DVD/Blu-ray Mini-Review – Call Me By Your Name (15)  

Grow up. See you at midnight.

The Gist: Timothee Chalamet (Lady Bird) plays Elio, a sharp and precocious teenage lad spending the long, hot summer of 1983 in an Northern Italian villa with his mother and archaeologist father. At least one local girl has an eye for him, but Elio is much more interested in his dad’s research assistant Oliver (Armie Hammer). As temperatures soar and sweat trickles (and they all pore over exquisite Greco-Roman statues), it can only be a matter of time till borderline-taboo passions reach boiling.

The Juice: This story is all about the heat – the entire film bakes in the Italian summer, the whole look of it is hazy and sun-bleached. There’s an intoxicating sense of time and place in every frame (you’ll want to book your flight ten minutes in) and it’s all redolent of youthful desire. The adolescent longing – its pining, its irritation, its sublimated sense of need – is tangible. Elio’s flirtation with Marzia, the girl his own age, is innocent; his fascination with Oliver promises a turbulent leap into adulthood, which will change him forever. The leads’ chemistry spikes like the temperature – their interactions are tender, fearless, vulnerable and profoundly convincing. This is a passion as compelling as the film’s plangent piano score, one complimented perfectly by Sufjan Stevens’ original songs. ‘Tis a wintry heart indeed that won’t fall for Elio and Oliver’s love.

The Judgement: 9/10. It’s a long, slow burn – but when it truly catches fire, Call Me By Your Name has an emotionally incendiary quality that’s sure to stay with you. If you’ve ever known summertime love, whoever you’ve known it with, you’ll feel its transitory, transformative beauty all over again – never more so than in the film’s final riveting moments. A blissful, heady, sensual, poignant, heartbreaking peach of a film. And one that actually involves peaches in a scene that… But no more of that. Spoilers.


Film Review – Solo: A Star Wars Story (12A)  

I don’t think I’m ever gonna learn.

I approach every new Star Wars film as a kind of fan. My appreciation of the franchise really only began with The Force Awakens, and I’ve been on board with the movies released since then – including the divisive, risk-taking The Last Jedi. But with Solo following so hard on the heels of Rey and Finn’s most recent escapade, I did wonder if the producers weren’t risking Wars-fatigue. Rumours of production troubles didn’t inspire confidence either, with Ron Howard replacing the original directing team late in the day and reshooting a high percentage of the material. So it’s a relief to report that this Han Solo origin story is never less than fun, even if it doesn’t achieve what you might call Star Wars greatness.

We first meet young Han (the fresh-faced Alden Ehrenreich) as a slum-rat on his native planet Corellia. He’s running dangerous errands for one of that world’s dominating crime syndicates, while plotting a planet-hopping way out along with girlfriend Qi’ra (Game of Thrones‘ Emilia Clarke). The film’s swift-moving early stages flip him through flight-school and military service, until he talks his way into a group of big-league thieves led by Woody Harrelson and Thandie Newton. But that’s only the start of an adventure involving high-stakes robberies, giant inter-stellar beasties and spaceship manoeuvres so reckless they make his passengers’ heads spin.

Despite its bumpy journey to the screen Solo has a coherent feel, director Howard having reworked it with his mature storytelling touch. Numerous traditional Star Wars elements (multi-planet locations, inter-species menagerie of characters, comedy androids) are present, but this time in the context of a fast-paced heist movie crammed with criminals-u-like. And with all hand-guns/no light-sabres, the Han Solo space-western aspects are played up to entertaining effect. Yes the whole thing could be dismissed as inconsequential, but on a level of pure escapism the film really works.

That’s not least because it’s populated with great characters. Harrelson is morally enigmatic as career criminal Beckett, and Donald Glover is almost ridiculously suave as the young Lando Calrissian (classic Star Wars anti-hero if you’re not a fan). Meanwhile Paul Bettany steals his limited screen-time as mercurial chief villain Dryden Vos, and Fleabag‘s Phoebe Waller-Bridge nearly steals the whole damn movie as robot-with-a-cause L3-37.

