With cinemas now open this column will review films both screening theatrically and/or on various streaming platforms.
Following the liberties taken by The Crown and the staggering tastelessness of Diana The Musical, on paper the idea of an imagined version of events at Sandringham, a sprawling stately home where the walls have ears, over the course of Christmas 1991, as her marriage reached the end of the road, sounds like a recipe for disaster. In reality, however, directed by Pablo Larraín, who previously helmed the Jackie biopic, written by Steven Knight with a jarring Johnny Greenwood score, while the flights of fancy can verge on the nonsensical, this plays out as a claustrophobic snapshot of a woman trapped in a world determined to eliminate any sense of her own individuality and desires in service to the greater good of the monarchy.
It opens with Diana (a likely Oscar nomination performance from Kristen Stewart), driving in her sports car to join the family gathering, declares “Where the fuck am I?”, venturing into a roadside café in her red-and-green plaid jacket to enquire, inevitably greeted by jaws dropping to the floor, remarking, with clearly symbolic undertones, “I have absolutely no idea where I am”. With the arrival of her friend, Darren, the head chef (Sean Harris), concerned over her late arrival, it turns out she’s just a couple of fields away from her old, now boarded up and condemned, childhood home and, spotting a scarecrow (who she later emulates), sets off to retrieve the jacket, one of her father’s cast-offs, that its wearing.
Eventually, she arrives, breaching protocol as the Queen (Stella Gonet) and the others are already in situ, and is greeted in sternly polite fashion by the all-seeing Major Gregory (Timothy Spall), who runs the house and who is tasked with ensuring Diana falls in line. This entails wearing the designated apparel for each occasion and meal, to be dressed by her (fictional) servant and confidante Maggie (Sally Hawkins), who delivers a startling confession come the third act, something against which he instinctively rebels.
And so the awkward weekend unfolds as a series of attempts by Diana to assert her own personality and the equally determined efforts of everyone else to bring her into line, and, with Maggie sent back to London, her only moments of refuge being the time spent with her children, William (Jack Nielen) and Harry (Freddie Spry), though even the former is subjected by his peevish father, Prince Charles (Jack Farthing) to being part of the traditional Boxing Day pheasant shoot, much to his mother’s horror.
Along with the Queen, affording disapproving looks and admonishments, but not (as her metaphor of currency shows) entirely unsympathetic, the entire Royal Family are gathered, Prince Philip (Richard Sammel), Andrew, Anne, The Queen Mother (along with a glimpse of a scowling Camilla at the church), though, pointedly, they have no lines and play almost no part other than set dressing with none of the actors looking much like their characters, although that also serves to underline the fog in which Diana has become enfolded, emphasised by the lecture on duty Charles gives her.
On top of the whole fanciful depiction of events, the screenplay also includes both flashbacks to the young Diana and her more carefree happy family youth and also her telling imagining of the ghost of Anne Boleyn (Amy Manson), the wife Henry VIII had beheaded so he could remarry, a book about whose ‘martyrdom’ has been strategically left in the bedroom (which, of course, she does not share with Charles) and of ripping off the pearls from Charles (identical to his gift to Camilla) and wolfing them down with her soup, before sicking them back up in one of several references to her bulimia (something Charles scornfully tells her to try and control).
As the pressures, emotional, physical, and mental, mount, the film builds to a powerful climax as she flees Sandringham and breaks into her old home where, we are led to assume she contemplates suicide, before she and the kids finally get to drive off into her future fate. Stewart is outstanding, perfectly capturing Diana’s physical mannerisms and studied coquettish looks, engaging the audience’s sympathy as she battles the machine but also acknowledging a spoiled, imperious and wilful nature. How you approach it will, inevitably, depend on your view on Diana and the Royal Family, but, if you think of this as The Shining at Sandringham, you won’t go far wrong. (Cineworld 5 Ways, Solihull; Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel; Vue)
Cry Macho (12A)
Still knocking them out behind and in front of the camera at the age of 91, in recent years Clint Eastwood’s films have, since Gran Torino (which equally centred around an ornery coot being softened through his bonding with a teenage boy) had increasingly diminishing returns, with this, a project that has been around for some 40 years with different proposed stars, by far his weakest and most forgettable yet, even if it is warmly sentimental in its corniness.
Eastwood plays Mike Milo, a former rodeo star whose career ended when he broke his back, and who, when we first meet him, is fired as horse trainer by his longtime rancher boss Howard Polk (Dwight Yoakam). However, a year on, in 1979, Polk turns up asking for a favour, payback for having carried and funded Mile after his accident. He wants him to go to Mexico City and bring back his 13-year-old son, Rafo (Eduardo Minett), currently living with his crazy mother, Leta (Fernanda Urrejola), and, he says, being abused. Arriving there, he’s given short shrift and sent packing, Leta telling her security chief to keep an eye on him. However, as he drives off in his battered truck, he discovers the kid has stowed away, along with his prize fighter rooster, Macho, and, excited to learn dad actually wants him and he’ll have his own horse, insists Mike takes him to the border to meet him.
Naturally, Mike isn’t initially keen on the idea but, as the wholly unsubtle screenplay, has him say ““You’re kinda growing on me, kid”. And so you get a slow road movie that, with delays caused by car theft, engine trouble and the federal police, is as predictable as it is bland in which the pair form get to learn from one another, Mike gets involved in a senior years romance with Marta (Natalia Traven), an elderly widowed café owner raising her orphaned granddaughters and who looks after them, introduces the kid to the art of breaking horses, and the moment when he discovers his boss has a hidden agenda to having the boy returned.
It’s soft and fuzzy with homespun wisdom about strength, toughness and, hey, being macho, and, despite a couple of lacklustre run ins with aforementioned thuggish security, totally devoid of suspense and drama. Eastwood creaks, ambles and shuffles through the affair, a pale ghost of his former self, while Minett is totally lacking in personality or charisma, the pair frequently delivering the ropey dialogue as if seeing it for the first time. It’s photographed to the backdrop of some lovely scenery, but it’s an embarrassing, listless trifle that suggests the only thing you want to cry is ‘no more’. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Vue)
Set in a post-apocalyptic future where the collapse of the ozone layer has rendered the plant a radioactive, burning hot hellhole ripped by extreme weather, Tom Hanks gives another (almost) one-man performance as, to his best knowledge, the last living human, a military engineer who escaped destruction by being in a bunker when calamity struck. Now, protected by a space suit, with the aid of his version WALL-E, he drives a converted RV listening to American Pie as he forages the ruins of Missouri in his for food for himself and his dog, Goodyear. However, Finch knows he’s dying and, before he goes, he wants to build a robot with artificial intelligence to look after the mutt. So, beavering away in his bunker, he assembles Jeff (Caleb Landry Jones), as the robot eventually decides to call himself, teaching him to walk, think and respond, before another superstorm sets them off on a road trip from St Louis to San Francisco, fuelled by a postcard of the Golden Gate bridge.
Directed by Miguel Sapochnik, it’s a gentle, leisurely paced affair that takes in themes of redemption (as we learn the story of how Finch came to adopt Goodyear) and friendship as the buddy storyline between Hanks and the robot develops with a mix of slapstick humour and deep feeling and plays out without any of the usual last act twists. Hanks is, well, Hanks, delivering a familiarly reliable and well-shaded performance while the voice work by Jones, who also did the motion-capture) positions Jeff up there with such iconic robots as R2-D2, Gort, D.A.R.Y.L and The Iron Giant, while Seamus is absolutely adorably pawfect as Goodyear. It is exactly what it sets out to be, Finch and his mechanoid surrogate son radiating a warm, wistful melancholia and a beguiling charm that is well worth seeking out. (Apple TV)
The Marksman (15)
Echoing Eastwood’s Cry Macho (and ironically directed by his frequent collaborator, Robert Lorenz) in that it involves a grizzled veteran who takes an illegal immigrant Mexican boy under his wing, this is another addition to Liam Neeson’s reluctant hero rising to the occasion stockpile. Here, he’s Jim Hanson, a former Marine sharpshooter and now Arizona rancher threatened with losing his home after medical bills for his late wife ate up all his savings. Out tending the cattle, he encounters Rosa (Teresa Ruiz), a young migrant woman, who has crawled through the border fence with her 11-year-old son Miguel (Jacob Perez), They ask him for help, but, not looking to get involved, he radios in to the border patrol, which is when a bunch of cartel thugs turn up demanding the woman and kid be turned over to them. Hanson refuses, gunfire ensues, during which Rosa is wounded and dies, her son being taken into custody. Realising that if he’s sent back home, he’s as good as dead, and that the thugs are looking for him (largely on account his mother was carrying a bagful of their cash stolen by her brother), he ferrets him out of the patrol station, much to the annoyance of his patrol officer daughter Sarah (Katheryn Winnick), and they hit the road to fulfil his promise to take the boy (who is transpired can actually speak English) to his relatives in Chicago. Pursued, of course, by the ruthless Mauricio (Juan Pablo Raba) and his fellow killers.
Again, it’s a road trip in which a curmudgeonly older man and a bright young kid forge a bond, the one learning from the other, punctuated by a series of cat and mouse sequences and shoot-outs, Neeson’s ability to play sensitivity bolstering his action chops while Perez, making his feature debut, rises to the occasion. There’s no surprises and the film ends on a bus with a nod to Midnight Cowboy, a minor addition to Neeson’s CV but an engaging timewaster nonetheless. (Amazon Prime)
Mothering Sunday (15)
Disappointingly only playing on one screen, directed by Eva Husson with screenplay by Lady Macbeth’s Alice Birch and costumed by Sandy Powell, this is a slow burning elegant heritage drama adapted from Graham Swift’s novella. The main action is set on Mother’s Day in March 1924 as the wealthy Niven family (Colin Firth, Olivia Colman) set off for a Henley picnic with their friends and neighbours the Sheringhams, whose surviving law student son Paul (Josh O’Connor, slightly smug) is reluctantly engaged to be married to Emma (Emma D’Arcy). She was initially intended for one of his two brothers but they, like the Nivens’ sons, were killed in WWI, the weight of loss and grief hanging heavy over both families.
The narrative flashes back and forwards in time, focusing on bookish 22-year-old orphan Jane (a luminous Odessa Young), the Nivens’ maid, who has been having a secret affair with Paul, the pair meeting at his home for one last sexual tryst before he goes off to join the others and submit to his marital fate. These sequences are framed by flashforwards to Jane, now a best-selling thrillers novelist, working on her next book, drawing on the events of the central narrative, as well as detailing how she was set upon the writing path and her subsequent tragically-fated romance and marriage to philosophy student Donald (Sope Dirisu), all of which is recalled through the memories of the widowed older Jane (Glenda Jackson).
