This column will review films both screening theatrically and/or on various streaming platforms.
Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance With Somebody (12A)
There’s already been two documentaries on the life and death of Whitney Houston aka The Voice, and now director Kasi Lemmons gives her a Bohemian Rhapsody-style treatment (indeed, it’s written by Anthony McCarten in the same formulaic style), titled after one of her seven consecutive US number ones. A star-making turn for British TV actress Naomi Ackie, who brilliantly captures Houston’s mannerisms and charisma and (mostly) lip syncs so convincingly you’d swear it was her singing, it kicks off its story with the young Whitney singing in church, her domineering celebrated singer mother Cissy (Tamara Tunie), conducting the gospel choir and tut tutting over her daughter’s tendency to improvise on the melody. It quickly shifts to Sweetwater’s, a New York nightclub where her rendition of The Greatest Love of All blows away Arista boss and producer Clive Davis (an avuncular Stanley Tucci) and leads to her record deal and, two weeks later, her debut on The Merv Griffin Show.
That same episodic, staging post structure continues throughout the film, documenting a series of highs and lows as Houston rises to superstar status before falling into drug addiction, rehab and a failed tour comeback, variously taking in her relationships with long-time friend and lesbian lover Robyn Crawford (Nafessa Williams), an affair she was open about until she became famous, who went on to become her creative director before resigning over her refusal to seek treatment; a fling with Jermaine Jackson; her relationship with her self-serving womanising father (Clarke Peters) who acted as her manager and exploited her wealth (she replaced him with sister-in-law Pat); and the volatile, toxic marriage to Bobby Brown (a one-note Ashton Sanders) who only told her his girlfriend was pregnant after he’d proposed.
Before ending with her drug-related accidental drowning in 2012 (it neglects to mention her daughter died the same way three years later), it documents the meticulous manner in which she chose her material, her acting debut in The Bodyguard (Kevin Costner introducing her to Dolly Parton’s I Will Always Love You), though subsequent films like her award-winning turn in Waiting To Exhale are never mentioned, the criticism that her music wasn’t ‘black’ enough and, of course, a succession of recording and live appearances, among them the knowingly American Princess image mocking How Will I Know video, her electrifying 1991 Super Bowl performance of The Star Spangled Banner, the self-assertive comeback I Didn’t Know My Own Strength and, opening and closing the film, her iconic live medley of I Loves You, Porgy, I Tell You I Am Not Going and I Have Nothing at the 21st annual American Music Awards.
Although tempered by the certificate, it doesn’t whitewash Houston’s troubles or her at times diva petulance or her descent into self-doubt, fractured ego and self-destruction even if the depiction is somewhat decorous (her estate oversaw production). The problem, though, is that, for all the incandescence Ackie brings to the role and the strong support turns from Tucci, Peters and Williams, the episodic nature of the narrative means it never fully connects emotionally. As a celebration of her voice it shines brightly, as an exploration of the woman it has rather less range. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Electric; Empire Great Park; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Vue)
White Noise (15)
Published in 1985, Don DeLillo’s social satire on a morally diseased America with its consumer culture, academia, religions and anxiety about death was long deemed unfilmable. However, in his first film not based on original material, Noah Baumbach has risen to the challenge and, while ultimately flawed and reinforcing the impossibility of translating book to screen, it’s an ambitious and at times captivating effort that also chimes with the current pandemic climate.
Reuniting his Frances Ha co-stars Adam Driver and Greta Gerwig, he’s crafted an absurdist comedy-drama set in the 1984 in which a compellingly distracted Driver plays Jack Gladney, a middle-aged Midwest academic celebrated for his self-founded Hitler Studies course (that he can’t speak German is a big worry given an upcoming conference), with Gerwig as his fourth wife, Babette. They have four precocious kids, the analytical Heinrich and sensitive Steffie (Sam and May Nivola) from one of his previous marriages, her petulant daughter Denise (Raffey Cassidy) and their young son Wilder. The marriage seems happy but she’s showing early signs of dementia and is addicted to something Dylar, about which neither he nor the children have any knowledge, but is designed to suppress fears of death.
The film opens with Jack’s colleague, Murray Siskind (Don Cheadle), delivering a lecture on the celebratory nature of car crashes in American cinema, who, envious of Jack’s iconic status on campus, launches his own Elvis Studies in competition, leading to a scene in which both expound their theories to a class simultaneously rather like a lecture version of a dance-off.
The kids are fascinated by plane crashes, devouring TV footage, but then Blacksmith is struck by a spectacularly staged collision between a truck transporting gasoline and a train carrying toxic waste, resulting in the release of a poisonous cloud, dubbed the airborne toxic event (Jack, who wants to play the hero of the hour, but is singularly not up to the task, can’t decide whether to describe the black cloud as “feathery” or “billowing”), that forces a mass evacuation (cue the family racing through a forest in their car and landing in a river) to a designated holding place and, exposed to the chemical cloud (Jack’s told to wait 15 years to see what happens) , an exacerbation in everyone’s death anxieties. Meanwhile, an agency called SIMUVAC is using the real evacuation to help perfect their test-drill procedure.
Constructed in three sections, the last of which is heavy with philosophical monologues, with dialogue frequently overlapping and awash with primary colours, it’s an uneven affair that ranges from long stretches of tedium where very little happens to chilling moments such as the unsettling deserted, abandoned gas station where Jack refuels while the black cloud hovers in the sky behind him, a creepy nightmare or the bizarre scene where he and Babette end up in a hospital run by German atheist nuns led by Barbara Sukowa. Elsewhere, Jack’s persuaded by Murray that he can overcome his fear of death by taking someone else’s life, his choice being his wife’s dealer (Lars Eidinger).
It can be an effort to stay with it, but Baumbach rewards patience with a truly memorable and fun end credits dance scene set in a supermarket crowded with shoppers set to an LCD Soundsystem track and looking for all the world like some Talking Heads video. (Netflix; Electric)
The multi-award winning debut feature by writer-director Charlotte Wells, this is an unsentimental but emotionally direct melancholic account of a father-daughter relationship as the older Sophie (Celia Rowlson-Hall), a new mother, remembers a summer holiday at a budget Turkish resort in 1999 with her divorced dad Calum (Paul Mescal) when he was her age now and she was 11. She makes friends with other kids at the pool, learns about gossip and experiences a nascent blossoming of young love with a boy she meets in an amusement arcade, he, sporting a plaster cast on one arm (symbolically concealing a fracture), which means he has problems lighting cigarettes, reads his b meditation and self-improvement books and keeps in touch with his ex by payphone. Sometimes they play snooker together. Wells unfolds the story in unshowy, natural manner, making frequent use of Calum’s handycam footage, with naturalistic, uncontrived dialogue, capturing a mood of subtle mystery at the heart of the relationship. There’s no dramatic moments (at worst he embarrasses her with dad dancing – recalled in a surreal past meets present rave dream sequence – and Tai Chi moves and backs out of a karaoke spot, leading Soph to sing REM’s Losing My Religion alone), no heightened tensions, but an understated subtle meditation on how memories can find meanings that were not apparent at the time. A travel agency cock up means they have to share a double bed, but there’s never any suggestion of anything improper. However, when he goes off one night and gets drunk, consumed with a deep sadness and feelings of guilt that he’s neglected her, Wells quietly introduces a mental health context to Calum’s anxieties and an unspoken back story of failure in parallel with her observations of that period when a child begins to become their own person and not an adjunct to their parent. A particularly resonant scene involves Calum buying a Turkish rug he patently can’t afford. The core of the film is Sophie wondering what she might have said and done if she had possessed her adult empathy and insights into her father back when she was a child; tellingly, Calum is often only partly seen, in a doorway or a reflection.
Elegantly directed, atmospherically shot and anchored by the believable chemistry and nuanced performances by Mescal and Corio, it ends with Soph watching her father walk down an airport corridor that, in its simplicity and lack of further explanation, leaves you with a feeling of insufferable sadness. (Sat: Mockingbird)
Currently flying high as the new Black Panther, Guyanese-British actress Letitia Wright took time out from filming Wakanda Forever to make this low key heartfelt drama from Irish writer-director Frank Berry. Set in a Dublin detention centre where, while always polite, her determination has seen her labelled as insubordinate, Aisha Osagie (Wright) is a smart and stubborn Muslim Nigerian refugee who, separated from her abusive husband, has sought international protection after her father and brother were murdered by men to whom the latter owed money and, as we learn later, she was sexually abused. She’s waiting for an interview regarding extending her leave to remain, allowing to bring over her ailing mother who is in hiding and to whom sends regular payments to her from her earnings at a local hairdressers.
Although there’s friction between her and the icy centre manager (Stuart Graham), she finds a connection with Conor (Josh O’Connor) a new security guard who has the empathy and compassion his colleagues lack. Learning of a tragedy in his own past, their friendship grows, sharing a daily bus ride, and continues when she’s moved to a different centre, too far away for her to continue her job. But then she learns her petition to remain as been denied, with no reasons given, and, in anger, she trashes the caravan in which she’s staying, resulting in her being moved on again, this time to sharing a room on a hotel floor reserved for asylum seekers, while her appeal is considered. A tentative romance begins to bloom (there’a a lovely moment where he asks of he can kiss her), but circumstances and bureaucracy mean it’s inevitably never going to fully blossom and the film quietly underscores the helplessness of people like Aisha when faced with a system that lacks basic human compassion. Indeed, early one, Aisha stands by helpless while the family with whom she’s been sharing are ordered to back up their belongs immediately to be deported, while a brief series of to camera accounts reinforce the film’s message.
Wright is outstanding and is well-matched with a finely modulated, soulful performance from O’Connor while Berry’s direction and screenplay avoids any melodramatics as it unfolds the nightmares of having to relive trauma for the benefit of red tape, the anger and indignation beneath the film’s surface unmistakable. As so often in such situations, the film offers no pat happy triumph of the underdog ending, leaving Aisha’s fate hanging and the audience contemplating how a country that calls itself civilised and has a long history of emigration itself, can act in such a manner. (Sky Cinema)
All Quiet On The Western Front (15)
Written in 1929, telling of the horrendous conditions and mass slaughter experienced by young German soldiers on the frontline in WWI, Erich Maria Remarque’s novel is one of the greatest anti-war novels of all time. Though previously filmed twice, the Academy Award winning 1930 version and a 1979 TV film, this is the first in German from a German director (Edward Berger), and with a wholly German cast.
Outstanding newcomer Felix Kammerer is the central character, Paul, a young student keen to do his bit for the Kaiser, God and the Fatherland who forges consent to enlist along with his friends, Albert, Franz and Ludwig (respectively Aaron Hilmer, Moris Klautz and Adrian Grünewald) all expecting it to be over within months and something of a cushy ride with the French fleeing before then.
There’s a foreshadowing of what’s actually in store in the opening sequence where corpses are stripped of their uniforms which are then returned to Germany to be washed, repaired and recycled to the new recruits, Paul receiving one with the name tag Henrich and being told it was probably too small for him. On arrival in France, they’re given a brutal baptism of fire (Ludwig killed the first night) as it quickly becomes clear they and everyone there are just cannon fodder for the blinkered officers and bureaucrats still deludedly thinking they can win.
There are some moments of light relief, Paul and the roguish Kat (Albrecht Schuch) stealing a goose from a local farmer to feed their mates, Franz having a night of passion with a French woman, the camaraderie of the small group that now includes the veteran, Tjaden Stackfleet (Edin Hasanovic), grown close during their time at Ardennes, but otherwise this is relentlessly grim and harrowing as any notions of heroism or valour are tramped into the blood-soaked mud, bodies are blown to pieces, dog tags of the dead are collected and an ever growing number of black coffins are piled into mass graves.
Unfolding over two and a half hours, the battle scenes are visceral and terrifying, flamethrowers turned on surrendering soldiers, bodies pulped by tank tracks, a room of young recruits gassed to death, the agonising slow death throes of a French soldier Paul stabbed, a black shroud of bleakness enveloping everything until eventually Paul is the group’s only survivor.
Meanwhile, sickened by the senseless losses, Matthias Erzberger (Daniel Bruhl who would have surely played Paul in younger days), the German Minister of Finance, is seeking to secure an armistice with the French, headed by General Foch, whose uncompromising demands for German capitulation are not well-received by Erzeberg’s superiors (seen enjoying fine food and wine as opposed to the troop’s turnip bread), and particularly career officer General Friedrichs (Devid Striesow), who orders one final, fatal assault five minutes before the 11am ceasefire.
The film punctuated by gunshot like percussive notes, Berger pulls no punches in depicting the horror, both personal and mass, of the war, the dehumanisation of the fighting, while the addition of the signing of the armistice aboard a train has Erzberger presciently observing how the terms will lead the German people to resent the peace, ultimately giving rise to Nazism and WWII.
