Film reviews: best and worst movies of 2023

New movie reviews include Maestro, Leave the World Behind, and The Eternal Daughter

Stars reflect the overall quality of reviews and our own independent assessment (5 stars=don’t miss; 1 star=don’t bother).

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Biopic ***

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When "Maestro" was shown at the Venice Film Festival, its director and star Bradley Cooper was accused of performing in "Jewface", said Kevin Maher in The Sunday Times. He'd adopted a prosthetic nose to play the composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein, who was Jewish; Cooper is not. Cooper was also accused of "gayface", as Bernstein was gay and he is not; and presumably of "not-an-actual-conductor-or-composer-face", too. "Cooper's answer to all this? He delivers an astonishingly beautiful film, by turns heartbreaking, tragic and tender", constructed around two "career-high performances". The first is his own (it's a "barnstormer"); the second is from Carey Mulligan, who is superb as Bernstein's long-suffering wife. Their relationship is "exquisitely handled", as is Bernstein's evolution from the showman who wrote "West Side Story" to something "more profound". In sum: this is a film of "dauntless ambition" and "sweet, overwhelming love". 

For me, Cooper's "latex conk" proved a minor problem – relative, at least, to his performance, which was so vain "it almost had me running for the exit", said Matthew Bond in The Mail on Sunday. I loathe "big acting", and that is what Cooper delivers here: he even lowers his natural voice "to mimic Bernstein's bass nasal tones". As for the way the film shifts between black-and-white and colour, depending on the era, that struck me as unnecessary and annoying. I didn't find it big acting; it seemed to me good acting, said Brian Viner in the Daily Mail. Not long before Bernstein's death, I saw him conduct. As both star and director, Cooper conveys "the thumping charisma that made everyone in Bernstein's orbit dance to his tune", in a sensitive and "searingly intelligent" film.

Leave the World Behind

Thriller ****

Adapted from the 2020 bestseller by Rumaan Alam, "Leave the World Behind" is an "apocalyptic psychological thriller" that is "sharp-witted", bleak and "immensely enjoyable", said Wendy Ide in The Observer. It stars Julia Roberts and Ethan Hawke as an affluent couple from Brooklyn, who take their two teenage kids to a luxurious rental in the Hamptons for an impromptu holiday, only for things to soon go awry. A cargo ship crashes onto the local beach, the phone signal cuts out, and in the dead of night, a father and daughter (Mahershala Ali and Myha'la Herrold) turn up at the house, claiming to be its owners – and asking to be let in. A "disaster movie that builds in increments", the film was executive produced by Barack and Michelle Obama, and it's a cracker: "a provocative, superbly acted action drama that combines big-hitting ambition and spectacle with just enough humour to temper the whole end-of-civilisation meltdown scenario". 

A "home-invasion thriller", this film "operates like one of M. Night Shyamalan's better all-bets-are-off puzzlers", in which a string of unnerving events "slowly fuse into a coherent crisis", said Robbie Collin in The Daily Telegraph. Part of the fun is watching these strange occurrences unfold, but there's also pleasure to be had in watching the dynamic between the film's four leads, which plays on "broader American social tensions" around race, wealth and sex. And it's a treat to see Roberts sink her teeth into the best role she's had in years. There are some good performances, said Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian, but the film is "baggy" and too long. And though its "mood music of imminent horror" gradually escalates, it never quite reaches "a climax of fear – or meaning".

The Eternal Daughter

Horror ***

"If you're looking for a straightforward ghost story, 'The Eternal Daughter' isn't for you," said Christina Newland in The i Paper. "But if you have the patience to stick with the strange and spooky rhythms of Joanna Hogg's semi-gothic tale, you'll be well-rewarded." A sequel of sorts to Hogg's two "Souvenir" films (2019 and 2021) made during lockdown, it stars Tilda Swinton as Julie, a filmmaker who takes her elderly mother Rosalind (also played by Swinton) to rural Wales to celebrate Rosalind's birthday. They stay at an old hotel that, it soon emerges, is probably haunted: there are "mysterious knocks in the night", and at one point a "spectral face" suddenly appears. Hogg's talent "lies less in her plotting" than in the "suggestive power of her images"; and the cumulative effect is a "creeping, uncanny" horror film "without the horror", a study of a mother-daughter relationship "where the line between intimacy and discomfort is always on a knife's edge". 

This film "exudes the ominous melancholy of an M.R. James short story", said Jonathan Romney in the Financial Times, but it is "also a brittle comedy of English manners, with Julie forever politely writhing in her own net of solicitude and apologies". An "elusive miniature", it provides not scares but "psychological frissons in the most delicate minor key". Hogg "has a knack for conjuring impactful scenes out of nothing", said Tara Brady in The Irish Times: when Rosalind's dog Louis goes missing for instance, it feels "genuinely apocalyptic". But the tale is really quite "slight"; the film's "big reveal is signposted early", and the "spectral goings-on can feel insubstantial".


Biopic/Action ****

"If, at 85, Ridley Scott has reached the final season of his filmmaking career, 'Napoleon' is the ideal work of wintry grandeur to mark it," said Robbie Collin in The Daily Telegraph. His biopic of the French emperor is a "magnificently hewn slab of dad cinema with a chill wind whistling over its battlefields", and a palette so cold, "even the red in the tricolore is often the shade of dried blood". Spanning 32 years, from the start of the Revolution in 1789 to Napoleon's lonely death in 1821, the film casts Boney's "rise, reign and downfall as both a prickly psychodrama and a sweeping military epic, in which the intimate lives of its central players and the fate of France itself" are "instantly and anxiously entwined". It's not exactly a funny film, and at moments it does feel a little staid. "But only a true master general could corral a piece of cinema this rolling and rich." 

"Pedants, beware," said Kevin Maher in The Times: this "eye-gouging spectacular" is not an "accurate history lesson" (among other things, Scott imagines Napoleon witnessing Marie Antoinette's execution, and ordering his forces to fire at the pyramids). But the emperor is powerfully portrayed by Joaquin Phoenix, in a performance that "hovers" in a "twitchy" shifting "grey zone" between imperious anger, "wounded vulnerability and puckish charm". Sometimes he combines all three, as when he throws a tantrum at the perceived superiority of his British foes. "They think they're so great!" he seethes, "because they've got boats!" 

I'm afraid I wasn't sold, said Johnny Oleksinski in the New York Post. It seemed to me that Phoenix (who uses his normal American accent) is just repeating his "creepy, whack-job performance" from "Joker", only this time in a pointy hat. It's also problematic that the film depicts one of history's great leaders as "a total moron": you'd never know that this was the "guy who commissioned the Napoleonic Code". And though his tempestuous relationship with Joséphine (Vanessa Kirby) gets "ample airtime", it's weirdly handled. "On one of the couple's first dates, she spreads her legs 'Basic Instinct'-style and says, 'If you look down, you'll see a surprise. And once you've seen it, you'll always want it.'" Sorry, but "Eww". This biopic doesn't explain why Napoleon is "so deeply in love with Joséphine, or whether she is in love with him at all", said Nicholas Barber on BBC Culture – a "vagueness" that is true of other relationships in the film, too. But "scene by scene", Scott's "proper, old-fashioned historical epic is terrific fun", even if it lacks insights into "who Napoleon is or what he wants, where he comes from or why he is such a success". 


Thriller ***

An "exuberant satire on class and privilege", "Saltburn" is made by Emerald Fennell, who won wide acclaim for her 2020 debut "Promising Young Woman", said Brian Viner in the Daily Mail. Set in 2006, this "flawed, but at times wildly enjoyable" film follows Oliver (Barry Keoghan), a working-class teenager from Merseyside who feels "like a fish out of water" when he arrives at Oxford University. Soon, however, he has "burrowed his way into the affections" of dishy, wealthy Felix (Jacob Elordi); and is invited to spend the summer at Felix's country pile. The film starts as a kind of "Brideshead" with "gags", but in the second half turns into a "dark psychosexual thriller" – at which point, alas, it goes rather downhill. Still, "at its funniest", the film is a "proper hoot". 

There are some "perverse pleasures" to be enjoyed here, said Wendy Ide in The Observer – Rosamund Pike is "gloriously rude", for instance, as Felix's mother Elspeth, and has some good lines. ("I was a lesbian for a while," she drawls, "but it was all a bit too wet for me in the end.") But the film has "no sense of build-up and payoff", and Keoghan, who is "way too old for the role", is badly miscast. Fennell wants us "to be glued to our seats by this Bruegelian frieze of lust and avariciousness", said Tom Shone in The Sunday Times; "but mostly what we are is bored". There is lots of "spit and semen and blood", but no depth, "no character who isn't bent to the task of provocation, and nowhere for the story to go except a murderous spiral of jaw-dropping ludicrousness". 

May December

Drama ***

In 1995, director Todd Haynes and actress Julianne Moore made their "dual breakthrough" with "Safe", a portrait of a housewife "made ill by contemporary life", said Danny Leigh in the Financial Times. Now, almost 30 years on, they have reunited for "May December", "an expertly arch comic drama with Moore again undone in suburbia". Here, her character is Gracie, who more than two decades ago had a sexual relationship with a 13-year-old boy. "Scandal and prison followed, before a slow return to obscurity." But now, there is talk about her case being made into a film, with Gracie played by a movie star (Natalie Portman). "Watching Portman watch Moore, and Moore watch her back, is fascinating", and Haynes leads us through the "hall of mirrors" with "scampish intelligence". 

A "closely focused character study", "May December" is galvanised by these "tremendous" central performances, said Geoffrey Macnab in The Independent. There are points when it comes across as "trashy and voyeuristic", but it goes to places that "more conventional dramas wouldn't dare go near". I found it mainly "creepy" and depressing, said Michael O'Sullivan in The Washington Post. The more we get to know Gracie, the clearer it becomes that her actions have left "a trail littered with broken people". In the end, the whole thing "just feels really, really sad".

Dream Scenario

Comedy/Action ****

In "the right mood and in the right film", Nicolas Cage can be brilliant, said Matthew Bond in The Mail on Sunday. And he's "on absolutely top form" in "Dream Scenario", in which he appears (almost unrecognisably) as Paul, "an ageing professor of evolutionary biology" whose students are bored by him and whose teenage daughters are embarrassed by him. Balding, bearded and dressed in "ill-fitting dad gear", Paul couldn't be "less prepossessing" – until, that is, "people start dreaming about him". First it's one of his daughters, then an ex-girlfriend, then nearly everyone on the planet. He doesn't do much in their dreams – he might be raking leaves, or just hanging around in the background – but his ubiquity grants him celebrity; and soon, people around Paul (and Paul himself) are rushing to cash in. This is a "high concept comedy in the tradition" of "Groundhog Day" and "The Truman Show"; and though it "struggles to sustain the joke" for 100 minutes, Cage is superb, and nicely supported by a cast that includes Julianne Nicholson and Michael Cera. 

Cage "has never turned in a boring performance", and he is "grippingly not-boring playing this boring man", to whom he gives "vulnerability and soul", said Deborah Ross in The Spectator. The rest of the film is not as good as its star, and it rather unravels in the last third; but it's mostly entertaining, and it made me laugh. "Silly, strange and very funny", "Dream Scenario" is a "psychocomic drama with a peak Cage Renaissance performance powering it", said John Nugent in Empire. As the dreams people are having about Paul morph into nightmares, the film also turns into "a lightly existential look at paranoia and fear, and how that is wrapped up in our uncontrolled subconscious".

Anatomy of a Fall

Drama *****

In this "sinuous" French drama, the "phenomenal" Sandra Hüller plays an author accused of murdering her husband, said Wendy Ide in The Observer. Aspiring writer Samuel (Samuel Theis) has fallen, jumped or been shoved out of a third-floor window at his and Sandra's chalet in the Alps. When an inquest fails to rule out the possibility of foul play, Sandra finds herself on trial for murder, and in court the "flaws and faultlines" in her relationship with Samuel are teased out. "Perhaps more than most genres, the courtroom drama succeeds or fails on the strength of its screenplay." And the "layered and rewardingly intricate script" co-written by director Justine Triet and her husband Arthur Harari ensures that "this solid, unshowy film" keeps you guessing to the end. It's a "restlessly dynamic and compulsively watchable" film that rarely loosens its "throttling" grip. 

"Anatomy of a Fall" won the Palme d'Or at Cannes this year, and though "industry prizes aren't always much guide", the bauble was well deserved in this case, said Danny Leigh in the Financial Times. With clear nods to Alfred Hitchcock, Triet has crafted a "top-drawer thriller" whose ambiguity "makes us doubt the clean lines of other crime dramas". A word of warning, however: with its dissection of "the raw, sad details of married life", the film could prove an uncomfortable choice for couples on "date night". It's an "intellectual thriller of rare calibre", and assembled "so precisely" that it "takes your breath away", said Tim Robey in The Daily Telegraph. Hüller proves Triet's "perfect accomplice", and Milo Machado Graner, who plays Sandra's blind 11-year-old son, also turns in a remarkable performance. You'll be thinking about this "enthralling" film "for days". 

The Marvels

Superhero **

When I told a friend I was off to see "The Marvels", "she thought I meant a Motown girl group on a reunion tour", said Brian Viner in the Daily Mail. "If only." What I was actually seeing was the "33rd salvo from the Marvel Cinematic Universe", a notional sequel to 2019's "Captain Marvel", with "girl power" the central theme. Iman Vellani plays Kamala Khan, a schoolgirl from New Jersey "who happens to have superpowers, much to the amazement of her parents". They are even more startled when Captain Marvel (Brie Larson) and her protégée Monica Rambeau (Teyonah Parris) pitch up at the family home, and whisk Kamala off to engage in a space battle with an evil alien played ("rather politely") by Zawe Ashton. The "decidedly perfunctory plot" is driven by urgent cries such as: "It seems the surge has had some residual effect on the jump point!" – lines that left me "floundering", but seemed to make perfect sense to the audience at Cineworld in Leicester Square. 

This is the shortest MCU film so far, yet somehow it is also "the most interminable", said Robbie Collin in The Daily Telegraph. Only those who know their Marvel lore back to front will be able to make sense of the plot, which ties five Marvel sub-franchises into the sort of knot you might find on the string of a kite that has just been retrieved from the attic. "'Higher, further, faster' ran the original Captain Marvel's rousing tagline. 'Have we reached the bottom yet?' would be an apt one for this." Well, I found the film pacy and fun, said Helen O'Hara in Empire. No, it doesn't have "the overwhelming impact" of, say, "Guardians 3", "but this is the MCU back on fast, funny form". 

How To Have Sex

Drama ****

"The six years or so since the #MeToo movement began in earnest" have seen quite a number of films about "predatory men and vulnerable women", said Brian Viner in the Daily Mail. But most of them have avoided the "tangled complexities" of real relationships, as if for fear that any nuance might undermine their message. "How To Have Sex" "doesn't fall into that trap", to the "great credit" of first-time writer-director Molly Manning Walker. Her film follows three 16-year-old girls who head off to a resort in Crete to celebrate the end of their GCSEs. There's lots of drinking and vomiting in toilets, but our focus is on Tara (Mia McKenna-Bruce), the least worldly of the three. Her friends urge her to lose her virginity, and when she is chatted up by a Yorkshire lad who is staying in her hotel, she doesn't say "No" to sex; but she certainly doesn't encourage it, let alone initiate it. This is a "powerful" film about teenage behaviour, all the more so because "it doesn't preach, it just tells". 

"Be warned," said Tom Shone in The Sunday Times: "the first 40 minutes of this film are a rhino charge of hormonal hysteria that will have most parents of teenagers running to lock themselves in the nearest wardrobe." But for all its "shrieking dialogue and pounding sound", it turns out to be a "superb" and "amazingly subtle" film. The story at the heart of this "gut-punch debut" may be ordinary, said Clarisse Loughrey in The Independent, but "Walker and her talented young cast know exactly how to tell it, down to each micro-expression". The starkest moment of all comes when Tara walks back to her hotel "after a very bad night". The streets are silent and dirty; her cheeks are red and puffy. "And yet, even with no one around, she still won't fully allow herself to cry." 


