This column will review films both screening theatrically and/or on various streaming platforms.
Black Panther: Wakanda Forever (12A)
When Chadwick Boseman tragically died two years, not only did the world lose on the greatest actors of his generation, but it cast a huge shadow over the future of the character and franchise he had launched. Recasting with another actor would have been an insult to his memory but ditching the idea of a sequel was equally unthinkable given both its financial potential and how it had proven that a super-hero movie with an all-black cast could be a box office triumph. Fortunately, an alternative had already been trialled when, after Steve Rogers abdicated the role of Captain America at the end of Avengers: Endgame, the mantle was taken up by The Falcon in the ensuing TV series as he transitioned to take up the shield and the title. And so here, the film, again directed and co-written by Ryan Coogler, introduces another version of the Black Panther, the legendary protector of the Wakandan people, played by one of the already existing cast (given the feline nature of the suit, it’s not too hard to guess who that is). However, the new incarnation doesn’t appear until almost two thirds of the way through its extensive running time. Meaning there’s an awful lot of plot-set up to get through first.
It opens with Princess Shuri (Letitia Wright) working frantically to find a heart-shaped herb cure for the mysterious illness from which her brother T’Challa is dying. She fails and, according suitable ritualistic pomp and circumstance for a celebratory funeral, he’s consigned to the realm of the ancestors, via his coffin being taken up into the skies on a Wakandan jet, leaving his mother, Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett) as the nation’s temporary ruler and Shuri consumed with anger at the world that she was unable to prevent his passing.
Meanwhile, the geopolitical plot driver is set in motion with Western powers wanting to get their hands on and exploit Wakanda’s vibranium resources, attempting to take it by force while Ramonda is addressing the UK, only to be repelled by General Okoye (Danai Gurira) and her warriors; the Queen declaring that the previous mineral will never leave her lands. However, it turns out that Wakanda isn’t the only place it exists on Earth and that, thanks to a machine invented by genius college student Riri Williams (Dominique Thorne), there’s also evidence of it under the Atlantic Ocean. At which point, the CIA-vessel searching for it is besieged by mysterious warriors and everyone killed. Naturally, the Wakandans are suspected, but, in fact, the real attackers were a blue-skinned underwater race known as the Talokan, led by their ruler Namor (Tenoch Huerta Mejía), a superstrong half-human mutant with tiny wings on his angles. He duly turns up unannounced, blaming Wakanda for quest to obtain vibranium and telling her to find and deliver the scientist responsible for the machine to him, to be killed, or he will attack Wakanda. Oh, and not to tell anyone about him.
All of this takes an inordinate amount of time with only bursts of action to punctuate proceedings, during which, with the help of CIA agent Ross (Martin Freeman), Shuri and Okoye visit her in Washington to try and take her to Wakanda for her protection, Riri and Shuri ending up being captured by Namor and taken to his realm (where we get his origin story and some spectacular shots of his underwater city), where he proposes an alliance to destroy the surface world, an angry Ramonda stripping Okoye of her rank, a rescue by Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), T’Challa’s lover who’s been living in Haiti since The Blip in the Avengers series, and a retaliatory attack on Wakanda that results in yet another royal death. It’s around this point that the real action finally kicks in with a visit to the ancestral plane (cue a reappearance by Michael B. Jordan, as the usurper Killmonger), the emergence of the new Black Panther and the big Wakanda/Takonan showdown complete with some new high tech Wakandan armour.
Fuelled by loss, grief, vengeance, mercy, moral choices, oppression and colonial exploitation of Third World resources among things, it carries a weighty thematic dynamic that at times feels like an overload, but give the film a more mature and sober edge than many of its Marvel companion pieces. On top of which, following The Woman King, it’s the second film this year constructed around virtually all female Black cast. Returning names include Michaela Coel given a bigger role as Aneka of the royal guard and Winston Duke as belligerent Jabari tribesman M’Baku, while among the new additions are Mabel Cadena as Namor’s cousin Namora and Alex Livinalli as the Talokanil warrior Attuma (a renegade warlord and Namor’s enemy in the comics) with famed singer Baaba Maal cameoing as the funeral singer. The performances are strong throughout, but it’s a ferocious Bassett, the electrifying Wright, a fierce Gurira and impressive Mexican newcomer Mejía in his first leading role who generate the high voltage with Thorne’s spunky teenager setting up her role as Ironheart, a rocket-suited teenage Iron-Man, in the upcoming TV series.
And, inevitably, Boseman’s presence haunts the film, both in constant references to T’Challa’s death and, in the final moments, poignant archive footage from the first film, giving the revelatory moment in the obligatory mid-credits scene a hefty emotional punch. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Electric; Empire Great Park; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Vue)
Enola Holmes 2 (12A)
Targeted at young girls who feel in the shadow of their older brothers or not taken seriously simply because they are not boys, this fun and ingeniously plotted sequel returns to 1880s London where Enola Holmes (Stranger Things’ Millie Bobby Brown), sister of the famous detective Sherlock (Henry Cavill), has, inspired by her success in cracking the case in the first film, has set up her own detective agency. Unfortunately, her age and sex deter any potential clients and she’s just about to jack it in when a young girl named Bessie (Serrana Su-Ling Bliss) turns up asking her to find her older ‘sister’, Sarah (Hannah Dodd), who’s gone missing after being accused of theft at the local match factory where they both work in poor conditions for pitiful wages and where many other match-girls have been dying of typhus.
Infiltrating the factory, Enola discovers that Sarah did indeed steal something; not money but pages from a ledger, and so, the game afoot, launches a complicated plot and a series of clever clues about corruption and cover-ups that link to a case that has Sherlock baffled involving money that has gone missing from the Treasury being funnelled through several apparently unconnected banks, All of which variously has Enola going undercover at a society ball and being given urgent on the spot dance lessons by romantic interest Lord Tewkesbury (Louis Partridge), so she can get to talk to William Lyon (Gabriel Tierney), the son of the factory owner and Sarah’s lover; match-girl Mae (Abbie Hern), who, like Sarah, also works at the music hall and Enola being pursued and arrested for her murder by the decidedly sinister Inspector Grail (David Thewlis), his brutal bobby accomplices and the bumbling Inspector LeStrade (Adeel Akhtar); a rescue by her suffragette mother (Helena Bonham-Carter) and martial arts landlady Edith (Susan Wokoma); a string of cryptic ciphers; and yet another murder all coming together with a swords and fisticuffs climax at the theatre and an inspired twist involving the introduction of Sherlock’s genius nemesis Moriarty.
Delivering messages of sisterhood, of both being self-reliant but also working together for a common goal, the effervescent, perky Brown is a delight, frequently talking directly to the camera as the film breaks the fourth wall, and Cavill has been given a lot more to do this time round as the two end up working together (at this point there is no Watson in his life, but hang on for the mid-credits scene) while the character of Sarah and the final scenes are inspired by the real Sarah Chapman who worked in a match factory, led the first matchworkers strike in 1888 and helped form the Matchworkers Union. Great fun, so roll on No 3. (Netflix)
Terrifier 2 (18)
A huge box office hit in the States, this low budget sequel is firmly in the mould of the splattercore genre of the 70s initiated by Herschell Gordon Lewis that, back then, would have been banned as video nasties. It picks up from the end of the previous film with Art the Clown (David Howard Thornton), resurrected by an unknown entity following the Miles County Massacre, brutally murders the coroner and then goes to a launderette to wash his blood stained costume, where he encounters the sinister and similarly attired The Little Pale Girl (Amelie McLain), the ghost of an earlier victim, and ends up killing the other customer. All of which unfolds without any dialogue. Indeed, like Michael Myers, a clear inspiration, the film’s even set on Halloween, Art never speaks throughout the film, communicating in mine and gestures like a psychopathic Marcel Marceau.
A year on, teenager Sienna Shaw (Lauren LaVera) is putting the final touches to her angel-warrior costume, designed by her late father, she and her mother Barbara (Sarah Voigt) arguing with younger brother Jonathan (Elliott Fullam) that dressing up as Art, on whom he has become fixated, is not in the best taste. That night she has a nightmare about the killer and wakes up to find her costume ablaze, although the sword given to her by dad, is untouched.
It’s not long before the actual Art puts in an appearance following a particularly revolting scene at school where some kids find a dead, maggot infested opossum, Jonathon seeing him and The Little Pale Girl playing with it in the corridor. Art subsequently turns up at the costume shop where Sarah’s just bought new wings, bloodily murdering the assistant, and later breaks in the home of Sarah’s friend, Allie, resulting in yet another gross murder and mutilation in which he literally runs salt into her wounds.
Yet more bloody butchery ensues that night, including graophically severed penis and some head pulping before, Jonathon kidnapped, it all winds up at The Terrifier, a haunted attraction at a defunct carnival where Art’s whips her brother, she’s killed and resurrected and eventually succeeds in decapitating him only for The Little Pale Girl to make off with the head. Which, in turn, is given birth to at the local hospital where Vicky, a mutilated victim from the first film, is being held.
Awash with blood and guts if less substantiated with an actual plot, it’s too excessive to be actually scary and, solidly acted by the main cast, director Damien Leone ensures to lace it with some black humour to make the point, even if, at over two hours, it’s ludicrously overlong. But you can’t say it doesn’t do exactly what it promises. (Mockingbird)
All Quiet On The Western Front (15)
Written in 1929, telling of the horrendous conditions and mass slaughter experienced by young German soldiers on the frontline in WWI, Erich Maria Remarque’s novel is one of the greatest anti-war novels of all time. Though previously filmed twice, the Academy Award winning 1930 version and a 1979 TV film, this is the first in German from a German director (Edward Berger), and with a wholly German cast.
Outstanding newcomer Felix Kammerer is the central character, Paul, a young student keen to do his bit for the Kaiser, God and the Fatherland who forges consent to enlist along with his friends, Albert, Franz and Ludwig (respectively Aaron Hilmer, Moris Klautz and Adrian Grünewald) all expecting it to be over within months and something of a cushy ride with the French fleeing before then.
There’s a foreshadowing of what’s actually in store in the opening sequence where corpses are stripped of their uniforms which are then returned to Germany to be washed, repaired and recycled to the new recruits, Paul receiving one with the name tag Henrich and being told it was probably too small for him. On arrival in France, they’re given a brutal baptism of fire (Ludwig killed the first night) as it quickly becomes clear they and everyone there are just cannon fodder for the blinkered officers and bureaucrats still deludedly thinking they can win.
There are some moments of light relief, Paul and the roguish Kat (Albrecht Schuch) stealing a goose from a local farmer to feed their mates, Franz having a night of passion with a French woman, the camaraderie of the small group that now includes the veteran, Tjaden Stackfleet (Edin Hasanovic), grown close during their time at Ardennes, but otherwise this is relentlessly grim and harrowing as any notions of heroism or valour are tramped into the blood-soaked mud, bodies are blown to pieces, dog tags of the dead are collected and an ever growing number of black coffins are piled into mass graves.
Unfolding over two and a half hours, the battle scenes are visceral and terrifying, flamethrowers turned on surrendering soldiers, bodies pulped by tank tracks, a room of young recruits gassed to death, the agonising slow death throes of a French soldier Paul stabbed, a black shroud of bleakness enveloping everything until eventually Paul is the group’s only survivor.
Meanwhile, sickened by the senseless losses, Matthias Erzberger (Daniel Bruhl who would have surely played Paul in younger days), the German Minister of Finance, is seeking to secure an armistice with the French, headed by General Foch, whose uncompromising demands for German capitulation are not well-received by Erzeberg’s superiors (seen enjoying fine food and wine as opposed to the troop’s turnip bread), and particularly career officer General Friedrichs (Devid Striesow), who orders one final, fatal assault five minutes before the 11am ceasefire.
The film punctuated by gunshot like percussive notes, Berger pulls no punches in depicting the horror, both personal and mass, of the war, the dehumanisation of the fighting, while the addition of the signing of the armistice aboard a train has Erzberger presciently observing how the terms will lead the German people to resent the peace, ultimately giving rise to Nazism and WWII.
