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Adrift  **

Adrift, a romantic two-hander, has a pair of terrific assets: Shailene Woodley and Sam Claflin. Unfortunately, the director Baltasar Kormákur seems hell-bent on making an action-thriller. Adapted from the non-fiction tome Red Sky in Mourning by Tami Oldham Ashcraft and Susea McGearhart, the film bobs alongside such lost-at-sea titles as All is Lost and this year’s The Mercy, also based on a true story. However, unlike the last-named, which featured a solitary mariner stranded on the big blue, this features an attractive young couple who have just met and fallen in love. He is a charming, worldly Englishman, she a free-spirited American nine years his junior. However, Baltasar Kormákur cuts straight to the chase: opening the film as poor Tami (Woodley) emerges from the depths gasping for air. And so two parallel time frames are introduced which, as they converge, become increasingly confusing. Had Kormákur trusted more in his stars, and cemented their chemistry on land, we would have had more to hold onto emotionally. Nonetheless, the more perilous sequences, when they arrive, are extremely well handled, with Kormákur obviously in his element. He not only previously brought us the adrenaline-pumping Contraband and Everest, but also the not dissimilar The Deep (2012), another true story of survival at sea. But here there was not a wet eye in the house.



L’Amant Double  ***

François Ozon's L’Amant Double is a ride – and a very handsome one. One of the most accomplished filmmakers of the international stage, Ozon is never short of visual imagination. The film’s two opening minutes alone will probably go down in history and from there it glides into a mysterious honeycomb of illusion, fantasy and reverie. Ozon plays his tale extremely straight, giving it substance from the outset. Marine Vacth stares coquettishly at the camera as her head of hair is cut away to reveal a boyish short-back-and-sides, the perfect stamp of the Parisian gamine. But she is a troubled young woman, with persistent stomach pains, perhaps a psychological complaint. She is advised to see a psychiatrist and in a matter of minutes has packaged her life story into a neat introduction. The psychiatrist, Paul Meyer (Jérémie Renier), listens intently and falls in love…

What follows pursues the template of the psychological thriller, although Ozon struggles to keep his scenario as plausible as possible. However, it is perhaps best to take the film in the spirit of a playful homage to early Polanski, particularly the latter’s period from Repulsion to Rosemary’s Baby. L’Amant Double is, itself, in danger of swinging off the rails – and even provoking the occasional giggle – while never losing its ability to compel. As Ozon’s unbalanced protagonist, Marine Vacth – who previously starred in the director’s Jeune & Jolie (2013) – gives her all, both flaunting and playing against her extraordinary beauty. But be warned, in the #MeToo climate, some of the more provocative sex scenes will prove problematic for many viewers.


Ant-Man and the Wasp  ****

Ava Starr has a problem. Due to an accidental case of molecular disequilibrium, her atomic structure is in flux. Or, in plain English, she keeps on slipping between dimensions, enabling her to ‘phase’ through physical objects. It’s a life-threatening condition and in order to save herself Ava needs to tap into the molecular energy of The Wasp (Michelle Pfeiffer), who has been trapped in the quantum realm for thirty years. So it’s in Ava’s interest to apprehend the futuristic technology of the brilliant physicist Dr Hank Pym (Michael Douglas). But Pym is desperate to implement the technology himself in order to retrieve his wife, Janet, aka The Wasp. So, it’s a battle of wills, with the good doctor’s own daughter, Hope (Evangeline Lilly), and Ant-Man (Paul Rudd), harnessing their own sub-atomic powers to protect Pym’s portable laboratory and find Hope’s long-lost mother. In effect, they’re all fighting to attain the same goal – to calibrate the science to save the lives of those damaged by the misappropriation of quantum research.

The really interesting thing about Ant-Man himself is that he’s a flawed hero and a great dad. And he’s got some really nifty superpowers. In a nano-beat, he can shrink to the size of a hornet, fly across the room and then transmute back into a full-sized human being. It does have its advantages. In the guise of Paul Rudd, he’s also a hugely engaging protagonist, a guy as quick with a quip as he is with a beat of his wings. It’s always seemed odd that Paul Rudd has not attained a greater degree of stardom. He’s a talented actor, a handsome guy and a very funny comic, having enlivened a number of hits from Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (2004) and The 40-Year-Old Virgin (2005) to Knocked Up (2007) and I Love You, Man (2009). He even romanced Michelle Pfeiffer in the winning, occasionally poignant romcom I Could Never Be Your Woman (2007), but is now, aged 49, hitting on her daughter, played by the Canadian actress Evangeline Lilly. Fans of Ms Pfeiffer, though, get a treat during the prologue of Ant-Man and the Wasp, when we see a digitally youthened version of the actress, along with a dashing Michael Douglas. Having said that, she is still a supremely beautiful woman. As is the Anglo-Nigerian actress Hannah John-Kamen who, following a career in British TV, plays Ava with a touching intensity.

As Hollywood has traded in ever bigger and more spectacular escapism, a healthy new direction would seem to be less-is-more, from the microscopic marvels of the first Ant-Man (2015) to the miniature miracles of Alexander Payne's profound and funny Downsizing (2017). Here, the accent is not so much on visceral thrills, or emotional impact, as a general sense of fun and physical comedy. And there’s something for everyone: a handsome hero with a self-deprecating sense of humour, a cute kid (Ant-Man’s adorable daughter, played with mischievous charm by the ten-year-old Abby Ryder Fortson), an array of mind-stretching special effects, lashings of rousing action, a slew of funny one-liners, a couple of Hollywood legends (Michael Douglas and Michelle Pfeiffer), giant insects and enough techno-babble to intoxicate physics freaks of every persuasion. Above all, though, it’s an overarching love story, as Dr Hank Pym invests his life’s work into retrieving the woman he adores. In a summer of popcorn overdrive, the last few weeks have proved a bonus for audiences, with the sheer life-enhancing exuberance of Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again, the gut-churning thrills of Mission: Impossible – Fallout and now this. To hell with the heatwave.



Book Club  **

There’s a morbid fascination in watching autumnal stars like Jane Fonda, Diane Keaton and Candice Bergen talk about sex. Book Club, the story of four life-long girlfriends who read Fifty Shades of Grey – and are transformed – is a car crash. You just can’t avert your eyes. Ms Fonda is now a stately octogenarian and, as Vivian, she bats out lines like, “I don’t sleep with people I like – I gave that up in the nineties.” She is something of a nymphomaniac and looks amazing for a woman of eighty, albeit with cosmetic reinforcement. Yet the film, which marks the directorial debut of co-scripter Bill Holderman, does not shy away from saying so.

The crux of the sitcom is the line, “the memory is the second thing to go,” as uttered by ageing Lothario Don Johnson. Hard to imagine we’d ever see Sonny Crockett hit on an 80-year-old. But times are a’ changin’, surgery is improving and the grey pound is blooming. Johnson himself is just 68 and is now best known as the father of Anastasia Steele, a joke the film is not meta enough to crack.

Bubbling beneath the frippery and shock-horror of the flaccid classes as depicted here, lies a darker, more interesting film which Holderman and Erin Simms’ screenplay fails to develop. A dying libido can be a tragic thing, as well as a welcome relief (for some). However, the message of this soap is that “it’s worth living while you still can,” as voiced by another ageing Lothario, this time embodied by a charismatic, albeit paunchy Andy Garcia. He’s a jet-setting airline pilot and whisks Diane Keaton off her feet – and that is the film’s problem. Jane Fonda’s Vivian, who runs an up-market hotel, can afford her boob lifts, as can Candice Bergen’s federal judge. For the less fortunate, old age can be a savage beast.

Furthermore, the stars’ back catalogue haunts the film. When Bergen gingerly turns the pages of E.L. James’ sensational best-seller, her mouth drops open. The actress may waddle across the courtroom now, but she used to star in films called Carnal Knowledge. And much of the dialogue should have been excised in the editing room, not least when Bergen’s vet refers to her “lethargic pussy.” Really? Oh, he meant the cat!

Mses Fonda, Diane Keaton and Mary Steenburgen have four Oscars between them (and co-star Richard Dreyfuss has another) and they should know better. Still, they appear to be having fun and do remember their lines, some of which aren’t half-bad (“Love is just a word until somebody gives it meaning” – Ms Bergen). But with actresses of this calibre, one might have wished for something more real, something more significant. After all, Vivian quotes Dylan Thomas and Bergen’s ex, Ed Begley Jr, recites Shakespeare. Would that there were a scintilla of truth. Besides, “truth hath a quiet breast” (King Richard II).



The Children Act  *****

The Children Act, a bill passed by Parliament in 1989, states that “the child’s welfare shall be the court’s paramount consideration.” However, in law, nothing is exactly clear-cut where religion and parental influence is involved. Such ethical dilemmas flutter across the desk of High Court judge Fiona Maye (Emma Thompson) every day and her privileged lifestyle is repeatedly bruised by the moral choices she makes. She is consumed by her vocation, a career platform allowing her to sort right from wrong in a world of shadow and grey areas. But Fiona Maye is also a woman and a wife, and her husband, an American academic (Stanley Tucci), has become sidelined in favour of the greater good. As he’s nursing his own marital disappointments, Fiona becomes personally involved in the star attraction of her latest case, a 17-year-old Jehovah’s Witness (Fionn Whitehead) whose life-saving blood transfusion is denied him by his religion.

Ian McEwan, who adapted the screenplay from his own 2014 novel, is a master of the emotional paradox and has compressed a myriad of arguments into an understated and deeply moving film set in modern Britain. His great ally is the accomplished stage director and filmmaker Sir Richard Eyre, with whom he first collaborated on the BBC’s Play for Today episode of The Imitation Game in 1980. Eyre has calibrated this deceptively slim but finely-tuned story into a thing of beauty, in which every cinematic semicolon thrusts home a resonant point. Completing the holy trio is Emma Thompson as Fiona, who radiates intelligence, compassion, confusion and exhaustion in equal measure. It’s a performance of consummate precision, offering us an extraordinary human being who has perhaps denied herself her own humanity. Everything else in the film – from the fascinating minutia of the ritual within the Royal Courts of Justice to the exquisite cinematography of Andrew Dunn – collude to create a drama that engages the intellect while tugging at the soul.



