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Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie  ***

As we know, darling, political correctness has gone mad. While the BBC readies its resurrection of Alf Garnett in a new recording of Till Death Us Do Part, we can make hay with Edina Monsoon and Patsy Stone as the outrageous social monsters who refuse to grow old gracefully. While very much at the epicentre of a Brave New World, neither Edina nor Patsy have managed to fully accept their moral responsibilities – or to hold their tongues – in a domain that’s even more recherché than they are.

Beloved by a public hungry for more of the same 1992-2004 sitcom, Jennifer Saunders has rustled up a screenplay that pits the anti-heroines into a larger-than-life farce. TV sitcoms inevitably come undone on the big screen (cf. Dad’s Army, Bewitched, For the Love of Ada) because it’s so hard to maintain the comic momentum of a limited concept. The same fate, alas, befalls this adaptation, but because the characters are so strong and the dialogue so good, the film does retain its considerable appeal.

After countless years, Jennifer Saunders – as Edina – and Joanna Lumley – as Patsy – have built up a wonderful comic shorthand. And it’s often the unscriptable that works best between them. For instance, when the culturally challenged Edina believes that her own granddaughter comes from the African country of Ebola, Patsy’s continued retort of “Gabon – Gabon – Gabon” merely confuses her. Likewise, when Edina pushes Kate Moss into the Thames in a fit of pique, she cannot fully comprehend the backlash. She complains of being “trollied” on Twitter, while Jane Horrocks, as her assistant Bubble, earns one of the film’s biggest laughs when she dramatically dumps a pile of correspondence at Edina’s feet with the pronouncement, “your death threats, M’Lady.” Meanwhile, Joanna Lumley’s Patsy lives in a world so entrenched in the future that she can no longer summon up the word for ‘cash,’ airily referring to it as “hand money.”

Saunders, too, has rallied enormous support from the glittering ranks of the fashion and entertainment industries, most of whom play themselves. And what a lot of good sports they are, too. Lily Cole dreamily announces, “we thought we’d go to Goa for a colonic,” while Jerry Hall sends herself up extravagantly. And the cameos just keep rolling in, more often than not at the expense of Jennifer Saunders and Joanna Lumley themselves (Rebel Wilson thinks Patsy is transgender), whose anti-ageing regime is a sight for baggy eyes. While most girlfriends daub on a bit of rouge and lipstick in the mirror, Edina and Patsy prove a little more ruthless with the make-up, Botox needles and enema tube.

The story itself, in the latter stages of the film, doesn’t entirely hold up and the dénouement is more than a little limp. Just where you’d need a little narrative collagen, Sweetie.

P.S. Film buffs will know, of course, that Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie is not the first cinema reinvention of the TV series. The French beat us to it with the 2001 Absolument Fabuleux starring Josiane Balasko and Nathalie Baye.



The Accountant  ****

In 2003 Ben Affleck played Daredevil, a superhero who was blind. Now he’s playing a superhero who is autistic. Actually, Christian Wolff is more of an anti-hero, albeit a sympathetic one. What he does is hardly legal but the guys he kills are definitely on the wrong side of the angels. In fact, as action-thrillers go, The Accountant boasts a pretty cool premise: Alan Turing as super villain.

It’s an audacious trick to make a bad guy autistic. In the words of Wolff, he has been diagnosed with a “high functioning form of autism” – and, boy, can he function. He’s like Matt Damon’s Will Hunting blended with Jason Bourne. We’re also told that one in 68 Americans are on the autistic spectrum and that we should judge them by what they can achieve, not by what they can’t. Christian Wolff turns his facility for figures to enormous personal gain, with a touch of creative accounting for a range of high-ranking clients, both legitimate and criminal – anyone who’ll pay the bills. And here’s the really cool thing: Wolff’s Batcave-cum-Batmobile is a PanAmerican Airstream trailer hidden in a lock-up. Containing all his worldly belongings, it’s a cross between Fort Knox, the Royal Mint and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

As a thriller – and a terrific vehicle for Ben Affleck – Gavin O'Connor's The Accountant earns brownie points for originality and genre smarts. The son of a disciplinarian army officer, Wolff is taught from an early age to fight his own corner and is trained in the martial arts while his father is posted in Jakarta. And he is a fascinating contradiction: he listens to classical chamber music and heavy metal, he owns a Renoir and a Jackson Pollack and he’s as adept at crunching numbers as he is human necks.

Having exhibited his knack for violent action in the pulse-accelerating Warrior (2011), Gavin O’Connor here delivers the goods with aplomb. He’s also hired an A-list supporting cast to bulk up the human interest (J.K. Simmons is particularly effective as a Treasury agent), although the various characters’ back-stories do rather drag the momentum down. But as pulp drama with a novel twist – and with a thick vein of jet-black humour – The Accountant kicks some major ass.



Alien: Covenant  ****

There’s still a lot of screaming going on in space. But it’s that damn alien that’s doing most of it, its piercing shriek just one arrow in its sensory arsenal. Much like Prometheus, Ridley Scott’s prequel to his original Alien of 1979, Covenant does not start promisingly. Guy Pearce, like Darth Vader and Kurt Russell before him, states categorically, “I am your father.” He is talking to David, played by Michael Fassbender, the android from Prometheus. Guy Pearce, as Peter Weyland, asks the android he has created what he would like to be called. In an improbably spacious white room, the kind you only find in science fiction movies, there is little else other than a grand piano and an imposing copy of Michelangelo’s statue ‘David.’ For a second there, our android could have been called Piano.

We then jump forward to 2104 and a crew of 15 is manning the colony ship Covenant, which is bound for the distant planet of Origae-6. On board are 2,000 colonists who, like the ship’s crew, are tucked up in deep sleep. In charge is an advanced model of David, called Walter (also Michael Fassbender). Following a random “molecular circumstance,” the Covenant takes an almighty battering and the crew members are thrown from their pods, with the captain burned alive in his own bed. This leaves Christopher Oram (Billy Crudup), the first mate, in charge, and it’s his idea to stop off at a nearby planet from which the crew have intercepted a snatch of John Denver’s ‘Take Me Home, Country Roads.’ Of course, for the poor explorers, the planet proves to be nothing like home at all...

Much like the original Alien, its successors and Daniel Espinosa’s recent sci-fi thriller Life, the formula remains the same. But Ridley Scott is unlike other filmmakers. In spite of the familiarity of the set-up, the look and feel of Covenant is entirely different. It really does feel like a whole new world, albeit filmed in New Zealand. And Scott always makes intelligent decisions. The human lead, the ‘terraforming' specialist Daniels, is played by Katherine Waterston. She previously starred opposite Fassbender in Steve Jobs, portraying the entrepreneur's ex-girlfriend Chrisann Brennan. The daughter of Oscar nominee Sam Waterston, she is not only a good actress, but, like Sigourney Weaver, looks like she can handle herself and a Thales F90 rifle. In fact, most of the actors blend in well with their surroundings, with Fassbender himself proving particularly creepy as David. The scene in which David kisses Walter on the mouth has to be a first – an actor kissing himself? And because Ridley Scott builds a world in which we can believe – and takes his time in establishing his characters – when the horror begins it is, well, all the more horrible. The underlying message about mankind’s creation can be brushed aside for now. What audiences really want is what they get: an Alien prequel worthy of the brand.


All the Money in the World  ****

All the money in the world cannot buy you love. You have to earn that through a different kind of graft. The central story at the heart of Ridley Scott’s twenty-fifth film is so fantastical that it beggars belief. Yet much of it is true. By way of a multi-pronged narrative, we learn of a mother’s love, a kidnapper’s greed, a former CIA agent’s moral dilemma and the inconceivable evil of J. Paul Getty who, at the time, was the richest man who had ever lived. Behind the scenes is a story almost as extraordinary. Five weeks before the film’s release, Ridley Scott decided to jettison all the scenes featuring Getty and shoot them afresh with another actor – namely the 88-year-old Christopher Plummer. Scott’s original Getty, Kevin Spacey, was no longer a tenable ingredient of the film. So Plummer, with three days’ notice, found himself taking on one of the key roles of his seventy-year career. And twelve days after the last camera rolled, the actor was bestowed with a Golden Globe nomination.

Plummer’s icy portrayal of indomitable power is a thing of beauty and is one of the great villains in recent memory. The Italian kidnappers of Getty’s grandson, Paul, seem perfectly benign in comparison, thus bringing a whole new layer to this moral face-off. Caught in the crossfire is Paul himself (Charlie Plummer, no relation) and Paul’s mother, Gail Harris (Michelle Williams) who, in order to secure custody of her children, was completely cut off from her ex-husband’s trust fund.

Ridley Scott, now eighty-years-old himself, is at the top of his game here and provides the film with a glacial majesty in keeping with the tenor of J. Paul Getty’s heart. But it’s the narrative chinks along the way that keep one engrossed and it’s preferable to recall as little as possible of the original outcome in 1973. But ultimately the film is about money and the value of family and life itself. “Everything has a price,” Plummer’s Getty explains, but at what cost happiness?


Allied  ***

Having dispensed with his fair share of Nazis in Inglourious Basterds and Fury, Brad Pitt returns to the Second World War for his latest star vehicle. But this is a very different war. There are Nazis, sure, but the film feels steeped in another era, when shoot-outs clasped hands with romantic clinches in the heat of the moment. Think Suite Française (2014). Think Hanover Street (1979). Think Casablanca (1942).

Brad Pitt plays Max Vatan, a Canadian intelligence officer who is parachuted into French Morocco in 1942. There he meets up with Marianne Beauséjour (Marion Cotillard), a French Resistance fighter who has been assigned to pose as his wife. Together they are to take out a high-ranking Nazi ambassador. But first they have to establish their credentials. Marianne is a meticulous operator and has staked out the Casablanca social scene and when Max arrives from Paris she is positively prescriptive in the romantic script they are to follow. Men in Morocco sleep on the roof after making love; Max’s French accent is to be honed; he is even told when to kiss her… Inevitably, one thing leads to another and Max and Marianne consummate their deception in the desert – in a car, in a sandstorm.

Robert Zemeckis’s Allied is hopelessly romantic and old-fashioned and it comes as quite a surprise that Marianne never suggests “we’ll always have Paris.” The sets also look like sets and the film seems to crawl nowhere until it suddenly shifts into another gear. However, there is an early sequence in which Max’s prowess at cards is tested by a suspicious Nazi: after a beat, Brad Pitt picks up the proffered pack and dazzles us with his shuffling legerdemain. The opening shot – almost as striking as the one that kicked off The English Patient – shows an empty desert until Brad Pitt’s legs cut through the frame, followed by his parachute. It reminds us what a consummate filmmaker Robert Zemeckis is – his opening to Forrest Gump remains a classic – and there are a number of dazzling sequences.

But in spite of strong turns from Pitt and Cotillard, the film never exerts a sense of real life. The combat in Fury felt real, the romantic torment between Michael Fassbender and Alicia Vikander in The Light Between Oceans almost as much. Maybe Brad Pitt is too familiar a face to let us suspend our disbelief. When Max exhibits his French, it’s Brad Pitt showing off. The stars are perhaps just too beautiful, too perfect. When the action switches to London, the story takes another turn and the dramatic pay-off, when it comes, does hit the solar plexus. But it still feels like a magic trick, however masterfully performed. For the film’s intended audience, that may be enough. After all, there will be tears.



American Assassin  **1/2

There’s a new action man in town. His name is Mitch Rapp and he’s the creation of the late Vince Flynn, who featured the counter-terrorism operative in 13 novels, culminating in The Last Man (2012). In his first big-screen incarnation, Mitch Rapp is played by Dylan O’Brien, who recalls a young Mark Wahlberg (with a dash of Kevin Bacon). And we’re meant to root for him, all because of the year’s most emotionally manipulative opening scene. Mitch is on holiday in Spain with his girlfriend and just minutes after a cutesy marriage proposal worthy of Nicholas Sparks, she is mowed down by jihadist terrorists on a shooting spree. And in case you’re wondering: yes, she tearfully accepted his hand in marriage.

The film then jumps forward 18 months to Rhode Island where we find an embittered Mitch honing his boxing and shooting skills while swatting up on the Koran. He has every reason to want to infiltrate the terrorist cell responsible for his fiancée’s death, but emotion is a dangerous tool in an assassin’s arsenal. So Mitch is taken under the wing of the CIA and, under the brutal guidance of Cold War veteran Stan Hurley (Michael Keaton), he is trained as an American Assassin. Hurley is suspicious of Mitch’s motives but his superiors are in thrall of the rookie’s instincts and resolve.

Besides the gratuitous opening scene, the film’s first third is compelling enough, with O’Brien and Keaton trading machismo like postage stamps. But once they’re called into the field, things get a little more formulaic. There’s an Iranian plot to steal 15 kilos of plutonium to arm a bomb destined for Tel Aviv and Mitch and Hurley are forced to negotiate the usual double agents and broken-nosed thugs in and around Istanbul and Rome.

The film would like to think it’s edgy and topical, but under Michael Cuesta's pedestrian direction it feels like a B-movie with ideas above its station. It’s also relentlessly nasty, with a torture scene that should put off most viewers who clamoured to see the Bourne movies. As usual with these sorts of films, human lives are eminently expendable and one can’t help but feel uneasy at watching something that exploits recent real-life events for entertainment value.



American Made  ***

In his own words, Barry Seal is a guy who tends to leap before he looks. Still, with his charm, chiselled good looks and ability to overcome impossible odds, he manages to get by. In fact, he’s known as “the gringo who always delivers.” It’s a good idea, then, to cast Tom Cruise as this high-achiever, as the actor’s natural charisma saves a lot of tedious explanation. The real Barry Seal was undoubtedly an entirely different man and to dramatise his human assets would have necessitated a much longer movie. For a start, the real Barry Seal was a chubby individual with an embarrassing hairstyle. The story, then, is the thing.

The narrative dished up here shows Seal recording a video diary, recalling his exploits as the youngest pilot in the history of TWA. A jumble of news footage sets the scene as Jimmy Carter talks about “a fundamental threat to American democracy” in his ‘Malaise Speech’ of 1979 and a cartoon crudely illustrates the tensions of the Cold War. Scholars of modern history will know where this is all going but it seems that Barry Seal was a stronger cog in the fight against the Sandinistas in Nicaragua than we might have guessed. In fact, he was spinning wheels all over the place, involved in money laundering, drug smuggling and spying for any faction that would grease his palm.

In Doug Liman’s fanciful film, Barry Seal also has a drop-dead gorgeous wife (Sarah Wright) and periodically adds another child or two to his magically expanding household. To say that Seal’s backstory is skimpy is to understate the matter, but then American Made is trying to squeeze a lot of adventure into its 115 minutes. Even so, it would have been rewarding to have a little more human flesh on its bones. In style, the film is not unlike Todd Phillips' War Dogs of last year, where chutzpah and administrative complexity collided to reap untold riches. There’s also more than a whiff of mortal danger. The fun part is seeing Seal, courtesy of Tom Cruise, playing one employer off another and then not knowing where to stash the cash. Not only does his local Arkansas bank provide him with his own vault, but his kids keeping on digging up banknotes in the backyard. Of course, it’s another vision of the American dream, albeit with a thick daub of sweat and blood. And it is an extraordinary story, although this particular version of events is a little hard to swallow.



Annabelle: Creation  *

Not all horror films are bad. And not all prequels are a waste of time. However, David F. Sandberg's Annabelle: Creation goes some way in confirming the accepted wisdom. For the record, it’s a precursor to John R. Leonetti's Annabelle (2014) which, itself, was a precursor to James Wan’s The Conjuring (2013). And the chapters in the franchise don’t just retreat in time, but in quality, too. This one features the demonically possessed doll of the title and takes us back to its creation and to its creator. The latter is Samuel Mullins, a grim-faced, slow-moving doll-maker who lives in a massive house in the middle of nowhere. Quite how he came by such an extravagant property is not explained, although it’s made clear that there is a demand for his dolls which, also apparent, take him some time to create. He is played by the 58-year-old Australian actor Anthony LaPaglia and his wife by the Australian actress Miranda Otto. They are the parents of a young girl called Bee, who looks like their granddaughter and meets an untimely death. Already one might be scratching one’s head and expecting everything to be resolved, but nothing ever is.

This is the sort of horror film in which nothing is clarified until the final minutes when there’s really no time to explain anything. The house in which Samuel and Esther live is possessed by the evil spirit of Bee, who’s presumably still upset that her parents were so old when she was little. So, Samuel and Esther decide to share their haunted house with six orphan girls and a nun, believing that Bee will behave herself. Maybe Samuel just likes young girls around the place. He’s a lugubrious figure, unable to crack a smile and obviously suffering from the guilt of owning such a large place, which his new wards refer to as “a castle.” The central character is the plucky Janice (Talitha Bateman), a girl with polio and so all the more vulnerable to the manic onslaughts of the petulant ghost of Bee.

Quite when the film is set, or where, is largely a mystery. All we need to know is that these defenceless girls are far, far away from civilisation and have only their wits to defend them. And so the usual tropes are trotted out, in which the characters fail to share their suspicions until it’s too late and manage to sleep soundly at night even when all hell is being unleashed. Nothing makes sense, no character resembles a genuine human being and the clichéd shock effects, when they come, are brain-numbingly routine. Even the post-credit teaser is totally devoid of imagination.


Another Mother’s Son  **1/2

Many people are unaware that the Nazis occupied Britain during the Second World War. Moreover, it’s a sore point. But as Whitehall rallied to defend its allies across the English Channel, it was less responsive to its own citizens under virtual house arrest by the Germans in the Channel Islands. Christopher Menaul's earnest, well-meaning film sets its sights on the story of Louisa Gould (Jenny Seagrove), a Jersey shopkeeper whose own son was killed in action in 1941. When she encounters a Russian POW – used as slave labour on the island by the Nazis – she decides, at great risk to her own safety, to take him in. It’s an act of compassion that she hopes a Russian mother would have extended to her own son in similar circumstances. As Louisa – or ‘Lou’ – Jenny Seagrove, partner of the film’s producer Bill Kenwright, gives perhaps the best performance of her cinematic career. Sadly, the film cannot live up to her own high standards, as so many clichés drag it down to the level of a routine propaganda B-movie. The worst offender is Mario Grigorov's relentless music and some heavy-handed period references (we get it, it’s 1942). Nonetheless, the power of the original story, and Seagrove’s doughty commitment, make this of some interest, as does the supporting turn of Ronan Keating as Lou’s brother, who not only gets to sing, but sings in Russian.



Arrival  *****

It is scientifically proven that the language we learn as a child physically moulds our brains as to how we perceive the world around us. Some cultures have no words for “west” or “east” or “earlier” or “later” and so are unable to comprehend the linear limitations that define our own universe. Thus, what happened yesterday is not a concept that makes any more sense to them than what is going to happen tomorrow. To put it crudely, stuff just happens. But all civilisations are still reliant on words to express their ideas, needs and feelings, even in the land of the blind and the deaf.

The question posed by Denis Villeneuve's Arrival is how do we communicate with an extraterrestrial intelligence whose very laws of physics are alien to our own? Amy Adams plays Louise Banks, a linguistics professor who is called on to help interpret the sounds of alien visitors. They, the aliens, arrive in twelve ‘heptapods’ that hover over various corners of the earth and prompt bellicose rumblings from China, Russia and Sudan. The US appears to be more cautionary in its approach, hence the recruitment of Dr Banks and the theoretical physicist Ian Connelly (Jeremy Renner). When Banks and Connelly do, eventually, encounter two representatives of the visitors, he dubs them Abbott and Costello, which alleviates some of his colleague’s inaugural jitters. But the really scary thing is not the aliens but the world’s response to their arrival.

As with many extraterrestrial movies at the high end of the market (cf. 2001: A Space Odyssey, Contact, Interstellar), one really does have to enter into the metaphysical spirit of the thing. Mathematically it has been calculated that for some form of life not to exist in the multiverse is as far-fetched as the idea of an alien moving into the Oval Office. For as long as we are unable to determine the boundaries of our own universe, we have to allow for the probability of the improbable and give filmmakers free rein to make their own interpretation. Villeneuve, who previous credits include Incendies, Prisoners and Sicario, is one of the more formidable talents to embrace the sci-fi genre and he brings to it enormous intelligence and scientific know-how. All things being equal, it should blow your mind.



Assassin’s Creed  **1/2      It helps if you believe in reincarnation. And in the Old Testament. In fact, Assassin’s Creed presupposes that its audience believes in a whole lot of stuff. Of course, it’s based on a video game, so we should make allowances. But still… even Dan Brown would have steered a wide berth of this material, which not only skips between Texas and Madrid and London but between the present (2016, that is) and fifteenth-century Spain.

The mandatory prologue introduces us to the eponymous hoodies, a sect of Spanish assassins who swear allegiance to the Prince of Granada, who’s been getting a lot of bother from the Templar Order. They also undertake to protect the sacred Apple of Eden, which contains the genetic code of free will and comprises the original seeds of the apple that Eve presented to Adam. As they chant, “our lives are nothing, the Apple is everything” we realise that this is heavy stuff.

We then cut forward to the present day, where one Callum Lynch (Michael Fassbender) is to undergo lethal injection for the murder of a pimp who tried to mug him. Obviously, we are in Texas. But his execution is faked and Callum wakes up within the walls of the Abstergo Foundation, a high-tech facility in Madrid which is making huge leaps into the science of reincarnation. It transpires that Callum is the last link to the Spanish assassins, being a direct descendant of Aguilar de Nerha, a dab hand at parkour, martial arts and knifing people. The facility’s chief scientist, Sofia Rikkin (Marion Cotillard), believes that by tapping into Callum’s DNA she can locate the Apple of Eden and thus eradicate violence from the human race. In the words of her father, Alan Rikkin (Jeremy Irons), the solemn CEO of Abstergo, Sofia will go down in history alongside Ernest Rutherford and Crick and Watson, although he will get the credit (shades of the misogyny that blighted the recognition of Rosalind Franklin, but that’s another story).

All this would be terribly momentous if Assassin’s Creed weren’t so preposterous. But fans of the video game will be looking for action and this the film delivers in spades. Unfortunately, the fight scenes are edited so ferociously that any semblance of genuine combat is lost in the flurry, while the more recognisable aspects of the laws of physics are abandoned. When assassins jump through windows of plate glass in a high-security prison, one can but gasp at such old-fashioned conventions.

However, the film is not without a degree of class. It is a visual marvel and the acting talent is not to be scoffed at. Even so, it’s hard to stomach a line like, “a man grows with the greatness of his task,” even if it does come out of the mouth of Brendan Gleeson. One can’t but wonder what drew such a top-drawer cast to this material, other than the fact that Justin Kurzel previously directed Macbeth, also with Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard. But, forsooth, this really isn’t Shakespeare.



Atomic Blonde  **

OK, we get it. Charlize Theron is amazing. She can pull off a standard English accent and hold her own against the best stunt actors in the business. And, with a catalogue of films stretching back 22 years, she still looks sensational in her birthday suit. Here, she struts around Berlin in 1989 as if it were her own private catwalk, while whipping on the mantle of this year’s Janice Bourne. And as the producer of this adaptation of the 2012 graphic novel The Coldest City, she presumably had some say in how often she slipped off her glad rags. Even so, she’s hemmed into a one-note performance in what looks like a slick, extended commercial promoting the seamier attractions of Cold War Berlin. With the world teetering on the brink of a new political snowball fight, one might have hoped for something more pertinent than this backward flip to Harry Palmer and early John le Carré.

Charlize plays Lorraine Broughton, a top agent for M16 who is sent to Berlin prior to the imminent dismantlement of the Wall. Her mission is to recover some vital microfilm containing the names of every active field agent in the Soviet Union – and to locate the killer of a fellow agent. It’s a labyrinthine task, particularly as Soviet, Stasi, British, French and CIA contacts are never who they say they are…

While at times David Leitch attempts to inject some directorial distinction into this gallimaufry, he needs to spend more time studying the oeuvre of Danny Boyle. For Leitch, it’s all about the stunts and if one enjoys an endless barrage of hand-to-hand combat accompanied by pistol-shot sound effects, then this may suffice. But it’s really a vanity project for Charlize, who looks stunning throughout, defying her forty-two years on the planet. But her Lorraine Broughton is not real, any more than the foul language that spills from her lips sounds spontaneous. James McAvoy is more fun as her Berlin counterpart, like a sort of gun-wielding Mark Renton. But what John Goodman, as a CIA suit, saw in his part is a mystery. At least Eddie Marsan, as a Stasi traitor, gets to flex a German accent and shares the film’s best scene with Charlize. For a moment, a flicker of humanity emerges beneath Lorraine’s mask, before she embarks on a bone-breaking marathon of fisticuffs. And, boy, can she kick ass. Fans of Charlize Theron will not be disappointed: they will get more than they bargained for, including a totally gratuitous lesbian sequence involving Sofia Boutella as another ambiguous spook. But the film itself is an over-stylised, convoluted headache. Oh, for the days when we could bask in a Hitchcockian thriller with just the one twist.



Baby Driver  ***1/2        In the words of Simon and Garfunkel, ‘Baby Driver’ hit the road and was gone. It’s a dream that the getaway driver Baby (Ansel Elgort) holds dear, but he is in debt to a gangster called Doc (Kevin Spacey) and has to bide his time. In spite of his youth, Baby has been working for Doc for years now but only has one last job to pull off before he’s free. In the meantime, he meets and falls for a small-time waitress called Debora, as in the song by T. Rex. Baby likes his music and can only drive like the devil when he’s plugged into a mix tape especially assembled for the ride. He also dubs in snatches of conversation he records on his dictaphone and carries a variety of bespoke iPhones on his person. And if his cohorts don’t think he’s listening, don’t be fooled – he’s a master lip reader.

Baby is one helluva intriguing character, a bundle of contradictions neatly packaged into the handsome form of Ansel Elgort. And there’s an equally engaging rogue’s gallery of trigger-happy crooks, spearheaded by Jamie Foxx, Jon Hamm and Jon Bernthal, not to mention Sir Kevin. For sex appeal, there’s Jon Hamm’s provocative wife, Darling (Eiza González), with ‘His’ tattooed on her neck, and Lily James as Debora.

The writer-director Edgar Wright has a muscular grip on the pop-cultural world and likes to mix and match as much as his eponymous hero does. So, while we and Baby are listening to The Commodores, The Damned, Golden Earring, Queen and Barry White, the director harvests movie references from Fight Club to Monsters, Inc. It’s a giddy ride, stylishly unfolded, and while the characters are largely one-dimensional ciphers, they’re hardly short on colour. As a violent heist movie with a romantic core, Baby Driver is original enough to blow a gust of fresh air into the franchise-festering multiplex. And, in spite of the odd leap of logic, it guarantees you won’t be bored.


A Bad Moms Christmas  *1/2

Christmas is a time for giving, more giving and even more giving. First there are the Christmas cards to buy, then the Christmas stamps, the decorations, the Christmas tree, the Christmas presents (that nobody wants), the wrapping paper and all that extra food packed with empty calories. And then you have to admire the premature street lights, start all the arrangements, attend the awkward school concerts, invite the carollers in for mulled wine and keep Santa’s hand off your knee. For divorcee and single mom Amy Mitchell (Mila Kunis) things couldn’t get much worse when she discovers that her own bossy, controlling and ‘perfect’ mother is coming for Christmas. Coincidentally, her two best buddies, Kiki (Kristen Bell) and Carla (Kathryn Hahn), are having their own moms over for Yuletide. Yep, A Bad Moms Christmas is that formulaic.

There are maybe enough comic moments to fill the trailer, but for the most part this seasonal sequel is just as crass, embarrassing and manipulative as the first film. And it’s so over-the-top as to beggar belief. Amy’s mom Ruth (Christine Baranski) is a monster in Armani whose idea of classy festive fare is a Christmas tree from Paris, ornamental vases salvaged from the Titanic and an ice sculpture frozen from lunar water. Kiki’s mother Sandy (Cheryl Hines) is so smitten with her own daughter that she wears bespoke pullovers emblazoned with Kiki’s face, buys the house next door and sits in on Kiki’s marital love-making. The biggest surprise is to see the Oscar-winning Susan Sarandon as Carla’s mom Isis (“like the terrorist organisation”), who is so stoned that she thinks it’s Easter. Here, subtlety is not an option.

And so the writer-directors Scott Moore and Jon Lucas (who also inflicted Bad Moms on us), trot out the odd montage of bedlam to the accompaniment of a zingy rock or pop anthem, throw in the occasional slow motion sequence and get Kenny G to humiliate himself. In this pantomime of vulgarity, Cheryl Hines perhaps comes off best with some nice understated comic timing (“I have heart cancer, stage 12”), while Ms Sarandon certainly gets into the swing of things. Otherwise it’s a horror film of domestic destruction in which, once again, woman are reduced to penis-worshipping , alcohol-chugging caricatures, with a sentimental coda to sugar-coat the stench of obscenity. Next up: A Bad Dads’ Christmas in the shape of Daddy’s Home 2, arriving here November 22.



Bad Santa 2  **      Back in 2003, Terry Zwigoff's Bad Santa took the sentiment of ‘bah, humbug’ and ran with it. It was the story of a reprobate who used the guise of Santa Claus as a cover to steal from shopping malls. Partnered with a three-foot crook (Tony Cox) who posed as his elf, Willy Soke (Billy Bob Thornton) was one of the most reprehensible characters ever to grace a cinema screen. The black comedy, while no doubt offensive too many, was nonetheless wickedly funny. This it achieved by grounding the proceedings in a rough approximation of reality. It certainly was an outrageous original.

Mark Waters' Bad Santa 2 is not only not an original, but it is a sequel – which means it tries to out-do its predecessor. Donald Trump would love it. There’s something here to disgust everyone. It’s not so much politically incorrect as politically deplorable. It makes fun of dwarfs, suicide, charity, alcoholism, necrophilia, religion, child abuse, the nubile, the disabled, the homeless, the mentally challenged – you name it.

The first film managed to be funny because, although he was a grotesque, Willy Soke was a marginally credible grotesque. And that was a tricky balancing act to pull off. In the sequel he has become a caricature who, on auto pilot, offends everybody around him. He is not an idiot (after all, he is a skilful safecracker), so when, at his wit’s end, he sticks his head into an electric oven, the audience is alienated by the comic lie. Much funnier is the following scene when, throttled by an electric cable tethered to the ceiling, he is unable to clearly utter the word “chair” to his sweet-natured, autistic companion, Thurman Merman (Brett Kelly), who has turned up in the nick of time.

Another misstep is the introduction of a character who’s even more abominable than Willie – his own mother. But the film is not Bad Mama. Still, Kathy Bates has always been a game egg and is given free rein to debase herself with aplomb, whether belching in her son’s face, officiating from the loo or recalling memories of when she used to spit in Willy’s mouth when he was little. As a con-woman, she also proves to be more duplicitous than her son and pulls off the act of a sweet old granny with finesse, while tripping over children when they’re not looking.

If the film fails to engender laughs the second time round it’s because the tone is wrong. Bad Santa 2 not only plies a raft of stereotypes but adds a soupy score and an unhelpful patina of polish. The sad thing is that Johnny Rosenthal and Shauna Cross's script is not without intelligence or even wit. When it’s not trying to be offensive, it catches one off guard. There’s an enjoyable cameo from Jeff Skowron as a security guard with a vocabulary above his station and a very funny scene in which a variety of children sit on Willie’s lap and demand presents he has no inkling of (Grand Theft Auto III?). There’s also a brief misunderstanding over the words “flout” and “felch” nicely delivered by Christina Hendricks as the film’s only pleasant character, who then turns out to be a slut (“I'm a good girl, but sometimes I need to be bad”). And bad really is the word.



Battle of the Sexes  ****

In his own words, Bobby Riggs put the “show” into “chauvinism.” He also declared on national television that, “I love women – in the bedroom and the kitchen.” But he was not just a bigot; he was a hustler, a compulsive liar, an extravagant self-publicist, a member of Gamblers Anonymous, a pill popper and a brilliant tennis player. And he had a lot to brag about – for starters, he won Wimbledon at the age of 21. However, Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton’s Battle of the Sexes is really the story of Billie Jean King, herself no mean combatant on the tennis court – she won 39 Grand Slam titles and was founder of the Women's Tennis Association and the Women's Sports Foundation. But she was also a member of the weaker sex and in 1972 she boycotted the Lawn Tennis Association in protest of female players’ pay being just an eighth of men’s, in spite of the fact that their matches sold as many tickets.

In the media, Billie Jean King came off as a somewhat aloof, strident and aggressive figure. Yet, if this film is to be believed, she was actually a vulnerable, conflicted and passionate woman, qualities beautifully captured by Emma Stone in yet another grandstanding performance. Not only is the Oscar-winning actress uncannily transformed into the physical likeness of Billie Jean, but she brings a human complexity to a woman who was fighting so many parallel personal wars. As she risked everything in the cause of equal pay for her professional sisterhood, she was also coming to terms with her growing attraction for her hairdresser Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough) while struggling to keep her marriage to Larry King (Austin Stowell) on an even keel. Then Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) turns up and invites her to try to beat him on the court, observing that “men are the superior animal.” It’s a challenge – a battle – that she cannot afford to walk away from. In the end, Billie Jean King achieved as much for women’s liberation as the Pankhursts, Gloria Steinem, Germaine Greer and Cleopatra.

By juggling so many heady and dramatic elements, Battle of the Sexes proves to be an engrossing pleasure, proficiently crafted by the English scenarist Simon Beaufoy, whose previous credits include The Full Monty and Slumdog Millionaire. But it’s Emma Stone who holds the emotional reins, proving yet again that she is one of the finest actresses of her generation. She also has some admirable support, particularly from the distaff side: Andrea Riseborough as Billie Jean’s understanding soul mate Marilyn, Sarah Silverman as Billy Jean’s gutsy promoter Gladys Heldman and Elisabeth Shue as Riggs’ decorous, long-suffering wife Priscilla. As Riggs, Steve Carell turns in another colourful supporting turn, although it’s hard to believe that this pathetic, middle-aged buffoon could have defeated a World No. 1. Nonetheless, the film itself is an eye-opening, gripping and intensely moving depiction of a fascinating slice of sporting history.



Baywatch  *

In theory, the concept could’ve worked a treat. Imagine it: the iconic 1989-2001 TV series updated for a more permissive era. And with none other than Dwayne Johnson filling the Bermuda shorts of David Hasselhoff. Throw in a rival six-pack supplied by Zac Efron and you know the female demographic will be catered for. In fact, there’s plenty of skimpy swimwear for both genders, which, melded to a more ironic take on the cheesiness of the whole thing should’ve reaped comedic dividends. But there’s only so many shots of a female lifeguard in slow motion that one movie can take. Or, for that matter, the number of times that The Rock can say “ball sack”.

The Rock takes over from The Hoff as the conscientious and courageous lifeguard Mitch Buchannon on Emerald Bay in Florida (replacing the original beach in Malibu). He takes his job extremely seriously and sees “the Baywatch” as more of a way of life than as a job. So when a pretty newcomer with two Olympic gold medals muscles in on his territory, Mitch believes the guy should prove himself before getting the gig. For comic contrast there’s Ronnie (Jon Bass), a slack-bellied, largely inarticulate contender who all the girls love for being gauche and perpetually aroused. And while the newbies compete for a job on the sand, a dastardly plot is afoot to pedal drugs and infiltrate the retail market of the beachfront.

Zac Efron, the once promising star of High School Musical, Hairspray and Me and Orson Welles, is currently on something of a losing streak. His last three films, Dirty Grandpa, Bad Neighbours 2 and Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates, were all abysmal and this really is no better. Indeed, when a film this lazy, crude, unimaginative and sloppy comes along, one can but lose the will to swim.

When Zac’s Olympian strives to reveal his team spirit, he crows, “there’s no ‘i’ in team, but there is a ‘me.’” To which his interviewer replies, “Are you dyslexic?” And he responds, “no, I’m Caucasian.” And that’s the funniest line in the movie. Efron has become seasoned at lampooning his once squeaky-clean image and here he’s even dubbed “High School Musical” by Mitch Buchanan. Which is an odd thing to say. More problematic is Alexandra Daddario as Efron’s love interest, an actress whose default expression is one of perpetual surprise. It does become an irritant, but not as much as the heavy-handed soundtrack, dumb cameo appearances and interminable reaction shots.



The Beatles: Eight Days a Week – The Touring Years  ***1/2

It’s an extraordinary story. Four teenage chums from Liverpool become a cultural epidemic in what was to be the most defining decade in history. Yet between Vietnam and all the assassinations, The Beatles brought joy to countless people in every corner of the globe. It’s an iconic narrative, which, like Hamlet, Carmen and Pygmalion, has been reworked a myriad of times – on film, on television, on stage and in art. Yet the facts still dazzle: the group’s debut album, Please Please Me, remained at the top of the UK charts for a staggering thirty weeks, only to be replaced by With the Beatles, which remained at No. 1 for another 21 weeks. In the US, five of the band’s 1964 singles occupied the top five places on the Billboard chart simultaneously. A year later they played the Shea Stadium in New York to a record 55,600 fans, in what was the first concert to use the legendary venue. And so on…

Here, the director Ron Howard has introduced previously unseen footage of the Fab Four along with digitally restored sequences of yore, while liberally drawing on the help of Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr, as well Yoko Ono and Olivia Harrison. The result is a familiar story well-told, with commentary supplied by Paul and Ringo as well as Richard Lester, Elvis Costello and (bizarrely) Eddie Izzard. More interesting is the fresh perspective from the fans’ point of view, including footage of younger versions of Sigourney Weaver and Whoopi Goldberg caught in the onlooking mêlée. Fruitier still are the images of screaming teenage girls in the throes of hysteria, preventing the singers from hearing themselves perform.

Of course, this is just the story of The Beatles’ rise to fame and dominance on the touring circuit – as the title describes – putting aside the later dramas for another time. What is so infectious about the film is the musicians’ carefree bonhomie, with the real creative highlights occurring in the recording studio. The film covers the years 1963 to 1966, after which many more hits were to come, as well as musical innovation and tragedy. But then Ron Howard has always been a filmmaker with a nose for a good, gratifying story and after 1966 – well, that was another story.



Beauty and the Beast  ****

Once upon a time there was a cartoon called Beauty and the Beast. Released in 1991, it was the first animated feature ever to be nominated for an Oscar as best picture. Then it became a hugely successful stage musical on Broadway, playing for an astonishing 5,461 performances. Later, it opened in London’s West End and won the Olivier Award for best new musical. Now we have the live-action feature version, following in the highly profitable wake of Disney’s live-action remakes The Jungle Book, Cinderella, Maleficent and Alice in Wonderland. It’s an irresistible recipe.

The smart move is to hire world-class directors to shape these photographic visions of the animated originals. Here, Bill Condon – who steered Dreamgirls to critical acclaim and a Golden Globe – takes the reins of the French fairy tale and gives it the full Broadway treatment. After the toe-tapping shenanigans of La La Land, it’s a shock to see such an old-fashioned musical so soon. And the film opens with a glorious bang. Set in the ballroom of the Beast’s castle, the African-American Audra McDonald belts out the newly minted Aria by Tim Rice and Alan Menken, while the dance floor is awash with the phantasmagorical costumes of Jacqueline Durran. It’s obvious that no expense has been spared.

To reveal any more would be to undermine a terrific story, but the reason so many of these fairy tales withstand such relentless reinvention is that the basic premise of their narratives are so timeless. Here, we are invited not to judge a book by its cover and to hope that we are all far more beautiful on the inside.

As Belle, that most Anglocentric of English roses, Emma Watson, segues from Hogwarts to the Beast’s castle with a pluck, beauty and assurance that must disable her detractors in their tracks. Although largely unrecognisable, Dan Stevens gives the Beast a suitably patrician air and makes his transition from curmudgeon to lovesick puppy with heart-wrenching facility. The turning point, when the monster emerges as something possibly human, is when he quotes the Bard. Belle, who is the only bookworm in her village, is dumbfounded. “You know Shakespeare?” she gasps. “I had an expensive education,” growls he. And then he gives her his library.

There’s excellent support from Kevin Kline as Belle’s father and a robust Luke Evans as the dastardly Gaston, while a starry ensemble supply the voices of the castle’s far from inanimate objects. Ewan McGregor’s French accent as the candelabra Lumière may draw some fire, but he holds his own on the number ‘Be Our Guest.’ As for the costumes, the production design, the CGI and the cinematography – well, they’re all pretty superlative.



The Beguiled  **1/2

The opening shot of this Southern Gothic melodrama bodes well. Spanish moss veils a picturesque avenue shrouded in mist and a girl hums to herself, lost in her thoughts. There is a chorus of birdsong, the girl’s humming and an indistinct sound, indicating either the child’s heavy footfall or distant gunfire. Not long afterwards, while gathering mushrooms, she is startled by the presence of a soldier lying against a tree. It is 1864 in Virginia and we are three years into the American Civil War. And the solider, John McBurney (Colin Farrell), is a Union corporal who has been wounded in his fight against the Confederacy, and is hence the enemy. The girl (the always-excellent Oona Laurence) helps the wounded man back to the Miss Martha Farnsworth Seminary for Young Ladies, where Martha Farnsworth herself (Nicole Kidman) decides to nurse him back to health before turning him in. The presence of a man in the midst of an all-girls’ school sets the emotional template and more comedy might have been mined from the situation. Yet the film neither grips as a drama nor engages as an emotional odyssey, and we are just left to admire the costumes and the furnishings. Director Sofia Coppola seems at pains to recreate the period details (all original fabrics were used) and she does paint a painterly scene. The performances are uniformly solid, although Oona Laurence (Southpaw, Pete’s Dragon) is a little miracle, while Kirsten Dunst registers strongly as the prim Miss Edwina. But we just needed more time to enter the lives of all these characters, if only to learn to care for them. As it is, the film feels very slight and underdeveloped and it’s not a good sign when, leaving the cinema, it’s the sound design that one praises the most.



Ben-Hur  **1/2      William Wyler’s Ben-Hur of 1959 won a then-unprecedented eleven Oscars. Timur Bekmambetov's re-visit of Lew Wallace’s 1880 Biblical novel is unlikely to win one, or even a nomination. The production design is impressive and the climactic chariot race is a genuinely thrilling spectacle, although it never feels entirely real. The problem with the new film is that the action sequences are speeded up (by reducing the frame rate), which worked brilliantly in Saving Private Ryan but has now become a cliché. Marco Beltrami's wall-to-wall music is another drawback, while the oral continuity of the English-American-Iranian-Danish-Brazilian cast leaves a lot to be desired. No doubt purists will object to another white actor playing Jesus, even if Rodrigo Santoro’s Brazilian accent does give a new twist to the Son of God.

To be fair, Bekmambetov's film is less plodding than Wyler’s cherished version, although there’s a lot of story to wade through. Jack Hawkins got second-billing in the 1959 film but his role here – as Roman consul Quintus Arrius – is discarded in a brief cameo by James Cosmo. However, one cannot deny the sincerity of Bekmambetov's actors, with committed turns from Jack Huston as Judah Ben-Hur, Rodrigo Santoro as Jesus, Nazanin Boniadi as Judah's wife and Ayelet Zurer as Mrs Ben-Hur. However, the Danish actor Pilou Asbæk (A Hijacking, A War) fails to suck much blood out of Pontius Pilate. Which leaves Morgan Freeman, who not only narrates the piece, but is wheeled on to inject a bit of gravitas. Only Morgan can get away with saying things like, “Know the world you live in, Judah.”

Inevitably, the film will be compared unfavourably with Ridley Scott’s Oscar-winning Gladiator, about another underling seeking revenge on the Roman empire, but at least it trots in at just over two hours, 89 minutes shorter than the last Ben-Hur. Having said that, it does feel a lot longer.


The BFG  **1/2       Roald Dahl’s immortal literary creation of 1982 is one with a very big heart and very little plot. Of course, it would be foolhardy to invest the sort of money needed to provide the appropriate CGI for a short, but Melissa Mathison’s script is too slender a thing to justify a feature-length film.

Even so, Steven Spielberg’s adaptation is one of considerable strengths. There is magic to be found in this tale of an insomniac young orphan, Sophie (Ruby Barnhill), who fears that there may be giants and is duly snatched by one in the middle of the night. And even though the latter is dubbed ‘Runt’ by the considerably larger occupants of Giant Country, Sophie decides to call him the BFG – short for ‘Big Friendly Giant’. But he is none too friendly, either – at least until he has come to accept that Sophie, who he feared would expose him, is a sympathetic captive. A more suitable moniker might have been the Little Gentle Giant.

Based on the original illustrations of Quentin Blake, the BFG has been superbly rendered by the motion capture department, with the addition of the benevolent facial features of Mark Rylance. Rylance, who won an Oscar for Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies, is a perfect match for Dahl’s malapropian behemoth, bringing a bucolic sensitivity to the role. Defending his abduction of Sophie, the giant tells her, “I didn’t steal you very much. You’re only a little thing.” And admits, “What I says and what I means is sometimes two different things.”

For a while one believes that we might be able to spend an entire film with this mismatched duo, but Mathison’s narrative padding eventually wears thin. There are other ogres, to be sure – all out for Sophie’s blood – but even the sequences featuring these intruders feel over-extended. The final act provides bit of a breather, but sits uneasily with the beginning of the film, which promised a more traditional Barrie-esque fable.

In an age of ADD, younger audiences are likely to be bored by the longueurs, while the painterly special effects can no longer be relied on to enthral. But Dahl’s linguistic acrobatics continue to engage and Mark Rylance is a joy – all the way from his outsize feet up to his twinkly eyes.


The Big Sick  ***

Michael Showalter's The Big Sick is not only a true story but its protagonist plays himself. Such a novelty might haver reaped dividends had the story itself been more interesting. There’s a lot of incidental colour but the central motor of the film – the relationship between a Pakistani stand-up comedian and a white American student therapist – is too underpowered. While looking a little too old to play his former self, Kumail Nanjiani is sweet enough and nicely underplays his comic beats. As Emily, the kookie girl who captures Kumail’s heart, Zoe Kazan is more than likeable and perfectly plausible. The problem is that the shorthand between the love birds is not allowed to develop, thus robbing the film of its romantic pulse. Too much time is devoted to the sitcom antics of Kumail’s friends and co-comedians who are anything but funny. In addition, we are treated to a parallel sitcom in the form of Kumail’s family, whose members are stereotypes to the manor born. These are (or were) real people, but Kumail – who penned the screenplay with his real-life soulmate Emily V. Gordon – gives them no truth. Bizarelly, the characters that achieve the most comic-dramatic traction are Emily’s parents, beautifully realised by Holly Hunter and Ray Romano. In fact, The Big Sick (a terrible title, by the way) doesn’t really kick into gear until Ms Hunter hops on screen, bless her. She’s both funny and real.



The Birth of a Nation  ****1/2      It’s been a long time coming. Disregarding the likes of Gone With the Wind, Mandingo and The Color Purple, even more recent and creditable depictions of the American slave experience were directed by American white men (i.e. Django Unchained, Free State of Jones). Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation, however, the story of the preacher-cum-rebel Nat Turner, is not only directed by a black American, but is scripted, produced and played by him as well. And to further redress the balance, Parker has appropriated the title of D.W. Griffith’s racist Ku Klux Klan epic of the same name (1915). It’s a smart move.

There will be inevitable comparisons made to Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave, although it should be noted that McQueen is English. Nate Parker has never directed a feature before but is canny enough to understand the difference between consummate craftsmanship and showing off. He has gathered around him a roster of top professionals in their field and allowed them to do their best. The result is a work that grips from the start, from Nat Turner’s youth in the early years of the nineteenth century in Southampton County, Virginia, to his growth into a strapping, deeply religious cotton-picker. It is Nat’s faith that sustains his sanity for much of the time, but there is only so much brutality that any man can take.

While the film’s violence is never less than shocking, Parker does not dwell on the details – save for one scene in which a hunger-striking slave is force-fed. And Parker doesn’t deal in caricatures. Nat Turner’s ‘master,’ the weak and alcohol-dependent Samuel Turner (an unrecognisable Armie Hammer), may be a monster by today’s standards, but in the scheme of things he is not a villain. The real villainy is assigned to the slave catcher Raymond Cobb, played with chilling conviction by Jackie Earle Haley. Furthermore, Henry Jackman’s beautiful score is never allowed to intrude, nor Elliot Davis's exquisite cinematography. Parker himself makes a noble Nat Turner, a warrior more comfortable at the end of a Bible than a weapon. But when Turner does, eventually, draw blood, he throws up immediately afterwards. It’s a story that had to be told, for the shame remains in the DNA of contemporary America.



Blade Runner 2049  ****1/2

Thirty-five years ago the future was a very different place. As with his Alien, Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982) was an extraordinarily prescient glimpse into tomorrow. Amazingly, the latter was set in the year 2019, a time when Los Angeles had become a much more multicultural place, the weather was crap and large corporations exercised an alarming monopoly. More significantly, the science of robotics had reached a point where androids were indistinguishable from humans. Ridley Scott also imagined a world of flying cars, telephone booths with video displays and androids who smoked. The story – adapted from Philip K. Dick’s 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? – was straightforward. An android tracker (or blade runner) set out to “retire” a bunch of rogue androids (or replicants) and met some weird shit along the way.

In its time, Blade Runner came to be accepted as one of the defining classics of its genre, even though its reception was decidedly mixed on its release. While it remains an astonishingly visual spectacle – and a frequently powerful experience – its narrative traction leaves a lot to be desired. If we were to wait another thirty-five years for a second sequel, who knows what the world will look like? The year of 2049, as depicted here, is still suffering from crap weather, is divested of all vegetation and animal life and is peopled, if that’s the right word, by replicants. But the latter line of automatons are a new, improved lot and are engineered to serve the best interests of mankind. Ryan Gosling’s replicant, just known as ‘K’ (a nice Kafka reference), works for the LAPD and on a routine mission to retire an earlier model (Dave Bautista) stumbles across an extraordinary secret. In a nod to the film’s catchphrase, “this isn’t possible,” K is summarily commanded to eliminate all traces of his discovery. But it’s left a gnawing doubt in his mind, a question that threatens his very existence.

Recent research has revealed how fallible the human memory is. Even so, it’s what makes us who we are. It makes us human. The replicants here have their memories implanted and for them it’s hard to differentiate between what’s real and what’s fabricated. For ‘K’, though, a startling discovery from his childhood turns his sense of identity inside out.

Like its forebear, Blade Runner 2049 is a visually intoxicating mindfuck – even more so considering the recent advances in computer-generated imagery. And there are many episodes that will sear the memory. Take the scene when K makes love to his girlfriend, a hologram called Joi (Ana de Armas), superimposed on the body of a replicant prostitute (Mackenzie Davis); or the moment when a ‘memory designer’ (the Swiss actress Carla Juri) reveals her craft to K; or when the replicant industrialist Niander Wallace (Jared Leto) ‘births’ a female android.

Memorable as these images are, there are thematic snippets that also linger. When ‘K’ has the figurine of a horse examined by a specialist (Barkhad Abdi), the latter is astonished to find that it’s made of genuine wood: “you’re rich!” he exclaims. Likewise, Harrison Ford’s Rick Deckard grumbles that he’s constantly dreaming of cheese. Cheese, wood… these things we take for granted, but in the world of the future they may become but distant memories.

In a genre clogged with reboots and sequels, it’s not often one comes across a science fiction film that feels so genuinely fresh, complex and original. Or has so many distinctive parts for women. But if anybody could take up the baton from Ridley Scott, it is the Canadian director Denis Villeneuve, whose constant high standard has been evinced by the features Incendies, Prisoners, Sicario and especially last year’s Arrival. Yes, his new film is slow, long and sometimes even ponderous, but there is so much going on between the lines that it should warrant frequent viewings. Best of all, though, it doesn’t pander to the lowest common denominator.



Bleed for This  **1/2      In the annals of boxing Vinny Pazienza’s story is one of the most remarkable. As Vinny, Miles Teller (of Whiplash fame) piles on the muscle and gives his all as the blue collar pugilist from Rhode Island. It’s a familiar sequence of events – even the one where the boxer’s mother and his sisters crowd round the TV to witness `the big match.’ The film does open well: at a Caesars Palace weigh-in, delayed by an absent Vinny who’s upstairs madly cycling off the last ounces of his body weight. Vinny believes that he’s got what it takes but cannot seem to find his place in the ring until he hooks up with the trainer Kevin Rooney (Aaron Eckhart). Rooney used to coach Mike Tyson (before being fired by the world champ) and is now a washed-up, pot-bellied near-alcoholic. Somehow a strange alchemy develops between Pazienza and Rooney, an invisible force that pushes up their game. Rooney reckons that Vinny is fighting two classes beneath his weight and against the advice of all he enters him into the category of super middleweight. The rest is history. Teller and Eckhart are two mean actors, with the former recalling a young Sean Penn, but they are provided with precious little thespian sparring. Although based on real events, the ‘story’ is credited to three separate writers (including the director, Ben Younger) and yet the film’s greatest weakness is its narrative thrust – there really isn’t one. And when it does finally arrive, the climax just doesn’t ring true.


The Boss Baby  ***1/2

It’s not just policemen who are beginning to look younger, but the odd CEO as well. The Boss Baby, the new computer-animated cartoon from DreamWorks, provides a corporate take on the whole paediatric thing. It’s less Monsters, Inc. than Babies, Inc., with the star attraction a drooling, flatulent, vomiting monster with a voice vaguely reminiscent of Donald Trump. This might be because the eponymous tot is voiced by Alec Baldwin, who’s boosted his career of late by playing the 45th president on Saturday Night Live. Anyway, Baldwin’s bambino is a briefcase-toting infant who one day arrives by taxi at the residence of Ted and Janice Templeton, upsetting the blissful equilibrium of the Templeton family dynamic. Our narrator is Tim Leslie Templeton (Tobey Maguire), who has been relishing the undivided attention of his doting Mum and Dad. Together, they had created the ideal domestic triangle – “the strongest shape found in nature,” Tim tells us. And now there’s the new kid in town, whose round-the-clock demands are sadistic, to put it mildly…

If The Boss Baby weren’t so funny it would be a horror film. It digs deep beneath the flimsy patina of sibling unanimity and reveals something altogether darker, and meaner. We all want to be special in our parents’ eyes, but for how long can we hold onto that monopoly? When Dad (Jimmy Kimmel) talks of “loving the new baby with all his heart,” Tim’s blood runs cold. He’s lost his anchor. Worse still, the baby is not all he would appear to be. And he sees Tim as an obstacle to be subdued. Staring Tim down, the nipper observes, “you obviously didn’t go to business school. You’re fired!” Pathetically, Tim Hresponds, “you can’t be fired from your own family…”

The director Tom McGrath, who revealed his acumen with the Madagascar trilogy, hits the floor running with his new film, juggling smart musical choices with a variety of directorial styles, while cramming the screen with comic energy, ingenious imagery and cinematic allusions. It’s also very crude, but in an amusingly innocuous way, so that while we’re treated to a plethora of natal clefts, the male genitalia is pixilated – as if it were there in the first place. As for the Boss Baby, he’s about as cuddly as a chainsaw, but then he did arrive by taxi, not the usual way. He tells Tim, “if people really knew where babies come from, they’d never have one. The same with hot dogs.”

