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The Marksman

Above average Neeson action vehicle
STAR RATING: ***** Saturday Night **** Friday Night *** Friday Morning ** Sunday Night * Monday Morning

Jim (Liam Neeson) is a former Marine, who's recently laid his wife to rest, and whose ranch is about to be foreclosed on by the bank, unless he comes up with a considerable sum of money. As if his life couldn't get complicated enough, he crosses paths with Miguel (Jacob Perez), a young Mexican boy who's fled across the border with his mother, from the drug cartels, led by Mauricio (Juan Pablo Raba) who want them dead. After Miguel's mother meets a tragic end, Jim finds himself taking the boy on an erratic cross country trip to get to safety, while rediscovering himself in the process.

Liam Neeson is now a certifiable action star. It's hard now to recollect a time when he was ever known as a versatile performer, able to lend his talents to a wide array of different roles and genres. From Taken onwards, he has re-invented himself in this new persona, and there's no going back. It's simply now a case of whether each entry into his action CV will be a good or bad one, and The Marksman, while far from without it's flaws, is certainly a cut above the average.

Neeson's Jim has a fairly standard set up for an action hero, the widower who's fallen on hard times. "It's hard to figure out how a guy can follow the rules all his life, and still come falling down" (words to that effect) as he muses at the beginning. It compliments this with the equally standard gets-suddenly-plunged-in to-inexplicable-situation plot line, throwing some typically improbable plot devices and generic, one-dimensional villains in to the mix for good measure. What sets it a cut above the average action caper, however, is the deft little touches of depth and nuance that develop between man and boy on their road trip, that gives it an added human touch, such as Jim with sudden cruelty, crushing the boy's belief in Heaven after suffering a personal tragedy (which he later clears up with him) or a more casual discussion, about things like hot dogs in Chicago!

At heart, it's still just what it says on the tin, a Liam Neeson action movie, but thankfully it's a cut above the average, with a bit more too it than just the standard fair. ***

Last Night in Soho

Striking, original horror fantasy from Edgar Wright
STAR RATING: ***** Saturday Night **** Friday Night *** Friday Morning ** Sunday Night * Monday Morning

Eloise (Thomasin McKenzie) travels up from her home in Cornwall to London, to study fashion design. Obsessed with the 60's and wearing clothes she made herself, the introverted young woman becomes a target of rejection and ridicule by her new dorm mates, and isn't accepted by anybody except John (Michael Ajao), a fellow student. She finds herself a flat, rented out by the forthright Ms. Collins (Diana Rigg) where at night she is transported by forces unknown back to the 60's, where she enters the body of Sandie (Anya Taylor-Joy), a feisty aspiring singer, who is rescued one night by the seemingly friendly Jack (Matt Smith), who, after showing his true colours, plunges Eloise into a devastating, sinister nightmare.

The 1960's could be said to be the first era to have an enduring timelessness about it. A time of sexual liberation and changing social attitudes, it was the first great 'rock n' roll' decade, with fashion and music that set the trends from then on, and a time ripe with potential to set stories against the backdrop to, such as this increasingly dark, unnerving tale from director Edgar Wright.

It speaks to the enduring appeal of the 60's that the central protagonist was born so long after it, but still has such an obsession with it. From the outset, Eloise is clearly marked as a passive misfit, living in her own little world, dancing around in her room at home, making her the perfect fish out of water when she gets from her home in Cornwall to the big smoke that is London. The colourful visual assault when she first steps into the night out in 60's Soho, most notably the brightly lit poster advertising the new James Bond film Thunderball, is one of the film's deftest touches, along with the dazzling soundtrack, featuring the likes of Cilla Black and Petula Clark, that really bring the period setting to life. The central concept, while at first a little far fetched, does have a successful air of intrigue about it that draws you in and keeps you hooked.

It all builds up to a big twist, the big reveal behind everything that's been going on, which takes a detour from the Sixth Sense style path it was going down to a different route, which despite having a certain predictability to it, still manages to come off in a way you weren't completely expecting. Mainly, it's kudos to Wright and a sparkling cast for pulling off an original and striking feature so gorgeously. ****

No Time to Die

A more than satisfying swansong for Daniel Craig as Bond
STAR RATING: ***** Saturday Night **** Friday Night *** Friday Morning ** Sunday Night * Monday Morning

James Bond (Daniel Craig) has retired from active service, and is now living in Jamaica, with Madeleine (Lea Seydoux), the girl from his last encounter with SPECTRE. All seems well, until a series of attempts on his life leads him to think she might be behind it. Meanwhile, in London, an armed break in at a chemical laboratory results in the apparent kidnapping of Dr. Obruchev (David Denicik.) It all leads to the path of incarcerated criminal Lyetsifer Safin (Rami Malek), setting a course for Bond and Madeleine's paths to intersect once again.

It has felt like a lifetime ago now that the massive hype and eager anticipation for Daniel Craig's final Bond film was first about, before the unthinkable global pandemic struck, and the release date got set all the way back to the present day, where it has absolutely smashed global box office records. At five films, Craig has lasted the course as long as the original greats Connery and Moore, his image now as personified in the character as those whose shoes he had to fill.

With that in mind, it's ironic that director Cary Joui Fukanaga pays such an homage to the Bond film starring George Lazenby, who played him only once, in the shape of On Her Majesty's Secret Service, with Louis Armstrong's melodic theme song We Have All the Time in the World playing over the soundtrack at various points, as well as the downbeat fatalism that defined that Bond outing from all the others. Craig's Bond has been a grittier, more hard edged Bond in general, and in its bowing out here, Fukanaga goes Hell for leather, cranking the brutal intensity of Craig's last four Bond entries all together, and giving it everything with a film running over two and a half hours, with some light humour awkwardly inserted in.

