This column will review films both screening theatrically and/or on various streaming platforms.
What’s Love Got To Do With It? (12A)
That it shares its title with the Tina Turner biopic rather reinforces the lack of originality in this attempt to revive the good old days of Working Title romcoms. As such, even without including the line in the trailer about being scared of being with the right person, this is reassuringly predictable from the outset.
Directed by Shekhar Kapur, returning after a lengthy absence and proving less accomplished at light comedy than dramatic works like Elizabeth and Bandit Queen, from a script be Jemima Khan the slim plot hinges around singleton Zoe (Lily James), now an award-winning documentary filmmaker, and her relationship with childhood Muslim friend, erstwhile neighbour and oncology doctor Kaz Khan (Shazad Latif). On learning he’s embarking on an arranged – or rather assisted – marriage (he says statistics show they end in fewer divorces, she compares it to Stockholm syndrome), she pitches her producers the idea of turning this into her next project (her other ideas are seen as too heavy), dubbing it Love Contractually.
What ensues has her following him around with a hand-held camera from the first meeting with Mo the Matchmaker (an amusing Asim Chaudry) to the three day wedding ceremony (naturally including a Bollywood dance sequence, fortunately the bride and her friends appear to be all professionally trained) in Pakistan, filming interviews with him, his parents (Shabana Azmi, Jeff Mirza), themselves the happy result of an arranged marriage, his older just wed brother, and law student bride to be Maymouna (Sajal Ali), who turns out to be rather less demure than she appears and naturally has her own romantic skeleton in the closet.
There’s commentary on unconscious bias, racism and content commissioning box-ticking, but mothing especially astringent as it ambles its way to its preordained conclusion in Zoe and Kaz’s childhood treehouse and a sentimental and unrealistic resolution to the Khan family’s estrangement from their daughter Jamila (Mariam Haque) on account of her marrying a white man. James is an engaging presence, conveying her failures in love by telling her best friend’s daughters bedtime fairytales with unhappy endings (Snow White was sad. She ate the poisoned apple on purpose) despite being ill-served by a telegraphed emotional arc and a forced confrontation about whether she’s not a whole person without a man with her divorced out of touch mother Cath (a snarky Emma Thompson) who’s attempting to matchmake her with the family vet James (Oliver Chris) and, blissfully self-unaware, wears a salwar kameez and joins in the dancing as a sign of her liberal multiculturalism. Full marks too for a scene stealing turn by Pakiza Baig as the prickly Urdu grandmother.
There’s a smattering on zingers (notably a gag about getting stoned for being gay) but generally it’s all rather comfortably soft , opening and closing strongly but idling over in the stretch in-between, making you think how much better it might have been with Gurinder Chada behind the camera. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Electric; Empire Great Park; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Vue)
Blue Jean (15)
In 1988, the homophobic Conservative government introduced Section 28, a legislative designation that prohibited the “promotion of homosexuality” by local authorities in an attempt to return the country to what they deemed as proper family values, Margaret Thatcher declaring that “Children who need to be taught to respect traditional moral values are being taught that they have an inalienable right to be gay”. It’s against this background that, utilising a clip of Tory peer Lord Beloff pontificating about the superiority of the heterosexual family unit, writer-director Georgia Oakley makes her somewhat soap opera but nevertheless forceful and period detailed feature debut. It’s set in Newcastle where Rosy McEwen plays Jean, an inspirational closeted bleached-blond cropped lesbian PE teacher at a local secondary school who, a failed marriage behind her, is alienated from her mother and has a prickly relationship with her married sister. She’s now in a relationship with the forthright, butch tattooed Viv (Kerrie Hayes), but can only be open about it at the club frequented by other gays and the close-knit working class lesbian community.
When shy, unathletic new girl Lois (Lucy Halliday) joins her class and becomes an instant target for bullying, Jean takes her under her wing, encouraging her to be part of the netball team, and, in the process, stirring up resentment in the school’s spiteful queen bee Siobhan (Lydia Page) who harbours a crush on Jean. When Lois turns up at the gay club, far more confident here than at school, Jean, who has kept her sexuality from her colleagues as well as her family, is naturally uneasy, torn between fears that Lois might out her but also concerned to try and help the girl deal with her own sexuality, a gym shower incident involving Lois and Siobhan who accuses the former of sexually assaulting her and which Jean, who knows otherwise, does not refute lest it bring suspicion on herself, has repercussion that will impact her relationship with Viv, her sister and brother-in-law and her own politically reticent attitude.
There are some relatively steamy sex scenes, but generally speaking there’s nothing sensationalist here and, while it’s not exactly as politically hard-hitting as something a Frears, Meadows or Loach might have delivered, and the ending somewhat leaves Jean’s future decisions in the air, it is an otherwise assured and thoughtful work that, as recent anti-gay laws in America have shown, remains depressingly relevant. (MAC)
Cocaine Bear (15)
Occupying the same it seemed like a good idea when we were stoned territory as Snakes On A Plane, inexplicably directed by Elizabeth Banks in what must have been a mental black-out, this horror-comedy adopts the ludicrous premise of what would happen if a black grizzly bear accidentally took a whole load of cocaine. The twist being that it actually happened. On September 11, 1985, Andrew C. Thornton II, a former American narcotics officer turned drug smuggler was trafficking cocaine from Colombia into the United States, following the usual procedure of dumping plastic containers over the wilderness and then parachuting out of his auto pilot plane for them to be picked up later. This time, however, things went wrong. As he jumped he knocked himself out and plummeted to his death, his body winding up in Knoxville, Tennessee along with guns and knives and a key to the plane, the authorities recovering nine duffel bags of cocaine from the crashed plane. Three months later a dead bear and a tenth bag was found in the Chattahoochee National Forest, a post mortem revealing it had ingested 34 kilograms of coke with a street value of $2million, the body being stuffed and put on display as a tourist attraction, dubbed Pablo Escobear.
The film’s set up stays true to the facts, what follows, however, is utter fiction that entails our CG ursine Scarface crossing paws with an array of broadly drawn characters, including a pair of Swedish hikers, a mum (Keri Russell, her The Americans co-star Matthew Rhys cameoing as Thornton) looking for her errant adolescent daughter (Brooklynn Prince) and her wisecracking friend (Christian Convery), a crazy park ranger (Margo Martindale, also from The Americans), the wildlife activist (Jesse Tyler Ferguson) she has her eye on, a gang of knucklehead delinquents (led by dyed blonde punk Aaron Holliday), a couple of medics, a local cop (Isiah Whitlock Jr.), a drug dealer’s no-nonsense fixer (O’Shea Jackson Jr), his grieving recently widowed buddy (Alden Ehrenreich) who’s foresworn the trade, both of whom have been sent to find the cocaine by the latter’s drug kingpin dad Syd (the late Ray Liotta in an ignominious swansong), who also turns up to join the maulings. In the process, as the bear manically sniffs out further clouds oh white powder, limbs and heads are torn off, guts get ripped out, folk get shot (not by the bear, obviously) all in viscerally graphic manner, none of which happened in reality as the bear didn’t injure anyone, but who wants to make a film about that!
If you were being generous you might talk about it exploring themes of parenting, family, friendship and, as Russell’s character remarks, the dangers of all kinds of drugs. But that would be to bestow on the film a social commentary and allegorical depth it simple doesn’t have. No, it’s a big dumb, stupid, blood movie about a, well, cocaine bear. What more do you need! (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Everyman; Mockingird; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Vue)
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.
