The best and worst films of 2023

New movie reviews include The Old Oak, Fair Play and The Creator

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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".

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"'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.

Brother

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".

Cassandro

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".

Passages

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”.

Maigret

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.

Scrapper

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.”

Strays

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.

L'immensità

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”.

Barbie

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”.

Oppenheimer

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”.

Elemental

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.”

Chevalier

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”.

Reality

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.

Hypnotic

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”.

Sisu

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 The Observer. But the real revelations here lie in the “depiction of Fox’s family life, most notably his marriage to fellow actor Tracy Pollan, who won his heart by calling him ‘a complete f***ing asshole’” when – as a cocky young man – he insulted her on the set of “Family Ties”. It’s his home life that seems to have “granted him the [inner] stillness he never had”.

Plan 75

Drama ***

“This strange, melancholy film effectively makes the (unfashionable) case against euthanasia: that old people won’t want to be a bother or appear selfish and so will feel pressured into accepting state medicide,” said Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian. Director and co-writer Chie Hayakawa imagines a future in which Japan, “burdened with an ageing population, proposes a supposedly voluntary but actually insidiously coercive arrangement called Plan 75, in which citizens aged 75 or above can sign up for an easeful death in return for 1,000 dollars”. The narrative follows Michi (Chieko Baishô), a lonely 78-year-old chambermaid who makes her way to the Plan 75 offices after losing her job. Her case is handled by a young man (Hayato Isomura), who begins to have doubts about the programme when his next appointment turns out to be with his own uncle. The film’s set-up isn’t that well fleshed out; but it’s undoubtedly “poignant” and thought provoking.

“Plan 75” was inspired by the real life case of a 26-year-old man who said he had killed 19 disabled residents of a Japanese care home because such people are a drain on society, said Deborah Ross in The Spectator. The film is suffused with a “dispassionate coldness” – the colours are muted and there is minimal camera movement. But “it does end hopefully, and rather gorgeously”. The basic premise of “Plan 75” is a “knockout”, so it’s a shame the execution is only so-so, said Kevin Maher in The Times. “Japanese society, corporate culture and the state apparatus” all get a kicking, but the film’s “unremarkable message” is: “seize the day”.

Book Club: The Next Chapter

Drama *

The first “Book Club” film, which came out in 2018, was a “soggy mess” that managed nonetheless to do “thumping business at the box office”, said Brian Viner in the Daily Mail. Now a second film is here and, alas, it’s absolutely dire. Jane Fonda, Diane Keaton, Mary Steenburgen and Candice Bergen return as four old friends whose book club in Los Angeles has been meeting for more than 30 years. In the first film, their stagnating love lives were revived by their discovery of E.L. James’s “Fifty Shades” trilogy; this time, with Vivian (Fonda) engaged to her twinkly-eyed beau (Don Johnson), “our ageing quartet” head to Italy for an extended hen party. From that point on, “nothing stacks up, except the clichés” (which include Italian men who are either “incorrigible flirts or certifiable idiots”). The script is dreadful; the “narrative signposts come in fluorescent yellow”; and it’s just not funny. It is far less amusing, for instance, than “walking through the pouring rain to Waterstones, only to find it closed”. In sum, it is sure to be another hit.

Yes, this “bawdy” fairy tale is “over the top”, with interchangeable male love interests and some “shameless” product placement, but it’s still “massively diverting”, said Charlotte O’Sullivan in the Evening Standard. And it has a “semi-serious message: you don’t have to be young to be invited to the ball (or make jokes about balls). All you need are friends, chutzpah and shit-loads of cash.” I’m afraid I could hardly bear to watch this “lazy lacklustre sequel”, said Kevin Maher in The Times. It takes a quartet of “innately charismatic seniors” and gives them no opportunity to reflect on the “painful losses and nuanced gains of old age”. Instead, they just glug prosecco and tell sex jokes.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3

Superhero **

“While much of Marvel’s output has rather blurred together of late into a gaudy onslaught of overplotted multiverse-hopping,” the Guardians of the Galaxy films have always had a “distinctive personality”, said Wendy Ide in The Observer. What elevates Vol. 3 (“supposedly the final film in the series”) is the way it keeps that irreverent, swaggering personality – “while delivering a series of devastating emotional sucker punches along the way”. To achieve this, director James Gunn has delved into the “traumatic backstory” of Rocket the raccoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper), who was experimented on as a “young, impossibly cute kid” by a mad scientist played by Chukwudi Iwuji. When Rocket falls back into the hands of the scientist, the Guardians gang (including Chris Pratt’s Quill) must find a way to save him. The plot is “slightly overstuffed”, but it’s a big-hearted film bursting with mischief and humour.

“I have to say I was underwhelmed,” said Matthew Bond in The Mail on Sunday. It’s too long; the screenplay “ties itself in knots”; and the film spends a bewildering amount of time “exploring the dark world of vivisection”. If all this had been offset by a load of “good jokes”, that might have been fine – but it’s just not that funny, and by the end I’d decided that it was “strictly for the faithful”. Cute animals aside, there is nothing fresh to engage us here, agreed Tom Shone in The Sunday Times. With “an endless succession of rescues and more endings than The Return of the King, Vol. 3 is the same bloated two-and-a-half-hour leviathan as every other Marvel movie these days”. Sure, it’s high-spirited, but an entire hour could have been lopped off “and nobody would have been the wiser”.

Return to Seoul

Drama ****

This Korean drama examines the “implacable forces of nature, nurture and destiny”, with impressively “absorbing” results, said Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian. Park Ji-min makes her acting debut as Freddie, a “footloose twentysomething” who was born in South Korea but adopted by a French couple. When she goes on an impromptu trip to Seoul, she decides to track down her birth parents. She soon finds her father, “a heartbreakingly sweet-natured guy played by veteran actor Oh Kwang-rok”. Her mother, however, proves more elusive. The film follows Freddie over eight years, and is permeated by “a terrible question”: could she have inherited her “egotism and creativity”, her talent for seduction and disruption, from a woman she can’t find? And without meeting her mother, can she truly understand herself? It is a “gripping” tale with real emotional heft.

This “intimate portrait of a woman caught between cultures” is refreshingly unmelodramatic, said Dulcie Pearce in The Sun. As Freddie wrestles with her dual heritage, director Davy Chou “allows the camera patiently to watch her react, take in, feel and mask all her conflicting feelings”. Meanwhile, the ever-changing Korean backdrop reflects her changing state of mind. It builds into a “gut-punch of a character study”, sustained by Park’s “mesmerising” performance. I’m afraid I was more frustrated than mesmerised by this film, said Michael O’Sullivan in The Washington Post. It is riddled with “feints and blind alleys”, and the narrative is so jumpy, you’re never sure “where and when Freddie is in her life, geographically, temporally and psychologically”. The title suggests “a journey, or at least an endpoint”, yet the film doesn’t really go anywhere.

