This column will review films both screening theatrically and/or on various streaming platforms.
As highly melodramatic as it is stylised, Baz Luhrmann’s biopic of Elvis Presley pretty much follows the adage of going with the myth (or perhaps fairy tale) when it’s better than the facts. As such, much is brushed over or ignored (his affair with Ann-Margret, , his meeting with Nixon demanding action against the lefties, no mention by name of his legendary backing musicians Scotty Moore and DJ Fontana and while there’s the pills but no Fat Elvis cheeseburger binges), while other parts polish the realities (the young Elvis – Chaydon Jay- may indeed have had his R&B education by hearing Big Boy Crudup singing That’s Alright Mama in a juke joint or gospel by sneaking into a revival meeting, but, despite what the film shows, he and B.B. King weren’t best buddies who hung out together on Beale Street, though they were famously photographed together). Ultimately though, while overlong, this is a solid if flashy portrait of how he became the best-selling solo music artist and a legend whose influence continues to this day set against his relationship with his manipulative svengali manager Col. Tom Parker whose contract stipulated 50% of all earnings, eventually, after Presley’s death, being charged with financial abuse.
Parker, an illegal Dutch immigrant named Andreas Cornelis van Kuijk who claimed to be American and earned the honorary title of Colonel after assisting Jimmie Davis’s campaign to become Governor of Louisiana, was a carnival snake oil showman – or snowman – who got into the music business managing Hank Snow before ‘discovering’ Presley after hearing his Sun recording of That’s Alright Mama and seeing dollar signs to learn that the singer was white not black and seeing how his gyrations exploded sexual frenzy in his teenage girl audience (“She’s having feelings she wasn’t sure she should enjoy”, Parker notes). He’s played here under heavy jowelled prosthetics by Tom Hanks with an accent that sounds nothing like Parker but does, appropriately enough, conjure up the rasp of the serpent from Eden (though the visual suggestions he was Jewish are unfounded) while opposite him Austin Butler delivers a star-making 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 and will undoubtedly see Elvis once again back at the top of the album charts. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;Electric; Empire Great Park; Everyman; Mockingbird; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Vue)
The Black Phone (15)
His first role as the bad guy, Ethan Hawke makes a chilling impression as The Grabber (though, to be fair, he’s greatly assisted by some genuinely scary-looking horned masks, one of which has a manic grin and comes in removable sections), who dresses as a black clad magician with chalk white face make-up and drives around in a black van with Abracadabra on the side into which he abducts the town’s adolescent boys, releasing black balloons as a signature. Directed by Scott Derrickson of Sinister (in which Hawke also starred) and Doctor Strange fame, it’s based on a short story by Joe Hill, who has clearly inherited father Stephen King’s ability to chill.
Set in 1978 Colorado, it opens with 13-year-old Finney Shaw (Mason Thames), pitching at the town’ Little League game. Unfortunately, after two strikes, his third pitch costs his team the game,but he’s congratulated by the batter, Bruce (Tristan Pravong). Other than his good arm, Finney’s the school dork, constantly on the end of the bullies’ fists, except for when his new martial arts best friend Billy (Jacob Moran) is around to protect him. Shortly after the game ends, Bruce becomes the fourth kids to go missing. Then Billy. The abductions shot in grainy Super 8.
Finney lives with his protective and wonderfully foul-mouthed younger sister Gwen (Madeleine McGraw), who has psychic powers that manifest through dreams,such as of the abducted children and black balloons,something that grabs the investigating cops’ attention given that they’re not public knowledge. Unfortunately, Finney and Gwen’s father (Jeremy Davies) has become an abusive alcoholic since his wife, who was also so gifted,committed suicide, and, fearing Gwen has inherited that power, takes his belt to her to force her to say they’re just dreams.
Inevitably, Finney becomes the sixth small town kid to go missing, and it’s on his abduction that the film focuses as he awakens to find himself locked in a soundproof basement, scared and not knowing what the Grabber,who says he intends no harm and provides food and drink, wants or why. Other than a mattress, the room also has a disconnected black phone on the scarred and cracked wall, which the Grabber says doesn’t work. Except, when Finney’s alone it starts to ring and eventually he starts to hear the voices of the previous victims, Bruce and Billy among then, warning him and trying to help him escape. Meanwhile, Gwen is having more dreams and cursing Jesus for not helping her find her brother.
To say more about how the plot unfolds would ruin the tension as it builds to a violent climax as Finney finally gets to stand up for himself, the reveal of the location and the introduction of Max (James Ransone), an amateur detective trying to figure out where the Grabber operates from, introducing a note of ironic and grim humour. Where the film elevates itself is by never offering up any simplistic explanations for the killer’ actions or motives, though a warning Finney gets about not being a naughty boy and the shot of Hawke sitting, bare chested, at the top of the stairs waiting to punish Finney does chime with the parental abuse them elsewhere.
Derrickson ratchets up the tension without overplaying the drama (a moment with a combination lock is heartstopping), while, mostly understated in his performance until the final bloody moments, Hawke is terrific in his subtle evocation of horror and the two young leads add extra lustre to the film’s compelling and gripping nature as it builds to wholly satisfying finale that, thankfully, doesn’t tease a sequel. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Vue)
The Adam Project (12)
“The future is coming sooner than you think”, harassed mother Ellie Reed (an underused Jennifer Garner) tells her all-attitude 12-year-old son Adam (Walker Scobell) after he’s suspended following an altercation with the school bully. And indeed it is, but not in quite the way she imagined. His father having died in an accident two years earlier, young Adam has buried his grief in being mouthy and giving his mom a hard time. While she’s out on a date, he investigates a noise in the woods outside their home and, returning to the house, finds the garage open and in it a wounded pilot (Ryan Reynolds) who seems to uncannily know a lot about him, the house and even the name of his dog, Hawking. Not surprisingly really, since he’s actually his future self who, as seen in the opening sequence, has fled from 2050, where’s he’s being chased by another spacecraft, and wound up in 2022, four years on from when he’d intended.
Reuniting Reynolds with Free Guy director Shawn Levy, this has a similar self-aware playful style with Reynolds again doing his snarky, irreverent quick fire patter to hugely entertaining effect, the film cheerfully acknowledging its borrowings from Back To The Future, Star Wars (Adam wields a double-sided light sabre) and Spielberg’s Amblin universe. Older bearded Adam has come from the future in search of his wife Laura (Zoe Saldaña) who, supposedly, was killed trying to return from 2018, something he simply doesn’t buy (rightly so, since she turns up to save him). His other reason for trying to get back to 2018 was to stop his father, Louis (Mark Ruffalo), developing time travel, his creation having been usurped his then partner, Maya Sorian (Catherine Keener), who has used it to take control of the future that, as Adam describes it is like Terminator 2 on a good day, and, it would seem, have Laura killed. So now, older Adam and younger Adam have to join forces (his wound, which farts blood, means he needs his young self’s DNA to unlock his craft) to fight off Sorian’s forces and get back in time to prevent their father’s creation ever taking place. Sorian, meanwhile, links up with her own younger self (who she helped amass a fortune through knowing what investments would pay off), to ensure that doesn’t happen,
This, of course, is just the action-driven plot (sequences set to rock classics like Gimme Some Lovin’, Boston’s Long Time and Led Zeppelin’s Good Times, Bad Times) on which to hang the film’s real narrative about loss, grief, how you handle it and how it can change you, the two Adams, the brain and the brawn, giving each other life-lessons about their father issues and getting in touch or reconnecting with their feelings as the film rolls along, turning its own logic upside down as Louis warns them that meeting themselves (and an eight-year-old Adam makes it all the more complicated) can cause all sort of cosmic chaos.
As such, Scobell and Reynolds have a great time riffing off each other while, when they both get reunited with their befuddled not yet dead dad, the film cranks up the emotional level as everyone gets to confront and put to rights the absent-father syndrome that has shaped their personalities. Short and fluffily slight it may be, but it’s one of the year’s most enjoyable films so far. (Netflix)
The Bad Guys (U)
Essentially Ocean’s Eleven with animals (with an opening scene nodding to Reservoir Dogs), Dreamworks delivers a fun adaptation of the graphic novels involving a gang of bad guys with a difference. They’re headed up by Mr Wolf (Sam Rockwell), the snappily-dressing lupine answer to George Clooney, with Marc Maron as his sarcastic, scaly safe-cracking sidekick BFF Mr Snake in a Hawaiian shirt, snarky ace hacker Ms Tarantula (Awkwafina), also known as Mata Hairy, diminutive hot-blooded muscleman Mr Piranha (Anthony Ramos) and Mr Shark (Craig Robinson) who, incredulously, is a master of disguise (a highlight scene has him posing as a pregnant woman).
Master criminals who effortlessly evade the police, their lair is stuffed with loot (a Mona Lisa here, a priceless diamond there), but Mr Wolf is a little tired of always being seen as well, the big bad wolf. They just need to pull off one last big heist so they can retire from their life of crime. This will be the theft of the Golden Dolphin presented at an annual charity gala for the year’s most outstanding Good Samaritan. However, in the attempt, their luck finally runs out and they’re apprehended, much to the glee of their long time human police chief nemesis Luggins (Alex Borstein). But, unexpectedly, the intended recipient, guinea pig philanthropist Professor Marmalade (Richard Ayoade) suggests that rather than sending them to jail, they under an experimental reform course, a proposal to which the Mayor, Diane Foxington (Zazie Beetz), agrees, offering the crew one last chance to turn over a new leaf. Given he’s already felt the tingle of what being good might be like after helping an old lady rather than stealing her handbag, causing his tail to wag, Mr Wolf is genuinely up for it, his colleagues somewhat less convinced. Under Marmalade’s coaching, the aim is to use their skills for good; however, it soon transpires that not everything or everyone are what or who they seem. Suffice to say, the plot involves kitten rescue missions, another gala heist, the theft of a power source meteor, mind control, the gang falling out, double and triple-crosses, a betrayal, the reveal of a superthief, and thousands of marauding zombie guinea pigs pulling off armoured car robberies as Mr Wolf and his remaining cronies try and stop the mastermind’s diabolical plan. All with an underlying message about not judging a book by its cover, or animals by the bad reputations they’ve been labelled with.
Slickly animated with a strong cartoonish style and written by Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa’s Etan Cohen, there’s plenty of twists and turns in its frenetic pacing and youngsters not paying attention might easily end up confused, but, while it follows a fairly predictable and well-worn path, there’s more than enough slapstick and farting (Mr Piranah emits green gas when he lies) by way of recompense. (Rakuten TV)
The Batman (15)
The second reboot of the character following The Dark Night trilogy (though, strictly speaking, the undeservedly rubbished Ben Afflek never starred in an actual Batman movie), while Matt Reeves’ vision may not quite measure up to Christopher Nolan’s, it is by far the darkest, both thematically and visually ( cinematographer Greig Fraser pretty much shoots every scene at night and even the daylight is wan), not only with a Chinatown-like depiction of Gotham riddled with corruption up the highest levels but also a shocking revisionist take on Thomas and Martha Wayne.
Transforming from vampire to a bat, you hear Robert Pattinson’s vigilante before you see him, both in voiceover as he talks about being the shadows in which fear lurks and in the metallic, crunching sound of his boots and armour as he emerges to take out a gang of street hoodlums. Relegating the origin story to some brief exposition, sporting a distinctive floppy hair style Pattinson’s emotionally complex, self-destructive emo Bruce Wayne is a more troubled and traumatised soul (both physically and psychologically scarred) than even Christian Bale’s, rarely seen in public and consumed with an obsession to rid Gotham of crime, despite acknowledging it to be an almost impossible task and that he might be making no difference. So, by night, he dons the cape, suit (arguably the most impressive to date) and black eye shadows (with contact lenses that work as video cameras) and prowls the city like someone in a film noir of his own mind. When asked who he is (though he’s been doing his vigilante thing for two years by now), he declares himself as Vengeance, but there’s someone out there who gives the word a whole new level, first taking out incumbent mayor (Rupert Penry-Jones) by bashing in his skull, and leaving the cryptic message No More Lies on his bloodied face and a card and a cipher addressed to The Batman. Yes, clearly echoing Se7en and Zodiac, it’s The Riddler (Paul Dano as unsettlingly deranged as in There Will Be Blood), but, until the finale, only ever seen via his video messages, speaking in distorted tones from behind a gimp-like combat mask (which, somewhat unfortunately recalls Bane) who has set himself the task of killing the high ranking corrupt officials (including Peter Sarsgaard’s DA) who are all linked in one way another to the bust of a notorious drugs baron and/or Gotham crimelord Carmine Falcone (John Turturro), for whom Oz aka The Penguin (an unrecognisable Colin Farrell) works, running a dodgy nightclub within a nightclub and running street drugs called drops. And so, enter catloving cat burglar Selina Kyle (Zoe Kravitz, uncannily recalling previous Catwoman Halle Berry) in her black leather outfit and mask who has her own vengeful crusade against Falcone and dirty cops following the disappearance of her friend who, like her, worked Penguin’s club. Naturally, at some point cat and bat end up working together, and sparking romantic interest, though their moral compasses tend to point in different directions in how they get to the truth.