Christopher Robin  **

If you thought last year’s Goodbye Christopher Robin was the final chapter in the legacy of Winnie-the-Pooh, think again. In fact, say hello to Christopher Robin, Walt Disney’s bizarre attempt to resurrect its Pooh franchise. After all, A.A. Milne’s bear from Sussex is the company’s second best-selling character – and merchandise spinner – after Mickey Mouse. Obviously, the enormous commercial success of Paddington Bear was another factor, although the five writers credited with the screenplay and story have also tapped into the theme of Steven Spielberg’s Hook (1991). That is, what if Peter Pan – or in this case, Christopher Robin – grew up and mislaid his ‘inner child’? The difference with the new film, as opposed to last year’s deeply moving Christopher Robin, is that it’s aimed squarely at a family audience. And therein lies the dilemma. Children, on the whole, should be in full possession of their inner child and will be somewhat baffled by Christopher Robin’s problems in the boardroom.

The grown-up Christopher is played by Ewan McGregor, who is now a work-plagued ‘efficiency expert’ at a luggage company suffering a downturn in business. Therefore, his life is a welter of spreadsheets and pie charts as his accident-prone boss (Mark Gatiss, laying on the physical comedy) looms over him. Thus, like Domhnall Gleeson as A.A. Milne in the ‘other film,’ Ewan McGregor’s Christopher Robin has become a stuffed shirt who spends all his time in London. And, when he does have time for his daughter, Madeline (the pitch-perfect Bronte Carmichael), he reads to her about the Industrial Revolution in lieu of a bedtime story. He thinks he is preparing for a better life, but as his wife, Evelyn (Hayley Atwell), tells him, “your life is happening. Right now.” Likewise, Winnie-the-Pooh observes, “my favourite day is today.” And so, borrowing from the magic wardrobe in another children’s classic, Pooh climbs through a portal in Ashdown Forest and out into a London park to rescue his old friend from himself.

Here, the director is Marc Forster, who steered a similar path with his 2004 Finding Neverland, in which an unfulfilled J.M. Barrie (Johnny Depp) found his mojo – and the inspiration for Peter Pan – through his friendship with four young boys. However, the overarching problem with the new film is its confusion of tone. It is at once a sombre, grey-coated portrait of post-war deprivation as well as a fantasy featuring an over-excited stuffed tiger and a terminally morose donkey and teddy bear. For much of the action, it is as depressing as Michael Haneke’s Amour (2012), until it bounces into high gear in the final act.

The opening features the line drawings of E.H. Shepard and reminds us of the charm of the original books, a magic that is largely missing in this live-action-cum-CGI edition. Employing the original voice artists of Disney’s Winnie-the-Pooh cartoons and video games – the Ohio-born Jim Cummings as Pooh and Tigger, the LA-born Brad Garrett as Eeyore – creates a jarring note with the otherwise Anglophilic mood. While Beatrix Potter is still giddy from spinning in her grave after the release of Peter Rabbit (2018), A.A. Milne must be clinging to the sides of his coffin. Sadly, Disney’s Christopher Robin has neither the anarchic exuberance of Peter Rabbit – that so thrilled the young and infuriated the Potter platoon – nor the profound analysis of innocence lost as displayed in the former Christopher Robin film. It is neither one thing nor the other and is perhaps, then, a film of very little brain.



The Darkest Minds  **1/2

If it doesn’t kill you, it will make you stronger. We’re talking about a virus that, in the near future, wipes out ninety per cent of America’s children and teenagers. However, the remaining ten per cent find themselves endowed with superpowers beyond their wildest imagination. It’s X-Kids with a Nicholas Sparks gloss, a brand-new franchise based on the young adult fiction of Alexandra Bracken, being another cog in the rotating wheel of romantic dystopia or, for the purposes of this review, dys-rom.

The film opens with a schoolgirl suffering from some kind of seizure, before dying on the classroom floor. Nice. A month later, so our narrator tells us, “half my class was dead.” She is Ruby Daly, a pretty, bright eight-year-old of mixed heritage, albeit lighter skinned than either of her parents. Six years later, Ruby is played by Amandla Stenberg – best known for her role as Rue in another dys-rom, The Hunger Games (2012) – and she’s been biding her time in an internment camp. The surviving young are kept under a beady eye by the government, who has sorted them into categories based on the potency of their powers (à la the kids in the Divergent series). Here, the least threatening are branded ‘green’ (for those with exceptional intelligence) all the way up to ‘red’, the most dangerous, who can burn down your house with a belligerent glare. Ruby can manipulate the minds of her oppressors, so she’s an ‘orange’ and, like the ‘reds’, is earmarked for instant extermination. But because Ruby can manipulate the minds of her oppressors, she convinces them that she’s a ‘green’ and so escapes her fate. Clever girl. Well, obviously. Then she’s rescued by a bleeding heart played by Mandy Moore and the story really starts.

The Darkest Minds marks the live-action debut of the South Korean-born Jennifer Yuh Nelson, who directed Kung Fu Panda 2 and co-directed Kung Fu Panda 3 and so is a hot commodity in Hollywood. One might have wished, then, for a less conventional hand on this material, which already feels homogeneous. But, alas, the action is punctuated by bland pop songs and way too many streaks of redundant sunbeams, which reduces the dramatis personae to stock characters in a feature-length Mountain Warehouse commercial.

The romantic interest is supplied by the London-born Harris Dickinson (Beach Rats), who has a good face for villainy, while the angelic, Irish-born Patrick Gibson plays a survivor we maybe shouldn’t trust. The film’s casting director actually should reap the most kudos, as it’s seldom we see a central protagonist who is neither skinny nor white (although the stars of dys-roms are invariably female). There are also some intriguing narrative threads dealing with identity and memory, although these are ultimately lost in the soap operatic dynamics. And the film’s funniest line is surely unintentional: “You’re not an orange. We’re not the same.”



Deadpool 2  ***1/2

Nobody saw Deadpool coming. It was a superhero movie that refused to play by the rules. It was irreverent, self-referential, sadistic and hugely entertaining. And it made $783 million worldwide. The inevitable sequel, on which its star Ryan Reynolds now has a credited role as co-writer, is irreverent, self-referential, sadistic and hugely entertaining. Phew. There is a fair amount of the old CGI, but at least Deadpool warns us (“Big CGI fight coming up!”). The story itself is largely irrelevant, as it’s just an excuse to hang a lot of wild and crazy dialogue on, referencing everybody from Justin Bieber to John Candy via Barbra Streisand. There’s a new villain, in the form of the time-travelling badass Cable (Josh Brolin, stepson of Barbra Streisand), but even his narrative is given short thrift (“That is just lazy writing,” DP complains). However, Cable, like the indestructible Thanos that Brolin plays in Avengers: Infinity War, is one tough antagonist (DP: “You’re so dark – you sure you’re not from the D.C. Universe?”).

Deadpool is of course the alter ego of Wade Wilson, a former Special Forces operative with cancer who, in the first film, underwent extreme surgery that left him hideously scarred but empowered with an accelerated healing factor. Here, in his quest to best Cable, alongside some new mutant recruits (with suspect superpowers), he undergoes horrendous injuries, which are graphically rendered. But, hey, “even I can’t kill me”, DP jokes. Then an even greater villain than Cable emerges, the giant mutant Juggernaut (“‘Let’s-Fuck-Some-Shit-Up’ is my legal middle name”). It gets brutal, but the mayhem is sweetened by a joyful soundtrack, with a fondness for gay icons and torch songstresses such as Cher, Céline Dion and Pat Benatar. A particularly grisly montage is accompanied by Dolly Parton warbling ‘9 to 5’. Of course, it’s all done in the best possible taste.

With a nod to a brave new world, Deadpool renames the ‘X-Men’ the ‘X-Force’ and a new mutant is introduced in the form of a plus-size fourteen-year-old New Zealand boy (Julian Dennison, from Hunt for the Wilderpeople). In addition, Negasonic Teenage Warhead (Brianna Hildebrand) saunters out of the closet alongside her chirpy ninja girlfriend Yukio (Shioli Kutsuna). Even so, the film is not afraid to exploit such themes as cancer, suicide and paedophilia. Nothing, it seems, is out of bounds. Not even Ryan Reynolds’ previous turn as D.C. Comics’ superhero Green Lantern (a veritable box-office dud) gets off the hook. Revenge is sweet, indeed. If Deadpool 2 fails to reach the giddy heights of Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy – or even the more recent, mind-blowing Doctor Strange – it’s a decidedly shameful guilty pleasure.



The Equalizer 2  ****

In a career spanning 47 movies, Denzel Washington has never made a sequel. Now, however, he returns to the character of the OCD avenger Robert McCall. And there’s a reason: this concentrated, suspenseful character study is even better than the original. If Antoine Fuqua’s The Equalizer (2014), based on the 1985-1989 TV series with Edward Woodward, was a stylish, guilty pleasure, then Fuqua’s follow-up is a skilfully plotted, meticulously crafted thriller that builds to a thoroughly satisfying climax. In short, it’s a work of art.

In a nod to the first film, Fuqua’s The Equalizer 2 opens, of all places, on a train hurtling through Turkey. There we find Denzel with a full chin beard, white taqiyah cap and complete Muslim regalia, reading a copy of Ta-Nehisi Coates' Between the World and Me (McCall likes his books). Within minutes he has cornered his prey and set matters to rights according to his own inimitable design. The prologue reminds us that a small gang of well-armed thugs are no match for McCall, who has already made an inventory of his arsenal by scanning the railway carriage for anything not bolted in place. It’s amazing what can kill a man in the right hands.

Robert McCall is a former Marine and erstwhile spy for the DIA, an auxiliary intelligence service of the US government, and he has his regrets. He now works as a Boston cab driver and becomes attached to his clientele, while still keeping up with his old associates. His closest ally is perhaps Susan Plummer (fellow Oscar-winner Melissa Leo), who reminds him that, “I’m the only friend you’ve got.”

Of course, this is not true, and we come to know the other people in McCall’s life, from an elderly Holocaust survivor (Orson Bean) to a young art student, Miles Whittaker (Ashton Sanders), who is hanging out with the wrong kind of people. All this is rendered in a most engaging fashion, drawing on the actor’s own innate charisma. However, the director is savvy enough to punctuate McCall’s genial routine with a cut to Brussels, Belgium, where we witness a horrific act of violence that we know will come to involve our protagonist. Likewise, Fuqua – working from a screenplay by the prolific Richard Wenk – slips in seemingly extraneous details that eventually add ballast to the final act. The film is rich with allusion and narrative minutiae, helping to build McCall’s world and character, from the décor of his apartment to the books he reads (Between the World and Me is a treatise on the entrenched racism of the US). In fact, at one point he insists that Miles reads a copy in return for a monetary transaction.

Like many of Denzel Washington’s most successful pictures, The Equalizer 2 is a generic piece, but it’s one that adds heft and colour to the brand.