The pall of grief felt by the older generation is counterpointed by the exhilaration of the clandestine lovers, the film using full frontal nudity in a perfectly casual fashion (as it does the semen stains on the sheets) as the naked postcoital Jane wanders around the Sheringhams’ mansion after Paul drives off to his doom. Beautifully modulated and finely acted, Colman’s explosion of loss-driven anger and frustration (she tells Jane being orphaned young was a blessing as she has nothing to lose) a sharp rupture of the polite veneer otherwise maintained. Audiences who fell for the likes of Remains of the Day, Room With A View, Atonement and Shadowlands will be well satisfied.(Cineworld 5 Ways)
The Addams Family 2 (PG)
A follow-up to 2019’s somewhat lacklustre animation reboot, this is a far superior affair even if it does follow a familiar teen-angst narrative with Wednesday (Chloë Grace Moretz) questioning who she is and her fit within her family (she refuses hugs), as well as a staple road trip plot to afford family bonding time. Opening with Wednesday presenting her project at the school science fair, she dazzles everyone with her experiment in which she is able to transfer her pet octopus’s personality and intelligence into the body of her Uncle Fester (Nick Kroll), but is understandably put out when everyone is declared the competition winner. She does, however, seriously impress the competition sponsor, high flier scientist Cyrus Strange (Bill Hader), who invites her to come and work with him at his lab, sharing the secret to her formula about combining animal and human traits. Naturally, she refuses, but the whole experience only serves to exacerbate her feeling of being an outsider, her mother, the cooly regal Morticia (Charlize Theron), unable to lighten her gathering melancholy.
Which prompts her father, Gomez (Oscar Isaac), to suggest they all (pet lion Kitty included) take off in their creaky oversized camper van (“half car, half eyesore!” declares Fester), for a three-week cross country trip visiting such suitably Addams-friendly spots as Salem, Sleepy Hollow and Death Valley. As they’re about to set off, however, they’re accosted by an attorney (Wallace Shawn) who claims that, in fact, Wednesday is not their daughter at all, but was switched at birth in a hospital mix-up (cue flashback of Fester juggling babies) and he wants to return her to her real family.
This provides a series of episodic stopovers and accompanying events as, pursued by the lawyer and his hulking henchman, Fester, who’s developed a curious desire to be in water and whose one arm has turned into a tentacle (cue a subsequent testicles/tentacles gag), takes the van, driven by Thing (the disembodied hand), on a detour to Niagara Falls. Here Wednesday uses her voodoo rag doll to take control of brother Pugsley (Javon Walton), making him do a hip hop dance routine in front of some girls he’s trying to impress, before (as part of her ongoing attempts at his demise) sending him flying into falls.
Moving on to the Grand Canyon (which Pugsley demolishes with his explosives obsession), Wednesday administers a DNA test that confirms her suspicions and, accompanied by family butler Lurch (co-director Conrad Vernon), sneaks off to find her real father who, wouldn’t you know it, is apparently Strange, who, it turns out, as a very bird-like wife and a porcine daughter.
Largely focused around Wednesday and her mordant wit, the film gleefully digs into the dark and creepy elements of the original comic strip while peppering it with assorted pop culture references (Gomez declares Billie Eilish a little too sunny for his taste, Strange snaps “‘pipe down Elvira” to Morticia) and, during a detour at a Little Miss Jalapeño Pepper contest in Texas, Wednesday, forced into sporting a big blonde wig for a song routine, a knowing nod to the prom scene in Carrie. And, since this is essentially a film for kids, a series of poo jokes, before a fabulous mutant monsters show down between a giant Festerpus and a very Strangegryphon.
There’s also a fabulously camp scene as, she and Lurch on their way to Sausalito, they find themselves at a biker’s roadbar (yup, Motorhead’s on the soundtrack) where, told to show them what his hands can do, Lurch takes to the piano for a falsetto rendition of I Will Survive that has everyone on the dance floor. All that plus Grandma Addams (Bette Midler) turning the mansion into a nightclub while the folks are away and a guest appearance by hairy behatted Cousin It (Snoop Dogg) who, it transpires, is now a rap superstar with his own private jet! A family treat with a hug and be who you are message wrapped up in the candies. (Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel; Vue)
Co-produced by Guillermo del Toro but lacking his distinctive style, this is an ambitious but flawed art house horror from director Scott Cooper that draws on the familiar trope of mythical monsters terrorising a contemporary society. Delivering a strong debut lead performance, young Jeremy T. Thomas is 12-year-old Lucas who, as the film opens, is sitting in his widowed father Frank’s (Scott Haze) truck while he is an abandoned Oregon mine with his drug dealer partner in crime cooking up meths. The pair hear a noise and go deeper into the mine shaft to investigate.
We next seen him now home alone with noises coming from behind a door he keeps padlocked, the film intercutting at school where painfully withdrawn and bullied by one of the other kids, he’s taught by Julia (Keri Russell), recently returned to the town after running a way as a teenager to escape her abusive father. Clearly battling demons that include alcoholism (not one of the film’s subtlest moments), she’s moved back in to the family home now occupied by her young brother, Paul (Jesse Plemons), the town sheriff, whom she left behind to fend for himself.
Hearing the story he’s written and seeing the images he’s drawn, she’s persuaded Lucas too is an abuse victim and determines to help him. Meanwhile, Paul’s dealing with the gruesome discovery of a body (in two halves) which the coroner declares to have teeth marks – but not of an animal.
As the terror slowly unfolds, it’s revealed that it’s Lucas’s father behind the door, now deformed and with a craving for flesh, as well as his other young son, Aidan (Sawyer Jones), who the authorities think is being home-schooled, who he dragged in with him. Lucas keeps them fed on roadkill and animals he’s caught in his traps. It’s not until late in the day, that the film, courtesy of Graham Greene relating old tales, reveals its monster to be a wendigo, a deerlike creature, of Native American folk lore, that occupies host bodies, reawakened by the destructive actions of humans. All of which is clearly meant to resonate with the film’s dark themes, of abuse, of people and the land, the trauma induced by drink, drugs and a collapsed rural economy, background news reports mentioning opioids and environmentally controversial mining.
Cooper only ever shows glimpses of his creature, and then mostly just the savagery of the horns, preferring to keep the horror on a more psychological and human level, although that’s not to say the film doesn’t have its fair share of gore, building to a climax with Lucas and Julia cornered in the remote house, the father having escaped from the locked room and the other brother clearly showing signs of being also infested.
As such, the first half of the film, as Julia recognises a fellow abuse victim in Lucas, is by far the more effective, scary and disturbing, things becoming somewhat more rote once it turns into a kill the monster movie, although this does come with a devastatingly wrenching decision Julia’s forced to take. Russell and Thomas deliver strong performances, while Plemons quietly underplays his equally tortured abuse survivor (“you don’t know what he did to me, he says to Julia), but, while Cooper delivers the suspense, he lacks del Toro’s dark humour and ability to conjure dread with just a suggestion, the final shits of the wendigo wearing Frank’s face seeming like a desperate attempt to stir those who bought a ticket expecting something more of a Krampus horror. (Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Vue)
Army Of Thieves (15)
Although having killed off all but one of the characters, a sequel to Zack Snyder’s Army of The Dead is in the works, for now co-writer Shay Hatten has provided the screenplay for a prequel. So, this jumps back in time to the initial days of the zombie apocalypse to focus on the original team’s nerdy, socially awkward tousle-haired German safecracker Ludwig Deiter, then known as Sebastian Schlencht-Wöhnert, played as endearingly dorky by Matthias Schweighöfe who also takes up the directing reins.
A bullied misfit at school, young Sebastian spent his days learning to crack safes and now has YouTube blog where he posts videos on his passion, he latest being a starstruck account of Hans Wagner (Christian Steyer), a Munich locksmith wo, after the death of his wife and child, devoted huis ,life to constructing four impenetrable circular wall safes, each named after the operas in Richard Wagner’s The Ring Cycle before committing suicide by sealing himself inside a fifth, buried in the ocean as his tomb, the present whereabouts of the safes unknown. Rather inevitably, his blog has zero followers, until, that it, he gets one reply, inviting him to put his money where his mouth is. Turning up at a secret Berlin location he finds himself taking part in and winning a safecracking contest, becoming besotted with a woman he sees in the crowd smiling at him. Engineering a meeting at his regular morning coffee shop stop, she reveals herself to be Gwendoline (Nathalie Emmanuel from The Fast and the Furious), an internationally wanted jewel thief, who wants him to join her heist team for a task only he can pull off. Nightmares of zombie attacks and yet another day in his monotonous job as a bank teller, prompt him to agree and, meeting up with the others in her crew, expert hacker Korina (Ruby O. Fee), oddball bearded getaway driver Rolph (Guz Khan) and self-styled real live action hero Brad Cage (a Hugh Jackman-esque Stuart Martin) – an amalgam of Brad Pitt and Nicolas Cage, real name Alexis – , he learns they’ve located three of the safes, the Rheingold, the Valkyrie and Siegfried, in Paris, Prague and St. Moritz, Switzerland, but, with concerns over the zombie outbreak in America, they have only four days to crack them before they’re removed and decommissioned.
So, with a tip of the hat to The Italian Job, the film unfolds into a triple-heist movie with a narrative that variously takes in shy Sebastian’s mooning over Gwendoline (who’s more interested in becoming a legend than the loot), three daring safecracking jobs (all accompanied to opera excerpts on Sebastian’s cellphone, one carried out in the back of a moving truck), chases by and narrow escapes from the cops, and double-crosses, all the while being pursued by Interpol in the form of French agent Delacroix (Jonathan Cohen), obsessed with bringing Gwendoline down, and long suffering associate Beatrix (Noémie Nakai).
Nodding to heist movie traditions, such as the flashforwards as the heist plan is explained a la the various Oceans films, and with a stylistic look that involves wipes, quick cuts, fats and slow motion, graphics and at times conjures thoughts of Wes Anderson, and, even if the focus on the tentative Gwendoline and Sebastian chemistry ends up sidelining, the other characters it romps along in breezy, playful and enjoyable time-wasting fashion before a coda that, featuring two cameos and a blueprint for the fourth safe, Gotterdammerung, sets the scene for the original film. (Safe) cracking fun. (Netflix)
The Boss Baby 2 (PG)
Set some years after the inspired original with its concept of newborns being despatched from an organisation known as Baby Corp, Tim (James Marsden) and his erstwhile BC exec younger brother Ted (an enjoyably snarky Alec Baldwin) have grown up and apart, the former a stay at home dad married (to breadwinner Eva Longoria) and raising two daughters, the latter a billionaire hedge-fund businessman with no memory of his Boss Baby years. Tim is worried that his eldest, Tabitha (Ariana Greenblatt), a bright grade schooler with a goldfish named Dr. Hawking, is starting to pull away from him, but he has bigger concerns on discovering that her infant sister, Tina (Amy Sedaris) can talk and that she’s a Boss Baby from Baby Corp. Her mission is to bring the two brothers back together to infiltrate Tabitha’s school where the administrator, Dr. Armstrong (Jeff Goldblum) is seeking to turn all the children into high achieving geniuses as part of his devious plan for, yes, world domination, to remove all parents. As such, Tim and Ted must drink the magic milk that will revert them to their child states and attempt to discover exactly what Armstrong is up to.
The countdown to save the world and the sibling bonding themes are staple plot devices, and, other than a message about not making children grow up too soon, the film’s pedestrian narrative doesn’t do much new with them, happy instead to serve up a hyperactive string of brightly coloured slapstick sequences and 1980s pop-culture throwaways, although scenes of the boyhood Tim, calling himself Marcus Lightspeed, befriending his insecure daughter are quite touching. (Cineworld NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Vue)
The Card Counter (15)
Yet another journey into existential purgatory and tortured male psyches from director Paul Schrader, this stars Oscar Isaac as William Tell (formerly Tillich, a veteran of Abu Ghraib who, figuring in selfies with the victims, served eight years for abuse and torture of prisoners, shown in visceral flashbacks. While in jail he learnt to count cards and now, ritually wrapping everything in the various motels rooms in sheets, makes a living playing blackjack and poker in low rent casinos, his dead-eyed expression a perfect blank. Outwardly in control, but inside all turbulence.
