This column will review films both screening theatrically and/or on various streaming platforms.
Before the title appears on screen, two men will have been sprayed with elephant shit, a fat, naked man will have been urinated on by an actress who then overdoses and a bacchanalian orgy will have included mass nudity, a mountain of cocaine, oral sex, a fake penis ejaculating over the crowd and someone having something shoved up his arse. It also serves as a sort of hedonistic meet cute between Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie), an obsessive wannabe star from Jersey with a gambling habit, and Manuel Torres (Diego Calva in a career making turn), a moviestruck Mexican (who pretends he’s from Spain to avoid bigotry) who’s been charged with bringing the elephant to the party held by a Weinstein-like producer (Jeff Garlin).
Having opened with a tsunami of raunch and outrageousness, returning to the world of movies, La La Land writer-director Damien Chazelle relatively tones it down for an overlong (three hours), sprawling but undeniably dazzling epic with an unconsummated romance undercurrent about 1920s Hollywood as the era of silent films is about to give way to the talkies, his screenplay drawing on both true and apocryphal tales about sordid showbusiness excess, Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon a clear source.
The core narrative revolves around Nellie and Manny, whose stars are – for now – in the ascendant, and Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt), a genial but heavy-drinking Clark Gable-like (check the moustache) much married leading man whose career is on a slippery slope and whose inability to deliver convincing dialogue could see the arrival of sound as the final nail in the coffin. Orbiting them are such characters as Lady Fay Zhu (Li Jun Li), a charismatic gay club singer (her song My Girl’s Pussy is actually taken from the period), real-life studio head Irving Thalberg (Max Minghella) and Sidney Palmer (Jovan Adepo), a brilliant African American jazz trumpeter who becomes a talkies star in his own right when Manual breaks into producing, albeit enduring humiliation when forced to wear “blackface” following Al Jolson’s success with The Jazz Singer.
Calva and Pitt are both tremendous, capturing their characters’ fears, ambitions, insecurities and quirks, but this is unquestionably Robbie’s film, sweeping through it like a fearless force of nature, a performance as unfettered and as wild as the sobriquet given her following her appearance in a silent Western (she’s roped in to replace the actress who ODd) where she wows director Ruth Adler (Olivia Hamilton) with her energy and ability to cry on cue. However, she still needs to take elocution lessons from a waspish gossip hack Elinor St John (Jean Smart, channelling Hedda Hopper and Luella Parsons), her inability to master either the language or the etiquette of society resulting in an astonishing scene as she vomits over the host of a snobbish soiree.
While Chazelle constantly darts between scenes with ADHD editing, he also balances this with sustained scenes of genuinely powerful emotion and drama, most particularly a poignant private moment between Nellie and Manny and one where St John spells out to Conrad that his time is up but his films will make him immortal. On the other hand, there’s also chaotic over the top melodramatics such as Nellie wrestling a rattlesnake (after her father – Eric Roberts – passes out drunk in the attempt) in the desert or where, looking to settle Nellie’s debts, Manny finds himself in the labyrinthine tunnels where a decomposing gangster (Tobey Maguire) holds his debauched vision of vaudeville. Not to mention the unbridled chaos of trying to film some historical epic battle scenes before the light goes, where Manny comes into his own by getting a replacement camera just in time.
It’s also often very funny, notably so a sequence where Nellie and Adler have to go through take after take of a college girl comedy scene as a result of problems with the new-fangled sound recording. One that comes with a gallows humour punchline.
With cameos by the likes of Lukas Haas, Olivia Wilde, Spike Jonze and Flea, it ends in 1952 with the older Manny, now married with a daughter, revisiting the (fictitious) Kinoscope studio where he got his start and then watching Singing In The Rain (referenced earlier as Carlton’s forced to wear a sou’wester and join a singing chorus), as he remembers what went before, the film returning to the orgy and offering a montage of clips from both the film and real movies, Terminator 2 included, in a celebration of cinema coda.
It bombed at the US box office, but, while at times deliriously unfocused and exhausting to watch, both a love letter to movies and a hate letter to Hollywood, the kinetic choreography of its staging, the eye-popping visuals, the whirlwind editing, electrifying music and the sheer force of the central performances are well worth those three hours plus of your life. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Electric; Empire Great Park; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel; Vue)
Holy Spider (15)
In 2001, Saeed Hanaei, an Iranian construction worker, was arrested for the murder of 16 sex workers in the northeastern city of Mashad, his crimes having seen him dubbed the Spider Killer. His subsequent trial saw mass protests by the religious right who supported his claims to be on a holy mission to cleanse the city of prostitution.
Director and co-writer Ali Abbasi has taken the case and turned into a gripping serial killer procedural based around Areezo Rahimi (Zar Emir-Ebrahimi), a fictional investigative journalist from Tehran, who comes to Mashad and enlists local reporter (Arash Ashtiani), whom the Spider has been calling to say where the bodies have been dumped and to ensure his crusade is publicised, in an attempt to solve the case. She’s justifiably of the opinion that the police, clerics and the judiciary aren’t making a huge effort because they’re all part of the same patriarchal, misogynistic system. Indeed, on arrival she’s initially denied her hotel room since she’s a woman travelling alone and the sexist police chief Rostami (Sina Parvaneh) makes a pass at her believing that, according to rumours of a relationship with her editor (she was fired for accusing him of molestation), she’s another woman of loose morals.
Unlike similar films, the killer’s identity is known from the start, here Saeed Azimi (Mehdi Bajestani), a loving family man with three children, veteran of the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s with anger and self-worth for not having been more of a hero, or a martyr, at one point releasing his frustrations by taking a sledgehammer to a wall. In his mind, killing prostitutes (as seen in unflinchingly graphic scenes) by strangling them with their own headscarves, is a way of redeeming himself to God.
It opens following one of his victims, single mother Somayeh (Alice Rahimi) as she goes about servicing her tricks before meeting her cruel fate, begging for her life. Subsequently, her attempts to get information from sex workers (one of whom is murdered shortly after they meet) proving largely fruitless other than roughly identifying the area in which he operates and that he picks up his victims on a motorbike, Rahimi she sets herself up as bait, with her accomplice following in his car, leading to Azimi’s arrest and the subsequent show trial fiasco and his unrepentant attitude in the dock.
Although Rahimi is the film’s focus, Abbasi doesn’t forget to humanise the victims, showing the sort of poverty and social conditions that drive them to prostitution and drugs, a particularly strong scene being her meeting with one’s bereaved parents, the mother declaring she’s glad she’s dead while the father breaks down in tears. The latter stages of the film shift the focus to the fundamentalist society, believing the women got what was coming and he as doing everyone a favour. Even Azimi’s wife (Forouzan Jamshidnejad) defends his action and the final scene, footage of an interview with his son, is especially chilling.
Structurally, it follows a well-established Hollywood route for this sort of genre, complete with the narrative implausibilities, but, while it’s arguable that a scene where his wife comes home just as he’s rolled up his latest victim in a carpet is played for dubious dark comedy, the impact and the resonances are thunderously powerful. (Mockingbird)
I Love My Dad (15)
Written and directed by James Morosini, inspired by his own relationship with his absent father, this is a wonderfully cringe-making dark comedy. Shut out of his teenage son’s life, Franklin (Morosini), who blocks him on social media in an attempt to cope with his mental health following a recent suicide attempt, the narcissistic deadbeat Chuck (Patton Oswalt) unwisely follows a co-worker’s advice and decides to catfish his son by impersonating Becca (an excellent Claudia Sulewski), a waitress he knows in real life.
Creating a fake profile, he then friends Franklin who, lonely and vulnerable, falls head over heels for who he assumes is his new online love (their interactions are played out between Morosini and Sulewski as Franklin imagines them, except sometimes Becca is comically substituted with Chuck). Unsurprisingly, it doesn’t end well, as Chuck becomes draw further into the relationship he’s created, at one point sexting his son (mentored by his own foul-mouthed horny girlfriend, Rachel Dratch) as they share a hotel room, and looking to stall him as he wants to meet up with Becca for real. The undertone of virtual incest add a disturbing edge to what’s already a creepy premise with tragic potential, but, while Morosini might be advised to stay behind the camera in future, Oswalt’s deadpan performance gives it both an edge and a level of sympathy for his ill-conceived attempt to reconnect with his son. (Amazon Prime; i-Tunes)
The Old Way (12A)
It may come as a surprise to learn that this is the first time Nicolas Cage has made a Western. And while hardly a classic, this by the numbers directorial debut by Brett Dono who is serviceably enjoyable enough with Cage giving one of his more modulated performances. Set in Montana, he plays Colton Briggs, a feared gunslinger who, in the opening sequence, guns down both several officials and the men trying to prevent the hanging of Boyd McAllister, the brother of notorious bandit Walter. Suffice to say, when the smoke clears. Briggs has killed both brothers, leaving only Boyd’s young son James as witness to events.
Years later, having found love with a good woman and had a daughter, the now clean-shaven Briggs has hung up his guns and runs a small store. One morning he takes daughter Brooke (Ryan Kiera Armstrong) with him, leaving Ruth (Kerry Knuppe) back at home. As she’s hanging out the washing, four men turn up, Boots (Shiloh Fernandez), Big Mike (Abraham Benrubi), and Eustice (Clint Howard) and the now grown James McCallister (Noah Le Gros) who’s out for revenge. Returning home, Briggs is met by Jarret (Nick Searcy), a US Marshall, who’s on their trail and learns that Ruth has been murdered. Burying her while Brooke sits implacable in the porch, he then takes his guns out of storage, sets fire to the house and the pair set off for revenge, meaning he first has to outsmart and obstruct the Marshall and his posse who want to do things legally.
Anyone with a passing knowledge of the genre will have a pretty good idea of how it goes from here, dutifully working its reassuringly predictable, way through the clichés to the final shootout, naturally including the scene where he teaches his daughter how to shoot a gun (she’s crap with a rifle but a dead shot with a six gun), setting up the inevitable later scene where that comes in handy. Carl W. Lucas’s dialogue is heavy-handed and over-written, not least an interminable speech by McCallister detailing his grudge and a long-winded all around the houses last scene exchange between Jarret and Brooke. While, taking his laconic cue from Clint, Cage doesn’t chew the scenery to the extent has in recent outings, Le Gros, Benrubi, Searcy, and, especially, Howard all make up for this by hamming outrageously. Armstrong, however, proves a real delight, even if you can’t avoid thinking she must have watched Hailee Steinfeld in True Grit on a loop as preparation. The film never comes anywhere close to that, but it passes the time well enough. (Rakuten TV; Mockingbird)
Currently flying high as the new Black Panther, Guyanese-British actress Letitia Wright took time out from filming Wakanda Forever to make this low key heartfelt drama from Irish writer-director Frank Berry. Set in a Dublin detention centre where, while always polite, her determination has seen her labelled as insubordinate, Aisha Osagie (Wright) is a smart and stubborn Muslim Nigerian refugee who, separated from her abusive husband, has sought international protection after her father and brother were murdered by men to whom the latter owed money and, as we learn later, she was sexually abused. She’s waiting for an interview regarding extending her leave to remain, allowing to bring over her ailing mother who is in hiding and to whom sends regular payments to her from her earnings at a local hairdressers.
Although there’s friction between her and the icy centre manager (Stuart Graham), she finds a connection with Conor (Josh O’Connor) a new security guard who has the empathy and compassion his colleagues lack. Learning of a tragedy in his own past, their friendship grows, sharing a daily bus ride, and continues when she’s moved to a different centre, too far away for her to continue her job. But then she learns her petition to remain as been denied, with no reasons given, and, in anger, she trashes the caravan in which she’s staying, resulting in her being moved on again, this time to sharing a room on a hotel floor reserved for asylum seekers, while her appeal is considered. A tentative romance begins to bloom (there’s a lovely moment where he asks if he can kiss her), but circumstances and bureaucracy mean it’s inevitably never going to fully blossom and the film quietly underscores the helplessness of people like Aisha when faced with a system that lacks basic human compassion. Indeed, early one, Aisha stands by helpless while the family with whom she’s been sharing are ordered to back up their belongs immediately to be deported, while a brief series of to camera accounts reinforce the film’s message.
Wright is outstanding and is well-matched with a finely modulated, soulful performance from O’Connor while Berry’s direction and screenplay avoids any melodramatics as it unfolds the nightmares of having to relive trauma for the benefit of red tape, the anger and indignation beneath the film’s surface unmistakable. As so often in such situations, the film offers no pat happy triumph of the underdog ending, leaving Aisha’s fate hanging and the audience contemplating how a country that calls itself civilised and has a long history of emigration itself, can act in such a manner. (Sky Cinema)
All Quiet On The Western Front (15)
Written in 1929, telling of the horrendous conditions and mass slaughter experienced by young German soldiers on the frontline in WWI, Erich Maria Remarque’s novel is one of the greatest anti-war novels of all time. Though previously filmed twice, the Academy Award winning 1930 version and a 1979 TV film, this is the first in German from a German director (Edward Berger), and with a wholly German cast.
Outstanding newcomer Felix Kammerer is the central character, Paul, a young student keen to do his bit for the Kaiser, God and the Fatherland who forges consent to enlist along with his friends, Albert, Franz and Ludwig (respectively Aaron Hilmer, Moris Klautz and Adrian Grünewald) all expecting it to be over within months and something of a cushy ride with the French fleeing before then.
There’s a foreshadowing of what’s actually in store in the opening sequence where corpses are stripped of their uniforms which are then returned to Germany to be washed, repaired and recycled to the new recruits, Paul receiving one with the name tag Henrich and being told it was probably too small for him. On arrival in France, they’re given a brutal baptism of fire (Ludwig killed the first night) as it quickly becomes clear they and everyone there are just cannon fodder for the blinkered officers and bureaucrats still deludedly thinking they can win.
There are some moments of light relief, Paul and the roguish Kat (Albrecht Schuch) stealing a goose from a local farmer to feed their mates, Franz having a night of passion with a French woman, the camaraderie of the small group that now includes the veteran, Tjaden Stackfleet (Edin Hasanovic), grown close during their time at Ardennes, but otherwise this is relentlessly grim and harrowing as any notions of heroism or valour are tramped into the blood-soaked mud, bodies are blown to pieces, dog tags of the dead are collected and an ever growing number of black coffins are piled into mass graves.
