselves. Which, of course, means Rocks has to prevent the authorities finding out so they’re not taken into care and split up, while carrying on as if everything’s normal.
Directed by Sarah Gavron, co-written by Theresa Ikoko and Claire Wilson and developed in workshops, unfolding over the course of a week it has a natural, fluid feel in which the friendships that are a vital part of the story are organic rather than scripted, with Bakray anchoring the film as a force of nature. (Netflix)
Saint Frances (15)
“I’m not an impressive person,” says directionless thirty-something Bridget towards the end of first time director Alex Thompson’s engaging character study, but that’s not something you could say about screenwriter and star Kelly O’Sullivan who shines in both capacities.
Having dropped out of her creative writing course, Bridget now works as a ‘server’, striking up a relationship with a fellow, but much younger, restaurant worker, Jace (Max Lipchitz), she meets at a party. They have sex in one of several matter of fact scenes that involve some messy bloody sheets and underwear, initially from her period and later as the aftermath of an abortion following an accidental pregnancy.
This, however, is not the film’s core relationship. That’s between Bridget and precocious 6-year-old Frances (Ramona Edith-Williams), the daughter of affluent mixed-race liberal Chicago lesbian parents Maya (Charin Alvarez) and Annie (Lily Mojekwu), to whom, after a previous rejection, she becomes nanny as the women juggle long work hours and Maya’s postpartum depression following the birth of Frances’ baby brother.
In many ways, the film follows a familiar narrative of an emotionally adrift adult learning to become responsible, grounded and feel self-worth through their relationship with a child wise beyond their years, but O’Sullivan’s script makes it feel fresh, the subplots involving her relationship with the impossibly sweet Jace (who keeps an emotional journal of feelings she refuses to address), an affair with Frances’ older guitar tutor, Maya’s depression and the resulting strain on the marriage all adding emotional depth as the film explores what being a woman and the different experiences involved can entail.
O’Sullivan is a delight and is perfectly matched with Edith-Williams who, in her early attempts to outsmart her inexperienced nanny and the bond that eventually grows, proves a natural screen presence which, compounded by the strong supporting cast, make this a small but charming delight. (Amazon Prime)
Writing and directing a film about his own youthful life story in the late 70s/early 80s as he took the first tentative steps on a career as a music promoter and manager (he would go on to discover and manage Placebo), Dave McLean might have been advised to have someone on hand to give things a touch more focus. Living in Dundee, the young Davie (Conor Berry) is a bit of a cocky chancer whose promising future as a footballer is cut short when the angry boyfriend of the woman who took him back to her place for a drunken shag breaks his leg. However, in hospital he starts flirting with his Irish nurse, Shona (a forgettable Tara Lee) to impress her and get a date, tells her he’s running a disco. Which means that he needs his likely lad best mate Scott (Sean Berry) and married soccer coach John (Grant Robert Keelan) to help with the facilities and the finance.
With the disco proving a success, Davie seen branching out and putting on rising Scottish bands like Simple Minds and the Skids. However, bigger bands and bigger crowds need bigger venues, which is where the local godfather, who controls the circuit, insists on getting involved and taking a sizeable cut. All of which builds up to their biggest booking, emergent standard bearers of the New Wave of British Metal, Iron Maiden for a 1979 gig at Caird Hall. Davie, however, is still a bit wet behind the ears when it comes to such mysteries as riders and support acts.
McLean delivers all this with energy and enthusiasm, even if he does take some obvious cues, notably the fast paced scenes and sudden freeze frames, from Trainspotting, but his screen persona aside, the characters tend to all rather one dimensional while the narrative ricochets along with very little in the way of cohesion or, at times, coherence. Undeniably fun it may be, but for the real thing, then both Sing Street and Good Vibrations, based on the life of Belfast’s Terri Hooley should be at the top of your list. (Amazon Prime, CHILI, Curzon Home Cinema, Google Play, iTunes. Rakuten, Sky Store, TalkTalk TV, Virgin Movies)
The Secret Garden (PG)
The seventh big screen adaptation of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s 1911 English children’s literature classic, screenwriter Jack Thorne (who adapted His Dark Materials) expanding the backstory and delivers a more dramatic climax, but this still feels a bit of a charmless slog, the characters overshadowed by the visual effects, and the performances often feeling like a throwback to the days of the Children’s Film Foundation.
Opening with a prologue set in India on the eve of partition, her parents dead and abandoned by the servants, 10-year-old Mary Lennox (Dixie Egerickx, recently seen in Summerland) finds herself shipped off to England become the ward of her hunchback uncle, Archibald Craven (Colin Firth with a very annoying floppy fringe), the cold, no-nonsense widower of her mother’s sister, at Misselthwaite Manor, is brooding estate on the Yorkshire Moors, and under the strict supervision of joyless housekeeper Mrs. Medlock (Julie Walters).
Initially something of a brat with a sense of entitlement, Mary eventually makes friend with the ethnic housemaid Martha (Isis Davis) and, while playing outdoors, encounters a Yorkshire terrier she names Jemimah, and discovers a hidden garden behind overgrown walls. In turn, she chums up with Martha’s wild-haired younger brother, Dickon (Amir Wilson), who she takes into the garden where a friendly robin leads her to the location of a hidden key.
Meanwhile, ignoring instructions to remain in her part of the house, she’s also discovered Colin (Edan Hayhurst), her equally spoiled and bossy cousin who has been confined to bed by his father, who rarely visits him, and is apparently unable to walk on account of some genetic spinal condition. Suffice to say, they gradually become friend and she and Dickon secretly wheel him out of the house into the garden, where its restorative powers do their business.
The garden of course, has its own secret, as this was the favourite spot for the two sisters and their youngsters, and where Colin’s mother died, his grief-struck fathers sealing it up and subsequently locking way any memories of his wife, his son included.
A film about grief, healing, friendship, family and the power of nature, it’s visually strikingly impressive and colourful, the William Morris-style floral design of the wallpaper in Mary’s shadowy room (which secretly adjoins that of her late aunt) patently foreshadowing the real thing later and also prompting one of several, rather jarring, flights into her imagination. The introduction of the ghosts of both Colin’s mother Grace (Jemma Powell) and her sister Alice (Maeve Dermody), who also figures ignoring her daughter in several flashbacks does little to enhance to narrative or evoke the emotions intended.