Sweeping the BAFTAS with seven awards, including Director, Foreign Language and best Film and Oscar nominated for both Best Film and Best International Feature, 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; Electric)
Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania (12A)
Calling to mind thoughts of Fantastic Voyage and the cantina scenes in Star Wars among others, launching Phase 5 of the MCU, the third in the Ant/Giant-Man series doesn’t waste time getting down to business. A brief flashback prologue with Janet van Dyne (Michelle Pfeiffer) being rescued by someone who’s just crash-landed, it brings together her, husband Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), daughter Hope aka The Wasp (Evangeline Lilly), her no somewhat complacent superhero husband Scott Lang (Paul Rudd), first seen musing on how his life’s turned out and reading from his autobiography, and their science prodigy daughter Cassie (Kathryn Newton), for a family dinner which ends up with Hank and Cassie demonstrating their work on making contact with the quantum zone in which Janet was trapped for 30 years, but about which she’s never spoken. She’s horrified, but before anything can be done all five are sucked into the sub-atomic universe with its psychedelic flora and fauna, including characters with broccoli –like heads. Scott and Cassie end up separated from the others, running into an army of rebels, among them a jelly-blob fascinated with how Scott has holes, led by Jentorra (Katy O’Brien) who constantly blathers on about how an unnamed he, the conqueror who destroyed her people’s home, will be coming to look for them. This is the same he referred to when Hank, Hope and Janet meet up with Lord Kylar (Bill Murray doing his usual shtick), a former ally from Janet’s time in the Quantum Realm, looking for help in being reunited with the others only to learn he’s switched sides.
As such, the film spends an overly lengthy period with the family trying to reunite before we finally get to meet (or rather meet again as the character appeared as He Who Remains in season 1 of Loki) Kang (an imposing, quietly terrifying Jonathon Majors) and learn he was stranded in the realm when Janet destroyed his power source after discovering the monster he really was, thereby consigning herself to the Quantumverse too. The plot then is basically about Kang’s efforts to restore his ‘core’ so he can escape and, as he says, prevent the end of everything, albeit by destroying every timeline that exists, resulting in a constant stream of battle sequences between our heroes, assorted creatures and Kang’s blue orb-faced minions before a final showdown between Kang and Ant/Giant-Man, The Wasp, Cassie, who has her own shrinking suit, Janet and an army of super-evolved high tech ants. Not to mention literally thousands of Ant-Man probabilities and ultimate killing machine Modok, a giant head in a flying suit, who turns out to be Darren Cross (Corey Stoll), Pym’s former protégé, who attacked the young Cassie in the first film in his guise as Yellowjacket before being despatched to the Quantum Realm. However, reeling the action in at under two hours (not counting the credits), while there may not be much in the way of character development (most is about the relationship between Cassie and Scott, who feels he’s been a bad absent dad) there’s more than enough popcorn fodder thrills, comedic touches and dazzling visual effects to keep you glued to the screen (especially in IMAX 3D). When it comes down to it, it’s basically a setting up of the forthcoming two Kang Wars films in The Avengers series, as foreshadowed in the first of the two mid-credit sequences (the second nodding to a certain Asgardian’s second series), but ultimately a hugely entertaining reminder that bigger – and indeed smaller – really can be better. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Vue)
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, Best Film nomination notwithstanding, 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; Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; 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 (Oscar 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 BAFTA Best Supporting Actress winner 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, earning Oscar nominations as both writer and director Martin McDonagh and already a Golden Globe Best Picture winner. it’s a black comedy of male pride and loneliness that balances darkness and whimsy (with everybody feckin’ this and feckin’ that) equal measure as it builds to an act of violence. As such, he’s ably supported by a sterling support cast that includes David Pearse as the mean priest, Gary Lydon as bullying copper Kearney who is turned on by the idea of being paid six shilling to oversee an execution on the mainland and regularly batters and molests his mentally challenged son Dominic (a superb Best Supporting BAFTA winner and Oscar nominee 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. Winner of Best British Film and a Best Film Oscar nominee, it’s a quiet, slow burning masterpiece with a banshee wail that will pierce the heart. (Disney+; Electric; Mon:Vue)
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 earning a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination) as the nation’s temporary ruler and Shuri consumed with anger at the world that she was unable to prevent his passing.
Meanwhile, the geopolitical plot driver is set in motion with Western powers wanting to get their hands on and exploit Wakanda’s vibranium resources, attempting to take it by force while Ramonda is addressing the UK, only to be repelled by General Okoye (Danai Gurira) and her warriors; the Queen declaring that the previous mineral will never leave her lands. However, it turns out that Wakanda isn’t the only place it exists on Earth and that, thanks to a machine invented by genius college student Riri Williams (Dominique Thorne), there’s also evidence of it under the Atlantic Ocean. At which point, the CIA-vessel searching for it is besieged by mysterious warriors and everyone killed. Naturally, the Wakandans are suspected, but, in fact, the real attackers were a blue-skinned underwater race known as the Talokan, led by their ruler Namor (Tenoch Huerta Mejía), a superstrong half-human mutant with tiny wings on his angles. He duly turns up unannounced, blaming Wakanda for quest to obtain vibranium and telling her to find and deliver the scientist responsible for the machine to him, to be killed, or he will attack Wakanda. Oh, and not to tell anyone about him.
All of this takes an inordinate amount of time with only bursts of action to punctuate proceedings, during which, with the help of CIA agent Ross (Martin Freeman), Shuri and Okoye visit her in Washington to try and take her to Wakanda for her protection, Riri and Shuri ending up being captured by Namor and taken to his realm (where we get his origin story and some spectacular shots of his underwater city), where he proposes an alliance to destroy the surface world, an angry Ramonda stripping Okoye of her rank, a rescue by Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), T’Challa’s lover who’s been living in Haiti since The Blip in the Avengers series, and a retaliatory attack on Wakanda that results in yet another royal death. It’s around this point that the real action finally kicks in with a visit to the ancestral plane (cue a reappearance by Michael B. Jordan, as the usurper Killmonger), the emergence of the new Black Panther and the big Wakanda/Takonan showdown complete with some new high tech Wakandan armour.
Fuelled by loss, grief, vengeance, mercy, moral choices, oppression and colonial exploitation of Third World resources among things, it carries a weighty thematic dynamic that at times feels like an overload, but give the film a more mature and sober edge than many of its Marvel companion pieces. On top of which, following The Woman King, it’s the second film this year constructed around virtually all female Black cast. Returning names include Michaela Coel given a bigger role as Aneka of the royal guard and Winston Duke as belligerent Jabari tribesman M’Baku, while among the new additions are Mabel Cadena as Namor’s cousin Namora and Alex Livinalli as the Talokanil warrior Attuma (a renegade warlord and Namor’s enemy in the comics) with famed singer Baaba Maal cameoing as the funeral singer. The performances are strong throughout, but it’s a ferocious Bassett, the electrifying Wright, a fierce Gurira and impressive Mexican newcomer Mejía in his first leading role who generate the high voltage with Thorne’s spunky teenager setting up her role as Ironheart, a rocket-suited teenage Iron-Man, in the upcoming TV series.
