This column will review films both screening theatrically and/or on various streaming platforms.
Some fifteen years in development, this finally sees the hugely successful PlayStation video game on the big screen, the result, however, is a decidedly anticlimactic experience that stuffs in a succession of action set pieces but fails to find any heart or soul.
A prologue sets up the foundation for what follows, with brothers Nathan and Sam Drake (supposedly descendents of Sir Francis), living in an orphanage after the death of their parents, sneaking out after dark night to rob antiquities from the local museum. When apprehended, Sam takes off into the night, never to seen again although, as the film later reveals, sends regular postcards to his brother.
Fast forward several years, and the now grown Nate (Tom Holland) is working in a trendy New York cocktail bar where he deftly picks the pockets of its wealthy customers. Enter Sully (Mark Whalberg, initially intended to play Nate) who proposes they join forces to hunt down the legendary lost gold of 16th-century gold explorer Ferdinand Magellan, which Sam told his brother about before disappearing. Initially reluctant, Nate changes his mind in pretty much a heartbeat, setting the main thrust of the narrative in motion and adding to the mix Chloe (Sophia Ali), Sully’s gold-hunter partner’girlfriend as the third wheel in the quest and martial arts warrior Braddock (Tati Gabrielle as a sort of bargain basement Grace Jones) who works for Santiago Moncada (Antonio Banderas), part of the shady Spanish family which, down the centuries, funded the Inquisition and the Franco regime, and is also obsessed with recovering the gold (to the extent of offing dad when he decided to longer cough up the funding).
As such, the plot kicks off with them having to steal an antique cross from an auction which, along with its counterpart (yes, it’s a double cross) provides the literal key to unlocking assorted secrets, vaults and the like, taking the adventurers on a globe-trotting romp that lifts from various instalments of the video game, avoiding booby traps and, in Nate’s case, surviving a fall from a transport plane aboard its cargo, before the third act climax has them and their rivals airlifting a couple of beached galleons from out of the Phillipines jungles.
The action sequences are, by and large, exciting but all the character stuff in-between is just flat and dull, with Moncada’s departure midway, promoting Braddock to chief villain, seeming more like Banderas exercising a contract exit clause rather than a narrative decision. Holland gives his best, but feels too light for the role even if he is supposed to be a younger Drake while Whalberg lets his furrowed brow do all the acting and Ali and Gabrielle never get to do much more than fulfil their one-dimensional purposes. Director Ruben Fleischer, who gave the world Venom, dresses it up in the manner of Thirties adventure movies and Saturday morning matinees, but, compounded by clunky dialogue, only succeeds in underlining how much better this was done by Raiders of the Lost Ark and National Treasure, both of which it evokes to its disadvantage. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Vue)
The Tender Bar (15)
Directed by George Clooney, this is an adaptation of the memoir by J.R. Moehringer, recalling his childhood and coming-of-age journey to become a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist (and, recently ghost writer of Prince Harry’s autobiography). Set predominantly in the 70s working-class neighbourhood of Manhasset in Long Island, it stars Daniel Ranieri as the 9-year-old J.R. with Tye Sheridan stepping into his young adult shoes. For both incarnations, his mentor and life coach is his Uncle Charlie (a lovely turn by Ben Affleck) who steps up the plate when J.R.’s dad (Max Martini), a gruff, alcoholic Top 40 disc jockey in New York City, walks out, leaving his family behind, his wife (Lily Rabe) and son left with no resort but to move back into her run-down family home, where Charlie also still lives along with her sister (Ranier’s own mother) and her kis, under the eye of her irascible elderly farting father (Christopher Lloyd) and long suffering mother (Sondra James). Mom sees this as a failure, J.R.sees it as gift to observe people around him to fuel his writerly aspirations. He’s given further encouragement by Charlie, who drive a blue Cadillac and runs a bar called Dickens, named after the author and populated by a clutch of colourful barflies who also impact on the boy’s life, feeds his nephew with a library-full of books to stretch his imagination and skills and advises him on how to behave decently toward, women, himself and the world. And, of course, buys him his first drink.
In his teenage years, we see J.R. landing a by-line – but no position – with the New York Times, being accepted into Yale, his friendship with roomate Wesley (Rhenzy Feliz), and his doomed on-again, off-again romance with his casually cruel first girlfriend, Sydney (Brianna Middleton) while the episodic and amiably rambling narrative also takes in his mother’s health scare, a couple of decidedly unfruitful reunions with his father as both a child and teen, and, most touchingly, his spruced up grandpa’s participation in the school’s father-son breakfast event.
Soundtracked to a mix of Jackson Browne, Steely Dan, the Isleys and Shocking Blue to add to the nostalgia and with a voiceover by Ron Livingston as the middle-aged J.R., not a great happens but it’s a gentle, knowingly sentimental and rosy but never syrupy warm-hearted love letter to family, hope, dreams and the Uncle Charlies everywhere. (Amazon Prime)
The 355 (15)
Directed by Simon Kinberg who was responsible for the dismal X-Men: Dark Phoenix and co-penned by Theresa Rebeck who was one of the writers who gave the world Halle Berry turkey Catwoman, this takes its title from the codename given to a female spy during the American Revolution, though the connection is tenuous at best.
It stars Jessica Chastain, whose idea it was and takes a producer credit, as Mason “Mace” Browne, a CIA agent who is despatched to Paris with her colleague Nick (Sebastian Stan), posing as a honeymooning couple, to recover a piece of software that, as is often the case with such generic McGuffin, has the capability of hacking into and disrupting all manner of computer systems. As seen in the opening sequence, criminal mastermind Elijah Clarke (Jason Flemyng) has murdered its inventor and the local drug lord who’s flogging it off to the highest bidder but, before he can take off with it, the place is raided by Colombian agents, resulting in one of them, Luis Rojas (Edgar Ramirez) making off with it himself planning to offer it to assorted intelligence agencies, hence her trip to France to purchase it.
However, it all goes pear shaped when the bag with the cash is taken by German undercover BND agent Marie Schmidt (Diane Kruger) and, while she chases her (cue the first of several girl on girl rough and tumbles) , Nick is confronted by Clarke and, as explained to Browne by her boss back in Langley, killed. Of course, no one familiar with such films, is going to buy that if they’ve not seen it for themselves, so it’s just a case of waiting to see when and why he materialises.
Meanwhile, the unofficially sanctioned quest to recover the device and avenge her partner by whatever means, now finds Browne jetting to London to seek help from retired MI-6 operative turned cryptology expert Khadijah Adiyeme (Lupita Nyong’o) while Rojas has arranged to hand the drive over to Graciela Rivera (Penelope Cruz), a DNI psychologist with no field experience (and a family to be put in jeopardy) who’s the only one who can access Luis’s encrypted phone, and, pressured by her boss, Schmidt (whose father was a top ranking BND agent she turned after discovering he was a Russian mole), is also on the trail.
It’s no surprise that the women eventually all end up working together, the device stolen by another thief who they track to Morocco only to end up being framed for his death and the theft, with a fifth added to the line-up when the plot takes everyone to a swanky black market auction sting in Shanghai that introduces Chinese spy Lin Mi Sheng (Bingbing Fan) as a sort of last minute realisation that there’s no Asian character.
Other than having female rather than male secret agents, there’s not really anything to distinguish this from a myriad similar high octane globetrotting affairs with all the associated twists, double crosses, corrupt spies and the like. There’s plenty of action, chases, fights, and whatever and, to be fair, the women all give it plenty of sass and energy, though the more laid back Nyong’o is arguably the more interesting, but the overly convoluted, often repetitive, unevenly paced and wholly predictable plot (lacking any real ironic self-awareness) gets wearisome and the fact that all the women have hang ups involving different men in their lives rather undercuts its girl power pretentions. The cast are far better than the material, but if you’re up for some mindless B-movie action this is at least a cut above the recent Bruce Willis toss offs. (Rakuten TV)
Being The Ricardos (15)
Recorded in front of a studio audience and broadcast for six seasons, with a total 180 episodes between 1951 and 1957, starring Lucille Ball and her real life power behind the scenes Cuban husband Desi Arnaz, a one-time band leader and savvy businessman, as Ricky Ricardo, I Love Lucy averaged 60 million viewers per week and, with its pioneering use of three cameras, is regarded as one of the most influential TV comedies of all time.
However, in 1953, the week of filming their 68th show, influential broadcaster Walter Winchell ended his radio show by announcing that the most famous woman on television was being investigated by The House On Un-American Activities as being a Communist. Ball was not named, but it was clear who he meant: America’s redheaded sweetheart. There was some truth to the claim, as she had been registered as a party member by her grandfather when she was just seven, but had never voted Communist or attended any meetings. The same day a newspaper article appeared with a photo suggesting Desi had been cheating on her. The facts regarding the photo were wrong (though not the accusations of philandering), but it was clear there were problems in the marriage, with Desi spending more night away from home.
Written and directed by Aaron Sorkin, mixing mockumentary interviews with actors playing older versions of those involved in the show with a dramatised recreation of events, the film condenses events to chart the week running up to the Friday night’s taping and stars a brilliantly cast Nicole Kidman as Lucy with Javier Bardem (both Oscar nominees) rather less physically akin to Desi. As such, the narrative operates on several levels; there’s the unspoked friction between the power couple with Desi, although not only the show’s co-star, but CEO of the production company and responsible for creative decisions feeling eclipsed by his wife’s fame, This plays out alongside the creative tensions between the couple, their co-stars, the acerbic Bill Frawley (Oscar nominee J.K. Simmons) and Vivian Vance (Nina Arianda), who played their landlords Fred and Ethel Mertz, chief writers Madelyn Pugh (Alia Shawkat) and Bob Carroll (Jake Lacy), executive producer/writer Jess Oppenheimer (Tony Hale) and, most significantly, the episode’s hack director Don Glass (Christopher Denham), specifically revolving round a hands-on and perfectionist Lucy wanting to change the opening and dinner table scene against Glass’s wishes.
Then, to throw another cat among the pigeons, along with the two simmering potential scandals, they announced that Lucy was pregnant, with Desi insisting on writing that into the show, a move vehemently opposed by the sponsors, cigarette giant Philip Morris, and CBS itself (repped by, among others, Clarke Gregg) declaring the American public did not want to see a pregnant woman on television, a clear commentary on media sexism.
Unfolding over each day leading up to the Friday night, from script read through to camera blocking and rehearsal, intercut with black and white footage of Ball’s imaginings of show scenes (such as the wine trampling episode) and flashbacks detailing her meet-cute with Arnaz on the set of rubbish musical Too Many Girls, her short-lived moment as a Hollywood star and rise to fame when CBS offered to turn her My Favorite Husband radio show in a TV sitcom (an early example of her flexing her popularity muscles to bring Arnaz onboard), the snappy screenplay’s peppered with the characters bickering and bantering as it builds to the sort of triumphant climax involving a phone call to a senior figure you’d dismiss as contrived fiction were it not actually true.
Sorkin’s script offers an insight into Ball’s mind with her intuitive understanding of what makes good physical comedy (Arnaz describes her as “kinetically gifted”) well served by Kidman’s performance which subtly hints at her controlling nature (she doesn’t want Vance to lose weight lest she appeared more attractive) and a more earthy, complex turn from Jardem, and, while modern audiences may not know Lucile Ball from Bobby Ball, this is well worth exploring. (Amazon Prime)
Oscar nominated for Best Film, Director and Screenplay (with BAFTA nods for film and screenplay), shot in black and white save for opening and closing contemporary view of the titular city and the clips screened in the local cinema, writer-director Kenneth Branagh offers up a witty, tender and warmly affectionate coming-of-age love letter to his childhood days growing up as in a predominantly Protestant neighbourhood of north Belfast but where several residents were also Catholics, both sides living together peacefully. Given this was in 1969 at the height of the Troubles, such a situation was inevitably going to lead to conflict (though it’s effectively an ominous backdrop rather than the central plot), and so it is that, in the opening scenes, the film depicts unionist hardmen seeking to drive the Catholic families out of their homes resulting in barricades being erected to both prevent a repeat of such violence but also to protect against republican retaliation.
It is to such a backdrop that we meet nine-year-old Buddy (a wonderful wide-eyed Jude Hill), Branagh’s proxy who lives with his older brother Will (Lewis McAskie) and feisty Ma (BAFTA nominee Caitríona Balfe), his charismatic and kindhearted father, only ever known as Pa (Jamie Dornan), away for weeks at a time in England working as a carpenter to pay off his debts. An arrangement he’s forced to extend after his wife seeks confirmation from the Inland Revenue that he no longer owes them and he ends up with another £500 bill. The house is also home to his endearingly eccentric but wise grandparents Pop (superbly subtle Oscar/BAFTA nominee Ciarán Hinds) and Granny (a quietly scene-stealing and also Oscar nominated Judi Dench), with whom Buddy spends much of his time when he’s not playing medieval warriors in the streets with a dustbin lid as a shield.
It’s not just the politics Buddy finds confusing, he’s also experiencing romantic yearnings pig-tailed Catholic classmate, Catherine (Olive Tennant) doubling) his homework efforts (with Pop’s help) so as to be moved up to sit next to her in class, while hanging out with another Protestant neighbourhood girl, Moira (Lara McDonnell), who intrigues him with talk of joining a gang, although the initiation test of stealing a bar of Turkish Delight from the local shop lands him in hot water with Ma, as does his joining the looting a Catholic store when things kick off again, stealing packet of Omo washing powder.
The escalating tensions, and the demands by the self-appointed unionist leader, small time gangster Billy Clanton (Colin Morgan), who demands regular financial contributions from the families, and threateningly tells Pa he has to decide if he’s with them or not. The offer of full time work, promotion and a decent house in England, would solve things, but Ma is unwilling to leave Belfast, meanwhile Pop is becoming increasingly ill.
Evocative of such classic autobiographical memoirs as Hope and Glory and The 400 Blows or, more recently, Minari, and set to a soundtrack by Van Morrison, including a specially composed new song (as well as a marvellous romantic moment as Pa serenades his wife with Everlasting Love, an echo of his parents tenderly dancing in the living room), it’s an elegiac and beguiling piece of work. The superb monochrome photography is strikingly offset by the vivid colour as the family visits the cinema to see Raquel Welch in One Million Years BC and gasp as the flying car going over the cliff in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, or take a trip to the theatre to see A Christmas Carol (the late John Sessions playing Belfast stage actor Joseph Tomelty as Marley’s ghost), all of course formative moments in Branagh’s later journey as an actor and filmmaker, There’s also Star Trek on the television to which the kids are glued and, as the tensions mount and head to a showdown between Pa and Clanton, Branagh playfully references Gary Cooper’s classic Western, High Noon.
It ends with circumstances forcing decisions to be made, the final shot achingly bittersweet as it marks the end of one life and the start of a new one for Buddy and his family just as it did for Branagh, a paean to family, courage, innocence, home and community that pulses with emotions and is assured of its place among the year’s finest films. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Electric; Empire Great Park; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Vue)
Boiling Point (15)
A feature length expansion of the 2019 short by director Philip Barantini and co-writer James Cummings, superbly shot as one continuous and loosely improvised take that steers in an out of the assorted subplots and set on the run-up to Christmas, it reunites several of the original cast, most notably a BAFTA-nominated Stephen Graham as Andy Jones, the newly separated owner and head chef of Jones & Sons, an upmarket East London restaurant (it was filmed at the actual restaurant) who, when we first meet him, is clearly having a bad day, just moved into new digs and trying to deal with his estranged wife over parenting issues. He arrives at the restaurant to find a health inspector (Thomas Coombes) in the middle of a highly critical hygiene assessment that, largely on account of his shabby bookkeeping, sees the place downgrade from a 5 to a 3.
