Film Digest – March 15

Damon Smith, PA Film Critic and Imy Brighty-Potts, PA


Wise-cracking teenager Billy Batson (Asher Angel) and fellow foster kids Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer), Mary (Grace Caroline Currey), Pedro (Jovan Armand), Eugene (Ian Chen) and Darla (Faithe Herman) wrestle with growing pains as they live under the roof of their guardians, Victor and Rosa Vasquez (Cooper Andrews, Marta Milans).

But, growing up looks pretty different when you possess god-like superpowers. Especially when the Daughters of Atlas aka Hespera (Helen Mirren), Kalypso (Lucy Liu) and Anthea (Rachel Zegler) arrive on Earth in search of the stolen magic.

This is Deadpool for kids; a cheesy, comedic superhero movie with every trope of the genre chucked into the mix.

Soundtracked brilliantly by Christophe Beck with a similar vibe to Marvel's Guardians of The Galaxy, the plot and writing sadly fall below the mark, with every relationship, parental, fraternal and romantic in the movie feeling stilted, and many plot points shoehorned in.

This is – in both plot and viewership – a family film, with a loving focus at its heart. But with a script pumped full of flat one-liners, and constant references to Gatorade and Skittles that leave a sickly taste in the mouth, this flick feels more cringe than classic.

Rating: Two stars

PEARL (15)

Director Ti West's luxuriously overwrought prequel to his 2022 horror film X is a disorienting Technicolour fever dream that repeatedly references The Wizard Of Oz.

Except here, his Dorothy is mentally unstable, wilfully duplicitous and would prefer to greet Scarecrow, Tin Man and Cowardly Lion with a blood-smeared axe rather than a wicker basket containing Toto.

Fittingly subtitled An X-traordinary Origin Story, Pearl cranks up the horror-saturated melodrama from its heavily stylised opening titles and initial deafening blasts of composers Tyler Bates and Tim Williams' score.

West sustains the queasy conflation of fantastical delirium and nauseating reality until the eponymous farm girl has relinquished her tenuous grasp on sanity.

There's no place like an unhappy home.

Rating: Four stars


In 2018, the Bridge Theatre in London staged Allelujah, Alan Bennett's bittersweet anthem to the National Health Service set on the geriatric ward of a beloved community hospital in Yorkshire under threat of closure.

Magical flourishes that soared on stage, including a chorus of patients performing heartfelt renditions of Little Richard and Sir Cliff Richard, have been surgically removed by screenwriter Heidi Thomas from an entertaining and moving film adaptation that acknowledges the devastating impact of coronavirus on the NHS frontline in a succinct and quietly powerful coda.

The play's narrative curveball, neatly dispensed at the end of act one as a mood shift for the audience, diminishes in translation to the screen but still induces an icy shiver of discomfort.

Allelujah prescribes a full dose of Bennett's earthy humour, generously distributed among an impressive ensemble cast including Jennifer Saunders, Dame Judi Dench and Sir Derek Jacobi.

Some of the script's incisions fail to cut to the bone but overall, director Richard Eyre's picture is in rude health.

Rating: Three stars


Thirty years after Woody Harrelson hustled on a basketball court in White Men Can't Jump, the Texas-born actor shoots hoops and scores generous laughs in director Bobby Farrelly's English language remake of the award-winning 2018 Spanish comedy Campeones.

Screenwriter Mark Rizzo retains the dramatic arc of the original to challenge discriminatory attitudes but relocates the heartwarming sentiment to snow-laden Iowa replete with an exuberant supporting cast, many of whom make their feature film debuts.

Chumbawamba's rabble-rousing 1997 anthem Tubthumping, with its defiant chorus (“I get knocked down but I get up again/You're never gonna keep me down!”), is a fitting musical motif for an empowering sermon about never judging a person by perceived physical or intellectual limitations.

Harrelson trades on his inherent charm to traverse a predictable path from brash, politically incorrect knucklehead to passionate ally, sparking molten screen chemistry with co-star Kaitlin Olson.