The Blue Caftan

Drama ****

Morocco’s official entry for the 2023 best international feature film Oscar, The Blue Caftan is a “stunning portrayal of marital sacrifice and devotion”, said Kevin Maher in The Times. Set in the northwestern city of Salé, it stars Saleh Bakri as Halim, a tailor who makes exquisite hand-embroidered kaftans, and Lubna Azabal as Mina, his wife and business partner, who deals with their customers. “Complicating matters somewhat” is the fact that Halim is gay in a country where homosexual acts are a crime. With Mina’s consent, he lives a dangerous double life, cruising at the hammam, while repressing his romantic feelings for their new assistant Youssef (Ayoub Missioui). The “dramatic twist in all this, however, is that Halim loves Mina deeply”, and she is similarly committed to him. It’s an impressive second feature from Maryam Touzani (who also directed 2019’s Adam), with an ending that “hits with a wallop”.

The ending may not be what you think, said Cath Clark in The Guardian. I spent the first half-hour of this film in the “emotional brace position”, because I was so convinced that Halim was going to end up being arrested or worse. But this is not that film. Instead, Touzani has made a gentle if complex love story in which the two leads are a gay man and his wife. The Blue Caftan is “something of a high-class tear-jerker, but of a mature, insightful kind”, said Jonathan Romney in the Financial Times. “Tugging the heartstrings with expert finesse, it is richly satisfying, with a deep commitment to aesthetic pleasure and craft”, and the acting is “wonderfully subtle”.

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry

Drama ****

In 2012, Rachel Joyce’s novel about “a retired old fella who traverses England on foot in the belief he can save a friend dying of cancer” became a bestseller, said Deborah Ross in The Spectator. Now it has been made into a film, and “it’s one of those rare instances where the film is better than the book”. Jim Broadbent plays Harold, a pensioner whom we meet living in Devon with his wife Maureen (Penelope Wilton). Nothing is spelled out – “the script is astutely bare” – but we understand that their marriage “has suffered from what hasn’t been said down the years”. Then one morning, Harold receives a letter from an old colleague named Queenie (Linda Bassett), telling him that she’s dying in a hospice in Berwick-upon-Tweed, and wants to say goodbye. He writes her a postcard back, walks to a postbox to send it – then decides to just keep on walking. The film is not flawless: there are some “jarring moments”; but it is “wonderfully tender and full of feeling”, and it made me cry.

Initially, this “autumn-years road movie” chugs along “amiably”, giving the impression of being another “cosily familiar tale of British eccentricity”, said Wendy Ide in The Observer. “But as a blistered and weathered Harold limps into the film’s heart-sore third act, director Hettie Macdonald, whose TV work includes Normal People, shifts up an emotional gear or two”, turning “this politely unassuming little film” into a “wrenching examination of grief, guilt and eventual closure”. Its themes are rather “melancholy”, and aspects of the story do feel implausible and “contrived at times”, said Matthew Bond in The Mail on Sunday. “But don’t let that put you off”; the film is very “enjoyable”, and it contains some “fabulous” acting.

Polite Society

Action-comedy ***

The British director Nida Manzoor made her name in 2021 with Channel 4’s We Are Lady Parts, “a sitcom about an all-female, all-Muslim punk band”, said Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian. “Now, for her debut feature film, she brings serious levels of goof, wack and zane” to this “feelgood action comedy” set in the west London neighbourhood of Shepherd’s Bush. The film stars newcomer Priya Kansara as Ria, a 16-year-old martial arts enthusiast and aspiring stuntwoman from a British-Pakistani family who embarks on a “desperate mission” to sabotage the forthcoming marriage of her older sister Lena (Ritu Arya). Lena, you see, has fallen for an extremely eligible and wealthy young doctor (Akshay Khanna), delighting her parents, but worrying Ria, who reckons there’s “something a bit off” about him. The film is essentially a “pointed satire of the marriage market”, and though some of the plot twists veer into the “macabre”, it delivers plenty of “laughs”.

Polite Society is certainly not lacking in energy, said Kevin Maher in The Times: “chapter headings in a giant font slam onto the screen”; the camera “zooms in and out” at top speed; and “scenes whip to other scenes with the whooshing sound of a spun rope”. On and on it goes, “with the kind of animated and overstimulated consistency that’s simultaneously admirable, entertaining and a tiny bit grating”. As the film goes on, it does become a bit wearing and more conventional – a “Haribo romp”, said Danny Leigh in the Financial Times. “Still, even at its silliest, the gags have spiky wit, and the emotional heft of adolescence underpins the mayhem.” Manzoor and her stars are “here to stay, you suspect. Buy a crash helmet.”

Peter Pan & Wendy

Drama **

“Here are two things we’ve all had quite enough of, thank you,”, said Robbie Collin in The Daily Telegraph: screen adaptations of J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, and live-action remakes of beloved Disney animations. So as both, “this flesh, blood and pixel” reworking of the 1953 cartoon looks “surplus to requirements twice over”. But in fact, it may prove to be the “loveliest children’s film of the year”. Ever Anderson stars as Wendy, a high-flyer with a dread of growing up who is about to be packed off to boarding school when Peter (Alexander Molony) bursts in through her window. He whisks her and her siblings off to “a very Hebridean-looking Neverland” – where Captain Hook (“a terrifically scary, funny and affecting” Jude Law) lies in wait. The film is not getting a cinema release (it’s streaming on Disney Plus), but its heart and ambition are “big screen through and through”.

I’m afraid I wasn’t in the least bit won over, said Brian Viner in the Daily Mail. Writer-director David Lowery has given the story a “very 2023 makeover”, by including Lost Girls as well as Lost Boys in a diverse cast, and by saddling Hook with so many “mental-health and anger-management issues”, you feel as if you are eavesdropping on a disturbed pirate’s therapy session. Admittedly, I have never understood the enduring appeal of Barrie’s story, but surely this is one adaptation we could have done without. Alas, it conjures all the magic and excitement of “an afternoon in an old people’s home”, said Dulcie Pearce in The Sun. Law looks as though “he’s just waiting for the cheque to clear”, and even Tinker Bell fails to sprinkle “fairy dust on this cold, watered-down” dud.

