This column will review films both screening theatrically and/or on various streaming platforms.
A minor anti-hero on the Marvel universe – Spider-Man in particular – Michael Morbius (Jared Leo) is a doctor who, in a medical ethics-breaking attempt (in a Costa Rica cave of all places) to cure his mysterious blood disorder, assisted by the loyal Dr. Martine Bancroft (Adria Arjona), creates artificial blood from vampire bats and ends up becoming a living vampire, a curse that causes his skin to stretch gauntly over his cheekbones, his nose to go all Voldemort and his teeth to become fangs. Initially unable to control himself, he rips apart a bunch of mercenaries, thus attracting the attention of the cops (Tyrese Gibson, Al Madrigal), before, tormented by not wanting to be a killer, resorting to drinking the artificial blood in his lab. However, the effectiveness gradually begins to diminish, prompting the question of what happens when it stops working entirely.
In the meantime, Morbius has other worries in the form of Milo (Matt Smith), his British boyhood friend from a Greek sanatorium run the kindly Emil Nikols (Jared Harris), who has the same condition and, grown up to become bitter and twisted, takes the serum (he funded the lab) for himself, with no compunctions about indulging the monster he becomes.
Directed by Daniel Espinosa, it’s a shapeless and overly-familiar Jekyll and Hyde origin story that joins the two Venom outings as the worst films in the entire MU cinematic universe. Leto, never a subtle actor at the best of times, cranks up his excess to the max but is essentially slave to the so so FX, while the attempts at humour (“The Hulk parodying “You wouldn’t like me when I’m hungry”) fall thuddingly flat,
Linking the film to the Spider-Man franchise, along with some graffiti there’s also Michael Keaton reprising the role of Adrian Toomes who, of course, is The Vulture but, coming after No Way Home this just feels like an insult. On the plus side, it’s under 100 minutes, on the downside is pretty much everything else, including an end credits scene that’s even less worth waiting for than the ? in The Batman. Is it bloody? Yes, a bloody mess. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Electric; Empire Great Park; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Vue)
The Bad Guys (U)
Essentially Ocean’s Eleven with animals (with an opening scene nodding to Reservoir Dogs), Dreamworks delivers a fun adaptation of the graphic novels involving a gang of bad guys with a difference. They’re headed up by Mr Wolf (Sam Rockwell), the snappily-dressing lupine answer to George Clooney, with Marc Maron as his sarcastic, scaly safe-cracking sidekick BFF Mr Snake in a Hawaiian shirt, snarky ace hacker Ms Tarantula (Awkwafina), also known as Mata Hairy, diminutive hot-blooded muscleman Mr Piranha (Anthony Ramos) and Mr Shark (Craig Robinson) who, incredulously, is a master of disguise (a highlight scene has him posing as a pregnant woman).
Master criminals who effortlessly evade the police, their lair is stuffed with loot (a Mona Lisa here, a priceless diamond there), but Mr Wolf is a little tired of always being seen as well, the big bad wolf. They just need to pull off one last big heist so they can retire from their life of crime. This will be the theft of the Golden Dolphin presented at an annual charity gala for the year’s most outstanding Good Samaritan. However, in the attempt, their luck finally runs out and they’re apprehended, much to the glee of their long time human police chief nemesis Luggins (Alex Borstein). But, unexpectedly, the intended recipient, guinea pig philanthropist Professor Marmalade (Richard Ayoade) suggests that rather than sending them to jail, they under an experimental reform course, a proposal to which the Mayor, Diane Foxington (Zazie Beetz), agrees, offering the crew one last chance to turn over a new leaf. Given he’s already felt the tingle of what being good might be like after helping an old lady rather than stealing her handbag, causing his tail to wag, Mr Wolf is genuinely up for it, his colleagues somewhat less convinced. Under Marmalade’s coaching, the aim is to use their skills for good; however, it soon transpires that not everything or everyone are what or who they seem. Suffice to say, the plot involves kitten rescue missions, another gala heist, the theft of a power source meteor, mind control, the gang falling out, double and triple-crosses, a betrayal, the reveal of a superthief, and thousands of marauding zombie guinea pigs pulling off armoured car robberies as Mr Wolf and his remaining cronies try and stop the mastermind’s diabolical plan. All with an underlying message about not judging a book by its cover, or animals by the bad reputations they’ve been labelled with.
Slickly animated with a strong cartoonish style and written by Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa’s Etan Cohen, there’s plenty of twists and turns in its frenetic pacing and youngsters not paying attention might easily end up confused, but, while it follows a fairly predictable and well-worn path, there’s more than enough slapstick and farting (Mr Piranah emits green gas when he lies) by way of recompense. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Electric; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Vue)
Drive My Car (15)
Winner of this year’s Oscar for Best International Feature, directed by Ryusuke Hamaguchi and based on Haruki Murakami’s novella of the same name, this clocks in at just under three hours. But you barely notice the time. The opening credits don’t arrive until 40 minutes in, by which time Oto (Reika Kirishima), the writer of erotically charged TV screenplays (prompted by sex) and wife of older actor and playwright Yusuke Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima), has died of a cerebral haemorrhage, he previously having arrived home unexpectedly to find her having sex with someone else but never confronting her,. Two years on, he’s been invited as resident producer for a Hiroshima theatre school production of Chekov’s Uncle Vanya,the role in which he suffered a breakdown while playing following the funeral. It’s from here the film really starts.
Those auditioning for the cast and asked to deliver a scene in their first language include Lee Yoo-na (Park Yoo-rim), a mute woman who communicates through Korean sign language, and Kōji Takatsuki (Masaki Okada), the nervy, somewhat short-tempered young actor who was Oto’s frequent collaborator and who may well have been the one Kafuku saw with her. Symbolically cast as Vanya, he declares he’s there because he was inspired by Oto and wants to know more about her, he also, in a later mesmerising scene, recounts to Kafuku the end of the story she was writing about a teenage girl who breaks into the house of the boy with whom she is obsessed.
The other main character, and the explanation for the title, is the calm presence that is Misaki Watari (Tōko Miura), the Sonya to his Vanya, who (because of a safety policy) is hired by the theatre to chauffeur him around in his red Saab 900 Turbo, she behind the wheel, he listening to his late wife’s recording of the Uncle Vanya script, he filling in the title character’s line as part of his production process (which includes the cast learning the text line by line before interpreting it). Like Kafuku she too is, literally and metaphorically, scarred by a personal tragedy for which she feels guilt and, over the course of their time together, becomes a surrogate daughter (Kafuku and Oto lost theirs to pneumonia when she was just four).
Paralleling the Chekov play with Kafuku’s experiences and his relationship with Oto, he revealing more about his relationship with his late wife in the final stretch, the film is a rich melancholic exploration of trauma, grief, loss, trust, self-forgiveness, solitude, catharsis and moving on. (Mon/Tue, Thu: Electric; Tue: Everyman)
Tick Tick Boom (12A)
The directorial debut of Lin-Manuel Miranda, set during the AIDS outbreak, adapted by Dear Evan Hansen writer Steven Levenson, this is based on the 1990 autobiographical solo musical monologue by the late Jon Larson, who died just prior to the opening of his breakthrough success, Rent. Through the monologue staged with a piano, small band and two singers (Vanessa Hudgens, Joshua Henry) and flashback cutaways to real life it tells the story of Jon (Andrew Garfield), an aspiring composer who works in a diner, shares a New York apartment with gay best friend Michael (Robin de Jesús), and, approaching 30, struggling to get his futurist dystopian rock musical about a poisoned planet, Suburbia, produced, feels he may have made the wrong career choice in pursuing the performing arts. A low budget workshop seems it might prove a breakthrough but, prompted to add a new song for the second act by his benefactor Ira Weitzman (Jonathan Marc Sherman), advice previously given by Stephen Sondheim (Bradley Whitford), which he’d ignored, he gets stuck with writer’s block, working on its sucking the air out of the rest of his life, including his relationship with Michael (who swaps acting for advertising) and dancer girlfriend Susan (Alexandra Shipp), but, offered an opportunity to work at a dance school in Massachusetts, breaks up with him.
But, even after making a breakthrough, the workshop (which Sondheim attends) fails to deliver the overnight success he’d hoped, although ultimately he’s reconciled with Michael and Susan, who provides the voice over narration about his staging Tick Tick Boom, the film ending with its final song and an persistently optimistic view of the future.
Miranda brings the music to life with an irresistible flourish (Garfield proving a decent singer and dancer) and vivid cinematography and, while it’s inevitably somewhat romanticised in Broadway musical theatre manner, the experience pulls you under its spell. (Netflix; MAC)
The Adam Project (12)
“The future is coming sooner than you think”, harassed mother Ellie Reed (an underused Jennifer Garner) tells her all-attitude 12-year-old son Adam (Walker Scobell) after he’s suspended following an altercation with the school bully. And indeed it is, but not in quite the way she imagined. His father having died in an accident two years earlier, young Adam has buried his grief in being mouthy and giving his mom a hard time. While she’s out on a date, he investigates a noise in the woods outside their home and, returning to the house, finds the garage open and in it a wounded pilot (Ryan Reynolds) who seems to uncannily know a lot about him, the house and even the name of his dog, Hawking. Not surprisingly really, since he’s actually his future self who, as seen in the opening sequence, has fled from 2050, where’s he’s being chased by another spacecraft, and wound up in 2022, four years on from when he’d intended.
Reuniting Reynolds with Free Guy director Shawn Levy, this has a similar self-aware playful style with Reynolds again doing his snarky, irreverent quick fire patter to hugely entertaining effect, the film cheerfully acknowledging its borrowings from Back To The Future, Star Wars (Adam wields a double-sided light sabre) and Spielberg’s Amblin universe. Older bearded Adam has come from the future in search of his wife Laura (Zoe Saldaña) who, supposedly, was killed trying to return from 2018, something he simply doesn’t buy (rightly so, since she turns up to save him). His other reason for trying to get back to 2018 was to stop his father, Louis (Mark Ruffalo), developing time travel, his creation having been usurped his then partner, Maya Sorian (Catherine Keener), who has used it to take control of the future that, as Adam describes it is like Terminator 2 on a good day, and, it would seem, have Laura killed. So now, older Adam and younger Adam have to join forces (his wound, which farts blood, means he needs his young self’s DNA to unlock his craft) to fight off Sorian’s forces and get back in time to prevent their father’s creation ever taking place. Sorian, meanwhile, links up with her own younger self (who she helped amass a fortune through knowing what investments would pay off), to ensure that doesn’t happen,
This, of course, is just the action-driven plot (sequences set to rock classics like Gimme Some Lovin’, Boston’s Long Time and Led Zeppelin’s Good Times, Bad Times) on which to hang the film’s real narrative about loss, grief, how you handle it and how it can change you, the two Adams, the brain and the brawn, giving each other life-lessons about their father issues and getting in touch or reconnecting with their feelings as the film rolls along, turning its own logic upside down as Louis warns them that meeting themselves (and an eight-year-old Adam makes it all the more complicated) can cause all sort of cosmic chaos.
As such, Scobell and Reynolds have a great time riffing off each other while, when they both get reunited with their befuddled not yet dead dad, the film cranks up the emotional level as everyone gets to confront and put to rights the absent-father syndrome that has shaped their personalities. Short and fluffily slight it may be, but it’s one of the year’s most enjoyable films so far. (Netflix)
Director Michael Bay’s first big screen outing in five years runs for two and a quarter hours (it’s based on the 2005 Danish film which lasted 80 minutes), the bulk of which comprises one long car chase through Los Angeles. Well, strictly speaking an ambulance pursued by cop cars. It’s set up by what’s basically a prologue as, unemployed and desperate for money to cover his wife’s medical bills, decorated veteran Will Sharp (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) turns to his adoptive brother Danny (Jake Gyllenhaal) for help. However, rather than helping him out with cash, Danny, a career criminal, invites him to be part of his upcoming bank heist, his 38th, which, at $32million, will be the biggest in LA history. Will’s reluctant but in no position to refuse. The other side of the set-up introduces top emergency response paramedic Cam Thompson (Eiza Gonzalez) who we first meet saving a young girl who’s been impaled on railing following a car crash. She’s the best at her job, but, as her novice new partner Scott (Colin Woodell) observes, emotionally detached from her patients. As she says, “The worst day of their life is just your Tuesday afternoon”.
Danny and his crew, among them a character tagged as Mel Gibson (Devan Chandler Long) duly stride into the bank to pull off the heist and it’s all going smoothly until rookie cop Zach (Jackson White), persuaded by his partner to go and ask out the bank-teller he fancies, knocks on the door. At which point, things go pear-shaped. In a moment of panic, Will shoots Zach, there’s a firefight that sees the rest of the gang gunned down, Cam arrives on the scene to help the wounded cop, her ambulance, with Zach in the back, is commandeered by Danny and Will and the chase gets under way with pretty much the entire LAPD, later joined by the FBI, in pursuit.
Will is horrified at his actions and Danny, while a bank robber is not, unlike his father, given to violence, he’d rather not shoot anyone. Meanwhile, as Will expertly drives the ambulance at breakneck speed across LA, Cam is attempting to perform surgery on Zach, at one point being guided remotely by her doctor boyfriend and a couple of surgeons on a golf course when a bullet’s found to be lodged in the pancreas. Danny just wants to get home and keep his brother safe, Will wants to stop things escalating and winds up being a blood donor to keep Zach alive. And, aside from a further emergency in the final act, that’s pretty much it as far as the plot goes, the film relying on the dynamic between the three characters and the increasingly frenetic chase, the decision to take them out with a sniper and Danny recruiting another criminal, Papi (A Martinez) and his crew to engineer an ingenious escape plan, to keep you glued to the screen. And, since no one shoots a car chase like Bay (at one point the ambulance is driven through the LA river while two helicopters close in on them), it certainly succeeds.
Adding to the cast are Keir O’Donnell as an FBI agent with an old connection to Danny and Garret Dillahunt as Security and Intelligence Services chief Captain Monroe who turns up in a vintage car with his dog Nitro, a touch of playful humour that also extends to Danny’s oblivious associate trying to put a birthday party together . The ethical dimensions are a touch blurred, but Gyllenhaal is magnetic with his intensity, a measured Abdul-Mateen II providing the moral compass and Gonzalez terrific as the medic doing her job under unprecedented stress (a coda topping off her transformational personal journey). It’s a rush. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Vue)
The Batman (15)
The second reboot of the character following The Dark Night trilogy (though, strictly speaking, the undeservedly rubbished Ben Afflek never starred in an actual Batman movie), while Matt Reeves’ vision may not quite measure up to Christopher Nolan’s, it is by far the darkest, both thematically and visually ( cinematographer Greig Fraser pretty much shoots every scene at night and even the daylight is wan), not only with a Chinatown-like depiction of Gotham riddled with corruption up the highest levels but also a shocking revisionist take on Thomas and Martha Wayne.
Transforming from vampire to a bat, you hear Robert Pattinson’s vigilante before you see him, both in voiceover as he talks about being the shadows in which fear lurks and in the metallic, crunching sound of his boots and armour as he emerges to take out a gang of street hoodlums. Relegating the origin story to some brief exposition, sporting a distinctive floppy hair style Pattinsons’s emotionally complex, self-destructive emo Bruce Wayne is a more troubled and traumatised soul (both physically and psychologically scarred) than even Christian Bale’s, rarely seen in public and consumed with an obsession to rid Gotham of crime, despite acknowledging it to be an almost impossible task and that he might be making no difference. So, by night, he dons the cape, suit (arguably the most impressive to date) and black eye shadows (with contact lenses that work as video cameras) and prowls the city like someone in a film noir of his own mind. When asked who he is (though he’s been doing his vigilante thing for two years by now), he declares himself as Vengeance, but there’s someone out there who gives the word a whole new level, first taking out incumbent mayor (Rupert Penry-Jones) by bashing in his skull, and leaving the cryptic message No More Lies on his bloodied face and a card and a cipher addressed to The Batman. Yes, clearly echoing Se7en and Zodiac, it’s The Riddler (Paul Dano as unsettlingly deranged as in There Will Be Blood), but, until the finale, only ever seen via his video messages, speaking in distorted tones from behind a gimp-like combat mask (which, somewhat unfortunately recalls Bane) who has set himself the task of killing the high ranking corrupt officials (including Peter Sarsgaard’s DA) who are all linked in one way another to the bust of a notorious drugs baron and/or Gotham crimelord Carmine Falcone (John Turturro), for whom Oz aka The Penguin (an unrecognisable Colin Farrell) works, running a dodgy nightclub within a nightclub and running street drugs called drops. And so, enter catloving cat burglar Selina Kyle (Zoe Kravitz, uncannily recalling previous Catwoman Halle Berry) in her black leather outfit and mask who has her own vengeful crusade against Falcone and dirty cops following the disappearance of her friend who, like her, worked Penguin’s club. Naturally, at some point cat and bat end up working together, and sparking romantic interest, though their moral compasses tend to point in different directions in how they get to the truth.
Stretching to almost three hours (with overextended endings), tapping into the zeitgeist cynicism about society’s institutions and the political climate, and punctuated with some decidedly brutal violence (hence the certificate), Reeves turns the notion of the superheroes’ mask upside down, in that the characters here wear them not to hide who they are but because the person behind the mask is their true self, just as the Wayne’s impenetrable armour serve as a metaphor for his emotions.
Save for an amusing line where someone asks “do you live in a cave?” there’s no humour here (though those who sit through the credits for the bonus scene will feel sucker punched) as, to a soundtrack variously taking in Nirvana, tribal drums and Ave Maria, the electrifying intensity builds to its almost operatic apocalyptic climax, taking in an epic car chase with the new Batmobile along the way (though he mostly rides his motorbike), the support cast featuring a strong contribution from Jeffrey Wright as Jim Gordon and a rather less memorable one by Andy Serkis as Alfred with a final Arkham Asylum cameo by Barry Keoghan as a laughing inmate setting up things for the sequel. Overlong but unrelentingly thrilling, Batman begins again. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Electric; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Vue)
Being The Ricardos (15)
Recorded in front of a studio audience and broadcast for six seasons, with a total 180 episodes between 1951 and 1957, starring Lucille Ball and her real life power behind the scenes Cuban husband Desi Arnaz, a one-time band leader and savvy businessman, as Ricky Ricardo, I Love Lucy averaged 60 million viewers per week and, with its pioneering use of three cameras, is regarded as one of the most influential TV comedies of all time.