That’s just the start of what will prove to be a high pressure night that, with colleagues already fed up of covering for him, sees tensions boiling over between the staff, especially no nonsense sous chef Carly (an electrifying Vinette Robinson) and imperious bossy maitre d’ Beth (Alice Feetham, also from the short) who is more interested in impressing influential influencers asking for steak and chips than the cuisine, as well as volatile commis chef Freeman (Ray Panthaki) and a gofer (Daniel Larkai) with a drugs issue. On top of which, supplies are short, staff are late, sweet young Black waitress (Lauryn Ajufo, another original) is bullied by a snobbishly condescending bigoted customer looking to impress his family, the pregnant slacker dishwasher feels isolated, the new French assistant, a junior kitchen boy has self-harming scars and celebrity chef Alastair Skye (Jason Flemyng), Andy’s former smug boss, has booked a table with a top food critic (Lourdes Faberes) as his guest, but is specifically there to call in a debt to keep from going under. And then there’s the customer with a nut allergy, so you know that’s going to predictably serve up its own crisis at some point.
As sauces and tempers simmer, his mood constantly swinging, Andy circulates between staff and customers, regularly swigging from a bottle that, as you might imagine, and as proves climactically the case, doesn’t contain water.
The title calling to mind Gordon Ramsey’s Boiling Point TV show and capturing the same pressure cooker atmosphere of a busy, overworked kitchen, things build inexorably to the inevitable melt down and, while the drama is somewhat overloaded into the second half of the narrative, the direction, camerawork and performances ensure you stay riveted for all courses. (BT Film Store, Sky Store, Virgin)
Halle Berry’s directorial debut, in which she also stars, is an ambitious but ultimately formulaic addition to the catalogue of fighters overcoming personal demons to make a comeback and find redemption. Out of the game for four years, Jackie Justice (Berry) is a former Ultimate Fighting Championship star (a Mixed Martial Arts sport that uses fists and kicks) and now works menial jobs and lives with her volatile alcoholic boyfriend-manager, Desi (Adan Canto), a life that basically involves them verbally and physically fighting, drinking and having sex. However, taken to a fight where she ends up laying out the winner, she’s approached by Immaculate (Shamier Anderson,), a promoter who offers her a second chance and recruits her for a title match against Lady Killer (real-life UFC Women’s Flyweight Champion Valentina Shevchenko), to be trained by the demanding Zen-practising Buddhakan (a warm Sheila Atim), who turns out to have a softer heart than appears as well as showing the love (in a needless development they get to sleep together) Jackie’s never found from Desi or her cold, heavy drinking mother Angel (Adriane Lenox), who allowed her to be sexually abused by a string of lovers and an uncle as a child (though the third act also affords her a softening and redemption).
Into all this is thrown Manny (Danny Boyd Jr.), the son she gave up as a baby, returned to her, an elective mute, following his father’s death, meaning she now has to overcome her own demons and learn to be a mother and rescue Manny from his own trauma. Berry invests time in all her characters, finding something redeeming in each (even, to an extent, Desi) and does well with the small, intimate moments, but is less confident with the bigger picture, the fight scenes brutal but scrappy and unconvincing while the editing and script (by first-timer Michelle Rosenfarb), stumble on several occasions, although Berry’s strong, focused performance never succumbs to melodrama. It’s no knockout, but it does land some effective blows. (Netflix)
Clifford The Big Red Dog (PG)
Starting out life in 1963 as a series of children’s books by Norman Bridwell and spinning off over the years into a TV series, live musical, video games and an animated feature, the crimson canine now makes his live action big screen debut in this genial if predictable shaggy dog tale about love, family and acceptance.
Recently having moved into a Manhattan apartment, having to go out of town for a trial, lawyer single mum (Sienna Guillory) reluctantly enlists, her unreliable, unemployed and homeless (he lives in his van) younger brother Casey (Jack Whitehall) to babysit 12-year-old sixth grader daughter Emily Elizabeth (Darby Camp), who, as the new kid in class at her private school, is naturally being bullied by the wealthier snotty mean girl who disparagingly calls her Food Stamps.
Arriving at school, she sees Bridwell’s Animal Rescue tent pitched in the grounds opposite and is invited inside by the eccentric proprietor (John Cleese), a sort of Mary Poppins version of Dr Doolittle, to see his menagerie and, knowing a pet is just what she needs, introduces her to the bright red puppy we first saw being left behind when his mother and siblings were taken in by animal control. Immediately falling for him, she begs Casey to let her take him home, but, mindful of his sister’s instructions, he refuses. But hey, arriving back from school she finds something inexplicably wriggling inside her back pack. Yes, somehow, the puppy has materialised in the apartment and, turning on her best pleading look, she convinces Casey to let him stay for the night and settles on the name Clifford. Then next morning, however, she’s in for another show. Having asked Bridwell how big the dog might grow, to which he replied as big as her love for him, Clifford is now a giant, naturally presenting all manner of problems in keeping the furniture from getting broken and hiding him from the apartment’s cranky ‘no pets’ supervisor (David Alan Grier).
Sneaking him out, they visit a vet (Kenan Thompson, understandably not keen on taking a rectal temperature) to have Clifford checked out, but, unfortunately, an incident in the park involving Clifford and an inflatable body ball goes viral, attracting the attention of the film’s bad guy, biotech CEO Tieran (Tony Hale) who is engaged in so far unsuccessful animal experiments (a two-headed goat, a bellicose sheep) in attempt to grow genetically modified oversized food and make a lot more money. Seeing Clifford, he thinks this is the answer to his prayers if he can extract whatever caused him to grow, and so the film becomes basically a chase movie as he and his minions persuade the local police that the dog belongs to him, escaped the lab and is a danger. Meanwhile, Casey, Emily and new friend Owen (Isaac Wang) (whose shipping magnate dad offers to spirit Clifford out of the country) are trying to locate Bridwell, keep Clifford safe and stop mum finding out they’ve been evicted.
Assuming its young audience will take the magic on trust, it never really explains why Clifford is red or big, and just gets on with the comedy, including a chase sequence across Manhattan and the coming together of assorted characters, including Emily’s cantankerous condensed milk loving Russian neighbour (Tovah Feldshuh), wannabee magician Malik (Russell Peters), a pair of Latino café owners(Horatio Sanz, Paul Rodriguez) and the lawyer (Keith Ewell) whose life Clifford saved when he fell from a roof, to foil Tieran’s plans. Naturally, Emily’s tormentor gets her comeuppance too.
Veteran British comic Whitehall is a joy and provides the bulk of the comedy as he tries to keep a grip on the rapidly unravelling events, Camp is agreeable cute, Hale suitably pantomime villain, Cleese twinkling whimsy and the combination of puppetry and CGI bring Clifford to adorable life, while there’s a blink and you’ll miss her cameo from Rosie Perez. The it’s ok to be different and acceptance message is nicely played (even if somewhat spelled out at the end as Emily addresses the gathered crowds) and the film is mercifully light on the cloying schmaltz that might have swamped it. Nor does Clifford talk. And, since this is for kids, there’s naturally some mild rude humour with Clifford cocking his leg up a tree and spraying everyone, a dog bottom sniffing moment, smelly canine farts and a gross touch as Clifford swallows Owen’s dog and spits him back out again. It’s barking, but great fun. (Reel)
The Colour Room (PG)
Partly filmed in Birmingham, set in 1915 Claire McCarthy’s film tells the little known story of Clarice Cliff , a working-class girl from Stoke-on-Trent who, leaving school at 13, seemed destined to spend her life like similar women doing menial work in the Staffordshire potteries. Cliff, however, was of a different mind, taking on chauvinistic sarcastic employers and fellow employees to rise from handpainting patterns on pottery, to becoming a modeller (regarded as a man’s job) designing Toby Jugs for AJ Wilkinson and ultimately a celebrated ceramicist who created the colourful and pioneering art deco Bizarre range of ceramics with their abstract, geometric and figural forms. The film’s title refers to the room where the colours for the ceramics are stored, Clarice’s eventual access being like a kid being given the key to the sweetshop.
However, as the film shows, as portrayed in effervescent form by Phoebe Dynevor, she had an uphill battle, constantly being denigrated and rebuffed by both those on the factory floor and Wilkinson’s co-owner Guy Shorter (Luke Norris) with their traditional perspectives and refusal to take risks. However, taken under the wing of art director Fred Ridgeway (David Morrissey) and her talent spotted and encouraged by Colley Shorter (Matthew Goode) who enlisted her to sculpt a bust of his wife and supported her attempts to create new ground with Bizarre until it was sniffily received at the important trade show. The stubbornly determined Cliff, however, wasn’t just a skilled designer, she had the intuitive awareness that their target market should be women not men, history underscoring her insights as well as her fight (though the film doesn’t labour the point) for the emancipation of women in the workplace.
With a support cast that includes who Kerry Fox as her mother, Darci Shaw as younger sister Dot and Bill Patterson as old duffer landowner businessman Gordon Forsythe who roundly tells her her designs won’t sell because “the modern woman has a more refined taste” (her collection went on to sell 8.5 million pieces), it’s a bright, breezy and upbeat period drama, and while its natural home is probably a Sunday on BBC2, it fully deserves to be seen on the big screen. (Sky Cinema)
The Courier (12A)
Based on real life events, written by Tom O’Connor and directed by Dominic Cooke, Benedict Cumberbatch gives a solid, underplayed performance as Greville Wynne, a salesman representing various manufacturing companies, who, at the height of the Cold War, was recruited by MI6 and the CIA (respectively represented by Angus Wright and Rachel Brosnahan) to travel to Moscow and make contact with Oleg Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze), a Soviet colonel who, alarmed by Kruschev’s increasingly volatile nuclear rhetoric, has indicated he’s ready to pass on information to help prevent mutually assured destruction. The thinking is that, as someone with no obvious political connections, Wynne is unlikely to attract KGB attention.
Unable to tell his wife (Jessie Buckley) the real reason for his regular trips to Russia, she suspects he’s having another affair while Penkovsky’s wife also remains oblivious to her husband’s actions in smuggling photos out by Wynne in the build up to the Cuban Missile Crisis. Unfolding with a cool tension in secret meetings where the fear of discovery or being bugged is ever present, it sits well alongside similar espionage films like Bridge of Spies and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. As history tells, the subterfuge was eventually uncovered, leading to a darker third act when Cumberbatch, shaved headed and looking increasingly emaciated, is banged up in a Russian prison, being interrogated to confess he actually knew what he was carrying for Penkovsky (it’s suggested he didn’t, hence plausible deniability) before the British government negotiated an exchange for his release.
Sharply scripted and with a strong chemistry between Cumberbatch and Ninidze as the two men develop a genuine friendship (Wynne called him Alex), Wynne secretly rather enjoying his adventure, ticking the usual genre conventions without them appearing like clichés, the film revealing the heroic – and costly – role he and Penkovsky (codenamed Ironbark by the CIA) played in ending the Cuban standoff, Oleg remarking over a shared meal “We are just two people, but this is how things change.”
Its low key, period thriller nature might not be a big audience grabber, but as an inspiring story of human decency and sacrifice for the greater good, it’s one that deserves to be told and deserves to be seen. (BT Film Store, Sky Store, Virgin)
Dear Evan Hansen (12A)
It used to be that musicals were mainly love stories, occasionally about nannying neglected children or the odd carnivorous plant. That was then, but now the backdrop is far wider, the recent adaptation of true story high school drag queen be who you are Everyone’s Talking About Jamie now followed by the film version of the hit stage musical based around autism, depression, loneliness and suicide with songs by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul of La La Land-The Greatest Showman fame.
Ben Platt, who originated the Broadway role, again plays Evan, a pathologically shy high-school senior on prescription drugs who has no friends other than Jared (Nik Dodani), and even he insists he’s only a family friend. He’s also in therapy, and, as such, has been told to write himself confidence boosting letters. One of these, in which he talks about not having the courage to talk to the girl he fancies, Zoe (Kaitlyn Dever), is stolen by her brother, aggressive depressive student Connor Murphy (Colton Ryan), after being the only one to sign Evan’s cast on his broken arm. Evan is in fear he’ll post it on social media. Instead, he’s called to the principal’s office to see Connor’s mother (Amy Adams) and stepdad (Danny Pino) and learns that their son has committed suicide. They found the letter in his pocket and assumed he’d written it to Evan, giving them comfort as they thought he had no friends. Rather than setting them straight, Evan, not wishing to upset them further and pleased to feel valued, agrees, from which point things get increasingly out of control, fabricated texts between him and Connor, becoming a sort of surrogate son to his parents, getting involved with the vulnerable Zoe (who was estranged from her brother and believed he hated her) and getting caught up in an appeal launched by head girl Alana (Amandla Stenberg) to turn the derelict apple orchard where Connor used to go as a child and where he says they became friends when he helped him after he broke his wrist falling from a tree. All of which finds Evan suddenly surrounded by new ‘friends’ and his moving eulogy becoming a viral sensation. Inevitably, at some point, the deception is uncovered.
Directed by The Perks of Being a Wallflower’s Stephen Chbosky, opening with Waving Through A Window, a number about teen alienation, the various characters deliver a clutch of strong, emotionally potent songs, including a solo from Julianne Moore as Evans’ overworked nurse single mother, Platt and Dever’s affecting duet Only Us and the heartaching Requiem which cross cuts between Connor’s family, a new addition being The Anonymous Ones sung by Stenberg. Building to a genuinely tear-jerking finale and with its theme of the importance of friendship, it’s well worth a look. (BT Store, Sky Store, Virgin)
Death on the Nile (12A)
On the shelf for a couple of years due to the pandemic, Kenneth Branagh directed this follow-up to Murder On The Orient Express prior to Belfast and, inevitably, is somewhat in its multiple awards nominated shadow. It is, however, a far more assured film than his first Agatha Christie outing, also bringing extra dimension and opens with a black and white prologue set on the frontline in 1914 wherein, serving in the army, his instincts and observations save his regiment from being massacred in an attack, going on to provide the origin of his moustache (to hide a scar) and the tragedy that took the love of his life, changing his destiny from ambition to be a farmer (in a later scene he speaks of his love of vege-tables) to that of, as he immodestly acknowledges on several occasions, the world’s greatest detective with, as we see from his exasperation at being served seven not six mini-desserts (and thus unable to arrange them in a triangle), a decided case of OCD.
Fast forward then to 1937 and he’s to be found in a nightclub listening to celebrated blues singer Salome Otterbourn (Sophie Okonedo) and watching broke hunk Simon Doyle (pre sex-scandal Armie Hammer) dancing with, first, wealthier new fiancée Jackie (Emma Mackey) and then her millionaire best friend Linnet Ridgeway (Gal Gadot), clearly noting what sparks are flying. Cut then to a digitally enhanced Egypt where, visiting the pyramids, he’s reunited with his friend Bouc (Tom Bateman, reprising his Orient Express role) and his snarky mother Euphemia (Annette Bening), following which he’s invited to join them on a cruise along the Nile as part of the honeymoon celebrations of now newlyweds Doyle and Ridgeway, Bouc, one of her friends, conveniently introducing the audience to the other characters (not all of them in the Christie original), Ridgeway’s former lover and doctor Windlesham (an unrecognisable and not bad Russell Brand), her communist-inclined godmother Maria van Schyler (Jennifer Saunders) and her nurse Bowers (Dawn French), her French assistant Louise (Rose Leslie) and estate manager cousin Katchadourian (Ali Fazal) and offer a quick background sketch. Also in the party is Salome and her niece cum business manager, Rosalie (Letitia Wright), a childhood friend of Linett and also Bouc’s romantic interest, much to his mother’s disapproval. And, just to put the cat among the pigeons, Jackie, toting a.22 calibre handgun, is stalking the couple, protesting that Simon still loves her, and even winds up on SS Karnak, the paddle boat they hire to get away from her
Come the denouement and five of them will be dead, three murdered and two by their own hand, and so you spend the first half wondering who’s going to be the first victim and the second trying to figure out who the killer is (though, even if you don’t know the story, aficionados of the drawing room murder genre will have quickly sussed the culprit/s), while Poirot, here’s rather more prone to emotional outbursts than David Suchet’s version, interrogates the various suspects (all of whom might have a possible motive) and follows assorted rather obviously telegraphed clues (and several misdirections) to keep viewers guessing.