The Three Musketeers: D'Artagnan

Drama ****

“Cinema is hardly wanting for adaptations of Alexandre Dumas’s The Three Musketeers, but surprisingly, more than 60 years have passed since France itself last had a go,” said Robbie Collin in The Daily Telegraph. Happily, Martin Bourboulon’s film (the first in a two-part adaptation) is a “lusty” delight. François Civil stars as an “Instagram-handsome” D’Artagnan, “who manages to book duels” with all three of his future allies (Vincent Cassel, Pio Marmaï and Romain Duris) within moments of arriving in 17th century Paris. Instead of killing them, he wins their allegiance, then heads to England to retrieve a priceless necklace that has been entrusted by Queen Anne of Austria (Vicky Krieps) to her lover. The mission is jeopardised, however, by the “wily” spy Milady (Eva Green), who’s after the necklace too. “Unusually lavish” for a European production, the film combines “the swashbuckly fun” of the Richard Lester films “with the cobbled, clattery grandeur of a Ridley Scott epic” – and will leave you “excited” for part two, which is due in December.

This “superb” historical romp is not to be missed, agreed Matthew Bond in The Mail on Sunday. “Beautifully photographed” and cast, it features some “terrific” fight sequences, while finding room for flashes of humour and lots of “Gallic naughtiness”. There is a lot of “melodramatic nonsense” and some of the plot contrivances are scarcely credible, said Brian Viner in the Daily Mail; but the film never “takes itself too seriously”, and simply “cuts and thrusts, swashes and buckles from beginning to end”. What is particularly in its favour is that it makes almost no use of special effects, which gives the whole thing a “pleasingly old-fashioned” feel.

How to Blow Up a Pipeline

Thriller ***

Ocean’s Eleven meets Extinction Rebellion” in this “intermittently exciting” eco-thriller, adapted from Andreas Malm’s “controversial” 2020 book about the merits of sabotage, said Kevin Maher in The Times. The story follows a ragtag crew of activists who descend on West Texas to destroy an oil pipeline, in the hope that doing so will make prices unaffordably high. As they attempt the attack, their backstories are explored in flashback – so we learn that Dwayne (Jake Weary) is taking part in the plot “because Big Oil put a pipeline in his backyard”; Xochitl (Ariela Barer) is “furious because her mother died during a heatwave”; and Theo (Sasha Lane) is embittered “because she developed cancer from living near a refinery”. These “biographical justifications” for their eco-terrorism feel “rote and trivialising”, and the constant trips back in time become rather laborious. Still, the film closes on a good twist, and it’s brimming with tension.

This “ingenious” and “fiercely watchable” thriller had me “biting my nails down to the wrists”, said Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian. In that way, it’s a lot like Quentin Tarantino’s “heist classic” Reservoir Dogs, although the heroes in this film are not driven by cynicism or greed but are – refreshingly – presented as the “good guys”. The film is undeniably “propulsive”, said Ben Kenigsberg in The New York Times, but while it has been “packaged as a movie with something to say”, it fails to say anything of significance. The ideology driving the characters’ actions isn’t satisfactorily explored, with the result that their “militant environmentalism” ends up seeming like “more of a hook than a subject about which the film has a point of view”.

Sick of Myself

Comedy ***

“There’s something deliciously bracing about films that deal with terrible people behaving appallingly,” said Wendy Ide in The Observer. “And the mean-spirited and spitefully enjoyable Norwegian-language satire Sick of Myself certainly doesn’t disappoint on that count.” It stars Kristine Kujath Thorp as Signe, a narcissistic young woman who has come to resent the success of her sculptor boyfriend (Eirik Sæther). “To bring the focus back” to her, Signe covertly consumes some banned Russian medication known to cause “disfiguring skin rashes” – and duly develops “welts and sores” all over her face, which earn her, for a while at least, “the celebrity she craves”. Comedies “don’t get much darker than this”, and while it won’t appeal to everyone, “I loved it”.

This film is dark, to be sure, but it’s also “thought-provoking about the kind of humans we are all becoming”, and has some properly funny moments, said Dulcie Pearce in The Sun. In one “hilarious scene”, Signe and her “moral vacuum of a boyfriend” become “turned on by describing Signe’s imaginary funeral”, which they decide would attract so many people that wannabe attendees would have to be turned away. Still, the film is “not for the faint-hearted”, and becomes “stomach-churning” at points. When Sick of Myself escalates from comedy to “full-on body horror”, it becomes so disgusting, I could scarcely watch it, said Deborah Ross in The Spectator. And though it is “compelling”, in the end it struck me as “the sort of film that seems to have set itself a challenge as to how tastelessly disturbing it can become”, for no very good reason.

One Fine Morning

Drama ****

Léa Seydoux is well known for her roles in major English-language action movies, including the last two Bond films, said Matthew Bond in The Mail on Sunday. But “every now and then she makes a little independent drama so French you can almost taste the croissants”. One Fine Morning “is one of those”. She plays Sandra, a widowed translator from Paris who is trying to raise her “hitherto biddable” eight-year-old (Camille Leban Martins), while caring for her father (Pascal Greggory), a renowned philosopher now suffering from a neurodegenerative disease. When Sandra bumps into an old married friend (Melvil Poupaud), they begin an affair, which brings its own complications. At 37, Seydoux is perhaps “too young” and “too pretty” to convince as a woman “torn between generations”; but she “gives it her best shot”, and it all makes for a “thought-provoking film about love, the sheer messiness of grown-up life” and the indignities of old age.

There’s not a lot to this film, plot-wise, said Tom Shone in The Sunday Times: “Seydoux has her affair while looking after her father, and that is pretty much it.” The whole thing hangs on her reactions – and she is so good at conveying the sense of a person who is at once open and “emotionally hidden” that that turns out to be enough. The film probes “the mystery of what the heart wants, and what it might give in return”, said Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian. It has a “happy-sad sweetness”, thanks in part to the “lovely chemistry” between Seydoux and Greggory. It’s just a shame that director Mia Hansen-Løve didn’t give Sandra “more agency”; she relies too heavily on Seydoux’s “natural sardonic hauteur” to protect the character “from soppiness”.

Renfield

Comedy-horror **

Every now and then an actor is so right for a role that it feels “less like the work of a casting director and more like something ordained by the cinema gods”, said Brian Viner in the Daily Mail. Such is the case with Nicolas Cage in Renfield, an “extremely gory comedy-horror film” in which Cage doesn’t so much play the part of Count Dracula as devour it whole. However, the main character in the film is not Dracula himself, but his manservant Renfield (Nicholas Hoult). Having spent decades looking for human victims for his master to sup on, Renfield is starting to feel exploited. When the pair land up in contemporary New Orleans, following a brush with some vampire hunters, Renfield realises that his relationship with Dracula has become toxic – so he joins a self-help group for people with controlling partners, and tries to strike out on his own. There are some “priceless” moments; and at just over 90 minutes, the film is “blessedly concise”.

