With cinemas now open this column will review films both screening theatrically and/or on various streaming platforms.
Directed by Tom McCarthy, written by Thomas Bidegain and Noé Debré and loosely inspired by the case of Amanda Knox (who’s publicly stated her outrage at being ‘exploited’), a solidly reliable Matt Damon stars as Bill Baker, a stocky, polite, widowed, devout Christian and reformed drinker Oklahoma construction worker from Stillwater with a bald eagle tattoo who’s been hit by the recession after losing his oil rig job. Taking whatever temporary work he can find(metaphorically it opens with him cleaning up a town devastated by a tornado), he also has an emotionally estranged daughter, Allison (Abigail Breslin) who’s five years into a nine year sentence in a Marseilles prison for murdering her Arab girlfriend, though she protests her innocence.
Flying out for what’s intended to be a two-week visit, he’s given a letter by her to pass to her lawyer which, he learns, when it’s translated by his hotel next door neighbour, liberal single mother theatre actress Virginie (Camille Cottin, quietly brilliant), involves new evidence, although it also asks not to involve her father because “He’s not capable.” With the lawyer declaring that they cannot reopen the case, without telling Allison of the response, Bill decides to take it upon himself to track down the men mentioned in the letter, one of whom is a young Arab named Akim (Idir Azougli) who she met at a bar and who, having admitting to one stabbing, may be the actual murderer.
Unable to speak French, Bill enlists the help of Virginie, with whose 8-year-old daughter Maya (an outstanding Lilou Siauvaud) he has formed a bond after befriending her in the hotel. Unable to afford a private detective and unwilling to involve the police, Bill seeks to track down Akim, but, once he does, and received a brutal beating as a result of intruding into north Marseille’s notorious Kallisté French Arab neighbourhood, the film suddenly leaps ahead several months, Bill, told by Allison to leave her alone, now sharing Virginie’s apartment, acting as her mom’s handyman and Maya’s babysitter, takes a different, more mundane, narrative track, one which, as implied by Allison’s comments in the note and Bill’s own confession of being a dumb ass, sees him seeking redemption as a surrogate father to Maya and trying to a better job than he did with his own. He even watches Virginie in rehearsal, even though theatre is an alien world to his cultural sensibilities.
As such, while it’s well-handled in a low key manner along with the growing attraction between Bill and Virginie (sparked by dancing to Sammi Smith singing Help Me Make It Through the Night), it slows the film’s former tense momentum down to a crawl, and it’s not until the third act, and a contrived narrative coincidence, that it returns to the initial quest, albeit with a somewhat melodramatic course of events that don’t always make logical sense.
Unlike the usual American saves the day/family fodder successfully mined by Liam Neeson and Bruce Willis, this is not an action movie or even a conventional crime thriller the screenplay deliberately defusing the expected stereotypes while lacing the narrative with observations on casual kneejerk racism, Baker in many ways a reflection of how foreigners perceive Americans.
There a tender sequence when Allison is allowed out on a day’s parole with no option but for Bill to be her chaperone, and there’s a poignant attempt to rebuild the bridges between them, but the film wisely decides not to play the sentimentality card and if there is any final redemption for either father or daughter (after the truth behind the murder emerges), then, in the final frame, it’s a very ambiguous and bittersweet one that’s as heavy with a sense of loss as it is with one of self-discovery and what has been restored. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Vue)
Boys From County Hell (15)
Taking inspiration from author Bram Stoker’s visit to Six Mile High in smalltown Ireland during the mid-1890s where, it’s claimed, he drew on a local myth for his own Dracula, this low budget Irish comedy vampire horror has a touch of Sean Of The Dead about it (though it’s not as funny) that initially sees two best mates, Eugene (Jack Rowan), the son of local construction contractor Francie (Nigel O’Neill), and William (Fra Fee), son of the town’s undertaker, George (John Lynch), pulling a prank on two gullible Canadian tourists with the help of their burly bearded mate SP (comic relief Michael Hough) involving pile of stones in a field that legend links to some blood drinking creature. Not long after, walking home through the field at night, William is gored to death, his blood seeping into the ground beneath the stones.
Life, however, goes on, and as such involves Eugene’s semi-estranged father engaged in a bypass project that (cue a throwaway social commentary) will demolish the cairn of stones and, also force George and his wife out of their home. Then tings take a bloody turn when the site’s night watchman is attacked and turned into a vampire, with yet another bloodcrazed character still to be revealed, leading Eugene, his dad, co-worker friend Pauline (Andrea Irvine) and JP bumbling their way through trying to battle the undead, who prove very- and amusingly difficult – to kill.
Opening with two old codgers who suddenly start gushing blood while watching TV, then flashing back to the events leading up to the climax involving the resurrected ancient monster (and a link to an old skull Eugene’s found), it has a breezy, self-aware charm and, even if it sags somewhat midway, the full-on grisly horror finale is worth the wait. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Vue)
The Last Letter From Your Lover (12A)
Adapted from a novel by Jojo Moyes that plays like a lite version of The Notebook by Nicholas Sparks, directed by Augustine Frizzell the narrative sprawls over three timelines. The framing one, set in the present, involves 30s-ish commitment-phobic London newspaper features writer Ellie (Felicity Jones) researching a story in the archives, presided over by inevitable romantic interest Rory (Nabhaan Rizwan) and discovering a mysterious initialled letter that links back to the second timeline in 1965 London that sees American socialite Jennifer Stirling (Shailene Woodley) in an airless, loveless marriage, the trophy wife to rich businessman Laurence (Joe Alwyn) whom she met on the Rivera, and paper magazine as Ellie, who arrives in France to interview her husband and then hangs around.
The third timeline has Jennifer suffering from amnesia following a car crash and then discovering a letter from Anthony that her husband had hidden and then setting out to unravel her forgotten past.
Switching back and forth between the romances, it’s an enervated affair that rarely evidences the passions it’s supposed to be revealing as Ellie digs deeper, looking for more letters to put the pieces together as it proceeds to a sentimental denouement that brings the stories together. Jones, who’s ostensibly the star, never shows much of the spark that first brought her to attention, Alwyn’s just the cardboard tyrannical husband and Rizwan barely registers any presence at all. Although there’s almost no chemistry with Turner, Woodley is still the best thing here, even when she’s clearly struggling with the lacklustre narrative, sorting a series of hats and dresses that couldn’t say Jackie Kennedy more obviously than if they tried. Passably sweet as an old school rainy Sunday afternoon TV romance, but, like that last letter, the promise is never delivered.(Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Vue)
Based on true events, unfolding completely on a computer screen in a London flat and involving YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Skype and whatever, set in 2014 and directed by Russia’s Timur Bekmambetov, it follows freelance journalist Amy (Valene Kane) as she sets up a fake profile of herself as 20-year-old Melody, an Islamic convert, in order to infiltrate Isis recruiters for an expose. Borrowing from others’ posts, she quickly makes contact with the charismatic Bilel (Shazad Latif), an Isis soldier in Syria who, while initially wary about her alleged commitment to the cause, comes across as affable and friendly (he loves cats), proudly shows off his Kalashnikov and is keen to answer her questions, radicalise and recruit her.
As she assembles her fake identity and backstory, the narrative is punctuated with on screen chats with her boyfriend (Morgan Watkins), who is trying to find them a new apartment, her editor (Christine Adams), her rich friend Kathy (Emma Carer) who she looks to tap up for rent money guy and her IT handler (Amir Rahimzadeh). At some point, Amy/Melody finds herself being seduced by Bilel’s charm, a far more exotic figure than her dull sensible boyfriend.
Filling the screen with multiple tabs and pinging messages, adapted from Anna Erelle’s novel In the Skin of a Jihadist, it’s an incredibly busy work that pulls you into its world and Amy’s dangerous pursuit of the story, climaxing in a powerful and unexpected finale. (Empire Great Park; Vue)
Based on a viral 2015 Twitter thread by self-styled “angry black hottie” Detroit waitress and part-time pole dancer Aziah “Zola” King (Taylour Paige) who detailed her trip to Florida with the trashy, in your face Stefani (American Honey’s Riley Keough), who she met at Hooters and, after complimenting her on her “perfect titties” introduced her to the world of exotic dancers, and then invited her to make some easy money in Tampa, joined by dull-witted boyfriend Derrek (Nicholas Braun) and her roommate and flashy controlling Nigerian pimp X (Colman Domingo). Director Janicza Bravo laces her film with larger than life characters to match the violence, coarse humour and the barrage of male nudity and collage of humpings Zola finds herself undertaking, some willingly, other not so, as dancing turns to sex work. Given she’s admitted her tweets frequently embellished the truth, film has licence to take things even further, so quite where fiction and reality mingle or part company is hard to say.
For all the exuberance the two women bring to their antics and the broad, brash humour on the screenplay, there’s nevertheless a definite undercurrent of seediness and squalor about the underworld of modern America they inhabit, while Bravo and her two leads give the women a strong human dimension, at the same time incorporating such socio-political touches as them driving through the night and passing a scene of a black man being violently subdued by cops. It’s messy and chaotic, but it’s also hard to take your eyes off it. (Vue)
As any amateur palaeontologist knows, ammonites are whorl-shaped marine mollusc fossils which, when cleaned up and the accumulated grime of centuries removed, reveal their true aesthetic beauty and the depth within the. No prizes then for guessing that they serve as a not too subtle metaphor for this 19th-Century tale of personal and sexual awakening as a young woman trapped in a sterile marriage comes back to life and stirs the fire within an older, dour woman when she’s dumped in Lyme Regis to recover her health after the loss of a child.
Essentially, The Dig but with a heavy dose of lesbian sex, it’s loosely based on the life of noted working class fossil collector Mary Anning (Kate Winslet) and her relationship with Charlotte Murchison (Saoirse Ronan), although it should be noted from the start that there’s no historical evidence for any sexual shenanigans between them, although taking dramatic liberties to swiftly remove Charlotte’s dull aspiring palaeontologist husband( James McArdle), from the scene does provide an excuse for the much publicised and steamily explicit naked bedroom scene between the two actresses.
It is, however, some time in coming as director Francis Lee (whose previous film, God’s Own Country, was also a queer love story, between two men) slowly builds things from Mary’s initial reluctance, agreeing to teach the mouse-like Charlotte the fundamental fossil hunting skills the urging of her mother (Gemma Jones who comes with a sad backstory of her own embodied in the china dog figurines she polishes every night) to earn a few bob to supplement her fossil sales and then taking her in and giving up her bedroom at the recommendation of the doctor (Alec Secareanu) when she falls ill. The friendship gradually blossoms (as the hitherto stone-faced, brittle and joyless Anning, as grey as the winter skies, gradually softens under the initially petulant Charlotte’s influence) and then a passionate secret romance flares, set against the backdrop of the era’s suffocating restraint, And, of course, the patriarchal elitist boys’ club climate that would not afford Mary the same standing as her male colleagues. Indeed, the film opens the skull of an ichthyosaur being put on view in the British Museum, credited to the man who donated it, not the woman who discovered it.
The cinematography makes the most of the stunning landscape with its coast line and rugged cliffs as well as the contrastive, candlelit scenes with Mary’s cramped small house (more visual metaphors then) while, be it in the verbal exchanges or the unspoken looks, Winslet and Ronan give possibly their finest performances, ably supported by Fiona Shaw as Elizabeth Philpot who makes herbal salves and with whom it is clear Mary had an earlier affair that ended badly and who causes her discomfort when she clearly takes a shine to the more sophisticated Charlotte.
The later scenes set after Charlotte has to return to London are equally potent in what they say about the two women (who were actually firm real life friends) and, dramatic liberties notwithstanding, like the fossil, the more layers are uncovered, the greater the exposed film becomes. (Amazon Prime, CHILI, Google Play, iTunes Rakuten TV, Sky Store, TalkTalk TV, Virgin Movies)
Army of the Dead (18)
Drawing on a formula that ranges from The Magnificent Seven to The Dirty Dozen to The Expendables with a group of mercenaries gradually being whittled down as they seek to carry out their mission, as written and directed by Zack Snyder this two hour plus video-gamer horror action romp throws the undead into the ultra-violent post-apocalyptic mix when, after a zombie outbreak (caused when newlyweds, distracted by a blow job, pile into an army convoy from Area 51, letting their cargo escape). the shambling hordes are contained within Las Vegas, walled off by a circle of shipping containers in a herculean effort headed up by Scott Ward (Dave Bautista). Now, some time later, he’s working in a burger joint when he’s approached by shady Vegas hotel owner Tanaka (Hiroyuki Sanada) who wants him to break into the city and retrieve 200 million dollars from the casino basement high security vault, amusingly named Gotterdamerung.
To which end, he recruits his old crew mechanic Cruz (Ana de la Reguera) and chainsaw wielding Vanderohe (Omari Hardwick), boosting the team with the addition of wisecracking cigar-smoking helicopter pilot Peters (Tig Notaro), YouTube zombie-killer star Guzman (Raúl Castillo) and German safecracker Dieter (Matthias Schweighöfer). Plus, their employer’s right-hand man (Garret Dillahunt) informs them he’ll be coming along to oversee (so you can bet he has a hidden agenda) while Scott’s refugee camp volunteer daughter Kate (Ella Purnell), estranged after dad had to kill her mother to prevent her turning into a zombie, insists on tagging along to rescue a friend who has disappeared from the camp, leaving her two kids behind. Plus, there’s Coyote (Nora Arnezeder), a hard ass French people smuggler who knows her way around the infested Vegas. There’s just one small problem. The President intends to nuke Vegas on July 4th, complete with fireworks, so the clock is ticking. And then the date’s brought forward.
Once the crew enter the city the film shakes up a cocktail of Escape From New York, Planet of the Apes and Aliens stirred with the heist elements of Ocean’s Eleven, as they navigate their way through the streets, avoiding piled up bodies that can reawaken with the rain, tunnels populated by comatose zombies who you really don’t want to touch, not to mention, in an inspired touch, a zombie tiger that was part of Siegfried & Roy’s act. That, and as Coyote reveals, a new evolved breed of thinking Alpha zombies (though they still only say gaaahhhh) headed up by a bejewelled queen (Athena Perample) and her warrior consort (Richard Cetrone) with his impressive abs and zombie horse. To ensure safe passage, Coyote explains they need to offer a sacrifice, which explains why she’s brought along the camp security guard bully who’s duly dragged off to their citadel to be transformed into another member of the zombie army – a fate likely to be facing Kate’s abducted friend.
This might seem like a bit of a tangled plot, but basically once the splatterfest begins that’s really all that matters as double crosses and unexpected demises pile up, culminating in a last act climax as Scott and the remaining survivors head into the citadel to find Kate who’s taken off to rescue her friend (whose fate seems to have been overlooked by the script in the final moments). This is terrific braindead fun with big guns and geysers of blood that also has a knowing sense of humour (Liberace and Elvis impersonators, a soundtrack including Viva Las Vegas and The Cranberries hit Zombie) as well as finding time for some character depth that makes you care about who lives and dies. Although the body count would seem to effectively knock any ongoing franchise on the head, the coda hints at a Mexico City sequel. Bring it on. (Netflix)
Black Widow (12A)
Thirteen years on from the launch of the MCU, director Cate Shortland finally gives the Avengers’ Black Widow a long overdue origin story co-written by WandaVision’s Jac Schaeffer. Echoing The Americans, it opens in 1995 Ohio with young blue-haired tomboy Natasha (Ever Anderson) playing with her younger sister Yelena (Violet McGraw), as part of Russian sleeper cell with their fake family, mom Melina (Rachel Weisz) and dad Alexei (David Harbour providing the comic relief), aka The Red Guardian, the Soviet answer to Captain America. Their cover blown, they’re forced to flee from S.H.I.E.L.D., ending up in Cuba where the two girls are taken away by Dreykov (Ray Winstone with mangled accent) to become part of his army of female assassins. Cut to the immediate aftermath of the events in Captain America: Civil War, with Romanoff (Scarlett Johannson) wanted by the authorities, headed up by Secretary Ross (William Hurt), leading her to follow an ‘invitation’ to track down the estranged Yelena (Florence Pugh proving an action-woman natural), the world’s greatest child assassin apparently, who, as an earlier sequence shows, has, by means of some chemical red mist compound, now broken free of Dreykov’s mind control, and is holed up in Budapest on the run for her former fellow Widows.
Suffice to say, some thrilling fisticuffs and explosions later, the orphan ‘sisters’ set off to track down Dreykov, whom Romanoff believed she’d killed, along with his young daughter as collateral damage, in his Red Room headquarters, and liberate the other assassins using a stash of the vials and put a stop to his plans for world domination, a plan that involves rescuing the oafish Alexei from his high security prison and reuniting with Melina who works for him as a mind control scientist (she’s got a bunch of trained pigs), and facing down Dreykov’s personal costumed and shield-slinging killer, the Taskmaster, who can mimic their opponents’ skills.
