With cinemas now open this column will review films both screening theatrically and/or on various streaming platforms.
The Last Duel (18)
The first script co-written by Matt Damon and Ben Affleck since Good Will Hunting, here with female input from Nicole Holofcener (writing a chapter each), Ridley Scott’s latest epic is a basically a medieval Rashomon for the #MeToo generation. Based on a true story from 14th century France (as told in Eric Jager’s book) during the Hundred Years War, it affords three different perspectives on events involving questions of truth, honour and justice. It opens in 1386 with a flashforward to former friends now deadly enemies facing each other off, armoured and on horseback with lances, in front of the giggly and not a little sadistic young King Charles VI (Alex Lawther). So that’ll be the newly knighted Jean de Carrouges (Damon) with goatee, mullet and check scar, and rakishly good-looking ladies man Jacques LeGris (Adam Driver), a charismatic rock star squire in the service of debauched reprobate Count Pierre d’Alençon (Affleck, having all the devilish most fun as a sort of platinum-blonde 1300s Hugh Hefner), the king’s cousin who oversees Normandy. It then jumps back in time as, disobeying orders to protect Limoges, de Carrouges leads a charge to prevent further beheadings and, in the process, saves LeGris’s life.
The first chapter of three is told from the former’s perspective as he becomes increasingly enraged as his standing sinks and LeGris’s rises under d’Alençon’s patronage. All the more so to discover that a lucrative parcel of land promised him as part of the dowry in marrying Marguerite de Thibouville (Jodie Comer), the daughter of a pardoned traitor, has been appropriated by the Count and given to Le Gris. In attempting to sue them both, de Carrouges suffers a further setback when his now rival is awarded a captaincy he was due to inherit on his father’s death, although, persuaded by his wife to attend a party celebrating a friends’ new son, the pair are, apparently, reconciled. However, LeGris’s interest in Marguerite does not bode well. And so it is that, on his return from a trip to Paris to collect his fee for a disastrous campaign in Scotland, Marguerite tells him that, while he was away, his scold of a mother (Harriet Walter) took off on a trip with all the servants, leaving her alone, and that LeGris forced his way in and raped her. All of which leads up to de Carrouges, who takes it more as an affront on him rather than his wife, petitioning the King to allow him to face LeGris in a duel to the death with the winner being whoever’s telling the truth.
At which point, Chapter Two rewinds everything to tell it all over again, this time according to LeGris, who in this version saves de Carrouges’ life, and almost seems reluctant to accept gifts that were his friend’s due. He is, however, less reluctant about bursting in on his wife, professing his love and then raping her, telling himself she wanted it really. We then get Chapter Three (written, as you might surmise, by Holofcener), which is Marguerite’s version of the truth, which actually accords with and expands on her assault in Chapter Two, but where she now learns that, should her husband be the one killed in the duel, she will be deemed to have lied and will suffer a decidedly grisly execution.
The narrative problem is that, after presenting LeGris’s account, there’s actually no mystery about who is telling truth, the only tension being in waiting to see who kills who in the duel. But then, that’s whodunit is not really the point of the film. Visually suitably gloomy with a wintry palette to match the period setting, there are bloody and brutal battle sequences, but these are only brief and the screenplay’s more contemporary focus is on assault and consent and how women who have been raped have difficulty in getting people to believe them and secure justice, and that they weren’t asking for it and leading on their assailant. It doesn’t help her case that she once told a friend she thought LeGris was quite a looker.
As such, it’s an intense drama that dwells more on character and the dynamic interplay. Marguerite is clearly the innocent, who’s only crime is to be good looking and well-read, both of which are a turn on for the arrogant, smug LeGris, who is, quite frankly, a bit of a vicious bastard to tends to treat all women as a penis parking zone. De Carrouges isn’t Mr Perfect either. He may have good reason to feel wronged, but he’s also volatile, insecure, jealous and preeningly self-absorbed, resentful of being diminished by the elevation of his peers.
The lack of ambiguity inevitably works against the film, with no real suspense as to the truth to keep the audience involved, but, even so, spanning many years and underlining the different playing fields for men and women, then and now, the central performances, Comer’s especially, are first rate while, even when the narrative (is somewhat losing its grip over the 152 minute running time, Scott’s direction never falters, even if, ultimately, you feel this could have equally served as a pitch for EastEnders. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel; Vue)
Halloween Kills (18)
Forty-three years on since the first film, this picks up right after the end of returning director David Gordon Green’s 2018 entry into the franchise, Halloween, that saw Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) being rushed to hospital by her daughter, Karen (Judy Greer) and granddaughter Allyson (Andi Matichack), after being badly wounded, believing the insane masked murderer Michael Myers (variously played here by James Jude Courtney, Nick Castle and Airon Armstrong) aka The Shape to be trapped in the burning basement of her home. But, after eleven films, if one thing’s for sure it’s that he seems impossible to kill. And sure enough, after a prologue where, out celebrating Halloween, Allyson’s boyfriend Cameron (Dylan Arnold), comes across a badly wounded cop (Will Patton) and a recreated flashback to events four decades earlier (including a passable Donald Pleasence lookalike as Loomis) where his dad (Robert Longstreet) had a narrow escape, we see Myers emerging from the inferno and massacring a crew of first responders before setting off on another bloody spree.
Meanwhile, Laurie’s friend Tommy (Anthony Michael Hall), who she babysat as a kid, rallies the people of Haddonfield, among them the now older survivors from the original, Lindsey (Kyle Richards) and Marion (Nancy Stephens) reprising their roles, into a vigilante mob chanting evil dies tonight. Well, despite their best efforts, including a pitchfork in the back, various bullets and a knife to the neck, naturally, and this is hardly a spoiler, it doesn’t, leaving the stage set for yet another confrontation between Michael and Laurie in the next sequel, Halloween Ends, where, having spent most of this film in a hospital bed, Curtis will presumably have a far more hands-on role.
As such, there’s not exactly much of a plot, just a series of brutally visceral murders as the body count rises and rises, rather narrowing down the returning cast list next time around, all of which Green mounts with efficiency even if, by now, the sudden appearance of Myers behind someone has pretty much lost all of its jumps care value. Somewhere among all this, the screenplay attempts to explore a theme of generational trauma and revenge as catharsis, the townsfolk turning into your standard blood crazed lynch mob, at one point, in a slipshod sidebar, running down an escaped mental hospital inmate they mistake for Michael, providing another opportunity to spill brains and guts. It ticks all the boxes you would expect, but, after 43 years, it’s chasing its own tail down a dead end alley. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Vue)
Rose Plays Julie (15)
A veterinary student at Dublin University, volunteering at a practice where they’re learning how to euthanise animals, Rose (Ann Skelly), she’s recently learnt she was adopted as a baby and that her birth certificate has her down as Julie. Pondering on who she really is, she tracks down and, breaking the no-contact clause, starts tracking her birth mother, London-based actress Ellen Wise (Orla Brady), posing as a potential buyer for her home, where she meets her oblivious teenage half-sister Eva (Sadie Soverall), before a confrontation with her mother who declares she wants nothing to do with her.
Things and minds change, however, and when Ellen takes a role that brings her to Dublin, she arranges to meet up with her daughter and, eventually, reveals the back story of how she became pregnant after being raped and, though initially considering abortion, decided to give birth and hopefully create something good out of the situation. Discovering her father is Peter (Aiden Gillen, terrific in a role more complex than a one-note villain), a celebrated archaeologist and author of the pointedly titled best-seller Below the Surface, she dons a Louise Brooks-style pixie-ish wig and, like her mother before her, calling herself Julie volunteers on his latest dig where history threatens to repeat itself.
Written and directed by Christine Molloy and Joe Lawlor, making effective use of silence, and sound design, close-ups and lingering looks. it’s a slow burn, tense and icy exploration of women, violence, mother-daughter ties, identity and the different personas we adopt, dissociative states and emotional trauma, the early introduction of a lethal injection to put down animals and how to judge the correct dose, somewhat inevitably turning the film, which takes on the air of a Greek tragedy, into a rape revenge drama, albeit not in quite the manner you might anticipate, as it build to its cathartic but chilling denouement. (MAC)
Venom: Let There Be Carnage (15)
And carnage it indeed is. Carnage of the script, the direction and the acting. The first Venom had some of the worst reviews of any Marvel movie, but this makes it look like a masterpiece. Directed, if you can use such a term here, by Andy Serkis, it picks things up shortly after the end of the previous film, the alien symbiont now fully at home in the body of haggard-looking journalist Eddy Brock (Tom Hardy) in what Serkis and Kelly Marcel’s screenplay have fashioned as a mismatched buddy relationship, Venom frequently popping out to make sarcastic jibes at his host, complaining about not being allowed to eat human brains, not even bad guys, and existing on a diet of chocolate and chicken (which wander around Brock’s apartment). It’s a knockabout comedic tone that simply doesn’t gel with what by rights should be more of a horror movie. Worse, it’s not especially funny.
As part of the subplot, ex-girlfriend Anne (Michelle Williams), who knows all about his alien bodymate, arranges to meet Eddy at a restaurant, he’s thinking reconciliation until she flashes her engagement ring, cue yet another round of Venom putdowns. The main thrust, however, involves Eddy getting to do the interview with serial killer Cletus Kasady (Woody Harrelson) trailed at the end of the first film, running an article that winds up with him getting Kasady to reveal where the bodies are buried and, consequently, seeing the death penalty reinstated. An understandably pissed Kasady manages to bite Eddy’s finger, whereby he too winds up with a multi-armed, bloodthirsty symbiont in his body, aka Carnage, albeit this one’s red not black, leading to a jailbreak massacre as he sets up to find, rescue and marry his girlfriend, Frances Barrision (Naomie Harris doing her best with a cipher of a role), aka the mutant Shriek, who’s introduced at the opening flashback to their teenage years where she befriends him at the orphanage and they become lovers, before the obligatory clandestine agency whisk her away to a top secret facility containment cell as a lab rat.
Meanwhile, the film goes from one ill-judged development to another as Venom and Brock have a falling out, and the former quits his host body, and stomps off to the local bars, ludicrously crashing a costume part as himself and becoming a cool hit with the punters, body surfing through assorted hosts before Anne and her fiancé track him down and get him and Eddy to kiss and make up, just in time for the big and visually incoherent Venom vs Carnage showdown in an old church.
