This column will review films both screening theatrically and/or on various streaming platforms.
Dungeons & Dragons: Honour Among Thieves (12A)
It’s been 23 years since the first adaptation of the first role-playing phenomenon that has established itself as one of the world’s most successful board games was released to coruscating reviews and box office disaster, Since then there’s been a couple of sequels, one for TV and one direct to DVD, neither of which fared much better. Now, however, 11 years since the last outing, directed by Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley and co-written with Michael Gilio, and with no connection to its predecessors, it has been reborn to deservedly thunderous acclaim to stake a claim as one of the year’s most entertaining, enjoyable and spectacular adventure movies.
In this revision, a peak self-mocking Chris Pine is Edgin Darvis, a former member of the Harpers until his wife was killed by a Red Wizard, following which he went rogue and, looking to make a new life for himself and his daughter Kira (Chloe Coleman),, joined forces with street-tough barbarian warrior Holga Kilgore (Michelle Rodriguez), amateur sorcerer Simon (Justice Smith), and con artist Forge Fitzwilliam (Hugh Grant in gloriously smarmy scenery chewing villain mode). Infiltrating a former Harper stronghold to steal the Tablet of Awakening that can resurrect his wife, they’re exposed and, while Forge and Simon escape, Edgin and Holga are caught and so it is that two years in, we find them appearing before a prison parole tribunal, pulling off a daring escape and seeking out Forge, only to learn that, now the Lord of Neverwinter and acting as Kira’s guardian, he has turned her against her father (saying he abandoned her for personal gain) and is, in fact, in league with his accomplice, Sofina (Daisy Head), a Red Wizard, and orders their execution. So, following another close call, with plans to break into Forge’s vault to get the Tablet of Reawakening, Edgin and Holga (who’s nursing the pain of a broken heart) track down the sweetly insecure Simon who suggests they also recruit Doric (Sophia Lillis), a sharp-tongued human-hating elfin-eared shapeshifter druid on whom he has a crush, to join the team but, without sufficient magic to disable the defences, a corpse question time with assorted dead warriors results in them calling on the ultra-cool, self-assured, irony-oblivious Xenk Yandar (Regé-Jean Page), a paladin and the sole survivor of the Thay, who were crushed by the Red Wizards, who holds the secret location of the Helmet of Disjunction that will help them overcome the barriers surrounding the vault.
Needless to say, things don’t go too smoothly and after another series of scrapes with assorted dead and living forces, the team end up finding themselves taking part in an old series of gladiatorial Games staged amid mazes in a giant arena that Forge has revived and which he intends to use to steal a fortune from the gamblers and make off with Kira, and for Sofina to turn everyone into zombie slaves. So, no pressure then.
Played out in a series of escalating quests and levels, it rattles along shooting of witty one-liners as it romps from one elaborate action set piece to another, variously involving undead assassins and fire-breaking dragons, a portal-opening hither and thither staff and a bout of lute playing. Featuring eye-popping state of the art digital effects and cinematography, knowing self-aware dialogue, outstanding cast chemistry and a screenplay than can shift from wild slapstick to piercing poignancy at the snap of a finger, not to mention a star turn cameo playing Holga’s dwarf former lover, this will be every D&D fan’s wet dream (with a pleasing nod to characters from the game during the maze sequence) but has more than enough chutzpah to knock the fantasy socks off anyone with even a passing interest in family-fuelled franchises like Game Of Thrones, Lord of the Rings or even Fast and Furious. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Electric; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Vue)
God’s Creatures (15)
Set amid a close-knit community in a remote Irish fishing village (albeit one where the men and women live very segregated lives), directors Saela Davis and Anna Rose Holmer have crafted a tense, dark drama about guilt, conscience and moral principles. It begins with the drowning of a young fisherman (the men in the village refuse to learn to swim) that sets up the sombre mood that permeates the narrative, introducing us to Aileen O’Hara (Emily Watson) who works in the local oyster factory, has a cold marriage to husband Con (Declan Conlon), a somewhat distant daughter Erin (Toni O’Rourke) with a new baby and cares for her near vegetative father-in-law Paddy (Lalor Roddy).
At the pub, during the wake, in walks her estranged son Brian (Paul Mescal) who left for Australia under never explained circumstances, bringing light back into her life. She having kept up payments on his fishing licence, he says he intends to resume the now abandoned oyster farming traps he once managed with his father and grandfather. However, having no money, Aileen steals oyster seeds from the plan to get him started, an act witnessed by her son’s old flame Sarah (Aisling Franciosi), whose own abusive marriage is falling apart.
When Sarah accuses Brian, who has resumed some of his ne’er do well ways and is increasingly forming a rift with his father, of sexual assault, Aileen provides him a false alibi, the film then dwelling on how this eats away at her while Sarah is fired for her continued absences and Aileen becomes isolated from her fellow workers following allusions to her theft.
With a fungus infecting the factory oysters serving as a somewhat clunky metaphor for the rot corrupting the community, which itself turns on Sarah for speaking out, the slow, contemplative pace it builds to a tragic but ambiguous climax. It’s well crafted, atmospherically shot and strongly acted by Watson and Mescal (who filmed it before his Oscar nominated turn in Aftersun), with a poignant scene in which Brian awakens Paddy through the power of a remembered song, but it’s so unrelentingly dour and sombre that it’s difficult to see why anyone would want to sit through it. (Mockingbird)
Directed by Juan Jesús García Galocha and revoiced from the Spanish original, this is very much in the tradition of Disney princess-hero movies with messages about finding your own voice, overcoming fears and becoming the person you were meant to be, it even has a couple of Frozen-like numbers (I’m Today and New Song sung by Karina Pasian) and cute animal pet. And it’s all rather fun and, at times, laugh out loud funny. Formerly a champion ancient Egyptian charioteer, Thut (Joe Thomas) lives in the afterlife in an underground world of living mummies, both human and otherwise, where, having retired due to having lost his confidence following a fatal accident, he now spends the time signing autographs for his fans and looking after Sekhem (Santiago Winder), his boomerang throwing baby brother who has a pet crocodile. It’s Sekhem’s antics which accidentally end up causing him to be the man a magical phoenix is supposed to identify as the one Princess Nefer (Eleanor Tomlinson) is commanded to marry by her Pharaoh (Sean Bean) father. Needless to say, neither are very keen on the idea. However, if Thut doesn’t, then his tongue and eyes will be removed.
A more pressing concern arises, however, when the wedding ring which Thut has been entrusted with his life, is stolen by scheming British archaeologist Lord Carnaby (Hugh Bonneville) who, along with his bumbling, bickering twin sidekicks Dennys and Danny (Dan Starkey), chances upon his trophy room in the underground city, resulting in Thut, Sekhem, Nefer and the croc winding up in London in an attempt to recover it where they accidentally find themselves appearing in a production of Aida where Nefer steals the show and attracts the attention of Asian music producer named Ed (Shakka) who turns her into a pop star, thus fulfilling her dreams of wanting to sing, a notion frowned upon by her mother (Celia Imrie). Now, if they do recover the ring, she will have to choose between returning home or staying in the world of the living, even though, under bright white light, her true nature is revealed. But then there’s also the small problem that, having discovered the truth about the trio, Carnaby has his sights set on a much bigger attraction for his exhibition.
The plot may be overly familiar and clichéd, Thut and Nefer naturally fall in love despite all their protestations (though when did you last see a Disney princess who snored!), but, featuring a stream of amusing culture clash jokes (Sehmen quickly taps into the modern world and technology), some lively chases variously involving a London bus, a chariot and a bulldozer, that will entertain kids and grown-ups alike it’s well-animated, energetically paced and engagingly voiced with a soundtrack that includes Nickleback’s Far Away and, of course, The Bangles’ Walk Like An Egyptian, this is far better than the reviews would have you believe. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Vue)
On a two-year expeditionary mission to pay for treatment for his ill daughter (Chloe Coleman), seen in the opening sequence and home movie flashbacks, Mills (Adam Driver), an astronaut from an advanced civilisation, crash lands on an unknown planet when his ship’s hit by an asteroid storm and finds himself the only survivor save for Koa (Ariana Greenblatt from My Spy), a young girl who speaks a language he doesn’t understand. He also finds that the planet is home to ferocious dinosaurs. That’s because this is Earth 65 million years ago. And so we’re off into a sort of reverse Planet Of The Apes meets Jurassic Park with Driver having to beat off the admittedly scary beasties, navigate quicksand, lethal geysers, killer flora and keep Koa (ooh, surrogate daughter syndrome) alive and find an errant escape shuttle and get off the planet. Before that impending extinction event.
On paper, while preposterous, it might sound promising, especially given it’s written by the pair behind A Quiet Place. But given a screenplay that never seems to have gone beyond a preliminary draft, a stream of well-worn sci fi clichés and clunky dialogue (though strictly speaking monologue since the girl only copies what Mills says), it all falls repetitively flat. Driver’s too good an actor to not bring weight to his character, but then again he’s also too good an actor for something this forgettable. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Vue)
All Quiet On The Western Front (15)
Written in 1929, telling of the horrendous conditions and mass slaughter experienced by young German soldiers on the frontline in WWI, Erich Maria Remarque’s novel is one of the greatest anti-war novels of all time. Though previously filmed twice, the Academy Award winning 1930 version and a 1979 TV film, this is the first in German from a German director (Edward Berger), and with a wholly German cast.
Outstanding newcomer Felix Kammerer is the central character, Paul, a young student keen to do his bit for the Kaiser, God and the Fatherland who forges consent to enlist along with his friends, Albert, Franz and Ludwig (respectively Aaron Hilmer, Moris Klautz and Adrian Grünewald) all expecting it to be over within months and something of a cushy ride with the French fleeing before then.
There’s a foreshadowing of what’s actually in store in the opening sequence where corpses are stripped of their uniforms which are then returned to Germany to be washed, repaired and recycled to the new recruits, Paul receiving one with the name tag Henrich and being told it was probably too small for him. On arrival in France, they’re given a brutal baptism of fire (Ludwig killed the first night) as it quickly becomes clear they and everyone there are just cannon fodder for the blinkered officers and bureaucrats still deludedly thinking they can win.
There are some moments of light relief, Paul and the roguish Kat (Albrecht Schuch) stealing a goose from a local farmer to feed their mates, Franz having a night of passion with a French woman, the camaraderie of the small group that now includes the veteran, Tjaden Stackfleet (Edin Hasanovic), grown close during their time at Ardennes, but otherwise this is relentlessly grim and harrowing as any notions of heroism or valour are tramped into the blood-soaked mud, bodies are blown to pieces, dog tags of the dead are collected and an ever growing number of black coffins are piled into mass graves.
Unfolding over two and a half hours, the battle scenes are visceral and terrifying, flamethrowers turned on surrendering soldiers, bodies pulped by tank tracks, a room of young recruits gassed to death, the agonising slow death throes of a French soldier Paul stabbed, a black shroud of bleakness enveloping everything until eventually Paul is the group’s only survivor.
Meanwhile, sickened by the senseless losses, Matthias Erzberger (Daniel Bruhl who would have surely played Paul in younger days), the German Minister of Finance, is seeking to secure an armistice with the French, headed by General Foch, whose uncompromising demands for German capitulation are not well-received by Erzeberg’s superiors (seen enjoying fine food and wine as opposed to the troop’s turnip bread), and particularly career officer General Friedrichs (Devid Striesow), who orders one final, fatal assault five minutes before the 11am ceasefire.
The film punctuated by gunshot like percussive notes, Berger pulls no punches in depicting the horror, both personal and mass, of the war, the dehumanisation of the fighting, while the addition of the signing of the armistice aboard a train has Erzberger presciently observing how the terms will lead the German people to resent the peace, ultimately giving rise to Nazism and WWII.
It’s tough to watch but, in light of current conflicts and the rose of nationalism around the world, it’s a very important reminder of the need for sanity. (Netflix)
Adapted by Call The Midwife’s Heidi Thomas from the 2018 Alan Bennett play, directed by Richard Eyre and with a stellar cast that includes Judi Dench, Jennifer Saunders, Russel Tovey, Derek Jacobi and David Bradley, it’s hard to see how this grey pound dramedy about cuts to the NHS could fail. But fail it does. Set in Wakefield in a fictional community hospital where various wards are named after celebrities who donated to its upkeep, the Bethlehem, or the Beth, as it’s affectionately known, is facing closure as part of cuts by the never named but clearly Tory government which wants cost-efficient centres of excellence with high profile success rates. What it doesn’t want is things like the Shirley Bassey geriatric ward where the old folk have music therapy sessions (the title prompting the party piece Get Happy ), the impossibly charming Dr Valentine (Bally Gill), actually Valiyaveetil but no one can pronounce it – who oozes kindness and compassion on his rounds, declaring how much he loves old people, while the pragmatic Sister Gilpin (a wavering accent Saunders), who’s about retire and get a medal for her long service, concerns herself with which patients are on the incontinence list. Maybe the film budget was tight but they, resolutely chipper Nurse Pinkney (Jesse Akele) and sullen work experience Andy (Louis Ashbourne Serkis) appear to be the only staff.
The friends of the Beth are running a campaign to keep it open and a local TV crew are here to make a documentary about the fight to save it, interviewing the preening CEO (Vincent Franklin) and the predictably eccentric patients, among them pompous, grammar-pernickety former English teacher Ambrose (Jacobi chewing scenery), retired librarian Mary (Dench) more interested in the marginalia of reader’s annotations than books themselves and to whom the world of iPads is alien, the flirty Lucille (Marlene Sidaway) with her innuendos and Joe (David Bradley)m a cantankerous ex-miner who’s been transferred there to deal with an infection (and is in no hurry to go back to his previous hospital). He also happens to be father of Colin (Tovey), a consultant to the Health Minister who recommended the closure, from whom he’s estranged on account of his son being gay and right wing, though it’s debatable which he resents most. Colin’s in town to visit the old man and make his final assessment for recommendations (and that he has a change of heart is a no brainer) while further problems arise when a newly admitted dementia patient (Julia Mackenzie) who’s had a fall, unexpectedly dies, this prompting the wrath of her daughter and son-in-law who wanted her to hang for inheritance tax reasons and now demand an enquiry. Indeed, the mortality rate on the ward seems to be rather high, three of them popping their clogs in just a few days, which is where the play takes a not entirely surprising swerve into The Good Nurse territory.