As such, it’s a fairly straightforward narrative, but, being Marvel, its invested with some serious emotional heavy lifting between the spectacular action sequences – several borrowed from Moonraker (it even features a clip and snatch of the music) – involving themes of family, sisterhood, identity crisis, sibling rivalry, free will, guilt and regret. Pugh and Johannson have terrific chemistry, with the former giving the film a real soul, as well as an amusing self-referential observation on Romanoff striking her trademark hair-flipping super-hero pose as well as observing how Thor doesn’t need to take ibuprofen after he’s been in a fight, while the latter’s background is further filled in on learning about her true biological mother and how she herself came to be part of the ‘family’ spy network.
Thrilling, action-packed, emotional and witty, it ends with the inevitable post credits scene which brings the timeline up to date with Yelena visiting Natasha’s grave and a meeting that sets up Pugh’s continuing role in the franchise and her next appearance as part of the Hawkeye TV series. Get bitten. (Disney+; Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel; Vue)
The Broken Hearts Gallery (12)
It may be a sort of Sundance-lite predictable girly romcom, but, the feature debut by writer-director Natalie Krinsky, this is nevertheless a hugely enjoyable, at times disarmingly poignant little gem, sprinkled with some delightful banter and founded on a hugely endearing and likeable turn from Australian-Asian Bad Education star Geraldine Viswanathan.
She plays Lucy, a quirky 26-year-old New York art gallery assistant whose love life has been marked by a series of break-ups, from each of which she has kept a memento to remind her of her ex, anything from old shoelaces and a pink rubber piggy bank plastic toy to even a used condom. There’s also a Monopoly thimble, although the significance behind this is kept back until much later in a particularly moving moment.
The narrative gets under way following her latest disaster which saw her being dumped by wealthy upscale two timing gallery worker Max (Utkarsh Ambudkar), and, as a direct consequence, being fired from her job at the prestigious gallery run by celebrity art dealer Eva Woolf (Bernadette Peters). All of this she drunkenly relates to Nick (Dacre Montgomery), into whose car she’s climbed thinking he’s her Uber driver.
It’s followed by a second meet cute as he intercedes as bustles her out of a café as she’s about to cause a scene with Max and his reunited ex, and, naturally, thrown together by fate, their relationship grows from thereonin. Nick, it transpires, is transforming and old Brooklyn YMCA into a boutique hotel. “a place that feels like the spots I fell in love with when I first moved to New York” He’s not got much money to do this, a friend offering his services for free, as does Lucy, who, in turn, will be able to open her own ‘gallery’ in the lobby where, inspired by her own mementoes of lost relationships (kicking off with Max’s tie), people will donate their own bittersweet nostalgic keepsakes by way of closure.
Punctuated by a series of to-camera confessions from assorted donors (who all make a contribution for the gallery’s uptake), the novelty of the idea soon goes viral, making Lucy something of a celebrity herself, prompting Max’s rekindled interest. Meanwhile, she and Nick have a close platonic friendship that, as in all movies of this kind, is waiting for the moment they realise it’s something more, but the path to that epiphany is still a rocky one when Nick fails to secure a needed loan and Lucy meets Chloe, the woman after whom the hotel (Nick’s broken heart memento) is named.
In all of this, the film features several scenes involving Lucy’s Sex In The City-styled childhood best friends and roommates, lesbian Nadine (Phillipa Soo), and Amanda (Molly Gordon), a law student who lives with her hipster boyfriend (Nathan Dales) who never says a word until the film’s almost over, the chemistry and snarky repartee between the three girls sprinkled with Nora Ephron and Woody Allen stardust.
A film about letting go, of following your dreams and looking to the future rather than being weighed down by the past, yes it’s a frothy trifle, but that’s really something you need on the menu right now. (Amazon Prime)
Coming 2 America (12)
Thirty-two years after the hugely successful John Landis original and it’s almost exclusively Black cast and almost two decades on from the career catastrophic The Adventures of Pluto Nash, an on form Eddie Murphy resurrects his character of Prince Akeem (along with the other three roles he played under heavy makeup), now back in the kingdom of Zamunda and happily married to Lisa (Shari Headley) and with three feisty daughters, Meeka (KiKi Layne), Omma, real-life daughter Bella Murphy) and Tinashe (Akiley Love).
What he doesn’t have is a son and heir, since by law women cannot inherit the throne. However, prior to his death, Akeem’s father, King Joffer (James Earl Jones) reveals that he does, in fact, have a son, the bastard offspring resulting from a drugged sexual encounter engineered by Akeeem’s aide Semmi (Arsenio Hall also playing Witch Doctor Baba and two others) during that visit to Queens. And so, the pair duly return to America where they discover Lavelle (Jermaine Fowler), a street smart hustler living with his brash mother Mary (Leslie Jones as Lavelle) and his uncle Reem (Tracy Morgan), transporting mother and son back to Africa to groom Lavelle for his new role (including having to snip the whiskers off a lion). It’s a situation General Izzi (a wildly hamming Wesley Snipes), the warmongering leader of Nextdoria and brother of the woman (Vanessa Bell Calloway) Akeem declined to marry in the last movie and is still barking like a dog, is keen to exploit by marrying him off to his daughter Meeka (Kiki Layne). Much to the dismay of his wife and daughters, Akeem agrees. Lavelle, however, has fallen for royal groomer Mirembe (Nomzamo Mbatha), throwing up further complications and culminating in yet another trip back to Queens where Akeem’s reminded about following your heart..
With several other returning characters from the original along with a plethora of cameos playing themselves (among them Morgan Freeman, Salt N Pepa, John Legend and Gladys Knight) and assorted song and dance sequences, despite feeling the need for some unnecessary vulgarity, directed by Craig Brewer (who coaxed a towering performance from Murphy in Dolemite Is My Name), it may have largely dispensed with the originals theme of Black identity and dismantling stereotypes, this is funnier more often than not. Just not as often as it might have been. (Amazon Prime)
The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It (15)
The seventh in the franchise, if you include the spin-offs, this brings the focus back to real life exorcists and Christian paranormal investigators Ed (Patrick Wilson) and Lorraine (Vera Farmiga) Warren), based on events from 1981 when they carried out an exorcism on bespectacled 8-year-old David (Julian Hilliard), who talks in a guttural voice and contorts his limbs. Ed’s remark that he “can’t remember one quite like this” provides the springboard for what follows as we plunge into a tale of possession when Arne (Ruairi O’Connor), the boyfriend of David’s sister Debbie (Sarah Catherine Hook), dares the demon to take his body instead (Ed sees but then has a demon-provoked heart attack before he can warn anyone, leaving him on medication), leading to mayhem and murder as the Warrens support him at the ensuing trial in Brookfield, Connecticut, where he declares that, quite literally, the devil made him do it.
A rather more sober and less horror effects driven outing this time around, with the explanation for events more about human malevolence than demonic forces (a satanic cult, that prompts the Warrens to enlist a specialist former priest), this, more of a paranormal procedural than a horror movie, doesn’t have the impact of its predecessors but the spell still has enough power to warrant a look. (Vue)
The Croods : A New Age (PG)
A belated sequel to the 2013 animation about a stone-age family, following a quick reminder, this picks up shortly after the original with overprotective dad Grug (Nicolas Cage) still not happy with the idea that teenage daughter Eep (Emma Stone) has struck up a romantic relationship with more evolved outsider, Guy (Ryan Reynolds). Here, though, we learn more about him in an opening sequence in which his late parents send him off in search of his tomorrow before they’re drowned in tar. Giving Eep an eternity rock, they plan to set off on their own path and way from the smelly sleep pile, until, as they, Grug and the rest of the family, wife Ugga (Catherine Keener), numbskull son Thunk (Clark Duke), Gran (Cloris Leachman) and feral five-year-old Sandy are out foraging with their giant pet sabretooth, Chunky, in search of a new home after their cave was destroyed, come across a walled day-glo Eden stuffed with watermelons, berries and all manner of food.
This, it turns out, is the home of The Bettermans, Phil (Peter Dinklage) and Hope (Leslie Mann) and their daughter Dawn (Kelly Marie Trann), an advanced new agey flip-flops-wearing family who’ve invented nicer pale blue clothes, agriculture, irrigation, showers, lifts, indoor plumbing (cue toilet gag) and live in set of a luxury tree apartments. They, it transpired, knew Guy as a child and it was here that his parents were sending him. Now, socioeconomic snobs, they want to pair Dawn off with Guy and be red of the Croods as soon as possible, all under the guise of being friendly and doing it for their new guests’ best interests of a bright future beyond the garden.
Meanwhile, Eep and Dawn bond and take off on Chunk on the latter’s first adventure beyond the walls, proudly scoring her first scar, Thunk has become a prehistoric app social media zombie watching the world through his ‘window’ and Phil has a manipulative man to man chat with Grug in his man cave sauna, persuading him to agree to them taking Guy off his hands. The climax hinges on Grug defying Phil’s sole rule and eating all the bananas which, turns out to be a bad thing, since they are in fact the only thing keeping the Bettermans’ paradise safe from a tribe of quick to learn punch monkeys and, in turn, a giant mandrill-like answer to King Kong.
Naturally, all this builds up to messages about family, parenting, acceptance, living in harmony and, as, led by Gran, a warrior in her day, the women come to the rescue as the Thunder Sisters, a big dose of female empowerment. There’s some great sight gags, such as Guy poring over a scrapbook of old family cave drawings as well as big action sequences like the Croods battling the predatory kangadillos as they race through a canyon all set against an often surreal and psychedelic looking landscape inhabited with things like land sharks and Wolf-Spiders. The voice work is excellent, Cage, Stone and Dinklage taking the honours, the banter witty, satirical, knowing and peppered with in jokes. If you are of a mind, you can even read into it a political message about a divided America, but probably best to just be a kid, ride the prehistoric rollercoaster and enjoy the silliness. And the peanut toe. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Vue)
The Dig (12)
A polite and genteel very English period drama directed by Australia’s Simon Stone, this is based around real life events and the Sutton Hoo discovery in 1939, with war looming, of an 89-foot Anglo Saxon burial ship and is treasure buried beneath a mound in a Sussex field.
It was the most significant Anglo Saxon find until the discovery of the Staffordshire Hoard seventy years later. The land belonged to the relatively young and recently widowed Edith Pretty (Carey Mulligan) who, with an interest in archaeology and an intuition about the mounds in the back garden, engaged taciturn, self-taught pipe-smoking working-class ‘excavator’ archaeologist Basil Brown (Ralph Fiennes with a broad accent, unlike the refined speaking voice of the other main characters), a freelancer for the Ipswich Museum, to dig away and see what he found.
On discovering the remains of the ship, the big boys descended in the form of pompous British Museum archaeologist Charles Phillips (Ken Stott) and his team to take charge and send Brown packing. Petty refused to let him go and (later publically ensured he receive full credit) Phillips agreed he could remain, but not work on the excavation as the treasures are unearthed revealing the Anglo Saxons to have been a far more sophisticated lot than assumed, with art and currency.
Other than some social class snobbery on the part of the London mob and Pretty’s quiet refusal to be browbeaten just because she’s a woman, even when she’s diagnosed some terminal illness, which she naturally keeps to herself, there’s not a lot more for the film to explore in this particular scenario, although it does spend some time on Edith’s young son, Robert (Archie Barnes), who sees Brown (who lives in and only returns to his stoical supportive wife at weekends) as a sort of surrogate dad,
Consequently, mid-way in, the narrative focus expands to take in a romantic subplot involving Margaret ‘Peggy’ Piggott (Lily James), the wife of fellow archaeologist Stuart (Ben Chaplin) who both form part of the British Museum team, the latter, at least here, invited because she doesn’t weight much, so won’t break the relics. Her husband being somewhat indifferent to her sexually, preferring the company of the lads, Peggy (who was the aunt of the source novel’s author John Preston) finds herself attracted to Pretty’s (fictional) handsome cousin Rory (Johnny Flynn) who assigned to photograph the dig (this somewhat negating the film’s low key feminist threads, given the find was documented by two female photographers), only for him to be called up when war’s declared.
Beautifully shot against a rolling verdant rural landscape with a couple of very striking sequences, it’s tasteful to a fault, the ending musing on the legacy of the past and what we in turn will leave behind us, it may not have as much depth or earthiness as the dig itself, but of its kind it is a kind of treasure. (Netflix)
Escape Room: Tournament of Champions (12A)
Yet another horror sequel, it picks up from the end of the original where, survivors of the Minos Corporations twisted fatal escape room scenarios, Zoey (Taylor Russell) and Ben (Logan Miller) agreed to go after those responsible and take them down, So, taking a car due to her fear of flying (and pay attention to the counselling session with her shrink that pays off in the final scene), they head for the New York coordinates where the HQ is supposedly locate and, chasing a thief who snatches her compass, find themselves on a subway train in what turns out to be an elaborate electrified escape room, their four fellow passengers, ex-priest Nathan (Thomas Cocquerel), Rachel (Holland Roden), who’s unable to feel physical pain, social media travel blog influencer Brianna (Indya Moore), and swaggery alpha male Theo (Carlito Olivero), also escape room survivors, thus prompting one of them to conveniently deliver the title phrase.
What follows is inevitably a rerun of the first film, with ever more ingenious (and logically impossible) underground danger rooms that variously involve a bank lobby filled with codes and deadly lasers, a beach with quicksand and an urban street lashed by acid rain, as the gradually dwindling team seeks to solve the clues that will allow them to escape. All of which builds to a climax with Zoey coming face to face with another, supposedly dead, character from the first film and another twist to the series setting up yet another cliffhanger for a second sequel.
Taking at a breathless race against the clock pace, it’s not always clear what’s going on and the new contestants don’t have any real backstory or character depth, making their fates somewhat hard to engage with, but if the first film worked for you, then this won’t disappoint. (Cineworld 5 Ways; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Vue)
Fast and Furious 9 (12A)
What began as a series about society outsiders racing against each in fast cars, has gradually evolved into a franchise more on the lines of Mission Impossible or The A Team, with the characters embarking on daring missions, often on behalf of some government agency or other, to take down bad guys looking to cause assorted types of havoc. The latest, which sees Justin Lin returning as director as well as co-writer for the first time since FF6 is the most preposterous yet, but at least all concerned have the good sense to acknowledge just how untethered it all is to any form of reality. There’s a hilarious moment when Roman (Tyrese Gibson) remarks on how strange it is that they’ve been through all manner of scrapes, crashes and explosions and emerged without a scratch, that they appear to be invincible. Now, normally, that would be a sign that someone was going to end up dead or seriously maimed, but not here, rather it plays along with the self-mocking note and pushes the envelope even further. Into space, as it happens.
However, to return to the start, Dom Toretto (Vin Diesel) is now living off the grid with Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) are trying to lead a quiet life with his young son Little Brian when their old team, Tej (Chris Bridges), Roman and Ramsey (Nathalie Emmanuel) turn up with a new mission to investigate a plane that’s crashed in foreign territory. Letty gets on her bike and joins them, but Dom demurs, only to turn up just as they’re about to take off, the reason being he’s discovered the involvement of his estranged brother Jakob (Jon Cena), whose existence – and the entire franchise – has kept secret until this very moment. Which sends the film off into a hitherto never told backstory flashback to their teens in 1989 whereby it’s revealed that their racing driver father (JD Pardo) was killed during a race and Dom (Vinnie Bennett) subsequently learnt Jakob (Finn Cole) was involved in tampering with the car, causing the accident, resulting in a race-off show down and Jakob being told to drive out of his life and never come back. Since which time, determined to escape his brother’s shadows, he’s become a sort of petulant super mercenary and he’s now working for Cipher (Charlize Theron) and being bankrolled by Euro-brat dictator’s son Otto (Thue Ersted Rasmussen) in a plot to steal the two halves of some high-tech device known as Project Aries that will enable them, stop me if you’ve heard this one before, to take control of all of Earth’s computer systems and weaponry.
But this is just for starters, the screenplay taking things ever further with the crew travelling to virtually every country on the planet, Lin putting the car into carnage with ever more over the top sequences, including driving at high speed through Central American jungle full of land mines, racing across a collapsing wooden bridge above a chasm, slingshotting a car across a mountain pass and a frenetic metal crunching chase through the streets employing a running action-gag involving giant fuck you magnets, culminating in bickering buddies Tej and Roman being launched into space to sabotage the satellite via a space shuttle carrying a red Pontiac Fiero with rocket boosters strapped to its roof. In-between which there’s more flashbacks to the teenage years as Dom learns more about what actually happened that fateful day, the usual talk about the importance of family, returning appearances by Jordana Brewster as the brothers’ sister Mia, Lucas Black as Sean, Kurt Russell as mysterious spook Mr Nobody, a brief London cameo (and accompanying car chase) by Helen Mirren and, as the coup de grace, the return of Han (Sung Kang), presumed dead since FF6 back in 2013 along with a complex back story explanation and a feisty sword-wielding ward (Anna Sawei) who turns out to hold the key to the entire world domination scenario. Unashamedly ultrasilly and knowingly preposterous, but a whole tanker full of popcorn fun. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC; Empire Great Park; Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Vue)
Flora & Ulysses (PG)
Narrating her own story, ten-year-old Flora (an ultra-cute Matilda Lawler) is a comic book fan (mostly Marvel, it seems) who lives with her award-winning (a Jack and Rose statue a la Titanic) romantic novelist mother Phyllis (Alyson Hannigan) who has hit a creative block since separating from husband George (Ben Schwartz), a comic book artist who fell into a slump when he couldn’t get his characters, such as Incandesto (who Flora fantasises along with his sidekicks), published and now works a store shelf-stocker. Trying to get her mojo back, Phyllis has bought an old-fashioned typewriter hoping it will help write the new novel, the deadline for which is looming. It will prove important in a very different way.