Germany’s Oscar entry for Best International Feature Film, it’s tough to watch but, in light of current conflicts and the rose of nationalism around the world, it’s a very important reminder of the need for sanity. (Netflix)
The Banshees of Inisherin (15)
It’s 1923 and over on the Irish mainland civil war is in full force (we know his because there’s some occasional smoke and sound of gunfire), but on the beautiful island of Inisherin life is calm and peaceful, the folk going about their (and sometimes other people’s) business and gathering in the pub at 2pm for a glass of the hard stuff and a chat. Which is what Pádraic (Colin Farrell), a mild-mannered farmer with a couple of dairy cows, a horse and his beloved donkey Jenny, who lives with his sister Siobhán (a quietly compelling Kerry Condon), has been doing for years with his fiddle-playing best mate Colm (Brendan Gleeson). However, on the day the film opens, Colm declares he doesn’t like him anymore and wants nothing more to do with him. Pádraic is bemused and confused. He believes himself to be a nice guy, though he may go off on one after a whisky or two. Has he done or said something? Apparently not, it seems that Colm, sunk in despair, has contemplated mortality and wants to get on with writing his music and not spend the rest of his days with someone he regards as dull with nothing to offer but inane chatter and protestations of being nice. When Pádraic continues to push for explanation, initially thinking it was an April Fool jape, Colm declares that, if he talks to him again, he will cut off one of his fingers and send it to him. It’s not a bluff. Five fingers later there’s been parental child abuse, a prediction of doom from the local crone (Sheila Flitton), an animal choking to death on a severed digit, a drowning, a leaving and a conflagration.
Reuniting with his In Bruges stars, the title taken from Colm’s new tune, again mining the theme of obsession he addresses in Three Billboards, writer-director Martin McDonagh delivers a black comedy of male pride and loneliness that balances darkness and whimsy (with everybody feckin’ this and feckin’ that) equal measure as it builds to an act of violence. As such, he’s ably supported by a sterling support cast that includes David Pearse as the mean priest, Gary Lydon as bullying copper Kearney who is turned on by the idea of being paid six shilling to oversee an execution on the mainland and regularly batters and molests his mentally challenged son Dominic (a superb Barry Keoghan), who fancies Siobhán and just wants the company of someone who doesn’t abuse him.
It doesn’t quite pull off its parable of events reflecting the “bleakness and grudges and loneliness and spite” of a wider and equally self-mutilating conflict and, at the end of the day and the escalation, all it seems to be asking for is a little peace and quiet with your own thoughts. A quite, slow burning masterpiece with a banshee wail that will pierce the heart. (Cineworld 5 Ways, Solihull; Electric; Empire Great Park; Everyman; Mockingbird; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Vue)
Despite the title having little relevance to the plot, this is a very effective horror from writer-director Zach Cregger who draws on his sitcom experience to vein it with some dark humour. It opens on a stormy night with Tess (Georgina Campbell), in town for a documentary researcher interview, finds the Airbnb she’s rented in an apparently otherwise derelict Detroit suburb has been double-booked by someone called Keith (Bill Skarsgård) who invites her to stay and share a bottle of wine. Given there’s nowhere else available, she eventually agrees, especially on learning he was a founder member of a group that she’ll be researching. So, given it’s a horror, expectations are that he’ll turn out to be all Norman Bates, then. Well, no, But, naturally, given she’s warned at the interview that the area’s unsafe, the place doesn’t just have a cellar but a hidden room that opens by tugging on a rope (and yes, she does the usual investigating rather than getting the hell out), which leads to a sub-basement of tunnels and a room with a dirty bed, a tripod camera and a bloody handprint on the wall, it’s clear something nasty lurks. Keith returns and goes to check it out. He doesn’t come back.
However, just as the jump shot comes the film abruptly switches and resets two weeks later as we meet AJ (Justin Long), a Hollywood blockhead actor who, driving along the coast road on the phone to his reps is told he’s been accused of rape by a co-star and that he’s being cancelled, even his wealth manager offloading him. Now he needs to raise cash for his defence which means selling off his Michigan properties one of which turns out to be the same rental, he duly turning up to find signs of people having stayed there and, naturally, also finding the sub-basements, which he gleefully reckons will add to the property’s value. Until he stumbles across some cages and Tess puts in a reappearance. Their captor, it turns out, is some old crone with a breastfeeding obsession (another room contains an instruction video on repeat play), prompting another reset, a flashback to the neighbourhood’s better days in the 80s and Frank, a creepy predator preying on local women and forebodingly shopping for baby goods. At which point, we jerk back to the present as Tess manages to get free but is dismissed as a drunk by the cops, returns to help AJ (who’s made another horrific discovery) and the pair, with an assist from a local black homeless man who tried to warn her earlier, attempt to escape the naked deformed mother from hell.
Deliberately misdirecting and then leaving viewers hanging as the focus and tone shifts, the film, shot mostly in darkness, builds a palpable sense of dread, drawing on real-world #MeToo fears, it does the job efficiently and effectively, though it might set the breastfeeding lobby back a few years. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC; Empire Great Park; Mockingbird; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Vue)
Black Adam (12A)
One of the most powerful characters in the DC Universe, Black Adam first appeared in comics in 1945 as an Egyptian supervillain and the nemesis of Captain Marvel before being reinvented at the start of this century as an anti-hero looking to clear his name, most recently joining the Justice League and renamed Mighty Adam. Starring Dwayne Johnson giving his familiar imposing physical charisma and deadpan humour in his first superhero outing, he now makes his screen debut (unless you count a facial cameo on League of Super Pets) directed by Jaume Collet-Serra, starting with an origin backstory set some 5000 years ago when, empowered by wizards as he was about to be executed, Hurut, a young kid emerged, after uttering the magic Shazam, as Teth Adam to free the people of Kahndaq from their tyrannical ruler, Anh-Kot, defeating him but destroying half of the city in the process, thereby being imprisoned in an underground tomb (the truth of the actual details are revealed in the final act).
Cut to the present and Kahndaq have new oppressors in the form of Intergang mercenaries extracting Eternium, the film’s equivalent of vibranium, and, in an attempt at liberation, former teacher Adrianna (Sarah Shahi) and her fellow rebels (one of whom is clearly not to be trusted) are looking for the Eternium Crown of Sabbac, forged by Anh-Kot and, in the process free Adam, who, invulnerable to bullets or rockets, proceeds to wipe out a small army with blue lightning from his fists. However, wounded by an Eternium powered weapon, he’s carted back to Adrianna’s gaff where she lives with her plucky young comic book fan son Amon (Bodhi Sabongui), who coaches in in the use of a catchphrase, and electrician brother Karim (Mohammed Amer), his battles attracting the attention of Task Force X’s Amanda Waller (Viola Davis), last seen in the Suicide Squad, who despatches the Justice Society, a second division JLA, led by Carter Hall (Aldis Hodge) aka Hawkman (nice wings and helmet) alongside Doctor Fate (Pierce Brosnan), a less interesting predecessor of Doctor Strange, Cyclone (Quintessa Swindell), a lightweight less uptight but more colourful version of Storm, and Atom Smasher (Noah Centineo as the clumsy, food-scoffing comic relief), a Giant-Man-copy, the grandson of the original Atom (a cameo by Henry Winkler), to capture him.
All of which leads to a series of infrastructure-demolishing battles between then and a rage-driven Adam who has little interest in such niceties as not killing your enemies before a showdown with the ancestor (Marwan Kenzari) of Anh-Kot who has gained possession of the crown and transformed into the all-powerful demonic Sebbac.
You can’t fault it for not delivering the action but, other than a nicely low key soulful turn from Brosnan, who gets to swap some amusing banter with Johnson, that’s pretty much all it does. There’s some vague waffle about what it means to be a hero and some surface exploration of Adam’s conflicting emotions, grief and guilt, but mostly this is just overblown but underwhelming relentless combat and noise, and, ultimately, all rather dull. Making the last Venom look like a masterpiece, not even the end credits appearance of the other most powerful man on Earth makes you in a hurry for a sequel. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Vue)
Written and directed by Andrew Dominik with a score by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, Blonde most definitely has ambition. Verisimilitude, rather less so. Based on Joyce Carol Oates’ sprawling novel with presented a fictionalised account of Marilyn Monroe’s life and explored her troubled psyche, while the scaffolding is generally accurate, the details are frequently distorted or indeed totally invented, often departing from the real life timeline. Clocking in at almost three hours, it opens with the young Norma Jeane Baker (Lily Fisher) living with her alcoholic, mentally unstable single mother Gladys (a superbly unlikeable Julianne Nicholson) who, on her 7th birthday, shows her a photo of an unnamed movie star she claims is her father (Monroe was rumoured to believe she was the daughter of Clark Gable), setting up the Freudian daddy issues (she married older men, unnamed but both called ‘daddy’ here) that run through the film, tries to drive her through a raging wildfire to see him and subsequently attempts to drown her. This leads to Norma Jeane being dumped at an orphanage, at which the point, now played by a frequently topless Ana de Armas, a mix of sensuality and fear, giving a towering multi-faceted intense performance that assures a slew of Best Actress nominations, the film cuts to her early days as a pin up photo model and aspirant actress, adopting the name Marilyn Monroe, and a lengthy totally fictional narrative in which she becomes a menage a trois (the highpoint of her relationships, it turns out) with bisexual (they weren’t) Hollywood scions Charlie Chaplin Jr (Xavier Samuel) and Edward G Robinson Jr (Evan Williams), both equally unwanted by their fathers, and gets raped at an interview with high profile studio boss Mr Z (purportedly Darryl F. Zanuck) auditioning for All About Eve before her breakthrough role in Don’t Bother To Knock (drawing on her mother to play a mentally disturbed woman) and finally making the big time.
It follows her marriage to baseball legend Joe DiMaggio (Bobby Cannavale) which ended in domestic abuse (here on account of nudie photos that her previous paramours use for extortion) and divorce and then, having bonded over Chekhov and her insights into the title character of his play Magda before that too goes south as booze and pills take over, leading to giving a blow job to JFK (watching a phallic missile on TV) while fielding a call about his sexual indiscretions before being humiliatingly dragged away by his security. It all adds up to a portrait of a traumatised Marilyn exploited, commodified and victimised by men (casting agents see her as ass not actress), beloved by millions but unwanted by those she needed, while always seeking to be seen as Norma Jeane rather than the public image of Marilyn. Letters from her father promising to meet but never appearing add to the suffering. As in life, Marilyn suffers miscarriages, but there’s no evidence to support the film’s graphic depiction of her having an abortion (shot as a cervix POV) for the sake of her career (and subsequently discussing it with the fetus).
Contact lenses and prosthetics transforming de Arnas into a convincing doppelganger who inhabits rather than portrays her character , the film recreates several notable touches, amongst them the trailer for Niagara (the waterfall segued into from a bed sex scene), the iconic billowing white dress subway scene from Seven Year Itch (cause for a beating from DiMaggio), singing Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend and, with clever use of Tony Curtis footage, a scene from Some Like It Hot (along with on-set blow ups at director Billy Wilder). Yet, for all the provocative liberties it takes in telling her story and delving into her inner life, it shies away from the conspiracy theories surrounding her death, a supposed final case of being a victim of men, presenting at as the suicide in despair of the coroner’s report. Even so, this is daring filmmaking. (Netflix)
Bodies Bodies Bodies (15)
Directed by Halina Reijin, this pitch black horror comedy for Gen Z is one of the year’s best. Accompanied by her enigmatic working-class new Eastern European girlfriend, Bee (Borat’s Maria Bakalova), recovering addict Sophie (Amandla Stenberg) turns up at a weekend hurricane party at the secluded mansion home of wealthy but toxic (“I look like I fuck. It’s my whole vibe”) childhood friend David (Peter Davidson), much to the surprise of the other spoiled brattish guests who include David’s drama queen actress girlfriend Emma (Chase Sui Wonders), airhead podcaster (“Hanging out with your smartest, funniest friend”) Alice (Rachel Sennott, her bemused 40-year-old new Tinder boyfriend Greg (Lee Pace), and Sophie’s ever sceptical old flame Jordan (Myha’la Herrold). Another, Max, left earlier following a fight with David.
Tensions are clearly evident, to which end, the others fuelled by drink and drugs, she suggests they play the titular murder in the dark-style game in which each player slaps their friend across the face and takes a shot. After which, one of them is randomly appointed as the killer. However, the slaps rather less than playful, Greg, a group outsider like Bee, decides to retire early and David, who the others have decided is the killer, storms off after another fight with Emma. Only, the power out, to appear at a window clutching at his throat. Now, Sophie’s car battery dead, it’s down to the others to work out who the real killer is as they explore the house by the light of cellphones and flashlights. At some point a gun surfaces.
