This column will review films both screening theatrically and/or on various streaming platforms.
Spider-Man: Across The Spider-Verse (PG)
Five years ago, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse introduced cinema audiences to Miles Morales (Shameik Moore), a Black Hispanic Brooklyn teenager who gained superpowers when he was bitten by an electromagnetic spider and then found out he was just one of hundreds of spider-powered entities existing on a multitude of different Earths across the multiverse. It also revolutionised animation with its jawdropping mix of retro comic book, Cubism and pop art. The much anticipated sequel takes all that and hypercharges it into a trippy, at times hallucinogenic, kinetic rush that feels like maxed out ADHD that can be exhausting to watch but also delivering exhilaration to every fibre of your being.
It starts, though, on Earth-65 with moody rock drummer Gwen Stacey (Hailee Stanfield), the white-clad Spider-Woman of her world, who’s having problems with her law enforcement father (Shea Whigham) who believes her alter ego was responsible for the death of his daughter’s best friend, Peter Parker (who had transformed into The Lizard). When, following a battle with a DaVinci-sketch looking version of The Vulture, she finally reveals her secret identity, looking to explain and hoping for understanding, he just reads her her rights. Bitterly disappointed, she flees into the Spider-Verse using a device given to her by Jessica Drew (Issa Rae), a pregnant African-American Spider-Woman who helped subdue The Vulture, recruits her as part of the Spider-Society, a team policing the different dimensions.
Meanwhile, back on Earth-1610, now 15, while Spider-Man is famous superhero who was a guest host on Jeopardy and made a commercial endorsing baby powder), Miles is en route to a meeting with his school counsellor and concerned helicopter parents Rio (Luna Lauren Vélez) and newly promoted police captain Jefferson (Brian Tyree Henry) for which he’s already late, he’s sidetracked when he runs into someone robbing a local store, a faceless white figures covered in black splodges which are, in fact, portals, through which he or just parts of his body can travel, with whom he gets involved in a running battle. Calling himself The Spot (Jason Schwartzman), this new supervillain was once Jonathan Ohnn (Jason Schwartzman), a scientist who worked for Alchemax, who became what he is today as a result of the collider implosion caused by Miles in the first film. Now he’s looking for revenge by ruining Miles’s life, just as he ruined his. And he’s found his holes can take him into the multiverse.
The central thrust begins as Miles secretly follows Gwen into the Spider-Verse (including a visit to Lego Earth) where he’s reunited with his old mentor, Peter Parker Jake Johnson, who, married to Mary Jane, now has a baby called May, with similar powers, and is confronted by the scarred, humourless Miguel O’Hara (Oscar Isaac), the “ninja vampire” of Earth 2099 who runs Spider-Man HQ who explains that having, in an earlier sequence where he and Gwen wound up in Mumbattan and he saved the life of the police captain father of the girlfriend of Spider-Man India (Karan Soni), he disrupted a canonical event. In other words, each Earth’s arachnid adventurer have things in common, being bitten by a spider, the murder of Uncle Ben (or Uncle Aaron – Mahershala Ali – in Miles’s case) …and the tragic death of a police captain. Now he’s thrown everything off-kilter and put the integrity of the entire Spider-Verse at risk. More than that, Miles learns that he’s an anomaly and became Spider-Man by error, that he wasn’t the one the mechanoid was supposed to bite, meaning there is an Earth without a Spider-Man where the storyline unfolded in a much darker manner. Thus Miles is declared Spider Public Enemy No 1 and with Miguel and countless variations in pursuit, he, Gwen, and Hobie Brown aka Spider-Punk (Daniel Kaluuya), a Mohawked Londoner with a guitar strapped to his back who’s animated like a living Sex Pistols album cover, have to stop The Spot and save the entire Spider-Verse, not to mention his and Gwen’s fathers by preventing the canon from playing out.
The dazzling animation is eye-popping, often shifting styles and colours within the same scene, close-ups showing the comic-book dot textures of the characters’ skins, driving things along at hyperspeed but also finding time out for quieter, more tender moments such as Miles and Gwen hanging out (upside down) on the dome of the Williamsburg Savings Bank Tower that add further resonance to the film’s central theme about the weight of responsibility (an emotional depth that has always distinguished Marvel comics) and the painful journey to self-discovery. There’s a lot of fun too as, along with a joke about the redundancy of saying Chai tea, it wheels out such web-slinging variations as Spider-Horse, Spider-Car, Spider-Cat, and the virtual reality Spider-Byte, interjecting the animation with live action that includes clips from both the Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield movies, a brief visit to a convenience store in Eddie Brock’s world and a wordless cameo from Donald Glover as The Prowler (another variation of whom provides a last moments shocker).
Driven by a brilliant score and guaranteed Oscar glories, as the first of the two part sequel, it ends, of course on a cliffhanger setting up Beyond The Spider-Verse. That won’t arrive until next year, by which time your pulse rate might just have slowed down enough to handle it. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Electric; Empire Great Park; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Vue)
When she was a child, Amanda (Benedetta Porcaroli) toppled from her airbed into the pool at her family’s villa in Turin, her older sister reading obliviously on a sunbed, and was saved by the South American maid, Judy. Now a 25 year-old fuck-up, she’s returned from Paris where, we learn, she spent her free time watching films on her own. Socially awkward, anti-conformist and with no dress sense (she’s forever wearing black boots and a frumpy crotched waistcoat), she had no boyfriend and, indeed no friends. She still doesn’t. Instead, blaming everyone else for her not having a life, she relies on the middle-aged Judy. Judy, however, reckons it’s time she moved on. But it’s clear Amanda has no idea how, half-heartedly fantasising a relationship with a guy (Michele Bravi) she mistakes for a drug dealer but actually hands out free condoms at raves, hanging out at ill-advised venues with the closest bond she makes being with a neglected old horse. Her corporate pharmacy mother, Sofia (Monica Nappo) looks to make an intervention, reconnecting her with Rebecca, (Galatea Bellugi), the daughter of her friend Viola (Giovanna Mezzogiorno), who, it turns out, was Amanda’s best friend when they were two. However, Rebecca has her own issues, locking herself in her bedroom, reusing to interact with anyone while her heavily medicated mother busies herself in the garden or making huge cakes. So. in-between bickering with her impassive, distanced mother and arguing with her now successful socialite sister (Margherita Maccapani Missoni) who regards her a self-absorbed brat, she makes it her mission to force Rebecca to be her friend. The two begin hanging out as the film unfolds to have Amanda involve in horse stealing, a quest to get enough supermarket points buying energy drinks to obtain an electric fan she can sell online (rather than working in the family business), getting a job in an electrical store and immediately sidelining her boss.
The feature debut by writer-director Carolina Cavalli, drawing on influences such as Noah Baumbach, Greta Gerwig and Wes Anderson channelled through an Italian lens, it’s a wry and somewhat mannered coming of age comedy populated by eccentrics about the need to be loved and connected, even when the impulse is to deny it. Although Amanda is needy (putting a spin on that near drowning moment), self-absorbed, petulant, grudge-carrying with a sense of privilege, Porcaroli’s performance as she gradually mellows breaks down resistance to generate a feeling of empathy and have you rooting for both her and Rebecca to find their place in the world, although, arguably, the scene-stealing but uncredited turn comes from Amanda’s eight-year-old Jesus obsessed niece. (Curzon Home Cinema; Mockingbird)
The Boogeyman (15)
Loosely based on a 1973 short story by Stephen King, adapted by A Quiet Place writers Scott Beck and Bryan Woods and directed by Rob Savage, drawing on the childhood night-time fears staple of the monster in the closet or under the bed, this is another tale in which a supernatural force feeds on and targets a family’s suffering and where light switches in houses either don’t work, people don’t turn them on or, if they do, the place is lit by bulbs with the lowest possible power, meaning pretty much everything unfolds in the dark.
Their artist mother killed in a car crash, high school student Sadie Harper (Yellowjackets’ Sophie Thatcher) and her little sister Sawyer (Vivian Lyra Blair) are still consumed by grief but trying to deal with their emotions (Sadie wears her mother’s dress to school, resulting in an incident with a snide classmate); however, while trying to maintain a sense of normality, therapist father Will (Chris Messina), has closed himself off and isn’t dealing well with things.
One day, after having a session with Sadie (I’m not sure it’s ethically acceptable to be counsellor to your own daughter, though he does later arrange for another grief counsellor), he gets a visit from the troubled Lester Billings (David Dastmalchian), seeking treatment following the death of his three children. Things end in Billings apparently committing suicide in the closet, but not before he’s shown Will a drawing by one of his daughters showing the creature, the boogeyman, she claimed to be terrorising them and (in the same manner as Pennywise in It) warns that “It’s the thing that comes for your kids when you’re not paying attention”. And so it does.
Mostly it preys on Sawyer, who can’t persuade Sadie, who’s got problems dealing with her own mean girl monsters, it’s real, with effective scenes of her alone in her bedroom, rolling a light globe along the floor to see what’s lurking but, when, having found Billings’s sketchbook, Sadie realises this isn’t all in Sawyer’s imagination the focus shifts to her as she sets out to try and save sister and father with the help of Billings’s widow who, her house booby trapped and lined with candles, reckons she knows how to kill it. Suffice to say, it’s not that easy.
