The reviews are in: Mystery, calamity and gripping thrills

Jul 27, 2022
All the latest reviews from our critic are in. Source: Where the Crawdads Sing (Sony Pictures); The Black Phone (Universal); Official Competition (Madman Entertainment)

A stirring central performance from Daisy Edgar-Jones graces the Deep South melodrama of Where the Crawdads Sing, a beautifully photographed tale of prejudice, domestic violence and romance-gone-wrong drawn from the phenomenal 2018 best-selling novel by Delia Owens.

Set in the picturesque Carolina marshlands on the brink of the 1960s Civil Rights movement, Kya (Edgar Jones) is pulled from her secluded home to answer for the death of Chase (Harris Dickinson), a revered local football hero and former lover.

Recounting her backstory to her kindly lawyer (David Strathairn, playing a version of Atticus Finch from To Kill a Mockingbird) we learn of Kya’s sorry life with an abusive father, her social isolation and tender relationship with Tate (Taylor John Smith), a childhood friend who teaches her to read and to trust.

Speaking to a range of #metoo issues, the story does follow a predictable formula, with lots of character stereotypes and cliches.

What lifts the film is the touching portrayal of Kya, a strong yet vulnerable woman whose sturdy spirit conflicts with her hunger for love as she searches for peace in a hostile world.  

Ably directed by Olivia Newman, Where the Crawdads Sing is a very well-fashioned and satisfying melodrama about inner strength and the cost it can exact.

Another tale about a woman having a hard time is the excellent French film Full Time, in which frazzled, financially stressed single mother Julie (Laure Calamy) is pushed to breaking point by the ceaseless pressure of trying to make ends meet. 

On top of juggling children, a job, late alimony payments and grief from her boss, Julie also has to cope with a transport strike that is paralyzing Paris and jeopardizing her chances of getting a better job.

With an outstanding performance by Calamy, the film is a tough look at a woman in a tough corner, worried over whether her hope can hold out in the face of unrelenting strain (Opens 28 July).

Those looking for a large fistful of frights will be well-served by The Black Phone, a very effective, menacing horror film about a 1970s suburb being terrorized by The Grabber (Ethan Hawke), a mask-wearing creep who kidnaps children and imprisons them. His motives remain vague, adding an extra layer of fear to the proceedings.

The kicker to the stylish story is how The Grabber’s latest victim Finn (Mason Thames, heading a terrific roster of young actors) keeps getting mysterious calls from a disconnected phone on the wall of a sound-proofed basement. Who, exactly, is calling? And how?

Deploying a host of traditional horror-movie devices to great effect, The Black Phone is primarily designed to get under the skin of those who love being scared to pieces at the movies. Those who don’t, best steer well clear.

The formidable Penelope Cruz rules the roost in Official Competition, a very pointed and funny satire about filmmaking in which she tries reigning in the giant egos of two A-list actors – wonderfully played by Oscar Martinez and Antonio Banderas – during their tortured, argumentative rehearsal process. It’s a three-hander, but be in no doubt Cruz comes out on top.

Good for a laugh is the feather-light Netflix comedy series God’s Favourite Idiot, easily the most foul-mouthed, faith-based story since Father Stu (for rent on Prime).

Comedian Ben Falcone plays Clark, a sad sack office worker who is tasked by God to spread The Good Word before Armageddon hits, which could only be days away.

He is helped by several colleagues, including the loud-mouthed Amily (Melissa McCarthy, Falcone’s wife and long-time comedy collaborator). She’s a wise-cracking scene-stealer whose impulsive verbal jousting sets the tone for this pleasing fantasy lark. 

Though set in America, God’s Favourite Idiot was filmed in Australia and features many local talents, including Magda Szubanski as a soft-spoken God. Talk about bold casting.

Fresh to Netflix is The Gray Man, a loud, overlong boom-crash frolic that just passes muster thanks to a few terrific action sequences, the best being an extended chase involving the world’s most unfortunate passenger tram.

As a CIA-trained killer, Ryan Gosling phones in one of his signature stone-face performances, Chris Evans (Captain America) overdoes it as his jocular nemesis while Ana de Armas offers solid support as a female mercenary.

We’re getting a lot of action films like this in the stream lately, thinly plotted spectacles you can easily watch out the corner of your eye without missing anything.

Another is the Kevin Hart/Woody Harrelson jaunt The Man From Toronto, also on Netflix and also perfectly watchable while doing the ironing or assembling a 3D Harry Potter puzzle.

For more visit jimschembri.com with updates on Twitter at @jimschembri

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