Vestiges of Bennett’s dry humour remain to inject a few laughs into the otherwise terminal dialogue, though a running gag abut bedpans is surely taking the piss, but the social commentary is about as subtle as an enema, not least for a bolted on Covid coda and a jarring to camera monologue from Gill that only just falls short of asking the audience to bang some pots. It’s quaintly watchable enough but is probably better suited to a Sunday evening on BBC1 with a mug of Horlicks. (Cineworld Solihull; Empire Great Park; Everyman; MAC; Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel; Vue)
Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania (12A)
Calling to mind thoughts of Fantastic Voyage and the cantina scenes in Star Wars among others, launching Phase 5 of the MCU, the third in the Ant/Giant-Man series doesn’t waste time getting down to business. A brief flashback prologue with Janet van Dyne (Michelle Pfeiffer) being rescued by someone who’s just crash-landed, it brings together her, husband Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), daughter Hope aka The Wasp (Evangeline Lilly), her no somewhat complacent superhero husband Scott Lang (Paul Rudd), first seen musing on how his life’s turned out and reading from his autobiography, and their science prodigy daughter Cassie (Kathryn Newton), for a family dinner which ends up with Hank and Cassie demonstrating their work on making contact with the quantum zone in which Janet was trapped for 30 years, but about which she’s never spoken. She’s horrified, but before anything can be done all five are sucked into the sub-atomic universe with its psychedelic flora and fauna, including characters with broccoli –like heads. Scott and Cassie end up separated from the others, running into an army of rebels, among them a jelly-blob fascinated with how Scott has holes, led by Jentorra (Katy O’Brien) who constantly blathers on about how an unnamed he, the conqueror who destroyed her people’s home, will be coming to look for them. This is the same he referred to when Hank, Hope and Janet meet up with Lord Kylar (Bill Murray doing his usual shtick), a former ally from Janet’s time in the Quantum Realm, looking for help in being reunited with the others only to learn he’s switched sides.
As such, the film spends an overly lengthy period with the family trying to reunite before we finally get to meet (or rather meet again as the character appeared as He Who Remains in season 1 of Loki) Kang (an imposing, quietly terrifying Jonathon Majors) and learn he was stranded in the realm when Janet destroyed his power source after discovering the monster he really was, thereby consigning herself to the Quantumverse too. The plot then is basically about Kang’s efforts to restore his ‘core’ so he can escape and, as he says, prevent the end of everything, albeit by destroying every timeline that exists, resulting in a constant stream of battle sequences between our heroes, assorted creatures and Kang’s blue orb-faced minions before a final showdown between Kang and Ant/Giant-Man, The Wasp, Cassie, who has her own shrinking suit, Janet and an army of super-evolved high tech ants. Not to mention literally thousands of Ant-Man probabilities and ultimate killing machine Modok, a giant head in a flying suit, who turns out to be Darren Cross (Corey Stoll), Pym’s former protégé, who attacked the young Cassie in the first film in his guise as Yellowjacket before being despatched to the Quantum Realm. However, reeling the action in at under two hours (not counting the credits), while there may not be much in the way of character development (most is about the relationship between Cassie and Scott, who feels he’s been a bad absent dad) there’s more than enough popcorn fodder thrills, comedic touches and dazzling visual effects to keep you glued to the screen (especially in IMAX 3D). When it comes down to it, it’s basically a setting up of the forthcoming two Kang Wars films in The Avengers series, as foreshadowed in the first of the two mid-credit sequences (the second nodding to a certain Asgardian’s second series), but ultimately a hugely entertaining reminder that bigger – and indeed smaller – really can be better. (Empire Great Park)
The Banshees of Inisherin (15)
It’s 1923 and over on the Irish mainland civil war is in full force (we know this because there’s some occasional smoke and sound of gunfire), but on the beautiful island of Inisherin life is calm and peaceful, the folk going about their (and sometimes other people’s) business and gathering in the pub at 2pm for a glass of the hard stuff and a chat. Which is what Pádraic (Colin Farrell), a mild-mannered farmer with a couple of dairy cows, a horse and his beloved donkey Jenny, who lives with his sister Siobhán (a quietly compelling Kerry Condon), has been doing for years with his fiddle-playing best mate Colm (Brendan Gleeson). However, on the day the film opens, Colm declares he doesn’t like him anymore and wants nothing more to do with him. Pádraic is bemused and confused. He believes himself to be a nice guy, though he may go off on one after a whisky or two. Has he done or said something? Apparently not, it seems that Colm, sunk in despair, has contemplated mortality and wants to get on with writing his music and not spend the rest of his days with someone he regards as dull with nothing to offer but inane chatter and protestations of being nice. When Pádraic continues to push for explanation, initially thinking it was an April Fool jape, Colm declares that, if he talks to him again, he will cut off one of his fingers and send it to him. It’s not a bluff. Five fingers later there’s been parental child abuse, a prediction of doom from the local crone (Sheila Flitton), an animal choking to death on a severed digit, a drowning, a leaving and a conflagration.
Reuniting with his In Bruges stars, the title taken from Colm’s new tune, again mining the theme of obsession writer-director Martin McDonagh addresses in Three Billboards, it’s a black comedy of male pride and loneliness that balances darkness and whimsy (with everybody feckin’ this and feckin’ that) equal measure as it builds to an act of violence. As such, he’s ably supported by a sterling support cast that includes David Pearse as the mean priest, Gary Lydon as bullying copper Kearney who is turned on by the idea of being paid six shilling to oversee an execution on the mainland and regularly batters and molests his mentally challenged son Dominic (a superb Barry Keoghan), who fancies Siobhán and just wants the company of someone who doesn’t abuse him.
It doesn’t quite pull off its parable of events reflecting the “bleakness and grudges and loneliness and spite” of a wider and equally self-mutilating conflict and, at the end of the day and the escalation, all it seems to be asking for is a little peace and quiet with your own thoughts. It’s a quiet, slow burning masterpiece with a banshee wail that will pierce the heart. (Disney+)
Black Adam (12A)
One of the most powerful characters in the DC Universe, Black Adam first appeared in comics in 1945 as an Egyptian supervillain and the nemesis of Captain Marvel before being reinvented at the start of this century as an anti-hero looking to clear his name, most recently joining the Justice League and renamed Mighty Adam. Starring Dwayne Johnson giving his familiar imposing physical charisma and deadpan humour in his first superhero outing, he now makes his screen debut (unless you count a facial cameo on League of Super Pets) directed by Jaume Collet-Serra, starting with an origin backstory set some 5000 years ago when, empowered by wizards as he was about to be executed, Hurut, a young kid emerged, after uttering the magic Shazam, as Teth Adam to free the people of Kahndaq from their tyrannical ruler, Anh-Kot, defeating him but destroying half of the city in the process, thereby being imprisoned in an underground tomb (the truth of the actual details are revealed in the final act).
Cut to the present and Kahndaq have new oppressors in the form of Intergang mercenaries extracting Eternium, the film’s equivalent of vibranium, and, in an attempt at liberation, former teacher Adrianna (Sarah Shahi) and her fellow rebels (one of whom is clearly not to be trusted) are looking for the Eternium Crown of Sabbac, forged by Anh-Kot and, in the process free Adam, who, invulnerable to bullets or rockets, proceeds to wipe out a small army with blue lightning from his fists. However, wounded by an Eternium powered weapon, he’s carted back to Adrianna’s gaff where she lives with her plucky young comic book fan son Amon (Bodhi Sabongui), who coaches in in the use of a catchphrase, and electrician brother Karim (Mohammed Amer), his battles attracting the attention of Task Force X’s Amanda Waller (Viola Davis), last seen in the Suicide Squad, who despatches the Justice Society, a second division JLA, led by Carter Hall (Aldis Hodge) aka Hawkman (nice wings and helmet) alongside Doctor Fate (Pierce Brosnan), a less interesting predecessor of Doctor Strange, Cyclone (Quintessa Swindell), a lightweight less uptight but more colourful version of Storm, and Atom Smasher (Noah Centineo as the clumsy, food-scoffing comic relief), a Giant-Man-copy, the grandson of the original Atom (a cameo by Henry Winkler), to capture him.
All of which leads to a series of infrastructure-demolishing battles between then and a rage-driven Adam who has little interest in such niceties as not killing your enemies before a showdown with the ancestor (Marwan Kenzari) of Anh-Kot who has gained possession of the crown and transformed into the all-powerful demonic Sebbac.
You can’t fault it for not delivering the action but, other than a nicely low key soulful turn from Brosnan, who gets to swap some amusing banter with Johnson, that’s pretty much all it does. There’s some vague waffle about what it means to be a hero and some surface exploration of Adam’s conflicting emotions, grief and guilt, but mostly this is just overblown but underwhelming relentless combat and noise, and, ultimately, all rather dull. Making the last Venom look like a masterpiece, not even the end credits appearance of the other most powerful man on Earth makes you in a hurry for a sequel. (Rakuten TV)
Black Panther: Wakanda Forever (12A)
When Chadwick Boseman tragically died two years, not only did the world lose on the greatest actors of his generation, but it cast a huge shadow over the future of the character and franchise he had launched. Recasting with another actor would have been an insult to his memory but ditching the idea of a sequel was equally unthinkable given both its financial potential and how it had proven that a super-hero movie with an all-black cast could be a box office triumph. Fortunately, an alternative had already been trialled when, after Steve Rogers abdicated the role of Captain America at the end of Avengers: Endgame, the mantle was taken up by The Falcon in the ensuing TV series as he transitioned to take up the shield and the title. And so here, the film, again directed and co-written by Ryan Coogler, introduces another version of the Black Panther, the legendary protector of the Wakandan people, played by one of the already existing cast (given the feline nature of the suit, it’s not too hard to guess who that is). However, the new incarnation doesn’t appear until almost two thirds of the way through its extensive running time that adds an ironic note to the film’s title. Meaning there’s an awful lot of plot-set up to get through first.
It opens with Princess Shuri (Letitia Wright) working frantically to find a heart-shaped herb cure for the mysterious illness from which her brother T’Challa is dying. She fails and, according suitable ritualistic pomp and circumstance for a celebratory funeral, he’s consigned to the realm of the ancestors, via his coffin being taken up into the skies on a Wakandan jet, leaving his mother, Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett) as the nation’s temporary ruler and Shuri consumed with anger at the world that she was unable to prevent his passing.
Meanwhile, the geopolitical plot driver is set in motion with Western powers wanting to get their hands on and exploit Wakanda’s vibranium resources, attempting to take it by force while Ramonda is addressing the UK, only to be repelled by General Okoye (Danai Gurira) and her warriors; the Queen declaring that the previous mineral will never leave her lands. However, it turns out that Wakanda isn’t the only place it exists on Earth and that, thanks to a machine invented by genius college student Riri Williams (Dominique Thorne), there’s also evidence of it under the Atlantic Ocean. At which point, the CIA-vessel searching for it is besieged by mysterious warriors and everyone killed. Naturally, the Wakandans are suspected, but, in fact, the real attackers were a blue-skinned underwater race known as the Talokan, led by their ruler Namor (Tenoch Huerta Mejía), a superstrong half-human mutant with tiny wings on his angles. He duly turns up unannounced, blaming Wakanda for quest to obtain vibranium and telling her to find and deliver the scientist responsible for the machine to him, to be killed, or he will attack Wakanda. Oh, and not to tell anyone about him.
All of this takes an inordinate amount of time with only bursts of action to punctuate proceedings, during which, with the help of CIA agent Ross (Martin Freeman), Shuri and Okoye visit her in Washington to try and take her to Wakanda for her protection, Riri and Shuri ending up being captured by Namor and taken to his realm (where we get his origin story and some spectacular shots of his underwater city), where he proposes an alliance to destroy the surface world, an angry Ramonda stripping Okoye of her rank, a rescue by Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), T’Challa’s lover who’s been living in Haiti since The Blip in the Avengers series, and a retaliatory attack on Wakanda that results in yet another royal death. It’s around this point that the real action finally kicks in with a visit to the ancestral plane (cue a reappearance by Michael B. Jordan, as the usurper Killmonger), the emergence of the new Black Panther and the big Wakanda/Takonan showdown complete with some new high tech Wakandan armour.
Fuelled by loss, grief, vengeance, mercy, moral choices, oppression and colonial exploitation of Third World resources among things, it carries a weighty thematic dynamic that at times feels like an overload, but give the film a more mature and sober edge than many of its Marvel companion pieces. On top of which, following The Woman King, it’s the second film this year constructed around virtually all female Black cast. Returning names include Michaela Coel given a bigger role as Aneka of the royal guard and Winston Duke as belligerent Jabari tribesman M’Baku, while among the new additions are Mabel Cadena as Namor’s cousin Namora and Alex Livinalli as the Talokanil warrior Attuma (a renegade warlord and Namor’s enemy in the comics) with famed singer Baaba Maal cameoing as the funeral singer. The performances are strong throughout, but it’s a ferocious Bassett, the electrifying Wright, a fierce Gurira and impressive Mexican newcomer Mejía in his first leading role who generate the high voltage with Thorne’s spunky teenager setting up her role as Ironheart, a rocket-suited teenage Iron-Man, in the upcoming TV series.
And, inevitably, Boseman’s presence haunts the film, both in constant references to T’Challa’s death and, in the final moments, poignant archive footage from the first film, giving the revelatory moment in the obligatory mid-credits scene a hefty emotional punch. (Disney+)
Bodies Bodies Bodies (15)
Directed by Halina Reijin, this pitch black horror comedy for Gen Z is one of the year’s best. Accompanied by her enigmatic working-class new Eastern European girlfriend, Bee (Borat’s Maria Bakalova), recovering addict Sophie (Amandla Stenberg) turns up at a weekend hurricane party at the secluded mansion home of wealthy but toxic (“I look like I fuck. It’s my whole vibe”) childhood friend David (Peter Davidson), much to the surprise of the other spoiled brattish guests who include David’s drama queen actress girlfriend Emma (Chase Sui Wonders), airhead podcaster (“Hanging out with your smartest, funniest friend”) Alice (Rachel Sennott, her bemused 40-year-old new Tinder boyfriend Greg (Lee Pace), and Sophie’s ever sceptical old flame Jordan (Myha’la Herrold). Another, Max, left earlier following a fight with David.
Tensions are clearly evident, to which end, the others fuelled by drink and drugs, she suggests they play the titular murder in the dark-style game in which each player slaps their friend across the face and takes a shot. After which, one of them is randomly appointed as the killer. However, the slaps rather less than playful, Greg, a group outsider like Bee, decides to retire early and David, who the others have decided is the killer, storms off after another fight with Emma. Only, the power out, to appear at a window clutching at his throat. Now, Sophie’s car battery dead, it’s down to the others to work out who the real killer is as they explore the house by the light of cellphones and flashlights. At some point a gun surfaces.