Drama ***

"A tender love story is placed atop a contrived and quirkified sci-fi premise" in "Fingernails", said Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian. Directed by Christos Nikou, the film is set in a future world – or alternative present or "even an alternative recent past, judging from the roll-film cameras and landline phone use" – in which couples can take a test at the "Love Institute" to find out whether or not they are fully compatible. Among those to have taken the test is Hannah (Jessie Buckley), a teacher who is in a "committed if unexciting relationship" with Ryan (The Bear's Jeremy Allen White). When Hannah gets a job at the institute, however, she finds herself falling for scientist Amir (Riz Ahmed), a "sensitive" new recruit who is brimming with "novel ideas" about love. The sci-fi set-up is rather wobbly, but "the intelligence and delicacy of the acting" keeps the film "steady". 

Buckley turns in a "terrific" performance, as always, said Wendy Ide in The Observer; but perhaps she gives the film "more emotional potency" than it warrants. And though it is "drolly amusing up to a point", it leaves unanswered the "key question" as to why couples submit to having this bizarre test in the first place. It's true that there is a "carefully scaffolded weirdness" at the heart of this film, said Robbie Collin in The Daily Telegraph; but the romance that unfolds between Hannah and Amir "feels entirely real and recognisable", thanks to the actors' "adorable and gorgeously interwound performances". (The way Hannah looks at Amir while he dances to Frankie Valli at an office party is "worth watching the film for alone".) "Fingernails" is also "wonderfully astute" on the unruliness of love: "it wants you to both delight in and despair of it, and have fun doing both". 


Biopic ***

Diana Nyad is barely known in this country, but in America she's famous as the long-distance swimmer who retired, became a writer and journalist, "then went back to marathon swimming at the age of 60", said Matthew Bond in The Mail on Sunday. This biopic charts her 2013 attempt to swim the "110 shark- and jellyfish-infested miles from Cuba to Florida" – a feat she'd failed to achieve 30 years earlier. Annette Bening is "sensationally good" as the "intense and often downright unlikeable" swimmer, and Jodie Foster is "every bit her match" as Nyad's best friend, former girlfriend and coach. The film does go on for rather too long, but it's a "great story". 

Directed by Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi (the duo behind "Free Solo"), the biopic "chronicles the intensive training, failures, internal struggles and breathtaking physical setbacks" that Nyad came up against in the 2010s, said Ann Hornaday in The Washington Post. The directors do a "magnificent job" of plunging us into Nyad's world, "where wind, water, weather and sea creatures take on urgently outsize stakes". And even if you know how it will end, the film is surprisingly suspenseful. Thanks in large part to Foster's "loose, likeable" performance, Nyad's theme of "women pulling together" just about lands, said Tim Robey in The Daily Telegraph. But I found Bening too one-note: she has none of the "irony or empathetic twinkle" that she has when she's on peak form, and exudes instead "Force-10 frosty disdain". It's also the case that the film's message, "You're never too old!", is "awfully trite".

The Killer

Thriller/Crime ***

Adapted from a French graphic novel, David Fincher's "The Killer" is "a hitman revenge thriller pared down to its steeliest essentials", said Robbie Collin in The Daily Telegraph. Michael Fassbender is the blankly malevolent killer, a man with multiple aliases who takes pride in accounting "for every possible twist and turn in his work". But then he messes up a job in Paris – "the wrong blood sprays the walls, the wrong body drops to the floor". All hell breaks loose, and a "globe-trotting revenge spree" is set in motion. "Much of the pleasure of the film is in procedure: watching someone work diligently and knowledgeably towards a goal that just happens to be murder." But a "darkly fun tension emerges" too, between its antihero's principles ("Anticipate, don't improvise" is one of his mantras) and his behaviour when he is under pressure. 

This is a "slick and entertaining" film, filled with "killing, fighting and torturing" plus the odd joke, said Michael O'Sullivan in The Washington Post. It is also "eminently watchable", especially when Tilda Swinton pops up ("all too briefly") to play a rival assassin. Still, you do wonder what the point of it is. The film cleaves closely to a familiar genre: it's less a "diamond than a piece of good-looking but cheap quartz", all "sparkling surface and not much value". It's true: this "hard, nasty" film "isn't about very much except the pantherish glide of its images, the thrill of staying ahead of the game and – perhaps above all – the multiple uses for a nail gun", said Tom Shone in The Sunday Times. But it has "irresistible force": this is a "bullet-fast piece of filmmaking" that "hijacks your nervous system for two hours before releasing you, pleasantly exhausted, into the cool night air".

Cat Person

Drama/Thriller ***

In 2017, a short story called "Cat Person" by the then little-known writer Kristen Roupenian was published in The New Yorker and went viral, said Laura Venning in Empire. "Short fiction doesn't tend to be trendy, but this story, about a college student's brief, unsettling relationship with an older man", struck a chord with young women who were looking at their sexual experiences anew in the light of the "headline-dominating #MeToo movement". Now, "perhaps inevitably", we have "Cat Person" the film, and it's just not very good. Emilia Jones plays Margot, a 20-year-old student who meets Robert (Nicholas Braun in "Succession"), a 33-year-old movie buff, at the cinema where she works. He charms her by text, but when they go on a date, he proves "uncommunicative, stiff and embarrassingly obsessed with Harrison Ford". Adapting the 7,000-word story, which is light on plot, "was always going to be tricky"; and though the film contains some "wry observations", director Susanna Fogel leans too heavily into the horror of the tale, making it something of a melodrama. 

The first 40 minutes of this "botched adaptation" are pretty good, said Kevin Maher in The Times. Then, with the source story juiced of its content, the film "shifts from the realm of "Promising Young Woman" and "I May Destroy You" into actual bloody, tacky, killer-thriller territory". At this point, it feels as if the film has creatively thrown in the towel, and it "bombs". Some viewers may find the change of mood too abrupt, said Matthew Bond in The Mail on Sunday, but what unfolds towards the end seemed "all too plausible" to me. And thanks to "fine performances from Jones and Braun", as well as some "well-judged pacing from Fogel", the film is "powerfully watchable".

Doctor Jekyll

Horror/Drama **

"Of all the screen adaptations of Robert Louis Stevenson's famous 1886 novella, 'Doctor Jekyll' is one of the stranger ones," said Brian Viner in the Daily Mail. Eddie Izzard stars as "a scarlet-lipsticked billionaire recluse" called Dr Nina Jekyll, who lives in a vast, isolated mansion and has a "psychotic alter ego: Rachel Hyde". Nina needs a carer, so she hires Robert (Scott Chambers), a young guy fresh out of prison, to make sure she takes the drugs she needs to survive. Chambers turns in a good and believable performance, but the same cannot be said, alas, of Izzard, who "works hard enough but always seems to be play-acting". Even "the fine actress Lindsay Duncan", who appears as "the Mrs Danvers-style estate manager", is "more than a little hammy". Still, that hamminess is not entirely out of place, as this film, directed by Joe Stephenson, "marks the rebirth" of the venerable Hammer production company, following a major investment by the "aptly named" tycoon John Gore. 

"The potential for something ripe, OTT and amusingly derelict, in true Hammer tradition, was right here," said Tim Robey in The Daily Telegraph. But the script of this "low-budget Britflick" idles when it ought to build, "then hurriedly cashes in its chips at the end". It is also irritatingly hard to tell Jekyll and Hyde apart, "beyond the fact that one chain-smokes and darts devilish glances a little more intently than the other". I am afraid I found the film truly "lamentable", said Wendy Ide in The Observer. Izzard "gurns and preens" throughout, and the whole thing comes across as "unforgivably lazy", a film "that feels as though it was written in crayon and edited with an axe".

Killers of the Flower Moon

Crime/Drama ****

At the age of 80, Martin Scorsese has produced one of his most significant films to date, said Matthew Bond in The Mail on Sunday, and it is an extraordinary achievement, featuring "compelling performances from Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert De Niro, with the lesser-known Lily Gladstone quietly proving every bit their equal". There is a "modest downside" for UK audiences, which is that it's about a relatively small chapter in early 20th century US history that will be unfamiliar to most viewers here; and the film is "three-and-a-half buttock-numbing hours long". But don't let that put you off: this is a "spectacular-looking picture" about the "depths that human nature can descend to when vast wealth beckons". 

Adapted from David Grann's bestselling book, the film is about the murders of members of the Native American Osage tribe who, by the 1920s, had become the richest people in the world, owing to the discovery of oil under their reservation, said Deborah Ross in The Spectator. De Niro plays a sinister rancher who has befriended the Osage, and poses as their benefactor, while secretly plotting to kill them and steal their wealth. As part of this plan, he persuades his "dumb schmuck" nephew (DiCaprio) to woo an Osage tribeswoman (Gladstone) who has rights to the oil revenue. Although troubled by the way her people are dying of mysterious illnesses, she marries him; but eventually, news of the mounting body count reaches Washington, which sends an officer to the area (Jesse Plemons) from its newly created Bureau of Investigation (later the FBI). The film drags a bit in the middle, but "the performances are gripping", and the cinematography is "lush". It also builds a world so engrossing that when I came out of the cinema, "it was weird to see a Superdrug and Costa Coffee rather than dusty tracks and horses and vast landscapes beset by oil derricks". 

I love Scorsese, and "most of his movies", said Kevin Maher in The Times: but this film "does not, to say the least, always work". The last hour is "an absolute dirge", and the characters are locked "in a death spiral of repetition, where they meet, state their aims, re-meet, re-state and re-meet again, several times... until the closing credits roll". "Killers of the Flower Moon" is "not a whodunnit, still less a why-do-it", said Brian Viner in the Daily Mail. Nor is it really a thriller. What it is, is a "masterly" (but admittedly long) example of storytelling by one of cinema's greatest directors, with "an unexpectedly cheeky conclusion" that will send you away "with a smile".

The Pigeon Tunnel

Documentary ****

Errol Morris's documentaries "have got to the heart of figures ranging from Stephen Hawking to Donald Rumsfeld, but in John le Carré he has found a subject as unknowable as he is eloquent", said Jake Kerridge in The Daily Telegraph. The spy novelist, who died in 2020, explains that he cannot help the people who "want to unmask me", because to do that, "I [would] need to know what is behind the mask". 

The film intersperses interviews with le Carré (real name David Cornwell) with archival material, clips from screen adaptations of his work, and dramatised scenes from his life, said Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian. And though Morris's interview technique is "deferential and unthreatening", he shows that "the simple spectacle of clever people talking on camera" can be as gripping "as any thriller". One does wish that Morris had pushed le Carré a bit harder to talk about certain subjects (the snobbery he faced within the literary establishment, for instance). But even if the result is not very revelatory, it is "a very civilised experience". 

A "cautious, playful portrait of an expert manipulator", "The Pigeon Tunnel" is worth seeing whether or not you have read any of le Carré's books, said Jeannette Catsoulis in The New York Times. And though its subject is "disappointingly" reluctant to discuss his colourful sex life, he seems more than willing to bare psychological wounds. "Of particular poignancy is his fear that human beings have no centre, that what he calls our 'inmost room' is empty, and the things we seek mere chimeras."


Sci-fi **

This "solemn" sci-fi film imagines the year 2065 on an Earth devastated by climate change, said Robbie Collin in The Daily Telegraph. Hen (Saoirse Ronan) and her husband Junior (Paul Mescal) are scraping by on a farm in America, when Hen is told that Junior has been selected to be sent to a space station that will house humans once this planet has become uninhabitable. Hen, meanwhile, will be given an AI-powered clone of her husband to keep her company. The film spins a "convincing" dystopia, but you do long "for a bit of incident to liven things up". It doesn't help that Hen and Junior have one of those marriages that "don't exist outside of films like this one, where conversation is only ever crisp and intense, and typically conducted with a faraway look on a peeling veranda", while the wind plays with both parties' fringes. 

"Foe" is essentially "three people sitting in a small, nondescript house, talking and asking questions", said Hamish MacBain in the Evening Standard. And though it does have a twist, it's not a very good one. "I'm not an especially intelligent man, and even I saw it coming about 40 minutes in." The film is "too reliant on mood over ideas – a parched sand-and-dust colour palette; lots of despairing, sweat-glistening sex scenes" – to add much to the already long list of films about the "human/robot intersection", said Wendy Ide in The Observer. Still, the two leads "are captivating".

Taylor Swift: The Eras Tour

Concert/Musical ****

The last time we saw Taylor Swift on the big screen, she was being "unceremoniously pushed under a moving vehicle" in Amsterdam, said Ian Freer in Empire. "The time before that was the actual car crash that is 'Cats'." Now, the singer is back on screen, but this time on "home turf" – in "an extravagant big-ass concert flick spanning her entire career". In Swift's words, her (ongoing) Eras tour distils "17 years of music, one era at a time". The film, by director Sam Wrench, was shot over three nights at a stadium in LA, and it captures the tour's impressive stagecraft "slickly, if impersonally"; there are also "endless cutaways to fans mouthing lyrics". But really, "the best reason to see 'The Eras Tour' is to marvel at Swift" herself. This film is both a "showcase and celebration" of her "smart songwriting", her "boundless creativity" and her willingness to go "the extra mile" for her audience. Best of all, "you don't have to wait hours to get out of the car park" afterwards. 

To get the most out of this film, said Ann Hornaday in The Washington Post, "it's best simply to surrender to the whole thing": the sparkly cowboy hats, the friendship bracelets, "the screaming". True, Swift's dance moves are limited mostly to posing, strutting and pointing, and after nearly three hours, the uninitiated "might be struck by the repetitiveness of her music" – but the cumulative effect is "nothing short of astonishing". I took my 13-year-old daughter along, having failed to get her tickets to Swift's tour, said Serena Davies in The Daily Telegraph. In the end, it was me, not her, who cried in my cinema seat, overwhelmed by the spectacle. Yet as I put her to bed, I asked if the film had been as good as she'd hoped. "'Oh even better,' came the breathless reply into her pillow."

The Miracle Club

Comedy/drama **

"Set in an impoverished Dublin suburb in 1967, where the men are either dolts or drunks or both", and only the women get things done, "The Miracle Club" seems to be trying to be "The Sort of Film they Just Don't Make Any More", said Matthew Bond in The Mail on Sunday. Sadly, somewhere along its "cliché-strewn way", this comedy-drama becomes "the sort of film they really shouldn't make any more". Laura Linney plays a woman returning to Ireland for her mother's funeral, having emigrated to America 40 years earlier under unexplained circumstances. Her arrival ruffles the feathers of her mother's old friends (Maggie Smith and Kathy Bates); but each has problems, and soon they've all piled into a charabanc for a trip to Lourdes in search of miracles. "Secrets eventually tumble out", and they're "pretty much exactly what you expect them to be", in a film that is underwritten and irritatingly full of lingering shots of characters "staring wistfully into the middle distance". 

"We've had blackface, Jewface and gayface controversies", said Kevin Maher in The Times; now it seems reasonable to accuse some of this "painfully hackneyed" film's stars – Smith and Bates in particular – of "indulging in Paddyface". The "cringeworthy caricatures" they serve up are not helped by a screenplay that feels as if it has been "spewed out by a malfunctioning AI" programmed with the terms "Oireland", "unwanted pregnancy", "church" and "the craic". The film is, admittedly, "predictable" and "sentimental", and the accents do "veer back and forth across both the Atlantic and the Irish Sea", said Brian Viner in the Daily Mail. But it's a "gentle enough" ride, and "we should all enjoy the great Dame Maggie while we can".


Biopic/Drama ***

“How do you create a revealing and intimate portrait of someone who is forever playing a self-created role?” That is the problem that writer-director Mary Harron wrestles with, not entirely successfully, in this film about Salvador Dalí, said Wendy Ide in The Observer. It argues that the surrealist’s persona was “as much an artistic creation as any of his paintings”, which is all very well, but it doesn’t give Ben Kingsley, in the central role, “much to get his teeth into”. Our guide in the film is a fictional gallery assistant, James (Christopher Briney), who “experiences” Dalí “as one might a piece of interactive theatre”; and who is told about him by members of his inner circle. But Harron wrongly assumes James is an interesting character in his own right, and spends too much time on him. The film has some merits: Barbara Sukowa is “excellent” as Dalí’s “berating, goading” wife Gala, and the cinematography is undoubtedly handsome, but overall, it feels like a “missed opportunity”. 