And, inevitably, Boseman’s presence haunts the film, both in constant references to T’Challa’s death and, in the final moments, poignant archive footage from the first film, giving the revelatory moment in the obligatory mid-credits scene a hefty emotional punch. (Disney+)
Bodies Bodies Bodies (15)
Directed by Halina Reijin, this pitch black horror comedy for Gen Z is one of the year’s best. Accompanied by her enigmatic working-class new Eastern European girlfriend, Bee (Borat’s Maria Bakalova), recovering addict Sophie (Amandla Stenberg) turns up at a weekend hurricane party at the secluded mansion home of wealthy but toxic (“I look like I fuck. It’s my whole vibe”) childhood friend David (Peter Davidson), much to the surprise of the other spoiled brattish guests who include David’s drama queen actress girlfriend Emma (Chase Sui Wonders), airhead podcaster (“Hanging out with your smartest, funniest friend”) Alice (Rachel Sennott, her bemused 40-year-old new Tinder boyfriend Greg (Lee Pace), and Sophie’s ever sceptical old flame Jordan (Myha’la Herrold). Another, Max, left earlier following a fight with David.
Tensions are clearly evident, to which end, the others fuelled by drink and drugs, she suggests they play the titular murder in the dark-style game in which each player slaps their friend across the face and takes a shot. After which, one of them is randomly appointed as the killer. However, the slaps rather less than playful, Greg, a group outsider like Bee, decides to retire early and David, who the others have decided is the killer, storms off after another fight with Emma. Only, the power out, to appear at a window clutching at his throat. Now, Sophie’s car battery dead, it’s down to the others to work out who the real killer is as they explore the house by the light of cellphones and flashlights. At some point a gun surfaces.
Riffing on themes of false friendships, paranoia, distrust, jealousy, faux activism and white feminism and making effective use of the claustrophobic lighting and score, it builds the tension as the body count continues to rise as secrets are revealed and the rocky relationships between the group unravel, though to reveal more would spoil the revelations. Peppered with smartly comic dialogue along with the high pitched drama and some bloody violence, the entire cast bring solid, compelling performances to their characters although it’s Davidson, Sennott and Bakalova who, in their different ways, shine the brightest. Even if the final moments are slightly anti-climactic, a wholly unexpected last act twist throws the group dynamics into stark relief while reinforcing the core themes it’s been exposing. This is what happens when you’re cut adrift from your social media and the real world erupts. (Microsoft Store; Rakuten TV)
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)
As highly melodramatic as it is stylised, Baz Luhrmann’s Best Picture Oscar nominated biopic of Elvis Presley pretty much follows the adage of going with the myth (or perhaps fairy tale) when it’s better than the facts. As such, much is brushed over or ignored (his affair with Ann-Margret, , his meeting with Nixon demanding action against the lefties, no mention by name of his legendary backing musicians Scotty Moore and DJ Fontana and while there’s the pills but no Fat Elvis cheeseburger binges), while other parts polish the realities (the young Elvis – Chaydon Jay- may indeed have had his R&B education by hearing Big Boy Crudup singing That’s Alright Mama in a juke joint or gospel by sneaking into a revival meeting, but, despite what the film shows, he and B.B. King weren’t best buddies who hung out together on Beale Street, though they were famously photographed together). Ultimately though, while overlong, this is a solid if flashy portrait of how he became the best-selling solo music artist and a legend whose influence continues to this day set against his relationship with his manipulative svengali manager Col. Tom Parker whose contract stipulated 50% of all earnings, eventually, after Presley’s death, being charged with financial abuse.
Parker, an illegal Dutch immigrant named Andreas Cornelis van Kuijk who claimed to be American and earned the honorary title of Colonel after assisting Jimmie Davis’s campaign to become Governor of Louisiana, was a carnival snake oil showman – or snowman – who got into the music business managing Hank Snow before ‘discovering’ Presley after hearing his Sun recording of That’s Alright Mama and seeing dollar signs to learn that the singer was white not black and seeing how his gyrations exploded sexual frenzy in his teenage girl audience (“She’s having feelings she wasn’t sure she should enjoy”, Parker notes). He’s played here under heavy jowelled prosthetics by Tom Hanks with an accent that sounds nothing like Parker but does, appropriately enough, conjure up the rasp of the serpent from Eden (though the visual suggestions he was Jewish are unfounded) while opposite him Austin Butler delivers a star-making Oscar nominated and surprise BAFTA winning turn in the title role, capturing his passions, his insecurities, vulnerability and trusting innocence, his voice a close approximation of Presley and looking spookily like him in the iconic poses, although more often he resembles a young John Travolta with the same electrifying charisma.
Although (unreliably) narrated with a running commentary by Hanks as the ailing Parker after Presley’s death, justifying his role and rejecting accusations that he exploited him and essentially caused his death, the screenplay, clearly makes him out to be the villain of the piece, using his flimflam skills, promises of wealth and fame and, ultimately, emotional and financial blackmail, to maintain his control of Elvis even when he was briefly fired in order to secure the money to feed his gambling habit (he negotiated Presley’s five year cash cow deal to be perform at the International in Vegas in return for having his debts cancelled, a point hammered home with the ‘caught in a trap’ line from Suspicious Minds) while his not having a passport being the reason he scuppered any plans for Presley’s international tours. In his commentary, Parker rejects being responsible for the star’s death, going to far as blaming the fans and their obsessive desire to see him keep performing.
As usual for Luhrmann, its delivered in a dizzying rush of over-saturated colour, dissolves, chronological acrobatics and even animation (though the decision to include contemporary hop on the soundtrack is a major misfire). It touches – albeit not in any great depth – on the contentious issue of whites appropriating black music (Presley’s frequently shown in the company of Black performers like King (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), Little Richard and Sister Rosetta Tharpe, clearly a fan of their music, alongside segregation (childhood poverty meant his family had to live in neighbourhoods meant only for people of colour) and the impact on him of Martin Luther King’s assassination. Ticking the biographical boxes of his army service (apparently engineered by Parker to avoid him being jailed for degeneracy), the inane conveyor belt movies, his devotion to his mother Gladys (Helen Thomson), his inept business manager father Vernon (Richard Roxburgh), his marriage to (and eventual divorce from) Priscilla (Olivia DeJonge), and, of course, Gracelands.
A stand out section is the 1968 Elvis comeback special, intended by Parker (to please the sponsors) to be a cosy Christmas special with seasonal sweaters and fireside, but which Presley, in cohorts with director Steve Binder (Dacre Montgomery), turned into his rock n roll resurrection in black leathers and ending, following Bobby Kennedy’s shooting, with his stark performance of If I Can Dream. Likewise the recreation of the lavish Vegas performances, though perhaps not as dramatically effective as the scenes of the young Elvis discovering the sexual magnetism in his swivelling hips.
Musically leaving the building ending with Elvis singing Unchained Melody in his final Vegas season before the end captions wrap up his death and Parker’s comeuppance, while superior to Bohemian Rhapsody (though Butler’s an Oscar contender) and ultimately coming in second place to Rocketman, this is Luhrmann’s best since Moulin Rouge. (Amazon Prime;Vue)
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 (his 16th Oscar nomination) , 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. (Electric)
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)
Putting the donkey into Don Quixote, Polish director Jerzy Skolimowski is in playful yet serious mood with the beguiling tale of the titular donkey, pronounced as in Eeyore, a sort of Pilgrim’s Prograss that casts an eye of the relationship between humanity and animals. The film initially suggests horror with its red strobe effects of a woman reviving a dead donkey until the camera reveals this is part of a circus act between Eo and his dancer owner Kasandra (Sandra Drzymalska). However, almost immediately, protests and changes in the law regarding the use of animals in such contexts means Eo’s carted off on a journey that will variously take him to a donkey sanctuary, an elite stable, a Sunday league match, and then out into wilds of modern-day Poland, during which, varying between kindness and cruelty, he will encounter fur farmers, football hooligans, pompous and caring children as well as a brief reunion with Kasandra.