Unfolding over two and a half hours, the battle scenes are visceral and terrifying, flamethrowers turned on surrendering soldiers, bodies pulped by tank tracks, a room of young recruits gassed to death, the agonising slow death throes of a French soldier Paul stabbed, a black shroud of bleakness enveloping everything until eventually Paul is the group’s only survivor.
Meanwhile, sickened by the senseless losses, Matthias Erzberger (Daniel Bruhl who would have surely played Paul in younger days), the German Minister of Finance, is seeking to secure an armistice with the French, headed by General Foch, whose uncompromising demands for German capitulation are not well-received by Erzeberg’s superiors (seen enjoying fine food and wine as opposed to the troop’s turnip bread), and particularly career officer General Friedrichs (Devid Striesow), who orders one final, fatal assault five minutes before the 11am ceasefire.
The film punctuated by gunshot like percussive notes, Berger pulls no punches in depicting the horror, both personal and mass, of the war, the dehumanisation of the fighting, while the addition of the signing of the armistice aboard a train has Erzberger presciently observing how the terms will lead the German people to resent the peace, ultimately giving rise to Nazism and WWII.
Germany’s Oscar entry for Best International Feature and leading the BAFTA nominations with 14, it’s tough to watch but, in light of current conflicts and the rose of nationalism around the world, it’s a very important reminder of the need for sanity. (Netflix)
Avatar: The Way Of Water (12A)
Thirteen years in the waiting, James Cameron finally returns to Pandora for the first of three sequels that looks visually spectacular with its breathtaking effects and motion capture but doesn’t narratively justify its three hours plus running time. Picking up the story some ten years on, former human marine Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), who went native with sparkly blue body and pointy ears to join the Na’vi, and his wife Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) now have two sons, Neteyam (Jamie Flatters) and the younger Lo’ak (Britain Dalton), young daughter Tuk (Trinity Jo-Li Bliss) and the adopted Kiri (a de-aged digitised Sigourney Weaver), the daughter of the avatar of the late Dr. Grace Augustine (Weaver) who can apparently communicate with the assorted flora and fauna. The extended family also include the dreadlocked semi-feral Spider (Jack Champion), a human kid who had to be left behind when the other Sky People colonisers were sent packing. He’s the son of Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang), the ruthless marine Jake killed at the end of the first film. However, his consciousness has been resurrected in an avatar body, and he and his equally avatared men have been despatched back to Pandora, ordered by the operations commander (Edie Falco in exo skeleton) to retake the planet and kill Sully, which of course has very personal revenge motive for him too.
Having rescued the kids (though not Spider) when they’re taken prisoner (something that happens to them on a highly repetitive basis), Sully determines that the only way to keep both his family and the Na’vi safe is for them to leave their home and seek shelter among one of the planet’s other ecologically-conscious tribes, the Metkayina, a more aquamarine-coloured Maori-like people who live in harmony with the water and its creatures as opposed to the jungle.Taken in by their chief, Tonowari (Cliff Curtis, and, more reluctantly, his pregnant wife Ronal (Kate Winslet), they set about starting a new life, learning the new culture and its idiosyncracies, their kids inevitably seen as ‘freaks’ by their opposites before all becoming friends. Life’s all nice and cosy, until, that is, an accident to Kiri (she overloads on a psychic connection to her mother) and her subsequent treatment signals their rough location and it’s not long before Quaritch turns up on the doorstep, guns blazing.
The action sequences are dynamite, especially the extended climax aboard Quaritch’s ship where Neytiri gets to let rip her ferocious bow and arrow warrior, but the lengthy dreamy second act is a bit like The Blue Planet in space involving Sully and family learning to live with the water, master riding water creatures, Lo’ak bonding with a giant whale-like creature who’s a misunderstood outcast from his fellow Tulkans, Kiri gazing in wide-eyed wonder at the ocean’s creatures and tapping into their essences in between an incipient teen romance and some brotherly rivalry for dad’s approval.
Themes of family are writ large and, amid the expected eco messages, there’s also one about whaling with Brendan Cowell as a swaggering Australian who, along with his conflicted marine biologist (Jemaine Clement), and hi-tech gear (impressive crab-suits), is hunting the Tulkan to extract some goo that prevents ageing.
Technically it’s mind-boggling (even more so in 3D), the underwater sequences especially, but, adopting a videogame like structure, there’s far too few occasions (one being a death) where it connects emotionally, dazzling the eyes but not the heart.“The Way of Water has no beginning and no end” explains one of the characters; it’s undeniably thrilling but there are times when you may feel the same way. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Vue)
The Banshees of Inisherin (15)
It’s 1923 and over on the Irish mainland civil war is in full force (we know this because there’s some occasional smoke and sound of gunfire), but on the beautiful island of Inisherin life is calm and peaceful, the folk going about their (and sometimes other people’s) business and gathering in the pub at 2pm for a glass of the hard stuff and a chat. Which is what Pádraic (BAFTA Best Actor nominee Colin Farrell), a mild-mannered farmer with a couple of dairy cows, a horse and his beloved donkey Jenny, who lives with his sister Siobhán (a quietly compelling Kerry Condon), has been doing for years with his fiddle-playing best mate Colm (Brendan Gleeson). However, on the day the film opens, Colm declares he doesn’t like him anymore and wants nothing more to do with him. Pádraic is bemused and confused. He believes himself to be a nice guy, though he may go off on one after a whisky or two. Has he done or said something? Apparently not, it seems that Colm, sunk in despair, has contemplated mortality and wants to get on with writing his music and not spend the rest of his days with someone he regards as dull with nothing to offer but inane chatter and protestations of being nice. When Pádraic continues to push for explanation, initially thinking it was an April Fool jape, Colm declares that, if he talks to him again, he will cut off one of his fingers and send it to him. It’s not a bluff. Five fingers later there’s been parental child abuse, a prediction of doom from the local crone (Sheila Flitton), an animal choking to death on a severed digit, a drowning, a leaving and a conflagration.
Reuniting with his In Bruges stars, the title taken from Colm’s new tune, again mining the theme of obsession he addresses in Three Billboards, writer-director Martin McDonagh delivers a Golden Globe Best Picture-winning and BAFTA nominated black comedy of male pride and loneliness that balances darkness and whimsy (with everybody feckin’ this and feckin’ that) equal measure as it builds to an act of violence. As such, he’s ably supported by a sterling support cast that includes David Pearse as the mean priest, Gary Lydon as bullying copper Kearney who is turned on by the idea of being paid six shilling to oversee an execution on the mainland and regularly batters and molests his mentally challenged son Dominic (a superb Barry Keoghan), who fancies Siobhán and just wants the company of someone who doesn’t abuse him.
It doesn’t quite pull off its parable of events reflecting the “bleakness and grudges and loneliness and spite” of a wider and equally self-mutilating conflict and, at the end of the day and the escalation, all it seems to be asking for is a little peace and quiet with your own thoughts. A quite, slow burning masterpiece with a banshee wail that will pierce the heart. (Disney+)
Black Adam (12A)
One of the most powerful characters in the DC Universe, Black Adam first appeared in comics in 1945 as an Egyptian supervillain and the nemesis of Captain Marvel before being reinvented at the start of this century as an anti-hero looking to clear his name, most recently joining the Justice League and renamed Mighty Adam. Starring Dwayne Johnson giving his familiar imposing physical charisma and deadpan humour in his first superhero outing, he now makes his screen debut (unless you count a facial cameo on League of Super Pets) directed by Jaume Collet-Serra, starting with an origin backstory set some 5000 years ago when, empowered by wizards as he was about to be executed, Hurut, a young kid emerged, after uttering the magic Shazam, as Teth Adam to free the people of Kahndaq from their tyrannical ruler, Anh-Kot, defeating him but destroying half of the city in the process, thereby being imprisoned in an underground tomb (the truth of the actual details are revealed in the final act).
Cut to the present and Kahndaq have new oppressors in the form of Intergang mercenaries extracting Eternium, the film’s equivalent of vibranium, and, in an attempt at liberation, former teacher Adrianna (Sarah Shahi) and her fellow rebels (one of whom is clearly not to be trusted) are looking for the Eternium Crown of Sabbac, forged by Anh-Kot and, in the process free Adam, who, invulnerable to bullets or rockets, proceeds to wipe out a small army with blue lightning from his fists. However, wounded by an Eternium powered weapon, he’s carted back to Adrianna’s gaff where she lives with her plucky young comic book fan son Amon (Bodhi Sabongui), who coaches in in the use of a catchphrase, and electrician brother Karim (Mohammed Amer), his battles attracting the attention of Task Force X’s Amanda Waller (Viola Davis), last seen in the Suicide Squad, who despatches the Justice Society, a second division JLA, led by Carter Hall (Aldis Hodge) aka Hawkman (nice wings and helmet) alongside Doctor Fate (Pierce Brosnan), a less interesting predecessor of Doctor Strange, Cyclone (Quintessa Swindell), a lightweight less uptight but more colourful version of Storm, and Atom Smasher (Noah Centineo as the clumsy, food-scoffing comic relief), a Giant-Man-copy, the grandson of the original Atom (a cameo by Henry Winkler), to capture him.
All of which leads to a series of infrastructure-demolishing battles between then and a rage-driven Adam who has little interest in such niceties as not killing your enemies before a showdown with the ancestor (Marwan Kenzari) of Anh-Kot who has gained possession of the crown and transformed into the all-powerful demonic Sebbac.
You can’t fault it for not delivering the action but, other than a nicely low key soulful turn from Brosnan, who gets to swap some amusing banter with Johnson, that’s pretty much all it does. There’s some vague waffle about what it means to be a hero and some surface exploration of Adam’s conflicting emotions, grief and guilt, but mostly this is just overblown but underwhelming relentless combat and noise, and, ultimately, all rather dull. Making the last Venom look like a masterpiece, not even the end credits appearance of the other most powerful man on Earth makes you in a hurry for a sequel. (Rakuten TV)
Black Panther: Wakanda Forever (12A)
When Chadwick Boseman tragically died two years, not only did the world lose on the greatest actors of his generation, but it cast a huge shadow over the future of the character and franchise he had launched. Recasting with another actor would have been an insult to his memory but ditching the idea of a sequel was equally unthinkable given both its financial potential and how it had proven that a super-hero movie with an all-black cast could be a box office triumph. Fortunately, an alternative had already been trialled when, after Steve Rogers abdicated the role of Captain America at the end of Avengers: Endgame, the mantle was taken up by The Falcon in the ensuing TV series as he transitioned to take up the shield and the title. And so here, the film, again directed and co-written by Ryan Coogler, introduces another version of the Black Panther, the legendary protector of the Wakandan people, played by one of the already existing cast (given the feline nature of the suit, it’s not too hard to guess who that is). However, the new incarnation doesn’t appear until almost two thirds of the way through its extensive running time that adds an ironic note to the film’s title. Meaning there’s an awful lot of plot-set up to get through first.
It opens with Princess Shuri (Letitia Wright) working frantically to find a heart-shaped herb cure for the mysterious illness from which her brother T’Challa is dying. She fails and, according suitable ritualistic pomp and circumstance for a celebratory funeral, he’s consigned to the realm of the ancestors, via his coffin being taken up into the skies on a Wakandan jet, leaving his mother, Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett) as the nation’s temporary ruler and Shuri consumed with anger at the world that she was unable to prevent his passing.
Meanwhile, the geopolitical plot driver is set in motion with Western powers wanting to get their hands on and exploit Wakanda’s vibranium resources, attempting to take it by force while Ramonda is addressing the UK, only to be repelled by General Okoye (Danai Gurira) and her warriors; the Queen declaring that the previous mineral will never leave her lands. However, it turns out that Wakanda isn’t the only place it exists on Earth and that, thanks to a machine invented by genius college student Riri Williams (Dominique Thorne), there’s also evidence of it under the Atlantic Ocean. At which point, the CIA-vessel searching for it is besieged by mysterious warriors and everyone killed. Naturally, the Wakandans are suspected, but, in fact, the real attackers were a blue-skinned underwater race known as the Talokan, led by their ruler Namor (Tenoch Huerta Mejía), a superstrong half-human mutant with tiny wings on his angles. He duly turns up unannounced, blaming Wakanda for quest to obtain vibranium and telling her to find and deliver the scientist responsible for the machine to him, to be killed, or he will attack Wakanda. Oh, and not to tell anyone about him.
All of this takes an inordinate amount of time with only bursts of action to punctuate proceedings, during which, with the help of CIA agent Ross (Martin Freeman), Shuri and Okoye visit her in Washington to try and take her to Wakanda for her protection, Riri and Shuri ending up being captured by Namor and taken to his realm (where we get his origin story and some spectacular shots of his underwater city), where he proposes an alliance to destroy the surface world, an angry Ramonda stripping Okoye of her rank, a rescue by Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), T’Challa’s lover who’s been living in Haiti since The Blip in the Avengers series, and a retaliatory attack on Wakanda that results in yet another royal death. It’s around this point that the real action finally kicks in with a visit to the ancestral plane (cue a reappearance by Michael B. Jordan, as the usurper Killmonger), the emergence of the new Black Panther and the big Wakanda/Takonan showdown complete with some new high tech Wakandan armour.
Fuelled by loss, grief, vengeance, mercy, moral choices, oppression and colonial exploitation of Third World resources among things, it carries a weighty thematic dynamic that at times feels like an overload, but give the film a more mature and sober edge than many of its Marvel companion pieces. On top of which, following The Woman King, it’s the second film this year constructed around virtually all female Black cast. Returning names include Michaela Coel given a bigger role as Aneka of the royal guard and Winston Duke as belligerent Jabari tribesman M’Baku, while among the new additions are Mabel Cadena as Namor’s cousin Namora and Alex Livinalli as the Talokanil warrior Attuma (a renegade warlord and Namor’s enemy in the comics) with famed singer Baaba Maal cameoing as the funeral singer. The performances are strong throughout, but it’s a ferocious Bassett, the electrifying Wright, a fierce Gurira and impressive Mexican newcomer Mejía in his first leading role who generate the high voltage with Thorne’s spunky teenager setting up her role as Ironheart, a rocket-suited teenage Iron-Man, in the upcoming TV series.
