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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.


Avengers: Infinity War  **1/2

With size comes responsibility. And, by most accounts, Avengers: Infinity War is the most expensive movie in cinema history, with exact figures varying wildly. It certainly has the most superheroes packed into one outing. Indeed, the film’s most satisfying moments are those in which much-loved action figures come face-to-face for the first time. Even so, stellar indigestion is a problem. Here, there’s no Lois Lane or Gwen Stacy to give the massive canvas a human perspective (although Gwyneth Paltrow makes a welcome cameo as Pepper Potts), while two iconic Brits are killed off before the opening title. Be warned, then, this is more Avengers Annihilated than Avengers Assemble, if only to keep future costs down (some reports put Robert Downey Jr’s wage packet in the nine-figure range, believe it if you will).

The true star of the film, though, is Josh Brolin, the stepson of Barbra Streisand, who plays Thanos, a Titan who seeks total domination of the universe and is willing to destroy half of it in order to achieve his goal. His thing is “dispassionate genocide” and he admits that “the hardest choices require the strongest will.” And Thanos is just plain strong. To get even stronger, he requires six ‘infinity stones,’ which will enable him to manipulate reality at will. The problem with Thanos as a villain is that he appears indestructible – and just keeps on getting more powerful. And the scenes of wholesale extinction are hardly uplifting. To make the overall arc of the story more interesting, a deftly dipped Achilles heel would have reaped dividends. Every villain should have a weakness.

And so Infinity War turns out to be little more than the world’s most pricey bloodbath, where reality is just one option and the gags get swallowed in the fire and brimstone. There are comic moments – such as when Spider-Man (Tom Holland) and Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) discuss the merits of Footloose (presumably the Kevin Bacon version), and when Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista) first admires the physique of Thor (Chris Hemsworth), prompting Quill to quip, “What? Am I one sandwich away from fat?”). More of this would have raised the entertainment quotient, and have made the film less of a relentless downer. There’s more to come, of course, and a few superheroes left to fight another day – the second instalment, Avengers: Infinity War – Part II, is due out in April 2019. Sigh.


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).



Breaking In  ***1/2

The trick is to keep quiet. If they can’t hear you, they can’t find you – and kill you.

It would take an amateur to bungle a premise like this. A fiercely maternal woman and her two kids are trapped inside a house with four intruders. Early on, the would-be thieves show little respect for human life – or for other people’s property. We know to fear them. The extra dimension is the house itself, a high-tech fortress that can keep you in as well as keep you out. The rest hinges on the dynamic between the burglars and their prey.

It is perhaps a mistake to jump-start the action so soon – the viewer has barely had time to absorb the set-up, let alone to invest in the family that we are meant to care for. This, then, is a no-frills affair, albeit with plenty of thrills. Billy Burke, as the menacing engine of the break-in, recalls a younger Billy Bob Thornton and his ex-con is not a man to mess with. He is smart, and also ruthless, knowing that the human cost of his crime is now unavoidable. The fly in his ointment, Shaun Russell (Gabrielle Union), is no dummy, either. She may not be as tech-savvy as her kids, but she has a practical know-how and is fearless when it comes to protecting her own. She is the motherly equivalent of Bruce Willis in Die Hard and Steven Seagal in Under Siege – the single (and invincible) bug in the plan. Besides, a rabbit running for its life runs faster than the fox that is hungry.

Inevitably, there are lapses in credibility, but this is a thriller designed to push all the buttons installed on its dashboard. As that, it exerts an appropriate grip for much of its streamlined running time and, in its way, delivers another uppercut for female empowerment.



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 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 Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society  ***1/2

Yes. The title is unwieldy. And so is some of the plotting in this adaptation of Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows’ 2008 novel. But the narrative strands are deftly braided together by Mike Newell, who knows a thing or two about multi-layered stories. It was he who directed Four Weddings and a Funeral and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire and one can sense his stamp on much of the material here. Besides, there are the attractive young leads, the store of colourful supporting characters and a yearning romanticism.