As for Han himself, Ehrenreich plays him with youthful arrogance and verve, steering clear of any ill-advised Harrison Ford impersonations. And if he doesn’t quite nail the cocky charm that made Ford’s roguish-pilot such a hit with audiences (a tall order let’s face it), at least the movie gets the Han/Chewie relationship right. The manner of their initial meeting is an unexpected delight, and the heart of the film – romantic subplots notwithstanding – is the beginning of this inter-species bromance. Our hero may be advised by his criminal mentor to trust no one, but in Chewbacca he clearly has a cast-iron BFF.

Solo suffers at times from prequel-itus (its nods and winks to the broader franchise can irritate at times), but it tells enough of its own story in a sufficiently distinctive way to warrant its existence. And while we know for sure who’s going to make it through, due to certain characters’ presence in the classic trilogy, there’s enough plot novelty to sustain interest and a sense of mortality in keeping with the franchise as a whole. It’s a touch of darkness in a big escapist romp – two perfectly entertaining hours in the company of some Star Wars favourites.

Gut Reaction: Sustained enjoyment, with a few grins of recognition (and one or two eye-rolls).

Where Are the Women?: The new Star Wars continues to populate its stories with strong female characters – Clarke, Newton, Waller-Bridge and big-screen newcomer Erin Kellyman all have room to shine.

Ed’s Verdict: 7/10. It deals in themes of loyalty, friendship and moral conflict, but chiefly this exists to be fun. And perfectly decent fun it is. Enough said.

Film Review – Deadpool 2 (15)  

Kiss me like you miss me, Red.

Despite evidence on this blog to the contrary, I’m not a massive salivating comic-book fanboy. The first Deadpool film, whatever its manifest strengths, irritated me a bit with its relentlessly smart-ass humour and how pleased it seemed with its own irreverence (although that might be a Ryan Reynolds-related issue on my part.) Consequently I was none too enthused about taking in this sequel. Find me pleasantly surprised then that Deadpool 2 is sufficiently entertaining to make me rethink my attitude to the original. Nice work there, all involved.

To recap the story so far… Deadpool is the made-up name of Wade Wilson, a one-time mercenary, whose submission to life-saving genetic experimentation has proved a mixed blessing. On the plus side the treatment worked, providing his body with self-healing properties that render him virtually immortal; the trade-off is that every inch of him is horrifically mutated. He’s likewise undergone a career transformation, acting now as a ruthless vigilante with a mordant sense of humour.

In Deadpool 2 his vigilantism is in danger of catching up with him, while the X-Men (yes, that’s Professor Xavier’s mutant heroes from the Marvel comics) persist in attempts to enlist him to their cause. Deadpool is resolutely not a team player – but the plight of a mutant teenage boy named Russell aka Firefist (and under threat from a murderous time-traveller) may serve to change his sardonic heart.

The Deadpool comic-book character started life as an X-Men antagonist, before involving into a violent wise-cracking antihero (as opposed to thesuper variety). The films have run with the bloody and humorous aspects, leaning heavily on his directly addressing the audience to comic effect. As the eponymous vigilante Reynolds doesn’t so much break the fourth wall as tear down the whole comic-book edifice, lampooning every superhero movie convention without mercy and deconstructing the whole film-making process into the bargain. These movies stand or fall on how funny they are and to its credit this new adventure wrung significantly more laughs from me than its predecessor, as it gleefully ripped into comic-book tropes, threatening to undermine its own storytelling foundation in the process.

DP2 stands apart from Marvel’s ‘cinematic universe’ movies in multiple regards. As gruesomely violent as dark X-Men adventure Logan, it also revels in adult humour and outlandish bad taste. The combination might easily have sunk it in a mess of juvenilia and heartless action, but the film is buoyed up by punchy direction and a strikingly high good-joke quotient. Add to that some neatly wrong-footing plot twists and the rather touching use of A-ha’s Take On Me, and you’ve got yourself an entertainment. And despite my Reynolds reservations, he is Deadpool – embodying the character as indisputably as Robert Downey Jr does Ironman, and carrying the story with similar aplomb.

Reynolds inevitably hogs much of the glory, but the plot developments do create more of an ensemble feel. Josh Brolin, as time-hopping assassin Cable, is an impressive distance from his other Marvel antagonist of 2018 – Infinity War‘s Thanos. Ascending star Zadie Beetz fully rocks the role of mutant action-heroine Domino. And Julian Dennison (from much-loved Kiwi comedy Hunt for the Wilderpeople) proves a winning surrogate son for our antihero.