And, inevitably, Boseman’s presence haunts the film, both in constant references to T’Challa’s death and, in the final moments, poignant archive footage from the first film, giving the revelatory moment in the obligatory mid-credits scene a hefty emotional punch. (Empire Great Park; Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Vue)
Bodies Bodies Bodies (15)
Directed by Halina Reijin, this pitch black horror comedy for Gen Z is one of the year’s best. Accompanied by her enigmatic working-class new Eastern European girlfriend, Bee (Borat’s Maria Bakalova), recovering addict Sophie (Amandla Stenberg) turns up at a weekend hurricane party at the secluded mansion home of wealthy but toxic (“I look like I fuck. It’s my whole vibe”) childhood friend David (Peter Davidson), much to the surprise of the other spoiled brattish guests who include David’s drama queen actress girlfriend Emma (Chase Sui Wonders), airhead podcaster (“Hanging out with your smartest, funniest friend”) Alice (Rachel Sennott, her bemused 40-year-old new Tinder boyfriend Greg (Lee Pace), and Sophie’s ever sceptical old flame Jordan (Myha’la Herrold). Another, Max, left earlier following a fight with David.
Tensions are clearly evident, to which end, the others fuelled by drink and drugs, she suggests they play the titular murder in the dark-style game in which each player slaps their friend across the face and takes a shot. After which, one of them is randomly appointed as the killer. However, the slaps rather less than playful, Greg, a group outsider like Bee, decides to retire early and David, who the others have decided is the killer, storms off after another fight with Emma. Only, the power out, to appear at a window clutching at his throat. Now, Sophie’s car battery dead, it’s down to the others to work out who the real killer is as they explore the house by the light of cellphones and flashlights. At some point a gun surfaces.
Riffing on themes of false friendships, paranoia, distrust, jealousy, faux activism and white feminism and making effective use of the claustrophobic lighting and score, it builds the tension as the body count continues to rise as secrets are revealed and the rocky relationships between the group unravel, though to reveal more would spoil the revelations. Peppered with smartly comic dialogue along with the high pitched drama and some bloody violence, the entire cast bring solid, compelling performances to their characters although it’s Davidson, Sennott and Bakalova who, in their different ways, shine the brightest. Even if the final moments are slightly anti-climactic, a wholly unexpected last act twist throws the group dynamics into stark relief while reinforcing the core themes it’s been exposing. This is what happens when you’re cut adrift from your social media and the real world erupts. (Microsoft Store; Rakuten TV)
Bones and All (18)
Directed by Luca Guadagnino, scored by Atticus Ross and Trent Reznor and adapted from Camille DeAngelis’ novel, this might be called Natural Born Cannibals, a young emo romance coming of age body horror road trip in which the two lovers have a compulsion to eat human flesh, usually the recently dead, but, in a shocking early scene, also taking a bite from the living as 80s smalltown teen Maren (Taylor Russell) chews down on a friend’s finger at a sleepover. Moving house before the cops show, one day Maren finds her father (André Holland) has walked out, leaving behind a cassette tape that’s both an apology for no longer being able to deal with her condition and some ongoing exposition about how it started when she was three and ate the babysitter and how (reversing things from the book) her mother, Penelope, who she has never known, vanished from their lives. And so, armed with some cash and a birth certificate, she sets out to find her, a quest that first leads to an encounter with the creepy Sully (Mark Rylance), a fellow eater who smelled her out and, sharing a meal on an old woman who’s just expired, seems keen to become a travelling companion. Then, leaving him behind, she meets fellow outsider Lee (Timothée Chalamet, who starred in Guadagnino’s gay romance Call Me By Your Name), another eater sporting the same charity shop style clothes who makes a meal of a guy harassing her in a grocery store and with, as we later learn, a tragic backstory. Together they try to embark on some kid of normal relationship together, travelling through Virginia, Kentucky, Indiana, Nebraska and Minnesota (episodic chapters introduced either by the abbreviations of the states or the month) but the lust to feed proves too strong to resist, Lee seducing and killing a carnival worker, leading to Maren’s subsequent horror on learning more about the victim and a break-up with Lee, at which point Sully re-enters her life and, rejected, leaves again in a foul mood. With the narrative unfolding a meeting with her maternal grandmother (Jessica Harper), Lee’s younger sister and a shocking reunion with her incarcerated mother (Chloe Sevigny) before another appearance by Sully brings the couple’s idyll crashing down, it’s suffused with an aching melancholia about alienation, from themselves as much as the world, while, as well as delivering the gore, their never explained cannibalism affliction serves as a metaphor on several levels, not least the familiar teenage feeling of being different.
The title explained by another seedy eater (Michael Stuhlbarg) they meet, accompanied by his normal ‘groupie’ (David Gordon Green), a Renfield to his Dracula, it’s a touch overlong and the bloody yet also poignant ending takes its time arriving, but, between Chalamet’s troubled charisma and Russell’s quite vulnerability, those looking for something to fill the whole left by Twilight, but of a more heady, visceral and contemplative nature will find their appetites well-satiated. (Rakuten TV)
According to an 1863 Harper’s Weekly, actually named Gordon, an escaped slave became popularly known as “whipped Peter” when an infamous photograph showing the multitude of scars on his back, taken at a Union army camp during the American Civil War, was used as an abolitionist rallying cry in the fight against slavery. The article claims that, in March 1863, he escaped from the plantation of slave owners John and Bridget Lyons and subsequently joined the Union army, leading an assault on Confederate forces at the Siege of Port Hudson that May. It’s likely, however, that the narrative was the invention of the artist Vincent Colyer and while the events described may be true, Gordon and Peter were probably two different people.
Not that this much matters when it comes to dramatising the story, which, directed by Antoine Fuqua, is basically Twelve Years A Slave meets The Revenant, providing a completely invented back story to Peter, here born in Haiti, as a man with a deep faith in God, married with children, who is taken from his wife (Charmaine Bingwa) on the cotton farm to work on the Confederate railway from which, hearing about Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation he escapes and, along with three others, goes on the run through the Louisiana swamps where he manages to evade his pursuers and their dogs, dodge bullets, and even wrestle an alligator and survive enraged bees before finally arriving at the Union army camp in Baton Rouge (under the command of a white colonel) where he’s enlisted into the Louisiana Native Guard led by a brave and inevitably doomed Black captain (Mustafa Shakir), as part of the U.S. Coloured Troops, going into battle and being eventually reunited with his family.
Uncompromising in depicting the brutality inflicted on the slaves and often bloodily graphic, (severed heads, burning bodies, hanged men), it’s a solid enough tale of one man’s survival against the odds and a fight for freedom, though never in the same league as the films mentioned above. The emotional scenes are suitably wrenching and the battle sequences thrilling and vivid. But then there’s the elephant in the room. Namely that Peter is played by Will Smith and it’s hard not think that the vitriolic American reviews are less about the film, which undeniably has flaws, and more in response to the infamous Oscars slap. Despite the fact the screenplay has Peter as almost some sort of action hero and invests the character with an unwavering faith, even when a fellow slave asks how God can justify their suffering, Smith delivers a visceral physical and emotional performance that holds the screen and invests you in Peter’s ordeals. Additionally, it addresses the whole question of systemic American racism when Fassell (Ben Foster), a tracker who, along with two menials is in pursuit, related what he sees as the reason behind slavery and white supremacy, recounting how, as a youth, he was raised by female slave whom he regarded as a friend, but, when he asked his father if he could join them at dinner, he retorted that what begins with sharing food would end up with them owning their own land and turning on their former masters, before coldly shooting her. Only by keeping Blacks enslaved, can white supremacy maintain its position. A little more of such commentary wouldn’t have gone amiss, but it does give the film extra weight.
Equally effective is a brief glimpse of a slaver eyeing up Peter’s young daughter and a young white girl raising the alarm when she sees him on the estate, yelling out ‘runner’ with undisguised hatred.
However, Fuqua’s approach to the photography is another potential audience put-off with scenes variously drained of all colour or with just flashes or juxtaposing colour and black and white in the same image to correspond with Peter’s circumstance. It’s an interesting artistic choice, but more often makes you wonder if there’s something wrong with the picture. And in several ways there clearly is, but even so, the story it tells is stirring and the film is far better than the reviews would have you believe. (Apple+)
Empire Of Light (15)
His first film as both writer and director, bolstered by Roger Deakin’s glorious photography, Sam Mendes delivers a very personal bittersweet love letter to the magic of cinema that can stand alongside the similarly themed Cinema Paradiso and Spielberg’s autobiographical The Fabelmans.
Set in 1981, the pivot on which the film rests is yet another outstanding performance from Olivia Colman as Hilary, the dedicated and professional duty manager and occasional confectionary stand assistant of the Empire, an Art Deco seafront cinema that has seen better days, reduced now to just two screens. She lives alone and, although not initially explained, from visits to her doctor and references to how she’s handling lithium, it’s clear there has been some sort of past mental health incident (Mendes’ own mother suffered from mental illness). She’s also never watched a film in a cinema. Her colleagues include Norman (Toby Jones), the projectionist who reveres the job he does bringing the magic of light into people’s lives, assistants Neil (Tom Brooke) and Janine (Hannah Onslow), and the smug married manager, Mr Ellis (Colin Firth) who regularly calls her into his office to give him handjobs.
Her life changes when a new ticket collector is hired, Stephen (Micheal Ward), a young Trinidadian whose attempts to study architecture have been consistently rebuffed. There is an instant spark between them. She shows him the long closed upstairs bar, now a roost for pigeons, he showing his caring nature (his mother’s a nurse) in mending one’s broken wing so it can fly again (the metaphor is subtle but clear) and, as they watch the New Year’s Eve fireworks from the roof she impulsively kisses him and a romance blossoms.
Inevitably, as a scene with sandcastles on the beach foreshadows, their happiness is to prove short-lived. While it may be the era of 2-Tone (he’s a rude boy into The Specials and The Beat), racism is on the rise (she witnesses him being harassed with skinheads), climaxing in the events of the Whitsun bank holiday riots when mods and rockers clashed, while the toxic relationship with Ellis eventually sees her unravel with a spectacular meltdown as she calls him out in the cinema foyer during the (fictional) regional gala screening of Chariots of Fire, resulting in the affair collapsing (he later takes up with a young Black girl)m Hilary shutting herself away and eventually the police and social services coming calling.
While racism is a central element of the narrative (tellingly one of the films the cinema plays is the diversity buddy movie Stir Crazy, while, when Hilary finally watches a movie, it is pointedly Peter Sellers’ Being There), it’s more of a backdrop to the romance, mental health issues (Hilary’s backstory of her parents is wrenching) and the escapist nature of cinema that are the main focus. As such, to some extent Stephen becomes more of a symbol than a character, but that doesn’t detract from Ward’s glowing and nuanced performance or a film that glows with tenderness, compassion and a warming nostalgia for the days when picture palaces were a world to escape from the everyday and not purpose-built boxes to gobble up blockbuster receipts. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Electric; Empire Great Park; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel; Vue)
The Enforcer (15)
Antonio Banderas must have either had time on his hands or bills to pay, how else to explain why he elected to star in this generic, clichéd criminal underworld drama debut by Australian director Richard Hughes. Though perhaps the fact many of his scenes only required him to sit in his car and stare moodily through the window might have been a factor.
He plays world-weary ex-con Cuda, so named because he drives a ’68 Plymouth Barracuda, and works as a debt collector for his one-dimensional caricature Miami syndicate boss in a black vamp wig Estelle (Kate Bosworth), for whom he took the fall. Looking for some extra muscle, he recruits Stray (Mojean Aria), a professional bareknuckle streetfighter who accompanies him on his rounds and to whom he becomes a sort of mentor. Cuda might put a bullet through the head of someone who hasn’t paid up. but he has a hart of fold really, Estranged from his daughter, who has no interest in rekindling their relationship, he become a surrogate father to another “stray”, Billie (Zolee Griggs), a 15 year-old Black foster home runaway from Atlanta whom he rescues from being caught shoplifting, buys her tacos and puts her up in a motel. Then, when she’s abducted and hauled off to be held captive by a cyber sex-trafficking gangster (rapper 2 Chainz) who has links to Estelle, he enlists Stray in finding and freeing her. And would you believe it, she’s been held at the same sex joint where Stray’s (not named for her car) girlfriend Lexus (Alexis Wren) works, as it all builds to the inevitable shoot out and Cuda’s showdown with Estelle.
There’s an attempt at flip humour in a scene where Cuda takes Stray on a midnight golfing practice to illustrate the need to keep your cool, but otherwise this is a relentlessly po-faced as it is formulaic, never exploring the dramatic potential of the relationship between the suave Cuda and the uncouth Stray, before ending with, no really, a redemptive death beneath a setting sun. Tosh. (Vue)
Enola Holmes 2 (12A)
Targeted at young girls who feel in the shadow of their older brothers or not taken seriously simply because they are not boys, this fun and ingeniously plotted sequel returns to 1880s London where Enola Holmes (Stranger Things’ Millie Bobby Brown), sister of the famous detective Sherlock (Henry Cavill), has, inspired by her success in cracking the case in the first film, has set up her own detective agency. Unfortunately, her age and sex deter any potential clients and she’s just about to jack it in when a young girl named Bessie (Serrana Su-Ling Bliss) turns up asking her to find her older ‘sister’, Sarah (Hannah Dodd), who’s gone missing after being accused of theft at the local match factory where they both work in poor conditions for pitiful wages and where many other match-girls have been dying of typhus.
Infiltrating the factory, Enola discovers that Sarah did indeed steal something; not money but pages from a ledger, and so, the game afoot, launches a complicated plot and a series of clever clues about corruption and cover-ups that link to a case that has Sherlock baffled involving money that has gone missing from the Treasury being funnelled through several apparently unconnected banks, All of which variously has Enola going undercover at a society ball and being given urgent on the spot dance lessons by romantic interest Lord Tewkesbury (Louis Partridge), so she can get to talk to William Lyon (Gabriel Tierney), the son of the factory owner and Sarah’s lover; match-girl Mae (Abbie Hern), who, like Sarah, also works at the music hall and Enola being pursued and arrested for her murder by the decidedly sinister Inspector Grail (David Thewlis), his brutal bobby accomplices and the bumbling Inspector LeStrade (Adeel Akhtar); a rescue by her suffragette mother (Helena Bonham-Carter) and martial arts landlady Edith (Susan Wokoma); a string of cryptic ciphers; and yet another murder all coming together with a swords and fisticuffs climax at the theatre and an inspired twist involving the introduction of Sherlock’s genius nemesis Moriarty.
