Ramadan was historically a quiet time for cinemas in the UAE. Distributors and exhibitors agreed that the holy month was a period when people wanted to be at home with their families, and the common practice was to hold back films that were being released in other markets until Eid weekend or beyond. Cinema release schedules during the month would be peppered with old, unheard of or unloved movies that distributors would drop into theatres to clear their shelves or meet contractual agreements.
Then, in 2016, Disney decided to take a chance by releasing the Pixar animation Finding Dory during Ramadan, at the same time as the rest of the world.
The results were emphatic – Finding Dory smashed box office projections, attracting double the audience numbers the major chains had initially predicted.
In the process, it also shattered the accepted wisdom that no one wanted to go to the cinema during Ramadan. The theatres have responded over the intervening years by putting on special late-night showings, iftar and suhoor menus, and releasing the big-ticket blockbusters at the same time as other markets for an eager audience that for so long was thought not to exist.
Last year probably saw the strongest line-up of releases to date, with Deadpool 2, Solo: A Star Wars Story, Jurassic World and Ocean's 8 among the blockbuster fare to hit screens during Ramadan.
This year’s line-up probably isn’t quite that strong, though that’s in common with the rest of the world – May is traditionally a slower month in cinemas than June – and there’s still plenty to look forward to.
This is our rundown of some of the biggest releases to watch out for. Bear in mind that release dates can change at short notice, so check local listings.
Demon Eye (May 9)
Ryan Simons's low-budget Brit horror has so far screened only at a Portuguese film festival and a handful of indie cinemas on its US release last weekend, where it was competing with Avengers: Endgame, ensuring reviews are non-existent. There's certainly novelty value in a supposedly terrifying horror starring none other than Darren Day, though – he's best known for belting out showstoppers in West End musicals and appearing in festive pantos, not giving us the chills. A young woman (Kate James) returns to her family home on the moors of north-west England, where she finds a cursed amulet and frees a pair of malevolent demons.
Primal Rage (May 9)
The mythical Bigfoot has been somewhat underrepresented in horror cinema over the years, compared to other much-loved/feared monsters like vampires, zombies and giant lizards. Patrick Magee seeks to right this wrong with Primal Rage, a gutsy horror featuring a Predator-like yeti that can lay traps and make weapons as he stalks his prey, and spooky occult references that offer a Blair Witch-esque "lost in the woods" vibe, too. It looks like it'll be great fun.
Ugly Dolls (May 16)
After the horror theme of the previous weekend, kids will be well-served this week. Ugly Dolls has an all-star voice cast including Kelly Clarkson, Nick Jonas and Pitbull, and is produced and based on a story by, intriguingly, B-movie slash'n'grind specialist Robert Rodriguez (to be fair, Rodriguez also made Spy Kids, so he's not exactly fresh to children's films). The characters are based on the popular Ugly Dolls soft toys, and the story follows our "ugly" heroes as they travel over the mountain from their Uglyville home and learn important life lessons in the town of Perfection, which nestles on the other side.
A Dog’s Journey (May 16)
More wholesome family fare will appear on the silver screen with this sequel to 2017's A Dog's Purpose, with Josh Gad and Dennis Quaid reprising their roles as the voice of Bailey the dog and his owner Ethan, respectively. The live-action yarn sees Bailey – a dog with remarkable powers of reincarnation that have allowed him to stay in his owner's life since boyhood, albeit in a variety of different doggy bodies – embark on a mission to save Ethan's granddaughter.
The Beach Bum (May 16)
Writer/director Harmony Korine follows up his 2012 hit Spring Breakers with The Beach Bum. He's gathered an all-star cast for his latest, with Matthew McConaughey as Moondog, the titular beach bum, and Isla Fisher, Snoop Dogg, Jonah Hill and Zac Efron supporting. Moondog is technically a writer, but he writes very little, and spends most of his time living a hedonistic and nomadic life while scrounging from his wealthy wife Minnie (Fisher). Unfortunately, the trail of affairs, excess and dishonesty, which affects all of the film's major characters to some degree, leads to some nasty places.
Aladdin (May 23)
The first of the holy month's genuine blockbuster releases. Guy Ritchie directs this live-action update to the classic 1992 Disney animation. Mena Massoud takes the title role, with Will Smith as the genie and Naomi Scott, Marwan Kenzari, Navid Negahban, Nasim Pedrad and Billy Magnussen supporting. We probably all know the story by now: poor street-kid Aladdin falls in love with Princess Jasmine, finds a magic lamp complete with resident genie and a flying carpet, and seeks to unite with his love despite the plotting of the evil vizier Jafar.
Godzilla II: King of the Monsters (May 30)
This week we'll have more big-budget capers with the giant lizard from Japan. It's a little misleading to call this Godzilla II, since it's actually the 38th film in the franchise, the longest-running in the world. Specifically, this is the sequel to Gareth Edwards's 2014, Legendary Pictures reboot. This script looks likely to stay much the same – giant lizard battles other giant animals, including my personal favourite, Mothra, the giant moth, this time while scientists panic. Expect a lot of CGI.
Red Joan (May 30)
There's plenty of thespian credibility in this real-life-inspired story of an amiable British pensioner who is suddenly arrested for her communist sympathies and the help she gave to the USSR while working at a top-secret nuclear research lab in the 1930s. The inimitable Judi Dench stars as Joan Stanley, while Trevor Nunn, former artistic director of both the Royal Shakespeare Company and the UK's National Theatre, is behind the camera. Sophie Cookson (Roxy Morton from 2014's Kingsman: The Secret Service) plays Dench's younger, more revolutionary self as a series of flashbacks reveal the demure retiree was actually one of the most notable spies of the postwar era.