Stretching to almost three hours (with overextended endings), tapping into the zeitgeist cynicism about society’s institutions and the political climate, and punctuated with some decidedly brutal violence (hence the certificate), Reeves turns the notion of the superheroes’ mask upside down, in that the characters here wear them not to hide who they are but because the person behind the mask is their true self, just as the Wayne’s impenetrable armour serve as a metaphor for his emotions.
Save for an amusing line where someone asks “do you live in a cave?” there’s no humour here (though those who sit through the credits for the bonus scene will feel sucker punched) as, to a soundtrack variously taking in Nirvana, tribal drums and Ave Maria, the electrifying intensity builds to its almost operatic apocalyptic climax, taking in an epic car chase with the new Batmobile along the way (though he mostly rides his motorbike), the support cast featuring a strong contribution from Jeffrey Wright as Jim Gordon and a rather less memorable one by Andy Serkis as Alfred with a final Arkham Asylum cameo by Barry Keoghan as a laughing inmate setting up things for the sequel. Overlong but unrelentingly thrilling, Batman begins again. (Rakuten TV)
The Bubble (15)
Directed and co-written by Judd Apatow, this was inspired by the controversy when, well before there was a vaccine and Covid protocols were being strictly enforced, Pinewood Studios resumed production on the new Jurassic Park, raising concern about endangering the cast and crew simply because of the huge budget at risk.
In Apatow’s witty parody, the “23rd biggest action franchise of all time”, is preparing to shoot Cliff Beasts 6, the cast assembling for three months at a luxury London hotel (Vir Das playing the owner)_to shoot against green screen sets, the film seeing the return of Carol Cobb (Karen Gillan) who bailed on the previous sequel, much to the annoyance of her co-stars, most especially Lauren Van Chance (Leslie Mann) to make the universally panned Jerusalem Rising where she played a half-Palestinian and half-Israeli bringing both sides together to fight aliens to withering reviews (as her agent remarks, they always blame the cast – “Judi Dench fucked Cats”). Returning to the franchise offers a chance to salvage her career, but it’s not going to be an easy ride.
Overseeing production, and taking remote orders from the studio boss (Kate McKinnon) via video calls while she’s off skiing or on safari, is Gavin (Peter Serafinowicz) who first job is to inform the cast they have to spend 14 days in quarantine under the watchful eye of his health & safety team (Samson Kayo, Harry Trevaldwyn). Returning alongside Cobb and Van Chance are the latter’s ex-husband Dustin Mulray (David Duchovny), the self-proclaimed franchise guardian with whom she has a volatile on/off relationship (as well as a sociopathic adopted son), action guy Sean Knox (Keegan-Michael Key) who’s started his own Ignite Harmony wellness brand and prima donna comic relief Howie Frangopolous (Guz Khan). New additions are annoying obsessive method actor Dieter Bravo (Pedro Pascal) who just wants to bed the receptionist (Maria Bakalova) and Krystal Kris (Iris Apatow) a snarky young Tik Tok influencer who’s never acted, refuses to talk to the cameras without her mom present and has a wonderfully ridiculous scene teaching a baby dino dance moves. Positioning herself as her new best friend is Carla (Galen Hopper) the sullen daughter of the stunt coordinator (a cameo by John Cena). The film’s to be directed by the enthusiastic but incompetent Darren Eigan (Fred Armisen), fresh off his surprise Sundance winning film about working at Home Depot shot on his phone, and who is constantly plagued by Dustin with his environmental issues rewrites, while Ben Ashenden and Alexander Owen play the droll MoCap dinosaur doubles
Basically, whatever can go wrong does. Sickness requires further quarantine, Carol’s boyfriend dumps her and she’s bedded by a football player staying at the hotel, Howie goes stir crazy, does a bunk and is graphically written out, Krystal has a social media catastrophe, the new security team run by the mysterious Mr Best (Ross Lee) shoots off one the cast’s fingers, one of them has a drugs seizure and it turns out one of the team is a studio mole. All of this is played wonderfully deadpan and served up in frequently hilarious manner, taking swipes at the movie making process, self-absorbed actors and studio profit-driven politics along the way before a wry twist ending, the film bursting with celebrity cameos that include John Lithgow as the studio chairman, Daisy Ridley as an exercise video AI who has sex with Dieter and Beck, James McAvoy and Benedict Cumberbatch as themselves. Messy it may be, but it’s also very funny. (Netflix)
C’mon, C’mon (15)
Shot in monochrome, director Mike Mills offers up a sublime, beguiling, naturalistic meditation on the adult/child relationship and what makes us human. In the middle of making a radio documentary interviewing children for vox pops on what they want/hope for the future, Johnny (Joaquin Phoenix) makes an impromptu call to his estranged sister Viv (a quietly impressive Gaby Hoffman), who he’s not seen in since the death of their mother from dementia death and offers to babysit her mentally hyperactive young son while she flies from Los Angeles to look after her mentally ill classical musician ex-husband (Scoot McNairy) in Oakland. What was supposed to be a few days, turns into a few weeks.
Johnny’s nephew, Jesse (a wonderful Woody Norman) is a troubled – most likely autistic – but deeply intelligent and sensitive nine-year old who likes to play fantasy games in which he’s an orphan, and, when Johnny has to take him on a road trip to New York, Detroit and New Orleans along with his colleague Roxanne (Molly Webster) and child-minder au pair Fernando (Jaboukie Young-White) as he records his interviews (with real kids giving their real views), the initially prickly relationship gradually develops into a real and deep bond, Jesse’s insights (and his experience of navigating a dysfunctional, unstable family) cutting through the emotional blocks his uncle has erected since the break-up of his relationship.
Set to a soundtrack by The National’s Aaron and Bryce Dessner, the interview segments with the kids offering their observations on what the world needs and how it is give it a quasi-documentary feel while the developing relationship between Johnny and Jesse (and the chemistry between the two actors) as the former transitions to an unexpected role of caretaker and surrogate parent glows with a deeply affecting warmth and melancholic ache as, at one point, the soulfully expressive Phoenix declares “It’s fine, not to be ok!”. A beautifully, subtly acted bittersweet film about the capability of adults to grow and the resilience, hope and wisdom of children. (Rakuten TV)
The title an acronym for “child of deaf adults, the remake of 2014 French dramedy La famille Bélier, about the sole hearing member of a deaf family who discovers she’s a gifted singer walked away with the Best Picture Oscar. Whether it deserved to triumph over Power Of The Dog or Licorice Pizza is open to debate, but, despite a somewhat generic plot that takes in such staple tropes as high school comedy, disability drama, inspiring-teacher, coming-of-age, blue collar America and struggle for independence from family, it’s undeniably a terrific and at times highly moving feelgood work. And, unlike the original, features deaf actors as three of its leads, namely Best Actor winner Troy Kotsur as Frank Rossi, Marlee Matlin (herself an Oscar winner) as his equally cantankerous wife Jackie and Daniel Durant as smartass son Leo who struggle to making a living as fishermen in Gloucester, Massachusetts, in the face of punitive rates for their catch and financially crippling monitoring of their boats. The only hearing member of the family is somewhat shy but well-adjusted teenage daughter Ruby (a luminous Emilia Jones, daughter of Alex), who serves as their ASL interpreter but is faced with choosing between family and following her dreams when, auditioning for the school choir (she’s first seen singing Etta James’ Something’s Got a Hold on Me while working on the boat), is singled out by her tough love teacher (and fellow outsider) Mr. V (Eugenio Derbez), alongside fellow student (and inevitable romantic interest – they spark rehearsing You’re All I Need to Get By) Miles (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo), to audition for his former alma mater, Boston’s Berklee College of Music. Fleshing out the cast is Ruby’s only friend, the brassy pal Gertie (Amy Forsyth), who has her sights set on bedding Leo
Writer-director Sian Heder doesn’t really bring anything new to the table but her script and actors ground the formula in an unfussy warm and authentic portrait of a believable and engaging feisty family with all its eccentricities and fractiousness (Frank and Jackie can’t keep their hands off each other, despite being told by the doctor to be celibate for three weeks, Leo feels himself in his sister’s shadow) as well as the frictions between the deaf and hearing communities and, being deaf, her parents’ inability to fully understand what music means to Ruby. Inevitably climaxing at the audition where Ruby delivers a tears-inducing reading of Both Sides Now (Jones clearly inhering dad’s musical DNA), it’s funny, emotional (especially the wrenching scene where Ruby asks her mother if she wishes she’d been born deaf) and inspirational and surely now deserves a much wider cinema release. (Apple TV)
Death on the Nile (12A)
On the shelf for a couple of years due to the pandemic, Kenneth Branagh directed this follow-up to Murder On The Orient Express prior to Belfast and, inevitably, is somewhat in its multiple awards nominated shadow. It is, however, a far more assured film than his first Agatha Christie outing, also bringing extra dimension and opens with a black and white prologue set on the frontline in 1914 wherein, serving in the army, his instincts and observations save his regiment from being massacred in an attack, going on to provide the origin of his moustache (to hide a scar) and the tragedy that took the love of his life, changing his destiny from ambition to be a farmer (in a later scene he speaks of his love of vege-tables) to that of, as he immodestly acknowledges on several occasions, the world’s greatest detective with, as we see from his exasperation at being served seven not six mini-desserts (and thus unable to arrange them in a triangle), a decided case of OCD.
Fast forward then to 1937 and he’s to be found in a nightclub listening to celebrated blues singer Salome Otterbourn (Sophie Okonedo) and watching broke hunk Simon Doyle (pre sex-scandal Armie Hammer) dancing with, first, wealthier new fiancée Jackie (Emma Mackey) and then her millionaire best friend Linnet Ridgeway (Gal Gadot), clearly noting what sparks are flying. Cut then to a digitally enhanced Egypt where, visiting the pyramids, he’s reunited with his friend Bouc (Tom Bateman, reprising his Orient Express role) and his snarky mother Euphemia (Annette Bening), following which he’s invited to join them on a cruise along the Nile as part of the honeymoon celebrations of now newlyweds Doyle and Ridgeway, Bouc, one of her friends, conveniently introducing the audience to the other characters (not all of them in the Christie original), Ridgeway’s former lover and doctor Windlesham (an unrecognisable and not bad Russell Brand), her communist-inclined godmother Maria van Schyler (Jennifer Saunders) and her nurse Bowers (Dawn French), her French assistant Louise (Rose Leslie) and estate manager cousin Katchadourian (Ali Fazal) and offer a quick background sketch. Also in the party is Salome and her niece cum business manager, Rosalie (Letitia Wright), a childhood friend of Linett and also Bouc’s romantic interest, much to his mother’s disapproval. And, just to put the cat among the pigeons, Jackie, toting a.22 calibre handgun, is stalking the couple, protesting that Simon still loves her, and even winds up on SS Karnak, the paddle boat they hire to get away from her
Come the denouement and five of them will be dead, three murdered and two by their own hand, and so you spend the first half wondering who’s going to be the first victim and the second trying to figure out who the killer is (though, even if you don’t know the story, aficionados of the drawing room murder genre will have quickly sussed the culprit/s), while Poirot, here’s rather more prone to emotional outbursts than David Suchet’s version, interrogates the various suspects (all of whom might have a possible motive) and follows assorted rather obviously telegraphed clues (and several misdirections) to keep viewers guessing.
Decently acted all round, Gadot particularly luminous, and deftly directed by Branagh, it keeps you engaged throughout all its sometimes melodramatic twists and turns, ending with a coda set back in London, again with Poirot watching Salome at the nightclub, this time minus the signature moustache to reveal his scars, with the hint that, while he may declare love to be dangerous, he might finally be ready to take the risks. (Disney+)
Doctor Strange In The Multiverse of Madness (12A)
Director Sam Raimi returns to the MCU fold for the first time since Spider-Man 3 back in 2007 to deliver what is by far the most out there and mind-bending incursion into superhero territory yet, a dazzling cornucopia of CGI and special effects yet also driven by a strong sense of drama, character and intense human emotion. Not to mention a wealth of playful Easter Egg in-jokes about and nods to the whole interlocked franchise.
It opens with Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch on multiple excellent form) battling and fatally failing to save a mysterious young woman (feisty newcomer Xochitl Gomez) who’s being chased by a monster. Then he wakes up. It’s just a nightmare but one which almost immediately becomes real when a giant one-eyed octopus-like creature attacks New York in pursuit of a very familiar-looking young girl, saving her with the help of Wong (assured presence Benedict Wong), the Sorcerer Supreme. The girl turns out to be America Chavez who possesses the power to travel between multiverses, which is what her as yet unrevealed pursuer wants for themselves.
Seeking to get to the bottom of things, and recognising indications of witchcraft Strange visits Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) for help, which turns out to be a bad move because, possessed by the Darkhold and obsessed with being reunited with her two young sons Billy and Tommy (Julian Hilliard, Jett Klyne), as seen in WandaVision, she’s become The Scarlet Witch and it’s she who’s out to take America’s powers to enable her to ‘dream-walk’ to other versions of Earth – specifically Earth-838, and replace the Wanda who still has her children. Thus, starting with a ruthless assault on Kamar-Taj, the stage is set for a series of confrontations between her and Strange as he searches for the Book of Vishanti, which lies in the space between universes and will enable him to destroy the Darkhold, in a plot that leaps between different versions of Earth (our is apparently 661) as well as different incarnations of Strange, each with their own different fates and tragedies (one himself corrupted by the Darkhold), including, in the final scenes, a zombie version of the Defender Strange killed in the opening scene, which turns out to have been real and not a dream.
