THE FAREWELL

Cert PG 100mins Stars 3

Gloriously described as being based on an actual lie, this comedy drama uses quiet humour to peel away cultural facade of honesty, to expose how lies, fakery and charades are a necessary and accepted social grease which enable family relations to function.

A Chinese grandmother is unaware she has less than three months to live as her family are conspiring to withhold the truth from her and are using a wedding as an excuse for one last family gathering.

As her grand-daughter, Rap star Awkwafina plays Billie delivers a mature and subtle performance of unexpected range. She is as far away from her outrageous exuberant persona of 2018’s Crazy Rich Asians, as the humdrum industrial Chinese city of Changchun of the film’s setting is from New York, where she begins the film.

This is the second feature film from upcoming director, Lulu Wang, whose Beijing born American raised background clearly filters into and informs her thoughtful, funny and well observed work.

 

KURSK: THE LAST MISSION

Cert 12 Stars 4

You’ll need to hold your breathe while watching this handsome, gripping and sombre real life story of 2000’s Kursk Russian submarine disaster.

Matthias Schoenaerts is the stern-faced Navy captain-lieutenant who is one of twenty-three sailors trapped underwater after an onboard explosion has crippled his vessel and killed many of his crew during a military exercise in the icy Barents Sea.

Bond girl Lea Seydoux worries as his onshore wife, and Colin Firth is the British Commodore trying to navigate the heavy political weather in order to launch a last minute rescue.

APOCALYPSE NOW: FINAL CUT

Cert 15 181mins Stars 5 The last great film of cinema’s last great decade, this latest and supposedly definitive cut of Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 epic Vietnam war masterpiece reveals Apocalypse Now to be not really a war film at all. An adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s 1899 novella Heart Of Darkness, we follow Martin Sheen’s US Army Captain Willard, as he travels by boat up the Mekong river on a mission to assassinate Marlon Brando’s rogue American, Colonel Kurtz. Director Coppola has overseen an exhaustive remastering of his original negative which has ever been scanned, cleaned, restored and edited into a never-before-seen version. It looks and sounds bigger and more insane than ever, a unique and complete cinema experience, breathtaking and delirious in scope, ambition and achievement. Shorter than 2002’s Redux version, longer than 1979’s original theatrical cut, it retains all the power, bombast and horror, while adding a greater theatricality and moving the story closer to myth and legend. The most notable omission and only real significant cut is of the controversial Playboy bunny scene where the Willard’s crew trade fuel for sex with the women. Meanwhile two key scenes are added. The first is small addendum to the ‘Flight of the Valkyries’ helicopter attack on a village led by Robert Duvall’s myopic commander of the 9th cavalry, Colonel Kilgore. In this we see Willard’s crew steal a surfboard from the Colonel. It’s a small slapstick scene and the only moment of outright comedy in the film. Importantly it centres on Sam Bottoms’ character, a professional surfer called Lance, now the crew’s Gunner’s Mate. The comic aspect of the scene underlines the role of Lance the only beacon of hope and innocence in the darkness, the mascot of Willard’s crew and representative of the bland sunny optimism of California. Structurally, Lance is now more clearly seen as Willard’s foil, and the movie’s dramatic light relief, providing necessary respite for the audience from the horror, the horror. The second major addition is ‘French plantation’ scene, where the crew attend a dinner party at a rubber plantation. Willard is later seduced by the owner’s widowed sister, and it’s this scene where Coppola most heavily draws on his theatrical background. Willard is slowly caged in veils by a woman presented as a Siren of greek mythology, and it’s at this point the Vietnam War becomes background to the story, it’s the Trojan War in relation to Homer’s Odyssey, there to provide colour but it isn’t the story itself. Moving the film into mythology in this manner means when Willard confronts Kurtz, he is framed as a mortal confronting a god, questioning the nature of good and evil, and demanding freedom from our creators to live without their interference. This is as fundamental and timeless a confrontation as exists in Western culture and Coppola’s real area of interest. The causes and consequences of the Vietnam War couldn’t be further from Coppola’s mind, in this sense he is a very typical US filmmaker, demonstrating the capacity of the US to use the Vietnam War as a proxy to explore it’s own internal divisions and conflicts, rather than focus on the effects on the Vietnamese people, their country and region. Post script: Apocalypse Now was nominated for eight Oscars including Best Picture. It won a paltry two, for Best Cinematography and Best Sound, which is one less than this year’s Best Picture Oscar winner, Green Book. As ever this says far more about the Academy than it does about the quality of the films themselves. Love classic sci-fi? Check out my website HERE Read my review of Disney’s fabulous 1954 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, HERE

THE GREAT HACK

Cert 15 Stars 4

Fake news, lies, denials and illegal data sharing are the foundation of this eye-opening and scary documentary which clearly explains the shadowy world of data harvesting and its real world consequences.