In short order he’s approached by two people who, although he initially refuses to get involved, change his world. One is La Linda (a slinky Tiffany Haddish playing against her familiar comedic persona) who runs a stable of card players and wants him to be a part, finding a backer to allow him to progress to the world series and bigger pots. The other is Cirk (Tye Sheridan) who is out for revenge against Major John Gordon (Willem Dafoe), a private contractor at Abu Ghraib and now a high flying security software exec. Cirk’s abusive father served under him, and subsequently committed suicide and, as Gordon never paid for his crimes, he reckons Tell will be sympathetic to his plan to tranquilise him and the subject him to same tortures he inflicted.
Tell isn’t persuaded, but, perhaps in an attempt to instil responsibility and sense, invites the kid to become his travelling companion as he travels from one card game to the next, offering to pay off his student loans, with La Linda becoming a lover as well as agent along the way, finally, after Cirk’s kidnapping and revenge plot goes belly up, deciding to serve the justice that’s been denied.
As with all Schrader films, with voice over from Isaac, it’s a dark, intense slow burn as the relationships clash and collide, capturing the feel of classic noir, Isaac magnificent as an enigma staring into the soul of others in the hope of also seeing into his own and finding the expiation he needs to release him from the chains of torment and find self-forgiveness. And teach an obnoxious poker player show-off and his cheer squad a lesson, though that never delivers the payoff it promises and those who like a neat ending with the narrative threads all tied up will leave with a sense of frustration. Those who have visited Schrader’s purgatories before, however, will not be disappointed. (Cineworld NEC; Empire Great Park; Vue)
The Courier (12A)
Based on real life events, written by Tom O’Connor and directed by Dominic Cooke, Benedict Cumberbatch gives a solid, underplayed performance as Greville Wynne, a salesman representing various manufacturing companies, who, at the height of the Cold War, was recruited by MI6 and the CIA (respectively represented by Angus Wright and Rachel Brosnahan) to travel to Moscow and make contact with Oleg Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze), a Soviet colonel who, alarmed by Kruschev’s increasingly volatile nuclear rhetoric, has indicated he’s ready to pass on information to help prevent mutually assured destruction. The thinking is that, as someone with no obvious political connections, Wynne is unlikely to attract KGB attention.
Unable to tell his wife (Jessie Buckley) the real reason for his regular trips to Russia, she suspects he’s having another affair while Penkovsky’s wife also remains oblivious to her husband’s actions in smuggling photos out by Wynne in the build up to the Cuban Missile Crisis. Unfolding with a cool tension in secret meetings where the fear of discovery or being bugged is ever present, it sits well alongside similar espionage films like Bridge of Spies and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. As history tells, the subterfuge was eventually uncovered, leading to a darker third act when Cumberbatch, shaved headed and looking increasingly emaciated, is banged up in a Russian prison, being interrogated to confess he actually knew what he was carrying for Penkovsky (it’s suggested he didn’t, hence plausible deniability) before the British government negotiated an exchange for his release.
Sharply scripted and with a strong chemistry between Cumberbatch and Ninidze as the two men develop a genuine friendship (Wynne called him Alex), Wynne secretly rather enjoying his adventure, ticking the usual genre conventions without them appearing like clichés, the film revealing the heroic – and costly – role he and Penkovsky (codenamed Ironbark by the CIA) played in ending the Cuban standoff, Oleg remarking over a shared meal “We are just two people, but this is how things change.”
Its low key, period thriller nature might not be a big audience grabber, but as an inspiring story of human decency and sacrifice for the greater good, it’s one that deserves to be told and deserves to be seen. (BT Film Store, Sky Store, Virgin)
Dear Evan Hansen (12A)
It used to be that musicals where mainly love stories, occasionally about nannying neglected children or the odd carnivorous plant. That was then, but now the backdrop is far wider, the recent adaptation of true story high school drag queen be who you are Everyone’s Talking About Jamie now followed by the film version of the hit stage musical based around autism, depression, loneliness and suicide with songs by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul of La La Land-The Greatest Showman fame.
Ben Platt, who originated the Broadway role, again plays Evan, a pathologically shy high-school senior on prescription drugs who has no friends other than Jared (Nik Dodani), and even he insists he’s only a family friend. He’s also in therapy, and, as such, has been told to write himself confidence boosting letters. One of these, in which he talks about not having the courage to talk to the girl he fancies, Zoe (Kaitlyn Dever), is stolen by her brother, aggressive depressive student Connor Murphy (Colton Ryan), after being the only one to sign Evan’s cast on his broken arm. Evan is in fear he’ll post it on social media. Instead, he’s called to the principal’s office to see Connor’s mother (Amy Adams) and stepdad (Danny Pino) and learns that their son has committed suicide. They found the letter in his pocket and assumed he’d written it to Evan, giving them comfort as they thought he had no friends. Rather than setting them straight, Evan, not wishing to upset them further and pleased to feel valued, agrees, from which point things get increasingly out of control, fabricated texts between him and Connor, becoming a sort of surrogate son to his parents, getting involved with the vulnerable Zoe (who was estranged from her brother and believed he hated her) and getting caught up in an appeal launched by head girl Alana (Amandla Stenberg) to turn the derelict apple orchard where Connor used to go as a child and where he says they became friends when he helped him after he broke his wrist falling from a tree. All of which finds Evan suddenly surrounded by new ‘friends’ and his moving eulogy becoming a viral sensation. Inevitably, at some point, the deception is uncovered.
Directed by The Perks of Being a Wallflower’s Stephen Chbosky, opening with Waving Through A Window, a number about teen alienation, the various characters deliver a clutch of strong, emotionally potent songs, including a solo from Julianne Moore as Evans’ overworked nurse single mother, Platt and Dever’s affecting duet Only Us and the heartaching Requiem which cross cuts between Connor’s family, a new addition being The Anonymous Ones sung by Stenberg. Building to a genuinely tear-jerking finale and with its theme of the importance of friendship, it deserves your response. (Vue)
Originating in 1965, Frank Herbert’s impenetrable allegorical science fiction beset-seller novel went on to spawn five sequels, various TV mini-series and a 1984 big screen epic adaptation directed (and disowned) by David Lynch that proved a critical and box office disaster and is probably best remembered for the sight of Sting basically wearing a nappy.
It’s now been given a new lease of life at the hands of Denis Villeneuve with the sort of budget that could feed a small country for a century. The good news is that it’s money well spent, a monumentally-scaled spectacular that looks visually awesome and, unlike the original, has the perfect casting it needs to deliver the vision.
The last words spoken, by Fremen desert warrior Chani (Zendaya), are “This is only the beginning”, something which audiences only discover when the title card announces that this is Part 1 (Part 2 is yet to be filmed), the tale beginning by recounting how the planet Arrakis is the source of ‘spice’, a hallucinogenic substance that both extends life and fuels space travel. Mining it is a lucrative business, one which the ruthless House Harkonnen, headed by the floating Baron (Stellan Skarsgård) back on the stark Giedi Prime, and enforced by his brutal nephew (Dave Bautista), has overseen for 80 years, repressing the native blue-eyed Fremen (among them Javier Bardem’s chief Stilgar) who regard them as exploiters and oppressors.
However, it’s now 10191 and the Emperor has decreed that stewardship of Arrakis should be handed over to House Atreides from the oceanic planet Caladan, in the person of Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac, assured) who, along with his longtime concubine, Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson, enigmatic) and son Paul (a quietly charisma exuding Timothée Chalamet), duly take up residence on the arid planet with its vast swathes of desert sand, unbearable heat and the deadly giant sandworms. The Duke is, however, under no illusions that this is some sort of gift, declaring that he’s been set up to fail and, with Atreides a growing threat to the Emperor’s rule, a step towards their annihilation.
Paul, however, is the stumbling block. While still unsure of himself, he’s a skilled fighter trained by his father’s right-hand man Gurney Halleck (a grizzled and gruff Josh Brolin) and best buddies with Duncan Idaho (a rare unbearded Jason Mamoa), the daring adventurer pilot of one of the dragonfly-winged aircraft, he’s been having dreams of Chani and visions of future events on Arrakis, and there is talk that he may be the Chosen One prophesised by the mystic female order of the Bene Gesserit (of which his mother is one), though, despite an excruciatingly painful test, their Truthsayer (a visually obscured Charlotte Rampling) isn’t persuaded he’s yet ready.
Villeneuve takes his time to build the narrative, carefully layering visual cues concerning its subtext of industrial colonisation of third world countries alongside the political intrigue, eschewing exposition for carefully constructed character development and a gathering air of mystery that, in the figure of Paul, references both the New and Old Testament. But, when the action finally erupts with the invasion of Arrakis, it’s operatic in scale with Rogue One: cinematographer Greig Fraser letting rip in literal explosive style while Hans Zimmer’s score resonates with an appropriate sonic vastness.
For those hungering to fill the void left after The Fellowship of the Rings and Game of Thrones, sharing an essence and intensity with Mad Max and Apocalypse Now (The Baron is like a hovering Kurtz), this is a feast indeed. Here’s hoping the box office yields a second helping. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Vue)
Those who know their Marvel, will know the Eternals as humanoid cosmic heroes from the planet Olympia assigned by the all-powerful Celestials to watch over – but not interfere with events on – Earth, that is, unless, in this it’s to stop their arch enemy, the Deviants, in this telling grotesque almost lizard-like monsters with swirling tendrils and a taste for human flesh.
They’re first introduced coming to Earth on their slab-like spaceship in Mesopotamia in 5020 B.C. where they save a beach side village from a Deviants attack, introducing us to self-healing Eternals leader Ajax (Selma Hayek), empath Sersi (Gemma Chan) who can manipulate inanimate matter, forever teenage Sprite (Lia McHugh) who can project illusions and teleport, warrior woman Thena (Angelina Jolie) with her gold shield and spear, deaf speedster Makkari (Lauren Ridloff), Phastos (Brian Tyree Henry) who can conjure inventions with his hands, mind-manipulator Druig (Barry Keoghan), Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani) who projects energy bolts, Gilgamesh (Don Lee), the strongest of them all, and Ikaris (Richard Madden) who can fly and shoots laser beams from his eyes a la Superman (this may be the first Marvel film to reference both him and Batman). As the names suggest, their presence on Earth over the centuries (and we get plenty of flashbacks of this, including Hiroshima bombing and the 1520Tenochtitlan massacre) has inspired myths and legends, such as the Greek gods.
In present day London, Sprite, Sersi, who’s working as museum curator and her moral (?) boyfriend Dane Whitman (Kit Harrington) are attacked by a Deviant, Kro (voiced by Bill Skarsgaard), a shock since they thought they’d killed them all centuries ago. Even more of a shock is that this one is stronger and can heal itself, the trio saved when Ikaris (whom we learn married Sersi but then took off when it seemed their mission was complete) turns up. Now, realising the Deviants are back, they set out to reunite the other Eternals, who since gone their separate ways, to once more protect the human race.
