This column will review films both screening theatrically and/or on various streaming platforms.
Fast X (12A)
Opening with a flashback to 2011’s Fast Five and the sequence as Dom Toretto (Vin Diesel, still not possessing a shirt with sleeves) and Brian O’Conner (the late Paul Walker whose daughter Meadow gets to cameo here as a flight attendant) steal the vault belonging to drug lord Reyes (Joaquim de Almeida), climaxing in him being killed on a Rio de Janeiro bridge, the scenes now insert Jason Momoa as the bad guy’s son, Dante, who survives his SUV being sent into the ocean. Now he’s out for revenge. So, cut to the present as Dom, wife Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) and their young son Brian (Leo Abelo Perry) are living a quiet family life, reuniting for dinner with the crew Roman (Tyrese Gibson), Tej (Ludacris), Ramsey (Nathalie Emmanuel), Han (Sung Kang) and Dom’s grandmother Abuelita Toretto (Rita Moreno). While the others are sent on a mission to Rome by the agency, Dom and Letty stay behind, only to have an unexpected visitor in the shape of a wounded cyberterrorist Cipher (Charlize Theron), who reveals Dante forced her men to turn against her and that he’s out for payback. When Little Nobody (Scott Eastwood) arrives to take her into custody he confirms her story. But also says he never assigned the team any mission. Clearly it’s all a trap.
And so, now directed by Louis Leterrier taking over from Justin Lin, comes the first of the spectacular set pieces with mass vehicular destruction as Dom and Letty arrive, and they and the team, Taj and Ramsey locked in a truck controlled remotely by Dante, find themselves trying to stop a giant ball-shaped bomb from barrelling through the city on its intended course to blow up the Vatican. Blamed for the destruction, and Letty in custody, they now find themselves wanted fugitives being hunted by the Agency’s new leader, Aimes (Alan Ritchson), resulting, in rapid succession, with Dom’s brother Jakob (John Cena) rescuing Brian, who’s being looked after by his aunt Mia (Jordana Brewster), from Aimes’s men, Mr Nobody’s daughter Tess (new addition Brie Larson) rescuing Letty (who sits out much the remaining film with Cypher), and Dom returning to Rio (and shots of scantily clad twerking female backsides) for a narratively nonsensical race against Dante who informs them he’s planted bombs on two of the other cars (driven by F5 returnee Luis Da Silva as Diogo and Daniela Melchior as Isabel, the sister of that film’s murdered Elena), taunting that he can’t save everyone.
And, with Dante vowing to make Dom suffer by killing all his extended family and friends before getting round to him, and it just gets more and more tangled and over the top, with betrayals, more returning characters (Jason Statham’s Shaw with brief cameos by Helen Mirren, Gal Gadot, a photo of Kurt Russell and, bringing it full F5 circle, an end credits Dwayne Johnson as Hobbs), and, inexplicably, an appearance by Peter Davidson, the comic who made a bad taste crack about Walker’s death some years ago , suggesting the punches he gets from two of the cast might well be persona. Plus the constant stream of automobile armageddons, high speed chases with apparently indestructible cars, armoured, trucks, helicopters and planes, and any number of fights and shoot outs with Agency goons and Dante’s men. Not to mention a couple of gratuitous punch ups between one another.
Location hopping between L.A., Naples, Rome, Portugal, London and Antarctica, there’s nothing as jawdroppingly, physics-defyingly ridiculous as the car in space from F9, but Dom racing down the side of an exploding dam or dragging two helicopters behind him as wrecking balls and Jakob’s two man convertible with wings come pretty close. An amusing touch is Roman’s remote controlled toy car with a nodding head of himself.
As ever, themes of family are writ large with dialogue that’s carved rather than written while the performances range from the knowingly mock serious to Diesel’s extensive range of growling and glaring as he dispenses homilies (“No-one starts at the finish line”, “Fear is the best teacher”), the coup de grace being the scene-stealing Momoa who, having apparently watched Jack Nicholson’s Joker on repeat, is flamboyantly, gleefully over the top, not so much chewing scenery as devouring it wholesale, strutting like a peacock, adopting a Christ the Redeemer stance as he surveys his destruction, licking blood off a knife and painting the toenails of a corpse in some a demented garden party.
As much fun as it is wildly absurd (and a blast in IMAX), it ends, or rather doesn’t, with a cliffhanger for the two planned future sequels to brings the franchise to the end of road, though quite what sort of octane it’s going to need in the tank after this defies imagination. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Vue)
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. For49 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 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. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Vue)
Beau Is Afraid (15)
Although the sprawling running time of three hours couldn’t have been easily trimmed, on the whole this, the latest from Midsommer writer-director Ari Aster, rarely drags, even if it is also at times wildly self-indulgent and trying too hard to be Charlie Kauffman. An Oedipal epic of mommy issues, it sports another impressively unhinged turn from Joaquim Phoenix as Beau Wasserman, a balding, paunchy middle-aged son of domineering pharmaceutical empire businesswoman Mona (a ferocious Patty LuPone with Zoe Lister-Jones in the flashbacks), his father, she says, having died having his first orgasm on their wedding night (which was when Beau was conceived) due to a hereditary heart murmur. Living alone on a crappy apartment in the crime-infested city of Corina where neighbours demand he turn down music he isn’t playing, deranged homeless and corpses line the streets and a naked knife-wielding serial killer makes getting to the shop a nightmare, Beau is riddled with neuroses, depression and anxiety, his therapist (Stephen McKinley Henderson) prescribing a new drug that must be taken with water (a running motif). Due to fly to his mother’s for the anniversary of his father’s death, applecarts are upset when his apartment keys are stolen, causing him to miss his flight. His apartment wrecked and having slept on the scaffolding, Beau wakes to call his mother only to be told she’s dead, her head crushed by a falling chandelier. Now he has to try and get back for the funeral, she insisting it can’t take place unless he’s there. However, started by an intruder falling into his bath and fleeing naked into the street, he’s hit by a soup truck and wakes up days later to find himself being cared for by those behind the wheel, Grace and her surgeon husband Roger (Amy Ryan, Nathan Lane) who also care for Jeeves, an unstable veteran with PTDS who served with their dead son. They also have a stroppy teenage daughter, Toni (Kylie Rogers), who resents Beau having taken up her bedroom.
Suffice to say, as event spiral out of control, she commits suicide by drinking paint, Beau’s accused of the murder, he flees pursued by a heavily armed Jeeves, is taken in by pregnant Penelope (Hayley Squires), part of a hippie travelling theatre group who perform in forests (part Dante, part Midsummer Night’s Dream), Beau becoming fascinated by a play about a man trying to find the family he lost in a flood, imagining himself as the protagonist, before, following a bloody massacre, he finally makes it to his mother’s where he’s reunited with Elaine (Parker Posey), the girl (Julia Antonelli) seen in a flashback to his teenhood (Armen Nahapetian), a grisly secret’s revealed and, metaphorically returning to the birth canal on which the film began, everything comes to a head at some sort of Kafkaesque guilt trip tribunal where he’s accused of never loving and always disappointing mummy.
With everything from animated sequences of an imagined life to twin brothers, and a giant penis-monster in the Freudian attic, it’s a comedy-horror cornucopia of sex, parenthood, money, dystopian society, psychosexual obsession and death splattered across a stylistic gamut of sitcom, cartoon, crime thriller, monster movie and science-fiction with everything from Greek tragedy to The Wizard Of Oz and David Cronenberg as touchstones, at times very funny (spot the throwaway visual gag about an Hawaiian-Irish TV dinner called O’Loha), at others searingly dark and pretty frequently just barkingly silly, making you wonder whether Aster’s exorcising his demons or just having a huge panic attack joke. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Vue)
Brainwashed: Sex- Camera-Power (18)
Staged as a recreation of her lecture, filmmaker and theorist Nina Menkes directs and presents a documentary examining the male gaze throughout the history of film, calling on a variety of interviewees, such as British critic Laura Mulvey who invented the term, Julie Dash, Penelope Spheeris, Rosanna Arquette, and Catherine Hardwicke, to show the way the camera is used to portray women in a manner different to how it shows men, or anything else. It is, she says, a representation of a history of the coercion and imposition of women by male (and sometimes female) director and cinematographers as determined by gender politics, with screen sexuality fuelled by male power relations.
Featuring clips from over some 176 films from 1896 to the present, among them, Vertigo, Raging Bull, Carrie, Bladerunner 2049, Do The Right Thing, Phantom Thread and Metropolis, to illustrate her argument Menkes compiles a list of 5 topics: POV/Subject/Object – Male object, female subject; Framing – The way shots are composed, including fragmentation of female body parts; Camera Movement – Body pans + tilts; slow motion used differently for male and female actor; Lighting – 3D (male) vs. 2D/fantasy lighting (female); and Narrative Position – Camera techniques 1-4 often undermine the female characters’ narrative position, even when they are a protagonist in the narrative.
It’s undeniably thought-provoking but, while some of the points and arguments are valid, the fact that many of the clips shown without context while there’s also some wilful misreading, such as of Titane or Jennifer Lopez in Hustlers, two films that fly the flag for female empowerment and sexuality, likewise the absence of any interview with male filmmakers or how the male gaze and subject/object works in gay cinema, or indeed any discussion on audience complicity in fostering/perpetuating the way women are presented/exploited on screen. The film title, it seems, works both ways. (Electric)
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)
The Night Of The 12th (15)
Written and directed by Dominik Moll, based on real events that unfolded in Paris and documented in Pauline Guéna’s non-fiction book, 18.3 – Une année à la PJ, this is a French police procedural with a twist in that you know from the start that the murder is never solved. New steely and focused bureau Captain Yohan Vives (Bastien Bouillon) and older, more agitated career cop partner Marceau (Bouli Lanners) are the good cop-bad cop team due trying to solve the increasingly colder case of the teenage Clara Royer (Lula Cotton Frapier), who was doused in gasoline and set alight by an unknown assailant while walking home late at night from a party at the home of her best friend Nanie (Pauline Serieys) in the peaceful suburban community in Grenoble at the foot of the French Alps.
Given the go ahead by a judge (Anouk Grinberg) for one more push, in the course of their labyrinthine investigation they track down and interview a number of suspects, from teenagers to thirtysomethings, all of whom had intimate relations, but every time it looks as though they’ve found the killer (among them a jealous rapper who recorded a song about setting Clara on fire, and a man with a history of domestic violence and aggressive sex acts with her), things again hit a dead end, their going round in circles symbolised with Yohan bicycling round a velodrome. As the film widens its scope to look at male violence in a society where women are seen as both victims and, but also held responsible for the consequences of their sexual behaviour, Moll also explores issues of male macho camaraderie and underlying vulnerability (Marceau’s wife has left him, prompting him to see all the suspects as representing his ex-wife’s lover), the pair later joined by female detective, Nadia (Mouna Soualem) who has her own reasons for joining the department.
Solidly acted and thoughtful in the issues it raises, there may be no pat satisfying ending, but the arc of the two main characters and the gripping tension of the investigations make this a real find. (MAC)
Plan 75 (15)
Opening with a Japanese man shooting himself after a care home massacre in a spate of hate crimes, Hayakawa Chie’s directorial debut is a dystopian drama fuelled by Japan’s growing ageing population that imagines a government funded voluntary euthanasia scheme that, administered by breezily charming and bureaucratically efficient young civil servants, those over 75 can sign up for in return for ¥100,000 to spend as they wish before taking their final resting place on a hospital bed as a colourless gas sends them on their way.