The year is 1946 and London is recovering from the ravages of the Second World War. The writer Juliet Ashton (Lily James), who has just penned a biography of Anne Brontë, is still haunted by the Blitz and is only just beginning to adjust to a carefree life beyond the bomb craters and gas masks. But the war remains very evident in Guernsey, in the Channel Islands, where a gaggle of residents are still haunted by the German occupation. One group, that established a book club in order to evade the infringement of a curfew, have more secrets than most – and wounds to heal. And so the film unfolds as a detective story as Juliet Ashton breezes into this close-knit community to source an article for The Times. She is beguiled and shocked by what she finds and proves an unwelcome intrusion to some. Others, however, are drawn to her passion and worldly sophistication. So, as a need for closure and redemption comes to a head, an uneasy alliance is born.

There is something terribly English about Mike Newell’s film. Juliet explains away her vocation as a writer as she’ll always be “near a pot of tea” and there’s a bookish charm to the characters, regardless of their position in the class system. But the understated emotions and the words not said are what really establish the quintessential Englishness of the piece. Indeed, the quietest moments are the ones that wield the most emotional heft. The performances, too, are of the highest order. Lily James is incandescent as the writer torn between two worlds, the Dutch actor Michiel Huisman emits a low-key sweetness as her correspondent (with a shared love for Shakespeare) and even the young Kit Connor registers strongly as the postmaster’s grandson. But it is Penelope Wilton as the bitter, tight-lipped Amelia who provides the real dramatic meat with a performance of reigned-in torment. There is plenty more to admire, too: the achingly picturesque setting of Guernsey itself (albeit filmed in Cornwall and Devon), the theme of literature as a heritage that binds enquiring minds and that stalwart cast of British players, including an amusingly doddery Sir Tom Courtenay as the postmaster.



Hereditary  ****

We’ve had the golden age of the Hollywood musical, the nouvelle vague from France and the domination of world cinema by Iran. Now we’re living in the midst of a renaissance of the horror film. And Ari Aster’s debut feature, Hereditary, really doesn’t help. Aster brings a hugely original voice to the table, where he exploits the talent of his actors to scare the bejesus out of us – rather than providing the stock jump-scares of the traditional chiller. And if Daniel Kaluuya can snare an Oscar nomination for Get Out, then Toni Collette can certainly do so for her display of thespian hysteria here.

It all starts so damned quietly. Besides A Quiet Place, this has to register as the most silent horror film we’ve been subjected to. Likewise, the apparitions Aster conjures up are so peripheral as to be subliminal. And therein lies our unease.

Aster exhibits a command of his medium from the start. His opening shot is of a large studio space crammed with dollhouse-like rooms, the work of the miniaturist artist Annie Graham (Collette). In a steady, gradual zoom, we are led into the model bedroom of Peter Graham (Alex Wolff), when his father (Gabriel Byrne) walks in. Immediately, Aster has established a domain between make-believe and reality and the film remains entirely in the everyday yet one remove from the normal. His art is to keep back information from the viewer, in direct contrast to most films that blind us with superfluous exposition. Aster trusts implicitly in the patience of his audience, and rewards us with finely tuned performances from his players, who play it real all down the line. The result is a naturalistic scenario with discreetly withheld – and vital – clues to where we are and who the characters are. What does Gabriel Byrne’s Steve Graham do for a living, how can his family afford such a vast house and, for that matter, where the hell are we?

If the film doesn’t terrify to the same degree as A Quiet Place, it certainly has its own box of tricks. It is arguably too long and at times it is perversely unhurried, but it uses these weaknesses as a virtue: like an endless dream one can’t wake up from. The effect is the occasional shock, but the scariest bits are perpetrated by the cast. We are in the very skins of these characters so that when they suddenly see something truly unseeable – beyond the edges of the screen – our imaginations are left to jump and squirm. Beyond the weight of supernatural dread, there is something perhaps even more unsettling: the destruction of the family dynamic. It has been said that 97% of families are dysfunctional, so the disintegration of the status quo here should be recognised by most viewers (at least those who have experienced family life). And nobody can do a meltdown like Toni Collette. But even as you fear her, you feel for her. When the film does, finally, descend into the familiar territory of the supernatural, Aster makes sure we follow his path to Hell with his hands firmly grasped around our throats.



