Movie Round-up, from August 7

Cinemas are gradually reopening with special safety measures in place. As such, this column will wherever possible include reviews of new releases alongside  additions to new films which are only being made available on various streaming platforms. Please ensure you check all health & safety requirements, such as face masks, before visiting a cinema

An American Pickle (12A)

The words subtle, nuanced, poignant and Seth Rogan are probably not something you expect to find in the same sentence, but all apply to this sweet and touching adaptation by Simon Rich of his own New Yorker novella, directed with a sure touch by Brandon Trost. While more often associated with sweary, stoner outings, cancer dramedy 50/50 and last year’s hugely funny and hugely enjoyable Long Shot showed a very different side and, while there are some broader moments, this reveals an unexpected skill in emotional depth.

Opening in 1919, he plays Herschel Greenbaum, a heavily bearded gravedigger in the fictional Eastern European country of  Schlupsk who dreams of a better life, of courting local girl Sarah (Sarah Snook) and one day tasting seltzer water. Or, as he puts it, throwing your punch and  doing something in life.

When their wedding is disrupted by “bloodthirsty, Jew-hungry” Cossacks, leaving everything in ruins, they emigrate to America, setting up home in Brooklyn where he gets a job as ratkiller in  a  pickle factory, saving enough to fulfil Sarah’s dream of a family graveyard plot. Unfortunately, on the day the factory’s closed down as unfit, he falls, unnoticed, into a pickling vat and is accidentally sealed in there for 100 years when he’s fortuitously freed, perfectly preserved by the brine, into modern day Brooklyn. At this point, it seems as if a typical fish out of water narrative lies ahead, but, while there are elements of that, the screenplay takes off into a totally different direction as he meets his only surviving relative, pea milk-drinking shaven great grandson Ben (also Rogen) whose parents are dead, does not share Herschel’s religious beliefs and, trapped by unexpressed grief, has spent the last five years working on an app called Boop Bop to identify ethical products.

Without revealing the finer details, suffice to say what follows sees Herschel becoming a big hit selling his homemade pickles on the street before he’s sabotaged by Ben after accidentally scuppering his investment hopes following an altercation over  billboard for vodka in the now run down graveyard. However, Herschel rebounds and becomes an even bigger success, further alienating Ben, only to again suffer reverses and comebacks, hailed as both a champion of free speech (there’s a nice sight gag of a headline reading Kanye West Defends Herschel Greenbaum’s Right to Offend_ and a hate monger as a result of Ben exploiting his naiveté and habit of not censoring his  opinions, before finally being hauled up for deportation following a pronouncement about Christianity on live television. But there’s still more than one twist to come.

With echoes of  both Forrest Gump (though far less schmaltzy) and Being There, the film’s fable embraces several themes, chiefly among them Jewish heritage, intergenerational pain, legacy, the importance of family and forgiveness, throwing in some social commentary on contemporary America along the way, but never in a heavy-handed way and always keeping a finger on a  very human pulse. The scene where Herschel first gets to taste soda water could have been played for lowbrow laughs, but, like large elements of the film, it is profoundly moving. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Odeon Broadway Plaza; Showcase Walsall)

 

Pinocchio (PG)

Written in 1883 by Carlo Collodi, you’ll be familiar with the tale. A lonely aged carpenter carves out a puppet he calls Pinocchio, which comes to life but, a petulant, disobedient kid, runs away from his dad, becomes part of a puppet show, encounters a talking cricket who acts as his conscience, falls in with a couple of swindlers, gets turned into  donkey, is befriended by a fairy and ends up becoming a  real boy. Oh, and of course, his nose grows when he lies.

Best known via the 1940 Disney animation, this is a much darker affair that remains faithful to the grotesque and fantastical elements of the original story and which, directed by Matteo Garrone, is given a live action treatment with some effective special effects and makeup.

Roberto Benigni, who directed his own version and ill-advisedly also played the lead, is the woodcutter Gepetto who, given an enchanted log, carves out the puppet in the hope of making his fortune travelling the world  and is both amazed and delighted when (played by  child actor Federico Ielapi with wood grain makeup) it comes to life, rushing out into the Tuscan streets announcing he’s got a  son.  Typically Benigni overdoes the sentimentality, but is fortunately absent for most of the film which follows Pinocchio on his misadventures as, first becoming part of the Fagin-like Mangiafuoco’s (Gigi Proietti) travelling puppet-show, in which his fellow puppets are also alive, but on strings,  he learns about the world and being good. Ielapi is excellent but, as I say, this doesn’t steer away from the darker elements of the book and the sight of the puppet having his feet burned off by sitting too close to the fire or being strung up from a tree by the two robbers, Cat (Rocco Papaleo) and Fox (co-writer Massimo Ceccherini), and left to die is probably not recommended be younger viewers.