Egerickx is engagingly energetic and charismatic, even when being petulantly privileged, so it’s unfortunate her fellow child actors are so flat and dull, while Walters rarely registers as more than a dour cameo and Firth, despite saving grace final moment of epiphany, is all one note and lacking his usual spark. Nice flowers though. (Sky)
Directed by Pete Docter, this is up there with the very best of Pixar’s animation, a film which, like Inside Out and Up, offers different levels for both children and adult audiences with its cocktail of absorbing narrative, physical comedy, emotional depth and profound intelligence as it addresses, basically, the meaning of life.
Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx) is a bespectacled, New York middle-school music teacher with dreams of being a jazz piano player like his father, much to the disapproval of his seamstress mother who just wants him to get a job with security. As fate would have it, both opportunities come on the same day. He’s awarded a full time post at school and, thanks to an old pupil, also gets to audition tinkling the ivories for jazz saxophonist star Dorothea Williams (Angela Bassett). She offers him a place with her quartet for that night’s jazz club show, but, as he’s walking home, high on happiness, he falls down a manhole and finds himself a blue blob no nose soul on, quite literally, a stairway to heaven, although here referred to as the Great Beyond. It’s an inter-dimensional realm managed by shape shifting incorporeal beings which look like that 2-dimensional Cubic drawings and are called Jerry (variously voiced by, among others, Alice Braga, Wes Studi and Richard Ayoade), where as yet unborn souls are assigned personality traits at the You Seminar before earning their spark, or purpose, that will give them a pass to begin a life on Earth.
Mistakenly assumed to be a mentor, Joe’s assigned to 22 (Tina Fey), a troublesome soul in waiting with a voice “that annoys people “who, despite the best efforts of Mother Teresa, Copernicus and Gandhi, has no desire to be born at all or transition to Earth. However, with Joe’s body in a coma in hospital, he’s determined to return and, with the help of a Moonwind (Graham Norton), an astral plane pirate captain soul whose human body is aged hippy guru sign spinner on Earth, so he does, except, 22 accidentally dragged along, Joe ends up in the body of Mr. Mittens, the therapy cat, and 22 in his. Now, 22 discovering living isn’t as terrible as she’d imagined, the reluctant buddies must embark on an existential fish-out-of-water quest to switch their souls before 7pm so he can play the gig, but, meanwhile, finding himself one short, soul counter Jerry (Rachel House) is on Joe’s trail to fulfil his quota.
Echoing elements of A Matter of Life and Death, What Dreams May Come as well as Pixar’s own Wreck It Ralph, it’s a spellbinding film, funny and moving by turn, filled with such wonderful set pieces as 22 as Joe’s visit to a barbershop which speaks about finding happiness in what you do even it wasn’t what you original dream and how obsession can cut you off from having a life.
Rich with a seamlessly integrated jazz score (Joe’s talent for improvisation serving him well away from the piano too), it’s as vivid in detail and colour as it is profound in its philosophising on what constitutes the essence of out very soul as well as pointed observations such as “You can’t crush a soul here. That’s what life on Earth is for!” In a virtual Disney heresy, as Joe comes to learn his true talent might be as a teacher not a musician, it also says that, sometimes, achieving your dream might not be all you hoped for. But that, as Soul so poignantly observes, is what life is all about. (Disney +)
The Spongebob Movie – Sponge On The Run (U)
Bypassing cinemas to go straight to streaming and download platforms, the third Squarepants movie finds the irrepressible SpongeBob (Tim Kenny) living happily in Bikini Bottom with his pet snail Gary, hanging out with bozo starfish pal Patrick (Bill Fagerbakke) and working alongside grumpy octopus neighbour Squidward (Rodger Bumpass), serving up crab patties for Mr Krabs (Clancy Brown) and the Krusty Krab.
However, tyrannical ocean ruler Poseidon (Matt Berry), who live in the garish Lost City of Atlantic City, needs snail slime to keep his green skin soft and supple – and he’s just used up his last one. So, looking to finally get his hands on Mr Krab’s secret formula and realising SpongeBob is the cause of all his failures, Plankton (Mr. Lawrence) snailnaps Gary, prompting SpongeBob and Patrick to set off to find him in a car driven by cantankerously self-willed robot invented by squirrel Sandy Cheeks (Carolyn Lawrence), winding up with them as Poseidon’s prisoners and facing public spectacle execution. Which, of course, is when their friends pile in to the rescue.
Featuring assorted flashbacks recounting how the friends all first met each other. like the previous films it mixes animation with live action cameos, here Snoop Dog who gets to do his thing during a Wild West dream sequence zombie dance routine in a cowboy saloon run by El Diablo (Danny Trejo) and an inspired appearance by Keanu Reeves dispensing generally unheeded wisdom and advice as Sage from inside a tumbling tumbleweed.
Exploding with colour, it is, of course, incredibly silly, but also very funny and packed with sly throwaway jokes with everyone (the voice cast also includes Awkwafina) clearly having a great time and, of course, an upbeat message about the importance of friends and finding our inner courage, entertaining the kiddies while ensuring chuckles for the grown-ups too. (Netflix).
Terrible on oh so many levels, Marc Bolan looking like Joe Pesci in a bad wig just for starters, writer-director Gabriel Range’s embarrassingly awful biopic imagines what might have happened (and to be fair a title caption states ‘What follows is (mostly) fiction’) when David Bowie (Johnny Flynn looking remotely nothing like him), struggling to establish himself following a string of flops in the wake of Space Oddity (the film opens with him spinning in a red space suit in clunky homage to 2001: A Space Odyssey), head out on a promotional tour of America to promote The Man Who Sold The World.
Understandably, Bowie’s estate refused the use of any of his music, so the film contrives to have Bowie (by turns an insecure effeminate wimp and a self-absorbed prat) unable to actually perform because of the lack of a visa. Instead, he’s taken under the wing of bullshit peddling – but a genuine believer, unlike the rest of the label – Mercury Records publicist Ron Oberman (Marc Maron), who promises him gigs (singing things like Brel covers in a lobby to a vacuum salesmen convention) and interviews (including a career-making one with Rolling Stone), only for his charge to self-sabotage them all with his attitude. Meanwhile, back home, wife Angie (Jena Malone) is being curt on the phone calls, seething at not living the pop superstar life she signed up for.
Running through the film are flashbacks to Bowie’s relationship with his older brother, Terry Jones ((Derek Moran), who suffered from schizophrenia, suggesting David was tormented by the thought that he might be going the same way. This makes for an interesting thread, only to be undermined by having Terry declare, in case audiences had missed the point, that the song All The Madmen was about them and in ascribing Bowie’s creation of Ziggy Stardust (and the Spiders From Mars) as the result of both the American trip and seeing Terry in acting out therapy adopting a different persona (Anthony Newley), as it happens. Historically, of course, it was Hunky Dory that followed the American visit, and featured songs dedicated to Andy Warhol (Bowie visits the Factory to pose but Warhol’s never seen), Dylan and Lou Reed (Bowie hangs out after a Velvets gig singing his praises only to be later told he was talking to Doug Yule), with the Ziggy album (which was to prove his big break) following a year later.
