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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.

Black Panther  **

Chadwick Boseman made his name playing Jackie Robinson in 42 (2013), James Brown in Get on Up (2014) and Thurgood Marshall, the first African-American justice of the Supreme Court, in Marshall (2017). He also played T'Challa – aka Black Panther – in Captain America: Civil War (2016). Now he’s reprising his role as Black Panther in the film of the same name, the eighteenth chapter in the so-called Marvel Cinematic Universe. For Boseman, it’s been quite a trajectory. Unfortunately, as a character, T'Challa is not given much opportunity to register as he’s engulfed by a slew of co-stars, endless CGI and one damned fight after another. So, more of the same, then.

Black Panther is being touted as something of a Hollywood milestone, as it is the first superhero movie with a predominantly black cast. But since Marvel’s Iron Man in 2008, these films are no longer marvellous, nor their special effects that special. In fact, much of the CGI in Black Panther is decidedly ropy, particularly when compared to the visual miracles of Blade Runner 2049 and Star Wars: The Last Jedi.

The film does start promisingly, though. The backstory of T'Challa and Wakanda, his East African kingdom, is recounted in a striking prologue animated by what looks like iron filings. Then we cut to modern-day California and things start to go downhill. On the death of his father, T'Challa is called back to Wakanda to ascend the throne. However, he quickly discovers that there are enemies within. In fact, there’s a whole bunch of nemeses and it’s hard to keep track as, in magical manifestations, they turn up on screen without so much as a by-your-leave. This really does detract from the drama as it all begins to resemble a series of VR video games in which anything can happen, just so long as it serves the plot.

Wakanda itself is an independent nation that clings to its ancient culture while exploiting its advanced technology. It’s like Silicon Valley on safari, powered by the arcane properties of vibranium, a metal that increases its strength by absorbing sound waves, vibrations and kinetic energy. It certainly provides a nifty suit for our hero – but it also prompts a gold rush from unsavoury quarters.

While one should embrace Black Panther as further evidence of the diversification of Hollywood, there is also an uncomfortable feeling of the Disneyfication of Africa. The director, Ryan Coogler, is African-American, the cast is predominantly American and British and the authors of the original comic strip – Stan Lee and the late Jack Kirby –  both white American men born in New York. Besides, the film was shot in Atlanta, South Korea and Argentina. However, what is impressive about Black Panther is the predominance of strong female characters, headed by Nakia, the Black Panther’s ex-squeeze, played by the Kenyan actress Lupita Nyong'o. She is an agent for the Dora Milaje – Wakanda's all-female special forces – and is joined by Danai Gurira, the English actress Letitia Wright and Oscar nominee Angela Bassett. So, with this and the female-led Wonder Woman, the gender gap is finally shrinking in what is beginning to look like a fruitful period for the actress in Tinseltown. If only this labyrinthine, uneven epic served them better.

Blockers  *

Silliness is a bit like wasabi. A little bit can perk up your sashimi, but too much can deaden your appetite. Kay Cannon’s Blockers is pretty much full-on silliness for its entire running time, it being a gross-out farce about a trio of parents from hell. As prom night approaches, Julie’s mom and Kayla and Sam's respective dads are beginning to get the jitters. Actually, Sam’s father, Hunter (Ike Barinholtz), is fine with his daughter’s prospective sexual liberation – he just hangs out with Lisa (Leslie Mann) and Mitchell (John Cena) because he doesn’t have any friends. Julie has decided that the prom is the perfect occasion to conclude her virginity and is united with her two best friends in a secret sex pact. In spite of his disapproval of Lisa and Mitchell’s electronic eavesdropping, Hunter cracks their daughters’ emoji coding on their WhatsApp chat group (he knows an eggplant is the symbol for a penis) and so the trio set off to spoil the fun.