The film’s focus is two of the enrolees, Michi (a terrific Baishō Chieko), a former hotel cleaner who’s let go and forced by poverty to sign up, and widower Yukio (Takao Taka), whose estranged nephew is a Plan 75 salesman now facing a crisis of conscience, both of whom come to reconsider their decisions, and Maria (Stefanie Arianne), a migrant worker from the Philippines who, to earn money to pay for her daughter’s surgery, takes a job sorting the belongings of the deceased and encourages by a fellow worker to pocket valuable items. Watching, it’s hard to not to think of Nazi concentration camps. And then there’s Yoko (Kawai Yuumi), Michi’s customer service phone agent who breaks the rules of clients and employees meeting, and is entranced by the old woman’s stories and her hunger for life.
A sobering satire on society’s attitude to and treatment of the elderly, especially in Japan which has one of the world’s most rapidly ageing populations, and the way capitalism has made it too expensive to grow old with dignity, euthanasia an economic as well as an ethical issue as rising costs eat away at savings and inflation outstrips pensions, it also meditates on the sacredness of life in a world where the elderly come to be seen as disposable. While it may occupy similar territory to something like Logan’s Run, this is no sci-fi but a very unsettling real life possibility. (Electric)
All Quiet On The Western Front (15)
Written in 1929, telling of the horrendous conditions and mass slaughter experienced by young German soldiers on the frontline in WWI, Erich Maria Remarque’s novel is one of the greatest anti-war novels of all time. Though previously filmed twice, the Academy Award winning 1930 version and a 1979 TV film, this is the first in German from a German director (Edward Berger), and with a wholly German cast.
Outstanding newcomer Felix Kammerer is the central character, Paul, a young student keen to do his bit for the Kaiser, God and the Fatherland who forges consent to enlist along with his friends, Albert, Franz and Ludwig (respectively Aaron Hilmer, Moris Klautz and Adrian Grünewald) all expecting it to be over within months and something of a cushy ride with the French fleeing before then.
There’s a foreshadowing of what’s actually in store in the opening sequence where corpses are stripped of their uniforms which are then returned to Germany to be washed, repaired and recycled to the new recruits, Paul receiving one with the name tag Henrich and being told it was probably too small for him. On arrival in France, they’re given a brutal baptism of fire (Ludwig killed the first night) as it quickly becomes clear they and everyone there are just cannon fodder for the blinkered officers and bureaucrats still deludedly thinking they can win.
There are some moments of light relief, Paul and the roguish Kat (Albrecht Schuch) stealing a goose from a local farmer to feed their mates, Franz having a night of passion with a French woman, the camaraderie of the small group that now includes the veteran, Tjaden Stackfleet (Edin Hasanovic), grown close during their time at Ardennes, but otherwise this is relentlessly grim and harrowing as any notions of heroism or valour are tramped into the blood-soaked mud, bodies are blown to pieces, dog tags of the dead are collected and an ever growing number of black coffins are piled into mass graves.
Unfolding over two and a half hours, the battle scenes are visceral and terrifying, flamethrowers turned on surrendering soldiers, bodies pulped by tank tracks, a room of young recruits gassed to death, the agonising slow death throes of a French soldier Paul stabbed, a black shroud of bleakness enveloping everything until eventually Paul is the group’s only survivor.
Meanwhile, sickened by the senseless losses, Matthias Erzberger (Daniel Bruhl who would have surely played Paul in younger days), the German Minister of Finance, is seeking to secure an armistice with the French, headed by General Foch, whose uncompromising demands for German capitulation are not well-received by Erzeberg’s superiors (seen enjoying fine food and wine as opposed to the troop’s turnip bread), and particularly career officer General Friedrichs (Devid Striesow), who orders one final, fatal assault five minutes before the 11am ceasefire.
The film punctuated by gunshot like percussive notes, Berger pulls no punches in depicting the horror, both personal and mass, of the war, the dehumanisation of the fighting, while the addition of the signing of the armistice aboard a train has Erzberger presciently observing how the terms will lead the German people to resent the peace, ultimately giving rise to Nazism and WWII. It’s tough to watch but, in light of current conflicts and the rise of nationalism around the world, it’s a very important reminder of the need for sanity. (Netflix)
The Banshees of Inisherin (15)
It’s 1923 and over on the Irish mainland civil war is in full force (we know this because there’s some occasional smoke and sound of gunfire), but on the beautiful island of Inisherin life is calm and peaceful, the folk going about their (and sometimes other people’s) business and gathering in the pub at 2pm for a glass of the hard stuff and a chat. Which is what Pádraic (Colin Farrell), a mild-mannered farmer with a couple of dairy cows, a horse and his beloved donkey Jenny, who lives with his sister Siobhán (a quietly compelling Kerry Condon), has been doing for years with his fiddle-playing best mate Colm (Brendan Gleeson). However, on the day the film opens, Colm declares he doesn’t like him anymore and wants nothing more to do with him. Pádraic is bemused and confused. He believes himself to be a nice guy, though he may go off on one after a whisky or two. Has he done or said something? Apparently not, it seems that Colm, sunk in despair, has contemplated mortality and wants to get on with writing his music and not spend the rest of his days with someone he regards as dull with nothing to offer but inane chatter and protestations of being nice. When Pádraic continues to push for explanation, initially thinking it was an April Fool jape, Colm declares that, if he talks to him again, he will cut off one of his fingers and send it to him. It’s not a bluff. Five fingers later there’s been parental child abuse, a prediction of doom from the local crone (Sheila Flitton), an animal choking to death on a severed digit, a drowning, a leaving and a conflagration.
Reuniting with his In Bruges stars, the title taken from Colm’s new tune, again mining the theme of obsession writer-director Martin McDonagh addresses in Three Billboards, it’s a black comedy of male pride and loneliness that balances darkness and whimsy (with everybody feckin’ this and feckin’ that) equal measure as it builds to an act of violence. As such, he’s ably supported by a sterling support cast that includes David Pearse as the mean priest, Gary Lydon as bullying copper Kearney who is turned on by the idea of being paid six shilling to oversee an execution on the mainland and regularly batters and molests his mentally challenged son Dominic (a superb Barry Keoghan), who fancies Siobhán and just wants the company of someone who doesn’t abuse him.
It doesn’t quite pull off its parable of events reflecting the “bleakness and grudges and loneliness and spite” of a wider and equally self-mutilating conflict and, at the end of the day and the escalation, all it seems to be asking for is a little peace and quiet with your own thoughts. It’s a quiet, slow burning masterpiece with a banshee wail that will pierce the heart. (Disney+)
Beautiful Disaster (15)
Adapted from the young teen romance novel by Jamie Maguire, this reunites co-writer and director Roger Kumble with his After We Collided star Dylan Sprouse for what feels like a pick and mix of genres that co-stars Fall’s Virginia Gardner. She plays Abby Abernathy, a child poker prodigy tagged Lucky 13, who, as the film begins, is, tired of bailing him out, cutting out on her fallen star LA gambler father Mike (Brian Austin Green) and heading to join her best friend America (Libe Barer) at college in Sacramento. Here she meets tattooed campus bad boy Travis Maddox (Sprouse), the brother of America’s boyfriend Shepley (Austin North), a cage fighter in his spare time whose relationship are only ever for one night. She immediately declares she’s not interested, so naturally the rest of the film involves them inevitably coming together, largely driven by her losing a bet over one of his fights that means she has to spend a month living in his room in the apartment he shares with Shepley and America. There’s a meet cute with his dad and other assorted brothers, a brief dalliance with another would-be suitor, a drunken birthday party with a great vomit scene, and the obligatory fall out and make up arc. But then, the last third takes off in a completely unexpected direction as an LA double-cross thriller as Abby is forced to resume her poker career to prevent a casino boss breaking her dad’s legs, only to be called out as underage (Vegas requires you to be over 21) and Travis stepping up to take on a fighter called Chernobyl to try and save the day.
Punchier than you might expect from a romantic teen drama with some smart dialogue and Gardner and Sprouse making a lively double act, it’s not a great film but it is an undeniably entertaining one. (Amazon Prime)
Black Panther: Wakanda Forever (12A)
When Chadwick Boseman tragically died two years, not only did the world lose on the greatest actors of his generation, but it cast a huge shadow over the future of the character and franchise he had launched. Recasting with another actor would have been an insult to his memory but ditching the idea of a sequel was equally unthinkable given both its financial potential and how it had proven that a super-hero movie with an all-black cast could be a box office triumph. Fortunately, an alternative had already been trialled when, after Steve Rogers abdicated the role of Captain America at the end of Avengers: Endgame, the mantle was taken up by The Falcon in the ensuing TV series as he transitioned to take up the shield and the title. And so here, the film, again directed and co-written by Ryan Coogler, introduces another version of the Black Panther, the legendary protector of the Wakandan people, played by one of the already existing cast (given the feline nature of the suit, it’s not too hard to guess who that is). However, the new incarnation doesn’t appear until almost two thirds of the way through its extensive running time that adds an ironic note to the film’s title. Meaning there’s an awful lot of plot-set up to get through first.
It opens with Princess Shuri (Letitia Wright) working frantically to find a heart-shaped herb cure for the mysterious illness from which her brother T’Challa is dying. She fails and, according suitable ritualistic pomp and circumstance for a celebratory funeral, he’s consigned to the realm of the ancestors, via his coffin being taken up into the skies on a Wakandan jet, leaving his mother, Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett) as the nation’s temporary ruler and Shuri consumed with anger at the world that she was unable to prevent his passing.
Meanwhile, the geopolitical plot driver is set in motion with Western powers wanting to get their hands on and exploit Wakanda’s vibranium resources, attempting to take it by force while Ramonda is addressing the UK, only to be repelled by General Okoye (Danai Gurira) and her warriors; the Queen declaring that the previous mineral will never leave her lands. However, it turns out that Wakanda isn’t the only place it exists on Earth and that, thanks to a machine invented by genius college student Riri Williams (Dominique Thorne), there’s also evidence of it under the Atlantic Ocean. At which point, the CIA-vessel searching for it is besieged by mysterious warriors and everyone killed. Naturally, the Wakandans are suspected, but, in fact, the real attackers were a blue-skinned underwater race known as the Talokan, led by their ruler Namor (Tenoch Huerta Mejía), a superstrong half-human mutant with tiny wings on his angles. He duly turns up unannounced, blaming Wakanda for quest to obtain vibranium and telling her to find and deliver the scientist responsible for the machine to him, to be killed, or he will attack Wakanda. Oh, and not to tell anyone about him.
All of this takes an inordinate amount of time with only bursts of action to punctuate proceedings, during which, with the help of CIA agent Ross (Martin Freeman), Shuri and Okoye visit her in Washington to try and take her to Wakanda for her protection, Riri and Shuri ending up being captured by Namor and taken to his realm (where we get his origin story and some spectacular shots of his underwater city), where he proposes an alliance to destroy the surface world, an angry Ramonda stripping Okoye of her rank, a rescue by Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), T’Challa’s lover who’s been living in Haiti since The Blip in the Avengers series, and a retaliatory attack on Wakanda that results in yet another royal death. It’s around this point that the real action finally kicks in with a visit to the ancestral plane (cue a reappearance by Michael B. Jordan, as the usurper Killmonger), the emergence of the new Black Panther and the big Wakanda/Takonan showdown complete with some new high tech Wakandan armour.