There is, of course, much more to things than first appear, Ajak and, one of the others, keeping secret the real mission she’s been charged with by the Prime Celestial Arishem (who, throwing the Bible out of the window, created the universe, life on Earth and, as we learn both Eternals and Deviants), which will actually entail the birth of a new Celestial – the Emergence – and along with it the destruction of everyone on Earth (it’s been going on for millennia on different planets, but the Eternals have had their memories wiped). This causes a schism in the ranks because Sersi, who becomes the default leader, has developed a great love for the planet and its people, seeing their potential despite their flaws, while others are dedicated to carrying out God’s Will.
Overstuffed with plot and characters (though some don’t make it to the Uni-Mind meld last act), and decidedly overlong at two and a half hours plus, it’s a dramatic change of pace from director Chloé Zhao’s Oscar winning naturalistic Nomadland, and you can’t help but feeling her interest is more in the character dynamics, existential crises, tangled emotional relationships and betrayals, than in the big action sequences the genre demands, the balance proving somewhat uneven. It introduces several firsts into the MCU, a Korean actor, a deaf hero and the first gay kiss, between Phastos and his mortal husband (Haaz Sleiman) with whom he has a young son. On the downside, is some clunky dialogue and an ill-fitting comedic element with Kingo becoming a Bollywood superstar (complete with dance sequence) and, when he rejoins his colleagues, being followed by his valet (Harish Patel) who’s filming a documentary of their exploits. Admittedly though, there are laughs when, during dinner at his and Thena’s outback getaway, Sprite casts Gilgamesh in a pink romper suit.
Inevitably with so many characters, several get sidelined for large stretches, while Thena’s unpredictable tendency top blank out and try to kill the others is never clearly explained, the focus primarily being on Sersi and Ikaris who, as he tells Kingo, is not the hero they think he is.
Even so, despite some stumbling points, in terms of the ideas it addresses, it’s undeniably the most ambitious Marvel film to date and Zhao brings an emotional dimension sometimes missing among the stunts and explosions that, ultimately, makes it worth the experience, not forgetting to hang around for the mid-credits scene that introduces Harry Styles as another hitherto unseen Marvel character with Oswald Patton voicing his sidekick ready for the sequel. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; West Brom; Reel; Vue)
Everybody’s Talking About Jamie (12)
Basically a drag queen Billy Elliot The Musical, this is a big screen adaptation of the West End coming of age hit based on the documentary about Sheffield teen Jamie Campbell who wanted to go to school prom in drag, is an exuberantly feelgood joy directed by the Jonathan Butterell, who did the stage show and featuring the bulk of the original songs along with a stand out new addition. Winningly played by newcomer Max Harwood, the openly gay Jamie New lives with his supportive divorced mum Margaret (Sarah Lancashire) who, rather than see him hurt, hides the fact his homophobic father (Ralph Ineson) wants nothing to do with him, making excuses for no shows and faking birthday cards and presents. Bullied at school, primarily by Dean Paxton (Samuel Bottomley) and disapproved of by his teacher (Sharon Horgan) who tells her pupils they need to have realistic dreams, he’s supported and encouraged in his dream of becoming a drag queen by Muslim best friend Pritti Pasha (an outstanding Lauren Patel), herself battling against petty bigotry as she studies to become a doctor, who persuades him to visit a local drag shop to find a dress to go with the ruby red stilettos his mum bought him. It’s here he meets the shop’s owner, Hugo Battersby (Richard E Grant, wonderful), a former drag queen star as Loco Chanel who becomes his mentor, sells him his legendary ‘blood red dress’ and sets him up for his drag show debut (where, overcoming nerves and the jeers of Paxton and his mates, he dazzles as well as being given his drag name as Mimi Mi). All seems to be going swimmingly, until Jamie meets his dad and learns exactly how he feels (leading to a bust up with his mother for lying to him) and his teacher firmly tells him he’s not going to be allowed into prom if he turns up in a dress.
All of which serves as a platform for some brilliant choreographed set musical pieces that include the original stage title song spectacular and Lancashire’s poignant He’s My Boy alongside the all new This Was Me, a tear-jerker disco ballad performed by Grant (but sung by Holly Johnson) that, an addition to the narrative, affords a flashback to Hugo’s drag queen days backdropped by the AIDs epidemic, the street protests, police gay bashing, Princess Diana’s to patients, and ending with the news of Freddie Mercury’s death.
Featuring appearances by Shobna Gulati as Margaret’s mate Ray and cameos from the theatre production cast by Margaret Campbell who played mum and the original Jamie, John McCrea who plays the young Loco) alongside Drag Race star Bianca del Rio (as herself and the school art teacher) and Layton Williams, the touring version of Jamie, it’s variously touching, funny, heartbreaking (the new addition of a football match where Jamie confronts his father) and inspiring, culminating with the prom where Jamie becomes his true self, his classmates take a stand and Dean finds redemption and it ends with the company’s rousing self-acceptance and mutual tolerance message embodying performance of Out of the Darkness (A Place Where We Belong). Everybody’s talking about Jamie, and rightly so. (Amazon Prime)
Flummels are ring-doughnut shaped creatures with a hole in their middle and who travel like rolling tyres, they live on one of the Galápagos Islands where brother and sister Op (Rachel Bloom) and Ed (Adam Devine) are the tribe’s misfits, she always creating a mess and he a grumpy pessimist who longs to fit in. However, vain flummels leader Jepson (Henry Winkler) and bossy assistant Mali (Alex Borstein) aren’t about to let that happen, Ed being consigned to be friend at the end, a straggler in the upcoming 10th annual flower festival procession. But even that’s denied him when they inadvertently cause a friendly whale to swamp the beach, Op and Ed being consigned to sit the festival out on desolation rock.
Looking to find a way to redeem themselves, Op leads Ed up the far side of the mountain to the forbidden zone in search of some extra special blooms and, falling into a glowing flower, find themselves magically transported to present day Shanghai. Here, lost and confused, they’re helped by Clarence (Ken Jeong), a small white mix-breed Pomeranian that belonged to a now missing scientist who discovered seeds that enabled him to travel in time and visit historic events. He reveals the dreadful truth that, shortly after they left, a volcanic explosion wiped out all flummels, but says that, through Dr Chung’s (Benedict Wong) time terminal he can help them travel back and save their species.
Unfortunately, another Op and Ed accident throws Clarence into a random portal (where he becomes one of explorer Edward Shackleton’s thuggish sled dogs) along with the 1835 seed, leaving them at a loss at what to do. At which point they meet The Extinctables (an in-joke nod to Stallone’s The Expendables), a group of extinct creatures, dodo Dottie (Zazie Beetz), Tasmanian tiger Burnie (Jim Jefferies), Macrauchenia Alma (Catherine O’Hara) and Hoss (Reggie Watts), a baby Triceratops, rescued by Chung, who now live in the time terminal library. They offer to help Op and Ed visit various times to try and find Clarence, eventually recovering the seed that will save the flummels. However, an argument sees Op returning on her own and, at this point, there’s an unexpected twist where Clarence’s motives turn out to be something entirely different to what first appeared.
With a plot that involves time travel loops that Doctor Who might find complicated and the introduction of such characters as a cyclops, the captain of The Beagle (Nick Frost) and his passenger Charles Darwin (Tom Hollander) on its 1917 voyage of discovery, as well as offering snippets of historical information, this is directed by David Silverman who made The Simpsons Movie and written by three of The Simpsons scriptwriters. As such, while aimed at youngsters and borrowing from films like Ice Age, there’s also plenty of sly – and at times risqué – humour for the adults too (Clarence says his mom was ‘social’, an interspecies romance and, a laugh out loud cannibal-joke as Op bites into an actual doughnut and splatters a horrified Ed with jam), plus of course it comes with an upstanding message about courage, being true to yourself and the power of friendship and all the characters have very definite personalities. An unexpected delight. (Sky Cinema)
The French Dispatch (15)
While they may sometimes favour visual aesthetic and quirkiness over heart and soul, Wes Anderson’s films have a unique sensibility that would be impossible to mistake for any other writer-director. Set in the 60s in the fictional provincial French town of Ennui-Sur-Blasé , his latest, a tribute to the New Yorker and in many ways echoing Grand Budapest Hotel, is a compendium piece that hangs three stories around the framing device of the titular newspaper, a satellite of the Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun, founded, edited and published Arthur Howitzer Jr. (Bill Murray), an eccentric who advises his reporters to “try to make it sound like you wrote it that way on purpose”, whose office sports the sign “No crying” above the door and whose obituary provides another of its narratives.
It opens with a local colour travel piece as Owen Wilson bicycles around the town taking notes before the first ‘article’, “The Concrete Masterpiece”, introduces Tilda Swinton as art critic J.K.L. Berensen (detailing her profile of and art lecture on convicted killer turned modern-art bad boy Moses Rosenthaler (a straggly bearded Benicio del Toro). His abstract nude painting of his prison guard (Léa Seydoux) attracts the interest of fellow inmate and art dealer Julian Cadazio (Adrian Brody) who pays a fortune for it and (with the help of his business partner relatives, Henry Winkler and Bob Balaban) subsequently turns Rosenthaler into a cult figure sensation, leading up to commissioning a whole series of such works, only, three years later as he and a mob of artists force their way into prison, to find the canvases are in fact frescoes and somewhat fixed in place.
The second, Revisions to a Manifesto set to backdrop of student protests that escalate into the “”Chessboard Revolution” and shot mostly in black and white, is by politics writer Lucinda Krementz (Frances McDormand) who, journalist objectivity be damned, finds herself attracted to young radical Zeffirelli B. (Timothée Chalamet), whose campaigning for the right to free access to the girls’ dormitory, takes his virginity and knocks his manifesto into shape as they share a bed. Featuring Lyna Khoudri as Zeffirelli’s fellow activist girlfriend, Juliette, and a cameo by Christoph Waltz as a pretentious art collector, events father to a siege and a tragedy as Zeffirelli becomes the symbol of the revolutionary movement.
The third, The Private Dining Room of the Police Commissioner, which features Willem Dafoe as an incarcerated mob accountant and an animated chase sequence, entails a talk show interview by Liev Schreiber with food writer Roebuck Wright (Jeffrey Wright), a James Baldwin-like gay dilettante with a photographic memory of every word he’s written whose nascent journalistic talent Howitzer spotted and encouraged. Wright recalls the crazy kidnapping of the Commisaire’s (Mathieu Almaric) son by a gang that includes Edward Norton and Saoirse Ronan and an unlikely poisoned cuisine rescue involving police offer and chef Lt. Nescaffier (Stephen Park). Finally, narrated by Anjelica Huston, comes the aforementioned obituary as the paper’s staff, also including cartoonist Jason Schwartzman and Griffin Dunne’s Legal Advisor, gather to plan the final edition.
With a design that includes shifting stage scenery, cross-sections, painted backdrops, animation, split screen images of Ennui then and now, and a plethora of in jokes about the New York and Paris art scenes of the period (look for the Modern Physics pinball machine), it’s ultimately a patchwork of loosely connected shaggy dog stories in celebration of journalists and journalism in a modern world of fake news, ephemeral sound bites and banality in the quest for web hits. It may be more about style and substance, but it’s a real joy to get your fingers inky watching. (Mockingbird)
The Green Knight (12A)
Adapted from the anonymous epic 14th-century poem which related how the court of King Arthur (Sean Harris) is visited one Christmas Day by a mysterious green knight (Ralph Ines on), who, looking like some tree deity, challenges the knights to give him a blow on him, on the provision he returns the same one year hence. Looking to earn himself hero stripes, Gawain (Dev Patel), the nephew of the king and queen (Kate Dickie), strikes off the knight’s head, only for the body to pick it up and ride off to await a return visit in the Green Chapel.
