Dora and the Lost City of Gold 2019 ***

There are, to put it mildly, a few odd turns in James Bobin’s adaptation of the famous Nickelodeon tv show. An opening title card focusing the attention of young minds of the issues of stereotyping? Talking monkeys and foxes, voiced by Danny Trejo and Benicio del Toro? A little strange but….a lengthy slam on rave culture delivered by Michael Pene complete with a human mouth beat-box performance of a rave tune? How about an animated sequence when the main characters are hallucinating on some mysterious jungle substance that makes Eugenio Deberez’s character want to strip naked and run through the jungle? This version of Dora has a lot going for it, not least the ideal Dora in the form of Instant Family’s Isabela Moner, who manages to make her bright without being insufferable. But even the main plot, which gives Dora a mission to survive in the jungle of a LA school, seems a little off message, and the venomous behaviour of the villains who kidnap her seems rather mean. Emphasis of breaking wind, toilet breaks and swearing also seems a little lowest common denominator. But the second half of the film, where the puzzles and intrigue take over, gets Dora onto more solid ground. Perhaps the rather muted box-office reception for Dora indicates a failure to appeal to the young female demographic intended; by aiming at so many different targets, Bobin’s film doesn’t focus enough on satisfying anyone. And the distinction between exploring and treasure hunting, carefully made to tick environmental boxes, feels like we’re being lectured when we should be outside enjoying ourselves. Still, this Dora is enough fun to be going on with, and its goody-two-shoes heroine is probably preferable to the sexist stereotypes of Jumanji.

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Angel Has Fallen 2019 ****

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Mike Banning (Gerry Butler) is a burnt-out case. His health is failing, his emotional range is narrowing, he barely recognises his own wife. Of course, that could be because she’s not played by the same actress (Radha Mitchell) as in the first two films, Olympus Has Fallen and London Has Fallen, but Banning’s loyalty to the President is unshakable. Aaron Eckhart clearly didn’t fancy a third outing either, so Morgan Freeman is hurriedly sworn in as Commander In Chief Allan Trumbull for Ric Roman Waugh’s cheeky and entertaining film. Trumbull comes under attack from an airborne army of explosive drones, and in the eyes of the authorities, Banning is linked to this treasonous act of terrorism. Fleeing the scene, Banning hides out with his estranged dad, played by Nick Nolte in a full Yosemite Sam/Dirty Santa/prospector peeing–through-his-knee length beard get-up (‘I don’t do medication,’ says Nolte, in a knowing wink to the audience). Banning and his dad set out to find out who was responsible, while FBI agent Jada Pinkett Smith is in hot pursuit in the style of The Fugitive. Although various personnel have jumped ship, Angel Has Fallen is easily the best of the trilogy, and arguably Butler’s best action film yet. Decent support (Danny Huston, Tim Blake Nelson) and improved action scenes including a truck chase through a forest, and a slam-bang shoot-out in a high-tech hospital climax that really deliver the goods. And hewn-from-granite leading man Butler is the happy centre that a straight-forward action movie requires; lily-livered liberal film critics may scoff, but a big man, a big gun and instant justice will make Angel Has Fallen a guilty pleasure for all sides of the political spectrum.

Bludgeon: Orcas of the Land 2019 ****

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Bludgeon: Orcas of the Land is the somewhat lugubrious title for this highly-accessible New Zealand documentary which deals with the much misunderstood subject of medieval combat. Renaissance fairs has been the butt of jokes for decades now; we’re conditioned to laugh at men fighting in costume, although given that they’re physically active, they’re competitive, they’re creative, they’re motivated and getting exercise out in the open air, there’s probably a lot worse that a jock or a geek could do with his time. This is not live-action role-playing with elves and mages, but a physical content involving weapons, armoury and real risks; Andy Deere and Ryan Heron’s film shows armour unceremoniously cut off by medics as participants are whisked to A and E.

Audiences may come to scoff, but while the film-makers accept that there’s humour involved here, Bludgeon wisely doesn’t go down that road. Evoking a medieval quest with animated chapter headings, Bludgeon kicks off with Nick Waiariki, a Kiwi who is trying out for the Steel Thorns group of fighters. With infectious enthusiasm, Waiariki serves as a guide for the novice as to the rules and ethos of the sport. He clearly loves loves talking about it, and it would be churlish to deny the sincerity of his glee in getting close to the New Zealand team, who are limbering up for a world-wide competition in Denmark.