Delivering messages of sisterhood, of both being self-reliant but also working together for a common goal, the effervescent, perky Brown is a delight, frequently talking directly to the camera as the film breaks the fourth wall, and Cavill has been given a lot more to do this time round as the two end up working together (at this point there is no Watson in his life, but hang on for the mid-credits scene) while the character of Sarah and the final scenes are inspired by the real Sarah Chapman who worked in a match factory, led the first matchworkers strike in 1888 and helped form the Matchworkers Union. Great fun, so roll on No 3. (Netflix)
Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery (12A)
Having done blockbuster style business on its brief cinema release, Rian Johnson’s second Agatha Christie/Sherlock Holmes –inspired whodunit now resides at Netflix, returning Daniel Craig as the intriguingly accented Southern dandy super-sleuth Benoit Blanc (and with a surprise star cameo indicating his sexual orientation) as he embarks on another convoluted case.
The Disruptors, a tight knit inner circle who go back to college days when they committed to disrupting the status quo, have all received a complex puzzle invitation for an annual get together with Elon Musk-esque billionaire mutual friend Miles Bron (Edward Norton), the CEO of high tech online network Alpha who styles himself as some utopian hippy, on his private Greek island (dominated by the titular architectural showpiece and adorned with masterpieces that may include the actual Mona Lisa) for a murder mystery weekend, the murder they have to solve being his.
The clique includes Birdie (Kate Hudson), an airhead fashion model turned influencer prone to unwitting racist tweets and forced to take responsibility for a sweatshop that manufactures her line, her assistant Peg (Jessica Henwick), compromised Connecticut governor Claire (Kathryn Hahn) whose campaign is being underwritten by Bron, obnoxious machismo-overdrive right-wing men’s-rights YouTuber Duke Cody (Dave Bautista) and his barely-dressed young girlfriend Whiskey (Madelyn Cline) who he’s suing to seduce Bron into giving him a slot on Alpha News, put-upon corporate scientist Lionel (Leslie Odom Jr) constantly subjected to a barrage of faxed demands from Bron, and, surprisingly, Bron’s ostracised by everyone former business partner Cassandra Brand (Janelle Monáe), who had the original idea for Alpha but got shafted by Bron having refused his plan for Klear, a potentially dangerous hydrogen-based alternative fuel source. More surprisingly, given he has no connection to any of them and Bron didn’t invite him, is the inclusion of Blanc with his natty cravat and one piece swimsuit. For some reason, the island is also home to resident slacker Derol (Noah Segan, in a sly nod to the previous film).
It’s impossible to reveal much without ruining the intricately constructed narrative with its misdirections, twists and turns, flashbacks, reversals and reveals as events play out to the island’s minimalist high tech backdrop with its passive-aggressive anti-smoking alarms, but suffice to say, there’s a definite agenda to the gathering, and one or possibly two actual murders (Blanc solves Bron’s game version almost as soon as he arrives) as Blanc and Brand work together to get to the bottom of Bron’s machinations and unpeel the onion’s multiple layers.
The message that extreme wealth corrupts is fairly obvious but is generally secondary to the enjoyment of watching Blanc unpick the threads to a backdrop of dazzling costume design and cinematography, Craig clearly having a huge amount of fun while performances by Monáe, Norton, Bautista and especially a wildly amusing Hudson are all an utter delight. Not to mention an array of cameos that include Ethan Hawke, Hugh Grant, Stephen Sondheim, Angela Lansbury, Natasha Lyonne, Yo-Yo Ma, Serena Williams and even Joseph Gordon-Levitt as the voice of Bron’s clock, the Hourly Dong. (Netflix)
Good Luck To You, Leo Grande (15)
Directed by Sophie Hyde and written by Katy Brand, this is a two-hander that plays very much like a stage play of three acts and an epilogue and is structured entirely around the conversations between its two characters. These are Leo Grande (BAFTA Best Actor and Rising Star nominee Daryl McCormack), a good-looking, well-toned young Irish Black man who runs a business service as a sex-worker, and his client, Nancy Stokes (BAFTA Best Actress nominee Emma Thompson), a recently widowed fiftyish ex-teacher, who has booked a plush hotel room to have sex. Naturally, neither are using their real names. He’s smooth, polite, articulate, non-judgemental and well-versed in how to interact with people, she’s insecure and nervous, confessing that she’s never had – and thinks herself unable to have – an orgasm and only ever had sex with her late husband. He experienced, she far from it, the first session is mostly a cat and mouse game about the two getting to know each other, he trying to calm her anxieties, she finding reasons not to go through with what she’s hired him for.
It’s funny but also piercingly sad as she gradually opens up about her disappointments, the stagnation of her marriage, her husband’s unchanging and brief sex routines, her feelings about her son and daughter and her general view of herself as a failure. It ends with them finally concluding the deal. At the next session, she’s seemingly more confident, having drawn up a fuck-it list of what she wants, staring with oral sex. However, she continues to prevaricate while, over the course of this and the third session, the focus shifts more to Leo, who she presses on his life outside work, his relationship with his mother and sibling, something he’s reluctant to discuss as we come to realise that behind his self-assured persona, his life too his engrained with disappointments, hurt and insecurity (he’s seen checking himself out in the mirror on several occasions, and not for vanity).
It eventually comes to a head where, not understanding how boundaries work, she confronts him with his real name and we learn the heartbreaking reality of his background before he storms out. The epilogue is a final meeting, the relationship between them somehow changed, and introduces a third character, a hotel waitress that Nancy (who reveals her real name in a wry filmic in-joke) used to teach.
Slowly learning more about Leo and Nancy’s inner worlds and emotional scars is part and parcel of what makes this such a terrific work and to give away more would ruin the pleasures and poignancy of the screenplay and the performances with their tremendous chemistry. Suffice to say, embracing shame, frustration, body image, the nature of sex workers, parent-child conflicts, desire, and sexual healing/therapy, it’s a wonderfully compassionate and very human work. McCormack, previously seen in Peaky Blinders delivers a magnetic star-making turn that conveys depth and complexity in the most simple of physical gestures while, in her first nude scene, Thompson, bristling with nervous energy and navigating a lifetime marked by lack of self-worth, guilt, unhappiness and disappointment, gives a luminous, multi-faceted performance that is unquestionably the finest of a stellar career. From foreplay to climax, this will leave you with a glow of satisfaction. (Rakuten TV)
An English language remake of Kurosawa’s 1952 masterpiece Ikiru about a Tokyo bureaucrat stoically searching for meaning in the last months of his life, directed by South Africa’s Oliver Hermanus with a screenplay by Kazuo Ishiguro the setting is transposed to 1950s London and is centred on veteran London County Council civil servant Mr Williams, as portrayed by Bill Nighy in an understated but profoundly moving, career best performance.
He shares his home with his son Michael (Barney Fishwick) and daughter-in-law Fiona (Patsy Ferran) in a patently strained relationship (beautifully captured in a dinner scene involving a soup tureen) where they have their eyes on their inheritance. Every morning, sporting traditional pinstripe and wearing bowler hat, he joins the train with his fellow workers, but never in the same carriage, travelling to the dingy Public Works office where he sits behind his desk surrounded by his underlings (among them Alex Sharp as new arrival Peter Wakeling, still idealistic and not fallen into the art of dodging responsibility) overseeing proceedings and filing documents away (“there, it can do no harm”) in a constant cycle of buck-passing.
From an early age, all the deeply shy Mr. Williams ever wanted to be was a “gentleman”, and in pursuing that goal and the reserved lack of passion it entails, it seems to have sucked all the life out of him. But then, one morning his doctor gives him the bad news. He only has months left. His composure shaken, he resolves, like Ebenezer Scrooge, to make the most of the time remaining. While unable to break the news to his son, he does confess to Sutherland, a boozy playwright (Tom Burke) in the seaside town he takes off to after withdrawing half his savings, who tells him to live a little (to which he replies “I don’t know how” and introduces him to the debauchery of the Oliver Reed side of life. And, following a brief encounter in the street and a Fortnum & Mason lunch, to his former secretary, the guileless, innocently flirtatious Margaret Harris (BAFTA Rising Star nominee Aimee Lou Wood) who quit her job to try something new. She tells him her nicknames for her former colleagues. He’s somewhat tickled to learn his was Mr Zombie.
The couple strike up a platonic relationship, going to the cinema and pubs, and there is something about both her and Sutherland’s lust for life that determines him to push through the forever stalled planning permission for a group of mothers to transform an East End bombsite into a children’s playground, much to the bewilderment of his fellow workers, refusing to take no for an answer when confronted by red tape and stonewalling.
Evoking an atmosphere and bittersweet mood of sadness and newfound joy akin to his screenplay for remains Of The Day and touching in similar themes of repression and coming alive, while understandably jettisoning the gangster plot, Ishiguru remains faithful to much of the original film, most especially the heartbreaking scene involving a song, swing and snowflakes, a third act structured around flashbacks and colleagues talking about how he achieved his aim while backstory grace notes include black and white childhood memories and a rendition of the Scottish ballad The Rowan Tree.
Sharp is excellent as Wakeling, feeling Williams’ pain and aware of his easy it would be for him to wind up the same way, while , the embodiment of post-war optimism, Wood delivers a star-making performance. However, deep in existential crisis and experiencing a rebirth that frees his innate wit and kindness, this is unquestionably Nighy’s film, his subtle facial twitches, the half sighs, the internalisation of his sorrows all a masterclass in minimalism that will reduce you a sobbing puddle. BAFTAs and Oscars await. (Electric; MAC)
A Man Called Otto (12A)
Stories about elderly curmudgeons having their hearts thawed by the interventions of others are as old as the hills. And, directed by Marc Foster, this is yet another, itself an American remake of the rather fine 2015 Swedish film A Man Called Ove. The grump here, a 60sish retired engineer (he was pushed into taking severance) widower is played by Tom Hanks, the attendant baggage given you a pretty good idea of the film’s tone and trajectory.
Though relocated to suburban Philadelphia, the plot pretty much follows the same path as the Swedish version with Otto Anderson, a stickler for rules and regulations (he’s constantly rearranging the garbage into the correct bins and chastising drivers who use their gated road as a drive through), giving his neighbours (including Cameron Brittan’s Jimmy who jogs in slow motion) a hard time and generally wearing a scowl. In the opening scene he complains about having to pay for rope by the yard when he only wants five feet.
There’s the now paralysed estranged friend (Peter Lawson Jones) with whom he had a long running rivalry over their cars, the gay (here trans) youth (Mack Bayda) whose bike he mends and takes in when his father throws him out, there’s even the persistent cat. As in the original, feeling life is empty since his wife Sonya (Rachel Keller), the true love he met cute when she dropped her book at the train station and who lost their baby in a coach crash, he makes several failed attempts at suicide (though here one ends up in him saving man’s life and footage going viral setting up the similar but reworked contrived ending in which property developers rather than council bureaucrats are the villains), though playing these for comedic effect seem a little off.
His life changes when new neighbours move in across the road; pregnant Mexican immigrant Marisol (Mariana Trevino), husband Tommy (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo) and their two young daughters, with Otto proving unable to resist in the face of her relentless effusiveness and optimism (he ends up babysitting and gets into an altercation with a clown when he has to drive an injured Tommy to hospital); he even gives her driving lessons.
There was a sharp edge to the Swedish film, but here Foster tends to steep his redemptive narrative in crown-pleasing sentimentality that borders on the mawkish while Marisol and her family have no backstory and you never really buy into Hanks’ surface hostility, which thaws far too quickly as if he was only waiting for someone to relight the fire (here with Marisol’s cooking as the fuel). Foster also introduces several flashbacks (generally when Otto’s attempting suicide) to his courtship of Sonya in which his younger self is played by Hanks’ charisma-free son Truman (who moved to join the military but was rejected because – cue the dramatic irony – his heart was too big), though one involving Reuben and the adult Otto features some particularly ghastly de-ageing.
One of Hanks’ lesser performances (Trevino and the cat both outshine him), its sentimentality is undemandingly watchable enough but Gran Torino it’s most certainly not. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Everyman; Mockingbird; Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel; Vue)
Touted as the most expensive Czech film ever made, written and directed by Petr Jákl this tells the early years of Jan Zizka, a renowed 15th century Czech folk hero who led peasants and rebels into battles that he never lost. It’s set against the plague-ridden backdrop of turn of the century Bohemia where Europe is in chaos, divided over two popes, one in Rome and one in France. While steeped in debut, Bohemian King Wenceslas IV (Karel Roden) is trying to get to Rome to be crowned Emperor, with the help of emissary Lord Boresh (Michael Caine, sounding generally like Michael Caine); however his scheming brother King Sigismund of Hungary (Matthew Goode) plots behind his back to steal the throne, aided by the duplicitous and cruel Lord Rosenberg (Til Schweiger). Having hired Jan (Ben Foster) and his men as mercenary protection (the film opens with the first of several graphic and very violent battles), Boresh gets Jan to kidnap Rosenberg’s fiancée, the independent-minded Lady Katherine (a somewhat flat Sophie Lowe), the niece of the king of France, who’s not enamoured of her future husband’s treatment of the peasants, as leverage and, she and Jan falling in love (though there’s precious little chemistry evident on screen), pretty much the rest of the rest of the film is about attempts to get her back led by the brutal Torak (Roland Møller), comprising a series of ambushes, betrayals and gorily visceral butchery.
Presented as a sort of Czech Braveheart, its convoluted screenplay is never especially clear in laying out the political intrigue context (what’s everyone actually fighting for?) and machinations, while the intermittent subtitled hymns into which the people burst feel odd, but, despite a wavering accent, Foster delivers a ferocious performance and the hyper-intense battle scenes with their skewerings and decapitations are more than enough to satisfy that Game of Thrones bloodlust. (Amazon, Chili, Google Play, iTunes, Microsoft Store, Rakuten, Sky Store, Virgin)
The latest addition to the killer doll horror sub-genre also taps into the technofear of artificial intelligence developing a will of its own as recently explored in Ex Machina, elevating it beyond the simple psychopathic mayhem of things like Chucky and Annabelle.
Allison Williams stars as Gemma, a workaholic robotics engineer at the Funki Toy company, where she designs new additions to the PurrpetualPetz line, robotic children’s toys that eat, poo, and make sarcastic comments. However, she has bigger ideas. Unknown to her boss David Lin (Ronny Chieng), she’s working on an advanced android doll, the Model 3 Generative Android aka M3GAN (a mix of animatronics and digitally enhanced dancer Amie Donald, voiced by Jenna Davis), with, a metallic body but with oversized Disney-esque eyes and a realistic soft featured silicon human face that can speak, smile, pout and grin. Unfortunately, a test run goes pear-shaped and the project gets mothballed. That is until she finds herself the guardian of her young niece Cady (Violet McGraw) after her parents die in a car crash. Clues at parenting, she resurrects M3GAN, imprints Cady’s her fingers into her palm, thereby automatically programming the doll to become her special companion. Using a playroom with one-way glass to demonstrating to her boss how they interact, he immediately plans marketing this revolutionary new toy, which will be put on sale at $10,000 a pop and, as he puts it, kick Hasbro’s ass.
