Cinemas are gradually reopening with special safety measures in place. As such, this column will wherever possible include reviews of new releases alongside additions to new films which are only being made available on various streaming platforms. Please ensure you check all health & safety requirements, such as face masks, before visiting a cinema
Actor Clark Duke turns writer-producer-director for this quirky Southern crime dramedy that, adapted alongside Andrew Boonkrong from John Brandon’s novel, comes with more than a few laconic shades of the Coens in its shift from leisurely pacing to sudden violence, but still has a flavour of its own.
Told in chapters, it follows the accidental misadventures of garrulous, wispy moustachioed oddball Swin (Duke) and the less loquacious and unruffled but more impatient Kyle (Liam Hemsworth, who, in the opening narration, notes that organised crime in the South is “a loose affiliation of deadbeats and scumbags”), am odd couple reluctantly thrown together as menials at the bottom of a large drug operation run by a mysterious figure called Frog, who they never knowingly meet and who, in the course of ferrying a shipment, brings them under the thumb of Bright (John Malkovich gleefully chewing the scenery), who uses his job as a park-ranger job as cover for his role as the middle-manager in Frog’s drug-running smuggling outfit sending them on trips to Louisiana or Texas in between tending the park. As the pair discover, the operation also involves a woman who goes only by the name of Her (Vivica A. Fox) who provides packages for them to deliver.
As the film ambles amiably along, contrary to Bright’s instructions, Swin strikes up a romance with local nurse Johnna (Eden Brolin) while, after he and Kyle are followed back from a deal, both Bright and his lowlife assailant (Chandler Duke) end up dead, leaving the pair uncertain what to do next with all the money, never sure if Frog knows what’s going on or not.
Switching back and forth in time and with scenes revisited in hindsight, in a chapter decicated to his rise from selling bootleg cassettes in 80s Memphis to become a drugs boss, we meet Frog (Vince Vaughn) who first gets a job with and then stitches up a smalltime Little Rock dealer Almond (Michael Kenneth Williams) and takes over operations before, as a subsequent chapter reveals, taking on lunkhead twin brothers Tim and Thomas (Brad William Henke, Jeff Chase) to whom he, in turn, passes on the business and retires to become the pawn shack owner whose path Swin and Kyle unwittingly cross. Ultimately, as the threads come together, it ends up with a considerable body count.
Mixing sudden violence and droll whimsical humour with its deadpan throwaways, extending to cameos by Devendra Banhart who wrote the score and The Flaming Lips who appear as a bar band murdering a George Jones classic as well as providing soundtrack versions of The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down and Larry Gatlin’s All The Gold In California, it is, perhaps, at times a little too eccentric for its own good, but even so it’ very entertaining watch. (Amazon and others)
Set almost entirely within a commercial airliner cockpit and, for the most part, a solo tour de force Joseph Gordon-Levitt, told in real time this German-made thriller by director Patrick Vollrath unfolds an attempted Berlin to Paris midflight hijacking. Gordon-Levitt is Tobias Ellis, the American first officer, and the early scenes establish his relationship with the affable Captain, Michael Lutzmann (Carlo Kitzlinger) and stewardess Gokce (Aylin Tezel), his partner and mother of his two year-old son.The mundane is quickly shattered when, shortly after takeoff, two Islamic terrorists attempt to storm the cockpit armed with blades made from glass. Ellis manages to force one back, but the other, more elderly of the two, wounds both Lutzmann and Ellis before being overpowered and tied up.
Alerting air control that they’ve had a 7500, it’s now Ellis’s job to make an emergency landing at Hanover. However, it’s not going to be that easy. First, Lutzmann dies and then, contacting him over the intercom, a particularly violent terrorist threatens to kill one of the passengers until Ellis opens the cockpit door. Which, of course, he is forbidden to do, piling on the pressure as he’s conflicted between duty and morality.
It’s not too difficult to guess how another hostage situation develops, but then matters take a dramatic swerve when the captive terrorist escapes and allows his younger colleague (Omid Memar) to gain access, setting up a new dynamic between the three of them, especially given the teenager is less persuaded he wants to die for the greater good.
Other than scenes played on the black and white door monitor, it all takes place within the cockpit, ramping up the tension and claustrophobia as the power dynamics shift back and forth. There’s no conventional Hollywood heroics although the screenplay does take a slightly predictable clichéd turn in the final stretch, though not without diluting the violence and tension. Gordon-Levitt’s delivers a persuasive naturalistic performance while the ending is suitably anti-climatic in the numbness of the aftermath. (Amazon Prime)
Artemis Fowl (PG)
Originally planned for a 2019 release, then postponed, this adaptation of Eoin Colfer’s first of his eight Artemis Fowl novels about the teenage Irish anti-hero now bypasses cinemas altogether to debut on Disney +. It doesn’t arrive trailing exactly enthusiastic reviews, but despite its many faults – among them some wooden acting, clunky dialogue and anonymous direction from Kenneth Branagh – it ends up being quite fun, at least for the target audience.
Of course, Colfer fans will doubtless complain that it’s got ahead of the series and, rather than the 12 year old criminal mastermind in the original first few books, young Artemis (a somewhat stiff Ferdia Shaw) is already the plucky hero he becomes later, but really that’s neither here nor there and the film does nod to that by having the elder art dealer Artemis (Colin Farrell) being accused of being an international thief whose been stealing precious artefacts from around the world and storing them in his remote clifftop sprawling mansion where he lives with his son and bodyguard Butler (Nonso Anozie) and, brought in for added protection (even if she vanishes from the plot for long stretches and doesn’t really seem to do much), Butler’s niece Juliet (Tamara Smart).
Well, yes and no. He has, but in order to protect the world from a dangerous magic. You see, he’s apparently the only human who knows of the existence of a subterranean fairy world populated by trolls, goblins, dwarfs and the like, from which he’s stolen something called the Aculos to prevent it from being used to by dark forces to destroy all humans and dominate fairydom.
