A Private War – a weekly round-up of the latest films

Rosamund Pike as Marie Colvin in A Private War.
Rosamund Pike as Marie Colvin in A Private War.

Grab the popcorn for these new releases. 

A Private War (15)

Oscar-nominated documentarian Matthew Heineman makes an assured feature film directorial debut with a dramatisation of the life of foreign affairs correspondent Marie Colvin, who was killed in 2012 while covering the siege of Homs.

Her selfless crusade for the truth, regardless of the personal cost, flanked by photographer Paul Conroy was powerfully distilled in Christopher Martin's recent documentary Under The Wire.

A Private War stages a similar assault on our nerves, championing the vital role played by journalists in shining a light on moral outrages and injustice in a time of conflict.

Donning a black eye patch, which became Colvin's trademark after she lost the sight in one eye in a grenade blast in Sri Lanka, Rosamund Pike delivers a fearless and ferocious lead performance as a champion of civilian casualties.

At its heart, Heineman's picture is an intimate psychological study that feels uncomfortably timely with civil war continuing to rage in Syria several years after Colvin's death.

Colvin puts herself in the line of fire under the aegis of editor Sean Ryan (Tom Hollander) so she can open the eyes of readers to atrocities behind enemy lines.

In 2003, she recruits Conroy as her photographer and together they seek out important stories, including the Arab Spring and an exclusive interview with Colonel Gaddafi (Raad Rawi).

Back home in England, Colvin seeks temporary sanctuary from her nightmares in the bed of wealthy businessman Tony Shaw (Stanley Tucci) but she is unwavering in her determination to glimpse horrors that would otherwise be buried.

‘I see it so you don't have to,’ she reminds her editor.

When Syria attempts to block foreign journalists from covering the civil war, Colvin and Conroy enter the country without permission, living on their wits to avoid reprisals.

"If the government catches you, they'll kill you," Ryan warns his star reporter.

Anchored by Pike's gutsy portrayal, A Private War weaves between documented fact and artistic licence (Tucci's paramour is fictional) to underscore how one defiant voice can be heard clearly around the world through a cacophony of falling shells.

Arash Amel's script exposes Colvin's deep psychological wounds and the weight of responsibility she carried on broad shoulders far from home. 

Released February 15. 

The Kid Who Would Be King (PG)

The legend of King Arthur has been inspiring mediocrity on the big screen for decades.

First Knight contrived a love triangle between Sean Connery, Richard Gere and Julia Ormond, then Antoine Fuqua's King Arthur rode roughshod over tradition with Clive Owen and Keira Knightley to deliver spectacular but soulless battle sequences.

The less said about Guy Ritchie's recent testosterone-heavy reworking of olde worlde rebellion with Charlie Hunnam, Jude Law and a wooden David Beckham the better.

Alas, writer-director Joe Cornish's family-friendly spin on the sword in the stone continues the dispiriting trend, messily combining medieval magic with present-day growing pains for a quartet of underwritten adolescent protagonists.

Action set pieces lack variety and eye-popping thrills, repeatedly pitting schoolchildren against flaming-eyed skeletal warriors on horseback who are easily stopped with a swift blow from a sword to decaying bones.

Punchlines occasionally fall flat and Rebecca Ferguson is a bland villainess, relying on digitally rendered underlings to do her bidding before her own transformation in a special effects-heavy final showdown that merrily hacks and slashes at plausibility.

Twelve-year-old Alexander Elliot (Louis Ashbourne Serkis) clings on to memories of his father, who vanished many years ago to "battle his demons".

The boy's doting mother (Denise Gough) tries to protect her shy, sensitive boy from spectres of the past but she is powerless to stop Alex falling victim to bullying classmate Lance (Tom Taylor) and his sidekick Kaye (Rhianna Dorris) at Dungate Academy.

‘This isn't junior school any more. We're nothings now,’ Alex angrily reminds best friend Bedders (Dean Chaumoo).

Fleeing his tormentors, Alex seeks refuge in a building site where he pulls a sword from a block of stone just like Arthurian legend.

This simple act by a pure-hearted hero stirs King Arthur's evil half-sister Morgana (Rebecca Ferguson) in her subterranean lair.

She employs sorcery to reanimate fallen warriors to slay Alex and steal Excalibur.