Deere and Heron cleverly disguise some of the details, keeping us keen to find out exactly what the various trials and competitions will look like. And there are visual flourishes, sight-gags naturally generated by the nature of the activity; a knight in armour running on a treadmill, another emerges from a medieval tent pulling a suitcase on wheels. The film-makers chose to frame some of the action with modern elements like parked cars in the background, but as the film goes on and the size of the events increases, the intrusive elements are side-lined and a more immersive environment is detailed. As the veterans gather to look back on a battle, we cut to a wonderful view over a tented village at sunset that appears to be torn from a medieval manuscript; the film suggests the spiritual Valhalla that the men seek, and rewards their quest.

The many who enjoy the comic stylings of Taika Waititi will find amusements here; the Steel Thorns accidentally lock themselves out of their Air B and B, and talk of ‘wench fights’ and ‘international knight marshals’ can’t help but raise a smile. But Bludgeon manages to rehabilitate the public image of a genuine sport that seems to have been unfairly maligned; this likable documentary should appears to sports fans and Game of Thrones aficionados alike, and cuts through prejudices like a flaming sword.

Pain and Glory 2019 ***

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Sooner or later, the critic Clive James once noted, every artist feels the need to give us something of themselves. Pedro Almodovar’s latest, Pain and Glory, might as well be titled All About Myself; the subject is Salvador Mallo, an aging Spanish film director (Antonio Banderas) who has various health worries, and is wrestling with the creative process; he’s unwilling to work, and seeks escape through smoking heroin with an actor he’d previously fallen out with. While under the chemical cosh, Mallo falls into a reverie about his early life, recognising what a gifted individual he was, recounting his first attraction to men, and fondly remembering how much his mother (Penelope Cruz) did for him when they were reduced by poverty to living in a cave with whitewashed walls. It’s hardly a surprise that Almodovar should lapse into such navel-gazing and ‘I remember mama’ sentiment, but it’s hardly cause for celebration; the creativity that drove Volver, Live Flesh or The Skin I Live In is absent here, and there’s a lot of self-pity. Of course, Almodovar has a few games to play ‘You would never let me make a film about you’ Mallo tells his mother, yet the audience already know that motherhood is as much a staple of the director’s work as colourful kitchens and eye-popping decor. Still, Cruz is always something to beyond under the great man’s direction, and Banderas is excellent, wincing with pain as he surveys a life suddenly emptying of character and good times. Pain & Glory is one of these ‘artistic summation; the wonder of me’ films so beloved by Fellini and Cocteau; essential for fans, but perhaps a little dry and self-absorbed for the general public.

Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs and Shaw *** 2019

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There’s never been a Fast & Furious film that wasn’t likeable in some way; there have been genuine rewards those hardly souls who gathered round the flaming dumpster fire of 2 Fast 2 Furious, complete with it’s interactive DVD opening, allowing you to join the story has various characters. For the record, the best are probably the decidedly untypically small-scale Tokyo Drift and the epic Rio Heist, but there’s decent action scenes in them all. These are old-fashioned popcorn movies, self-contained, drawing in fading stars like magnets, leavened with crude humour and stereotypes, topped off with doses of sentiment about family; this latest has a speech about how machines are not important that’s about as hypocritical as Rocky IV’s focus on Russian technology vs spartan American training techniques; ie the picture is completely inverted.

Fast and Furious is largely about the toys, but there need to be men to drive them, and with Paul Walker’s demise, these men must be bald and middle aged. Vin Diesel presumably has other things to do, so The Rock and Jason Stratham are drafted in to fuel the testosterone. Both have charisma and a great comic touch, but Hobbs and Shaw doesn’t make much of these natural resources, nor do much with Idris Elba’s superhuman villain. Taking the family theme from the last few Fast movies, the focus is on Shaw’s sister (Vanessa Kirkby) who has injected herself with some kind of plague virus that might end all human life. Hobbs and Shaw put aside their differences to save her, turning to Hobbs’s mother and brother in Samoa. The climax involves a clutch of vehicles attached to a helicopter over a cliff-edge; in the days of CGI screen-work, there’s no sense of danger involved, just excess. Other set pieces, on the side of a London building, a chase around the streets of Glasgow (doubling for London), a disused factory in Moscow, are impressive without offering anything unique.

