Respect

Directed by Leisl Tommy, Jennifer Hudson stars in this biopic of the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin. It charts her life from a child, singing at her fathers (Forest Whitaker) Church, through her early unsuccessful recording career to her timeless classic hits. We see her abusive relationships, involvement in the civil rights movement and addictive behaviour, before finding strength again in the church, leading to her 1972 recording of the gospel album Amazing Grace.

Aretha Franklin is a musical legend, with a fascinating life and incredible career and there lies the problem for Respect. There seems to be two approaches to a good biopic, pick a specific part of someones life and focus on that or go magical musical a-la Rocketman. Respect does neither instead it offers an unsatisfactory series of vignettes of her life, joined loosely together by moments of her music.

It’s at its best when Hudson (chosen by Franklin to portray her) is performing from Aretha’s back catalogue. Performances are solid enough, Hudsons talent shines as the lead, Marlon Wayans supports her well as abusive partner Ted White and Marc Maron steals plenty of scenes doing his best Maron as producer Jerry Wexler. They all do what they can with the flimsy script.

Franklin’s life is fascinating and full and her music timeless, but it feels Respect never quite knows what to do with it. There’s also a lack of context to where we are in her life or what is happening around her. At nearly 2 1/2 hours long it comes with some pacing problems and feels like it’s dragging on occasion.

That is a pity, because Aretha Franklin’s story does deserve a better telling. Maybe the most damming thing is in the closing credits there is a clip of Franklin playing for the Obama’s. All that made me think was about the magic of her performances and how it was missing from this.

Respect is watchable, mostly because it’s peppered with brilliant music and Hudson is good in the central role. But its narrative is muddled and pacing problematic. Franklin’s story deserved better.

Worth

Available on Netflix.

Written by Max Borenstein, directed by Sara Colangelo, Worth is based on the true story of the development of the 9/11 disaster fund setup to compensate the families of those who lost their lives in the terror attacks. Michael Keaton plays Ken Feinberg an attorney who is appointed by the US government to act as the funds Special Master. It is his role to define the process, rules and formula for awarding compensation to the victims families.

The story is a fascinating one as it asks Feinberg and his team to answer the philosophical question about what is a human life worth. The film doesn’t shy away from portaying the complexity of the challenge both the legal one and of course the human one.

It is the human challenge that has the film at its best, sharing some moving stories of a tragedy that still feels so recent. It is heart breaking to hear those stories dramatised as it is remembering the real events. Colangelo handles this with patience and care.

Keaton anchors the film well and is well supported by Amy Ryan as Camile Biros. But Stanley Tucci steals the show as he often does with his portrayal of Charles Wolf who setup the “fix the fund” campaign to challenge Feinburgs formula and approach. Tucci, as always, brings a gentle gravitas to the character.

All that said the problem with Worth is its formulaic story telling. Hard hearted lawyer, touched by the humanity of the case who finds redemption and adds heart to his process. All predictable and much of it dramatised for the film rather then a reflection of the reality. This also impacts the pacing which is a pity as it detracts from a powerful story.

Worth tells a traumatic story with thought and care, but its formulaic nature and often slow pace are a problem. It is worth a watch because of its subject matter, it’s just a pity it isn’t a better film.

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.

Directed by Destin Daniel Cretton is this latest instalment in the “fourth phase” of Marvel films. Legend of the Ten Rings stars Simu Liu as Shang-Chi, although we first meet him as Shaun, a parking valet alongside his long time friend Kate (Awkwafina). Both of them are smart but more interested in hiding from adulthood, partying and Karaoke than taking life seriously. This all changes when Shaun is attacked on a bus and we find out he’s not a mild mannered parking valet after all. Instead he’s the son of a shadowy underworld figure from whom he has hidden since he was 14. Shang-Chi and Kate head off to tackle the danger presented by his father leading them into a battle which encompasses mystical creatures, magic powers and family secrets.