Riffing on themes of false friendships, paranoia, distrust, jealousy, faux activism and white feminism and making effective use of the claustrophobic lighting and score, it builds the tension as the body count continues to rise as secrets are revealed and the rocky relationships between the group unravel, though to reveal more would spoil the revelations. Peppered with smartly comic dialogue along with the high pitched drama and some bloody violence, the entire cast bring solid, compelling performances to their characters although it’s Davidson, Sennott and Bakalova who, in their different ways, shine the brightest. Even if the final moments are slightly anti-climactic, a wholly unexpected last act twist throws the group dynamics into stark relief while reinforcing the core themes it’s been exposing. This is what happens when you’re cut adrift from your social media and the real world erupts. (Microsoft Store; Rakuten TV; Sky Cinema)
Bones and All (18)
Directed by Luca Guadagnino, scored by Atticus Ross and Trent Reznor and adapted from Camille DeAngelis’ novel, this might be called Natural Born Cannibals, a young emo romance coming of age body horror road trip in which the two lovers have a compulsion to eat human flesh, usually the recently dead, but, in a shocking early scene, also taking a bite from the living as 80s smalltown teen Maren (Taylor Russell) chews down on a friend’s finger at a sleepover. Moving house before the cops show, one day Maren finds her father (André Holland) has walked out, leaving behind a cassette tape that’s both an apology for no longer being able to deal with her condition and some ongoing exposition about how it started when she was three and ate the babysitter and how (reversing things from the book) her mother, Penelope, who she has never known, vanished from their lives. And so, armed with some cash and a birth certificate, she sets out to find her, a quest that first leads to an encounter with the creepy Sully (Mark Rylance), a fellow eater who smelled her out and, sharing a meal on an old woman who’s just expired, seems keen to become a travelling companion. Then, leaving him behind, she meets fellow outsider Lee (Timothée Chalamet, who starred in Guadagnino’s gay romance Call Me By Your Name), another eater sporting the same charity shop style clothes who makes a meal of a guy harassing her in a grocery store and with, as we later learn, a tragic backstory. Together they try to embark on some kid of normal relationship together, travelling through Virginia, Kentucky, Indiana, Nebraska and Minnesota (episodic chapters introduced either by the abbreviations of the states or the month) but the lust to feed proves too strong to resist, Lee seducing and killing a carnival worker, leading to Maren’s subsequent horror on learning more about the victim and a break-up with Lee, at which point Sully re-enters her life and, rejected, leaves again in a foul mood. With the narrative unfolding a meeting with her maternal grandmother (Jessica Harper), Lee’s younger sister and a shocking reunion with her incarcerated mother (Chloe Sevigny) before another appearance by Sully brings the couple’s idyll crashing down, it’s suffused with an aching melancholia about alienation, from themselves as much as the world, while, as well as delivering the gore, their never explained cannibalism affliction serves as a metaphor on several levels, not least the familiar teenage feeling of being different.
The title explained by another seedy eater (Michael Stuhlbarg) they meet, accompanied by his normal ‘groupie’ (David Gordon Green), a Renfield to his Dracula, it’s a touch overlong and the bloody yet also poignant ending takes its time arriving, but, between Chalamet’s troubled charisma and Russell’s quite vulnerability, those looking for something to fill the whole left by Twilight, but of a more heady, visceral and contemplative nature will find their appetites well-satiated. (Rakuten TV)
The second feature by openly queer Belgian director Lukas Dhont follows up his trans-based drama Girl with the story of two 13-year-old in rural Belgium. The androgynous blonde Léo (Eden Dambrine) and Rémi (Gustav De Waele) are best friends, first seen playing fantasy war games together in a makeshift fort and running through the fields of the flower farm run by the former’s parents, Yves (Marc Weiss) and Nathalie (Léa Drucker). Léo often sleeps over at Rémi’s where the pair share the same bed, his parents, Peter (Kevin Janssens) and Sophie (Émilie Dequenne), accepting this without question and treating Léo like another son. Although they may stare longingly into each other’s eyes, and Léo is enraptured watching his friend play the oboe, there’s no suggestion of any homosexual connection; however, when they start high school, their close friendship attracts the interest of three girl classmates, one of whom asks, out of curiosity more than malice, if they’re a couple. Léo insists not, they’re like brothers, while Rémi says nothing, but from this point something changes. Léo becomes uneasy at the way their intimacy is perceived as somehow unnatural and the homophobic jibes from other boys and gradually starts to pull away, starting up new friendships and joining the decidedly machismo ice hockey team, wearing the helmet and body armour almost as a defiant symbol of masculinity. A fight breaks out during a sleepover when Léo decides to sleep on a mattress on the floor and is angered to wake and find Rémi on it too. Becoming progressively distant over the year, things come to ahead when Rémi angrily confronts him about not waiting for him after school as usual, culminating in a playground fight in front of everyone.
Things turn tragic when the class take a school trip from which Rémi is absent, returning to school to learn he’s committed suicide, the rest of the film concerning itself with how Léo, who is consumed with guilt but unable to talk to anyone about it, deals with his emotions, an awkward class therapy session, and his relationship with Rémi’s mother. His only comfort is his older brother Charlie (Igor van Dessel), but he can’t bring himself to fully confide in him either. As such, the film is about the journey to finally speak the unspeakable, to whom and the catharsis and closure that he desperately needs in order to move on.
Anchored by soulful, natural performances from the boys, both newcomers, and strong turns from the two actresses, Dequenne especially as the distraught Sophie, it deals with same sex affection and a poisoning of innocence by unthinking cruelty in a sensitive and subtle manner, relying on expression rather than expositionary dialogue to create a work infused with a heartbreaking sadness. (MAC)
Cocaine Bear (15)
Occupying the same it seemed like a good idea when we were stoned territory as Snakes On A Plane, inexplicably directed by Elizabeth Banks in what must have been a mental black-out, this horror-comedy adopts the ludicrous premise of what would happen if a black grizzly bear accidentally took a whole load of cocaine. The twist being that it actually happened. On September 11, 1985, Andrew C. Thornton II, a former American narcotics officer turned drug smuggler was trafficking cocaine from Colombia into the United States, following the usual procedure of dumping plastic containers over the wilderness and then parachuting out of his auto pilot plane for them to be picked up later. This time, however, things went wrong. As he jumped he knocked himself out and plummeted to his death, his body winding up in Knoxville, Tennessee along with guns and knives and a key to the plane, the authorities recovering nine duffel bags of cocaine from the crashed plane. Three months later a dead bear and a tenth bag was found in the Chattahoochee National Forest, a post mortem revealing it had ingested 34 kilograms of coke with a street value of $2million, the body being stuffed and put on display as a tourist attraction, dubbed Pablo Escobear.
The film’s set up stays true to the facts, what follows, however, is utter fiction that entails our CG ursine Scarface crossing paws with an array of broadly drawn characters, including a pair of Swedish hikers, a mum (Keri Russell, her The Americans co-star Matthew Rhys cameoing as Thornton) looking for her errant adolescent daughter (Brooklynn Prince) and her wisecracking friend (Christian Convery), a crazy park ranger (Margo Martindale, also from The Americans), the wildlife activist (Jesse Tyler Ferguson) she has her eye on, a gang of knucklehead delinquents (led by dyed blonde punk Aaron Holliday), a couple of medics, a local cop (Isiah Whitlock Jr.), a drug dealer’s no-nonsense fixer (O’Shea Jackson Jr), his grieving recently widowed buddy (Alden Ehrenreich) who’s foresworn the trade, both of whom have been sent to find the cocaine by the latter’s drug kingpin dad Syd (the late Ray Liotta in an ignominious swansong), who also turns up to join the maulings. In the process, as the bear manically sniffs out further clouds oh white powder, limbs and heads are torn off, guts get ripped out, folk get shot (not by the bear, obviously) all in viscerally graphic manner, none of which happened in reality as the bear didn’t injure anyone, but who wants to make a film about that!
If you were being generous you might talk about it exploring themes of parenting, family, friendship and, as Russell’s character remarks, the dangers of all kinds of drugs. But that would be to bestow on the film a social commentary and allegorical depth it simple doesn’t have. No, it’s a big dumb, stupid, blood movie about a, well, cocaine bear. What more do you need! (Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Vue)
Creed III (15)
As well as reprising the title character, Michael B. Jordan also confidently takes up the directing reins for this third instalment in the Rocky spin-off, one that muddies the clear cut moral waters of the previous outings in both franchises. Now retired from the ring, he’s enjoying the fruits of his success , running a gym and living in a plush L.A. mansion with his successful pop star wife Bianca (Tessa Thompson), herself now in quasi-retirement due to hearing loss, and their deaf daughter Amara (Mila Davis-Kent), with whom he communicates in sign language. Bianca’s now writing and producing songs for others, while Adonis is mentoring hot-headed new heavyweight champion, Felix Chavez (Jose Benavidez). But then his world’s upended with the arrival of a figure from the past, Damian “Dame” Anderson (Jonathan Majors), fresh from spending 18 years behind bars for reasons shown in the opening sequence of their delinquent childhood and various subsequent flashbacks that add extra detail as to what happened when the young Adonis (Thaddeus James Mixson Jr.) beat up an old nemesis outside a liquor store, Dame (Spence Moore II) intervened with a gun when he was being grappled with and the cops showed up.
A former amateur Golden Gloves champ, Diamond Dame now wants his shot at the big time, the unwitting Adonis, in a mix of guilt and friendship, and stung by a retort reminding him of how he got his own shot as a contender, offering to train him at the gym under Duke (Wood Harris), who sagely suggests it’s not perhaps a good idea given how he’s driven by anger and resentment.
When, following a record release bash where an incident brutally removes Viktor Drago (Florian Munteanu) from the upcoming world title bout, Adonis gives Dame his shot, pummelling Chavez to win the title, given the formulaic nature of such films, it’s not hard to predict that the two former friends will end up in the ring together, one in black one in white in Westerns tradition. However, the journey there, one which involves the inevitable training montages, Adonis confronting his past, the discovery of prison letters from Dame he never saw and the exit of a Creed family member from the series, is nonetheless dramatically powerful. As well as ramming the punches home with slow motion rippling flesh as body blows land, Jordan also finds a way to bring something new to the big showdown as the boxing arena transforms into something more existential as the crowds vanish and the ring ropes are replaced by prison bars.
Thompson is somewhat sidelined, but Jordan again brings dynamite charisma to the screen, even so he’s outshone by Majors, delivering a double whammy following his current turn as Kang The Conqueror, in an electrifying embodiment of passive-aggressiveness, arrogance and anger fuelled by a long simmering feeling of being betrayed and abandoned and his future snatched from out of his gloves.
It’s hard to see where Jordan could take Adonis’s story from there, but hey, maybe those scenes with him giving the plucky young Amara pointers on how to deliver a punch might yet resolve into a gender-switch sequel some years down the line. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Vue)
As highly melodramatic as it is stylised, Baz Luhrmann’s biopic of Elvis Presley pretty much follows the adage of going with the myth (or perhaps fairy tale) when it’s better than the facts. As such, much is brushed over or ignored (his affair with Ann-Margret, , his meeting with Nixon demanding action against the lefties, no mention by name of his legendary backing musicians Scotty Moore and DJ Fontana and while there’s the pills but no Fat Elvis cheeseburger binges), while other parts polish the realities (the young Elvis – Chaydon Jay- may indeed have had his R&B education by hearing Big Boy Crudup singing That’s Alright Mama in a juke joint or gospel by sneaking into a revival meeting, but, despite what the film shows, he and B.B. King weren’t best buddies who hung out together on Beale Street, though they were famously photographed together). Ultimately though, while overlong, this is a solid if flashy portrait of how he became the best-selling solo music artist and a legend whose influence continues to this day set against his relationship with his manipulative svengali manager Col. Tom Parker whose contract stipulated 50% of all earnings, eventually, after Presley’s death, being charged with financial abuse.
Parker, an illegal Dutch immigrant named Andreas Cornelis van Kuijk who claimed to be American and earned the honorary title of Colonel after assisting Jimmie Davis’s campaign to become Governor of Louisiana, was a carnival snake oil showman – or snowman – who got into the music business managing Hank Snow before ‘discovering’ Presley after hearing his Sun recording of That’s Alright Mama and seeing dollar signs to learn that the singer was white not black and seeing how his gyrations exploded sexual frenzy in his teenage girl audience (“She’s having feelings she wasn’t sure she should enjoy”, Parker notes). He’s played here under heavy jowelled prosthetics by Tom Hanks with an accent that sounds nothing like Parker but does, appropriately enough, conjure up the rasp of the serpent from Eden (though the visual suggestions he was Jewish are unfounded) while opposite him Austin Butler delivers a star-making surprise BAFTA winning turn in the title role, capturing his passions, his insecurities, vulnerability and trusting innocence, his voice a close approximation of Presley and looking spookily like him in the iconic poses, although more often he resembles a young John Travolta with the same electrifying charisma.
Although (unreliably) narrated with a running commentary by Hanks as the ailing Parker after Presley’s death, justifying his role and rejecting accusations that he exploited him and essentially caused his death, the screenplay, clearly makes him out to be the villain of the piece, using his flimflam skills, promises of wealth and fame and, ultimately, emotional and financial blackmail, to maintain his control of Elvis even when he was briefly fired in order to secure the money to feed his gambling habit (he negotiated Presley’s five year cash cow deal to be perform at the International in Vegas in return for having his debts cancelled, a point hammered home with the ‘caught in a trap’ line from Suspicious Minds) while his not having a passport being the reason he scuppered any plans for Presley’s international tours. In his commentary, Parker rejects being responsible for the star’s death, going to far as blaming the fans and their obsessive desire to see him keep performing.
As usual for Luhrmann, its delivered in a dizzying rush of over-saturated colour, dissolves, chronological acrobatics and even animation (though the decision to include contemporary hop on the soundtrack is a major misfire). It touches – albeit not in any great depth – on the contentious issue of whites appropriating black music (Presley’s frequently shown in the company of Black performers like King (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), Little Richard and Sister Rosetta Tharpe, clearly a fan of their music, alongside segregation (childhood poverty meant his family had to live in neighbourhoods meant only for people of colour) and the impact on him of Martin Luther King’s assassination. Ticking the biographical boxes of his army service (apparently engineered by Parker to avoid him being jailed for degeneracy), the inane conveyor belt movies, his devotion to his mother Gladys (Helen Thomson), his inept business manager father Vernon (Richard Roxburgh), his marriage to (and eventual divorce from) Priscilla (Olivia DeJonge), and, of course, Gracelands.
A stand out section is the 1968 Elvis comeback special, intended by Parker (to please the sponsors) to be a cosy Christmas special with seasonal sweaters and fireside, but which Presley, in cohorts with director Steve Binder (Dacre Montgomery), turned into his rock n roll resurrection in black leathers and ending, following Bobby Kennedy’s shooting, with his stark performance of If I Can Dream. Likewise the recreation of the lavish Vegas performances, though perhaps not as dramatically effective as the scenes of the young Elvis discovering the sexual magnetism in his swivelling hips.
Musically leaving the building ending with Elvis singing Unchained Melody in his final Vegas season before the end captions wrap up his death and Parker’s comeuppance, while superior to Bohemian Rhapsody and ultimately coming in second place to Rocketman, this is Luhrmann’s best since Moulin Rouge. (Amazon Prime; Sky Cinema)
According to an 1863 Harper’s Weekly, actually named Gordon, an escaped slave became popularly known as “whipped Peter” when an infamous photograph showing the multitude of scars on his back, taken at a Union army camp during the American Civil War, was used as an abolitionist rallying cry in the fight against slavery. The article claims that, in March 1863, he escaped from the plantation of slave owners John and Bridget Lyons and subsequently joined the Union army, leading an assault on Confederate forces at the Siege of Port Hudson that May. It’s likely, however, that the narrative was the invention of the artist Vincent Colyer and while the events described may be true, Gordon and Peter were probably two different people.