The First Purge  ***1/2

The First Purge really wants to have its cake and eat it. On one level a topical, saw-toothed satire on the growing social divide in contemporary America, it is also a full-blown blast of exploitation that feeds the sadism of its intended audience. Tapping into the relentless bloodlust of such genre classics as Assault on Precinct 13, Battle Royale and the critically acclaimed The Raid (2011) from Indonesia, the film is a savage critique of human nature – but with a twist.

Following the enormously successful The Purge (2013), The Purge: Anarchy (2014) and The Purge: Election Year (2016), this is a prequel to keeps the fans happy until the broadcast of the TV series (The Purge) in September. The premise is simple: for 12 hours each year the populace is allowed to exorcise its rage with impunity, committing any crime he or she feels like, so that for the remainder of the year everybody can live in peace. It’s an outrageous conceit, and one that leads to untold horrors, and this prequel is the most ludicrous yet.

For the first experiment in this government-endorsed lawlessness, Staten Island is cordoned off for what is whimsically dubbed “societal catharsis.” The opening scenes are well played, as crowds group to protest, news stations add their commentary and the chief executive himself (Ian Blackman) explains his motives because “the American dream is dead.”

What, inevitably, unfolds is a living nightmare as vandalism, then looting, then murder spirals out of control as the carnival atmosphere of Halloween is transmogrified into a free-for-all genocide. Residents of ‘the projects’ in the centre of Staten Island are paid $5,000 a piece to sit it out, while those willing to roam the streets and record what they see (through special contact lenses) are compensated even more handsomely.

James DeMonaco, who directed the first three films, has written a script that focuses on a tight-knit group of New Yorkers and they are deftly embodied by a cast of unknowns. Interestingly, the real innocent of the group, Isaiah, recalls another young African-American thrust into a racial meltdown, i.e. Chris Washington in Get Out, a film that was also produced by Jason Blum. Also interesting is that this character is convincingly played by an English actor, Joivan Wade, perhaps best known as Jordan Johnson in EastEnders. There are also good turns from real Americans, including Y'Lan Noel, Lex Scott Davis, Mugga and, of all people, Marisa Tomei as the architect of the plan.

Considering the violence on display, and the inhumanity that the film exploits, the 15 certificate does seem extraordinarily lenient. Besides the hideous death toll, the potency of the profanity, the drug misuse and at least one scene of sexual impropriety, the film hardly pulls its punches. Yet one must judge it for what it is: an entirely competent horror film. Its supplementary forays into political commentary, displays of media manipulation and gladiatorial nature of the news coverage is just the mustard on the steak, served raw. One might also see it as an admonitory sword thrust into the heart of Middle America.



First Reformed  ***

How can God account for Donald Trump? As the planet faces its biggest challenge in environmental history, the President of the United States claims there isn’t a problem. However, the facts surrounding the imminent demise of our home make for uncomfortable reading, and Reverend Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke) is having trouble assimilating God’s plan. Then, as he agonizes over a personal journal, for him a form of prayer, a congregant comes to him for some form of explanation…

Paul Schrader is not the most cinematic of filmmakers, but he is a rigorous thinker. Like his frequent collaborator Martin Scorsese, he was deeply involved in the church from an early age. He was brought up a strict Calvinist and even earned his B.A. from Calvin College, with a minor in theology. He is also drawn to stories of lone figures living just beyond the perimeters of society: Travis Bickle roaming the streets of New York in Taxi Driver (which Schrader wrote for Scorsese), the male escort played by Richard Gere in American Gigolo, the insomniac drug dealer in Light Sleeper and the male escort played by Woody Harrelson in The Walker. Here, he presents us with a man of the cloth wrestling with his faith and his conscience. His – Toller’s – is an austere lifestyle and Schrader has given us an austere film: framed in the boxy 1.37:1 aspect ratio, shot in winter and as visually sparse as a painting by Hammershøi. Schrader expects us to think. He saves the film’s emotional punch for the ending, when Toller lurches from benign Samaritan to tortured dark angel. It is a film that honours its own aesthetic and gives us plenty to deliberate upon, but its cold lines and interior angst is only likely to appeal to the few.


Freak Show  ****

It was only in April that critics heaped praise on a film called Love, Simon. The premise was audacious: here was a high school romcom in which the central protagonist was gay. And the said fellow is so desperate to hide the fact from his friends and family that he becomes a prime target for blackmail. Shock horror! The dilemma was played out engagingly by an agreeable cast and there was much humour to go round. However, it was also rather cosy and old-fashioned, and would have been far more significant had it made been twenty years earlier. Time, then, for Freak Show.

Billy Bloom is heading for high school in a Southern town far from his familiar territory of Connecticut (the home of Chloë Sevigny) and he is not just gay, but “transvisionary”, darling. “I didn’t choose to be fabulous,” he says, “fabulous chose me.” The film is rife with such lines, the dialogue competing in earnest with a fabulous array of sequined and be-feathered outfits, enough to make the ghost of McQueen weep.

Initially cold-shouldered by every student he meets, Billy is adopted by a sympathetic spirit (AnnaSophia Robb), who takes him so much by surprise that he doesn’t recall her name, and from then on she is referred to as Blah Blah Blah (even in the closing credits). The film is full of such playful self-effacement, but beneath its barnstorming cry for tolerance, lies a much sadder tale. Billy is the product of a broken marriage and is reared by vaudeville queen Bette Midler, who dotes on him with treats, feather boas and fortune cookie maxims, creating “a circle of two”. Billy dismisses his father, a conservative millionaire (Larry Pine), as “Daddy Downer”. The latter does not take kindly to his son’s outré behaviour, warning Billy that, “a nail that sticks out, gets hammered down.”

There is an air of the freakish about the film itself. It is directed by the wife of Sting (Trudie Styler), is produced by Drew Barrymore and co-stars John McEnroe as Billy’s PE teacher. WTF? And Billy himself is played by the young Alan Turing. Alex Lawther first came to attention in The Imitation Game, as the schoolboy Turing who carried a torch for his friend Christopher. Lawther then delivered more low-key performances in X+Y and Goodbye Christopher Robin (as the older Christopher Robin), but now truly takes the screen by storm. Channelling the spirit of Tim Curry from Rocky Horror with a dollop of Adam Ant and other camp icons, he slips as effortlessly into an American accent as he does a star-spangled frock. To counter such high spirits, there are more grounded turns from Celia Weston as the Blooms’ loyal housekeeper and Abigail Breslin as Billy’s amply proportioned rival for the title of homecoming queen. What crumbs are left, Bette Midler scoops up with a ladle. Taken in the spirit of a riotous assault on the high school outsider template, the film is a blast. And with the talent involved, it’s a blast with class.



The Happytime Murders  **

Presumably there is a public for this priapic puppetry. A sort of Chinatown with a message – and puppets – this black comedy from the adult arm of The Jim Henson Company is not exactly the first of its kind. A couple of precedents includes the stage hit Avenue Q and Trey Parker's 2004 film Team America: World Police. Somehow, if you’re working with puppets, you can get away with much more smut. The difference here is that there are humans in the mix (à la Avenue Q), along with a meaningful agenda concerning racism, of sorts.

The film opens in a parallel Los Angles in which the underclass has fuzzy skin, button eyes and, apparently, genuine bodily fluids. The tale is narrated in true Chandleresque style by Phil Phillips (Bill Barretta), the only puppet to make the LAPD, only to be debarred for accidently shooting (and killing) a passer-by. Phil is now a PI and is hired by a fuzzy nymphomaniac who just loves to be felt (geddit?). She claims to be blackmailed by an anonymous hand, but when Phil investigates, he stumbles upon a far more disturbing case. The non-human cast of the TV sitcom The Happytime Gang is being systematically murdered, leading Phil to team up with his erstwhile LAPD partner, the sugar-addicted, all-too-human Connie Edwards (Melissa McCarthy). Like all cinematic partnerships of the law-enforcing kind, Phil and Connie are a mismatched pair, only more so. She tells him to get stuffed, but he already is.

Melissa McCarthy, whose potty mouth reaches new depths here, co-produces with her husband Ben Falcone, teaming up with co-producer and director Brian Gibson, the son of Jim Henson, creator of The Muppets. It’s odd that the father’s son should be so derisive of his father’s legacy, as these puppets are subjected to acts of unimaginable perversion.

Melissa McCarthy’s regular co-star Maya Rudolph plays Phil’s secretary, Bubbles, and certainly enters into the spirit of the thing, introducing us to an entirely new depravity called “pilaffing.” One can sense the juvenile delectation of the puppeteers as these characters are subjected to ever-baser acts of deviation, let alone annihilation. Anybody who witnessed Peter Jackson’s second film, the anarchic 1989 Meet the Feebles, will know where this is coming from. No doubt the film will have its champions, while one scene – the ultimate ‘money shot’ – will go down in history alongside Jeff Daniels’ lavatorial affliction in Dumb and Dumber. Sweet.



Hotel Transylvania 3: A Monster Vacation  *

The oeuvre of Adam Sandler, in spite of the obscene amounts of money the actor has made, has not met with universal critical acclaim. To many, Sandler’s appeal remains inexplicable, and the second sequel to Hotel Transylvania (2012) is unlikely to win him any new disciples. A desperate attempt to capitalize on an already iffy scenario, A Monster Vacation hurls anything and everything at the screen in an emetic attempt to lure more bums on seats. The director of the first two outings, Genndy Tartakovsky – not to be confused with the Russian auteur Andrei Tarkovsky – is on record as saying, “two is enough – I have a lot of other ideas.” But after Hotel Transylvania 2 (2015) grossed $473.2 million worldwide, Tartakovsky found himself back in the driver’s seat and gamely grappling at straws.

Adam Sandler returns as the voice of Dracula, the count now being a hotelier for both the curious and the ghoulish. The twist, as revealed in the last film, is that the Vampire has now accepted the human race as equals and welcomes homo sapien guests to his castle. But his loving daughter Mavis (voiced by Selena Gomez), now married to a mortal dude, worries that her father is over-worked. So she arranges a surprise vacation for him and the family on a luxury cruise ship, whereupon the unsuspecting count finds himself at the mercy of his old adversary, Professor Van Helsing (Jim Gaffigan).

The computer animation here, even more so than in the previous films, seems entirely arbitrary, as if a mischievous child had hacked into the emoji drive of a motherboard and unleashed it on the world. Think of a contortionist’s vision of Salvador Dalí juggled with Francis Bacon and you will be in the right ballpark. The anything-goes, visually illogical result is like watching a bad dream come to life, supplemented by an over-bearing soundtrack peppered with familiar chart-topping hits. For those who think monsters dancing along to The Beach Boys’ Good Vibrations is the height of cinematic wit, then this may be for them. But in a golden age of animation, A Monster Vacation is like a shot of bile in your pint of nectar.