Hardy plays things like a man who can’t find an escape clause in his contract, Harrelson outdoes Nic Cage in the deranged and barkingly OTT stakes and Stephen Graham drifts bewilderedly through the narrative and plot holes as police detective Mulligan while all around them the set pieces and visual effects crash from one clumsy mess to another.
It’s mercifully short, probably because huge chunks ended up in the editing room bin, but even then it feels interminable, the mid-credits scene, after the twosome have taken off to a tropical beach for a little r&r, that links to the Spider-Man multiverse more of a warning than a tease. Simply quite awful, but at least the first Venom movie won’t now be the most reviled in the MCU. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Vue)
The Addams Family 2 (PG)
A follow-up to 2019’s somewhat lacklustre animation reboot, this is a far superior affair even if it does follow a familiar teen-angst narrative with Wednesday (Chloë Grace Moretz) questioning who she is and her fit within her family (she refuses hugs), as well as a staple road trip plot to afford family bonding time. Opening with Wednesday presenting her project at the school science fair, she dazzles everyone with her experiment in which she is able to transfer her pet octopus’s personality and intelligence into the body of her Uncle Fester (Nick Kroll), but is understandably put out when everyone is declared the competition winner. She does, however, seriously impress the competition sponsor, high flier scientist Cyrus Strange (Bill Hader), who invites her to come and work with him at his lab, sharing the secret to her formula about combining animal and human traits. Naturally, she refuses, but the whole experience only serves to exacerbate her feeling of being an outsider, her mother, the cooly regal Morticia (Charlize Theron), unable to lighten her gathering melancholy.
Which prompts her father, Gomez (Oscar Isaac), to suggest they all (pet lion Kitty included) take off in their creaky oversized camper van (“half car, half eyesore!” declares Fester), for a three-week cross country trip visiting such suitably Addams-friendly spots as Salem, Sleepy Hollow and Death Valley. As they’re about to set off, however, they’re accosted by an attorney (Wallace Shawn) who claims that, in fact, Wednesday is not their daughter at all, but was switched at birth in a hospital mix-up (cue flashback of Fester juggling babies) and he wants to return her to her real family.
This provides a series of episodic stopovers and accompanying events as, pursued by the lawyer and his hulking henchman, Fester, who’s developed a curious desire to be in water and whose one arm has turned into a tentacle (cue a subsequent testicles/tentacles gag), takes the van, driven by Thing (the disembodied hand), on a detour to Niagara Falls. Here Wednesday uses her voodoo rag doll to take control of brother Pugsley (Javon Walton), making him do a hip hop dance routine in front of some girls he’s trying to impress, before (as part of her ongoing attempts at his demise) sending him flying into falls.
Moving on to the Grand Canyon (which Pugsley demolishes with his explosives obsession), Wednesday administers a DNA test that confirms her suspicions and, accompanied by family butler Lurch (co-director Conrad Vernon), sneaks off to find her real father who, wouldn’t you know it, is apparently Strange, who, it turns out, as a very bird-like wife and a porcine daughter.
Largely focused around Wednesday and her mordant wit, the film gleefully digs into the dark and creepy elements of the original comic strip while peppering it with assorted pop culture references (Gomez declares Billie Eilish a little too sunny for his taste, Strange snaps “‘pipe down Elvira” to Morticia) and, during a detour at a Little Miss Jalapeño Pepper contest in Texas, Wednesday, forced into sporting a big blonde wig for a song routine, a knowing nod to the prom scene in Carrie. And, since this is essentially a film for kids, a series of poo jokes, before a fabulous mutant monsters show down between a giant Festerpus and a very Strangegryphon.
There’s also a fabulously camp scene as, she and Lurch on their way to Sausalito, they find themselves at a biker’s roadbar (yup, Motorhead’s on the soundtrack) where, told to show them what his hands can do, Lurch takes to the piano for a falsetto rendition of I Will Survive that has everyone on the dance floor. All that plus Grandma Addams (Bette Midler) turning the mansion into a nightclub while the folks are away and a guest appearance by hairy behatted Cousin It (Snoop Dogg) who, it transpires, is now a rap superstar with his own private jet! An early family Halloween treat with a family hug and be who you are message wrapped up in the candies. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Vue)
Black Widow (12A)
Thirteen years on from the launch of the MCU, director Cate Shortland finally gives the Avengers’ Black Widow a long overdue origin story co-written by WandaVision’s Jac Schaeffer. Echoing The Americans, it opens in 1995 Ohio with young blue-haired tomboy Natasha (Ever Anderson) playing with her younger sister Yelena (Violet McGraw), as part of Russian sleeper cell with their fake family, mom Melina (Rachel Weisz) and dad Alexei (David Harbour providing the comic relief), aka The Red Guardian, the Soviet answer to Captain America. Their cover blown, they’re forced to flee from S.H.I.E.L.D., ending up in Cuba where the two girls are taken away by Dreykov (Ray Winstone with mangled accent) to become part of his army of female assassins. Cut to the immediate aftermath of the events in Captain America: Civil War, with Romanoff (Scarlett Johannson) wanted by the authorities, headed up by Secretary Ross (William Hurt), leading her to follow an ‘invitation’ to track down the estranged Yelena (Florence Pugh proving an action-woman natural), the world’s greatest child assassin apparently, who, as an earlier sequence shows, has, by means of some chemical red mist compound, now broken free of Dreykov’s mind control, and is holed up in Budapest on the run for her former fellow Widows.
Suffice to say, some thrilling fisticuffs and explosions later, the orphan ‘sisters’ set off to track down Dreykov, whom Romanoff believed she’d killed, along with his young daughter as collateral damage, in his Red Room headquarters, and liberate the other assassins using a stash of the vials and put a stop to his plans for world domination, a plan that involves rescuing the oafish Alexei from his high security prison and reuniting with Melina who works for him as a mind control scientist (she’s got a bunch of trained pigs), and facing down Dreykov’s personal costumed and shield-slinging killer, the Taskmaster, who can mimic their opponents’ skills.
As such, it’s a fairly straightforward narrative, but, being Marvel, its invested with some serious emotional heavy lifting between the spectacular action sequences – several borrowed from Moonraker (it even features a clip and snatch of the music) – involving themes of family, sisterhood, identity crisis, sibling rivalry, free will, guilt and regret. Pugh and Johannson have terrific chemistry, with the former giving the film a real soul, as well as an amusing self-referential observation on Romanoff striking her trademark hair-flipping super-hero pose as well as observing how Thor doesn’t need to take ibuprofen after he’s been in a fight, while the latter’s background is further filled in on learning about her true biological mother and how she herself came to be part of the ‘family’ spy network.
Thrilling, action-packed, emotional and witty, it ends with the inevitable post credits scene which brings the timeline up to date with Yelena visiting Natasha’s grave and a meeting that sets up Pugh’s continuing role in the franchise and her next appearance as part of the Hawkeye TV series. Get bitten. (Disney+)
The Courier (12A)
Based on real life events, written by Tom O’Connor and directed by Dominic Cooke, Benedict Cumberbatch gives a solid, underplayed performance as Greville Wynne, a salesman representing various manufacturing companies, who, at the height of the Cold War, was recruited by MI6 and the CIA (respectively represented by Angus Wright and Rachel Brosnahan) to travel to Moscow and make contact with Oleg Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze), a Soviet colonel who, alarmed by Kruschev’s increasingly volatile nuclear rhetoric, has indicated he’s ready to pass on information to help prevent mutually assured destruction. The thinking is that, as someone with no obvious political connections, Wynne is unlikely to attract KGB attention.
Unable to tell his wife (Jessie Buckley) the real reason for his regular trips to Russia, she suspects he’s having another affair while Penkovsky’s wife also remains oblivious to her husband’s actions in smuggling photos out by Wynne in the build up to the Cuban Missile Crisis. Unfolding with a cool tension in secret meetings where the fear of discovery or being bugged is ever present, it sits well alongside similar espionage films like Bridge of Spies and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. As history tells, the subterfuge was eventually uncovered, leading to a darker third act when Cumberbatch, shaved headed and looking increasingly emaciated, is banged up in a Russian prison, being interrogated to confess he actually knew what he was carrying for Penkovsky (it’s suggested he didn’t, hence plausible deniability) before the British government negotiated an exchange for his release.
Sharply scripted and with a strong chemistry between Cumberbatch and Ninidze as the two men develop a genuine friendship (Wynne called him Alex), Wynne secretly rather enjoying his adventure, ticking the usual genre conventions without them appearing like clichés, the film revealing the heroic – and costly – role he and Penkovsky (codenamed Ironbark by the CIA) played in ending the Cuban standoff, Oleg remarking over a shared meal “We are just two people, but this is how things change.”
Its low key, period thriller nature might not be a big audience grabber, but as an inspiring story of human decency and sacrifice for the greater good, it’s one that deserves to be told and deserves to be seen. (BT Film Store, Sky Store, Virgin)
The Croods : A New Age (PG)
A belated sequel to the 2013 animation about a stone-age family, following a quick reminder, this picks up shortly after the original with overprotective dad Grug (Nicolas Cage) still not happy with the idea that teenage daughter Eep (Emma Stone) has struck up a romantic relationship with more evolved outsider, Guy (Ryan Reynolds). Here, though, we learn more about him in an opening sequence in which his late parents send him off in search of his tomorrow before they’re drowned in tar. Giving Eep an eternity rock, they plan to set off on their own path and way from the smelly sleep pile, until, as they, Grug and the rest of the family, wife Ugga (Catherine Keener), numbskull son Thunk (Clark Duke), Gran (Cloris Leachman) and feral five-year-old Sandy are out foraging with their giant pet sabretooth, Chunky, in search of a new home after their cave was destroyed, come across a walled day-glo Eden stuffed with watermelons, berries and all manner of food.
This, it turns out, is the home of The Bettermans, Phil (Peter Dinklage) and Hope (Leslie Mann) and their daughter Dawn (Kelly Marie Trann), an advanced new agey flip-flops-wearing family who’ve invented nicer pale blue clothes, agriculture, irrigation, showers, lifts, indoor plumbing (cue toilet gag) and live in set of a luxury tree apartments. They, it transpired, knew Guy as a child and it was here that his parents were sending him. Now, socioeconomic snobs, they want to pair Dawn off with Guy and be red of the Croods as soon as possible, all under the guise of being friendly and doing it for their new guests’ best interests of a bright future beyond the garden.
