Downsizing
2017
**½
Director: Alexander Payne
Cast: Matt Damon, Christoph Waltz, Hong Chau, Kristen Wiig, Jason Sudeikis, Maribeth Monroe, Udo Kier, Rolf Lassgård, Ingjerd Egeberg

Sometime in the future, Norwegian scientists invent a method to downsize an average-sized man to a height of five inches, which they hope will solve overpopulation and save the planet. Paul and Audrey Safranek, a married couple from Omaha who struggle to make ends meet, decide to go through with the procedure and spend the rest of their lives in Leisureland, a biodomed miniature community in New Mexico. Alexander Payne’s social satire has a freakishly fascinating premise. The first 45 minutes explore the scientific details and emotional ramifications of this irreversible procedure. The cynical conclusion is that downsizing is not so much about reducing the cost of living as it is about increasing the spending power. However, once we’re in Leisureland, size no longer matters, and the initial high concept turns into a character study, which is far less original or interesting. Hong Chau gives a lively performance as a Vietnamese activist who was shrunk against her will.


Alita: Battle Angel
2019
***
Director: Robert Rodriguez
Cast: Rosa Salazar, Christoph Waltz, Jennifer Connelly, Mahershala Ali, Ed Skrein, Jackie Earle Haley, Keean Johnson

In 2563, 300 years after an apocalyptic event, wealthy people live in the floating city of Zalem. Down below in Iron City, where the poor masses reside, robotics specialist Dr. Dyson Ido discovers and rebuilds a disembodied female cyborg who has lost her memory. James Cameron bought the rights to Yukito Kishiro’s Manga series Gunnm back in 1999, but he only takes writing and producing credit in this live action adaptation. Unfortunately the screenplay turns out to be the weakest aspect of this uneven science fiction action movie, which ranges from absolutely brilliant to utterly stupid, sometimes within seconds. Rosa Salazar gives a lovely performance as Alita, who is a wonderfully layered character, simultaneously strong, naive, and vulnerable. The set-up is compelling if not terribly original (Elysium and Ready Player One are just some of the recent releases that spring to mind), the action set pieces are thrilling, and the visual effects are stunning. On the downside, the story should spend more time on worldbuilding and character development and less time on the Twilight-style teen romance and long scenes of Motorball, a boring sport in which Rollerball meets Transformers. As a result, some of the supporting players, like the bad guy Vector (Mahershala Ali) and Ido’s ex-wife Dr. Chiren (Jennifer Connelly) barely register as characters.


Pokemon Detective Pikachu
2019
**½
Director: Rob Letterman
Cast: Ryan Reynolds, Justice Smith, Kathryn Newton, Suki Waterhouse, Omar Chaparro, Chris Geere, Ken Watanabe, Bill Nighy

After learning that his estranged father died in a freaky car crash, Tim Goodman travels to Ryme City, where humans and Pokémons live side by side. Tim reluctantly teams up with Pikachu, his father’s Pokémon partner, to solve the mystery. The first live action Pokémon release is loosely based on a video game of the same name and it clearly attempts to cash in on the Pokémon Go mobile game craze that swept the world a few years ago. The movie is entertaining but instantly forgettable, and Ryan Reynolds as Pikachu provides the biggest laughs. On the other hand, the story is predictable, confusing, and repetitive, sometimes all in the same scene.


The Irishman
2019
***
Director: Martin Scorsese
Cast: Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci, Ray Romano, Bobby Cannavale, Anna Paquin, Stephen Graham, Harvey Keitel, Stephanie Kurtzuba, Kathrine Narducci, Welker White, Jesse Plemons, Domenick Lombardozzi, Gary Basaraba