He’s also been teaching young Artemis (initially coming across as a bratty whiz kid) all about leprechauns and the other fairy legends as if they were real which, when dad disappears (abducted by some mysterious hooded figure who wants the Aculos to do exactly what I mentioned above), he quickly learns it is when, after subduing rampant troll marauding through a wedding (all humans put into a time freeze in the process and then mind-wiped), young (well, 84 years is teenage in fairy years) LEPrecon operative Holly Short (a perky elfin Lara McDonnell), the daughter of the late supposed traitor Beechwood, a friend of Fowl Sr who helped purloin the Aculos, disobeys orders and winds up his captive.
This prompts the LEPrecon Commander Root (Judi Dench dressed in lime green, sporting elf ears and speaking like she has gravel in her throat) to time freeze Fowl Manor and send in the winged troops to rescue her, and find the Aculos in the process. However, having bonded, Artemis and Holly are now working together to find where dad’s hidden it and rescue him.
All of this is told in flashback by giant dirt eating dwarf digger Mulch (Josh Gad) who’s being interrogated by some sort of British secret service and who also plays a major role in the battle at the manor.
The obvious influences, chiefly Men in Black (Artemis dresses in black suit and wears shades), Harry Potter (Mulch as surrogate Hagrid) and Star Wars (Farrell’s captor akin to Palpatine), do it no favours by comparison, but despite some confusing transitions, it rattles along quickly enough to keep its target audience distracted and the visual effects are definitely impressive. Like the ill-fated The Golden Compass 2007 adaptation before it, it ends setting up the main characters for the next stage in the adventure. That never saw light of day, but, perhaps Disney’s new streaming platform may yet give Fowl a fair chance of magicking up a franchise after all. (Disney +)
Bad Boys For Life (15)
A so so turn in Aladdin aside, Will Smith hasn’t made a truly decent movie since Hancock back in 2008, hardly surprising then to see this reboot of arguably his most successful, though not necessarily best, work. Directed by little known Belgian duo Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah, taking over from Michael Bay (who gets a cheeky cameo), with a screenplay that involved three writers, including od hands Peter Draig and Joe Carnahan, he reteams with Martin Lawrence after 17 years to revive the partnership of apparently incredibly well paid maverick Miami narcotics detectives Mike Lowrey (Smith) and Marcus Burnett (Lawrence), still on the streets bringing down the bad guys, even if a few grey hairs and some added weight are showing.
Mike behind the wheel of his blue Porsche, the film kicks off with they swapping banter during a frantic car chase involving several squad cars and bikes, though amusingly (albeit downright recklessly) not in pursuit of some villains but to get Marcus to the hospital where his grandson (who’s named after him) is being born. It’s an epiphany that sees Burnett decide to retire and put his feet up while Lowrey insists on carrying on (cue comparison scenes of the two friends going about their different daily lives), “running down criminals until I’m a hundred.” But then he’s almost killed in a drive-by shooting by a helmeted man in black on a motorbike, leading Marcus to tell God he’ll give up violence if his buddy pulls through and setting in the motion the core narrative in which recent prison escapee Mexican witch Isabel Aretas (Kate del Castillo), the widow of a cartel boss, sends her sociopathic sniper son, Armando (Jacob Scipio), to assassinate everyone involved in the case, leaving Lowrey to last (though he does try and jump the gun), in revenge.
With Marcus now having retired and Mike ordered by the captain (Jo Pantoliano) to get involved, the case is hand over to the newly formed AMMO tactical squad, headed up by one of Lowrey’s old flames, Rita (Paola Núñez), and featuring the regulation mix of one dimensional colourful oddballs, snarky Rafe (Charles Melton), an underused Vanessa Hudgens as ballistics expert Kelly and ripped tech guy Dorn (Alexander Ludwig) who has also renounced violence. Naturally, Mike’s not going to sit back and do nothing, so it’s not long before things are getting blown up and the body count rising as they try and track down who’s responsible.
All of this is formulaic stuff, but it’s given a darker, harder and more emotive edge when the somewhat far-fetched third act reveals Mike’s backstory and a connection between those seeking his death that is about more than it first appears. Smith and Lawrence skip comfortably back into their roles and clearly seem to be having fun rather than just taking the paycheque, riffing on the franchise with constant repeats of their mantra and the theme song. Although most of the target audience were still toddlers when the last instalment came out, there’s no attempt to reinvent anything here, just to reignite the fun and put a little more grit and thought into the fuel. And, as such with the end credits setting up what promises to be an unusual family alliance sequel, it does just that. (Empire Great Park; Odeon Broadway Plaza)
Adapted from a second division comic and borrowing heavily from both Universal Soldier and The Matrix, this derivative sci fi affair stars Vin Diesel as Ray Garrison, a Marine who, in the opening sequence, rescues a hostage from a bunch of hostiles and, back home, is later taken prisoner as a result, interrogated for information by Martin Axe (Toby Kebbel) who, dancing his way in to Talking Heads’ Psycho Killer has clearly watched Reservoir Dogs too often, and then, after seeing his wife, Gina (Talulah Riley), killed, is shot dead.
Then he wakes up in a hi-tech lab to be told by Dr. Emil Harting (Guy Pearce), the project overseer with a robotic arm, that he’s the first soldier to be successfully brought back from the dead and enhanced by nanotechnology, giving him super strength, a mega-computer brain and, thanks to the nanites that are now his blood, the ability of his body to quickly repair any injury. On the downside, he has no memory of who is or his past. However, put in the care of KT (Eiza González), who, along with machine man Dalton (Sam Heughan) has been reengineered after combat injuries, on being reintroduced to alcohol he takes a quick shot and images of Gina’s execution come flooding back, prompting him to take off, using his new powers to fly a jet to Budapest , track down Axe and wreak vengeance before, as he always does, heading home.