Meanwhile, Eep and Dawn bond and take off on Chunk on the latter’s first adventure beyond the walls, proudly scoring her first scar, Thunk has become a prehistoric app social media zombie watching hrough his ‘window’ and Phil has a manipulative man to man chat with Grug in his man cave sauna, persuading him to agree to them taking Guy off his hands. The climax hinges on Grug defying Phil’s sole rule and eating all the bananas which, turns out to be a bad thing, since they are in fact the only thing keeping the Bettermans’ paradise safe from a tribe of quick to learn punch monkeys and, in turn, a giant mandrill-like answer to King Kong.
Naturally, all this builds up to messages about family, parenting, acceptance, living in harmony and, as, led by Gran, a warrior in her day, the women come to the rescue as the Thunder Sisters, a big dose of female empowerment. There’s some great sight gags, such as Guy poring over a scrapbook of old family cave drawings as well as big action sequences like the Croods battling the predatory kangadillos as they race through a canyon all set against an often surreal and psychedelic looking landscape inhabited with things like land sharks and Wolf-Spiders. The voice work is excellent, Cage, Stone and Dinklage taking the honours, the banter witty, satirical, knowing and peppered with in jokes. If you are of a mind, you can even read into it a political message about a divided America, but probably best to just be a kid, ride the prehistoric rollercoaster and enjoy the silliness. And the peanut toe. (Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Vue)
Everybody’s Talking About Jamie (12)
Basically a drag queen Billy Elliot The Musical, this is a big screen adaptation of the West End coming of age hit based on the documentary about Sheffield teen Jamie Campbell who wanted to go to school prom in drag, is an exuberantly feelgood joy directed by the Jonathan Butterell, who did the stage show and featuring the bulk of the original songs along with a stand out new addition. Winningly played by newcomer Max Harwood, the openly gay Jamie New lives with his supportive divorced mum Margaret (Sarah Lancashire) who, rather than see him hurt, hides the fact his homophobic father (Ralph Ineson) wants nothing to do with him, making excuses for no shows and faking birthday cards and presents. Bullied at school, primarily by Dean Paxton (Samuel Bottomley) and disapproved of by his teacher (Sharon Horgan) who tells her pupils they need to have realistic dreams, he’s supported and encouraged in his dream of becoming a drag queen by Muslim best friend Pritti Pasha (an outstanding Lauren Patel), herself battling against petty bigotry as she studies to become a doctor, who persuades him to visit a local drag shop to find a dress to go with the ruby red stilettos his mum bought him. It’s here he meets the shop’s owner, Hugo Battersby (Richard E Grant, wonderful), a former drag queen star as Loco Chanel who becomes his mentor, sells him his legendary ‘blood red dress’ and sets him up for his drag show debut (where, overcoming nerves and the jeers of Paxton and his mates, he dazzles as well as being given his drag name as Mimi Mi). All seems to be going swimmingly, until Jamie meets his dad and learns exactly how he feels (leading to a bust up with his mother for lying to him) and his teacher firmly tells him he’s not going to be allowed into prom if he turns up in a dress.
All of which serves as a platform for some brilliant choreographed set musical pieces that include the original stage title song spectacular and Lancashire’s poignant He’s My Boy alongside the all new This Was Me, a tear-jerker disco ballad performed by Grant (but sung by Holly Johnson) that, an addition to the narrative, affords a flashback to Hugo’s drag queen days backdropped by the AIDs epidemic, the street protests, police gay bashing, Princess Diana’s to patients, and ending with the news of Freddie Mercury’s death.
Featuring appearances by Shobna Gulati as Margaret’s mate Ray and cameos from the theatre production cast by Margaret Campbell who played mum and the original Jamie, John McCrea who plays the young Loco) alongside Drag Race star Bianca del Rio (as herself and the school art teacher) and Layton Williams, the touring version of Jamie, it’s variously touching, funny, heartbreaking (the new addition of a football match where Jamie confronts his father) and inspiring, culminating with the prom where Jamie becomes his true self, his classmates take a stand and Dean finds redemption and it ends with the company’s rousing self-acceptance and mutual tolerance message embodying performance of Out of the Darkness (A Place Where We Belong). Everybody’s talking about Jamie, and rightly so. (Amazon Prime)
Flummels are ring-doughnut shaped creatures with a hole in their middle and who travel like rolling tyres, they live on one of the Galápagos Islands where brother and sister Op (Rachel Bloom) and Ed (Adam Devine) are the tribe’s misfits, she always creating a mess and he a grumpy pessimist who longs to fit in. However, vain flummels leader Jepson (Henry Winkler) and bossy assistant Mali (Alex Borstein) aren’t about to let that happen, Ed being consigned to be friend at the end, a straggler in the upcoming 10th annual flower festival procession. But even that’s denied him when they inadvertently cause a friendly whale to swamp the beach, Op and Ed being consigned to sit the festival out on desolation rock.
Looking to find a way to redeem themselves, Op leads Ed up the far side of the mountain to the forbidden zone in search of some extra special blooms and, falling into a glowing flower, find themselves magically transported to present day Shanghai. Here, lost and confused, they’re helped by Clarence (Ken Jeong), a small white mix-breed Pomeranian that belonged to a now missing scientist who discovered seeds that enabled him to travel in time and visit historic events. He reveals the dreadful truth that, shortly after they left, a volcanic explosion wiped out all flummels, but says that, through Dr Chung’s (Benedict Wong) time terminal he can help them travel back and save their species.
Unfortunately, another Op and Ed accident throws Clarence into a random portal (where he becomes one of explorer Edward Shackleton’s thuggish sled dogs) along with the 1835 seed, leaving them at a loss at what to do. At which point they meet The Extinctables (an in-joke nod to Stallone’s The Expendables), a group of extinct creatures, dodo Dottie (Zazie Beetz), Tasmanian tiger Burnie (Jim Jefferies), Macrauchenia Alma (Catherine O’Hara) and Hoss (Reggie Watts), a baby Triceratops, rescued by Chung, who now live in the time terminal library. They offer to help Op and Ed visit various times to try and find Clarence, eventually recovering the seed that will save the flummels. However, an argument sees Op returning on her own and, at this point, there’s an unexpected twist where Clarence’s motives turn out to be something entirely different to what first appeared.
With a plot that involves time travel loops that Doctor Who might find complicated and the introduction of such characters as a cyclops, the captain of The Beagle (Nick Frost) and his passenger Charles Darwin (Tom Hollander) on its 1917 voyage of discovery, as well as offering snippets of historical information, this is directed by David Silverman who made The Simpsons Movie and written by three of The Simpsons scriptwriters. As such, while aimed at youngsters and borrowing from films like Ice Age, there’s also plenty of sly – and at times risqué – humour for the adults too (Clarence says his mom was ‘social’, an interspecies romance and, a laugh out loud cannibal-joke as Op bites into an actual doughnut and splatters a horrified Ed with jam), plus of course it comes with an upstanding message about courage, being true to yourself and the power of friendship and all the characters have very definite personalities. An unexpected delight. (Sky Cinema)
Free Guy (12A)
Every day, Guy (Ryan Reynolds) wakes up in his Free City apartment to the sound of Mariah Carey’s Fantasy, puts on his regular blue shirt, tie and buff trousers, wishes his goldfish good morning, gets his usual coffee from the diner, sees his friend’s store getting robbed and goes to work as teller in a bank, his mantra “Don’t have a good day, have a great day”, where his best buddy, Buddy (Lil Rel Howery), is a security guard. Every day someone comes in shooting off a gun and robs the place. They are always wearing sunglasses, because, in Free City, a place characterised by random acts of violence, war machines and the like, the people in sunglasses are a special type, not like ordinary folk, like Guy. But Guy has an emptiness and fantasises of meeting his ideal woman. Then, one day, she passes him by in the street. She’s wearing sunglasses, so, according to Buddy, out of his league. But he goes after her and eventually learns she’s called Molotov Girl (Jodie Comer), a British-accented assassin, and is apparently on a mission.
He also learns that he is, in fact, not real. And nor is Free City. It’s a computer game and, as referred to by two cops (one dressed as pink bunny) who come after him, he’s an NPC, a non-player character, one of those generic figures that populate the game for the actual players to interact with (i.e. generally shoot, maim or the like) on their missions. But somehow, he’s acting counter to his programming. Hence the cops, real-world gamers, looking to shut him down. Molotov Girl too is a player, and, in the real world, she’s Millie who, along with her genius ex-colleague Keys (Joe Keery) created the code on which Free City is based, and which was stolen by gaming corporate megalomaniac Antwan (a scenery-chomping Taika Waititi), and she needs to enter the game and secure the evidence to prove this.
Now sporting his own glasses, which enable him to see Free City through the eyes of a player, told he needs to level up before he’s of any use to her, Guy sets about becoming Blue Shirt Man, stopping crime and generally being a hero before eventually joining her on her mission. And a romance blossoming over bubblegum ice cream and swings. However, readying to launch Free City 2, and in the process consign the original to oblivion, Antwan, is determined to prevent her and to eliminate Guy, by ordering Keys’ friend Mouser (Utkarsh Ambudkar) to reboot it, or even totally destroy the whole set-up.
An exuberant cocktail of Ready Player One and The Truman Show with a smidgeon of Groundhog Day and Sims for good measure, it’s a colourful high-energy eager to please affair that uses its protagonist’s existential crisis as a springboard rather than a heavyweight issue, with Guy actually an algorithm designed by Millie and Keys that has hyperevolved into a pixelated AI with free will. Stuffed with background sight gags and the explosions and visual effects going off like firecrackers on New Year’s Eve, directed by Shawn Levy, it has great fun with the whole gamer’s universe, such as nerd living in his mum’s basement whose avatar is a tough-guy played by Channing Tatum, and gaming conventions such as boosting your weaponry by accessing bonuses along the way, while other gleeful celeb cameos include a masked player voiced by Hugh Jackman, and, in very funny nod to the MCU as Guy takes on a dim-witted He-Man version of himself named Dude, even one of The Avengers cast themselves.
