With cinemas now open this column will review films both screening theatrically and/or on various streaming platforms.
Spider-Man: No Way Home (12A)
Again directed by Jon Watts, this picks up directly after the events of Far From Home where, in a posthumous message claiming he was murdered, Mysterio outed Peter Parker as Spider-Man. Anticipation as to what came next was high, but no one could have possibly imagined this mind-bogglingly audacious threequel that plays like a two hour plus adrenaline orgasm. His identity revealed and the subject of a vilification campaign by J Jonah Jameson (JK Simmons reprising his role from the three Sam Raimi films), Peter (Tom Holland), girlfriend MJ (Zendaya), best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon) and Aunt May (Marisa Tomei), who, in the opening, has broken up with Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau), are arrested, interrogated and released (cue cameo by Charlie Cox from the Daredevil TV series) since the government can’t make anything stick. However, carrying with life as normal is not on the table, Discovering he, MJ and Ned have been turned down for MIT because of events, in order to not ruin their lives he turns to Dr Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) to ask if he can readjust time so that things didn’t happen as they did. Strange says not, but, despite warnings from Wong (Benedict Wong), does offer to cast a spell to make everyone forget that Spider-Man and Peter Parker are the same. However, while weaving his enchantment, Peter keeps moving the goalposts to ensure those closest don’t forget, all of which sees things go haywire, causing a breach in the multiverse whereby villains from the previous films who knew his identity now materialise in his world, namely Doctor Octopus (Alfred Molina), The Green Goblin (Willem Dafoe), Sandman (Thomas Haden Church) , Electro (Jamie Fox) and The Lizard (Rhys Ifans) who are as confused about him not being their Peter Parker as he is as to why they are after him. Suffice to say, while Strange wants to send them back to their fates (they all died), learning of the events that made them villains, Peter wants to try and cure/save them, giving them a second chance, a well-meaning intention that equally goes wrong, and involves his own battle with Strange to possess the magical doohickey that will return them to their own dimensions.
And, of course, if the rip in the multiverse means the character’s old villains resurface, it’s inevitable that (via Ned who has acquired portal powers from Strange) so too are the former Spider-Man stars from the two previous franchises, seeing Holland, Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield (far better than in his own Spider-Man films) working together (and sharing their stories of loss and tragedy as well the with great power mantra) as a team to carry out this dimension’s Peter’s plan atop the Statue of Liberty. There’s a whirlwind of dizzying webslinging action, eye-popping visual effects, snappy banter and any number of sly references to past plots and incarnations (including an amusing discussion about Maguire’s biowebs) and the connections to the Marvel Universe but also, focusing on soulful character depth, several scenes of emotional intensity as a pivotal character dies and Peter realises that, along with great responsibility great power also entails great sacrifice as he has to confront what it really means to be Spider-Man.
Also featuring such returnees as Flash Thompson (Tony Revolon), Betty Brant (Angourie Rice), J.B. Smoove as Peter’s teacher, its multi crossover of universes and franchises is carried off to exhilarating effect while delivering thoughtful commentary on notions of crime, punishment, heroism and redemption, coalescing into a film that may at times be convoluted but which consistently delivers both fan buy thrills as well as maximum entertainment for the mass audience and, as a coming of age drama, perhaps more than any of its predecessors, really defines what being Spider-Man really means. And don’t dare leave before the end credits or you’ll miss both Tom Hardy in barroom scene linking to the latest Venom film and a full-length trailer for the next Dr Strange that includes The Scarlet Witch and, as a result of his actions here, sets up the introduction of his evil doppelganger. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Vue)
Boxing Day (12A)
An addition to but connected with the line of seasonal portmanteau films that have included Love Actually, New Year’s Eve and Mother’s Day, this is a Black British festive rom com written, directed by and starring Aml Ameen from Kidulthood loosely based around his own family’s Christmas traditions. Here he plays British-Caribbean born Melvin, a former Grange Hill TV child star now a rising author who’s been based in L.A. for the past two years, having taken off when, at the Boxing Day gathering, his parents announced that, given his now bar-owning Nigerian father Bilal’s (Robbie Gee) adultery and the resulting pregnancy, they were divorcing. His agent having booked him an appearance on a prestigious UK talk show to promote his new semi-autobiographical novel, he (somewhat reluctantly given the strained family relations) invites his casting agent American girlfriend Lisa (Aja Naomi King), to whom he’s just staged an extravagant proposal, somewhat marred by her throwing up (given he apparently hates kids she’s not told him she’s pregnant or that she’s also been offered a job in New Zealand) to accompany him to London to meet his relatives.
Arriving in the UK, he goes off to the television studio while she checks into the hotel where she bumps into her idol, pop superstar Georgia (Little Mix star Leigh-Anne Pinnock) who’s just suffered a high profile bust up with her philandering rapper boyfriend Gorgeous (Melvin Gregg), aka Ian, an old friend of Melvin whom they encounter at the airport. What Lisa doesn’t know is that Georgia is in fact Melvin’s own ex, who he ran out on following that fateful Boxing Day, and her P.A. is his feisty sister Aretha (Tamara Lawrance) but who still loves him and fantasises about them getting back together. Naturally, the truth comes out (cue a verbal cat fight across the table) when the couple get to mum’s house where everyone is assembling for the celebrations, Georgia being the daughter of his mum’s (white) best friend (Claire Skinner) and her Caribbean husband, ‘uncle’ Billy (Fraser James). Furthering the romantic complications, Melvin’s younger brother Josh (Sheyi Cole) has fallen for Alison, their cousin Joseph’s (Samson Kayo) ex, who, possessive to a fault, constantly beats him up as a result, while their mother Shirley (the film’s understated anchor, Marianne Jean-Baptiste), who embedded in her kids pride in being black, hasn’t told anyone that she has a white boyfriend, Richard (Stephen Dillane), a subplot that rather fizzles out. So secrets all round then.
Featuring some intentional nods to Love Actually (opening voice over, a scene involving a character holding up a series of cue cards that upends that in the Curtis movie) and despite some clunky contrivances, it’s a warm and big-hearted affair that, perhaps slightly overstuffed with larger than life characters, offers amusing moments with Lisa Jafakean accent and even contrives to include a food fight between the assorted ‘aunties’ and ‘uncles’ as well as singing spotlight for Pinnock doing an acoustic I Say A Little Prayer) as well as the inevitable break up and make up plot line before the reconciliations and happy endings all round in a celebration of love and family that’s well worth sharing a cracker over. (Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Vue)
West Side Story (PG)
Adapted from the 1957 Stephen Sondheim/Leonard Bernstein stage musical in 1961 and directed by Robert Wise, and itself based around Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, working from a new screenplay Steven Spielberg, making his first musical, offers up an exuberant, dynamic retelling that, while there are several scene tweaks, stays faithful to the original in its telling of New York neighbourhood gang rivalry between the Sharks and the Jets and the doomed romance between white Tony and Puerto Rican Maria.
It opens with the camera panning over a demolition site of debris and construction vehicles, part of a gentrification project that will become the Lincoln Centre as Riff (Mike Faist), leads his fellow gang members, a cocktail of Irish, Polish and Italian losers in daubing paint over a mural of the Puerto Rican flag inevitably resulting in a brawl when the Sharks (first seen singing their country’s national anthem), led by Bernardo (David Alvarez), arrive to stop then before being separated by resentful New Yok cop Officer Krupke (Brian D’Arcy James) and the racist Lieutenant Schrank (Corey Stoll), both white. The Jets then set off down the streets, stealing from Puerto Rican stores and vandalising property with the first song and dance sequence to When You’re A Jet.
Bernado is involved in a tempestuous romance with his live in paying lodger Anita (Anita (Ariana DeBose) and fiercely protective of his sister Maria (Rachel Zegler), newly arrived after spending five years caring for their father, while Riff’s best friend is Tony (Ansel Elgort) who (in this telling), having served time for assaulting a Puerto Rican teenager, is now reformed and working for elderly drugstore owner Valentina (Rita Moreno, who won an Oscar as Anita in the original), a new character and the Puerto Rican widow of ‘gringo’ Doc from the original, who lets him sleep in the basement. Riff wants to draw Tony back into the gang, particularly for the upcoming rumble between the two rivals, however, at a local dance (The Dance at the Gym), which turns into another confrontation, Maria and Tony meet, sparks fly and their fates are sealed as the Rumble, set in a salt factory, results in the deaths of both gang leaders and marks Tony as a target for revenge by Chino (Josh Andrés Rivera), Maria’s former would-be suitor.
Spielberg makes several changes to the staging and sequencing, here America no longer sung on a rooftop but as a full blooded dance number through the streets led by Anita on the morning after the dance, Somewhere is now sung wistfully by Valentina rather than Conseulo before being reprised by Tony and Maria as he visits her following Bernado’s death, Cool is sung here by Tony and Riff, after the former insists there are no weapons at the Rumble, as opposed to being a call for calm by Ice after Riff’s death, while I Feel Pretty (which, Sondheim’s last favourite, still sounds like it belongs in something like My Fair Lady rather than this grittier tale takes place during Maria’s night shift as a department store cleaner as opposed to in the bridal workshop. But these are just re-adjustments to serve the narrative flow rather than drastic revisions and both the urgency and vibrancy of the dance choreography and the singing carry you away, even if, as evidenced in the Maria and Tonight (balcony or rather fire escape scene) numbers, a disappointingly uncharismatic Elgort isn’t perhaps the finest of vocalists. Zegler and DeBose, however, are superb, as witness their duet A Boy Like That. In addition, in a nod to the recent Broadway revival, when characters speak Spanish there are no subtitles while there’s clearly more prominent subtexts of race and class running through the storyline. On the other hand, turning the tomboy Anybodys (Iris Menas) into a clearly non-binary character seems a tad too conscious a woke nod.
The digital recreation of 50s New York is fabulous, with the sets not looking like sets but arguably, for all the big production numbers, the film is at its strongest in the quieter, more intimate moments and close ups, such as the depth of emotion encapsulated in Maria’s eyes, ultimately offering an exhilarating revival for a new generation. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel; Vue)
Boxing Day (12A)
provides us with a lot of laughs, alongside the chance to reminisce on our own family Christmases. This promising directorial debut by Aml Ameen is rooted in his own family traditions around Christmas time. Directing is something Ameen has been wanting to do for a long time, so this project felt personal, as it’s been awaited for quite a while. Boxing Day is the perfect way to lift spirits this holiday season.
Melvin (Aml Ameen) is a British author who has spent the past two years in America away from his family. He has fallen in love with an American woman named Lisa (Aja Naomi King) who he has just made his fiancée during a lovely proposal in his apartment in LA. Melvin has plans to travel back to London for Christmas, so decides to take Lisa with him at the last minute so that she can meet all of his British-Caribbean family. Little does she know that none of his family know he’s engaged, and that Melvin’s ex is still in the picture – better yet, she’s an international pop star that Lisa loves. Melvin must decide if Lisa is the one he really loves, or if his super star ex Georgia (Leigh-Anne Pinnock) is still secretly the woman of his dreams.
A star-studded cast takes centre stage, including Ameen himself in the leading role, which makes the story that little bit more special. It’s apparent Ameen has searched far and wide to cast the best actors to fit each character. Leigh-Anne Pinnock’s first acting performance has to be addressed first and foremost. Her role as Georgia is perfect for her, as she is able to showcase her talent as a singer, as well as showing the world that she can act as well as being a member of one of the world’s biggest girl groups (Little Mix). All of the ensemble pull together to make noteworthy performances, including London’s own Marianne Jean-Baptiste as Melvin’s mother Shirley, and Game of Thrones star Stephen Dillane as Shirely’s new love interest Richard.
There’s a clear influence from Love Actually in Boxing Day, but not in an obtuse kind of way. It manages to take guidance in some scenes, especially in a direct nod to Love Actually in a ‘cards on the doorstep-esque’ scene towards the end of the runtime, but the storyline is quite different. The only real similarities lie in that there’s a massive ensemble, all with their own stories behind them, all leading towards one big family. But Boxing Day is all about love, whether that is finding love in the unlikeliest of places, rekindling old love, or discovering love within yourself. And once that love has been found, sharing it with others, especially family, is unbelievably special. Melvin is proud of being with Lisa, as she’s a strong and independent woman, but his own internal struggles of wanting to better himself and not knowing how to do this are what let him down from always making the right choices.
loud and clear reviews Boxing Day christmas rom-com aml ameen 2021 movie
Ameen has managed to create the first ever Black British rom-com that takes place around Christmas, and it’s obvious how proud he is for writing and directing Boxing Day. During a Q&A with Ameen post screening, his passion for his debut really shone through. He has clearly studied the rom-com genre thoroughly, noting everything that works, and everything that doesn’t quite grab the audience’s attention. By creating Boxing Day, he’s managed to fill the gap that was missing, creating something unique to release into the world. There’s an abundance of rom-coms that centre around similar themes of love with an all-white cast, so it’s refreshing to finally see something new, something that should have been created a while ago. It’s all about Ameen’s personal culture, and celebrating bringing this to life in mainstream cinema. London is showcased in what feels like its true light. Everything that we love about the capital city is exhibited, from the stunning light displays all around central London – to those big family house parties that everyone loves around this time of year. Whatever it is that you admire about Christmas, Boxing Day has it all. ml Ameen’s directorial debut is Boxing Day, which he also co-wrote and stars in, a new rom-com that celebrates British-Caribbean culture with a very familiar plot. It’s a warm Christmas film that will have you laughing at points and emotionally hooked by the end.
Melvin (Aml Ameen) is an actor turned author, who moved to America to escape his family after an incident on Boxing Day a couple of years ago. To promote his new book, he travels back to the UK with his new fiancé Lisa (Aja Naomi King), and it’s the perfect time to introduce Lisa to his family and all the history that he hasn’t told her about.
The plot in this film is fairly typical of rom coms. It starts off with everything being happy and then troubles happen, before the big finale. There really isn’t anything new in the actual story, although Ameen does take it to a much darker place for his main character. Melvin hasn’t told Lisa about so many things that happened, including that his ex is music superstar Georgia (Leigh-Anne Pinnock), who is also a close friend of his family. Lisa comes to London expecting a magical Christmas and doesn’t have any idea of what she’s walking into.
The family are very welcoming to Lisa, instantly accepting her as one of their own, the only hesitation is understandably Georgia, who hasn’t really gotten over Melvin, and is also going through a very public and humiliating separation. Georgia and Lisa obviously clash massively when they find out who the other is.
The first twenty or so minutes of the film aren’t very funny. It isn’t boring, but it takes a very long time to settle down and then it gets good. As Lisa’s gets to know Melvin’s family, that’s when it starts to get funny. They’re all very charming and likable people and the small Christmas party they hold is fun and one of the highlights of the film.
Melvin isn’t the only one with secret. Lisa is pregnant, which she is too nervous to tell Melvin about, and she has just been offered a dream job in New Zealand. It feels like she has these secrets purely, so we don’t feel that Melvin is the only bad person in the relationship, but his are a lot worse. He kisses Georgia at the mid-point of the film, claiming it was a mistake. It really does feel that the inevitable happy ending isn’t justified for Melvin.
Despite some flaws, Boxing Day, is still funny and an entertaining film. It’s nothing that original or revolutionary but it’s fun. The supporting characters are excellent and it’s a true celebration of family. (Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Vue)
C’mon C’mon (15)
ike Mills turns his tender filmmaking gaze towards children and the adult/child relationship in his latest film, the sublime “Cmon Cmon.” It’s yet another perceptive, impeccably crafted winner in an informal trilogy about family, what makes us human, and how people struggle every day to do their best amidst the many challenges and pains of life.
Vaguely reminiscent of Wim Wenders’ “Alice In The Cities”—a journalist is saddled with a young girl and lets her tag along on his road trip—the filmmaker’s dynamic work shares little else with the film and ultimately is its own very Mike Mills thing: deeply human, gently probing, sharply observed, and luminously emotional. “When you think about the future, how do you imagine it will be?” Johnny (Joaquin Phoenix), a warm and thoughtful “This American Life”-esque radio documentary journalist, asks his subjects in his latest story. In tumultuous, anxious times like these, the horizon seems bleak, but Johnny’s new project is traveling across the country and interviewing various kids about what they think the uncertain future will hold. And the answers, like most attentive observations from teens and children when lightly, non-judgmentally asked, are surprising, still hopeful, and of their present moment, not loaded with baggage from another generation’s past.
However, Johnny’s project eventually becomes disrupted when he reconnects with his estranged sister Viv (a fabulous Gaby Hoffmann). The grief of their mother’s death, the difficult dementia that preceded it, and the conflicting ways they handled it alienated the siblings, but Johnny suddenly calls out of the blue, the day of their mother’s death. While it’s lovely to reconnect, Viv is struggling. Her mentally ill classical musician ex-husband (Scott McNairy) is going through another manic episode, and she has to leave Los Angeles to tend to him in Oakland and try, yet again to coax him into seeking help. Realizing she’s in a pinch and trying to help out, Johnny offers to stay in L.A. to look after her troubled 9-year-old son, Jesse (a radiantly authentic Woody Norman).