She is one of the film's MVPs along with scene stealer Madison Tevlin as the basketball team's sole female player, who pithily assesses the attractiveness of Harrelson's coach. “You're no McConaughey,” she responds. Slam dunk.

Rating: Three stars


The f word – franchise – is used liberally and loudly in directors Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett's sequel to the requel of Wes Craven's self-referential 1996 slasher.

Scriptwriters James Vanderbilt and Guy Busick gleefully foreshadow carnage with a trademark monologue that explains the sleek architecture of a franchise: successive entries usually have bigger budgets, higher death counts, and no-one is safe, certainly not the legacy characters.

Scream VI delivers on each signposted promise and conceals the identity of Ghostface in plain sight, but familiarity with previous instalments and well-worn genre tropes breeds predictability.

Bettinelli-Olpin and Gillett's picture does not tee up any jump scares and two hours of brutal, relentless violence is numbing, especially when Ghostface insists on stabbing victims several times in a frenzy.

The script pointedly denies certain characters their constitutional right to bear arms and prematurely end Ghostface's reign of terror, guaranteeing a risible number of bodies tagged and bagged in New York's mortuaries.

Rating: Three stars


If actor Michael B Jordan's directorial debut was a prize fighter, he would be confident, nimble, ambitious and quietly menacing but a tad heavy-handed with his final touches.

Written by Keenan Coogler and Zach Baylin, Creed III pretends to brawl to a different beat than its predecessors, which pitted prodigal son Adonis Creed (Jordan) against superior competition inside the boxing ring and found a way for the emotionally scarred underdog to emerge victorious.

Greater narrative focus is placed on bonds between blood brothers here and Jonathan Majors – currently terrorising the Marvel Cinematic Universe as Kang the Conqueror – delivers a beautifully layered performance as a childhood friend, who cunningly guilt-trips Creed into giving him a shot at a boxing title then bullishly takes full advantage once the gloves are on.

Screen rivalry with Jordan simmers and verbal exchanges between the pair pack as much force as the slickly choreographed fight sequences.

The script grinds out a satisfying spectacle over 12 rounds of male posturing and predictability, powered by muscular central performances.

Rating: Three stars


Gleefully embellished truth is stranger and gorier than fiction in Cocaine Bear, an unapologetically violent action comedy inspired by a September 1985 incident in Georgia when a black bear consumed an airdropped bag of smuggled narcotics.

Screenwriter Jimmy Warden promotes the unfortunate mammal to crazed protagonist of a bonkers bloodbath which repeatedly goes too far with on-screen carnage (cast are summarily dismembered by the bear's razor-sharp teeth).

However, his script is frequently one demented giggle shy of the unbridled hysteria that director Elizabeth Banks is aiming for with her humans versus nature battle royal, epitomised by the drug-crazed bear leaping in slow motion into a speeding ambulance through the vehicle's open back doors.

A 95-minute running time is too brisk to add sufficient flesh to the majority of the ill-fated human characters before the ursine predator sinks its claws down to their bones.

Rating: Three stars


Drawn from screenwriter Jemima Khan's experience of relocating from London to Lahore for marriage, What's Love Got To Do With it? casually compares eastern and western recipes for lasting romance and ultimately cannot choose between them.

Director Shekhar Kapur's confection creates an ideological gulf between a white British heroine, who right-swipes men in and out of her busy London life, and her Pakistani childhood friend, who risks nothing in his pursuit of love by relinquishing responsibility for choosing a bride to his parents.

Bridging this divide is beyond Khan's amiable but lightweight script, a valentine to Pakistan and its people peppered with solid one-liners that feel like they need a final spit and polish.

In an exuberant supporting role that could easily teeter into caricature, Emma Thompson works tirelessly to milk laughs and generate good will.

Kapur simmers familiar ingredients for 109 minutes but scrimps on the intoxicating and fragrant spices to elevate a flavourful stew to the unmissable dish of the day.

Rating: Three stars


Expanded from a series of stop-motion animated short films, Marcel The Shell With Shoes On is the glorious, life-affirming odyssey of a one-inch-tall, googly-eyed talking shell, voiced to perfection by Jenny Slate.

