WEREWOLF

Cert 15 88mins Stars 4

A pack of wild dogs terrorises an orphanage as Lord of the Flies meets Snow White and the Seven Dwarves in this throat-ripping coming-of-age horror fable.

Freed from a Nazi concentration camp in German-occupied Poland in 1945, a gang of  nearly feral teens and kids are dumped in a large country house with little food or water.

As the eldest, Hanka tries to create a semblance of order and family life for the psychologically damaged brood, they have to defend themselves from a ravenous pack of German Shepherd dogs, trained to kill by their now dead Nazi guards.

Never exploitative of and always respectful to the horrors of the Holocaust, the the tense stand-off is underpinned by a faith in the resilience of humanity to defeat its worst demons.

With a bold concept, fresh location, cracking sound design, terrific performances and a script which keeps you off balance, this is a disturbing and scary thriller to sink your teeth into.

 

THE PERSONAL HISTORY OF DAVID COPPERFIELD

Cert PG 119mins Stars 5

You don’t need to have read Charles Dickens’ eighth novel to enjoy this fresh, contemporary, provocative and brilliantly comic adaptation, which is a marvellously nimble and accessible take on his weighty and most autobiographical book.

Traditional in its period setting and modern in its approach, it’s written and directed by Armando Iannucci, the creator of scabrous TV satire, The Thick of It.

He’s sensibly ruthless in trimming the sprawling story to a manageable size, and is absolutely faithful to the tone and spirit of Dickens’ work.

There’s all the humour, whimsy and violence you’d expect, and the unmistakable social commentary has a heartbreaking resonance for a 21st century audience.

Having matured as a performer since his confident big screen debut in Danny Boyle’s 2008 Oscar winner Slumdog Millionaire, Dev Patel exhibits tremendous charm and awards-worthy range as Copperfield.

As the thinly veiled surrogate for Dickens, Patel brings an often sad dignity to the kind, hard working and much abused writer, who begins the film regaling a theatre audience with his life’s story.

We see it in flashback as he passes through a Victorian landscape of families, farms, law firms and tenements, with Copperfield suffering beatings, abandonment and mockery along the way.

Iannucci puts less brave filmmakers to shame with his colour-blind casting of Patel and other non-white actors such as Benedict Wong and Nikki Amuka-Bird, in what have previously been considered ‘white’ roles, and the director will probably delight affronting those who consider themselves defenders of tradition.

Copperfield’s fortunes rise and fall he searches for an identity, a home and a family, and despite gracefully anchoring the film, Patel has to frequently concede much of the acting ground to a bunch of performers who don’t need encouragement to steal a scene.

So it must be some consolation for Patel to possess a startlingly great gift for mimicry with which he sends up many of these characters as they keep criss-crossing his path.

The stacked cast features familiar faces such as Tilda Swinton, Paul Whitehouse and Gwendoline Christie, and while I’m not much of a Hugh Laurie fan, he’s wonderfully affecting as the troubled Mr Dick.

Ben Whishaw is magnificently reprehensible as the film’s villain, the ever so ‘umble Uriah Heep, while longtime Innaucci collaborator Peter Capaldi, will win hearts as the luckless Mr. Micawber.

This is an often dark and interior tale full of anger, snobbery and cruelty, so to give us some light and cinematic oomph, it includes wonderful moments of magical realism, and lots of sweeping vistas.

A glimpse of the House of Commons under construction suggests the problems of today were set in stone back then, and it’s tragic so many of the issues damned by Dickens remain frighteningly relevant.

Dealing with exploitative bosses, rapacious landlords, criminal bankers and drunk lawyers, Copperfield also encounters hunger, homelessness, bailiffs, the shame of poverty and the problems of caring for the elderly and infirm.

Thankfully the story favours community over individualism and there are sufficient sentimental notes of sunny optimism to send us cheerfully on our way, which is no less than we, Dickens and Copperfield deserve. 

JUDY

Cert 12A 118mins Stars 3

Renee Zellweger commands the London limelight in an awards worthy turn as tragic Hollywood legend Judy Garland in this straightforward biopic, which offers a sympathetic portrait but no new insight and shies away from the full horror of her life.

Based on the stage play, End of the Rainbow, it covers her five week residency at The Talk of the Town nightclub, months prior to her tragically early death in 1969, aged just 47.