Germany’s Oscar entry for Best International Feature Film, it’s tough to watch but, in light of current conflicts and the rose of nationalism around the world, it’s a very important reminder of the need for sanity. (Netflix)
Avatar: The Way Of Water (12A)
Thirteen years in the waiting, James Cameron finally returns to Pandora for the first of three sequels that looks visually spectacular with its breathtaking effects and motion capture but doesn’t narratively justify its three hours plus running time. Picking up the story some ten years on, former human marine Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), who went native with sparkly blue body and pointy ears to join the Na’vi, and his wife Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) now have two sons, Neteyam (Jamie Flatters) and the younger Lo’ak (Britain Dalton), young daughter Tuk (Trinity Jo-Li Bliss) and the adopted Kiri (a de-aged digitised Sigourney Weaver), the daughter of the avatar of the late Dr. Grace Augustine (Weaver) who can apparently communicate with the assorted flora and fauna. The extended family also include the dreadlocked semi-feral Spider (Jack Champion), a human kid who had to be left behind when the other Sky People colonisers were sent packing. He’s the son of Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang), the ruthless marine Jake killed at the end of the first film. However, his consciousness has been resurrected in an avatar body, and he and his equally avatared men have been despatched back to Pandora, ordered by the operations commander (Edie Falco in exo skeleton) to retake the planet and kill Sully, which of course has very personal revenge motive for him too.
Having rescued the kids (though not Spider) when they’re taken prisoner (something that happens to them on a highly repetitive basis), Sully determines that the only way to keep both his family and the Na’vi safe is for them to leave their home and seek shelter among one of the planet’s other ecologically-conscious tribes, the Metkayina, a more aquamarine-coloured Maori-like people who live in harmony with the water and its creatures as opposed to the jungle.Taken in by their chief, Tonowari (Cliff Curtis, and, more reluctantly, his pregnant wife Ronal (Kate Winslet), they set about starting a new life, learning the new culture and its idiosyncracies, their kids inevitably seen as ‘freaks’ by their opposites before all becoming friends. Life’s all nice and cosy, until, that is, an accident to Kiri (she overloads on a psychic connection to her mother) and her subsequent treatment signals their rough location and it’s not long before Quaritch turns up on the doorstep, guns blazing.
The action sequences are dynamite, especially the extended climax aboard Quaritch’s ship where Neytiri gets to let rip her ferocious bow and arrow warrior, but the lengthy dreamy second act is a bit like The Blue Planet in space involving Sully and family learning to live with the water, master riding water creatures, Lo’ak bonding with a giant whale-like creature who’s a misunderstood outcast from his fellow Tulkans, Kiri gazing in wide-eyed wonder at the ocean’s creatures and tapping into their essences in between an incipient teen romance and some brotherly rivalry for dad’s approval.
Themes of family are writ large and, amid the expected eco messages, there’s also one about whaling with Brendan Cowell as a swaggering Australian who, along with his conflicted marine biologist (Jemaine Clement), and hi-tech gear (impressive crab-suits), is hunting the Tulkan to extract some goo that prevents ageing.
Technically it’s mind-boggling (even more so in 3D), the underwater sequences especially, but, adopting a videogame like structure, there’s far too few occasions (one being a death) where it connects emotionally, dazzling the eyes but not the heart.“The Way of Water has no beginning and no end” explains one of the characters; it’s undeniably thrilling but there are times when you may feel the same way. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Vue)
The Banshees of Inisherin (15)
It’s 1923 and over on the Irish mainland civil war is in full force (we know this because there’s some occasional smoke and sound of gunfire), but on the beautiful island of Inisherin life is calm and peaceful, the folk going about their (and sometimes other people’s) business and gathering in the pub at 2pm for a glass of the hard stuff and a chat. Which is what Pádraic (Colin Farrell), a mild-mannered farmer with a couple of dairy cows, a horse and his beloved donkey Jenny, who lives with his sister Siobhán (a quietly compelling Kerry Condon), has been doing for years with his fiddle-playing best mate Colm (Brendan Gleeson). However, on the day the film opens, Colm declares he doesn’t like him anymore and wants nothing more to do with him. Pádraic is bemused and confused. He believes himself to be a nice guy, though he may go off on one after a whisky or two. Has he done or said something? Apparently not, it seems that Colm, sunk in despair, has contemplated mortality and wants to get on with writing his music and not spend the rest of his days with someone he regards as dull with nothing to offer but inane chatter and protestations of being nice. When Pádraic continues to push for explanation, initially thinking it was an April Fool jape, Colm declares that, if he talks to him again, he will cut off one of his fingers and send it to him. It’s not a bluff. Five fingers later there’s been parental child abuse, a prediction of doom from the local crone (Sheila Flitton), an animal choking to death on a severed digit, a drowning, a leaving and a conflagration.
Reuniting with his In Bruges stars, the title taken from Colm’s new tune, again mining the theme of obsession he addresses in Three Billboards, writer-director Martin McDonagh delivers a black comedy of male pride and loneliness that balances darkness and whimsy (with everybody feckin’ this and feckin’ that) equal measure as it builds to an act of violence. As such, he’s ably supported by a sterling support cast that includes David Pearse as the mean priest, Gary Lydon as bullying copper Kearney who is turned on by the idea of being paid six shilling to oversee an execution on the mainland and regularly batters and molests his mentally challenged son Dominic (a superb Barry Keoghan), who fancies Siobhán and just wants the company of someone who doesn’t abuse him.
It doesn’t quite pull off its parable of events reflecting the “bleakness and grudges and loneliness and spite” of a wider and equally self-mutilating conflict and, at the end of the day and the escalation, all it seems to be asking for is a little peace and quiet with your own thoughts. A quite, slow burning masterpiece with a banshee wail that will pierce the heart. (Disney+; MAC; Vue)
Black Adam (12A)
One of the most powerful characters in the DC Universe, Black Adam first appeared in comics in 1945 as an Egyptian supervillain and the nemesis of Captain Marvel before being reinvented at the start of this century as an anti-hero looking to clear his name, most recently joining the Justice League and renamed Mighty Adam. Starring Dwayne Johnson giving his familiar imposing physical charisma and deadpan humour in his first superhero outing, he now makes his screen debut (unless you count a facial cameo on League of Super Pets) directed by Jaume Collet-Serra, starting with an origin backstory set some 5000 years ago when, empowered by wizards as he was about to be executed, Hurut, a young kid emerged, after uttering the magic Shazam, as Teth Adam to free the people of Kahndaq from their tyrannical ruler, Anh-Kot, defeating him but destroying half of the city in the process, thereby being imprisoned in an underground tomb (the truth of the actual details are revealed in the final act).
Cut to the present and Kahndaq have new oppressors in the form of Intergang mercenaries extracting Eternium, the film’s equivalent of vibranium, and, in an attempt at liberation, former teacher Adrianna (Sarah Shahi) and her fellow rebels (one of whom is clearly not to be trusted) are looking for the Eternium Crown of Sabbac, forged by Anh-Kot and, in the process free Adam, who, invulnerable to bullets or rockets, proceeds to wipe out a small army with blue lightning from his fists. However, wounded by an Eternium powered weapon, he’s carted back to Adrianna’s gaff where she lives with her plucky young comic book fan son Amon (Bodhi Sabongui), who coaches in in the use of a catchphrase, and electrician brother Karim (Mohammed Amer), his battles attracting the attention of Task Force X’s Amanda Waller (Viola Davis), last seen in the Suicide Squad, who despatches the Justice Society, a second division JLA, led by Carter Hall (Aldis Hodge) aka Hawkman (nice wings and helmet) alongside Doctor Fate (Pierce Brosnan), a less interesting predecessor of Doctor Strange, Cyclone (Quintessa Swindell), a lightweight less uptight but more colourful version of Storm, and Atom Smasher (Noah Centineo as the clumsy, food-scoffing comic relief), a Giant-Man-copy, the grandson of the original Atom (a cameo by Henry Winkler), to capture him.
All of which leads to a series of infrastructure-demolishing battles between then and a rage-driven Adam who has little interest in such niceties as not killing your enemies before a showdown with the ancestor (Marwan Kenzari) of Anh-Kot who has gained possession of the crown and transformed into the all-powerful demonic Sebbac.
You can’t fault it for not delivering the action but, other than a nicely low key soulful turn from Brosnan, who gets to swap some amusing banter with Johnson, that’s pretty much all it does. There’s some vague waffle about what it means to be a hero and some surface exploration of Adam’s conflicting emotions, grief and guilt, but mostly this is just overblown but underwhelming relentless combat and noise, and, ultimately, all rather dull. Making the last Venom look like a masterpiece, not even the end credits appearance of the other most powerful man on Earth makes you in a hurry for a sequel. (Rakuten TV; Vue)
Black Panther: Wakanda Forever (12A)
When Chadwick Boseman tragically died two years, not only did the world lose on the greatest actors of his generation, but it cast a huge shadow over the future of the character and franchise he had launched. Recasting with another actor would have been an insult to his memory but ditching the idea of a sequel was equally unthinkable given both its financial potential and how it had proven that a super-hero movie with an all-black cast could be a box office triumph. Fortunately, an alternative had already been trialled when, after Steve Rogers abdicated the role of Captain America at the end of Avengers: Endgame, the mantle was taken up by The Falcon in the ensuing TV series as he transitioned to take up the shield and the title. And so here, the film, again directed and co-written by Ryan Coogler, introduces another version of the Black Panther, the legendary protector of the Wakandan people, played by one of the already existing cast (given the feline nature of the suit, it’s not too hard to guess who that is). However, the new incarnation doesn’t appear until almost two thirds of the way through its extensive running time that adds an ironic note to the film’s title. Meaning there’s an awful lot of plot-set up to get through first.
It opens with Princess Shuri (Letitia Wright) working frantically to find a heart-shaped herb cure for the mysterious illness from which her brother T’Challa is dying. She fails and, according suitable ritualistic pomp and circumstance for a celebratory funeral, he’s consigned to the realm of the ancestors, via his coffin being taken up into the skies on a Wakandan jet, leaving his mother, Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett) as the nation’s temporary ruler and Shuri consumed with anger at the world that she was unable to prevent his passing.
Meanwhile, the geopolitical plot driver is set in motion with Western powers wanting to get their hands on and exploit Wakanda’s vibranium resources, attempting to take it by force while Ramonda is addressing the UK, only to be repelled by General Okoye (Danai Gurira) and her warriors; the Queen declaring that the previous mineral will never leave her lands. However, it turns out that Wakanda isn’t the only place it exists on Earth and that, thanks to a machine invented by genius college student Riri Williams (Dominique Thorne), there’s also evidence of it under the Atlantic Ocean. At which point, the CIA-vessel searching for it is besieged by mysterious warriors and everyone killed. Naturally, the Wakandans are suspected, but, in fact, the real attackers were a blue-skinned underwater race known as the Talokan, led by their ruler Namor (Tenoch Huerta Mejía), a superstrong half-human mutant with tiny wings on his angles. He duly turns up unannounced, blaming Wakanda for quest to obtain vibranium and telling her to find and deliver the scientist responsible for the machine to him, to be killed, or he will attack Wakanda. Oh, and not to tell anyone about him.
All of this takes an inordinate amount of time with only bursts of action to punctuate proceedings, during which, with the help of CIA agent Ross (Martin Freeman), Shuri and Okoye visit her in Washington to try and take her to Wakanda for her protection, Riri and Shuri ending up being captured by Namor and taken to his realm (where we get his origin story and some spectacular shots of his underwater city), where he proposes an alliance to destroy the surface world, an angry Ramonda stripping Okoye of her rank, a rescue by Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), T’Challa’s lover who’s been living in Haiti since The Blip in the Avengers series, and a retaliatory attack on Wakanda that results in yet another royal death. It’s around this point that the real action finally kicks in with a visit to the ancestral plane (cue a reappearance by Michael B. Jordan, as the usurper Killmonger), the emergence of the new Black Panther and the big Wakanda/Takonan showdown complete with some new high tech Wakandan armour.
Fuelled by loss, grief, vengeance, mercy, moral choices, oppression and colonial exploitation of Third World resources among things, it carries a weighty thematic dynamic that at times feels like an overload, but give the film a more mature and sober edge than many of its Marvel companion pieces. On top of which, following The Woman King, it’s the second film this year constructed around virtually all female Black cast. Returning names include Michaela Coel given a bigger role as Aneka of the royal guard and Winston Duke as belligerent Jabari tribesman M’Baku, while among the new additions are Mabel Cadena as Namor’s cousin Namora and Alex Livinalli as the Talokanil warrior Attuma (a renegade warlord and Namor’s enemy in the comics) with famed singer Baaba Maal cameoing as the funeral singer. The performances are strong throughout, but it’s a ferocious Bassett, the electrifying Wright, a fierce Gurira and impressive Mexican newcomer Mejía in his first leading role who generate the high voltage with Thorne’s spunky teenager setting up her role as Ironheart, a rocket-suited teenage Iron-Man, in the upcoming TV series.
And, inevitably, Boseman’s presence haunts the film, both in constant references to T’Challa’s death and, in the final moments, poignant archive footage from the first film, giving the revelatory moment in the obligatory mid-credits scene a hefty emotional punch. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Vue)
Written and directed by Andrew Dominik with a score by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, Blonde most definitely has ambition. Verisimilitude, rather less so. Based on Joyce Carol Oates’ sprawling novel with presented a fictionalised account of Marilyn Monroe’s life and explored her troubled psyche, while the scaffolding is generally accurate, the details are frequently distorted or indeed totally invented, often departing from the real life timeline. Clocking in at almost three hours, it opens with the young Norma Jeane Baker (Lily Fisher) living with her alcoholic, mentally unstable single mother Gladys (a superbly unlikeable Julianne Nicholson) who, on her 7th birthday, shows her a photo of an unnamed movie star she claims is her father (Monroe was rumoured to believe she was the daughter of Clark Gable), setting up the Freudian daddy issues (she married older men, unnamed but both called ‘daddy’ here) that run through the film, tries to drive her through a raging wildfire to see him and subsequently attempts to drown her. This leads to Norma Jeane being dumped at an orphanage, at which the point, now played by a frequently topless Ana de Armas, a mix of sensuality and fear, giving a towering multi-faceted intense performance that assures a slew of Best Actress nominations, the film cuts to her early days as a pin up photo model and aspirant actress, adopting the name Marilyn Monroe, and a lengthy totally fictional narrative in which she becomes a menage a trois (the highpoint of her relationships, it turns out) with bisexual (they weren’t) Hollywood scions Charlie Chaplin Jr (Xavier Samuel) and Edward G Robinson Jr (Evan Williams), both equally unwanted by their fathers, and gets raped at an interview with high profile studio boss Mr Z (purportedly Darryl F. Zanuck) auditioning for All About Eve before her breakthrough role in Don’t Bother To Knock (drawing on her mother to play a mentally disturbed woman) and finally making the big time.