P.S. Rarely for a film in 3D, the extra perspectives are made the most of, so beware the prospect of flying toys and cataracts of drool.



Brad’s Status  **1/2

Everybody’s got problems, but Brad Sloan (Ben Stiller) thinks he’s got more than most. More significantly, he’s suffering from peer envy. His beautiful wife Melanie (Jenna Fischer), who works for the government, is idealistic and happy with her lot, but Brad feels that he has nothing to show for a lifetime of effort. The manager of a non-profit consultancy firm in Sacramento, Brad is appalled that he has to fly economy while his old university friend Jason (Luke Wilson) owns his own jet. Brad is on the way to Boston with his son Troy (Austin Abrams) to look at colleges. Troy is interested in Harvard and, to Brad’s amazement, looks like he has a pretty good chance of getting in. Suddenly, Brad finds himself jealous of his own son’s potential in the world.

Few actors do pent-up angst as well as Ben Stiller. Here, he plays a middle-aged man who discovers that the world is not a playground but a battlefield. In spite of everything he has – and he has plenty – he cannot see how damned lucky he is. If the message of Mike White’s grey comedy is a little pat, it is engagingly enough played to hold the attention and to prompt the odd wry smile. However, it never reaches the comic heights of Stiller’s best work, nor is credible enough to have the slow-burn impact of a Jim Jarmusch fable. As Troy, Austin Abramas is touchingly real, while Shazi Raja almost steals the film as a flute-playing Harvard student still fired with the passion and idealism of youth. As it happens, Brad Sloan discovers that the world is not as he thought it was, a homily we didn’t need a film to tell us.



Breathe  ****

Most of us take breathing for granted. But for Jonathan Cavendish's father it was an action that dictated his life. After Robin Cavendish contracted polio in 1958 at the age of 28, he was tied to a respirator that acted as his lungs. Stuck in a hospital bed, facing the ceiling, Robin’s was not much of a life and he wanted to die. But his wife Diana, Jonathan’s mother, wouldn’t hear of it. Robin was her life and she was going to make damned sure that he would occupy it, come what may.

Jonathan Cavendish's film, which he produced, is a gift to his mother. As played by Claire Foy, she is the beating heart of the film and the best reason for seeing it. At awards’ time there always seems to be a glut of dramas about the afflicted, and one immediately thinks of Whose Life Is It Anyway?, My Left Foot and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly when contemplating ones about the severely handicapped. But Breathe is kind of special. It not only marks the directorial debut of the actor and honorary ape Andy Serkis, but it’s a film that confronts disability with humour and a light touch.

As Robin himself, Andrew Garfield is charismatic and even joyous, conveying so much dignity and mischief above the clavicle. There are jolly turns, too, from Hugh Bonneville, Tom Hollander and Stephen Mangan, in a conspiracy to keep everything as upbeat as possible. And yet, perhaps because of this, the film attains an even greater power to move than had we been met with a thespian torrent of tears. It’s all frightfully stiff upper lip and a story that had to be told. And it’s all the more remarkable that it happened to the father of Jonathan Cavendish, a successful producer best known, until now, for Bridget Jones's Diary and Elizabeth: The Golden Age. Next, he will produce Andy Serkis's version of The Jungle Book.



Bridget Jones’s Baby  **1/2      Like many film titles, Bridget Jones’s Baby is misleading. This is not a film about Bridget Jones’s baby. Bridget Jones, the self-absorbed, self-pitying, accident-prone clod hoisted from Helen Fielding’s newspaper column into cinematic renown by the Texas-born Renée Zellweger, is back. And she’s pregnant. But who’s the father? Colin Firth, having previously ploughed the field of uncertain paternity in Mamma Mia! returns as Mark Darcy and this time is pitted against the charms of an American, Jack Qwant (Patrick Dempsey). Both are enormously successful men in their chosen careers (Darcy is a human rights lawyer, Qwant an internet billionaire) and both, strangely, find Bridget irresistible. And three months previously they both had “relations” with the scatter-brained mother-to-be.

This time our heroine is not only dealing with the challenges of pregnancy, but also with the demands of a surreal new boss (Kate O’Flynn) on the current affairs show she works for, Hard News. And, twelve years on from Beeban Kidron's Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason (2004), the paranoid Londoner is now dealing with encroaching middle-age (she’s 43).

In the film’s favour, the original director, Sharon Maguire, returns to the fold, while the talented triumvirate of Fielding, Dan Mazer and Emma Thompson all contributed to the screenplay. There are a few genuinely funny moments, most of them featuring Bridget’s sidekick Miranda, played with killer timing by Sarah Solemani. But there are also too many predictable beats, be it Bridget announcing (in voice-over) that, “at least nobody knew it was my birthday…” seconds before her surprise birthday party is revealed, to the bit when she stumbles into a darkened yurt at a music festival (where she first encounters Qwant).

It will come as no surprise that Bridget does, eventually, give birth to the titular tot

and yet the sequence is a surprisingly muted affair. It sits poorly besides many hysterical childbirth scenes of yore and with three Oscar-winning stars in the obstetric mix (Zellweger, Firth and Emma Thompson), it is a missed opportunity. There’s also a needlessly irritating score from Craig Armstrong, enough cannily placed pop hits to guarantee the release of Now! That’s What I Call Bridget Jones and lashings of slapstick and cliché. We should be grateful, though, that there’s sufficient humour in the film – and the odd surprise – to dispel total disappointment.



Burnt  *****

Sara (Lily James) is more than a little unnerved by the strange American dossing down on her boyfriend’s sofa. “He's a two-star Michelin chef,” her boyfriend (Sam Keeley) tells her. “He's supposed to be scary. To get even one Michelin star, you have to be, like, Luke Skywalker. Two, you’re the guy Alec Guinness played. But if you manage to get three, you're Yoda.” The American in question is Adam Jones (Bradley Cooper), a former star of the Paris restaurant scene who burned out. But having kicked the booze, the drugs and the women, he’s back in Europe and resolved to open the best restaurant in London. He wants to make food so good that his customers can’t eat it. If Gordon Ramsay looked like Bradley Cooper, he’d be Adam Jones. Adam Jones has anger issues, sure, but only in the quest for perfection. He’s striving for the culinary orgasm and that comes at a price; but before he can assemble the capital’s best team of cooks, he must make amends for his past… You can pretty much see where John Wells’ Burnt is going, but Steven Knight’s screenplay is every bit as masterful as Jones’s cordon bleu creations and so we just enjoy the ride. Wells, who previously directed the all-star The Company Men and August: Osage County, has a knack for attracting major thespian talent and here has marshalled Omar Sy, Daniel Brühl, Matthew Rhys, Alicia Vikander, Uma Thurman, Emma Thompson and, in her best performance yet, Sienna Miller as a chef de partie and single mother. Londoners may baulk at Wells’ geographical liberties, but the city looks fantastic, as do the sleek interiors and mouth-watering dishes, making this as much a great advertisement for London as it is for fine dining.


By Our Selves  **

Considering that the pastoral poet John Clare (1793-1864) ended up in a lunatic asylum, it is perhaps apt that Andrew Kötting’s film is quite mad. Kötting is one of Britain’s most distinctive filmmakers (Gallivant, This Filthy Earth, Ivul), although he refuses to pigeon-hole himself as a feature filmmaker. He does make a lot of experimental shorts. Here, he’s cast Toby Jones as Clare, who wanders, on foot, from Epping Forest to Northampton in the year 1841, although the passing traffic and visibility of the camera operator Anonymous Bosch detracts from the period feel. There are other distractions, too, such as crew members discussing the film and an interview with the comic book maven Alan Moore, who happens to have been born in Northampton. There’s also a discussion with a literary professor from Oxford Brookes, who’s dressed in boxing shorts, while his interviewer (Iain Sinclair) wears a goat’s mask. The film’s ace card, though, is the presence of the 87-year-old Freddie Jones (Toby’s father) who reads Clare’s work on screen – complete with throat-clearing and rasping shortness of breath. The older Jones actually played John Clare in a 1970 edition of the BBC’s Omnibus. As much a comment on insanity and the filmmaking process as on the poet, Kötting’s film will prove far too self-indulgent for most tastes. And, needless to say, it’s in black-and-white.


Cars 3  ***

It’s not how fast you go, but how smart you are. This is the maxim that Lightning McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson) must learn, when the legendary stock car loses the Piston Cup to a brash newcomer, Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer). But while Jackson knows his numbers, his tyre pressure and aerodynamics, he’s not so good with the other cars, his arrogance alienating all but his own sponsor. And if Lightning is to compete again he requires more than an overhaul. So he’s taken under the wing of Sterling (Nathan Fillion), a promoter who reckons that Lightning needs to be completely re-trained…

Yeh, we’re talking cars here. More specifically, we’re talking about talking cars. Computer animation has given voice to all sorts of inanimate objects, but cars – that’s a tall order. Well, this being the product of Pixar, the company successfully brought a number of racers and jalopies to anthropomorphic life in their 2006 hit, Cars. It was the astonishing animation that really distinguished the first film, rather than any emotional or comic traction. Cars 2, set in Tokyo, Italy and London, was just silly, which means this third chapter just about moves into pole position in the franchise. There’s some nice sexual frisson between Lightning and his new trainer, Cruz Ramirez (stand-up comedian Cristela Alonzo), and plenty of playful visual invention. But considering that seven writers contributed to the screenplay, one might have hoped for something a little less formulaic. Moral: you have to believe in yourself.

For asphalt aficionados and film nerds there are plenty of in-jokes, but the biggest shock is hearing the voice of the late Paul Newman as Lightning’s mentor, Doc Hudson. Apparently there was enough unused dialogue and banter in between takes from the first film, that the filmmakers were able to string together some new lines for Cars 3.



Central Intelligence  ***

There’s a long tradition in Hollywood of pairing up tough guys with funny guys: Schwarzenegger and DeVito, Robert De Niro and Charles Grodin, Nick Nolte and Eddie Murphy, Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill… and it usually works. Here, though, the device is given a neat twist, in which Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson and Kevin Hart are not so much thrown together as are a double-act waiting to happen. Twenty years ago, at an end-of-term ‘pep rally’ at Central High in Woodberry, Maryland, the all-achieving Calvin Joyner (Kevin Hart) is voted the student most likely to succeed. Or, in the words of the school’s distinguished, grey-haired principal (Phil Reeves): “I wish he were my son – if I were medically able to have children.” Meanwhile, in the showers, the resident fat boy Robbie Wheirdicht is abducted and, stark naked, rolled out in front of the whole school. In the words of the principal: “Well, there’s no coming back from that!” But shame and humiliation is exactly what drove Wheirdicht to change his name (obviously) and bench-press his way to a new life. Twenty years later he has been transformed into The Rock and poor Calvin has been reduced to a life of suburban drudgery in an accountants’ office. Life can be like that.

The director Rawson Marshall Thurber previously brought us the highly successful Dodgeball and the very funny We’re the Millers and, comically, he knows what works. First you find a strong premise, then cast two stars who generate good chemistry, cram the thing with enough throwaway gags to sustain repeated viewings and back it all up with accomplished actors in support. Here, the big Johnson (6’4”) and little Hart (5’4”) play off each other like boxing rabbits, with Johnson having enormous fun at the expense of his own persona. “I’m a hugger,” he tells Calvin, embracing him in his new incarnation as CIA agent Ben Stone. And, following a rumpus in a bar in which Stone puts four bullies in their place, Calvin exclaims: “you’re Jason Bourne – with shorts.” But Stone has emotional issues and has never fully recovered from his high school degradation at the hands of the dastardly Trevor (played as a grown-up by Jason Bateman). And, he admits, “I’ll never be like Molly Ringwald.”

While the one-liners keep on coming, the engine of the plot revs into high gear, in which Stone may or may not be a rogue agent, dragging Calvin into a madcap adventure involving an army of po-faced feds. As the steely-eyed, coffee-guzzling CIA honcho Pam Harris, Amy Ryan proves a perfect foil to the comic antics of her co-stars and everybody else plays it admirably straight.

Unfortunately, as the action becomes increasingly more improbable, the film does lose some of its momentum. In fact, it ends up being all rather cheesy, and even a tad sentimental. A tighter rein on the slapstick might have produced something genuinely classy, although the dialogue continues to amuse to the very end. And you have to smile when, admiringly, Stone compliments his little friend with the glowing tribute: “You look like a black Will Smith.”


Christine  ***1/2

Christine Chubbuck was a TV reporter who worked on human interest stories for the Sarasota TV station WXLT. Although she still lived with her mother and was a virgin at the age of 29, she was a driven, fiercely intelligent and ambitious journalist determined to make her mark on the world. But she was a troubled soul and this true-life character study is blessed by an insightful script and a trailblazing turn from Rebecca Hall in the title role. Ms Hall has always been able to play the beauty and intelligence of her characters, but here she nails the contradictions of Christine, a gawky, frightening, unpredictable, vulnerable, sexy, bright, tense, insecure, angry, resourceful and emotionally inexperienced human being. With a muscular supporting turn from Tracy Letts as her exasperated boss, the film is as much a look at the machine of local television as it is a picture of insanity. Today, Christine Chubbuck is best remembered for generating a “TV first” – but hopefully Antonio Campos' film will redress the balance and go some way in showing the woman behind the lurid headlines.



Churchill  ****1/2

Who knows what Churchill was thinking in the 96 hours leading up to D-Day? Jonathan Teplitzky's gripping backroom drama, based on a screenplay by the historian Alex von Tunzelmann, may not be gospel but it certainly injects some pungent juice into the dry pages of the history books. Churchill was, of course, a larger-than-life caricature of himself, accentuated by his trademark bulldog stance, polka dot bow tie, black hat and Churchillian cigar. And he’s been nailed to our imagination by a raft of colourful impersonations over the last seventy years. The Scottish actor Brian Cox looks nothing like Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill, but he does have the physical heft and a mighty thespian presence. Much like watching Meryl Streep play Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady, one is at first just aware of the dissimilar until the emotional truth draws us in.

The film opens on the 1,736th day of the Second World War with Churchill, the British prime minister, consumed by guilt and depression, smoking prodigiously and drinking too much. As the Allied leaders ready themselves to launch 156,000 men onto the Nazi-occupied beaches of Normandy, Churchill rails against their plans, recalling the slaughter at Gallipoli under his watch. As the film reminds us, so much history wasn’t fought on the beaches, the landing grounds and in the streets, but in the boardrooms and offices of the politicians and military brass. It is in this theatre of war that the intimate drama of events springs to life under Teplitzky's direction. After his less than commanding The Railway Man, which also tackled the ramifications of the Second World War, Teplitzky now takes full command of his material, allowing the film’s quieter moments to speak just as loudly as its more dramatic ones. Thus, the scene in which George VI (James Purefoy on surprisingly good form) calmly persuades the prime minister to abandon his plans to accompany the troops to France hits home with muscular tenderness. And from monarchy to the menial, the moment when Churchill is challenged by his own typist (Ella Purnell, an actress to watch), the emotional fallout is wrenching indeed. Across the board the performances are tip-top, although it’s probably Brian Cox that we will be looking at come awards season. However, he will have to battle Gary Oldman, whose own portrayal of the British Bulldog in Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour, is already mustering major Oscar buzz.



City of Ghosts  *****

The two giants of contemporary non-fiction cinema come together to produce one of the scariest documentaries you are likely to see. The executive producer is the documentarian Alex Gibney, he who brought us Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, Taxi to the Dark Side, Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God and We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks, among many articulate and thought-provoking titles. And the director is Matthew Heineman, whose Cartel Land (2015) was as harrowing as it was stunning to look at. Having gained the confidence of both masked cartel members and the Mexican villagers whose lives they had destroyed, Heineman now goes undercover with the foot soldiers of the so-called activist movement Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently (RBSS). However, these heroes of the resistance use their smart phones and their words to combat the barbaric sword of Isis.

Heineman sets up his film with his customary eye for a breath-taking image, defying the hand-held cliché of the documentary norm. However, as much of the footage featured in the film was shot clandestinely on mobile phones, Heineman is unable to sustain his artistic flair. Which is probably just as well, as the fleeting video images of Isis’s brutality at the beginning of the film is quite enough for public consumption. To show on the big screen what the terrorists routinely posted on the Internet would be merely to further their cause.

What Heineman does do, however, is still show us scenes we thought we’d never see – albeit in the calm intimacy of a group of men determined to do the right thing. Their mission: to dismantle the propaganda of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant and expose the terrorists’ real level of barbarity. With Isis unable to track down their media critics – who have moved to a safe house in Turkey – they take an alternative route to punish the members of RBSS. And so we watch as one activist, Hamoud, witnesses the execution of his own father posted on the Internet. We are spared the act itself, although the real drama playing across the face of the victim’s son is more than enough.

Heineman pulls of an effective balance between the fraternal camaraderie of his subjects and the violent hysteria of the video footage. And the quieter scenes register more strongly, perhaps because we are all too familiar with the latter from so much television coverage. Hunched over their laptops, the activists discuss their various shortcomings as journalists, one admitting to his abject inadequacy with grammar. But it’s the content, not the form, that made these Syrian martyrs the heroes of their Fatherland and we are privileged to spend time with them.



City of Tiny Lights  *1/2

The metropolis in question is London and it’s seldom looked so contemporary and multicultural. Throw in some jihadi extremists, iffy property development, Asian drug peddlers and Russian prostitutes and we have a melting pot ripe for stirring. Fold it all into a detective story featuring a Pakistani private eye modelled on Philip Marlowe and a scenario emerges that not just mixes cultures but narrative forms, old and new. Unfortunately, the menu of snappy dialogue, nocturnal cityscapes, neon, rain, nightclubs and endless tube trains is laid on so thick that nothing rings true. It doesn’t help that besides the odd establishing shot of the A40 flyover, everything else looks like it was filmed on a mobile phone, often in slo’ mo’. Riz Ahmed, in between cigarette breaks and gulps of Wild Turkey, strives to rise above it all, but gets repeatedly stuck with actors who just can’t rise to the challenge. There’s a terrific film here – maybe even three or more – but its ambition and narrative congestion undermine it at every turn.



Coco  ***

The twelve-year-old son of Mexican cobblers, Miguel worships the legendary singer and guitarist Ernesto de la Cruz. However, music is banned in his family so, on the sly, he sets off to find a guitar so that he can enter a local talent competition – on the Day of the Dead. He is determined to become a successful musician, even if it kills him.

Since the release of its 1995 hit Pocahontas, Disney has been at pains to celebrate minority cultures. Following Mulan, The Princess and the Frog and Moana, the company has now produced the most expensive cartoon ever to feature an all-Latino cast. Yet for all its leaps of imagination and novelty, Coco does suffer from comparisons with two other animated features, namely Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas and The Book of Life. The latter featured a guitar-strumming Mexican youth who, on the Day of the Dead, ends up in the afterlife. He was voiced by Diego Luna. In Coco, a guitar-strumming Mexican youth (Anthony Gonzalez), on the Day of the Dead, ends up in the afterlife. Here, Miguel is accompanied by a guitar-strumming musician called Héctor, who is voiced by Gael García Bernal. As it happens, Bernal and Luna are best friends and business partners, but there most comparisons end. Even so, the similarities are remarkable.

While championing its agenda of diversity, Disney – in collaboration with Pixar Animation – has ended up with a tricky property. The Mexicans just love their skeletons and dear departed, but to set a children’s film in the afterlife is both brave and problematic. There is even an alternative level of the deceased – in The Book of Life, a place dubbed the Land of the Forgotten – where the dead who have been forgotten by the living end up in an ethereal limbo. Scary stuff. Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas – whose skeletal anti-hero Jack Skellington and the other ghouls, zombies and mummies lent themselves to stop-motion animation – was aimed at a maturer demographic. And older kids just love that kind of stuff.

Coco might have actually benefitted from an edge of the macabre, but then it would have wrong-footed its intended audience. As it is, it is a joyous, colourful romp with lashings of mariachi and salsa music, along with a street dog called Dante, the most galling animated creation since that damnable goat in Ferdinand. The film’s message, though, is clear: that we must cherish the memory of our forebears come hell or high water.



The Conjuring 2  **1/2

The laughs engendered by The Conjuring 2 are presumably not intentional. After all, the film’s events are drawn from the true story of the 11-year-old Janet Hodgson who was possessed by a demonic force. Paranormal investigator Ed Warren (Patrick Wilson) informs us that such entities “like to feed on emotional stress.” And single mum Peggy Hodgson (Frances O'Connor) and her four young children have suffered their share of misery. Besides residing in the dirtiest house in Enfield, they’re stuck on the breadline while Peggy’s ex is gallivanting around with a woman from up the street. It’s grim up north – in this case north London – and the array of accents are liberally plucked from the Dick Van Dyke school of phonetics. There’s more humour from Simon McBurney as the paranormal gumshoe Maurice Grosse in full Groucho Marx make-up (previously played by Timothy Spall in last year’s The Enfield Haunting). And the period detail – the events occurred in 1977 – is laid on with a JCB, complete with The Goodies on TV and laugh-out-loud poster of David Soul.

The director James Wan – he who brought us Saw, Insidious and the original The Conjuring (2013) – lays on the clichés with his magic wand: the dripping tap, creaking swing set, sudden bangs and apparitions, you name it. And the trouble with clichés is that they rob cinema of the credibility of fear. There’s plenty of scary stuff in real life – madness, death, domestic abuse, alcoholism, burning houses, Alzheimer’s, the EU Referendum – but the horror genre seems jammed on ‘haunted house’ mode, a conceit inherently hard to pull off (unless one has had one’s own supernatural visitation). Here, the black walls and peeling furniture of the Hodgsons’ abode just doesn’t ring true.

Having said all that, The Conjuring 2 is not without its moments of suspense and shocks but for a horror film running at 134 minutes, they’re pretty few and far between. The most hair-raising moments occur after the close of play, when photographs of the real house and Hodgson family members accompany the closing credits. Obviously real people did have a hell of a bad time. A spin-off is in development.


Creed  ***1/2

That’s Creed as in Apollo Creed. And for those who weren’t even born when the heavyweight champ was killed in the ring in the 1985 Rocky IV, he was both a rival and then a friend to Rocky Balboa. Thirty years on, there’s a new fighter in town going by the name of Adonis ‘Hollywood’ Johnson. ‘Donny’ is actually the son of Apollo but is determined not to exploit the memory of the father he never knew. Now, thirty is pretty old in boxing circles, but then much of this offshoot of the Rocky franchise – in which Sylvester Stallone plays Balboa for a seventh time – is highly unlikely.

The good news is that the first third of Creed is more of a Ryan Coogler film than it is a Rocky one. It was Coogler who made his directorial debut with the affecting and compelling slice-of-life drama Fruitvale Station (2013), which starred Michael B. Jordan and won the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes. Jordan returns here as Adonis and is not only majorly ripped but mixes up a winning cocktail of charm and fury. In fact, he makes a much more plausible pugilist than Stallone did in his later films and you can understand every word he says.

As the film’s narrative arc is as predictable as a Swiss watch, one needn’t dwell on the specifics other than to say that Adonis wants to follow in his father’s footsteps and convinces Rocky to train him. Stallone won the Golden Globe this year for best supporting actor (for portraying a character he created himself in 1976, and can play in his sleep), but Jordan gives the more credible performance. Still, this is a Rocky film, albeit something of a reboot. And, taking its cue from Casino Royale, which re-shaped the James Bond charter (a scene from Skyfall is even glimpsed on a TV screen here), so the Rocky theme tune is only initially hinted at in the odd swell of brass. It’s not until the twelfth round of an important match that the first few bars of Bill Conti’s iconic theme is allowed to let rip.

The boxing sequences are suitably visceral and Jordan gives us a slugger to root for, while only the stone-hearted will be unable to resist Stallone’s return to form (he is very good). There may be clichés aplenty, but you get what you expect and it will come as no surprise that a ‘sequel’ is already in the works.



A Cure for Wellness  **1/2

The clue is in the title. Gore Verbinski’s psychological thriller is set in a sanatorium and we know what sanatoriums are like, particularly those housed in Gothic castles perched high in the Alps. They’re odd places at the best of times, where the fat and the old parade around naked, submit themselves to bizarre daily rituals involving mud and the birch and are deluded into thinking they are on the mend. Any memories of Michael Caine indulging himself at the luxurious Alpine spa in Paolo Sorrentino’s Youth are quickly banished though, as Benjamin Wallfisch's conventional horror score attempts to wriggle under our skin.

Dane DeHaan plays ‘Lockhart,’ a Wall Street player in the mode of Leonardo DiCaprio’s Jordan Belfort from The Wolf of Wall Street. There’s even a striking resemblance between the actors. Having brokered a Machiavellian merger between two financial service giants, Lockhart is obliged to fly out to Switzerland to retrieve a senior partner who is convalescing at a clinic there. But no sooner has Lockhart’s chauffeur delivered him to the front door, than he is informed that visiting hours are over. In fact, the rules of the institute are rigorously adhered to by civil, robotic members of staff and you just know that something is awry. “No one ever leaves,” a teenage girl tells Lockhart, whose head has already been filled with local folklore about the place.

The director-producer Gore Verbinski, who collaborated on the original story with the scenarist Justin Haythe, has never been accused of subtlety. Following his bloated Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy and The Lone Ranger fiasco, he now takes a slim, familiar idea and blows it out of all proportion. David Cronenberg knocked out this sort of thing at half the length and at a fraction of the budget. As it is, A Cure for Wellness stretches to 146 minutes and refuses to go away. Verbinski is in love with his own imagery and takes great pains to make the most of reflections, mirrored perceptions and visual distortion. And the Alps look lovely. But his yardstick is not so much Cronenberg as Kubrick, with generous allusions to everything from A Clockwork Orange and Eyes Wide Shut by way of The Shining.

Unfortunately, the viewer is always one step ahead of Lockhart, who seems incapable of getting the hell out of Dodge. There are moments to savour, with reliable support from Jason Isaacs recycling his Lucius Malfoy shtick and Celia Imrie as a denizen who no doubt wishes she were still at the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. And be warned: anybody who’s had an endoscopy or visited the dentist may have cause to squirm.


Daddy’s Home 2  *1/2

The good news is that Daddy's Home 2 is not as awful as Dirty Grandpa; the bad that it isn't as funny as A Bad Moms Christmas. While the last named was offensive, sentimental, tired and lazy, it did have some semblance of a recognisable, albeit far-off reality. Here, the caricatures are writ so large that one can but squirm at the exaggerated buffoonery. The connection is grandparenthood, previously lampooned to modest effect in Meet the Fockers (2004). Having ridiculed every outlying limb of the extended dysfunctional family, Hollywood has now zoomed in on the embarrassment factor of Grandma and Grandpa, previously the reserve of the gentle, warm and wise.

In Daddy’s Home (2015), Will Ferrell played Brad Whitaker, the square, mild-mannered stepfather of Megan and Dylan, the children of his new wife, Sara (Linda Cardellini). Then the status quo was upended with the arrival of the kids’ biological dad, Dusty Mayron (Mark Wahlberg), who was everything that Brad wasn’t. It was a chalk and cheese salad and the comedy romped off with $150 million in the US alone – in spite of negative reviews.

In the sequel, Brad and Dusty are now best friends and decide to unite everybody for a communal Christmas, including Dusty’s new wife Karen (Alessandra Ambrosio) and her daughter Adrianna. The kids are thrilled, as are their male guardians, now going by the label of “progressive co-dads.” Then the unimaginable happens: both Brad and Dusty’s own fathers decide to join the happy ensemble and, as so often happens in these types of movies, arrive at the airport at exactly the same time. Brad’s dad is Don, a tsunami of exuberance and good cheer, played by John Lithgow. Dusty’s father Kurt, as to be expected, is the polar opposite, a blast of bile and bigotry played by Mel Gibson. Let the high jinks commence…

Once the cast is in place, the same joke is played over and over again. Mad Mel snarls, John Lithgow twitters and Will Ferrell falls over. In the hands of a competent director, some rich social satire could have been mined here – the film is anything if not topical – yet the farce jumps for the obvious at every opportunity. And nothing rings true. When Kurt suggests they all spend Christmas at a winter resort, he books a trip on his phone in less than a minute. As if. Unable to pack the boot of his car as neatly as his father would like, Dusty just chucks Brad’s suitcase into a hedge. The only scene that has any resonance in real life is a rumpus over the setting of a thermostat. More of the same might have provided a modicum of comic mileage.

A cosy conclusion is inevitable and as we wait for the next pratfall, the film climaxes with a set piece straight out of the Richard Curtis handbook – complete with a crowd of responsive on-lookers. For any of this to have succeeded, some of the edge of Bad Santa would not have gone amiss, let alone the ingenuity of a Home Alone or an Arthur Christmas.



Daphne  ***

Daphne is a complete mess. A half-hearted cook at a London restaurant, she drinks too much, snorts too much and, quite frankly, is congenitally rude. She would seem to have a lofty opinion on everything, especially love, and reads Slavoj Žižek. The Slovenian philosopher has claimed that, “we are all basically evil, egotistical, disgusting,” and obviously Daphne has taken this to heart. When she sees a complete set of Harry Potters on her counsellor’s bookshelf, she storms out of his office. In fact, her catchphrase would seem to be, “I should probably go.” A string of casual encounters with men sees her cutting loose before anything meaningful has taken place and she admits that she’s a “fuck-up.” In short, she’s irrational, mercurial, cynical, self-centred, selfish and yet embarrassingly honest. She confesses to a complete stranger on the bus that she hasn’t shaved her legs for months and that, basically, she’s given up on life. Things take a slight turn when she witnesses a stabbing at close range. It shakes her up – or does it? Character studies like this – chamber dramas that focus on the disenchanted, like The Lacemaker, Welcome to the Dollhouse and the Brazilian Hour of the Star – are fascinating, if only for their novelty. However, unlike her forebears, Daphne is well-spoken and strikingly beautiful (when she puts her mind to it). She’s a hard person to warm to, but Emily Beecham gives such a committed impression of her, that she draws us into her character’s crazy, muddled world. We wish her the best, in spite of ourselves, and hope that redemption really is just around the corner.



The Dark Tower  **

The spirit of the film is summed up when the Man in Black says, “Death always wins. That’s the deal.” Matthew McConaughey plays the aforementioned – aka Walter Padick – a gaunt personification of evil. He has a particularly unnerving catchphrase – “Stop breathing” – the last thing many of his victims ever hear. The Dark Tower of the title is an odd but vital structure that apparently keeps all the demons and monsters out of our universe. And it is Walter’s mission to destroy it. So, once again, the poor viewer is plunged into an apocalyptic scenario in which the very existence of our planet teeters in the balance.

The film opens after a series of earthquakes have rocked Tokyo, Berlin and New York and our young hero, Jake (the Surrey-born Tom Taylor), wakes up from another revelatory nightmare. He lives in New York with his mother and stepfather and is the Chosen One, who not only sees what is transpiring on the edges of the cosmos but can accurately sketch what he sees. He also beholds demons wandering the sidewalks of his city, notable for a thin scar on their necks and a brooding stare. Everybody else, of course, thinks Jake is mad and his stepfather signs him up for “psycho camp.”

Actually, we could have done with some psycho camp. Nikolaj Arcel's adaptation of Stephen King’s literary series is played incredibly straight here, in spite of the presence of Idris Elba as a character called The Gunslinger, originally inspired by Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name. Indeed, the film is a genuine hodgepodge, drawing on everything from Arthurian legend and Tolkien to Sergio Leone. And if there is any humour, it’s so dry that it bypassed this reviewer (except for a joke about a hot dog). The film is, though, deeply frightening at times, which makes one question the 12A certificate provided by the British Board of Film Classification. But then maybe children, exposed to a diet of Harry Potter and worse, have become hardened to the dark side of the multiplex.


The Death of Stalin  ***

Following the week when at least 260 people across Russia were jailed for protesting against the imprisonment of the opposition leader Alexei Navalny, a political satire about Russia turns up here. And, unlikely as it may seem, it is adapted from a French graphic novel illustrated by Thierry Robin. The events surrounding Joseph Stalin’s death and the immediate in-fighting that followed were no doubt farcical, and Armando Iannucci's The Death of Stalin treats it as such. Iannucci is an astute chronicler of bureaucratic desperation, as evinced by his TV sitcom The Thick of It and its big-screen bastard child In the Loop, and here he jostles the real-life Beria, Khrushchev, Malenkov and Molotov in a comedy of bad manners. He does not, however, shy away from depicting the darker side of the farce, when summary execution was a default, knee-jerk measure in the Soviet regime. There is real horror in between the Abbott & Costello wordplay of these frightened, puffed-up buffoons, where thousands of innocents are routinely dispensed with while the powers-that-be (or powers-that-might-be) try to find their feet.

By avoiding the employment of cod-Russian accents, Armando Iannucci brings a sort of comic irreverence to the proceedings as a stellar cast adopts its own natural brogue, regardless of where any given actor comes from (Adrian McLoughlin’s Stalin is a pure Cockney). Simon Russell Beale adds particular menace as an evil, pompous Lavrentiy Beria, while there are unexpectedly comic turns from Rupert Friend as Stalin’s excitable son Vasily and Michael Palin as a vacillating Vyacheslav Molotov (“I am more sweat than man”).

If the antics of these fanatics seem irrelevant today, one can but imagine Iannucci rubbing his hands together with glee – and sharpening his pencil – at the current state of affairs in the White House. And much of his latest film is very funny, thanks to an erudite script and an excellent cast. Whether or not you choose to laugh is up to you.



Deepwater Horizon  ****

There’s a moment in Deepwater Horizon when John Malkovich says, “we’ve got zero pressure on the kill line.” It’s not an observation guaranteed to quicken the viewer’s pulse, but we know it means a lot to the men Malkovich is talking to. In fact, most of us have probably never been on an oil well, but we’ve heard of the eponymous rig now synonymous with the worst oil disaster in US history. The technical minutiae of the case are dramatically immaterial – albeit crucial to British Petroleum – so director Peter Berg (The Kingdom, Lone Survivor) has focused on the characters and the realism.

There were 126 people on the Horizon on that fateful day of 10 April 2010 and thus there are 126 stories to tell. The scenarists Matthew Michael Carnahan and Matthew Sand, drawing their material from an article in The New York Times, have opted to concentrate on the story of master electrician Mike Williams, played here by the film’s producer Mark Wahlberg. In the event, Williams proved to be something of a hero, which is more than can be said for BP liaison manager Donald Vidrine (Malkovich). The latter’s job is to save his London-based company money and he is reluctant to greenlight the $125,000 that a routine pressure test would cost. Installation manager Jimmy Harrell (a rugged, convincing Kurt Russell) insists that the test go ahead, hence Vidrine’s remark that there’s zero pressure on the kill line. Vidrine also notes that the rig – a semi-submersible offshore behemoth – is a mechanism of a thousand moving parts and it’s his job to keep it all well-oiled. Eyeing him with barely concealed contempt, Wahlberg’s Mike Williams remarks, “Hope ain’t a tactic, Don.”

What follows is hell on earth and because Berg has constructed his $156 million movie like an IMAX documentary (please see it in IMAX), the film’s drama registers all the greater. We feel that we are really there and have invested our emotions in a handful of characters who look like they live and breathe the oil beneath the ocean floor. Whether or not the facts are entirely authentic is neither here nor there: this is a disaster movie and the disaster really happened. What we see on the screen certainly seems real, aided by frequent cuts to the inside workings of the massive infrastructure, beneath a platform the size of a city block weighing in at 33,000 tons. The result of the subsequent explosion, fuelled by reserves of subterranean methane released under inconceivable pressure, sparked a series of fireballs and drenched the crew in combustible gas. In such conditions there were many ways to die: from burning oil, hurtling girders, choking smoke, ballistic mud or just instant incineration. It seems a miracle that only eleven crew members lost their lives. The film itself is not just a gripping, authentic experience, but a homage to the victims and the survivors.


Den of Thieves  ****

The title really doesn’t do it justice. Nor does the cops ‘n’ robbers genre in which it sits. Sure, there are thieves and there are the police who track them. But these are uncompromising, ingenious lawbreakers and the cops are not that stupid, either. It’s a battle of brain and brawn. And sometimes it’s hard to tell the good guys from the bad. There’s certainly a surplus of muscle, attitude and tattoos on both sides.

At almost two-and-a-half hours, Den of Thieves is a lean epic. The dialogue is economic but authentic. There’s no redundant exposition for the sake of the viewing public. We have to keep up. And the moments of seemingly banal calm prove a welcome counterpoint to the inevitable outbursts of violence. Inevitably, comparisons will be made to Michael Mann’s Heat (1995), the granddaddy of heist thrillers. Here, too, are ear-shattering shoot-outs on the streets, a battle of wills between the renegade cop and the criminal mastermind and, of course, the heist itself. But the world has moved on since 1995 and the technology of the banks, the law enforcers and the bank robbers themselves has moved to a whole new level. These heistmasters are not only uncommonly tech-savvy, but they are experts on the art of misdirection.

As played by Gerard Butler, Detective Nick O'Brien is a bundle of contradictions. He discharges testosterone and, at times, is a frightening presence – and not just to the crooks in his custody. At first he comes off as your token B-movie stereotype, but as the film continues and its narrative layers develop, we find that beneath the swagger there is a more sensitive and vulnerable side to ‘Big Nick’. It is to the film’s credit that we are even allowed to see the Big Boy cry. As his nemesis Ray Merrimen, the Canadian stage actor Pablo Schreiber (half-brother of Liev Schreiber) is a key attribute. Again, he initially appears to be a one-dimensional killer when, over time, a more complex, phlegmatic figure emerges. And there’s a terrific scene when Big Nick and Merrimen overlap at an indoor shooting range, recalling the now-legendary meeting between Pacino and De Niro in Heat. Here, it’s more of a pissing contest as the two adversaries show-off their artillery skills in the relative sanctuary of a public space.

Den of Thieves is the brainchild of the scenarist Christian Gudegast, who makes his directorial debut here, co-producing with Gerard Butler. Gudegast previously co-scripted London Has Fallen (2016), a skilful and entertaining if preposterous action-thriller (starring Butler) which was given short shrift by the critics. However, the public response was more favourable (CinemaScore accorded the film an average grade of ‘A–`) and went on to make a mint. His new film is an even more satisfying ride and held this critic, at least, in a commanding grip for its entire 140 minutes.




Despicable Me 3  *

These are dire times for the cinephile. It seems we are stranded in the cultural badlands of the multiplex summer. Each week the barnacle of another franchise attaches itself to the hull of the cinemagoing experience, weighing down what was once a spectacle of endless invention and imagination. In short, what was hitherto known as the dream factory has become a soulless purveyor of recycled nightmares.

One cannot get more hallucinatory than Despicable Me 3. Little makes sense, other than the producers’ desire to cash-in on the success of this bizarre cartoon phenomenon, the last episode of which grossed a dispiriting $970 million worldwide. What is on offer here is little more than a phantasmagoria of physical violence, pratfalls, flatulence and meaninglessness. The laws of physics are ignored, as is any narrative logic. The sight of those infuriating Minions giggling and kicking a character for no apparent reason may invite helpless mirth from the profoundly stoned, but it left this critic rigid with bewilderment.

Gru, the exceedingly ugly figure voiced by Steve Carell, discovers that he has a twin brother, called Dru. Dru, unlike Gru, has a mat of blond hair and is all but identical, save for a much higher voice, also supplied by Steve Carell. He is a hugely successful pig farmer who lives in a pink mansion and is surrounded by pigs. If the attendant Minions were not annoying enough, the swine merely add even more irritation to the scene. Then Gru and Dru team up to help rescue the world’s largest diamond from the clutches of Balthazar Bratt, a supervillain who used to be a child star. Bratt-by-nature has never forgiven Hollywood for terminating his TV show (when he got acne) and is now bent on razing the city. And for reasons that are not entirely clear, the diamond will help Bratt to power a giant robot that will trash the place.

One might defend the film’s U certificate by stressing that this is all fantastical fun, but there is a worrying preponderance of casual cruelty and throwaway scatology that might disturb some parents, if not their offspring. And the blithe function of sweets and pizza as the pinnacle of recompense is hardly healthy, either.

Still, if one is fond of the surreal, lots of shouting and that infernal gibberish spouted by those pesky Minions, this might be for you. But be prepared for the incongruous. The scene in which the Minions chase a pizza delivery boy into a film studio and find themselves on the stage of a talent show is pretty typical. So the creatures, accompanied by pink loo paper, break into a garbled rendition of Gilbert and Sullivan’s ‘I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General’ and bring the house down.



Detroit  ****1/2

To the outside world, Detroit is the automobile capital of the planet and the birthplace of Motown, The Temptations and The Supremes. However, in July of 1967 Detroit was turned into a war zone as tensions between the African-American populace and trigger-happy police exploded. Angry residents looted shops and set fire to cars and buildings and the police and National Guard retaliated with brute force. It was a scary place to be, regardless of the colour of your skin.

A story of the persecution of a minority, Detroit – the movie – is directed by a Caucasian, albeit the only woman ever to win an Oscar for best director. Returning to the real-life, hair-trigger scenarios at which she excels, Kathryn Bigelow has recreated another inflammatory drama plucked from the fury of recent history. If over-playing the documentary realism at first (in truth, documentaries no longer feature so much hand-held camerawork), Bigelow buckles down to the drama with the introduction of her hot-headed antagonist, the racist bully Philip Krauss (Will Poulter). He’s probably as frightened as his colleagues in the Detroit police force, but any fear he might have he hides beneath a contemptuous sneer. Although he has already shot one looter in the back, he’s still on active duty and takes charge of a volatile situation when the police are fired on from a hotel window. With little regard for the niceties of professional diplomacy, his ego takes over and the night descends into a nightmare for all concerned. While the events of that terrible scene have been dramatised, they are largely drawn from eyewitness reports, as well as from the vantage point of the young black singer Larry Reed (played here by Algee Smith) who was brutalised on the evening in question.

If nothing else, Bigelow knows how to ramp up the atmosphere. Here, she makes Detroit as frightening as trench warfare, plunging the viewer into the bleeding gut of her story. Blending re-enactments with footage from the time, the film exhales authenticity, aided by the whiplash editing of William Goldenberg. Interestingly, Bigelow has opted for two English actors to play her leads, with John Boyega as a security guard who finds himself caught up in the mayhem. His is not the biggest part, but his presence lends gravitas to the proceedings and when he shoots Krauss a warning stare, it is pure Sidney Poitier-as-Virgil Tibbs. As Krauss, the London-born Poulter gives evil a new face and his youthful looks add to the surreal realism of the drama – a kid playing cops and robbers. Is this really the same actor who starred in Son of Rambow ten years ago?



The Disaster Artist  **1/2

It’s an odd thing, to make a film about a failure. In the case of terrible filmmakers, Tim Burton explored the phenomenon with his take on Ed Wood, who was voted Worst Director of All Time. But Ed Wood has some competition in the form of Tommy Wiseau, an enigmatic individual whose desire to become an actor set him on the path of financing and directing his own film, The Room, in which he starred. As incarnated by James Franco, who here resembles Daniel Day-Lewis in The Last of the Mohicans, Wiseau is an outlandish figure whose entire repertoire of Tennessee Williams involves screaming “Stella!” in public. He’s also unable to learn the simplest lines of dialogue, even when he’s penned them himself. And he’s a pathological liar. At one point he announces that he’s got a reading with Stanislavski, although most people know that Stanislavski died a while back (like, in 1938). And while Wiseau claims to have originated from New Orleans, his persistent omission of the definite article and misuse of plurals would suggest English was not his first language. It’s easy to laugh at such a character, if only because he invites it at every turn. But one does admire his chutzpah.

Tommy Wiseau would make a fascinating subject for a documentary, perhaps aided by genuine footage from The Room (2003) and a variety of incredulous talking heads. As a biographical feature, though, his story here is just not strong enough. A bit actor, Greg Sestero (Dave Franco), meets Tommy, a larger-than-life weirdo fuelled by optimism. Then he and Tommy become friends and Tommy sets about shooting The Room – to disastrous results. And that’s it.

As Wiseau, James Franco enjoys himself enormously and one could envisage his turn taking Saturday Night Live by storm. However, we have to live with this character for an entire movie – and it’s a one-trick pony. There’s solid support from Seth Rogen as Tommy’s long-suffering script editor and a slew of stars pop up in cameos (Bryan Cranston, Zac Efron, Melanie Griffith, Sharon Stone). But this is James Franco’s movie (he also directed and co-produced) and it does rather feel like a vanity project. And while the film boasts a number of laughs, it’s hard to warm to something that celebrates the ineptitude of a genuine idiot – even if that idiot actually endorsed Franco’s movie. For some people, fame is enough – and that is tragic.



The Divergent Series: Allegiant  ***

You just can’t keep a dystopian franchise down. Now that The Hunger Games has completed its box-office feast with a global take of over $2.9 billion, The Divergent Series is kicking into high gear with its most satisfying episode yet. Like every series these days, the final chapter has been cleaved into box-office-friendly halves, allowing (hopefully) young adult audiences salivating for more. Here, the third instalment adapted from Veronica Roth’s literary trilogy opens out nicely as the maverick heroine Tris Prior (Shailene Woodley) leads her nearest and dearest out of the claustrophobic remains of a post-apocalyptic Chicago. What follows explains a lot and introduces the audience to a whole new set of rules and characters, providing a neat parallel to the infinitely superior Elysium (2013).

Still, the effects are actually very effective and the look is the thing. There’s even an opportunity for a bit of acting, a duty that Jeff Daniels fills very nicely, balancing the varying nuances of his character with menacing subtlety. The testosteronic interest is well provided by the Oxford-born Theo James, whose American accent is as flawless as his physique, while the action sequences are well handled. But it’s the tasty CGI and the nifty segues into virtual reality that are the most winning elements in a narrative that continues to suffer from comparisons to The Hunger Games and The Maze Runner. One still doesn’t give a hoot for the characters – sorry, but Shailene Woodley is no Jennifer Lawrence – but there’s enough intrigue and cool gadgets to keep undemanding sci-fi fanatics happy until the arrival of Maze Runner: The Death Cure next year.



Doctor Strange  ****1/2

That’s Stephen Strange, Dr Stephen Strange. A superstar of the operating theatre, Dr Strange is a New York neurosurgeon and master of his own universe. But alongside his ambition lies also arrogance and stubbornness. And in his quest to further his own reputation, he makes a miscalculation that almost ends his life – and destroys his career. So he embarks on a quest to heal his body and in so doing discovers a world beyond his comprehension…

The Avengers ensemble (Iron Man, The Hulk, Captain America – that lot) protect our world from physical danger, but there are other threats out there that they don’t even recognise. Enter Doctor Strange, the latest in Marvel Comics’ page-to-screen protagonists, who takes the series in a whole new direction. As the possibilities of CGI expand exponentially, so the superhero genre finds itself in a golden age. Long gone are the flying hunks embodied by George Reeves and Christopher Reeve – a new breed of champion is here, played by interesting, complex actors. When Heath Ledger won an Oscar for playing The Joker, the stage was set for a new age of superhumanity, with the likes of Christiane Bale, Michael Fassbender, Mark Ruffalo and Jennifer Lawrence entering the fray.

After the meta-antics of Ryan Reynolds in this year’s outrageously entertaining Deadpool, we now have perhaps the quirkiest, most engaging superhero of all. And while Benedict Cumberbatch brings his usual intensity to the role of the imperious Doctor, the film is packed with other virtues, too: a cracking script, a terrific score from Michael Giacchino, enough metaphysical musings to accommodate Stephen Hawking and lashings of humour. And for those baffled by the concept of alternate dimensions, there are visual effects to detonate your hippocampus. Think Inception on steroids and you may just begin to get the picture.

Starting with images of London streets folding in on themselves, the film jumps across the planet and into the far reaches of space-time continuum, a domain of infinite realities. It’s heady stuff, but the one-liners keep the film grounded in a universe we can recognise and laugh at. When Strange is introduced to a Master of the Mystic Arts called Wong, he asks if that’s it. “Just Wong? Like Adele? Aristotle? Eminem?”

The supporting cast is also ace, with none other than Chiwetel Ejiofor as another mystic warrior, Mads Mikkelsen as a man of inestimable evil and Tilda Swinton as a high priestess with some mind-blowing views: “What if I told you the reality you know is one of many?” There are certainly a number of levels to Doctor Strange, enough to reward multiple viewings of the film.


A Dog’s Purpose  **1/2

Few films expect us to take such a leap of faith. But a belief in destiny and reincarnation is mandatory if one is to swallow the premise of A Dog’s Purpose. And it would help if we believed in the canine capacity to see the world as we see it, albeit fine-tuned by its nose. Unlike last year’s portmanteau comedy-drama Wiener-Dog, a not entirely dissimilar confection, this adaptation of W. Bruce Cameron’s novel takes the same dog through a series of chapters with different owners. The difference here is that the film is aimed at the tear ducts and the poor pooch keeps on dying and popping up in the bodies of different breeds, albeit all born in the United States.

Josh Gad provides the voice and reasoning of our narrator, a canine soul perplexed by his reason for being. “What is the meaning of life?” our diminutive philosopher wonders, before being taken off to the dog pound to die. Rachel Portman’s characteristically treacly music is on tap to remind us where our emotions should lie, and then our narrator’s second incarnation turns out to be a red retriever. While still a puppy, he is rescued from near-death by a woman and her son and is dubbed ‘Bailey’. Our narrator finally suspects he has found his true calling and grows up alongside the boy, Ethan (KJ Apa), through a tumultuous childhood of the usual highs and lows (school, girlfriends, parental discord, arson). For the most part they are inseparable and share a bond that most dogs can but envy.

There are some nice observations as Baily and his various embodiments attempt to package the human experience into a dog’s world view (why is Ethan looking for food in Hannah’s mouth?), but it ain’t enough. The film’s purpose is to draw an international audience of dog lovers to the box-office and, true, tears are likely to be spilled over the popcorn. But the stop-start-stop-start format never works well in filmic terms, with the viewer hurled from one emotional showdown to the next without the actual satisfaction of getting to know any of the characters.



Downsizing  *****

Nanotechnology is big business these days. In the latest social satire from Alexander Payne, the director sizes up the very near future in which a lack of global sustainability is making big news. For an epic dystopian critique, the film starts small. A Norwegian scientist is carrying out a routine experiment when he has a eureka moment. He has stumbled on a way to successfully implement cellular reduction – that is, to reduce living things to a fraction of their normal size. Leaping forward fifteen years, the process is in full swing and a number of conscientious human beings have had themselves “downsized” to help protect the planet. With dwindling ecological resources, it would seem to make sense to minimize one’s consummerist needs and, thus, one’s environmental footprint. Furthermore, a new generation of lilliputian humanitarians, housed in purpose-built luxury communities, see their savings spread exponentially further…

This being a film from the collaborative keyboard of Payne and Jim Taylor (Election, About Schmidt, Sideways), we just don’t know where it’s going. Initially, it resembles a promotional video welded with a documentary, in which the advantages of the lifestyle and minutia of the actual downsizing process are lovingly (and comically) delineated. And Taylor and Payne are savvy enough not to skimp on the details. As Paul Safranek, the story’s central conscript, Matt Damon is led through the contractual smallprint with his wife (Kristen Wiig), before having his entire body shaved and his teeth removed. It’s not pretty, but necessary. He’s also warned to go easy on the dairy product, as the bacteria can prove problematic on smaller digestive systems. These guys have thought of it all.

What follows is a journey that is as funny and profound as it is unpredictable. It is ironic and poignant, in which we discover that the predicament of the human condition is no less perilous when physically re-packaged. There will always be an underclass, as there will always be those who profit from it. Some might embrace this as a call-to-arms, others will see it as a deeply cynical black comedy. And that is its art. Matt Damon is the perfect well-meaning Everyman and he has excellent support from Hong Chau, an actress born in a Thai refugee camp. Chau, like the film in which she co-stars, is simultaneously very funny and terribly moving. If for nothing else, one should see the film for her performance.



Dunkirk  ****1/2

Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk is not like any war film you will have seen. In fact, it’s not really a war film. It’s more of a rescue film. Set around the evacuation of Dunkirk, France, in the summer of 1940, it provides three perspectives of the exodus, from land, sea and air. And with the crepuscular lighting, minimal dialogue and continuous roll of Hans Zimmer’s synthesized score, the film attains an otherworldly, almost surreal ambience. Much of this mystical feel is achieved by Nolan’s complete avoidance of cliché. There are no generals or politicians to provide a point of view, no familiar engagements with the enemy and, thankfully, no gratuitous scenes of shattered human flesh. In fact, the enemy is an invisible presence, represented entirely by the stray crack of a bullet, a bomb or a Messerschmitt buzzing around the beach like a deadly hornet. And so Nolan plunges us into the very experience of the soldiers themselves, who are unsure what is going on and how help, if it comes, will arrive.

Christopher Nolan, whose most famous films have tended towards the fantastical, from his 2000 psychological thriller Memento to Interstellar, via the Dark Knight trilogy and Inception, here aims for total authenticity. Not only has he opted to use unknown actors for his main protagonists, but he has kept any CGI effects to a minimum and actually shot the thing at Dunkirk. It is ironic, then, that the film’s realism makes it feel so different from what has gone before. The security of the familiar has been removed.

The better-known faces in the cast are relegated to the supporting ranks, with Kenneth Branagh as a Royal Navy pier-master, Cillian Murphy as a shell-shocked soldier and, most effective of all, Mark Rylance as a sailor who commandeers his own boat for the rescue effort while still wearing his tie. Tom Hardy represents the Royal Air Force as a dauntless pilot whose face is all but obscured by his oxygen mask, recalling the masked villain Bane he played in Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises.

In a year when Winston Churchill has never seemed more omnipresent (we still have Gary Oldman’s portrayal to look forward to, in Darkest Hour), the prime minister’s famous “we shall fight them on the beaches” speech is actually read out loud from a newspaper by the British private Tommy (Fionn Whitehead). It’s a modest but powerful touch that reinforces the fact that war is ultimately a matter for the unknown soldier.



The Eagle Huntress  ***

The steppes and mountains of Mongolia just beg to be turned into documentaries. Indeed, there have been a number of non-fiction films shot there, not least the 2003 masterpiece The Story of the Weeping Camel and the 2005 masterpiece The Cave of the Yellow Dog. Otto Bell’s The Eagle Huntress sets its tale in the province of Bayan-Olgii, as bleak and remote a place as you will find on earth. It is there that the nomadic Kazakh people go about their lonely business of rearing their sheep, goats and cattle, while hunting in the mountains with the help of their trusty eagles.

Mongolia is a sovereign state steeped in tradition and it’s wonderful to behold such conventions – that stretch back thousands of years – still being adhered to in the modern world. One such is the men’s journey into the snowy wastes in search of fox meat and pelts to feed and clothe their family. The operative word there is ‘men,’ as the women are confined to the family ger (or yurt) doing the dishes and preparing the food and no end of domestic tasks. However, the 13-year-old Aisholpan Nurgaiv had always been drawn to her father’s eagles and in spite of her gender and extreme youth, asked him if she could rear her own eaglet and teach it to hunt. Because of her strength and natural aptitude with the birds, he saw no reason to deny her.