It's the final part of what defines Craig's Bond, and in that it's everything you expect it to be, ur it's also a love song to the Bond franchise in general, from the more modern, unflinching stuff, right through to the 'secret organisation' stuff when it began in the 60's nearly sixty years ago, that everyone won't be able to help loving. ****

Britney vs Spears

Revealing documentary that lifts some truth on what went on
STAR RATING: ***** Saturday Night **** Friday Night *** Friday Morning ** Sunday Night * Monday Morning

Britney Spears was the biggest pop phenomenon on the scene in the late 90's and early 00's, topping the charts with a series of hit singles and constantly in the public spotlight. But a few years later, she suffered a very public breakdown, and fell under the control of a Conservatorship, controlled by her father Jamie. Director Erin Lee Carr and journalist Jenny Eliscu delve behind the inner workings of the legal arrangement, exposing what Jamie and the lawyers have to gain.

It's always a sad thing to watch someone go from being famous for their talent and what they do, to being famous for their lives away from that, and whatever daily dramas spring up in their increasingly chaotic lives. This was certainly the case with Britney Spears in the middle to late 00's, when she found herself placed under a Conservatorship for the first time, which has remained in place since then, despite being competent enough to go on three world tours, release several new albums and still make a lot of people behind the thing very rich.

Eliscu and Lee Carr are reassuringly in the pro Britney camp (with, unsurprisingly, hardly anyone in the pro Jamie camp) and are at pains to expose how much Britney doesn't fit the traditional criteria to be put under such an arrangement, and possibly never has done, while still being expected to operate as a performing monkey, working as a cash cow for those around her. The paparazzi have also followed suit, following this apparently mentally unstable person around, swarming around her everywhere like a pack of bees, which can't have helped. She emerges as 'too famous,', and was certainly exposed to too much fame/becoming too much of a cultural icon at such a young age, when she was still developing.

This is ultimately a very tragic tale, of how fame and money can corrupt people, even at the detriment of another person, by those who are meant to care for them and have their best interests at heart. Eliscu and Lee Carr have done a good, thorough job at shining a light on those who are trying to control Britney for their own ends. ****

The Guilty

Fuqua delivers a highly worthwhile American remake (for once)
STAR RATING: ***** Saturday Night **** Friday Night *** Friday Morning ** Sunday Night * Monday Morning

L. A. Police officer Joe Baylor (Jake Gyllengaal) has been demoted to working in an emergency call centre after an incident that created a scandal for the department. A seething ball of stress and frustration, with internalised demons knawing away at him, things take a turn when he answers an emergency call from Emily (Riley Keough) who says her and her son are trapped in a vehicle with Henry (Peter Saarsgard), her partner who's suffering a psychotic episode. Joe seems to have been offered a shot at redemption, but things may not be as they seem...

We've already had the release of the Candyman remake in theatres in recent times, launching Nia Da Costa on to becoming the female director with the highest grossing film of all time under her belt, and now Netflix have released this highly publicised remake of a superb Danish film from just a couple of years ago, with Hollywood star Jake Gyllenhaal in the lead. American remake of foreign language film doesn't make for a promising outcome in general, but with a reliable, assured cast and crew at hand, The Guilty is a rare exception.

Established director Antoine Fuqua is no amateur, and doesn't allow his vision of the original film to become 'Americanised' in any way, taking great care not to overblow or sensationalise anything as so many are prone to, and instead faithfully recreating the isolated atmosphere and feeling of claustrophobia in the continuous ninety minutes of real time we spend in the remote but high pressure and highly stressful environment of the 911 call centre. Gyllenhaal, in the lead, projects a compressed intensity, occasionally spoiled by a lack of restraint with some explosive outbursts, while in roles where we only hear their voices, Keough and Saarsgard capture a sense of vulnerability and desperation.

It can't escape its trappings as a remake of a great film, still fresh itself in everyone's mind, but it's highly faithful and unpretentious, still managing to be as suspenseful and human as the original, even if it's not quite as good. ****

The Voyeurs

Refreshingly explicit thriller, ruined by its own indulgence
STAR RATING: ***** Saturday Night **** Friday Night *** Friday Morning ** Sunday Night * Monday Morning

Pippa (Sydney Sweeney) and Thomas (Justice Smith) are a young couple who live in an apartment in New York City. From the view of their window, they are able to stare across the street into the apartment of fellow young couple Seb (Ben Hardy) and Julia (Natasha Bordizzo) and the open eroticism they enjoy with each other. After a while, what they are able to see crosses boundaries, and when Pippa strikes a friendship with Julia through her work as an optician, it sets in motion a devastating chain of events with deadly consequences.

We live in a time where privacy has become largely redundant. If we don't have apps spying on us through our phones, tracking our movements and relaying it to God knows who, or companies selling our data to whoever we inadvertently allow them, to reality TV shows where we spy in on the private affairs of people we don't know for entertainment they're in on, the age where everything felt secure feels long gone. And so, there is at least a refreshing honesty in what they both know they're doing to the central protagonists of director Michael Mohen's dark erotic thriller, an at least pleasingly adult and unrestrained piece with a deeper undertone.

Disasterously, it fails initially right at the beginning, introducing us to two undercooked, rather unengaging lead characters, who fail to really draw us in until they start their unethical business. This will write it off for some, but for those who stick around, it does develop in to a more dark and compelling piece, with lead star Sweeney displaying a skittish vulnerability as the girl with a dark secret, while part time East Ender Hardy has a strong presence as the domineering third party player, building up to a shocking conclusion with a dark twist, which gives it the feel of an old Tales of the Unexpected episode, but for some reason it decides to prattle on for another twenty or so minutes, completely ruining what could have been a great ending with a ridiculous turn of events.