However, in 1953, the week of filming their 68th show, influential broadcaster Walter Winchell ended his radio show by announcing that the most famous woman on television was being investigated by The House On Un-American Activities as being a Communist. Ball was not named, but it was clear who he meant: America’s redheaded sweetheart. There was some truth to the claim, as she had been registered as a party member by her grandfather when she was just seven, but had never voted Communist or attended any meetings. The same day a newspaper article appeared with a photo suggesting Desi had been cheating on her. The facts regarding the photo were wrong (though not the accusations of philandering), but it was clear there were problems in the marriage, with Desi spending more night away from home.
Written and directed by Aaron Sorkin, mixing mockumentary interviews with actors playing older versions of those involved in the show with a dramatised recreation of events, the film condenses events to chart the week running up to the Friday night’s taping and stars a brilliantly cast Nicole Kidman as Lucy with Javier Bardem rather less physically akin to Desi. As such, the narrative operates on several levels; there’s the unspoked friction between the power couple with Desi, although not only the show’s co-star, but CEO of the production company and responsible for creative decisions feeling eclipsed by his wife’s fame, This plays out alongside the creative tensions between the couple, their co-stars, the acerbic Bill Frawley (J.K. Simmons) and Vivian Vance (Nina Arianda), who played their landlords Fred and Ethel Mertz, chief writers Madelyn Pugh (Alia Shawkat) and Bob Carroll (Jake Lacy), executive producer/writer Jess Oppenheimer (Tony Hale) and, most significantly, the episode’s hack director Don Glass (Christopher Denham), specifically revolving round a hands-on and perfectionist Lucy wanting to change the opening and dinner table scene against Glass’s wishes.
Then, to throw another cat among the pigeons, along with the two simmering potential scandals, they announced that Lucy was pregnant, with Desi insisting on writing that into the show, a move vehemently opposed by the sponsors, cigarette giant Philip Morris, and CBS itself (repped by, among others, Clarke Gregg) declaring the American public did not want to see a pregnant woman on television, a clear commentary on media sexism.
Unfolding over each day leading up to the Friday night, from script read through to camera blocking and rehearsal, intercut with black and white footage of Ball’s imaginings of show scenes (such as the wine trampling episode) and flashbacks detailing her meet-cute with Arnaz on the set of rubbish musical Too Many Girls, her short-lived moment as a Hollywood star and rise to fame when CBS offered to turn her My Favorite Husband radio show in a TV sitcom (an early example of her flexing her popularity muscles to bring Arnaz onboard), the snappy screenplay’s peppered with the characters bickering and bantering as it builds to the sort of triumphant climax involving a phone call to a senior figure you’d dismiss as contrived fiction were it not actually true.
Sorkin’s script offers an insight into Ball’s mind with her intuitive understanding of what makes good physical comedy (Arnaz describes her as “kinetically gifted”) well served by Kidman’s performance which subtly hints at her controlling nature (she doesn’t want Vance to lose weight lest she appeared more attractive) and a more earthy, complex turn from Jardem, and, while modern audiences may not know Lucile Ball from Bobby Ball, this is well worth exploring. (Amazon Prime)
Oscar winner for Best Film Screenplay (with a BAFTA for Outstanding British Film), shot in black and white save for opening and closing contemporary view of the titular city and the clips screened in the local cinema, writer-director Kenneth Branagh offers up a witty, tender and warmly affectionate coming-of-age love letter to his childhood days growing up as in a predominantly Protestant neighbourhood of north Belfast but where several residents were also Catholics, both sides living together peacefully. Given this was in 1969 at the height of the Troubles, such a situation was inevitably going to lead to conflict (though it’s effectively an ominous backdrop rather than the central plot), and so it is that, in the opening scenes, the film depicts unionist hardmen seeking to drive the Catholic families out of their homes resulting in barricades being erected to both prevent a repeat of such violence but also to protect against republican retaliation.
It is to such a backdrop that we meet nine-year-old Buddy (a wonderful wide-eyed Jude Hill), Branagh’s proxy who lives with his older brother Will (Lewis McAskie) and feisty Ma (Caitríona Balfe), his charismatic and kindhearted father, only ever known as Pa (Jamie Dornan), away for weeks at a time in England working as a carpenter to pay off his debts. An arrangement he’s forced to extend after his wife seeks confirmation from the Inland Revenue that he no longer owes them and he ends up with another £500 bill. The house is also home to his endearingly eccentric but wise grandparents Pop (superbly subtle Ciarán Hinds) and Granny (a quietly scene-stealing Judi Dench), with whom Buddy spends much of his time when he’s not playing medieval warriors in the streets with a dustbin lid as a shield.
It’s not just the politics Buddy finds confusing, he’s also experiencing romantic yearnings pig-tailed Catholic classmate, Catherine (Olive Tennant) doubling) his homework efforts (with Pop’s help) so as to be moved up to sit next to her in class, while hanging out with another Protestant neighbourhood girl, Moira (Lara McDonnell), who intrigues him with talk of joining a gang, although the initiation test of stealing a bar of Turkish Delight from the local shop lands him in hot water with Ma, as does his joining the looting a Catholic store when things kick off again, stealing packet of Omo washing powder.
The escalating tensions, and the demands by the self-appointed unionist leader, small time gangster Billy Clanton (Colin Morgan), who demands regular financial contributions from the families, and threateningly tells Pa he has to decide if he’s with them or not. The offer of full time work, promotion and a decent house in England, would solve things, but Ma is unwilling to leave Belfast, meanwhile Pop is becoming increasingly ill.
Evocative of such classic autobiographical memoirs as Hope and Glory and The 400 Blows or, more recently, Minari, and set to a soundtrack by Van Morrison, including a specially composed new song (as well as a marvellous romantic moment as Pa serenades his wife with Everlasting Love, an echo of his parents tenderly dancing in the living room), it’s an elegiac and beguiling piece of work. The superb monochrome photography is strikingly offset by the vivid colour as the family visits the cinema to see Raquel Welch in One Million Years BC and gasp as the flying car going over the cliff in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, or take a trip to the theatre to see A Christmas Carol (the late John Sessions playing Belfast stage actor Joseph Tomelty as Marley’s ghost), all of course formative moments in Branagh’s later journey as an actor and filmmaker, There’s also Star Trek on the television to which the kids are glued and, as the tensions mount and head to a showdown between Pa and Clanton, Branagh playfully references Gary Cooper’s classic Western, High Noon.
It ends with circumstances forcing decisions to be made, the final shot achingly bittersweet as it marks the end of one life and the start of a new one for Buddy and his family just as it did for Branagh, a paean to family, courage, innocence, home and community that pulses with emotions and is assured of its place among the year’s finest films. (BT Film Store, Sky Store, Virgin; MAC; Reel)
Boiling Point (15)
A feature length expansion of the 2019 short by director Philip Barantini and co-writer James Cummings, superbly shot as one continuous and loosely improvised take that steers in an out of the assorted subplots and set on the run-up to Christmas, it reunites several of the original cast, most notably Stephen Graham as Andy Jones, the newly separated owner and head chef of Jones & Sons, an upmarket East London restaurant (it was filmed at the actual restaurant) who, when we first meet him, is clearly having a bad day, just moved into new digs and trying to deal with his estranged wife over parenting issues. He arrives at the restaurant to find a health inspector (Thomas Coombes) in the middle of a highly critical hygiene assessment that, largely on account of his shabby bookkeeping, sees the place downgrade from a 5 to a 3.
That’s just the start of what will prove to be a high pressure night that, with colleagues already fed up of covering for him, sees tensions boiling over between the staff, especially no nonsense sous chef Carly (an electrifying Vinette Robinson) and imperious bossy maitre d’ Beth (Alice Feetham, also from the short) who is more interested in impressing influential influencers asking for steak and chips than the cuisine, as well as volatile commis chef Freeman (Ray Panthaki) and a gofer (Daniel Larkai) with a drugs issue. On top of which, supplies are short, staff are late, sweet young Black waitress (Lauryn Ajufo, another original) is bullied by a snobbishly condescending bigoted customer looking to impress his family, the pregnant slacker dishwasher feels isolated, the new French assistant, a junior kitchen boy has self-harming scars and celebrity chef Alastair Skye (Jason Flemyng), Andy’s former smug boss, has booked a table with a top food critic (Lourdes Faberes) as his guest, but is specifically there to call in a debt to keep from going under. And then there’s the customer with a nut allergy, so you know that’s going to predictably serve up its own crisis at some point.
As sauces and tempers simmer, his mood constantly swinging, Andy circulates between staff and customers, regularly swigging from a bottle that, as you might imagine, and as proves climactically the case, doesn’t contain water.
The title calling to mind Gordon Ramsey’s Boiling Point TV show and capturing the same pressure cooker atmosphere of a busy, overworked kitchen, things build inexorably to the inevitable melt down and, while the drama is somewhat overloaded into the second half of the narrative, the direction, camerawork and performances ensure you stay riveted for all courses. (BT Film Store, Netflix, Sky Store, Virgin)
C’mon, C’mon (15)
Shot in monochrome, director Mike Mills offers up a sublime, beguiling, naturalistic meditation on the adult/child relationship and what makes us human. In the middle of making a radio documentary interviewing children for vox pops on what they want/hope for the future, Johnny (Joaquin Phoenix) makes an impromptu call to his estranged sister Viv (a quietly impressive Gaby Hoffman), who he’s not seen in since the death of their mother from dementia death and offers to babysit her mentally hyperactive young son while she flies from Los Angeles to look after her mentally ill classical musician ex-husband (Scoot McNairy) in Oakland. What was supposed to be a few days, turns into a few weeks.
Johnny’s nephew, Jesse (a wonderful Woody Norman) is a troubled – most likely autistic – but deeply intelligent and sensitive nine-year old who likes to play fantasy games in which he’s an orphan, and, when Johnny has to take him on a road trip to New York, Detroit and New Orleans along with his colleague Roxanne (Molly Webster) and child-minder au pair Fernando (Jaboukie Young-White) as he records his interviews (with real kids giving their real views), the initially prickly relationship gradually develops into a real and deep bond, Jesse’s insights (and his experience of navigating a dysfunctional, unstable family) cutting through the emotional blocks his uncle has erected since the break-up of his relationship.
Set to a soundtrack by The National’s Aaron and Bryce Dessner, the interview segments with the kids offering their observations on what the world needs and how it is give it a quasi-documentary feel while the developing relationship between Johnny and Jesse (and the chemistry between the two actors) as the former transitions to an unexpected role of caretaker and surrogate parent glows with a deeply affecting warmth and melancholic ache as, at one point, the soulfully expressive Phoenix declares “It’s fine, not to be ok!”. A beautifully, subtly acted bittersweet film about the capability of adults to grow and the resilience, hope and wisdom of children. (Rakuten TV)
The Colour Room (PG)
Partly filmed in Birmingham, set in 1915 Claire McCarthy’s film tells the little known story of Clarice Cliff , a working-class girl from Stoke-on-Trent who, leaving school at 13, seemed destined to spend her life like similar women doing menial work in the Staffordshire potteries. Cliff, however, was of a different mind, taking on chauvinistic sarcastic employers and fellow employees to rise from handpainting patterns on pottery, to becoming a modeller (regarded as a man’s job) designing Toby Jugs for AJ Wilkinson and ultimately a celebrated ceramicist who created the colourful and pioneering art deco Bizarre range of ceramics with their abstract, geometric and figural forms. The film’s title refers to the room where the colours for the ceramics are stored, Clarice’s eventual access being like a kid being given the key to the sweetshop.
However, as the film shows, as portrayed in effervescent form by Phoebe Dynevor, she had an uphill battle, constantly being denigrated and rebuffed by both those on the factory floor and Wilkinson’s co-owner Guy Shorter (Luke Norris) with their traditional perspectives and refusal to take risks. However, taken under the wing of art director Fred Ridgeway (David Morrissey) and her talent spotted and encouraged by Colley Shorter (Matthew Goode) who enlisted her to sculpt a bust of his wife and supported her attempts to create new ground with Bizarre until it was sniffily received at the important trade show. The stubbornly determined Cliff, however, wasn’t just a skilled designer, she had the intuitive awareness that their target market should be women not men, history underscoring her insights as well as her fight (though the film doesn’t labour the point) for the emancipation of women in the workplace.
With a support cast that includes who Kerry Fox as her mother, Darci Shaw as younger sister Dot and Bill Patterson as old duffer landowner businessman Gordon Forsythe who roundly tells her her designs won’t sell because “the modern woman has a more refined taste” (her collection went on to sell 8.5 million pieces), it’s a bright, breezy and upbeat period drama. (Sky Cinema)
The Courier (12A)
Based on real life events, written by Tom O’Connor and directed by Dominic Cooke, Benedict Cumberbatch gives a solid, underplayed performance as Greville Wynne, a salesman representing various manufacturing companies, who, at the height of the Cold War, was recruited by MI6 and the CIA (respectively represented by Angus Wright and Rachel Brosnahan) to travel to Moscow and make contact with Oleg Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze), a Soviet colonel who, alarmed by Kruschev’s increasingly volatile nuclear rhetoric, has indicated he’s ready to pass on information to help prevent mutually assured destruction. The thinking is that, as someone with no obvious political connections, Wynne is unlikely to attract KGB attention.
Unable to tell his wife (Jessie Buckley) the real reason for his regular trips to Russia, she suspects he’s having another affair while Penkovsky’s wife also remains oblivious to her husband’s actions in smuggling photos out by Wynne in the build up to the Cuban Missile Crisis. Unfolding with a cool tension in secret meetings where the fear of discovery or being bugged is ever present, it sits well alongside similar espionage films like Bridge of Spies and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. As history tells, the subterfuge was eventually uncovered, leading to a darker third act when Cumberbatch, shaved headed and looking increasingly emaciated, is banged up in a Russian prison, being interrogated to confess he actually knew what he was carrying for Penkovsky (it’s suggested he didn’t, hence plausible deniability) before the British government negotiated an exchange for his release.
Sharply scripted and with a strong chemistry between Cumberbatch and Ninidze as the two men develop a genuine friendship (Wynne called him Alex), Wynne secretly rather enjoying his adventure, ticking the usual genre conventions without them appearing like clichés, the film revealing the heroic – and costly – role he and Penkovsky (codenamed Ironbark by the CIA) played in ending the Cuban standoff, Oleg remarking over a shared meal “We are just two people, but this is how things change.”
Its low key, period thriller nature might not be a big audience grabber, but as an inspiring story of human decency and sacrifice for the greater good, it’s one that deserves to be told and deserves to be seen. (Amazon Prime)
Written as a rhyming couplets play in 1897 by Edmond Rostand, and loosely based on the real-life Cyrano de Bergerac, a novelist and duellist, the story has been filmed many times, most notably in 1950 with Jose Ferrer earning an Oscar, in 1987 as a contemporary comedy version with Steve Martin and, perhaps best known, as the 1990 French adaptation starring Gerard Depardieu. This version, set in Italy around the same period as Rostand’s play and directed by Joe Wright, is a musical romantic drama adapted from the 2018 stage version by Erica Schmidt, who has written the screenplay. The story will be familiar with Cyrano, a poet-soldier in the French army, hopelessly in love with Roxanne, finds vicarious satisfaction by agreeing to provide the romantic letters by which new cadet Christian de Neuvillette can woo her. In the original, Cyrano is unable to court Roxanne (a distant cousin) himself because of the insecurity he’s plagued with on account of his huge nose; here, however, compounded by his social status (she’s of noble breeding), his ‘disability’ is his dwarfism, Peter Dinklage (Schmidt’s husband) stunningly reprising the role he played in the stage production, bringing profound melancholy to his Cyrano who’s both a skilled swordsman and a cutting wordsmith, gifted poet and acutely intellectual, a decided contrast to pretty much everyone around him, save, that is, for Roxanne (Haley Bennett, again from the original musical), who, on account of her precarious financial position, is being pressured to marry her obnoxious noble suitor, the Duke De Guiche (Ben Mendelsohn, rather too much the cartoon villain), but, at a theatre production that Cyrano disrupts in protest at its pompous, untalented star and winds up duelling with and killing a preening aristocrat bully, she spots Christian (an appropriately bland Kelvin Harrison Jr) in the crowd and is immediately smitten. Newly arrived, he’s a petty thief who ends up enlisted in Cyrano’s regiment, Roxanne begging her childhood friend to take him under his wing. In turn, confessing his love for her, but too tongue-tied to articulate his feelings, he calls on Cyrano to help him by writing flowery love letters, to which, wanting his secret unrequited love to be happy, he agrees despite the pain for himself. Of course, when Christian tries to talk to Roxanne on his own account, she’s confused at why he doesn’t live up to the poetic language words in his letters. Meanwhile, De Guiche is seeking to blackmail Roxanne into marriage as well as get revenge on Cyrano for killing his friend and eliminate Christian from the picture. When the former fails (cue a striking action sequence as Cyrano takes on ten thugs armed only with two torches), acting on behalf of the king in the Franco-Spanish war, he despatches the regiment on a suicide assault at Siege of Arras, confident neither will return. Suffice to say, one does, though badly wounded, leading to the heartbreaking final act.
It’s not, thankfully, a full on all singing all dancing musical, the songs, written by The National and sung live, economically used. Not all of them stick, but there are two definite standouts, Someone To Say from Roxanne in the opening sequence, and Wherever I Fall, sung by the soldiers as they write letters to their loved ones on the eve of battle. The downside is that, while Bennett has an impressive set of pipes, Dinklage is rather less accomplished in that department. He is, however, an outstanding dramatic actor with a wide emotional range and an expressive face who can sweep you up in his character’s plight even when the dialogue hits some clunky patches. The screenplay and Wright, a master of period dramas with Anna Karenina and Pride and Prejudice, imbue the central romance with themes of class, identity and grief to add further texture and don’t shy away from the darker elements as it winds to its tragic finale. Not quite a masterpiece, but certainly enough to squeeze the heart until it breaks. (Rakuten TV)
Death on the Nile (12A)
On the shelf for a couple of years due to the pandemic, Kenneth Branagh directed this follow-up to Murder On The Orient Express prior to Belfast and, inevitably, is somewhat in its multiple awards nominated shadow. It is, however, a far more assured film than his first Agatha Christie outing, also bringing extra dimension and opens with a black and white prologue set on the frontline in 1914 wherein, serving in the army, his instincts and observations save his regiment from being massacred in an attack, going on to provide the origin of his moustache (to hide a scar) and the tragedy that took the love of his life, changing his destiny from ambition to be a farmer (in a later scene he speaks of his love of vege-tables) to that of, as he immodestly acknowledges on several occasions, the world’s greatest detective with, as we see from his exasperation at being served seven not six mini-desserts (and thus unable to arrange them in a triangle), a decided case of OCD.