Not since Forrest Gump has an unlikely big screen hero plied unabashed sweetness and childlike naivete to such winning effect, whether it be commenting on his perpetually sunny disposition (“Guess why I smile a lot… 'cause it's worth it”) or correctly identifying a cleaning lady as “the harbinger of the vacuum”.

A script co-written by director Dean Fleischer Camp, Slate and Nick Paley elicits endless empathetic awwws and guffaws, shifting perspective on the modern world to Marcel's uncynical vantage point as he races around the living room inside a tennis ball.

A faux documentary format allows the eponymous casing to narrate thoughts and emotions directly to camera without irony or the intrusion of self-criticism.

We would all do well to embrace Marcel's uncluttered, self-affirming philosophy.

Rating: Four stars


Ant-Man And The Wasp: Quantumania forcefully and noisily kickstarts phase five of the Marvel Cinematic Universe by introducing a multifaceted villain to rival Thanos, whose insidious presence has existed in a world within a world beneath our own universe for many years.

This genocidal time traveller – whose name isn't uttered on screen for the best part of an hour – is embodied with palpable menace by Jonathan Majors, casting a long shadow over every frame including two teases buried in the end credits that expand the unstoppable threat beyond wise-cracking Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) and his clan.

Screenwriter Jeff Loveness adopts a Greatest Hits Of Marvel approach to storytelling in his gung-ho gallivant, echoing tender exchanges, droll comic relief and rallying cries from earlier films without losing sight of the emotional bonds between a supersized family powered by Pym particles.

Michelle Pfeiffer merrily scene-steals, spearheading a menagerie of determined, proactive female characters who proclaim, “just because it's not happening to you doesn't mean it's not happening”.

Rating: Three stars

THE SON (15)

Divorced parents are ill-prepared to navigate their teenage son's mental health crisis in Florian Zeller's emotionally wrought drama, adapted by the director and Christopher Hampton from Zeller's 2018 stage play.

The co-screenwriters received golden Oscar statuettes in 2021 for their elegant adaptation of Zeller's stage work The Father, in which Sir Anthony Hopkins delivers a mesmerising performance as a discombobulated 80-something grappling with dementia.

The Welsh actor chews scenery in The Son, portraying an ageing political beast with strong ties to the White House, who does not flinch at the prospect of taking on the role of a monster in the eyes of his 50-year-old son (Hugh Jackman).

Sins are revisited on subsequent generations in Zeller and Hampton's script, which is handcuffed to its stage origins as a series of heated conversations in living rooms and offices to attribute blame and suffering.

A closing act sleight of hand, which might succeed at a distance in a theatre, rings hollow under the scrutiny of a camera in close-up.

Rating: Three stars


Words speaks louder than unspeakable actions in Women Talking.

Set predominantly in a hayloft where a group of sexually abused Mennonite women have gathered to debate their commune's fate, writer-director Sarah Polley's artful and sensitively handled translation of Miriam Toews' novel harnesses the combined emotional power of an exquisitely calibrated script and a heavyweight ensemble cast.

Women Talking is nominated for two Academy Awards next month including Best Picture and Adapted Screenplay, the latter nod a deserved recognition of Polley's mastery of dialogue, pacing and tone.

It's intellectually meaty, elegantly structured and feels intensely theatrical in nature despite occasional forays outside the barn to witness children playing in a field or a wife returning home to her bullying husband.

Polley does not have to explicitly depict abuse on screen – bruises and welts on legs, blood on bedsheets and anguish glistening in eyes are devastating cinematic shorthand, which connect with the same dizzying force as an angry fist.

Rating: Four stars


Sex sells and for long stretches, it's the only thing worth buying in the concluding chapter of director Steven Soderbergh's pelvis-pounding trilogy loosely based on lead actor Channing Tatum's experiences working as a male stripper in Tampa.