Not that this much matters when it comes to dramatising the story, which, directed by Antoine Fuqua, is basically Twelve Years A Slave meets The Revenant, providing a completely invented back story to Peter, here born in Haiti, as a man with a deep faith in God, married with children, who is taken from his wife (Charmaine Bingwa) on the cotton farm to work on the Confederate railway from which, hearing about Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation he escapes and, along with three others, goes on the run through the Louisiana swamps where he manages to evade his pursuers and their dogs, dodge bullets, and even wrestle an alligator and survive enraged bees before finally arriving at the Union army camp in Baton Rouge (under the command of a white colonel) where he’s enlisted into the Louisiana Native Guard led by a brave and inevitably doomed Black captain (Mustafa Shakir), as part of the U.S. Coloured Troops, going into battle and being eventually reunited with his family.
Uncompromising in depicting the brutality inflicted on the slaves and often bloodily graphic, (severed heads, burning bodies, hanged men), it’s a solid enough tale of one man’s survival against the odds and a fight for freedom, though never in the same league as the films mentioned above. The emotional scenes are suitably wrenching and the battle sequences thrilling and vivid. But then there’s the elephant in the room. Namely that Peter is played by Will Smith and it’s hard not think that the vitriolic American reviews are less about the film, which undeniably has flaws, and more in response to the infamous Oscars slap. Despite the fact the screenplay has Peter as almost some sort of action hero and invests the character with an unwavering faith, even when a fellow slave asks how God can justify their suffering, Smith delivers a visceral physical and emotional performance that holds the screen and invests you in Peter’s ordeals. Additionally, it addresses the whole question of systemic American racism when Fassell (Ben Foster), a tracker who, along with two menials is in pursuit, related what he sees as the reason behind slavery and white supremacy, recounting how, as a youth, he was raised by female slave whom he regarded as a friend, but, when he asked his father if he could join them at dinner, he retorted that what begins with sharing food would end up with them owning their own land and turning on their former masters, before coldly shooting her. Only by keeping Blacks enslaved, can white supremacy maintain its position. A little more of such commentary wouldn’t have gone amiss, but it does give the film extra weight.
Equally effective is a brief glimpse of a slaver eyeing up Peter’s young daughter and a young white girl raising the alarm when she sees him on the estate, yelling out ‘runner’ with undisguised hatred.
However, Fuqua’s approach to the photography is another potential audience put-off with scenes variously drained of all colour or with just flashes or juxtaposing colour and black and white in the same image to correspond with Peter’s circumstance. It’s an interesting artistic choice, but more often makes you wonder if there’s something wrong with the picture. And in several ways there clearly is, but even so, the story it tells is stirring and the film is far better than the reviews would have you believe. (Apple+)
Enola Holmes 2 (12A)
Targeted at young girls who feel in the shadow of their older brothers or not taken seriously simply because they are not boys, this fun and ingeniously plotted sequel returns to 1880s London where Enola Holmes (Stranger Things’ Millie Bobby Brown), sister of the famous detective Sherlock (Henry Cavill), has, inspired by her success in cracking the case in the first film, has set up her own detective agency. Unfortunately, her age and sex deter any potential clients and she’s just about to jack it in when a young girl named Bessie (Serrana Su-Ling Bliss) turns up asking her to find her older ‘sister’, Sarah (Hannah Dodd), who’s gone missing after being accused of theft at the local match factory where they both work in poor conditions for pitiful wages and where many other match-girls have been dying of typhus.
Infiltrating the factory, Enola discovers that Sarah did indeed steal something; not money but pages from a ledger, and so, the game afoot, launches a complicated plot and a series of clever clues about corruption and cover-ups that link to a case that has Sherlock baffled involving money that has gone missing from the Treasury being funnelled through several apparently unconnected banks, All of which variously has Enola going undercover at a society ball and being given urgent on the spot dance lessons by romantic interest Lord Tewkesbury (Louis Partridge), so she can get to talk to William Lyon (Gabriel Tierney), the son of the factory owner and Sarah’s lover; match-girl Mae (Abbie Hern), who, like Sarah, also works at the music hall and Enola being pursued and arrested for her murder by the decidedly sinister Inspector Grail (David Thewlis), his brutal bobby accomplices and the bumbling Inspector LeStrade (Adeel Akhtar); a rescue by her suffragette mother (Helena Bonham-Carter) and martial arts landlady Edith (Susan Wokoma); a string of cryptic ciphers; and yet another murder all coming together with a swords and fisticuffs climax at the theatre and an inspired twist involving the introduction of Sherlock’s genius nemesis Moriarty.
Delivering messages of sisterhood, of both being self-reliant but also working together for a common goal, the effervescent, perky Brown is a delight, frequently talking directly to the camera as the film breaks the fourth wall, and Cavill has been given a lot more to do this time round as the two end up working together (at this point there is no Watson in his life, but hang on for the mid-credits scene) while the character of Sarah and the final scenes are inspired by the real Sarah Chapman who worked in a match factory, led the first matchworkers strike in 1888 and helped form the Matchworkers Union. Great fun, so roll on No 3. (Netflix)
Everything Everywhere All At Once (15)
Festooned with multiple Oscar wins, directed by Daniels (Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert), it stars Michelle Yeoh in career-best form as Evelyn, a Chinese-American for whom life has been one long line of disappointments after leaving home and being disowned by her disapproving father to marry the enthusiastic but hapless Waymond (a quietly heartbreaking Ke Huy Quan from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom), the couple now running a California laundromat that’s seen better days. Although she doesn’t know it, he has drawn up divorce papers in the hope it will shock her into saving the marriage, she has a sulky teenage daughter, ironically named Joy (Stephanie Hsu, outstanding), with whom she seems to be constantly at loggerheads (currently because mom won’t acknowledge Becky as her white gay girlfriend), her aged, ailing and demanding father, Gong Gong (James Hong) has come to live with them and, right now, they’re being audited by the IRS in the form of frumpy Deirdre Beaubeirdra (Jamie Lee Curtis) who wears her despondency like a crown of thorns.
However, all this is about to be thrown into a whirlpool as, riding the elevator, Waymond suddenly snaps into a different person, Alpha Waymond and tells her he’s come from another reality, the Alphaverse, in search of her because an entity called Jobu Tupaki (formerly Alpha Joy), can experience all universes at once and is threatening to destroy them all with her black hole bagel having decided that oblivion is better than living unhappily.
In his universe, the late Alpha Evelyn developed “verse-jumping”, a technology that allows people to access the skills, memories, and body of their multiverse counterparts, and now he needs this Evelyn to save everyone. Not because she’s The One but because she’s the Zero, the joyless sum of unrealised potential and missed opportunities having failed at everything in her life.
And so the film plunges into a dizzying absurdist fever dream as her Waymond and the Alpha Raymond switch consciousnesses, the latter taking on a bunch of IRS security guards with a fanny pack, while the confused Evelyn gets flashes of the many different lives she could have led, each one and each reality the result of a decision taken or not. These include her as a Peking singer, someone spinning a pizza advertising sign, a teppanyaki chef, an actress (the film features footage from Yeoh’s promotional tour for Crazy Rich Asians), a piñata and, most of all, a martial arts expert, that skill proving very useful in talking on a possessed Deirdre as well as all the jumpers summoned by Alpha Gong Gong to destroy both Jobu Tobaki and Evelyn, who’s decided she must gain the same powers as her in order to stop her.
Like an ADHD rollercoaster on amphetamines, over its part subtitled three chapters it careens through dozens of realities, including one where they’re cartoon drawings, one where people have hot dog sausages for fingers (and Evelyn and Deirdre are lovers), and an unexpectedly moving one where she and Joy are (subtitled) rocks on a world devoid of life that brilliantly captures the dynamic of the mother daughter relationship where one reaches out and the other pulls away.
Likewise, it romps between pathos (film star Evelyn and businessman Waymond’s star-crossed lovers) to moments of low brow humour such as Joy’s taking out security guards with phallic rubber dildos and a battle in which Evelyn takes on two opponents who have butt plugs up their arses as jumping platforms. It’s also peppered with filmic references, among them 2001 A Space Odyssey, The Matrix, In The Mood For Love, any number of Chinese kung fu movies and, hilariously, Ratatouille where, in chef Evelyn’s reality, it’s Raccacoonie (voiced by Randy Newman), At its heart though, for all the silliness, action sequences (one of which involves a woman using a dog on a leash as a projectile) and universe jumping, while tapping in to 21st century anxieties the film ultimately comes down to an emotional tale about unconditional love, kindness, family and mothers and daughters, about not wanting the one to become like the other, but having the opposite effect by repeating the past, thinking they know what’s best and, basically, not listening. While arguably too indulgent for its own good, even if the two plus hours (complete with faux credits midway) flash past, it’s unquestionably an experience like nothing you’ll have had this side of the wildest hallucinogenics you can imagine.(Electric)
The Five Devils (15)
Named after the alpine community pool centre where much of the action takes place, directed by Léa Mysius and co-written by cinematographer Paul Guilhaume, opening to the backdrop of a fire, this is an intriguing French drama about broken relationships seen through the perspective of the prepubescent Vicky (Sally Dramé). Bullied at school on account of her hair (they call her toilet brush), she’s the biracial daughter of swim instructor and lifeguard Joanne (Adèle Exarchopoulos) and firefighter Jimmy (Moustapha Mbengue), and she has the sensory ability to, not only track things by their scent, but bottles smell profiles of people, places and things. More crucially, people’s odours can send her into a trance where she can tap into their memories.
While mother and daughter are close, sharing a daily ritual where the former goes swimming in an icy lake while the latter keeps an eye on the time, Joanne and Jimmy’s marriage is not in good shape, he mostly physically and emotionally absent, and matters are further complicated with the unexpected arrival of his equally detached younger sister Julia (Swala Emati) after a lengthy prison-sentence for arson. As Vicky uses her ability to roam her mother and aunt’s memories, we learn that Joanne and Julia were once lovers. We also discover that Nadine (Daphné Patakia), Joanne’s burn-scarred co-worker was in a relationship with Jimmy and believes she stole him from her.
Questions of sexual identity, repression, guilty secrets, compromises and dysfunctional relationships coalesce into a heady, at times dreamlike loop of trauma and cycles of regret and anger, one that delivers compelling performances from the remarkable first time actress Dramé, a fierce Exarchopoulos and the quietly simmering Emati, the latter two coming together in karaoke performance of Bonnie Tyler’s Total Eclipse of the Heart. At times opaque with an ending that raises more questions than it answers, but utterly engrossing. (Mockingbird)
Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery (12A)
Having done blockbuster style business on its brief cinema release, Rian Johnson’s second Agatha Christie/Sherlock Holmes –inspired whodunit now resides at Netflix, returning Daniel Craig as the intriguingly accented Southern dandy super-sleuth Benoit Blanc (and with a surprise star cameo indicating his sexual orientation) as he embarks on another convoluted case.
The Disruptors, a tight knit inner circle who go back to college days when they committed to disrupting the status quo, have all received a complex puzzle invitation for an annual get together with Elon Musk-esque billionaire mutual friend Miles Bron (Edward Norton), the CEO of high tech online network Alpha who styles himself as some utopian hippy, on his private Greek island (dominated by the titular architectural showpiece and adorned with masterpieces that may include the actual Mona Lisa) for a murder mystery weekend, the murder they have to solve being his.
The clique includes Birdie (Kate Hudson), an airhead fashion model turned influencer prone to unwitting racist tweets and forced to take responsibility for a sweatshop that manufactures her line, her assistant Peg (Jessica Henwick), compromised Connecticut governor Claire (Kathryn Hahn) whose campaign is being underwritten by Bron, obnoxious machismo-overdrive right-wing men’s-rights YouTuber Duke Cody (Dave Bautista) and his barely-dressed young girlfriend Whiskey (Madelyn Cline) who he’s suing to seduce Bron into giving him a slot on Alpha News, put-upon corporate scientist Lionel (Leslie Odom Jr) constantly subjected to a barrage of faxed demands from Bron, and, surprisingly, Bron’s ostracised by everyone former business partner Cassandra Brand (Janelle Monáe), who had the original idea for Alpha but got shafted by Bron having refused his plan for Klear, a potentially dangerous hydrogen-based alternative fuel source. More surprisingly, given he has no connection to any of them and Bron didn’t invite him, is the inclusion of Blanc with his natty cravat and one piece swimsuit. For some reason, the island is also home to resident slacker Derol (Noah Segan, in a sly nod to the previous film).
It’s impossible to reveal much without ruining the intricately constructed narrative with its misdirections, twists and turns, flashbacks, reversals and reveals as events play out to the island’s minimalist high tech backdrop with its passive-aggressive anti-smoking alarms, but suffice to say, there’s a definite agenda to the gathering, and one or possibly two actual murders (Blanc solves Bron’s game version almost as soon as he arrives) as Blanc and Brand work together to get to the bottom of Bron’s machinations and unpeel the onion’s multiple layers.
The message that extreme wealth corrupts is fairly obvious but is generally secondary to the enjoyment of watching Blanc unpick the threads to a backdrop of dazzling costume design and cinematography, Craig clearly having a huge amount of fun while performances by Monáe, Norton, Bautista and especially a wildly amusing Hudson are all an utter delight. Not to mention an array of cameos that include Ethan Hawke, Hugh Grant, Stephen Sondheim, Angela Lansbury, Natasha Lyonne, Yo-Yo Ma, Serena Williams and even Joseph Gordon-Levitt as the voice of Bron’s clock, the Hourly Dong. (Netflix)
Good Luck To You, Leo Grande (15)
Directed by Sophie Hyde and written by Katy Brand, this is a two-hander that plays very much like a stage play of three acts and an epilogue and is structured entirely around the conversations between its two characters. These are Leo Grande (Daryl McCormack), a good-looking, well-toned young Irish Black man who runs a business service as a sex-worker, and his client, Nancy Stokes (Emma Thompson), a recently widowed fiftyish ex-teacher, who has booked a plush hotel room to have sex. Naturally, neither are using their real names. He’s smooth, polite, articulate, non-judgemental and well-versed in how to interact with people, she’s insecure and nervous, confessing that she’s never had – and thinks herself unable to have – an orgasm and only ever had sex with her late husband. He experienced, she far from it, the first session is mostly a cat and mouse game about the two getting to know each other, he trying to calm her anxieties, she finding reasons not to go through with what she’s hired him for.
It’s funny but also piercingly sad as she gradually opens up about her disappointments, the stagnation of her marriage, her husband’s unchanging and brief sex routines, her feelings about her son and daughter and her general view of herself as a failure. It ends with them finally concluding the deal. At the next session, she’s seemingly more confident, having drawn up a fuck-it list of what she wants, staring with oral sex. However, she continues to prevaricate while, over the course of this and the third session, the focus shifts more to Leo, who she presses on his life outside work, his relationship with his mother and sibling, something he’s reluctant to discuss as we come to realise that behind his self-assured persona, his life too his engrained with disappointments, hurt and insecurity (he’s seen checking himself out in the mirror on several occasions, and not for vanity).
It eventually comes to a head where, not understanding how boundaries work, she confronts him with his real name and we learn the heartbreaking reality of his background before he storms out. The epilogue is a final meeting, the relationship between them somehow changed, and introduces a third character, a hotel waitress that Nancy (who reveals her real name in a wry filmic in-joke) used to teach.