Fast forward then to 1937 and he’s to be found in a nightclub listening to celebrated blues singer Salome Otterbourn (Sophie Okonedo) and watching broke hunk Simon Doyle (pre sex-scandal Armie Hammer) dancing with, first, wealthier new fiancée Jackie (Emma Mackey) and then her millionaire best friend Linnet Ridgeway (Gal Gadot), clearly noting what sparks are flying. Cut then to a digitally enhanced Egypt where, visiting the pyramids, he’s reunited with his friend Bouc (Tom Bateman, reprising his Orient Express role) and his snarky mother Euphemia (Annette Bening), following which he’s invited to join them on a cruise along the Nile as part of the honeymoon celebrations of now newlyweds Doyle and Ridgeway, Bouc, one of her friends, conveniently introducing the audience to the other characters (not all of them in the Christie original), Ridgeway’s former lover and doctor Windlesham (an unrecognisable and not bad Russell Brand), her communist-inclined godmother Maria van Schyler (Jennifer Saunders) and her nurse Bowers (Dawn French), her French assistant Louise (Rose Leslie) and estate manager cousin Katchadourian (Ali Fazal) and offer a quick background sketch. Also in the party is Salome and her niece cum business manager, Rosalie (Letitia Wright), a childhood friend of Linett and also Bouc’s romantic interest, much to his mother’s disapproval. And, just to put the cat among the pigeons, Jackie, toting a.22 calibre handgun, is stalking the couple, protesting that Simon still loves her, and even winds up on SS Karnak, the paddle boat they hire to get away from her
Come the denouement and five of them will be dead, three murdered and two by their own hand, and so you spend the first half wondering who’s going to be the first victim and the second trying to figure out who the killer is (though, even if you don’t know the story, aficionados of the drawing room murder genre will have quickly sussed the culprit/s), while Poirot, here’s rather more prone to emotional outbursts than David Suchet’s version, interrogates the various suspects (all of whom might have a possible motive) and follows assorted rather obviously telegraphed clues (and several misdirections) to keep viewers guessing.
Decently acted all round, Gadot particularly luminous, and deftly directed by Branagh, it keeps you engaged throughout all its sometimes melodramatic twists and turns, ending with a coda set back in London, again with Poirot watching Salome at the nightclub, this time minus the signature moustache to reveal his scars, with the hint that, while he may declare love to be dangerous, he might finally be ready to take the risks. (Disney+; Cineworld NEC)
Quite literally a pet project by star and co-director Channing Tatum, written by his regular collaborator Reid Carolin and former soldier Brett Rodriguez, this one man and a dog road movie was inspired by the last trip Tatum took with his canine companion before she passed from cancer.
He plays Jackson Briggs, a former Army Ranger who has Ride of the Valkyries for his ringtone now estranged from his wife and child and reduced to working in a Pacific Northwest sandwich bar after a brain injury in Afghanistan left him unfit for active duty. He’s asked by an officer from his old crew to take Belgian Malinois Lulu (the name of Tatum’s own dog, played here by three different animals), a former combat canine, to Arizona for the funeral of one of his old buddies, Riley Rodriguez (Eric Urbiztondo), who helped train her and with whom she worked. On the face of it, it’s a simple cross-country trip offering opportunity for plenty of man and dog bonding, cute comedy (cue the pair taking a bath together and the dog shaking water all over the bed) and assorted encounters en route. And yes, that’s all there. But the film has a more serious undercurrent about the traumatic impact on those who served. Rodriguez, in turns out, drove his car into a tree at 120 mph, Briggs wakes up in night terror sweats and any hint of conflict turns Lulu into an attack dog. Indeed, right at the start she busts out of her cage and chews up Briggs’ car seat. The army’s plan is to have her put down after the funeral.
It’s inevitably episodic, constructed around various incidents and eccentric on the trip, among them an animal psychic (Jane Adams), a violent conscientious objector, Lulu interrupting an ‘epic’ tantric threesome in Portland, uncovering a cannabis farm in the woods involving a kidnap and an axe, sniffing out Briggs’ stolen belongings and (in scene of uneasy humour) attacking a Muslim doctor because he’s wearing the sort of clothes she’s trained to see as an enemy. There’s also an over-extended and frankly redundant comedic sequence where Briggs poses as blind with Lulu as his seeing-eye dog to get a room in a swanky hotel. Tatum proves a competent director, but he’s far better exercising his charisma in front of the camera to draw you into the character’s traumas and emotions, whether monologuing to the dog or miserably failing to chat up a series of women in bars while the backdrop paints a picture of a disenfranchised middle America and the often depressing experience of veterans after they return home to very little support or understanding.
Patently an animal lover, he has good chemistry with the different dogs he shares the screen with, who all prove equally adept in conveying their interior story through their eyes and actions, the pair coming to learn something from each other as such a storyline demands. Given some of the themes and scenes, it’s not a family movie in the manner of say, Turner and Hooch or Marley and Me, but also never as gritty as it might have been to serve the issues underpinning the narrative, even so the pair are worth joining for the ride.(Rakuten TV; Cineworld NEC; Vue)
Don’t Look Up (15)
Director Adam McKay’s stab at Dr Strangelove-style satire about those in power playing with the fate of the planet stars Jennifer Lawrence as PhD candidate Kate Dibiasky who, working in an observatory, is excited to discover a new comet. Until, that is, her mentor, Dr. Randall Mindy (a dowdy Leonardo DiCaprio) does the math and realises that, given its size and trajectory it will collide with Earth and wipe out all life in just six months’ time. What ensues involves the pair trying to get President Orlean ( (Meryl Streep) to take action to try and destroy the comet, but she and her Chief of Staff son (Jonah Hill) are more concerned about the upcoming midterms and a potential vote-disaster scandal, leading them to turn to the New York Times and an appearance on a morning chat show where, of course, the vacuous anchors Brie (Cate Blanchett) and Jack (Tyler Perry), treat it as just another news bit, of less interest than the romantic problems of pop star Riley B. (Ariana Grande). with her cheating boyfriend (Kid Cudi) regarding Kate as a hysterical the end is nigh hothead.
When Orlean finally decides the stats are real and proposes action, she’s blindsided by cell-phone tycoon Peter Isherwell (Mark Rylance), who wants to take over operations to mine the comet for precious metal, Randall, who’s having an affair with Brie, joins the government ranks, resulting in Kate giving up the fight and surrendering to the inevitable.
With the cast list also featuring Timothee Chalamet, Himish Patel, Melanie Lynskey (as Randall’s wife) and Ron Perlman (running the comet busting mission), it can be a bit of a blunt instrument at times and the New Eden pay-off simply peters out, but, even so, its cynical lens on media, politics and public perceptions does offer engaging moments. (Netflix)
The Duke (12A)
Were it not a true story, it would be dismissed as unbelievable, but, in 1961, Kempton Bunton, a disabled 60-year-old pensioner from Benwell in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, was put on trial for stealing Francisco Goya’s painting Portrait of the Duke of Wellington from the National Gallery in London, allegedly holding it to ransom for £140,000 (the sum the British Government had paid to prevent it going to America) to fund television licences for pensioners. His story’s now told by director Roger Michell as an Ealingesque underdog true-crime caper driven by a terrific performance by Jim Broadbent that can’t help but call to mind Dave Johns in Ken Loach’s I, Daniel Blake with which it shares a social conscience. Here we first meet him confronted by a pair of officials for not paying his TV licence, claiming he doesn’t have to saying he’s removed the wiring that provides the BBC. He spends two weeks in jail. A wannabe playwright and soapbox revolutionary, he prefers Chekhov to Shakespeare, reads Orwell, gets fired for not charging a disabled soldier a taxi fare, sets up a petition for free licences for the over 70s, gets fired from the bakery for calling out racial bullying, and even takes his protest to Westminster. While in London, he cases the National Gallery, gets in through a bathroom window, nicks the painting (which he declares to not be very good) and takes it back home where he and his youngest son, Jackie (Fionn Whitehead), hide it behind a false back in the wardrobe.
As in reality, the police, in their televised press conference declare the theft to be the work of a professional international gang, although a handwriting expert pretty much nails Bunton’s personality from the scribbled note he sends. When the authorities ignore him, he sends the Daily Mirror proof of possession but, his secret discovered by the girlfriend of his other ne’er do well son, Kenny (Jack Bandiera), who tries to blackmail him for the reward money, he takes it back to London and is duly arrested and committed to trial.
Starring alongside Broadbent is Helen Mirren all crimped hair and big glasses as his long-suffering wife Dolly, who works as a cleaner for Mrs. Gowling (Anna Maxwell Martin), a councillor’s wife and the only one to sign Kempton’s petition, and is naturally horrified to discover a stolen masterpiece in the back bedroom. Despite her nagging, there’s a touching moment when the two of them show their love for one another, singing and dancing to Gracie Fields’ A Nice Cup Of Tea in the kitchen.
The heart of the film, though, takes place in court where, given a public stage, the irascible Kempton entertains jurors, barristers, clerk (Heather Craney), judge (James Wilby) and those in the gallery alike with his quips. Defended by Jeremy Hutchinson QC (a twinkling Matthew Good) , the husband of Dame Peggy Ashcroft, on the grounds he only ‘borrowed’ the painting, he delivers his Everyman speech about how “it’s me that makes you and you that makes me”, a vision of community and solidarity that ends in the gallery bursting into a rendition of Jerusalem.
Sentimental but not schmaltzy, the film condenses events into a few months when, in fact, it stretched to four years, Bunton actually leaving the painting in a left-luggage office at Birmingham New Street , surrendering six weeks later. While the subplot about his feeling of guilt over the death of their teenage daughter in a bicycle accident and his wife’s refusal to talk about feels dramatic contrivance, it’s actually true, as is the surprise twist about the theft. There’s also an amusing sly clip from Dr No, released in 1962, in which Sean Connery spots the Goya in the villain’s hideaway. A touch too cute at times, perhaps, but, its heart and politics firmly in the right place, it’s a joy to watch. (Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Vue)
Originating in 1965, Frank Herbert’s impenetrable allegorical science fiction best-seller novel went on to spawn five sequels, various TV mini-series and a 1984 big screen epic adaptation directed (and disowned) by David Lynch that proved a critical and box office disaster and is probably best remembered for the sight of Sting basically wearing a nappy.
It’s now been given a new lease of life at the hands of Denis Villeneuve with the sort of budget that could feed a small country for a century. The good news is that it’s money well spent, a monumentally-scaled spectacular that looks visually awesome and, unlike the original, has the perfect casting it needs to deliver the vision.
The last words spoken, by Fremen desert warrior Chani (Zendaya), are “This is only the beginning”, something which audiences only discover when the title card announces that this is Part 1 (Part 2 is yet to be filmed), the tale beginning by recounting how the planet Arrakis is the source of ‘spice’, a hallucinogenic substance that both extends life and fuels space travel. Mining it is a lucrative business, one which the ruthless House Harkonnen, headed by the floating Baron (Stellan Skarsgård) back on the stark Giedi Prime, and enforced by his brutal nephew (Dave Bautista), has overseen for 80 years, repressing the native blue-eyed Fremen (among them Javier Bardem’s chief Stilgar) who regard them as exploiters and oppressors.
However, it’s now 10191 and the Emperor has decreed that stewardship of Arrakis should be handed over to House Atreides from the oceanic planet Caladan, in the person of Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac, assured) who, along with his longtime concubine, Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson, enigmatic) and son Paul (a quietly charisma exuding Timothée Chalamet), duly take up residence on the arid planet with its vast swathes of desert sand, unbearable heat and the deadly giant sandworms. The Duke is, however, under no illusions that this is some sort of gift, declaring that he’s been set up to fail and, with Atreides a growing threat to the Emperor’s rule, a step towards their annihilation.
Paul, however, is the stumbling block. While still unsure of himself, he’s a skilled fighter trained by his father’s right-hand man Gurney Halleck (a grizzled and gruff Josh Brolin) and best buddies with Duncan Idaho (a rare unbearded Jason Mamoa), the daring adventurer pilot of one of the dragonfly-winged aircraft, he’s been having dreams of Chani and visions of future events on Arrakis, and there is talk that he may be the Chosen One prophesised by the mystic female order of the Bene Gesserit (of which his mother is one), though, despite an excruciatingly painful test, their Truthsayer (a visually obscured Charlotte Rampling) isn’t persuaded he’s yet ready.
Villeneuve takes his time to build the narrative, carefully layering visual cues concerning its subtext of industrial colonisation of third world countries alongside the political intrigue, eschewing exposition for carefully constructed character development and a gathering air of mystery that, in the figure of Paul, references both the New and Old Testament. But, when the action finally erupts with the invasion of Arrakis, it’s operatic in scale with Rogue One: cinematographer Greig Fraser letting rip in literal explosive style while Hans Zimmer’s score resonates with an appropriate sonic vastness.
For those hungering to fill the void left after The Fellowship of the Rings and Game of Thrones, sharing an essence and intensity with Mad Max and Apocalypse Now (The Baron is like a hovering Kurtz), this is a feast indeed. (BT Film Store, Sky Store, Virgin; Fri/Mon: Electric)
The Electrical Life Of Louis Wain (12A)
It’s a fair bet that the name Louis Wain will mean nothing to most people today. However, without him, cats would never have become family pets and would certainly not be the subject of countless YouTube clips. Anchored by another awards-worthy performance from Benedict Cumberbatch, it opens in the late 19th century, introducing Wain as a two-handed freelance artist doing sketches of country houses and livestock at agriculture shows for the London Illustrated News. An English oddball and an amateur boxer (he spars with Bendigo), he lives with his widowed mother (Phoebe Nicholls) and five demanding sisters, the household run by the eldest, Caroline (Andrea Riseborough), who, is horrified to learn he’s turned down a full time job offered by the magazine’s editor Sir William Ingram (Toby Jones) when they are in such dire financial straits, especially given she’s just taken on Emily Richardson as governess (Claire Foy) for the younger Wains. She forces him to find a steady income while he, much to his surprise, finds himself falling for Emily (who, ten years older, also likes painting), a trip to the theatre and a traumatic reliving of a childhood nightmare resulting in both social snobbery scandal and the couple’s marriage.
It’s their taking in of a stray cat. Peter, that sparks Wains rise to fame. Having already drawn a cat for a fellow passenger (Adeel Akhtar) back at the start, Louis is inspired to start sketching whimsical pictures of Peter, ultimately resulting in a double page spread, “A Kittens’ Christmas Party”, in the 1886 Christmas special of the paper, his anthropomorphised satirical drawings of cats in human poses (a sort of feline answer to Beatrix Potter), resulting in subsequent celebrity status (he was eventually made chairman of the National Cat Club), cats now becoming a prerequisite of Victorian households. However, things soon take a dark turn. Lacking any business savvy, Louis is again hit with debts after failing to copyright his illustrations while Emily is diagnosed with terminal breast cancer, her parting wisdom to her husband being to see the beauty in the world. The family moving into property loaned by Ingram, aged 30, Louis’s youngest sister, Marie (Hayley Squires) is declared insane and carted off to an asylum, while, sponsored by William Randolph Hearst and encouraged by Max Case (Taika Waititi), he moves to New York hoping to find success there, only to be forced to return when his mother dies, the family being evicted on Ingram’s death and having to move to a poky London flat, Louis going into a coma after falling off a bus, and, inspired by a dream of 1999, awakening to design his celebrated future cat toys.
Weighed down by the deaths of those close to him, Caroline passing in 1919, he suffers a series of mental breakdowns and, compounded by his crackpot theories about the role of electricity in shaping people’s lives (something peculiar to the film’s narrative, such as that cats might turn blue, walk upright and speak English), is diagnosed with schizophrenia and institutionalised, a fund raising campaign led by HG Wells (Nick Cave) allowing him to move to a better hospital and have a cat companion, the film ending, after a brief psychedelic sequence, in a serene English watercolour like recreation of Emily’s vision of their countryside idyll that calls to mind What Dreams May Come .
Narrated by Olivia Colman and transitioning from its whimsical opening to dark melodrama in its depiction of a doomed eccentric and a judgemental society, while decidedly not a happy story, there is nevertheless a certain sense of light and joy counterpointing the litany of tragedies it unfolds, complemented by the often dazzling visuals and some 40 real cats. It’s not purrfect and its audience seems decidedly limited, but like the title, there’s a spark that lights up the experience. (BT Film Store, Sky Store, Virgin)
Featuring music by Lin-Manuel Miranda, the latest Disney animation, a BAFTA and Oscar Best Animation winner, is set in Latin America and centres around the Madrigal family and the magic powers they possess. It starts with a tragedy as, escaping her home from armed conflict in Colombia, the young Alma Madrigal (María Cecilia Botero) loses her husband Pedro, but saves her three infant children, Pepa, Bruno and Julieta, using her magical candle to create a sentient Casita (a small house) for the family to live in. Over the years, a village grows up around it, Alma’s children and grandchildren gaining superhuman abilities, from super strength to the ability to talk to animals and, in her estranged son Bruno’s (John Leguizamo) case, precognition (although that turns out to pose a problem due to a misunderstanding). All that is except for Julieta’s (Angie Cepeda) youngest daughter, the bespectacled, curly-haired ever eager to help Mirabel (Stephanie Beatriz), who inexplicably, unlike her sisters, the super-strong Luisa (Jessica Darrow), and Isabela (Diane Guerrero), who can make flowers bloom, or cousin Dolores (Adassa), who has super-hearing, has no special ability, making her something of an outsider. However, when the family’s magical powers start to fade and the Calista begins to fall apart, she is the one who’s blamed, but she might also be the only one who can save everything.