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.


Isle of Dogs  *****

You can never tell with Wes Anderson. Sometimes his deadpan, idiosyncratic and frankly bizarre films exhibit a skin-crawling self-indulgence. Yet titles like Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums and The Grand Budapest Hotel enrich the tapestry of independent American cinema. His last foray into animation, Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009), was one of his most satisfying and humorous concoctions, a stop-motion, quirky take on the Roald Dahl children's story. His new animated film, a story of abuse, love, friendship and man’s love-hate relationship with dogs, is an entirely more original confection, adapted from a story by Roman Coppola, Jason Schwartzman, Kunichi Nomura and Anderson himself. More specifically, it is a tale of propaganda, fake news and of a pogrom of pooches, set in a nation where “brains have been washed” and “fears have been mongered.” Man’s best friend has been confined to the dustbin, namely the ominously titled Trash Island, off the southeast coast of Japan. Here, the underdog takes on a whole new resonance as Anderson’s erudite script and ludicrously inventive stop-motion imagery entertains, provokes, smarts and constantly amuses, and on a five-star scale from smirk to guffaw, it resoundingly hits the fifth asterisk. An all-star cast trots out Anderson’s deliciously dry dialogue (Bill Murray: “All the ones I like, they’re never in heat”), while Alexandre Desplat's percussive score artfully sets the tone. A furry satire of Orwellian punch, Isle of Dogs addresses the plight of today with wit, insight and understated aplomb. Repeat viewings should prove most rewarding.



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.



Love, Simon  ***1/2

It’s been a while since we’ve seen a smart, cute high school romcom. This one boasts a particularly high quota of engaging performances, a smattering of genuinely amusing riffs and an intriguing central premise. Simon Spier (Nick Robinson) leads a totally normal life in a comfortable Atlanta suburb. He has a loving mother and father (Jennifer Garner, Josh Duhamel), a sweet younger sister and well-adjusted friends. But he has one “huge-ass secret.” He is gay. He then falls into an incognito correspondence on-line with a fellow pupil, who is also gay, and they share their innermost thoughts without actually outing themselves. Simon uses the nom-de-plume ‘Jacques’ and his correspondent goes by the moniker of ‘Blue.’ And Simon is in love – then finds himself the victim of a blackmailing plot.

For the most part, Love, Simon – adapted from Becky Albertalli's 2015 novel Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda – is a comfortable, entertaining watch. However, in an age when such features as Blue is the Warmest Colour and Call Me by Your Name are pushing the envelope of queer cinema, this feels too cosy, too old-fashioned. On the plus side, Simon is sensitively realised by Robinson (The Kings of Summer), there are wonderful moments from Duhamel and Garner as his liberal parents, and there’s a star-making turn from Alexandra Shipp (a dead ringer for a teenage Angela Bassett) as his confidante.

The film’s sincerity is not in doubt. However, its attempts to reach out to a mainstream audience undermine the painful dilemma of its protagonist. It’s hard, too, to swallow the central premise. Can Simon really love someone he’s never met? Shared ideas and opinions are one thing, but there’s a whole lot more to romantic commitment than that. As such, then, Love, Simon is an agreeable fantasy with something important to say: it’s not being true to yourself that is most important; it’s being honest to the ones you care about.



Mary Magdalene  **

The story of Mary Magdalene is pretty much synonymous with that of Jesus, so there is much that is familiar in this biopic. Largely, we are treated to the life of Christ as seen through Mary’s eyes, augmented by generous, leisurely reaction shots and much close-up facial expression. Rooney Mara certainly imbues her eyewitness with considerable reserves of belief and spirituality. More problematic is Joaquin Phoenix as the son of God, whose trademark mumbling seems to have infected the rest of the cast. Thus, the real miracle is not when he restores the sight of a blind man or even brings a dead man back to life, but that he can make the throngs understand a word that he says. Masked by a bird’s nest beard, and prone to a tendency to whisper when he mumbles, he can hardly be classed as an effective orator. It helps if one is already familiar with the New Testament, as the dialled-down storytelling and constant muttering and whispering makes it virtually impossible to know what is going on. A closing caption chastises Pope Gregory I for painting Mary Magdalene as a woman of ill repute, a fiction the film is at pains to debunk. But following such revisionist takes on the life of Jesus as presented by Martin Scorsese, Mel Gibson and Monty Python, this feminist reappraisal makes it the dullest story ever told.