It follows her marriage to baseball legend Joe DiMaggio (Bobby Cannavale) which ended in domestic abuse (here on account of nudie photos that her previous paramours use for extortion) and divorce and then, having bonded over Chekhov and her insights into the title character of his play Magda before that too goes south as booze and pills take over, leading to giving a blow job to JFK (watching a phallic missile on TV) while fielding a call about his sexual indiscretions before being humiliatingly dragged away by his security. It all adds up to a portrait of a traumatised Marilyn exploited, commodified and victimised by men (casting agents see her as ass not actress), beloved by millions but unwanted by those she needed, while always seeking to be seen as Norma Jeane rather than the public image of Marilyn. Letters from her father promising to meet but never appearing add to the suffering. As in life, Marilyn suffers miscarriages, but there’s no evidence to support the film’s graphic depiction of her having an abortion (shot as a cervix POV) for the sake of her career (and subsequently discussing it with the fetus).
Contact lenses and prosthetics transforming de Arnas into a convincing doppelganger who inhabits rather than portrays her character , the film recreates several notable touches, amongst them the trailer for Niagara (the waterfall segued into from a bed sex scene), the iconic billowing white dress subway scene from Seven Year Itch (cause for a beating from DiMaggio), singing Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend and, with clever use of Tony Curtis footage, a scene from Some Like It Hot (along with on-set blow ups at director Billy Wilder). Yet, for all the provocative liberties it takes in telling her story and delving into her inner life, it shies away from the conspiracy theories surrounding her death, a supposed final case of being a victim of men, presenting at as the suicide in despair of the coroner’s report. Even so, this is daring filmmaking. (Netflix)
Bodies Bodies Bodies (15)
Directed by Halina Reijin, this pitch black horror comedy for Gen Z is one of the year’s best. Accompanied by her enigmatic working-class new Eastern European girlfriend, Bee (Borat’s Maria Bakalova), recovering addict Sophie (Amandla Stenberg) turns up at a weekend hurricane party at the secluded mansion home of wealthy but toxic (“I look like I fuck. It’s my whole vibe”) childhood friend David (Peter Davidson), much to the surprise of the other spoiled brattish guests who include David’s drama queen actress girlfriend Emma (Chase Sui Wonders), airhead podcaster (“Hanging out with your smartest, funniest friend”) Alice (Rachel Sennott, her bemused 40-year-old new Tinder boyfriend Greg (Lee Pace), and Sophie’s ever sceptical old flame Jordan (Myha’la Herrold). Another, Max, left earlier following a fight with David.
Tensions are clearly evident, to which end, the others fuelled by drink and drugs, she suggests they play the titular murder in the dark-style game in which each player slaps their friend across the face and takes a shot. After which, one of them is randomly appointed as the killer. However, the slaps rather less than playful, Greg, a group outsider like Bee, decides to retire early and David, who the others have decided is the killer, storms off after another fight with Emma. Only, the power out, to appear at a window clutching at his throat. Now, Sophie’s car battery dead, it’s down to the others to work out who the real killer is as they explore the house by the light of cellphones and flashlights. At some point a gun surfaces.
Riffing on themes of false friendships, paranoia, distrust, jealousy, faux activism and white feminism and making effective use of the claustrophobic lighting and score, it builds the tension as the body count continues to rise as secrets are revealed and the rocky relationships between the group unravel, though to reveal more would spoil the revelations. Peppered with smartly comic dialogue along with the high pitched drama and some bloody violence, the entire cast bring solid, compelling performances to their characters although it’s Davidson, Sennott and Bakalova who, in their different ways, shine the brightest. Even if the final moments are slightly anti-climactic, a wholly unexpected last act twist throws the group dynamics into stark relief while reinforcing the core themes it’s been exposing. This is what happens when you’re cut adrift from your social media and the real world erupts. (Microsoft Store; Rakuten TV)
Bullet Train (15)
While directed by Deadpool 2’s David Leitch, this feels much more like a Guy Ritchie movie with its plethora of one-liners, laconic performances, high octane action and guest star cameos, tweaked here and there with a splash of Tarantino. Adapted from the Japanese bestseller pulp novel MariaBeetle by Kotaro Isaka, it’s set aboard the titular high speed train as it travels from Tokyo to Kyoto, making only a few stops of one minute duration along the way. Among the passengers are a parcel of hitmen, headed up by Brad Pitt’s luckless assassin who, dubbed Ladybug by his handler Maria (Sandra Bullock, putting in a last minute appearance), is trying to find a more peaceful, Zen-like approach to his work (he’s forever rattling off self-help aphorisms). He’s been assigned to recover a metal briefcase from the train. This is currently in the custody (or rather in the luggage compartment) of bickering ‘twin’ hitmen Lemon (Bryan Tyree Henry) and Tangerine (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), the former forever likening people to characters from Thomas The Tank Engine, who have been charged with returning both it and his kidnapped son (Logan Lerman) – the case contains the ransom money – to Yakuza boss White Death (Michael Shannon). The pair, or specifically Lemon, have a history with Ladybug dating back to a bloody mission some years earlier. Also on the train is The Prince (Joey King), a murderous miss done up in pink as a schoolgirl, who also wants the briefcase and who has lured on board Yuichi Kimura (Andrew Koji), the son of another Japanese samurai, The Elder (Hiroyuki Sanada), whose wife was killed by White Death, by pushing his six-year-old off a roof , as part of her plan to kill White Death, who is seeking revenge for the death of his own wife. There’s also, briefly, another assassin known as The Wolf (Bad Bunny) who also boards the train in search of revenge, only to be quickly added the bodycount following a fight with Ladybug in the restaurant kitchen. Oh yes, and there’s also a poisonous snake whose venom can kill in 30 seconds by making you bleed from every orifice. Plus another assassin called The Hornet (Zazie Beetz) who’s masquerading behind a very unlikely disguise.
Upping the ante on Agatha Christie, this is Murder On The Occidental Express as this clutch of quirky characters (identified by on screen labels) variously try and take each other out in a series of imaginative and impressively choreographed martial arts fights, gun and knife battles and stand-offs, punctuated by assorted flashbacks to various bloodbaths, with Ladybug looking to improvise his way out of trouble rather than kill anyone unless necessary.
Mixing in comedy with the graphic violence (including an amusing is it a sex thing cameo by an uncredited Channing Tatum as well as a scene with smart toilet), it eventually pulls all the pieces and the characters together for the over the top climax aboard the speeding train, a sort of live action anime cartoon that may be light on substance but is most definitely one hell of a ride. (Rakuten TV)
Following fictionalised biopics of Marie Antoinette and Princess Diana, Bavarian-born Hapsburg Empress Elizabeth of Austria aka Sissi, now gets the treatment courtesy of Austrian director Marie Kreutzer who uses her story to explore how royalty can become a prison for women. Set over the course of year, opening in 1877, the year of her 40th birthday as we see her seeing how long she can stay submerged in a bath of water, Elizabeth (Vicky Krieps doing her best Meryl Streep) is married to unfaithful husband Franz Joseph (Florian Teichtmeister) and, her sympathies including to the Hungarian part of the Empire, lives in a world as lonely as it is luxurious. Both fawned upon and patronised, she’s obsessed over her weight (dinner is often two thin oranges slices as her handmaidens Fini (Marlene Hauser) and Lotti (Johanna Mahaffy) struggle to squeeze her into her tightly-laced 18” waist corsage), her sexual nature frustrated and a subject of court gossip regarding her assumed or otherwise affairs (she masturbates rather than fucks) with Hungarian Count Andrássy (Tamás Lengyel) and, during a visit to her sister Ida Ferenczy (Jeanne Werner) and the Northamptonshire estates of the fifth Earl Spencer, her riding instructor Bay Middleton (Colin Morgan), her son Rudolf (Aaron Friesz) telling her to stop being an embarrassment to his father. Her only real friend is Countess Marie Festetics (Katharina Lorenz), the closest of her ladies in waiting, but she even treats her cruelly.
As written and played here, forever seeking some sort of refuge and subject to mercurial moods, Sissi is a complex character, self-destructive (she harbours a drowning death wish that manifests in an ending that has nothing to do with historical accuracy), passionate, clever, liberal (she instigates reform for the treatment of mental patients, a screaming, shackled female inmate a metaphorical reflection of herself ) rebellious and frustrated by the social limitation of the day and her position (she gives the finger as she walks out of a ceremonial dinner), eliciting pity and sympathy (she recalls her alcoholic father and how she thought all men slurred after it got dark) but also contempt for her icy waspishness, capriciousness and thoughtlessness (she takes her disapproving young daughter out riding on a freezing night and brushes it off when she falls ill but is devastated when her favourite horse has to be put down).
Images of veils loom large (a secret visit to spy on her husband’s mistress), while she’s regularly associated with the colour purple Krieps’ performance complemented by deft directorial touches such as a scene where Sissi cuts off her famed locks in an attempt to be free of her persona or the credits sequence where, free from her constricting robes, she dances ad sports a moustache, and the way (aside from the invented ending to Elizabeth’s life) Kreutzer mingles historical authenticity with anachronistic flourishes such as the Empress being involved with the first motion pictures, getting hooked on heroin, a contemporary mop in the palace and courtly performances of Help Me Make It Through The Night and As Tears Go By. It’s a little slow at times, but Krieps’ brilliant performance, its feminist subtext and the daring sense of direction more than justify its triumph at Cannes. (Cineworld 5 Ways; Electric; Wed: Vue)
DC League of Super Pets (PG)
First introduced into the comics in 1955, Krypto was Superboy’s pet dog, send off into space on a test run prior to baby Kal-El making his way to Earth. The super-powered pooch has cropped up in comics and cartoons in various incarnations over the years, but has never been part of the big screen live action DC Universe. However, he now takes centre stage in his own Justice League animated-spin off (based on the Legion of Super-Pets) about him and a team of four-legged companions who find themselves bestowed with owers and called upon to rescue Superman and the other Justice League members when they’re captured by a megalomaniac villain.
The opening sequence explains how, when young Kal-El was placed in a spaceship, his pet jumped in too, growing up to fight crime alongside Superman (John Krasinski), and with a similar nerdy secret-identity. However, our canine crimefighter (voiced by Dwayne Johnson) is having a bit of an anxiety crisis because Superman’s about to ask Lois (Olivia Wilde) to marry him, meaning he’ll no longer hold the same place in his master’s life.
Meanhile, Lulu (Kate McKinnon), a narcissistic hairless purple-eyed guinea pig associate of Lex Luthor (Marc Maron), acquires an orange variety of kryptonite, which she uses to give herself and, accidentally, a bunch of animals caged in the Tailhuggers Animal Shelter superpowers. These include tough but insecure bulldog Ace (Kevin Hart), PB (Vanessa Bayer), a size-expanding pig who wants to be super-cool, electricity-firing hyper squirrel Chip (Diego Luna) and myopic turtle Merton (Natasha Lyonne) who gets to be super-fast. Now, with Lulu having imprisoned the Justice League and created an army of super-powered guinea pigs, they and Krypto have to join forces to save the day.
Sporting similar comic sensibility to the Lego parodies, it’s clearly targeted at the kiddies but there’s plenty of delights for older audiences too, not least a tongue-in-cheek Keanu Reeves voicing an ultra-serious Batman (and questioning whether certain bat-toys are licensed) while a kitten who coughs up hairball grenades pretty much captures the whole spirit of absurdity and fun that’s hard to resist. (Rakuten TV)
Don’t Worry Darling (15)
While somewhat overshadowed by claims of onset friction between director Olivia Wilde (this her sophomore feature following Booksmart) and star Florence Pugh involving co-star and Wilde’s partner Harry Styles, there’s more than enough going on here to make you forget the Hollywood gossip mill, even if Katie Silberman’s script has a habit of telegraphing the underlying twists. Set, apparently, in the 50s with a retro design featuring some B&W TV and some classic tailfin American cars, the tellingly named Alice (Pugh) lives the life of a happy housewife serving dinner, whiskey and sex to her English hubbie Jack (Styles, who also wrote the pivotal theme song) in a perfectly manicured California desert community experiment called Victory with its identical houses, created and run by his cult-leader like boss Frank (a sadly underused Chris Pine), with support from his imperious wife Shelley (Gemma Chan), who runs the women’s ballet classes stressing “There is beauty in control”, along with all the other employees; the men all work on some top secret engineering project developing ‘progressive materials’ they cannot talk about (but which sometimes causes crockery-rattling mini quakes) which has them driving off every morning to some off—limits-to-wives mountain location in the desert while their wives busy themselves as perfect domestic spouses.