It ends on Jan 29, 1972, at Friar’s Aylesbury with a red-haired Bowie as the announcer welcomes Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars in “their first performance on Planet Earth” albeit the band weren’t yet named that (the poster billed them as His Musicians, but (you want to believe Mick Ronson’s response to his stage costume is true), ” only to have Flynn launch into a cover of The Yardbirds’ I Wish You Would, a song they never played in the set, actually opening with Biff Rose’s Fill Your Heart. To paraphrase one of Flynn’s lines, “A rock star biopic or one impersonating a rock star biopic, what’s the difference?” The answer is pretty obvious. (Amazon Prime, CHILI, Curzon Home Cinema, Google Play, iTunes, Rakuten, Sky Store, TalkTalk TV, Virgin Movies)
One of the upsides of social distancing and lockdown isolation is that you can cry your eyes out over this soft-centred wartime drama without anyone knowing. Operating a flashback within a flashback structure, it opens in 1975 with the elderly Alice Lamb (Penelope Wilton) giving an earful to a couple of kids whose charity collecting has interrupted her bashing way on the typewriter. Cut to the younger Alice (Gemma Arterton) living in isolation in a small secluded coastal cottage in wartime Kent where she’s working on her latest scientific book providing rationale scientific explanations for mystical and mythical phenomena, her latest being the phenomenon of “floating islands”. The film title itself comes from the pagan concept of the afterlife.
A prickly loner who callously buys chocolate in front of a child whose mother doesn’t have enough coupons, leading the girl to think it’s for her, she’s understandably not much liked by the villagers, the local boys forever dumping twigs through her letterbox and calling her a witch. So, she’s not best pleased when she discovers she’s been landed with a London evacuee, the endearing if overly boisterous Frank (Lucas Bond), whose dad’s in the RAF and whose mother works for the Ministry, reluctantly agreeing to have him for a week while another placement is found.
Naturally, the film being what it is, as the days pass, she finds herself thawing towards him, explain her research and indulging his love of chips. Frank also becomes friends with spiky, self-styled maverick tomboy classmate Edie (upcoming The Secret Garden star Dixie Egerickx).
At this point the film starts flashing back to the 1920s where we learn that Alice struck up a lesbian interracial love affair with Vera (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), although, given the times, social attitudes and Vera’s maternal desires, it’s doomed not to last, hence explaining Alice’s current emotional barricades. Under his probing, when she admits her old relationship to Frank, he’s perfectly – if somewhat unbelievably – open-mindedly accepting of it all, deepening her feelings towards him.
Naturally, this being war, at some point there’ll be that dreaded news and the dilemma of how to break it, setting up the third act’s massive melodramatic revelation (though, if you pay close attention you can see it coming) and emotional payoff before returning to where it started.
Written and directed by Jessica Swale making her feature debut, it’s beautifully shot and finely acted by Arterton and Bond, Tom Courtney providing a lovely turn as the local schoolmaster having to cope with Alice’s acerbic nature, the screenplay gently addressing themes of parenting and female independence, albeit from somewhat contemporary perspective. Stock up on the tissues. (Amazon Prime; iTunes, Sky )
Sylvie’s Love (12)
An affectionate (but coloured-led) tribute to 50s and 60s studio romances, writer-director Eugene Ashe delivers a heartwarming story of love surviving a series of trials and tribulations set predominantly in New York in 1957. It opens in 1962 with Sylvie (Tessa Thompson) waiting outside a Nancy Wilson concert for a friend when who should appear but Robert Holloway (Nnamdi Asomugha), an old flame, at which point the film flashes back to summer 1957 with the emergence of rock and roll, as represented by Bill Haley, about to depose jazz as America’s favourite music. Here, Sylvie Johnson is working at her father’s Harlem record shop, largely so she can watch TV, which her well-to-do etiquette teacher mother (Erica Gimbel) won’t allow at home, dreaming of becoming a TV show producer. Seeing a staff wanted sign in the window, in comes Robert, a saxophonist in a rising jazz quartet, who purchases a Thelonius Monk album and, after some playful banter, is hired by her father, himself a former saxman.
Even though she’s engaged, her fiancé off fighting in the Korean War, drawn together initially by a shared love of jazz and her wide knowledge of music, it’s the start of a lengthy romance that begins with a kiss at her front door after she attends one of the band’s shows and, despite her protestation that it was just a one-off, grows deeper as, over the following six years, she’s hired as the assistant to a black female producer on her favourite cookery show, he and the band are taken on by a hustling English white manager (Jemima Kirke) who lands them a prestigious club residency which, in turns, earns them an offer to play in Paris. All of which variously bring out star-crossed lovers together and conspires to keep them apart through variously a series of misunderstanding and selfless sacrifices for each other’s happiness.
When we see Sylvie throwing up shortly after she and Robert first have sex, the reason is obvious, but she chooses to keep the truth from him, eventually marrying her wealthy fiancé, and it’s not until much later that her dying father tells Robert that he has a daughter. Meanwhile, her career on the up, Sylvie is forced to make a decision between being who she wants to be and what her husband expects of her.
None of this is given a melodramatic treatment and the rocky road to true love unfolds in a perhaps contrived but nevertheless believable manner, even if, when they eventually get together as the film returns to its opening, it feels like overdoing things when fate conspires against them yet again as Robert, his dreams of a Coltrane-like recording career of his own rebuffed, is apparently offered a sax playing job at Motown which would involve a move to Detroit.
Luminous in their individual moments, Thompson and Asmogha also have a wonderful chemistry in their scenes together while the film also features strong support work from Lance Reddick as Sylvie’s father, Aja Naomi King as her cousin Mona, and, albeit something of a cameo, Eva Longoria as vivacious musician’s wife Carmen. The screenplay also drops in some racial issues references, such as Sylvia’s husband getting a high paying ad exec job because his bigoted employer needs to fill a quota and Mona part of a campaign for voting rights in the South, but, like the film’s design and use of music, Technicolour and costume, this all feels organic rather than forced or overdone. A valentine retro romance with heart and soul, this is a must. (Amazon Prime)
Following on from Tenet, here’s another sci-fi thriller that plays with the idea of time, although this, directed by Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead, is slightly easier to follow. Fellow New Orleans overnight paramedics and best friends, Steve (Anthony Mackie) and Dennis (Jamie Dornan) find themselves attending a series of grisly incidents, overdoses and deaths, one of which involved a woman bitten by a snake that hasn’t been seen in the area of centuries and another with a man apparently stabbed with a pirate cutlass. Gradually, they link these with a new designer drug called Synchronic, the creator of which attempts to buy all the packets Steve’s just gathered from the local drug store and even sneaks into his apartment to steal and destroy the last batch in existence.