Renfield certainly has “ideal casting”, as well as a “clever premise”, said Caryn James on BBC Culture. But neither can “save a scattershot movie that throws everything at the wall, including a dull crime story and lots of badly staged fight sequences”. If you’ve watched the “enticing trailer”, I’m afraid “you’ve already heard almost all the best lines and seen a tauter, more engaging version of Renfield than the sloppy mess it turns out to be”. It’s “not unpleasant” to watch, said Richard Brody in The New Yorker; in fact, “it’s bouncy, clever, amiable and idiosyncratic”. And yet it never quite comes to life. “The irresistible elevator-pitch version of the movie – Count Dracula’s assistant tries to free himself from his diabolical master’s yoke – is the best thing that it has to offer.”

Suzume

Animation ***

This “dazzling” animation from Japanese director Makoto Shinkai has already become a box-office hit around the world, and deservedly so, said Larushka Ivan-Zadeh in Metro. An unconventional “teen romance”, it follows Suzume (voiced by Nanoka Hara), a 16-year-old whose mother was killed in an earthquake some years ago. One day when she is cycling to school, she bumps into a handsome student named Souta (Hokuto Matsumura), who turns out to be a “Closer” – a person charged with “closing doors to another world”. When “a ginormous, city-destroying worm” escapes from that other world, Souta and Suzume must join forces to stop it (no mean feat, given Souta is soon transformed into a talking, three-legged stool). “There is a touch of Stranger Things” to this “rich” tale, which mines the “trauma felt by the young following Japan’s 2011 earthquake and tsunami”; and the result is “extraordinary enough to appeal to even non-anime fans”.

The film has rather a lot of chase sequences which become “repetitive”, said Dulcie Pearce in The Sun; but it has real merit. With its “stark warnings about the real risk of ecological disaster”, Suzume is a “powerful coming-of-age tale that plucks at the heartstrings” while delivering some real laughs along the way. It is beautiful to look at too. An “epic adventure about hormone-fuelled teenagers facing up to environmental destruction”, the film is sometimes a “little too worthy for its own good”, said Kevin Maher in The Times. Still, it has “boundless ambition, and the courage to place weighty issues at the heart of a kids’ film”.

The Super Mario Bros. Movie

Animation **

The first-ever film adaptation of a video game in English was 1993’s Super Mario Bros, which is now regarded – “not unreasonably” – as one of the worst movies ever made, said Robbie Collin in The Daily Telegraph. “Even so, I’d watch that fascinating failure again in a heartbeat over this new animated version”, which is as “shallow, sterile and eyeball-drillingly inane a feature-length brand-extension exercise as Hollywood has yet produced”. Nintendo’s “plumber siblings” are voiced by Chris Pratt and Charlie Day, who begin the film botching a job in present-day Brooklyn. They are then whisked to a “fairy-tale video-game world” ruled by a “disturbingly Botoxed” Princess Peach (Anya Taylor-Joy), whose reign is under threat from the fire-breathing turtle Bowser (Jack Black). The film is filled with “brand assets” drawn from 38 years of Mario games, but it fails to do anything imaginative with them. By the end, I felt I’d been “frogmarched round a branch of Toys R Us”. It’s sure to be a hit, but if a friend or relative should whoop “Let’s-a-go”, I’d gently counter: “Let’s-a-not”.

This “much-hyped” animation is a total disappointment, said Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian. “Utterly inert in narrative terms”, it is “visually bland” and has a “baffling lack of properly funny lines”. And unlike the “brilliant” Lego movies, there is a “fierce insistence” throughout on never being ironic or self-referential. “Even Super Mario superfans might prefer the game.” I didn’t find the film “at all bad”, said Edward Porter in The Sunday Times. Sure, it could do with sharper jokes for grown-ups, but as “colourful, funny entertainment” for young children, it does the job well enough.

Operation Fortune: Ruse de Guerre

Action-comedy ***

This action-comedy directed by Guy Ritchie has “a bit of a cursed backstory”, said Benjamin Lee in The Guardian. Shot during Covid, it was yanked off the release schedule twice in 2022, owing to fears that its Ukrainian baddies might seem in “bad taste”, before finally being released straight to Amazon Prime. Yet for all that, the film is an “absurdly enjoyable” romp. Jason Statham stars as Orson Fortune, “a rebellious, wine-loving spy” who is tasked by his handler (Cary Elwes) with the retrieval of a mysterious weapon that has been stolen from a British tech facility by Ukrainian mobsters. Paired with two other operatives (Aubrey Plaza and Bugzy Malone), Fortune tries to infiltrate a gala being thrown by a “lecherous arms dealer” (Hugh Grant) who is hoping to sell the weapon for vast sums of money. The plot has “too much going on”, but the film is “mercifully silly” and thankfully avoids the “wink, wink smugness that often infects contemporary action movies”.

Operation Fortune is certainly no masterpiece, said Tim Robey in The Daily Telegraph: it’s “daft” and “disposable”, features jokes about gay people that are on the “quaint” side, and has a “bizarrely shambolic” final act. Still, the film doesn’t take itself too seriously, and whenever it’s in the doldrums, it is revived by Grant, who “pushes the boat out” as a “perma-tanned billionaire” with a “Michael Caine accent”. Ritchie gives viewers “a textbook serving” of his classic brand of action caper, with “lots of violence, silly accents, slick tailoring and comic twists”, said Dulcie Pearce in The Sun. The plot doesn’t really have enough substance to fill two hours, but there are plenty of good jokes to pass the time. Operation Fortune is “full of folly”, to be sure, but it’s “all the more fun for it”.

Air

Drama ***

Air tells the story of how the mighty basketball player Michael Jordan, then only on the cusp of greatness, came to sign a merchandising deal with the sports shoe manufacturer Nike”, said Brian Viner in the Daily Mail. “If you almost nodded off reading that sentence, so did I writing it. But wait! Because what this film is, really, is a rousing cinematic hymn to corporate America. And it’s annoyingly hard not to hum along.” Set in 1984, it stars a “chubbed-up” Matt Damon as Sonny Vaccaro, a marketing executive at Nike “who sees something in video footage of Jordan that nobody else has spotted: an almost preternatural level of confidence and skill”. He convinces the company’s founder Phil Knight (Ben Affleck) that they should blow their whole marketing budget on signing Jordan up. The only trouble is, Jordan doesn’t like Nike shoes, and won’t listen to them. Directed by Affleck “with a sure hand”, it features “excellent performances”, and the script “keeps the narrative flowing with just the right injection of wit”. It is, in all, not quite a “slam dunk” – but near enough.