Again, as is so often the case, the horror work best when you don’t actually see the monster, given only glimpses or a pair of eyes and, again you’re left questioning how a demonic creature can be despatched by earthly means (keep an eye on Sadie’s mother’s cigarette lighter). However, despite the fact people in the same house apparently can’t hear the others scream, Savage crafts a solid sense of suspense and makes effective use of what little flashes of light the film has, but, resorting to standard jump scares and the usual half-open doors, dark corners and creepy whispers, it’s ultimately predictable and generic. Inevitably, the final shot teases a sequel, but perhaps it might be better if some things stay in the closet. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park;Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Vue)
On June 3, 2017, 25-year-old Reality Winner, a former enlisted US Air Force member employed by the Pluribus International Corporation, a military contractor, as an NSA translator fluent in Farsi, Dari, and Pashto, with top security clearance, was confronted at her home in Augusta, Georgia as she returned from shopping and interrogated inside in an unfurnished room for an hour by FBI agents R. Wallace Taylor and Justin C. Garrick about the leak of a classified intelligence report about Russian interference in the 2016 United States elections to the news website The Intercept. In 2018, she was given the longest prison sentence ever imposed, five years and three months in federal prison, for unauthorised release of government information to the media.
The FBI agents had recording devices attached to their wrists, and the verbatim transcripts of what went down became the basis of first a stage play, Is This A Room, and now this directorial debut docudrama, by Tina Satter, all the dialogue a word for word account of what was said, the only deviations from the real-time event being a couple of non-verbal flashbacks to her at work and a hallucinatory sequence. At times the screen goes blank with the words unfurling out in transcript form along with an audiowaves graph, the redactions in the transcript visualised in flashes.
With White Lotus star Sydney Sweeney brilliant channelling controlled panic as Reality, and Josh Hamilton and Marchánt Davis insidiously creepy as Garrick and Taylor, respectively, it’s a sobering look at how such interrogations work. The agents are friendly, almost apologetic; Reality (named so by her father so she’d be a real Winner) is cooperative and does not as for a lawyer. At no point is she ever read her rights. It all starts casually, banter about her dog and cat, her fitness workouts, her collection of guns. She claims she has no idea why they’re there. But things slowly become more intense. The agents clearly know what happened (she smuggled out the documents and posted it), but are looking for her to tell them. The dialogue is mundane and naturalistic because it is, complete with false starts, stumbling phrases, but that just adds to the tension and unease as, accentuated by the camera angles, you wait for her to caught in the snares and admit what she did, saying “I wasn’t trying to be a Snowden or anything”, but that she felt a duty to the American people to be a whistle-blower tell the truth. It doesn’t feel dramatised, because it isn’t. The physical positioning may be created but this is, to not avoid the ironic pun, reality. And it’s chilling. (Mockingbird)
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. It’s tough to watch but, in light of current conflicts and the rise of nationalism around the world, it’s a very important reminder of the need for sanity. (Netflix)
Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret (12A)
Published in 1970, Judy Blume’s coming-of-age novel about an 11-year-old girl raised without any religious affiliation by her Jewish father and Christian mother having to deal with moving home and school, and early adolescent anxieties about menstruation, boys and bras, became an instant – thought not uncontroversial – classic among both young and older readers for the way it dealt frankly with the issues. For49 years, Blume rejected offers to adapt it for the screen, but now, produced by James L Brooks and written and directed by Kelly Fremon Craig, the team behind The Edge Of Seventeen, it finally arrives and proves well worth the wait.
Abby Ryder Fortson, who played Cassie Lang in the first two Ant-Man films, is Margaret Simon, the daughter of Herb (a gently charming Benny Safdie) and aspiring artist Barbara (Rachel McAdams) who, on returning from summer camp, learns that her father’s promotion means they moving from their New York apartment to the New Jersey suburbs, something she resents, partly because she loves the city and is anxious about making new friends, but mostly because it means leaving behind her fun but at times overbearing paternal grandmother, Sylvia (Kathy Bates) with whom she shares a close bond.
However, no sooner have they arrived than Margaret is swept up by her queen bee neighbour Nancy Wheeler (Elle Graham) and recruited to join her class clique alongside Gretchen Potter (Katherine Kupferer) and Janie Loomis (Amari Alexis Price), all of whom have the pubescent hots for floppy-haired school romeo and budding jerk Philip Leroy (Zack Brooks), though Margaret is more taken with the shy Moose (Aidan Wojtak-Hissong). Hanging out with Nancy comes with its rules and demands, among them having to not wear socks (cue blisters), having to wear a bra (cue humiliating shopping trip for grow with you one) and competing to see who is the first to have a period, the latter leading to an embarrassing shopping trip to buy sanitary towels and Margaret practising wearing them. Added to her problems is a year-long assignment given by their new teacher Mr Benedict (Echo Kellum), who, learning she dislikes religious holidays, which her parents don’t observe, wants her to research and write about religion. In the course of things she learns that the reason she’s never met her other grandparents, Paul and Mary, is because , devout Christians, they disowned Barbara for marrying Jew, which is why they made the decision to not pressure Margaret into being one or the other until she was ready to choose for herself. Sylvia, on the other hand, seizes on Margaret’s assignment as an excuse to take her to temple, inevitably setting in motion friction with her son and daughter-in-law and, when Barbara’s parents do finally turn up for reconciliation, a heated confrontation over dinner as to what Margaret should be. She, meanwhile, is busy checking out other faith aspects, among them a fraught visit to a Catholic confessional. All this alongside getting her first kiss from Peter at a spin the bottle party, the girls trying to expands their busts and her regular calls on God to fix things for her, not least in getting that all important period. And questioning his existence when nothing happens.
Alongside its adolescent angsts and issues of bigotry and religion, the film broadens its scope to address the sacrifices, frustrations and humiliations that come with it being a woman and a theme of finding out who you are and where you fit in. It’s one that extends beyond Margaret and her three friends to also embrace wallflower classmate Laura Danker (Isol Young), who, lanky and more physically developed, is ostracised as a slut for supposedly letting boys ‘feel her up’, Barbara, struggling to adapt to the role of suburban mum and master the basics of cooking, volunteering for every PTA committee going, as well as Mr Benedict in his first teaching job. That and the bittersweet observation of seeing your child grow up before your eyes.
All of which is beautifully handled by Craig’s screenplay and her cast. Eyes full of wonder and wariness, her shoulders speaking a body language of their own, Fortson is an absolute joy, witty without being snarky, insecure yet self-willed, as she navigates the messy waters of puberty while, the character considerably expanded from the book, at her most fluidly natural McAdams is remarkable, and you can’t help for feel for her when her artistic talents are reduced to cutting out fabric stars for the school hall (for Nancy’s equally queen bee mum). And, while she might be a wholly convincing Jewish mother, Bates brings her own effervescence to Sylvia.
Funny and poignant in equal measure (a brief scene involving removing the middle section of a dinner table speaks emotional volumes), it may leave teenage boys cold, but for their counterparts and their mothers this is an absolute must. (Mockingbird; 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 writer-director Martin McDonagh addresses in Three Billboards, it’s a black comedy of male pride and loneliness that balances darkness and whimsy (with everybody feckin’ this and feckin’ that) equal measure as it builds to an act of violence. As such, he’s ably supported by a sterling support cast that includes David Pearse as the mean priest, Gary Lydon as bullying copper Kearney who is turned on by the idea of being paid six shilling to oversee an execution on the mainland and regularly batters and molests his mentally challenged son Dominic (a superb 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. It’s a quiet, slow burning masterpiece with a banshee wail that will pierce the heart. (Disney+)
Beau Is Afraid (15)
Although the sprawling running time of three hours couldn’t have been easily trimmed, on the whole this, the latest from Midsommer writer-director Ari Aster, rarely drags, even if it is also at times wildly self-indulgent and trying too hard to be Charlie Kauffman. An Oedipal epic of mommy issues, it sports another impressively unhinged turn from Joaquim Phoenix as Beau Wasserman, a balding, paunchy middle-aged son of domineering pharmaceutical empire businesswoman Mona (a ferocious Patty LuPone with Zoe Lister-Jones in the flashbacks), his father, she says, having died having his first orgasm on their wedding night (which was when Beau was conceived) due to a hereditary heart murmur. Living alone on a crappy apartment in the crime-infested city of Corina where neighbours demand he turn down music he isn’t playing, deranged homeless and corpses line the streets and a naked knife-wielding serial killer makes getting to the shop a nightmare, Beau is riddled with neuroses, depression and anxiety, his therapist (Stephen McKinley Henderson) prescribing a new drug that must be taken with water (a running motif). Due to fly to his mother’s for the anniversary of his father’s death, applecarts are upset when his apartment keys are stolen, causing him to miss his flight. His apartment wrecked and having slept on the scaffolding, Beau wakes to call his mother only to be told she’s dead, her head crushed by a falling chandelier. Now he has to try and get back for the funeral, she insisting it can’t take place unless he’s there. However, started by an intruder falling into his bath and fleeing naked into the street, he’s hit by a soup truck and wakes up days later to find himself being cared for by those behind the wheel, Grace and her surgeon husband Roger (Amy Ryan, Nathan Lane) who also care for Jeeves, an unstable veteran with PTDS who served with their dead son. They also have a stroppy teenage daughter, Toni (Kylie Rogers), who resents Beau having taken up her bedroom.
Suffice to say, as event spiral out of control, she commits suicide by drinking paint, Beau’s accused of the murder, he flees pursued by a heavily armed Jeeves, is taken in by pregnant Penelope (Hayley Squires), part of a hippie travelling theatre group who perform in forests (part Dante, part Midsummer Night’s Dream), Beau becoming fascinated by a play about a man trying to find the family he lost in a flood, imagining himself as the protagonist, before, following a bloody massacre, he finally makes it to his mother’s where he’s reunited with Elaine (Parker Posey), the girl (Julia Antonelli) seen in a flashback to his teenhood (Armen Nahapetian), a grisly secret’s revealed and, metaphorically returning to the birth canal on which the film began, everything comes to a head at some sort of Kafkaesque guilt trip tribunal where he’s accused of never loving and always disappointing mummy.