If it had had the good sense to end when it should have, it could have worked as a dark morality tale, but spoilt by its own indulgence, it leaves a nonsensical lasting impression, despite everything it got right, not least a drowned out new version of Billy Idol's 1983 classic Eyes Without a Face playing over the beginning and end credits. ***


Solid, powerful follow up to The Murder of Stephen Lawrence
STAR RATING: ***** Saturday Night **** Friday Night *** Friday Morning ** Sunday Night * Monday Morning

In 2006, DCI Clive Driscoll (Steve Coogan) arrived at a decommissioned police station to hand over the keys to the property developer who brought it, only to discover contents in some filing cabinets relating to a cold case murder investigation in to the death of Stephen Lawrence, a black teenager knifed to death in a racist attack at a bus stop in London. Driscoll takes charge of a new investigation in to the case, placing greater emphasis on forensic evidence missed the first time round, and internal corruption within the Met, as well as forging a close relationship with Neville (Hugh Quarshie) and Doreen (Sharlene Whyte), Stephen's parents, who are placing all their faith in him at this second chance for justice.

During the summer of 2020, when the death of George Floyd kickstarted a global wave of anti-racism demonstrations, ITV took the chance to broadcast Paul Greengrass's 1999 docu-drama The Murder of Stephen Lawrence, giving everyone another chance to remember the story in authentic detail. Still fresh in the memory of those who saw it, they've fittingly been behind this follow up drama, picking up on events thirteen years later, detailing events in a freshly dramatised fashion.

In their unveiling of the production, ITV chose to show a weekly episode, drawing events out over three weeks, in a similar fashion the BBC took with their recent hit Jimmy McGovern drama Time. Unlike that, most people are aware of how the real life events panned out here, but the effect still leaves you eagerly anticipating the next instalment (if you don't watch all the episodes on ITV hub...I think.) Director Alrick Riley captures his scenes in a dull, grey light which fits the mood just fine. For someone who started out as a comedic actor, Coogan has certainly developed in to a commanding dramatic actor, carrying this with conviction.

It's a story which cannot leave the public consciousness, with new developments emerging all the time and further layers of corruption and decadence at the heart of society and institutions being peeled away as it goes along, and this is a fine production that highlights a brief glimmer of hope and justice within it. ****

What Is Life Worth

Reliably sturdy drama
STAR RATING: ***** Saturday Night **** Friday Night *** Friday Morning ** Sunday Night * Monday Morning

Ken Feinberg (Michael Keaton) is a legal expert, who finds himself appointed as Special Master, along with his Administrative Deputy Camille Biros (Amy Ryan), of the victims compensation fund after the 9/11 terror attacks. However, not everyone finds themselves as high on the pecking order as everyone else, and people are awarded different amounts based on their individual factors. Charles Wolf (Stanley Tucci), who lost his wife in the attacks, forms an independent support group for the victims, making them aware of their rights versus what they may have been told, with strong vocal support from bereaved fireman Lee Quinn (Tate Donovan), plunging Ken into a battle of the heart and mind.

The Earth shattering events of 9/11 have been making headlines again recently, hitting the milestone of the twentieth anniversary, and leaving us to ponder at what a different world we now live in. And so director Sara Colangelo's film has a downbeat timeliness about it, finally arriving on Netflix after premiering at the Cannes Film Festival in January 2020, but obviously being put back because of the Coronavirus pandemic. In a story that reveals more and more disturbing new layers, here we learn of how lives were deemed to be more or less deserving of worth.

Comeback kid Keaton has an assured presence in the lead role, the type of dynamic, humanistic role he can almost play in his sleep, ably propped up by a solid supporting cast, most notably Tucci as an equally learned man, able to match wits with the central protagonist, and the two create an infusing chemistry. They're equally matched by strong, realistic writing, that feels authentic to the story.

It's another 'life is stranger than fiction' tale, and certainly much crueller, showing one of the worse aspects of human nature, with an unfortunate but fitting timeliness to it. ****


Affectionate, ambitious if imperfect reboot
STAR RATING: ***** Saturday Night **** Friday Night *** Friday Morning ** Sunday Night * Monday Morning

In 1977, in the projects of Cabrini Green, Sherman Fields (Michael Hargrove), a local man with a hook for a hand, becomes known as the 'Candyman' because of his fondness for handing out sweets to local kids. However, when some of the sweets are found to contain poison, he finds himself battered to death by the police when they close in on him. Forty two years later, Anthony McCoy (Yalha Abdul-Mateen), an artist, looking for inspiration, crosses paths with William (Colman Domingo), a local man who fills him in on the legend of the Candyman. After a bee sting, Anthony is plunged in to the legend and toward his destiny when a series of murders start.

It's a depressing feeling, when you start to realise how old you're getting when remakes of films are coming out and you can remember the (however vaguely) when the original came out. And so Nia Da Costa's update of the original Candyman arrives (which has made her the most successful female director of all time, or something.) With the social justice trends that have spread around the world after events such as the George Floyd killing, it's certainly a very timely and relevant piece, eager to shine a light on current topics, such as police brutality towards the black community and broader issues in wider society.

Da Costa obviously has a deep affection and love of the original film, from her depiction of a modern, gentrified Cabrini Green as opposed to the deprivation in the '92 version, through to the inclusion of original cast member Vanessa Williams in the revelatory scene of the story, as well as references to Helen Lyle from the original film when recounting the CM folklore. Although not the central crux of the story, she is careful to include the original 1800's source of the Candyman legend, and while it doesn't fit in altogether neatly with the core story, it's presence definitely elevates it.