In response, a young Merlin (Angus Imrie) materialises at Dungate Academy and inspires Alex to undertake an epic quest to Tintagel via Stonehenge before Morgana and her army of the dead can rise in the shadow of the forthcoming solar eclipse.

"That's ridiculous, I'm 12!" retorts Alex. "I'm not even old enough to do a paper round."

The Kid Who Would Be King maintains a sluggish pace as the cast collectively bears the burden of leaden dialogue.

Sir Patrick Stewart invigorates scenes as the older Merlin but he's lumbered with the picture's heavy-handed sermons about fearless, impassioned and inquisitive children carrying a standard for a brighter future.

Humour in Cornish's script is skewed towards the youngest members of the audience, who might giggle with glee at comic buttock nudity or thrill to scenes of kids wielding traffic signs as shields in the hard-fought battle against ancient evil.

But not a Camelot.

Out now. 

Instant Family (12A)

Inspired by the experiences of writer-director Sean Anders, Instant Family is a surprisingly sweet and touching comedy drama about foster parenting, which delivers its core messages of patience and self-sacrifice with sincerity and tear-filled eyes.

The opening hour of Anders's picture, co-written by John Morris, mines a steady supply of chuckles from the misadventures of a happily married couple who welcome three troubled tykes into their ordered home.

Blood flows when a 10-year-old boy accidentally takes a basketball and then a baseball to his cherubic face during some athletically-focused father-son bonding.

Nerves fray as the only bathroom – perfectly adequate for synchronised spouses - struggles to accommodate three additional bladders and the beauty regime of a teenage girl.

Anders's light touch and occasional splashes of syrupy sentiment give way to hard knocks and painful home truths in a poignant second half that promises to exhaust every handkerchief you have tucked in a pocket or sleeve.

Instant Family earns its heartfelt emotional release by focusing intently on the inner turmoil of children who have been discarded and sometimes starved of affection and need someone to provide them with stability and a safe harbour from the darkness of the past.

Pete Wagner (Mark Wahlberg) and wife Ellie (Rose Byrne) renovate tired properties.

The couple have never seriously discussed raising children until an argument between Ellie and her sister Kim (Allyn Rachel) prompts a serious debate about foster parenting.

Pete and Ellie naively undergo a training course run by sassy social workers Sharon (Tig Notaro) and Karen (Octavia Spencer), who repeatedly hammer home the physical and emotional toll that lies ahead.

‘These kids will push buttons you never knew you had,’ they warn.

Once Pete and Ellie have qualified, they offer a home to troubled 15-year-old Lizzy (Isabela Moner) and her siblings: 10-year-old Juan (Gustavo Quiroz) and six-year-old Lita (Julianna Gamiz).

After a blissful honeymoon period, the Wagners clash with Lizzy, who is convinced that her drug addict mother will clean up her act and reassert her custody rights.

"We've just got to accept that we made a terrible mistake and our lives are gonna suck now," observes Pete with a rueful smile.

Relatives rally around the exhausted couple, including Pete's straight-talking mother (Margo Martindale), who makes child-rearing seem so effortless.

Instant Family charms by stealth.

Byrne and Wahlberg possess a winning combination of cluelessness and caring, and the latter wrings genuine tears from his scenes with gifted young co-stars.

Notaro and Spencer deliver pithy one-liners with expert timing, then share the film's emotional heavy-lifting as self-doubt takes a heavy toll on the Wagners' marriage.

A family isn't defined by the blood flowing through its veins but by words and deeds, and in this respect, Anders's picture proudly wears its heart on its sleeve.

Released February 14. 

Happy Death Day 2U (15)

Released in 2017, Happy Death Day was a surprisingly entertaining and waggish slasher which spliced Groundhog Day with self-referential teen horror Scream to follow a murdered college student who was forced to relive the gruesome day of her demise and unmask her own killer.

Writer-director Christopher Landon returns for the tantalising sequel, which is set two years after the events of the original.

Tree Gelbman (Jessica Rothe) thought she escaped the deadly time loop when she learnt the identity of her attacker.

Unexpectedly, Tree becomes trapped in another cycle of doom and faces another masked attacker, who strikes a fatal blow to her sorority sister Lori (Ruby Modine).

As before, Tree joins forces with handsome beau Carter (Israel Broussard) to unravel the mystery.

However, this time she also enlists the services of science geeks Samar (Suraj Sharma) and Dre (Sarah Yarkin) to take a rigorous academic approach to her predicament.

Released February 13.