The film doesn’t contain any of Dalí’s work (presumably for copyright reasons), but it “paints an evocative portrait of the cult of celebrity”, and benefits from some good soundtrack choices, said Terry Staunton in Radio Times. The film's portrait of the circus that surrounded the artist in the 1970s is a bit “predictable”, said Manohla Dargis in The New York Times: there are ostrich boas, “writhing bodies” and “a great deal of tawdry art-world shenanigans”. But it is interesting on the subject of Dalí’s marriage to the domineering, money-grubbing Gala. Their relationship mystified people at the time, and here, their scenes together are both entertaining and rather fascinating.

The Great Escaper

Drama ****

"I had been quietly dreading seeing how the real-life story of D-Day veteran Bernard Jordan, who 'ran away' from his retirement home in Hove to join the ceremonies marking the 70th anniversary of the Allied landings in 2014", had been dramatised, said Matthew Bond in The Mail on Sunday. Given the title, it seemed destined for "the full comic-caper treatment". But I needn't have worried. Yes, "The Great Escaper" has "moments of gentle comedy, but for the most part it is serious, touching" and really quite moving. Michael Caine plays Jordan, the 89-year-old who embarks on his pilgrimage to Normandy, leaving his wife of 70 years, Irene (the late Glenda Jackson, in her final role) at home. "With Caine getting better and better as the film goes on", what ensues is "a quiet reflection on both the glories of war and the waste". 

Caine manages to be simultaneously droll and lugubrious, as he shuffles "up and down the seafront, grumpily denouncing the trendy cyclists almost running him over on the pavement as 'tossers' and letting the air out of their tyres", said Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian. But he is "arguably upstaged by Jackson", who is "sarky and sardonic to everyone" in her vicinity, including her carer (the "excellent" Danielle Vitalis). The film "never lurches into clunky sentimentality, and whenever it looks as if it might, Caine and Jackson pull it back", said Brian Viner in the Daily Mail. And though I have some quibbles about the plot – an encounter between Bernie and a more recent veteran, who lost a leg in Afghanistan, doesn't really convince, for instance – it's a "joy" to find these fine actors showing that you can be "as old as the hills yet still at the top of your game".


Drama ****

"This darkly funny drama about the rise and collapse of the BlackBerry smartphone" is focused on a handful of eccentric engineers in Ontario "who were ill-equipped to deal with a multibillion-dollar communications boom", said Kevin Maher in The Times. Written and directed by Matt Johnson (who also stars as the company's dishevelled co-founder Douglas Fregin), the film is a "decade-spanning dash" that begins in 1996 with BlackBerry starting up, and finishes with the company being comprehensively outsmarted by Steve Jobs and his iPhone. Johnson "is ruthless in his depiction of the business reality behind the glossy surface waffle of the tech dream", showing that from its inception, "the smartphone revolution was only ever about one thing – monetising minutes". 

"By any standard, the BlackBerry story is a wild ride," said Wendy Ide in The Observer. The phone began as a prototype "cobbled together from bits of a pocket calculator", became a product "so addictive that it was nicknamed the CrackBerry" – and was then so roundly outshone, it sank into "virtual oblivion". Johnson tells this "boom-and-bust, crash-and-burn" narrative with "dry humour and nervy energy", and skilfully mines the comic potential of the collision of personalities at the company. In a year crowded with "product biopics", such as the Nike film "Air", "BlackBerry" offers something rather different: "tragedy", said Johnny Oleksinski in the New York Post. Like Romeo and Juliet, the BlackBerry is fated to die from the very beginning. "The road to ruin, though, is a geeky good time – a 'Revenge of the Nerds' without college sex jokes, but with billions of dollars at stake and a groundbreaking invention that still affects much of the planet every day."


Biopic **

"Caked beneath layers of prosthetics and shrouded in cigarette smoke", Helen Mirren is "unrecognisable" in "Golda", a narrow-focus biopic of Golda Meir, the prime minister of Israel from 1969 to 1974, said Alistair Harkness in The Scotsman. The film is set against the backdrop of the Yom Kippur War of 1973, "in which Israel suffered huge casualties after Egypt and Syria launched a surprise attack on the Jewish holy day". The 19-day war itself "plays out mostly in audio montages of the ongoing carnage and in close-up reaction shots of Mirren's eyes", as Meir strategises with her generals, strong-arms Henry Kissinger (Liev Schreiber) and witnesses her staff processing the loss of their sons in the fighting. Unfortunately, the film "struggles to bring the complexities" of this tumultuous period to life, and feels rather "stultifying". 

"An inspired phrase-maker, a phenomenal organiser, a patriotic socialist who, as Labour minister, had practically created Israel's welfare state, Meir makes an inviting subject for a biopic," said Dan Hitchens in The Spectator. So it's a shame to find the real Golda's waspishness replaced in this film "by a gloom so all-enveloping, she makes Gordon Brown look like Harry Hill". Nor does anyone else, alas, inject much-needed "dynamism". It takes a while to get used to Mirren's "lumpy facial prosthetics", said Tim Robey in The Daily Telegraph, but she gives a "focused and impassioned" performance, and although the film has some of the "stodginess" of a made-for-TV movie (it looks drab and the staging is uneven), "it has a business-like running time", which it does not waste.

The Creator

Sci-fi thriller ****

"From Tom Cruise's enemy in Mission: Impossible 7 to the recent actors' and writers' strikes, there's one baddie dominating Hollywood right now and that's artificial intelligence," said Larushka Ivan-Zadeh in the Daily Mail. The latest film to tackle the subject is "The Creator", "a smart and truly spectacular-looking sci-fi action thriller" set in the year 2070, where the bright future that AI promised has resulted in humanity's near extinction. When a nuclear bomb flattens Los Angeles, "the West", led by the United States, vows to eradicate AI. The East, however, refuses to follow suit, so America begins a war – not against "New Asia" itself, but the AI it harbours. Caught up in all this is Joshua (John David Washington), an American soldier whose wife (Gemma Chan) is the daughter of an AI mastermind. Plot-wise, the film follows a familiar pattern, but the "AI world" it conjures is "vividly plausible" and "often breathtaking". This is one to "catch in the cinema if you can".

"'The Creator' belongs to an endangered species, in that it's a Hollywood science-fiction epic that isn't based on a video game, a comic or a film you've seen already," said Nicholas Barber on BBC Culture. And though it does bring to mind other films ("Blade Runner", "Star Wars"), it has its own "sombre mood" and "grimy look". It strikes a smart balance, too, between "escapist blockbuster fun and downbeat war-is-hell naturalism". I wasn't convinced by Washington's "shouty" performance, or by a plot that requires highly trained soldiers to do stupid things, said Matthew Bond in The Mail on Sunday. But this is "a well-paced and entertaining watch and does at least have the courage to ask one big, if unfashionable question": in the battle between humans and AI, who are the "good guys"?

The Old Oak

Drama ***

Ken Loach's latest film – which he says will be his last – is a "sunny romcom set in Paris in the spring", said Deborah Ross in The Spectator. Only joking: it's a story about Syrian refugees arriving in a former mining village in the Northeast of England, "where the skies are permanently grim". Their reception is hostile, but local pub landlord T.J. Ballantyne (Dave Turner) strikes up a friendship with Yara (Ebla Mari), a young photographer whose prized camera has been smashed by racist thugs. The plot revolves around the Old Oak's unused back room. T.J. won't loan it to his regulars because they want to hold anti-immigration meetings there. Instead he turns it into a community dining room. As you'd expect, this is "a compassionate film that is respectful all round", but it's also "heavy-handed, soapy and sentimental", with a redemptive ending that is as "simplistic as it is soppy".

"The Old Oak" completes a trilogy Loach has made in the Northeast, and is sadly "the weakest of the three" – not for what it has to say but for "the way it goes about saying it", said Tim Robey in The Daily Telegraph. The film often seems to be merely "running down a checklist of problems besetting working-class northerners, and not so much dramatising these as asking its locally sourced cast to recite them as a litany". The script is a "freight train chugging through with its issues", burdening Yara with scant personality and getting Turner to exclaim "Bastards!" so often "it borders on parody". Shot in a "simple daylit fashion", "The Old Oak" is mercifully free of the "cynical twang" that is currently de rigueur, said Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian. If it really proves to be Loach's last film, he has "concluded with a ringing statement of faith in compassion for the oppressed".

Fair Play

Erotic thriller ***

"There's something bracingly modern yet deliberately old-fashioned" about this Netflix thriller set in the world of Manhattan high finance, said Kevin Maher in The Times. Phoebe Dynevor plays Emily, an analyst at a hedge fund whose secret romance with her colleague Luke (Alden Ehrenreich) is destabilised when she is promoted to a job that had been earmarked for him. With his alpha-male status under pressure, Luke loses interest in sex and starts following an online "manosphere" guru who preaches the importance of "reclaiming your narrative". Casting Ehrenreich, who's come to be seen as the "beta Harrison Ford" thanks to his turn in "Solo: A Star Wars Story", was ingenious, as he retains "some of that entitled Han Solo swagger even as his character falls badly and brilliantly to pieces"; but Dynevor, too, "takes her character to extraordinary places".

"Fair Play" offers "a smart modern update to those wince-inducing erotic office thrillers from the 1990s starring Demi Moore, Michael Douglas and a floppy disc", said Tom Shone in The Sunday Times. But though there is "immense fun" to be had in watching Emily and Luke's affair turn sour, the "flame-throwing psychodrama of the final act" is less entertaining. The director, Chloe Domont, "sets up a chess match, then overturns the board". The film "makes a plausible sell of hedge fund life", said Danny Leigh in the FT, and Domont nails "the markers of status across all workplaces: the money, yes, but also that certain glow that comes with being inside the meeting room that matters". The lesson here is plain: "a power couple is only ever as strong as its weakest member".

The Lesson

Thriller ***

"No one is quite what they seem" in this "winking literary mystery", said Jeannette Catsoulis in The New York Times. Richard E. Grant plays J.M. Sinclair, a fêted but fading British author who lives with his inscrutable French art-curator wife (Julie Delpy) on a "swanky" country estate. The couple are harbouring "coldly destructive secrets" – but it is the "seemingly innocent arrival" of Liam (Daryl McCormack), a young tutor hired to coach the couple's teenage son through the Oxford entrance exam, which really "causes ripples in the family's strained dynamic". Grant is "magnificent" as the "cruel, past-his-prime genius"; and Delpy is "so coolly, seductively enigmatic that at least one of Liam's assignments is immediately predictable". Yet it is McCormack ("Good Luck to You", "Leo Grande") who most "intrigues", gaining a trust he doesn't deserve, and spying on the family's most intimate moments while concealing his own "obsession" with Sinclair. With an atmosphere "as chilly as the lake" in the grounds, the film unfolds with a "slow accretion of menace". 

In debut director Alice Troughton's "study of discomfort", conversations "stutter awkwardly", and "passive aggression" seeps into everything, said Dan Jolin in Time Out. Unfortunately, this overload of unease makes it hard to warm to the film, classy as it is. "The Lesson" is made with "good taste in both actors and influences", said Ellen E. Jones in the Evening Standard: you'll spot "some Hitchcock here, some Patricia Highsmith there". But its "pastiche of a rarefied, literary world" never convinces, while Grant is largely reduced to "hackneyed pseudo-wit". In the end, "like many an Oxford undergrad", this psychological thriller isn't quite "as enchantingly clever as it thinks it is".

Flora and Son

Musical/Drama ***

The Irish writer-director John Carney was behind the musical smashes "Sing Street" and "Once", said Kevin Maher in The Times. Now he's back in Dublin's "hard-knock inner city" with "yet another movie about singing your way out of heartache, poverty and prejudice". Eve Hewson (Bono's daughter, in her first major film lead) is "furiously charismatic" as Flora, a spiky single mother struggling with her rebellious teenage son (newcomer Orén Kinlan). When she finds a guitar in a skip, she tries to persuade him to take an interest; he refuses lessons, however, so she takes them up herself, and forms an "unlikely bond over FaceTime" with her online tutor, a "smooth-talking Los Angeleno" (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). They embark on a long-distance flirtation, and play and sing songs (co-written by Carney) that are "quietly moving for the promise of hope and release they offer". 

I was "mostly charmed" by "Flora and Son", said Benjamin Lee in The Guardian. Carney remains an "unashamedly earnest sentimentalist", but even the "hardest of viewers" will be won over by Hewson's "star-cementing performance", and by this story about a woman who finds not only love through music, but also a "renewed sense of self" and a way to "reconnect" with her son. Alas, for me it didn't stack up, said Nicholas Barber on The Wrap. The "sentimental romance with an American dreamboat" sits uneasily with the "sharp-tongued urban grittiness" elsewhere in the film. But the real problem is that there is just too much going on: with so many "underused characters" and "unfinished storylines", it feels as though Carney was trying to squeeze "two or three films into one". The upshot is a musical drama that seems more "scrappy demo tape" than "polished album".

Dumb Money

Drama/Comedy ***

"Dumb Money" is a "lively" retelling of the GameStop stock craze, when a "motley collection of small-time investors" delivered an "emphatic poke in the eye to the Wall Street elite", said Wendy Ide in The Observer. Paul Dano plays Keith Gill, the "nerdy" YouTuber who put it about that GameStop, a struggling chain of US video-game stores, was undervalued. Money poured in, massively inflating the stock's value with "brutal consequences" for the billion-dollar hedge funds who'd bet against it. In the hands of director Craig Gillespie ("I, Tonya"), the story becomes a "ripped-from-the-headlines docufiction", which "corrals" a host of characters and plotlines into a "triumph-of-the-underdog narrative"– while ignoring the fact that it resulted in "little in the way of real and lasting change". 

"Dumb Money" shows "what happens when the little guys have had enough", said Tom Shone in The Sunday Times. Based on Ben Mezrich's book "The Antisocial Network", it presents the "manchild" Gill as an "unlikely Robin Hood figure" to his online followers. And there's "no doubting" that the villains are the fat cats. "Dumb Money" is indebted to earlier corporate dramas "The Social Network" (2010) and "The Big Short" (2015), but unlike them it ends up "satirically toothless" because it is "peddling a phoney idea", said Tim Robey in The Daily Telegraph. We're meant to see this as an example of individual strivers joining together and "sticking it to the man"; but what happened was closer to a "dog-eat-dog scenario", and many of the little people were among the losers. As a result, the film ends up feeling "distinctly strained, and more depressing than it quite knows".

A Haunting in Venice

Mystery/Crime ** 

"Belgian sleuth Hercule Poirot is back," said Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian, for Kenneth Branagh's third attempt (after "Murder on the Orient Express" and "Death on the Nile") to coax a "gold-effect egg from that plump goose which is the Agatha Christie estate". This time, the detective is in "genial retirement" in postwar Venice, where a bestselling mystery author (Tina Fey) persuades him to attend a Halloween séance conducted by a famous psychic (Michelle Yeoh). The inevitable "horrible events ensue", and as the body count rises, a host of "biggish-to-big names" (including Jamie Dornan and Camille Cottin) fall under suspicion. Branagh has shaken things up a bit, by giving this film a "tougher, nastier, horror-ish feel". But as with the first two in the series, a sense of "trudging inertia" soon sets in; and while Branagh himself brings a "level of sprightly energy" to proceedings, other cast members seem to be "phoning it in" for the pay cheque. 

The real mystery, said Deborah Ross in The Spectator, is why an actor-director as acclaimed as Branagh keeps churning out these films, when each one is "worse than the last". In this case, his first mistake was to set the film in Venice – all rain and carnival masks – although "Hallowe'en Party", the novel on which it is based, takes place in an English village. In the book, "blackmail, infidelity and murder" erupt in a specifically English, humdrum world, said Kevin Maher in The Times, "furnishing Christie with a biting commentary on repressed social norms". By shifting the location, screenwriter Michael Green can offer "nothing but clichés and derivative horror movie tropes" as the story plods dutifully towards Poirot's usual, but this time "strangely perfunctory", concluding monologue.