Switching between the real and the virtual, it’s more in your face than even Disney in trumpeting its self-awareness be who you really are and what you can be message (delivered as such by Guy to his assembled fellow NPCs) while naturally including the staple romcom subplot of the character who doesn’t realise their true love has been staring them in the face all along. As in Killing Eve, Comer deftly switches between her two personas while Reynolds delivers his familiar amiable joker routine with rapid fire quips, albeit dialled down to a gentler level than Deadpool and with a far sweeter demeanour, while the support cast (which include a bank customer whose arms are always in hold up position) dive in with undisguised glee. It never aims to be more than it is, hyperactive candy floss and sherbet dip for the digital generation, and, as such, it’s irresistible fun. (Cineworld Solihull; Empire Great Park)
The Green Knight (12A)
Adapted from the anonymous epic 14th-century poem which related how the court of King Arthur (Sean Harris) is visited one Christmas Day by a mysterious green knight (Ralph Ines on), who, looking like some tree deity, challenges the knights to give him a blow on him, on the provision he returns the same one year hence. Looking to earn himself hero stripes, Gawain (Dev Patel), the nephew of the king and queen (Kate Dickie), strikes off the knight’s head, only for the body to pick it up and ride off to await a return visit in the Green Chapel.
As written and directed by David Lowery, this is not, however, the sort of sword and sorcery film you might expect. Rather, it’s an arty, mystical meditation on themes of honour, masculinity and the desire for immortality, Patel’s Gawain first seen as an unambitious dissolute ne’er do well given to booze and brothels who takes up the challenge (using Excalibur, though neither it nor Arthur are referred to by name) as a quick way to elevate his status and become a knight, his regular shag, Essel (Alicia Vikander), dreaming of being his “lady”.
After a year of basking in his notoriety, but conscious of what fate may await, as Christmas approached he sets out to keep his bargain, armed with the Green Knight’s giant axe and a magic girdle given him his sorceress mother (Sarita Choudhury), that, a bit of a cheat, will keep him from harm. As he goes upon his Pilgrim’s Progress-like journey, he finds his courage, morality and convictions tested by those he encounters, among then a bandit trickster (Barry Keoghan) who robs him and leaves him for dead, a woman asking him to recover her decapitated head from a lake, and a flirtatious Lord (a sly Joel Egerton) and his alluring Lady (Vikander again), the latter of whom seeks to tempt him to her bed (and gets him to ejaculate over the magic girdle she has someone acquired and returned) before finally arriving at his appointed destiny.
Lowery conjures a world characterised by decay, both physical and moral, in a transition between pagan and Christian, that makes for an atmospheric backdrop, but rather tends to overdo the otherworldly mystery with the likes of the blindfolded old woman at the Lord’s castle, Gawain’s mother’s spells and fellow witches, the talking fox companion he acquires and the sight through the morning mist of a breastfeeding giant walking across the land with her fellows, none of which are ever explained and some of which, like Gawain’s vision of his future if he defaults on his bargain, may all be in his head.
Patel makes for a compelling flawed vulnerable hero beset by doubt, insecurity and internal confusion while the support cast afford a tapestry of subtle colours as Lowery weaves an intoxicating visual magic even as his cryptic telling resists easy access, its deep pleasures only truly surfacing as you look back after viewing. (Amazon Prime)
The Guilty (15)
A remake of the claustrophobic Danish thriller of the same name and played out pretty much note for note, directed by Antoine Fuqua, this is a largely (and electrifying) one-man turn by Jake Gyllenhaal as Joe Baylor, an asthmatic LA police officer resentful of having been demoted to the job of a 911 call handler while awaiting trial for a never specified misdemeanour. His marriage has also fallen apart, and he can’t get to speak to his young daughter.
It’s the night shift and his routine involves taking calls from assorted drunks, a man robbed by a sex worker, those caught up in the wildfire and others who want their problems solved, ascertaining location and then assigning the appropriate services. Then, he gets one from a woman, Emily (Riley Keough), who, in frightened tones, tells him she’s been abducted and is in the car, pretending she’s phoning her toddler daughter, Abby, to reassure her she’s okay. Joe’s instincts kick in and he makes desperate calls to try and find her, eventually speaking to her daughter, establishing she’s in a white van, that she’s been taken by her ex-husband, who did time for assault, that he has a knife and that the children, the little girl and a baby, are home alone and one has been seriously injured.
As the clock ticks away and the crisis, like the fires, heats up, Joe becomes ever more concerned and ever more intense in his efforts, losing it with fellow officers, those he calls who don’t seem to be responding as quickly as he wants and Emily’s ex, Henry (Peter Sarsgaard), when he gets him on the line, and Gyllenhaal, on headset and iPhone, ramps up the emotions and delivery accordingly, while also juggling calls to his estranged wife and a persistent reporter who wants his side to the story being trialled the next day.
Those who’ve seen the original will know about the devastating surprise third act twist, but if not I’ll say nothing to spoil the shock other than it throws a new light on the film’s title. With Ethan Hawke adding to the disembodied voices as Joe’s former sergeant, the support cast deliver solid support but, often shot in sweaty close up, it is Gyllenhaal who is front and centre throughout, his efforts to save Emily clearly some sort of attempt at personal salvation amid the fuck up he’s made of his life, adding an extra edge to the final sequence. Riveting. (Netflix)
Gunpowder Milkshake (15)
Abandoned (for her own good) as a youngster (Freya Allan) by her contract killer mother Scarlet (Lena Headey) when a job involving some nasty Russians went sour, Sam (a cool Karen Gillan) now works doing likewise for the same shady organisation of businessmen gangsters, The Firm, whose overseer, Nathan (Paul Giamatti), took her under his wing. She’s very good at what she does, and after each job she likes to unwind at the neutral zone diner with a large ice cream milkshake.
Unfortunately, history repeats itself when, on her latest contract to recover some stolen Firm money, she unwittingly kills the son of a powerful Russian mobster whom her employers don’t want to upset, thus removing the protection she enjoys, and sending her on the run, during the course of which she acquires a cute 8-year-old, 8 Emily (My Spy’s Chloe Coleman) whose dad stole the money to pay her ransom and who she killed (though, to be fair, she shot him in a tussle and did take him to the hospital) and reunites with her ‘aunts’ in The Sisterhood, Anna May (Angela Bassett), Florence (Michelle Yeoh) and Mathilde (Carla Gugino), three fellow assassins who run The Library, a brilliantly imagined sanctuary where assorted weapons are stored inside the books on the shelves. Needless to say, at some point, after 15 years, mum resurfaces too.
A sort of female action spin on John Wick with liberal helpings of Kill Bill and Bad Times at the El Royale that plays with the same wink in its eye, it rattles along as Sam is pursued by both an army of Russian goons and The Firm’s bumbling enforcers (taking them on while her arms are temporarily paralysed and they’re under the influence of laughing gas), rescues Emily from the kidnappers by way of a bravura sequence at a bowling alley using a bowling ball as a deadly weapon, a guns blazing, chain, hammers and tomahawk-wielding shoot out at The Library To the sound of The Animals cover It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue and a final showdown at the diner. Also thrown into the mix is Ralph Ineson as Sam’s decidedly off his head father and a fight involving a suitcase handle. With an ending that demands both a sequel and prequel, it knows it’s just colourful, blood spattered popcorn fun and clearly relishes every mouthful. (Sky Cinema/NOW)
Jungle Cruise (12A)
It used to be that the film spawned the theme park ride, but these days it’s more often the other way round. This, set in 1917, is the seventh to be based on a Disney theme park attraction, although cine-literate audiences will recognise it’s also heavily influenced by the Bogart and Hepburn classic The African Queen, the roles here taken by Dwayne Johnson and Emily Blunt. She’s Lily Houghton, a trousers-wearing British botanist who’s determined to find a legendary ancient tree, hidden somewhere in the depths of the Amazon, the petals of which, the Tears Of The Moon, will heal any illness. Wearing the same sort of hat as Bogart, he is Frank Wolff, the cynical skipper of a ramshackle river boat who, in hock to the local Italian businessman (Paul Giamatti), runs cruises up and down the Amazon, given to making dreadful puns and something of an opportunistic con artist staging assorted ‘perils’ for his gullible Western tourists. Lily having stolen a mystical arrowhead which, along with an old map, she believes will lead her to the tree, heads for Brazil along with her impractical foppish brother MacGregor (Jack Whitehall) where, after assorted antics (including a staged attack by Frank’s tame jaguar), she ends up hiring him to skipper them on their mission. She calls him Skippy, he calls her Pants. However, she’s not the only one after the petal and, as the travel up the Amazon, they’re pursued by Prince Joachim (an accent mangling Jesse Plemons), apparently one of the Kaiser’s sons, in his submarine, who wants to use its powers to help the German army win the war.
It should, at this point, be mentioned that there’s also a curse attached to the legend, dating back to the 16th century when, led by Aguirre (Edgar Ramírez), a bunch of Spanish Conquistadors came in search of the petals, massacred the natives who protected the tree and ended up being forever trapped by the le, their zombie selves being liberated and teaming up with Joachim.
Shamelessly pilfering from not only The African Queen, but also Romancing The Stone, Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Mummy and Pirates of the Caribbean (and for art house devotees, Aguirre, Wrath Of God), it could have profitably have been trimmed by 15 minutes (ditching some baggage as Frank does with MacGregors’), but you can’t say director Jaume Collet-Serra’s doesn’t give value for the price of admission, what with telepathic bees, snakes, rapids, plunging waterfalls, running over collapsing structures, swinging from ropes, dart-blowing natives, headhunters, explosions and much more. And along the way there’s the inevitable burgeoning romance between Lily and Frank (he has a secret, so let’s just say it’s probably good if she prefers older men) as well as a sensitively handled scene where MacGregor (Whitehall rising above his initial comic relief role) confesses to Frank that his affections are not directed at women.