But what is supposed to be a few days gets extended as Viv tries to figure out sustainable care for her sick spouse and what ensues is a cross-country trip; Johnny taking his nephew along for the ride as he travels to Detroit, New York, New Orleans, and various places to conduct his interviews. It’s supposed to be an adventure, but Johnny is quickly thrown into a world of speed-parenting, learning fast and on the go, which accelerates the emotional dramas. Along for the ride, at times, is Roxanne (Real-life NYC Radio Labs correspondent Molly Webster), Johnny’s colleague, and Fernando (Twitter comedian turned actor Jaboukie Young-White), an au-pair to watch Jesse when the adults are working. But it’s really a two-hander between Phoenix, Norman, but also a third in Viv’s absent, distant, disembodied voice, grateful her brother is taking care of her son and holding his hand through the “, yeah, that’s what that’s like, dude,” explanations about the emotional complexities of navigating a sensitive and imaginative boy. The pair bond and connect in unexpected ways, but that doesn’t mean it’s not hard.
Shot in black in white by Robbie Ryan (“American Honey,” “The Favourite”), initially a curious choice, given Mills’ splendorous use of color in the past, this classic choice eventually reveals itself to illuminate the movie’s evocative ideas of memory: how we live in the past, worry about the future and are always trying to stay present in the moment. Scored by The National siblings Aaron and Bryce Dessner, the duo bring an affecting dreaminess to the proceedings, which only further complements that idea of reflection, reminiscence, but also dolorous longing.
Mills is so adept at expressing the delicate aches of existential melancholy, the everyday discomforts of being alive. If micro-aggressions are a thing, Mills arguable traffics in micro-traumas: the little disappointments, minor heartbreaks, disillusionment, hurts, and emotional bruises and bumps we sustain each day that affects our self-worth, especially in relation to our children, siblings, spouses, and loved ones. And all of this is wonderfully and wistfully threaded through “Cmon Cmon.”
Via the disorienting transition that Johnny makes to parent and caretaker, and the confusing sadness Jesse feels without his mom, Mills wants to communicate universal things we all desperately feel: that we all want to be loved, that we all want to feel connected to one another, that we feel sometimes misunderstood, that we all want to be seen and heard—the latter of which is often difficult for children marched around by overbearing adults. Mills is so emotionally intuitive, and his observations about children’s feelings and how they’re just as legitimate and worthy of respect as yours.
“It’s fine, not to be ok!” Phoenix bellows at one point in his exquisitely soulful performance, a heartfelt turn, in a kind and heartfelt movie. Unsurprisingly if you know his compassionate work, Mills’ latest will make you cry, will make you laugh, will make you feel less lonely in the world, and remind you we’re all novices just trying to cope and make it through the day alive in one piece (a deeply parental pov).
With “Cmon Cmon,” Mills solidifies his position as one of our greatest cinematic humanists, filmmaking empaths, and chroniclers of emotive struggle. Soothingly curious about the human condition and affectionately inquisitive about what makes children tick, the emotional intelligence of his movie once again radiates off the charts (bet you all the money in the world, he’s a great, patient father). Poetic and bittersweet, “Cmon Cmon” is a special film, one that asks us to recognize the mistakes we make, the people we wound, the feelings we hurt, and to maybe give ourselves a break in the process and hold on for what better future tomorrow mImagine growing up at the end of times, on a tattered planet suffocating under ceaseless environmental mayhem and the putrid fumes of socioeconomic injustice. That today’s children and teenagers, conscious of the discouraging prospects left for them by adults, can still envision a livable future must be a miracle of our species’ resilient hopefulness.
Testimonies from those young souls bolster “C’mon C’mon,” a heartwarmingly chaotic intergenerational dialogue turned heartening dramedy. Mike Mills’ latest feature, his first in five years, sees the writer-director once again observing the impasses and affinities of parents and their kids. He plied similar emotional topography in “20th Century Women” and “Beginners,” but now there’s the formal melancholy of black-and-white cinematography (by Robbie Ryan, “Marriage Story”) and the story of a minor and his impromptu guardian.
For this psychologically textured effort, Mills careens with the tale of a 9-year-old boy with a hyperactive mind, his burdened mother, and his uncle-turned–temporary putative father. The filmmaker casts away simplistic finger-pointing about the state of the world, painting grown-ups not as figures of superior understanding but as people just as lost as those much younger in age.
Radio reporter Johnny (a reassuringly tender Joaquin Phoenix) is in the thick of an ambitious project, going around the United States to interview a diverse group of youths about their cherished aspirations and most dreaded fears. Segments using conversations with real subjects punctuate the film as it moves from one location to the next. The inclusion of this moving non-fiction device healthily contrasts the artsy, white-privileged lens through which the protagonists discern situations. Without this collective assessment from adolescents who differ in class and preoccupations, the result would read too insular.
Thrown a curveball, Johnny heads to Los Angeles, a city he detests on principle as a proud New Yorker, to care for his nephew Jesse (Woody Norman), while his sister Viv (Gaby Hoffmann) spends a few days helping her husband, Jesse’s mentally-ill father. Having not seen him for a year, Jesse’s fondness for pretending to be an orphan — perhaps in hopes of ridding himself of the responsibility of coping with his parents’ traumas and conditions — perplexes Johnny at first. Slowly, however, he enters the rascal’s kingdom of unbound thoughts. Their attachment and bickering evolves when the uncle must bring him along on his work travels.
In a tête-à-tête with Phoenix, Norman (already a veteran of British TV) carves out a jaw-dropping turn from delicate mood swings and mischievous charm. Sweet and insufferable in equal measures, seemingly always in control, but still a child wrestling with the instability of his family life, Jesse astounds everyone with whom he comes into contact.
No diagnosis is ever noted; his identity is attributed simply to being nurtured in a household where uninhibited openness exists. A few days into their time together, Phoenix’s Johnny ponders whether the boy is spoiled or if he’s just not used to someone that age having such autonomy of voice and a fully-formed personality to express complex sentiments. The character complexities grow out of Mills’ divinely extraordinary writing.
Mills and editor Jennifer Vecchiarello (“Kajillionaire”) astutely disseminate intimate snippets of this family’s recent history in short, muted flashbacks, juxtaposing both timelines in a way that vividly supplements our knowledge of Johnny and Viv’s mother and of Jesse’s imaginative childhood. Aside from the lack of saturation, Ryan’s camerawork and lighting for the urban-set footage stays unassumingly naturalistic.
The director instead utilizes the frame less conventionally, having text messages appear as subtitles on screen or giving credit to texts and artists the narrative references. It’s as if the creator were annotating the movie as we watch it. Mills nods to “The Wizard of Oz” and even “Cameraperson” documentarian Kirsten Johnson’s philosophy on how capturing a person’s image or voice immortalizes them, giving meaning to Johnny’s work.
It’s quite refreshing to witness Phoenix invested in a portrayal that traffics in the mundane and the subdued, in the defeating acceptance of his parental inexperience. Johnny can be somewhere along the road that separates the actor’s introverted role in “Her” from the zany hero of “Inherent Vice.” The derangement of a murderous antihero like the “Joker” turns heads easily, but the internally laborious assignment of imbuing average humanity with a memorable spark earns merit.
More than once, Jesse asks why Johnny is not married, why he is alone, why he and his mother don’t talk anymore; Johnny smirks uncomfortably while the wide-eyed Jesse interrogates. These small confrontations, ripe with humor, exhibit the adult’s insecure childishness and the boy’s wise curiosity in a stimulating reversal.
In scene after scene, Phoenix’s banter with Norman builds a tower of trust. Johnny’s paternal affection for Jesse and the child’s acceptance of it, with its caveats and rough edges, creates a collection of tiny acting miracles. Mills and his cast create the illusion of intuitive filmmaking, convincing us that the lived spontaneity of the scripted vignettes manifests before our very eyes.
Viv’s interjections in phone conversations with Johnny allow for the endearing Hoffmann to become an equally substantial character. Frequently off screen, she is as much as part of this new dynamic for the trio. As she cries or laughs on the other side of the phone line, dealing with an ill partner and an absent son, we can see that these are two adults recognizing their cluelessness and helplessness.
Reminiscent of Mills documentary “Does Your Soul Have Cold?” or his fiction debut “Thumbsucker,” two movies concerned with mental illness, “C’mon C’mon” resonates as an amalgamation of past thematic interests coupled with the pressure cooker that is our current reality. But perhaps more than anything he’s done before, this soul-soothing new take on familiar fixations is unguarded and achingly truthful. Without solutions to our visibly irreversible march towards doom, the film supports the notion that no one knows whether tomorrow our troubles might or might not change for the better.
Mills fights despair, not with false positivity but with compassion for our unifying uncertainty. Like a drop of drinking water in the salty ocean, it probably won’t save us, but it might keep us going just a little longerhe looming threat of ecological collapse is entirely inescapable. Whether revealing itself through spontaneous deadly floodwaters in New York City or a catastrophic oil spill off of the California coastline, full-blown devastation appears all but imminent. Though the urgency of this crisis is indisputable, Mike Mills’ C’mon C’mon argues that there is still merit in maintaining optimism. While continuing to mold his protagonists after his immediate family members—in this case his (and fellow filmmaker Miranda July’s) nine-year-old son—the director presents a picture of sincere sentimentality rooted not in previously occupied states of nostalgia or raw lived experience, but rather forward-looking hopefulness for an ostensibly fraught future.
A year after the death of their mother, broadcast radio journalist Johnny (Joaquin Phoenix) reaches out to his sister Viv (Gaby Hoffmann) to amend a recent lack of communication. While catching up, Viv reveals that her ex-husband Paul (Scoot McNairy) is in the midst of a bipolar episode in the Bay Area, and she feels compelled to go and convince him to seek inpatient care. Johnny has only one question: Who is going to watch her son Jesse (Woody Norman) while she’s away? Though originally tasked with watching his nephew for only a few days, extenuating circumstances lead to Jesse accompanying Johnny on an extensive city-spanning reporting project. Fittingly, the assignment finds Johnny and his colleagues conducting audio interviews with children across the country, gauging their thoughts on matters of the heart, mind and soul—specifically, what do they think the future will look like? Despite undertaking an intimate story about the oft-overlooked interiority and intelligence of American adolescents, Johnny finds himself wholly unsure about his ability to assume the role of caretaker for his own relative.
Much like Beginners is directly inspired by his father’s coming out and 20th Century Women by the experiences of his mother and sister, C’mon C’mon also transposes Mill’s own memories to the screen. This time, the cinematic catalyst was a simple bathtime conversation the director had with his son—a detail faithfully recreated in the film with a delicate and appropriately realistic touch. However, it’s hard to imagine the film’s success without the dynamic chemistry between Phoenix and Norman, with the two seamlessly playing off one another’s dialogue and an air of childlike spontaneity permeating every interaction. Norman’s performance is a rarity in that it displays obvious talent while preserving a childlike playfulness that never feels over-acted. The understated performance by Hoffmann is equally effective for this same reason, imbuing the role with a semblance of thoroughly modern millennial motherhood, endearing in its eccentricity. Even ancillary elements of the film help to imbue a more palpable sense of vérité, such as the casting of real-life WNYC Radiolab correspondent Molly Webster as one of Johnny’s colleagues or the beautiful banality of recording street sound, room tone and narration for a radio piece.
While it’s true that a slew of films have previously explored the clash between children and impromptu guardians when assimilating to their newfound roles (John Cassavetes’ Gloria, most notably, as well as the Phoenix-starring 2017 Lynne Ramsey film You Were Never Really Here), C’mon C’mon differs from its predecessors by maintaining the innate innocence of the children involved. There never comes a time when Jesse or any of the young interview subjects are completely exposed to the world’s wickedness, but this isn’t due to their own naivete. The film is as much about how childrearing forever alters an adult’s worldly perspective as it is the unassuming thoughtfulness of young people. Even when confronted with questions concerning an increasingly uncertain global landscape and complex interior thoughts, it’s explicitly clear that children experience “real-world” anxieties that adults are uniquely quick to dismiss—though they probably feel similarly themselves.
In a technical sense, C’mon C’mon is also extremely efficacious in employing the sonic intricacies of audio journalism. Johnny introduces rudimentary concepts such as gain, audio levels and speaking distance from the microphone to Jesse, who picks it up with childlike ease and intuition, and whose frenetic audio recordings end up on Johnny’s tape alongside formal sit-down interviews—a recorded reminder of Johnny’s own tangible investment in the wellbeing of the next generation. The score by twin brothers Bryce and Aaron Dessner of The National (whom Mills has previously shot music videos for) is likewise gorgeous in its minimal scope, never overshadowing the soundscape of bustling city noise and tranquil residential blocks captured in each city the team visits.
Though the central radio piece that Johnny and his colleagues gradually construct during the film is initially depressing in its assertion of just how cognizant young people are to the perils of the world that await them in adulthood, it is also heart-wrenching and hopeful in its honesty. Virtually none of the subjects interviewed perceive the future as entirely void of opportunity for improvement—and if at least some children truly believe that things can turn around for their generation, wouldn’t dismissing that tender optimism be the same exact brand of condescension that many of the kids express frustration with? Particularly when the presence of material issues in many of these kids’ lives prove more pertinent—incarcerated parents, emotional negligence, racism—the end of humanity seems to be the least of their problems.
In this sense, the future generation needs more than just intangible well wishes and patronizing pity. Instead, they need robust interpersonal support, deeper emotional understanding and advocacy on the part of adults in their lives—all in all, to be taken much, much more seriously than they currently are. In amplifying the diverse voices of American children through the film’s radio vérité subplot, C’mon C’mon proves that kids have some pretty insightful advice to impart, if only we’d just listen. small, soft-spoken yet casually profound family drama in which a subdued, post-“Joker” Joaquin Phoenix plays a middle-aged radio journalist who travels the country interviewing kids, asking what they think about their lives and where the world is headed.
It shouldn’t really surprise that the two creatives — accomplished artists in their own right — have overlapping interests, including but hardly limited to the conviction that adults could stand to learn a thing or two from the way young people see things. Where July’s movies lean toward absurdism and the surreal, the more serious-minded Mills keeps things firmly grounded in real life, such that even the stylistic decision to shoot in black and white feels like an extension of his no-frills commitment to authenticity.
“C’mon C’mon” comes on the heels of a pair of intensely personal yet easily relatable films Mills wrote and directed about his relationship to his mother (embodied by Annette Bening in “20th Century Women”) and father (Christopher Plummer in “Beginners”). This one also deals with parenthood, albeit from the other side of the equation: The protagonist here is Phoenix’s character Johnny, who agrees to help his sister Viv (Gaby Hoffmann) by taking care of her 9-year-old son, Jesse (Woody Norman, so natural, it never feels like acting). It’s a transformative experience for both of them, but not in that pat, inspirational way you might get in a Judd Apatow or James L. Brooks movie.
Johnny is single and childless, which affords him the luxury of pouring all his attention into his work. Viv wishes she had that same freedom, but parenthood puts significant demands on her, compounded by the fact her high-maintenance ex-husband (Scoot McNairy) is teetering on the brink of another breakdown. Without waiting to be asked, Johnny volunteers to watch Jesse, so that Viv might deal with the boy’s father during this rough stretch.
Mills provides humanizing glimpses of this mental health drama but doesn’t allow it to overtake the film, which focuses primarily on Johnny and Jesse’s time together — that and the repair work being done to the siblings’ relationship, which has been delicate since the death of their mother a few years prior. After a few days of “babysitting,” Johnny finds work calling again and suggests to Jesse — before running it by his mother — that the boy accompany him to New York. Viv isn’t crazy about the idea but gives in, and so begins a unique opportunity for Jesse to shadow his uncle on the job.
Johnny tries to turn the mic on Jesse, asking the standard questions about life and the future, but Jesse defers — though of course, he’ll acquiesce eventually, giving the film emotional closure in the process. But first, Johnny has to earn his confidence. Jesse’s a strong-willed kid whose mother has taught him to express himself, too candidly at times (“I heard that she got an abortion,” he tells Johnny, caught off guard by the revelation), and who expects open communication in return. “He’s a little person. Just be honest with him,” Viv advises by phone, admitting that she too can be frustrated by her own creation.
Humans have been raising children for millennia, and yet, no one seems to have perfected the formula, which makes it forever fascinating to watch how different strategies play out for others. Here, it feels as if Viv has perhaps been a bit too indulgent with the boy, who likes to play a strange game where he pretends to be an orphan, mistreated and in want of shelter. In another helmer’s hands, this curious behavior might read as “quirky,” but the way Mills presents it, Jesse’s “weird eccentricity” feels genuine — the sort of thing that sticks with you long after the rest of the film has faded from memory.
The movie is loaded with terrific specifics like this. Mills’ movies always are, and “C’mon C’mon” allows him to use the fictional dynamic between Johnny and Jesse to explore his own insecurities as a parent. It also leaves room for grace notes: the way Jesse wields a shotgun mic, Johnny washing the kid’s hair in the bathtub.