Flora (who actually looks like a young Hannigan) is first seen looking to sell her comics stash, disillusioned that superheroes never turn up in the real world when you need them, becoming a self-described cynic with the motto “Do not hope. Observe.” Her favourite book is Terrible Things Can Happen to You. However, her life changes when she rescues a squirrel that’s been sucked up by a neighbour’s remote outdoor vacuum, giving it mouth-to-mouth to bring it back to life. Naming him Ulysses, she takes the rodent home where he proves to be a rather special squirrel, typing out a poem note (“holy unanticipated occurrences!” declares Flora) and proving precisely the bush-tailed superhero she needs in her life.
Naturally, there needs to be a nemesis which, rather inevitably, proves to be the town’s squirrel-obsessed animal control officer (Danny Pudi) who enters the picture after Ulysses causes chaos at a diner, leading to panic cries of rabies. Pursuing a storyline in which he plays a crucial role in bringing Flora’s parents back together, rekindling their personal and professional spark, it also introduces a support cast of eccentrics such as George’s wise and kindly neighbour Dr. Meacham (Anna Deavere Smith) and Flora new friend, a British boy called William (Benjamin Evan Ainsworth) who’s been dumped there for the summer after being diagnosed with hysterical blindness following an incident he’s rather not discuss and who provides much of the comedy seeing via echolocation by making little chirps and usefully having “a knack for absorbing short falls.” Plus a psychotic rangy cat.
Partly about opening yourself up to the magic that surrounds you, it’s a delightful good hearted affair, both amusing and touching, with plenty of action sequences such as Ulysses’s rescues and the scene where Flora and her father break into the animal pound to stop him being euthanised, to keep it rolling along. Brilliant CGI brings a very realistic Ulysses to life and infuses him with real character, which further adds to the chemistry with Lawler, the silliness guarantees to keep the kids happy while director Lena Khan throws in plenty for the grown-ups too, ranging from a soundtrack that classics by Cat Stevens and Tom Jones to such film nods as ET and even a sly reference to Apocalypse Now. An utter joy. (Disney +)
The Forever Purge (15)
The fifth in the series, and the most political yet, this gets the set-up out of the way quickly. Despite having been dismantled in the previous film, apparently the New Founding Fathers of America have been re-elected and have reintroduced the annual 12-hour amnesty for any form of crime, murder included. It’s fairly clear where the film’s coming from and going to with an introductory sequence where Adela (Ana de la Reguera) and her husband Juan (Tenoch Huerta) journey to a shack in the Mexican desert and then through tunnels into Los Feliz Valley in Texas along with other illegal immigrants. She gets a job in a restaurant and he as a horse whisperer ranch hand for the wealthy Tucker clan, headed up by liberal patriarch Caleb (Will Patton) and including headstrong smug son Dylan (Josh Lucas), Dylan’s pregnant wife Cassie (Cassidy Freeman) and Dylan’s younger sister Harper (Leven Rambin). While not overtly racist, Dylan harbours resentment against Juan when he tames a horse he cannot and, later says that he thinks each should stick to their own kind.
That’s a sentiment taken to extreme by a new breed of American fascists who, when the first of the new purges ends, the Tuckers safe in their shuttered farm and, using a bonus from Caleb, Anna and Juan taking shelter in a refuge for Mexicans protected by armed mercenaries, refuse to call it a day. Rather, they declare a Forever or Ever After Purge dedicated to purify America by ridding it of all the ‘brownies’. Meanwhile, along with his right-wing New Patriots sidekicks, one of the disgruntled Tucker ranch hands (Brett Edwards) takes the family prisoner as part of his own class war. Caleb agreeing the system sucks with the rick exploiting the poor, and having pointed out the bitter irony of them serving the NFFA, he’s duly given a bullet in the head before Juan, his buddy TT (Alejandro Edda), rescue them and, gathering Anna (herself rescued from a Purge Purification Force by her Black boss Darius and pretty nifty at handling an automatic rifle), and everyone setting off in a semi-truck with assorted Purgers on their trail.
Directed by Everardo Valerio Gout from a screenplay from series creator James DeMonaco, it takes on the feel of a gritty Western as, El Paso and other cities falling to the PPF, the NFFA, under threat from the monster its created, sending in and then withdrawing the military, led by Native American activists Chiago (Zahn McClarnon) and Xavier (Gregory Zaragoza), the group has to race against the clock to navigate the El Paso war zone and cross the border into Mexico for sanctuary, Dylan, naturally, reassessing his attitudes along the way. Drawing heavily on films like Mad Max:Fury Road and Damnation Alley for the frantic chase and fierce, bloody action sequences, especially out in the desert and mountains, it rattles along and. while the political irony is never subtle (American ‘dreamers’ seeking freedom in Mexico) that doesn’t weaken its potency. It’s also hard not to think of the Capitol siege by right wingers in the final days of the Trump presidency.
Amid the carnage, fight for survival and Dylan’s moral sensibility awakening to a common humanity, there’s also some grim black humour, such as when Anna and Darius (Sammi Rotibi) find themselves inside a police prison wagon alongside a neo-Nazi who can identify the different makes of guns going off in the streets from the noise they make. Ending with an image of a divided America rising up in a civil war, common-sense pitted against madness, the sixth, and presumably final, entry promises to be dynamite. (Empire Great Park; Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Vue)
The Glorias (15)
Recently a central figure in the TV series Mrs America which focused on her role in the feminist movement’s struggle for equal rights, adapting the autobiographical My Life on the Road, writer-director Julie Taymor offers a wider look at the life of Gloria Steinem and her journey to becoming a women’s lib icon. As such, it ranges from her itinerant childhood (her father an impecunious travelling antique-salesman, the family lived in a trailer), through her travels in India during the late 50s, her years as a lauded journalist that kickstarted with an undercover expose of the Bunny Girl world for Show magazine and culminated in the launching of Ms Magazine (the term finding its way into official recognition as a form of address) and her work crusading for abortion rights (the film recreates her visit to a London doctor – Tom Nowicki – in 1957 when she fell pregnant) and female equality.
As such, she’s played by four different actresses. Nine-year-old Ryan Kiera Armstrong is the youngster growing up in 1940s Ohio with her irrepressible father Leo (Timothy Hutton) and depressed mother Ruth (Enid Graham), who gave up her own career as a writer – under a male pen name – when she married, moving from one town to another, while, after their divorce, Lulu Wilson is the teenage incarnation living in Toledo as her mother’s mental health falls apart while dad takes off to California. In her twenties, travelling India and making a name for herself as a New York journalist, Alicia Vikander steps in (and introduces the signature aviator glasses) while the older Steinem of the feminist era is played by Julianne Moore, looking uncannily like the real thing as witnessed when Steinem herself finally steps up to reprise her triumphant address to the assembled crowds in Washington.
But rather than hewing to a strictly linear path of Steinem’s greatest hits, Taymor moves back and forth between the Glorias, one scene giving way to another years later/earlier, while also bringing all four together in a black and white sequence as they share conversations while travelling on a Greyhound bus. Fleshing out the cast of characters is a roll call of other women’s movement luminaries who were in her orbit, among them Janelle Monae as Dorothy Pitman Hughes who teaches her how to speak in public, Lorraine Toussaint as the outrageous shoot-from-the-hip Flo Kennedy, Kimberly Guerrero ‘s Wilma Mankiller and an exuberant Bette Midler as Bella Abzug.
Taymor laces all of this with a series of fantasy and psychedelic sequences, including a riff on The Wizard Of Oz when Steinem’s interviewed with a male TV presenter asking why she never married while also frequently shifting between colour and monochrome, or even (as with the yellow road markings) mixing both. And yet, underpinned by the core old school biopic narrative, the film never feels confused or adrift and, even at over two hours it keeps you glued to the screen and the story of this self-styled crazy woman. (Sky)
A Good Woman Is Hard To Find (18)
A financially strapped widowed single-mother of two living on a Northern Ireland council estate whose husband (who everyone wrongly thinks was a dealer) was killed in a drug-related murder that left her son too traumatised to speak, Sarah (Sarah Bolger) is told in no uncertain terms by her reproving middle class mother (Jane Brennan) that she’s too soft. Opening with a scene of her showering of blood and tissue, the film sets out to disprove that, gradually working up to the reason for the shower and a potent confrontation with a drug boss and his goons.
Initially though, Sarah’s very much the hapless victim (also harassed by the supermarket security guard) when, having snatched a bag of coke from a dealer’s car, bottom-feeder Tito (Andrew Simpson) breaks into her home and forces her to hide the stash. And he keeps coming back to retrieve it to sell, and, while he does offer her a cut, she refuses. Eventually, her young kids threatened and the cops just another intimidating force in her life, things take a very visceral turn when local Mancunian gangster Leo Miller (Edward Hogg), who had her husband killed, tracks her down and demands she reveal where Tito is hiding, something which, having dismembered him, isn’t going to be easy. All of which, culminates in her going to their nightclub offices for a decidedly violent climax that proves her anything but soft.
Part exploitation thriller, part kitchen sink drama, and with a very deadly used of a dildo, it rises above the usual girl-power vengeance fantasy largely thanks to a terrific performance from Bolger giving vent to her long suppressed rage in spectacular Grand Guignol style. (Amazon Prime)
The Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard (15)
The sequel to 2017’s The Hitman’s Bodyguard, a mediocre action comedy that managed to catch a box office wave, this reunites its stars, Ryan Reynolds as neurotic bodyguard Michael Bryce and Samuel L. Jackson as his frenemy unkillable hitman Darius Kincaid. The former now stripped of his licence after a client as killed, he’s undergoing therapy, the result of which sees him electing to take a sabbatical from guns and killings and to chill out on the beach, recording phone message to his future self.
It’s while doing so that he’s yanked brutally back into the mayhem when he’s rudely awakened in the middle of a shoot-out by Kincaid’s foul-mouthed sociopath con artist wife Sonia (Selma Hayek who, for much of the time, has an accent too thick as to be unintelligible)), who tells him her husband wants his help to rescue him from kidnappers. Which is just the set up for the main narrative, an often incoherent plot that involves Antonio Banderas as Greek billionaire Aristotle Papadopolous, who intends to destroy Europe for crippling his beloved homeland with sanctions. Suffice to say, the film essentially comprises a series of jokes about Hayek’s breasts, an infertility issue, Reynolds and Jackson swapping snarky comments, a couple of underwhelming twists (one of which involves Morgan Freeman as a key figure from Bryce’s past) and a whistle stop tour around assorted European locations. Frank Grillo grits his teeth and takes the money as an American Interpol agent who’s reluctantly recruited the madcap trio to pose as criminals and stop Papadopolous, his running gag being how he wants to be relocated to Boston, while blood and expletives splatter the screen and everyone shouts a lot as a substitute for wit (there’s probably three good lines) and actual dramatic action in an apparent attempt to beat audiences into submission. There’s also painfully unfunny references to Kurt Russell/Goldie Hawn’s Overboard as a “minor classic’.
Aside from one scene in a night club (where Richard E Grant gets to embarrass himself in a baffling pisspoor cameo, the film’s title is a complete misnomer, as contrived as everything around it as a calculated attempt to rake in as much money as possible before word of mouth puts a bullet between its eyes. (Vue)
I Care A Lot (15)
Rosamund Pike electrifies the screen in this return to thriller form by J Blakeson, the British writer-director of The Disappearance of Alice Creed. Pike plays Marla Grayson, a latter day Gordon Gekko with a severe bob cut and a vaping habit who, by greasing the right palms, from doctors (Alicia Witt) to administrators (Damian Young), has carved a lucrative scam for herself and her business partner cum girlfriend Fran (Eiza Gonzalez) by having vulnerable senior citizens declared incapable and, with the help of an admiring judge, placed into care with herself and her firm appointed as legal guardian. At which point they proceed to plunder their estate and savings under the guide of necessary expenses and administration fees.
Just how smoothly she works her Kafkaesque schemes things is shown in the first courtroom scene where she gets the son of one of her ‘clients’ barred from visitation rights after he caused a scene at the care home. Looking for their next mark, the pair target Jennifer Peterson (Dianne Wiest), a wealthy senior showing early mild signs of dementia and with no apparent family to take responsibility. A ‘cherry’. The next thing Peterson knows is that, without warning or any court appearance, she’s being bundled out of her home by social services and the police and taken off to be placed under the charge of one of Marla’s creepy care home administrator accomplices, stripped of her cell phone, and pumped with tranquilisers. Marla, meanwhile, puts the house up for sale and discovers a fortune in diamonds in a safety deposit box.
It’s at this point that what initially appeared to be a caustic satire on rampant and ruthless capitalism, the treatment of the elderly and the flaws in America’s legally appointed guardianship system suddenly pulls a genre flip into a deadly cat and mouse thriller. Peterson, you see, does have family. A son she sees once a year on a prearranged date. He’s Roman Lunyov (Peter Dinklage), a ruthless businessman who just happens to be a former Russian mafia kingpin. And he doesn’t take kindly to having his mother locked away. As Peterson coldly informs her “”I’m the worst mistake you’ll ever make”.
Marla’s initially unaware of any of this of course, only that a snappily dressed lawyer (Chris Messina) turns up offering $150,000 for Peterson’s release and making hardly veiled threats when she, looking to hold out for a bigger payoff, turns him down.
Things very quickly turn murderously nasty in what develops into a battle of wits and power between Marla and Roman, Peterson as her leverage, as she looks to negotiate a better deal than he’s offering, and he decides to simply eradicate the annoyances.
While it’s hard not be impressed by Marla’s smarts and resilience, while both apparently care for their respective lover and mother, neither of the film’s despicable protagonists are intended to grab your sympathies, each lacking in the most basic humanity in their ferocious determination to succeed and become obscenely wealthy. Balancing a tightrope between compellingly nasty thriller and jet black satire, Blakeson rattles the action and tension along with barely a pause for breath as the stakes continue to rise before an unexpected resolution that returns to the predatory toxicity of the American Dream and a last minute comeuppance for at least one of those concerned.
Weist, Dinklage and Gonzalez are all terrific, but none can hold a candle to Pike who, making her Gone Girl performance seem like soft-pedalling tears into the screenplay like a wolf, toying with the dialogue before ripping it to shreds yet never once losing her chilly calm composure. In the opening voiceover, remarking how there are two types of people: predators and prey, lions and lambs, she declares “My name is Marla Grayson and I am no lamb. I am a fucking lioness.” Watch her roar. (Amazon Prime).
Jungle Cruise (12A)
It used to be that the film spawned the theme park ride, but these days it’s more often the other way round. This, set in 1917, is the seventh to be based on a Disney theme park attraction, although cine-literate audiences will recognise it’s also heavily influenced by the Bogart and Hepburn classic The African Queen, the roles here taken by Dwayne Johnson and Emily Blunt. She’s Lily Houghton, a trousers-wearing British botanist who’s determined to find a legendary ancient tree, hidden somewhere in the depths of the Amazon, the petals of which, the Tears Of The Moon, will heal any illness. Wearing the same sort of hat as Bogart, he is Frank Wolff, the cynical skipper of a ramshackle river boat who, in hock to the local Italian businessman (Paul Giamatti), runs cruises up and down the Amazon, given to making dreadful puns and something of an opportunistic con artist staging assorted ‘perils’ for his gullible Western tourists. Lily having stolen a mystical arrowhead which, along with an old map, she believes will lead her to the tree, heads for Brazil along with her impractical foppish brother MacGregor (Jack Whitehall) where, after assorted antics (including a staged attack by Frank’s tame jaguar), she ends up hiring him to skipper them on their mission. She calls him Skippy, he calls her Pants. However, she’s not the only one after the petal and, as the travel up the Amazon, they’re pursued by Prince Joachim (an accent mangling Jesse Plemons), apparently one of the Kaiser’s sons, in his submarine, who wants to use its powers to help the German army win the war.
It should, at this point, be mentioned that there’s also a curse attached to the legend, dating back to the 16th century when, led by Aguirre (Edgar Ramírez), a bunch of Spanish Conquistadors came in search of the petals, massacred the natives who protected the tree and ended up being forever trapped by the jungle, their zombie selves being liberated and teaming up with Joachim.
Shamelessly pilfering from not only The African Queen, but also Romancing The Stone, Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Mummy and Pirates of the Caribbean (and for art house devotees, Aguirre, Wrath Of God), it could have profitably have been trimmed by 15 minutes (ditching some baggage as Frank does with MacGregors’), but you can’t say director Jaume Collet-Serra’s doesn’t give value for the price of admission, what with telepathic bees, snakes, rapids, plunging waterfalls, running over collapsing structures, swinging from ropes, dart-blowing natives, headhunters, explosions and much more. And along the way there’s the inevitable burgeoning romance between Lily and Frank (he has a secret, so let’s just say it’s probably good if she prefers older men) as well as a sensitively handled scene where MacGregor (Whitehall rising above his initial comic relief role) confesses to Frank that his affections are not directed at women.