Slowly learning more about Leo and Nancy’s inner worlds and emotional scars is part and parcel of what makes this such a terrific work and to give away more would ruin the pleasures and poignancy of the screenplay and the performances with their tremendous chemistry. Suffice to say, embracing shame, frustration, body image, the nature of sex workers, parent-child conflicts, desire, and sexual healing/therapy, it’s a wonderfully compassionate and very human work. McCormack, previously seen in Peaky Blinders delivers a magnetic star-making turn that conveys depth and complexity in the most simple of physical gestures while, in her first nude scene, Thompson, bristling with nervous energy and navigating a lifetime marked by lack of self-worth, guilt, unhappiness and disappointment, gives a luminous, multi-faceted performance that is unquestionably the finest of a stellar career. From foreplay to climax, this will leave you with a glow of satisfaction. (Rakuten TV)
I Love My Dad (15)
Written and directed by James Morosini, inspired by his own relationship with his absent father, this is a wonderfully cringe-making dark comedy. Shut out of his teenage son’s life, Franklin (Morosini), who blocks him on social media in an attempt to cope with his mental health following a recent suicide attempt, the narcissistic deadbeat Chuck (Patton Oswalt) unwisely follows a co-worker’s advice and decides to catfish his son by impersonating Becca (an excellent Claudia Sulewski), a waitress he knows in real life.
Creating a fake profile, he then friends Franklin who, lonely and vulnerable, falls head over heels for who he assumes is his new online love (their interactions are played out between Morosini and Sulewski as Franklin imagines them, except sometimes Becca is comically substituted with Chuck). Unsurprisingly, it doesn’t end well, as Chuck becomes draw further into the relationship he’s created, at one point sexting his son (mentored by his own foul-mouthed horny girlfriend, Rachel Dratch) as they share a hotel room, and looking to stall him as he wants to meet up with Becca for real. The undertone of virtual incest add a disturbing edge to what’s already a creepy premise with tragic potential, but, while Morosini might be advised to stay behind the camera in future, Oswalt’s deadpan performance gives it both an edge and a level of sympathy for his ill-conceived attempt to reconnect with his son. (Amazon Prime; i-Tunes)
Infinity Pool (18)
Sharing his father David’s fascination with body horror and identity crises, writer-director Brandon Cronenberg takes its title from swimming pools constructed as optical illusions where the water seems to have no boundary. There’s few boundaries here either in an unhinged film that, breathing deep from the fumes of The White Lotus and Eyes Wide Shut, features semen splashing on stones as one character masturbates another and blades graphically skewering flesh. It’s set in a highly fortified exclusive resort compound in the fictional and ultra-conservative Eastern European island of Li Tolqa to which James Foster (Alexander Skarsgård on incendiary form), an insecure novelist who’s not been able to follow-up his flop debut, has come for inspiration with his wife Em (Cleopatra Coleman), the daughter of his publisher. Here he meets self-professed fan Gabi (a fearless, electrifying Mia Goth) who invites him and Em to, first, dinner and then, although guests are supposed to leave the compound, a beach picnic with her shifty husband Alban (Jalil Lespert). Much alcohol is consumed and, driving back in the ‘borrowed’ car, James hits and kills a local farmer. They leave the body, abandon the car and return to the resort, assuming no one will know. But then, in echoes of The Forgiven, the police come calling and James is fingered in the death and ordered to be executed by the dead man’s young son. Tied to a stake, with his abdomen exposed, he’s duly butchered. But then the camera pans to the spectators, Alban, Gabi, a horrified Em and…James. It appears that, for a fee, the police, as headed by the dour Thresh (Thomas Kretschmann) can create a clone, with all the same memories. As such, while being forced to watch your own death, this essentially gives those with money the licence to get away with anything. And, it transpires, there quite an enclave of hedonistic doubles.
A dark and often surreal satire on wealth, power and colonial tourism (as such echoing Triangle Of Sadness), it gradually amps up the drama and grotesquery with an over the top drugs-fuelled orgy and, James unable to leave without his passport, he and Em increasingly drawing apart while he and Gabi becomes more entangled as it builds to a tense, unnerving finale as James tries to leave and finds there’s no getting away from the club. Be sure you can stomach the membership before you buy your ticket. (Mockingbird; Odeon Broadway Plaza)
John Wick : Chapter 4 (15)
Spin-offs and prequel appearances notwithstanding, the emotional final scene would pretty much seem to confirm this is the final chapter in the series, bowing out in with a flamboyant 169 minute (word is a 225 minute version may surface later) clipped dialogue epic tsunami of fire, fist, knives and sword fights that may be overstuffed but never drags.
Hiding out in the New York lair of the Bowery King (Laurence Fishburne) from the High Table to whom he still has an obligation and who have placed a $2million bounty on his head, antihero assassin Wick (Keanu Reeves at his Clint Eastwood drawl finest) is planning his revenge. This takes him to Morocco (cue homage to David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia) where he kills the Elder, resulting in the fascist rich kid Marquis Vincent de Gramont (Bill Skarsgård), the current New York High Table top dog, taking revenge by stripping Winston (Ian McShane), who failed to kill Wick, of his role as manager of the Continental, killing his concierge Charon (the late Lance Reddick) and blowing up the building. Then, threatening to murder his daughter, he forces blind retired assassin Caine (martial arts virtuoso Donnie Yen), just one of many biblical references, into accepting the hit on his old friend. Cut to Tokyo where Wick’s taken refuge at the Osaka Continental, run by loyal old friend Shimazu Koji (a quietly charismatic Hiroyuki Sanada) and his daughter Akira (pop star Rina Sawayama who sings the film’s theme song), but it’s not long before the High Table enforcers, led by the Marquis’s seemingly indestructible right-hand man Chidi (Marko Zaror), and Caine arrive, demanding Wick be given up, leading to the first of a series of knowingly over-the-top extended fight sequences that ends up with one wounded, one dead and Wick again on the run.
Returning to New York, he learns from Winston that there is a way to bring things to an end. Under High Table traditions, he can challenge the Marquis to single combat and be freed of all obligations. The only problem is that he first needs to accepted back into the Berlin crime family the Ruska Roma and to do so he first has to kill Killa (Scott Adkins), the overweight, lavender-suited German Table head with gold gangsta teeth who murdered his adoptive sister Katia’s (Natalia Tena) father. And even having done that (cue another amped up sequence set amid a sea of night club dancers), there’s still the small matter of getting to the Sacré-Cœur in Paris before sunrise to carry out the duel, which, if he fails to do, will result in his and Winston’s execution, as his second, which means, armed with a top end gun and a wearing a ballistic suit, surviving Chidi, the High Table muscle and the dozens of freelance assassins all looking to collect the $20million and rising bounty, and soundtracked on their way by an on air DJ spinning things like Nowhere To Run. One of whom is Mr Nobody (Shamier Anderson), a cool and composed tracker, who with his lethal dog sidekick (which becomes an important plot turning point), has been keeping tabs on Wick, keeping him alive until the Marquis agrees to the fee he’s asking. All of which culminates in the reluctant Caine, who the Marquis has nominated to act in his place, and Wick facing down each other in a pistol duel moderated by the Harbinger (Clancy Brown).
Opening with shots of a fist hitting a bloodied punchbag, stunt choreographer turned director Chad Stahelski stages an increasingly elaborate and inspired sequence of balletic fights, among them a thrilling blazing guns car chase around the Arc de Triomphe, one filmed in an overhead doll’s-house view in a labyrinthine building and, finally, the spectacular climax set on the Rue Foyatier in Montmartre, the 222-step stairway leading to the Basilica and down which Wick is sent tumbling at least twice as the hordes continue to come. After nine years, during which time the narrative has got bigger and more complex, this is one big eye-popping gift-wrapped thank you to the legions of fans who have transformed it into an iconic franchise. Will you love it? Yeah. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Electric; Empire Great Park; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Vue)
Little English (12A)
Taking his cue from British sitcoms, writer-director Pravesh Kumar offers up a flawed and often broadly written but still affectionate and likeable dramedy about a dysfunctional British-Punjabi family living in a Slough semi. Newly arrived from India to marry the eldest son, Raj (Simon Rivers), arranged by his overbearing controlling mother Gurbaksh (Seema Bowri, playing older), speaking almost no English (she teaches herself watching TV), Simmy (Rameet Rauli) finds herself abandoned when her new husband does a runner after the wedding. Concerned about family honour and keeping up appearances in front of her judgemental gossipy neighbours, Gurbaksh confiscates Simmy’s passport and phone and keeps her locked inside the house, treating her pretty much as a skivvy. Resented by her drama queen sister-in-law Mindy (Goldy Notay), who reckons she got her eye on her husband Bobby (Ameet Chana), initially she resolves to try and find the errant Raj, but the return of Harry (Viraj Juneja), the family black sheep on parole from prison and estranged from his father, who’s fading way in a care home, inevitably sends the narrative down a new romantic path.
With the cast of characters also including a diabetic grandpa (East is East’s Madhav Sharma,) with incipient dementia, Harry’s childhood friend copper and the neighbourhood’s assorted ‘aunties’, it never quite seems sure of its tone, one minute playing like broad sitcom, the next heading into melodramatic soap territory, mixing laugh out loud moments with some genuinely affecting poignancy. Rauli and Juneja spark well together and Bowri is especially good as the domineering but also emotionally bruised matriarch but the acting elsewhere can be decidedly while the narrative wanders in and out of social issues like the immigrant experience, cultural identity and grief, without ever really getting under the skin, and then there’s a subplot involving a jewellery heist and Harry’s still keen old flame Sweetie (a scene-stealing Nikki Patel) that seems to have strayed in from a completely different film. Nonetheless, while it might have been better served as an actual sitcom, it’s a warm-hearted and amusingly entertaining watch and, yes, there is a dance scene. (Vue)
Luther – The Fallen Sun (15)
It was inevitable that, at the end of the fifth BBC series, with DSI John Luther (Idris Elba) being sent down for doing all the wrong things for all the right reasons, that his story wouldn’t end there. And so it is that Netflix have picked things up with this feature-length outing that brings both a bigger budget and a bigger plot that seems to have strayed in from an overblown bombastic screenplay that, while still written by Neil Cross, might well have been pitched and rejected as a potential for Bond or Batman.
Directed by series veteran Jamie Payne, who does at least have a good eye for aerial shots of London, it opens with Luther investigating the disappearance of a young bloke called Callum (lured into a trap with a long missing and long dead woman, apparently kept on ice, found in the car) and promising his mum that he will find him before exposure of his bending of the rules lands him in court and then jail. However, in this reworking, all his troubles have been engineered (shades of Ernst Blofeld in No Time To Die) by the film’s deranged creepy villain, David Robey (Andy Serkis in plastic suntan and a wig from hell), a former city trader who has acquired compromising footage on any number of people (Callum among them) which he uses to DSU Odette Raine (Cynthia Erivo), to a conflagration in which several bodies, Callum’s included, are fund hanging from the ceiling, and then sends a recording of the boys dying screams to Luther in his cell via an FM radio channel, taunting him by saying they’d met before, it’s not long before our redemption-seeking hero is devising a prison break so he can track down his nemesis before Raine and her team, into which his retired former boss DSU Martin Schenk (Dermot Rowley) has been recruited, catch up with him.
Gradually, and following several people leaping to their deaths in Piccadilly Circus, Robey’s preposterous – and surely staggeringly expensive – masterplan is revealed as being to stage a live streaming snuff porn Red Room where punters of varying perversions can virtually join and watch and pick how their chosen victim (he has a cell load of abducted refugees lined up) is killed.
It’s all wildly nonsensical and frequently incredibly violent, riddled with any number of plot all before, by way of a chase through an abandoned underground rail tunnel and Robey’s connection to a woman with a burned, disfigured face in a private hospital that (like the film’s title) never really makes much sense, ends up at his remote snowbound Red Room hideaway in the frozen Norwegian wilds and a showdown that involves Luther, Raine and her abducted daughter.
It moves along at a fair lick with plenty of action scenes to keep you going and along with his trademark coat and car, Elba brings his familiar world-beaten but still unbowed portrayal but at this point, and given the surrounding plot, which randomly throws in everything from Se7en to Saw and Scandi-noir, there’s nothing new to add, although it does end with a set-up for a potential new government agent spin-off that rather amusingly alludes to all that talk of him being a potential new 007. (Netflix)
An Ireland-Philippines co-production that embraces both psychological and supernatural horror as well as sociopolitical commentary, titled for the antonym of placebo, in which negative views result in negative responses, director Lorcan Finnegan and co-writer Garret Shanley open with successful children’s fashion designer Christine (Eva Green) watching a catwalk show of new lines for her Tykie brand, when she gets a phone call that stuns her as she mutters ‘pulling out bodies?” and has a vision of a sick black dog infested with ticks, one of which lands on her neck and bites her, at which she point she collapses, reawakening to find everything as it was.
Married to Felix (Mark Strong), a marketing strategist, with a young daughter Roberta – aka Bobs (Billie Gadson) who, on account of their work, they seem to have little time for and who has a decidedly wilful attitude, eight months later, she remains traumatised by the experience and the news she received (withheld until the last act but relating to a Philippines sweatshop tragedy), experiencing anxiety attacks, unexplained pain and shakes, using an oxygen sleep mask, and subject to nightmares such as a giant tick attacking her in bed. Her work too seems to have hit a dead end with new designs rejected buy her prime client (Cathy Belton).
Christine also has memory lapses, which might explain why she doesn’t remember hiring Diana (Chai Fonacier), a petite Filipina, who turns up on her Irish doorstep to help her (i.e. face what she’s repressed)and is installed in the spare room where she unpacks a suitcase of talismans and herbs. Felix is sceptical, believing his wife’s problems are all in her mind, and Bobs resentful. However, Diana, who tells Christine she took on on the soul (in the form of a bird that she swallows) and powers of a village shamen when she died, proves not only an excellent housekeeper but her ministrations ease Christine’s pains (she cures one seizure by tickling her), even if she’s sometimes a little too invasive into their lives.
Bob warms to her, Christine becomes dependent on her and Felix continues to be suspicious, things coming to a head over his wife’s missing medications. At which point, flashbacks into Diane’s life back home and a tragedy she experienced begin to shape why she’s here on what appears to be an act of vengeance that involves forcing Christine to confront the events she learnt about over that phone call, climaxing in a sequence of fiery payback and the passing on of the soul to another.
The somewhat heavy-handed screenplay relies too much on clumsy symbolism (the bloodsucking tick = neocapitalism) and is a little lacking in offering either Christine or Felix (Strong absent for long stretches) character depth, but the performances are sturdy enough to compensate, while, forcing you to question who the villain of the piece is, subtly underplaying, Fonacier summons a creepy air of menace that permeates everything from the moment she arrives; canary lovers should steel themselves. (Rakuten TV)
The Old Way (12A)
It may come as a surprise to learn that this is the first time Nicolas Cage has made a Western. And while hardly a classic, this by the numbers directorial debut by Brett Dono who is serviceably enjoyable enough with Cage giving one of his more modulated performances. Set in Montana, he plays Colton Briggs, a feared gunslinger who, in the opening sequence, guns down both several officials and the men trying to prevent the hanging of Boyd McAllister, the brother of notorious bandit Walter. Suffice to say, when the smoke clears. Briggs has killed both brothers, leaving only Boyd’s young son James as witness to events.
