This column will review films both screening theatrically and/or on various streaming platforms.
The Hunger Games: The Ballad Of Songbirds And Snakes (12A)
Adapted from Suzanne Collins prequel to her bestselling series (Katniss Everdeen getting a sly reference), divided into three chapters this provides a backstory of how Coriolanus Snow, played by Donald Sutherland in the trilogy, rose up to become the tyrannical president of Panem. It opens with news that General Crassus Snow as been killed during the First Rebellion of the Districts. Fast forward ten years and the family (his grandmother and cousin Tigris Snow, who eventually becomes Katniss’s ally in the saga) have fallen on hard time, his now teenage son Coriolanus (Tom Blyth) determined to restore their fortunes and, like his fellow members of the Capitol Academy, is assigned to mentor one of the tributes in the upcoming 10th annual Hunger Games, a new addition by Head Gamemaker Dr Volumnia Gaul (Viola Davis sporting different coloured eyes and white-streaked frazzled hairdo) in an attempt to reverse the falling ratings. Named for the Wordsworth poem, Snow’s tribute is Lucy Gray Baird (Rachel Zegler from Spielberg’s West Side Story) from District 12 (though she’s not native there), a feisty country folk singer, the songbird of the title, with a drawled Southern accent who immediately grabs attention in the televised Reaping by slipping a snake down the back of the mayor’s daughter and delivering a powerful protest song. Snow is drawn to her (romance later blossoming) and determines to keep her alive, although Casca Highbottom (Peter Dinklage), Dean of the Academy and the originator of the Hunger Games alongside Snow’s father (with an ironic twist revealed as to how that came about), cautions him the Games, hosted for the first time by hosted by flamboyant Lucretious “Lucky” Flickerman (Jason Schwartzman), an ancestor of Stanley Tucci’s Caesar Flickerman, played out in the Capitol Arena as the tribute battle to the death, should be about spectacle not survival.
Spun out beyond two and a half hours, with the second chapter being the Games enacted in the Arena, demolished by a rebellion bomb, as the tributes kill each other, Snow’s fellow mentor and friend Sejanus Plinth (Josh Andrés Rivera), son of a bigwig in District 2 breaking the rules by going in to try and save his tribute, Jessop, also from District 12, while Snow himself cheats by providing Lucy Gray with means to survive both the other tributes who have teamed up as The Pack and the thousands of the titular serpents Gaul drops in their midst.
To which end both he and Plinth are demoted and exiled to serve as ordinary Peacekeepers in District 12 (Snow bribing his way to get there), the latter hoping to make a difference, the former hoping to reunite with Lucy Gray (who won the games) if she’s still alive. And. heading into Chapter III, she definitely is, now fronting the Covey, a nomadic folk group who were neutral in the civil war. However, Plinth’s sympathies for the rebels wind up in an act of betrayal several executions and Coriolanus and Lucy Gray going on the run before things take a not entirely clear turn in the final act which sees Snow enacting his own revenge and calculating setting himself up to take over the Games and, ultimately, Panem.
Though it could well have been trimmed down (or turned into two films), it’s fair to say the running time doesn’t overly drag as it moves been machinations, manipulations, bloody battles and tender romance, the charismatic Zegler getting to deliver several more rather good vocal performances (including her version of The Hanging Tree sung by Katniss in Mockingjay) along the way. She and Blyth have solid chemistry, the latter, who goes from looking like a young Bob Geldof to a blonde cropped Draco Malfoy, subtly shading his character’s gradual transition from idealist to schemer and eventual series villain.
Given that in the novel Lucy Gray’s eventual fate is never revealed, it’s not impossible that a second transitionary sequel might be on the cards if this performs well – and Collins writes another book, which could be rather more welcome than you might have expected. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Vue)
Directed by Garth Davis and co-written with Iain Reid, who the authored the novel from which it’s adapted, this places a collapsing marriage under the microscope as seen through a dystopian sci fi lens. Set 2065 where dwindling natural resources, water especially, have led to experimental space stations being established to pave the way for Earth’s population to migrate, Junior (Paul Mescal) and Hen (Saoirse Ronan) live in an isolated farmhouse in the parched and empty Midwest, one in his family for generations, he working in an industrial chicken factory, she in a diner (the food shortage apparently not stopping folk eating out). As the film starts we see her crying in the shower, an early sign that the relationship has fallen on hard times, she finding refuge playing piano in the basement, he in drinking. There’s still feelings between them, he more than her, but her loneliness and the distance between them are palpable. Then along comes Terrence (Aaron Pierre), a government agent, who tells then Junior has been selected to take part in an off-world programme that will mean spending years in space. He’s not keen, but it’s made clear this isn’t something where he has a choice. Still, there’s another year before he has to go and, to ensure Hen isn’t left alone, is place will be taken by a living tissue AI replica, programmed with all of Junior’s mannerisms and emotions, to which end Terrence moves into observe the two of them.
And that’s pretty much it. With the AI taking his place, the marriage still continues on its slowly disintegrating course, Hen yearning for a life beyond its confines. Eventually, Junior returns, which is when the third act turns everything on its head with a big reveal and denouement that, like those strange bugs in the house, frankly isn’t too difficult to see coming. Despite his wavering accent, Pascal and Ronan are fine, nuanced actors, but the meaningless title, awkward sand increasingly melodramatic but nevertheless lifeless screenplay and its frequently clunky unsubtle dialogue (“We never dreamed it would experience love”), meaningful silences and pained expressions ask too much of them, just as it tries too hard in its repeated symbolic visits to the piano (he dislikes her playing) and the soundtrack using Skeeter Davis’s End Of The World has a commentary as heavy-handed ass the narrative. (MAC)
Actress turned novelist turned Killing Eve head writer turned writer-director, Emerald Fennell follows up her Promising Young Woman debut, Oscar nominated for Best Director and Picture and winning Best Screenplay, with a very English caustically satirical psychological drama that turns the knife on the English class system, starting out as Evelyn Waugh journeying through Cruel Intentions and ending with a coda straight out Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr Ripley.
Set in 2006, in his first headlining role following his Best Supporting Actor BAFTA and Oscar nomination, Barry Keoghan is Merseyside teen Oliver Quick, who, the product of a working class broken home (disreputable dead, mum alcoholic) who has earned a scholarship to Oxford (Fennell’s own alma mater). A bright but awkward, shy outsider, he’s looked down on by his college contemporaries but is taken under the wing of aristocratic fellow student and party animal Felix Catton (Jacob Elordi) after lending him his bike when his own has a puncture. Touched by the sob story of his life and the fact his drug addict dad’s just died, Felix invites him to spend the summer at his resolutely blueblood eccentric (they gather round to watch Superbad) family’s palatial Saltburn estate (telling him that Waugh apparently used the family and house as his model for Brideshead Revisited). Along with the humourless butler (Paul Rhys) and assorted gardeners, the sprawling mansion’s populated by his somewhat dim father Sir James (Richard E Grant clearly having huge fun), emotionally damaged bulimic sister Venetia (Alison Oliver), sponging American mixed-race cousin Farleigh (Archie Madekwe), a rival for Felix’s favours, lingering faded glamour houseguest “poor dear Pamela” (a marvellous if almost unrecognisable Carey Mulligan)) and, in a gloriously showstopping performance of razor sharp comic timing and delivery, Rosamund Pike as blissfully privileged, prejudiced and stupid ex-model mother Elsbeth whose explanation as to why she gave up her flirtation with lesbianism is just one of her many hilarious straightfaced lines. She takes a shine to Oliver as, in a more physical way does Ventetia, who, though contemptuous of him, hangs around under his window at night and is rewarded with some steamy oral sex despite being on her period, even though, as a scene lapping up his bathwater makes clear, he’d rather have sex with Felix. As the summer wears on, however, despite the homoerotic electricity things eventually sour between the two friends when, in Felix taking him on a surprise well-meaning visit to his now cleaned-up mother, it turns out Oliver’s not been entirely honest about his upbringing.
Shot in a square ratio, framed with to-camera recollections by Oliver and peppered with laugh out loud deadpan dialogue, there’s also some wonderful quirks such as carving the name of family members and friends who die on a stone and tossing it into the water (let’s just say there’s a fair few extra pebbles by the end) and an audacious use of music that embraces Handel’s Zadok the Priest. the Cheeky Girls’ Have A Cheeky Christmas and a toe-curling karaoke rendition of Flo-Rida’s Low.
Although Pike is the scene-stealer, the performances throughout are consistently sharp with Keoghan utterly magnetic in expressions that shift from doleful to toxic in a blink and bravely quite literally letting it all hang out in the final scene. It might not be quite as ingenious and provocatively original as its predecessor, but even so it’s gold class filmmaking. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Electric; Empire Great Park; Everyman; Mockingbird; Reel; Vue)
Originally a spoof trailer in the 2007 Robert Rodriguez/Quentin Tarantino collaboration Grindhouse, Eli Roth, bringing his trademark mix of black humour horror and bloody excess, has expanded into an full revenge slasher feature that skewers social media and consumerism, Set in Plymouth, Massachusetts, the original home of Thanksgiving, it opens with a brutal prologue as a mob bursts into department store to take advantage of the Black Friday deals, leaving three dead in their wake. Fast forward a year and serial killer sporting black Pilgrim get-up and the mask of John Carver, the first Plymouth governor, and using Thanksgiving tools as weapons (death by corn cob fork), is, ahem, carving up more than turkeys, targeting those involved in the store tragedy, among them high schoolers Jessica (Nell Verlaque), Gabby (Addison Rae), Yulia (Jenna Warren) and Scuba (Gabriel Davenport), the store’s unnamed owner (Rick Hoffman), who’s planning another Black Friday sale, his daughter Jessica (Nell Verlaque) and her stepmother Kathleen (Karen Cliche), as well as assorted customers whose actions were caught on security camera footage. The murders are being investigated by ineffectual Sheriff Newlon (Patrick Dempsey), whose suspects include Jessica’s boyfriend Bobby (Jalen Thomas Brooks), who disappeared when his baseball ambitions were crushed by an injury he received, and overachiever Ryan (Milo Manheim), who subsequently set his sights on her. It’s Jessica who, she and her friends receiving cryptic notifications from the killer and images of a Thanksgiving table, who starts putting things together.
Roth uses his jump scares sparingly, but doesn’t hold back on the inventive slayings, victims variously being roasted alive (a crackling cameo by Gina Gershon) , knifed to death on a trampoline and getting impaled by the bowsprit on a Mayflower float or indeed such wince-inducing puns as “There will be no leftovers!” All with a gleeful self-awareness pithily embodied in the ironic line “No one appreciates subtlety anymore”. All that with a side order of enforced cannibalism. Roth does, indeed, make a meal of it. Who’s for seconds? (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Vue)
Anatomy Of A Fall (15)
Aside from introducing audiences to the idiosyncratic nature of French court proceedings, directed by Justine Triet and winner of the Palme D’Or at Cannes, this unfolds an intriguing and ultimately ambiguous mystery with the title taking on an existential as well as literal meaning.
It opens in a chalet in the French alps where bestselling German author Sandra Voyter (Sandra Hüller) is being interviewed by a young graduate student (Camille Rutherford). Or at least she’s trying to since their conversation is constantly drowned out by the music (and instrumental version of 50 Cent’s P.I.M.P.) Sandra’s French husband Samuel (Samuel Theis) has blaring out on repeat from upstairs as he renovates the chalet as part of a plan to rent it out to salvage the dwindling family finances. The interview’s abandoned, Sandra goes or a nap and their visually impaired (the result of an accident Sandra blame son her husband) son Daniel (Milo Machado-Graner) takes their dog Snoop for a walk over the snowy slopes. When he returns his finds his father lying dead at the foot of the chalet with a head wound. The question the film – and the subsequent trial, in which she’s defended by former old flame and longtime friend Vincent (Swann Arlaud) – now poses, is did he fall, did he jump or was he pushed. Was the wound from striking the shed or being hit by a blunt object?
With the viewer as ostensible jury, matters become murkier as more background unfolds. Samuel was a failed author with writer’s block and depressive passive aggressive anger (hence the music to sabotage the interview), she ‘borrowed’ one of his unused ideas for one of her novels, she had affairs, she resented moving to France from their home in London, she comes across as somewhat reserved and cold given Samuel’s death and she’s adept at plausible lies to ostensibly cover up possible incrimination.
As Triet conducts a forensic examination of both the body, the circumstances and the marriage, it becomes clear that the verdict is going to hinge on Daniel’s testimony, his memory of what happened (which constantly shifts) and the possibility that his father had previously attempted suicide (prompting a scene that won its canine star its own Cannes prize), even though his therapist argues otherwise, but again audiences have to ask, given the flashbacks are highly subjective) whether this is the truth or a fabrication to save his mother. And what exactly does the secretly recorded audio of an argument that day before his death, that provides the courtroom crescendo, show?
From Hüller’s calm and measured delivery to the excitable nature of Antoine Reinartz’s prosecuting attorney, the performances throughout are all top drawer though arguably it’s an utterly compelling Machado-Graner who steals the (human) acting honours. The first words heard are “What do you want to know?” and, while it may run two and a half hours, it never wastes a second of that time in answering the question. Whether you believe or not, is another matter. (Cineworld 5 Ways; Electric; Mockingbird)
Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret (12A)
Published in 1970, Judy Blume’s coming-of-age novel about an 11-year-old girl raised without any religious affiliation by her Jewish father and Christian mother having to deal with moving home and school, and early adolescent anxieties about menstruation, boys and bras, became an instant – thought not uncontroversial – classic among both young and older readers for the way it dealt frankly with the issues. For 49 years, Blume rejected offers to adapt it for the screen, but now, produced by James L Brooks and written and directed by Kelly Fremon Craig, the team behind The Edge Of Seventeen, it finally arrives and proves well worth the wait.
Abby Ryder Fortson, who played Cassie Lang in the first two Ant-Man films, is Margaret Simon, the daughter of Herb (a gently charming Benny Safdie) and aspiring artist Barbara (Rachel McAdams) who, on returning from summer camp, learns that her father’s promotion means they moving from their New York apartment to the New Jersey suburbs, something she resents, partly because she loves the city and is anxious about making new friends, but mostly because it means leaving behind her fun but at times overbearing paternal grandmother, Sylvia (Kathy Bates) with whom she shares a close bond.
However, no sooner have they arrived than Margaret is swept up by her queen bee neighbour Nancy Wheeler (Elle Graham) and recruited to join her class clique alongside Gretchen Potter (Katherine Kupferer) and Janie Loomis (Amari Alexis Price), all of whom have the pubescent hots for floppy-haired school romeo and budding jerk Philip Leroy (Zack Brooks), though Margaret is more taken with the shy Moose (Aidan Wojtak-Hissong). Hanging out with Nancy comes with its rules and demands, among them having to not wear socks (cue blisters), having to wear a bra (cue humiliating shopping trip for grow with you one) and competing to see who is the first to have a period, the latter leading to an embarrassing shopping trip to buy sanitary towels and Margaret practising wearing them. Added to her problems is a year-long assignment given by their new teacher Mr Benedict (Echo Kellum), who, learning she dislikes religious holidays, which her parents don’t observe, wants her to research and write about religion. In the course of things she learns that the reason she’s never met her other grandparents, Paul and Mary, is because , devout Christians, they disowned Barbara for marrying Jew, which is why they made the decision to not pressure Margaret into being one or the other until she was ready to choose for herself. Sylvia, on the other hand, seizes on Margaret’s assignment as an excuse to take her to temple, inevitably setting in motion friction with her son and daughter-in-law and, when Barbara’s parents do finally turn up for reconciliation, a heated confrontation over dinner as to what Margaret should be. She, meanwhile, is busy checking out other faith aspects, among them a fraught visit to a Catholic confessional. All this alongside getting her first kiss from Peter at a spin the bottle party, the girls trying to expands their busts and her regular calls on God to fix things for her, not least in getting that all important period. And questioning his existence when nothing happens.
Alongside its adolescent angsts and issues of bigotry and religion, the film broadens its scope to address the sacrifices, frustrations and humiliations that come with it being a woman and a theme of finding out who you are and where you fit in. It’s one that extends beyond Margaret and her three friends to also embrace wallflower classmate Laura Danker (Isol Young), who, lanky and more physically developed, is ostracised as a slut for supposedly letting boys ‘feel her up’, Barbara, struggling to adapt to the role of suburban mum and master the basics of cooking, volunteering for every PTA committee going, as well as Mr Benedict in his first teaching job. That and the bittersweet observation of seeing your child grow up before your eyes.
All of which is beautifully handled by Craig’s screenplay and her cast. Eyes full of wonder and wariness, her shoulders speaking a body language of their own, Fortson is an absolute joy, witty without being snarky, insecure yet self-willed, as she navigates the messy waters of puberty while, the character considerably expanded from the book, at her most fluidly natural McAdams is remarkable, and you can’t help for feel for her when her artistic talents are reduced to cutting out fabric stars for the school hall (for Nancy’s equally queen bee mum). And, while she might not be a wholly convincing Jewish mother, Bates brings her own effervescence to Sylvia.
Funny and poignant in equal measure (a brief scene involving removing the middle section of a dinner table speaks emotional volumes), it may leave teenage boys cold, but for their counterparts and their mothers this is an absolute must. (Amazon Prime; Apple TV; BFI Player; BT TV Store; Chili; Google Play; Microsoft Movies; Rakuten TV; Sky Store; Virgin Store)
Asteroid City (12A)
Shot in widescreen washed out pastel colours, drenched in retro nostalgia, deadpan dialogue, and heavily stylised with a self-aware sense of artifice, set in a red-rock Southwest American desert town in 1955, this is quintessential Wes Anderson. With its single phone booth, one pump gas station and 50s diner and motel, Asteroid City (pop 87) is also the site of a giant meteorite crater tourist attraction, intermittent atom bomb tests and the annual Junior Stargazers convention where teenage science geeks gather for their awards.