The elders in the Kazakh community were not impressed. “Women get cold,” they argued. “They should be at home making tea.” Of course, one can see where the film is going from the outset. However, Otto Bell’s camera invariably seems to be one step ahead of the story, accompanying Aisholpan down a steep rock face from which she captures an eaglet from its nest, to the arduous trek that father and daughter take to the annual eagle festival in the regional capital of Olgii. To better catch the sheer isolation of their pilgrimage, aerial shots prove to be the order of the day and the snow-baked landscapes are genuinely breath-taking. But the close-ups of Aisholpan looking either fearful or delighted don’t always ring true and one sequence in which she lies in bed eavesdropping on her father’s nocturnal discourse with a rival is just plain phoney. Nonetheless, it’s a beguiling tale beautifully told, although with less Hollywood meddling (Daisy Ridley’s voice-over, the Sia theme song) it might have felt less pre-arranged.



Elle  **

By her own admission, Isabelle Huppert has appeared in 120 films. She has also received more César award nominations than any other actress (16) and was voted best actress at Cannes twice, for Violette Nozière (1978) and The Piano Teacher (2001). Yet she never manged to be nominated for an Oscar – not, that is, until Elle. It is a very Isabelle Huppert performance: a chic Parisian businesswoman at one remove from the real world yet simmering with sexual tension. In short, her Michèle Leblanc is just like Violette Nozière and Erika Kohut in The Piano Teacher: she is one sick puppy.

The film opens with a rape in which Michèle is beaten and bloodied by an intruder in a ski mask. Once her attacker has fled, she cleans up the mess and has a hot bath, scooping up a triangle of bloody foam from between her legs. It is a striking image, but then the director of Elle, the 77-year-old Dutch filmmaker Paul Verhoeven, is no stranger to the sexual motif, having brought us everything from the punishing Turkish Delight to Basic Instinct and Showgirls.

Then, once scrubbed up, Michèle goes about the business of running her successful video game company and alienating her mother and son. There are other people in her life, and she treats them all with a thinly veiled hostility, proving particulalry cold to her lover, Robert (Christian Berkel), who happens to be married to her best friend and business partner (Anne Consigny). In short, she’s a bitch, but a deeply scarred one. It transpires that her father is behind bars for the murder of 27 neighbours, six dogs and two cats. And because of her treatment at the hands of the police when she was just a child, Michèle sets about plannig her own brand of retribution without their help…

Mlle Huppert is a past mistress at playing cerebral, fashionable and vaguely unhinged women. Immediately prior to Elle, she played a character not dissimilar to Michèle in Mia Hansen-Løve’s exquisitely crafted and intellectually riveting Things to Come, for which she received the best actress gong from the London, New York and Los Angeles Film Critics’ Circles. And now she’s an Oscar nominee thanks to Elle. But why now? Perhaps it’s because Verhoeven is well known to the voters of the American Academy and it’s Mlle Huppert’s time (she has turned 64). More surprising is the fact that Elle won the César for best film. Surprising, because Elle is ludicrous. While it is undeniably absorbing, its endless revelations of absurdity strain credibility at every turn. Like most of Verhoeven’s films, it is glossy and accomplished in its execution and Mlle Huppert gives it her all.

Anne Dudley’s music would suggest that it is a Gothic thriller of sorts, although there is a strong sense of black comedy running throughout, while playing to the basest misogyny in the male viewer. Both in the grotesque videos that Michèle promotes and to her own attitude towards rape, the film is treading a very dangerous line. However, its soap operatic melodrama is more laughable than gripping. Here, Verhoeven aims for a degree of Parisian sophistication but his film still looks like something from the director of Basic Instinct. At least his critically derided Showgirls wore its vulgarity on its sleeve and for that was a more honest piece of cinema.



Eric Clapton: Life in 12 Bars  ****1/2

It helps, of course, if you like the music. After all, Eric Clapton has reinvented himself many times as a musician, while remaining arguably the most acclaimed rock and blues guitarist of his generation. It is not for nothing that his nickname is ‘God’. He was the artistic heart of The Roosters, The Yardbirds, John Mayall’s The Bluesbreakers, Cream, Blind Faith and Derek and the Dominos and played with The Beatles, Bob Dylan, Aretha Franklin, J.J. Cale and B.B. King, among many others. Everybody, it seems, wanted a piece of him. He is the only musician to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame three times – as a member of The Yardbirds and Cream and as a solo artist. He was also a personal friend of Jimi Hendrix, George Harrison, B.B. King and countless other greats.

However, Lili Fini Zanuck’s linear and comprehensive documentary is also the story of a man, and a tortured one at that. And as a true-life tragedy, it is one of the most moving and harrowing musical biographies committed to film – right up there with Asif Kapadia’s Amy (2015).

At his lowest ebb, Eric Clapton found himself rejected by his own mother and spurned by the love of his life – Pattie Boyd, only to be followed by the death of his friend Jimi Hendrix. Then his heartfelt and deeply personal single ‘Layla’ was a flop which, in turn, was followed by the death of his father. Around this time he told Steve Turner of Rolling Stone: “I don’t like life – and I’m not going to live very long.” The self-abuse that ensued should, indeed, have killed him. He took to heroin and, when he managed to pull himself out of that self-destructive rut, he ploughed headlong into alcoholism. From February 1971 to June 1973 he became a recluse, only to emerge as a recalcitrant and humiliating figure on stage. On one shameful occasion he reiterated the National Front slogan "Keep Britain white!" and declared his support for Enoch Powell, even though, in a previous life, he had been a huge supporter of black music. On camera, he confesses, “The only reason I didn’t commit suicide was the fact that I wouldn’t be able to drink anymore because I was dead.” But Eric Clapton did pull through – and it was his little son Conor that gave him a reason to change – and to live. The musician turned his life around and doted on the boy. Then, on 20 March 1991, the four-year-old Conor Clapton walked out of a window on the 53rd floor of a New York building…

Lili Fini Zanuck, whose only other directorial credit is the 1991 crime drama Rush, which was scored by Clapton, is best known as the producer of Driving Miss Daisy and Cocoon. But good producers make good documentarians because they have the prowess to secure the footage and personal contacts required. An all-star cast turns up for Clapton’s story, if only as the background players of someone else’s story. Pattie Boyd, the widow of George Harrison and Clapton’s object of desire, talks at length (off-screen) of her relationship with Clapton. And Clapton himself pretty much narrates his own story. As such, it is a punishingly frank and self-excoriating biography, recalling Jake LaMotta’s personal commitment to Raging Bull, Scorsese’s brutal, uncompromising film about him. Here, no vice is left ignored and Clapton shares his shame with the whole world – hoping, perhaps, that others might not follow his path.



Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them  **

One can understand Warner Brothers’ enthusiasm for embracing another strand of the Harry Potter universe. However, Eddie Redmayne’s gormless Newt Scamander is no Harry Potter and Colin Farrell’s insipid Percival Graves is no Voldemort. Of course, there’s plenty of magic, but the CGI is ladled on with such abandon that there’s little room for anything else.

Adapting her own 2001 novel to the big screen (in her screenwriting debut), J.K. Rowling whisks us back to 1926 where an English magizoologist arrives in New York with an interesting suitcase. To the inattentive eye, the case looks pretty much like any other but beneath its flimsy clasps lie an enormous collection of exotic and mischievous creatures that Newt has picked up on his travels. And when the old switched suitcase routine is played out, a portly factory worker (the engaging Dan Fogler) unleashes a Pandora’s pandemic. It’s unfortunate that the similarly themed Jack Black caper Goosebumps (2015) came out this year, which itself recalled the 1995 Robin Williams vehicle Jumanji (now being remade with Jack Black). And so poor old New York is pummelled by all kinds of fantastic beasts, with Newt Scamander in hot pursuit, along with sundry other characters, both human and magical.

The earlier scenes exhibit enormous promise and the computer effects produce magnificent period vistas of the Big Apple, but once the ‘magic’ is out of the bag, so to speak, the magic stops there. Eddie Redmayne himself is stuck in one gear and not only lacks any sparkle but mumbles his words, so that when he says ‘Credence’ it comes out as ‘Crins.’

It’s a lugubrious, endless affair in which the lion’s share of the creative effort has gone into the creatures rather than towards any human interest. While the singer-songwriter Alison Sudol is good value as a big-hearted mind-reader, a raft of top-rate actors is largely wasted. The creatures themselves, which seem to be a pick’n’mix of Nature’s own menagerie, prove to be a mixed bag. In fact, you’d find more magic in a single episode of anything narrated by David Attenborough.



The Farthest  **1/2

Although the human brain is the most complex organism in the known universe, it is not complex enough to comprehend the size of our own solar system. And, don’t forget, our solar system is just one of between 100–400 billion in the Milky Way. And – get this – the Milky Way is just one of 100-200 billion galaxies in the universe. So, in order to understand all this, we have to rely on mathematics to do the math. But it’s still incomprehensible.

Forty years ago, NASA built a machine with 240,000 times less memory and processing power than the smart phone in your pocket. Nonetheless, to this day, their spacecraft – Voyager 1 – goes to another place we have never been to every second. Not only that, it’s still sending messages to Earth from beyond our solar system, information that takes only 18 hours to reach us from interstellar space. This is all remarkable stuff, but nothing you can’t look up on Wikipedia or in innumerable books on the subject.

More recently, the cinematic documentary has made a quantum shift from the cheesy days of the Disney wildlife film and is now a superior cousin to what we see on TV. The Farthest, while utilising state-of-the-art CGI and access to prominent figures in the historical trajectory of Voyager 1 and Voyager 2, is a step backwards. It is a conventional piece of filmmaking – the complete opposite of what its extraordinary subjects have achieved. Talking heads are punctuated by captions which lead to more CGI accompanied by some profoundly obvious musical cues (Pink Floyd’s ‘Us and Them’, Beethoven’s 5th, The Carpenters’ ‘'Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft'). At least we are spared the pilfering of Bowie’s back catalogue.

There are some interesting details. The famous ‘golden record’ carried by Voyager 1 – a time capsule of Earth designed to enlighten those aliens who find it – contains 115 images representing the diversity of our planet, although a photograph of a naked couple was vetoed. And of all the music contained on the LP, we are told that The Beatles failed to make the grade as NASA couldn’t secure the copyright. While this makes for a good story, it is actually untrue, which makes one question the veracity of the rest of the material on offer. It’s not a bad film, though – it’s just no more remarkable than all the amazing documentaries on space travel that we’ve already seen on television.



Fast & Furious 8  ****1/2

The last film, Fast & Furious 7, is currently the sixth highest-grossing movie in cinema history. It was a hard act to follow. Even so, Universal Pictures have just upped the ante. With each screen minute costing in the region of two million dollars, the latest instalment pushes the pedal to the metal and just goes for it. To set the tone, Dom (Vin Diesel) and Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) are on honeymoon in Cuba and Dom challenges a local car dealer to a race across the crowded streets of Havana. For Dom, it’s the driver who wins the race and not the car, so he strips down an old banger to its bare essentials, adds a touch of rocket fuel and in spite of various obstacles thrown in his path, he wins the contest in reverse and on fire – literally. Cue the opening credits.

The following two hours fly by in a blast of exhaust fumes as Dom turns against his ‘family’ – including his new wife – and teams up with the coldest bitch on the planet. The latter is Cipher, played by Charlize Theron, a power-hungry, criminal mastermind bent on bending the governments of the world to do her bidding. And in between her acts of terrorism she dispenses suspect bites of philosophy. She tells Dom that “I am the crocodile at the watering hole” and informs him that grief is just “a biological lie.” She’s also fiendishly tech-savvy, harnessing the powers of a facial recognition software that, in seconds, can tap into every CCTV camera on earth. In addition, she can bypass the manual controls of Internet-connected vehicles and play with the outcome like an over-excited schoolchild smashing up their train set. The result is a sequence, set in downtown Manhattan, which gives the awe factor a whole new dimension.

Fast & Furious 8, directed with non-stop delirium by F. Gary Gray, is both a thrilling and frightening film. Thrilling, because it takes extreme motoring to an entirely new level. Frightening, because it shows the potential bedlam that a hacktivist can unleash on a metropolitan area. With everything now on-line, anything is possible in the wrong hands.

But there’s also lashings of humour on hand, with none other than Jason Statham adding a comic streak to his repertoire, not least when he finds himself in the role of reluctant babysitter. And not content to add just one Oscar-winning actress to the mix, F. Gary Gray has also talked Dame Helen Mirren into a cameo, a part likely to surprise – or even shock – fans of The Queen. In the event, popcorn entertainment doesn’t get any brawnier or balmier than this and ensures that the audience gets more than its money’s worth. Top gear.


Fences  ****

Early in his career Denzel Washington appeared in Norman Jewison’s A Soldier’s Story (1984), adapted by Charles Fuller from his own Pulitzer Prize-winning drama A Soldier’s Play. Fast forward thirty-two years and Denzel Washington is directing Fences, August Wilson’s adaptation of his own Pulitzer Prize-winning play of the same name. The difference is that Wilson died in October of 2005 and although credited as screenwriter, the cinematic strokes are provided by Washington and his co-producer Tony Kushner. But the dialogue is all Wilson’s – and it’s authentic and powerful stuff. As the film is set in Pittsburgh in the 1950s, its patois may at first be tricky for a modern audience to absorb, but stay with it and the drama seeps out, gradually tightening its grip on the throat.

Washington, whose third directorial outing this is (following Antwone Fisher and The Great Debaters), plays the central role of Troy Maxson, a refuse collector on the street and paterfamilias and alpha male in his own home. In the back yard, where he’s building a fence – purportedly to keep out death and to keep in what belongs to him – Troy regales his old prison mate Bono (Stephen McKinley Henderson) with tales of his youth, his plans for the future and his anger with the white man’s world. In fact, there’s a lot of talk and Washington the director has done little to open out the play. What he does do, though, is to stage a powerful piece of theatre – and to hand himself a peach of a part. As his son Lyons (Russell Hornsby) recites, “You’ve got to take the crooked with the straight.” And as Troy’s family – his long-suffering wife Rose (Viola Davis) and sons Lyons and Cory – know only too well, Troy is both crooked and straight. He’s done his time in prison, but he’s also paid his dues, provided for his family and built a home for their heads. He’s a clown, too, a raconteur, a bully and a self-righteous liar. He’s a compelling, complicated presence and Washington, the actor, makes sure we don’t take our eyes off him. That’s not to say that Washington, the director, doesn’t dish out equal time to his co-stars: Viola Davis is sensational as Rose, while the English-born actor Jovan Adepo makes a strong impression as Cory. Fences may not be a cinematic marvel, but it’s a terrific theatrical display, superbly reproduced from the 2010 Broadway revival which also starred Washington and Davis.



Ferdinand  **

It’s a dog-eat-dog, bull-fight-bull world but all Ferdinand wants to do is smell the flowers. The son of a great fighter, Ferdinand is saddened when his father never returns from the ring. Why did he never come home? So Ferdinand escapes the confines of the Casa del Toro, a place where he has always refused to cross horns with the other bullocks. Then, as luck would have it, he is befriended by a little girl, Nina, who is the daughter of a floriculturist. So Nina and the little black bull grow up together and Ferdinand is even allowed to sleep in her bed. And all day long he can smell the flowers. Later, at a flower festival, Ferdinand is stung by a bee and runs riot, attracting the attention of the authorities. Because now Ferdinand has grown up and he’s a very big bull indeed…

Munro Leaf’s 1936 picture book The Story of Ferdinand is something of an American classic – and a pacifist tract – and was previously turned into a short cartoon by Walt Disney. Here, the people that brought us the Ice Age and Rio films have gone for the full-length treatment and have beefed up the story with loads of physical slapstick. There’s a particularly unprepossessing goat called Lupe (voiced by Kate McKinnon), a trio of irritating hedgehogs and some snooty Austrian horses. And it really does feel like padding.

What the cartoon really needed was charm, but here Carlos Saldanha’s film lurches from the cloying to the madcap punctuated by some inane musical sequences. This is all a terrible shame as the blood sport of bullfighting is still a hot potato in Spain (it was banned in Barcelona in 2012) and remains a tourist attraction in several countries in Europe, Mexico and South America. The sole sequence that showed any potential for comic ingenuity is when Ferdinand finds himself in a china shop – but even this crashes about his ears.



Fifty Shades Darker  *1/2

Watching other people having sex is like watching other people eat. If you’re full, it can be a disgusting spectacle; if you’re hungry, it can induce a note of envy. The coupling displayed in Sam Taylor-Wood’s 2015 adaptation of E.L. James’s publishing phenomenon was the least interesting bit. But then Ms Taylor-Wood (or Taylor-Johnson, as she calls herself now) is a better filmmaker than Ms James is a writer. The director James Foley, perhaps best known for the TV series House of Cards, is handed a bum assignment here – and hopefully a decent pay cheque. The sequel has none of the allure of the first date, just more excuses to get Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) trussed up. Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) turns up again in a predictably ostentatious manifestation when, at a photographic exhibition, he buys all the photographs of Anastasia. He wants back in, so to speak, and is willing to forego all the sadomasochism. He proposes they at least talk, albeit at a horrendously expensive restaurant. “OK, I’ll have dinner with you,” she concedes, “because I’m hungry.” She’s actually hungry for a lot more than caviar and oysters and so the film trots out the usual picturesque strolls through the Seattle streets, the odd pop accompaniment from Corinne Bailey Rae, Rita Ora and Sia, and various displays of Christian’s fabulous wealth and vanity.

Unfortunately, the first threat of a narrative appears immediately before the closing credits, which in turn are interrupted by a trailer for Fifty Shades Freed. So, Fifty Shades Darker is just one big tease, a bridge between the first film and the next, which will also be directed by Foley. Regrettably, the new film could hardly be more dull, largely because it all so implausible. In essence a glossy commercial for obsession, possession, desire and ben wa balls, it glides along between the odd sequence of nooky and the next of risible dialogue, while barely breaking a sweat to introduce anything new (except for the ben wa balls).

And what people speak like this? Anastasia, in the aisle of a supermarket: “When did you last go shopping?” Christian: “Houston. A week ago.” Anastasia: “What did you buy?” Christian: “An airline.” Worse, when they turn up at a masked ball, they walk in at the precise moment that the singer delivers the opening line to the Gershwins’ ‘They Can't Take That Away from Me’: "The way you wear your hat...” Christian Grey would seem to be a master of perfect timing, from the unleashing of fireworks in the night sky, to the supernatural precision of his designer stubble, to the orchestration of Anastasia’s umpteenth orgasm. You could not get more artificial.



Fifty Shades Freed  **

The good news is that Fifty Shades Freed is not quite as dull as Fifty Shades Darker (2017). The stronger narrative helps, but you have to laugh. Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) and Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) have now tied the knot and Mrs Grey still has things to learn about her six-packed fuck buddy. When he spirits her off to their honeymoon in France, they take his private jet which, apparently, she didn’t know he owned. Really? What woman doesn’t know that her husband owns a jet? In Fifty Shades Darker he did tell her that he had bought an airline, but maybe that’s different. Even so, Anastasia does seem terribly in the dark, even when she’s not sporting the silk blindfold that he insists she wears before a bit of the old S&M.

Anybody who’s read a few pages of the E.L. James trilogy (that began with Fifty Shades of Grey), will know that the film will be utter tosh. Anastasia is now in the driving seat of Seattle Independent Publishing (a wedding gift from her husband) and her first author is not only a highly skilled wordsmith but looks like a male model. We then meet Gia Matteo (Arielle Kebbel), the architect hired to re-design the couple’s new mansion and, you guessed it, she doesn’t look like Frank Gehry, or even Zaha Hadid. Think Jessica Alba with a dash of early Heather Locklear. These people exist in a realm so far removed from reality that it’s surprising they don’t communicate in speech bubbles. Christian himself is preternaturally gorgeous, obscenely wealthy and culturally polished to a high gloss. Here, he even gets to sing Paul McCartney’s ‘Maybe I’m Amazed’, accompanying himself on piano.

Real life does begin to intrude when Christian and Anastasia take to the beach in the south of France. He objects to her taking her top off in public, even though she observes that they’re just “boobs in boobland.” True, the nipples outnumber the pebbles on the beach, but Christian is concerned about paparazzi shots ending up in the media. He’s also worried about security and when Jack Hyde (Eric Johnson), Anastasia’s embittered ex-boss and would-be paramour, appears to be stalking them, Mrs Grey is furnished with a personal bodyguard.

Christian is also showing worrying signs of a controlling nature and is upset when Anastasia keeps her own name at work and pops out for a drink with a girlfriend. However, there’s nothing like a shot of drama to bring a couple together. And drama there is – but the nooky keeps getting in the way. Maybe there is an audience for Jamie Dorman’s sculpted buttocks and Dakota Johnson’s pouting, but the sex is more choreographed than an episode of Strictly. Still, the pop songs provided by Ellie Goulding, Jessie J and Dua Lipa are pretty enough, as are the sensual cityscapes of Seattle and Paris.



Fire at Sea  ****1/2      The sheer magnitude of the refugee crisis has turned too many human lives into statistics. The Mediterranean island of Lampedusa, while under Sicilian rule, is actually closer to the African mainland by a good 57 miles. It is a remote outpost and the Italian documentarian Gianfranco Rosi focuses on the lives of the locals, in particular that of the twelve-year-old boy Samuele, who spends much of his time crafting and firing slingshots. With no commentary or music, Rosi builds his film with a series of scenes of everyday life, introducing us to Samuele’s family as well as to the island’s doctor and disc jockey. Intercut with these ruminations – in which his camera appears to be completely invisible – Rosi tracks the efforts of human aid officials as they process the migrants who have managed to make the crossing from Tunisia, most of them distraught, some dangerously dehydrated and others already dead. By placing the migrants in the context of the everyday, the film could not feel more real or immediate and consequently is all the more affecting. Samuele himself seems completely oblivious to the humanitarian crisis but with the camera’s close-up access to the faces of the condemned, we, the audience, are only too aware. A thoughtful, poetic and deeply disturbing work of humanistic cinema.



The First Film  ****

It is a well-known fact that the first images ever captured on film are those of workers leaving a factory in Lyon, as captured by the Cinématographe camera in 1895, operated by Louis Lumière. However, the concept of what film is has changed so many times since the nineteenth century, that we should perhaps re-examine the facts. According to the Guinness Book of Records, the oldest surviving film in existence – albeit just 2.1l seconds long – is actually called the Roundhay Garden Scene and was shot by another Frenchman, Louis Le Prince, in October of 1888. More significantly, the scene was filmed in Leeds. However, as this fascinating documentary recounts, few people in the film industry have even heard of Le Prince. The director, producer and presenter of The First Film, David Nicholas Wilkinson, was born in Leeds himself – he is a proud Yorkshireman – and was taught at school that his home city was the birthplace of film. However, Wilkinson refused to believe it, largely because nobody else did. But then he embarked on a thirty-year quest to get to the bottom of the story, spending seven years in bringing this film to the screen. Hopping from Le Prince’s birthplace in Metz, France, to Cannes, Paris, Leeds, London, Philadelphia and New York, he interrogates experts in cinema – as well as sundry luminaries – to illuminate his story. Revealing an engaging erudition and passion (Wilkinson used to be an actor), our host is an agreeable tour guide through this voyage of discovery, unveiling even sinister subplots. Just weeks before Le Prince was due to demonstrate his invention in New York, he disappeared while travelling from Dijon to Paris by train. And his body was never found. Meanwhile, the fiercely ambitious Thomas Edison was in the process of registering his own motion picture camera. And so Wilkinson’s film veers from personal crusade to detective story, always with a playful spring in its step. Anybody interested in the beginnings of the cinema should find this a most diverting – and enlightening – enterprise.



The First Monday in May  ***      The First Monday in May is a documentary about the creation of an exhibition held at New York’s Costume Institute at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. The show in question is called ‘China: Through the Looking Glass’ and the director Andrew Rossi (Page One: Inside the New York Times) is granted unprecedented access to the planning of the event, an annual cultural phenomenon. So here we have culture, fashion, art, world-class filmmakers, pop, supermodels and enough celebrities to make Derek Zoolander weep. Of course, that lot also brings with it the egos, the politics, the economics, the trips to London, Paris and Beijing, and just eight months to mount the exhibit. The true stars of the film are the London-born Anna Wintour, the Lancashire-born Andrew Bolton, curator of the show, and Wong Kar-Wei, artistic director of the exhibition. And on the first Monday of May, 2015, a gala charity event is organised to help raise funds for the Met, an affair that has become the most glittering event in the New York calendar. And so chinoiserie meets Gaultier and McQueen (and a total of 40 designers) in an entertaining celebration of haute couture. While Andrew Bolton wanders around gasping at garments and declaring them “radical” and “iconic,” Wong Kar-Wei dismisses the fussy excess of the show with the truism: “seeing too much is seeing nothing.” And as Rossi pits platitudes against wisdom, he’s not above the occasional display of cheek, such as employing a jump cut from Kim Kardashian’s bottom to the shot of a giant, curvaceous vase in the Met’s foyer. Of course, the real thing is really, really, really so much more radical than anything dreamed up in the Zoolander films.



Flatliners  ***

Science has come a long way since the release of Joel Schumacher’s Flatliners in 1990. In that film, five medical students experimented with death by momentarily having their hearts stopped, thus enabling them a unique look into the afterlife. Of course, the brain still holds many secrets, but it’s hard to believe that the doctors in this reformation of the original really believe in the prospect of eternity. Does the human brain still retain the secret to an existence beyond the now?

For the remake, the Swedish director Niels Arden Oplev has accumulated a cosmopolitan cast. There’s the Canadian Ellen Page, the English James Norton (with a decent American accent), the Bulgarian Nina Dobrev, the African-American Kiersey Clemons and the Mexican Diego Luna. And there’s a good supporting turn from the Canadian Kiefer Sutherland as an exacting, grey-haired professor. It should be noted, though, that as the star of the first film, he is not recreating his old part here.

Besides the fact that these students are all surprisingly attractive, physically fit and preternaturally curious, each one of them also holds a terrible secret. It is the guilt buried deep in their psyche that, once they’ve passed over to the other side, is made manifest, returning to the present once they have been revived in a subterranean operating room beneath the hospital at which they work. The entity here, a malevolent force that plays deadly tricks with the students’ minds, is like the Grim Reaper depicted in the five Final Destination films. Death just doesn’t like to be cheated…

Niels Arden Oplev, who brought us the original Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, is good at summoning up the scares, even when resorting to cliché. The very opening scene warns one of what is to come in that department. Still, as a common-or-garden horror film, this Flatliners is more interesting than most and is handsomely photographed by the Danish cinematographer Eric Kress. In addition, the screenwriter Ben Ripley (who wrote the premise for Duncan Jones’ Source Code) knows his stuff, giving Ellen Page’s Courtney Holmes some initially creditable dialogue. As the first guinea pig to ‘flatline’, Courtney is revived to find her brain re-booted, enabling her to recall obscure medical details and even to play the piano. Had the film followed this line – exploring the miraculous potential of the human brain (cf. Neil Burger’s Limitless) – we might have found ourselves with something scarily gripping.



The Founder  ***1/2

Reputedly, Ray Kroc founded McDonald’s. What a crock. The fast food restaurant was actually the idea of the brothers Richard and Maurice McDonald, who devised a “symphony of efficiency” to establish the success of their hamburger takeaway joint in San Bernardino, California. It was there, in 1954, that the traveling salesman Ray Kroc saw the potential of the business as a franchise and set about securing himself a slice of the action. To be fair, it was his ambition and vision that catapulted the brand to national prominence, although his methods were not entirely in line with what the McDonald siblings had hoped. Abandoning quality control, Kroc took the brand and ran with it, at the cost of his friendship with the brothers and the stability of his own marriage.

Eschewing the more unsavoury details as chronicled in Eric Schlosser's legendary work of non-fiction, Fast Food Nation – and Richard Linklater’s subsequent film version – this engrossing addition focuses on the business end and Ray Kroc’s extraordinary chutzpah. As a character study, it gives Michael Keaton as much devilry to play with as he was handed in Beetlejuice, although his ruthless wheeler-dealer here is not without some shades of empathy. In the early days, when his employees had gone home to their beds, Ray Kroc is seen washing the forecourt of his restaurant. But later on, he does admit, “if a competitor was drowning, I’d put a hose right in his mouth.”

The Founder, directed at a stylish clip by John Lee Hancock (The Blind Side, Saving Mr. Banks), sits in the same bracket as The Social Network and Steve Jobs, both films about zealous entrepreneurs who took a concept and made it their own. If this lacks the intellectual bite of the other two films, its subject matter still enthrals. And while it fails to mention the minimum wage that its employees were subject to, it does remind us that, every day, the franchise feeds 1% of the world’s population. And the reason for its success? Ironically, Ray Kroc put it down to its name.


Frantz  ****1/2

If ever a film were more pertinent to our times, it is François Ozon's Frantz. Set in Germany in the aftermath of the First World War, Ozon’s story of both acceptance and discrimination –inspired by Ernst Lubitsch’s 1932 drama Broken Lullaby – shows a country bruised, humiliated and fiercely resentful of its neighbour, France. In the sleepy medieval town of Quedlinburg, Saxony-Anhalt, the beautiful Anna visits the grave of her fiancé Frantz Hoffmeister, a violinist who was killed in the battle of Verdun. She is surprised, then, to find red roses placed there by an unknown hand. After making enquiries, she discovers that the floral donor is a Frenchman, who is staying in town. Shortly afterwards, the very same gentleman pays a visit to Anna’s house, where she lives with her fiancé’s father, the town doctor. However, Dr Hoffmeister refuses to talk to the visitor, claiming that “every Frenchman is my son’s murderer.”

François Ozon, one of the great auteurs of contemporary French cinema, here delivers perhaps his finest film to date, a magnificent period romance that is at once enigmatic, mischievous and profoundly moving. With its resplendent black-and-white photography and meticulous production design, it is a constant joy to the eye, while the masterly performance of the German actress Paula Beer as Anna dictates the emotional temperature. Furthermore, the dialogue, editing and music are all pitch perfect. Of course, the wounds of war run very deep indeed, but we as a species must never let it undermine our humanity.



Free State of Jones  ****

There’s little freedom in the Mississippi county of Jones in the 1860s. But when Newton Knight, a poor farmer and army medic, deserts his post after the battle of Corinth, all that is about to change… The true story of a man of principle unable to abide the horrific acts meted out by the Confederacy, Free State of Jones is both a shocking and mastery history lesson. The director Gary Ross has only made four films in eighteen years (Pleasantville, Seabiscuit, The Hunger Games) and chooses his subjects with infinite care. Everything about his latest drama reveals a storyteller of consummate artistry, here plunging the viewer into a world now unimaginable. Kicking off with the Battle of Corinth itself (1862), Ross pulls no punches in his depiction of war-as-hell and it will take a strong constitution to stomach the gory realism displayed here. In fact, the film is deeply disturbing on so many levels. What the Confederacy soldiers got up to back then, advocated by the top brass, is not far off the atrocities perpetuated by Isis today. And it wasn’t just the black inhabitants of the county who suffered the army’s barbarity. White children were hanged, wives and mothers shot and farmsteads burned – all in the cause of retaining the right to enslave African-American people.

Because Ross paints such an authentic picture of the South as it was, the scenes of brutality ring horribly true. But should you strip away all the action, Benoît Delhomme's exquisite cinematography, Nicholas Britell's evocative and pared-back music and the performances would still entrance. The facts themselves being so horrendous, the actors need but inhabit the skins of their characters, without recourse to melodrama. And with talents like Matthew McConaughey, Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Mahershala Ali on board, we are in excellent hands. In keeping with such kindred titles as 12 Years a Slave and Selma, it’s interesting to note that Free State of Jones again casts an English actor to play the key black character, in this case the Oxford-born Mbatha-Raw, who exhibits extraordinary nobility as Rachel, the slave who eventually shared the bed of Newton Knight (McConaughey). Yet, while subjected to unspeakable acts by her white owner, she still managed to teach herself to read and write (partly by eavesdropping on the English lessons of her master’s children). She breaks your heart.

In a fascinating footnote, the film jumps forward 85 years when Newton and Rachel’s great- grandson, Davis Knight (Brian Lee Franklin), is sentenced to five years in prison for marrying his white sweetheart, Junie Lee Spradley. Even though Davis had seven white great-grandparents, under Mississippi law he was still considered black because he had one great-grandmother who wasn’t white. The law was finally repealed in 1967.



Geostorm  ***

You thought Harvey, Irma and Brian were bad? Wait till you see what they’ve cooked up in Geostorm. For the purposes of the film, a ‘geostorm’ is a chain reaction of extreme weather patterns that should pretty much destroy the world as we know it. After a string of rather good disaster movies (most recently Deepwater Horizon and San Andreas), Geostorm returns us to the good-old-bad-old days of Irwin Allen, when that particular movie mogul dished up things like Flood, Fire, The Swarm and When Time Ran Out... Geostorm, marking the directorial debut of the producer Dean Devlin (of Independence Day and Godzilla fame) may be cheesy, silly and flat-out ridiculous, but at least it isn’t boring.

Originally set far in the future, but moved to 2019 for purposes of credibility (gulp), the film imagines a scenario in which a system of satellites has been designed in order to control the worst excesses of the earth’s weather. In real life, scientists are already finding ways of fine-tuning local climate conditions, so this doesn’t seem that far-fetched. But then things go mental. We are also thrown some rather tedious sibling rivalry between Gerard Butler’s chief architect and his more politically expedient brother (Jim Sturgess). The latter then takes over the running of the weather monitoring mechanism, which they’ve dubbed ‘Dutch Boy’ after the finger-wielding youth of Dutch legend. Then something awful happens in Afghanistan, where the entire occupants of a village are frozen to death. There’s also an instant heatwave in Hong Kong, which causes horrendous destruction, including the explosion of underground gas lines that send skyscrapers toppling like dominoes. In short, what has been set up to protect the planet is now being used as a weapon against it…

The original premise for Geostorm, with all its outrageous thinking outside the box, is actually a gem. It’s also so ludicrous that it would have taken a director of the calibre of Christopher Nolan to make it work. Frankly, Dean Devlin is no Christopher Nolan. In spite of a budget of $120 million, the film looks cheap, while Lorne Balfe's incessant score ensures that the whole thing feels like a product-by-committee. And, as the story gets more preposterous by the scene, one almost expects the heroic Gerard Butler to ride out of the satellite on horseback. When somebody is hit by a car, they somersault several times in the air. When a cold front approaches Rio de Janeiro, the sunbathers are frozen solid mid-panic. While no doubt meteorologists will get a chuckle out of all this, the film’s straight face doesn’t do it any favours. It’s as ripe as a brie on a griddle. Still, cheese is OK – if you’re willing to forego the nuanced flavours of haute cuisine.



Get Out  ****1/2

Racism comes in many shapes and sizes. The racism depicted in this claustrophobic thriller is of the insidious, patronising kind. It is both deadly and dishonest. And at a time when American intolerance is exhibiting a new face to the world, Get Out would prove to be a timely commentary on the game of colour discrepancy.

It’s a disquieting, jet-black horror film that marks the directorial debut, of all people, the comedian Jordan Peele. But it is a highly accomplished one. Peele, who previously co-starred in the limp gangsta farce Keanu, not only directed Get Out but also co-produced and wrote the screenplay. It is truly his baby. And it should be pointed out that Peele is the son of a black father and white mother. In this case, it matters.

A horrific contemporary love story set against a Deep South Stepford Wives backdrop, the film stars Daniel Kaluuya as Chris Washington, a photographer who has been dating Rose Armitage (Allison Williams) for five months. And the time has come to introduce him to her family. However, Rose hasn’t told her parents that her new boyfriend is black, but assures Chris that they will take his colour in their stride. Besides, her father voted for Barack Obama and would have kept him in the White House for a third term if he could have. Even so, this is Alabama, and it’s hardly known for being the most open-minded state.

When Chris is introduced to Dean and Missy Armitage (Bradley Whitford, Catherine Keener), he is welcomed with open arms and Obama is duly praised for his presidential skills. However, the Armitages’ black groundsman and black maid don’t seem to be the full ticket and Chris senses that all is not right at the Armitage mansion…

What follows makes for uneasy viewing as everyone seems so caring and everything seems so credible. But Michael Abels’ music would suggest otherwise. Perhaps the director’s greatest coup is in the casting of Daniel Kaluuya and Allison Williams as his star-cross’d lovers. Kaluuya is the London-born Brit who recently drew the ire of Samuel L. Jackson for stealing a role perhaps better suited to “an American brother.” He is, though, the soul of the film. He brings both a gentleness and sweetness, as well as charm, to Chris, making Rose’s love for him entirely believable. Likewise, Allison Williams is a real find, whose Rose is both playful and intelligent and drop-dead gorgeous. She surely is a major star in the making.

Interestingly, the film shares a number of elements with the recent A Cure for Wellness, not least its shifts in tone, a run-in with a deer and the viewer’s mounting urge to scream “get out!” However, at a fraction of the price of Gore Verbinski’s overblown B-movie (and 43 minutes shorter), Get Out punches adeptly above its weight. And while Peele plays out his nightmarish scenario completely straight for maximum effect, his commentary on the race divide has very sharp satirical teeth.


Ghost in the Shell  ****1/2

There are a lot of films packed into Ghost in the Shell. And all of them are engaging. At a time when naysayers are expressing concern for the role robotics is taking in the workplace – and in the home – this adaptation of the manga comic takes the dilemma to a whole new level. In this instance it’s the ‘shell,’ or the body, that is host to the consciousness, or the soul, or the ‘ghost’. Much sci-fi has explored the unlikely event of man-made machines developing artificial intelligence. Here, though, we’ve moved up a gear. We’re in a near future in which the line between machine and human has become completely blurred; a world in which the human race is augmented with cybernetic add-ons, while automatons have acquired a humanoid appearance and agility. And neither we, nor the machines, are entirely sure who we are anymore.

Scarlett Johansson plays Mira Killian, a refugee whose boat was sunk by terrorists. In the attack only her brain survived and so it is transplanted into a new, highly performing synthetic body. But she’s plagued by indeterminate memories of a past life with which she cannot connect. She is, though, a perfect weapon and is duly conscripted to help track down the terrorist who almost annihilated her. “I will find him,” she says, “and I will kill him,” referencing a line that has become almost mandatory in certain pop culturally aware thrillers. More importantly, she is recruited to locate a new breed of cyber-criminal that is hacking into people’s brains and infecting them via the Internet.

Much like the figures that populate its fantastical cityscape, Ghost in the Shell is a hybrid, part live-action, part-computer animation. Under the direction of the English filmmaker Rupert Sanders (Snow White and the Huntsman), it is a visual miracle, even in this era of weekly CGI wonders. With its blend of the old, the new and the futuristic, it recalls the rain-splashed, neon-lit world of Blade Runner, with holograms dominating the landscape. But on the colourful, rancid side streets of this dystopia (shot in Hong Kong), the stench of the everyday still jostles with the glittering technology. And while Scarlett Johansson is all brain (albeit with an eye-catching cybernetic bod), her heart is still tucked away in her psyche.

In many ways, the standout scene is unlike anything else that precedes it. For one brief shining moment the film stops in its tracks. An elderly woman (the wonderful Kaori Momoi) invites Mira into her humble apartment. And as she makes our heroine a cup of tea, the film takes a huge intake of breath. Mira is not sure why she’s there, and nor are we, but a human connection is made and it’s all the more touching for its gentle incongruity.

Ultimately, the film is a meditation on identity: are we the sum of our memories or something more? In the words of Juliette Binoche’s Dr Ouelet, we are defined by what we do, not by what we remember. After all, the memory is so unreliable.



A Ghost Story  *1/2

Sometimes a film comes along that is so atypical that you don’t know whether to applaud it or denounce it. Here, however, we know we’re in trouble from the get-go as the writer-director David Lowery displays his drama in the old aspect ratio of 1:33:1. That means that what we see in front of us in contained in a square, the better to amplify the claustrophobia of the film’s theme. It stars this year’s Oscar-winning actor Casey Affleck as a character called C who lives with M, played by Rooney Mara. More alarm bells immediately reverberate. Affleck – or C – does his usual mumbling act, so that only M can understand him, presumably because she’s used to his diction. After all, both Rooney and Affleck starred in Lowery’s Ain't Them Bodies Saints back in 2013. Here, C and M live together in a suburban bungalow and mumble together and make love and hope to attain a sense of intimacy and realism. Odd, though, that after a bout of nookie Rooney Mara should cover her breasts with a sheet as if Affleck hadn’t been looking or hadn’t previously seen her naked in Todd Haynes’ Carol. It doesn’t feel real. Nor do the knowing camera moves, the music or the air of arch stylisation. Simultaneously, it seems, the film is trying to be naturalistic and modish, trying to be profound and original. Then, fifteen minutes in, C is killed in an unexplained car crash and returns home from the hospital covered in a white sheet (these bedsheets are always white). One wants to laugh, but this is not Scream – Lowery is playing this absolutely straight. A Ghost Story is obviously a deeply personal meditation on loss, grief and time itself and words like pretentious, self-conscious and misguided should maybe not apply. Good for Lowery – the film only cost $110,00, after all. There should be room for all kinds of stories in the marketplace, but it’s hard to know who will want to share the director’s idiosyncratic vision here.



Gifted  **

Gifted was a chance to show that Chris Evans could act. Previously typecast as the Human Torch in the Fantastic Four films and as Captain America himself, Evans was burdened with more than the ignominy of sharing the name of a ginger-haired English DJ. Gifted was also an opportunity for Marc Webb, director of The Amazing Spider-Man and its sequel, to prove that he’d lost none of the indie flair he exhibited on his first film, the smart and quirky (500) Days of Summer.

To be fair, the subject matter at the heart of Gifted does seem irresistible. Chris Evans plays Frank Adler, an economically challenged boat repairman who lives in a shack with his seven-year-old niece, Mary (Mckenna Grace), who’s rather good at arithmetic. Mary is, at various times, described as “exceptional,” “a genius” and “gifted.” However, Frank is worried about her social skills and just wants her to be “dumbed down into a decent human being.” Although the most handsome man in Florida, Frank is also unattached, sleeps on his own and when not tending to Mary’s domestic needs, can be found down at the local bar nursing a beer.

Luckily for both of them, their neighbour, Roberta (Octavia Spencer), loves Mary like a daughter and is happy to babysit whenever the plot demands. Roberta is given little background, but she’s a useful character, always ready with a wise word, which Octavia Spencer invariably delivers with ablomb. And the actress is no stranger to mathematical prodigies, having played one herself in this year’s Oscar-nominated, feel-good drama Hidden Figures. When Mary is finally packed off to school, she not only shames her fellow first-graders, but her maths teacher, too. And as in all films about child prodigies, this is the best bit. Unfortunately, for much of the time Mary’s vocal delivery is as incomprehensible as the mathematical formulae she is set by her superiors. Then a real talent turns up, the actress Lindsay Duncan, who plays Frank’s estranged English mother Evelyn. She believes that her granddaughter needs to pay the price for her greatness. And so a custody battle ensues which proves astonishingly dull.

There are narrative complications, but they merely complicate what is already a thorny scenario and just deduct from any hope of a dramatic equation. Rob Simonsen's treacly score frantically tugs at the heartstrings, but the raw data refuses to compute. Out of his tricolour Spandex, Chris Evans is agreeable enough, although his Frank Adler is not a part that stretches any talent he might have. And while the preternaturally pretty Miss Grace has a way with a smile, it’s Ms Duncan’s moral ambiguity and brittle superiority that one will remember.


The Girl on the Train  **

Beware what you glimpse. It might not be the whole picture. Besides, who knows what’s in the mind of the beholder? Rachel Watson (Emily Blunt) travels to Manhattan every day by train and happens to pass the house in which she once lived with her ex-husband, Tom (Justin Theroux). Two doors down lives one Megan Hipwell (Hayley Bennett), whose radiant beauty and daily appearance on her veranda at the precise moment Rachel’s train passes each morning begins to cast a spell on our passenger. And then she witnesses something out of the ordinary. Therein lies the problem at the heart of this mystery-thriller. Too much hinges on an improbable moment in time.

The film, adapted from Paula Hawkins’ 2015 novel of the same name, has much in common with Gone Girl, with its cold steel visual palette, scenes of carnal activity, marital dysfunction and the vanishing act of a leading character. But Gone Girl, for all its grandiloquent improbabilities, was an artfully calibrated thing, enriched by vivid characterisation. Here, the protagonists are but ciphers, manipulated at will to lead us down the garden path and to the film’s dubious – and predictable – conclusion. Emily Blunt’s Rachel is an unreliable witness and an unengaging sad sack with virtually no back story. We grasp she’s English and likes to draw, but we know nothing other than that she’s been driven to drink. Blunt tries her best but is not provided with the tools to make Rachel anything more than a tiresome narrative device.

Another adaptation of a crime novel, Derailed (2005), was also kindled by a commuter train journey and starred Jennifer Aniston. Here, Ms Aniston’s husband Justin Theroux plays Rachel’s ex and is just one of six characters in search of a narrative. And with just six figures in the landscape, once certain options have been eliminated, the story can only bounce in so many directions. Thus, it’s easy to guess where it’s going. The one character that really registers is Megan, played with resonance by Hayley Bennett (The Magnificent Seven), but then she’s allowed to reveal all to her psychiatrist (Édgar Ramírez) to whose sessions we are privy.

In a desperate attempt to keep us on our toes, director Tate Taylor (The Help, Get On Up) and his scenarist Erin Cressida Wilson (Secretary) have concocted a mosaic approach to the proceedings, cutting back and forth between time and the protagonists’ point-of-view. This fragmentary technique merely serves to alienate and not only frustrates any narrative momentum but serves to confuse. Furthermore, it prevents us from connecting with – or caring for – anybody.



The Girl With All the Gifts  ****      Some may call The Girl With All the Gifts a zombie movie, but it’s a little more than that. Tapping into everything from the Bible to Greek mythology by way of Erwin Schrödinger, the film is not only gripping but thought-provoking. Based on the novel by M.R. Carey, itself adapted from his short story Iphigenia In Aulis, it paints a world in which a viral fungus has infected most of mankind, turning humans into mentally diminished, flesh-eating parasites. But a second generation of so-called “hungries” have evolved into more cerebrally capable beings, albeit not yet fully grown. So at a well-guarded facility in England, military, scientific and educational establishments have joined forces to study this new breed of enemy. Locked overnight in cells, the children are strapped into wheelchairs in which they are wheeled into class for their studies. The administration that governs them are represented by the teacher Helen Justineau (Gemma Arterton), the soldier Sgt Eddie Parks (Paddy Considine) and the scientist Dr Caroline Caldwell (Glenn Close). One child in particular, Melanie (newcomer Sennia Nanua), seems to have evolved beyond her infection and is thoughtful, creative and even compassionate. A rapport develops between the child and her mentor, Helen, a bond that concerns both the solider and the scientist…

As much a warning of genetic tampering in flora and fauna as it is a full-out zombie thriller, The Girl With All the Gifts compares favourably to the early horror oeuvre of George A. Romero as well as to such intelligent examples of the genre as 28 Days Later and World War Z. While the CGI is of an exceptionally high standard (London is rendered as an overgrown wasteland that recalls the New York City of Francis Lawrence's I Am Legend), it is the human touch that makes the film so distinctive. As Melanie, Sennia Nanua proves to be an exceptional presence, an eager-to-learn tomboy figure who accepts her fate with quiet resolve and a wisdom beyond her years. Arterton, too, is terrific, while M.R. Carey's screenplay is careful not to stray too far into the metaphysical. As Sgt Eddie Parks puts it: “Our mission statement is to keep ourselves off the fucking menu.”


Girls Lost  ***1/2

It is said that we are all made up of male and female constituents, but most of us stick with the gender we’re given. The Swedish filmmaker Alexandra-Therese Keining takes the argument one step further and in the process has created one of the most fascinating deliberations on gender ever committed to film. But rather than resorting to the legerdemain of the scalpel and hormone supplements, she produces her dramatic effect through the resources of magic. She sets her scene in a Swedish suburb where three 14-year-old schoolgirls suffer horrific bullying for being ‘different’ from their peers. In particular, we focus on Kim (Tuva Jagell) whose pin-ups of Bowie, Grace Jones and Patti Smith leave us in no doubt as to her persuasion. Setting the scene rather clumsily with the girls taunted at school for being “fucking lesbians” (and worse), the film switches to a different gear when an unknown seed that they plant in the greenhouse of Bella (Wilma Holmén) flowers into a fully grown plant overnight. Daring themselves to drink the plant’s vanilla-smelling juice, they find themselves transformed into male version of themselves. This sequence is particularly effective as the boys playing Kim, Bella and Momo are the spitting image of their female counterparts. What follows literally separates the boys from the girls, as the close friends take to their new identities in different ways, with Kim rather warming to her new gender and its ability to help her fit in with the other boys. But her crush on a local thief, Tony (Mandus Berg), merely serves to confuse her sexual identity further. A contemporary fairy tale blending magic and friendship with drugs, burglary and rape is nothing if not novel, and Keining juggles the sexual politics with finesse. If she had managed to create a more credible and sympathetic bond between her female protagonists, she might even have produced a masterpiece.



Going in Style  ***1/2      Joe, Willie and Albert aren’t exactly going anywhere, but they’re certainly on the way out. After working at the same factory for decades, their pensions have been ‘frozen,’ leaving them virtually destitute. Joe (Michael Caine, 84) is also about to lose his house, while Willie (Morgan Freeman, 79) is told by his doctor that unless he gets a new kidney he doesn’t have long for this world. Only the perpetually splenetic Albert (Alan Arkin, 83) seems to coast by on bile, while fending off the attentions of the sexy and beautiful Annie (Ann-Margret). Then Joe finds himself a bystander at a bank robbery and has a light bulb moment. If he, Willie and Albert can pull off a similar heist, then a couple of million should solve all their problems. After all, Joe reasons, “what have we got to lose?”

A comedy about mortality is a hard act to pull off, but with actors of the calibre of Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman and Alan Arkin playing to their strengths, old age has seldom seemed such fun. Caine is on particularly good form, switching from pathetic imbecile to a hard man with effortless skill. And Arkin, who has cornered the market in ageing curmudgeons, has a way with a mediocre gag. Actually, there are a lot of chuckles to go round, with the dry repartee of the three leads kicking hard against the cloying music and sentimental riffs of the narrative.

Of course, it’s all highly improbable but there are still some aces up the screenplay’s sleeve. It should be pointed out that the latter is by Theodore Melfi, he who wrote and directed the touching and uplifting Hidden Figures, for which he was short-listed for an Oscar. His new film is actually an adaptation of the 1971 comedy of the same name written and directed by Michael Brest, which starred George Burns, Art Carney and Lee Strasberg. Here, Zach Braff takes the directorial reins and gives the film a genial bounce, while a strong supporting cast (John Ortiz, Joey King, Matt Dillon, Siobhan Fallon Hogan) provides lashings of colour. And the film’s a good deal more engaging than last year’s Golden Years, which also featured pensioners resorting to bank robbery.



Gold  **1/2

Literature and the cinema is streaked with tales of money lost and won, of wheeler-dealers, of phenomenal fortunes there for the taking. Only last August we see War Dogs, the extraordinary true story of Efraim Diveroli and David Packouz, two twentysomething potheads who convinced the Pentagon to hand over $300 million in order to supply arms to the US in Afghanistan. That film, while heavily fictionalised, was stylish, gripping and very funny. Stephen Gaghan's Gold, also substantially fictionalised, takes on the story of David Walsh, a Canadian businessman who founded the mining company Bre-X. Here, he’s repackaged as Kenny Wells, a pot-bellied, chain-smoking, hard-drinking good ol’ boy from Reno, Nevada. It’s a gem of a part and Matthew McConaughey gained a reported 47 pounds and had his head shaved to bring heft to this volatile, brash approximation of Walsh. Like War Dogs, it’s a stylish interpretation of the events that led a seedy, small-scale prospector on a whirlwind of risk-taking and deal-making that culminated in a pot of gold in the jungle of Indonesia. Unfortunately, Kenny Wells is such an unlikeable character that it’s hard to share his American dream. After all, this is a guy prone to hurling tumblers of hard liquor at the furnishings and of pawning his wife’s gold watch to pay for his airfare. While McConaughey obviously relishes chewing the scenery – in a role more suited to his good friend Woody Harrelson – his supporting cast is more tolerable: Corey Stoll nails his part as a corporate shark, Édgar Ramírez is nicely understated as a high-flying geologist and Craig T. Nelson is wise and weary as Kenny’s father. Had the film opted for a slant of black comedy, or introduced a note of genuine danger, it might have been a more engrossing experience. Quite frankly, Stephen Gaghan – who directed Syriana and won an Oscar for his script to Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic – should have known better.



Goodbye Christopher Robin  ****

In an age when childhood is fast becoming an outmoded concept, Goodbye Christopher Robin arrives at a timely juncture. Christopher Robin is for many the epitome of childhood innocence. But be warned: this is very much a grown-up film dealing with a fistful of disturbing issues, like war, post-traumatic stress disorder, marital discord, parental neglect, class cruelty and child exploitation. Even so, the film seems to be working against its own agenda. Here we have the sunny vistas of an idyllic England, the ambrosial music of Carter Burwell, the sylvan locations of Ashdown Forest and the stunning cheekbones of Hollywood glamour puss Margot Robbie – all wrapped around a gritty, kitchen-sink horror film.

In short, the movie would like to have its tea and crumpets and eat it. Much like A.A. Milne, the austere father of Christopher Robin and the creator of Winnie-the-Pooh, the film exploits the commercial appeal of the Bear of Very Little Brain while bringing us something entirely more weighty.

A.A. Milne, a screenwriter, contributor to Punch and writer of detective fiction, wanted to be remembered for something a little more consequential and so embarked on an anti-war treatise, albeit while plagued by writer’s block. It was during one of these creative lapses that his flapper wife, Daphne, huffed off to London leaving him alone with their young son, Billy, whom he barely seemed to know. Matters were further exacerbated when Billy’s beloved nanny, ‘Nou’, departed to care for her ailing mother, leaving author and child stranded in the Sussex countryside. What was a man to do? It serves the dramatic impact of the film that we, the audience, knows what this dire turn of events ultimately led to, namely A.A. Milne’s plagiarism of his own child’s imagination, leading to the most beloved children’s stories in history. But then the film throws us another curve ball by examining in forensic detail the transformation of the innocent Billy into an exploited international celebrity.

Personally, I found all this far more upsetting than Stephen King’s It, in spite of any rescue attempts by the treacly music and the Trinity Boys Choir. Having said that, it is a story that needs to be told. Much is conveyed when Milne is forbidden from witnessing his wife give birth, as is a later scene when he arrives at the home of Nou to impart some terrible news. Nothing is said, but the emotional impact is enormous, precisely because words seem totally inadequate.

Domhnall Gleeson, currently also available in American Made and Mother! and soon to be seen as General Hux in Star Wars: The Last Jedi, is perfect as the stuffed shirt unable to master his feelings, and Kelly Macdonald steals the film as Nou. Less effective is the Australian actress Margot Robbie as Billy’s mother, whose upper-crust English accent seems to arrive from an alternative universe, and is just, well, too Hollywood for such an intimate English piece. Nonetheless, director Simon Curtis, whose previous forays into real-life drama include My Week With Marilyn (2011) and Woman in Gold (2015), exhibits a new maturity as a director, making more with less, in spite of the commercial demands of his producers.


Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2  ****

The dysfunctional Guardians certainly put the ‘family’ into family entertainment. Regardless of their cultural background, skin colour or texture, these freedom fighters are one close-knit kin. For anybody anticipating a dip in the entertainment value of the first film, their fears should be allayed during the sequel’s opening minutes. Following a romantic prologue in Missouri, 1980, featuring a (very) young Kurt Russell and Peter Quill’s mother (Laura Haddock), the film jumps forward 34 years into outer space. Here, Peter Quill himself (Chris Pratt), the green-skinned Gamora (Zoe Saldana), an emotionally ambiguous Drax (Dave Bautista) and everybody’s favourite irrascible raccoon battle the mother of all monsters. And in the foreground Baby Groot trips the light fantastic to the Electric Light Orchestra's 'Mr Blue Sky.' Blissfully unaware of the surrounding peril, Baby Groot – the off-shoot of the walking, talking tree voiced by Vin Diesel in the first film – takes centre stage while Armageddon rages behind him. It’s a deliriously funny and entertaining sequence.

Then, as the personality traits of our heroes are further fine-tuned, so various intergalactic aberrations attempt to make their life hell. And the joy of it all is that every time a new actor is introduced, he or she is invariably cast against type. There’s certainly plenty of menace supplied by Elizabeth Debicki as a vengeful High Priestess who, like Shirley Eaton in Goldfinger, is coated completely in gold; while Scotland’s very own Karen Gillan kicks major ass as Gamora’s fatally resentful sister Nebula. But it’s the interaction between the Guardians themselves, comic or otherwise, that really lifts this head and shoulders above most other Marvel Comic adaptations. There’s a growing sexual tension between Quill and Gamora, an undefined relationship between Drax and a child-like being with accentuated antenna, as well as the rites-of-passage of Baby Groot.

In the first film, a straight-faced Gamora feared that “I am going to die surrounded by the biggest idiots in the universe.” Of course, she’s not far off and the Four Stooges vibe is revved up a few decibels here as new characters are thrown into the mix. However, it’s the throwaway gags and deadpan delivery that keep this all so comically buoyant. There’s also a delicious absurdity in the film’s pop cultural sensibility woven through all the intergalactic spectacle. Whether it’s Peter Quill’s fantasy of reconstructing Heather Locklear or the grotesque Yondu Udonta (Michael Rooker) screeching, “I’m Mary Poppins, you’all!” there’s constant allusive joy. And for those jaded by the incessant CGI of these superhero antics, the soundtrack ripped from Peter Quill’s eclectic mixtape should place it in a whole new perspective. And you have to stay until after the closing credits.



Hacksaw Ridge  **

The word extraordinary cannot begin to describe the story of Desmond Doss. A Seventh-day Adventist, he refused to ever lift a firearm and yet during the 1945 blitzkrieg of the Battle of Okinawa he proved himself to be a hero. A hero worthy of the Medal of Honor. Truly, he was unlike no other.

As his sweetheart, Dorothy, says in this dramatization of his life: “I fell in love with you because you weren’t like anyone else.” If only the film were as original. As directed by Mel Gibson, it has the feel of Forrest Gump Goes to War. Gibson adheres to a certain template of the inspiring true life story and ticks every box available to him. And at the outset he plunges the viewer into the jaws of war until cutting back to Desmond’s childhood, sixteen years earlier. Here we see Desmond running through the sun-dappled cornfields of Virginia with his older brother Hal. But the picture postcard is rapidly turned upside down when the boys’ father, Tom (Hugo Weaving), is revealed to be a bitter, belt-wielding drunk. Then, fifteen years later, Desmond is transformed into a goofy, well-meaning Andrew Garfield who, in true chocolate box fashion, woos the ever-so-pretty nurse Dorothy (Teresa Palmer). It’s not a courtship with any bearing in real life. And after that, following the events of Pearl Harbor, Desmond signs up to defend his country, hoping to serve as a combat medic. Cut to boot camp at Ford Jackson, where a tyrannical Vince Vaughn oversees the training of his men, in one particularly ludicrous scene addressing a line-up consisting of one soldier with a knife in his foot and another completely naked. However, it’s at the Battle of Okinawa that Gibson strives to assert his individuality, showing war as it’s never been seen before by illustrating new ways in which human flesh can be sliced, diced and shredded. But the violence is so Pythonesque that it actually loses its ability to shock. When Riker (Luke Bracey) picks up a legless torso to use as a shield, the effect is of witnessing a ventriloquist brandishing a dummy. And, as Gibson piles cliché upon cliché, we just know that the real Desmond Doss will appear during the closing credits to try and clear his name. And Doss does, indeed, appear, aged 84, three years prior to his death. At least he never lived to see Mel Gibson’s comic-book portrayal of his remarkable life.



Hampstead  **1/2

Why is it that films named after areas of London always star Americans? Think Notting Hill with Julia Roberts, Wimbledon with Kirsten Dunst and, er, Waterloo with Rod Steiger. Now we have Hampstead starring Diane Keaton, a tourism-friendly romcom aimed at the grey dollar. Inspired by the story of Henry ‘Harry’ Hallowes, Joel Hopkins’ film takes a true tale and manipulates it into an icky feel-good thing that will give Ken Loach sleepless nights. The outline follows the stand a homeless man takes against property developers after building himself a ramshackle home in a wild patch of Hampstead Heath in North London. As the authorities attempt to evict him, a potentially rousing David and Goliath scenario unfolds, given colour by the locals who either resent him or rally to his cause.

Here Harry is renamed Donald, so as to feed his media moniker of ‘Donald Tramp’ and is portrayed as an erudite, learned Grizzly Adams type played by Brendan Gleeson, the better to up-end audience expectations. But nothing rings true as the English stereotypes are wheeled out to give some form of credibility to the central character of Emily, through whose eyes we view the narrative. An intelligent and principled but scatty American played by Diane Keaton – well, la-dee-da – Emily is beset by grotesques, including a rat-like accountant (Jason Watkins) with altogether unhealthy motives, even if he is 21 years her junior.

From the outset, Stephen Warbeck's glutinous score foreshadows what is to come as a playful kite on Hampstead Heath toys with the film’s opening credits. And the shots of Hampstead’s cosy cobbled byways, steps and boutique shops will make the heart of every Anglophile flutter with orgiastic gratification. But all is not well for Emily Walters as she surveys the leak in her ceiling and copes with disruptive customers at the charity shop where she works as a volunteer.

There are some nice comic touches and a few good lines (courtesy of the American scenarist Robert Festinger), before the film settles down to its agenda of presenting lost souls trying to connect in the unlikeliest of circumstances. We learn that Emily is drowning “in a sinkhole of debt,” while Donald the Tramp lives a life of bucolic contentment in the heart of London. Of course, nobody is who they seem and we really mustn’t judge. But there are do-gooders at hand and the even the iciest veneer is ready to melt. What follows isn’t so much unpredictable as improbable and will prove nauseous to some. The less demanding might warm to the sitcom histrionics and enjoy the performances of Keaton and Gleeson, but it really is a missed opportunity.



The Handmaiden  ***1/2

Park Chan-wook’s last South Korean film, Thirst (2009), was loosely based on Émile Zola’s Thérèse Raquin. His latest, set during Japan’s colonial rule of South Korea, takes Sarah Waters’ Victorian-era novel Fingersmith for its inspiration. But, regardless of the director’s source material, you can bet your bottom won that it will be sumptuous, stylish and provocative. The Handmaiden, a tale of skulduggery, deceit, revenge and sexual perversion, is typically beguiling if, as usual for Park, over-long. Here, he’s truly blessed by the presence of Kim Tae-ri, whose face alone could launch a thousand junks, but whose exhilarating performance ranges from the coquettish to the comic via the tantalizing. Divided into three parts, the film roughly takes the viewpoint of its three protagonists in turn and draws the viewer deeper into the permutations of the narrative. Every tale, of course, has an alternative perspective. Here, though, Park mischievously peels away the layers of his film, revealing ever more daring angles on scenes we have already witnessed. It’s a triple bluff, deliciously and cruelly unwrapped and necessitating a strong stomach. The sex scenes, while not as explicit as those featured in, say, Blue is the Warmest Colour, are certainly as erotic. But the film’s most shocking sequence, coming near the end, will undoubtedly give bibliophiles sleepless nights.



Happy Death Day  ***

“You’ve never seen Groundhog Day? How can you sleep with yourself?” asks one character in this enjoyably meta-horror film. In perhaps a vintage year for horror (cf. Get Out, Raw), this Edge of Tomorrow reboot brings a lot of playfulness to a genre not known for loud guffaws.

Tree Gelbman (Jessica Rothe) is our protagonist, a spoiled, selfish and thoroughly arrogant bee-itch who wakes up with a sore head after a night out on the tiles. She’s in the dorm room of Carter Davis (Israel Broussard, a Zach Galligan/Andrew Garfield combo), who helped her through her worst excesses of the previous night. Not that she’s too grateful – she’s horrified – and so she goes about her day making everybody feel worse until she’s murdered by somebody in a Boss Baby mask. Then she wakes up in Carter’s dorm room…

The film is worked from a brilliant script by the comic book writer Scott Lobdell (Marvel’s Uncanny X-Men), but is not entirely equal to the task. No way does Jessica Rothe (a Heather Locklear/Rachel McAdams fusion) look young enough to be in college (she’s actually 30) and nobody in the cast is given an opportunity to play a real character (Jason Bayle, as Tree’s father, is embarrassing). Still, as a genre piece, the film is both fun and strangely endearing and should please horror fans, although it could have done with a bit more grisly invention. If James Wan had been brought in for a rewrite, this could’ve been a classic.



Heal the Living  *****

Like many great films, Heal the Living creeps up on the viewer with an almost nonchalant air. Little appears to happen in the opening scenes as, in the early hours of one Sunday morning, various characters go about their day. Then a single event reaches out its tentacles and pulls them all together. Tahar Rahim plays a young doctor whose empathy for his patients is in marked contrast to the gruff, no-nonsense approach of his senior (Bouli Lanners). Emmanuelle Seigner plays Marianne Limbres, a divorcee and mother of two who likes to sleep late. Her teenage son, Simon (Gabin Verdet), has recently charmed a fellow student, Juliette (Galatéa Bellugi), with his ability to be in two places at once. Simon also likes to surf and cycle around the byways of Le Havre, enjoying the freedom that his mother gives him. However, Marianne is not an inattentive parent – indeed, her knowledge of her son’s seventeen years borders on the encyclopaedic…

A story of mortality – and, in a way, immortality – Heal the Living is a hypnotic treatise on the human condition exquisitely played out by the French writer-director Katell Quillévéré (Love Like Poison, Suzanne). Unafraid to let her film daydream, Quillévéré guides Heal the Living effortlessly and fluently from one scenario to the next, allowing it to dip in and out of reverie as well as into the past and the present. Everybody has a role to play and Quillévéré only feeds us what is important at the time, be it a nurse’s sexual reverie in a lift or Simon’s own past seduction of Juliette. And as the film glides by, slipping from one character to another, we learn how significant we all are to each other, whether we know it or not.

The overall effect is not only engrossing and powerful but also resolutely profound. Quillévéré will tease us with a witty line of dialogue and then follow it with an unexpected twist. Her extraordinary talent recalls the narrative finesse of fellow French-speaker Denis Villeneuve. They truly are two giants of contemporary cinema, both willing to explore the expansive potential of their medium. As for Heal the Living, it is perhaps best to approach it with as little foreknowledge as possible and just let it draw you unknowing into its sensual mosaic.



Heart of a Dog  *1/2

To this day Laurie Anderson is probably best remembered for her ground-breaking single ‘O Superman’ – and as the widow of Lou Reed. Since her breakthrough in the charts in 1981, Anderson has experimented in all kinds of media, from audio-visual installations to multi-media stage performances. She has her fans. Here, with Heart of a Dog, she flexes her credentials as writer, director, producer, ‘cinematographer’, animator, composer and narrator. These are big titles for what is essentially a home movie, a mixed media mash-up of superimposed images, of shots of blue skies, clouds, raindrops, CCTV footage and video-diary peregrinations. Over all this, Laurie Anderson’s perfectly executed syllables dance with the soporific drone of a condescending therapist, our guide through the odd thought patterns of her world. “What are days for?” she asks. “To wake us up. What are nights for? To fall through time [beat] …to another world.”

Primarily, Heart of a Dog is about Lolabelle, an abstract painter, sculptor, pianist and, more prosaically, a rat terrier. Guided by the spirit of the writer David Foster Wallace, Anderson plucks at thoughts and notable quotations to inform the life – and death – of her beloved terrier. It obviously all means an awful lot to her, who adored and ruthlessly spoiled little Lolabelle, and who allows her mind and talent to meander across the screen.

Most people will find the film undisciplined, inconsequential and staggeringly self-indulgent. Only Laurie Anderson’s own life-serving devotees are likely to come away feeling that they have witnessed something transformative and profound. “Not I,” said the little red hen.



Heartstone  *****

In most Western civilizations, childhood is becoming a thing of the past. Yet in the far-flung outpost of an Icelandic fishing village, best friends Thor and Christian are discovering the full force of innocence betrayed in a world detached from the congestion of modern life. In fact, Heartstone, marking the directorial debut of Guðmundur Arnar Guðmundsson, is an almost timeless tale of a sexual awakening untainted by any form of media, let alone the Internet. Theirs is a brutal, elegiac yet idyllic existence, pitted with the conflict of peer pressure, ignorance and the raging tide of hormonal stimulus. Thor and Christian have hitched up with two local girls, whose emotional maturity outclasses their own, but who are just as bored and untethered as their male companions.

Cutting from bold close-ups to unforgiving landscapes of sea and cliffs, the film is confidently cinematic and begs to be seen on the big screen. And yet it is also profoundly intimate, with the camera of Sturla Brandth Grøvlen (Victoria, Rams) slipping skilfully into the point-of-view of our adolescent characters. Like every pre-pubescent boy, Thor (Baldur Einarsson) is desperate for proof of his manhood and steals hair from his sisters’ hairbrush to coat his mons pubis. It is through his eyes that this transformative summer is revealed, when he is shamed by the philandering behaviour of his divorced mother and perturbed by the physicality of Christian. “Just stop being so weird. Then everything will be fine,” he tells Christian. But of course it isn’t. Christian needs to express himself – desperately needs to – but he’s living in a community entrenched in bigotry. It may be a narrative sidestep too far that Christian’s father is both a homophobe and an alcoholic, but of course they are only too common in the real world.

From its opening minutes, Heartstone grabs the attention, then glides into the conflicted world of these children who have to reconcile desire and inexperience. And, unlike their parents, they are actually wise beyond their years.


Hidden Figures  ****1/2      The figures in question are not the impenetrable calculations deployed to further the NASA space programme, but the number crunchers who came up with them. One such mathematical prodigy was Katherine Goble, a woman whose numerical expertise outclassed most of her male peers at the Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia. However, as this was 1961 and as Goble was black, her efforts were compromised at every available turn. Even with time being of the essence, she was forced to walk the 880 yards to the nearest ladies’ room for ‘coloureds’, come rain or come shine. Likewise, her black female colleagues Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson, each brilliant in their own way, were held back in assisting America in its space race.

Like many recent films, Hidden Figures declares at the start that it is “based on true events.” True, these covert, very real individuals were both supremely accomplished and discriminated against, but Theodore Melfi and Allison Schroeder's script plays pretty fast and loose with the facts. Yet the essence of what these women achieved and what they were subjected to remains intact. Thus, this stirring history lesson joins the ranks of The Help and Loving as a damning, true-life tale of institutionalized racism in 1960s’ America. And it’s terribly good.

Katherine Goble, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson were dubbed “coloured computers” because they were black and because they computed, long before machines took over their prowess. And, true, John Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth, did specifically ask Goble to verify the IBM calculations of his landing coordinates. What is more interesting is how these women pushed forward with their dreams in a system that denied them the right to do so. As a piece of storytelling, Theodore Melfi’s film punches its buttons with skill, drama and humour, largely avoiding stereotypes, give or take the bigot portrayed by Jim Parsons. But across the board the acting is meticulous, from Taraji P. Henson as the long-suffering Goble to the Oscar-nominated Octavia Spencer as Vaughan. As Goble’s boss, Kevin Costner gives one of the best performances of his career, his single-minded dedication to his job being above such petty considerations as racial politics. Indeed, he bags some of the most moving sequences in the film, although there are plenty to go round.



The Hitman's Bodyguard  ***1/2

There have been countless films about hitmen and a very famous one about a bodyguard. Here, Ryan Reynolds’ minder – or executive protection agent – isn’t guarding Whitney Houston but Samuel L. Jackson, a hitman. It’s an intriguing premise, particularly as the pair of them despise each other. Nonetheless, Reynolds’ Michael Bryce is tasked with escorting Jackson’s Darius Kincaid from Coventry to The Hague in order for the latter to testify against a Belarusian despot (an appropriately despicable Gary Oldman). Needs must.

The Hitman’s Bodyguard sits neatly in the long tradition of the buddy – or anti-buddy – movie, shoehorned into an action-thriller template. And few could complain that the film doesn’t deliver on a number of levels. However, it’s not just an action-thriller – it’s also a love story, a farce, a black comedy, a contemporary Western and, at times, something bordering on a horror film. It really does want to have its cake and eat it.

Littered with expendable foot soldiers and scurrilous language, the film is squarely aimed at an adult audience. Much of it is blatantly indebted to Quentin Tarantino – Jackson famously played the hitman Jules Winnfield in Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction – but what the movie has in black humour it lacks in chewable dialogue. There is a lot of banter between the two stars and too much of it is tedious. More engrossing is the film’s derivative plotting, or at least the execution of it. In an era of stunning stunts, the film certainly holds its own, from a gut-flipping shoot-out in Coventry to a high-speed chase through the byways of Amsterdam involving a motorbike, a speedboat and a fleet of cars. And for anybody familiar with Covent Garden (in London), they may notice that much of it is furiously intercut with the Dutch city for the same sequence. Needs must.

The film is also reinforced with colourful turns from the supporting ranks, in particular a hot-headed, foul-mouthed Salma Hayek as Kincaid’s imprisoned wife, and Élodie Yung as an Interpol agent previously involved with Bryce. And if the on-screen action is not enough, the director Patrick Hughes (The Expendables 3) plies us with flashbacks the better to flesh-out his characters (including a brutal barroom brawl set to Lionel Richie’s ‘Hello’). Fans of Samuel L. Jackson may also be surprised to hear the actor sing – repeatedly. He sings in the car with Reynolds, sings with a busload of nuns and sings down the phone to Salma Hayek. He even sings the song ‘Nobody Gets Out Alive’ over the closing credits, which he also wrote. Much of this is engaging stuff, so it’s a shame that the film is so relentlessly nasty. There’s a particularly horrific torture scene and another sequence in which – spoiler alert – a truck ploughs into a crowd of civilians. It seems unnecessary for a film with such entertainment value to resort to so much cruelty.


Home Again  *1/2

Deep beneath the caramel-baked shell of this awful sitcom lurks the germ for a chilling black comedy. Here, a single mother who has recently moved to LA finds herself both on the brink of middle-age and on the long, treacherous slope towards singlehood. Then, on the very evening of her fortieth birthday, Alice Kinney gets drunk with two girlfriends and three extremely eligible young strangers, and one thing leads to another. Harry (Pico Alexander), who’s in his twenties, takes Alice to bed, believing her to be much younger than she is. As she’s played by Reese Witherspoon, you can’t blame him. He’s also drawn to her beguiling attentiveness. “You should be a mom,” he compliments her. And, lo and behold, in the morning Alice’s two adorable daughters turn up with their gran (Candice Bergen) and all the beans spill out of the bag. Still, Harry and Alice have now exchanged bodily fluids and Harry is smitten and, as Alice has loads of mysterious disposable income, she invites the boys to stay in her luxurious guest house. And they really, really love her swanky sheets. As it happens, Harry, George and Teddy are embarking on their first film together and Alice is the daughter of a filmmaker (deceased) that they all idolize. Gosh, it’s all so cosy. Then George hits it off with Alice’s daughter Isabel (a winning Lola Flanery) and, in the words of one character, Alice finds herself with in-house childcare, tech support (Teddy’s a dab hand at web design) and sex. What’s not to like?

The grit in this congenial oyster proves to be a rather ineffectual plot device that wouldn’t pass muster on an episode of Friends. Reese Witherspoon, who’s proved her mettle with such hard-hitting dramas as Walk the Line, Rendition and Wild, hasn’t been this irritating since the shockingly dreadful Hot Pursuit two years ago. It’s not until Michael Sheen turns up as Alice’s estranged husband (complete with “cool” English accent) that one appreciates just how bland everybody else is, including Oscar nominee Candice Bergen. But even Michael Sheen cannot bring much credibility to the physical comedy chucked in as a final desperate measure, leaving one to ponder how this dross got financed in the first place. When Harry delivers a rousing speech about the merits of cinema to a stereotypically sleazy, brainless sitcom filmmaker, one wonders why the writer-director Hallie Meyers-Shyer didn’t take his advice.


Hostiles  ****1/2

The hostiles of the title are the Cheyenne and Comanche people of Colorado and its neighbouring states. But the wild frontier of 1892 was a hostile place for all its inhabitants, who not only had to endure the brutal topography and inclement weather, but a bigotry borne of the ignorant and the afraid. Captain Joseph J. Blocker (Christian Bale) has as much reason as the next white man to hate the savages that he has routinely slaughtered. Nearing his retirement, and with a venerable war record, he is tasked with one final mission – if, that is, he wishes to retain his soldier’s pension. He is to escort an ailing Cheyenne war chief (Wes Studi) and his family through treacherous terrain to the latter’s tribal land and final resting place.

The writer-director Scott Cooper was an actor for many years before making his directorial debut with Crazy Heart (2009). The latter, a character study of a hard-drinking loser and one-time Country star, won Jeff Bridges an Oscar. Cooper’s next film, Out of the Furnace (2013), raised his game even further and showcased an extraordinary turn from Christian Bale as a hard-working blue-collar steel worker. But what both films lacked was a strong, propulsive narrative. Here, Cooper has fashioned his screenplay from a story by the late Donald E. Stewart and provides his customary attention to detail to pump it with cinematic blood.

As a former actor, Cooper gives his performers room to breathe and he’s assembled a superlative troupe. As the veteran army officer struggling with his ingrained prejudice and shattered humanity, Christian Bale is at once invincible, confused and ultimately terribly vulnerable. As a settler who hitches a ride with Blocker’s company, Rosamund Pike is completely convincing, strong and heart-breaking. And as the noble victim of Blocker’s bigotry, Wes Studi could not be more charismatic or mesmerising.

The last great film to chronicle the savagery of the wild frontier was Alejandro González Iñárritu's The Revenant. But whereas the latter was entirely too long and at times a tad predictable, Hostiles fits easily within its own skin – even its smaller moments resonate within the whole. And, aided by the seductive cinematography of Masanobu Takayanagi and a subtly understated score by Max Richter, the film never loosens its grip. This is utterly compelling, uncompromising cinema of the highest order.



Human Flow  ****

When the Berlin Wall was pulled down in 1989, we are told that, at the time, there were eleven countries with similar border partitions. Today, in a world which is entirely more cosmopolitan and diversified, there are seventy. And when we think it couldn’t get any worse, an American president announces that he is going to build a wall between the US and Mexico. Human Flow, a documentary about the refugee crisis directed by the Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei, is anything if not expansive in scope. There have been many films about the problem, but Ai’s is the most comprehensive and must boast the most locations of any film ever made (it was filmed in 23 countries). Like Michael Moore, Ai Weiwei pops up all over the place, his benevolent and bulky form a part of the action, whether administering hot tea to the needy or filming Hezbollah brandishing their weaponry. Talking of Lebanon, it is here that a third of the country’s population is made up of refugees. In one single kilometre of one camp, 100,000 are pressed together in a tangle of human misery. This is a serious problem – one that the world has never seen on this scale. Ai foregoes the traditional voice-over in favour of informative captions and the testament of his subjects, the latter revealing the deprivations that they have suffered. And then there are the camps. The filmmaker visits fifteen in all, ramshackle cities of the dispossessed composed of tents and boxes, in countries as diverse as Thailand, Iraq, Macedonia and France. Ai also makes excellent use of drone footage, as if to try and quantify the vastness of the sea of the disenfranchised, displaced and disillusioned. But one really can’t comprehend the immensity of the situation. It takes a personal story, or a random image, to drive home the true desolation, such as a young man holding up a makeshift cardboard placard with the legend, ‘Are We Not Human?’ Dignity is not an option.



I Am Not Your Negro  ****      A year after the #OscarsSoWhite controversy, a powerful trickle of films like Moonlight, Fences and Hidden Figures has threatened to reverse the tide. However, the real change was represented in the non-fiction category. The Oscar winner for best documentary was O.J.: Made in America, which explored race in America through the lens of O.J.’s life. Then there was Ava DuVernay’s The 13th, about the imprisonment of blacks in America, as well as the autistic documentary Life, Animated, directed by the African-American Roger Ross Williams. Even the Italian documentary Fire at Sea, ostensibly about the inhabitants of the Mediterranean island of Lampedusa, was just as much about the African refugee problem, albeit revealed through the eyes of another race. And the final Oscar nominee for best documentary was I Am Not Your Negro, a dramatization of James Baldwin’s unfinished memoir, Remember This House. Commissioned as a recollection of his friendships with Malcolm X, Martin Luther King and Medgar Evers, the 1979 manuscript culminated in just thirty pages of notes. But what notes…

Samuel L. Jackson supplies his resonant timbre to the words, while the director Raoul Peck provides a smorgasbord of archive footage of racial hatred, movie clips and TV interviews. Peck, a documentarian and former Minister of Culture for Haiti, is a master of his form, smartly juxtaposing the context of his material. Particularly potent is the cut from Robert Kennedy’s prediction that, in forty years’ time, America could have a black man in the White House, to a shot of Barack and Michelle.

James Baldwin himself, whose Anglicised, affected and effeminate delivery is in fierce contrast to Jackson’s elocution, delivers a measured rhetoric of the necessary role of the black man in the white man’s world. Aged just 63, the writer died in 1987 and one hopes that he will look fondly on Peck’s visual and vocal interpretation. One would also like to think that the film serves more as a historical document than as yet another call for diversity in the arts and politics. However, with the sudden upsurge in racist graffiti and intimidation in the States since last November, Peck’s film is as frighteningly pertinent as ever.



Ice Age: Collision Course  *1/2

One would have thought that to segue into the fifth instalment of any franchise, somebody must have come up with a very special, even ingenious idea. Unfortunately, what 20th Century Fox describes as the “defining chapter” in their animated meal ticket isn’t so much an anything-goes stream of consciousness as a revenue stream of desperation. Here, the Pleistocene, merchandise-friendly woolly mammoths, sabre-toothed tigers, ground sloths and the epoch’s most irritating weasel are side-lined by a welter of additional trappings from flying saucers and teleportation booths to Daleks and unicorns. Really? When the aforementioned weasel Buck (voiced by Simon Pegg) adopts a pumpkin as his baby – with the ground sloth Sid (John Leguizamo) wondering what sex the squash is – you know that the franchise has lost the plot.

What plot there is involves Scrat, the sabre-toothed squirrel, who, in his increasing impetuosity to secure his wretched acorn, kicks off a cosmic cataclysm that not only bestows our planet with its first satellite – the moon – but precipitates the impending destruction of all life on earth. And while all this is going on, the mammoths Manny (Ray Romano) and Ellie (Queen Latifah) are coming to terms with the fact that their daughter Peaches (Keke Palmer) has found herself a mate, Julian (Adam DeVine), and is planning to leave home. Here, there be collisions of both parental and inter-planetary varieties.

The usual allusions to 2001: A Space Odyssey are duly referenced, and a few new characters introduced to clutter the stage. One such critter is the eyelash-batting Brooke (Jessie J), a sloth who sees romantic potential in Sid and provides the English singer with a chance to provide the number ‘My Superstar’ on the soundtrack. Gosh, it’s all so calculating. As for the experience of watching the film, it’s like being stuck in an elevator with the resident clown who’s had way too many drinks at the office party.



I, Daniel Blake  *****

Sometimes a film comes along that you feel should be on some kind of national curriculum. One such is Ken Loach’s I, Daniel Blake, winner of this year’s Palme d’Or, a gentle, angry drama that makes a virtue of its forensic scrutiny of the detail and workings of the welfare state. The film’s righteousness and relevance should, however, not be held against it, as it is a deeply affecting and occasionally heart-breaking work, the gloom alleviated by the indomitable spirit of Daniel Blake himself

Daniel Blake – beautifully inhabited by the stand-up comedian Dave Johns – is a 59-year-old widower who has suffered a heart attack and is seeking employment and support allowance. Yet, while he can build a house from scratch, he is no match for the labyrinthine bureaucracy inflicted on him by the state, in which the boxes he is forced to tick drag him into a downward spiral. Along the way – at the Job Centre Plus – he meets Katie (Hayley Squires), a single mother from London who is encountering her own frustrations with the system. Having complained to her landlord that her young son’s bedroom had a leak, she was thrown out, and then re-housed by the council in Newcastle, 300 miles away. While Daniel helps her out with her new flat’s faulty electrics, she struggles to survive, seemingly existing on the occasional apple. When, at a food bank, she collapses from starvation, the effect is almost unbearable. Meanwhile, Daniel is coping with the bugbears of modern technology. When told that he can get help to fill out a form for computer illiterates, he learns that the telephone number is “on-line.”

All this is dramatized in a low-key, analytical way that highlights the reality of Daniel’s dilemma. When, on the phone, he’s left hanging on for almost two hours listening to Vivaldi, we can but identify with his mounting frustration. Ironically, it’s the only music that Ken Loach allows us to hear in a film whose naturalism permits not an ounce of sentimentality or emotional manipulation. More importantly, it addresses a system that fails to work for many, however honest and dedicated their intentions. Yet it’s the humanity exhibited by the so-called ordinary people that proves to be the most profoundly poignant aspect of the film. Red tape may be gagging the vulnerable, but human kindness will always persist.


Inferno  ***

With the world’s population approaching eight billion, mankind has become the cancer of its own planet. And with our resources close to depletion, what are we to do? Well, Bertrand Zobrist (Ben Foster) has a plan. In order to preserve our species, a healthy cull is in order. And how best to filter out half of the population than through the construct of a pandemic?

This was (roughly) the premise of Dan Brown’s 2013 bestseller into which, once again, he has placed his protagonist Robert Langdon, professor of religious iconology and symbology.

Here, Langdon (Tom Hanks) wakes up with amnesia in a hospital in Florence, plagued by images of hell. Of course, amnesia is an excellent narrative devise, although this year it has already been appropriated by a fish (in Finding Dory). And by Jason Bourne. Nevertheless, Langdon has only a case of “mild retrograde amnesia” which means that, conveniently, his memory should return within a couple of days. Meanwhile, he’s trying to work out what he’s doing in Florence and why he’s got a bullet wound in his head. More worrying is his visions of the Apocalypse, images not far removed from the gruesome scenes depicted in Botticelli's ‘Map of Hell,’ itself inspired by Dante’s Inferno. However, he’s in the capable hands of the English doctor Sienna Brooks (Felicity Jones), who happens, by sheer coincidence, to be a fan of both Langdon and Dante. And while the professor is taking this all in, a female carabiniere arrives at the hospital and starts shooting at him and Sienna, killing another doctor in the process…

Dan Brown is in the business of producing page-turners (by the truckload) and Ron Howard’s adaptation of his novel starts spinning the pages from the get-go. It’s an awesome opener and Howard proves no slouch when it comes to cinematic suspense. And as Langdon and Sienna discover that they are being pursued by the police, shady government officials, corporate assassins and even agents of the World Health Organisation, the film plunges head first into rollercoaster mode. There are also the seductive locations of Florence, Venice and Istanbul and a thought-provoking thesis underpinning the whole thing. While fans of history, art, symbology and geophysical theory will no doubt be enthralled, the film is perhaps too much of a good thing. As Langdon’s clouds of confusion gradually disperse, we are left with a raft of characters of such layered motivation that the whole thing descends into farce. Less can often prove to be more. And for the film to veer from Dan Brown’s ingenious conclusion (no spoilers here) seems to be a choice that favours dramatic effect over intellectual resolution, thus reducing Inferno to a much more mundane animal.


The Innocents  ****

Polish films are not, as a general rule, enormously hearty affairs. Anne Fontaine’s Franco-Polish drama, based on true events, is nonetheless an extraordinary and extraordinarily powerful film. Set in a Polish convent in the bleak midwinter of 1945, it tells the story of how a young French Red Cross worker (Lou de Laâge) is drawn into the grim, cloistered world of that institution. The outcome is shocking and moving and the film itself superbly acted and exquisitely mounted. Recalling Pawel Pawlikowski’s Oscar-winning Ida (2013), another Franco-Polish film featuring a nun, The Innocents exposes even greater horrors but also more hope. In the former film, Agata Kulesza portrayed Ida’s intemperate and promiscuous Aunt Wanda and here plays her polar opposite, the stern and ascetic Mother Superior who puts the ‘honour’ of her convent before true charity. Her misguided thinking and cruelty, however, would not have been put to the test were it not for the atrocities visited on her house by the war, first by the Nazis and then by the Russians. As the young medic who comes to the nuns’ rescue at great personal risk, Lou de Laâge proves to be a star in the making. Fontaine herself may be found guilty of painting her story in conspicuous shades of black-and-white, but she’s a consummate filmmaker playing to her strengths.


It  **1/2

Poor Beverly. She’s unsettled by her first period, is the butt of brutal victimization at school and at home is being sexually abused by her father. Then the sink in her bathroom disgorges a torrent of blood that almost knocks her out. But she’s not the only 13-year-old in Derry, Maine, who’s having a hard time of it. There’s the new fat boy who is carving practice for the local bullies, there’s the kid suffering from a string of allergies (and an overbearing mother), the black boy who’s recently lost both his parents in a fire, the rabbi’s son who is failing to live up to his father’s expectations, the short-sighted, acrophobic Richie and Billy, who not only suffers from a terrible stutter but is grieving for his little brother who disappeared in mysterious circumstances a year earlier. What the children don’t know is than an evil, shape-shifting clown is picking off the younger residents of Derry, and in particular those in need of more than a little TLC.

What with the sabre-rattling of North Korea, the devastation wreaked by Harvey and Irma, the earthquake in Mexico and the violence in Myanmar, one can understand why audiences would want to flock to the multiplex for some escapism. Actually, with 2017 choked with more than forty remakes, reboots and sequels, it has proved to be a disastrous year at the box-office, with the lowest attendance recorded at US cinemas since the summer of 1992 – 25 years ago. A lot of optimism, then, is riding on the perceived commercial viability of this Stephen King adaptation, with expectations of a $70 million boost to the American box-office. Well, Andy Muschietti's It is itself a remake, King’s novel having previously been made into a 1990 American-Canadian miniseries. The new edition ends with the hopeful title of It – Chapter One and in all likelihood there will be a follow-up as horror films tend to gather commercial momentum thanks to the ancillary impetus of TV, streaming and DVD exposure. Besides, It cost a relatively modest $35 million (not counting the marketing budget).

It’s a shame, though, that Muschietti's version is such a generic affair, with a preponderance of overblown music and a clown that is as much a product of CGI as Bill Skarsgård’s knowing performance. Better are the child actors who recall a ragbag of Brat Pack lookalikes, from Jaeden Lieberher's Culkinesque Billy to Jack Dylan Grazer’s C. Thomas Howell-lite Eddie. Best of all, though, is Sophia Lillis as a spunky Molly Ringwald clone, complete with red hair and freckles. We’ll be seeing a lot more of this talented young actress. There’s also an air of Stand by Me about the film (itself a Stephen King adaptation), albeit with a lot riper dialogue. However, the gruesome set pieces draw far too liberally on familiar horror tropes, sometimes to laughable effect. Far more repugnant are the real-life circumstances of the young protagonists, with enough unpleasantness to tap into at least one phobia of any given audience member. Enjoy.



It Comes at Night  **      Talk about smoke and mirrors. Trey Edward Shults’ debut film, Krisha, was warmly received by the critics. Indeed, he is a fine architect of suspense, but his screenplay for this, his sophomore outing as writer-director, lets the side down. An exercise in claustrophobia and paranoia, It Comes at Night is set in a near future in which a pathogen would appear to have wiped out a large proportion of the American public. Shults keeps his cards pretty close to his chest, though, and unlike other thrillers in this genre there are no media broadcasts to fill in the blanks.

The film opens with a close-up of an elderly man breathing heavily and obviously on his last legs. He is the father of Sarah (Carmen Ejogo) and so Sarah’s partner, Paul (Joel Edgerton), does the decent thing, takes the old man out to the woods, shoots him in the head and incinerates him. Job done. There are nightmare sequences to come and – this really is cheating – dream sequences within dream sequences. The thing is, an audience quickly catches on to this sort of deceit.

What we know is that Paul, Sarah and their teenage son Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr) have barricaded themselves into their cabin in the woods and abide by a strict set of rules. Gas masks are routinely donned, doors locked and lights kept low. In fact, most of the movie takes place in the dark and we are at a loss to even guess the dimensions of the survivors’ house. Then there’s an intruder and he’s soundly beaten by Paul, dragged into the woods, stripped to the waste and tied to a tree for the night. In the morning, the poor chap appears to exhibit no signs of the plague and so, reluctantly, Paul permits the man (Christopher Abbott) to move in with them, along with the stranger’s wife (Riley Keough) and young boy. And so, as the two families endeavour to reach a harmonious equilibrium, a tense war of nerves ensues.

What follows is not a lot. For starters, the title of the film is maddeningly disingenuous. The ‘it’ might suggest that there is something supernatural lurking in them thar woods. But as we are left as much in the dark as the protagonists, this is never resolved. In fact, much is left unanswered, which really isn’t fair play. To give the film its due, it is a powerful if abstract mood piece; if, that is, you’re not bothered leaving the cinema scratching your head.



It's Only the End of the World  **1/2      Of course, it’s a matter of opinion. Louis, a successful playwright, hasn’t seen his family for twelve years. But now he has something important to tell them and he’s only planning to stay for lunch. Surely he can survive that… Xavier Dolan’s adaptation of Jean-Luc Lagarce’s play positions itself as a platform for four major performances from a quartet of acting heavyweights. Unfortunately, the film can’t help but look like what it is: the work of a talented young filmmaker giving a cinematic framework to a stage production. Most of the action takes place within the same bungalow and there’s tons of dialogue to digest, much of it mere calories to fill up the film’s modest 95 minutes. The dramatic protein is largely left unsaid: id est, Louis has come home to tell his mother and two siblings that he is dying of an unspecified illness. Louis being gay and the play having been written in 1990, we can but guess the malady – indeed, Jean-Luc Lagarce himself died of Aids in 1995. But with all the snide remarks, bellicose shouting and even an uncommon heatwave, the film smacks of Edward Albee and Tennessee Williams. The acting is provided by Nathalie Baye as the materfamilias, Vincent Cassel as Louis’ brutally insensitive older brother, Antoine, Léa Seydoux as Louis’ younger sister and Marion Cotillard as Antoine’s wife. However, only Gaspard Ulliel as Louis himself registers as a real human being, his long-suffering silences hiding depths of heart-breaking melancholy. Ulliel actually picked up the César for his role, a rare instance of under-acting winning the day. He is, though, terrific.



Jack Reacher: Never Go Back  **1/2      Perhaps Tom Cruise should have heeded the sentiment of the title of his new film: never go back. The first Jack Reacher instalment, cannily titled Jack Reacher, was a thing of beauty: a meticulously tooled thriller that played on the mythos of its eponymous hero, a former military cop who emerges out of the shadows to see justice done. One never saw him coming: he just happened to always be in the right place. Here, that gift is bestowed on a nameless assassin (Patrick Heusinger) who invariably seems to be one step ahead of Reacher in a familiar plot involving trumped-up charges, corrupt officials and decommissioned munitions. Of course, Reacher can always look after himself but there’s a chink in his armour: a 15-year-old girl (Danika Yarosh) whose mother claims Reacher is the father.

Edward Zwick, who previously directed Cruise in The Last Samurai (2003), is an efficient filmmaker and he keeps the plates spinning in an agreeable fashion. But the material he has been handed – from a script he co-wrote with Richard Wenk and Marshall Herskovitz from Lee Child’s novel – is painfully formulaic. While the proceedings are refreshingly old-school – there’s an awful lot of running down streets, across traffic and over rooftops – the rest is old hat. In the hope of consummating a telephonic flirtation with a Major Susan Turner (Cobie Smulders), Reacher is appalled to find that she’s been locked up on espionage charges. And even without knowing what a tall glass of water she happens to be, Reacher smells a rat. As a blind date, it provides more adrenalin than your usual night of passion and with a rebellious teenage girl thrown into the mix, it proves to be quite a tryst.

Jack Reacher remains an engrossing protagonist – he’s really good at filtering peripheral information and repackaging it as vital data – but Cruise seems a tad more wooden than he did the first time round. Cobie Smulders lends decent support as his smart, high-kicking cohort and Danika Yarosh (think of a teenage Patricia Arquette) is not bad as the thorn in their romantic side. But the maxed-up fisticuffs and familiar action scenarios (there’s even a chase through a parade in New Orleans’ French Quarter) reduces the material to the decidedly routine.


Jackie  **1/2      On the very day that the White House opened its private doors to a new First Lady, this study of JFK’s widow opened at cinemas across the UK. Who, one wonders, will play Melania Trump in the future? Jackie, or Jacqueline Kennedy, has already been played on screen by Katie Holmes, Jaclyn Smith, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Blair Brown and, in a fictionalised version, Jacqueline Bisset. But all these interpretations are eclipsed by Natalie Portman’s Golden Globe-nominated turn as the brittle, fact-obsessed fashion arbiter and socialite. It’s what’s known in the business as a character study. The actress’s transformation into the Sixties’ icon is certainly a remarkable feat, even if at times it borders on caricature. Still, you can’t take your eyes off her. Less successful is the film that frames her performance. Today, one largely takes for granted the invisible expertise that goes into creating a cinematic work, but here the Chilean director Pablo Larraín has done himself no favours. His visual palette is dull, Sebastián Sepúlveda's editing ungainly and the music a terrible, terrible mistake. When Mica Levi wrote the score for Jonathan Glazer's unnerving, surreal Under the Skin, her disquieting instrumentation was part and parcel of the film’s unique experience. Here, she seems intent on upstaging Portman’s contribution. When Jackie breaks the news of her husband’s death to their daughter Caroline, a moment of quiet would have produced a far more dramatic effect than the plangent crescendo Levi gives us. And for that Pablo Larraín alone is culpable. Nevertheless, Noah Oppenheim’s script offers many fascinating insights into this complex, tragic and contradictory woman. It spotlights both her intelligence and knowledge of her historical station. And her sense of place in the wider world. During an interview with a journalist from Life magazine (Billy Crudup), she sets the ground rules for what he can and cannot print. And, staring him straight in the face, the chain-smoking First Widow asserts: “And I don’t smoke.”


Jigsaw  ****     

This year, 2017, has been the most successful yet for the horror genre. Following a dismal late summer at the box-office, Stephen King’s It scared up $123 million in just one weekend at US cinemas. Add that to the commercial success of Get Out, Annabelle: Creation, Alien: Covenant and Happy Death Day, and the data speaks for itself. And that doesn’t count those films that reaped considerable critical acclaim, such as Julia Ducournau's Franco-Belgian Raw, a smart and hideously inventive retch-fest. Now we have Jigsaw, the eighth instalment in the sickest, longest-running franchise in the pantheon.

It’s always hard to review something that one isn’t a natural devotee of, particularly in the case of torture porn. But, as with the music of Marilyn Manson and The Prodigy, the paintings of James Ensor and the photography of Joel-Peter Witkin, there are both good and bad examples of the art. And just as the guillotine was a masterful tool of death, so Jigsaw is a masterpiece of horror.

Those of a more delicate sensibility may wish to read no further, as what follows describes stuff designed to make your toes curl (and your stomach heave). Jigsaw is the nickname of John Kramer, a former civil engineer who dedicated his life to conceiving elaborate and sadistic scenarios which his hapless, screaming victims were forced to navigate. Rigging his torture chambers with pulleys, chains, moving panels and spinning circular saws, Kramer anticipated his subjects’ every move, leading them deeper and further into untold thresholds of pain. A sort of puppet master of death, he chose his victims carefully: people he considered culpable of some wrongdoing. Thankfully, he died ten years ago – but you know what sequels are like…

Most sequels suffer from a case of diminishing artistic returns, but what the twin brothers Peter and Michael Spierig dish up here – from an ingenious script by Josh Stolberg and Peter Goldfinger – is both slick and compelling. There are twists aplenty, creative games to die in and devices to give Heath Robinson a migraine. Starting with the basic and building up to a space-age neck brace armed with laser cutters, the film is, for the most part, unlikely to inspire imitation from your common or garden thug. Sleekly photographed by Ben Nott and effectively scored by Charlie Clouser, Jigsaw delivers its effects with lip-smacking aplomb. And if you thought the autopsy sequences in Silent Witness were grotesque, you ain’t seen nothing yet. Sweet dreams. 



John Wick: Chapter 2  **1/2      There’s a scene in John Wick: Chapter 2 that is set on the rooftop of a New York building. There, Keanu Reeves meets up with Laurence Fishburne, the latter who is tending to his pigeons. Keanu plays the former hitman John Wick who has been forced out of retirement in order to honour an old pledge. Fishburne is the crime lord dubbed ‘The Bowery King’, and is only too aware of Wick’s current predicament, which has resulted in the wholesale slaughter of a multitude of heavily armed extras. “You’re not very good at retiring,” Fishburne observes. “I’m working on it,” comes Keanu’s reply. It’s a high note in a monotonous orgy of killing and Fishburne, in a roster of well-known faces, eats all his co-stars off the table. And, noting the $7 million bounty on John Wick’s head, he exclaims, “It’s Christmas! We’re going to Applebee’s after this.” It’s good to see the two actors together again, generating fond memories of their time in the altogether superior The Matrix. And as the Bowery King ministers to his pigeons, it recalls another ruthless criminal who sought similar avian respite, namely the drug dealer Marlo Stanfield in HBO’s The Wire.

And that’s the problem with John Wick: Chapter 2: it is a hodgepodge of scenes nicked from better movies, culminating in that old favourite, the shootout in a hall of mirrors. There’s nothing original in this formulaic sequel, although in its later stages it does attain a certain bloody majesty, thanks largely to the sleek cinematography of Dan Laustsen and the unceasingly inventive production design of Kevin Kavanaugh. Starting out like a direct-to-video quickie peopled by sneering B-movie villains, the film moves into more grandiose John Woo territory, laced with a deadpan black humour. A large chunk of the sequel is dedicated to an interminable duel between Keanu and Common, which begins in Rome, pauses for a chummy drink at a hotel bar, and continues in the New York subway, where the two actors shoot at each other while strolling along with their seemingly oblivious fellow pedestrians. It’s surreal, to say the least. Fans of John Woo’s affinity for endless shootouts might think they’re getting their money’s worth, but video game devotees may feel they’ve already played the game.


Journey’s End  ***1/2

In light of the recent slew of first-rate war films, Journey’s End may seem like something of an irrelevant footnote. Based on the 1928 play by R. C. Sherriff, it is set in the trenches of the First World War prior to the Germans’ Spring Offensive of March 1918. The original framework of the play is evident in the claustrophobic surroundings of the officers’ dugout, where Captain Stanhope (Sam Claflin) steadies his nerves with a regular supply of whiskey. His seniority is respected by those in his command, with only the outwardly panic-stricken Hibbert (Tom Sturridge) prepared to confront him. Then the keen and callow Second Lieutenant Raleigh (Asa Butterfield) joins their midst, who happens to have a personal connection to Stanhope…

Previously filmed three times before and twice on television, Journey’s End is a modern classic and Saul Dibb’s film version provides an ensemble of reliable actors some decent, pared-back dramatic meat. In light of the explicit nature of more recent war films, it is actually refreshing to encounter the mental mutilation of war rather than the physical. Saul Dibb is a competent if sometimes journeyman director, but he has secured first-rate acting from his cast, particulaly Paul Bettany who seems to really know how to fire up a pipe and to wield a needle and thread. It is one of his finest performances to date.


Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle  ***1/2

Since the release of the original Jumanji in 1995, the worlds of virtual reality and ‘gaming’ have made exponential leaps and bounds. In a way, then, this sequel would seem to offer a more pertinent slice of escapist entertainment. Following the mandatory prologue, set in 1996, the film jumps forward twenty years to the present, where four mavericks from Brantford High find themselves in detention and forced to tidy up the school basement. There, Spencer Gilpin (Alex Wolff), the school nerd, discovers a console game called ‘Jumanji,’ named after the Zulu word for “many effects.” Opting to take on the avatar of ‘Dr. Smolder Bravestone,’ Spencer coaxes his fellow miscreants into adopting their own alter egos. Then, lo and behold, they are literally transported into a whole new world: a world of prodigious plant life, gun-wielding hunters and very, very dangerous animals. And, only when they’ve completed the game’s death–defying obstacle course, can they return to their former selves.

While the four teenagers are engagingly played by Wolff, Ser'Darius Blain, Madison Iseman and Morgan Turner, their avatars are what really brings the film to life. Whereas the first Jumanji had to rely entirely on the comic arsenal of Robin Williams, its sequel has four comic talents to bat the ball around. And, surely, Dwayne Johnson – as Spencer’s avatar – has never been funnier. In spite of his spectacular physique, he is still every inch the insecure schoolboy and has to mutter to himself, “Don’t cry, don’t cry, don’t cry.” Even more wacky is the casting of Jack Black as Brantford’s spoiled princess Bethany Walker, who is now forced to come to terms with being an overweight, middle-aged man (“I look like a garden gnome!”). Kevin Hart, as ‘Fridge’, retains his gender and skin colour, but is reduced to a man half his size with a fatal appetite for cake. But the real surprise is Scotland’s Karen Gillan, whose plain-Jane wallflower Martha is transformed into a midriff-flashing, ass-kicking female commando, not a million miles from Lara Croft. A highlight is when Jack Black, every inch the modern prom queen, teaches Martha how to flirt, toss her hair and nibble her lower lip in order to distract two guards. Pleased with his tuition, Jack Black crows, “I’m just saying you’re a babe. Own it.” The joke is that the teenagers’ physical avatars are in direct contrast to themselves – and the cast pulls off the dilemma with comic panache.

Filmed in the jungles of Honolulu and directed at a cracking pace by Jake Kasdan, the film makes the most of its CGI (thundering rhinos, man-swallowing hippos, terrifying crocodiles), while tipping its hat to Raiders of the Lost Ark (Henry Jackman’s score steals more than a few notes from John Williams’ legendary theme). Above all, it’s a fun ride, slipping from moments of genuine humour to buttock-clenching suspense. And while Jack Black’s Bethany Walker cannot enjoy her new male appendage more, it’s handled discreetly enough to pass over the heads of younger viewers. At the screening I attended, the cinema was packed with the very young and they couldn’t stop laughing at the physical antics – while staying very quiet during the black mamba sequence.




The Jungle Book  ***      Walt Disney’s The Jungle Book of 1967 is as beloved today as it was back then. It’s unlikely that in 49 years audiences will look back as fondly on Walt Disney’s The Jungle Book of 2016. Of course, it’s an entirely different animal. Like the company’s reinvention of its Sleeping Beauty classic, Maleficent, Jon Favreau’s computer-generated imagining of Rudyard Kipling’s original is a darker, more naturalistic take. There are a couple of the old songs – ‘The Bare Necessities’ and ‘I Wan'na Be Like You’ – but the rest is a more dramatic, even savage affair. Make no mistake, the film is a pictorial miracle. Seldom has the rainforest of India looked so majestic and awe-inspiring – or as threatening. In Favreau’s version, the trees are bigger, the waterfalls steeper and the animals photo-realistic.

Audiences may be drawn by the star names – Bill Murray as the voice of Baloo, Ben Kingsley as Bagheera, Idris Elba as Shere Khan, Scarlett Johansson as Kaa, Christopher Walken as King Louie – but the voices are secondary to the imagery. In fact, much of the dialogue is indecipherable. In the film’s quest for visual spectacle, it’s neglected the importance of the spoken word – something Kipling would have baulked at.

It also perpetuates the cinema’s increasing need to darken family entertainment. From the later Harry Potter films to Maleficent itself and Snow White and the Huntsman, Hollywood seems bent on chilling the bones of its young audience. But Frozen, Inside Out and Disney’s Cinderella didn’t do too badly at the box-office. Thus, it’s bizarre to see Walken’s horrifying King Louie take on the mantle of Colonel Kurtz from Apocalypse Now, even to the extent of stroking his head in the shadows à la Brando. You almost expect him to mutter, “the horror…the horror.” Instead, he breaks out into ‘I Wan'na Be Like You.’

Jon Favreau’s The Jungle Book is such a hybrid: mind-boggling, terrifying, sometimes profound, but never particularly entertaining. With live-action versions of Beauty and the Beast, Mulan and The Sword in the Stone in the works, one hopes that the gift of levity will not be forgotten.


Justice League  **1/2

This may come as a shock: but the future of the planet is in peril. A horned devil called Steppenwolf – dubbed ‘the End of Worlds’ – returns to Earth to try his hand at global domination. Once beaten into eternity by a coalition of Atlanteans, ancient humans, strapping Amazons (on horseback) and even the gods of Olympus, Steppenwolf withered away, deprived of the nutrition of fear. But following the death of Superman at the end of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, the world is gripped by a new pessimism: nectar to Steppenwolf and his screaming hordes of demons. So it’s up to Batman (Ben Affleck) and Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) to rustle up a handful of metahumans to combat this new extraterrestrial threat.

With the Superman films starring Christopher Reeve, we discovered that a flying man in tights could be fun. With his Dark Knight trilogy, Christopher Nolan showed that the superhero genre could be elevated to an art form. Sadly, Zack Snyder's Justice League is just a pale imitation of those glory days. The current fad for pitching superheroes together is proving to be a case of diminishing returns. Teamwork is fine in the office, and in the military, but it’s just not tennis. There is something indefinably elemental in watching two Wimbledon champions smash their way to victory or loss. A doubles’ game just doesn’t cut it. And so it goes with superheroes assembled.

There’s a bunch of decent one-liners in Justice League, but the banter between the metahumans has none of the comic zing exhibited in Avengers Assemble. The funniest presence arrives in the form of Flash, played by, of all people, Ezra Miller (Kevin from We Need to Talk About Kevin). Flash is a geek in awe of his prodigious peers and is reticent to hype his own powers. He admits that he’s good at the viola, ice skating and sign language, but his real faculty is speed – he can move faster than light. He wants to join the super-league because, in his own words, “I need friends.” And, in a rare moment of quiet, he asks Batman, “What are your superpowers again?” To which the Caped Crusader replies, “I’m rich.” More of this would have given the film some comic oomph before the inevitable onslaught of digital disorder. Too much of it feels recycled, barmy and meretricious. There is no astonishment, no emotional engagement and certainly no real tears before bedtime.