It all makes for two hours’ crass but undeniably riotous entertainment, and a contender for the 2018 Filmic Forays Low Expectations Award. Mine were low indeed, but this sequel trounced them with its full-on satirical zest. The franchise should possibly quit while it’s ahead, but with its serious box-office ka-ching and the sequel’s move towards a Deadpool-led team of mutant heroes (go and google X-Force if you want to know more), there’s not a chance that’s going to happen. Now that they’ve got me, here’s hoping Wade and his motley associates can keep me happily on board.

Gut Reaction: Pummelled out of a cynical Friday-night stupor by sheer force of comic conviction. I seriously wasn’t expecting to laugh that much, let alone get the feels.

Where Are the Women?: They’re around and they kick ass, but it chiefly falls to Domino to keep this out of boys-club territory.

Ed’s Verdict: 8/10. Deadpool 2 contains the same ingredients, but cooks them up in a way that’s unexpectedly fresh and spicy (if thoroughly bad for you). Dark, utterly reprehensible, self-assured fun, with a few moments of surprising poignancy.

Film Review – Tully (15)  

You need a rest, mommy.

Writer Diablo Cody and director Jason Reitman first teamed up to create 2007’s Juno, an acerbically witty tale of teen pregnancy starring Ellen Page. Tully is an even stronger, more thoughtful piece of work, those individual talents having matured a whole decade’s worth. Revisiting the fertile theme of motherhood, the film is darker than Juno but no less funny – a resonant and deeply comical cry of near-despair.

Charlize Theron plays Marlo, a suburban mother of two, with child number three imminent. Already ragged from the demands of the kids she has (particularly those of her difficult, hyperactive son), the prospect of an additional newborn is daunting. Then her annoyingly wealthy brother offers to fund the services of a ‘night-nanny’, a care worker who will facilitate what Marlo will soon need most – proper sleep. Initially resistant to the idea, she eventually succumbs, and one phone-call later there at her door is a young woman named Tully, the answer to all her desperate prayers. Except there’s an air of mystery around Tully from the start…

Okay, that immediately makes the film out to be what Marlo herself jokes about – a Hand That Rocks the Cradle psycho-nanny horror. It’s not. It’s vastly more subtle than that. But the story does hinge on who the Tully character really is at heart and on what her arrival means for the frazzled mum. Their relationship sits right at the heart of this terrifically-observed story and it fairly crackles with chemistry.

Kudos first to Theron. In last year’s Atomic Blonde she was a ripped and formidably fit secret agent (then a super-svelte businesswoman inGringo); here she very literally carries the weight of later-life pregnancy, conveying exhaustion to match. It’s another impressive performance that starts with the physicality and goes right to the core. Marlo’s weariness is all-consuming, her descent into mental chaos steady and relentless, though allowing for mordantly funny outbursts. The tone, pre Tully’s arrival, is less the demented hilarity of TV sitcom Motherland and moreBabadook-style depression-anxiety, only played for grim laughs. (And never more so than in one tour de force sequence of maternal meltdown.)

As for Tully herself, it feels like a kind of arrival for actress Mackenzie Davis. Her night-nanny is a sweetly eccentric free spirit – weirdly disarming from the start and with an indefinable spookiness underlying it all. Her arrival brings calm, but also kicks the story into a whole other gear, one where you really won’t see what’s coming. There’s room for the guys – Ron Livingston has enough rumpled likability as husband Drew to make sure we don’t get too pissed off with him, and Mark Duplass nails the smugness of brother Craig – but this is Marlo and Tully’s show through and through, and their evolving relationship makes for intriguing viewing.

So filter Cody’s wry and pithy dialogue through two splendid central performers and then get Reitman, with his shrewd eye for everyday detail, to lens the whole project. The result is something instantly recognisable, while utterly unique.

Gut Reaction: Engaged, amused, fascinated and unnerved. But my reactions were nothing to those of the mums in the audience. Their appreciation got seriously vocal.

Where Are the Women?: The girls own this one of course.

Ed’s Verdict: 8/10. I liked Juno and I really liked this. A great convergence of talents, with Theron more impressively immersed in her role than ever before. And that’s saying a lot.

Film Review – Life of the Party (12A)

Turn off your vagoogle.