M3GAN is dedicated to ensuring Cady not only has companionship, but that she comes to no harm, but both Gemma’s co-worker Bess and Cady’s therapist Lydia are concerned that the attachment, in which the doll is her sole emotional security and parental figure (Gemma seems to treat her more as a guinea pig), might be problematic, something that soon proves to be the case M3GAN starts to target those threatening Cady, staring with next door’s dog, then its owner (Lori Dungey) and finally a bully from school, at the same time deleting the data recording her kills Gemma’s suspicions aroused she returns M3GAN to the lab for repairs, prompting an explosion of separation anxiety in Cady. Unable to persuade David that it’s for the best to scrap the doll as he plans a major public launch, she and fellow worker Cole attempt to shut her down, but by now M3GAN is in far more control of her systems, with yet further murderous repercussions as it builds to a showdown between doll and creator back at the house with Cady caught in the middle.
Lacing the horror with a vein of morbid humour and satire, M3GAn both cute and creepy director Gerard Johnstone deftly builds the tension and the subtext about a reliance on technology rather than human interactions, to deliver what has already proved a box office hit – with the closing seconds setting up a sequel – and likely one of the best horror movies of the year. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Everyman; Mockingbird; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Vue)
The Menu (15)
Chef Slowick (Ralph Fiennes) runs an exclusive island restaurant called The Hawthorns, assisted by implacable second-in-command Elsa (Hong Chau), serving haute cuisine that is to die for. Quite literally. Arriving for an elaborate $1,250 multi-course themed menu dinner, a 12-person group of the obnoxiously wealthy are there as “ingredients in a degustation concept” to taste – as opposed to eat – the exquisite fare on offer, such as a recently harvested scallop served on a rock from the island and a breadless bread plate with only the dips, all introduced and presented with great theatricality. However, when a few courses in, having been ritually humiliated by Slowick, a sous chef puts a bullet through his own head it quickly becomes clear that the evening has been engineered as a recipe for disaster for all concerned, among them an egotistical food critic (Janet McTeer), her fawning editor (Paul Adelstein), a group of finance businessmen, there for a “power tasting”, who’ve been cooking the books (Arturo Castro, Rob Yang, Mark St. Cyr), a narcissist faded Hollywood star (John Leguizamo) and his long-time assistant (Aimee Carrero) who’s just resigned, and a regular tycoon client (Reed Birney) there with his wife (Judith Light) to celebrate their anniversary but who’s been engaging in sexual services. And then there’s foodie fan boy Tyler (Nicholas Hault), who refers to eating as a “mouthfeel”, and his unimpressed last minute replacement date Margot (Anya Taylor-Joy), who describes the place as “the base camo for mount bullshit”, and whose unexpected presence causes some consternation for both the tycoon and Slowick, a glitch in his carefully laid plans. Plus there’s an elderly old dear in the corner getting quietly sozzled.
Directed by Mark Mylod as a sort of Agatha Christie mystery played as a horror while also amusingly satirising the pretentiousness of establishments like The Hawthorne (the sommelier describes a wine as having “a faint sense of longing and regret”) and their clients, those plans ultimately come down to a film with the have nots sticking it to the haves, each of the intended guests having some sort of guilty secret for which they are about to be punished as the violence gradually piles up. The performances are strong, Hault relishing the blissfully unaware character’s unpleasantness, Fiennes exuding a palpable air of menace and consumed with a feeling that his art has been rendered sterile by those who consume it, and Taylor-Joy on top form providing the feistiness, and there’s some clever touches (such as burritos etched with photos of the diners’ indiscretions) and an amusing gotcha. However, the more the film reveals its hand, the less coherent it becomes, culminating in a muddled resolution that feels too neat and, even in the context, improbable (why would the staff obligingly die for their boss? Not even Gordon Ramsey inspires that much blind obedience!). Even so, there’s much to savour to this dark satire, although I guarantee that when you leave you’ll be wanting cheeseburger and not oysters on foam. (Electric; Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Vue)
Mr. Malcolm’s List (PG)
While likely to attract Bridgerton comparisons, primarily on account of its anachronistic racial casting of characters, this is actually adapted from a novel by Suzanne Allain published over a decade before the TV series arrived. Set in Regency London, it’s enjoyable faux-Jane Austen with more than dash of Pride and Prejudice to the mix as it rattles off witty bon mots and social satire. The list of the title is one hot but haughty Black bachelor the wealthy Jeremy Malcolm (Birmingham University graduate Sopé Dìrísù) has compiled and which any prospective bride has to satisfy to prove herself worthy and not some gold-digger, earning him the reputation of a trifler with women’s affections. However, as he tells his friend, Lord Cassidy (a hilarious Oliver Jackson-Cohen), if he’s picky about the horses he buys, why not also about a wife. His latest prospect is Julia Thistlewaite (Zawe Ashton), a high society figure of apparently Indian heritage, who he takes to the opera and singularly fails the test by flickering her eyelids and thinking the Corn Laws have to do with your diet. No second date ensues. However, a mean-spirited caricature subjects her to public humiliation (not good since she’s failed to attract a husband over for previous matchmaking seasons) to which end, learning of the list from cousin Cassidy, the somewhat petty, spiteful and dim-witted Julia enlists Selina (Freida Pinto), a childhood friend from the country of lower status and mixed race parents, in a plot to turn her into someone who ticks all the boxes and then have her spurn Malcolm with her own list, giving him a deserved comeuppance.
Inevitably, from their first meeting, neither knowing who the other is, real love begins to blossom, Selina questioning whether her friend’s revenge is worth the price it entails and if Malcolm is actually the cad he’s made out to be. Meanwhile, the arrival of handsome handsome cavalry officer Capt. Ossory (Theo James) throws another spanner into the confused feelings works while a weekend ball at Malcolm’s mother’s adds assorted oddball relatives (notably Ashley Park as Selina’s much married loud, vulgar cousin) to the plot.
First-time director Emma Holly Jones proves to have a welcome knack for light frothy romantic comedy, giving the film a spry freshness that’s ably augmented by humour, genuine chemistry and the delightful performances from its spot on cast. It might not be in the same league as Austen, but fans of the genre should most definitely have it on their must see list. (Rakuten TV)
Mrs. Harris Goes To Paris (PG)
Published in 1958 by Paul Gallico as Mrs. ‘Arris Goes to Paris” (though titled Flowers For Mrs Harris in the UK), this Cinderella-like fairytale tale of a London cleaning lady who goes to Paris to buy a Dior dress has already been filmed three times, in 1958 starring Gracie Fields, a German version in 1982 and with Angela Lansbury in 1992 as well as a stage production under the UK title in 2016,. This, though, restoring the H, is the first feature adaptation, directed by co-writer Anthony Fabian, with gorgeous costume design by Jenny Beavan and starring Lesley Manville (Oscar nominated in previous fashion house drama Phantom Thread) in the title role.
Set in 1957, prior to Dior’s death in October with Yves Saint Laurent taking over as chief designer, it revolves around themes of dreams, kindness, social conservatism, snobbery and preconceptions (and a direct allusion to those ‘invisible women’ who make the world turn) while playing somewhat fancifully with an invented subplot about the fashion house’s financial problems and a shift from exclusivity to more affordable comparatively mass production.
Like her best friend Vi (Ellen Thomas), Ada Harris (Manville) works as a cleaning lady for her upmarket London clients, among them the snooty Lady Dant (Anna Chancellor) who,despite behind in paying the fees, has lashed out on a £500 Dior dress for an upcoming wedding. Ada immediately falls in love with it and resolves to go to Paris and get one of her own, to which ends she sets about scraping together the money. Unfortunately, an unwise bet down the greyhound track seems to put an end to those dreams. Which is when she gets a visit from an army officer, confirming that her soldier husband, who she had long hoped was only MIA, had indeed been killed and that she’s due a tidy war widow’s sum, a reward for finding some missing jewellery and an act of kindness from her Irish friend and racetrack bookie Archie (Jason Isaacs) means she will go to Paris after all.
However, arriving at the celebrated House of Dior on Avenue Montaigne, amid the Paris binmen strike,she’s inevitably greeted with disdain and contempt by the glacial (not later sympathetic) head clerk Claudine Colbert (Isabelle Huppert), who tries to have her removed. Until, that is, the suave widower Marquis de Chassagne (Lambert Wilson) steps in an invites her to be his guest at the New Look collection presentation. That she intends to pay cash is another incentive to overlook her class background. She sets her sights on stunning red number Temptation , only for a snooty repeat client, smarting over feeling slighted, to claim privilege and snatch it from her grasp. Not that her second choice, emerald green gown Venus, is exactly drab, but, to her dismay, Ada learns Dior isn’t a buy and wrap outfit and that her dress will have to be specifically tailored for her, taking at least a week.
And so, stuck in Paris, she ends up lodging with the brand’s accountant André (Lucas Bravo), being courted by the Marquise and befriended by overworked Proust fan top model Natasha (Alba Baptista). Naturally, being a fairytale set in Paris, love is in the air, with do-gooder Ada both playing matchmaker and seeing her own second chance at romance, while also leading a seamstress strike when, faced with ruin, Dior opts to downsize.
It’s all very sweet and good hearted, Colbert thaws, the dress snatcher gets her comeuppance, André saves the day, like-minded souls come together and, back in London, after another act of kindness that ends in couture catastrophe, Ada’s dream does indeed finally come true and romance does promise to bloom, though not in the quarter you might have assumed.
Very much in the sentimental cliched tradition of the dramady where a working class senior citizen changes their life and makes the world a better place but given an added lustre by Manville’s performance, this seems set to follow in the cinematic footsteps of things like The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and The Duke to entertain the grey pound brigade. (Rakuten TV)
An Ireland-Philippines co-production that embraces both psychological and supernatural horror as well as sociopolitical commentary, titled for the antonym of placebo, in which negative views result in negative responses, director Lorcan Finnegan and co-writer Garret Shanley open with successful children’s fashion designer Christine (Eva Green) watching a catwalk show of new lines for her Tykie brand, when she gets a phone call that stuns her as she mutters ‘pulling out bodies?” and has a vision of a sick black dog infested with ticks, one of which lands on her neck and bites her, at which she point she collapses, reawakening to find everything as it was.
Married to Felix (Mark Strong), a marketing strategist, with a young daughter Roberta – aka Bobs (Billie Gadson) who, on account of their work, they seem to have little time for and who has a decidedly wilful attitude, eight months later, she remains traumatised by the experience and the news she received (withheld until the last act but relating to a Philippines sweatshop tragedy), experiencing anxiety attacks, unexplained pain and shakes, using an oxygen sleep mask, and subject to nightmares such as a giant tick attacking her in bed. Her work too seems to have hit a dead end with new designs rejected buy her prime client (Cathy Belton).
Christine also has memory lapses, which might explain why she doesn’t remember hiring Diana (Chai Fonacier), a petite Filipina, who turns up on her Irish doorstep to help her (i.e. face what she’s repressed)and is installed in the spare room where she unpacks a suitcase of talismans and herbs. Felix is sceptical, believing his wife’s problems are all in her mind, and Bobs resentful. However, Diana, who tells Christine she took on on the soul (in the form of a bird that she swallows) and powers of a village shamen when she died, proves not only an excellent housekeeper but her ministrations ease Christine’s pains (she cures one seizure by tickling her), even if she’s sometimes a little too invasive into their lives.
Bob warms to her, Christine becomes dependent on her and Felix continues to be suspicious, things coming to a head over his wife’s missing medications. At which point, flashbacks into Diane’s life back home and a tragedy she experienced begin to shape why she’s here on what appears to be an act of vengeance that involves forcing Christine to confront the events she learnt about over that phone call, climaxing in a sequence of fiery payback and the passing on of the soul to another.
The somewhat heavy-handed screenplay relies too much on clumsy symbolism (the bloodsucking tick = neocapitalism) and is a little lacking in offering either Christine or Felix (Strong absent for long stretches) character depth, but the performances are sturdy enough to compensate, while, forcing you to question who the villain of the piece is, subtly underplaying, Fonacier summons a creepy air of menace that permeates everything from the moment she arrives; canary lovers should steel themselves. (Rakuten TV)
The Pale Blue Eye (15)
Adapted from the Louis Bayard novel by writer-director by Scott Cooper and atmospherically photographed by Masanobu Takayanagi, set in 1830 it revolves around a brace of murders and mutilations at the West Point military academy. In the first, a cadet, Leroy Fry (Steven Maier) has been found hanged and his heart removed from the body while it was in the morgue. To which end, retired ace detective Augustus Landor (Christian Bale), a widower who lives alone after his daughter apparently ran off, is commissioned by Superintendent Thayer (Timothy Spall) and Captain Hitchcock (Simon McBurney) to investigate as a matter of urgency given the academy is under threat of closure. Examining the body he finds a fragment of a note in his band and marks that suggest murder rather than suicide.
In the course of his investigations he recruits another cadet, aspiring poet and future gothic mystery author Edgar Allen Poe (Harry Melling), an oddball academy misfit (Poe actually did attend West Point) who has also expressed an interest in the case, deciphering the fragment to reveal it was a summons to a secret meeting. The discovery of a butchered sheep and cow with the hearts removed suggest black magic rituals, something given more credence when another cadet, and a potential suspect, Ballinger (Fred Hechinger) is also found hanged, his heart missing (though removed in a less surgical manner) and his genitals mutilated.
Suspicion falls upon the family of Dr. Daniel Marquis (Toby Jones), the coroner, and more particularly his alpha male son Artemus (Harrey Lawtey). to which end, Poe begins to court the daughter, Lea (Lucy Boynton), who suffers from seizures, though genuinely develops a love for her (the title comes from a fictitious poem he claims was dictated by his dead mother, but also links to Poe’s actual poem, Lenore) as the plot thickens and Gillian Anderson puts in a brief scenery chewing mannered turn as the coroner’s somewhat deranged wife. Suffice to say, suspicions are justified, but not in the way you might expect, with the truth behind the murders being revealed Agatha Christie style with flashbacks and explanations in the final scenes.