The story doesn't come altogether all as well as the original did, and it's a lot more sensitive and restrained with the blood and gore (resulting in a 15 certificate of all things!) But it's still that rare of things, an inspired remake, with some relevant social commentary to make. It's made by a director with a love and affection of the original, rather than a cheap cash in, and that can only be a good thing. ***


Flawed but enthralling thriller
STAR RATING: ***** Saturday Night **** Friday Night *** Friday Morning ** Sunday Night * Monday Morning

Beckett (John David Washington) is on holiday with his girlfriend April (Alicia Vikander) in an exclusive resort in Greece. One night, they are forced to take a detour, and a car accident occurs. Beckett awakens in hospital, while Lena is tragically killed. Met with some interference when he discusses taking her body home, upon leaving the hospital, Beckett stumbles upon a conspiracy that sees him pursued by two crooked cops, drawing him in to something bigger and more deadly than he could have imagined.

Fresh from his star-making turn in Christopher Nolan's most recent big budget mind bender Tenet, John David Washington follows up this big event piece with this smaller scale, but more grounded thriller from Netflix. With a title emphasising the central character, it's fitting given it focuses centrally on him, making his way through his increasingly convoluted chain of events, and not breaking away throughout.

Director Ferdinando Cito Filomarino creates an eerie sense of isolationism and claustrophobia with the sunny Mediterranean outback, and deserted side streets our protagonist makes his way through, as well as a genuine air of mystery and suspense as to what's going on and the motivations behind it. He also taps in to the current social climate, with the depiction of a lone black man begging for help from the public who see him chased by police he says are accosting him for the wrong reasons. It's let down, though, by an overly drawn out ending that crushes the suspense rather than keeping you on edge, and an increasing sense of disbelief as events proceed.

It's flaws stop it from being the complete sum of its parts, but Washington is still a commanding leading man with oodles of potential, and this is nothing to be sniffed at on his resume. ***

Athlete A

Peels away another layer of the scale of abuse
STAR RATING: ***** Saturday Night **** Friday Night *** Friday Morning ** Sunday Night * Monday Morning

A series of young women across the USA held dreams of competing on the US Olympics Team, determined to go all the way, but were subjected to shattering abuse from their coaches and trainers, under the organisation USA Gymnastics, run by businessman Stephen Penny. But it was one man, Olympic Doctor Larry Nasser, who became the subject of a series of sexual abuse allegations, and following the testimonies of various young women, was sent down, only for his misconduct to reveal a wider, further reaching circle of corruption and silence across the industry.

Within the space of the last ten or so years, the veneer of respectability that covered the seemingly wholesome institutions that we all loved has come crashing down, and we live with a far less blinkered time, with greater awareness of the abuses that go on behind the scenes. It's now widely accepted that abuse and predators lurk within every high profile institution around the world, and this unsettling documentary depicts the goings on in the world of the US Olympics.

There's a depressingly familiar pattern on display here that allows the abuse to happen in settings like this, and for the abusers to get away with it for as long as it does and abuse as many people as they do. A feeling of not being believed, feelings of fear of reporting the abuser, inaction on account of the reputational damage to the body in question, loss of deals and sponsorships (money), people covering their own backs...it's understandable and very sad that people with a desire to follow their dreams will now feel very distrustful and disillusioned with how those in charge behave.

Success, but at what cost? That's the sad, disheartening message at the core of this documentary, a sad tale of lives being destroyed and dreams being shattered through no fault of those it happens to. ****

The Courier

Smooth, assured production, ticking all the right boxes
STAR RATING: ***** Saturday Night **** Friday Night *** Friday Morning ** Sunday Night * Monday Morning

At the end of the Cold War, despite a placating front, the world is on the brink of catastrophe, as the USSR gains nuclear might, and shows a willingness to use it against the United States. Oleg Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze), a concerned dissenter and high ranking member of the Russian army, brings his concerns to the attention of the American government, who appoint Agent Dickie Franks (Angus Wright) and CIA official Emily Donovan (Rachel Brosnahan) to persuade salesman Greville Wynn (Benedict Cumberbatch) to pose as someone interested in doing business with the government, while smuggling out details of the Russian nuclear capability, as the Cuban Missile Crisis looms on the horizon.

After surviving two world wars, within a matter of a few years, the world once again found itself on the brink of annihilation, although out of plain sight of the onlooking world. The Courier is one of a handful of films to highlight this uneasy and uncertain time, along with such films as the 2000 Roger Donaldson effort Thirteen Days. It's certainly ripe for potential for cinematic content, with all the comings and goings that went on against the backdrop of it, and here director Dominic Cooke has secured the story another successful blow.

Cumberbatch carries the film assuredly, playing the role of the genteel English chap plunged in to a situation way above his comfort zone, almost in his sleep, and it's hard to think of anyone who could have been better than him. A strong, solid supporting cast help keep the boat floating, including Ninidze, Brosnahan and Wright. Director Cooke manages to generate a genuine atmosphere and sense of tension, that keep proceedings flowing with a pleasant ease.

With the cinemas back open and running full steam ahead, it's nice to see intelligent, relevant fare like this on the big screen in amongst Fast and the Furious 30 and Marvel's Whatever. ****

Boss Level

Uneven but above average sci-fi thriller
STAR RATING: ***** Saturday Night **** Friday Night *** Friday Morning ** Sunday Morning * Monday Morning

Roy Pulver (Frank Grillo) is a former special forces operative, who wakes up every day to relive the moment he was killed at the hands of a group of assassins. After thwarting their efforts to kill him in various differing ways each day, he is left to retrace the events leading up to his death, calling in on his research scientist ex Jemma (Naomi Watts), who's discovered her boss, Colonel Ventor (Mel Gibson) is up to something dodgy, and may hold the key to his present predicament.