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.



Pacific Rim Uprising  **

How do you follow up a brace of Oscars for best picture and best director? Well, if nothing else, Guillermo del Toro – director of The Shape of Water – is one ambitious filmmaker. In 2013 he directed Pacific Rim, a humungous sci-fi epic that made Godzilla look like a glove puppet. With the most expensive film of all time now looming on the horizon – Marvel’s Avengers: Infinity War, in cinemas April 26 – Pacific Rim Uprising, produced by del Toro and directed by the American screenwriter Steven S. DeKnight, has upped its own ante. A mash-up of Transformers, RoboCop and Tron, the new film eats size for breakfast. Robots tower over skyscrapers and hurl handfuls of traffic like sand. Cities are destroyed like ants’ nests kicked into oblivion.

A Jaeger – a colossal automaton handled by two human pilots – has gone rogue and the ‘Pan-Pacific Defense Corps’ has to step up to the plate. Originally constructed to combat enormous aliens that had popped through an interdimensional portal under the Pacific, the Jaegers made a formidable law-enforcement agency, best operated by good-looking kids brought up on VR gaming. Ten years after the death of the heroic General Pentecost (Idris Elba) and the defeat of the aliens, an even bigger threat emerges, a mind-controlling force bent on global destruction. So, who better to lead a new generation of good-looking gamers to face the enemy than Pentecost’s own son, the cocky, athletic Jake Pentecost, played by John Boyega?

One can picture the pitch: OK, let’s make the monsters even bigger this time, get a cast of young cosmopolitan actors who look like models, stir in some state-of-the-art CGI, add a slew of smart-ass wisecracks and eye-catching locations, throw in the son of Clint Eastwood and get a black English actor to play the hero. How could it fail? Of course, it all depends on your taste. Boyega, who portrays Finn in the Star Wars films, does make an engaging lead, and much of the metallic action boasts a wow mentality, if one is not tired of that sort of thing. But the congestion of plot swerves and technical jargon is more than a little overwhelming and ultimately one really doesn’t care for anybody or anything. It’s rather rum that the 12A advisory warning alerts the viewer to “moderate violence” and a “rude gesture.” Yes, a robot does give us the finger but the collateral loss of human life would seem to be no more troublesome than the innumrable blips on a video screen.



Peter Rabbit  **


Within the picturesque environs of the Lake District, the indigenous wildlife muddles along very happily. With so much bounty in Mr McGregor’s carefully tended garden, there is enough to eat for one and all. Of course, Mr McGregor (Sam Neill) is none too pleased by the incessant depletion of his crops, but he’s an old man and can hardly keep up with his hungry visitors. Then the rabbits’ most fearless deputy, Peter (voiced by James Corden), causes old Mr McGregor to have a heart attack and all the creatures move into his house. For a while, life is bliss. Then the old man’s young nephew from London (Domhnall Gleeson), an altogether more energetic and agile homo sapien, takes his place…


It’s a wonder there’s not a critter called Max the Mad Marsupial. Or Killer Kangaroo. This violent Australian romp generously harnesses the spirit of Home Alone, the 1990 children’s comedy in which our cute underdog lays ingenious and vicious traps for his adversaries. It also calls to mind the 1972 B-movie Night of the Lepus, where monstrous bunnies terrorize the homestead of rancher Rory Calhoun. In that movie, there’s even a scene in which Calhoun lays explosives to blow the rabbits up, replicated here to disastrous ends. Likewise, the rabbits in this version are no fools and repeatedly outwit their human antagonist, re-wiring his electric fence to his own bedroom door, poor man. But there are victims on both sides of the conflict and poor old Mrs Tiggy-Winkle is electrocuted.