When his car breaks down, war photographer Augie Steenbeck (Jason Schwartzman on peak form) is stranded in town with his four kids, Stargazer Woodrow (Jake Ryan) and his three eccentric young sisters, Andromeda, Pandora and Cassiopeia (Ella, Gracie, Willan Faris), who he’s yet to tell their mother died three weeks earlier and he has her ashes in a Tupperware tub, prompting the arrival of his wealthy father-in-law Stanley (Tom Hanks) to collect them.
Also gathered are world weary TV star Midge Campbell (Scarlet Johannsen, terrific), J.J. Kellogg (Live Schreiber), Sandy Borden (Hope Davis) and Roger Cho (Stephen Park) whose respective kids, botany wiz Dinah (Grace Edwards), rebellious Clifford (Aristou Meehan), sceptical Shelly (Sophia Lillis) and anti-authority Ricky (Ethan Josh Lee), are all award winners. There’s also Montana (Rupert Friend), stranded there with his fellow cowboys when the bus left and who’s attracted to June (Maya Hawke), a science teacher with her church group pupils, local scientist Dr. Hickenlooper (Tilda Swinton) who sponsors the awards, and General Gibson (Jeffrey Wright) who’s due to present them.
However, the ceremony is interrupted by the arrival of an alien who steals a meteorite fragment and flies off, prompting a quarantine of everyone there and a rebellion by the Stargazers to make contact, Augie’s photo being leaked to the media. Meanwhile, various romances bubble up.
Except, as seen from the start and in subsequent black and white sequences, what we’re actually watching is a television behind-the-scenes and recreation of the first staging of a play called Asteroid City by esteemed New York playwright Conrad Earp (Ed Norton), who’s in a relationship with one of the cast, presented by The Host (Bryan Cranston) as directed by the womanising Schubert Green (Adrian Brody) with all the characters being the actors who, under their real names, auditioned for and appeared in the stage production (save for Margot Robbie whose role – her lines movingly re-enacted with Augie/Jones – as the mother was cut).
Constructed as a series of tableaux, meditations on bottled up grief interweave with themes of storytelling and being aliens in our own skins and, of course, the meaning of life (or understanding the play) And while emotion is deliberately kept at arms-length, there’s still a certain poignancy as the stories unfold. There’s also a swathe of good gags, both visual (a recurring cops vs crooks car chase) and verbal, among them a vending machine that sells plots of land out in the desert. Adding to the star-studded cast there’s Steve Carrell as the motel manager (inexplicably toting a pistol), Matt Dillon as the mechanic and Jeff Goldblum who has one line in the black and white sequences as the actor playing the alien. All that and a great memory party game. At the end of the day, the dazzling style may triumph over the obtuse substance, but even so it’s an intoxicating experience. Glad to meteor indeed. (Peacock/Sky)
Directed by Greta Gerwig and co-written with her partner Noah Baumbach, this is almost too wonderful for words, already a strong contender for, among others, next year’s Best Screenplay. Opening with Helen Mirren narrating a send of up 2001 A Space Odyssey’s monolith scene as little girls smash their dolly babies upon seeing the adult Barbie, an inspired supersaturated colour, postmodern meta cocktail of subversive satire, razor-sharp whimsy, feminism and musical numbers, it sets up the idea that there exists Barbieland, populated with an array of different versions of the iconic toy doll and their opposite number, Ken (including Simu Liu, Kingsley Ben-Adir, Scott Evans and Ncuti Gatwa), each Barbie linked to a child’s doll in the Real World. where, as far as they believe, women are in charge and, like the dolls, little girls can be anything they want. Even President.
In Barbieland every day is a good day, especially for Stereotypical Barbie (Margot Robbie) who wakes each morning in her pink dream house, greets her fellow Barbies (among them Issa Rae, Dua Lipa, Hari Nef, Alexandra Shipp, Nicola Coughlan and Emma Mackey), hangs out with wannabe boyfriend Beach Ken (Ryan Gosling), whose only function is to stand around and look good, and generally radiates perfection. Until that is, mid a choreography party, she brings things to a screeching halt when she wonders aloud about dying. The next day, she falls rather than floats to the floor, has bad breath and, catastrophically, finding herself walking flatfooted and not on tip toe. Clearly, something’s amiss. A visit to Weird Barbie Kate McKinnon), mutilated and drawn on by her real world child),ends up with her being told she must go to the Real World, connect with the child who owns her doll, and put things right, especially the cellulite on her thigh. With Ken stowing away in the back of her, naturally, pink car they travel by boat, bicycle, and rocket until they rollerskate into the human world where, she quickly discovers it’s men who hold all the power. She’s horrified, Ken (who has already shown signs of discontentment of being just an accessory, jealous of the attention she gives another Ken and being rebuffed in suggesting sex – if he knew what that was; as Barbie points out she has no vagina and he no penis), rather less so. He rather likes the idea of men lording it over women and, pumped up with ideas about big trucks and stallions, decides to return home and establish his own fascist patriarchy in Barbieland. Meanwhile Barbie heads to the HQ of Mattel, the Barbie toy company, to try to sort things out and is taken aback to find there’s no women executives. And when the CEO (Will Farrell) tries to persuade her to get back in the box, with a little help from an elderly lady (Rhea Perlman in a touching last act insider reference to Barbie’s origins) in a hidden office, she takes off and is rescued by Gloria (America Ferrara), a Mattel employee who, it turns out is the owner of Barbie’s toy counterpart, rather than her spikey and sullen teenage daughter (Ariana Greenblatt).
However, when they get to Barbieland, everything has changed. The Kens, led by Beach Ken, have taken over and the girls are now all Stepford Barbies, there only to serve their every whim. Can Barbie, with the help of Gloria, Sasha, Weird Barbie and Alan (Michael Cera, launched in 1964 as Ken’s buddy, and put everything back in the pink!
Overflowing with clever jokes along with themes of female empowerment, sexism, gender equality, toxic masculinity and aggression, the impossibility of perfection, conforming to expectations, the complexity of being a woman, who men want to be both whore and mother, being defined by your looks and finding value in who you are, it bursts with energy. It also takes digs at Mattel’s less successful lines, like Pregnant Barbie, the gender demeaning Teen Talk Barbie and Growing Up Skipper with her inflatable boobs. But it wouldn’t be half as good without the irresistible radiant star power of Robbie and Gosling (who again gets to show off his dance moves) who bring their plastic incarnations to vivid and very human life. There cameos from John Cena and Rob Brydon, a reference to Zach Snyder’s Justice League, a clip from The Godfather, and a sound track that includes new numbers by Billie Eilish and Lizzo, Ken’s’ I’m Just Ken showcase and a nice use of The Indigo Girls’ Closer To Fine as sung by Brandi and Catherine Carlile. This is the definitive toy story. (Amazon Prime, Sky Movies)
Blue Beetle (12A)
Although the character first appeared in 1939 and went through various incarnations over the years, this is based on Jamie Reyes (Cobra Kai star Xolo Maridueña), the most recent version (from 2006) and the first Latino superhero in the DC universe. Here he’s a recent Gotham University law graduate who, returning to his Texas home in the futuristic Palmera City, finds prospects are few and his Mexican family, grandmother Nana (Adriana Barazza), mum Rocio (Elpidia Carrillo), dad Alberto (Damián Alcázar) and conspiracy nut high tech expert uncle Rudy (George Lopez), who live in a poor neighbourhood, are about to lose their home. While out house cleaning with his sister Milagro (Belissa Escobedo) at the Kord mansion he sparks a connection with subsequent romantic interest Jenny Kord (Bruna Marquezine), whose aunt Victoria (a sterling Susan Sarandon, checking super-hero movie villain off her bucket list ) stole Kord Industries from her father, Ted, and has RoboCop-styled plans to forge a privatised police force called One-Man Army Corps. However, Jenny manages to steal a crucial part of the project and slip it to an unsuspecting Jamie who, returning home, discovers to his surprise that the fast food box she gave him contains a blue metallic scarab. Even more of a surprise is that it attaches itself to him, fusing with his mind and body, covering him in armour with a pair of blue pincers on his back, the ability to fly and, as the voice inside his head of Khaji-Da (Becky G), which controls the scarab, tells him, create any weapon he can imagine. He’s a regular super-hero. There’s just two downsides. The only way to be rid of it is to die. And Victoria wants it back. Now, together Jamie, Jenny and his family (nana revealing an unexpected secret past) need to obtain a key to her father’s old lab (his version of the BatCave) from Kord Tower and defeat Carapax (Raoul Max Trujillo),an OMAC prototype, all culminating in an explosive climax on an island just off Cuba.
Comic book nerds will enjoy the references to the two earlier Blue Beetles as well as The Bug, an armoured VTOL vehicle with yellow fly-like eyes built by Ted Kord, while, despite some uneven pacing mid-way, director Ángel Manuel Soto carries along newcomers with a potent mix of high octane (and at times quite violent) action and the emotional undercurrent of family being there for each other, serious when the narrative requires it (dropping in swipes at immigration policy and student debt issues) but also with a light-hearted humour reminiscent of the first Ant-Man. Maridueña energetically plays Jamie, bewildered by what’s happening to him, with a combination of ingenuousness and grit while the largely unknown support cast all hold up their end of proceedings to solid and engaging effect with the visual effects suitably spectacular. As a launch of a new chapter in the DC universe, this leaves you truly bug-eyed. (Disney+)
Initially intended for a streaming only UK release, fan pressure and inexplicable critical praise has resulted in a limited theatrical run, though it’s unlikely that anyone other than the pressure group in-crowd is going to be rushing to the ticket machines. Yet another variation on the Heathers high school formula, PJ (Rachel Sennott from Bodies, Bodies, Bodies) and Josie (Ayo Edebiri) are lesbian besties at Rockbridge Falls High School, social outcasts (the film title a reference to their status) shunned by their peers, who have respective crushes on cheerleaders Brittany (Kaia Gerber) and Isabel (Havana Rose Liu). At the local fair (with a singularly unfunny gag about bulimia), when Isabel has an argument with her boyfriend Jeff (Nicholas Galitzine), the knobhead quarterback of the Rockbridge Falls Vikings, she gets into PJ and Josie’s car, which softly bumps into Jeff’s knee, he feigning serious injury and the girls being threatened with expulsion. To which end, building on rumours that they spent time in juvie, they claim they were just practising for a feminist self- fight club, which, with the help of fellow misfit bomb-making Hazel (Ruby Cruz) , who learns Jeff’s been shagging her mother, and under the supervision of their inappropriate teacher Mr G (Marshawn Lynch), they then decide to actually set-up so they can get the cheerleaders to have sex with them.
What follows basically boils down to various girls punching each other out while Jeff’s fellow jock Tim (Miles Fowler) schemes to expose the juvie lies and have the club shut down, filling the screen time with vandalising Jeff’s house to the sound of Total Eclipse Of The Heart, blowing up his car, the friends falling out, and Isabel and Josie getting it on before climaxing with a violent and bloody football match showdown with longtime rivals Huntington High School where, in line with tradition (and involving gallons of pineapple juice), they intend to kill a Rockbridge player.
Functionally directed by Emma Seligman, it has an admittedly relentless energy and even a smattering of genuine laughs, but otherwise it just involves a stream of characters who were stereotypes long before Porkys and American Pie, the cast delivering their lines, generally of a sweary and vulgar Will Ferrell level, as shriekingly loud as possible. Like the title, this is total arse. (Cineworld 5 Ways; Mockingbird)
Lucha libre or free wrestling is one of the most popular sports in Mexico, the wrestlers or luchadors, usually sporting colourful masks and ever more colourful names. Directed by Roger Ross Williams, set largely in the 80s, this tells the true story of Saúl Armendáriz (Gael Bernal Garcia), a gay amateur wrestler from El Paso who fought in the local auto shop makeshift rings under the name of El Topo but who, under the tutelage of Sabrina aka celebrated female luchador Lady Anarquía (Roberta Colindrez), part of the LGBTQ+ community, transformed himself into Cassandro, an exótico, explicitly gay, dragified characters who are never allowed to win against their swaggering heterosexual opponents, and, following his 1991 match with silver masked lucha libre icon El Hijo del Santo (playing himself), the son of the wrestler he grew up idolising, became an international star, going on to win the world lightweight championship in 2011, becoming feted as the Liberace of lucha libre.
Like the flamboyant entertainer, Armendáriz was devoted to his mother Yocasta (Perla de la Rosa) who raised him alone after his father, a devout Christian, divorced her when his son came out. They have a co-dependent relationship and share an inclination for TV soaps, cigarettes and married men and it’s the desire to lift her out of a life of doing other people’s washing and darning and get a decent house, that drives him on. He also strikes up a sexual relationship with fellow wrestler Gerardo (Raúl Castillo), but is forced to keep it secret a she’s married with kids. As Saúl, he’s shy and needy, but as Cassandro (who he speaks of in the third person), he’s brashly confident and flirtatious (wearing extravagant make up and camp leotards) and the film is very much about him finding himself and empowerment through his alter-ego (the shift in body language is telling), ultimately becoming a poster-boy for Mexican gays (a closing sequence on del Santo’s talk show has a young kid saying how he gave him the courage to come out).
The film, however, never really digs into its most interesting emotional notes, the relationship with his estranged father amounting to little more than their closeness when he was a child to the raw closure in a bar after Saúl achieves fame. Likewise, it skips over the implied hostility of his macho fellow wrestlers in the face of how, after initially crying out faggot, the crowd goes on applaud him. Cassandro’s drug problems are barely even alluded to.
Even so, the sheer charisma of a fully committed Garcia Bernal brings the film to life, amusingly taunting his opponents and baiting the crowd with homoerotic poses but also investing the character with emotional intensity as he, ahem, wrestles with his feelings and conflicts, and while it never proves a knockout, it’s a winner on points. (Amazon Prime)
Directed by Samuel Bodin with genuine creepiness, Peter (Woody Norman), a bullied eight-year-old loner whose parents, Carol (Lizzy Caplan) and Mark (Antony Starr from The Boys) who won’t let him go out trick and treating with the other kids, claiming a girl from the neighbourhood once vanished some years back. Now, maybe it’s the abuse he gets at school or maybe it’s his claustrophobic and gloomy home, but Peter hears things in the wall, and when he knocks, something nocks back and then comes a female voice, aka The Girl, calling to him saying they’re being kept prisoner.
While his parents are overprotecting to an unsettling degree, Peter’s substitute teacher, Miss Devine (Cleopatra Coleman), is concerned for his wellbeing, calling unannounced at his home after seeing his ‘cry for help’ crayoning and again to check up after he’s expelled for attacking one of the bullies, only to be given a brusque cold-shoulder, declaring their son has an over-active imagination, which, if they not already sussed, should clue in audiences that all is not as it should be.
To reveal more would spoil the slowly gathering chills, but suffice to say the horror entails an entity claiming to be Peter’s sister, his being locked in the basement as punishment, and, as the title suggests, spiders. And then there’s all those pumpkins rotting in the garden, Wisely, Bodin doesn’t make the anti-climactic mistake of showing you the monster, merely suggesting its nature, while delivering assorted misdirections to keep you guessing where it might be heading. Not quite as terrifying as Barbarian which was also concerned with something hiding in the house and the ending raises more questions than answers, but this spins out very effectively. (Amazon Prime, BT, Google, iTunes, Kaleidescape, Microsoft Rakuten, Sky, Virgin)
The Creator (15)
While this may tap into current concerns about artificial intelligence, a more basic theme of director Gareth Edwards and co-writer Chris Weitz’s sci fi epic is fear of the other. Essentially restaging the Vietnam War in 2070 New Asia, with the Americans looking to eradicate simulants, human-like robots that can be lookalikes of their human templates, here presumably standing in for communists. This is on account of how, a decade or so earlier, AI software detonated a nuke in Los Angles (the actual explanation is delivered as almost an aside towards the end), leading to the USA (and its allies) banning all forms of AI. It remains legal, however, in New Asia, hence why Josh Taylor (John David Washington), a US army special forces operative with a cybernetic arm and leg, is working undercover to find and kill Namada, the mastermind behind the AI. To do so, he’s targeted Namada’s daughter, Maya (Gemma Chan), but things have got complicated in that he’s gone native, married her and she’s pregnant. Things all go pear-shaped when a sudden US attack bows his mission and cover, resulting in Maya apparently being killed when Nomad, the hovering US military installation wipes out the compound.
Extracted, Taylor is given the chance to redeem himself by going back in and finding and destroying the rumour superweapon Namada’s developed, his commanding officer Andrews (Ralph Ineson) and ruthless anti-AI mission leader Howell (Allison Janney playing against type) telling him Maya is actually still alive. A mission is duly set up and, although it all goes to shit, Taylor manages to infiltrate the vault containing the weapon, which turns out to be a child simulant (seven-year-old Madeleine Yuna Voyles) with the ability to disrupt electronics. Naturally, this triggers Taylor’s paternal instinct with Alphie, as he names her, becoming his surrogate daughter, looking to protect her against Howell and her team (that one holds a gun to a puppy’s head denotes what bad guys they are) who, warmongering Americans, are determined to kill her along with the rest of the AI population (simulants. flat-headed androids or those with Amar Chadha-Patel’s face who work as the police) and their human kin, he and Howell hoping she can lead him to Maya (aka Mother).