Kay Cannon, who scripted the Pitch Perfect trilogy, makes her directorial debut here and encourages her actors to mug outrageously. Every line of dialogue seems to be punctuated with a WTF! emphasis and the running joke of each parent revealing too much about a past transgression gets very tiresome very fast. John Cena plays against his he-man image as the crybaby of the group, while Leslie Mann (wife of Judd Apatow in real life) has the best scene in which she finds herself in a compromising situation, which should make every parent squirm. Of course, real people don’t behave like this, which gives us the uneasy sensation of witnessing a neighbourhood freak show. The rampant nudity is rather pointless (let’s hope the middle-aged co-stars Gary Cole and Gina Gershon were well paid), while the scene of John Cena’s ‘butt-chugging’ will no doubt haunt the actor for the rest of his life. At least the performances of the younger cast members pass muster, although it’s unlikely we’ll see any of them again.

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.

The Commuter  **1/2

Michael MacCauley thinks he’s having a bad day. Drowning in debt and mortgaged to the hilt, he discovers that he has to summon up another small fortune in order to fund his son through college. And MacCauley is sixty-years-old. Then, on the same day, he’s made redundant at work – after ten years of hard slog for the same insurance company. In shock, MacCauley is unable to break the news to his wife, who has a habit of saying, “we’ll find a way – we always do.” But, this being a Liam Neeson action-thriller, the waste matter hasn’t even hit the fan yet… At its best, The Commuter is a ‘what if?’ film. What if you could pocket $100,000 for performing one small task, even if it proved detrimental to a complete stranger? At his lowest ebb, Michael MacCauley is presented with such an offer…

Like the 2014 release Non-Stop, The Commuter stars Liam Neeson as a man trapped in a confined space and tasked with achieving a particular mission by an unseen, all-seeing malevolent presence. Then it was on a plane, now it’s on a train. And both films were directed by Jaume Collet-Serra. The Spanish director is obviously a dab hand at concept thrillers. He also brought us Unknown (2011) and Run All Night (2015), both with Liam Neeson, and he displays a strong visual flair. The opening scenes of The Commuter are particularly striking, in which MacCauley stumbles through a series of identical early morning starts, before kissing his wife goodbye (or not) and boarding his train for Manhattan. And at Grand Central Station he lumbers across the main concourse while the passengers around him dissolve into apparitions. Thus, Collet-Serra’s latest film is something of a guilty pleasure, particularly as we gradually become acquainted with MacCauley’s fellow travellers, any one of whom might prove to be the key to the plot.

Liam Neeson is a unique leading man. He is the poster boy for the geriatric action-hero, but he also brings a human integrity to his shop-worn characters. Here, he does very nicely until he succumbs to the director’s characteristic flights of the ridiculous. What could have been a white-knuckle suspenser is inevitably reduced to an insane conspiracy fantasy in which the impossible becomes all too probable. Sadly, it is the most nonsensical hokum we’ve seen in a cinematic aeon, albeit with the occasional chuckle.

Darkest Hour  ****

The darkest hour in question is the period leading up to Britain’s defiance of Hitler. Already the German army has occupied both Belgium and Holland, and France is next in the firing line. Then the British prime minister, Neville Chamberlain, receives a vote of no confidence and is forced to resign. But who can replace him at a time of impending war? In spite of considerable opposition, particularly from Chamberlain himself and King George VI, the cantankerous, heavy-drinking Winston Churchill is called on to occupy No. 10...

It is unfortunate that less than seven months ago Jonathan Teplitzky's riveting Churchill, chronicling the same protagonist at a historical crossroads, showcased a magnificent turn from Brian Cox as the British bulldog. However, the earlier film, set in the days leading up to D-Day, featured a far more reticent prime minister, averse to sending British troops into battle. Here, in Joe Wright’s unintentional prequel, the great man is a war-mongering bully, determined to avoid a peaceful settlement with Mr Hitler.