Billed as The Final Tease, the third film in a series that has unabashedly promoted pleasure over plot can barely muster the energy to stitch together some of the steamiest dance sequences in the franchise with a coherent storyline or empathetic, well-rounded characters.

Tatum affirms why he was voted People magazine's Sexiest Man Alive in 2012 after the release of the first Magic Mike, performing a private dance for co-star Salma Hayek Pinault that beautifully showcases the art of stripping while dangling from the fixtures of an impeccably designed London apartment.

I fear a sharp rise in visits to A&E as audience members attempt to replicate his hypnotic bump and grind on a shelving unit and bring down the house in the most literal and painful fashion.

A narratively superfluous Zoom call with four members of the old guard – Ken (Matt Bomer), Richie (Joe Manganiello), Tarzan (Kevin Nash) and Tito (Adam Rodríguez) – is a bittersweet reminder of the salty humour and male camaraderie that are sorely lacking from the third hurrah.

Rating: Two stars

EPIC TAILS (U, 95 mins)

The smallest creatures make the biggest impact in a family-friendly computer-animated yarn directed by David Alaux with the participation of co-writers Eric Tosti and Jean-Francois Tosti, which playfully plunders Greek mythology under the gaze of petty gods of Olympus.

Dubbed for audiences on this side of the English Channel, Epic Tails is a sweet and sincere rites-of-passage comedy that hits easy targets for giggles whether that be ninja rats head-bopping in unison as they loot fish from a bustling marketplace or a hapless cat face-planting a mound of freshly sprayed monster mucus.

Violence is intentionally cartoonish so there is zero chance that any fictional critters might be harmed during the ramshackle quest.

An arbitrary seven-day time limit, represented on screen by a giant hourglass, is introduced to spark dramatic tension but that's largely forgotten until a hare-brained final act that rushes to a predictable, life-affirming resolution.

Rating: Three stars


Curiosity revives the cat in a rumbustious computer-animated sequel, which compels the eponymous feline from the Shrek franchise to temporarily sheath his sword and meditate on his mortality as he expends all but one of his cherished nine lives.

Screenwriters Paul Fisher and Tommy Swerdlow tread lightly but purposefully through the title character's existential crisis, furnishing Antonio Banderas with lines of heartfelt dialogue that question the value of a legacy when you leave no room for anyone to share those precious moments.

Puss In Boots: The Last Wish is a satisfying slink through fairy tale tropes that purrs most sweetly when characters affirm core values of teamwork, self-sacrifice and resilience.

Director Joel Crawford and co-director Januel Mercado enthusiastically plunder literature and popular culture throughout their gung-ho escapade, striking a pleasing balance between visual spectacle to engage young audiences and wry in-jokery for older children and adults.

They orchestrate visually stylish action sequences including a thrilling battle with a rampaging giant that is breathlessly choreographed to the paw-tapping original song Fearless Hero performed by Banderas and composer Heitor Pereira.

Rating: Four stars


Adapted from Paul Tremblay's award-winning novel The Cabin At The End Of The World, director M Night Shyamalan's gnarly psychological thriller presents a family with an impossible moral dilemma: save each other or the entire human race.

The film's principal setting (a cabin in a communications blackspot) is intentionally claustrophobic and allows Shyamalan to slowly crank up tension by limiting access to verifiable proof that the tall tale being spun is true.

Sporadic flashbacks add daubs of colour but character development is largely limited to the here and now, restricting our emotional attachment to the chosen family.

Powerful and compelling performances from Jonathan Groff and Ben Aldridge as spouses in peril tug heartstrings and Shyamalan avoids the introduction of one of his gimmicky last-gasp twists to an original draft of the screenplay by Steve Desmond and Michael Sherman.

Rating: Three stars


In Herman Melville's 19th-century sea-faring adventure Moby-Dick; Or, The Whale, which features heavily in Darren Aronofsky's claustrophobic character study adapted by Samuel D Hunter from his 2012 off-Broadway stage play, the narrator – a sailor called Ishmael – loses patience with the rambling of a shabbily dressed stranger.

“Look here, friend, if you have anything important to tell us, out with it,” implores Ishmael sternly.