Air is “undeniably engaging”, said Wendy Ide in The Observer; “so much so that you almost forget that you’re watching two hours of doughy, middle-aged men” sweating in boardrooms “and slapping each other on the back”. Yet “for all its affable charm”, it is also “rapaciously consumerist”. Jordan, who is mostly shown from behind, is reduced to “little more than a commodity – a product to be marketed along with the shoes that bear his name”. The film could have been one long “piece of product placement”, said Matthew Bond in The Mail on Sunday. But actually, thanks to its “well paced” and funny screenplay, it manages to be “much more” than that.

The Night of the 12th

Drama ****

The police procedural may be overdone, but at its best, the genre can “grip no like other”, said Hilary White in The Independent (Dublin). This French film, based on a real-life crime, is a case in point. It begins with the brutal killing of a teenage girl in a suburb of Grenoble – an event that coincides with a young, conscientious detective being promoted to lead the local murder squad. Yohan (Bastien Bouillon) and his jaded older partner Marceau (Bouli Lanners) set about investigating the string of men the victim had been involved with – but as one promising lead after another comes to nothing, the case burrows ever deeper under Yohan’s skin. What he comes to feel above all is that this is a world in which “something is amiss between men and women”.

The misogyny exhibited by all the suspects – and occasionally by the police – is a big part of this “dangling whodunit”, said Helen O’Hara in Empire. We’re told at the start that the crime remains unsolved, so it’s a measure of director Dominik Moll’s skill that the film “fascinates more than it frustrates”, and remains an edge-of-seat ride. He has produced a “taut and piercing” film that explores a man’s world, agreed Jordan Mintzer in Hollywood Reporter. There’s only one female detective (Mouna Soualem) and much is made of the cops’ macho camaraderie. But it also shows their “glowering vulnerability”. The insights into the detectives’ inner lives are as enthralling as the investigation itself, said Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian: “What does it do to a cop’s soul not only to be confronted with the brutalities of crime, but also with the void, with the absence of an explanation?” It all adds up to a “mysterious and unnerving” drama.

Infinity Pool

Horror ***

Luxury holidays don’t come any grislier than the one depicted in Brandon (son of David) Cronenburg’s morbidly funny, “luridly enjoyable” horror film, said Geoffrey Macnab in The Independent. Novelist James (Alexander Skarsgård) and his wife Em (Cleopatra Coleman) are staying in a hotel resort in a corrupt tropical country, when they are befriended by another couple – flirtatious Gabi (Mia Goth) and her shifty husband Alban (Jalil Lespert). One night, as they all venture outside the heavily fortified hotel complex, James runs over and kills a farmer, and discovers how the country deals with foreign miscreants: they are killed by their victims’ families, unless (if they can afford it) they pay to create a clone, and effectively watch themselves die.

With the killing of his clone, James has a terrible realisation, said Lou Thomas on NME: he can get away with anything, because if he’s caught, he can simply pay for another clone. This is what Gabi and her friends have been doing – and soon he’s joining them in an orgy of excess of all sorts, including murder. We’ve been inundated lately with satires about the awfulness of the mega-rich, but if they’re all as good as this, long may the trend continue. This is a tale of doppelganger paranoia told with “stylish cinematic relish”, said Mark Kermode in The Observer. But what really drives it is Goth’s anarchic energy in a role that “positively fizzes with playfully dangerous pizzazz”. Skarsgård turns in a fine performance too, as a man watching his soul being sucked out of him, said Adam Sweeting on The Arts Desk. It is too long, and the sex scenes can spill into gross-out territory, but Infinity Pool is a film that lingers “malevolently” in the mind.

Tetris

Thriller ***

This “stranger-than-fiction” film about how the addictive video game Tetris found its way out of Russia in the 1980s, and fuelled a global entertainment boom, has all the elements of a Cold War thriller, said Alistair Harkness in The Scotsman. Taron Egerton plays Henk Rogers, a Dutch-born gaming entrepreneur based in Tokyo who resolves to buy the licence for the game. Beset by various bureaucratic obstacles, he sets off to meet its designer in the USSR, only to come up against some formidable rivals, including the media mogul Robert Maxwell (Roger Allam). Director Jon S. Baird fills this side of the story with “le Carré-esque” flourishes involving KGB agents, blackmail plots and brutal violence, to create a film that is both entertaining and surprising, as it touches on the collapse both of Maxwell’s empire and of the Soviet Union.

A bit like the game itself, Tetris is “clever, crafty and shockingly entertaining”, said Jeannette Catsoulis in The New York Times. In a script full of “head-spinning” double-crosses, communism is pitted against capitalism and individual passion against corporate greed. Allam is as good as ever, while Egerton exudes “bushy-tailed zeal”; there’s also a weaselly turn by Toby Jones as software executive Robert Stein. At times, the script threatens to get bogged down in legal detail, said Kevin Maher in The Times. But Baird directs his “nutty historical caper” with a go-for-broke abandon that brings the key themes together in “one giddy, pulse-quickening rush”. The film is deeply silly in parts, and needlessly convoluted, but it’s lots of fun.

John Wick: Chapter 4

Action ***

Keanu Reeves’s John Wick “first jiu-jitsu’d his way into our lives in 2014”, when the retired hitman and widower set out to avenge the murder of his dog by a bunch of gangsters, said Josh Glancy in The Sunday Times. His quest – “and the many, many unintended consequences it unleashed” – has now resulted in four films and “about 400 on-screen kills”. The latest “absurd” chapter in the saga begins with Wick shooting a sheikh affiliated with the “High Table”, a Spectre-style organisation that runs an “elaborate global underworld”. It then appoints a vicious marquis, “played with suitably odious entitlement” by Bill Skarsgård, to oversee Wick’s dispatch, leading to the usual fight and action sequences. While “I love John Wick” and have liked the films so far, it’s now beyond question that “the Wick shtick” has become “tired and bloated”. About an hour in, “the bloke sitting next to me” in the cinema stormed out, saying: “I can’t bear this anymore.”

“Unless you’ve seen at least one” John Wick film before, this instalment will leave you completely bewildered, said Matthew Bond in The Mail on Sunday. But for those already on board, “be prepared to be properly entertained”. Yes, the “murderous mayhem” is long-winded – one fight that unfolds in a hotel in Osaka “seems to go on longer than the entire Japanese Edo period, and that lasted more than 260 years”. And yet the film has “just the right amount of tongue in cheek”, and Reeves is “terrific”. There are problems with this possibly final instalment in the franchise, said Charlotte O’Sullivan in the Evening Standard: “the silliness can be wearing” and the stunts “ropey”. Still, it’s “preposterously” good fun and, “for me, easily the most satisfying entry of the lot”.