As written and directed by David Lowery, this is not, however, the sort of sword and sorcery film you might expect. Rather, it’s an arty, mystical meditation on themes of honour, masculinity and the desire for immortality, Patel’s Gawain first seen as an unambitious dissolute ne’er do well given to booze and brothels who takes up the challenge (using Excalibur, though neither it nor Arthur are referred to by name) as a quick way to elevate his status and become a knight, his regular shag, Essel (Alicia Vikander), dreaming of being his “lady”.
After a year of basking in his notoriety, but conscious of what fate may await, as Christmas approached he sets out to keep his bargain, armed with the Green Knight’s giant axe and a magic girdle given him his sorceress mother (Sarita Choudhury), that, a bit of a cheat, will keep him from harm. As he goes upon his Pilgrim’s Progress-like journey, he finds his courage, morality and convictions tested by those he encounters, among then a bandit trickster (Barry Keoghan) who robs him and leaves him for dead, a woman asking him to recover her decapitated head from a lake, and a flirtatious Lord (a sly Joel Egerton) and his alluring Lady (Vikander again), the latter of whom seeks to tempt him to her bed (and gets him to ejaculate over the magic girdle she has someone acquired and returned) before finally arriving at his appointed destiny.
Lowery conjures a world characterised by decay, both physical and moral, in a transition between pagan and Christian, that makes for an atmospheric backdrop, but rather tends to overdo the otherworldly mystery with the likes of the blindfolded old woman at the Lord’s castle, Gawain’s mother’s spells and fellow witches, the talking fox companion he acquires and the sight through the morning mist of a breastfeeding giant walking across the land with her fellows, none of which are ever explained and some of which, like Gawain’s vision of his future if he defaults on his bargain, may all be in his head.
Patel makes for a compelling flawed vulnerable hero beset by doubt, insecurity and internal confusion while the support cast afford a tapestry of subtle colours as Lowery weaves an intoxicating visual magic even as his cryptic telling resists easy access, its deep pleasures only truly surfacing as you look back after viewing. (Amazon Prime)
The Guilty (15)
A remake of the claustrophobic Danish thriller of the same name and played out pretty much note for note, directed by Antoine Fuqua, this is a largely (and electrifying) one-man turn by Jake Gyllenhaal as Joe Baylor, an asthmatic LA police officer resentful of having been demoted to the job of a 911 call handler while awaiting trial for a never specified misdemeanour. His marriage has also fallen apart, and he can’t get to speak to his young daughter.
It’s the night shift and his routine involves taking calls from assorted drunks, a man robbed by a sex worker, those caught up in the wildfire and others who want their problems solved, ascertaining location and then assigning the appropriate services. Then, he gets one from a woman, Emily (Riley Keough), who, in frightened tones, tells him she’s been abducted and is in the car, pretending she’s phoning her toddler daughter, Abby, to reassure her she’s okay. Joe’s instincts kick in and he makes desperate calls to try and find her, eventually speaking to her daughter, establishing she’s in a white van, that she’s been taken by her ex-husband, who did time for assault, that he has a knife and that the children, the little girl and a baby, are home alone and one has been seriously injured.
As the clock ticks away and the crisis, like the fires, heats up, Joe becomes ever more concerned and ever more intense in his efforts, losing it with fellow officers, those he calls who don’t seem to be responding as quickly as he wants and Emily’s ex, Henry (Peter Sarsgaard), when he gets him on the line, and Gyllenhaal, on headset and iPhone, ramps up the emotions and delivery accordingly, while also juggling calls to his estranged wife and a persistent reporter who wants his side to the story being trialled the next day.
Those who’ve seen the original will know about the devastating surprise third act twist, but if not I’ll say nothing to spoil the shock other than it throws a new light on the film’s title. With Ethan Hawke adding to the disembodied voices as Joe’s former sergeant, the support cast deliver solid support but, often shot in sweaty close up, it is Gyllenhaal who is front and centre throughout, his efforts to save Emily clearly some sort of attempt at personal salvation amid the fuck up he’s made of his life, adding an extra edge to the final sequence. Riveting. (Netflix)
Gunpowder Milkshake (15)
Abandoned (for her own good) as a youngster (Freya Allan) by her contract killer mother Scarlet (Lena Headey) when a job involving some nasty Russians went sour, Sam (a cool Karen Gillan) now works doing likewise for the same shady organisation of businessmen gangsters, The Firm, whose overseer, Nathan (Paul Giamatti), took her under his wing. She’s very good at what she does, and after each job she likes to unwind at the neutral zone diner with a large ice cream milkshake.
Unfortunately, history repeats itself when, on her latest contract to recover some stolen Firm money, she unwittingly kills the son of a powerful Russian mobster whom her employers don’t want to upset, thus removing the protection she enjoys, and sending her on the run, during the course of which she acquires a cute 8-year-old, 8 Emily (My Spy’s Chloe Coleman) whose dad stole the money to pay her ransom and who she killed (though, to be fair, she shot him in a tussle and did take him to the hospital) and reunites with her ‘aunts’ in The Sisterhood, Anna May (Angela Bassett), Florence (Michelle Yeoh) and Mathilde (Carla Gugino), three fellow assassins who run The Library, a brilliantly imagined sanctuary where assorted weapons are stored inside the books on the shelves. Needless to say, at some point, after 15 years, mum resurfaces too.
A sort of female action spin on John Wick with liberal helpings of Kill Bill and Bad Times at the El Royale that plays with the same wink in its eye, it rattles along as Sam is pursued by both an army of Russian goons and The Firm’s bumbling enforcers (taking them on while her arms are temporarily paralysed and they’re under the influence of laughing gas), rescues Emily from the kidnappers by way of a bravura sequence at a bowling alley using a bowling ball as a deadly weapon, a guns blazing, chain, hammers and tomahawk-wielding shoot out at The Library To the sound of The Animals cover It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue and a final showdown at the diner. Also thrown into the mix is Ralph Ineson as Sam’s decidedly off his head father and a fight involving a suitcase handle. With an ending that demands both a sequel and prequel, it knows it’s just colourful, blood spattered popcorn fun and clearly relishes every mouthful. (Sky Cinema/NOW)
Halloween Kills (18)
Forty-three years on since the first film, this picks up right after the end of returning director David Gordon Green’s 2018 entry into the franchise, Halloween, that saw Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) being rushed to hospital by her daughter, Karen (Judy Greer) and granddaughter Allyson (Andi Matichack), after being badly wounded, believing the insane masked murderer Michael Myers (variously played here by James Jude Courtney, Nick Castle and Airon Armstrong) aka The Shape to be trapped in the burning basement of her home. But, after eleven films, if one thing’s for sure it’s that he seems impossible to kill. And sure enough, after a prologue where, out celebrating Halloween, Allyson’s boyfriend Cameron (Dylan Arnold), comes across a badly wounded cop (Will Patton) and a recreated flashback to events four decades earlier (including a passable Donald Pleasence lookalike as Loomis) where his dad (Robert Longstreet) had a narrow escape, we see Myers emerging from the inferno and massacring a crew of first responders before setting off on another bloody spree.
Meanwhile, Laurie’s friend Tommy (Anthony Michael Hall), who she babysat as a kid, rallies the people of Haddonfield, among them the now older survivors from the original, Lindsey (Kyle Richards) and Marion (Nancy Stephens) reprising their roles, into a vigilante mob chanting evil dies tonight. Well, despite their best efforts, including a pitchfork in the back, various bullets and a knife to the neck, naturally, and this is hardly a spoiler, it doesn’t, leaving the stage set for yet another confrontation between Michael and Laurie in the next sequel, Halloween Ends, where, having spent most of this film in a hospital bed, Curtis will presumably have a far more hands-on role.
As such, there’s not exactly much of a plot, just a series of brutally visceral murders as the body count rises and rises, rather narrowing down the returning cast list next time around, all of which Green mounts with efficiency even if, by now, the sudden appearance of Myers behind someone has pretty much lost all of its jumps care value. Somewhere among all this, the screenplay attempts to explore a theme of generational trauma and revenge as catharsis, the townsfolk turning into your standard blood crazed lynch mob, at one point, in a slipshod sidebar, running down an escaped mental hospital inmate they mistake for Michael, providing another opportunity to spill brains and guts. It ticks all the boxes you would expect, but, after 43 years, it’s chasing its own tail down a dead end alley. (Cineworld 5 Ways, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe)
The Harder They Fall (15)
Directed and co-written by British singer-songwriter Jeymes Samuel and featuring virtually all Black cast, this comes with all its Tarantino guns blazing (with bullets by Leone), from the homage to classic Westerns to smart ass pop culture dialogue, a gleeful disregard for historical accuracy, stylised bloody violence, whimsical captions, a contemporary soundtrack (hip hop from Jay-Z, reggae and dub from Barrington Levy and Dennis Brown) and visual puns such as black towns having coloured buildings and a white town being quite literally all white. It might easily be a companion piece to Django Unchained.
It opens as a young Nat Love watches as his mother and preacher father are murdered by Rufus Buck (Idris Elba), who’s come to settle an old score, he himself let live but with a cross carved into his forehead. Fast forward and Love (Jonathan Majors) leads a gang of outlaws (who only prey on other outlaws) comprising cocky young quick-shooter Jim Beckwourth (RJ Cyler) and, sharpshooter Bill Pickett (Edi Gathegi), who ambush another, red-hooded, gang, who’ve just robbed a bank.
The loot was destined to go to Buck who, Love is horrified to hear, has been given a federal pardon (his gang liberate him from an iron vault on a train (named in tribute to Chadwick Boseman) guarded by corrupt soldiers) and is now intent on reclaiming the town of Redwood (where redwood trees are conspicuously absent) from a turncoat sidekick now sheriff (Deon Cole) as his personal fiefdom alongside his core gang of Treacherous’ Trudy Smith (Regina King) and laconic quick draw Cherokee Bill (LaKeith Stanfield). So, linking up with his feisty saloon singer lover ‘Stagecoach’ Mary Fields (Zazie Beetz), her cross-dressing bouncer Cuffee (a marvellous Danielle Deadwyler) and Deputy Marshall Bass Reeves (Delroy Lindo), they set off for long overdue payback. In a very Tarantinoesque flourish, the names of most of the central characters (some of whom figured in Samuels’ earlier Western short They Die By Dawn) all relate to real people from the time , although they never met and certainly were never involved in anything like the storyline here. Love, for example, was a prize winning professional cowboy.
A revisionist take on an era in American history films of which have been almost exclusively dominated by white heroes and villains, it moves surefootedly to its inevitable Redwood showdown between Love and Buck (and much gunplay that eliminates most of the supporting players) and a monologue that delivers an unexpected and audacious sting in the tail that finally explains what the score was Buck was settling.