Riffing on themes of false friendships, paranoia, distrust, jealousy, faux activism and white feminism and making effective use of the claustrophobic lighting and score, it builds the tension as the body count continues to rise as secrets are revealed and the rocky relationships between the group unravel, though to reveal more would spoil the revelations. Peppered with smartly comic dialogue along with the high pitched drama and some bloody violence, the entire cast bring solid, compelling performances to their characters although its Davidson, Sennott and Bakalova who, in their different ways, shine the brightest. Even if the final moments are slightly anti-climactic, wholly unexpected last act twist throws the group dynamics into stark relief while reinforcing the core themes it’s been exposing. This is what happens when you’re cut adrift from your social media and the real world erupts. (Rakuten TV)
Not a biopic of Matt and Luke Goss but, the title pronounced as in in rose, the first mainstream gay rom com, a sort of When Harry Met Harry (that film’s composer, Marc Shaiman, setting the tone) rooted in gay culture with an LGBTQ+ cast and some sexually frank language and scenes. Director Nicholas Stoller co-wrote the screenplay with Billy Eichner who stars as Bobby Lieberman, an opinionated 40 something and not looking for a relationship intense New Yorker who once wanted to go into musical theatre (but was told he wasn’t butch enough) and published a (flop) children’s book about Martina Navratilova as a gay icon and now hosts a popular gay podcast called the Stonewall-referencing The 11th Brickand. Honoured as the “Cis White Gay Man of the Year”, he’s looking to raise funds for the first LGBTQ museum, heading a constantly bickering – and very funny lesbian, trans, and bi board (Ts Madison, Jim Rash, Eve Lindley, Miss Lawrence and Dot-Marie Jones) who object to his intention to out Abraham Lincoln
At a launch party for Zellwegr, an app for gay men who want to talk about actresses (where he complains about the gay cliché of going shirtless), he meets jock-lawyer Aaron (a nicely underplayed Luke Macfarlane) and is drawn to him, and, despite their respective insecurity and his commitment issues they hang out (and get involved in casual hot sex as three and foursomes), and he’s realises there’s more to the supposed boring Aaron than appears (he dreamt of being a chocolatier but felt it was “too faggy”) who secures funding from an eccentric self-absorbed gay TV director millionaire) and, as each lets down their guards, there arises the scary – for them – possibility they may be falling in love.
With scenes set at a pride parade in Provincetown, a dinner with Aaron’s parents where Bobby just can’t keep his opinions about educating children about being gay to himself, with an inevitable fallout on the relationship, and Bobby’s moving account of always being told to tone it down.
As well as Bobby going on about straight actors playing gays in films like Brokeback Mountain and Milk, there’s some wicked parodies of Hallmark movies (of which McFarlane is a regular) embracing LGBTQ content because it’s now profitable, cameos include Harvey Fierstein, Bowen Yang, Kristen Chenoweth and a hilarious moment with Debra Messing who vociferously objects to Bobby asking for advice as if she really was the character she plays in Will & Grace (“I was ACTING! I won an Emmy!”).
Overflowing with existential gay angst, the film makes some acute observations and sharp points, but Eichner’s nervy energy and constant stream of pointed flippancy, sarcasm (“We had AIDS; they had ‘Glee” he remarks when a friend says two-thirds of her son’s class identify as non-binary), put downs and so forth in order to be always ‘saying something’ and dispute the ideas that love is love and gay relationships are just the same as straight ones, makes it feel more like an extended sitcom pilot than the old school rom com feature it looks to emulate and into which formula it slides in the final lap (a Garth Brooks song providing the public declaration of love moment).
Despite glowing reviews, being very funny and generally rather sweet, lacking star wattage the film failed to connect with US audiences, both straight and LBGTQ. Multiplex screens are likely to remain just as empty here. (Mockingbird)
Bullet Train (15)
While directed by Deadpool 2’s David Leitch, this feels much more like a Guy Ritchie movie with its plethora of one-liners, laconic performances, high octane action and guest star cameos, tweaked here and there with a splash of Tarantino. Adapted from the Japanese bestseller pulp novel MariaBeetle by Kotaro Isaka, it’s set aboard the titular high speed train as it travels from Tokyo to Kyoto, making only a few stops of one minute duration along the way. Among the passengers are a parcel of hitmen, headed up by Brad Pitt’s luckless assassin who, dubbed Ladybug by his handler Maria (Sandra Bullock, putting in a last minute appearance), is trying to find a more peaceful, Zen-like approach to his work (he’s forever rattling off self-help aphorisms). He’s been assigned to recover a metal briefcase from the train. This is currently in the custody (or rather in the luggage compartment) of bickering ‘twin’ hitmen Lemon (Bryan Tyree Henry) and Tangerine (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), the former forever likening people to characters from Thomas The Tank Engine, who have been charged with returning both it and his kidnapped son (Logan Lerman) – the case contains the ransom money – to Yakuza boss White Death (Michael Shannon). The pair, or specifically Lemon, have a history with Ladybug dating back to a bloody mission some years earlier. Also on the train is The Prince (Joey King), a murderous miss done up in pink as a schoolgirl, who also wants the briefcase and who has lured on board Yuichi Kimura (Andrew Koji), the son of another Japanese samurai, The Elder (Hiroyuki Sanada), whose wife was killed by White Death, by pushing his six-year-old off a roof , as part of her plan to kill White Death, who is seeking revenge for the death of his own wife. There’s also, briefly, another assassin known as The Wolf (Bad Bunny) who also boards the train in search of revenge, only to be quickly added the bodycount following a fight with Ladybug in the restaurant kitchen. Oh yes, and there’s also a poisonous snake whose venom can kill in 30 seconds by making you bleed from every orifice. Plus another assassin called The Hornet (Zazie Beetz) who’s masquerading behind a very unlikely disguise.
Upping the ante on Agatha Christie, this is Murder On The Occidental Express as this clutch of quirky characters (identified by on screen labels) variously try and take each other out in a series of imaginative and impressively choreographed martial arts fights, gun and knife battles and stand-offs, punctuated by assorted flashbacks to various bloodbaths, with Ladybug looking to improvise his way out of trouble rather than kill anyone unless necessary.
Mixing in comedy with the graphic violence (including an amusing is it a sex thing cameo by an uncredited Channing Tatum as well as a scene with smart toilet), it eventually pulls all the pieces and the characters together for the over the top climax aboard the speeding train, a sort of live action anime cartoon that may be light on substance but is most definitely one hell of a ride. (Rakuten TV)
DC League of Super Pets (PG)
First introduced into the comics in 1955, Krypto was Superboy’s pet dog, send off into space on a test run prior to baby Kal-El making his way to Earth. The super-powered pooch has cropped up in comics and cartoons in various incarnations over the years, but has never been part of the big screen live action DC Universe. However, he now takes centre stage in his own Justice League animated-spin off (based on the Legion of Super-Pets) about him and a team of four-legged companions who find themselves bestowed with owers and called upon to rescue Superman and the other Justice League members when they’re captured by a megalomaniac villain.
The opening sequence explains how, when young Kal-El was placed in a spaceship, his pet jumped in too, growing up to fight crime alongside Superman (John Krasinski), and with a similar nerdy secret-identity. However, our canine crimefighter (voiced by Dwayne Johnson) is having a bit of an anxiety crisis because Superman’s about to ask Lois (Olivia Wilde) to marry him, meaning he’ll no longer hold the same place in his master’s life.
Meanhile, Lulu (Kate McKinnon), a narcissistic hairless purple-eyed guinea pig associate of Lex Luthor (Marc Maron), acquires an orange variety of kryptonite, which she uses to give herself and, accidentally, a bunch of animals caged in the Tailhuggers Animal Shelter superpowers. These include tough but insecure bulldog Ace (Kevin Hart), PB (Vanessa Bayer), a size-expanding pig who wants to be super-cool, electricity-firing hyper squirrel Chip (Diego Luna) and myopic turtle Merton (Natasha Lyonne) who gets to be super-fast. Now, with Lulu having imprisoned the Justice League and created an army of super-powered guinea pigs, they and Krypto have to join forces to save the day.
Sporting similar comic sensibility to the Lego parodies, it’s clearly targeted at the kiddies but there’s plenty of delights for older audiences too, not least a tongue-in-cheek Keanu Reeves voicing an ultra-serious Batman (and questioning whether certain bat-toys are licensed) while a kitten who coughs up hairball grenades pretty much captures the whole spirit of absurdity and fun that’s hard to resist. (Rakuten TV)
Decision To Leave (15)
His first feature since The Handmaiden in 2016 finds South Korean writer-director Park Chan-wook immersed in the erotic thriller genre filtered through a Hitchcockian lens (Vertigo in particular) in a story of murder, manipulation and obsession. Hae-joon (Park Hae-il) is a Korean detective who lives in Busan, occasionally visiting his wife, who works in a nuclear power plant in a different city, to cook homemade soup and have mechanical, passionless sex. An insomniac with an undiagnosed sleep apnoea and a fan of Swedish fictional detective Martin Beck, he’s kept awake at night haunted by unsolved cases, photographs of which, as we see later, are stuck on his wall.
When a climber, a retired immigration worker, is found dead at the foot of a rock face he quite literally retraces his fall, climbing to the top with his younger deputy Soo-wan (Go Kyung-pyo), strapped to his back, as he contemplates what might have happened. Speaking only a little Korean, the dead man’s much younger Chinese wife Seo-rae (Tang Wei), an illegal immigrant who got leave to stay because her grandfather was officially honoured for serving as a soldier in Korea against Japan in the 1930s, who works in a care home and spends her nights watching soap operas an eating ice cream, seems emotionally unaffected by her possessive husband’s death and, while the evidence suggests either an accident or suicide, Hae-joon, whose wife describes him needing murder and violence to be happy, suspects she may have killed him, even though she has an alibi But them, his wife also notes “You suspect a lot of innocent people”.
And so he starts following her, staking her out and observing, both actually and voyeuristically imagining himself in the same room; but is this professional interest or something more obsessive? He the morally compromised cop, she the femme fatale.
Even after the death is ruled a suicide and she admits to the mercy killing of her mother, the pair are drawn inexorably closer into a sexually charged relationship, she making frequent visits to his flat and vice versa, helping him to sleep as if he were one of her patients while he attempts to cook her Chinese food. Meanwhile a subplot involves another case, that of a local delinquent, that Hae-joon becomes increasingly less involved in. The film’s second chapter then moves forward 13 years winds up dead, murdered, she claims by people to whom he owed money, Hae-joon again becoming involved in the investigation as the question arises whether she using his obsession to manipulate him.
Images of seeing (or not) and eyes fill the screen, from ants crawling over a dead man’s open eye to Hae-joon’s constant use of eye drops, the couple almost always filmed at a distance, seen via one and two-way mirrors, glass panels, computer monitors, or the lenses of his binoculars. Two scenes in particular capture the film’s heady sensuality, the first as she reaches into one of his suits’ many pockets for lip balm and slowly applies it to his lips, the other as their fingers touch, handcuffed together in the car. Exploring the seductive but also destructive dimensions of desire, the notions of control and duality, the contrast between cold technology and the heat of emotions, the smouldering tensions between the two characters intoxicate in the same way that Kar Wai-Wong did in films like Chungking Express and In The Mood For Love while compounding the atmosphere with the air of neo-noir thrillers like Basic Instinct, obfuscating the distinctions between truth and deceit, trust and betrayal, innocence and guilt in a slow corruption and decay, the director crafting a smokescreen as to what’s going on in the same was that Seo-rae does, leaving you in the final tragic moments with ambiguity rather than resolution. (Odeon Birmingham)
Don’t Worry Darling (15)
While somewhat overshadowed by claims of onset friction between director Olivia Wilde (this her sophomore feature following Booksmart) and star Florence Pugh involving co-star and Wilde’s partner Harry Styles, there’s more than enough going on here to make you forget the Hollywood gossip mill, even if Katie Silberman’s script has a habit of telegraphing the underlying twists. Set, apparently, in the 50s with a retro design featuring some B&W TV and some classic tailfin American cars, the tellingly named Alice (Pugh) lives the life of a happy housewife serving dinner, whiskey and sex to her English hubbie Jack (Styles, who also wrote the pivotal theme song) in a perfectly manicured California desert community experiment called Victory with its identical houses, created and run by his cult-leader like boss Frank (a sadly underused Chris Pine), with support from his imperious wife Shelley (Gemma Chan), who runs the women’s ballet classes stressing “There is beauty in control”, along with all the other employees; the men all work on some top secret engineering project developing ‘progressive materials’ they cannot talk about (but which sometimes causes crockery-rattling mini quakes) which has them driving off every morning to some off—limits-to-wives mountain location in the desert while their wives busy themselves as perfect domestic spouses.