Vibrant and colourful, with stairs that turn into slide and tiles that serve as moving pathways, and a wealth of catchy songs such as Feast of the Seven Fishes, the ballad Two Caterpillars and the chart topping We Don’t Talk About Bruno, it romps along with effervescent energy and charm and, being Disney, there’s also a cute animal (a clueless toucan voiced by Alan Tudyk) and at its heart is a familiar touching message about being true to yourself and the value of family bonds. (Disney+)
The Eyes of Tammy Faye (12A)
Her name will likely mean little to UK audiences (likely explaining why it’s opening on only one local screen), but in the 60s and 70s she and her husband Jim Bakker were two of the most influential figures on America’s televangelist scene, until their fall from grace in the 90s when they were arrested for financial malfeasance, diverting funds from the ministry to their own use. Directed by The Big Sick’s Michael Showalter and based on the documentary of the same name, this offers a somewhat revisionist account of the trillingly voiced Tammy Faye in which she’s seen an innocent oblivious to her husband’s fraud (echoing her mother’s warning “When you follow god blindly, in the end, all you are is blind”) though undeniably happy to enjoy the luxuries it brought, redeemed by her crusading work on behalf of the LGBT community and her call for its acceptance by her fellow Christians, while he’s clearly an ambitious empire builder with an eye on the main prize calling on God’s name to bankroll his schemes.
Opening on a close up of an aged Tammy Faye (a nigh unrecognisable Oscar winning Jessica Chastain) in a makeup artist’s chair explaining her garish eyelid and lip tattoos), it flashes back to her Minnesota childhood as Tammy Faye Messner, eager to join her stern mother (Cherry Jones) in praising the Lord at their local Pentecostal church. Quite possibly faking speaking on tongues, she’s soon elevated to something of prodigy, going on to a bible college in Minneapolis where she meets equally extrovert devotee Jim Bakker (an equally impressive baby-faced Andrew Garfield), who doesn’t believe being devout means living poor, the two impulsively marring and starting their own travelling preaching circuit to kids, Tammy Faye singing and using sock puppets. Fate brings them into the orbit of The Christian Broadcasting Network and through it celebrity Baptist televangelist (and future failed Presidential candidate) Pat Robertson (Gabriel Olds), becoming founding members of The 700 Club, creating a children’s puppet ministry, and presenting their Jim and Tammy TV show. Then, in 1974, the couple launched The PTL Club, a televangelist Christian news and entertainment programme that reached inclusivity of homosexuals and, in a particularly fun scene, includes her demonstrating a penile erection pump. A highlight was her mid-1980s interview with Steven Pieters (Randy Havens), a gay Christian minister, during which they discussed his sexuality, coming out, diagnosis with AIDS, and the death of his partner, Faye calling on her fellow Christians to embrace everyone. The show was a phenomenal success, even eliciting personal thank you from Ronald Regan. It did not, however, sit well with highly influential conservative activist Jerry Falwell (Vincent D’Onofrio more Godfather than God), later to become founder of the Moral Majority, even if he’s not adverse to taking advantage of their worldwide mass audience via Bakker’s PTL Satellite Network.
By now, Jim is actively practising his prosperity gospel preaching, calling on subscribers – or rather partners – to increase their cash pledges, funnelling the money into funding their own network and, luring in real estate developer Roe Messner (Sam Jaeger) Christian retreat and theme park Heritage USA as well as bankrolling the couple’s opulent lifestyle. Inevitably, the secular press begin digging and the bubble eventually bursts, a combination of fraud and revelations of Jim’s infidelity and homosexual overtures erupting in a scandal (she had a platonic affair with her Nashville record producer, largely as a response to feeling sidelined by Jim, and became hooked on Ativan) that has them bankrupted and estranged, Jim eventually committed to trial and 45 years in prison.
Deftly balancing its dramatic biopic nature with a knowing wink at the lifestyle, fashion and hairstyle excesses, it has a decidedly episodic structure that at times feels like an evangelist version of Dynasty, climaxing in an undeniably moving moment when, now old and bruised by life, invited to Oral Roberts University, she delivers a rendition of Battle Hymn of the Republic (complete with imagined mass choir) that plays like a spiritual redemption. It deserves an amen. (Disney+)
The latest addition to the social media/found footage horror genre, the writing-directing debut by the late Marcus Harben, this opens with aspiring documentary maker Zauna (Loreece Harrison, who actually shot around half of the film) addressing her audience, speaking of her, apparently late, friend, social media influencer’ Jonty Craig (Harry Jarvis), “a fool, a liar and a cheat”, and inviting them to share the truth, pieced together from different sources, of what happened on the night of the so-called ‘cassette’ murders when the flat went up in flames.
And so, counting own from Day 1 to Day 50, we flashback to Jonty moving into university digs with three fellow students, Zauna, troubled alcoholic Scottish mature student Pete (Daniel Cahill) and eventual daddy issues flirty romantic interest, attention-seeking Amber (Erin Austen). Jonty, a bit of posh prick, is determined to make a comeback after a humiliating appearance on ‘structured reality’ TV show called Brats of Belgravia and boost his followers count . It seems the ideal platform for his hyperkinetic videos presents itself when they learn the flat also has a schizophrenic’ junkie (Dom Watters) squatting in the basement, Nineties dance music coming through the walls and apparently home to a paranormal entity, with noises, drawers opening and shutting of their own accord, etc., Zauna seeing it also as a way to boost her own documentary footage. All four are affected by some sort of past trauma, and Becky Dubar (Nina Wadia), the student mental health counsellor with her own poorly performing vlog and an embarrassingly desperate attempt to be down with the kids, warns them they’re in danger if they mess with things they don’t understand. And so it turns out to be when resident ghost Dawn (Jessica Webber) starts making her presence felt.
Jonty’s Most Haunted-like vlog soon starts clocking up an increasing number of followers a she looks to top 2 million (many offering their comments on YouTube), while the spooky occurrences also bring online medium Ilana Clark (Tanya Burr) and preposterous TV paranormal investigator Edward Lee (Orion Lee) into proceedings, as the film keeps you unsure as to what is ‘fake’ news and what is genuinely supernatural.
The problem is that, while there are some creepy moments and a gradual rising body count, overall it isn’t really as scary as it thinks it is, and nor does the social media influencer satire on the lust for fame have the sharpness it needs. It doesn’t much help either that, despite decent performances, none of the characters are particularly likeable or sympathetic, so you never invest in their fates. And then comes the totally deranged and blood-splattered third act where the film turns everything on its head with a bonkers reveal and twist that you can readily see coming. More like a soap ghost story storyline than, for example, 2020’s terrific online horror Host or even the Paranormal Activity series to which it is also indebted, its message about having friends rather than followers almost an afterthought. (Vue)
The French Dispatch (15)
While they may sometimes favour visual aesthetic and quirkiness over heart and soul, Wes Anderson’s films have a unique sensibility that would be impossible to mistake for any other writer-director. Set in the 60s in the fictional provincial French town of Ennui-Sur-Blasé , his latest, a tribute to the New Yorker and in many ways echoing Grand Budapest Hotel, is a compendium piece that hangs three stories around the framing device of the titular newspaper, a satellite of the Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun, founded, edited and published Arthur Howitzer Jr. (Bill Murray), an eccentric who advises his reporters to “try to make it sound like you wrote it that way on purpose”, whose office sports the sign “No crying” above the door and whose obituary provides another of its narratives.
It opens with a local colour travel piece as Owen Wilson bicycles around the town taking notes before the first ‘article’, “The Concrete Masterpiece”, introduces Tilda Swinton as art critic J.K.L. Berensen (detailing her profile of and art lecture on convicted killer turned modern-art bad boy Moses Rosenthaler (a straggly bearded Benicio del Toro). His abstract nude painting of his prison guard (Léa Seydoux) attracts the interest of fellow inmate and art dealer Julian Cadazio (Adrian Brody) who pays a fortune for it and (with the help of his business partner relatives, Henry Winkler and Bob Balaban) subsequently turns Rosenthaler into a cult figure sensation, leading up to commissioning a whole series of such works, only, three years later as he and a mob of artists force their way into prison, to find the canvases are in fact frescoes and somewhat fixed in place.
The second, Revisions to a Manifesto set to backdrop of student protests that escalate into the “”Chessboard Revolution” and shot mostly in black and white, is by politics writer Lucinda Krementz (Frances McDormand) who, journalist objectivity be damned, finds herself attracted to young radical Zeffirelli B. (Timothée Chalamet), whose campaigning for the right to free access to the girls’ dormitory, takes his virginity and knocks his manifesto into shape as they share a bed. Featuring Lyna Khoudri as Zeffirelli’s fellow activist girlfriend, Juliette, and a cameo by Christoph Waltz as a pretentious art collector, events father to a siege and a tragedy as Zeffirelli becomes the symbol of the revolutionary movement.
The third, The Private Dining Room of the Police Commissioner, which features Willem Dafoe as an incarcerated mob accountant and an animated chase sequence, entails a talk show interview by Liev Schreiber with food writer Roebuck Wright (Jeffrey Wright), a James Baldwin-like gay dilettante with a photographic memory of every word he’s written whose nascent journalistic talent Howitzer spotted and encouraged. Wright recalls the crazy kidnapping of the Commisaire’s (Mathieu Almaric) son by a gang that includes Edward Norton and Saoirse Ronan and an unlikely poisoned cuisine rescue involving police offer and chef Lt. Nescaffier (Stephen Park). Finally, narrated by Anjelica Huston, comes the aforementioned obituary as the paper’s staff, also including cartoonist Jason Schwartzman and Griffin Dunne’s Legal Advisor, gather to plan the final edition.
With a design that includes shifting stage scenery, cross-sections, painted backdrops, animation, split screen images of Ennui then and now, and a plethora of in jokes about the New York and Paris art scenes of the period (look for the Modern Physics pinball machine), it’s ultimately a patchwork of loosely connected shaggy dog stories in celebration of journalists and journalism in a modern world of fake news, ephemeral sound bites and banality in the quest for web hits. It may be more about style and substance, but it’s a real joy to get your fingers inky watching. (Disney+)
Underling the message that things may not always be what they seem, the feature debut by director Mimi Cave initially seems to be an edgy comedy about contemporary dating as Noa (Daisy Edgar-Jones) has and amusing bad dating app experience with a self-absorbed cheapskate who’s curt with the waiter and insults her dress sense before, having politely said she doesn’t think she wants to see him again, calls her a stuck up bitch and stomps off with a doggie bag of both their meals. As she walks away, she panics in thinking she’s been followed. The threat turns out to be nothing. But sometimes the worst threats are those you don’t see coming.
Her romantic fortunes appear to be taking a better turn when, out shopping in the supermarket, she’s chatted up by the charmingly awkward Steve (Sebastian Stan) who prefers real life to social media, introduces her to cotton candy grapes, takes her number and calls to arrange to meet for a drink, where he tells her he’s a plastic surgeon. Which is when, some thirty minutes in, the opening credits arrive.
The dates go well, they sleep together and Noa tells her bisexual Black best friend, Mollie (Jojo T. Gibbs), Steve may be the real thing. She’s especially excited when he suggests they have a romantic weekend getaway. However, having arrived at his secluded retreat (where there’s no phone signal), the film, written by Lauryn Kahn, suddenly turns everything on its head and turns from romcom to carnivorous horror (from meet cute to cute meat) as he drugs her drink and she wakes up to find herself chained in a cell. Steve, it transpires, has a profitable Texas Chainsaw-like sideline to his medical career, providing tasty morsels of female flesh to wealthy (male) cannibals (the women as fresh mean metaphor isn’t hard to see). And she’s not the only one in his larder. What ensues is a game of psychological cat and mouse as Noa, feigning interest in sharing his culinary quirks, has to try and win his trust enough to make a bid for freedom.
Naturally, her prolonged absence worries Mollie who tries to track down her friend’s new lover, both from her barkeep ex Paul (Dayo Okeniyi) who served them (and doesn’t want to get involved, setting up a neat spin on the last minute rescue cliche) and by the post-coital photo she sent to her phone , discovering Steve isn’t Steve at all and he’s married (to Charlotte LeBon), which furnishes a blackly comic joke in the final stretch
It could have done with another pass on the screenplay to iron out some of the bumpier, moments (why do victims never finish off their tormentors before running away!) and clunky climax, but otherwise, strikingly photographed, directed with a light touch and driven by the knowing tongue in cheek performances and cleverly handled chemistry between Jones and Stan (who does a nice line in unhinged psycho dancing round to pop oldies while slicing up meat for dinner) , genre thriller that mixes controlling abduction thrillers like Misery with creepy social allegory horrors such as Get Out to decidedly, ahem, fresh, ends. (Disney+)
The Harder They Fall (15)
Directed and co-written by British singer-songwriter Jeymes Samuel and featuring virtually all Black cast, this comes with all its Tarantino guns blazing (with bullets by Leone), from the homage to classic Westerns to smart ass pop culture dialogue, a gleeful disregard for historical accuracy, stylised bloody violence, whimsical captions, a contemporary soundtrack (hip hop from Jay-Z, reggae and dub from Barrington Levy and Dennis Brown) and visual puns such as black towns having coloured buildings and a white town being quite literally all white. It might easily be a companion piece to Django Unchained.
It opens as a young Nat Love watches as his mother and preacher father are murdered by Rufus Buck (Idris Elba), who’s come to settle an old score, he himself let live but with a cross carved into his forehead. Fast forward and Love (Jonathan Majors) leads a gang of outlaws (who only prey on other outlaws) comprising cocky young quick-shooter Jim Beckwourth (RJ Cyler) and, sharpshooter Bill Pickett (Edi Gathegi), who ambush another, red-hooded, gang, who’ve just robbed a bank.
The loot was destined to go to Buck who, Love is horrified to hear, has been given a federal pardon (his gang liberate him from an iron vault on a train (named in tribute to Chadwick Boseman) guarded by corrupt soldiers) and is now intent on reclaiming the town of Redwood (where redwood trees are conspicuously absent) from a turncoat sidekick now sheriff (Deon Cole) as his personal fiefdom alongside his core gang of Treacherous’ Trudy Smith (Regina King) and laconic quick draw Cherokee Bill (LaKeith Stanfield). So, linking up with his feisty saloon singer lover ‘Stagecoach’ Mary Fields (Zazie Beetz), her cross-dressing bouncer Cuffee (a marvellous Danielle Deadwyler) and Deputy Marshall Bass Reeves (Delroy Lindo), they set off for long overdue payback. In a very Tarantinoesque flourish, the names of most of the central characters (some of whom figured in Samuels’ earlier Western short They Die By Dawn) all relate to real people from the time , although they never met and certainly were never involved in anything like the storyline here. Love, for example, was a prize winning professional cowboy.
A revisionist take on an era in American history films of which have been almost exclusively dominated by white heroes and villains, it moves surefootedly to its inevitable Redwood showdown between Love and Buck (and much gunplay that eliminates most of the supporting players) and a monologue that delivers an unexpected and audacious sting in the tail that finally explains what the score was Buck was settling.
The central players all rise to the occasion and each has their moment in the spotlight, Elba suitably brooding and ruthless, Majors relentlessly charismatic, Stanfield ultra-cool, although a sassy King and Beetz, who get to have their own brutal; brawl, often threaten to steal it from their male co-stars. It may not be the defibrillator needed to fully revive the genre, but it’s more than enough fast paced, violet fun to keep the pacemaker ticking. (Netflix)
House Of Gucci (15)
In 1972, coming from humble origins, Patrizia Reggiani, the adopted daughter of an Italian haulier for whom she worked as a secretary, married Maurizio Gucci, the grandson of Guccio Gucci who founded the famous leather goods fashion-house, and the couple moved to New York. In 1995, a year after their divorce, she hired a hitman to murder him, consequently being sentenced to 29 years for arranging the killing. Directed by Ridley Scott from a screenplay by Becky Johnston and Roberto Bentivegna adapted from Sara Gay Forden’s non-fiction bestseller, shifting the time scale to have the meet cute in 1978 this sprawling biopic documents the ups and downs of the relationship, her rise to power within the Gucci empire, the manipulations, backstabbings, business machinations and much more, bedrocked by another mesmerising performance from Lada Gaga as Patrizia and a somewhat diffident Adam Driver as Maurizio.
Meeting Maurizio, a law student with little interest in the family business, at a disco party in 1970, Reggiani contrives to bump into him again, pushing into dating her and eventually proposing marriage, much to the opposition of his conservative father, Rodolfo (Jeremy Irons) who declares her a gold-digger and disinherits him, and, transitioning from the couple screwing on the office desk to the church ceremony, Maurizio ends up working for his father-in-law. However, her ambitions are not to be so easily sidelined and so it is that, after an invite to the 70th birthday party of Maurizio’s more commercially minded uncle Aldo (Al Pacino), who runs stores in Paris, London and Rome and wants to break into New York, but has watered down the lines to a cheaper look. and his nincompoop bald, overweight loser son Paulo (Jared Leto), a second rate designer (scathingly dismissed by Rodolfo as achieving the pinnacle of mediocrity), that she masterminds her husband’s growing involvement in and eventual domination of the business, stitching up both uncle and cousin along the way, enlisting the latter to undermine the former, only to then cast him aside. Unfortunately, Maurizio, who inherits a 50% share when his now reconciled father dies (albeit the document left unsigned and forged by Patrizia), and has transformed from goofball nerd to power-crazed hedonist looking to take full control (ultimately, he was forced out and no Gucci is now connected with the empire), is also planning to sideline his wife in the Gucci affairs, not least after being reconnected with Paola Franchie (Camille Cottin) an old, upper-class flame, packing off wife and daughter back to Italy. Incensed at being cast aside as both spouse and business partner, Patrizia sets about arranging the hit (taking place to the strains of Madame Butterfly) Meanwhile, Gucci financial advisor, Domenico De Sole (Jack Huston) is keeping a sharp eye on which way the wind is blowing.