The influence aren’t hard to spot with elements of The Terminator, Akira, Apocalypse Now, Blade Runner and Star Wars, the film climaxing as a variant on Luke destroying the Death Star while Alphie’s power is its version of The Force. It’s also not hard to read a Christian parallel with Maya the Virgin Mary, Josh as Joseph and Alphie the AI saviour with a purpose to bring peace to the world (asked at one point what she’d like, as in to eat, she replies for robots to be free).
Given Edwards’ special effects background, it’s no surprise that up there in the Avatar league the film looks incredible, but it also taps into a deep emotional vein too in its exploration of family, morality, xenophobia. The chemistry between Washington and Voyles, who as the adorable innocent Alphie is the soulful heart of the film, summoning her powers by placing her hands together in prayer like some AI take on the Dalai Lama. A scene between her and Taylor talking about heaven is terrific and comes back in the final moments with a piercing poignancy.
There’s moments of humour such as the kamikaze robo-bombs that stomp to their destruction with an “it’s been a honour to serve you” and robots watching holograms of exotic AI dancers, but mostly this keep up the dynamic intensity as the action piles up with a relentless drive as the simulants (headed up here by Ken Watanabe) are driven to a last stand. Derivative it may be, but there’s no denying it delivers everything it promises. (Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Vue)
Dream Scenario (15)
His sixth film this year, Nicolas Cage teams with Sick Of Myself writer-director Kristoffer Borgli for a darkly satirical surrealist comedy in which he plays Paul Matthews, a boringly normal if geeky balding middle-aged tenured professor of zoology who wears equally schlubby clothes and whose enthusiasm for things like why zebras have stripes (to blend in and confuse predators) is pretty much wasted on his dwindling university students and whose teenage daughters barely acknowledge he’s there. His marriage to wife Janet (Julianne Nicholson) is comfortable and safe, she teasing him for his gawky long-windedness, but you get the feeling she wishes things were a bit more exciting. He wishes people would pay him more attention. You should be careful what you wish for. Deceptively opening with a scene of him sweeping up the poolside leaves when one of his daughters suddenly starts floating off the ground, this turns out to be a dream. And the next thing he knows he bumping into an old flame who says she’s constantly dreaming of him. And she’s not the only one. Loads of people across the world are seeing him in their dreams, doing nothing but passively walking by and watching. Things go viral, he becomes a media celebrity, famous for being famous, his students all dream of him and his classes get packed. Mirroring Borgi’s previous film where a woman deliberately disfigured herself to get attention and power, all of this, succumbing to intellectual vanity, seems he might now be in a position to get a publisher for his book on insect his psychology or ant-elligence. But Thoughts, the media firm that approaches him (run by a cringe-inducing Michael Cera and Kate Berlant) are more interested in how dream pop-ups can be used for marketing, like appearing in someone’s dream holding can of Sprite. Telling him he does more than just stand there in her dreams, the firm’s assistant (Dylan Gelula) tries to seduce him while he’s in town for the meeting, prompting the year’s best fart gag.
But then things start to turn ugly. Rather than just sauntering through their dreams, now Paul becomes a menacing figure, ignoring them in danger or, worse, violently attacking them. And their reactions to his dream self are amplified into real life, he now becoming a loathed pariah, someone spray painting Loser on his car, his publishing deal, teaching post and marriage (Janet’s career suffers collateral damage by association) all falling apart. At one point, a newspaper calls him “Paultergeist”.
With Ari Aster as producer, comparisons to the similarly themed Beau Is Afraid are inevitable (though Being John Malkovitch and Adaptation are touchstones too) but where that addressed the vicissitudes of an uncaring universe, Borgli’s film is more narrowly focused on the fickleness of fame and social media, what you might do to sustain its favour (Paul is pressured into posing for a French photo shoot wearing a Freddie Krueger claw), the film unfolding into scathing parodic commentary on cancel culture and influencers, in one scene, trying to regain sympathy, Paul complaining that claiming trauma, real or more often imagined, is being increasingly used to justify retaliations and social banishments. Mentions of controversial American media figures Joe Rogan and Tucker Carlson isn’t just throwaway.
It loses its footing somewhat in the third act, although the final scene is a moment of inspired heartbreak, but Cage, playing the polar opposite of his recent string of over over-the-top characters, gives a terrific layered performance, judging the comedy and emotion perfectly and reminding what an exceptional actor he really is, this quite literally a dream of a role. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Electric; Everyman; Empire Great Park; Vue)
While undeniably visually dazzling, the latest from Pixar Fire recycles some very well-worn themes and messages about family, prejudice, working together, tolerance, opposites attract, self-discovery and finding your courage. It’s set in a world of characters formed of the four elements, with fire elements Bernie (Ronnie Del Carmen) and Cinder (Shila Ommi) Lumen (clearly Chinese) emigrating to Element City looking for a better life where, despite encountering xenophobia from the other elements and struggling to find a home (the landlords are all earth, tree-like figures who see fire as a hazard), they eventually set up a convenience store called the Fireplace with a symbolic Blue Flame representing their heritage and traditions, selling things like coal nuts. They have a daughter, the dutiful if headstrong Ember (Leah Lewis), whom Bernie intends to take over the store when he retires. But first she had to learn to control her fiery temper. When a difficult customer causes that to flare up, she takes refuge in the basement, accidentally causing a water pipe to break, flooding the place and bringing water element Wade Ripple (Mamoudou Athie), into her life. A city inspector, he has to report the faulty plumbing to his cloud-like air element boss Gale Cumulus, meaning the Fireplace will get shut down. But he’s also a soppy romantic and he persuades Gale to let them both try and find and stop the source of a series of recent floods. If they can seal the leak, the shop can remain open.
Discovering a hole in a dam that lets through water from passing ships, and, first using sandbags and then Ember’s power to create glass, they appear to have solved the problem. And, in the process, a, ahem, spark, develops between them, discovering they can touch each other without causing any harm. But, while Wade’s upmarket family welcome her into their home, Ember’s ailing father seems highly unlikely to accept a Fire and Water relationship , on top of which, Ember comes to realise her dreams for herself are not the same as his. She wants to study glassmaking. But it’s her duty to obey. And then the fix in the dam gives way, catastrophe looms and love might quite literally evaporate.
Aside from the characters’ names, it’s awash with visual and verbal puns (two of the best being a literal Mexican wave and thought bubble) and, despite gaping holes in the logic (why would fire opt to go and live in a water-based city, why doesn’t Ember set the cardboard boxes alight?), it combines a spry sense of fun ( the Ripple family’s crying game is a joy) along with the usual romantic and emotional complications, the blossoming love story involving Wade taking Ember into the flooded Garden Central Station to see the Vivisteria flowers she never saw as a child. As such, while the youngsters will enjoy the vividly coloured visuals and the enjoyable silliness of the air and earth figures (though hope they don’t ask parents to explain ‘pruning’), this is very much a grown up star-crossed love story that touches on living in a multicultural melting pot society. (Disney+)
The Exorcist:Believer (15)
Celebrating its 50th anniversary, William Friedkin’s The Exorcist is held by many to be the greatest horror film (though a case could also be made for Ringu). Subsequent sequels, however, have been unequivocal heaps of steaming faecal matter. So, hopes were high for this direct sequel to the original given it’s directed by David Gordon Green who graduated from indie drama George Washington to Stronger and made a decent fist of the Halloween reboot trilogy. Prepare, however, to have those cruelly dashed. Essentially a retread of Friedkin’s film (complete with a new version of Tubular Bells) but doubling down with not one but two possessed girls with bad skin issues speaking and swearing (albeit drastically pared down since these demons apparently don’t have the same imaginative vocabulary) in diabolical voices and all the usual paraphernalia. In the prologue, when his pregnant wife is injured in a Haitian earthquake, African-American photographer Fielding Victor (Leslie Odom Jr.) has to choose to save either her or the baby. Skip then to years later, and he’s understandably over protective of his daughter Angela (Lidya Jewett), a middle-school student who, dad slightly loosening the reins, is, largely persuaded by the family’s white Christian background, allows to go over to her friend Katherine’s (Olivia O’Neill) house to study. Instead, the pair go off into the woods to hold a séance to contact the former’s mother and wind up being missing for three days. When they return, however, Angela is convinced they’ve only been away a few hours and neither have any memory of what happened. She’s also no longer that same sweet daughter. So, when the words Help Me appear cut into her thigh and Katherine throws a wobbly in the middle of a church service, it’s clearly time to call in some holy water sloshing assistance.
Enter the now 90 Ellen Burstyn reprising her role as Chris MacNeil who, following the first film wrote a book about her daughter Regan (who has dropped all contact with her, though hang around for that Linda Blair cameo) and became a globetrotting lecturer on exorcisms. Unfortunately, given she’s the only one with real acting presence, given a crucifix –eyes interface, she’s not in the picture for long, meaning that, the Church opting out of exorcism in favour of psychiatric treatment, in order to cleanse the girls of their individual demons (actually they’re both Pazuzu working two shifts). Victor’s next door neighbour Ann (Ann Dowd), a nurse who was once a novitiate nun, the rebellious Father Maddox (E.J. Bonilla), defying his superiors, and a whole team of ineffectual multi-denominational healers, including one from Haiti where Victor’s wife died, have to step up to the mark
There’s a considered undercurrent of anti-Catholicism and its supporting patriarchy and a culturally divided America, but, like the issues of guilt and faith, the half-baked screenplay never really makes anything of it (what might it have been if the dead mother was the one possessing her daughter!), and although the two young stars do give decidedly committed performances given the silliness they’re required to undergo, ultimately it’s all about resorting to the usual gloop and slime dished out in run of the mill effects and tired jump scares. Although it does have a cruel twist ending, when, at one point, Victor says “”Anyone else wanna leave, better leave now”, you might feel like following his advice. (Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Vue)
Extraction II (15)
At the end of the first film, having been shot in the neck, former Australian Special Forces mercenary Tyler Rake (Chris Hemsworth) tumbled from a Bangladesh bridge into the river, apparently dead. Now, however, ignoring the final teasing swimming pool scene, reunited screenwriter Joe Russo and stuntman-turned director Sam Hargrave race through a montage that has him wash up and be rushed to some state of the art hospital in Dubai where, under the watchful eye of his handler Nik (Golshifteh Farahani, getting to kick more ass this time around) before being relocated to a secluded cabin in the woods and reunited with his dog for a lengthy recuperation. Retirement is brought to an end when an unnamed mystery man (a cameoing Idris Elba) shows up to tell him his ex-wife (Olga Kurylenko) wants him to rescue her sister Ketevan (Tinatin Dalakishvili) and her kids Sandro (Andro Japaridze) and Nina (Mariami and Marta Kovziashvili) from the Georgian prison where they’re being held, supposedly for their protection, by her inmate terrorist husband Davit Radiani (Tornike Bziava), and his even more ruthless brother Zurab (Tornike Gogrichiani). So, Rake, Nik and her brother Yaz (Adam Bessa) duly set off on the mission, all of which goes smoothly until it turns out Santos, brainwashed into wanting to follow in the family gangster tradition, doesn’t want to go (setting up a third act confrontation). Davit winds up being killed and an exhilarating digitally-stitched-together ‘one shot’ 21 minute escape sequence ensues involving navigating through a prison yard full of rioting prisoners and guards and onto a train racing across the tundra pursued by helicopters and taking on heavily armed thugs with guns, knives, fists and whatever comes to hand. They make it to safety, but now Zurab, a textbook Eastern European villain, is out for revenge.
While there is some character development and redemptive emotion-wringing backstory (Rake is plagued by guilt for leaving his young dying cancer victim son to deploy in Afghanistan) and not all the main cast (who deliver with due gravitas) prove indestructible, as well as flashes of humour with Rake’s passing interest in Eurovision and raising chickens, this is basically just three long and undeniably thrilling and very violent action sequences with bullets raining down like a plague of locusts, one of which involves hanging by the fingertips from a high rise’s collapsing glass roof and another in a candlelit church. It ends with another Elba cameo setting up the already confirmed threequel. Bring it on. (Netflix)
Five Nights At Freddy’s (15)
His career on something of a downwards slope since The Hunger Games, Josh Hutcherson now looks to an adaptation (the second, since there was a previous 40 minute animation) of the titular internationally successful video game. He plays Mike who, fired from a succession of jobs, the last for attacking and beating up a man he mistakenly thought was abducting a child at the mall. The reason for his overreaction is that, as a kid, his young brother Garrett was abducted during a family camping trip, and he holds himself responsible, constantly forcing himself into having nightmares as he tries to remember in more detail.
With no other options, he’s forced to take the job offer by his employment adviser (Matthew Lillard, taking on two linked roles) as night security officer at Freddy’s Fazbear Pizzeria, a restaurant and games arcade long shuttered since the disappearance of five children, but which owner William Afton won’t demolish, which had as its main attraction a collection of life-size animatronics, Freddy Fazbear, Bonnie, Chica and Foxy, that would ‘perform’ music for and interact with the customers. His initial reluctance at working nights is on account of him (mom dead, dad gone) looking after his autistic kid sister Abby (Piper Rubio) who spends her time crayoning pictures that turn out to have deeper resonances, but with her callous aunt Jane (Mary Stuart Masterson) pressing for custody (so she can get the social security benefits), he’s no choice, leaving Abby in the care of babysitter Max (Kat Connor Sterling), oblivious to the fact she’s in his aunt’s employ looking to dig up dirt. But when (for reasons made apparent when she and others are sent to trash Freddy’s to get Mike fired) he can’t contact her, Abby has to tag along, resulting in her making friends with the animatronics who, it transpires (and as seen in the prologue detailing Mike’s predecessor’s fate), come to life.
Now, as fans of the game will know (and since that’s the target audience, this is hardly a spoiler), they’re possessed by the ghosts of the missing kids whose bodies were hidden inside (probably not the best idea in avoiding health inspections) and whose friendliness has a sinister motive. With Elizabeth Lail as Vanessa, a cop with warns Mike not to take Abby to work and patently knows more than she’s letting on, the film makes a refreshing change from the usual Blumhouse offerings in that there’s virtually no blood or gore, favouring instead psychological unease and ghostly subterfuge. On the downside, there’s also few real scares and the constant repetition of Mike’s dreams and his search for absolution gets a touch overworked before the big revelation. Fan reaction (and there’s plenty of Easter eggs included, so stay for the mid-credits scene) has been hugely positive and, for all its flaws, it’s proven a major box office hit. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Vue)
How do you know you’re really in love? Or that you’re really loved? Is this the right relationship for you? These are questions that the futuristic Love Institute seeks to make irrelevant, developing technique that uses a couple’s extracted fingernails (which are often used to detect heart disease) to determine if they’re a match. A teacher, Anna (an achingly vulnerable low key Jessie Buckley) is in a steady relationship with Ryan (Jeremy Allen White nursing devotion and hurt in equal measure), the pair having tested positive three years earlier, but she’s feeling things may have lost the spark. It’s a sign of the wobble that she takes a job at the Institute, but tells him she’s got a new teaching post (she admits later, but these seeds are already sown).
At the Institute, run by distracted scientist Duncan (Luke Wilson), she assigned to shadow Amir (Riz Ahmed wearing a soulful sad aura despite claiming to be in a happy relationship), one of the top instructors in interviewing couples about their feelings for one another, their compatibility and, ultimately, revealing the results of their tests. He has loads of new ideas, about refining love relationships, including such activities as shared parachute jumps and watching the “I’m just a girl” scene from Notting Hill. The most fascinating is having someone sniff out his partner in a roomful of semi-naked couples. Somewhat inevitably, she gradually begins to have feelings for him, these further confused when Duncan assures her it’s impossible to love two people although she’s surreptitiously tested his and her nails with a 50% result. He too admits he has feelings for her. The only thing to do is persuade Ryan to take a retest. But what if the results don’t change? How does that explain or resolve things?
A bittersweet metaphysical exploration of how you can’t reduce love to scientific explanations or tests, directed with dry wit and surefooted empathy by Christos Nikou, it conjures a similar deep melancholy and longing to Past Lives as it works its way to a consummation of sorts, albeit with an ambiguously open ending. Cohen once sang there ain’t no cure for love. The film says there’s no algorithm for it either. (Apple TV)
Flora and Son (12)
Irish writer-director John Carney knows what he’s good at and sticks to it. So, after Once and Sing Street here’s another Dublin-set tale of misfits connecting through music. This time round it’s Flora (Bono’s daughter Eve Hewson), a sweary, clubbing young working class single mother who makes a few quid nannying and estranged from her musician ex-husband Ian (Jack Reynor), who’s now got a new live in lover of dubious Spanish stock, beds pretty much anyone she meets, She also frequently at odds with her electro-music loving sullen teenage son Max (Orén Kinlan) who’s just one petty theft away from juvenile detention. However, seeing a discarded guitar in a skip, she has it fixed and gives it to him as a cheap belated birthday present, He’s not interested (he’s no aspiration to be another “Ed Fookin’ Sheeran”) but Flora decides to try and learn, hooking up for Zoom lessons with LA-based guitar teacher and failed musician Jeff (Joseph Gordon-Levitt).
From this point it plays out pretty much as you might expect, with a long distance flirtation between Flora and Jeff (the film nicely has fantasy sequences as he joins her to sing on a Dublin rooftop), he teaching her to play (shooting down her love of James Blunt’s You’re Beautiful and introducing her to Joni Mitchell’s Both Sides Now), she reigniting his creative spark (they co-write a song), and mother and son working together making dance and rap music on his laptop, music, as ever for Carney, being a transformative force.