All relatively clear so far. But then the film swerves off into Matrix/Source Code territory in which, without giving too much away, it turns out that Garrison is being used (in what seems unnecessarily complicated and hugely expensive) as a souped-up assassin as he then proceeds to go through the whole thing again, only this time the face of the wife-killer is different. From here, the whole thing becomes increasingly incoherent and farfetched as, discovering his memories may not be real, and finding an ally among the other enhanced along with babbling genius computer code nerd Wilfred Wigans (a wildly overacting Lamorne Morris), he naturally sets out, chest glowing red, to take down Harding.
Cobbled together from far superior films, first time director David S.F. Wilson uses his visual effects background to striking effect, especially during a duel on a skyscraper’s exoskeletal elevator and the tunnel car chase where Garrison’s face is blown off and reassembles, but even this is just Terminator/Matrix redux. Pearce plays it sneeringly cool, González makes the most of a scrappily written role and Diesel does what Diesel does. Expect nothing else and you won’t be too disappointed, even so you may feel they spelled the title with one letter wrong. (Empire Great Park; Odeon Broadway Plaza)
Da 5 Bloods (15)
Opening with Muhammed Ali’s famous 1978 speech about refusing to drafted for the Vietnam War and proceeding through a collage of footage of African American soldiers in the conflict, Kwame Ture’s declaration that “America has declared war on black people” and Angela Davis warning that “If the link-up is not made between what’s happening in Vietnam and what’s happening here, we may very well face a period of full-blown fascism very soon,” all set to Marvin Gaye Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler) with its line about “trigger-happy policing”, it’s clear that Spike Lee’s latest resonates loudly with the current protests in America and beyond.
That, however, remains a subtext to this thematically sprawling, tonally inconsistent but undeniably compelling tale of a group of African-American veterans reuniting many years later to revisit Vietnam. Ostensibly, the reason is to recover the remains of their former squad leader, Stormin’ Norman (Chadwick Boseman), who was killed during an operation, and return them for burial. However, through a flashback to the mission, it’s quickly revealed that the overriding motive for most of them is to recover the caseful of US gold bullion intended for the South Vietnamese allies which they stumbled upon and buried to reclaim later since, as Norman puts it, “the USA owe us. We built this bitch.”
The four middle-aged buddies comprise Otis (a soulful Clarke Peters), Melvin (Isiah Whitlock Jr) and Eddie (Norm Lewis) and Trump-supporting Paul (Delroy Lindo), the latter the most troubled of the group, haunted by guilt nightmares and suffering PTSD for reasons only revealed (not easy to surmise) in the final stretch when he loses it completely. Joining them, much to his father’s displeasure, is Paul’s concerned teacher son David (Jonathan Majors) while their guide for the trip is Vinh (Johnny Trí Nguyễn).
To get the gold out, through Tien (Lê Y Lan), a former prostitute who was Otis’ lover during the war (and by whom he discovers he has a daughter), they strike a deal with shady French businessman Desroche (Jean Reno), while, later in proceedings they cross paths with Hedy (Mélanie Thierry), founder of a landmine removal organisation, and her two colleagues. You don’t have to be a genius to know that, as the plot twist and personalities, motives and paranoias clash, there’s be fallings out, double crosses and at least one incident involving buried mine.
Nodding to a range of touchstones, among them Treasure of the Sierra Madre and, inevitably, Apocalypse Now (even down to using Ride of the Valkyries), it rattles along between the present quest and flashbacks to the fateful mission as the group dynamics swing from one extreme to another, one minute addressing the estranged father/son relationship, the next focusing on how Blacks were exploited as the war’s cannon fodder (cue a recreation of Hanoi Hannah broadcasting her propaganda) while maintaining a basic action movie narrative as it heads for the inevitable showdown between the Bloods, those who want to take the gold and Paul’s meltdown (a sterling turn by Lindo) as the truth of what happened to Norman back in the day emerges.
Co-written Lee’s BlacKkKlansman co-writer Kevin Willmott, its convoluted and narratively messy, but, between an amusing nightclub dance sequence, a scene where two elderly ex-Viet Cong but the Bloods a round and the powerful central performances, it keeps you glued throughout its two hours plus. (Netflix)
Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga (12A)
There may not have been an actual Eurovision this year, but, directed by David Dobkin, this Will Ferrell comedy perfectly captures the contest’s self-parodying multi-cultural kitsch. Unfortunately, it takes an often laborious two hours for what is essentially a sketch that, at best, should never have gone beyond 90 minutes. Obsessed with Eurovision from the moment he saw ABBA perform Waterloo on TV in 1974 as a child in his small fishing village, obliviously naïve Lars Erickssong (Ferrell in long blonde wig) has had only one goal, to win for Iceland. Though derided by his buttoned-up fisherman father (Pierce Brosnan, playing it relatively straight with a wink in the eye), who reckons his son’s wasted his entire life and the villagers, who only want to hear them play their banal risqué ‘hit’ Ja Ja Ding Dong, it’s dream shared by Sigrit Ericksdotti (Rachel McAdams), his elves-believing childhood best friend and platonic sweetheart who’s also his musical partner in Fire Saga.
Katiana (Demi Lovato) is already the foregone conclusion as the country’s entry, the rules see Fire Saga randomly selected to make up the numbers and failing badly. But, when the boat on which all the other contestants are partying explodes, killing everyone on board, the selection committee find themselves who choice but to enter the duo and their song Double Trouble, much to the relief of Victor Karlosson, the Central Bank of Iceland governor, who reckons winning would bankrupt them.
Arriving in Edinburgh for the contest, they get to meet all the other country’s entrants, most specifically Russia’s preening, fake tan lothario Alexander Lemtov (a brilliant Dan Stevens) with his homoerotic entry Lion of Love who sets his sights on seducing Sigrit, getting Greek contestant Mita Xenakis (Melissanthi Mahut) to distract Lars. The whole romantic subplot (Sigrit wants love, Lars is too scared to get involved) lumbers badly as the relationship strains at the seams, McAdams feeling somewhat constrained and uncomfortable in her performance while, by contrast, Ferrell again serves up his silly man child excesses and penis jokes that have long ceased to be particularly funny.