A Good Person

Drama **

“Having redeemed the rather silly Don’t Worry Darling”, Florence Pugh has once again been called upon to “bring her magic to otherwise indifferent material”, said Wendy Ide in The Observer. In A Good Person she plays Allison, a young woman who seems at first to have “everything going for her”: beautiful and musically gifted, she has a steady job in sales, and a fiancé (Chinaza Uche) who adores her. When she is involved in a car accident, however, “her life shatters”. Her relationship falls apart, she returns to her mother’s house, and becomes addicted to the painkiller OxyContin. At a Narcotics Anonymous meeting, she meets her ex-fiancé’s estranged father (Morgan Freeman). “The prickly connection between them is persuasive”; but the rest of the film feels “contrived”, and the “emotional crescendo of the third act” seems “manufactured”.

A Good Person was written for Pugh in 2021 by Zach Braff, her then boyfriend, who is also the film’s director, said Kevin Maher in The Times. Sadly, the result of their collaboration is a “soggy melodrama” full of “awkwardly overperformed scenes” in which characters shout things like: “F**k you!” “No, f**k you!” Every “hoary addict drama staple” is dutifully ticked off – so we have “the attempted overdose, the cold turkey sequence, and the final sweaty relapse”. And Braff’s script gives Allison “no dramatic arc” to speak of – “she’s just a nice, warm and talented person who briefly has a bad time but remains, at the end, nice, warm and talented”. I found the whole thing “excruciating”, said Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian. If the film has a “single valuable lesson”, it is not to look at your phone while driving – but even that message is drowned out by the plot’s silly contrivances.

The Beasts

Thriller ****

This “suspenseful” Spanish- and French-language thriller “weighs in at a mighty two hours and 17 mins” – but it is worth “the investment of time”, said Brian Viner in the Daily Mail. It stars Denis Ménochet, best known to English-speaking audiences for Inglourious Basterds, as “a well-heeled Frenchman” who moves with his wife (Marina Foïs) to rural northern Spain, to run an organic farm. Their longed-for new life is imperilled, however, when they oppose plans for a wind farm, drawing the ire of two local brothers (Luis Zahera and Diego Anido). At first, the brothers’ antipathy “just seems like unpleasant but essentially harmless provincial xenophobia”; but “with great skill”, director Rodrigo Sorogoyen “turns it into something far darker”.

The film is “loosely based” on real events that unfolded in 2014, involving a Dutch couple who’d moved to Galicia, said Deborah Ross in The Spectator. That news story could easily have been made into a formulaic melodrama, but has instead here been turned into a “riveting” and “merciless study of human nature”, in which “even a game of dominoes” is made to feel unbearably menacing. Sorogoyen expertly builds tension and a sense of “creeping dread”; the performances are “terrific all round”; and while it does take “its time in an episodic way”, you will “be hooked throughout”. This “excellent” film shows how thoughtless jibes can evolve into “small, gross violations”, and finally spiral into all-out war, said Danny Leigh in the FT. The bones of the story do have a slightly familiar feel, but the script is “brilliantly written” and the film proves, in the end, “hard to shake”.

Rye Lane

Romcom ****

The story at the heart of this romcom may not be very original, but it’s given “such a modern sheen”, and told with “such crackle and wit, that you feel as though you’re watching something excitingly novel and new”, said Brian Viner in the Daily Mail. Our hero is Dom (David Jonsson), an accountant whose girlfriend has left him for one of his best friends. Sobbing in a gender-neutral toilet cubicle at an art gallery in London, he is overheard by Yas (Vivian Oparah), who has also come to the end of a relationship. Out in the gallery, she recognises him from his shoes, and strikes up a conversation. The pair end up going for a long walk around Peckham and Brixton, and fall for each other along the way. The film has “oodles” of charm and an irresistible “zesty energy”; and the two leads are “splendidly served” by a script that made me laugh out loud “again and again”.

With luck, this “glorious” film will launch a new generation of enchanting but slightly more realistic British romcoms, said Robbie Collin in The Daily Telegraph. Unlike, say, Notting Hill, which, for all its virtues, depicted a very “Farrow & Ball”, very “toffy” and, yes, very white version of Notting Hill, this film really nails “contemporary south London”, capturing its “clatter and bustle with such undisguised love, it makes the blossoming of romance there feel like the most natural thing in the world”. Rye Lane “marks the torch not just being passed, but eagerly seized”. I found the film rather lacking in realism, said Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian; and it seemed to me that the script lends it a slightly “kids’ TV” feel at times. But it has an “amiable, upbeat energy”, an “engagingly unpretentious style”, and two very “likeable” performers in the lead roles.

Allelujah

Drama ***

Adapted by Call the Midwife creator Heidi Thomas, from the 2018 play by Alan Bennett, and starring “a formidable selection of seasoned British acting talent” including Judi Dench, Jennifer Saunders and Derek Jacobi, Allelujah “should be a slam dunk of a crowd-pleaser”, said Wendy Ide in The Observer. Unfortunately, it’s an “uneven” disappointment. The story revolves around “the Beth”, a hospital in Yorkshire that specialises in geriatric care and which is under threat of closure by “penny-pinching government officials”. The medical staff, led by Saunders’s ward sister, “struggle on, undaunted”; but what seems to be building to a “stirring tale of a community standing up against the powers that be takes a darker turn as the story swerves unexpectedly – and rather clumsily – into thriller territory”. It all adds up to a tonally “jarring” mish-mash.

I must admit that I was expecting more “humour and warm sentiment”, said Matthew Bond in The Mail on Sunday. Still, director Richard Eyre coaxes some “lovely performances” from his cast: Russell Tovey is “quietly splendid” as a “prodigal management consultant”, and Bally Gill “impresses” as a caring doctor, even if his character is “too good to be true” (“I’ve always loved the old,” he gushes at one point). If you think of the film “as a love letter to the NHS”, and ignore the “melodramatic late twist”, you’ll enjoy it well enough. Allelujah certainly has talent behind it, said Deborah Ross in The Spectator. Not just Bennett and Thomas but a British cast so distinguished, you wonder why Maggie Smith is absent. And yet it is “weirdly lifeless and perfunctory”, with precious little humour, and an ending so hideously ill-judged, it made me laugh for all the wrong reasons.

Pearl

Horror ****

“It takes a very clever performer to make you fall in love with them while playing a psychopathic serial killer,” said Dulcie Pearce in The Sun. But that is what Mia Goth has pulled off in this “ferocious, funny and – sometimes – frightening film”. She plays Pearl, a dreamy farm girl living in Texas at the end of the First World War with her fearsome mother (Tandi Wright) and her silent father (Matthew Sunderland), who has been paralysed by Spanish flu. Pearl is awaiting her husband’s return from the War, while also dreaming of giving up her humdrum life to become a show girl. When an opportunity comes up, she refuses to let “anything or anyone stand in her way” – be it family member, friend, lover or farm animal. The film is a prequel to director Ti West’s slasher film X (2022), in which Goth played an “elderly murderess”; and while it is unquestionably “mad, bad and sad”, it is riveting to watch, and builds to a suitably “palm-sweating” finale.