How to Talk to Girls at Parties  **1/2

Set in 1977 – the year of the Queen’s Silver Jubilee – this adaptation of the short story by Neil Gaiman celebrates punk, Croydon and what it means to be English. Taking a leaf out of the book of Joe Cornish’s hugely entertaining Attack the Block (2011), the film mixes London street cred and alien infiltration with a retro-amateur chic. As in the earlier film, Sarf London is visited by extraterrestrials who find that the locals are not so easily accommodated. Here, the aliens are given more screen time and are a bizarre species, having human form and a liking for Spandex and anal imposition. They don’t have long to complete their mission – just 48 hours – before setting off to another corner of the universe.

Our hero is ‘Enn’ (Alex Sharp), a young punk who still lives at home with his mum and longs for a decent rave. He hangs out with his mates John (Ethan Lawrence, a young James Corden type) and Vic (A.J. Lewis, a young Rik Mayall), who crash what they believe to be a groovy party at a house on the other side of the park. It’s actually a temporary rendezvous for the cosmic tourists, who are in the midst of an outré rites of passage. However, one of their number, the curious and innocent Zan (Elle Fanning), takes a liking to Enn and is given a “dispensation” to spend time with him. Enn has no idea that she’s not human and just sees an opportunity to get his leg over. Of course, he gets more than he bargained for…

While there are a number of incidental pleasures, the film feels strangely out of time. It is both futuristic and antiquated, the sort of thing Julien Temple might have knocked out after a bad trip. At its worst, it feels like a rejected episode of The Young Ones, at its best a free-spirited romp down memory lane. Fans of Matt Lucas might enjoy the sight of him in Lycra and a fright wig, but it’s an acquired taste. And then there’s Nicole Kidman. It’s a mystery to know what drew her to this project, other than the chance to flex yet another accent in her cosmopolitan repertoire. She plays a punk called Boadicea and gets to utter such gems as, “Shut yer gaping gob!” Poor Elle Fanning has even more demanded of her, and it’s not her most dignified appearance on film. She’s pictured on the loo “excreting pancakes,” encourages the erogenous attention to her armpits and has a habit of vomiting into people’s mouths. However, the American actress enters into the spirit of the thing with an admirable joie de vivre. Of course, the film has all the makings of a cult classic, if you like that sort of thing.



I Feel Pretty  **1/2

Basically, Renee Bennett (Amy Schumer) is in the wrong job. Stuck in a basement office in New York’s Chinatown, she works the “web traffic” for a high-end cosmetic empire. Staring at the beautiful and the lean all day long, her self-image is incrementally declining, if that’s possible. Then, at the gym, her exercise bike collapses under her weight and she suffers a nasty blow to the head. When she comes to, her perception of herself has been radically transformed: what she now sees in the mirror is a slimline stunner. Thanks to this metamorphosis, Renee’s self-confidence takes off, as does her love life, her career and her dopamine level. Of course, it’s all an illusion…

Famously, Baudelaire stated that, "genius is childhood recaptured at will.” Likewise, children thrive at being themselves, with no body-issues or a need to cripple themselves in high heels. It’s a sentiment that Renee arrives at only after being dragged through a multi-helix of narrative devices – id est, beauty is really just skin-deep. Amy Schumer, who has listed “self-deprecation” as one of her interests – along with “everyday life” and sex – would seem to be the perfect actress to play Renee in this concept comedy. She is certainly fearless when it comes to flaunting her cellulite and ‘plus-sized’ body and this material is right up her street.

Aimed squarely at the multiplex, I Feel Pretty could have – and should have – been so much better. Unfortunately, first-time directors Abby Kohn and Marc Silverstein – working from their own script – have plumbed for all the tropes of the generic sitcom, robbing the film of any genuine emotion. Michael Andrews' score can only manipulate the viewer so far before a sinking feeling of familiarity sets in. That said, there are some effective touches. Michelle Williams – the world’s most beautiful character actress – is a hoot as Avery LeClaire, the CEO of the company Renee works for. Avery is a knockout with her own insecurities, not least concerns about her voice, an octave below the helium level. Schumer is also very funny, although she fails to convince in her more dramatic scenes, disengaging the audience from the heart of the film. The story is also rather too predictable, not to say improbable, and might have worked better as a black comedy tackling mental psychosis.



In the Fade  ****

For anybody who’s had a child, In the Fade will strike a chord. The film first gained international attention at last year’s Cannes festival, when its star, Diane Kruger, won the best actress award. She is very good. Perhaps best known for her role as Helen in the Brad Pitt epic Troy, Kruger has spent her subsequent career typecast as unparalleled beauties. Here, she plays the wife of a reformed Kurdish drug dealer and the mother of his son, Rocco. She’s also heavily tattooed, snorts cocaine and smokes like a fireplace. And she’s even goofy, her early scenes with Rocco revealing a carefree mother in love with both of the men in her life.

Remarkably, Fatih Akin’s In the Fade marks the German-dialogue debut for Kruger, who’s acted in a wide range of films on both sides of the Atlantic. And In the Fade is a very German film. The central act of violence is deeply rooted in the crime of the twentieth century, an outrage that still informs the Germany character, for good or bad. And it’s brave of Fatih Akin, himself of Turkish descent, to embrace it here. Sadly, there are still bad Germans. Diane Kruger’s Katja Sekerci suspects neo-Nazis of the terrible crime that sends her life into freefall, and there’s plenty of evidence to implicate the known activists André and Edda Möller. Divided into three parts – The Family, Justice and The Sea – the film takes no easy shortcuts, leaving Katja herself to seek a very private route to redress and redemption.


Incredibles 2  ***1/2

It would be a brave sequel to give us less for second helpings. Alas, Incredibles 2 waters down the domestic detail to make way for even more superheroes à la Incredibles Assemble. The original cartoon, written and directed by Brad Bird in 2004, was a true original. It took the idea of a superhero who had to cope with the drudgery of everyday life, while married to a woman with equally awesome crime-fighting gifts. He was Mr Incredible, she was Elastigirl, and even their three kids had super powers – but they all had to keep their public personas under wraps. The film, which won the Oscar for best animated feature, was fresh, irreverent, imaginative, very funny and even thrilling (and, on occasion, quite moving).

The sequel, also written and directed by Brad Bird, takes off where the first one left off, in spite of a chronological gap of fourteen years. The Incredibles – the Parr family – are battling the Underminer, when Violet, the Parrs’ daughter, let slips her mask and is espied by Tony (Michael Bird, son of Brad), a boy from school she fancies. So, in a trice, poor Tony has his memory erased by a government official (Jonathan Banks) and even forgets who Violet is. Meanwhile, the Parrs fail to apprehend the Underminer, and although they save the destruction of City Hall, they are deprived of their legitimacy and are forced to go undercover with no financial aid. While Bob Parr (Craig T. Nelson) contemplates a new life of office drudgery, a hugely wealthy fan (Bob Odenkirk) suggests a stunt by Elastigirl (Holly Hunter) to resurrect the Parrs’ reputation, and that of all superheroes.

The plot thickens and a new villain emerges with an ingenious modus operandi. Displaying a canny skill for hypnotechnology, the unknown assailant hypnotizes anybody exposed to a television, monitor or specially modified goggles. Thus, every superhero comes under the command of ‘The Screenslaver,’ except those not subjected to a screen.

Incredibles 2, while posing as a cartoon for all the family, is actually dealing with some pretty sophisticated issues here: the subliminal manipulation by the media (in any form) as well as the gender divide as evinced by the parental duties of Mr and Mrs Incredible. With Helen Parr out-and-about getting a name for herself, Bob Parr is left at home coping with disciplinary issues and sleep deprivation. This is all great fun but the sequel is guilty of over-stretching itself. When Bob Parr discovers that their baby also has special skills, Brad Bird rather overdoes it. Little Jack-Jack has not one but seventeen superpowers, including the ability to leap between dimensions, to replicate himself innumerable times and to turn into a flaming monster. Throw in a bunch of new superheroes with their own skillset and the whole thing begins to get terribly wearying. Incredibles 2 barely stops to take breath, so that the few diversions from the main thrust of the narrative prove to be a welcome break. These include a comic showdown between Jack-Jack and a redoubtable raccoon, as well as a magnificent showhouse that pays tribute to Frank Lloyd Wright. More of the latter would have reaped dividends, but the accent is on the action, in keeping with all the other superhero movies that have congested the multiplex this year.



Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom  ****

Life will find a way. And as Jurassic World (2015) has become the fifth highest-grossing film in history, so will Hollywood. In the ominous words of Jeff Goldblum’s Ian Malcom, “we’ve entered a new era.” Yet the formula remains the same. There is an ageing billionaire philanthropist, a gutsy heroine, a charismatic hunk, an unscrupulous bureaucrat and a child. With J.A. Bayona taking over the directorial reins from Colin Trevorrow, the child factor was a given. Bayona brought us the original The Orphanage (2007), steered Tom Holland to stardom in The Impossible (2012) and wheedled an extraordinary performance out of Lewis MacDougall in A Monster Calls (2016). Here, he’s invested the viewer’s emotional stake in Isabella Sermon, who plays Maisie Lockwood, the granddaughter of James Cromwell’s tycoon. And there’s nothing more gripping than seeing a child in jeopardy…

However, there’s not much to hold onto emotionally at the start. The volcano on the island of Isla Nublar – the site of the Jurassic World theme park – has erupted and there’s much debate as to the ethics of rescuing and relocating the prehistoric residents – which, depending on your stance, are an artificial lifeform. Inevitably, the tree-huggers win out – thanks, in part, to the altruism of James Cromwell – and soon the scene is set for a monster movie crossed with a disaster epic. And so our protagonists find themselves beset by man-eating beasts, streams of incendiary magma, lava fireballs and the usual roster of trigger-happy bad guys. This is seat-wetting, popcorn excitement, but the human element has yet to emerge. The most heart-wrenching moment is when a moaning Brachiosaurus is consumed in a cloud of volcanic ash. Then, in the second act, the film gets up close and personal, but you’ll find no spoilers here…

Much like the later Planet of the Apes films, the Jurassic World franchise is a superior animal. Besides the astonishing effects – you’ll believe a reptile can fly – the little touches separate the series out from the mediocre. When animal behaviouralist Owen Grady (Chris Pratt) is reunited with Bryce Dallas Howard’s Claire Dearing, he compliments her over a beer with the line, “your skin looks nice.” It’s an arresting, well-intentioned observation, and an original note of flattery you’d never find in a Transformers film. Likewise, when a baby raptor leaps off a shelf of dinosaur figurines, it proves to be a fleeting jump-scare, but a classy one. The film is chock-full of stylish visual flourishes, although the adrenalin level is never entirely pumped. It is, nonetheless, a wonderful formula: a thrill-ride set in the present age and on our own planet. But with dinosaurs. Throw in lashings of sexy science and the magnetic appeal of Pratt and Howard, and you have a slice of breathless escapism that ticks all its boxes with aplomb. There’s also a new dinosaur – the unpitying Indoraptor, a terrifying fusion of Indominus Rex and Velociraptor – so your sleepless nights are guaranteed.