Years later, having found love with a good woman and had a daughter, the now clean-shaven Briggs has hung up his guns and runs a small store. One morning he takes daughter Brooke (Ryan Kiera Armstrong) with him, leaving Ruth (Kerry Knuppe) back at home. As she’s hanging out the washing, four men turn up, Boots (Shiloh Fernandez), Big Mike (Abraham Benrubi), and Eustice (Clint Howard) and the now grown James McCallister (Noah Le Gros) who’s out for revenge. Returning home, Briggs is met by Jarret (Nick Searcy), a US Marshall, who’s on their trail and learns that Ruth has been murdered. Burying her while Brooke sits implacable in the porch, he then takes his guns out of storage, sets fire to the house and the pair set off for revenge, meaning he first has to outsmart and obstruct the Marshall and his posse who want to do things legally.
Anyone with a passing knowledge of the genre will have a pretty good idea of how it goes from here, dutifully working its reassuringly predictable, way through the clichés to the final shootout, naturally including the scene where he teaches his daughter how to shoot a gun (she’s crap with a rifle but a dead shot with a six gun), setting up the inevitable later scene where that comes in handy. Carl W. Lucas’s dialogue is heavy-handed and over-written, not least an interminable speech by McCallister detailing his grudge and a long-winded all around the houses last scene exchange between Jarret and Brooke. While, taking his laconic cue from Clint, Cage doesn’t chew the scenery to the extent has in recent outings, Le Gros, Benrubi, Searcy, and, especially, Howard all make up for this by hamming outrageously. Armstrong, however, proves a real delight, even if you can’t avoid thinking she must have watched Hailee Steinfeld in True Grit on a loop as preparation. The film never comes anywhere close to that, but it passes the time well enough. (Rakuten TV)
The Pale Blue Eye (15)
Adapted from the Louis Bayard novel by writer-director by Scott Cooper and atmospherically photographed by Masanobu Takayanagi, set in 1830 it revolves around a brace of murders and mutilations at the West Point military academy. In the first, a cadet, Leroy Fry (Steven Maier) has been found hanged and his heart removed from the body while it was in the morgue. To which end, retired ace detective Augustus Landor (Christian Bale), a widower who lives alone after his daughter apparently ran off, is commissioned by Superintendent Thayer (Timothy Spall) and Captain Hitchcock (Simon McBurney) to investigate as a matter of urgency given the academy is under threat of closure. Examining the body he finds a fragment of a note in his band and marks that suggest murder rather than suicide.
In the course of his investigations he recruits another cadet, aspiring poet and future gothic mystery author Edgar Allen Poe (Harry Melling), an oddball academy misfit (Poe actually did attend West Point) who has also expressed an interest in the case, deciphering the fragment to reveal it was a summons to a secret meeting. The discovery of a butchered sheep and cow with the hearts removed suggest black magic rituals, something given more credence when another cadet, and a potential suspect, Ballinger (Fred Hechinger) is also found hanged, his heart missing (though removed in a less surgical manner) and his genitals mutilated.
Suspicion falls upon the family of Dr. Daniel Marquis (Toby Jones), the coroner, and more particularly his alpha male son Artemus (Harrey Lawtey). to which end, Poe begins to court the daughter, Lea (Lucy Boynton), who suffers from seizures, though genuinely develops a love for her (the title comes from a fictitious poem he claims was dictated by his dead mother, but also links to Poe’s actual poem, Lenore) as the plot thickens and Gillian Anderson puts in a brief scenery chewing mannered turn as the coroner’s somewhat deranged wife. Suffice to say, suspicions are justified, but not in the way you might expect, with the truth behind the murders being revealed Agatha Christie style with flashbacks and explanations in the final scenes.
Along with Spall and McBurney, there’s somewhat underdeveloped exposition-serving cameos by Robert Duvall as an expert on the occult whom Landor consults and Charlotte Gainsbourgh as Patsy, the barmaid at the tavern who shares his bed. But, all straggly beard and hair, Bale is suitably intense, brooding and introspective as Landor. However, it’s inevitably Poe who proves the film’s real focus, Melling delivering a mesmerisingly off-kilter performance (the role was originally planned for Timothee Chalomet and you can see why), with a plethora of Poe in-jokes that range from a shot of a raven to Landor himself, his name derived from Poe’s detective C. Auguste Dupin and his final short story, Landor’s Cottage. Poe was, of course, the father of the modern detective story and this most certainly does him fine tribute. (Netflix)
Shot directly after filming Ti West’s 70s-set 2022 slasher X, in which a bunch of porno filmmakers meet grisly deaths in a farm’s cabin, this serves as a prequel, presenting the origin of the killer geriatric with Mia Goth reprising the role, minus the prosthetics, as the younger Pearl growing up as a wide-eyed dreamer on the family farm back in 1918s Texas where, her husband Howard away at war and a Spanish flu epidemic raging, she’s constantly abused by her German immigrant mother Ruth (Tandi Wright) and has to care for her paralyzed father (Matthew Sunderland). A trip to the movies and a meeting with a smooth-talking projectionist (David Corenswet) who shows her first a short burlesque and then an early porno fuels her desire to escape her life and find fame as a chorus girl. But what do to about mum and dad.
Pearl may initially seem sweet, innocent and put upon, but behind that unsettling smile there’s clearly psychopathic tendencies at work, as seen in her abuse of her father and her pleasure in killing farm animals. And it’s not long before that, exacerbated by a failed audition for a travelling troupe, progresses to two legged victims, Ruth ending up with first degree burns and locked in the cellar, the projectionist stabbed to death with a pitchfork and fed to an alligator, her father smothered and sister-in-law Misty on the wrong end of an axe and more meat for the gator. And then home comes Howard.
Blessed with such creepy delights as Pearl masturbating with a scarecrow (the film deliberately subverts The Wizard Of Oz) and a maggot-infested roast pig rotting on the farm porch, it has a jet black comedic style to the mounting horrors and carnage that’s entirely down to the electrifying performance from Goth as the monumentally disturbed Pearl as she heads for a full on psychic meltdown. A third film, MaXXXine, set in 1985, with Goth again reprising her role, is in production. Can’t wait! (Mockingbird)
Written and directed by Carlota Pereda, the poster for this Spanish revenge-cum-slasher horror pretty much tells you what to expect with an image of an obese blood-spattered teenage girl standing in the middle of the road. She’s Sara (Laura Galán), the daughter of an ineffectual demanding passive-aggressive pork butcher and his wife (Carmen Machi) who is both cruel in her diet-shaming treatment yet also fiercely protective when she learns Sara’s being bullied over her weight. And bullied she is on a daily basis with the fatphobic local kids constantly taunting her and calling her Piggy. One even posts a viral photo of the family labelled The Three Pigs.
One day, she goes to the local pool, self-consciously venturing into the water in her bikini, surprised to find a man emerge from the water. He leaves and, as he goes, three of Sara’s tormentors turn up, callous ringleader Maca (Claudia Salas), the no less mean Roci (Camille Aguilar) and Claudia (Irene Ferreiro), who doesn’t have the courage to stand up to the others. They call her names, hold her down with a water net and then steal her bag, clothes and towel, forcing her to walk home in just her swimsuit. To make matters worse, a car pulls up and a gang of misogynistic boys abuse her too. Fleeing down a dirt road into the woods, she comes across a white driven by the man from the pool and inside she sees Claudia, hand bloodied, screaming help from the back window. The man throws a towel out, Sara grabs it and goes home, saying nothing about what she witnessed. Her silence is compromised, however, when the body of the lifeguard (which she swam past underwater without noticing) is found and the mothers of the missing girls become increasingly frantic. Confronted by the police and her mother, she lies about being at the pool, partly from embarrassment, partly from not wanting to relive what she experienced and, anyhow, why should she help those who’ve made her life hell.
Inevitably, her lie is eventually exposed and the film veers off into even darker territory as another body is found, Sara ventures into the woods looking for her phone, just as the mothers are searching for their daughters and the two local cops for a missing bull, again coming face to face with the killer who, perhaps recognising another misfit, seems to have become her self-appointed protector, eventually dishing it out to her parents. Naturally, she stumbles upon the remaining two missing girls. The question being whether she will save them or leave to a well-deserved fate.
There’s times when the film repetitively stumbles around trying to find its feet, but Galán’s fearless performance keeps you transfixed while, as her mysterious Prince Charming (there’s a grim irony that the only kindness she gets is from a psychopathic killer), Richard Holmes rarely speaks, reinforcing the notion of him as a manifestation of her anger and wish to wreak revenge on her tormentors, until a crisis of conscience arises, while until the final moments there very little blood and violence on screen, but there’s no mistaking the message that allowing violence to persist, be it verbal or physical, simply perpetuates the cycle. (Amazon Prime; Rakuten TV)
Not put off by the piss-poor response to 2018’s The Predator, 10 Cloverfield Lane director Dan Trachtenberg and screenwriter Patrick Aison take up the challenge of rebooting the franchise, and incredibly pulls off the best in the franchise since the original. Rather than continuing the saga, it takes the bold step of going back to the start, the setting being America’s Northern Great Plains in 1719. Here, Naru (The Ice Road’s Amber Midthunder) is a young Comanche desperate to prove herself the equal of her tribe macho boys, most especially her brother Taabe (Dakota Beavers), under whose shadow she lives. An expert with a bow and throwing hatchet, knowledgeable in herbal medicine, she’s ready for her ritual hunt rite of passage. Naturally, her testosterone swamped peers don’t take her seriously, especially when she has to be rescued from a mountain lion, which her brother kills and is subsequently honoured as a war chief.
However, her chance to show her mettle comes when she discovers that there’s very different kind of beast out there, an alien hunter that, using its cloaking technology and hi-tech weaponry is stalking its prey. Having eviscerated the young bucks and what appears to be a small army of French trappers, Naru finds herself as the last defence.
Working on a small scale, Trachtenberg ramps up the tension and intensity, delivering some thrillingly brutal close quarters action as well as graphically visceral butchery in which arrows and flintlock firearms are no match for the alien technology, causing Naru to improvise in inspired ways. Played by the towering Dane DiLiegro, this sleeker, faster Predator with its glowing green blood is also back to basics with sheer physicality and just a skull mask rather than the more familiar face plate, while singlehandedly (albeit with her trusty canine companion) Midthunder electrifyingly commands the screen and the action with her body language, Trachtenberg assiduous in authentically recreating the period and all the necessary trapping, the bulk of the cast being played by Native American actors (the film will have a Comanche dubbed version).
An inspired addition to the current spate of female empowerment thrillers, it’s an exhilarating and reinvigorating fresh take on a franchise that seemed to have nowhere left to go and easily one of the year’s best action movies, making it all the more inexplicable as to why it’s been denied a theatrical release and consigned to subscriber streaming. With an end credits graphic suggesting a sequel, perhaps they’ll reconsider next time around. (Disney+)
Puss In Boots: The Last Wish (PG)
Last seen 12 years ago, while the first solo outing by the dashing feline adventurer was set before Shrek 2, this takes place after Shrek Forever, opening with Puss (voiced as ever in exuberant style by Antonio Banderas), still a fugitive from the law, hosting party at the absent governor’s house in Del Mar, accidentally awaking a sleeping giant in the process. Much swordplay and acrobatics later, he saves the town only to be crushed by a giant bell. On awakening, he’s informed by the doctor that he’s now used up eight of his nine lives and that the next time he dies it’ll be for good. He suggests Puss retire, which, as a legend, is something he naturally refuse to do. Until that is he meets a black-hooded wolf (Wagner Moura) in a bar who both disarms and wounds him. Now, feeling fear for the first time, he feels to a cat sanctuary run by Mama Luna (Da’Vine Joy Randolph), burying his hat, cape and boots in ‘his’ grave.
Initially too proud to chow down with the other non-talking moggies, as the days pass he slowly gives in, becoming a broken, long-bearded shadow of his former self rechristened Pickles. Until that is the Goldilocks (Florence Pugh) and the Three Bears (Olivia Colman, Ray Winstone, Samson Kayo) Cockney crime family crash the joint, looking to claim the reward for his capture and he overhears them mention they’re looking for a map that will lead them to the wishing star, which will grant them a single wish. And so, joined by a scruffy stray Chihuahua (a marvellous Harvey Guillén) in a sock sweater who has disguised himself as a cat to find someone to care for him and has appointed himself Puss’s new sidekick, he recovers his signature clothing and sets off to steal the map and wish for his lives back, which, as it turns out, is being delivered by two thieving sisters to the not so little Jack Horner (John Mulaney), a corrupt baker of thumb and plum renown, who wants to add it to his collection (sly nods to Cinderella, Aladdin and other fairy tales) and wish to control all the magic in the world.
To Puss’s surprise, however, he’s not the only one who’s snuck in as he unexpectedly reunited with his ex-fiancee, literal cat burglar Kitty Softpaws (Selma Hayek) who he left standing at the altar. Which, more scuffles later, leaves Puss, Kitty and the dog, now called Perrito seeking to navigate through the ever shifting perils of the Dark Forest to reach the star, pursued by Goldilocks, the bears, Horner and his chef henchmen (with a cricket-like conscience bug tagging long), all with their own wishes, and the red-eyed big bad wolf and his scythes (have you guessed who he is yet?).
Peppered with fairy tale references, including a brief glimpse of the Gingerbread Boy and a quickie flashback of Shrek and Donkey, its positively bursts with eye popping animation and visuals like the crystalline cave in which Puss finds himself trapped with his former lives, while, along with its energetic fun it also has a dark subtext about mortality, arrogance, commitment, family, selflessness and living the life you have. Ending with the crew heading for Far Far Away with a tease of Shrek 5 in the hopefully not too distant future, it most definitely has the meow factor. (Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel)
Rye Lane (15)
A Black romcom answer to Notting Hill set in Peckham amid the largely African and Afro-Caribbean community, making her feature debut director Raine Allen-Miller kicks off with a meet cute in an art gallery gender neutral toilet where (after overhead shots of people fighting or retching in other cubicles) outgoing aspirant costume designer Yas (Vivian Oparah) hears reserved accountant Dom (David Jonsson) sobbing in one of the stalls. He says he’s fine, but then, wandering the exhibition of photographs of mouths, tongues and teeth by his mate Nathan (Simon Manyonda), Yas, who’s friends with Nathan’s girlfriend Cass (Poppy Allen-Quarmby) spots Dom’s distinctive sneakers and they get to talking, he confessing he’s on his way to meet his ex, Gia (Karene Peter) for the first time since THE break-up when, after being together six years, he found she was screwing his frankly witless best friend Eric (Benjamin Sarpong-Broni). They’re looking for him to give them his blessing and he’s too cowed to resist, until Yas impulsively crashes the meal and, posing as his new girlfriend brilliantly demolishes them both.