With her “massive eyes”, and primly-tied braids, Goth turns “the girlish enthusiasm up so far that the dial almost breaks”, said Leslie Felperin in the Financial Times. But then “she kills a goose with a pitchfork and feeds it to her best friend, a voracious alligator”, setting the scene for a treat of a film that is bloody, but also “full of gruesome black comedy and even unexpected moments of poignancy”. The trouble is, Pearl boils down to a single idea – “Judy Garland goes rogue on a farm”, said Kevin Maher in The Times. There is no character development (Pearl is unhinged from the start), and the film ends up seeming a rather “ho-hum horror effort”.

Champions

Drama ***

This new vehicle for Woody Harrelson follows a familiar template, said Matthew Bond in The Mail on Sunday. He stars as Marcus, a “short-tempered, lower-league basketball coach who still has his eye on the NBA big time, but ends up, after a drunken collision with a police car, forced to coach a team of young adults with what might now be termed intellectual disabilities or challenges”. In less adept hands, the film could have been “mawkish, exploitative and emotionally manipulative”. Yet “it’s really rather lovely”. Of course, we know that Marcus is heading for a “redemptive journey, just as his team, The Friends, set out on their sporting one”, but the film still manages to be “properly heartwarming”, and the actors playing his team, who are disabled themselves, are “terrific”.

The trouble is, they are the best thing in an otherwise dreadful film, said Deborah Ross in The Spectator. Harrelson is just “going through the motions”, and the story is “so formulaic I could have written it, you could have written it, it could have written itself”. Director Bobby Farrelly (who made his name in the 1990s with There’s Something About Mary and other gross-out comedies) seeks cheap laughs, with gags about farts and vomit and BO, within a “narrative that is lame at every juncture”. It’s true that the screenplay “could have been assembled from a page of instructions from Ikea”, said Tom Shone in The Sunday Times. But I liked Champions (a remake of a Spanish film of the same name) well enough. It’s “the sort of amiable, sweet, slightly low-energy film” you could find yourself watching on a flight, and “forget by the time you touch down”. The key to enjoying this film is to keep your expectations at a “low dribble”; then “you’ll be fine”.

Winnie-the-Pooh: Blood and Honey

Horror *

“On the chill stroke of midnight, 31 December 2021, A.A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh went out of copyright” and “a worryingly bad idea flew out into the world”: a live-action horror version of the children’s classic, said Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian. Now, the film is here, and it’s “a terrifying combination of not-scary and not-funny”. The story is set in Hundred Acre Wood, and follows Pooh and Piglet (actors in rubber masks), who are left to fend for themselves when Christopher Robin goes off to university. They soon go feral, eating Eeyore to survive, before turning their attention to a group of young people who have come to the wood for a “restorative weekend”. The cast, made up of “Love Island types on Xanax”, seem to be reading the (woeful) dialogue “off an optician’s chart held up behind the camera”, and there is a palpable lack of “actual Winnie-the-Pooh material”.

This “zero-budget horror flick” could have been fun and irreverent, said Kevin Maher in The Times. But “both disappointingly and disturbingly”, nothing in it is “played for laughs”. Instead, the film “cloddishly desecrates” Milne’s classic, with a “dimly written, shoddily realised, substandard slasher whose artistic aspirations never reach beyond making a fast buck”. Written and directed by Rhys Frake-Waterfield, who reportedly has Bambi: The Reckoning and Peter Pan’s Neverland Nightmare in the works, it’s set to be “the most cretinous film” of the year, agreed Robbie Collin in The Daily Telegraph. It makes last month’s “already amply moronic” Cocaine Bear look like La Règle du jeu. In fact, it’s so amateurishly made, you often can’t even “see and hear what’s going on” – though given how awful it is, that’s “not a complaint per se”.

Meet Me in the Bathroom

Documentary ***

“Based on Lizzy Goodman’s epic oral history of the same name”, Meet Me in the Bathroom looks at the hedonistic music scene that flourished in New York after the fall of the Twin Towers, and it’s well worth seeing, said Ed Potton in The Times. The British directors Dylan Southern and Will Lovelace “wisely focus on three stories, showing The Strokes going from boarding-school brats to insouciant pin-ups; Karen O, of Yeah Yeah Yeahs, going from anxious introvert to onstage goddess; and James Murphy, of LCD Soundsystem, going from hipster misanthrope to punk-funk messiah”. There are “no talking heads, as is the vogue”, and it’s all “appropriately raw and urgent”. “The only problem? It all happened two decades ago, which may make you feel very old.”

This “impressionistic” film combines “contemporary audio interviews” with “a treasure trove of archive material”, to broadly successful effect, said Alistair Harkness in The Scotsman. In the late 1990s, New York started to become “a vibrant centre for rock’n’roll in a way it hadn’t been since the birth of punk 25 years earlier”. This film does a great job of “creating a sense of excitement around the scene’s inception”. But at times it is “maddeningly vague”, and it doesn’t seem as interested in the minor bands of the period as it is in the heavy hitters, which is a shame. The film contains “no great anecdotes or revelations”, said Edward Porter in The Sunday Times. Still, it’s “a pretty good summary of a cultural episode”, and its “archive footage of people in cheap apartments and graffiti-filled dressing rooms” captures the “scuzzy urban vibe” of the period very well indeed.

Close

Drama ****

This “exquisite” Belgian coming-of-age drama won the Grand Prix at Cannes and is deservedly up for an Oscar, said Deborah Ross in The Spectator; but be warned – you’ll need tissues, and “probably not just the one box”. Written and directed by Lukas Dhont, it follows two 13-year-old boys (Gustav De Waele and Eden Dambrine) as they spend their summer holidays running through fields of “shoulder-height flowers”, racing bikes and sleeping over at each other’s houses, with “limbs entwined”. Their innocent, “uncomplicated love” comes under pressure, however, when they start secondary school, and then falls apart. It’s all heartbreaking – which is largely a credit to the “wonderfully naturalistic” performances at the film’s heart. The whole thing “put me in mind of Rob Reiner’s Stand by Me (1986)”, and the famous last line delivered by its narrator: “I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was 12. Jesus, does anyone?”