Trying to explain further would only confuse matters more, but suffice to say in the course of the narrative Strange gets to meet two versions of his old flame, Christine (Rachel McAdams), whose wedding he attends at the start, one of whim is now a scientist, be betrayed by former mentor Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) who believes Strange triggered an incursion that threatens all universes and meet the Illuminati, a tribunal comprising – in a sewing together of assorted MCU characters – the Inhumans’ Black Bolt (Anson Mount), Reed Richards (John Krasinski) from the Fantastic Four, that Earth’s Captain Marvel (Lashana Lynch reprising her 2019 role as Maria Rambeau), Captain Carter (Hayley Atwell), a UK version of Captain America, and Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart), all of whom get to take on The Scarlet Witch in a spectacular set piece.
Those there for the kinetic thrills and eye-popping visuals are well-served and more (especially a scene that literally uses musical notes as weapons), while for those seeking deeper engagement, Olsen’s outstanding portrayal of a mother driven to madness by the loss of her children, making her an understandable if not excusable villain (“I am not a monster|” she screams), and the underlying themes of regret and a desire for second chances are the emotional weight that bedrocks the very best of the Marvel films. As ever, it wouldn’t be a Raimi film without a cameo by his muse, Bruce Campbell, who pops up in one of the universes as a street vendor of pizza balls and is enchanted by Strange into slapping himself. Likewise there’s the inevitable mid-credits sequence (with Charlize Theron as sorceress and comic book love interest Clea taking Strange – now with third eye – off to another dimensional battle) and, for those who appreciate a sucker punch joke, one more right at the very end. Exhilarating and poignant to the max, Spider-Man: No Way Home could well be toppled from its throne. (Disney+; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham; Vue)
Downtown Abbey: A New Era (PG)
It starts with a wedding and ends with a funeral (no spoiler, Maggie Smith serenely checking out as Lady Violet) and in-between new romances bloom, there’s a question of illegitimacy, a flirtation, a health scare and a pregnancy, all served up as comfort food cinema in the second big screen outing for Julian Fellowes’ upmarket soap about the extended Crawley family and their faithful retainers as they prepare to enter the 1930s.
As such the film follows two storylines. In the first, the Dowager Countess (Smith) Learns she’s inherited a villa in the South of France, bequeathed her by a marquis with whom she spent an idyllic week back in her youth and about which no one in the family knows anything and which she in turn has bequeathed to her granddaughter, Sybbie (Fifi Hart), the child of former chauffeur Tom Branson (Allen Leech) and Lucy Smith (Tuppence Middleton), and his late first wife, Lady Sybil, he now married (as in the opening wedding) to Lucy Smith (Tuppence Middleton).
The dead man’s son (Jonathan Zaccaïh) intends to honour his dad’s wishes,the widow (Nathalie Baye) is less inclined, meaning several of the Downton ensemble ship out to the Riviera, among them Earl of Grantham Robert (Hugh Bonneville), his wife, Cora (Elizabeth McGovern), granddaughter Edith (Laura Carmichael) and ex-butler Carson (Jim Carter), the latter taking it upon himself to show the French how things are done. The reason he’s there is on account of the second narrative because those staying behind, headed up by Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) want him out of the way when a British Lion film crew arrives at Downton to use as a location for their latest silent movie, The Gambler, to which Robert only acquiesces because the fee will pay to fix the leaky roof.
Naturally the arrival of the two stars, dashing Guy Dexter (Dominic West) and platinum bombshell Myrna Dalgleish (Laura Haddock), along with director Jack Barber (Hugh Dancy), throws everything into a tizz, especially downstairs where the thought of being in their presence gets kitchen maid Daisy (Sophie McShera) all starry-eyed. However,this being the dawn of the talkies, Barber has a problem since audiences are deserting silent cinema in droves and while Myrna may look all sophisticated, she speaks with a broad Cockney accent (cue My Fair Lady reference). Step up plummy-accented Lady Mary while, since turning it into a talkie will need a script and dialogue, cinema-obsessed footman turned schoolteacher Mr. Molesley (Kevin Doyle) reveals some hidden talents. So, while at Downton, there’s a flirtation between Jack and Lady Mary (husband Henry away since Matthew Goode declined to sign on), Guy has eyes for closeted gay butler Barrow (Robert James-Collier) and there’s matchmaking going on elsewhere, back in France, Robert is horrified to learn his dad might not have been his father, a potential for huge scandal and,worse, meaning he’s half French.
Director Simon Curtis serves this all up with a sunny sheen as the assorted plot wheels turn, the cast fleshed out with other returning faces reprising their characters such as Imelda Staunton, Phyllis Logan, Joanne Froggatt, Laura Carmichael, Brendan Coyle and, of course, Penelope Wilton as cousin Isobel, Lady Merton, Violet’s long-standing sparring partner who gets to have a final poignant scene with Smith before the Countess finally pops her clogs in suitably acerbic style.
Made,other than for the money,specifically for the soap’s huge audience who can’t bear to bid a last farewell, whether the Crawleys return to face the trials and tribulations of the Wall Street Crash and WWII seems a pointless question. (Vue)
The Duke (12A)
Were it not a true story, it would be dismissed as unbelievable, but, in 1961, Kempton Bunton, a disabled 60-year-old pensioner from Benwell in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, was put on trial for stealing Francisco Goya’s painting Portrait of the Duke of Wellington from the National Gallery in London, allegedly holding it to ransom for £140,000 (the sum the British Government had paid to prevent it going to America) to fund television licences for pensioners. His story’s now told by director Roger Michell as an Ealingesque underdog true-crime caper driven by a terrific performance by Jim Broadbent that can’t help but call to mind Dave Johns in Ken Loach’s I, Daniel Blake with which it shares a social conscience. Here we first meet him confronted by a pair of officials for not paying his TV licence, claiming he doesn’t have to saying he’s removed the wiring that provides the BBC. He spends two weeks in jail. A wannabe playwright and soapbox revolutionary, he prefers Chekhov to Shakespeare, reads Orwell, gets fired for not charging a disabled soldier a taxi fare, sets up a petition for free licences for the over 70s, gets fired from the bakery for calling out racial bullying, and even takes his protest to Westminster. While in London, he cases the National Gallery, gets in through a bathroom window, nicks the painting (which he declares to not be very good) and takes it back home where he and his youngest son, Jackie (Fionn Whitehead), hide it behind a false back in the wardrobe.
As in reality, the police, in their televised press conference declare the theft to be the work of a professional international gang, although a handwriting expert pretty much nails Bunton’s personality from the scribbled note he sends. When the authorities ignore him, he sends the Daily Mirror proof of possession but, his secret discovered by the girlfriend of his other ne’er do well son, Kenny (Jack Bandiera), who tries to blackmail him for the reward money, he takes it back to London and is duly arrested and committed to trial.
Starring alongside Broadbent is Helen Mirren all crimped hair and big glasses as his long-suffering wife Dolly, who works as a cleaner for Mrs. Gowling (Anna Maxwell Martin), a councillor’s wife and the only one to sign Kempton’s petition, and is naturally horrified to discover a stolen masterpiece in the back bedroom. Despite her nagging, there’s a touching moment when the two of them show their love for one another, singing and dancing to Gracie Fields’ A Nice Cup Of Tea in the kitchen.
The heart of the film, though, takes place in court where, given a public stage, the irascible Kempton entertains jurors, barristers, clerk (Heather Craney), judge (James Wilby) and those in the gallery alike with his quips. Defended by Jeremy Hutchinson QC (a twinkling Matthew Good) , the husband of Dame Peggy Ashcroft, on the grounds he only ‘borrowed’ the painting, he delivers his Everyman speech about how “it’s me that makes you and you that makes me”, a vision of community and solidarity that ends in the gallery bursting into a rendition of Jerusalem.
Sentimental but not schmaltzy, the film condenses events into a few months when, in fact, it stretched to four years, Bunton actually leaving the painting in a left-luggage office at Birmingham New Street , surrendering six weeks later. While the subplot about his feeling of guilt over the death of their teenage daughter in a bicycle accident and his wife’s refusal to talk about feels dramatic contrivance, it’s actually true, as is the surprise twist about the theft. There’s also an amusing sly clip from Dr No, released in 1962, in which Sean Connery spots the Goya in the villain’s hideaway. A touch too cute at times, perhaps, but, its heart and politics firmly in the right place, it’s a joy to watch.(Rakuten TV)
Everything Everywhere All At Once (15)
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) whose previous film was Swiss Army Man starring Daniel Radcliffe as a semi-sentient farting corpse, 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.(Cineworld 5 Ways; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Vue)
The Eyes of Tammy Faye (12A)
Her name will likely mean little to UK audiences (likely explaining why it’s opening on only one local screen), but in the 60s and 70s she and her husband Jim Bakker were two of the most influential figures on America’s televangelist scene, until their fall from grace in the 90s when they were arrested for financial malfeasance, diverting funds from the ministry to their own use. Directed by The Big Sick’s Michael Showalter and based on the documentary of the same name, this offers a somewhat revisionist account of the trillingly voiced Tammy Faye in which she’s seen an innocent oblivious to her husband’s fraud (echoing her mother’s warning “When you follow god blindly, in the end, all you are is blind”) though undeniably happy to enjoy the luxuries it brought, redeemed by her crusading work on behalf of the LGBT community and her call for its acceptance by her fellow Christians, while he’s clearly an ambitious empire builder with an eye on the main prize calling on God’s name to bankroll his schemes.
Opening on a close up of an aged Tammy Faye (a nigh unrecognisable Oscar winning Jessica Chastain) in a makeup artist’s chair explaining her garish eyelid and lip tattoos), it flashes back to her Minnesota childhood as Tammy Faye Messner, eager to join her stern mother (Cherry Jones) in praising the Lord at their local Pentecostal church. Quite possibly faking speaking on tongues, she’s soon elevated to something of prodigy, going on to a bible college in Minneapolis where she meets equally extrovert devotee Jim Bakker (an equally impressive baby-faced Andrew Garfield), who doesn’t believe being devout means living poor, the two impulsively marring and starting their own travelling preaching circuit to kids, Tammy Faye singing and using sock puppets. Fate brings them into the orbit of The Christian Broadcasting Network and through it celebrity Baptist televangelist (and future failed Presidential candidate) Pat Robertson (Gabriel Olds), becoming founding members of The 700 Club, creating a children’s puppet ministry, and presenting their Jim and Tammy TV show. Then, in 1974, the couple launched The PTL Club, a televangelist Christian news and entertainment programme that reached inclusivity of homosexuals and, in a particularly fun scene, includes her demonstrating a penile erection pump. A highlight was her mid-1980s interview with Steven Pieters (Randy Havens), a gay Christian minister, during which they discussed his sexuality, coming out, diagnosis with AIDS, and the death of his partner, Faye calling on her fellow Christians to embrace everyone. The show was a phenomenal success, even eliciting personal thank you from Ronald Regan. It did not, however, sit well with highly influential conservative activist Jerry Falwell (Vincent D’Onofrio more Godfather than God), later to become founder of the Moral Majority, even if he’s not adverse to taking advantage of their worldwide mass audience via Bakker’s PTL Satellite Network.
By now, Jim is actively practising his prosperity gospel preaching, calling on subscribers – or rather partners – to increase their cash pledges, funnelling the money into funding their own network and, luring in real estate developer Roe Messner (Sam Jaeger) Christian retreat and theme park Heritage USA as well as bankrolling the couple’s opulent lifestyle. Inevitably, the secular press begin digging and the bubble eventually bursts, a combination of fraud and revelations of Jim’s infidelity and homosexual overtures erupting in a scandal (she had a platonic affair with her Nashville record producer, largely as a response to feeling sidelined by Jim, and became hooked on Ativan) that has them bankrupted and estranged, Jim eventually committed to trial and 45 years in prison.
Deftly balancing its dramatic biopic nature with a knowing wink at the lifestyle, fashion and hairstyle excesses, it has a decidedly episodic structure that at times feels like an evangelist version of Dynasty, climaxing in an undeniably moving moment when, now old and bruised by life, invited to Oral Roberts University, she delivers a rendition of Battle Hymn of the Republic (complete with imagined mass choir) that plays like a spiritual redemption. It deserves an amen. (Disney+; Rakuten TV)
Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore (12A)
Top of Form
The third of the planned five films in JK Rowling’s Fantastic Beasts franchise is a welcome and darker (and in one scene very gruesome) step up from the entertaining but far from magical The Crimes of Grindelwald, again directed by David Yates and with a quietly intense Mads Mikkelsen brilliantly stepping into Gellert Grindelwald’s shoes after the grandstanding Johnny Depp was requested to depart. However, while the storyline is more focused its so complicated you need to be extremely au fait with The Wizarding World to place the many characters and their roles within it and, again, it can, especially in the first two-thirds, sometimes prove confusing, not to say incoherent, in keeping up with the dizzying narrative switches.