To put it politely, Will Gluck’s part-animated, part-live action caper is a zany affair. And there’s nothing wrong with zany. In fact, there’s so much inventive slapstick here that younger audiences may be royally amused. However, there is a problem. These anthropomorphic figures are the creation of Beatrix Potter, the beloved children’s writer who has charmed generations with her elegant illustrations and immaculate, understated prose. If there was outrage at the Ladybird Books’ simplification of Potter’s tales in 1987, there will be revolution on the streets today.

A roster of Australian performers – Margot Robbie, Elizabeth Debicki, Rose Byrne, Sam Neill, Sia, Bryan Brown and David Wenham – put on pukka English accents, ensuring that the dialect coach Jennifer White justifies her wage packet. The computer-animation of the creatures is predictably accomplished and ten years ago would have been deemed a technological miracle. But in spite of all the madcap action, and a reasonably witty script by Rob Lieber and Will Gluck, not to mention some comic interaction between the human actors Domhnall Gleeson and Rose Byrne, there is a big hole at the heart of the film. And that is its heart.



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.



Rampage  ***1/2

It’s only April and the world’s cityscapes and multiplexes have already taken a battering from Hollywood’s outsized. But how much CGI and skyscraper scrap can an audience take before the summer box-office has even kicked off? Rampage, inspired by the video game of the same name, does have a few things in its favour. Dwayne Johnson knows how to take a lark like this seriously and with each new film hones his deadpan quippage to an even finer degree. Here, he’s abetted by Oscar-nominee Naomie Harris, and she, too, adds a measure of thespian dedication that skims off much of the cheese from this cholesterol-rich platter. Rampage is meant to be fun, but there’s a fine line between rollercoaster escapism and machine-tooled tedium.

Rampage, directed by Brad Peyton, who brought us the knowingly awesome San Andreas (which also top-billed Dwayne), starts promisingly – in space. Here we find an orbiting research laboratory dedicated to the nefarious practice of genetic editing. An unscrupulous company called Energyne has spliced together the dominant genes from a number of different animals in order to create an advanced species. However, when the crew of the satellite is killed, the rat is out of the bag. Samples of the manipulated DNA come crashing down to Earth (specifically, the US) and infect a silverback gorilla, a grey wolf and a crocodile. And so the unsuspecting guinea pigs are transformed into enormous, aggressive and hangry monsters. And they’re getting bigger by the hour…

Taken in the right spirit, Rampage is an affectionate riff on King Kong and Godzilla and ticks a number of familiar boxes with skill. The green screen effects are not quite in the Spielberg league, but for the target audience there are enough big bangs to warrant its buck. George, the albino silverback – reared by ‘primate specialist’ Davis Okoye (Johnson) – earns our compassion, while the trigger-happy authorities are suitably maladroit and insensitive to environmental progress. Hiss! With eleven months until the release of Godzilla: King of the Monsters – starring Sally Hawkins (of all people) – this should fill the monster gap very nicely.



Ready Player One  ****

It only seems like yesterday that we were treated to the image of a giant robot battling a Godzilla-like creature. Wait. It was yesterday – in Pacific Rim Uprising. However, there’s a lot more besides in Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One. As if to undercut the bombast of next month’s Avengers: Infinity War – which features a coalition of such iconic figures as Iron Man, Spider-Man, Ant-Man and Chadwick Bose-Man – Spielberg has amassed a smorgasbord of iconography here to blow our respective minds. Harvesting the seemingly impossible from Ernest Cline’s audacious novel of the same name, the director takes his love of performance capture animation (which he employed in The Adventures of Tintin and The BFG) and runs with it. Such is the visual breadth of Ready Player One, that we are not sure whether we are watching a cartoon, a video game or a live-action movie. Well, it’s a combination of all three, with a lot more thrown into the mix.

The premise is anything but simple. And only a storyteller of Steven Spielberg’s skill could harness all the narrative threads to make something this fun and engaging. The whole thing takes place in Columbus, Ohio, in 2045, but this being the future, little of real life ends up on the screen (most of the movie was shot at Leavesden Studios in Hertfordshire, and re-imagined by Industrial Light & Magic). The opening shot alone is a stunner: a tower of trailers studs the skyline of Columbus, where our hero, Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan), shins down a fireman’s pole, passing his vertically positioned neighbours engaged in their own worlds of VR.

