Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
2019
**½
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, Emile Hirsch, Margaret Qualley, Timothy Olyphant, Austin Butler, Dakota Fanning, Bruce Dern, Al Pacino

Quentin Tarantino’s ninth film is an homage to Hollywood of the late 1960s. Rick Dalton is a washed-up TV actor whose career is at a crossroads. His driver and best friend Cliff Booth is a former stunt man with a shady past. It’s clear that Tarantino is a fan of every little detail about the movies and TV shows from this period (except the way a show like Lancer would have been shot and acted), but his script is unfocused and meandering, and the film seems to go on forever. For every 10-second shot, he gives us a full minute, and for every 2-minute scene, he gives us at least 10 minutes. About 15 minutes of the running time is dedicated just on people driving around in cars. Like all his works, this one includes some memorable scenes, which includes an extremely violent Hollywood ending. The film looks and sounds terrific, and Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt have wonderful chemistry together. Margot Robbie, on the other hand, has a thankless role as Sharon Tate, who drives to the cinema to watch herself in The Wrecking Crew in the film’s dullest scene. An Academy Award winner for best supporting actor (Pitt) and production design.


Deadpool 2
2018
**
Director: David Leitch
Cast: Ryan Reynolds, Josh Brolin, Morena Baccarin, Julian Dennison, Zazie Beetz, T.J. Miller, Brianna Hildebrand, Jack Kesy

Wade Wilson is just about to start a family with Vanessa, when she is killed. He tries to kill himself but instead ends up protecting a powerful 14-year-old mutant boy from a time-travelling cyborg soldier. Deadpool introduced us to this irreverent, motormouthed, and frankly exhausting superhero. Now that I know the character, he doesn’t get on my nerves as much. The sequel delivers more of the same anarchic, self-referential gags and gory action scenes. The movie is neither boring nor captivating, it just occupies the screen for two hours.


Fighting with My Family
2019
***
Director: Stephen Merchant
Cast: Florence Pugh, Lena Headey, Nick Frost, Jack Lowden, Vince Vaughn, Dwayne Johnson, James Burrows, Hannah Rae, Kim Matula, Aqueela Zoll, Ellie Gonsalves

The Knight family in Norwich, England live and breathe wrestling. 18-year-old Saraya and her older brother Zak both dream of wrestling professionally in the WWE, but only she makes it through the try-outs. Stephen Merchant’s feelgood film is based on the documentary The Wrestlers: Fighting with My Family, and it offers a nice mix of English working class comedy and moving character drama. The film was produced by the WWE, so do not expect a balanced view on the merits of wrestling as a sport. Dwayne Johnson plays himself in an extended cameo.


Uncut Gems
2019
****½
Director: Josh Safdie, Benny Safdie
Cast: Adam Sandler, Lakeith Stanfield, Julia Fox, Kevin Garnett, Idina Menzel, Eric Bogosian, Judd Hirsch, Keith Williams Richards, Jonathan Aranbayev, Noa Fisher, Abel Tesfaye

Howard Ratner is a self-destructive diamond dealer who runs a personal and professional high-stakes pyramid scheme. Whether Howard is juggling between his wife and girlfriend or attempting to pay off his gambling debt, he makes bad choices, and then covers his tracks by making even worse ones. The only actor to play a character this awful and abrasive is Adam Sandler, who goes full Pacino in his finest performance to date. If you can get past the auditory attack of the first few minutes when the soundtrack is cranked up to 11 and all the characters are talking and swearing simultaneously, the two hours that follow will leave you breathless. This incredibly intense drama from the Safdie brothers is exhilarating and infuriating in equal measure.


Stan & Ollie
2018
***
Director: Jon S. Baird
Cast: Steve Coogan, John C. Reilly, Shirley Henderson, Nina Arianda, Rufus Jones, Danny Huston, Joseph Balderrama, John Henshaw, Richard Cant

By 1953, Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy are obsolete movie stars who struggle to get new projects off the ground. In financial straits, the duo embark on a music hall tour of the UK and Ireland, which takes a toll on them both. This unusual but likeable biopic is steeped in nostalgia, which feels a bit odd as it does not cover the years when these wonderful comedians were two of the most recognisable faces on the planet. This melancholic film does, however, paint a moving portrait of a long-standing professional friendship. Coogan and Reilly give very fine performances as Laurel and Hardy, and so do Henderson and Arianda as their wives.