Fuelled by loss, grief, vengeance, mercy, moral choices, oppression and colonial exploitation of Third World resources among things, it carries a weighty thematic dynamic that at times feels like an overload, but give the film a more mature and sober edge than many of its Marvel companion pieces. On top of which, following The Woman King, it’s the second film this year constructed around virtually all female Black cast. Returning names include Michaela Coel given a bigger role as Aneka of the royal guard and Winston Duke as belligerent Jabari tribesman M’Baku, while among the new additions are Mabel Cadena as Namor’s cousin Namora and Alex Livinalli as the Talokanil warrior Attuma (a renegade warlord and Namor’s enemy in the comics) with famed singer Baaba Maal cameoing as the funeral singer. The performances are strong throughout, but it’s a ferocious Bassett, the electrifying Wright, a fierce Gurira and impressive Mexican newcomer Mejía in his first leading role who generate the high voltage with Thorne’s spunky teenager setting up her role as Ironheart, a rocket-suited teenage Iron-Man, in the upcoming TV series.
And, inevitably, Boseman’s presence haunts the film, both in constant references to T’Challa’s death and, in the final moments, poignant archive footage from the first film, giving the revelatory moment in the obligatory mid-credits scene a hefty emotional punch. (Disney+)
Bodies Bodies Bodies (15)
Directed by Halina Reijin, this pitch black horror comedy for Gen Z is one of the year’s best. Accompanied by her enigmatic working-class new Eastern European girlfriend, Bee (Borat’s Maria Bakalova), recovering addict Sophie (Amandla Stenberg) turns up at a weekend hurricane party at the secluded mansion home of wealthy but toxic (“I look like I fuck. It’s my whole vibe”) childhood friend David (Peter Davidson), much to the surprise of the other spoiled brattish guests who include David’s drama queen actress girlfriend Emma (Chase Sui Wonders), airhead podcaster (“Hanging out with your smartest, funniest friend”) Alice (Rachel Sennott, her bemused 40-year-old new Tinder boyfriend Greg (Lee Pace), and Sophie’s ever sceptical old flame Jordan (Myha’la Herrold). Another, Max, left earlier following a fight with David.
Tensions are clearly evident, to which end, the others fuelled by drink and drugs, she suggests they play the titular murder in the dark-style game in which each player slaps their friend across the face and takes a shot. After which, one of them is randomly appointed as the killer. However, the slaps rather less than playful, Greg, a group outsider like Bee, decides to retire early and David, who the others have decided is the killer, storms off after another fight with Emma. Only, the power out, to appear at a window clutching at his throat. Now, Sophie’s car battery dead, it’s down to the others to work out who the real killer is as they explore the house by the light of cellphones and flashlights. At some point a gun surfaces.
Riffing on themes of false friendships, paranoia, distrust, jealousy, faux activism and white feminism and making effective use of the claustrophobic lighting and score, it builds the tension as the body count continues to rise as secrets are revealed and the rocky relationships between the group unravel, though to reveal more would spoil the revelations. Peppered with smartly comic dialogue along with the high pitched drama and some bloody violence, the entire cast bring solid, compelling performances to their characters although it’s Davidson, Sennott and Bakalova who, in their different ways, shine the brightest. Even if the final moments are slightly anti-climactic, a wholly unexpected last act twist throws the group dynamics into stark relief while reinforcing the core themes it’s been exposing. This is what happens when you’re cut adrift from your social media and the real world erupts. (Microsoft Store; Rakuten TV; Sky Cinema)
Book Club: The Next Chapter (12A)
Jane Fonda (spiky hotelier Vivian), Candice Bergen (now divorced judge Sharon), Diane Keaton (anxiety-prone Diane) and Mary Steenburgen (restaurateur Carol) reunite as the four elderly book club friends jet off to Italy for Vivian’s impending marriage to rediscovered former suitor Arthur (Don Johnson), with the bachelorette party the fun girls trip they never had. Inevitably, double entendres and lost luggage occur, secrets are revealed and everything turns into a Prosecco-fuelled cross-country romp, naturally involving scenes involving leadenly unfunny wedding dress shopping and the four staring up open-mouthed at well-endowed naked male statues.
Swapping Fifty Shades of Grey (about finding sexual liberation) for The Architect (about finding your destiny), and opening with an interminable sequence of Zoom book club meetings during lockdown during which they’ve variously taken up pickling vegetables and adopting “rescue parrots”, we get Carol bumping into an old flame and furtively monitoring whether husband Bruce (Craig T. Nelson) sticks to his unappetising diet following his heart attack and taking up accordion having closed the restaurant during the pandemic, while the now retired and sexually reenergised Sharon gets her own romantic sidebar with expat philosophy professor (Hugh Quarshie), the two of them getting it on a water taxi.
Looking like product placement for the Italian tourist bureau, there’s pratfalls, some dancing, a cameo by celebrity chef Giancarlo Giannini as himself while Andy Garcia reprises his roles as Diane’s incredibly wealthy New Mexico airline pilot. The quartet still have sparks together, but, largely devoid of laughs or emotional depth, that hardly justifies its existence. At one point, all four wind up behind bars. Given the film, they certainly deserve it. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel; Vue)
Creed III (15)
As well as reprising the title character, Michael B. Jordan also confidently takes up the directing reins for this third instalment in the Rocky spin-off, one that muddies the clear cut moral waters of the previous outings in both franchises. Now retired from the ring, he’s enjoying the fruits of his success , running a gym and living in a plush L.A. mansion with his successful pop star wife Bianca (Tessa Thompson), herself now in quasi-retirement due to hearing loss, and their deaf daughter Amara (Mila Davis-Kent), with whom he communicates in sign language. Bianca’s now writing and producing songs for others, while Adonis is mentoring hot-headed new heavyweight champion, Felix Chavez (Jose Benavidez). But then his world’s upended with the arrival of a figure from the past, Damian “Dame” Anderson (Jonathan Majors), fresh from spending 18 years behind bars for reasons shown in the opening sequence of their delinquent childhood and various subsequent flashbacks that add extra detail as to what happened when the young Adonis (Thaddeus James Mixson Jr.) beat up an old nemesis outside a liquor store, Dame (Spence Moore II) intervened with a gun when he was being grappled with and the cops showed up.
A former amateur Golden Gloves champ, Diamond Dame now wants his shot at the big time, the unwitting Adonis, in a mix of guilt and friendship, and stung by a retort reminding him of how he got his own shot as a contender, offering to train him at the gym under Duke (Wood Harris), who sagely suggests it’s not perhaps a good idea given how he’s driven by anger and resentment.
When, following a record release bash where an incident brutally removes Viktor Drago (Florian Munteanu) from the upcoming world title bout, Adonis gives Dame his shot, pummelling Chavez to win the title, given the formulaic nature of such films, it’s not hard to predict that the two former friends will end up in the ring together, one in black one in white in Westerns tradition. However, the journey there, one which involves the inevitable training montages, Adonis confronting his past, the discovery of prison letters from Dame he never saw and the exit of a Creed family member from the series, is nonetheless dramatically powerful. As well as ramming the punches home with slow motion rippling flesh as body blows land, Jordan also finds a way to bring something new to the big showdown as the boxing arena transforms into something more existential as the crowds vanish and the ring ropes are replaced by prison bars.
Thompson is somewhat sidelined, but Jordan again brings dynamite charisma to the screen, even so he’s outshone by Majors, delivering a double whammy following his current turn as Kang The Conqueror, in an electrifying embodiment of passive-aggressiveness, arrogance and anger fuelled by a long simmering feeling of being betrayed and abandoned and his future snatched from out of his gloves.
It’s hard to see where Jordan could take Adonis’s story from there, but hey, maybe those scenes with him giving the plucky young Amara pointers on how to deliver a punch might yet resolve into a gender-switch sequel some years down the line. (Sky Store)
Dungeons & Dragons: Honour Among Thieves (12A)
It’s been 23 years since the first adaptation of the first role-playing phenomenon that has established itself as one of the world’s most successful board games was released to coruscating reviews and box office disaster, Since then there’s been a couple of sequels, one for TV and one direct to DVD, neither of which fared much better. Now, however, 11 years since the last outing, directed by Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley and co-written with Michael Gilio, and with no connection to its predecessors, it has been reborn to deservedly thunderous acclaim to stake a claim as one of the year’s most entertaining, enjoyable and spectacular adventure movies.
In this revision, a peak self-mocking Chris Pine is Edgin Darvis, a former member of the Harpers until his wife was killed by a Red Wizard, following which he went rogue and, looking to make a new life for himself and his daughter Kira (Chloe Coleman),, joined forces with street-tough barbarian warrior Holga Kilgore (Michelle Rodriguez), amateur sorcerer Simon (Justice Smith), and con artist Forge Fitzwilliam (Hugh Grant in gloriously smarmy scenery chewing villain mode). Infiltrating a former Harper stronghold to steal the Tablet of Awakening that can resurrect his wife, they’re exposed and, while Forge and Simon escape, Edgin and Holga are caught and so it is that two years in, we find them appearing before a prison parole tribunal, pulling off a daring escape and seeking out Forge, only to learn that, now the Lord of Neverwinter and acting as Kira’s guardian, he has turned her against her father (saying he abandoned her for personal gain) and is, in fact, in league with his accomplice, Sofina (Daisy Head), a Red Wizard, and orders their execution. So, following another close call, with plans to break into Forge’s vault to get the Tablet of Reawakening, Edgin and Holga (who’s nursing the pain of a broken heart) track down the sweetly insecure Simon who suggests they also recruit Doric (Sophia Lillis), a sharp-tongued human-hating elfin-eared shapeshifter druid on whom he has a crush, to join the team but, without sufficient magic to disable the defences, a corpse question time with assorted dead warriors results in them calling on the ultra-cool, self-assured, irony-oblivious Xenk Yandar (Regé-Jean Page), a paladin and the sole survivor of the Thay, who were crushed by the Red Wizards, who holds the secret location of the Helmet of Disjunction that will help them overcome the barriers surrounding the vault.
Needless to say, things don’t go too smoothly and after another series of scrapes with assorted dead and living forces, the team end up finding themselves taking part in an old series of gladiatorial Games staged amid mazes in a giant arena that Forge has revived and which he intends to use to steal a fortune from the gamblers and make off with Kira, and for Sofina to turn everyone into zombie slaves. So, no pressure then.
Played out in a series of escalating quests and levels, it rattles along shooting of witty one-liners as it romps from one elaborate action set piece to another, variously involving undead assassins and fire-breaking dragons, a portal-opening hither and thither staff and a bout of lute playing. Featuring eye-popping state of the art digital effects and cinematography, knowing self-aware dialogue, outstanding cast chemistry and a screenplay than can shift from wild slapstick to piercing poignancy at the snap of a finger, not to mention a star turn cameo playing Holga’s dwarf former lover, this will be every D&D fan’s wet dream (with a pleasing nod to characters from the game during the maze sequence) but has more than enough chutzpah to knock the fantasy socks off anyone with even a passing interest in family-fuelled franchises like Game Of Thrones, Lord of the Rings or even Fast and Furious. (Vue)
As highly melodramatic as it is stylised, Baz Luhrmann’s biopic of Elvis Presley pretty much follows the adage of going with the myth (or perhaps fairy tale) when it’s better than the facts. As such, much is brushed over or ignored (his affair with Ann-Margret, , his meeting with Nixon demanding action against the lefties, no mention by name of his legendary backing musicians Scotty Moore and DJ Fontana and while there’s the pills but no Fat Elvis cheeseburger binges), while other parts polish the realities (the young Elvis – Chaydon Jay- may indeed have had his R&B education by hearing Big Boy Crudup singing That’s Alright Mama in a juke joint or gospel by sneaking into a revival meeting, but, despite what the film shows, he and B.B. King weren’t best buddies who hung out together on Beale Street, though they were famously photographed together). Ultimately though, while overlong, this is a solid if flashy portrait of how he became the best-selling solo music artist and a legend whose influence continues to this day set against his relationship with his manipulative svengali manager Col. Tom Parker whose contract stipulated 50% of all earnings, eventually, after Presley’s death, being charged with financial abuse.