At one point he wanders through a forest as the camera captures images of wolves, spiders spinning webs and frogs in pools and Jewish Holocaust graves, at others Eo he has a vision of a futuristic robotic donkey scrambling in the mud while, towards the end, there’s a somewhat random sequence involving Isabelle Huppert as an Italian countess berating her deadbeat stepson before the two come together in a semi-incestuous embrace.
Told entirely from the donkey’s perspective and exploring the nature of power and ownership, it’s clearly inspired by Robert Bresson’s 1966 Au Hasard Balthazar, a Christian allegory, which also detailed a donkey passing through various owners, both films ending with a scene involving sheep, though here without the tragedy. There are dark moments, but also images of disarming beauty such as Eo wearing a necklace of carrots that will make you want to rush out to the nearest donkey sanctuary. (MAC)
Everything Everywhere All At Once (15)
Festooned with multiple Oscar nominations, Best Picture, Actress and Supporting Actor/Actress among them, if Doctor Strange’s trip through the multiverse had you head spinning, this will likely cause your brain to explode. Directed by Daniels (Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert), it stars Michelle Yeoh in career-best form as Evelyn, a Chinese-American for whom life has been one long line of disappointments after leaving home and being disowned by her disapproving father to marry the enthusiastic but hapless Waymond (a quietly heartbreaking Ke Huy Quan from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom), the couple now running a California laundromat that’s seen better days. Although she doesn’t know it, he has drawn up divorce papers in the hope it will shock her into saving the marriage, she has a sulky teenage daughter, ironically named Joy (Stephanie Hsu, outstanding), with whom she seems to be constantly at loggerheads (currently because mom won’t acknowledge Becky as her white gay girlfriend), her aged, ailing and demanding father, Gong Gong (James Hong) has come to live with them and, right now, they’re being audited by the IRS in the form of frumpy Deirdre Beaubeirdra (Jamie Lee Curtis in knowing form) who wears her despondency like a crown of thorns.
However, all this is about to be thrown into a whirlpool as, riding the elevator, Waymond suddenly snaps into a different person, Alpha Waymond and tells her he’s come from another reality, the Alphaverse, in search of her because an entity called Jobu Tupaki (formerly Alpha Joy), can experience all universes at once and is threatening to destroy them all with her black hole bagel having decided that oblivion is better than living unhappily.
In his universe, the late Alpha Evelyn developed “verse-jumping”, a technology that allows people to access the skills, memories, and body of their multiverse counterparts, and now he needs this Evelyn to save everyone. Not because she’s The One but because she’s the Zero, the joyless sum of unrealised potential and missed opportunities having failed at everything in her life.
And so the film plunges into a dizzying absurdist fever dream as her Waymond and the Alpha Raymond switch consciousnesses, the latter taking on a bunch of IRS security guards with a fanny pack, while the confused Evelyn gets flashes of the many different lives she could have led, each one and each reality the result of a decision taken or not. These include her as a Peking singer, someone spinning a pizza advertising sign, a teppanyaki chef, an actress (the film features footage from Yeoh’s promotional tour for Crazy Rich Asians), a piñata and, most of all, a martial arts expert, that skill proving very useful in talking on a possessed Deirdre as well as all the jumpers summoned by Alpha Gong Gong to destroy both Jobu Tobaki and Evelyn, who’s decided she must gain the same powers as her in order to stop her.
Like an ADHD rollercoaster on amphetamines, over its part subtitled three chapters it careens through dozens of realities, including one where they’re cartoon drawings, one where people have hot dog sausages for fingers (and Evelyn and Deirdre are lovers), and an unexpectedly moving one where she and Joy are (subtitled) rocks on a world devoid of life that brilliantly captures the dynamic of the mother daughter relationship where one reaches out and the other pulls away.
Likewise, it romps between pathos (film star Evelyn and businessman Waymond’s star-crossed lovers) to moments of low brow humour such as Joy’s taking out security guards with phallic rubber dildos and a battle in which Evelyn takes on two opponents who have butt plugs up their arses as jumping platforms. It’s also peppered with filmic references, among them 2001 A Space Odyssey, The Matrix, In The Mood For Love, any number of Chinese kung fu movies and, hilariously, Ratatouille where, in chef Evelyn’s reality, it’s Raccacoonie (voiced by Randy Newman), At its heart though, for all the silliness, action sequences (one of which involves a woman using a dog on a leash as a projectile) and universe jumping, while tapping in to 21st century anxieties the film ultimately comes down to an emotional tale about unconditional love, kindness, family and mothers and daughters, about not wanting the one to become like the other, but having the opposite effect by repeating the past, thinking they know what’s best and, basically, not listening. While arguably too indulgent for its own good, even if the two plus hours (complete with faux credits midway) flash past, it’s unquestionably an experience like nothing you’ll have had this side of the wildest hallucinogenics you can imagine.(Sat/Tue: Vue)
Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery (12A)
Having done blockbuster style business on its brief cinema release, Rian Johnson’s second Agatha Christie/Sherlock Holmes –inspired whodunit now resides at Netflix, returning Daniel Craig as the intriguingly accented Southern dandy super-sleuth Benoit Blanc (and with a surprise star cameo indicating his sexual orientation) as he embarks on another convoluted case.
The Disruptors, a tight knit inner circle who go back to college days when they committed to disrupting the status quo, have all received a complex puzzle invitation for an annual get together with Elon Musk-esque billionaire mutual friend Miles Bron (Edward Norton), the CEO of high tech online network Alpha who styles himself as some utopian hippy, on his private Greek island (dominated by the titular architectural showpiece and adorned with masterpieces that may include the actual Mona Lisa) for a murder mystery weekend, the murder they have to solve being his.
The clique includes Birdie (Kate Hudson), an airhead fashion model turned influencer prone to unwitting racist tweets and forced to take responsibility for a sweatshop that manufactures her line, her assistant Peg (Jessica Henwick), compromised Connecticut governor Claire (Kathryn Hahn) whose campaign is being underwritten by Bron, obnoxious machismo-overdrive right-wing men’s-rights YouTuber Duke Cody (Dave Bautista) and his barely-dressed young girlfriend Whiskey (Madelyn Cline) who he’s suing to seduce Bron into giving him a slot on Alpha News, put-upon corporate scientist Lionel (Leslie Odom Jr) constantly subjected to a barrage of faxed demands from Bron, and, surprisingly, Bron’s ostracised by everyone former business partner Cassandra Brand (Janelle Monáe), who had the original idea for Alpha but got shafted by Bron having refused his plan for Klear, a potentially dangerous hydrogen-based alternative fuel source. More surprisingly, given he has no connection to any of them and Bron didn’t invite him, is the inclusion of Blanc with his natty cravat and one piece swimsuit. For some reason, the island is also home to resident slacker Derol (Noah Segan, in a sly nod to the previous film).
It’s impossible to reveal much without ruining the intricately constructed narrative with its misdirections, twists and turns, flashbacks, reversals and reveals as events play out to the island’s minimalist high tech backdrop with its passive-aggressive anti-smoking alarms, but suffice to say, there’s a definite agenda to the gathering, and one or possibly two actual murders (Blanc solves Bron’s game version almost as soon as he arrives) as Blanc and Brand work together to get to the bottom of Bron’s machinations and unpeel the onion’s multiple layers.