Decently acted all round, Gadot particularly luminous, and deftly directed by Branagh, it keeps you engaged throughout all its sometimes melodramatic twists and turns, ending with a coda set back in London, again with Poirot watching Salome at the nightclub, this time minus the signature moustache to reveal his scars, with the hint that, while he may declare love to be dangerous, he might finally be ready to take the risks. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Electric; Empire Great Park; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Vue)
Don’t Look Up (15)
Critically castigated by many but also Oscar and BAFTA nominee for Best Film, director Adam McKay’s stab at Dr Strangelove-style satire about those in power playing with the fate of the planet stars Jennifer Lawrence as PhD candidate Kate Dibiasky who, working in an observatory, is excited to discover a new comet. Until, that is, her mentor, Dr. Randall Mindy (a dowdy BAFTA nominated Leonardo DiCaprio) does the math and realises that, given its size and trajectory it will collide with Earth and wipe out all life in just six months’ time. What ensues involves the pair trying to get President Orlean ( (Meryl Streep) to take action to try and destroy the comet, but she and her Chief of Staff son (Jonah Hill) are more concerned about the upcoming midterms and a potential vote-disaster scandal, leading them to turn to the New York Times and an appearance on a morning chat show where, of course, the vacuous anchors Brie (Cate Blanchett) and Jack (Tyler Perry), treat it as just another news bit, of less interest than the romantic problems of pop star Riley B. (Ariana Grande). with her cheating boyfriend (Kid Cudi) regarding Kate as a hysterical the end is nigh hothead.
When Orlean finally decides the stats are real and proposes action, she’s blindsided by cell-phone tycoon Peter Isherwell (Mark Rylance), who wants to take over operations to mine the comet for precious metal, Randall, who’s having an affair with Brie, joins the government ranks, resulting in Kate giving up the fight and surrendering to the inevitable.
With the cast list also featuring Timothee Chalamet, Himish Patel, Melanie Lynskey (as Randall’s wife) and Ron Perlman (running the comet busting mission), it can be a bit of a blunt instrument at times and the New Eden pay-off simply peters out, but, even so, its cynical lens on media, politics and public perceptions does offer engaging moments. (Netflix)
Originating in 1965, Frank Herbert’s impenetrable allegorical science fiction best-seller novel went on to spawn five sequels, various TV mini-series and a 1984 big screen epic adaptation directed (and disowned) by David Lynch that proved a critical and box office disaster and is probably best remembered for the sight of Sting basically wearing a nappy.
It’s now been given a new lease of life at the hands of Denis Villeneuve with the sort of budget that could feed a small country for a century. The good news is that it’s money well spent, a monumentally-scaled spectacular that looks visually awesome and, unlike the original, has the perfect casting it needs to deliver the vision and, potentially, Oscar and BAFTA for Best Film.
The last words spoken, by Fremen desert warrior Chani (Zendaya), are “This is only the beginning”, something which audiences only discover when the title card announces that this is Part 1 (Part 2 is yet to be filmed), the tale beginning by recounting how the planet Arrakis is the source of ‘spice’, a hallucinogenic substance that both extends life and fuels space travel. Mining it is a lucrative business, one which the ruthless House Harkonnen, headed by the floating Baron (Stellan Skarsgård) back on the stark Giedi Prime, and enforced by his brutal nephew (Dave Bautista), has overseen for 80 years, repressing the native blue-eyed Fremen (among them Javier Bardem’s chief Stilgar) who regard them as exploiters and oppressors.
However, it’s now 10191 and the Emperor has decreed that stewardship of Arrakis should be handed over to House Atreides from the oceanic planet Caladan, in the person of Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac, assured) who, along with his longtime concubine, Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson, enigmatic) and son Paul (a quietly charisma exuding Timothée Chalamet), duly take up residence on the arid planet with its vast swathes of desert sand, unbearable heat and the deadly giant sandworms. The Duke is, however, under no illusions that this is some sort of gift, declaring that he’s been set up to fail and, with Atreides a growing threat to the Emperor’s rule, a step towards their annihilation.
Paul, however, is the stumbling block. While still unsure of himself, he’s a skilled fighter trained by his father’s right-hand man Gurney Halleck (a grizzled and gruff Josh Brolin) and best buddies with Duncan Idaho (a rare unbearded Jason Mamoa), the daring adventurer pilot of one of the dragonfly-winged aircraft, he’s been having dreams of Chani and visions of future events on Arrakis, and there is talk that he may be the Chosen One prophesised by the mystic female order of the Bene Gesserit (of which his mother is one), though, despite an excruciatingly painful test, their Truthsayer (a visually obscured Charlotte Rampling) isn’t persuaded he’s yet ready.
Villeneuve takes his time to build the narrative, carefully layering visual cues concerning its subtext of industrial colonisation of third world countries alongside the political intrigue, eschewing exposition for carefully constructed character development and a gathering air of mystery that, in the figure of Paul, references both the New and Old Testament. But, when the action finally erupts with the invasion of Arrakis, it’s operatic in scale with Rogue One: cinematographer Greig Fraser letting rip in literal explosive style while Hans Zimmer’s score resonates with an appropriate sonic vastness.
For those hungering to fill the void left after The Fellowship of the Rings and Game of Thrones, sharing an essence and intensity with Mad Max and Apocalypse Now (The Baron is like a hovering Kurtz), this is a feast indeed. (BT Film Store, Sky Store, Virgin)
The Electrical Life Of Louis Wain (12A)
It’s a fair bet that the name Louis Wain will mean nothing to most people today. However, without him, cats would never have become family pets and would certainly not be the subject of countless YouTube clips. Anchored by another awards-worthy performance from Benedict Cumberbatch, it opens in the late 19th century, introducing Wain as a two-handed freelance artist doing sketches of country houses and livestock at agriculture shows for the London Illustrated News. An English oddball and an amateur boxer (he spars with Bendigo), he lives with his widowed mother (Phoebe Nicholls) and five demanding sisters, the household run by the eldest, Caroline (Andrea Riseborough), who, is horrified to learn he’s turned down a full time job offered by the magazine’s editor Sir William Ingram (Toby Jones) when they are in such dire financial straits, especially given she’s just taken on Emily Richardson as governess (Claire Foy) for the younger Wains. She forces him to find a steady income while he, much to his surprise, finds himself falling for Emily (who, ten years older, also likes painting), a trip to the theatre and a traumatic reliving of a childhood nightmare resulting in both social snobbery scandal and the couple’s marriage.
It’s their taking in of a stray cat. Peter, that sparks Wains rise to fame. Having already drawn a cat for a fellow passenger (Adeel Akhtar) back at the start, Louis is inspired to start sketching whimsical pictures of Peter, ultimately resulting in a double page spread, “A Kittens’ Christmas Party”, in the 1886 Christmas special of the paper, his anthropomorphised satirical drawings of cats in human poses (a sort of feline answer to Beatrix Potter), resulting in subsequent celebrity status (he was eventually made chairman of the National Cat Club), cats now becoming a prerequisite of Victorian households. However, things soon take a dark turn. Lacking any business savvy, Louis is again hit with debts after failing to copyright his illustrations while Emily is diagnosed with terminal breast cancer, her parting wisdom to her husband being to see the beauty in the world. The family moving into property loaned by Ingram, aged 30, Louis’s youngest sister, Marie (Hayley Squires) is declared insane and carted off to an asylum, while, sponsored by William Randolph Hearst and encouraged by Max Case (Taika Waititi), he moves to New York hoping to find success there, only to be forced to return when his mother dies, the family being evicted on Ingram’s death and having to move to a poky London flat, Louis going into a coma after falling off a bus, and, inspired by a dream of 1999, awakening to design his celebrated future cat toys.
Weighed down by the deaths of those close to him, Caroline passing in 1919, he suffers a series of mental breakdowns and, compounded by his crackpot theories about the role of electricity in shaping people’s lives (something peculiar to the film’s narrative, such as that cats might turn blue, walk upright and speak English), is diagnosed with schizophrenia and institutionalised, a fund raising campaign led by HG Wells (Nick Cave) allowing him to move to a better hospital and have a cat companion, the film ending, after a brief psychedelic sequence, in a serene English watercolour like recreation of Emily’s vision of their countryside idyll that calls to mind What Dreams May Come .
Narrated by Olivia Colman and transitioning from its whimsical opening to dark melodrama in its depiction of a doomed eccentric and a judgemental society, while decidedly not a happy story, there is nevertheless a certain sense of light and joy counterpointing the litany of tragedies it unfolds, complemented by the often dazzling visuals and some 40 real cats. It’s not purrfect and its audience seems decidedly limited, but like the title, there’s a spark that lights up the experience. (BT Film Store, Sky Store, Virgin)
Featuring music by Lin-Manuel Miranda, the latest Disney animation, a shoo in for Best Animation Oscar and BAFTA, is set in Latin America and centres around the Madrigal family and the magic powers they possess. It starts with a tragedy as, escaping her home from armed conflict in Colombia, the young Alma Madrigal (María Cecilia Botero) loses her husband Pedro, but saves her three infant children, Pepa, Bruno and Julieta, using her magical candle to create a sentient Casita (a small house) for the family to live in. Over the years, a village grows up around it, Alma’s children and grandchildren gaining superhuman abilities, from super strength to the ability to talk to animals and, in her estranged son Bruno’s (John Leguizamo) case, precognition (although that turns out to pose a problem due to a misunderstanding). All that is except for Julieta’s (Angie Cepeda) youngest daughter, the bespectacled, curly-haired ever eager to help Mirabel (Stephanie Beatriz), who inexplicably, unlike her sisters, the super-strong Luisa (Jessica Darrow), and Isabela (Diane Guerrero), who can make flowers bloom, or cousin Dolores (Adassa), who has super-hearing, has no special ability, making her something of an outsider. However, when the family’s magical powers start to fade and the Calista begins to fall apart, she is the one who’s blamed, but she might also be the only one who can save everything.
Vibrant and colourful, with stairs that turn into slide and tiles that serve as moving pathways, and a wealth of catchy songs such as Feast of the Seven Fishes, the ballad Two Caterpillars and the chart topping We Don’t Talk About Bruno, it romps along with effervescent energy and charm and, being Disney, there’s also a cute animal (a clueless toucan voiced by Alan Tudyk) and at its heart is a familiar touching message about being true to yourself and the value of family bonds. (Disney+; Reel)
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)
Set in a post-apocalyptic future where the collapse of the ozone layer has rendered the planet a radioactive, burning hot hellhole ripped by extreme weather, Tom Hanks gives another (almost) one-man performance as, to his best knowledge, the last living human, a military engineer who escaped destruction by being in a bunker when calamity struck. Now, protected by a space suit, with the aid of his version WALL-E, he drives a converted RV listening to American Pie as he forages the ruins of Missouri in his for food for himself and his dog, Goodyear. However, Finch knows he’s dying and, before he goes, he wants to build a robot with artificial intelligence to look after the mutt. So, beavering away in his bunker, he assembles Jeff (Caleb Landry Jones), as the robot eventually decides to call himself, teaching him to walk, think and respond, before another superstorm sets them off on a road trip from St Louis to San Francisco, fuelled by a postcard of the Golden Gate bridge.
Directed by Miguel Sapochnik, it’s a gentle, leisurely paced affair that takes in themes of redemption (as we learn the story of how Finch came to adopt Goodyear) and friendship as the buddy storyline between Hanks and the robot develops with a mix of slapstick humour and deep feeling and plays out without any of the usual last act twists. Hanks is, well, Hanks, delivering a familiarly reliable and well-shaded performance while the voice work by Jones, who also did the motion-capture) positions Jeff up there with such iconic robots as R2-D2, Gort, D.A.R.Y.L and The Iron Giant, while Seamus is absolutely adorably pawfect as Goodyear. It is exactly what it sets out to be, Finch and his mechanoid surrogate son radiating a warm, wistful melancholia and a beguiling charm that is well worth seeking out. (Apple TV)
The French Dispatch (15)
While they may sometimes favour visual aesthetic and quirkiness over heart and soul, Wes Anderson’s films have a unique sensibility that would be impossible to mistake for any other writer-director. Set in the 60s in the fictional provincial French town of Ennui-Sur-Blasé , his latest, a tribute to the New Yorker and in many ways echoing Grand Budapest Hotel, is a compendium piece that hangs three stories around the framing device of the titular newspaper, a satellite of the Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun, founded, edited and published Arthur Howitzer Jr. (Bill Murray), an eccentric who advises his reporters to “try to make it sound like you wrote it that way on purpose”, whose office sports the sign “No crying” above the door and whose obituary provides another of its narratives.
It opens with a local colour travel piece as Owen Wilson bicycles around the town taking notes before the first ‘article’, “The Concrete Masterpiece”, introduces Tilda Swinton as art critic J.K.L. Berensen (detailing her profile of and art lecture on convicted killer turned modern-art bad boy Moses Rosenthaler (a straggly bearded Benicio del Toro). His abstract nude painting of his prison guard (Léa Seydoux) attracts the interest of fellow inmate and art dealer Julian Cadazio (Adrian Brody) who pays a fortune for it and (with the help of his business partner relatives, Henry Winkler and Bob Balaban) subsequently turns Rosenthaler into a cult figure sensation, leading up to commissioning a whole series of such works, only, three years later as he and a mob of artists force their way into prison, to find the canvases are in fact frescoes and somewhat fixed in place.
The second, Revisions to a Manifesto set to backdrop of student protests that escalate into the “”Chessboard Revolution” and shot mostly in black and white, is by politics writer Lucinda Krementz (Frances McDormand) who, journalist objectivity be damned, finds herself attracted to young radical Zeffirelli B. (Timothée Chalamet), whose campaigning for the right to free access to the girls’ dormitory, takes his virginity and knocks his manifesto into shape as they share a bed. Featuring Lyna Khoudri as Zeffirelli’s fellow activist girlfriend, Juliette, and a cameo by Christoph Waltz as a pretentious art collector, events father to a siege and a tragedy as Zeffirelli becomes the symbol of the revolutionary movement.
The third, The Private Dining Room of the Police Commissioner, which features Willem Dafoe as an incarcerated mob accountant and an animated chase sequence, entails a talk show interview by Liev Schreiber with food writer Roebuck Wright (Jeffrey Wright), a James Baldwin-like gay dilettante with a photographic memory of every word he’s written whose nascent journalistic talent Howitzer spotted and encouraged. Wright recalls the crazy kidnapping of the Commisaire’s (Mathieu Almaric) son by a gang that includes Edward Norton and Saoirse Ronan and an unlikely poisoned cuisine rescue involving police offer and chef Lt. Nescaffier (Stephen Park). Finally, narrated by Anjelica Huston, comes the aforementioned obituary as the paper’s staff, also including cartoonist Jason Schwartzman and Griffin Dunne’s Legal Advisor, gather to plan the final edition.
With a design that includes shifting stage scenery, cross-sections, painted backdrops, animation, split screen images of Ennui then and now, and a plethora of in jokes about the New York and Paris art scenes of the period (look for the Modern Physics pinball machine), it’s ultimately a patchwork of loosely connected shaggy dog stories in celebration of journalists and journalism in a modern world of fake news, ephemeral sound bites and banality in the quest for web hits. It may be more about style and substance, but it’s a real joy to get your fingers inky watching. (Disney+)
Ghostbusters: Afterlife (12A)
Evicted from their home, Callie (Carrie Coon) has no alternative but to take her two kids, fifteen-year-old Trevor (Finn Wolfhard) and his science-mad younger sister Phoebe (a stand-out Mckenna Grace) and move into the dilapidated remote rural Oklahoma mansion in Summerville where her long-estranged father recently died. Unlike her, still a turmoil of resentment sparked by old memories, the kids adjust quickly, Trevor getting a job at the local diner where he has a crush on fellow worker Lucky (Celeste O’Connor) and Phoebe enrolling in summer school, taught by amateur seismologist Gary Grooberson (Paul Rudd), whose lesson plans consist of getting the kids to watch horror movies, where she buddies up with a fellow science nerd who, armed with a camcorder, for obvious reasons calls himself Podcast (Logan Kim).
