Ma 2019 ***

maThe latest Blumhouse shocker has a striking casting coup up its sleeve, but not a great deal else to recommend it. The perennially sweet Octavia Spencer has presumably bored herself silly playing kindly, matronly ladies in films like Hidden Figures, or even playing God in The Shack; as executive producer, she’s fashioned a horror role for herself that runs very much contrary to the image she’s cultivated until now. A group of teenagers have nowhere to go in a small town, until local vets assistant they call Ma offers them her basement as a place to hang out. Ma’s gift, complete with booze and snacks, comes at a price; she’s got an ulterior motive, and means nothing but harm. A  remarkable supporting cast has been assembled, including Allison Janney, Luke Evans and Juliette Lewis, but they all take a back seat to Spencer’s Ma. Even when the action gets rather too sadistic for comfort, and there’s some nasty stuff here, Spencer relishes the task of taking her kindly features and seems to enjoy suggesting considerable malice lurking behind that familiar smile.

Godzilla: King of the Monsters ***

GODZILLA: KING OF MONSTERSThe third entry in Legendary’s constantly creaking MonsterVerse franchise is a somewhat turgid affair, lit by a few bright moments and performances. With Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla offering action but little to remember in terms of cast or character, Michael Dougherty’s sequel pulls a new family to the fore, with Godzilla-experts and concerned parents Kyle Chandler and Vera Farmiga struggling with a marriage in free-fall and their daughter Madison (Millie Bobby Brown) caught in the middle. Meanwhile the Monarch group featured in the first two films has plans to revive over a dozen sleeping monsters from various locations, with Godzilla assigned to sweep up the mess when things get out of hand. King of the Monsters has a better cast than it deserves, including Sally Hawkins and Charles Dance, but it’s Millie Bobby Brown that really makes an impact and provides an original through-line for an otherwise rote monster-movie. With Ken Wantanabe regularly popping up to solemnly intone platitudes about Godzilla being our friend, King of the Monsters never convincingly marries the large-scale carnage with the human drama; a pity, because Madison’s character is considerably more compelling than Godzilla himself.

The Secret Life of Pets 2 2019 ***

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The cheerful minion pictured struggling to control a pack of dogs during the opening logos of Chris Renaud’s sequel tells a story; the Illumination studio is best known for the Despicable Me franchise, and must have breathed a collective sigh of relief when Secret Life of Pets proved a bona fide hit, the sixth biggest film of 2016. This animated follow-up offers much the same fare, with Patton Oswalt replacing Louis C.K. as the central character, Max, but the rest of the cats and dogs much the same as before. A new addition, Rooster (Harrison Ford) is on hand as a farm pooch who teaches Max to stand up for himself; elsewhere there’s diversions into the world of circus animals, while Jenny Slate’s Gidget provides the biggest laughs as the tiny dog passes herself off as a cat to infiltrate a cat lady’s cat-infested house. The sunny disposition that’s Illumination’s trademark so far is much in evidence here; The Secret Life of Pets franchise makes it look easy to entertain families, with simple, pleasing gags that offer universal appeal.

Rocketman 2019 ***

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Bohemian Rhapsody casts a long shadow over Rocketman, which not only mines a similar character with a similar goal during a similar 70’s period, but also has the same manager (John Reid) as a central character. Without the sentimental response that Freddie Mercury elicited, and sans the huge climax of the Live Aid gig in Rhapsody, Rocketman has to go for something different; with Elton John very much alive, still standing and able to approve all creative choices, the result is a fun if self-regarding look at a great musician and performer. Played by Taron Egerton without much flair, John rises from a talented boy in shorts hammering away on the pub’s piano to a suicidal rock legend quaffing booze and drugs as if there’s no tomorrow. Having a good time is portrayed as Elton’s downfall; he obstacles are all in John’s head, which makes for a highly personal if rather un-dramatic narrative. There are some odd decisions, like having all John’s music fully formed from his early years; he sings Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting at an age when he can hardly have known what he’s singing about. But the music carries the film, making this an amusing fantasia of outrageous costumes, high-end eyewear and flattering fabrications about the star.