There is, though, much fun to be had in the over the top costumes and musical elements, kicking off with Fire Saga’s wonderfully ridiculous Volcano Man video with Lars in Viking costume and running through the different country’s entries (any of which could have been actual Eurovision songs, such as Swedish hip-hop outfit Johnny John John’s Coolin’ With Da Homies) to the giant hamster wheel disaster during the duo’s semi-finals performance and the big finale where, hitting her semi-mythical “speorg note,” Sigrit gets to sing her self-penned Icelandic anthem, Homeland.
There’s also an exuberant ‘song-along’ sequence at Lemtov’s house as all the guests, who include actual former Eurovision stars, among the Austrian drag queen winner Conchita, in a mash-up of Believe, Ray of Light, Waterloo and I Gotta Feeling, while 2017 Portuguese winner Salvador Sobral cameo as piano-playing busker. It slips up on some of the technical details (Eastern European hosts in Edinburgh?), but at least Graham Norton appears as his sarcastic self as the UK commentator, whose observations on the Icelandic entry might well also apply to the film itself. (Netflix)
A long-time project for Tom Hanks, he both adapted C.S. Forester’s 1955 novel The Good Shepherd and stars as Ernie Krause, a devoutly religious U.S. Navy Captain whose first command is to take charge of the Greyhound, leader of the light warships charged with overseeing a convey of 37 supply ships as cross the Atlantic to Britain, in 1942, a voyage with entails 48 hours without air support in a region known as the Black Pit where they are at the mercy of Nazi U-boats.
There’s a brief opening flashback to a scene between Krause and his long-time sweetheart (Elisabeth Shue) as they meet prior to his taking up command and she suggests now’s not the right time to get engaged, but other than that virtually the entire film takes place on the bridge of the Greyhound as Krause and the crew variously seek to hunt down and destroy or evade the marauding Grey Wolf pack of enemy submarines, including a taunting message from an unseen U-boat commander (Thomas Kretschmann) that comes across as unintentionally cartoonish.
As such, the featured cast is limited to Hanks, Stephen Graham as his navigator, Rob Morgan as the ship’s African-American cook, forever bringing the captain coffee and sandwiches, gunnery officer Manuel Garcia-Rulfo and Hanks’ son Chet as the sonar operator. And yet, it’s only Krause that has any real character depth, a mixture of insecurity at his first time of testing, his faith and, being Hanks, is deep humanity. Likewise, there’s not a great deal of scope for narrative development and, when not staging action sequences upon the turbulent digitised ocean (mostly dark and at night) as they either hunt or narrowly evade the subs, or a near miss between the Greyhound and an oil tanker, it revolves around the cast looking seriously at each other and trotting out various naval terms like “Hard rudder left!” Basically, it’s a single scene repeated several times with just some minor variations. And while, directed by Aaron Schneider, it has a claustrophobic intensity and affords Hanks another chance to go minimalist and do his familiar stoicism, sincerity and integrity, it doesn’t exactly make for compelling viewing. (Netflix)
The Invisible Man (15)
All the best horror films know that’s it’s what you don’t see is the scariest, letting the imagination build the tension. That’s the premise of writer-director Leigh Whannell’s reimagining of the HG Wells classic as a thriller that, for all its increasingly far-fetched developments and plot holes, is a genuinely suspenseful watch, the use of long shots and empty space adding to the creepiness in suggesting someone watching unseen.
The film opens in the middle of the night with architect Cecilia (Elizabeth Moss) surreptitiously gathering her things and sneaking out of the high-tech and high security house she shares with her controlling, abusive boyfriend, Adrian (Oliver Jackson-Cohen),an inventor who specialises in light, leaving him drugged in bed. She’s met by her sister, Emily (Harriet Dyer), driving off just as Adrian arrived and attacks the car.
Some weeks later, she’s taken refuge at the home of her Bay Area police detective friend James (Aldis Hodge) and his teenage daughter, Sydney (Storm Reid), too scared to step outside the house. But then Emily arrives to say Adrian’s apparently committed suicide, so good news all round. She’s then surprised to learn from his attorney brother Tom (Michael Dorman), that he left her $5million, to be paid in monthly instalments, part of which she immediately puts into an account to pay for Sydney’s college. But then she starts feeling uneasy, as if someone’s watching her and, diagnosed as having excess Diazepam in her blood after fainting at an interview, her architectural drawings mysteriously no longer in her portfolio, she find the pills bottle she dropped in fleeing now in her bathroom and realises that someone Adrian is stalking her, somehow alive and invisible (using a suit and advanced digital imaging it’s later explained) rather than from beyond the grave.
Naturally no-one believes her and given events for which she’s seemingly responsible, including murder, she’s duly diagnosed as crazy and locked up in a mental hospital, unable to clear her name. And it just gets worse until she finally begins to fight back.
While Adrian is clearly gaslighting her, the film makes it clear that she’s not paranoid and imaging things, something that wouldn’t work if Moss, fresh from The Handmaid’s Tale, wasn’t so convincing when she’s shown struggling with an invisible presence throwing her around the room and in also investing Cecilia with such emotional intensity as she, understandably, unravels. The supporting cast are disappointingly one-dimensional and only really there to serve the narrative, Whamell drawing on some tried and tested horror tropes such as doors opening by themselves and blankets being pulled of a bad to add to the chills, but also underlaying the screenplay with a commentary on abuse victims often being invisible themselves and remaining terrorised long after the abuser has vanished from the scene. It falls apart slightly at the all too conveniently pat ending, but otherwise it’s a case of what you don’t see really getting you. (Empire Great Park)
Darker, both tonally and morally, than even Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, and devoid of any of flip humour, it’s not escaped controversy regarding the extreme violence. And yes, yet in a dystopian early 80s Gotham, it is intense, brutal, graphic and bloody, but while Todd Phillips seeks to explain and understand, at no point does he excuse, justify or glorify.