There, is, however, something strange going on at the long-abandoned mine (shades of Spielberg’s Devil Tower) over which hovers an ominous black cloud, part of the operations originally run by Gozerian cultist Ivo Shandor (JK Simmons) who has put in place plans for his resurrection, while, led by an unseen force, Phoebe finds a hidden ghost trap in the basement and accidentally releases Muncher, a metal-eating ghost, one of Gozer’s entities, subsequently leading to her learning her late grandfather was Egon Spengler, one of the original Ghostbusters who saved New York City from the demonic Gozer back in the 80s before abandoning his family and fellow spook chasers, taking off with all the gear and their signature Ectomobile. She also finds his hidden lair and equipment, repairing Egon’s proton pack and setting out to recapture Muncher, all three kids ending up in jail, where Lucky’s dad (Bokeem Woodbine) is sheriff, for destroying property in the chase. So, who’s she going to call? Well, Ray Stantz (co-writer and franchise star Dan Ackroyd) who duly arrives to explain how Egon believed there was an apocalypse coming, thereby setting the third act into play wherein Carrie and Gary (who’s now dating her) are transformed into Gozer’s demonic servants ,Vinz Clortho and Zuul the Gatekeeper, and the kids, now joined by Lucky and wearing the trademark uniforms, with a timely appearance by the other two originals, Bill Murray and Ernie Wright (plus a touching technologically rendered cameo that explains the film title), set about saving the world.
Originally released to blockbuster success in 1984 and spawning one sequel and assorted animated TV spin-offs, a 2016 attempt at a revival with all-female ghostbusters tanked badly, but this, directed by Ivan Reitman’s son Jason, pitched much more to the young adult market as Goonies meet Ghostbusters, albeit peppered with 80s references for the grown-ups, is a far more successful affair, even if it takes almost an hour before the first real ghost action, which, alongside the high octane confrontations also welcomes the return of the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man, albeit smaller, more of them and with an endearing Gremlins-like gooey self-destructive streak.
It ends on a sentimental but still poignant note of reconciliation, but stay for the credits and you also get Sigourney Weaver joining Murray for another cameo as Dana Barrett plus a reveal as to Winston’s new Ghostbusters business and a final hint at another sequel. Scare it up. (BT Film Store, Rakuten TV, Sky Store, Virgin; Vue)
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)
The Harder They Fall (15)
Directed and co-written by British singer-songwriter Jeymes Samuel and featuring virtually all Black cast, this comes with all its Tarantino guns blazing (with bullets by Leone), from the homage to classic Westerns to smart ass pop culture dialogue, a gleeful disregard for historical accuracy, stylised bloody violence, whimsical captions, a contemporary soundtrack (hip hop from Jay-Z, reggae and dub from Barrington Levy and Dennis Brown) and visual puns such as black towns having coloured buildings and a white town being quite literally all white. It might easily be a companion piece to Django Unchained.
It opens as a young Nat Love watches as his mother and preacher father are murdered by Rufus Buck (Idris Elba), who’s come to settle an old score, he himself let live but with a cross carved into his forehead. Fast forward and Love (Jonathan Majors) leads a gang of outlaws (who only prey on other outlaws) comprising cocky young quick-shooter Jim Beckwourth (RJ Cyler) and, sharpshooter Bill Pickett (Edi Gathegi), who ambush another, red-hooded, gang, who’ve just robbed a bank.
The loot was destined to go to Buck who, Love is horrified to hear, has been given a federal pardon (his gang liberate him from an iron vault on a train (named in tribute to Chadwick Boseman) guarded by corrupt soldiers) and is now intent on reclaiming the town of Redwood (where redwood trees are conspicuously absent) from a turncoat sidekick now sheriff (Deon Cole) as his personal fiefdom alongside his core gang of Treacherous’ Trudy Smith (Regina King) and laconic quick draw Cherokee Bill (LaKeith Stanfield). So, linking up with his feisty saloon singer lover ‘Stagecoach’ Mary Fields (Zazie Beetz), her cross-dressing bouncer Cuffee (a marvellous Danielle Deadwyler) and Deputy Marshall Bass Reeves (Delroy Lindo), they set off for long overdue payback. In a very Tarantinoesque flourish, the names of most of the central characters (some of whom figured in Samuels’ earlier Western short They Die By Dawn) all relate to real people from the time , although they never met and certainly were never involved in anything like the storyline here. Love, for example, was a prize winning professional cowboy.
A revisionist take on an era in American history films of which have been almost exclusively dominated by white heroes and villains, it moves surefootedly to its inevitable Redwood showdown between Love and Buck (and much gunplay that eliminates most of the supporting players) and a monologue that delivers an unexpected and audacious sting in the tail that finally explains what the score was Buck was settling.
The central players all rise to the occasion and each has their moment in the spotlight, Elba suitably brooding and ruthless, Majors relentlessly charismatic, Stanfield ultra-cool, although a sassy King and Beetz, who get to have their own brutal; brawl, often threaten to steal it from their male co-stars. It may not be the defibrillator needed to fully revive the genre, but it’s more than enough fast paced, violet fun to keep the pacemaker ticking. (Netflix)
House Of Gucci (15)
In 1972, coming from humble origins, Patrizia Reggiani, the adopted daughter of an Italian haulier for whom she worked as a secretary, married Maurizio Gucci, the grandson of Guccio Gucci who founded the famous leather goods fashion-house, and the couple moved to New York. In 1995, a year after their divorce, she hired a hitman to murder him, consequently being sentenced to 29 years for arranging the killing. Directed by Ridley Scott from a screenplay by Becky Johnston and Roberto Bentivegna adapted from Sara Gay Forden’s non-fiction bestseller, shifting the time scale to have the meet cute in 1978 this sprawling biopic documents the ups and downs of the relationship, her rise to power within the Gucci empire, the manipulations, backstabbings, business machinations and much more, bedrocked by another mesmerising performance from Lada Gaga (snubbed by the Oscars bot BAFTA nominated) as Patrizia and a somewhat diffident Adam Driver as Maurizio.
Meeting Maurizio, a law student with little interest in the family business, at a disco party in 1970, Reggiani contrives to bump into him again, pushing into dating her and eventually proposing marriage, much to the opposition of his conservative father, Rodolfo (Jeremy Irons) who declares her a gold-digger and disinherits him, and, transitioning from the couple screwing on the office desk to the church ceremony, Maurizio ends up working for his father-in-law. However, her ambitions are not to be so easily sidelined and so it is that, after an invite to the 70th birthday party of Maurizio’s more commercially minded uncle Aldo (Al Pacino), who runs stores in Paris, London and Rome and wants to break into New York, but has watered down the lines to a cheaper look. and his nincompoop bald, overweight loser son Paulo (Jared Leto), a second rate designer (scathingly dismissed by Rodolfo as achieving the pinnacle of mediocrity), that she masterminds her husband’s growing involvement in and eventual domination of the business, stitching up both uncle and cousin along the way, enlisting the latter to undermine the former, only to then cast him aside. Unfortunately, Maurizio, who inherits a 50% share when his now reconciled father dies (albeit the document left unsigned and forged by Patrizia), and has transformed from goofball nerd to power-crazed hedonist looking to take full control (ultimately, he was forced out and no Gucci is now connected with the empire), is also planning to sideline his wife in the Gucci affairs, not least after being reconnected with Paola Franchie (Camille Cottin) an old, upper-class flame, packing off wife and daughter back to Italy. Incensed at being cast aside as both spouse and business partner, Patrizia sets about arranging the hit (taking place to the strains of Madame Butterfly) Meanwhile, Gucci financial advisor, Domenico De Sole (Jack Huston) is keeping a sharp eye on which way the wind is blowing.
As such, soundtracked to the likes of Faith, Here Comes The Rain and It’s The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year, Scott plays it very much like a glossy soap opera pantomime along the lines of Falcon Crest or Dynasty, although, given the hit was arranged through Patrizia’s professional psychic confidante Pina Auriemma (Selma Hayek), the truth is even more melodramatic than any fiction. It’s a tad overlong and the back and forth narrative switches can prove hard to follow, but Gaga’s electrifyingly ferocious command of the screen ensures you’ll be transfixed. (Rakuten TV)
Directed by Cedric Nicolas-Troyan, this mines similar territory to Jason Statham’s Crank, DOA and 24 Hours To Live in a race against the clock Tokyo-set thriller in which, following a one night stand quickie before being sent on a new mission that will be her final job, female assassin Kate (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) finds she’s been given fatal radiation poisoning. Now, with the help of adrenalin boosting shots, she has just 24 hours to track down those responsible, which she believes to Kijima (Jun Kunimura), the elderly Yakuza boss who was her mark and whose younger brother she killed 10 months earlier. Tracking him down involves kidnapping his niece, Ani (Miku Patricia Martineau), a mouthy teenager who, it transpires, is the daughter of the man she killed back in Osaka some years earlier, which has left her with a guilty conscience over breaking the ‘no kids’ rule. Unaware of Kate’s involvement, when she discovers that she’s been deemed expendable by her uncle’s lieutenant, Renji (Tadanobu Asano), impressed by Kate’s deadly prowess (she calls her a Terminator – cue a red bloodshot eye), she becomes a willing and eager sidekick as the pair set out to track down Kijima and exact revenge.
Inevitably, tracing themes of family, loyalty and double-crosses, the plot throws in a not entirely unpredictable third act twist involving him, Renji and Varrick (Woody Harrelson), Kate’s father-figure handler who groomed her lethal skills from when she was orphaned, but, anchored by a solid gritty but human action woman turn from Winstead discovering her maternal instincts towards the girl she orphaned (see Gunpowder Milkshake too) as she staggers through events, coughing up blood and getting battered, and some engaging comedic input from Martineau as the brattish but ultimately likeable Ani. With plenty of punchy regulation fight scenes and car chases to drive things along inbetween the character moments and emotional pulses, it makes for a watchable popcorn and a beer Friday night. (Netflix)
The King’s Man (12A)
Remaining true to the basic historical details, but setting them in different context, Matthew Vaughn serves up a revisionist account of WWI in his prequel to the two Kingsman movies about a secret British intelligence organisation whose members all have codenames relating to King Arthur and the Round Table. The film opens in 1902 with Orlando, the pacifist Duke of Oxford (Ralph Fiennes), visiting South Africa with his right-hand man Shola (Djimon Hounsou), wife (Alexandra Maria Lara) and young son Conrad as part of a Red Cross mission to confront Kitchener (Charles Dance) over British military behaviour towards Boer War prisoners. Tragically, an attack leaves her dead and him lame, the film cutting to several years later with the now 17-year-old Conrad (Harris Dickinson), whom he has sworn to keep out of harm’s way. However, there are rumblings of war, fuelled in this telling by a mysterious organisation headed up by a never clearly seen man with a broad Scottish accent who lives atop a mountain and rears goats and the machinations of Russian monk Rasputin (a magnetic Rhys Ifans) who’s contriving to bring down the British Empire.
When Orlando fails to foil a second attempt to assassinate the Arch Duke Ferdinand, the stage is set for war, pitting first cousins King George, Tsar Nicolas and Kaiser Wilhem (all played by Tom Hollander), the German leader being manipulated by Erik Jan Hanussen (Daniel Brühl), against one another, with Conrad determined to defy his father and enlist.
Behind the scenes, as his son’s later made privy to, Orlando reveals he’s not just suiting back but. with the help of Shula and family nanny Polly (a winningly kick ass Gemma Arterton), he’s running a spy network gathering intelligence on the assorted intrigues and seeking to bring America, into the war, a move resisted by President Woodrow Wilson (Ian Kelly) on account of his being blackmailed over sex footage involving Mata Hari (Valerie Pachner), which ultimately sets up the climax in the mission to retrieve it.
This is not yet The Kingsmen of the earlier films, which, at this point, remains the gentleman’s Savile Row tailors where Orlando takes Conrad to be fitted for his first suit and where the boy meets Kitchener and his aide-de-camp Morton (Matthew Goode).
In an increasingly tangled and silly plot, we see the team visiting Russia where the Orlando battles Rasputin (who heals his leg by licking it) in a sword fight staged in balletic moves, and Conrad swapping identities with a Scottish corporal (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) so that he can stay on the frontline, resulting in a heroic but tragic recovery of vital information in a scene that could have been lifted from 1917 . This, in turn, is followed by a memorial service that entails a reading of Wilfred Owen’s bitter Dulce et Decorum Est (several years before its publication and here purported to have been penned by Conrad), Orlando’s subsequent wallowing in grief and booze and eventual restoration to man of action under Polly’s ministrations, culminating in the aforementioned mountain top battle where, along with Orlando demonstrating a new invention, the parachute, the identity of the Shepherd, clearly conceived as a Bond-like nemesis mastermind, is finally revealed.
Featuring brief appearances by Alison Steadman as part of the network and Stanley Tucci as the American Ambassador alongside such characters as Lenin and the Tsar’s assassin, Felix Yusupov (here Orlando’s cousin), though somewhat sluggish in getting going Vaughn plays it as a straightforward spy-action caper with the obligatory action sequences (a sword fight shot like a video shooter game), stunts and effects but always with an awareness of its inherent silliness, the cast fully committed to the premise with a knowing twinkle in their eyes. It ends with, finally, the establishment of The Kingsmen round table and the inevitable mid-credits scene which, with Hanussan as the new Shepherd wheeling on another mustachioed real life figure, sets up a potential WWII sequel. Hugely enjoyable nonsense. (Disney +; Odeon Birmingham; Vue)
Licorice Pizza (15)
Oscar and BAFTA nominated for Best Film, Director and Screenplay, loosely based on the life of his friend Gary Goetzman, writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson returns to the mid-70s Los Angeles San Fernando Valley setting of Boogie Nights, but minus all the sex, for a sweet and often very funny slowly blossoming love story unfolding over an unspecified number of years that conjures thoughts of vintage Cameron Crowe. Mixing together fictional and real life characters and titled after a now defunct record store, opening with meet cute in 1973, it’s anchored by two wonderful screen debuts and terrific chemistry by Cooper Hoffman, the son of the late Philip Seymour Hoffman evoking not only his father but a certain other Hoffman too, and Alana Haim (resembling a Jewish Soairse Ronan) of siblings pop rock trio Haim (her sisters and parents play her screen family), he as mature for his age 15-year-old, pimply, smooth talking child actor Gary Valentine getting his high school photo taken and she as the photographer’s less assured 25-year-old assistant who he tries to talk into a date (and declares to his younger brother he will marry). She turns him down, then turns up at the diner, and so, kicking off with her accompanying him as chaperone to New York for a live reunion of the screwball comedy Under One Roof (Christine Ebersole playing Lucy Doolittle, clearly based on Lucille Ball from 1968 comedy Yours, Mine and Ours), the scene is set for a series of vignettes as her insistence of a platonic friendship and his determination for romance travel a rocky road as, a savvy businessman, Gary first becomes involves selling the new craze for waterbeds and, later, taps into new legalisation to open a pinball machine parlour, all set to a soundtrack that includes. Let Me Roll It by Wings, Chris Norman and Suzi Quatro’s Stumblin’ In, Life On Mars (cue lawmen seen beating up the wrong guy when Gary’s mistakenly arrested for murder), If You Could Read My Mind, Sonny & Cher’s But You’re Mine and The Congregation’s 1971 hit Softly Whispering I Love You.
The narrative’s constructed around a variety of interwoven subplots. Gary has to contend with an older rival as Alana starts dating his former co-star, Lance (Skylor Gisondo), a threat deftly seen off at a disastrous Kane family dinner, while she finds herself jealous when he starts seeing a girl of his own age. The pair are involved with his mother’s PR work for Jerry Frick (John Michael Higgins), a real Los Angeles businessman who opened the Mikado Hotel and restaurant in 1963, her caricatured as a restaurateur with a series of Japanese wives and speaking in an exaggerated Asian accent a la Mickey Rooney in Breakfast At Tiffanys. Alana subsequently goes to work for Gary selling waterbeds, leading to their hilarious involvement, in the middle of the fuel crisis and a stolen truck, with Barbra Streisand’s preening, narcissistic hairdresser boyfriend Jon Peters (a hysterically over the top Bradley Cooper), decides she fancies acting and, advised to say yes to anything she asks, is introduced to Gary’s agent (a scene stealing turn by Harriet Sansom Harris as real life Hollywood child talent agent Mary Grady), in turn leading to her auditioning for (and flirting with) Hollywood action man Jack Holden (Sean Penn channelling William Holden) and drunkenly recreating a motorbike stunt from one of his films on the Van Nuys Golf Course directed by Rex Blau (Tom Waits) that results in Gary and Alana back in each other’s arms. From which she then gets involved in politics working on the mayoral campaign for real life Los Angeles politician Joel Wachs (Benny Safdie) before discovering his secret gay relationship, heading to the inevitable big running into each other’s arms finale.