Working with co-writer Steve Kloves, Rowling has scaled back the role of Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston) to a mere cameo but bumped up that of Charms Professor “Lally” Hicks (Jessica Williams complete with eccentric enunciation) to become an essential member of the team assigned to bring down Grindelwald, who, recruited by Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law), here revealed as his former lover and who cannot fight him himself on account of a magical blood pact, also line up as magizoologist Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), his brother Theseus (Callum Tuner), head Aura from the British Ministry of Magic, French wizard Yusuf Kama (William Nadlyam) whose half-sister was killed at a Grindelwald rally, Newt’s assistant Bunty Broadacre (Victoria Yeates) and muggle baker Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), still heartbroken after his mag lover, Queenie (Alison Sudol), Tina’s sister, believing he’d help her marry him, threw in her lot with Grindelwald.
Opposing them, alongside Grindelwald is, among others, Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller), who, at the end of the last film, was revealed to actually be Aurelius Dumbledore, the illegitimate son of Albus’s inn-owning brother Aberforth (Richard Coyle), who, since he can’t do it himself, has been ordered by Grindelwald to kill his newly discovered uncle.
The magical menagerie has also been downsized, reduced to just a few (living twig Pickett and the Niffler return), including a bunch of scorpion-like creatures that afford an amusing scene for Newt (rescuing his brother) to demonstrate limbic mimicry and, more importantly, the qilin, which can look into to people’s souls to see who has a pure heart. As such, it plays a pivotal role in the film which is set around the upcoming elections for the new Supreme Head. Thus, following the prologue flashback between Albus and Grindelwald, the film cuts to Newt attending the birth of the new qilin, only for the mother to be killed by Credence and his crew and the baby captured so his master can harness its powers of precognition. What they don’t know is that the mother had twins. Now, to stop Grindelwald, who has been exonerated of his crimes and declared a third candidate for the election against Brazilian Minister Santos (Maria Fernanda Cândido) and Chinese Minister Liu (Dave Wong), by employing “countersight” – deliberately misleading to create confusion and hide their actual intentions, Albus and his team have to ensure it remains safe and that they themselves aren’t killed in the process.
That’s the nuts and bolts of the plot, the secrets of the title relating to the entire Dumbledore family (including a dead sister adding to the tragedies) rather than just Albus, as each of the team carry out their allocated parts of the plan, the locations variously switching between London, Austria, New York, Berlin, Bhutan and, yes, Hogwarts, while Grindelwald’s campaign to fuel and exploit the hatred and bigotry bubbling up clearly has as many resonances with today’s world as in the Nazi 30s. Themes of the outsider and the abandoned loom large, often to emotionally affecting power, while naturally it’s awash with spectacular visual effects, thrilling chases, electrifying action and all manner of wand face-offs (Jacob is even gifted his own by Dumbledore) before and an ending that is both radiantly happy but, for one character, a reminder that they are forever alone. As such, while an exhilarating roller-coaster ride for the faithful, it might have been a better idea to have killed off Grindelwald here and ended the series, since what follows leading up to the ultimate showdown can surely only feel like an over-extended anti-climactic afterthought. (Rakuten TV)
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 Grand (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. In end 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. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Electric; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe)
The Harder They Fall (15)
Directed and co-written by British singer-songwriter Jeymes Samuel and featuring virtually all Black cast, this comes with all its Tarantino guns blazing (with bullets by Leone), from the homage to classic Westerns to smart ass pop culture dialogue, a gleeful disregard for historical accuracy, stylised bloody violence, whimsical captions, a contemporary soundtrack (hip hop from Jay-Z, reggae and dub from Barrington Levy and Dennis Brown) and visual puns such as black towns having coloured buildings and a white town being quite literally all white. It might easily be a companion piece to Django Unchained.
It opens as a young Nat Love watches as his mother and preacher father are murdered by Rufus Buck (Idris Elba), who’s come to settle an old score, he himself let live but with a cross carved into his forehead. Fast forward and Love (Jonathan Majors) leads a gang of outlaws (who only prey on other outlaws) comprising cocky young quick-shooter Jim Beckwourth (RJ Cyler) and, sharpshooter Bill Pickett (Edi Gathegi), who ambush another, red-hooded, gang, who’ve just robbed a bank.
The loot was destined to go to Buck who, Love is horrified to hear, has been given a federal pardon (his gang liberate him from an iron vault on a train (named in tribute to Chadwick Boseman) guarded by corrupt soldiers) and is now intent on reclaiming the town of Redwood (where redwood trees are conspicuously absent) from a turncoat sidekick now sheriff (Deon Cole) as his personal fiefdom alongside his core gang of Treacherous’ Trudy Smith (Regina King) and laconic quick draw Cherokee Bill (LaKeith Stanfield). So, linking up with his feisty saloon singer lover ‘Stagecoach’ Mary Fields (Zazie Beetz), her cross-dressing bouncer Cuffee (a marvellous Danielle Deadwyler) and Deputy Marshall Bass Reeves (Delroy Lindo), they set off for long overdue payback. In a very Tarantinoesque flourish, the names of most of the central characters (some of whom figured in Samuels’ earlier Western short They Die By Dawn) all relate to real people from the time , although they never met and certainly were never involved in anything like the storyline here. Love, for example, was a prize winning professional cowboy.
A revisionist take on an era in American history films of which have been almost exclusively dominated by white heroes and villains, it moves surefootedly to its inevitable Redwood showdown between Love and Buck (and much gunplay that eliminates most of the supporting players) and a monologue that delivers an unexpected and audacious sting in the tail that finally explains what the score was Buck was settling.
The central players all rise to the occasion and each has their moment in the spotlight, Elba suitably brooding and ruthless, Majors relentlessly charismatic, Stanfield ultra-cool, although a sassy King and Beetz, who get to have their own brutal; brawl, often threaten to steal it from their male co-stars. It may not be the defibrillator needed to fully revive the genre, but it’s more than enough fast paced, violet fun to keep the pacemaker ticking. (Netflix)
There are, it would appear, only to missile interceptor bases in America meaning that if one or both were rendered inoperable, then there would be nothing to prevent a nuclear strike on American cities. And that’s the premise of this low budget but entertaining directorial debut by Matthew Reilly. It opens with an attack on the (real) Fort Greely base in Alaska by an unidentified force which somehow manages to kill all the troops stationed there, before shifting to the (fictional) offshore site in the Atlantic Ocean where the rest of the film unfolds. It’s to here that tough and tactical army captain JJ Collins (model turned actress former Fast and the Furious co-star Elsa Pataky, wife to exec producer Chris Hemsworth who puts in amusing cameo) is assigned, returning to service after a suicide attempt in the wake of a concentrated torrent of abuse and death threats after she accused a senior officer of sexual harassment (naturally, they took his word).
No sooner has she arrived, however, than the commanding officer and all bar three of the crew are killed by a group of terrorists who’ve infiltrated the base, led by alpha male Alexander Kessel (Luke Bracey from the Point Break remake), a former US military intelligence officer with daddy and patriotism issues. His plan is to take the interceptors out of commission so that his employers can launch the 16 nuclear missiles they’ve somehow managed to steal from the Russians and wipe out America. To do so, however, he and his men have to get into the command centre in which Collins has locked herself along with two tecchies, Shah (Mayen Mehta), and asshole Beaver (Aaron Glenane), the latter knocked out by stray bullet. Now it’s basically a battle to keep Kessler, whose smooth talking is offset by shooting the sole surviving officer and Collins’ father, back in his veteran’s retirement home, from getting in, involving taking out one of the mercenaries who pops up through the hatch. That and, when Kessler, through an inside man’s’s help, gets through, trying to shoot down the missile he has launched and then a single handed race against the clock to stop the other 15. Meanwhile, back in America, Madam President and her advisers are communicating by video link and biting their nails down to the quick while the American public are horrifyingly watching Kessler’s live feed of their impending annihilation.
Alternating between functionally staged fight scenes and Collins’ and Kessler’s bickering banter, it never rises beyond its generic 80s B-movie roots and the climax falls somewhat flat, but Pataky steps up to the physical mark commendably enough, even if she’s less effective in the verbal sparring, now all she needs is better script and a director with a firmer hand to move her up into the current action woman leagues. (Netflix)
Jurassic World: Dominion (12A)
Touted as the final instalment in the saga that kicked off in 1993 with Jurassic Park, set four years after the events of Jurassic World and its Fallen Kingdom sequel that left the dinosaurs free to roam, directed by JW’s Colin Trevorrow, the selling point is the return of three of the original film’s central characters, palaeontologist Alan Grant (Sam Neill), environmentalist romantic interest Ellie Sadler (Laura Dern) and chaos theory doomsayer Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum). Their reappearance is down to a new breed of locusts with prehistoric DNA that threaten to destroy the food chain. They’re ravaging all the grain in America, except, that is, crops grown by Biosyn, a corporate that has exclusive rights regarding the containment and protection of the reptiles. It’s headed up by another Jurassic Park returnee, Lewis Dodgson (this time played by Campbell Scott), who bribed Dennis Nedry to steal embryos and who, thanks to a tip off from Malcolm, who works as a Biosyn consultant, Sadler believes to be behind things and recruits Grant to help investigate.
This is cross-fertilised with a narrative strand from the JW series involving dino wrangler Owen Grady (Chris Pratt), his dinosaur rights activist partner Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard) as their cloned step-daughter Maisie Lockwood (Isabella Sermon, also playing her mother’s younger self in a video flashback), the granddaughter of Dr. John Hammond’s former partner in cloning Benjamin Lockwood. Her genetics are the reason Grady and Dearing are keeping her off the grid and why she’s been hunted by a bunch of mercenaries, headed up by Soyona Santos (Dichen Lachman who simply disappears from the storyline) hired by Biosyn so that head scientist Dr Wu (BJ Wong back again) can use her unique DNA. She’s captured, along with Beta, a baby velociraptor she’s tamed, setting her parents and pilot-adventurer for hire Kayla Watts (DeWanda Wise) on a rescue mission that, after a globetrotting jaunt and a raptor-motorbike chase in Malta, eventually brings all the main cast together at Dodgson’s gigantic dinosaur-filled valley facility in the Dolemites where, in a frankly tangled web of who’s on who’s side involving Dodgson’s assistant (Mamoudou) Athie), they end up battling assorted genetically engineered dinosaurs, including new creatures such as the Giganotosaurus and Pyroraptor, who, in turn, battle with each other.
It’s all very busy with its chase and fight sequences, but nothing ever really comes into a coherent focus while, fatally, the dinosaurs themselves become secondary characters in their own story, while the final scene between Grady and the mommy raptor is just too cheesy for words. Undeniably big screen spectacular with plentiful nods to the overall saga, it never bores but that sense of awe that Spielberg captured 29 years ago is lost in the ticking of boxes. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Everyman; Mockingbird; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Vue)
King Richard (12A)
Even before they were born, Compton sisters Venus and Serena Williams had their lives mapped out to become the world’s greatest women’s tennis players, a lengthy plan devised by their father, Richard, an amateur coach and part time security guard whose interest in the game had been piqued on realising the prize money, and started them playing when they were just four. Life tells us that Venus went on to win five Wimbledon singles titles, four Olympic gold medals and 14 Grand Slam Women’s doubles titles with Serena who, herself with four gold medals, won Wimbledon seven times (three of them against Venus), is rated as one of the all-time greatest female players with 23 Grand Slam singles titles to her name and is the highest earning female athlete ever. The film reminds us that none of this would have happened without the focused drive and tough love of their father who pushed them to their limits and beyond to ensure they achieved his dream of stardom and escaping the ghetto, being patronised and battling prejudice, snobbery and racism from white agents and coaches along the way.
Here, always seen in tennis shirts, he’s played with focused commitment by slap happy Oscar winner Will Smith, the young Venus and Serena, who turned professional at just fourteen, consummately portrayed by Saniyya Sidney and Demi Singleton, respectively, with Aunjanue Ellis as their formidable mother, Oracene ‘Brandy’ Williams, herself a coach, and Jon Bernthal as Rick Macci, the hugely successful professional coach whom their father persuaded to take on Venus, as well as financing the family’s move to Los Angeles and the girls’ education, forever finding himself up against Richard’s obstinate and wilful demands.
Directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green, it charts their rise from playing squalid local courts, being menaced by the local hoods (recreating the moment when Richard was beaten up in front of his underage daughters for telling them not to come on to them, later taking a gun to settle matters before fate intervenes) persuading Sampras and McEnroe’s coach, Paul Cohen (Tony Goldwyn) to train the girls then firing him when he argued against them being taken out of the junior tournaments, a traditional path to turning pro, in favour of concentrating in their education and upbringing after Richard seeing the record-breaking young star Jennifer Capriati being arrested for marijuana possession, the film climaxing in 1994 with Venus’s professional debut against the world number two, Arantxa Sánchez Vicario.
With the sisters as co-producers, it’s an inevitably somewhat sanitised account, their father demanding in making them play in the rain in the night (a neighbour calls child services at one point), scattering broken glass on the court to challenge them, being resolutely stubborn with agents looking to make a killing but offering relative peanuts (he registers his feelings by farting), taking decisions without consulting either his ‘ghetto Cinderellas’ or their mother, but even so he’s never less than a sweet, caring and often funny dad, something that doesn’t quite sit with accounts of his darker side and punishing disciplinarianism from others and never quite gets under the skin of the insecurity that dogged him.
Along with Venus and Serena, he and Brandy had three other daughters from her former marriage, one, the older, academically gifted Yetunde, being shot dead in 2003, but they’re rarely more than set dressing here, giggling in the back seat of the battered red VW van (named Prince but far from fresh) their father drives. What’s never mentioned is the fact that he had five other daughters from a previous marriage, but, harder to understand is why, in the later stages of the film, Serena, who Macci doesn’t take on, is virtually sidelined (something the screenplay, like her father, casually acknowledges) with all the attention being on Venus, reminding her of the example she can set to Black girls all over the world.