A “miraculously subtle” film, Close packs “a formidable emotional wallop”, agreed Robbie Collin in The Daily Telegraph. “Every beat rings utterly true”, which is perhaps not surprising, as Dhont has said the plot was inspired by his own experience. Even scenes “which demand the near-dramatically impossible” from the cast are handled “with a sure but featherlight touch”. “This is a great film about friendship, but perhaps an even greater one about being alone.” The performances do have a “heart-rending precision”, said A.O. Scott in The New York Times, but once the boys’ friendship begins to break down, the film loses its “delicate” beauty and becomes “more conventional”. Still, the “roteness” that sets in can’t dispel the “exquisite insight of its earlier scenes”.

Creed III

Drama ***

Creed III is the ninth instalment in the Rocky franchise, but “the first without Rocky himself”: Sylvester Stallone declined to appear, saying the tone of the film was too dark for his liking, said Larushka Ivan-Zadeh in Metro. Thankfully, even without his presence, it’s pretty good. Michael B. Jordan returns as the retired former heavyweight champ Adonis Creed, who we find living happily with his family in LA – until his childhood friend Damian (Jonathan Majors), a former youth boxing prodigy, turns up after 18 years in jail. What follows is predictable “boxing-movie” fare – “there’s the scrappy underdog chasing one make-or-break shot at glory, the wise, grizzled trainer, the climactic fight and, of course, the training montage” – but Jordan, making his directorial debut, “is admirably determined to bash new energy into the genre”, and for the most part he succeeds.

This film never reaches “the lofty heights of the first Creed movie”, which was a “near-perfect balance of heart, head and fist”, said Benjamin Lee in The Guardian; but it still offers a satisfying dose of big, broad “Imax entertainment”. The boxing scenes are “thrillingly immersive, taking us in and around a series of brutally well-captured punches”, and Majors makes for a “fantastically knotty antagonist”. The trouble is, he’s so good that he steals most of the scenes he shares with Jordan, “somewhat unbalancing the film in the process”, said Matthew Bond in The Mail on Sunday. There are other problems, too: the pacing is off; “you need to be well up on your Creed backstory” to have a clue what’s going on; and while the “cacophonous boxing scenes” are as brilliant as ever, I missed Stallone: he would have given the film “continuity, emotion and gravitas”.

Fashion Reimagined

Documentary ***

Most recent films about the fashion industry have “compounded the iconic status” of giants such as Vivienne Westwood and Mary Quant, said Brian Viner in the Daily Mail. But Fashion Reimagined “takes another approach”: it exposes the environmental impacts of the industry by following Amy Powney, the creative director of a London-based company called Mother of Pearl, as she attempts to design a sustainable collection. “In less sure hands” the film could have come across as one long advertisement, but director Becky Hutner ensures it’s never less than “enlightening”.

I found it “well-intentioned” but slight, said Kevin Maher in The Times. Yes, there are “jaw-dropping” statistics (“see, for instance, the 10,000 litres of water required to make a pair of jeans”), but the film that hangs around the stats just doesn’t amount to much. It’s annoyingly sign-posted throughout, with “faux ‘tense’ chapter headings” that remind us that there are “X months left” until the launch of Powney’s collection; and the few “big names” who are interviewed talk largely in “platitudes” – for instance the fashion designer Katharine Hamnett, who advises: “Keep fighting. Never give up.” Well, I enjoyed it, said Leslie Felperin in The Guardian. It is “thoughtfully made, highly informative and accessible” – and it also packs in a satisfying amount of “textile porn”. I can’t think “of anything more pleasurable than watching heavy machinery extrude scoured fibres, weave yarn into bolts of jacquard or use lasers to create whiskering on denim cloth. The fact that the end-product clothes are genuinely elegant and eminently wearable is the whipped cream on top.”

What’s Love Got to Do with It?

Romcom ***

“Possibly unfairly, Jemima Khan has tended to be defined by the men in her life”, from her hugely wealthy late father, Sir James Goldsmith, to her cricketer-turned-politician former husband Imran Khan, said Matthew Bond in The Mail on Sunday. But now she’s written and co-produced her own film – “and it’s really rather good”. Lily James stars as Zoe, a struggling documentary-maker who decides to make a film about modern arranged marriages by following her handsome friend and neighbour Kazim (Shazad Latif), as he prepares to travel from London to Lahore to meet the young Pakistani woman who has been chosen by his parents to be his wife. “We call it ‘assisted marriage’ now,” he explains. But though she has a disastrous dating record, Zoe has her doubts. It all adds up to an “imaginative romcom” that manages to be “clever, insightful, sensitive and funny” – and while the romantic element of the story doesn’t “entirely convince”, it comes “close enough”.

I’m afraid I wasn’t convinced by any of it, said Robbie Collin in The Daily Telegraph. Latif and James have “zero chemistry”, and their repartee is “clunky”, clogged by “clumsy cultural metaphors” (“This is not a veil over your sins,” quavers James at one point, “it’s a bloody great burqa shrouding your whole reality!”). The film was directed by Shekhar Kapur with “all the verve of a Halifax ad”, and even Emma Thompson, as Zoe’s “pinot grigio-slugging mother”, can’t save it. The film’s “sexual heat” wouldn’t “boil an egg”, agreed Charlotte O’Sullivan in the Evening Standard. But it is “occasionally moving”, and it deserves marks for venturing into “dangerous territory” for a romcom, from Islamophobia to the hypocrisy of the “white gaze”.

Cocaine Bear

Horror/Comedy ***

You approach a film like Cocaine Bear “in the spirit of trash-loving glee”, hoping it will provide 90 minutes of easy, “low-camp entertainment”, said Deborah Ross in The Spectator. But alas, despite the promise of the “publicity blitzkrieg” – it’s a bear! On cocaine! – it’s really just another “animal-on-the-rampage” film. The story was inspired by an event in 1985, when a 175lb black bear was found dead in a forest in the southern US with millions of dollars’ worth of cocaine in its stomach. In this version, the CGI beast is shown devouring the cocaine then going nuts as it tries to get more. Along the way, it encounters a series of “run-of-the-mill” characters, including a mum (Keri Russell) searching for her daughter, and a “lovelorn park ranger” (Margo Martindale). The bear overacts the least, leaving you feeling rather “Team Bear” – and while the film is billed as a “horror comedy”, it doesn’t really land as either. The whole thing feels like a “marketing concept put on screen”.

If you think that a “drug-addled bear is no kind of topic for fun” I’d give this a miss, said Brian Viner in the Daily Mail. But if you’re on board with the general idea, Cocaine Bear offers “the wildest cinematic experience of the year so far, not only more of a hoot than Damien Chazelle’s deranged Babylon” but, at 95 minutes, “blessedly only half as long. It also, incidentally, treats us to the late Ray Liotta’s valedictory screen appearance, and I hope it’s not too much of a spoiler to say that he goes out in unforgettably gruesome style.” The film isn’t as good as its trailer or its title, said Mark Kermode in