With data having surpassed oil as the world’s most valuable asset, it highlights the dangers of giving up our data to social media giants who exploit it for profit.

With interviews with key players in last year’s Cambridge Analytica/Facebook data scandal, including whistle-blowers and journalists, it’s a fascinating look at how data is used to influence voting behaviour in the UK, the US, and around the world.

DRAGGED ACROSS CONCRETE

Cert 18 Stars 4

Mel Gibson and Vince Vaughn team up as corrupt cops who become involved in a bank heists in this engrossing and hard boiled crime thriller.

With pacing, dialogue and characterisation worthy of the late great novelist, Elmore Leonard, it’s another stand out exploration of street level America from writer and director, S. Craig Zahler, who previously made the outstanding horror western, Bone Tomahawk.

A tale of the broken dreams of desperate, disaffected and bitter middle-aged white guys, the deadpan black humour, winning chemistry and terrific performances carry the lengthy slow burn which pays off with a superbly staged shoot-out.

HUSTLERS

Cert 15 110mins Stars 4

Be blown away by Jennifer Lopez who gives a career best turn as a stripper on the make in this glossy, muscular and funny real life comedy-drama which wears its social conscience on its sleeve.

Re-affirming her diva status with the most outrageous entrance of the year, Lopez plays the old hand teaching Constance Wu’s newbie the pole dancing ropes, before the pair turn to crime to fleece their wealthy Wall Street clients.

Lorene Scafaria unashamedly borrows Martin Scorsese’s moves as she directs with a stylish verve, and it’s produced by Adam McKay who’s made another scathing exploration of greed to stand alongside his 2015 Oscar winner, The Big Short.

In their riotous way they show how the financial crash of 2008 screwed the uneducated and low-skilled while the powerful and wealthy got away scot free.

Lopez also co-produces and you can’t take your eyes off her in an commanding performance which hoists her back to the top of Hollywood’s greasy pole.

DOWNTON ABBEY

Cert PG 122mins Stars 4

Rolling out the red carpet for it’s big screen debut, the award winning TV period drama serves up a sumptuous and satisfying banquet of intrigue, scandal, humour and heartache.

Hugh Bonneville and Elizabeth McGovern return as the owners of Downton, the Earl and Countess of Grantham. Along with the rest of the cast they’re so well practiced in their roles we’re plunged straight into the story before we’re even re-introduced to their characters.

The arrival of royal guests, King George V and Queen Mary causes huge excitement upstairs and downstairs, and kickstarts events which will have repercussions for the household.

Not everyone is thrilled and Daisy the cook isn’t shy in voicing her republican views, while also handling the attentions of a local handyman and dealing with her possessive fiancé.

Carson the butler is tempted out of retirement for the occasion as it wouldn’t be the same without him, and your favourite characters are each given their moment to shine.

Newcomer Imelda Staunton plays Lady Bagshaw and provides a terrific adversary for Maggie Smith’s Dowager Countess, even as Smith indulges her habitual sparring with Penelope Wilton’s Baroness. As well as being given plenty of her famously withering put-downs, Smith also delivers an emotional speech which won’t leave a dry eye in the house, and screenwriter Julian Fellowes clearly delights in writing for her.

However his belt and braces approach for everyone else means we’re rarley unsure of what anyone is thinking, yet that’s probably just as well considering he crams in a series worth of subplots.

It’s set in 1927, a year after the General Strike, and insurgency is still very much in the air with the social institutions facing more than one challenge.

Plus there’s romance, a pregnancy, a disputed inheritance, a storm, sabotage, thefts, arrests, attempted murder, and an arrogant French chef.

Having previously directed some of series six and the two hour Christmas TV finale which wrapped up the TV series in 2015, Michael Engler returns with a sure hand, respect for the show and a determination to make this the most sparkling Downton yet.

Standing on the strong foundations of the series’ success, the filmmakers sensibly resist the temptation to do anything other than build on their established crowd-pleasing formula.

Crucially it’s filmed once again in the majestic Highclere Castle, which stands in for the Downton Abbey estate, where the bulk of the action sensibly takes place. So there’s no trying to spice up the formula by carting the cast off to a different location, as used to happen with movie spin-offs of British TV series, such as Are You Being Served? which saw the staff of the Grace Brothers department store packed off to Spain. Mind you, it might be fun seeing Lady Mary experience the pleasures of a popular Edwardian resort such as Blackpool. Maybe in the next film.