Except it’s clear from the off that there’s something askew here, an early metaphor being the eggs Alice breaks in her hand, all perfectly formed shell and nothing inside (which, if you’re harsh, could also sum up the film). Then, directly borrowing from Get Out, Margaret (KiKi Layne), one of the enclave’s two Black women who once wandered into the forbidden zone and returned without her child, has an outburst declaring Frank’s lying to everyone and is duly regarded as having a breakdown, her subsequent fate reinforcing Alice’s growing suspicions, especially after an experience on the remote HQ after thinking she saw a plane crash. All of which has you waiting for the reveals that are inevitably waiting in the wings with any number of Alice’s hallucinatory visions (notably a black and white Busby Berkeley routine emulating an eye opening and closing) further teasing the mystery behind this paranoid thriller.
As things develop, Jack gets promotion (accompanied by a dance routine at Frank’s somewhat fascist rally with his ‘whose world is it’ mantra), there’s a confrontation scene between Alice and Frank where he drops his perma smile façade and she’s treated for psychosis before a third act reveal pulls back the technology curtain that shows what’s down the rabbit hole or behind the looking glass depending on which Lewis Carroll book you favour.
With a gender politics subtext about a controlling patriarchy, the film undeniably has narrative and stylistic ambition, the set design is outstanding, as is the cinematography by Matthew Libatique and, while Styles’s at times hammy/stiff performance and accent isn’t wholly explained by the revelation concerning his character, he does a decent enough job, while Pugh delivers an intense Oscar nomination worthy performance as a woman consumed by doubts and fears and Wilde herself is excellent as her waspish friend and neighbour Bunny who, it transpires, isn’t as oblivious about Victory as the other wives. However, the end result is an awkward and overly obvious cocktail of ideas and tropes from Stepford Wives, The Matrix, The Prisoner, The Truman Show, Wild Palms, Black Swan (which Libatique also shot) and even Pugh’s own recent Midsommar, spiced with a Shyamalan-like big twist, in its themes of manipulation, deception, gaslighting and altered reality but never quite knowing how to cohesively thread them together or, with a desert car chase included, actually end the film with any sense of closure. (Microsoft Store; Rakuten TV)
According to an 1863 Harper’s Weekly, actually named Gordon, an escaped slave became popularly known as “whipped Peter” when an infamous photograph showing the multitude of scars on his back, taken at a Union army camp during the American Civil War, was used as an abolitionist rallying cry in the fight against slavery. The article claims that, in March 1863, he escaped from the plantation of slave owners John and Bridget Lyons and subsequently joined the Union army, leading an assault on Confederate forces at the Siege of Port Hudson that May. It’s likely, however, that the narrative was the invention of the artist Vincent Colyer and while the events described may be true, Gordon and Peter were probably two different people.
Not that this much matters when it comes to dramatising the story, which, directed by Antoine Fuqua, is basically Twelve Years A Slave meets The Revenant, providing a completely invented back story to Peter, here born in Haiti, as a man with a deep faith in God, married with children, who is taken from his wife (Charmaine Bingwa) on the cotton farm to work on the Confederate railway from which, hearing about Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation he escapes and, along with three others, goes on the run through the Louisiana swamps where he manages to evade his pursuers and their dogs, dodge bullets, and even wrestle an alligator and survive enraged bees before finally arriving at the Union army camp in Baton Rouge (under the command of a white colonel) where he’s enlisted into the Louisiana Native Guard led by a brave and inevitably doomed Black captain (Mustafa Shakir), as part of the U.S. Coloured Troops, going into battle and being eventually reunited with his family.
Uncompromising in depicting the brutality inflicted on the slaves and often bloodily graphic, (severed heads, burning bodies, hanged men), it’s a solid enough tale of one man’s survival against the odds and a fight for freedom, though never in the same league as the films mentioned above. The emotional scenes are suitably wrenching and the battle sequences thrilling and vivid. But then there’s the elephant in the room. Namely that Peter is played by Will Smith and it’s hard not think that the vitriolic American reviews are less about the film, which undeniably has flaws, and more in response to the infamous Oscars slap. Despite the fact the screenplay has Peter as almost some sort of action hero and invests the character with an unwavering faith, even when a fellow slave asks how God can justify their suffering, Smith delivers a visceral physical and emotional performance that holds the screen and invests you in Peter’s ordeals. Additionally, it addresses the whole question of systemic American racism when Fassell (Ben Foster), a tracker who, along with two menials is in pursuit, related what he sees as the reason behind slavery and white supremacy, recounting how, as a youth, he was raised by female slave whom he regarded as a friend, but, when he asked his father if he could join them at dinner, he retorted that what begins with sharing food would end up with them owning their own land and turning on their former masters, before coldly shooting her. Only by keeping Blacks enslaved, can white supremacy maintain its position. A little more of such commentary wouldn’t have gone amiss, but it does give the film extra weight.
Equally effective is a brief glimpse of a slaver eyeing up Peter’s young daughter and a young white girl raising the alarm when she sees him on the estate, yelling out ‘runner’ with undisguised hatred.
However, Fuqua’s approach to the photography is another potential audience put-off with scenes variously drained of all colour or with just flashes or juxtaposing colour and black and white in the same image to correspond with Peter’s circumstance. It’s an interesting artistic choice, but more often makes you wonder if there’s something wrong with the picture. And in several ways there clearly is, but even so, the story it tells is stirring and the film is far better than the reviews would have you believe. (Apple+)
Enola Holmes 2 (12A)
Targeted at young girls who feel in the shadow of their older brothers or not taken seriously simply because they are not boys, this fun and ingeniously plotted sequel returns to 1880s London where Enola Holmes (Stranger Things’ Millie Bobby Brown), sister of the famous detective Sherlock (Henry Cavill), has, inspired by her success in cracking the case in the first film, has set up her own detective agency. Unfortunately, her age and sex deter any potential clients and she’s just about to jack it in when a young girl named Bessie (Serrana Su-Ling Bliss) turns up asking her to find her older ‘sister’, Sarah (Hannah Dodd), who’s gone missing after being accused of theft at the local match factory where they both work in poor conditions for pitiful wages and where many other match-girls have been dying of typhus.
Infiltrating the factory, Enola discovers that Sarah did indeed steal something; not money but pages from a ledger, and so, the game afoot, launches a complicated plot and a series of clever clues about corruption and cover-ups that link to a case that has Sherlock baffled involving money that has gone missing from the Treasury being funnelled through several apparently unconnected banks, All of which variously has Enola going undercover at a society ball and being given urgent on the spot dance lessons by romantic interest Lord Tewkesbury (Louis Partridge), so she can get to talk to William Lyon (Gabriel Tierney), the son of the factory owner and Sarah’s lover; match-girl Mae (Abbie Hern), who, like Sarah, also works at the music hall and Enola being pursued and arrested for her murder by the decidedly sinister Inspector Grail (David Thewlis), his brutal bobby accomplices and the bumbling Inspector LeStrade (Adeel Akhtar); a rescue by her suffragette mother (Helena Bonham-Carter) and martial arts landlady Edith (Susan Wokoma); a string of cryptic ciphers; and yet another murder all coming together with a swords and fisticuffs climax at the theatre and an inspired twist involving the introduction of Sherlock’s genius nemesis Moriarty.
Delivering messages of sisterhood, of both being self-reliant but also working together for a common goal, the effervescent, perky Brown is a delight, frequently talking directly to the camera as the film breaks the fourth wall, and Cavill has been given a lot more to do this time round as the two end up working together (at this point there is no Watson in his life, but hang on for the mid-credits scene) while the character of Sarah and the final scenes are inspired by the real Sarah Chapman who worked in a match factory, led the first matchworkers strike in 1888 and helped form the Matchworkers Union. Great fun, so roll on No 3. (Netflix)
Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery (12A)
Having done blockbuster style business on its brief cinema release, Rian Johnson’s second Agatha Christie/Sherlock Holmes –inspired whodunit now resides at Netflix, returning Daniel Craig as the intriguingly accented Southern dandy super-sleuth Benoit Blanc (and with a surprise star cameo indicating his sexual orientation) as he embarks on another convoluted case.
The Disruptors, a tight knit inner circle who go back to college days when they committed to disrupting the status quo, have all received a complex puzzle invitation for an annual get together with Elon Musk-esque billionaire mutual friend Miles Bron (Edward Norton), the CEO of high tech online network Alpha who styles himself as some utopian hippy, on his private Greek island (dominated by the titular architectural showpiece and adorned with masterpieces that may include the actual Mona Lisa) for a murder mystery weekend, the murder they have to solve being his.
The clique includes Birdie (Kate Hudson), an airhead fashion model turned influencer prone to unwitting racist tweets and forced to take responsibility for a sweatshop that manufactures her line, her assistant Peg (Jessica Henwick), compromised Connecticut governor Claire (Kathryn Hahn) whose campaign is being underwritten by Bron, obnoxious machismo-overdrive right-wing men’s-rights YouTuber Duke Cody (Dave Bautista) and his barely-dressed young girlfriend Whiskey (Madelyn Cline) who he’s suing to seduce Bron into giving him a slot on Alpha News, put-upon corporate scientist Lionel (Leslie Odom Jr) constantly subjected to a barrage of faxed demands from Bron, and, surprisingly, Bron’s ostracised by everyone former business partner Cassandra Brand (Janelle Monáe), who had the original idea for Alpha but got shafted by Bron having refused his plan for Klear, a potentially dangerous hydrogen-based alternative fuel source. More surprisingly, given he has no connection to any of them and Bron didn’t invite him, is the inclusion of Blanc with his natty cravat and one piece swimsuit. For some reason, the island is also home to resident slacker Derol (Noah Segan, in a sly nod to the previous film).
It’s impossible to reveal much without ruining the intricately constructed narrative with its misdirections, twists and turns, flashbacks, reversals and reveals as events play out to the island’s minimalist high tech backdrop with its passive-aggressive anti-smoking alarms, but suffice to say, there’s a definite agenda to the gathering, and one or possibly two actual murders (Blanc solves Bron’s game version almost as soon as he arrives) as Blanc and Brand work together to get to the bottom of Bron’s machinations and unpeel the onion’s multiple layers.
The message that extreme wealth corrupts is fairly obvious but is generally secondary to the enjoyment of watching Blanc unpick the threads to a backdrop of dazzling costume design and cinematography, Craig clearly having a huge amount of fun while performances by Monáe, Norton, Bautista and especially a wildly amusing Hudson are all an utter delight. Not to mention an array of cameos that include Ethan Hawke, Hugh Grant, Stephen Sondheim, Angela Lansbury, Natasha Lyonne, Yo-Yo Ma, Serena Williams and even Joseph Gordon-Levitt as the voice of Bron’s clock, the Hourly Dong. (Netflix)
Good Luck To You, Leo Grande (15)
Directed by Sophie Hyde and written by Katy Brand, this is a two-hander that plays very much like a stage play of three acts and an epilogue and is structured entirely around the conversations between its two characters. These are Leo Grande (Daryl McCormack), a good-looking, well-toned young Irish Black man who runs a business service as a sex-worker, and his client, Nancy Stokes (Emma Thompson), a recently widowed fiftyish ex-teacher, who has booked a plush hotel room to have sex. Naturally, neither are using their real names. He’s smooth, polite, articulate, non-judgemental and well-versed in how to interact with people, she’s insecure and nervous, confessing that she’s never had – and thinks herself unable to have – an orgasm and only ever had sex with her late husband. He experienced, she far from it, the first session is mostly a cat and mouse game about the two getting to know each other, he trying to calm her anxieties, she finding reasons not to go through with what she’s hired him for.
It’s funny but also piercingly sad as she gradually opens up about her disappointments, the stagnation of her marriage, her husband’s unchanging and brief sex routines, her feelings about her son and daughter and her general view of herself as a failure. It ends with them finally concluding the deal. At the next session, she’s seemingly more confident, having drawn up a fuck-it list of what she wants, staring with oral sex. However, she continues to prevaricate while, over the course of this and the third session, the focus shifts more to Leo, who she presses on his life outside work, his relationship with his mother and sibling, something he’s reluctant to discuss as we come to realise that behind his self-assured persona, his life too his engrained with disappointments, hurt and insecurity (he’s seen checking himself out in the mirror on several occasions, and not for vanity).
It eventually comes to a head where, not understanding how boundaries work, she confronts him with his real name and we learn the heartbreaking reality of his background before he storms out. The epilogue is a final meeting, the relationship between them somehow changed, and introduces a third character, a hotel waitress that Nancy (who reveals her real name in a wry filmic in-joke) used to teach.
Slowly learning more about Leo and Nancy’s inner worlds and emotional scars is part and parcel of what makes this such a terrific work and to give away more would ruin the pleasures and poignancy of the screenplay and the performances with their tremendous chemistry. Suffice to say, embracing shame, frustration, body image, the nature of sex workers, parent-child conflicts, desire, and sexual healing/therapy, it’s a wonderfully compassionate and very human work. McCormack, previously seen in Peaky Blinders delivers a magnetic star-making turn that conveys depth and complexity in the most simple of physical gestures while, in her first nude scene, Thompson, bristling with nervous energy and navigating a lifetime marked by lack of self-worth, guilt, unhappiness and disappointment, gives a luminous, multi-faceted performance that is unquestionably the finest of a stellar career. From foreplay to climax, this will leave you with a glow of satisfaction. (Rakuten TV)
The Gray Man (15)
After taking a relative step back from the bombastic, high octane action of their Avengers movies with Tom Holland PTSD drama Cherry, the Russo Brothers dive back into the adrenaline pool for this high speed espionage thriller that moves so fast and so frantically you have little time to so notice the generic nature of the narrative which pretty much follows a similar route as to the Jason Bourne and John Wick movies.