Darkest Hour is actually more of a complementary piece to Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, showing the background business conducted in the war rooms of Whitehall, Downing Street and at the palace. Nolan’s epic purposefully avoided any top brass bickering, choosing to show the real-life drama from the perspective of the unknown soldier. Even Churchill’s famous speech (“we shall fight them on the beaches”) was actually read from a newspaper by the film’s nominal protagonist (knowingly identified as Tommy). 

Here, in an extraordinary transformation, Gary Oldman is Churchill and, with relish, gets to chew over some historical oration. Joe Wright, who memorably captured his own version of Dunkirk in Atonement, exercises his cinematic muscle with aplomb, to temper the endless reams of dialogue. But the talk is of the highest order, as it should be, considering what a wordsmith Churchill was. He is an endlessly fascinating character and Oldman provides him with his characteristic bombast, as well as with humour and charisma. There’s excellent support, too, from Kristin Scott Thomas as Clemmie and a virtually unrecognisable Ben Mendelsohn as George VI.

The only scene that truly misfires is when the great man slips onto the London Underground in order to mix with his public. It feels arch and contrived, besides which, the journey from St James’s to Westminster would not have taken all of five minutes. Nonetheless, there are many small scenes that do hit their mark, from the prime minister’s retreat into a cubicle-like room with W.C. stencilled on the door – for water closet or Winston Churchill? – and a magnificent segue from a battlefield to the dead-eyed face of a corpse. It’s been a while, but Joe Wright is back on form as one of Britain’s most imaginative filmmakers.

Early Man  ***1/2

It’s quite surprising how far puns and plasticine can get you. In an age of the routine CGI miracle, Aardman Animations reminds us that, to win an audience over, there’s nothing like old-fashioned wit, charm and imagination. Here, a tribe of cave dwellers struggles to survive on elusive rabbit meat, when they are invaded by the next civilization up: Bronze Man. The latter have already invented glass doors and newspapers and it all comes as a huge shock to the simple but gallant Dug, appropriately voiced by Eddie Redmayne. The invaders – led by the greedy and snooty Lord Nooth (Tom Hiddleston with a French accent) – are bent on plundering the Primitives’ fertile valley for more bronze to build their empire. So Dug sets Nooth a challenge: if the cavemen win a football match, they get to keep their land. The only trouble is that the Primitives have never played a game of football in their lives…

So, Nick Park’s Early Man is a sort of Bend it Like Beckham meets The Flintstones. The puns, both visual and verbal, come thick and fast, although many might not have met with the approval of Wallace. Still, there’s plenty going on in the film’s slim running time, particularly within the walls of the Bronze city, where strangely coiffed football stars jostle for screen time alongside plebeians, soldiers and shopkeepers with all the latest gadgets (customer: “This sliced bread is the best thing since…”). And Dug’s trusty sidekick, a wild boar called Hognob, is the most expressive lump of clay since Gromit. But how can Dug’s players compete with the experienced and ruthless members of Real Bronzio? Well, team spirit is something they have on their side, as one football commentator puts it: “Early Man united!”

Finding Your Feet  **1/2

Sandra Abbott (Imelda Staunton) would seem to have the world at her feet. With money no problem and her husband (John Sessions) just knighted, Sandra can count herself a lady of the smart set. Then she catches Sir Michael cheating on her with her best friend. After he weakly explains that, “one thing led to another,” she storms out on him, leaving thirty-five years of a happy marriage in tatters. Without so much as an invitation, she pitches up on the doorstep of her sister, ‘Bif’ (Celia Imrie), not having set eyes on her for ten years. And she’s in for a nasty shock: Bif has no time for her sister’s airs and graces and is perfectly content in her cramped, cluttered London quarters. She certainly isn’t interested in the stifling constraints of dignity or decorum…

To say that Finding Your Feet is formulaic is to understate the matter. It mines the contrivances of the middle-class sitcom with the nonchalant air of a jaded copywriter. In order to keep as many narrative balls in the air as possible, the film packs in all the possible pitfalls of growing old (dementia, cancer, erectile dysfunction) as if it were collecting for an Age UK brainstorm. Here are all the tried-and-tested standbys of the form, from the weekly dance class to the pre-coital heart attack.