Daddy’s Home
2015
***
Director: Sean Anders
Cast: Will Ferrell, Mark Wahlberg, Linda Cardellini, Scarlett Estevez, Owen Vaccaro, Thomas Haden Church, Hannibal Buress, Bobby Cannavale

Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg combined well in The Other Guys, and here they play another odd couple. The mild-mannered Brad (Ferrell) loves to be a dad, even if the children are not his own. Just when he’s starting to bond with his wife’s son and daughter, their manly and laid-back biological father Dusty (Wahlberg) returns to the family’s lives. Once you know the set-up, this family comedy really doesn’t offer any surprises. It may be formulaic, but there are enough amusing scenes and performances (Thomas Haden Church is hilarious as Brad’s boss) to keep you entertained for 90 minutes. Amidst all this, the wife character is very poorly written. Followed by a 2017 sequel.


Us
2019
***
Director: Jordan Peele
Cast: Lupita Nyong’o, Winston Duke, Elisabeth Moss, Tim Heidecker, Shahadi Wright Joseph, Evan Alex, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Anna Diop

As a young girl, Adelaide wandered away from her parents at a carnival and ran into a girl who looked exactly like her. More than 30 years later, she is wife and mother of two, but still haunted by this memory. One night, their holiday home is invaded by an entire family of creepy doppelgängers. Jordan Peele’s follow-up to Get Out really grabs you in the opening 30 minutes. The set-up is unsettling and intriguing. However, the payoff turns out to be underwhelming and nonsensical. Peele’s script is heavy on subtext, so much so that watching this mystery unravel becomes a chore rather than a pleasure.


Bohemian Rhapsody
2018
***
Director: Bryan Singer
Cast: Rami Malek, Lucy Boynton, Gwilym Lee, Ben Hardy, Joe Mazzello, Aidan Gillen, Allen Leech, Tom Hollander, Mike Myers

This formulaic but foot tapping biopic of Freddie Mercury covers the musician’s life from 1970 when he joins Queen to 1985 when the band regroup and memorably perform at Live Aid. Inbetween, Freddie attempts to come to terms with his own sexuality and his diagnosis of AIDS. Like Walk the Line, Ray, and many other biographies of artists, Freddie’s captivating story follows a familiar story arc; the early success is followed by the inevitable years of excess and the late-career redemption. To enable this, Anthony McCarten’s script makes up characters and reinvents the chronology of the songs and events. Rami Malek gives a fine lead performance. He won one of the film’s four Academy Awards.


Bumblebee
2018
***½
Director: Travis Knight
Cast: Hailee Steinfeld, John Cena, Jorge Lendeborg Jr., John Ortiz, Jason Drucker, Pamela Adlon, Stephen Schneider, Len Cariou

B-127 escapes the collapsing Cybertron and ends up on Earth in 1987, with its voice box and memory damaged. An estranged teenager Charlie Watson discovers the Autobot disguised as a yellow VW Beetle, unaware that the U.S. Army and a pair of Decepticons are looking for it. This spin-off and reboot of Transformers is easily the most enjoyable episode in the series (I have seen). Apart from the obligatory big robots smashing each other, there is an actual story and characters I can care about. Admittedly, the screenplay is formulaic and heavily influenced by E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial, but the resulting movie is thoroughly watchable.


Vice
2018
***
Director: Adam McKay
Cast: Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Steve Carell, Sam Rockwell, Tyler Perry, Alison Pill, Lily Rabe, Jesse Plemons, Justin Kirk, LisaGay Hamilton, Eddie Marsan

A darkly comic biopic of Dick Cheney, whose colourful political career reached its peak as vice president under George W. Bush from 2001 to 2009. Adam McKay’s film argues that Cheney was a power-hungry and (in the last 10 minutes, literally) heartless operator, who orchestrated the War in Iraq. This is an entertaining but crass and one-sided account of Cheney’s life and career. McKay keeps things lively with some unusual and enjoyable storytelling devices. Christian Bale gives a commanding but slightly mannered performance, and his impressive make-Up and hairstyling won an Academy Award.


John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum
2019
**
Director: Chad Stahelski
Cast: Keanu Reeves, Halle Berry, Laurence Fishburne, Mark Dacascos, Asia Kate Dillon, Lance Reddick, Anjelica Huston, Ian McShane

Following the events of Chapter 2 (2017), John Wick has a 14 million dollar price on his head for breaking the rules of the High Table. John attempts to remain under the radar, but it’s difficult when every assassin on the planet is after him. One might be tempted to call Chapter 3 a more streamlined movie than the original because it strips away any resemblance of a story. There are two solid hours of shooting, stabbing, slashing, punching, and kicking. After the first 15 minutes, I lost interest in the non-stop CGI massacre of faceless, nameless, and brainless assassins. By the end, the death count is more than 150.