The message that extreme wealth corrupts is fairly obvious but is generally secondary to the enjoyment of watching Blanc unpick the threads to a backdrop of dazzling costume design and cinematography, Craig clearly having a huge amount of fun while performances by Monáe, Norton, Bautista and especially a wildly amusing Hudson are all an utter delight. Not to mention an array of cameos that include Ethan Hawke, Hugh Grant, Stephen Sondheim, Angela Lansbury, Natasha Lyonne, Yo-Yo Ma, Serena Williams and even Joseph Gordon-Levitt as the voice of Bron’s clock, the Hourly Dong. (Netflix)
Good Luck To You, Leo Grande (15)
Directed by Sophie Hyde and written by Katy Brand, this is a two-hander that plays very much like a stage play of three acts and an epilogue and is structured entirely around the conversations between its two characters. These are Leo Grande (Daryl McCormack), a good-looking, well-toned young Irish Black man who runs a business service as a sex-worker, and his client, Nancy Stokes (Emma Thompson), a recently widowed fiftyish ex-teacher, who has booked a plush hotel room to have sex. Naturally, neither are using their real names. He’s smooth, polite, articulate, non-judgemental and well-versed in how to interact with people, she’s insecure and nervous, confessing that she’s never had – and thinks herself unable to have – an orgasm and only ever had sex with her late husband. He experienced, she far from it, the first session is mostly a cat and mouse game about the two getting to know each other, he trying to calm her anxieties, she finding reasons not to go through with what she’s hired him for.
It’s funny but also piercingly sad as she gradually opens up about her disappointments, the stagnation of her marriage, her husband’s unchanging and brief sex routines, her feelings about her son and daughter and her general view of herself as a failure. It ends with them finally concluding the deal. At the next session, she’s seemingly more confident, having drawn up a fuck-it list of what she wants, staring with oral sex. However, she continues to prevaricate while, over the course of this and the third session, the focus shifts more to Leo, who she presses on his life outside work, his relationship with his mother and sibling, something he’s reluctant to discuss as we come to realise that behind his self-assured persona, his life too his engrained with disappointments, hurt and insecurity (he’s seen checking himself out in the mirror on several occasions, and not for vanity).
It eventually comes to a head where, not understanding how boundaries work, she confronts him with his real name and we learn the heartbreaking reality of his background before he storms out. The epilogue is a final meeting, the relationship between them somehow changed, and introduces a third character, a hotel waitress that Nancy (who reveals her real name in a wry filmic in-joke) used to teach.
Slowly learning more about Leo and Nancy’s inner worlds and emotional scars is part and parcel of what makes this such a terrific work and to give away more would ruin the pleasures and poignancy of the screenplay and the performances with their tremendous chemistry. Suffice to say, embracing shame, frustration, body image, the nature of sex workers, parent-child conflicts, desire, and sexual healing/therapy, it’s a wonderfully compassionate and very human work. McCormack, previously seen in Peaky Blinders delivers a magnetic star-making turn that conveys depth and complexity in the most simple of physical gestures while, in her first nude scene, Thompson, bristling with nervous energy and navigating a lifetime marked by lack of self-worth, guilt, unhappiness and disappointment, gives a luminous, multi-faceted performance that is unquestionably the finest of a stellar career. From foreplay to climax, this will leave you with a glow of satisfaction. (Rakuten TV)
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)
Knock At The Cabin (15)
Like the ultimately ludicrous Old, this isn’t an original screenplay, but rather M Night Shyamalan’s adaptation from Paul G. Tremblay’s apocalyptic horror Cabin At The End Of The World, for the most part faithful to the novel. Unlike most of the director’s films, there’s no big twist at the end, although it is different from the book and doesn’t leave audiences on a child death bummer. It’s also laborious and frankly underwhelming with performances that are both dialled up and wooden at the same time.
Gay (but frankly sexless) dads Eric (Jonathan Groff) and Andrew (Ben Aldridge) are vacationing at remote lakeside cabin with their adopted seven year-old daughter Wen (Kristen Cui), who’s out collecting grasshoppers when a heavily tattooed bulky stranger appears from the woods who says his name is Leonard (Dave Bautista) and that his heart’s broken because of what he has to do. When three others join him, Wen runs inside and gets her dads to lock the door and windows. Leonard does indeed knock on the door, saying he something important to talk about but they refuse to let him so. So, he and the others, armed with makeshift weapons, break in and tie them up, Andrew sustaining concussion in the process. They then proceed and announce themselves as Sabrina (Nikki Amuka-Bird), a nurse, Adriane (Abby Quinn), a single mother short order cook, Redmond (Rupert Grint), a gas station worker, and, of course Leonard who turns out to be a second-grade teacher. He tells his captives that they’re there to prevent the end of the world foreseen in the shared visions that drew them together, but the only way that can be done is if one of the two men (Wen isn’t given the option) allows the other voluntarily to kill him.
Naturally, they reckon they’re variously victims of group psychosis, nutters, conspiracy theorists or whatever, and declare they wouldn’t make the choice demanded even if, as Leonard claims, it cost the lives of billions. Anyway, it’s all hokum, after all. But then, Redmond calmly kneels down, puts on a white hood and allows himself to be killed by the others (Grint mercifully spared further involvement in the cobbled together plot), thereby, as Leonard explains, unleashing the first of four plagues, turning on the TV to reveals news footage of devastating tsunamis (though you might question how footage of the wave was filmed given it drowned everyone on the beach).
Even so, Andrew, a human rights lawyer, remains unconvinced, Eric less so saying he saw a figure of light before Redmond died. And so it goes, with an escape attempt and the other home invaders all coming to a bloody end, each death resulting in another disaster, a child-killer virus, planes falling from the skies and, finally, the big doomsday leaving the couple with just a few minutes to decide what to do. As such, Shyamalan does create a growing tension, but that’s frequently dissipated by flashbacks to how the two men got together, faced parental prejudice, adopted Wen and how Andrew was attacked by a redneck homophobe (Redmond, as it happens) in a bar leaving him needing therapy.
Towards the end, Eric becomes convinced that they’re seeing is real and that the intruders are nothing less than the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, though audiences with even half a brain will have sussed that long before, which doesn’t leave it with anywhere to do than a half-hearted Killing Of A Sacred Deer knock-off parable about love and sacrifice (and gay parenting), devoid of any moral dimension and creaking under poor effects, unconvincing sets and erratic acting as it splutters to a sun coming up finale. Not as terrible as Lady in The Water or The Happening, but after his recent return to form, a big disappointment all the same. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC; Empire Great Park; Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Vue)
Magic Mike’s Last Dance (15)
Having given up life as a stripper and his business having gone bust (alluded to in a pointless laptop conversation), pushing 40 Mike Lane (Channing Tatum, who still has the moves) is making ends meet as a Miami bartender when, at a private function, the host, the incredibly wealthy Max (Salma Hayek Pinault), who’s in the throes of divorce, offers him $6000 for one final private lap dance, one which, rather inevitably, ends up in bed. She then announces she’ll pay him $60,000 to comer with her to London for an undisclosed job. It turns out she wants him to direct and choreograph (he insists he won’t dance) a revamped take on Isabel Ascendant, the successful Noel Coward redux play currently running at The Rattigan. The idea is to give it a contemporary dance male stripper makeover as a female empowerment fuck you to her media mogul ex, Roger Rattigan (Alan Cox), in the very theatre used to own but which is now hers. They just have a month to assemble the dancers and put it on. Naturally a series of obstacles present themselves along with the simmering romantic interest.