It’s kind of perfect that Johnny works in radio. For starters, the public doesn’t really know what the reporters who produce stories for NPR look like, what their lives entail. Scarily thin in “The Joker,” Phoenix has packed it back on for this role, looking like someone who subsists on take-out food and room service but never bothers to hit the hotel gym. His shoulders are slouchy and his body language slobby, but the character has a good heart. He’s a good listener, which is key, and that patience will serve him well with Jesse.
This unusual job also gives Mills a way to peer inside the character’s head, as Johnny records audio diary entries as much for our benefit as his own. The movie also includes actual interviews with young people in the various cities they visit — Detroit, New York, New Orleans — including one with Devante “D-Man” Bryant, a 9-year-old who was later struck by a bullet and killed, and to whom the film is dedicated.
“Be funny, comma, when you can, period,” Jesse says at one point, quoting his dad — who’s seen being silly in several short flashbacks. It’s a shame Mills didn’t lean into the same philosophy more: “C’mon C’mon” proves plenty poignant, but it’s less entertaining than it might have been. A24 allows that, encouraging indie auteurs to do their thing. It’s the boutique’s brand, and a respectable one. But humor has always been the not-so-secret recipe that sets studio movies apart from the naive-art works that surface at film festivals. No matter the genre, practically all Hollywood movies are comedies, and here’s one that makes you smile inside, but stops just short of letting that break into a laugh. ’mon C’mon is a swooningly photographed drama about a radio journalist and adorable guy in middle age called Johnny, played by Joaquin Phoenix – part of the great tradition of journalists in the movies in that his employer requires of him just one big apparently open-ended task. He and a colleague are travelling around the United States for what amounts to a substantial oral history project, interviewing high-school teenagers about what they think of their lives, their families, their communities and their futures (that beckoningly enigmatic future is what gives the film its title). Johnny is single, having just split with a long-term girlfriend: he is smart, funny, dishevelled and paunchy – and a good listener to the kids whose honesty and intelligence he admires.
But Johnny has a serious family problem: he has fallen out badly with his adored sister Viv (Gaby Hoffmann) and hasn’t spoken to her for a year, since the death of their mother; Viv is angry with him for being irresponsible and failing to do any of the emotional heavy-lifting. But now Viv needs him: her semi-estranged partner Paul (Scoot McNairy) is bipolar and having a very serious episode, and Viv has to get him into a facility. She needs someone to look after their precocious eight-year-old son Jesse, played by Woody Norman in a supernaturally heart-tugging performance.
So Johnny, the wacky cool uncle, offers to shoulder the burden of being a real adult for once and take Jesse to New York while he interviews another batch of high-schoolers; soon he realises what a challenge being a parent is. (There are two separate scenes where he loses Jesse in a crowd and quite quickly finds him again.) This will be maturing experience for them both, and Johnny records reflective audio-diary entries with the same big fluffy microphone he uses for work. Occasionally, he reads aloud from classy books whose authors and titles are flashed up on screen in austere sans-serif capital letters.
C’mon C’mon is a well-made film with some nice exchanges between Johnny and Jesse, and between Johnny and the perennially exasperated Viv. Robbie Ryan’s monochrome cinematography is lovely, though it makes every scene look like a picture from the same expensive coffee-table book. But I found something a bit self-congratulatory here: these beautiful shots of Manhattan combined with Johnny’s quasi single-dad situation reminded me (not unpleasantly) of Woody Allen, dictating his novel over the strains of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. The teens Johnny interviews are mostly real people talking about their real lives, and in many ways, these are best moments in the film – though there is something coercive about presenting these testimonies embedded in an elaborate emotional fiction. The film is subtly siphoning off these young people’s authenticity.
The performances are good, especially Hoffman, whose character is tested beyond endurance by the double-whammy of immaturity presented by Johnny and Jesse; Phoenix has sympathy and charm, and the camera indulges every move and gesture from the amazingly schooled Norman, though the comedy in their odd-couple relationship seems always to be heading for a hug rather than a laugh. It’s an impressively contrived film, almost a machine for winning awards, a monochrome reverie of midlife yearning. t’s a wispy yet insightful and emotionally satisfying film, shot with affecting intimacy in pellucid black-and-white by the great Irish cinematographer Robbie Ryan, and graced with a shimmering score by brothers Bryce and Aaron Dessner of The National that works in tandem with Mills’ eclectic music choices to shape the enveloping mood.
In Phoenix’s first feature role since his divisive best actor Oscar win for Joker, it’s amusing to witness him imploring another character — a 9-year-old boy — to be less weird. Phoenix plays Johnny, a New York radio journalist working on a series that takes him and his small team city to city interviewing kids about the uncertainties of what lies ahead: what scares them, what needs to change, what could adults have done to make things better.
Johnny is a great listener whose work gives him satisfaction, but that seems to be all he has. His longtime girlfriend has ended their relationship and he has been estranged from his sister Viv (Gaby Hoffmann) since their dementia-afflicted mother’s harrowing death a year earlier. The cold spell between them dates back further, however, to Johnny stepping into the middle of Viv’s troubles with her bipolar husband, Paul (Scoot McNairy), without a full understanding of the situation.
When Johnny calls Viv in Los Angeles on the anniversary of their mother’s death, she mentions that she needs to go to Oakland to help Paul through a difficult patch. Without much forethought, Johnny volunteers to go stay in L.A. and look after his nephew, Jesse (Woody Norman).
Jesse is a smart, somewhat odd kid, but crucially, he’s not cutesy odd. His mother indulges his role-play fantasies of being an orphan, responding as an imaginary foster parent to his questions about her dead children. He’s been taught to express his feelings openly and has absorbed Viv’s self-help language, at one point talking to his uncle about “being in your zone of resiliency.” He’s also disconcertingly direct, blurting out blunt questions — “Why aren’t you married?” “Why did you and my mom stop talking?” — while Johnny is reading The Wonderful Wizard of Oz as a bedtime story.
It would be too easy to identify the symbolism of Johnny as the Tin Man, risking remaining rusted in place forever if the Good Witch, in this case Viv, hadn’t put Dorothy/Jesse in his path to oil his joints and liberate him. That essentially is what happens, though it’s more complex, and the benefits go both ways. Mills stirs in excerpts from a number of texts, both fiction and nonfiction — their titles and authors’ names displayed onscreen — that relate to the characters and their relationships in ways that are playful, poetic, even didactic at times, though never banal.
When Paul’s manic episodes detain Viv longer than expected in Oakland, Johnny feels the pressure from his colleagues to return to New York to continue the interview series. With a little manipulation, Viv reluctantly agrees to let him take Jesse, and the fractious harmony between uncle and nephew moves to a new level in and around Johnny’s Chinatown apartment, beyond initial curiosity to a cautious mutual trust and understanding. But that comes also with moments of frustration, anger and even panic, when Jesse acts out or disappears while Johnny’s attention is momentarily elsewhere. Reprimanding himself, Johnny confesses to Viv at one point that he doesn’t know what he’s doing. “Yeah, welcome to my fucking life,” she responds.
The central relationship evolves further still when the radio project takes them to New Orleans and Viv’s prolonged absence prompts hard questions from Jesse about his father’s mental health. Mills’ script is never simplistic, instead grounded in sensitive observation of the ways in which children are actually just little adults, their powers of perception quite different though often no less astute. One of the most affecting moments is when Jesse asks his uncle if he’s going to turn out like his dad.
Norman is quite wonderful; he’s exceptionally natural, his every thought, word and action reading as entirely spontaneous. And Phoenix, exploring a funny-sad, gentle side of his persona we seldom get to see, is always unquestionably in the moment, a man struggling through an unfamiliar process. On one occasion he resorts to consulting an online script for parenting repair scenarios, and Jesse comments that his mom is better at making it seem like she’s not reading. We feel Johnny’s joy and surprise at the tiny pleasures of caring for a child who needs him, which allows him to see himself as a person in a less insular world than the one he’s been inhabiting.
C’mon C’mon is more about the cumulative effect of shared, often seemingly inconsequential moments than any dramatic events within that period. The relationships are drawn with affection and authenticity, which applies also to Hoffmann’s Viv, a woman who has worked hard to maintain an intellectual and spiritual life beyond the boundaries of being a mother and a caregiver to both her son and the boy’s sometimes out-of-control father. The rediscovery of closeness between brother and sister adds another poignant layer. And there’s a lovely ease in the way Jesse moves among Johnny’s colleagues (Molly Webster and Jaboukie Young-White) and their New Orleans community liaison (Sunni Patterson).
The use of the radio interviews — with the comments of kids from Detroit, New York and New Orleans reflecting their distinct backgrounds — serves to place the family portrait within the larger context of young people dealing with different challenges as they figure out who they are. Some of the scenes with the children of immigrants are especially moving. Johnny teaches his nephew to use his recording equipment, and the boy sparks to the magic of sound while also feeling a sense of involvement in his uncle’s work.
Ryan’s nonintrusive lens captures the textures of each location in beautiful monochrome images — gritty, real, alive — that never feel fussy or overly manicured, mostly using natural light or subtle illumination for the interiors. Perhaps the most memorable setting is the wild Louisiana garden where the body language of Johnny and Jesse conveys the extent to which their mutual love has grown, and the melancholy awareness that their time together is coming to an end
optional screen reader (Cineworld 5 Ways, Solihull)
Tick Tick, Boom (12)
1992, a few years before the premiere of Rent, Jonathan Larson performs his rock monologue Tick, Tick… Boom! in front of an audience at New York Theatre Workshop, accompanied by his friends Roger and Karessa Johnson. Larson begins a story about events surrounding his 30th birthday and his desire to become a successful musical theater composer (“30/90”).
In 1990, Jonathan Larson juggles his duties as a waiter at the Moondance Diner with preparing for a workshop at Playwrights Horizons of his musical SUPERBIA, which he has been working on for eight years. He hosts a party at his house with his friends, including his former roommate Michael, who left an acting career to work in advertising, his girlfriend Susan, a dancer who has lost her passion after a nearly career-ending injury, and his fellow waiters Freddy and Carolyn (“Boho Days”). While having sex that night, Susan reveals to Jonathan that she got a teaching job in the Berkshires and wants him to come with her (“Green Green Dress”).
Ira Weitzman, the Musical Theatre Program Director at Playwrights Horizons, suggests Jonathan write a new song for SUPERBIA, as the second act needs one. This troubles Jonathan, as he was given the exact same advice by his idol, Stephen Sondheim, at the BMI Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Workshop a few years ago. He visits Michael at his new Upper East Side apartment, where they celebrate Michael’s financial success and higher quality of living from the apartment he used to share with Jonathan (“No More”). Susan pressures Jonathan to consider the job offer and moving with her, adding to his anxieties as he feels his career is just starting in New York (“Johnny Can’t Decide”).
Jonathan tries to track down his agent, Rosa Stevens, to invite Sondheim and others to the workshop, but eventually just cold-calls various people in the industry including Sondheim. He watches the PBS broadcast of Sunday in the Park with George with Michael and Susan, and the next day imagines the Moondance Diner populated by Broadway stars (“Sunday”). Carolyn informs him that Freddy, who is HIV-positive, has been hospitalized, adding to Jonathan’s anxieties. He walks down Broadway to Playwrights Horizons for the start of rehearsals for SUPERBIA (“Play Game”). Susan, frustrated by his indecision and focus on his career over their relationship, breaks up with him (“Therapy”).
To raise money to hire a full band for the workshop, Jonathan attends an advertising focus group meeting on Michael’s recommendation. He makes a good impression at first and briefly considers a corporate future, but quickly realizes he would hate it and deliberately makes a fool of himself. Michael criticizes him for wasting his time on theater, while Jonathan claims he is running out of time to succeed. He attempts to write the song the night before the workshop, but his landlord cuts power in his apartment due to unpaid bills before he can start. Heading to a swimming pool to cool off, he pictures the lines on the pool floor as sheet music and finally comes up with the new song (“Swimming”).
The workshop is attended by friends, family, and industry professionals, including Stephen Sondheim. Karessa brings down the house with the new song, “Come to Your Senses”, while Jonathan imagines Susan singing it to him. After the show he receives praise but no offers to produce SUPERBIA. Discouraged, Jonathan runs to Michael begging for a corporate job, but Michael has had a change of heart after seeing the workshop and encourages Jonathan to keep up his musical theater career, in the process revealing he is HIV-positive (“Real Life”). Stunned, Jonathan leaves and wanders through New York in a daze before finding himself at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park. He hops a fence and finds a rehearsal piano, where he sings about his friendship with Michael and the sacrifices he must make for his career, asking if they are worth it (“Why”). He and Michael reconcile.
On the morning of his birthday, he receives a phone call from Sondheim, who leaves his contact information so they can talk more about SUPERBIA. He holds his birthday party at the Moondance Diner, attended by his friends. Susan meets with him and encourages him to continue his career, promising to see “the next thing.” Susan narrates that the “next thing” was Tick, Tick… Boom!, before he returned to working on a previous project, which became Rent. She reveals that Jonathan died of an undiagnosed aortic aneurysm the night before Rent’s premiere Off-Broadway and never experienced the success he desired, but his work lives on. In 1992, Jonathan performs the final song from Tick, Tick… Boom!, as he observes his friends and family in the audience, including Susan watching from the back
Army Of Thieves (15)
Although having killed off all but one of the characters, a sequel to Zack Snyder’s Army of The Dead is in the works, for now co-writer Shay Hatten has provided the screenplay for a prequel. So, this jumps back in time to the initial days of the zombie apocalypse to focus on the original team’s nerdy, socially awkward tousle-haired German safecracker Ludwig Deiter, then known as Sebastian Schlencht-Wöhnert, played as endearingly dorky by Matthias Schweighöfe who also takes up the directing reins.
A bullied misfit at school, young Sebastian spent his days learning to crack safes and now has YouTube blog where he posts videos on his passion, he latest being a starstruck account of Hans Wagner (Christian Steyer), a Munich locksmith wo, after the death of his wife and child, devoted huis ,life to constructing four impenetrable circular wall safes, each named after the operas in Richard Wagner’s The Ring Cycle before committing suicide by sealing himself inside a fifth, buried in the ocean as his tomb, the present whereabouts of the safes unknown. Rather inevitably, his blog has zero followers, until, that it, he gets one reply, inviting him to put his money where his mouth is. Turning up at a secret Berlin location he finds himself taking part in and winning a safecracking contest, becoming besotted with a woman he sees in the crowd smiling at him. Engineering a meeting at his regular morning coffee shop stop, she reveals herself to be Gwendoline (Nathalie Emmanuel from The Fast and the Furious), an internationally wanted jewel thief, who wants him to join her heist team for a task only he can pull off. Nightmares of zombie attacks and yet another day in his monotonous job as a bank teller, prompt him to agree and, meeting up with the others in her crew, expert hacker Korina (Ruby O. Fee), oddball bearded getaway driver Rolph (Guz Khan) and self-styled real live action hero Brad Cage (a Hugh Jackman-esque Stuart Martin) – an amalgam of Brad Pitt and Nicolas Cage, real name Alexis – , he learns they’ve located three of the safes, the Rheingold, the Valkyrie and Siegfried, in Paris, Prague and St. Moritz, Switzerland, but, with concerns over the zombie outbreak in America, they have only four days to crack them before they’re removed and decommissioned.
So, with a tip of the hat to The Italian Job, the film unfolds into a triple-heist movie with a narrative that variously takes in shy Sebastian’s mooning over Gwendoline (who’s more interested in becoming a legend than the loot), three daring safecracking jobs (all accompanied to opera excerpts on Sebastian’s cellphone, one carried out in the back of a moving truck), chases by and narrow escapes from the cops, and double-crosses, all the while being pursued by Interpol in the form of French agent Delacroix (Jonathan Cohen), obsessed with bringing Gwendoline down, and long suffering associate Beatrix (Noémie Nakai).
Nodding to heist movie traditions, such as the flashforwards as the heist plan is explained a la the various Oceans films, and with a stylistic look that involves wipes, quick cuts, fats and slow motion, graphics and at times conjures thoughts of Wes Anderson, and, even if the focus on the tentative Gwendoline and Sebastian chemistry ends up sidelining, the other characters it romps along in breezy, playful and enjoyable time-wasting fashion before a coda that, featuring two cameos and a blueprint for the fourth safe, Gotterdammerung, sets the scene for the original film. (Safe) cracking fun. (Netflix).
A Boy Called Christmas (PG)
Adapted from Matt Haig’s novel and directed by Gil Kenan, this is another version of the origin of Father Christmas, the story told to three understandably down youngsters whose mother has recently died by their dad’s (Joel Fry) great aunt Ruth (Maggie Smith) who arrives, Mary Poppins-like, at the undecorated home to babysit while he has to pop out for work on Christmas Eve. Interrupted by the children, mostly the youngest, who want to know if things end happily, as it unfolds, she tells of a Finnish boy named Nikolas (Henry Lawfull looking like a young Ed Sheeran) who, nicknamed Christmas by his late mother (killed by a bear), lives with his widowed woodcutter dad (Michael Huisman) out in the snowy woods along with Miika, a mouse he’s adopted and is trying to teach to speak.