Blunt and Johnson play off each other well, though it’s fair to say she scores the most points, and both throw themselves into the film’s physical demands with great gusto, and, at the end of the day, it’s all a good hearted rollercoaster ride through old fashioned Saturday matinee adventure escapism and none the worse for that. (Disney +; Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Vue)
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (15)
Following on from Fences, directed by George C Wolfe, driven by a score from Branford Marsalis with a sharp screenplay from Ruben Santiago-Hudson, this is the second adaptation from The Pittsburgh Cycle, a collection of ten plays by the late August Wilson chronicling the African-American community in the 20th century. Written in 1984, set in 1927, it was inspired by legendary blues singer Ma Rainey, dubbed the Mother of the Blues, played here in powerhouse form by Viola Davis, who won a Supporting Actress Oscar for the previous film. However, the dramatic focus and, inevitably, the film’s most compelling attraction, is that it co-stars the late Chadwick Boseman (with whom Davis appeared in Get On Up) delivering a volcanic, highly physical live wire performance in his final Golden Globe winning role as her band’s fictional trumpet player, Levee, an ambitious, cocky figure determined to make a name for himself but also troubled by a traumatic past.
First seen on his way to the recording studio, his attention’s caught by a pair of flash, yellow leather shoes which he buys and proudly shows off to his colleagues, and which will prove the catalyst to the film’s sudden, tragic ending. The youngest and a new addition to the ranks, he’s at the Chicago recording studio owned by Sturdyvant (Jonny Coyne), along with bassist Slow Drag (Michael Potts), veteran piano player, Toledo (Glynn Turman) and highly religious trombonist Cutler (Colman Domingo) the band’s de facto leader, to rehearse in the basement ready to lay down material for Ma’s next records, among them her signature tune Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, He, however, has his own ideas for the arrangement they should play, a swing intro designed to hook an audience looking for livelier, more danceable music. His swagger is buoyed by the fact Sturdyvant, seeing crossover potential, has agreed and also expressed interest in his own compositions with a view to recording, a step towards Levee forming his own band and becoming a star in his own right.
However, as Cutler points out, this is Ma’s music and Ma’s band and what she says goes. It’s clear from her first appearance, sporting gold teeth and overdone makeup, arriving in a swanky car driven by her nephew Sylvester (Dusan Brown) along with her latest flirty young pick-up, Dussie Mae (Taylour Paige), and immediately involved in an altercation with another driver, that she’s a blowsy, imperious diva used to getting her own way. Under no illusions as to her status in a white America, she also knows that the sales of her records give her the power to call the shots, something she makes very clear by her late arrival and the demands she makes during the session, declaring “they gonna treat me the way I want to be treated no matter how much it hurt ‘em”, much to the exasperation of her long suffering white manager Irvin (Jeremy Shamos).
Inevitably, then, she immediately slaps down Levee’s proposals, insisting that Sylvester will do the song’s spoken introduction (despite the fact he stutters) and they’ll play it the way it’s always been played. It’s not the only time during the session that Levee’s hopes will be taken away from him.
Much of the drama takes place in the rehearsal room where, in a mix of playful banter and more serious concerns, the conversation variously takes in fashion sense, the history of black oppression, Toledo’s views on the futility of trying to change things (“The coloured man, he’s the leftovers”, he declares after his African Stew monologue), Levee’s seemingly sycophant attitude to white folk, and, tellingly, the story of black man who sold his soul to the Devil and became untouchable. It’s here that, driven by the friction between Levee and Cutler that Boseman’s most electrifying, blisteringly intense scenes take place, first in recounting the childhood trauma of seeing his mother violated by a gang of white ‘crackers’ (who only stopped after scarring his chest with a blade) and what he learnt from his father’s revenge and, subsequently a physical knife-bearing confrontation with Cutler and a subsequent ferocious calling out of God for abandoning him (given added resonance since Boseman was by now dying of cancer) and never intervening to save his mother.
The knife, naturally, has, along with the shoes, a further part to play as the anger within Levee boils over in the wake of Rainey’s veto of his arrangement (his revenge is to have sex on the piano with Dussie Mae) and Sturdyvant’s rejection of his songs (and recording sessions) as of no commercial worth, the final intercut scenes, of course, underling white exploitation of black music as we see them being recorded by an all white line-up. The film will be celebrated and remembered as Boseman’s final and finest hour, but it’s also much more than that. (Netflix)
Made In Italy (12A)
There is of course an uncomfortable real life frisson about pairing Liam Neeson with his son Micheál Richardson as a father and son whose lives were upturned when, the wife and mother was killed in a tragic accident. There again this probably need any emotional support it can muster as it unfolds a well-worn tale of lives being healed under the Tuscan sun (which, of course, was an earlier film of exactly that title).
When his wife died, Robert (Neeson) packed his son off to boarding school (for reasons he explains later), returned to England, developed an artistic block and immersed himself in drink and one night stands. Now they’re estranged and Jack (Richardson) run a London art gallery (which his dad’s never visited) owned by his wife’s family, although he’s taken aback to learn that she’s planning to sell it. They’re going through a divorce and if he wants to keep it then he has to raise the money to buy them out. So, without mentioning the fine print, he duly seeks to persuade his father to sell their old Tuscan family home, which has stood empty for some 20 years. Surprisingly, he agrees, so off they pop to Italy where, overrun with the dust of time, the place is revealed to a prime case of a Fixer Upper, not least for the red and harsh Jackson Pollack-like mural Robert daubed on the wall to vent his grief. A challenge even for practised estate agent to the rich and pretentious, Kate (Lindsay Duncan, who also appeared in that other Tuscan idyll).
Still, albeit Robert less enthusiastically so, the two set about doing the place up and getting rid of the resident weasel, to which end Jack has the help of local single mother divorcee restaurant owner Natalia (Valeria Bilello), signalling of course the inevitable romantic interest. And then what is it that Robert has got padlocked in the nearby shed.
Written and directed by James D’Arcy, it’s cute, sunny and sentimental with attractive Tuscan views to distract you from the threadbare and predictable narrative as renovating the house plays as a glaring metaphor for repairing the father-son relationship and finding new starts. There’s a natural chemistry between Neeson and Richardson and, it makes a change not to see the former killing anyone, but that and the landscape are probably the biggest sells. (Amazon Prime)
During the Golden Age of Hollywood in the 30s and 40s, screenwriter Herman J Mankiewicz churned out many a motion picture, often without getting any screen credit. Then, in 1941, Orson Welles (Tom Burke), who, for his film debut, had been given carte blanche by RKO studios to make whatever he wanted, with whoever he wanted and with absolute control. So, he enlisted Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman) to write what would turn out to be Citizen Kane.
The only problem was that Mankiewicz, a garrulous ex-journalist, was a notorious drunk who had rubbed many a Hollywood executive the wrong way, getting fired on several occasions, and, on top of which, in the psychodrama version directed by David Fincher from his late father’s screenplay, he’s just broken his leg in a car accident. So, as told in vintage black and white (complete with the ‘burns’ in the corner that were used to indicate a reel change), he’s shipped out to a ranch house in the Mojave desert, ministered to by a German housekeeper, monitored by John Houseman (Sam Troughton) and dictating his script to English secretary Rita Alexander (Lily Collins), all of whom are charged with keeping him away from the booze. Welles, it would seem, has generously provided him a case of whiskey as a reward at the end of the day’s work, except it’s actually Seconal, to knock him out. It may not be what actually happened, but it makes for a compelling narrative.
Told in a series of flashbacks, each introduced with screenplay notes, it shifts back and forth between the writing of the script and the cynical, dishevelled Mankiewicz’s self-sabotaging drunken antics as, the court jester, he acerbically wisecracks his way around tinsel town, and, especially Metro Goldwyn Mayer studios, headed up by the manipulative Louis B. Mayer (Arliss Howard). Mayer tolerates his behaviour until it threatens the studio’s relationship with newspaper magnate Randolph William Hearst (Charles Dance) who, of course, served as the template for the film’s publishing giant Charles Foster Kane.
An affectionate (poison pen) love letter to old Hollywood, it balances the playful and mischievous (a bunch of writers improvising a Frankenstein plot to David O. Selznick) with the much darker side, notably Mank’s fury at learning, between them, the ultra-conservative Meyer and Hearst had, in California’s 1934 gubernatorial election, authorised fake newsreel footage to discredit socialist candidate Upton Sinclair, its fictional director Shelly Metcalf unable to live with what he did. All of which, of course, fed into the screenplay.
It’s a stellar cast with luminous performances from Amanda Seyfield as Marion Davies, a Hollywood comedienne star and the trophy girlfriend of the much older Hearst, who wanted to transform her into as dramatic actress, and with whom Mankiewicz has a platonic romance, alongside Tuppence Middleton as Mank’s long-suffering wife ‘Poor’ Sara, and Tom Pelphrey as his more successful brother Joe. However, it’s Oldman who magnetises the screen with his energy as the dissolute, at times bitter, at others compassionate, erratic genius, falling foul of Welles when, going against their contract, he declares, that he wants a credit, something that sees him almost bumped off the project. The film won one Oscar, Best Screenplay, shared between Mankiewicz and Welles, neither of whom was there to accept, the final moments of Fincher’s film playing out the interview where Mank delivered a brilliant last word on the matter. (Netflix)
The Mauritanian (15)
On Nov 20, 2001, recently returned from an electrical engineering scholarship in Germany, Mohamedou Ould Salahi left a wedding reception in his native Mauritania in north-west Africa to accompany the local police for questioning by them and the FBI regarding the planned millennium attack plots earlier that year. He did not return home until Oct 17, 2016. Alleged to have been the chief recruiter for 9/11 ( he had been part of Al Qaeda in the fight against the Russians in Afghanistan, alongside America, but had severed ties), for fourteen of these years he was held in at the US facility at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, all evidence against him entirely circumstantial (a cousin once called him from Osama Bin Laden’s phone) and without any charge ever being made against him.
In 2005, Nancy Hollander, a defence attorney specialising in human rights, and her associate Teri Duncan travelled from their New Mexico offices to Gitmo to meet with Salahi with a view to representing him, thus beginning a long legal pro bono battle to bring a case of habeas corpus, forever obstructed by the US government in obtaining access to vital documents, that did not come before the US court until 2010.
Now, based on Salahi’s best-selling memoir, Guantanamo Diary, compiled from his letters written from Gitmo to Hollander, director Kevin McDonald brings that story to the screen in a compelling serious-minded procedural drama that adroitly casts Jodie Foster as Hollander alongside Tahar Rahim as Salahi with Shailene Woodley as Teri Duncan and Benedict Cumberbatch as plays the devoutly religious Lt Col Stuart Couch who was given the job of prosecuting “the al Qaeda Forrest Gump” and (a friend having been killed in 9/11) was initially gung ho for the death penalty until he discovered exactly what the US government had been keeping quiet about the treatment of detainees and then refused to continue, declaring that while someone had to pay, it should not just be anyone.
It’s a straightforward telling of events, Hollander and Duncan navigating a minefield of military red tape, redacted documents, and government hostility, travelling back and forth to question the incredibly resilient Salahi who never loses his capacity to smile, as layer by layer the deceptions are peeled away to reveal the truth behind his confessions about his involvement as, in a harrowing flashback montage the horrific 70 uninterrupted days of torture, authorised by Donald Rumsfeld, he underwent at American hands are finally shown. Other flashbacks, to happier times with his family and his childhood also punctuate the drama, further compounding the travesty of justice he suffered, Hollander’s victory as much about defending the process of law and justice as defending a wrongly accused man. Even so, after the prosecution case was thrown out, Salahi remained at Guantánamo for a further six years on the orders of the Obama government. A film that stirs indignation about the way the US government trampled justice, human right, moral principles and the most basic humanity underfoot in a quest for vengeance, it’s perhaps brilliantly summed up in a throwaway shot at Gitmo where it was deemed acceptable to brutalise the detainees but a sing warns there’s a hefty fine for harming an iguana. (Amazon Prime)
A loosely autobiographical drama about Korean immigrants in the rural US inspired by writer-director Lee Isaac Chung’s childhood, it stars Steven Yuen as Jacob who, as the film starts, moves his wife Monica (Yeri Han) and their two young kids, Anne (Noel Cho) and David (the scene-stealingly cute and wise Alan S. Kim), her young brother with a weak heart, from California to live in a secondhand mobile home, propped up on cinder blocks in the middle of nowhere Arkansas, using the money saved from years working sexing chickens in the city.
The family’s not best impressed, but while they work in the local chicken hatchery, Jacob’s determined to turn the accompanying land into a farm, growing Korean vegetables to sell for his fellow ex-pats yearning for a taste of home. The soil, he tells his wife, is perfect. Unfortunately, the water supply isn’t. But with the help of eccentric Pentecostal field hand Paul (Will Patton), things initially seem to be starting to look up. Until Jacob’s dream starts hoovering up all their savings. And then, to keep his wife sweet, he agrees for her mother (BAFTA and Oscar Best Actress winner Youn Yuh Jung) to join them, the kids, who have become Americanised, not overly thrilled by the strange foods their mischievous Grandma brings with her. David, who has to share a room, reckons she smells Korean and takes exception to her embarrassing him about his bedwetting issues (he gets his revenge in wickedly funny way). She does, however, bring with her the water celery seeds of the title that she sows in the nearby creek, a versatile crop that (serving as the film’s metaphor) can grow anywhere.
As Jacob’s American Dream falls apart around him and the promised land increasingly becomes less so, so does it impact on family life and the marriage, the film never overplaying the way the fault lines develop and keeping a strong focus on the interaction of the characters making its emotional impact honestly earned. (Amazon Prime, Apple TV, Google Play, Vudu, YouTube)
The Mitchells v The Machines (PG)
Produced by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller who directed The Lego Movie and 22 Jump Street and produced Into The Spider-Verse and the other Lego movies with writer-director team Mike Rianda and Jeff Rowe making their feature debut (with characters based on their own family members), this is hugely entertaining fun animation with a solid message about embracing your inner weirdo and a cautionary tale about letting technology control you rather than the other way around.
When Mark Bowman, head of an Apple-like tech company, introduces his latest invention, an upgrade white humanoid robot servant version of his AI smartphone assistant, he’s not prepared for the Siri-like PAL (voiced by Olivia Colman) to take revenge for being consigned to history by taking control of the robots (who resemble Star Wars’ battle droids) and, Terminator-style, setting out to rid the planet of all humans. She’s not, however, reckoned on the Mitchells.
An oddball family headed up by technophobe Rick (Danny McBride), who wishes everyone would leave their cellphones for at least a few minutes and actually talk to each other round the dinner table, and super-positive wife Linda (Maya Rudolph), they have two kids, young dinosaur-obsessed Aaron (Rianda) who randomly calls people in the phone book to talk about them, and teenage Katie (Abbi Jacobson), an aspiring filmmaker who, on the back of her home videos featuring their cross-eyed pug Monchi, has landed a place at film school in California. However, her relationship with her dad is prickly since he just doesn’t get her and, for reasons explained later, tends to speak of potential failure rather than potential success.
Trying to make up for his comments and behaviour, Rick arranges to take the whole family on a road trip to Katie’s college in their battered orange station wagon and, stopping off at a rundown dinosaur attraction en route, they find themselves at the centre of the worldwide robot attack, rounding up humans and sending them off to their Silicon Valley HQ in flaying green boxes. And so it is the Mitchells end up as the last humans not in captivity and, with the aid of two robots (Fred Armisen, Beck Bennett) whose programming has been send into a spin by being unable to decide if Monchie is a dog, a pig or a loaf of bread, they set out to save the world.
It’s a silly and as anarchic as it sounds and all concerned revel in the opportunity to go wild, both in the use of the animation, which at times includes real YouTube clips as well as cartoon drawings of the family and their escapades, and in a non-stop barrage of gags, none of which miss the target, along with any number of energetic action sequences, including a show down with the world’s biggest Furby in a shopping mall and Linda letting loose her inner Mulan against PAL’s killer robots.
Never losing sight of its central theme of family bonds, father-daughter in particular, it rattles along with unflagging energy and a support cast that includes John Legend and Chrissy Teigen as the Mitchells’ supercool neighbours, this is an absolute joy. (Netflix)
Directed by and featuring Amy Poehler, this is an engaging high school dramedy with a fairly light touch that pivots around a theme of female empowerment in the face of institutionalised sexism and male chauvinism. BFF with Claudia (Lauren Tsai), equally introverted Oregon junior year student Vivian (Hadley Robinson) has her radical streak awakened with the arrival of African-American new girl Lucy (Alycia Pascual-Peña) who, after arguing they should be reading more contemporary relevant books than The Great Gatsby, is immediately targeted for bullying by the obnoxious boorish Mitchell (Patrick Schwarzenegger) whose behaviour is tolerated by the don’t rock the boat school principal (Marcia Gay Harden) as he’s the star of the school’s showcase football team, even though the underfunded girls’ team are far better players.