Drama ***

This "broodingly touching" drama from Canadian writer-director Clement Virgo reminded me of the 2017 Oscar-winner "Moonlight", said Mark Kermode in The Observer. Like that film, Brother (adapted from the novel by David Chariandy) is a gritty "coming-of-age tale" featuring "dreamy, meditative visuals" and built around "disparate timeframes and temporal lapses". The story focuses on two siblings, Michael and Francis, "brilliantly played" by Lamar Johnson and Aaron Pierre. We first meet them as teenagers in their hometown of Scarborough, Ontario, then dip in and out of their troubled lives as they endure "police brutality, gang violence and financial peril". The brothers inhabit a hard world, but Virgo (who directed episodes of "The Wire") does a fine job in "confounding our expectations of macho masculinity", and delving beneath the characters' "street-tough exterior". Indeed, it is the "more intimate elements" that drive the drama; and the boys' Jamaican-Canadian mother (Marsha Stephanie Blake) features in some of the "most powerfully affecting moments". 

"Brother" is "stunningly shot", said Kevin Maher in The Times, and contains some "fine performances". But its "plethora of structural devices" can't overcome an "inherent dramatic flimsiness". One problem is that the ending is revealed in the first act, which undercuts the tension and makes the film drag, as it "treads narrative water, via flashbacks, cross-cuts" and "side stories". It might also benefit from "fewer plaintive cellos", said Ryan Gilbey in The Guardian, and "more sparing use of atmospheric slow-motion". But in its textured portrait of black masculinity, Brother is an example of "strengths outnumbering flaws".


Biopic ***

In the macho world of Mexican wrestling, exóticos are male fighters who compete in drag, said Cath Clarke in The Guardian. Most are straight – but this "heartfelt" drama is based on the real-life story of Saúl Armendáriz, better known as Cassandro, an openly gay exótico who shot to fame in the 1990s. The film gives "Gael García Bernal his best role in years". As Saúl, Bernal is "funny, infectiously upbeat, sometimes vulnerable", and radiates the "magnetism that made him a world cinema It-boy in the '00s". Some of the homophobia Saúl endures is just "grim", and you do wonder if the speed with which he conquers crowds is quite plausible, but by focusing on Saúl's passion for his sport, his determination to be himself, and the unconditional love he gets from his mother (Perla de la Rosa), director Roger Ross Williams has produced a film that is "undeniably heart-warming". 

"This is not your typical triumphant sports movie," said Helen O'Hara in Empire. Yes, Cassandro wins over the crowds, but he can't solve all the problems he and his mother face. The prospect of "rejection and even violence" continues to haunt them, and the film makes it clear that there's still "enormous hostility" in Mexico towards this gay icon. Even so, Cassandro is "a determinedly by-the-book biopic", said Tom Shone in The Sunday Times, complete with the predictable "oh no, he's blowing it" segment and inevitable "comeback finale. Yawn." But, ultimately, it doesn't matter, because the world of lucha libre wrestling "is so perfectly balanced between the macho and the camp", and because Bernal's performance is such a treat.

Past Lives

Romance/Drama *****

"Sometimes in cinema, a director emerges with a first film and just, well, nails it," said Kevin Maher in The Times. Often they will be people who have honed their skills in the theatre: think Sam Mendes ("American Beauty") and Orson Welles ("Citizen Kane"). "To that list we now must add Celine Song," a Korean-born, New York-based playwright who has delivered "one of the finest films of the year so far". "Past Lives" is a "Brief Encounter"-style "heartbreaker" about an "inevitable and yet impossible love". Greta Lee plays Nora, a Seoul-born playwright who is living in New York with her husband (John Magaro) when her childhood friend, Hae Sung (Teo Yoo), "comes crashing adorably yet painfully back into her world". The film then jumps back in time to when Nora and Hae Sung are 12-year-olds in Korea, and vow to marry one day – but are separated when Nora emigrates with her parents to Canada. "Stylistically flawless", the film is about "accepting loss and pain, and realising, in the words of Thomas Wolfe, that you can't go home again. It's a film, in short, about putting away childish things", which is why, perhaps, "it has the saddest ending of any film" since "Toy Story 3". 

"Past Lives" is an "immigrant story, with Nora bisected between two cultures", said Larushka Ivan-Zadeh in the Daily Mail. Yet its themes – destiny and "the pull of a past self" – are universal; and above all, it is a romance "so aching it left me with a painful lump in my throat". There isn't much to the film, "plot-wise", said Deborah Ross in The Spectator. But it is "exquisitely affecting", and "made with great precision and care". As for the performances, they are "delicate and gorgeous". In sum: "there is nothing that shouts in 'Past Lives', but there is certainly plenty to shout about".

A Life on the Farm

Documentary ***

This "charming" documentary exhumes the "extraordinary home movies" made by the late Charles Carson, a farmer who lived in the "fabulously named" parish of Huish Champflower in Somerset, said Ed Potton in The Times. "An English eccentric of exceptional vintage", Carson – who filmed himself as well as life on his farm – "is relentlessly upbeat", whether delivering a calf or presenting its "pulsating afterbirth to the camera". Things do get quite dark: at one point, he transports his dead mother around his fields in a wheelchair, so that the cows can pay their final respects. But the film is not only made up of this footage. Director Oscar Harding also explores how Carson became a "cult hero" within a subculture of Americans who enjoy strange video content, after his films ended up online. It is, in the end, quite "touching" to see their appreciation "for a man who channelled his grief and loneliness into nuggets of homespun surreality". 

"Too much is made" of the story of how Carson's tapes came to light, said Ellen E. Jones in The Observer, "but the footage itself is delightful, ranging from 'Countryfile' banalities to macabre surrealism". Oh look, you think: "a cute kitty curled up by the fireside! Oh no, wait... is it mummified?" It's a pity that "English reserve" seems to have prevented Harding from truly plumbing Carson's depths; but whoever he was, "he certainly was a talented outsider artist, one whose work fully justifies the attention this film bestows". The film is an "odd mix", said Donald Clarke in The Irish Times: "larkish segments" sit awkwardly with sober contributions from talking heads, for instance. But for the most part, this is a "warm-hearted celebration of an oddity for the ages".

El Conde

Horror/Satire ***

"Pablo Larraín is fast becoming cinema's foremost purveyor of cockeyed biopics," said Raphael Abraham in the Financial Times. Joining "Neruda", "Jackie" and "Spencer", there now comes "El Conde" (The Count), a "pitch-black (and white) portrait of Augusto Pinochet that imagines the Chilean dictator as a 250-year-old bloodsucker". Jaime Vadell plays the "aged capitán-general", whom we first meet "occupying a ramshackle building in barren surroundings that suggest moral ruin and abandonment". A flashback to Louis XVI's Paris reveals his origins, the screen erupting in violence as he takes a sledgehammer to a sex worker's face, then licks Marie Antoinette's blood off a guillotine. Later, he settles in South America, marrying Lucía Hiriart (Gloria Münchmeyer), a woman "even more perverse and unscrupulous" than he is. The film's "irony-dripping narration" is provided by Pinochet's "bosom buddy" Margaret Thatcher (Stella Gonet). The film is full of "striking" images, but as a skewering of a monstrous figure, "it's not quite a stake through the heart". 

This "boisterously macabre" and deeply violent horror-satire is "entertaining in a 'Spitting Image' way", and is powerful both at the beginning and at the end, said Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian. But it is weighed down by a "clotted central section", and feels a bit "one-note". "For such a dark tale, it's played curiously lightly, the tone leaning towards quirk as much as anything," said John Nugent in Empire. Still, as "an old-fashioned horror in an arthouse cape" it works perfectly well, and it's "funnier and more entertaining than might be expected".


Drama ****

“Full of explicit sex and raw emotions”, “Passages” finds the American director Ira Sachs “back on form” after his disappointing drama “Frankie”, said Alistair Harkness in The Scotsman. Set in Paris, the film stars the sensational Franz Rogowski as Tomas, “a bad-boy German filmmaker” whose determination to control his personal life “with the same dictatorial authority he displays on set” is challenged when he embarks on a “lusty” affair with a teacher named Agathe (Adèle Exarchopoulos). Tomas is in a “somewhat open” same-sex marriage with mild-mannered designer Martin (Ben Whishaw), but this latest infidelity leads Martin to break up with him, sending Tomas into a tailspin. Part of what’s great about Sachs’s films is that “he never judges his characters”: Tomas, for instance, is toxic but also funny and childlike; you leave suspecting that his “biggest victim is himself”. “Passages” is “great like that”: “awkward and truthful and alive to the chaos of real life”.

This sometimes graphic depiction of a ménage à trois is not for “shrinking violets”, said the Daily Mail. What Sachs has produced is “an intimate, effortlessly well-acted adult drama that prickles with sexual chemistry, even if the story doesn’t amount to much more than ‘beware le narcissist’”. “As a portrait of artistic monstrosity”, it would “make a great double bill with Tár,” said Danny Leigh in the FT. It confers “the uncomfortable feeling of being drawn into the orbit of the beast”, owing to the “glinting magnetism” that Rogowski bestows on his character. But Sachs wisely doesn’t allow Rogowski to dominate: Whishaw is also given the space to excel “as the deceptively steely Martin”, and Exarchopoulos “is brilliant as the not quite wary-enough Agathe”.


Crime/Mystery ***

“Georges Simenon’s lugubrious detective Maigret has appeared in umpteen screen adaptations” and been played by dozens of actors, said Deborah Ross in The Spectator. “Now, it’s Gérard Depardieu’s turn”, and though he isn’t “quite how I imagined Maigret” – he moves “more cumbersomely, like a sad circus bear” – he might “be the best so far”. Based on the 1954 novel “Maigret and the Dead Girl”, the film begins, inevitably, with a body: that of a young woman who has been stabbed and left on the street, with no hint as to her identity other than “the label in her evening dress”. It falls to Maigret to unravel the mystery. “Minimal and melancholic”, the film is shrouded in literal gloom – “I don’t think any lightbulb runs to more than five watts” – and Maigret seems suitably depleted (and mercifully free of the PTSD, flashbacks and nagging wives that dog modern fictional detectives).

“At 74, Depardieu is surely a couple of decades older than the usual Maigret,” said Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian. “He is also a rather stately and well-nourished figure – when his doctor asks him if he feels tired in the medical check-up scene at the beginning of this film, Maigret actually answers: ‘Sometimes … when running for a bus.’ Running for a bus? Any film that actually had a scene of Depardieu running for a bus would deserve every special effects award going.” Still, he brings his trademark “watchful presence” to the film, which has the feel of a “feature-length Sunday-night TV drama”, and is enjoyable enough. I’m afraid I found the adaptation very disappointing, said Kevin Maher in The Times. The murder case is totally lacking in twists and turns; Depardieu, now so “controversial offscreen, remains charismatic on it”, but not “charismatic enough” to save this film.

The Equalizer 3

Action/Thriller ***

In 2014, “The Equalizer” introduced to us “the world’s most dangerous guy: a trained killer who’s convinced he’d also make a great life coach”, said Clarisse Loughrey in The Independent. Former intelligence officer Robert McCall (Denzel Washington) “can both politely coerce you into swapping fast food for salads and butcher the Russian mobsters on your back”. Now, McCall (first played in a TV series by Edward Woodward in the 1980s) is back in a film that is “about as good” as the first one, and much better than the second. The plot follows McCall as he rocks up to an Italian town, which turns out to be crawling with “Mafia types” who are plotting to drive the locals out of their homes so that they can turn the area into a tourist resort. McCall, of course, “can’t abide nice people being bothered”, so he starts breaking a few arms and skulls (“Eat. Pray. Murder”). Director Antoine Fuqua makes the most of his “Roman Catholic fever-dream rendering of Italy”, and Washington, in “full movie star mode”, shows he can command attention even when sitting “perfectly still”.

“For those who can tolerate – or better yet, relish – extreme violence, ‘The Equalizer 3’ is diverting enough,” said Kyle Smith in The Wall Street Journal. Though the script is “so-so”, the score, beautiful Italian locations and Washington’s “still-world-class charm” lift it “(slightly) above average for the action-thriller genre”. At heart, this is “an old-fashioned western, where the good guy rides into town to protect the citizens”, said Matthew Bond in The Mail on Sunday. “It does all get a bit formulaic on the last lap, but if this is the end of the franchise”, as it’s billed, it’s going out on a good note.


Drama/Comedy ****

There’s a “tender sweetness” to British filmmaker Charlotte Regan’s debut feature, about “a fragile father-daughter relationship”, said Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian. Newcomer Lola Campbell plays Georgie, a 12-year-old who is living by herself in a council house in east London following the death of her single mum. She pays the bills by nicking bikes with her friend Ali (Alin Uzun), and tells the social services, whenever they remember to check in on her, that she’s being looked after by an uncle called “Winston Churchill”. This precarious existence is upended, however, by the arrival of Jason (Harris Dickinson), who announces that he is her father – and who makes it clear that he wants to be a part of her life. The film isn’t “quite as humanly complex as it might have been”: the educational and welfare authorities are “cartoonishly callous and gullible”, for instance. “But the gentleness of the connection” between Jason and Georgie gives it real warmth.

For a film about a working-class kid who has to fend for herself, “Scrapper” is – remarkably – neither “an earnestly grim wrist-slitter” nor “an indictment of modern Britain with no shred of hope”, said Deborah Ross in The Spectator. “It’s not even desaturated and grimy.” “Scrapper” is colourful, tender, gloriously short (at 84 minutes), and contains some “magical” performances. Dickinson “exudes a dozy vulnerability” as Jason, while Campbell and Uzun are terrific: “fresh, naturalistic, winning”. I also “fell in love” with this “spunky British indie”, said Larushka Ivan-Zadeh in the Daily Mail. Without ever teetering into twee, it proves that “a grief story set on an east London council estate” needn’t be “grey and miserabilist”. You may cry, but “you will laugh harder”.

Theater Camp

Comedy ****

“Part laugh-out-loud satire, part life-affirming love letter to amateur dramatics”, Molly Gordon and Nick Lieberman’s “brilliant” mockumentary depicts life in a children’s theatre camp in upstate New York, said Ed Potton in The Times. The punningly named “AdirondACTS” is the kind of place where the kids are “explosively overexcited, the teachers say things like, ‘We know how to turn cardboard into gold’, and the cars have bumper stickers reading, ‘Mom... Dad... I’m a thespian’.” When the camp’s founder Joan (Amy Sedaris) goes into a coma after a strobe-induced seizure, her clueless son Troy (Jimmy Tatro) takes over, to the consternation of Joan’s “stalwart staff”. But the show goes on as the camp leaders – an “impeccably observed collection of oddballs and frustrated performers” – throw themselves into writing and producing the annual end-of-camp musical. “There are moments of fabulous inappropriateness”, but the filmmakers clearly “have huge affection for this world”. Having laughed throughout, “you’ll leave the cinema feeling moved, too”.

“Theater Camp” is “a kind of film we haven’t seen much of recently: a very, very funny one”, said Robbie Collin in The Daily Telegraph. It isn’t “an action comedy, or horror comedy, or superhero film with jokes” – just “a comedy comedy”, and it made me laugh so much “I slid out of my seat”. I’m not sure the mockumentary framing does the film any favours, said Donald Clarke in The Irish Times – “there are too many cameras” and close-ups, and no one acknowledges the presence of a crew. But this is a mere “quibble”. This is a “rollicking, endlessly good-natured” film, packed with jokes and buoyed by the cast’s “chutzpah”.

The Blackening

Horror/Comedy ***

“The Blackening” is “a horror spoof that comments ironically on chillers” such as “The Cabin in the Woods” and the “Scream” series, which were themselves “self-reflexive genre commentaries”. What makes Tim Story’s film different, said Jonathan Romney in the FT, “is that it’s about blackness – specifically, about the status of black characters in American horror, and the fact that, in slasher pics, they are so often the first to get slashed”. The story follows seven college friends who are taking part in a reunion in a secluded cabin in a wood, where they come upon a sinister board game called The Blackening. In it, a grinning, talking head challenges them to play – “which involves answering quiz questions on black American history, culture and pop trivia” – or die. In order to survive, the friends end up having to decide who in the room is “the blackest”. The comedy is raucous, pithy and “liberally spiked with one-liners”, even if, “as an extended joke about the predictability of the genre”, “The Blackening” “can’t help being predictable” itself.