Ikitie (The Eternal Road)
2017
***½
Director: Antti-Jussi Annila
Cast: Tommi Korpela, Sidse Babett Knudsen, Hannu-Pekka Björkman, Irina Björklund, Ville Virtanen, Helen Söderqvist, Lembit Ulfsak

One night in 1930, far-right extremists are about to shoot Jussi Ketola as a suspected socialist, but he escapes across the border to Soviet Union. Jussi hopes for a swift return home to his family, but instead he is sent to Helmi, a state farm where a group of North American immigrants have arrived to build a worker’s paradise. This captivating Finnish drama is based on the novel by Antti Tuuri, which in turn was inspired by the true story of Nestori Saarimäki. Dreams and reality crash in Helmi, and the consequences are harrowing. The performances are great, but I wish there was at least one native speaker playing the North Americans.


Hellboy II: The Golden Army
2008
**
Director: Guillermo del Toro
Cast: Ron Perlman, Selma Blair, Doug Jones, Jeffrey Tambor, John Hurt, Luke Goss, Anna Walton, Seth MacFarlane

Hellboy, Liz, and Abe Sapien are exposed to the world just as Prince Nuada returns from a long exile and aims to collect three pieces of a crown to reawaken and control the indestructible Golden Army. Guillermo del Toro’s Hellboy was a poor comic book movie, and things don’t improve in the sequel. Hellboy is still a likeable hero, although I don’t undestand his powers even after two full features, but the villain is forgettable and the story is a whole lot of formulaic nonsense. The performances, apart from Perlman, are terrible. The franchise rebooted in 2019.


Men in Black: International
2019

Director: F. Gary Gray
Cast: Chris Hemsworth, Tessa Thompson, Rebecca Ferguson, Kumail Nanjiani, Rafe Spall, Laurent Bourgeois, Larry Bourgeois, Emma Thompson, Liam Neeson

Seven years after the belated third part, the franchise reboots with a new director and cast, but no new ideas whatsoever. The movie treats its audience as if Men in Black or its sequels never existed. It’s simply enough to introduce another collection of wacky alien characters. Rookie MIB Agent M is dispatched to London, where she teams up with the supremely talented but increasingly cocky and sloppy Agent H. There is a generic A-plot about a global threat and an utterly predictable B-plot about a mole inside the agency. Both are so boring that I found myself drifting off at times. Hemsworth and Thompson were a wonderful pair in Thor: Ragnarok, but they don’t have any chance with this material.


Widows
2018
**½
Director: Steve McQueen
Cast: Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki, Cynthia Erivo, Colin Farrell, Brian Tyree Henry, Daniel Kaluuya, Jacki Weaver, Carrie Coon, Robert Duvall, Liam Neeson

After stealing USD 2M from Chicago mob boss Jamal Manning, a gang of four men die in a police shootout. The gang leader’s widow, Veronica, is forced to follow in her husband’s footsteps when Manning, who runs an expensive election campaign, blackmails her for the money that he lost. Steve McQueen’s adaptation of Lynda La Plante’s TV series (1983-1985) is a stylish and entertaining crime drama. That is, if you can switch off your brain completely. Thinking about it reveals it to be feminist wish fulfillment where the (lack of) planning, execution, and aftermath of the heist do not include one believable moment. I still don’t know why the notebook was needed. The men in this story are treacherous, corrupt, racist, or abusive monsters. Nevertheless, David, Rodriguez, and Debicki give terrific performances. Scripted by McQueen and Gillian Flynn.


Missing Link
2019
***
Director: Chris Butler
Cast: Hugh Jackman, Zoe Saldana, Zach Galifianakis, Stephen Fry, Timothy Olyphant, Emma Thompson, Amrita Acharia, Matt Lucas, David Walliams

In the end of the 19th century, second rate explorer Sir Lionel Frost hopes to join the exclusive Society of Great Men by proving the existence of Sasquatch. He travels to North America, where the quest takes an unexpected turn. With releases such as Paranorman, Coraline, and The Boxtrolls, Laika has become synonymous with unusual and often creepy stop motion animations. In comparison, this is a safe, likeable, and conventional family film with a predictable message (a vain man learns what’s truly important in life) and broadly drawn characters.


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, it’s never exactly dull, 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 orchestrated 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.