Even so, the usually reliable director Richard Loncraine (now a septuagenarian himself) has surrounded himself with old pros and caricature is kept at a reasonable remove. With its mash-up of quaint London locations and unlikely paramour on a boat, it recalls the recent Hampstead (2017), but it is better than that. The film is rife with peachy observations (Facebook is dismissed as “virtual curtain-twitching”) and Imelda Staunton and Celia Imrie keep things relatively real. As Bif’s best friend, Timothy Spall is surprisingly sweet and touching, but he’s hardly the romantic foil that the narrative demands.

And one can almost smell the allure of the silver pound. With films like The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, Philomena and The Lady in the Van teasing out a hungry new demographic, producers seem willing to invest in stories about the older generation. But with its congestion of familiar narrative tropes, the film fails to secure an original foothold, while losing its dramatic momentum at the final hurdle, ending on a note that is as disappointing as it is contrived.

Game Night  ***1/2

Before Grand Theft Auto, Call of Duty and Minecraft, people used to play games with each other, in groups, in their living rooms. There were board games, guessing games and Trivial Pursuit. Max and Annie like to play parlour games with their friends and it’s become a regular event in their social calendar. The creepy cop next door would love to join in, but he’s lousy at charades, and is consequently ostracized by his neighbours. Then Max’s brother Brooks turns up and invites everyone over to his palatial pad for a game that they’ll never forget…

Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams are both dab hands at light comedy and here they make an adorable couple, a sort of latter-day Rock Hudson and Doris Day. They convince us to invest in their domestic equilibrium, which is an up-and-down affair. Besides their mutual passion for rumpy-pumpy and game-playing, their attempts at parenthood are arrested by Max’s stress levels, brought on by his inferiority complex. This comes to a head when Max is humiliated by his older brother in front of his friends, with the latter parading his own material success with vulgar abandon. Brooks’ game night has to be more thrilling than a round of Scrabble© and so he hires actors to bring an edge of realism to his murder mystery bash. However, with Brooks being involved in some shady underworld dealings, two real gunmen crash the party and drag him off to his untimely end while Max and friends just marvel at the realism of the performance.

The art of John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein's hugely enjoyable black comedy is that it constantly blurs the line between what is make-believe and what is real. And working from a smart, funny script by Mark Perez, the directors handsomely pull off the feint. Setting the scene by conceiving Max and Annie’s Georgia neighbourhood as an animated Toyland, the film subtly juggles its divergent spheres of slapstick and suspense. Much of the comic timing is beautifully calibrated, while the cast of vivid characters are engagingly brought to life by Bateman, McAdams (a constantly underestimated comedienne), Billy Magnussen and Sharon Horgan. And as the pathetic law-enforcer next door, Jesse Plemons is handed a peach of a part, leading us down a garden path of his own. Like all good comedies, there are some neat running gags (such as the glass coffee tables that never break) and a rich fabric of name-checking that should keep film buffs chuckling contentedly.

The Greatest Showman  ***1/2

The Greatest Showman is a rare thing indeed. It is not only a big-budget, big-screen musical, but it’s an original one from a first-time director (Australia’s Michael Gracey). Of course, its star, Hugh Jackman, is no stranger to the stage musical, having made his West End debut in Oklahoma!, won a Tony on Broadway for The Boy from Oz and starred in the film adaptation of Les Misérables. There’s an echo of the last-named, as the character Jackman plays steals a loaf of bread as a young lad, before going on to put his dreams into practice. And there’s something ineffably engaging about a man who follows his dreams. In this case it’s the true story of Phineas T. Barnum, who emerged from the gutter to become a purveyor of magic and spectacle for a worldwide audience.