Deciding to experiment, Steve, who, unlike Dennis, has no family (but does have a tragic backstory that has made him an emotionally shut-off loner to all but his dog and Dennis), indulges his amateur physicist inclinations and discovers that, something to do with the pineal gland, taking Synchronic takes you back to the past, which, it is proposed, exists simultaneously with the present, in the very spot in which you happen to be at that moment. He also learns that he has a terminal brain tumour, which he keeps to himself, but, fortuitously, his pineal gland is nearer the surface meaning that, unlike the victims he’s seen, he physically goes back in time and is able to return (though dog lovers might want to skip one particular trip). This is a good thing because it seems that Dennis’s disaffected daughter Brianna (Ally Ioannides) has taken the drug, but, being a teenager with her pineal undeveloped, she’s stuck back wherever she went to. And so, without telling Dennis, Steve decides to use up his remaining stash to go back and find her.
Woven into all this are threads about friendship and family, Dennis and his wife (Katie Aselton), recently becoming new parents, are having self-loathing projection problems because of his hang-ups over getting old and feeling a failure as husband and father (cue subsequent confrontation between the two friends about taking what you have for granted), and the sacrifices made to sustain them.
Being a black man going into the past allows the film to touch on themes of racism, (Brianna’s stuck in some Confederacy apocalypse), but these are more about texture than focus as, after its mystery-building start, the film rattles along building the tension as it goes,
Mackie is both the more prominent character and the stronger performance, but everyone delivers and from the striking hallucinatory effects and cinematography to the message about living in the now, this is a very effective trip. (Amazon Prime, CHILI, Google Play, iTunes, Rakuten, TalkTalk TV, Sky Store)
The Trial of the Chicago 7 (15)
As in his screenplay for A Few Good Men, writer-director Aaron Sorkin delivers a powerful courtroom drama with his recreation of the 1969 trial of the seven protestors accused of inciting a riot against the Vietnam draft that proved to be one of the most infamous chapters in American legal history. While it does fictionalise some incidents, some of the seemingly most unlikely moments, such as the judge ordering a defendant to be bound and gagged or barring the testimony of the former Attorney General of the United States, are all taken from life.
When President Johnson order a doubling of the draft, from 17,000 to 35,000 per month, anti-war factions took to the streets in protest, planning to convene at and disrupt the Democratic National Convention in the summer of 1968 in Chicago. Among them were non-violence favouring Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne), leader of the Students for a Democratic Society; Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong) and Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen) from the Youth International Party (Yippies) and the older but equally committed David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch).
A year on from the Chicago Police and protesters violent clashing in and around Grant Park, the leaders, along with Lee Weiner (Noah Robbins), John Froines (Daniel Flaherty), Rennie Davis (Alex Sharp) Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), the national chairman of the Black Panther Party who had no actual connection to the others or involvement in the protest, and was only in Chicago to give a speech, were charged with conspiracy to cross lines with the intention of inciting riots.
Opening with a montage of historical events that take in the King and Kennedy assassinations, alternating between courtroom dramas, recreation of the protest and sessions at the home of liberal attorney William Kunstler (Mark Rylance) to plan strategy while rising legal star Richard Schultz (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) puts together the prosecution case, despite reservations as to whether there should even be a trial, the film gathers in power and indignation as District Judge Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella) conducts the courtroom as his personal fiefdom, walking roughshod over constitutional and legal rights, hammering home his clear prejudices and bias with a gavel and contempt of court orders in his contempt for the accused and their representatives as they, understandably, protest about his handling of the trial.
Michael Keaton puts in a late appearance as former Atty. General Ramsey Clark, whose testimony to the jury was refused by Hoffman, although the film does reveal what he would have said and while certain events rejigged in the timeline and there’s degree of dramatic licence, fuelled by commanding performances (a frizzy-haired Baron Cohen stealing the show – . “We’re not guilty because of who we are. “We’re guilty of what we believe” – and proving he’s more than a comedic actor) that fully engage you in proceedings even as Hoffman and Rubin play the courtroom farrago for laughs.
“This is the Academy Awards of protests,” says Weiner (Noah Robbins) as he takes his seat, “As far as I’m concerned, it’s an honour just to be nominated.” Come the actual Awards, it’s a fair bet many involved will be feeling the same way. (Netflix)
To Olivia (PG)
In November 1962, the year after James And The Giant Peach was published to almost deafening silence, Olivia Twenty (Darcey Ewart), the seven-year-old daughter of author Roald Dahl (Hugh Bonneville) and his American actress wife Patricia Neale (Keeley Hawes), and to whom it was dedicated, died of measles encephalitis, and it’s around that tragic event that director John Hays’ film, co-written with David Logan and Stephen Michael Shearer (who wrote Neale’s biography). pivots. Living in rural Buckinghamshire with their other children, five-year old ‘Tessa’ (an affecting Isabella Johnson) and toddler Theo, Dahl and Neale are understandably devastated. His reaction – part driven by feelings of guilt and frustration at his helplessness to save her – being to bundle away all of Olivia’s possessions into a trunk on the day of the funeral, avoiding speaking her name (he wrote an account of the tragedy that was only discovered after his own death, 28 years later), falling apart and becoming distant and snappy to both his wife and Tessa, retreating to his writing shed with a bottle and his grief, while she attempts to cope with both her loss and her husband’s behaviour and keep the family together.
Shortly after, she’s approached by Hollywood director Marty Ritt (Conleth Hill) who sends her the script for Hud Bannon, a film starring Paul Newman, only for Dahl to question whether it’s too soon and whether she’s ready to take it on. Not least since it would likely mean him being left at home to look after the children. As history tells, Neale agreed to the film (here in response to a row with a patronisingly obnoxious Dahl) which, retitled simply Hud, went on to earn her the 1963 Oscar for Best Actress. He, meanwhile, mellowing in his behaviour and reconciling with Tessa (who has a doll named Matilda), sets about writing what will become Charlie And The Chocolate Factory.