With everything from animated sequences of an imagined life to twin brothers, and a giant penis-monster in the Freudian attic, it’s a comedy-horror cornucopia of sex, parenthood, money, dystopian society, psychosexual obsession and death splattered across a stylistic gamut of sitcom, cartoon, crime thriller, monster movie and science-fiction with everything from Greek tragedy to The Wizard Of Oz and David Cronenberg as touchstones, at times very funny (spot the throwaway visual gag about an Hawaiian-Irish TV dinner called O’Loha), at others searingly dark and pretty frequently just barkingly silly, making you wonder whether Aster’s exorcising his demons or just having a huge panic attack joke. (Electric; MAC; Mockingbird)
Beautiful Disaster (15)
Adapted from the young teen romance novel by Jamie Maguire, this reunites co-writer and director Roger Kumble with his After We Collided star Dylan Sprouse for what feels like a pick and mix of genres that co-stars Fall’s Virginia Gardner. She plays Abby Abernathy, a child poker prodigy tagged Lucky 13, who, as the film begins, is, tired of bailing him out, cutting out on her fallen star LA gambler father Mike (Brian Austin Green) and heading to join her best friend America (Libe Barer) at college in Sacramento. Here she meets tattooed campus bad boy Travis Maddox (Sprouse), the brother of America’s boyfriend Shepley (Austin North), a cage fighter in his spare time whose relationship are only ever for one night. She immediately declares she’s not interested, so naturally the rest of the film involves them inevitably coming together, largely driven by her losing a bet over one of his fights that means she has to spend a month living in his room in the apartment he shares with Shepley and America. There’s a meet cute with his dad and other assorted brothers, a brief dalliance with another would-be suitor, a drunken birthday party with a great vomit scene, and the obligatory fall out and make up arc. But then, the last third takes off in a completely unexpected direction as an LA double-cross thriller as Abby is forced to resume her poker career to prevent a casino boss breaking her dad’s legs, only to be called out as underage (Vegas requires you to be over 21) and Travis stepping up to take on a fighter called Chernobyl to try and save the day.
Punchier than you might expect from a romantic teen drama with some smart dialogue and Gardner and Sprouse making a lively double act, it’s not a great film but it is an undeniably entertaining one. (Amazon Prime)
Book Club: The Next Chapter (12A)
Jane Fonda (spiky hotelier Vivian), Candice Bergen (now divorced judge Sharon), Diane Keaton (anxiety-prone Diane) and Mary Steenburgen (restaurateur Carol) reunite as the four elderly book club friends jet off to Italy for Vivian’s impending marriage to rediscovered former suitor Arthur (Don Johnson), with the bachelorette party the fun girls trip they never had. Inevitably, double entendres and lost luggage occur, secrets are revealed and everything turns into a Prosecco-fuelled cross-country romp, naturally involving scenes involving leadenly unfunny wedding dress shopping and the four staring up open-mouthed at well-endowed naked male statues.
Swapping Fifty Shades of Grey (about finding sexual liberation) for The Architect (about finding your destiny), and opening with an interminable sequence of Zoom book club meetings during lockdown during which they’ve variously taken up pickling vegetables and adopting “rescue parrots”, we get Carol bumping into an old flame and furtively monitoring whether husband Bruce (Craig T. Nelson) sticks to his unappetising diet following his heart attack and taking up accordion having closed the restaurant during the pandemic, while the now retired and sexually reenergised Sharon gets her own romantic sidebar with expat philosophy professor (Hugh Quarshie), the two of them getting it on a water taxi.
Looking like product placement for the Italian tourist bureau, there’s pratfalls, some dancing, a cameo by celebrity chef Giancarlo Giannini as himself while Andy Garcia reprises his roles as Diane’s incredibly wealthy New Mexico airline pilot. The quartet still have sparks together, but, largely devoid of laughs or emotional depth, that hardly justifies its existence. At one point, all four wind up behind bars. Given the film, they certainly deserve it. (Vue)
Creed III (15)
As well as reprising the title character, Michael B. Jordan also confidently takes up the directing reins for this third instalment in the Rocky spin-off, one that muddies the clear cut moral waters of the previous outings in both franchises. Now retired from the ring, he’s enjoying the fruits of his success , running a gym and living in a plush L.A. mansion with his successful pop star wife Bianca (Tessa Thompson), herself now in quasi-retirement due to hearing loss, and their deaf daughter Amara (Mila Davis-Kent), with whom he communicates in sign language. Bianca’s now writing and producing songs for others, while Adonis is mentoring hot-headed new heavyweight champion, Felix Chavez (Jose Benavidez). But then his world’s upended with the arrival of a figure from the past, Damian “Dame” Anderson (Jonathan Majors), fresh from spending 18 years behind bars for reasons shown in the opening sequence of their delinquent childhood and various subsequent flashbacks that add extra detail as to what happened when the young Adonis (Thaddeus James Mixson Jr.) beat up an old nemesis outside a liquor store, Dame (Spence Moore II) intervened with a gun when he was being grappled with and the cops showed up.
A former amateur Golden Gloves champ, Diamond Dame now wants his shot at the big time, the unwitting Adonis, in a mix of guilt and friendship, and stung by a retort reminding him of how he got his own shot as a contender, offering to train him at the gym under Duke (Wood Harris), who sagely suggests it’s not perhaps a good idea given how he’s driven by anger and resentment.
When, following a record release bash where an incident brutally removes Viktor Drago (Florian Munteanu) from the upcoming world title bout, Adonis gives Dame his shot, pummelling Chavez to win the title, given the formulaic nature of such films, it’s not hard to predict that the two former friends will end up in the ring together, one in black one in white in Westerns tradition. However, the journey there, one which involves the inevitable training montages, Adonis confronting his past, the discovery of prison letters from Dame he never saw and the exit of a Creed family member from the series, is nonetheless dramatically powerful. As well as ramming the punches home with slow motion rippling flesh as body blows land, Jordan also finds a way to bring something new to the big showdown as the boxing arena transforms into something more existential as the crowds vanish and the ring ropes are replaced by prison bars.
Thompson is somewhat sidelined, but Jordan again brings dynamite charisma to the screen, even so he’s outshone by Majors, delivering a double whammy following his current turn as Kang The Conqueror, in an electrifying embodiment of passive-aggressiveness, arrogance and anger fuelled by a long simmering feeling of being betrayed and abandoned and his future snatched from out of his gloves.
It’s hard to see where Jordan could take Adonis’s story from there, but hey, maybe those scenes with him giving the plucky young Amara pointers on how to deliver a punch might yet resolve into a gender-switch sequel some years down the line. (Sky Store)
As highly melodramatic as it is stylised, Baz Luhrmann’s biopic of Elvis Presley pretty much follows the adage of going with the myth (or perhaps fairy tale) when it’s better than the facts. As such, much is brushed over or ignored (his affair with Ann-Margret, , his meeting with Nixon demanding action against the lefties, no mention by name of his legendary backing musicians Scotty Moore and DJ Fontana and while there’s the pills but no Fat Elvis cheeseburger binges), while other parts polish the realities (the young Elvis – Chaydon Jay- may indeed have had his R&B education by hearing Big Boy Crudup singing That’s Alright Mama in a juke joint or gospel by sneaking into a revival meeting, but, despite what the film shows, he and B.B. King weren’t best buddies who hung out together on Beale Street, though they were famously photographed together). Ultimately though, while overlong, this is a solid if flashy portrait of how he became the best-selling solo music artist and a legend whose influence continues to this day set against his relationship with his manipulative svengali manager Col. Tom Parker whose contract stipulated 50% of all earnings, eventually, after Presley’s death, being charged with financial abuse.
Parker, an illegal Dutch immigrant named Andreas Cornelis van Kuijk who claimed to be American and earned the honorary title of Colonel after assisting Jimmie Davis’s campaign to become Governor of Louisiana, was a carnival snake oil showman – or snowman – who got into the music business managing Hank Snow before ‘discovering’ Presley after hearing his Sun recording of That’s Alright Mama and seeing dollar signs to learn that the singer was white not black and seeing how his gyrations exploded sexual frenzy in his teenage girl audience (“She’s having feelings she wasn’t sure she should enjoy”, Parker notes). He’s played here under heavy jowelled prosthetics by Tom Hanks with an accent that sounds nothing like Parker but does, appropriately enough, conjure up the rasp of the serpent from Eden (though the visual suggestions he was Jewish are unfounded) while opposite him Austin Butler delivers a star-making surprise BAFTA winning turn in the title role, capturing his passions, his insecurities, vulnerability and trusting innocence, his voice a close approximation of Presley and looking spookily like him in the iconic poses, although more often he resembles a young John Travolta with the same electrifying charisma.
Although (unreliably) narrated with a running commentary by Hanks as the ailing Parker after Presley’s death, justifying his role and rejecting accusations that he exploited him and essentially caused his death, the screenplay, clearly makes him out to be the villain of the piece, using his flimflam skills, promises of wealth and fame and, ultimately, emotional and financial blackmail, to maintain his control of Elvis even when he was briefly fired in order to secure the money to feed his gambling habit (he negotiated Presley’s five year cash cow deal to be perform at the International in Vegas in return for having his debts cancelled, a point hammered home with the ‘caught in a trap’ line from Suspicious Minds) while his not having a passport being the reason he scuppered any plans for Presley’s international tours. In his commentary, Parker rejects being responsible for the star’s death, going to far as blaming the fans and their obsessive desire to see him keep performing.