Jackman is a good choice for the role. He has already played a nineteenth stage magician (in Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige), but more importantly he has the youthful good looks to play a man who starts out young before embarking on a lifetime of adventure, romance and adversity. Barnum was dubbed ‘the Prince of Humbug’ and it takes an actor of Jackman’s dash and charm to make us root for him. Today, Barnum’s story would seem to be more relevant than ever as he embraced the socially unconventional and gave them a platform to grow – his “family from the shadows.” Of course, Barnum’s initial concern was to promote his ‘anomalies’ for commercial gain, but he did give them a life that they would never have had otherwise. While his initial enterprise, a waxwork museum, failed to capture the public imagination, he embarked on a more rakish project by mounting a “freak show,” a song-and-dance extravaganza featuring a bearded lady, Siamese twins, a dwarf, a giant, and so on. The New York public loved it, although it drew both critical disgust and protests from a prejudiced, vocal minority. Then Queen Victoria requested an audience with P.T. Barnum…

For a good old-fashioned musical, a cast of the physically unorthodox – already given the spotlight by such December releases as Wonder and Sanctuary – is bit of a jolt. Yet this modern sensibility is nicely complemented by some innovative, wildly energetic choreography (courtesy of Mathieu Leopold). It seems a step too far, though, to introduce a tacked-on love story between a rich white boy (Zac Efron) and a trapeze artist of mixed heritage (the sensational Zendaya). It might have served the film better if some of its cast of unique ‘exhibits’ had been provided with their own backstory. Still, it’s a vibrant move in the right direction.

Gringo  **1/2

Harold Soyinka (David Oyelowo) is a good man. Following the advice of his Nigerian father, Harold has worked hard and followed the rules – because that’s how you make it in the Land of Opportunity. So Harold has landed himself a beautiful wife (Thandie Newton), a comfortable Chicago apartment and a decent job as an operations supervisor for a major corporation, Promethium. Then, in one day, everything goes pear-shaped. But unlike Liam Neeson in The Commuter – who suffered a similar chain of indignities – Harold is ill-equipped to fight his own corner. But, on the run in Mexico, he is learning to manipulate the rules just a little in his favour…

Directed by Nash Edgerton (brother of the film’s co-star, Joel Edgerton), Gringo exhibits a degree of promise. However, it is too much like its protagonist to pull off its shaggy-dog conceit: it’s just too mild-mannered and laidback for its genre. Maybe a director with the style, edge and sheer cojones of Quentin Tarantino could have made something meatier of the script.

There is, though, plenty to like. David Oyelowo’s good-natured schlemiel is an engaging underdog, if not credible enough a figure for us to root for him. More fun is Charlize Theron’s borderline nymphomaniac, a power-tailored she-devil who talks to herself and knows that her tongue is sharper than her teeth. Ms Theron, who shares a co-producing credit, has probably never been funnier. And the locations, from snowy Chicago to a sweltering Veracruz, are deftly delineated.

An Australian/American/Canadian co-production, Gringo is a genuine hotchpotch, a crime soufflé that too often falls flat. Its international pedigree is intriguing, though: its director is Australian, two of its stars South African (Theron and a predictably dishevelled Sharlto Copley) and three of the main actors British (Oyelowo, Thandie Newton and Harry Treadaway). But there is one American performer that celebrity spotters may wish to catch: Paris Jackson. In her first film part, the 19-year-old daughter of Michael Jackson plays a drug contact of Treadaway’s. She’s the blonde in the guitar shop, in case you don’t notice the resemblance.

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.

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.

I, Tonya  ****1/2

By default, most film biographies are disingenuous. They only reflect one side of the story. But as Tonya Harding tells us in this shocking, heart-breaking and blisteringly funny biopic, “everyone has their own truth.” As for Harding’s truth, the facts are out there, although the interpretation of them varies considerably. As I, Tonya assures us from the opening caption, it is “based on wildly contradictory interviews.”

