With cinemas now open this column will review films both screening theatrically and/or on various streaming platforms.
Nowhere Special (12A)
A tattooed, thirty-something window cleaner in Northern Ireland, his Russian wife having left him to return home, John (James Norton) is raising his four year-old son Michael (a wonderfully expressive Daniel Lamont ) on his own. The problem he has, however, is that he’s dying from some never identified illness and, with the help of an adoption agency, is desperately trying to find suitable foster parents to care for him (as he was a child) once he’s passed to ensure that the boy has a happy future and his own life has had meaning.
Taken by his dad and agency worker Shona (Eileen O’Higgins) on a series of home visits to prospective candidates (some clearly far less suitable than others), Michael, of course, has no idea that his father’s dying and, reluctant to put together a memory box or read him When Dinosaurs Die provided by the counsellors, John has no idea of how to tell him, though encountering the husk of a dead beetle eventually offers an analogy. But four year olds can be more perceptive than you’d imagine.
Working from a true story, writer-director Uberto Pasolini navigates what could have proven maudlin territory in a moving but unsentimental manner, eliciting deep and genuine emotions through such tiny moments as Michael drawing a tattoo on his own arm to match his dad’s or the chokingly poignant birthday cake scene with 34 red candles (and one more for the year that will never come) while cleverly using shots either through or reflecting from the windows John cleans to suggest his wishes for his son’s future, his sadness of what he will never experience with him and his own looming mortality.
Pretty much a two-hander between Norton and Lamont who spark believably well together as father and son, it ends, not with a death but he promise of a new life, a freeze frame look between the two that will send you lurching for the tissues. Special indeed. (MAC)
Set back in 1985 in the days of the so-called video nasties like Driller Killer and I Spit On Your Grave, with a backdrop of the Thatcher government’s confrontation with the miners, first time director Prano Bailey-Bond taps into the debate on whether screen violence influences real-life behaviour to serve an impressive contribution to the growing genre of British pulp-horror melodrama while also musing on the sometimes dysfunctional workings of memory.
Enid (a compelling Niamh Algar) works as a film censor, she and her colleagues sitting through endless footage of exploitation VHS movies involving lurid violence and sex, deciding what should be cut and what should be banned, consigned to under the counter pirated versions in dodgy rental stores. She’s dedicated to what she sees as protecting the public, although her smarmy fellow censor Sanderson (Nicholas Burns) is less concerned, citing the Gloucester-blinding scene in King Lear when she declares an eye-gouging sequence has to go.
Things start to fall apart, however, when a film they passed is linked to a brutal domestic murder by someone the press dub The Amnesiac Killer kickstarts a media frenzy (cue a shot of morals campaigner Mary Whitehouse on TV), and she starts getting harassed by the media and receiving abusive calls. At the same time, viewing a woodland sequence in a film called Don’t Go Into The Church, by horror director Frederick North (Adrian Schiller) and produced by the sleazy Doug (Michael Smiley), a friend of her boss (Vincent Franklin), she’s persuaded that, the scene chiming with her own flashbacks, one of the actresses (Sophia La Porta) is in fact her sister who vanished when they were out playing together as children, for which she’s always felt guilty, and who her parents (Clare Holman, Andrew Havill) have finally had declared legally dead. Determining to get at the truth, Enid visits Doug, and, ad her mental state collapses, things just go from bad to bloodily worse.
Shooting low budget with a fuzzy look that evokes the horror movies of the day (amusingly pastiched in several clips) and an unsettling sound design, Bailey-Bond charts Enid’s descent into madness with a mix of dark comedy and horror , suggesting the accumulation of everything she’s been exposed to at work has, in conjunction with her existing damaged mangled psyche of grief and self-blame, brought about her collapse. It ends on a disturbingly ambiguous note of self-delusion that conjures thoughts of the Japanese Ringu-styled movies, suggesting Bailey-Bond could have an even more promising horror future ahead of her. (Fri-Sun: Mockingbird; Cineworld 5 Ways; Empire Great Park; Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe)
Don’t Breathe 2 (15)
Released in 2016, produced by Sam Raimi and directed by Fede Alvarez, the original film put an ingenious spin on the home invasion genre as a blind ex-Navy Seal took out a bunch of hapless economically-challenged burglars in a plot that eventually revealed his own secret, a woman held prisoner in his Detroit basement he’d artificially inseminated to replace the daughter lost to a traffic accident. Well, now directed by original co-writer Rodo Sayagues, it seems lightning strikes twice as, that whole seedy rapist subplot seemingly erased, Nordstrom (an imposing Stephen Lang), here more of a heroic figure, again finds himself battling intruders , although his time round their intent has nothing to do with robbing him.
Given his original plan to acquire a surrogate daughter went sour, it seems that he rescued a young girl when her druggie parents chemicals went up in flames and burned down the house, presumably killing them. The (more a long stretch nameless) 11-year-old (Madelyn Grace) now calls him father, but he’s overly protective and she longs to be able to play with the other kids from the local children’s home that she sees in the park.
One day, while out with former Army Ranger Hernandez (Stephanie Arcila), Normandson’s only contact with society, she encounters a guy hanging around the rest room who subsequently follows her home. He turns out to be Raylan (Brendan Sexton III), who heads up a drugs gang and is also her real dad. And so he send his stooges and his Rottweiler to abduct her (Normandson lured out of the house to find his missing dog), for reasons that prove rather less than paternalistic and, in an unpleasant but very silly twist, link to an earlier news item about the search for an organ trafficker.
While, trained by Normandson, the kid proves resourceful at hiding and his confrontations with the tugs are gruesomely inventive (at one point he superglues someone’s (Bobby Schofield) mouth and nose shut, prompting his psycho brother (Adam Young) to pierce his cheek with a screwdriver so he can breathe, they also become numbingly repetitive and dull. At least, after the survivors make off with the girl (who goes willingly after the truth about her ‘father’ is explained), the film expands its location from the claustrophobic house (which itself goes up in flames, though fire services seem to be absent in Detroit) to a final showdown with Raylan and, her yes, the kid’s not dead but wheelchair confined and dying mom, in some abandoned building. But even here it’s again more of the same, our indomitable avenger dragging himself back up after numerous beating stabbing and shootings to protect the girl.
Lang reprises the role solidly enough, but the screenplay and workmanlike direction do neither him nor the rest of the cast any favours and while, a post credits scene hints we may not have seen the last of the blind warrior, I wouldn’t hold your breath. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel; Vue)
After a stream of over the top performances in barking, bonzo B-movies, Nicolas Cage returns to something like his Oscar-winning Leaving Las Vegas form for this slow burning, understated feature debut by writer/director Michael Sarnoski. He plays Rob, a grizzled, straggly-bearded aged truffle hunter who lives a hermit’s life in the Oregon wilds with his prized truffle pig, his only contact with the outside world being regular Thursday visits by flashy young buyer Amir (Alex Wolff).
One night, however, he’s attacked and his pig stolen. Now, in his previous films this might have entailed Cage going off on a berserk violent bender to retrieve the porker and kill those responsible. This is not that film. Instead, having discovered the big was stolen by two junkies at the best of some mystery buyer, he persuades a reluctant Amir to drive him into Portland where he knows someone who might know something where Sarnoski reveals that Rob was once Robin Feld, a former celebrity Portland chef before tragedy changed his life. To say more would spoil the carefully crafted narrative that involves Amir’s powerful widowed father Darius (Adam Arkin) who runs a truffle supply business of his own and features a mesmerising scene in which Robin confronts Derek(David Knell), a pretentious chef who runs the equally pretentious Eurydice restaurant who he once fired for overcooking the pasta, with the gulf between his original passionate gastropub dreams and the cold haute cuisine falsity of what he now does.
Building to a confrontation that involves Robin recreating dish he once serves (he professes to remember every customer her served and every dish he cook) which harks back to a story Amir tells at the start about a meal that made his father happy, and closing with an understated redemption and reconciliation with the past, it’s a melancholic, existential affair about family, love, food, hurt, grief, obligations and being honest about yourself, a film where a whisper proves far more effective than a scream. It deserves a far wider exposure than this single screen weekend showing, so don’t miss the opportunity. (Fri-Sun: Mockingbird; Vue)
In a future Miami where climate change has left the streets flooded and the daytime unbearably hot, the city divided between the rich ‘barons’ in their gated communities who have risen above the waters and the urban poor live in the ruins, former soldier Nick Bannister (Hugh Jackman) is a self-styled mind detective who, using his equipment, a water tank, electronic headband a holographic projector, has parlayed his army interrogation technique into retrieving memories for a living. Or, as he puts it, “Memory is the boat that sails against its current, and I’m the oarsman.” Working with former military colleague Watts (Thandiwe Newton), his clients come looking to relive happy moments from the past, saving the reminiscences on discs. Then, one day, at closing time, in walks Mae (Rebecca Ferguson), who says she wants to use his device to find a set of lost keys. Nick’s immediately smitten, all the more so when in her memories he she becomes a cabaret singer crooning Where Or When, a song that has particular resonance for him. They embark on affair, he’s blissfully happy and then she disappears. Obsessed, he uses his machine to recall their time together, trying to find her, fuelled by finding her earing in the water outside his office. Then, when he’s involved in a police case, she appears in the memories of suspect whose memories he’s probing, revealing a time before they met when she was in thrall to some drug dealing gangster by the name of Saint Joe. Disregarding Watts’ urging to let it go, he gets deeper into what unravels as a conspiracy involving civic corruption, a hushed-up murder and the kidnapping of a young boy.
Written and directed by Lisa Joy, the co-creator (with Christopher Nolan’s brother Johnathan) of the Westworld series, it unapologetically draws on vintage film noir, complete with Jackman delivering the sort of portentous (and at times clunky) voiceover dialogue Humphrey Bogart or Robert Mitchum would have given in their Raymond Chandler movies, Mae even making her first appearance dressed in scarlet, while also tapping into the likes of sci fi noir like Total Recall, Blade Runner, Strange Days and, of course, and rather blatantly, Inception.
The memory machine McGuffin allowing the narrative to switch back in forth in time and perspectives, it gradually reveals the plot’s complex nuts and bolts, Nick discovering how he’s been played and how the memories of other clients fit within the puzzle, but still hopelessly in love with Mae.