The Leisure Seeker  **1/2

The title refers not to an ageing hedonist but to an optimistically nicknamed Winnebago. Helen Mirren and Donald Sutherland are on a road trip from Massachusetts to Florida to visit the home of Ernest Hemingway, as one does. He’s almost gaga and drives on a sort of mental autopilot and she’s not entirely herself either, popping large blue pills whenever she remembers.

A Franco-Italian co-production, the film starts promisingly with the voice of Donald Trump declaring that “America is back!” However, any political satire is swiftly ignored as the film purrs along in neutral somewhere between National Lampoon’s Vacation and Driving Dame Helen. Dame Helen herself adopts a broad Southern accent, which is disorientating, while her glasses and wig recall Dustin Hoffman in Tootsie. Donald Sutherland, who’s yet to receive a single Oscar nomination in an illustrious career spanning half a century, is given little opportunity to shine and it’s hard to take either of them seriously. There are some mildly amusing moments, but the scenes of growing old disgracefully are interspersed with snatches of pathos that fail to hit home. There’s a running joke of Sutherland’s senile English professor boring sundry waitresses with impromptu lectures on Hemingway, a subject he seems more familiar with than the lives of his own children. Initially, the gag was funny.

The film is aimed squarely at the grey pound, but no amount of acting can prop up what is often a repetitive and implausible journey of self-discovery. Films about dementia are cropping up all over the place – Michael Haneke’s Amour being the chilling pièce de résistance – and a bit of humour on the subject was welcome. There’s no denying the new film’s sincerity or good intentions, but its folksy mien and stately direction (courtesy of the Italian filmmaker Paolo Virzì) does it – and its target audience – no favours.



Life of the Party  *

If there’s any life in this party, it’s not as we know it, Jim. Moments after her husband leaves her for an upgraded model, devoted housewife and doting mother Deanna Miles heads back to college to fulfil her vocation. And to really hurl the cat among the pigeons, she enrols at her own daughter’s alma mater. Then, taking a leaf out of Bluto Blutarsky's ledger – and all things Animal House – Deanna takes to the sorority life like a pig to the trough. Naturally, she’s an embarrassment to her daughter, but is a hit with the jocks, who are drawn to her fun-loving ways and ample bosom…

Comedy, however broad, requires some grounding in reality and an element of surprise if it is to muster a periodic smile. Co-scripted and co-produced by the husband-and-wife team of Ben Falcone and Melissa McCarthy, and directed by the former and starring the latter, Life of the Party occupies a parallel universe of sitcom caricatures. This is a world in which many of the students look way beyond graduation age (Deanne’s roommate is played by the 34-year-old actress Heidi Gardner) and the rest are improbably super-gorgeous babes. The latter are required to do little than look amazed, but exaggerated reaction shots will only get a comedy so far. Following the similarly themed Back to School (with Rodney Dangerfield), Billy Madison (with Adam Sandler) and Jack (with Robin Williams), the film is not even original. Melissa McCarthy really needs to change her shtick, while her one-note, whiny delivery is becoming exasperating. Throw in Fil Eisler’s pointless muzakal score and you have one of the laziest, grindingly unfunny and most dispiriting films of the year.



Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again  ***1/2

Once upon a time, Meryl Streep was a very, very beautiful Oxford graduate called Donna. In the sequel-cum-prequel to Mamma Mia! (2008), the highest-grossing musical of its time, the young Donna is played by Lily James with a faultless American accent. Having cemented her academic foundations, Donna decides that, “life is short, the world is wide, and I want to make some memories.” So she sets off from Oxford for the City of Light and tumbles into bed with Harry, a charming, gauche English lad (the delightfully funny Hugh Skinner). More dalliances follow (Josh Dylan as Bill, Jeremy Irvine as Sam), until Donna finds herself in a coastal Greek paradise where her real love turns out to be a tumble-down villa overlooking the Aegean. Cue I Have a Dream (“If you see the wonder of a fairy tale/You can take the future even if you fail/I believe in angels…”).

These early scenes certainly tick the boxes required of any musical: a high quotient of joy, romantic aspirations, lots of fun and terrific musical numbers. And, if you’re happy to sing along to Abba’s greatest hits, you’re halfway there. The sequel also has some irresistible assets: Lily James, the Croatian landscape (standing in for Greece), dashing you men with their shirts off, a tsunami of feel-good energy and some marvellous supporting turns. Skinner is wonderful as the young Harry, and as the younger versions of Julie Walters and Christine Baranski, both Alexa Davies and Jessica Keenan Wynn are priceless. There’s also the addition of Richard Curtis, who added some of his magic to the script, and a show-stopping turn from Cher as the world’s most glamorous grandmother.

Ultimately, the new film’s virtues leapfrog over the mechanical kitsch of the original and with the aura of Richard Curtis hovering over this dream-fest, one feels that one might be witnessing it all for the first time (with many future helpings on DVD and TV to come). It is all superbly realised by writer-director Ol Parker (he who penned The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel), whose elegant segues between the past and present narratives are simply masterly, while the choreography of Anthony Van Laast is sublime. Yet amongst all the nostalgia and bonhomie, there’s a poignant nod to the Greek economy, while the fact that Donna is actually a slut is papered over by the young woman’s endearing appetite for life (winningly realised by Ms James). So, if the raison d'être of a musical is to bring jubilant escapism to a mass audience, Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again punches above its weight.



The Meg  ***

As illustrated by the BBC/Discovery Channel series The Blue Planet and its sequel, we still know surprisingly little about the bottom of our oceans. Where we once thought it impossible for life forms to exist, we now know that organisms of every shape, colour and size thrive in seemingly inhospitable worlds. In short, nature will find a way. In this Sino-American co-production adapted from the novel by Steve Alten, oceanographers discover that the Mariana Trench is not the deepest place on earth. Two hundred miles off the Chinese coast, a submersible penetrates the ocean floor to find it is merely a thermal cloud, beneath which exists a whole new ecosystem. There, the three crew members also discover the presence of a creature the size of a blue whale, albeit with a really bad attitude. It is in fact a megalodon, thought to have been extinct for millions of years. Time to call for Jason Statham.

Jason Statham is in his element in cheesy big-budget B-movies, but as a former competitive diver (he competed for England at the 1990 Commonwealth Games), he is also in his element in the water. Here, the 51-year-old gets to exhibit his considerable aquatic finesse along with a torso that no man in his fifties should be entitled to. But his six-pack is not the only eye candy on view: all three of the female scientists in the film (Li Bingbing, Ruby Rose and Jessica McNamee) could pass for supermodels.

Inevitably, Jon Turteltaub’s The Meg will be compared to another film about a shark, released back in 1975 – and it doesn’t hold up well. It is formulaic, predictable and contrived, and like the recent Skyscraper, it vies for the title of most ludicrous popcorn blockbuster of the summer. However, while it lacks the innovation, atmosphere and suspense of Steven Spielberg’s classic, it does have its share of jump scares and delivers on a purely primal level. Certainly, at the screening I attended, the children were screaming their heads off, but then this isn’t a children’s film. It does have a 12A certificate – for “bloody moments and action violence.” Be warned, there will be severed limbs. But grown-ups should have little to fear, as The Meg features nothing but stock characters, while a measure of the film’s intelligence is demonstrated by the closing song, the 1979 ‘Mickey’, covered here by the Thai singer Pim. Quite what the lyrics have to do with anything is anybody’s guess: “Hey, Mickey, Hey, Hey, Hey Mickey.” Right.



Mission Impossible – Fallout  ****1/2

The proviso is in the title. Even so, however impossible the escapades get, there is always enough high-tech ingenuity and universal immediacy for the viewer to suspend disbelief. Here, the sixth film in the M:I franchise – itself wrenched from the 1966-1973 TV series – sets up the plot nicely by establishing an enemy that is at once despicable and recognisable. The agency’s mission, should they decide to accept it, is to disable a terrorist splinter cell whose objective is to wreak havoc on the world’s stage. And there’s also the ruthless anarchist Solomon Lane (a gleefully unintelligible Sean Harris), who mutters the chilling mantra: “The greater the suffering, the greater the peace.” Then, following a bungled rendezvous between Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) and a gang of slippery intermediaries, three plutonium bombs go missing. In the next scene, on the evening news, we see the full extent of the damage: shots of Rome, Jerusalem and Mecca in ruins.

Just as one settles down comfortably for another express ride of staggering stunts and narrative sleight of hand, one is reminded why this franchise stands head and shoulders above the rest. Like a turbo-charged chess tournament, the film out-manoeuvres the expectations of the bad guys as well as the audience. Mixing thrills, horror and fun with spectacular vistas of Paris, London and Kashmir, the film, in spite of a running time of 147 minutes, barely pauses for breathe. Yet, when it does, every second counts. A fleeting Paris encounter between Hunt and the enigmatic operative Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson) proves to be a virtually one-sided conversation as Hunt answers his own questions by reading Ilsa’s face. It’s a throwaway, but is a measure of the intelligence of Christopher McQuarrie’s script.

Christopher McQuarrie wrote and directed the last instalment, Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation (2015), and it’s no surprise that he’s the only director to be asked back for more of the same. Rogue Nation was the best of the bunch and grossed almost $683 million worldwide. McQuarrie also directed Cruise in Jack Reacher (2012), arguably the actor’s most intelligent action-thriller, and he won an Oscar for his script to The Usual Suspects (1995). Here, he engineers the mounting adrenalin rush of the plot with the skill of a Formula One champ, gently applying the brake here and then pumping the accelerator for the final finish. We barely have time to admire the dazzling locations, accomplished costume design or consummate supporting performances (Angela Bassett, Michelle Monaghan and especially Vanessa Kirby). But it’s the action scenes that audiences will lap up and they don’t come more electrifying than this, be it a punch-up in a Kubrickian, all-white men’s lavatory to a chase that reduces Paris to an outsize dodgems track. For pure escapism, Mission: Impossible – Fallout provides the best value per minute of the summer.