Indeed, while a children’s cautionary tale about the consequences of  misbehaving, lying and not respecting your parents, the film, echoing  the likes of both Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Freaks,  is much more inclined to an adult audience, preferably one that will embrace such elements as characters with animal-features, such as a huge female snail servant who leaves a trail of slime behind her  and a gorilla judge (Teco Celio) who declares that it’s always the innocent who end up in jai. That’s not the only element of socio-political satire carried over from the book, the Blue Fairy (Marine Vacth) telling Pinocchio that “Those like you are born as puppets, live as puppets and die as puppets”. It ends of course with that magical transformation (Pinoccohio’s reborn in a stable, if you’re looking for symbolism) and the parent-child reunion, proving that he really is a chip off the old block after all. (Showcase Walsall)

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7500 (15)

Set almost entirely within a commercial airliner cockpit and, for the most part, a solo tour de force Joseph Gordon-Levitt, told in real time this German-made thriller  by director Patrick Vollrath unfolds an attempted Berlin to Paris midflight hijacking. Gordon-Levitt is  Tobias Ellis, the  American first officer, and the early scenes establish his relationship with the affable Captain, Michael Lutzmann (Carlo Kitzlinger) and stewardess Gokce (Aylin Tezel), his partner and mother of his two year-old son.The mundane is quickly shattered when, shortly after takeoff, two Islamic terrorists attempt to storm the cockpit armed with blades made from glass. Ellis manages to force one back, but the other, more elderly of the two, wounds both Lutzmann and Ellis before being overpowered and tied up.

Alerting air control that they’ve had a 7500, it’s now Ellis’s job to make an emergency landing at Hanover. However, it’s not going to be that easy. First, Lutzmann dies and then, contacting him over the intercom, a particularly violent terrorist threatens to kill one of the passengers until Ellis opens the cockpit door. Which, of course, he is forbidden to do, piling on the pressure as he’s conflicted between duty and morality.

It’s not too difficult to guess how another hostage situation develops, but then matters take a dramatic swerve when the captive terrorist escapes and allows his younger colleague (Omid Memar) to gain access, setting up a new dynamic between the three of them, especially given the teenager is less persuaded he wants to die for the greater good.

Other than scenes played on the black and white door monitor, it all takes place within the cockpit, ramping up the tension and claustrophobia as the power dynamics shift back and forth. There’s no conventional Hollywood heroics although the screenplay does take a slightly predictable clichéd turn in the final stretch, though not without diluting the violence and tension. Gordon-Levitt’s delivers a persuasive naturalistic performance while the ending is suitably anti-climatic in the numbness of the aftermath. (Amazon Prime)

Arkansas (15)

Actor Clark Duke turns writer-producer-director for this quirky Southern crime dramedy that, adapted alongside Andrew Boonkrong from John Brandon’s novel,  comes with more than a few laconic shades of the Coens in its shift from leisurely pacing to sudden violence, but still has a flavour of its own.

Told in chapters, it follows the accidental misadventures of garrulous, wispy moustachioed oddball  Swin (Duke) and the less loquacious and unruffled but more impatient Kyle (Liam Hemsworth, who, in the opening narration, notes that organised crime in the South is “a loose affiliation of deadbeats and scumbags”), am odd couple reluctantly thrown together as menials at the bottom of a large drug operation run by a mysterious figure called Frog, who they never knowingly meet and who, in the course of ferrying a shipment, brings them under the thumb of Bright (John Malkovich gleefully chewing the scenery), who uses his job as a park-ranger job as cover for his role as the middle-manager in Frog’s drug-running smuggling outfit sending them on trips to Louisiana or Texas in between tending the park. As the pair discover, the operation also involves a woman who goes only by the name of Her (Vivica A. Fox) who provides packages for them to deliver.