As such, soundtracked to the likes of Faith, Here Comes The Rain and It’s The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year, Scott plays it very much like a glossy soap opera pantomime along the lines of Falcon Crest or Dynasty, although, given the hit was arranged through Patrizia’s professional psychic confidante Pina Auriemma (Selma Hayek), the truth is even more melodramatic than any fiction. It’s a tad overlong and the back and forth narrative switches can prove hard to follow, but Gaga’s electrifyingly ferocious command of the screen ensures you’ll be transfixed. (Rakuten TV)
King Richard (12A)
Even before they were born, Compton sisters Venus and Serena Williams had their lives mapped out to become the world’s greatest women’s tennis players, a lengthy plan devised by their father, Richard, an amateur coach and part time security guard whose interest in the game had been piqued on realising the prize money, and started them playing when they were just four. Life tells us that Venus went on to win five Wimbledon singles titles, four Olympic gold medals and 14 Grand Slam Women’s doubles titles with Serena who, herself with four gold medals, won Wimbledon seven times (three of them against Venus), is rated as one of the all-time greatest female players with 23 Grand Slam singles titles to her name and is the highest earning female athlete ever. The film reminds us that none of this would have happened without the focused drive and tough love of their father who pushed them to their limits and beyond to ensure they achieved his dream of stardom and escaping the ghetto, being patronised and battling prejudice, snobbery and racism from white agents and coaches along the way.
Here, always seen in tennis shirts, he’s played with focused commitment by BAFTA and Oscar winner Will Smith, the young Venus and Serena, who turned professional at just fourteen, consummately portrayed by Saniyya Sidney and Demi Singleton, respectively, with Aunjanue Ellis as their formidable mother, Oracene ‘Brandy’ Williams, herself a coach, and Jon Bernthal as Rick Macci, the hugely successful professional coach whom their father persuaded to take on Venus, as well as financing the family’s move to Los Angeles and the girls’ education, forever finding himself up against Richard’s obstinate and wilful demands.
Directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green, it charts their rise from playing squalid local courts, being menaced by the local hoods (recreating the moment when Richard was beaten up in front of his underage daughters for telling them not to come on to them, later taking a gun to settle matters before fate intervenes) persuading Sampras and McEnroe’s coach, Paul Cohen (Tony Goldwyn) to train the girls then firing him when he argued against them being taken out of the junior tournaments, a traditional path to turning pro, in favour of concentrating in their education and upbringing after Richard seeing the record-breaking young star Jennifer Capriati being arrested for marijuana possession, the film climaxing in 1994 with Venus’s professional debut against the world number two, Arantxa Sánchez Vicario.
With the sisters as co-producers, it’s an inevitably somewhat sanitised account, their father demanding in making them play in the rain in the night (a neighbour calls child services at one point), scattering broken glass on the court to challenge them, being resolutely stubborn with agents looking to make a killing but offering relative peanuts (he registers his feelings by farting), taking decisions without consulting either his ‘ghetto Cinderellas’ or their mother, but even so he’s never less than a sweet, caring and often funny dad, something that doesn’t quite sit with accounts of his darker side and punishing disciplinarianism from others and never quite gets under the skin of the insecurity that dogged him.
Along with Venus and Serena, he and Brandy had three other daughters from her former marriage, one, the older, academically gifted Yetunde, being shot dead in 2003, but they’re rarely more than set dressing here, giggling in the back seat of the battered red VW van (named Prince but far from fresh) their father drives. What’s never mentioned is the fact that he had five other daughters from a previous marriage, but, harder to understand is why, in the later stages of the film, Serena, who Macci doesn’t take on, is virtually sidelined (something the screenplay, like her father, casually acknowledges) with all the attention being on Venus, reminding her of the example she can set to Black girls all over the world.
The theme of race plays as an undercurrent, always there in the screenplay (and in footage of the Rodney King beating) but never forcefully in your face, preferring to focus on the determination to rise above the roots of your raising through your natural born talents – and a smooth – and, as such, other than one family flare up and the on court dynamics (the tennis is brilliantly staged), there’s almost no drama, no tension, yet, on the plus side, almost no resorting to sports movie cliché. The sisters’ triumphs, stepping out of their father’s shadow, are inspirational even if the film about them is less so, but nevertheless it has a compelling serve. (BT Film Store, Sky Store, Virgin)
The King’s Man (12A)
Remaining true to the basic historical details, but setting them in different context, Matthew Vaughn serves up a revisionist account of WWI in his prequel to the two Kingsman movies about a secret British intelligence organisation whose members all have codenames relating to King Arthur and the Round Table. The film opens in 1902 with Orlando, the pacifist Duke of Oxford (Ralph Fiennes), visiting South Africa with his right-hand man Shola (Djimon Hounsou), wife (Alexandra Maria Lara) and young son Conrad as part of a Red Cross mission to confront Kitchener (Charles Dance) over British military behaviour towards Boer War prisoners. Tragically, an attack leaves her dead and him lame, the film cutting to several years later with the now 17-year-old Conrad (Harris Dickinson), whom he has sworn to keep out of harm’s way. However, there are rumblings of war, fuelled in this telling by a mysterious organisation headed up by a never clearly seen man with a broad Scottish accent who lives atop a mountain and rears goats and the machinations of Russian monk Rasputin (a magnetic Rhys Ifans) who’s contriving to bring down the British Empire.
When Orlando fails to foil a second attempt to assassinate the Arch Duke Ferdinand, the stage is set for war, pitting first cousins King George, Tsar Nicolas and Kaiser Wilhem (all played by Tom Hollander), the German leader being manipulated by Erik Jan Hanussen (Daniel Brühl), against one another, with Conrad determined to defy his father and enlist.
Behind the scenes, as his son’s later made privy to, Orlando reveals he’s not just suiting back but. with the help of Shula and family nanny Polly (a winningly kick ass Gemma Arterton), he’s running a spy network gathering intelligence on the assorted intrigues and seeking to bring America, into the war, a move resisted by President Woodrow Wilson (Ian Kelly) on account of his being blackmailed over sex footage involving Mata Hari (Valerie Pachner), which ultimately sets up the climax in the mission to retrieve it.
This is not yet The Kingsmen of the earlier films, which, at this point, remains the gentleman’s Savile Row tailors where Orlando takes Conrad to be fitted for his first suit and where the boy meets Kitchener and his aide-de-camp Morton (Matthew Goode).
In an increasingly tangled and silly plot, we see the team visiting Russia where the Orlando battles Rasputin (who heals his leg by licking it) in a sword fight staged in balletic moves, and Conrad swapping identities with a Scottish corporal (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) so that he can stay on the frontline, resulting in a heroic but tragic recovery of vital information in a scene that could have been lifted from 1917 . This, in turn, is followed by a memorial service that entails a reading of Wilfred Owen’s bitter Dulce et Decorum Est (several years before its publication and here purported to have been penned by Conrad), Orlando’s subsequent wallowing in grief and booze and eventual restoration to man of action under Polly’s ministrations, culminating in the aforementioned mountain top battle where, along with Orlando demonstrating a new invention, the parachute, the identity of the Shepherd, clearly conceived as a Bond-like nemesis mastermind, is finally revealed.
Featuring brief appearances by Alison Steadman as part of the network and Stanley Tucci as the American Ambassador alongside such characters as Lenin and the Tsar’s assassin, Felix Yusupov (here Orlando’s cousin), though somewhat sluggish in getting going Vaughn plays it as a straightforward spy-action caper with the obligatory action sequences (a sword fight shot like a video shooter game), stunts and effects but always with an awareness of its inherent silliness, the cast fully committed to the premise with a knowing twinkle in their eyes. It ends with, finally, the establishment of The Kingsmen round table and the inevitable mid-credits scene which, with Hanussan as the new Shepherd wheeling on another mustachioed real life figure, sets up a potential WWII sequel. Hugely enjoyable nonsense. (Disney+)
Licorice Pizza (15)
BAFTA Best Screenplay winner, loosely based on the life of his friend Gary Goetzman, writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson returns to the mid-70s Los Angeles San Fernando Valley setting of Boogie Nights, but minus all the sex, for a sweet and often very funny slowly blossoming love story unfolding over an unspecified number of years that conjures thoughts of vintage Cameron Crowe. Mixing together fictional and real life characters and titled after a now defunct record store, opening with meet cute in 1973, it’s anchored by two wonderful screen debuts and terrific chemistry by Cooper Hoffman, the son of the late Philip Seymour Hoffman evoking not only his father but a certain other Hoffman too, and Alana Haim (resembling a Jewish Soairse Ronan) of siblings pop rock trio Haim (her sisters and parents play her screen family), he as mature for his age 15-year-old, pimply, smooth talking child actor Gary Valentine getting his high school photo taken and she as the photographer’s less assured 25-year-old assistant who he tries to talk into a date (and declares to his younger brother he will marry). She turns him down, then turns up at the diner, and so, kicking off with her accompanying him as chaperone to New York for a live reunion of the screwball comedy Under One Roof (Christine Ebersole playing Lucy Doolittle, clearly based on Lucille Ball from 1968 comedy Yours, Mine and Ours), the scene is set for a series of vignettes as her insistence of a platonic friendship and his determination for romance travel a rocky road as, a savvy businessman, Gary first becomes involves selling the new craze for waterbeds and, later, taps into new legalisation to open a pinball machine parlour, all set to a soundtrack that includes. Let Me Roll It by Wings, Chris Norman and Suzi Quatro’s Stumblin’ In, Life On Mars (cue lawmen seen beating up the wrong guy when Gary’s mistakenly arrested for murder), If You Could Read My Mind, Sonny & Cher’s But You’re Mine and The Congregation’s 1971 hit Softly Whispering I Love You.
The narrative’s constructed around a variety of interwoven subplots. Gary has to contend with an older rival as Alana starts dating his former co-star, Lance (Skylor Gisondo), a threat deftly seen off at a disastrous Kane family dinner, while she finds herself jealous when he starts seeing a girl of his own age. The pair are involved with his mother’s PR work for Jerry Frick (John Michael Higgins), a real Los Angeles businessman who opened the Mikado Hotel and restaurant in 1963, her caricatured as a restaurateur with a series of Japanese wives and speaking in an exaggerated Asian accent a la Mickey Rooney in Breakfast At Tiffanys. Alana subsequently goes to work for Gary selling waterbeds, leading to their hilarious involvement, in the middle of the fuel crisis and a stolen truck, with Barbra Streisand’s preening, narcissistic hairdresser boyfriend Jon Peters (a hysterically over the top Bradley Cooper), decides she fancies acting and, advised to say yes to anything she asks, is introduced to Gary’s agent (a scene stealing turn by Harriet Sansom Harris as real life Hollywood child talent agent Mary Grady), in turn leading to her auditioning for (and flirting with) Hollywood action man Jack Holden (Sean Penn channelling William Holden) and drunkenly recreating a motorbike stunt from one of his films on the Van Nuys Golf Course directed by Rex Blau (Tom Waits) that results in Gary and Alana back in each other’s arms. From which she then gets involved in politics working on the mayoral campaign for real life Los Angeles politician Joel Wachs (Benny Safdie) before discovering his secret gay relationship, heading to the inevitable big running into each other’s arms finale.
With a cast list that also includes cameos from Maya Rudolph, Leonardo Di Caprio’s father George, Spielberg’s daughter Sasha, Tim Conway Jr. (whose dad performed with Anderson’s father) and John C. Reilly as Fred ‘Herman Munster’ Gwynne, it recreates the period (including the once famed Tail O’ the Cock restaurant) but never overdoses on nostalgia (though it does include a shot of Eric Segal’s Love Story and a movie theatre showing Live And Let Die); whimsical but never silly, sweet but never sugary it’s a perfect upbeat coming of age joy. (Rakuten TV)
The Lost Daughter (15)
Vacationing in Greece, asked how it felt to be away from her daughters when she was younger, Leda, a forty-something professor of Italian literature divorcee named for Yeats’s poem Leda and the Swan, declares with brutal honesty ‘amazing’, a shocking response that lies at the heart of Maggie Gyllenhaal’s directorial debut, her adaptation of the book by Elena Ferrante.
It opens at night with Leda (Olivia Colman), collapsing on the beach and proceeds to flash back to her arrival for a working holiday, staying at a beach side hotel overseen by ex-pat American Lyle (Ed Harris), who almost immediately starts hitting on her. Likewise, the much younger Will (Paul Mescal), a young student working the bar as a summer job, is also (somewhat encouraged by her inviting him to dinner) flirtatious. However, Leda basically wants to be on her own, a point she makes brusquely clear, most specifically when she refuses to move from her spot on the beach to accommodate an extended family of rowdy new arrivals from Queens who regularly summer at a nearby pink villa and carry a sense of entitlement with them. The initial friction is quickly smoothed over by the pregnant Callie (Dagmara Dominczyk), with a slice of birthday cake as a peace offering.
Leda’s attention, however, is more taken by Callie’s sister-in-law, Nina (Dakota Johnson) and her three-year-old Elena, prompting flashbacks to the young Leda (an equally commanding Jessie Buckley) and her two daughters, Bianca and Martha, now, she reveals, respectively 25 and 23. One day, Elena goes missing, throwing the family into panic, and is eventually found playing among the rocks by Leda, who returns her safely to their immense gratitude. The incident does, however, prompt a further flashback to Bianca herself going missing, initially suggesting Leda to be afflicted by some past tragedy and guilt. That’s true, but not quite how you assume. For reasons not explained until later, and perhaps only vaguely understood by herself, Leda steals the young girl’s doll (cue another flashback to a confrontation between herself and the demanding young Bianca, involving the latter defacing her mother’s own childhood doll), hiding it away in her apartment while the family desperately search for it and Elena proves inconsolable.
Matters are further complicated when she stumbles upon Nina, whose husband (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) is an obnoxious playboy prick, and Will clearly having a fling, and is asked if they can use her apartment for sex. Prior to this, however, she’s remarked how motherhood can be a crushing responsibility while an extended flashback draws an obvious parallel with the increasingly exasperated Nina, powerless to control her daughter and under the yoke of her family, as we learn how, invited to an overseas lecture series and leaving the kids with her husband, Leda embarked on an affair (and escape from domestic chains) with an admiring older professor (Peter Sarsgaard) and didn’t return for three years. Even now, she been out of touch for so long, they think she might be dead.
Slowly, the film unfolds itself as an observation on how the flip side of the maternal instinct can be resentment of the way children upend your freedom and plans, a sort of delayed post-natal depression perhaps, a sense of shame that the older Leda seems to be trying to work through with Nina as a surrogate of her younger self, culminating in her cathartic and perhaps liberating avowal of being an ‘unnatural mother’, that ultimately sets her on the path for a reconciliation.
Consummately directed by Gyllenhaal, slowly unpeeling the layers and adding pieces to the complex psychological puzzle of her central character whose insistence of peeling an orange in one continuous strip speaks volumes (as does the imagery of the fruit in her hotel room, shown to be rotten underneath the attractive surface), Colman’s character variously unlikeable and sympathetic, but, thanks to the actress’s finely nuanced portrayal, through her dialogue, expressions and body language, her agitated stillness, never offered up for judgement. Clearly targeted at a female audience who are sure to be disturbed – but perhaps also reassured – by its conflicted vision of the clash between motherhood and personal needs, it’s a slow burning but remarkable debut for Gyllenhaal and another masterpiece from Colman. (Netflix)
Marry Me (12A)
Adapted from a graphic novel by Bobby Crosby, directed by Kat Coiro this is preposterous romcom fluff built upon manufactured sentimentality, but there’s enough charm to warrant at least one box of confetti. Jennifer Lopez is pop superstar Kat Valdez who is about to embark on her third marriage (one of several sly nods to the star’s own life), this time to equally famous Puerto Rican singer Bastian (Colombian pop star Maluma making his feature debut and suggesting a career change is not on the cards), the plan being to get wed to an audience of 20 million televised life on the last night of their tour named for co-write hit Marry Me. However, just before she takes to the stage, a video of him making out with her assistant goes viral. Caught unprepared, she tells the crowd of love is a lie, but you should be ready to try something different. At which point she looks into the audience and, reluctantly out there with his shy 12-year-old daughter Lou (Chloe Coleman), sees divorced dad maths teacher Charlie Gilbert (Owen Wilson who last shared the screen with her in Anaconda) holding Marry Me sign he’s been handed by his starstruck lesbian friend and colleague, Parker (Sarah Silverman, ironically sharing her character’s name with another Lopez film), and declares yes, she’ll marry him.
Much to the dismay of her Brit manager Colin Calloway (John Bradley, far better than in Moonfall), she decides not to pay him off but to stick with her decision, at least for a few months; if nothing else, it’s a photo opportunity gift. Charlie, who said yes because he felt sorry for her, is of course the quintessential aw-shucks nice guy in what is basically a fairy tale rerun of Notting Hill and, while overwhelmed by all the sudden paparazzi attention (who bizarrely seem to suddenly lose all interest to the extent they can take his old bulldog for walk and no one bothers) and the glitzy showbiz world he’s suddenly become part of, goes along with things and, in a subsequent deal whereby she has to go without her entourage, doing everything for her, agrees to climb aboard the social media bandwagon.
Anyone even vaguely acquainted with the genre will know exactly how this all pans out, the pair actually becoming a couple before he says he doesn’t fit in her world and it seems she might be getting back with Bastian, given some extra colours with Kat bonding with Lou and helping her overcome her stagefright (cue the Mathalon final in Peoria, Illinois, where the unlikely lovers are finally reunited), getting all the kids in his Pi-Thons maths club up to dance along with her to I Just Got Paid and even doing a turn at the school dance.
There’s a vague nod to feminism when Kat asks why women have to wait for men to propose and then take their name, but the film quickly dispenses with any such issues in favour of the candyfloss trimmings and, naturally, scenes where Lopez can perform her new songs (of which power ballad On My Way is rather good). While taking it all way too more seriously than it warrants, Lopez is on her best romantic form since Maid In Manhattan while, sharing a low simmering chemistry, with his familiar tousled hair and chewing velvet voice, Wilson is affably bland, the cast fleshed out by Michelle Bureau as Kat’s social media manager, Stephen Wallem as a glee club teacher and an over-extended cameo by Jimmy Fallon as himself, the film ending with a cute montage of real-life couples recounting how they met. It may not be wedded bliss, but nor is it the nuptial nightmare you might have assumed it would be. (BT TV Store, Sky Store, Virgin; Vue)
In a smalltown Episcopalian church in Idaho, a church worker (Breeda Wool) anxiously sets up a table and four chairs in a meeting room, a crucifix on the back wall, overseen by Kendra (Michelle N. Carter), a business-like facilitator who wants to ensure everything is in order. This is to host two couples linked by a tragic school shooting some years earlier. Richard and Linda (Reed Birney, Ann Dowd) were the parents of the shooter, their younger son, Jay and Gail (Jason Isaacs, Martha Plimpton) the parents of one of the victims. They declined to press charges, and are now meeting in an attempt at closure.