Suitably stubbled, Jackman never quite captures the authentic air of the downcast private eye in The Big Sleep or Farwell My Lovely, but he’s always a charismatic presence that keeps your attention fixed on the screen, Ferguson knowingly smoulders as the femme fatale even if the doomed romance rather sizzles than flares, while, despite an unexplored backstory, Newton makes for a solid, protective sidekick, but, other than a contrived shoot out sequence, isn’t really given a great deal to do other than try and steer her boss away from the flames, and Cliff Curtis gives good sinister as the corrupt cop Cyrus Booth with his own intertwined agenda and a scene that clearly nods to Vertigo’s opening.
Joy conjures an effective murky atmosphere even if she relies rather too heavily on familiar tropes and although the underlying social rich and poor divided America subtext tends to remain just that as does the mention of some sort of war that left the population preferring to look back than forward. Watchable, but probably not a memory you’ll want to relive. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel; Vue)
Snake Eyes: GI Joe Origins (12A)
As the title says, this sets out to offer up a backstory to the masked and mute black leather-garbed member of the G.I. Joe team of secret agents featured in the two previous films inspired by the Hasbro toy figures. Set in Tokyo, it transpires that, as a boy, he saw his father murdered by someone sporting set of dice he makes his victims roll, if they throw snake eyes (two ones), they die. Cut to the present and, now calling himself Snake Eyes (Henry Golding), he’s a cage fighter drifter recruited by Yakuza boss Kenta (Takehiro Hira) to work smuggling guns in gutted fish and who promises to reveal his father’s killer for him. However, when, to test his loyalty, he’s ordered to skill a gang member he says has betrayed him, he instead helps him escape, Tommy (Andrew Koji) turning out to be heir apparent to the Arashikage clan, a 600-year-old ninja dynasty, who, despite protests by his head of security, Akiko (Haruka Abe), invites him to become part of their family as his right hand man. He just has to accomplish three tasks under the supervision of Hard Master (Iko Uwais) and the all-seeing Blind Master (Peter Mensah), and, if he fails the third (which involves a pit containing giant anacondas who can sense the pure at heart), then he dies. Which doesn’t seem the greatest invitation.
Nonetheless, Snake Eyes accepts, though, as it transpires, there’s some subterfuge and undercover double-agent agenda going down with everything culminating in a clan battle (Kenta is Tommy’s banished cousin) for the Jewel of the Sun, a gem that can blow anything up, that reveals the Arashikage head, Tommy’s grandmother Sen (Eri Ishida) is pretty lethal with a fan.
Directed by Robert Schwentke it confusingly wades through themes of loyalty and vengeance, inevitably introducing members of G.I.Joe (Samara Weaving’s Scarlett) and Cobra (Úrsula Corberó’s Baroness), the Hydra knock-off of which Kenda is also a member, but is mainly interested in serving up a constant series of frantically edited scenes in which Golding (in black) and Hira (aka Storm Shadow in white) take on an apparently endless army of sword-wielding ninjas before ending up confronting each other atop a fast moving train. Paying little heed to characterisation, it never gets round to explaining why Snake Eyes never speaks in the G.I.Joe movies and, while he’s undeniably charismatic, good looking and physically adept, Golding never really convinces as the lethal brooding master ninja of the franchise waiting in the wings for its reboot. Ninja movie fans and action junkies might enjoy, but otherwise this is no dice. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Vue)
Army of the Dead (18)
Drawing on a formula that ranges from The Magnificent Seven to The Dirty Dozen to The Expendables with a group of mercenaries gradually being whittled down as they seek to carry out their mission, as written and directed by Zack Snyder this two hour plus video-gamer horror action romp throws the undead into the ultra-violent post-apocalyptic mix when, after a zombie outbreak (caused when newlyweds, distracted by a blow job, pile into an army convoy from Area 51, letting their cargo escape). the shambling hordes are contained within Las Vegas, walled off by a circle of shipping containers in a herculean effort headed up by Scott Ward (Dave Bautista). Now, some time later, he’s working in a burger joint when he’s approached by shady Vegas hotel owner Tanaka (Hiroyuki Sanada) who wants him to break into the city and retrieve 200 million dollars from the casino basement high security vault, amusingly named Gotterdamerung.
To which end, he recruits his old crew mechanic Cruz (Ana de la Reguera) and chainsaw wielding Vanderohe (Omari Hardwick), boosting the team with the addition of wisecracking cigar-smoking helicopter pilot Peters (Tig Notaro), YouTube zombie-killer star Guzman (Raúl Castillo) and German safecracker Dieter (Matthias Schweighöfer). Plus, their employer’s right-hand man (Garret Dillahunt) informs them he’ll be coming along to oversee (so you can bet he has a hidden agenda) while Scott’s refugee camp volunteer daughter Kate (Ella Purnell), estranged after dad had to kill her mother to prevent her turning into a zombie, insists on tagging along to rescue a friend who has disappeared from the camp, leaving her two kids behind. Plus, there’s Coyote (Nora Arnezeder), a hard ass French people smuggler who knows her way around the infested Vegas. There’s just one small problem. The President intends to nuke Vegas on July 4th, complete with fireworks, so the clock is ticking. And then the date’s brought forward.
Once the crew enter the city the film shakes up a cocktail of Escape From New York, Planet of the Apes and Aliens stirred with the heist elements of Ocean’s Eleven, as they navigate their way through the streets, avoiding piled up bodies that can reawaken with the rain, tunnels populated by comatose zombies who you really don’t want to touch, not to mention, in an inspired touch, a zombie tiger that was part of Siegfried & Roy’s act. That, and as Coyote reveals, a new evolved breed of thinking Alpha zombies (though they still only say gaaahhhh) headed up by a bejewelled queen (Athena Perample) and her warrior consort (Richard Cetrone) with his impressive abs and zombie horse. To ensure safe passage, Coyote explains they need to offer a sacrifice, which explains why she’s brought along the camp security guard bully who’s duly dragged off to their citadel to be transformed into another member of the zombie army – a fate likely to be facing Kate’s abducted friend.
This might seem like a bit of a tangled plot, but basically once the splatterfest begins that’s really all that matters as double crosses and unexpected demises pile up, culminating in a last act climax as Scott and the remaining survivors head into the citadel to find Kate who’s taken off to rescue her friend (whose fate seems to have been overlooked by the script in the final moments). This is terrific braindead fun with big guns and geysers of blood that also has a knowing sense of humour (Liberace and Elvis impersonators, a soundtrack including Viva Las Vegas and The Cranberries hit Zombie) as well as finding time for some character depth that makes you care about who lives and dies. Although the body count would seem to effectively knock any ongoing franchise on the head, the coda hints at a Mexico City sequel. Bring it on. (Netflix)
Black Widow (12A)
Thirteen years on from the launch of the MCU, director Cate Shortland finally gives the Avengers’ Black Widow a long overdue origin story co-written by WandaVision’s Jac Schaeffer. Echoing The Americans, it opens in 1995 Ohio with young blue-haired tomboy Natasha (Ever Anderson) playing with her younger sister Yelena (Violet McGraw), as part of Russian sleeper cell with their fake family, mom Melina (Rachel Weisz) and dad Alexei (David Harbour providing the comic relief), aka The Red Guardian, the Soviet answer to Captain America. Their cover blown, they’re forced to flee from S.H.I.E.L.D., ending up in Cuba where the two girls are taken away by Dreykov (Ray Winstone with mangled accent) to become part of his army of female assassins. Cut to the immediate aftermath of the events in Captain America: Civil War, with Romanoff (Scarlett Johannson) wanted by the authorities, headed up by Secretary Ross (William Hurt), leading her to follow an ‘invitation’ to track down the estranged Yelena (Florence Pugh proving an action-woman natural), the world’s greatest child assassin apparently, who, as an earlier sequence shows, has, by means of some chemical red mist compound, now broken free of Dreykov’s mind control, and is holed up in Budapest on the run for her former fellow Widows.
Suffice to say, some thrilling fisticuffs and explosions later, the orphan ‘sisters’ set off to track down Dreykov, whom Romanoff believed she’d killed, along with his young daughter as collateral damage, in his Red Room headquarters, and liberate the other assassins using a stash of the vials and put a stop to his plans for world domination, a plan that involves rescuing the oafish Alexei from his high security prison and reuniting with Melina who works for him as a mind control scientist (she’s got a bunch of trained pigs), and facing down Dreykov’s personal costumed and shield-slinging killer, the Taskmaster, who can mimic their opponents’ skills.
As such, it’s a fairly straightforward narrative, but, being Marvel, its invested with some serious emotional heavy lifting between the spectacular action sequences – several borrowed from Moonraker (it even features a clip and snatch of the music) – involving themes of family, sisterhood, identity crisis, sibling rivalry, free will, guilt and regret. Pugh and Johannson have terrific chemistry, with the former giving the film a real soul, as well as an amusing self-referential observation on Romanoff striking her trademark hair-flipping super-hero pose as well as observing how Thor doesn’t need to take ibuprofen after he’s been in a fight, while the latter’s background is further filled in on learning about her true biological mother and how she herself came to be part of the ‘family’ spy network.
Thrilling, action-packed, emotional and witty, it ends with the inevitable post credits scene which brings the timeline up to date with Yelena visiting Natasha’s grave and a meeting that sets up Pugh’s continuing role in the franchise and her next appearance as part of the Hawkeye TV series. Get bitten. (Disney+; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Vue)
The Courier (12A)
Based on real life events, written by Tom O’Connor and directed by Dominic Cooke, Benedict Cumberbatch gives a solid, underplayed performance as Greville Wynne, a salesman representing various manufacturing companies, who, at the height of the Cold War, was recruited by MI6 and the CIA (respectively represented by Angus Wright and Rachel Brosnahan) to travel to Moscow and make contact with Oleg Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze), a Soviet colonel who, alarmed by Kruschev’s increasingly volatile nuclear rhetoric, has indicated he’s ready to pass on information to help prevent mutually assured destruction. The thinking is that, as someone with no obvious political connections, Wynne is unlikely to attract KGB attention.
Unable to tell his wife (Jessie Buckley) the real reason for his regular trips to Russia, she suspects he’s having another affair while Penkovsky’s wife also remains oblivious to her husband’s actions in smuggling photos out by Wynne in the build up to the Cuban Missile Crisis. Unfolding with a cool tension in secret meetings where the fear of discovery or being bugged is ever present, it sits well alongside similar espionage films like Bridge of Spies and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. As history tells, the subterfuge was eventually uncovered, leading to a darker third act when Cumberbatch, shaved headed and looking increasingly emaciated, is banged up in a Russian prison, being interrogated to confess he actually knew what he was carrying for Penkovsky (it’s suggested he didn’t, hence plausible deniability) before the British government negotiated an exchange for his release.