Again directed by Steven Soderbergh and taking inspiration from the Magic Mike Live stage production, it starts steamily enough with Mike erotic seduction of Max(andra) and ends with an extended series of gymnastic routines from the well-ripped but utterly anonymous dancers and songs and sub-Cabaret banter from the leading lady (Juliette Motamed) in the let’s do the show right here tradition, revelling in a crotch-thrusting, Max’s poker-face Butler (Ayub Khan Din)holding his hand over the eyes of her adopted teenage daughter Zadie (Jemelia George) and removing her from the theatre during the more explicit pelvic sequences, a rather contrived attempt at humour given how worldly-wise she is.
The laborious section in-between, however, is far less exciting, lacking the lightness and energy of the previous two films, as it fumbles with themes of growing older, toxic controlling masculinity and female self-expression, saddled with some flat and wooden dialogue and an expository voiceover narrative from George philosophising on the nature of dance that kills any flickering spark that might remain. In the other films, Mike was a bit dim but engaging, here he comes over like a complete imbecile, tagging blindly along behind Max and generally standing about looking confused. All this and some tagged on clunkily amateurish comic scenes like a shopping trip to Liberty’s and a dance routine on a bus to win over the spinsterly bureaucrat who’s closing down the production. And guess what, Mike still has one more dance in him, a sloshing in the rain number that plays like a rip-off from the water scene in Flashdance. Magic it’s not. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Vue)
Marcel The Shell With Shoes On (PG)
Starting life as a series of stop-motion YouTube shorts, created (when they were married) by Jenny Slate (who also voiced) and Dean Fleischer Camp, Marcel was a talking periwinkle shell with one eye and, well, shoes (made from human nails, apparently). Having become an online sensation, co-written by Slate and Camp, who also directed, he now gets a full length feature and it’s one of the oddest and sweetest things you’ll see this year. A mix of animation and live action, it adopts a mockumentary format in which the recently divorced Dean (rarely seen in full figure) moves into an Airbnb, discovers Marcel (Slate) living with his dementia afflicted grandmother, Nana Connie (Isabella Rossellini), who’s “lost a small piece of a large puzzle”, and Alan, his ball of pet lint and decides to film his everyday activities. These include using a spoon as a catapult to launch him up to the shelf where he has his store of treasures and foraging for food to sustain himself and Connie, who likes to tend her garden befriended by the local insects. When Dean uploads his first video it goes viral, but, while flattered Marcel is sad that his family are not there to share it, having all been carted off from their sock drawer hideaway when the apartment’s previous couple, Mark and Larissa (Thomas Mann, Rosa Salazar), split up. Dean posts a livestream asking for help in finding them but, while he now has thousands of fans, none seem interested in helping and he’s concerned the constant attention on the house and people wanting selfies will worsen Connie’s health. Dean drives him around LA. looking for Mark’s car with Marcel a shell-out-of-water amazed at just how big the world is, but with no luck, However, the story captures the interest of 60 Minutes, of which both Marcel and his gran, who now has had an accident and cracked her shell are fans, and the programme makes contact asking if they can film him being interviewed by Lesley Stahl (playing herself) and, while he’s reluctant about having a production crew around impact on Connie, as an incentive, they offer to try and track down his family. The selfless Connie pretends she’s getting better, but during the filming she passes away.
As such, the film has much to say about family, compassion, connection, separation, the environment, loss and grief as well as the pitfalls of internet fame, any potential whimsy overkill tempered by the deep humanity its explores, and wry observations like people signing their letters ‘peace’. Wisely it never attempts to explain Marcel, content to show such little as his raising beanbag chair, Dorito hang glider, climbing walls using sticky honey, rolling round in the hollow tennis ball he uses as a vehicle and the double bread where he sleeps. Pet rocks may be about to make a revival. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC; Empire Great Park; Mockingbird; Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; 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 NEC; 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 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)
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. (Amazon Prime; Rakuten TV)
Feeling like something even Liam Neeson might have passed on as being too generic, nonetheless, ably assisted by Gerard Butler doing his best action man by circumstances, director Jean-François Richet has delivered a popcorn movie par excellence, one where the action, while generally predictable (though it must be said no one would see the climactic sequence coming), consistently distracts you from the implausibility, plot holes and clunky dialogue.
Butler plays Brodie Torrance, a Singapore-based widowed passenger airline pilot (he’s had all the shit jobs after punching out a disruptive passenger) who’s about to undertake a (curiously undersubscribed) New Year’s Eve flight to Tokyo before reuniting with the daughter he’s not seen in ages. However, mid-flight, thanks to a pencil pusher looking to cut corners, they find themselves in the middle of a lightning storm which takes out all the electrical system forcing him to make a crash landing on one of the Jolo islands in the Philippines. Everyone’s saved, except that is for the lawman who ignored the stay in your seatbelts message and a stewardess whose name you’ll have forgotten already who tried to stop him. Unfortunately, it turns out that the island they’re on is home to a small army of ruthless separatists and the army won’t even dream of setting foot there. So, rescue’s not coming anytime soon. Therefore, having spotted buildings as he landed, Brodie sets off to try and try and find a way to get in touch with base. Fortunate then that he can take with him Louis Gaspare (Mike Colter), the ex-military killer (wrong place, wrong time 16 years earlier and no one wanted to listen) the dead lawman was escorting.
Naturally, while they’re trying to patch through a rigged up radio to the airline, speaking to an operator who thinks it’s a prank call and having a run-in with a bunch of bad guys, the group’s leader (Evan Dane Taylor) and his men turn up at the plane and, after killing a couple of the stereotyped passengers, take the others, the co-pilot Samuel (Yoson An) and the (teased but never explored romantic interest) chief stewardess Bonnie (Daniella Pineda) for ransom. Given the obvious fate of other hostages, Brodie now resolves to rescue his crew and charges, leaving a note as to where they’re going. Meanwhile back in New York, having located the plane, the airline boss (Tony Goldwyn) has arranged for a bunch of ex-special forces mercenaries (headed by Remi Adeleke) to fly in and get them out of there.
Butler knows his strengths and gets the job done without any unnecessary hand-wringing while Richet stages the plane turbulence, landing and action set pieces with an effectiveness that rises above the inherent ludicrousness of the whole set-up, before ending with what is essentially a plane crash in reverse. Nonsense, but terrifically fun nonsense all the same. (Cineworld NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Vue)
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)
Puss In Boots: The Last Wish (PG)
Last seen 12 years ago, while the first solo outing by the dashing feline adventurer was set before Shrek 2, this takes place after Shrek Forever, opening with Puss (voiced as ever in exuberant style by Antonio Banderas), still a fugitive from the law, hosting party at the absent governor’s house in Del Mar, accidentally awaking a sleeping giant in the process. Much swordplay and acrobatics later, he saves the town only to be crushed by a giant bell. On awakening, he’s informed by the doctor that he’s now used up eight of his nine lives and that the next time he dies it’ll be for good. He suggests Puss retire, which, as a legend, is something he naturally refuse to do. Until that is he meets a black-hooded wolf (Wagner Moura) in a bar who both disarms and wounds him. Now, feeling fear for the first time, he feels to a cat sanctuary run by Mama Luna 9Da’Vine Joy Randolph), burying his hat, cape and boots in ‘his’ grave.
