The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel
* * * * *
Cert 12A, 123 mins
When John Madden’s Shakespeare In Love won the best picture award at the 1999 Oscars and Gwyneth Paltrow became best actress, it seemed as if we might have found the next Anthony Minghella.

But after the Hampshire-born director’s next film Captain Corelli’s Mandolin starred a rather miscast Nicolas Cage, he’s only made three other films since.

If nothing else, Best Exotic proves that Madden has finally got his mojo back.

And perhaps it is working with Dame Judi Dench again – after her Oscar-nominations for his own Mrs Brown and Shakespeare In Love – that has fired him up.

In a sparkling adaptation of Deborah Moggach’s novel These Foolish Things, Dame Judi is able to draw on personal experience as widow Evelyn, a woman who learns that unexpected change can still be a wonderful thing.

Fresh from playing Prof Minerva McGonagall in the Potter movies, Dame Maggie Smith enjoys her own taste of the old Madden magic as the wheelchair-bound, deeply prejudiced, working-class Muriel who needs a hip replacement done on the cheap.

Sparks fly when she travels in the company of the snobbish Jean (Penelope Wilton) and spinster Madge (Celia Imrie) and it’s one of the film’s unbridled joys that Madden brings the best out of them all in this most photogenic of physically challenging territories.

But don’t forget the men, including Tom Wilkinson as the retired, conscience-torn judge Graham; Ronald Pickup as ladies-man Norman and comedy maestro Bill Nighy as the put-upon Douglas, husband of Jean.

All are on top form in a film about a young Indian entrepreneur (Slumdog Millionaire’s Dev Patel) trying to persuade ageing Brits to ‘outsource’ their retirement to a hotel that doesn’t, of course, meet all expectations.

But with disappointment dawns the realisation that sometimes changing track can reap its own dividends.

“At my age, I can’t plan far ahead – I don’t even buy green bananas,” says Muriel in one of the first of many clever references to Father Time.

Gags about sex in old age and the power of a placebo will bring the house down and I loved the line: “Who wants to be the first off the plane in a hostage crisis?”

Despite the combined age of the cast, the script is remarkably life-affirming.

Join this motley crew on their Indian adventures and you will come out equally refreshed – and ready for your own change of scenery, too. GY

Safe House
* * * *
Cert 15, 114 mins
Being a CIA agent sounds like a thrilling job, but not so for Matt Weston (Ryan Reynolds).

He’s working in gorgeous Cape Town but is desperate for a transfer. He’s bored, looking after a safe house where there are no guests. Until former CIA, now rogue, operative Tobin Frost (Denzel Washington) turns up.

Frost is forced to give himself up at the US Consulate after being pursued by ruthless villains who want the vital file he is trying to sell.

They break into the house, which isn’t quite so safe after all, and Weston has to step up to the mark and protect Frost.

As they flee, we get a series of well-executed chases. The action rarely lets up in this high octane thriller.

Washington is always watchable and no less so here, making Frost an interesting character. He likes fine wine and breaking people’s necks, and he’s an expert manipulator who tries to squirm his way into Weston’s head, planting doubts and fears.

“Do I make you nervous?” he asks Liam Cunningham’s MI6 agent. “Always” is the response, to which he replies “Good”.

The strong cast includes Brendan Gleeson, Vera Farmiga and Sam Shepard. But which one of them is the bad guy leaking information?

We get the usual flaws with action films – a few too many coincidences and electronic devices which are magically fully charged. Frost’s ability to overcome several assailants at once is as unlikely as the ending, and Weston goes through multiple smashes and fights with barely a scratch on him.

Yet there are still enough surprises, explosions and exciting set pieces to keep us watching. RL

* * * *
Cert 15, 108 mins
Too many Hollywood cop thrillers feature violence for the sake of it and are as black and white as, well, black and white.

Not so Rampart, a murky, blurred reflection of policing in LA circa 1999 which will make you think that even in clear cases of right and wrong there is still a middle ground where it pays to tread carefully.