King Arthur: Legend of the Sword  **      The Arthurian legends, much like Shakespeare, are ripe for reinvention. Thus we’ve had the Disney cartoon (The Sword in the Stone), the Lerner-Loewe musical (Camelot), Robert Bresson’s pared-down Lancelot du Lac and the outrageously farcical Monty Python and the Holy Grail. And now we’ve got geezers in armour. Guy Ritchie, in spite of his thematic reach, is not the most versatile of directors. The style he established with his first film, Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, remains the same, except more so. And so we have the wisecracking wide boys, the myriad flashbacks, the stop-start action sequences, the freeze frames, the slow motion and the footballer-as-actor (Vinnie Jones then, David Beckham now). However, Ritchie has amped up the volume, so the editing looks like it’s been crafted by a garden strimmer. This is not a film for anybody with epilepsy – or anybody susceptible to headaches.

The film’s computer-generated artificiality is evidenced from the opening shot: this is a world not so much conjured up from the ancient mists of time as from the contemporary sorcery of digital software. Ritchie’s visual influences are blatant: The Lord of the Rings, mainly. The inaugural battle scene, featuring titanic elephants, has little bearing in reality – or Arthurian myth. It’s an Arthurian video game, replete with nightmarish visions and soldiers falling from vertiginous heights. Arthur himself is just a boy at the start and so the tedious trudge of exposition begins. By the time Arthur has witnessed the death of his father and grows up in a brothel to become the handsome and strapping Charlie Hunnam, one’s head is spinning. And it doesn’t stop there. Arthur has a bone to pick with his uncle (a simmering Jude Law), but is reluctant to deploy the powers of the eponymous weapon, Excalibur.

It’s all incredibly convoluted and the complete antithesis of what storytelling should be. One has to catch one’s pleasures where one can, but these are few and far between. Ritchie does conjure up a certain visceral power and with his DP John Mathieson contributes a handful of striking images. One of these is a manifestation of the octopine Syrena, a multi-tentacled oracle complete with nipple-less mermaid attachments, recalling Ursula from Disney’s The Little Mermaid. There’s also a terrific score from Daniel Pemberton, who’s shaping up to be one of the finest film composers of his generation. Ritchie also gives us an excellent witch (or ‘mage’) in the form of Àstrid Bergès-Frisbey, a Franco-Spanish actress and former model. And Charlie Hunnam himself provides a muscular presence, although when forced to deliver lines like, “come on lads, chop-chop,” you feel his pain.


 

Kingsman: The Golden Circle  ****       

You know what sequels are like. It’s invariably a case of diminishing returns, depreciated ideas and a desperate need to make the second helping even bigger and brasher than the first. However, Kingsman: The Secret Service (2014) was so audacious and over-the-top in the first place, that it was hard to see where the scriptwriters Jane Goldman and Matthew Vaughn could take it. After all, Samuel L. Jackson’s lisping megalomaniac had planned to wipe out most of the human race via the distribution of his free (and lethal) SIM cards and had already shot dead the leading man, Colin Firth.

The director Matthew Vaughn admitted that writing the screenplay to The Golden Circle “was the hardest thing I've ever done” – but the effort was worth it. Whereas the first film frequently lurched into ostentatious silliness, its sequel is grounded by an ingenious premise that undermines the often formulaic depiction of the Bond villain. Here we have Poppy Adams (Julianne Moore), an all-American, all-smiling female entrepreneur whose ruse to dominate the world even makes some sickening sort of sense. Sugar, Poppy reasons, is far more addictive than cocaine and yet is completely legal, as is the consumption of alcohol and tobacco. Her goal is to end the global prohibition on drugs so that it can be formally regulated, thus eliminating drug-related crime and in the process giving her a total monopoly of the market.

Like all standard-issue villains, Poppy has created a fabulous lair in which to lie low, although this one is a little more outré than most. Confessing her nostalgia for Grease, American Graffiti and Happy Days, she has fashioned a luxurious 1950s’ jungle retreat in Cambodia complete with a huge American diner and a massive private cinema (showing Captain Fantastic). It is here that she unleashes her dastardly plan, the dissemination of a sophisticated toxin that contaminates the world’s recreational drug supply, turning its users first into blue-veined eyesores, then dancing dervishes, then catatonics and finally corpses. Then, in return for the free distribution of her “pharmaceutical” product, she will issue an antidote that will reverse the effects of her toxin, which has already infected a large percentage of the world’s population. Her campaign slogan? “Save Lives. Legalize.”

Meanwhile, Poppy has eradicated the London headquarters of the Kingsman Secret Service, along with all its members. However, because our hero Eggsy (Taron Egerton) was visiting the parents of his girlfriend in Sweden, he survived the attack and so teams up with fellow agent Merlin (Mark Strong) to fight another day. Then, in a labyrinthine contrivance, they are allied with the Kingsman’s American counterpart in Kentucky, an agency run by Jeff Bridges’ Champ (short for ‘Champagne’). And so with the help of a secret agent called Jack Daniels (Pedro Pascal), they set off across the world to foil Poppy’s plot.

All this is peppered with a carousel of riotous gags and often thrilling set pieces, with the introduction of a raft of colourful characters. And none come more colourful than Poppy’s pet hostage, a flamboyant rock star called Elton John (Elton John) who has, himself, indulged in a bit of pharmaceutical recreation.

Along with his all-star cast, Matthew Vaughn has included a slew of well-known figures who don’t play themselves. There’s a Burt Reynolds clone aped with panache by Pedro Pascal, Mark Arnold as a dead ringer for Oliver North (in the White House) and even an amoral US president dishing out fake news and showing little interest in the fate of foreigners. The latter is portrayed by Bruce Greenwood, who’s no stranger to US presidents, having previously occupied the Oval Office in both Thirteen Days and National Treasure: Book of Secrets. In fact, the in-jokes come thick and fast, including mischievous motifs from the James Bond songbook, a tribute to Channing Tatum’s Terpsichorean prowess and a grisly homage to a very famous scene from Fargo. There’s plenty more to catch, but the movie races along so fast that it’ll take several viewings to absorb it all. Indeed, there’s more visual wit in any given five minutes than most films can brag about in two hours.



Kong: Skull Island  ***      In 1973, the US Army began to withdraw its troops from Vietnam. At about the same time, American International Pictures was prepping a movie called The Land That Time Forgot. This serendipity would have been lost on Lieutenant Colonel Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson), a battle-hardened soldier who, in his own head, was not finished with fighting the Viet-Cong. Then he gets a call from a government agent (John Goodman) to escort a gaggle of explorers to an unchartered island in the South Pacific, an ecosystem protected from the outside world by a unique meteorological anomaly. Along with a former SAS soldier (Tom Hiddleston) and a photojournalist (Brie Larson), Packard ushers a force of thirteen helicopters to a land that, indeed, time had forgot. And the Kong he encounters is considerably more fearsome than the Cong he fought in Vietnam.

No doubt aimed at the audience that lapped up Jurassic World (worldwide gross: $1.7 billion), this reboot of the King Kong franchise definitely ups the ante. Here, we not only have Kong but a whole slew of humongous critters with very inventive ways of destroying their prey. But whereas the Jurassic Park series was largely based on scientific logic, Kong: Skull Island expects its viewers to take a leap of faith. These monsters are strictly make-believe creations (besides Kong, of course, who is a very big gorilla) and we have to accept that they were around in 1973, albeit hidden behind a huge bank of clouds. The human element is also a problem: besides John C. Reilly’s amiable pilot, there’s not really a sympathetic character in sight. Even the Oscar-winning Brie Larson, standing in for Fay Wray, fails to engage our emotions, although she’s given a couple of nice one-liners. And the same goes for Tom Hiddleston, whose natural charisma is not allowed to breathe. Consequently, the film is deprived of any opportunity for suspense or emotional involvement.

The real star of the film is the director Jordan Vogt-Roberts, who has a good eye for a muscular image and keeps things at an entertaining level. And although the film looks terrific, the soundtrack lets the side down. The vocal emanations of the monsters are oh-so derivative and you’d think that the US Army was obsessed with Creedence Clearwater Revival. No doubt there will be fans, although they’ll have to wait three years for the projected sequel. Meanwhile, there’s always the monster movie Colossal, which opens in the UK in May.


La La Land  ****1/2

Boy meets girl. Boy gives Girl the finger. Girl forgives Boy. Slowly, falteringly, Boy and Girl fall into step, even though she hates jazz and he plays the piano like an angel. She’s an actress, although she’s got little to show for it – but he believes in her. They’re made for each other, except that their respective dreams keep getting in the way…

Musicals are thin on the ground these days, let alone ones that celebrate the enduring bond of love. The writer-director Damien Chazelle started out as a jazz drummer and his second film, Whiplash, for which he received an Oscar nomination for best screenplay, was all about a jazz drummer. Here, he expands his canvas to include the awful cattle call of acting auditions and has struck oil with his leading lady, Emma Stone, who plays the struggling Mia Dolan. Ryan Gosling’s not bad, either, and plays the piano like an angel.

The film starts with a flourish, plugging the fact that it’s shot in CinemaScope, and features a terrific opening pan alongside an LA highway clogged with traffic. But soon the disgruntled drivers are bursting into song and performing some athletic Terpsichorean moves. So, right from the start we know that we’re in the midst of an old-fashioned musical, albeit with a fresh and contemporary squeeze. And while Gosling’s piano solos provide the heartbeat of the film, Emma Stone (at her sassy best) contributes riveting capsules of drama in audition after audition. Tipping his hat to past cinematic glories (referencing everything from Rebel Without a Cause to Albert Lamorisse's The Red Balloon), Chazelle shakes up the genre with pizzazz. The whole film is steeped in longing and panache, one scene blending into the next in a blizzard of smart segues. Yet it is so much more than an exercise in style, its tale of trampled dreams, lost love and second chances building to a soulful, affecting whole.


Lady Macbeth  ****1/2

With his feature directorial debut, William Oldroyd puts the art into arthouse. Exhibiting an assured narrative hand, Oldroyd unfolds his comic-tragedy in a series of tableaux that recall the paintings of Hammershøi (and to a degree, Vermeer). Such is his eye that it’s almost enough just to watch his protagonist, Katherine Lester, waft around the corridors of the stately home in which she is imprisoned. There is a danger of such films to look as if they were shot in a flagship National Trust property, but the austere minimalism of the furnishings here exactly mirror the claustrophobic strictures of the Lester home (if one may call it a home). The other prize of the film is the performance that Oldroyd has elicited from the 20-year-old Florence Pugh. Exuding a mix of fear and defiance, her exquisite face is at once a mask and a map of her tortured soul and in spite of the horrendous revenge she metes out, one cheers her along. This, then, is another illustration of great drama, in which one’s own moral equilibrium is wrong-footed. Katherine is a monster. But in a few elegant strokes, Oldroyd reveals how that monster is born. And rebellion, when it is justified, is always fun to watch. The final triumph of this distinctive and brilliant film is the balance of dark humour, horror and artistry, fine-tuned to perfection by Oldroyd and the performance of Pugh, working from an efficient screenplay by Alice Birch. You just don’t know whether to laugh, cower or sigh along with the beauty of it all.


Last Flag Flying  **

Considering his illustrious standing, the writer-director Richard Linklater has packed in a lot of movies most cinemagoers won’t have heard of. His latest, an unofficial sequel to the 1973 Jack Nicholson vehicle The Last Detail, is certainly not one of his best. Although adapted from the novel by Darryl Ponicsan (who also penned The Last Detail), Last Flag Flying feels like it was resurrected from a stage play. It’s basically a three-hander and its characters could only have been thrown together by fate, or by the contrivance of a screenwriter. Here, Linklater has teamed up with Ponicsan to construct a noble but plodding drama about three ex-Marines who reunite in 2003 to bury one of their own. The most interesting character is Larry ‘Doc’ Shepherd, an ex-con and stock taker nicely underplayed by Steve Carell (in stark contrast to his Bobby Briggs in Battle of the Sexes). Unfortunately, Shepherd is woefully underwritten. Instead, we have the tiresome and profane Sal Nealon with most of the dialogue and, in the clutches of Bryan Cranston, he really is an insufferable bore. And to balance these two extremes there is Laurence Fishburne’s Richard Mueller, a gentle giant and a preacher of the gospel. What follows is a road movie which feels as artificial as it is heavy-handed, with way too much acting in the mix. To counter this, Linklater has opted for a dull visual palette, which constantly draws attention to itself, as does Graham Reynolds’ sentimental score. The theme of military hypocrisy is a topic worth exploring, of course, but the film’s outdated milieu seems an odd setting to place it.



The LEGO Batman Movie  **

In the make-believe universe of Legoland, liberties are taken. And Batman is given an almighty makeover. As the crime fighter himself comments on the logos of Warner Bros, DC Entertainment and RatPac (“that logo is macho”), we know we’re in for a meta ride. And as the plastic Lego version of Batman battles his old nemesis The Joker, we learn a lot of new things about the Dark Knight. Without giving too much away, when The Joker takes over Wayne Manor, he uncovers some of the occupant’s guilty secrets. Raiding Batman’s private stash of DVDs, he reveals that the Caped Crusader is a sucker for the romcoms Marley & Me, Must Love Dogs and Serendipity. We also discover that our hero is afraid of clowns and snakes, and in particular “snakeclowns.” But more than anything, Batman is scared of his own humanity and is unable to mouth those three special words to The Joker: “I – hate – you.”

Some films defy critical analysis. Lego as a narrative art form? Well, in animation, you can get away with anything and The LEGO Batman Movie gets away with a lot. It must’ve been a copyright nightmare as heroes and villains from a toy cupboard of sources are thrown together in a pop-cultural maelstrom. Only in one’s maddest dreams might one have imagined Voldemort, the Daleks, the Wicked Witch of the West and King Kong teaming up to take on the Caped Crusader. Of course, it’s one big in-joke.

But self-awareness can only take you so far. Deadpool pulled it off because it was the ridiculous pitted against a rough approximation of what is human. Besides, Wade W. Wilson (Ryan Reynolds) had cancer to beat as well as the bad guys. But there’s nothing human in The LEGO Batman Movie: it’s an unfettered orgy of brand names played out against a backdrop of one-liners. No doubt the film’s five credited scriptwriters enjoyed themselves enormously conjuring up these gags and they’re likely to elicit a number of smiles from an adult audience. There’s enough energy, too, to keep the kids distracted, although they’d probably have more fun at a bring-your-own-Lego sleepover.


Lies We Tell  **

Talk about a missed opportunity. Here we have a drama shot in Yorkshire, financed by Bradford International Film Associates, with an Anglo-Indian director at the helm and a reasonably impressive cast above the title. More significantly, Mitu Misra’s Lies We Tell is a thriller set in the heart of the Yorkshire Muslim community.

Harvey Keitel plays an American gangster whose loyal chauffer Donald (Gabriel Byrne) is left to clear up the former’s mess when matters come to a head. The interesting bit is that Donald has to eradicate all trace of his employer’s mistress, Amber (Sibylla Deen), who is the cousin and ex-wife of a notable Muslim in the area, who also happens to be a gangster.

Unfortunately, Gabriel Byrne is woefully miscast as the lowly, long-suffering dogsbody, while the Muslims are drawn as stereotypes. Nothing rings remotely true and the whole thing feels like an extended TV drama slicked up by an operatic score from the venerable Polish composer Zbigniew Preisner. Scenes in Bradford in which the white man is portrayed as the underdog are well shot, but the rest is so contrived as to beggar belief.



Life  ***1/2

A team of astronauts discovers life on Mars. At least, they detect a unicellular lifeform taken from a sample of Martian soil. Aboard the International Space Station, the six-member crew has successfully intercepted a space probe and have isolated the organism in a petri dish. And what they find is unlike anything human science has encountered before. Furthermore, it appears to be regenerating itself. Quickly developing into a multicellular organism, the microscopic Martian is already exhibiting signs of curiosity, above and beyond any hint of trepidation. And it’s growing extremely fast indeed…

This is the third mainstream American film in eighteen years to be called Life, which may indicate a certain lack of originality. It also bears a startling resemblance to another sci-fi horror film with a one-word title. It’s unfortunate, too, that an English actor (Ariyon Bakare) turns out to be the vessel for the lifeform’s dramatic entrance. However, if one is willing to overlook these similarities, Life has enough generic bite to keep one’s toes curled in nervous apprehension. And with actors of the calibre of Jake Gyllenhaal, Ryan Reynolds and Rebecca Ferguson in the mix, the human element is well represented. If some of the action is a little confusing, the basic thrust of the horror is pretty damn clear. Life certainly delivers the goods.



The Light Between Oceans  ***1/2      Forgiveness is easier than resentment. One need only forgive once – resentment can take an entire lifetime. It is this sentiment that propels the central heartbeat of this old-fashioned, sweeping (and wind-swept) adaptation of M.L. Stedman's 2012 novel. In literature – and in its cinematic offspring – great fat white lies are the fertilizer of narrative. And the moral conundrum here – putting the happiness of oneself and others before what is legally or morally right – is stretched through the wringer.

It is 1918 and the square-jawed Tom Sherbourne (Michael Fassbender) has a lot of ghosts to lay. The position of lighthouse keeper on a deserted outcrop of Western Australia would seem to be the perfect distraction to recuperate from the horrors of the Great War. Having served with distinction for four years in the trenches, Tom still can’t reconcile his guilt for surviving.

Michael Fassbender has a terrific face and the writer-director Derek Cianfrance (Blue Valentine, The Place Beyond the Pines) knows the value of the close-up. There is a high snot quotient in his latest film, and cynics might wish to steer a wide berth. But it is nevertheless rewarding to encounter a work so meticulously crafted, from the heartfelt tenor of the performances (courtesy of Fassbender and his Oscar-winning co-stars Alicia Vikander and Rachel Weisz) to the cinematography of Adam Arkapaw and the luscious strains of Alexandre Desplat's score.

If the film does prove to be heart-breaking, then one may have been paying attention. The power is in the detail and the nuance. By saying so little, Fassbender conveys so much – the unconscionable horrors he has witnessed on the Front cannot be put into words. And because the film’s generous length (132 minutes) allows the audience to invest in the characters, when the first ripple of discord plucks at Tom and his wife Isabel’s happiness, we should be disturbed. Yet the couple’s first argument is predicated upon a misunderstanding. Tom was hoping to surprise his wife (and his gesture is, indeed, intensely moving), but as he says later, he himself “is not too keen on surprises.” And that is precisely what the film is about: everybody trying to do the right thing. But who are we to say what is right? And therein lies the tragedy of the human condition.



The Limehouse Golem  **

Audiences have not changed much over the millennia. Here, the focus is on the bloodthirsty theatregoers who flocked to the playhouses of East London for their cheap ale and tales of unspeakable acts of murder. Likewise, there would seem to be an unquenchable appetite for Victorian mayhem, as evinced by the countless books on Jack the Ripper, the myth of Sweeney Todd and such TV fodder as Ripper Street. Jane Goldman’s adaptation of Peter Ackroyd’s 1994 novel Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem dips its toes into both the seedy world of vaudeville and serial murder, while coming up with a stellar cast of suspects running the gamut from Karl Marx to the legendary vaudevillian and drag queen Dan Leno. There is a juicy film to be made of the life of Dan Leno (he ended his days in the Camberwell House Asylum), but this is not it. In fact, Juan Carlos Medina's film is a series of missed opportunities. As Leno, Douglas Booth provides a rather underwhelming impression of the comic, leaving the real acting to his leading lady Olivia Cooke, for whom this is a plum part. Previously known for the American films Ouija and Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, as well as the TV series Bates Motel, the Manchester-born Cooke has fun as the aspiring actress Lizzie Cree accused of poisoning her husband (Sam Reid). The detective on the case is none other than Bill Nighy as Inspector Kildare, sweeping through the crowded streets of Limehouse with a troubled air. Like every character he, too, has a skeleton in his closet, described by one constable as a man “not of the marrying kind.” Unfortunately, this side of Kildare’s makeup is not explored and he is left largely as a one-dimension cipher. In fact, besides Lizzie Cree, there is not a single character to root for and Lizzie’s own backstory is a little too weighted in her favour (she was a poor lass tortured by her mother with a red hot poker for being abused – and you don’t get unluckier than that). Indeed, the film piles on the grimness with a shovel, the murders themselves depicted with forensic detail and horrific sound effects. The endless flashbacks and an improbable race against time merely detract further from any sense of engagement. Stick to Ripper Street.



Lion  ****

Every year, more than 80,000 children go missing in India. Saroo, five-years-old at the time, became parted from his older brother at a bustling railway station and never saw him again. Seeking a way home, Saroo got locked in a goods train and was transported 1,600 kilometres to Calcutta. There, he found out what it meant to be homeless and adopted a sheet of cardboard for his mobile bed. He also found out what the true currency was for lost little boys in Calcutta…

Covering over quarter of a century, Lion is an epic paean to hope, memory and the human spirit. As long as Saroo retained the images of his childhood village in his head and the modest vocabulary of his local Hindi dialect, he had a chance to retrace his steps, to find his way home. And so the film follows the life of this misplaced child, in his early years played by the captivating newcomer Sunny Pawar and as an adult by Dev Patel.

If the film’s title seems misleading, its meaning delivers a genuine punch at the story’s end, as if the audience could take any more emotional impact. But the director Garth Davis, whose first feature this is, is not in the business of pushing any buttons as this true-life story provides him with all the drama he needs. Latterly best known as the co-director of the highly acclaimed Anglo-Australian TV series Top of the Lake, Davis exhibits an extraordinarily fluid cinematic flair. His future as a world-class filmmaker would seem assured.


Live by Night  **

They who live by night are the gangsters who profited from Prohibition, among other things, according to Ben Affleck’s lugubrious voice-over. Affleck plays Joe Coughlin who, after surviving the First World War, swore never to take orders again. Instead, he wants to sleep all day and thrive on crime at night. He has some help, too, he says, as he has the inside track on the Irish mobster Albert White (Robert Glenister), whose “girlfriend was my inside man.” Live by Night, which Affleck also wrote, produced and directed, is full of such dialogue, which is more like a string of sound bites than real speech. But that’s what happens when you adapt a novel by Dennis Lehane. In fact, the film is little more than period tinsel, a lot of posturing and a series of magnificent sets, as it chugs from one showdown to the next. Affleck is no mean director of actors and has elicited some peachy performances from his cast, in particular the English actor Robert Glenister as White, Matthew Maher as a particularly despicable member of the Ku Klux Klan and Sienna Miller as Coughlin’s Irish “inside man” who pronounces “fucking” as “focking.” But nobody can touch Chris Cooper as the corrupt sheriff of Tampa, who reminds us that you don’t have to behave like Christoph Waltz to be a man of conflicted morality. If only Affleck were a better director of himself, who for most of the film acts like something you’d purchase from Ikea. And that’s the ultimate problem with Live by Night: there’s no emotional centre. It’s more Michael Mann’s Public Enemies than Brian De Palma’s The Untouchables. Even a touch of camp, which Al Pacino brought so memorably to De Palma’s Scarface, would have brought a flicker of electricity to the tedium.



Logan Lucky  **1/2

Let us be clear: Logan Lucky is extremely confusing. A sort of dysfunctional, redneck revision of the Ocean’s 11+ films, it marks the return of the Oscar-winning director Steven Soderbergh, following his retirement after the completion of Behind the Candelabra (2013). Soderbergh’s new film, from an original screenplay by an unknown writer (going under the moniker of Rebecca Blunt), would seem to be right up the heistmeister’s street. It’s a slick, star-studded affair and is quite ingenious in its plotting. Unfortunately, its protagonist, an inarticulate and lumpish lug with a pronounced limp, too often resembles the film that he inhabits. He is Jimmy Logan, a brooding construction worker and former petty crook played by Channing Tatum. Having lost his wife, and then his job, Jimmy is desperate for cash to hire a divorce lawyer and to set his life to rights. An employee at the Charlotte Motor Speedway complex before his untimely dismissal, he sees a way to rob the place blind thanks to their pneumatic tube money distribution system and some opportune sinkholes. It’s complicated, but then Jimmy has a nose for elaborate systems, as evinced by the opening scene in which he fixes the engine of a pickup truck.

Like many of his cohorts, Jimmy Logan is a laid-back good-ol’-boy and Soderbergh’s Logan Lucky is as mellow and easy-going as an evening on the porch in the Deep South. The film is not without its perks, but it isn’t until Jimmy’s heist starts developing problems that an element of tension flickers into life. Many of the scenes display a colourful novelty, but seem more like picturesque detours than anything resembling a narrative thrust. There is, however, the aforementioned cast. As Logan’s unlucky, one-armed brother, Adam Driver never shifts his mask of melancholy, while Meg Ryan’s son Jack Quaid is a hoot as Fish Bang, a gormless hillbilly sporting the tattoo Dangerus [sic] on his arm. He and Sam Bang (Brian Gleeson, son of Brendan) are the younger brothers of the safecracker and explosives expert Joe Bang, played with scenery-chewing delight by Daniel Craig. When the latter stages a prison riot, it is not over the conditions of the facility but because the inmates have been denied a copy of George R.R. Martin's The Winds of Winter (which, at the time of going to press, has yet to be published).

Then the pay-off of the film’s final chapter just limps into a muddy resolution that is not immediately explicit. And with the last-minute addition of yet another character – a cop played by Hilary Swank – the film just wraps itself up. Ultimately, then, the joke would appear to be on the viewer.



The Lost City of Z  ***      Like many recent films, James Gray’s The Lost City of Z sheds light on an extraordinary figure until recently unknown to the public at large. Percy Fawcett was not only a visionary and a courageous and tenacious explorer, but a redoubtable cartographer, geographer, archaeologist and artillery officer. While “unfortunate in his choice of ancestors,” to quote Murray Melvin’s dignitary, Fawcett pulled himself up the military ladder to banish any stain on his family name. Scanning two decades, this film of the explorer’s life reveals a man driven to prove the existence of a lost civilisation in the heart of the Bolivian rainforest. And in spite of the inherent dangers – disease, starvation, insubordination, hostile natives, snakes and even a piranha attack – Fawcett returned again and again to determine his claim.

There is no doubting the pictorial quality of this old-fashioned biography of the explorer, nor Charlie Hunnam’s ability to fill Fawcett’s manly shoes. There is also creditable support from an unrecognisable Robert Pattinson as Fawcett’s aide-de-camp and in particular Sienna Miller as the abandoned wife. However, considering the dramatic potential, the film is mysteriously low-key and detrimentally slow. After the two-hour mark it does begin to attain an almost hallucinogenic quality, in no small part thanks to Christopher Spelman's persistent score. In light of last week’s announcement in The Lancet that a native people from the Bolivian jungle have the healthiest hearts ever studied by science, it’s a shame that a better film was not at hand to capitalize on the Amazonian Indian experience. One can but imagine what sort of power a director like Alejandro González Iñárritu would have brought to the same material.



Loveless  ***      

Andrey Zvyagintsev's last film, Leviathan (2014), was powerful, pervasive, poetic and shocking. With Loveless, the director still exerts a mastery of his form and skilfully wallows in the bleak wintry landscape of Moscow and its environs. He’s also lured starkly naturalistic performances from his cast in order to paint a grim portrayal of a disintegrating marriage and the domestic unit as battlefield. On the radio, there’s talk of Armageddon, and later the horrors of the Ukrainian conflict. His protagonists, when not trading insults, are glued to their mobile phones. Zvyagintsev would seem to be trading in his country’s propensity for gloom, and brandishing it with nationalistic pride. It’s a profoundly depressing film, but also a brave depiction of a country in political and domestic crisis. No wonder the government and Ministry of Culture wanted to have nothing to do with it. But it’s hard to know which cinemagoers will want to share Zvyagintsev's worldview.


Loving  ***1/2

Every change in state legislation comes with a story. But that doesn’t mean the story is always worth telling. However, the horror behind the predicament faced by Richard and Mildred Loving is that, although legally married, they were not allowed to cohabitate under Virginia state law – or otherwise face the consequences of a prison sentence. Because Richard was a white man and his wife was a black woman. The writer-director Jeff Nichols is at great pains not to manipulate the emotions of his audience, hoping, perhaps, that the story itself is strong enough to hold the attention. Ironically, the most gripping element in the film is the apparent inability of Richard and Mildred to express their love, or to live up to their name. They occasionally squeeze hands and produce children, but the love that binds them together is tacit. But of course they must love each other because they are willing to risk prison to be together. In a strange way, the utter mediocrity of the couple, in particular Richard’s inarticulate and laconic demeanour, draw us to the characters as if we were observing a documentary. Joel Edgerton, who can apparently play anything, blends into Richard Loving like a chameleon, a socially awkward bricklayer who sees no harm in marrying the most beautiful woman in his small community. As Mildred, Ruth Negga – an Irish-Ethiopian actress – commands every scene she’s in, growing from a shy and timid wallflower into the public voice of her family’s cause. As a portrait of true-life miscegenation, Loving proves to be a far more credible treatise than Amma Asante’s not dissimilar A United Kingdom. In the latter, we were expected to believe that the inherently glamorous Rosamund Pike was the dowdy clerk in a firm of underwriters. On the other hand, Ruth Negga, who is also a natural beauty, inhabits Mildred Loving with a wise resignation that is completely plausible.


Manchester by the Sea  ****

There’s a giant emotional elephant at the heart of Kenneth Lonergan’s latest film. And it’s what haunts the waking hours and sleepless nights of blue-collar janitor Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck). He’s not the most agreeable of protagonists, being a moody, angry and socially awkward human being. He picks fights in bars and is reprimanded by his boss (Stephen McKinley Henderson) for speaking back to a customer, but then Lee has an awful lot on his mind. Then, as his life coils into ever decreasing circles, a tragedy hits him in the solar plexus. He finds himself the sole guardian of his brother’s son, Patrick, a young man living the life that Lee himself has lost…

There are no huge emotional showdowns in Lonergan’s third feature. Real life trundles on in all its banality when a sentence or a paragraph break is punctuated by a sudden shard of tragedy. Like in real life. Lonergan’s strength as a filmmaker is to resist the temptation of melodrama and to create an almost documentary-like realism. Yet he coats his prosaic scenes with a cinematic finesse, overlaying his shots of a barren, snowbound New England with a glorious classical score. It’s an eloquent counterpoint to the inarticulate demons that haunt his characters, trapped in the routine of their lives.

Casey Affleck is the most unassertive of actors and seldom even appears to be acting. The film’s showiest performance – if you can call it that – rests with the young Lucas Hedges as Patrick, who at times resembles a lanky, teenage version of Matt Damon, one of the film’s producers. Michelle Williams is good, too, although she is perhaps too famous a face to fit in with the film’s sense of humdrum anonymity. In tone, the film resembles Mia Hansen-Løve’s exquisitely intelligent Things to Come, like catnip to psychoanalysts everywhere. If it fails to generate the same level of drama as Lonergan’s previous outings You Can Count on Me (2000) and Margaret (2011), its pleasures prove to be more cerebral. Indeed, one of the most powerful scenes culminates with a noise off-screen that lasts no longer than two seconds: the sound of chinking glass. Of course, it screams volumes.



Maze Runner: The Death Cure  *1/2

The neat thing about the first Maze Runner (2014) was the mystery of it all. The characters, like the audience, were completely baffled. Waking from a drug-induced sleep, they found themselves trapped in a strange ‘glade’ surrounded by a maze of moveable monoliths of stone and iron. WTF? With no memory of their past lives, these desperate young men discover that the only way to escape is to try and out-run the monoliths before being squished. The sequel, Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials (2015) – also adapted from James Dashner’s literary trilogy – opened the story out to reveal a dystopian world in which our heroes are pursued by merciless, enigmatic forces. And now, three years later, Thomas (Dylan O'Brien), Newt (Thomas Brodie-Sangster) and their fellow resistance fighters must try and infiltrate the last city on earth to save their fellow runner Minho (Ki Hong Lee). You see, he, like them, appears to be immune to a terrible virus that has ravaged the earth. Ah, that begins to explain things…

There is so much going on in Maze Runner: The Death Cure that it might have benefitted from being partitioned into two films. However, that would not have spared us its repetition nor its silliness. Anyone with a passing knowledge of physics, ballistics, pyrotechnics or even the properties of plate glass will just laugh for all the wrong reasons. But even that might have been forgiven had the film’s tone been a little more tongue-in-cheek. As it is, it is all terribly serious, as if it were dishing up this dystopian nonsense for the first time in cinema history. Anybody who hasn’t been exposed to The Hunger Games, the Divergent film series, The Cabin in the Woods, World War Z, Stephen King’s Under the Dome, Mad Max Fury Road, or any number of similar escapades, might be seriously surprised. Others will just be looking for any semblance of originality.

As the villain, the Irish actor Aidan Gillen provides a modicum of novelty by whispering most of his dialogue. Then he shoots a character in the back as she is standing directly in front of our hero. She goes down like a ninepin but our hero is unscathed. How on earth did she stop a bullet at close range? As for the plate glass, it seems to have a life of its own depending on the demands of the plot. But, besides the dumb dialogue, the film’s worst fault is the endless succession of last-minute rescues. Once might have been forgivable, but to turn the cliché into a recurring motif is downright lazy and insulting.



Me Before You  ***

We were all somebody different before we met that somebody special. But the title to Jojo Moyes’ 2012 novel – and subsequent screenplay – is misleading. This is about Louisa Clark after she has met Will Traynor, a quadriplegic who, in the hands of Sam Claflin (bad metaphor, but it will have to do), is as dashing as he is disparaging. Thea Sharrock's film is a tearjerker and you get what you ask for. Inevitably, it’s a generic affair, but it has a number of accomplished touches that elevate it above the Mills & Boon norm.

As Ms Clark – or ‘Clark’ as Will insists on calling her – Emilia Clarke is a bolt of vitality. Some might find her a tad vexatious (think Sally Hawkins in Happy-Go-Lucky) and Will himself praises her “sweet smile, ridiculous clothes and silly jokes.” But her good nature and dogged resolve win through and Emilia Clarke has the stamina and conviction to pull it off. Ms Clarke really does make us believe in Ms Clark. As Will’s parents, Janet McTeer and Charles Dance make a convincing match, while Jenna Coleman also registers strongly as Louisa’s level-headed sister. The film also dares to tackle themes that lesser efforts will not have dared to broach (no spoilers here, though), giving Me Before You a definite edge.

Naysayers will no doubt complain about the wealth and physical perfection of this particular quadriplegic – and the commensurate pulchritude of Emilia Clarke – but, hey, this is a romantic weepie, not a social tract from Ken Loach. And it’s a good deal more plausible than Sam Claflin’s last romantic outing, Love, Rosie (2014). It also contains one of the best smooches in recent cinema memory. Besides, when one visits a masseur, one expects to be manipulated.



Mechanic: Resurrection  **

Few actors can lay claim to having appeared in so many sequels. Or remakes. And Mechanic: Resurrection is the sequel to a remake. The original The Mechanic (1972) was directed by Michael Winner, which can hardly bestow much confidence in the franchise. But it’s Jason Statham up to his old tricks and at the age of 48 the actor shows no sign of slowing down or changing his spots. His fans probably won’t be disappointed.

He plays Arthur Bishop, a former assassin who’s gone off the grid. He’s now living in Rio de Janeiro, which a caption helpfully informs us is in Brazil. He uses a bog standard Nokia and favours vinyl over CDs – or streaming – because he’s an old school kind of guy. He can also look after himself, so when he’s approached by a strange woman with a small army in tow, he manages to eliminate most of her foot soldiers before jumping off a cable car and onto a passing hang-glider. He really does put James Bond to shame.

We then cut to Koh Lipe in Thailand, where Bishop visits an old friend, Mae (Michelle Yeoh), who lives on an idyllic beach. It’s a good place to hide. But Bishop’s skill at disguising his hits as accidents precedes him and an English gangster called Crain (Sam Hazeldine) tracks him down to make him an offer he can’t refuse. And this is the really silly part. Crain plants a beautiful aid worker, Gina (Jessica Alba), on the island in the hope that Bishop will fall for her. It’s Jessica Alba – so who wouldn’t? Well, he falls for her and after a night of formulaic intimacy, Gina is used as bait to get Bishop to eliminate three high-profile targets. If he doesn’t, then Crain will kill the girl. So, Bishop sets off to terminate several hundred bodyguards and their employers in an effort to win back his one-night stand.

The problems with Dennis Gansel’s Mechanic: Resurrection – a sequel to Simon West’s The Mechanic (2011) – are manifold. But the main downside is that the film treats its audience as mentally subnormal. Clarifying how he managed to track Bishop down, Crain explains the marvels of facial recognition and satellite tracking, as if Bishop hadn’t a clue (he’s a past master as this game). And the captions are downright patronising: we are informed that Bangkok is in Thailand and that Sydney is in Australia. But the film’s worst fault is that Bishop’s ingenious schemes to reach his targets, reflecting the film’s title, are rendered so mechanical. Only a vertiginous sequence in which Bishop scales a Sydney skyscraper (in Australia) in order inject a glass-shattering chemical into the underside of a glass cantilevered swimming pool gets the pulse pumping. Quite how Bishop knew that his target would be swimming at that precise moment is not explained.

On the plus side, there are nice aerial snaps of Rio, Sydney, Bangkok, Penang and Bulgaria, some gratuitous shots of Statham’s eight-pack and Ms Alba’s loosely bikinied bottom and an eccentric turn from Tommy Lee Jones, who struts around his Bulgarian fortress like a deranged Hugh Hefner in pyjamas, John Lennon glasses and soul patch. One can only imagine that the Oscar-winning actor suggested his own wardrobe – and a favourable per-day salary.



Men & Chicken  ***

The Scandinavian sense of humour does not translate easily. More often than not it is morose, dark and with an underlying edge of cruelty. As a piece of black comedy, Anders Thomas Jensen's Men & Chicken is more slapstick than most and features the cream of Denmark’s acting talent. As an inbred idiot, Mads Mikkelsen will surprise his English-speaking fans, who know him best as the suave and sinister Le Chiffre in Casino Royale or as the Machiavellian physician in A Royal Affair. But then everybody in this exercise of grotesquerie is playing against type, both physically and emotionally.

Mikkelsen is Elias, a man with a harelip and Herculean sex drive who happens to be masturbating when he learns of his father’s death. He is informed of the passing of his papa by his brother Gabriel (David Dencik), a short, balding man with a harelip. To say that either man is one of nature’s success stories would be an understatement. And matters become even more curious when Elias and Gabriel watch an appallingly made video recorded by their father before his death. It turns out that both brothers were adopted and that their real father was nicknamed the Sausage of Death, as all the mothers of his various children died during childbirth. With a mystery to solve, Elias and Gabriel set off to the remote island where their father lived and once there encounter more questions than answers. They do, though, realise that they have other brothers, all three of whom make Gabriel and Elias seem like relatively well-adjusted human beings.

It’s hard to know who to recommend this curiosity to, bar Derren Brown, who has a liking for stuffed animals. There are all sorts of specimens of taxidermy featured in the film, some of which prove to be extremely dangerous in the wrong hands. Indeed, Gabriel comes a cropper courtesy of a mute swan, which renders him almost senseless. There’s also a lot of atypical chickens and a stork with a harelip. It’s just that sort of film. But underneath the cruelty there are some genuinely funny moments, not least an argument between Elias and Gabriel about the merits of Albert Einstein, in which Elias concludes that 1921 was “the lamest year in physics.” There’s also a generous dose of comic, off-the-wall invention, that recalls Monty Python in low-key mode. There’s a hint, too, of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre – without the blood-letting – mixed in with Lars von Trier’s The Idiots. But even if you recoil from the misanthropy, you must grudgingly admire the film’s arch originality.


Midnight Special  ***1/2

Who is Alton Meyer? Nobody is entirely sure, not even Alton Meyer himself. His biological father Roy (Michael Shannon) knows that Alton is no ordinary eight-year-old boy, his adoptive father Calvin (Sam Shepard) believes he is the Messiah and the FBI suspect that he’s some kind of weapon. The fun part of Jeff Nichols’ mystery-thriller is that it doesn’t spoon-feed the viewer with the bleeding obvious but feeds out a line of intrigue that, for the most part, keeps us hooked for the ride. There’s a lot of to-ing and fro-ing, drives through the night and featureless motel rooms, but precious little dialogue, all while Alton’s special powers increase and his health deteriorates. Daylight proves too bright for the boy’s sensitive eyes, and he wears ear mufflers to blot out any intrusive noise, the better to tune into a network of signals and wavelengths hiding some form of pernicious intent.

Much of what we need to know is relayed through TV news bulletins, initially leading us to suspect that the boy has been kidnapped by two opportunistic rogues. Then, gradually, we learn that Roy Tomlin and his friend Lucas (Joel Edgerton) are acting entirely in the boy’s interests and are helping him to reach a midnight destination that will eventually determine his purpose – and destiny. But what the hell is it?

Jeff Nichols is a filmmaker who has been creeping up on us, favouring tales steeped in atmosphere and mystery. He continues the trend here, along with the casting of his muse Michael Shannon, who has appeared in all three of his previous films and has established himself as a redoubtable indie star. Shannon just never appears to be acting and fills any silences in the script with a lexicon of contradictory thought processes. He’s ably supported here by the relentlessly ubiquitous Joel Edgerton, as well as Kirsten Dunst as the boy’s mother, Adam Driver as an unconventional and sympathetic NSA agent and Sam Shepard as a misguided man of God. Alton himself is played by Jaeden Lieberher (the Culkin template from St. Vincent) with a disarming inscrutability, adding to the film’s pervasive air of ambiguity.

If the final chapter fails to live up to the earlier promise, it’s a customary defect for this sort of thing, but may yet keep certain conspiracy theorists in thrall. Nonetheless, paramedics in particular will be appalled by the film’s ignorance of medical matters, or maybe the blood loss depicted, and the victims’ miraculous recovery, is all part of Alton Meyer’s magic.


Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates  *

Zac Efron has outdone himself. His last two films, Dirty Grandpa and Bad Neighbours 2, were notable for sharing a couple of chuckles between them. His latest does not so much as activate a smirk. This is the sort of comedy that thinks if the actors shout loud enough and lace their dialogue with enough crude words, some viewers may mistake it for being funny. A more fitting appraisal might be obnoxious and boring.

Mike (Adam Devine) and Dave (Zac Efron) are hedonistic, juvenile delinquents who pride themselves on having read most of the Goosebumps books. They also drink industrial amounts of alcohol and think that the epitome of a good time is destroying a painstakingly structured family occasion (such as causing their grandfather to have a heart attack at his fiftieth wedding anniversary). With their younger sister’s nuptials fast approaching at an idyllic resort on the Hawaiian island of Oahu, Mike and Dave’s parents fear the worst. So they insist that their sons each take a date along to the ceremony. But, unable to relate to a normal member of the opposite sex, Mike and Dave are forced to advertise…

Of course, one can see the sorry outcome a league off. What is surprising is to witness an actress of the calibre of Anna Kendrick (Up in the Air, Pitch Perfect, Into the Woods) in such a shambles. Playing a bong-sucking, pill-popping good-time girl obsessed with her ex-fiancé, she is nothing short of embarrassing. Worse is Adam Devine as Mike, whose interminable screeching and face-pulling is the antithesis of comedy. Only Aubrey Plaza – as another borderline alcoholic – manages to retain a relatively straight face, proving yet again that she can be the best thing in a bad lot (she was certainly the best thing in Dirty Grandpa). But all is not lost. Should the viewer should be unclear whether or not a scene is meant to be funny, Jeff Cardoni's incessant score tells us when to laugh.

At one point, when Dave is trying to prevent his brother from copying a prank from Wedding Crashers, Mike screams, “Well, it worked in Wedding Crashers!” To which Dave responds, “but that wasn’t real life!” Of course, if this were real life it would be a tragedy.


Miss Sloane  ****

In Miss Sloane’s book, knowledge is everything. She not only embraces homework like a religion, but she keeps key moves from the experts she hires to do her bidding. Madeleine Elizabeth Sloane is a lobbyist and she likes to win. Such human necessities as sleep and food are irritants in her 24-hour plan and so she gulps down psychostimulants to stay awake and eats alone at the same noodle bar every night. Then, in an uncharacteristic move, she turns down a lucrative offer from the gun lobby in order to support an under-funded humanitarian rival…

Jessica Chastain is one of the finest actresses of her generation – and Miss Sloane is a peach of a part. Both a courtroom thriller and a character study, the film is a whip-smart, dialogue-driven express ride of political and ethical ambiguity. Chastain rises to the challenge and channels her own intelligence, passion and vulnerability into her Golden Globe-nominated performance. Elizabeth Sloane is an anti-heroine of sorts, but Ms Chastain makes us root for her. As director, John Madden (Shakespeare in Love, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel) keeps events moving at an agreeable pace, working from Jonathan Perera's finely tooled arrow of a screenplay. And there’s strong support, too, from Gugu Mbatha-Raw and John Lithgow.



Moana  **1/2

You have to hand it to Disney. The company has spawned a catalogue of plucky, independent female characters and placed them in a variety of cultures across the globe. For its 56th animated feature, Disney has drawn on the mythology of Polynesia and introduces us to the fearless and single-minded Polynesian princess Moana Waialiki (voiced by the Hawaiian actress-singer Auli'i Cravalho). Perplexed by her father’s refusal to allow his subjects to venture beyond the reef of their island, Moana takes to the ocean in a catamaran she finds hidden in a cave. It is her quest to discover a domain beyond her own in order to rescue her people whose food supplies are dwindling. It’s a Whole New World. But she is not entirely alone: she is accompanied by a stowaway rooster, the brash demigod Maui (Dwayne Johnson) and by the sea itself, a protean force that is constantly coming to her rescue…

The directors Ron Clements and John Musker previously brought us The Little Mermaid and Aladdin, so they should know a good story when they see it. Here, though, they are working on a tale concocted by seven different writers (including themselves). Hans Christian Andersen didn’t need six co-authors and yet he still gave us some of the most engaging and heart-breaking stories of all time. And that’s the problem with Moana: it’s an episodic odyssey crammed with elaborate sequences, anthropomorphic creations and the odd song (courtesy of Lin-Manuel Miranda). But for the most part it’s the story of two bickering characters stranded at sea – like Life of Pi without the tiger. There’s a frightening monster the size of an island and made of magma (which hurls molten fireballs at our protagonists), there’s the ghost of Moana’s grandmother and an accommodating wave. But what the film lacks is a human dynamic to which audiences can relate.

The computer animation, though, is predictably breath-taking, with particular attention paid to the textures of the water, hair, wood and velum. But the tribespeople themselves are rendered like rubber dolls, which creates something of a visual dichotomy. Everything looks so realistic – except for the characters we are meant to identify with. Is this just a calculating ploy to fit in with the marketing needs of Disney? The Moana doll is available on-line and in all good toy shops.



Molly’s Game  ***1/2     

Molly’s game was poker. It was once competitive skiing, but all that stopped when, following a freak accident, she suffered rapid onset scoliosis. She was, though, a player – and a savvy and ambitious one. After working as a hostess for someone else’s poker game, she set up her own high-stakes enterprise at a high-end hotel and was soon entertaining movie stars, real-estate magnates, sporting legends and top-drawer aristocrats. And considering the world in which she was operating, she was a surprisingly moral operator. When the FBI took her down and she was looking at a life behind bars, she refused to name names – not Ben Affleck, not Leonardo DiCaprio…

There are three reasons for seeing Molly’s Game. One is the extraordinary true story on which the film is based. Another is that it marks the directorial debut of the writer Aaron Sorkin, he who penned A Few Good Men, The West Wing, The Social Network and Steve Jobs. And the third is because Jessica Chastain is playing Molly Bloom. Chastain was nominated for an Oscar for The Help, as a dumb blonde from Mississippi, and was also a gun-toting Mossad agent in The Debt and the wife of Coriolanus in Ralph Fiennes’ adaptation of the Shakespearean tragedy. More recently she was the single-minded, pill-popping high-achiever Elizabeth Sloane in John Madden’s whip-smart, dialogue-driven Miss Sloane. She was brilliant, of course, and walked off with her fourth Golden Globe nomination. Here, she’s playing another single-minded, pill-popping high-achiever and for the first time the actress seems to be repeating herself. But how could she resist a part like Molly Bloom?

Aaron Sorkin uses words like bullets and language like an armoury and here his dialogue is as finely polished as ever. But sometimes Sorkin is too smart for his own good – real people are seldom as articulate as his keyboard. Of course, you could say the same about Chastain’s Virgilia in Coriolanus (“He `ld make an end of thy posterity”), so one can but just sit back and enjoy the show. A stand-out sequence is a showdown between Molly and her father, Larry (Kevin Costner), conducted on a bench in Central Park. There is some tension and things need to be said. “I can see you’re getting warmed up,” she tells him. But, “I really don’t have the emotional bandwidth to defend my – as usual – irresponsible behaviour.” He: “I’m not here in my capacity as your father. I’m indifferent to whether your father lives or dies. I’m a very expensive therapist and I’m here to give you one free session.” Great repartee – but not something that real people might utter.

Some might also complain that Sorkin’s film is too long (it’s 140 minutes), but as a life story it’s about the perfect length. Chastain holds the screen with her towering intelligence and empathy, and Costner, so good in last year’s Hidden Figures, is back on terrific form. There’s excellent support, too, from Idris Elba, Chris O’Dowd, Jeremy Strong and Graham Greene. However, it’s the dialogue that lingers in the mind, from a misunderstanding over James Joyce’s Ulysses to the fact that the centre of the universe smells like rum and raspberries.



A Monster Calls  ****

Whichever way you look at it, A Monster Calls is an extraordinary film. How’s the story begin? It begins like so many stories: with a boy too old to be a kid, too young to be a man – and with a horrific dream. So intones the voice of Liam Neeson, the narrator, the beating heart of the film and Conor’s own worst nightmare. Conor is a twelve-year-old boy and a misfit, brought up by a single mum (Felicity Jones). He’s brutally bullied at school, so it’s no wonder he’s prone to nightmares.

But J.A. Bayona's film – scripted by Patrick Ness, from his own novel – spreads its net wide, embracing all kinds of monsters, from dragons to Moby Dick and King Kong to cancer. There are princes, stepmothers and anthropomorphic trees as well as the chilly realities of divorce and bereavement. Not even Roald Dahl went this far.

Tonally, the film recalls Pan’s Labyrinth with its mix of the surreal and the horrors of the present, but resides deeper within the recesses of a dream world. This would have worked even better had Conor’s real life been more credible.

There are some misjudgements. The overly familiar and towering form of Sigourney Weaver as Conor’s grandmother grates with the story’s realism, as does the recognisable tones of Liam Neeson as the monstrous yew tree of the title. So when the tree says, “Who am I? I am the spine that the mountains hang upon. I am the tears that the rivers cry. I am the lungs that breathe the wind,” you expect it to culminate with, “and I will find you. And I will kill you.”

The film’s ace card is the performance of young Lewis MacDougall, whose interior intensity devours the heart, and there’s a terrifically atmospheric score from Fernando Velázquez. But overall this is a visual experience, with the three animated tales told by the tree proving to be particularly striking (and a million light years from Disney).

Indeed, the film exerts a considerable power and if one is willing to be swept along by it, it should be an overwhelming and even cathartic experience – like a picture book that springs to life, only to reveal that it is the story of your own existence.



Moonlight  ****

You don’t come across a film like Moonlight very often. Not only does it exhibit a very distinctive directorial style, but a narrative that matches it for originality. Set on the mean streets of Miami, the film focuses on one individual, Chiron. Chiron doesn’t speak much but digests the world around him – which is not a nice place. His mother is a crack-smoking prostitute, his saviour a drug dealer and his best friend somebody he shouldn’t really trust…

Director Barry Jenkins divides his film into three parts, each revealing a different aspect of our protagonist, titled ‘Little,’ ‘Chiron’ and ‘Black.’ As such, it is a fictitious biography of a black man and how he comes to be who he is. Here there are good people who do bad things and bad people who do good things. The performances are excellent across the board, although as Chiron’s mother – as much a victim as her son – Naomie Harris is terrific. On the evidence here, it’s hard to believe the actress ever played Miss Moneypenny. The film itself won the Golden Globe for best drama.



Morgan  **1/2

Morgan is a suitable case for treatment. The five-year-old product of a breakthrough genetic experiment, Morgan could pass for a relatively normal teenage girl. There is an ethereal, almost alien-like air to ‘her’, whose eyes seem to penetrate the back of your head. She is the third in a line of DNA trials and has exceeded all expectations. At the age of one month she was walking and talking and now, at five years, she is a sentient being, with a love of music and an almost super-human capacity for self-preservation. She is also a highly guarded secret hidden away at a high-tech facility deep in remote woodland. But when she overreacts during an interview with a scientist (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and takes her eye out, Lee Weathers (Kate Mara), a risk management consultant “from corporate,” stops by to assess whether or not the programme – and, more specifically, Morgan – should be terminated. And the question Lee has to ask herself is whether Morgan, as a biological entity with emotions, has the right to live?

Morgan, the film, marks the directorial debut of Luke Scott, the fifth in the Scott filmmaking dynasty, following his uncle Tony, his father Ridley, his brother Jake (Plunkett & Macleane; 1999) and sister Jordan (Cracks; 2009). And like many in his family, he brings a strong female presence to his drama. As in Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979), the main protagonist is a woman who finds herself amongst a small group of scientists threatened by the presence of a female monster, or at least something dangerous safeguarding her own conservation. Luke’s ace card is in the casting of Anya Taylor-Joy (The Witch) in the title role, as she brings enormous empathy to her part, creating a woman-as-child who views the world outside her cell as the epitome of Paradise. And the fact that she is so otherworldly adds to her allure.

Conversely, Kate Mara’s Lee Weathers is an ice queen content to toe the corporate line, a figure not much less sympathetic than Dr Lui Cheng (Michelle Yeoh), a scientist whom Morgan calls ‘Mother.’ The only really likeable human character is Amy (the smoky-voiced Rose Leslie), a compassionate psychoanalyst with Morgan’s best interests at heart.

What the scientists surrounding their organic prize – and the nameless corporation pulling the strings – fail to recognise, is that Morgan is missing one vital constituent: love. When the Romanian president Nicolae Ceaușescu instigated his programme of rapid population growth, 170,000 children ended up in state-run institutions. Any form of emotional connection was discouraged, to deter the children’s demand for affection which, with the limited funds, was impossible to facilitate. The result was that the orphans’ brains developed abnormally, leading to low IQs and poor language skills. Likewise, Morgan, in spite of her synthetically enhanced intelligence, is deprived of the one ingredient that would make her human – and safe to join the outside world.

It is unfortunate for Luke Scott’s film that it arrives so soon on the heels of Alex Garland’s Ex Machina (2015), another exploration of an artificial being developed in a remote and sterile environment. Whereas the latter was replete with fascinating ideas and unfolded like a game of dramatic chess, Morgan reverts to thriller cliché and eventually to arch silliness. Only Morgan herself warrants our attention, as she struggles to comprehend who she really is. “I am different,” she says. “I am apples and oranges. Forgive me, I sometimes struggle with metaphors.” She’s a heart-breaking creation and she deserves more than this Ten Little Indians re-tread. For something so professedly thought-provoking, it’s a shame that it ends up being so generic. It really could have taken some very intriguing shifts in direction.