The central players all rise to the occasion and each has their moment in the spotlight, Elba suitably brooding and ruthless, Majors relentlessly charismatic, Stanfield ultra-cool, although a sassy King and Beetz, who get to have their own brutal; brawl, often threaten to steal it from their male co-stars. It may not be the defibrillator needed to fully revive the genre, but it’s more than enough fast paced, violet fun to keep the pacemaker ticking. (Netflix)
Jungle Cruise (12A)
It used to be that the film spawned the theme park ride, but these days it’s more often the other way round. This, set in 1917, is the seventh to be based on a Disney theme park attraction, although cine-literate audiences will recognise it’s also heavily influenced by the Bogart and Hepburn classic The African Queen, the roles here taken by Dwayne Johnson and Emily Blunt. She’s Lily Houghton, a trousers-wearing British botanist who’s determined to find a legendary ancient tree, hidden somewhere in the depths of the Amazon, the petals of which, the Tears Of The Moon, will heal any illness. Wearing the same sort of hat as Bogart, he is Frank Wolff, the cynical skipper of a ramshackle river boat who, in hock to the local Italian businessman (Paul Giamatti), runs cruises up and down the Amazon, given to making dreadful puns and something of an opportunistic con artist staging assorted ‘perils’ for his gullible Western tourists. Lily having stolen a mystical arrowhead which, along with an old map, she believes will lead her to the tree, heads for Brazil along with her impractical foppish brother MacGregor (Jack Whitehall) where, after assorted antics (including a staged attack by Frank’s tame jaguar), she ends up hiring him to skipper them on their mission. She calls him Skippy, he calls her Pants. However, she’s not the only one after the petal and, as the travel up the Amazon, they’re pursued by Prince Joachim (an accent mangling Jesse Plemons), apparently one of the Kaiser’s sons, in his submarine, who wants to use its powers to help the German army win the war.
It should, at this point, be mentioned that there’s also a curse attached to the legend, dating back to the 16th century when, led by Aguirre (Edgar Ramírez), a bunch of Spanish Conquistadors came in search of the petals, massacred the natives who protected the tree and ended up being forever trapped by the le, their zombie selves being liberated and teaming up with Joachim.
Shamelessly pilfering from not only The African Queen, but also Romancing The Stone, Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Mummy and Pirates of the Caribbean (and for art house devotees, Aguirre, Wrath Of God), it could have profitably have been trimmed by 15 minutes (ditching some baggage as Frank does with MacGregors’), but you can’t say director Jaume Collet-Serra’s doesn’t give value for the price of admission, what with telepathic bees, snakes, rapids, plunging waterfalls, running over collapsing structures, swinging from ropes, dart-blowing natives, headhunters, explosions and much more. And along the way there’s the inevitable burgeoning romance between Lily and Frank (he has a secret, so let’s just say it’s probably good if she prefers older men) as well as a sensitively handled scene where MacGregor (Whitehall rising above his initial comic relief role) confesses to Frank that his affections are not directed at women.
Blunt and Johnson play off each other well, though it’s fair to say she scores the most points, and both throw themselves into the film’s physical demands with great gusto, and, at the end of the day, it’s all a good hearted rollercoaster ride through old fashioned Saturday matinee adventure escapism and none the worse for that. (Disney+)
Directed by Cedric Nicolas-Troyan, this mines similar territory to Jason Statham’s Crank, DOA and 24 Hours To Live in a race against the clock Tokyo-set thriller in which, following a one night stand quickie before being sent on a new mission that will be her final job, female assassin Kate (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) finds she’s been given fatal radiation poisoning. Now, with the help of adrenalin boosting shots, she has just 24 hours to track down those responsible, which she believes to Kijima (Jun Kunimura), the elderly Yakuza boss who was her mark and whose younger brother she killed 10 months earlier. Tracking him down involves kidnapping his niece, Ani (Miku Patricia Martineau), a mouthy teenager who, it transpires, is the daughter of the man she killed back in Osaka some years earlier, which has left her with a guilty conscience over breaking the ‘no kids’ rule. Unaware of Kate’s involvement, when she discovers that she’s been deemed expendable by her uncle’s lieutenant, Renji (Tadanobu Asano), impressed by Kate’s deadly prowess (she calls her a Terminator – cue a red bloodshot eye), she becomes a willing and eager sidekick as the pair set out to track down Kijima and exact revenge.
Inevitably, tracing themes of family, loyalty and double-crosses, the plot throws in a not entirely unpredictable third act twist involving him, Renji and Varrick (Woody Harrelson), Kate’s father-figure handler who groomed her lethal skills from when she was orphaned, but, anchored by a solid gritty but human action woman turn from Winstead discovering her maternal instincts towards the girl she orphaned (see Gunpowder Milkshake too) as she staggers through events, coughing up blood and getting battered, and some engaging comedic input from Martineau as the brattish but ultimately likeable Ani. With plenty of punchy regulation fight scenes and car chases to drive things along inbetween the character moments and emotional pulses, it makes for a watchable popcorn and a beer Friday night. (Netflix)
The Last Duel (18)
The first script co-written by Matt Damon and Ben Affleck since Good Will Hunting, here with female input from Nicole Holofcener (writing a chapter each), Ridley Scott’s latest epic is a basically a medieval Rashomon for the #MeToo generation. Based on a true story from 14th century France (as told in Eric Jager’s book) during the Hundred Years War, it affords three different perspectives on events involving questions of truth, honour and justice. It opens in 1386 with a flashforward to former friends now deadly enemies facing each other off, armoured and on horseback with lances, in front of the giggly and not a little sadistic young King Charles VI (Alex Lawther). So that’ll be the newly knighted Jean de Carrouges (Damon) with goatee, mullet and check scar, and rakishly good-looking ladies man Jacques LeGris (Adam Driver), a charismatic rock star squire in the service of debauched reprobate Count Pierre d’Alençon (Affleck, having all the devilish most fun as a sort of platinum-blonde 1300s Hugh Hefner), the king’s cousin who oversees Normandy. It then jumps back in time as, disobeying orders to protect Limoges, de Carrouges leads a charge to prevent further beheadings and, in the process, saves LeGris’s life.
The first chapter of three is told from the former’s perspective as he becomes increasingly enraged as his standing sinks and LeGris’s rises under d’Alençon’s patronage. All the more so to discover that a lucrative parcel of land promised him as part of the dowry in marrying Marguerite de Thibouville (Jodie Comer), the daughter of a pardoned traitor, has been appropriated by the Count and given to Le Gris. In attempting to sue them both, de Carrouges suffers a further setback when his now rival is awarded a captaincy he was due to inherit on his father’s death, although, persuaded by his wife to attend a party celebrating a friends’ new son, the pair are, apparently, reconciled. However, LeGris’s interest in Marguerite does not bode well. And so it is that, on his return from a trip to Paris to collect his fee for a disastrous campaign in Scotland, Marguerite tells him that, while he was away, his scold of a mother (Harriet Walter) took off on a trip with all the servants, leaving her alone, and that LeGris forced his way in and raped her. All of which leads up to de Carrouges, who takes it more as an affront on him rather than his wife, petitioning the King to allow him to face LeGris in a duel to the death with the winner being whoever’s telling the truth.
At which point, Chapter Two rewinds everything to tell it all over again, this time according to LeGris, who in this version saves de Carrouges’ life, and almost seems reluctant to accept gifts that were his friend’s due. He is, however, less reluctant about bursting in on his wife, professing his love and then raping her, telling himself she wanted it really. We then get Chapter Three (written, as you might surmise, by Holofcener), which is Marguerite’s version of the truth, which actually accords with and expands on her assault in Chapter Two, but where she now learns that, should her husband be the one killed in the duel, she will be deemed to have lied and will suffer a decidedly grisly execution.
The narrative problem is that, after presenting LeGris’s account, there’s actually no mystery about who is telling truth, the only tension being in waiting to see who kills who in the duel. But then, that’s whodunit is not really the point of the film. Visually suitably gloomy with a wintry palette to match the period setting, there are bloody and brutal battle sequences, but these are only brief and the screenplay’s more contemporary focus is on assault and consent and how women who have been raped have difficulty in getting people to believe them and secure justice, and that they weren’t asking for it and leading on their assailant. It doesn’t help her case that she once told a friend she thought LeGris was quite a looker.
As such, it’s an intense drama that dwells more on character and the dynamic interplay. Marguerite is clearly the innocent, who’s only crime is to be good looking and well-read, both of which are a turn on for the arrogant, smug LeGris, who is, quite frankly, a bit of a vicious bastard to tends to treat all women as a penis parking zone. De Carrouges isn’t Mr Perfect either. He may have good reason to feel wronged, but he’s also volatile, insecure, jealous and preeningly self-absorbed, resentful of being diminished by the elevation of his peers.
The lack of ambiguity inevitably works against the film, with no real suspense as to the truth to keep the audience involved, but, even so, spanning many years and underlining the different playing fields for men and women, then and now, the central performances, Comer’s especially, are first rate while, even when the narrative somewhat loses its grip over the 152 minute running time, Scott’s direction never falters, even if, ultimately, you feel this could have equally served as a pitch for EastEnders. (MAC; Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe)
Last Night In Soho (18)
While familiar motifs like London’s underbelly, seedy pubs and retro pop culture still figure, this is something of a new look and style for director Edgar Wright (co-scripted by Krysty Wilson-Cairns), a decided departure from the likes of Hot Fuzz, Shaun of the Dead and Baby Driver as, nodding to Alice Through The Looking Glass (as well as Polanski’s Repulsion), he takes on the ghost story genre in his own idiosyncratic way,.
Titled after the 1968 hit by Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick & Tich (which plays over the end credits), it stars Jojo Rabbit’s Thomasin Mackenzie as Eloise, Ellie, a rural Cornish ingénue whose father left and whose mentally disturbed mother (Aimee Cassettari seen in imagined reflections) committed suicide (there’s a suggestion Ellie too has had problems), raised from the age of seven by her grandmother (Rita Tushingham).
Obsessed with the sounds and style of the Swinging 60s (she’s introduced in a self-designed newspaper dress dancing to Peter & Gordon’s World Without Love on her Dansette and the soundtrack is awash with UK hits from the time), she’s thrilled to gained a place at the London School of Fashion, where she’s befriended sensitive romantic interest John (Michael Ajao), to pursue her dreams of becoming a designer.
After an initial bad student digs experience with bitchy fellow student Jocasta (Synnøve Karlse), she takes a room in a house owned by its former cleaner, the elderly Ms Collins (Diana Rigg understatedly brilliant in her last role and to whom the film is dedicated), which is when she starts dreaming she’s back in 1965 Soho (where Sean Connery’s Thunderball has just opened), a doppelganger it would seem for aspiring pop star Sandie (Anya Taylor-Joy), her reflection showing when the latter is near a mirror, and vice versa.
Inspired, she designs a pink chiffon dress a la Sandie’s and changes her hair-do, then, in her dreams she/Sandie meets the snappily-dressed smooth-talking Jack (Matt Smith), who’s hanging out with Cilla Black at the Café de Paris, who, after seeing her slinky dance moves, becomes her lover and gets her a gig (auditioning singing a sexier take on the decidedly ironic Downtown) at the Rialto nightclub. Except, as its Puppet On A String routine with scantily clad dancers warns, he is, of course, a wolf in sheep’s clothing who quickly shifts from agent to pimp, as Sandie finds herself in an entirely different line of work.
All this haunts Ellie, as does Jack and the faceless visions of the leering men who use and abuse Sandie, to the point she thinks she might be losing her mind. As the time zones shift back and forth, and she takes a bartending job at The Toucan, a noted Soho watering hole, the ghosts of the past become an increasing presence and threat to Ellie’s sanity and, indeed life, on top of which there’s the mysterious and somewhat sinister camel-coated silver-haired regular (Terence Stamp) who seems to be stalking her.