Ocean’s Eight  ***1/2

The great heistmeisters of history have always been men. But in the Ocean family, crime runs in the DNA. So now that Danny Ocean is dead and Debbie Ocean is on parole, the mother of all heists is ready for enactment. Debbie Ocean (Sandra Bullock) has had five years, eight months and twelve days to plan the minutia of this particular operation. All she needs now is to recruit her crew – with one proviso. “A ‘him’ gets noticed,” she argues, “but a ‘her’ gets ignored.” So she sets about enlisting an all-female support act. And what a motley crew they are: Australia’s Cate Blanchett, the Indian-American Mindy Kaling, the rapper Awkwafina (of Chinese and South Korean heritage), Rihanna of Barbados and an occasionally Irish-accented Helena Bonham Carter. Their goal: to steal an antique diamond necklace worth $150 million.

Due to its value, the necklace has been buried behind five-feet of solid concrete in a Cartier vault in New York. The plan is to get it round the neck of the fashion icon Daphne Kluger (Anne Hathaway), who happens to be co-hosting the Met Gala, the most exclusive invitation-only party in the USA. The event is such a big deal that it merited its own documentary, The First Monday in May, which featured Rihanna – the real Rihanna – in the most famous gown of the 21st century (Guo Pei's so-called ‘omelette dress’). And the necklace, even if Daphne Kluger can convince Cartier to release it for the occasion, comes with its own security detail and a magnetically activated release switch. Still, where there’s a will…

Since Debbie was incarcerated for fraud almost six years ago, technology has come a long way. But while banks may be more secure, there are hackers like ‘Nine-Ball’ (a ganja-belching Rihanna in dreadlocks) who can work miracles with a laptop. And these women have brains as well as chutzpah. The scene in which Debbie wafts into a high-end Manhattan store (Bergdorf Goodman) and walks out with a bagful of goodies is an act of mind-expanding chicanery. But you’d need her balls to pull it off.

Since the Ocean’s trilogy grossed $1.17 billion worldwide, and, according to one report, movies about women have, on average, grossed $45.5 million more than recent films about men, a gender re-boot made commercial sense. And with this line-up of Oscar-endorsed actresses and fashion dignitaries (Anna Wintour plays herself), the film exudes nothing if not class. Even if such shenanigans fail to rock your boat, there are plenty of peripheral pleasures. Whether it’s an English insurance-fraud investigator impishly embodied by James Corden or a Delacroix masterpiece given a gender switch by Banksy, it’s all a sleekly entertaining, if slightly guilty pleasure.

Coincidental or not, the crowning scene of triumph is set to Nancy Sinatra belting out ‘These Boots Are Made for Walkin'’, Nancy being the daughter of Frank Sinatra, star of the original Ocean’s Eleven (back in 1960). Either way, it’s a worthy climax to this ritzy, classy hymn to female empowerment which slips down like a goji sorbet.



On Chesil Beach  ****

Ian McEwan’s Booker-nominated novella was never going to be make an easy transition to the screen. It is, in effect, a two-hour love scene between two newlyweds punctuated by a series of flashbacks. However, in this adaptation, scripted by McEwan himself, and marking the film debut of the stage director Dominic Cooke, it is a delicately realised thing with enormous emotional power. A quintessentially English drama set in the summer of 1962 – on the cusp of the sexual revolution – it is a meticulously crafted piece that pulsates with nuance and telling detail. Edward Mayhew (Billy Howle) has just received a first in his history exam, an achievement of little moment to his mother and two sisters. So, on a whim, he takes the bus to Oxford and tells the first person he sets eyes on. She is Florence Ponting (Saoirse Ronan), a young violinist whose background is in sharp contrast to Edward’s. It is an immediate attraction of opposites and so the two innocents plunge headlong into an affair that leads to their wedding day.

Cooke applies a gossamer touch to his romance and the film might prove too gentle, too fastidious for popular taste. Nonetheless, for anybody who has had sex, or can recall his or her first encounter with physical intimacy, the film is a plangent and even excruciating experience. At a time when audiences are exposed to so much noise, fast-cutting and the bleeding obvious, a film of such intelligence and courageous restraint is a rare pleasure. Whether it’s the fleeting image of Edward’s mother (Anne-Marie Duff) smelling Florence’s hair or a shot of Edward’s trembling foot, the film smoulders like a scented candle that really burns. Yet again, Saoirse Ronan delivers a performance of astonishing resonance, while the rest of the cast is all top-notch. It might have been prudent to excise the last ten minutes but, nonetheless, the overall effect – if you are prepared to swim with it – is extraordinarily poignant.



Puzzle  ****

The puzzle in question is of the jigsaw variety. It is one of the few pleasures that Agnes allows herself, in between caring for her husband, and her two sons, all the cooking, the housework and her commitments to the church. Somehow, by arranging all these myriad cardboard shapes into their correct order gives Agnes a sense of control, of finding a way to complete the puzzle of her life. As the film opens, we see her preparing for a birthday party: arranging the decorations, hanging the banners, baking the cake. Unfolding in upstate New York, the scene has the aura of a Norman Rockwell painting, a depiction of a homely, bygone era. Then, two things hurl us into the slipstream of the story: we find out that Agnes has been preparing her own birthday party and that, besides a 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle, she is given an iPhone. However, it is the first present that inadvertently leads Agnes to a new life…

Marc Turtletaub’s Puzzle, from a screenplay by Oren Moverman, is an American remake of the 2010 Argentine film Rompecabezas. Like such modest classics as The Lacemaker, the Brazilian Hour of the Star and the more recent Daphne, it is a timeless character study of a woman side-lined by life. Agnes certainly has the measure of her routine, counting down the seconds until her alarm clock goes off, silently mouthing in advance the predictable platitudes that emanate from her blob of a husband (David Denman). She is of another time, she is even naïve, but she is not stupid. And, then, on a whim, she starts to succumb to her whims…

The film is not unlike its protagonist. Its wider ambitions materialise slowly and while it seems to occupy a modest, even safe mind-set, it has the intelligence to feed out its story in its own time, without pandering to the impatient. The result, then, is a splatter of surprises, as our heroine gathers courage to pursue her own dreams and to find her own voice. As Agnes, the Glasgow-born Kelly Macdonald is delightful, plausible and childlike, grabbing the reins of this star-making opportunity with quiet conviction. From her film debut in Trainspotting (1996), Ms Macdonald has carved out an impressive portfolio (No Country for Old Men, Swallows and Amazons, Goodbye Christopher Robin) without gaining international stardom. However, nobody could have predicted Sally Hawkins’ sudden Hollywood supremacy, so why not Kelly Macdonald? It’s about bloody time.



A Quiet Place  *****

It is proving to be a golden age for the horror film and John Krasinski’s A Quiet Place has just cranked up the genre another notch. Yet the premise of his movie – from a story by Bryan Woods and Scott Beck – is so simple. To save their lives, the protagonists must not make a sound. Here, the world has been invaded by an advanced life form, a high-speed killing machine which, although sightless, is abetted by a supernatural sense of hearing.

As in the recent It Comes at Night (2017), a nuclear family has holed itself up in a remote farmhouse the best to protect themselves from this novel, largely unseen threat. With virtually no dialogue, the film conveys everything it needs to in elegant narrative strokes, aided by newspaper headlines and the notes that Lee (Krasinski) has scribbled to himself on a whiteboard in the family cellar.

The film grips from the outset and instantly reduces the audience to an unfamiliar hush – so much so, that even a gulp from your neighbour might be deemed intrusive. You, like the characters on screen, had better not make a sound. Then, once Krasinski has lured us into an uneasy, breathless state of suspended animation, he unleashes the dogs of hell. Let’s just say that the suspense is unremitting.

John Krasinski, who previously directed the comedy-dramas Brief Interviews with Hideous Men and The Hollars, is one skilful manipulator. That is, he understands the tools of his trade. He recognises that cinema is predominantly a visual medium and has kept all talk to a minimum. He also exhibits uncommon courage by allowing the film’s lengthy silences to cast their own otherworldly spell. He has selected his actors well, too. As Lee, he cuts a dependable, sympathetic figure – the strong silent type (well, he would have to be, wouldn’t he?). As Lee’s wife Evelyn, Krasinski has cast his own wife, Emily Blunt, but has played down her sex appeal in favour of a more earthy, maternal look. But his great stroke of inspiration is to introduce the character of Regan, Lee and Evelyn’s daughter, who is deaf. While Regan is already familiar with the silent world in which her family has been plunged, she is the most vulnerable of all as she is unaware of the sounds that she herself makes. In a fluke of cinema distribution, the deaf actress Millicent Simmonds pops up in her second film this week, as she also plays the deaf girl in Todd Haynes’ enchanting Wonderstruck. Finally, there’s the twelve-year-old English actor Noah Jupe, who is proving to be something of a lucky charm for his directors. He was Matt Damon’s son in George Clooney’s Suburbicon, a consummate exercise in black comedy, and he was also in the Julia Roberts weepie Wonder, a veritable box-office hit and a canny, heart-wrenching commentary of what it is to be ‘different.’ And now he’s in the best horror film of the year.

A Quiet Place is that rare thing: an original genre piece with credible, sympathetic characters and that is also very, very scary.



Racer and the Jailbird  **

The English title of the Franco-Belgian crime drama Le Fidèle makes it sound like a Peter Fonda B-movie. However, the film noir pretensions of Michaël R. Roskam's shaggy love story are much more serious. Yes, it’s a love story, of sorts, but one in which the protagonists spend precious little screen time together. She is a racing driver, he a career criminal, but on their first meeting they click, make a date and make out. If only it had stayed that way. But any relationship, however new and exciting, needs a basis in trust and although ‘Gigi’ (Matthias Schoenaerts) laughingly tells Bibi (Adèle Exarchopoulos) that he robs banks, he can’t keep up the charade. Instead, he fabricates a job title involving “imports and exports,” and Bibi smells a rat. For a romantic thriller to engage its audience, it needs to establish a shorthand between its two leads and a perfunctory romp in front of a fireplace doesn’t do the trick. Then Gigi is lured by his volatile associates into ‘one last heist’ and we are left with an odious whiff of familiarity. As a heist movie, Le Fidèle is decidedly below par, while the fireworks between Schoenaerts and Exarchopoulos don’t exactly ignite. The latter’s amour with Léa Seydoux in Blue is the Warmest Colour (2013) was considerably more persuasive. Then the film gets bogged down in elaborate narrative detours and, at 130 minutes, it fails to reward our tolerance.



Red Sparrow  *

Oh, why, Jennifer, why? Following an astonishing cinematic trajectory from Winter’s Bone (2010) to last year’s Mother! – via an Oscar for Silver Linings Playbook – Jennifer Lawrence ends up in Moscow with a black eye. She has a black eye – and worse – because she’s been pummelled, raped, beaten, tortured and slashed with a knife while managing to retain a pretty persuasive Russian accent. She also takes her clothes off with the frequency of a young Nicole Kidman and spent four months learning to dance like a Bolshoi ballerina. And, if she’s not disrobing, she’s being forcibly stripped by others in this Cold War spy thriller that recalls the worst of previous Hollywood efforts Gorky Park and The Russia House.