Making his debut as writer-director, veteran actor Fran Kranz delivers what is essentially a four-handed stage play as the two couples navigate the unthinkable in an attempt to find understanding, starting with awkward pleasantries and moving through passive-aggressive interchanges in seeking to apportion blame (mental illness, video games, bad parenting) before finding a final cathartic ending in some sort of truth. The women, as mothers, are more empathetic to each other, the men more locked in recriminatory or defensive responses, Richard seeming to show no remorse, but the screenplay is never judgmental on either side and the emotional wounds feel raw and real as events of the day and the backstories of the two sons are unfolded. All four performances are masterful, Isaacs on career-best form, Down wonderfully understated and quietly devastating, Plimpton a complex patchwork of emotions and world-weariness and Birney mining the underlining self-recriminations for his son’s actions.
Arguably, it has one ending too many, but the final electrifying monologue from Dowd is both crushing and full of a kind of hope in finding forgiveness and healing. It’s uncomfortable viewing, but it deserves to be seen. (Sky Cinema)
Matrix Resurrections (15)
As comic book fans will know, killing off characters doesn’t mean they can’t return, and so, despite the deaths of Trinity (Carrie-Ann Moss) and Neo (Keanu Reeves) in Revolutions, as the title implies, they’re back again here. As directed by Lana Wachowski, it opens with Bugs (Jessica Nenwick), the blue haired, white rabbit tattooed captain of the Mnemosyne, discovering a program running old code regarding Trinity’s discovery of Neo’s location, before being attacked by Agents of the Matrix, only to be rescued by one of them who turns out to be the embodiment of Morpheus (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II replacing Laurence Fishburn), who she frees from the node.
Cut then to San Francisco as it sets up with a sly self-reflexive premise by which the first three films in the series are explained away as, indeed, films based on the computer games designed by Thomas Anderson (Reeves), with the parent company,Warners, now pressuring for a fourth with or without his and Deus Machina CEO (Agent) Smith’s (Jonathan Groff) involvement (as the studio did in reality with Wachowski).
From this point on, adopting the philosophical conundrum of whether you’re a human dreaming of being a butterfly or a butterfly dreaming of being human, nothing is fixed. Andersons till has problems separating dreams from reality and is seeing a shrink (Neil Patrick Harris) who prescribes him blue pills and, naturally, turns out to be more than he seems. Then he encounters Morpheus, who offers him the red pill.
Frequenting a local coffee shop, Anderson meets married mother Tiffany (Moss), she sensing a connection. Meanwhile, Bugs and her team, trace Neo’s signal to Anderson, arriving in his reality to extract him from the simulation (and push him to ‘wake up’) to join the rebels fighting the new Matrix, explaining that sixty years have passed (cue a mirror reflection of bald Reeves), and to free Trinity from her pod. By now you might feel the need to take notes to keep up with all the plot twists and turns that variously involve assorted anthropomorphic machines (notably a robotic manta ray), the human sanctuary of Io (for the survivors of Zion) overseen by a now much older Niobe (Jada Pinkett-Smith), Sati (Priyanka Chopra Jonas), the exile program who explains how the Anomaly was created after the Machine War and resurrected Neo and Trinity, but kept them isolated, and warns against any rescue attempt, along with the not entirely surprising revelation of the Analyst mastermind behind the new Matrix but the definitely unexpected intervention of an unlikely saviour. Oh, yes, and there’s a cat called Déjà Vu.
All that aside, this is essentially more of the same, albeit with a more self-referential awareness (such as the knowing incorporation of the trademark slow-mo bullet-time effect by the villain of the piece) along with assorted flashbacks to the previous film and the actors playing the earlier character incarnations, while Reeves gets to have both his Jon Wick straggly hair and beard as well as a clean-shaving look while plugged into the Matrix on the Mnemosyne. Arguably the love save all reunion between Neo and Trinity adds some emotional depth, but at heart this is all about delivering senses-warping effects and high-powered action sequences such as a thrilling motorbike chase. As such, you will most assuredly want to plug in and go down the rabbit hole once more. (Rakuten TV)
Munich: The Edge of War (12)
Based on the Robert Harris historical novel, Christian Schwochow’s spy thriller offers a revisionist view of Neville Chamberlain, the British Prime Minister famously remembered for his ‘peace in your time’ speech and regarded as seeking appeasement with Hitler. Opening in 1932 at Oxford University as three friends, Hugh Legat (George McKay), Paul von Hartman (Jannis Niewöhner) and his Jewish German girlfriend Lenya (Liv Lisa Fries) , all fictional characters celebrate with a party on the lawns. Cut to 1938, Hugh is now settled in a strained marriage with Pamela (Jessica Brown Findlay), father to a young son and works as Private Secretary to Chamberlain while Paul (loosely based on Adam von Trott, part of the anti-Hitler resistance in the German foreign office) is a German diplomat in Berlin and a defender of Hitler’s (a chilling Ulrich Matthes) attempt to restore German pride, something that led to a falling out between them. Lenya’s fate is kept back for a powerful reveal.
Hitler is threatening to invade and reclaim the Sudetenland and Chamberlain (Jeremy Irons) and his fellow politicians are trying to steer him away from any potential war by also getting Mussolini involved. All of which leads up to the Munich Conference between the powers, Hugh accompanying the PM and Paul having caught Hitler’s eye as a translator. The twist being that Hugh has been enlisted by Permanent Under-Secretary for Foreign Affairs Sir Alexander Cadogan (Nicholas Farrell) to take possession of a secret document detailing Hitler’s true expansionist intentions in Europe (known as Hossbach Memorandum, this actually existed) who, Paul, who has had a change of heart and mind about the Nazis, has acquired thanks to his army widow civil service lover Helen Winter (Sandra Hüller).
It’s a dangerous task and naturally involves the regulation shadowy meetings of undercover agents and close calls , but, while that’s the spy thriller set dressing, the thrust of the film is to recast Chamberlain as a political strategist seeking to secure an at least temporary peace agreement so as to give time for Britain to rearm for the eventual war, even if it means sacrificing his own political reputation in the process, and expose Hitler as a bully and a liar. As such Irons give a quietly commanding and melancholic performance that contrasts with McKay’s edgier, more nervy turn, while Niewöhner ably serves the screenplay’s espionage requirements and even if the narrative plays somewhat fast and loose with actual events, the end result stands up perfectly as a solid piece of spy thriller entertainment. (Netflix)
Nightmare Alley (15)
Guillermo del Toro has remade the 1947 dark Tyrone Power thriller adapted from William Lindsay Gresham’s pulp novel as a cynical Depression-era moral fable about human nature and how it’s coldly exploited by a world made up of con artists and shysters.
It opens with Stanton Carlisle (a stupendous Bradley Cooper never playing for sympathy) lowering wrapped up corpse into a hole in a farmhouse floor and then setting fire to the place, a scene to which the film with flashback on several occasions before revealing who and why. He surfaces following a dwarf to at travelling carnival of fellow outcasts and misfits where the boss, Clem Hoatley (a devilish Willem Dafoe) gives him a job and a floor to sleep on. Here he uses his charm, wiles and natural showman skills to win Clem over by helping improve some of the acts and avoiding an awkward moment when the cops turn up investigating one of the carny’s attractions, The Geek (a homeless man drugged, sent mad and exhibited as a freak biting the head off a live chicken). He also strikes up a friendship with mentalist act clairvoyant Zeena (Toni Collette) and her creaky boozed up partner Pete (David Strathairn), keen to learn how to read people and the tricks of the trade and even keener to get his hands on Pete’s book of codewords.
One of the acts he buffs up is that of Molly (Rooney Mara), who apparently conducts electricity through her body in front of the jaw-gaping rubes, but while she’s clearly taken by him, her self-appointed guardian, strongman Bruno (Ron Perlman) makes it abundantly clear what will happen of Stan hurts her.
Suffice to say, however, after ‘accidentally’ poisoning Pete, armed with the stolen black book the arrogant Stan and naive Molly take off into the film’s second 1941-set act to start their own mentalist act using the tricks he’s stolen, playing more upmarket clubs in his driven need for validation, fame and wealth, whatever the cost to his soul. It’s at the Copacabana where he comes into contact with psychiatrist Lilith Ritter (an icily magnetic, razor sharp Cate Blanchett),. who is under no illusion that Stan is the real thing. However, they strike up a dark arrangement, whereby he agrees to therapy and she provides him with details of her wealthy clients whose grief and need for commune with the dead he can exploit, sharing a cut of his fees with her. He reckons he’s playing her, but, as the film reveals, a calculating femme fatale, she’s sharper at the power playing games than he thinks. Things eventually go pear-shaped when, ignoring Pete’s advice to not go down the spook show route, Stan enlists Molly to pose as his shame-ridden industrialist mark’s (Richard Jenkins) dead loved one, sending him back on the run as the film comes full circle with a devastating irony and a final line that will haunt long after the credits.
All this de Toro weaves together with the art of a master of misdirection, the detail of such things as pickled foetuses and hand-painted sideshow banners adding to the film’s unsettling lurid ambience and its world of callous grifters and hustlers to deliver a film that ranks up there alongside dark noir classics like LA Confidential and There Will Be Blood. (Disney+)
No Time To Die (12A)
Daniel Craig quite literally bows out of his stint as 007 in a blaze of glory as the 25th (and longest) official James Bond movie comes scripted by Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and Phoebe Waller-Bridge and masterfully directed by Cary Fukunaga, with several nods to the past franchise outings, most obviously in being bookended with Louis Armstrong’s All The Time In The World which was, of course, the theme to On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, George Lazenby’s only outing in the role and, pointedly, the film in which Bond found love and married.
He’s in love again here, this time with the enigmatic psychiatrist Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux, magnetic), as seen in Spectre, having retired from active service for domestic bliss, though events following his visit to the tomb of Vesper Lynd to finally let go of the past quickly see such hopes dashed. Madeleine, announced in the previous film as the daughter of former Quantum member Mr White, is given a prologue back story here when, seeking revenge for her father murdering his family, the masked and facially scarred Lyutsifer Safin (a coolly chilling Rami Malek) arrives at their remote snowbound Norwegian home, kills her mother but ends up rescuing her from a frozen lake when she attempts to escape. Suffice to say, back in Matera in Italy and after a stupendous car chase and town square shoot out involving his tooled-up Aston Martin (seemingly MI6 allow agents to keep their deadly toys when they quit), Bond assumes he’s been betrayed again, puts her on a train walks away.
Cut to five years later and a murderous raid on a secret MI6 laboratory (cue comedic cameo from Hugh Dennis) sees Obruchev (David Dencik), a Russian scientist, supposedly kidnapped along with his data on something called Project Heracles, a bioweapon containing nanobots that allow to target specific DNA strands that M (Ralph Fiennes) has been running as a clandestine operation. Anyone infected with the virus then kills anyone they touch (an unintended COVID echo) who shares that DNA. Now living in Port Antonio, Jamaica (where Ian Fleming holidayed), Bond is contacted by his best buddy, CIA agent Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright), who, along with his all smiles colleague Logan Ash (Billy Magnusson) want him to help tracking down Obruchev to which, after a visit by Nomi (BAFTA Rising Star winner Lashana Lynch who, disappointingly never quite registers as a character beyond her testiness) his female black replacement as 007, and learning about Heracles, he eventually agrees. And so begins a complex and convoluted storyline that entails Bond linking up with Paloma (Ana de Armas who appeared opposite Craig in Knives Out), a feisty Cuba-based CIA agent, the mass killing of all SPECTRE agents, at a gathering remotely hosted by the organisation’s imprisoned head, Blofeld (Christoph Waltz), using Obruchev’s weapon, a deadly betrayal, a tense reunion with Swann, a Starling-Lecter-like face to face with Blofeld, to whom only Swann has access, and the discovery that Safin, who has the usual Bond villain world domination ambitions, is behind everything. That and the fact that Madeleine has kept more than one secret from him; a cute 5-year-old called Mathilde (Lisa-Dorah Sonnet).
With integral appearances by Craig-era regulars Rory Kinnear as Tanner, Ben Wishaw as Q and Naomi Harris as Moneypenny, the film never feels its near three hour running time as twists and turns, abductions and just who has been infected and by whom keep you involved and on your toes as, via yet another thrilling car chase, it builds to an explosive climax on an old World War II island base between Japan and Russia, where Safin has a lavish Japanese poison garden, that can’t help but recall Dr No.
Not only do Fukunaga and the writers outdo the previous Bonds in terms of visual spectacular and edge of the seat action, peppered with the trademark dry one liners and quips, they also offer a romantic, tender and sensitive side to Bond hitherto never fully seen or explored, something that Craig translates to the screen with compelling intensity and moving pathos, his final moments likely to leave you, ahem, shaken and stirred. (Amazon Prime, BT Film Store, iTunes, Rakuten TV, Sky Store, Virgin)
Parallel Mothers (15)
Returning to his frequent theme of mothers and children, Pedro Almodóvar’s latest is one of his lightest, most accessible but also most predictable film, a heightened and very Spanish melodrama with pretty much every plot developed signalled well in advance, while also entwining two narrative strands that feel parts of different films.
The film reunites him with Penélope Cruz, on excellent form and looking far better than in the recent The 355, as Janis (Cruz), a late 30s professional photographer named after Janis Joplin (whose Summertime looms large on the soundtrack), who is looking to exhume a mass grave of villagers, her Venezuelan great-grandfather among them, who fought for the Republicans and were murdered by Franco’s Fascists during the Spanish Civil War. To which end, she approaches Arturo (Israel Elejalde), a forensic anthropologist she’s been photographing for a magazine profile, for his help. He agrees to see what he can do, and, inevitably, a relationship develops with ends up with her becoming pregnant, he unable to commit as he’s still married to his terminally ill wife. Like her mother and grandmother (Julieta Serrano) she resolves to raise the child on her own. Well, after all, she does have a t-short proclaiming “We Should All be Feminists”.
In the maternity ward, she shares a room with Ana (impressive newcomer Milena Smit), an accidentally pregnant teenager who’s been knocked up by one of her friends, though (since she was blackmailed into sex with all of them, she’s not sure who) and whose single mother, Teresa (Aitana Sánchez-Gijón), is a self-centred middle-aged actress largely absent from her life (her father is also out of the picture) and, with the prospect of a career breakthrough taking the lead in an upcoming touring Lorca production, not likely to be around for the birth or helping with the baby. Janis and Ana both give birth at the same time, both their babies, Cecilia (after her gran) and Anita, respectively, being briefly taken away for observation before they each take them home. If you haven’t spotted the first obvious plot twist, then you should get out more.
Janis and Ana stay in touch, become friends and follow the progress of each other’s daughter, the latter eventually moving in with the former (bonding over making potato omelettes) to act as Cecilia’s carer while Janis returns to work, along with the devastating news that Anita was a victim of cot death. With Arturo out of Janis’s life after he turns up to see his daughter and demands a paternity test since she looks nothing like him, more swarthy, you don’t really need Janis taking a DNA test to work out that she’s not Cecilia’s mother, nor is it any surprise when the friendship with Ana (who grows more emancipated as the film progresses) turns into a relationship. It’s just a case of biding your time until she finally tells her the truth.
Meanwhile, the parallel plot regarding the exhumation continues, naturally brining the now widowed Arturo back into Janis’s life, resulting in another upheaval in the relationships and yet another wholly predictable development.
In all of this, Almodóvar offers up a musing on the matriarchal nuclear family (Janis has a surrogate mother in her older magazine editor friend Eelna, played by Rossy de Palma) and the need to sustain them, a meditation that also enfolds Janis’s relatives and their neighbours in the village seeking a proper resting place for their loved ones, the dead and burials serving as metaphors in an exploration of Spain needing to come to terms with its buried past. Both plot strands offer rich material, but are let down by the convoluted screenplay and frequently overwrought and unsubtle plotting and dialogue, although the strength of the female leads and the strong supporting work of de Palma and Sánchez-Gijón go a long way to compensating. There are some undoubtedly powerful moments, both in Ana’s account of Anita’s death, Janis realisation of her own loss and her agonising confession as well as the final uncovering of the dead (those in attendance almost exclusively women) and the things they took to their grave with them, itself a rebirth of sorts that brings closure and the ability to move on. Ultimately, it’s one of the director’s weakest films, but it also seems likely to be among his most successful. (Until Tue; MAC)
Phantom of the Open (15)
Essentially a golf version of Eddie The Eagle (or perhaps birdie), opening with an American TV interview (“I had dreams, but where I come from, it’s a small world”) and flashing back to 1976, this too is based on the true story of a sports loser with big dreams. The subject of director Craig Roberts underdog yarn, with a screenplay by Paddington 2’s Simon Farnaby, based on his co-authored book of the same name, is 47-year-old Maurice Flitcroft (Mark Rylance), a salt-of-the-earth dockyard crane driver from Barrow-in-Furnace with a sweet tooth (six sugars in his tea), married to long-suffering but steadfastly supportive wife Jean (a fuzzily warm Sally Hawkins), stepdad to her illegitimate son Michael (Jake Davies) and father to younger twins James and Gene (Jonah and Christian Lees).
With the nationalisation of the shipyard raising the prospect of redundancy, though, a newly appointed manager, Michael does his best to secure his job, Maurice has an epiphany when he sees TV footage of Tom Watson winning The British Open and, true to his faith in Oscar Wilde’s affirmation that even in the gutter you should be looking at the stars, decides to take up the game himself with a view to entering the Open and competing for the cash prize. Buying a set of clubs, he’s barred from his snooty local club so he practices on the beach but, calling to mind the self-deluded opera-wannabe Florence Foster Jenkins, it’s pretty clear he’s decidedly not up to par. However, fuelled by blind faith in his abilities, he duly applies to take part in the Open, bypassing the no-amateurs handicap (he thinks this means a disability) rule by ticking the professional box and, taking his first swing with his eyes closed, subsequently earns his place in sporting history with the worst ever score (he notched up 121 where the objective is as few strokes as possible) in the tournament’s history, getting featured in The Sun and earning himself the punning soubriquet of the title.