Martin Scorsese’s epic gangster biopic is based on Charles Brandt’s book I Heard You Paint Houses: Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran and Closing the Case on Jimmy Hoffa, which may or may not depict the real events that led to the unsolved disappearance of Teamsters Union boss Jimmy Hoffa in 1975. Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran starts as a hustling truck driver but becomes a hitman for the Northeastern Pennsylvania crime family run by Russell Bufalino and later a labour union official under the tutelage of the charismatic but uncompromising Hoffa. Although the film is 3½ hours long, there isn’t a dull moment, but there is an endless flow of brief character introductions and an excessive amount of historical trivia. And yet, not enough time to flesh out the estranged relationship between Frank and his daughter Peggy to produce the necessary dramatic impact. The whole thing is beautifully orhestrated by Scorsese, but there is a distinct lack of freshness and drama. I feel like I’ve seen every scene done better in Goodfellas, Casino, or The Departed. It is great to see Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, and Joe Pesci finally share the screen, but only the wonderfully understated Pesci gives a memorable performance. The unconvincing visual effects to de-age the actors cannot hide the fact that these guys are in their seventies.


Murder on the Orient Express
2017
**
Director: Kenneth Branagh
Cast: Kenneth Branagh, Penélope Cruz, Willem Dafoe, Judi Dench, Johnny Depp, Josh Gad, Derek Jacobi, Leslie Odom Jr., Michelle Pfeiffer, Daisy Ridley

The Orient Express, en route from Istanbul to London, gets stuck in snow just as one of the passengers, a shady conman named Ratchett, is found stabbed to death. Thankfully Hercule Poirot, the greatest detective in the world, is onboard. Kenneth Branagh’s pointless and lifeless murder mystery is the fourth adaptation of Agatha Christie’s 1934 novel or, if you will, a remake of Sidney Lumet’s 1974 version. The train appears to carry only a dozen passengers, all of whom are under suspicion. Branagh has assembled an impressive ensemble cast to play these people, but he takes the centre stage himself with his enormous moustache and the murder suspects are each left with a 30-second character description and a few lines of dialogue. This Christie story is famous for its unexpected ending, but do not stop and think about it or you discover that the entire mystery is contrived and implausible. Cinematography, sets, and costumes are very good, though.


The Witch / The VVitch: A New England Folktale
2015
***
Director: Robert Eggers
Cast: Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Ineson, Kate Dickie, Harvey Scrimshaw, Ellie Grainger, Lucas Dawson

Following their banishment from the Calvinist community, an English settler family sets up a farm next to a dark ominous forest. Although the family leads an extremely pious life, they are repeatedly visited by misfortune. Robert Eggers’ feature debut is set in the mid-17th-century New England, and it was inspired by the fairy tales and folk tales of the time. The end result is an original and deeply unsettling but not particularly scary or gripping horror film. The visuals and the performances are very impressive, the story and the characters are not quite up to the same standard.


Get Out
2017
****½
Director: Jordan Peele
Cast: Daniel Kaluuya, Allison Williams, Bradley Whitford, Caleb Landry Jones, Stephen Root, Catherine Keener, Lakeith Stanfield, Lil Rel Howery

Chris, a young black man, is nervous about meeting the parents of his white girlfriend Rose. However, while her parents seem overly friendly and liberal, their black staff behave in a very odd manner. Jordan Peele’s wonderfully assured directorial debut is a darkly comic horror film which takes a totally fresh approach to dealing with racism. Peele’s Academy Award winning screenplay sprinkles subtle clues along the way to its tense climax.


First Man
2018
***
Director: Damien Chazelle
Cast: Ryan Gosling, Claire Foy, Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler, Corey Stoll, Christopher Abbott, Ciarán Hinds, Olivia Hamilton, Lukas Haas, Pablo Schreiber, Shea Whigham

A biopic of Neil Armstrong (1930-2012), the first man to walk on the moon. The story starts in 1961, when his 2-year-old daughter dies. Armstrong joins NASA but throughout his career as a test pilot and astronaut, which leads up to the Apollo 11 mission in 1969, he is haunted by this personal loss. Damien Chazelle’s well staged film compellingly shows that death was an ever-present threat hanging over the lives of Armstrong, his wife, his children, his friends, and his colleagues. However, despite the highs (space exploration successes) and lows (expected and unexpected deaths), Chazelle’s drama remains oddly detached and emotionless, very much like its protagonist who doesn’t seem to get pleasure in anything. It doesn’t help that the performances are understated to the extreme. Linus Sandgren’s cinematography is also a matter of taste. On board the planes and space modules, I can accept that he sticks his camera close to the face and shakes it until you don’t know which way space is, but he uses the same approach in earthbound conversations. However, the sound design with all the creaks and clanks is very effective. The impressive visual effects won an Academy Award. Based on the book First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong by James R. Hansen.