It’s the sort of movie in which a character pops into Budapest on his way to Vienna in order to have an unannounced five-minute chat with his niece. Lucky she was in when he called. Then two operatives – who are not meant to be in contact with each other – make out in front of a window facing the street. And every time a well-known British face turns up with a Russian accent, it’s hard not to suppress a giggle. Only the Belgian actor Matthias Schoenaerts looks genuinely Russian, if only for a startling resemblance to Vladimir Putin. Yet it’s all terribly low-key, as if straining for a mien of credibility, à la John le Carré. But it’s more comatose than understated. One craves for a Bourne-like injection of kick-ass vitality, if only to alleviate the endless whispering and clandestine encounters. After the cosmopolitan authenticity of TV’s McMafia, it feels as legitimate as a Russian athlete.

JLaw plays Dominika Egorova, a ballerina who is persuaded by her seedy uncle (Schoenaerts) to work for the Russian Intelligence, in order to finance the medical demands of her ailing mother (Joely Richardson). And so she’s sent off to “whore school” (her words) – run by a draconian Charlotte Rampling – in order to become a ‘red sparrow’, a secret agent trained to use her physical wiles to seduce a potential target. And so the plot chugs into gear, involving a liaison with a CIA agent (Joel Edgerton) who has a mole in the Kremlin. In fact, there’s an awful lot of narrative in Red Sparrow, but not a jot of it rings true.

It’s difficult to comprehend what Jennifer Lawrence saw in the part, other than to build on her professional rapport with Francis Lawrence, who directed her in the last three Hunger Games films. She certainly gives it her all, submitting herself to a series of highly unpleasant and humiliating torture scenes. Sadly, though, the film hardly merits her commitment.



Redoubtable  **1/2

Michel Hazanavicius’s biography of the enfant terrible Jean-Luc Godard is not unlike Godard’s own film career. The latter exploded onto the scene in 1959 with the fresh, modern and playful À Bout de Souffle, and, as with Orson Welles, it was downhill from there. Hazanavicius, who won an Oscar for The Artist (2011), takes up the Godard story in 1967, when the latter had just fallen head-over-heels for the 19-year-old actress Anne Wiazemsky. By adapting his screenplay from Wiazemsky's memoir Un an après, Hazanavicius allows Godard and Wiazemsky to take turns in narrating their own story, with Wiazemsky showering her new lover with praise via a seductive voice-over. She was particularly drawn, she tells us, to his reputation and to his work, which she called “impertinent, free, wild, charming and unpredictable.” Indeed, at the time, he was a god on the cultural circuit and was idolized, we are told, by The Beatles, Jean Renoir and The Rolling Stones. Then there is the man. Ah, the man. While Hazanavicius’s camera dotes on the gamine features of the Anglo-French actress Stacy Martin as Wiazemsky, he turns on his male protagonist with a vengeance.

Godard, who denounced his own early masterpieces in the wake of the student unrest of 1968, here becomes cruel, selfish, insensitive, sour and ungracious. More a political beast than a cultural animal, he antagonises his admirers and friends while pursuing a vague agenda in which to untangle the problems of China, Vietnam, Yemen and the rest of a troubled world. Unfortunately, Hazanavicius’s film becomes as tedious as his subject, a man who, incidentally, is very much alive and has a new film, The Image Book, competing at this year's Cannes festival.

The film is not without humour and Mlle Martin is delightful as the young flower crushed by the weight of her husband’s existential guilt. And Hazanavicius, like the young Godard, has his playful moments, as in the sequence when Godard and Wiazemsky criticize the way directors exploit their performers by insisting that they take their clothes off for no reason – a frivolous scene acted entirely in the nude. Unfortunately, there is not enough of this and Godard becomes a caricature of the intellectual bore and not a credible, breathing human being with a reason to fight his own corner. Film buffs may be drawn to the material, but less cinephilic viewers may wonder what they’ve let themselves in for.



Sherlock Gnomes  **


Some national treasures are not meant to mix. Here we have a film executive produced by Elton John, complete with a slew of his greatest hits, propping up a story featuring Shakespeare’s star-cross’d lovers and Conan Doyle’s iconic detective. Throw in the voice talents of Dame Maggie Smith, Sir Michael Caine and Ozzy Osbourne and you have the recipe for a cultural Hiroshima. A sequel to 2011’s Gnomeo and Juliet, the cartoon switches its locale to London where the gnomes now have to make do with a much smaller garden and where Juliet and Gnomeo are put in charge. The former (Emily Blunt) takes her new responsibility very seriously, whereas Gnomeo (James McAvoy) just wants to bask in the honeymoon glow of their affaire de cœur. However, their clash of priorities is put to one side when all the garden ornaments go missing thanks to the dastardly plan of Moriarty (Jamie Demetriou), a baby-faced pie mascot with evil in his plastic coating. Of course, it’s all a wheeze to bamboozle Sherlock (Johnny Depp), the “sworn protector of London’s garden gnomes.”

With the puns flying thick and fast – it’s a wonder Sherlock doesn’t proclaim, “it’s ornamental, my dear Watson” – the film aims to appeal both to children and adults. At the outset, one gnome suggests Game of Gnomes might make a good sequel, but Sherlock is whom we get while we await future editions starring Robert Downey Jr and Benedict Cumberbatch. And so we are promised a “tale of suspense, intrigue and mystery,” which is fine if you’re a lawn figurine, less so if you’re a grown-up cinemagoer. There’s enough action and colourful characters to distract the very young, but the level of wit and charm is decidedly under-par. The musical cues are hackneyed, the dialogue uninspiring and the story, cooked up by four different writers, a little too congested for its own good. Still, the animation is bright and the assembled vocal talents on top form, with Johnny Depp proving to be surprisingly accomplished in the title role. However, in light of the sophistication of current computer animation, the film is hardly a cause for celebration.



Show Dogs  **

It is the silly season. As the studios parade their big-budget sequels (and offshoots), films like Show Dogs are slipped into cinemas to mop up any stray viewers. And, in the aftermath of Cannes, these are tragic times. Show Dogs is a CGI/live-action romp featuring a Rottweiler called Max (voiced by the rapper-cum-actor Chris ‘Ludacris’ Bridges). Max is also a police dog, a proud foot soldier of the NYPD, who ends up in Vegas on the scent of an animal-smuggling racket. To infiltrate the Ukrainian ring of criminals (and one English thug, natch), Max poses as a competitor at the world-famous Canini Invitational dog show. It’s a little beneath his dignity, but it’s all part of the job…

Show Dogs is not a sophisticated comedy. There is a pervading sense of silliness embraced by the supporting players, a ribald sense of humour perpetrated by the canine cast (who doesn’t love a flatulent Rottweiler?) and a clichéd music score to set your teeth – your canines? – on edge. Plus there are plenty of puns; oh, the puns…

To be honest, it’s bit of a dog’s dinner, but it would take a churlish critic to whip a sick dog. One should make allowances, particularly for a film aimed at the very young. It is directed by Raja Gosnell, who is in his element here, having brought us the low art of Scooby-Doo, Scooby-Doo 2, The Smurfs, The Smurfs 2 and Beverly Hills Chihuahua, among other gems. Pity poor Will Arnett, then, who is given the thankless task of playing the straight man opposite Max,  along with former child star Natasha Lyonne as the damsel-in-distress. Even the CGI is decidedly below par, with a tiger an unconvincing creation compared to his Bengal cousin devised for a certain Ang Lee film. Still, the big cat gets the last laugh when, enjoying one of the attractions of Vegas, he cries out, “this is the life of Pi!” At least Show Dogs knows its limitations.



Sicario 2: Soldado  ****

Twenty years ago, the most valuable commodity smuggled across the US-Mexican border was cocaine. Today, it’s people. The eminently dispensable migrants now fetch $1000 a head, but Islamic terrorists are an even more profitable proposition. Following a series of suicide bombings inside the US, CIA agent Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) is given carte blanche to stem the problem – by turning the Mexican cartels against each other… Whereas Denis Villeneuve's Sicario of 2015 surveyed the cartel problem through the eyes of a female SWAT officer (Emily Blunt), the sequel, also scripted by Taylor Sheridan, introduces two teenagers as witness to the infernal horrors on the border. One is the spunky schoolgirl Isabela Reyes (Isabela Moner, excellent), the daughter of a drug tsar who becomes a pawn in a dangerous game of abduction. The other is a Mexican-American boy who sees his rites-of-passage to manhood is to learn to kill without compunction. Benicio Del Toro returns as Alejandro Gillick, the eponymous sicario – or hitman – who is recruited by Graver to help kick-start a civil war, being that he has few qualms about killing Mexicans. However, as the undercover subterfuge unfolds, Gillick develops a conscience, while his opposite – Graver – ends up annihilating 25 Mexican cops. Let’s just say it gets messy. Under the direction of Italy’s  Stefano Sollima (best known for the TV series Gomorrah), the film takes on an even darker tone than the original and moves a good sight faster. It is also intensely timely, adding an ominous kick to the gut as the Mexican refugees are rendered as increasingly disposable, while children are exploited as bargaining chips. It’s not an easy watch, with the moral lines artfully blurred, casting the Americans in a not entirely sympathetic light. It’s also a consummately executed piece, justifying favourable expectations for a rousing finale to this pertinent, hard-hitting trilogy.



Skyscraper  **1/2

It’s not looking good. Will Sawyer (Dwayne Johnson) is in a foreign country and the world’s safest, tallest building is on fire. He’s the only guy on earth who can stop the blaze, but he’s also become a wanted man. Framed for multi-billion arson, he’s become target practice for the entire Hong Kong police force. However, the real baddies – led by the muscle-bound, cold-blooded great Dane Roland Møller – also want Will dead because, against the odds, he still thinks he can put out the fire. However, Will’s main concern is that his wife and two adorable children are picture-perfect and oven-ready. Yep, they happen to be the only residents trapped in this vertiginous conflagration. But his real problem is that he only has one leg. Really?