Parker, an illegal Dutch immigrant named Andreas Cornelis van Kuijk who claimed to be American and earned the honorary title of Colonel after assisting Jimmie Davis’s campaign to become Governor of Louisiana, was a carnival snake oil showman – or snowman – who got into the music business managing Hank Snow before ‘discovering’ Presley after hearing his Sun recording of That’s Alright Mama and seeing dollar signs to learn that the singer was white not black and seeing how his gyrations exploded sexual frenzy in his teenage girl audience (“She’s having feelings she wasn’t sure she should enjoy”, Parker notes). He’s played here under heavy jowelled prosthetics by Tom Hanks with an accent that sounds nothing like Parker but does, appropriately enough, conjure up the rasp of the serpent from Eden (though the visual suggestions he was Jewish are unfounded) while opposite him Austin Butler delivers a star-making surprise BAFTA winning turn in the title role, capturing his passions, his insecurities, vulnerability and trusting innocence, his voice a close approximation of Presley and looking spookily like him in the iconic poses, although more often he resembles a young John Travolta with the same electrifying charisma.
Although (unreliably) narrated with a running commentary by Hanks as the ailing Parker after Presley’s death, justifying his role and rejecting accusations that he exploited him and essentially caused his death, the screenplay, clearly makes him out to be the villain of the piece, using his flimflam skills, promises of wealth and fame and, ultimately, emotional and financial blackmail, to maintain his control of Elvis even when he was briefly fired in order to secure the money to feed his gambling habit (he negotiated Presley’s five year cash cow deal to be perform at the International in Vegas in return for having his debts cancelled, a point hammered home with the ‘caught in a trap’ line from Suspicious Minds) while his not having a passport being the reason he scuppered any plans for Presley’s international tours. In his commentary, Parker rejects being responsible for the star’s death, going to far as blaming the fans and their obsessive desire to see him keep performing.
As usual for Luhrmann, its delivered in a dizzying rush of over-saturated colour, dissolves, chronological acrobatics and even animation (though the decision to include contemporary hop on the soundtrack is a major misfire). It touches – albeit not in any great depth – on the contentious issue of whites appropriating black music (Presley’s frequently shown in the company of Black performers like King (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), Little Richard and Sister Rosetta Tharpe, clearly a fan of their music, alongside segregation (childhood poverty meant his family had to live in neighbourhoods meant only for people of colour) and the impact on him of Martin Luther King’s assassination. Ticking the biographical boxes of his army service (apparently engineered by Parker to avoid him being jailed for degeneracy), the inane conveyor belt movies, his devotion to his mother Gladys (Helen Thomson), his inept business manager father Vernon (Richard Roxburgh), his marriage to (and eventual divorce from) Priscilla (Olivia DeJonge), and, of course, Gracelands.
A stand out section is the 1968 Elvis comeback special, intended by Parker (to please the sponsors) to be a cosy Christmas special with seasonal sweaters and fireside, but which Presley, in cohorts with director Steve Binder (Dacre Montgomery), turned into his rock n roll resurrection in black leathers and ending, following Bobby Kennedy’s shooting, with his stark performance of If I Can Dream. Likewise the recreation of the lavish Vegas performances, though perhaps not as dramatically effective as the scenes of the young Elvis discovering the sexual magnetism in his swivelling hips.
Musically leaving the building ending with Elvis singing Unchained Melody in his final Vegas season before the end captions wrap up his death and Parker’s comeuppance, while superior to Bohemian Rhapsody and ultimately coming in second place to Rocketman, this is Luhrmann’s best since Moulin Rouge. (Amazon Prime; Sky Cinema)
Enola Holmes 2 (12A)
Targeted at young girls who feel in the shadow of their older brothers or not taken seriously simply because they are not boys, this fun and ingeniously plotted sequel returns to 1880s London where Enola Holmes (Stranger Things’ Millie Bobby Brown), sister of the famous detective Sherlock (Henry Cavill), has, inspired by her success in cracking the case in the first film, has set up her own detective agency. Unfortunately, her age and sex deter any potential clients and she’s just about to jack it in when a young girl named Bessie (Serrana Su-Ling Bliss) turns up asking her to find her older ‘sister’, Sarah (Hannah Dodd), who’s gone missing after being accused of theft at the local match factory where they both work in poor conditions for pitiful wages and where many other match-girls have been dying of typhus.
Infiltrating the factory, Enola discovers that Sarah did indeed steal something; not money but pages from a ledger, and so, the game afoot, launches a complicated plot and a series of clever clues about corruption and cover-ups that link to a case that has Sherlock baffled involving money that has gone missing from the Treasury being funnelled through several apparently unconnected banks, All of which variously has Enola going undercover at a society ball and being given urgent on the spot dance lessons by romantic interest Lord Tewkesbury (Louis Partridge), so she can get to talk to William Lyon (Gabriel Tierney), the son of the factory owner and Sarah’s lover; match-girl Mae (Abbie Hern), who, like Sarah, also works at the music hall and Enola being pursued and arrested for her murder by the decidedly sinister Inspector Grail (David Thewlis), his brutal bobby accomplices and the bumbling Inspector LeStrade (Adeel Akhtar); a rescue by her suffragette mother (Helena Bonham-Carter) and martial arts landlady Edith (Susan Wokoma); a string of cryptic ciphers; and yet another murder all coming together with a swords and fisticuffs climax at the theatre and an inspired twist involving the introduction of Sherlock’s genius nemesis Moriarty.
Delivering messages of sisterhood, of both being self-reliant but also working together for a common goal, the effervescent, perky Brown is a delight, frequently talking directly to the camera as the film breaks the fourth wall, and Cavill has been given a lot more to do this time round as the two end up working together (at this point there is no Watson in his life, but hang on for the mid-credits scene) while the character of Sarah and the final scenes are inspired by the real Sarah Chapman who worked in a match factory, led the first matchworkers strike in 1888 and helped form the Matchworkers Union. Great fun, so roll on No 3. (Netflix)
Evil Dead Rise (18)
Somethings refuse to die, and so it is that Sam Raimi’s franchise, which began in 1981, continues to rise from the grave into which increasingly poor and derivative sequels threw it, not least the 2013 reimagining which dispensed with any of the original black humour in favour of lashings of gore and buckets of blood. The same formula holds true for this latest reboot by Irish director Lee Cronin who apparently drenched set and cast with 6,500 litres of fake blood, presumably paid for with the money saved on the script.
There’s just the bare bones of a plot. After a shaky cam intro and a lakeside prologue in which a possessed woman scalps another and then kills her annoying jerk friend with a drone scalped, things switch to LA a day earlier where, recently abandoned by her husband, tattoo artist Ellie (Alyssa Sutherland) lives with her three kids and now visited by her long absent guitar tech sister Beth (Lily Sullivan), When an earthquake opens up a hole in the nearby parking garage, teen son Danny (Morgan Davies) and his sister Bridget (Gabrielle Echols discover a hidden bank vault from where he recovers an ancient book – the Necronomicon – and a bunch of 78s. She, is understandably put off by the illustrations it contains, and tells him to get rid of it. Naturally he doesn’t and instead starts playing the records which, obligingly provide the basic exposition as, recorded by some priest, the last survivor, it explains that incanting from the book unleashes unkillable (cue sequel potential) demons. And so it is that Ellie’s soon possessed, dies, comes back to life and starts trying to turn the rest of her fractured family into monsters too, killing off various neighbours along the way until it’s just down to Beth and her young niece Kassie (Nell Fisher) left trying to find a way to stay alive and destroy Ellie and her brood.
And that’s pretty much it. Sutherland dives tight in, chewing up lines like “mommy’s with the maggots now” with gleeful relish but, while the film offers a few novel kills (one seen through the fish-eye lens of a door) and creative ways of inflicting bodily harm (a cheese grater), and ends with a chainsaw nod to original, it’s never remotely scary while the thin, shallow, empty and soulless story (with a frankly redundant pregnancy subplot) never connects you with the characters. If all you want is vomit, bugs, decapitations, and impalement though the soft palate to go with your popcorn, then this certainly gives you your money’s worth, but otherwise this is a gruelling experience in all the wrong ways. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC; Empire Great Park; Mockingbird; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Vue)
Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery (12A)
Having done blockbuster style business on its brief cinema release, Rian Johnson’s second Agatha Christie/Sherlock Holmes –inspired whodunit now resides at Netflix, returning Daniel Craig as the intriguingly accented Southern dandy super-sleuth Benoit Blanc (and with a surprise star cameo indicating his sexual orientation) as he embarks on another convoluted case.
The Disruptors, a tight knit inner circle who go back to college days when they committed to disrupting the status quo, have all received a complex puzzle invitation for an annual get together with Elon Musk-esque billionaire mutual friend Miles Bron (Edward Norton), the CEO of high tech online network Alpha who styles himself as some utopian hippy, on his private Greek island (dominated by the titular architectural showpiece and adorned with masterpieces that may include the actual Mona Lisa) for a murder mystery weekend, the murder they have to solve being his.
The clique includes Birdie (Kate Hudson), an airhead fashion model turned influencer prone to unwitting racist tweets and forced to take responsibility for a sweatshop that manufactures her line, her assistant Peg (Jessica Henwick), compromised Connecticut governor Claire (Kathryn Hahn) whose campaign is being underwritten by Bron, obnoxious machismo-overdrive right-wing men’s-rights YouTuber Duke Cody (Dave Bautista) and his barely-dressed young girlfriend Whiskey (Madelyn Cline) who he’s suing to seduce Bron into giving him a slot on Alpha News, put-upon corporate scientist Lionel (Leslie Odom Jr) constantly subjected to a barrage of faxed demands from Bron, and, surprisingly, Bron’s ostracised by everyone former business partner Cassandra Brand (Janelle Monáe), who had the original idea for Alpha but got shafted by Bron having refused his plan for Klear, a potentially dangerous hydrogen-based alternative fuel source. More surprisingly, given he has no connection to any of them and Bron didn’t invite him, is the inclusion of Blanc with his natty cravat and one piece swimsuit. For some reason, the island is also home to resident slacker Derol (Noah Segan, in a sly nod to the previous film).
It’s impossible to reveal much without ruining the intricately constructed narrative with its misdirections, twists and turns, flashbacks, reversals and reveals as events play out to the island’s minimalist high tech backdrop with its passive-aggressive anti-smoking alarms, but suffice to say, there’s a definite agenda to the gathering, and one or possibly two actual murders (Blanc solves Bron’s game version almost as soon as he arrives) as Blanc and Brand work together to get to the bottom of Bron’s machinations and unpeel the onion’s multiple layers.
The message that extreme wealth corrupts is fairly obvious but is generally secondary to the enjoyment of watching Blanc unpick the threads to a backdrop of dazzling costume design and cinematography, Craig clearly having a huge amount of fun while performances by Monáe, Norton, Bautista and especially a wildly amusing Hudson are all an utter delight. Not to mention an array of cameos that include Ethan Hawke, Hugh Grant, Stephen Sondheim, Angela Lansbury, Natasha Lyonne, Yo-Yo Ma, Serena Williams and even Joseph Gordon-Levitt as the voice of Bron’s clock, the Hourly Dong. (Netflix)
Good Luck To You, Leo Grande (15)
Directed by Sophie Hyde and written by Katy Brand, this is a two-hander that plays very much like a stage play of three acts and an epilogue and is structured entirely around the conversations between its two characters. These are Leo Grande (Daryl McCormack), a good-looking, well-toned young Irish Black man who runs a business service as a sex-worker, and his client, Nancy Stokes (Emma Thompson), a recently widowed fiftyish ex-teacher, who has booked a plush hotel room to have sex. Naturally, neither are using their real names. He’s smooth, polite, articulate, non-judgemental and well-versed in how to interact with people, she’s insecure and nervous, confessing that she’s never had – and thinks herself unable to have – an orgasm and only ever had sex with her late husband. He experienced, she far from it, the first session is mostly a cat and mouse game about the two getting to know each other, he trying to calm her anxieties, she finding reasons not to go through with what she’s hired him for.