Mother!  ****

The exclamation mark is appropriate. This is, after all, a film by Darren Aronofsky. And Aronofsky doesn’t do things by halves. He is a great manipulator of cinema for the purposes of drama and he likes to push the envelope. Sometimes he pushes too far: witness his big-budget fiascos The Fountain (2006) and Noah (2014). But then he has also produced some virtually hallucinogenic celluloid experiences that bind the surreal to the real, like Requiem for a Dream (2000) and Black Swan (2010). His latest, a full-blooded parable about the destructive, self-serving forces of creativity, is sometimes completely barmy but is nonetheless a gripping, sometimes masterly display of directorial exhibitionism. While at times it recalls an Alan Ayckbourn thriller directed by Ken Russell, its heights of Grand Guignol never topple into the tedious. This we have to thank for the central performance of Jennifer Lawrence, who suffers for Aronofsky much the same way as Ellen Burstyn and Natalie Portman have before her.

Jennifer Lawrence plays the unnamed central protagonist, a young woman who is as house-proud as she is house-bound. While her husband (Javier Bardem) struggles with writer’s block, she creates a harmonious retreat in which their love can flourish. Following a fire that gutted her husband’s family home, she has completely transformed the house with an attention for the aesthetic bordering on the obsessive. However, he is her whole life and she wants, what she calls their “Paradise,” to be a perfect place to fuel his writing and thus her happiness. But, as reflected in the subtle shifts of emotion on her child-like face, their relationship is not entirely sublime. Besides the fact that he is old enough to be her father, he is not a great communicator and when he invites a stranger (Ed Harris) into their home, the first cracks begin to appear.

The opening scenes, while a tad self-consciously staged, are skilfully written, so that what unfolds, in spite of its theatrical absurdity, is still quite plausible. And the initial sense of reality helps to anchor Lawrence’s perspective effectively enough. What follows will not be to everybody’s taste, but one cannot deny either its originality or its power.


The Mountain Between Us  ****

If you’re going to have a man and a woman stuck up a mountain, you could do a lot worse than Idris Elba and Kate Winslet. Both actors exude a grounded integrity that is relentlessly watchable. I’d be just as happy to look at Idris and Kate stranded on a deserted island or trapped together in an underground bunker. They just radiate class.

Here, Idris plays Ben Bass, an English neurosurgeon who is due to perform a life-saving operation on a ten-year-old boy the next day. Kate is Alex Martin, an American photojournalist working for The Guardian who needs to get to New York for her own wedding. However, when an approaching storm front necessitates the cancellation of all outgoing flights from Salt Lake City, they decide to hire a private plane to make their connection. Inevitably, the worst-case scenario materializes and the doctor and the journalist find themselves stranded on top of the world in Utah, in the middle of the snow-capped High Uintas Wilderness.

There is more than the mountain (and the extreme cold) to overcome, however, as Ben and Alex are divided by race, nationality, gender and temperament. Nevertheless, they do share a basic human decency and a desire to survive. Ben wants to stay and wait for help, while Alex – in spite of a broken leg – wants to take the more treacherous alternative of attempting to walk out alive. Neither option seems remotely hopeful, but the scenery is stunning.

The great strength of this hugely moving and gripping survival drama is the stillness of the central performances. They are a perfect match for the implacable, unblinking vastness of their domain. Incidents do occur – at one point Alex is cornered by a mountain lion – but it’s the subtle rhythms between the two actors that is so compelling. Ben and Alex know nothing about each other, yet gradually evolve an intimate shorthand that is heart-breaking. In the jaws of the unimaginable, they still retain what it is to be human.

Virtually unable to move, and in considerable pain, Alex asks Ben, “would you help me pee?” To which he replies, “I thought you’d never ask.” And as the layers of these characters are peeled away, and as their plight becomes increasingly futile, so we invest in them emotionally. Of course, there are concessions to a mainstream audience – the film is based on Charles Martin’s page-turner of the same name – but in the hands of the Palestinian director Hany Abu-Assad, the drama is also permitted its nuances. Abu-Assad is still best known for his riveting and incendiary terrorist thriller Paradise Now (2005) and for Omar (2013), both of which were nominated for Oscars. And with his first mainstream Hollywood film he doesn’t disappoint.


Murder on the Orient Express  *     

What a wasted opportunity. Here we have a dame, a couple of knights of the realm, a pair of Oscar winners and an additional four Oscar nominees all crammed onto the opulent locomotive at the heart of Agatha Christie’s classic whodunit. Then the whole boiling lot of them is sent rocking across the snowy and spectacular terrain of Eastern Europe. Shortly afterwards a savage murder is committed on board. In such illustrious company, who could be so barbaric as to stab a fellow passenger not just once but innumerable times? And will they kill again?

With a set-up so ludicrously contrived, one might at least have had some fun with it. As it is, the director, producer and star Kenneth Branagh alone hogs the limelight as the scrupulous Belgian detective Hercule Poirot, mumbling all the best lines into his ridiculous moustache. Had Hitchcock taken the reins, he would have injected both comedy and suspense, but Branagh takes a more melancholy stance. In addition, the mouth-wateringly cinematic potential of the subject is swept aside with some CGI and the odd gratuitous (and decidedly odd) camera move. And the editing, courtesy of Mick Audsley, is a slapdash affair.

At his worst, Kenneth Branagh is a director who draws attention to his own meretricious flourishes – and to his thespian grandstanding – and here he indulges both vices. But his greatest crime of all is to corral such a glittering cast and to expend it on so lifeless and humdrum a confection.



My Cousin Rachel  ***1/2

Daphne du Maurier has supplied a canon of memorable characters, feasted upon by the large and small screen for the past 78 years. Her 1951 novel My Cousin Rachel has been adapted for television, the cinema, the radio and for the stage and now arrives in its second big-screen incarnation. Not surprisingly, Rachel Ashley is a doozie of a character. The story’s narrator claims, “She is radiant, she is good, she is the kindest companion.” She is a good deal besides, as discovered by the narrator’s young cousin, the slovenly, cavalier and ultimately naïve Philip Ashley, played here by the ascendant Sam Claflin. Previously portrayed on screen by Olivia de Havilland, Rachel herself is now given form by Rachel Weisz in another sterling performance.

Under the guidance of Roger Michell, the film begins conventionally enough with a wash of exposition delivered in voice-over above breath-taking views of Cornwall and Florence. There’s also the sinister music of Rael Jones, suggesting this might be a Gothic thriller disguised as a romantic tragedy. The orphan Philip dotes on his cousin Ambrose (also played by Claflin), who’s moved from Cornwall to Florence for his health and there meets the good and radiant Rachel. Ambrose quickly falls under her spell and marries her, much to the chagrin of Philip, whose absent cousin has left a large hole in his life. Then Philip discovers a plea for help, scrawled on the inside of an envelope from Ambrose. Not wanting for money, Philip packs his bags and heads for Florence, only to discover that his cousin is dead and that Rachel has disappeared. Then, back in Cornwall, Philip is told of Rachel’s arrival in England and so invites her to stay at his country estate in order to seek justice…

Michell, best known for his contemporary films Notting Hill, The Mother and Le Week-End, has resisted the temptation to go Gothic and just lets the story and Rachel Weisz do their bit. It is a wonderfully handsome piece and Weisz’s Rachel is a handsome, direct and even funny presence who artfully allays Philip’s suspicions. Claflin himself proves again what a good actor he is (cf. Me Before You, Their Finest), although his range has yet to be tested. But it’s the story that’s the thing and its subterranean, uneasy power still exerts a potent grip. 



 Nerve  ***

The Internet has provided ample narrative nutrition for the cinema, from the early days of The Net (with Sandra Bullock) to last year’s Unfriended (and its imminent sequel). And it’s seldom been positive. Here, co-directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman ramp up the dangers by exploring the pitfalls of a real-time game that divides its participants into ‘watchers’ and ‘players.’ Most of us are becoming increasing spectators in this parallel universe, but woe betide those who are sucked into playing the eponymous game. A sort of ‘truth or dare’ with little truth, Nerve, the game, turns its players into Internet superstars as they take on more and more outrageous stunts. And the more watchers there are, the greater the financial incentive…

In the tradition of everything from Rollerball and The Running Man via David Fincher’s The Game and The Hunger Games, Nerve taps into a certain gladiatorial spirit of the many versus the few. Here, high school senior Vee (Emma Roberts) is goaded into becoming a player through peer pressure, but finds that the rules trap her into an escalating need to hang on to her financial points. Teamed up with a handsome stranger, Ian (Dave Franco), Vee is also in contention with her best friend and rival, Sydney (Geena Davis lookalike Emily Meade), and finds reserves of chutzpah she didn’t know she had. But the higher the stakes, the greater the risks…

The directors are familiar with the dangers of social media, as exhibited in their first film, the documentary Catfish. Here, they explore the viral power and addiction of the medium, in which a collaborative spirit is not necessarily a good thing. One only has to look at the sadism of all those trolls in chat rooms and forums to know this, and to steer clear. But Vee has a point to prove and Joost and Schulman are savvy enough with their material to turn the intrigue of the unknown into compulsive viewing. And with a terrific score from Rob Simonsen and likeable turns from Roberts and Franco, Nerve is a contemporary morality tale that passes the time with verve and panache. Just don’t try this at home – or anywhere.



Nocturnal Animals  *****

For a film unfolding in three parallel narratives – one set in the present, one in the past and one in the fictitious world of the eponymous manuscript – the editor has a lot to answer for. Tom Ford, the fashion designer who made his directorial debut with the award-winning A Single Man (2009), certainly knows the cut of a suit. Now he proves himself to be one of the most masterful storytellers of his generation. He certainly grabs our attention from the start with a flesh-rippling exhibition at a fashionable Los Angeles gallery managed by Susan Morrow (Amy Adams). The film then glides into the unknowable recesses of the human and the vulnerable within the shrink-wrapped, antiseptic and high-tech haven from harm that Susan calls home. At an after-show soirée, Michael Sheen tells her: “Enjoy the absurdity of our world. Believe me – our world is a lot less painful than the real one.” It’s an omen of sorts.

Susan’s past catches up with her when she receives a manuscript from her first husband, a man she hasn’t talked to for nineteen years. He is Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaal), a once aspiring writer upon whom she visited an unforgivable act. But now that he’s written his first novel, Nocturnal Animals, and has found a publisher, he’s dedicated it to Susan and wants her to read it. Gyllenhaal also plays Tony Hastings, his literary alter ego, a man with a wife and teenage daughter driving through West Texas at night. When his family’s vehicle is approached on the open highway by two cars intent on making trouble, it becomes all too apparent that Ford’s film is a story of two very different worlds: the safe, affluent and vacuous one inhabited by Susan and the dangerous, dirt-poor and red-bloodied one of Tony’s worst nightmare.

A masterstroke is in the casting of Isla Fisher as Gyllenhaal’s ‘fictitious’ wife, Laura. Ms Fisher, aka the real-life wife of Sacha Baron Cohen, has always borne an uncanny resemblance to Amy Adams and so sucks us into the parallel story with fluid conviction. Aaron Taylor-Johnson also makes a terrific impact as Tony Hastings’ redneck aggressor, Ray, recalling Nicolas Cage in his heyday. But Taylor-Johnson is an English actor (born in High Wycombe), who made his breakthrough playing the young John Lennon in Nowhere Boy – so his transformation is all the more staggering. As a sheriff with lung cancer and only months to live, Michael Shannon supplies another quirky reading of jaundiced justice, while Abel Korzeniowski’s exquisite score draws Tom Ford’s emotional motifs together with persuasive finesse.

And the third story – the flashback of Susan and Edward’s courtship and its jarring hiccoughs – takes on another hue entirely, while Amy Adams and Jake Gyllenhaal pass off as their younger selves with uncanny credibility. Indeed, Tom Ford refuses to allow a single false note to derail his potent mosaic and as the past meets up with the present – through the dynamic device of the literary window – the film exerts the impact of a shot of adrenalin to the heart.



Office Christmas Party  **1/2

When did Rachel Green get so smutty? As personified by Jennifer Aniston in the perennially popular Friends, Rachel was a smart, peaches’n’cream diehard romantic. And Ms Aniston not only has great hair but is one of the funniest comedians of her generation, blessed with atomic clock comedy timing. However, the actress’s recent foray into broad, gross-out burlesque is troubling. She’s obviously trying to shake up her image and continues down that path with this rambunctious, lewd and predictable festive farce.

Set in the Chicago branch of the high-tech company Zenotek, the film hinges its plot around an impending office Christmas party and chucks in complications galore. A big complication is CEO Carol Vanstone, played by Anniston. Think of Meryl Streep’s Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada and you’d be in the right ballpark. Carol is a killjoy and in her first appearance we see her ripping gold tinsel off the office walls and unceremoniously binning it. There will be no party. Cue the biggest, crudest and most destructive celebration in the history of the Windy City.

Will Speck and Josh Gordon’s film could have been a lot worse. The set-up takes a number of smart stabs at what has become a politically correct time of year, personified by the ghastly, “multi-denominational” sweater of Zenotek’s PR chief Mary Winetoss (Kate McKinnon). McKinnon is very funny (her character is a stuffy box ticker and latent masochist), as are many of the female characters. And as the straight face in the comic chaos, Justin Bateman matches Jennifer Aniston beat for beat. There is also a slew of decent lines (“It’s so hard to shop for the bald,” “I want anal, like, yesterday”), but it’s not enough to stem the inevitable slapstick overload. Watching grown-ups debase themselves in the name of comedy is an uncomfortable spectator sport – and Office Christmas Party adds a few twists all its own. Dignity just isn’t an option.



Only the Brave  ****

The brave in question are the firefighters stationed in Prescott, Arizona. They are a tight-knit group, led by the burly, paternal Eric Marsh who is determined that one day his men will be recognised as legitimate “hotshots”, not just the “fuels mitigation crew” that paves the way for the real firefighters. Marsh knew that his boys were more than capable and he was bent on enabling them front-line access to the major fires – and the wage packet to match.

Initially, Joseph Kosinski’s film is a slow-burn, but its attention to the detail of firefighting – the strategy and techniques used to frustrate a potential inferno – is more than enough. And we are in good company with Josh Brolin, as solid a leading man as there is out there: muscular, dependable and, when the need calls, vulnerable. When his Eric Marsh surveys an Arizona mountainside, he doesn’t see the beauty of the outdoors – he just sees fuel. Fuel for a potential catastrophe. He is married to Amanda, a strong-willed beauty who resents his long hours but who shares his sense of civic duty and dry humour. As played by Jennifer Connelly, Amanda is an appealing and multi-layered character and she and Eric could have happily occupied a movie to themselves. As it is, Only the Brave is an ensemble piece based on the real-life ‘Granite Mountain Hotshots’.

There is something ineffably moving about the “I’ve got your back” team drama that accentuates the humanity between men who play tough but are united by a common goal to serve the greater good. While thematically falling within the milieu of the disaster movie, the film’s concerns with comradeship, family, community and redemption elevates it to another level. And these characters are based on real people, including the fish-out-of-water Brendan McDonough (Miles Teller), a former pothead and petty thief who is taken under Marsh’s wing. What the film does is make us care for its dramatis personae.

The script by Ken Nolan and Eric Warren Singer is not exempt from a certain formula in the telling, of some unnecessary exposition and the odd improbable line of dialogue, but it has the maturity to build its mise en scène with gritty diligence. The tension between Eric and Amanda is believable and while Brendan at first feels like a cipher, Miles Teller is good enough an actor to invest him eventually with a disarming charm. Ultimately, the film is a story of community, and of a community within a community, and in the process proves to be something of an education about those who have to learn to live with the daily threat of a terrible destruction: the amoral, unreasoning and merciless bushfire.

P.S. The actor who plays the town mayor really is called Forrest Fyre.



The Other Side of Hope  *** 

Playing the refugee crisis for laughs may not be to everyone’s taste. However, humour can sometimes illuminate a situation that drama can’t: life is absurd, make the most of it. Khaled Ali (Sherwan Haji) has little to smile about and never changes his deadpan expression throughout the length of Aki Kaurismäki’s film. We first see him as he emerges from a mountain of soot on a cargo ship in the port of Helsinki. As we soon learn, besides his sister, Khaled’s entire family were buried in the rubble of their home on the outskirts of Aleppo. As Khaled turns himself into the Finnish police, another story plays out in which Waldemar Wikström (Sakari Kuosmanen), a travelling salesman, leaves his wife, closes down his business and attempts to take over a restaurant, a dream that he is finally in a position to realise. As Waldemar Wikström sorts out the irritating minutiae of his new venture, Khaled is shunted from pillar to post, his good nature under increasingly calamitous events a mark of extraordinary equanimity.

The tone of Aki Kaurismäki’s films change little from release to release and can do little for the Finnish Tourist Board. His settings are invariably bleak, with his unsmiling protagonists plodding about their business as if condemned to a brutal Marxist regime. The filmmaker is none too fond of the twenty-first century either, evinced by his use of superannuated appliances, rotary dial telephones and standard-issue typewriters used by the police. Kaurismäki’s world is an acquired taste but it can produce the same morbid fascination as a car crash in slow motion.


Paddington 2  ****

The world is not exactly short of child-friendly bears. Only last September we were treated to Goodbye Christopher Robin, the story of the creation of Winnie-the-Pooh. Then there’s also Rupert Bear, Yogi Bear, Fozzie Bear, Sooty, all the Care Bears, Enid Blyton’s Tessie Bear and Baloo from The Jungle Book. Paddington, the good-natured but dim-witted bear from darkest Peru, is not to everybody’s taste. While beloved by some millions, Paddington is considered by others to be wet, on the twee side and a marmalade sandwich short of a picnic. Nonetheless, in Britain the film Paddington became the highest grossing film of 2014 and gambolled off with $268 million worldwide. So, predictably, we have the imaginatively labelled Paddington 2.

Here, Paddington is no less exasperating and some of his antics should not be encouraged at home, not least his practice of sticking electric toothbrushes into his ears. He then gets it into his head to purchase a present for his Aunt Lucy back in Peru. But what to get? So he pops into Gruber's antique shop and espies an antique children’s pop-up book of London. Here the film whisks Paddington into the very pages of the book where, accompanied by Aunt Lucy, the photo-realistic bear mingles with cartoon cut-outs of pedestrians and the city’s landmarks. One suddenly senses an artistic boldness is at hand. Paddington, like us, is enraptured by the book, but on discovering that it is a collector’s item he nonetheless resolves to find the £1000 it will cost him to buy it.

Paddington goes to work. His first gig is in a barbershop where he sets about trimming the horsehair brushes, defacing the mop of a venerable customer (Tom Conti) and generally wreaking havoc. For those who treasure such oldy-worldy establishments, Paddington’s pillage is anything but funny. Then, as the bear takes on a job cleaning windows, the film lurches into gear with the theft of the pop-up book and Paddington’s subsequent arrest.

In his favour, Paddington is a bear who always looks for the good in people and usually finds it. Here, he’s not only faced with Peter Capaldi’s misanthropic neighbour – a true ursiphobe – but London’s criminal underworld. However, our positive protagonist is anything but judgemental and approaches each miscreant as an equal. It is here that the film truly comes into its own. Not only have the scriptwriters Paul King and Simon Farnaby fashioned an ingenious narrative but they have allowed room for lashes of incidental humour. In fact, barely a scene goes by without an inspired comic flourish, a laugh-out line or a visual gem. There are jokes for the grown-up and plenty of slapstick for the younger brain, although the physical comedy is never gratuitous – this is clever stuff. So, in one scene in which Paddington is engulfed by an avalanche of oranges, a long-suffering Brendan Gleeson (as Nuckles McGinty – sic) looks up from his newspaper – but you’ll have to be quick to catch the headline ‘Dry Cleaner Accused of Money Laundering’. There are gags at the expense of The Great British Bake-Off, tantric yoga and the acting profession itself (Julie Walters: “Actors are some of the most evil, devious people on the planet”). Hugh Grant enjoys himself enormously as a washed-up luvvy who’ll do anything to finance his own one-man show – and gives us a range of accents – while Gleeson, Hugh Bonneville, Joanna Lumley and the aforementioned Tom Conti are all top-hole.

The film itself is beautifully directed by Paul King, whose collaborators step up to the mark with distinction. It’s a hard thing to manufacture charm, but the filmmakers have achieved this, creating a London for tourists to drool over, in which red telephone boxes and antique shops stand tall alongside The Shard. And, following the slapdash editing of Murder on the Orient Express, it’s a joy to see something so elegantly put together.



Passengers  ****

For the next 89 years Jim Preston (Chris Pratt) will be on his own. A passenger on the starship Avalon, he has already spent the last year and three weeks resisting the temptation to end his life. And yet there are another 4,999 passengers asleep all around him. Avalon is bound for the planet Homestead II and Preston was in hyper-sleep when a malfunction prematurely revived him. Surrounded by luxury and state-of-the-art distractions, the mechanic from Denver is still finding his life meaningless, in spite of the jovial company of an android bartender (Michael Sheen). As far as he sees it, there is only one solution to his nightmare: to wake up a complete stranger (Jennifer Lawrence) and condemn her to a life of mutual solitude…

You could write the premise on the back of a business card: Adam and Eve in space. However, adult sci-fi is going through a particularly fertile patch at the moment, running the pleasurable gamut from Alfonso Cuarón's Gravity to Denis Villeneuve's Arrival via Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar. In its own way, Passengers is the most enjoyable of the lot as it switches genres with effortless finesse, providing humour, thrills and romance in equal measure. The knack is that one can never predict where it’s going and yet it still manages to suspend disbelief with a measure of credibility.

Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence are excellent company, the latter delivering genuine emotion while Pratt, with his star wattage, could probably held our attention all on his own. The production design and techno ingenuity are also eminently arresting, whether treating us to a close-up of a red dwarf or showing one character trapped in a giant globe of water produced by zero gravity.

The Norwegian director Morten Tyldum, who previously exhibited his storytelling skills with Headhunters (2011) and The Imitation Game (2014), keeps the pace lickety-split, while paying his respects to Stanley Kubrick on a number of levels (not least with the bar lifted straight out of The Shining). But Kubrick was never this entertaining.



Paterson  ****

It is a miracle that after thirty-five years and without a single box-office hit to his name, Jim Jarmusch is still making films. And his twelfth, Paterson, is no less miraculous. Packed with everyday detail and even elements of the surreal, it is a domestic comedy-drama about a bus driver called Paterson who lives in Paterson, New Jersey. While his beautiful Iranian wife (Golshifteh Farahani) dreams of becoming a Country music star and of setting up her own cupcake business, Paterson has no such aspirations. He does write lots of poems – when he can – and is a huge admirer of the New Jersey scribe William Carlos Williams, who wrote the epic work ‘Paterson,’ published in five volumes between 1946 and 1958. A document of the modern man and his connection to city life, the poem is reflected throughout Jarmusch’s film, a fable rich with comic observation and an abundance of charm. Very little actually happens, but Jarmusch allows us to see the strangeness of the everyday through the eyes of Paterson, played with nonchalant weariness by Adam Driver. In fact, Jarmusch recognises that the mundane is miraculous and it’s a joy to sit back and relish the absurdity of humanity in all its variety. If the film has a theme, it is coincidence, marked not just by the name of the protagonist and his location, but by the twins that Paterson sees everywhere. And the film is even funnier on its second viewing.



Patriots Day  ****

There is a nice touch near the beginning of Patriots Day, a chronicle of the Boston Marathon bombing. On Patriots’ Day, 2013, in the Massachusetts capital, a 26-second silence was held to honour the victims of the Newton school shooting, an atrocity that had occurred four months earlier. Perhaps better known as the Sandy Hook massacre, the incident saw the killing of twenty young schoolchildren and a further six staff members. However, as the milling onlookers in Boston lowered their heads in deference, they had no idea what the day had in store for them.

The subsequent bombings sent shock waves throughout the global community, but in the wake of similar attacks across the world many of the facts may have become forgotten. Following his gripping, documentary-like take on the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe, the director Peter Berg fills in the blanks of his new true-life scenario with forensic attention to detail.

As the city wakes up on the morning of Monday, April 15, we are introduced to a variety of characters as they prepare for what, to most of them, should be a very special day. In the words of police commissioner Ed Davis, played by John Goodman, there’ll be “pretty girls, fresh air... it’ll be like a picnic. Everybody loves a picnic.” Of course, what follows is anything but and the film deftly cuts between the experiences of the victims, the police, the FBI and the two bombers, Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, with consummate skill. The outcome is chaotic, confused and messy, and as portrayed here, the boys in blue frequently fail to pass muster. It’s a shambles, but then the gallantry of America’s elite is seldom as straightforward as Hollywood makes out. Even the token hero played by the film’s co-producer, Mark Wahlberg, is portrayed as a flawed police sergeant with a penchant for the bottle. All this, of course, adds to the realism, leading to both a gripping and sometimes deeply moving experience. The flag-waving at the end may stick in the craw of some viewers, but then it does live up to the film’s title.



Phantom Thread  ***1/2

If Daniel Day-Lewis keeps his word, Phantom Thread will go down in history as the actor’s final film. He’s already received a Golden Globe nomination (his eighth) and an Oscar nod for his part, and as the obsessive, controlling couturier Reynolds Woodcock he commands the screen with his customary presence. It’s a painstakingly crafted drama, reflecting the attention to detail with which Woodcock lavishes on his creations for the rich and famous. He’s a fascinating figure, a charismatic giant in his field, who sows secrets into the hems of his garments and is relentlessly particular in who is worthy to sport his apparel. In one instance, he is so appalled by the drunken behaviour of one of his celebrated customers, that he storms round to her house and has his dress forcibly removed from her comatose body. The film opens with Woodcock’s meticulous personal grooming and proceeds from there, where he holds court at his grand Georgian London house. His work is his life, overseen by his sister Cyril (Lesley Manville on splendid form) who anticipates his every whim. The only thing he lacks is a woman to share his bed…

And so Phantom Thread segues from character study to love story, in which the young Swedish waitress Alma Elson (the Luxembourgian actress Vicky Krieps) glides into Woodcock’s heart. But the dressmaker is far too self-absorbed to allow Alma full autonomy to be her own woman under his roof and it isn’t until she takes matters into her own hands that an uneasy equilibrium begins to take shape.

Daniel Day-Lewis won his second Oscar for his role as the ruthless oilman Daniel Plainview in Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood. Here the actor and director are reunited for a less epic and dramatic concoction, although the film is not without its mastery flourishes. It is a beautifully tailored piece, with exquisite attention lavished on the smallest particulars, from the diligent sound design to Mark Tildesley's ravishing art direction. It is perhaps unfortunate that it resembles another recent film with not dissimilar plot points, namely Lady Macbeth from first-time director William Oldroyd. Yet the latter, at a fraction of the price, exerted a considerably more visceral thrust, and with humour to spare. Anderson’s films do have a tendency to wallow in their own self-importance at the expense of human involvement and, regrettably, Phantom Thread is no less guilty. In the end, then, it’s a film that one tends to admire rather than engage with, but one cannot deny its noble power and originality. And Daniel Day-Lewis is jolly good value.



Pirates of the Caribbean: Salazar’s Revenge  *1/2

Errol Flynn will be spinning in Davy Jones's locker. It’s been six years since Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides grossed $1.045 billion at the global box-office. Inevitably, then, the Walt Disney studio was eager to capitalise on this lucrative franchise, based on its own theme park ride. And Salazar’s Revenge would have materialised sooner were it not for the small fortune the company lost on the ludicrously over-priced Johnny Depp vehicle The Lone Ranger. So, after a moment of hesitation, they spent $230 million to resurrect Jack Sparrow in yet another episode of computer-generated pirates defying the laws of physics. And with that sort of money one might have expected at least one decent gag or a coherent plot.

One of the myriad problems with Salazar’s Revenge is the premise: Jack Sparrow is chased by a horde of spectral brigands who, because they are already dead, appear indestructible. Their leader is played by Javier Bardem, a computer-generated blast of evil who salivates black ooze and whose hair has a life of its own. So what is poor Jack to do? One sequence has our hero on a beach surrounded by the sabre-ratting demons and his demise is all but predetermined. So, with a magical edit, he is seen racing through the neighbouring jungle without so much as a demon in sight. Such lapses of logic rob the film of any sense of dread or suspense – because anything seems to be possible. Jack Sparrow himself, a double-crossing, dentally challenged alcoholic, is a tiresome presence, whose catalogue of drunken double takes wears thin after two minutes. And to think that Johnny Depp started out channelling the spirit of Chaplin in such films as Edward Scissorhands and Benny & Joon.

While Javier Bardem lends some manic heft as Salazar, his performance is largely diluted by meddlesome software. The true star, then, is the English actress Kaya Scodelario, who plays a plucky astronomer and horologist who, in spite of spending half the film tied up or with a noose around her neck, provides some spark of credibility. The production design is also outstanding, but can do little to rescue a film that is so convoluted, bloated, over-long and insistently nonsensical. Only Paul McCartney, as a pirate rotting in jail, raises a genuine smile with the old joke, “Did you hear the one about the skeleton who goes into a bar and asks for a beer and a mop?”


Pitch Perfect 3  *

The signs are not good. The brilliantly witty festive slogan for the final act in this femcom trilogy is “Merry Pitchmas”. Geddit? It’s Christmas, the film is Pitch Perfect 3. If this does not warn off potential cinemagoers, then nothing will. The surprising credit in the maelstrom of talent liquidized in this junky rip-off is Mike White as co-scenarist. This is the same Mike White who brought us School of Rock and this year’s award-winning Beatriz at Dinner. There are some diverting snippets of dialogue, but they are largely lost in the mechanized direction of filmmaker Trish Sie, who cut her teeth directing music videos for the alt-rock band OK Go. The one-liners one remembers are mainly delivered by Rebel Wilson, the film’s comic motor, even though what comes out of her mouth is not, technically, extraordinary (“My grandmother’s in a band right now, [called] Never Moist”).

In a nutshell, our pitch perfect heroines are the a cappella group the Bellas, who starred in the sleeper hit Pitch Perfect (2012) and its phenomenally successful sequel, Pitch Perfect 2 (2015), now the highest-grossing musical comedy of all time, beating School of Rock into second place. Another sequel was inevitable. Here, the ten nightingales audition their way onto a USO tour entertaining the troops in Europe and once they get to first base the clichés start firing. There’s competition with a rival girl group headed by the spiteful Calamity (Ruby Rose) along with Serenity, Charity and Veracity (Rebel Wilson: “If I joined them, I could be Obesity”). There’s also some paltry romantic overtures, a father-and-daughter reunion (with John Lithgow savaging an Australian accent) and even a kidnapping plot.

Any political commentary on American-European relations is squandered, although Rebel Wilson does sport a cap with the legend “Make America Eat Again”. And there we go again: it’s all about Rebel Wilson. The film’s central character is actually Beca Mitchell, who gets an unexpected career break, but as played by Anna Kendrick she is pretty much a vacuum at the heart of a vacuum. So we get the usual array of reaction shots (wide-eyed amazement), the “pitches” walking towards the camera in slow motion and a scene of slapstick mayhem that looks like it was choreographed by a baboon. And the “funny” music is dispiriting. Good comedy should not reveal itself: if it’s funny, it’s funny. Only John Michael Higgins seems to understand this. He plays a blatantly sexist documentarian who, on seeing Beca land a prize gig, mutters gravely on camera that, again, she’s “taking another job from a perfectly able-bodied man.”



The Post  ***

Once upon a time, the US government was not exactly telling the truth. In the words of John F. Kennedy, “the United States, as the world knows, will never start a war.” Yet, in the late 1960s, the conflict in Vietnam was a catastrophe and the White House whitewashed the fact. Then The Washington Post got wind of a cover-up. But, at the time, The Post was no match for the Nixon administration…

The timing of Steven Spielberg’s film about the freedom of the press could not be more apposite. And the story he’s chosen to tell is anything but fake news. Chuck in that “overrated” actress Meryl Streep – as Katharine Graham, publisher of The Washington Post – and the whole thing starts to smell like cordite. If only the drama on the screen was so explosive. Although top-billed, Ms Streep occupies less screen time than her co-star Tom Hanks, who, as the editor Ben Bradlee, is quite the action man. At one point, he even arrives at Mrs Graham’s home with quite a sweat.

This being a Steven Spielberg movie, it is a work of art. It is meticulously crafted and one never forgets that we are in 1971, if only because of the hairstyles, the posters and the fog of cigarette and cigar smoke. But, really, it could have been more exciting. The opening scene in Vietnam is certainly not Saving Private Ryan and what follows is, well, often quite dull. What is at stake – the liberty of the American media – ends up as so many board meetings about shareholder accountability. One wonders if a docudrama about the Chilcot Inquiry might have been a little more rousing. One senses Spielberg’s desperation. For no apparent reason, he starts tilting his camera all over the place, looming down on his subjects from the ceiling. Why, pray? There is a nod to the filmmaking style of John Frankenheimer, who traded in Cold War paranoia by deep-focusing on his actors in the same frame. But Spielberg has never been a copycat before.

The Post is not a mediocre film, but it could have been so much better. Co-scenarist Josh Singer won an Oscar for his script to Spotlight (2015) but that, too, lacked real human drama. And John Williams’ score, droning over the dialogue, is meddlesome and conventional. The performances are creditable (Tom Hanks is particularly good value), the production design consummate and the dialogue juicy (Meryl Streep: “News is the first rough draft of history”). Yet the most viscerally thrilling scene is the physical typesetting of the paper as it goes to press. Those were the days: when hard news literally got your hands dirty.



Power Rangers  **

Just what the world needs: five more superheroes. Actually, this teenage quintet has been rebooted from the 1995 Mighty Morphin Power Rangers: The Movie, which, itself, was an extension of the 1993-1995 TV series. But in a world of increasingly self-conscious diversity, this chapter plays fast and loose with politically correct tokenism. Thus, our five superheroes comprise one white, blond, blue-eyed male (‘the leader,’ natch), a dark-haired white girl (the London-born Naomi Scott, with a convincing American accent), an African-American autistic male, a Chinese-American male and a Hispanic lesbian. The experience of encountering these disparate teenage outcasts is like discovering a smattering of goji berries in one’s bubblegum. In its calculating variegation, it’s actually offensive. If the film wanted to be really PC, it should’ve made the Rangers’ leader a transgender American Indian.

Anyway, it all starts much along the same lines as the vastly superior and considerably cheaper Chronicle, the 2012 thriller that launched the careers of Michael B. Jordan and Dane DeHaan. Unfortunately, the acting in Power Rangers is hardly of the same calibre, although Ms Scott, Dacre Montgomery, RJ Cyler, Becky G and Ludi Lin are all likeable enough. The real culprit behind the film’s numbing tedium is the South African filmmaker Dean Israelite, who directs with the braindead predictability of an automaton. If the global workforce is worried about being replaced by robots, Mr Israelite is one step ahead of the game. With every change in tone powered by Brian Tyler’s propulsive music, or a familiar pop anthem, the hardware quickly becomes the victim of the narrative software.

For the record, five American students end up in a mine and when the autistic Billy Cranston (Cyler) blows up a rock face, all five find themselves endowed with super powers. But their encounter is no coincidence. Another Cranston, this time the Oscar nominee Bryan Cranston – who plays a giant hologrammatic Pinscreen – has engineered the teenagers’ rendezvous in order to save the planet. Because they are the Chosen Ones. And in another shift from the traditional, their adversary is a female (Elizabeth Banks), an alien called Rita who gulps down gold jewellery like pistachio nuts. Her aim is to destroy mankind.

The climax, when it finally comes, is a meaningless display of CGI pyrotechnics in which size proves to be everything. Alas, in spite of all the bold swipes at cultural novelty, the execution itself is anything but unconventional.


The Promise  ***
With the imminent fragmentation of Europe, a film about the Armenian refugee crisis could not seem more timely. To this day Turkey refuses to acknowledge its country’s annihilation of the Armenian people a hundred years ago. In fact, it’s illegal even to discuss it in Turkey. Yet the very word ‘genocide’ was coined by the lawyer Raphael Lemkin to describe the atrocities carried out by the Ottoman Empire between 1915 and 1923. Terry George’s The Promise, an old-fashioned historical epic moulded into a love triangle, pulls no punches in its depiction of the ritual and brutal slaughter of the country’s ethnic minorities.

George, who previously dipped his toes into disturbing historical fact with Some Mother’s Son (1996) and Hotel Rwanda (2004), is said to believe that in response to The Promise, the current Turkish government sponsored the production of a rival film. The latter, the Turkish-American The Ottoman Lieutenant, covers the same period and is also a love triangle, although it did start production half a year earlier. Be that as it may, George’s film has certainly stirred up a hornet’s nest and will no doubt exert even more international pressure on Turkey to acknowledge its sins.

One doesn’t come across a historical epic every day, largely because they’re so difficult to mount. The Promise arrives with a muscular budget of $90 million and does capture a sense of time and place, although some of its sea-borne sequences do look like they were filmed in a studio tank. But worthy intentions and scenes of the systematic butchery of defenceless women and children is no guarantee of a good film. Had a director of the artistic vision of, say, Alejandro González Iñárritu, or the late Anthony Minghella, steered the story along its narrative rails it might have registered more genuine emotion. Terry George is, at best, a journeyman director who has got by on incendiary themes and excellent actors.

As a sweeping epic, The Promise doesn’t so much sweep as judder, not helped by the inelegant editing of Steven Rosenblum. One suspects that the original film was considerably longer and just an extra thirty minutes might have provided some worthwhile atmosphere and character development. Nonetheless, with actors of the calibre of Oscar Isaac, Charlotte Le Bon, Christian Bale and Tom Hollander on board, along with the opportune if harrowing subject matter, The Promise is maybe a film one should see.



Queen of Katwe  ***1/2

When you find that you have nothing left in your life, you still have yourself – and that’s the most precious thing of all. In the slums of Katwe, on the outskirts of Kampala, Phiona Mutesi has lost her father to Aids, her sister to unknown causes and, aged nine, is now too poor to be afforded even a basic education. She sells cobs of maize on the bustling, cruel streets that she calls home, then one day joins a group of neighbourhood boys in a ramshackle shed. They are there to learn how to play chess, an initiative set up by Robert Katende, who works for the Sports Outreach Ministry. And although a mere girl, Phiona discovers that she has an extraordinary gift…

Because chess is not an inherently cinematic pastime, it seems to challenge filmmakers to raise their game, and there have been some pretty fine films about chess. This is another. And although Mira Nair is not the sprightliest director on her feet, she does bring some wonderful moments to this true rooks-to-royalty story. When Katende’s students are signed up for their first chess tournament at the imposing King’s College, Katende finds them on their first morning sleeping on the floor beside their beds – because they don’t know what beds are for. Another catch-in-the-throat moment is when Phiona’s mother sells her favourite dress in order to buy a small bag of paraffin – so that her daughter can study at night.

Nair’s strength is her feel for place and atmosphere and for much of the film’s running time this is enough. Shot in the actual ghetto of Katwe, the film bristles with local colour, while the indigenous Ugandans pitched in for the first time in front of a camera. Indeed, the production design and Sean Bobbitt's cinematography is simply sublime.

The performances, too, are peerless. As Katende, David Oyelowo proves yet again that he is one of the finest British actors of his generation and seems particularly comfortable in the hands of a female director (cf. Middle of Nowhere, Selma, Nina, A United Kingdom). As Phiona’s proud, hard-bitten mother, Lupita Nyong'o, too, is outstanding, although neither actor gets to outshine the simple composure of the 15-year-old Madina Nalwanga as Phiona, in her first role.

However, for this rich narrative to have capitalised on its true potential, it would have taken a cinematic magician like Danny Boyle to do it justice. As it stands, the hand of Disney (who developed the story) too often scrapes away the rough edges that would have benefitted the material. The result is a feel-good family film – and an entertainment that has much to say – but something that lacks that extra edge of credibility that maybe Phiona Mutesi deserved.



Raw  ****

American horror films are two a penny at the multiplex. However, if a French one makes it to these shores you can be pretty sure that it will be both smart and unusual. The Franco-Belgian Raw has already acquired an international notoriety, due to the fact that members of the audience keep on fainting, necessitating paramedical intervention. Of course, one takes these stories with a pinch of salt, although the film does boast a unique emetic power.

Marking the feature directorial debut of the Paris-born, 32-year-old Julia Ducournau, the film puts you in your place from the outset. Then, after the admonitory prologue, we are introduced to Justine (Garance Marillier) and her parents as they drive cross-country to Justine’s new home: veterinary college. It transpires that Justine’s older sister, Alex, is already there and that there is a rift in the family. But before their arrival we witness a scene that might already unsettle vegetarian viewers. At a roadside eatery, Justine orders just mashed potato but finds a stray piece of meat in her mouth. She is a vehement veggie and as she disgorges the offensive chunk, her mother (Joana Preiss) charges off to complain to the management. This family takes their diet very seriously indeed. Once at college, though, things go from bad to worse. During a brutal hazing ritual, Justine is forced to consume a raw rabbit kidney, an act that spares her the contempt of her elders but brings about a strange biological reaction…

The reason Raw works so well is not just because it includes a number of gruesome set pieces, but because it eschews the formulaic. Had this been an American movie, Justine would have been a blonde beauty, but Garance Marillier is just an ordinary looking teenager. There’s also a welcome lack of background music, which gives the incidental moments an added note of naturalism. And every scene is well placed. There’s a lovely cameo from Marion Vernoux as a level-headed nurse who not only provides a welcome perspective of sanity but has the audacity to light up a cigarette in her office. As for the scenes designed to disturb, there are enough here to perturb the average viewer, regardless of their respective qualms. Beyond the obviously carnivorous, the film is chock-a-block with sex, violence and dead animals. For sexual fetishists there’s even a display of oculolinctus, although an equine endoscopy or a close-up of a Brazilian waxing might unhinge others even more.



The Red Turtle  *****

In a year when audiences have been subjected to over forty remakes, reboots and sequels, it’s refreshing to encounter something so resolutely fresh and original. While this animated Franco-Japanese co-production may summon up comparisons with Splash, The Blue Lagoon and Cast Away, it is entirely its own animal. The titular creature itself is something of a red herring as this is the story of a solitary man, washed up on an inhospitable island and forced to make a new life for himself. The real star is Nature herself, in all her myriad forms, from the magical to the merciless. Another major player in the film is the soundtrack, a wordless cocktail of crashing waves, wind and sublime music provided by the French composer Laurent Perez del Mar.

While the film feels like an adaptation of an age-old fable, it is actually the creation of the Dutch animator Michaël Dudok de Wit, whose first full-length feature this is. Drawing liberally from the hypnotic, surreal style made famous by Studio Ghibli’s most celebrated films, The Red Turtle is a profound and almost primal parable about survival, forgiveness, love and the relentless cycle of Nature. A genuine one-of-a-kind, the film is distinguished by its simple line drawings and vivid colours (resorting to monochrome during its nocturnal episodes), with an elemental core that is both wondrous and deeply moving. Words are redundant here – the sound and imagery is everything, with even its moments of incidental humour achieved with the lightest touch. An unalloyed joy, this dream-like, thought-provoking fairy take reasserts one’s faith in the cinema.



Rogue One: A Star Wars Story  ***

The thrill is gone. After all the sequels and the prequels and the reboot it must be a task indeed to wring fresh juice out of what, a long, long time ago was a choice cherry. Of course, the temptation is to make any new instalment even bigger and bolder than the last, with more fantastic characters, intriguing planetary outposts and remarkable flying machines. The result then is, inevitably, narrative indigestion. Here, there are just so many characters that even in the space of 133 minutes it’s hard to get a grip on any of them, so why should we care? And there are just as many thematic strands and twists and turns and revelations and subplots that can but lead to bafflement.

Having said all that, the director Gareth Edwards and his scriptwriters Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy have brought some appetizing side dishes to the table. For starters, the Birmingham-born Felicity Jones is having a stellar year. Following the $218.65m global take of Inferno, she is receiving rave reviews and Oscar buzz for her performance as a cancer patient in A Monster Calls. And now she’s landed the lead role in the year’s most anticipated movie, playing Jyn Erso, the plucky heroine who’s despatched by the Rebel Alliance to steal the plans of the Death Star. There is a preponderance of English accents, with Riz Ahmed as an Alliance rebel and former Imperial pilot, along with the likes of Alistair Petrie, Ben Daniels and Jonathan Aris. Even a computer-resurrected Peter Cushing is given a decent cameo as the dastardly Grand Moff Tarkin, voiced by Guy Henry. There’s also Mexico’s Diego Luna as a Rebel Alliance fighter, Australia’s Ben Mendelsohn as an unscrupulous Imperial warlord and Denmark’s Mads Mikkelsen as Jyn’s father, while the Chinese actor Jiang Wen brings genuine gravitas to the role of Baze Malbus, a Rebel mercenary. But the real star of the film is K-2SO (voiced by Alan Tudyk), a giant droid that seems hard-wired for sarcasm. Nobody can accuse Rogue One of not embracing diversity.

It’s a shame, then, that with such a remarkable cast the dialogue is so feeble. Only K-2SO gets any lines worth repeating, while the lower ranks are fed merely clichéd commands and exclamations. The wry wit of Han Solo would seem to be a thing of the past, or, to be temporally accurate, a thing of the future. But where the absence of human interaction and emotional traction lets the side down, the behind-the-scenes talent attempts to compensate. For the special effects, production design, photography, costumes and make-up are all things of wonder – in truth, there’s more excitement buzzing around in the background than there is in front of it.



Sanctuary  ****

At the beginning of the month, Lionsgate released Wonder, a film about a ten-year-old boy with mandibulofacial dysostosis, a severe form of facial deformity. In spite of the tricky subject matter, the film went on to gross $110 million in the US alone. However, it does star Julia Roberts and Owen Wilson and the boy is played by Jacob Tremblay, who underwent extensive prosthetic makeup for the role. You will find it harder to catch Sanctuary at a cinema near you, in spite of the fact that it’s won the top prize at the Dublin Film Critics’ Circle Awards.

The lead character in Sanctuary, which marks the directorial debut of Len Collin, features a young Irish man with Down’s syndrome. In this instance the character is played by a young Irish man with Down’s syndrome. Kieran Coppinger created the part on stage as part of the Blue Teapot Theatre Company, an initiative which promotes a place in the arts for people with intellectual disabilities. In fact, most of the cast of Sanctuary is intellectually challenged which, if nothing else, guarantees an edge of realism. The screenplay is by Christian O'Reilly, who previously wrote the story Inside I’m Dancing for a film which starred James McAvoy as a man with Duchenne muscular dystrophy, and the actor faked it very well. Of course, those with Down’s syndrome have popped up in front of the camera before, notably Pascal Duquenne in Jaco Van Dormael's The Eighth Day (1996) and most recently Leon Harrop in TV’s The A Word.

It’s hard to judge such a bracingly original film by the parameters of conventional cinema. This predicament is neatly encapsulated when a group of the intellectually challenged are taken on a day trip to the movies. With no idea what they are about to see, they ponder the cinematic possibilities: “I hope it’s not a horror film,” says one, a young woman. What follows is, of sorts, a farce, as Larry (Coppinger) bribes his carer to book him a hotel room so that he can spend some special time with Sophie (Charlene Kelly), an epileptic. This is all highly illegal as the intellectually disabled are, by Irish law, not allowed to enjoy intimacy unless they are married. So, while Tom (Robert Doherty) is organising this unseemly tryst, others in the group wander off into Galway City to do what they like. Here, much humour is mined, but not at the expense of the characters, nor indeed of those bystanders who don’t know what to make of them. Matthew (Paul Connolly) and William (Frank Butcher) decide to visit the pub and after a few drinks, William demands of the barman, “two more pints, please.” To which Matthew adds, “and two more pints for me.”

It helps that the performers are familiar with their characters and their lines but there is no attempt at ‘acting’ on their part. These are wise beings trapped in bodies that don’t conform to the norm, but there’s still room for humour, irony and, indeed, romance. And the director Len Collin exhibits a savvy understatement in his design. Even his choice of music hits home, such as the use of ‘Love Machine,’ made famous by Girls Aloud, whose lyrics could have been written for the film: “Nobody's perfect/We all gotta work it/But fellas, we're worth it.”


Sausage Party  **

With the phenomenal success of animation in recent years it was perhaps inevitable for a so-called adult edition to come along. Of course, there is nothing new about grown-up cartoons (the Japanese have been at it for years), but since the advent of feature-length computer-animation it is still something novel. And who better to bring a touch of sauce to the proceedings than co-producer and co-writer Seth Rogen, who knows a thing or two about adult humour? He plays a sausage called Frank who, with his comrades-in-wrapping, leers at the adjacent buns just gasping for a good filling. They are all in a gargantuan supermarket called Shopwell’s and every product is under the illusion that they are ruled by the strange gods they see parading up and down the aisles and that one day, soon, they will be released from their confinement and become the masters of their own destiny. Or, in Frank’s smutty vision, get to sink his girth within the inviting aperture of his favourite hot dog bun Brenda (voiced by Kristen Wiig). If the innuendo is initially obscure the repeated metaphors come so thick and fast that even the dumbest schoolboy will eventually get the joke. But with a limit to the amount of puns that they can harvest about sausage penetration, the filmmakers embark on a higher agenda concerning the meaning of God and the tolerance of food products for different tastes than their own.

Opening with a Broadway-like number in which the goods greet the new day and their customers, the film gets down to its brass tacks without a minute to lose. What is curious, though, is that our characters, like mayflies, must have pretty short lifespans in order for the story to make sense. However, there are some more senior products – the ‘non-perishables’ – headed by Bill Hader’s Firewater, who is a Native American bottle of liquor with a voice plucked out of a 1950s’ TV Western. Indeed, the stereotypes abound and flirt dangerously with being ethnically offensive. Thus we have Salma Hayek vocalising a lesbian taco shell, David Krumholtz as Kareem Abdul Lavash (a Middle Eastern lavash, or unleavened flatbread) and a bagel, courtesy of Edward Norton, that sounds like Woody Allen. One can almost imagine Seth Rogen and his co-writers Kyle Hunter, Ariel Shaffir and Evan Goldberg

rubbing their hands together in non-political glee as they dreamed up this stuff. And later, on the outside, we are greeted to the sight of a junkie indulging in a heroin trip and all sorts of foul detritus given their own voice (from a used condom to worse).

There are some good gags at the expense of the film’s set-up (when the goods plot their escape, an ice cream whimpers: “I can’t run, I’ll melt”), but for the most part it’s a ragbag of anything-goes insanity with the accent on crudity. Some might dig the novelty of a foul-mouthed roll of loo paper, but the device wears thin after two minutes. Others might balk at the sight of Stephen Hawking as a regurgitated piece of bubblegum spinning around on a battery-operated wheelchair. Bubblegum?

Sadly, the potential of a whole supermarket at one’s creative disposal is somewhat wasted. One wonders what the creators of Pixar’s Toy Story could have done with the material. As it is, this relentlessly coarse escapade only achieves the odd original chuckle. A six-pack of beers beforehand might help.



Scribe  **1/2

Mr Duval is a rather intriguing character. He’s one of life’s unknown ghosts who is drawn, inextricably, into the shadowy world of surveillance. A divorcee with a drink problem, Duval (François Cluzet) is a man of rigorous routine, a meticulous, dedicated number cruncher. But having resigned from his position as a bookkeeper with an insurance company, he has found himself virtually unemployable. Then, all of two years later, he is offered the perfect post: a solitary position transcribing taped conversations onto a typewriter. He is to arrive at his office precisely at nine in the morning and to pack up at six, whether or not he has finished his work. All miss-typed sheets are to be shredded and no smoking is allowed. And, perhaps most importantly of all, he is not to tell anybody what he does. It suits Duval down to the ground until one day, jolted from his mechanical typing, he listens to what appears to be the murder of a Libyan businessman.

The older François Cluzet gets, the more he resembles Dustin Hoffman. And while he’s got a couple of decades on the character Hoffman played in Marathon Man, the likeness does throw up recollections of the 1976 espionage thriller. Perhaps more comparable is the Oscar-winning German film The Lives of Others, as both feature solitary eavesdroppers. But whereas the German drama was entirely believable and astutely observed, its French counterpart is not.

Scribe, which heralds the directorial debut of Thomas Kruithof, is certainly well made and Duval beautifully inhabited by a disconsolate Cluzet, but the film’s increasingly elaborate twists do not convince and it all ends up getting rather silly. More unfortunate are the predictable clichés scattered in the path of the narrative’s third act, which reduce the thing to an exquisitely rendered piece of Channel 5 drama. The introduction of a fellow AA member, in the form of the Italian actress Alba Rohrwacher, promises a more human dimension, but, alas, she proves to be merely a cipher.







The Secret Life of Pets  **

It’s a familiar pattern. A few films of a particular stripe clean up at the box-office and all the studios jump on the band wagon. With the case of computer animation – which with the development of more sophisticated software has become cheaper to produce – a slew of colourful and cheerful films have flooded the multiplex. Recent titles like Capture the Flag, Ratchet & Clank and Top Cat Begins are largely foreign productions, developed by Spain, Canada and Mexico respectively. Indeed, half the films in this year’s box-office top-ten are animated – or will be when The Angry Birds Movie edges out London Has Fallen. The rest of the hits, from Captain America: Civil War to X-Men: Apocalypse, are so congested with CGI that they border on the format. And the top earner so far? The Jungle Book, which, in spite of its human star – Neel Sethi as Mowgli – is pure animation, albeit of a particularly photo-realistic kind. But the films that kick-started this deluge, the Toy Storys, Finding Nemos and Inside Outs were original, witty and inventive fare, creatively fine-tuned to within an inch of their lives.

The Secret Life of Pets, from Illumination Entertainment, the company that brought us Despicable Me and Minions, may well appeal to the young. It is colourful, action-packed and has more than its share of droll defecation. Not unlike the South Korean-produced The Nut Job in its narrative – two mismatched critters find themselves lost in the big city and join forces to battle a greater evil – the film lacks the magic of Disney and the wit of Pixar. Its comic beats are largely predictable, as are the familiar hit tunes which, when accompanied by an animated episode, somehow take on a faux sense of the comic. However, the film does have some fun with its inversion of the expected stereotypes. The villain, for instance, is a fluffy little bunny called Snowball (voiced by Kevin Hart), who’s all attitude and rage, exclaiming: “Death is coming to Brooklyn – and it’s got buck teeth and a cottontail!” There’s also a crocodile called Gareth and a topiaried poodle addicted to death metal, not to mention a geriatric basset hound (Dana Carvey) who exclaims: “For me, every breath is a cliff-hanger.” But these are small jocular distractions in what is otherwise a Looney Tunes express train in search of a punchline. A stronger story and wittier visual streak would have reaped dividends.



The Sense of an Ending  ****

A more appropriate title might have been A Capacity for Survival. Nevertheless, The Sense of an Ending is the moniker that Julian Barnes chose for his original 2011 novel. However, its cinematic model has gone on to prompt murmurs of disappointment from some critics. If the film is anticlimactic, then so our own lives might prove to be. Essentially, then, this is a powerfully nuanced character study that provides Jim Broadbent with one of the best parts of his illustrious career. His Tony Webster is a myopic, self-centred and disillusioned monster, like many English men of his generation and public school upbringing. And Broadbent nails him to the cross.