Sharply scripted and with a strong chemistry between Cumberbatch and Ninidze as the two men develop a genuine friendship (Wynne called him Alex), Wynne secretly rather enjoying his adventure, ticking the usual genre conventions without them appearing like clichés, the film revealing the heroic – and costly – role he and Penkovsky (codenamed Ironbark by the CIA) played in ending the Cuban standoff, Oleg remarking over a shared meal “We are just two people, but this is how things change.”
Its low key, period thriller nature might not be a big audience grabber, but as an inspiring story of human decency and sacrifice for the greater good, it’s one that deserves to be told and deserves to be seen. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park)
The Croods : A New Age (PG)
A belated sequel to the 2013 animation about a stone-age family, following a quick reminder, this picks up shortly after the original with overprotective dad Grug (Nicolas Cage) still not happy with the idea that teenage daughter Eep (Emma Stone) has struck up a romantic relationship with more evolved outsider, Guy (Ryan Reynolds). Here, though, we learn more about him in an opening sequence in which his late parents send him off in search of his tomorrow before they’re drowned in tar. Giving Eep an eternity rock, they plan to set off on their own path and way from the smelly sleep pile, until, as they, Grug and the rest of the family, wife Ugga (Catherine Keener), numbskull son Thunk (Clark Duke), Gran (Cloris Leachman) and feral five-year-old Sandy are out foraging with their giant pet sabretooth, Chunky, in search of a new home after their cave was destroyed, come across a walled day-glo Eden stuffed with watermelons, berries and all manner of food.
This, it turns out, is the home of The Bettermans, Phil (Peter Dinklage) and Hope (Leslie Mann) and their daughter Dawn (Kelly Marie Trann), an advanced new agey flip-flops-wearing family who’ve invented nicer pale blue clothes, agriculture, irrigation, showers, lifts, indoor plumbing (cue toilet gag) and live in set of a luxury tree apartments. They, it transpired, knew Guy as a child and it was here that his parents were sending him. Now, socioeconomic snobs, they want to pair Dawn off with Guy and be red of the Croods as soon as possible, all under the guise of being friendly and doing it for their new guests’ best interests of a bright future beyond the garden.
Meanwhile, Eep and Dawn bond and take off on Chunk on the latter’s first adventure beyond the walls, proudly scoring her first scar, Thunk has become a prehistoric app social media zombie watching hrough his ‘window’ and Phil has a manipulative man to man chat with Grug in his man cave sauna, persuading him to agree to them taking Guy off his hands. The climax hinges on Grug defying Phil’s sole rule and eating all the bananas which, turns out to be a bad thing, since they are in fact the only thing keeping the Bettermans’ paradise safe from a tribe of quick to learn punch monkeys and, in turn, a giant mandrill-like answer to King Kong.
Naturally, all this builds up to messages about family, parenting, acceptance, living in harmony and, as, led by Gran, a warrior in her day, the women come to the rescue as the Thunder Sisters, a big dose of female empowerment. There’s some great sight gags, such as Guy poring over a scrapbook of old family cave drawings as well as big action sequences like the Croods battling the predatory kangadillos as they race through a canyon all set against an often surreal and psychedelic looking landscape inhabited with things like land sharks and Wolf-Spiders. The voice work is excellent, Cage, Stone and Dinklage taking the honours, the banter witty, satirical, knowing and peppered with in jokes. If you are of a mind, you can even read into it a political message about a divided America, but probably best to just be a kid, ride the prehistoric rollercoaster and enjoy the silliness. And the peanut toe. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Vue)
Escape Room: Tournament of Champions (12A)
Yet another horror sequel, it picks up from the end of the original where, survivors of the Minos Corporations twisted fatal escape room scenarios, Zoey (Taylor Russell) and Ben (Logan Miller) agreed to go after those responsible and take them down, So, taking a car due to her fear of flying (and pay attention to the counselling session with her shrink that pays off in the final scene), they head for the New York coordinates where the HQ is supposedly locate and, chasing a thief who snatches her compass, find themselves on a subway train in what turns out to be an elaborate electrified escape room, their four fellow passengers, ex-priest Nathan (Thomas Cocquerel), Rachel (Holland Roden), who’s unable to feel physical pain, social media travel blog influencer Brianna (Indya Moore), and swaggery alpha male Theo (Carlito Olivero), also escape room survivors, thus prompting one of them to conveniently deliver the title phrase.
What follows is inevitably a rerun of the first film, with ever more ingenious (and logically impossible) underground danger rooms that variously involve a bank lobby filled with codes and deadly lasers, a beach with quicksand and an urban street lashed by acid rain, as the gradually dwindling team seeks to solve the clues that will allow them to escape. All of which builds to a climax with Zoey coming face to face with another, supposedly dead, character from the first film and another twist to the series setting up yet another cliffhanger for a second sequel.
Taking at a breathless race against the clock pace, it’s not always clear what’s going on and the new contestants don’t have any real backstory or character depth, making their fates somewhat hard to engage with, but if the first film worked for you, then this won’t disappoint. (Vue)
Fast and Furious 9 (12A)
What began as a series about society outsiders racing against each in fast cars, has gradually evolved into a franchise more on the lines of Mission Impossible or The A Team, with the characters embarking on daring missions, often on behalf of some government agency or other, to take down bad guys looking to cause assorted types of havoc. The latest, which sees Justin Lin returning as director as well as co-writer for the first time since FF6 is the most preposterous yet, but at least all concerned have the good sense to acknowledge just how untethered it all is to any form of reality. There’s a hilarious moment when Roman (Tyrese Gibson) remarks on how strange it is that they’ve been through all manner of scrapes, crashes and explosions and emerged without a scratch, that they appear to be invincible. Now, normally, that would be a sign that someone was going to end up dead or seriously maimed, but not here, rather it plays along with the self-mocking note and pushes the envelope even further. Into space, as it happens.
However, to return to the start, Dom Toretto (Vin Diesel) is now living off the grid with Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) are trying to lead a quiet life with his young son Little Brian when their old team, Tej (Chris Bridges), Roman and Ramsey (Nathalie Emmanuel) turn up with a new mission to investigate a plane that’s crashed in foreign territory. Letty gets on her bike and joins them, but Dom demurs, only to turn up just as they’re about to take off, the reason being he’s discovered the involvement of his estranged brother Jakob (Jon Cena), whose existence – and the entire franchise – has kept secret until this very moment. Which sends the film off into a hitherto never told backstory flashback to their teens in 1989 whereby it’s revealed that their racing driver father (JD Pardo) was killed during a race and Dom (Vinnie Bennett) subsequently learnt Jakob (Finn Cole) was involved in tampering with the car, causing the accident, resulting in a race-off show down and Jakob being told to drive out of his life and never come back. Since which time, determined to escape his brother’s shadows, he’s become a sort of petulant super mercenary and he’s now working for Cipher (Charlize Theron) and being bankrolled by Euro-brat dictator’s son Otto (Thue Ersted Rasmussen) in a plot to steal the two halves of some high-tech device known as Project Aries that will enable them, stop me if you’ve heard this one before, to take control of all of Earth’s computer systems and weaponry.
But this is just for starters, the screenplay taking things ever further with the crew travelling to virtually every country on the planet, Lin putting the car into carnage with ever more over the top sequences, including driving at high speed through Central American jungle full of land mines, racing across a collapsing wooden bridge above a chasm, slingshotting a car across a mountain pass and a frenetic metal crunching chase through the streets employing a running action-gag involving giant fuck you magnets, culminating in bickering buddies Tej and Roman being launched into space to sabotage the satellite via a space shuttle carrying a red Pontiac Fiero with rocket boosters strapped to its roof. In-between which there’s more flashbacks to the teenage years as Dom learns more about what actually happened that fateful day, the usual talk about the importance of family, returning appearances by Jordana Brewster as the brothers’ sister Mia, Lucas Black as Sean, Kurt Russell as mysterious spook Mr Nobody, a brief London cameo (and accompanying car chase) by Helen Mirren and, as the coup de grace, the return of Han (Sung Kang), presumed dead since FF6 back in 2013 along with a complex back story explanation and a feisty sword-wielding ward (Anna Sawei) who turns out to hold the key to the entire world domination scenario. Unashamedly ultrasilly and knowingly preposterous, but a whole tanker full of popcorn fun. (Vue)
The Forever Purge (15)
The fifth in the series, and the most political yet, this gets the set-up out of the way quickly. Despite having been dismantled in the previous film, apparently the New Founding Fathers of America have been re-elected and have reintroduced the annual 12-hour amnesty for any form of crime, murder included. It’s fairly clear where the film’s coming from and going to with an introductory sequence where Adela (Ana de la Reguera) and her husband Juan (Tenoch Huerta) journey to a shack in the Mexican desert and then through tunnels into Los Feliz Valley in Texas along with other illegal immigrants. She gets a job in a restaurant and he as a horse whisperer ranch hand for the wealthy Tucker clan, headed up by liberal patriarch Caleb (Will Patton) and including headstrong smug son Dylan (Josh Lucas), Dylan’s pregnant wife Cassie (Cassidy Freeman) and Dylan’s younger sister Harper (Leven Rambin). While not overtly racist, Dylan harbours resentment against Juan when he tames a horse he cannot and, later says that he thinks each should stick to their own kind.
That’s a sentiment taken to extreme by a new breed of American fascists who, when the first of the new purges ends, the Tuckers safe in their shuttered farm and, using a bonus from Caleb, Anna and Juan taking shelter in a refuge for Mexicans protected by armed mercenaries, refuse to call it a day. Rather, they declare a Forever or Ever After Purge dedicated to purify America by ridding it of all the ‘brownies’. Meanwhile, along with his right-wing New Patriots sidekicks, one of the disgruntled Tucker ranch hands (Brett Edwards) takes the family prisoner as part of his own class war. Caleb agreeing the system sucks with the rick exploiting the poor, and having pointed out the bitter irony of them serving the NFFA, he’s duly given a bullet in the head before Juan, his buddy TT (Alejandro Edda), rescue them and, gathering Anna (herself rescued from a Purge Purification Force by her Black boss Darius and pretty nifty at handling an automatic rifle), and everyone setting off in a semi-truck with assorted Purgers on their trail.