Craig Gillespie’s film is unusual in that it is about both excellence and ineptitude, about exploitation and self-belief. But mainly it is about the Olympic figure skater Tonya Harding, her slow climb to global celebrity, her tempestuous relationship with her mother and an “incident” that involved her friend and professional rival Nancy Kerrigan. Allison Janney has already won a Golden Globe and a Bafta for her performance as LaVona Fay Golden, a stage mother who makes Rosalind Russell’s Rose Hovick look understated. More accurately, she is the devil incarnate. While chain-smoking cheroots and swigging from a hip flask, she dispels profanity like demonic halitosis. And her behaviour towards Tonya is abominable. She pushes her daughter beyond the limits of her endurance (in one scene, Tonya wets herself on the ice). Then, when Tonya meekly apologises for not doing better in a competition (which she won), her mother slaps her in the face for speaking back at her.

As for Margot Robbie, the film’s 27-year-old producer and star, she is a miracle on blades. This is the same actress who played a sexy, confident con artist in Focus, a wartime Romany peasant in Suite Française, the arch, child-like and homicidal Harley Quinn in Suicide Squad and the genteel English socialite Daphne de Sélincourt in Goodbye Christopher Robin. Here, she plays the various stages of Tonya Harding as callow redneck, potty-mouthed egotist and dumpy, reflective, middle-aged victim. And she can skate up a storm. She is simply astonishing.

The film itself brandishes its irony on its sleeve, with its characters addressing the camera during its more outrageous passages. Think This is Spinal Tap with a diabolic edge. Even so, I, Tonya makes us care for its protagonist, a habitually abused perfectionist who just wanted to be the best that she could be. And if you can’t believe any of this, some of the taped interviews are actually played over the closing credits. What a story. Or stories.

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.

Journeyman  ***

Spoiler alert: Journeyman is not Rocky. It’s not even Cinderella Man, in which Paddy Considine played the best friend of Russell Crowe’s James J. Braddock, the real-life world heavyweight champion from 1935 to 1937. Being Considine’s second film as writer-director, following the stark and uncompromising Tyrannosaur (2011), Journeyman was unlikely to mine the clichés of the boxing film. Considine himself plays Matty Burton, a middleweight boxing champion at the end of his career who is coming to terms with being the father of a baby girl. His wife, the beautiful, sexy and caring Emma, is superbly rendered by Jodie Whittaker, who makes what could have been a one-dimensional trophy wife entirely credible. Considine, who has been a professional actor for almost two decades, knows how to hammer out truthful performances from his cast and he doesn’t disappoint here. He, himself, is terrific as the charming pugilist, and the dialogue doesn’t hit a false note. It’s heart-breaking stuff, of course, and not something one might easily recommend to the average cinemagoer. Nonetheless, it’s accomplished theatre. If Considine had come up with more of a story, it might have been a masterpiece.

Lady Bird  ****1/2

Lady Bird McPherson has ideas above her station. She dreams of escaping the provincial environs of Sacramento and attending a top university in New York. Yet she’s hardly ready for the real world: she is chronically untidy, self-absorbed, unrealistic about money, easily bored and, unlike many of her peers, she can’t even drive. She can cook – sort of – but makes as much of a mess in the kitchen as she does with her personal relationships. But Lady Bird’s worst fault is that she’s ashamed: ashamed of her parents, ashamed of her house and ashamed of her neighbourhood. And shame leads to deceit. She wants to be ‘in’ with the in-crowd, but her best male friend turns out to be gay and she’s just not that well-versed with the pop culture that goes with the territory…

Greta Gerwig is best known for her starring roles in Damsels in Distress, Frances Ha and Mistress America, although she also co-scripted the latter two films with her partner Noah Baumbach. Now she’s going solo as a writer-director and has fashioned the best feature in her filmography. Lady Bird stings of the truth and Gerwig admits that there is a strong autobiographical aura to her protagonist, beautifully inhabited by Saoirse Ronan in another free, effortless characterisation.