Things come to a dramatic head when, in her dream, she witnesses and is unable to stop, Jack attacking Sandie with a knife, at which point she visits the police saying she witnessed a murder committed some twenty odd years earlier. Naturally, they don’t take her seriously, which, after toying with hints of schizophrenia and time slips, is when the ghost story digs in to genuinely scary Nightmare on Elm Street levels (though the certificate seems unwarranted) and Wright delivers a wholly unexpected final act twist as a character hitherto a background figure steps into a more crucial role.
Making compelling use of the lighting, all neon reds and blues, and transitioning from one genre to another as it gathers steam, Wright pulls you in to Ellie’s nightmare with a firm grip and refuses to let you shake loose. Not that you will want it to. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC; Empire Great Park; Mockingbird; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Vue)
No Time To Die (12A)
Daniel Craig quite literally bows out of his stint as 007 in a blaze of glory as, after several pandemic-caused delays the 25th (and longest) official James Bond movie finally arrives amid glowing reviews peppered with all the obvious catch phrase clichés. Scripted by Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and Phoebe Waller-Bridge and masterfully directed by Cary Fukunaga, it has several nods to the past franchise outings, most obviously in being bookended with Louis Armstrong’s All The Time In The World which was, of course, the theme to On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, George Lazenby’s only outing in the role and, pointedly, the film in which Bond found love and married.
He’s in love again here, this time with the enigmatic psychiatrist Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux, magnetic), as seen in Spectre, having retired from active service for domestic bliss, though events following his visit to the tomb of Vesper Lynd to finally let go of the past quickly see such hopes dashed. Madeleine, announced in the previous film as the daughter of former Quantum member Mr White, is given a prologue back story here when, seeking revenge for her father murdering his family, the masked and facially scarred Lyutsifer Safin (a coolly chilling Rami Malek) arrives at their remote snowbound Norwegian home, kills her mother but ends up rescuing her from a frozen lake when she attempts to escape. Suffice to say, back in Matera in Italy and after a stupendous car chase and town square shoot out involving his tooled-up Aston Martin (seemingly MI6 allow agents to keep their deadly toys when they quit), Bond assumes he’s been betrayed again, puts her on a train walks away.
Cut to five years later and a murderous raid on a secret MI6 laboratory (cue comedic cameo from Hugh Dennis) sees Obruchev (David Dencik), a Russian scientist, supposedly kidnapped along with his data on something called Project Heracles, a bioweapon containing nanobots that allow to target specific DNA strands that M (Ralph Fiennes) has been running as a clandestine operation. Anyone infected with the virus then kills anyone they touch (an unintended COVID echo) who shares that DNA. Now living in Port Antonio, Jamaica (where Ian Fleming holidayed), Bond is contacted by his best buddy, CIA agent Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright), who, along with his all smiles colleague Logan Ash (Billy Magnusson) want him to help tracking down Obruchev to which, after a visit by Nomi (Lashana Lynch who, disappointingly never quite registers as a character beyond her testiness) his female black replacement as 007, and learning about Heracles, he eventually agrees. And so begins a complex and convoluted storyline that entails Bond linking up with Paloma (Ana de Armas who appeared opposite Craig in Knives Out), a feisty Cuba-based CIA agent, the mass killing of all SPECTRE agents, at a gathering remotely hosted by the organisation’s imprisoned head, Blofeld (Christoph Waltz), using Obruchev’s weapon, a deadly betrayal, a tense reunion with Swann, a Starling-Lecter-like face to face with Blofeld, to whom only Swann has access, and the discovery that Safin, who has the usual Bond villain world domination ambitions, is behind everything. That and the fact that Madeleine has kept more than one secret from him; a cute 5-year-old called Mathilde (Lisa-Dorah Sonnet).
With integral appearances by Craig-era regulars Rory Kinnear as Tanner, Ben Wishaw as Q and Naomi Harris as Moneypenny, the film never feels its near three hour running time as twists and turns, abductions and just who has been infected and by whom keep you involved and on your toes as, via yet another thrilling car chase, it builds to an explosive climax on an old World War II island base between Japan and Russia, where Safin has a lavish Japanese poison garden, that can’t help but recall Dr No.
Not only do Fukunaga and the writers outdo the previous Bonds in terms of visual spectacular and edge of the seat action, peppered with the trademark dry one liners and quips, they also offer a romantic, tender and sensitive side to Bond hitherto never fully seen or explored, something that Craig translates to the screen with compelling intensity and moving pathos, his final moments likely to leave you, sorry, shaken and stirred. At the end of the credits, it announces James Bond will return, as to who and how, that we’ll just have to wait and see. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Vue)
After a stream of over the top performances in barking, bonzo B-movies, Nicolas Cage returns to something like his Oscar-winning Leaving Las Vegas form for this slow burning, understated feature debut by writer/director Michael Sarnoski. He plays Rob, a grizzled, straggly-bearded aged truffle hunter who lives a hermit’s life in the Oregon wilds with his prized truffle pig, his only contact with the outside world being regular Thursday visits by flashy young buyer Amir (Alex Wolff).
One night, however, he’s attacked and his pig stolen. Now, in his previous films this might have entailed Cage going off on a berserk violent bender to retrieve the porker and kill those responsible. This is not that film. Instead, having discovered the big was stolen by two junkies at the best of some mystery buyer, he persuades a reluctant Amir to drive him into Portland where he knows someone who might know something where Sarnoski reveals that Rob was once Robin Feld, a former celebrity Portland chef before tragedy changed his life. To say more would spoil the carefully crafted narrative that involves Amir’s powerful widowed father Darius (Adam Arkin) who runs a truffle supply business of his own and features a mesmerising scene in which Robin confronts Derek(David Knell), a pretentious chef who runs the equally pretentious Eurydice restaurant who he once fired for overcooking the pasta, with the gulf between his original passionate gastropub dreams and the cold haute cuisine falsity of what he now does.
Building to a confrontation that involves Robin recreating dish he once serves (he professes to remember every customer her served and every dish he cook) which harks back to a story Amir tells at the start about a meal that made his father happy, and closing with an understated redemption and reconciliation with the past, it’s a melancholic, existential affair about family, love, food, hurt, grief, obligations and being honest about yourself, a film where a whisper proves far more effective than a scream. (BT Store, Sky Store, Virgin)
Romeo and Juliet (12A)
Filmed on the National Theatre stage, without an audience, over seventeen days during the pandemic, directed by Simon Godwin with Josh O’Connor and a broadly accented Jesse Buckley in the title roles, opening with the actors gathered around the set in their everyday clothes for a run through, this is a heavily abridged (93 minutes rather than the two hours announced in the prologue) and reimagined take on Shakespeare’s tragedy, one which contains the bare bones of the doomed love story but otherwise tramples over the thematic nuances. It also makes so many bizarre and baffling revisions, seemingly just for the sake of experimentation and audacity, that the original text is rendered almost unrecognisable.
Most crucially, in the scene where Juliet declares she will not wed Paris, rather than her father throwing a hissy fit, it’s Lady Capulet (a quietly chilling Tamsin Grieg), an ineffectual figure in the original play, who castigates her, taking on the role of a controlling Machiavellian figure. Likewise, it’s a bit of a shock when the camera abruptly cuts away from Romeo and Juliet about to kiss to Mercutio (Fisayo Akinade) and Benvolio (Shubham Saraf) unleashing their passions upon one another.
That the romance ends in twin grief-struck suicides is common knowledge, so the decision to introduce brief flash forward images of bloody hands and vials of poison seems at best clumsy and at worst crass. There are some nice touches, the masked ball plays out like a dance club with the guests getting down with the beats and Romeo spotting Juliet singing behind the microphone, while the fights are well-staged and the marriage scene in Friar Lawrence’s cell nicely littered with flickering candles. Although it dumps the ‘what light from yonder window breaks?’ speech, the balcony scene is also effective, but, while Buckley gives it her all, O’ Connor is more placid, their mismatched performances lacking the necessary chemistry, and rushing through the subsequent storyline for a virtual potted resume means there’s no depth, diminishing the couple’s passion and tragedy and draining it of the emotions it should elicit. A misfire on so very many levels, it may have a certain curiosity value, but purists and GCSE students would be well-advised to give it a miss. (Sky Arts)
Ron’s Gone Wrong (PG)
Another animation about the importance of friendship, Barney Pudowski (Jack Dylan Grazer) is a friendless seventh grade schoolboy embarrassed that his Bulgarian gran (Olivia Colman) gives him chicken feet in his lunch box, is bullied over his rock collecting hobby and wishes he had a B*Bot like all the other kids. A B*Bot is a new capsule-shaped high tech invention from the Bubble company, a Best Friend Straight Out Of The Box, programmed to like what you like and to find others of a similar mind to build a friendship network.
Arriving at the factory too late buy one, his oblivious widowed dad (El Helms) an inventor of naff contraptions no one wants to buy, acquires one that literally ‘fell off the back of a lorry’. Unfortunately the glowing white toy with its ever detachable arms and on the fritz expressions, which he names Ron (Zach Galifianakis), is defective, lacking some its programming (he calls Barney Absalom because his name list doesn’t go beyond A), such as the algorithm to stop him harming humans, which, as it turns out, is quite fortunate in giving the bullies a taste of their own medicine.
As such, in the ET-like bonding between the two, the screenplay (co-penned by Alan Partridge veteran Peter Baynham) touches on some important theme of being isolated from your peers and of the need for friendship, but overlays this with some rather clunky plot tangents such as a critique of teenagers’ obsession with technology and social media rather than real friendships as well as, rather inevitably, corporate villainy as, unlike his well-meaning geeky partner Mark, who invented them, the company’s child-hating co-founder, Andrew (Rob Delaney), intends to use the B*Bots to harvest consumer data from their owners so they can sell more. The fact Ron is operating offline, and is affecting the other bots’ programming, threatens the stock price and, therefore, he must be destroyed.
Despite some obvious comparisons to Big Hero 6, Short Circuit, The Iron Giant and How To Train Your Dragon, it’s an amiable affair with several affecting scenes, such as Barney training him to learn about him so they can have fun, a friendship ultimately earned rather than engineered, and a scene where the two hide out in the woods, while there’s an obligatory toilet gag as a girl obsessed with social media followers finds the downside of going viral when an image of her emerging from the butt of a rogue B*Bot assemblage earns her the name PoopGirl. No classic, but your software would be malfunctioning if you didn’t enjoy it. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Vue)
Shang-Chi And The Legend Of The Ten Rings (12A)
Making his first appearance in 1973 in Master of Kung Fu, Shang-Chi is a minor Marvel Comics character, originally a Sax Rohmer spin-off as the son of Fu Manchu. The comic character being resurrected for, first Heroes For Hire, and, subsequently as a member of The Avengers. Now, as directed by Destin Daniel Cretton making his superhero bow, he’s the latest addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe , the film serving as both origin story and launch platform for an ongoing franchise.