Blunt and Johnson play off each other well, though it’s fair to say she scores the most points, and both throw themselves into the film’s physical demands with great gusto, and, at the end of the day, it’s all a good hearted rollercoaster ride through old fashioned Saturday matinee adventure escapism and none the worse for that. (Disney+)
Directed by Cedric Nicolas-Troyan, this mines similar territory to Jason Statham’s Crank, DOA and 24 Hours To Live in a race against the clock Tokyo-set thriller in which, following a one night stand quickie before being sent on a new mission that will be her final job, female assassin Kate (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) finds she’s been given fatal radiation poisoning. Now, with the help of adrenalin boosting shots, she has just 24 hours to track down those responsible, which she believes to Kijima (Jun Kunimura), the elderly Yakuza boss who was her mark and whose younger brother she killed 10 months earlier. Tracking him down involves kidnapping his niece, Ani (Miku Patricia Martineau), a mouthy teenager who, it transpires, is the daughter of the man she killed back in Osaka some years earlier, which has left her with a guilty conscience over breaking the ‘no kids’ rule. Unaware of Kate’s involvement, when she discovers that she’s been deemed expendable by her uncle’s lieutenant, Renji (Tadanobu Asano), impressed by Kate’s deadly prowess (she calls her a Terminator – cue a red bloodshot eye), she becomes a willing and eager sidekick as the pair set out to track down Kijima and exact revenge.
Inevitably, tracing themes of family, loyalty and double-crosses, the plot throws in a not entirely unpredictable third act twist involving him, Renji and Varrick (Woody Harrelson), Kate’s father-figure handler who groomed her lethal skills from when she was orphaned, but, anchored by a solid gritty but human action woman turn from Winstead discovering her maternal instincts towards the girl she orphaned (see Gunpowder Milkshake too) as she staggers through events, coughing up blood and getting battered, and some engaging comedic input from Martineau as the brattish but ultimately likeable Ani. With plenty of punchy regulation fight scenes and car chases to drive things along inbetween the character moments and emotional pulses, it makes for a watchable popcorn and a beer Friday night. (Netflix)
Horror maestro James Wan steps back into the director’s seat as he looks to add another string to his Saw, Insidious and Conjuring franchises. Unfortunately, this isn’t one of his finer moments, never quite pulling its plot together despite a kitchen sink and all third act. It opens at a spooky hilltop (where else) psychiatric hospital where an unseen patient is having something of a bloodily murderous episode, the doctor declaring that it’s time to cut out the cancer”.
Cut to the present where, pregnant again after a series of miscarriages, Madison (Annabelle Wallis) is attacked in a fit of anger by her abusive husband, causing a wound at the back of her head that somehow never seems to stop bleeding, and, going downstairs the next morning find him brutally murdered and herself attacked by some dark figure, subsequently waking up in hospital with her sister Sydney (Maddie Hasson.) by her side to learn she’s lost the baby.
Returning home, she starts experiencing visions of people being murdered by the same figure, which inevitably turn out to be real, Madison apparently having some psychic link to the killer, although, of course, one of the cops on the case (Michole Briana White), naturally fingers her as the suspect. As the screenplay flounders around trying to build some sort of backstory, it turns out Madison was adopted, that she had psychiatric treatment and that her birth mother may still be alive in plot which, ludicrous even for a supernatural horror, involves a demonic Siamese twin, repressed memories, possession and bloody revenge. A strand suggesting a romantic frisson between Sydney and the handsome cop (George Young) never gets off the ground, while the recurring gruesome kills and hallucinatory imagery fail to stop even the most inattentive viewer from figuring out who’s responsible. The kidnapping of a tour guide to an underground hidden city over which the other was built (cue glaringly obvious symbolism), who’s imprisoned in the demons’ den never makes any narrative sense, but then very little in the film does. It ends on a delirious, demented high, but the getting there is a real slog. (Cineworld 5 Ways)
The Many Saints of Newark (15)
Set in New Jersey and New York between 1998 and 2007, a multi-award winning series, The Sopranos ran for eight years, unfolding the story of an Italian-American crime family headed up by Tony Soprano, played by the late James Gandolfini. So, it helps if you at least have a working knowledge going in to this prequel which, directed by Alan Taylor (who helmed 9 TV episodes) and co-written with Sopranos’ creator David Chase, follows Tony’s childhood and teenage years, growing up in 60s Newark, the bulk of the narrative centring around the `67 race-fuelled Newark riots. It opens in a cemetery with a voice over from beyond the grave by Christopher Moltisanti (Michael Imperioli), the father of Dickie Moltisanti (Alessandro Nivola), the neighbourhood tough guy, father to Christopher (protégé of and later murdered in the series by Tony) and ‘uncle’ to Anthony, both as a young boy (William Ludwig) and as a teenager (Michael Gandolfini, the spitting image of his dad) when his father, ‘Johnny’ (Jon Berthal) is serving time.
Although offering an insight into how Tony grew into the crime boss on the series, it’s Dickie who serves as the film’s focus. The extended family are a dysfunctional and violent bunch where murder, fratricide included, are pretty much everyday events Dickie’s volatile father ‘Hollywood Dick’ (Ray Liotta) arrives off the boat from Italy with his new young trophy wife Giuseppina (Michela De Rossi) and there’s immediately a sexual spark between her and Dickie, who shares his father’s temper (a moral ambiguity with which he wrestles throughout, wanting to “a good deed”), she later (after Dick’s demise, covered up by the riots) becoming his mistress, her sexual appetite ultimately proving to have fatal consequences after she beds Harold McBrayer (Leslie Odom Jr), who heads of a local African-American gang, initially working for the mob collecting betting money but determined to run their own operations (cue more bloodshed). Meanwhile, initially sheepish and innocent A-student with a desire to be a good kid, Anthony is already cutting his criminal teeth hijacking an ice cream truck to give away free cones and running a numbers racket at school.
Fleshing out the colourful cast of characters, there’s merciless bewigged Corrado “Uncle Junior” Soprano (Corey Stoll), sociopathic Paulie “Walnuts” Gualtieri (Billy Magnussen), Silvio Dante (John Magaro “Big Pussy” Bonpensiero (Samson Moeakiola) with Liotta doing double duty as Dickie’s imprisoned jazz nut murderer uncle while Vera Farmiga is terrifyingly fierce as Tony’s haughty and psychologically disturbed mother Livia who became a matriarchal monster in the series. Clips of Bogart and Edward G Robinson’s Key Largo underscore how they see mob culture as a glamourous macho life, something clearly undercut by the brutality by which they live it.
Visiting many sites that will be familiar to fans of the show, the film has a somewhat sprawlingly episodic framework to which the riots (scored to Gil Scott Heron’s Me and the Devil and The Revolution Will Not Be Televised), with shops looted, cars burning and the military on the streets serve as a somewhat undeveloped backdrop to mirror the increasing tensions between the African-American gangs and the Italians’ increasingly fragile empire. There’s an energy and unpredictability to events that make this compelling viewing, but devotees might feel that it’s really only a prelude to a further prequel that really shows how Tony became the man he was later to be. (Cineworld NEC, Solihull; Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe)
A loosely autobiographical drama about Korean immigrants in the rural US inspired by writer-director Lee Isaac Chung’s childhood, it stars Steven Yuen as Jacob who, as the film starts, moves his wife Monica (Yeri Han) and their two young kids, Anne (Noel Cho) and David (the scene-stealingly cute and wise Alan S. Kim), her young brother with a weak heart, from California to live in a secondhand mobile home, propped up on cinder blocks in the middle of nowhere Arkansas, using the money saved from years working sexing chickens in the city.
The family’s not best impressed, but while they work in the local chicken hatchery, Jacob’s determined to turn the accompanying land into a farm, growing Korean vegetables to sell for his fellow ex-pats yearning for a taste of home. The soil, he tells his wife, is perfect. Unfortunately, the water supply isn’t. But with the help of eccentric Pentecostal field hand Paul (Will Patton), things initially seem to be starting to look up. Until Jacob’s dream starts hoovering up all their savings. And then, to keep his wife sweet, he agrees for her mother (BAFTA and Oscar Best Actress winner Youn Yuh ) to join them, the kids, who have become Americanised, not overly thrilled by the strange foods their mischievous Grandma brings with her. David, who has to share a room, reckons she smells Korean and takes exception to her embarrassing him about his bedwetting issues (he gets his revenge in wickedly funny way). She does, however, bring with her the water celery seeds of the title that she sows in the nearby creek, a versatile crop that (serving as the film’s metaphor) can grow anywhere.
As Jacob’s American Dream falls apart around him and the promised land increasingly becomes less so, so does it impact on family life and the marriage, the film never overplaying the way the fault lines develop and keeping a strong focus on the interaction of the characters making its emotional impact honestly earned. (Amazon Prime)
The Mitchells v The Machines (PG)
Produced by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller who directed The Lego Movie and 22 Jump Street and produced Into The Spider-Verse and the other Lego movies with writer-director team Mike Rianda and Jeff Rowe making their feature debut (with characters based on their own family members), this is hugely entertaining fun animation with a solid message about embracing your inner weirdo and a cautionary tale about letting technology control you rather than the other way around.
When Mark Bowman, head of an Apple-like tech company, introduces his latest invention, an upgrade white humanoid robot servant version of his AI smartphone assistant, he’s not prepared for the Siri-like PAL (voiced by Olivia Colman) to take revenge for being consigned to history by taking control of the robots (who resemble Star Wars’ battle droids) and, Terminator-style, setting out to rid the planet of all humans. She’s not, however, reckoned on the Mitchells.
An oddball family headed up by technophobe Rick (Danny McBride), who wishes everyone would leave their cellphones for at least a few minutes and actually talk to each other round the dinner table, and super-positive wife Linda (Maya Rudolph), they have two kids, young dinosaur-obsessed Aaron (Rianda) who randomly calls people in the phone book to talk about them, and teenage Katie (Abbi Jacobson), an aspiring filmmaker who, on the back of her home videos featuring their cross-eyed pug Monchi, has landed a place at film school in California. However, her relationship with her dad is prickly since he just doesn’t get her and, for reasons explained later, tends to speak of potential failure rather than potential success.
Trying to make up for his comments and behaviour, Rick arranges to take the whole family on a road trip to Katie’s college in their battered orange station wagon and, stopping off at a rundown dinosaur attraction en route, they find themselves at the centre of the worldwide robot attack, rounding up humans and sending them off to their Silicon Valley HQ in flaying green boxes. And so it is the Mitchells end up as the last humans not in captivity and, with the aid of two robots (Fred Armisen, Beck Bennett) whose programming has been send into a spin by being unable to decide if Monchie is a dog, a pig or a loaf of bread, they set out to save the world.