Life of the Party is my second female-led broader-than-broad comedy to review in the same number of weeks, so I can’t help but compare it to I Feel Pretty. This time it’s Melissa McCarthy doing the comic heavy-lifting, taking a slight premise and wringing from it every last drop of comedic potential; that I laughed as much as I did is largely down to her. She (much like Amy Schumer in the Pretty movie) dragged the whole enterprise back from the brink of doom.

The film’s premise has been mined for laughs before – a middle-aged protagonist enrols in college and starts whooping it up with the youngsters on campus. McCarthy plays Deanna, a woman whose education was derailed by unplanned pregnancy years before, and whose bolt-from-the-blue midlife crisis provides her with impetus to return to her studies. This life-change coincides with her now grown-up daughter Maddie’s freshman year; mother and daughter end up in the same peer group, to Maddie’s initial chagrin. Soon, however, Mom is down with the Millennials, her little girl included, sharing in all (and I do mean all) that college life has to offer.

Directed by McCarthy’s husband Ben Falcone and co-written by the pair of them, Life of the Party is a strange and intermittently entertaining creation. It provides no particular dramatic arc for its central character, something that simultaneously avoids cliche and makes the whole story a bit ramshackle. Deanna bounces back from disaster early on and blends swiftly into her daughter’s academic world, becoming a cheery mentor for the whole group while catching up on a life she missed. Yes an additional crisis is manufactured late on, but it fails to give the drama any shape. The movie ends up as a string of semi-improvised comedy sketches of variable success, Maddie’s friends serving as a bunch of quirky sidekicks for the main player. None of them is sketched as fully as you’d like (although Molly Gordon gamely plays straight-woman as the daughter).

Having said all that, the irrepressible McCarthy can’t help but be funny. She brings a mumsy, folksy charm to Deanna at all times, and there’s undeniable enjoyment in watching the character cut loose as her inner college-girl reveals itself. Plus when it comes to comedy set-pieces, she’s remarkable. Put her in a ’80s party dance-off, or a clinch with a younger guy, or a public speaking-related panic attack and Bridesmaids-level comedy gold is assured. (Amy Schumer is cut from similar cloth – give either actress even a half-baked premise and they’ll forge it into something properly funny through sheer ferocity of talent.)

Speaking of which, Bridesmaids alumnus Maya Rudolph (she played the actual bride) is also satisfyingly funny as Deanna’s best pal Christine. Put it down to Saturday Night Live training, but these girls work comedic alchemy. Case in point – their combined forces turn one really contrivedscene of payback into something genuinely hilarious.

Life of the Party a college football field’s distance from being a classic, but it’s not without its charms. The raucous female-centric college antics actually allow some room for study, and there are a some touching/empowering life-lessons along the way, mostly imparted by the older, wiser Deanna to her fresh-faced sorority pals. True the storytelling is messy and the younger bunch tend to get short-changed by the script, but enough of the comedy lands to make it worth its time on the screen.

Gut Reaction: It made me laugh. Sporadically, but out loud.

Where Are the Women?: See above. They’re all over this.

Ed’s Verdict: 6.5/10. Like last week’s I Feel Pretty, it’s got a whole bunch of problems in the writing. But it made me crack up more, so it gets the extra point-five. No-brainer.

Film Review – I Feel Pretty (12A)

I’ve always wondered what it feels like to be – just – undeniably pretty.

It says much about Amy Schumer’s credit within film comedy that she features solo on the I Feel Pretty poster. No, she hasn’t reached Melissa McCarthy status just yet, but she’s still trusted enough to feature as a movie’s key selling point. Even a pre-release media backlash in America, based on the film’s (fundamentally misunderstood) trailer, didn’t manage to dampen US box office receipts too much. This girl is good, even when the movie in which she stars doesn’t match her for quality.

The intentions of I Feel Pretty are worthy ones, but the premise is as flimsy as premises get. Schumer plays Renee Bennett, a website designer for massive cosmetics company Lily LeClaire. She’s capable at her job and popular among her friends, but deeply insecure about her appearance, longing for the kind of look that would land her a receptionist job in the big LeClair building downtown. Then some desperate wishing and a whack on the head during a SoulCycle class (I looked it up and it’s a proper thing in 2018 gym circles – what do know?) alter her perception, so that she sees herself as fashion-industry beautiful. Soon she’s taking on the world with supermodel confidence, despite still looking like the same old girl-next-door Renee.