As character studies goes, this nuanced portrait of a young woman learning to walk in an adult world is as truthful, funny and moving as any we’ve seen. As an actress, Ms Gerwig can tend towards the mannered, but her skill as a writer is completely free of artifice. Her film is one we will want to re-visit, if only to savour its discreet period milieu (2002), understated humour and marvellous supporting performances, particularly from Tracy Letts and Laurie Metcalf as Lady Bird's parents. And the soundtrack featuring Alanis Morissette, Dave Matthews, Justin Timberlake and eight snippets of Sondheim is a joy.

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.

The Mercy  **1/2

Donald Crowhurst was an eloquent, dashing and charming fantasizer, the type of man on whom the British empire was built. He talked of dreams being “the seeds of action” and so, back in 1968, he resolved to become a hero – at any cost. In spite of his limited experience of the outside world, Crowhurst decided to sail around the globe single-handed and non-stop in order to bank the £5,000 prize money offered by The Sunday Times. But first he had to build a boat – and raise the appropriate funds.

As played by Colin Firth, Crowhurst is a dashing, charming and doting family man. His wife, Clare (Rachel Weisz), is a stunner, and their children are three of the most perfectly behaved offspring in recent cinema history. They would make a father proud. And, with all those Fair Isle sweaters, rope-corded dressing gowns and corduroy trousers, the lot of them look like they’ve been plucked out of an Enid Blyton novel.

But The Mercy has darker currents. It’s best if one is unfamiliar with the true-life tale of the British opportunist, particularly as the 2006 documentary Deep Water on Crowhurst received such universal acclaim. It is, indeed, a fascinating story, although Scott Z. Burns' screenplay takes a somewhat simplistic approach here. Firth seems out of his depth as the haunted mariner and a strong supporting cast is given little light or shade, in spite of the best efforts of David Thewlis as Crowhurst’s press agent Rodney Hallworth. So, inevitably, the acting honours fall into Rachel Weisz’s lap. The director James Marsh exhibits some skill in keeping the narrative balls in motion, although his yachting yarn is hardly a patch on J.C. Chandor's not dissimilar All Is Lost (2013).

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.

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.

Tomb Raider  ***

For a start, Lara Croft is not a tomb raider. Not in this version, anyway. The tomb raider is actually the amoral archaeologist Mathias Vogel, played by Walter Goggins, a villain with the closest set eyes since Bruce Dern in his heyday. But Goggins doesn’t pop up until halfway through Roar Uthaug's reboot of the video game franchise, which is a good thing. It’s good because, in spite of the film’s title, the best bits all occur before we even get to the tomb of the merciless Himiko, a Japanese sorceress.

One thing’s for sure, though: Lara Croft is one very lucky action heroine. Not only is she born with a silver spoon stuck between her pretty lips, but every time she’s been played on screen it’s been by an Oscar-winning actress. Back in 2001, she was embodied (and then some) by Angelina Jolie, and now by the Swedish actress Alicia Vikander. Ms Vikander, who won an Oscar for The Danish Girl, can play anything, from an English princess in the excellent A Royal Affair (2012) to the seductive android in the excellent Ex Machina (2015). And now she’s Lara Croft, an English heiress who’s never happier than when indulging her passion for extreme sport (boxing, cycling) or solving esoteric puzzles. She’s a bright young woman, although her dogged independence makes it hard for her to pay her bills as a two-wheeled courier in London. But what wheels, and what legs, and what a six-pack. The actress trained for six months to attain her athletic look, stating, “I loved the discipline, about transforming myself.”