Except it’s clear from the off that there’s something askew here, an early metaphor being the eggs Alice breaks in her hand, all perfectly formed shell and nothing inside (which, if you’re harsh, could also sum up the film). Then, directly borrowing from Get Out, Margaret (KiKi Layne), one of the enclave’s two Black women who once wandered into the forbidden zone and returned without her child, has an outburst declaring Frank’s lying to everyone and is duly regarded as having a breakdown, her subsequent fate reinforcing Alice’s growing suspicions, especially after an experience on the remote HQ after thinking she saw a plane crash. All of which has you waiting for the reveals that are inevitably waiting in the wings with any number of Alice’s hallucinatory visions (notably a black and white Busby Berkeley routine emulating an eye opening and closing) further teasing the mystery behind this paranoid thriller.
As things develop, Jack gets promotion (accompanied by a dance routine at Frank’s somewhat fascist rally with his ‘whose world is it’ mantra), there’s a confrontation scene between Alice and Frank where he drops his perma smile façade and she’s treated for psychosis before a third act reveal pulls back the technology curtain that shows what’s down the rabbit hole or behind the looking glass depending on which Lewis Carroll book you favour.
With a gender politics subtext about a controlling patriarchy, the film undeniably has narrative and stylistic ambition, the set design is outstanding, as is the cinematography by Matthew Libatique and, while Styles’s at times hammy/stiff performance and accent isn’t wholly explained by the revelation concerning his character, he does a decent enough job, while Pugh delivers an intense Oscar nomination worthy performance as a woman consumed by doubts and fears and Wilde herself is excellent as her waspish friend and neighbour Bunny who, it transpires, isn’t as oblivious about Victory as the other wives. However, the end result is an awkward and overly obvious cocktail of ideas and tropes from Stepford Wives, The Matrix, The Prisoner, The Truman Show, Wild Palms, Black Swan (which Libatique also shot) and even Pugh’s own recent Midsommar, spiced with a Shyamalan-like big twist, in its themes of manipulation, deception, gaslighting and altered reality but never quite knowing how to cohesively thread them together or, with a desert car chase included, actually end the film with any sense of closure. (Rakuten TV; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe)
Good Luck To You, Leo Grande (15)
Directed by Sophie Hyde and written by Katy Brand, this is a two-hander that plays very much like a stage play of three acts and an epilogue and is structured entirely around the conversations between its two characters. These are Leo Grande (Daryl McCormack), a good-looking, well-toned young Irish Black man who runs a business service as a sex-worker, and his client, Nancy Stokes (Emma Thompson), a recently widowed fiftyish ex-teacher, who has booked a plush hotel room to have sex. Naturally, neither are using their real names. He’s smooth, polite, articulate, non-judgemental and well-versed in how to interact with people, she’s insecure and nervous, confessing that she’s never had – and thinks herself unable to have – an orgasm and only ever had sex with her late husband. He experienced, she far from it, the first session is mostly a cat and mouse game about the two getting to know each other, he trying to calm her anxieties, she finding reasons not to go through with what she’s hired him for.
It’s funny but also piercingly sad as she gradually opens up about her disappointments, the stagnation of her marriage, her husband’s unchanging and brief sex routines, her feelings about her son and daughter and her general view of herself as a failure. In end with them finally concluding the deal. At the next session, she’s seemingly more confident, having drawn up a fuck-it list of what she wants, staring with oral sex. However, she continues to prevaricate while, over the course of this and the third session, the focus shifts more to Leo, who she presses on his life outside work, his relationship with his mother and sibling, something he’s reluctant to discuss as we come to realise that behind his self-assured persona, his life too his engrained with disappointments, hurt and insecurity (he’s seen checking himself out in the mirror on several occasions, and not for vanity).
It eventually comes to a head where, not understanding how boundaries work, she confronts him with his real name and we learn the heartbreaking reality of his background before he storms out. The epilogue is a final meeting, the relationship between them somehow changed, and introduces a third character, a hotel waitress that Nancy (who reveals her real name in a wry filmic in-joke) used to teach.
Slowly learning more about Leo and Nancy’s inner worlds and emotional scars is part and parcel of what makes this such a terrific work and to give away more would ruin the pleasures and poignancy of the screenplay and the performances with their tremendous chemistry. Suffice to say, embracing shame, frustration, body image, the nature of sex workers, parent-child conflicts, desire, and sexual healing/therapy, it’s a wonderfully compassionate and very human work. McCormack, previously seen in Peaky Blinders delivers a magnetic star-making turn that conveys depth and complexity in the most simple of physical gestures while, in her first nude scene, Thompson, bristling with nervous energy and navigating a lifetime marked by lack of self-worth, guilt, unhappiness and disappointment, gives a luminous, multi-faceted performance that is unquestionably the finest of a stellar career. From foreplay to climax, this will leave you with a glow of satisfaction. (Rakuten TV)
The Gray Man (15)
After taking a relative step back from the bombastic, high octane action of their Avengers movies with Tom Holland PTSD drama Cherry, the Russo Brothers dive back into the adrenaline pool for this high speed espionage thriller that moves so fast and so frantically you have little time to so notice the generic nature of the narrative which pretty much follows a similar route as to the Jason Bourne and John Wick movies.
Adopting a familiar laconic manner akin to his role in Drive, Ryan Gosling is Court Gentry, serving time for murder (it’s not until late in the film that the justifiable circumstances are revealed) when he’s visited by CIA bigwig Donald Fitzroy (Billy Bob Thornton looking younger in every film) who offers to commute his sentence if he agrees to bring his distinctive skill sets to work for a covert wing of the agency as a ‘gray man’ under Fitzroy and bureau chief Margaret Cahill (Alfre Woodard), tasked with eliminating hostile targets. From this point on he’s known only as Sierra Six, or Six.
His latest assignment takes him to Bangkok where his mission is to take out his target before he concludes a deal to pass on material against the interests of the US. To which end, he’s partnered with a CIA contact, Dani Miranda (Ana de Armas), who provides the weaponry and the kill site. However, things don’t go according to plan and, in a subsequent fight, Six discovers his target is a fellow Sierra agent, Four who passes on evidence of agency corruption at the highest level before dying. Now Six finds himself marked for elimination by Fitzroy and Cahill’s replacement, the ruthlessly ambitious Denny Carmichael (Rege-Jean Page) and his assistant, Suzanne Brewer (Jessica Henwick), who’s been using the Sierra project to destabilise governments and give himself sway.
At which point, the film basically becomes a location hopping chase movie as Six avoids one attempt on his life after another until Carmichael ups the stakes by bringing in sociopathic private contractor Lloyd Hansen (Chris Evans chewing scenery in tight trousers and Freddy Mercury ‘tache), who puts a price on his head, Miranda now forced to go rogue to help Six survive and expose the evidence. All of which variously involve a frenetic cherry red Audi RS7car chase, exploding helicopters, shoot outs, a mid-air battle to the death over Turkey, Prague turned into a combat zone, and, just to add to things, a mission to rescue Fitzroy’s teenage niece (Julia Butters) with a heart problem who’s being held as leverage by Hansen. Two supporting characters wind up doing to the self-sacrificing thing with a grenade in the process.
Riding a flood of testosterone and snappy patter, it rarely pauses to catch its breath en route to the inevitable Croatia showdown between the two stars, the Russos choreographing the action like a finely-tuned machine, but leaving room for Gosling to give Six a coating of humanity and a propensity for dry world-weary humour as well as affording another solid argument for De Armas headlining her own action movie. Bigger on brawn than brain perhaps, but it’s unrelentingly exciting viewing and the good news is that a sequel and a spin-off are already in development. (Netflix)
The Good Nurse (15)
A single mother with two young daughters, Amy Loughren (Jessica Chastain) works as a compassionate night nurse at a New Jersey hospital ICU ward, bringing personal touch in her care for her, mostly, elderly patients. The ward understaffed, she gets a new colleague with the arrival of Charles ‘Charlie’ Cullen (Eddie Redmayne) who befriends her and promises to keep secret the fact she’s suffering from a heart condition that would get her fired, but she has to keep working until she qualifies for insurance.
Charles seems as supportive, kindly and caring as she does, even coming round the house to help with her daughter’s audition for a school play. However, shortly after he arrives, one of Amy’s patients dies unexpectedly. The police (Noah Emmerich, Nnamdi Asomugha) are duly called in to investigate, but not until seven weeks later, and find themselves being blocked by the hospital administration (led by an icy Kim Dickens) at every turn who stall in handing over their internal investigation report. However, they decide to check out Cullen who, in turns out, was reported for domestic assault (not never charged) and has been employed at a string of previous hospitals, all of which experienced a surge in unexpected deaths of patients that declined after he left.
Seeing a report into her patient’s death, Amy notes that there was insulin in the body, a double medication error that would cause death, but which has not been reported by the administration. When another young woman dies and the same is found, she becomes convinced Cullen is behind it, lethally injecting insulin and/or or digoxin into saline drip bags, and looks to work with the detectives, who by now have been banned from the hospital, to expose him.
If this rings a bell, it’s because the film is based on the real life case in which Cullen was believed to have been responsible for some 400 deaths between 1998 and 2003, though only 29 were confirmed, though he never gave any indication as to his motivation. The film largely hews closely to the facts. After Cullen was fired from Somerset, on the grounds of giving wrong information on his application, Loughran was asked to wear a wire to get Cullen to incriminate himself, though I suspect the scene in the cell where she coaxes him to confess is dramatic licence, and the two leads give largely restrained performances (though Redmayne ramps it up in the final moments) with a chemistry that makes their friendship feel convincing.
The real story here, though, is the way Somerset and all the other hospitals where Cullen worked, did nothing to expose him despite their suspicions, worried about the litigation ramifications if they did so, the end credits pointing out that none of them have ever faced any legal comeback for abdicating their moral responsibilities, something that hospitals, here and in America, still remain to be forced into admitting when things fuck up. (Netflix)
Halloween Ends (15)
And finally, after 45 years and 12 films, the last two of which were franchise reboots, Michael Myers indisputably meets his end with no possibility of resurrection. Director David Gordon Green delivers an effective climax to his trilogy which mixes Visceral killings with existential musings on the nature of evil as, suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and alcoholism, Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) writes her memoirs, recalling her experiences with Myers that have made her Haddonfield’s resident pariah, blamed as the cause for all the murders. However, she’s not the only one here. The film starts on Halloween 2019 with Corey Cunningham (Rohan Campbell) a last minute babysitter for a couple off to a party. Jeremy is a handful and, during a prank in which he vanished and pretends to be in danger, he locks Corey in the attic and, as he burst open the door accidentally knocks the kid over the bannister, plunging to his death just as his parents come home. Corey’s acquitted of any blame, but mud sticks and three years later he’s still regarded as the psycho babysitter. However, following an incident with a bunch of marching band bullies (who you know will meet a bloody end), Laurie takes him for treatment at the clinic where her live-in granddaughter Allyson (Andi Matichak) works, sparks immediately flying between them, she, a Myers survivor, wanting to try and protect and heal him.
But then, after another run in with the town bullies, Corey ends up being dragged into a sewer where, it transpires, Myers (James Jude Courtney/Nick Castle) has been hiding out these past years, stares into his eyes and, what do you know, gets infected by the same evil, embarking on his own killing spree, Myers (who actually only comes into play in the final act) occasionally tagging along to give his disciple a hand. Seeing in Corey’s eyes what she saw in Michael’s, Laurie tries to get Allyson to stay away, but inevitably it all comes to a head with both he and Myers turning up at her home to kill her as it all ends in a kitchen utensil bloodbath and, following the Chekov premise that if a grinder appears in act one it will go off in act three, a ritual disposal of the body, just to be on the safe side.