Of course there’s a great deal of heady nostalgia for a bygone age and is unashamedly supportive of the aristocracy. However it’s also forward looking in it’s sympathetic treatment of gay characters, its celebration of the strength of women, and its salute to the ambition of the self-employed working class.

Offering a unified, cosy and tolerant respite from the world, Downton presents an idealised vision of Britain, a green and pleasant land, which – the occasional bad apple aside – is full of fundamentally decent, kind and honest folk who do their best to rub along in the face of life’s challenges and stand steadfast in adversity.

And as such it’s a hugely reassuring slice of comfort cinema which will amuse, charm and entertain the most casual of viewers such as myself, while longtime fans will absolutely love it and should book their own state visit to Downton straight away.

RAPID RESPONSE

Cert 12A 99mins stars 3

Drivers and doctors discus death on the track as we’re taken on a drily forensic journey in this middle of the road documentary which looks at the introduction of safety and medical support in US motor racing.

It’s a straightforward combination of talking heads intercut with race footage of fatal crashes, which make for an occasionally terrifying watch.

With frank contributions from drivers including more than one winner of the US premier racing event, the Indianapolis 500, it centres on the work of lifelong racing fan Dr. Stephen Olvey.

He went from being a medical student trackside volunteer to kickstarting the drive to collecting data which became instrumental in furthering car safety.

But he faced an uphill struggle as each new safety feature involved financial costs and a ‘performance penalty’, i.e. they led to heavier and therefore slower cars.

Interviews with engineers and promoters are noticeably absent, highlighting in a roundabout way the tension in racing between safety, spectacle and profit.

A MINUSCULE ADVENTURE

Cert U 92mins Stars 4

Buzzing with huge amounts of charm and humour, this wonderfully inventive and engaging animation is fun-packed family treat combining action, romance and a strong eco-theme.

A standalone companion to 2014’s award winning adventure, Minuscule: Valley of the Lost Ants, this uses the same technique of seamlessly mixing real life locations and people with animated insects.

When a pair of ladybirds inadvertently undergo a perilous trip from their French Alpine home to the Caribbean, a spider and an ant team up to rescue them.

Storms, sharks and venus fly traps are among the dangers, but rather than being outright scary, the marvellous musical accompaniment gives the derring do action the feel of a 1930’s swashbuckling cliffhanger serial.

All the creatures communicate with appealing whistles and raspberries, and the absence of dialogue adds to the feeling of old fashioned fun. Meanwhile the emphasis on the need for cooperation across cultural borders adds a timely message to the joyous and tender heroism.

 

 

IT: CHAPTER 2

Cert 15 mins 169 Stars 4

Pennywise the demon killer clown returns with top dollar thrills in this stomach-churning supernatural sequel which is guaranteed to be the horror blockbuster of the year.

Full of strong character work, crowd-pleasing humour and eye-watering rip-your-throat-out terror, as great performances power a dark and emotional narrative which erupt into a psychotic trippy nightmare.

Based on Stephen King’s 1986 novel, it’s set in 2016, 27 years after the events of Chapter 1, and Pennywise has returned to torment the now adult members of the self-styled Losers Club, who gather once more in their small home town of Derry.

The gang are now played by stars such as James McAvoy, Jessica Chastain and Bill Hader, with the latter delighting in the opportunity for caustic banter, and stealing his every scene.

Their chemistry generates a sense of shared experience and delivers a credible emotional weight to anchor the knowingly over-the-top action.

And sporting sharp rabbit teeth and a deliciously insane giggle, Swedish actor Bill Skarsgard’s brings a magnificent malevolence to his performance as Pennywise.

Plus having adults as the focus of the story allows the filmmakers to really push the button on the violence and gore, much more than could be done in the first film, and this is all the better for it.

A canny mix of CGI effects and physical props such as human-headed spiders and bleeding bathtubs populate a landscape of dirty syringes, sewers, spooky houses and fairgrounds.

However once again real violence such as domestic abuse is more chilling than the supernatural, plus there’s a human psychopath on the loose the Loser’s Club must also contend with.

The running time is used to do justice to King’s lengthy novel, and is full of madness, memory, guilt and trauma, and while definitely not for the squeamish, this is also a touching lament for lost friends and the camaraderie of childhood.

Don’t worry if you missed or have forgotten 2017’s multi-million pound smash first chapter, as the original young cast reprise their roles in so many flashbacks this is practically a standalone film. And you’re braver than me if you dare to watch it alone.