As the film ambles amiably along, contrary to Bright’s instructions, Swin strikes up a romance with local nurse Johnna (Eden Brolin) while, after he and Kyle are followed back from a deal, both Bright and his lowlife assailant (Chandler Duke) end up dead, leaving the pair uncertain what to do next with all the money, never sure if Frog knows what’s going on or not.

Switching back and forth in time and with scenes revisited in hindsight, in a chapter decicated to his rise from selling bootleg cassettes in 80s Memphis to become a drugs boss, we meet Frog (Vince Vaughn) who first gets a job with and then stitches up a smalltime  Little Rock dealer Almond (Michael Kenneth Williams) and takes over operations before, as a subsequent chapter reveals, taking on lunkhead twin brothers Tim and Thomas (Brad William Henke, Jeff Chase) to whom he, in turn, passes on the business and retires to become the pawn shack owner whose path Swin and Kyle unwittingly cross.  Ultimately, as the threads come together, it ends up with a considerable body count.

Mixing sudden violence and droll whimsical humour with its deadpan throwaways, extending to cameos by Devendra Banhart who wrote the score and The Flaming Lips who appear as a bar band murdering  a George Jones classic as well as providing soundtrack versions of The Night They  Drove Old Dixie Down and Larry Gatlin’s All The Gold In California, it is, perhaps, at times a little too eccentric for its own good, but even so it’  very entertaining watch.  (Amazon and others)

Artemis Fowl (PG)

Originally planned for a 2019  release, then postponed, this adaptation of Eoin Colfer’s first of his eight Artemis Fowl novels about the teenage Irish anti-hero now bypasses cinemas altogether to debut on Disney +. It doesn’t arrive trailing exactly enthusiastic reviews, but despite its many faults – among them some wooden acting, clunky dialogue and anonymous direction from Kenneth Branagh – it ends up being quite fun, at least for the target audience.

Of course, Colfer fans will doubtless complain that it’s got ahead of the series and, rather than the 12 year old criminal mastermind in the original first few books, young Artemis (a somewhat stiff Ferdia Shaw) is already the plucky hero he becomes later, but really that’s neither here nor there and the film does nod to that by having the elder art dealer Artemis (Colin Farrell) being accused of being an international thief whose been stealing precious artefacts from around the  world and storing them in his remote clifftop sprawling mansion where he lives with his son and bodyguard Butler (Nonso Anozie) and, brought in for added protection (even if she vanishes from the plot for long stretches and doesn’t really seem to do much), Butler’s niece Juliet (Tamara Smart).

Well, yes and no. He has, but in order to protect the world from a dangerous magic. You see, he’s apparently the only human who knows of the existence of a subterranean fairy world  populated by trolls, goblins, dwarfs and the like, from which he’s stolen something called the Aculos to prevent it from being used to by dark forces to destroy all humans and dominate fairydom.

He’s also been teaching young Artemis (initially coming across as a bratty whiz kid) all about leprechauns and the other fairy legends as if they were real which, when dad disappears (abducted by some mysterious hooded figure who wants the Aculos to do exactly what I mentioned above), he quickly learns it is when, after subduing rampant troll marauding through a wedding (all humans put into a  time freeze in the process and then mind-wiped), young (well, 84 years is teenage in fairy years) LEPrecon operative Holly Short (a perky elfin Lara McDonnell), the daughter of the late supposed traitor Beechwood, a  friend of Fowl Sr who helped purloin the Aculos, disobeys orders and winds up his captive.

This prompts the LEPrecon Commander Root (Judi Dench dressed in lime green, sporting elf ears and speaking like she has gravel in her throat) to  time freeze Fowl Manor and  send in the winged troops to  rescue her, and find the Aculos in the process. However, having bonded, Artemis and Holly are now working together to find where dad’s hidden it and rescue him.

All of this is told in flashback by giant dirt eating dwarf digger Mulch (Josh Gad) who’s being interrogated by some sort of British secret service and who also plays a major role in the battle at the manor.