With Will Patton returning as the retired sheriff’s deputy with a romantic interest in Laurie (he invites her to embrace the cherry blossoms of life) and a cameo from Kyle Richards from the 1978 original as the now grown Lindsey, Green directs efficiently and the cast are game, but this isn’t on the same scare level as previous instalments and too often gets bogged down with its fuzzy metaphysical ideas about the contagion of evil, themes of guilt and Strode voiceovers like “people create their own stories and make their own choices. They believe what they want to believe”. And, despite what the title may say, although this is a swan song for Laurie and Michael, it’s already been confirmed that, just as the film posits that evil can grow within if you let it in, the franchise is going to continue in some form or another. Whether that’s a trick or treat, remains to be seen. (Odeon West Brom)
Her Way (15)
Call My Agent’s Laure Calamy lights up the screen as Marie, a self-reliant French fortysomething sex worker and single mother who works the street corners of Strasbourg where she can choose her clients and hours, and is the somewhat confrontational single mother to Adrien (Nissim Renard), a lethargic, sullen and defeatist 17-year-old who (seemingly unconcerned about what mum does for a living) wants to be a chef but has just been expelled from cookery school. Following a client’s tip, she persuaded him to apply for a private and prestigious college, who aren’t bothered about his past record, her transgender lawyer friend (Romanin Brau) coaching him for the interview. He’s accepted but the school charges €9,000 euros in tuition. €5000 of which she has to stump up for the end of the year, in just a few weeks. And the bank’s not forthcoming because her tax returns don’t justify a loan. To which end, losing business to immigrant Black girls who charge less (introducing a note of racial tension), Marie swallows her pride and principles and heads across the German border to Offenburg, calling on a favour from an old acquaintance Bruno (Sam Louwych), and gets a job working at glowing concrete club cum brothel. However, dreams of quickly boosting her income are shattered when she discovers it’s actually a shabby dive with poor paying customers and high expenses for room use and the like. The arrest of a fellow worker presents an unexpected acquisition of some much needed cash, but, inevitably, as with everything in Marie’s life, nothing goes as smoothly as hoped, and every hint of light at the end of the tunnel is quickly extinguished.
The debut feature by writer-director Cécile Decrocq it doesn’t romantics the sex worker profession but nor is it in any way judgemental, presenting Marie and her fellow hookers (who organise a public protest demanding better rights and pay) as independent spirits who choose their career (though there’s latter hints that some have no option), resulting in a humane, empathetic snapshot of a mother’s struggle to do the best for her son that reflects far wider scenarios, ending on a poignantly bittersweet note as Adrien is seen embarking on a bright new future while Marie finds herself returning to a past without one. (Curzon; Rakuten TV)
Jurassic World: Dominion (12A)
Touted as the final instalment in the saga that kicked off in 1993 with Jurassic Park, set four years after the events of Jurassic World and its Fallen Kingdom sequel that left the dinosaurs free to roam, directed by JW’s Colin Trevorrow, the selling point is the return of three of the original film’s central characters, palaeontologist Alan Grant (Sam Neill), environmentalist romantic interest Ellie Sadler (Laura Dern) and chaos theory doomsayer Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum). Their reappearance is down to a new breed of locusts with prehistoric DNA that threaten to destroy the food chain. They’re ravaging all the grain in America, except, that is, crops grown by Biosyn, a corporate that has exclusive rights regarding the containment and protection of the reptiles. It’s headed up by another Jurassic Park returnee, Lewis Dodgson (this time played by Campbell Scott), who bribed Dennis Nedry to steal embryos and who, thanks to a tip off from Malcolm, who works as a Biosyn consultant, Sadler believes to be behind things and recruits Grant to help investigate.
This is cross-fertilised with a narrative strand from the JW series involving dino wrangler Owen Grady (Chris Pratt), his dinosaur rights activist partner Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard) as their cloned step-daughter Maisie Lockwood (Isabella Sermon, also playing her mother’s younger self in a video flashback), the granddaughter of Dr. John Hammond’s former partner in cloning Benjamin Lockwood. Her genetics are the reason Grady and Dearing are keeping her off the grid and why she’s been hunted by a bunch of mercenaries, headed up by Soyona Santos (Dichen Lachman who simply disappears from the storyline) hired by Biosyn so that head scientist Dr Wu (BJ Wong back again) can use her unique DNA. She’s captured, along with Beta, a baby velociraptor she’s tamed, setting her parents and pilot-adventurer for hire Kayla Watts (DeWanda Wise) on a rescue mission that, after a globetrotting jaunt and a raptor-motorbike chase in Malta, eventually brings all the main cast together at Dodgson’s gigantic dinosaur-filled valley facility in the Dolemites where, in a frankly tangled web of who’s on who’s side involving Dodgson’s assistant (Mamoudou) Athie), they end up battling assorted genetically engineered dinosaurs, including new creatures such as the Giganotosaurus and Pyroraptor, who, in turn, battle with each other.
It’s all very busy with its chase and fight sequences, but nothing ever really comes into a coherent focus while, fatally, the dinosaurs themselves become secondary characters in their own story, while the final scene between Grady and the mommy raptor is just too cheesy for words. Undeniably big screen spectacular with plentiful nods to the overall saga, it never bores but that sense of awe that Spielberg captured 29 years ago is lost in the ticking of boxes. (Rakuten TV)
An English language remake of Kurosawa’s 1952 masterpiece Ikiru about a Tokyo bureaucrat stoically searching for meaning in the last months of his life, directed by South Africa’s Oliver Hermanus with a screenplay by Kazuo Ishiguro the setting is transposed to 1950s London and is centred on veteran London County Council civil servant Mr Williams, as portrayed by Bill Nighy in an understated but profoundly moving, career best performance.
He shares his home with his son Michael (Barney Fishwick) and daughter-in-law Fiona (Patsy Ferran) in a patently strained relationship (beautifully captured in a dinner scene involving a soup tureen) where they have their eyes on their inheritance. Every morning, sporting traditional pinstripe and wearing bowler hat, he joins the train with his fellow workers, but never in the same carriage, travelling to the dingy Public Works office where he sits behind his desk surrounded by his underlings (among them Alex Sharp as new arrival Peter Wakeling, still idealistic and not fallen into the art of dodging responsibility) overseeing proceedings and filing documents away (“there, it can do no harm”) in a constant cycle of buck-passing.
From an early age, all the deeply shy Mr. Williams ever wanted to be was a “gentleman”, and in pursuing that goal and the reserved lack of passion it entails, it seems to have sucked all the life out of him. But then, one morning his doctor gives him the bad news. He only has months left. His composure shaken, he resolves, like Ebenezer Scrooge, to make the most of the time remaining. While unable to break the news to his son, he does confess to Sutherland, a boozy playwright (Tom Burke) in the seaside town he takes off to after withdrawing half his savings, who tells him to live a little (to which he replies “I don’t know how” and introduces him to the debauchery of the Oliver Reed side of life. And, following a brief encounter in the street and a Fortnum & Mason lunch, to his former secretary, the guileless, innocently flirtatious Margaret Harris (Sex Education’s Aimee Lou Wood) who quit her job to try something new. She tells him her nicknames for her former colleagues. He’s somewhat tickled to learn his was Mr Zombie.
The couple strike up a platonic relationship, going to the cinema and pubs, and there is something about both her and Sutherland’s lust for life that determines him to push through the forever stalled planning permission for a group of mothers to transform an East End bombsite into a children’s playground, much to the bewilderment of his fellow workers, refusing to take no for an answer when confronted by red tape and stonewalling.
Evoking an atmosphere and bittersweet mood of sadness and newfound joy akin to his screenplay for remains Of The Day and touching in similar themes of repression and coming alive, while understandably jettisoning the gangster plot, Ishiguru remains faithful to much of the original film, most especially the heartbreaking scene involving a song, swing and snowflakes, a third act structured around flashbacks and colleagues talking about how he achieved his aim while backstory grace notes include black and white childhood memories and a rendition of the Scottish ballad The Rowan Tree.
Sharp is excellent as Wakeling, feeling Williams’ pain and aware of his easy it would be for him to wind up the same way, while , the embodiment of post-war optimism, Wood delivers a star-making performance. However, deep in existential crisis and experiencing a rebirth that frees his innate wit and kindness, this is unquestionably Nighy’s film, his subtle facial twitches, the half sighs, the internalisation of his sorrows all a masterclass in minimalism that will reduce you a sobbing puddle. BAFTAs and Oscars await. (Cineworld Solihull; Electric; Everyman; Mockingbird; Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel)
The Lost King (PG)
In August 2012, 527 years to the day that he was killed at the Battle of Bosworth, work began on an archaeological dig in an Adult Social Services car park in Leicester in the hope it contained the remains of Richard III. The project had been instigated by Philippa Langley, an Edinburgh-based 40-something aspiring screenwriter and amateur researcher with ME, convinced Shakespeare’s portrayal of him as a bitter and literally twisted child murdering usurper was all Tudor propaganda. Within six hours a skeleton was uncovered, quite literally under the letter R, and six months later DNA tests confirmed it was Richard’s, suffering curvature of the spine but no hunchback.
On an archaeological par with the discovery of Tutenkhaman’s tomb (or at least the Sutton Hoo findings dramatised in The Dig), it now serves as the basis of a semi-fictionalised film that reunites director Stephen Frears with Philomena screenwriters Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope. Sally Hawkins is the mousy, short-dark haired Langley (in real life long and blonde) a separated mother of two, still on friendly terms with her ex (a cuddly back seat Coogan) who pops in to take the kids to school, etc. Passed over for promotion at her telesales agency, after taking her eldest to a performance of Richard III becomes obsessed with correcting the popular image and, haunted by his initially silent ghost, imagined as the actor in the play (Harry Lloyd), immerses herself in historical research, joins the fellow misfits and eccentrics of the Richard III Society and, given the support of the City Council, sets out to discover the site of Grey Friars Church in Leicester where she reckons he would have been buried as opposed to his remains being thrown into the River Soar.
The withdrawal of promised funding led to raising money through an appeal to Society members allowing the work, carried out with Leicester archaeologist Dr Richard Buckley (Mark Addy), recently let go by Leicester University which, initially sniffy and dismissive of the project are presented here, represented by deputy registrar Richard Taylor (Lee Ingleby) to be the real usurpers in claiming all the credit and publicity and relating Langley to the sidelines following the discovery, though at least Buckley, reinstated and elevated, is given some moral fibre in acknowledging her role.
At heart it’s a typical underdog story and, while warmly engaging and touching on themes of personal and political misrepresentation and how history is written by the more powerful (the Philippa/Richard parallels are made obvious) fuelled by an extravagant score from Alexandre Desplat, to be honest, it’s one of Frears’ softer, and at times almost cartoonish, works, overworking the Richard apparitions but fortuitously boosted by another fine turn from Hawkins as a woman tired of being pushed around by men and possessed of a crusading sense of injustice. It should find a similar niche audience as equally stranger than fiction yarn The Duke and ends with Richard’s ceremonial reburial at Leicester Cathedral, restored to the Royal Family website and his right to the throne acknowledged. It also notes that Langley was awarded an MBE. What it doesn’t say, and which rather reinforces the film’s message is that Buckley was given the higher honour of an OBE. (Electric; Vue)
Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile (PG)
Perhaps a better known children’s book in America than here, written by Bernard Waber and published in 1965, it follows the adventures of a city dwelling crocodile who lives in a brownstone on the Upper West Side with the Primm family. Here, directed by Will Speck and Josh Gordon with songs by The Greatest Showman composers Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, it’s a live action musical fairy tale about family, friendship, acceptance and self-confidence. The Primms, maths teacher Joseph (Scoot McNairy), cookbook author wife Katie (Constance Wu) and young son Josh (Winslow Fegley), move into a new apartment that comes with his job. Josh is riddled with anxiety (not helped by his neurotic, health-conscious stepmother) and dreading going to his new school. Then, investigating a noise in the attic he finds what he assumes to be stuffed crocodile in a display case with a note from the previous tenant asking whoever moves in to look after it. Except, as he soon learns, Lyle is far from stuffed. Startled to be discovered, he takes off, Josh chasing him across town and eventually finding that, while he doesn’t talk, Lyle (voiced by Shawn Mendes) has a nifty singing voice, belting out On Top Of The World atop the St James Theatre.