One day, the depressed king (Jim Broadbent) summons his subjects and declares he wants them to embark on a quest to bring back that which the impoverished kingdom is missing – hope. And so Nikolas’s dad and some of the neighbours, including the hunter who saved them from a bear, set off to find Elfhelm, the mythical land of the elves, where happiness abounds, leaving him the care of his aunt (Kristen Wiig),who swiftly reveals herself to be the story’s version of the wicked stepmother, making Nikolas sleep outside and cruelly boiling up the turnip doll his mother made him for soup.
However, finding a map hidden inside his dad’s red hat with its white bobble, charting the way to Elfhelm, which he believes his mother actually found, he and Miika sneak away to follow his father. After a long journey, in which he’s befriended by a wounded reindeer that he names Blitzen and discovers Miika (Stephen Merchant) can actually talk, he arrives at his destination to find no sign of elves. Collapsing in the snow, he’s rescued by an elderly man (Toby Jones) and a young girl who turn out to be elves and teach him how to see Elfhelm. However, it’s no longer a place of joy. Something terrible has happened and it is now ruled by the newly elected leader, Mother Vodal (Sally Hawkins), who has banned singing, dancing, and all forms of merriment and cancelled Christmas after a young elf child was kidnapped by a group of humans.
What follows is fairly predictable, as is the connection Nikolas has to the elf kingdom, as he teams up with a truth pixie, defeats a troll, brings the joy back, puts the elves to work making toys and takes off on a sled pulled by a flying Blitzen with a bagful which, with the help of the king, he delivers to the kiddies back home (dropping down through the chimneys, of course).
Unlike many Christmas tales, this twangs the heartstrings but has very unsentimental, matter of fact approach to grief, death, the way people can be cruel to each other and how parents can disappoint their children, summed up by Aunt Ruth, who never tells a lie, as “the only thing you live with in life is the Truth, but it can be painful”. Not a classic in the making perhaps, but it has oodles of charm, a worthy message and the warm glow of chestnuts roasting by an open fire. (Reel)
Halle Berry’s directorial debut, in which she also stars, is an ambitious but ultimately formulaic addition to the catalogue of fighters overcoming personal demons to make a comeback and find redemption. Out of the game for four years, Jackie Justice (Berry) is a former Ultimate Fighting Championship star (a Mixed Martial Arts sport that uses fists and kicks) and now works menial jobs and lives with her volatile alcoholic boyfriend-manager, Desi (Adan Canto), a life that basically involves them verbally and physically fighting, drinking and having sex. However, taken to a fight where she ends up laying out the winner, she’s approached by Immaculate (Shamier Anderson,), a promoter who offers her a second chance and recruits her for a title match against Lady Killer (real-life UFC Women’s Flyweight Champion Valentina Shevchenko), to be trained by the demanding Zen-practising Buddhakan (a warm Sheila Atim), who turns out to have a softer heart than appears as well as showing the love (in a needless development they get to sleep together) Jackie’s never found from Desi or her cold, heavy drinking mother Angel (Adriane Lenox), who allowed her to be sexually abused by a string of lovers and an uncle as a child (though the third act also affords her a softening and redemption).
Into all this is thrown Manny (Danny Boyd Jr.), the son she gave up as a baby, returned to her, an elective mute, following his father’s death, meaning she now has to overcome her own demons and learn to be a mother and rescue Manny from his own trauma. Berry invests time in all her characters, finding something redeeming in each (even, to an extent, Desi) and does well with the small, intimate moments, but is less confident with the bigger picture, the fight scenes brutal but scrappy and unconvincing while the editing and script (by first-timer Michelle Rosenfarb), stumble on several occasions, although Berry’s strong, focused performance never succumbs to melodrama. It’s no knockout, but it does land some effective blows. (Netflix)
A Castle For Christmas (PG)
Directed by Mary Lambert, whose background is mostly music videos and TV movies, this is enjoyable cheesy and wholly predictable seasonal schmaltz which sees bestselling author Sophie (Brooke Shields) finding her fans turning on her for killing off one of the main characters in her books, seemingly in reaction to her husband’s adultery (cue a melt down on Drew Barrymore’s chat show. So, she decides to use this fall from grace as an opportunity to take off to Scotland and explore her family roots, most specifically by looking to buy Dunbar Castle, where, as her daughter reminds her, her grandfather once worked as a groundkeeper, and which, strapped by debt and needing money to keep the farm going, the present incumbent, Myles (Cary Elwes with passable brogue), the Duke of Dunbar, has reluctantly put up for sale. A deal is struck, she, moving in with Myles now becoming her tenant, but planning to still keep it in the family.
Initially assuming he’s just a local handyman, there the obligatory meet cute involving Myles’ dog before discovering the truth, a quickly burgeoning romance and an equally quick falling out before it heads to the wholly expected happy ever after finale. Alongside Shields and Elwes, there’s the stock colourful characters, among them the taxi driver whose thick accent Sophie cannot understand, Myles’ trusty employee Thomas (Lee Ross) and the residents at the quaint, cheery local B&B where Sophie initially stays, including an old dear who offers to teach her how to knit, Thomas’s ex (Andi Osho) and the recently widowed, big-bearded Angus (Stephen Oswald), a man of few words who does, however, get to do a highland fling for the Christmas party. As you’d imagine, kilts, tartans, tweeds and Arran jumpers are duly in plentiful supply.
The chemistry between Shields and Elwes could have done with a tad more spark, but despite the forced and contrived nature of the screenplay, they make a likeable pair and this rings all the obvious romcom sleigh bells to keep you comfortably curled up in front of the screen with that mulled wine and the roasting chestnuts. (Netflix)
Clifford The Big Red Dog (PG)
Starting out life in 1963 as a series of children’s books by Norman Bridwell and spinning off over the years into a TV series, live musical, video games and an animated feature, the crimson canine now makes his live action big screen debut in this genial if predictable shaggy dog tale about love, family and acceptance.
Recently having moved into a Manhattan apartment, having to go out of town for a trial, lawyer single mum (Sienna Guillory) reluctantly enlists, her unreliable, unemployed and homeless (he lives in his van) younger brother Casey (Jack Whitehall) to babysit 12-year-old sixth grader daughter Emily Elizabeth (Darby Camp), who, as the new kid in class at her private school, is naturally being bullied by the wealthier snotty mean girl who disparagingly calls her Food Stamps.
Arriving at school, she sees Bridwell’s Animal Rescue tent pitched in the grounds opposite and is invited inside by the eccentric proprietor (John Cleese), a sort of Mary Poppins version of Dr Doolittle, to see his menagerie and, knowing a pet is just what she needs, introduces her to the bright red puppy we first saw being left behind when his mother and siblings were taken in by animal control. Immediately falling for him, she begs Casey to let her take him home, but, mindful of his sister’s instructions, he refuses. But hey, arriving back from school she finds something inexplicably wriggling inside her back pack. Yes, somehow, the puppy has materialised in the apartment and, turning on her best pleading look, she convinces Casey to let him stay for the night and settles on the name Clifford. Then next morning, however, she’s in for another show. Having asked Bridwell how big the dog might grow, to which he replied as big as her love for him, Clifford is now a giant, naturally presenting all manner of problems in keeping the furniture from getting broken and hiding him from the apartment’s cranky ‘no pets’ supervisor (David Alan Grier).
Sneaking him out, they visit a vet (Kenan Thompson, understandably not keen on taking a rectal temperature) to have Clifford checked out, but, unfortunately, an incident in the park involving Clifford and an inflatable body ball goes viral, attracting the attention of the film’s bad guy, biotech CEO Tieran (Tony Hale) who is engaged in so far unsuccessful animal experiments (a two-headed goat, a bellicose sheep) in attempt to grow genetically modified oversized food and make a lot more money. Seeing Clifford, he thinks this is the answer to his prayers if he can extract whatever caused him to grow, and so the film becomes basically a chase movie as he and his minions persuade the local police that the dog belongs to him, escaped the lab and is a danger. Meanwhile, Casey, Emily and new friend Owen (Isaac Wang) (whose shipping magnate dad offers to spirit Clifford out of the country) are trying to locate Bridwell, keep Clifford safe and stop mum finding out they’ve been evicted.
Assuming its young audience will take the magic on trust, it never really explains why Clifford is red or big, and just gets on with the comedy, including a chase sequence across Manhattan and the coming together of assorted characters, including Emily’s cantankerous condensed milk loving Russian neighbour (Tovah Feldshuh), wannabee magician Malik (Russell Peters), a pair of Latino café owners(Horatio Sanz, Paul Rodriguez) and the lawyer (Keith Ewell) whose life Clifford saved when he fell from a roof, to foil Tieran’s plans. Naturally, Emily’s tormentor gets her comeuppance too.
Veteran British comic Whitehall is a joy and provides the bulk of the comedy as he tries to keep a grip on the rapidly unravelling events, Camp is agreeable cute, Hale suitably pantomime villain, Cleese twinkling whimsy and the combination of puppetry and CGI bring Clifford to adorable life, while there’s a blink and you’ll miss her cameo from Rosie Perez. The it’s ok to be different and acceptance message is nicely played (even if somewhat spelled out at the end as Emily addresses the gathered crowds) and the film is mercifully light on the cloying schmaltz that might have swamped it. Nor does Clifford talk. And, since this is for kids, there’s naturally some mild rude humour with Clifford cocking his leg up a tree and spraying everyone, a dog bottom sniffing moment, smelly canine farts and a gross touch as Clifford swallows Owen’s dog and spits him back out again. It’s barking, but great fun. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Everyman; Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Vue)
The Courier (12A)
Based on real life events, written by Tom O’Connor and directed by Dominic Cooke, Benedict Cumberbatch gives a solid, underplayed performance as Greville Wynne, a salesman representing various manufacturing companies, who, at the height of the Cold War, was recruited by MI6 and the CIA (respectively represented by Angus Wright and Rachel Brosnahan) to travel to Moscow and make contact with Oleg Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze), a Soviet colonel who, alarmed by Kruschev’s increasingly volatile nuclear rhetoric, has indicated he’s ready to pass on information to help prevent mutually assured destruction. The thinking is that, as someone with no obvious political connections, Wynne is unlikely to attract KGB attention.
Unable to tell his wife (Jessie Buckley) the real reason for his regular trips to Russia, she suspects he’s having another affair while Penkovsky’s wife also remains oblivious to her husband’s actions in smuggling photos out by Wynne in the build up to the Cuban Missile Crisis. Unfolding with a cool tension in secret meetings where the fear of discovery or being bugged is ever present, it sits well alongside similar espionage films like Bridge of Spies and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. As history tells, the subterfuge was eventually uncovered, leading to a darker third act when Cumberbatch, shaved headed and looking increasingly emaciated, is banged up in a Russian prison, being interrogated to confess he actually knew what he was carrying for Penkovsky (it’s suggested he didn’t, hence plausible deniability) before the British government negotiated an exchange for his release.
Sharply scripted and with a strong chemistry between Cumberbatch and Ninidze as the two men develop a genuine friendship (Wynne called him Alex), Wynne secretly rather enjoying his adventure, ticking the usual genre conventions without them appearing like clichés, the film revealing the heroic – and costly – role he and Penkovsky (codenamed Ironbark by the CIA) played in ending the Cuban standoff, Oleg remarking over a shared meal “We are just two people, but this is how things change.”
Its low key, period thriller nature might not be a big audience grabber, but as an inspiring story of human decency and sacrifice for the greater good, it’s one that deserves to be told and deserves to be seen. (BT Film Store, Sky Store, Virgin)
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 hrough 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. (Amazon Prime)
Originating in 1965, Frank Herbert’s impenetrable allegorical science fiction beset-seller novel went on to spawn five sequels, various TV mini-series and a 1984 big screen epic adaptation directed (and disowned) by David Lynch that proved a critical and box office disaster and is probably best remembered for the sight of Sting basically wearing a nappy.
It’s now been given a new lease of life at the hands of Denis Villeneuve with the sort of budget that could feed a small country for a century. The good news is that it’s money well spent, a monumentally-scaled spectacular that looks visually awesome and, unlike the original, has the perfect casting it needs to deliver the vision.
The last words spoken, by Fremen desert warrior Chani (Zendaya), are “This is only the beginning”, something which audiences only discover when the title card announces that this is Part 1 (Part 2 is yet to be filmed), the tale beginning by recounting how the planet Arrakis is the source of ‘spice’, a hallucinogenic substance that both extends life and fuels space travel. Mining it is a lucrative business, one which the ruthless House Harkonnen, headed by the floating Baron (Stellan Skarsgård) back on the stark Giedi Prime, and enforced by his brutal nephew (Dave Bautista), has overseen for 80 years, repressing the native blue-eyed Fremen (among them Javier Bardem’s chief Stilgar) who regard them as exploiters and oppressors.
However, it’s now 10191 and the Emperor has decreed that stewardship of Arrakis should be handed over to House Atreides from the oceanic planet Caladan, in the person of Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac, assured) who, along with his longtime concubine, Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson, enigmatic) and son Paul (a quietly charisma exuding Timothée Chalamet), duly take up residence on the arid planet with its vast swathes of desert sand, unbearable heat and the deadly giant sandworms. The Duke is, however, under no illusions that this is some sort of gift, declaring that he’s been set up to fail and, with Atreides a growing threat to the Emperor’s rule, a step towards their annihilation.
Paul, however, is the stumbling block. While still unsure of himself, he’s a skilled fighter trained by his father’s right-hand man Gurney Halleck (a grizzled and gruff Josh Brolin) and best buddies with Duncan Idaho (a rare unbearded Jason Mamoa), the daring adventurer pilot of one of the dragonfly-winged aircraft, he’s been having dreams of Chani and visions of future events on Arrakis, and there is talk that he may be the Chosen One prophesised by the mystic female order of the Bene Gesserit (of which his mother is one), though, despite an excruciatingly painful test, their Truthsayer (a visually obscured Charlotte Rampling) isn’t persuaded he’s yet ready.
Villeneuve takes his time to build the narrative, carefully layering visual cues concerning its subtext of industrial colonisation of third world countries alongside the political intrigue, eschewing exposition for carefully constructed character development and a gathering air of mystery that, in the figure of Paul, references both the New and Old Testament. But, when the action finally erupts with the invasion of Arrakis, it’s operatic in scale with Rogue One: cinematographer Greig Fraser letting rip in literal explosive style while Hans Zimmer’s score resonates with an appropriate sonic vastness.
For those hungering to fill the void left after The Fellowship of the Rings and Game of Thrones, sharing an essence and intensity with Mad Max and Apocalypse Now (The Baron is like a hovering Kurtz), this is a feast indeed. Here’s hoping the box office yields a second helping. (BT Film Store, Sky Store, Virgin; Empire Great Park)
Featuring music by Lin-Manuel Miranda, the latest Disney animation is set in Latin America and centres around the Madrigal family and the magic powers they possess. It starts with a tragedy as, escaping her home from armed conflict in Colombia, the young Alma Madrigal (María Cecilia Botero) loses her husband Pedro, but saves her three infant children, Pepa, Bruno and Julieta, using her magical candle to create a sentient Casita (a small house) for the family to live in. Over the years, a village grows up around it, Alma’s children and grandchildren gaining superhuman abilities, from super strength to the ability to talk to animals and, in her estranged son Bruno’s (John Leguizamo) case, precognition (although that turns out to pose a problem due to a misunderstanding). All that is except for Julieta’s (Angie Cepeda) youngest daughter, the bespectacled, curly-haired ever eager to help Mirabel (Stephanie Beatriz), who inexplicably, unlike her sisters, the super-strong Luisa (Jessica Darrow), and Isabela (Diane Guerrero), who can make flowers bloom, or cousin Dolores (Adassa), who has super-hearing, has no special ability, making her something of an outsider. However, when the family’s magical powers start to fade and the Calista begins to fall apart, she is the one who’s blamed, but she might also be the only one who can save everything.
Vibrant and colourful, with stairs that turn into slide and tiles that serve as moving pathways, and a wealth of catchy songs such as Feast of the Seven Fishes and the ballad Two Caterpillars, it romps along with effervescent energy and charm and, being Disney, there’s also a cute animal (a clueless toucan voiced by Alan Tudyk) and at its heart is a familiar touching message about being true to yourself and the value of family bonds. ( Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel; Vue)
Those who know their Marvel, will know the Eternals as humanoid cosmic heroes from the planet Olympia assigned by the all-powerful Celestials to watch over – but not interfere with events on – Earth, that is, unless it’s to stop their arch enemy, the Deviants, in this telling grotesque almost lizard-like monsters with swirling tendrils and a taste for human flesh.
They’re first introduced coming to Earth on their slab-like spaceship in Mesopotamia in 5020 B.C. where they save a beach side village from a Deviants attack, introducing us to self-healing Eternals leader Ajax (Selma Hayek), empath Sersi (Gemma Chan) who can manipulate inanimate matter, forever teenage Sprite (Lia McHugh) who can project illusions and teleport, warrior woman Thena (Angelina Jolie) with her gold shield and spear, deaf speedster Makkari (Lauren Ridloff), Phastos (Brian Tyree Henry) who can conjure inventions with his hands, mind-manipulator Druig (Barry Keoghan), Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani) who projects energy bolts, Gilgamesh (Don Lee), the strongest of them all, and Ikaris (Richard Madden) who can fly and shoots laser beams from his eyes a la Superman (this may be the first Marvel film to reference both him and Batman). As the names suggest, their presence on Earth over the centuries (and we get plenty of flashbacks of this, including Hiroshima bombing and the 1520 Tenochtitlan massacre) has inspired myths and legends, such as the Greek gods.