Carrying on walking the Peckham and Brixton streets, it emerges that she too has just broken up (though a subsequent confession tells a different story) with her pretentious sculptor boyfriend Jules (Malcolm Atobrah) – he was a non-waver at people on boats – and is annoyed that he’s still got her seminal Tribe Called Quest album The Low End Theory, so they head round to his place where, he and his new lover Tabby (Alice Hewkin) away, to let herself in and retrieve it. But the locks having been changed means they have to visit his mum to find the key, a mission that entails an Afro-Caribbean cook-up (featuring Levi Roots), an embarrassing moment involving his phone’s playlists and an even more embarrassing one getting caught rummaging through a knickers drawer, and then a trip to a nightclub to meet the enigmatic Mona (Wolverhampton-born Omari Douglas) where they have to do a karaoke performance of Salt & Pepa’s Shoop to get the key, eventually winding up in the flat only for Jules and Tabby to unexpectedly return.
Set mostly over the course of one day with a catch up coda, along with Richard Curtis it also owes a considerable debt to Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise tale of a brief encounter that blossoms into something more. The hip hop rhythms of the editing and camerawork in the early going can prove a touch annoying, but when it settles down it draws you fully into the unfolding relationship, the direction inventively having the pair surreally watch their own flashbacks while the film is populated with an array of briefly glimpsed characters, from a shirtless man watching from a high rise window as Dom and Yas chat to a woman with balloons, an elderly man body popping in a shiny blue rhinestone cowboy outfit, a woman smoking outside a party, a group exercising in a park, all of whom could have their own stories to tell. There’s also an amusing Curtis-connection cameo from Colin Firth who a burrito street vendor along with a café called Love Guac’tually.
Full of colour, both local and otherwise, it’s entirely predictable in its narrative arc, but the engaging performances by Jonsson and Oparah and the chemistry that sparks between them, it’s an inventive, wryly amusing and uplifting debut that full deserves a visit. (Electric; Mockingbird; Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Vue)
Scream VI (18)
Having survived last year’s carnage, Sam Carpenter (Melissa Barrera), the daughter of original killer Billy Loomis and girlfriend of reboot murderer Ritchie, has moved from Woodsboro to New York to start a new life, along with her sister Tara (Jenna Ortega), the latter joining fellow survivors Chad (Mason Gooding) and his smart and sassy horror geek sister Mindy (Jasmin Savoy Brown) and her girlfriend (Devyn Nekoda) in college. Sam’s having therapy after having killed Ritchie (and is the subject of internet rumours that she was the real Ghostface) while Tara just wants to put things behind her, resulting in a tension in their relationship, the former coming on over-protective. They soon have other things to worry about though when they’re targeted by another new Ghostface who’s tapped into the killer’s ‘fame’ in the wake of the Stab cash-in franchise. Indeed, the whole city seems to have latched on to the killer’s cult, a highly effective sequence coming on a subway train where two of the characters find themselves in a carriage with passengers dressed in horror costumes for Halloween, many in the infamous mask. One of them’s not off to a party.
Along with the obligatory self-aware post-modern meta recitation of the rules for a scary movie franchise given by Mindy (who explains that things now have to get more elaborate), another returning feature is Courtney Cox’s news anchor, Gale Weathers, who wrote a book about the Woodsboro murders and now gets her own inevitable Ghostface confrontation. Also back, from Scream IV, is Hayden Panettiere as FBI agent Kirby Reed, another horror movie nerd. However, as our killer points out, the new rules mean “legacy” characters are no longer sacrosanct.
And, of course, there’s that phone ring and the obligatory opening sequence as someone gets a phone call, here a blonde British professor teaching a course in slasher films who’s on the phone in a Manhattan bar trying to explain to her online date where it is. She goes outside to meet him, wanders into a dark alley (never a good thing to do in New York) and hey, guess what. Except there’s a neat copycat killer on copycat killer twist before we get down to the real Ghostface business, this new incarnation(s) not bothered about lurking in the shadows, or indeed the rules, declaring, “Who gives a fuck about movies?” to one of his victims.
Featuring Dermot Mulroney as the cop on the case and whose daughter (Liana Liberatoin) is also in Tara’s clique of friends (cue a family link back to the earlier film), it may ultimately be just a stylish slasher but it manages to be both true to its predictable arc and still find ways to tweak the formula (a Ghostface shrine with artefacts of all previous cases for the final showdown) to keep it fresh, until you get to scream again. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe., West Brom; Reel; Vue)
See How They Run (12A)
Not the 1944 Philip King farce, but definitely borrowing some of the genre’s traditions (people passing each other in and out of doors), directed with verve by Tom George, making good use of split screen playing up the theatrical artifice, and penned by Mark Chappell this ingeniously gets round Agatha Christie’s stipulation that her play The Mousetrap could not be turned into a film until after its run ended. It opened in 1952 and it’s still in the West End after some 28,000 performances.
Back in 1956, British producer John Woolf (Reece Shearsmith), who had made The African Queen, bought the film rights, assuming the play would soon close, and it’s around that misjudgement that this superbly crafted and highly amusing whodunit homage is based. Woolf has hired (fictional) sleazy Hollywood filmmaker Leo Köpernick (Adrien Brody, who narrates) to direct, but he’s at loggerheads with the gay screenwriter, Mervyn Cocker-Norris (David Oyelowo), and wants to rework it with a murder in the opening moments and a wholly different ending, which he’s storyboarded.
As Köpernick observes, in these plays it’s always the most obnoxious character who gets murdered, and so it is that, following a fight with Richard Attenborough (an affectionate portrait by Harris Dickinson), the first actor to play Sgt Trotter, and upsetting several others, he meets his demise during the backstage party marking the 100th performance and his body is dumped on the set.
Assigned to investigate is jaded, boozy Inspector Stoppard (Sam Rockwell) who’s partnered with WPC Stalker (Saoirse Ronan, with her natural accent and true comic delight) as his assistant, an enthusiastic rookie who writes everything down in her notebook, with a memo to not jump to conclusions, something the film, with its various misdirections, slyly insists the audience doesn’t do either. There are, naturally a wealth of suspects among a cast of characters that includes Ruth Wilson as theatre impresario Petula Spencer, Pippa Emma-Bennet as Woolf’s mistress-assistant Ann and Sian Clifford as his wife, and Jacob Fortune-Lloyd as Mervyn’s petulant Italian ‘nephew’ Gio with Tim Key as the smarmy Commissioner and Shirley Henderson as Christie herself.
It’s gleefully full of in-jokes (Rockwell’s character is named after Tom Stoppard whose The Real Inspector Hound, which he wrote as a parody of things like The Mousetrap, is referenced), while he’s assigned to the case because Scotland Yard is busy investigating the murders at 10 Rillington Place in which, of course, Attenborough starred), and cinema meta gags (a character in a flashback bemoans flashbacks and interscene titles immediately followed by one). All that plus straightfaced but wickedly funny lines, and an ending that wonderfully mirrors everything in Köpernick’s storyboards. There’s a slight tonal stumble when, in a serious moment, referencing how Christie’s play was inspired by a real life case, there’s a scene about having to tread carefully when you’re turning people’s lives into entertainment, but otherwise this is a laugh out loud romp. (Disney+)
Shazam! Fury Of The Gods (12A)
Making the familiar mistake of assuming sequels have to be more and bigger, the follow-up to the hugely enjoyable 2019 blockbuster tends to be one explosive set piece after another at the expense of the character development it seeks to embed, ultimately resulting in exhausting overkill. Now nearly 18, Billy Batson (Asher Angel) still lives with his Philadelphia foster family (Marta Milans, Cooper Andrews) and still has the power bestowed on him by the wizard Shazam (Djimon Hounsou) to transform into an adult superhero (Zachary Levi) by saying the magic word Shazam!, a power he now shares with his foster siblings, the disabled Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer), younger brother Eugene (Ian Chen), older gay Pedro (Jovan Armand), academically-driven older sister Mary (Grace Caroline Currey doubling as her super persona) and giggly kid sister Darla (Faithe Herman). But, in a world that includes The Flash, Aquaman and the like, he’s having self-doubts about whether he’s equally worthy, not least due to media coverage of he and his siblings saving lives but failing to prevent a bridge collapsing.
However, a dream date with Wonder Woman is rudely interrupted when the Wizard, long presumed dead, suddenly appears in her body informing him the world is in grave danger. That’ll be down to the opening sequence in which two Greek gods, The Daughters Of Atlas, Kalypso (Lucy Liu) and Hespera (Helen Mirren underused but clearly enjoying her first superhero romp), trash a museum in Athens, killing dozens and stealing an ancient staff, the one Shazam broke in his battle with Sivana (Mark Strong). Now, having forced the Wizard to repair it, they are out for revenge for their father’s death.
Meanwhile, in his everyday identity, Freddy is smitten by new girl in school Anne (Rachel Zegler), who he defends from a couple of class bullies, and overwhelmed that she seems to feel the same way. Unfortunately, it turns out she’s the third Daughter, Anthea, and he’s being lured into a trap to capture his Shazam! self (Adam Brody), her sisters turning up and using the staff to take his powers, kill one of the supporting characters, then conjuring a dome around the city to trap everyone within and imprisoning Freddy with the Wizard.
Thus Shazam Billy and the adult others (Ross Butler, D.J. Cotrona, Currey, Meagan Goode) take off to the Rock of Eternity where, in decided shades of Harry Potter, books can fly and a magic pen the call Steve writes a letter that flies off to Hespera, offering a deal for the return of Freddy, meeting up at a burger join where yet another battle ensues between her and Kalypso, Pedro losing his powers in the process. They do though, capture Hesper and imprison her in their lair, named, naturally, The Lair, except that all turns out to have been her plan so she can escape with the golden apple seed of life. Meanwhile, in a constant array of side switchings, Anthea is helping Freddy and the Wizard escape, setting up yet another set piece involving the superpowered siblings battling Kalypso, a giant dragon and various creatures from Greek mythology who have emerged from the Tree of Life and are laying waste to the city, all involving black killer unicorns and a fight to the death between Billy and Kalypso. Fear not, it inevitably all ends happily.
It never really gets into the doubts brought on by growing up and those transitions from child to the harsh realities of adulthood and, Freddy aside, there’s little exploration of the characters’ inner lives, but you can’t say it doesn’t give you plenty of special effects and fights for your money. There’s a couple of end credit scenes, one involving an attempt to recruit Billy for Amanda Waller’s Justice Society and the other a reappearance of Sivana, ostensibly setting up a third film though, like Gal Gadot’s cameo as Wonder Woman, that future seems very much up in the air in the wake of James Gunn taking over masterminding the DC movies and the fact it bombed at the box office. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Vue)
She Said (15)
Directed by Maria Schrader from a screenplay by Rebecca Lenkiewicz, in similar mode to Spotlight, Tom McCarthy’s film about the Boston Globe’s investigation into systemic sexual abuse by the Catholic church, this is based on the book in which Pulitzer-winning New York Times investigative reporters Jodi Kantor (Zoe Kazan) and Megan Twohey (Carey Mulligan) detailed their struggles and dogged determination in exposing the sexual abuse of Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein, Twohey having previously reported on then Presidential candidate Donald Trump’s abuse of women, and receiving verbal abuse and death threats in return.
The film opens in flashback, several of which punctuate the film, where, in 1992 Ireland, a young Laura Madden lands herself with a promising an entry-level job with Miramax. A subsequent shot of her running down the street in tears, clearly notes it was not what she’d expected. Cut to 2017, where Kantor, a veteran reporter of workplace harassment, is tipped off that actress Rose McGowan (voiced by Keilly McQuail) was sexually assaulted by Weinstein and, though initially declining to comment, calls back to say how he raped her when she was 23. Likewise both Ashley Judd (playing herself) and Gwyneth Paltrow (in voice only) talk about their own encounters (Judd remarking how work dried up afterwards), but none are prepared to be named in any article. As a way to combat her post-natal depression, Twohey is assigned by editor Rebecca Corbett (Patricia Clarkson) to help Kantor, the pair either being met with doors shut in their faces or women who talk about their experiences but, subject to NDAs, won’t go on the record, while legal red tape prevents them from getting specifics. Incredibly, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, charged with protecting employees, isn’t allowed to give prospective job applicants information on a company’s history of sexual abuse complaints.
While also juggling home lives with new babies, the more they probe, the more they discover about assaults and settlements (a former of Miramax CFO admits pay-outs but won’t divulge how many),in effect financial gags, the culture of fear and how Weinstein used his connections with the DA office to get criminal complaints dropped. Following up tips, Kantor interviews Zelda Perkins (Samantha Morton, stunning in her single scene) who worked at the London office but resigned following an incident in Venice, with her friend, Rowena Chiu (Angela Yeoh) who had a breakdown. She also speaks to the now older Madden (a terrific Jennifer Ehle), the latter, about to undergo a major operation and not subject to an NDA, though initially reluctant, becoming the first to go on record after a Weinstein representative tries to stop her talking, allowing the paper to go ahead and publish, resulting in some 80 other women coming forward and Weinstein (only seen from behind, who tried a last minute intimidation and mea culpa to kill the story) being found guilty of rape and sentenced to prison.
With Andre Braugher as Times head honcho Dean Bacquet, Peter Friedman as Weinstein’s smooth-talking lawyer Lanny Davis cum fixer and several of Weinstein’s victims in small roles, the film captures the working of a newsroom and reporters with the same electricity as All The President’s Men, Spotlight and The Post, building to the final moment as the publish button is hit, and while individually Mulligan (a mix of fury, frustration, empathy and bemusement, her yelling at a guy coming on to her in a bar is seismic) is a stronger, more complex presence than Kazan, together they command the screen in the same way Redford and Hoffman did as Woodward and Bernstein.
Although Weinstein was the target of the story, Twohey and Kantor’s diligent and exhaustive work became the launch pad for the #MeToo movement and subsequent exposure of workplace sexual abuse and harassment in many other fields by men (and women) in power who feel an entitlement to bully those beneath them. (Rakuten TV)
Top Gun: Maverick (12A)
Thirty-six years on since the original took your breath away, Tom Cruise returns to the role that made him a global superstar, the authority-bucking US Navy fighter pilot Pete ‘Maverick’ Mitchell. As directed by Joseph Kosinski, who was only 16 when the original appeared, and scripted by Ehren Kruger, Eric Warren Singer and Christopher McQuarrie, Maverick hasn’t changed a great deal in the interim. He’s relatively more centred, still single, still in top physical shape and still a captain, partly through choice, partly because he runs the top brass up the wrong way. Indeed, he does so right from the start when, learning the supersonic stealth fighter project he’s heading in the Mojave Desert is being shut down by a Rear Admiral dubbed The Drone Ranger (Ed Harris) as it hasn’t reached its Mach 10 target, he duly climbs into the cockpit and pushes it to the limit and beyond before he can be told in person. However, rather than being disciplined, he’s told to report to his old Fighter Weapons School aka Top Gun stomping ground where he learns an unnamed country is developing an unsanctioned uranium enrichment plant and the school’s best pilots are being recruited to carry out a Dam Busters-style mission to destroy it. Initially assuming he’s one of then, he’s informed instead, by Commanding Officer Beau ‘Cyclone’ Simpson (John Hamm), that he’s there to train them and select the best six. And also that (verging on obsolete) he wasn’t Simpson’s first, or any, choice, but is there at the request of his former rival, long-time friend and now Admiral, Iceman (Val Kilmer).