This paper-thin concept is stretched out to feature-length, with no regard to its sheer psychological implausibility and the plot holes that threaten to open up at any given moment. Thank heaven then for Schumer’s sheer comic zest and everywoman charm. Her timing is spot-on, her physical comedy fearless – gloriously so. The transformation from downtrodden backroom-girl to life-embracing goddess is undeniably infectious as a result. She manages what the script is striving in a severely faltering way to do, namely prove that confidence and self-belief have an attractiveness more potent than anything sold by the beauty industry.

She has good support in Rory Scovel as Ethan, the regular guy who falls for her. Their scenes are played with genuine heart, and there’s enjoyment to be found in the two of them falling for each other, his interest fuelled by her new devil-may-care mojo. And the whole thing is directed nimbly enough too, a highlight being when Renee struts into the LeClair building to Meghan Trainor’s Who’s That Sexy Thing? in slo-mo. Then the music cuts out, regular-mo is resumed and there she is still dancing apropos of nothing but joy.

See? At its best it’s fun. But it’s also fundamentally nonsense. The plot is packaged, naturally, so that Renee will come through her dream state, have a quick wrestle with reality on the other side and achieve her victory on behalf of women (and men for that matter) with body-image issues everywhere. But the journey is so broadly comic that it can’t do more in the end than deliver a bunch of well-meaning platitudes. And while there are a few sideswipes at the cosmetic industry along the way, they don’t show real claws.

The knee-jerk critics who condemned the film as ‘fat-shaming’ on evidence of that trailer got it totally wrong. I Feel Pretty is an honest shot at promoting healthy-minded body-image, with Schumer owning every scene to raucous (and sometimes touching) effect. But ultimately it’s all a bit too fluffy and unfocused to land its ideological punch.

Gut Reaction: It did make me laugh, and both leads moved me with funny, emotionally authentic performances, even if the ending was something of a shrug.

Where Are the Women?: Aside from Amy, Michelle Williams does some good comedy stuff with limited scope as the LeClair heiress with confidence issues of her own. Renee’s likeable gal-pals are even less developed, sadly.

Ed’s Verdict: 6/10. It’s raised to ‘disposable fun’ level by Schumer’s comedy instincts and the chemistry with her guy. Now get this woman a sharper script.

Film Review – Avengers: Infinity War (12A)  

No resurrection this time.

It might all have gone so badly wrong. Ten years and nineteen films into the ‘Marvel Cinematic Universe‘ project, the studio went for broke, creating a movie that weaves threads from numerous individual MCU franchises – The AvengersThorGuardians of the Galaxy among them – into one vast cosmic tapestry. It’s a cinematic venture of almost preposterous ambition and there are so many ways in which it might (in creative terms if not financial) have crashed and burned. The wonder is that it succeeds remotely, let alone to the extent it does. Yes there are a couple of caveats I need to add, but I’ll save those till the end.

The Avengers, ‘Earth’s Greatest Heroes’, are geographically scattered and at odds with each other following the events of Captain America: Civil War. Thus when their greatest challenge to date – a great purple destroyer-of-worlds named Thanos – shows up to wreak galaxy-wide destruction, they are in no place to challenge him. Thanos is seeking the Infinity Stones, six gems from the dawn of creation, possession of which will enable him to wipe out half of what he deems an over-populated cosmos. He’s got a big metal glove too, into which said gems will fit snugly, enabling him to wield their power. And with each jewel discovered, his power grows. Basically, the Avengers need to get their **** together fast and make some good alliances into the bargain (the Guardians and the cast of Black Panther for instance), otherwiseeveryone is doomed. You and me included.

Infinity War is a huge proposition on every level, not just that of its epically large cast. Its scope is immense, its vistas operatic and its action both complex and stunning. The story frame is reminiscent of The Lord of the Rings‘ latter stages, only on a galaxy-wide canvas – with this fractured fellowship of Avengers fighting the same staggeringly bad odds in multiple locations, none with any clue how their friends are faring. Because the stakes are high, something established beyond all doubt in a gutsy (and gut-punching) opening sequence. The same creative team who brought us Winter Soldier and Civil War, i.e. some of the best stuff in the MCU canon, know exactly how they want to play this.