In present day London, Sprite, Sersi, who’s working as museum curator and her mortal boyfriend Dane Whitman (Kit Harrington) are attacked by a Deviant, Kro (voiced by Bill Skarsgaard), a shock since they thought they’d killed them all centuries ago. Even more of a shock is that this one is stronger and can heal itself, the trio saved when Ikaris (whom we learn married Sersi but then took off when it seemed their mission was complete) turns up. Now, realising the Deviants are back, they set out to reunite the other Eternals, who have since gone their separate ways, to once more protect the human race.
There is, of course, much more to things than first appear, Ajak and, one of the others, keeping secret the real mission she’s been charged with by the Prime Celestial Arishem (who, throwing the Bible out of the window, created the universe, life on Earth and, as we learn both Eternals and Deviants), which will actually entail the birth of a new Celestial – the Emergence – and along with it the destruction of everyone on Earth (it’s been going on for millennia on different planets, but the Eternals have had their memories wiped). This causes a schism in the ranks because Sersi, who becomes the default leader, has developed a great love for the planet and its people, seeing their potential despite their flaws, while others are dedicated to carrying out God’s Will.
Overstuffed with plot and characters (though some don’t make it to the Uni-Mind meld last act), and decidedly overlong at two and a half hours plus, it’s a dramatic change of pace from director Chloé Zhao’s Oscar winning naturalistic Nomadland, and you can’t help but feeling her interest is more in the character dynamics, existential crises, tangled emotional relationships and betrayals, than in the big action sequences the genre demands, the balance proving somewhat uneven. It introduces several firsts into the MCU, a Korean actor, a deaf hero and the first gay kiss, between Phastos and his mortal husband (Haaz Sleiman) with whom he has a young son. On the downside, is some clunky dialogue and an ill-fitting comedic element with Kingo becoming a Bollywood superstar (complete with dance sequence) and, when he rejoins his colleagues, being followed by his valet (Harish Patel) who’s filming a documentary of their exploits. Admittedly though, there are laughs when, during dinner at his and Thena’s outback getaway, Sprite casts Gilgamesh in a pink romper suit.
Inevitably with so many characters, several get sidelined for large stretches, while Thena’s unpredictable tendency to blank out and try to kill the others is never clearly explained, the focus primarily being on Sersi and Ikaris who, as he tells Kingo, is not the hero they think he is.
Even so, despite some stumbling points, in terms of the ideas it addresses, it’s undeniably the most ambitious Marvel film to date and Zhao brings an emotional dimension sometimes missing among the stunts and explosions that, ultimately, makes it worth the experience, not forgetting to hang around for the mid-credits scenes that introduce Harry Styles as another hitherto unseen Marvel character with Oswald Patton voicing his sidekick, and Dane’s secret, ready for the sequel and at least one spin-off. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC; Empire Great Park)
Everybody’s Talking About Jamie (12)
Basically a drag queen Billy Elliot The Musical, this is a big screen adaptation of the West End coming of age hit based on the documentary about Sheffield teen Jamie Campbell who wanted to go to school prom in drag, is an exuberantly feelgood joy directed by the Jonathan Butterell, who did the stage show and featuring the bulk of the original songs along with a stand out new addition. Winningly played by newcomer Max Harwood, the openly gay Jamie New lives with his supportive divorced mum Margaret (Sarah Lancashire) who, rather than see him hurt, hides the fact his homophobic father (Ralph Ineson) wants nothing to do with him, making excuses for no shows and faking birthday cards and presents. Bullied at school, primarily by Dean Paxton (Samuel Bottomley) and disapproved of by his teacher (Sharon Horgan) who tells her pupils they need to have realistic dreams, he’s supported and encouraged in his dream of becoming a drag queen by Muslim best friend Pritti Pasha (an outstanding Lauren Patel), herself battling against petty bigotry as she studies to become a doctor, who persuades him to visit a local drag shop to find a dress to go with the ruby red stilettos his mum bought him. It’s here he meets the shop’s owner, Hugo Battersby (Richard E Grant, wonderful), a former drag queen star as Loco Chanel who becomes his mentor, sells him his legendary ‘blood red dress’ and sets him up for his drag show debut (where, overcoming nerves and the jeers of Paxton and his mates, he dazzles as well as being given his drag name as Mimi Mi). All seems to be going swimmingly, until Jamie meets his dad and learns exactly how he feels (leading to a bust up with his mother for lying to him) and his teacher firmly tells him he’s not going to be allowed into prom if he turns up in a dress.
All of which serves as a platform for some brilliant choreographed set musical pieces that include the original stage title song spectacular and Lancashire’s poignant He’s My Boy alongside the all new This Was Me, a tear-jerker disco ballad performed by Grant (but sung by Holly Johnson) that, an addition to the narrative, affords a flashback to Hugo’s drag queen days backdropped by the AIDs epidemic, the street protests, police gay bashing, Princess Diana’s to patients, and ending with the news of Freddie Mercury’s death.
Featuring appearances by Shobna Gulati as Margaret’s mate Ray and cameos from the theatre production cast by Margaret Campbell who played mum and the original Jamie, John McCrea who plays the young Loco) alongside Drag Race star Bianca del Rio (as herself and the school art teacher) and Layton Williams, the touring version of Jamie, it’s variously touching, funny, heartbreaking (the new addition of a football match where Jamie confronts his father) and inspiring, culminating with the prom where Jamie becomes his true self, his classmates take a stand and Dean finds redemption and it ends with the company’s rousing self-acceptance and mutual tolerance message embodying performance of Out of the Darkness (A Place Where We Belong). Everybody’s talking about Jamie, and rightly so. (Amazon Prime)
Flummels are ring-doughnut shaped creatures with a hole in their middle and who travel like rolling tyres, they live on one of the Galápagos Islands where brother and sister Op (Rachel Bloom) and Ed (Adam Devine) are the tribe’s misfits, she always creating a mess and he a grumpy pessimist who longs to fit in. However, vain flummels leader Jepson (Henry Winkler) and bossy assistant Mali (Alex Borstein) aren’t about to let that happen, Ed being consigned to be friend at the end, a straggler in the upcoming 10th annual flower festival procession. But even that’s denied him when they inadvertently cause a friendly whale to swamp the beach, Op and Ed being consigned to sit the festival out on desolation rock.
Looking to find a way to redeem themselves, Op leads Ed up the far side of the mountain to the forbidden zone in search of some extra special blooms and, falling into a glowing flower, find themselves magically transported to present day Shanghai. Here, lost and confused, they’re helped by Clarence (Ken Jeong), a small white mix-breed Pomeranian that belonged to a now missing scientist who discovered seeds that enabled him to travel in time and visit historic events. He reveals the dreadful truth that, shortly after they left, a volcanic explosion wiped out all flummels, but says that, through Dr Chung’s (Benedict Wong) time terminal he can help them travel back and save their species.
Unfortunately, another Op and Ed accident throws Clarence into a random portal (where he becomes one of explorer Edward Shackleton’s thuggish sled dogs) along with the 1835 seed, leaving them at a loss at what to do. At which point they meet The Extinctables (an in-joke nod to Stallone’s The Expendables), a group of extinct creatures, dodo Dottie (Zazie Beetz), Tasmanian tiger Burnie (Jim Jefferies), Macrauchenia Alma (Catherine O’Hara) and Hoss (Reggie Watts), a baby Triceratops, rescued by Chung, who now live in the time terminal library. They offer to help Op and Ed visit various times to try and find Clarence, eventually recovering the seed that will save the flummels. However, an argument sees Op returning on her own and, at this point, there’s an unexpected twist where Clarence’s motives turn out to be something entirely different to what first appeared.
With a plot that involves time travel loops that Doctor Who might find complicated and the introduction of such characters as a cyclops, the captain of The Beagle (Nick Frost) and his passenger Charles Darwin (Tom Hollander) on its 1917 voyage of discovery, as well as offering snippets of historical information, this is directed by David Silverman who made The Simpsons Movie and written by three of The Simpsons scriptwriters. As such, while aimed at youngsters and borrowing from films like Ice Age, there’s also plenty of sly – and at times risqué – humour for the adults too (Clarence says his mom was ‘social’, an interspecies romance and, a laugh out loud cannibal-joke as Op bites into an actual doughnut and splatters a horrified Ed with jam), plus of course it comes with an upstanding message about courage, being true to yourself and the power of friendship and all the characters have very definite personalities. An unexpected delight. (Sky Cinema)
Set in a post-apocalyptic future where the collapse of the ozone layer has rendered the planet a radioactive, burning hot hellhole ripped by extreme weather, Tom Hanks gives another (almost) one-man performance as, to his best knowledge, the last living human, a military engineer who escaped destruction by being in a bunker when calamity struck. Now, protected by a space suit, with the aid of his version WALL-E, he drives a converted RV listening to American Pie as he forages the ruins of Missouri in his for food for himself and his dog, Goodyear. However, Finch knows he’s dying and, before he goes, he wants to build a robot with artificial intelligence to look after the mutt. So, beavering away in his bunker, he assembles Jeff (Caleb Landry Jones), as the robot eventually decides to call himself, teaching him to walk, think and respond, before another superstorm sets them off on a road trip from St Louis to San Francisco, fuelled by a postcard of the Golden Gate bridge.
Directed by Miguel Sapochnik, it’s a gentle, leisurely paced affair that takes in themes of redemption (as we learn the story of how Finch came to adopt Goodyear) and friendship as the buddy storyline between Hanks and the robot develops with a mix of slapstick humour and deep feeling and plays out without any of the usual last act twists. Hanks is, well, Hanks, delivering a familiarly reliable and well-shaded performance while the voice work by Jones, who also did the motion-capture) positions Jeff up there with such iconic robots as R2-D2, Gort, D.A.R.Y.L and The Iron Giant, while Seamus is absolutely adorably pawfect as Goodyear. It is exactly what it sets out to be, Finch and his mechanoid surrogate son radiating a warm, wistful melancholia and a beguiling charm that is well worth seeking out. (Apple TV)
Ghostbusters: Afterlife (12A)
Evicted from their home, Callie (Carrie Coon) has no alternative but to take her two kids, fifteen-year-old Trevor (Finn Wolfhard) and his science-mad younger sister Phoebe (a stand-out Mckenna Grace) and move into the dilapidated remote rural Oklahoma mansion in Summerville where her long-estranged father recently died. Unlike her, still a turmoil of resentment sparked by old memories, the kids adjust quickly, Trevor getting a job at the local diner where he has a crush on fellow worker Lucky (Celeste O’Connor) and Phoebe enrolling in summer school, taught by amateur seismologist Gary Grooberson (Paul Rudd), whose lesson plans consist of getting the kids to watch horror movies, where she buddies up with a fellow science nerd who, armed with a camcorder, for obvious reasons calls himself Podcast (Logan Kim).
There, is, however, something strange going on at the long-abandoned mine (shades of Spielberg’s Devil Tower) over which hovers an ominous black cloud, part of the operations originally run by Gozerian cultist Ivo Shandor (JK Simmons) who has put in place plans for his resurrection, while, led by an unseen force, Phoebe finds a hidden ghost trap in the basement and accidentally releases Muncher, a metal-eating ghost, one of Gozer’s entities, subsequently leading to her learning her late grandfather was Egon Spengler, one of the original Ghostbusters who saved New York City from the demonic Gozer back in the 80s before abandoning his family and fellow spook chasers, taking off with all the gear and their signature Ectomobile. She also finds his hidden lair and equipment, repairing Egon’s proton pack and setting out to recapture Muncher, all three kids ending up in jail, where Lucky’s dad (Bokeem Woodbine) is sheriff, for destroying property in the chase. So, who’s she going to call? Well, Ray Stantz (co-writer and franchise star Dan Ackroyd) who duly arrives to explain how Egon believed there was an apocalypse coming, thereby setting the third act into play wherein Carrie and Gary (who’s now dating her) are transformed into Gozer’s demonic servants ,Vinz Clortho and Zuul the Gatekeeper, and the kids, now joined by Lucky and wearing the trademark uniforms, with a timely appearance by the other two originals, Bill Murray and Ernie Wright (plus a touching technologically rendered cameo that explains the film title), set about saving the world.
Originally released to blockbuster success in 1984 and spawning one sequel and assorted animated TV spin-offs, a 2016 attempt at a revival with all-female ghostbusters tanked badly, but this, directed by Ivan Reitman’s son Jason, pitched much more to the young adult market as Goonies meet Ghostbusters, albeit peppered with 80s references for the grown-ups, is a far more successful affair, even if it takes almost an hour before the first real ghost action, which, alongside the high octane confrontations also welcomes the return of the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man, albeit smaller, more of them and with an endearing Gremlins-like gooey self-destructive streak.
It ends on a sentimental but still poignant note of reconciliation, but stay for the credits and you also get Sigourney Weaver joining Murray for another cameo as Dana Barrett plus a reveal as to Winston’s new Ghostbusters business and a final hint at another sequel. Scare it up. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel; Vue)
The Green Knight (12A)
Adapted from the anonymous epic 14th-century poem which related how the court of King Arthur (Sean Harris) is visited one Christmas Day by a mysterious green knight (Ralph Ines on), who, looking like some tree deity, challenges the knights to give him a blow on him, on the provision he returns the same one year hence. Looking to earn himself hero stripes, Gawain (Dev Patel), the nephew of the king and queen (Kate Dickie), strikes off the knight’s head, only for the body to pick it up and ride off to await a return visit in the Green Chapel.
As written and directed by David Lowery, this is not, however, the sort of sword and sorcery film you might expect. Rather, it’s an arty, mystical meditation on themes of honour, masculinity and the desire for immortality, Patel’s Gawain first seen as an unambitious dissolute ne’er do well given to booze and brothels who takes up the challenge (using Excalibur, though neither it nor Arthur are referred to by name) as a quick way to elevate his status and become a knight, his regular shag, Essel (Alicia Vikander), dreaming of being his “lady”.
After a year of basking in his notoriety, but conscious of what fate may await, as Christmas approached he sets out to keep his bargain, armed with the Green Knight’s giant axe and a magic girdle given him his sorceress mother (Sarita Choudhury), that, a bit of a cheat, will keep him from harm. As he goes upon his Pilgrim’s Progress-like journey, he finds his courage, morality and convictions tested by those he encounters, among then a bandit trickster (Barry Keoghan) who robs him and leaves him for dead, a woman asking him to recover her decapitated head from a lake, and a flirtatious Lord (a sly Joel Egerton) and his alluring Lady (Vikander again), the latter of whom seeks to tempt him to her bed (and gets him to ejaculate over the magic girdle she has someone acquired and returned) before finally arriving at his appointed destiny.
Lowery conjures a world characterised by decay, both physical and moral, in a transition between pagan and Christian, that makes for an atmospheric backdrop, but rather tends to overdo the otherworldly mystery with the likes of the blindfolded old woman at the Lord’s castle, Gawain’s mother’s spells and fellow witches, the talking fox companion he acquires and the sight through the morning mist of a breastfeeding giant walking across the land with her fellows, none of which are ever explained and some of which, like Gawain’s vision of his future if he defaults on his bargain, may all be in his head.
Patel makes for a compelling flawed vulnerable hero beset by doubt, insecurity and internal confusion while the support cast afford a tapestry of subtle colours as Lowery weaves an intoxicating visual magic even as his cryptic telling resists easy access, its deep pleasures only truly surfacing as you look back after viewing. (Amazon Prime)
The Guilty (15)
A remake of the claustrophobic Danish thriller of the same name and played out pretty much note for note, directed by Antoine Fuqua, this is a largely (and electrifying) one-man turn by Jake Gyllenhaal as Joe Baylor, an asthmatic LA police officer resentful of having been demoted to the job of a 911 call handler while awaiting trial for a never specified misdemeanour. His marriage has also fallen apart, and he can’t get to speak to his young daughter.
It’s the night shift and his routine involves taking calls from assorted drunks, a man robbed by a sex worker, those caught up in the wildfire and others who want their problems solved, ascertaining location and then assigning the appropriate services. Then, he gets one from a woman, Emily (Riley Keough), who, in frightened tones, tells him she’s been abducted and is in the car, pretending she’s phoning her toddler daughter, Abby, to reassure her she’s okay. Joe’s instincts kick in and he makes desperate calls to try and find her, eventually speaking to her daughter, establishing she’s in a white van, that she’s been taken by her ex-husband, who did time for assault, that he has a knife and that the children, the little girl and a baby, are home alone and one has been seriously injured.