While the notion that grief can result in creativity might seem somewhat glib in the circumstances, the film and its central performances powerfully capture the emotional and psychological aftermath of losing a child and how those left behind can bear the brunt of the anguish. Pretty much everything on screen is true to life, including him writing a message to his daughters from the fairies on his lawn using weedkiller.
Scenes of him in his shed imaging what one assumes is a schoolboy version of himself encouraging him to write and looking disapprovingly at the whisky bottle, feel somewhat out of kilter with the rest of the film, but Bonneville and Hawes are terrific together and each have their own particularly memorable moments. His when they visit his old teacher, former Archbishop of Canterbury Geoffrey Fisher (the final screen role by the late Geoffrey Palmer) who speaks of Olivia finding happiness in God’s garden only to prompt outrage (and Dahl’s eventual rejection of Christianity) when he bluntly declares there’s no place there for the animals she loved. What sort of God doesn’t like dogs, Dahl fumes. And hers comes when she nervously visits Paul Newman (Sam Heugan) to run through a scene from the film, recreating everything down to him intimidatingly playing pool as they talked, dismissing her daughter’s death as “shit happens”, with Heugan dressed in exactly the same shirt, jeans and boots.
It has a very English sensibility with little room for sentimentality, but it has a huge heart and unfiltered emotion. (Sky)
Other than the character names and that the story revolves round a gang of London street urchin thieves and their elderly boss, there’s very little of Charles Dickens (though there is an early close up of the novel) about this contemporary update Oliver Twist which entails an art heist revenge caper that has more in common with the Oceans and Now You See Me series.
Orphaned when his artist mom died, here, Oliver (Raff Law, lookalike son of Jude) is a talented teenage graffiti artist whose parkour skills keep him out the clutch of the police. Following a run with a traffic warden (a cameo by Keith Lemon), he’s rescued by a gang of street kids that include Dodge (Rita Ora), Batesy (Franz Dramah) and Nancy aka Red (Sophie Simnett) who work and are provided for as one big thieving family by Fagin (an embarrassing Michael Caine phoning it in), a former art dealer who fell from grace and fortune. He, however, is under the thumb of the ruthless Sikes (Lena Headey), who has a thing going on with Red, naturally causing problems when she and Oliver spark.
Oliver is welcomed into the gang, largely because his freerunning skills will be very handy in Fagin’s plot to revenge himself on his former art dealer partner, Losberne (David Walliams), who caused his misfortunes, with a plan involving stealing a valuable painting and making him the fall guy.
Compared to the elaborate mechanisms of the aforementioned heist moves, this is disappointingly straightforward and lacking in thrills or tension, an uneven tone switching from Headey’s brutality to some bumbling cops played by Noel Clarke and Jason Maza as his comic relief sidekick while dialogue and the acting among the younger cast members frequently leave a great deal to be desired. At the end of the day, it’s an undemanding and entertaining enough (and thankfully short) time filler, but, unlike Oliver, you’re certainly not eft wanting more. (Sky)
Uncle Frank (15)
Written and directed by Alan Ball, who wrote American Beauty, this (part based on his own father) is another film about secret gay relationships, this one set in smalltown South Carolina in the late ’60s-early ’70s and narrated by Beth Bledsoe (Sophia Lillis) looking and acting like the young Sissy Spacek) about her literature professor uncle Frank (a stupendous Paul Bettany sinking his teeth into a real dramatic role rather than Marvel superhero), Persuade by him to rename herself from Betty and go to college at NYU where he teaches, she turns up at a party at his home, egged on by her classmate who has his own agenda, and discovers he’s gay and in a ten-year relationship with Saudi fellow academic Wally (Peter Macdissi) with whom he lives, along with an iguana called Rita Hayworth.
Having been introduced to the family at the start of the film headed up by tyrannical disdainful patriarch Daddy Mack (Stephen Root), it’s pretty obvious why he’s never come out, though, as the film unfolds and a teenage tragedy is revealed, it becomes clearer why he’s remained in the closet and who forced him to stay there. His secret is, however, agonisingly exposed when having to return home for his father’s funeral, the reading of will delivers the film’s most emotionally wrenching moment.
The cast rounded out with Margo Martindale as Frank’s mother Mammaw, sister Neva (Jane McNeill), younger brother and Beth’s father Mike (Steve Zahn) who appears to be a chip off the old block, sister-in-law Kitty (Judy Greer) and Aunt Butch (Lois Smith) it has the feel of some Carson McCullers novel and, while the healing and hugs ending feels somewhat forced and hackneyed, for the most part this is a terrific, funny, sad, moving and uplifting film. (Amazon Prime)
Life for single mum hairstylist Rachel (Caren Pistorius) isn’t going well. She’s been fired by her biggest client and harassed by her ex over the divorce and now, having overslept, she’s running late getting to work and her son to school. It’s about to get worse when she has a confrontation with another driver (Russell Crowe) who, when he doesn’t move his massive pick-up when the lights turn green, honks hard on her horn, drives round his vehicle and gives him a hand gesture. Pulling up next to her at the next stop, he attempts to apologise and expects her to do likewise. She’s not giving one, words are exchanged. And he decides to show her what a bad day really is as, an extreme case of psychopathic road rage, he tails her, steals her phone and systematically sets out to murder all her contacts, her lawyer, brother and his girlfriend included, generally proving her worst nightmare
With a pre-title sequence that has a scowling Crowe, seething over a bitter divorce, striding from his car, breaking down the front door of the nearest house, taking his axe to the couple inside and setting it on fire before driving off into the rainy night, you know you’re in for an intense trip, one that involves spectacular car crashes, explosions and vehicular mayhem. Crowe goes all out with an intensity that glues you to the screen as the carnage escalates and an increasingly desperate Pistorius finally fights back, it’s a B movie running on high octane fuel. (Sky TV, Virgin)
The United States vs Billie Holiday (15)
A jazz legend who died at the age of 44, surprisingly, given her colourful life, Billie Holiday has only even been the subject of one film, Lady Sings The Blues in which she was played by Diana Ross. Now, courtesy of director Lee Daniels and writer Suzan-Lori Parks, there’s a second, Andra Day’s Golden Globe winning portrayal of ‘Lady Day’ wiping the floor with Ross in a film that pivots around her sustained persecution by the US government in the wake of her 1939 recording of Strange Fruit, a chilling song (written by a Jewish schoolteacher from the Bronx) about the lynching of a black man in the Southern states, that was deemed a potential racial powderkeg in an already volatile 40s America. Pressure was exerted to prevent her performing the song in concert and, since she couldn’t actually be busted for singing it, Harry Anslinger (Garrett Hedlund), the jazz hating racist who ran the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, recruited former G.I. Jimmy Fletcher (Trevante Rhodes), one of the nine black FBI agents of the time, to go undercover and bust her for narcotics. In the trial from which the film takes its title, she was sentenced to a year and a day in Alderson Federal Prison Camp in West Virginia.