As usual for Luhrmann, its delivered in a dizzying rush of over-saturated colour, dissolves, chronological acrobatics and even animation (though the decision to include contemporary hop on the soundtrack is a major misfire). It touches – albeit not in any great depth – on the contentious issue of whites appropriating black music (Presley’s frequently shown in the company of Black performers like King (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), Little Richard and Sister Rosetta Tharpe, clearly a fan of their music, alongside segregation (childhood poverty meant his family had to live in neighbourhoods meant only for people of colour) and the impact on him of Martin Luther King’s assassination. Ticking the biographical boxes of his army service (apparently engineered by Parker to avoid him being jailed for degeneracy), the inane conveyor belt movies, his devotion to his mother Gladys (Helen Thomson), his inept business manager father Vernon (Richard Roxburgh), his marriage to (and eventual divorce from) Priscilla (Olivia DeJonge), and, of course, Gracelands.
A stand out section is the 1968 Elvis comeback special, intended by Parker (to please the sponsors) to be a cosy Christmas special with seasonal sweaters and fireside, but which Presley, in cohorts with director Steve Binder (Dacre Montgomery), turned into his rock n roll resurrection in black leathers and ending, following Bobby Kennedy’s shooting, with his stark performance of If I Can Dream. Likewise the recreation of the lavish Vegas performances, though perhaps not as dramatically effective as the scenes of the young Elvis discovering the sexual magnetism in his swivelling hips.
Musically leaving the building ending with Elvis singing Unchained Melody in his final Vegas season before the end captions wrap up his death and Parker’s comeuppance, while superior to Bohemian Rhapsody and ultimately coming in second place to Rocketman, this is Luhrmann’s best since Moulin Rouge. (Amazon Prime; Sky Cinema)
Evil Dead Rise (18)
Somethings refuse to die, and so it is that Sam Raimi’s franchise, which began in 1981, continues to rise from the grave into which increasingly poor and derivative sequels threw it, not least the 2013 reimagining which dispensed with any of the original black humour in favour of lashings of gore and buckets of blood. The same formula holds true for this latest reboot by Irish director Lee Cronin who apparently drenched set and cast with 6,500 litres of fake blood, presumably paid for with the money saved on the script.
There’s just the bare bones of a plot. After a shaky cam intro and a lakeside prologue in which a possessed woman scalps another and then kills her annoying jerk friend with a drone scalped, things switch to LA a day earlier where, recently abandoned by her husband, tattoo artist Ellie (Alyssa Sutherland) lives with her three kids and now visited by her long absent guitar tech sister Beth (Lily Sullivan), When an earthquake opens up a hole in the nearby parking garage, teen son Danny (Morgan Davies) and his sister Bridget (Gabrielle Echols discover a hidden bank vault from where he recovers an ancient book – the Necronomicon – and a bunch of 78s. She, is understandably put off by the illustrations it contains, and tells him to get rid of it. Naturally he doesn’t and instead starts playing the records which, obligingly provide the basic exposition as, recorded by some priest, the last survivor, it explains that incanting from the book unleashes unkillable (cue sequel potential) demons. And so it is that Ellie’s soon possessed, dies, comes back to life and starts trying to turn the rest of her fractured family into monsters too, killing off various neighbours along the way until it’s just down to Beth and her young niece Kassie (Nell Fisher) left trying to find a way to stay alive and destroy Ellie and her brood.
And that’s pretty much it. Sutherland dives tight in, chewing up lines like “mommy’s with the maggots now” with gleeful relish but, while the film offers a few novel kills (one seen through the fish-eye lens of a door) and creative ways of inflicting bodily harm (a cheese grater), and ends with a chainsaw nod to original, it’s never remotely scary while the thin, shallow, empty and soulless story (with a frankly redundant pregnancy subplot) never connects you with the characters. If all you want is vomit, bugs, decapitations, and impalement though the soft palate to go with your popcorn, then this certainly gives you your money’s worth, but otherwise this is a gruelling experience in all the wrong ways. (Vue)
Fast X (12A)
Opening with a flashback to 2011’s Fast Five and the sequence as Dom Toretto (Vin Diesel, still not possessing a shirt with sleeves) and Brian O’Conner (the late Paul Walker whose daughter Meadow gets to cameo here as a flight attendant) steal the vault belonging to drug lord Reyes (Joaquim de Almeida), climaxing in him being killed on a Rio de Janeiro bridge, the scenes now insert Jason Momoa as the bad guy’s son, Dante, who survives his SUV being sent into the ocean. Now he’s out for revenge. So, cut to the present as Dom, wife Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) and their young son Brian (Leo Abelo Perry) are living a quiet family life, reuniting for dinner with the crew Roman (Tyrese Gibson), Tej (Ludacris), Ramsey (Nathalie Emmanuel), Han (Sung Kang) and Dom’s grandmother Abuelita Toretto (Rita Moreno). While the others are sent on a mission to Rome by the agency, Dom and Letty stay behind, only to have an unexpected visitor in the shape of a wounded cyberterrorist Cipher (Charlize Theron), who reveals Dante forced her men to turn against her and that he’s out for payback. When Little Nobody (Scott Eastwood) arrives to take her into custody he confirms her story. But also says he never assigned the team any mission. Clearly it’s all a trap.
And so, now directed by Louis Leterrier taking over from Justin Lin, comes the first of the spectacular set pieces with mass vehicular destruction as Dom and Letty arrive, and they and the team, Taj and Ramsey locked in a truck controlled remotely by Dante, find themselves trying to stop a giant ball-shaped bomb from barrelling through the city on its intended course to blow up the Vatican. Blamed for the destruction, and Letty in custody, they now find themselves wanted fugitives being hunted by the Agency’s new leader, Aimes (Alan Ritchson), resulting, in rapid succession, with Dom’s brother Jakob (John Cena) rescuing Brian, who’s being looked after by his aunt Mia (Jordana Brewster), from Aimes’s men, Mr Nobody’s daughter Tess (new addition Brie Larson) rescuing Letty (who sits out much the remaining film with Cypher), and Dom returning to Rio (and shots of scantily clad twerking female backsides) for a narratively nonsensical race against Dante who informs them he’s planted bombs on two of the other cars (driven by F5 returnee Luis Da Silva as Diogo and Daniela Melchior as Isabel, the sister of that film’s murdered Elena), taunting that he can’t save everyone.
And, with Dante vowing to make Dom suffer by killing all his extended family and friends before getting round to him, and it just gets more and more tangled and over the top, with betrayals, more returning characters (Jason Statham’s Shaw with brief cameos by Helen Mirren, Gal Gadot, a photo of Kurt Russell and, bringing it full F5 circle, an end credits Dwayne Johnson as Hobbs), and, inexplicably, an appearance by Peter Davidson, the comic who made a bad taste crack about Walker’s death some years ago , suggesting the punches he gets from two of the cast might well be persona. Plus the constant stream of automobile armageddons, high speed chases with apparently indestructible cars, armoured, trucks, helicopters and planes, and any number of fights and shoot outs with Agency goons and Dante’s men. Not to mention a couple of gratuitous punch ups between one another.
Location hopping between L.A., Naples, Rome, Portugal, London and Antarctica, there’s nothing as jawdroppingly, physics-defyingly ridiculous as the car in space from F9, but Dom racing down the side of an exploding dam or dragging two helicopters behind him as wrecking balls and Jakob’s two man convertible with wings come pretty close. An amusing touch is Roman’s remote controlled toy car with a nodding head of himself.
As ever, themes of family are writ large with dialogue that’s carved rather than written while the performances range from the knowingly mock serious to Diesel’s extensive range of growling and glaring as he dispenses homilies (“No-one starts at the finish line”, “Fear is the best teacher”), the coup de grace being the scene-stealing Momoa who, having apparently watched Jack Nicholson’s Joker on repeat, is flamboyantly, gleefully over the top, not so much chewing scenery as devouring it wholesale, strutting like a peacock, adopting a Christ the Redeemer stance as he surveys his destruction, licking blood off a knife and painting the toenails of a corpse in some a demented garden party.
As much fun as it is wildly absurd (and a blast in IMAX), it ends, or rather doesn’t, with a cliffhanger for the two planned future sequels to brings the franchise to the end of road, though quite what sort of octane it’s going to need in the tank after this defies imagination. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Vue)
Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery (12A)
Having done blockbuster style business on its brief cinema release, Rian Johnson’s second Agatha Christie/Sherlock Holmes –inspired whodunit now resides at Netflix, returning Daniel Craig as the intriguingly accented Southern dandy super-sleuth Benoit Blanc (and with a surprise star cameo indicating his sexual orientation) as he embarks on another convoluted case.
The Disruptors, a tight knit inner circle who go back to college days when they committed to disrupting the status quo, have all received a complex puzzle invitation for an annual get together with Elon Musk-esque billionaire mutual friend Miles Bron (Edward Norton), the CEO of high tech online network Alpha who styles himself as some utopian hippy, on his private Greek island (dominated by the titular architectural showpiece and adorned with masterpieces that may include the actual Mona Lisa) for a murder mystery weekend, the murder they have to solve being his.
The clique includes Birdie (Kate Hudson), an airhead fashion model turned influencer prone to unwitting racist tweets and forced to take responsibility for a sweatshop that manufactures her line, her assistant Peg (Jessica Henwick), compromised Connecticut governor Claire (Kathryn Hahn) whose campaign is being underwritten by Bron, obnoxious machismo-overdrive right-wing men’s-rights YouTuber Duke Cody (Dave Bautista) and his barely-dressed young girlfriend Whiskey (Madelyn Cline) who he’s suing to seduce Bron into giving him a slot on Alpha News, put-upon corporate scientist Lionel (Leslie Odom Jr) constantly subjected to a barrage of faxed demands from Bron, and, surprisingly, Bron’s ostracised by everyone former business partner Cassandra Brand (Janelle Monáe), who had the original idea for Alpha but got shafted by Bron having refused his plan for Klear, a potentially dangerous hydrogen-based alternative fuel source. More surprisingly, given he has no connection to any of them and Bron didn’t invite him, is the inclusion of Blanc with his natty cravat and one piece swimsuit. For some reason, the island is also home to resident slacker Derol (Noah Segan, in a sly nod to the previous film).