As the villain, Thanos (a motion-captured Josh Brolin) is utterly compelling. His gem quest provides the sprawling movie with a clear narrative through-line, while his motives prove surprising. This conqueror is contemplative as well as brutal, a reservoir of emotional depth even as he destroys. He commands a clutch of fearsome generals too, any one of which is a dangerous proposition for our heroes. And the fact that he catches everyone off-guard throws a brooding shadow over the proceedings, as the disassembled team scramble to muster a response.

Given that backdrop of foreboding, this still manages to be a hugely funny and entertaining film. Personalities are thrown together in combinations we haven’t seen before, sparking new and often hilarious dynamics. Situations expand and then converge, delivering explosive, crowd-pleasing moments of heroism. Events take mighty twists that subvert even the most die-hard fan’s expectations. True the band of world-defenders has little time to stop and breathe, but there’s still a good scattering of poignant character moments among the finely crafted mayhem. Peter Quill and co get their comedy mojo back after the semi-disappointment of Guardians 2, and Thor combines all that made him loveable in Ragnarok with genuine gravitas. Both sharp, snarky humour and meaningful connections abound.

It’s inevitable with the sheer logistics of this multi-stranded story, that some scenarios lose momentum, which certain characters lose out. But ultimately the plots converge in what is – and I say this with some understatement – a memorable conclusion. Everyone has their moment, and Marvel studio’s most heroic achievement to date ends in a way that will have fans debating and theorising for the next twelve months.

Which brings me to those two caveats regarding the movie’s success. One: if you haven’t already guessed, this is a film for fans rather than casual viewers, and will impact much less on those who don’t already care about Ironman and Star Lord and the rest of them. In fact it will be two totally different experiences (transcendent or just plain frustrating), depending on your level of connection to these characters and their overarching story. Two: my rating below feels curiously dependent on the follow-up film due out same time next year. That story has the capacity either to undergird Infinity War‘s drama, or to undermine it. I will say no more.

For now, Avengers: Infinity War is a trans-global, pan-galactic triumph. And I can’t wait to watch it all over again.

Gut Reaction: I didn’t realise how just how MCU-invested I was until around five minutes into this film. A lot of laughter and a lot of thrills, all in the context of strangely mounting dread.

Where Are the Women?: Several of the Cinematic Universe’s growing roster of women feature prominently, even if this episode is a bit hijacked by the dudes.

Ed’s Verdict: 8.5/10. Like I said – that score might change either direction. But a film that could have stuffed up on so many levels, gets a formidable amount right. And that makes Infinity War one hell of an achievement.

Film Review – The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (12A)

Crikey, that’s quite a mouthful.

Mary Ann Shaffer, author of the lengthily-titled novel on which this film is based, didn’t live to see her book’s publication, let alone the movie’s release. I’m guessing (without having read the novel) that she’d have approved – it’s a handsomely made romantic period drama and more than passably entertaining. If you have an aversion to what’s become labelled as ‘heritage drama’ here in the UK, however, this may not be your slice of pie. Even Channel Island memories of Nazi occupation can’t make this anything less than really pretty, in a narrative that emphasises warmth and reassurance over grit.

Lily James (Darkest HourBaby Driver) plays Juliet Ashton, a London-based writer, struggling with trauma in the aftermath of WW2. She finds inspiration in correspondence with a member of the eponymous society, a literary group that took solace in books, while their native Guernsey was under Nazi rule. Drawn by the society’s eccentric form of rebellion and sensing she has discovered kindred spirits, she takes a break from her engagements (both professional and otherwise) and travels to the island to meet the society’s members and take part in one of their meetings. But painful wartime secrets haunt the group and Juliet senses a story that begs telling, if she can persuade them to share its details.

The Guernsey … Society is a beautiful-looking film for sure; helmed by veteran director Mike Newell and shot by The Death of Stalin‘s Zac Nicholson, there was no way it was going to be anything short of gorgeous. And the period is realised in fine detail – it’s what the Brit movie industry does best after all. The wartime story-within-the-story is stitched seamlessly into the wider narrative, Juliet piecing the past together as she moves from one society member to another. Don’t expect too many surprises in the heroine’s romantic choices, though – it’s clear from the opening act which way her heart is going to be swayed.