It’s a silly and as anarchic as it sounds and all concerned revel in the opportunity to go wild, both in the use of the animation, which at times includes real YouTube clips as well as cartoon drawings of the family and their escapades, and in a non-stop barrage of gags, none of which miss the target, along with any number of energetic action sequences, including a show down with the world’s biggest Furby in a shopping mall and Linda letting loose her inner Mulan against PAL’s killer robots.
Never losing sight of its central theme of family bonds, father-daughter in particular, it rattles along with unflagging energy and a support cast that includes John Legend and Chrissy Teigen as the Mitchells’ supercool neighbours, this is an absolute joy. (Netflix)
No Time To Die (12A)
Daniel Craig quite literally bows out of his stint as 007 in a blaze of glory as, after several pandemic-caused delays the 25th (and longest) official James Bond movie finally arrives amid glowing reviews peppered with all the obvious catch phrase clichés. Scripted by Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and Phoebe Waller-Bridge and masterfully directed by Cary Fukunaga, it has several nods to the past franchise outings, most obviously in being bookended with Louis Armstrong’s All The Time In The World which was, of course, the theme to On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, George Lazenby’s only outing in the role and, pointedly, the film in which Bond found love and married.
He’s in love again here, this time with the enigmatic psychiatrist Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux, magnetic), as seen in Spectre, having retired from active service for domestic bliss, though events following his visit to the tomb of Vesper Lynd to finally let go of the past quickly see such hopes dashed. Madeleine, announced in the previous film as the daughter of former Quantum member Mr White, is given a prologue back story here when, seeking revenge for her father murdering his family, the masked and facially scarred Lyutsifer Safin (a coolly chilling Rami Malek) arrives at their remote snowbound Norwegian home, kills her mother but ends up rescuing her from a frozen lake when she attempts to escape. Suffice to say, back in Matera in Italy and after a stupendous car chase and town square shoot out involving his tooled-up Aston Martin (seemingly MI6 allow agents to keep their deadly toys when they quit), Bond assumes he’s been betrayed again, puts her on a train walks away.
Cut to five years later and a murderous raid on a secret MI6 laboratory (cue comedic cameo from Hugh Dennis) sees Obruchev (David Dencik), a Russian scientist, supposedly kidnapped along with his data on something called Project Heracles, a bioweapon containing nanobots that allow to target specific DNA strands that M (Ralph Fiennes) has been running as a clandestine operation. Anyone infected with the virus then kills anyone they touch (an unintended COVID echo) who shares that DNA. Now living in Port Antonio, Jamaica (where Ian Fleming holidayed), Bond is contacted by his best buddy, CIA agent Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright), who, along with his all smiles colleague Logan Ash (Billy Magnusson) want him to help tracking down Obruchev to which, after a visit by Nomi (Lashana Lynch who, disappointingly never quite registers as a character beyond her testiness) his female black replacement as 007, and learning about Heracles, he eventually agrees. And so begins a complex and convoluted storyline that entails Bond linking up with Paloma (Ana de Armas who appeared opposite Craig in Knives Out), a feisty Cuba-based CIA agent, the mass killing of all SPECTRE agents, at a gathering remotely hosted by the organisation’s imprisoned head, Blofeld (Christoph Waltz), using Obruchev’s weapon, a deadly betrayal, a tense reunion with Swann, a Starling-Lecter-like face to face with Blofeld, to whom only Swann has access, and the discovery that Safin, who has the usual Bond villain world domination ambitions, is behind everything. That and the fact that Madeleine has kept more than one secret from him; a cute 5-year-old called Mathilde (Lisa-Dorah Sonnet).
With integral appearances by Craig-era regulars Rory Kinnear as Tanner, Ben Wishaw as Q and Naomi Harris as Moneypenny, the film never feels its near three hour running time as twists and turns, abductions and just who has been infected and by whom keep you involved and on your toes as, via yet another thrilling car chase, it builds to an explosive climax on an old World War II island base between Japan and Russia, where Safin has a lavish Japanese poison garden, that can’t help but recall Dr No.
Not only do Fukunaga and the writers outdo the previous Bonds in terms of visual spectacular and edge of the seat action, peppered with the trademark dry one liners and quips, they also offer a romantic, tender and sensitive side to Bond hitherto never fully seen or explored, something that Craig translates to the screen with compelling intensity and moving pathos, his final moments likely to leave you, sorry, shaken and stirred. At the end of the credits, it announces James Bond will return, as to who and how, that we’ll just have to wait and see. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Vue)
Paw Patrol: The Movie (U)
Launched in 2013, PAW Patrol is a long-running animated TV series about a search and rescue team made up of talking dogs, German Shepherd police pooch Chase (Iain Armitage), Dalmatian firefighter Marshall (Kingsley Marshall), helicopter pilot cockapoo Skye (Lilly Bartlam), mixed-breed handyman pup Rocky (Callum Shoniker), aquatic rescue Labrador Zuma (Shayle Simons) and bulldozer driving construction bulldog Rubble (Keegan Hedley), all headed up by 10-year-old boy Ryder (Will Brisbin) who finances operations selling official PP merchandise.
Now comes their big screen debut, as, called into help from their Adventure Bay seaside base when a truck winds up dangling from a bridge after avoiding a baby turtle, they find themselves up against Adventure City’s newly elected (as the only candidate) self-serving nemesis Mayor Humdinger (Ron Pardo) who hates dogs, is surrounded by cats, and whose promises of major infrastructure reforms consistently wind up as disasters, prompting the PAW patrol to come to the rescue.
In one such, passengers trapped on loop-de-loop subway system, Chase freezes as he attempts a rescue from atop a high building, leading to him being put on temporary leave and a confidence crisis (recalling his time as a stray pup in Adventure City) in which he casts aside his police uniform and ends up in a dog pound, captured by the mayor’s bumbling hirelings (Randall Park and Dax Shepard). To the rescue comes Liberty (Marsai Martin), an excitable Adventure City daschund who dreams of being part of the patrol and who, along with Ryder, tells Chase that being a hero doesn’t mean not being afraid, it means overcoming the fear and being the best you can be. Reunited, the patrol expose Humdinger’s ego-driven corrupt practises, put a stop to an out of control cloud sucking weather machine and, naturally, save the day.
Along with the main voice cast, there’s celebrity cameos too, notably Jimmy Kimmel as a bewigged news reporter, Yara Shahidi as a verbose scientist, Tyler Perry as the imperilled trucker and Kim Kardashian as a snooty poodle. Aimed at the pre-schoolers it may be, but, colourfully and energetically animated, the writers never patronsise their young audience and ensure there’s more than enough emotional heft, amusing sight gags, character driven plot and witty dialogue to ensure watching is fun for the grown-ups too. (Cineworld Solihull; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Vue)
Peter Rabbit 2: The Runaway (PG)
There’s a curious case of having your cake and eating it to this sequel based around the Beatrix Potter characters in that, now married to McGregor (Domhnall Gleeson wildly overacting), Bea (Rose Byrne) is approached by a smooth-talking major publisher, Nigel Basil-Jones (David Oyelowo), who wants to bring her stories to a wider audience, but to do so would mean departing from their simple innocence, such as having them wear t-shirts, going surfing or even into outer space. Bea is seduced by the idea, especially after he gives her a snazzy car, but McGregor feels this is betraying her principles and the characters, which, of course, are based on the animals on and around the farm where they live.
And yet the film itself seeks to do the very same thing for the same reasons, exaggerating it all into a frantic caper movie based, rather obviously, on Oliver Twist (in case you miss it, Rose starts reading Charles Dickens). In his game plan, the publisher wants to give the various characters defined personalities, with Peter (James Corden) being cast as the Bad Seed (with, self-referential joke, an annoying voice), reinforcing his feeling that, despite a tentative peace between him and McGregor, he’s always getting blamed for everything by McGregor, even when he’s not bene up to mischief. So, when everyone troops off to Gloucester (and if you think this means introducing Potter’s The Tailor of Gloucester into the plot, pat yourself on the back), he takes off my himself and runs into Barnabas (Lennie James), an old friend of his father’s who’s stealing fruit from the market and invites him to become part of his gang. So, deciding that if he’s always going to be seen as the villain of the piece, then he might as well be, Peter joins up with Barnabas’s crew, including masterplanner Samuel Whiskers and rough and ready felines Tom Kitten and Mittens (Hayley Attwell).
After showing Peter the ropes in how to get yourself adopted by humans so you can raid their food cupboard, Barnabas announces his big plan is to steal the dried fruit from Gloucester’s weekly market, persuading Peter to rope in all his friends, Flopsy (Margot Robbie) and Mopsy (Elizabeth Debicki), Cottontail (Aimee Horne), Mrs Tiggy-Winkle (Sia), Jemima Puddle-Duck (Byrne), Pigling Bland (Ewen Leslie), Mr. Jeremy Fisher (Gleeson), Tommy Brock (Sam Neill) and even Felix D’eer (Christian Gazel), to help pull it off.
Throwing in assorted amusing moments along the way (Cottontail having his first sugar high on jelly beans – or the hard stuff a Whiskers calls them), McGregor rolling down the hill, the old gag about standing on each other’s shoulders in a raincoat to pass off as one person, D’eer on a parachute) as well as a car chase, it naturally spins a message about family, friendship, being true to yourself and judging others by your preconceptions of them as it heads towards its rather rushed big finish (Bea, Peter and McGregor having to rescue the others from their assorted fates after being sold on by the local pet shop). McGregor even discovers Peter can talk.
While doing an equally good job of integrating the CGI animals alongside the actors, it lacks the charm and sweetness of Paddington and, like the books Basil-Jones wants to publish has very little in common with Potter’s stories, but the slapstick should keep the youngsters happy enough and, it has to be said, it does have a very clever spin on the obligatory lavatory gag. (Vue)
After a stream of over the top performances in barking, bonzo B-movies, Nicolas Cage returns to something like his Oscar-winning Leaving Las Vegas form for this slow burning, understated feature debut by writer/director Michael Sarnoski. He plays Rob, a grizzled, straggly-bearded aged truffle hunter who lives a hermit’s life in the Oregon wilds with his prized truffle pig, his only contact with the outside world being regular Thursday visits by flashy young buyer Amir (Alex Wolff).