Whereas today everyone seems to be glued to their mobiles and plugged into their earphones, this future sees everybody embalmed behind virtual reality headsets. As Wade tells us in his weary voice-over: “these days, reality is a bummer.” And so most of the populace shares the space of an immersive virtual universe called the Oasis. But when the world’s creator, James Halliday (Mark Rylance), dies, he passes on the key to his empire to the first gamer to find his hidden ‘Easter egg.’ The victor not only gets to take over the helm of Oasis itself, but also to inherit Halliday’s trillion-dollar fortune. However, in order to crack the creator’s clues, the player will need a formidable knowledge of pop culture. So let the game begin…

Name-checking everything from Citizen Kane, Saturday Night Fever and Alien to Beetlejuice, Child’s Play and Jurassic Park, the film is a cineaste’s wet dream. But the pièce de résistance is the sequence in which four gamers end up inside The Shining, finding themselves subjected to the horrors of Stanley Kubrick’s imagination (the twin girls, the woman in the bath, the wall of blood, etc). Only somebody with Spielberg’s influence could synchronize so many pop cultural references and unpick such a Gordian knot of copyright.

A vibrant and fresh take on the familiar, the film manages to retain its momentum while never losing sight of a good joke. The special effects really are special and the detail is overwhelming, from the costume design and art direction to the canny use of pop standards (Van Halen, Prince, Twisted Sister, The Temptations, Hall & Oates). But even after everything that Spielberg has slapped onto the screen, he still gets to stamp home his moral stance. The film’s closing words: “Reality is the only thing that’s real.” Well, thank God.



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.



The Shape of Water  *****

It’s not every day that you come across a romantic sci-fi fantasy steeped in nostalgia and menace. Perhaps the most original film we are likely to see all year, The Shape of Water nonetheless recalls a number of unique classics, from Amélie to Beauty and the Beast via Cinema Paradiso, The Creature from the Black Lagoon and Splash. Based on an original idea by Guillermo del Toro and co-scripted by del Toro with the American scenarist Vanessa Taylor, it helps to know that Ms Taylor wrote fairy tales as a child and that del Toro is the director of Pan’s Labyrinth.

The Shape of Water is one of those superbly rendered pieces that defies all the rules and reminds one that the cinema can do absolutely anything if it puts its mind to it. The first shock is to see the Dulwich-born Sally Hawkins surrounded by a slew of heavyweight American character actors, all of whom play to their strengths. In the opening voice-over, the benign, considered tones of Richard Jenkins tells us of “the princess without voice” and “the monster who tries to destroy it all.” The monster is Colonel Richard Strickland, a cold-blooded establishment figure who looks down on anybody or anything that doesn’t fit in with his narrow view of what is all-American. As played by Michael Shannon, he is a suitably despicable figure, constantly crunching on cheap candy (when he’s not swigging on the hard stuff). But none of the stereotypes here stick to the expected norm. It’s hard not to supress a giggle when a thick-set Russian thug, chowing down on a slice of butter cake, asks for a glass of milk to go with it.

But what is The Shape of Water? It’s a hopelessly romantic adult fairy tale which reminds us not to fear what we don’t understand. It’s a timely piece, too, albeit set in Maryland in the early 1960s, when Mister Ed was on television and racism was still a way of life. Yet, no sooner do we think we’ve got the film clocked, than del Toro throws us a curveball. It’s sweet and funny, yes, but it’s got extremely sharp teeth. And while the entire cast excels, with Sally Hawkins driving the heart of the film with a heart-breaking tenderness, its production values are no less masterful, from Alexandre Desplat's exquisite score and Dan Laustsen's sublime cinematography to Sidney Wolinsky's seamless, ingenious editing. After his misconceived Pacific Rim (2013) and Crimson Peak (2015), Guillermo del Toro returns to the top of his game with verve. It’s a revelation.



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.