With a minimum of publicity, Boss Level, the latest film to explore the well trodden concept of time travel, arrives on Amazon. Director Joe Carnahan employs the same style he used in his previous Smokin' Aces, at least at the start, with a slick, snazzy visual style that jumps out and grabs you by the throat. The video game style 'Attempt No. ...' that spring up on the screen alluding to each effort to kill the lead character give a frivolous, throw away impression that conflicts tonally with the darker, more reflective feel the writing develops later on.

Cast wise, Russo has presence as a cynical, wise-cracking action hero, with the veneer of a modern day Bruce Willis, and he's matched by Gibson, who in his later years, employs the same zaniness and intensity that used to make the action heroes he played in his younger days so cool work well in villainous roles. The plot requires a bit of sticking with, but if you give it chance to develop, it emerges as more intelligent and considered than it at first seemed, even if it sadly does allow itself to meander away and drag on at the end.

It's Groundhog Day meets Kill Bill, basically, a worthwhile effort that, while maybe not quite the sum of its parts, is still a superior, above average film that is ultimately a pleasant surprise. ***


A sad missed opportunity for Shyamalan to shine again
STAR RATING: ***** Saturday Night **** Friday Night *** Friday Morning ** Sunday Night * Monday Morning

A group of high end holidaymakers, including teenagers Trent (Alex Wolff) and Maddox (Thomasin McKenzie) who have gone along with their parents Guy (Gael Garcia Bernal) and Prisca (Vicky Grieps), make their getaway to the exclusive resort where they hope to relax and unwind in the sparkling scenery. However, when they arrive on the beach, with fellow guests Charles (Rufus Sewell), a doctor, and his younger partner Chrystal (Abbey Lee), Patricia (Nikki Amuka-Bird) and her husband Jarin (Ken Leung) and a few others, they mysteriously start to age.........and had better get to the bottom of it.

By now, the name M Night Shyamalan really should have served as a red alert to avoid at all costs. After bursting onto the screen over twenty years ago with the jaw dropping, highly original Sixth Sense, from 2002 onwards his output took a steady decline in standards, to the point where each successive film became gradually more ridiculous and nonsensical, and eventually people just couldn't be bothered any more. But something about Old, his latest offering, showed a spark of promise that had been absent for a while, another high concept production that had a spark of potential. But sadly squandered it.

If I was sensing something that wasn't there, it seems the producers weren't, as the absence of any press screenings in itself should have sparked a red flag. But I gave it a go, and built up some high expectations. I really tried to get in to it, but a premise as far fetched as this first needs to establish some connection with its characters, to flesh them out a little and get under their skin. Sadly, none of them come off as anything more than cardboard cut outs, who it's impossible to care anything for, or care what happens to them. And with that massive barrier in place, the ensuing outlandish insanity of the story is further hampered in having any appeal.

It would be nice one day for a director like Shyamalan, who is at least known for inspired and original ideas, to one day strike lucky again with another winner, but here's just hoping he manages to put it all together right. **


Real life drama dressed up like a bad '90s blockbuster
STAR RATING: ***** Saturday Night **** Friday Night *** Friday Morning ** Sunday Night * Monday Morning

Alexey Karpushin (Danila Kozlovskiy) is a burned out firefighter (no pun intended) battling the bottle and trying to rekindle a romance with old flame Olga (Oksana Akinshana), and strike a bond with her son. Then an unthinkable disaster occurs, when the Chernobyl nuclear reactor explodes, resulting in mass injury and death. But then Alexey, Valera the Engineer (Filipp Avdeev) and Boris the military diver (Nikoly Kozak) must race against time to cut off the flow from a reservoir that is slowly heating up with contaminated water.

The events at the Chernobyl nuclear reactor in 1986 remain embedded in the global consciousness years after it occurred, the biggest showcase of the perils of nuclear power in living memory. And, like every major disaster that gains worldwide publicity, there is potential to make a (hopefully respectful) dramatisation of. Rather than getting the Hollywood treatment, here is a Russian produced effort, from star and director Danila Kozlovskiy. The trouble is, maybe he watched too many corny Hollywood blockbusters as a kid.

Netflix deliver this as a slick, polished big scale production, but it soon becomes clear it's a smaller scale Eastern production, with scabbier production values that start to show. Rather than explore the potential of the human drama on display, Kozlovskiy instead follows the template of a standard corny '90s Hollywood blockbuster, with all the standard tropes, from the alpha male hero battling his demons, and stand tall heroics. Verging generously over the two hour mark, it's also indulgently overlong to further compound its problems.

What could have been a searing examination of the lives of those most closely affected by this massive human tragedy, is instead just a curious homage to the sort of daft big scale blockbusters that got left behind in the 90's. **


Eye opening ecological documentary
STAR RATING: ***** Saturday Night **** Friday Night *** Friday Morning ** Sunday Night * Monday Morning

Filmmaker Ali Tabrizi became concerned about the plight of ocean life, when he discovered how much plastic waste was ending up in it (and the animals that inhabit it) and went on a crusade to pressure businesses in to being more responsible with how they use it. But then he discovered that the real danger was to marine life, including sharks, dolphins, whales and even fish that ends up on our dinner plate, when he learned the damage commercial fishing methods were causing, and exactly how vital to mankind's survival the underwater world is.

It's pretty hard to move these days without hearing about 'climate change', and the dangers we're all facing if we don't all act. It must get pretty jarring if it's not something you're overly passionate about, and it all follows a pretty similar narrative, but here filmmaker Ali Tabrizi casts a light on an ecological crisis that evidence suggests is causing a bigger problem than anything you hear about in the media. It's all presented in a direct, unrestrained way, with narration from Tabrizi that gives it the feeling of being a feature length Panorama episode.