This is the second standalone Marvel film of the year after Black Widow and one I enjoyed equally. As you can imagine it leans heavily on the martial arts genre, a bit like a Jackie Chan film with a $200m budget! But that is in no way a criticism, they use the balletic beauty, mysticism and magic often associated with far Eastern storytelling to great effect.

There are enjoyable performances throughout. The two leads have a great “buddy” chemistry, especially in the first couple of acts. They are well supported by Tony Chiu-Wei Leung, Meng’er Zhang and Michelle Yeoh particularly, while there is a couple of fun cameos from Benedict Wong and Ben Kingsley (with a nice Easter egg for Liverpool FC fans).

The film does suffer ultimately from the origins story effect, as the story has to manoeuvre itself into the bigger MCU plan and does lose some of martial arts and magical subtlety as it moves toward its inevitable CGI fest big battle ending.

But they are minor quibbles with, what is, a very entertaining piece of storytelling. At its best it is original with fantastically choreographed sequences and humorous dialogue. It’s well paced and never drags through its running time.

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is a refreshing, different, enjoyable and very welcome addition to the Marvel universe.

Our Ladies

Directed by Michael Caton-Jones and adapted from Alan Warner’s novel is Our Ladies. Set in 1990’s Scotland we follow a Catholic girls school choir from Fort William as they head to Edinburgh for a competition final. Five of the girls however are less interested in the joy of singing and far more interested in the joys that a trip to the big city brings, the chance to drink, have sex and have fun and that they certainly do!

What an absolute unexpected gem of a film this is, it’s funny, dark, heart felt and joyous in equal measure. Its cine literate mixing of genre’s works seamlessly from American Pie to Trainspotting, romcoms to a credit scene nod to Joker it uses them all well.

The tone also moves beautifully between sexual farce to touching coming of age drama, through to playing with the idea of something potentially more sinister, before the girls smart characters take back control of the situation.

The casting is brilliant Eve Austin, Tallulah Grieve, Abigail Lawrie, Sally Measham, Rona Morison and Marli Siu are a wonderful ensemble, hugely watchable and thoroughly engaging.

The comedy is pin sharp, evoking a nostalgia for the seemingly innocent days of the mid 1990’s. All accompanied by an enjoyable soundtrack. Some of the comedy may feel less than “politically correct” but it knows that and revels in it.

I went into Our Ladies with little expectation, but it is a proper gem of a film. A nostalgic nod to a seemingly more innocent time, genuinely funny throughout, occasionally dark, always heartfelt and fabulously joyous, as much fun as I’ve had at the Cinema this year. Seek it out.

CODA

Available on Apple TV+.

Written and directed by Sian Heder is an adaptation of the French film La Femille Belier. CODA is about Ruby (Emilia Jones) a hearing daughter of a deaf fishing family. Her family rely on her to communicate with the hearing and fishing communities to sell fish and run the business. Ruby’s real love is singing and when she joins the school choir her teacher (Eugenio Derbez) spots her talent and encourages to try for a music scholarship. Singing brings her close to her crush Miles (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) as well as puts a strain on a family trying desperately to save their business.

CODA, for me, is an odd mix of films. There is a classic coming of age teen drama as Ruby tries to throw off her shyness and insecurities, while trying to balance her families demands. There is also the potential of an interesting drama about a deaf family fighting for survival in a hard industry and working with the hearing community to do it. But the problem is, I didn’t feel the two meshed together particularly well. And rather than the two interesting stories making a fascinating film, actually they come together In something a little formulaic and derivative.

That is a pity, because CODA is in no way a terrible film. There is a charm to it with fun and tender moments throughout. I’m just not sure the premise of the families deafness is explored well enough to give the film a fresh story to tell. The bits where Heder allows the film to explore that is when it is at its best.

Performances are enjoyable enough, Jones, as her character does, does most of the work and does it well. The family played by Tony Kotusur (Frank), Marlee Matlin (Jackie) and Daniel Durant (Leo) make a believable family unit and it is the family story that is most interesting. Outside of that the film and its characters are pretty flimsy.

Ultimately CODA is an enjoyable coming of age film, but doesn’t make the most of an interesting premise. Instead it feels more like two potentially really interesting films mixed together into one enjoyable but rather average one. Which is a bit of a pity.