Adopting a familiar laconic manner akin to his role in Drive, Ryan Gosling is Court Gentry, serving time for murder (it’s not until late in the film that the justifiable circumstances are revealed) when he’s visited by CIA bigwig Donald Fitzroy (Billy Bob Thornton looking younger in every film) who offers to commute his sentence if he agrees to bring his distinctive skill sets to work for a covert wing of the agency as a ‘gray man’ under Fitzroy and bureau chief Margaret Cahill (Alfre Woodard), tasked with eliminating hostile targets. From this point on he’s known only as Sierra Six, or Six.
His latest assignment takes him to Bangkok where his mission is to take out his target before he concludes a deal to pass on material against the interests of the US. To which end, he’s partnered with a CIA contact, Dani Miranda (Ana de Armas), who provides the weaponry and the kill site. However, things don’t go according to plan and, in a subsequent fight, Six discovers his target is a fellow Sierra agent, Four who passes on evidence of agency corruption at the highest level before dying. Now Six finds himself marked for elimination by Fitzroy and Cahill’s replacement, the ruthlessly ambitious Denny Carmichael (Rege-Jean Page) and his assistant, Suzanne Brewer (Jessica Henwick), who’s been using the Sierra project to destabilise governments and give himself sway.
At which point, the film basically becomes a location hopping chase movie as Six avoids one attempt on his life after another until Carmichael ups the stakes by bringing in sociopathic private contractor Lloyd Hansen (Chris Evans chewing scenery in tight trousers and Freddy Mercury ‘tache), who puts a price on his head, Miranda now forced to go rogue to help Six survive and expose the evidence. All of which variously involve a frenetic cherry red Audi RS7car chase, exploding helicopters, shoot outs, a mid-air battle to the death over Turkey, Prague turned into a combat zone, and, just to add to things, a mission to rescue Fitzroy’s teenage niece (Julia Butters) with a heart problem who’s being held as leverage by Hansen. Two supporting characters wind up doing to the self-sacrificing thing with a grenade in the process.
Riding a flood of testosterone and snappy patter, it rarely pauses to catch its breath en route to the inevitable Croatia showdown between the two stars, the Russos choreographing the action like a finely-tuned machine, but leaving room for Gosling to give Six a coating of humanity and a propensity for dry world-weary humour as well as affording another solid argument for De Armas headlining her own action movie. Bigger on brawn than brain perhaps, but it’s unrelentingly exciting viewing and the good news is that a sequel and a spin-off are already in development. (Netflix)
The Good Nurse (15)
A single mother with two young daughters, Amy Loughren (Jessica Chastain) works as a compassionate night nurse at a New Jersey hospital ICU ward, bringing personal touch in her care for her, mostly, elderly patients. The ward understaffed, she gets a new colleague with the arrival of Charles ‘Charlie’ Cullen (Eddie Redmayne) who befriends her and promises to keep secret the fact she’s suffering from a heart condition that would get her fired, but she has to keep working until she qualifies for insurance.
Charles seems as supportive, kindly and caring as she does, even coming round the house to help with her daughter’s audition for a school play. However, shortly after he arrives, one of Amy’s patients dies unexpectedly. The police (Noah Emmerich, Nnamdi Asomugha) are duly called in to investigate, but not until seven weeks later, and find themselves being blocked by the hospital administration (led by an icy Kim Dickens) at every turn who stall in handing over their internal investigation report. However, they decide to check out Cullen who, in turns out, was reported for domestic assault (not never charged) and has been employed at a string of previous hospitals, all of which experienced a surge in unexpected deaths of patients that declined after he left.
Seeing a report into her patient’s death, Amy notes that there was insulin in the body, a double medication error that would cause death, but which has not been reported by the administration. When another young woman dies and the same is found, she becomes convinced Cullen is behind it, lethally injecting insulin and/or or digoxin into saline drip bags, and looks to work with the detectives, who by now have been banned from the hospital, to expose him.
If this rings a bell, it’s because the film is based on the real life case in which Cullen was believed to have been responsible for some 400 deaths between 1998 and 2003, though only 29 were confirmed, though he never gave any indication as to his motivation. The film largely hews closely to the facts. After Cullen was fired from Somerset, on the grounds of giving wrong information on his application, Loughran was asked to wear a wire to get Cullen to incriminate himself, though I suspect the scene in the cell where she coaxes him to confess is dramatic licence, and the two leads give largely restrained performances (though Redmayne ramps it up in the final moments) with a chemistry that makes their friendship feel convincing.
The real story here, though, is the way Somerset and all the other hospitals where Cullen worked, did nothing to expose him despite their suspicions, worried about the litigation ramifications if they did so, the end credits pointing out that none of them have ever faced any legal comeback for abdicating their moral responsibilities, something that hospitals, here and in America, still remain to be forced into admitting when things fuck up. (Netflix)
Her Way (15)
Call My Agent’s Laure Calamy lights up the screen as Marie, a self-reliant French fortysomething sex worker and single mother who works the street corners of Strasbourg where she can choose her clients and hours, and is the somewhat confrontational single mother to Adrien (Nissim Renard), a lethargic, sullen and defeatist 17-year-old who (seemingly unconcerned about what mum does for a living) wants to be a chef but has just been expelled from cookery school. Following a client’s tip, she persuaded him to apply for a private and prestigious college, who aren’t bothered about his past record, her transgender lawyer friend (Romanin Brau) coaching him for the interview. He’s accepted but the school charges €9,000 euros in tuition. €5000 of which she has to stump up for the end of the year, in just a few weeks. And the bank’s not forthcoming because her tax returns don’t justify a loan. To which end, losing business to immigrant Black girls who charge less (introducing a note of racial tension), Marie swallows her pride and principles and heads across the German border to Offenburg, calling on a favour from an old acquaintance Bruno (Sam Louwych), and gets a job working at glowing concrete club cum brothel. However, dreams of quickly boosting her income are shattered when she discovers it’s actually a shabby dive with poor paying customers and high expenses for room use and the like. The arrest of a fellow worker presents an unexpected acquisition of some much needed cash, but, inevitably, as with everything in Marie’s life, nothing goes as smoothly as hoped, and every hint of light at the end of the tunnel is quickly extinguished.
The debut feature by writer-director Cécile Decrocq it doesn’t romantics the sex worker profession but nor is it in any way judgemental, presenting Marie and her fellow hookers (who organise a public protest demanding better rights and pay) as independent spirits who choose their career (though there’s latter hints that some have no option), resulting in a humane, empathetic snapshot of a mother’s struggle to do the best for her son that reflects far wider scenarios, ending on a poignantly bittersweet note as Adrien is seen embarking on a bright new future while Marie finds herself returning to a past without one. (Curzon; Rakuten TV)
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. (Rakuten TV)
Touted as the most expensive Czech film ever made, written and directed by Petr Jákl this tells the early years of Jan Zizka, a renowed 15th century Czech folk hero who led peasants and rebels into battles that he never lost. It’s set against the plague-ridden backdrop of turn of the century Bohemia where Europe is in chaos, divided over two popes, one in Rome and one in France. While steeped in debut, Bohemian King Wenceslas IV (Karel Roden) is trying to get to Rome to be crowned Emperor, with the help of emissary Lord Boresh (Michael Caine, sounding generally like Michael Caine); however his scheming brother King Sigismund of Hungary (Matthew Goode) plots behind his back to steal the throne, aided by the duplicitous and cruel Lord Rosenberg (Til Schweiger). Having hired Jan (Ben Foster) and his men as mercenary protection (the film opens with the first of several graphic and very violent battles), Boresh gets Jan to kidnap Rosenberg’s fiancée, the independent-minded Lady Katherine (a somewhat flat Sophie Lowe), the niece of the king of France, who’s not enamoured of her future husband’s treatment of the peasants, as leverage and, she and Jan falling in love (though there’s precious little chemistry evident on screen), pretty much the rest of the rest of the film is about attempts to get her back led by the brutal Torak (Roland Møller), comprising a series of ambushes, betrayals and gorily visceral butchery.
Presented as a sort of Czech Braveheart, its convoluted screenplay is never especially clear in laying out the political intrigue context (what’s everyone actually fighting for?) and machinations, while the intermittent subtitled hymns into which the people burst feel odd, but, despite a wavering accent, Foster delivers a ferocious performance and the hyper-intense battle scenes with their skewerings and decapitations are more than enough to satisfy that Game of Thrones bloodlust. (Amazon, Chili, Google Play, iTunes, Microsoft Store, Rakuten, Sky Store, Virgin)
The Menu (15)
Chef Slowick (Ralph Fiennes) runs an exclusive island restaurant called The Hawthorns, assisted by implacable second-in-command Elsa (Hong Chau), serving haute cuisine that is to die for. Quite literally. Arriving for an elaborate $1,250 multi-course themed menu dinner, a 12-person group of the obnoxiously wealthy are there as “ingredients in a degustation concept” to taste – as opposed to eat – the exquisite fare on offer, such as a recently harvested scallop served on a rock from the island and a breadless bread plate with only the dips, all introduced and presented with great theatricality. However, when a few courses in, having been ritually humiliated by Slowick, a sous chef puts a bullet through his own head it quickly becomes clear that the evening has been engineered as a recipe for disaster for all concerned, among them an egotistical food critic (Janet McTeer), her fawning editor (Paul Adelstein), a group of finance businessmen, there for a “power tasting”, who’ve been cooking the books (Arturo Castro, Rob Yang, Mark St. Cyr), a narcissist faded Hollywood star (John Leguizamo) and his long-time assistant (Aimee Carrero) who’s just resigned, and a regular tycoon client (Reed Birney) there with his wife (Judith Light) to celebrate their anniversary but who’s been engaging in sexual services. And then there’s foodie fan boy Tyler (Nicholas Hault), who refers to eating as a “mouthfeel”, and his unimpressed last minute replacement date Margot (Anya Taylor-Joy), who describes the place as “the base camo for mount bullshit”, and whose unexpected presence causes some consternation for both the tycoon and Slowick, a glitch in his carefully laid plans. Plus there’s an elderly old dear in the corner getting quietly sozzled.
Directed by Mark Mylod as a sort of Agatha Christie mystery played as a horror while also amusingly satirising the pretentiousness of establishments like The Hawthorne (the sommelier describes a wine as having “a faint sense of longing and regret”) and their clients, those plans ultimately come down to a film with the have nots sticking it to the haves, each of the intended guests having some sort of guilty secret for which they are about to be punished as the violence gradually piles up. The performances are strong, Hault relishing the blissfully unaware character’s unpleasantness, Fiennes exuding a palpable air of menace and consumed with a feeling that his art has been rendered sterile by those who consume it, and Taylor-Joy on top form providing the feistiness, and there’s some clever touches (such as burritos etched with photos of the diners’ indiscretions) and an amusing gotcha. However, the more the film reveals its hand, the less coherent it becomes, culminating in a muddled resolution that feels too neat and, even in the context, improbable (why would the staff obligingly die for their boss? Not even Gordon Ramsey inspires that much blind obedience!). Even so, there’s much to savour to this dark satire, although I guarantee that when you leave you’ll be wanting cheeseburger and not oysters on foam. (Everyman; Vue)
Mr. Malcolm’s List (PG)
While likely to attract Bridgerton comparisons, primarily on account of its anachronistic racial casting of characters, this is actually adapted from a novel by Suzanne Allain published over a decade before the TV series arrived. Set in Regency London, it’s enjoyable faux-Jane Austen with more than dash of Pride and Prejudice to the mix as it rattles off witty bon mots and social satire. The list of the title is one hot but haughty Black bachelor the wealthy Jeremy Malcolm (Birmingham University graduate Sopé Dìrísù) has compiled and which any prospective bride has to satisfy to prove herself worthy and not some gold-digger, earning him the reputation of a trifler with women’s affections. However, as he tells his friend, Lord Cassidy (a hilarious Oliver Jackson-Cohen), if he’s picky about the horses he buys, why not also about a wife. His latest prospect is Julia Thistlewaite (Zawe Ashton), a high society figure of apparently Indian heritage, who he takes to the opera and singularly fails the test by flickering her eyelids and thinking the Corn Laws have to do with your diet. No second date ensues. However, a mean-spirited caricature subjects her to public humiliation (not good since she’s failed to attract a husband over for previous matchmaking seasons) to which end, learning of the list from cousin Cassidy, the somewhat petty, spiteful and dim-witted Julia enlists Selina (Freida Pinto), a childhood friend from the country of lower status and mixed race parents, in a plot to turn her into someone who ticks all the boxes and then have her spurn Malcolm with her own list, giving him a deserved comeuppance.
Inevitably, from their first meeting, neither knowing who the other is, real love begins to blossom, Selina questioning whether her friend’s revenge is worth the price it entails and if Malcolm is actually the cad he’s made out to be. Meanwhile, the arrival of handsome handsome cavalry officer Capt. Ossory (Theo James) throws another spanner into the confused feelings works while a weekend ball at Malcolm’s mother’s adds assorted oddball relatives (notably Ashley Park as Selina’s much married loud, vulgar cousin) to the plot.