It’s impossible to reveal much without ruining the intricately constructed narrative with its misdirections, twists and turns, flashbacks, reversals and reveals as events play out to the island’s minimalist high tech backdrop with its passive-aggressive anti-smoking alarms, but suffice to say, there’s a definite agenda to the gathering, and one or possibly two actual murders (Blanc solves Bron’s game version almost as soon as he arrives) as Blanc and Brand work together to get to the bottom of Bron’s machinations and unpeel the onion’s multiple layers.
The message that extreme wealth corrupts is fairly obvious but is generally secondary to the enjoyment of watching Blanc unpick the threads to a backdrop of dazzling costume design and cinematography, Craig clearly having a huge amount of fun while performances by Monáe, Norton, Bautista and especially a wildly amusing Hudson are all an utter delight. Not to mention an array of cameos that include Ethan Hawke, Hugh Grant, Stephen Sondheim, Angela Lansbury, Natasha Lyonne, Yo-Yo Ma, Serena Williams and even Joseph Gordon-Levitt as the voice of Bron’s clock, the Hourly Dong. (Netflix)
Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol 3 (12A)
While the two mid-credit scenes suggest there is the potential for a further instalment with a new roster or, at least, a prime character spin-off, this definitely brings the curtain down on director James Gunn’s saga of the dysfunctional team of malcontent heroes while also serving as an origin story for Rocket (Bradley Cooper). Still bristling at being called a racoon, he spends most of the film in a coma, hovering on the edge of death after being wounded by the golden-skinned Adam Warlock (Will Poulter), his friends unable to heal him after discovering his body has an in-built kill switch. Flashbacks to how he became who he is today are scattered throughout, revealing him to be part of a genetic experiment by the High Revolutionary (a scenery-chewing Chukwudi Iwuji in generally bellowing default mode) to mutate animals into anthropomorphic beings to populate his vision of a new, ideal, peaceful Earth-like planet; though he’s not above cruelty and the murder of his subjects to achieve that. Rocket, or 89P13 as he’s referred to, proved to have advanced intelligence and an unexplained success in taming his creations’ urge for violence and, having escaped (in a heartbreaking scene in which his new genetically engineered friends do not), the High Evolutionary now wants him recovered so he can access the secrets stored in his brain. To which end, to save him, Peter Quill aka Star Lord (Chris Pratt), Mantis (Pom Klementieff), Drax (Dave Bautista), Nebula (Karen Gillan) and Groot (Vin Diesel), have to somehow infiltrate Orgoscope, the High Evolutionary’s fleshy space lab station, and get the key to disable the kill switch with the help of their Knowhere comic relief associates Kraglin (Sean Gunn) and Cosmo the Space Dog (Maria Bakalova), while preventing Warlock, spurred on by his mother, Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki), from abducting the wounded Rocket.
Matters among the crew are complicated by the subplot involving Quill grieving the death of his lover Gamora (a commanding Zoe Saldaña), at the hands of her step-father Thanos and unable to handle the fact that the cold resurrected version has no recollection that they were a couple and is now a member of the Ravagers (led by Sylvester Stallone), of whom he himself was once a part.
The film hops from one storyline and spectacular set piece to another, climaxing with an explosive finale on both the High Evolutionary’s ship (where cages of children are found, affording a new side of Drax to appear) and Counter-Earth, an 1980-designed biosphere based on Star-Lord’s home planet populated by genetically mutated humanimals, with Rocket now back in full on mode, the action intercut with the franchise’s familiar wisecracking and squabbling banter between the team, set to a rock music mixtape (Radiohead’s Creep playing a significant part).
Frequently teasing the possibility that any of the team could die, Gunn juggles themes about family, friendship, animal experimentation and playing God (“There is no God! That’s why I’m taking charge!” declares the High Evolutionary) and not judging by appearances (a trio of monstrous creatures that seem to threaten Mantis, Drax and Nebula turns out to be rather cuddly). It may never quite explain Warlock’s backstory and his somewhat confusing switchback of motivations and actions and, while a nice surprise, the moment when Groot proves to have more than one phrase in his vocabulary does break with character, but it never lets go of its emotional or visceral grip, delivering a hugely satisfying send-off with the end credits featuring images of everyone who’s been involved in the saga, from Kurt Russell and Michael Rooker to Kevin Bacon and even a sly photo of Stan Lee. What the future brings remains to be seen, but for now this is the best MCU movie since Avengers Endgame. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Vue)
The trailer made this look really good, with Ben Affleck as Danny Rourke, an Austin cop investigating the abduction of his seven-year-old daughter Minnie (Hala Finley) three years earlier that led to his marriage collapsing and who finds a photo of her with the message Find Lev Dellrayne scrawled on it, Dellrayne (William Fichtner doing his familiar bad guy routine) turning to be a hypnotic, someone who can control people’s mind and bend them to their will. Unfortunately, directed by Robert Rodriguez, the actual film turns out to poor Chris Nolan knock-off with a plot full of so many twists, turns and revelations that it ties itself it knots leaving audiences struggling to keep up with what’s going on and who is actually who.
What’s going on involves Rourke and his partner Nicks (JD Pardo) getting an anonymous tip off about a planned bank safety box robbery, which is carried out by Delrayne, and during which Rourke finds the photo inside the box he was trying to steal, the former throwing himself from the rooftop after getting to cops to shoot each other, but with no body to be found. Rourke then fetches up at a fortune-teller, Diana Cruz (Alice Braga), who tells him Delrayne, who recently escaped a top security prison, is a client and explains his power. A hypnotic herself, she also tells him he’s one too, with stronger powers, and that Delrayne is after something called Domino which will enable him to rule the world or some such. Oh yeh, Nick falls under Delrayne’s spell and tries to kill them both.
From this point on, with a convoluted screenplay that borrows from Cronenberg’s Scanners and Nolan’s Inception, nothing is what it appears as layers of reality are peeled back to show what lies behind what you and Rourke think you’re seeing, how it all links to Minnie’s disappearance, various characters have undergone memory wipes and left themselves clues to find their way back, and there’s some secret government division called, er, The Division. Even the usually watchable Affleck seems to be sleepwalking through it all but, while the climax feels like a cobbling together of The Matrix and Firestarter, if you just accept the preposterous nature of the construct and some pretty stupid moments, it’s watchable enough hokum, though you won’t need a mindwipe to have forgotten it moments after you leave the cinema. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Vue)
John Wick : Chapter 4 (15)
Spin-offs and prequel appearances notwithstanding, the emotional final scene would pretty much seem to confirm this is the final chapter in the series, bowing out in with a flamboyant 169 minute (word is a 225 minute version may surface later) clipped dialogue epic tsunami of fire, fist, knives and sword fights that may be overstuffed but never drags.
Hiding out in the New York lair of the Bowery King (Laurence Fishburne) from the High Table to whom he still has an obligation and who have placed a $2million bounty on his head, antihero assassin Wick (Keanu Reeves at his Clint Eastwood drawl finest) is planning his revenge. This takes him to Morocco (cue homage to David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia) where he kills the Elder, resulting in the fascist rich kid Marquis Vincent de Gramont (Bill Skarsgård), the current New York High Table top dog, taking revenge by stripping Winston (Ian McShane), who failed to kill Wick, of his role as manager of the Continental, killing his concierge Charon (the late Lance Reddick) and blowing up the building. Then, threatening to murder his daughter, he forces blind retired assassin Caine (martial arts virtuoso Donnie Yen), just one of many biblical references, into accepting the hit on his old friend. Cut to Tokyo where Wick’s taken refuge at the Osaka Continental, run by loyal old friend Shimazu Koji (a quietly charismatic Hiroyuki Sanada) and his daughter Akira (pop star Rina Sawayama who sings the film’s theme song), but it’s not long before the High Table enforcers, led by the Marquis’s seemingly indestructible right-hand man Chidi (Marko Zaror), and Caine arrive, demanding Wick be given up, leading to the first of a series of knowingly over-the-top extended fight sequences that ends up with one wounded, one dead and Wick again on the run.
Returning to New York, he learns from Winston that there is a way to bring things to an end. Under High Table traditions, he can challenge the Marquis to single combat and be freed of all obligations. The only problem is that he first needs to accepted back into the Berlin crime family the Ruska Roma and to do so he first has to kill Killa (Scott Adkins), the overweight, lavender-suited German Table head with gold gangsta teeth who murdered his adoptive sister Katia’s (Natalia Tena) father. And even having done that (cue another amped up sequence set amid a sea of night club dancers), there’s still the small matter of getting to the Sacré-Cœur in Paris before sunrise to carry out the duel, which, if he fails to do, will result in his and Winston’s execution, as his second, which means, armed with a top end gun and a wearing a ballistic suit, surviving Chidi, the High Table muscle and the dozens of freelance assassins all looking to collect the $20million and rising bounty, and soundtracked on their way by an on air DJ spinning things like Nowhere To Run. One of whom is Mr Nobody (Shamier Anderson), a cool and composed tracker, who with his lethal dog sidekick (which becomes an important plot turning point), has been keeping tabs on Wick, keeping him alive until the Marquis agrees to the fee he’s asking. All of which culminates in the reluctant Caine, who the Marquis has nominated to act in his place, and Wick facing down each other in a pistol duel moderated by the Harbinger (Clancy Brown).