Directed by Everardo Valerio Gout from a screenplay from series creator James DeMonaco, it takes on the feel of a gritty Western as, El Paso and other cities falling to the PPF, the NFFA, under threat from the monster its created, sending in and then withdrawing the military, led by Native American activists Chiago (Zahn McClarnon) and Xavier (Gregory Zaragoza), the group has to race against the clock to navigate the El Paso war zone and cross the border into Mexico for sanctuary, Dylan, naturally, reassessing his attitudes along the way. Drawing heavily on films like Mad Max:Fury Road and Damnation Alley for the frantic chase and fierce, bloody action sequences, especially out in the desert and mountains, it rattles along and. while the political irony is never subtle (American ‘dreamers’ seeking freedom in Mexico) that doesn’t weaken its potency. It’s also hard not to think of the Capitol siege by right wingers in the final days of the Trump presidency.
Amid the carnage, fight for survival and Dylan’s moral sensibility awakening to a common humanity, there’s also some grim black humour, such as when Anna and Darius (Sammi Rotibi) find themselves inside a police prison wagon alongside a neo-Nazi who can identify the different makes of guns going off in the streets from the noise they make. Ending with an image of a divided America rising up in a civil war, common-sense pitted against madness, the sixth, and presumably final, entry promises to be dynamite. (Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Vue)
Free Guy (12A)
Every day, Guy (Ryan Reynolds) wakes up in his Free City apartment to the sound of Mariah Carey’s Fantasy, puts on his regular blue shirt, tie and buff trousers, wishes his goldfish good morning, gets his usual coffee from the diner, sees his friend’s store getting robbed and goes to work as teller in a bank, his mantra “Don’t have a good day, have a great day”, where his best buddy, Buddy (Lil Rel Howery), is a security guard. Every day someone comes in shooting off a gun and robs the place. They are always wearing sunglasses, because, in Free City, a place characterised by random acts of violence, war machines and the like, the people in sunglasses are a special type, not like ordinary folk, like Guy. But Guy has an emptiness and fantasises of meeting his ideal woman. Then, one day, she passes him by in the street. She’s wearing sunglasses, so, according to Buddy, out of his league. But he goes after her and eventually learns she’s called Molotov Girl (Jodie Comer), a British-accented assassin, and is apparently on a mission.
He also learns that he is, in fact, not real. And nor is Free City. It’s a computer game and, as referred to by two cops (one dressed as pink bunny) who come after him, he’s an NPC, a non-player character, one of those generic figures that populate the game for the actual players to interact with (i.e. generally shoot, maim or the like) on their missions. But somehow, he’s acting counter to his programming. Hence the cops, real-world gamers, looking to shut him down. Molotov Girl too is a player, and, in the real world, she’s Millie who, along with her genius ex-colleague Keys (Joe Keery) created the code on which Free City is based, and which was stolen by gaming corporate megalomaniac Antwan (a scenery-chomping Taika Waititi), and she needs to enter the game and secure the evidence to prove this.
Now sporting his own glasses, which enable him to see Free City through the eyes of a player, told he needs to level up before he’s of any use to her, Guy sets about becoming Blue Shirt Man, stopping crime and generally being a hero before eventually joining her on her mission. And a romance blossoming over bubblegum ice cream and swings. However, readying to launch Free City 2, and in the process consign the original to oblivion, Antwan, is determined to prevent her and to eliminate Guy, by ordering Keys’ friend Mouser (Utkarsh Ambudkar) to reboot it, or even totally destroy the whole set-up.
An exuberant cocktail of Ready Player One and The Truman Show with a smidgeon of Groundhog Day and Sims for good measure, it’s a colourful high-energy eager to please affair that uses its protagonist’s existential crisis as a springboard rather than a heavyweight issue, with Guy actually an algorithm designed by Millie and Keys that has hyperevolved into a pixelated AI with free will. Stuffed with background sight gags and the explosions and visual effects going off like firecrackers on New Year’s Eve, directed by Shawn Levy, it has great fun with the whole gamer’s universe, such as nerd living in his mum’s basement whose avatar is a tough-guy played by Channing Tatum, and gaming conventions such as boosting your weaponry by accessing bonuses along the way, while other gleeful celeb cameos include a masked player voiced by Hugh Jackman, and, in very funny nod to the MCU as Guy takes on a dim-witted He-Man version of himself named Dude, even one of The Avengers cast themselves.
Switching between the real and the virtual, it’s more in your face than even Disney in trumpeting its self-awareness be who you really are and what you can be message (delivered as such by Guy to his assembled fellow NPCs) while naturally including the staple romcom subplot of the character who doesn’t realise their true love has been staring them in the face all along. As in Killing Eve, Comer deftly switches between her two personas while Reynolds delivers his familiar amiable joker routine with rapid fire quips, albeit dialled down to a gentler level than Deadpool and with a far sweeter demeanour, while the support cast (which include a bank customer whose arms are always in hold up position) dive in with undisguised glee. It never aims to be more than it is, hyperactive candy floss and sherbet dip for the digital generation, and, as such, it’s irresistible fun. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Vue)
A Good Woman Is Hard To Find (18)
A financially strapped widowed single-mother of two living on a Northern Ireland council estate whose husband (who everyone wrongly thinks was a dealer) was killed in a drug-related murder that left her son too traumatised to speak, Sarah (Sarah Bolger) is told in no uncertain terms by her reproving middle class mother (Jane Brennan) that she’s too soft. Opening with a scene of her showering of blood and tissue, the film sets out to disprove that, gradually working up to the reason for the shower and a potent confrontation with a drug boss and his goons.
Initially though, Sarah’s very much the hapless victim (also harassed by the supermarket security guard) when, having snatched a bag of coke from a dealer’s car, bottom-feeder Tito (Andrew Simpson) breaks into her home and forces her to hide the stash. And he keeps coming back to retrieve it to sell, and, while he does offer her a cut, she refuses. Eventually, her young kids threatened and the cops just another intimidating force in her life, things take a very visceral turn when local Mancunian gangster Leo Miller (Edward Hogg), who had her husband killed, tracks her down and demands she reveal where Tito is hiding, something which, having dismembered him, isn’t going to be easy. All of which, culminates in her going to their nightclub offices for a decidedly violent climax that proves her anything but soft.
Part exploitation thriller, part kitchen sink drama, and with a very deadly used of a dildo, it rises above the usual girl-power vengeance fantasy largely thanks to a terrific performance from Bolger giving vent to her long suppressed rage in spectacular Grand Guignol style. (Amazon Prime)
I Care A Lot (15)
Rosamund Pike electrifies the screen in this return to thriller form by J Blakeson, the British writer-director of The Disappearance of Alice Creed. Pike plays Marla Grayson, a latter day Gordon Gekko with a severe bob cut and a vaping habit who, by greasing the right palms, from doctors (Alicia Witt) to administrators (Damian Young), has carved a lucrative scam for herself and her business partner cum girlfriend Fran (Eiza Gonzalez) by having vulnerable senior citizens declared incapable and, with the help of an admiring judge, placed into care with herself and her firm appointed as legal guardian. At which point they proceed to plunder their estate and savings under the guide of necessary expenses and administration fees.
Just how smoothly she works her Kafkaesque schemes things is shown in the first courtroom scene where she gets the son of one of her ‘clients’ barred from visitation rights after he caused a scene at the care home. Looking for their next mark, the pair target Jennifer Peterson (Dianne Wiest), a wealthy senior showing early mild signs of dementia and with no apparent family to take responsibility. A ‘cherry’. The next thing Peterson knows is that, without warning or any court appearance, she’s being bundled out of her home by social services and the police and taken off to be placed under the charge of one of Marla’s creepy care home administrator accomplices, stripped of her cell phone, and pumped with tranquilisers. Marla, meanwhile, puts the house up for sale and discovers a fortune in diamonds in a safety deposit box.
It’s at this point that what initially appeared to be a caustic satire on rampant and ruthless capitalism, the treatment of the elderly and the flaws in America’s legally appointed guardianship system suddenly pulls a genre flip into a deadly cat and mouse thriller. Peterson, you see, does have family. A son she sees once a year on a prearranged date. He’s Roman Lunyov (Peter Dinklage), a ruthless businessman who just happens to be a former Russian mafia kingpin. And he doesn’t take kindly to having his mother locked away. As Peterson coldly informs her “”I’m the worst mistake you’ll ever make”.
Marla’s initially unaware of any of this of course, only that a snappily dressed lawyer (Chris Messina) turns up offering $150,000 for Peterson’s release and making hardly veiled threats when she, looking to hold out for a bigger payoff, turns him down.
Things very quickly turn murderously nasty in what develops into a battle of wits and power between Marla and Roman, Peterson as her leverage, as she looks to negotiate a better deal than he’s offering, and he decides to simply eradicate the annoyances.
While it’s hard not be impressed by Marla’s smarts and resilience, while both apparently care for their respective lover and mother, neither of the film’s despicable protagonists are intended to grab your sympathies, each lacking in the most basic humanity in their ferocious determination to succeed and become obscenely wealthy. Balancing a tightrope between compellingly nasty thriller and jet black satire, Blakeson rattles the action and tension along with barely a pause for breath as the stakes continue to rise before an unexpected resolution that returns to the predatory toxicity of the American Dream and a last minute comeuppance for at least one of those concerned.
Weist, Dinklage and Gonzalez are all terrific, but none can hold a candle to Pike who, making her Gone Girl performance seem like soft-pedalling tears into the screenplay like a wolf, toying with the dialogue before ripping it to shreds yet never once losing her chilly calm composure. In the opening voiceover, remarking how there are two types of people: predators and prey, lions and lambs, she declares “My name is Marla Grayson and I am no lamb. I am a fucking lioness.” Watch her roar. (Amazon Prime).