As the clock ticks away and the crisis, like the fires, heats up, Joe becomes ever more concerned and ever more intense in his efforts, losing it with fellow officers, those he calls who don’t seem to be responding as quickly as he wants and Emily’s ex, Henry (Peter Sarsgaard), when he gets him on the line, and Gyllenhaal, on headset and iPhone, ramps up the emotions and delivery accordingly, while also juggling calls to his estranged wife and a persistent reporter who wants his side to the story being trialled the next day.
Those who’ve seen the original will know about the devastating surprise third act twist, but if not I’ll say nothing to spoil the shock other than it throws a new light on the film’s title. With Ethan Hawke adding to the disembodied voices as Joe’s former sergeant, the support cast deliver solid support but, often shot in sweaty close up, it is Gyllenhaal who is front and centre throughout, his efforts to save Emily clearly some sort of attempt at personal salvation amid the fuck up he’s made of his life, adding an extra edge to the final sequence. Riveting. (Netflix)
Gunpowder Milkshake (15)
Abandoned (for her own good) as a youngster (Freya Allan) by her contract killer mother Scarlet (Lena Headey) when a job involving some nasty Russians went sour, Sam (a cool Karen Gillan) now works doing likewise for the same shady organisation of businessmen gangsters, The Firm, whose overseer, Nathan (Paul Giamatti), took her under his wing. She’s very good at what she does, and after each job she likes to unwind at the neutral zone diner with a large ice cream milkshake.
Unfortunately, history repeats itself when, on her latest contract to recover some stolen Firm money, she unwittingly kills the son of a powerful Russian mobster whom her employers don’t want to upset, thus removing the protection she enjoys, and sending her on the run, during the course of which she acquires a cute 8-year-old, 8 Emily (My Spy’s Chloe Coleman) whose dad stole the money to pay her ransom and who she killed (though, to be fair, she shot him in a tussle and did take him to the hospital) and reunites with her ‘aunts’ in The Sisterhood, Anna May (Angela Bassett), Florence (Michelle Yeoh) and Mathilde (Carla Gugino), three fellow assassins who run The Library, a brilliantly imagined sanctuary where assorted weapons are stored inside the books on the shelves. Needless to say, at some point, after 15 years, mum resurfaces too.
A sort of female action spin on John Wick with liberal helpings of Kill Bill and Bad Times at the El Royale that plays with the same wink in its eye, it rattles along as Sam is pursued by both an army of Russian goons and The Firm’s bumbling enforcers (taking them on while her arms are temporarily paralysed and they’re under the influence of laughing gas), rescues Emily from the kidnappers by way of a bravura sequence at a bowling alley using a bowling ball as a deadly weapon, a guns blazing, chain, hammers and tomahawk-wielding shoot out at The Library To the sound of The Animals cover It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue and a final showdown at the diner. Also thrown into the mix is Ralph Ineson as Sam’s decidedly off his head father and a fight involving a suitcase handle. With an ending that demands both a sequel and prequel, it knows it’s just colourful, blood spattered popcorn fun and clearly relishes every mouthful. (Sky Cinema/NOW)
The Harder They Fall (15)
Directed and co-written by British singer-songwriter Jeymes Samuel and featuring virtually all Black cast, this comes with all its Tarantino guns blazing (with bullets by Leone), from the homage to classic Westerns to smart ass pop culture dialogue, a gleeful disregard for historical accuracy, stylised bloody violence, whimsical captions, a contemporary soundtrack (hip hop from Jay-Z, reggae and dub from Barrington Levy and Dennis Brown) and visual puns such as black towns having coloured buildings and a white town being quite literally all white. It might easily be a companion piece to Django Unchained.
It opens as a young Nat Love watches as his mother and preacher father are murdered by Rufus Buck (Idris Elba), who’s come to settle an old score, he himself let live but with a cross carved into his forehead. Fast forward and Love (Jonathan Majors) leads a gang of outlaws (who only prey on other outlaws) comprising cocky young quick-shooter Jim Beckwourth (RJ Cyler) and, sharpshooter Bill Pickett (Edi Gathegi), who ambush another, red-hooded, gang, who’ve just robbed a bank.
The loot was destined to go to Buck who, Love is horrified to hear, has been given a federal pardon (his gang liberate him from an iron vault on a train (named in tribute to Chadwick Boseman) guarded by corrupt soldiers) and is now intent on reclaiming the town of Redwood (where redwood trees are conspicuously absent) from a turncoat sidekick now sheriff (Deon Cole) as his personal fiefdom alongside his core gang of Treacherous’ Trudy Smith (Regina King) and laconic quick draw Cherokee Bill (LaKeith Stanfield). So, linking up with his feisty saloon singer lover ‘Stagecoach’ Mary Fields (Zazie Beetz), her cross-dressing bouncer Cuffee (a marvellous Danielle Deadwyler) and Deputy Marshall Bass Reeves (Delroy Lindo), they set off for long overdue payback. In a very Tarantinoesque flourish, the names of most of the central characters (some of whom figured in Samuels’ earlier Western short They Die By Dawn) all relate to real people from the time , although they never met and certainly were never involved in anything like the storyline here. Love, for example, was a prize winning professional cowboy.
A revisionist take on an era in American history films of which have been almost exclusively dominated by white heroes and villains, it moves surefootedly to its inevitable Redwood showdown between Love and Buck (and much gunplay that eliminates most of the supporting players) and a monologue that delivers an unexpected and audacious sting in the tail that finally explains what the score was Buck was settling.
The central players all rise to the occasion and each has their moment in the spotlight, Elba suitably brooding and ruthless, Majors relentlessly charismatic, Stanfield ultra-cool, although a sassy King and Beetz, who get to have their own brutal; brawl, often threaten to steal it from their male co-stars. It may not be the defibrillator needed to fully revive the genre, but it’s more than enough fast paced, violet fun to keep the pacemaker ticking. (Netflix)
House Of Gucci (15)
In 1972, coming from humble origins, Patrizia Reggiani, the adopted daughter of an Italian haulier for whom she worked as a secretary, married Maurizio Gucci, the grandson of Guccio Gucci who founded the famous leather goods fashion-house, and the couple moved to New York. In 1995, a year after their divorce, she hired a hitman to murder him, consequently being sentenced to 29 years for arranging the killing. Directed by Ridley Scott from a screenplay by Becky Johnston and Roberto Bentivegna adapted from Sara Gay Forden’s non-fiction bestseller, shifting the time scale to have the meet cute in 1978 this sprawling biopic documents the ups and downs of the relationship, her rise to power within the Gucci empire, the manipulations, backstabbings, business machinations and much more, bedrocked by another mesmerising performance from Lada Gaga as Patrizia and a somewhat diffident Adam Driver as Maurizio.
Meeting Maurizio, a law student with little interest in the family business, at a disco party in 1970, Reggiani contrives to bump into him again, pushing into dating her and eventually proposing marriage, much to the opposition of his conservative father, Rodolfo (Jeremy Irons) who declares her a gold-digger and disinherits him, and, transitioning from the couple screwing on the office desk to the church ceremony, Maurizio ends up working for his father-in-law. However, her ambitions are not to be so easily sidelined and so it is that, after an invite to the 70th birthday party of Maurizio’s more commercially minded uncle Aldo (Al Pacino), who runs stores in Paris, London and Rome and wants to break into New York, but has watered down the lines to a cheaper look. and his nincompoop bald, overweight loser son Paulo (Jared Leto), a second rate designer (scathingly dismissed by Rodolfo as achieving the pinnacle of mediocrity), that she masterminds her husband’s growing involvement in and eventual domination of the business, stitching up both uncle and cousin along the way, enlisting the latter to undermine the former, only to then cast him aside. Unfortunately, Maurizio, who inherits a 50% share when his now reconciled father dies (albeit the document left unsigned and forged by Patrizia), and has transformed from goofball nerd to power-crazed hedonist looking to take full control (ultimately, he was forced out and no Gucci is now connected with the empire), is also planning to sideline his wife in the Gucci affairs, not least after being reconnected with Paola Franchie (Camille Cottin) an old, upper-class flame, packing off wife and daughter back to Italy. Incensed at being cast aside as both spouse and business partner, Patrizia sets about arranging the hit (taking place to the strains of Madame Butterfly) Meanwhile, Gucci financial advisor, Domenico De Sole (Jack Huston) is keeping a sharp eye on which way the wind is blowing.
As such, soundtracked to the likes of Faith, Here Comes The Rain and It’s The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year, Scott plays it very much like a glossy soap opera pantomime along the lines of Falcon Crest or Dynasty, although, given the hit was arranged through Patrizia’s professional psychic confidante Pina Auriemma (Selma Hayek), the truth is even more melodramatic than any fiction. It’s a tad overlong and the back and forth narrative switches can prove hard to follow, but Gaga’s electrifyingly ferocious command of the screen ensures you’ll be transfixed. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Everyman; Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Vue)
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 le, 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+)
Directed by Cedric Nicolas-Troyan, this mines similar territory to Jason Statham’s Crank, DOA and 24 Hours To Live in a race against the clock Tokyo-set thriller in which, following a one night stand quickie before being sent on a new mission that will be her final job, female assassin Kate (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) finds she’s been given fatal radiation poisoning. Now, with the help of adrenalin boosting shots, she has just 24 hours to track down those responsible, which she believes to Kijima (Jun Kunimura), the elderly Yakuza boss who was her mark and whose younger brother she killed 10 months earlier. Tracking him down involves kidnapping his niece, Ani (Miku Patricia Martineau), a mouthy teenager who, it transpires, is the daughter of the man she killed back in Osaka some years earlier, which has left her with a guilty conscience over breaking the ‘no kids’ rule. Unaware of Kate’s involvement, when she discovers that she’s been deemed expendable by her uncle’s lieutenant, Renji (Tadanobu Asano), impressed by Kate’s deadly prowess (she calls her a Terminator – cue a red bloodshot eye), she becomes a willing and eager sidekick as the pair set out to track down Kijima and exact revenge.
Inevitably, tracing themes of family, loyalty and double-crosses, the plot throws in a not entirely unpredictable third act twist involving him, Renji and Varrick (Woody Harrelson), Kate’s father-figure handler who groomed her lethal skills from when she was orphaned, but, anchored by a solid gritty but human action woman turn from Winstead discovering her maternal instincts towards the girl she orphaned (see Gunpowder Milkshake too) as she staggers through events, coughing up blood and getting battered, and some engaging comedic input from Martineau as the brattish but ultimately likeable Ani. With plenty of punchy regulation fight scenes and car chases to drive things along inbetween the character moments and emotional pulses, it makes for a watchable popcorn and a beer Friday night. (Netflix)
King Richard (12A)
Even before they were born, Compton sisters Venus and Serena Williams had their lives mapped out to become the world’s greatest women’s tennis players, a lengthy plan devised by their father, Richard, an amateur coach and part time security guard whose interest in the game had been piqued on realising the prize money, and started them playing when they were just four. Life tells us that Venus went on to win five Wimbledon singles titles, four Olympic gold medals and 14 Grand Slam Women’s doubles titles with Serena who, herself with four gold medals, won Wimbledon seven times (three of them against Venus), is rated as one of the all-time greatest female players with 23 Grand Slam singles titles to her name and is the highest earning female athlete ever. The film reminds us that none of this would have happened without the focused drive and tough love of their father who pushed them to their limits and beyond to ensure they achieved his dream of stardom and escaping the ghetto, being patronised and battling prejudice, snobbery and racism from white agents and coaches along the way.
Here, always seen in tennis shirts, he’s played with focused commitment by Will Smith, the young Venus and Serena, who turned professional at just fourteen, consummately portrayed by Saniyya Sidney and Demi Singleton, respectively, with Aunjanue Ellis as their formidable mother, Oracene ‘Brandy’ Williams, herself a coach, and Jon Bernthal as Rick Macci, the hugely successful professional coach whom their father persuaded to take on Venus, as well as financing the family’s move to Los Angeles and the girls’ education, forever finding himself up against Richard’s obstinate and wilful demands.
Directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green, it charts their rise from playing squalid local courts, being menaced by the local hoods (recreating the moment when Richard was beaten up in front of his underage daughters for telling them not to come on to them, later taking a gun to settle matters before fate intervenes) persuading Sampras and McEnroe’s coach, Paul Cohen (Tony Goldwyn) to train the girls then firing him when he argued against them being taken out of the junior tournaments, a traditional path to turning pro, in favour of concentrating in their education and upbringing after Richard seeing the record-breaking young star Jennifer Capriati being arrested for marijuana possession, the film climaxing in 1994 with Venus’s professional debut against the world number two, Arantxa Sánchez Vicario.
With the sisters as co-producers, it’s an inevitably somewhat sanitised account, their father demanding in making them play in the rain in the night (a neighbour calls child services at one point), scattering broken glass on the court to challenge them, being resolutely stubborn with agents looking to make a killing but offering relative peanuts (he registers his feelings by farting), taking decisions without consulting either his ‘ghetto Cinderellas’ or their mother, but even so he’s never less than a sweet, caring and often funny dad, something that doesn’t quite sit with accounts of his darker side and punishing disciplinarianism from others and never quite gets under the skin of the insecurity that dogged him.
Along with Venus and Serena, he and Brandy had three other daughters from her former marriage, one, the older, academically gifted Yetunde, being shot dead in 2003, but they’re rarely more than set dressing here, giggling in the back seat of the battered red VW van (named Prince but far from fresh) their father drives. What’s never mentioned is the fact that he had five other daughters from a previous marriage, but, harder to understand is why, in the later stages of the film, Serena, who Macci doesn’t take on, is virtually sidelined (something the screenplay, like her father, casually acknowledges) with all the attention being on Venus, reminding her of the example she can set to Black girls all over the world.
The theme of race plays as an undercurrent, always there in the screenplay (and in footage of the Rodney King beating) but never forcefully in your face, preferring to focus on the determination to rise above the roots of your raising through your natural born talents – and a smooth – and, as such, other than one family flare up and the on court dynamics (the tennis is brilliantly staged), there’s almost no drama, no tension, yet, on the plus side, almost no resorting to sports movie cliché. The sisters’ triumphs, stepping out of their father’s shadow, are inspirational even if the film about them is less so, but nevertheless it has a compelling serve. (Vue)
The Marksman (15)
Echoing Eastwood’s Cry Macho (and ironically directed by his frequent collaborator, Robert Lorenz) in that it involves a grizzled veteran who takes an illegal immigrant Mexican boy under his wing, this is another addition to Liam Neeson’s reluctant hero rising to the occasion stockpile. Here, he’s Jim Hanson, a former Marine sharpshooter and now Arizona rancher threatened with losing his home after medical bills for his late wife ate up all his savings. Out tending the cattle, he encounters Rosa (Teresa Ruiz), a young migrant woman, who has crawled through the border fence with her 11-year-old son Miguel (Jacob Perez), They ask him for help, but, not looking to get involved, he radios in to the border patrol, which is when a bunch of cartel thugs turn up demanding the woman and kid be turned over to them. Hanson refuses, gunfire ensues, during which Rosa is wounded and dies, her son being taken into custody. Realising that if he’s sent back home, he’s as good as dead, and that the thugs are looking for him (largely on account his mother was carrying a bagful of their cash stolen by her brother), he ferrets him out of the patrol station, much to the annoyance of his patrol officer daughter Sarah (Katheryn Winnick), and they hit the road to fulfil his promise to take the boy (who is transpired can actually speak English) to his relatives in Chicago. Pursued, of course, by the ruthless Mauricio (Juan Pablo Raba) and his fellow killers.
Again, it’s a road trip in which a curmudgeonly older man and a bright young kid forge a bond, the one learning from the other, punctuated by a series of cat and mouse sequences and shoot-outs, Neeson’s ability to play sensitivity bolstering his action chops while Perez, making his feature debut, rises to the occasion. There’s no surprises and the film ends on a bus with a nod to Midnight Cowboy, a minor addition to Neeson’s CV but an engaging timewaster nonetheless. (Amazon Prime)
Mothering Sunday (15)
Directed by Eva Husson with screenplay by Lady Macbeth’s Alice Birch and costumed by Sandy Powell, this is a slow burning elegant heritage drama adapted from Graham Swift’s novella. The main action is set on Mother’s Day in March 1924 as the wealthy Niven family (Colin Firth, Olivia Colman) set off for a Henley picnic with their friends and neighbours the Sheringhams, whose surviving law student son Paul (Josh O’Connor, slightly smug) is reluctantly engaged to be married to Emma (Emma D’Arcy). She was initially intended for one of his two brothers but they, like the Nivens’ sons, were killed in WWI, the weight of loss and grief hanging heavy over both families.
The narrative flashes back and forwards in time, focusing on bookish 22-year-old orphan Jane (a luminous Odessa Young), the Nivens’ maid, who has been having a secret affair with Paul, the pair meeting at his home for one last sexual tryst before he goes off to join the others and submit to his marital fate. These sequences are framed by flashforwards to Jane, now a best-selling thrillers novelist, working on her next book, drawing on the events of the central narrative, as well as detailing how she was set upon the writing path and her subsequent tragically-fated romance and marriage to philosophy student Donald (Sope Dirisu), all of which is recalled through the memories of the widowed older Jane (Glenda Jackson).