First introduced applying his clown for hire makeup, contorting his face into a deranged smile that might give Stephen King nightmares, Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) is a mentally disturbed, dead inside loser and loner, who, on medication and seeing a social worker counsellor, lives with his single, infirm mother (Frances Conroy) in a crappy apartment and who suffers from a neurological condition that expresses itself as a sort of laughter version of Tourette’s. His Everything Must Go promotional placard snatched by a bunch of kids, he’s left badly beaten, prompting a fellow worker to slip him a gun with which he subsequently kills the three Wall Street bully boys who harass and attack him on a subway train, an act that, seized on my the media with its vigilante clown headlines, ignites the fuse to already simmering unrest in Gotham, and about the glaring divide between the poor (who adopt clown masks a la V for Vendetta) and the rich, as emblemised by Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen who, here a loathsome rather than benevolent figure, is running for mayor having castigated the ‘mob’ as all clowns. Indeed, Phillips introduces several moments to enfold his vision within the Batman mythos and the connections between the Dark Knight and his ultimate nemesis.
An aspirant stand-up, Arthur is also a huge admirer of TV talk show host Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro, the Jerry Langford to Arthur’s Rupert Pupkin, conjuring King of Comedy echoes just as the film channels Mean Streets/Taxi Driver Scorsese) so, despite a clip of a stage act being screened on the show as a humiliating put-down, when he’s invited to appear, he naturally agrees. However, by this point, with yet more bodies to his count, having been confronted with the terrible truth about his childhood and his mother and, increasingly delusional as the joke turns in on itself, when he turns up in the familiar Joker outfit, dancing on his way to the strains of Gary Glitter’s Rock and Roll Part 2, no one in the audience should be expecting this to go well.
Given the impressions made by both Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger in the role, Phoenix clearly had hard acts to follow, but he brings a whole new dimension (and demented cackle) of his own to the character, both, with his skeletal frame and facial expressions, physically (his frequent dance routines infused with the tragic comedy and pathos of Chaplin), emotionally and psychologically, as we understand and empathise with the pain that drives him over the edge, but do not condone the horrific consequences. It’s a staggering performance that can’t help but eclipse those around him (Zazie Beetz particularly suffers from an underwritten role as Arthur’s single-mom neighbour and, we are led to believe, caring lover), but it fits perfectly with the world around him.
Driven by Hildur Gudnadóttir’s brooding score and the ironic use of numbers like That’s Life and Send In The Clowns, like The Purge, the film taps into a disturbing powder keg zeitgeist of civil unrest (set to Cream’s White Room) and looming anarchic class war as, summing things up, Arthur asks Murray “What do you get when you cross a mentally ill loner with a society that abandons him and treats him like trash?” His and the film’s answer is ‘what you fuckin’ deserve’. As Groucho Marx said, “The only real laughter comes from despair”. (Empire Great Park)
My Spy (12A)
He’s not yet got the film opening profile of fellow wrestler turned actor Dwayne Johnson, but Dave Bautista is ably proving he has the chops to mix action and deadpan comedy to hugely entertaining effect. Here he’s JJ, a heavily tattooed former Special Forces soldier now with the CIA who’s assigned to a lowly surveillance job after his tough guy actions blew a mission and let a bad guy escape with one half of the means to build a nuclear weapon. Teamed (in an echo of Spy) with nerdy, hero-worshipping new tech support analyst Bobbi (Kristen Schaal), his boss (Ken Jeong) gives him one last chance, bugging and watching the Chicago apartment belonging to Kate (Pariza Fitz-Henley) the widow of a dead arms dealer, murdered by his terrorist mastermind brother Marquez (Greg Byrk) on the offchance he turns up. Unfortunately, JJ’s cover is quickly blown by Kate’s precocious nine-year-old, Sophie (Chloe Coleman), who capturing everything on her phone, threatens to expose them unless, the new kid in town, friendless and bullied at school, he agrees to take her ice-skating. It doesn’t end there, proving easily able to outwit him, he’s then inveigled into being her school show and tell buddy and even teaching her the tricks of the spy trade, such as how to avoid being detected in a lie, at which she’s remarkably adept. And, of course, she’s soon setting him up as prospective romantic interest for mum, self-imposed loner JJ learning once again how to relate to people and get in touch with his feelings. At which point, having been on hold long enough, the nuclear plotline resurfaces when Marquez comes calling.
Directed by Peter Berg, while ostensibly pitched at tweenies, the gay neighbours, a lesbian gag, a witty nod to Indiana Jones and the Lost Ark and the gunplay action clearly have an adult audience in mind too, the comedy (which in places recalls Mr Nanny and, Kindergarten Cop) appealing to both with some frequent laugh out loud moments as well as sly genre spoofs such as JJ teaching Sophie how to walk away from explosions in slow motion.
Bautista and Coleman share brilliant chemistry and comic timing, even if it’s Schaal who gets the lion’s share of the best one-liners, with Segal succeeding in mining the kid and surrogate dad sentiment without drowning in schmaltz. A reteaming would be most welcome.(Empire Great Park)
The Old Guard (15)
Following on from Mad Max and Atomic Blonde, Charlize Theron further underscores her cool action movie persona as Ancient Greece warrior Andromache of Scythia aka Andy, the head of a small group of immortal mercenaries that also comprises Booker (Matthias Schoenaerts), who gained immortality after dying in the Napoleonic Wars and Joe (Marwan Kenzari) and Nicky (Luca Marinelli) who became gay lovers while fighting on opposing sides in the Crusades. Keeping a low profile so as not to attract attention to themselves, they’ve fought on the side of right through the centuries, to which end, brought back together after a year apart, although, disillusioned by humanity’s continued inability to redeem itself, she declares “The world can burn for all I care”, she’s persuaded by former CIA operative Copley (Chiwetel Ejiofor) to rescue 17 schoolchildren abducted in South Sudan.
However, this turns out to be a set up aimed at capturing them and harvesting their DNA engineered by pharmaceuticals CEO Merrick (Harry Melling, unrecognisable from his role as Harry Potter’s Dudley Dursley) who claims he wants to end cognitive decline, but whose actual motives are rather less altruistic.