Jungle Cruise (12A)
It used to be that the film spawned the theme park ride, but these days it’s more often the other way round. This, set in 1917, is the seventh to be based on a Disney theme park attraction, although cine-literate audiences will recognise it’s also heavily influenced by the Bogart and Hepburn classic The African Queen, the roles here taken by Dwayne Johnson and Emily Blunt. She’s Lily Houghton, a trousers-wearing British botanist who’s determined to find a legendary ancient tree, hidden somewhere in the depths of the Amazon, the petals of which, the Tears Of The Moon, will heal any illness. Wearing the same sort of hat as Bogart, he is Frank Wolff, the cynical skipper of a ramshackle river boat who, in hock to the local Italian businessman (Paul Giamatti), runs cruises up and down the Amazon, given to making dreadful puns and something of an opportunistic con artist staging assorted ‘perils’ for his gullible Western tourists. Lily having stolen a mystical arrowhead which, along with an old map, she believes will lead her to the tree, heads for Brazil along with her impractical foppish brother MacGregor (Jack Whitehall) where, after assorted antics (including a staged attack by Frank’s tame jaguar), she ends up hiring him to skipper them on their mission. She calls him Skippy, he calls her Pants. However, she’s not the only one after the petal and, as the travel up the Amazon, they’re pursued by Prince Joachim (an accent mangling Jesse Plemons), apparently one of the Kaiser’s sons, in his submarine, who wants to use its powers to help the German army win the war.
It should, at this point, be mentioned that there’s also a curse attached to the legend, dating back to the 16th century when, led by Aguirre (Edgar Ramírez), a bunch of Spanish Conquistadors came in search of the petals, massacred the natives who protected the tree and ended up being forever trapped by the jungle, their zombie selves being liberated and teaming up with Joachim.
Shamelessly pilfering from not only The African Queen, but also Romancing The Stone, Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Mummy and Pirates of the Caribbean (and for art house devotees, Aguirre, Wrath Of God), it could have profitably have been trimmed by 15 minutes (ditching some baggage as Frank does with MacGregors’), but you can’t say director Jaume Collet-Serra’s doesn’t give value for the price of admission, what with telepathic bees, snakes, rapids, plunging waterfalls, running over collapsing structures, swinging from ropes, dart-blowing natives, headhunters, explosions and much more. And along the way there’s the inevitable burgeoning romance between Lily and Frank (he has a secret, so let’s just say it’s probably good if she prefers older men) as well as a sensitively handled scene where MacGregor (Whitehall rising above his initial comic relief role) confesses to Frank that his affections are not directed at women.
Blunt and Johnson play off each other well, though it’s fair to say she scores the most points, and both throw themselves into the film’s physical demands with great gusto, and, at the end of the day, it’s all a good hearted rollercoaster ride through old fashioned Saturday matinee adventure escapism and none the worse for that. (Disney +; Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Vue)
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (15)
Following on from Fences, directed by George C Wolfe, driven by a score from Branford Marsalis with a sharp screenplay from Ruben Santiago-Hudson, this is the second adaptation from The Pittsburgh Cycle, a collection of ten plays by the late August Wilson chronicling the African-American community in the 20th century. Written in 1984, set in 1927, it was inspired by legendary blues singer Ma Rainey, dubbed the Mother of the Blues, played here in powerhouse form by Viola Davis, who won a Supporting Actress Oscar for the previous film. However, the dramatic focus and, inevitably, the film’s most compelling attraction, is that it co-stars the late Chadwick Boseman (with whom Davis appeared in Get On Up) delivering a volcanic, highly physical live wire performance in his final Golden Globe winning role as her band’s fictional trumpet player, Levee, an ambitious, cocky figure determined to make a name for himself but also troubled by a traumatic past.
First seen on his way to the recording studio, his attention’s caught by a pair of flash, yellow leather shoes which he buys and proudly shows off to his colleagues, and which will prove the catalyst to the film’s sudden, tragic ending. The youngest and a new addition to the ranks, he’s at the Chicago recording studio owned by Sturdyvant (Jonny Coyne), along with bassist Slow Drag (Michael Potts), veteran piano player, Toledo (Glynn Turman) and highly religious trombonist Cutler (Colman Domingo) the band’s de facto leader, to rehearse in the basement ready to lay down material for Ma’s next records, among them her signature tune Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, He, however, has his own ideas for the arrangement they should play, a swing intro designed to hook an audience looking for livelier, more danceable music. His swagger is buoyed by the fact Sturdyvant, seeing crossover potential, has agreed and also expressed interest in his own compositions with a view to recording, a step towards Levee forming his own band and becoming a star in his own right.
However, as Cutler points out, this is Ma’s music and Ma’s band and what she says goes. It’s clear from her first appearance, sporting gold teeth and overdone makeup, arriving in a swanky car driven by her nephew Sylvester (Dusan Brown) along with her latest flirty young pick-up, Dussie Mae (Taylour Paige), and immediately involved in an altercation with another driver, that she’s a blowsy, imperious diva used to getting her own way. Under no illusions as to her status in a white America, she also knows that the sales of her records give her the power to call the shots, something she makes very clear by her late arrival and the demands she makes during the session, declaring “they gonna treat me the way I want to be treated no matter how much it hurt ‘em”, much to the exasperation of her long suffering white manager Irvin (Jeremy Shamos).
Inevitably, then, she immediately slaps down Levee’s proposals, insisting that Sylvester will do the song’s spoken introduction (despite the fact he stutters) and they’ll play it the way it’s always been played. It’s not the only time during the session that Levee’s hopes will be taken away from him.
Much of the drama takes place in the rehearsal room where, in a mix of playful banter and more serious concerns, the conversation variously takes in fashion sense, the history of black oppression, Toledo’s views on the futility of trying to change things (“The coloured man, he’s the leftovers”, he declares after his African Stew monologue), Levee’s seemingly sycophant attitude to white folk, and, tellingly, the story of black man who sold his soul to the Devil and became untouchable. It’s here that, driven by the friction between Levee and Cutler that Boseman’s most electrifying, blisteringly intense scenes take place, first in recounting the childhood trauma of seeing his mother violated by a gang of white ‘crackers’ (who only stopped after scarring his chest with a blade) and what he learnt from his father’s revenge and, subsequently a physical knife-bearing confrontation with Cutler and a subsequent ferocious calling out of God for abandoning him (given added resonance since Boseman was by now dying of cancer) and never intervening to save his mother.
The knife, naturally, has, along with the shoes, a further part to play as the anger within Levee boils over in the wake of Rainey’s veto of his arrangement (his revenge is to have sex on the piano with Dussie Mae) and Sturdyvant’s rejection of his songs (and recording sessions) as of no commercial worth, the final intercut scenes, of course, underling white exploitation of black music as we see them being recorded by an all white line-up. The film will be celebrated and remembered as Boseman’s final and finest hour, but it’s also much more than that. (Netflix)
A loosely autobiographical drama about Korean immigrants in the rural US inspired by writer-director Lee Isaac Chung’s childhood, it stars Steven Yuen as Jacob who, as the film starts, moves his wife Monica (Yeri Han) and their two young kids, Anne (Noel Cho) and David (the scene-stealingly cute and wise Alan S. Kim), her young brother with a weak heart, from California to live in a secondhand mobile home, propped up on cinder blocks in the middle of nowhere Arkansas, using the money saved from years working sexing chickens in the city.
The family’s not best impressed, but while they work in the local chicken hatchery, Jacob’s determined to turn the accompanying land into a farm, growing Korean vegetables to sell for his fellow ex-pats yearning for a taste of home. The soil, he tells his wife, is perfect. Unfortunately, the water supply isn’t. But with the help of eccentric Pentecostal field hand Paul (Will Patton), things initially seem to be starting to look up. Until Jacob’s dream starts hoovering up all their savings. And then, to keep his wife sweet, he agrees for her mother (BAFTA and Oscar Best Actress winner Youn Yuh Jung) to join them, the kids, who have become Americanised, not overly thrilled by the strange foods their mischievous Grandma brings with her. David, who has to share a room, reckons she smells Korean and takes exception to her embarrassing him about his bedwetting issues (he gets his revenge in wickedly funny way). She does, however, bring with her the water celery seeds of the title that she sows in the nearby creek, a versatile crop that (serving as the film’s metaphor) can grow anywhere.
As Jacob’s American Dream falls apart around him and the promised land increasingly becomes less so, so does it impact on family life and the marriage, the film never overplaying the way the fault lines develop and keeping a strong focus on the interaction of the characters making its emotional impact honestly earned. (Amazon Prime)
The Mitchells v The Machines (PG)
Produced by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller who directed The Lego Movie and 22 Jump Street and produced Into The Spider-Verse and the other Lego movies with writer-director team Mike Rianda and Jeff Rowe making their feature debut (with characters based on their own family members), this is hugely entertaining fun animation with a solid message about embracing your inner weirdo and a cautionary tale about letting technology control you rather than the other way around.
When Mark Bowman, head of an Apple-like tech company, introduces his latest invention, an upgrade white humanoid robot servant version of his AI smartphone assistant, he’s not prepared for the Siri-like PAL (voiced by Olivia Colman) to take revenge for being consigned to history by taking control of the robots (who resemble Star Wars’ battle droids) and, Terminator-style, setting out to rid the planet of all humans. She’s not, however, reckoned on the Mitchells.
An oddball family headed up by technophobe Rick (Danny McBride), who wishes everyone would leave their cellphones for at least a few minutes and actually talk to each other round the dinner table, and super-positive wife Linda (Maya Rudolph), they have two kids, young dinosaur-obsessed Aaron (Rianda) who randomly calls people in the phone book to talk about them, and teenage Katie (Abbi Jacobson), an aspiring filmmaker who, on the back of her home videos featuring their cross-eyed pug Monchi, has landed a place at film school in California. However, her relationship with her dad is prickly since he just doesn’t get her and, for reasons explained later, tends to speak of potential failure rather than potential success.
Trying to make up for his comments and behaviour, Rick arranges to take the whole family on a road trip to Katie’s college in their battered orange station wagon and, stopping off at a rundown dinosaur attraction en route, they find themselves at the centre of the worldwide robot attack, rounding up humans and sending them off to their Silicon Valley HQ in flaying green boxes. And so it is the Mitchells end up as the last humans not in captivity and, with the aid of two robots (Fred Armisen, Beck Bennett) whose programming has been send into a spin by being unable to decide if Monchie is a dog, a pig or a loaf of bread, they set out to save the world.
It’s a silly and as anarchic as it sounds and all concerned revel in the opportunity to go wild, both in the use of the animation, which at times includes real YouTube clips as well as cartoon drawings of the family and their escapades, and in a non-stop barrage of gags, none of which miss the target, along with any number of energetic action sequences, including a show down with the world’s biggest Furby in a shopping mall and Linda letting loose her inner Mulan against PAL’s killer robots.