Vietnam vet David Douglas-Brown is such a beast on the streets that even his own daughter calls him Date Rape.

After gunning down a suspect years ago he still doesn’t comprehend what the consequences were for the wider family involved.

Sigourney Weaver’s character Joan Confrey is the boss trying to rein Douglas-Brown in from a life where he thinks he can do what he likes on the streets, while having children by two sisters at home.

“I am not a racist,” he says. “I hate all people equally.”

Even the comparative lack of action is often tense, the dialogue barbed from the opening moments when Douglas-Brown tells a young recruit ‘finish those fries if you want to make probation’.

As with his Oscar nominations for The People vs Larry Flynt (1996) and The Messenger (2010) – the latter also directed by Rampart’s Oren Moverman – Woody Harrelson completely gets under the skin of his latest character.Douglas-Brown is a muscle-bound bully with a magnetic yet equally repulsive screen presence who won’t be big at the box office.

Writer James Elroy scripted LA Confidential (1997) and also Dark Blue, Ron Shelton’s 2002 study of a corrupt LAPD officer in which Kurt Russell also gave one of the performances of his career. GY

> Next page: Red Dog, Ghost Rider - Spirit of Vengeance and Blood Car reviewed >

Red Dog * * *
Cert PG, 92 mins
You don’t have to be Rolf Harris or BBC WM stalwart Ed Doolan to enjoy this little movie about a dog wandering around the Australian outback, but you can imagine the good friends from Down Under chuckling all the way through its many adventures.

Based on a story by Louis de Bernières (Captain Corelli’s Mandolin), at its heart is the notion that while owners sometimes choose their dogs, this one chooses its owners.

Happily running around and hitching lifts here, there and everywhere across a vast landscape which matches the colour of his fur, Red’s wonderful eyes unite a disparate, ethnically diverse community.

If this all sounds familiar to lovers of doggy movies from Marley & Me to Richard Gere’s Hatchi, then the genuinely-moving denouement will come as a lovely surprise. GY

Ghost Rider – Spirit of Vengeance 3D
* *
Cert 12A, 95 mins
Even to this day, the 1996 best actor Oscar winner Nicolas Cage (Leaving Las Vegas) remains the fifth youngest person to win acting’s highest accolade.

But it’s thanks to movies like this sequel that he won’t be anywhere near holding the statue aloft again at this weekend’s 84th Academy Awards.

Merely fitfully exciting and only for those with a mental age of about 12 – and anyone younger should be kept away to preserve their sanity – this is an uncalled for sequel directed by Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor, the team behind Jason Statham’s superior Crank.

They sometimes use rollerblades to try to breathe extra life into the story of stunt rider Johnny Blaze (Cage) trying to rid himself of his skull-burning curse by saving a boy from the Devil (Ciarán Hinds, fresh from The Woman in Black). Even the 3D format won’t stop the general premise from feeling one-dimensional.

You’ll leave feeling like an old-school headmaster writing an end of term report, viz: ‘Nicolas Cage... acts daft, could do better’. GY

Blood Car * *
Cert 18, 75 mins
Rather like the re-released Star Wars: The Phantom Menace 3D opens with a tax prologue that Gordon Brown might have thrown in the bin, news that sky-high fuel prices have prompted the invention of a car that can run on human blood might not have you rushing to the cinema to find out more.

This film clearly aims to be a ‘cult shocker’ from the opening scenes, but never becomes as sexually risqué as it promises.

The general theme is more about the division between eating meat and being vegetarian, not voyeurism or even vampirism in scrap yards.

Having the ability to liquidise bodies in your car boot might be the only way for Archie Andrews (Mike Brune) to go forward, but even at little more than an hour you can feel this is one wafer-thin movie running out of gas.

Which perhaps explains why it’s taken since 2007 for Blood Car to get only as far as Dudley Showcase. GY