The theme of race plays as an undercurrent, always there in the screenplay (and in footage of the Rodney King beating) but never forcefully in your face, preferring to focus on the determination to rise above the roots of your raising through your natural born talents – and a smooth – and, as such, other than one family flare up and the on court dynamics (the tennis is brilliantly staged), there’s almost no drama, no tension, yet, on the plus side, almost no resorting to sports movie cliché. The sisters’ triumphs, stepping out of their father’s shadow, are inspirational even if the film about them is less so, but nevertheless it has a compelling serve. (BT Film Store, Sky Store, Virgin)
The King’s Man (12A)
Remaining true to the basic historical details, but setting them in different context, Matthew Vaughn serves up a revisionist account of WWI in his prequel to the two Kingsman movies about a secret British intelligence organisation whose members all have codenames relating to King Arthur and the Round Table. The film opens in 1902 with Orlando, the pacifist Duke of Oxford (Ralph Fiennes), visiting South Africa with his right-hand man Shola (Djimon Hounsou), wife (Alexandra Maria Lara) and young son Conrad as part of a Red Cross mission to confront Kitchener (Charles Dance) over British military behaviour towards Boer War prisoners. Tragically, an attack leaves her dead and him lame, the film cutting to several years later with the now 17-year-old Conrad (Harris Dickinson), whom he has sworn to keep out of harm’s way. However, there are rumblings of war, fuelled in this telling by a mysterious organisation headed up by a never clearly seen man with a broad Scottish accent who lives atop a mountain and rears goats and the machinations of Russian monk Rasputin (a magnetic Rhys Ifans) who’s contriving to bring down the British Empire.
When Orlando fails to foil a second attempt to assassinate the Arch Duke Ferdinand, the stage is set for war, pitting first cousins King George, Tsar Nicolas and Kaiser Wilhem (all played by Tom Hollander), the German leader being manipulated by Erik Jan Hanussen (Daniel Brühl), against one another, with Conrad determined to defy his father and enlist.
Behind the scenes, as his son’s later made privy to, Orlando reveals he’s not just suiting back but. with the help of Shula and family nanny Polly (a winningly kick ass Gemma Arterton), he’s running a spy network gathering intelligence on the assorted intrigues and seeking to bring America, into the war, a move resisted by President Woodrow Wilson (Ian Kelly) on account of his being blackmailed over sex footage involving Mata Hari (Valerie Pachner), which ultimately sets up the climax in the mission to retrieve it.
This is not yet The Kingsmen of the earlier films, which, at this point, remains the gentleman’s Savile Row tailors where Orlando takes Conrad to be fitted for his first suit and where the boy meets Kitchener and his aide-de-camp Morton (Matthew Goode).
In an increasingly tangled and silly plot, we see the team visiting Russia where the Orlando battles Rasputin (who heals his leg by licking it) in a sword fight staged in balletic moves, and Conrad swapping identities with a Scottish corporal (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) so that he can stay on the frontline, resulting in a heroic but tragic recovery of vital information in a scene that could have been lifted from 1917 . This, in turn, is followed by a memorial service that entails a reading of Wilfred Owen’s bitter Dulce et Decorum Est (several years before its publication and here purported to have been penned by Conrad), Orlando’s subsequent wallowing in grief and booze and eventual restoration to man of action under Polly’s ministrations, culminating in the aforementioned mountain top battle where, along with Orlando demonstrating a new invention, the parachute, the identity of the Shepherd, clearly conceived as a Bond-like nemesis mastermind, is finally revealed.
Featuring brief appearances by Alison Steadman as part of the network and Stanley Tucci as the American Ambassador alongside such characters as Lenin and the Tsar’s assassin, Felix Yusupov (here Orlando’s cousin), though somewhat sluggish in getting going Vaughn plays it as a straightforward spy-action caper with the obligatory action sequences (a sword fight shot like a video shooter game), stunts and effects but always with an awareness of its inherent silliness, the cast fully committed to the premise with a knowing twinkle in their eyes. It ends with, finally, the establishment of The Kingsmen round table and the inevitable mid-credits scene which, with Hanussan as the new Shepherd wheeling on another mustachioed real life figure, sets up a potential WWII sequel. Hugely enjoyable nonsense. (Disney+)
Licorice Pizza (15)
Loosely based on the life of his friend Gary Goetzman, writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson returns to the mid-70s Los Angeles San Fernando Valley setting of Boogie Nights, but minus all the sex, for a sweet and often very funny slowly blossoming love story unfolding over an unspecified number of years that conjures thoughts of vintage Cameron Crowe. Mixing together fictional and real life characters and titled after a now defunct record store, opening with meet cute in 1973, it’s anchored by two wonderful screen debuts and terrific chemistry by Cooper Hoffman, the son of the late Philip Seymour Hoffman evoking not only his father but a certain other Hoffman too, and Alana Haim (resembling a Jewish Soairse Ronan) of siblings pop rock trio Haim (her sisters and parents play her screen family), he as mature for his age 15-year-old, pimply, smooth talking child actor Gary Valentine getting his high school photo taken and she as the photographer’s less assured 25-year-old assistant who he tries to talk into a date (and declares to his younger brother he will marry). She turns him down, then turns up at the diner, and so, kicking off with her accompanying him as chaperone to New York for a live reunion of the screwball comedy Under One Roof (Christine Ebersole playing Lucy Doolittle, clearly based on Lucille Ball from 1968 comedy Yours, Mine and Ours), the scene is set for a series of vignettes as her insistence of a platonic friendship and his determination for romance travel a rocky road as, a savvy businessman, Gary first becomes involves selling the new craze for waterbeds and, later, taps into new legalisation to open a pinball machine parlour, all set to a soundtrack that includes. Let Me Roll It by Wings, Chris Norman and Suzi Quatro’s Stumblin’ In, Life On Mars (cue lawmen seen beating up the wrong guy when Gary’s mistakenly arrested for murder), If You Could Read My Mind, Sonny & Cher’s But You’re Mine and The Congregation’s 1971 hit Softly Whispering I Love You.
The narrative’s constructed around a variety of interwoven subplots. Gary has to contend with an older rival as Alana starts dating his former co-star, Lance (Skylor Gisondo), a threat deftly seen off at a disastrous Kane family dinner, while she finds herself jealous when he starts seeing a girl of his own age. The pair are involved with his mother’s PR work for Jerry Frick (John Michael Higgins), a real Los Angeles businessman who opened the Mikado Hotel and restaurant in 1963, her caricatured as a restaurateur with a series of Japanese wives and speaking in an exaggerated Asian accent a la Mickey Rooney in Breakfast At Tiffanys. Alana subsequently goes to work for Gary selling waterbeds, leading to their hilarious involvement, in the middle of the fuel crisis and a stolen truck, with Barbra Streisand’s preening, narcissistic hairdresser boyfriend Jon Peters (a hysterically over the top Bradley Cooper), decides she fancies acting and, advised to say yes to anything she asks, is introduced to Gary’s agent (a scene stealing turn by Harriet Sansom Harris as real life Hollywood child talent agent Mary Grady), in turn leading to her auditioning for (and flirting with) Hollywood action man Jack Holden (Sean Penn channelling William Holden) and drunkenly recreating a motorbike stunt from one of his films on the Van Nuys Golf Course directed by Rex Blau (Tom Waits) that results in Gary and Alana back in each other’s arms. From which she then gets involved in politics working on the mayoral campaign for real life Los Angeles politician Joel Wachs (Benny Safdie) before discovering his secret gay relationship, heading to the inevitable big running into each other’s arms finale.
With a cast list that also includes cameos from Maya Rudolph, Leonardo Di Caprio’s father George, Spielberg’s daughter Sasha, Tim Conway Jr. (whose dad performed with Anderson’s father) and John C. Reilly as Fred ‘Herman Munster’ Gwynne, it recreates the period (including the once famed Tail O’ the Cock restaurant) but never overdoses on nostalgia (though it does include a shot of Eric Segal’s Love Story and a movie theatre showing Live And Let Die); whimsical but never silly, sweet but never sugary it’s a perfect upbeat coming of age joy. (Rakuten TV)
Quite possibly the first film to give a toy a backstory, this is basically Pixar’s origin story for the Buzz Lightyear figure from the Toy Story series, who,in the first film, was under the delusion that he was an actual Space Ranger. This answers the question as to why such an action figure existed in the first place. According to the opening credits, in 1995 young Andy was given the toy as a present, the main character from the film he’d just seen. This is, then, that film.
Unlike in the previous films, Buzz is voiced here by Chris Evans rather than Tim Allen, and unfortunately lacks that distinctive tone, humour and phrasing, but, the character is till the same, a cocksure and somewhat egotistical Space Ranger pilot who reckons he can do everything himself (and certainly doesn’t need an irritating autopilot) and is forever narrating events into his Star Log, here on a mission with his commanding officer Hawthorne (Uzo Aduba) and a cargo of scientists in hibernation sleep, when the get signs of life from an uncharted planet. Landing their ship,which Buzz refers to as The Turnip on account of it shape, they soon discover that that life takes the form of aggressive vines and some kind of flying insect. Trying to escape, Buzz miscalculates, leaving everyone stranded on the planet, working to rebuild the fuel crystal to achieve hyperspeed and achieve his mission of getting everyone home. However, when he takes off on a test run and fails, on his return he discovers that while he was away just four minutes, four years have passed in real time. This happens again and again, Buzz staying the same but everyone else growing older, Hawthorne gets married (to a female scientist, with the first same sex kiss in a Disney film), has a child and then a granddaughter Izzy (Keke Palmer), Returning from another failed attempt, he learns Hawthorne has passed away,leaving behind a matter-of-fact robot feline called Sox (Peter Sohn), and that her Star Command replacement is shutting down the mission, everyone having decided to stay on the planet with an energy wall protecting them from the vines.
Well, naturally, since a Space Ranger never quits, Buzz is having none of that and, with Sox having calculated the right fuel mix, steals a ship and finally achieves hyperspeeed. However, returning with the good news, he discovers the base has had to sealed itself into the dome which is surrounded by giant robots from a massive spaceship hovering above the planet. There’s just three rookies who have avoided such fate, Izzy, cantankerous ex-felonDarby Steel (Dale Soules), and the ultra-clumsy, nervy Mo Morrison (Taika Waititi). They it seems are Buzz’s team.Except, Buzz insists on working alone.
Matters are further complicated by the red-eyed giant robot that commands the alien craft, who Toy Story 2 fans will recognise as Buzz’s nemesis Emperor Zurg (James Brolin) who gets his own origin with a time travel twist, the film largely comprising of a series of chases and escapes involving the previous fuel crystal they need to leave the planet while Buzz learns to think and care about someone other than himself and the mission. There’s also an amusing joke about what a sandwich might look like in the future and, of course,a regulation Disney message about home.
As brilliantly animated as ever, it’s a fun adventure with snappy dialogue and thrills, but, by taking Buzz out of his toy world setting, it somehow loses some of that charm and magic. It may still aim for infinity, but it never really goes beyond. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Vue)
The Lost City (12A)
Essentially a revamp of Romancing The Stone (which it dutifully references), co-directors Aaron and Adam Nee make no attempt to disguise the implausibility of the plot, but fully immerse themselves in the spirit of old time Saturday matinee adventure romps. Sandra Bullock is the Kathleen Turner figure, a bestselling but lonely romance novelist Loretta Sage who has lost enthusiasm for her work since her archaeologist husband died. And so, having been persuaded by her publicist Beth (a fun Da’Vine Joy Randolph) and social media wrangler (a wonderfully deadpan Patti Harrison) to take on a promotional tour for her latest book, The Lost City Of D, during which, wearing sparkly figure-hugging pink jumpsuit and high heels, she announces that, if there’s a follow-up, she’s going to kill off its heartthrob hero, Dash, modelled on her late husband, which comes as something of shock to Alan Caprison (Channing Tatum), the not too bright but hunky model (she calls him a talking body wash commercial) who has been the franchise’s blond-wigged cover star and a big hit with the ladies.
However, they soon have bigger things to worry about when billionaire Abigail Fairfax (Daniel Radcliffe rehashing his Now You See Me 2 villain with added daddy issues) kidnaps her believing that, as her books are based on historic research she did with her deceased husband, she can decipher the characters on a map fragment that will lead him to the fabled Crown of Fire, a priceless diamond headdress described in the book and supposedly hidden in the lost city he’s discovered on a remote Atlantic island, but which is about to be destroyed by an active volcano. He carts her off to the island while Alan, who harbours a secret crush, enlists Zen adventurer Jack Trainer (a tousled Brad Pitt), a former Navy SEAL turned CIA operative, to meet him at the island (tracking her via her Apple watch) and rescue her, insisting on tagging along. Jack does indeed rescue her from the compound in a display of derring-do, but an unexpected development quickly leaves her and Alan to fend for themselves, lost in the jungle, Loretta trying follow the clues on the map, pursued by Fairfax’s goons. Meanwhile, with help from an eccentric cargo pilot (Oscar Nunez), Beth is also on the trail.