Never losing sight of its central theme of family bonds, father-daughter in particular, it rattles along with unflagging energy and a support cast that includes John Legend and Chrissy Teigen as the Mitchells’ supercool neighbours, this is an absolute joy. (Netflix)
The triumphant winner of Best Film, Director and Actress at the Oscars, adapted from Jessica Bruder’s non-fiction Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century, this ever bit a slow burn, spare, quasi-documentary style work as Chloé Zhao’s previous film The Rider. Echoing the title, it kind of drifts and meanders without a clear destination in sight, but it’s the journey not the arriving that makes it so extraordinary.
Frances McDormand is Fern, recently widowed, a former substitute teacher and a victim of the economic downturn in Empire, Nevada, the local gypsum works being forced the close and the town even having its post code discontinued. As such, she’s made houseless, but not homeless, taking to the road with a few possessions, including the china plates her father collected, in her camper van, which she names Vanguard, living an itinerant life along with a nomadic, largely, elderly community of likeminded and similarly affected souls, working zero hours contracts in Amazon warehouses or burgers bars to make money for food and gas, moving on – in Fern’s case to Arizona – when the demand or the weather changes.
In her early sixties, she’s a flinty and determined oddball, never given to self-pity, kindly and compassionate to those she meets in need of comfort or whatever help she can offer, receiving their kindness in return. Most notably among them are David (David Strathairn), a kindly senior citizen with a strained relationship with his son back home and who offers the possibly of something more than friendship, and, Linda May who first brings her into the nomadic community by inviting her to the regular Rubber Tramp Rendezvous meetup and has found escape from despair through life on the road. She, like pretty much everyone else in the film including, the group’s leader, Bob Wells (who has a heartbreaking backstory), all featured as part of Bruder’s book, are playing themselves.
There’s very little by way of a drama (a flat tyre, an accident with a cardboard box), the film essentially a collection of small, naturalistic scenes punctuated here and there by monologues of wisdom (memorably one of ineffable beauty by a character named Swankie), some moving confessionals, a reunion and, for Fern, a slow emerging from the grief that, while she’s physically on the move, has held her in emotional stasis.
The political commentary on contemporary America is never in your face, but you always feel its subtle presence as Zhao crafts an almost dreamlike experience that, capturing a little seen American landscape with visual poetry, never forces or manipulates your response to of feelings for the characters or their broken dreams, who are defined by joy rather than sadness, although it’s fair to say the third act, which has her returning home to ask her sister for a loan and visiting David now back with his family feels more narratively hands on. But even so, this is an exquisite snapshot of an unseen America that will seep into your soul and linger for months. (Disney + Star)
Having made a comeback with The Visit and Split following a string of clunky misfires, the fact this was not given any advance previews is testament to the fact that M Night Shyamalan has again shot himself in the foot with a film that plays like an overlong Twilight Zone episode, and not a particularly good one.
Taking the graphic novel Sandcastle as a launch pad, it does have a compelling premise, a secret beach on the exclusive Anamika Resort island retreat where anyone who visits it ages rapidly, a year for every 30 mins they’re there, meaning most will be dead by the end of the day. The latest visitors are Guy (Gael Garcia Bernal) and Prisca Capa (Vicky Krieps) who, about to split up, after taken their two unsuspecting kids, 11-year-old Maddox (Alexa Swinton) and 6-year-old Trent (Nolan River) on one last family holiday. They’re joined by Charles (Rufus Sewell, a career worst performance), a decidedly intense surgeon, his trophy wife Chrystal (Abbey Lee), young daughter Kara (Kyle Bailey) and his mother Agnes (Kathleen Chalfant) plus another long-time couple, nurse Jarin (Ken Leung) and epileptic Patricia (Nikki Amuka-Bird). All of the adults have some sort of problem, be it physical, mental or emotional.
They’re all invited to the private beach by the obsequious hotel manager (Gustav Hammarstsen), the bus there driven by the director in his customary cameo, and happily set about swimming and sunbathing, Happily until they start making some strange finds, like piles of rusty hotel cutlery and when a woman’s naked dead body floats along. She turns out to have been the lover of rap star Mid-Size Sedan (Aaron Pierre), who is also on the beach and has a constantly bleeding nose, and whom Charles accuses of her murder. But then things get even weirder when the kids start to rapidly age into teenagers (variously Alex Wolff, Eliza Scanlen and Thomasin McKenzie), hang out, one gets pregnant and gives birth, the grown ups start developing wrinkles and a small tumour in Prisca’s abdomen suddenly grows huge, prompting Charles to carry out an impromptu surgery (the wound almost instantly healing).
Understandably horrified, they look to escape, but attempts to scale the rock face end up with the climber falling asleep half way, if they follow the path they came they faint and wake up back on the beach while the cave apparently harbours equal horrors. It’s not hard to suss out the value your life while you have it and you’re faced with the passage of time and encroaching mortality, but it’s much harder to understand the film’s tonal rollercoaster and wilful lack of consistency, which at one point takes in some body horror limb contortions, the laboriously overt exposition, clumsy puerile dialogue and the multitude of embarrassingly bad performances. The camerawork is effective and amps up the claustrophobia and mounting panic and there’s the inevitable Shyamalan ‘big’ twist to keep you intrigued as it heads to the risible climax, but this makes the recent schlocky Fantasy Island seem like a veritable masterpiece. Like the characters, the audience may feel their life slipping away as they watch. (Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Vue)
The Old Guard (15)
Following on from Mad Max and Atomic Blonde, Charlize Theron further underscores her cool action movie persona as Ancient Greece warrior Andromache of Scythia aka Andy, the head of a small group of immortal mercenaries that also comprises Booker (Matthias Schoenaerts), who gained immortality after dying in the Napoleonic Wars and Joe (Marwan Kenzari) and Nicky (Luca Marinelli) who became gay lovers while fighting on opposing sides in the Crusades. Keeping a low profile so as not to attract attention to themselves, they’ve fought on the side of right through the centuries, to which end, brought back together after a year apart, although, disillusioned by humanity’s continued inability to redeem itself, she declares “The world can burn for all I care”, she’s persuaded by former CIA operative Copley (Chiwetel Ejiofor) to rescue 17 schoolchildren abducted in South Sudan.
However, this turns out to be a set up aimed at capturing them and harvesting their DNA engineered by pharmaceuticals CEO Merrick (Harry Melling, unrecognisable from his role as Harry Potter’s Dudley Dursley) who claims he wants to end cognitive decline, but whose actual motives are rather less altruistic.
The corporate villain has become something of a cliché and the film, self-adapted by Greg Ruckahich from his graphic novels and which sees director Gina Prince-Bythewood spreading her wings after romantic dramas, never seems as assured in the basic plot framework as it does in handling the character interplay and the action sequences.
The quartet are soon joined by a fifth member, American Marine Nile Freeman (KiKi Layne) who, much to her confusion and the unease of her fellow soldiers, recovers from a fatal neck-wound in Afghanistan without so much as a scar. A psychic bond between fellow immortals leads to Andy rescuing her from the military base and, after a mano a mano fight aboard a transport plane, recruiting her to the cause, though she remains understandably freaked out about the whole set-up.
Not that, with Merrick’s paramilitary squad on their tail, anyone has a great deal of time to sit around reflecting on the cost of immortality and rapid healing, and never knowing when your time will be up. The character depth is thickened by the revelation that Andy is haunted by guilt over the fate of her first fellow immortal, Quynh (Van Veronica Ngo) following their capture during the witchcraft trials.
As such, the film jumps around from Africa and Southern Asia to rural Paris as the group elude pursuit and seek to track down Copley before, after a betrayal and two abductions for experimentation, it all climaxes in an extended shoot-out at Mannix’s London HQ.
Dressed in black (though flashbacks have her in Amazonian armour) with a bob-cut, Theron strides confidently through the film, delivering action and conflicted character complexity and psychological baggage with equal skill, and she’s well-supported by her four peers, Layne especially strong while Schoenaerts provides soulful melancholia and Kenzari and Marinelli introduce a degree of humour and tenderness.
With one of the group apparently losing their immortality and a six months later end credits scene that sets up further mystery and intrigue, this is clearly envisioned as an ongoing narrative, both as high octane action and exploring what it means to be human; it most certainly deserves a sequel. (Netflix)
Peter Rabbit 2: The Runaway (PG)
There’s a curious case of having your cake and eating it to this sequel based around the Beatrix Potter characters in that, now married to McGregor (Domhnall Gleeson wildly overacting), Bea (Rose Byrne) is approached by a smooth-talking major publisher, Nigel Basil-Jones (David Oyelowo), who wants to bring her stories to a wider audience, but to do so would mean departing from their simple innocence, such as having them wear t-shirts, going surfing or even into outer space. Bea is seduced by the idea, especially after he gives her a snazzy car, but McGregor feels this is betraying her principles and the characters, which, of course, are based on the animals on and around the farm where they live.
And yet the film itself seeks to do the very same thing for the same reasons, exaggerating it all into a frantic caper movie based, rather obviously, on Oliver Twist (in case you miss it, Rose starts reading Charles Dickens). In his game plan, the publisher wants to give the various characters defined personalities, with Peter (James Corden) being cast as the Bad Seed (with, self-referential joke, an annoying voice), reinforcing his feeling that, despite a tentative peace between him and McGregor, he’s always getting blamed for everything by McGregor, even when he’s not bene up to mischief. So, when everyone troops off to Gloucester (and if you think this means introducing Potter’s The Tailor of Gloucester into the plot, pat yourself on the back), he takes off my himself and runs into Barnabas (Lennie James), an old friend of his father’s who’s stealing fruit from the market and invites him to become part of his gang. So, deciding that if he’s always going to be seen as the villain of the piece, then he might as well be, Peter joins up with Barnabas’s crew, including masterplanner Samuel Whiskers and rough and ready felines Tom Kitten and Mittens (Hayley Attwell).
After showing Peter the ropes in how to get yourself adopted by humans so you can raid their food cupboard, Barnabas announces his big plan is to steal the dried fruit from Gloucester’s weekly market, persuading Peter to rope in all his friends, Flopsy (Margot Robbie) and Mopsy (Elizabeth Debicki), Cottontail (Aimee Horne), Mrs Tiggy-Winkle (Sia), Jemima Puddle-Duck (Byrne), Pigling Bland (Ewen Leslie), Mr. Jeremy Fisher (Gleeson), Tommy Brock (Sam Neill) and even Felix D’eer (Christian Gazel), to help pull it off.