1917
2019
****½
Director: Sam Mendes
Cast: George MacKay, Dean-Charles Chapman, Mark Strong, Andrew Scott, Richard Madden, Claire Duburcq, Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch

During the First World War, Lance Corporals Blake and Schofield are tasked to cross no man’s land and deliver a message which could save 1,600 men from certain death. Like Christopher Nolan’s recent Dunkirk, this is a riveting war-set thriller rather than a thoughtful drama about war itself. Sam Mendes goes for the spectacle, sometimes at the expense of credibility. However, he delivers a truly cinematic experience. Roger Deakins’ stunningly choreographed cinematography creates an illusion that the entire film is comprised of two long and continuous takes, which in this case turns out to be an incredibly immersive storytelling technique. The special effects blend in seamlessly and Thomas Newman’s excellent score adds an icing on the cake. Mendes co-wrote the script, which is partly based on a true story recited by his grandfather Alfred Mendes. Academy Award winner for best cinematography, sound mixing, and visual effects.


Hidden Figures
2016
****
Director: Theodore Melfi
Cast: Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe, Kevin Costner, Kirsten Dunst, Jim Parsons, Mahershala Ali, Aldis Hodge, Glen Powell, Kimberly Quinn, Olek Krupa

In 1961, three black female mathematicians are in a daily struggle against race and gender prejudices as they attempt to make headway in their careers at NASA. Katherine hopes to get credit for her pivotal work in analytic geometry, Mary aspires to become an engineer, and Dorothy is eager to secure an official supervisory role. This delightful feelgood film is based on Margot Lee Shetterly’s nonfiction book Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Who Helped Win the Space Race. This little known true story doesn’t really offer a single surprise, but the wonderful writing and terrific performances turn it into an irresistibly compelling drama.


Frozen II
2019
****
Director: Chris Buck, Jennifer Lee
Cast: Kristen Bell, Idina Menzel, Josh Gad, Jonathan Groff, Sterling K. Brown, Evan Rachel Wood, Alfred Molina, Martha Plimpton, Jason Ritter, Jeremy Sisto

A few years after the events of Frozen, Elsa hears the calling of a mysterious voice from the Enchanted Forest and unknowingly awakens the elemental spirits of Earth, Fire, Water, and Air. She feels an urge to follow the voice, but Anna, Kristoff, Olaf, and Sven insist on joining her quest. This enjoyable sequel offers a natural progression to Elsa’s story, in which the other characters, admittedly, don’t have much to do. Although this animation is no match to the original, it offers a nice blend of drama and comedy, wonderful visuals, and moving songs by Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez.


Slow West
2015
**
Director: John Maclean
Cast: Kodi Smit-McPhee, Michael Fassbender, Ben Mendelsohn, Caren Pistorius, Rory McCann, Andrew Robertt, Kalani Queypo

16-year-old Scotsman Jay travels to America and hires a bounty hunter to track down Rose, the object of his affections, unaware that there is a USD 2,000 price on her head. John Maclean, better known as a member of The Beta Band, makes his directorial debut with a poorly scripted but visually arresting Western. This short and modest mood piece shows the Wild West first and foremost as an unpredictable and violent territory, and the dreadful ending takes this idea a bit too literally. Considering that Jay travels halfway across the world and then makes his way through vast expanses of uninhabited wilderness to find the one person he knows, Small West would be a much better title.