There’s distant echoes of Wild Rose, but, while both are sweet and uplifting, with the central figure finding self-worth and playing to an appreciative audience, this is a softer, more sentimental film in the way it touchingly captures the mother-son dynamic and Flora’s search for herself. Often evoking parallels with Once in its music as mutual healing theme, it may not be in quite the same league but, fuelled by Hewson’s star-making performance, it’s a truly warm and emotionally engaging film that deserved far wider exposure than its limited streaming only fate. (Apple TV)
The Great Escaper (12A)
Directed by Oliver Parker from a screenplay by William Ivory, while indulging in a degree of dramatic licence this, reuniting their pairing in 1975’s The Romantic Englishwoman, brings together Michael Caine shirking his retirement and the late Glenda Jackson in her final role, to unfold the true story of Bernard Jordan.
An army veteran, he and his ailing wife Rene live in a small flat in a care home in Hove and the story takes place over 48 hours when, having learnt he’s not been given a place on the official Royal British Legion 70th anniversary trip to the Normandy beaches, with Rene’s blessing but the staff oblivious, he decides to abscond and go it alone, taking a taxi to Dover and a ferry to France.
En route, he meets up with another veteran, the impeccably English Arthur (John Standing), who served in Bomber Command and took part in the bombing that virtually destroyed Caen, who takes him under his wing. Back in Hove, the alarm raised and a search launched, Rene finally owns up that Bernie’s gone to Normandy, the subsequent social media coverage tagging him ‘The Great Escaper’, and his story winding up on TV and the front page of the Daily Mail.
The focus switching back and forth between England, where Rene dances to an old swing 78s (on a wind up gramophone of all things) remembers their courting days and him showing her the ‘holy hour’ of dawn (Laura Marcus and Will Fletcher playing their younger wartime selves), and France, where Bernie, who was a leading seaman on a landing craft, has flashbacks to the D-Day landings of June 6, 1944 and both he and Arthur need to visit the Bayeux war cemetery with its 5000 graves to pay respects to the dead and expiate a guilt they’ve carried for 70s years.
In both its examination of the effects of war and Bernie and Rene’s devoted marriage (she a lot sicker than he realises), it’s poignantly done although the introduction of Scott (Victor Oshin), who lost a leg in Helmand Province feels a tad contrived as an excuse to raise the issues of PSTD. Arguably the best moment comes in a Normandy bar where Arthur and Bernie, who at the film’s start refuses to eat Black Forest Gateaux because it’s German, are introduced to a group of former enemy soldiers who also fought on the beaches, the scene ending with them all saluting each other. There’s also an amusing touch when Bernie jokingly reminds one of the American veterans, who’s pointedly paying for all the drinks, that they turned up late for the WWII party
The rest of the supporting cast are efficiently used, Danielle Vitalis as compassionate care home worker Adele having the strongest role as almost a surrogate daughter to Rene (who never know if they ever had children) and the film comes to a close with Bernie returning home to discover he’s become a celebrity and him finally unburdening his guilt over a young soldier’s death.
Caine and Jackson share a lovely chemistry with both at the top of their game, subtly underplaying emotions when others might have cranked up the volume as, Rene speaks about the years they’ve shared and not wasting a second of the life you’re given while Bernie remarks how nobody escapes old age. A film very much for a certain age demographic, perhaps, but it’s hard to imagine anyone of an age not being moved. (Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza; Reel)
Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol 3 (12A)
While the two mid-credit scenes suggest there is the potential for a further instalment with a new roster or, at least, a prime character spin-off, this definitely brings the curtain down on director James Gunn’s saga of the dysfunctional team of malcontent heroes while also serving as an origin story for Rocket (Bradley Cooper). Still bristling at being called a racoon, he spends most of the film in a coma, hovering on the edge of death after being wounded by the golden-skinned Adam Warlock (Will Poulter), his friends unable to heal him after discovering his body has an in-built kill switch. Flashbacks to how he became who he is today are scattered throughout, revealing him to be part of a genetic experiment by the High Revolutionary (a scenery-chewing Chukwudi Iwuji in generally bellowing default mode) to mutate animals into anthropomorphic beings to populate his vision of a new, ideal, peaceful Earth-like planet; though he’s not above cruelty and the murder of his subjects to achieve that. Rocket, or 89P13 as he’s referred to, proved to have advanced intelligence and an unexplained success in taming his creations’ urge for violence and, having escaped (in a heartbreaking scene in which his new genetically engineered friends do not), the High Evolutionary now wants him recovered so he can access the secrets stored in his brain. To which end, to save him, Peter Quill aka Star Lord (Chris Pratt), Mantis (Pom Klementieff), Drax (Dave Bautista), Nebula (Karen Gillan) and Groot (Vin Diesel), have to somehow infiltrate Orgoscope, the High Evolutionary’s fleshy space lab station, and get the key to disable the kill switch with the help of their Knowhere comic relief associates Kraglin (Sean Gunn) and Cosmo the Space Dog (Maria Bakalova), while preventing Warlock, spurred on by his mother, Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki), from abducting the wounded Rocket.
Matters among the crew are complicated by the subplot involving Quill grieving the death of his lover Gamora (a commanding Zoe Saldaña), at the hands of her step-father Thanos and unable to handle the fact that the cold resurrected version has no recollection that they were a couple and is now a member of the Ravagers (led by Sylvester Stallone), of whom he himself was once a part.
The film hops from one storyline and spectacular set piece to another, climaxing with an explosive finale on both the High Evolutionary’s ship (where cages of children are found, affording a new side of Drax to appear) and Counter-Earth, an 1980-designed biosphere based on Star-Lord’s home planet populated by genetically mutated humanimals, with Rocket now back in full on mode, the action intercut with the franchise’s familiar wisecracking and squabbling banter between the team, set to a rock music mixtape (Radiohead’s Creep playing a significant part).
Frequently teasing the possibility that any of the team could die, Gunn juggles themes about family, friendship, animal experimentation and playing God (“There is no God! That’s why I’m taking charge!” declares the High Evolutionary) and not judging by appearances (a trio of monstrous creatures that seem to threaten Mantis, Drax and Nebula turns out to be rather cuddly). It may never quite explain Warlock’s backstory and his somewhat confusing switchback of motivations and actions and, while a nice surprise, the moment when Groot proves to have more than one phrase in his vocabulary does break with character, but it never lets go of its emotional or visceral grip, delivering a hugely satisfying send-off with the end credits featuring images of everyone who’s been involved in the saga, from Kurt Russell and Michael Rooker to Kevin Bacon and even a sly photo of Stan Lee. What the future brings remains to be seen, but for now this is the best MCU movie since Avengers Endgame. (Disney+)
Heart Of Stone (12)
An embarrassing Mission Impossible knock-off from the same production company with Gal Godot as the Ethan Hunt figure, Rachel Stone, an operative for an off the grid agency tackling problems governments can’t or won’t handle, directed by Tom Harper and location hopping between, among others, Portugal, Senegal and Iceland, this is written by Greg Rucka and Allison Schroeder who were, respectively, behind The Old Guard and Hidden Figures. As such, you might expect some class. Unfortunately, it would be easier to believe the screenplay was turned out by a bunch of junior schoolkids who’d been given the job of watching Grade B action movies as homework, resulting in the sort of dialogue no self-respecting actor should be forced to deliver, one scene in particular having characters serve up a concrete block of exposition about the aforementioned agency, named The Charter, and its mission statement.
We first meet Stone as a rookie hacker with an MI6 unit also comprising fellow agents Parker (Jamie Dornan), cat and Fleetwood Mac lover Bailey (Paul Ready) and Yang (Jing Lusi) who are in the Italian Alps to extract Mulvaney, a potential asset arms dealer and from a ski resort casino. Stone’s supposed to stay in the van but when circumstances call upon her to enter the casino to hack its security things go pear-shaped , culminating in Mulvaney apparently taking cyanide and Stone disobeying orders and blowing her cover to save her team revealing that the Charter is real not just some intelligence community rumour.
Indeed, operating from some high tech secret HQ (don’t ask how it was financed or by whom), agents are known by card suits and numbers (she’s Hearts 9) with the agency run by four Kings (including a cameoing Glenn Close who clearly had a spare half hour on her hands), her handler being Nomad (Sophie Okonendo) and tech support provided by Jack (Matthias Schweighöfer, forever waving his hands around controlling CGI displays). The heart of the Charter is the, ahem, Heart, a super advanced AI that’s located in an airship called The Locker, floating over Africa and which can hack into and control anything digital on the planet. So naturally the bad guys intend to steal it and take control themselves. The villain of the piece turns out to be one of her crew (no surprise and no spoiler since it’s the only other ‘star’ player) who has a grievance to settle with MI6 (cue a Chechnya backstory), aided by misguided 22-year-old Indian super hacker Keya (Alia Bhatt), also with a personal investment, and blond motorbike-riding assassin in chief known only as, yes, the Blond (Jon Kortajarena).
Not only is the central maguffin a dupe of the one in Dead Reckoning, but the whole film is peppered with set pieces stolen from the franchise, notably a Rogue Nation style motorbike chase and with Godot mirroring Cruise in freefalling from a plane. Except these are bargain basement copies with terrible CGI and absolutely no thrills. Plus cringe-inducing lines like “You own the heart, you own the world” and “I should have just listened to the heart”.
Delivering some physical action, Gadot does her best with her one-dimensional character, but she’s unfortunately closer to Red than Wonder Woman, while Doran chews scenery and Okonedo, Bhatt and Schweighöfer simply seem bewildered they signed up in the first place. You might feel much the same after watching it. (Netflix)
Hidden Strike (12)
If you can be easily satisfied watching action stars Jackie Chan and John Cena teaming up and don’t really care about the quality of the direction, acting, plot or dialogue, then you might just get a kick out of this. Finally emerging after five years in post-production, when it was initially intended to open in cinemas, from the meaningless title (presumably a vague attempt to recall previous Chain film First Strike) onwards this is a dull and frequently incoherent reluctant buddies action-comedy. With a bunch of Chinese scientists under siege by oil terrorists at their Iraq refinery, Commander Dragon Luo (Chan), the leader of Shadow Squad (no, really) is sent to extract them, one of whom is his estranged daughter, Mei (Chunrui Ma), ferrying them to Green Zone safety down the infamous Highway Of Death. En route, however, two of the buses, one of which is carrying the facility head, are abducted, during a man-made sandstorm, by a band of mercenaries who threaten to shoot her son unless she provides the all-important dongle and codes to unlock the oil so they can pump it into waiting freighters. Among them is Chris (Cena), a former special forces hunk with a heart of gold who agrees to take part in his brother’s mission (though not aware he’s in the pay of the bad guy – Pilou Asbæk), and insists on giving everyone a nickname, so he can raise the money he needs to provide water for the village where he’s a self-appointed protector who just loves playing catch with the kids. Learning he’s been double-crossed, he ends up joining forces with Luo to rescue the hostages and stop the oil being stolen.
A functional plot at best, designed simply to give the two stars a chance to face off against, first, each other and then everyone else, with some father-daughter emotional healing tossed in for good measure, it lumbers along, mostly through a bad CGI desert and clunky tonal shifts, taking forever to bring the two stars together and then forcing them to deliver ludicrously bad dialogue while engaging in lacklustre stunts. There is, to be fair, some decent chase footage with a rocket propelled truck (a running gag has Chris naming all his vehicles) a relatively amusing set piece with a still lithe Chan (who was 64 when he made it) taking on a tattooed mercenary amid a sea of foam, but, other than the confusions over hand signals, the supposed laughs as Chan and Cena interact are only evident in the obligatory outtakes and never make it into the main film. Hidden Strike strikes out. (Netflix)
How To Have Sex (15)
While awaiting their A-Level results, teenage friends wild and raucous Tara (Mia McKenna-Bruce), the more reserved but barbed Skye (Lara Peake) and the studious Black and queer Em (Enva Lewis) head off to Malia in Crete for the ‘best holiday evah’ looking to party hard and get laid (Tara’s still a virgin). In the opposite poolside apartment they meet the slightly older tattooed and platinum-dyed clueless likely lad Badger (Shaun Thomas), his cocksure ladies man mate, Paddy (Samuel Bottomley) and their conveniently lesbian third wheel Paige (Laura Ambler). They hang out, go clubbing, throw back shots, pee at the roadside, take part in organised sex games where boys get blow jobs from strangers, puke, and generally get out of their heads. Em gets off with Paige and Badger seems to be actually attracted to Tara, but Paddy, on whom the competitively resentful Skye has her eyes on, has his own manipulative agenda which eventually plays out fucking a drunk Tara on the beach, leaving her ebullience shattered.
The partly autobiographical Un Certain Regard Cannes winning debut feature by writer-director Molly Manning Walker, this may superficially feel like a female variation of The In-Betweeners, but, making deft use of silences between the noise and focusing in on Tara (McKenna-Bruce registering her confusions, feelings and insecurities with subtle shifts of facial expression), it gradually unfolds into a thoughtful and well-observed coming of age drama about friendships, toxic masculinity’s dehumanising of women, self-worth and notions of assumed and abused consent.
The return home airport ending slightly lets it down, but moments such as Tara walking home through the empty, litter-strewn streets looking like a ghost town from some Western brilliantly capture the despairing sadness behind the supposed highs. (Mockingbird)
John Wick : Chapter 4 (15)
Spin-offs and prequel appearances notwithstanding, the emotional final scene would pretty much seem to confirm this is the final chapter in the series, bowing out in with a flamboyant 169 minute (word is a 225 minute version may surface later) clipped dialogue epic tsunami of fire, fist, knives and sword fights that may be overstuffed but never drags.
Hiding out in the New York lair of the Bowery King (Laurence Fishburne) from the High Table to whom he still has an obligation and who have placed a $2million bounty on his head, antihero assassin Wick (Keanu Reeves at his Clint Eastwood drawl finest) is planning his revenge. This takes him to Morocco (cue homage to David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia) where he kills the Elder, resulting in the fascist rich kid Marquis Vincent de Gramont (Bill Skarsgård), the current New York High Table top dog, taking revenge by stripping Winston (Ian McShane), who failed to kill Wick, of his role as manager of the Continental, killing his concierge Charon (the late Lance Reddick) and blowing up the building. Then, threatening to murder his daughter, he forces blind retired assassin Caine (martial arts virtuoso Donnie Yen), just one of many biblical references, into accepting the hit on his old friend. Cut to Tokyo where Wick’s taken refuge at the Osaka Continental, run by loyal old friend Shimazu Koji (a quietly charismatic Hiroyuki Sanada) and his daughter Akira (pop star Rina Sawayama who sings the film’s theme song), but it’s not long before the High Table enforcers, led by the Marquis’s seemingly indestructible right-hand man Chidi (Marko Zaror), and Caine arrive, demanding Wick be given up, leading to the first of a series of knowingly over-the-top extended fight sequences that ends up with one wounded, one dead and Wick again on the run.
Returning to New York, he learns from Winston that there is a way to bring things to an end. Under High Table traditions, he can challenge the Marquis to single combat and be freed of all obligations. The only problem is that he first needs to accepted back into the Berlin crime family the Ruska Roma and to do so he first has to kill Killa (Scott Adkins), the overweight, lavender-suited German Table head with gold gangsta teeth who murdered his adoptive sister Katia’s (Natalia Tena) father. And even having done that (cue another amped up sequence set amid a sea of night club dancers), there’s still the small matter of getting to the Sacré-Cœur in Paris before sunrise to carry out the duel, which, if he fails to do, will result in his and Winston’s execution, as his second, which means, armed with a top end gun and a wearing a ballistic suit, surviving Chidi, the High Table muscle and the dozens of freelance assassins all looking to collect the $20million and rising bounty, and soundtracked on their way by an on air DJ spinning things like Nowhere To Run. One of whom is Mr Nobody (Shamier Anderson), a cool and composed tracker, who with his lethal dog sidekick (which becomes an important plot turning point), has been keeping tabs on Wick, keeping him alive until the Marquis agrees to the fee he’s asking. All of which culminates in the reluctant Caine, who the Marquis has nominated to act in his place, and Wick facing down each other in a pistol duel moderated by the Harbinger (Clancy Brown).
Opening with shots of a fist hitting a bloodied punchbag, stunt choreographer turned director Chad Stahelski stages an increasingly elaborate and inspired sequence of balletic fights, among them a thrilling blazing guns car chase around the Arc de Triomphe, one filmed in an overhead doll’s-house view in a labyrinthine building and, finally, the spectacular climax set on the Rue Foyatier in Montmartre, the 222-step stairway leading to the Basilica and down which Wick is sent tumbling at least twice as the hordes continue to come. After nine years, during which time the narrative has got bigger and more complex, this is one big eye-popping gift-wrapped thank you to the legions of fans who have transformed it into an iconic franchise. Will you love it? Yeah. (Amazon Prime; Microsoft Store)
Joy Ride (15)
Making her directorial debut, working from a script by Cherry Chevapravatdumrong and Teresa Hsiao (whose credits include Family Guy, American Dad and Awkwafina Is Not From Queens), Crazy Rich Asian co-writer Adele Lim continues the winning streak of Asian-American driven films and, with an all-female cast, follows in the tradition of Bridesmaids and Girl Trip with a gloriously raunchy, rude and crude anarchic road trip comedy that, replete with swearing, sexual humour and projectile vomiting, also delivers a third act emotional wallop.