Tabrizi makes some pretty audacious claims in his film, regarding the reliability of 'ocean safe' labels and the baffling silence from major environmental organisations to highlight the findings he makes, that they don't seem to have been in any rush to mitigate, a la McDonald's's swift response to Morgan Spurlock's claims in 2004's Super Size Me. If his findings aren't shocking enough, then the raw, unflinching footage he presents of actual, bloody whale slaughter, in the Japanese seas and an especially unpleasant display of the annual Faroe Islands whale slaughter, certainly is and will definitely have your stomach turning

With environmental matters being a hot social topic at the moment (at least, in the media) Ali Tabrizi here shines a light on a matter not getting as much attention in the mainstream media, that could potentially be more catastrophic then anything that's been claimed. I mean, fish and chips is one of our national dishes, and...it doesn't bear thinking about.****

The Little Things

Misfiring crime noir caper
STAR RATING: ***** Saturday Night **** Friday Night *** Friday Morning ** Sunday Night * Monday Morning

It's the early 1990's, and a serial killer is roaming through Los Angeles. Kene County Deputy Sheriff John 'Deke' Deacon (Denzel Washington) is a burnt out cop, who pushed himself to a heart attack after becoming embroiled in a case, who finds himself sent down to LA on a simple evidence gathering assignment, only to lock horns with hotshot young LASD detective Jim Baxter (Remi Malek) who's eager to make an impression. Deacon ends up lending his expertise in catching the killer, only to dredge up a dark secret from his past.

No genre staple in the thriller department has ever proven quite as inexhaustible as the serial killer plot line. No end of fresh takes on the theme continue to saturate the literary and film worlds. And here writer/director John Lee Hancock delivers his contribution to the screen, that passed by without much fanfare as the cinemas cautiously reopened again. And, despite the best intentions, that ultimately might be just as well for everyone.

On the surface, all the right ingredients are in place to have a decent stab at a worthy effort at reworking the formula to produce something memorable, but the result is a dull, uninvolving effort that fails to tread any new ground or generate any sense of tension or suspense. At its considerable length, that's a real problem. Even the usually energetic Washington doesn't seem to be feeling it, with more dynamism from rising co star Malik, who still doesn't quite have the star gravitas to get top billing over his co star. There are subtle nods to superior sk films from times before (such as the girl driving and singing at the beginning, a la Silence of the Lambs) which only adds to its woes, and by the end Hancock's pretentiously trying to aim for some film noir vibe, infusing some old soul classics over the soundtrack, apparently sensing the mystery itself isn't captivating enough.

While the lead protagonist might theorise how it's the 'little things' that ultimately lead to cases being solved at the non-payoff of an ending, in reality it's sadly what leads to films not being the sum of their parts. **

Three Families

A daring drama, but sadly not given enough air to breathe
STAR RATING: ***** Saturday Night **** Friday Night *** Friday Morning ** Sunday Night * Monday Morning

Whilst most of the world has moved on, in recent times Northern Ireland's abortion laws have failed to catch up with the rest of the world, and only a landmark recent ruling has caused this to change. In 2013, Theresa Ryan (Sinead Keenan) lives with her partner Mark (Owen McDonnell) and her daughter Orla (Lola Petticrew) from a previous relationship. Their world is plunged in to chaos when they learn Lola is pregnant, and wants an abortion. Meanwhile, lawyer Jonathan Kennedy (Colin Morgan) learns his wife Hannah (Amy James-Kelly) is pregnant, but that the foetus has an inoperable condition that will cause it's life to end upon birth.

The producers of the controversial, uneasy drama Three Girls have followed up that production with another true life drama that steps on uneasy ground, called Three Families. Creating something with an almost identical title does give it a bit of a cheapening effect, even if the product itself is perfectly sound. In a time of extremes, abortion is a hot potato topic that those with right leaning views or those of a strong religious bend still have quite powerful views on, but few places around the western world still have very restrictive legal stances on it as NI did until only recently.

This is certainly highly charged stuff, dramatising a situation that had profound implications for those living in the little corner of the world where the law was how it was in what were only very recent times, and director Alex Kalyminos has chosen two highly stirring tales to depict the situation to everyone, with solid performances from all involved. Sadly, with only two episodes (down from TG three!) the production isn't given enough time to explore the story in quite as much depth and substance to do it justice.

While it does leave you feeling a little short changed, without the emotionally impacting payoff it could have, it's still compelling drama, shining a light on the detrimental impact of staying stuck in the past. ***


Unflinching prison drama with reliable, solid performances
STAR RATING: ***** Saturday Night **** Friday Night *** Friday Morning ** Sunday Night * Monday Morning

Mark Cobden (Sean Bean) is convicted of causing death by drink driving, and sentenced to two years in prison. Completely unfamiliar and out of place in the prison environment, he becomes an uneasy part of the under resourced and chaotic world inhabiting the four walls. He forms an unlikely friendship with hardened prison guard Eric McNally (Stephen Graham) whose own son is in a different prison, and who finds himself forced into a drug supply operation to ensure his safety.

After their initial striking collaboration in Tracie's Story in the Accused series, writer Jimmy McGovern and stars Sean Bean and Stephen Graham have reunited for this searing examination of prison life, hoping to regenerate the same magic that made that work. The two stars are two of the most dynamic actors the UK has produced, and so generate a natural chemistry together in this predictably bleak drama.