Some of the pop culture references “might go over the average viewer’s head”, said Dulcie Pearce in The Sun, but there are more than enough jokes and hijinks to make up for it. The characters are all “highly aware of what not to do in horror movies”, which makes for a rich source of “laugh-out-loud moments”. Horror purists might find this film rather short on “genuine scares”, said Wendy Ide in The Observer. “But go into it expecting a hang-out comedy with a few jumps rather than a horror movie with a few jokes, and it’s unlikely to disappoint.”


Comedy ***

“At its best, this crude comedy does for dog movies what ‘Bad Santa’ did for Christmas films” – it drags them through the gutter and rolls them in filth, “sometimes literally”, said Ed Potton in The Times. “Strays” is “unlike anything else in cinemas at the moment”. It’s “a live-action film featuring real but CGI-embellished dogs, in which Will Ferrell voices our hero”, a naive border terrier called Reggie who adores his owner Doug (Will Forte). Doug, sadly, is an “abusive, bong-smoking, masturbating slob, whose preferred names for Reggie are Shitbag and F**knugget”. When Reggie presents Doug’s girlfriend with a pair of knickers that belong to another woman, Doug abandons him in an inner-city neighbourhood, where he falls in with a bunch of other strays, and has his “doggy eyes opened, big time”. The film “demands a high tolerance for swearing, knob gags and bodily fluids”, and at its worst, it’s “lamely unfunny”. Even so, the moments of hilarity “outnumber the rubbish ones”, and Reggie’s eventual revenge against Doug makes for a “finale for the ages”.

“The makers of ‘Strays’ seem to have set out to make the filthiest, raunchiest talking-animal movie in Hollywood history, and it would be difficult to argue that they failed,” said Kyle Smith in The Wall Street Journal. Yet though it is “wildly inappropriate”, it’s also miles funnier “than almost everything I’ve seen from the Hollywood comedy establishment lately”. Based on the poster showing two cute dogs, I’d assumed ‘Strays’ was a tame “kiddie film”, said Deborah Ross in The Spectator. But within minutes I was thinking: “Christ on a bike, what the hell is this?” Be in no doubt: this is a “rude, offensive and disgusting” movie. But it’s also great fun – and even, in the end, “rather touching”.

Lie with Me

Drama ***

This “tasteful” French drama is based on a bestselling autobiographical novel by Philippe Besson that has been dubbed the “French Brokeback Mountain”, said Cath Clarke in The Guardian. The story follows novelist Stéphane (Guillaume de Tonquédec) as he returns to his home town for the first time in 35 years. Growing up gay in provincial France, Stéphane couldn’t wait to escape. Now he’s back, being paid by a cognac brand to speak at an event. In the audience is the company’s marketing executive, Lucas (Victor Belmondo), who turns out to be the son of Stéphane’s long-lost first love. In flashback sequences set decades before, we see how that love unfolded, between gawky young Stéphane and “babe-magnet” Thomas (Julien De Saint Jean), who makes Stéphane promise to keep their relationship a secret. There is “a sensual feel” to the film’s depiction of young love, even if the themes of “shame and internalised homophobia” are familiar.

“The striking widescreen cinematography gives an impression of generous scope and openness,” said Wendy Ide in The Observer. “But in fact, like Stéphane himself, the storytelling is oddly insular and fussy. The highlight here is a supporting character: the long-suffering event organiser Gaëlle, played by Guilaine Londez with a huge, over-stretched smile and the kind of clenched-jawed positivity that seems to teeter on the brink of psychosis.” “Lie With Me” is, in essence, “quite a conventional, small-scale French movie”, said David Sexton in The New Statesman. But it’s “wildly romantic”, and director Olivier Peyon has neatly compressed the original book’s “complex narrative”

Blue Beetle

Superhero **

“Blue Beetle” is “a likeable, if predictable” superhero film “that at no point invokes time travel, the multiverse or a ginormous portal in the sky”, said Clarisse Loughrey in The Independent. “And thank god for that.” Directed by the Puerto Rican filmmaker Ángel Manuel Soto, it stars Xolo Maridueña as Jaime, a young Latino graduate who returns from college to discover “that his relatives have been shielding their bright, promising spark from a few dispiriting truths”. His father, for one thing, has had a heart attack and lost his shop; for another, the family home is about to be repossessed by a corporation run by Susan Sarandon’s evil industrialist. Soon, however, Jaime gets his hands on her secret weapon: an intergalactic scarab beetle that burrows into his body and lends him “bug-like armour”, as well as assorted superpowers. The film isn’t, in truth, “all that remarkable”, but there is “something pleasantly nostalgic about its straightforwardness”, a throwback to the earlier days of the genre, when characters and emotions “had room to breathe”.

Seeing Jaime and his family switch unthinkingly between English and Spanish shouldn’t be “one of the most startling things that’s ever happened in a superhero movie” – but it is, said Peter Hoskins in the Daily Mail. It’s just a shame that the family scenes cede to humdrum superhero-movie fare: so we have the insipid love interest, the baddie with a plan, and the “big CGI scrap” at the end. I found the film “powerfully boring”, said Tim Robey in The Daily Telegraph. It’s hard to chalk it up as a win for Latino representation when Jaime’s family “are cut from the Disney-ish cloth” of the clans from “Coco” and “Encanto”; and the middle drags. If you’ve “an ounce” of superhero fatigue, steer clear.


Drama ****

“Tolstoy famously wrote that while all happy families are alike, each unhappy one is so in its own particular way,” said Robbie Collin in The Daily Telegraph. “This ravishing, velvety melodrama from Italy’s Emanuele Crialese serves as a living illustration of the point.” Set in 1970s Rome, it stars first-time actress Luana Giuliani as an otherworldly teenager, Adriana, who wishes to be acknowledged by the world as a boy named Andrea. Adriana/Andrea’s beautiful Spanish mother Clara is played by Penélope Cruz, “in a thrillingly old-fashioned performance of Sophia Loren-like vivacity”. They live in a “luxuriously appointed modernist apartment”, but Clara’s husband (a “deeply plausible” Vincenzo Amato) “brims with a quiet, nonspecific distaste for his wife and children” that can erupt into violence. Crialese explores the teenager’s shifting identity with “complexity, nuance and psychological honesty”, and though some “magic-realist interludes” are a little “heavy footed”, this is “a sophisticated, searching work”.

Inspired by Crialese’s own experience, “L’immensità” is both a “coming-of-age and a coming-of-gender story”, said Jonathan Romney in the Financial Times. It’s anchored by Giuliani’s superb performance: her Adriana/Andrea is a perfect mix of “vulnerability and bolshie sullenness”. As for Cruz, she exudes “radiance” and “magnificence” – even if you do sometimes wish that the film would let her “be less magnificent” and more human. I found that the story failed to “accumulate power” as it went on, said Edward Porter in The Sunday Times. Still, it has lots of “endearing” moments, including a few fantasy sequences set to “blazing Italian pop songs from the period”.

Heart of Stone

Mystery ***

“Who watches the watchers?” Who offers covert support to the secret services when they themselves get into scrapes? According to Tom Harper’s “uneven but enjoyable hi-tech espionage action romp”, the answer is “the Charter”, said Wendy Ide in The Observer. This is a shadowy organisation made up of former agents who swoop in to “tidy up” whenever governments and security agencies make “a bit of a mess of things”. A key member of this group is Gal Gadot’s Rachel Stone, who begins the story secretly embedded in a group of British spies (including Jamie Dornan and “Motherland”’s Paul Ready) who are carrying out a mission. Soon enough, however, the Charter itself comes under threat, and Stone must break cover, then zip to various “stunning locations around the world” to save it. “There’s very little that’s original in this Bond-alike adventure”, and the screenplay is mere “scaffolding to support the set pieces”; but “the action is terrific”, with a “screaming, tyre-shredding” car chase around Lisbon a particularly “exhilarating” highlight.

“Heart of Stone” plays “a simple, sturdy game” and plays it well, said Benjamin Lee in The Guardian. Sure, this is “disposable” stuff, and the plot is “total nonsense that barely warrants a first think, let alone a second”. Yet it’s “surprisingly propulsive nonsense, packaged with a studio slickness” one wouldn’t expect from Netflix, whose films so often have a murky, slightly smoky look. The dialogue can be a tad mechanical, said Kevin Maher in The Times: we need a moratorium on protagonists saying, “You got this!” and “I got this!”. But the film builds to a terrific twist, and its action sequences are smartly orchestrated. “If this is the first instalment, count me in for the second.”

Red, White & Royal Blue

Romcom **

“Like a corgi backflipping over a bathtub of champagne, ‘Red, White & Royal Blue’ starts with a giddy premise and has the derring-do to succeed,” said Amy Nicholson in The New York Times. “The setup is thus: Alex (Taylor Zakhar Perez), the wild child of the White House, is tasked with clearing up an international PR disaster by befriending Prince Henry (Nicholas Galitzine), the cloistered British spare.” In the film’s first half, the pair fall in love; in the second, they fret that going public might cause “another global kerfuffle” just as Alex’s mother (Uma Thurman) is campaigning for re-election. The story is an adaptation of Casey McQuiston’s 2019 bestseller, and director Matthew López successfully “gets us rooting for the cheeky couple’s transition from rivals to romantic bedfellows” – thanks in no small part to the actors’ “playful chemistry”.

With its voiceover and snappy pace, this film wants to be “a ‘Bridgerton’-type affair”, said Deborah Ross in The Spectator. “But it doesn’t have the same wit or knowingness – or budget”: the floristry is “disappointing”, the fake snow is poor, and rooms “that are meant to be royal or presidential look like the Premier Inn, tarted up a bit”. And though “it is modest fun”, it feels rushed – like “being hit round the head with one of those photo-love stories from Jackie magazine”. A “classic tale of enemies-to-lovers”, the film has all the fluff and “heavy colour grading” you’d expect of a teen romcom, said Maddy Mussen in the Evening Standard. It’s predictable, certainly, but it’s sure “to be played at sleepovers for years to come”, though perhaps when the parents have gone to bed.

Joy Ride

Comedy ***

“Combine ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ with ‘Bridesmaids’ and you might end up with something quite like ‘Joy Ride’”; only I doubt that it would be quite as good, funny – or rude, said Matthew Bond in The Mail on Sunday. Ashley Park (“Emily in Paris”) plays Audrey, a high-flying lawyer who was born to Chinese parents, but adopted by a white couple at birth. She can barely speak a word of Mandarin, so when she is put under pressure at work “to land a big deal in Beijing”, she persuades her lifelong friend Lolo (Sherry Cola) to come along to translate for her. While she is there, Audrey decides to track down her biological mother, with Lolo and two other girlfriends in tow. Directed and co-written by Adele Lim, who co-wrote “Crazy Rich Asians”, the film “fizzes with comic energy”, and packs a remarkable number of gags into its short running time. A word of warning, however: this isn’t a film to watch with a “prim maiden aunt”, if any of those still exist.

“Joy Ride” combines the “sordid and salacious girls-on-tour movie” with a “very modern identity quest”, said Robbie Collin in The Daily Telegraph. The problem with the film isn’t that this “unusual combination of genres doesn’t click” – it’s that the jokes are “stale”, the performances “broad”, and the plot “greased up with improbable short cuts”. It is packed with “humping, puking, swearing, coke-ingesting” and singing, said Charlotte O’Sullivan in the Evening Standard; but the “big surprise”, for me at least, was that it has more to it than “adults-only humour”. As well as being sensitively performed, it “deftly explores internalised racism, the importance of online friendships for those on the spectrum and the stigma attached (even now) to pre-marital sex”.

You Hurt My Feelings

Romcom ****

“The spirit of high-era Woody Allen, minus the difficult stuff, pulses through this acutely observed” Amazon Prime comedy about “overeducated and under-appreciated New Yorkers”, said Kevin Maher in The Times. Julia Louis-Dreyfus is “effortlessly empathetic” as Beth, a writer “whose only published work is a memoir about her hard-knock childhood that, she complains, clearly wasn’t hard enough to gain a wider readership”. Her husband Don (a “never better Tobias Menzies”) has lavished praise on her latest draft, but confesses to a friend that he doesn’t actually like it (“It’s no good,” he says. “Not to me.”). Alas, Beth overhears this admission and all hell breaks loose: characters go into sulks, resentments pile up, and bickering becomes infectious – “proper grown-up stuff, in other words”. The writing is “casually accomplished” and the performances are “top tier”. The best the characters can hope for, in the end, “are the compensations of enduring companionship and emotional honesty”, a conclusion that is “unfussy and quietly poignant”, much like the movie itself.

Films about “the mini-problems of normal people are vanishingly rare these days, mainly because it’s hard to make normal people seem interesting enough to be worth the price of a ticket”, said Kyle Smith in The Wall Street Journal. But writer-director Nicole Holofcener “has more than managed” to make them interesting in this “thoroughly engaging conversation-starter of a film”. Smart though it is, said Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian, I did find it “faintly exhausting”. And there is something astringent in it, “a salty tang which isn’t really effaced by the later plot transitions”, with their message that while we all fib to our loved ones, “it doesn’t mean we love them any the less”.

Paris Memories

Drama ***

Based on her brother’s experience of the Bataclan attack in Paris, Alice Winocour’s “unexpectedly hopeful” drama is lit up by a César-winning performance from Virginie Efira, said Wendy Ide in The Observer. She plays Mia, a “stylish, self-assured translator” who finds herself completely broken by the experience of being caught up in a terrorist attack on a busy Paris brasserie. “Three months after the event, she starts the process of piecing together her shattered memories of the attack, even as she comes to realise that some elements of her life are beyond repair.” At her most broken, however, Mia remains a “dynamic presence, outward-looking and attuned to the people around her”. Efira can pack “so many layers of conflicting emotions into her expression” that in a “moment of closure”, when Mia locks eyes with a fellow survivor near the Eiffel Tower, “it almost hurts to watch her”.

Efira’s acting is “almost telepathic”, said Cath Clarke in The Guardian: she can convey feelings while “barely twitching a muscle in her face”. It’s a pity, then, that this “measured, quietly powerful” drama goes down a “conventional” route, as Mia falls for a “handsome-from-a-certain-angle” man who was also tangled up in the attack. “It’s a bit of an ordinary ending to such a deep-feeling film.” Their romance does feel like a “sop to audience expectations”, agreed Jonathan Romney in Sight and Sound. And there are other elements that don’t work either: “over-reliance on slow motion”, for instance, and “Shyamalanesque moments when Mia glimpses the dead”. There’s no questioning the film’s “noble intentions”, but it can feel “glibly schematic”.

Talk To Me

Horror ****

The twin Australian filmmakers Michael and Danny Philippou started their careers as production runners on the Australian horror classic “The Babadook”, and subsequently “achieved a cult following for their film spoofs on YouTube”, said Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian. Now, for their debut feature, “they’ve let rip with a blast of wild punk energy and gleeful anarchy”, and the result is a “terrific scary movie”. Sophie Wilde plays Mia, a young woman whose mother died of an apparently accidental overdose. When she and some friends learn about the latest occult craze, “a creepy china hand” that’s proving a hit at local parties, her curiosity is piqued. It turns out that if you hold the hand and whisper “talk to me”, you invite a dead person into your consciousness. Let the possession go on for longer than 90 seconds, however, and your body will be invaded for ever. “Freaky and confrontational”, the film “crashes through its plot progressions with tactless verve”.

This horror film “has its share of jump scares and mouldering revenants”, said Jonathan Romney in the FT. “But it has subtler touches, too: the game’s varied and unpredictable effects; themes such as loneliness and the contagious nature of desperation.” And there are also moments of wit, as when something horrible happens at the start, and everyone’s first instinct is to “whip out their phones and film it”. The hand gimmick is pretty corny, said Kevin Maher in The Times. Yet somehow, in this film, it feels “fresh”; and Wilde turns in an “immense” performance as “a grieving daughter who becomes addicted to the psychotropic buzz of full body possession”. But full credit to the Philippous, for their tightly controlled direction and “cine-literacy: nods to Hitchcock and Friedkin abound”.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem

Animation ****

“Arriving just in time to placate all those children duped into thinking ‘Barbie’ might be for them”, only to find that it was “full of bewildering adult jokes” about cellulite and genitals, the latest “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” film is “a welcome kick-off to the school summer holidays”, said Brian Viner in the Daily Mail. It’s only the second “Turtles” film to be fully animated, “and is all the better for it”: it looks “like a comic book come to life”. The story, too, is “terrific”. It revolves (as ever) around four turtle protagonists, who have been taught by the mutant rat who raised them (“nicely voiced” by Jackie Chan) to consider humankind an unfriendly, predatory species. Yet the young turtles yearn to assimilate, and so plot to ingratiate themselves with their fellow New Yorkers by ridding the city of an evil mutant housefly (Ice Cube) who has world domination in mind. The film is, in sum, “a hoot, and at an hour and 39 minutes, a manageable hoot”.