Cliche is an issue all round, with secondary cast-members suffering the most. The always welcome Bronagh Gallagher is wasted, for example, as Juliet’s puritanical landlady – a Scripture-spouting stereotype and little more. The literary group are thankfully given more scope to form entertaining characters. Michael Huisman (the Khaleesi’s man-toy inGame of Thrones) is a handsome pig-farmer with added empathy, Tom Courtney is everyone’s favourite uncle and The IT Crowd‘s Katherine Parkinson brings pathos to the romantically yearning Isola. Stealing it, though, is Penelope Wilton. Single-handedly she brings a tragic depth absent elsewhere. The film’s sheer niceness is almost its undoing, but Wilton supplies it (much as she did to Shaun of the Dead) with a much-needed broken heart.

James, it should be said, anchors the film with an appealingly strong and open-hearted performance, proving herself once again a hugely capable lead. And she plays a no-nonsense girl of whom her literary hero Anne Bronte would be proud.

The Guernsey is a life-affirming massage of a film, which hints at past horrors of war, without ever succumbing to them. It’s concocted chiefly from romance and mystery and is certainly more tasty than the pie of the title. But seriously – leave your cynicism at the door, or it’ll ruin your appetite.

Gut Reaction: My world wasn’t rocked, but I enjoyed it nonetheless. Enough to be concerned whether Lily would choose the right man.

Where Are the Women?: It’s a female-strong ensemble with a good handful of sterling performances.

Ed’s Verdict: 7/10. An unashamedly quaint view of post-war Guernsey, buoyed up by great production values and tight-knit quality cast.

Film Review – The Leisure Seeker (15)

We’re just taking a little trip, Jane.

Now here’s a film that’s likely to be dismissed by younger cinema-goers as a retiree’s road-movie, fuzzy and undemanding like the title suggests. But The Leisure Seeker, an adaptation of Michael Zadoorian’s 2009 novel, is more than a whimsical piece of ‘Silver Cinema’. Marketed as a sentimental comedy-drama, its take on life, love and mortality turns out to be memorably stark and unflinching.

Helen Mirren and Donald Sutherland are Ella and John Spencer, an ageing couple who take their battered old Winnebago – ‘The Leisure Seeker’ – on the road one more time. Setting out from Massachusetts, they head south with the Earnest Hemingway House in Florida Keys as their goal. Trouble is, retired college professor John is wrestling with dementia, while his wife/carer Ella harbours health issues of her own. Their adult children are frantic at the development, but Ella is on a mission. And it’s about more than a tourist trip to her home of her husband’s literary hero.

This film is devoid of both Hollywood gloss and false sentiment. An Italian production company and director are in charge, making it a grainy outsider’s view of an America-based story. It opens with Carole King playing over a Donald Trump presidential campaign speech; the year is 2016, and the USA is vastly different from when Ella and John first met. They’re a couple out of step with the present, each one the other’s world, as all else changes around them. Their tour is as much down memory lane as the East Coast, a fact made more poignant by John’s memory-related issues.

The narrative locks into the couple’s progress from the beginning; they’ve already hit the road when first we meet them. Mirren and Sutherland turn these characters into a wonderfully engaging pair. Ella is a driving force (even if her dementia-suffering husband does the actual driving); she’s vivacious and life-embracing and tough as old leather, yet beneath all the chatter her loneliness is tangible. John alternates between the charm and dignity of his younger days and a childlike petulance, venting frustration at his own fragmenting mind. The genius of the performances is conveying the couple’s history and the bond between them, even as Ella struggles to keep their connection alive.

If all of that sounds weighty (and it is), there is also genuine hilarity – bizarre on-the-road adventures sometimes sparked by John’s condition, sometimes by Ella’s forthright approach to the obstacles they encounter. There’s humour too, and poignancy, in the children’s panicked response to their parents’ apparent recklessness. Christian McKay and Janel Maloney make the most of limited screen time as son and daughter Will and Jane to convey the complexity of these inter-generational relationships. It’s all beautifully observed – painful, and often painfully funny.