Opening in 1998 with one of the year’s best prologues, the only Chinese American kids in the small town of White Hills, Lolo Chan (Milana Wan) and Audrey Sullivan (Lennon Yee), the adoptee daughter of white parents, instantly connect as best friends when the former punches a little boy in the face for his racist comment. A collage takes us up the years to the 30s-something present with Audrey (Ashley Park) now an ambitious successful lawyer in an all-white Seattle firm (where her colleagues seem to be all called either Michael or Kevin) and the outspoken, more culturally connected Lolo (the wonderfully named Sherry Cola), trying to establish herself as a struggling sex-positive artist looking to subvert traditional gender roles (her work includes a sexual organ themed playground and a licking tongue variation on the familiar nodding cat), and living in Audrey’s guest house
Taking off for Beijing to seal a deal with a Chinese client (they assume she speaks Mandarin, she doesn’t) that will see her promoted to partner, Audrey is accompanied by Lolo, who will act as her translator and, much to her horror, Lolo’s socially-awkward introverted cousin Deadeye (non-binary stand-up comedian Sabrina Wu). Arriving, they also hook up with an old college friend, Kat (Everything Everywhere’s Stephanie Hsu), now a major TV actress and engaged to her co-star Clarence (Desmond Chiam, looking like an Asian Dwayne Johnson with hair) who, a devout Christian, resists sex, giving room for Jesus and believes she’s a virgin. With a proclaimed love of dick, she anything but and even has a tattoo on her vagina (a major subsequent plot catalyst that gets her tagged Pussy Tat)! Everything seems to be going well until, forced to down a revolting traditional drink with mouldering eggs, first Audrey throws up over her client (Ronnie Chieng) and then he expresses a deal-breaker concern that she has no Chinese family, at which point Lolo leaps into say how close she is to her birth mother. Unfortunately, he then invites Audrey to bring her to his mother’s birthday party. So now they have to track her down, something Audrey’s resisted, which, to briefly summarise, ends up with them being thrown off the train and accidently getting high on coke after a run-in with an American female dealer who steals the case with their passports, visiting Lolo’s grandmother, discovering the self-absorbed Audrey’s even less Chinese than she feels and, with help from Deadeye’s online friends, an overly energetic night with Chinese Basketball Association players (including NBA star Baron Davis as himself), and having to pretend to be a K-Pop girl group (with a gratuitous but fun take on Cardi B’s WAP), all of which sets up the third act’s friends fall apart and big emotional kick.
Wildly hysterical with a sharp running racial commentary on cultural assumptions and expectations, social stigma, identity crises, sex as a natural means of expression (and a sly objectification of the male body), and multi-dimensional lead characters who are more concerned with their dreams, heritage, and female friendships than men, propelled by four exuberantly enjoyable performances and genuine chemistry as each gets their chance to cut loose and shine. A huge joy ride indeed. (Amazon Prime, Google, iTunes, Kaleidescape, Sky Store).
The Killer (15)
Reuniting with Se7en screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker, director David Fincher returns to serial killer territory with this adaptation of French graphic novel Le Tueur, delivering a taut, deliberately clinical revenge thriller involving a cold and methodical hitman. Michael Fassbender delivers a magnetic performance as the icy unnamed assassin, delivering an internal monologue voice over about his way of working (anticipate don’t improvise, show no empathy, stick to the plan, weakness is vulnerability, always ask what’s in it for me) who we first encounter holed up in an abandoned building in Paris, patiently waiting for the right moment to take out his target in the opposite hotel. To pass the time and relieve the boredom he does yoga, repeatedly checks his weapon, eats a McDonald’s and mentally goes through the rules to being an efficient killer. What the rules don’t allow for, however, is the unexpected, such as the target’s visiting hooker getting in the way just as you pull the trigger.
Asking himself “What would John Wilkes Booth do?”, coolly packing up his gear, he leaves, disposing of all the random tools of his trade as he makes his way through the Paris streets, eventually returning to his Dominican Republic hideaway only to find his client isn’t going to let it lie, retribution leading to the hospitalisation of the assassin’s lover after being attacked by a pair of hired thugs. Thus setting up the subsequent globetrotting chapters (six along with the prologue and epilogue) and an array of different fake passports and storage units as, visiting Florida, New York and Chicago he proceeds to work his way up the chain of those involved.
Complemented by a score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross and an emotionally emblematic soundtrack of numbers by The Smiths the fastidious killer uses to calm his pulse rate, Fincher and cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt meticulously framing every scene, every shot, it follows an implacable body count trail, the violence gradually building as. toting a nail gun, he calls upon the middleman Lawyer (Charles Parnell) and his assistant in New Orleans, the goons behind the attack and, in a scene-stealing cameo across a café table, Tilda Swinton as The Expert, another contract assassin whose subtly sketched emotional complexity stand as a direct contrast to his blankness. Fincher never asks the audience to feel empathy for Fassbender’s ruthless killer, even when phantoms of a conscience seem to briefly trouble him, he then reminding himself of his mantra. Each encounter serves to strip back the carefully constructed faced he’s created, forced into improvisation when anticipation fails, such as the thrillingly choreographed fight with The Brute (Sala Baker) to the backdrop of Fiona Bruce on a TV programme.
Magnetic filmmaking exercised with a steadily building propulsion and tension (and dry flashes of humour such as “I always dress like a German tourist. Nobody wants to interact with one of them”), it transfixes you to the screen, though it’s hard to know which is the more chilling, Fassbender’s emotionless revenge or the fact that, for under £50, you can actually buy a fob copier off Amazon to open an electronically protected door. (Netflix)
Killers Of The Flower Moon (15)
Based on David Grann’s 2017 nonfiction bestseller about the 1920s Osage murders in Oklahoma, the title is derived from the Old Farmer’s Almanac in which each monthly full moon is given a different name, the Flower Moon referring to May, when the killings began.
Directed and co-written (with Eric Roth) by Marin Scorsese, his first since The Irishman and three minutes shorter at just under three and a half hours marginally shorter by three minutes, it opens with Osage Indian Nation discovering that their reservation sits on a massive oil field, instantly making them oil millionaires (albeit requiring white ‘guardians’), black and white footage showing them with swanky clothes, private planes, and white chauffeurs for their luxury automobiles. Inevitably, with great wealth comes great danger from those who would take it for themselves. And it’s not long before Osage corpses start piling up in suspicious circumstances.
Into this comes the feckless and not overly bright but charming Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio), returning from serving as an army cook who, in need of a fresh start and money, but a stomach condition making anything strenuous impossible, is taken under the wing of his cattle baron uncle William ‘King’ Hale (Robert DeNiro) who sets him up as a cabbie. One of his regulars is Mollie (Lily Gladstone), an Osage with three sisters, with whom he falls in love and marries. So far so apparently sweet. But appearances can be misleading. It’s no accident, however, that Molly, sussing he’s out for money (every day the train brings opportunists looking for an Osage bride), refers to him as Coyote, the trickster of American-Indian mythology, and while Ernest’s intentions may start out honourably and innocently, more of a snake in this First Nation Eden, it’s not long before he falls under the spell of his Machiavellian uncle who, may present himself as a white saviour philanthropist friend to the Osage, but behind the smile is a knife looking to carve its way into their wealth, declaring that their time has past and that of the white man has come.
He’s all for his sad sack’s nephew’s marriage to Mollie, primarily because in so doing Ernest, and by extension himself, will gain control of her ‘headrights’ to the oil deposits on her land. These are shared with her mother and siblings, so for the plan to work, they need to die. Mother (Tantoo Cardinal), and a sister (Jillian Dion) go from apparently natural causes, a wasting disease, two sisters (Cara Jade Myers, JaNae Collins) violently do not. Their deaths along with those of a husband (Jason Isbell) and private investigator (to which Ernest is party) brought into look into the brutal murder of Anna (Myers), ordered by Hale and facilitated by Ernest, his brother Byron (Scott Shepherd) , and assorted cowboy lowlifes. Mollie suffering from diabetes, Ernest, who genuinely loves her, is instructed to add a powder to her insulin shots (‘generously’ organised by Hale) to ‘calm’ her, never questioning why she seems to be getting worse.
As the Osage body count continues to rise and the elders become desperate as no police investigations are ever mounted, Mollie travels to Washington plead for help, leading to the arrival in Fairfax of Tom White (Jesse Plemons in the role initially intended for DiCaprio), part of the newly formed federal Bureau of Investigation under the auspices of J Edgar Hoover, to look into who’s behind the murders.
Now 80, Scorsese remains at the peak of his powers, guiding the film along an unhurried path as the twists, turns and horrors gradually accrue with DiCaprio, all downturned mouth, and DeNiro, both of whom he was worked with extensively, delivers subtle, nuanced powerhouse performances that rank among their greatest. As Mollie, making her feature starring debut, Gladstone, seen in TV series Billions and Reservation Dogs, more than holds her own alongside her co-stars, her expressive face simultaneously holding love, hurt, anger, resolve and disappointment while Tatanka Means, Yancey Red Corn and William Bellau loom large among the Native American cast, Sturgill Simpson, Charlie Musselwhite, Pete Yorn and Jack White join fellow musician Isbell in supporting roles (the late Robbie Robertson created the score) and there’s courtroom cameos from Brendan Fraser and John Lithgow.
A harrowingly potent existentially horrific alternative vision (involving the Tulsa race riots, the KKK and the Masons) as to how the modern West was won with its themes of manipulation, deception, greed, moral compromise, systemic racism and betrayal, the wolves hiding among the sheep, it balances scenes of quiet beauty, such as Ernest and Mollie sitting alongside each other at the dinner table, with sudden brutal violence.
Likely designed to trim it back from a proposed four hour running time, it ends ingeniously with an epilogue which, instead of the usual what happened after end titles, sums the post-trial fates of the characters up in an episode of radio drama True Crime Stories, a fictionalised Hoover-endorsed version of real programmes like This Is Your FBI, with live orchestra and, pointedly, white voice actors giving caricatured impersonations of the Osage, the last being a cameo by Scorsese himself, underscoring the trivialisation of Native American suffering, succinctly summed up earlier when someone notes there’s a “better chance of convicting a guy for kicking a dog than killing an Indian”, echoing the Black lives matter of America’s ongoing racial problems, the camera finally pulling away in an aerial shot of the gathered tribe performing a farewell ritual. This is epic, intelligent, provocative filmmaking. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC; Empire Great Park; Everyman; MAC; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel)
The Little Mermaid (PG)
The 1989 original having revitalised Disney’s animation, directed by Rob Marshall this now acts as a defibrillator to the studio’s live action remakes which have steadily gone from the awesome Mulan to the turgid Pinocchio. You’ll be familiar with the story, driven by curiosity, headstrong dreamer teenage mermaid Ariel (Halle Bailey) ignores her father, Triton (Javier Bardem), King of the Seas, who, after her mother was killed, forbids her to go to the surface or, worse, make contact with humans. As such, during a storm, she saves the life of Prince Eric (Jonah Hauer-King) and is taken with his kindness (he rescues a dog from the burning galleon) and good looks, while, hazily glimpsing her as he lies on the shore, he’s equally smitten. When dad finds out, he’s furious, destroying her grotto of human artefacts and ordering her to forget about him. Which is where his evil octopus sister Ursula (Melissa McCarthy cackling madly and chewing the seaweed scenery), the Sea Witch, assisted by her electric hencheels Flotsam and Jetsam, sees her opportunity and strikes a deal with Ariel; she’ll use her magic to make her human for three days but, if she and Eric haven’t had a true love kiss by the third sunset, she’ll be bound to her forever. And just to load the deck, she takes away Ariel’s siren voice (with which she saved Eric) and casts a spell to make her forget all about smooching. On land and with feet, she’s reunited with Eric but he doesn’t recognise her as the girl he’s looking for and she can’t speak. So, it’s down to her briny friends, tropical fish Flounder (Jacob Tremblay), Caribbean-accented red crab Sebastian (Daveed Diggs) and dim-witted gannet Scuttle (Awkwafina) to try and make the kiss happen before it’s too late.
Reworking Ariel’s sisters in a feminist makeover from giggling guppies to rulers of each of the seven seas , adding in new characters in the form of Eric’s adoptive mother, the Queen (Noma Dumezweni), and her factotum Grimsby (Art Malik), an amusing joke given Grimsby’s a noted fishing port, and making Eric more soulful than in the cartoon, while pretty much faithful to events in the original it also adds an extra hour to the running time, filling it out with stunningly beautiful underwater sequences and, Grimsby turning a blind eye, Eric and Ariel’s day out mixing and dancing the locals.
To be honest, Hauer-King is a little flat in the charisma stakes and his solo musical number, Wild Uncharted Waters, doesn’t come close to the performances elsewhere, most notably Diggs’ rendition of the calypso Under The Sea or, joined by Tremblay and Awkwafina, Kiss The Girl, while, with new lyrics (as on several other songs by Lin-Manuel Miranda, McCarthy makes a meal of Poor Unfortunate Souls. There’s also a couple of new songs from Miranda and Alan Menken, Awkafina and Diggs on the speed rap Scuttlebut and For The First Time sung by the wide-eyed Bailey (a five-time Grammy nominee with her sister Chloe), who, in her first leading role proves to be an incandescent discovery and knocks the showstopper Part Of Your World out of the ocean ballpark.
Looking stunning on the widescreen (and even more so in Imax) with jawdropping digital details such as Ariel’s shimmering rainbow tail, there moments that might prove dark and scary for younger audiences (Ariel and Flounder chased by a shark, the shipwreck, Ursula’s forbidding cave and her monster-sized finale), but, with its inevitable message about living in harmony rather than division, this is generally a fairy tale tsunami of unbridled joy that invites you to be part of its world. (Disney+)
Love At First Sight (12A)
A meet cute romance, when, forever late, 20-year old American Hadley Sullivan (Haley Lu Richardson) misses her flight from New York to London for her father’s wedding, she is re-booked on the next. While waiting, she meets fellow traveller Oliver Jones (Ben Hardy), a British 22-year old Yale mathematics student who offers to lend her his charger when noticing her phone is dead. They get to chatting about their lives and idiosyncratic fears (they both hate mayonnaise, he hates surprises). On the plane, a faulty seatbelt ends up with him sitting next to her in business class, where they chat and flirt, she sharing that she’s uncertain about the wedding as she’s not really forgiven her dad (Rob Delaney) for divorcing her mother after he left to teach in Oxford.
On seeing Oliver’s formal suit, she assumes he’s also returning for a wedding, which he neither confirms or denies. They almost kiss, but are interrupted. Arriving at Heathrow, they’re separated into two passport control queues and delays mean that, when she finally gets through, he has already left for his appointment and she’s almost late for hers. And her phone being dead again, the number he texted didn’t come through.
Dad’s wedding goes well and she find she actually likes his new wife, Charlotte. Then, with four hours before the reception, on overhearing that a couple of guests are off to a memorial service for a woman with cancer and two sons, one of whom has flown back from America, she puts two and two together and hops on a bus to Peckham to find Oliver. Although it turns out that, her cancer returned and she refusing treatment, his mum (Sally Phillips) and dad (Dexter Fletcher) are having her memorial while she’s still here, after all what’s the point of people saying nice things if you can’t hear them, everything having a Shakespeare fancy dress theme with younger son Luther (Tom Taylor) in jester garb doing the deejaying, the reunion doesn’t go as well as she’d hoped when she chides him for always quoting statistics rather than being honest about his feelings. So, will they ever get back together? Well, she does accidentally leave her bag behind.
Narrated both on screen and via voice over by Jameela Jamil as various characters (but essentially fate), it’s adapted from Jennifer E Smith’s book The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight and directed by Vanessa Caswill and, while neither she nor screenwriter Katie Lovejoy are in the Richard Curtis league, while utterly predictable (as are pretty much all romcoms), it’s nevertheless warmly charming, largely down to the chemistry between the two leads and a mix of twinkling humour and cheesy but touching messages about not letting things – love, life, death, reconciliations, slip by you in your self-absorption. (Netflix)
Marcel The Shell With Shoes On (PG)
Starting life as a series of stop-motion YouTube shorts, created (when they were married) by Jenny Slate (who also voiced) and Dean Fleischer Camp, Marcel was a talking periwinkle shell with one eye and, well, shoes (made from human nails, apparently). Having become an online sensation, co-written by Slate and Camp, who also directed, he now gets a full length feature and it’s one of the oddest and sweetest things you’ll see this year. A mix of animation and live action, it adopts a mockumentary format in which the recently divorced Dean (rarely seen in full figure) moves into an Airbnb, discovers Marcel (Slate) living with his dementia afflicted grandmother, Nana Connie (Isabella Rossellini), who’s “lost a small piece of a large puzzle”, and Alan, his ball of pet lint and decides to film his everyday activities. These include using a spoon as a catapult to launch him up to the shelf where he has his store of treasures and foraging for food to sustain himself and Connie, who likes to tend her garden befriended by the local insects. When Dean uploads his first video it goes viral, but, while flattered Marcel is sad that his family are not there to share it, having all been carted off from their sock drawer hideaway when the apartment’s previous couple, Mark and Larissa (Thomas Mann, Rosa Salazar), split up. Dean posts a livestream asking for help in finding them but, while he now has thousands of fans, none seem interested in helping and he’s concerned the constant attention on the house and people wanting selfies will worsen Connie’s health. Dean drives him around LA. looking for Mark’s car with Marcel a shell-out-of-water amazed at just how big the world is, but with no luck, However, the story captures the interest of 60 Minutes, of which both Marcel and his gran, who now has had an accident and cracked her shell are fans, and the programme makes contact asking if they can film him being interviewed by Lesley Stahl (playing herself) and, while he’s reluctant about having a production crew around impact on Connie, as an incentive, they offer to try and track down his family. The selfless Connie pretends she’s getting better, but during the filming she passes away.