The pall of grief felt by the older generation is counterpointed by the exhilaration of the clandestine lovers, the film using full frontal nudity in a perfectly casual fashion (as it does the semen stains on the sheets) as the naked postcoital Jane wanders around the Sheringhams’ mansion after Paul drives off to his doom. Beautifully modulated and finely acted, Colman’s explosion of loss-driven anger and frustration (she tells Jane being orphaned young was a blessing as she has nothing to lose) a sharp rupture of the polite veneer otherwise maintained. Audiences who fell for the likes of Remains of the Day, Room With A View, Atonement and Shadowlands will be well satisfied. (MAC)
No Time To Die (12A)
Daniel Craig quite literally bows out of his stint as 007 in a blaze of glory as, after several pandemic-caused delays the 25th (and longest) official James Bond movie finally arrives amid glowing reviews peppered with all the obvious catch phrase clichés. Scripted by Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and Phoebe Waller-Bridge and masterfully directed by Cary Fukunaga, it has several nods to the past franchise outings, most obviously in being bookended with Louis Armstrong’s All The Time In The World which was, of course, the theme to On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, George Lazenby’s only outing in the role and, pointedly, the film in which Bond found love and married.
He’s in love again here, this time with the enigmatic psychiatrist Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux, magnetic), as seen in Spectre, having retired from active service for domestic bliss, though events following his visit to the tomb of Vesper Lynd to finally let go of the past quickly see such hopes dashed. Madeleine, announced in the previous film as the daughter of former Quantum member Mr White, is given a prologue back story here when, seeking revenge for her father murdering his family, the masked and facially scarred Lyutsifer Safin (a coolly chilling Rami Malek) arrives at their remote snowbound Norwegian home, kills her mother but ends up rescuing her from a frozen lake when she attempts to escape. Suffice to say, back in Matera in Italy and after a stupendous car chase and town square shoot out involving his tooled-up Aston Martin (seemingly MI6 allow agents to keep their deadly toys when they quit), Bond assumes he’s been betrayed again, puts her on a train walks away.
Cut to five years later and a murderous raid on a secret MI6 laboratory (cue comedic cameo from Hugh Dennis) sees Obruchev (David Dencik), a Russian scientist, supposedly kidnapped along with his data on something called Project Heracles, a bioweapon containing nanobots that allow to target specific DNA strands that M (Ralph Fiennes) has been running as a clandestine operation. Anyone infected with the virus then kills anyone they touch (an unintended COVID echo) who shares that DNA. Now living in Port Antonio, Jamaica (where Ian Fleming holidayed), Bond is contacted by his best buddy, CIA agent Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright), who, along with his all smiles colleague Logan Ash (Billy Magnusson) want him to help tracking down Obruchev to which, after a visit by Nomi (Lashana Lynch who, disappointingly never quite registers as a character beyond her testiness) his female black replacement as 007, and learning about Heracles, he eventually agrees. And so begins a complex and convoluted storyline that entails Bond linking up with Paloma (Ana de Armas who appeared opposite Craig in Knives Out), a feisty Cuba-based CIA agent, the mass killing of all SPECTRE agents, at a gathering remotely hosted by the organisation’s imprisoned head, Blofeld (Christoph Waltz), using Obruchev’s weapon, a deadly betrayal, a tense reunion with Swann, a Starling-Lecter-like face to face with Blofeld, to whom only Swann has access, and the discovery that Safin, who has the usual Bond villain world domination ambitions, is behind everything. That and the fact that Madeleine has kept more than one secret from him; a cute 5-year-old called Mathilde (Lisa-Dorah Sonnet).
With integral appearances by Craig-era regulars Rory Kinnear as Tanner, Ben Wishaw as Q and Naomi Harris as Moneypenny, the film never feels its near three hour running time as twists and turns, abductions and just who has been infected and by whom keep you involved and on your toes as, via yet another thrilling car chase, it builds to an explosive climax on an old World War II island base between Japan and Russia, where Safin has a lavish Japanese poison garden, that can’t help but recall Dr No.
Not only do Fukunaga and the writers outdo the previous Bonds in terms of visual spectacular and edge of the seat action, peppered with the trademark dry one liners and quips, they also offer a romantic, tender and sensitive side to Bond hitherto never fully seen or explored, something that Craig translates to the screen with compelling intensity and moving pathos, his final moments likely to leave you, sorry, shaken and stirred. At the end of the credits, it announces James Bond will return, as to who and how, that we’ll just have to wait and see. (Amazon Prime, iTunes, Rakuten TV; Cineworld NEC; Empire Great Park; Vue)
After a stream of over the top performances in barking, bonzo B-movies, Nicolas Cage returns to something like his Oscar-winning Leaving Las Vegas form for this slow burning, understated feature debut by writer/director Michael Sarnoski. He plays Rob, a grizzled, straggly-bearded aged truffle hunter who lives a hermit’s life in the Oregon wilds with his prized truffle pig, his only contact with the outside world being regular Thursday visits by flashy young buyer Amir (Alex Wolff).
One night, however, he’s attacked and his pig stolen. Now, in his previous films this might have entailed Cage going off on a berserk violent bender to retrieve the porker and kill those responsible. This is not that film. Instead, having discovered the big was stolen by two junkies at the best of some mystery buyer, he persuades a reluctant Amir to drive him into Portland where he knows someone who might know something where Sarnoski reveals that Rob was once Robin Feld, a former celebrity Portland chef before tragedy changed his life. To say more would spoil the carefully crafted narrative that involves Amir’s powerful widowed father Darius (Adam Arkin) who runs a truffle supply business of his own and features a mesmerising scene in which Robin confronts Derek(David Knell), a pretentious chef who runs the equally pretentious Eurydice restaurant who he once fired for overcooking the pasta, with the gulf between his original passionate gastropub dreams and the cold haute cuisine falsity of what he now does.
Building to a confrontation that involves Robin recreating dish he once serves (he professes to remember every customer her served and every dish he cook) which harks back to a story Amir tells at the start about a meal that made his father happy, and closing with an understated redemption and reconciliation with the past, it’s a melancholic, existential affair about family, love, food, hurt, grief, obligations and being honest about yourself, a film where a whisper proves far more effective than a scream. (BT Store, Sky Store, Virgin)
The Power of the Dog (12A)
Director Jane Campion’s first film since 2009’s Bright Star is a slow burning compelling and psychologically complex adaptation of the 1967 Thomas Savage novel (the title taken from a line in Psalm 22), veined with themes of toxic, corrosive masculinity, insecurity, frustrated passions and repressed sexuality. Set against the windscreen vistas of 1925 Montana (notably a rock formation resembling a barking dog) but with a claustrophobically intimate feel, it’s founded on four electrifying performances, Kirsten Dunst as Rose Gordon, a woman widowed by suicide, now running a guest house and restaurant for cattle herders, her sensitive, effeminate lisping teenage son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee), Jesse Plemons as her future (and real life) husband, the stiff but refined George Burbank who looks after the administration of the family cattle ranch while his coarse, rugged brother Phil, a menacing Benedict Cumberbatch giving one of his best performances, looks after the more hands-on aspects, like castrating bulls and stripping the hides, which, in a pointed scene later in the film, he would rather burn that give to his Native American neighbours.
It’s clear there’s friction between them, Phil resentful that he’s the one with the degree from Yale now riding the range, while his brother, who never achieved academic success, keeps his hands clean, dresses in finery and never has to be told to wash up before sitting down to dinner. Rose enters their lives when she serves the crew dinner, Phil mocks Peter (calling him Miss Nancy) and the paper flowers he’s made, his mother’s subsequent tears prompting George’s courtship and, much to Phil’s shock, marriage. When she moves into the sprawling mansion, Phil makes no attempt to hide his contempt, dismissing her as a gold digger, cruelly ridiculing her attempts at the Radetsky March on the piano George has bought with his own far better banjo version and then humiliating her inability to play when George invites the Governor (Keith Carradine), his wife and the brothers’ estranged parents, only ever referred to as Old Gent (Peter Carroll) and Old Lady (Frances Conroy), to dinner.
But then something strange happens. After taunting Peter, who arrives during a break from studying medicine, Phil suddenly changes his attitude, takes the boy under his wing, teaches him to ride and starts making him a clearly phallic rope made out of cow hide strips, Peter, in turn becoming more confident. As such, Phil’s frequent reverential mention of the late Bronco Henry, who taught them the ranching trade and whose saddle he keeps in remembrance starts to take on a deeper meaning, reinforced by a scene of Phil sniffing one of Bronco’s old kerchiefs and masturbating and of Peter’s discovery of a stash of ‘art’ magazines of naked men hidden in the woods. The question simmering, however, is the motivations of the older and younger man, who is manipulating and who is manipulated. And why.
Meanwhile, succumbing to Phil’s campaign to make her feel unwelcome and her husband’s obliviousness to her unhappiness, the already fragile Rose is slipping further and further into alcoholism, stashing bottles around the house and in the alley for furtive swigs, observed with quiet satisfaction by her brother-in-law, as, pivoting around a diseased cow hide, the film moves towards its tragic and weightedly ambiguous finale.
Told in five unhurried chapters, the gathering dread set to Johnny Greenwood’s nervy score, featuring a supporting cast that includes Last Night In Soho’s Thomasin McKenzie as a young maid and regular Campion collaborator Genevieve Lemon as the intimidating no-nonsense housekeeper, it’s a haunting American Gothic war of attrition evocative of William Faulkner that lays out the pieces of the puzzle and invites you to fit them into place. (Netflix)
Red Notice (12)
Reportedly Netflix’s most expensive production, largely on account of the globe-trotting locations and its high powered trinity of Hollywood stars, this is a derivative but nonetheless highly enjoyable heist movie in which Interpol’s second most wanted (a red notice) art thief, Nolan Booth (Ryan Reynolds) sets out to steal one of the two known surviving – and previously thought mythical – three ornate jewelled ‘eggs’ presented to Cleopatra by Mark Anthony, from a Rome museum only to run up against FBI profiler John Hartley (Dwayne Johnson), who’s been tipped off by mysterious underworld figure The Bishop, and is there along with Interpol inspector Urvashi Das (Ritu Arya) to stop him.
The arrest doesn’t quite go as planned, ending up with Hartley been framed and arrested when the egg, recovered in Bali, vanishes and his bank account become several millions bigger, being forced to team up with fellow inmate Booth to clear his name and, in the process, steal the second egg from billionaire arms dealer Sotto Voce (Chris Diamantopoulos), a private collector of artefacts, during a masked ball.
The film by now has also introduced the third wheel, Gal Gadot as The Bishop, the world’s first most wanted art thief who stole the first egg from under Interpol’s noses, is after the second egg and wants Booth to reveal the location of the third as part of her lucrative deal to bring all three together for a wealthy client’s wedding gift to his daughter, Cleopatra.
All of this variously involves escaping from a high security Russian fortress and (accompanied by its whistled theme tune) a Raiders Of The Lost Ark styled secret Nazi vault of stolen art treasures in the South American forest, Das always close behind and with a constant stream of typical wisecracking smartass banter from Reynolds winding up his reluctant bromance partner in crime. Plus, naturally, several twists, double and triple crosses as things are never quite what they seem to be as it gleefully borrows from the likes of National Treasure, Mission: Impossible, Entrapment, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, and other assorted con game movies, never attaining the same heights but still a solid evening’s worth of beer and popcorn in front of the television. (Netflix)
Resident Evil:Welcome To Racoon City (15)
By far the best – and some might say only – thing about the Resident Evil saga, mostly directed with CGI-heavy action by Paul W.S. Anderson, was Milla Jovovich’s star turn as Alice. She’s not in writer/director Johannes Roberts’s revival, and that pretty much says all you need to know.
Returning to the start, events take place a few hours after a biohazard that turns people into flesh-eating fiends has escaped from the Umbrella Corporation, it opens with a young Claire Redfield and her brother Chris who live in an orphanage in Raccoon City, run by mad scientist William Birkin (Neal McDonough), where she encounters a disfigured girl named Lisa Trevor, one of his child experiments. Cut then to many years later as the now grown Claire (a bored looking Kaya Scodelario) returns to Racoon City to reveal how the Corporation has been poisoning the water supply, hitching a ride with a trucker who accidentally runs down a woman who appears in the middle of the road, and then disappears. The trucker’s dog licks up the blood, so you know what’s coming next. Meanwhile, back in Racoon City, where Chris (Robbie Amell) now works as part of the STARS Alpha Team, rookie cop Leon (Avan Jogia) is being given a hard time by fellow officers, Jill Valentine (Hanna-John Kamen), Richard Aiken (Chad Rook) and Albert Wesker (Tom Hooper, who turns out to be a double agent), who are investigating the disappearance of another team at Spencer Mansion (the setting of the first video game), as well as belligerent station chief Brian Irons (Donal Logue).
Suffice to say, all you need to know is that before long it turns into a zombie answer to Assault On Precinct 13 with a repetitive series of people shooting one another, being eaten by the monsters or transforming themselves, as the survivors head to the Mansion and its secret tunnels to escape. If this makes it sound more exciting and interesting than it is, I apologise. There’s almost no tension, the characters lack depth or more than a one-dimensional personality (Leon is especially irritating), the generic screenplay is a mess and the murkily photographed film looks drab. Gamers may appreciate that this is faithful to the original two RE games, but otherwise this is a total dud. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull)
Romeo and Juliet (12A)
Filmed on the National Theatre stage, without an audience, over seventeen days during the pandemic, directed by Simon Godwin with Josh O’Connor and a broadly accented Jesse Buckley in the title roles, opening with the actors gathered around the set in their everyday clothes for a run through, this is a heavily abridged (93 minutes rather than the two hours announced in the prologue) and reimagined take on Shakespeare’s tragedy, one which contains the bare bones of the doomed love story but otherwise tramples over the thematic nuances. It also makes so many bizarre and baffling revisions, seemingly just for the sake of experimentation and audacity, that the original text is rendered almost unrecognisable.
Most crucially, in the scene where Juliet declares she will not wed Paris, rather than her father throwing a hissy fit, it’s Lady Capulet (a quietly chilling Tamsin Grieg), an ineffectual figure in the original play, who castigates her, taking on the role of a controlling Machiavellian figure. Likewise, it’s a bit of a shock when the camera abruptly cuts away from Romeo and Juliet about to kiss to Mercutio (Fisayo Akinade) and Benvolio (Shubham Saraf) unleashing their passions upon one another.
That the romance ends in twin grief-struck suicides is common knowledge, so the decision to introduce brief flash forward images of bloody hands and vials of poison seems at best clumsy and at worst crass. There are some nice touches, the masked ball plays out like a dance club with the guests getting down with the beats and Romeo spotting Juliet singing behind the microphone, while the fights are well-staged and the marriage scene in Friar Lawrence’s cell nicely littered with flickering candles. Although it dumps the ‘what light from yonder window breaks?’ speech, the balcony scene is also effective, but, while Buckley gives it her all, O’ Connor is more placid, their mismatched performances lacking the necessary chemistry, and rushing through the subsequent storyline for a virtual potted resume means there’s no depth, diminishing the couple’s passion and tragedy and draining it of the emotions it should elicit. A misfire on so very many levels, it may have a certain curiosity value, but purists and GCSE students would be well-advised to give it a miss. (Sky Arts)
Ron’s Gone Wrong (PG)
Another animation about the importance of friendship, Barney Pudowski (Jack Dylan Grazer) is a friendless seventh grade schoolboy embarrassed that his Bulgarian gran (Olivia Colman) gives him chicken feet in his lunch box, is bullied over his rock collecting hobby and wishes he had a B*Bot like all the other kids. A B*Bot is a new capsule-shaped high tech invention from the Bubble company, a Best Friend Straight Out Of The Box, programmed to like what you like and to find others of a similar mind to build a friendship network.
Arriving at the factory too late buy one, his oblivious widowed dad (El Helms) an inventor of naff contraptions no one wants to buy, acquires one that literally ‘fell off the back of a lorry’. Unfortunately the glowing white toy with its ever detachable arms and on the fritz expressions, which he names Ron (Zach Galifianakis), is defective, lacking some its programming (he calls Barney Absalom because his name list doesn’t go beyond A), such as the algorithm to stop him harming humans, which, as it turns out, is quite fortunate in giving the bullies a taste of their own medicine.
As such, in the ET-like bonding between the two, the screenplay (co-penned by Alan Partridge veteran Peter Baynham) touches on some important theme of being isolated from your peers and of the need for friendship, but overlays this with some rather clunky plot tangents such as a critique of teenagers’ obsession with technology and social media rather than real friendships as well as, rather inevitably, corporate villainy as, unlike his well-meaning geeky partner Mark, who invented them, the company’s child-hating co-founder, Andrew (Rob Delaney), intends to use the B*Bots to harvest consumer data from their owners so they can sell more. The fact Ron is operating offline, and is affecting the other bots’ programming, threatens the stock price and, therefore, he must be destroyed.