The corporate villain has become something of a cliché and the film, self-adapted by Greg Ruckahich from his graphic novels and which sees director Gina Prince-Bythewood spreading her wings after romantic dramas, never seems as assured in the basic plot framework as it does in handling the character interplay and the action sequences.
The quarter are soon joined by a fifth member, American Marine Nile Freeman (KiKi Layne) who, much to her confusion and the unease of her fellow soldiers, recovers from a fatal neck-wound in Afghanistan without so much as a scar. A psychic bond between fellow immortals leads to Andy rescuing her from the military base and, after a mano a mano fight aboard a transport plane, recruiting her to the cause, though she remains understandably freaked out about the whole set-up.
Not that, with Merrick’s paramilitary squad on their tail, anyone has a great deal of time to sit around reflecting on the cost of immortality and rapid healing, and never knowing when your time will be up. The character depth is thickened by the revelation that Andy is haunted by guilt over the fate of her first fellow immortal, Quynh (Van Veronica Ngo) following their capture during the witchcraft trials.
As such, the film jumps around from Africa and Southern Asia to rural Paris as the group elude pursuit and seek to track down Copley before, after a betrayal and two abductions for experimentation, it all climaxes in an extended shoot-out at Mannix’s London HQ.
Dressed in black (though flashbacks have her in Amazonian armour) with a bob-cut, Theron strides confidently through the film, delivering action and conflicted character complexity and psychological baggage with equal skill, and she’s well-supported by her four peers, Layne especially strong while Schoenaerts provides soulful melancholia and Kenzari and Marinelli introduce a degree of humour and tenderness.
With one of the group apparently losing their immortality and a six months later end credits scene that sets up further mystery and intrigue, this is clearly envisioned as an ongoing narrative, both as high octane action and exploring what it means to be human; it most certainly deserves a sequel. (Netflix)
The latest outing from Pixar may not reach the emotional heights or inspired storytelling of the Toy Story series, but, even so, it’s still leagues above its rivals in the family animation stakes. It takes a familiar and well-tested coming-of-age scenario about chalk and cheese siblings learning to work together and understand each other as well as dealing with loss and hurt and gives it a fantasy setting in a world where magic once ruled but has fallen into disuse with the rise of technology such as lightbulbs and planes. Now unicorns scavenge in New Mushroomton’s dustbins and dragons are family pets.
Directed by Dan Scanlon the protagonists are elfin brothers Ian Lightfoot (Tom Holland), an awkward, insecure teenager overshadowed by his extrovert stoner-like metal-head older brother Barley (Chris Pratt), a snarky role-playing fantasy gamer and history nut who believes the games are based on old realities and drives a battered van he’s dubbed Gwniver. Together, they live with their outgoing widowed mom, Laurel (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), who’s dating macho centaur cop Colt Bronco (Mel Rodriguez).
On Ian’s 16th birthday, mom presents him with something left by their late father (Scanlon lost his own father when he was one and has no memories of him), which turns out to be a wizard’s staff, a gem and instructions on how to bring dad back to life for a day. Naturally, Barley assumes he has the necessary magic powers, but it turns out that they actually run in Ian’s DNA. Unfortunately, he’s not quite up to the task and the spell falls apart midway, leaving dad as just a pair of legs, prompting the brothers to set off on a quest to find a second gemstone to complete the spell and finally meet and say goodbye to their father before the sun sets.
So, dressing the trousers up Weekend at Bernie’s style with a puffy jacket floppy torso and sunglasses, the pair hit the road (Ian wants to take the shortest route, Barley the path of peril) as the film unfolds into an episodic quest adventure, Bronco and mom in pursuit, that variously involves a run in with a biker gang of tiny flightless pixies, the Manticore (Octavia Spencer), the fabled lion-scorpion-bat warrior whose titular tavern is now a cheesy themed fast food joint that contains the map to the gem’s location (she and mom teaming up as a formidable double act to get to the boys before they unwittingly unleash the curse) and a somewhat rushed climax that pits everyone against a giant rock dragon made up of the town’s demolished school. There’s some delightful moments en route, including a dance scene between brothers and dad’s legs and disguise cloak that only works if the wearer tells the truth (making for an awkward brotherly moment), as Ian learns to become more confident and eventually realise the strength of his relationship with Barley who’s essentially tried to be the dad he never had. It’s not Up, but it’s definitely facing the right direction. (Empire Great Park; Odeon Broadway Plaza)
Queen & Slim (15)
Driving back from a mismatched Tinder date that hasn’t gone as well as it might, though they’re never referred to as such throughout, Slim, god-fearing, teetotal blue collar employee Ernest (Get Out’s Daniel Kaluuya) and Queen (a starmaking turn by Jodie Turner-Smith), Angela, an upscale atheist defence lawyer with commitment issues, are pulled over by a clearly racist trigger-happy Ohio cop (Sturgill Simpson), resulting in Queen being wounded and Slim accidentally shooting the officer dead. With apparently no witnesses, realising two blacks involved in a cop killing aren’t going to get justice, she insists they drive off, refusing to let him call anyone or take her to hospital. But when a dashcam video of the incident goes viral they’re forced on the run, heading to Kentucky and from there to Florida, and are quickly dubbed the black Bonnie and Clyde, although Thelma and Louise would be a better analogy (substituting sexism for bigotry), forced the change their appearance (she ruefully shaving off her braids) and becoming folk heroes among the black community who variously conceal them and enable their journey. Among these are her Uncle Earl (Bokeem Woodbine), a New Orleans pimp who lords it over a harem of scantily-clad but sexually powerful women, a mechanic (Gralen Bryant Banks), his young son Junior (Jahi Di’Allo Winston) who seeks to emulate his outlaw heroes with tragic results, and a liberal white couple (Flea and Chloë Sevigny).