Initially too proud to chow down with the other non-talking moggies, as the days pass he slowly gives in, becoming a broken, long-bearded shadow of his former self rechristened Pickles. Until that is the Goldilocks (Florence Pugh) and the Three Bears (Olivia Colman, Ray Winstone, Samson Kayo) Cockney crime family crash the joint, looking to claim the reward for his capture and he overhears them mention they’re looking for a map that will lead them to the wishing star, which will grant them a single wish. And so, joined by a scruffy stray Chihuahua (a marvellous Harvey Guillén) in a sock sweater who has disguised himself as a cat to find someone to care for him and has appointed himself Puss’s new sidekick, he recovers his signature clothing and sets off to steal the map and wish for his lives back, which, as it turns out, is being delivered by two thieving sisters to the not so little Jack Horner (John Mulaney), a corrupt baker of thumb and plum renown, who wants to add it to his collection (sly nods to Cinderella, Aladdin and other fairy tales) and wish to control all the magic in the world.
To Puss’s surprise, however, he’s not the only one who’s snuck in as he unexpectedly reunited with his ex-fiancee, literal cat burglar Kitty Softpaws (Selma Hayek) who he left standing at the altar. Which, more scuffles later, leaves Puss, Kitty and the dog, now called Perrito seeking to navigate through the ever shifting perils of the Dark Forest to reach the star, pursued by Goldilocks, the bears, Horner and his chef henchmen (with a cricket-like conscience bug tagging long), all with their own wishes, and the red-eyed big bad wolf and his scythes (have you guessed who he is yet?).
Peppered with fairy tale references, including a brief glimpse of the Gingerbread Boy and a quickie flashback of Shrek and Donkey, its positively bursts with eye popping animation and visuals like the crystalline cave in which Puss finds himself trapped with his former lives, while, along with its energetic fun it also has a dark subtext about mortality, arrogance, commitment, family, selflessness and living the life you have. Ending with the crew heading for Far Far Away with a tease of Shrek 5 in the hopefully not too distant future, it most definitely has the meow factor. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Vue)
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. (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)
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 Oscar nominated 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 and Actress Oscars with BAFTA Best Actress Cate Blanchett (playing her own piano) 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. (Electric)
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)
Top Gun: Maverick (12A)
Thirty-six years on since the original took your breath away, Tom Cruise returns to the role that made him a global superstar, the authority-bucking US Navy fighter pilot Pete ‘Maverick’ Mitchell. As directed by Joseph Kosinski, who was only 16 when the original appeared, and scripted by Ehren Kruger, Eric Warren Singer and Christopher McQuarrie, Maverick hasn’t changed a great deal in the interim. He’s relatively more centred, still single, still in top physical shape and still a captain, partly through choice, partly because he runs the top brass up the wrong way. Indeed, he does so right from the start when, learning the supersonic stealth fighter project he’s heading in the Mojave Desert is being shut down by a Rear Admiral dubbed The Drone Ranger (Ed Harris) as it hasn’t reached its Mach 10 target, he duly climbs into the cockpit and pushes it to the limit and beyond before he can be told in person. However, rather than being disciplined, he’s told to report to his old Fighter Weapons School aka Top Gun stomping ground where he learns an unnamed country is developing an unsanctioned uranium enrichment plant and the school’s best pilots are being recruited to carry out a Dam Busters-style mission to destroy it. Initially assuming he’s one of then, he’s informed instead, by Commanding Officer Beau ‘Cyclone’ Simpson (John Hamm), that he’s there to train them and select the best six. And also that (verging on obsolete) he wasn’t Simpson’s first, or any, choice, but is there at the request of his former rival, long-time friend and now Admiral, Iceman (Val Kilmer).
The hot shots candidates are all introduced in a somewhat unnecessarily extended barroom scene, the ones that matter lining up as nerdy Bob (Lewis Pullman), cockily arrogant Hangman (Glen Powell), spunky female pilot Phoenix (Monica Barbaro), Fanboy (Danny Ramirez) and Rooster (Miles Teller), the now grown son of Goose (Anthony Edwards seen in flashbacks), Maverick’s wingman who dies in action and who, along with many others, Pete himself included, blames as him for his father’s death, thus setting up a somewhat predictable arc between the two.
The same scene also introduces bar owner Penny Benjamin (Jennifer Connolly), mentioned but never seen in the original, now given a backstory as Maverick’s former on-off love interest who, now a divorced single mother, re-enters the romantic orbit. Of course, that’s a minor subplot as the film’s main focuses is on Maverick whipping his students into shape so that the chosen ones can fly dangerously low into the mountains under the radar to avoid the anti-aircraft missiles and superior enemy planes, destroy the target and get out again in a race against the clock. So cue all the expected young bucks v old fogey dynamics, pilot rivalries, run ins with Cyclone, and Maverick again bucking orders and pushing himself to breaking point to prove the mission is not impossible, inevitably ending up leading it himself with Rooster as his wingman.
As you’d imagine, right from a recreation of the opening scene (complete with Kenny Loggins’ Danger Zone), there plenty of nods to the original along with such iconic Cruise moments as a front on show of him riding his motorbike (in his original Top Gun jacket) grinning like a Cheshire cat. He’s not above taking the piss out of himself either, retorting ‘it’s the only one I’ve got” when someone comments on giving ‘that look’. While better at the grins and the grit expression that registering deep emotion, nevertheless Cruise has a particular affecting and touching scene in a reunion with Kilmer, his character clearly not long for the world (thereby leaving Maverick without anyone in his corner).
Likewise, while playing down the jingoism element, Kosinksi is at his best when the action is in the air, whether in the simulated dog fights (shot in actual U.S. Navy F/A-18s, for which the cast went through a punishing training process) as Maverick pushes his team or the actual dog fights evading enemy jets in the aftermath of the mission, where old grievances and new enmities are all neatly resolved in big bromantic hugs, even if the original’s homoeroticism is decidedly downplayed here.
Cruise again demonstrates that he’s in a cinema superstar league of his own, an ‘event’ in his own right (as the film says, it all comes down to the pilot in the box), a generous actor but inevitably putting others in the shade simply on account of who he is, though Teller at least gets to remind how good he was in Whiplash and Kosinski’s own firefighter drama Only The Brave. Along with a deft use of 70s hits, music’s provided by Harold Faltermeyer with the big Oscar nominated song coming from Lady Gaga, and while that’s no Take My Breath Away, the film, earning Best Picture nod, 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. (Vue)
The Whale (15)
Misguidedly criticised for supposedly portraying obesity as disgusting and monstrous, as opposed to the visual metaphor and manifestation of the main character’s self-loathing that has driven him to self-destructive gluttony by way of both punishment and escape, this is not only up there alongside director Darren Aronofsky’s earlier Black Swan but, adapted by Samuel D. Hunter from his own award-winning play (shades of Miller and Williams), features a towering comeback performance from Brendan Fraser in a grotesque fat suit who must surely be the frontrunner among the Best Actor Oscar nominations.
Introduced in a scene masturbating to a gay porno that almost cause a heart attack, he’s Charlie, an English professor who gives online lectures to a group of students about being honest in their writings, the camera on his laptop disabled so they only ever see a black square on his laptop (reflecting the film’s claustrophobic ratio, itself a visual metaphor him being trapped in his own body) with the word Instructor.