As such, the film has much to say about family, compassion, connection, separation, the environment, loss and grief as well as the pitfalls of internet fame, any potential whimsy overkill tempered by the deep humanity its explores, and wry observations like people signing their letters ‘peace’. Wisely it never attempts to explain Marcel, content to show such little as his raising beanbag chair, Dorito hang glider, climbing walls using sticky honey, rolling round in the hollow tennis ball he uses as a vehicle and the double bread where he sleeps. Pet rocks may be about to make a revival. (Sky Cinema)
The Marvels (12A)
Beset by delays and reshoots, directed and co-written by Nia DaCosta, the first Black woman behind a Marvel movie, this brings together three female superheroes who all have, in different forms, the ability to harness the power of light. That’ll be Carol Danvers (Brie Larson) in a follow-up to Miss Marvel, now roaming the galaxy in her own spacecraft, Monica Rambeau (Teyonah Parris), the now grown astronaut daughter of Carol’s late best friend Maria (Lashana Lynch), who works alongside Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson) in his new SABER organisation and gained her powers in WandaVision (and whose lack of a code name serves as a running gag), and New Jersey’s Pakistani-American schoolgirl Kamala Khan (Iman Vellani), from the Disney+ TV series (its use of animation incorporated in introducing her here), an over-exuberant Miss Marvel mega-fan whose powers come from a magical bracelet.
The bracelet, or quantum band, however, turns out to have a Kree origin and is one of a pair, the other being recovered at the start of the film by Dar-Benn (a compelling Zawe Ashton clearly having a lot of fun as the baddie) who has an understandable vendetta against Danvers – who the Kree know as The Annhilator for reasons explained later– and needs the two of them to restore life to her home planet of Hela. As such, her motives are sympathetic, her means, which include trying to wipe out the Skrulls, rather less so. Her acquisition of the bangle also causes the three Marvels to body-swap (quantum entanglement, apparently) every time they use their powers, initially creating havoc in Kamala’s home, then affording some skipping rope fun and later proving invaluable in the battle with Dar-Benn.
Despite a plot that involves intergalactic genocide and planet asset stripping, there’s a great deal of playful fun here, notably a sequence set on a world where Miss Marvel is a marriage of convenience princess and where everyone dances as they sing their dialogue (though her prince Park See-joon – is bi-lingual) and one where, in an effort to evacuated the space station, Fury has the crew ‘eaten’ up by a horde of Flerken kitties who spew purple tentacles that swallow things up, all scored to Midnight from Andrew Lloyd-Weber’s musical.
There’s also a great deal of hanging out and banter between the three heroes, all of whom have their own identity issues, the actresses making good use of their individual skill sets and personalities as the film digs into their characters. The problem is, however, what with jump points opening up everywhere in the space, and the action leaping from planet to planet, the narrative is frequently borderline incoherent. Fortunately, unlike the recent slate of Marvel outings, this has a trim running time into which it packs an inordinate amount of plot, redemption and coming of age arcs and action sequences.
Zenobia Shroff, Mohan Kapur and Saagar Shaikh add extra comedic touches as Kamala’s concerned and long-suffering parents and older brother while Abraham Popool sports a nifty set of beard braids as SABER agent Dag and Tessa Thompson puts in a quickie crossover appearance as Valkyrie, the film closing up with the briefly united trio now on their individual plotlines, providing two mid-credits sequences; the first with a cameo from Hawkeye’s Kate Bishop (Hailee Stanfield) as Ms Marvel sets out to create a new team, and the second, with Rambeau now in a parallel universe, a new incarnation for Maria and the return of Kelsey Grammar’s Hank McCoy from the X-Men series. That’s at least three new sequels or spin-offs in the wings. There again, given its bomb at the box office, maybe not. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Vue)
Meg 2: The Trench (12A)
After the 2018 original, a US-China co-production, scored, ahem, megabucks at the box office, it was inevitable that at some point, delivering is familiar sarcasm on autopilot, Jason Statham would again find himself up against a giant, prehistoric shark. And so it is that Brit filmmaker Ben Wheatley pits him against a whole bunch of them. However, anyone who admired his previous black comedy thrillers Sightseers, High Rise, Kill List and Free Fire, should lower their expectations because here he’s clearly just a director for hire, going through the paces with workmanlike efficiency for certainly not invested in what he’s doing. But then, given a cliché 101screenplay and dialogue, who can blame him.
It opens with Jonas Taylor (Statham) putting a stop to a bunch of scurvy knaves dumping toxic waste in the ocean, all just part of his eco commitment to some organisation with a mission to protect the world’s seas, at one point being referred to as a green James Bond, alongside his colleagues Mac (Cliff Curtis) and DJ (Page Kennedy), from the first film, and new addition Jess (Skyler Samuels). Meanwhile, Chinese action star Jing Wu joins the cast (but with only token stunt work) as billionaire philanthropist Jiuming, the owner of a high-tech oceanographic institute in Hainan (run by Sienna Guillory) and the brother of Suyin from the original who, along with her husband, are apparently now both dead. Which leaves him as the ward of his niece, the now 14 year old Meiyinh (returnee Shuya Sophia Cai) to whom Jason also plays surrogate dad. Jiuming also has a pet Meg, which he’s trained and even named, and developed a new high pressure suit for underwater exploration of the titular trench which lies beneath the cold zone above which Megs can’t venture.
However, when the two submersibles venture forth they both find themselves attacked by several Megs and also discover an illicit secret mining operation (apparently build without anyone noticing), with those behind it (cue corporate greed villains) keen to ensure Jonas and the three other survivors (including Melissanthi Mahut whose character arc is all over the place), who’ve managed to seek refuge in it (after losing team members you won’t remember) don’t return to the surface, a task assigned to one-dimensional cackling mercenary Montes (Sergio Peris-Mencheta) and a touch of sabotage from a trusted colleague.
Slow to start it builds almost no tension before plunging into the last act showdown involving armed mercenaries, dinosaurs, mediocre CGI giant sharks and even a humungous octopus as an array of island getaway partygoers become fish food (but not the cute dog you’ll be pleased to hear), dead bodies fall victim to continuity errors and Jonas arms himself with a jet ski and makeshift exploding harpoons.
Littering the surprisingly bloodless film with knowing references to Jaws and Jurassic Park does it no favours and, while it does admittedly lived up slightly in the preposterous climax, this is really no fun at all, all big teeth and no bite. (Amazon Prime, Apple TV, Google Play)
The Mother (12A)
Jennifer Lopez tools up as a military sniper turned underground arms deals broker turned FBI informant turned maternal badass in this pulpy but enjoyable action thriller. Never named, the film opens with Lopez in an FBI safe house striking a deal to give up her two former partners (both professionally and sexually) only for it to prove not so safe after all, leading to several agents getting killed and Adrian (Joseph Fiennes), one of her former lovers one of whom is likely the father, stabbing her pregnant belly. The baby’s saved but, to keep her safe, Lopez is forced to give her up, getting Cruise (Omari Hardwick), the agent whose life she saved to agree to keep an eye on her ( a sort of surrogate uncle) and send photographs on every birthday. Fast forward 12 years and, watched over by an old army buddy (Paul Raci), Lopez is living in the remote wilds of Alaska, but has to come out of hiding on learning that her other ex-associate, Hector (Gael Bernal Garcia) has abducted her daughter, Zoe (Lucy Paez), to lure her out of hiding.
From this point it’s all fairly generic, Lopez shooting, stabbing, punching with fists wrapped in barbed wire, riding a motorbike down city steps, rescuing Zoe from Hector’s Cuban hideout and then taking her out into the snowy wilds and, though she’s initially resentful and hostile about being abandoned, training her to be a sharpshooter and how to knife fight before Adrian re-emerges for the snowmobiles cat and mouse showdown.
Efficiently helmed by Niki Caro whose Whale Rider showed she knows how to direct female actors, it makes a decent fist of exploring the primal maternal instinct but, at the end of the day, it’s still the sort of shoot em up revenge thriller Jason Statham or Liam Neeson might have sleepwalked through. (Netflix)
Nandor Fodor and the Talking Mongoose (12)
Based on a bizarre true story, Simon Pegg plays the real-life Austrian-American expert on parapsychology who, in 1931, visited the Isle of Man with his long-time assistant, Anne (Minnie Driver) to investigate claims of a mongoose who lived on a local farm and spoke like a human. Opening with him being interviewed about what constitutes reality and indeed faith (if he says he can see a man in the corner and the others can’t does that mean the man isn’t there). Approached by a fellow distinguished scientist, Dr. Harry Price (Christopher Lloyd,), who describes Gef, the mongoose, and suggests it may actually be real, Fodor, who Price compares to Houdini, a debunker who wanted to believe, decides to see for himself.
The pair fetch up at the farm owned by the well-to-do Irving family, Mr Irving having kept a detailed journal about Gef’s doings which, Fordor reckons “rivals the Arabian Nights for the fantastic improbabilities it contains”. Despite the assertions of local witnesses, Fodor is not persuaded, his belief that it’s a hoax supported by Irving’s employee, Errol (Gary Beadle), the most plausible explanation being that Gef’s voice (supplied by Neil Gaiman) is provided by Irving’s daughter, an acknowledged ventriloquist. Yet Anne, who sees the daughter in action, is willing to consider the possibility that Gef is real and indeed memorised a poem by Years before it was actually published. Into all this, the screenplay inserts the relationship – and perhaps tentative romance – between Fodor and Anne.
Writer-director Adam Sigal never attempts to resolve the mystery, after all this is a film about belief, but, ably assisted by a wry Pegg, an utterly charming Driver and some lovely scenery, he does deliver a delightfully quirky, whimsical and engagingly entertaining exploration of the unknown workings of the world, the human mind, heart and the need to believe in things beyond its ken. (Amazon Prime)
Opening with the heroic Gloreth establishing an order of knights dedicated to protecting the world from the monsters that lurk outside its walls, this animated fantasy adventure fast forwards a 1000 years to a futuristic city and, headed by The Director (Frances Conroy), the Institute where the queen is about to appoint new knights from the graduating cadets, among them Ambrosius Goldenloin (Eugene Lee Yang), a descendent of Gloreth, and Ballister Boldheart (Riz Ahmed). The latter is controversial given that he will be the first commoner accorded such an honour in the queen’s intention to give everyone a chance to be a hero and Ballister is understandably worried that, like bullying fellow cadet Thoddeus (Beck Bennett) everyone will hate him. Instead, he’s met with cheers- until, that is, a laser ray shoots from his high-tech sword and kills the queen, leading to Ambrosius chopping off his arm and Bal fleeing, a wanted murderer. But then, in hiding, he finds himself visited by Nimona (Chloë Grace Moretz), a rebellious punky teenager outsider who, assuming him to be a villain, declares herself his self-appointed sidekick (“Because I’m bored, and everyone hates me too”). She is, however, more than a sassy, sparky, streetsmart misfit teen. As he discovers when she rescues him from prison, she’s a shapeshifter capable of transforming into a pink rhino, bear, bird, a whale and even a dancing shark, who revels in causing chaos and smashing things up. She is, in fact, exactly the sort of monster the knights are supposed to destroy. Instead, the two now find themselves joining forces to clear Bal’s name and expose the real murderer. The identity of whom it’s not too hard to work out, but then, as the opening voiceover states, things have a habit of not having the simply resolved happy endings fairytales usually demand.
Adapted from a subversive graphic novel by ND Stevenson and rescued by Netflix after being cancelled by Disney, this is very much a contemporary 2D-3D animation, not just in its dazzling visuals but in its storyline and themes. It’s revealed early on that Bal and Ambrosius are gay lovers while, uncomfortable in her ‘normal’ skin, Nimona is driven by a need to transition. Meanwhile, with the inventive narrative, twisting there’s also familiar messages about intolerance, irrational prejudice and how, in as world where kids “grow up believing that they can be a hero if they drive a sword into the heart of anything different”, if we treat people as monsters, they’re likely to become monsters.
With her catchphrase ‘metal’ and plans that rarely go beyond “Chaos, destruction, something-something-something, we win”, Nimona is a priceless animated anti-hero, her spirit and irreverent humour exuberantly captured by Moretz’s voice work while Ahmed brings the pathos and more serious notes. Driven by a punk-fuelled soundtrack that includes The Banana Splits and guitar riffs by former Sex Pistols Steve Jones, it barrels along with fast-paced action and an utterly infectious sense of anarchy and fun. The ending lays possible ground for a sequel, and one would be very welcome indeed. (Netflix)
Sports fans may recall Diana Nyad, a world class endurance swimmer who, aged 25, swam around Manhattan in just under eight hours in 1975, becoming a celebrity and talk-show regular, even if given to a touch of not always factual self-aggrandising about her achievements. At 30, however, she retired having failed in her attempt to the open-ocean record by going from Cuba to Key West in Florida, a 60-hour, 103-mile journey in shark-infested waters one stroke at a time. She went on to host radio shows, write books, give motivational speeches and work as a sports broadcaster. But, her career ending failure nagging at her, turning 60, despite not having swum since, she resolved to try again. It’s no spoiler to say that, at the fifth attempt, she finally triumphed and, directed by Free Solo documentarians Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin, this biopic follows the struggles to pull that off.
Strapping on the goggles, swimsuit (and bizarre protective masks at different points), doing her own swimming sequences Annette Bening is Nyad (from the Greek for water nymph) while playing opposite is Jodie Foster in her first gay role as fellow lesbian, one time lover and now best friend Bonnie Stoll. While thinking the whole idea is ridiculous and potentially fatal, she becomes her supportive coach, training her back into shape and following as part of the crew on Voyager I, skippered by the implacable Dee Brady )Karly Rotherberg), the now late navigator John Bartlett (Rhys Ifans) and shark expert Luke Tipple (Luke Cosgrove), accompanying her attempts, the first four variously scuppered by bad weather, unpredictable Gulf Stream currents, toxic jellyfish and allergic reaction, the film emphasising the mindset required by all involved to pull things off.
The backstory flashbacks (which mix real archive footage with recreation) reveal Nyad’s difficult relationship with a demanding stepfather Aristotle, her sexual abuse as a teenager (Anna Harriette Pittman) at the hands of her coach, Jack Nelson (who is still listed in the Hall of Fame despite numerous allegations from other girls), but the film’s core is firmly on the determination to complete what she set out to do decades earlier (she was 64 when she made the fifth attempt, her scored to Neil Young’s Heart Of Gold) and the repercussion on her and Stoll’s relationship. The central performances, Foster making everything seem effortless and Bening capturing Nyad’s at times prickly personality, are magnificent with real chemistry, with the end credits revealing just how closely they and Ifans resemble their real life counterparts. It doesn’t mention that subsequent controversies or that her swim was ultimately denied ratification due to incomplete documentation, conflicting crew reports and retrospective rules, her entry The Guinness Book of World Records being revoked, but that doesn’t negate what she said in the inspirational speech recreated (and repeated in archive footage) here about it never being too late to dream big. (Netflix)
Operation Fortune:Ruse De Guerre (15)
Its planned cinema released scuppered by the bad timing of having Ukrainian villains, Guy Ritchie’s second venture into espionage territory after the underrated The Man from U.N.C.L.E. finally surfaces on a streaming platform, and, a quintessential Ritchie romp with Mission Impossible echoes, is pretty much worth the subscription in itself. The plot is a familiar recover a secret weapon that’s been stolen for sale on the black market, so that gives a good idea of what to expect in terms of rival operatives, double crosses and location-hopping, all of which the cast and screenplay milk to hugely enjoyable effect with a mix of high octane action and rapid bite banter. Almost inevitably, it involves Jason Statham who, as loose cannon freelance contractor Orson Fortune, is enlisted by the British government in the form of effete operation handler Nathan Jasmine (Cary Elwes) reporting to his ministerial boss Eddie Marsan, to recover “The Handle”, to which end he recruits a team comprising hacker Sara Fidel (Aubrey Plaza) and everyman J.J. Davies (Bugzy Malone) while, in the opposite corner is sneaky rival Mike (Peter Ferdinando) and his gang of heavies.
The middleman negotiating the weapon’s sale is billionaire arms dealer Greg Simmonds (Hugh Grant in Hugh Grant wisecracking pantomime bad guy mode) and to infiltrate his inner circle, Fortune ropes in Danny Francesco (Josh Hartnett), an action movie star with whom Simmonds is obsessed, Sara playing his girlfriend and Fortune his manager. With the events and action variously playing out in Cannes, Madrid, and Morocco with a car chase through a Turkish Cliffside, a finale in which Fortune climbs a glass tower and a mid-heist scene where he takes time out to watch the ‘Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head’ bicycle scene from Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid. Knowingly silly with tongues firmly in cheek and everyone clearly having a great time, it’s preposterously energetic and entertaining supercharged fun. (Amazon Prime)
Coming out of an abusive relationship, Kate (Beth Dover) is set up by her best friend Nickie (Ta’Rea Campbell) with a three month voluntary job with her ranger brother Earl (Ato Essandoh), with whom she has a strained relationship on account of her sexuality, as a fire tower watcher in the Idaho Mountains, a highly important gig given that, some years ago back, a forest fire nearly destroyed the entire area. Although her ex, Mike (Tim Neff), initially turns up, Kate locking herself in an outhouse to escape, things settle down, she making friends with frequent hiker Bertha ( Becky Ann Baker) and Reggie (Dylan Baker), a widowed local doctor who teaches her how to chop wood and giving her the run of his house while he’s off visiting the grandkids.
However, as things keep going wrong, Kate already tenuous grip on sanity begins to loosen further as paranoia takes hold, seeing threats everywhere, such as a possibly dodgy fellow ranger (Dallas Roberts) and a pair of hitchhikers who leave their camp fire smouldering, as she takes things murderously into her own hands as the body count rises.