One night, however, he’s attacked and his pig stolen. Now, in his previous films this might have entailed Cage going off on a berserk violent bender to retrieve the porker and kill those responsible. This is not that film. Instead, having discovered the big was stolen by two junkies at the best of some mystery buyer, he persuades a reluctant Amir to drive him into Portland where he knows someone who might know something where Sarnoski reveals that Rob was once Robin Feld, a former celebrity Portland chef before tragedy changed his life. To say more would spoil the carefully crafted narrative that involves Amir’s powerful widowed father Darius (Adam Arkin) who runs a truffle supply business of his own and features a mesmerising scene in which Robin confronts Derek(David Knell), a pretentious chef who runs the equally pretentious Eurydice restaurant who he once fired for overcooking the pasta, with the gulf between his original passionate gastropub dreams and the cold haute cuisine falsity of what he now does.
Building to a confrontation that involves Robin recreating dish he once serves (he professes to remember every customer her served and every dish he cook) which harks back to a story Amir tells at the start about a meal that made his father happy, and closing with an understated redemption and reconciliation with the past, it’s a melancholic, existential affair about family, love, food, hurt, grief, obligations and being honest about yourself, a film where a whisper proves far more effective than a scream. (BT Store, Sky Store, Virgin)
Raya and the Last Dragon (PG)
Disney’s first Southeast Asian heroine makes her debut in this stirring animated adventure set in a mythical land in the ancient time of dragons and which serves up an inspirational message about the need for and power of trust.
Taking the shape of a dragon the map, Kumundra was once a united land, but, drawn perhaps by growing discontent among the peoples from its different regions, there came the monstrous Druun, a plague of tornado-like creatures that turned people to stone. In one last valiant effort, the remaining dragons who protected the land combined their power in a gemstone which, before they too were petrified, they entrusted to Sisu who used it to destroy the Druun but who, apparently perished herself in doing so. Leap forward 500 years and the land has become fragmented, the regions, representing their position on the map, now divided into Heart, the densely forested Spine, market-town Talon, the desert wasteland Tail and, isolated and protected from the Druun by surrounding waters, Fang, with the dragon stone and its remaining magic safely protected by Benja (Daniel Dae Kim), leader of the Heart and father to young Raya (Kelly Marie Tran) who, in the opening scenes, earns her right to become one of its guardians. Beja’s dream is to reunite Kumandra, to which end he invites the different tribes to a feast and calls upon them to join together once again. However, duped into trusting Namaari (Gemma Chan), the princess daughter of the Fang leader, Raya innocently leads her to the stone, only to be double-crossed, the gem broken into five pieces and stolen by the other tribes and, in turn, seeing the return of the Druun.
Saved by her father before he’s turned to stone, the story moved on six years as the now grown Raya, dressed in flowing cape, carrying a pretty impressive sword and accompanied by her now equally giant pillbug Tuk Tuk (a sort of armadillo that can curl into a ball which she rides like a spherical horse), is searching the land, seeking to find Sisu who, legend has it, still lives at the end of one of the many rivers, and recover the other gem fragments to destroy the Druun, restore her father to life and, possibly fulfil his dream.
Finally, she does indeed reawaken Sisu (an exuberant Awkafina), who turns out be a somewhat ditzy glowing blue teen dragon (“I gotcha girl. WHO’S your dragon?”) proud of her swimming skills. Unfortunately, Raya’s been followed by Namaari who has her own quest to recover all the gem shards to keep Fang safe and so the film unfolds into a sort of Tomb Raider road movie as Raya and Sisu, who can take on human form, joining forces with representatives from the different tribes, first young shrimp seller Boun (Izaac Wang) aboard his floating restaurant followed, after accompanying battles and escapades, a con baby and her three thieving monkeys and one-eyed warrior Tong (Benedict Wong), all of whom have lost family to the Druun, gathering the shards until only the one in Fang remains to be recovered. Not that Namaari is going to let her get her hands on that.
Deftly mixing action, emotion and humour, the film rattles along, addressing such themes as greed, environmental crises, family and friendship before, prompted by the optimistic Sisu, finally returning to the central message that if you’re going to overcome shared problems, then you need to get past your differences and have trust to work together for a common cause. All that and some farting beetles for the kids. (Disney)
Romeo and Juliet (12A)
Filmed on the National Theatre stage, without an audience, over seventeen days during the pandemic, directed by Simon Godwin with Josh O’Connor and a broadly accented Jesse Buckley in the title roles, opening with the actors gathered around the set in their everyday clothes for a run through, this is a heavily abridged (93 minutes rather than the two hours announced in the prologue) and reimagined take on Shakespeare’s tragedy, one which contains the bare bones of the doomed love story but otherwise tramples over the thematic nuances. It also makes so many bizarre and baffling revisions, seemingly just for the sake of experimentation and audacity, that the original text is rendered almost unrecognisable.
Most crucially, in the scene where Juliet declares she will not wed Paris, rather than her father throwing a hissy fit, it’s Lady Capulet (a quietly chilling Tamsin Grieg), an ineffectual figure in the original play, who castigates her, taking on the role of a controlling Machiavellian figure. Likewise, it’s a bit of a shock when the camera abruptly cuts away from Romeo and Juliet about to kiss to Mercutio (Fisayo Akinade) and Benvolio (Shubham Saraf) unleashing their passions upon one another.
That the romance ends in twin grief-struck suicides is common knowledge, so the decision to introduce brief flash forward images of bloody hands and vials of poison seems at best clumsy and at worst crass. There are some nice touches, the masked ball plays out like a dance club with the guests getting down with the beats and Romeo spotting Juliet singing behind the microphone, while the fights are well-staged and the marriage scene in Friar Lawrence’s cell nicely littered with flickering candles. Although it dumps the ‘what light from yonder window breaks?’ speech, the balcony scene is also effective, but, while Buckley gives it her all, O’ Connor is more placid, their mismatched performances lacking the necessary chemistry, and rushing through the subsequent storyline for a virtual potted resume means there’s no depth, diminishing the couple’s passion and tragedy and draining it of the emotions it should elicit. A misfire on so very many levels, it may have a certain curiosity value, but purists and GCSE students would be well-advised to give it a miss. (Sky Arts)
Shang-Chi And The Legend Of The Ten Rings (12A)
Making his first appearance in 1973 in Master of Kung Fu, Shang-Chi is a minor Marvel Comics character, originally a Sax Rohmer spin-off as the son of Fu Manchu. The comic character being resurrected for, first Heroes For Hire, and, subsequently as a member of The Avengers. Now, as directed by Destin Daniel Cretton making his superhero bow, he’s the latest addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe , the film serving as both origin story and launch platform for an ongoing franchise.
It begins with a scene setting prelude set in 1996 and narrated and spoken in subtitled Mandarin, as, having subjugated pretty much everywhere else with the use of his magical ten rings, thousand-year-old warlord Wenwu (Tony Leung) sets out to conquer the hidden mystical realm of Ta Lo, a village said to harbour creatures from Chinese mythology, but is defeated by its protector Ying Li (Fala Chen), the two falling love as they battle, she eventually leaving her home and he renouncing his Ten Rings crime organisation to become parents of two children, Shang-Chi (Jayden Zhang/Arnold Sun) and Xialing (Elodie Fong) and all is hearts and flowers until, as we learn in subsequent flashbacks, old rivals murder Li, plunging Wenwu back into his old ways, training his son in the martial arts to serve as an instrument of vengeance.
Cut to the present and the now grown Shang-Chi (Simu Liu), calling himself Shaun, is working as a parking valet alongside overqualified best friend Katy (Awkwafina) who knows nothing of his past, until that is, he’s attacked on a bus by a bunch of assassins, led by the self-descriptively named Romanian Razor Fist (Florian Munteanu), who wants to steal the jade necklace his mother gave him. And so, loading up the exposition, it transpires they’re part of his dad’s army who wants the pendant and that belonging to his now grown daughter (impressive newcomer Meng’er Zhang) in order to return to Ta Lo where he believes his wife is imprisoned inside a mountain from where she has been calling to him.
All of which entails reluctant hero Shang-Chi and Katy heading to Macao, him reuniting with his sister who runs a fight club and isn’t initially best pleased to see him as he left her behind when he fled his father at 15, and the three of them setting off to mom’s village (meeting up their aunt, Michelle Yeoh, and Katy getting trained as an archer) to warn them of Wenwu’s intentions, learning that, in fact, what’s imprisoned inside the mountain is actually a demonic soul sucker monster.
This all proceeds at a cracking pace with numerous dynamic martial arts fight sequences, ranging from the initial balletic one between Wenwu and Li that evokes memories of those in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (in which Yeoh starred), the exhilarating crosstown bus battle with Katy behind the wheel, the siblings’ showdown, and the all-out climax between the Ta Lo warriors and the Ten Rings soldiers as they, and our intrepid trio, take on the freed soul-sucking monsters with the help of assorted mythological beasts, including one huge mother of dragon. And, of course, the ultimate confrontation between father and son with the fate of the world and the ten rings in the balance
It’s a breathless, thrilling set of action sequences, so it’s somewhat unfortunate that it was felt necessary to insert a lengthy and frankly very silly comedic relief section in which a cheerfully hamming Ben Kingsley revives his Iron Man 3 role as Liverpudlian actor Trevor Slattery who was hired to impersonate The Mandarin (here now one of Wenwu’s identities), and, post-prison, is a reformed character and offers to guide them to Ta Lo with the help of his hundun companion Morris, a kind of furry winged cushion, who is from there, want to return home and knows the secret route in.