Along with Spall and McBurney, there’s somewhat underdeveloped exposition-serving cameos by Robert Duvall as an expert on the occult whom Landor consults and Charlotte Gainsbourgh as Patsy, the barmaid at the tavern who shares his bed. But, all straggly beard and hair, Bale is suitably intense, brooding and introspective as Landor. However, it’s inevitably Poe who proves the film’s real focus, Melling delivering a mesmerisingly off-kilter performance (the role was originally planned for Timothee Chalomet and you can see why), with a plethora of Poe in-jokes that range from a shot of a raven to Landor himself, his name derived from Poe’s detective C. Auguste Dupin and his final short story, Landor’s Cottage. Poe was, of course, the father of the modern detective story and this most certainly does him fine tribute. (Netflix)
Written and directed by Carlota Pereda, the poster for this Spanish revenge-cum-slasher horror pretty much tells you what to expect with an image of an obese blood-spattered teenage girl standing in the middle of the road. She’s Sara (Laura Galán), the daughter of an ineffectual demanding passive-aggressive pork butcher and his wife (Carmen Machi) who is both cruel in her diet-shaming treatment yet also fiercely protective when she learns Sara’s being bullied over her weight. And bullied she is on a daily basis with the fatphobic local kids constantly taunting her and calling her Piggy. One even posts a viral photo of the family labelled The Three Pigs.
One day, she goes to the local pool, self-consciously venturing into the water in her bikini, surprised to find a man emerge from the water. He leaves and, as he goes, three of Sara’s tormentors turn up, callous ringleader Maca (Claudia Salas), the no less mean Roci (Camille Aguilar) and Claudia (Irene Ferreiro), who doesn’t have the courage to stand up to the others. They call her names, hold her down with a water net and then steal her bag, clothes and towel, forcing her to walk home in just her swimsuit. To make matters worse, a car pulls up and a gang of misogynistic boys abuse her too. Fleeing down a dirt road into the woods, she comes across a white driven by the man from the pool and inside she sees Claudia, hand bloodied, screaming help from the back window. The man throws a towel out, Sara grabs it and goes home, saying nothing about what she witnessed. Her silence is compromised, however, when the body of the lifeguard (which she swam past underwater without noticing) is found and the mothers of the missing girls become increasingly frantic. Confronted by the police and her mother, she lies about being at the pool, partly from embarrassment, partly from not wanting to relive what she experienced and, anyhow, why should she help those who’ve made her life hell.
Inevitably, her lie is eventually exposed and the film veers off into even darker territory as another body is found, Sara ventures into the woods looking for her phone, just as the mothers are searching for their daughters and the two local cops for a missing bull, again coming face to face with the killer who, perhaps recognising another misfit, seems to have become her self-appointed protector, eventually dishing it out to her parents. Naturally, she stumbles upon the remaining two missing girls. The question being whether she will save them or leave to a well-deserved fate.
There’s times when the film repetitively stumbles around trying to find its feet, but Galán’s fearless performance keeps you transfixed while, as her mysterious Prince Charming (there’s a grim irony that the only kindness she gets is from a psychopathic killer), Richard Holmes rarely speaks, reinforcing the notion of him as a manifestation of her anger and wish to wreak revenge on her tormentors, until a crisis of conscience arises, while until the final moments there very little blood and violence on screen, but there’s no mistaking the message that allowing violence to persist, be it verbal or physical, simply perpetuates the cycle. (Rakuten TV)
Not put off by the piss-poor response to 2018’s The Predator, 10 Cloverfield Lane director Dan Trachtenberg and screenwriter Patrick Aison take up the challenge of rebooting the franchise, and incredibly pulls off the best in the franchise since the original. Rather than continuing the saga, it takes the bold step of going back to the start, the setting being America’s Northern Great Plains in 1719. Here, Naru (The Ice Road’s Amber Midthunder) is a young Comanche desperate to prove herself the equal of her tribe macho boys, most especially her brother Taabe (Dakota Beavers), under whose shadow she lives. An expert with a bow and throwing hatchet, knowledgeable in herbal medicine, she’s ready for her ritual hunt rite of passage. Naturally, her testosterone swamped peers don’t take her seriously, especially when she has to be rescued from a mountain lion, which her brother kills and is subsequently honoured as a war chief.
However, her chance to show her mettle comes when she discovers that there’s very different kind of beast out there, an alien hunter that, using its cloaking technology and hi-tech weaponry is stalking its prey. Having eviscerated the young bucks and what appears to be a small army of French trappers, Naru finds herself as the last defence.
Working on a small scale, Trachtenberg ramps up the tension and intensity, delivering some thrillingly brutal close quarters action as well as graphically visceral butchery in which arrows and flintlock firearms are no match for the alien technology, causing Naru to improvise in inspired ways. Played by the towering Dane DiLiegro, this sleeker, faster Predator with its glowing green blood is also back to basics with sheer physicality and just a skull mask rather than the more familiar face plate, while singlehandedly (albeit with her trusty canine companion) Midthunder electrifyingly commands the screen and the action with her body language, Trachtenberg assiduous in authentically recreating the period and all the necessary trapping, the bulk of the cast being played by Native American actors (the film will have a Comanche dubbed version).
An inspired addition to the current spate of female empowerment thrillers, it’s an exhilarating and reinvigorating fresh take on a franchise that seemed to have nowhere left to go and easily one of the year’s best action movies, making it all the more inexplicable as to why it’s been denied a theatrical release and consigned to subscriber streaming. With an end credits graphic suggesting a sequel, perhaps they’ll reconsider next time around. (Disney+)
Prey For The Devil (15)
We are, according to the opening captions, in the mist of global rise in demonic possession, hence the decision by the Catholic Church to set up various exorcism schools to train young priests to become future Father Damiens, such as the one in Boston run by Father Quinn (Colin Salmon) which has its own secure ward where the most dangerously possessed are kept to be monitored and treated, although resident shrink Dr. Peters (Virginia Madsen) is of the opinion that these are more cases of mental health issues, something the Inquisition equally passed off as possessions.
Sister Ann (Jacqueline Byers) is a nun who works as caregiver, though she has a rebellious streak and wants to learn about exorcisms, strictly a male province as Sister Euphemia (Lisa Palfrey) reminds her when she sidles into one of the lectures. Father Quinn is more forbearing and allows her to not only sit in but accompany them to witness trainees Father Dante (Christian Navvaro) and Father Raymond (Nicholas Ralph) perform an exorcism (their gear’s stored in a cabinet of black suitcases rather like an armoury) on a new patient, a young girl called Natalie (Posy Taylor). It all goes horribly wrong and Ann, who’s previously bonded with the girl, steps in an apparently cleanses her, leading Dante to ask her to help him exorcise his sister who was raped, aborted the baby and is now possessed. Ann tells her she can understand, thus setting up a reveal about her own backstory and, while the cleansing ultimately doesn’t turn out too well, it does direct the film’s focus on the unsubtly laid out (Ann actually writes them down in her notebook) themes of guilt and shame which allows the demonic forces to take control.
At the start we learn that Ann was physically abused by her mother, driven by the voice in her head, who later committed suicide. She was diagnosed with schizophrenia but, as she tells the shrink, Ann believed she was possessed. And now it seems the demons want to get inside her too, Natalie, in a contrived plot twist you can see coming, providing the means.
The film has some interesting ideas, mixing the genre clichés (arched bodies, twisted heads, levitation, etc.) with a modern take (Ann hangs out in casual clothes when not on duty) and a fresh slant in having a veneer of female empowerment with a female protagonist wielding the cross and holy water. But, with B-listers Salmon, Madsen and a cameo from the late Ben Cross as the cardinal being the biggest names, it lacks any star wattage (Byers is adequate at best) and, while decently shot and competently directed by Daniel Stamm, it’s also all rather underwhelming with muddled messages (and never developed sinister discovery that those sent to the Vatican for exorcism all died), decrying tradition and past practices but equally reinforcing them. It was originally titled The Devil’s Light, though The Devil’s Lightweight might be a better description, with a coda as Ann’s sent out to train as a fully-fledged exorcist proposing a sequel (The Shexorcist?) that hasn’t a hope in hell of happening. The devil may have all the best tunes but he’s got some pretty crappy films. (Amazon Prime; Apple; BT Store; Google Play; Rakuten, Microsoft Store; Sky Store; Virgin)
Roald Dahl’s Matilda the Musical (PG)
In 1988, Roald Dahl published his children’s novel about Matilda Wormwood, a precocious with pernicious parents who the authorities order to offload her to a boarding school where, manifesting telekinetic powers, she is befriended by her put-upon teacher Miss Honey and battles tyrannical headmistress Miss Trunchbull, Miss Honey’s aunt. In 1996, Danny DeVito turned it into a now much loved film, then in 2010 it was reborn as an RSC stage musical directed by Matthew Warchus with songs by Tim Minchin. And now that has been transformed into a feature film, again directed by Warchus with a screenplay by Dennis Kelly that’s far darker than the DeVito version and Minchin contributing some new songs.
Sticking pretty much faithfully to Dahl’s story (though the brother has been cut) and the assorted incidents in the book (such as Matilda superglueing her dad’s had to his head, a pupil being swung round by her pigtails in a hammer throw and a boy being forced to eat a mammoth chocolate cake), it’s a rumbustious all singing, all dancing ball of energy. Front and centre are relative newcomer Alisha Weir (who has a face surely destined for a future of scream queen movies) as Matilda and an unrecognisable and hilarious Emma Thompson as the warty, granite-jawed, child-loathing Trunchbull, a former shotput champion who dresses in a Soviet-style tank jacket and now runs Crunchem Hall where students are greeted with a huge statue of Trunchbull sporting the warning ‘No snivelling’ and a sign declaring ‘None of you are special’. When any child displeases her, they get sent to The Chokey, a dark closet lined with nails and broken glass while, as mentioned, after stealing a slice of her cake, she makes Bruce Bogtrotter eat the whole 45cm confection.
But the support cast are equally splendid, notably Lashana Lynch as Miss Honey (who gets an expanded tragic backstory about her escapologist father and acrobat mother) and a scene stealing, scenery chewing (but sadly non-singing) double act of Andrea Riseborough and Stephen Graham as Matilda’s day glo parents who do everything they possibly can to make life miserable for her. Plus there an energetic young cast of dancers who romp through the film’s musical numbers and Ella Kane’s choreography by with rabble-rousing gusto.
With a set design that revels in its 80s setting (think New Romanticism on steroids), songs such as Trunchbull’s The Smell Of Rebellion, the children’s Revolting Kids, Matilda’s Quiet and Miss Honey’s moving My House, and a glorious vein of often cruel humour, it’s a bit like watching a popcorn volcano exploding but also comes with Dahl’s core message of finding your voice and standing up against injustice; not to mention product placement for Curly-Wurlies and Wotsits. Huge fun. (Cineworld NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel; Vue)
See How They Run (12A)
Not the 1944 Philip King farce, but definitely borrowing some of the genre’s traditions (people passing each other in and out of doors), directed with verve by Tom George, making good use of split screen playing up the theatrical artifice, and penned by Mark Chappell this ingeniously gets round Agatha Christie’s stipulation that her play The Mousetrap could not be turned into a film until after its run ended. It opened in 1952 and it’s still in the West End after some 28,000 performances.
Back in 1956, British producer John Woolf (Reece Shearsmith), who had made The African Queen, bought the film rights, assuming the play would soon close, and it’s around that misjudgement that this superbly crafted and highly amusing whodunit homage is based. Woolf has hired (fictional) sleazy Hollywood filmmaker Leo Köpernick (Adrien Brody, who narrates) to direct, but he’s at loggerheads with the gay screenwriter, Mervyn Cocker-Norris (David Oyelowo), and wants to rework it with a murder in the opening moments and a wholly different ending, which he’s storyboarded.
As Köpernick observes, in these plays it’s always the most obnoxious character who gets murdered, and so it is that, following a fight with Richard Attenborough (an affectionate portrait by Harris Dickinson), the first actor to play Sgt Trotter, and upsetting several others, he meets his demise during the backstage party marking the 100th performance and his body is dumped on the set.
Assigned to investigate is jaded, boozy Inspector Stoppard (Sam Rockwell) who’s partnered with WPC Stalker (Saoirse Ronan, with her natural accent and true comic delight) as his assistant, an enthusiastic rookie who writes everything down in her notebook, with a memo to not jump to conclusions, something the film, with its various misdirections, slyly insists the audience doesn’t do either. There are, naturally a wealth of suspects among a cast of characters that includes Ruth Wilson as theatre impresario Petula Spencer, Pippa Emma-Bennet as Woolf’s mistress-assistant Ann and Sian Clifford as his wife, and Jacob Fortune-Lloyd as Mervyn’s petulant Italian ‘nephew’ Gio with Tim Key as the smarmy Commissioner and Shirley Henderson as Christie herself.
It’s gleefully full of in-jokes (Rockwell’s character is named after Tom Stoppard whose The Real Inspector Hound, which he wrote as a parody of things like The Mousetrap, is referenced), while he’s assigned to the case because Scotland Yard is busy investigating the murders at 10 Rillington Place in which, of course, Attenborough starred), and cinema meta gags (a character in a flashback bemoans flashbacks and interscene titles immediately followed by one). All that plus straightfaced but wickedly funny lines, and an ending that wonderfully mirrors everything in Köpernick’s storyboards. There’s a slight tonal stumble when, in a serious moment, referencing how Christie’s play was inspired by a real life case, there’s a scene about having to tread carefully when you’re turning people’s lives into entertainment, but otherwise this is a laugh out loud romp. (Disney)
She Said (15)
Directed by Maria Schrader from a screenplay by Rebecca Lenkiewicz, in similar mode to Spotlight, Tom McCarthy’s film about the Boston Globe’s investigation into systemic sexual abuse by the Catholic church, this is based on the book in which Pulitzer-winning New York Times investigative reporters Jodi Kantor (Zoe Kazan) and Megan Twohey (Carey Mulligan) detailed their struggles and dogged determination in exposing the sexual abuse of Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein, Twohey having previously reported on then Presidential candidate Donald Trump’s abuse of women, and receiving verbal abuse and death threats in return.