Ryan Reynolds, presumably as a favour to director Deadpool director David Leitch, gets dragged into the ongoing action, as does Helen Mirren. It would be nice to think that a few of Hobbs and Shaw’s audience might feel inspired to see Mirren’s earlier work, like Lindsay Anderson’s O Lucky Man or Age of Consent. She’s here, one supposes, as a sop to older audiences dragged along by their kids, and puts on a ridiculous accent as some kind of gangster fairy godmother. She’s having a laugh, which is probably the only thing to do in such ridiculous circumstances.

JT LeRoy 2018 ****

JT_LEROY_ONE_SHEET-1There’s plenty of films about hoaxes; the nature of a disguise works well in cinema. Savannah Knoop was the young girl who appeared in public as the reclusive author of three autobiographical works; as with other hoaxes, it did not end well, and she published a memoir explaining what she did and why. That memoir is now the subject of a sophisticated film by writer/director Justin Kelly, who manages to avoid any tabloid trashiness, yet still manages to evoke the personal, private horror of a private arrangement that explodes in the public eye. Sister of Geoff (Jim Strugess), Savannah (Kristen Stewart) arrives in San Francisco only to fall under the spell of his girlfriend Laura (Laura Dern). Laura has had literary success as JT Leroy, but needs someone to attend book-signings and literary events. With a blond wig and glasses, Savannah fits the bill, but once an actress (Diane Kruger) is wowed by Laura’s phone-sex skills, a mooted movie-version of LeRoy’s second book threatens to bring a spotlight that shines too brightly for the conspirators to hide from. That Kruger’s character Eva iseemsbased on Asia Argento (whose LeRoy adaptation The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things premiered at Cannes) adds the further layer of notoriety; if nothing else, Kelly’s film illustrates William Goldman’s film industry maxim that nobody knows anything. Eva is presented in a very negative way, offering sex in return for the rights to the book, and then moving onto another relationship once they are secured.’ I made this film for you,’ Eva shrieks, while both Laura and Savannah come out of Kelly’s film with some bonds of friendship intact. Most films about the media have a tin ear; JT LeRoy feels painfully real, not least because Stewart is a great, vulnerable lead, but also because Dern oozes self-assuredness, not least when she’s playing Speedy, an invented personal manager and fixer for LeRoy whose strangulated English accent and colourful wig brings to mind perennial British media non-entity Janet Street Porter.

JT LeRoy is in UK  Cinemas and Digital from 16th August 2019.

The Best of Dorien B 2019 ****

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The title comes from a ancient mix CD that Dorien (Kim Snauwaert) plays in her car to her children, who are none too impressed by their mother’s music. It’s one of a number of caustic scenes in this accomplished first feature from Anke Blondé, a Belgian film with dialogue in Dutch. Dorien’s problems are recognisable enough; her husband Jeroen (Jelle De Beule) is charming, but he’s had an affair and enjoys the company of other women in his workplace. Infidelity is an issue; Dorien’s mother has been cheating on her father, and moves in with Dorien’s family, to her distress. Dorien herself is contemplating an affair with an old acquaintance. And her veterinarian practice, which she inherited from her father, pushes her in directions she doesn’t want to do; she doesn’t like dealing with horses. Dorien is in need of a change; things just aren’t working out for her as they stand. All these problems are dealt with in some way by the narrative here; the screenplay is acerbic, and there’s a few blistering scenes, such as a parents evening that takes an unexpected turn. And Dorein’s martial arts ability takes another scene in an unexpected direction. The Best of Dorien B. is the kind of thoughtful, intelligent film that critics are keen to describe as promising, or that Blondé is ‘one to watch’; the point here is that The Best of Dorien B. is an excellent film in its own right, and not just as a harbinger of something better to come. Snauwaert is terrific in a film that gets right under the skin of the central character, and the punch-line is uncontrived. This kind of careful, observational film is increasingly rare; watch Dorien B. and ask yourself when you last saw a British or American film so in tune to a female central character. British audiences might hark back to Carla Lane’s much loved 1980’s tv show Butterflies, which had a similarly sympathetic, acerbic view of motherhood, but Blondé’s film doesn’t need comparisons; like the central character, it’s got a vibe of its own.