Ultimately, any film, be it a musical, domestic drama or genre piece, is enriched by the credibility of its central character. And Vikander brings a humanity and vulnerability to Lara Croft that was nowhere to be seen in the earlier films. When she’s knocked down, we really feel her pain – and we feel her grit and her determination. The action scenes are well staged, too, from a thrilling cycle race across the streets, parks and pavements of central London, to a junk-hopping chase on foot across the harbour of Hong Kong. And a sequence at the top of a vertiginous waterfall, in which our heroine manoeuvres her way along the rusting hulk of a precariously balanced plane, is a masterclass in suspense. It’s only when the film goes all Indiana Jones on us that it loses its bite, but there’s still some ingenuity to spare. Besides, by then, Vikander has made sure that we have invested in her character.

Truth or Dare  *1/2

Demons do get around. The one in this generic horror film has the audacity to possess a game. The diversion in question, a game not dissimilar to the one featured in the 2016 techno-thriller Nerve, turns a group of close-knit college friends against each other. If one of their number either lies or refuses to follow up a dare, they will die (gruesomely).

The strength of the premise is that most of us would rather not expose some aspect of our lives to somebody else. The weakness is that the dares the students are asked to carry out are rather over-the-top. This particular coterie seems to possess more secrets than a White House administration and only slowly begin to realise that their bond of friendship is their best bet for survival.

With films like A Quiet Place and Get Out showing us how good horror can be with a bit of subtext and intelligence, Truth or Dare drags the genre back into the murk. Ultimately, any horror film or thriller is only as effective as the empathy one can extend to the characters and this set of well-scrubbed Californian mannequins looks like they’ve stumbled off a shopfront window display. All the girls are supermodel perfect with perfect teeth and perfect diets and the lads obviously play a lot of football, while the token ethnic minority and gay friend is conveniently rolled into one.

And so the film traces the Ten Little Indians template perpetrated by such horror series as Friday the 13th and Final Destination, but with less wit and ingenuity. The genuinely disturbing element is that it took four scriptwriters to come up with the story and that the unsatisfactory conclusion leaves the concept open for more of the same.

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.

Wonder Wheel  ***

It is difficult to watch Woody Allen’s forty-sixth film as writer-director without peeking behind the fiction. In it, Kate Winslet, as the waitress Ginny Rannell, gives one of the best performances of her career – and yet she wishes that she had never made the film. In a speech at the London Film Critics’ Circle Awards, the actress, with tears in her eyes, expressed her “bitter regrets” about her “poor decisions to work with individuals with whom I wish I had not.” And we know of whom she speaks. Woody Allen is 82 and, knowing how he is now regarded in the film community, it is unlikely he will find the actors or the funding to make another picture. His next, A Rainy Day in New York, starring Timothée Chalamet and Jude Law, is in post-production.

There are other disturbing aspects to Wonder Wheel. The story of a woman traded in for a younger model cannot but prompt thoughts of the director’s own marriage to Soon-Yi Previn, the adopted daughter of his former long-term partner Mia Farrow. Maybe, then, Wonder Wheel is an act of public self-recrimination.

Yet, ultimately, one must separate the puppet master from his art. Lately, Woody Allen’s output has been pretty hit-or-miss, with only Café Society (2016) displaying the imagination and nuance of his earlier work. Here, his homage to the theatre of Tennessee Williams and Eugene O’Neill – set on Coney Island in the 1950s – is the product of a more mature artist, a director unafraid to trust his leading lady with lengthy, single-take monologues. Needless to say, Ms Winslet pulls these off with aplomb. More problematic and baffling is the running gag of Ginny’s young son, Richie (Jack Gore), instigating a series of arson attacks. Still, the other characters are well-drawn, with Jim Belushi as Ginny’s oafish husband, Juno Temple as his daughter – on the run from the Mob – and Justin Timberlake as a lifeguard.

But it is Kate Winslet’s world-weary, disillusioned dreamer – haunted by the ghost of Blanche DuBois – that truly merits the price of admission.

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.