Barely friend at the start, the couple’s relationship develops into something more over the course of their odyssey as they live life to the fullest, video director Malina Matsoukas making her feature debut variously offering comedy (a white store clerk in awe of the Glock Slim’s carrying), tenderness in a juke joint drink and a dance, hope, crushing betrayal and, because the film really has nowhere else to go, the inevitable jarring but inspirational martyrdom ending. Vividly photographed by Tat Radcliffe and with a script by Lena Waithe, the couple’s story serves as emblematic of the Black experience in white America, the latter’s oppression and the former’s sense of community and pride.
Stretched over an episodic 132 minutes, it’s structurally far from perfect, with long aerial montages of cars on roads, little character development, overegged symbolism, a sketchy supporting cast and perhaps too few moments when the emotion truly hits home despite the leads’ powerful chemistry, but the cumulative effect is transfixing. (Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe)
Before he became famous as a mime artist (today celebrated as the greatest ever), Marcel Marceau had an ever more significant impact on history when, as part of the French Resistance, was directly responsible for saving the lives of hundreds of Jewish children from the Nazis. A pity then that Jonathan Jakubowicz’s biopic is such a workmanlike affair as, told in flashback as Ed Harris’s General Patton addresses his troops in 1945 Nuremberg, Jessie Eisenberg wrestles with a French accent as, initially lacking in empathy Marceau, the son of a Jewish Strasbourg butcher, is recruited by politically active cousin Georges (Géza Röhrig) to entertain a bunch of kids orphaned by the Nazis and, with the help of brother Alain (Félix Moati) and lukewarm love interest Emma (Clémence Poésy), becomes with the Lyon-based Resistance and outwits urbane but monstrous Gestapo chief Klaus Barbie (Matthias Schweighöfer as somewhat of a parody villain) to get them to safety in Switzerland.
Game of Thrones star Bella Ramsey is compelling as Elspeth, one of the orphans who witnesses her parents executed by the Nazis, and but Eisenberg feels miscast as Marceau (and his mime is nowhere near as fluid), while, for all the drama and tension involved in an enterprise where they could be exposed at any moment, Jakubowicz never really succeeds in bringing the film alive. (Amazon and others)
Joan of Arc (12A)
Set in 1492, Bruno Dumont’s sequel to Jeanette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc (again starring the now 10-year old Lise Leplat Prudhomme) details the final months of her life after failing to capture Paris and being brought to trial for heresy, defying the king (Fabrice Luchini) and wearing men’s clothing and eventually burnt at the stake. It is, however, an inert piece of work, characterised by long static scenes such as Joan standing along looking to the skies to the sound of interior monologues in the form of electronic pop songs in an eerie falsetto by the late, then 73-year-old, French former pop star Christophe (the previous film had heavy metal). There’s talk of battles, but none are seen and much of the early going involves different characters talking in the middle of sand dune, some suggesting he might appeal to her soldiers’ basic instincts rather than their piety, while the latter, trial, section has assorted priests doing much the same in a cathedral, keen to delegate any responsibility for her death to the secular authorities.
A series of stylised, starkly staged consultations, prayers and pronouncements, it barely registers a heartbeat, although Prudhomme has a compelling blank charisma and there is an inspired sequence, shot both at ground level and overhead, of Joan putting her cavalry through a bizarre pre-battle dressage display. Even so, you need to be a real Dumont fan to sit through it. (VoD)
Sonic The Hedgehog (PG)
Surprisingly not the disaster that was anticipated, especially given it had to go back to the drawing board and redesign the look of its titular Sega character after fans were up in arms, this is the latest video game to become a live action feature film, and, mercifully, much better than the abject failure that was Super Mario Bros.
After a cursory back story explaining who this furry blue alien speedball is and why he’s on earth, director Jeff Fowler gets on with the film’s two narratives, the mismatched buddy one as the lonely Sonic (voiced by Ben Schwarz) accidentally causes a major power outage across the entire Pacific Northwest that sees him teaming up with Tom Wachowski (James Marsden), the sheriff in small town of Green Hills who wants to move to San Francisco so he can get to save somebody’s life and who, dubbed the Do-Nut Lord, Sonic has been secretly stalking (along with Tom’s veterinarian wife, an underused Tika Sumpter) in order to feel part of a surrogate family. The second is, of course, the pursuit of the hero by the crazy megalomaniac bad guy, here in the form of cyber-genius Dr. Robotnik (Jim Carrey in, for once, enjoyably vintage over the top form with black coat and waxed panto villain moustache) and his drones, sent in by the military to capture the alien source.
All of which, after Tom pops Sonic with a tranquilizer dart that causes his bag of transporter rings to fall though a portal, means they have to head for San Francisco and recover them, Robotnik on their tail, bonding while checking off Sonic’s bucket list, which includes starting a bar fight with a bunch of bikers.
Lighthearted and hugely enjoyable, it romps along with some pretty decent visual effects and a constant stream of rapid fire quips from Sonic along with amusing in-jokes like him watching Speed on TV and reading Flash comics, as well as a message about the need for human contact. With a coda that promises a sequel that seems likely (and welcomingly) to happen, this may not be supersonic but it’s infinitely more fun than anyone could possibly have imagined. (Empire Great Park)
Spider-Man: Homecoming (12A)
The third actor to play the webslinger on the big screen, Tom Holland made his debut cameoing in Captain America: Civil War, and this reboot is set a few months after those events. It opens, however, in the wake of the first Avengers movie as, mid-way through salvage work, New York contractor Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton) is told all such operations involving alien material now comes under Damage Control. Still, he and his crew have stowed away enough to go into the super-weapons business, which is where we pick up events eight years later (no Spidey origin stories here). On a high after helping out The Avengers, making his own web diary footage of events to revel in on playback, gawky 15-year-old Queens high schooler Peter Parker (Holland) is keen to see more action in his Stark ‘internship’, but, with Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau) as his babysitter, is advised by Tony (a typically snarky Robert Downey Jr) to keep his super-heroing on a neighbourhood level, although he does get a new hi-tech suit (with its very own Jarvis in the vocal form of Jennifer Connelly) to go with the job, even if he has no idea what all its powers are or how to use them.