There’s not much more to the plot than that; as you’d expect a connection begins to spark between the pair, each learns more about themselves, there’s chases, fights and a Raiders Of The Lost Ark styled climax when the treasure is found and its secret revealed, while, along the way, Loretta has to pluck leeches off the water-allergic Alan’s naked body with the inevitable innuendos that entails.
Bullock and Tatum have fizzing chemistry, swapping banter as they go, while she again demonstrates her physical comedy skills to good effect, the film romping entertainingly along without requiring audiences to engage their brain, although the now inevitable mid-credits sequence does rather spoil the film’s biggest OMG moment. (Vue)
Marry Me (12A)
Adapted from a graphic novel by Bobby Crosby, directed by Kat Coiro this is preposterous romcom fluff built upon manufactured sentimentality, but there’s enough charm to warrant at least one box of confetti. Jennifer Lopez is pop superstar Kat Valdez who is about to embark on her third marriage (one of several sly nods to the star’s own life), this time to equally famous Puerto Rican singer Bastian (Colombian pop star Maluma making his feature debut and suggesting a career change is not on the cards), the plan being to get wed to an audience of 20 million televised life on the last night of their tour named for co-write hit Marry Me. However, just before she takes to the stage, a video of him making out with her assistant goes viral. Caught unprepared, she tells the crowd of love is a lie, but you should be ready to try something different. At which point she looks into the audience and, reluctantly out there with his shy 12-year-old daughter Lou (Chloe Coleman), sees divorced dad maths teacher Charlie Gilbert (Owen Wilson who last shared the screen with her in Anaconda) holding Marry Me sign he’s been handed by his starstruck lesbian friend and colleague, Parker (Sarah Silverman, ironically sharing her character’s name with another Lopez film), and declares yes, she’ll marry him.
Much to the dismay of her Brit manager Colin Calloway (John Bradley, far better than in Moonfall), she decides not to pay him off but to stick with her decision, at least for a few months; if nothing else, it’s a photo opportunity gift. Charlie, who said yes because he felt sorry for her, is of course the quintessential aw-shucks nice guy in what is basically a fairy tale rerun of Notting Hill and, while overwhelmed by all the sudden paparazzi attention (who bizarrely seem to suddenly lose all interest to the extent they can take his old bulldog for walk and no one bothers) and the glitzy showbiz world he’s suddenly become part of, goes along with things and, in a subsequent deal whereby she has to go without her entourage, doing everything for her, agrees to climb aboard the social media bandwagon.
Anyone even vaguely acquainted with the genre will know exactly how this all pans out, the pair actually becoming a couple before he says he doesn’t fit in her world and it seems she might be getting back with Bastian, given some extra colours with Kat bonding with Lou and helping her overcome her stagefright (cue the Mathalon final in Peoria, Illinois, where the unlikely lovers are finally reunited), getting all the kids in his Pi-Thons maths club up to dance along with her to I Just Got Paid and even doing a turn at the school dance.
There’s a vague nod to feminism when Kat asks why women have to wait for men to propose and then take their name, but the film quickly dispenses with any such issues in favour of the candyfloss trimmings and, naturally, scenes where Lopez can perform her new songs (of which power ballad On My Way is rather good). While taking it all way too more seriously than it warrants, Lopez is on her best romantic form since Maid In Manhattan while, sharing a low simmering chemistry, with his familiar tousled hair and chewing velvet voice, Wilson is affably bland, the cast fleshed out by Michelle Bureau as Kat’s social media manager, Stephen Wallem as a glee club teacher and an over-extended cameo by Jimmy Fallon as himself, the film ending with a cute montage of real-life couples recounting how they met. It may not be wedded bliss, but nor is it the nuptial nightmare you might have assumed it would be. (BT TV Store, Sky Store, Virgin)
Nightmare Alley (15)
Guillermo del Toro has remade the 1947 dark Tyrone Power thriller adapted from William Lindsay Gresham’s pulp novel as a cynical Depression-era moral fable about human nature and how it’s coldly exploited by a world made up of con artists and shysters.
It opens with Stanton Carlisle (a stupendous Bradley Cooper never playing for sympathy) lowering wrapped up corpse into a hole in a farmhouse floor and then setting fire to the place, a scene to which the film with flashback on several occasions before revealing who and why. He surfaces following a dwarf to at travelling carnival of fellow outcasts and misfits where the boss, Clem Hoatley (a devilish Willem Dafoe) gives him a job and a floor to sleep on. Here he uses his charm, wiles and natural showman skills to win Clem over by helping improve some of the acts and avoiding an awkward moment when the cops turn up investigating one of the carny’s attractions, The Geek (a homeless man drugged, sent mad and exhibited as a freak biting the head off a live chicken). He also strikes up a friendship with mentalist act clairvoyant Zeena (Toni Collette) and her creaky boozed up partner Pete (David Strathairn), keen to learn how to read people and the tricks of the trade and even keener to get his hands on Pete’s book of codewords.
One of the acts he buffs up is that of Molly (Rooney Mara), who apparently conducts electricity through her body in front of the jaw-gaping rubes, but while she’s clearly taken by him, her self-appointed guardian, strongman Bruno (Ron Perlman) makes it abundantly clear what will happen of Stan hurts her.
Suffice to say, however, after ‘accidentally’ poisoning Pete, armed with the stolen black book the arrogant Stan and naive Molly take off into the film’s second 1941-set act to start their own mentalist act using the tricks he’s stolen, playing more upmarket clubs in his driven need for validation, fame and wealth, whatever the cost to his soul. It’s at the Copacabana where he comes into contact with psychiatrist Lilith Ritter (an icily magnetic, razor sharp Cate Blanchett),. who is under no illusion that Stan is the real thing. However, they strike up a dark arrangement, whereby he agrees to therapy and she provides him with details of her wealthy clients whose grief and need for commune with the dead he can exploit, sharing a cut of his fees with her. He reckons he’s playing her, but, as the film reveals, a calculating femme fatale, she’s sharper at the power playing games than he thinks. Things eventually go pear-shaped when, ignoring Pete’s advice to not go down the spook show route, Stan enlists Molly to pose as his shame-ridden industrialist mark’s (Richard Jenkins) dead loved one, sending him back on the run as the film comes full circle with a devastating irony and a final line that will haunt long after the credits.
All this de Toro weaves together with the art of a master of misdirection, the detail of such things as pickled foetuses and hand-painted sideshow banners adding to the film’s unsettling lurid ambience and its world of callous grifters and hustlers to deliver a film that ranks up there alongside dark noir classics like LA Confidential and There Will Be Blood. (Disney+)
Operation Mincemeat (12A)
In 1943, the Allies were preparing to invade Sicily. Unfortunately, the Germans were aware of this and so, to avoid a massacre, a plan was hatched to persuade Hitler that Sicily was a decoy and the real invasion site was Greece. To do so, Operation Trojan Horse, subsequently renamed Operation Mincemeat, was devised by Lieutenant Commander Ian Fleming, personal assistant to Rear Admiral John Godfrey, the Director of Naval Intelligence, who presented it as the Trout memo, comparing the deception of an enemy in wartime to fly fishing. This was then taken up by Charles Cholmondeley, an RAF officer seconded to British intelligence, and codenamed Trojan Horse, and, working from a basement office, a small team, ovserseen by Ewen Montagu, a barrister working for Naval intelligence, set about creating the plan whereby fake documents about the Greece invasion would be washed up off the shore of a supposedly neutral Spain on the body of a purported British officer and, hopefully, made privy to the Nazis.
Working from Montagu’s 1953 book, this was previously filmed as The Man Who Never Was and is now revisited by director John Madden and screenwriter Michelle Ashford (the story’s also furnished a play and incredulously a new stage musical) who have drawn on the now declassified secret files and Ben Macintyre’s 2010 book which afforded far more detail about the operation and those involved, including the name of the homeless suicide, Glyndwr Michael, whose corpse would be given the fictitious – but meticulously fabricated – identity of Captain (Acting Major) William Martin, of the Royal Marines.
It’s an impressive cast list of high powered British talent, headed up by Colin Firth as Montagu, Matthew Macfadyen as Cholmondeley and Johnny Flynn as Fleming alongside Jason Isaacs as Admiral John Godfrey who though the whole thing would end in disaster, Simon Russell Beale as Churchill, Penelope Wilton as the head of the secretarial division Hester Leggett and Kelly Macdonald as her protégé Jean Leslie who would be Martin’s fictitious girlfriend Pam, the subject of the letters written by Leggett. Rounding out the cast is Mark Gattis as Montagu’s brother Ivor, a former Communist activist and suspected, in the film of being a Russian spy in a subplot involving a deal struck with Godfrey to have Cholmondeley’s brother’s body repatriated.
Starting with Fleming, there’s a running (in)joke about officers being aspiring novelists (he refers to Godfrey as M and takes interest in a weaponised watch designed by the Q division), but it’s a theme taken to a deeper level in that all of those at the heart of the plan begin to live out their own fantasies through the deception, the spinster Heggett investing her own unfulfilled romances in the correspondence while the widowed Leslie immerses herself in Pam and she and Montagu, whose wife and family have gone to America for safety, carry on a flirtation (not invented for the film) , forming a love triangle with Cholmondeley who also has unspoken feelings for her.
The smoke and mirrors spycraft is expertly staged and constructed, going over and over the details needed to persuade the Spanish and Germans of Martin’s true (fake) identity and to confirm if the documents had been read or not, and there are several moments where, as Macintyre’s book revealed and are played here in a comedic vein, the whole thing came close to being exposed. Although the ploy proved a success, the film still ratchets up the tension as the team wait for the ticker tape to send news of the invasion while, fuelled by terrific performances, the character-driven subplots deliver a solid emotional foundation. Described as the greatest military deception of modern times it altered the course of history and its legacy lives on with a GCHQ training programme of the same name teaching intelligence operatives how to create a fake identity online. (MAC)
Paris, 13th District (15)
Filmed in black and white save for one brief sequence, adapted from three stories by US graphic novelist Adrian Tomine (and titled Les Olympiades in French after the tower blocks of the setting), director Jacques Audiard unravels a contemporary story of four interconnected people looking for – or avoiding – love to a backdrop of the titular Paris district.
A free spirited , well-educated, sharp-tongued but vulnerable Taiwanese woman, Emilie (terrific newcomer Lucie Zhang) lives rent free in a flat owned by her elderly dementia-sufferer grandmother (whom she never visits in the nursing home, at one point offering rent reduction if a prospective tenant will take her place), works as a telesales operative (from where she’s fired for being rude to clients) and uses her dating-app to maintain an active sex life without any attachments. Then along comes Camille (Makita Samba), a young Black high-school teacher who becomes first her lodger and then, turned on by the cling film wrap she has around her stomach to lose weight, her lover. They have regular steamy sex for a while as roommates-with-benefits., but then, while she becomes more emotionally involved, he cools and starts having an affair with a colleague who is taking over his job while he works on his PhD.
As it turns out, taking a break for academia, he stars managing an estate agents where he ends up employing Nora (Noémie Merlant), a serious-minded, solitary Sorbonne law student who has come to Paris following a toxic coercive relationship in her home town and lacks the confidence to fit in with her young fellow students. At a party, she wears a blonde wig and is mistaken for cam girl sex-worker ‘Amber Sweet’ (Jehnny Beth), phone footage by a fan going viral and wrecking her university life. She eventually becomes Camille’s latest lover, but is unable to experience an orgasm, the storyline blossoming out to reintroduce Emilie and Nora’s webcam connection with the heavily-tattooed Amber where the pair start to swap their stories. Audiard exploring the struggle to find love in an alienating digital age as each character wrestles with their sense of identity and the persona they project to the world, a subplot involving Camille’s relationship with his recently widowed father (Pol White) and stuttering teenage sister (Camille Léon-Fucien) and his dismissive attitude to her aspirations as a stand-up comic. Beautifully acted and finely photographed, it builds to a warm cathartic if perhaps optimistic dénouement, and is well worth paying a visit. (Rakuten TV)
The Power of the Dog (12A)
Oscar winner for Best Director, Jane Campion’s first film since 2009’s Bright Star is a slow burning compelling and psychologically complex adaptation of the 1967 Thomas Savage novel (the title taken from a line in Psalm 22), veined with themes of toxic, corrosive masculinity, insecurity, frustrated passions and repressed sexuality. Set against the windscreen vistas of 1925 Montana (notably a rock formation resembling a barking dog) but with a claustrophobically intimate feel, it’s founded on four electrifying performances, Kirsten Dunst as Rose Gordon, a woman widowed by suicide, now running a guest house and restaurant for cattle herders, her sensitive, effeminate lisping teenage son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee), Jesse Plemons as her future (and real life) husband, the stiff but refined George Burbank who looks after the administration of the family cattle ranch while his coarse, rugged brother Phil, a menacing Benedict Cumberbatch giving one of his best performances, looks after the more hands-on aspects, like castrating bulls and stripping the hides, which, in a pointed scene later in the film, he would rather burn that give to his Native American neighbours.