The Courier

Directed by Dominc Cooke and written by Tom O’Connor, The Courier is based on the true story of Grenville Wynne (Benedict Cumberbatch) a British business man recruited in the 1960’s by MI6 and the CIA to go to Moscow and act as a go-between for them and Soviet spy Oleg Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze). Penkovsky had become increasingly concerned by the behaviour of Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev which would lead to the Cuban missile crisis. Penkovsky wants to stop him and offers to share secrets and civilian business man Wynne is identified as the perfect go-between.

I’m a fan of a true life spy thriller and this put The Courier right up my street and I wasn’t disappointed. While this is a “nuts and bolts” piece of storytelling, using classic spy thriller tropes to get from beginning to end, It doesn’t matter. The story itself is fascinating enough, to keep you engaged.

The success of the film is built around two strong central performances. Cumberbatch as watchable as ever as Wynne, while Ninidze is excellent as Penkovsky, capturing the slowly building tension as both his and Wynnes position becomes increasingly risky. But it is the relationship between them that really draws you in and makes the film works. They are also well supported by the always excellent Jessie Buckley, Rachel Broshanan and Angus Wright.

The story is fascinating and one I was unaware of and that helped allowing the film to build tension and wrap you up in the fate of the characters. It is solidly made if lacking a little flair, but that’s OK. It was more important Cooke and O’Connor did the story justice and for me they succeed in that.

If you enjoy a cold war spy story then this will work for you. At its heart is the relationship between Wynne and Penkovsky, their story of bravery and friendship engages throughout. Making The Courier intriguing and very watchable.

Free Guy

Directed by Shawn Levy, written by Zak Penn and Matt Lieberman. Ryan Reynolds is Guy, a man loving his life, he loves his apartment, his gold fish, his morning coffee, his job at the bank and his best friend Buddy (Lil Rel Howery). His home town is odd, run by glasses wearing heroes, who laws are merely suggestion, as they run around shooting, stealing, blowing things up. But that doesn’t bother guy, what does is the lack of a love in his life, until one day he sees his dream woman, Millie (Jodie Comer) who he follows, a decision that completely changes his world and his reality.

I really enjoyed this, the plot is nuts, a strange mix between The Matrix, The Lego Movie and The Truman Show. It’s funny and surprisingly charming, there’s fun in-jokes for gamers and film fans with cameos, references and visual gags a plenty.

Its main joy comes from its lead performers armed with a fun script. Reynolds is prime Reynolds with a toned down less sweary, less violent Deadpool. Comer brings a touch of Villanelle and plenty of charm. There’s plenty of enjoyable support from Howery, Taika Waititi, Channing Tatum and Joe Keery as Keys. All enjoy delivering a script that is fast moving, with plenty of humour.

The plot itself is madness and took a little time to win me over, at the halfway point I wasn’t sure it was working for me as much as it should. But by the end I’d been drawn in by the silliness, humour and surprising amounts of charm.

Free Guy is an odd film really, not original, leaning heavily on some very well known stories and takes a little time to win you over. But with Reynolds at his enjoyable best alongside Comers charm, for all of its silliness, it was real fun and lets face it who doesn’t want that, I did and throughly enjoyed it.

Jungle Cruise

Starring Dwayne Johnson and Emily Blunt is the newest addition to the Disney Ride Inspired Cinematic Universe (not a thing yet!), Jungle Cruise. Set in the early 1900’s Blunt plays Lily a female adventurer looking to find the Tree of Life in South America, a mystical cure all flower to help humanity. Travelling with her brother MacGregor (Jack Whitehall) they find themselves in the capable sailing hands of Captain Frank Wolff (Johnson) the owner of a less than sea worthy vessel and even less sea worthy jokes!. Together they head off on an adventure that encounters peril, Jesse Plemons’s Prince Joachim and supernatural baddies as they battle to finish their quest.

Jungle Cruise takes a lead from those classic 80’s adventures with an Indiana Jones and Romancing the Stone feel to it. And in Johnson and Blunt you have two likeable leads, both bringing their star charisma to the film.