The Death of Stalin
2017
**½
Director: Armando Iannucci
Cast: Steve Buscemi, Simon Russell Beale, Paddy Considine, Rupert Friend, Jason Isaacs, Olga Kurylenko, Michael Palin, Andrea Riseborough, Paul Chahidi, Dermot Crowley, Adrian McLoughlin, Paul Whitehouse, Jeffrey Tambor

When Stalin, the long-serving leader of the Soviet Union, suffers a stroke and dies in 1953, a mad scramble for power ensues between the first secretary of Moscow Committee Nikita Khrushchev and the head of NKVD Security Forces Lavrentiy Beria. This very bleak comedy paints a picture of a regime which is both incredibly brutal and totally ridiculous, and it nicely captures the paranoia among the members of the Council of Ministers who know that one misplaced word to a wrong person can put them on the purge list. Armando Iannucci has made his name with scathing, hilarious and sometimes exhausting political satires like In the Loop and The Veep on HBO. Despite a promising start, his second full feature is tedious rather than funny. At best, Iannucci writes razorsharp and deliciously obscene dialogue, but this time it doesn’t have its usual pizazz. Loosely based on facts and mostly on the French graphic novel La Mort de Staline by Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin.


Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald
2018

Director: David Yates
Cast: Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston, Dan Fogler, Alison Sudol, Ezra Miller, Zoë Kravitz, Callum Turner, Claudia Kim, William Nadylam, Kevin Guthrie, Jude Law,
Johnny Depp

In the first thirty minutes, the second release in the Wizarding World franchise undoes all of the dramatic events from the climax of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. Gellert Grindelwald, the powerful dark wizard who was arrested, breaks out in the first few minutes and heads to Paris to find Credence, who I thought died but is now alive and desperate to find his parents. They are joined by Newt Scamander and Jacob, whose memory wipe is shrugged off with one line of dialogue. The Goldstein sisters are in France as well, but they seem to have different personalities now. The first movie suffered from J.K. Rowling’s plotless and rambling screenplay, but it was at least somewhat likeable. However, Rowling totally drops the ball with this boring, confusing, and often nonsensical fantasy sequel which spends more than two hours exploring subplots that lead nowhere, introducing characters who add nothing and then disappear or die, or providing fan service with a familiar name, even if it contradicts established Harry Potter lore. In the end, I was left with more questions than answers. What is this movie about? Why is Newt involved in any of it and what does he actually do to advance the plot? When do we get to see the crimes of Grindelwald? Hopefully it all makes sense when the series is complete. For now, this feels like a totally irrelevant detour to the next episode.


A Quiet Place
2018
***½
Director: John Krasinski
Cast: Emily Blunt, John Krasinski, Millicent Simmonds, Noah Jupe, Cade Woodward, Leon Russom

In the near future, bloodthirsty aliens with hypersensitive hearing have taken over the planet. You’d imagine there would be numerous ways to exploit the fact that they are blind and attracted to sound, but the armoured creatures have managed to wipe out most of human and animal life. The Abbott family (father, pregnant mother and their two children) attempt to stay alive on their farm by remaining quiet. This tense and mostly dialogue-free horror film has a simple premise, which just about holds together as long as you don’t think about it. Krasinski creates suspenseful set pieces and the story doesn’t outstay its welcome. After tremendous box office success, a 2020 sequel is in production.


Free Solo
2018
****
Director: Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, Jimmy Chin
Cast:

Alex Honnold is a rock climber best known for free soloing, that is, climbing without protective equipment. This captivating and beautifully shot documentary follows the preparation and eventual attempt to be the first to ascend the 975 m face of the El Capitan in Yosemite National Park. Honnold and his girlfriend, climbing colleagues, and camera crew must weigh the risks, which are enormous. One small slip and he falls to his death in front of the cameras. Academy Award winner for best documentary.


