‘Book Club: The Next Chapter’, a surprisingly good sequel; ‘Love Again’, a divisive rom-com that might do your head in; Strong French action in ‘November’; High-end weirdness from Brandon Cronenberg with ‘Infinity Pool’

On the road: Diane Keaton, Jane Fonda, Candice Bergen and Mary Steenburgen in ‘Book Club: The Next Chapter’.

BOOK CLUB: THE NEXT CHAPTER ***1/2 (108 minutes) M
Even fans of the first film might be delightfully stunned at how good a film Book Club: The Next Chapter turns out to be.

Not only do the on-going romantic adventures of four elderly women friends – Diane (Diane Keaton), Sharon (Candice Bergen), Carol (Mary Steenburgen) and Vivian (Jane Fonda) – serve the first film very well, it’s arguably funnier and more poignant, even thoughtful.

In a surprisingly well-crafted, surprise-filled story, each character develops to a very satisfying finale, continually punching the point of the first film that ageing is not synonymous with atrophy. Kudos to director Bill Holderman and co-writer/producer Erin Simms for maintaining the spark after five years.

With their life-long friendship having survived the privations of the Covid lockdowns in one piece thanks largely to video chats, the four decide to seize on their new freedom by taking a long-delayed holiday in Italy.

The sight-seeing sojourn turns into an escapade as each confront various temptations and quandaries about their relationship situations, with retired judge Sharon making the most of her latter-life freedom being the only member of the quartet who is still single.

With more gagging about than the first film, the gals quip away with plenty of salty sex talk and innuendo, including one pearler about Mother Teresa that you’ll have to listen fast for. (How did they get away with it?)

Andy Garcia, Don Johnson and Craig T Nelson return, chiming in with strong support as partners to Diane, Vivian and Carol respectively, each perfectly happy and secure that giving the girls space for their self-discovery tour will likely pay dividends down each of their romantic roads.

As for the use of the word “girls” in reference to ladies of vintage, Diane delivers quite a snappy pushback in one of many scenes where the four discuss the progress of their lives and how they still have options for happiness, all framed by the movie’s opening quote from The Alchemist by Paul Coelho.

With terrific ensemble performances (especially from Bergen) and the cleverly devised “have your cake and eat it too” ending, you really feel the sincerity with Book Club 2, which gratefully doesn’t come off as a cash-in exercise.

Also, it must be stated for the record, how heartening it is to see Jane Fonda in a good film about friendship between elderly women enjoying their lives so soon after the debacle of 80 For Brady., proving that it’s never too late to be redeemed.

To be honest, nobody was really hanging out for a sequel to Book Club, but they’ve done such a fine job preserving the warm, fun, uplifting spirit and developing the characters you wonder if there’s room for another chapter.

Wouldn’t that be nice?

Sam Heughan and Priyanka Chopra Jonas in ‘Love Again’.

LOVE AGAIN ** (104 minutes) M
However unintentionally, some romantic comedies can prove to be quite divisive, pleasing some with their twee, featherweight tales of love while making others wish for global thermonuclear destruction. Love Again is such a film.

That’s not necessarily a putdown, it’s just that those poor, long-suffering souls who are subject to fatigue by the predictable and derivative nature of the rom-com genre might find it a little difficult sitting through the entirety of Love Again without pulling their own heads off. Admittedly, that’s likely to be a minority of people.

In this serviceable, formulaic, not-at-all terrible film we have unfortunate young woman Mira Ray (Priyanka Chopra Jonas) who, two years after witnessing her boyfriend’s death in a New York traffic accident with astonishing composure (some might scream or swear or jump out of their seat, but not her) she decides to start sending him text messages.

These are received by British-born journalist Rob (Sam Heughan), who begins falling for her and so schemes to meet her without revealing his secret. Nobody close to him ever suggests that this is in any way creepy – and why would they? It’s standard meet-cute stuff.

Rob is also lovelorn and is in the fortunate position of having befriended singer Celine Dion, who offers him romantic advice to help get his life together.

Up until Love Again, Celine Dion was best-known as a magnificent singer of power ballads, including My Heart Will Go On from Titanic. Once people see her performance in this movie, however, that shall definitely remain the case.

Written and directed by James C. Strouse and based on the 2016 German film SMS für Dich (never heard of it, either) the film hits all the requisite rom-com beats as it works over well-worn ideas to do with the role happenstance and fate (and car accidents) play in romance. Some might see vague similarities with the 2001 film Serendipity.

As marginally passable a piece of pap Love Again will be to some, it does contain a disturbing narrative nugget regarding the issue of consent and deception.

Here’s the question: If somebody agrees to have sex with you but later finds out you kept something from them that would have disgusted them enough to not want to have sex with you, what is that? Is sex obtained through deception consensual? Or is it a form of sexual assault?

Unsurprisingly, the film doesn’t deal with this, as big a story point as it turns out to be. Wouldn’t the girl call a lawyer? (The long-forgotten 1987 film Cross My Heart with Annette O’Toole and Martin Short touched on the theme.)

The film is meant to be set in New York but, a few skyline shots aside, it obviously wasn’t filmed there, and while Toronto has often stood in for New York because of its urban similarities, the same can’t be said for London, where the film was actually shot. Why not just set the damned thing in London?

If you’re super-starved for a rom-com and are in a forgiving mood, this mulch might pass the time. But if you hear squelching noises nearby and find somebody twisting off their own head, don’t be too surprised.

Jean Dujardin in ‘November’.

NOVEMBER *** (107 minutes; subtitled) M
Very strong, gritty, reality-based police procedural about the hunt for terrorists following the Paris attacks of November 2015. An obvious fan of the Bourne films, director Cédric Jimenez deploys lots of jagged camerawork as a furrowed cast lead by Jean Dujardin embark on a pulse-pounding race against time. A timely reminder of how the French have always done action particularly well.

Mia Goth and Alexander Skarsgård in ‘Infinity Pool’.

INFINITY POOL *** (118 minutes) R
A failed author desperate for inspiration is gifted with enough for a series when he takes his wife on a holiday to a secluded resort located on a remote island (a popular setting for loads of films recently, from Old to The Menu and Glass Onion.)

All seems normal enough for James Foster (Alexander Skarsgård) and Em (Cleopatra Coleman) until they meet Gabi (Mia Goth) and her partner Alban (Jalil Lespert) who invite them on a day trip to an isolated beach.

Being a film written and directed by Brandon Cronenberg (son of David) things quickly escalate into high-end body horror weirdness after a road incident that puts them all in fear of the local police.

That fear turns out to be thoroughly justified as the petrified James learns about what is involved in getting out of mess that only gets worse and worse.

Deploying the type of grisly, ultra-realistic effects he used to great effect in 2020’s Possessor, Cronenberg conjures a marvellously nightmarish scenario of bent sci-fi concepts and psychological derangement, with Mia Goth (X; Pearl) giving new pungency to the idea of a strong female lead.

A caution: One of the terrific things about the film is its unpredictability so, if possible, avoid reading the Wikipedia synopsis, which details the story from start to finish.