Alas, Hunter and his principal character – a morbidly obese creative writing professor resigned to death from congestive heart failure – wilfully ignore the plea and prolong the self-inflicted misery for almost two hours.

Aronofsky's bloated film would be hard to stomach without effervescent performances from an ensemble cast led by a revelatory, career-best turn from Brendan Fraser as the wheezing educator.

Complemented by Oscar-nominated prosthetics and special make-up, Fraser's portrayal of grief-fuelled self-destruction and loathing would have both hands firmly on the Academy Award in a subtler and nimbler translation from stage to screen.

Rating: Three stars


In his most unabashedly personal film, Oscar-winning director Steven Spielberg continues to venerate the power of the family unit to overcome adversity while reflecting on his wonder years in 1950s New Jersey and Arizona.

The first flushes of his love affair with cinema are traced back to January 10, 1952, when Spielberg's six-year-old alter ego, Sammy Fabelman (Mateo Zoryan Francis-DeFord), stands nervously in front of his first cinema marquee – Cecil B DeMille's The Greatest Show On Earth – with parents Burt (Paul Dano) and Mitzi (Michelle Williams).

The bespectacled, electrical engineer father unintentionally deepens young Sammy's trepidation but his concert pianist mother, an undimmable force of nature, salvages the defining moment.

“Movies are dreams that you never forget,” she coos soothingly.

Spielberg never forgets his dreams in The Fabelmans, weaving narrative threads between personal recollections and his subsequent works of big screen fiction including Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, ET The Extra-Terrestrial and Saving Private Ryan.

Rating: Four stars

PLANE (15)

You won't need to fasten seatbelts during director Jean-Francois Richet's lacklustre action thriller, which pits the crew and passengers of a downed commercial flight against a sadistic militia leader on an island in the Sulu Sea.

Dramatic turbulence fails to materialise when Gerard Butler proudly retains his Scottish burr as the grizzled pilot, who risks life and limb to protect his passenger manifest of two-dimensional cardboard cut-outs including an obnoxious businessman and giggling gal pals.

The in-flight entertainment of a mid-air lightning strike quickens the pulse more than myriad gunfights or hand-to-hand fisticuffs in the jungle including a slickly choreographed one-on-one brawl between Butler and a nameless thug shot in sweat-drenched close-up.

Please turn off all personal electronic devices, including mobile phones, and switch your brain to flight mode.

Rating: Two stars


In 2017 at the age of 32, Damien Chazelle became the youngest recipient of the Best Director statuette at the Academy Awards for his dizzying accomplishments behind the camera of La La Land.

With Babylon, an exuberant valentine to the golden age of American filmmaking when the industry transitioned from silents to talkies, Chazelle's reach finally exceeds his grasp.

For over three hours, he conjures a whirling, hallucinogenic fever dream of sensory excess that crashes and burns, reignites, then blazes uncontrollably to cinders again.

It's a white-knuckle rollercoaster ride with a big opening – namely the dilating sphincter of a distressed elephant – that refuses to pump the emergency brakes.

The French-American filmmaker swings big and repeatedly hits himself in the face.

Rating: Two stars

TAR (15)

Perception and reality clash like angry cymbals throughout writer-director Todd Field's masterful and discordant symphony to shifting power dynamics, silent abuses of privilege and cancel culture.

Every scene is exquisitely calibrated to set nerves on edge: a woman's anguished screams piercing the air during a morning run through Lietzensee Park in Berlin, the ticking of a metronome that mysteriously comes to life in a study cupboard, the hum of a fridge insisting on being opened.

Cate Blanchett is ferocious as celebrated orchestra conductor Lydia Tar, commanding the same unwavering attention as her morally flawed character, who breathes deeply an air of self-importance.

Director Field and cinematographer Florian Hoffmeister duet on elegantly framed vignettes that ebb and flow like movements of a symphony, reaching unexpected yet thrilling crescendos sometimes when we least expect them.

“God watches all of us,” Lydia warns in one charged scene. When His gaze falls on the maestro, she will be harshly judged.