Written and directed by Joe Lo Truglio making his feature debut, it’s teasingly never clear just how much is all in Kate’s mind and how much are is a genuine danger to her as the edges of reality blur, the film climaxing with her locked in the tower, upending the familiar trauma abuse survivor narrative into something of a far darker and brutal The Shining nature. Not, perhaps, something that will go down well in counselling groups, but as a psychological horror goes this blazes fiercely. (AppleTV; Amazon Prime; Google Play; RakutenTV; Sky Store; Virgin Store)
Past Lives (12A)
Unfolding over 24 years, in two 12-year intervals, played out in Seoul, Toronto and New York, writer-director and erstwhile playwright Celine Song’s semi-autobiographical debut is a beguiling bittersweet thwarted love story about unresolved feelings. It opens with a voiceover pondering what three people in a New York bar are talking about and what their relationship may be. They are aspiring playwright Nora (Greta Lee), her fellow writer husband Arthur (John Magaro) and childhood friend and crush Hae Sung (Teo Yoo) and to explore the connections, the film first flashes back 24 years to Korea where Nora, then Na Young (Seung Ah Moon), and Hae Sung (Seung Min Yim), are academically competitive classmates and budding sweethearts. However, romance is curtailed when her family announces they are emigrating to Canada. The pair part on a somewhat sour note and it’s 12 years before, he still living at home and hanging out with his mates, she now in Toronto, reconnect through Facebook, he tracking her down through her filmmaker father’s page, and then Skype, conduction a flirtatious virtual romance (she recommends him to watch Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind ) before realising he’s never coming there and she’s not going back, she shuts it all down.
Twelve more years later, Nora now having married Arthur, who she met at a writing retreat, and rarely speaking Korean, Hae Sung, who has broken up with his girlfriend comes to New York, where she now lives, for a few days, ostensibly as part of his engineering studies, and the two meet up, their meetings causing both to reassess how they feel about each other and what might have been. The title refers to the Buddhist concept of inyun, a belief that some souls are connected through time and past incarnations, somehow fated to be together.
Beautifully framed and photographed (the virtually wordless scene by the fairground carousel and the pair riding a ferry boat around the Statue of Liberty are magical), sublimely directed by Song and exquisitely acted by the three leads, the soulful, reserved Yoo, an understated Marago, who wryly describes himself as “the evil white American husband standing in the way of destiny”, and the luminous Lee, a major contender for the next Korean Oscar winner, it pulses with suppressed emotions, captured in longing looks or the subtle chance in a facial expression, but never falls prey to sentimentality as, subtly also exploring the immigrant experience and indemnity confusions, it builds to a denouement that is both heartbreaking and glowing with joy.
You can feel the echoes of films like David Lean’s Brief Encounter, Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise, and Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood for Love, but Song has created her own individual and unique vision of their timeless story. An unquestionable film of the year, as Nora and Hae Sung are given to saying when things overwhelm then, ‘whoa’ indeed. (Apple TV)
Peter Pan & Wendy (PG)
The latest live action remake of a Disney animated classic goes back to the title of JM Barrie’s book, placing Wendy firmly in the spotlight alongside the boy who refused to grow up. Directed by David Lowery, who also did the live remake of Pete’s Dragon, keeps several details from the cartoon, notably Peter’s green hat and costume and the top hat and teddy bear associated with the Darling brothers Michael and John, but there’s some substantial updates too, such that, played by Yara Shahidi, Tinker Bell is now biracial, no longer an outdated stereotype Tiger Lily (Alyssa Wapanatâhk) gets a more heroic role and (as Wendy declares to her astonishment) the Lost Boys include Lost Girls too.
More significantly, Captain Hook (Jude Law, stealing the film) is completely reimagined to give a backstory with Peter that makes him a more poignantly sympathetic figure than any previous portrayals and also casts Peter in a very different, selfish and at times cynical light. Rather like what happens to Hook’s ship in the big swashbuckling climax, it turns their relationship upside down. There is, though, still the crocodile.
Adopting an often dark tone, literally and psychologically, it opens in Victorian England at the home of the Darlings where Michael (Jacobi Jupe) and John (Joshua Pickering) are acting out the swordfights from the bedtime stories of Peter Pan, but here older sister Wendy (Milla Jovovich’s daughter Ever Anderson) enthusiastically joins in, only to be reprimanded by her father (Alan Tudyk) and mother (Molly Parker) for not setting a good example. This Wendy, resentful of being about to be sent to boarding school, is also a touch feisty, snappily saying she wants her own life, not her mother’s. Later she will slap Peter in the face for being reckless.
That night, she and the brothers are awoken by a visit from Tinker Bell and Peter (a suitably impish-looking Alexander Molony), very much real and not just a character in a story, who’s come to recover his shadow and, responding to her wish to never grow up, and, with the help of pixie dust and happy thoughts, takes them flying off to Neverland (here accessed through a portal in Big Ben). However, no sooner do they arrive than they’re bombarded by Hook’s ship, John and Michael are captured, Tinker Bell and Peter are missing in action and Wendy washes up on the shore to be found by Tiger Lily and the ethnically diverse Lost Boys led by Slightly (Down’s syndrome teenager Noah Matthews Matofsky).
Though, naturally, everything works out happily, Lowery doesn’t refrain from scenes likely to scare youngsters, such as Hook ordering the children to be executed and tying John and Michael to Skull Rock to drown before Peter resurfaces and comes to the rescue. Some of the pirates also end up as croc-fodder.
There’s a couple of nice line reversals, pointing that, in returning to London, you need to actually take the second star to the left and go straight on ’til morning, and Wendy telling Peter that to grow up might be the greatest adventure of all, and, while it may have flaws, this is generally a compelling and – dare I say it – grown up telling of a tale about the ambiguities of both wanting to hold on to your childhood and also excited by the potential than the adult world might offer. (Disney+)
The meaningless title aside, this is solid if formulaic noir procedural that sees director and co-writer Grant Singer transition from music videos for the likes of Ariane Grande to feature films. Producer and co-writer Benicio Del Toro, sporting a lush black barnet, provides the compelling centre as Tommy Nichols, a seasoned cop starting a new job in Scarborough, a suburb of Maine, after moving from Philadelphia where he was suspected of covering up for a corrupt partner, Nichols, however, is as honest as the day is long but also has a fierce loyalty to his fellow officers.
He’s happily married to the supportive Judy (Alicia Silverstone) who’s called in a favour from her police captain uncle (Eric Bogosian), who’s hiding the fact he is developing MS, to secure his new posting. He’s barely into the job when he and his rookie partner Dan Cleary (Ato Essandoh) have to investigate the killing of estate agent Summer (Matilda Lutz) at a property she was showing, stabbed to death with such ferocity the knife embedded itself in her pelvis, and found by her fellow estate agent boyfriend Will Grady (Justin Timberlake).
There are plenty of suspects. The boyfriend, obviously (it’s revealed she was cheating on him, though he has an alibi. Then there’s her creepy not entirely ex-husband (Karl Glusman) who makes art with human hair (and has few compunctions about how get gets it) and the embittered straggle-haired Eli (Michael Carmen Pitt) who has an axe to grind since his father committed suicide when the company for which Summer worked, owned and run by Will and his widowed mother Camille (Frances Fisher), took advantage of his financial straits to buy out the family farm. They also make their money by buying up properties that have been foreclosed due to drug seizures at knockdown prices. Meanwhile, swimming among all these possible red herrings are Tom’s fellow cops, straight arrow police chief Graeber (Mike Pniewski) and detective Wally (Dominick Lombardozzi), a loudmouth tough guy whose running a private security firm side hustle.
The deeper Tom gets into the waters the muddier they become as the twisting plot takes in corruption on a variety of levels, assorted people acting suspiciously, confrontations and assaults while the narrative (with Benjamin Brewer the third writer) also finds room for some dry humour, such as Tom, who spends his free time playing poker with the guys and line dancing with his wife, deciding to remodel his kitchen with a sensor tap after seeing one in the murder site. However, his jealous streak becomes aggressively apparent when he thinks the hunky handyman is paying Judy excess attention.
Singer doesn’t have the finesse of fellow noir director namesake Bryan, but he keeps things nicely on the boil and scores bonus points for the prominent use of the original version of Angel Of The Morning by Evie Sands on the soundtrack. (Netflix)
The Retirement Plan (15)
It would be cynical to suggest the title is an apt description for the plethora of films, most direct to streaming, that Cage has starred in over the past couple of years, frequently doing his familiar full on manic. Be that as it may, you can’t ever accuse him of phoning it in. This is one of his better quickies in which he plays Matt , or quite possibly Jim, a former government covert ops specialist who has retired to be a beach bum in the Cayman islands. However, his skillset is called back into action when his long estranged daughter, Ashley (Ashley Greene), who, oblivious as to his job and resentful of his never being there for them, has not spoken to him since her mother died. But then problems arise when, looking to improve their fortunes, her husband, Jimmy (Jordan Johnson-Hinds) Jimmy steals a hard drive containing valuable information from his crime lord boss Donnie (Jackie Earle Haley). Given Donnie answers to someone even more ruthless, he needs to get it back. However, before Ashley and Jimmy are captured, she puts in her 12-year-old daughter Sarah’s (Thalia Campbell) backpack and puts her on a plane to find and stay with her granddad, reckoning it’s the last place anyone will look.
Unfortunately, look they do with Donnie, despatching a team of bad guys who Matt, calling in some favours from his old bosses, duly disposes of with brisk and bloody efficiency. They seemingly endless supply of goons are led by Bobo (Ron Perlman), a soft-spoken Shakespeare-quoting philosophical killer whom Ashley has agreed to accompany to save Jimmy’s life, who then forms a bond with Sarah when he kidnaps her. Eventually, an increasingly exasperated Donnie turns up to take control himself, while there’s also cold blooded killer Hector (Grace Byers) on the trail.
With a cast that also includes Ernie Hudson, it may be a B-movie but it’s decidedly well-executed by writer-director Tim Brown who serves up a deft mixture of wisecracking and violence (guns, knives, hand-to-hand, you name it, as Matt gets to repair his relationship with Ashley , who gets to finally learn about his secret life, and forge one with Sarah. Cage is on cracking form, as indeed is Perlman who makes Bobo a more complex character than is usually the case for henchmen while Campbell more than holds her won alongside her adult co-stars and Harley compelling snarls his way through the scenery. Hugely entertaining and, if this somehow doesn’t thrill you, then you can bet Cage will have another along within the month! (Amazon Prime, Google Play, iTunes, Xbox)
Yet another Liam Neeson number where he’s the ordinary family man who finds himself caught up in a dangerous situation that has his children’s’ lives at risk, this time round he’s Matt Turner, a self-involved Berlin-based investment banker working for Anders Müller (Matthew Modine) whose workaholism has opened up a rift between him, wife Heather (Embeth Davidtz) and the kids, petulant Zach (Jack Champion) and annoying Emily (Lilly Aspell). Reluctantly agreeing to drive them to school, he spends most of the time talking down a nervous investor so as not to lose their money. However, before he can drop the kids off he gets a call on a phone secreted in the car telling him there’s a pressure-controlled bomb underneath his seat which will go off if he tries to get out or tries to tell anyone. Likewise the back seats. And just to show they’re not kidding, he’s made to watch a co-worker bet blown to bits. Now he’s forced to drive round Berlin carrying out instructions, among them getting Heather to retrieve €50,000 from his bank safety deposit box at the bank and then, changing the plan, give it to some random guy in a blue suit who the police then arrest, and another being to shoot his boss, while trying to work out it is who wants to get their hands on the€208 million slush fund he and Anders have in an “emergency collateral account” in Dubai. Meanwhile, the cops, led by Europol agent Angela Brickmann (Noma Dumezweni) on is trail, convinced he’s the bomber. So, it’s down to him to turn the tables.
A variation on Speed, the third remake of the Spanish thriller of El Desconocido (the others were German and South Korean), it requires a huge suspension of disbelief but, even though the true villain is pretty obvious early one, director Nimród Antal handles things efficiently and Neeson is such a pro at the genre now that, even if he’s bored senseless, he never looks as though he’s just going through the motions. Having been pursuing bad guys through planes, boats, snow ploughs and whatever, it may be time for Neeson to finally call enough, but for now, this is serviceable enough (Sky Cinema)
Saw X (18)
While, a reboot after the last film spluttered at the box office, it may improbably be the tenth outing in the torture porn franchise, in chronological terms it’s actually a bridge between Saw I and II, as John Kramer (Tobin Bell) travels to Mexico for a clandestine procedure that involves surgery and an experimental drug cocktail in the hope of curing his terminal brain cancer, only to find himself the victim of a bunch of con artists led by the icy blonde Cecilia (Synnøve Macody Lund). So, he and his apprentice Amanda (Shawnee Smith) duly set about rigging another series of diabolical torture traps as payback. These involve giving his victims, three of which are Cecilia’s Mexican stooges, the choice between their fates, like sawing through their leg and then using a syringe to extract her own bone marrow or have a razor wire slice through her neck, removing their own brain matter, though arguably the ‘best’ is an earlier fantasy sequence of a hospital thief having their eyes sucked up by a diabolical eye-vacuum. Meanwhile Jigsaw (who tells Cecilia he’s dedicated to helping people to “overcome inner obstacles and make a positive change”), oversees proceedings from the warehouse’s second floor window.
This time round, as both anti-hero and protagonist, Bell gets a lot more screen time, though the bicycle riding puppet figure still features, and while it may ignore such niceties as to how he manages to set up let alone fund his torture chamber, it cranks up the claustrophobia to squirming intensity as it builds to a gotcha twist ending. Sadistic and sick, of course, but as a fantasy vehicle for audience who’d like to get their own back on those scam artists who ruined their lives, it’s undeniably got a sense of satisfaction. (Vue)
Having starred in Noel Clarke’s inner-city teen crime dramas Kidulthood and Adulthood, Adam Deacon proceeded to send up the genre with his 2011 directorial debut Anovahood. Subsequently, things derailed on account of his mental health and addition problems, but he’s finally back in the saddle returning with another parody in which he’s again both star, co-writer and director. Again set in East London, he plays Riko while the relentlessly energetic Jazzie Zonzolo is his bunk-bed bestie Kane, wannabe roadmen (a sort of weed smoking bruv version of a chav), looking to make a name for themselves by mugging, selling weapons and robbing banks, At all of which they prove spectacularly inept. An attempt to mug rapper Lethal Bizzle (playing himself) in a nightclub toilet ends with them being humiliatingly filmed dancing in their underwear. Things go particularly wrong when they attempt to hold up a bank, to get money to repay the sociopathic Mr Patel, ending up with them giving away their names and faces and Riko accidentally killing, so he thinks, a neighbourhood gangsta, resulting in his lisping maddog brother Tyrese (a maniacally scenery chewing Richie Campbell, one of several returning Anovahood cast members ) setting out for revenge. He also happens to be the stepbrother of Tamara (Leomie Anderson), who may just be the love of Riko’s life. On the plus side, news of the apparent killing gets them a reputation and enlisted by notorious gang leader Shotti (Kobna Holdbrook-Smith) with Arnold Jorge as their self-appointed sidekick Dwayne. All of which gathers to a head when the ‘dead’ man proves to be alive and born again and Tyrese, his thugs, the other gangstas and a deranged Black cop (Vas Blackwood) wind up in a shoot-out at a drug deal involving a pair of Poles.
Frequently wildly slapstick funny, even if the shouted, street slang is often unintelligible, even so the tone is all over the place, going for laughs with them recruiting a bunch of schoolkids as CBBC mandem or masked vigilante Murkle Man and but also having someone thrown to their death from a high rise balcony. And let’s try and forget Ed Sheeran taking a comic relief dump as unwashed addict Crack Ed. He’s not the only gratuitous cameo, others lining up as Peter Serafinowicz as an Eastern European crime kingpin, Megaman as a henchman, London Hughes as an unflappable bank clerk, Linda Robson’s customer telling them to get a move on along with blink and you miss them appearances from Jamie Winstone, Denise Van Outen, and Tamzin Outhwaite.
Throughout all this, Deacon also weaves in repeated messages about mental health (Riko is bipolar as is Deacon), the disenfranchisement of urban youth with crime their only option (cue a social issues walk on line from Jeremy Corbyn) and institutional police racism (spelled out in yet another cameo by Jennifer Saunders as a tough cookie cop weeding – or rather tasering – out the bad apples). At times feeling like scattershot gags in search of a plot and focus, even so it’s hugely entertaining. (Empire Great Park; Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Vue)
Spider-Man: Across The Spider-Verse (PG)
Five years ago, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse introduced cinema audiences to Miles Morales (Shameik Moore), a Black Hispanic Brooklyn teenager who gained superpowers when he was bitten by an electromagnetic spider and then found out he was just one of hundreds of spider-powered entities existing on a multitude of different Earths across the multiverse. It also revolutionised animation with its jawdropping mix of retro comic book, Cubism and pop art. The much anticipated sequel takes all that and hypercharges it into a trippy, at times hallucinogenic, kinetic rush that feels like maxed out ADHD that can be exhausting to watch but also delivering exhilaration to every fibre of your being.