He’s saved by the random arrival of Thomas (Ty Simpkins), an enthusiastic end times missionary from a local church who he asks to read him a dismissive essay on Moby Dick in which the writer says Melville only wrote about the whale “to save us from his own sad stories, just for a little while”; that calms him down and subsequently proves a pivotal plot device at the end. Thomas believes God brought him to Charlie’s play to save him both literally and spiritually. Charlie’s having none of that. It’s clear from the way he gorges junk food he has no desire to be saved. He’s a Jonah trapped within his own belly of the whale
Set entirely within his messy apartment and unfolding over his last week, Charlie interacts with two other characters. One is Liz (Best Supporting Actress nominee Hong Chau who matches Fraser beat for beat), a sharp-tongued but affectionate nurse frustrated that, dying of congestive heart failure, he won’t go to hospital (he says he can’t afford it), a former member of the same church (run by her father) who duly regards Thomas with undisguised cynicism and also the sister of Charlie’s late boyfriend, for whom he left his wife and who later committed suicide. The other is his wayward teenage daughter, Ellie (Sadie Sink), who he hasn’t seen since he left home when she was eight and understandably harbours massive resentment about that. She wants nothing to do with him, but needs help with her essays to avoid failing school. To which end, he offers to pay her to let him help her, provided she says nothing to her mother (Samantha Morton making a devastating last act appearance) whom, he says, has insisted they have no contact. Desperate to reconnect he can’t help laughing to discover that she’s turned his assignment to express herself honestly into a three line haiku on misanthropy.
Though he declares she’s an amazing person, Ellie is callous and cruel in the way she treats him, and equally combative with Thomas who, it turns out has his own dark secrets and guilt which she seems to be planning to exploit for her own amusement, just as she posted a photo of her father tottering on his swollen legs attempting to walk towards her. And yet the film, through all its characters, is all about humanity; at one point Charlie says that people don’t have the ability to not care. Before he dies, he just wants to believe he’s done something good in his life.
Using every physical tick and facial expression to convey his churning emotions, Fraser is the film’s heart and soul, a pitiful figure who evokes an empathy and sadness that goes beyond mere sympathy and leaves you a blubbering wreck. (Electric; Mockingbird)
The Woman King (15)
The slave trade and the complicity of African tribes within it provides the bedrock for this electrifying epic drama, loosely inspired by historical events, from director Gina Prince-Bythewood, set in 1823 in the West African kingdom of Dahomey, present-day Benin. Here, real life King Ghezo (John Boyega) is protected by the Agojie, an all-woman army, led by the formidable fictional stony-faced Mohawk-cut Nanisca (a magnificent Viola Davis) with the support of the statuesque Amenza (Sheila Atim), a javelin-savvy seer, and the fierce veteran Izogie (Lashana Lynch), first seen emerging from the undergrowth to rescue female captives from the opposing Oyo slavers in the first of several bloody battles. While the Dahomey and Ghezo owe their position and wealth to the slave trade (and continued to do so throughout his reign), Nanisca is of the belief Africans should not be part of making other Africans slaves, proposing they trade palm oil instead, all of which, for both political and economic reasons, leads the egotistical Ghezo to declare war on the Oyo, of which they are a tributary state.
Meanwhile, Izogie is in charge of training the new recruits, among them Nawi, (31-year-old -Thuso Mbedu a believable teenager) who, refusing her father’s various arranged marriages, is offloaded to become one of the virgin warrior Agojie. Strongly self-willed with attitude, arrogance and both a chip and a scar on her shoulder that provide a crucial third act reveal in her relationship with the tough but tender Nanisca, she’s a competitive spirit who bridles at authority and is determined to prove her worth and fighting mettle, especially against friend and equally strong-headed rival Ode (Adrienne Warren).
Meanwhile, European slavers led by Santo Ferreira (Hero Fiennes Tiffin) and accompanied by the half-Dahomean Malik (Jordan Bolger), have formed an alliance with Oyo General Oba Ade (Jimmy Odukoya), with whom Nanisca has history and who is determined to crush the Dahomy. Having struck up a friendship with Malik, Nawi learns of Ade’s plans, setting the stage for another graphically brutal and bloody battle (the cast performing all their own stunts) in which she’s taken prisoner with Izogie. As reward for her victory, Ghezo appoints Nanisca his ruling partner, the Woman King, but refuses to countenance a rescue mission, prompting her to take matters into her own hands.
With a cast composed almost entirely of Black women and a screenplay that gives them real emotional and political depth, exploring themes of trauma, pride, identity, complicity, morality, friendship and heroism, owing not a little to Black Panther (whose Dora Milaje were inspired by the Agojie), it’s big myth making screen entertainment in every respect. (Amazon Prime; Apple TV; Google Play; Rakuten TV)
Women Talking (15)
Pretty much what the title suggests, written and directed by Sarah Polley, set in 2010, this largely involves a group of women in a hayloft talking about what they should do following the fact that a recent arrest has exposed how the menfolk on their heavily religious colony have, over the past two years, systematically drugged them with cow tranquiliser and raped them, waking up in bed to find themselves bleeding, the elders ascribing it to evil spirits. While the men are away arranging bail, as the clocks ticks away, they are faced with deciding whether to leave, remain and fight or do nothing. And if they leave, should they only take the girls because the boys are too old to be redeemed?
Adapted from a novel by Miriam Toews, itself based on a similar real-life case in a Bolivian Mennonite commune, it digs into the mixed emotions of the assembled mothers and daughters and how they are impacted by faith and the patriarchy. To which end, Polley has assembled a stellar cast, among them Jessie Buckley’s Mariche, the mother of a teenage daughter (Kate Hallett, who hangs around watching proceedings with her bored friend) from rape, insists they should stay and fight, Claire Foy’s Salome (who attacked one of the men with a pitchfork), arguing they should leave forthwith, while opposing her, her sister, the pregnant Ona (Rooney Mara), argues they should formulate new rules and that “forgiveness is better than revenge”. It’s a view shared by Frances McDormand as the stern Scarface Janz who insists that if they don’t forgive their abusers, they’ll be denied entrance into Heaven, and walks out of the meeting, taking her uncertain daughter and resistant granddaughter with her. The cast also includes Sheila McCarthy as Mariche’s mother Greta, who tells how her two horses have taught her lessons about going with the flow and forced her daughter to forgive her abusive husband, Michelle McLeod as her other daughter Mejal, a smoker who has panic attacks triggered by her memories of assault, and Judith Ivey as Salome’s authoritative mother, Agata, who just wants calm.
Other than the colony’s boys, Salome’s son Aaron included, there’s just two male roles. August Winter is the transgendered Melvin, formerly Nettie, who became an elective mute after the rape and only talks to the younger children, and Ben Wishaw as August, the shy son from an excommunicated family who has been brought back to teach the boys and who the women get to draw up a list of pros and cons (none of the women have been taught to read or write) as to what they should do. There’s a tentative love story too between him and Ona
Featuring the bizarre inclusion of The Monkees’ Daydream Believer, like Emancipation, it makes effective use of desaturated colours to reflect the changing moods and, while inevitably having a somewhat claustrophobic and stagey feel it effectively assembles its debate without ever ignoring the fact that none of the options are easy, both condemning the gender inequality religion promotes while acknowledging how faith can bring comfort and how hard it can be for victims to walk away from their abusers, an observation that remains depressingly timeless. (MAC; Mockingbird)
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)