The most surprising thing about this cartoon “isn’t just that it’s bearable”, said Robbie Collin in The Daily Telegraph: “It’s that its makers have gone so far above and beyond the call of churning out another ‘Turtles’ film that it stands on its own merits as a thrillingly kinetic piece of pop art.” Every frame crackles “with energy and colour: in the best possible way, it actually looks teenage”. For better and worse, “it sounds it, too”, with a script that’s full of gags and wisecracks. “Peppy” and “anarchic”, this animation “looks scrumdiddlyumptious”, boasts an impeccable soundtrack and “doesn’t talk down to teens”, said Charlotte O’Sullivan in the Evening Standard. Sure, it’s not wildly deep, “but that’s fine; for a summer kids’ movie, it oozes intelligence”.

The Beanie Bubble

Drama **

“Most of us will remember Beanie Babies, the small, under-stuffed soft toys that became a collecting craze in the late 1990s,” said Matthew Bond in The Mail on Sunday. “The Beanie Bubble” explores that phenomenon, with decently entertaining results. The story is told through the eyes of three women who came into contact with the failed actor behind the toys, Ty Warner (Zach Galifianakis). Robbie (Elizabeth Banks) is a neighbour who helps him set up the company and becomes his lover; Sheila (Sarah Snook) is a single mother of two young daughters, who becomes his girlfriend some years later; then there is Maya (Geraldine Viswanathan) who takes a holiday job with the company in her teens, and stays on. Galifianakis is impressive as Warner, but he’s let down by the plot, which “rolls endlessly back and forwards”, and “eventually ties itself into something of a Beanie knot”.

The “tulip fever-style mass hysteria” that developed around Beanie Babies “was the first inkling of the pernicious role that the internet would later play in shaping our tastes, appetites and, ultimately, thoughts”, said Wendy Ide in The Observer. So it’s a pity that this “plodding” and “dutiful” film, which was written and co-directed by Kristin Gore (daughter of Al Gore), isn’t “darker in tone”. A touch of corporate chicanery and institutional sexism aside, it is “blithely unquestioning” about what the toy frenzy “actually tells us about society”. This could have been “a cute movie about toys, or a dazzling drama about capitalist fads”, said Francesca Steele in The i Paper. Alas, it’s neither. It’s a muddled film that cast four talented actors in lead roles, then denied them “the chance to entertain”.


Comedy/Drama ****

“Anthropologists believe there may be tribes living in the farthest reaches of the Amazon” who missed the marketing campaign for Greta Gerwig’s $145m, Mattel-sponsored “Barbie” movie, but the rest of us had our eyeballs melted by it for weeks, said Robbie Collin in The Daily Telegraph. So it’s an “unexpected pleasure” to report that it’s not the “blunt-force cash grab many of us feared. In fact, it’s deeply bizarre, conceptually slippery and often roar-out-loud hilarious.”

Margot Robbie is perfectly cast as “Stereotypical Barbie”, a “habitually smiley creature” whose life in Barbieland (a fantasy world in which multiple different Barbies hold sway) is disrupted when she finds herself “haunted by thoughts of sadness, anxiety and death”, said Mark Kermode in The Observer. “Worse still, she develops flat feet and (whisper it!) cellulite – two horsemen of the Barbie apocalypse.” A visit to Kate McKinnon’s “Weird Barbie” (“She was played with too hard”) reveals that a wormhole has opened between Barbieland and the real world. So our heroine must venture there, accompanied by Ken (Ryan Gosling), who learns that the real world is dominated by something called “The Patriarchy”, which, having always been in thrall to Barbie, he rather likes. It all adds up to a “riotously entertaining candy-coloured feminist fable”.


Biopic/drama ****

“Oppenheimer” is billed “as a biopic of theoretical physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer”, said Wendy Ide in The Observer. “But ‘biopic’ seems too small a word to contain the ambition and scope of Christopher Nolan’s formidable if occasionally unwieldy” film about the so-called “father of the atomic bomb”. Although this “dense and intricate period piece” weaves together “courtroom drama, romantic liaisons, laboratory epiphanies and lecture hall personality cults”, it is perhaps most of all a “monster movie”. Cillian Murphy’s Oppenheimer is “an atomic-age Frankenstein, a man captivated by the boundless possibilities of science” who realises too late that his creation has a limitless capacity for destruction. “Murphy’s far-seeing ice-chip eyes have never been put to better use.”

Jumping between several timelines, the film follows “Oppie” from the 1920s and into old age, said Manohla Dargis in The New York Times. And though its all-star cast is distracting (Matt Damon, Robert Downey Jr, Gary Oldman, Kenneth Branagh and others pop up), it builds into a “brilliant” drama about “genius, hubris and error”.

A Kind of Kidnapping

Dark Comedy **

With “Indiana Jones” and “Mission: Impossible” still slugging it out at the box office, and “Oppenheimer” and “Barbie” just landing in cinemas, now is a tough time for new films to “make their mark”, said Matthew Bond in The Mail on Sunday. But “A Kind of Kidnapping”, a “dark British comedy-thriller” about the bungled kidnapping of an MP, is worth seeking out.

Patrick Baladi plays Hardy, an “unprincipled and predatory” politician who initially assumes that his masked kidnappers are terrorists. In fact, they are struggling actress Maggie (Kelly Wenham) and her gentle boyfriend Brian (Jack Parry-Jones), a Welsh taxi driver. Brian hopes to turn his life around with a computer course, but Maggie “prefers a quicker route – collecting a six-figure bitcoin ransom”. There is “more than a hint of early Danny Boyle to what messily ensues, but writer-director Dan Clark serves up an enjoyable mix of unexpected twists and genuinely funny lines”.

I’m afraid I found it “dire”, said Wendy Ide in The Observer. It’s a shame, because there are some great films in the “inept criminal movie subgenre”, such as the Coen brothers’ Fargo. This, alas, is “the absolute worst” the genre has to offer: a “spirit-crushing” fiasco full of terrible dialogue, consisting largely of characters referring to basic bodily functions. Maggie and Brian are “narcissistic sociopaths” and Hardy is “so bland and beige that he barely exists”. The film is riddled with inconsistencies, said Charlotte O’Sullivan in the Evening Standard: it takes the police an awfully long time to find Hardy, for instance, which is odd given that he has a working phone. But it’s “niftily edited”, and Baladi (“The Office”; “Bodies”) really “nails” his character’s hilarious ghastliness.

The Deepest Breath

Documentary ****

This “immersive” Netflix documentary explores the “dangerous world of freediving, where a person dives under water on a single breath of air”, said Laura Rutkowski in the Radio Times. Directed by Laura McGann, it follows the Italian world champion Alessia Zecchini, and Stephan Keenan, who trained as a freediver before becoming a safety instructor. Early on, we are warned that a tragedy will take place, but it’s not clear “when it will unfold, and to whom”. Once it does happen, though, you’ll be moved and horrified. It’s stressful to watch, especially when the divers black out near the surface owing to a lack of oxygen; and it captures “the psychological demands of the sport, while also acting as a harrowing reminder of the pull – and the power – of the ocean”.

McGann has a knack for “shaping eccentric non-fiction material into pleasingly familiar Hollywood rhythms”, said Kevin Maher in The Times. So Keenan is presented as “the restless global wanderer, craving excitement yet haunted by his mother’s death”, while Zecchini is the “recalcitrant rebel” who seems to be “searching for the gentle guidance that Keenan will eventually provide”. It’s “the stuff of epic melodrama”, and “it’s beautifully filmed too, with McGann often using freediving competition footage to reveal a subaquatic world of wide alien vistas and soft silent blues, where sun-kissed athletes, in their prime of youth, go to die”. The film is skilfully edited, and casts interesting light on a relatively little known sport, said Donald Clarke in The Irish Times. It’s just a shame that despite “copious talking heads”, it can’t quite explain why it is that some people are attracted to this “recreational torture”.

Bird Box: Barcelona

Thriller ***

Five years ago, the apocalyptic thriller “Bird Box” was a huge hit on Netflix, said Robbie Collin in The Daily Telegraph. Now we have “not so much a sequel or prequel as a localised simultaneo-quel, in which we watch the same extraterrestrial invasion play out in a different place: urban Spain”. Like its forerunner, which was set in the US, the film is a survival story that pits human beings against unseen entities that cause anyone who looks at them to kill themselves. In “Bird Box: Barcelona”, we follow engineer Sebastián (Mario Casas), as he crosses the city with his 11-year-old daughter. Unfortunately, his actions are so “questionable” that it becomes hard to root for him, which “renders the viewing experience all the more grimly downbeat”. As for the drama, it’s so lacking in tension, it plays out like an extended round of “Blind Man’s Buff: Judgement Day Edition”, in which the cast “bump and fumble their way around the place with their eyes covered up”.

“From the outset, there is a resigned feeling of ‘OK, we get it,’ as scared Spaniards bare their ojos only to hurl themselves off a building or walk into traffic,” said Johnny Oleksinski in the New York Post. “The repetitive deaths are neither shocking nor scary – they are only depressing.” And though the explosions and car chases “look top dollar”, they’re only engaging up to a point, as it’s blindingly obvious that the characters have no chance of beating their enemies. This spin-off is “not as moving as the original”, which was boosted by Sandra Bullock’s performance “and had novelty on its side”, said Leslie Felperin in the FT. But it builds to “a hefty twist”, and I found it “creepy as hell”.

Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One

Action ****

This seventh instalment in the “Mission: Impossible” series was one of the “biggest casualties when Covid struck and film units all over the world were forced to close down”, said Matthew Bond in The Mail on Sunday. “But just over three years later, it is finally here”; and while it’s no masterpiece, it’s still “pretty good”.

The story revolves around an AI program called “the Entity”, which has become sentient and is corrupting digital databases worldwide like there’s no tomorrow – “which, if it get its anarchic way, there may not be”. It falls to Tom Cruise’s secret agent, Ethan Hunt, to stop the Entity in its tracks. Along the way, franchise regulars Rebecca Ferguson and Vanessa Kirby show up; but this is, of course, “first and foremost a Tom Cruise film, and the great man is on good form” – a little “older, sadder and more reflective” than he used to be, which works well.

“The zeitgeisty plot may have holes through which you could drive the Orient Express, but for pure adrenaline-rush entertainment this will leave you exhilarated and eager for more,” said Mark Kermode in The Observer. The action is “impressively gender neutral, with men and women killing and dying with equal relish”; and it builds to a “frankly jaw-dropping” finale in which “the heavily trailered sight of the real Tom Cruise really driving a real motorbike off a real mountaintop is only an appetiser for what is to come”, so “roll on ‘Dead Reckoning Part Two’”.

That last sequence is certainly “thrilling”, but I’m afraid I found the rest of the film a “spirit-crushing mess”, said Kevin Maher in The Times. The script is dire; the AI villain is tedious; and the story makes so little sense you begin to suspect the whole thing was assembled by an “inattentive monkey”.

Smoking Causes Coughing

Comedy/Fantasy ****

“Since breaking through with the cult horror oddity “Rubber” (about a homicidal rubber tyre), French director Quentin Dupieux has carved out a niche as a purveyor of absurdist comic tales that take amusingly violent turns,” said Alistair Harkness in The Scotsman. He delivers more of the same in “Smoking Causes Coughing”, a “droll superhero team-up film” that is a satire of superhero films.

Set in the present day, it follows the “Tobacco Force”, a latex-clad quintet who use tobacco fumes to take out their enemies, and who are sent to a lakeside retreat for a bit of “team-building R&R”. Once there, they “regale each other with grisly stories around a campfire” – essentially a framing device for a series of “inventively gory” short films. As these unfold, the Force’s “drooling rat of a boss (not a euphemism: he’s actually a rat) keeps tabs on an imminent extraterrestrial threat to the planet”. It’s a slight film but a delightful one; even its running time, at less than 80 minutes, feels like a “sly dig at superhero excess”.

“I can’t think of another director right now who wants (or is allowed) to do just straight comedy for theatrical release”, without having also to make their films “unfunnily dark and disturbing”, said Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian. On that basis alone, “Smoking Causes Coughing” feels fresh. It is “magnificently inconsequential”, but is “oddly gripping” as well as funny. The film is so “giddily bizarre it deserves a health warning of its own: will induce (entirely pleasurable) lightheadedness and shortness of breath”, said Robbie Collin in The Daily Telegraph. “Expect the unexpected” doesn’t begin to do Dupieux’s style justice: “expect the unexpectable” is “more like it”.


Animation ***

Pixar’s latest animation takes a “high-concept setup” – a sprawling metropolis in which the residents are made of fire, water, air or earth, and live in strictly segregated areas – “to explore a universal theme: the need for cultural acceptance and harmony”, said Wendy Ide in The Observer. At the heart of the story is a “star-crossed romance” between a hot-headed fire girl (voiced by Leah Lewis) who works in her immigrant parents’ shop in a suburb of Element City, and a “sappy, sweet-natured water guy” (Mamoudou Athie). It might be silly “to complain about the authenticity of a relationship between a woman made of flame and an entirely liquid man”, but the pair have very little “persuasive chemistry”; and while there are parallels with “Inside Out” and “Zootropolis”, this film “lacks the wildly inventive storytelling of the former and the laughs of the latter”.

It’s been years since Pixar made a decent animation, and “Elemental”, alas, only continues its trend of “nearly-but-not-quite”, said Brian Viner in the Daily Mail. There are flashes of brilliance, but it is “clever rather than charming”, and “unlike the greatest Pixar films, it never made my heart sing”. There’s nothing “obviously wrong” with “Elemental”, said Tom Shone in The Sunday Times: “what we have is a parable of racial tolerance in the melting pot, and it’s worked out with the usual Pixar ingenuity”. But the central romance feels “awkward”, not least because “a certain asymmetry is inbuilt”: there’s no getting away from the fact that “she’s smokin’ hot and he’s a damp squib”. Still, it builds to a “superb tearjerker climax that sends you out on a high”, and all is (almost) forgiven.

Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny

Adventure/Action **

It’s been 34 years since the film that was supposed to be Indiana Jones’ “farewell outing”, said Nicholas Barber on BBC Culture. Now, he’s back again, for yet another film billed as the last in the franchise – and the results are mixed. The story begins in 1944, as Indy (a digitally “de-aged” Harrison Ford) retrieves one-half of a dial with time-travelling powers from a Nazi scientist (Mads Mikkelsen). We then skip forward to 1969: Indy is about to retire when his goddaughter (Phoebe Waller-Bridge) persuades him to join her in the hunt for the dial’s other half.

The film is the first not to have been directed by the series’ co-creator, Steven Spielberg (James Mangold is at the helm); and its hero is 80. It could have been a disaster. It’s not – it doesn’t disgrace the series; but “the jokes, the zest and the exuberance just aren’t there, so instead of a joyous send-off for our beloved hero”, we get a depressing reminder of “how much livelier his past adventures were”.

This film is “every inch a replica of the standard Indy experience”, complete with booby-trapped dungeons and a chase through a bazaar, said Robbie Collin in The Daily Telegraph. Sadly, though, “it ultimately feels like a counterfeit of priceless treasure”. The action sequences are clunky; the climax feels frivolous; and though Waller-Bridge is clearly under orders to “just do Fleabag”, this attempt to juice up the lacklustre gags “with her trademark winking delivery” tends to fall flat. Her character starts off “as roguish, but she’s quickly transformed into a bland action girl”, said Deborah Ross in The Spectator. I could have done with more of John Williams’ score; and the screen-writing is so inept, the film could just as well have been called “Indiana Jones and the Script by ChatGPT”.