The hot shots candidates are all introduced in a somewhat unnecessarily extended barroom scene, the ones that matter lining up as nerdy Bob (Lewis Pullman), cockily arrogant Hangman (Glen Powell), spunky female pilot Phoenix (Monica Barbaro), Fanboy (Danny Ramirez) and Rooster (Miles Teller), the now grown son of Goose (Anthony Edwards seen in flashbacks), Maverick’s wingman who dies in action and who, along with many others, Pete himself included, blames as him for his father’s death, thus setting up a somewhat predictable arc between the two.
The same scene also introduces bar owner Penny Benjamin (Jennifer Connolly), mentioned but never seen in the original, now given a backstory as Maverick’s former on-off love interest who, now a divorced single mother, re-enters the romantic orbit. Of course, that’s a minor subplot as the film’s main focuses is on Maverick whipping his students into shape so that the chosen ones can fly dangerously low into the mountains under the radar to avoid the anti-aircraft missiles and superior enemy planes, destroy the target and get out again in a race against the clock. So cue all the expected young bucks v old fogey dynamics, pilot rivalries, run ins with Cyclone, and Maverick again bucking orders and pushing himself to breaking point to prove the mission is not impossible, inevitably ending up leading it himself with Rooster as his wingman.
As you’d imagine, right from a recreation of the opening scene (complete with Kenny Loggins’ Danger Zone), there plenty of nods to the original along with such iconic Cruise moments as a front on show of him riding his motorbike (in his original Top Gun jacket) grinning like a Cheshire cat. He’s not above taking the piss out of himself either, retorting ‘it’s the only one I’ve got” when someone comments on giving ‘that look’. While better at the grins and the grit expression that registering deep emotion, nevertheless Cruise has a particular affecting and touching scene in a reunion with Kilmer, his character clearly not long for the world (thereby leaving Maverick without anyone in his corner).
Likewise, while playing down the jingoism element, Kosinksi is at his best when the action is in the air, whether in the simulated dog fights (shot in actual U.S. Navy F/A-18s, for which the cast went through a punishing training process) as Maverick pushes his team or the actual dog fights evading enemy jets in the aftermath of the mission, where old grievances and new enmities are all neatly resolved in big bromantic hugs, even if the original’s homoeroticism is decidedly downplayed here.
Cruise again demonstrates that he’s in a cinema superstar league of his own, an ‘event’ in his own right (as the film says, it all comes down to the pilot in the box), a generous actor but inevitably putting others in the shade simply on account of who he is, though Teller at least gets to remind how good he was in Whiplash and Kosinski’s own firefighter drama Only The Brave. Along with a deft use of 70s hits, music’s provided by Harold Faltermeyer with Hold My Hand coming from Lady Gaga, and while that’s no Take My Breath Away, the film will most certainly have you needing oxygen masks. Turn and burn, baby. (Paramount +; Rakuten TV)
The Whale (15)
Misguidedly criticised for supposedly portraying obesity as disgusting and monstrous, as opposed to the visual metaphor and manifestation of the main character’s self-loathing that has driven him to self-destructive gluttony by way of both punishment and escape, this is not only up there alongside director Darren Aronofsky’s earlier Black Swan but, adapted by Samuel D. Hunter from his own award-winning play (shades of Miller and Williams), features a towering comeback performance from Brendan Fraser in a grotesque fat suit.
Introduced in a scene masturbating to a gay porno that almost cause a heart attack, he’s Charlie, an English professor who gives online lectures to a group of students about being honest in their writings, the camera on his laptop disabled so they only ever see a black square on his laptop (reflecting the film’s claustrophobic ratio, itself a visual metaphor him being trapped in his own body) with the word Instructor.
He’s saved by the random arrival of Thomas (Ty Simpkins), an enthusiastic end times missionary from a local church who he asks to read him a dismissive essay on Moby Dick in which the writer says Melville only wrote about the whale “to save us from his own sad stories, just for a little while”; that calms him down and subsequently proves a pivotal plot device at the end. Thomas believes God brought him to Charlie’s play to save him both literally and spiritually. Charlie’s having none of that. It’s clear from the way he gorges junk food he has no desire to be saved. He’s a Jonah trapped within his own belly of the whale
Set entirely within his messy apartment and unfolding over his last week, Charlie interacts with two other characters. One is Liz (Hong Chau who matches Fraser beat for beat), a sharp-tongued but affectionate nurse frustrated that, dying of congestive heart failure, he won’t go to hospital (he says he can’t afford it), a former member of the same church (run by her father) who duly regards Thomas with undisguised cynicism and also the sister of Charlie’s late boyfriend, for whom he left his wife and who later committed suicide. The other is his wayward teenage daughter, Ellie (Sadie Sink), who he hasn’t seen since he left home when she was eight and understandably harbours massive resentment about that. She wants nothing to do with him, but needs help with her essays to avoid failing school. To which end, he offers to pay her to let him help her, provided she says nothing to her mother (Samantha Morton making a devastating last act appearance) whom, he says, has insisted they have no contact. Desperate to reconnect he can’t help laughing to discover that she’s turned his assignment to express herself honestly into a three line haiku on misanthropy.
Though he declares she’s an amazing person, Ellie is callous and cruel in the way she treats him, and equally combative with Thomas who, it turns out has his own dark secrets and guilt which she seems to be planning to exploit for her own amusement, just as she posted a photo of her father tottering on his swollen legs attempting to walk towards her. And yet the film, through all its characters, is all about humanity; at one point Charlie says that people don’t have the ability to not care. Before he dies, he just wants to believe he’s done something good in his life.
Using every physical tick and facial expression to convey his churning emotions, Fraser is the film’s heart and soul, a pitiful figure who evokes an empathy and sadness that goes beyond mere sympathy and leaves you a blubbering wreck. (Vue)
What’s Love Got To Do With It? (12A)
That it shares its title with the Tina Turner biopic rather reinforces the lack of originality in this attempt to revive the good old days of Working Title romcoms. As such, even without including the line in the trailer about being scared of being with the right person, this is reassuringly predictable from the outset.
Directed by Shekhar Kapur, returning after a lengthy absence and proving less accomplished at light comedy than dramatic works like Elizabeth and Bandit Queen, from a script be Jemima Khan the slim plot hinges around singleton Zoe (Lily James), now an award-winning documentary filmmaker, and her relationship with childhood Muslim friend, erstwhile neighbour and oncology doctor Kaz Khan (Shazad Latif). On learning he’s embarking on an arranged – or rather assisted – marriage (he says statistics show they end in fewer divorces, she compares it to Stockholm syndrome), she pitches her producers the idea of turning this into her next project (her other ideas are seen as too heavy), dubbing it Love Contractually.
What ensues has her following him around with a hand-held camera from the first meeting with Mo the Matchmaker (an amusing Asim Chaudry) to the three day wedding ceremony (naturally including a Bollywood dance sequence, fortunately the bride and her friends appear to be all professionally trained) in Pakistan, filming interviews with him, his parents (Shabana Azmi, Jeff Mirza), themselves the happy result of an arranged marriage, his older just wed brother, and law student bride to be Maymouna (Sajal Ali), who turns out to be rather less demure than she appears and naturally has her own romantic skeleton in the closet.
There’s commentary on unconscious bias, racism and content commissioning box-ticking, but mothing especially astringent as it ambles its way to its preordained conclusion in Zoe and Kaz’s childhood treehouse and a sentimental and unrealistic resolution to the Khan family’s estrangement from their daughter Jamila (Mariam Haque) on account of her marrying a white man. James is an engaging presence, conveying her failures in love by telling her best friend’s daughters bedtime fairytales with unhappy endings (Snow White was sad. She ate the poisoned apple on purpose) despite being ill-served by a telegraphed emotional arc and a forced confrontation about whether she’s not a whole person without a man with her divorced out of touch mother Cath (a snarky Emma Thompson) who’s attempting to matchmake her with the family vet James (Oliver Chris) and, blissfully self-unaware, wears a salwar kameez and joins in the dancing as a sign of her liberal multiculturalism. Full marks too for a scene stealing turn by Pakiza Baig as the prickly Urdu grandmother.
There’s a smattering on zingers (notably a gag about getting stoned for being gay) but generally it’s all rather comfortably soft , opening and closing strongly but idling over in the stretch in-between, making you think how much better it might have been with Gurinder Chada behind the camera. (Everyman; Vue)
White Noise (15)
Published in 1985, Don DeLillo’s social satire on a morally diseased America with its consumer culture, academia, religions and anxiety about death was long deemed unfilmable. However, in his first film not based on original material, Noah Baumbach has risen to the challenge and, while ultimately flawed and reinforcing the impossibility of translating book to screen, it’s an ambitious and at times captivating effort that also chimes with the current pandemic climate.
Reuniting his Frances Ha co-stars Adam Driver and Greta Gerwig, he’s crafted an absurdist comedy-drama set in the 1984 in which a compellingly distracted Driver plays Jack Gladney, a middle-aged Midwest academic celebrated for his self-founded Hitler Studies course (that he can’t speak German is a big worry given an upcoming conference), with Gerwig as his fourth wife, Babette. They have four precocious kids, the analytical Heinrich and sensitive Steffie (Sam and May Nivola) from one of his previous marriages, her petulant daughter Denise (Raffey Cassidy) and their young son Wilder. The marriage seems happy but she’s showing early signs of dementia and is addicted to something Dylar, about which neither he nor the children have any knowledge, but is designed to suppress fears of death.
The film opens with Jack’s colleague, Murray Siskind (Don Cheadle), delivering a lecture on the celebratory nature of car crashes in American cinema, who, envious of Jack’s iconic status on campus, launches his own Elvis Studies in competition, leading to a scene in which both expound their theories to a class simultaneously rather like a lecture version of a dance-off.
The kids are fascinated by plane crashes, devouring TV footage, but then Blacksmith is struck by a spectacularly staged collision between a truck transporting gasoline and a train carrying toxic waste, resulting in the release of a poisonous cloud, dubbed the airborne toxic event (Jack, who wants to play the hero of the hour, but is singularly not up to the task, can’t decide whether to describe the black cloud as “feathery” or “billowing”), that forces a mass evacuation (cue the family racing through a forest in their car and landing in a river) to a designated holding place and, exposed to the chemical cloud (Jack’s told to wait 15 years to see what happens) , an exacerbation in everyone’s death anxieties. Meanwhile, an agency called SIMUVAC is using the real evacuation to help perfect their test-drill procedure.
Constructed in three sections, the last of which is heavy with philosophical monologues, with dialogue frequently overlapping and awash with primary colours, it’s an uneven affair that ranges from long stretches of tedium where very little happens to chilling moments such as the unsettling deserted, abandoned gas station where Jack refuels while the black cloud hovers in the sky behind him, a creepy nightmare or the bizarre scene where he and Babette end up in a hospital run by German atheist nuns led by Barbara Sukowa. Elsewhere, Jack’s persuaded by Murray that he can overcome his fear of death by taking someone else’s life, his choice being his wife’s dealer (Lars Eidinger).
It can be an effort to stay with it, but Baumbach rewards patience with a truly memorable and fun end credits dance scene set in a supermarket crowded with shoppers set to an LCD Soundsystem track and looking for all the world like some Talking Heads video. (Netflix)
The Woman King (15)
The slave trade and the complicity of African tribes within it provides the bedrock for this electrifying epic drama, loosely inspired by historical events, from director Gina Prince-Bythewood, set in 1823 in the West African kingdom of Dahomey, present-day Benin. Here, real life King Ghezo (John Boyega) is protected by the Agojie, an all-woman army, led by the formidable fictional stony-faced Mohawk-cut Nanisca (a magnificent Viola Davis) with the support of the statuesque Amenza (Sheila Atim), a javelin-savvy seer, and the fierce veteran Izogie (Lashana Lynch), first seen emerging from the undergrowth to rescue female captives from the opposing Oyo slavers in the first of several bloody battles. While the Dahomey and Ghezo owe their position and wealth to the slave trade (and continued to do so throughout his reign), Nanisca is of the belief Africans should not be part of making other Africans slaves, proposing they trade palm oil instead, all of which, for both political and economic reasons, leads the egotistical Ghezo to declare war on the Oyo, of which they are a tributary state.
Meanwhile, Izogie is in charge of training the new recruits, among them Nawi, (31-year-old -Thuso Mbedu a believable teenager) who, refusing her father’s various arranged marriages, is offloaded to become one of the virgin warrior Agojie. Strongly self-willed with attitude, arrogance and both a chip and a scar on her shoulder that provide a crucial third act reveal in her relationship with the tough but tender Nanisca, she’s a competitive spirit who bridles at authority and is determined to prove her worth and fighting mettle, especially against friend and equally strong-headed rival Ode (Adrienne Warren).
Meanwhile, European slavers led by Santo Ferreira (Hero Fiennes Tiffin) and accompanied by the half-Dahomean Malik (Jordan Bolger), have formed an alliance with Oyo General Oba Ade (Jimmy Odukoya), with whom Nanisca has history and who is determined to crush the Dahomy. Having struck up a friendship with Malik, Nawi learns of Ade’s plans, setting the stage for another graphically brutal and bloody battle (the cast performing all their own stunts) in which she’s taken prisoner with Izogie. As reward for her victory, Ghezo appoints Nanisca his ruling partner, the Woman King, but refuses to countenance a rescue mission, prompting her to take matters into her own hands.
With a cast composed almost entirely of Black women and a screenplay that gives them real emotional and political depth, exploring themes of trauma, pride, identity, complicity, morality, friendship and heroism, owing not a little to Black Panther (whose Dora Milaje were inspired by the Agojie), it’s big myth making screen entertainment in every respect. (Amazon Prime; Apple TV; Google Play; Rakuten TV)
The Wonder (15)
Further confirmation, were it needed, that Florence Pugh is her generation’s Kate Winslet, she delivers a quietly understated but wrenchingly powerful performance in this adaptation of the period gothic novel by The Room’s Emma Donoghue’s directed by Sebastian Lelio from a screenplay by himself, Donoghue and Alice Birch and cinematography from The Power Of The Dog’s Ari Wegner.
It opens with voiceover introducing it as a film and talking of stories as the camera pans across a film set before alighting on the interior of a sailing ship, where, in 1862, Elizabeth Wright (Pugh) is eating a bowl of stew. She’s a Yorkshire (hence no-nonsense) nurse with a tragic past (cue two tiny baby bootees she keeps wrapped up with a bottle of opium) who served in the Crimean War and is en route to rural Ireland where, lodging at the local inn, she’s been employed, along with a nun (Josie Walker), to observe Anna O’Donnell (impressive newcomer Kíla Lord Cassidy), a pious, 11-year-old Catholic girl, who, apparently, hasn’t eaten anything for four months, sustained, she says by “manna from heaven”.
On the committee who’s hired her are town elder Sir Otway (Dermot Crowley) and local landlord John Flynn (Brían F. O’Byrne) alongside Dr McBrearty (Toby Jones), who wants to think it’s a miracle of science, and Father Thaddeus (Ciaran Hinds) who wants to think it’s a miracle per se, with the potential to have her declared a saint and, thus, a big plus for the village.