It’s clear there’s friction between them, Phil resentful that he’s the one with the degree from Yale now riding the range, while his brother, who never achieved academic success, keeps his hands clean, dresses in finery and never has to be told to wash up before sitting down to dinner. Rose enters their lives when she serves the crew dinner, Phil mocks Peter (calling him Miss Nancy) and the paper flowers he’s made, his mother’s subsequent tears prompting George’s courtship and, much to Phil’s shock, marriage. When she moves into the sprawling mansion, Phil makes no attempt to hide his contempt, dismissing her as a gold digger, cruelly ridiculing her attempts at the Radetsky March on the piano George has bought with his own far better banjo version and then humiliating her inability to play when George invites the Governor (Keith Carradine), his wife and the brothers’ estranged parents, only ever referred to as Old Gent (Peter Carroll) and Old Lady (Frances Conroy), to dinner.
But then something strange happens. After taunting Peter, who arrives during a break from studying medicine, Phil suddenly changes his attitude, takes the boy under his wing, teaches him to ride and starts making him a clearly phallic rope made out of cow hide strips, Peter, in turn becoming more confident. As such, Phil’s frequent reverential mention of the late Bronco Henry, who taught them the ranching trade and whose saddle he keeps in remembrance starts to take on a deeper meaning, reinforced by a scene of Phil sniffing one of Bronco’s old kerchiefs and masturbating and of Peter’s discovery of a stash of ‘art’ magazines of naked men hidden in the woods. The question simmering, however, is the motivations of the older and younger man, who is manipulating and who is manipulated. And why.
Meanwhile, succumbing to Phil’s campaign to make her feel unwelcome and her husband’s obliviousness to her unhappiness, the already fragile Rose is slipping further and further into alcoholism, stashing bottles around the house and in the alley for furtive swigs, observed with quiet satisfaction by her brother-in-law, as, pivoting around a diseased cow hide, the film moves towards its tragic and weightedly ambiguous finale.
Told in five unhurried chapters, the gathering dread set to Johnny Greenwood’s nervy score, featuring a supporting cast that includes Last Night In Soho’s Thomasin McKenzie as a young maid and regular Campion collaborator Genevieve Lemon as the intimidating no-nonsense housekeeper, it’s a haunting American Gothic war of attrition evocative of William Faulkner that lays out the pieces of the puzzle and invites you to fit them into place. (Netflix)
Sing 2 (PG)
A follow-up to the wildly successful 2016 animated musical this reunites pretty much all the original cast, Jennifer Saunders’ Nana among them, for what is essentially a spin on the original story. The animal performers from the first film are now a successful regional theatre troupe, but koala impresario Buster Moon (Matthew McConaughey) still aspires for bigger and better things and hopes that their latest show, a spectacular take on Alice In Wonderland, will land them a spot in Redshore City, the film’s equivalent to Las Vegas. However, when influential talent scout Suki walks out after the first half, declaring them not up to the big leagues, he and the gang head for Redshore to audition for Jimmy Crystal (Bobby Cannavale), a snarly white wolf hotelier magnate singularly unimpressed by any of the acts. He is, however, intrigued when Buster lies about having a connection to reclusive retired rock star lion Clay Calloway (voiced by Bono but clearly modelled on Robert Plant), and agrees to back the proposed new musical, space extravaganza Out Of This World pitched by Gunter (Nick Kroll). It just has to open in three weeks.
In it, porcine performer Rosita (Reese Witherspoon) is to play the lead, travelling four planets on a rescue mission, but, when she finds herself too scared to launch on the flying wire, the part is given to Crystal’s spoiled daughter Porsha (Halsey), who has undeniable presence but, as it turns out, can’t actually act.
Meanwhile, Crystal is pressuring Buster to come up with Clay and, after an initial attempt to recruit him by one-eyed chameleon named Miss Crawley (writer-director Gareth Jennings) fails miserably, he and porcupine rock singer Ash (Scarlett Johansson) try their luck instead, but even so, consumed with grief over his dead wife, Clay seems unlikely to agree.
And so, back in Redshore, things are rapidly falling apart, Crystal going ballistic when he thinks Porsha has been fired and embarrassed him, threatening to kill Buster. The only resort being for the crew to, yes, let’s do the show right here and win over the crowd.
Woven into this are a couple of sub-plots, Johnny the gorilla (Taron Egerton) is having trouble learning his dance moves under his demanding teacher Klaus Kickenklober and is befriended by local street performer Nooshy (Letitia Wright), while, never having had a romance, elephant Meena (Tori Kelly) can’t find the chemistry with her self-absorbed preening stage partner (Eric Andre) but has fallen for fellow pachyderm ice cream salesman Alfonso (Pharrell Williams).
With scenes staged to such as Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, Prince’s Let’s Go Crazy, I Say A Little Prayer, Higher Love, Bad Guy and I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking for, as well as featuring brand new U2 track Your Song Saved My Life, it’s a colourful, energetic affair with top rate animation, choreography and an infectious sense of fun that will leave you with a big smile on your face however old you are. (Rakuten TV)
Sonic The Hedgehog 2 (PG)
The live-action debut of the Sega game’s superfast sarcastic blue alien hedgehog proved far better than anyone expected, with even Jim Carrey back on form. Two years on and the sequel falls considerably short of that mark. Now happily ensconced with his adoptive Montana family, Green Hills sheriff Tom Wachowski (James Marsden) aka “donut lord and his wife Maddie (Tika Sumpter), Sonic (Ben Schwartz) secretly sets out to become the local superhero but, when he foils an armoured car robbery and causes chaos in the process, he’s told in no uncertain manner (and borrowed from Spider-Man) that power requires responsibility, and he’ll know his moment to shine when it comes.
Meanwhile, on Mushroom Planet to which he was banished, Dr. Robotnik (Carrey) engineers his escape by opening a portal, through which comes the big-fisted red and angry spiny ant-eater Knuckles (a drolly overly-serious Idris Elba), who blames Sonic for the extinction of his echidas tribe and is seeking revenge, naturally leading to he and Robotnik with his drone army teaming up to track down and take possession of the Master Emerald, green gem that bestows unstoppable power, the location of which (Siberia), it turns out, Sonic has a map. Adding to the character list is yellow young alien fox Tails (Colleen O’Shaughnessey) with his two-tails (which he uses to fly), an inventor and big admirer of Sonic who’s travelled to Earth to warn him about Knuckles.
Sidelining Tom and Maddie to Hawaii, where they’re attending her sister Rachel’s (a very funny Natasha Rothwell) wedding (cue the unsupervised Sonic partying wildly) , until the final act reunion with its FBI sting reveal and climatic showdown with a now hyper-powered Robotnik and his giant war-machine creation, the film spends most of its time in a series of chases and fights between the two opposing camps, reviving and expanding the role of Robotnik’s adoring sidekick, Agent Stone (Lee Majdoub) along the way.
Mixing in subtler comic touches with the more lowbrow kid-friendly knockabout and Carrey’s quite possibly improvised pop-culture quips while unashamedly piling up the product placement (Oreos and the Four Seasons hotels at the top of the list), it doesn’t warrant the extended two hour running time, resorting to repetition to stretch things out. However, while somewhat overly indulging Carrey’s manic energy and facial gurning, the animation and FX, marrying the digital work with the real world, are again impressive the messages about family, friendship, working together and what makes a hero get spelled out without being too in your face and the voice work brings the game characters to engaging life and deliver pretty much everything its audience wants. With a sequel and pin-off already in the works, the Blue Blur hasn’t run out of steam yet. (Rakuten TV; Reel; Vue)
Spider-Man: No Way Home (12A)
Again directed by Jon Watts, this picks up directly after the events of Far From Home where, in a posthumous message claiming he was murdered, Mysterio outed Peter Parker as Spider-Man. Anticipation as to what came next was high, but no one could have possibly imagined this mind-bogglingly audacious threequel that plays like a two hour plus adrenaline orgasm. His identity revealed and the subject of a vilification campaign by J Jonah Jameson (JK Simmons reprising his role from the three Sam Raimi films), Peter (Tom Holland), girlfriend MJ (Zendaya), best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon) and Aunt May (Marisa Tomei), who, in the opening, has broken up with Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau), are arrested, interrogated and released (cue cameo by Charlie Cox from the Daredevil TV series) since the government can’t make anything stick. However, carrying on with life as normal is not on the table, Discovering he, MJ and Ned have been turned down for MIT because of events, in order to not ruin their lives he turns to Dr Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) to ask if he can readjust time so that things didn’t happen as they did. Strange says not, but, despite warnings from Wong (Benedict Wong), does offer to cast a spell to make everyone forget that Spider-Man and Peter Parker are the same. However, while weaving his enchantment, Peter keeps moving the goalposts to ensure those closest don’t forget, all of which sees things go haywire, causing a breach in the multiverse whereby villains from the previous films who knew his identity now materialise in his world, namely Doctor Octopus (Alfred Molina), The Green Goblin (Willem Dafoe), Sandman (Thomas Haden Church), Electro (Jamie Fox) and The Lizard (Rhys Ifans) who are as confused about him not being their Peter Parker as he is as to why they are after him. Suffice to say, while Strange wants to send them back to their fates (they all died), learning of the events that made them villains, Peter wants to try and cure/save them, giving them a second chance, a well-meaning intention that equally goes wrong, and involves his own battle with Strange to possess the magical doohickey that will return them to their own dimensions.
And, of course, if the rip in the multiverse means the character’s old villains resurface, it’s inevitable that (via Ned who has acquired portal powers from Strange) so too do the former Spider-Man stars from the two previous franchises, seeing Holland, Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield (far better than in his own Spider-Man films) working together (and sharing their stories of loss and tragedy as well the with great power mantra) as a team to carry out this dimension’s Peter’s plan atop the Statue of Liberty. There’s a whirlwind of dizzying webslinging action, eye-popping visual effects, snappy banter and any number of sly references to past plots and incarnations (including an amusing discussion about Maguire’s biowebs) and the connections to the Marvel Universe but also, focusing on soulful character depth, several scenes of emotional intensity as a pivotal character dies and Peter realises that, along with great responsibility great power also entails great sacrifice as he has to confront what it really means to be Spider-Man.
Also featuring such returnees as Flash Thompson (Tony Revolon), Betty Brant (Angourie Rice), J.B. Smoove as Peter’s teacher, its multi crossover of universes and franchises is carried off to exhilarating effect while delivering thoughtful commentary on notions of crime, punishment, heroism and redemption, coalescing into a film that may at times be convoluted but which consistently delivers both fan buy thrills as well as maximum entertainment for the mass audience and, as a coming of age drama, perhaps more than any of its predecessors, really defines what being Spider-Man really means. And don’t dare leave before the end credits or you’ll miss both Tom Hardy in barroom scene linking to the latest Venom film and a full-length trailer for the next Dr Strange that includes The Scarlet Witch and, as a result of his actions here, sets up the introduction of his evil doppelganger. It absolutely rules the all-time global box office. (Rakuten TV)
The Tender Bar (15)
Directed by George Clooney, this is an adaptation of the memoir by J.R. Moehringer, recalling his childhood and coming-of-age journey to become a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist (and, recently ghost writer of Prince Harry’s autobiography). Set predominantly in the 70s working-class neighbourhood of Manhasset in Long Island, it stars Daniel Ranieri as the 9-year-old J.R. with Tye Sheridan stepping into his young adult shoes. For both incarnations, his mentor and life coach is his Uncle Charlie (a lovely turn by Ben Affleck) who steps up the plate when J.R.’s dad (Max Martini), a gruff, alcoholic Top 40 disc jockey in New York City, walks out, leaving his family behind, his wife (Lily Rabe) and son left with no resort but to move back into her run-down family home, where Charlie also still lives along with her sister (Ranier’s own mother) and her kis, under the eye of her irascible elderly farting father (Christopher Lloyd) and long suffering mother (Sondra James). Mom sees this as a failure, J.R.sees it as gift to observe people around him to fuel his writerly aspirations. He’s given further encouragement by Charlie, who drive a blue Cadillac and runs a bar called Dickens, named after the author and populated by a clutch of colourful barflies who also impact on the boy’s life, feeds his nephew with a library-full of books to stretch his imagination and skills and advises him on how to behave decently toward, women, himself and the world. And, of course, buys him his first drink.
In his teenage years, we see J.R. landing a by-line – but no position – with the New York Times, being accepted into Yale, his friendship with roomate Wesley (Rhenzy Feliz), and his doomed on-again, off-again romance with his casually cruel first girlfriend, Sydney (Brianna Middleton) while the episodic and amiably rambling narrative also takes in his mother’s health scare, a couple of decidedly unfruitful reunions with his father as both a child and teen, and, most touchingly, his spruced up grandpa’s participation in the school’s father-son breakfast event.