Opening with shots of a fist hitting a bloodied punchbag, stunt choreographer turned director Chad Stahelski stages an increasingly elaborate and inspired sequence of balletic fights, among them a thrilling blazing guns car chase around the Arc de Triomphe, one filmed in an overhead doll’s-house view in a labyrinthine building and, finally, the spectacular climax set on the Rue Foyatier in Montmartre, the 222-step stairway leading to the Basilica and down which Wick is sent tumbling at least twice as the hordes continue to come. After nine years, during which time the narrative has got bigger and more complex, this is one big eye-popping gift-wrapped thank you to the legions of fans who have transformed it into an iconic franchise. Will you love it? Yeah. (Microsoft Store; Vue)
The Little Mermaid (PG)
The 1989 original having revitalised Disney’s animation, directed by Rob Marshall this now acts as a defibrillator to the studio’s live action remakes which have steadily gone from the awesome Mulan to the turgid Pinocchio. You’ll be familiar with the story, driven by curiosity, headstrong dreamer teenage mermaid Ariel (Halle Bailey) ignores her father, Triton (Javier Bardem), King of the Seas, who, after her mother was killed, forbids her to go to the surface or, worse, make contact with humans. As such, during a storm, she saves the life of Prince Eric (Jonah Hauer-King) and is taken with his kindness (he rescues a dog from the burning galleon) and good looks, while, hazily glimpsing her as he lies on the shore, he’s equally smitten. When dad finds out, he’s furious, destroying her grotto of human artefacts and ordering her to forget about him. Which is where his evil octopus sister Ursula (Melissa McCarthy cackling madly and chewing the seaweed scenery), the Sea Witch, assisted by her electric hencheels Flotsam and Jetsam, sees her opportunity and strikes a deal with Ariel; she’ll use her magic to make her human for three days but, if she and Eric haven’t had a true love kiss by the third sunset, she’ll be bound to her forever. And just to load the deck, she takes away Ariel’s siren voice (with which she saved Eric) and casts a spell to make her forget all about smooching. On land and with feet, she’s reunited with Eric but he doesn’t recognise her as the girl he’s looking for and she can’t speak. So, it’s down to her briny friends, tropical fish Flounder (Jacob Tremblay), Caribbean-accented red crab Sebastian (Daveed Diggs) and dim-witted gannet Scuttle (Awkwafina) to try and make the kiss happen before it’s too late.
Reworking Ariel’s sisters in a feminist makeover from giggling guppies to rulers of each of the seven seas , adding in new characters in the form of Eric’s adoptive mother, the Queen (Noma Dumezweni), and her factotum Grimsby (Art Malik), an amusing joke given Grimsby’s a noted fishing port, and making Eric more soulful than in the cartoon, while pretty much faithful to events in the original it also adds an extra hour to the running time, filling it out with stunningly beautiful underwater sequences and, Grimsby turning a blind eye, Eric and Ariel’s day out mixing and dancing the locals.
To be honest, Hauer-King is a little flat in the charisma stakes and his solo musical number, Wild Uncharted Waters, doesn’t come close to the performances elsewhere, most notably Diggs’ rendition of the calypso Under The Sea or, joined by Tremblay and Awkwafina, Kiss The Girl, while, with new lyrics (as on several other songs by Lin-Manuel Miranda, McCarthy makes a meal of Poor Unfortunate Souls. There’s also a couple of new songs from Miranda and Alan Menken, Awkafina and Diggs on the speed rap Scuttlebut and For The First Time sung by the wide-eyed Bailey (a five-time Grammy nominee with her sister Chloe), who, in her first leading role proves to be an incandescent discovery and knocks the showstopper Part Of Your World out of the ocean ballpark.
Looking stunning on the widescreen (and even more so in Imax) with jawdropping digital details such as Ariel’s shimmering rainbow tail, there moments that might prove dark and scary for younger audiences (Ariel and Flounder chased by a shark, the shipwreck, Ursula’s forbidding cave and her monster-sized finale), but, with its inevitable message about living in harmony rather than division, this is generally a fairy tale tsunami of unbridled joy that invites you to be part of its world. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Vue)
Love Again (12A)
Mira (Priyanka Chopra Jonas) is a children’s book illustrator about a caterpillar who doesn’t want to become a butterfly (early metaphor alert) who saw her boyfriend John (Arinzé Kene) killed (offscreen) in a traffic accident. Rob (Heughan) is a music critic who got dumped the week before his wedding. Two years later, neither have been able to move on. Both have lost their professional and personal spark.
Taking advice from the widowed owner (Omid Djalili) of her favourite café, who says he still talks to his dead wife, she starts sending texts to John’s phone, saying how she feels as a form of healing therapy. And, due to one of these mystical rom com contrivances, an electric storm links her to Rob’s new work phone, which has been allocated John’s old number. Now he’s getting all these sad missing you messages (she never questions why she doesn’t get a message undeliverable notification). Inexplicably never texting back ‘who the fuck is this?’, initially he thinks it’s his work colleague Lisa (Lydia West cast just to roll eyes and sniffle, almost as pointless as Celia Irie as Mira’s publisher), while gay workmate Billy (Russell Tovey) suggests it’s a stalker.
Meanwhile, trying to her back into the groove Mira’s effervescent younger sister Suzy (Sofia Barclay) fixes her a dating app profile and learning his caller is going on a blind date, Billy and, both intrigued and infatuated, Rob turn up at the same bar to see if they can work out who it is. Mira’s date (played real life husband Nick Jonas) turns out to be a fitness fanatic jerk who wants sex to work off his carbs, but when she arrives she catches Rob’s eye (while Billy scores with a silver fox). Later, learning the caller will be going to the opera to see Orpheus and Eurydice wearing a yellow dress in memory, he fetches up there too, clocking this is who’s been texting, swapping numbers and arranging to meet again. Romance blossoms, but, inevitably, he can’t summon up the courage to tell her about the texts. And when he does, well…
Meanwhile, in a ridiculously shoehorned in storyline, his boss (Steve Oram) has assigned him to interview Celine Dion (playing a version of herself) about her first US tour in ten years, even though he reckons her songs are sentimental and trite. Bemused by his incompetence (she tells him he has she tells Rob that he has “the presence of a pair of used underwear”), she implausibly ends up becoming his love guru, though there’s something uncomfortably morbid about her talking about her own real-life loss of her husband as part of the narrative, naturally prompting a comment about My Heart Will Go On.
Directed on autopilot by Jim Strause and adapted from a German film titled SMS für Dich (Text For You) which in turn was based on the novel by Sofie Cramer, neither of which featured Celine Dion or indeed any singer as the romantic mediator, it never seems quite sure about is tone. Is it about new starts or coming to terms with grief, or both. As a rom com, there’s very few laughs and, while Chopra Jonas sparkles, the total lack of chemistry between her and a flat Heughan pretty much sinks the rom too. Dion wrote five new songs for the film and there’s also six of her hits (including the clunkily plot-reinforcing All By Myself and It’s All Coming Back To Me Now) and gets to perform over the end credits, making it one of those times when the soundtrack is far better than the film. (Vue)
Luther – The Fallen Sun (15)
It was inevitable that, at the end of the fifth BBC series, with DSI John Luther (Idris Elba) being sent down for doing all the wrong things for all the right reasons, that his story wouldn’t end there. And so it is that Netflix have picked things up with this feature-length outing that brings both a bigger budget and a bigger plot that seems to have strayed in from an overblown bombastic screenplay that, while still written by Neil Cross, might well have been pitched and rejected as a potential for Bond or Batman.
Directed by series veteran Jamie Payne, who does at least have a good eye for aerial shots of London, it opens with Luther investigating the disappearance of a young bloke called Callum (lured into a trap with a long missing and long dead woman, apparently kept on ice, found in the car) and promising his mum that he will find him before exposure of his bending of the rules lands him in court and then jail. However, in this reworking, all his troubles have been engineered (shades of Ernst Blofeld in No Time To Die) by the film’s deranged creepy villain, David Robey (Andy Serkis in plastic suntan and a wig from hell), a former city trader who has acquired compromising footage on any number of people (Callum among them) which he uses to DSU Odette Raine (Cynthia Erivo), to a conflagration in which several bodies, Callum’s included, are fund hanging from the ceiling, and then sends a recording of the boys dying screams to Luther in his cell via an FM radio channel, taunting him by saying they’d met before, it’s not long before our redemption-seeking hero is devising a prison break so he can track down his nemesis before Raine and her team, into which his retired former boss DSU Martin Schenk (Dermot Rowley) has been recruited, catch up with him.
Gradually, and following several people leaping to their deaths in Piccadilly Circus, Robey’s preposterous – and surely staggeringly expensive – masterplan is revealed as being to stage a live streaming snuff porn Red Room where punters of varying perversions can virtually join and watch and pick how their chosen victim (he has a cell load of abducted refugees lined up) is killed.
It’s all wildly nonsensical and frequently incredibly violent, riddled with any number of plot all before, by way of a chase through an abandoned underground rail tunnel and Robey’s connection to a woman with a burned, disfigured face in a private hospital that (like the film’s title) never really makes much sense, ends up at his remote snowbound Red Room hideaway in the frozen Norwegian wilds and a showdown that involves Luther, Raine and her abducted daughter.
It moves along at a fair lick with plenty of action scenes to keep you going and along with his trademark coat and car, Elba brings his familiar world-beaten but still unbowed portrayal but at this point, and given the surrounding plot, which randomly throws in everything from Se7en to Saw and Scandi-noir, there’s nothing new to add, although it does end with a set-up for a potential new government agent spin-off that rather amusingly alludes to all that talk of him being a potential new 007. (Netflix)
The Mother (12A)
Jennifer Lopez tools up as a military sniper turned underground arms deals broker turned FBI informant turned maternal badass in this pulpy but enjoyable action thriller. Never named, the film opens with Lopez in an FBI safe house striking a deal to give up her two former partners (both professionally and sexually) only for it to prove not so safe after all, leading to several agents getting killed and Adrian (Joseph Fiennes), one of her former lovers one of whom is likely the father, stabbing her pregnant belly. The baby’s saved but, to keep her safe, Lopez is forced to give her up, getting Cruise (Omari Hardwick), the agent whose life she saved to agree to keep an eye on her ( a sort of surrogate uncle) and send photographs on every birthday. Fast forward 12 years and, watched over by an old army buddy (Paul Raci), Lopez is living in the remote wilds of Alaska, but has to come out of hiding on learning that her other ex-associate, Hector (Gael Bernal Garcia) has abducted her daughter, Zoe (Lucy Paez), to lure her out of hiding.