In an age of crime-infested TV drama and provincial, nostalgia-driven British cinema, a contemporary homegrown film of such subtlety and intelligence is a very rare animal. Webster himself worries that he might be suffering from nostalgia, but considering the letter he receives out of the blue, he might be forgiven such self-indulgence. It transpires that a woman from his past has left him a diary in her will, a memento that proves to be as intriguing as it is elusive. And as the old man embarks on a treacherous path down memory lane, his nearest and dearest undergo more pressing and physical demands. While Broadbent’s hideously grumpy demeanour rings painfully true, his co-stars are no less exemplary, in particular the magnificent Harriet Walter, Charlotte Rampling and Michelle Dockery.

Recalling such high-end naturalistic British films as Sunday, Bloody Sunday and the more recent 45 Years, The Sense of an Ending could not be more English. Its understatement, emotional reserve and unfamiliar London locations render it totally real and indigenous, although it’s actually directed by the Mumbai-born Ritesh Batra. Batra, whose last film was the Bafta-nominated The Lunchbox (2013), an Indian film, obviously has a perceptive perspective of the English condition. The result is a dark, sometimes deeply disturbing look at what it means to be out of kilter with the modern world and imprisoned by one’s memories.



The Shack  **

For Mackenzie Phillips (Sam Worthington), the shack is a place of pain. It conjures up the memories of a father he called Papa who submitted his mother and himself to regular beatings. It is perhaps ironic, then, that now he’s a grown-up married man with three children of his own, his youngest daughter has nicknamed God ‘Papa.’ Then the shack itself takes on a new identity, producing emotions of untold intensity…

You don’t come across a film like this very often. Not only is it profoundly old-fashioned, but simply quite audacious. Based on the self-published novel by William Paul Young, it attempts to open the eyes of its audience to a whole new perspective of life – and of faith. Unfortunately, its soporific pace does it no favours and only the most devout and broad-minded are likely to embrace its message of saintly forgiveness.



The Shallows  ****1/2

Let’s get one thing straight. It has been estimated that one hundred million sharks are killed every year by humans. And that’s a conservative figure. Detailed analysis has revealed that either directly or indirectly we are responsible for the deaths of 11,417 of the fish every hour. However, there is the occasional shark that strikes back, although for the most part they don’t view humans as a food source. And on even rarer occasions, just as there are in many species (including humans), there will be a shark who will hunt to kill just for the hell of it.

Jaume Collet-Serra's new thriller is an exploitationer in every sense of the word. It starts out like a high-end commercial for Blake Lively’s bottom, complete with fast cutting and slow motion. And the beach on which she alights looks like something straight out of a rum advert. “This is Paradise,” her driver tells her, before taking off and leaving her all alone. She is Nancy, a mature medical student coming to terms with the death of her mother. So she arrives at the beach in Mexico that her mother held dear, a step towards coming closer to the woman she now misses so much. Alone Nancy may be, but she’s guided by a spirit stronger than the tide – her mother was a fighter to the end.

Much of the film’s exposition is revealed through some brief exchanges on Nancy’s phone, before she packs up her things and heads for the surf. Like much of Collet-Serra's film – and Anthony Jaswinski's screenplay – it is a skilful, economic device. Collet-Serra has made his name with clomping Liam Neeson actioners (Unknown, Non-Stop, Run All Night), but he’s shown his efficiency as a top-grade B-movie director. And here he excels himself. His ace card is getting Blake Lively to peel off and occupy almost every frame of his film. She conveys an intelligence beyond the contours of her bikini and deftly establishes a character that can obviously look after herself. And because the actress makes Nancy real, what befalls her becomes almost unbearable to behold. We feel her fear, her pain, her cold, her weakness – with only adrenalin and her mother’s fighting spirit left to sustain her. It’s virtually a one-woman show, although a wounded seagull – whom she christens Steven – is a welcome support act. Collet-Serra also displays an accomplished ear, allowing the sound of the sea to have as much an effect on Nancy’s dire reality as Marco Beltrami's score.

As a thriller, then, The Shallows is one of the most gripping of the year. It’s certainly scarier than all the haunted house films Hollywood has doled out of late. But then people really do go swimming in the sea…


Silence  ****

Martin Scorsese never does things by halves. He opens his latest film with the horrific torture of four Jesuit priests who have refused to renounce their faith. Throughout the next two-and-a-half hours he depicts a series of increasingly sophisticated trials of the flesh and soul as, in seventeenth-century Japan, the Samurai elite attempt to stamp out Christianity in their country. Adapted from the 1966 historical novel by Shūsaku Endō, the film follows the quest of the Portuguese priest Sebastião Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) to find his mentor, Cristóvão Ferreira (Liam Neeson), who is rumoured to have forsaken his vows of Christianity. It is a hazardous expedition and recalls the journey into the heart of darkness to locate Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse New. The horror... the horror... is not dissimilar.

Brought up a Roman Catholic, Scorsese has peppered his films with Catholic guilt and redemption and famously caused an uproar with his brutal The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), two years after which he first mooted a film version of Endō’s novel. The result is a harrowing experience with a narrow appeal and has proved a box-office flop in the States. It is nonetheless a powerful piece of cinema, as exquisitely rendered in its pictorial beauty as in its unflinching violence.

At 74, Scorsese remains a master of his craft and inspires his collaborators to give of their best, witnessed by the ravishing cinematography of Rodrigo Prieto and the seamless editing of his old colleague Thelma Schoonmaker. As Rodrigues, Andrew Garfield has never shown such intensity and maturity, while the Japanese players Issey Ogata, Yoshi Oida and Yōsuke Kubozuka are particularly impressive. However, the film’s portrayal of the Japanese as connoisseurs of cruelty borders on the racist, albeit based on genuine reports. Thus, as a depiction of inexplicable hatred as well as of an unshakeable faith, the film is undeniably extraordinary.



The Silent Storm  ***

You’d be forgiven for thinking that The Silent Storm was adapted from a Gothic romantic novel. It was, in fact, born from the writer-director Corinna McFarlane’s love of Celtic mythology and Jungian psychology and a desire to re-connect with her Scottish roots. Damian Lewis is executive producer and certainly makes the most of the opportunity to expand his thespian sweep. He plays Balor McNeal, the minister of a remote Scottish island some time after the Second World War. He is an authoritarian, a self-righteous and pompous man in thrall to the power of God. And as his flock diminishes, along with his influence, he becomes more distant and brutal to his wife, the nature-loving and hard-working Aislin (Andrea Riseborough). For her, God is represented in the wild beauty around them, in the plants and animals she tends to, and has learned to draw on the magical properties of the herbs she knows so well. For Balor, his succour is in the Scriptures and he will not have his judgement questioned. From the pulpit he resorts to fire and brimstone and on the domestic battlefield his fists. Then, in the midst of a ferocious assault on his wife, a car pulls up outside the ministry. The director of a charity (John Sessions) has turned up to deliver a troubled young man in his care, Fionn (Ross Anderson), for whom he hopes Balor will assist in his spiritual guidance...

Some might find this all a little ripe, and maybe a tad melodramatic at times, but the film does exert a singular spell. The windswept coastline recalls the domain of a Brontë or even the grandeur of David Lean’s Ryan’s Daughter. Andrea Riseborough, who seems drawn to such minimal, stark dramas (think Resistance, Never Let Me Go) blends into the landscape with painterly skill, although her accent is at odds with her co-stars. But then Aislin is an enigma, a woman without a past who was rescued by her husband and remains indebted to him. And therein lies her crisis. Riseborough, who can slip in and out of accents with ease, has alighted on a Germanic inflection, which nicely counterpoints the savage staccato of Lewis’s Celtic burr. Lewis himself, so familiar in more restrained, heroic roles, might be accused of devouring the scenery so beloved of Aislin. But it helps that his outlandish demeanour is parodied by Fionn, thus positioning the audience in the same camp as the storyteller.

Corinna McFarlane certainly exhibits a cinematic grip on her material, guiding her narrative subtly through its dramatic changes. Riseborough is terrific, and Ross Anderson sympathetic, while Ed Rutherford’s cinematography is surely unforgettable. It might have been to McFarlane’s advantage not to have cast such a well-known actor as Lewis in such a frenzied part, as Balor’s extremes could lead to unintentional laughter. It is, nonetheless, a striking feature debut and a quite unusual film.



Sing  *****

Sing as if your life depended on it. For the characters in this star-laden cartoon, the mere act of singing is all they’ve got to lift them out of the travails of their mundane lives. And like the contestants who harness their dreams of success to such reality TV shows as Pop Idol, The X Factor and The Voice, the competitors here are a varied lot. Even more varied, perhaps. There’s an elephant crippled by shyness, a pig weighed down with her domestic obligations, a teenage gorilla trapped in a cycle of crime, a porcupine stuck in a suffocating relationship with her punk rocker boyfriend and a white mouse, professionally trained, who has been reduced to busking on the streets. Then their aspirations are given a voice in the form of a talent competition mounted by a cash-strapped, misguided and hopelessly optimistic koala who runs a theatre inherited from his father. He is a true P.T. Barnum figure and always just one step away from the poor house. But he believes as much in the currency of talent as he does in the possibility of financial deliverance.

The secret weapon behind Sing, the most satisfactory and moving film from Illumination Entertainment – the company that brought us Despicable Me, Minions and The Secret Life of Pets – is its writer-director Garth Jennings. British-born, he has been lying low since his last film, the critically applauded low-budget, live-action Son of Rambow (2007). Here, he makes good on the promise he showed back then. Jennings not only understands the power of music as a driving emotional force, but he has created a menagerie of characters who, for all their failings, we really root for and care about. And as with the real-life competitions it apes, the audience will find its loyalties switching from one contestant to the next.

At its most basic, Sing is like an animated X-Factor in which the viewer is invited into the lives and hearts of its participants. But Jennings’ film is so cinematic, heartfelt, funny, savvy and exhilarating, that the animation proves almost secondary. Indeed, the various subplots are so skilfully interwoven and deftly defined, that one almost forgets it’s just a cartoon. Of course, the animation is terrific, but it’s the music that steals the show. And with such tried-and-tested hits as Rod Argent's ‘The Way I Feel Inside,’ Elton John's 'I'm Still Standing,' Taylor Swift's 'Shake It Off' and Leonard Cohen's ‘Hallelujah’ – and many more – crammed onto the soundtrack, one can but feel supremely elevated. As a feel-good entertainment, Sing is not only the best thing Illumination Entertainment has given us, but more affecting and rejuvenating than any other animated feature of 2016.



Sing Street  *****

Boy meets girl. Girl impresses boy. So boy forms band to impress girl. But can the boy sing? That’s pretty much the gist of John Carney’s gritty, charming and uplifting paean to first-love and his passion for music.

A former musician himself – he was bassist for the Irish rock band The Frames – the writer-director John Carney knows of what he films. And here he goes back to his grass roots with an old-fashioned “let’s put on a show” musical. Set in his native Dublin in the 1980s (the decade of a-ha and Duran Duran), Sing Street is a refreshingly uncomplicated, straightforward crush story about a 15-year-old schoolboy, Conor Lalor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo), who meets a pretty 16-year-old on the street. How to see her again? Ask her to model for his new music video. She agrees – and so he has to assemble a band double quick. Let’s just hope they can play…

Carney’s film is set in and around the environs of Dublin’s Synge Street comprehensive, hence the moniker of Conor’s band. Having started small-scale with the low-budget Once – which ended up as a Broadway musical with no less than eight Tony awards – Carney moved to the mainstream with Begin Again, starring Keira Knightley and Mark Ruffalo. It was an utter delight.

Here, the director moves back to his own origins with a story largely inspired by his first dabblings in the music scene. Like his leading character Conor, he was shifted from private school to Synge Street, was bullied, fell in love with an older girl and formed a band to help fit in with his new social milieu. It’s very personal. And because it’s personal, the whole film rings true. Inevitable comparisons will be made to Alan Parker’s 1991 The Commitments – also the story of a young man from Dublin who sets about forming his own band. But while the earlier film was hugely successful – and spawned a West End musical – it felt contrived and offered too many obvious comic beats. Carney’s variation is totally fresh and unpredictable.

True, it’s hard to decipher some of the dialogue, but that is the price one pays for authentic performances. Ferdia Walsh-Peelo is immediately sympathetic and believable as Conor, while Lucy Boynton promises great things as Conor’s crush, Raphina, an exceedingly pretty waif wise beyond her years. All down the line the performances resonate with spark and truth, but it’s Jack Reynor as Conor’s older brother Brendan who almost steals the show. Reminiscent of a young, Irish Seth Rogen, Reynor’s Brendan is a stoner and college drop-out, but is a wise counsel for Conor’s aspirations and he certainly knows his music. All being equal, Reynor should receive some glittering prizes by year’s end, if not an illustrious career beyond.

As for the film, it’s a tonic, a touching, funny and captivating recollection of one’s own first heartbreak. Let’s just hope the positive reviews and upbeat word-of-mouth allow it to reach the audience it deserves.



Sleepless  ***1/2

Sleep is not an option. And don’t even think about eating or drinking. As for loo time, that’s when you go to stash your coke behind a ceiling panel. Baran bo Odar's Sleepless is a lean, mean action-thriller with the accent on action. Once the establishing shots of Vegas are quickly dispensed with, we cut to a car chase and then to a brutal shoot-out and get to know what an unpleasant piece of work Jamie Foxx really is. He is Vince Downs, a trigger-happy vice cop who’s just shot his way to 25k of cocaine worth $7 million on the street and enough to lift him out of his meagre lifestyle.

There’s not enough time for much backstory, but we know that Vince has a teenage son, Thomas (Octavius J. Johnson), and an ex-wife (Gabrielle Union) who is exasperated by his lack of commitment to his son’s life. However, when he does agree to drive Thomas to soccer practice, his son is abducted in broad daylight by the goons of one Stanley Rubino (Dermot Mulroney). Of course, Rubino wants his cocaine back…

The Swiss director Baran bo Odar is none too interested in the minutiae of character development. This might seem extraordinary as bo Odar’s breakout film, the shocking, gripping, yet all-too human The Silence (2010), was all about character and the devil’s details. Here, he just takes the bare bones of his scenario (based on the French thriller Nuit Blanche) and ploughs on regardless, chucking up new plot developments with breathless élan. It is perhaps fair to say that nobody is who they seem, but there’s a delicious hierarchy of villains in which Scoot McNairy’s bitter and twisted mobster’s son is perhaps the most vile, certainly of this film, if not of the year to date. And it’s always good to have a bad guy to despise, particularly as Jamie Foxx is no boy scout. The really good guy, though, is Michelle Monaghan, an agent from Internal Affairs who is not only fighting to prove that Vince is a loose cannon but also the institutionalised sexism of her department.

As Sleepless gathers momentum and the fate of Thomas becomes increasingly inconsequential – there are bigger fish to flay – the tension develops accordingly. Of course, there are clichés and a number of improbable moments, but for most of its running time the film hits one like a triple-shot of espresso.



Snatched  *1/2

If you think the title is funny, then this movie is for you. And it all started so promisingly. Amy Schumer plays Emily Middleton, a New Yorker who’s looking forward to the trip of a lifetime to Ecuador. Then her boyfriend dumps her because she’s only got one vagina. “I’m breaking up with you,” he says. “When?” Emily asks. Meanwhile, Emily’s mother Linda (Goldie Hawn) won’t leave her alone because there was a heist in Delaware. Linda then starts surfing the web for sex offenders in White Plains, New York. It’s a fretful relationship, but when none of Emily’s friends want to join her in Ecuador, she turns to her mother. Desperately, she argues that her mother would put the “fun” into “non-refundable.” Eventually, of course, Emily drags her mother off to South America for a series of wildly foreseeable and increasingly farcical misadventures. In the first ten minutes of the film I laughed ten times. And never again.

Amazingly, it has been fifteen years since Goldie Hawn last did a movie (The Banger Sisters in 2002, with Susan Sarandon). However, the intervening years have not been kind, exacerbated by some ill-advised cosmetic surgery. It was a mistake, too, to cast the actress against type. Here, the former goddess of the giggle is reduced to the role of a stay-at-home mom who’d rather curl up with a book than contemplate a night on the town. The saddest image of all is seeing the ‘It’ girl of the 1960s flashing images of extreme pornography at the camera for the benefit of a cheap laugh. And to think that Goldie started her film career with an Oscar and the wit of I.A.L. Diamond and Peter Sellers to help her on her way.

The reason Snatched is not funny is not because it’s predictable but because it’s improbable. Gross-out humour has its place but it only really works if the audience is behind the set-up. Machete-wielding South Americans and abominable tapeworms do not belong in a movie about mother-daughter reconciliation. Amy Schumer herself is the film’s trump card. A courageously self-deprecating presence, she can lick a laugh out of a half-written bon mot. But her Emily Middleton has no bearing in reality. Still, she’s spared the indignity inflicted on Joan Cusack, whose demented performances as a former Special Ops agent heralds a new low for the actress.



The Space Between Us  *****

What if you’ve got used to people lying to you? Then, the one boy you want to believe in, tells you he’s from Mars… Peter Chelsom’s The Space Between Us is many things, but at its heart it’s a love story. It’s the story of a boy in love with Earth, of daring to take a leap of faith, of being prepared to go the extra mile. The space between Gardner Elliot and Tulsa is 140 million miles, but she is all he’s got, so he’s prepared to put in the distance.

And here’s another “what if?” What if, in the future, the leader of a mission to Mars discovers that, on the way, she is pregnant? In spite of the risks, she gives birth on the Red Planet and her son is forced to grow up surrounded by astronauts. The boy is Gardner, and with all that tech at his disposal, he learns a lot about science. But, being a classified ‘secret,’ he has nobody his own age to interract with. So he strikes up an anonymous correspondence with a schoolgirl on Earth, a girl who seems to share so many of his own feelings of alienation. Then, one day, aged 19, he is transported back to Earth to undergo extensive medical tests to see if he can survive on the planet from which his own parents came. But Gardner has only one thing on his mind…

One of the many pleasures of this utterly beguiling romantic fantasy is seeing our own world through fresh eyes. After Gardner breaks out of the Kennedy Space Center (remember, he knows his way around such high-tech facilities), the lad finds himself in ‘the real world.’ His stock question to complete strangers is, “What’s your favourite thing about Earth?” And his answer to how he’s feeling is invariably, “I feel heavy.” The change in gravity is the least of his problems as he adjusts to a new kind of etiquette where nobody seems to say what they mean. He says it as he sees it because nobody taught him to lie.

As the gawky, awkward and ingenuous runaway, Asa Butterfield hands in another sincere, appealing turn, building on the repertoire of outsiders he has played in Hugo, X+Y and Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children. As Tulsa, the foster teenager who cannot fathom Gardner’s unorthodox ways, Britt Robertson is a spirited foil for Butterfield’s gaucherie. Now aged 26, Robertson is ready to leave her teens behind her and to take on some serious adult characters.

No less impressive in equally signifcant roles are Gary Oldman as the British head of the original space mission and Carla Gugino as the astronaut who acts as Gardner’s surrogate mother. The script, too, is packed with lines you want to scribble down, from Oldman’s cautionary, “Mother Nature doesn’t negotiate,” to Gardner’s heart-breaking question to Gugino: “How am I supposed to act on Earth, with the people?” The photography is also exceptional, with its vistas of Colorado and the Grand Canyon making one grateful that we live on such an amazing planet. And like all good fantasy, the film holds up a magical mirror to the inadequacies of our own reality.



Spider-Man: Homecoming  ***1/2

Actually, that should be Spider-Boy, as this second Spidey reboot goes back to Peter Parker’s schooldays and the fifteen-year-old student he once was. At heart, it’s a high school romance framed by a superhero movie, a right-angled adjunct to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. While this formula feeds out teasing links to the other instalments gathering at the gates of the multiplex, it does rather undermine Homecoming as a stand-alone feature. And even at 133 minutes, the film feels strangely incomplete, as if mustering momentum for revelations to be resolved in a forthcoming chapter. Even so, it’s a good deal more fun than a lot of the Marvel movies and as Spidey, the London-born Tom Holland is a sprightly, agreeable would-be hero and more than holds his own against the ghosts of Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield. One might even say he’s the most engaging Peter Parker yet.

For his antagonist we have Michael Keaton, which is kinda weird, as older viewers may recall the actor as the Caped Crusader in Tim Burton’s Batman (1989) and its sequel, Batman Returns (1992), not to mention his Oscar-nominated turn as the man who played Birdman (2014). Keaton can be creepy when he wants to be, but his ‘Vulture’ is hardly in the same league as Heath Ledger’s The Joker or Tom Hardy’s Bane. However, as the title suggests, this is as much about the impending Homecoming dance at Peter’s school as it is about the Vulture’s illegal trafficking in alien-enhanced weaponry.

The fun part is seeing Parker coming to terms with his alter ego, helping pedestrians with directions and apprehending a bike thief while dreaming of bigger crimes to confront. There’s also his infatuation with fellow student Liz (Laura Harrier), a beauty of mixed heritage, who he’d love to take to the ball; and his friendship with the amply proportioned Ned (Jacob Batalon), who just can’t keep his mouth shut. The latter is obviously of Polynesian origin, adding to the film’s vivid sense of diversity and making up for the fact that Parker himself is a slice of pure white bread.

Of all the Avengers, Spider-Man is perhaps the most likeable, for being both young and eager-to-please; but one can’t help wondering how many times he will be re-booted. Tobey Maguire slung his first web in 2002 and was followed just ten years later by Andrew Garfield. The gap is narrowing. For now, though, Tom Holland will do very nicely and is signed up to play Spidey for another two films.



Split  ****1/2      That’s ‘split’ as in ‘split personality.’ There’s certainly more to Kevin Wendell Crumb than meets the eye. In fact, he’s a bundle of 23 distinct personalities, and not all of them are nice… Recently, there seems to have been a profusion of abduction thrillers – particularly featuring vulnerable women locked in claustrophobic spaces – but Split is of a little more interest. For a start, it showcases James McAvoy in perhaps his most demanding role to date, slipping imperceptibly from one character to the next. And so we come to recognise the separate personalities trapped in Kevin’s body as McAvoy’s body language ripples from one identity to the next. It would have been easy for the actor to slip into parody, but McAvoy keeps the childlike Hedwig, the obsessive-compulsive Barry and rather prim Patricia this side of credible.

Kevin, of course, is a damaged soul and it’s not until he’s kidnapped Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy, from The Witch and Morgan), another victim of child abuse, that the psychological battle lines are drawn. In recent years, the career of the filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan would seem to have foundered, but the writer-director of The Sixth Sense and Signs has re-emerged with fresh vigour and maturity, creating here a sly, suspenseful and multi-layered work that keeps us guessing and in thrall. On this occasion, he serves his own smart, tight script with the precision of a storyteller at the top of his form. West Dylan Thordson's moody music is kept to an acceptable minimum and the disorientating camera angles deployed to effective use. But it is McAvoy’s multi-storey performance that viewers will be talking about in years to come, although as Kevin’s two female foils, Anya Taylor-Joy as Casey and the redoubtable Betty Buckley as his psychiatrist, are also exceptional.

As a generic companion piece to Daniel Petrie's seminal two-part TV movie Sybil (1976), Split proves to be an informative and intriguing second helping. Only the final, somewhat drawn-out coda – suggesting a series in the offing – undermines what could have been a perfect thriller.



Star Trek Beyond  **1/2

You can take the series out of the 1960s but you can’t take the 1960s out of the series. Before the wunderkind J.J. Abrams came on board the USS Enterprise to reboot the franchise, the starship was beginning to noticeably creak around the edges. But some things no filmmaker dare touch: the daft old catchphrases, the anodyne Captain Kirk, the ludicrously short skirts (of the female personnel) and the pantomimic villains. Now, as the Enterprises sails into its 13th big-screen instalment and Abrams has jumped ship to refuel the far superior Star Wars programme (his Star Wars: The Force Awakens is, in the US, the highest-grossing film of all time), the latest episode has been handed over to Justin Lin. The Taipei-born Lin is no stranger to sequels, having directed four of the Fast & Furious films, but the F&F phenomenon shoulders its cheesiness with rocket fuel. Here, in an age of Interstellar and Gravity, Star Trek is beginning to look a bit mouldy.

The latest is scripted by Simon Pegg and Doug Jung and doesn’t seem that different from anything that’s gone before. The USS Enterprise is dispatched on a rescue mission when an alien with a head like a sea vegetable tells the Federation that her ship is stranded in a nearby nebula. And so Kirk (Chris Pine) and his crew travel into the furthest reaches of uncharted space to become the pawns in the plan of the incredibly evil Krall, whose head also looks like a vegetable. And, like many a villain before him, Krall is a dab hand at hand-to-hand combat, has terrible teeth, speaks perfect English and likes to kill people. Meanwhile, faced with almost instant annihilation, Kirk’s crew knock out the usual risible dialogue (Scotty: “I’ll take that as a ‘no’ then”) and tweak the possibilities of quantum physics. Scotty (Simon Pegg) is a particularly annoying creation, even if he did write his own part, and it’s hard to believe his female colleagues still allow him to call them “lassie.”  

But all is not lost. Perhaps, inevitably, the special effects have come a long way since 1966 and some of the visuals are genuinely awesome. Idris Elba, as Krall, in spite of the standard-issue speech impediment of extraterrestrial baddies, lends considerable heft to his role. At times, there’s almost a Shakespearean grandeur to his commander. And Krall’s secret weapon, an apparently indestructible force of machines with a swarm mentality, is beautifully rendered. There’s also a most appealing new alien character called Jaylah (Sofia Boutella), who taps into the androgynous albino vibe of Daryl Hannah’s Pris from Blade Runner. And while we’re talking of cinematic allusions, the space outpost of Yorktown is an impressive

cross between something out of Inception and Elysium. At times these virtues almost overcome the monotony of the wall-to-wall music, silly dialogue and accelerated editing. But not quite.

The film is dedicated to the late Leonard Nimoy and Anton Yelchin who have died, respectively, aged 83 and 27.



Star Wars: The Last Jedi  **

When the original Star Wars rebooted the sci-fi genre in 1977, it ran for a trim, exuberant two hours and fifty seconds. The Last Jedi, forty years on, lasts an interminable two hours, 31 minutes and 38 seconds. Yet it is merely a stepping-stone between The Force Awakens and Episode IX. And like many a chapter in a franchise these days, it doesn’t feel like a whole movie. Whereas The Force Awakens (2015) brought a fresh, post-modern spin to the series, its disjointed sequel has fewer surprises up its sleeve.

It was a risk to bring a filmmaker of Rian Johnson’s experience on board such a massively expensive enterprise. Besides helming three episodes of Breaking Bad, Johnson directed the convoluted, loopy Looper (2012) and the self-satisfied, wilfully abstruse Brick (2005). Here, he’s tasked with juggling manic action sequences with ponderous longueurs involving Luke Skywalker, played by Mark Hamill as a sort of Alan Bates lookalike. When Luke rejects Rey’s plea for help to shore up the Resistance, he tells her, “nothing can make me change my mind.” Later, when he’s changed his mind, he warns, “the war is just beginning” and one’s heart sinks.

On the acting front, Harrison Ford is sorely missed, while Domhnall Gleeson gives us an am-dram interpretation of blinkered power in the form of General Hux. On a poignant note, the late Carrie Fisher adds gravitas and credibility to her General Leia, by contrast turning her co-stars into comic-book ciphers. There’s also good work from Andy Serkis as the Supreme Leader Snoke, a deformed, reptilian being of untold power and malevolence.

All one asks of any film, regardless of its genre, is to be transported, engaged and to be moved. The only movement involved in the watching of The Last Jedi is the restless shifting of one’s impatient derrière.



Storks  **1/2      With the world’s population approaching eight billion, we now get a movie extolling the mass production of babies. Or so it used to be for Cornerstore.com, whose airborne couriers happen to be storks and other avian aviators. But times have moved on and with the demand for instant retail gratification, the storks now deliver anything but little bundles in swaddling clothes. The company is overseen by a corporate shark/stork called Hunter (voiced by Kelsey Grammer) who has decided to replace himself with his chief courier, Junior (Andy Samberg). Junior’s first duty is to fire the human employee Tulip (Katie Crown), whose hare-brained ideas for improving the company invariably misfire – disastrously. She’s a liability. She was also the last baby to be produced by the factory, eighteen years previously. However, Junior just hasn’t got the nerve to dismiss her to her face. But when he relocates her to the mailroom in the hope that she will never be seen again, she inadvertently manufactures a baby girl. And the baby has a home it needs to be delivered to…

The idea of delivery drones being anthropomorphized into the storks of folklore is not a bad one. However, Nicholas Stoller and Doug Sweetland's computer-animated romp is a scattershot and raucous affair. In a bid to fill out its meagre running time, it takes an anything-goes approach, littering the screen with visual non sequiturs. So one sequence in which a young boy is attempting to prevail upon his work-obsessed parents to hatch him a sibling is followed by a frenetic chase through a frozen wasteland in which Junior and Tulip are hunted by an army of wolves. In short, the film is all over the place. But some of the scenes do work. There’s a nicely judged skirmish between Junior and Tulip and a gang of pitiless penguins played out in virtual silence – so as not to wake the sleeping baby. And when the factory is depicted in full baby-making mode, there is considerable ingenuity at play.

The voice cast – which includes Jennifer Aniston, Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele – is hit-and-miss. Katie Crown is terrific as Tulip but Stephen Kramer Glickman as a self-consciously streetwise pigeon (complete with Donald Trump quiff) is embarrassing. And the overall ugliness of the visual look just perpetuates a worrying trend in computer animation.



Straight Outta Compton  ****       Most so-called musical biographies are about the music. F. Gary Gray’s Straight Outta Compton is about the words – and the anger that ignited them. While Frankie Valli and his Four Seasons were involved in crime in their earlier years (cf. Clint Eastwood’s Jersey Boys), it was the crime itself that informed the incendiary lyrics of the hip-hop supergroup NWA (Niggaz Wit Attitudes). NWA were, indeed, straight out of Compton, Los Angeles, a predominantly black area famous for its gang warfare and subsequent intimidation by the police. In a neighbourhood on the edge, racial and tribal tensions were the norm and NWA expressed this in their ‘songs,’ which, while reflecting the lifestyle, also incited more antipathy towards the establishment. With the group’s inside rivalries, clashes with police, disputes with their managers and more viscerally dramatic episodes, the film’s narrative makes for constantly gripping stuff. F. Gary Gray, perhaps best known for his films The Italian Job and Law Abiding Citizen, directs with energy and style and builds the tension nicely, injecting a raw authenticity into the proceedings. Anything could blow at any minute… Best of all, though, are the performances, with Ice Cube, Dr. Dre and Eazy-E convincingly realised by, respectively, O'Shea Jackson Jr, Corey Hawkins and Jason Mitchell. Jackson Jr, in particular, is a dead ringer for ‘Cube,’ but then he is Ice Cube’s son. Oh, and the dialogue is about as real as it gets, artfully complementing the barbed precision of the lyrics.


Strangled  ****

For much of its running time, Strangled is a very uncomfortable watch. It is based on the true story of the serial killer Péter Kovács (aka Bognár Pál), who haunted the lanes and railway tracks of Martfű in Hungary. Hungary is not known for its laugh-out-loud comedies and Strangled is as grim and pared back as most of the exports that arrive in the UK. The murders themselves are filmed with a forensic attention to detail and are anything but sexualised. In fact, all the scenes of sexual interaction reflect poorly on the male of the species, regardless of which side of the law they are on. The policeman in charge of the hunt for the killer is far from the polite, intuitive detective that we have come used to on British television. He is not only inept, but rude and uncouth and is happy to imprison a scapegoat for his own political agenda. What follows is a heart-breaking miscarriage of justice as further characters are fleshed out and the narrative proceeds through the years. It is a grippingly realised drama, if only for its stark lack of cliché and excellent production values. It’s also quite a story, and one that maybe had to be told if only to shed light on the terrible iniquities carried out in the socialist regime of the 1950s and 1960s.



A Street Cat Named Bob  ****

The operative word in the title is ‘street.’ Recalling Withnail & I with its mix of comedy and living on the breadline in London, Roger Spottiswoode’s glistening adaptation of James Bowen’s memoir is a feel-good peep at the underbelly of the capital. The other notable word in the title is ‘cat,’ and the eponymous ginger is nothing short of a guardian angel.

A recovering heroin addict busking on the streets, James Bowen (Luke Treadaway) just can’t imagine his life getting any worse when his support worker (Joanne Froggatt) finds him a bedsit with hot water, a fresh packet of cereal and a pint of milk. However, he’s no longer enjoying his first hot shower in years when an intruder breaks into his kitchen: an assertive, fearless and sociable marmalade cat. It is from this moment on that James’s life takes a turn for the better. The cat, Bob, turns out to be a profitable addition to the busker’s act and soon James can afford to buy cat food, a cat lead and even a bunch of flowers for a lady friend.

With the number of homeless growing on our streets, it is bracing to observe some of the horrors of James’s day-to-day existence: sorting through a dumpster for anything edible, picking food up from the pavement and spending the night in a car that its owner had forgotten to lock. And those were the good days.

The real Bob appears as himself, but permits a number of stunt doubles to do some of the hard work. Ruta Gedmintas is also good value as Belle, James’s sexy neighbour, but her radiant beauty, gleaming white teeth and perfect skin hardly fits in with her surroundings. However, this is Bob’s story – after all, he has the title role – and his knack for attracting favourable attention – and publicity – is undeniably heart-warming. This one could run and run – A Street Cat Named Bob – The Musical? – and after James Bowen’s best-selling books, the film is a wholly engaging and terribly moving addition to the true-life fairy tale.



Suburbicon  *****

Pitched as “a great place to raise a family,” Suburbicon is a residential utopia for middle-class America in the 1950s. For the viewer panic immediately sets in as we admire the manicured lawns, the identical driveways and the mailman smiling like the cat that got the cream. It feels like Pleasantville with a David Lynch mean streak. The music suggests we might be in Brian De Palma country, but this is really Alfred Hitchcock injected into the bloodstream of Tim Burton. The clue to the tone is evinced by the names of Ethan and Joel Coen attached to the screenplay, the past masters of black comedy. This takes us back even to their earliest work, such as Blood Simple, which has recently benefitted from a re-issue. And with George Clooney behind the camera – he re-shaped the script with his regular collaborator Grant Heslov – the film is bulked up with plenty of Hollywood virtuosity.

Julianne Moore returns to her favourite decade, the 1950s (cf. Far from Heaven, The Hours, The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio, etc), but this time plays two roles, the twin sisters Rose and Margaret Lodge. Rose is married to small-town financier Gardner Lodge (a nervous, bespectacled Matt Damon) and is confined to a wheelchair following a car accident. To help Rose and her young son, Nicky (Noah Jupe), Margaret has moved into their home in Suburbicon, where much of the action is viewed through the eyes of Nicky. Then two things happen. A coloured family moves next door and, in the middle of the night, the Lodge family is visited by two men, neither of whom could be described as friendly.

Without wishing to give too much away, Suburbicon is a devilishly stylish black comedy that plugs directly into the heart of 1950s’ paranoia. Furthermore, one doesn’t know where it’s going to take you, except up the garden path, over the fence and into the deepest recesses of a deranged Burtonesque neighbourhood. This is how black comedy should be played – with a straight face and a broad subversive leer.



Suicide Squad  ***

They say that the bad guys are always more fun to play. And to watch. So why not stuff a superhero movie full of bad guys? After all, who would you rather watch? A square-jawed hunk in a red cape and blue tights or a buffed-up, badass Will Smith as Deadshot, “the most wanted hitman in the world”? There’s also Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn, “a whole lotta pretty and a whole lotta crazy,” who dispatches witticisms – and adversaries – with child-like glee. And let’s not forget the deadly Captain Boomerang, the fire-throwing El Diablo, the unstoppable, reptilian Killer Croc and the assassin Slipknot. Basically, these guys – all behind bars – are the most dangerous criminals on earth. However, in the wake of Superman’s death, intelligence operative Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) reckons that they are mankind’s best bet to stave off any imminent threat. So, when a witch runs amok in the subway of Midway City, each prisoner is implanted with a remotely controlled explosive in their neck and told to go kick ass…

Basically a Dirty Dozen (or Savage Sextet) in a parallel universe, Suicide Squad is a big-screen adaptation of the DC Comic and the third instalment in the so-called “DC Extended Universe.” Like many of these multi-charactered fantasy-actioners, the film suffers from a severe case of congestion and at times, particularly in the beginning, it’s hard to know what the hell is going on. The caption that identifies the facility in which Deadshot is imprisoned is in black on a dark background and is impossible to read. Much of what follows is equally unintelligible. Still, there’s much fun to be had amongst the sadistic mayhem, although the film doesn’t quite grace the comedic heights of this year’s earlier 15-rated fantasy (and unexpected hit) Deadpool.

The star turn is unquestionably provided by Margot Robbie, whose combination of ball-breaking, sex appeal and comic timing repeatedly lifts the film out of its bombastic swagger. When introduced to the deadly, unsmiling swordswoman Katana (Karen Fukuhara), she beams, “She seems nice!” And when the explosive mechanism in the squad’s respective necks is revealed, she just marvels, “That’s a killer app!” As it happens, Harley’s boyfriend is the Joker (Jared Leto), who pops up here and there but doesn’t really fit in with the rest of the movie. He’s just one more villainous obstacle for writer-director David Ayer to deal with and he’s a distraction too far.

The real villain is Cara Delevingne’s Enchantress, whose CGI-enhanced powers seem a hard act to combat, particularly as she keeps on turning the citizens of Midway City into pebble-headed killers. But for every over-edited fight sequence, there’s a classic rock anthem to paper over the chaos, including a cover of ‘Bohemian Rhapsody,’ no less. So, even as the film blusters and baffles, it also repeatedly delivers.


Sully: Miracle on the Hudson  ****        Tom Hanks playing a hero? Really? Well, if you’re going to get anybody to play Chesley ‘Sully’ Sullenberger – the pilot who saved the lives of 155 people on 15 January 2009 – it might as well be Tom Hanks. He’s a solidly dependable actor and Clint Eastwood, 86, is a solidly dependable director. The scenarist Todd Komarnicki divides the action between three time frames and for those unfamiliar with the details of the US Airways Flight 1549, Sully: Miracle on the Hudson supplies them with forensic efficiency. Acronyms abound (ACARS, NTSB) and men in ties and white shirts pontificate, but ultimately this is a David and Goliath story: a human being pitted against the incontrovertible might of computer software. For in spite of his miraculous landing on New York’s Hudson River – ‘on’ and not ‘in,’ a crucial difference – Sully was still dragged before a hearing to defend his accomplishment. A computer simulation – well, twenty computer simulations – suggested that there was a safer course of action. But Sully and his co-pilot Jeff Skiles (a credible Aaron Eckhart) had 208 seconds to land the plane safely, aided by human instinct and decades of flying experience.

As usual for Eastwood, the film exhibits consummate craftsmanship and is tighter and more economical than his more recent outings, while Komarnicki’s screenplay positively crackles. It’s an alchemy that brings a moving human element to the drama (the phone calls between Sully and his wife Lorraine, played by Laura Linney, are particularly affecting), while the landing itself could hardly be more gripping. Sully himself may be made out to be the greatest man to come out of America since Abraham Lincoln, but with Tom Hanks and Clint Eastwood on board one should make allowances for such American myth-making.



Summertime  ****1/2
The 1970s were a long time ago and prejudice wasn’t what it used to be. Nonetheless, Catherine Corsini’s sumptuous, sensual and moving film is not just about intolerance but about the divide that separates the countryside from the city and family loyalty from political responsibility. Here, Carole (Cécile de France) is part of the vanguard of a feminist movement in Paris fighting to bring women equal pay and to legalise abortion. Her boyfriend, Manuel (Benjamin Bellecour), is an understanding figure and, like her, a teacher. However, when she starts spending more time with a fellow feminist, Delphine (Izïa Higelin), than with him, Manuel cannot control his jealousy. But, unlike Delphine, Carole doesn’t care who knows that she is now in love with a woman…
In the wake of such films as Blue is the Warmest Colour, Carol and Freeheld, Summertime would seem to have little new to add to the lesbian love story. But under the direction of the veteran filmmaker Catherine Corsini – who is herself lesbian – a whole new range of nuances are opened up. Corsini is more directly concerned with the emotional dynamic between her protagonists, and although the film is set in 1971, the period is merely a backdrop and not an aesthetic. Back then abortion was still illegal in France and women, even more so than now, were second-class citizens. There has also always been a huge divide between the urban and rural sensibility in the country, a dynamic that adds considerable intonation to Corsini’s story. Any compromise in a human relationship is predicated on a number of values, not just one simplistic device of a cinematic concept. Here, Carole and Delphine are divided – and perhaps drawn – by a raft of opposing interests, including their background, their age (Carole is notably older) and their freedoms and restrictions within their respective communities.
All this would resonate not a dash had Corsini failed to secure such creditable and spontaneous performances from her stars. De France is a familiar talent to British audiences thanks to her work in films like Switchblade Romance, The Singer and the Dardennes’ The Kid with a Bike – and she is as free and dynamic as she has ever been. But Izïa Higelin is a more surprising choice. In spite of a supporting César nomination for her role in last year's Samba, she is best known as a guitarist and rock singer – but one would never guess from looking at her here. Whether delivering a calf or riding a tractor, she is every inch the farmer’s daughter. And together, be it on the streets of Paris or in the intimacy of a farmhouse bedroom, the actresses create a joyful, uninhibited improvisation that is incredibly touching to behold. We believe the love. And love it is, a passion that manages to flourish in spite of the discrimination of a society shackled in convention. And when the ‘real world’ closes in, the pain becomes so much harder to witness.



Swallows and Amazons  *****

There’s a point in the story when Uncle Jim (Rafe Spall), the occupant of a mysterious houseboat, refers to himself as “a dinosaur.” One could say the same for the film. This is an adaptation of Arthur Ransome’s cherished children’s title from the 1930s which has resisted any attempt at modernisation or an ounce of discernible CGI. Here is a genuine adventure, the sort that children of the 1930s really embarked on. The Walker siblings’ long-suffering mother (Kelly Macdonald) bemoans the fact that her young offspring spend much of their time (back in Portsmouth) “cooped up inside.” But now they’re all on holiday in the Lake District and the great Outdoors beckons with all the promise of impossible obstacles and dastardly pirates. Of course, it’s the children’s fertile imagination that is a major ingredient in their exploits, although a very real and far more dangerous affair runs a parallel path.

The mastery of Andrea Gibb’s screenplay is that much of the subterfuge we are privy to plays second fiddle to John, Susan, Roger and Tatty’s own more mundane escapade. They are witnesses, of sorts, to two mysterious men pursuing Uncle Jim, but through their childish eyes they have yet to put two and two together. They are more concerned with a pair of girls, posing as pirates, who have laid claim to their beloved island in the middle of the lake at the edge of their holiday retreat.

Philippa Lowthorpe’s quintessentially English Swallows and Amazons is a rare thing indeed. It is a family film with that most elusive of ingredients: charm. And it is savvy enough not to bow to the demands of modern cinema. It works so well because everything within it is credible. The two mysterious men (Andrew Scott and Dan Skinner) could so easily have been depicted as goons, but are not. When Roger approaches the pipe-smoking station master (John Henshaw), we expect him to be a model of bucolic cheer. Instead, he just tells the poor boy to “clear off.” And the repartee between Mr and Mrs Jackson (Harry Enfield and Jessica Hynes), the keepers of the Walker cottage, is underplayed to fine comic effect. When Mr Jackson agrees, “I am very kind;” his wife snaps: “the wrong kind.” And it says much for the film’s plausibility that when the children’s picnic hamper is knocked off their sailing boat, The Swallow, it is a genuinely gripping moment. No dragons needed.

Philippa Lowthorpe, whose debut feature this is, has also coaxed some wonderful performances from her younger cast. Orla Hill (Susan) is destined to go far, while Teddie Malleson-Allen (half-sister of the singer Lily Allen), as Tatty, is an adorable scream. Glittering accolades, too, must go to Julian Court's radiant photography, Ilan Eshkeri's moving music, Amy Roberts' spot-on costumes and the child-like maps that punctuate the narrative. And what a joy to witness children playing not with their tablets but with their imagination.



Sweet Bean  ***1/2

One does not approach a film called Sweet Bean lightly. The title alone is enough to put you off. But, in the loosest sense, Naomi Kawase's Japanese drama belongs to that select group of films that includes Babette's Feast, Tampopo, Like Water for Chocolate and Eat Drink Man Woman – i.e. it’s a foodie film. And for some reason films about food are invariably rather toothsome. Here, the eponymous “chunky bean paste” is an obvious metaphor and the film touches upon a number of different themes, some quite unexpected.

Akin to her earlier work, Naomi Kawase's eighth feature incorporates the forces of nature into its narrative like a sprinkling of seasoning in sukiyaki. Here we have a solitary pancake chef, Sentaro (Masatoshi Nagase) – dubbed “glum” by some of his younger customers – who toils away in all weathers producing his conventional pancakes. Then, one day, he is approached by Tokue, an elderly woman (the marvellous Kirin Kiki) who asks if his sign advertising for staff really is age neutral. Hesitantly, he brushes her off, as he does the request for work from a schoolgirl, Wakana (Kyara Uchida). But Tokue is not to be dismissed so easily and later returns with a tupperware box of her chunky bean paste. He bins it after she has left, but later, on a whim, retrieves the box, opens it and tastes the paste within. It is typical of Kawase's sensitive storytelling style that his reaction is almost as minimal as the many nuances buried throughout the film.

Outside Sentaro’s store, the cherry blossom dominates the aesthetic of the film as do later scenes set in a woodland clearing. Some of this is a little heavy-handed – as were the Arcadian asides in her last feature, Still the Water. Indeed, structure has never been Kawase's strong point and Sweet Bean would definitely have benefited from judicious cutting. But the humanity and resonance at the film’s heart beats subtly and strongly and sucks one in. Even at the film’s opening, in which the camera follows Sentaro to an early morning smoke above the skyline of the ancient township of Nara, the scene is set with an overpowering sense of documentary realism. The sound of Sentaro’s world is everything, from his plodding footsteps on the metallic stairway to the rooftop, to the bustle of the awakening street below. Nagase (who made his name in Jim Jarmusch’s Mystery Train, back in 1989), never appears to be acting, allowing the emotions of the story to superimpose themselves upon his impassive face. As Tokue, Kiki is equally restrained but still manages to bring a wealth of wisdom and sadness to her role.

Ultimately, Sweet Bean is a film of small moments that accumulate to create an evocative whole. And it doesn’t go where you expect it to. Stay with it and it will certainly stay with you.



Sweet Dreams  **      There’s little that’s sweet in Marco Bellocchio's lugubrious drama, the true tale of a journalist haunted by the mysterious death of his mother. Based on Massimo Gramellini's memoir Fai bei sogni, the film plods through thirty years of Massimo’s life, from his early refusal to acknowledge his mother’s death to his later years covering fashion, politics and the war in Sarajevo. Bellocchio is at pains to craft his film as aesthetically as possible, while his leading actor Valerio Mastandrea stares blankly into the shadows of his past life. There are memorable moments – notably the fabrication of a photo op in Sarajevo – but the film’s lack of panache, momentum and narrative creates not so much an “immense sorrow,” in the words of one character, as a desire to nod off. The opening scenes, featuring Barbara Ronchi as Massimo’s mother and Nicolò Cabras as the most beautiful nine-year-old boy in Turin, promise much, but then the gloom sets in.



T2: Trainspotting  ****      A lot has happened in twenty years. Back in 1996, Scottish drug addict Mark Renton proposed a number of choices. “Choose life. Choose a job. Choose a career… But why would I want to do a thing like that? I chose not to choose life: I chose something else. And the reasons? There are no reasons. Who needs reasons when you’ve got heroin?”

Since then – since the release of Trainspotting – Ewan McGregor has been riding the crest of a highly successful movie career and the film’s director, Danny Boyle, has gone from strength to strength, sharpening his reputation and talent with every new project, including the direction of the opening ceremony of the 2012 London Olympics. He also won an Oscar (for Slumdog Millionaire) and turned down a knighthood.

Ewan McGregor and Danny Boyle are reunited for the sequel to Trainspotting, loosely based on Irvine Welsh’s literary follow-up of 2002, Porno. Porn itself does not feature in T2, although the film is not without its seamier elements, with Sickboy (Jonny Lee Miller) in the process of setting up a brothel. Mark Renton himself is now drug-free and has been living in Amsterdam with a wife for 15 years. His return visit to Edinburgh and reconciliation with his old fellow addicts, Sickboy and Spud (Ewen Bremner), does not go exactly according to plan. Neither Spud nor Sickboy (now going by his given name of Simon) are happy to see him, as he ran off with their share of the money from a drug deal. However, after two exceedingly violent reunions, things settle down and an approximation of peace is assumed.

Sequels are a notoriously tricky business, but with Danny Boyle behind the camera, working from a screenplay by the original scenarist John Hodge, the first film’s freshness, vitality and visual ingenuity are largely maintained. In fact, from the dynamic opening frames, one can heave a sigh of relief: Danny Boyle is back and undiminished.

The ace in the pack, though – at least as a character – is Robert Carlyle’s ‘Franco’ Begbie. Having broken out of prison and become aware of Renton’s return, Begbie coalesces into a firebrand of retribution. And in Carlyle’s hands, he’s a very, very frightening figure. In fact, it is Carlyle who lends the film its narrative traction, while Renton, Spud and Simon do their utmost to keep out of his way. There’s one scene in particular that is a masterclass of cinema, initially hilarious, then terrifying and, finally, ending on a note of comic genius.

Ewan McGregor, too, has his moment, when he recycles his iconic speech from the first film ("Choose life. Choose Facebook, Twitter, Instagram – and hope that someone, somewhere cares”). Edinburgh may have cleaned up its act in the interim, but this return to its familiar streets is just as brutal and uncompromising, a splenetic salute to nostalgia.



Table 19  **      One’s wedding day is meant to be the happiest of one’s life. Consequently, months of infinitesimal planning and unseemly sums of money are thrown at the big day. The occasion is also ripe for comic and romantic exploitation on the big screen, a furrow that has been well ploughed. Here, Jeffrey Blitz – the indie director of the critically favoured Spellbound (2002) and Rocket Science (2007) – focuses less on the bride and groom as on those invited to the ceremony as a gesture of duty more than desire. At the wedding of Doug and Francie, the table allocated to the social jetsam includes none other than Eloise McGarry (Anna Kendrick), who happens to be the oldest friend of the bride. She’s also still holding a torch for Teddy (Wyatt Russell), who happpens to be the bride’s brother as well as the best man and boyfriend of Nikki (Amanda Crew)…

Comedies about losers – be they farces or tragi-comedies – are unusually hard to pull off. Unless they’re starring Tony Hancock or Ricky Gervais. Here, Blitz, who also scripted, throws too many cheap narrative life belts onto a sinking raft, including pregnancy, prison and terminal illness. Some people seated at Table 19 might just deserve their fate without being saddled with a terrible social inconvenience. And even when we’re told “people do weird things at weddings,” what goes on here relies too heavily on canine reaction shots and people falling over – never a good sign.

There are a couple of funny moments, the odd good running joke (such as Lisa Kudrow’s unfortunate choice of wardrobe, which happens to match the caterers’ uniform), but it’s not enough. At times it’s hard to know what the film is attempting to be: comédie pathétique? There is a curious vein of both sadness and strangeness running throughout, which might have reaped dividends had we not been saddled with so many caricatures.



Tale of Tales  **1/2

At the time of writing (August, 2016), Matteo Garrone’s Tale of Tales is the highest-grossing ‘foreign’ film at the UK box-office (excluding cartoons or anything from Bollywood). It is certainly something of a novelty, being drawn from the stories of the little-known Italian writer Giambattista Basile, whose eponymous 17th-century collection spawned the likes of Cinderella and Rapunzel. Garrone, best known for his somewhat overrated Gomorrah (2008), has chosen to film three of Basile’s fantastical episodes in English and populate them with non-Italian actors, including the Mexican Salma Hayek, the French Vincent Cassel, the English Toby Jones and the American John C. Reilly. It’s a decidedly odd mix, although the supporting Italian cast certainly adds a Fellini-esque flavour. Here we have ogres, princesses, sea monsters and magical transformations, all lightly bound in parallel bursts of narrative. However, the stories’ links are tenuous to say the least, other than by their inherent strangeness. Garrone’s visual inspiration was Goya’s etchings Los caprichos, but there are echoes here of everybody from Hieronymus Bosch to William Hogarth. It certainly makes one wonder at the twentieth century concept of cosmetic perfection. Yet for every twisted peasant or ancient hag there is the glorious backdrop of Italy itself, magnificently captured by Peter Suschitzky's luminescent cinematography and embroidered by Alexandre Desplat's deliciously evocative score. The stories themselves are rather simple affairs, though, with nary an interesting twist, while Garrone lacks the cinematic thrust that somebody like Guillermo del Toro might have contributed to the material.


Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows  **

There’s an indestructible villain on the loose, an alien presence in the wings and the very future of the planet at stake. If that sounds like the formula for your typical multiplex fodder, then this remake of the 1991 sequel Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze does have a few novelties up its sleeve. Id est, the saviours of our planet are pizza-guzzling mutated reptilian dudes without an apparent care in the world. And yet they live in the shadows and in spite of saving New York in the 2014 reboot, receive no formal recognition for their heroics. Now they’re up against a fat, very pink, power-hungry octopus ensconced in a giant robot who is bent on destroying the world.

OK, so this is a live-action rendition of the comic books created by Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird, but that doesn’t mean the film can’t flirt with the wow factor. While it’s visually more engaging than its 1991 antecedent, the remake/sequel is still a non-stop, chaotic affair catering to the ADHD mentality of mentally-arrested adolescents. The clue to the film’s manic, mind-numbing overkill rests at the credit of the film’s producer: Michael Bay. Had Steven Spielberg produced and Christopher Nolan directed, we might have been served a very different animal: something truly bodacious, dude. As it is, the directorial chores fall to Dave Green, he who brought us the cheap-and-cheerful, fiercely annoying Earth to Echo a couple of years ago. Now endowed with a budget of $135 million, his effects are more elaborate and the music more relentless, but the outcome no less humdrum. When Laura Linney pops up as police chief Rebecca Vincent, it’s a blast of credibility, like a shot of chilli in a knickerbocker glory. She plays it absolutely straight, bless her, even when confronted with the sight of a rhino and warthog cooking up a storm in a high-tech lab.



10 Cloverfield Lane  ***1/2

At one point in 10 Cloverfield Lane the three principal characters sit around playing guessing games. Of course, the larger picture – the film itself – is one big guessing game. It starts off promisingly, with Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Michelle, a young woman on the run from her fiancé Ben (Bradley Cooper). We know this because she leaves behind her engagement ring and the keys to their apartment. Bear McCreary's music sets up the mood nicely, stylishly mirroring Jeff Cutter’s lush cinematography – the opening scenes could have been pieced together by Brian De Palma. However, this is the directorial debut of Dan Trachtenberg, the helmer of TV commercials. Look at the names of the producers and one gets a better feel for the pedigree. The main producer is J.J. Abrams, director of the re-booted Star Trek and Star Wars: The Force Awakens and producer of Cloverfield (2008). The executive producer is Drew Goddard, who was recently nominated for an Oscar for his screenplay to The Martian. Goddard’s co-executive producer, Matt Reeves, directed Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. So we should be expecting some good stuff here.