Despite some obvious comparisons to Big Hero 6, Short Circuit, The Iron Giant and How To Train Your Dragon, it’s an amiable affair with several affecting scenes, such as Barney training him to learn about him so they can have fun, a friendship ultimately earned rather than engineered, and a scene where the two hide out in the woods, while there’s an obligatory toilet gag as a girl obsessed with social media followers finds the downside of going viral when an image of her emerging from the butt of a rogue B*Bot assemblage earns her the name PoopGirl. No classic, but your software would be malfunctioning if you didn’t enjoy it. (Disney+)
Shang-Chi And The Legend Of The Ten Rings (12A)
Making his first appearance in 1973 in Master of Kung Fu, Shang-Chi is a minor Marvel Comics character, originally a Sax Rohmer spin-off as the son of Fu Manchu. The comic character being resurrected for, first Heroes For Hire, and, subsequently as a member of The Avengers. Now, as directed by Destin Daniel Cretton making his superhero bow, he’s the latest addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe , the film serving as both origin story and launch platform for an ongoing franchise.
It begins with a scene setting prelude set in 1996 and narrated and spoken in subtitled Mandarin, as, having subjugated pretty much everywhere else with the use of his magical ten rings, thousand-year-old warlord Wenwu (Tony Leung) sets out to conquer the hidden mystical realm of Ta Lo, a village said to harbour creatures from Chinese mythology, but is defeated by its protector Ying Li (Fala Chen), the two falling love as they battle, she eventually leaving her home and he renouncing his Ten Rings crime organisation to become parents of two children, Shang-Chi (Jayden Zhang/Arnold Sun) and Xialing (Elodie Fong) and all is hearts and flowers until, as we learn in subsequent flashbacks, old rivals murder Li, plunging Wenwu back into his old ways, training his son in the martial arts to serve as an instrument of vengeance.
Cut to the present and the now grown Shang-Chi (Simu Liu), calling himself Shaun, is working as a parking valet alongside overqualified best friend Katy (Awkwafina) who knows nothing of his past, until that is, he’s attacked on a bus by a bunch of assassins, led by the self-descriptively named Romanian Razor Fist (Florian Munteanu), who wants to steal the jade necklace his mother gave him. And so, loading up the exposition, it transpires they’re part of his dad’s army who wants the pendant and that belonging to his now grown daughter (impressive newcomer Meng’er Zhang) in order to return to Ta Lo where he believes his wife is imprisoned inside a mountain from where she has been calling to him.
All of which entails reluctant hero Shang-Chi and Katy heading to Macao, him reuniting with his sister who runs a fight club and isn’t initially best pleased to see him as he left her behind when he fled his father at 15, and the three of them setting off to mom’s village (meeting up their aunt, Michelle Yeoh, and Katy getting trained as an archer) to warn them of Wenwu’s intentions, learning that, in fact, what’s imprisoned inside the mountain is actually a demonic soul sucker monster.
This all proceeds at a cracking pace with numerous dynamic martial arts fight sequences, ranging from the initial balletic one between Wenwu and Li that evokes memories of those in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (in which Yeoh starred), the exhilarating crosstown bus battle with Katy behind the wheel, the siblings’ showdown, and the all-out climax between the Ta Lo warriors and the Ten Rings soldiers as they, and our intrepid trio, take on the freed soul-sucking monsters with the help of assorted mythological beasts, including one huge mother of dragon. And, of course, the ultimate confrontation between father and son with the fate of the world and the ten rings in the balance
It’s a breathless, thrilling set of action sequences, so it’s somewhat unfortunate that it was felt necessary to insert a lengthy and frankly very silly comedic relief section in which a cheerfully hamming Ben Kingsley revives his Iron Man 3 role as Liverpudlian actor Trevor Slattery who was hired to impersonate The Mandarin (here now one of Wenwu’s identities), and, post-prison, is a reformed character and offers to guide them to Ta Lo with the help of his hundun companion Morris, a kind of furry winged cushion, who is from there, want to return home and knows the secret route in.
A Canada-based Chinese actor and martial arts trained stuntman, Liu makes for a solid conflicted action hero in the Marvel tradition, while Leong’s soulful performance successfully captures the ambivalence of his character, both cruelly ruthless in his actions but sympathetic in his overwhelming grief at loss of the wife and family he’s looking to restore, but perhaps inevitably, it’s Awkwafina who steals much of the film even though she’s playing a second string role. Naturally there’s several connections to the wider MCU, from a reference to Thanos wiping out half of the world’s population in The Avengers to a mid-film cameo by Benedict Wong as Doctor Strange’s assistant, returning in the first of the end credit scenes alongside Bri Larson (Captain Marvel) and Mark Ruffalo (Bruce Banner) that deepens the mystery of the ten rings, the second setting up the sequel as the cool and steely female-empowerment advocate Xialing resurrects her father’s organisation, this time with female warriors. (Disney+)
The Starling (12)
It opens with doting new parents, teacher Jack (Chris O’Dowd) and Lilly (Melissa McCarthy) Maynard painting birds and branches on the nursery wall. Next thing you know, a year later, she’s trying to keep it together in her job at the local grocery store and he’s in a mental health facility (with presumably very good insurance, or perhaps they inherited a fortune given their lavish house and huge garden) having attempted suicide following their daughter’s sudden death, their weekly meetings increasingly strained. His therapist recommends she seeks help too, and so she ends up seeing psychoanalyst-turned-veterinarian Larry (Kevin Kline) who dispenses words of wisdom about starlings mating for life and, hey, guess what, one such cute digitally generated metaphor starts flapping round the vegetable patch she’s tending asa self-healing process, waging a kind of avian turf war. And if you’ve not already sussed the life after grief message, the film ladles on a truckload of signposts, such as songs sporting lyrics like “take some time, clear my mind, find another reason why”.
Negotiating the clichés, it staggers unsteadily along the line that divides comedy and pathos with all the subtlety of a Hallmark card, wasting a support cast that includes Daveed Diggs, Loretta Devine and Timothy Olyphant as Lilly’s manager along the way. O’Dowd looks plainly uncomfortable trying to put across his character’s emotional anguish while McCarthy (whose streak of misfiring flops seems to have no end) adopts a comedic approach that feels totally at odds with the subject matter, making the maudlin moments even more inauthentic. The less said about Kline the better. A manipulative, predictable, mushy, trite tearjerker of the most banal kind, it’s hard to believe that Theodore Melfi also directed the brilliant Hidden Figures. It may be called The Starling, but behind those CGI feathers, it’s really a giant turkey. (Netflix)
Written and directed by Harry Macqueen this is a chamber piece centring on the relationship between a sixtysomething long-term gay couple, quizzical American author Tusker (Stanley Tucci) and reserved English classical pianist Sam (Colin Firth, himself playing Elgar’s Salut d’Amour in the closing scene) who has called a halt to his career to take care of his partner who is suffering from progressive dementia.
The narrative is anchored around a road trip to the Lake District to visit Sam’s sister Lilly (Pippa Haywood), Tusker having persuaded him to give a small recital as well as revisiting Sam’s family while he can still appreciate who they are. However, as we, and Sam, learn, Tusker, who has purposely left his medication behind, has a hidden agenda to the trip and the recital, one that will test Sam’s love for him to the fullest. Although there’s a surprise dinner party scene at Lilly’s, the film primarily centres around its two stars, be they affectionately bickering the camper van en route, spending the night in a Spa car park, revising favourite lake that holds special memories, or engaging in intimate intense conversations in their rented cottage as Tusker talks about his fear of losing control (“I’m becoming a passenger,” he says, “And I’m not a passenger”) and of wanting to be remembered for who he was not who he’s becoming while Sam also breaks down and confesses his own fears, of finding himself unable to cope, of being left alone, and of wanting to be there to the bitter end.
Despite the downbeat melancholic nature of the subject matter, the film is nevertheless suffused with light as it contemplates the nature of grief, mortality and life, of denial and delay, and also leavened with humour, even if at times of a gallows nature, such as Tusker joking how you’re supposed to mourn someone when they’re dead, not while they’re still alive. The title, of course, comes from Tusker’s love of astronomy, at one point he shows Sam how to navigate the constellations while in another wonderful moment he explains to Lilly’s teenage daughter how we’re all comprised of atoms from stars that died and went supernova, a poetic, romantic image about the way life endures even after death. Heartbreakingly magnificent. (BT Film Store, Sky Store, Virgin)
Sweet Girl (15)
When his wife dies from cancer because a pharmaceutical company withdrew the potentially cheap life-saving drug, Ray Cooper (Jason Momoa), whose background is never detailed, sets out to fulfil his television chat show phone in vow of holding company CEO Simon Keeley (Justin Bartha) responsible and killing him with his bare hands. Approached by a journalist who says he has evidence of a conspiracy involving Keeley’s crooked partner (Raza Jaffrey), they meet on a train, Cooper, unknowingly followed by his teen daughter Rachel (Isabela Merced), where the journo is killed and he himself injured by the knife-wielding hitman (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo).
What follows, Rachel insistently accompanying him despite his protestations, charts Cooper’s determined quest to expose the conspiracy and get revenge on those responsible, the film opening with a scene of him atop Pittsburgh’s PNC Park pursued by FBI agent Sarah Meeker (Lex Scott Davis), before plunging into the waters, flashing back to events leading up to this moment before, bringing into focus anti-Big Pharma congresswoman Diana Morgan (Amy Brenneman), the last act throws in a wholly unexpected role reversal twist as the real figure behind the conspiracy is exposed.
Twist aside, it’s a predictable and fairly generic affair with Momoa largely going through the man on the run action motions punctuated by some rote emotional angst, but first time director Brian Andrew Mendoza never lets things flag, Merced proves solid casting and, while disbelief needs to be suspended from a very high pole, it does what it sets out to do with commendable efficiency. (Netflix)
The Unforgivable (15)
Originally a three-part TV series set in Yorkshire, as directed by Nora Fingscheidt the story has been retitled, adapted, condensed and transposed to Seattle but otherwise remains pretty much the same. After serving 20 years for shooting the local sheriff when social services came to evict her and take her five-year-old sister (Neli Kastrinos) into care (their mother died and the dad committed suicide), Ruth Slater (Sandra Bullock) is released and looks to rebuild her life, placed in a rundown halfway house hostel populated by addicts and thieves, taking a job on the graveyard shift of a fish gutting factory and, later, putting her prison-learnt carpentry skills to work on a renovation project. She naively thinks that, having done her time, she can make a new start, but as her parole officer Vincent (Rob Morgan) tells her, “You’re a cop killer everywhere!”
Her prime objective, however, is to get back in touch with her now grown sister, Katie (Aisling Franciosi) with whom she’s had no contact since that fateful day and letters sent have been unanswered. Told she was adopted, but that she can be given no information, Ruth returns to the old family home, now owned by mixed race couple Liz (Viola Davis) and John (Vincent D’Onofrio) Ingram and their two sons. John, it transpires is a lawyer and she persuades him to look into the case, discovering that Katie was adopted by Michael (Richard Thomas) and Rachel (Linda Emond) Malcolm, and renamed Lucy, and has an adoptive sister called Emily (Emma Nelson) Ruth pushing to try and arrange a meeting. That doesn’t go well, the Malcolms reasonably arguing that a reunion would serve no purpose and would likely derail Lucy’s life. However, discovering the unread letters, Emily looks to try and help.
Meanwhile, Lucy, who, in the opening scenes, is involved in a car crash and briefly comatose, is starting to have flashbacks, but, as a result of the original trauma, has no memory of what happened or of Ruth. Ruth, in turn, becomes involved in a tentative relationship with fellow worker Blake (Jon Bernthal), but is also being stalked by Keith Whelan (Tom Guiry), the son of the officer she killed. He wants revenge but, married with a young baby and not looking to ruin his own life, his brother Steve (Will Pullen) initially tells him to let it lie, before contriving to meet Ruth and changing his mind given her apparent lack of remorse. He’ll exact an eye for an eye.
Entwining three plot strands, it’s a complex web with recurring flashbacks to the day of the murder, Ruth’s past being revealed to her workplace with inevitable results and a couple of confrontations with Liz, who doesn’t share her husband’s notion of second chances. However, finally, we learn what actually happened when the sheriff broke into the house, which pretty much turns everything on its head as the film builds to a dramatic rescue attempt following Steve’s kidnapping.
It’s pretty much unrelentingly downbeat and dour, a perpetually scowling, dead-eyed Bullock delivering hard to read vanity-free performance and packing so much into the running time often results in other characters being given somewhat short shrift in the characterisation department (a scene involving Steve’s wife and his brother feels unnecessarily melodramatic) while the social/racial backdrop (Liz tells her husband their black sons would never get another chance) is never really explored. Nonetheless, as it turns into more of a thriller, it keeps you with it to the final catharsis. (Netflix)
Venom: Let There Be Carnage (15)
And carnage it indeed is. Carnage of the script, the direction and the acting. The first Venom had some of the worst reviews of any Marvel movie, but this makes it look like a masterpiece. Directed, if you can use such a term here, by Andy Serkis, it picks things up shortly after the end of the previous film, the alien symbiont now fully at home in the body of haggard-looking journalist Eddy Brock (Tom Hardy) in what Serkis and Kelly Marcel’s screenplay have fashioned as a mismatched buddy relationship, Venom frequently popping out to make sarcastic jibes at his host, complaining about not being allowed to eat human brains, not even bad guys, and existing on a diet of chocolate and chicken (which wander around Brock’s apartment). It’s a knockabout comedic tone that simply doesn’t gel with what by rights should be more of a horror movie. Worse, it’s not especially funny.
As part of the subplot, ex-girlfriend Anne (Michelle Williams), who knows all about his alien bodymate, arranges to meet Eddy at a restaurant, he’s thinking reconciliation until she flashes her engagement ring, cue yet another round of Venom putdowns. The main thrust, however, involves Eddy getting to do the interview with serial killer Cletus Kasady (Woody Harrelson) trailed at the end of the first film, running an article that winds up with him getting Kasady to reveal where the bodies are buried and, consequently, seeing the death penalty reinstated. An understandably pissed Kasady manages to bite Eddy’s finger, whereby he too winds up with a multi-armed, bloodthirsty symbiont in his body, aka Carnage, albeit this one’s red not black, leading to a jailbreak massacre as he sets up to find, rescue and marry his girlfriend, Frances Barrision (Naomie Harris doing her best with a cipher of a role), aka the mutant Shriek, who’s introduced at the opening flashback to their teenage years where she befriends him at the orphanage and they become lovers, before the obligatory clandestine agency whisk her away to a top secret facility containment cell as a lab rat.
Meanwhile, the film goes from one ill-judged development to another as Venom and Brock have a falling out, and the former quits his host body, and stomps off to the local bars, ludicrously crashing a costume part as himself and becoming a cool hit with the punters, body surfing through assorted hosts before Anne and her fiancé track him down and get him and Eddy to kiss and make up, just in time for the big and visually incoherent Venom vs Carnage showdown in an old church.
Hardy plays things like a man who can’t find an escape clause in his contract, Harrelson outdoes Nic Cage in the deranged and barkingly OTT stakes and Stephen Graham drifts bewilderedly through the narrative and plot holes as police detective Mulligan while all around them the set pieces and visual effects crash from one clumsy mess to another.
It’s mercifully short, probably because huge chunks ended up in the editing room bin, but even then it feels interminable, the mid-credits scene, after the twosome have taken off to a tropical beach for a little r&r, that links to the Spider-Man multiverse more of a warning than a tease. Simply quite awful, but at least the first Venom movie won’t now be the most reviled in the MCU. (Microsoft Store)
Wrath Of Man (15)
Director Guy Ritchie reunites with Lock, Stock star Jason Statham for the first time since 2005 Revolver for this rework of the French heist thriller Le Conveyeur . Statham plays the enigmatic Patrick Hill who, five months after an opening scene in which two guards and a bystander are killed during an armoured truck robbery by men posing as construction workers, gets a job with Fortico, an armoured-car company that moves millions of dollars in cash and jewels daily. Eddie Marsan plays his supervisor, Terry, who tells him not to take chances, while Holt McCallany is the company trainer, Bullet, who gives him his nickname, H. Barely scraping through the tests, on his first run, working with Bullet and fellow guards Dana (Niamh Algar) and “Boy Sweat” Dave (Josh Hartnett), the latter who should have been driving the van seen at the start, his truck’s attacked, Bullet’s taken hostage and, rather than not resist and let them take the money, he calmly kills everyone, a feat decidedly at odds with his training scores.
From here the plot naturally thickens. While Terry tries to get him to take desk duty for a while, H is hailed as a hero by the company boss and promoted, and, investigating the attempted robbery, the police identify H as someone the FBI, headed up here by Agent King (Andy Garcia ), have been looking for for 25 years. A second attempted robbery sees the thieves doing a runner the moment they see H’s face, further adding to the mystery about his past, the connection between the robberies, his involvement, a revenge motive, disgruntled military veterans, and corruption within the ranks and Hill’s real identity as flashbacks gradually reveal more about what went down. It’s a tangled and often hard to follow narrative of double crosses and hidden agendas, but Statham’s a charismatic enough action man to pull it off and, while not in the same league as his recent The Gentleman, Ritchie is an old hand at this sort of things and keeps his foot to the pedal, delivering the action and snappy dialogue to entertaining effect. (Amazon Prime)