Delivering a finely wrought portrayal of the troubled star, Zellweger is a charming, prickly and flirtatious figure, who weathers Garland’s dry wit with a lifetimes experience of disappointment and exploitation.

Zellweger received her second of three Oscar nominations for 2002’s film version of stage musical, Chicago, and her voice is more than good enough to emulate Garland’s career-damaged voice.

Its an increasingly uncomfortable watch as Garland battles with long-standing demons, fights a custody battle for her two younger kids, and still finds time to rack up husband number five.

If reading that sounds exhausting, imagine living her life. She’s a half starved and sleep deprived lonely needy and nervous alcoholic with a damaged throat, who is broke, homeless and unemployable in Hollywood due to her reputation for being difficult and unreliable.

There’s less singing than you may hope for, and we’re kept waiting for the first song which may not be one everyone is familiar with. Our patience is belatedly rewarded with a belting version of The Trolley Song from 1944’s Meet Me in St. Louis, and an emotional version of Garland’s signature song, Somewhere Over The Rainbow, is kept in reserve until late in the day.

In flashbacks we see Darci Shaw as the eager and winsome teenage Garland being bullied and groomed for stardom by feared heavy weight studio head, the legendary Louie B Mayer, one of the M’s of the MGM studio which produced The Wizard of Oz and made her a star.

Rosalyn, Gemma-Leah Devereux appears briefly as Garland’s eldest daughter, Liza Minnelli, Michael Gambon is the forgiving UK impressario, Bernard Delfont, and Jessie Buckley is underused as Garland’s assistant.

Touching on Garland’s status as gay icon, this is a very chaste affair, and a disastrous dinner party scene leans far too close to Bridget Jones for comfort. And while some will love the finale for it’s redemptive inclusiveness, I haven’t been this embarrassed to be English since Cliff Richard led an impromptu singalong at Wimbledon.

 

READY OR NOT

Cert 18 95mins Stars 4

Wedding night nerves are taken to the extreme in this riotous blood-soaked black comedy horror which guarantees a gory good time to go with your popcorn on a Friday night.

Former star of TV’s Home And Away, Australian actress Samara Weaving is the niece of the heavyweight actor and Lord of the Rings, Hugo Weaving, and she steps out of his shadow with a star-making performance as a far from blushing bride whose big day ends with a most unexpected bang.

Weaving’s covered similar ground before in 2017’s US teen horror-comedy, The Babysitter, and here is determined, smart and funny, as she’s put through an emotional and physical wringer which includes falling into a pit of animal corpses, and a scene with a nail is as skin-crawling as the one from Home Alone.

Having married into a hugely wealthy family who imagine her to be a ‘gold digging whore’, tradition demands they all gather downstairs at midnight in their spooky mansion to play a game.

Randomly selecting a game of Hide and Seek, she initially fails to comprehend it’s lethal consequences and while her new husband is distraught, her in-laws stalk the corridors armed with axes, crossbows, shotguns and a competitive attitude.

These blue bloods of US society are a bickering rabble of self-serving cocaine-addled alcoholics, and as deluded, degenerate and barking as any of their British counterparts could be.

Full of secret doors and passages, the CCTV is turned off and house is on lockdown, while housemaids, the butler and even the Dumb waiter get in on the action.

And Andie MacDowell channels Morticia Addams as the mother-in -law form hell, an elegant, charming and deadly matriarch who loves to smoke.

Funnier than many comedies and more tense, violent and gruesome than many horrors, it’s a blood-curdling death spasm of fun. And I mean that in a good way.

 

 

 

 

THE LAUNDROMAT

Cert 15 96mins Stars 4

Steven Soderbergh returns to the big screen in playful mood with this Netflix production to lay bare 2015’s Panama Papers scandal, which he turns into a smart, brisk, gleefully inventive and black comic drama.

It combines the social conscience the director demonstrated in his 2000 Oscar winning Erin Brockovich, and his keen eye for a contemporary issue as seen in his work such as 2011’s Contagion.

To make the rampant illegality on show palatable – though no less enraging – his dynamic visual approach makes deft work of clearly illustrating complex financial systems, and alongside a first class cast he employs flights of fantasy, some animation, and an occasionally jolly tone.

He skilfully weaves several stories together to illustrate the human cost of the industrial scale corruption, tax evasion and money laundering which was revealed when a hacker published millions of secret documents belonging to a Panamanian law firm.