From this point it’s all fairly generic, Lopez shooting, stabbing, punching with fists wrapped in barbed wire, riding a motorbike down city steps, rescuing Zoe from Hector’s Cuban hideout and then taking her out into the snowy wilds and, though she’s initially resentful and hostile about being abandoned, training her to be a sharpshooter and how to knife fight before Adrian re-emerges for the snowmobiles cat and mouse showdown.
Efficiently helmed by Niki Caro whose Whale Rider showed she knows how to direct female actors, it makes a decent fist of exploring the primal maternal instinct but, at the end of the day, it’s still the sort of shoot em up revenge thriller Jason Statham or Liam Neeson might have sleepwalked through. (Netflix)
The Old Way (12A)
It may come as a surprise to learn that this is the first time Nicolas Cage has made a Western. And while hardly a classic, this by the numbers directorial debut by Brett Dono who is serviceably enjoyable enough with Cage giving one of his more modulated performances. Set in Montana, he plays Colton Briggs, a feared gunslinger who, in the opening sequence, guns down both several officials and the men trying to prevent the hanging of Boyd McAllister, the brother of notorious bandit Walter. Suffice to say, when the smoke clears. Briggs has killed both brothers, leaving only Boyd’s young son James as witness to events.
Years later, having found love with a good woman and had a daughter, the now clean-shaven Briggs has hung up his guns and runs a small store. One morning he takes daughter Brooke (Ryan Kiera Armstrong) with him, leaving Ruth (Kerry Knuppe) back at home. As she’s hanging out the washing, four men turn up, Boots (Shiloh Fernandez), Big Mike (Abraham Benrubi), and Eustice (Clint Howard) and the now grown James McCallister (Noah Le Gros) who’s out for revenge. Returning home, Briggs is met by Jarret (Nick Searcy), a US Marshall, who’s on their trail and learns that Ruth has been murdered. Burying her while Brooke sits implacable in the porch, he then takes his guns out of storage, sets fire to the house and the pair set off for revenge, meaning he first has to outsmart and obstruct the Marshall and his posse who want to do things legally.
Anyone with a passing knowledge of the genre will have a pretty good idea of how it goes from here, dutifully working its reassuringly predictable, way through the clichés to the final shootout, naturally including the scene where he teaches his daughter how to shoot a gun (she’s crap with a rifle but a dead shot with a six gun), setting up the inevitable later scene where that comes in handy. Carl W. Lucas’s dialogue is heavy-handed and over-written, not least an interminable speech by McCallister detailing his grudge and a long-winded all around the houses last scene exchange between Jarret and Brooke. While, taking his laconic cue from Clint, Cage doesn’t chew the scenery to the extent has in recent outings, Le Gros, Benrubi, Searcy, and, especially, Howard all make up for this by hamming outrageously. Armstrong, however, proves a real delight, even if you can’t avoid thinking she must have watched Hailee Steinfeld in True Grit on a loop as preparation. The film never comes anywhere close to that, but it passes the time well enough. (Rakuten TV; Sky Cinema)
Operation Fortune:Ruse De Guerre (15)
Its planned cinema released scuppered by the bad timing of having Ukrainian villains, Guy Ritchie’s second venture into espionage territory after the underrated The Man from U.N.C.L.E. finally surfaces on a streaming platform, and, a quintessential Ritchie romp with Mission Impossible echoes, is pretty much worth the subscription in itself. The plot is a familiar recover a secret weapon that’s been stolen for sale on the black market, so that gives a good idea of what to expect in terms of rival operatives, double crosses and location-hopping, all of which the cast and screenplay milk to hugely enjoyable effect with a mix of high octane action and rapid bite banter. Almost inevitably, it involves Jason Statham who, as loose cannon freelance contractor Orson Fortune, is enlisted by the British government in the form of effete operation handler Nathan Jasmine (Cary Elwes) reporting to his ministerial boss Eddie Marsan, to recover “The Handle”, to which end he recruits a team comprising hacker Sara Fidel (Aubrey Plaza) and everyman J.J. Davies (Bugzy Malone) while, in the opposite corner is sneaky rival Mike (Peter Ferdinando) and his gang of heavies.
The middleman negotiating the weapon’s sale is billionaire arms dealer Greg Simmonds (Hugh Grant in Hugh Grant wisecracking pantomime bad guy mode) and to infiltrate his inner circle, Fortune ropes in Danny Francesco (Josh Hartnett), an action movie star with whom Simmonds is obsessed, Sara playing his girlfriend and Fortune his manager. With the events and action variously playing out in Cannes, Madrid, and Morocco with a car chase through a Turkish Cliffside, a finale in which Fortune climbs a glass tower and a mid-heist scene where he takes time out to watch the ‘Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head’ bicycle scene from Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid. Knowingly silly with tongues firmly in cheek and everyone clearly having a great time, it’s preposterously energetic and entertaining supercharged fun. (Amazon Prime)
Peter Pan & Wendy (PG)
The latest live action remake of a Disney animated classic goes back to the title of JM Barrie’s book, placing Wendy firmly in the spotlight alongside the boy who refused to grow up. Directed by David Lowery, who also did the live remake of Pete’s Dragon, keeps several details from the cartoon, notably Peter’s green hat and costume and the top hat and teddy bear associated with the Darling brothers Michael and John, but there’s some substantial updates too, such that, played by Yara Shahidi, Tinker Bell is now biracial, no longer an outdated stereotype Tiger Lily (Alyssa Wapanatâhk) gets a more heroic role and (as Wendy declares to her astonishment) the Lost Boys include Lost Girls too.
More significantly, Captain Hook (Jude Law, stealing the film) is completely reimagined to give a backstory with Peter that makes him a more poignantly sympathetic figure than any previous portrayals and also casts Peter in a very different, selfish and at times cynical light. Rather like what happens to Hook’s ship in the big swashbuckling climax, it turns their relationship upside down. There is, though, still the crocodile.
Adopting an often dark tone, literally and psychologically, it opens in Victorian England at the home of the Darlings where Michael (Jacobi Jupe) and John (Joshua Pickering) are acting out the swordfights from the bedtime stories of Peter Pan, but here older sister Wendy (Milla Jovovich’s daughter Ever Anderson) enthusiastically joins in, only to be reprimanded by her father (Alan Tudyk) and mother (Molly Parker) for not setting a good example. This Wendy, resentful of being about to be sent to boarding school, is also a touch feisty, snappily saying she wants her own life, not her mother’s. Later she will slap Peter in the face for being reckless.
That night, she and the brothers are awoken by a visit from Tinker Bell and Peter (a suitably impish-looking Alexander Molony), very much real and not just a character in a story, who’s come to recover his shadow and, responding to her wish to never grow up, and, with the help of pixie dust and happy thoughts, takes them flying off to Neverland (here accessed through a portal in Big Ben). However, no sooner do they arrive than they’re bombarded by Hook’s ship, John and Michael are captured, Tinker Bell and Peter are missing in action and Wendy washes up on the shore to be found by Tiger Lily and the ethnically diverse Lost Boys led by Slightly (Down’s syndrome teenager Noah Matthews Matofsky).
Though, naturally, everything works out happily, Lowery doesn’t refrain from scenes likely to scare youngsters, such as Hook ordering the children to be executed and tying John and Michael to Skull Rock to drown before Peter resurfaces and comes to the rescue. Some of the pirates also end up as croc-fodder.
There’s a couple of nice line reversals, pointing that, in returning to London, you need to actually take the second star to the left and go straight on ’til morning, and Wendy telling Peter that to grow up might be the greatest adventure of all, and, while it may have flaws, this is generally a compelling and – dare I say it – grown up telling of a tale about the ambiguities of both wanting to hold on to your childhood and also excited by the potential than the adult world might offer. (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+)
Writer/director Jalmari Helander gleefully borrowing from Tarantino (just wait for the shot of women with guns striding side by side in search of vengeance), Leone and Rambo complete with grindhouse-style chapter titles, this never pretend to more than what it is, an exploitation war movie with lashing of carnage and dismembered limbs, and is deliriously enjoyable as a result. Set in 1944 Finland with the Nazis in retreat, burning everything in their wake, the protagonist is Aatami Korpi (Jorma Tommila) a grizzled prospector out in the wilds with his horse and little dog panning for gold. He’s overjoyed to find a rich motherload but as he heads off to find a bank to deposit his nuggets, he crosses paths with a band of fleeing Nazis with a tank and a truck of captive Finnish women for sexual purposes, headed up by brutal commander Bruno (Aksel Hennie). He sees Korpi’s gold as his ticket to escaping looming war crimes charges but, naturally, it turns out he’s messing with the wrong man. As one of the women explains, Korpi is a legendary Finnish special forces soldier who quit when his family were killed, but not before chalking up several hundred Russian kills., she describes him as ‘sisu’, a Finnish word meaning of unbreakable determination to the point of being unkillable. Which, given he survives being shot and strung up, seems to be the case.