Mother and Son

Drama ****

“Told with immense tenderness but also a beady, lucid honesty”, this moving French drama examines “the shifting dynamics within an immigrant family”, said Leslie Felperin in the Financial Times. Set over two decades, it stars a “scorching” Annabelle Lengronne as Rose, a young Ivorian woman whom we meet freshly arrived in Paris from Abidjan in 1989 with her two young sons, Jean and Ernest (played as young adults by Stéphane Bak and Kenzo Sambin).

She is a woman with secrets in her past, but “we never learn exactly what happened back in Africa, including why she left the boys’ older brothers behind”. Something, however, compels her “to seek out destructive relationships with men and make impulsive decisions that have serious consequences for her sons”, which become apparent when the narrative jumps forward by a decade, to show Jean and Ernest in their teens. It all adds up to a “nuanced portrait of familial love but also of neglect and pain”, in which “character and story” are revealed “through tiny, elliptical details”.

This “heart-wrenching” film is both “epic in storytelling scope and laser-focused on the most minute emotional shifts of its deeply sympathetic characters”, said Kevin Maher in The Times. As Jean and Ernest settle in France, they start to distance themselves from their mother, whom they come to see as merely an example of “failed assimilation”. The closing scene between Rose and Ernest, set in a school canteen, is utterly “devastating”. It’s a “beguiling” film, said Wendy Ide in The Observer, but a frustrating one. Lengronne is “magnificent and magnetic”, yet a third of the way through, she fades from view. As she is the best thing on screen, you feel her absence.

Run Rabbit Run

Horror/Thriller ***

“The Australian actress Sarah Snook, so wonderful as devious, damaged Shiv in the TV drama ‘Succession’, takes on a different kind of dark role in the new Netflix release ‘Run Rabbit Run’,” said Brian Viner in the Daily Mail. “It’s a psychological horror film in which Snook plays Sarah, a single mum whose seven-year-old daughter Mia (Lily LaTorre) starts to freak her out by appearing to believe that she is the reincarnation of Sarah’s long-lost sister Alice – who disappeared aged seven.” Also “freaking her out” is a rabbit that has mysteriously appeared on her doorstep, and is soon adopted by Mia. “There’s plenty of good stuff here”, and Snook’s “habitual excellence is matched every step of the way by LaTorre”, who is a “real find”. But 2014’s The Babadook set a benchmark for Aussie horror that this never reaches; “and personally I found it hard to be spooked by a rabbit”.

“Gloomy and vague”, this frankly “ludicrous” film has all the “spectral signifiers” you’d expect: “clammy dreams, scary drawings, unsettling masks”, said Jeannette Catsoulis in The New York Times. And while Snook is a “fabulous” actress, here she “does everything but rend her garments in a performance that only emphasises the busy vapidity of Hannah Kent’s script”. It’s not ungripping, and it touches on interesting ideas about “intergenerational relationships”, said Elizabeth Gregory in the Evening Standard. But these ideas are never properly explored, and the plot “sort of lingers, rather than gaining any momentum”. Still, the film works as an unsettling, sad and sometimes chilling meditation on “motherhood, loss and the spectres of the past”.

Asteroid City

Comedy/Drama ****

Nearly three decades into his career, Wes Anderson is “trendier than ever”, said Robbie Collin in The Daily Telegraph. Social media is awash with parodies of, and tributes to, the pastel colours, symmetrical framing and deadpan whimsy found in his films, which include “The Royal Tenenbaums” and “The Grand Budapest Hotel”. “So it’s rather lovely – and exciting” – that the director is back, as “completely inimitable” as ever, with what may be “his oddest and most conceptually complex film to date”. “Asteroid City” is set in an imaginary Arizona town in the 1950s, where a range of characters (played by such big-name stars as Jason Schwartzman, Tom Hanks, Scarlett Johansson, Tilda Swinton and Steve Carell) have converged for a star-gazing event. The same cast plays a group of earnest New York actors, who are appearing in a play about the events onscreen – which, to add a third layer, is also the subject of a TV documentary.

“If this sounds confusing, it’s probably because it is,” said Deborah Ross in The Spectator. That may not trouble Anderson fans who relish his signature style, but the rest of us may start to lose patience with a film in which nothing much happens, and we’re not sure what we’re meant to feel about what does. Johansson’s Hollywood star has a brief fling with Schwartzman’s war photographer, “but as it means nothing to either of them it means nothing to us”. He turns out to have been recently widowed, and is carrying his late wife’s ashes in a box, yet he hasn’t got around to telling his children that their mother is dead. But this doesn’t go anywhere either, so again we feel nothing. Perhaps that is the point. Perhaps this is a film about emotional detachment. “The trouble with this is that it does make for a long one hour and 45 minutes.”

The movie is “curiously depthless”, said Tom Shone in The Sunday Times. “You may exit the cinema feeling as if you’ve been trying to survive on a diet of macaroons.” But I found it delightful. It fairly rattles along, said Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian, powered by some droll comic turns, a standout dual-role performance from Schwartzman, and a profusion of “painterly little jokes and embellishments” in every shot. Anderson might be more interested in style than substance, but “what style it is”. The photography is “ravishing,” agreed Ed Potton in The Times: “blue Cadillacs against orange desert, swivelling satellite dishes, mushroom clouds from nuclear tests rising silently on the horizon”. There is “real emotion” beneath the tricksy script, and the characters’ pain isn’t blunted by being “exquisitely framed”: “If anything, it’s sharpened.”

No Hard Feelings

Comedy ***

“The 1980s teen sex comedy” – think “Weird Science”, or “Porky’s” “is back”, said Kevin Maher in The Times. But there’s a twist, apparently aimed at making the genre fit “for the modern era”: this time, the boys aren’t all sex-mad. Jennifer Lawrence plays Maddie, a cash-strapped Uber driver in a Long Island town who’s made an offer by a wealthy couple. They will give her a new car if she manages to deflower their nerdy 19-year-old son Percy (Andrew Barth Feldman) before he goes off to Princeton. She assumes the job will be easy, but Percy turns out to be a prudish Gen Z type whose well-heeled peers regard 32-year-old Maddie as frighteningly ancient. Cue a series of “implausible set pieces”, which add up to an “astoundingly unfunny film”.

Would this breezy comedy have been remotely amusing had the gender roles been reversed? Probably not, and the writers are clearly aware of that, said Leslie Felperin in the FT. At one point, Maddie is called out for the creepiness of her task; but it’s the gender issues, and the Millennial-Gen Z clash, that make the film interesting. Feldman is deeply winning as the fragile teenager, and Lawrence turns in a spirited performance as the sex-positive Maddie, not least when required to beat up some local bullies while stark naked. “What saves the film from being extremely dodgy is that it’s not trying to titillate,” said Charlotte O’Sullivan in the Evening Standard. “No Hard Feelings” is a flawed movie that “no one asked for”, but when it works, it is “delightfully weird”.

The Last Rider

Documentary ****

Even “cycling agnostics” will feel “an inescapable sense of excitement” in the final stretch of “The Last Rider”, “a conventional documentary, but a quality one”, said Wendy Ide in The Observer. It tells the story of the American cyclist Greg LeMond, who staged an astonishing comeback in the 1989 Tour de France after a near-fatal accident two years earlier. A sports documentary needs two things to connect with a wider audience: “a likeable central character who has battled seemingly insurmountable odds to achieve success”, and “a nail-biting final act”. This has both, plus “spectacular archive footage” and some “unexpectedly affecting” interviews with LeMond and his wife Kathy.

“The race, as described here, is almost impossibly meaningful,” said Kevin Maher in The Times. “It takes place on the bicentennial of the French Revolution”, and it’s “the final ‘clean’ race, as one observer notes, before the beginning of doping and ‘the Armstrong era’”. Slickly directed by Alex Holmes, and with an agonising subplot detailing LeMond’s rivalry with the irascible French cyclist Laurent Fignon, it’s “more compelling than any sports movie fiction”. Some might “even find that it punctures their long-held prejudices against cycling as a spectator sport,” said Leslie Felperin in the FT, and it’s a nice reminder of a time when “cyclists were proper athletes and stand-up chaps”.

Pretty Red Dress

Drama ****

“Pretty Red Dress” is a debut feature starring a one-time “X Factor” winner “so, you know, kill me now”, said Deborah Ross in The Spectator. That was my thinking before I went to see it; but how wrong (and patronising) I was: “This is a terrific film.” Alexandra Burke plays Candice, a supermarket worker and aspiring actress who lands an audition for the lead role in a musical about Tina Turner. When she spots a red dress in a vintage shop that would be perfect for the casting, her partner Travis (Natey Jones) gets a job in his brother’s restaurant so that he can buy it for her. Newly released from prison, Travis is a “tough, respected fella on their Lambeth estate”, but he has a secret: “he likes to wear women’s clothes”. He also takes a fancy to the dress; and thankfully, it turns out to have “plenty of stretch”. The film is “original, has heft, is magnificently performed, and it blew me away”.

Written and directed by Dionne Edwards, this is a “movie about masculinity that could have been solemn and prescriptive”, but instead it pulses “with humanity”, thanks in part to the “tremendous” lead performances, said Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian. “The inevitable watch-it-through-your-fingers moment”, when Candice comes home early one day to find Travis wearing her sparkly dress, is pulled off with real “flair”. Although the film “opens like a classic ex-con rite of passage”, as we see Travis adjusting to life outside prison, it quickly “swerves into something else”, subverting your expectations, said Kevin Maher in The Times. There are moments of real dramatic tension, and there is an “11th-hour eruption of violence and self-hatred. But mostly it’s a sweetly played story that celebrates warmth and understanding.”

Greatest Days

Musical ***

Adapted from a jukebox stage musical, “Greatest Days” is “made with heart and pluck and the very best intentions”, said Robbie Collin in The Daily Telegraph. Even so, it just isn’t very good. The plot follows a paediatric nurse called Rachel (Aisling Bea, “doing her best”) who wins four tickets to a reunion gig by the boy band she loved as a teenager. “This generically hunky quintet sing all of Take That’s songs, but for some reason are categorically not Take That” (in fact, they are “an improbably diverse bunch, given their purported early 1990s vintage”). Rachel decides to give the other tickets to three of her best friends from school, with whom she’d lost touch years earlier, and at this point the film starts jumping back and forth between two timelines: the past, in which the friends (played by a younger cast) “weather the storms of adolescence with moral support from their idols”, and the present, in which they get up to high jinks while singing Take That hits. Sadly, they’re not very good singers; the comic moments tend towards the “forehead-smashingly crass”; and the film has enough “amateurish feel-good British bonhomie to ruin your week”.

As someone who would rather “have her skin flayed off” than listen to Take That, I was perhaps not destined to love this film, said Wendy Ide in The Observer. “But even with that caveat in mind”, this is “weak stuff”. While all the “predictable story beats” are hit, the film amounts to little more than “a nostalgic marketing vehicle for a collection of anodyne pop songs”. The story is “on the thin side”, said Matthew Bond in The Mail on Sunday; but once the “wonderfully silly singing and dancing got under way”, I found it “rather lovely. And a bit emotional too, if I’m honest.”

Extraction 2

Action ***

The first “Extraction” film came out on Netflix during the summer lockdown, “when there was a certain vicarious appeal in the spectacle of rugged Chris Hemsworth kicking down doors to release an innocent captive”, said Brian Viner in the Daily Mail. “Now, he’s at it again. In fact, I have an uneasy feeling that he might be turning into the new Liam Neeson, destined to kick down doors into his 70s.” Our hero, you’ll recall, is “a former ‘special ops’ soldier – with an iron six-pack – by the name of Tyler Rake”, who can “extract anyone from anywhere”, as long as it involves “hanging off a roof at least once”. This time, he is tasked with rescuing his ex-wife’s sister and her two children, who have been captured by gangsters. The film is basically one “mighty melee of chasing, fighting and killing”, featuring all the “cars, boats, planes, trains and helicopters” you’d expect. “There’s also loads of hand-to-hand combat in which the baddies obligingly come at Rake one at a time, having not worked out from a century of cinema that queueing up “is, frankly, asking for trouble”.

It’s very high octane, said Tim Robey in The Daily Telegraph. At one point, Hemsworth batters thugs “out of the way with a fist that’s literally on fire”. You find yourself rooting for him, though, and much of the film really flies. It was written by Joe Russo, one of the Russo brothers known for their work on Marvel films, and it “has that curious mixture of proficiency and unmemorability that is the hallmark of a Russo brothers production”, said Tom Shone in The Sunday Times. “There’s not an idea in it whose path has not been smoothed by its use elsewhere.”


Biopic ***

This biopic recounts the remarkable life of Joseph Bologne, a black violinist “who wowed everyone” in 18th century France, but who was “erased from history and is only lately being rediscovered”, said Deborah Ross in The Spectator. The story opens with a “violin-off” between Bologne (Kelvin Harrison Jr) and a certain Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (Joseph Prowen), who finds himself roundly upstaged: “Who the f**k is that?” he demands. The narrative then jumps back in time to explore Bologne’s upbringing in Guadeloupe, as the son of a plantation-owning Frenchman and an African slave, and his eventual move to France, where he becomes a champion fencer and wins over Marie Antoinette. He clearly had an extraordinary life: even his Wikipedia entry makes for a “thrilling” read; but unfortunately, this is “not a fascinating or thrilling film”. “Strangely bland”, it strikes “too many false notes” (the Mozart duel, for instance, is fabricated) and Bologne himself is underwritten.

“Intermittently camp and tonally inconsistent”, this period drama has an “alarmingly fruity” script, said Kevin Maher in The Times. Female characters drool over Bologne’s “prodigious talent”, and even Marie Antoinette is reduced to cooing: “I see you play your, ahem, instrument as well as you wield your, ahem, sword!” It’s not the most subtle of films, but as “entertainingly soapy fare”, it works well enough, said Mark Kermode in The Observer. There is arguably “a whole other movie to be made about Bologne”, and his role in France’s first all-black military regiment, but perhaps “that is this frothy film’s strength: cherry-picking multiplex-friendly elements from a complex and still largely unknown life in a manner that leaves the audience wanting to know much more”.

War Pony

Drama ****

“A sometimes tough, sometimes tender coming-of-age story” set on a Native American reservation in South Dakota, “War Pony” marks the feature directing debuts of the actress Riley Keough and Gina Gammell, a director of TV commercials, said Alistair Harkness in The Scotsman. The story, which they wrote in collaboration with two Native American actors, takes shape around two boys – “one an enterprising, dope-smoking 19-year-old called Bill” (Jojo Bapteise Whiting), who has two children by different women and who is in search of ways of supporting them; the other a wayward 12-year-old called Matho (LaDainian Crazy Thunder), who stumbles into drug-dealing when his relationship with his abusive father breaks down. “Both are in tough situations”, but this isn’t “some privileged arthouse ethnographic wallow in other people’s misery”. Keough and Gammell “present their protagonists as survivors, not victims”, and bring levity to proceedings by using their “naturalistic shooting style” to capture the chaotic energy of their young – and hitherto unknown – cast.

Matho and Bill don’t meet until the end, but this “heartfelt” drama shows “how much life experience they share, and how they could almost be the same boy at different times of life”, said Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian. And while both characters have an “untrained aptitude for love” that is ultimately let down, “there is in their lives something genuinely uplifting and heroic”. “War Pony” won the Caméra d’Or at last year’s Cannes Film Festival for best debut feature, and is “undeniably beautifully shot”, said Matthew Bond in The Mail on Sunday. But I must say, I found the mumbly dialogue rather “difficult to follow”, and the gloominess a bit “relentless”.

Transformers: Rise of the Beasts

Action **

At their best, the “Transformers” films have a “spectacular, firing-on-all-synapses crassness” that can leave the bloodstream “fizzing” for days, said Robbie Collin in The Daily Telegraph. Sadly, the latest chapter in the series “plays like a belated attempt to Marvelise the franchise, with life-sappingly dreary results”. Set in the mid-1990s, the film stars Anthony Ramos and Dominique Fishback as “the latest humans to become embroiled in the shapeshifting robots’ intergalactic feud”. The pair must track down a magical key, and stop it from falling into the possession of Unicron, a “moon-sized” robot who eats planets for lunch, and has set his sights on Earth. “Every shot is sluiced in flat grey light – the action scenes look like gravel in a food processor – while the dialogue is all botched quips and clichés”, and sometimes so “cringe-inducing” I almost “Transformered myself into a small pink football”. In sum: “You simply mustn’t see this film.”