Undaunted, he applies again and, when he’s first rejected and then banned for life by Lambert (Rhys Ifans), the supercilious tournament secretary, horrified at how he’s brought the game into disrepute, he starts entering in disguises and under assumed names, including Frenchman Gerald Hoppy, named for the obnoxious shipyard boss Gerald Hopkin, much to the increasing embarrassment of Michael who, at one point, denies they’re related.
While there’s a farcical nature to a chase across the greens as he and his caddy attempt to flee the police in a golf buggy, pretty much everything on screen is true (much of the dialogue is taken verbatim from Flitcroft himself), including the fact that, inspired by their dad, the twins took up disco dancing and became world champions – just as disco died.
The film gently underplays the theme of entitlement that Flitcroft found himself up against and there’s a nicely ironic twist that, while stereotypically Britain champions the underdog and America lauds the winners, in Maurice’s case it was reversed, he and his family being invited to take part in a tournament founded in his honour, a scene underscoring how he inspired others to take up the game and persevere.
As real-life footage over the end credits show, with sing song voice and a distanced gaze, Rylance has Flitcroft (a sharp comic) down to a, er, tee, even if, with his teeth and cardigan he calls to mind Paul Whitehouse’s Fab FM DJ Smashie. It gets a tad sentimental towards the end with its celebration of family and it could have done without the cartoonish dream sequences) but there’s also genuine pathos here and, totally devoid of cynicism, makes a perfect charming companion piece to The Duke. (Cineworld NEC, Solihull;; Empire Great Park; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Vue)
The Power of the Dog (12A)
Oscar winner for Best Director, Jane Campion’s first film since 2009’s Bright Star is a slow burning compelling and psychologically complex adaptation of the 1967 Thomas Savage novel (the title taken from a line in Psalm 22), veined with themes of toxic, corrosive masculinity, insecurity, frustrated passions and repressed sexuality. Set against the windscreen vistas of 1925 Montana (notably a rock formation resembling a barking dog) but with a claustrophobically intimate feel, it’s founded on four electrifying performances, Kirsten Dunst as Rose Gordon, a woman widowed by suicide, now running a guest house and restaurant for cattle herders, her sensitive, effeminate lisping teenage son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee), Jesse Plemons as her future (and real life) husband, the stiff but refined George Burbank who looks after the administration of the family cattle ranch while his coarse, rugged brother Phil, a menacing Benedict Cumberbatch giving one of his best performances, looks after the more hands-on aspects, like castrating bulls and stripping the hides, which, in a pointed scene later in the film, he would rather burn that give to his Native American neighbours.
It’s clear there’s friction between them, Phil resentful that he’s the one with the degree from Yale now riding the range, while his brother, who never achieved academic success, keeps his hands clean, dresses in finery and never has to be told to wash up before sitting down to dinner. Rose enters their lives when she serves the crew dinner, Phil mocks Peter (calling him Miss Nancy) and the paper flowers he’s made, his mother’s subsequent tears prompting George’s courtship and, much to Phil’s shock, marriage. When she moves into the sprawling mansion, Phil makes no attempt to hide his contempt, dismissing her as a gold digger, cruelly ridiculing her attempts at the Radetsky March on the piano George has bought with his own far better banjo version and then humiliating her inability to play when George invites the Governor (Keith Carradine), his wife and the brothers’ estranged parents, only ever referred to as Old Gent (Peter Carroll) and Old Lady (Frances Conroy), to dinner.
But then something strange happens. After taunting Peter, who arrives during a break from studying medicine, Phil suddenly changes his attitude, takes the boy under his wing, teaches him to ride and starts making him a clearly phallic rope made out of cow hide strips, Peter, in turn becoming more confident. As such, Phil’s frequent reverential mention of the late Bronco Henry, who taught them the ranching trade and whose saddle he keeps in remembrance starts to take on a deeper meaning, reinforced by a scene of Phil sniffing one of Bronco’s old kerchiefs and masturbating and of Peter’s discovery of a stash of ‘art’ magazines of naked men hidden in the woods. The question simmering, however, is the motivations of the older and younger man, who is manipulating and who is manipulated. And why.
Meanwhile, succumbing to Phil’s campaign to make her feel unwelcome and her husband’s obliviousness to her unhappiness, the already fragile Rose is slipping further and further into alcoholism, stashing bottles around the house and in the alley for furtive swigs, observed with quiet satisfaction by her brother-in-law, as, pivoting around a diseased cow hide, the film moves towards its tragic and weightedly ambiguous finale.
Told in five unhurried chapters, the gathering dread set to Johnny Greenwood’s nervy score, featuring a supporting cast that includes Last Night In Soho’s Thomasin McKenzie as a young maid and regular Campion collaborator Genevieve Lemon as the intimidating no-nonsense housekeeper, it’s a haunting American Gothic war of attrition evocative of William Faulkner that lays out the pieces of the puzzle and invites you to fit them into place. (Netflix)
Sing 2 (PG)
A follow-up to the wildly successful 2016 animated musical this reunites pretty much all the original cast, Jennifer Saunders’ Nana among them, for what is essentially a spin on the original story. The animal performers from the first film are now a successful regional theatre troupe, but koala impresario Buster Moon (Matthew McConaughey) still aspires for bigger and better things and hopes that their latest show, a spectacular take on Alice In Wonderland, will land them a spot in Redshore City, the film’s equivalent to Las Vegas. However, when influential talent scout Suki walks out after the first half, declaring them not up to the big leagues, he and the gang head for Redshore to audition for Jimmy Crystal (Bobby Cannavale), a snarly white wolf hotelier magnate singularly unimpressed by any of the acts. He is, however, intrigued when Buster lies about having a connection to reclusive retired rock star lion Clay Calloway (voiced by Bono but clearly modelled on Robert Plant), and agrees to back the proposed new musical, space extravaganza Out Of This World pitched by Gunter (Nick Kroll). It just has to open in three weeks.
In it, porcine performer Rosita (Reese Witherspoon) is to play the lead, travelling four planets on a rescue mission, but, when she finds herself too scared to launch on the flying wire, the part is given to Crystal’s spoiled daughter Porsha (Halsey), who has undeniable presence but, as it turns out, can’t actually act.
Meanwhile, Crystal is pressuring Buster to come up with Clay and, after an initial attempt to recruit him by one-eyed chameleon named Miss Crawley (writer-director Gareth Jennings) fails miserably, he and porcupine rock singer Ash (Scarlett Johansson) try their luck instead, but even so, consumed with grief over his dead wife, Clay seems unlikely to agree.
And so, back in Redshore, things are rapidly falling apart, Crystal going ballistic when he thinks Porsha has been fired and embarrassed him, threatening to kill Buster. The only resort being for the crew to, yes, let’s do the show right here and win over the crowd.
Woven into this are a couple of sub-plots, Johnny the gorilla (Taron Egerton) is having trouble learning his dance moves under his demanding teacher Klaus Kickenklober and is befriended by local street performer Nooshy (Letitia Wright), while, never having had a romance, elephant Meena (Tori Kelly) can’t find the chemistry with her self-absorbed preening stage partner (Eric Andre) but has fallen for fellow pachyderm ice cream salesman Alfonso (Pharrell Williams).
With scenes staged to such as Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, Prince’s Let’s Go Crazy, I Say A Little Prayer, Higher Love, Bad Guy and I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking for, as well as featuring brand new U2 track Your Song Saved My Life, it’s a colourful, energetic affair with top rate animation, choreography and an infectious sense of fun that will leave you with a big smile on your face however old you are. (Rakuten TV; Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Vue)
Spider-Man: No Way Home (12A)
Again directed by Jon Watts, this picks up directly after the events of Far From Home where, in a posthumous message claiming he was murdered, Mysterio outed Peter Parker as Spider-Man. Anticipation as to what came next was high, but no one could have possibly imagined this mind-bogglingly audacious threequel that plays like a two hour plus adrenaline orgasm. His identity revealed and the subject of a vilification campaign by J Jonah Jameson (JK Simmons reprising his role from the three Sam Raimi films), Peter (Tom Holland), girlfriend MJ (Zendaya), best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon) and Aunt May (Marisa Tomei), who, in the opening, has broken up with Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau), are arrested, interrogated and released (cue cameo by Charlie Cox from the Daredevil TV series) since the government can’t make anything stick. However, carrying on with life as normal is not on the table, Discovering he, MJ and Ned have been turned down for MIT because of events, in order to not ruin their lives he turns to Dr Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) to ask if he can readjust time so that things didn’t happen as they did. Strange says not, but, despite warnings from Wong (Benedict Wong), does offer to cast a spell to make everyone forget that Spider-Man and Peter Parker are the same. However, while weaving his enchantment, Peter keeps moving the goalposts to ensure those closest don’t forget, all of which sees things go haywire, causing a breach in the multiverse whereby villains from the previous films who knew his identity now materialise in his world, namely Doctor Octopus (Alfred Molina), The Green Goblin (Willem Dafoe), Sandman (Thomas Haden Church), Electro (Jamie Fox) and The Lizard (Rhys Ifans) who are as confused about him not being their Peter Parker as he is as to why they are after him. Suffice to say, while Strange wants to send them back to their fates (they all died), learning of the events that made them villains, Peter wants to try and cure/save them, giving them a second chance, a well-meaning intention that equally goes wrong, and involves his own battle with Strange to possess the magical doohickey that will return them to their own dimensions.
And, of course, if the rip in the multiverse means the character’s old villains resurface, it’s inevitable that (via Ned who has acquired portal powers from Strange) so too do the former Spider-Man stars from the two previous franchises, seeing Holland, Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield (far better than in his own Spider-Man films) working together (and sharing their stories of loss and tragedy as well the with great power mantra) as a team to carry out this dimension’s Peter’s plan atop the Statue of Liberty. There’s a whirlwind of dizzying webslinging action, eye-popping visual effects, snappy banter and any number of sly references to past plots and incarnations (including an amusing discussion about Maguire’s biowebs) and the connections to the Marvel Universe but also, focusing on soulful character depth, several scenes of emotional intensity as a pivotal character dies and Peter realises that, along with great responsibility great power also entails great sacrifice as he has to confront what it really means to be Spider-Man.
Also featuring such returnees as Flash Thompson (Tony Revolon), Betty Brant (Angourie Rice), J.B. Smoove as Peter’s teacher, its multi crossover of universes and franchises is carried off to exhilarating effect while delivering thoughtful commentary on notions of crime, punishment, heroism and redemption, coalescing into a film that may at times be convoluted but which consistently delivers both fan buy thrills as well as maximum entertainment for the mass audience and, as a coming of age drama, perhaps more than any of its predecessors, really defines what being Spider-Man really means. And don’t dare leave before the end credits or you’ll miss both Tom Hardy in barroom scene linking to the latest Venom film and a full-length trailer for the next Dr Strange that includes The Scarlet Witch and, as a result of his actions here, sets up the introduction of his evil doppelganger. It absolutely rules the all-time global box office. (Rakuten TV; Empire Great Park; Vue)
The Tender Bar (15)
Directed by George Clooney, this is an adaptation of the memoir by J.R. Moehringer, recalling his childhood and coming-of-age journey to become a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist (and, recently ghost writer of Prince Harry’s autobiography). Set predominantly in the 70s working-class neighbourhood of Manhasset in Long Island, it stars Daniel Ranieri as the 9-year-old J.R. with Tye Sheridan stepping into his young adult shoes. For both incarnations, his mentor and life coach is his Uncle Charlie (a lovely turn by Ben Affleck) who steps up the plate when J.R.’s dad (Max Martini), a gruff, alcoholic Top 40 disc jockey in New York City, walks out, leaving his family behind, his wife (Lily Rabe) and son left with no resort but to move back into her run-down family home, where Charlie also still lives along with her sister (Ranier’s own mother) and her kis, under the eye of her irascible elderly farting father (Christopher Lloyd) and long suffering mother (Sondra James). Mom sees this as a failure, J.R.sees it as gift to observe people around him to fuel his writerly aspirations. He’s given further encouragement by Charlie, who drive a blue Cadillac and runs a bar called Dickens, named after the author and populated by a clutch of colourful barflies who also impact on the boy’s life, feeds his nephew with a library-full of books to stretch his imagination and skills and advises him on how to behave decently toward, women, himself and the world. And, of course, buys him his first drink.
In his teenage years, we see J.R. landing a by-line – but no position – with the New York Times, being accepted into Yale, his friendship with roomate Wesley (Rhenzy Feliz), and his doomed on-again, off-again romance with his casually cruel first girlfriend, Sydney (Brianna Middleton) while the episodic and amiably rambling narrative also takes in his mother’s health scare, a couple of decidedly unfruitful reunions with his father as both a child and teen, and, most touchingly, his spruced up grandpa’s participation in the school’s father-son breakfast event.
Soundtracked to a mix of Jackson Browne, Steely Dan, the Isleys and Shocking Blue to add to the nostalgia and with a voiceover by Ron Livingston as the middle-aged J.R., not a great happens but it’s a gentle, knowingly sentimental and rosy but never syrupy warm-hearted love letter to family, hope, dreams and the Uncle Charlies everywhere. (Amazon Prime)
In the opening sequence, bored with the car journey, a young girl named Alexia unfastens her safety belt and, when her father turns round to tell her off, the car crashes, resulting in her ending up in hospital and (in an unflinching operation sequence) having a titanium implant in her skull and a scar over her ear. When she leaves, the walks up to the car and kisses it. Cut to several years later and the now punky adult Alexia (Agathe Rousselle) is a dancer-model at a motor show where she and the other girls give a whole new meaning to autoeroticism. One night, a minor celebrity in her sleazy world, she’s approached by a fan who forcibly kisses her, ending up with her metal hairpin through his head as a result, Alexia calmly showering and disposing of the body. As news reports suggest, this might not be her first victim. Following a blood bath where she kills a co-worker and her house mates, one escapes, exposing Alexia and forcing her to go on the run (though not before locking her parents in a room and burning down the house), eventually breaking her own nose so as to pass herself off as the now grown version of the young boy from the missing posters and, wrapping her breasts in tape to conceal them, being taken in by the lad’s tough but tender anguished father Vincent (Vincent Lindon), who heads up a first responder fire crew (and has to inject steroids into his bruised buttocks every night), and persuades himself this mute stranger is his lost son, Adrien. There’s an added complication, however. Alexia is also pregnant. By the car she had sex with after the aforementioned killing, causing her to lactate and bleed motor oil. So, an attempt at self-induced abortion a failure, she needs to conceal her ever growing belly too. And the metal plates forming beneath the skin.
As you’ll have gathered, this, the latest from provocative French director Julia Ducournau, is firmly positioned within the sci-fi body horror genre alongside the likes of Japan’s Tetsuo and Cronenberg’s Crash. As such, for all its outrageousness and horror (sex with a fire truck falling into at least one of those categories) and the pounding industrial score, this ultimately plays out as a tender gender fluid story of a growing love/parent-child story between two outcasts who desperately need each other, peppered with observations on predatory males, female exploitation, the ugly side of pregnancy and a whole lot more. Perhaps not a festive treat, but certainly not one you’ll forget in a hurry. (BT TV Store, Rakuten TV, Sky Store, Virgin)
The Tragedy of Macbeth (15)
Making his solo directorial debut, Joel Coen delivers an atmospheric, stylised and stripped down adaptation of Shakespeare’s tragedy, filmed by Bruno Delbonnel in stark black and white with an icy chill running through its monochromatic bones as ravens, those harbingers of death, take wing throughout. Denzel Washington (who, like Branagh makes the Bard’s lines flow with a natural rhythm) is typically mesmerising as the battle-weary Macbeth while, Coen’s wife Frances McDormand was surely born to play the power-driven, manipulative Lady Macbeth, the cast fleshed out by Brendan Gleeson as the doomed Duncan (his murder here played out on screen), Corey Hawkins as the self-hating Macduff whose wife (Moses Ingram), child and retinue are slaughtered in his absence, Bertie Carvel as Banquo, Harry Melling as the young Malcolm and Stephen Root as the drunken porter with his erectile dysfunction comic relief.
Coen makes some audacious decisions in his interpretation, not least in the casting of Kathryn Hunter, contorting her body as all three witches (presented as a single figure with two reflections in the water or apparitions fading into the mist) and the way in which the role of Ross (Alex Hassell) has been reworked to make him a more significant character (the third murderer) playing both sides and with a coda in which he retrieves the escaped Fleance. The dialogue too is given a new slant, monologues reimagined as conversations while Macbeth’s hallucinations of the dagger (here the handle on Duncan’s bedchamber) and Banquo’s ghost seen only by Macbeth and never the viewer.
The set design too is integral, the action set predominantly within Macbeth’s castle, a disorienting claustrophobic modernist structure of angular walls, corridors and courtyards that impart an expressionist ambience, reinforced by Carter Burwell’s unsettling soundscape, all combining with the unerring direction and razor-sharp performances to rank Coen’s Macbeth alongside those by Orson Welles and Justin Kurzel. (Apple TV;Sun-Thu:MAC)
Turning Red (PG)
Disappointingly not given a cinema release, the latest animation from Pixar is the first Disney release (and possibly also the first ever children’s film) to broach the topic of menstruation, although the bigger theme is puberty per se. Set in the Chinese quarter of Toronto in the early noughties, Chinese-Canadian Mei Mei Lee (Rosalie Chiang) is a self-confident – if slightly annoying – over-achieving 13-year-old who excels at school, is close to her three besties, Miriam (Ava Morse), Priya (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan) and Abby (Hyein Park), has a Tamagotchi pet and adores five piece (!) boy band 4*Town. However, fun – like karaoke with her friends – always has to take a back seat to her chores, most specifically helping her controlling, uptight mother Ming (Sandra Oh) run the family’s ancestral temple dedicated to Sun Yee, a scholar, poet and, warrior who saved her village from its enemies by asking the gods to transform her into a giant red panda. The Lee family believe the creature blessed subsequent generations with good fortune. However, Mei is about to find out that’s not the only thing that goes with the legend.