She emerged clean and performed in a triumphant comeback at Carnegie Hall, but was soon back on smack, banned from singing in clubs that served alcohol, beleaguered by continuing federal harassment, management troubles and a tangled love life that entailed her abusive husband, manager and pimp Louis McKay (Rob Morgan), her trombonist, her trumpet player (who was also her dealer) and even Fletcher who had fallen in love with her and sought to protect her, especially when, with McKay’s connivance, she was raided and stitched up for possession again.
At its core a story about how she was betrayed, by the government, the men in her life and her own addiction, there’s a lot of baggage to pack in as Holiday seeks to rise from every blow that knocks her down, both figuratively and literally. Unfortunately, as such, framed by an awkward late 50s gossip rag interview (with Leslie Jordan seemingly channelling Quentin Crisp) and largely redundant sidebars involving her film star friend and occasional lover Tallulah Bankhead (Natasha Lyonne), the film often finds itself sprawling, dramatically, stylistically and emotionally, punctuating the often overheated narrative (which includes heroin high flashbacks to Holiday’s childhood and hooker mother) with several musical sequences which, even though Day’s singing of numbers such as Ain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do is as striking as her acting, unbalance the focus and momentum. It closes with a punch, however, with an end title noting how, 100 years after a version of it was first introduced, the Emmett Till Anti-Lynching Act remains unpassed by the Senate. The film could have done with a little more of that anger. (Sky)
A blackly comic, table-turning spin on the home invasion genre, this gets under way with low rent Bonnie and Clyde couple Mickey (Bill Skarsgård) and Jules (Maika Monroe), robbing the latest in string of gas stations to amass enough cash to get to Florida and start a small business. Calling each other Pumpkin and Honey Bunny, they’re not the brightest of sparks and their getaway car runs out of petrol on the outskirts of town, sending Mickey into a panic, she calming him down by wafting her hair across his face. They decide to walk, but then, armed with a gun, a bag of cash and a small pharmacy worth of drugs, they see a nearby house and decide to break in and steal the car. The place is empty, or so it seems until they venture down into the basement to find a little girl (Blake Baumgartner) chained to a post. She doesn’t speak, and horrified at what appears to be a kidnapping, they decide to free her and take off, but while searching for something to unlock her, the owners (Jeffrey Donovan, Kyra Sedgwick) return and, in short order, the kooky criminal lovers find themselves the ones on the wrong bondage end of the situation. Eventually announcing themselves as George and Gloria, their captors are a creepy pair, he all polite Southern charm masking a psychopathic sadism and deep-seated insecurity, she clearly away with the fairies cradling a china doll as her own baby (their infertility the backstory to her madness and why the girl’s in the basement) and doing an erotic dance to arouse the tied-down Mickey. With their clothes, manner of talking, the house – with its antique TV set, they’re like something out of The Hills Have Eyes were it set in mid-60s rural America.
As the advantage shifts back and forth between the two couples, the film builds a deliciously nasty tension (at one point a cop arrives investigating the fugitives who seems to be lining up as another victim) while stirring together a potent cocktail of David Lynch unsettling psychosexuality and Tarantino pulp noir, the two sets of actors delivering perfectly judged performances that balance extreme and controlled manic in equal measure, the film making no excuses for where it wants its audiences sympathies to lie even while Gloria’s frustrated dreams of motherhood render her a sort of Miss Havisham figure by way of Mommie Dearest. The way everything eventually resolves isn’t entirely unpredictable given what comes before, but even so this engaging oddball crime caper leaves you with a certain sense of satisfaction that it’s exactly how things should be. (Sky)
Waiting For The Barbarians (15)
Given a headline cast of Mark Rylance Johnny Depp and Robert Pattinson alongside famed cinematographer Chris Menges, it’s surprising that this, from of the Serpent Colombian Embrace director Ciro Guerra, has flown so below the radar. Adapted by Nobel Prize-winning South African author JM Coetzee from his own 1980 novel, it’s set in the colonial desert outpost of some unnamed European empire around the early years of the twentieth century. It’s overseen by the mild-mannered, compassionate Magistrate (a stupendous Rylance), who treats the appreciative indigenous population well and spends much of his time in his library poring over archaeological artefacts. His comfortable life is disrupted, however, by the arrival of Colonel Joll (Depp) and his men from state security who has gotten it into his head that the local tribesmen, the barbarians, are planning some sort of insurrection and has come to gather information. This he sets about doing through “patience and pressure”, as in brutal torture of two prisoners suspected of sheep-stealing, but probably only there to get medicine, leaving one of them dead, and eliciting a ‘confession’ about a coming war, before setting out with the other to capture further informants.
Needless to say, the Magistrate is horrified at his actions, but is in no position to do anything about it other than voice his opposition. After returning from his mission with a group of elderly prisoners, men and women, who are again brutalised, Joll departs, bring the opening chapter, Summer, to a close. Although he returns in the closing chapter, Depp, dressed in rigid black (as opposed to Rylance’s loose beige linen) sporting distinctive circular sunglasses (which he amusingly predicts everyone will someday wear) gives such an intense performance of arrogance and cold colonial cruelty that his chill remains even when he’s physically absent.
The second chapter, Autumn, focuses on The Girl (Gana Bayarsaikhan), left crippled and almost blind by the brutality of Joll’s men, she’s begging in the streets and the Magistrate takes her in, tends her feet and allows her to stay as his concubine, although (unlike the novel) there’s no suggestion it’s anything but platonic. Offering to return her to her nomadic people, though wishing she would stay, they set off to the mountains, and, on his return, the Magistrate finds Officer Mandel (Pattinson) running things, if anything even crueller than Joll, who has him arrested for supposedly consorting with the enemy, stripped of his position and thrown in a cell.
Attempting to intervene in another of Joll’s tortures, he’s questioned and beaten, left dispossessed with only the household’s cook (an underused Greta Scacchi) to care for him, as Joll and his forces take off to subdue the barbarians. Rather inevitably, in a rework of the book’s coda, the outcome sees Mandel abandoning the fort, leaving the Magistrate to reassume his former role to await whatever is to come.