With a cast list that also includes cameos from Maya Rudolph, Leonardo Di Caprio’s father George, Spielberg’s daughter Sasha, Tim Conway Jr. (whose dad performed with Anderson’s father) and John C. Reilly as Fred ‘Herman Munster’ Gwynne, it recreates the period (including the once famed Tail O’ the Cock restaurant) but never overdoses on nostalgia (though it does include a shot of Eric Segal’s Love Story and a movie theatre showing Live And Let Die); whimsical but never silly, sweet but never sugary it’s a perfect upbeat coming of age joy. (Vue)
The Lost Daughter (15)
Vacationing in Greece, asked how it felt to be away from her daughters when she was younger, Leda, a forty-something professor of Italian literature divorcee named for Yeats’s poem Leda and the Swan, declares with brutal honesty ‘amazing’, a shocking response that lies at the heart of Maggie Gyllenhaal’s directorial debut, her Oscar nominated adaptation of the book by Elena Ferrante.
It opens at night with Leda (another Oscar-nominated performance by Olivia Colman), collapsing on the beach and proceeds to flash back to her arrival for a working holiday, staying at a beach side hotel overseen by ex-pat American Lyle (Ed Harris), who almost immediately starts hitting on her. Likewise, the much younger Will (Paul Mescal), a young student working the bar as a summer job, is also (somewhat encouraged by her inviting him to dinner) flirtatious. However, Leda basically wants to be on her own, a point she makes brusquely clear, most specifically when she refuses to move from her spot on the beach to accommodate an extended family of rowdy new arrivals from Queens who regularly summer at a nearby pink villa and carry a sense of entitlement with them. The initial friction is quickly smoothed over by the pregnant Callie (Dagmara Dominczyk), with a slice of birthday cake as a peace offering.
Leda’s attention, however, is more taken by Callie’s sister-in-law, Nina (Dakota Johnson) and her three-year-old Elena, prompting flashbacks to the young Leda (an equally commanding Jessie Buckley grabbing BAFTA and Oscar nominations) and her two daughters, Bianca and Martha, now, she reveals, respectively 25 and 23. One day, Elena goes missing, throwing the family into panic, and is eventually found playing among the rocks by Leda, who returns her safely to their immense gratitude. The incident does, however, prompt a further flashback to Bianca herself going missing, initially suggesting Leda to be afflicted by some past tragedy and guilt. That’s true, but not quite how you assume. For reasons not explained until later, and perhaps only vaguely understood by herself, Leda steals the young girl’s doll (cue another flashback to a confrontation between herself and the demanding young Bianca, involving the latter defacing her mother’s own childhood doll), hiding it away in her apartment while the family desperately search for it and Elena proves inconsolable.
Matters are further complicated when she stumbles upon Nina, whose husband (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) is an obnoxious playboy prick, and Will clearly having a fling, and is asked if they can use her apartment for sex. Prior to this, however, she’s remarked how motherhood can be a crushing responsibility while an extended flashback draws an obvious parallel with the increasingly exasperated Nina, powerless to control her daughter and under the yoke of her family, as we learn how, invited to an overseas lecture series and leaving the kids with her husband, Leda embarked on an affair (and escape from domestic chains) with an admiring older professor (Peter Sarsgaard) and didn’t return for three years. Even now, she been out of touch for so long, they think she might be dead.
Slowly, the film unfolds itself as an observation on how the flip side of the maternal instinct can be resentment of the way children upend your freedom and plans, a sort of delayed post-natal depression perhaps, a sense of shame that the older Leda seems to be trying to work through with Nina as a surrogate of her younger self, culminating in her cathartic and perhaps liberating avowal of being an ‘unnatural mother’, that ultimately sets her on the path for a reconciliation.
Consummately directed by Gyllenhaal, slowly unpeeling the layers and adding pieces to the complex psychological puzzle of her central character whose insistence of peeling an orange in one continuous strip speaks volumes (as does the imagery of the fruit in her hotel room, shown to be rotten underneath the attractive surface), Colman’s character variously unlikeable and sympathetic, but, thanks to the actress’s finely nuanced portrayal, through her dialogue, expressions and body language, her agitated stillness, never offered up for judgement. Clearly targeted at a female audience who are sure to be disturbed – but perhaps also reassured – by its conflicted vision of the clash between motherhood and personal needs, it’s a slow burning but remarkable debut for Gyllenhaal and another masterpiece from Colman. (Netflix)
Marry Me (12A)
Adapted from a graphic novel by Bobby Crosby, directed by Kat Coiro this is preposterous romcom fluff built upon manufactured sentimentality, but there’s enough charm to warrant at least one box of confetti. Jennifer Lopez is pop superstar Kat Valdez who is about to embark on her third marriage (one of several sly nods to the star’s own life), this time to equally famous Puerto Rican singer Bastian (Colombian pop star Maluma making his feature debut and suggesting a career change is not on the cards), the plan being to get wed to an audience of 20 million televised life on the last night of their tour named for co-write hit Marry Me. However, just before she takes to the stage, a video of him making out with her assistant goes viral. Caught unprepared, she tells the crowd of love is a lie, but you should be ready to try something different. At which point she looks into the audience and, reluctantly out there with his shy 12-year-old daughter Lou (Chloe Coleman), sees divorced dad maths teacher Charlie Gilbert (Owen Wilson who last shared the screen with her in Anaconda) holding Marry Me sign he’s been handed by his starstruck lesbian friend and colleague, Parker (Sarah Silverman, ironically sharing her character’s name with another Lopez film), and declares yes, she’ll marry him.
Much to the dismay of her Brit manager Colin Calloway (John Bradley, far better than in Moonfall), she decides not to pay him off but to stick with her decision, at least for a few months; if nothing else, it’s a photo opportunity gift. Charlie, who said yes because he felt sorry for her, is of course the quintessential aw-shucks nice guy in what is basically a fairy tale rerun of Notting Hill and, while overwhelmed by all the sudden paparazzi attention (who bizarrely seem to suddenly lose all interest to the extent they can take his old bulldog for walk and no one bothers) and the glitzy showbiz world he’s suddenly become part of, goes along with things and, in a subsequent deal whereby she has to go without her entourage, doing everything for her, agrees to climb aboard the social media bandwagon.
Anyone even vaguely acquainted with the genre will know exactly how this all pans out, the pair actually becoming a couple before he says he doesn’t fit in her world and it seems she might be getting back with Bastian, given some extra colours with Kat bonding with Lou and helping her overcome her stagefright (cue the Mathalon final in Peoria, Illinois, where the unlikely lovers are finally reunited), getting all the kids in his Pi-Thons maths club up to dance along with her to I Just Got Paid and even doing a turn at the school dance.
There’s a vague nod to feminism when Kat asks why women have to wait for men to propose and then take their name, but the film quickly dispenses with any such issues in favour of the candyfloss trimmings and, naturally, scenes where Lopez can perform her new songs (of which power ballad On My Way is rather good). While taking it all way too more seriously than it warrants, Lopez is on her best romantic form since Maid In Manhattan while, sharing a low simmering chemistry, with his familiar tousled hair and chewing velvet voice, Wilson is affably bland, the cast fleshed out by Michelle Bureau as Kat’s social media manager, Stephen Wallem as a glee club teacher and an over-extended cameo by Jimmy Fallon as himself, the film ending with a cute montage of real-life couples recounting how they met. It may not be wedded bliss, but nor is it the nuptial nightmare you might have assumed it would be. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Vue)
In a smalltown Episcopalian church in Idaho, a church worker (Breeda Wool) anxiously sets up a table and four chairs in a meeting room, a crucifix on the back wall, overseen by Kendra (Michelle N. Carter), a business-like facilitator who wants to ensure everything is in order. This is to host two couples linked by a tragic school shooting some years earlier. Richard and Linda (Reed Birney, BAFTA nominee Ann Dowd) were the parents of the shooter, their younger son, Jay and Gail (Jason Isaacs, Martha Plimpton) the parents of one of the victims. They declined to press charges, and are now meeting in an attempt at closure.
Making his debut as writer-director, veteran actor Fran Kranz delivers what is essentially a four-handed stage play as the two couples navigate the unthinkable in an attempt to find understanding, starting with awkward pleasantries and moving through passive-aggressive interchanges in seeking to apportion blame (mental illness, video games, bad parenting) before finding a final cathartic ending in some sort of truth. The women, as mothers, are more empathetic to each other, the men more locked in recriminatory or defensive responses, Richard seeming to show no remorse, but the screenplay is never judgmental on either side and the emotional wounds feel raw and real as events of the day and the backstories of the two sons are unfolded. All four performances are masterful, Isaacs on career-best form, Down wonderfully understated and quietly devastating, Plimpton a complex patchwork of emotions and world-weariness and Birney mining the underlining self-recriminations for his son’s actions.
Arguably, it has one ending too many, but the final electrifying monologue from Dowd is both crushing and full of a kind of hope in finding forgiveness and healing. It’s uncomfortable viewing, but it deserves to be seen. (Sky Cinema)
Matrix Resurrections (15)
As comic book fans will know, killing off characters doesn’t mean they can’t return, and so, despite the deaths of Trinity (Carrie-Ann Moss) and Neo (Keanu Reeves) in Revolutions, as the title implies, they’re back again here. As directed by Lana Wachowski, it opens with Bugs (Jessica Nenwick), the blue haired, white rabbit tattooed captain of the Mnemosyne, discovering a program running old code regarding Trinity’s discovery of Neo’s location, before being attacked by Agents of the Matrix, only to be rescued by one of them who turns out to be the embodiment of Morpheus (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II replacing Laurence Fishburn), who she frees from the node.
Cut then to San Fransciso as it sets up with a sly self-reflexive premise by which the first three films in the series are explained away as, indeed, films based on the computer games designed by Thomas Anderson (Reeves), with the parent company,Warners, now pressuring for a fourth with or without his and Deus Machina CEO (Agent) Smith’s (Jonathan Groff) involvement (as the studio did in reality with Wachowski).
From this point on, adopting the philosophical conundrum of whether you’re a human dreaming of being a butterfly or a butterfly dreaming of being human, nothing is fixed. Andersons till has problems separating dreams from reality and is seeing a shrink (Neil Patrick Harris) who prescribes him blue pills and, naturally, turns out to be more than he seems. Then he encounters Morpheus, who offers him the red pill.
Frequenting a local coffee shop, Anderson meets married mother Tiffany (Moss), she sensing a connection. Meanwhile, Bugs and her team, trace Neo’s signal to Anderson, arriving in his reality to extract him from the simulation (and push him to ‘wake up’) to join the rebels fighting the new Matrix, explaining that sixty years have passed (cue a mirror reflection of bald Reeves), and to free Trinity from her pod. By now you might feel the need to take notes to keep up with all the plot twists and turns that variously involve assorted anthropomorphic machines (notably a robotic manta ray), the human sanctuary of Io (for the survivors of Zion) overseen by a now much older Niobe (Jada Pinkett-Smith), Sati (Priyanka Chopra Jonas), the exile program who explains how the Anomaly was created after the Machine War and resurrected Neo and Trinity, but kept them isolated, and warns against any rescue attempt, along with the not entirely surprising revelation of the Analyst mastermind behind the new Matrix but the definitely unexpected intervention of an unlikely saviour. Oh, yes, and there’s a cat called Déjà Vu.
All that aside, this is essentially more of the same, albeit with a more self-referential awareness (such as the knowing incorporation of the trademark slow-mo bullet-time effect by the villain of the piece) along with assorted flashbacks to the previous film and the actors playing the earlier character incarnations, while Reeves gets to have both his Jon Wick straggly hair and beard as well as a clean-shaving look while plugged into the Matrix on the Mnemosyne. Arguably the love save all reunion between Neo and Trinity adds some emotional depth, but at heart this is all about delivering senses-warping effects and high-powered action sequences such as a thrilling motorbike chase. As such, you will most assuredly want to plug in and go down the rabbit hole once more. (Rakuten TV)
While repairing a space satellite and bantering about the lyrics to Toto’s Africa, three NASA astronauts are attacked by a mysterious dark swirl apparently emerging from the moon, leaving one of them dead. Back on Earth, Brian Harper (Patrick Wilson)’s account of what he saw is dismissed by the enquiry, mission leader Jo Fowler (Halle Berry) unable to corroborate as she had passed out, and his human error is blamed for what happened and he’s duly booted out, subsequently losing a wrongful dismissal court case. Fast forward ten years to 2021 and Harper’s reputation, career and marriage are firmly down the toilet, he drinks too much and he’s estranged by his now teenage son Sonny (Charlie Plummer), who lives in New Jersey with his mom Brenda (Carolina Bartczak), her car dealer new husband Tom (Michael Pena, lame comic relief) and his two surplus to plot requirements younger stepsisters, and who has himself gone somewhat off the rails, being busted for possession following a live high speed police car chase. Inexplicably, despite being disgraced and declared mentally unstable, Harper’s invited to talk to a bunch of kids for Astronaut Day, which is where he meets K.C. Houseman (a profoundly irritating, overacting John Bradley), a hyper-active, nerdy wannabe scientist Brit loner with a cat called Fuzz Aldrin and a mother with dementia, who, through illegally accessing his university’s computers, has discovered the moon is shifting its orbit but whose attempts to contact NASA with the evidence have meet a brick wall. He also a Mega-structure conspiracy theorist who believes that it and other planets are actually hollow mechanical constructs built by an alien race. Harper naturally thinks he’s crazy. But hey, back at NASA, where Jo, now divorced from her husband General Doug Davidson (Eme Ikwuakor), is deputy director, their boffins have also discovered the orbit shift, and resolved to keep it secret while they figure out a plan in the three weeks they have left. That all blows up, however, when K.C. anonymously posts his findings. All of which ultimately boils down to Jo, now acting director by default (her boss just hands over his badge before taking off), who has discovered what really happened back in 2011 (cue an expositionary cameo by Donald Sutherland) recruiting Harper, with K.C. along for the ride, to join her in one final attempt (the first one had the crew killed by the same sentient force) to save the planet by flying to the moon in a mothballed Space Shuttle and dropping a bomb into the hollow crater. Here they discover the intergalactic truth behind the moon (a spin on Chariot of the Gods/Space Odyssey) while, back on Earth, the now more responsible Sonny, Jo’s young son and his nanny (Wenwen Yu) are trying to avoid vicious survivalists and make it to Colorado to join his family and then make it to Doug in the military bunker, where, as clearly as idiotic as NASA, they’re planning to launch nukes to destroy the moon, while lunar debris is crashing to earth and tidal and gravity waves are destroying everything in their path.
If all that sounds ridiculous, it’s far worse on screen than it is on paper. Directed and co-written by disaster movie hack Roland Emmerich, it’s jawdroppingly awful, with a far-fetched and logic-devoid plot that (incorporating assorted parent-child regret issues and heroic sacrifices) makes Armageddon look like a documentary and, sprinkled with scientific gobbledygook, dialogue written in capital letters and so inept as to be an insult to intelligence, artificial or otherwise, and acting so ham it should come with a side order of apple sauce (Wilson’s scene as he interrupts Sonny’s bail hearing is cringingly embarrassing), though at least Berry (whose blank facial expression seems superglued) now has something worse than Catwoman on her CV. Even the special effects are unimpressive. An unmitigated disaster in every sense, Emmerich apparently intends to make two sequels – in his dreams! (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park)
Munich: The Edge of War (12)
Based on the Robert Harris historical novel, Christian Schwochow’s spy thriller offers a revisionist view of Neville Chamberlain, the British Prime Minister famously remembered for his ‘peace in your time’ speech and regarded as seeking appeasement with Hitler. Opening in 1932 at Oxford University as three friends, Hugh Legat (George McKay), Paul von Hartman (Jannis Niewöhner) and his Jewish German girlfriend Lenya (Liv Lisa Fries) , all fictional characters celebrate with a party on the lawns. Cut to 1938, Hugh is now settled in a strained marriage with Pamela (Jessica Brown Findlay), father to a young son and works as Private Secretary to Chamberlain while Paul (loosely based on Adam von Trott, part of the anti-Hitler resistance in the German foreign office) is a German diplomat in Berlin and a defender of Hitler’s (a chilling Ulrich Matthes) attempt to restore German pride, something that led to a falling out between them. Lenya’s fate is kept back for a powerful reveal.