Knives Out
2019
***
Director: Rian Johnson
Cast: Daniel Craig, Chris Evans, Ana de Armas, Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Shannon, Don Johnson, Toni Collette, Lakeith Stanfield, Katherine Langford, Jaeden Martell, Christopher Plummer

On the morning after his 85th birthday party, wealthy novelist Harlan Thrombey is found dead with his throat slit. Was it suicide or was he murdered by someone in his family or staff? Rian Johnson has built a career out of creating genre exercises where style often comes before substance. Some of his films have been good (Looper – science fiction), some have been bad (The Brothers Bloom – caper comedy), and some have landed somewhere in the middle (Brick – film noir). This time Johnson takes on a whodunnit. He weaves a twisty, inventive and often funny murder mystery, but at the end I’m not sure if the whole amounts to anything more than a terrific looking diversion. The performances are strong, although Daniel Craig’s comically hammy performance as the eccentric private detective Benoit Blanc sticks out like a sore thumb.


The BFG
2016
***
Director: Steven Spielberg
Cast: Mark Rylance, Ruby Barnhill, Penelope Wilton, Jemaine Clement, Rebecca Hall, Rafe Spall, Bill Hader

One night, 10-year-old Sophie is swooped away from a London orphanage to Giant Country by Big Friendly Giant, who spends his days catching, mixing, and delivering dreams. Steven Spielberg’s fantasy movie from Roald Dahl’s 1982 book delivers a visually rich mix of live action performances, motion capture, and digital effects. The characters are charming and the dialogue of the giants offers delightfully butchered English and made-up words. However, there isn’t much of a story, so a 2-hour running time is literally a bit of a stretch. Scripted by Melissa Mathison.


Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Dog Days
2012
**
Director: David Bowers
Cast: Zachary Gordon, Robert Capron, Devon Bostick, Rachael Harris, Karan Brar, Peyton List, Steve Zahn, Melissa Roxburgh

Greg hopes to spend the summer holiday playing video games, but his parents have other ideas. So, he pretends to have a job in order to hang around the country club with his best friend Rowley and Holly, his crush from Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Rodrick Rules. Throughout this episodic series, Greg has been an extremely selfish kid, but the consequences of his actions have been funny and humiliating mostly to himself. In the third movie, Greg transforms into a stupid, nasty and unpleasant brat who lies his ways through every situation, but he’s a good kid because he admits to his mistakes when he is found out. This time the comedy vignettes are cringeworthy and predictable. Based on the third and fourth books in Jeff Kinney’s series. Followed by Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Long Haul (2017), which features a new cast.


Aladdin
2019
**
Director: Guy Ritchie
Cast: Will Smith, Mena Massoud, Naomi Scott, Marwan Kenzari, Navid Negahban, Nasim Pedrad, Billy Magnussen, Numan Acar, Nina Wadia

Aladdin, a kind-hearted but mischievous kid brought up in the streets of Agrabah, helps a beautiful young woman, unaware that she is Princess Jasmine. Jafar, the grand vizier to the Sultan, forces Aladdin to retrieve a magic lamp which could give him infinite power, but Aladdin summons the Genie himself. In the recent years, Disney has produced several live action remakes of their animated classics, such as The Jungle Book, The Lion King, Dumbo, and Beauty and the Beast. Now it’s time for a totally pointless new version of their 1992 animation. There are minimal updates to the plot and the songs, and so much CGI on screen that this is, in essence, another animation. The original is best remembered for Robin Williams’ hilariously wild voice performance as the Genie. Will Smith takes over that role, and there is very little to laugh about.


BlacKkKlansman
2018
***
Director: Spike Lee
Cast: John David Washington, Adam Driver, Laura Harrier, Topher Grace, Jasper Pääkkönen, Ryan Eggold, Paul Walter Hauser, Ashlie Atkinson, Corey Hawkins

In the early 1970s, a young black officer joins the Colorado Springs PD and is quickly assigned to undercover work. He establishes contact over the phone with the local Ku Klux Klan, and convinces his white (Jewish) cop colleague to impersonate him. Spike Lee has never shied away from dealing with racial issues, but this darkly comic drama doesn’t quite have the subtlety or quality of Do the Right Thing. His characterisation is broad and the plot relies on too many coincidences, even if it is partly based on true events. The film is often funny, but when the Klan begins to take action and the undercover operation is in jeopardy, I never felt any sense of danger. The performances are great, though. The epilogue reminds us that racism is raising its head once again in Trump’s America. The screenplay by Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, Kevin Willmott, and Spike Lee won an Academy Award.