The Leisure Seeker has suffered some tough reviews along with the good ones, accused of being either predictable or syrupy. I’ll grant the road-trip structure and nature of the Spencers’ plight make the former inevitable, but there’s too much pyjama-pissing reality and character grit for the latter to be remotely true. Emotionally this film is often too real for comfort. But while it doesn’t blink in the face of harsher truth, it’s ultimately a story of life-long love. And that will always be a story worth telling.

Gut Reaction: I laughed with hilarity at points and felt deeply discomfited at others, often in close succession.

Where Are the Women?: Helen Mirren is at the height of her powers. And being Helen Mirren, those powers are considerable.

Ed’s Verdict: 8/10. The Leisure Seeker is funny and touching. And maybe it’s just too damn truthful for some critics to handle.

Film Review – Rampage (12A)  

Is it me, or is he considerably bigger?

Rampage is this year’s Kong: Skull Island – which means that its primary raison d’être is to show giant monsters slugging it out, while tiny humans scurry about beneath them, trying to avoid becoming collateral damage. It’s also a showcase for Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson to look brawny and in control, even with an entire city collapsing around his imposing shaven head. In other words, the film stands or falls on whether or not it’s a good time.

It’s certainly not smart, based as it is on the ‘Rampage’ video game, where humans transform into monstrous versions of themselves. In the movie adaptation it’s animals that do the transforming, an amoral corporation having cooked up the requisite technology based on genetic editing. This gets accidentally unleashed outside the lab, so that affected creatures turn into gigantic mutated versions of themselves, complete with advanced anger issues. One such creature is George, an albino silverback gorilla trained in sign language by primatologist Davis Okoye (Johnson). Soon George, along with the other really nasty beasties, is achieving Kong-like proportions and going on the expected rampage all across Wyoming, while Chicago braces itself for impact.

This really is as daft as it sounds, with a screenplay full of tired disaster-movie tropes, under-developed characters and lame exposition. Expectations remain pretty low during the first half, despite some nicely played scenes between Johnson and a very convincing motion-capture George the gorilla. Then the critters go super-sized to the point where they can snack on military aircraft, and stupidity no longer matters. Entertainment has been achieved in grand style.

Why I found the carnage on display here so entertaining when that in the recent Pacific Rim: Uprising bored me to near-oblivion is a tricky one. Maybe it’s because the beasts are relatively few and the action rendered superbly, so that it all stays easy to follow. It’s also gloriously tongue-in-cheek; whatever its deficiencies elsewhere, this film is healthily aware of its own ridiculousness. Plus the climactic sequences are based around a mere handful of central characters, everyone else having been either splatted or sidelined. Whatever the reasons, the final third of the film is a highly satisfying monster smackdown, ‘The Rock’ proving his star credentials simply by not being overshadowed.

Naomie Harris (Oscar-nominated for her role in Moonlight) also makes the best of her dual role as Scientist-Who-Explains-Stuff and Feisty-Romantic-Interest, sparring gamely with Johnson and overcoming some truly dire expository dialogue with panache. Meanwhile Malin Akerman and Jake Lacy play cardboard-cutout corporate villains, whose chief purpose is to get squished nastily in the final act. (That’s not a spoiler – in this kind of movie you know they’re going to buy it, just not how.) And Jeffrey Dean Morgan, The Walking Dead‘s uber-villain Negan, shows up as a swaggering government agent and basically ripping off his own performance from the TV show. When your co-stars are mutant mega-beasts, subtlety is not an option.

Rampage is a film where a city gets cheerfully demolished and where countless anonymous extras die screaming, while the heroes deliver wise-cracks and care more (along with us) about poor gorilla George. It’s full of ridiculous science and ludicrous plotting from beginning to end. But it also boasts great-looking, beautifully sustained action – a 1950s-style creature-feature with 2018 production values. Daft, totally. Throwaway, that too. But it’s daft, throwaway fun. And in the end that’s what matters.

Gut Reaction: Cliched screen-writing got me down at first. Then halfway through I started laughing at the craziness, and pretty well didn’t stop till the end.

Where Are the Women?: Naomie Harris is given smarts and agency as geneticist Dr Kate, and is clearly having a ball in the role. We like that.

Ed’s Verdict: 6/10. Really dopey. But gamely played by the leads (including the guy who did the motion-capture for George) and packing a spectacular final-act monster mash-up. Could be classed as a guilty pleasure – only I don’t even feel guilty.