First-time director Emma Holly Jones proves to have a welcome knack for light frothy romantic comedy, giving the film a spry freshness that’s ably augmented by humour, genuine chemistry and the delightful performances from its spot on cast. It might not be in the same league as Austen, but fans of the genre should most definitely have it on their must see list. (Rakuten TV)
Mrs. Harris Goes To Paris (PG)
Published in 1958 by Paul Gallico as Mrs. ‘Arris Goes to Paris” (though titled Flowers For Mrs Harris in the UK), this Cinderella-like fairytale tale of a London cleaning lady who goes to Paris to buy a Dior dress has already been filmed three times, in 1958 starring Gracie Fields, a German version in 1982 and with Angela Lansbury in 1992 as well as a stage production under the UK title in 2016,. This, though, restoring the H, is the first feature adaptation, directed by co-writer Anthony Fabian, with gorgeous costume design by Jenny Beavan and starring Lesley Manville (Oscar nominated in previous fashion house drama Phantom Thread) in the title role.
Set in 1957, prior to Dior’s death in October with Yves Saint Laurent taking over as chief designer, it revolves around themes of dreams, kindness, social conservatism, snobbery and preconceptions (and a direct allusion to those ‘invisible women’ who make the world turn) while playing somewhat fancifully with an invented subplot about the fashion house’s financial problems and a shift from exclusivity to more affordable comparatively mass production.
Like her best friend Vi (Ellen Thomas), Ada Harris (Manville) works as a cleaning lady for her upmarket London clients, among them the snooty Lady Dant (Anna Chancellor) who,despite behind in paying the fees, has lashed out on a £500 Dior dress for an upcoming wedding. Ada immediately falls in love with it and resolves to go to Paris and get one of her own, to which ends she sets about scraping together the money. Unfortunately, an unwise bet down the greyhound track seems to put an end to those dreams. Which is when she gets a visit from an army officer, confirming that her soldier husband, who she had long hoped was only MIA, had indeed been killed and that she’s due a tidy war widow’s sum, a reward for finding some missing jewellery and an act of kindness from her Irish friend and racetrack bookie Archie (Jason Isaacs) means she will go to Paris after all.
However, arriving at the celebrated House of Dior on Avenue Montaigne, amid the Paris binmen strike,she’s inevitably greeted with disdain and contempt by the glacial (not later sympathetic) head clerk Claudine Colbert (Isabelle Huppert), who tries to have her removed. Until, that is, the suave widower Marquis de Chassagne (Lambert Wilson) steps in an invites her to be his guest at the New Look collection presentation. That she intends to pay cash is another incentive to overlook her class background. She sets her sights on stunning red number Temptation , only for a snooty repeat client, smarting over feeling slighted, to claim privilege and snatch it from her grasp. Not that her second choice, emerald green gown Venus, is exactly drab, but, to her dismay, Ada learns Dior isn’t a buy and wrap outfit and that her dress will have to be specifically tailored for her, taking at least a week.
And so, stuck in Paris, she ends up lodging with the brand’s accountant André (Lucas Bravo), being courted by the Marquise and befriended by overworked Proust fan top model Natasha (Alba Baptista). Naturally, being a fairytale set in Paris, love is in the air, with do-gooder Ada both playing matchmaker and seeing her own second chance at romance, while also leading a seamstress strike when, faced with ruin, Dior opts to downsize.
It’s all very sweet and good hearted, Colbert thaws, the dress snatcher gets her comeuppance, André saves the day, like-minded souls come together and, back in London, after another act of kindness that ends in couture catastrophe, Ada’s dream does indeed finally come true and romance does promise to bloom, though not in the quarter you might have assumed.
Very much in the sentimental cliched tradition of the dramady where a working class senior citizen changes their life and makes the world a better place but given an added lustre by Manville’s performance, this seems set to follow in the cinematic footsteps of things like The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and The Duke to entertain the grey pound brigade. (Rakuten TV)
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+)
Not put off by the piss-poor response to 2018’s The Predator, 10 Cloverfield Lane director Dan Trachtenberg and screenwriter Patrick Aison take up the challenge of rebooting the franchise, and incredibly pulls off the best in the franchise since the original. Rather than continuing the saga, it takes the bold step of going back to the start, the setting being America’s Northern Great Plains in 1719. Here, Naru (The Ice Road’s Amber Midthunder) is a young Comanche desperate to prove herself the equal of her tribe macho boys, most especially her brother Taabe (Dakota Beavers), under whose shadow she lives. An expert with a bow and throwing hatchet, knowledgeable in herbal medicine, she’s ready for her ritual hunt rite of passage. Naturally, her testosterone swamped peers don’t take her seriously, especially when she has to be rescued from a mountain lion, which her brother kills and is subsequently honoured as a war chief.
However, her chance to show her mettle comes when she discovers that there’s very different kind of beast out there, an alien hunter that, using its cloaking technology and hi-tech weaponry is stalking its prey. Having eviscerated the young bucks and what appears to be a small army of French trappers, Naru finds herself as the last defence.
Working on a small scale, Trachtenberg ramps up the tension and intensity, delivering some thrillingly brutal close quarters action as well as graphically visceral butchery in which arrows and flintlock firearms are no match for the alien technology, causing Naru to improvise in inspired ways. Played by the towering Dane DiLiegro, this sleeker, faster Predator with its glowing green blood is also back to basics with sheer physicality and just a skull mask rather than the more familiar face plate, while singlehandedly (albeit with her trusty canine companion) Midthunder electrifyingly commands the screen and the action with her body language, Trachtenberg assiduous in authentically recreating the period and all the necessary trapping, the bulk of the cast being played by Native American actors (the film will have a Comanche dubbed version).
An inspired addition to the current spate of female empowerment thrillers, it’s an exhilarating and reinvigorating fresh take on a franchise that seemed to have nowhere left to go and easily one of the year’s best action movies, making it all the more inexplicable as to why it’s been denied a theatrical release and consigned to subscriber streaming. With an end credits graphic suggesting a sequel, perhaps they’ll reconsider next time around. (Disney+)
Prey For The Devil (15)
We are, according to the opening captions, in the mist of global rise in demonic possession, hence the decision by the Catholic Church to set up various exorcism schools to train young priests to become future Father Damiens, such as the one in Boston run by Father Quinn (Colin Salmon) which has its own secure ward where the most dangerously possessed are kept to be monitored and treated, although resident shrink Dr. Peters (Virginia Madsen) is of the opinion that these are more cases of mental health issues, something the Inquisition equally passed off as possessions.
Sister Ann (Jacqueline Byers) is a nun who works as caregiver, though she has a rebellious streak and wants to learn about exorcisms, strictly a male province as Sister Euphemia (Lisa Palfrey) reminds her when she sidles into one of the lectures. Father Quinn is more forbearing and allows her to not only sit in but accompany them to witness trainees Father Dante (Christian Navvaro) and Father Raymond (Nicholas Ralph) perform an exorcism (their gear’s stored in a cabinet of black suitcases rather like an armoury) on a new patient, a young girl called Natalie (Posy Taylor). It all goes horribly wrong and Ann, who’s previously bonded with the girl, steps in an apparently cleanses her, leading Dante to ask her to help him exorcise his sister who was raped, aborted the baby and is now possessed. Ann tells her she can understand, thus setting up a reveal about her own backstory and, while the cleansing ultimately doesn’t turn out too well, it does direct the film’s focus on the unsubtly laid out (Ann actually writes them down in her notebook) themes of guilt and shame which allows the demonic forces to take control.
At the start we learn that Ann was physically abused by her mother, driven by the voice in her head, who later committed suicide. She was diagnosed with schizophrenia but, as she tells the shrink, Ann believed she was possessed. And now it seems the demons want to get inside her too, Natalie, in a contrived plot twist you can see coming, providing the means.
The film has some interesting ideas, mixing the genre clichés (arched bodies, twisted heads, levitation, etc.) with a modern take (Ann hangs out in casual clothes when not on duty) and a fresh slant in having a veneer of female empowerment with a female protagonist wielding the cross and holy water. But, with B-listers Salmon, Madsen and a cameo from the late Ben Cross as the cardinal being the biggest names, it lacks any star wattage (Byers is adequate at best) and, while decently shot and competently directed by Daniel Stamm, it’s also all rather underwhelming with muddled messages (and never developed sinister discovery that those sent to the Vatican for exorcism all died), decrying tradition and past practices but equally reinforcing them. It was originally titled The Devil’s Light, though The Devil’s Lightweight might be a better description, with a coda as Ann’s sent out to train as a fully-fledged exorcist proposing a sequel (The Shexorcist?) that hasn’t a hope in hell of happening. The devil may have all the best tunes but he’s got some pretty crappy films. (Amazon Prime; Apple; BT Store; Google Play; Rakuten, Microsoft Store; Sky Store; Virgin; Vue)
The Railway Children Return (PG)
Released in 1970, the original film, adapted from E.Nesbit’s novel, with Jenny Agutter in the lead role as young Bobbie, became a classic of cosy British family viewing. A TV retelling appeared in 2000, with Agutter playing Bobbie’s mother, and she’s back again, this time as her original, now adult, character in a (somewhat misnamed) sequel to the first film co-written Jemma Rodgers and directed by Morgan Matthews.
Although now set in 1944, it’s pretty much a carbon copy in terms of narrative. In the first film, set in 1905, Bobbie, her two siblings and her mother relocated to the Yorkshire countryside when their father was convicted of treason and they became impoverished. Here another set of three children, Lily (Beau Gadsdon, looking like a teenage Felicity Jones), spunky younger sister Pattie (Eden Hamilton) and brother Ted (Zac Cudby), end up in the same village when they’re evacuated from wartime Salford and are taken in by Bobbie, who stayed on in Oakworth, and her daughter Annie (Sheridan Smith), the local headmistress whose husband is off in the RAF. Although there appears to be no interaction with the other evacuees outside of the classroom. the three kids become best friends with Annie’s young son Thomas (Austin Hayes), taking on the resentful gang of village children and playing hide and seek down the railway yard. Which is where they come across the pointedly named Abe (Kenneth Aikens), a Black American serviceman who has injured his leg (Lily sneaks out bandages for him and is knocked unconscious when a passing German plane dumps a surplus bomb) and tells them he’s on a secret mission and has to get to Liverpool. Naturally, that’s a fib. Younger than he claims and homesick, he’s actually gone AWOL on account of the racist abuse from the white US Military Police (who brutally object to African-Americans mixing with white English girls, one scene inspired the real life Battle of Bamber Bridge in Lancashire in 1943), and so Lily and the others offer to help him escape. And, exactly like the original film, it climaxes with a bunch of kids stopping a train to speak to a travelling important gentleman to put a stop to a miscarriage of justice (one also has to wonder if the MPs could actually handcuff a fourteen year old British civilian and ship them off to jail).
Alongside the somewhat simplified theme of racism, there’s also passing elements of tragedy involving the trio’s father (strikingly captured in Lily’s dream sequence) and Bobbie’s husband and brother, while the women try their best to protect the children’s innocence from the realities of war. It also introduces a new character to her family in her great-uncle Walter (Tom Courtney), who has an unspecified position in the War Office and does a passable Winston Churchill impression while, in a throwaway nod to what Bobbie’s been up to for the past 40 years, she says she was a suffragette. There a gentle comic touch too with John Bradley as the village stationmaster.
A throwback to the sitting room era of the Children’s Film Foundation, even with its shoehorning in of contemporary issues, it’s hard to image youngsters – or even their parents – weaned on Marvel movies, frantic animation, ubiquitous toilet humour (one kid does complain that his carer farts, though) will make of its old-fashioned, good-natured amiability, but I guess they could give the grandparents a treat. (Rakuten TV)
Roald Dahl’s Matilda the Musical (PG)
In 1988, Roald Dahl published his children’s novel about Matilda Wormwood, a precocious with pernicious parents who the authorities order to offload her to a boarding school where, manifesting telekinetic powers, she is befriended by her put-upon teacher Miss Honey and battles tyrannical headmistress Miss Trunchbull, Miss Honey’s aunt. In 1996, Danny DeVito turned it into a now much loved film, then in 2010 it was reborn as an RSC stage musical directed by Matthew Warchus with songs by Tim Minchin. And now that has been transformed into a feature film, again directed by Warchus with a screenplay by Dennis Kelly that’s far darker than the DeVito version and Minchin contributing some new songs.
Sticking pretty much faithfully to Dahl’s story (though the brother has been cut) and the assorted incidents in the book (such as Matilda superglueing her dad’s had to his head, a pupil being swung round by her pigtails in a hammer throw and a boy being forced to eat a mammoth chocolate cake), it’s a rumbustious all singing, all dancing ball of energy. Front and centre are relative newcomer Alisha Weir (who has a face surely destined for a future of scream queen movies) as Matilda and an unrecognisable and hilarious Emma Thompson as the warty, granite-jawed, child-loathing Trunchbull, a former shotput champion who dresses in a Soviet-style tank jacket and now runs Crunchem Hall where students are greeted with a huge statue of Trunchbull sporting the warning ‘No snivelling’ and a sign declaring ‘None of you are special’. When any child displeases her, they get sent to The Chokey, a dark closet lined with nails and broken glass while, as mentioned, after stealing a slice of her cake, she makes Bruce Bogtrotter eat the whole 45cm confection.