It’s funny but also piercingly sad as she gradually opens up about her disappointments, the stagnation of her marriage, her husband’s unchanging and brief sex routines, her feelings about her son and daughter and her general view of herself as a failure. It ends with them finally concluding the deal. At the next session, she’s seemingly more confident, having drawn up a fuck-it list of what she wants, staring with oral sex. However, she continues to prevaricate while, over the course of this and the third session, the focus shifts more to Leo, who she presses on his life outside work, his relationship with his mother and sibling, something he’s reluctant to discuss as we come to realise that behind his self-assured persona, his life too his engrained with disappointments, hurt and insecurity (he’s seen checking himself out in the mirror on several occasions, and not for vanity).
It eventually comes to a head where, not understanding how boundaries work, she confronts him with his real name and we learn the heartbreaking reality of his background before he storms out. The epilogue is a final meeting, the relationship between them somehow changed, and introduces a third character, a hotel waitress that Nancy (who reveals her real name in a wry filmic in-joke) used to teach.
Slowly learning more about Leo and Nancy’s inner worlds and emotional scars is part and parcel of what makes this such a terrific work and to give away more would ruin the pleasures and poignancy of the screenplay and the performances with their tremendous chemistry. Suffice to say, embracing shame, frustration, body image, the nature of sex workers, parent-child conflicts, desire, and sexual healing/therapy, it’s a wonderfully compassionate and very human work. McCormack, previously seen in Peaky Blinders delivers a magnetic star-making turn that conveys depth and complexity in the most simple of physical gestures while, in her first nude scene, Thompson, bristling with nervous energy and navigating a lifetime marked by lack of self-worth, guilt, unhappiness and disappointment, gives a luminous, multi-faceted performance that is unquestionably the finest of a stellar career. From foreplay to climax, this will leave you with a glow of satisfaction. (Rakuten TV)
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. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Electric; Empire Great Park; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Vue)
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. (Cineworld NEC; Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Vue)
Little Richard: I Am Everything (12A)
Although chart success soon petered out once Elvis arrived to claim the title of the king of rock n roll, it’s an indisputable – though largely unacknowledged – fact that, as he himself never tired of pointing out, he was the originator, whose influence, both in music and mannerisms, would inform the likes of Bowie (a big fan), Prince, Rick James and, today, Harry Styles
Born in 1932 in Macon, Georgia, one of 12 children and the son of a church deacon who also ran moonshine and operated a nightclub, ‘Little’ Richard Penniman was music’s answer to the big bang, taking influences from R&B and gospel (Sister Rosetta Tharpe prime among them) and transforming them into an electrifying, primal and sexual force. He’d already had a huge R&B hit with Tutti Frutti (in a cleaned up version, the homosexual anal sex lyrics rewritten) before Presley’s Heartbreak Hotel and it’s often stated that white performers like Elvis (who covered Tutti Frutti), Jerry Lee Lewis (Good Golly Miss Molly) and later The Beatles (Lucille) appropriated black music – and Little Richard in particular, but historian Zandria Robinson prefers to term it obliteration, meaning that black music wasn’t just stolen but the artists were swept under the carpet. It’s hard to believe that the ultra- wholesome white Pat Boone sold more copies of both Tutti Frutti and Long Tall Sally than Richard did.
Clearly a fan, Lisa Cortés’s documentary sets out to reframe the perspective and in so doing also illuminates how, while reinventing music for a new young audience and being patently queer (both in sexuality and flamboyance), he was also often at war with himself, twice renouncing secular – i.e. the devil’s – music to follow gospel and preach God’s word and conflicted over his sexuality (his father through him out because of his effeminate ways), famously declaring God made Adam and Eve not Adam and Steve, and having an affair with an underage girl, Audrey Robinson aka burlesque dancer Lee Angel.
Drawing on interviews with ethnologists, historians, musicians past (among them members of his old band) and present (Jagger, Tom Jones, Nona Hendryx), director John Walters (whose pencil moustache he wears in tribute) members of the LBGT community and relatives and peppering her film with archive clips of him performing (both musically and in interviews), while it omits certain aspects (his molestation as a child, his male lovers), it offers an illuminating insight into his music, career (he once performed in drag as Princess LaVonne with Sugar Foot Sam from Alabam’) and personality (especially how his pompadour hairdo, use of make-up and costumes and even upright piano playing style were influenced by early 40s openly gay musicians Billy Wright and Esquerita), his magnetic showmanship in front of the camera (he was always very funny, even when making barbed comments on how his contribution to rock and roll had been ignored, as he says in one interview “I’m not conceited. I’m convinced”) seeming an overcompensation for an innate shyness and insecurity.
Cortés use of visual imagery of stars and galaxies exploding, scattering CGI fairy dust whenever the music is heard or mentioned is a touch overdone, but that’s a minor quibble in a long overdue documentary that sets Little Richard at the top of the rock n roll pantheon where he truly belongs. (Electric; MAC)
Love Again (12A)
Mira (Priyanka Chopra Jonas) is a children’s book illustrator about a caterpillar who doesn’t want to become a butterfly (early metaphor alert) who saw her boyfriend John (Arinzé Kene) killed (offscreen) in a traffic accident. Rob (Heughan) is a music critic who got dumped the week before his wedding. Two years later, neither have been able to move on. Both have lost their professional and personal spark.
Taking advice from the widowed owner (Omid Djalili) of her favourite café, who says he still talks to his dead wife, she starts sending texts to John’s phone, saying how she feels as a form of healing therapy. And, due to one of these mystical rom com contrivances, an electric storm links her to Rob’s new work phone, which has been allocated John’s old number. Now he’s getting all these sad missing you messages (she never questions why she doesn’t get a message undeliverable notification). Inexplicably never texting back ‘who the fuck is this?’, initially he thinks it’s his work colleague Lisa (Lydia West cast just to roll eyes and sniffle, almost as pointless as Celia Irie as Mira’s publisher), while gay workmate Billy (Russell Tovey) suggests it’s a stalker.
Meanwhile, trying to her back into the groove Mira’s effervescent younger sister Suzy (Sofia Barclay) fixes her a dating app profile and learning his caller is going on a blind date, Billy and, both intrigued and infatuated, Rob turn up at the same bar to see if they can work out who it is. Mira’s date (played real life husband Nick Jonas) turns out to be a fitness fanatic jerk who wants sex to work off his carbs, but when she arrives she catches Rob’s eye (while Billy scores with a silver fox). Later, learning the caller will be going to the opera to see Orpheus and Eurydice wearing a yellow dress in memory, he fetches up there too, clocking this is who’s been texting, swapping numbers and arranging to meet again. Romance blossoms, but, inevitably, he can’t summon up the courage to tell her about the texts. And when he does, well…
Meanwhile, in a ridiculously shoehorned in storyline, his boss (Steve Oram) has assigned him to interview Celine Dion (playing a version of herself) about her first US tour in ten years, even though he reckons her songs are sentimental and trite. Bemused by his incompetence (she tells him he has she tells Rob that he has “the presence of a pair of used underwear”), she implausibly ends up becoming his love guru, though there’s something uncomfortably morbid about her talking about her own real-life loss of her husband as part of the narrative, naturally prompting a comment about My Heart Will Go On.
Directed on autopilot by Jim Strause and adapted from a German film titled SMS für Dich (Text For You) which in turn was based on the novel by Sofie Cramer, neither of which featured Celine Dion or indeed any singer as the romantic mediator, it never seems quite sure about is tone. Is it about new starts or coming to terms with grief, or both. As a rom com, there’s very few laughs and, while Chopra Jonas sparkles, the total lack of chemistry between her and a flat Heughan pretty much sinks the rom too. Dion wrote five new songs for the film and there’s also six of her hits (including the clunkily plot-reinforcing All By Myself and It’s All Coming Back To Me Now) and gets to perform over the end credits, making it one of those times when the soundtrack is far better than the film. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel; Vue)
Luther – The Fallen Sun (15)
It was inevitable that, at the end of the fifth BBC series, with DSI John Luther (Idris Elba) being sent down for doing all the wrong things for all the right reasons, that his story wouldn’t end there. And so it is that Netflix have picked things up with this feature-length outing that brings both a bigger budget and a bigger plot that seems to have strayed in from an overblown bombastic screenplay that, while still written by Neil Cross, might well have been pitched and rejected as a potential for Bond or Batman.
Directed by series veteran Jamie Payne, who does at least have a good eye for aerial shots of London, it opens with Luther investigating the disappearance of a young bloke called Callum (lured into a trap with a long missing and long dead woman, apparently kept on ice, found in the car) and promising his mum that he will find him before exposure of his bending of the rules lands him in court and then jail. However, in this reworking, all his troubles have been engineered (shades of Ernst Blofeld in No Time To Die) by the film’s deranged creepy villain, David Robey (Andy Serkis in plastic suntan and a wig from hell), a former city trader who has acquired compromising footage on any number of people (Callum among them) which he uses to DSU Odette Raine (Cynthia Erivo), to a conflagration in which several bodies, Callum’s included, are fund hanging from the ceiling, and then sends a recording of the boys dying screams to Luther in his cell via an FM radio channel, taunting him by saying they’d met before, it’s not long before our redemption-seeking hero is devising a prison break so he can track down his nemesis before Raine and her team, into which his retired former boss DSU Martin Schenk (Dermot Rowley) has been recruited, catch up with him.
Gradually, and following several people leaping to their deaths in Piccadilly Circus, Robey’s preposterous – and surely staggeringly expensive – masterplan is revealed as being to stage a live streaming snuff porn Red Room where punters of varying perversions can virtually join and watch and pick how their chosen victim (he has a cell load of abducted refugees lined up) is killed.
It’s all wildly nonsensical and frequently incredibly violent, riddled with any number of plot all before, by way of a chase through an abandoned underground rail tunnel and Robey’s connection to a woman with a burned, disfigured face in a private hospital that (like the film’s title) never really makes much sense, ends up at his remote snowbound Red Room hideaway in the frozen Norwegian wilds and a showdown that involves Luther, Raine and her abducted daughter.
It moves along at a fair lick with plenty of action scenes to keep you going and along with his trademark coat and car, Elba brings his familiar world-beaten but still unbowed portrayal but at this point, and given the surrounding plot, which randomly throws in everything from Se7en to Saw and Scandi-noir, there’s nothing new to add, although it does end with a set-up for a potential new government agent spin-off that rather amusingly alludes to all that talk of him being a potential new 007. (Netflix)
Written and directed by Nick Johnson and Will Merrick, who masterminded the virtual photography on Searching, this adopts the same approach by having all the action seen through cameras on CCTV, laptops, mobile phones, smartwatches and live feeds. As with the previous films, it involves a missing character, here that being Grace (Nia Long), the mother of computer wizard June (Storm Reid), whose father (Tim Griffin), as opening edited nosebleed footage indicates, died of cancer when she was young. Grace is now involved with Kevin (Ken Leung), with whom she’s setting off for a vacation in Colombia, leaving instructions for her daughter to pick them up from the return fight. And so, waking after a drunken house party, she duly turns up to find no mum. It seems she didn’t get on the plane and, calling the Cartagena hotel, it turns out all the luggage is still there.