Hitler is threatening to invade and reclaim the Sudetenland and Chamberlain (Jeremy Irons) and his fellow politicians are trying to steer him away from any potential war by also getting Mussolini involved. All of which leads up to the Munich Conference between the powers, Hugh accompanying the PM and Paul having caught Hitler’s eye as a translator. The twist being that Hugh has been enlisted by Permanent Under-Secretary for Foreign Affairs Sir Alexander Cadogan (Nicholas Farrell) to take possession of a secret document detailing Hitler’s true expansionist intentions in Europe (known as Hossbach Memorandum, this actually existed) who, Paul, who has had a change of heart and mind about the Nazis, has acquired thanks to his army widow civil service lover Helen Winter (Sandra Hüller).
It’s a dangerous task and naturally involves the regulation shadowy meetings of undercover agents and close calls , but, while that’s the spy thriller set dressing, the thrust of the film is to recast Chamberlain as a political strategist seeking to secure an at least temporary peace agreement so as to give time for Britain to rearm for the eventual war, even if it means sacrificing his own political reputation in the process, and expose Hitler as a bully and a liar. As such Irons give a quietly commanding and melancholic performance that contrasts with McKay’s edgier, more nervy turn, while Niewöhner ably serves the screenplay’s espionage requirements and even if the narrative plays somewhat fast and loose with actual events, the end result stands up perfectly as a solid piece of spy thriller entertainment. (Netflix)
Nightmare Alley (15)
His first since the |Oscar winning The Shape of Water and now gathering another Best Picture nomination, Guillermo del Toro has remade the 1947 dark Tyrone Power thriller adapted from William Lindsay Gresham’s pulp novel as a cynical Depression-era moral fable about human nature and how it’s coldly exploited by a world made up of con artists and shysters.
It opens with Stanton Carlisle (a stupendous Bradley Cooper never playing for sympathy) lowering wrapped up corpse into a hole in a farmhouse floor and then setting fire to the place, a scene to which the film with flashback on several occasions before revealing who and why. He surfaces following a dwarf to at travelling carnival of fellow outcasts and misfits where the boss, Clem Hoatley (a devilish Willem Dafoe) gives him a job and a floor to sleep on. Here he uses his charm, wiles and natural showman skills to win Clem over by helping improve some of the acts and avoiding an awkward moment when the cops turn up investigating one of the carny’s attractions, The Geek (a homeless man drugged, sent mad and exhibited as a freak biting the head off a live chicken). He also strikes up a friendship with mentalist act clairvoyant Zeena (Toni Collette) and her creaky boozed up partner Pete (David Strathairn), keen to learn how to read people and the tricks of the trade and even keener to get his hands on Pete’s book of codewords.
One of the acts he buffs up is that of Molly (Rooney Mara), who apparently conducts electricity through her body in front of the jaw-gaping rubes, but while she’s clearly taken by him, her self-appointed guardian, strongman Bruno (Ron Perlman) makes it abundantly clear what will happen of Stan hurts her.
Suffice to say, however, after ‘accidentally’ poisoning Pete, armed with the stolen black book the arrogant Stan and naive Molly take off into the film’s second 1941-set act to start their own mentalist act using the tricks he’s stolen, playing more upmarket clubs in his driven need for validation, fame and wealth, whatever the cost to his soul. It’s at the Copacabana where he comes into contact with psychiatrist Lilith Ritter (an icily magnetic, razor sharp Cate Blanchett),. who is under no illusion that Stan is the real thing. However, they strike up a dark arrangement, whereby he agrees to therapy and she provides him with details of her wealthy clients whose grief and need for commune with the dead he can exploit, sharing a cut of his fees with her. He reckons he’s playing her, but, as the film reveals, a calculating femme fatale, she’s sharper at the power playing games than he thinks. Things eventually go pear-shaped when, ignoring Pete’s advice to not go down the spook show route, Stan enlists Molly to pose as his shame-ridden industrialist mark’s (Richard Jenkins) dead loved one, sending him back on the run as the film comes full circle with a devastating irony and a final line that will haunt long after the credits.
All this de Toro weaves together with the art of a master of misdirection, the detail of such things as pickled foetuses and hand-painted sideshow banners adding to the film’s unsettling lurid ambience and its world of callous grifters and hustlers to deliver a film that ranks up there alongside dark noir classics like LA Confidential and There Will Be Blood. (MAC)
No Time To Die (12A)
Daniel Craig quite literally bows out of his stint as 007 in a blaze of glory as the 25th (and longest) official James Bond movie comes scripted by Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and Phoebe Waller-Bridge and masterfully directed by Cary Fukunaga, with 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, ahem, shaken and stirred. (Amazon Prime, BT Store, iTunes, Rakuten TV, Sky Store, Virgin)
Parallel Mothers (15)
Returning to his frequent theme of mothers and children, Pedro Almodóvar’s latest is one of his lightest, most accessible but also most predictable film, a heightened and very Spanish melodrama with pretty much every plot developed signalled well in advance, while also entwining two narrative strands that feel parts of different films.
The film reunites him with Penélope Cruz, on excellent form and looking far better than in the recent The 355, as Janis (Cruz), a late 30s professional photographer named after Janis Joplin (whose Summertime looms large on the soundtrack), who is looking to exhume a mass grave of villagers, her Venezuelan great-grandfather among them, who fought for the Republicans and were murdered by Franco’s Fascists during the Spanish Civil War. To which end, she approaches Arturo (Israel Elejalde), a forensic anthropologist she’s been photographing for a magazine profile, for his help. He agrees to see what he can do, and, inevitably, a relationship develops with ends up with her becoming pregnant, he unable to commit as he’s still married to his terminally ill wife. Like her mother and grandmother (Julieta Serrano) she resolves to raise the child on her own. Well, after all, she does have a t-short proclaiming “We Should All be Feminists”.
In the maternity ward, she shares a room with Ana (impressive newcomer Milena Smit), an accidentally pregnant teenager who’s been knocked up by one of her friends, though (since she was blackmailed into sex with all of them, she’s not sure who) and whose single mother, Teresa (Aitana Sánchez-Gijón), is a self-centred middle-aged actress largely absent from her life (her father is also out of the picture) and, with the prospect of a career breakthrough taking the lead in an upcoming touring Lorca production, not likely to be around for the birth or helping with the baby. Janis and Ana both give birth at the same time, both their babies, Cecilia (after her gran) and Anita, respectively, being briefly taken away for observation before they each take them home. If you haven’t spotted the first obvious plot twist, then you should get out more.
Janis and Ana stay in touch, become friends and follow the progress of each other’s daughter, the latter eventually moving in with the former (bonding over making potato omelettes) to act as Cecilia’s carer while Janis returns to work, along with the devastating news that Anita was a victim of cot death. With Arturo out of Janis’s life after he turns up to see his daughter and demands a paternity test since she looks nothing like him, more swarthy, you don’t really need Janis taking a DNA test to work out that she’s not Cecilia’s mother, nor is it any surprise when the friendship with Ana (who grows more emancipated as the film progresses) turns into a relationship. It’s just a case of biding your time until she finally tells her the truth.
Meanwhile, the parallel plot regarding the exhumation continues, naturally brining the now widowed Arturo back into Janis’s life, resulting in another upheaval in the relationships and yet another wholly predictable development.
In all of this, Almodóvar offers up a musing on the matriarchal nuclear family (Janis has a surrogate mother in her older magazine editor friend Eelna, played by Rossy de Palma) and the need to sustain them, a meditation that also enfolds Janis’s relatives and their neighbours in the village seeking a proper resting place for their loved ones, the dead and burials serving as metaphors in an exploration of Spain needing to come to terms with its buried past. Both plot strands offer rich material, but are let down by the convoluted screenplay and frequently overwrought and unsubtle plotting and dialogue, although the strength of the female leads and the strong supporting work of de Palma and Sánchez-Gijón go a long way to compensating. There are some undoubtedly powerful moments, both in Ana’s account of Anita’s death, Janis realisation of her own loss and her agonising confession as well as the final uncovering of the dead (those in attendance almost exclusively women) and the things they took to their grave with them, itself a rebirth of sorts that brings closure and the ability to move on. Ultimately, it’s one of the director’s weakest films, but it also seems likely to be among his most successful. (Electric)
The Power of the Dog (12A)
Oscar and BAFTA nominated writer- director Jane Campion’s first film since 2009’s Bright Star is a slow burning compelling and psychologically complex adaptation of the 1967 Thomas Savage novel (the title taken from a line in Psalm 22), veined with themes of toxic, corrosive masculinity, insecurity, frustrated passions and repressed sexuality. Set against the windscreen vistas of 1925 Montana (notably a rock formation resembling a barking dog) but with a claustrophobically intimate feel, it’s founded on four electrifying performances, Oscar nominee Kirsten Dunst as Rose Gordon, a woman widowed by suicide, now running a guest house and restaurant for cattle herders, her sensitive, effeminate lisping teenage son Peter (Oscar and BAFTA nominee Kodi Smit-McPhee), Jesse Plemons (also BAFTA and Oscar nominee) as her future (and real life) husband, the stiff but refined George Burbank who looks after the administration of the family cattle ranch while his coarse, rugged brother Phil, a menacing Benedict Cumberbatch (sporting Oscar and BAFTA Best Actor nominations) giving one of his best performances, looks after the more hands-on aspects, like castrating bulls and stripping the hides, which, in a pointed scene later in the film, he would rather burn that give to his Native American neighbours.
It’s clear there’s friction between them, Phil resentful that he’s the one with the degree from Yale now riding the range, while his brother, who never achieved academic success, keeps his hands clean, dresses in finery and never has to be told to wash up before sitting down to dinner. Rose enters their lives when she serves the crew dinner, Phil mocks Peter (calling him Miss Nancy) and the paper flowers he’s made, his mother’s subsequent tears prompting George’s courtship and, much to Phil’s shock, marriage. When she moves into the sprawling mansion, Phil makes no attempt to hide his contempt, dismissing her as a gold digger, cruelly ridiculing her attempts at the Radetsky March on the piano George has bought with his own far better banjo version and then humiliating her inability to play when George invites the Governor (Keith Carradine), his wife and the brothers’ estranged parents, only ever referred to as Old Gent (Peter Carroll) and Old Lady (Frances Conroy), to dinner.
But then something strange happens. After taunting Peter, who arrives during a break from studying medicine, Phil suddenly changes his attitude, takes the boy under his wing, teaches him to ride and starts making him a clearly phallic rope made out of cow hide strips, Peter, in turn becoming more confident. As such, Phil’s frequent reverential mention of the late Bronco Henry, who taught them the ranching trade and whose saddle he keeps in remembrance starts to take on a deeper meaning, reinforced by a scene of Phil sniffing one of Bronco’s old kerchiefs and masturbating and of Peter’s discovery of a stash of ‘art’ magazines of naked men hidden in the woods. The question simmering, however, is the motivations of the older and younger man, who is manipulating and who is manipulated. And why.
Meanwhile, succumbing to Phil’s campaign to make her feel unwelcome and her husband’s obliviousness to her unhappiness, the already fragile Rose is slipping further and further into alcoholism, stashing bottles around the house and in the alley for furtive swigs, observed with quiet satisfaction by her brother-in-law, as, pivoting around a diseased cow hide, the film moves towards its tragic and weightedly ambiguous finale.
Told in five unhurried chapters, the gathering dread set to Johnny Greenwood’s nervy score, featuring a supporting cast that includes Last Night In Soho’s Thomasin McKenzie as a young maid and regular Campion collaborator Genevieve Lemon as the intimidating no-nonsense housekeeper, it’s a haunting American Gothic war of attrition evocative of William Faulkner that lays out the pieces of the puzzle and invites you to fit them into place. (Netflix)
Red Notice (12)
Reportedly Netflix’s most expensive production, largely on account of the globe-trotting locations and its high powered trinity of Hollywood stars, this is a derivative but nonetheless highly enjoyable heist movie in which Interpol’s second most wanted (a red notice) art thief, Nolan Booth (Ryan Reynolds) sets out to steal one of the two known surviving – and previously thought mythical – three ornate jewelled ‘eggs’ presented to Cleopatra by Mark Anthony, from a Rome museum only to run up against FBI profiler John Hartley (Dwayne Johnson), who’s been tipped off by mysterious underworld figure The Bishop, and is there along with Interpol inspector Urvashi Das (Ritu Arya) to stop him.
The arrest doesn’t quite go as planned, ending up with Hartley been framed and arrested when the egg, recovered in Bali, vanishes and his bank account become several millions bigger, being forced to team up with fellow inmate Booth to clear his name and, in the process, steal the second egg from billionaire arms dealer Sotto Voce (Chris Diamantopoulos), a private collector of artefacts, during a masked ball.
The film by now has also introduced the third wheel, Gal Gadot as The Bishop, the world’s first most wanted art thief who stole the first egg from under Interpol’s noses, is after the second egg and wants Booth to reveal the location of the third as part of her lucrative deal to bring all three together for a wealthy client’s wedding gift to his daughter, Cleopatra.
All of this variously involves escaping from a high security Russian fortress and (accompanied by its whistled theme tune) a Raiders Of The Lost Ark styled secret Nazi vault of stolen art treasures in the South American forest, Das always close behind and with a constant stream of typical wisecracking smartass banter from Reynolds winding up his reluctant bromance partner in crime. Plus, naturally, several twists, double and triple crosses as things are never quite what they seem to be as it gleefully borrows from the likes of National Treasure, Mission: Impossible, Entrapment, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, and other assorted con game movies, never attaining the same heights but still a solid evening’s worth of beer and popcorn in front of the television. (Netflix)
Ron’s Gone Wrong (PG)
Another animation about the importance of friendship, Barney Pudowski (Jack Dylan Grazer) is a friendless seventh grade schoolboy embarrassed that his Bulgarian gran (Olivia Colman) gives him chicken feet in his lunch box, is bullied over his rock collecting hobby and wishes he had a B*Bot like all the other kids. A B*Bot is a new capsule-shaped high tech invention from the Bubble company, a Best Friend Straight Out Of The Box, programmed to like what you like and to find others of a similar mind to build a friendship network.
Arriving at the factory too late buy one, his oblivious widowed dad (El Helms) an inventor of naff contraptions no one wants to buy, acquires one that literally ‘fell off the back of a lorry’. Unfortunately the glowing white toy with its ever detachable arms and on the fritz expressions, which he names Ron (Zach Galifianakis), is defective, lacking some its programming (he calls Barney Absalom because his name list doesn’t go beyond A), such as the algorithm to stop him harming humans, which, as it turns out, is quite fortunate in giving the bullies a taste of their own medicine.
As such, in the ET-like bonding between the two, the screenplay (co-penned by Alan Partridge veteran Peter Baynham) touches on some important theme of being isolated from your peers and of the need for friendship, but overlays this with some rather clunky plot tangents such as a critique of teenagers’ obsession with technology and social media rather than real friendships as well as, rather inevitably, corporate villainy as, unlike his well-meaning geeky partner Mark, who invented them, the company’s child-hating co-founder, Andrew (Rob Delaney), intends to use the B*Bots to harvest consumer data from their owners so they can sell more. The fact Ron is operating offline, and is affecting the other bots’ programming, threatens the stock price and, therefore, he must be destroyed.