Dwayne Johnson – aka The Rock – has found himself in some pretty hair-raising scrapes, but this really takes the biscuit. It’s a shame that the title Worst Case Scenario has already been taken by a 2014 German comedy, as it’s a perfect appellation for this big-budget disaster epic. Of course, the real star of the film is the eponymous Pearl, a structure that looms out of Hong Kong harbour like a Tolkienesque sceptre, a high-tech edifice three times the height of the Empire State Building. It’s also full of nifty environmental byways, stunning apartments and a virtual reality space that resembles a space-age hall of mirrors (handy for any climactic shoot-out). Described as a Fort Knox of the sky, it is just asking for trouble: the bigger the prize, the bigger the temptation for unconscionable terrorists. The latter cadre even boasts a trigger-happy Chinese supermodel with the morality of a rattlesnake. She certainly looks familiar.

To make any of this ring true, you would need a director with the skill of a Christopher Nolan or a Denis Villeneuve. As it is, writer-director Rawson Marshall Thurber, who brought us the knockabout Dodgeball, We're the Millers and Central Intelligence (the last-named with Dwayne Johnson), has opted for hokum mode, with the dialogue to match. When somebody says, “I’ve got to get you guys out of the building,” it’s, well, kind of bleeding obvious. There are many such howlers and a general air of B-movie silliness that undermines any hope of credibility. Still, there’s a nice camaraderie between Johnson and Neve Campbell as his ass-kicking wife. He: “I love you.” She: “You better.” Furthermore, the script’s proliferation of worst fears builds up to keep one vaguely anxious: a towering inferno, heartless mercenaries, dizzying altitudes, misappropriated technology and a young boy with asthma (natch). But this runaway express ride of potential horror should do more than keep us mildly engaged.



The Spy Who Dumped Me  **     

As the interminable wait for the next Johnny English spy spoof draws to a close (Johnny English Strikes Again opens October 5), there’s The Spy Who Dumped Me to be getting on with. Unlike Johnny English, though, this slapstick slice of sadism is geared towards an older demographic. It’s an echo of 2015’s Spy, in which an American amateur in Europe – Melissa McCarthy’s desk-bound CIA analyst – sorts the men from the double agents. Here, though, we get two whacky Americans for the price of one, as life-long friends and soulmates Audrey and Morgan end up in Vienna, Berlin and Prague fighting for their lives. In the movies, Americans go to Europe for two reasons: to fall in love and to shoot stuff up. In recent years, Paris has been rented out to Hollywood as a makeshift motor-racing circuit, but here those all-too-familiar Uzi-wielding assassins on motorbikes in black leather get to thrash the streets of the Austrian capital. Paris pops up, too, with more inevitable gunfire and shenanigans.

We start off in Los Angeles, though, where Audrey (Mila Kunis) is reeling from the shock of being dumped by her boyfriend, Drew (Justin Theroux), by text. What she doesn’t know is that he’s actually working for the CIA and broke up with her to save her life. He is being chased by unknown assailants and begs Audrey to flee to Vienna with his fantasy football trophy and hand it over to his CIA contact there. So Audrey and Morgan, now wanted by the police for murder (it’s complicated), go straight to the airport to head for Austria. In the process, they become involved in a labyrinthine plot with an escalating body count and increasing duplicity.

Of late, the Ukrainian-born Mila Kunis has cornered the market in playing madcap, can-do, spunky and rather risqué women. Here, she’s joined by the even funnier Kate McKinnon (Ghostbusters, Office Christmas Party, etc) to create a double-act bursting with comic potential. At times they resemble Laurel & Hardy trapped in an Austin Powers spoof directed by Quentin Tarantino. However, in spite of some amusing dialogue (Morgan: “Mom, did you get the dick pics I sent you?”) and the occasional audacious gag (at one point Edward Snowden comes to the rescue), the film is so silly and ridiculous – and frequently unpleasant – that any fun or excitement is relinquished. Even farce needs some rooting in reality and The Spy Who Dumped Me keeps the pantomime upfront. We know that Audrey is a shop assistant, so taking the first plane to Vienna without so much as a flinch is a stretch. And the exotic, icy female assassin (the Ukrainian-born Ivanna Sakhno) who kills anybody for no reason is a cliché. Still, the Scottish actor Sam Heughan makes a promising impression as the romantic interest, while Gillian Anderson is suitably straight-faced as MI6’s top brass in Paris. If only everybody else had followed their lead.



Tag  *1/2

Don’t be fooled. The opening legend “inspired by a true story” is about as relevant as the credit for Jon Hamm’s chauffeur. The Lion King was inspired by Hamlet, but that failed to warrant an acknowledgement. Notwithstanding, for fans of The Hangover, this witless tribute to middle-aged American men behaving like children might appeal. In the words of George Bernard Shaw, "we don't stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing" (although, in the film, the quote is misattributed to Benjamin Franklin). And hence the raison d'être for this juvenile, cumbersome comedy.

The pastime in question is the eponymous, sophisticated game of ‘tag,’ in which one participant has to make physical contact with another player and say, “you’re it.” In the movie version of this epic pursuit, the contenders are a predictably diverse bunch (not the overweight white guys we see during the closing credits). There’s the square-jawed CEO of a multinational corporation (Jon Hamm), the bong-chugging divorcee loser (Jake Johnson), the athletic fitness guru over-achiever (Jeremy Renner channelling Jason Bourne), a doctor with a PhD (Ed Helms) and the token black friend (Hannibal Buress).

In the movie version, the game means so much to these men that they use each other’s seminal moments in life to gain one-upmanship: disrupting funerals, weddings and even childbirth in order to attain the upper hand. It helps that these morons appear to have no money problems, and are loyally supported by their womenfolk, because life is just a game, right? And so there’s all sorts of criminal damage to property, including the demolition of a stained-glass church window.

All this might have been bearable had there been a modicum of credibility, such as that injected into the recent black comedy Game Night (2018), which achieved an entertaining balance of humour, suspense and make-believe. But besides the hackneyed comic riffs, the banal sound effects and the lazy continuity, Tag is just offensive: not least when four of their number set out to waterboard an innocent bystander, sabotage an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting and litter a churchyard with hundreds of carefully set mousetraps. They’re also a profoundly obnoxious bunch but with enough of an approximation in real life to make their antics deeply upsetting.

The only character with a note of redemption is the outsider, a reporter for The Wall Street Journal, who serves both as a conduit for the viewer and as female eye candy, played by the Oxford-born Annabelle Wallis. Even though the film flits all over the US, Wallis pops up at convenient intervals to provide the requisite astonishment for us, the audience. Eventually her story was written up for the newspaper, although the real writer was Russell Adams, who was not as good-looking. What the real guys got up to – including the funereal intrusion – makes for fascinating reading. It should also make a very funny documentary.



Tully  ****1/2

There’s a scene in Jason Reitman’s Tully in which Charlize Theron, as Marlo, takes her shirt off. Her eight-year-old daughter, Sarah, played by Lia Frankland, stares at her and asks, “Mom, what’s wrong with your body?” Later, Marlo herself laments, “my body looks like a relief map of a war-torn country.” To prepare for her role as the profoundly pregnant mother of two, Ms Theron – an international symbol of female perfection – piled on three stone. She set her alarm for 2 a.m. just so that she could cram in another helping of macaroni cheese. But Marlo is more than just a bloated, sweating domestic war zone – she’s also a funny, compassionate, intelligent and beautiful woman. Following her turns as various sleekly proportioned ice queens in films like Atomic Blonde, Fast & Furious 8 and Gringo, Charlize Theron reminds us here how good she can be with the help of a director like Reitman, who steered her to justified acclaim in his 2011 comedy Young Adult. In the latter film, she played a smart, literate and insanely beautiful chick-lit writer with a monstrous cruel streak. She was deliriously funny. The film, too, was smart, moving, deft and constantly surprising, adjectives one could equally apply to Tully.

The new film starts promisingly, appropriately with a shot of Charlize Theron’s belly, and quickly evolves into a love story between Marlo and her troubled son, Jonah (Asher Miles Fallica), who is incessantly euphemized as being “quirky.” He is a handful, and Milo loves him, but when baby number three pops out, Marlo’s life becomes intolerable. There’s a sublime montage of maternal hell, punctuated by towers of diapers, ungodly school runs and sleepless nights, a slick commercial for singlehood. Meanwhile, Marlo’s husband, Drew (Ron Livingston), consoles himself with bedtime sessions of video war games.

But don’t be fooled, Drew, nor Marlo, nor the condescending personnel at Jonah’s school, are stereotypes. They’re all just playing a game in which they’ve been programmed to fit into by modern society. Then, in spite of Marlo and Drew’s constrained economic circumstances, they hire a “night nanny” recommended to them by friends. She is Tully (Mackenzie Davis), a paediatric ninja with epic reserves of stamina (“I’m like Saudi Arabia,” she says, “I have a surplus of energy”). She’s also pretty, ironing-board thin and disarmingly good-natured, the embodiment of female flawlessness, the sort of twentysomething Charlize might have played two decades ago. Tully not only takes over the nocturnal demands of the new baby, but also transforms the house into a spotless showroom and even bakes customized cupcakes, all while Marlo enjoys the sleep of the just. Interestingly, Tully is played by Mackenzie Davis, who bears more than a passing resemblance to Daryl Hannah. This, combined with the film’s mermaid motif – à la Daryl Hannah’s Madison in Splash – leads the viewer up an unexpected garden path. Thankfully, the denouement is neither laboured nor predictable, although the sudden ending does leave one feeling prematurely bereft of such good company.



Wonderstruck  ****

Todd Haynes would seem to be preoccupied with the bygone. Here, the director weaves together two periods, 1977 and 1927, in a dual narrative of over-lapping lives. Enchantingly, he recreates the earlier tale as a silent black-and-white movie, in which he reproduces 1920s’ Hoboken, New Jersey, where a deaf girl called Rose (Millicent Simmonds) is ruled with a rod of iron by her authoritarian father. Captivated by her glamorous mother, a silent screen star played by Julianne Moore, Rose runs away from home in the hope of being reunited with the latter in New York. Simultaneously, so to speak, twelve-year-old orphan Ben Wilson (Oakes Fegley) is struck deaf by lightning in 1970s’ Gunflint, Minnesota. He, too, heads unaccompanied to the Big Apple in search of answers, determined to track down his biological father.

Adapted by Brian Selznick from his own children’s novel, Wonderstruck is both striking and wonderful. Todd Haynes has always been a stylist and here his sense of visual fluidity propels the parallel lives of Rose and Ben to a moving conclusion, with Carter Burwell’s exquisite score providing the emotional fabric in a virtually wordless piece. Only the last ten minutes seem unnecessarily laboured in an attempt to tie everything together, but the magic lingers, as do the burnished pieces of a bewitching puzzle. The closing song, an interpretation of David Bowie’s ‘Space Oddity’ by The Langley Schools Music Project (“Can you hear us, Major Tom?”), adds a poignant note to the story of two deaf children united across the divide of half a century.


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