Initially contacting FBI Agent Park (Daniel Henney) at the consulate, frustrated that they may not recover the hotel’s CCTV in time, she also recruits bargain basement local moped-riding Taskrabbit freelancer Javi (Joaquim de Almeida, adding some nice humour along with a dash of surrogate dad and the importance of parent-child communication) to investigate, his search turning up that Kevin bought a padlock from a local hardware store. That turns out to have a romantic explanation, but now, using her hacking skills, June’s digging into accounts, cracking passwords and discovering Kevin’s got a shady past. And then footage emerges of he and Grace being apparently kidnapped, the mystery compounded when Park asks if her mother ever went by another name. Cue conspiracy theories and national TV speculations.
To say more would spoil the twist and turns the film takes as a whole range of things don’t turn out to be what they appear, but between Reid’s sparky lead performance, the barrage of hi-tech and such Easter eggs as a true crime TV series that June watches, this is compelling, well-crafted viewing that totally draws you into its world, though, as a parent, it also sounds alarm bells about just how easy it might be for your children to unlock all those password protected secrets you thought were so secure. (Vue)
The Old Way (12A)
It may come as a surprise to learn that this is the first time Nicolas Cage has made a Western. And while hardly a classic, this by the numbers directorial debut by Brett Dono who is serviceably enjoyable enough with Cage giving one of his more modulated performances. Set in Montana, he plays Colton Briggs, a feared gunslinger who, in the opening sequence, guns down both several officials and the men trying to prevent the hanging of Boyd McAllister, the brother of notorious bandit Walter. Suffice to say, when the smoke clears. Briggs has killed both brothers, leaving only Boyd’s young son James as witness to events.
Years later, having found love with a good woman and had a daughter, the now clean-shaven Briggs has hung up his guns and runs a small store. One morning he takes daughter Brooke (Ryan Kiera Armstrong) with him, leaving Ruth (Kerry Knuppe) back at home. As she’s hanging out the washing, four men turn up, Boots (Shiloh Fernandez), Big Mike (Abraham Benrubi), and Eustice (Clint Howard) and the now grown James McCallister (Noah Le Gros) who’s out for revenge. Returning home, Briggs is met by Jarret (Nick Searcy), a US Marshall, who’s on their trail and learns that Ruth has been murdered. Burying her while Brooke sits implacable in the porch, he then takes his guns out of storage, sets fire to the house and the pair set off for revenge, meaning he first has to outsmart and obstruct the Marshall and his posse who want to do things legally.
Anyone with a passing knowledge of the genre will have a pretty good idea of how it goes from here, dutifully working its reassuringly predictable, way through the clichés to the final shootout, naturally including the scene where he teaches his daughter how to shoot a gun (she’s crap with a rifle but a dead shot with a six gun), setting up the inevitable later scene where that comes in handy. Carl W. Lucas’s dialogue is heavy-handed and over-written, not least an interminable speech by McCallister detailing his grudge and a long-winded all around the houses last scene exchange between Jarret and Brooke. While, taking his laconic cue from Clint, Cage doesn’t chew the scenery to the extent has in recent outings, Le Gros, Benrubi, Searcy, and, especially, Howard all make up for this by hamming outrageously. Armstrong, however, proves a real delight, even if you can’t avoid thinking she must have watched Hailee Steinfeld in True Grit on a loop as preparation. The film never comes anywhere close to that, but it passes the time well enough. (Rakuten TV; Sky Cinema)
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)
The Pale Blue Eye (15)
Adapted from the Louis Bayard novel by writer-director by Scott Cooper and atmospherically photographed by Masanobu Takayanagi, set in 1830 it revolves around a brace of murders and mutilations at the West Point military academy. In the first, a cadet, Leroy Fry (Steven Maier) has been found hanged and his heart removed from the body while it was in the morgue. To which end, retired ace detective Augustus Landor (Christian Bale), a widower who lives alone after his daughter apparently ran off, is commissioned by Superintendent Thayer (Timothy Spall) and Captain Hitchcock (Simon McBurney) to investigate as a matter of urgency given the academy is under threat of closure. Examining the body he finds a fragment of a note in his band and marks that suggest murder rather than suicide.
In the course of his investigations he recruits another cadet, aspiring poet and future gothic mystery author Edgar Allen Poe (Harry Melling), an oddball academy misfit (Poe actually did attend West Point) who has also expressed an interest in the case, deciphering the fragment to reveal it was a summons to a secret meeting. The discovery of a butchered sheep and cow with the hearts removed suggest black magic rituals, something given more credence when another cadet, and a potential suspect, Ballinger (Fred Hechinger) is also found hanged, his heart missing (though removed in a less surgical manner) and his genitals mutilated.
Suspicion falls upon the family of Dr. Daniel Marquis (Toby Jones), the coroner, and more particularly his alpha male son Artemus (Harrey Lawtey). to which end, Poe begins to court the daughter, Lea (Lucy Boynton), who suffers from seizures, though genuinely develops a love for her (the title comes from a fictitious poem he claims was dictated by his dead mother, but also links to Poe’s actual poem, Lenore) as the plot thickens and Gillian Anderson puts in a brief scenery chewing mannered turn as the coroner’s somewhat deranged wife. Suffice to say, suspicions are justified, but not in the way you might expect, with the truth behind the murders being revealed Agatha Christie style with flashbacks and explanations in the final scenes.
Along with Spall and McBurney, there’s somewhat underdeveloped exposition-serving cameos by Robert Duvall as an expert on the occult whom Landor consults and Charlotte Gainsbourgh as Patsy, the barmaid at the tavern who shares his bed. But, all straggly beard and hair, Bale is suitably intense, brooding and introspective as Landor. However, it’s inevitably Poe who proves the film’s real focus, Melling delivering a mesmerisingly off-kilter performance (the role was originally planned for Timothee Chalomet and you can see why), with a plethora of Poe in-jokes that range from a shot of a raven to Landor himself, his name derived from Poe’s detective C. Auguste Dupin and his final short story, Landor’s Cottage. Poe was, of course, the father of the modern detective story and this most certainly does him fine tribute. (Netflix)
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+)
Written and directed by Carlota Pereda, the poster for this Spanish revenge-cum-slasher horror pretty much tells you what to expect with an image of an obese blood-spattered teenage girl standing in the middle of the road. She’s Sara (Laura Galán), the daughter of an ineffectual demanding passive-aggressive pork butcher and his wife (Carmen Machi) who is both cruel in her diet-shaming treatment yet also fiercely protective when she learns Sara’s being bullied over her weight. And bullied she is on a daily basis with the fatphobic local kids constantly taunting her and calling her Piggy. One even posts a viral photo of the family labelled The Three Pigs.
One day, she goes to the local pool, self-consciously venturing into the water in her bikini, surprised to find a man emerge from the water. He leaves and, as he goes, three of Sara’s tormentors turn up, callous ringleader Maca (Claudia Salas), the no less mean Roci (Camille Aguilar) and Claudia (Irene Ferreiro), who doesn’t have the courage to stand up to the others. They call her names, hold her down with a water net and then steal her bag, clothes and towel, forcing her to walk home in just her swimsuit. To make matters worse, a car pulls up and a gang of misogynistic boys abuse her too. Fleeing down a dirt road into the woods, she comes across a white driven by the man from the pool and inside she sees Claudia, hand bloodied, screaming help from the back window. The man throws a towel out, Sara grabs it and goes home, saying nothing about what she witnessed. Her silence is compromised, however, when the body of the lifeguard (which she swam past underwater without noticing) is found and the mothers of the missing girls become increasingly frantic. Confronted by the police and her mother, she lies about being at the pool, partly from embarrassment, partly from not wanting to relive what she experienced and, anyhow, why should she help those who’ve made her life hell.
Inevitably, her lie is eventually exposed and the film veers off into even darker territory as another body is found, Sara ventures into the woods looking for her phone, just as the mothers are searching for their daughters and the two local cops for a missing bull, again coming face to face with the killer who, perhaps recognising another misfit, seems to have become her self-appointed protector, eventually dishing it out to her parents. Naturally, she stumbles upon the remaining two missing girls. The question being whether she will save them or leave to a well-deserved fate.
There’s times when the film repetitively stumbles around trying to find its feet, but Galán’s fearless performance keeps you transfixed while, as her mysterious Prince Charming (there’s a grim irony that the only kindness she gets is from a psychopathic killer), Richard Holmes rarely speaks, reinforcing the notion of him as a manifestation of her anger and wish to wreak revenge on her tormentors, until a crisis of conscience arises, while until the final moments there very little blood and violence on screen, but there’s no mistaking the message that allowing violence to persist, be it verbal or physical, simply perpetuates the cycle. (Amazon Prime)
Polite Society (12A)
The feature debut by British writer-director Nida Manzoor, creator of the TV series We Are Lady Parts, mashes up a whole bagful of genres, pouring coming-of-age high school comedy, Bollywood movie, martial arts flick and even references to Jane Austen into the blender and pouring out the results in a glorious smoothie that may not be nutritious but is crammed with fun and flavour.
With an almost entirely Pakistani cast, it’s set in London where, much to the mortification of her traditional career-seeking parents (Shobu Kapoor, Jeff Mirza), teenager Ria Khan (engaging newcomer Priya Kansara) dreams of becoming a female stuntwoman – The Fury – like her idol, real-life British stuntwoman Eunice Huthart, whose signature flying kick she consistently fails to pull off. She’s besties with her older sister, Lena (Umbrella Academy’s Ritu Arya) and constantly needles her to resume her art school studies after having dropped out in a self-confidence crisis, things often getting out of hand as they squabble.
So, she’s horrified when they’re both forced to attend an end of Eid party hosted by one of her mother’s wealthy acquaintances, the imperious and condescending Raheela Shan (Nimra Bucha) and even more so when she learns that Lena is not only dating her geneticist son of Salim (Akshay Khanna) but has also gotten engaged (she apparently has a perfect womb) and will be taking off to Singapore immediately after the wedding.
And so, with the help of her uncool school chums Alba and Clara (Ella Bruccoleri and Seraphina Beh adding solid comedic support), she sets out on a plan to sabotage things, initially looking to try diplomacy but rapidly escalating to trying to dig up dirt (including disguising themselves as men to infiltrate his gym) and, when that fails, invent some (at one point she breaks into the house to scatter used condoms).
It is, as everyone observes, all totally out of proportion. Until, that is, Ria discovers exactly what Salim and Raheela are up to (a touch of Jordan Peele here), at which point it becomes a frantic race by the three friends to stop the wedding before it’s too late.
With a winkingy gleeful and knowingly ludicrous screenplay that, refreshingly peppered with all the sensibilities and sweariness of modern Pakistani youth pulls together Bash Street Kids escapades, torture by waxing, all female martial arts fights (including one with well-trained beauticians), a Bollywood dance sequence and yellow chapter title cards with a clear nod to Tarantino/Rodriguez grindhouse. Vastly funnier than What’s Love Got To With It (and certainly with loads more stunts), further adventures by the Khan sisters would not go amiss. (Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe)
Not put off by the piss-poor response to 2018’s The Predator, 10 Cloverfield Lane director Dan Trachtenberg and screenwriter Patrick Aison take up the challenge of rebooting the franchise, and incredibly pulls off the best in the franchise since the original. Rather than continuing the saga, it takes the bold step of going back to the start, the setting being America’s Northern Great Plains in 1719. Here, Naru (The Ice Road’s Amber Midthunder) is a young Comanche desperate to prove herself the equal of her tribe macho boys, most especially her brother Taabe (Dakota Beavers), under whose shadow she lives. An expert with a bow and throwing hatchet, knowledgeable in herbal medicine, she’s ready for her ritual hunt rite of passage. Naturally, her testosterone swamped peers don’t take her seriously, especially when she has to be rescued from a mountain lion, which her brother kills and is subsequently honoured as a war chief.