Akin to Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, its message about how colonialism create the enemy it then seeks to conquer (“We have no enemy, unless we ourselves are our enemy”, Rylance observes) and just who the true barbarians are isn’t exactly buried away, but that doesn’t diffuse the film’s understated and quietly gathering power; it may proceed slowly, but it makes for compelling viewing. (Amazon Prime)
We Can Be Heroes (PG)
A children’s superhero romp from writer-directorRobert Rodriguez (and with the involvement of most of his family), it plays as not so much a sequel but a sidebar to his The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl in 3-D, Taylor Dooley reprising her role as the latter. She’s now part of Heroics, a corporate organisation of the world’s superpowered grown-ups headed by the vainglorious Miracle Guy (Boyd Holbrook), who, at the start of the film is sent plummeting to Earth a being attacked by an armada of alien craft. To face down the looming invasion, the civilian director of Heroics, Ms. Granada (Priyanka Chopra Jonas), sends all of the nation’s superheroes (among them Christian Slater’s Tech-No) into battle, only for them to all end of being taken prisoner.
Now, it’s down to their children, who have been taken into safe protective custody, to escape, rescue their parents and save the world. Possessing powers similar to their mums and dads, they line up as Rewind (Isaiah Russell-Bailey), who can rewind time a few moments; Fast Forward (Akira Akbar), who can predict the future; superfast Slo-Mo (Dylan Henry Lau); A Capella (Lotus Blossom), who has a superpowered singing voice; Ojo (Hala Finley), who can draw events five minutes into the future; Noodles (Lyon Daniels), who can stretch his body; Facemaker (Andrew Diaz), who can alter his appearance; super-strong Wheels (Andy Walken); multi-powered wannabe leader Wild Card (Nathan Blair); and Guppy (Vivien Blair), the young daughter of Sharkboy and Lavagirl who can manipulate water or go into a ‘shark frenzy’. Leading them is Missy (YaYa Gosselin), the daughter of Marcus Moreno who, formerly the Heroics leader, retired and promised to give up superheroing after her mother died. Missy has no powers, but she’s a smart leader.
Escaping, they’re trained in their powers (to the tune of Bowie’s Heroes, of course) and learn to work together by Missy’s grandmother (Adriana Barraza), the founder of the Heroics, and then set off to take on the purple-tentacled aliens, who have taken on the bodies of Granada and her staff, not to mention the President (Christopher McDonald). Cue a series of confrontations on the mothership accompanied by special effects that range from the cheesy to the inspired before the film plays its big twist.
The dialogue and the acting can be a little clunky at times, but packed with self-aware humour, action galore and the obvious message embedded in the title, this will thrill the youngsters and has enough silliness and sly jokes to raise a smile or two among the adults while passing too. (Netflix)
The White Tiger (15)
Adapted from Arvind Adiga’s Booker Prize winning novel, director Ramin Bahrani delivers a scalding satire of contemporary India’s capitalist aspirations that’s as wickedly funny as it is often unapologetically brutal.
Raised in a small village where, academically gifted (his teacher dubbing him a white tiger – a rarity of the species, while others later disparagingly refer to him as country mouse), young Balram Halwai’s dreams of pursuing a scholarship education are rudely dashed leaving him to work with his brother breaking coals in the family teashop, his father dead and the family ruled by his domineering granny (Kamlesh Gill). Some years later, the now grown Balram (Adarsh Gourav) sees a way out of the metaphorical rooster cage when he learns that Ashok (Rajkummar Rao), the American-educated son of their bullying caste conscious landlord the Stork (Mahesh Manjrekar) and more enlightened and neoliberal brother to his father’s enforcer, Mongoose (Vijay Maurya), is looking for a driver. Taking a crash course behind the wheel, he duly turns up at their estate and ingratiates himself into being hired as driver number two, willing servant to Ashok and his fiery Brooklyn raised Indian wife Pinky (Priyanka Chopra) who patronisingly declare him their equal, though that’s patently not the case. They live in a swank apartment, he dosses with the other drivers in the garage basement. By the end of the film one will have left, one will be dead, and one will have become a hugely successful businessman.
Opening in 2007 on a high speed joy ride through Delhi’s deserted night-time streets that stops on a chilling freeze frame, it’s punctuated by clearly wealthier and more sophisticated Balram writing an email in 2010 Bangalore to the visiting the Chinese Premier, Wen Jiabao, recounting his story, why they should meet up and why the future belongs to the brown man and the yellow man, it cuts back and forth to him making his way up the ladder, learning how to skim off the top, the catalyst to his eventual emancipation from servant to master pivoting on a tragic drunk driver hit and run, the consequences of which have ramifications for all concerned.
Both the film’s narrator and anti-hero, Gourav is mesmerising, balancing Uriah Heep-like deference with a psychologically sharp manipulative acumen that hides self-loathing self-interest behind his smile, “sly and sincere at the same time” as he puts it, while the dialogue poses such philosophical questions as “Do we loathe our masters behind a façade of love or do we love them behind a façade of loathing?” and the red bag of bribes Ashok regularly delivers to government officials on behalf of his family underscores the corrupt political system.
More Parasite than Slumdog Millionaire, at which it takes a swipe in the early voiceover, its drives along at a propulsive pace to a hip hop soundtrack where you’re never quite sure what’s going to happen, at least until the reason behind the wanted for murder poster becomes shockingly clear, the ultimate message being that money corrupts and the greater the wealth the greater the corruption and the blinder the eyes that are turned. (Netflix)
Willy’s Wonderland (18)
Another utterly barking, bonkers and bozo outing by Nicolas Cage, not least since he says not a single word throughout, this casts him as a bad ass stranger who, when a police spike strip blows out his tyres, is tricked into working off the repair cost by spending a night locked inside and cleaning up the titular disused game arcade cum kids’ birthday venue. Not just your everyday game arcade, though, this includes a bunch of life-size animatronic puppets (based on those on 80s US restaurant chain Chuck-E-Cheese) that sing parody power-pop tunes and which, for reasons later explained in a monologue by the local sheriff (Beth Grant), are now possessed by evil murderous forces that, led by the malevolent Willy Weasel, need to be fed on human flesh. They are also of personal vendetta interest to Liv (Emily Tosta), a local teen who’s recruited a bunch of friends (naturally destined to die gruesome deaths) to burn the place down.
Cage’s unnamed character has no interest in backstory, however, he just sets about laying into them with a broken broom handle and gruesomely tearing them apart as they gush black blood, including a set to with a gorilla in the gents, each moment of mayhem punctuated by his returning to his cleaning, downing an energy drink and playing the pinball machine whenever the timer on his watch signals a rest break.