Mission: Impossible – Fallout
2018
***½
Director: Christopher McQuarrie
Cast: Tom Cruise, Henry Cavill, Ving Rhames, Simon Pegg, Rebecca Ferguson, Sean Harris, Angela Bassett, Michelle Monaghan, Alec Baldwin

In order to recover three stolen plutonium cores, Ethan Hunt and his team must track down an extremist known as John Lark. However, after a recent botched mission, they are closely monitored by a non-nonsense CIA agent August Walker. The sixth movie in the M:I franchise brings back characters from Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, also written and directed by Christopher McQuarrie, to create an over-convoluted and predictable series of double-crossings and extended chases. However, these relentless chase scenes, which probably consume two thirds of the running time, are some of the most gripping and visceral ones I have seen in recent times.


How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World
2019
***½
Director: Dean DeBlois
Cast: Jay Baruchel, America Ferrera, Cate Blanchett, Craig Ferguson, Jonah Hill, Kit Harington, F. Murray Abraham, Kristen Wiig, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Gerard Butler

When a ruthless dragon hunter named Grimmel the Grisly threatens to hunt down and kill Toothless at any cost, Hiccup leads his people and their dragons away from Berk in search of the illusive Hidden World, where they could all be safe. How to Train Your Dragon was a charming animation, followed by a disappointingly mechanical sequel. However, the third movie brings the storyline and the trilogy to a satisfyingly moving close.


Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Rodrick Rules
2011
***
Director: David Bowers
Cast: Zachary Gordon, Devon Bostick, Rachael Harris, Robert Capron, Steve Zahn, Peyton List, Karan Brar, Fran Kranz, Grayson Russell, Laine MacNeil

As he enters the 7th grade, Greg Heffley develops an immediate crush on the new girl in school. However, every time he attempts to make a move or just act cool, his older brother Rodrick ruins it all. The follow-up to Diary of a Wimpy Kid and the adaptation of the second book in Jeff Kinney’s series puts the supporting characters on the sidelines and concentrates on the fractious relationship between the two Heffley brothers. The movie offers (more of the same) good-natured fun. Followed by Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Dog Days.


Joker
2019
****
Director: Todd Phillips
Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz, Frances Conroy,Brett Cullen, Glenn Fleshler, Leigh Gill, Bill Camp, Shea Whigham

In the early 80s, Arthur Fleck, a mentally unstable clown-for-hire who lives with his mother and dreams of becoming a stand-up comedian, finds himself invisible to the world around him. When Arthur’s personal frustrations finally reach a boiling point, the tension that has been brewing in Gotham City explodes into riots. Joker has featured as a villain in several DC comic book movies, but this is the first attempt to tell a credible origin story of the man under the painted face. The film portrays Arthur as a pitiful loser, but often conveniently ignores that he is ultimately an out-of-control homicidal maniac. Todd Phillips, so far best known for his crude and immature Hangover trilogy, takes a massive professional leap by directing and co-writing a gripping and terrific looking grown-up drama. The script was heavily influenced by Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy, and it has nothing comic-booky about it. In the recent times, Jack Nicholson, Heath Ledger, and Jared Leto have played Joker on screen. Now Joaquin Phoenix joins this list, and his Academy Award winning performance is hypnotic. Hildur Guðnadóttir’s haunting score also won an Oscar.


Hotel Transylvania 3: Summer Vacation
2018
**
Director: Genndy Tartakovsky
Cast: Adam Sandler, Andy Samberg, Selena Gomez, Kevin James, David Spade, Steve Buscemi, Keegan-Michael Key, Molly Shannon, Fran Drescher, Kathryn Hahn, Jim Gaffigan, Mel Brooks

Mavis misinterprets his father’s loneliness as stress, so she books the entire gang on a cruise to Atlantis. However, the sea voyage is all an elaborate set-up concocted by Dracula’s old nemesis Professor Van Helsing and his great-granddaughter. This animation franchise has never achieved greatness, but it has been consistent in its mediocrity. However, the third movie is even more mechanical and derivative than parts 1 and 2. Family has always been at the centre of Hotel Transylvania, but this is now the third time the central plotline revolves around Dracula and Mavis keeping secrets from each other.


Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker
2019
**
Director: J.J. Abrams
Cast: Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill, Adam Driver, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Anthony Daniels, Naomi Ackie, Domhnall Gleeson, Richard E. Grant, Lupita Nyong’o, Keri Russell, Joonas Suotamo, Kelly Marie Tran, Ian McDiarmid, Billy Dee Williams

After Rian Johnson incurred the wrath of the Star Wars fans with his refreshingly subversive The Last Jedi (2017), J.J. Abrams, who directed the entertaining but derivative The Force Awakens (2015), returns to wrap things up with a fast-paced but disappointing spectacle which ignores most of Johnson’s intriguing ideas and makes the third trilogy feel like three unrelated releases set in the same universe. The Resistance receive intel from a spy in the First Order that Emperor Palpatine has returned and built a massive fleet of Star Destroyers on Exegol. Rey, who is now closely bound to Kylo Ren through the Force, joins Finn, Poe, Chewbacca, and the droids to uncover a wayfinder which could lead them to the location of the Sith Lord. Never mind, the plot is of secondary concern to Abrams and Chris Terrio, whose script just seems to make things up as it goes along. Very often the story or character motives don’t make any sense from one scene to the next, and even less so in the context of the trilogy and the Skywalker Saga. Occasionally it feels like some important scene was left on the cutting room floor. The stakes are supposedly high, but there are no big emotional payoffs because the movie doesn’t dare to go through with any of its dramatic turns. If a villain we were sure died decades ago can suddenly resurface, it is clear that character deaths are meaningless in the Star Wars universe, especially if the Force can now be used to resurrect the dead and the old casualties hang around in spirit form anyway.


Diary of a Wimpy Kid
2010
***
Director: Thor Freudenthal
Cast: Zachary Gordon, Robert Capron, Devon Bostick, Chloë Grace Moritz, Karan Brar, Grayson Russell, Laine MacNeil, Rachael Harris, Steve Zahn

Greg Heffley, a scrawny 11-year-old boy, is determined to become one of the more popular kids in middle school, but his first year turns out to be a painful series of abject failures. This comedy is based on Jeff Kinney’s popular children’s books. The characters (or caricatures, rather) are drawn with extremely broad strokes, but they are funny and well-played by the young cast. The plot is quite episodic, but there is a steady 90-minute flow of good gags. Followed by Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Rodrick Rules.


Jumanji: The Next Level
2019
***
Director: Jake Kasdan
Cast: Dwayne Johnson, Jack Black, Kevin Hart, Karen Gillan, Nick Jonas, Awkwafina, Alex Wolff, Morgan Turner, Ser’Darius Blain, Madison Iseman, Danny Glover, Danny DeVito, Rory McCann

A few years after completing the game, Spencer longs back to Jumanji. When he ends up back in the game, his friends go on a rescue mission, but unintentionally take Spencer’s grandfather and his former business partner along for the ride. The sequel to the highly enjoyable Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle delivers more of the same with some new twists. The first half reshuffles the real world characters and game avatars, which is not terribly funny and works only in the context of the previous episode. The movie is at its best in the second half when it sticks to the strengths of the original: the well-drawn characters, humour, and action.


Florence Foster Jenkins
2016
***
Director: Stephen Frears
Cast: Meryl Streep, Hugh Grant, Simon Helberg, Rebecca Ferguson, Nina Arianda, Stanley Townsend, Allan Corduner, Christian McKay

In 1944, Florence Foster Jenkins is a wealthy and respected New York socialite and music connoisseur who cannot sing to save her life. When she wants to perform at Carnegie Hall, her devoted husband is determined to protect her from the truth. This feelgood movie is based on a real person. Her story is trivial and not terribly believable, but it is likeable and entertaining. Meryl Streep and Hugh Grant give excellent performances as a very unusual but loving couple.