Following a show piece game during which everyone’s texted an anonymous list ranking students in derogatory terms of things like Best Ass, Best Rack, Most Bangable, Designated Drunk and Future MILF in which Lucy’s particularly subjected to vitriol, motivated by the outspoken Lucy’s defiant attitude and inspired by her own mom’s (Poehler) teenage riot grrrl rebel past (emblemised by dancing around to Bikini Kill’s Rebel Girl), Vivian puts together a photocopied zine she titles Moxie (a favourite word of the principal’s) attacking Mitchell and the school’s misogynistic climate anonymously distributing it around campus.
It’s an immediate hit with the other girls who’ve spent their school life as basically extras in a film starring the boys, inspiring many to equally take stand against the sexism (such as one being sent home for wearing tank top that highlighted her bosom) and, Vivian prompted to produce a second issue (presumably she has unlimited funding to pay for all this) and Moxie quickly becomes a movement.
Interlaced with this is a friendship crisis with Claudia, who feels sidelined by Lucy and whose strict mother keeps her from joining in the protests, and a budding romance with impeccably woke pro-feminist classmate Seth (Nico Hiraga), the only one who becomes aware she’s the one behind the zine. There’s also a minor subplot involving her discovering mom’s own new romance with that nice guy they met in the supermarket (Clark Gregg) that prompts a diner table tantrum in the wake of Vivian’s questioning her own self and values and that feminist revolution requires more than good intentions.
In variously tackling diversity, bully, sexism, the patriarchy and, in the final stretch, rape, while there’s some funny, snappy dialogue and Ike Barinholtz is amusing as the amiable, quietly supportive English class teacher, it perhaps inevitably lacks the wider humour of similar films such as Booksmart, Mean Girls (in which Poehler also played a cool mom) and Election. But nor is it overly earnest in putting across its message, leaving the narrative with poignancy and sweetness in equal measure while dutifully checking the dance scene, clothes shopping and other genre staple boxes.
Backed by a solid ensemble cast of characters from a variety of gender, ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds that allows individual personalities to shine through, Robinson and Pascual-Peña deliver knockout performances while Poehler ensures the energy and emotional thrust never flag, resulting in an inspirational and entertaining film that speaks not only to its intended teenage girls youth audience but all women who live under the pressure of a culture of toxic masculinity. (Netflix)
News Of The World (12)
Set in 1870, five years after the Civil War, Tom Hanks makes his Western debut, reuniting with director Paul Greengrass for a film that evokes True Grit and The Searchers minus the racism, Hanks plays Capt. Jefferson Kyle Kidd, a former Confederate infantryman who, before the war, ran a newspaper printing company and now, that swept away and, traumatised by what he’s seen and done, has left his wife behind to travel, unarmed save for a rifle that shoots only birdshot, from one Texas town to another, eking out a living –perhaps finding atonement – by giving lively readings from newspapers to bring his audience, still hurting from the war, stories of events from far and wide as they’re called on to be part of the recovery effort.
En route to his next stop, he comes across a wrecked wagon and a trail of blood leading to a tree from where a lynched Black man hangs, tagged with a note that reads “Texas Says No! This is White Man’s Country.” A movement gets his attention and he chases down what proves to be a 10-year-old girl who, it transpires, was being transported, against her will, to her aunt and uncle’s hill country farm hundreds of miles away near San Antonio having been abducted and raised by Kiowa Indians after her settler family were killed six years ago, now orphaned a second time with her Kiowa parents killed by soldiers as part of the reservations being cleared to pave the way for the Pacific Railroad. The girl’s named Johanna (Helena Zengel), but, while German, now only speaks Kiowa. Instructed by passing soldiers to take her to the Indian Agency representative at Red River, he’s informed he can either take her home himself or wait for the Agent to return.
Having no experience in caring for a child, initially seeking to offload her to a shopkeeper couple (Ray McKinnon, Mare Winningham), the feral girl proves too much of a handful and, learning more of her background via kindly Dallas innkeeper Mrs. Gannett (Elizabeth Marvel) speaks some Kiowa, he resolves to ensure she’s safely reunited with her relatives.
Ad so begins a long incident packed journey as the unlikely companions grow to understand more about each other and the differences in the cultures in which they were raised (she learns about forks, he learns about connection to the natural world), forging a bond and reciprocal trust. Their trip’s variously punctuated by run ins with, first a predatory former Confederate soldier (Michael Angelo Covino) and his sidekicks who offer to buy her off Kydd and won’t take no for an answer, leading to a tense shootout in the bluffs (Kydd armed with only a gifted revolver). That’s followed by an encounter with a lawless settlement of renegades presided over by the cruel racist despot Farley (Thomas Francis Murphy), who insists Kydd read from his own self-aggrandising (fake) newsletter and takes umbrage when, instead, he cannily delivers an inspirational account of striking miners rising up against their exploitative taskmasters.
And, of course, eventually, after a stopover to the site of her family’s murder, they inevitably cross paths with the Kiowa, though this plays out far differently and far more hauntingly sad than you might have expected, before finally arriving at the farm, where he leaves her to return and make things right with his wife.
Naturally, given the way things have been set up and the relationship that’s developed, the film has one final predictable chapter that, while sentimental, speaks eloquently of family, love and healing. Essentially a two-hander, playing a man of moral decency is no stretch for Hanks, but his soulful, quietly understated performance never feels rote while Zengel, who only gets to speak a few words of English, is superlative, conveying depths of emotion with her eyes and facial gestures. There’s a brief but memorable turn too from Fred Hechinger as a slow-witted member of Farley’s crew whose eyes and good heart are opened by Kydd’s readings and Johanna’s plight. Needless to say, the landscape is stunning.
Arriving at a time that calls for national divisions to be repaired and the value of the news media has been brought into question, its message of making connections, putting the past behind and moving forward to find peace needed now more than ever. (Netflix)
The triumphant winner of Best Film, Director and Actress at the Oscars, adapted from Jessica Bruder’s non-fiction Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century, this ever bit a slow burn, spare, quasi-documentary style work as Chloé Zhao’s previous film The Rider. Echoing the title, it kind of drifts and meanders without a clear destination in sight, but it’s the journey not the arriving that makes it so extraordinary.
Frances McDormand is Fern, recently widowed, a former substitute teacher and a victim of the economic downturn in Empire, Nevada, the local gypsum works being forced the close and the town even having its post code discontinued. As such, she’s made houseless, but not homeless, taking to the road with a few possessions, including the china plates her father collected, in her camper van, which she names Vanguard, living an itinerant life along with a nomadic, largely, elderly community of likeminded and similarly affected souls, working zero hours contracts in Amazon warehouses or burgers bars to make money for food and gas, moving on – in Fern’s case to Arizona – when the demand or the weather changes.
In her early sixties, she’s a flinty and determined oddball, never given to self-pity, kindly and compassionate to those she meets in need of comfort or whatever help she can offer, receiving their kindness in return. Most notably among them are David (David Strathairn), a kindly senior citizen with a strained relationship with his son back home and who offers the possibly of something more than friendship, and, Linda May who first brings her into the nomadic community by inviting her to the regular Rubber Tramp Rendezvous meetup and has found escape from despair through life on the road. She, like pretty much everyone else in the film including, the group’s leader, Bob Wells (who has a heartbreaking backstory), all featured as part of Bruder’s book, are playing themselves.
There’s very little by way of a drama (a flat tyre, an accident with a cardboard box), the film essentially a collection of small, naturalistic scenes punctuated here and there by monologues of wisdom (memorably one of ineffable beauty by a character named Swankie), some moving confessionals, a reunion and, for Fern, a slow emerging from the grief that, while she’s physically on the move, has held her in emotional stasis.
The political commentary on contemporary America is never in your face, but you always feel its subtle presence as Zhao crafts an almost dreamlike experience that, capturing a little seen American landscape with visual poetry, never forces or manipulates your response to of feelings for the characters or their broken dreams, who are defined by joy rather than sadness, although it’s fair to say the third act, which has her returning home to ask her sister for a loan and visiting David now back with his family feels more narratively hands on. But even so, this is an exquisite snapshot of an unseen America that will seep into your soul and linger for months. (Disney + Star)
Having made a comeback with The Visit and Split following a string of clunky misfires, the fact this was not given any advance previews is testament to the fact that M Night Shyamalan has again shot himself in the foot with a film that plays like an overlong Twilight Zone episode, and not a particularly good one.
Taking the graphic novel Sandcastle as a launch pad, it does have a compelling premise, a secret beach on the exclusive Anamika Resort island retreat where anyone who visits it ages rapidly, a year for every 30 mins they’re there, meaning most will be dead by the end of the day. The latest visitors are Guy (Gael Garcia Bernal) and Prisca Capa (Vicky Krieps) who, about to split up, after taken their two unsuspecting kids, 11-year-old Maddox (Alexa Swinton) and 6-year-old Trent (Nolan River) on one last family holiday. They’re joined by Charles (Rufus Sewell, a career worst performance), a decidedly intense surgeon, his trophy wife Chrystal (Abbey Lee), young daughter Kara (Kyle Bailey) and his mother Agnes (Kathleen Chalfant) plus another long-time couple, nurse Jarin (Ken Leung) and epileptic Patricia (Nikki Amuka-Bird). All of the adults have some sort of problem, be it physical, mental or emotional.
They’re all invited to the private beach by the obsequious hotel manager (Gustav Hammarstsen), the bus there driven by the director in his customary cameo, and happily set about swimming and sunbathing, Happily until they start making some strange finds, like piles of rusty hotel cutlery and when a woman’s naked dead body floats along. She turns out to have been the lover of rap star Mid-Size Sedan (Aaron Pierre), who is also on the beach and has a constantly bleeding nose, and whom Charles accuses of her murder. But then things get even weirder when the kids start to rapidly age into teenagers (variously Alex Wolff, Eliza Scanlen and Thomasin McKenzie), hang out, one gets pregnant and gives birth, the grown ups start developing wrinkles and a small tumour in Prisca’s abdomen suddenly grows huge, prompting Charles to carry out an impromptu surgery (the wound almost instantly healing).
Understandably horrified, they look to escape, but attempts to scale the rock face end up with the climber falling asleep half way, if they follow the path they came they faint and wake up back on the beach while the cave apparently harbours equal horrors. It’s not hard to suss out the value your life while you have it and you’re faced with the passage of time and encroaching mortality, but it’s much harder to understand the film’s tonal rollercoaster and wilful lack of consistency, which at one point takes in some body horror limb contortions, the laboriously overt exposition, clumsy puerile dialogue and the multitude of embarrassingly bad performances. The camerawork is effective and amps up the claustrophobia and mounting panic and there’s the inevitable Shyamalan ‘big’ twist to keep you intrigued as it heads to the risible climax, but this makes the recent schlocky Fantasy Island seem like a veritable masterpiece. Like the characters, the audience may feel their life slipping away as they watch. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel; Vue)
The Old Guard (15)
Following on from Mad Max and Atomic Blonde, Charlize Theron further underscores her cool action movie persona as Ancient Greece warrior Andromache of Scythia aka Andy, the head of a small group of immortal mercenaries that also comprises Booker (Matthias Schoenaerts), who gained immortality after dying in the Napoleonic Wars and Joe (Marwan Kenzari) and Nicky (Luca Marinelli) who became gay lovers while fighting on opposing sides in the Crusades. Keeping a low profile so as not to attract attention to themselves, they’ve fought on the side of right through the centuries, to which end, brought back together after a year apart, although, disillusioned by humanity’s continued inability to redeem itself, she declares “The world can burn for all I care”, she’s persuaded by former CIA operative Copley (Chiwetel Ejiofor) to rescue 17 schoolchildren abducted in South Sudan.
However, this turns out to be a set up aimed at capturing them and harvesting their DNA engineered by pharmaceuticals CEO Merrick (Harry Melling, unrecognisable from his role as Harry Potter’s Dudley Dursley) who claims he wants to end cognitive decline, but whose actual motives are rather less altruistic.
The corporate villain has become something of a cliché and the film, self-adapted by Greg Ruckahich from his graphic novels and which sees director Gina Prince-Bythewood spreading her wings after romantic dramas, never seems as assured in the basic plot framework as it does in handling the character interplay and the action sequences.
The quartet are soon joined by a fifth member, American Marine Nile Freeman (KiKi Layne) who, much to her confusion and the unease of her fellow soldiers, recovers from a fatal neck-wound in Afghanistan without so much as a scar. A psychic bond between fellow immortals leads to Andy rescuing her from the military base and, after a mano a mano fight aboard a transport plane, recruiting her to the cause, though she remains understandably freaked out about the whole set-up.
Not that, with Merrick’s paramilitary squad on their tail, anyone has a great deal of time to sit around reflecting on the cost of immortality and rapid healing, and never knowing when your time will be up. The character depth is thickened by the revelation that Andy is haunted by guilt over the fate of her first fellow immortal, Quynh (Van Veronica Ngo) following their capture during the witchcraft trials.
As such, the film jumps around from Africa and Southern Asia to rural Paris as the group elude pursuit and seek to track down Copley before, after a betrayal and two abductions for experimentation, it all climaxes in an extended shoot-out at Mannix’s London HQ.
Dressed in black (though flashbacks have her in Amazonian armour) with a bob-cut, Theron strides confidently through the film, delivering action and conflicted character complexity and psychological baggage with equal skill, and she’s well-supported by her four peers, Layne especially strong while Schoenaerts provides soulful melancholia and Kenzari and Marinelli introduce a degree of humour and tenderness.
With one of the group apparently losing their immortality and a six months later end credits scene that sets up further mystery and intrigue, this is clearly envisioned as an ongoing narrative, both as high octane action and exploring what it means to be human; it most certainly deserves a sequel. (Netflix)
One Night in Miami (15)
On February 25, 1964, cocky 22-year-old Cassius Clay defeated Sonny Liston in Miami to become the world heavyweight champion. The race laws being he was unable to celebrate in the white part of town, he drove to the Hampton House Hotel in a black neighbourhood where he planned to party with his friends, singer Sam Cooke, NFL star Jim Brown and Nation of Islam spokesman Malcolm X. The latter, understandably paranoid and troubled, accompanied by his two bodyguards, had booked a room, but, ice cream the only refreshment, partying was the last thing on his mind.
Adapted by Kemp Powers from his acclaimed 2013 play and marking the feature directorial debut of Oscar-winning actress Regina King, the film imagines what might have down in the room that night, the X (British rising star Kingsley Ben-Adir) laying into Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr., who does his own singing), fresh from a humiliating experience of being ignored by the all-white audience for his Copacabana show, for not using his music to speak of social – and specifically black – issues (holding up Dylan’s Blowing In The Wind as a role model), but rather selling out to the white pop market. The night also sees Clay (Eli Goree) announce that he’s becoming a Muslim, but later accuses his mentor of using him to further his own agenda, while Brown (Aldis Hodge), who’s seen earlier experiencing racism when a Georgia grandee (Beau Bridges), a self-declared supporter and admirer, won’t let him past the porch because “we don’t let niggers in the house”, talks about how he’s looking to run a parallel career in the movies.
It turns into an evening of confrontations and discussions about racism, politics and black responsibilities, each man with their own insecurities, all of them on the edge of making a transition in their lives (Clay becoming Muhammed Ali, X quitting the Nation to form his own movement, Brown retiring from football, Cooke famously appearing on Johnny Carson to sing Change Is Gonna Come, the lost footage recreated here) and examining who they actually are.
It’s heavily dialogue driven, but the performances, Ben-Adir the engine, ensure it’s never dry or lacking in dynamic, while X’s suspicions about some white men he things are following him, his call home to his wife in Detroit to reassure her and a scene of them being firebombed all add to the tension and atmosphere, but there is also room for humour, be it Clay’s preening narcissism or one of the bodyguards’ fanboy request for autographs.
Knowingly theatrical, although opened up with a prologue where Clay’s beaten by Henry Cooper and with several scenes beyond the room’s four walls, but never stagey, it raises still highly charged issues and leaves you, as with its four icons, pondering how to address them. (Amazon Prime)
Peter Rabbit 2: The Runaway (PG)
There’s a curious case of having your cake and eating it to this sequel based around the Beatrix Potter characters in that, now married to McGregor (Domhnall Gleeson wildly overacting), Bea (Rose Byrne) is approached by a smooth-talking major publisher, Nigel Basil-Jones (David Oyelowo), who wants to bring her stories to a wider audience, but to do so would mean departing from their simple innocence, such as having them wear t-shirts, going surfing or even into outer space. Bea is seduced by the idea, especially after he gives her a snazzy car, but McGregor feels this is betraying her principles and the characters, which, of course, are based on the animals on and around the farm where they live.
And yet the film itself seeks to do the very same thing for the same reasons, exaggerating it all into a frantic caper movie based, rather obviously, on Oliver Twist (in case you miss it, Rose starts reading Charles Dickens). In his game plan, the publisher wants to give the various characters defined personalities, with Peter (James Corden) being cast as the Bad Seed (with, self-referential joke, an annoying voice), reinforcing his feeling that, despite a tentative peace between him and McGregor, he’s always getting blamed for everything by McGregor, even when he’s not bene up to mischief. So, when everyone troops off to Gloucester (and if you think this means introducing Potter’s The Tailor of Gloucester into the plot, pat yourself on the back), he takes off my himself and runs into Barnabas (Lennie James), an old friend of his father’s who’s stealing fruit from the market and invites him to become part of his gang. So, deciding that if he’s always going to be seen as the villain of the piece, then he might as well be, Peter joins up with Barnabas’s crew, including masterplanner Samuel Whiskers and rough and ready felines Tom Kitten and Mittens (Hayley Attwell).