When she suddenly finds herself attracted to Devon, the tween who works down the local store, and starts drawing pictures of him (as a merman, with her, etc.) in her notebook (something that prompts a humiliating overreaction from mom), it’s a sure sign puberty is kicking in. And with it comes that change from girl to woman. However, rather than, as mom calls it, the blooming of the red peony, it manifests itself in a dramatically different way as, getting excited thinking of Devon she suddenly transforms into a giant red panda. Only when the hormones stop raging and she calms down does she revert back to normal. She’s horrified by her new self. She doesn’t want to be hairy! And she doesn’t want to smell! And it’s something she most definitely wants to keep secret from mom (who has high expectations for her daughter and reckons boys and pop music are basically manifestations of the devil – she’s a Celine Dion fan) and her put-upon easy going dad (Orion Lee). But when she finds her mother (who, as we later learn went through the same panda experience) has stalked her to school with a packet of sanitary pads, her inner panda simply erupts.
Fortunately, being around her three friends allows her to keep it in check, trying to persuade mom she’s in control so that she’ll let her go to the local 4*Town concert. Naturally mom’s having none of that, so the four girls plan to raise the ticket money themselves, Mei cashing in on the fact her schoolmates reckon her furry alter ego is super cool and are willing to pay for selfies, t-shirts and much more.
Unfortunately, it’s at this point that her grandmother (Wai Ching Ho) arrives with Mei’s aunties to perform the ritual that will cast out the panda, and it turns out that Mei’s not alone in having controlling mother issues. However, with the ritual the same night at the concert, Mei has to decide who she wants to be – the little girl her mother demands or her own person as the film heads to its SkyDome panda v panda showdown climax.
Sharing much with earlier Disney offerings Mulan, Brave and Moana (though Mei is not your usual princess) as well as influences from Studio Ghibli animations like My Neighbour Totoro, with Billie Eilish and her brother Finneas O’Connell contributing to the soundtrack, it’s a wonderful coming-of-age story that amusingly captures teenage rebellion (“I like boys, I like gyrating!” Mei screams at her mother) as the need for parental approval and breaking free clash, trumpeting its embrace your inner weirdo message as Mei reconciles with the messy side of her personality to declare “My panda, my choice, Mom”. Tweenage girls will adore it, their moms maybe less so. (Disney +)
Thedebut feature from writer/director Iris K. Shin, this draws on South Korean haunting horror while also exploring inherited generational trauma and dysfunctional mother-daughter issues and, if there are undeniably flaws with a somewhat pat ending, it’s also creepy and dark enough to keep you involved. Traumatised by her umma (Korean for mother) (MeeWha Alana Lee) as a child who would lock her in a cupboard when she was disobedient (and inflict a much worse punishment revealed in the last act), Amanda (a powerful Sandra Oh) now lives off the grid in a house where all forms of electricity are forbidden, keeping bees and running an increasingly successful honey-making business with her home-schooled non-Korean speaking daughter Chris (Fivel Stewart), herself regarded as a ‘weirdo’ by the kids in town, their only friend being local shopkeeper Danny (Dermot Mulroney), who acts as middle-man to sell the produce.
Amanda suffers nightmares and blackouts and things get worse when her uncle turns up to inform her her mother has died, accuses her of being a terrible daughter and leaves a suitcase containing mom’s remains and such artefacts as a heirloom mask and a kimono for her to perform a ritual ceremony to prevent her turning into a “gwishin”. Inevitably, her mother’s restless ghost starts putting in appearances, Amanda’s mental state further rattled by discovering Chris secretly wants to apply to go away to college, an act of ‘disobedience’ and threat of abandonment that, Chris enlightened by Danny’s niece (Odeya Rush) as to mom’s deceptions, tips her over the edge and almost quite literally turns her into her own mother.
While initially intense with its camerawork and spookiness, body horror, bee swarmings and a dark cellar and even an attic, Shim makes a common first timer mistake of repeating things and piling on exposition rather than letting the film speak for itself, while the predictable climactic confrontation between Amanda and her mother’s spirit is decidedly confused and confusing. It doesn’t really pull off its attempt to be an American-Korean answer to Jordan Peele, but even so it’s an impressive calling card. (Thu: Vue)
Some fifteen years in development, this finally sees the hugely successful PlayStation video game on the big screen, the result, however, is a decidedly anticlimactic experience that stuffs in a succession of action set pieces but fails to find any heart or soul.
A prologue sets up the foundation for what follows, with brothers Nathan and Sam Drake (supposedly descendents of Sir Francis), living in an orphanage after the death of their parents, sneaking out after dark night to rob antiquities from the local museum. When apprehended, Sam takes off into the night, never to seen again although, as the film later reveals, sends regular postcards to his brother.
Fast forward several years, and the now grown Nate (Tom Holland) is working in a trendy New York cocktail bar where he deftly picks the pockets of its wealthy customers. Enter Sully (Mark Whalberg, initially intended to play Nate) who proposes they join forces to hunt down the legendary lost gold of 16th-century gold explorer Ferdinand Magellan, which Sam told his brother about before disappearing. Initially reluctant, Nate changes his mind in pretty much a heartbeat, setting the main thrust of the narrative in motion and adding to the mix Chloe (Sophia Ali), Sully’s gold-hunter partner’girlfriend as the third wheel in the quest and martial arts warrior Braddock (Tati Gabrielle as a sort of bargain basement Grace Jones) who works for Santiago Moncada (Antonio Banderas), part of the shady Spanish family which, down the centuries, funded the Inquisition and the Franco regime, and is also obsessed with recovering the gold (to the extent of offing dad when he decided to longer cough up the funding).
As such, the plot kicks off with them having to steal an antique cross from an auction which, along with its counterpart (yes, it’s a double cross) provides the literal key to unlocking assorted secrets, vaults and the like, taking the adventurers on a globe-trotting romp that lifts from various instalments of the video game, avoiding booby traps and, in Nate’s case, surviving a fall from a transport plane aboard its cargo, before the third act climax has them and their rivals airlifting a couple of beached galleons from out of the Phillipines jungles.
The action sequences are, by and large, exciting but all the character stuff in-between is just flat and dull, with Moncada’s departure midway, promoting Braddock to chief villain, seeming more like Banderas exercising a contract exit clause rather than a narrative decision. Holland gives his best, but feels too light for the role even if he is supposed to be a younger Drake while Whalberg lets his furrowed brow do all the acting and Ali and Gabrielle never get to do much more than fulfil their one-dimensional purposes. Director Ruben Fleischer, who gave the world Venom, dresses it up in the manner of Thirties adventure movies and Saturday morning matinees, but, compounded by clunky dialogue, only succeeds in underlining how much better this was done by Raiders of the Lost Ark and National Treasure, both of which it evokes to its disadvantage. (Cineworld NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Vue)
The Unforgivable (15)
Originally a three-part TV series set in Yorkshire, as directed by Nora Fingscheidt the story has been retitled, adapted, condensed and transposed to Seattle but otherwise remains pretty much the same. After serving 20 years for shooting the local sheriff when social services came to evict her and take her five-year-old sister (Neli Kastrinos) into care (their mother died and the dad committed suicide), Ruth Slater (Sandra Bullock) is released and looks to rebuild her life, placed in a rundown halfway house hostel populated by addicts and thieves, taking a job on the graveyard shift of a fish gutting factory and, later, putting her prison-learnt carpentry skills to work on a renovation project. She naively thinks that, having done her time, she can make a new start, but as her parole officer Vincent (Rob Morgan) tells her, “You’re a cop killer everywhere!”
Her prime objective, however, is to get back in touch with her now grown sister, Katie (Aisling Franciosi) with whom she’s had no contact since that fateful day and letters sent have been unanswered. Told she was adopted, but that she can be given no information, Ruth returns to the old family home, now owned by mixed race couple Liz (Viola Davis) and John (Vincent D’Onofrio) Ingram and their two sons. John, it transpires is a lawyer and she persuades him to look into the case, discovering that Katie was adopted by Michael (Richard Thomas) and Rachel (Linda Emond) Malcolm, and renamed Lucy, and has an adoptive sister called Emily (Emma Nelson) Ruth pushing to try and arrange a meeting. That doesn’t go well, the Malcolms reasonably arguing that a reunion would serve no purpose and would likely derail Lucy’s life. However, discovering the unread letters, Emily looks to try and help.
Meanwhile, Lucy, who, in the opening scenes, is involved in a car crash and briefly comatose, is starting to have flashbacks, but, as a result of the original trauma, has no memory of what happened or of Ruth. Ruth, in turn, becomes involved in a tentative relationship with fellow worker Blake (Jon Bernthal), but is also being stalked by Keith Whelan (Tom Guiry), the son of the officer she killed. He wants revenge but, married with a young baby and not looking to ruin his own life, his brother Steve (Will Pullen) initially tells him to let it lie, before contriving to meet Ruth and changing his mind given her apparent lack of remorse. He’ll exact an eye for an eye.
Entwining three plot strands, it’s a complex web with recurring flashbacks to the day of the murder, Ruth’s past being revealed to her workplace with inevitable results and a couple of confrontations with Liz, who doesn’t share her husband’s notion of second chances. However, finally, we learn what actually happened when the sheriff broke into the house, which pretty much turns everything on its head as the film builds to a dramatic rescue attempt following Steve’s kidnapping.
It’s pretty much unrelentingly downbeat and dour, a perpetually scowling, dead-eyed Bullock delivering hard to read vanity-free performance and packing so much into the running time often results in other characters being given somewhat short shrift in the characterisation department (a scene involving Steve’s wife and his brother feels unnecessarily melodramatic) while the social/racial backdrop (Liz tells her husband their black sons would never get another chance) is never really explored. Nonetheless, as it turns into more of a thriller, it keeps you with it to the final catharsis. (Netflix)
West Side Story (PG)
Adapted from the 1957 Stephen Sondheim/Leonard Bernstein stage musical in 1961 and directed by Robert Wise, and itself based around Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, working from a new screenplay, Steven Spielberg, making his first musical, offers up an exuberant, dynamic retelling that, while there are several scene tweaks, stays faithful to the original in its telling of New York neighbourhood gang rivalry between the Sharks and the Jets and the doomed romance between white Tony and Puerto Rican Maria.
It opens with the camera panning over a demolition site of debris and construction vehicles, part of a gentrification project that will become the Lincoln Centre as Riff (Mike Faist), leads his fellow gang members, a cocktail of Irish, Polish and Italian losers in daubing paint over a mural of the Puerto Rican flag inevitably resulting in a brawl when the Sharks (first seen singing their country’s national anthem), led by Bernardo (David Alvarez), arrive to stop then before being separated by resentful New Yok cop Officer Krupke (Brian D’Arcy James) and the racist Lieutenant Schrank (Corey Stoll), both white. The Jets then set off down the streets, stealing from Puerto Rican stores and vandalising property with the first song and dance sequence to When You’re A Jet.
Bernado is involved in a tempestuous romance with his live in paying lodger Anita (Anita (BAFTA and Oscar winner Ariana DeBose) and fiercely protective of his sister Maria (Rachel Zegler), newly arrived after spending five years caring for their father, while Riff’s best friend is Tony (Ansel Elgort) who (in this telling), having served time for assaulting a Puerto Rican teenager, is now reformed and working for elderly drugstore owner Valentina (Rita Moreno, who won an Oscar as Anita in the original), a new character and the Puerto Rican widow of ‘gringo’ Doc from the original, who lets him sleep in the basement. Riff wants to draw Tony back into the gang, particularly for the upcoming rumble between the two rivals, however, at a local dance (The Dance at the Gym), which turns into another confrontation, Maria and Tony meet, sparks fly and their fates are sealed as the Rumble, set in a salt factory, results in the deaths of both gang leaders and marks Tony as a target for revenge by Chino (Josh Andrés Rivera), Maria’s former would-be suitor.
Spielberg makes several changes to the staging and sequencing, here America no longer sung on a rooftop but as a full blooded dance number through the streets led by Anita on the morning after the dance, Somewhere is now sung wistfully by Valentina rather than Conseulo before being reprised by Tony and Maria as he visits her following Bernado’s death, Cool is sung here by Tony and Riff, after the former insists there are no weapons at the Rumble, as opposed to being a call for calm by Ice after Riff’s death, while I Feel Pretty (which, Sondheim’s last favourite, still sounds like it belongs in something like My Fair Lady rather than this grittier tale takes place during Maria’s night shift as a department store cleaner as opposed to in the bridal workshop. But these are just re-adjustments to serve the narrative flow rather than drastic revisions and both the urgency and vibrancy of the dance choreography and the singing carry you away, even if, as evidenced in the Maria and Tonight (balcony or rather fire escape scene) numbers, a disappointingly uncharismatic Elgort isn’t perhaps the finest of vocalists. Zegler and DeBose, however, are superb, as witness their duet A Boy Like That. In addition, in a nod to the recent Broadway revival, when characters speak Spanish there are no subtitles while there’s clearly more prominent subtexts of race and class running through the storyline. On the other hand, turning the tomboy Anybodys (Iris Menas) into a clearly non-binary character seems a tad too conscious a woke nod.
The digital recreation of 50s New York is fabulous, with the sets not looking like sets but arguably, for all the big production numbers, the film is at its strongest in the quieter, more intimate moments and close ups, such as the depth of emotion encapsulated in Maria’s eyes, ultimately offering an exhilarating revival for a new generation. (Disney +)
The Worst Person In The World (15)
Earning the Best Actress award at Cannes for Renate Reinsve, essentially making her debut (her previous film giving her just one line of dialogue) directed by Norwegian Joachim Trier and, co-written with Eskil Vogt, unfolding over 12 chapters, prologue and epilogue, this is a superb coming of age romantic drama about mistakes made, missed opportunities and gaining self-knowledge. Reinsve is Julie, who, when we first meet her, is a medical student in Oslo who undergoes an epiphany and, breaking up with her boyfriend, decides instead to pursue psychology and stars dating one of her professors. Then, a career butterfly (““I feel like I never see anything through”, she confides), she drops psychology to become a photographer and takes up with a model. However, while they’re out she meets Aksel Willman (Anders Danielsen Lie), an acclaimed provocative R. Crumb-like comic artist fifteen years her senior and the pair start a relationship, she moving in with him and meeting his family, although there’s tensions because she doesn’t want kids and he does.
Crashing a wedding reception while walking home from a reception for Aksel’s new book, she meets Eivind (Herbert Nordrum), a barista, and, though both are in a relationship, they spend the night together talking but not strictly cheating (at one point they swap cigarette smoke in slow motion, the same technique repeated as time freezes as she crosses the city to exchange a kiss). Julie now fancies herself as a writer and, encouraged by Aksel, post an online feminist blog about Oral Sex in the Age of #MeToo which proves a big success.
Now 30, her parents divorced and estranged from her father (Vidar Sandem)., she’s working in a bookstore when she again meets Eivind, who’s now broken up with girlfriend Suvvina (Maria Grazia Di Meo) who’s become a climate activist, prompting yet another upheaval in her relationships (he doesn’t want kids either) as she breaks up with Aksel, who’s incensed that his radical comic Bobcat has been turned into a family friendly animation. And so it goes, with subsequent chapters involving a magic mushrooms trip in which she imagines herself confronting her father and throwing a bloody tampon at him, Aksel being pilloried on a TV interview about the sexism in his old comics, a pregnancy and cancer diagnosis.
Julie frustrating and irresistible in equal measure, you want to shake her for her constant self-sabotaging but also, thanks to Reinsve’s star-making performance and disarming smile, want her to finally find herself and happiness out of the uncertainty, the film feeling wonderfully natural and real in its observations on the sort of situations everyone can relate to. Funny, tender and ultimately rather sweet while also offering perceptive observations on the nature of culture in a digital age, it’s a real gem. (Cineworld 5 Ways; Electric)
The title echoing the original pre-18 film certification, written and directed by Ti Westthis is largely situated in the psycho-hillbilly slasher territory of Texas Chain Saw Massacre, its homage swapping cannibalism for senior citizen sexual frustration. Set in 1979 with a soundtrack that includes Mungo Jerry’s In The Summertime and, backdropping a particularly gory moment, Blue Oyster Cult’s Don’t Fear The Reaper), it opens with the cops investigating the bloody aftermath of what then unfolds in flashback.
Driving in from Houston in their Dodge van, a bunch of wannabee porn filmmakers, arrive in rural Texas and a remote farmhouse and cow barn where greasy-haired amateur director RJ (Owen Campbell), plans to shoot The Farmer’s Daughters for the booming home video market, a porno he’s persuaded himself will be avant-garde cinema. The rest of the crew line up as his unimpressed girlfriend, Lorraine (Jenna Ortega) on boom mike, middle-aged cowboy stud Wayne (Martin Henderson, part Matthew McConaughey, part David Arquette) who’s producing, his coke-snorting aspirant “fucking sex symbol” girlfriend Maxine Minx (Mia Goth) and her fellow burlesque club dancer Bobby-Lynne (Brittany Snow) playing the daughters and well-hung former soldier stud Jackson (Scott Mescudi, a.k.a. Kid Cudi), the only actual porn actor.
The farm is owned by the gnarly, grouchy Howard (Stephen Ure) who, unaware of the filming, warns them not to disturb his equally ancient wife, Pearl (Goth).first seen staring from the bedroom window. Wise words. Pearl, it seems, still has a strong sex drive but her husbands’ weak heart won’t let him satisfy it. And it’s not long before she’s making advances to Maxine and seeing her having sex with Jackson sets her hormones raging in a decidedly murderous manner, kicking off with turning RJ into chopped liver and she, and subsequently, Howard, working their way through the others until only one’s left to bring the massacres (atypically the men all go first) to an end.
What with pitchfork impalement, shotgun blast, a rotting corpse in the basement, a submerged car a la Psycho, a naked geriatric bedtime caress, a nod to the axe in The Shining alligator and a head pulped by a car tyre, there’s certainly plenty of blood for your buck while the late reveal of a link between the conservative televangelist on the farm’s black and white TV and one of the crew adds to the whole subtext about the power of repressed female sexuality.
A tribute to old school 70s horror, packed with misdirects, jump scares, shadows, slow burn tension, impressive physical – rather than digital – effects, it’s a riveting shocker that has brain to go with the buckets of blood. (Cineworld 5 Ways; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Vue)