Solo: A Star Wars Story  **

Disappointing is not the word for it. With Lawrence Kasdan and his son Jonathan credited as screenwriters, and Ron Howard at the reins, this stand-alone Star Wars episode was busting with promise. However, the freshness of the original has given way to formula, and it’s deadly. Adopting the Saturday matinee stance of the first Raiders of the Lost Ark (scripted by none other than L. Kasdan), Ron Howard sets the scene with a handful of perfunctory captions (“A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away...”) and launches into the action in top-gear. This is the story of Han Solo, the buccaneering space pilot originated by Harrison Ford back in 1977.

The opening is hardly auspicious. This is the sort of routine sci-fi fare cloaked by a meaningless smog of music – the sonic chloroform of credibility – and featuring gunshot-ricocheting punch-ups. It’s also the sort of film in which a character informs his minions, just as stormtroopers start firing on them, “Here they come!” It seems a pointless observation, not to mention a waste of breath. One wonders who actually sat down at their laptop to craft such a line of dialogue: “Here they come!” Lawrence? Jonathan?

In any case, Han and his girlfriend Qi'ra (pronounced Keira) work on the shipbuilding planet of Corellia and dream of escaping to a better world. It is all that’s on Han’s mind. Even so, Qi'ra reminds Han that’s what they’re planning, for our benefit, obviously. Sadly, there’s not a smidgen of chemistry between Alden Ehrenreich and Emilia Clarke, the latter being the standard-issue English rose of the new Star Wars universe, following in the plucky footsteps of Daisy Ridley and Felicity Jones. The part of Tobias Beckett, Han’s mentor, goes to the go-to character actor of a franchise, Woody Harrelson (cf. The Hunger Games, Now You See Me, Planet of the Apes) and, at least, he is an appropriately ambiguous figure. But it’s really Ehrenreich who lets the side down. Whereas Harrison Ford exuded effortless dash and charisma as Han, Ehrenreich seems to be mimicking Ford in the part, depriving the viewer of a flesh-and-blood character.

Unfortunately, there is not a nanosecond when we sense any real threat, fear or menace, let alone awe, allowing the CGI shenanigans to wash over us like a warm breeze. There is a thrilling dogfight near the end, but by then it is rendered almost ineffectual. This is a terrible shame, particularly as Ron Howard is usually such a terrific storyteller. Here, there’s not so much a narrative as a rollercoaster of vaguely interconnected episodes with virtually no forward thrust. There is, though, a wonderful new character in the form of Lando Calrissian's waspish droid, L3-37 (piquantly voiced by Phoebe Waller-Bridge). When Lando (Donald Glover) asks if ‘she’ needs anything, she shoots back: “Equal rights.” Now there’s a premise worth developing.



The Square  *****

‘The Square’ is “a sanctuary of trust and caring. Within it, we all share equal rights and obligations.” At least, that is the idea. ‘The Square’ is an art project launched by the X-Royal Museum in Stockholm and its chief curator, Christian (Claes Bang), is looking for a way to publicise it. Hardly a man brimming with altruism himself, Christian finds his life start to unravel when he is pickpocketed on his way to work. A solution proposed by his assistant backfires, although Christian does, eventually, get his wallet and phone back. But at what cost?

Nominated for an Oscar for best foreign language film, The Square is a very modern and contemporary work from Ruben Östlund, who previously brought us the mesmerising, psychologically complex and darkly humorous Force Majeure, which won the Jury Prize at the 2014 Cannes festival. Östlund revels in ambiguity and in the moral quandary and his latest film is a chilling, frightening and very funny contemplation on art and the purpose of art in the contemporary world – that is, something both to stimulate debate and to make us re-think our boundaries. The film itself is an example of that very art form, while at the same time being a beautifully crafted work, with pitch-perfect performances, a wonderful score and mouth-watering production design. It is also packed with delicious non sequiturs, which, thankfully, Östlund feels no need to explain.

As satire, it is outrageous, but only succeeds because Östlund has created such a credible canvas for this incredible story, which is simply impossible to predict. And there are scenes aplenty to cherish: not least a profoundly uncomfortable piece of performance art at an elegant dinner event, a fight over a used condom and the inexplicable appearance of a giant chimpanzee.



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.