After showing Peter the ropes in how to get yourself adopted by humans so you can raid their food cupboard, Barnabas announces his big plan is to steal the dried fruit from Gloucester’s weekly market, persuading Peter to rope in all his friends, Flopsy (Margot Robbie) and Mopsy (Elizabeth Debicki), Cottontail (Aimee Horne), Mrs Tiggy-Winkle (Sia), Jemima Puddle-Duck (Byrne), Pigling Bland (Ewen Leslie), Mr. Jeremy Fisher (Gleeson), Tommy Brock (Sam Neill) and even Felix D’eer (Christian Gazel), to help pull it off.
Throwing in assorted amusing moments along the way (Cottontail having his first sugar high on jelly beans – or the hard stuff a Whiskers calls them), McGregor rolling down the hill, the old gag about standing on each other’s shoulders in a raincoat to pass off as one person, D’eer on a parachute) as well as a car chase, it naturally spins a message about family, friendship, being true to yourself and judging others by your preconceptions of them as it heads towards its rather rushed big finish (Bea, Peter and McGregor having to rescue the others from their assorted fates after being sold on by the local pet shop). McGregor even discovers Peter can talk.
While doing an equally good job of integrating the CGI animals alongside the actors, it lacks the charm and sweetness of Paddington and, like the books Basil-Jones wants to publish has very little in common with Potter’s stories, but the slapstick should keep the youngsters happy enough and, it has to be said, it does have a very clever spin on the obligatory lavatory gag. (Empire Great Park; Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel; Vue)
Cheerfully sporting its Tarantino and John Michael McDonagh influences, directed by Barnaby Thompson and written by Preston Thompson, this comedy thriller set in Co. Sligo, is great fun. The step-daughter of local drugs baron gangster Dermot O’Brien (Colm Meany), the spunkily ruthless but irresistible Pixie (Olivia Cooke) sets out to avenge her dead mother and score the money she needs to go to San Francisco, setting in motion a plot that involves her new lover Fergus recruiting her ex, Colin (Rory Fleck Byrne), to steal a consignment of MDMA from a syndicate of drug dealing Catholic priests, headed up by her step-father’s old rival, Father McGrath (Alec Baldwin). This leaves the priests dead and, subsequently, the jealous Colin putting a bullet in Fergus’s head, heading off with the bagful of drugs to have words with Pixie and himself ending up in the boot of a car driven by the naïve Harland (newcomer Daryl McCormack) who’s sitting outside her house waiting for his directionless best mate, Frank (Ben Hardy, Roger Taylor in Bohemian Rhapsody) who’s inside supposedly getting shagged. And that’s just the start.
Now they and Pixie find themselves thrown together with Colin’s body in the boot, first trying to offload the drugs to a local dealer’s Dingle-based uncle (Dylan Moran) and then on the run across the county, Pixie’s step-brother, who reckons dad’s lost his grip, looking to bring her down using the family’s pet hitman (Ned Dennehy), before setting up a deal with McGrath that culminates in a rival gangs shoot-out in an abandoned church.
Taking its cue from Westerns, it romps along with a copious supply of blood, violence and knowingly spark dialogue as the various characters seek to outmanoeuvre on another, before you get to the revelation about Pixie’s mother’s death and how it ties everything together. It makes a couple of unnecessary plot detours, such as snogging threeway between Pixie, Frank and in which the latter realise the extent of their bromance, but, putting a fresh spin on some old clichés, it otherwise proves a welcome escapist delight, not least for the sight of a gun toting nun. Father Ted was never like this. It had me at gangster priests. (Amazon Prime)
Promising Young Woman (15)
Named Best British Film and both BAFTA and Oscar winner for Original Screenplay, the feature debut by writer-director Emerald Fennell (a scripter for Killing Eve and who played Camilla Parker-Bowles in The Crown) is also nominated for a raft of Oscars, among them Best Picture, Director and Actress, a deserving nod for Carey Mulligan. She gives a mesmerising performance as Cassie, an emotionally closed-off 30-year-old who once had a bright future as a doctor and now lives with her parents (Jennifer Coolidge, Clancy Brown), who give her a suitcase for her birthday, and works as a barista in a coffee shop manage by her friend (Laverne Cox). By night, however, she hangs out in bars, pretending to be drunk and gets picked up by supposed nice guys who offer to take her home and then try to take advantage of her, at which point she turns on them.
A toxic masculinity rape revenge thriller (though the circumstances are deliberately not made clear until the end as she targets the prime object of her vengeance), told in chapters, it variously has her turning the tables on an opportunistic young professional (Adam Brody), taking a crowbar to an asshole’s pick up truck and electrifying confrontations with the dean of her former med school (Connie Britton( and another lawyer academic (Alfred Molina), both of whom were involved in the aftermath of a group sexual assault on her childhood friend Nina.
She’s also involved with two other characters, a former friend and classmate Madison (Alison Brie) and Ryan (Bo Burnham), a former medical school colleague who’s now a successful paediatrician, with whom she embarks on a romantic relationship. However, both are closely linked to the driving trauma and, as things get progressively darker, her involvement with them is clearly part of her agenda, one that sees her turning up in stripper nurse costume for a stag do.
Lacing the unsettling narrative with dashes of romcom, it keeps you unsure of where it’s heading, making the shockingly unexpected climax all the more jawdropping in its horror and audacity, but also brilliantly laying out Cassie’s careful planning ahead, as the credits play out to track called Last Laugh.
Both consumed with rage, clearly unhinged and wracked with pain, self-loathing and vulnerability, Mulligan is sensational, the film compellingly gathering power and ferocity like some #MeToo Death Wish or Angel of Vengeance that leaves you equally stunned and gratified. (Sky)
A Quiet Place: Part II (15)
Three years ago, in his second film as a director, John Krasinski rewrote the alien-invasion/horror textbook with a film that, white knuckle tense, featured almost no dialogue as the characters, who communicated with sign language, had to remain silent as the invading creatures, while blind, hunted through hearing sound. Now, this time also writing the screenplay, he’s delivered a sequel to match while also cranking up the drama and emotional core.
Although his character, Lee Abbott, died protecting his family in the previous film, he’s written himself in with a prologue that flashes back to when, in the middle of a kids’ baseball match, the creatures first invaded with a terrifying sequence as they rampage through their town, he and his deaf daughter Regan (Millicent Simmonds) and his wife Evelyn (Emily Blunt and their two sons) initially separated, before they manage to pile into the truck and escape. Cut to day 474, Lee and their youngest son, Beau, dead, Regan, surviving son Marcus (Noah Jupe) and Evelyn, now with a new baby, making their way along the sand trail from their ruined farm, lugging an oxygen canister and the radio transmitter device that can disarm the creatures with them, to find a new refuge and perhaps other survivors at the end of the fire they see burning in the night.
And so it is they come upon Emmett (Cillian Murphy), an old friend, who, his own family gone, has forged a secure bolt hole in an abandoned steel mill but who, declaring there’s nothing left worth saving, initially refuses to help other than allowing them to stay for the night. Regan, however, is determined to spread word of the alien’s weakness and sneaks off to ty and find the source of the music, Bobby Darin’s Beyond The Sea, that’s being beamed out like a beacon. Persuading Emmett to follow and bring her back, the film then separates into three different narratives, that of Regan and Emmett as they look to get a boat to take them out to an island where the transmitter is apparently based, including a frightening encounter with a group of feral hostiles and a subsequent bloody alien attack, Evelyn as she ventures back into town to secure more oxygen and medicine for the anxiety-prone Mason whose foot was injured in a bear trap, and he himself, back at Emmett’s sanctuary, looking after the baby with the oxygen running low and a creature on the loose.
Despite dividing the focus, Krasinski never loses his grip on the electrifying tension, delivering series of action-packed set pieces as, over the course of a tight running time, the body count rises, and the characters all find themselves in desperate peril. The secret of the island is eventually revealed, only for what seems like hope found to come crashing down around everyone’s ears. Nor does he lose sight of the fact that it’s the family bonds that are the film’s beating heart, making audiences fully invest in the characters’ fates.
Borrowing elements from Aliens, Jaws and Jurassic Park and again employing a masterful use of sound design alongside jump scares, the pace and drama never let up, with the cast delivering focused and commanding performances, Simmonds in particular taking centre stage as a sort of teenage deaf Ripley using her hearing aid to induce the feedback that cripples the monsters long enough to shoot them. Essentially a bridging film that, with its abrupt ending, sets up the third part, it has Evelyn repeating her mantra to ‘just breathe’. Audiences might need reminding to do so too. (Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Vue)
Rare Beasts (18)
The directorial debut of Billie Piper, who also wrote the screenplay and stars, this addresses themes of gender roles and female self-esteem and insecurity in a manner not dissimilar to her TV series I Hate Suzie. Piper is Mandy, a self-deprecating 30-something Londoner looking to make a career in TV production, who lives with her terminally ill chain-smoking mother (Kerry Fox) and has a difficult relationship with boozy absent father (David Thewlis) who, while not out of the picture, refuses to take on any family responsibility. She also has a seven-year-old son Larch (Toby Woolf) who is clearly on the spectrum with an array of behavioural problems that, unable to cope, she simply tries to ignore.
We first meet her on a date with patronising colleague Pete (Leo Bill) who, after professing to be highly religious, then embarks on a weed-stoked conversation as to how good she would be at oral sex given her teeth. The night doesn’t end promisingly, but the relationship surprisingly progresses, Mandy introducing him to Larch as the film wanders through assorted moments of awkward sex, days out and even a disastrous trip to a wedding in Spain with Lily James as a post-post-post feminist bride. There’s temper tantrums by Larch, blazing rows and all manner of confrontations as Piper’s edgy narrative digs deep into her characters insecurities, Pete not helping by agreeing with all her self-deprecating observations.
Unfortunately, unfolding in a non-linear manner with constant extreme close-ups and stylised performances, the whole thing has a very artificial, theatrical air, including Mandy hearing the inner-voices of women passing by, making it hard to involve and giving the feeling that Piper was perhaps trying just a little too hard to make an impact, and ending up not really making any at all. (Netflix)
Raya and the Last Dragon (PG)
Disney’s first Southeast Asian heroine makes her debut in this stirring animated adventure set in a mythical land in the ancient time of dragons and which serves up an inspirational message about the need for and power of trust.
Taking the shape of a dragon the map, Kumundra was once a united land, but, drawn perhaps by growing discontent among the peoples from its different regions, there came the monstrous Druun, a plague of tornado-like creatures that turned people to stone. In one last valiant effort, the remaining dragons who protected the land combined their power in a gemstone which, before they too were petrified, they entrusted to Sisu who used it to destroy the Druun but who, apparently perished herself in doing so. Leap forward 500 years and the land has become fragmented, the regions, representing their position on the map, now divided into Heart, the densely forested Spine, market-town Talon, the desert wasteland Tail and, isolated and protected from the Druun by surrounding waters, Fang, with the dragon stone and its remaining magic safely protected by Benja (Daniel Dae Kim), leader of the Heart and father to young Raya (Kelly Marie Tran) who, in the opening scenes, earns her right to become one of its guardians. Beja’s dream is to reunite Kumandra, to which end he invites the different tribes to a feast and calls upon them to join together once again. However, duped into trusting Namaari (Gemma Chan), the princess daughter of the Fang leader, Raya innocently leads her to the stone, only to be double-crossed, the gem broken into five pieces and stolen by the other tribes and, in turn, seeing the return of the Druun.
Saved by her father before he’s turned to stone, the story moved on six years as the now grown Raya, dressed in flowing cape, carrying a pretty impressive sword and accompanied by her now equally giant pillbug Tuk Tuk (a sort of armadillo that can curl into a ball which she rides like a spherical horse), is searching the land, seeking to find Sisu who, legend has it, still lives at the end of one of the many rivers, and recover the other gem fragments to destroy the Druun, restore her father to life and, possibly fulfil his dream.
Finally, she does indeed reawaken Sisu (an exuberant Awkafina), who turns out be a somewhat ditzy glowing blue teen dragon (“I gotcha girl. WHO’S your dragon?”) proud of her swimming skills. Unfortunately, Raya’s been followed by Namaari who has her own quest to recover all the gem shards to keep Fang safe and so the film unfolds into a sort of Tomb Raider road movie as Raya and Sisu, who can take on human form, joining forces with representatives from the different tribes, first young shrimp seller Boun (Izaac Wang) aboard his floating restaurant followed, after accompanying battles and escapades, a con baby and her three thieving monkeys and one-eyed warrior Tong (Benedict Wong), all of whom have lost family to the Druun, gathering the shards until only the one in Fang remains to be recovered. Not that Namaari is going to let her get her hands on that.
Deftly mixing action, emotion and humour, the film rattles along, addressing such themes as greed, environmental crises, family and friendship before, prompted by the optimistic Sisu, finally returning to the central message that if you’re going to overcome shared problems, then you need to get past your differences and have trust to work together for a common cause. All that and some farting beetles for the kids. (Disney +; Vue)
Chloe Sherman (Kiera Allen) is a 17-year-old high school senior who, confined to a wheelchair, was born paralysed from the waist down and also suffers from asthma and arrhythmia. Homeschooled by her ultra-supportive loving single mother, Diane Paulson, she’s overcome her ailments, become a skilled electronics engineer and is awaiting news about her university applications, her conditions managed by a series of pills.
Then, one day, she finds a pill bottle in the grocery bag with her mother’s name on it and the pills looks very familiar. She questions this but is told that they’re actually part of her prescription. Not convinced, she starts trying to check things out, somewhat complicated by the fact the internet is down, she’s not allowed a cell phone and mum keeps a close eye on her. However, devising a plan to get into town and visit the pharmacy, she makes a shocking discovery about the medication, which throws her whole life and her mother into a terrifying new light.
Without giving too much way, it won’t be a huge surprise to learn Diane and her motivations aren’t what they seem and that the pills may be exacerbating rather than controlling Chloe’s conditions. There’s further revelation as Aneesh Chaganty’s nailbiting thriller gathers momentum, at one point Chloe having to escape from her locked bedroom by crawling long the roof, finally climaxing in hospital after taking drastic actions. Newcomer Allen is terrific as the determined and resourceful teenager while Paulson delivers a subtle, measured turn in a role that had the potential to be played as a hysterical scenery chewer. Psychologically, it never digs too deeply, but it ratchets up the tension perfectly, ending with a chilling coda that, were it in a cinema, would surely elicit a rousing cheer from the audience. (Netflix)
Saint Maude (15)
Somewhat overly in thrall to Dario Argento perhaps, but this inventive religious fervour gothic horror debut from writer-director Rose Glass with its taught 84 minute running time, undeniably gets under the skin. Delivering an awards-worthy performance of intense complexity in her first lead role, Morfydd Clark is Maud, or at least that’s what she’s currently calling herself, a mousy born again palliative nurse with a Christ complex now working on an agency basis following an incident with a hospital patient. Based in an unnamed seedy British seaside town (it was filmed in Scarborough), her new client is Amanda Kohl (an outstanding Jennifer Ehle), a former celebrity dancer and choreographer now consigned to bed and wheelchair a la Norma Desmond with terminal spinal lymphoma and clearly not long for this world, although, hedonist to the end, she’s not about to forsake drink, cigarettes or lesbian sex (Lily Frazer). Patently unreligious, Maud sees it as God’s mission for her to save this lost soul and bring her to God in the same way she found salvation; however, while Kohl briefly plays long, pretending to feel the Holy Spirit orgasmically within her, it’s clear she’s just cruelly humouring Maud, something she makes abundantly clear at a party that ends in her dismissal. Maud, however, is not done with her yet.
An early indication of Maud’s mental state comes when she give money to a beggar and walks away advising him not to waste his pain, advice she takes to heart as, echoing ascetics who would self-harm as a form of devout suffering, she inserts a pad with drawing pins into her shoes in an excruciating scene to watch. When the embittered Kohl calls her “the loneliest girl I’ve ever seen”, it’s not just mockery.
Along with the Argento flourishes, Glass’s impressionistic film also draws inspirations from Carrie, The Exorcist (a levitation scene is ambiguously misleading), Repulsion, Morvern Callar and Under The Skin, the brooding lighting and camera work and emphatic score further accentuating the intensity as, varying its perspective from Maud’s internal psychological turmoil and (part driven by images from the Blake illustrations given her by Kohl) delusional out of body experiences (at one point the voice of a subtitled Christ talks to her in ancient Hebrew), it builds to a brace of horrific climaxes after a doubt-fuelled night of carnality on the town as Maud’s sanity finally collapses. It could, perhaps, have done without the digital angel wings Maud imagines herself sporting, a sly halo allusion earlier is more effective, but this undeniably buries its way into your mind with a shudder. (Amazon Prime)
Directed by Pete Docter, this BAFTA/Oscar winner is up there with the very best of Pixar’s animation, a film which, like Inside Out and Up, offers different levels for both children and adult audiences with its cocktail of absorbing narrative, physical comedy, emotional depth and profound intelligence as it addresses, basically, the meaning of life.
Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx) is a bespectacled, New York middle-school music teacher with dreams of being a jazz piano player like his father, much to the disapproval of his seamstress mother who just wants him to get a job with security. As fate would have it, both opportunities come on the same day. He’s awarded a full time post at school and, thanks to an old pupil, also gets to audition tinkling the ivories for jazz saxophonist star Dorothea Williams (Angela Bassett). She offers him a place with her quartet for that night’s jazz club show, but, as he’s walking home, high on happiness, he falls down a manhole and finds himself a blue blob no nose soul on, quite literally, a stairway to heaven, although here referred to as the Great Beyond. It’s an inter-dimensional realm managed by shape shifting incorporeal beings which look like that 2-dimensional Cubic drawings and are called Jerry (variously voiced by, among others, Alice Braga, Wes Studi and Richard Ayoade), where as yet unborn souls are assigned personality traits at the You Seminar before earning their spark, or purpose, that will give them a pass to begin a life on Earth.
Mistakenly assumed to be a mentor, Joe’s assigned to 22 (Tina Fey), a troublesome soul in waiting with a voice “that annoys people “who, despite the best efforts of Mother Teresa, Copernicus and Gandhi, has no desire to be born at all or transition to Earth. However, with Joe’s body in a coma in hospital, he’s determined to return and, with the help of a Moonwind (Graham Norton), an astral plane pirate captain soul whose human body is aged hippy guru sign spinner on Earth, so he does, except, 22 accidentally dragged along, Joe ends up in the body of Mr. Mittens, the therapy cat, and 22 in his. Now, 22 discovering living isn’t as terrible as she’d imagined, the reluctant buddies must embark on an existential fish-out-of-water quest to switch their souls before 7pm so he can play the gig, but, meanwhile, finding himself one short, soul counter Jerry (Rachel House) is on Joe’s trail to fulfil his quota.
Echoing elements of A Matter of Life and Death, What Dreams May Come as well as Pixar’s own Wreck It Ralph, it’s a spellbinding film, funny and moving by turn, filled with such wonderful set pieces as 22 as Joe’s visit to a barbershop which speaks about finding happiness in what you do even it wasn’t what you original dream and how obsession can cut you off from having a life.
Rich with a seamlessly integrated jazz score (Joe’s talent for improvisation serving him well away from the piano too), it’s as vivid in detail and colour as it is profound in its philosophising on what constitutes the essence of out very soul as well as pointed observations such as “You can’t crush a soul here. That’s what life on Earth is for!” In a virtual Disney heresy, as Joe comes to learn his true talent might be as a teacher not a musician, it also says that, sometimes, achieving your dream might not be all you hoped for. But that, as Soul so poignantly observes, is what life is all about. (Disney +)
Sound of Metal (15)
Riz Ahmed is on a high. Following on from the critically acclaimed Mogul Mowgli, he’s now another musician whose career is derailed by illness. Here, in writer-director Darius Marder’s debut, he’s Ruben, who, the words ‘Please Kill Me’ tattooed on his chest, plays drums for his singer-guitarist girlfriend Lou (Olivia Cooke) in their gender-reversed White Stripes grungey noisecore duo Blackgammon. He’s first seen pummelling the kit in the middle of a tour while she screams out the song amid distorted guitar.
They’re not exactly making a fortune but they’re doing okay, playing the music they love and sharing a ramshackle RV home. And then it all falls apart when, without warning, in the middle of a gig the sound suddenly muffles and he has to rely on instinct to finish the show. An urgent visit to a doctor reveals that he’s not just going deaf, but, for whatever reason, his hearing has virtually all gone. And it’s not coming back.
Initially, he tries to play by memory, refusing to admit defeat or, even tell Lou what the problem is, but the impact of not hearing what he’s playing or anything in the world around him, threatens to tear him apart. He could have a cochlear implant, but his hearing will never be the same, and, besides, the cost is beyond their means. Instead, he’s persuaded by Lou to join a remote deaf community for recovering addicts overseen by Joe (a compelling Paul Raci, a real-life deaf musician), a no-nonsense Vietnam veteran lip reader who seeks to teach those under his charge to make peace with their condition and not see deafness as a disability.
Hostile at first, especially given Joe’s tough love approach, Ruben gradually begins to assimilate into the community (played by deaf actors), learning sign language (prompting several warmingly rewarding scenes of togetherness), helping out and bonding with the local deaf kids in local school. But despite all this, being away from his music and from Lou exacerbate his inner conflict, eventually resolving to have the operation, whatever the cost, even though it means he can then never return to the community. And so Ruben does recover his hearing, in a fashion, but it’s clear that what once was has gone forever and, in a visit to Lou, now staying with her father (Mathieu Amalric), that could well include their personal as well as professional relationship.
With a gradually unfolding backstory that reveals their shared experiences of addiction (she has scars on her arms, he swapped drugs for drum) that eventually united them, it packs a devastating emotional impact as it charts Ruben’s initial denial, his self-destructive attempt to ignore what’s happening to him, the arguments between the couple, her unswerving support a molten cocktail of anger and empathy, the sacrifices made and the prices paid, all forging a visceral power and sensitivity with a never-better Ahmed at the centre of the storm as he questions his worth as a musician and a man until he finds and accept the new reality of his life.
Ahmed’s performance is perhaps only rivalled by the film’s sound design which takes you inside Ruben’s head to experience his hearing loss directly and also the disorienting distortion of sound he experiences after the implant, it also highlights the quieter moments in Ruben’s journey to acceptance and coming of age. Come on, feel the noise. (Amazon Prime)
Space Jam: A New Legacy (PG)
To mark the 25th anniversary of the original movie in which basketball star Michael Jordan teamed up with Looney Tunes animated characters, among them Daffy Duck, Bugs Bunny, Porky Pig, Tweety Pie and Elmer Fudd to free them from an evil corporate overlord, the hoop has been passed to LeBron James. Opening in 1998 with the young LeBron playing his Game Boy on his Ohio high school basketball court, this time round, an Amazonian warrior Lola Bunny now voiced by Zendaya, the cartoon crew’s joined by Fred Flintstone and Yogi Bear when, having refused to have his animated self be part of LeBron of Thrones, LeBron and his younger son Dom (Cedric Joe) are zapped into Warner Bros’ 3000 Server-Verse, a super computer containing an archive of the studio’s former movies. Here, in a virtual space ruled by ruthlessly ambitious attention-seeking corporate Al-G Rhythm (Don Cheadle), an A.I. algorithm, in order to rescue his son (who actually seems to be enjoying himself) and escape, the now cartoon LeBron and his now 3D CGI Tunes mates have to win a basketball game, devised by Dom, against the Goon Squad, a team of virtual super-powered monster-like avatars of professional NBA and WBNA champions based on and variously voiced by Klay Thompson (the self-explanatory Wet-Fire), Anthony Davis (Cro-Magnum vulture The Brow), Damian Lillard (robotic Chronos),Diana Taurasi (serpent-like White Mamba) and Nneka Ogwumike (the spidery Arachnneka). Plus Dom as part of the father-son subplot with him complaining his dad never lets him be himself.
Peppered with nods to or clips from Superman, Batman, Mad Max (into which Roadrunner and Wile E Coyote are inserted), Austin Powers, Harry Potter, King Kong, Wonder Woman and even Casablanca (with play it again pianist Yosemite Sam) with a rap and R&B heavy soundtrack (Porky Pig is now a rapper – the Notorious PIG), it’s a madcap brightly coloured frantic frenzy that cheerfully send itself up, Bugs Bunny, who’s been left all alone in Tune World, quipping how it all “Sounds awfully familiar” while LeBron remarks “Athletes acting? That never goes well.”
Actually, fast-paced, visually impressive and big on dunking spectacles, while overlong it goes better than expected and movie buffs will have fun spotting background figures from the likes of It, A Clockwork Orange and The Mask among the crowd watching the hyper-stylised basketball showdowns while young kids can discover a whole bunch of cartoon celebrities they might not know. Now, how about David Beckham meets The Minions? (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Everyman; Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Vue)
Spirit Untamed (PG)
Nineteen years after DreamWorks animated adventure Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron proved a critical and commercial success, based around ongoing TV spin-off Spirit: riding Free, the titular free-spirited mustang returns to the big screen to delight a new generation of young fillies.
As with the Netflix TV version, unlike the original film (which featured Matt Damon providing equine vocal duties), the stallion, the offspring of the original Spirit, doesn’t speak and the plot’s essentially a computer animated origin retread of the series wherein 12-year-old Fortuna “Lucky” Esperanza Navarro Prescott relocates from the city to the small frontier town of Miradero where, aboard the train, she first sees Spirit racing alongside with the others from the herd and later tames and bonds with the horse, freeing him from the wranglers that had captured him and tried to ‘break’ him, becoming pals with fellow horsey girls Pru and Abigail in the process.
It is, however, considerably fleshed out, with a backstory that reveals Lucky (Isabela Merced aka Isabela Moner from Dora and the Lost City of Gold ) as the daughter of a trick rider circus performer who dies after an accident in the ring, sent back East as a 2-year-old to live with her aunt Cora (Julianne Moore) and railway magnate grandfather (Joe Hart) after, unable to cope with his loss, her widowed father, Jim (Jake Gyllenhaal), took off. However, when an incident with a squirrel wrecks her grandfather’s campaign launch to run for governor, accompanied by Cora, she’s packed off to be reunited with dad in Miradero, where she meets young riders Pru (Marsai Martin) and Abigail (Mckenna Grace) and discovers the stallion and the other horses she saw have been captured by Hendricks (Walton Goggins), a wanted outlaw who, with his gang, is working as a horse wrangler for her father’s friend (and Pru’s dad) Al, and secretly intends to steal the herd and ship them off for auction to the highest bidder.
Although, because of what happened to his wife, Jim doesn’t want Lucky involved with horses, as in the TV show, advised by her new chums on how to approach things, Lucky bonds with the stallion by feeding him apples and names him Spirit, but, in trying to ride him, he escapes from the corral and takes off into the mountains, Pru and Abigail only just saving Lucky from falling from a cliff. At which point, the plot sort of repeats itself with Lucky and her new friends embarking on a mission to rescue the horses from Hendricks culminating in an action-packed showdown aboard the boat.
While fans of the girl-power TV series might feel they’ve seen it all before, there’s enough kiddie-friendly humour, action, sweetness, songs and liberal messages about friendship, nature, finding who you are and being free for them to enjoy the ride alongside newcomers saddling up for the first time.(Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Vue)
The Suicide Squad (15)
With its opening credits spelled out from the blood of one of many corpses that litter the film, it’s clear that Guardians of the Galaxy director and writer James Gunn’s take on the DC supervillains team, is going to be everything David Ayers’ underwhelming original was not. Neither reboot nor sequel, just another mission and a clutch of new characters joining those returning, it positively explodes from the screen as, sent on a mission to infiltrate the South American island nation of Corto Maltese, all bar two of the squad meet a bloody end, the pre-credits opening sequence despatching Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney), Savant (Michael Rooker), Blackguard (Pete Davidson), TDK (Nathan Fillion), Javelin (Flula Borg), Mongal (Mayling Ng) and Weasel (Sean Gunn), leaving just Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman) and Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie, subsequently getting her own princess subplot) alive.
It is, however, just a diversion to the real mission, ruthless black-ops head Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) having sent another squad to destroy a heavily fortified laboratory called Jotunheim, where dastardly Nazi-like experiments are being carried out as part of something called Project Starfish (involving a giant, telepathic, pink alien echinoderm called Starro) under the supervision of the Thinker (Peter Capaldi sporting diodes sprouting from his skull) now that a coup d’etat has replaced the America-friendly dictator and his family with a military junta. Needless to say, there’s a hidden agenda).
This newly recruited dysfunctional team is headed up by Bloodsport (Idris Elba), a killing machine mercenary sharpshooter who hospitalised Superman, who’s been pressured into taking part to keep his estranged wayward daughter (Storm Reid) out of jail, the rest of the motley crew being pathologically patriotic Peacemaker (John Cena) another can kill with anything merc (cue one-upmanship gags with Elba), Ratcatcher 2 (a delightful Daniela Melchior), a petty Portuguese criminal with technology that controls rats (about which Bloodsport has a phobia), introvert Polka-Dot Man (scene stealer David Dastmalchian), the toxin-infected product of an experiment gone wrong who projects lethal, er, polka-dots (imaging the enemy is his mother) and, basically, the film’s answer to Groot, Nanaue aka Killer-Shark, an intelligence-challenged, mumbling shark on legs voiced in gleeful self-spoofing style by Sylvester Stallone. Naturally, subsequently joined by Flag and Quinn, not everyone makes it to the end.
Along the way, however, going utterly insane Gunn delivers an often brutal smorgasbord of visceral bloody action with bodies decapitated, sliced in half and blown to mush punctuated by a steady stream of the sort of banter and quips that made Guardians such a joyride, while also investing time to bring the characters alive rather than simply comic book figures, giving each their turn to shine as the film gathers to its spectacularly unhinged climax which can only be described as a Godzilla-like city trashing mass destruction, but with a giant starfish rather than a gorilla, one that sends out starfish drones to take over the population’s minds. Ablaze with directorial genius, awesome visuals (including truly inventive scene titles and burst of psychedelic flowers when Harley goes on a bullets-spraying bender), bruising action and dynamite performances, laced with a suitably cynical view of American geopolitics (“I cherish peace with all my heart — I don’t care how many men, women, and children I need to kill to get it” says Peacemaker, stone-faced).
Featuring a cameo from Alice Braga as a revolutionary leader, a cute friendly rat (in fact the much maligned rats turn out to be the eventual saviours) and, typically Gunn, an inspired soundtrack that kicks off with Jim Carroll’s People Who Died, it’s unashamedly silly and never really takes itself too seriously (the Squad’s uniforms conveniently keep reappearing when they need to go into battle and there’s a fabulous visual gag about Bloodsport’s ever expanding gun. A sequel with a new team of misfits joining the survivors from this go round is a must. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Vue)
To The Stars (12)
Set somewhere in the 60s in rural Oklahoma, bespectacled wallflower Iris Deerborne (Kara Hayward) lives with her heavy drinking and sexually frustrated embittered mother Francie (Jordana Spiro), and her kindly but ineffectual father Hank (Shea Whigham). Suffering from a bladder problem that’s earned her the cruel school nickname of Stinky Drawers she has no friends. Until, that is, attractive, worldly wise and feisty new girl in school Maggie Richmond (Liana Liberato) sees off a bunch of bullies harassing her (‘cowfuckers’ she shouts after them) and, Maggie, a fantasist having her own troubles and less than perfect parents (Malin Akerman, Tony Hale), the pair gradually develop a mutually supportive friendship, the latter making it a mission to help the former find her inner beauty and self-confidence in the face of the usual bitchy classmates. Cue a makeover with the local beautician and hair stylist Hazel (Adelaide Clemens) and a gradually blossoming potential prom date romance with Jeff (Lucas Jade Zuhman).
As such, directed by Martha Stephens from a screenplay by Shannon Bradley-Colleary, originally shot in black and white, but now in colour, the film is both tender and gentle in following the chalk and cheese friendship, the chemistry between the twin leads fully engage you in the rights of passage narrative but then, in the third act it inexplicably goes off the rails by introducing a contorted lesbian twist pretty much out of nowhere that has the town’s seething latent intolerance boiling over like the mob out of Frankenstein, a collapse into melodrama from which it never recovers despite a last minute attempt at reasserting its bittersweet poignancy. (Sky)
Tom Clancy’s Without Remorse (15)
Functional rather than inspired, this looks to launch another Clancy franchise, here spearheaded by Navy Seal John Clark (Michael B Jordan) who, at the start of the film, is part of a behind enemy lines black ops mission in Syria to rescue an American agent being held captive. That’s duly accomplished and all the bad guys eliminated, except it turns out they aren’t insurgents, they’re Russian and the team has been duped by the CIA, in the form of the devious Ritter (Jamie Bell), who had information the Russians were supplying arms,
Clark’s not best pleased, but is ordered to let it lie. Which he does until the Russians come looking for revenge, since one of the dead was the son of a high ranking diplomat, taking out members of his team, an attack on his home leaving two assailants dead and him badly wounded, but his pregnant wife murdered. Recovering, he wants revenge on the killer who got away, but, while it may be an enemy attack on American soil, Ritter wants it swept under the carpet, a tit for tat killing, to appease the Russians and not endanger relations. However, Clark very pointedly and coldly assassinates the diplomat, looking to force a situation wherein he gets to go after his wife’s killer, and, while Ritter opposes this, the Secretary of Defence (Guy Pearce) endorses Clark to be part of the black ops incursion into Russia.