Rating: Four stars


Made with the blessing of The Whitney Houston Estate and her mentor Clive Davis, director Kasi Lemmons' glossy biopic charts the R&B singer's fortunes from the pews of New Hope Baptist Church to her accidental drowning in a bathtub at the Beverly Hilton hotel in Beverly Hills.

Whitney's romance with best friend Robyn Crawford (Nafessa Williams) is depicted explicitly for the first time and money-related disputes between John Houston (Clarke Peters) and his daughter light the fuse on fiery on-screen exchanges.

“You work for me,” she curtly reminds him.

Oscar nominee Anthony McCarten's script is peppered with melodic dialogue (“I'm exhausted. All black women are exhausted”) as London-born actress Naomi Ackie confidently surfs crashing emotional waves similar to yesteryear's musical biopic The United States Vs Billie Holiday in the title role.

If you wanna feel the heat of Houston's rise to glory, Lemmons' picture simmers beautifully.

Rating: Four stars


In this opening salvo of four sequels, James Cameron expands digitally rendered horizons from Pandora's bioluminescent forests to the moon's teeming oceans and resplendent atolls, providing audiences with a compelling reason to immerse fully in eye-popping 3D and Imax.

Avatar: The Way Of Water is an unabashedly splashy and bombastic survival thriller that lives up to the cacophonous hype and delivers a more satisfying experience for the heart to match bountiful delights for the ears and eyes.

It's a dizzying sensory overload that can't be replicated at home or on a streaming service; a jaw-dropping, photorealistic spectacle that harnesses new software and technology to enable performance capture underwater for the first time.

Every rock, leaf and minuscule element of background detail feels exquisitely real and when characters venture beneath waves, Cameron and cinematographer Russell Carpenter play beautifully with shimmering light including a bombastic action set piece that revisits the swirling, water-logged terror of Titanic.

Like its predecessor, Avatar: The Way Of Water springs a few leaks in terms of plot and dialogue (one father-son dynamic is noticeably undernourished) but the script co-written by Cameron, Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver is more emotionally rich than the initial foray into Pandora.

Rating: Four stars


Director Matthew Warchus reunites with composer and lyricist Tim Minchin and scriptwriter Dennis Kelly for a swashboggling, phizz-whizzing screen adaptation of their stage musical that retains the acidic tang of Roald Dahl's beloved 1988 children's novel.

Roald Dahl's Matilda The Musical trims 20 minutes from the theatre production's lesson plan by expelling Matilda's dim-witted older brother, Mrs Wormwood's flamboyant ballroom dance partner Rudolpho and a few songs to maintain a vice-like grip on attention spans.

Warchus savours the opportunity to expand his playbox.

Minchin's whistle-stop tour of the alphabet in School Song (“You will soon C/There's no escaping trage-D”) gallivants energetically through classrooms and hallways and the barn-storming anthem Revolting Children expands its deafening chorus to the entire student population of Crunchem Hall.

Aristotle spoke the truth: the roots of education are bitter, but the fruit is sweet. Warchus's picture is a peach.

Rating: Four stars


Writer-director Martin McDonagh trades three billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri for a fractured friendship off the coast of 1920s Ireland in a deliciously barbed comedy with the potential to draw blood at next year's Academy Awards.

Laced with humour as black as a pint of freshly poured Guinness, The Banshees Of Inisherin uses a simple declaration of discontent – “I just don't like ya no more” – as the springboard for a close-quarters study of fraying fraternal bonds and bruised male pride.

McDonagh previously cast Brendan Gleeson and Colin Farrell as a veteran hit man and trigger-happy protege in his foul-mouthed 2008 crime caper In Bruges.

The two actors explore similar power dynamics here, armed with verbal grenades that cause maximum damage to their fatefully entwined characters in a close-knit island community.

The Banshees Of Inisherin lines up pints of melodic melancholy, exasperation, dismemberment and full frontal male nudity and we enthusiastically drink the bar dry over the course of two engrossing hours.

Rating: Four stars