However, her chance to show her mettle comes when she discovers that there’s very different kind of beast out there, an alien hunter that, using its cloaking technology and hi-tech weaponry is stalking its prey. Having eviscerated the young bucks and what appears to be a small army of French trappers, Naru finds herself as the last defence.
Working on a small scale, Trachtenberg ramps up the tension and intensity, delivering some thrillingly brutal close quarters action as well as graphically visceral butchery in which arrows and flintlock firearms are no match for the alien technology, causing Naru to improvise in inspired ways. Played by the towering Dane DiLiegro, this sleeker, faster Predator with its glowing green blood is also back to basics with sheer physicality and just a skull mask rather than the more familiar face plate, while singlehandedly (albeit with her trusty canine companion) Midthunder electrifyingly commands the screen and the action with her body language, Trachtenberg assiduous in authentically recreating the period and all the necessary trapping, the bulk of the cast being played by Native American actors (the film will have a Comanche dubbed version).
An inspired addition to the current spate of female empowerment thrillers, it’s an exhilarating and reinvigorating fresh take on a franchise that seemed to have nowhere left to go and easily one of the year’s best action movies, making it all the more inexplicable as to why it’s been denied a theatrical release and consigned to subscriber streaming. With an end credits graphic suggesting a sequel, perhaps they’ll reconsider next time around. (Disney+)
Renfield, as any self-respecting Bram Stoker devotee knows, was Dracula’s bug-eating deranged servant and familiar when the vampire arrived in England. Here, however, his character’s been superimposed over the novel’s Jonathan Harker as a solicitor looking to make a deal with the count as Lego Batman Movie director Chris McKay superimposes them both into Tod Browning’s 1931 black and white classic. This expositionary flashback is explained in a modern day voice over (a device used to increasingly distracting effect) by Renfield (Nicholas Hoult) who’s attending a therapy group for those in abusive codependent relationships, his being with his master, Dracula (Nicholas Cage going full on Nicholas Cage as he sinks his pointy teeth into the role).
You see, Renfield would like to have a normal life instead of going round, eating bugs to give himself powers while he gathers bodies for Drac to drain, he’s just too much of a wuss to stand up to the boss. Currently, holed up in an old derelict building, he’s having to take care of Dracula after he was almost killed and restore him from a charred husk back to his full powers. Which is going to take a lot of bodies, Dracula putting in requests for nuns or cheerleaders.
Meanwhile there’s a drug dealing crime-family subplot, the Lobos family being headed up by Bellafrancesca (Shohreh Aghdashloo) and her tattooed psycho hooligan screw-up son Ted (Ben Schwartz) who have the local cops in their pocket. All that is save for Rebecca Quincy (Awkwafina. never feeling like she fits the part) who wants to take them down and avenge her police hero father’s death. All of which naturally causes her and Renfield’s paths to cross as the film romps gleefully from one blood gushing, body splattering, limbs dismembering, guts eviscerating scene to the next, among them one in a sleazy New Orleans night club where a powered up Renfield wades through assorted thugs and an even bloodier one as he and Quincy take on what appears to be the city’s entire police form, SWAT teams and Lobos henchmen, at one point using severed arms as weapons. Dracula, meanwhile, looks to be making an alliance with the Lobos in his plans for world domination,
Cage, as you might imagine, is gloriously, flamboyantly over the top yet without ever feeling hammy, channelling past screen incarnations of the character to charismatic effect; unfortunately, a dialled down Hoult never really convinces, either as the shrinking violet worm who eventually turns when Dracula, his feelings hurt by his familiar’s betrayal (he sets himself up with a nice apartment and more fashionable clothes), starts showing an unhealthy interest in Renfield’s new friends or the homicidal action man. A knowing cocktail of cartoonish comedy and real horror veined with a subtext about standing up to abusive, controlling narcissists, it’s ultimately rather hollow but as Grand Guignol goes, it’s bloody wonderful. (Vue)
Return To Seoul (15)
Given away for adoption as a baby, now 25 and living in France, when her Tokyo flight is cancelled ,Freddie (impressive first timer Park Ji-min), finds herself accidentally revisiting her birth country of South Korea where, with the help of new friend Tena (Guka Han) acting as translator, she hesitantly goes about tracking down her birth parents. Her mother remains elusive, not replying to telegrams sent by the agency, but her biological father (Oh Kwang-Rok) makes contact and, expressing huge contrition, explain they gave her away so she could have a better life, overcompensates in trying to reconnect, something that initially has the opposite effect on Freddie, Tena’s translations of her comments looking to soften the blows.
Set across eight years and divided into three parts and an epilogue, the first focuses on the initial visit to Seoul, Freddie coming across as an erratic, prickly and at times somewhat unlikeable person (notably mocking the declaration of love by the man she met in a bar and slept with on her first night). The second part again takes place in Seoul, two years later where Freddie, now sporting a new haircut and black leather, is more confident and, having cut herself off from old friends, is part of a new circle. On a date with the older Andre (Louis-Do de Lencquesaing), an arms dealer, she tells him that it’s her birthday, and that every year she wonders if her mother is thinking about her. However, she then learns her mother has responded but has no wish to meet.
Part three moves on another five years and, reluctantly returning again on business, finds her speaking broken Korean, a successful arms dealer working for Andre and dating a supportive French boyfriend (Yoann Zimmer), though an awkward dinner with her father puts paid to that, and, through the involvement of a sympathetic agency worker, a fellow adoptee, who breaks the official contact rules, finally meets her mother. It’s a bittersweet moment, that makes the epilogue all the more heartbreaking.
Elliptically exploring ideas of identity and whether it’s shaped by biology or ‘home’, director Davy Chou crafts a heady and atmospheric journey strewn with broken relationships and muddied moral waters, Freddie, in her different versions of herself, seeks to reconcile the turmoil of her dual heritage and discover who she truly is, a film that requires patience but offers deep emotional rewards. (Mockingbird)
See How They Run (12A)
Not the 1944 Philip King farce, but definitely borrowing some of the genre’s traditions (people passing each other in and out of doors), directed with verve by Tom George, making good use of split screen playing up the theatrical artifice, and penned by Mark Chappell this ingeniously gets round Agatha Christie’s stipulation that her play The Mousetrap could not be turned into a film until after its run ended. It opened in 1952 and it’s still in the West End after some 28,000 performances.
Back in 1956, British producer John Woolf (Reece Shearsmith), who had made The African Queen, bought the film rights, assuming the play would soon close, and it’s around that misjudgement that this superbly crafted and highly amusing whodunit homage is based. Woolf has hired (fictional) sleazy Hollywood filmmaker Leo Köpernick (Adrien Brody, who narrates) to direct, but he’s at loggerheads with the gay screenwriter, Mervyn Cocker-Norris (David Oyelowo), and wants to rework it with a murder in the opening moments and a wholly different ending, which he’s storyboarded.
As Köpernick observes, in these plays it’s always the most obnoxious character who gets murdered, and so it is that, following a fight with Richard Attenborough (an affectionate portrait by Harris Dickinson), the first actor to play Sgt Trotter, and upsetting several others, he meets his demise during the backstage party marking the 100th performance and his body is dumped on the set.
Assigned to investigate is jaded, boozy Inspector Stoppard (Sam Rockwell) who’s partnered with WPC Stalker (Saoirse Ronan, with her natural accent and true comic delight) as his assistant, an enthusiastic rookie who writes everything down in her notebook, with a memo to not jump to conclusions, something the film, with its various misdirections, slyly insists the audience doesn’t do either. There are, naturally a wealth of suspects among a cast of characters that includes Ruth Wilson as theatre impresario Petula Spencer, Pippa Emma-Bennet as Woolf’s mistress-assistant Ann and Sian Clifford as his wife, and Jacob Fortune-Lloyd as Mervyn’s petulant Italian ‘nephew’ Gio with Tim Key as the smarmy Commissioner and Shirley Henderson as Christie herself.
It’s gleefully full of in-jokes (Rockwell’s character is named after Tom Stoppard whose The Real Inspector Hound, which he wrote as a parody of things like The Mousetrap, is referenced), while he’s assigned to the case because Scotland Yard is busy investigating the murders at 10 Rillington Place in which, of course, Attenborough starred), and cinema meta gags (a character in a flashback bemoans flashbacks and interscene titles immediately followed by one). All that plus straightfaced but wickedly funny lines, and an ending that wonderfully mirrors everything in Köpernick’s storyboards. There’s a slight tonal stumble when, in a serious moment, referencing how Christie’s play was inspired by a real life case, there’s a scene about having to tread carefully when you’re turning people’s lives into entertainment, but otherwise this is a laugh out loud romp. (Disney+)
She Said (15)
Directed by Maria Schrader from a screenplay by Rebecca Lenkiewicz, in similar mode to Spotlight, Tom McCarthy’s film about the Boston Globe’s investigation into systemic sexual abuse by the Catholic church, this is based on the book in which Pulitzer-winning New York Times investigative reporters Jodi Kantor (Zoe Kazan) and Megan Twohey (Carey Mulligan) detailed their struggles and dogged determination in exposing the sexual abuse of Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein, Twohey having previously reported on then Presidential candidate Donald Trump’s abuse of women, and receiving verbal abuse and death threats in return.
The film opens in flashback, several of which punctuate the film, where, in 1992 Ireland, a young Laura Madden lands herself with a promising an entry-level job with Miramax. A subsequent shot of her running down the street in tears, clearly notes it was not what she’d expected. Cut to 2017, where Kantor, a veteran reporter of workplace harassment, is tipped off that actress Rose McGowan (voiced by Keilly McQuail) was sexually assaulted by Weinstein and, though initially declining to comment, calls back to say how he raped her when she was 23. Likewise both Ashley Judd (playing herself) and Gwyneth Paltrow (in voice only) talk about their own encounters (Judd remarking how work dried up afterwards), but none are prepared to be named in any article. As a way to combat her post-natal depression, Twohey is assigned by editor Rebecca Corbett (Patricia Clarkson) to help Kantor, the pair either being met with doors shut in their faces or women who talk about their experiences but, subject to NDAs, won’t go on the record, while legal red tape prevents them from getting specifics. Incredibly, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, charged with protecting employees, isn’t allowed to give prospective job applicants information on a company’s history of sexual abuse complaints.
While also juggling home lives with new babies, the more they probe, the more they discover about assaults and settlements (a former of Miramax CFO admits pay-outs but won’t divulge how many),in effect financial gags, the culture of fear and how Weinstein used his connections with the DA office to get criminal complaints dropped. Following up tips, Kantor interviews Zelda Perkins (Samantha Morton, stunning in her single scene) who worked at the London office but resigned following an incident in Venice, with her friend, Rowena Chiu (Angela Yeoh) who had a breakdown. She also speaks to the now older Madden (a terrific Jennifer Ehle), the latter, about to undergo a major operation and not subject to an NDA, though initially reluctant, becoming the first to go on record after a Weinstein representative tries to stop her talking, allowing the paper to go ahead and publish, resulting in some 80 other women coming forward and Weinstein (only seen from behind, who tried a last minute intimidation and mea culpa to kill the story) being found guilty of rape and sentenced to prison.