As such, things toddle along with his handling petty crime and helping out old ladies until he stumbles on a heist with a gang using alien-technology weapons. This, in turn, leads him to track down the suppliers and run foul of Toomes who now sports a pair of armoured flying wings (he’s essentially The Vulture, but is never really referred to as such until the end), and, although warned off from getting involved by Stark, climaxes in a near disaster aboard the Staten Island Ferry (in a sequence that mirrors Tobey Maguire saving the elevated train in the original movie) that requires Iron Man to come to the rescue and take back the suit.
On top of all this, Peter’s having to deal with the usual high school problems, such as the class bully, Flash Thompson (Tony Revolori), and the senior on whom he has a crush, Liz (Laura Harrier), but is too shy to say anything. Plus the fact that he’s accidentally revealed his secret identity to science partner and equally geeky best buddy Ned Leeds (Jacob Batalon) and that his webslinging heroics force him to both duck out on the Academic Decathlon (he’s busy saving the other students in the Washington Tower) and, finally going places with Liz, the homecoming ball. And now he’s stuck with his old homemade suit too.
It’s a little ADD in the early going, reflecting Peter’s uber-enthusiasm and desire to impress Stark, but it soon settles down into a solid and, importantly, hugely entertaining fanboy addition to the Marvel Universe. Although things have been tweaked, there’s still plenty of familiar notes from the comics, including a new spin on MJ (a dry, scene stealing Zendaya), a much younger Aunt May (Marisa Tomei), nods to the many variations the costume’s been through and even the theme from the animated 60s TV series, not to mention a tease of Maguire’s famous upside down kiss.
Holland brings a likeable wide-eyed boyish glee as well as a disarming vulnerability to Parker, regularly screwing up but always getting back on his feet, while Keaton, who, like Doctor Octopus, is a human-scaled villain with mechanical appendages and a moral ambiguity, is menacingly compelling and, essentially a victim of the Avengers fall-out himself, comes with a truly unexpected kick of a twist. Downey Jr and Favreau reprise their familiar shtick and the film also finds room for cameos by Gwyneth Paltrow’s Pepper Potts and, albeit by way of school training videos, the now disgraced Captain America. Filling out the supporting cast, Martin Starr makes the most of his scenes as the Decathlon coach and Bokeem Woodbine does duty as one of Toomes’ crew aka the Shocker. Climaxing in a mid-air battle atop an Avengers jet, it may ultimately resort to the usual super-hero tropes, but getting there is a whole web of fun. (Empire Great Park)
Trolls World Tour (U)
The sequel to the surprisingly fun 2016 hit, this brings back Anna Kendrick and Justin Timberlake as Queen Poppy and her best friend Branch who saved the Pop trolls world in the first film and now find themselves having to do it again. Except this time, it’s not just Pop world.
As Poppy’s dad reveals, they’re not the only trolls. In fact, there were once six tribes, all of whom had a different type of music, pop, country, techno, funk, classical and rock (with apparently sub-tribes involving yodelling and K-pop trolls) who lived together until they began to argue about which music was better, leading to them all being split up and confined to their own lands, each with the string embodying their music from the universal guitar, their new generations unaware of the others’ existence.
But now, however, Queen Barb by Rachel Bloom from the Rock trolls is determined to reunite them all under one music – Hard Rock! But to do this, she needs to eliminate all other musical forms, starting with an invasion of the Techno trolls’ underwater rave party.
What follows is a sort of sugar rush on steroids with explosions of swirling and pulsating colour, psychedelic musical sequences and a virtual non-stop jukebox of familiar songs, from Girls Just Want To Have Fun to The Scorpions’ Rock You Like a Hurricane and Daft Punk’s One More Time. Also back on board among the voice cast is James Corden as Biggie with his pet worm Mr. Dinkles, Gwen Stefani as DJ Suki and Ron Funches as Cooper, the pink, green-capped giraffe-like troll who discovers just why he’s always felt a bit different to the other Pop trolls, while joining them are Kelly Clarkson as the Country trolls leader Delta Dawn (a joke country fans will get), Sam Rockwell as Country troll named Hickory, Jamie Dornan as a Smooth Jazz troll, called what else but Chas, George Clinton and Mary J. Blige as King Quincy and Queen Essence from the Funk trolls, Kenan Thompson as Tiny Diamond, the newborn hip-hop son of glittery Guy, and, inevitably, Ozzy Osbourne as Thrash, one of the Rock trolls.
Naturally, amid all of this there’s a message about diversity, acceptance and inclusion being important (here, through music) if we want to live together as well as finding your inner happiness. Grown-ups might find it a bit of a headache to watch, but, in these days of gloom and isolation, realising that music can bring us all together has to be worth a watch. (Empire Great Park)
A White White Day (15)
Iceland’s unnominated submission for last year’s Oscars, opens with a car veering off through the barriers on a cliff road in the rain and then proceeds through a montage of shifting fixed camera images of an isolated house as it and the landscape changes over the months and seasons. Finally we are introduced to middle-aged police chief Ingimundur (Ingvar Eggert Sigurdsson), who was widowed in the opening accident (and is undergoing therapy), who has brought pre-teen granddaughter, Salka (Ída Mekkín Hlynsdóttir) to live there with her mother. As the film slowly progresses, he comes across evidence that his wife might have been having an affair, and starts stalking the man he suspects, even to the extent of joining a rival soccer team. The more disturbed he becomes, the more it affects his relationship with Salka.
Maybe it’s something to do with the Icelandic sensibility, but it’s a strange, at times detached, film. At one point, Ingimundur throws a large rock he drives over on the clifftop road over the edge and the camera watches it plunge into the ocean over 13 different shots and then there’s the scene where he tells Salka a bedtime ghost story that would be enough to have anyone hiding under the sheets in terror and a kids TV show featuring an astronaut screaming to viewers how everyone’s going to die. And then there’s the ending.
Enigmatic and challengingly patience-testing say the least, but let it slowly creep up on you and it becomes a haunting experience of grief, loss and emotional breakdown. VoD
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