He and Josh pal up and, eventually, both his dad and stepmum learn about Lyle, naturally prompting some comic scenes of panic before they realise he’s all cute and cuddly (he leads her round the kitchen in a number called Rip Up the Recipe about having the courage to cook not from the book but from the heart). However, their lives are complicated by, first, their grumpy basement neighbour, Mr Grumps, who objects to any hint of noise and suspects Josh is feeding his silver-shaded precious pampered Persian pussy junk food (he is, in as much that Loretta joins the pair in their restaurant dumpster raids), and is looking for any excuse to have them evicted. And then there’s the surprise return of the previous tenant, aspiring magician and showman Hector P. Valenti (an exuberant Javier Bardem) who found the baby Lyle in Eddie’s Exotic Animals shop and, amazed to hear him sing, took him in with a view to forming a lucrative double-act. Unfortunately, during their big moment, Lyle froze with stage fright, unable to sing in public, and Hector took off. Now he’s back and looking to take a second stab, not least as he’s in serious debt to some unsavoury characters. The question is, while Lyle is happy singing around his friends, can he overcome his anxiety in public? All of which leads up to him being taken away to the local zoo and the Pimms resolving to rescue him.
There’s definite touch of the Paddingtons going on here, with added songs, but, while entertaining and amusing enough (a song and dance routine with Lyle and Hector is a highlight), the film never has quite the same charm or emotion and, while it may be a struggle for Lyle to finally come into his own, both Katie and Josh’s anxieties seem to vanish almost the moment they meet him. Still, the CGI is excellent, Mendes delivers the songs (some being his own and also including a fairly obvious Elton John one) with joyful pop star finesse and the human cast are well up to scratch, though whether that’s going to be enough for parents of kiddies unfamiliar with the character to snap up tickets is another matter. (Cineworld NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel; Vue)
Touted as the most expensive Czech film ever made, written and directed by Petr Jákl this tells the early years of Jan Zizka, a renowed 15th century Czech folk hero who led peasants and rebels into battles that he never lost. It’s set against the plague-ridden backdrop of turn of the century Bohemia where Europe is in chaos, divided over two popes, one in Rome and one in France. While steeped in debut, Bohemian King Wenceslas IV (Karel Roden) is trying to get to Rome to be crowned Emperor, with the help of emissary Lord Boresh (Michael Caine, sounding generally like Michael Caine); however his scheming brother King Sigismund of Hungary (Matthew Goode) plots behind his back to steal the throne, aided by the duplicitous and cruel Lord Rosenberg (Til Schweiger). Having hired Jan (Ben Foster) and his men as mercenary protection (the film opens with the first of several graphic and very violent battles), Boresh gets Jan to kidnap Rosenberg’s fiancée, the independent-minded Lady Katherine (a somewhat flat Sophie Lowe), the niece of the king of France, who’s not enamoured of her future husband’s treatment of the peasants, as leverage and, she and Jan falling in love (though there’s precious little chemistry evident on screen), pretty much the rest of the rest of the film is about attempts to get her back led by the brutal Torak (Roland Møller), comprising a series of ambushes, betrayals and gorily visceral butchery.
Presented as a sort of Czech Braveheart, its convoluted screenplay is never especially clear in laying out the political intrigue context (what’s everyone actually fighting for?) and machinations, while the intermittent subtitled hymns into which the people burst feel odd, but, despite a wavering accent, Foster delivers a ferocious performance and the hyper-intense battle scenes with their skewerings and decapitations are more than enough to satisfy that Game of Thrones bloodlust. (Amazon, Chili, Google Play, iTunes, Microsoft Store, Rakuten, Sky Store, Virgin)
Mrs. Harris Goes To Paris (PG)
Published in 1958 by Paul Gallico as Mrs. ‘Arris Goes to Paris” (though titled Flowers For Mrs Harris in the UK), this Cinderella-like fairytale tale of a London cleaning lady who goes to Paris to buy a Dior dress has already been filmed three times, in 1958 starring Gracie Fields, a German version in 1982 and with Angela Lansbury in 1992 as well as a stage production under the UK title in 2016,. This, though, restoring the H, is the first feature adaptation, directed by co-writer Anthony Fabian, with gorgeous costume design by Jenny Beavan and starring Lesley Manville (Oscar nominated in previous fashion house drama Phantom Thread) in the title role.
Set in 1957, prior to Dior’s death in October with Yves Saint Laurent taking over as chief designer, it revolves around themes of dreams, kindness, social conservatism, snobbery and preconceptions (and a direct allusion to those ‘invisible women’ who make the world turn) while playing somewhat fancifully with an invented subplot about the fashion house’s financial problems and a shift from exclusivity to more affordable comparatively mass production.
Like her best friend Vi (Ellen Thomas), Ada Harris (Manville) works as a cleaning lady for her upmarket London clients, among them the snooty Lady Dant (Anna Chancellor) who,despite behind in paying the fees, has lashed out on a £500 Dior dress for an upcoming wedding. Ada immediately falls in love with it and resolves to go to Paris and get one of her own, to which ends she sets about scraping together the money. Unfortunately, an unwise bet down the greyhound track seems to put an end to those dreams. Which is when she gets a visit from an army officer, confirming that her soldier husband, who she had long hoped was only MIA, had indeed been killed and that she’s due a tidy war widow’s sum, a reward for finding some missing jewellery and an act of kindness from her Irish friend and racetrack bookie Archie (Jason Isaacs) means she will go to Paris after all.
However, arriving at the celebrated House of Dior on Avenue Montaigne, amid the Paris binmen strike,she’s inevitably greeted with disdain and contempt by the glacial (not later sympathetic) head clerk Claudine Colbert (Isabelle Huppert), who tries to have her removed. Until, that is, the suave widower Marquis de Chassagne (Lambert Wilson) steps in an invites her to be his guest at the New Look collection presentation. That she intends to pay cash is another incentive to overlook her class background. She sets her sights on stunning red number Temptation , only for a snooty repeat client, smarting over feeling slighted, to claim privilege and snatch it from her grasp. Not that her second choice, emerald green gown Venus, is exactly drab, but, to her dismay, Ada learns Dior isn’t a buy and wrap outfit and that her dress will have to be specifically tailored for her, taking at least a week.
And so, stuck in Paris, she ends up lodging with the brand’s accountant André (Lucas Bravo), being courted by the Marquise and befriended by overworked Proust fan top model Natasha (Alba Baptista). Naturally, being a fairytale set in Paris, love is in the air, with do-gooder Ada both playing matchmaker and seeing her own second chance at romance, while also leading a seamstress strike when, faced with ruin, Dior opts to downsize.
It’s all very sweet and good hearted, Colbert thaws, the dress snatcher gets her comeuppance, André saves the day, like-minded souls come together and, back in London, after another act of kindness that ends in couture catastrophe, Ada’s dream does indeed finally come true and romance does promise to bloom, though not in the quarter you might have assumed.
Very much in the sentimental cliched tradition of the dramady where a working class senior citizen changes their life and makes the world a better place but given an added lustre by Manville’s performance, this seems set to follow in the cinematic footsteps of things like The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and The Duke to entertain the grey pound brigade. (Rakuten TV; Odeon Birmingham; Reel)
Nightmare Alley (15)
Guillermo del Toro has remade the 1947 dark Tyrone Power thriller adapted from William Lindsay Gresham’s pulp novel as a cynical Depression-era moral fable about human nature and how it’s coldly exploited by a world made up of con artists and shysters.
It opens with Stanton Carlisle (a stupendous Bradley Cooper never playing for sympathy) lowering wrapped up corpse into a hole in a farmhouse floor and then setting fire to the place, a scene to which the film with flashback on several occasions before revealing who and why. He surfaces following a dwarf to at travelling carnival of fellow outcasts and misfits where the boss, Clem Hoatley (a devilish Willem Dafoe) gives him a job and a floor to sleep on. Here he uses his charm, wiles and natural showman skills to win Clem over by helping improve some of the acts and avoiding an awkward moment when the cops turn up investigating one of the carny’s attractions, The Geek (a homeless man drugged, sent mad and exhibited as a freak biting the head off a live chicken). He also strikes up a friendship with mentalist act clairvoyant Zeena (Toni Collette) and her creaky boozed up partner Pete (David Strathairn), keen to learn how to read people and the tricks of the trade and even keener to get his hands on Pete’s book of codewords.
One of the acts he buffs up is that of Molly (Rooney Mara), who apparently conducts electricity through her body in front of the jaw-gaping rubes, but while she’s clearly taken by him, her self-appointed guardian, strongman Bruno (Ron Perlman) makes it abundantly clear what will happen of Stan hurts her.
Suffice to say, however, after ‘accidentally’ poisoning Pete, armed with the stolen black book the arrogant Stan and naive Molly take off into the film’s second 1941-set act to start their own mentalist act using the tricks he’s stolen, playing more upmarket clubs in his driven need for validation, fame and wealth, whatever the cost to his soul. It’s at the Copacabana where he comes into contact with psychiatrist Lilith Ritter (an icily magnetic, razor sharp Cate Blanchett),. who is under no illusion that Stan is the real thing. However, they strike up a dark arrangement, whereby he agrees to therapy and she provides him with details of her wealthy clients whose grief and need for commune with the dead he can exploit, sharing a cut of his fees with her. He reckons he’s playing her, but, as the film reveals, a calculating femme fatale, she’s sharper at the power playing games than he thinks. Things eventually go pear-shaped when, ignoring Pete’s advice to not go down the spook show route, Stan enlists Molly to pose as his shame-ridden industrialist mark’s (Richard Jenkins) dead loved one, sending him back on the run as the film comes full circle with a devastating irony and a final line that will haunt long after the credits.
All this de Toro weaves together with the art of a master of misdirection, the detail of such things as pickled foetuses and hand-painted sideshow banners adding to the film’s unsettling lurid ambience and its world of callous grifters and hustlers to deliver a film that ranks up there alongside dark noir classics like LA Confidential and There Will Be Blood. (Disney+)
Not put off by the piss-poor response to 2018’s The Predator, 10 Cloverfield Lane director Dan Trachtenberg and screenwriter Patrick Aison take up the challenge of rebooting the franchise, and incredibly pulls off the best in the franchise since the original. Rather than continuing the saga, it takes the bold step of going back to the start, the setting being America’s Northern Great Plains in 1719. Here, Naru (The Ice Road’s Amber Midthunder) is a young Comanche desperate to prove herself the equal of her tribe macho boys, most especially her brother Taabe (Dakota Beavers), under whose shadow she lives. An expert with a bow and throwing hatchet, knowledgeable in herbal medicine, she’s ready for her ritual hunt rite of passage. Naturally, her testosterone swamped peers don’t take her seriously, especially when she has to be rescued from a mountain lion, which her brother kills and is subsequently honoured as a war chief.
However, her chance to show her mettle comes when she discovers that there’s very different kind of beast out there, an alien hunter that, using its cloaking technology and hi-tech weaponry is stalking its prey. Having eviscerated the young bucks and what appears to be a small army of French trappers, Naru finds herself as the last defence.
Working on a small scale, Trachtenberg ramps up the tension and intensity, delivering some thrillingly brutal close quarters action as well as graphically visceral butchery in which arrows and flintlock firearms are no match for the alien technology, causing Naru to improvise in inspired ways. Played by the towering Dane DiLiegro, this sleeker, faster Predator with its glowing green blood is also back to basics with sheer physicality and just a skull mask rather than the more familiar face plate, while singlehandedly (albeit with her trusty canine companion) Midthunder electrifyingly commands the screen and the action with her body language, Trachtenberg assiduous in authentically recreating the period and all the necessary trapping, the bulk of the cast being played by Native American actors (the film will have a Comanche dubbed version).
An inspired addition to the current spate of female empowerment thrillers, it’s an exhilarating and reinvigorating fresh take on a franchise that seemed to have nowhere left to go and easily one of the year’s best action movies, making it all the more inexplicable as to why it’s been denied a theatrical release and consigned to subscriber streaming. With an end credits graphic suggesting a sequel, perhaps they’ll reconsider next time around. (Disney+)
Prey For The Devil (15)
We are, according to the opening captions, in the mist of global rise in demonic possession, hence the decision by the Catholic Church to set up various exorcism schools to train young priests to become future Father Damiens, such as the one in Boston run by Father Quinn (Colin Salmon) which has its own secure ward where the most dangerously possessed are kept to be monitored and treated, although resident shrink Dr. Peters (Virginia Madsen) is of the opinion that these are more cases of mental health issues, something the Inquisition equally passed off as possessions.