Throwing in assorted amusing moments along the way (Cottontail having his first sugar high on jelly beans – or the hard stuff a Whiskers calls them), McGregor rolling down the hill, the old gag about standing on each other’s shoulders in a raincoat to pass off as one person, D’eer on a parachute) as well as a car chase, it naturally spins a message about family, friendship, being true to yourself and judging others by your preconceptions of them as it heads towards its rather rushed big finish (Bea, Peter and McGregor having to rescue the others from their assorted fates after being sold on by the local pet shop). McGregor even discovers Peter can talk.
While doing an equally good job of integrating the CGI animals alongside the actors, it lacks the charm and sweetness of Paddington and, like the books Basil-Jones wants to publish has very little in common with Potter’s stories, but the slapstick should keep the youngsters happy enough and, it has to be said, it does have a very clever spin on the obligatory lavatory gag. (Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Vue)
Cheerfully sporting its Tarantino and John Michael McDonagh influences, directed by Barnaby Thompson and written by Preston Thompson, this comedy thriller set in Co. Sligo, is great fun. The step-daughter of local drugs baron gangster Dermot O’Brien (Colm Meany), the spunkily ruthless but irresistible Pixie (Olivia Cooke) sets out to avenge her dead mother and score the money she needs to go to San Francisco, setting in motion a plot that involves her new lover Fergus recruiting her ex, Colin (Rory Fleck Byrne), to steal a consignment of MDMA from a syndicate of drug dealing Catholic priests, headed up by her step-father’s old rival, Father McGrath (Alec Baldwin). This leaves the priests dead and, subsequently, the jealous Colin putting a bullet in Fergus’s head, heading off with the bagful of drugs to have words with Pixie and himself ending up in the boot of a car driven by the naïve Harland (newcomer Daryl McCormack) who’s sitting outside her house waiting for his directionless best mate, Frank (Ben Hardy, Roger Taylor in Bohemian Rhapsody) who’s inside supposedly getting shagged. And that’s just the start.
Now they and Pixie find themselves thrown together with Colin’s body in the boot, first trying to offload the drugs to a local dealer’s Dingle-based uncle (Dylan Moran) and then on the run across the county, Pixie’s step-brother, who reckons dad’s lost his grip, looking to bring her down using the family’s pet hitman (Ned Dennehy), before setting up a deal with McGrath that culminates in a rival gangs shoot-out in an abandoned church.
Taking its cue from Westerns, it romps along with a copious supply of blood, violence and knowingly spark dialogue as the various characters seek to outmanoeuvre on another, before you get to the revelation about Pixie’s mother’s death and how it ties everything together. It makes a couple of unnecessary plot detours, such as snogging threeway between Pixie, Frank and in which the latter realise the extent of their bromance, but, putting a fresh spin on some old clichés, it otherwise proves a welcome escapist delight, not least for the sight of a gun toting nun. Father Ted was never like this. It had me at gangster priests. (Amazon Prime)
Promising Young Woman (15)
Named Best British Film and both BAFTA and Oscar winner for Original Screenplay, the feature debut by writer-director Emerald Fennell (a scripter for Killing Eve and who played Camilla Parker-Bowles in The Crown) is also nominated for a raft of Oscars, among them Best Picture, Director and Actress, a deserving nod for Carey Mulligan. She gives a mesmerising performance as Cassie, an emotionally closed-off 30-year-old who once had a bright future as a doctor and now lives with her parents (Jennifer Coolidge, Clancy Brown), who give her a suitcase for her birthday, and works as a barista in a coffee shop manage by her friend (Laverne Cox). By night, however, she hangs out in bars, pretending to be drunk and gets picked up by supposed nice guys who offer to take her home and then try to take advantage of her, at which point she turns on them.
A toxic masculinity rape revenge thriller (though the circumstances are deliberately not made clear until the end as she targets the prime object of her vengeance), told in chapters, it variously has her turning the tables on an opportunistic young professional (Adam Brody), taking a crowbar to an asshole’s pick up truck and electrifying confrontations with the dean of her former med school (Connie Britton( and another lawyer academic (Alfred Molina), both of whom were involved in the aftermath of a group sexual assault on her childhood friend Nina.
She’s also involved with two other characters, a former friend and classmate Madison (Alison Brie) and Ryan (Bo Burnham), a former medical school colleague who’s now a successful paediatrician, with whom she embarks on a romantic relationship. However, both are closely linked to the driving trauma and, as things get progressively darker, her involvement with them is clearly part of her agenda, one that sees her turning up in stripper nurse costume for a stag do.
Lacing the unsettling narrative with dashes of romcom, it keeps you unsure of where it’s heading, making the shockingly unexpected climax all the more jawdropping in its horror and audacity, but also brilliantly laying out Cassie’s careful planning ahead, as the credits play out to track called Last Laugh.
Both consumed with rage, clearly unhinged and wracked with pain, self-loathing and vulnerability, Mulligan is sensational, the film compellingly gathering power and ferocity like some #MeToo Death Wish or Angel of Vengeance that leaves you equally stunned and gratified. (Sky)
Raya and the Last Dragon (PG)
Disney’s first Southeast Asian heroine makes her debut in this stirring animated adventure set in a mythical land in the ancient time of dragons and which serves up an inspirational message about the need for and power of trust.
Taking the shape of a dragon the map, Kumundra was once a united land, but, drawn perhaps by growing discontent among the peoples from its different regions, there came the monstrous Druun, a plague of tornado-like creatures that turned people to stone. In one last valiant effort, the remaining dragons who protected the land combined their power in a gemstone which, before they too were petrified, they entrusted to Sisu who used it to destroy the Druun but who, apparently perished herself in doing so. Leap forward 500 years and the land has become fragmented, the regions, representing their position on the map, now divided into Heart, the densely forested Spine, market-town Talon, the desert wasteland Tail and, isolated and protected from the Druun by surrounding waters, Fang, with the dragon stone and its remaining magic safely protected by Benja (Daniel Dae Kim), leader of the Heart and father to young Raya (Kelly Marie Tran) who, in the opening scenes, earns her right to become one of its guardians. Beja’s dream is to reunite Kumandra, to which end he invites the different tribes to a feast and calls upon them to join together once again. However, duped into trusting Namaari (Gemma Chan), the princess daughter of the Fang leader, Raya innocently leads her to the stone, only to be double-crossed, the gem broken into five pieces and stolen by the other tribes and, in turn, seeing the return of the Druun.
Saved by her father before he’s turned to stone, the story moved on six years as the now grown Raya, dressed in flowing cape, carrying a pretty impressive sword and accompanied by her now equally giant pillbug Tuk Tuk (a sort of armadillo that can curl into a ball which she rides like a spherical horse), is searching the land, seeking to find Sisu who, legend has it, still lives at the end of one of the many rivers, and recover the other gem fragments to destroy the Druun, restore her father to life and, possibly fulfil his dream.
Finally, she does indeed reawaken Sisu (an exuberant Awkafina), who turns out be a somewhat ditzy glowing blue teen dragon (“I gotcha girl. WHO’S your dragon?”) proud of her swimming skills. Unfortunately, Raya’s been followed by Namaari who has her own quest to recover all the gem shards to keep Fang safe and so the film unfolds into a sort of Tomb Raider road movie as Raya and Sisu, who can take on human form, joining forces with representatives from the different tribes, first young shrimp seller Boun (Izaac Wang) aboard his floating restaurant followed, after accompanying battles and escapades, a con baby and her three thieving monkeys and one-eyed warrior Tong (Benedict Wong), all of whom have lost family to the Druun, gathering the shards until only the one in Fang remains to be recovered. Not that Namaari is going to let her get her hands on that.
Deftly mixing action, emotion and humour, the film rattles along, addressing such themes as greed, environmental crises, family and friendship before, prompted by the optimistic Sisu, finally returning to the central message that if you’re going to overcome shared problems, then you need to get past your differences and have trust to work together for a common cause. All that and some farting beetles for the kids. (Disney)
Saint Maude (15)
Somewhat overly in thrall to Dario Argento perhaps, but this inventive religious fervour gothic horror debut from writer-director Rose Glass with its taught 84 minute running time, undeniably gets under the skin. Delivering an awards-worthy performance of intense complexity in her first lead role, Morfydd Clark is Maud, or at least that’s what she’s currently calling herself, a mousy born again palliative nurse with a Christ complex now working on an agency basis following an incident with a hospital patient. Based in an unnamed seedy British seaside town (it was filmed in Scarborough), her new client is Amanda Kohl (an outstanding Jennifer Ehle), a former celebrity dancer and choreographer now consigned to bed and wheelchair a la Norma Desmond with terminal spinal lymphoma and clearly not long for this world, although, hedonist to the end, she’s not about to forsake drink, cigarettes or lesbian sex (Lily Frazer). Patently unreligious, Maud sees it as God’s mission for her to save this lost soul and bring her to God in the same way she found salvation; however, while Kohl briefly plays long, pretending to feel the Holy Spirit orgasmically within her, it’s clear she’s just cruelly humouring Maud, something she makes abundantly clear at a party that ends in her dismissal. Maud, however, is not done with her yet.
An early indication of Maud’s mental state comes when she give money to a beggar and walks away advising him not to waste his pain, advice she takes to heart as, echoing ascetics who would self-harm as a form of devout suffering, she inserts a pad with drawing pins into her shoes in an excruciating scene to watch. When the embittered Kohl calls her “the loneliest girl I’ve ever seen”, it’s not just mockery.