It begins with a scene setting prelude set in 1996 and narrated and spoken in subtitled Mandarin, as, having subjugated pretty much everywhere else with the use of his magical ten rings, thousand-year-old warlord Wenwu (Tony Leung) sets out to conquer the hidden mystical realm of Ta Lo, a village said to harbour creatures from Chinese mythology, but is defeated by its protector Ying Li (Fala Chen), the two falling love as they battle, she eventually leaving her home and he renouncing his Ten Rings crime organisation to become parents of two children, Shang-Chi (Jayden Zhang/Arnold Sun) and Xialing (Elodie Fong) and all is hearts and flowers until, as we learn in subsequent flashbacks, old rivals murder Li, plunging Wenwu back into his old ways, training his son in the martial arts to serve as an instrument of vengeance.
Cut to the present and the now grown Shang-Chi (Simu Liu), calling himself Shaun, is working as a parking valet alongside overqualified best friend Katy (Awkwafina) who knows nothing of his past, until that is, he’s attacked on a bus by a bunch of assassins, led by the self-descriptively named Romanian Razor Fist (Florian Munteanu), who wants to steal the jade necklace his mother gave him. And so, loading up the exposition, it transpires they’re part of his dad’s army who wants the pendant and that belonging to his now grown daughter (impressive newcomer Meng’er Zhang) in order to return to Ta Lo where he believes his wife is imprisoned inside a mountain from where she has been calling to him.
All of which entails reluctant hero Shang-Chi and Katy heading to Macao, him reuniting with his sister who runs a fight club and isn’t initially best pleased to see him as he left her behind when he fled his father at 15, and the three of them setting off to mom’s village (meeting up their aunt, Michelle Yeoh, and Katy getting trained as an archer) to warn them of Wenwu’s intentions, learning that, in fact, what’s imprisoned inside the mountain is actually a demonic soul sucker monster.
This all proceeds at a cracking pace with numerous dynamic martial arts fight sequences, ranging from the initial balletic one between Wenwu and Li that evokes memories of those in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (in which Yeoh starred), the exhilarating crosstown bus battle with Katy behind the wheel, the siblings’ showdown, and the all-out climax between the Ta Lo warriors and the Ten Rings soldiers as they, and our intrepid trio, take on the freed soul-sucking monsters with the help of assorted mythological beasts, including one huge mother of dragon. And, of course, the ultimate confrontation between father and son with the fate of the world and the ten rings in the balance
It’s a breathless, thrilling set of action sequences, so it’s somewhat unfortunate that it was felt necessary to insert a lengthy and frankly very silly comedic relief section in which a cheerfully hamming Ben Kingsley revives his Iron Man 3 role as Liverpudlian actor Trevor Slattery who was hired to impersonate The Mandarin (here now one of Wenwu’s identities), and, post-prison, is a reformed character and offers to guide them to Ta Lo with the help of his hundun companion Morris, a kind of furry winged cushion, who is from there, want to return home and knows the secret route in.
A Canada-based Chinese actor and martial arts trained stuntman, Liu makes for a solid conflicted action hero in the Marvel tradition, while Leong’s soulful performance successfully captures the ambivalence of his character, both cruelly ruthless in his actions but sympathetic in his overwhelming grief at loss of the wife and family he’s looking to restore, but perhaps inevitably, it’s Awkwafina who steals much of the film even though she’s playing a second string role. Naturally there’s several connections to the wider MCU, from a reference to Thanos wiping out half of the world’s population in The Avengers to a mid-film cameo by Benedict Wong as Doctor Strange’s assistant, returning in the first of the end credit scenes alongside Bri Larson (Captain Marvel) and Mark Ruffalo (Bruce Banner) that deepens the mystery of the ten rings, the second setting up the sequel as the cool and steely female-empowerment advocate Xialing resurrects her father’s organisation, this time with female warriors. (Disney+; Vue)
The Starling (12)
It opens with doting new parents, teacher Jack (Chris O’Dowd) and Lilly (Melissa McCarthy) Maynard painting birds and branches on the nursery wall. Next thing you know, a year later, she’s trying to keep it together in her job at the local grocery store and he’s in a mental health facility (with presumably very good insurance, or perhaps they inherited a fortune given their lavish house and huge garden) having attempted suicide following their daughter’s sudden death, their weekly meetings increasingly strained. His therapist recommends she seeks help too, and so she ends up seeing psychoanalyst-turned-veterinarian Larry (Kevin Kline) who dispenses words of wisdom about starlings mating for life and, hey, guess what, one such cute digitally generated metaphor starts flapping round the vegetable patch she’s tending asa self-healing process, waging a kind of avian turf war. And if you’ve not already sussed the life after grief message, the film ladles on a truckload of signposts, such as songs sporting lyrics like “take some time, clear my mind, find another reason why”.
Negotiating the clichés, it staggers unsteadily along the line that divides comedy and pathos with all the subtlety of a Hallmark card, wasting a support cast that includes Daveed Diggs, Loretta Devine and Timothy Olyphant as Lilly’s manager along the way. O’Dowd looks plainly uncomfortable trying to put across his character’s emotional anguish while McCarthy (whose streak of misfiring flops seems to have no end) adopts a comedic approach that feels totally at odds with the subject matter, making the maudlin moments even more inauthentic. The less said about Kline the better. A manipulative, predictable, mushy, trite tearjerker of the most banal kind, it’s hard to believe that Theodore Melfi also directed the brilliant Hidden Figures. It may be called The Starling, but behind those CGI feathers, it’s really a giant turkey. (Netflix)
Written and directed by Harry Macqueen this is a chamber piece centring on the relationship between a sixtysomething long-term gay couple, quizzical American author Tusker (Stanley Tucci) and reserved English classical pianist Sam (Colin Firth, himself playing Elgar’s Salut d’Amour in the closing scene) who has called a halt to his career to take care of his partner who is suffering from progressive dementia.
The narrative is anchored around a road trip to the Lake District to visit Sam’s sister Lilly (Pippa Haywood), Tusker having persuaded him to give a small recital as well as revisiting Sam’s family while he can still appreciate who they are. However, as we, and Sam, learn, Tusker, who has purposely left his medication behind, has a hidden agenda to the trip and the recital, one that will test Sam’s love for him to the fullest. Although there’s a surprise dinner party scene at Lilly’s, the film primarily centres around its two stars, be they affectionately bickering the camper van en route, spending the night in a Spa car park, revising favourite lake that holds special memories, or engaging in intimate intense conversations in their rented cottage as Tusker talks about his fear of losing control (“I’m becoming a passenger,” he says, “And I’m not a passenger”) and of wanting to be remembered for who he was not who he’s becoming while Sam also breaks down and confesses his own fears, of finding himself unable to cope, of being left alone, and of wanting to be there to the bitter end.
Despite the downbeat melancholic nature of the subject matter, the film is nevertheless suffused with light as it contemplates the nature of grief, mortality and life, of denial and delay, and also leavened with humour, even if at times of a gallows nature, such as Tusker joking how you’re supposed to mourn someone when they’re dead, not while they’re still alive. The title, of course, comes from Tusker’s love of astronomy, at one point he shows Sam how to navigate the constellations while in another wonderful moment he explains to Lilly’s teenage daughter how we’re all comprised of atoms from stars that died and went supernova, a poetic, romantic image about the way life endures even after death. Heartbreakingly magnificent. (BT Film Store, Sky Store, Virgin)
Sweet Girl (15)
When his wife dies from cancer because a pharmaceutical company withdrew the potentially cheap life-saving drug, Ray Cooper (Jason Momoa), whose background is never detailed, sets out to fulfil his television chat show phone in vow of holding company CEO Simon Keeley (Justin Bartha) responsible and killing him with his bare hands. Approached by a journalist who says he has evidence of a conspiracy involving Keeley’s crooked partner (Raza Jaffrey), they meet on a train, Cooper, unknowingly followed by his teen daughter Rachel (Isabela Merced), where the journo is killed and he himself injured by the knife-wielding hitman (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo).
What follows, Rachel insistently accompanying him despite his protestations, charts Cooper’s determined quest to expose the conspiracy and get revenge on those responsible, the film opening with a scene of him atop Pittsburgh’s PNC Park pursued by FBI agent Sarah Meeker (Lex Scott Davis), before plunging into the waters, flashing back to events leading up to this moment before, bringing into focus anti-Big Pharma congresswoman Diana Morgan (Amy Brenneman), the last act throws in a wholly unexpected role reversal twist as the real figure behind the conspiracy is exposed.
Twist aside, it’s a predictable and fairly generic affair with Momoa largely going through the man on the run action motions punctuated by some rote emotional angst, but first time director Brian Andrew Mendoza never lets things flag, Merced proves solid casting and, while disbelief needs to be suspended from a very high pole, it does what it sets out to do with commendable efficiency. (Netflix)
Venom: Let There Be Carnage (15)
And carnage it indeed is. Carnage of the script, the direction and the acting. The first Venom had some of the worst reviews of any Marvel movie, but this makes it look like a masterpiece. Directed, if you can use such a term here, by Andy Serkis, it picks things up shortly after the end of the previous film, the alien symbiont now fully at home in the body of haggard-looking journalist Eddy Brock (Tom Hardy) in what Serkis and Kelly Marcel’s screenplay have fashioned as a mismatched buddy relationship, Venom frequently popping out to make sarcastic jibes at his host, complaining about not being allowed to eat human brains, not even bad guys, and existing on a diet of chocolate and chicken (which wander around Brock’s apartment). It’s a knockabout comedic tone that simply doesn’t gel with what by rights should be more of a horror movie. Worse, it’s not especially funny.
As part of the subplot, ex-girlfriend Anne (Michelle Williams), who knows all about his alien bodymate, arranges to meet Eddy at a restaurant, he’s thinking reconciliation until she flashes her engagement ring, cue yet another round of Venom putdowns. The main thrust, however, involves Eddy getting to do the interview with serial killer Cletus Kasady (Woody Harrelson) trailed at the end of the first film, running an article that winds up with him getting Kasady to reveal where the bodies are buried and, consequently, seeing the death penalty reinstated. An understandably pissed Kasady manages to bite Eddy’s finger, whereby he too winds up with a multi-armed, bloodthirsty symbiont in his body, aka Carnage, albeit this one’s red not black, leading to a jailbreak massacre as he sets up to find, rescue and marry his girlfriend, Frances Barrision (Naomie Harris doing her best with a cipher of a role), aka the mutant Shriek, who’s introduced at the opening flashback to their teenage years where she befriends him at the orphanage and they become lovers, before the obligatory clandestine agency whisk her away to a top secret facility containment cell as a lab rat.
Meanwhile, the film goes from one ill-judged development to another as Venom and Brock have a falling out, and the former quits his host body, and stomps off to the local bars, ludicrously crashing a costume part as himself and becoming a cool hit with the punters, body surfing through assorted hosts before Anne and her fiancé track him down and get him and Eddy to kiss and make up, just in time for the big and visually incoherent Venom vs Carnage showdown in an old church.
Hardy plays things like a man who can’t find an escape clause in his contract, Harrelson outdoes Nic Cage in the deranged and barkingly OTT stakes and Stephen Graham drifts bewilderedly through the narrative and plot holes as police detective Mulligan while all around them the set pieces and visual effects crash from one clumsy mess to another.
It’s mercifully short, probably because huge chunks ended up in the editing room bin, but even then it feels interminable, the mid-credits scene, after the twosome have taken off to a tropical beach for a little r&r, that links to the Spider-Man multiverse more of a warning than a tease. Simply quite awful, but at least the first Venom movie won’t now be the most reviled in the MCU. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Vue)