But the support cast are equally splendid, notably Lashana Lynch as Miss Honey (who gets an expanded tragic backstory about her escapologist father and acrobat mother) and a scene stealing, scenery chewing (but sadly non-singing) double act of Andrea Riseborough and Stephen Graham as Matilda’s day glo parents who do everything they possibly can to make life miserable for her. Plus there an energetic young cast of dancers who romp through the film’s musical numbers and Ella Kane’s choreography by with rabble-rousing gusto.
With a set design that revels in its 80s setting (think New Romanticism on steroids), songs such as Trunchbull’s The Smell Of Rebellion, the children’s Revolting Kids, Matilda’s Quiet and Miss Honey’s moving My House, and a glorious vein of often cruel humour, it’s a bit like watching a popcorn volcano exploding but also comes with Dahl’s core message of finding your voice and standing up against injustice; not to mention product placement for Curly-Wurlies and Wotsits. Huge fun. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Vue)
See How They Run (12A)
Not the 1944 Philip King farce, but definitely borrowing some of the genre’s traditions (people passing each other in and out of doors), directed with verve by Tom George, making good use of split screen playing up the theatrical artifice, and penned by Mark Chappell this ingeniously gets round Agatha Christie’s stipulation that her play The Mousetrap could not be turned into a film until after its run ended. It opened in 1952 and it’s still in the West End after some 28,000 performances.
Back in 1956, British producer John Woolf (Reece Shearsmith), who had made The African Queen, bought the film rights, assuming the play would soon close, and it’s around that misjudgement that this superbly crafted and highly amusing whodunit homage is based. Woolf has hired (fictional) sleazy Hollywood filmmaker Leo Köpernick (Adrien Brody, who narrates) to direct, but he’s at loggerheads with the gay screenwriter, Mervyn Cocker-Norris (David Oyelowo), and wants to rework it with a murder in the opening moments and a wholly different ending, which he’s storyboarded.
As Köpernick observes, in these plays it’s always the most obnoxious character who gets murdered, and so it is that, following a fight with Richard Attenborough (an affectionate portrait by Harris Dickinson), the first actor to play Sgt Trotter, and upsetting several others, he meets his demise during the backstage party marking the 100th performance and his body is dumped on the set.
Assigned to investigate is jaded, boozy Inspector Stoppard (Sam Rockwell) who’s partnered with WPC Stalker (Saoirse Ronan, with her natural accent and true comic delight) as his assistant, an enthusiastic rookie who writes everything down in her notebook, with a memo to not jump to conclusions, something the film, with its various misdirections, slyly insists the audience doesn’t do either. There are, naturally a wealth of suspects among a cast of characters that includes Ruth Wilson as theatre impresario Petula Spencer, Pippa Emma-Bennet as Woolf’s mistress-assistant Ann and Sian Clifford as his wife, and Jacob Fortune-Lloyd as Mervyn’s petulant Italian ‘nephew’ Gio with Tim Key as the smarmy Commissioner and Shirley Henderson as Christie herself.
It’s gleefully full of in-jokes (Rockwell’s character is named after Tom Stoppard whose The Real Inspector Hound, which he wrote as a parody of things like The Mousetrap, is referenced), while he’s assigned to the case because Scotland Yard is busy investigating the murders at 10 Rillington Place in which, of course, Attenborough starred), and cinema meta gags (a character in a flashback bemoans flashbacks and interscene titles immediately followed by one). All that plus straightfaced but wickedly funny lines, and an ending that wonderfully mirrors everything in Köpernick’s storyboards. There’s a slight tonal stumble when, in a serious moment, referencing how Christie’s play was inspired by a real life case, there’s a scene about having to tread carefully when you’re turning people’s lives into entertainment, but otherwise this is a laugh out loud romp. (Disney)
She Said (15)
Directed by Maria Schrader from a screenplay by Rebecca Lenkiewicz, in similar mode to Spotlight, Tom McCarthy’s film about the Boston Globe’s investigation into systemic sexual abuse by the Catholic church, this is based on the book in which Pulitzer-winning New York Times investigative reporters Jodi Kantor (Zoe Kazan) and Megan Twohey (Carey Mulligan) detailed their struggles and dogged determination in exposing the sexual abuse of Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein, Twohey having previously reported on then Presidential candidate Donald Trump’s abuse of women, and receiving verbal abuse and death threats in return
The film opens in flashback, several of which punctuate the film, where, in 1992 Ireland, a young Laura Madden lands herself with a promising an entry-level job with Miramax. A subsequent shot of her running down the street in tears, clearly notes it was not what she’d expected. Cut to 2017, where Kantor, a veteran reporter of workplace harassment, is tipped off that actress Rose McGowan (voiced by Keilly McQuail) was sexually assaulted by Weinstein and, though initially declining to comment, calls back to say how he raped her when she was 23. Likewise both Ashley Judd (playing herself) and Gwyneth Paltrow (in voice only) talk about their own encounters (Judd remarking how work dried up afterwards), but none are prepared to be named in any article. As a way to combat her post-natal depression, Twohey is assigned by editor Rebecca Corbett (Patricia Clarkson) to help Kantor, the pair either being met with doors shut in their faces or women who talk about their experiences but, subject to NDAs, won’t go on the record, while legal red tape prevents them from getting specifics. Incredibly, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, charged with protecting employees, isn’t allowed to give prospective job applicants information on a company’s history of sexual abuse complaints.
While also juggling home lives with new babies, the more they probe, the more they discover about assaults and settlements (a former of Miramax CFO admits pay-outs but won’t divulge how many),in effect financial gags, the culture of fear and how Weinstein used his connections with the DA office to get criminal complaints dropped. Following up tips, Kantor interviews Zelda Perkins (Samantha Morton, stunning in her single scene) who worked at the London office but resigned following an incident in Venice, with her friend, Rowena Chiu (Angela Yeoh) who had a breakdown. She also speaks to the now older Madden (a terrific Jennifer Ehle), the latter, about to undergo a major operation and not subject to an NDA, though initially reluctant, becoming the first to go on record after a Weinstein representative tries to stop her talking, allowing the paper to go ahead and publish, resulting in some 80 other women coming forward and Weinstein (only seen from behind, who tried a last minute intimidation and mea culpa to kill the story) being found guilty of rape and sentenced to prison.
With Andre Braugher as Times head honcho Dean Bacquet, Peter Friedman as Weinstein’s smooth-talking lawyer Lanny Davis cum fixer and several of Weinstein’s victims in small roles, the film captures the working of a newsroom and reporters with the same electricity as All The President’s Men, Spotlight and The Post, building to the final moment as the publish button is hit, and while individually Mulligan (a mix of fury, frustration, empathy and bemusement, her yelling at a guy coming on to her in a bar is seismic) is a stronger, more complex presence than Kazan, together they command the screen in the same way Redford and Hoffman did as Woodward and Bernstein.
Although Weinstein was the target of the story, Twohey and Kantor’s diligent and exhaustive work became the launch pad for the #MeToo movement and subsequent exposure of workplace sexual abuse and harassment in many other fields by men (and women) in power who feel an entitlement to bully those beneath them. (Vue)
Strange World (PG)
Clearly taking its cue from Jules Verne’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth and, as the final scene reveals, the Iroquois creation story, the latest Disney animation pulls together eco parable and a three generation father-son story with the latter afraid of turning into the former. Opening with comic book-style animation (and actual comic book panels), it’s set in Avalonia, a land surrounded by impassable mountains, which hulking, macho intrepid explorer Jaeger Clade (voiced by Dennis Quaid) is determined to cross. However, on their expedition he and his team come across strange energy-charged plant and his meeker, more cautious son, Searcher (Jake Gyllenhaal), and the rest of the team decide to go back home and develop their find, while dad stalks off on his own, never to return.
Twenty-five years later, the strange plant, Pando, has provided Avalonia with a literally green energy source and transformed it into a thriving civilization powering everything from lighting to aircraft, the biggest farm being run by Searcher and his crop duster wife Meridian (Gabrielle Union) with reluctant assistance from their teenage son Ethan (Jaboukie Young- White), who, in something of a Disney first, is openly and acceptedly gay. However, when Avalonia president Callisto Mal (Lucy Liu), a former member of the original team, turns up to announce they’re facing disaster with the Pando dying off, she, her crew, Searcher and, unexpectedly, Ethan, Meridian and their three-legged dog set off to find what’s causing it. This plunges them deep into the heart of the planet, Strange World, an ecosystem full of weird, colourful flora and fauna, such as pink trees, scampering bubbles, red manta-ray like flying creatures, walking land masses, an a blue amoeba-like blob that Ethan encounters, and names Splat and who saves him from the spiky betentacled destroyers that would swallow him up. And, naturally, who else should turn up but Jaeger, naturally prompting all manner of daddy issues, before the big immune-system reveal as to what’s killing off the Pando.
Raya and the Last Dragon director Don Hall creates a visually imaginative and stunning psychedelic day-glo landscape, but the climate change environmental narrative about having to find new means of energy for the planet to survive feels clumsy and unclear while the parent-child issues are as overly familiar as many of the characters, which may be why it stumbled at the American box office. Fun enough, but ultimately this is second tier Disney. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel; Vue)
Thor: Love and Thunder (12A)
Opening with the origin of Gorr the God Butcher (a pale Christian Bale with a creepy whisper) who, when his daughter dies, possessed of the Necrosword a mystical blade that kills gods but also corrupts its owner, swears to destroy all gods for abandoning their followers, Taika Waititi’s follow-up to Ragnorak takes the same path of mixing high drama and emotion with stirring action sequences and a rich vein of irreverent humour. In his fourth stand-alone outing as the God of Thunder, Chris Hemsworth plays to his comedic strengths and physical presence in equal measure with a knowing self-awareness. Narrated by Korg (Waititi), an extended intro finds him still hanging out with The Guardians of The Galaxy, engaging in bouts of meditation to try and find himself and saving an alien race from Gorr’s shadow spiders (albeit destroying the temple he was supposed to protect in the process) before a vision of a wounded Sif send him to her rescue and from thence back to New Asgard where, as it comes under attack too, he’s astonished to witness the return of his once shattered hammer Mjölnir, and even more astonished to find it’s now being wielded by a new Mighty Thor, his former girlfriend (a montage explains how their separate lives led them to split), Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), the hammer following its former master’s instruction to look after her by giving her the strength (at a cost) she lacks in her human form, where she’s dying from cancer. When the children from New Asgard are abducted by Gorr, she, Thor, Korg and the sardonic Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson), bored without battles, set off on a rescue vision in a longship drawn by two giant (and noisy) goats, one that sees the pair reignite their romance with electrifying chemistry (Thor taking on board Starlord’s (Chris Pratt) wisdom of wanting to feel shitty because that’s what love does to you) as well as visiting the Golden Temple for a meeting of the Gods (the God of Dumplings among them!) to try and raise an army, ending up in killing the pompous Zeus (a bizarrely accented Russell Crowe), surrounded by his Zeusettes (who swoon when Thor’s stripped naked) and stealing his thunderbolt, then journeying to the Shadow Realm (for some black and white sequences) to stop Gorr before he gets to Eternity and wishes for all gods to die at once.
As such, it builds its emotional and dramatic weight as it builds to the inevitable love and sacrifice climax, the fight sequences gathering in spectacle and intensity as they go, at one point involving the kidnapped children, including Heimdal’s son (Kieron L. Dyer) who insists on being called Axl (the film is rife with Guns n Roses tracks). On the comedic side, there a theatrical re-enactment of events in Ragnorak with Matt Damon as the Loki actor, Melissa McCarthy as Hela, San Neill as Odin and Luke Hemsworth as Thor and also a very amusing running gag that’s essentially a romantic triangle with Thor in the middle between Mjölnir and his jealous new axe, Stormbreaker, Thor forever trying to reassure the latter that he’s still ‘the one’.
It’s not until the final moments, with Thor in a new paternal role (you’ll be pleased to know Korg gets a mate, a Kronan dude named Dwayne and they sire a new rock baby), that the title of the film manifests itself, the mid-credits sequence setting the stage for the fifth instalment as a character declares revenge on Thor Odinson, ending with one more brief afterlife bonus scene featuring Idris Elba. Thunderingly good fun. (Rakuten TV)
Ticket To Paradise (12A)
The most famous smiles in contemporary Hollywood, George Clooney and Julia Roberts reunited for the sixth time for Mamma Mia! director Ol Parker’s rom com – their first together and her first in 20 years – as a long-divorced couple (David/Georgia) – married for five years until their lakeside house burned down – who find themselves having to travel to Bali and work together to prevent their just graduated daughter Lily (Booksmart’s Kaitlyn Dever) making the same impulsive mistake they did 25 years earlier by getting hitched to Gede (Maxime Bouttier), the charming local seaweed farmer who rescued her and best friend Wren ((Billie Lourd) when they were stranded at sea. Added to the mix is airline pilot Paul (Lucas Bravo), Georgia’s current boyfriend, who, having flown them to Bali turns up looking to seal the relationship. Those conversant with the genre will, of course, know, that old flames will be rekindled and new ones doused.