            It’s unfortunate, then, that 10 Cloverfield Lane arrives so soon after Lenny Abrahamson’s supremely intelligent and moving Room. Which is good enough reason to return to the plot. As Michelle drives through Louisiana listening to the entreaties of Bradley Cooper on her phone (he wants her back) she is distracted and crashes her car. She wakes up in a room in her T-shirt and knickers and realises that she is being held prisoner by John Goodman. He tells her that there has been a gas attack outside, the rest of civilisation has been wiped out and that her only hope of survival is to stay with him in his meticulously outfitted underground bunker.

            Should one accept this is as the B-side to Room, one might gain the greatest pleasure from Josh Campbell, Matt Stuecken and Damien Chazelle's deceitful script. Goodman’s Howard tells Michelle little, the better to stretch out her – and our – mounting panic. She responds as the typical heroine-in-distress would, with all her clichés intact. We know we are being taken for a ride. It’s not long until a third character – Emmett (John Gallagher Jr) – joins the enigma that things begin to creak. Here are people who have (supposedly) lost all their loved ones and civilisation as they knew it. A perfect opportunity for character-building insights into their lives and hopes for the future. But this is barely touched on, and neither are their feelings of grief or anguish. Meanwhile, John Goodman stomps around like an enigmatic Bogeyman with nary an iota of credibility. But stay with it: this is pulp cinema with some surprises up its sleeve – and don’t forget it’s produced by J.J. Abrams.


Their Finest  **       The title is an abbreviation of Lissa Evans' 2009 novel Their Finest Hour and a Half. It refers to the length of the wartime motion picture on which our protagonist works. During the Second World War, Britain produced many of its greatest films, including In Which We Serve, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp and Perfect Strangers. However, many were also maudlin, formulaic and, to women, quite insulting. Here, our heroine, Catrin Cole (Gemma Arterton), finds herself as part of a propaganda initiative to make a stirring war film supposedly based on a true story involving the evacuation of Dunkirk.

The 2016 version of her exploits would no doubt have made Catrin Cole cheer. Their Finest is directed by, produced by, scripted by, edited by and composed by women. It’s a shame, then, that too often it comes off as a conspicuous feminist tract. At the start, Tom Buckley (Sam Claflin), scriptwriter and employee for the British Ministry of Information, tells Catrin that, obviously, she will be paid less than her male colleagues. In fact, much is spelled out, as if today’s audience was unlikely to catch onto the details. When top dog Roger Swain (Richard E. Grant) welcomes Catrin, he tells her that she’s at the Ministry of Information, Film Division, as if she didn’t already know. Such spoon-feeding might have been forgiven had the film a more urgent sense of time and place. Alas, too many of the backdrops look animated (and poorly, at that), while the film’s dramatic moments are often predictable. It’s as if the director, Denmark’s Lone Scherfig (An Education, One Day), was totally unaware of the clichés of her script, courtesy of the former actress Gaby Chiappe (whose past writing credits include EastEnders, Holby City and Casualty).

It’s unclear what the film is trying to achieve. At times its recalls the artificiality of the wartime romance Hanover Street, with Harrison Ford, at others the cosy parochialism of Dad’s Army. Bill Nighy himself, who played Sergeant Wilson in the film version of the latter, swans in as a stereotype of the self-obsessed Actor who, when Catrin first approaches him with the script, autographs it on automatic pilot. In fact, very little rings true, while the post-modern attempts at rectifying the sexual balance seem overtly calculating. Rachael Stirling, as ‘Phyl’ Moore, an arch lesbian, seems a step too far.

While an air of melancholy pervades the film, it is also game for a laugh, as well as tragedy. It would also seem to be a tearjerker, but is so contrived that many members of the audience might forget their Kleenex. No doubt there are those who will welcome the film’s nostalgic flourishes, but at best it can serve as an appetizer for Christopher Nolan’s upcoming Dunkirk epic in July.



Thor: Ragnarok  **

When the Avengers first assembled, there was a genuine frisson in the air. Now it all seems terribly old hat. Thor: Ragnarok is, believe it or not, the seventeenth instalment in the so-called Marvel Cinematic Universe. And it struggles to make a noise above the roar and thunder of the other outings. It’s unfortunate, then, that Thor himself is the god of thunder, at least according to the annals of Norse mythology. Here, his father Odin (Anthony Hopkins, slumming it) tells him he’s got an older sister, Hela (Cate Blanchett), and that her power if limitless. Until now she’s been locked up (for millennia, actually), and on her escape is determined to wreak her revenge and destroy Asgard, Thor’s home realm. As described in Scandinavian lore it is the End of Days, or, as they call it, Ragnarök.

While what follows adheres more to Norse legend than anything contemporary or American, there is a definite Antipodean feel to the proceedings. Besides the considerable presence of the Melbourne-born Chris Hemsworth as Thor and the Melbourne-born Cate Blanchett as his wicked sister, the director is the New Zealand filmmaker Taika Waititi, who also takes the role of the rock giant Korg. But, as we learned in the recent adaptation of Jo Nesbø’s The Snowman, Norse people generally speak in regulation English accents. Even the American actress Tessa Thompson, who has the most interesting part as a hard-drinking Asgardian warrior called 'Valkyrie', adopts a British brogue.

If only there were more characters like Valkyrie, providing the Marvel Cinematic Universe with its first black heroine (albeit a heavy drinker). Otherwise too much is the same-old, same-old, with Thor’s constant bickering with his mischievous brother Loki (the London-born Tom Hiddleston) hardly worthy of Ant and Dec. There’s the usual overload of CGI and a general feeling of corporate banality that no end of guest cameos can alleviate. While Taika Waititi won widespread critical acclaim for his last film Hunt for the Wilderpeople (Empire magazine named it the best film of the year), the Kiwi feels out of his depth here. What the film really needs is a distinctive visual style, a comic pizazz. One only has to look at Guardians of the Galaxy to see how feeble Ragnarok is in comparison, an over-extended chapter in a franchise that’s beginning to offer less flavour than the popcorn being chomped during its running time.


Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri  ****1/2

You just don’t know where it’s going. An embittered mother who works part-time in a gift-shop is struggling with not knowing why her daughter died. In an act of epic impulse, she rents three billboards outside town with the message, "Raped while dying", "Still no arrests?" and "How come, Chief Willoughby?" Chief Willoughby himself is none too pleased as he’s dealing with his own problems, not least a case of terminal cancer. And then there’s his deputy, a comic-reading Mama’s boy and bigot whose political incorrectness borders on the toxic…

While never losing its naturalistic edge, Three Billboards glides along at a fluid pace, throwing up surprises at every turn. Following just two features, In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths, the Irish playwright and filmmaker Martin McDonagh exhibits a new maturity with his tale of everyday folk muddling along in an imperfect world. There are no obvious villains and good people do bad things and you just never know what’s around the next corner. McDonagh offers up a witty, thoughtful screenplay while drawing peerless performances from his colourful cast, notably Frances McDormand as the kick-ass Mildred Hayes, Woody Harrelson as Sheriff Willoughby and Sam Rockwell as the pathetic, vicious bigot Jason Dixon, who has his own ghosts to lay. The film is also very funny, at the most unexpected moments, relishing the fact that the devil is in the detail.



Tom of Finland  **

As an artist, Touko Laaksonen was a consummate craftsman and his drawings recognised around the world. However, born in Finland in 1920, his particular brand of imagery was illegal. Any notions of a career in real art were mere fantasy, so after the Second World War Touko (Pekka Strang) worked as an illustrator for a Helsinki advertising agency alongside his sister, Kaija (Jessica Grabowsky), with whom he shared an apartment. Dome Karukoski's biography is a melancholy, heavy-footed affair that rests too much responsibility on the shoulders of its leading man, who has to age from a young officer in the Finnish army to the elder statesman of the gay porn scene. Strangely, those around him seem to be less effected by the passing of time. While one may empathize with Tom’s curtailed liberties – a trip to Berlin lands him in prison – Tom himself never comes across as a sympathetic character. Dome Karukoski is dealing with some incendiary material here, but seems reluctant to really embrace it.



Toni Erdmann  ****

Maren Ade’s third feature pulls off a number of tricks. Opening in a nondescript suburb of Germany, her film tells of a lonely divorcee in the autumnal years of his life. Without so much as a note of music or a caption or a whisper of exposition, Ade spins her tale in her own sweet time, creating a small, slightly musty world which, in spite of everything, feels entirely plausible. And yet as we follow the life of this odd, old man, the spectre of the bizarre hovers at the door throughout the film’s 162 minutes. And because the events are so thoroughly unpredictable, Ade manages to hold the rapt attention of her audience without ever betraying the credibility of her scenario.

Toni Erdmann, while usurping the title role, is actually an imaginary character, the bumbling alter ego of Winfried Conradi (Peter Simonischek). Conradi, who lives on his own with a dog on its last legs, is a perpetual prankster. He answers the door to the postman in two separate guises, pretending that Erdmann is his brother, who has just been released from prison. In short, Conradi is a joker, a buffoon, a free spirit. But we live in serious times and Conradi alienates more often than he engages and his worst enemy would appear to be his grown-up daughter, Ines, a high-powered business consultant based in Bucharest. As she brokers multi-million deals with ruthless guile, the last thing she needs is the presence of Toni Erdmann, or even her father, who sees life as one big joke.

Maren Ade, who loosely based the character of Erdmann on her own father, seems to be saying that just when parents need their children the most, their children need – and want – them the least. Conradi is certainly an embarrassment and seems bent on wrecking his daughter’s career, but Ines has her own idiosyncrasies, which may or may not be inspired by the man who sired her.

In a seemingly straightforward narrative involving a major international deal, with all the attendant meetings, drink receptions and social legerdemain, Ade slips in the unexpected of the everyday, constantly knocking the viewer onto the back foot. Minutes prior to a crucial business meeting, Ines splatters her immaculate white shirt with blood from an infected toe. In another sequence, Ines reveals her sexual side, and in another her ability to belt out a torch song from the back catalogue of Whitney Houston. Conradi himself shifts from being a tragic figure to a monster to a charming clown, all the while trying to reconnect with the daughter he thinks he has lost. And because the film manages to retain a straight face and a constant naturalism, the viewer is at a loss whether to sob or to roar with laughter. In short, Ade pulls off an extraordinary balancing act, producing a surreal black comedy rooted in real life.



Transformers: The Last Knight  **      What do Leonardo da Vinci, Winston Churchill, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Stephen Hawking have in common? Well, according to the gospel of Michael Bay, they were all members of a secret society dedicated to keeping the truth about the Transformers out of the public domain. With the fifth instalment of his relentless franchise featuring the mutable toy figures, Michael Bay doesn’t so much re-write history as mythology, geography and meteorology as well. Casting his narrative net across the globe – Havana, Washington DC, London, Chicago, Oxford, Jordan and the Badlands of South Dakota – Bay dishes out his latest self-indulgent epic as if it were the CGI-resurrected dream of an eight-year-old recovering from a bad cannabis trip.

This time the director has coaxed Sir Anthony Hopkins into playing a cloth-capped, pipe-puffing lord of the manor who likes to throw his weight around. And as the very survival of our planet rests in the balance, Hopkins lets himself into the rear entrance of No. 10 Downing Street via the closed tube station of The Strand. As if. Then he proceeds to give the prime minister a tongue-lashing.

It transpires that Merlin, King Arthur’s magician and confidante, has only one descendant left, who happens to be Viviane Wembly (Laura Haddock, from TV’s The Level), a comely professor at ‘Oxford University.’ Only she can bring his magic staff back to life and use it as a weapon to defeat the apocalyptic onslaught of some very bad Transformers. To be fair, it appears to be their planet or ours, so one might understand the aliens’ motive. Of course, you just couldn’t have Transformers and human beings living side by side in the same multiverse. That would be ridiculous.

Helpfully, the film begins in the midst of an Arthurian battle in ‘The Dark Ages,’ where an inebriated Merlin (Stanley Tucci, of all people) appeals to the twelve Transformer Knights of Iacon to help King Arthur defeat the Saxons, who outnumber him a hundred to one. It’s all completely nuts but one can’t help but admire Michael Bay (and his four writers) for a certain chutzpah in unfolding such a preposterous scenario.

The problem with the film is not so much its impudence as its bombast, machine-gun editing and disregard for logic. Michael Bay is known for his love of size, machines, guns and blowing shit up, but this really does try the patience. By the time the film had hurtled past its first quarter of an hour, this critic was already exhausted and confused and dreading another 135 minutes of more explosions and silliness. And so the film ploughs on, with the director up-chucking his vision of Armageddon and of pre-historic monuments being destroyed by metallic extraterrestrials with familiar voices. Jim Carter, Downton Abbey’s Mr Carson, is the voice of Hopkins’ robotic butler (a sort of CGI C3PO), while the likes of John Goodman, Steve Buscemi, Ken Watanabe and Omar Sy add to the babble. Mark Wahlberg is top-billed as a small-time inventor called Cade Yeager, but he’s really just there to flex his biceps and flash his abs. Sir Anthony steals the film.



Trolls  ***

The Trolls like nothing more than to sing and dance and hug each other. They are a happy lot. And they have a point: all that singing and dancing really does release a lot of endorphins. But in this parallel universe not everyone is as ecstatic. The inhabitants of Bergen Town only get a thrill when they eat a Troll, and that’s only on one day of the year: Trollstice. So, in preparation for their annual day of festivities, the Bergens locked up all the Trolls in a cage. But that was twenty years ago, long before the Trolls had escaped underground through a network of tunnels. Now the Trolls do nothing more than sing and dance and hug all day and during one particularly rowdy celebration – complete with fireworks – their clamour attracts the attention of the mean and vengeful Chef, she who used to prepare the Trolls for the Bergens’ feast…

Trolls, the all-singing, all-dancing computer-animated entertainment from DreamWorks, boasts a curious provenance. The dolls that populate the film have hardly been in fashion in recent years – it was a long, long time ago when they were a must-have accessory for every young child (in the early 1960s). The toys – also known as gonk trolls – had a brief revival in the 1990s but then petered out. So the new film has a somewhat retro spin and at first promises to be a 92-minute commercial, the kind one might encounter during a slack period on daytime TV. Indeed, the range of Troll characters on display here are prodigious and come in every available colour and permutation, although the figures’ characteristic upstanding quiffs almost take centre stage. The quiffs seem to possess a life of their own, acting as tendrils, bridges and lassos, among other things. It’s quite a business.

Initially, adult viewers may fear a tachycardic sugar rush, but beneath all the sparkle, vibrant hues and happy songs resides a subversive intelligence. There’s also the blessing of Branch (voiced by Justin Timberlake), a paranoid survivalist and sort of Ebenezer Scrooge of the Troll universe. As he tells the joyful Princess Poppy (Anna Kendrick): “I don’t do happy.” And we know the film isn’t taking itself seriously when she serenades him with a rendition of Simon & Garfunkel’s ‘The Sounds of Silence’ and he chucks her guitar into the fire. Moments like these constantly leaven the proceedings, with popular songs such as Lionel Richie’s ‘Hello’ and Cyndi Lauper's 'True Colors' designed to elicit a smile from older viewers. There are also the in-jokes that reference everything from The Shining to Cinderella (or Anna Kendrick in Into the Woods?), which will happily bounce off children’s heads. This is not to say the film is a masterpiece but it does have the makings of a future cult classic. Besides, to be happy you don’t have to eat a Troll whole.


Under the Shadow  ***1/2

The shadow under which Shideh and her young daughter Dorsa struggle to live is the Iraqi bombardment that threatens their city of Tehran in 1988. Every day they and their neighbours are subjected to an unknowable death and destruction from above that could arrive at any moment. But Shideh (Narges Rashidi), an intelligent, enlightened young mother is exposed to three parallel planes of fear and anxiety. As an Iranian woman with documented political views, she is condemned by her own country and so her dreams of a higher education and of becoming a doctor are quashed by the party line. And as a virtual prisoner in her apartment block, Shideh finds herself the victim of something even more sinister and threatening, something that feeds on the intense malaise that permeates her life…

Sharing themes with the 2014 Australian film The Babadook and the 2002 Japanese film Dark Water – both about a confined mother and child torn apart by external, supernatural forces – Under the Shadow brings its own political agenda to the table. Indeed, as the London-based, Tehran-born director Babak Anvari mines the familiar tropes of the horror genre, the film’s more shocking elements arise out of the mundane reality of Shideh’s circumstances. When, at one point, she and her daughter momentarily escape the horrors of their haunted home, she is picked up by the authorities and threatened with corporal punishment for exposing her hair. While the director grew up with stories of the djinn (evil spirits) of Islamic mythology that fuelled his early nightmares, the very real horrors of an intolerant society persist to this day. It is to the film’s credit that Anvari weaves these evils so effectively, one becoming analogous of the other. As a horror film, per se, it is subject to too many clichés, but is effectively done, while Anvari’s direction and Rashidi’s richly layered performance drive the motor of our unease.


A United Kingdom  **1/2

The kingdom in question is that of Bechuanaland (now known as Botswana), a protectorate governed by the British. Back in 1947, its heir, the prince Seretse Khama, met a mere commoner, Ruth Williams, who worked in London as a clerk. Although light years apart on so many levels, Seretse and Ruth fell deeply for each other and Seretse proposed marriage. It was a union that was to cause outrage in both Bechuanaland and Whitehall, particularly as the all-powerful South Africa was in the process of introducing apartheid… The fortitude and devotion to each other that Seretse and Ruth displayed changed the course of history and certainly merits its own feature film. However, Guy Hibbert’s workmanlike script hardly brings the story alive, in spite of committed performances from David Oyelowo and Rosamund Pike. But even the fire that burned in their characters’ hearts seems a random and involuntary thing on screen. Patrick Doyle’s music, too, seems to peddle some obvious notes, while Jack Davenport’s ambassador Sir Alistair Canning is nothing short of a dastardly villain and caricature. All the more disappointing is the fact that Amma Asante is behind the camera, she who brought humour, emotion and complexity to the tale of the mixed race Belle, in the 2013 film of the same name. This just seems to plod from one plot point to the next, ushering in various stereotypes along the way and some nice views of Botswana. While what actually unfolded is, of course, important, here the strength and conviction of the central romance is sacrificed for the facts.


The Unknown Girl  ***

Like our very own Ken Loach and Mike Leigh, Luc and his brother Jean-Pierre Dardenne have become a staple of the festival circuit, in particular Cannes. Their latest minimalist drama was selected for the Palme d’Or in 2016, but unlike their Rosetta (1999), L'Enfant (2005), The Kid with a Bike (2011) and Two Days, One Night (2014), it came away from the festival empty handed. Like most of their films, its protagonist is a young woman, in this case a beautiful doctor whose unknown future is predicated on a two-second dereliction of duty. And so Jenny Davin adds the role of detective to her list of time-consuming pursuits. Because she failed to respond to the buzzer of her surgery an hour after closing, an unknown woman ended up dead. Jenny immediately adopts the mantle of guilt and sets about searching for the identity of the unknown girl, so that she can have a legitimate burial. And the closer to the truth Jenny gets, the bigger the hornet’s nest she seems to be disturbing. As usual with the films of the Dardenne brothers, much of the action is punctuated by the noise of traffic as Jenny juggles her house calls with her on-going investigation. Set in and around the nondescript streets of Seraing in Belgium, The Unknown Girl amounts to a series of seemingly routine sequences of visits and enquiries as the lonely, somewhat melancholy life of this carer comes into focus. As Jenny, the French actress Adèle Haenel gives us a reason to invest our time, although the film’s dramatic inertia hardly helps her cause.



Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets  *1/2       Serious scholars of comic-strip culture will tell you that Pierre Christin's original sci-fi series (Valérian and Laureline) was an inspiration for Star Wars. Yeah, but George Lucas got there first. And he did alright with it. But give a filmmaker enough rope… David Lynch had his Dune, John Boorman his Zardoz and Darren Aronofsky his The Fountain. As a director, the Paris-born Luc Besson has brought us some stylish and nifty pearls of escapism (Nikita, Léon and Lucy). Here, he’s been given a budget of $200 million and the whole paintbox and he has just gone Jackson Pollock.

As its heart, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is the perfect space opera for our times. It’s about diversity and the new order that seeks to suppress it. The eponymous city is a thriving, intergalactic metropolis for species from across the universe, whose status quo is threatened by the appearance of a new, peace-loving race. The latter resemble the Na'vi from Avatar, except that their skin is alabaster white. And we know that they’re good not only because they’re tall and graceful, but because they’ve got washboard stomachs and pert bottoms. However, Besson’s arch reach and comic tone is a calamitous collision of Mel Brooks and Terry Gilliam for idiots. Visually, the director has opted for a garish comic palette, complete with multi-coloured clouds and cartoonish CGI.
Then there’s the problem with Major Valerian. Somehow, somewhere, an actor with the comic insouciance of Ryan Reynolds might have pulled off the character of the space cop, but Dane DeHaan is a disastrous stroke of miscasting. An indie actor with some intense, oddball titles to his credit, DeHaan is not leading man material. He’s just not. Here, he affects an odd basso profundo drone, like the class dweeb putting on a deep voice to compensate for his lack of stature. Better is his romantic interest, Laureline (Cara Delevingne, with an American accent), but their banter is hardly in the same cosmos as Gable and Lombard. They come off more like a pair of perky brats in a school playground.
Others in a respectable cast are given little to sink their teeth into, other than Rihanna, who’s given a provocative routine in which she morphs from Sally Bowles into Catwoman via a blonde showgirl, courtesy of the special effects department. The rest is a convoluted, cluttered shambles, with no reason for the viewer to care or to engage. No doubt Besson doesn’t expect us to take it at all seriously, certainly not when a Jabba the Hutt clone declares, “I will find you and I will kill you.”


Viceroy’s House  ***

The abode of the title is hardly a dwelling place most people would call a house. What is now the Presidential Palace in New Delhi, the eponymous 340-room building here serves as a metaphor for Britain’s seat of power in pre-Partition India. It is 1947 and Lord Mountbatten has just arrived to manage the hand-over of the Raj to the Indian people. An entirely decent fellow, he, along with his wife Edwina, is at pains to make the transition as smooth and as fair as possible. Of course, there are other forces at play, not least the bloodthirsty in-fighting between Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs, as well as British subterfuge from on high…

It is obvious that the subject of India’s independence, and the butchery that led to it, is close to the heart of the director, co-producer and co-writer Gurinder Chadha. And she strives to make an accessible and balanced case, eschewing the temptation to portray the British as a bunch of buffoons, even with such potential hams as Michael Gambon and Simon Callow on board. Hugh Bonneville may be an odd choice to play the Viceroy – he looks nothing like Mountbatten – but his upper-crust propriety is befitting, while as Edwina, Gillian Anderson transforms herself into the aristocratic, smart and caring Vicereine with skill. Inevitably, though, the Indian actors make the best impression, with the late Om Puri particularly effective as the wise, blind father of the film’s ingénue Aalia (Huma Qureshi).

However, in spite of a surfeit of intriguing detail (Mountbatten insisted on being dressed for duty in no more than two minutes), and much articulate rhetoric (Jinnah, on Partition: “Sometimes surgery can save the patient”), the film fails to enthral. A tacked-on love story is unconvincing and schematic, while the female courtiers all look like they’re competing for Miss India. And even though it is undeniably an education, the film too often feels like the cinematic equivalent of a Ladybird book guide to Indian history. It is unfortunate, too, that Mountbatten’s nickname is ‘Dickie,’ as it constantly calls to mind Dickie Attenborough, whose own take on the subject resulted in his Oscar-winning magnum opus Gandhi.


Victoria and Abdul  ***1/2

Few actresses do royalty like Judi Dench. She received her first Oscar nomination for playing Queen Victoria in Mrs Brown and actually won the award for her imperious portrayal of Elizabeth I in Shakespeare in Love. She even played Titania, Queen of the fairies, in Peter Hall’s film version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1968).
Here, she reprises her turn as Victoria, a monarch now very much in her autumnal years and bored with the endless ritual of ceremony. Her one appetite would seem to be for food, as chronicled in such forensic detail in Annie Gray’s recent book The Greedy Queen. In fact, it’s the detail that initially absorbs the viewer, with all the fantastic pomp and propriety observed with some jocularity. At first one fears a broad caricature is afoot, with each and every British grandee depicted as a toffee-nosed buffoon. But Stephen Frears is a smarter director than that. The queen herself remains out of sight, invisible amongst the pageantry. And even when she is unceremoniously hoisted out of bed, her face is obscured. When, finally, the monarch comes into full view, we share the vision with the other protagonist of our story, Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal), a humble clerk from Uttar Pradesh. Instructed on royal protocol to within an inch of his life, he nonetheless steals a glance at the sovereign visage – and a connection is made.
Much like the gillie John Brown, who became Queen Victoria’s trusted companion and the subject of John Madden’s Mrs Brown, so Abdul Karim is accepted into the queen’s affections and a friendship is born. However, unlike Brown, Abdul is a Muslim, and although Victoria is the Empress of India, a racism bristles in her household. Nonetheless, the queen becomes fascinated by all things Indian and as she learns of exotic cuisine and such strange fruit as mango, she experiences a new lease of life.
Victoria and Abdul proves timely on a number of levels. For one, there’s the testy Prince of Wales (Eddie Izzard, brilliantly cast against type) who, in exasperation at his mother’s sudden rebirth, mutters loudly, “I thought she was dying!” And then there’s the entrenched Islamophobia amongst the queen’s inner circle, not least a befuddled Prime Minister, Lord Salisbury (Michael Gambon). If much of this begins to segue into bedroom farce, Dame Judi grounds it in an emotional honesty that is at once deeply moving and highly entertaining. Perhaps her greatest moment arrives with Victoria’s self-effacing monologue near the end, much along the lines of Elizabeth I’s real-life speech, “I know I have the body of a weak and feeble woman…” Here, though, Queen Victoria talks about her morbid obesity and collapsed uterus.
It’s an engaging, timely tale of compassion, old age, imperial bombast and skulduggery and, according to the opening caption, most of it is based on real events.


The Wall  ****      Shakespeare crops up in the most unexpected places. It was while I was watching Doug Liman’s intensely gripping war film The Wall, that I thought of Wall’s lament from A Midsummer Night’s Dream: “Thus have I, Wall, my part dischargèd so. And, being done, thus Wall away doth go.” The line turns out to be more than pertinent in Liman’s film and before you know it, Shakespeare is being discussed by an unseen Iraqi sniper in the unfolding drama. The year is 2007 and the war in Iraq is winding down when two American soldiers find themselves at the mercy of an enemy sniper. To tell more would undermine the effect of the narrative, suffice to say that Dwain Worrell's script achieves much with very little. Following his turn as the formidable redneck in Nocturnal Animals, Aaron Taylor-Johnson shoulders the lion’s share of the action here and, again, proves what a commanding screen presence he is. Doug Liman, whose directorial credits include The Bourne Identity and Edge of Tomorrow, is meticulous in detailing the military and medical authenticity of his story and eschews a single note of incidental music. Mariusz Glabinski's sound design provides a far more credible aural palette than any music could have done. And, in the wake of Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, it’s interesting to encounter another war film – at a fraction of the budget – that presents an invisible enemy, albeit one that knows his Robert Frost and Shakespeare.


War Dogs  ****

War is not about religion, land or the moral high ground. War is about money. In the words of David Packouz, “War is an economy – anyone who tells you otherwise is either in on it or stupid.” And the film War Dogs is not about warmongering – it’s about chutzpah. Based on Guy Lawson’s article Arms and the Dudes published in Rolling Stone magazine, Todd Phillips’ stylish, gripping drama details the upward spiral of Packouz (Miles Teller) and his school friend Efraim Diveroli (Jonah Hill) as they toy with the US government’s munitions contracts.

Packouz was on $75 an hour massaging the flesh of the rich in a Miami Beach parlour and six months later was earning more money than he could imagine supplying the U.S. military with guns and bullets. Back then – in 2005 – the Pentagon posted their contracts on-line and all it took was a keen eye and a lot of trawling to bid on a contract, preferably undercutting the big guys like Northrop Grumman, Lockheed or BAE Systems. Blind eyes were systematically averted, so long as the Bush administration had enough ammunition to fight their wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. So, through sheer temerity, Diveroli and Packouz found themselves brokering a deal worth $300 million to arm the Afghan army.

Here, as Diveroli, Jonah Hill is playing the flipside of the character he essayed in Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street. He is the engine of the film: the brash, ugly American who gives the US a bad name overseas, but a man who can make things happen. He is also an unpredictable and dangerous friend. Miles Teller is the wide-eyed accomplice who needs the money to provide his trusting girlfriend (Ana de Armas) with the security to complete her pregnancy. He is the heart of the movie.

The co-writer-producer-director Todd Phillips is best known for his raucous comedies Road Trip, Due Date and The Hangover trilogy, and it would be fair to expect a black comedy in the vein of M*A*S*H or Catch-22, but he plays it absolutely straight. And there is more than a whiff of Scorsese about the film, with its expansive style, larger-than-life showdowns, fine-tuned performances and muscular soundtrack of terrific songs (Pink Floyd, Aerosmith, Creedence Clearwater Revival, The Who, Leonard Cohen). The fictionalised scenes in Iraq are also particularly well handled and suspenseful, while Hill gives the best performance of his career as a character to fear and marvel at. Teller (Whiplash) is always good value, while Todd Phillips’ Hangover associate and co-producer Bradley Cooper adds a nice note of menace as a rival arms dealer. And however doctored the true story might be, the fact remains that two twentysomething potheads pulled off a scam of staggering proportions.


War for the Planet of the Apes  *****     “All of human history has led to this moment,” proclaims the Colonel. An unreasoning sadist bent on preserving his species, the latter proves to be the perfect antithesis to his simian rival, Caesar. Neither Woody Harrelson as the Colonel nor Andy Serkis as Caesar emote that much, but the blend of dignity and sadness in Caesar’s face expresses the greater humanity. Andy Serkis has become the past master of motion capture performance, evinced by his turns as Gollum, King Kong and Caesar. And this, the third instalment in the rebooted Planet of the Apes franchise, belongs to him. His face constantly mirrors the emotions of the film, his eyes speaking volumes, his stillness conveying the poise of a born leader. And it is his artistry that makes us forget that Caesar is an animal. The real animal, of course, is the Colonel.

Following the sympathetic portrayal of the gargantuan gorilla in Kong: Skull Island, it’s been a good year for apes. Never has the Ape-ocalypse seemed so disturbing to a human audience. Caesar still believes that he and his kind can live in harmony with the human species – with the apes moving deep into the impenetrable forest – but the trigger-happy military just wants them erased from the planet. In fact, many of the apes have been enslaved, shut up behind bars without food or water and expected to work around the clock. It makes the thought of an imprisoned chimpanzee unbearable. It also highlights the default mechanism of racism in the Homo sapien brain.

Considering that this is the ninth film in the Planet of the Apes canon, it is extraordinary that it is perhaps the best. The technology certainly helps, with the apes blending in seamlessly with the spectacular scenery, be it forested escarpments or snowy wasteland (shot largely in the Canadian Rockies). And the motion capture animation brings a new depth of emotion to the faces of the primates. This is the first chapter in which the apes truly take centre stage, although there’s a lovely touch with the introduction of a human ally, a mute oprhan girl called Nova (Amiah Miller). They speak, she cannot. And it’s to the film’s credit that on a number of dramatic occasions it doesn’t take the obvious option. It starts powerfully, thrillingly, then segues into an incredible journey in which we get to know and care for Caesar and his companions, in particular Maurice, a sage and sympathetic orangutan (Karin Konoval), and Luca, a heroic but tender Western lowland gorilla (Michael Adamthwaite). And because we care, there are heart-breaking moments, not least when Nova comes to Caesar’s aid with a vital offering of water.

There is already talk of a tenth film, which seems a shame, as War for the Planet of the Apes seems such a perfect conclusion to an extraordinary saga.



War on Everyone  **1/2

Nobody likes a clever clogs. On the surface, John Michael McDonagh’s third film is bursting at the seams with its own cleverness, referencing everything from Homer and Simone de Beauvoir to Doc Savage: Man of Bronze. But then smart aleck dialogue has always been McDonagh’s thing, exhibited in his deliriously entertaining The Guard (where his gangsters discuss philosophy) to the famous opening line of Calvary. His other thing is punching political correctness in the nose, a stance he employs with schoolboy glee while making sure he never crosses the mark (a black cop tempered the moral temperature in The Guard).

The women in his new film read a lot of books, while his two protagonists, the corrupt cops Bob (Michael Peña) and Terry (Alexander Skarsgård), are not quite as smart. They’re certainly slick dressers (there are a lot of waistcoats in the film), but they flout the law, plant evidence and drink (heavily) on duty. They also love pummelling their suspects. In the first scene, Terry is seen driving erratically through the outskirts of Albuquerque in pursuit of a clown on foot. Bob muses: “I always wondered if you hit a mime if they’d make a sound.” Terry ploughs into their terrified quarry. “Well, now you know,” he says.

Later, Terry squints at his sexy trophy girlfriend (Tessa Thompson) and asks, “can you be a feminist and wear hot pants?” McDonagh would hope so, because his female characters are the level-headed ones and still get to flaunt their booty. The seamier side of Albuquerque is well exposed and in another scene two lowlifes are watching a porn movie. The Irish miscreant Pádraic Power (McDonagh regular David Wilmot) observes, “There’s no plot in these things anymore.” To which his companion (Malcolm Barrett) replies, “If you ain’t got a good script, you ain’t got shit.” It’s a sentiment that McDonagh might have taken to heart. Dialogue alone cannot propel a movie and War on Everyone darts back and forth like a bloodied terrier that’s lost its way.

There’s an unscrupulous British villain, Lord James Mangan (Theo James, channelling Rupert Everett), who’s a thriving cliché and so dastardly that he’s meant to take some of the sting out of the cops pursuing him. But Bob and Terry are really in it for a missing million and just because Terry takes a young orphaned boy under his wing doesn’t sweeten his villainy. It’s too late. The film is heavily indebted to Tarantino and many of the lines are genuinely funny, but the film needs a stronger plot than this. With its parodic 1960s’ score and bad-cop/bad-cop format it feels like an extended episode of a TV series with smarter-than-average badinage. And with every new character providing another jolt of eccentricity, one ends up craving a moment of normality.


When Marnie Was There  ****

The question is: was Marnie ever there? This being the latest venture from Studio Ghibli, the Japanese studio that has produced some of the most memorable, wise and haunting cartoons since the heyday of Disney, one would never expect anything to be so cut and dried. In spite of the deceptive simplicity of the line drawings, there is never anything elementary about Ghibli. Since the retirement of the company’s leading light Hayao Miyazaki – he who directed the timeless Spirited Away, Howl’s Moving Castle and Ponyo – the studio announced a temporary cessation of product, although they have enriched us recently with both the Oscar-nominated The Tale of the Princess Kaguya and When Marnie Was There.

Based on the 1967 novel by the British children’s writer Joan G. Robinson, the new film has shifted the original locale from Norfolk to Japan and focuses on the 12-year-old orphan Anna Sasaki. A difficult child, who suffers from both asthma and self-loathing, Anna is sent away for the summer to stay with the aunt and uncle of her foster mother, who live in a rural community by the coast. With the vicinity’s calm setting and clean air, it is felt the move can but benefit the child. And so Anna wanders around the village with her drawing pad, dictating her own hours, and feeling particularly drawn to the local marsh where she befriends a taciturn fisherman. But it’s the mansion across the water that particularly captivates her, especially as it is considered out-of-bounds. And when she finds herself marooned there by the rising tide, she is rescued and befriended by a blonde girl about her own age, who lives in the house…

The strength of Hiromasa Yonebayashi's film is its effortless ability to slip between Anna’s dream life, fantasy and seeming reality, peppering the narrative with not just charm but considerable humour. Anna is a delightfully credible creation, both dyspraxic and moody, but also brave and determined. And it goes without saying that the animation itself is enchanting.

There are dark currents, too, running through much of the subtext of what is, essentially, a family film. Taken on one level, the story broaches loneliness, abandonment, self-hate,

death, homo-eroticism and even incest. Of course, for younger viewers, much of this will float above their heads, but it does add a complexity to a work that refuses to kowtow to the obvious. A rare piece, then, that manages to be as magical as it is relevant to what it is to be young and confused in a world that is not as simple as it seems.

Why Him?  ***

There are two things a parent should never witness: the death of a child and their daughter making out. There is actually a catalogue of sexual humiliation in this gross-out farce, which follows the Meet the Parents template. This time it’s the boyfriend to meet and greet.

Bryan Cranston and Megan Mullally play Ned and Barb Fleming, the middle-aged parents who fly from Michigan to California to stay with their daughter Stephanie (Zoey Deutch), who’s studying at Stanford. Although booked in at the Sheraton, Ned and Barb find their plans hijacked by Steph’s new boyfriend, Laird (James Franco), who is ten years older than she. But so besotted is Laird with the young Miss Fleming that he’s had her name tattooed on his pec, has built a bowling alley in honour of her father (complete with a Ned Fleming mural) and transformed the Flemings’ Christmas card into another tattoo on his back. Of course, Ned takes an immediate dislike to the man, in particular Laird’s neediness, foul language and obsession with Stephanie’s body. The fact that Laird is an internet billionaire really has no bearing on his opinion – Laird Mayhew is completely nuts.

There must be a limit to the extremes of the gross-out formula, although John Hamburg's limply titled Why Him? does try to push the envelope in new directions. The biggest laughs, though, come at the expense of Laird’s pretentious lifestyle, be it the dining on edible soil and newspaper or the bizarre artworks that litter his designer house. Most of the players are on pretty good form, too, with a neat cameo from Kaley Cuoco (Penny in The Big Bang Theory), who plays a disembodied voice in Laird’s lair who eavesdrops on one and all in order to offer technical (and personal) advice. However, Keegan-Michael Key as Laird’s German estate manager is a total misfire (Key certainly can’t do a German accent). But the film, for all its pat conclusions, certainly does have its moments.

The Wind Rises  ***1/2
It’s an odd swansong, but then Hayao Miyazaki never entirely played by the rules. While most of his films - Spirited Away, Howl’s Moving Castle, Ponyo - exhibited a pro-feminist stance and a powerful rapport with nature - they appealed both to children and adults and were a long way from the sentimentality and violence of mainstream Hollywood animation. Yet, even so, The Wind Rises is a surprising addition to his canon. In short, it is a 126-minute fictional biography of the aeronautical engineer Jiro Horikoshi, he who designed the Mitsubishi A6M Zero fighter plane used to attack Pearl Harbor. As usual with Miyazaki’s work, the film is instilled with a dream-like quality and while the elements - wind, fire, water, even an earthquake - take centre stage, references to “spring-loaded hatches” and “flush rivets” feel incongruous in an animated film. Nonetheless, it is an often fascinating saga of a man driven to realise his dreams. Genius is always an absorbing subject in the cinema, be it the faculty of an artist, singer,  composer, or even an aeronautical engineer. And courtesy of the brush strokes of Miyazaki - the film is adapted from his manga comic - Jiro Horikoshi emerges as a dedicated fellow who looks to the world around him to improve the parlous state of Japanese aviation, drawing inspiration from floating paper and, in particular, the bones of a mackerel. But, of course, the animation is the thing, the simplicity of the line drawings enriched by an imaginative array of backdrops. Brevity, however, was never Miyazaki’s keenest tool in his paintbox and the film does ultimately drag; even so, The Wind Rises contains so many incidental pleasures that Miyazaki’s virtue of the poetically inconsequential makes this a worthy culmination of a remarkable career.


Wind River  ***      Wind River is the name of a Native American reservation in Oklahoma. It is there that the frozen body of an 18-year-old Native American woman is found, miles from civilisation and in just light clothing and without shoes. Game tracker Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner) calls in the authorities but when the sole representative of the FBI arrives she, Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen), is ill-prepared for the harsh conditions of the snowy mountainside. It is a man’s world out there and Jane is thrown into a steep learning curve as the grisly truth begins to reveal itself…

In an age when so much crime is solved by science and technology, it’s a tonic to encounter a film whose dramatis personae resort to more primal methods. Wind River is both a character study of a man (Lambert) who lives by his instincts and of a people sidelined by history and society. A declaration at the end of the film states that Native Americans are the only demographic in the world whose missing persons go unrecorded. And the events that inspired the screenplay really happened.

Under the stewardship of writer-director Taylor Sheridan, who previously penned the highly acclaimed Sicario and Hell or High Water, the film’s story unfolds slowly. In fact, there’s not much of a story as such, so it’s the detail and atmosphere one must relish. As usual, Jeremy Renner immerses himself completely in his character, a man still recovering from the death of his own teenage daughter. Elizabeth Olsen is less convincing as the FBI rookie, whose own backstory is sparse. And for every telling sequence in which a whole new world is revealed – such as the scene in which Lambert methodically crafts his own gun cartridges – a reliance on genre undermines the reality. In spite of an evocative score by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, the sound design is clichéd, while much of the dialogue is lost. And when Renner muses that “luck don’t live out here,” we really do want to hear more.


Wonder  ****1/2

Few actresses today can stop your heart with just a look. But Julia Roberts can, and every time she crops up we should remember how much we have missed her. Here she plays the mother of ten-year-old Auggie Pullman, who is not like other boys. Isabel Pullman (Roberts) has been home-schooling her son for half his life but now feels he must face the music of “real school.” However, it’s not going to be an easy transition for anyone, because Auggie was born with mandibulofacial dysostosis, a severe form of facial deformity. Now, in an age when everyone seems to be striving for physical perfection and is spending obscene amounts of money on nose jobs, face-lifts and dental implants, it’s good to see a movie like Wonder. Based on the 2012 children's novel by Raquel Jaramillo, the film is not only enormously moving but also smart and funny. While Auggie – played by Jacob Tremblay, the boy from Lenny Abrahamson's Room (2015) – is the nominal protagonist, his story is told from the viewpoint of four of the central characters. Similar films, for all their nobility, are too often one-sided. However, Auggie’s condition has an impact on everybody around him, particularly his family. So, with considerable skill, Stephen Chbosky's film slips into the emotional perspective of Auggie’s sister, Via (beautifully played by Izabela Vidovic), a boy from Auggie’s school (Noah Jupe) and even a friend of Via’s (Danielle Rose Russell). And, even as these characters initially appear as token stereotypes, the script overturns our preconceptions and draws us into another heart-wrenching point-of-view. The fact is that we are all inter-connected and any bias or perceived ill is linked to another synapse in the human network. If one were feeling mean-spirted, one could pick holes: this is, after all, a Hollywood film appealing to a mainstream audience. But it’s also hugely entertaining and often very witty. When, at school, a classmate of Auggie’s asks him, “have you ever thought about having plastic surgery?” Auggie replies blankly: “No. Why?” While Auggie cannot change the way he looks, at least we can change the way we see.



Wonder Woman  ***1/2

In the pantheon of superhero lore, there’s nowt so novel as Wonder Woman. Where Thor flexes his biceps, Diana, Princess of Themyscira, flexes her compassion. And unlike her fellow D.C. Comic cohorts, she is without cynicism or braggadocio. In short, she’s not only a symbol of female empowerment but a breath of fresh air. Sure, Patty Jenkins' $149 million production suffers from moments of familiar pretension and more than the occasional longueur, but overall it packs an emotive punch. In a year congested with war films, Wonder Woman offers a fresh perspective, as an outsider – Princess Di – struggles to comprehend the logic of mass slaughter. In fact, one gets two films for the price of one here, a mythological fantasy played out on a paradisiac island, and then a war film both in front of and behind enemy lines.

The film begins as if in another millennium, on the enchanted isle of Themyscira, where Diana learns of the myths of her ancestors and in particular the struggle between Zeus and Ares, the god of war. But for now there are no men, just (two-breasted) Amazonians who mingle in peaceful accord in-between ferocious bouts of fight practice. After the shock of seeing Robin Wright in a helmet, we are then lulled into a false sense of contentment as these beautiful, strapping women of ethnic variety do battle with their swords and arrows. Sisterly combat is a national pastime, in essence a safeguard against the possibility of invasion. And as the populace has been brought to life by Zeus and clay, there is no need for any chaps.

Diana herself, albeit possessed of special powers, is an innocent. So when an American pilot, Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), crashes his plane offshore, she is unprepared for the grim tidings he brings. Apparently, the whole world is at war and millions of innocent men, women and children have been slain. So, against her mother’s wishes, Diana leaves the island with Trevor to put a stop to this unnecessary bloodshed…

War is never more repulsive than when viewed through the eyes of the uncomprehending and the innocent. And Diana’s naïvety is heart-breaking. Why would heavily armed German soldiers gun down her sisters in cold blood? And as the film blends Greek mythology with modern military history, the madness of warfare is given a bracing perspective. But there’s fun to be had, too, as the sexism of London’s military personnel is put to shame by Diana’s blatant superiority. She can not only kick major ass but can speak hundreds of languages, too, both modern and ancient. And there’s the question of what she refers to as “reproductive biology,” while coming under the spell of Chris Pine’s manhood (well, as the blue-eyed wonder tells her, he is “above average”). For contrast, Diana and Steve Trevor are accompanied on their front-line mission by a fez-wearing Arab (Saïd Taghmaoui), a kilted Scotsman (Ewen Bremner) and a Native American chief (Eugene Brave Rock). Bizarre is not the word for it.

As Wonder Woman herself, the former Miss Israel and law student Gal Gadot is terrific. She not only looks the part, but conveys just the right amount of innocence and steely determination, along with a dash of deadpan humour. And the film, at a time of American isolationism and escalating belligerence between the superpowers, would seem to be as pertinent as ever. It’s a heady mix.



Youth  ***1/2

The wonderful thing about the films of Paolo Sorrentino is that one can never predict what will come next. He bends the rules of narrative and makes up a few new ones while ceaselessly exercising his love of the filmmaking process. He mixes sound with silence, music with vision and intoxicates the senses with his seductive imagery. Youth – a more intimate, leisurely exercise than his masterpieces The Consequences of Love and The Great Beauty – is set at a luxurious spa nestled in the Swiss mountains, offering ample opportunity for scenic pleasures, both Alpine and human. Michael Caine plays Fred Ballinger, a world famous conductor and composer who is chilling with a life-long friend, the film director Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel), and his daughter Lena (Rachel Weisz), who also happens to be Mike’s daughter-in-law. There is no driving plot as such, although unexpected things occur all the time, both imaginary and real. With its mixture of observation, insight and the absurd, it’s like an epic vignette – or a very rich dream – which some will find self-indulgent and others incredibly profound. Either way, it’s a delight to see Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel as a double-act, a bizarre conceit that only Sorrentino could have come up with.



X-Men: Apocalypse  ***1/2

Long before the Avengers assembled, the X-Men took up arms against a sea of troubles and by opposing all but ended them. However, since the collision course embarked on by Batman and Superman and then by Captain America and Iron Man, the altercation between Professor X and Magneto hardly smells fresh anymore. One feels quite jaded by all this superhumanitarianism. Here, again, the future of mankind is at stake and again the arch villain is more terrible than anything we’ve seen before.

He is the ominously entitled Apocalypse, the very first Mutant, who’s been on ice for millennia since his incarceration in ancient Egypt. In the past, he saw off such civilisations as Babylonia, Arcadia and Sumer, and now that he’s back, he’s none too happy with the state of the planet. So he sets about wiping the slate clean…

This is what’s known as raising the bar: and it’s obviously going to be a tough time for the Mutes. Furthermore, Apocalypse has his acolytes. Tapping into the rage and pain of Magneto, he enlists the Magnet Man along with other handy lieutenants, summoning up enormous resources of power. “Towers will fall,” he predicts, deciding that the world will be a better place if it were reduced to its former Bronze Age. So it’s up to Professor X and Raven (aka Mystique) to recruit new Mutants to battle the vainglorious Apocalypse and to preserve the human race.

The new film – the ninth in the so-called ‘X-Men universe’ – certainly raises the stakes and the protean Oscar Isaac (Poe Dameron in Star Wars: The Force Awakens) makes a chilling antagonist. But, as with all the X-Men films, the real pleasure is derived from the newer Mutants as they come to terms with their special powers. Born outside the accepted norm, these beings are like children with special needs, but have their own considerable skill sets, and much to offer mankind. While they are a generally rather good-looking lot, they are not unlike the geniuses that the world has come to accept as such, from the blind Homer and stammering Aristotle to Alan Turing and Stephen Hawking.

The film’s other strength is the quality of the actors on show. James McAvoy (Professor X) is always a sympathetic figure, while his co-stars Michael Fassbender (Magneto) and Jennifer Lawrence (Raven) are no slouches in the thespian department. The CGI is suitably awesome, but the characters that thread their way through the pyrotechnics are just as engaging. One might confuse it for X-Men Assemble: Age of Apocalypse, but it’s still quite a head-trip.


You’ve Been Trumped Too  ***1/2

Donald Trump is a gift to documentary filmmakers. All they have to do is dig a little and they will come up with some yummy, smelly manure. Here, the documentarian Anthony Baxter focuses on Trump’s disastrous golf course venture in Balmedie, Aberdeenshire. Promising local affluence and the making of 6,000 jobs, the Trump machine bulldozed the natural habitat and ancient dunes, cutting off the water supply to the locals and producing an employment opportunity for two chefs and a couple of greenskeepers. The 90-year-old Molly Forbes had a particularly hard time of it: “You don’t know how much you use water until you don’t have it.” Trump himself claimed that the nonagenarian reminded him of his own mother, but there’s no love lost between Molly and the foreign aggressor. She describes how she stands in the shower to wash herself while Baxter follows her to the local stream where she gathers water in an old paint pot to fill her kettle. And the fact that her central heating is run on water is only the start of it…

This is as much a portrait of the folk of Balmedie – and their fighting spirit – as it is about megalomania gone off the rails. One poor woman was filmed by Trump’s employees relieving herself in the local undergrowth and was accused of committing a “disgusting and shameful act” and was charged under section 47 of the Civic Government Act. Another scene shows Trump swanning about the area and dictating which houses he wanted removed. “Who cares?” he states clearly to camera. Well, the occupants of the house might have something to say.

It’s a ragbag affair, a combination of new, updated footage and recycled material from earlier films made by Baxter, namely You’ve Been Trumped (2011) and A Dangerous Game (2014). And not every theme is followed through. For Baxter newbies, though, this is an entertaining addition to the all-too-familiar mud-slinging anti-Trump circus. Still, even now, it’s shocking to witness the callousness of a man who put himself forward to represent the interests of the common working man of the UsofA.



Zoolander No. 2  *1/2

It’s one thing to set a comedy in the world of high fashion – the industry is asking for it. It’s another to resurrect Zoolander (2001) now that Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson are, respectively, aged 50 and 47, and to turn the whole thing into a spy spoof. Well, there’s an idea. Let’s make fun of the world of international espionage and terrorism and place two complete idiots in the middle of it. It’s been done. To death. Actually, death seems to be a preoccupation with Ben Stiller, the film’s director, co-producer and co-writer. He reprises his role of Derek Zoolander, the male model and halfwit who made his fortune on the back of his facial ‘look,’ the so-called ‘Blue Steel.’ But since then he has inadvertently killed the love of his life (played by the real-life Mrs Stiller, Christine Taylor), by erecting a children’s library made of the same materials as its scale model. Inevitably, the building collapsed two days after its opening, causing widespread destruction and lightly disfiguring Zoolander’s best mate, Hansel (Owen Wilson). Consequently, Zoolander and Hansel have parted their ways, the former becoming a “hermit crab” and retiring to the snowy wastes of New Jersey, while Hansel has moved to an Unchartered Malibu Territory to shack up with Kiefer Sutherland, a dwarf and nine other unlikely live-in lovers. But Death brings the goons back together when a slew of pop idols (Madonna, Demi Lovato, Justin Bieber) are murdered with the ‘Blue Steel’ look transfixed on their dying faces.

While there is a degree of comic mileage to be levered from famous cameos, the stunt quickly becomes threadbare. In fact, in this overblown, one-note tsunami of silliness, everything wears thin, suffocating any genuinely good jokes along the way. While it’s game of Kiefer Sutherland to play himself impregnated by Owen Wilson, and for Billy Zane to play Billy Zane reduced to the position of a postman, it’s a running gag that has little traction. Further cameos by Susan Sarandon, John Malkovich and Lewis Hamilton are rendered completely pointless, other than to stoke Ben Stiller’s ego. Much like Derek Zoolander’s facial expression, the film is a one-dimensional express ride of the ludicrous and improbable, with Theodore Shapiro's bombastic and relentless music determined to wipe that smile off your face. Still, the Rome locations and Penélope Cruz look nice.



Zootropolis  ****

In America, Disney’s 55th ‘official’ animated feature is called Zootopia, which makes a lot more sense. Here, we have a thriving, modern megalopolis in which all animals are equal and live in perfect harmony. After millennia of the law of the jungle, the animal kingdom has finally come to reconcile its differences and has built a city where every critter can co-exist and prosper. It is, ergo, a zoic utopia. And it’s here that our protagonist, an idealistic rabbit called Judy Hopps (voiced by Ginnifer Goodwin), plans to move to become the very first lapine officer of the ZPD, a constabulary run by Chief Bogo (an imposing cape buffalo). But Judy is to discover quick enough than in the ranks of the police, a rabbit is no equal to the bigger animals. Thus, on her very first day she is assigned to parking-meter duty and is variously referred to as “Carrots,” “Cottontail,” “Flopsy” and “Dumb Bunny.” However, Judy is no ordinary rabbit and readily admits that she doesn’t know when to quit. Her parents, carrot farmers in the rural community of Bunnyburrow, were the first to suppress her dreams, preferring acquiescence to ambition. But Judy wants to make a difference and her smarts make up for her lack of stature, while her tenacity knows no bounds…

This being Disney, the moral is writ large. Of course, we are all animals, but some of us are smaller, hairier and darker than others. But that doesn’t mean we can’t pull our weight. This being Disney, every minute of Zootropolis is also packed with visual ingenuity, splendid sight gags, rapid-fire one-liners and some genuinely thrilling moments. And Disney films don’t pander to the youngest common denominator. Thus words like “multitudinous” and “actuary” are trotted out in the opening minutes, reassuring parents that they should stay tuned.

It goes without saying that the computer animation is miraculous and, unlike in so many Hollywood films, the voice work is both clear and expressive. Jason Bateman is wonderful as a fox with a chip on his shoulder, and Idris Elba delightfully dry and brutal as the chief of police (“Didn’t forget. Just don’t care.”). Thus, an exceptionally witty array of wisecracks is not lost in the turmoil (“I mean, I am just a dumb bunny, but we are good at multiplying;” “Doug is the opposite of friendly. He is un-friendly;” “He was an animal!;” “Life is not a cartoon;” "We may be evolved, but deep down we are still animals;" and Jason Bateman, on the sheepish mayoral assistant: " Do you think when she goes to sleep, she counts herself?” And, Bateman again: “What do you call a three-humped camel? Pregnant!”

Zootopia – or call it Zootropolis – is probably the funniest film of the year so far, and with its relentless invention, in-jokes and panoply of characters, the best cartoon we’ve seen since Inside Out. It certainly makes up for Pixar’s rather workaday and underwhelming The Good Dinosaur, which Disney distributed last year.

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