Needless to say, things don’t go smoothly and not everything or everyone is what or who they seem, with it at times looking as though Ritter is trying to precipitate hostilities. It’s not too hard to spot where the trail leads, but written and directed by Taylor Sheridan and Stefano Sollima, the team behind Sicario: Day if the Soldado, it serves up its maverick Rambo-style thrills efficiently enough with some extensive and graphic bloodletting and violence that includes a sniper showdown in Murmansk, a narrow escape from prison guards in the pay of Russian mobsters and a hairy underwater sequence after the team’s plane is shot down.
There’s not a huge amount of character depth but the leads bring what they can to the table, Jordan handles the physicality with impressive power while allowing his eyes and facial expression do the emotional drama, Queen & Slim’s Jodie Turner Smith makes a good job of her underwritten role as Clark’s superior officer Karen Greer, while Bell is clearly enjoying the chance to play a darker role. At the end of the day though, for all the twists, turns and shadowy conspiracies, there’s not a huge amount of meat on the narrative bones, essentially serving as a set-up for the sequel promised in the post-credits meeting between Clark and, well that would be telling. (Amazon Prime)
The Tomorrow War (12A)
An underwhelming, overlong and often incoherent time-travel, save the world from alien invasion movie, this stars Chris Pratt at his least charismatic as Dan Forester, a former Special Forces soldier-turned-high school science teacher who, along with the rest of America, and presumably the world although no other nation gets a mention, watching a televised World Cup soccer match with his wife (Betty Gilpin) and science-obsessed six-year-old daughter Muri (Ryan Kiera Armstrong) when it’s interrupted as an armed force from the future materialises and announces that, in 30 years time, humanity is about to be wiped out by a bunch of white, lizard-like human-eating creatures and there’s now just 11 months to stop them. Having lost thousands in the struggle, the resistance has travelled to the past to recruit more soldiers for the fight although, confusingly, like the time travel rules, it seems they have to have died at some point before then.
With conscription introduced, Dan is eventually drafted and has a metal arm band strapped on that will track him and, if he’s still alive at the end of his seven-day tour of duty, return him to his own time. Given only 30% ever come back, urged by his wife, he initially makes contact with his eccentric grumpy estranged father (JK Simmons) to get it removed, but eventually opts to do his duty for his daughter’s sake, finding himself teamed with fellow conscripts such as nerdy Charlie (Sam Richardson), stoic Norah (Mary Lynn Rajskub) and gritty veteran Dorian (Edwin Hodge), sent to the future and despatched to rescue a trapped research lab team (most die since the coordinates are wrong, the largely ill-trained survivors plunging into a rooftop pool), where they come under the command of a certain Colonel Forester (Yvonne Strahovski), which should be a fairly obvious clue as to her connection and the subsequent clumsily extrapolated daddy-daughter subplot.
Once the action begins, the film dispenses with any interest in time travel metaphysics and gets on with the basic bloody humans vs aliens battles, things blowing up and body count rising, before, a contrived finale which involves Dan returning to his own time, a student with a thing about volcanoes and a trip to a Russian glacier with his dad and Dorian in an attempt to stop things before they start.
Clunky with some clichéd dialogue and highly derivative CGI and combat sequences, it also suffers from an uneven tone as it struggles the marry its gung ho heroics with Dan’s daddy and unconvincingly family issues, Pratt having little room for his Guardians Of The Galaxy humour while Richardson’s comic relief never really clicks. Nodding to similarly themed blockbusters like Independence Day and Terminator, Tomorrow just feels like reheated yesterdays. (Amazon Prime)
The Trial of the Chicago 7 (15)
As in his screenplay for A Few Good Men, writer-director Aaron Sorkin delivers a powerful courtroom drama with his recreation of the 1969 trial of the seven protestors accused of inciting a riot against the Vietnam draft that proved to be one of the most infamous chapters in American legal history. While it does fictionalise some incidents, some of the seemingly most unlikely moments, such as the judge ordering a defendant to be bound and gagged or barring the testimony of the former Attorney General of the United States, are all taken from life.
When President Johnson order a doubling of the draft, from 17,000 to 35,000 per month, anti-war factions took to the streets in protest, planning to convene at and disrupt the Democratic National Convention in the summer of 1968 in Chicago. Among them were non-violence favouring Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne), leader of the Students for a Democratic Society; Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong) and Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen) from the Youth International Party (Yippies) and the older but equally committed David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch).
A year on from the Chicago Police and protesters violent clashing in and around Grant Park, the leaders, along with Lee Weiner (Noah Robbins), John Froines (Daniel Flaherty), Rennie Davis (Alex Sharp) Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), the national chairman of the Black Panther Party who had no actual connection to the others or involvement in the protest, and was only in Chicago to give a speech, were charged with conspiracy to cross lines with the intention of inciting riots.
Opening with a montage of historical events that take in the King and Kennedy assassinations, alternating between courtroom dramas, recreation of the protest and sessions at the home of liberal attorney William Kunstler (Mark Rylance) to plan strategy while rising legal star Richard Schultz (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) puts together the prosecution case, despite reservations as to whether there should even be a trial, the film gathers in power and indignation as District Judge Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella) conducts the courtroom as his personal fiefdom, walking roughshod over constitutional and legal rights, hammering home his clear prejudices and bias with a gavel and contempt of court orders in his contempt for the accused and their representatives as they, understandably, protest about his handling of the trial.
Michael Keaton puts in a late appearance as former Atty. General Ramsey Clark, whose testimony to the jury was refused by Hoffman, although the film does reveal what he would have said and while certain events rejigged in the timeline and there’s degree of dramatic licence, fuelled by commanding performances (a frizzy-haired Baron Cohen stealing the show – . “We’re not guilty because of who we are. “We’re guilty of what we believe” – and proving he’s more than a comedic actor) that fully engage you in proceedings even as Hoffman and Rubin play the courtroom farrago for laughs. (Netflix)
The United States vs Billie Holiday (15)
A jazz legend who died at the age of 44, surprisingly, given her colourful life, Billie Holiday has only even been the subject of one film, Lady Sings The Blues in which she was played by Diana Ross. Now, courtesy of director Lee Daniels and writer Suzan-Lori Parks, there’s a second, Andra Day’s Golden Globe winning portrayal of ‘Lady Day’ wiping the floor with Ross in a film that pivots around her sustained persecution by the US government in the wake of her 1939 recording of Strange Fruit, a chilling song (written by a Jewish schoolteacher from the Bronx) about the lynching of a black man in the Southern states, that was deemed a potential racial powderkeg in an already volatile 40s America. Pressure was exerted to prevent her performing the song in concert and, since she couldn’t actually be busted for singing it, Harry Anslinger (Garrett Hedlund), the jazz hating racist who ran the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, recruited former G.I. Jimmy Fletcher (Trevante Rhodes), one of the nine black FBI agents of the time, to go undercover and bust her for narcotics. In the trial from which the film takes its title, she was sentenced to a year and a day in Alderson Federal Prison Camp in West Virginia.
She emerged clean and performed in a triumphant comeback at Carnegie Hall, but was soon back on smack, banned from singing in clubs that served alcohol, beleaguered by continuing federal harassment, management troubles and a tangled love life that entailed her abusive husband, manager and pimp Louis McKay (Rob Morgan), her trombonist, her trumpet player (who was also her dealer) and even Fletcher who had fallen in love with her and sought to protect her, especially when, with McKay’s connivance, she was raided and stitched up for possession again.
At its core a story about how she was betrayed, by the government, the men in her life and her own addiction, there’s a lot of baggage to pack in as Holiday seeks to rise from every blow that knocks her down, both figuratively and literally. Unfortunately, as such, framed by an awkward late 50s gossip rag interview (with Leslie Jordan seemingly channelling Quentin Crisp) and largely redundant sidebars involving her film star friend and occasional lover Tallulah Bankhead (Natasha Lyonne), the film often finds itself sprawling, dramatically, stylistically and emotionally, punctuating the often overheated narrative (which includes heroin high flashbacks to Holiday’s childhood and hooker mother) with several musical sequences which, even though Day’s singing of numbers such as Ain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do is as striking as her acting, unbalance the focus and momentum. It closes with a punch, however, with an end title noting how, 100 years after a version of it was first introduced, the Emmett Till Anti-Lynching Act remains unpassed by the Senate. The film could have done with a little more of that anger. (Sky)
Grim and depressing from the opening credits until the closing ones, written and directed by Raymund Ribay Gutierrez, this Kafkaesque Philippines drama opens with the brutal beating of Manila housewife Joy Santos (Max Eigenmann) by her abusive, drunken low life crook husband Dante (Kristoffer King), that leaves both her and their six-year-old daughter Angel (Jordhen Suan) bruised and bloodied. She slashes him with a knife, grabs Angel and makes her escape to the local police station dedicated to dealing with such cases to report the assault and he’s taken into custody and the rest of film follows the process as the case comes to trial. The evidence of his brutality is incontrovertible, but she still has to describe what happened while he’s in the same room and go through the bureaucratic red tape process to prove it. She has a dedicated but overworked prosecuting attorney, while his family arrange for an expensive morally bankrupt lawyer who sets out to refute all her accusations, discredit or intimidate witnesses and even seek s to make him the look the victim of attempted murder. Throughout all of this, Dante continues to bully her.
Shot in long takes with a cinema verite approach, the growing sense of where this is all heading makes the unfolding imperfect Filipino system almost unbearable to watch as the survivors of abuse are eaten by the machine and especially when Angel is forced to testify and manipulated by the defence. There is a dramatic final twist that negates the trial process and offers a kind of salvation for Joy, but the film is unambiguous in its message about women like her who don’t have the good fortune of a screenwriter’s trump card. (Amazon Prime, BT TV, CHILI, Google Play, Rakuten TV, Sky Store)
A blackly comic, table-turning spin on the home invasion genre, this gets under way with low rent Bonnie and Clyde couple Mickey (Bill Skarsgård) and Jules (Maika Monroe), robbing the latest in string of gas stations to amass enough cash to get to Florida and start a small business. Calling each other Pumpkin and Honey Bunny, they’re not the brightest of sparks and their getaway car runs out of petrol on the outskirts of town, sending Mickey into a panic, she calming him down by wafting her hair across his face. They decide to walk, but then, armed with a gun, a bag of cash and a small pharmacy worth of drugs, they see a nearby house and decide to break in and steal the car. The place is empty, or so it seems until they venture down into the basement to find a little girl (Blake Baumgartner) chained to a post. She doesn’t speak, and horrified at what appears to be a kidnapping, they decide to free her and take off, but while searching for something to unlock her, the owners (Jeffrey Donovan, Kyra Sedgwick) return and, in short order, the kooky criminal lovers find themselves the ones on the wrong bondage end of the situation. Eventually announcing themselves as George and Gloria, their captors are a creepy pair, he all polite Southern charm masking a psychopathic sadism and deep-seated insecurity, she clearly away with the fairies cradling a china doll as her own baby (their infertility the backstory to her madness and why the girl’s in the basement) and doing an erotic dance to arouse the tied-down Mickey. With their clothes, manner of talking, the house – with its antique TV set, they’re like something out of The Hills Have Eyes were it set in mid-60s rural America.
As the advantage shifts back and forth between the two couples, the film builds a deliciously nasty tension (at one point a cop arrives investigating the fugitives who seems to be lining up as another victim) while stirring together a potent cocktail of David Lynch unsettling psychosexuality and Tarantino pulp noir, the two sets of actors delivering perfectly judged performances that balance extreme and controlled manic in equal measure, the film making no excuses for where it wants its audiences sympathies to lie even while Gloria’s frustrated dreams of motherhood render her a sort of Miss Havisham figure by way of Mommie Dearest. The way everything eventually resolves isn’t entirely unpredictable given what comes before, but even so this engaging oddball crime caper leaves you with a certain sense of satisfaction that it’s exactly how things should be. (Sky)
Wander Darkly (15)
Unwed partners and proud parents of a new baby girl, gallerista Adrienne (Sienna Miller) and carpenter craftsman Matteo (Diego Luna) are on their way home from an event and start bickering over her talking to an ex-boyfriend and whether, given the dysfunctional relationship, they should even be together. He distracted, the car is involved in a head on collision. She wakes up, covered in blood, in a hospital, looking own at her body in a bed and hears herself pronounced dead. She’s horrified and, not yet ready to cross over, successive scenes see her witnessing her distraught parents, her mother (Beth Grant) taking care of the baby, and Matteo unable to deliver the funeral oration.
As the film develops, she discovers he can see her and together they relive and re-enact memories of their time together, one giving way to another, although, tellingly, these don’t always share the same perspective, affording insights into the more complex and deeper nature of their relationship, while she’s conscious of being stalked by some hooded figure.
It’s familiar territory, though less often told from a female viewpoint, but, while the chemistry between the leads sparks the narrative, the dialogue by writer-director Tara Miele is often laboured and clumsy it not entirely hard to figure out the twist to which it’s leading, although the poignantly closing scene certainly compensates. (Amazon Prime, BT, CHILI, Google Play, iTunes Rakuten TV, Sky Store, TalkTalk TV, Virgin Movies)
The Woman In The Window (15)
He may have directed Atonement, Hanna, Pride and Prejudice and Darkest Hour, but Joe Wright is clearly slumming it here with this potboiler Rear Window knockoff adapted from the airport paperback of the title. For reasons not explained in all their tragic detail until much later, child therapist Anna Fox (Amy Adams) is separated from her husband (Anthony Mackie) who has custody of their daughter, and has become agoraphobic, unable to leave her sprawling Manhattan house where, when not having sessions with a visiting shrink (screenwriter Tracy Letts) and apparently continuing her practice though we never see any evidence of that, she spends her time staring out the window.
When new neighbours the Russells move in, the teenage son, Ethan (Fred Hechinger), comes across to bring a gift from his mom and Anna’s instincts tell her there’s something troubling him. Well, that’ll be his strict and bullying father Alistair (Gary Oldman in a glaringly bad blonde wig), who gives her a verbal barrage about her inappropriate relationship with his son. The next night, the victim of an egg-splattering attack by Halloween kids, she’s saved by Ethan’s mother Jane (Julianne Moore, stealing the film in her brief cameo) and the pair bond over a few glasses of wine. Not long after, peering into the Russells’ bedroom with her camera, she sees Jane being murdered by Alistair. The cops are duly summoned, but there’s no body and the detective (Brian Tyree Henry) put it down to hallucinations caused by her medication. And drinking at the same time. Plus, there’s the fact that Russell brings along his wife, who, accusing her of being a voyeur, is very much alive, except (played by Jennifer Jason Leigh) this isn’t the woman she met earlier, and Ethan insists she’s never met his mother before.
So from Rear Window we move into Gaslight territory as Anna starts to believe she really is going crazy, until, that is, she finds evidence that the other Jane existed (a reflection in a photo of a wine glass, an earring by the bed of David (Wyatt Russell) her creepy ex-con lodger in the basement.
Assuming her flat performance is intentional, Adams does a decent job of capturing Anna’s mental state, but even this – and an unexpected car crash into her living room – can’t inject life into a film riddled with holes and contrivance, not to mention a history of reshoots, poor test screenings and the revelations about the novel’s author’s alleged sociopathic behaviours, that rather than being a nailbiter is ploddingly pedestrian with a climax that seems likely to be drowned out with hoots of derision. (Netflix)
Words On Bathroom Walls (12)
An impressive contribution to the teen dysfunction genre, director Thor Freudenthal brings to life the struggle with schizophrenia through the character of Adam (Charlie Plummer) who, with dreams of becoming a chef, tests his recipes on his single mother Beth (Molly Parker). Life’s complicated by the conflicting voices in his head, physically manifested on screen by imaginary characters such as the oversexed-best-friend figure (Devon Bostick), a supportive hippie girl (AnnaSophia Robb), a manifestation of a romantic ideal from an earlier school, and a burly, cigar-smoking, baseball bat wielding bodyguard (Lobo Sebastian) who seeks to keep the hallucinations under control and step in when Adam’s threatened. In addition, there’s that back smoke and voice whispering to him, prompting episodes that have finally brought him to a Catholic school as his last chance and which agrees not to make his condition public. In an attempt to find normality, he also agrees to a course in experimental medication that banishes his attendant hallucinations.
Here he encounters Maya (Taylor Russell), a bright if blunt-spoken kid who runs a profitable hustle in writing papers for her wealthier classmates (it’s not her only secret) and who, after an initial one-upmanship friction, he gets hired as his after-school tutor. There’s also the resident sympathetic priest (Andy Garcia) he can talk to about things weighing him down. Meanwhile, home life is complicated by mom taking on a live-in lover, Paul (Walton Goggins) who, it would appear is wary of Adam (he hides the kitchen knives) and seems to be pushing to have him committed to professional care. Crises erupt when Maya’s cheating is exposed and the flinty school principal, Sister Catherine (Beth Grant) always on the lookout for Adam to regress, pulls the rug out from under him.
A sort of teen variation on Good Will Hunting, the voice overs and scenes of Adam talking to his never seen shrink feel a touch clunky on the exposition front, but along with the hallucination, the words of the title that play an important part in the narrative, and the slowly gestating romance, not to mention an emotional twist in your expectations, this is a heartwarming gem about acceptance and overcoming adversity. (Amazon Prime, CHILI, Google Play, iTunes Rakuten TV, Sky Cinema, TalkTalk TV, Virgin Movies)