Sister Ann (Jacqueline Byers) is a nun who works as caregiver, though she has a rebellious streak and wants to learn about exorcisms, strictly a male province as Sister Euphemia (Lisa Palfrey) reminds her when she sidles into one of the lectures. Father Quinn is more forbearing and allows her to not only sit in but accompany them to witness trainees Father Dante (Christian Navvaro) and Father Raymond (Nicholas Ralph) perform an exorcism (their gear’s stored in a cabinet of black suitcases rather like an armoury) on a new patient, a young girl called Natalie (Posy Taylor). It all goes horribly wrong and Ann, who’s previously bonded with the girl, steps in an apparently cleanses her, leading Dante to ask her to help him exorcise his sister who was raped, aborted the baby and is now possessed. Ann tells her she can understand, thus setting up a reveal about her own backstory and, while the cleansing ultimately doesn’t turn out too well, it does direct the film’s focus on the unsubtly laid out (Ann actually writes them down in her notebook) themes of guilt and shame which allows the demonic forces to take control.
At the start we learn that Ann was physically abused by her mother, driven by the voice in her head, who later committed suicide. She was diagnosed with schizophrenia but, as she tells the shrink, Ann believed she was possessed. And now it seems the demons want to get inside her too, Natalie, in a contrived plot twist you can see coming, providing the means.
The film has some interesting ideas, mixing the genre clichés (arched bodies, twisted heads, levitation, etc.) with a modern take (Ann hangs out in casual clothes when not on duty) and a fresh slant in having a veneer of female empowerment with a female protagonist wielding the cross and holy water. But, with B-listers Salmon, Madsen and a cameo from the late Ben Cross as the cardinal being the biggest names, it lacks any star wattage (Byers is adequate at best) and, while decently shot and competently directed by Daniel Stamm, it’s also all rather underwhelming with muddled messages (and never developed sinister discovery that those sent to the Vatican for exorcism all died), decrying tradition and past practices but equally reinforcing them. It was originally titled The Devil’s Light, though The Devil’s Lightweight might be a better description, with a coda as Ann’s sent out to train as a fully-fledged exorcist proposing a sequel (The Shexorcist?) that hasn’t a hope in hell of happening. The devil may have all the best tunes but he’s got some pretty crappy films. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel; Vue)
The Railway Children Return (PG)
Released in 1970, the original film, adapted from E.Nesbit’s novel, with Jenny Agutter in the lead role as young Bobbie, became a classic of cosy British family viewing. A TV retelling appeared in 2000, with Agutter playing Bobbie’s mother, and she’s back again, this time as her original, now adult, character in a (somewhat misnamed) sequel to the first film co-written Jemma Rodgers and directed by Morgan Matthews.
Although now set in 1944, it’s pretty much a carbon copy in terms of narrative. In the first film, set in 1905, Bobbie, her two siblings and her mother relocated to the Yorkshire countryside when their father was convicted of treason and they became impoverished. Here another set of three children, Lily (Beau Gadsdon, looking like a teenage Felicity Jones), spunky younger sister Pattie (Eden Hamilton) and brother Ted (Zac Cudby), end up in the same village when they’re evacuated from wartime Salford and are taken in by Bobbie, who stayed on in Oakworth, and her daughter Annie (Sheridan Smith), the local headmistress whose husband is off in the RAF. Although there appears to be no interaction with the other evacuees outside of the classroom. the three kids become best friends with Annie’s young son Thomas (Austin Hayes), taking on the resentful gang of village children and playing hide and seek down the railway yard. Which is where they come across the pointedly named Abe (Kenneth Aikens), a Black American serviceman who has injured his leg (Lily sneaks out bandages for him and is knocked unconscious when a passing German plane dumps a surplus bomb) and tells them he’s on a secret mission and has to get to Liverpool. Naturally, that’s a fib. Younger than he claims and homesick, he’s actually gone AWOL on account of the racist abuse from the white US Military Police (who brutally object to African-Americans mixing with white English girls, one scene inspired the real life Battle of Bamber Bridge in Lancashire in 1943), and so Lily and the others offer to help him escape. And, exactly like the original film, it climaxes with a bunch of kids stopping a train to speak to a travelling important gentleman to put a stop to a miscarriage of justice (one also has to wonder if the MPs could actually handcuff a fourteen year old British civilian and ship them off to jail).
Alongside the somewhat simplified theme of racism, there’s also passing elements of tragedy involving the trio’s father (strikingly captured in Lily’s dream sequence) and Bobbie’s husband and brother, while the women try their best to protect the children’s innocence from the realities of war. It also introduces a new character to her family in her great-uncle Walter (Tom Courtney), who has an unspecified position in the War Office and does a passable Winston Churchill impression while, in a throwaway nod to what Bobbie’s been up to for the past 40 years, she says she was a suffragette. There a gentle comic touch too with John Bradley as the village stationmaster.
A throwback to the sitting room era of the Children’s Film Foundation, even with its shoehorning in of contemporary issues, it’s hard to image youngsters – or even their parents – weaned on Marvel movies, frantic animation, ubiquitous toilet humour (one kid does complain that his carer farts, though) will make of its old-fashioned, good-natured amiability, but I guess they could give the grandparents a treat. (Rakuten TV)
A hospital therapist for the seriously mentally ill, Rose Cotter (Sosie Bacon) is asked to speak with Laura (Caitlin Stasey), a PhD student admitted to the psychiatric emergency ward after witnessing her lecturer bludgeon himself to death four days earlier. Terrified, she tells Rose she’s being followed by a smiling entity(the grin reaper?) that takes on the appearance of people she knows. Rose is persuaded she’s having a psychotic episode, until Lara shatters a ceramic vase and, her face in a contorted grin, slashes her own throat. Rose in understandably unsettled, not least since she witnessed her own mother’s suicide as a child and, as a last act scene explains, has felt haunted by guilt ever since. It’s not long before she starts seeing things, but her fiancee (Jessie T. Usher), therapist (Robin Weigert) and sister Holly (Gillian Zinzer) tell her she’s just stressed and rattled by what she experienced, bringing back her childhood trauma.
Following an incident with another smiling patient, her boss (Kal Penn) tells her to take a week off, but things just get worse until, with the help of Joel (Kyle Gallner), her cop ex (with apparently open access to police files), she stumbles across a whole string of recent cases of people committing suicide after seeing someone else do the same, all sporting the same manic smile. None lived longer than a week after what they saw, and the clock’s running on Rose as she frantically tries to unravel the curse, learning from a sole survivor (who mentions similar cases in Brazil as a sequel setter) that the only way to free yourself is to kill someone and pass it on to their relative.
An overly extended, plodding debut feature version of an earlier short by writer-director Parker Finn’s 11 minute short Laura Hasn’t Slept (in which Stacey played the lead) it has clear echoes of Ring and similar pass it on curse horrors, here rooted in the theme of trauma as the channel used by the entity, but it never rises to the same level of chilling terror. There’s some effective work in creating the demonic creature, but it’s all undercut by constant repetitions of well-worn jump scares and far too many nightmare sequences, while, partly down to a largely one note turn from Bacon, frankly, you never find yourself investing sufficiently in Rose’s character to care about her fate.
Amid the occasionally capable scares, effective atmosphere and visceral bloodletting (and the predictable reappearance of a vanished cat),it offers an interesting approach in addressing the need to expiate trauma-induced guilt in a scene where Rose, back at her abandoned childhood home, confront her mother’s ghost and the past. But having built to an effective climax, it then pulls another switch in what’s actually going on that just feels like a studio-driven rewrite bolt on to milk a potential franchise. That’ll wipe the smile off your face. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel; Vue)
Thirteen Lives (12)
On 23 June, 2018, when the monsoon rains came early, having gone into the Tham Luang Nang Non cave system as a birthday treat for one of them, 12 members of a Thai junior football team and their coach, a former Buddhist monk, became trapped by rising flood water. Over the course of the next 17 days, some 5000 volunteers from 17 countries along with Thai Navy Seals and government authorities worked tirelessly to pull off a seemingly impossible rescue mission.
Directed by Ron Howard, this is the third film to tell the story, hewing closely to the facts other than for some minor tweaking of the number of characters involved so as to maintain a degree of clarity, and never creating any heartstopping incidents for dramatic purpose. Given the global exposure the story had, and the incredible rescue of all thirteen alive, it’s almost impossible to crank up the sort of tension a fictional narrative with no known outcome might have engineered. Instead, while there are those pause for breath moments as ropes snag or equipment gets caught on rocks and, after they enter the cave, the boys aren’t seen again until their rescuers first appear, Howard primarily focuses on the combined efforts of all involved. Most especially the two British cave rescue divers, retired firefighter Rick Stanton (Viggo Mortensen) and IT consultant John Volanthen (Colin Farrell), who stepped up with their experience in such matters and who, along with their colleague, Richard ‘Harry’ Harris (Joel Edgerton), an Australian anaesthetist, embarked on a never before attempted plan to sedate the children (something of which the parents were unaware) and pass them along the tunnels “like package” in a six-hour dive, well-aware that if any of them woke up they would likely panic and drown. Assuming they didn’t die from too much or too little of the drugs. Meanwhile the rains were due to come again and even again diverting the waters from the mountain into the fields wouldn’t prevent the caves flooding totally. There was just three days to pull it off and all the frantic parents could do was watch from the sidelines and pray.
Reining in their natural screen charisma, Farrell and Mortensen play their characters as everyday men not action heroes, reluctant to involve with the press and concerned with just doing what they came to do. Tom Bateman and Paul Gleeson play additions to their team, Chris Jewell and Jason Mallinson, respectively, while among the Thai cast Sahajak Boonthanakit is the governor who finds himself fronting the crisis in the week he should be stepping down, Nophand Boonyai as the irrigation engineer, and Sukollawat Kanarot as Navy Seal Commander Saman Gunan, one of the two casualties when his oxygen ran out (the other died a year later from a blood infection caught during the rescue). There’s not a hint of ego to be seen anywhere.
An unsensationalised, unshowy telling of a story that gripped the world’s attention, it’s a tribute to real heroics and the way humanity can come together to work for a common goal and, even though you know how it ends, it remains a consistently compelling watch. (Amazon Prime)
Thor: Love and Thunder (12A)
Opening with the origin of Gorr the God Butcher (a pale Christian Bale with a creepy whisper) who, when his daughter dies, possessed of the Necrosword a mystical blade that kills gods but also corrupts its owner, swears to destroy all gods for abandoning their followers, Taika Waititi’s follow-up to Ragnorak takes the same path of mixing high drama and emotion with stirring action sequences and a rich vein of irreverent humour. In his fourth stand-alone outing as the God of Thunder, Chris Hemsworth plays to his comedic strengths and physical presence in equal measure with a knowing self-awareness. Narrated by Korg (Waititi), an extended intro finds him still hanging out with The Guardians of The Galaxy, engaging in bouts of meditation to try and find himself and saving an alien race from Gorr’s shadow spiders (albeit destroying the temple he was supposed to protect in the process) before a vision of a wounded Sif send him to her rescue and from thence back to New Asgard where, as it comes under attack too, he’s astonished to witness the return of his once shattered hammer Mjölnir, and even more astonished to find it’s now being wielded by a new Mighty Thor, his former girlfriend (a montage explains how their separate lives led them to split), Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), the hammer following its former master’s instruction to look after her by giving her the strength (at a cost) she lacks in her human form, where she’s dying from cancer. When the children from New Asgard are abducted by Gorr, she, Thor, Korg and the sardonic Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson), bored without battles, set off on a rescue vision in a longship drawn by two giant (and noisy) goats, one that sees the pair reignite their romance with electrifying chemistry (Thor taking on board Starlord’s (Chris Pratt) wisdom of wanting to feel shitty because that’s what love does to you) as well as visiting the Golden Temple for a meeting of the Gods (the God of Dumplings among them!) to try and raise an army, ending up in killing the pompous Zeus (a bizarrely accented Russell Crowe), surrounded by his Zeusettes (who swoon when Thor’s stripped naked) and stealing his thunderbolt, then journeying to the Shadow Realm (for some black and white sequences) to stop Gorr before he gets to Eternity and wishes for all gods to die at once.