The film opens in flashback, several of which punctuate the film, where, in 1992 Ireland, a young Laura Madden lands herself with a promising an entry-level job with Miramax. A subsequent shot of her running down the street in tears, clearly notes it was not what she’d expected. Cut to 2017, where Kantor, a veteran reporter of workplace harassment, is tipped off that actress Rose McGowan (voiced by Keilly McQuail) was sexually assaulted by Weinstein and, though initially declining to comment, calls back to say how he raped her when she was 23. Likewise both Ashley Judd (playing herself) and Gwyneth Paltrow (in voice only) talk about their own encounters (Judd remarking how work dried up afterwards), but none are prepared to be named in any article. As a way to combat her post-natal depression, Twohey is assigned by editor Rebecca Corbett (Patricia Clarkson) to help Kantor, the pair either being met with doors shut in their faces or women who talk about their experiences but, subject to NDAs, won’t go on the record, while legal red tape prevents them from getting specifics. Incredibly, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, charged with protecting employees, isn’t allowed to give prospective job applicants information on a company’s history of sexual abuse complaints.
While also juggling home lives with new babies, the more they probe, the more they discover about assaults and settlements (a former of Miramax CFO admits pay-outs but won’t divulge how many),in effect financial gags, the culture of fear and how Weinstein used his connections with the DA office to get criminal complaints dropped. Following up tips, Kantor interviews Zelda Perkins (Samantha Morton, stunning in her single scene) who worked at the London office but resigned following an incident in Venice, with her friend, Rowena Chiu (Angela Yeoh) who had a breakdown. She also speaks to the now older Madden (a terrific Jennifer Ehle), the latter, about to undergo a major operation and not subject to an NDA, though initially reluctant, becoming the first to go on record after a Weinstein representative tries to stop her talking, allowing the paper to go ahead and publish, resulting in some 80 other women coming forward and Weinstein (only seen from behind, who tried a last minute intimidation and mea culpa to kill the story) being found guilty of rape and sentenced to prison.
With Andre Braugher as Times head honcho Dean Bacquet, Peter Friedman as Weinstein’s smooth-talking lawyer Lanny Davis cum fixer and several of Weinstein’s victims in small roles, the film captures the working of a newsroom and reporters with the same electricity as All The President’s Men, Spotlight and The Post, building to the final moment as the publish button is hit, and while individually Mulligan (a mix of fury, frustration, empathy and bemusement, her yelling at a guy coming on to her in a bar is seismic) is a stronger, more complex presence than Kazan, together they command the screen in the same way Redford and Hoffman did as Woodward and Bernstein.
Although Weinstein was the target of the story, Twohey and Kantor’s diligent and exhaustive work became the launch pad for the #MeToo movement and subsequent exposure of workplace sexual abuse and harassment in many other fields by men (and women) in power who feel an entitlement to bully those beneath them. (Rakuten TV)
Strange World (PG)
Clearly taking its cue from Jules Verne’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth and, as the final scene reveals, the Iroquois creation story, the latest Disney animation pulls together eco parable and a three generation father-son story with the latter afraid of turning into the former. Opening with comic book-style animation (and actual comic book panels), it’s set in Avalonia, a land surrounded by impassable mountains, which hulking, macho intrepid explorer Jaeger Clade (voiced by Dennis Quaid) is determined to cross. However, on their expedition he and his team come across strange energy-charged plant and his meeker, more cautious son, Searcher (Jake Gyllenhaal), and the rest of the team decide to go back home and develop their find, while dad stalks off on his own, never to return.
Twenty-five years later, the strange plant, Pando, has provided Avalonia with a literally green energy source and transformed it into a thriving civilization powering everything from lighting to aircraft, the biggest farm being run by Searcher and his crop duster wife Meridian (Gabrielle Union) with reluctant assistance from their teenage son Ethan (Jaboukie Young- White), who, in something of a Disney first, is openly and acceptedly gay. However, when Avalonia president Callisto Mal (Lucy Liu), a former member of the original team, turns up to announce they’re facing disaster with the Pando dying off, she, her crew, Searcher and, unexpectedly, Ethan, Meridian and their three-legged dog set off to find what’s causing it. This plunges them deep into the heart of the planet, Strange World, an ecosystem full of weird, colourful flora and fauna, such as pink trees, scampering bubbles, red manta-ray like flying creatures, walking land masses, an a blue amoeba-like blob that Ethan encounters, and names Splat and who saves him from the spiky betentacled destroyers that would swallow him up. And, naturally, who else should turn up but Jaeger, naturally prompting all manner of daddy issues, before the big immune-system reveal as to what’s killing off the Pando.
Raya and the Last Dragon director Don Hall creates a visually imaginative and stunning psychedelic day-glo landscape, but the climate change environmental narrative about having to find new means of energy for the planet to survive feels clumsy and unclear while the parent-child issues are as overly familiar as many of the characters, which may be why it stumbled at the American box office. Fun enough, but ultimately this is second tier Disney. (Vue)
If you’ve never heard of Lydia Tár, the first female conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic, a virtuoso pianist, ethnomusicologist, and an elite recipient of an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony and, mentored by Bernstein, hailed as perhaps the finest of her generation, then don’t think your classical knowledge is lacking. Although the film may have the trappings of a biopic, not least with real New Yorker critic Adam Gopnik playing himself in an expository interview with her, Tár is entirely the fictitious creator of writer-director Todd Field, his first film in 16 years. Already festooned with awards, it’s currently positioned as the one to beat for the Best Film Oscar with Cate Blanchett (playing her own piano and leading the field for Best Actress) as Tár who, as we meet her is preparing for a live recording of Mahler’s 5th and publish her autobiography, Tár on Tár, has such sensitive hearing that the slightest noise – a doorbell, a metronome – can distract her.
Married to her long suffering principal violinist and concertmaster Sharon (Nina Hoss) with whom she shares an adopted daughter, Petra (Mila Bogojevic), of whom she is fiercely protective (an early scene has her telling a bully to back off or else), on the surface, she’s personable and charming. But save for Petra all her relationships are transactional, she pops pills, she’s selfish, self-serving and can be casually cruel (as seen when she humiliates a Juilliard student over his views on identity culture and how, as a queer BIPOC he can’t be doing with Bach who fathered 20 children) and cold, especially in the way she offhandedly treats her assistant and aspiring conductor Francesca Noémie Merlant). She’s tells Elliot Kaplan (Mark Strong), an investment banker, part-time conductor, and her partner in an organisation devoted to advancing the careers of young women conductors, she’s planning to ‘rotate’ her assistant conductor (Allan Corduner) because his ear isn’t what it was. She ruins the career of Krista, a former fellowship protégé and lover, who then commits suicide, prompting an attempt to delete any incriminating emails and stop the media picking up on the story, and, a sexual predator, seeks to seduce Olga (Sophie Kauer) a promising young Russian cellist who’s just joined the Philharmoniker, promoting her over seasoned players to take the spotlight in Elgar’s Cello Concerto. Hailed as a champion of female composers in the interview (one being Hildur Guðnadóttir who composed the film’s score), she pointedly dismisses Icelandic musician Anna Thorvaldsdottir as a flash-in-the-pan with vague intentions. She’s patently heading for a fall (one Field concludes with a wry sense of humour).
A critique of the abusive and exploitative behaviour of those in power, here in the arts (it chimes with the Weinstein scandal) but generally applicable, as well as touching on the #MeToo movement, it’s meticulous in its detail (every musicians referred to are real), crafted with the touch of master filmmaker and driven by a seamlessly fluid, brilliantly nuanced, effortlessly natural and compelling performance by Blanchett as the brilliant but highly toxic Tár, an art film of the highest quality but, at over two hours (tellingly, the credits come at the start) it takes a degree of commitment to sustain involvement. (Cineworld 5 Ways, Solihull; Electric; Empire Great Park)
Thor: Love and Thunder (12A)
Opening with the origin of Gorr the God Butcher (a pale Christian Bale with a creepy whisper) who, when his daughter dies, possessed of the Necrosword a mystical blade that kills gods but also corrupts its owner, swears to destroy all gods for abandoning their followers, Taika Waititi’s follow-up to Ragnorak takes the same path of mixing high drama and emotion with stirring action sequences and a rich vein of irreverent humour. In his fourth stand-alone outing as the God of Thunder, Chris Hemsworth plays to his comedic strengths and physical presence in equal measure with a knowing self-awareness. Narrated by Korg (Waititi), an extended intro finds him still hanging out with The Guardians of The Galaxy, engaging in bouts of meditation to try and find himself and saving an alien race from Gorr’s shadow spiders (albeit destroying the temple he was supposed to protect in the process) before a vision of a wounded Sif send him to her rescue and from thence back to New Asgard where, as it comes under attack too, he’s astonished to witness the return of his once shattered hammer Mjölnir, and even more astonished to find it’s now being wielded by a new Mighty Thor, his former girlfriend (a montage explains how their separate lives led them to split), Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), the hammer following its former master’s instruction to look after her by giving her the strength (at a cost) she lacks in her human form, where she’s dying from cancer. When the children from New Asgard are abducted by Gorr, she, Thor, Korg and the sardonic Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson), bored without battles, set off on a rescue vision in a longship drawn by two giant (and noisy) goats, one that sees the pair reignite their romance with electrifying chemistry (Thor taking on board Starlord’s (Chris Pratt) wisdom of wanting to feel shitty because that’s what love does to you) as well as visiting the Golden Temple for a meeting of the Gods (the God of Dumplings among them!) to try and raise an army, ending up in killing the pompous Zeus (a bizarrely accented Russell Crowe), surrounded by his Zeusettes (who swoon when Thor’s stripped naked) and stealing his thunderbolt, then journeying to the Shadow Realm (for some black and white sequences) to stop Gorr before he gets to Eternity and wishes for all gods to die at once.
As such, it builds its emotional and dramatic weight as it builds to the inevitable love and sacrifice climax, the fight sequences gathering in spectacle and intensity as they go, at one point involving the kidnapped children, including Heimdal’s son (Kieron L. Dyer) who insists on being called Axl (the film is rife with Guns n Roses tracks). On the comedic side, there a theatrical re-enactment of events in Ragnorak with Matt Damon as the Loki actor, Melissa McCarthy as Hela, San Neill as Odin and Luke Hemsworth as Thor and also a very amusing running gag that’s essentially a romantic triangle with Thor in the middle between Mjölnir and his jealous new axe, Stormbreaker, Thor forever trying to reassure the latter that he’s still ‘the one’.
It’s not until the final moments, with Thor in a new paternal role (you’ll be pleased to know Korg gets a mate, a Kronan dude named Dwayne and they sire a new rock baby), that the title of the film manifests itself, the mid-credits sequence setting the stage for the fifth instalment as a character declares revenge on Thor Odinson, ending with one more brief afterlife bonus scene featuring Idris Elba. Thunderingly good fun. (Disney +; Rakuten TV)
Ticket To Paradise (12A)
The most famous smiles in contemporary Hollywood, George Clooney and Julia Roberts reunited for the sixth time for Mamma Mia! director Ol Parker’s rom com – their first together and her first in 20 years – as a long-divorced couple (David/Georgia) – married for five years until their lakeside house burned down – who find themselves having to travel to Bali and work together to prevent their just graduated daughter Lily (Booksmart’s Kaitlyn Dever) making the same impulsive mistake they did 25 years earlier by getting hitched to Gede (Maxime Bouttier), the charming local seaweed farmer who rescued her and best friend Wren ((Billie Lourd) when they were stranded at sea. Added to the mix is airline pilot Paul (Lucas Bravo), Georgia’s current boyfriend, who, having flown them to Bali turns up looking to seal the relationship. Those conversant with the genre will, of course, know, that old flames will be rekindled and new ones doused.
There’s not much of plot other than contriving to steal one of the rings needed or the ceremony, David trying to sow doubts in Gede’s mind about the marriage having long-term prospects (arguing Lily will want to return to America to become a lawyer – unaware she has no interest in the career), contriving various travel mishaps, and assorted gatherings with the bridegroom-to-be’s welcoming family and friends before it all resolves as assumed from the start. All light and frothy, Clooney and Roberts swap barbs and insults, there’s a splash of room swapping farce and a stream of scenes depicting Bali’s quaint if rather out of date ceremonies and rituals. Formulaic to a fault, Parker’s direction is workmanlike at best and the humour rarely comes to the boil, although there is an amusing scene as the prospective in-laws take on Lily and Gede in a variation on beer pong with a potent local brew that results in some embarrassing mum and dad dancing to retro disco and the inevitable waking up in the same bed together.
The ever smiling two stars sparkle even if the wattage is somewhat lower than you might have expected, while Dever and Bouttier make for an attractive if somewhat bland couple despite the underwritten characters, leaving Bravo and Lourd with undeveloped roles, the latter absent for many of the later scenes, all adding up to a pleasant but insubstantial frothy soufflé. (Rakuten TV)
On August 28, 1955, while visiting his cousins in rural Mississippi, Emmett Till, a 14-year old Black boy from Chicago was abducted at gunpoint from his great-uncle’s house by two white men, taken away, tortured, a bullet put in his head and his body dumped in the Tallahatchie River, surfacing bloated, mutilated and facially unrecognisable three days later, identified by his father’s initialled silver ring his mother had given him. All because, earlier that day, he had, allegedly, playfully flirted with and whistled at Carolyn Bryant, a married white female shopkeeper, unaware of what the repercussions of such might be in the Jim Crow racist Deep South. His killers, Bryant’s husband and half-brother were arrested and stood trial for murder, only to be acquitted by an all-white jury (subsequently detailing their gruesome story, protected against double jeopardy, in a Look magazine interview), Till posthumously becoming an icon of the Civil Rights movement.
The horror and tragedy of his fate has been the subject of songs, including one by Bob Dylan, poems, books, plays, a musical, documentaries, a painting, shorts, TV series and podcasts, and now a full length feature directed and co-written by Nigerian-American Chinonye Chukwu. However, while the boy’s death is the pivot of the narrative, the film’s focus is on his mother, Mamie Till-Bradley (a star-making turn by relative newcomer Danielle Deadwyler in her feature debut) who tirelessly campaigned to get justice for her son, holding an open casket funeral viewings (the film neglects to show that many whites also came) so people could see the mutilations inflicted on his body (we hear his screams but never see the torture, the sight of the after-effects are more than enough), galvanising outrage among both black and white communities. Balancing the historical and political importance of the event with the devastating personal impact on his family, it’s both a harrowing and inspirational work.