He may have no dialogue, but Cage does his now familiar unhinged routine to delirious gonzoid effect, and, plotless, scrappily filmed and edited it may be, this is a deranged blast. (Amazon Prime, Google Play, iTunes, Rakuten, Sky Store, TalkTalk TV, Virgin Movies)
The Witches (PG)
Thirty years on since Anjelica Houston vamped her way through Jim Henson’s adaptation of Roald Dahl’s tale, co-written by fantasy horror supremo Guillermo del Toro and Back To The Future director Roger Zemeckis, this casts its own remake spell, staying faithful to the book but injecting a couple of new spins. This time round, set in late 60s Alabama, the unnamed ‘hero boy’ orphaned in a car crash is a young African-American (Jahzir Kadeem Bruno), who goes to live with his grandma Agatha (Octavia Spencer) who plays and dances along to Motown hits to try and cheer him up and also tells him stories about witches, who loathe children, have no toes, claws not hands and are bald, including how, as a child, her best friend was turned into a chicken.
Her grandson having encountered a witch in a supermarket, the pair take off to a plush seaside hotel for “rich white people,” (Stanley Tucci more restrained as the manager played by Rowan Atkinson in the original) only to find it’s hosting a convention by The Society For The Prevention Of Cruelty To Children, a cover for a witches’ gathering where the Grand High Witch (Anne Hathaway) reveals her plan to doctor sweets with a potion that will turn children into “miiiiiiice” so they can squish them. Hiding under the stage with his pet mouse, Daisy, the boy is witness to this and sees chubby greedy Bruno (Codie-Lei Eastick) transformed before he himself is sniffed out and suffers a similar fate. Managing to escape with the help of Daisy (Kristin Chenoweth) who turns out to be another victim, the trio now have to get to Agatha, who is a healer with her own potions, so that, together, they can find a way of stopping the dastardly plan.
Bookended by narration by the now older rodent boy (Chris Rock) telling the tale to a group of kids, it’s a fast-paced romp that makes excellent use of prosthetics and CGI as a gleefully over-the-top Hathaway hovers in the air and has her face distort into a Joker-like grin while speaking in an accent that mangles German and Scottish together.
At times genuinely scary for younger viewers with witches exploding and the three mice running through the hotel vents trying to escape the Grand High Witch’s ever extending arms, unlike the previous film it also sticks to Dahl’s bittersweet ending about inevitable mortality, but adds a montage of their America-hopping witch hunts, this is gleeful frightening fun. (Amazon Prime; Sky; Virgin Movies)
Wonder Woman 1984 (12)
The biggest superhero movie of 2020, again directed by Patty Griffin, this is undeniably good fun and comes with a solid moral message about truth and greed, but is far less satisfying than the 2017 original. It starts off in impressive form with the young Diana (Lilly Aspell) competing against older Amazonian warriors in a contest on Themyscira, only to be disqualified for ‘cheating’ by taking a short cut to her objective and, as aunt Antiope (Robin Wright, explains, not following the rule of truth, then shifts to 1984 Washington as the now grown Diana (Gal Godot) makes one of her anonymous appearances, clad in her distinctive red, blue and gold costume with her golden lasso of truth, foiling a jewellery store heist.
As it turns out, the thieves were actually after the shop’s back market artefacts which, recovered by the FBI are taken to the Smithsonian where, in her civilian identity, Diana Prince works. Here she meets new employee Dr Barbara Minerva (Kristen Wiig), a socially awkward, nerdy anthropologist/geologist wallflower whom she befriends and who is assigned the job of identifying her objects. One in particular catches Diana’s attention, a quartz-shaped gemstone that, infused with the power of the Old Gods, can reputedly grant wishes. The only wish Diana has is that her pilot boyfriend from WWII, Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), hadn’t died when he sacrificed himself in the first film. And what do you know, attending a lavish function, she approached by some handsome mystery man whose body, she’s astonished to learn, has been occupied by Steve, although she’s the only one who sees him as such. All is wonderful. Except, of course, it isn’t.
She’s not the only one to have wished upon the gem. Minerva has wished she could be more like Diana; she meant in terms of confidence and grace, unaware that, wish granted, it also comes with superpowers. More crucially, there’s Maxwell Lord (Pedro Pascal), who, promising “ everything you’ve always wanted” in his TV ads is actually con artist with bad hair operating a company called Black Gold that turns out to not have the oil promised its investors and is on the verge of collapse. He’s been chasing the Dream Stone for years and, as the museum’s latest sponsor, has persuaded the besotted Minerva to loan it to him during a fundraiser, whereupon, clearly a big subscriber to the greed is good theory, wishes he himself was the gem, appealing to others’ basic instincts and granting their wishes, from Saudi Arabia to the White House, in return for taking on their wealth, power, etc., to become the master of the world he has promised his young son he will be.
A villain empowered by a magic wish-granting object is a cheesy comic book plot device more appropriate to fairytales (or indeed the horror story The Monkey’s Paw) and, while the be careful what you wish for as it comes at a cost message is relentlessly hammered home as both Minerva and the egomaniacal,Trumpian Lord become transformed for the worse, she taking brutal revenge on a drunk who harassed her earlier and later becoming villainess The Cheetah, and, in the latter’s case, with devastating consequences that, in granting the Reagan-esque President’s wish for more nukes, could cause the end of the world (unless, of course, certain sacrifices are made for the greater good as in the previous film).
There’s some amusing comic fish out of water scenes as Steve adjusts to the technology and fashions of the 80s, the introduction of the comic book’s invisible jet and some breathtaking action set pieces such as an increasingly depowered Diana, vulnerable to being wounded in a road chase with armoured cars in the Egyptian desert, an a couple of showdowns with Minerva, one in the White House in which she does not come off well, and one, rather more ho hum, clad in golden armour from Amazon history. But, while Gadot remains a perfect choice as Wonder Woman (who, of course, is never referred to as such in either film) and the chemistry between her and Pine is palpable, both Wiig and Pascal both ramp up the scenery chewing performances (though, to be fair, she’s not as foamingly over the top as he is), the film with its often clunky dialogue rarely makes a strong emotional connection (though it does all, ultimately, pivot on a parent’s love for their child) and, shoehorned inbetween lengthy character-based scenes, the excitement is disappointingly intermittent.
Given the current climate, the message about light triumphing over the dark is certainly welcome and uplifting, as is the moral about being true to yourself and putting those around you first, and, dedicated fans of the character should hang around for a not entirely surprising mid end credits cameo, but, while entertaining enough the screenplay’s sense of actual wonder is somewhat thin on the ground. (Amazon Prime, CHILI, Google Play, iTunes, Rakuten, Sky Store).
By Mike Davies