As such, it builds its emotional and dramatic weight as it builds to the inevitable love and sacrifice climax, the fight sequences gathering in spectacle and intensity as they go, at one point involving the kidnapped children, including Heimdal’s son (Kieron L. Dyer) who insists on being called Axl (the film is rife with Guns n Roses tracks). On the comedic side, there a theatrical re-enactment of events in Ragnorak with Matt Damon as the Loki actor, Melissa McCarthy as Hela, San Neill as Odin and Luke Hemsworth as Thor and also a very amusing running gag that’s essentially a romantic triangle with Thor in the middle between Mjölnir and his jealous new axe, Stormbreaker, Thor forever trying to reassure the latter that he’s still ‘the one’.
It’s not until the final moments, with Thor in a new paternal role (you’ll be pleased to know Korg gets a mate, a Kronan dude named Dwayne and they sire a new rock baby), that the title of the film manifests itself, the mid-credits sequence setting the stage for the fifth instalment as a character declares revenge on Thor Odinson, ending with one more brief afterlife bonus scene featuring Idris Elba. Thunderingly good fun. (Rakuten TV)
Ticket To Paradise (12A)
The most famous smiles in contemporary Hollywood, George Clooney and Julia Roberts reunited for the sixth time for Mamma Mia! director Ol Parker’s rom com – their first together and her first in 20 years – as a long-divorced couple (David/Georgia) – married for five years until their lakeside house burned down – who find themselves having to travel to Bali and work together to prevent their just graduated daughter Lily (Booksmart’s Kaitlyn Dever) making the same impulsive mistake they did 25 years earlier by getting hitched to Gede (Maxime Bouttier), the charming local seaweed farmer who rescued her and best friend Wren ((Billie Lourd) when they were stranded at sea. Added to the mix is airline pilot Paul (Lucas Bravo), Georgia’s current boyfriend, who, having flown them to Bali turns up looking to seal the relationship. Those conversant with the genre will, of course, know, that old flames will be rekindled and new ones doused.
There’s not much of plot other than contriving to steal one of the rings needed or the ceremony, David trying to sow doubts in Gede’s mind about the marriage having long-term prospects (arguing Lily will want to return to America to become a lawyer – unaware she has no interest in the career), contriving various travel mishaps, and assorted gatherings with the bridegroom-to-be’s welcoming family and friends before it all resolves as assumed from the start. All light and frothy, Clooney and Roberts swap barbs and insults, there’s a splash of room swapping farce and a stream of scenes depicting Bali’s quaint if rather out of date ceremonies and rituals. Formulaic to a fault, Parker’s direction is workmanlike at best and the humour rarely comes to the boil, although there is an amusing scene as the prospective in-laws take on Lily and Gede in a variation on beer pong with a potent local brew that results in some embarrassing mum and dad dancing to retro disco and the inevitable waking up in the same bed together.
The ever smiling two stars sparkle even if the wattage is somewhat lower than you might have expected, while Dever and Bouttier make for an attractive if somewhat bland couple despite the underwritten characters, leaving Bravo and Lourd with undeveloped roles, the latter absent for many of the later scenes, all adding up to a pleasant but insubstantial frothy soufflé. (Rakuten TV; Cineworld NEC; Vue)
Top Gun: Maverick (12A)
Thirty-six years on since the original took your breath away, Tom Cruise has bowed to public demand and returned to the role that made him a global superstar, the authority-bucking US Navy fighter pilot Pete ‘Maverick’ Mitchell. As directed by Joseph Kosinski, who was only 16 when the original appeared, and scripted by Ehren Kruger, Eric Warren Singer and Christopher McQuarrie, Maverick hasn’t changed a great deal in the interim. He’s relatively more centred, still single, still in top physical shape and still a captain, partly through choice, partly because he runs the top brass up the wrong way. Indeed, he does so right from the start when, learning the supersonic stealth fighter project he’s heading in the Mojave Desert is being shut down by a Rear Admiral dubbed The Drone Ranger (Ed Harris) as it hasn’t reached its Mach 10 target, he duly climbs into the cockpit and pushes it to the limit and beyond before he can be told in person. However, rather than being disciplined, he’s told to report to his old Fighter Weapons School aka Top Gun stomping ground where he learns an unnamed country is developing an unsanctioned uranium enrichment plant and the school’s best pilots are being recruited to carry out a Dam Busters-style mission to destroy it. Initially assuming he’s one of then, he’s informed instead, by Commanding Officer Beau ‘Cyclone’ Simpson (John Hamm), that he’s there to train them and select the best six. And also that (verging on obsolete) he wasn’t Simpson’s first, or any, choice, but is there at the request of his former rival, long-time friend and now Admiral, Iceman (Val Kilmer).
The hot shots candidates are all introduced in a somewhat unnecessarily extended barroom scene, the ones that matter lining up as nerdy Bob (Lewis Pullman), cockily arrogant Hangman (Glen Powell), spunky female pilot Phoenix (Monica Barbaro), Fanboy (Danny Ramirez) and Rooster (Miles Teller), the now grown son of Goose (Anthony Edwards seen in flashbacks), Maverick’s wingman who dies in action and who, along with many others, Pete himself included, blames as him for his father’s death, thus setting up a somewhat predictable arc between the two.
The same scene also introduces bar owner Penny Benjamin (Jennifer Connolly), mentioned but never seen in the original, now given a backstory as Maverick’s former on-off love interest who, now a divorced single mother, re-enters the romantic orbit. Of course, that’s a minor subplot as the film’s main focuses is on Maverick whipping his students into shape so that the chosen ones can fly dangerously low into the mountains under the radar to avoid the anti-aircraft missiles and superior enemy planes, destroy the target and get out again in a race against the clock. So cue all the expected young bucks v old fogey dynamics, pilot rivalries, run ins with Cyclone, and Maverick again bucking orders and pushing himself to breaking point to prove the mission is not impossible, inevitably ending up leading it himself with Rooster as his wingman.
As you’d imagine, right from a recreation of the opening scene (complete with Kenny Loggins’ Danger Zone), there plenty of nods to the original along with such iconic Cruise moments as a front on show of him riding his motorbike (in his original Top Gun jacket) grinning like a Cheshire cat. He’s not above taking the piss out of himself either, retorting ‘it’s the only one I’ve got” when someone comments on giving ‘that look’. While better at the grins and the grit expression that registering deep emotion, nevertheless Cruise has a particular affecting and touching scene in a reunion with Kilmer, his character clearly not long for the world (thereby leaving Maverick without anyone in his corner).
Likewise, while playing down the jingoism element, Kosinksi is at his best when the action is in the air, whether in the simulated dog fights (shot in actual U.S. Navy F/A-18s, for which the cast went through a punishing training process) as Maverick pushes his team or the actual dog fights evading enemy jets in the aftermath of the mission, where old grievances and new enmities are all neatly resolved in big bromantic hugs, even if the original’s homoeroticism is decidedly downplayed here.
Cruise again demonstrates that he’s in a cinema superstar league of his own, an ‘event’ in his own right (as the film says, it all comes down to pilot in the box), a generous actor but inevitably putting others in the shade simply on account of who he is, though Teller at least gets to remind how good he was in Whiplash and Kosinski’s own firefighter drama Only The Brave. Along with a deft use of 70s hits, music’s provided by Harold Faltermeyer with the big song coming from Lady Gaga, and while that’s no Take My Breath Away, the film will most certainly have you needing oxygen masks. Turn and burn, baby. (Rakuten TV)
Not to be confused with the Netflix series, this is a Hitchcock-influenced (Rear Window especially) psychological thriller , the directorial debut of Chloe Okuno which, set in Bucharest, stars directed a compelling Maika Monroe as Julia who has just moved there in the wake of her husband Francis’s (Karl Glusman) promotion. Half-Romanian, he speaks the language, she doesn’t, adding to her feeling of isolation and alienation, not to mention paranoia. Walking home one night, they pass a crime scene where a young woman has been found murdered, the latest victim of a serial killer dubbed The Spider, another woman having been decapitated.
Her husband working late hours, the loneliness starts to prey on her. Looking from the window she someone (Burn Gorman) from an apartment opposite staring down. It’s probably nothing. Maybe she’s just overtired. But when she tentatively waves, he waves back. Then she starts seeing this creepy watcher everywhere, following him to a seedy strip joint where he works as a cleaner and her neighbour Irina (Madelina Anae) is a dancer. In a cinema watching Charade she feels him sit behind her. Rushing out she goes to a grocery store where he apparently follows her. Identifying him from CTV footage, she things he may be the serial killer. Francis thinks she’s overreacting as does the local cop. When she gets Irina’s ex to bang on the apartment door, it results in a complaint from its elderly resident and the cop bringing his son, the ‘watcher’, who says he looks after his father and engages in people watching because he’s lonely, and Julia together to shake hands and put the matter to rest. Besides, which the Spider’s been caught. Those familiar with such films should know such conclusions should not be jumped to.
The lighting, colour scheme, sound, camera angles and mood clearly affording the feeling that there’s something off and that Julia’s not just an emotionally disintegrating unreliable narrator feeling the pressure of being a stranger in a strange world where she can’t understand what people are saying or persuade anyone to take her seriously, Okuno delivers a slow burning chilly feeling of impending dread that draws on the way women’s anxieties are often dismissed by men, other touchstones here being Rosemary’s Baby and Polanski’s Repulsion. The climax feels a little predictable and less well thought-out, but the chills will linger long after the end credits. (Empire Great Park; Vue)
The Woman King (15)
The slave trade and the complicity of African tribes within it provides the bedrock for this electrifying epic drama, loosely inspired by historical events, from director Gina Prince-Bythewood, set in 1823 in the West African kingdom of Dahomey, present-day Benin. Here, real life King Ghezo (John Boyega) is protected by the Agojie, an all-woman army, led by the formidable fictional stony-faced Mohawk-cut Nanisca (a magnificent Viola Davis) with the support of the statuesque Amenza (Sheila Atim), a javelin-savvy seer, and the fierce veteran Izogie (Lashana Lynch), first seen emerging from the undergrowth to rescue female captives from the opposing Oyo slavers in the first of several bloody battles. While the Dahomey and Ghezo owe their position and wealth to the slave trade (and continued to do so throughout his reign), Nanisca is of the belief Africans should not be part of making other Africans slaves, proposing they trade palm oil instead, all of which, for both political and economic reasons, leads the egotistical Ghezo to declare war on the Oyo, of which they are a tributary state.
Meanwhile, Izogie is in charge of training the new recruits, among them Nawi, (31-year-old -Thuso Mbedu a believable teenager) who, refusing her father’s various arranged marriages, is offloaded to become one of the virgin warrior Agojie. Strongly self-willed with attitude, arrogance and both a chip and a scar on her shoulder that provide a crucial third act reveal in her relationship with the tough but tender Nanisca, she’s a competitive spirit who bridles at authority and is determined to prove her worth and fighting mettle, especially against friend and equally strong-headed rival Ode (Adrienne Warren).
Meanwhile, European slavers led by Santo Ferreira (Hero Fiennes Tiffin) and accompanied by the half-Dahomean Malik (Jordan Bolger), have formed an alliance with Oyo General Oba Ade (Jimmy Odukoya), with whom Nanisca has history and who is determined to crush the Dahomy. Having struck up a friendship with Malik, Nawi learns of Ade’s plans, setting the stage for another graphically brutal and bloody battle (the cast performing all their own stunts) in which she’s taken prisoner with Izogie. As reward for her victory, Ghezo appoints Nanisca his ruling partner, the Woman King, but refuses to countenance a rescue mission, prompting her to take matters into her own hands.
With a cast composed almost entirely of Black women and a screenplay that gives them real emotional and political depth, exploring themes of trauma, pride, identity, complicity, morality, friendship and heroism, owing not a little to Black Panther (whose Dora Milaje were inspired by the Agojie), it’s big myth making screen entertainment in every respect directed with hurricane force by Prince-Bythewood who will unquestionably be up there alongside Davis (and possibly Mbedu) in the well-deserved Oscar nominations. (MAC; Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Vue)