Despite some obvious comparisons to Big Hero 6, Short Circuit, The Iron Giant and How To Train Your Dragon, it’s an amiable affair with several affecting scenes, such as Barney training him to learn about him so they can have fun, a friendship ultimately earned rather than engineered, and a scene where the two hide out in the woods, while there’s an obligatory toilet gag as a girl obsessed with social media followers finds the downside of going viral when an image of her emerging from the butt of a rogue B*Bot assemblage earns her the name PoopGirl. No classic, but your software would be malfunctioning if you didn’t enjoy it. (Disney+)
Save The Cinema (12)
It’s somewhat ironic that a film about saving a small local cinema should actually not have been widely screened in cinemas at all, but streamed by Sky. Notwithstanding that, however, directed by Sara Sugarman, this is an inspiring true story account of the 1993 campaign by Carmarthen hairdresser Liz Evans to save the Lyric Cinema, a listed building, where she staged musicals by the local youth drama group (with apparently production values of West End proportions), from being razed to make way for a shopping centre.
Imbued with the spirt of Ealing comedies (and a companion piece to the similarly styled and Welsh-set Dream Horse) and starring Samantha Morton as Evans (who died in 2004), it relates her fight against a corrupt mayor (Adeel Akhtar) and a bullying developer (Colm Meaney), squatting in the cinema to stop the bulldozers, with the help of her former teacher and cinema projectionist Mr Morgan (Jonathan Pryce), the mayor’s secretary (Erin Richards), her sons (though the conflict with her husband, played by Owain Yeaoman, over her stance feels dramatically contrived ) and, eventually choosing the right side, postman cum councillor Richard Goodridge (Tom Felton). Ultimately, it was her letter to Steven Spielberg asking to show Jurassic Park (the cinema actually played in a few minutes before the London premiere) that saved the day and the Lyric.
The villains are of a somewhat pantomime persuasion with the town’s emphatically Welsh community all pull together, but that rather goes with the embattled underdog and follow your heart nature of the story which, with a cast that includes Beatie Edney, Keith Allen, Susan Wokoma (as Liz’s assistant) and a cameo by Evans’s real life son Wynne, better known as the Go Compare man, may be sentimental but is also the sort of funny, heartwarming feelgood entertainment we need right now. (Sky Cinema)
Making its debut back in 1996, directed by Wes Craven and written by Kevin Williamson, Scream with its Ghostface killer was an ironic, self-aware take on the slasher movie genre that mixed its visceral slayings with meta-humour. Now, three increasingly naff sequels later, the franchise has been resurrected by co-directors Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett who push the postmodernism further by making the original film, here restyled as Stab (and up to its eighth instalment) and inspired by the supposed real local murders as depicted in Scream 2, as the butt of the jokes. As such it starts by paralleling the first film’s Drew Barrymore opening as, alone at home, teenager Tara (Jenna Ortega) answers her phone to hear a voice on the other end telling her she has to answer a series of questions about Stab (she’s more a Babadook fan) otherwise he’s going to kill her friend. She’s subsequently attacked but survives, bringing her estranged (and knowingly named) older sister Sam Carpenter (Melissa Barrera) back to Woodsboro along with her sweet new boyfriend Richie (Jack Quaid offering comic relief) and introducing Tara’s circle of friends, twins Mindy (Jasmin Savoy Brown) and Chad (Mason Gooding), Amber (Mikey Madison), Liv (Sonia Ammar), her casual fling Vince (Kyle Gallner), who, it transpires is the nephew of Stu Macher, the original Ghostface’s accomplice, and the Sheriff’s (Judy Hicks) son Wes (Dylan Minnette).
Having revealed a bit of a jawdropper skeleton in the closet about her true father being Billy Loomis, the Ghostface killer, Sam and Richie set out to try and track down the new slasher, a quest which brings into play retired sheriff Dewey Riley (David Arquette), a survivor from the first film, who reluctantly also gets involved and gets to spell out the rules of the genre while Mindy explains that the murders are being played out as requel (a cross between reboot and sequel with new characters but the same context a la Ghostbusters:Afterlife), with the victims all having some connection to characters in the first film.
As the teen soap opera cast list gets further whittled down, the subsequent fate of Dewey also prompts the return of two other prominent Scream characters, his ex-girlfriend and TV news anchor Gayle Weathers (Courtney Cox) and Sydney Prescott (Neve Campbell), the protagonist in all four previous outings. There’s also a wickedly funny moment when Ghostface appears behind one the characters who’s watching scene from Stab in which the character on screen is warning another that the killer is behind them.
Without spoiling the reveal (though Dewey’s rules are pretty much spot on), the whole spate of killings have, in yet another level of irony, to do with toxic fandom and, in its extremely gruesome violence and characters, offers a dark satirical commentary on the impetus of contemporary horror movies. “After tonight, no more books, no more movies, no more fucking Ghostface”, declare Sidney and Gale as they prepare for the showdown. Well, I wouldn’t bet on that. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel; Vue)
Shang-Chi And The Legend Of The Ten Rings (12A)
Making his first appearance in 1973 in Master of Kung Fu, Shang-Chi is a minor Marvel Comics character, originally a Sax Rohmer spin-off as the son of Fu Manchu. The comic character being resurrected for, first Heroes For Hire, and, subsequently as a member of The Avengers. Now, as directed by Destin Daniel Cretton making his superhero bow, he’s the latest addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe , the film serving as both origin story and launch platform for an ongoing franchise.
It begins with a scene setting prelude set in 1996 and narrated and spoken in subtitled Mandarin, as, having subjugated pretty much everywhere else with the use of his magical ten rings, thousand-year-old warlord Wenwu (Tony Leung) sets out to conquer the hidden mystical realm of Ta Lo, a village said to harbour creatures from Chinese mythology, but is defeated by its protector Ying Li (Fala Chen), the two falling love as they battle, she eventually leaving her home and he renouncing his Ten Rings crime organisation to become parents of two children, Shang-Chi (Jayden Zhang/Arnold Sun) and Xialing (Elodie Fong) and all is hearts and flowers until, as we learn in subsequent flashbacks, old rivals murder Li, plunging Wenwu back into his old ways, training his son in the martial arts to serve as an instrument of vengeance.
Cut to the present and the now grown Shang-Chi (Simu Liu), calling himself Shaun, is working as a parking valet alongside overqualified best friend Katy (Awkwafina) who knows nothing of his past, until that is, he’s attacked on a bus by a bunch of assassins, led by the self-descriptively named Romanian Razor Fist (Florian Munteanu), who wants to steal the jade necklace his mother gave him. And so, loading up the exposition, it transpires they’re part of his dad’s army who wants the pendant and that belonging to his now grown daughter (impressive newcomer Meng’er Zhang) in order to return to Ta Lo where he believes his wife is imprisoned inside a mountain from where she has been calling to him.
All of which entails reluctant hero Shang-Chi and Katy heading to Macao, him reuniting with his sister who runs a fight club and isn’t initially best pleased to see him as he left her behind when he fled his father at 15, and the three of them setting off to mom’s village (meeting up their aunt, Michelle Yeoh, and Katy getting trained as an archer) to warn them of Wenwu’s intentions, learning that, in fact, what’s imprisoned inside the mountain is actually a demonic soul sucker monster.
This all proceeds at a cracking pace with numerous dynamic martial arts fight sequences, ranging from the initial balletic one between Wenwu and Li that evokes memories of those in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (in which Yeoh starred), the exhilarating crosstown bus battle with Katy behind the wheel, the siblings’ showdown, and the all-out climax between the Ta Lo warriors and the Ten Rings soldiers as they, and our intrepid trio, take on the freed soul-sucking monsters with the help of assorted mythological beasts, including one huge mother of dragon. And, of course, the ultimate confrontation between father and son with the fate of the world and the ten rings in the balance
It’s a breathless, thrilling set of action sequences, so it’s somewhat unfortunate that it was felt necessary to insert a lengthy and frankly very silly comedic relief section in which a cheerfully hamming Ben Kingsley revives his Iron Man 3 role as Liverpudlian actor Trevor Slattery who was hired to impersonate The Mandarin (here now one of Wenwu’s identities), and, post-prison, is a reformed character and offers to guide them to Ta Lo with the help of his hundun companion Morris, a kind of furry winged cushion, who is from there, want to return home and knows the secret route in.
A Canada-based Chinese actor and martial arts trained stuntman, Liu makes for a solid conflicted action hero in the Marvel tradition, while Leong’s soulful performance successfully captures the ambivalence of his character, both cruelly ruthless in his actions but sympathetic in his overwhelming grief at loss of the wife and family he’s looking to restore, but perhaps inevitably, it’s Awkwafina who steals much of the film even though she’s playing a second string role. Naturally there’s several connections to the wider MCU, from a reference to Thanos wiping out half of the world’s population in The Avengers to a mid-film cameo by Benedict Wong as Doctor Strange’s assistant, returning in the first of the end credit scenes alongside Bri Larson (Captain Marvel) and Mark Ruffalo (Bruce Banner) that deepens the mystery of the ten rings, the second setting up the sequel as the cool and steely female-empowerment advocate Xialing resurrects her father’s organisation, this time with female warriors. (Disney+)
Sing 2 (PG)
A follow-up to the wildly successful 2016 animated musical this reunites pretty much all the original cast, Jennifer Saunders’ Nana among them, for what is essentially a spin on the original story. The animal performers from the first film are now a successful regional theatre troupe, but koala impresario Buster Moon (Matthew McConaughey) still aspires for bigger and better things and hopes that their latest show, a spectacular take on Alice In Wonderland, will land them a spot in Redshore City, the film’s equivalent to Las Vegas. However, when influential talent scout Suki walks out after the first half, declaring them not up to the big leagues, he and the gang head for Redshore to audition for Jimmy Crystal (Bobby Cannavale), a snarly white wolf hotelier magnate singularly unimpressed by any of the acts. He is, however, intrigued when Buster lies about having a connection to reclusive retired rock star lion Clay Calloway (voiced by Bono but clearly modelled on Robert Plant), and agrees to back the proposed new musical, space extravaganza Out Of This World pitched by Gunter (Nick Kroll). It just has to open in three weeks.
In it, porcine performer Rosita (Reese Witherspoon) is to play the lead, travelling four planets on a rescue mission, but, when she finds herself too scared to launch on the flying wire, the part is given to Crystal’s spoiled daughter Porsha (Halsey), who has undeniable presence but, as it turns out, can’t actually act.
Meanwhile, Crystal is pressuring Buster to come up with Clay and, after an initial attempt to recruit him by one-eyed chameleon named Miss Crawley (writer-director Gareth Jennings) fails miserably, he and porcupine rock singer Ash (Scarlett Johansson) try their luck instead, but even so, consumed with grief over his dead wife, Clay seems unlikely to agree.
And so, back in Redshore, things are rapidly falling apart, Crystal going ballistic when he thinks Porsha has been fired and embarrassed him, threatening to kill Buster. The only resort being for the crew to, yes, let’s do the show right here and win over the crowd.
Woven into this are a couple of sub-plots, Johnny the gorilla (Taron Egerton) is having trouble learning his dance moves under his demanding teacher Klaus Kickenklober and is befriended by local street performer Nooshy (Letitia Wright), while, never having had a romance, elephant Meena (Tori Kelly) can’t find the chemistry with her self-absorbed preening stage partner (Eric Andre) but has fallen for fellow pachyderm ice cream salesman Alfonso (Pharrell Williams).
With scenes staged to such as Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, Prince’s Let’s Go Crazy, I Say A Little Prayer, Higher Love, Bad Guy and I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking for, as well as featuring brand new U2 track Your Song Saved My Life, it’s a colourful, energetic affair with top rate animation, choreography and an infectious sense of fun that will leave you with a big smile on your face however old you are. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Vue)
The Souvenir Part II (15)
Given a worldwide box office total of just $1.7 million, it seems reasonable to assume many might be unaware that there was a part one. However, released in 2019, written and directed by Joanna Hogg, her semi-autobiographical account of a nascent film-maker earned glowing critical acclaim, award nominations and topped the Sight and Sound best film list of the year. Thus, we have the sequel, again with Hogg at the helm and again featuring real life daughter and mother Honor Swinton Byrne and Tilda Swinton as film student Julie Harte and her patrician mother Rosalind who, living with her gentleman farmer husband William (James Spencer Ashwort) in Norfolk, lets her life rent fee at their upmarket Knightsbridge home (a re-creation of the Hogg’s former apartment, built on a soundstage blow-ups of the photos she took through the flat windows) and frequently stumps up financial support
The meta-fiction story picks up with Julie trying to deal with the aftermath of the suicide of her heroin addict lover Anthony (Tom Burke), coming to terms with her grief, going through therapy, trying to understand what happened and finding a way to free herself of his shadow and move on, including from his parents. This she decides to do by abandoning her planned docu-drama exploration of Sunderland working life and instead immerse herself in a more personal, non-narrative and highly stylised fantasia catharsis, set in an identical soundstage version of their apartment, something that has her film-school examiners up in arms, declaring if she proceeds they won’t support her and she won’t graduate. They’re not the only ones taken aback, as Julie becomes more insistent on what she wants from the DP while rejecting trained actresses suggested by her producing partner (Jaygann Ayeh) for her Julia surrogate and casting self-assured Frenchwoman fellow student Garance (Ariane Labed).
It is pretty intense, a deconstruction of a reconstruction she calls it, a meditation on memory although more accessible than the first, while also engaging a playful side that has Rosalind taking up pottery (she very proud of her lopsided Etruscan pot) in response to her daughter’s creativity and Richard Ayoade chewing scenery as ultra-opinionated fellow film student Patrick Le Mage who’s making a pretentious musical for which she’s making a video. Joining the cast are Charlie Heaton as Jim, the fellow student and star of Patrick’s musical with whom Julie has a one night standing, Joe Alwyn as her gay student editor and Harris Dickerson as the film’s Anthony.
It ends with the graduation film itself, or rather a surreal dream ballet version of it, influences of Powell and Pressburger (who Anthony admired) clearly seen along with nods to Lewis Carroll, as specialist and niche as Hogg’s own work, but both utterly mesmerising. (MAC)
Following the liberties taken by The Crown and the staggering tastelessness of Diana The Musical, on paper the idea of an imagined version of events at Sandringham, a sprawling stately home where the walls have ears, over the course of Christmas 1991, as her marriage reached the end of the road, sounds like a recipe for disaster. In reality, however, directed by Pablo Larraín, who previously helmed the Jackie biopic, written by Steven Knight with a jarring Johnny Greenwood score, while the flights of fancy can verge on the nonsensical, this plays out as a claustrophobic snapshot of a woman trapped in a world determined to eliminate any sense of her own individuality and desires in service to the greater good of the monarchy.
It opens with Diana (an Oscar nomination performance from Kristen Stewart), driving in her sports car to join the family gathering, declares “Where the fuck am I?”, venturing into a roadside café in her red-and-green plaid jacket to enquire, inevitably greeted by jaws dropping to the floor, remarking, with clearly symbolic undertones, “I have absolutely no idea where I am”. With the arrival of her friend, Darren, the head chef (Sean Harris), concerned over her late arrival, it turns out she’s just a couple of fields away from her old, now boarded up and condemned, childhood home and, spotting a scarecrow (who she later emulates), sets off to retrieve the jacket, one of her father’s cast-offs, that its wearing.
Eventually, she arrives, breaching protocol as the Queen (Stella Gonet) and the others are already in situ, and is greeted in sternly polite fashion by the all-seeing Major Gregory (Timothy Spall), who runs the house and who is tasked with ensuring Diana falls in line. This entails wearing the designated apparel for each occasion and meal, to be dressed by her (fictional) servant and confidante Maggie (Sally Hawkins), who delivers a startling confession come the third act, something against which he instinctively rebels.
And so the awkward weekend unfolds as a series of attempts by Diana to assert her own personality and the equally determined efforts of everyone else to bring her into line, and, with Maggie sent back to London, her only moments of refuge being the time spent with her children, William (Jack Nielen) and Harry (Freddie Spry), though even the former is subjected by his peevish father, Prince Charles (Jack Farthing) to being part of the traditional Boxing Day pheasant shoot, much to his mother’s horror.
Along with the Queen, affording disapproving looks and admonishments, but not (as her metaphor of currency shows) entirely unsympathetic, the entire Royal Family are gathered, Prince Philip (Richard Sammel), Andrew, Anne, The Queen Mother (along with a glimpse of a scowling Camilla at the church), though, pointedly, they have no lines and play almost no part other than set dressing with none of the actors looking much like their characters, although that also serves to underline the fog in which Diana has become enfolded, emphasised by the lecture on duty Charles gives her.