Along with the Argento flourishes, Glass’s impressionistic film also draws inspirations from Carrie, The Exorcist (a levitation scene is ambiguously misleading), Repulsion, Morvern Callar and Under The Skin, the brooding lighting and camera work and emphatic score further accentuating the intensity as, varying its perspective from Maud’s internal psychological turmoil and (part driven by images from the Blake illustrations given her by Kohl) delusional out of body experiences (at one point the voice of a subtitled Christ talks to her in ancient Hebrew), it builds to a brace of horrific climaxes after a doubt-fuelled night of carnality on the town as Maud’s sanity finally collapses. It could, perhaps, have done without the digital angel wings Maud imagines herself sporting, a sly halo allusion earlier is more effective, but this undeniably buries its way into your mind with a shudder. (Amazon Prime)
Space Jam: A New Legacy (PG)
To mark the 25th anniversary of the original movie in which basketball star Michael Jordan teamed up with Looney Tunes animated characters, among them Daffy Duck, Bugs Bunny, Porky Pig, Tweety Pie and Elmer Fudd to free them from an evil corporate overlord, the hoop has been passed to LeBron James. Opening in 1998 with the young LeBron playing his Game Boy on his Ohio high school basketball court, this time round, an Amazonian warrior Lola Bunny now voiced by Zendaya, the cartoon crew’s joined by Fred Flintstone and Yogi Bear when, having refused to have his animated self be part of LeBron of Thrones, LeBron and his younger son Dom (Cedric Joe) are zapped into Warner Bros’ 3000 Server-Verse, a super computer containing an archive of the studio’s former movies. Here, in a virtual space ruled by ruthlessly ambitious attention-seeking corporate Al-G Rhythm (Don Cheadle), an A.I. algorithm, in order to rescue his son (who actually seems to be enjoying himself) and escape, the now cartoon LeBron and his now 3D CGI Tunes mates have to win a basketball game, devised by Dom, against the Goon Squad, a team of virtual super-powered monster-like avatars of professional NBA and WBNA champions based on and variously voiced by Klay Thompson (the self-explanatory Wet-Fire), Anthony Davis (Cro-Magnum vulture The Brow), Damian Lillard (robotic Chronos),Diana Taurasi (serpent-like White Mamba) and Nneka Ogwumike (the spidery Arachnneka). Plus Dom as part of the father-son subplot with him complaining his dad never lets him be himself.
Peppered with nods to or clips from Superman, Batman, Mad Max (into which Roadrunner and Wile E Coyote are inserted), Austin Powers, Harry Potter, King Kong, Wonder Woman and even Casablanca (with play it again pianist Yosemite Sam) with a rap and R&B heavy soundtrack (Porky Pig is now a rapper – the Notorious PIG), it’s a madcap brightly coloured frantic frenzy that cheerfully send itself up, Bugs Bunny, who’s been left all alone in Tune World, quipping how it all “Sounds awfully familiar” while LeBron remarks “Athletes acting? That never goes well.”
Actually, fast-paced, visually impressive and big on dunking spectacles, while overlong it goes better than expected and movie buffs will have fun spotting background figures from the likes of It, A Clockwork Orange and The Mask among the crowd watching the hyper-stylised basketball showdowns while young kids can discover a whole bunch of cartoon celebrities they might not know. Now, how about David Beckham meets The Minions? (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Vue)
Spirit Untamed (PG)
Nineteen years after DreamWorks animated adventure Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron proved a critical and commercial success, based around ongoing TV spin-off Spirit: riding Free, the titular free-spirited mustang returns to the big screen to delight a new generation of young fillies.
As with the Netflix TV version, unlike the original film (which featured Matt Damon providing equine vocal duties), the stallion, the offspring of the original Spirit, doesn’t speak and the plot’s essentially a computer animated origin retread of the series wherein 12-year-old Fortuna “Lucky” Esperanza Navarro Prescott relocates from the city to the small frontier town of Miradero where, aboard the train, she first sees Spirit racing alongside with the others from the herd and later tames and bonds with the horse, freeing him from the wranglers that had captured him and tried to ‘break’ him, becoming pals with fellow horsey girls Pru and Abigail in the process.
It is, however, considerably fleshed out, with a backstory that reveals Lucky (Isabela Merced aka Isabela Moner from Dora and the Lost City of Gold ) as the daughter of a trick rider circus performer who dies after an accident in the ring, sent back East as a 2-year-old to live with her aunt Cora (Julianne Moore) and railway magnate grandfather (Joe Hart) after, unable to cope with his loss, her widowed father, Jim (Jake Gyllenhaal), took off. However, when an incident with a squirrel wrecks her grandfather’s campaign launch to run for governor, accompanied by Cora, she’s packed off to be reunited with dad in Miradero, where she meets young riders Pru (Marsai Martin) and Abigail (Mckenna Grace) and discovers the stallion and the other horses she saw have been captured by Hendricks (Walton Goggins), a wanted outlaw who, with his gang, is working as a horse wrangler for her father’s friend (and Pru’s dad) Al, and secretly intends to steal the herd and ship them off for auction to the highest bidder.
Although, because of what happened to his wife, Jim doesn’t want Lucky involved with horses, as in the TV show, advised by her new chums on how to approach things, Lucky bonds with the stallion by feeding him apples and names him Spirit, but, in trying to ride him, he escapes from the corral and takes off into the mountains, Pru and Abigail only just saving Lucky from falling from a cliff. At which point, the plot sort of repeats itself with Lucky and her new friends embarking on a mission to rescue the horses from Hendricks culminating in an action-packed showdown aboard the boat.
While fans of the girl-power TV series might feel they’ve seen it all before, there’s enough kiddie-friendly humour, action, sweetness, songs and liberal messages about friendship, nature, finding who you are and being free for them to enjoy the ride alongside newcomers saddling up for the first time.(Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Everyman; Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel; Vue)
The Suicide Squad (15)
With its opening credits spelled out from the blood of one of many corpses that litter the film, it’s clear that Guardians of the Galaxy director and writer James Gunn’s take on the DC supervillains team, is going to be everything David Ayers’ underwhelming original was not. Neither reboot nor sequel, just another mission and a clutch of new characters joining those returning, it positively explodes from the screen as, sent on a mission to infiltrate the South American island nation of Corto Maltese, all bar two of the squad meet a bloody end, the pre-credits opening sequence despatching Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney), Savant (Michael Rooker), Blackguard (Pete Davidson), TDK (Nathan Fillion), Javelin (Flula Borg), Mongal (Mayling Ng) and Weasel (Sean Gunn), leaving just Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman) and Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie, subsequently getting her own princess subplot) alive.
It is, however, just a diversion to the real mission, ruthless black-ops head Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) having sent another squad to destroy a heavily fortified laboratory called Jotunheim, where dastardly Nazi-like experiments are being carried out as part of something called Project Starfish (involving a giant, telepathic, pink alien echinoderm called Starro) under the supervision of the Thinker (Peter Capaldi sporting diodes sprouting from his skull) now that a coup d’etat has replaced the America-friendly dictator and his family with a military junta. Needless to say, there’s a hidden agenda).
This newly recruited dysfunctional team is headed up by Bloodsport (Idris Elba), a killing machine mercenary sharpshooter who hospitalised Superman, who’s been pressured into taking part to keep his estranged wayward daughter (Storm Reid) out of jail, the rest of the motley crew being pathologically patriotic Peacemaker (John Cena) another can kill with anything merc (cue one-upmanship gags with Elba), Ratcatcher 2 (a delightful Daniela Melchior), a petty Portuguese criminal with technology that controls rats (about which Bloodsport has a phobia), introvert Polka-Dot Man (scene stealer David Dastmalchian), the toxin-infected product of an experiment gone wrong who projects lethal, er, polka-dots (imaging the enemy is his mother) and, basically, the film’s answer to Groot, Nanaue aka Killer-Shark, an intelligence-challenged, mumbling shark on legs voiced in gleeful self-spoofing style by Sylvester Stallone. Naturally, subsequently joined by Flag and Quinn, not everyone makes it to the end.
Along the way, however, going utterly insane Gunn delivers an often brutal smorgasbord of visceral bloody action with bodies decapitated, sliced in half and blown to mush punctuated by a steady stream of the sort of banter and quips that made Guardians such a joyride, while also investing time to bring the characters alive rather than simply comic book figures, giving each their turn to shine as the film gathers to its spectacularly unhinged climax which can only be described as a Godzilla-like city trashing mass destruction, but with a giant starfish rather than a gorilla, one that sends out starfish drones to take over the population’s minds. Ablaze with directorial genius, awesome visuals (including truly inventive scene titles and burst of psychedelic flowers when Harley goes on a bullets-spraying bender), bruising action and dynamite performances, laced with a suitably cynical view of American geopolitics (“I cherish peace with all my heart — I don’t care how many men, women, and children I need to kill to get it” says Peacemaker, stone-faced).
Featuring a cameo from Alice Braga as a revolutionary leader, a cute friendly rat (in fact the much maligned rats turn out to be the eventual saviours) and, typically Gunn, an inspired soundtrack that kicks off with Jim Carroll’s People Who Died, it’s unashamedly silly and never really takes itself too seriously (the Squad’s uniforms conveniently keep reappearing when they need to go into battle and there’s a fabulous visual gag about Bloodsport’s ever expanding gun. A sequel with a new team of misfits joining the survivors from this go round is a must. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Vue)
The World To Come (15)
Directed by Norway’s Mona Fastvold and adapted, alongside Ron Hansen, by Jim Shepard from his own short story, this is a lesbian sexual awakening drama somewhat reminiscent of Summerland and Portrait of a Lady on Fire but set against a backdrop of 1856 Schoharie County, New York. Katherine Waterston is the shy, introverted Abigail who once dreamed of helping change the world and is now wife to emotionally introverted farmer Dyer (Casey Affleck), the marriage having turned as cold as winter since the death of their young daughter from diphtheria, and, as the result of which Abigail no longer attends church. Then, into her life comes the flame-haired Tallie (Vanessa Kirby), spirited and witty but also herself in an unhappy marriage to the controlling and subtly abusive Bible-bashing possessive Finney (Christopher Abbott) who has leased a neighbouring farm and keeps a record of his wife’s every move. From their first encounter, it’s clear there’s a spark between them, one that gradually draws them together in both an emotional and physical union.
Adopting the novella’s diary format, with Waterson providing the voice over contemplative entries into Abigail’s journal documenting her feelings and the events over the following months as the women’s relationship, one that shares a bond of childlessness and that would be condemned by the patriarchy of their society, blossoms just as the estrangements from their increasingly suspicious and hostile husbands grow.
However, it’s fair to say that, echoing the emotional temperatures, the warmth of summer will give way again to a winter chill that ends the film on a bittersweet note that recalls Abigail’s words about the power of imagination.
Shot on 16mm with painterly cinematography that captures both the pastoral beauty and the harshness of a sudden snow storm, it draws you in to the women’s inner lives thanks to the well-judged and finely emotionally nuanced performances from Waterson and Kirby, though credit too to Affleck who brings a wounded humanity to what could have been a stereotypical cardboard role. Disappointingly only showing on one screen, but hopefully finding subsequent art house platforms, this is a melancholic but rewarding watch. (From Sat; MAC)