Although racism is still evident in Chicago, the opening chapter plays out the generally happy life of the polite, well-adjusted Emmett (Jalyn Hall), affectionately known as Bobo, and his strict but doting widowed mother (his father as killed in WWII), laughing and singing in the car, introducing supporting characters such as her mother Alma Carthan, (Whoopi Goldberg) and her fiancé, Gene Mobley (Sean Patrick Thomas). As she puts him on the train to see his cousins, worried about what he might find in Mississippi, she reminds him to behave himself and stay out of trouble. What follows is a gruelling journey through grief and anger, Mamie demanding her son’s body be shipped back home for the funeral (“My son’s body returned to me reeking of racial hatred”, she tells the assembled reporters), subsequently travelling with her father John (Frankie Faison) to testify at the trial where she comes into contact with Civil Rights advocate Medgar Evers (Tosin Cole) and herself becomes heavily involved in the movement.
Never exploitative or sensationalist, it unfolds with a grim stark depiction of the facts and the storm of emotions, a particularly powerful moment being Mamie’s confrontation with Moses Wright (John Douglas Thompson), the uncle from whom her son was taken, consumed by guilt over choosing to protect his own family. The camera often capturing her face in close up, Deadwyler is quietly ferocious in portraying the chasms of pain Till experienced in confronting her son’s death and the blatant miscarriage of justice and her determination to fight to expose and upturn the racism that allowed his killers to walk free. It says much about America that the end credit titles reveal that Congress passed the Emmett Till Antilynching Act, making lynching a hate crime … in March 2022. (Cineworld NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; MAC; Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Vue)
Top Gun: Maverick (12A)
Thirty-six years on since the original took your breath away, Tom Cruise has bowed to public demand and returned to the role that made him a global superstar, the authority-bucking US Navy fighter pilot Pete ‘Maverick’ Mitchell. As directed by Joseph Kosinski, who was only 16 when the original appeared, and scripted by Ehren Kruger, Eric Warren Singer and Christopher McQuarrie, Maverick hasn’t changed a great deal in the interim. He’s relatively more centred, still single, still in top physical shape and still a captain, partly through choice, partly because he runs the top brass up the wrong way. Indeed, he does so right from the start when, learning the supersonic stealth fighter project he’s heading in the Mojave Desert is being shut down by a Rear Admiral dubbed The Drone Ranger (Ed Harris) as it hasn’t reached its Mach 10 target, he duly climbs into the cockpit and pushes it to the limit and beyond before he can be told in person. However, rather than being disciplined, he’s told to report to his old Fighter Weapons School aka Top Gun stomping ground where he learns an unnamed country is developing an unsanctioned uranium enrichment plant and the school’s best pilots are being recruited to carry out a Dam Busters-style mission to destroy it. Initially assuming he’s one of then, he’s informed instead, by Commanding Officer Beau ‘Cyclone’ Simpson (John Hamm), that he’s there to train them and select the best six. And also that (verging on obsolete) he wasn’t Simpson’s first, or any, choice, but is there at the request of his former rival, long-time friend and now Admiral, Iceman (Val Kilmer).
The hot shots candidates are all introduced in a somewhat unnecessarily extended barroom scene, the ones that matter lining up as nerdy Bob (Lewis Pullman), cockily arrogant Hangman (Glen Powell), spunky female pilot Phoenix (Monica Barbaro), Fanboy (Danny Ramirez) and Rooster (Miles Teller), the now grown son of Goose (Anthony Edwards seen in flashbacks), Maverick’s wingman who dies in action and who, along with many others, Pete himself included, blames as him for his father’s death, thus setting up a somewhat predictable arc between the two.
The same scene also introduces bar owner Penny Benjamin (Jennifer Connolly), mentioned but never seen in the original, now given a backstory as Maverick’s former on-off love interest who, now a divorced single mother, re-enters the romantic orbit. Of course, that’s a minor subplot as the film’s main focuses is on Maverick whipping his students into shape so that the chosen ones can fly dangerously low into the mountains under the radar to avoid the anti-aircraft missiles and superior enemy planes, destroy the target and get out again in a race against the clock. So cue all the expected young bucks v old fogey dynamics, pilot rivalries, run ins with Cyclone, and Maverick again bucking orders and pushing himself to breaking point to prove the mission is not impossible, inevitably ending up leading it himself with Rooster as his wingman.
As you’d imagine, right from a recreation of the opening scene (complete with Kenny Loggins’ Danger Zone), there plenty of nods to the original along with such iconic Cruise moments as a front on show of him riding his motorbike (in his original Top Gun jacket) grinning like a Cheshire cat. He’s not above taking the piss out of himself either, retorting ‘it’s the only one I’ve got” when someone comments on giving ‘that look’. While better at the grins and the grit expression that registering deep emotion, nevertheless Cruise has a particular affecting and touching scene in a reunion with Kilmer, his character clearly not long for the world (thereby leaving Maverick without anyone in his corner).
Likewise, while playing down the jingoism element, Kosinksi is at his best when the action is in the air, whether in the simulated dog fights (shot in actual U.S. Navy F/A-18s, for which the cast went through a punishing training process) as Maverick pushes his team or the actual dog fights evading enemy jets in the aftermath of the mission, where old grievances and new enmities are all neatly resolved in big bromantic hugs, even if the original’s homoeroticism is decidedly downplayed here.
Cruise again demonstrates that he’s in a cinema superstar league of his own, an ‘event’ in his own right (as the film says, it all comes down to pilot in the box), a generous actor but inevitably putting others in the shade simply on account of who he is, though Teller at least gets to remind how good he was in Whiplash and Kosinski’s own firefighter drama Only The Brave. Along with a deft use of 70s hits, music’s provided by Harold Faltermeyer with the big song coming from Lady Gaga, and while that’s no Take My Breath Away, the film will most certainly have you needing oxygen masks. Turn and burn, baby. (Paramount +; Rakuten TV)
White Noise (15)
Published in 1985, Don DeLillo’s social satire on a morally diseased America with its consumer culture, academia, religions and anxiety about death was long deemed unfilmable. However, in his first film not based on original material, Noah Baumbach has risen to the challenge and, while ultimately flawed and reinforcing the impossibility of translating book to screen, it’s an ambitious and at times captivating effort that also chimes with the current pandemic climate.
Reuniting his Frances Ha co-stars Adam Driver and Greta Gerwig, he’s crafted an absurdist comedy-drama set in the 1984 in which a compellingly distracted Driver plays Jack Gladney, a middle-aged Midwest academic celebrated for his self-founded Hitler Studies course (that he can’t speak German is a big worry given an upcoming conference), with Gerwig as his fourth wife, Babette. They have four precocious kids, the analytical Heinrich and sensitive Steffie (Sam and May Nivola) from one of his previous marriages, her petulant daughter Denise (Raffey Cassidy) and their young son Wilder. The marriage seems happy but she’s showing early signs of dementia and is addicted to something Dylar, about which neither he nor the children have any knowledge, but is designed to suppress fears of death.
The film opens with Jack’s colleague, Murray Siskind (Don Cheadle), delivering a lecture on the celebratory nature of car crashes in American cinema, who, envious of Jack’s iconic status on campus, launches his own Elvis Studies in competition, leading to a scene in which both expound their theories to a class simultaneously rather like a lecture version of a dance-off.
The kids are fascinated by plane crashes, devouring TV footage, but then Blacksmith is struck by a spectacularly staged collision between a truck transporting gasoline and a train carrying toxic waste, resulting in the release of a poisonous cloud, dubbed the airborne toxic event (Jack, who wants to play the hero of the hour, but is singularly not up to the task, can’t decide whether to describe the black cloud as “feathery” or “billowing”), that forces a mass evacuation (cue the family racing through a forest in their car and landing in a river) to a designated holding place and, exposed to the chemical cloud (Jack’s told to wait 15 years to see what happens) , an exacerbation in everyone’s death anxieties. Meanwhile, an agency called SIMUVAC is using the real evacuation to help perfect their test-drill procedure.
Constructed in three sections, the last of which is heavy with philosophical monologues, with dialogue frequently overlapping and awash with primary colours, it’s an uneven affair that ranges from long stretches of tedium where very little happens to chilling moments such as the unsettling deserted, abandoned gas station where Jack refuels while the black cloud hovers in the sky behind him, a creepy nightmare or the bizarre scene where he and Babette end up in a hospital run by German atheist nuns led by Barbara Sukowa. Elsewhere, Jack’s persuaded by Murray that he can overcome his fear of death by taking someone else’s life, his choice being his wife’s dealer (Lars Eidinger).
It can be an effort to stay with it, but Baumbach rewards patience with a truly memorable and fun end credits dance scene set in a supermarket crowded with shoppers set to an LCD Soundsystem track and looking for all the world like some Talking Heads video. (Netflix)
Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance With Somebody (12A)
There’s already been two documentaries on the life and death of Whitney Houston aka The Voice, and now director Kasi Lemmons gives her a Bohemian Rhapsody-style treatment (indeed, it’s written by Anthony McCarten in the same formulaic style), titled after one of her seven consecutive US number ones. A star-making turn for British TV actress Naomi Ackie, who brilliantly captures Houston’s mannerisms and charisma and (mostly) lip syncs so convincingly you’d swear it was her singing, it kicks off its story with the young Whitney singing in church, her domineering celebrated singer mother Cissy (Tamara Tunie), conducting the gospel choir and tut tutting over her daughter’s tendency to improvise on the melody. It quickly shifts to Sweetwater’s, a New York nightclub where her rendition of The Greatest Love of All blows away Arista boss and producer Clive Davis (an avuncular Stanley Tucci) and leads to her record deal and, two weeks later, her debut on The Merv Griffin Show.
That same episodic, staging post structure continues throughout the film, documenting a series of highs and lows as Houston rises to superstar status before falling into drug addiction, rehab and a failed tour comeback, variously taking in her relationships with long-time friend and lesbian lover Robyn Crawford (Nafessa Williams), an affair she was open about until she became famous, who went on to become her creative director before resigning over her refusal to seek treatment; a fling with Jermaine Jackson; her relationship with her self-serving womanising father (Clarke Peters) who acted as her manager and exploited her wealth (she replaced him with sister-in-law Pat); and the volatile, toxic marriage to Bobby Brown (a one-note Ashton Sanders) who only told her his girlfriend was pregnant after he’d proposed.
Before ending with her drug-related accidental drowning in 2012 (it neglects to mention her daughter died the same way three years later), it documents the meticulous manner in which she chose her material, her acting debut in The Bodyguard (Kevin Costner introducing her to Dolly Parton’s I Will Always Love You), though subsequent films like her award-winning turn in Waiting To Exhale are never mentioned, the criticism that her music wasn’t ‘black’ enough and, of course, a succession of recording and live appearances, among them the knowingly American Princess image mocking How Will I Know video, her electrifying 1991 Super Bowl performance of The Star Spangled Banner, the self-assertive comeback I Didn’t Know My Own Strength and, opening and closing the film, her iconic live medley of I Loves You, Porgy, I Tell You I Am Not Going and I Have Nothing at the 21st annual American Music Awards.
Although tempered by the certificate, it doesn’t whitewash Houston’s troubles or her at times diva petulance or her descent into self-doubt, fractured ego and self-destruction even if the depiction is somewhat decorous (her estate oversaw production). The problem, though, is that, for all the incandescence Ackie brings to the role and the strong support turns from Tucci, Peters and Williams, the episodic nature of the narrative means it never fully connects emotionally. As a celebration of her voice it shines brightly, as an exploration of the woman it has rather less range. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Vue)
The Wonder (15)
Further confirmation, were it needed, that Florence Pugh is her generation’s Kate Winslet, she delivers a quietly understated but wrenchingly powerful performance in this adaptation of the period gothic novel by The Room’s Emma Donoghue’s directed by Sebastian Lelio from a screenplay by himself, Donoghue and Alice Birch and cinematography from The Power Of The Dog’s Ari Wegner.
It opens with voiceover introducing it as a film and talking of stories as the camera pans across a film set before alighting on the interior of a sailing ship, where, in 1862, Elizabeth Wright (Pugh) is eating a bowl of stew. She’s a Yorkshire (hence no-nonsense) nurse with a tragic past (cue two tiny baby bootees she keeps wrapped up with a bottle of opium) who served in the Crimean War and is en route to rural Ireland where, lodging at the local inn, she’s been employed, along with a nun (Josie Walker), to observe Anna O’Donnell (impressive newcomer Kíla Lord Cassidy), a pious, 11-year-old Catholic girl, who, apparently, hasn’t eaten anything for four months, sustained, she says by “manna from heaven”.
On the committee who’s hired her are town elder Sir Otway (Dermot Crowley) and local landlord John Flynn (Brían F. O’Byrne) alongside Dr McBrearty (Toby Jones), who wants to think it’s a miracle of science, and Father Thaddeus (Ciaran Hinds) who wants to think it’s a miracle per se, with the potential to have her declared a saint and, thus, a big plus for the village.
Neither allowed to share notes, she shares observational shifts with Sister Michael at the remote cottage where Anna lives with her mother Rosaleen (her real life mum Elaine Cassidy), father Malachy (Caolán Byrne) and older sister Kitty (Niamh Algar), Playfully, she agrees to let Anna call her Lib as long as she can call her Nan. The purpose of the watch is to find whether this is some holy intervention or an elaborate fake whereby the girl is being secretly fed.
William Byrne (Tom Burke), a former villager with his own Irish famine family tragedy and a history with Kitty and who is now a reporter for The Daily Telegraph (and subsequent rather sudden romantic interest with Wright) believes it to be the latter, but, as the narrative throws up dark revelations as to what’s going on and why Anna seems determined (with her mother’s complicity) to starve to death to save her dead brother from the fires of Hell, becomes involved in Lib’s plan to save her.
With practically every scene dimly lit, the sense of claustrophobia and threat is tangible as the screenplay interrogates the idea of wonder in terms of both spiritual belief (and its exploitation) and bafflement, though a final line about not debasing “the wonder in every child”, taken directly from the book, seems somewhat tacked on.
There’s some muddled moments, plot holes and overdone metaphors while the swerve into melodrama feels a touch contrived, but the is she/isn’t she mystery woven through the narrative, the toxic family dynamics and the patriarchal investments in Anna’s condition all give compelling weight while the performances throughout, Pugh’s especially, are flawless. It might be argued that the ending is something of a cop out given everything that’s gone before, but then don’t we all want our stories to have a happy ever after? (Netflix)