With Andre Braugher as Times head honcho Dean Bacquet, Peter Friedman as Weinstein’s smooth-talking lawyer Lanny Davis cum fixer and several of Weinstein’s victims in small roles, the film captures the working of a newsroom and reporters with the same electricity as All The President’s Men, Spotlight and The Post, building to the final moment as the publish button is hit, and while individually Mulligan (a mix of fury, frustration, empathy and bemusement, her yelling at a guy coming on to her in a bar is seismic) is a stronger, more complex presence than Kazan, together they command the screen in the same way Redford and Hoffman did as Woodward and Bernstein.
Although Weinstein was the target of the story, Twohey and Kantor’s diligent and exhaustive work became the launch pad for the #MeToo movement and subsequent exposure of workplace sexual abuse and harassment in many other fields by men (and women) in power who feel an entitlement to bully those beneath them. (Rakuten TV)
Sick Of Myself (15)
Written and directed by Norway’s Kristoffer Borgli, this social satire body horror dramedy about social-media addiction is unquestionably one of the most disturbing and hard to shake films you’ll see this year. Encountered early one in a restaurant where, there for her birthday, he gets her to set up a distraction while he makes off with a $2,300 bottle of wine, Signe (Kristine Kujath Thorp) works as a barista in Oslo and lives with her self-absorbed aspiring artist boyfriend Thomas (Eirik Sæther) whose installations involve stolen furniture, hence his nickname Thomas the Thief. Fame hungry, he always want to be the centre of attention, she consigned to the sidelines. However when she saves a pedestrian’s life after she’s bitten by a dog and becomes a news item, she’s bitten by the notoriety bug and can’t get enough of it. First she fakes a nut allergy at a dinner party to get attention while he’s pontificating and from there she starts taking more extreme measures, specifically in blackmailing a drug dealer acquaintance into getting her a supply of Lidexol, a Russian-manufactured ant-anxiety drug that has catastrophic side effects on your skin. She starts popping the yellow pills and sure enough her arms and face are soon breaking out in unsightly blotches that rapidly turn into grotesque disfigurements. However, rather than being horrified, her face swathed in bandages, Signe revels in the attention it brings her, from Thomas, the doctors, the public and, eventually, a journalist friend covers her story and, though she’s annoyed when a man who murders his family gets the headlines not her, she eventually goes viral as a sort of Oslo Elephant Woman. A modelling agency who specialise in the disabled even want her to star in commercials for a genderless clothing line. Naturally, no one knows she’s deliberately chosen to look this way.
It’s not overly subtle, especially in its use of her extravagant dreams about fame (such as writing a bestselling book)- and indeed the sexual turn on fantasy of a celebrity death and funeral- but its dissection of the corrosive satire of narcissism, shallow fame, self-image and the public’s fascination with freakery and the repulsive is undeniably sharp and, even behind the grotesque latex makeup, Thorp delivers a compelling performance that captures both a thoroughly unlikable character but also the desperation of a sad, lonely woman who plays the victim in a desperate attempt to be seen. (Mon: Mockingbird)
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. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel; Vue)
Vaughn Stein’s hard-boiled noir pastiche, clearly taking its inspiration from Sin City (and Waiting For Godot) amd forerver 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)
The Three Musketeers Pt 1: D’Artagnan (15)
Written in 1844 by Alexandre Dumas, there’s been over 40 big and small screen adaptations but this stirringly and sumptuously directed by Martin Bourboulon is the best in a long while, even if some of the actors do bear a passing resemblance to those in the BBC serial. Largely faithful to the novel (although here Porthos is bisexual and Athos’s marital backstory is somewhat reworked), it starts off in 1627 with the impulsive, puppyish Charles D’Artagnan of Gascony (a wildly charismatic François Civil) setting off with a letter of recommendation to train as a Musketeer and serve Louis XIII. Before he gets there, however, he’s involved in an attack on a woman in a carriage and ends up being shot and buried in a shallow grave. Not actually wounded, however, he claws his way out and gets to Paris where he’s taken in as a cadet by the captain of the musketeers, Tréville (Marc Barbé), but he’s barely dismounted before he finds himself facing three separate (and banned) duels, his opponents all turning out to be the legendary musketeers, Athos (Vincent Cassel bringing due gravitas), the rumbustious Porthos (Pio Marmai) and Aramis (Roman Duris), who can’t seem to balance his womanising and spiritual duties.
However, after dispatching the guards under the command of the duplicitous Cardinal Richelieu (Eric Ruf), he finds favour with the King (a spry Louis Garrel) and, more so, his (here unmarried) landlady, Constance (Lyna Khoudri), trusted confidante to the Queen (Vicky Krieps), Anne of Austria, the thrilling plot breathlessly unfolding to involve a conspiracy by the Protestants, loyal to England, and Richelieu to bring down the monarchy and spark war with England, which Louis’s brother Gaston advises while being railroaded into marrying, Athos being framed for murder and sentenced to death, and D’Artagnan’s frantic dash to England to recover a diamond necklace given to the Queen by Louis, which she’s given to her English lover the Duke of Buckingham (Jacob Fortune-Lloyd), who’s insisting she wear it at the wedding. During which time his path frequently crosses that of Milady (the ever excellent Eva Green), Richelieu’s spy who’s also been charged with recovering the diamonds on his behalf.
The core cast sparking with chemistry, all of this rattles along with brilliantly staged long take swashbuckling derring-do action sequences that are on a period par with John Wick, meticulous costuming, smart repartee, dark skullduggery, unexpected twists, romance, superb widescreen and camera swooping photography (try and see it in IMAX) with its sepia tones and use of candles, a thrilling adrenaline ride that leaves you wanting more. The good news then being that Part 2, Milady, arrives in December. (Electric)
Top Gun: Maverick (12A)
Thirty-six years on since the original took your breath away, Tom Cruise returns to the role that made him a global superstar, the authority-bucking US Navy fighter pilot Pete ‘Maverick’ Mitchell. As directed by Joseph Kosinski, who was only 16 when the original appeared, and scripted by Ehren Kruger, Eric Warren Singer and Christopher McQuarrie, Maverick hasn’t changed a great deal in the interim. He’s relatively more centred, still single, still in top physical shape and still a captain, partly through choice, partly because he runs the top brass up the wrong way. Indeed, he does so right from the start when, learning the supersonic stealth fighter project he’s heading in the Mojave Desert is being shut down by a Rear Admiral dubbed The Drone Ranger (Ed Harris) as it hasn’t reached its Mach 10 target, he duly climbs into the cockpit and pushes it to the limit and beyond before he can be told in person. However, rather than being disciplined, he’s told to report to his old Fighter Weapons School aka Top Gun stomping ground where he learns an unnamed country is developing an unsanctioned uranium enrichment plant and the school’s best pilots are being recruited to carry out a Dam Busters-style mission to destroy it. Initially assuming he’s one of then, he’s informed instead, by Commanding Officer Beau ‘Cyclone’ Simpson (John Hamm), that he’s there to train them and select the best six. And also that (verging on obsolete) he wasn’t Simpson’s first, or any, choice, but is there at the request of his former rival, long-time friend and now Admiral, Iceman (Val Kilmer).
The hot shots candidates are all introduced in a somewhat unnecessarily extended barroom scene, the ones that matter lining up as nerdy Bob (Lewis Pullman), cockily arrogant Hangman (Glen Powell), spunky female pilot Phoenix (Monica Barbaro), Fanboy (Danny Ramirez) and Rooster (Miles Teller), the now grown son of Goose (Anthony Edwards seen in flashbacks), Maverick’s wingman who dies in action and who, along with many others, Pete himself included, blames as him for his father’s death, thus setting up a somewhat predictable arc between the two.
The same scene also introduces bar owner Penny Benjamin (Jennifer Connolly), mentioned but never seen in the original, now given a backstory as Maverick’s former on-off love interest who, now a divorced single mother, re-enters the romantic orbit. Of course, that’s a minor subplot as the film’s main focuses is on Maverick whipping his students into shape so that the chosen ones can fly dangerously low into the mountains under the radar to avoid the anti-aircraft missiles and superior enemy planes, destroy the target and get out again in a race against the clock. So cue all the expected young bucks v old fogey dynamics, pilot rivalries, run ins with Cyclone, and Maverick again bucking orders and pushing himself to breaking point to prove the mission is not impossible, inevitably ending up leading it himself with Rooster as his wingman.
As you’d imagine, right from a recreation of the opening scene (complete with Kenny Loggins’ Danger Zone), there plenty of nods to the original along with such iconic Cruise moments as a front on show of him riding his motorbike (in his original Top Gun jacket) grinning like a Cheshire cat. He’s not above taking the piss out of himself either, retorting ‘it’s the only one I’ve got” when someone comments on giving ‘that look’. While better at the grins and the grit expression that registering deep emotion, nevertheless Cruise has a particular affecting and touching scene in a reunion with Kilmer, his character clearly not long for the world (thereby leaving Maverick without anyone in his corner).
Likewise, while playing down the jingoism element, Kosinksi is at his best when the action is in the air, whether in the simulated dog fights (shot in actual U.S. Navy F/A-18s, for which the cast went through a punishing training process) as Maverick pushes his team or the actual dog fights evading enemy jets in the aftermath of the mission, where old grievances and new enmities are all neatly resolved in big bromantic hugs, even if the original’s homoeroticism is decidedly downplayed here.
Cruise again demonstrates that he’s in a cinema superstar league of his own, an ‘event’ in his own right (as the film says, it all comes down to the pilot in the box), a generous actor but inevitably putting others in the shade simply on account of who he is, though Teller at least gets to remind how good he was in Whiplash and Kosinski’s own firefighter drama Only The Brave. Along with a deft use of 70s hits, music’s provided by Harold Faltermeyer with Hold My Hand coming from Lady Gaga, and while that’s no Take My Breath Away, the film will most certainly have you needing oxygen masks. Turn and burn, baby. (Paramount +; Rakuten TV)
The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry (12A)
Adapted by Rachel Joyce from her own 2012 novel and directed by Hettie Macdonald, this tells how, learning his old work colleague Queenie (a briefly seen Linda Bassett) friend is in a hospice with cancer, retired pensioner Harold (Jim Broadbent), inspired by an anecdote about giving hope from a young woman in a petrol station, resolves to walk all the 500 miles (thankfully no Proclaimers on the soundtrack, the songs provided by folkie Sam Lee) from his home in Devon to see her in Berwick-On-Tweed and hand deliver the letter he’d originally intended to post, much to the displeasure of his grouchy wife Maureen (Penelope Wilton, holding up her own with a finely tuned performance veined with pain, bitterness and grief).
It’s hard not to draw comparisons with 2021’s The Last Bus in which Tim Spall played a pensioner who, using his free bus pass, travels from John O’Groats to Land’s End England, to return to where he and his wife grew up and scatter her ashes, becoming, as here, a media event and accruing a virtual and physical following in the process.
That, however, felt more credible than Harold’s journey (for which he’s poorly equipped without even a map) during which he sends his money and credit cards home and gets back to nature sleeping rough, eating wild fruit and accepting the charity of strangers, and, naturally, there’s an underlying back story revealed in flashbacks that involves a family heartbreak (cue flashbacks to a drug addict son), a marriage that’s gone off the boil that needs to recover the spark, and an attempt to regain a sense of purpose.
Like Spall, Broadbent disappears into his character, even if this is now rather familiar territory for him, and, the film keeps the tweeness dialled down as it present a warts and all snapshot of contemporary Britain, but ultimately, you may feel worn out long before Harold does. (Empire Great Park; MAC; Reel)