But even with these two and a strong cast around them, the film does fall a little flat. It lacks any real originality and while it references some of those adventure classics, it lacks their charm and wit. It also fails to live up to more contemporary examples like Johnsons recent Jumanji films.

For me Jungle Cruise is no more than a passable attempt at a family adventure film, but with such a strong cast it feels like a missed opportunity to make something much better. If you are after a Dwayne Johnson family adventure and who doesn’t like one of those? Go check out Jumanji, but if you do end up at Jungle Cruise, you’ll enjoy some of it, but may feel a little underwhelmed.

The Suicide Squad

Written and directed by James Gunn of Guardians of the Galaxy fame we get another attempt at bringing the Suicide Squad to the screen. From the less than loved 2016 attempt, only Margot Robbie returns as Harley Quinn, she is joined by Idris Elba (Bloodsport), John Cena (Peacemaker), David Dastmachlian (Polka Dot), Daniel Malchior (Ratcatcher 2) and Slyvester Stallone (voice of King Shark). The range of bad guys are offered the opportunity to cut time from their sentences by carrying out missions for their handler Amanda Waller (Viola Davies). This squad are put together on a mission to Corto Maltese, where they are to access a former Nazi facility which is now housing Project Starfish, an alien technology, under the control of The Thinker (Peter Capaldi).

You can see Gunns influence throughout this, it’s no Guardians of the Galaxy, but what it is a crazy and wild ride. Unlike many DC films this does not suffer from pacing challenges, this film is full pace from the start. It’s big, loud and brash.

Another challenge I often have with DC films is they like a sense of humour, again not something you can level at this, there are plenty of laugh out loud funny moments, with some fun interplay between all of the characters. Robbie is a joy as ever as Quinn, Idris Elba, John Cena and John Kinnaman (Rick Flag) bounce of each other as the alpha males, well supported by the more insular outsiders Malchior and Polka-Dot.

Alongside the humour is non stop action, some of it fun, although a lot of it surprisingly violent and blood splattery!

But while there is a lot of fun, laughs and endless action, it doesn’t completely work. The story, for what it is, is all over the place, there is no real narrative to keep up with and like so many of these films it runs way too long. I wasn’t overly sure of the films big end battle with the oddest looking of foes.

That said The Suicide Squad does the job it’s meant to. It doesn’t try to be smart or deep with a dark plot. It does what it should, it’s loud, brash, humorous and colourful fun. Not a classic, but decent comic book fun.

Summer of Soul

In cinemas and on Disney+.

Directed by Questlove this documentary tells the story of the Harlem Music Festival. Staged over five weekends during July 1969 in Mount Morris Park, Harlem. In a world where Woodstock was happening 100 miles away and man would walk on the moon during it, this festival was as culturally significant to those in Harlem. However, while those events have become part of cultural history, this, while filmed for television, was locked away for 50 years until finding its way into the hands of Questlove, who finally tells its story.

A bit like a musical festival itself, this fascinating documentary has some acts and stories that appealed more than others. What it always does however, is provide a gloriously colourful snapshot of black life in 1969 Harlem and the wider United States.

There are a range of intriguing insights and powerful moments, none more so than a section where the Reverand Jesse Jackson talks about culture, black pride and the death of Martin Luther King.

Of course, it’s not a music documentary without the music and there is plenty of that, it is predominantly a music film rather than a focus on talking heads. Stevie Wonder, BB King, Gladys Knight, David Ruffin, Sly and the Family Stone among the better known names, but we also see what, to me at least, is a selection of less familiar names, with different music styles and messages.

Amongst all of this are the vibrant colours and styles of Harlem that provide the backdrop.

What is incredible is that such a story was put in a box and forgotten and that in itself raises questions of how and why as the films subtitle suggests. That said, it’s a joy to see it now.

Summer of Soul is a fascinating snapshot taken at a turning point in recent history. Filled with great music, wonderful colour and interesting insight. All brought to life by this enjoyable documentary.

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