And, as the driving force of it all, it's the performances that should get the main thrust of the critique. Graham fits in to his role naturally as the firm but fair prison guard, weary and dejected by how the prison world should work and how it does, but like in his Accused role, Bean projects a masculinity that puts him at odds with his fish out of water role. Even when another prisoner calls him 'grandad', it feels inapplicable. That doesn't mean he's any less impressive as a civilised, gentle man, saying 'please' and 'thank you' to everyone in a world that spins in a less polite manner, and a much less restrained one. His inability to deal with a bully who keeps stealing his food and barging in on his phone calls has a chilling realism to it.

It's all captured in a suitably bleak, blurry style, largely humourless and unflinching in its raw depiction of crime and punishment, in a flawed system that leads to brutalisation rather than reform, and where the vulnerable and disturbed are warehoused rather than helped (with Graham's character in one scene noting how 'half the people in here should be in mental hospitals'), but with some flourishes of light and hope occasionally breaking through the darkness. ****

The Woman in the Window

Imperfect but still suspenseful thrillers the somwt
STAR RATING: ***** Saturday Night **** Friday Night *** Friday Morning ** Sunday Night * Monday Morning

Following a traumatic incident, child psychologist Anna Fox (Amy Adams) now lives a reclusive life in her New York apartment, with only her cat and downstairs co tenant David (Wyatt Russell) for company. After an encounter with Ethan (Fred Hechinger), a young man who lives across the road, she becomes convinced he's being abused by his father, Alistair (Gary Oldman), before witnessing what she believes is a brutal murder. She finds herself plunged into a nightmarish scenario, where her very sanity is pushed over the edge.

The snoopiness of neurotic single women is becoming a common theme in modern thrillers, after 2016's The Girl On the Train, and now this film with an almost similar title, and similarly adapted from a potentially far superior novel. A lot of us are sometimes guilty of staring out the window and imagining the lives of those we see pass by, or who live across from us, but there's always the chance we'll see something horrific, but could our minds play tricks on us, and how will how people see us affect how we're seen?

Director Joe Wright constructs a tight, claustrophobic atmosphere in the narrow, confined space of Anna's apartment, in the dark gloom of night, with her mounting paranoia and agoraphobia closing in on her. As the protagonist in question, Adams creates a convincing aura about her as a lone, emotionally unstable woman, while in support Oldman is barely contained, his trademark intensity blaring through, and even Anthony Mackie shines in a walk on supporting role.

There is a genuine desire to find out how it all gets resolved, and while it never really comes together in the most intriguing or explosive manner it could have, it still takes you on a nice little journey of suspense while it lasts. ***

Things Heard & Seen

Ridiculous horror farrago
STAR RATING: ***** Saturday Night **** Friday Night *** Friday Morning ** Sunday Night * Monday Morning

George Claire (James Norton), a lecturer, and his wife Catherine (Amanda Seyfried) move in to a new home in a remote location, with their daughters Franny (Ana Sophia Claire) and Audrey (Kristen Griffith.) There is a history within the house that follows it around, and it soon becomes clear that there is a ghostly presence in the place. As Catherine becomes closer to handyman Eddie (Alex Neustaedter) and tensions and indiscretions mount between the couple, it all builds to a horrifying conclusion.

Out of nowhere, Netflix offers up it's latest offering, a spooky supernatural effort from joint directors Shari Springer Bergman and Robert Pulcini. Originality doesn't seem to be the order of the day, with the contrived, cliched set up of a haunted house. While this never leaves your mind, Bergman and Pulcini's film has far more to contend with than merely this.

The two directors have quite lofty ambitions for such a familiar plot line, but wind up with an overlong and overwrought piece of work that desperately tries to be something more, but ends up all convoluted, building up to an incomprehensible ending that many others have struggled to make sense of. Norton and Seyfried create a convincing chemistry as the married young couple whose happy set up is creaking beneath the surface, but trapped within the confines of such unsustainable material, it's all just wasted.

It may have been intended as a creative new take on a well trodden story, but it winds up as something best neither seen or heard. **

Without Remorse

Distracting enough, but ultimately forgettable
STAR RATING: ***** Saturday Night **** Friday Night *** Friday Morning ** Sunday Night * Monday Morning

After a mission goes wrong, Navy SEAL John Kelly (Michael B. Jordan) is glad to return home to be with his pregnant wife Pam (Lauren London) and settle down for a bit. However, his happiness is short lived, when Pam and his unborn child are killed, and he narrowly survives a home invasion. In his quest for justice, he encounters obstruction from top brass Secretary Clay (Guy Pearce) and Robert Ritter (Jamie Bell), but with the help of friend and fellow SEAL Karen (Jodie Turner-Smith) he heads to Russia to take revenge. Kelly is sprung from jail for this to lead a special operation, where he learns there is more behind his family's death than meets the eye.

In the absence of anything else more appealing to watch on Saturday night, Amazon Prime offered up this effort, promoting itself as an adaptation of one of the late author Tom Clancy's work, but with a standard, formulaic revenge plot line that would serve well in an average Steven Seagal film. And indeed, it mostly plays out this way, with the standard dull, grey lighting and humourless script that is the order of the day these days.

In the lead role, Jordan fits the bill as a muscular action hero and has an effective presence, with decent support from co star Turner-Smith, with whom he shares a convincing chemistry. In more background roles, established stars Bell and Pearce are well cast as shady military brass with more of a stake in the proceedings as events roll on, and the plot becomes more intricate and interwoven, with some unexpected twists and red herrings thrown up to keep it interesting.