Soundtracked to a mix of Jackson Browne, Steely Dan, the Isleys and Shocking Blue to add to the nostalgia and with a voiceover by Ron Livingston as the middle-aged J.R., not a great happens but it’s a gentle, knowingly sentimental and rosy but never syrupy warm-hearted love letter to family, hope, dreams and the Uncle Charlies everywhere. (Amazon Prime)
Top Gun: Maverick (12A)
Thirty-six years on since the original took your breath away, Tom Cruise has bowed to public demand and returned to the role that made him a global superstar, the authority-bucking US Navy fighter pilot Pete ‘Maverick’ Mitchell. As directed by Joseph Kosinski, who was only 16 when the original appeared, and scripted by Ehren Kruger, Eric Warren Singer and Christopher McQuarrie, Maverick hasn’t changed a great deal in the interim. He’s relatively more centred, still single, still in top physical shape and still a captain, partly through choice, partly because he runs the top brass up the wrong way. Indeed, he does so right from the start when, learning the supersonic stealth fighter project he’s heading in the Mojave Desert is being shut down by a Rear Admiral dubbed The Drone Ranger (Ed Harris) as it hasn’t reached its Mach 10 target, he duly climbs into the cockpit and pushes it to the limit and beyond before he can be told in person. However, rather than being disciplined, he’s told to report to his old Fighter Weapons School aka Top Gun stomping ground where he learns an unnamed country is developing an unsanctioned uranium enrichment plant and the school’s best pilots are being recruited to carry out a Dam Busters-style mission to destroy it. Initially assuming he’s one of then, he’s informed instead, by Commanding Officer Beau ‘Cyclone’ Simpson (John Hamm), that he’s there to train them and select the best six. And also that (verging on obsolete) he wasn’t Simpson’s first, or any, choice, but is there at the request of his former rival, long-time friend and now Admiral, Iceman (Val Kilmer).
The hot shots candidates are all introduced in a somewhat unnecessarily extended barroom scene, the ones that matter lining up as nerdy Bob (Lewis Pullman), cockily arrogant Hangman (Glen Powell), spunky female pilot Phoenix (Monica Barbaro), Fanboy (Danny Ramirez) and Rooster (Miles Teller), the now grown son of Goose (Anthony Edwards seen in flashbacks), Maverick’s wingman who dies in action and who, along with many others, Pete himself included, blames as him for his father’s death, thus setting up a somewhat predictable arc between the two.
The same scene also introduces bar owner Penny Benjamin (Jennifer Connolly), mentioned but never seen in the original, now given a backstory as Maverick’s former on-off love interest who, now a divorced single mother, re-enters the romantic orbit. Of course, that’s a minor subplot as the film’s main focuses is on Maverick whipping his students into shape so that the chosen ones can fly dangerously low into the mountains under the radar to avoid the anti-aircraft missiles and superior enemy planes, destroy the target and get out again in a race against the clock. So cue all the expected young bucks v old fogey dynamics, pilot rivalries, run ins with Cyclone, and Maverick again bucking orders and pushing himself to breaking point to prove the mission is not impossible, inevitably ending up leading it himself with Rooster as his wingman.
As you’d imagine, right from a recreation of the opening scene (complete with Kenny Loggins’ Danger Zone), there plenty of nods to the original along with such iconic Cruise moments as a front on show of him riding his motorbike (in his original Top Gun jacket) grinning like a Cheshire cat. He’s not above taking the piss out of himself either, retorting ‘it’s the only one I’ve got” when someone comments on giving ‘that look’. While better at the grins and the grit expression that registering deep emotion, nevertheless Cruise has a particular affecting and touching scene in a reunion with Kilmer, his character clearly not long for the world (thereby leaving Maverick without anyone in his corner).
Likewise, while playing down the jingoism element, Kosinksi is at his best when the action is in the air, whether in the simulated dog fights (shot in actual U.S. Navy F/A-18s, for which the cast went through a punishing training process) as Maverick pushes his team or the actual dog fights evading enemy jets in the aftermath of the mission, where old grievances and new enmities are all neatly resolved in big bromantic hugs, even if the original’s homoeroticism is decidedly downplayed here.
Cruise again demonstrates that he’s in a cinema superstar league of his own, an ‘event’ in his own right (as the film says, it all comes down to pilot in the box), a generous actor but inevitably putting others in the shade simply on account of who he is, though Teller at least gets to remind how good he was in Whiplash and Kosinski’s own firefighter drama Only The Brave. Along with a deft use of 70s hits, music’s provided by Harold Faltermeyer with the big song coming from Lady Gaga, and while that’s no Take My Breath Away, the film will most certainly have you needing oxygen masks. Turn and burn, baby. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Electric; Empire Great Park; Everyman; Mockingbird; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Vue)
The Tragedy of Macbeth (15)
Making his solo directorial debut, Joel Coen delivers an atmospheric, stylised and stripped down adaptation of Shakespeare’s tragedy, filmed by Bruno Delbonnel in stark black and white with an icy chill running through its monochromatic bones as ravens, those harbingers of death, take wing throughout. Denzel Washington (who, like Branagh makes the Bard’s lines flow with a natural rhythm) is typically mesmerising as the battle-weary Macbeth while, Coen’s wife Frances McDormand was surely born to play the power-driven, manipulative Lady Macbeth, the cast fleshed out by Brendan Gleeson as the doomed Duncan (his murder here played out on screen), Corey Hawkins as the self-hating Macduff whose wife (Moses Ingram), child and retinue are slaughtered in his absence, Bertie Carvel as Banquo, Harry Melling as the young Malcolm and Stephen Root as the drunken porter with his erectile dysfunction comic relief.
Coen makes some audacious decisions in his interpretation, not least in the casting of Kathryn Hunter, contorting her body as all three witches (presented as a single figure with two reflections in the water or apparitions fading into the mist) and the way in which the role of Ross (Alex Hassell) has been reworked to make him a more significant character (the third murderer) playing both sides and with a coda in which he retrieves the escaped Fleance. The dialogue too is given a new slant, monologues reimagined as conversations while Macbeth’s hallucinations of the dagger (here the handle on Duncan’s bedchamber) and Banquo’s ghost seen only by Macbeth and never the viewer.
The set design too is integral, the action set predominantly within Macbeth’s castle, a disorienting claustrophobic modernist structure of angular walls, corridors and courtyards that impart an expressionist ambience, reinforced by Carter Burwell’s unsettling soundscape, all combining with the unerring direction and razor-sharp performances to rank Coen’s Macbeth alongside those by Orson Welles and Justin Kurzel. (Apple TV)
Turning Red (PG)
Disappointingly not given a cinema release, the latest animation from Pixar is the first Disney release (and possibly also the first ever children’s film) to broach the topic of menstruation, although the bigger theme is puberty per se. Set in the Chinese quarter of Toronto in the early noughties, Chinese-Canadian Mei Mei Lee (Rosalie Chiang) is a self-confident – if slightly annoying – over-achieving 13-year-old who excels at school, is close to her three besties, Miriam (Ava Morse), Priya (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan) and Abby (Hyein Park), has a Tamagotchi pet and adores five piece (!) boy band 4*Town. However, fun – like karaoke with her friends – always has to take a back seat to her chores, most specifically helping her controlling, uptight mother Ming (Sandra Oh) run the family’s ancestral temple dedicated to Sun Yee, a scholar, poet and, warrior who saved her village from its enemies by asking the gods to transform her into a giant red panda. The Lee family believe the creature blessed subsequent generations with good fortune. However, Mei is about to find out that’s not the only thing that goes with the legend.
When she suddenly finds herself attracted to Devon, the tween who works down the local store, and starts drawing pictures of him (as a merman, with her, etc.) in her notebook (something that prompts a humiliating overreaction from mom), it’s a sure sign puberty is kicking in. And with it comes that change from girl to woman. However, rather than, as mom calls it, the blooming of the red peony, it manifests itself in a dramatically different way as, getting excited thinking of Devon she suddenly transforms into a giant red panda. Only when the hormones stop raging and she calms down does she revert back to normal. She’s horrified by her new self. She doesn’t want to be hairy! And she doesn’t want to smell! And it’s something she most definitely wants to keep secret from mom (who has high expectations for her daughter and reckons boys and pop music are basically manifestations of the devil – she’s a Celine Dion fan) and her put-upon easy going dad (Orion Lee). But when she finds her mother (who, as we later learn went through the same panda experience) has stalked her to school with a packet of sanitary pads, her inner panda simply erupts.
Fortunately, being around her three friends allows her to keep it in check, trying to persuade mom she’s in control so that she’ll let her go to the local 4*Town concert. Naturally mom’s having none of that, so the four girls plan to raise the ticket money themselves, Mei cashing in on the fact her schoolmates reckon her furry alter ego is super cool and are willing to pay for selfies, t-shirts and much more.
Unfortunately, it’s at this point that her grandmother (Wai Ching Ho) arrives with Mei’s aunties to perform the ritual that will cast out the panda, and it turns out that Mei’s not alone in having controlling mother issues. However, with the ritual the same night at the concert, Mei has to decide who she wants to be – the little girl her mother demands or her own person as the film heads to its SkyDome panda v panda showdown climax.
Sharing much with earlier Disney offerings Mulan, Brave and Moana (though Mei is not your usual princess) as well as influences from Studio Ghibli animations like My Neighbour Totoro, with Billie Eilish and her brother Finneas O’Connell contributing to the soundtrack, it’s a wonderful coming-of-age story that amusingly captures teenage rebellion (“I like boys, I like gyrating!” Mei screams at her mother) as the need for parental approval and breaking free clash, trumpeting its embrace your inner weirdo message as Mei reconciles with the messy side of her personality to declare “My panda, my choice, Mom”. Tweenage girls will adore it, their moms maybe less so. (Disney +; Rakuten TV)
Thedebut feature from writer/director Iris K. Shin, this draws on South Korean haunting horror while also exploring inherited generational trauma and dysfunctional mother-daughter issues and, if there are undeniably flaws with a somewhat pat ending, it’s also creepy and dark enough to keep you involved. Traumatised by her umma (Korean for mother) (MeeWha Alana Lee) as a child who would lock her in a cupboard when she was disobedient (and inflict a much worse punishment revealed in the last act), Amanda (a powerful Sandra Oh) now lives off the grid in a house where all forms of electricity are forbidden, keeping bees and running an increasingly successful honey-making business with her home-schooled non-Korean speaking daughter Chris (Fivel Stewart), herself regarded as a ‘weirdo’ by the kids in town, their only friend being local shopkeeper Danny (Dermot Mulroney), who acts as middle-man to sell the produce.
Amanda suffers nightmares and blackouts and things get worse when her uncle turns up to inform her her mother has died, accuses her of being a terrible daughter and leaves a suitcase containing mom’s remains and such artefacts as a heirloom mask and a kimono for her to perform a ritual ceremony to prevent her turning into a “gwishin”. Inevitably, her mother’s restless ghost starts putting in appearances, Amanda’s mental state further rattled by discovering Chris secretly wants to apply to go away to college, an act of ‘disobedience’ and threat of abandonment that, Chris enlightened by Danny’s niece (Odeya Rush) as to mom’s deceptions, tips her over the edge and almost quite literally turns her into her own mother.
While initially intense with its camerawork and spookiness, body horror, bee swarmings and a dark cellar and even an attic, Shim makes a common first timer mistake of repeating things and piling on exposition rather than letting the film speak for itself, while the predictable climactic confrontation between Amanda and her mother’s spirit is decidedly confused and confusing. It doesn’t really pull off its attempt to be an American-Korean answer to Jordan Peele, but even so it’s an impressive calling card. (Rakuten TV)
Some fifteen years in development, this finally sees the hugely successful PlayStation video game on the big screen, the result, however, is a decidedly anticlimactic experience that stuffs in a succession of action set pieces but fails to find any heart or soul.
A prologue sets up the foundation for what follows, with brothers Nathan and Sam Drake (supposedly descendents of Sir Francis), living in an orphanage after the death of their parents, sneaking out after dark night to rob antiquities from the local museum. When apprehended, Sam takes off into the night, never to seen again although, as the film later reveals, sends regular postcards to his brother.
Fast forward several years, and the now grown Nate (Tom Holland) is working in a trendy New York cocktail bar where he deftly picks the pockets of its wealthy customers. Enter Sully (Mark Whalberg, initially intended to play Nate) who proposes they join forces to hunt down the legendary lost gold of 16th-century gold explorer Ferdinand Magellan, which Sam told his brother about before disappearing. Initially reluctant, Nate changes his mind in pretty much a heartbeat, setting the main thrust of the narrative in motion and adding to the mix Chloe (Sophia Ali), Sully’s gold-hunter partner’girlfriend as the third wheel in the quest and martial arts warrior Braddock (Tati Gabrielle as a sort of bargain basement Grace Jones) who works for Santiago Moncada (Antonio Banderas), part of the shady Spanish family which, down the centuries, funded the Inquisition and the Franco regime, and is also obsessed with recovering the gold (to the extent of offing dad when he decided to longer cough up the funding).
As such, the plot kicks off with them having to steal an antique cross from an auction which, along with its counterpart (yes, it’s a double cross) provides the literal key to unlocking assorted secrets, vaults and the like, taking the adventurers on a globe-trotting romp that lifts from various instalments of the video game, avoiding booby traps and, in Nate’s case, surviving a fall from a transport plane aboard its cargo, before the third act climax has them and their rivals airlifting a couple of beached galleons from out of the Phillipines jungles.
The action sequences are, by and large, exciting but all the character stuff in-between is just flat and dull, with Moncada’s departure midway, promoting Braddock to chief villain, seeming more like Banderas exercising a contract exit clause rather than a narrative decision. Holland gives his best, but feels too light for the role even if he is supposed to be a younger Drake while Whalberg lets his furrowed brow do all the acting and Ali and Gabrielle never get to do much more than fulfil their one-dimensional purposes. Director Ruben Fleischer, who gave the world Venom, dresses it up in the manner of Thirties adventure movies and Saturday morning matinees, but, compounded by clunky dialogue, only succeeds in underlining how much better this was done by Raiders of the Lost Ark and National Treasure, both of which it evokes to its disadvantage. (Rakuten TV)