There’s not much of plot other than contriving to steal one of the rings needed or the ceremony, David trying to sow doubts in Gede’s mind about the marriage having long-term prospects (arguing Lily will want to return to America to become a lawyer – unaware she has no interest in the career), contriving various travel mishaps, and assorted gatherings with the bridegroom-to-be’s welcoming family and friends before it all resolves as assumed from the start. All light and frothy, Clooney and Roberts swap barbs and insults, there’s a splash of room swapping farce and a stream of scenes depicting Bali’s quaint if rather out of date ceremonies and rituals. Formulaic to a fault, Parker’s direction is workmanlike at best and the humour rarely comes to the boil, although there is an amusing scene as the prospective in-laws take on Lily and Gede in a variation on beer pong with a potent local brew that results in some embarrassing mum and dad dancing to retro disco and the inevitable waking up in the same bed together.
The ever smiling two stars sparkle even if the wattage is somewhat lower than you might have expected, while Dever and Bouttier make for an attractive if somewhat bland couple despite the underwritten characters, leaving Bravo and Lourd with undeveloped roles, the latter absent for many of the later scenes, all adding up to a pleasant but insubstantial frothy soufflé. (Rakuten TV)
Top Gun: Maverick (12A)
Thirty-six years on since the original took your breath away, Tom Cruise has bowed to public demand and returned to the role that made him a global superstar, the authority-bucking US Navy fighter pilot Pete ‘Maverick’ Mitchell. As directed by Joseph Kosinski, who was only 16 when the original appeared, and scripted by Ehren Kruger, Eric Warren Singer and Christopher McQuarrie, Maverick hasn’t changed a great deal in the interim. He’s relatively more centred, still single, still in top physical shape and still a captain, partly through choice, partly because he runs the top brass up the wrong way. Indeed, he does so right from the start when, learning the supersonic stealth fighter project he’s heading in the Mojave Desert is being shut down by a Rear Admiral dubbed The Drone Ranger (Ed Harris) as it hasn’t reached its Mach 10 target, he duly climbs into the cockpit and pushes it to the limit and beyond before he can be told in person. However, rather than being disciplined, he’s told to report to his old Fighter Weapons School aka Top Gun stomping ground where he learns an unnamed country is developing an unsanctioned uranium enrichment plant and the school’s best pilots are being recruited to carry out a Dam Busters-style mission to destroy it. Initially assuming he’s one of then, he’s informed instead, by Commanding Officer Beau ‘Cyclone’ Simpson (John Hamm), that he’s there to train them and select the best six. And also that (verging on obsolete) he wasn’t Simpson’s first, or any, choice, but is there at the request of his former rival, long-time friend and now Admiral, Iceman (Val Kilmer).
The hot shots candidates are all introduced in a somewhat unnecessarily extended barroom scene, the ones that matter lining up as nerdy Bob (Lewis Pullman), cockily arrogant Hangman (Glen Powell), spunky female pilot Phoenix (Monica Barbaro), Fanboy (Danny Ramirez) and Rooster (Miles Teller), the now grown son of Goose (Anthony Edwards seen in flashbacks), Maverick’s wingman who dies in action and who, along with many others, Pete himself included, blames as him for his father’s death, thus setting up a somewhat predictable arc between the two.
The same scene also introduces bar owner Penny Benjamin (Jennifer Connolly), mentioned but never seen in the original, now given a backstory as Maverick’s former on-off love interest who, now a divorced single mother, re-enters the romantic orbit. Of course, that’s a minor subplot as the film’s main focuses is on Maverick whipping his students into shape so that the chosen ones can fly dangerously low into the mountains under the radar to avoid the anti-aircraft missiles and superior enemy planes, destroy the target and get out again in a race against the clock. So cue all the expected young bucks v old fogey dynamics, pilot rivalries, run ins with Cyclone, and Maverick again bucking orders and pushing himself to breaking point to prove the mission is not impossible, inevitably ending up leading it himself with Rooster as his wingman.
As you’d imagine, right from a recreation of the opening scene (complete with Kenny Loggins’ Danger Zone), there plenty of nods to the original along with such iconic Cruise moments as a front on show of him riding his motorbike (in his original Top Gun jacket) grinning like a Cheshire cat. He’s not above taking the piss out of himself either, retorting ‘it’s the only one I’ve got” when someone comments on giving ‘that look’. While better at the grins and the grit expression that registering deep emotion, nevertheless Cruise has a particular affecting and touching scene in a reunion with Kilmer, his character clearly not long for the world (thereby leaving Maverick without anyone in his corner).
Likewise, while playing down the jingoism element, Kosinksi is at his best when the action is in the air, whether in the simulated dog fights (shot in actual U.S. Navy F/A-18s, for which the cast went through a punishing training process) as Maverick pushes his team or the actual dog fights evading enemy jets in the aftermath of the mission, where old grievances and new enmities are all neatly resolved in big bromantic hugs, even if the original’s homoeroticism is decidedly downplayed here.
Cruise again demonstrates that he’s in a cinema superstar league of his own, an ‘event’ in his own right (as the film says, it all comes down to pilot in the box), a generous actor but inevitably putting others in the shade simply on account of who he is, though Teller at least gets to remind how good he was in Whiplash and Kosinski’s own firefighter drama Only The Brave. Along with a deft use of 70s hits, music’s provided by Harold Faltermeyer with the big song coming from Lady Gaga, and while that’s no Take My Breath Away, the film will most certainly have you needing oxygen masks. Turn and burn, baby. (Paramount +; Rakuten TV)
Tori & Lokita (15)
The latest from the Dardennes brothers is again set among those on the margins of Belgium’s underbelly and steeped in the unsentimental realism that has characterised all their films to date, but with a touch of a thriller this time round.
Smuggled into the EU from, respectively, Cameroon and Benin, 16-year-old Lokita (Mbundu Joely) and 11-year-old streetsmart Tori (Pablo Schils) met on the journey, became friends and now live in a state care home. He, persecuted back home as the alleged ‘son of a sorcerer’, has residency papers, but she does not, which means convincing stone-faced immigration officials they are brother and sister, she struggling to come up with a convincing reason as to why, when she supposedly found him an orphanage, she knew him to be her brother. Lokita wants to train to become a home health aid, then she and Tori will find an apartment. But, needing money to pay off the corrupt church officials traffickers and also send home to her mother to enrol her five siblings in school, they earn a few euros and slices of focaccia selling drugs for Betim (Alban Ukaj) the chef at a local Italian restaurant, pretending to be delivering pizzas as they drop off cannabis or cocaine to his clients, as well as singing karaoke at the restaurant. She also makes extras by reluctantly giving Betim blow jobs.
However, when she’s refused working papers, she’s forced to turn to Betim for fake papers, which will cost her 10,000 Euro, to which end she agrees to spend three months locked in working as a cannabis gardener at a windowless, concrete hydroponics farm warehouse, where she’s taken blindfolded by an accomplice and deprived of her phone, meaning she can’t talk to Tori, on the promise of payment when the stint’s up. Ingeniously, Tori tracks her down and the pair are reunited, but this sets in motion a series of events that will end in a very abrupt gut punch tragedy.
Tempering their familiar politically edged vérité social drama about the hardscrabble lives of those in the rundown suburbs of Liege with genre elements, they’re not as comfortable with the latter, the bad guys being somewhat anonymous stock characters, but there’s no faulting the way they create empathy for and between the two children (terrific performances both), who may not be real siblings but who have just as deep a bond. (Wed/Thu ;MAC)
Violent Night (15)
It’s such an obvious title, it’s surprising nobody thought of it before. The latest addition to the Christmas dark comedy-horror subgenre, directed by Tommy Wirkolar this is essentially Die Hard (which gets a namecheck) with Santa and a dash of Home Alone for good measure. It’s Christmas Eve and the dysfunctional Lightstone family are gathering for the so-called celebrations at the home of the fabulously wealthy and perfectly obnoxious matriarch Gertrude (a marvellously foul-mouthed Beverly D’Angelo). In attendance are her son Jason (Alex Hassell) and estranged wife Linda (Alexis Louder), his catty sister Alva (Edi Patterson) and her dim trophy C-movie action star fiancé Morgan (Cam Gigandet) ), plus their kids, both fawningly named after grandma, respectively precocious but cute Trudy (Leah Brady) and brattish teenage influencer Bertrude (Alexander Elliot). Alva’s hoping mum will hand over the company reins to her while, Jason has plans to rid himself of family connections.
A lavish evening is planned; however, the catering staff turn out to be vicious killers in the pay of scenery-chewing, Christmas-hating bad guy ‘Mr Scrooge’ (John Leguizamo) who, the servants and security all wiped out, makes his entrance announcing he’s there to get his hands on the illicit billions locked away in her vault .
What he hasn’t reckoned on is that there’s someone else in the mansion. Santa Clause (Stranger Things star David Harbour) himself. With a brief backstory revealing he was once a bloodthirsty, hammer-wielding Nordic warrior before he turned over a new leaf, these days, first introduced in a bar drowning his sorrows (“this planet runs on greed”) and subsequently vomiting over the barmaid from his sleigh, cynical and depressed that now all the ‘little junkies’ want is cash or quickly forgotten video games, and Amazon’s pretty much taken over his job, Christmas has lost its magic and he’s considering jacking it all in. But, making a house call on Trudy, who’s on his nice list, he’s crashed out in one of the rooms to be rudely awakened to the sound of gunfire. He could just take off, but something about Trudy and her Christmas wish makes him turn around. And anyhow, his reindeer have taken off when one of the goons sprayed bullets into the roof before ending up impaled on a garden decoration.
So now, Trudy in hiding, the others held hostage and Mr Scrooge and his crew getting more violent, it’s down to him to save the day while, this naturally being a film about redemption, Trudy’s belief in him quite literally gets to save Christmas.
With pool balls, tinsel, a Christmas star decoration, darts, ice skates, Christmas lights, his trusty hammer, snowballs and even a candy cane as weapons, Santa tears through the home invasion sidekicks (all of whom are on his naughty list) to gruesome but comedic effect (when the bewildered villains stab Santa’s sack they find presents on the end of their blade) while Trudy gets to channel Macauley Culkin as she sets booby traps for two of Scrooge’s mercenaries.
Corpulent and grizzled, Harbour is clearly having a great time as the sozzled Santa who gets to rediscover the mystery of the Christmas while variously dismembering and staving in skulls, and if, save for D’Angelo and Leguizamo, the other adults are pretty forgettable, Brady lights things with both her innocence and willingness to kick ass for those she loves, the chemistry between her and Harbour, though they rarely share a scene, bringing a warm mince pie glow to the seasons beatings. Ring out those slay bells. (Empire Great Park; Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Vue)
The Wonder (15)
Further confirmation, were it needed, that Florence Pugh is her generation’s Kate Winslet, she delivers a quietly understated but wrenchingly powerful performance in this adaptation of the period gothic novel by The Room’s Emma Donoghue’s directed by Sebastian Lelio from a screenplay by himself, Donoghue and Alice Birch and cinematography from The Power Of The Dog’s Ari Wegner.
It opens with voiceover introducing it as a film and talking of stories as the camera pans across a film set before alighting on the interior of a sailing ship, where, in 1862, Elizabeth Wright (Pugh) is eating a bowl of stew. She’s a Yorkshire (hence no-nonsense) nurse with a tragic past (cue two tiny baby bootees she keeps wrapped up with a bottle of opium) who served in the Crimean War and is en route to rural Ireland where, lodging at the local inn, she’s been employed, along with a nun (Josie Walker), to observe Anna O’Donnell (impressive newcomer Kíla Lord Cassidy), a pious, 11-year-old Catholic girl, who, apparently, hasn’t eaten anything for four months, sustained, she says by “manna from heaven”.
On the committee who’s hired her are town elder Sir Otway (Dermot Crowley) and local landlord John Flynn (Brían F. O’Byrne) alongside Dr McBrearty (Toby Jones), who wants to think it’s a miracle of science, and Father Thaddeus (Ciaran Hinds) who wants to think it’s a miracle per se, with the potential to have her declared a saint and, thus, a big plus for the village.
Neither allowed to share notes, she shares observational shifts with Sister Michael at the remote cottage where Anna lives with her mother Rosaleen (her real life mum Elaine Cassidy), father Malachy (Caolán Byrne) and older sister Kitty (Niamh Algar), Playfully, she agrees to let Anna call her Lib as long as she can call her Nan. The purpose of the watch is to find whether this is some holy intervention or an elaborate fake whereby the girl is being secretly fed.
William Byrne (Tom Burke), a former villager with his own Irish famine family tragedy and a history with Kitty and who is now a reporter for The Daily Telegraph (and subsequent rather sudden romantic interest with Wright) believes it to be the latter, but, as the narrative throws up dark revelations as to what’s going on and why Anna seems determined (with her mother’s complicity) to starve to death to save her dead brother from the fires of Hell, becomes involved in Lib’s plan to save her.
With practically every scene dimly lit, the sense of claustrophobia and threat is tangible as the screenplay interrogates the idea of wonder in terms of both spiritual belief (and its exploitation) and bafflement, though a final line about not debasing “the wonder in every child”, taken directly from the book, seems somewhat tacked on.
There’s some muddled moments, plot holes and overdone metaphors while the swerve into melodrama feels a touch contrived, but the is she/isn’t she mystery woven through the narrative, the toxic family dynamics and the patriarchal investments in Anna’s condition all give compelling weight while the performances throughout, Pugh’s especially, are flawless. It might be argued that the ending is something of a cop out given everything that’s gone before, but then don’t we all want our stories to have a happy ever after? (Netflix)