Meryl Streep is full of surprises as a grieving granny who we follow on her search for a crumb of responsibility or accountability after her insurance company weasels on a payout.

She discovers contracts are not worth the paper they’re written on as she tries to penetrate a world of shady financial trusts where people literally moving bits of paper around to take advantage of favourable tax codes.

David Schwimmer’s on-screen likeability and ability to essay a good person greatly out of his depth is put to huge effect as a little guy getting screwed by big money.

Plus Sharon Stone, Matthias Schoenaerts, Jeffrey Wright, James Cromwell and Robert Patrick are among the talented supporting cast.

Meanwhile Gary Oldman and Antonio Banderas are a wonderfully theatrical double act as the self-justifying lawyers at the heart of affair, washing their hands while turning a blind eye as they launder eye-watering sums of money for the global elite.

Wearing tuxedo’s and sipping Martini’s, they justify in layman’s terms the amoral secret life of money, how ere privacy laws exist to protect the rich and powerful, and are indifferent as the criminality extends to fraud, extortion, organ harvesting and murder.

And as Streep makes clear in an impassioned plea for the liberty of information, the meek will not be inheriting the earth – or much else – anytime soon.

THE GOLDFINCH

Cert 15 149mins Stars 2

There’s a downward change of gear for Baby Driver star, Ansel Elgort, in this lethargic and melancholy mystery drama which begins to peter out as soon as it starts.

He plays a smart young art dealer involved in forgery, for whom a famous painting called The Goldfinch, is of special significance to him as a result of his mother dying during a terrorist bomb attack when he was a child.

Weighed down by it’s desire to impress, the dialogue often resembles a deathless list of composes, artists and authors, and is full of trite observations about art, memory and identity.

Adapted from a novel by Donna Tartt, it uses the always impressive cinematography of Brit Roger Deakins as a fig leaf to hide the soap opera plotting full of coincidence, betrayal and abandonment.

It’s all the more disappointing as it’s directed by John Crowley, who made Brooklyn, one of my favourite films of 2015. I suggest you give this one the bird.

JOKER

Cert 15 122mins Stars 5

Murder is no laughing matter in this savage, disturbing and extraordinary thriller. And though it’s a comic book superhero origin story for Batman’s arch-enemy, Joker, it’s definitely not for the kids.

Joaquin Phoenix stars as the uneducated, disenfranchised, self-pitying fantasist, Arthur Fleck, an aspiring stand-up comic and part time clown who lives with his mother.

Repeatedly ridiculed and failed by society, his sadness leads to anger, crime and civil unrest, and he achieves a degree of celebrity which brings meaning to his life.

A dirty, rotten and violent reflection of his increasingly tortured psyche, Gotham City is in desperate need of hope, but young Bruce Wayne has yet to create the Batman suit, and his arrogant father is very much alive and running for mayor.

Phoenix has always been a gloriously intense and uncompromising performer and here he achieves greatness with a mesmerising turn as Joker, which drags you kicking and screaming inside the worldview of a man as he goes violently insane.

A certainty to be up for the major awards, Phoenix makes Heath Ledger’s Oscar winning turn as Joker seems as mad and threatening as Cesar Romero’s pantomime version from the 1960’s Batman TV series. Phoenix is so immersed in the character I was worried for the actor’s sanity.

Classic films such as The King of Comedy and Taxi Driver are major influences with the star of those films, Robert DeNiro appearing here as a talk show host and is clearly in the joke.

DeNiro’s taking part has the air of his passing to Phoenix the mantle of the greatest Hollywood actor working today. And in losing over 3 stone in weight for the role, Phoenix demonstrates a dedication to his craft of which DeNiro would be proud.

Never afraid of offending his audience, director and writer Todd Phillips is best known for his bad taste Hangover films, and was Oscar-nominated for the screenplay for Sacha Baron Cohen’s 2006 provocative satirical comedy film, Borat.

And this film is already proved controversial with Warner Bros. Studio having to issue a statement denying the film endorses gun violence.

Phillips and Phoenix sat next to each other after my screening and were clearly enjoying each other’s company as they discussed the movie, with Phillips described his film as a ‘deep dive character study’, and Phoenix called it ‘fresh, exciting and terrifying’. And they’re not wrong.

As tragedy twists into comedy and back again you’ll laugh even though you know you really shouldn’t. And despite being an extremely uncomfortable and stressful watch, I absolutely loved it.