On top of the whole fanciful depiction of events, the screenplay also includes both flashbacks to the young Diana and her more carefree happy family youth and also her telling imagining of the ghost of Anne Boleyn (Amy Manson), the wife Henry VIII had beheaded so he could remarry, a book about whose ‘martyrdom’ has been strategically left in the bedroom (which, of course, she does not share with Charles) and of ripping off the pearls from Charles (identical to his gift to Camilla) and wolfing them down with her soup, before sicking them back up in one of several references to her bulimia (something Charles scornfully tells her to try and control).
As the pressures, emotional, physical, and mental, mount, the film builds to a powerful climax as she flees Sandringham and breaks into her old home where, we are led to assume she contemplates suicide, before she and the kids finally get to drive off into her future fate. Stewart is outstanding, perfectly capturing Diana’s physical mannerisms and studied coquettish looks, engaging the audience’s sympathy as she battles the machine but also acknowledging a spoiled, imperious and wilful nature. How you approach it will, inevitably, depend on your view on Diana and the Royal Family, but, if you think of this as The Shining at Sandringham, you won’t go far wrong. (BT Film Store, Sky Store, Virgin)
Spider-Man: No Way Home (12A)
Again directed by Jon Watts, this picks up directly after the events of Far From Home where, in a posthumous message claiming he was murdered, Mysterio outed Peter Parker as Spider-Man. Anticipation as to what came next was high, but no one could have possibly imagined this mind-bogglingly audacious threequel that plays like a two hour plus adrenaline orgasm. His identity revealed and the subject of a vilification campaign by J Jonah Jameson (JK Simmons reprising his role from the three Sam Raimi films), Peter (Tom Holland), girlfriend MJ (Zendaya), best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon) and Aunt May (Marisa Tomei), who, in the opening, has broken up with Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau), are arrested, interrogated and released (cue cameo by Charlie Cox from the Daredevil TV series) since the government can’t make anything stick. However, carrying on with life as normal is not on the table, Discovering he, MJ and Ned have been turned down for MIT because of events, in order to not ruin their lives he turns to Dr Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) to ask if he can readjust time so that things didn’t happen as they did. Strange says not, but, despite warnings from Wong (Benedict Wong), does offer to cast a spell to make everyone forget that Spider-Man and Peter Parker are the same. However, while weaving his enchantment, Peter keeps moving the goalposts to ensure those closest don’t forget, all of which sees things go haywire, causing a breach in the multiverse whereby villains from the previous films who knew his identity now materialise in his world, namely Doctor Octopus (Alfred Molina), The Green Goblin (Willem Dafoe), Sandman (Thomas Haden Church), Electro (Jamie Fox) and The Lizard (Rhys Ifans) who are as confused about him not being their Peter Parker as he is as to why they are after him. Suffice to say, while Strange wants to send them back to their fates (they all died), learning of the events that made them villains, Peter wants to try and cure/save them, giving them a second chance, a well-meaning intention that equally goes wrong, and involves his own battle with Strange to possess the magical doohickey that will return them to their own dimensions.
And, of course, if the rip in the multiverse means the character’s old villains resurface, it’s inevitable that (via Ned who has acquired portal powers from Strange) so too do the former Spider-Man stars from the two previous franchises, seeing Holland, Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield (far better than in his own Spider-Man films) working together (and sharing their stories of loss and tragedy as well the with great power mantra) as a team to carry out this dimension’s Peter’s plan atop the Statue of Liberty. There’s a whirlwind of dizzying webslinging action, eye-popping visual effects, snappy banter and any number of sly references to past plots and incarnations (including an amusing discussion about Maguire’s biowebs) and the connections to the Marvel Universe but also, focusing on soulful character depth, several scenes of emotional intensity as a pivotal character dies and Peter realises that, along with great responsibility great power also entails great sacrifice as he has to confront what it really means to be Spider-Man.
Also featuring such returnees as Flash Thompson (Tony Revolon), Betty Brant (Angourie Rice), J.B. Smoove as Peter’s teacher, its multi crossover of universes and franchises is carried off to exhilarating effect while delivering thoughtful commentary on notions of crime, punishment, heroism and redemption, coalescing into a film that may at times be convoluted but which consistently delivers both fan buy thrills as well as maximum entertainment for the mass audience and, as a coming of age drama, perhaps more than any of its predecessors, really defines what being Spider-Man really means. And don’t dare leave before the end credits or you’ll miss both Tom Hardy in barroom scene linking to the latest Venom film and a full-length trailer for the next Dr Strange that includes The Scarlet Witch and, as a result of his actions here, sets up the introduction of his evil doppelganger. It absolutely rules the all-time global box office. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Vue)
In the opening sequence, bored with the car journey, a young girl named Alexia unfastens her safety belt and, when her father turns round to tell her off, the car crashes, resulting in her ending up in hospital and (in an unflinching operation sequence) having a titanium implant in her skull and a scar over her ear. When she leaves, the walks up to the car and kisses it. Cut to several years later and the now punky adult Alexia (Agathe Rousselle) is a dancer-model at a motor show where she and the other girls give a whole new meaning to autoeroticism. One night, a minor celebrity in her sleazy world, she’s approached by a fan who forcibly kisses her, ending up with her metal hairpin through his head as a result, Alexia calmly showering and disposing of the body. As news reports suggest, this might not be her first victim. Following a blood bath where she kills a co-worker and her house mates, one escapes, exposing Alexia and forcing her to go on the run (though not before locking her parents in a room and burning down the house), eventually breaking her own nose so as to pass herself off as the now grown version of the young boy from the missing posters and, wrapping her breasts in tape to conceal them, being taken in by the lad’s tough but tender anguished father Vincent (Vincent Lindon), who heads up a first responder fire crew (and has to inject steroids into his bruised buttocks every night), and persuades himself this mute stranger is his lost son, Adrien. There’s an added complication, however. Alexia is also pregnant. By the car she had sex with after the aforementioned killing, causing her to lactate and bleed motor oil. So, an attempt at self-induced abortion a failure, she needs to conceal her ever growing belly too. And the metal plates forming beneath the skin.
As you’ll have gathered, this, the latest from provocative BAFTA nominated French director Julia Ducournau, is firmly positioned within the sci-fi body horror genre alongside the likes of Japan’s Tetsuo and Cronenberg’s Crash. As such, for all its outrageousness and horror (sex with a fire truck falling into at least one of those categories) and the pounding industrial score, this ultimately plays out as a tender gender fluid story of a growing love/parent-child story between two outcasts who desperately need each other, peppered with observations on predatory males, female exploitation, the ugly side of pregnancy and a whole lot more. Perhaps not a festive treat, but certainly not one you’ll forget in a hurry. (Rakuten TV)
The Tragedy of Macbeth (15)
Making his solo directorial debut, Joel Coen delivers an atmospheric, stylised and stripped down adaptation of Shakespeare’s tragedy, filmed by Bruno Delbonnel in stark black and white with an icy chill running through its monochromatic bones as ravens, those harbingers of death, take wing throughout. Earning an Oscar nomination, Denzel Washington (who, like Branagh makes the Bard’s lines flow with a natural rhythm) is typically mesmerising as the battle-weary Macbeth while, Coen’s wife Frances McDormand was surely born to play the power-driven, manipulative Lady Macbeth (the means of her death hinted at but never shown), the cast fleshed out by Brendan Gleeson as the doomed Duncan (his murder here played out on screen), Corey Hawkins as the self-hating Macduff whose wife (Moses Ingram), child and retinue are slaughtered in his absence, Bertie Carvel as Banquo, Harry Melling as the young Malcolm and Stephen Root as the drunken porter with his erectile dysfunction comic relief.
Coen makes some audacious decisions in his interpretation, not least in the casting of Kathryn Hunter, contorting her body as all three witches (presented as a single figure with two reflections in the water or apparitions fading into the mist) and the way in which the role of Ross (Alex Hassell) has been reworked to make him a more significant character (the third murderer) playing both sides and with a coda in which he retrieves the escaped Fleance. The dialogue too is given a new slant, monologues reimagined as conversations while Macbeth’s hallucinations of the dagger (here the handle on Duncan’s bedchamber) and Banquo’s ghost seen only by Macbeth and never the viewer.
The set design too is integral, the action set predominantly within Macbeth’s castle, a disorienting claustrophobic modernist structure of angular walls, corridors and courtyards that impart an expressionist ambience, reinforced by Carter Burwell’s unsettling soundscape, all combining with the unerring direction and razor-sharp performances to rank Coen’s Macbeth alongside those by Orson Welles and Justin Kurzel. (Apple TV)
The Unforgivable (15)
Originally a three-part TV series set in Yorkshire, as directed by Nora Fingscheidt the story has been retitled, adapted, condensed and transposed to Seattle but otherwise remains pretty much the same. After serving 20 years for shooting the local sheriff when social services came to evict her and take her five-year-old sister (Neli Kastrinos) into care (their mother died and the dad committed suicide), Ruth Slater (Sandra Bullock) is released and looks to rebuild her life, placed in a rundown halfway house hostel populated by addicts and thieves, taking a job on the graveyard shift of a fish gutting factory and, later, putting her prison-learnt carpentry skills to work on a renovation project. She naively thinks that, having done her time, she can make a new start, but as her parole officer Vincent (Rob Morgan) tells her, “You’re a cop killer everywhere!”
Her prime objective, however, is to get back in touch with her now grown sister, Katie (Aisling Franciosi) with whom she’s had no contact since that fateful day and letters sent have been unanswered. Told she was adopted, but that she can be given no information, Ruth returns to the old family home, now owned by mixed race couple Liz (Viola Davis) and John (Vincent D’Onofrio) Ingram and their two sons. John, it transpires is a lawyer and she persuades him to look into the case, discovering that Katie was adopted by Michael (Richard Thomas) and Rachel (Linda Emond) Malcolm, and renamed Lucy, and has an adoptive sister called Emily (Emma Nelson) Ruth pushing to try and arrange a meeting. That doesn’t go well, the Malcolms reasonably arguing that a reunion would serve no purpose and would likely derail Lucy’s life. However, discovering the unread letters, Emily looks to try and help.
Meanwhile, Lucy, who, in the opening scenes, is involved in a car crash and briefly comatose, is starting to have flashbacks, but, as a result of the original trauma, has no memory of what happened or of Ruth. Ruth, in turn, becomes involved in a tentative relationship with fellow worker Blake (Jon Bernthal), but is also being stalked by Keith Whelan (Tom Guiry), the son of the officer she killed. He wants revenge but, married with a young baby and not looking to ruin his own life, his brother Steve (Will Pullen) initially tells him to let it lie, before contriving to meet Ruth and changing his mind given her apparent lack of remorse. He’ll exact an eye for an eye.
Entwining three plot strands, it’s a complex web with recurring flashbacks to the day of the murder, Ruth’s past being revealed to her workplace with inevitable results and a couple of confrontations with Liz, who doesn’t share her husband’s notion of second chances. However, finally, we learn what actually happened when the sheriff broke into the house, which pretty much turns everything on its head as the film builds to a dramatic rescue attempt following Steve’s kidnapping.
It’s pretty much unrelentingly downbeat and dour, a perpetually scowling, dead-eyed Bullock delivering hard to read vanity-free performance and packing so much into the running time often results in other characters being given somewhat short shrift in the characterisation department (a scene involving Steve’s wife and his brother feels unnecessarily melodramatic) while the social/racial backdrop (Liz tells her husband their black sons would never get another chance) is never really explored. Nonetheless, as it turns into more of a thriller, it keeps you with it to the final catharsis. (Netflix)
Venom: Let There Be Carnage (15)
And carnage it indeed is. Carnage of the script, the direction and the acting. The first Venom had some of the worst reviews of any Marvel movie, but this makes it look like a masterpiece. Directed, if you can use such a term here, by Andy Serkis, it picks things up shortly after the end of the previous film, the alien symbiont now fully at home in the body of haggard-looking journalist Eddy Brock (Tom Hardy) in what Serkis and Kelly Marcel’s screenplay have fashioned as a mismatched buddy relationship, Venom frequently popping out to make sarcastic jibes at his host, complaining about not being allowed to eat human brains, not even bad guys, and existing on a diet of chocolate and chicken (which wander around Brock’s apartment). It’s a knockabout comedic tone that simply doesn’t gel with what by rights should be more of a horror movie. Worse, it’s not especially funny.
As part of the subplot, ex-girlfriend Anne (Michelle Williams), who knows all about his alien bodymate, arranges to meet Eddy at a restaurant, he’s thinking reconciliation until she flashes her engagement ring, cue yet another round of Venom putdowns. The main thrust, however, involves Eddy getting to do the interview with serial killer Cletus Kasady (Woody Harrelson) trailed at the end of the first film, running an article that winds up with him getting Kasady to reveal where the bodies are buried and, consequently, seeing the death penalty reinstated. An understandably pissed Kasady manages to bite Eddy’s finger, whereby he too winds up with a multi-armed, bloodthirsty symbiont in his body, aka Carnage, albeit this one’s red not black, leading to a jailbreak massacre as he sets up to find, rescue and marry his girlfriend, Frances Barrision (Naomie Harris doing her best with a cipher of a role), aka the mutant Shriek, who’s introduced at the opening flashback to their teenage years where she befriends him at the orphanage and they become lovers, before the obligatory clandestine agency whisk her away to a top secret facility containment cell as a lab rat.
Meanwhile, the film goes from one ill-judged development to another as Venom and Brock have a falling out, and the former quits his host body, and stomps off to the local bars, ludicrously crashing a costume part as himself and becoming a cool hit with the punters, body surfing through assorted hosts before Anne and her fiancé track him down and get him and Eddy to kiss and make up, just in time for the big and visually incoherent Venom vs Carnage showdown in an old church.
Hardy plays things like a man who can’t find an escape clause in his contract, Harrelson outdoes Nic Cage in the deranged and barkingly OTT stakes and Stephen Graham drifts bewilderedly through the narrative and plot holes as police detective Mulligan while all around them the set pieces and visual effects crash from one clumsy mess to another.
It’s mercifully short, probably because huge chunks ended up in the editing room bin, but even then it feels interminable, the mid-credits scene, after the twosome have taken off to a tropical beach for a little r&r, that links to the Spider-Man multiverse more of a warning than a tease. Simply quite awful, but at least the first Venom movie won’t now be the most reviled in the MCU. (Microsoft Store, Sky Store, Virgin)
Wrath Of Man (15)
Director Guy Ritchie reunites with Lock, Stock star Jason Statham for the first time since 2005 Revolver for this rework of the French heist thriller Le Conveyeur . Statham plays the enigmatic Patrick Hill who, five months after an opening scene in which two guards and a bystander are killed during an armoured truck robbery by men posing as construction workers, gets a job with Fortico, an armoured-car company that moves millions of dollars in cash and jewels daily. Eddie Marsan plays his supervisor, Terry, who tells him not to take chances, while Holt McCallany is the company trainer, Bullet, who gives him his nickname, H. Barely scraping through the tests, on his first run, working with Bullet and fellow guards Dana (Niamh Algar) and “Boy Sweat” Dave (Josh Hartnett), the latter who should have been driving the van seen at the start, his truck’s attacked, Bullet’s taken hostage and, rather than not resist and let them take the money, he calmly kills everyone, a feat decidedly at odds with his training scores.
From here the plot naturally thickens. While Terry tries to get him to take desk duty for a while, H is hailed as a hero by the company boss and promoted, and, investigating the attempted robbery, the police identify H as someone the FBI, headed up here by Agent King (Andy Garcia ), have been looking for for 25 years. A second attempted robbery sees the thieves doing a runner the moment they see H’s face, further adding to the mystery about his past, the connection between the robberies, his involvement, a revenge motive, disgruntled military veterans, and corruption within the ranks and Hill’s real identity as flashbacks gradually reveal more about what went down. It’s a tangled and often hard to follow narrative of double crosses and hidden agendas, but Statham’s a charismatic enough action man to pull it off and, while not in the same league as his recent The Gentleman, Ritchie is an old hand at this sort of things and keeps his foot to the pedal, delivering the