A Canada-based Chinese actor and martial arts trained stuntman, Liu makes for a solid conflicted action hero in the Marvel tradition, while Leong’s soulful performance successfully captures the ambivalence of his character, both cruelly ruthless in his actions but sympathetic in his overwhelming grief at loss of the wife and family he’s looking to restore, but perhaps inevitably, it’s Awkwafina who steals much of the film even though she’s playing a second string role. Naturally there’s several connections to the wider MCU, from a reference to Thanos wiping out half of the world’s population in The Avengers to a mid-film cameo by Benedict Wong as Doctor Strange’s assistant, returning in the first of the end credit scenes alongside Bri Larson (Captain Marvel) and Mark Ruffalo (Bruce Banner) that deepens the mystery of the ten rings, the second setting up the sequel as the cool and steely female-empowerment advocate Xialing resurrects her father’s organisation, this time with female warriors. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel; Vue)
Space Jam: A New Legacy (PG)
To mark the 25th anniversary of the original movie in which basketball star Michael Jordan teamed up with Looney Tunes animated characters, among them Daffy Duck, Bugs Bunny, Porky Pig, Tweety Pie and Elmer Fudd to free them from an evil corporate overlord, the hoop has been passed to LeBron James. Opening in 1998 with the young LeBron playing his Game Boy on his Ohio high school basketball court, this time round, an Amazonian warrior Lola Bunny now voiced by Zendaya, the cartoon crew’s joined by Fred Flintstone and Yogi Bear when, having refused to have his animated self be part of LeBron of Thrones, LeBron and his younger son Dom (Cedric Joe) are zapped into Warner Bros’ 3000 Server-Verse, a super computer containing an archive of the studio’s former movies. Here, in a virtual space ruled by ruthlessly ambitious attention-seeking corporate Al-G Rhythm (Don Cheadle), an A.I. algorithm, in order to rescue his son (who actually seems to be enjoying himself) and escape, the now cartoon LeBron and his now 3D CGI Tunes mates have to win a basketball game, devised by Dom, against the Goon Squad, a team of virtual super-powered monster-like avatars of professional NBA and WBNA champions based on and variously voiced by Klay Thompson (the self-explanatory Wet-Fire), Anthony Davis (Cro-Magnum vulture The Brow), Damian Lillard (robotic Chronos),Diana Taurasi (serpent-like White Mamba) and Nneka Ogwumike (the spidery Arachnneka). Plus Dom as part of the father-son subplot with him complaining his dad never lets him be himself.
Peppered with nods to or clips from Superman, Batman, Mad Max (into which Roadrunner and Wile E Coyote are inserted), Austin Powers, Harry Potter, King Kong, Wonder Woman and even Casablanca (with play it again pianist Yosemite Sam) with a rap and R&B heavy soundtrack (Porky Pig is now a rapper – the Notorious PIG), it’s a madcap brightly coloured frantic frenzy that cheerfully send itself up, Bugs Bunny, who’s been left all alone in Tune World, quipping how it all “Sounds awfully familiar” while LeBron remarks “Athletes acting? That never goes well.”
Actually, fast-paced, visually impressive and big on dunking spectacles, while overlong it goes better than expected and movie buffs will have fun spotting background figures from the likes of It, A Clockwork Orange and The Mask among the crowd watching the hyper-stylised basketball showdowns while young kids can discover a whole bunch of cartoon celebrities they might not know. Now, how about David Beckham meets The Minions? (Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Vue)
Spirit Untamed (PG)
Nineteen years after DreamWorks animated adventure Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron proved a critical and commercial success, based around ongoing TV spin-off Spirit: riding Free, the titular free-spirited mustang returns to the big screen to delight a new generation of young fillies.
As with the Netflix TV version, unlike the original film (which featured Matt Damon providing equine vocal duties), the stallion, the offspring of the original Spirit, doesn’t speak and the plot’s essentially a computer animated origin retread of the series wherein 12-year-old Fortuna “Lucky” Esperanza Navarro Prescott relocates from the city to the small frontier town of Miradero where, aboard the train, she first sees Spirit racing alongside with the others from the herd and later tames and bonds with the horse, freeing him from the wranglers that had captured him and tried to ‘break’ him, becoming pals with fellow horsey girls Pru and Abigail in the process.
It is, however, considerably fleshed out, with a backstory that reveals Lucky (Isabela Merced aka Isabela Moner from Dora and the Lost City of Gold ) as the daughter of a trick rider circus performer who dies after an accident in the ring, sent back East as a 2-year-old to live with her aunt Cora (Julianne Moore) and railway magnate grandfather (Joe Hart) after, unable to cope with his loss, her widowed father, Jim (Jake Gyllenhaal), took off. However, when an incident with a squirrel wrecks her grandfather’s campaign launch to run for governor, accompanied by Cora, she’s packed off to be reunited with dad in Miradero, where she meets young riders Pru (Marsai Martin) and Abigail (Mckenna Grace) and discovers the stallion and the other horses she saw have been captured by Hendricks (Walton Goggins), a wanted outlaw who, with his gang, is working as a horse wrangler for her father’s friend (and Pru’s dad) Al, and secretly intends to steal the herd and ship them off for auction to the highest bidder.
Although, because of what happened to his wife, Jim doesn’t want Lucky involved with horses, as in the TV show, advised by her new chums on how to approach things, Lucky bonds with the stallion by feeding him apples and names him Spirit, but, in trying to ride him, he escapes from the corral and takes off into the mountains, Pru and Abigail only just saving Lucky from falling from a cliff. At which point, the plot sort of repeats itself with Lucky and her new friends embarking on a mission to rescue the horses from Hendricks culminating in an action-packed showdown aboard the boat.
While fans of the girl-power TV series might feel they’ve seen it all before, there’s enough kiddie-friendly humour, action, sweetness, songs and liberal messages about friendship, nature, finding who you are and being free for them to enjoy the ride alongside newcomers saddling up for the first time.( Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel)
The Starling (12)
It opens with doting new parents, teacher Jack (Chris O’Dowd) and Lilly (Melissa McCarthy) Maynard painting birds and branches on the nursery wall. Next thing you know, a year later, she’s trying to keep it together in her job at the local grocery store and he’s in a mental health facility (with presumably very good insurance, or perhaps they inherited a fortune given their lavish house and huge garden) having attempted suicide following their daughter’s sudden death, their weekly meetings increasingly strained. His therapist recommends she seeks help too, and so she ends up seeing psychoanalyst-turned-veterinarian Larry (Kevin Kline) who dispenses words of wisdom about starlings mating for life and, hey, guess what, one such cute digitally generated metaphor starts flapping round the vegetable patch she’s tending asa self-healing process, waging a kind of avian turf war. And if you’ve not already sussed the life after grief message, the film ladles on a truckload of signposts, such as songs sporting lyrics like “take some time, clear my mind, find another reason why”.
Negotiating the clichés, it staggers unsteadily along the line that divides comedy and pathos with all the subtlety of a Hallmark card, wasting a support cast that includes Daveed Diggs, Loretta Devine and Timothy Olyphant as Lilly’s manager along the way. O’Dowd looks plainly uncomfortable trying to put across his character’s emotional anguish while McCarthy (whose streak of misfiring flops seems to have no end) adopts a comedic approach that feels totally at odds with the subject matter, making the maudlin moments even more inauthentic. The less said about Kline the better. A manipulative, predictable, mushy, trite tearjerker of the most banal kind, it’s hard to believe that Theodore Melfi also directed the brilliant Hidden Figures. It may be called The Starling, but behind those CGI feathers, it’s really a giant turkey. (Netflix)
Written and directed by Harry Macqueen this is a chamber piece centring on the relationship between a sixtysomething long-term gay couple, quizzical American author Tusker (Stanley Tucci) and reserved English classical pianist Sam (Colin Firth, himself playing Elgar’s Salut d’Amour in the closing scene) who has called a halt to his career to take care of his partner who is suffering from progressive dementia.
The narrative is anchored around a road trip to the Lake District to visit Sam’s sister Lilly (Pippa Haywood), Tusker having persuaded him to give a small recital as well as revisiting Sam’s family while he can still appreciate who they are. However, as we, and Sam, learn, Tusker, who has purposely left his medication behind, has a hidden agenda to the trip and the recital, one that will test Sam’s love for him to the fullest. Although there’s a surprise dinner party scene at Lilly’s, the film primarily centres around its two stars, be they affectionately bickering the camper van en route, spending the night in a Spa car park, revising favourite lake that holds special memories, or engaging in intimate intense conversations in their rented cottage as Tusker talks about his fear of losing control (“I’m becoming a passenger,” he says, “And I’m not a passenger”) and of wanting to be remembered for who he was not who he’s becoming while Sam also breaks down and confesses his own fears, of finding himself unable to cope, of being left alone, and of wanting to be there to the bitter end.
Despite the downbeat melancholic nature of the subject matter, the film is nevertheless suffused with light as it contemplates the nature of grief, mortality and life, of denial and delay, and also leavened with humour, even if at times of a gallows nature, such as Tusker joking how you’re supposed to mourn someone when they’re dead, not while they’re still alive. The title, of course, comes from Tusker’s love of astronomy, at one point he shows Sam how to navigate the constellations while in another wonderful moment he explains to Lilly’s teenage daughter how we’re all comprised of atoms from stars that died and went supernova, a poetic, romantic image about the way life endures even after death. Heartbreakingly magnificent. (BT Film Store, Sky Store, Virgin)
Sweet Girl (15)
When his wife dies from cancer because a pharmaceutical company withdrew the potentially cheap life-saving drug, Ray Cooper (Jason Momoa), whose background is never detailed, sets out to fulfil his television chat show phone in vow of holding company CEO Simon Keeley (Justin Bartha) responsible and killing him with his bare hands. Approached by a journalist who says he has evidence of a conspiracy involving Keeley’s crooked partner (Raza Jaffrey), they meet on a train, Cooper, unknowingly followed by his teen daughter Rachel (Isabela Merced), where the journo is killed and he himself injured by the knife-wielding hitman (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo).
What follows, Rachel insistently accompanying him despite his protestations, charts Cooper’s determined quest to expose the conspiracy and get revenge on those responsible, the film opening with a scene of him atop Pittsburgh’s PNC Park pursued by FBI agent Sarah Meeker (Lex Scott Davis), before plunging into the waters, flashing back to events leading up to this moment before, bringing into focus anti-Big Pharma congresswoman Diana Morgan (Amy Brenneman), the last act throws in a wholly unexpected role reversal twist as the real figure behind the conspiracy is exposed.
Twist aside, it’s a predictable and fairly generic affair with Momoa largely going through the man on the run action motions punctuated by some rote emotional angst, but first time director Brian Andrew Mendoza never lets things flag, Merced proves solid casting and, while disbelief needs to be suspended from a very high pole, it does what it sets out to do with commendable efficiency. (Netflix)