This truly “stupid” instalment sets itself an audaciously “low ceiling” from the outset, then “doesn’t strain itself in attempting to reach it”, said Charles Bramesco in The Guardian. “An unspoken aside of ‘who cares?’ punctuates every line”; the “foregrounding of non-white characters” feels shallow; and the Transformers themselves have faces, but are emotion-free, which is unsettling “until it turns plain depressing”. No, it is no work of genius, said Tom Shone in The Sunday Times; but “either you are the type of filmgoer whose heart skips a beat at the sight of a giant robot gorilla duking it out with a giant robot scorpion, or you are not” – and my nine-year-old “loved it”.


Docudrama ***

This “astounding docudrama” about an American intelligence operative turned whistleblower uses as its screenplay the transcript of an FBI interrogation, said Kevin Maher in The Times. As a result, it feels very authentic and includes “fascinating half-formed sentences that lead to nowhere” (as well as crackles of static that stand in for redactions in the official record). Sydney Sweeney (“The White Lotus”) is “riveting” as Reality Winner, the 25-year-old operative who arrives home one evening to find two government agents (Josh Hamilton and Marchánt Davis) waiting to grill her. As her bungalow is searched, she is quizzed about her involvement in leaking to the press a document about Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. “Sweeney’s phenomenal performance of hidden guilt under pressure” is the “secret weapon” in a very tense, concise film.

“Directed with clarity and precision” by Tina Satter, who found the transcript online and turned it first into a play, Reality is an “edge-of-your-seat thriller” unlike any other, said Deborah Ross in The Spectator. At first the agents pretend to be a bit dim, and are “friendly as hell” – they ask Winner about her passions (“yoga, CrossFit, animals”), and show concern for her rescue cat. “We know, and she knows” that “their amiability is in the service of something dark”, and as this “dance of entrapment” goes on, it becomes utterly terrifying to watch. “The film’s mixture of threat, absurdism and staccato ambience is like vintage Pinter,” said Tom Shone in The Sunday Times. Gradually the stakes are revealed: Sweeney’s cheek begins to twitch, “her breathing and blink rate go up, she starts to pace, then needs to sit”. You’re right there with her – and by the end “you’re limp as a rag”.

Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse

Animation ***

One of surprisingly few animated superhero films, 2018’s “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” was the first to explore the currently ubiquitous idea of “alternate universes”, said Nicholas Barber on BBC Culture. “The film was a game-changer”, and now we have a sequel. Sadly, it’s only so-so. Our hero is Miles Morales (voiced by Shameik Moore) who, in the first film, became the Spider-Man, only to discover that there are “countless other universes” with countless web-slingers of their own, including a 1930s vigilante Spider-Man who exists in a black and white world, and “a Looney Tunes-style pig called Spider-Ham”. In this film, Miles meets hundreds more Spider-people, and is soon drawn into a battle with a villain (voiced by Jason Schwartzman) who can open portals into other dimensions. Every frame is crammed with “dazzling new sights”, yet the film manages to be both frantic and “wheel-spinningly slow”, and the multiverse concept feels frankly rather tired.

It’s so “densely plotted” as to be “almost overwhelming”, and Daniel Pemberton’s score is “an Escher staircase of anxiety”, said Wendy Ide in The Observer. But it’s fizzing with ideas; the animation is “kaleidoscopically detailed”, and the story has real heart. It more than matches the first film’s energy and visual verve. Spidey devotees won’t want to miss it, said Luke Jones in the Daily Mail. “The standard filmgoer, however”, may only find a “web of confusion” that, at nearly two-and-a-half hours, is decidedly on the long side. The film is endlessly “self-referential”; and most of it “left me bored rigid”. To add insult to injury, the story is “cut off pre-climax with a ‘to be continued’ promise” that feels more like a threat.

Mad About the Boy: The Noël Coward Story

Documentary ***

“Noël Coward may not be forgotten, but he certainly feels neglected,” said Matthew Bond in The Mail on Sunday. Barnaby Thompson’s “well-assembled documentary” about the life of the singer, composer, actor and playwright “does a good job of putting that right”. Rupert Everett voices Coward’s writing while Alan Cumming narrates, a combination that seems obvious but doesn’t entirely work, “and you do long for one or two contributors from the present day”. Still, it includes “some brilliantly restored footage from Coward’s home movies”, and it’s “fascinating” on the background to “The Italian Job” and on Coward’s Vegas years, which rescued him from bankruptcy.

The film does a “solid, succinct job of fitting a lot of life into a little over 90 minutes”, said Cath Clarke in The Guardian. And Coward really did lead the most remarkable of lives: born into poverty in the suburbs of London, he sailed to New York aged 20 with £17 in his pocket, became the highest-paid author in the Western world by the time he was 30, and died aged 73 in 1973, having written 500 songs and 60 plays. As the documentary “trots through” all this material, though, it sometimes feels “like a Wikipedia entry read out loud”, and it never quite gets “under the skin of a complicated”, self-invented man. The film is basically “just a timeline”, said Danny Leigh in the Financial Times; and “tonally, it can wobble” as it moves between “bittersweet modern analysis of a closeted gay man” and “a simple celebration in line with a king of light comedy”. Still, the Coward story “bumps into so much 20th century history” that it’s “hard not to get hooked”.

The Little Mermaid

Live-action ***

News that Disney’s “live-action(ish) remake” of 1989’s “The Little Mermaid” would star the African-American pop singer Halle Bailey provoked the “racist hashtag NotMyAriel” and sent “replacement theory” nutters into a tailspin of fury, said Mark Kermode in The Observer. “Yet now that the film is finally upon us”, it’s hard to imagine how this “innocuous – not to say bland” – remake could have caused such upset. Bailey plays Ariel, the mermaid who defies her father King Triton (Javier Bardem, oozing “parental protectiveness”) by developing a fascination with the human world. When she rescues a human prince (Jonah Hauer-King) from a shipwreck, and falls in love with him, she is drawn into a terrible pact with her evil aunt Ursula (Melissa McCarthy), who grants Ariel three days on land in exchange for her beautiful singing voice. The film doesn’t have the “timeless cartoon magic” of the original – “be honest, what ‘live-action’ Disney remake does?” – but it’s a “good-natured” film, buoyed by Bailey’s “winning titular performance”.

It makes dazzling use of “digital wizardry”, said Kyle Smith in The Wall Street Journal; but it’s so outshone by the “small and wonderful” original that it’s hard to sit back and enjoy it. That retelling of the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale ran to a tight 83 minutes, whereas this one lasts well over two hours; and it’s marred by uninspiring performances and a clunky script. By the end, I felt the film’s heart had been rather “lost at sea”. It’s definitely not going to become a classic, said Larushka Ivan-Zadeh in the Daily Mail, but Bailey is “sensational”, combining “star presence with a sublimely strong set of pipes”, and if you’re in the market for a cinema outing with the kids, it will fit the bill.


Thriller ***

If you can “imagine Christopher Nolan’s ‘Memento’ if it had been rewritten by an escaped lunatic”, you should have a fair idea of what Robert Rodriguez’s “Hypnotic” is like, said Robbie Collin in The Daily Telegraph. In this thriller, Ben Affleck stars as Danny Rourke, “a brooding and gravelly police detective” from Texas who uncovers the existence of a “cabal of evil hypnotists”, one of whom may have had something to do with the abduction of his daughter years earlier. With the help of a local clairvoyant (Alice Braga), he learns that these shadowy figures are infiltrating the thought processes of their fellow humans with “Jedi-like ease”, and using their powers to “steer the course of humanity in nefarious directions”. A run-through of newspaper headlines implies that their “accomplishments” include bringing about Brexit. With a series of deeply silly (and none the worse for that) “twists and counter-twists”, the film amounts to an “uproarious 90 minutes at the cinema which asks nothing more of its audience than that they keep their incredulity suspended” and enjoy the ride.

Quite why Affleck, who has an Oscar and just appeared in the well-received “Air”, chose to take part in this poorly executed, “bargain-basement mind-bender” is a mystery, said Kevin Maher in The Times. The film is drowning in exposition and is almost entirely devoid of “dramatic tension”. “At one point Affleck’s Danny finally snaps, ‘You’ve used my own brain against me!’ You said it, Ben.” Yes, it is “over the top” and full of “trite” dialogue, said Francesca Steele in The i Paper – but there’s “something amusing about it”. Pacy, fun and “absurdly overconfident about its own premise”, it’s an “enjoyably overblown” blast that should appeal to fans of “The Matrix” and “Inception”.


Action ****

“Sometimes you need a film with nuance and sensitivity, a meditation on the nature of human frailty,” said Wendy Ide in The Observer. And sometimes, what you want is an “unabashedly basic B-movie romp”, which is precisely what the predominantly English-language Finnish film “Sisu” provides. Set in the “ragged final days of the Second World War”, it pits stoic ex-commando and gold prospector Aatami (Jorma Tommila) against a load of retreating German troops, who have had the “poor judgement” to steal his gold, taunt his dog and leave him for dead. “It’s graphic and gory; the camera is pelted with the assorted body parts of exploding Nazis”; and “the sound design favours extravagantly squelchy blood splattering”. But if you’re in the right mood, it should hit the spot.

“Jalmari Helander’s film is violent in the pulpy, maximalist manner of a Tarantino film,” said Tom Shone in The Sunday Times; and yet “there is nothing messy about the storytelling, which is as tight as a Sergio Leone flick”. Caked in “mud and blood”, and fuelled by the “white-knuckled form of courage” to which the film’s title refers, Aatami becomes a kind of “mythical figure”; and his battle to survive makes for “indecently” engrossing entertainment. “Who knew the Finns had a film like this up their sleeve? Maybe it was joining Nato.” It didn’t do it for me, said Deborah Ross in The Spectator. “Handsomely filmed with a suitably menacing score”, it does move “briskly from one set-piece to the next”. But “it’s essentially meaningless”, and I didn’t care about any of it, apart from Aatami’s sweet Bedlington terrier. You may find yourself praying: dear God, “make this end”.

Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret.

Drama ****

Judy Blume’s 1970 novel about an 11-year-old girl who talks to God about her friends, boys “and whether she’ll ever get breasts or menstruate”, has been beloved by generations of young readers, said Deborah Ross in The Spectator. “Not being the target demographic” myself, “I assumed I’d be bored to death” by this film adaptation. Yet I was wrong: this is a “tender, pitch-perfect film, much better than anything else I’ve seen recently”. Abby Ryder Fortson plays Margaret, whose life in New York is upended when the family moves to New Jersey. In an effort to fit in, she joins a club with three other girls who worry about their bra size (“I must, I must, I must increase my bust”) and sate their sexual curiosity by reading Playboy. It’s an intelligent film, and although it occasionally veers into sentimentality, it really nails “the fear and yearning that come with that leap from childhood”.

“What adds satisfying layers” to this “warm, emotionally agile adaptation” is writer-director Kelly Fremon Craig’s decision not to confine her focus to Margaret and her friends, said Wendy Ide in The Observer. Margaret’s mother (Rachel McAdams) is given “her own existential crisis” to grapple with, as she tries to adapt to her new life as a suburban housewife. “With a smile that frays a little around the edges”, McAdams “wrings every last drop of pathos from her scenes”, almost outshining her on-screen daughter in the process. The mood here “is Classic Coke ad meets “The Wonder Years”, a sugary concoction that goes down perfectly”, said Ed Power in The Daily Telegraph. Whether “present-day teenagers” will relate to Margaret’s distinctly analogue anxieties is unclear, but this adaptation will surely be catnip to the “Blume babies” who grew up with the book.

Beau Is Afraid

Drama **

“With the chilling ‘Hereditary’ and the masterly Midsommar’”, director Ari Aster “became the poster boy for a new genre widely celebrated as ‘cerebral horror’”, said Kevin Maher in The Times. Alas, in “Beau Is Afraid”, “the cerebrum has been fully abandoned” and “all focus is instead firmly on the navel in an esoteric, introspective non-film that’s as outlandishly self-indulgent as it is tedious”. Joaquin Phoenix plays Beau, “a neurotic middle-aged shut-in with a mommy complex” who sets out on a tortuous crawl across a dystopian America to attend his mother’s funeral, meeting all sorts of “odious” people along the way (including a drama troupe who put on plays in forests). The film is “breathtakingly annoying”: watching it feels like “being cornered at a party by a moron who won’t stop describing this zany dream he’s just had, including the climactic appearance of a giant homicidal ‘penis monster’”. Yes, the film literally features “a giant penis that kills. So, no, not good.”

This “odyssey of hipster non-horror” is “scary, boring and sad in approximate proportions of 1 to 4 to 2”, said Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian. Phoenix is “on really uninteresting form, playing to his weaknesses as an actor as he gives a narcissistic performance of pain, sporting a permanently zonked expression of anxiety and torpid self-pity”. The only times “the film snaps into some sort of shape” are in the flashback sequences in which the teenage Beau falls for a girl he meets on a cruise. But they are not enough to save the film from epic pointlessness. Aster has “come unstuck” here, agreed Matthew Bond in The Mail on Sunday. The film looks “fantastic”, but it’s slow and “artily indulgent”. Whatever it is that Beau is afraid of, “it’s not worth three hours of your life to find out”.

Fast X

Action ***

If you’re familiar with the Fast & Furious” franchise, “you’ll know what to expect” from “Fast X”, said Larushka Ivan-Zadeh in the Daily Mail: “cars, explosions, more cars, zero grasp on reality and far too much blithering on about ‘family’”. This tenth film in the main series delivers all these, and of course Vin Diesel as the “illegal street-racer turned international government agent and stubborn refuser-of-sleeves”. There’s not much point attempting to lay out the plot, given the franchise lost it the moment it sent a car into space in F9, but the story broadly follows Brazilian baddie Dante (Jason Momoa) as he attempts to avenge the death of his mobster father. The main aim of the film, though, “seems to be to crowbar in as many A-list stars as possible” – Charlize Theron, Helen Mirren and Dwayne Johnson all turn up, making it feel “more like a Vanity Fair party than a movie”. It’s just a pity that none of them seem to be having fun, bar Momoa, who’s “fabulous”.

I both loathed and rather enjoyed this “colossally noisy”, silly film, said Nicholas Barber on BBC Culture. “Undoubtedly one of the fastest and most furious of them all”, it takes “stupidity and excess to breathtaking new heights”, and pares dialogue down to “grunted catchphrases and goofy jokes”. You won’t care about any of it, but you may “smile and laugh”. This absurd “demolition derby” rests on Momoa’s superb performance, said Tim Robey in The Daily Telegraph. As the film’s “flamboyant supervillain”, he “giggles and whoops, wears his hair in double man buns, and paints the toenails of the dead”. It’s hard now to imagine that the series could continue without him.

Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie

Documentary ****

“As a young actor, Michael J. Fox was a jitterbug – always on the move, arriving in scenes like a baseball player sliding into base,” said Tom Shone in The Sunday Times. “Since 1991, his body has been subject to a different kind of jitters: the tremors associated with Parkinson’s disease.” “Still” tells his life story, with deeply affecting results. By making clever use of interviews, dramatisations, clips from Fox’s screen heyday and family footage, director Davis Guggenheim ensures that the film never feels like a “dour, disease-of-the-week documentary”. And though the film “sometimes has the soft contours of a standard showbusiness autobiography”, the scenes that show Fox grappling with the impact of his disease pack “a powerful punch”.

What struck me, watching this “artfully built and enormously watchable” film, was Fox’s brilliance as a comic actor, said Robbie Collin in The Daily Telegraph. “Whether on the set of ‘Family Ties’, the sitcom that made him a star, or in early theatrical smashes such as ‘Back to the Future’ and ‘Teen Wolf’, the young actor’s delivery seems somehow both precise and effortless.” And while Parkinson’s has forced the 61-year-old to “reshape” his comic timing, he can “still land the gag like a heavyweight champ”. “Still” shows that Fox’s wit “has only got sharper over the years”, said Mark Kermode in