Well made and intelligent enough to hold your attention, but ultimately pretty perfunctory and workmanlike, and without laughs, so it won't linger in your memory long after you've seen it. ***

The Mauritanian

Solid, absorbing legal procedural drama
STAR RATING: ***** Saturday Night **** Friday Night *** Friday Morning ** Sunday Night * Monday Morning

In the aftermath of 9/11, the US State Department is under pressure to round up suspects, at home and abroad. Mohamedou Ould Slahi (Tahoe Rahim) finds himself taken from his home in Mauritius, placed on a rendition flight and placed in Guantanamo Bay. His case attracts the attention of defence attorney Nancy Hollander (Jodie Foster) and her assistant Teri Duncan (Shailene Bailey.) Under the terms of Habeus Corpus, Hollander knows that Slahi can't be held overly long without being charged, and as she and military prosecutor Stuart Couch (Benedict Cumberbatch) dig deeper in to the case, they uncover evidence that casts everything in a new light.

Years after it happened, 9/11 and the events that followed it are still fresh in everyone's minds, and can still be felt in the political climate today. One of the scariest ones has got to be America's standing as the superpower of the world, and how it can abuse that power to it's whim, which can be witnessed in the shocking amount of people from around the world hoisted away from their homes, and held for years without being charged or having a trial, one of which this sprawling legal drama from director Kevin McDonald explores.

Performances wise, Foster is effortlessly effective in the role, with just the perfect presence and it's hard to think who would have done it better. Cumberbatch is also reliably solid in support, with a commanding presence you've come to expect off him, and doing a great American accent. But stealing the show is relative newcomer Rahim, still fresh from hit BBC drama The Serpent, as the central protagonist, sometimes cracking but still trying to keep his humanity together in spite of his desperate predicament. Director Macdonald also makes his contribution to the proceedings, with neat touches, like closing the screen in during the scenes with Slahi in the detention centre, to add to the feeling of claustrophobia and being trapped.

It's all rounded off with some horrifying true life statistics regarding those incarcerated and those charged, leaving us with the uncomfortable realisation that the subject's situation is far from unique, and making you question America's legitimacy in its role as the world's policeman. ****

Caroline Flack: Her Life and Death

Sad but insightful documentary of a life that took a wrong turn
STAR RATING: ***** Saturday Night **** Friday Night *** Friday Morning ** Sunday Night * Monday Morning

Caroline Flack rose to fame presenting The Xtra Factor, a spin off series on ITV2 of ITV's The X Factor, with co host Olly Murs, and the pair eventually took over from Dermot O' Leary hosting the main X Factor show on ITV, only to get dropped when ratings plummeted when they started. On top of this, Flack was subjected to a vicious online hate campaign, for what happened on the show and her tentative romance with the younger Harry Styles, lead singer of pop band One Direction. She had luck again, presenting the popular Love Island again on ITV2, but after a well publicised domestic abuse case with her boyfriend, she ended up taking her own life. A series of those closest to her, including Murs, here offer their thoughts about her and what drove her over the edge. I must start this review with a rather blunt confession. I didn't have much time for Caroline Flack in life. Rather harsh, but simply the truth. I didn't have big feelings about her either way, but I just didn't care much for the whole 'reality TV' world she embodied. It's a sad indication of things that I'm reviewing something involving her now she's died than anything she made while she was alive, especially considering, in hindsight, she definitely had talents, in singing and dancing. Of all the things in this sad documentary, you have to wonder why these brilliant talents didn't hold her in the public eye, rather than the sad, tawdry world of 'reality TV.'

Through the use of home video footage and stock TV film, we capture the world of an individual desperately yearning for acceptance and love, leading her to make some bad decisions in her personal life. Someone who was drawn to fame for this, but didn't consider the downside that came with it. There are disturbing parallels with her persona and Robin Williams, someone putting on a wild, crazy front to cover up the cracks underneath it. It's unsettling to see how someone can be so well known, and appear to have everything, and have so much hidden torment underneath. Yes, people commit suicide every day, and it's the same for them, but if the case of a well known person can lead to wider discussion, then all the better. They say people achieve greatness in death. Flack may not be a modern day Da Vinci, but the added sadness of this tragic tale is that she had the talent to be, rather than the miserable, turgid 'reality TV' star she sadly was. ****

Small Axe: Education
Episode 5, Season 1

Thought provoking, socially relevant conclusion to the SA anthology
STAR RATING: ***** Saturday Night **** Friday Night *** Friday Morning ** Sunday Night * Monday Morning

Twelve year old Kingsley Smith (Kenyah Sandy) is interested in astrology, and wants to be an astronaut when he grows up. At school, he struggles with reading, and causes disruption in class as a result. He finds himself sent to a special needs school, despite not really meeting the criteria for it, where the staff don't care and he encounters racism. His case spurs the local Caribbean community in to action, revealing deep rooted inequality and bias in the education system. Throughout his collection of SA films, director Steve McQueen has returned to the Britain of his formative years in the 1970's/1980's and focused on several subjects in various situations living the black experience at the time. With his final instalment, he kind of goes back to the beginning, to a time of innocence and hope, to be sadly crushed like a flower in the park by a system designed to see that hope crushed. As a young actor having to carry such mature, socially significant material, newcomer Sandy effortlessly manages to make Kingsley a thoroughly believable product of the education system at the time, full of potential and opportunity, but not of the right background to help it lift off, or for those in authority to recognise it. And so it helps that the writing is spot on too, from Kingsley's mother, stressed out working long hours for low pay, but still determined to get the best for her son, to his dad who's depressingly resigned to his son living a life of mundanity, even to his believable home life with his sister. Through the intervention of some dedicated community activists determined to spearhead change, it finishes on a note of hope, that Kingsley could possibly achieve his dream after all. And, almost to reward his audience for sticking with the whole anthology despite the heaviness, McQueen finally injects some light relief, most notably Kingsley's unprofessional tutor forcing a tone deaf rendition of The Animal's House of the Rising Sun on him and the rest of the class. ****

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