The Visit
2015
***
Director: M. Night Shyamalan
Cast: Olivia DeJonge, Ed Oxenbould, Deanna Dunagan, Peter McRobbie, Kathryn Hahn, Cella Keenan-Bolger, Benjamin Kanes

15 years ago, Loretta had a falling out with her parents. In the present, her teenage children Becca and Tyler shoot a documentary as the two go visit their grandparents for the first time in their lives. The old folks are welcoming at first, but begin to behave oddly, especially at nights. M. Night Shyamalan’s stripped down small budget horror film jumps on the found footage band wagon. This subgenre can be clever and captivating at best, and totally infuriating at worst. Even if Shyamalan’s script scores low on credibility, this is nevertheless his most watchable movie since Unbreakable.


Enemy
2013
**½
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Mélanie Laurent, Sarah Gadon, Isabella Rossellini, Kedar Brown, Joshua Peace

Adam Bell is a sad-sack history teacher who is in a loveless relationship. One day he discovers Anthony Claire, a failed movie actor with a pregnant wife, who looks and sounds exactly like him. Is the man his twin brother or is he going insane? And what’s with all the spiders? Javier Gullón’s screenplay is based on The Double by José Saramago. Like Blindness, also based on Saramago’s book, this is an intriguing parable but an incredibly frustrating drama. The script is such a tightly constructed psychological puzzle that the people at the centre of it never get a chance to resemble actual human beings. The female characters get the shortest shrift and I must admit I had trouble telling Adam and Anthony apart.


Hotel Transylvania 2
2015
**½
Director: Genndy Tartakovsky
Cast: Adam Sandler, Andy Samberg, Selena Gomez, Kevin James, David Spade, Steve Buscemi, Keegan-Michael Key, Molly Shannon, Fran Drescher, Mel Brooks, Asher Blinkoff

Five odd years later, Dracula is growing increasingly worried when his half-human grandson Dennis still hasn’t developed any vampire traits. The sequel to Hotel Transylvania is a very ordinary animation mostly aimed at children. While it can be likeable and entertaining at times, it is ultimately too derivative and predictable to turn into an enduring classic. Followed by Hotel Transylvania 3: Summer Vacation.


The House with a Clock in Its Walls
2018
**½
Director: Eli Roth
Cast: Jack Black, Cate Blanchett, Owen Vaccaro, Renée Elise Goldsberry, Sunny Suljic, Kyle MacLachlan, Colleen Camp, Lorenzo Izzo, Vanessa Anne Williams

In 1955, 10-year-old Lewis loses his parents in a car crash. He goes to live with his magically inclined uncle whose spooky house hides something sinister. This likeable but lukewarm fantasy movie is based on the 1973 novel by John Bellairs. It has a nice story with a good cast, but (when Lewis learns to cast complicated spells in a matter of minutes) it fails to produce a proper sense of magic and wonder.


Aquaman
2018
**½
Director: James Wan
Cast: Jason Momoa, Amber Heard, Willem Dafoe, Patrick Wilson, Dolph Lundgren, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Nicole Kidman, Ludi Lin, Temuera Morrison, Randall Park

Arthur Curry is the love child of a lighthouse keeper and the late Queen of Atlantis. While the grown-up Arthur would like to mind his own business, it becomes increasingly difficult when his half-brother Orm plans to unite Atlantis and attack the surface world. Aquaman made a brief and somewhat baffling appearance in Justice League, and now he gets his full length origin story. However, I can’t say that I understand the character or the universe he inhabits any better. Aquaman appears to be Thor of the DC Extended Universe. He is an all-powerful superhero with a sinister half-brother whose home world is a candy-coloured CGI wonderland. The rule of thumb seems to be that name actors can breathe in the water and on dry land, the common people in Atlantis and on the surface can only do one of the two. The movie is long and silly, but intermittently enjoyable, and Jason Momoa is a good fit for the title role. The character is based on a comic book by Paul Norris and Mort Weisinger.