A Wrinkle in Time  *

Oprah Winfrey has just scuppered her chances of getting into the White House. In this all-too literal adaptation of Madeleine L'Engle’s 1962 novel, Ms Winfrey plays Mrs Which, a giant angel who looks like an African-American Dolly Parton processed in Valhalla. It’s not a good look. While not quite an angel, she’s a sort of intergalactic guiding spirit with tinfoil eyebrows and alarming eyeshadow. Her mission is to help the bullied 13-year-old schoolgirl Meg Murry (Storm Reid) find her father, a NASA scientist (Chris Pine) who disappeared four years previously during an astrophysical experiment. Bonded by a love of quantum physics and paper cubes (tesseracts), Meg and her father felt that they were destined for great things. But then… nothing. Thank Odin, then, for quantum physics…

Physics of the quantum kind is an endlessly fascinating subject, but this child-friendly sci-fi fantasy will put kids off for life. The original author, Madeleine L'Engle, had no end of trouble getting her novel published – it was rejected by 26 publishers – and one can see why. Nonetheless, the book eventually won a number of awards and has previously been filmed by Disney as a 2003 TV movie. Running the gamut from the barmy to the terrifying (featuring a universal evil called the ‘It’), this film version is a débâcle. The multiplex should provide a platform for all types of entertainment, but spiritual fantasy is a hard genre to pull off. Despite starring Will Smith and Helen Mirren, Collateral Beauty (2016) was a monumental flop, as was the Robin Williams vehicle What Dreams May Come (1998). Even It’s a Wonderful Life was a box-office disappointment on its initial release. And yet Heaven Can Wait (1978) and Ghost (1990) were massive hits.

There is certainly lashings of sentimentality in A Wrinkle in Time, but of the mawkish and predictable kind. And the film fails on so many other levels as well. As Charles Wallace Murry, Meg’s intolerably squeaky-clean and cheesy little brother, Deric McCabe is simply embarrassing – and in dire need of elocution lessons (he’s a budding Joaquin Phoenix, if ever there was one). But the real problem is the endless CGI – one is never sure what is real and what isn’t. And the heavy-handed attempts at light relief provided by the garish costumes of the guardians of the galaxy is a misstep of cosmic proportions. In one scene, the insufferably perky Reese Witherspoon is transmogrified into an ivy-veined, stingray-shaped flying carpet, a vision that would have given Salvador Dali the vapours.



You Were Never Really Here  ****1/2

Because Lynne Ramsey has made so few films, one forgets that she is one of the finest directors of her generation. You Were Never Really Here is her fourth feature in 18 years and it’s another masterpiece. Essentially a thriller about a hitman (a typically enigmatic and burly Joaquin Phoenix), it is unlike any film about a hitman one has ever seen. Supremely cinematic, elegiac and virtually wordless, the film traces the modus operandi of a cold, troubled man who lives at home with his mum and takes his victims out with a hammer. There is even a gossamer thread of black humour in the proceedings, although the violence is all the more numbing for its stylisation. The central ‘hit’ is seen entirely through the eyes of a security system, both distancing the viewer and making him a complicit voyeur. Phoenix, who is seldom off-screen, dominates the frame as Joe while, around him, a life of normality plays out in the chit-chat and bustle of a New York immune to the man’s flashbacks of a traumatized childhood and the horrors of the Gulf War. A deeply haunted figure, Joe knocks back painkillers while surveying the streets of the city like Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, taking everything in and weighing the cost. Ramsey’s style here recalls the tone of Nicolas Winding Refn and the violence, while fleeting and off-centre, is every bit as disturbing. Yet there is ample poetry, too, beautifully underlined by yet another distinctive score from Jonny Greenwood. The atmosphere is everything, superbly rendered by Thomas Townend's exquisite cinematography, with scene after scene searing its impact on the memory. Whether it’s the fleeting image of a passenger on the New York subway, or the extended sequence of a hitman dying on Joe’s kitchen floor while weakly humming along to the radio (to Charlene’s ‘I've Never Been to Me'), You Were Never Really Here grips and astounds throughout its trim 89 minutes’ running time.

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