With a mesmerisingly charaismatic Tommila giving Eastwood’s Man With No Name a run for his money in terms of loquaciousness and set in a desolate landscape of bomb craters, burned villages, corpses hanging from telephone poles, it’s awash with blood and mud, knives skewering heads, legs being blown off, entrails spilled and so forth as it builds to the eventual showdown between Korpi and Bruno aboard a plane (which, putting Tom Cruise to shame, the former boards by slicing his way through the undercarriage in full flight). There’s deeper themes if you care to look for them, but, barrelling long without spelling everything out and frequently sporting a self-aware grin, it’s the best WWII action-comedy since Inglourious Basterds. (Cineworld Solihull; Electric; Empire Great Park; Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Vue)
The Super Mario Bros. Movie (PG)
Originating in Japan, one of the first platform video games and, owned by Nintendo, still hugely popular among all ages (at my screening there were two grown men dressed as the character), even if the name makes no sense as there’s only one brother called Mario,30 years on the foul odour of the live action adaptation with Bob Hoskins till remains. Reverting to animation, this revival looks to reboot the film franchise by sticking closely to the game’s mechanics involving jumping between platforms, avoiding obstacles and powering up by opening boxes marked with a ?
Following a prologue in which power-hungry Bowser (Jack Black), the king of the turtle-like Koopas, attacks and destroys a city of penguin-like creatures to get his hands on a power star that will enable him to conquer his entire universe, it cuts to Brooklyn as Mario (Chris Pratt) and Luigi (Charlie Day) trying to get their plumbing business off the ground, only to end up creating chaos. Then, when they attempt to fix a broken water mains, they’re sucked down a vortex into another dimension. Separated, Luigi ends up in a fiery realm and is taken prisoner by Bowser and as such sidelined for most of the film, while Mario, who hates mushrooms, ironically finds himself in the Oz-like Mushroom Kingdom (you have to suspect the writers indulged in some magic ones of their own) where, looking to find and rescue his more timid brother, he teams up with the tiny Toad (Keegan-Michael Key) and the warrior-spirited Princess Peach (Anya Taylor-Joy), who accidentally came there as a child. However, it transpires that the literally and metaphorically horny Bowser is deludedly determined to either marry Peach or destroy her Kingdom, to which end they have to persuade Cranky Kong (Fred Armisen) to loan them his army, which means Mario must first defeat his son, Donkey Kong (Seth Rogan) in gladiatorial platform combat, during which he transforms into a cat. And then defeat Bowser before he can sacrifice his prisoners (glowing star Debbie Downer among them) as a wedding gift to Peach.
Resolutely mirroring the game and loaded with inside references and songs like Holding Out For a Hero and Take On Me, devotees of the game are well-served, though in pretty much every other respect the target audience is 7-year-olds who just want a rush of cute characters, garish colours and non-stop action sequences. Mama mia, here we go again. (Microsoft Store; Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; MAC; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel; Vue)
Vaughn Stein’s hard-boiled noir pastiche, clearly taking its inspiration from Sin City (and Waiting For Godot) amd forerver referencing Alice in Wonderland, has accrued some particularly damning reviews, but it’s nowhere near as awful as they make it seem. A futuristic sci fi plot twisting revenge thriller, it stars Margot Robbie as Bonnie, a femme fatale female assassin who sets out to win the business of a mysterious crime boss by proving she can turn his current hitmen for hire, Vince (Dexter Fletcher) and Alfred (Max Irons) against each other, to which end she also plays the role of sardonic but sweet diner waitress Annie who lends a friendly ear and some pragmatic advice to Bill (Simon Pegg), an English teacher who’s dying of cancer and looking to end it quicker, and also hooks up with Alfred who, along with Vince, is holed up in a hotel room waiting to be given their target.
Pretty much all of this takes place around a rundown railway station populated only by a limping janitor (Mike Myers in his first film in almost a decade) who shuffles around whistling Danny Boy, and all of which is monitored by an unseen figure on a bank of television screens. There’s also a lot of toing and froing involving briefcases concealed in the station lockers.
As it gathers to the climax, all manner of twists – one especially audacious – are rolled out that tie things together and, while the direction can be stiff and the dialogue cringeworthy, there’s enough of a potential cult air about it to warrant a place on the platform. (Arrow)
Top Gun: Maverick (12A)
Thirty-six years on since the original took your breath away, Tom Cruise returns to the role that made him a global superstar, the authority-bucking US Navy fighter pilot Pete ‘Maverick’ Mitchell. As directed by Joseph Kosinski, who was only 16 when the original appeared, and scripted by Ehren Kruger, Eric Warren Singer and Christopher McQuarrie, Maverick hasn’t changed a great deal in the interim. He’s relatively more centred, still single, still in top physical shape and still a captain, partly through choice, partly because he runs the top brass up the wrong way. Indeed, he does so right from the start when, learning the supersonic stealth fighter project he’s heading in the Mojave Desert is being shut down by a Rear Admiral dubbed The Drone Ranger (Ed Harris) as it hasn’t reached its Mach 10 target, he duly climbs into the cockpit and pushes it to the limit and beyond before he can be told in person. However, rather than being disciplined, he’s told to report to his old Fighter Weapons School aka Top Gun stomping ground where he learns an unnamed country is developing an unsanctioned uranium enrichment plant and the school’s best pilots are being recruited to carry out a Dam Busters-style mission to destroy it. Initially assuming he’s one of then, he’s informed instead, by Commanding Officer Beau ‘Cyclone’ Simpson (John Hamm), that he’s there to train them and select the best six. And also that (verging on obsolete) he wasn’t Simpson’s first, or any, choice, but is there at the request of his former rival, long-time friend and now Admiral, Iceman (Val Kilmer).
The hot shots candidates are all introduced in a somewhat unnecessarily extended barroom scene, the ones that matter lining up as nerdy Bob (Lewis Pullman), cockily arrogant Hangman (Glen Powell), spunky female pilot Phoenix (Monica Barbaro), Fanboy (Danny Ramirez) and Rooster (Miles Teller), the now grown son of Goose (Anthony Edwards seen in flashbacks), Maverick’s wingman who dies in action and who, along with many others, Pete himself included, blames as him for his father’s death, thus setting up a somewhat predictable arc between the two.
The same scene also introduces bar owner Penny Benjamin (Jennifer Connolly), mentioned but never seen in the original, now given a backstory as Maverick’s former on-off love interest who, now a divorced single mother, re-enters the romantic orbit. Of course, that’s a minor subplot as the film’s main focuses is on Maverick whipping his students into shape so that the chosen ones can fly dangerously low into the mountains under the radar to avoid the anti-aircraft missiles and superior enemy planes, destroy the target and get out again in a race against the clock. So cue all the expected young bucks v old fogey dynamics, pilot rivalries, run ins with Cyclone, and Maverick again bucking orders and pushing himself to breaking point to prove the mission is not impossible, inevitably ending up leading it himself with Rooster as his wingman.
As you’d imagine, right from a recreation of the opening scene (complete with Kenny Loggins’ Danger Zone), there plenty of nods to the original along with such iconic Cruise moments as a front on show of him riding his motorbike (in his original Top Gun jacket) grinning like a Cheshire cat. He’s not above taking the piss out of himself either, retorting ‘it’s the only one I’ve got” when someone comments on giving ‘that look’. While better at the grins and the grit expression that registering deep emotion, nevertheless Cruise has a particular affecting and touching scene in a reunion with Kilmer, his character clearly not long for the world (thereby leaving Maverick without anyone in his corner).
Likewise, while playing down the jingoism element, Kosinksi is at his best when the action is in the air, whether in the simulated dog fights (shot in actual U.S. Navy F/A-18s, for which the cast went through a punishing training process) as Maverick pushes his team or the actual dog fights evading enemy jets in the aftermath of the mission, where old grievances and new enmities are all neatly resolved in big bromantic hugs, even if the original’s homoeroticism is decidedly downplayed here.
Cruise again demonstrates that he’s in a cinema superstar league of his own, an ‘event’ in his own right (as the film says, it all comes down to the pilot in the box), a generous actor but inevitably putting others in the shade simply on account of who he is, though Teller at least gets to remind how good he was in Whiplash and Kosinski’s own firefighter drama Only The Brave. Along with a deft use of 70s hits, music’s provided by Harold Faltermeyer with Hold My Hand 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)
The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry (12A)
Adapted by Rachel Joyce from her own 2012 novel and directed by Hettie Macdonald, this tells how, learning his old work colleague Queenie (a briefly seen Linda Bassett) friend is in a hospice with cancer, retired pensioner Harold (Jim Broadbent), inspired by an anecdote about giving hope from a young woman in a petrol station, resolves to walk all the 500 miles (thankfully no Proclaimers on the soundtrack, the songs provided by folkie Sam Lee) from his home in Devon to see her in Berwick-On-Tweed and hand deliver the letter he’d originally intended to post, much to the displeasure of his grouchy wife Maureen (Penelope Wilton, holding up her own with a finely tuned performance veined with pain, bitterness and grief).
It’s hard not to draw comparisons with 2021’s The Last Bus in which Tim Spall played a pensioner who, using his free bus pass, travels from John O’Groats to Land’s End England, to return to where he and his wife grew up and scatter her ashes, becoming, as here, a media event and accruing a virtual and physical following in the process.
That, however, felt more credible than Harold’s journey (for which he’s poorly equipped without even a map) during which he sends his money and credit cards home and gets back to nature sleeping rough, eating wild fruit and accepting the charity of strangers, and, naturally, there’s an underlying back story revealed in flashbacks that involves a family heartbreak (cue flashbacks to a drug addict son), a marriage that’s gone off the boil that needs to recover the spark, and an attempt to regain a sense of purpose.
Like Spall, Broadbent disappears into his character, even if this is now rather familiar territory for him, and, the film keeps the tweeness dialled down as it present a warts and all snapshot of contemporary Britain, but ultimately, you may feel worn out long before Harold does. (MAC)