It starts, though, on Earth-65 with moody rock drummer Gwen Stacey (Hailee Stanfield), the white-clad Spider-Woman of her world, who’s having problems with her law enforcement father (Shea Whigham) who believes her alter ego was responsible for the death of his daughter’s best friend, Peter Parker (who had transformed into The Lizard). When, following a battle with a DaVinci-sketch looking version of The Vulture, she finally reveals her secret identity, looking to explain and hoping for understanding, he just reads her her rights. Bitterly disappointed, she flees into the Spider-Verse using a device given to her by Jessica Drew (Issa Rae), a pregnant African-American Spider-Woman who helped subdue The Vulture, recruits her as part of the Spider-Society, a team policing the different dimensions.
Meanwhile, back on Earth-1610, now 15, while Spider-Man is famous superhero who was a guest host on Jeopardy and made a commercial endorsing baby powder), Miles is en route to a meeting with his school counsellor and concerned helicopter parents Rio (Luna Lauren Vélez) and newly promoted police captain Jefferson (Brian Tyree Henry) for which he’s already late, he’s sidetracked when he runs into someone robbing a local store, a faceless white figures covered in black splodges which are, in fact, portals, through which he or just parts of his body can travel, with whom he gets involved in a running battle. Calling himself The Spot (Jason Schwartzman), this new supervillain was once Jonathan Ohnn (Jason Schwartzman), a scientist who worked for Alchemax, who became what he is today as a result of the collider implosion caused by Miles in the first film. Now he’s looking for revenge by ruining Miles’s life, just as he ruined his. And he’s found his holes can take him into the multiverse.
The central thrust begins as Miles secretly follows Gwen into the Spider-Verse (including a visit to Lego Earth) where he’s reunited with his old mentor, Peter Parker Jake Johnson, who, married to Mary Jane, now has a baby called May, with similar powers, and is confronted by the scarred, humourless Miguel O’Hara (Oscar Isaac), the “ninja vampire” of Earth 2099 who runs Spider-Man HQ who explains that having, in an earlier sequence where he and Gwen wound up in Mumbattan and he saved the life of the police captain father of the girlfriend of Spider-Man India (Karan Soni), he disrupted a canonical event. In other words, each Earth’s arachnid adventurer have things in common, being bitten by a spider, the murder of Uncle Ben (or Uncle Aaron – Mahershala Ali – in Miles’s case) …and the tragic death of a police captain. Now he’s thrown everything off-kilter and put the integrity of the entire Spider-Verse at risk. More than that, Miles learns that he’s an anomaly and became Spider-Man by error, that he wasn’t the one the mechanoid was supposed to bite, meaning there is an Earth without a Spider-Man where the storyline unfolded in a much darker manner. Thus Miles is declared Spider Public Enemy No 1 and with Miguel and countless variations in pursuit, he, Gwen, and Hobie Brown aka Spider-Punk (Daniel Kaluuya), a Mohawked Londoner with a guitar strapped to his back who’s animated like a living Sex Pistols album cover, have to stop The Spot and save the entire Spider-Verse, not to mention his and Gwen’s fathers by preventing the canon from playing out.
The dazzling animation is eye-popping, often shifting styles and colours within the same scene, close-ups showing the comic-book dot textures of the characters’ skins, driving things along at hyperspeed but also finding time out for quieter, more tender moments such as Miles and Gwen hanging out (upside down) on the dome of the Williamsburg Savings Bank Tower that add further resonance to the film’s central theme about the weight of responsibility (an emotional depth that has always distinguished Marvel comics) and the painful journey to self-discovery. There’s a lot of fun too as, along with a joke about the redundancy of saying Chai tea, it wheels out such web-slinging variations as Spider-Horse, Spider-Car, Spider-Cat, and the virtual reality Spider-Byte, interjecting the animation with live action that includes clips from both the Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield movies, a brief visit to a convenience store in Eddie Brock’s world and a wordless cameo from Donald Glover as The Prowler (another variation of whom provides a last moments shocker).
Driven by a brilliant score and guaranteed Oscar glories, as the first of the two part sequel, it ends, of course on a cliffhanger setting up Beyond The Spider-Verse. That won’t arrive until next year, by which time your pulse rate might just have slowed down enough to handle it. (Amazon Prime)
The Super Mario Bros. Movie (PG)
Originating in Japan, one of the first platform video games and, owned by Nintendo, still hugely popular among all ages (at my screening there were two grown men dressed as the character), even if the name makes no sense as there’s only one brother called Mario,30 years on the foul odour of the live action adaptation with Bob Hoskins till remains. Reverting to animation, this revival looks to reboot the film franchise by sticking closely to the game’s mechanics involving jumping between platforms, avoiding obstacles and powering up by opening boxes marked with a ?
Following a prologue in which power-hungry Bowser (Jack Black), the king of the turtle-like Koopas, attacks and destroys a city of penguin-like creatures to get his hands on a power star that will enable him to conquer his entire universe, it cuts to Brooklyn as Mario (Chris Pratt) and Luigi (Charlie Day) trying to get their plumbing business off the ground, only to end up creating chaos. Then, when they attempt to fix a broken water mains, they’re sucked down a vortex into another dimension. Separated, Luigi ends up in a fiery realm and is taken prisoner by Bowser and as such sidelined for most of the film, while Mario, who hates mushrooms, ironically finds himself in the Oz-like Mushroom Kingdom (you have to suspect the writers indulged in some magic ones of their own) where, looking to find and rescue his more timid brother, he teams up with the tiny Toad (Keegan-Michael Key) and the warrior-spirited Princess Peach (Anya Taylor-Joy), who accidentally came there as a child. However, it transpires that the literally and metaphorically horny Bowser is deludedly determined to either marry Peach or destroy her Kingdom, to which end they have to persuade Cranky Kong (Fred Armisen) to loan them his army, which means Mario must first defeat his son, Donkey Kong (Seth Rogan) in gladiatorial platform combat, during which he transforms into a cat. And then defeat Bowser before he can sacrifice his prisoners (glowing star Debbie Downer among them) as a wedding gift to Peach.
Resolutely mirroring the game and loaded with inside references and songs like Holding Out For a Hero and Take On Me, devotees of the game are well-served, though in pretty much every other respect the target audience is 7-year-olds who just want a rush of cute characters, garish colours and non-stop action sequences. Mama mia, here we go again. (Microsoft Store)
Talk To Me (15)
Transitioning from YouTube horror, Australian twin brothers Danny and Michael Philippou make their directorial feature debut with an assured entry into the familiar don’t mess with the afterlife genre that brings a fresh approach to well-worn tropes and a whole new meaning to the phrase talk to the hand. Opening with a stabbing and a shocking violent suicide at a party and a genuinely disturbing night scene where a car hits a kangaroo which is left dying in the road ( a sure nod to the deer in Jordan Peele’s Get Out), the narrative hinges on the hand of a dead psychic which, encased in ceramics, those looking for a thrill are encouraged to clasp, making contact with a spirit and saying ‘Talk to me’ and then ‘I invite you in’, whereby they’re taken over and have scary visions, but have to blow out the candle and let go after 90 seconds so that they don’t remain possessed.
One such is black teenager Mia (sterling newcomer Sophie Wilde) who was driving the car that hit the kangaroo and while her surrogate younger brother Riley (Joe Bird) begged her to end its misery, she was unable to bring herself to do so. Following her mother’s death, a gulf has opened up between Mia and her brooding father Max (Marcus Johnson), leading her to spend much of her time at Riley’s house with his big sister and her best friend (Alexandra Jensen), their take no shit mother Sue (veteran Australian star Miranda Otto), working nights This allows them to sneak out to a party hosted by Hayley (Zoe Terakes) and Joss (Chris Alosio), who initiate a hand session, everyone treating the gross-outs like some sort of supernatural high and a big laugh to be shared on social media.
Naturally, it all goes to shit, staring off with Jade’s ultra-Christian boyfriend Daniel (Otis Dhanji) being taken over by a horny spirit (cue a later foot sucking scene), Mia becoming hooked and going back over and over and Riley volunteering and being possessed by Mia’s dead mother Rhea (Alexandria Steffensen) who tries to reconcile with her daughter, leading to the time limit being exceeded. All of which results in Mia being ostracised by Jade and Sue following two graphically violent convulsive suicide attempts by Riley whose spirit Mia is shown being tortured in limbo, with killing him the only way to set him free, and her learning the truth behind her mother’s death.
With a subtext about bored youth seeking ever extreme kicks as they sink into addiction (viral and otherwise) along with the trauma of guilt and loss, the pace never slackens as the intensity builds, and while the idea that the dead really are not to be trusted may be well-worn and the narrative is overtaken by the chaos, the brothers still manage to squeeze some decent jolts before the big final twist that leaves things open for a sequel. (Netflix)
Teenage Ninja Mutant Turtles – Mutant Mayhem (PG)
Created as a comic book by Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird in 1984 to parody superhero stories, three underwhelming live action adaptations arrived in the early 90s with a seeming last gasp fourth arriving as computer animation in 2007. Two animated reboots followed in 2014 and 2016, the first a huge success, the second a flop. Now comes another reboot which, directed by Jeff Rowe, who made The Mitchells vs The Machines, while computer animated wisely harks back to the hand-drawn look and scribbled lines of the original comics and the early animated TV series and, if not as wildly hyperactive and psychedelic as the Spider-Verse films, has a compelling dynamic visual energy to match a sharp script.
It goes back to the beginning to provide an origin story as, breaking with his employers and their military ambitions, scientist Dr Stockman (Giancarlo Esposito) created a bunch of mutant embryos in an underground lab and, when a Techno Cosmic Research Institute strike force was sent by his erstwhile boss Cynthia Utro (Maya Rudolph) to seize his work, he ended up dead while a vial of his mutant-inducing green goo (henceforth known as the ooze) seeped into the New York sewers, mutating for baby turtles and the rat that took them in. Fast forward 15 years and the now teenage turtles, named (but never explained in the film after Renaissance Italian artists) Donatello (Micah Abbey), Michelangelo (Shamon Brown Jr), Raphael (Brady Noon) and the self-serious Leonardo (Nicolas Cantu), live secretly in the sewers, only venturing out at night to obtain groceries – especially pizza – for themselves and their overprotective surrogate father, Splinter (Jackie Chan), who, after an initial attempt to mingle with humans ended in disaster, trained them in the martial arts and forbade them to reveal themselves to the world, warning that humans will want to capture them and “milk” them for their mutant DNA. They, however, yearn to be accepted, and go to school, sneaking off to watch a film or a concert (Beyonce gets namechecked) while out foraging. Such opportunity presents itself when they accidentally cross paths with April O’Neill (Ayo Edebiri), an aspiring high school reporter (nicknamed Puke Girl, but you need to see the hilarious gross out scene to know why) and set off to recover her motorbike when it’s stolen which, in turn, involves them in her quest to find out who’s behind a series of high tech thefts, reportedly the work of someone known as Superfly (Ice Cube), she filming their Turtles’ exploits to present them as heroes.
This, it turns out, is the grown version of Stockman’s original creation who saw off the attackers and escaped with the other creature he was experimented on and who now form his mutated followers Genghis Frog (Hannibal Buress), alligator Leatherhead (Rose Byrne), rhino Rocksteady (John Cena), bat Wingnut (Natasia Demetriou), manta Ray Fillet (Post Malone), warthog Bebop (Seth Rogen, also one of the co-writers), Mondo Gecko (a scene stealing Paul Rudd amusingly credited as “introducing”) and the indeterminate Scumbug. The Turtles are initially delighted to learn they have mutant cousins who also desire to be accepted, until they learn of Superfly’s plant to mutate all creatures and wipe out humans, leading up to an explosive climax as they, Splinter (who gets a far bigger action role this time), April and the others battle to defeat the now supermutated Superfly.
Channelling themes about acceptance, intolerance of difference, family, friendship, coming of age and the need to work together, the inspired casting of actual teenagers injecting relevance and authenticity into the Turtles’ banter, the film rattles along with a series of exhilarating action sequences intermingled with self-aware pop culture gags (a cardboard cut of Chris Prine’s Captain Kirk) and such sly black culture references as The O’Jays 1972 hit The Backstabbers and of course, the villain’s punning name a knowing nod to the 1971 Blaxploitation classic. It is, perhaps, excessively violent in places, especially the use of knives, for the young audience while the suggestions of interspecies sex (Leonardo fancies April, Splinter and Wingnut exchange a slobbery kiss) are as kinky as they are subversive. With the obligatory mid-credits scene setting up a Shredder sequel, the heroes in a half shell are back where they belong. (Paramount Plus)
Vaughn Stein’s hard-boiled noir pastiche, clearly taking its inspiration from Sin City (and Waiting For Godot) and forever referencing Alice in Wonderland, has accrued some particularly damning reviews, but it’s nowhere near as awful as they make it seem. A futuristic sci fi plot twisting revenge thriller, it stars Margot Robbie as Bonnie, a femme fatale female assassin who sets out to win the business of a mysterious crime boss by proving she can turn his current hitmen for hire, Vince (Dexter Fletcher) and Alfred (Max Irons) against each other, to which end she also plays the role of sardonic but sweet diner waitress Annie who lends a friendly ear and some pragmatic advice to Bill (Simon Pegg), an English teacher who’s dying of cancer and looking to end it quicker, and also hooks up with Alfred who, along with Vince, is holed up in a hotel room waiting to be given their target.
Pretty much all of this takes place around a rundown railway station populated only by a limping janitor (Mike Myers in his first film in almost a decade) who shuffles around whistling Danny Boy, and all of which is monitored by an unseen figure on a bank of television screens. There’s also a lot of toing and froing involving briefcases concealed in the station lockers.
As it gathers to the climax, all manner of twists – one especially audacious – are rolled out that tie things together and, while the direction can be stiff and the dialogue cringeworthy, there’s enough of a potential cult air about it to warrant a place on the platform. (Arrow)
Trolls Band Together (U)
It’s extremely unlikely that the target audience – or indeed their parents – will have ever heard of 90s American boyband NSYNC or care that the film marks their first new music in 22 years, reuniting them with former member Justin Timberlake who provides the voice of Branch, the grumpy grey Troll now officially dating (though both protest any idea of marriage) the pink Poppy (Anna Kendrick), queen of the Trolls. However, he has a secret in that, as Baby Branch, he was once part of siblings boy band BroZone before he screwed up on stage and the others walked out on him. This comes to light when one of his estranged brothers, John Dory (Eric André), turns up out of the blue proposing a band reunion and another brother Floyd (Troye Sivan) is kidnapped by Velvet (Amy Schumer) and Veneer (Andrew Rannells), a talentless brother-sister double act who intend to chemically extract his talent to win a singing contest. The only way to stop them is for BroZone to reunite and use their family harmony to shatter his diamond prison and save him. In fact, Branch isn’t the only one to have a surprise sibling turn up with the exuberant Viva (Camila Cabello) announcing she’s Poppy’s long lost sister.
Each Trolls film seems to get more bonkers and trippy than the last and this is decidedly out there (at one point Cloud Guy pukes rainbow glitter), returning characters including Bridget (Zooey Deschanel), the Bergen monster who gets married wearing a wedding dress of white helium balloons hiding a trouser suit and roller skates, the silver sparkly scene stealing Tiny (Kenan Thompson), and King Gristle (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) while among the new names to the franchise there’s Ru Paul (Miss Maxine) and Kid Cudi and Daveed Diggs as the other brothers, Clay and Spruce. Naturally, it’s littered with boyband puns (One Direction, Backtsreet Boys, Boyz To Men, etc.), NYSNCs’ Better Place and an array of R&B tracks (as well as a version of Dolly Parton’s 9 to 5 by Zosia Mamet as the duo’s put-upon assistant Crimp) while the vibrant, loopy animation even takes a trip into psychedelic 2D as it rams home its we are family message. Barking mad but a sugar rush of fun. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Vue)
You Are So Not Invited To My Bat Mitzvah! (12)
One of Netflix’s biggest hits this year, though produced by Adam Sandler he takes a backseat as, adapted by Alison Peck from Fiona Rosenbloom’s novel, he plays Danny Friedman, father to daughters Ronnie, the serious one, and the more immature Stacy, played respectively by his own daughters Sadie and Sunny, while reuniting with Uncut Gems co-star Idira Menzel as his wife. The younger of the two, Sunny is approaching her bat mitzvah, the Jewish coming-of-age ritual at 13, in which she has to read passages from the Torah and devise a charity project. She, of course, is more concerned about the accompanying party as she and best friend Lydia (Samantha Lorraine), whose mother’s played by Sandler’s wife Jackie, enthusing over themes and what the future will hold, like adjoining homes in Taylor Swift’s Tribeca building. Lydia writes Stacy’s speech and she in turn offers to put together her entrance video biography.
Things, however, soon turn pear-shaped starting with Stacy leaping off a cliff into the water in order to impress her crush, class heartthrob Andy Goldfarb (Dylan Hoffman), resulting in a humiliating tampon moment, and a subsequent falling out with Lydia when she sees her kissing him, prompting the angry declaration of the title and a rather cruel revenge.
Comparisons with Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret are inevitable, not least in Stacy’s own chats with the Man Upstairs, while it also follows genre conventions such as the school’s catty queen bees, the embarrassing parents (Danny’s dad jokes), the shopping sequences and all those girls want to be grown up moments, here largely embodied in a geeky friend being excited to finally shave her legs.
Although it helps considerably if you’re familiar with Jewish culture to get the references and appreciate the jokes involving Jewish mothers, dads, grannies and aunts, it’s nevertheless all very sweet and consistently funny, the entire Sandler clan having solid comedic chops (though Sunny is undoubtedly the star turn) while great support comes from Sarah Sherman as the perky Rabbi Rebecca (who gets to sing God Is Random in response to her class asking why He allows injustice) and Ido Mosseri as the wildly over the top DJ Schmuley. Forget the invite, this is well worth crashing the party. (Netflix)