The obvious influences, chiefly Men in Black (Artemis dresses in black suit and wears shades), Harry Potter (Mulch as surrogate Hagrid) and Star Wars (Farrell’s captor akin to Palpatine), do it no favours by comparison, but despite some confusing transitions, it rattles along quickly enough to keep its target audience distracted and the visual effects are definitely impressive. Like the ill-fated The Golden Compass 2007 adaptation before it, it ends setting up the main characters for the next stage in the adventure. That never saw light of day, but, perhaps Disney’s new streaming platform may yet give Fowl a fair chance of magicking up a franchise after all. (Disney +)

Bad Boys For Life (15)

A so so turn in Aladdin aside, Will Smith hasn’t made a truly decent movie since Hancock back in 2008, hardly surprising then to see this reboot of arguably his most successful, though not necessarily best,  work. Directed by little known Belgian duo Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah, taking over from Michael Bay (who gets a cheeky cameo), with a screenplay that involved three writers, including od hands Peter Draig and Joe Carnahan, he reteams with Martin Lawrence after 17 years to revive the partnership of apparently incredibly well paid maverick Miami narcotics detectives Mike Lowrey (Smith) and Marcus Burnett (Lawrence), still on the streets bringing down the bad guys, even if a few grey hairs and some added weight are showing.

Mike behind the wheel of his blue Porsche, the film kicks off with they swapping banter during a frantic car chase involving several squad cars and bikes, though amusingly (albeit downright recklessly) not in pursuit of some villains but to get Marcus to the hospital where his grandson (who’s named after him) is being born. It’s an epiphany that sees Burnett decide to retire and put his feet up while Lowrey insists on carrying on (cue comparison scenes of the two friends going about their different daily lives), “running down criminals until I’m a hundred.” But then he’s almost killed in a drive-by shooting by a helmeted man in black on a motorbike, leading Marcus to tell God he’ll give up violence if his buddy pulls through and setting in the motion the core narrative in which recent  prison escapee Mexican witch Isabel Aretas (Kate del Castillo), the widow of a cartel boss, sends her sociopathic  sniper son, Armando (Jacob Scipio), to assassinate everyone involved in the case, leaving Lowrey to last (though he does try and jump the gun), in revenge.

With Marcus now having retired and Mike ordered by the captain (Jo Pantoliano) to get involved, the case is hand over to the newly formed AMMO tactical squad, headed up by one of Lowrey’s old flames, Rita (Paola Núñez), and featuring the regulation mix of one dimensional colourful oddballs, snarky Rafe (Charles Melton), an underused Vanessa Hudgens as ballistics expert Kelly  and  ripped tech guy Dorn (Alexander Ludwig) who has also renounced violence. Naturally, Mike’s not going to sit back and do nothing, so it’s not long before things are getting blown up and the body count rising as they try and track down who’s responsible.

All of this is formulaic stuff, but it’s given a darker, harder and more emotive edge when the somewhat far-fetched third act reveals Mike’s backstory and a connection between those seeking his death that is about more than it first appears. Smith and Lawrence skip comfortably back into their roles and clearly seem to be having fun rather than just taking the paycheque, riffing on the franchise  with constant repeats of their mantra and the theme song. Although most of the target audience were still toddlers when the last instalment came out, there’s no attempt to reinvent anything here, just to reignite the fun and put a little more grit and thought into the fuel. And, as such with the end credits setting up what promises to be an unusual family alliance  sequel, it does just that. (Empire Great Park)

 

Bloodshot (15)

Adapted from a second division comic and borrowing heavily from both Universal Soldier and The Matrix, this  derivative sci fi affair stars Vin Diesel  as Ray Garrison, a Marine who, in the opening sequence, rescues a hostage from a bunch of hostiles and, back home, is later taken prisoner  as a result, interrogated for information by Martin Axe (Toby Kebbel) who, dancing his way in to Talking Heads’ Psycho Killer has clearly watched Reservoir Dogs too often, and then, after seeing his wife, Gina (Talulah Riley), killed, is shot dead.

Then he wakes up in a hi-tech lab to be told by Dr. Emil Harting (Guy Pearce), the project overseer with a robotic arm, that he’s the first soldier to be successfully brought back from the dead and enhanced by nanotechnology, giving him super strength, a mega-computer brain and, thanks to the nanites that are now his blood, the ability of his body to quickly repair any injury. On the downside, he has no memory of who is or his past. However, put in the care of KT (Eiza González), who, along with   machine man Dalton (Sam Heughan) has been reengineered after combat injuries,  on being reintroduced to alcohol he takes a quick shot and images of Gina’s execution come flooding back, prompting him to take off, using his new powers to fly a jet to Budapest , track down  Axe and wreak vengeance before, as he always does, heading home.

All relatively clear so far. But then the film swerves off  into Matrix/Source Code territory in which, without giving too much away, it turns out that Garrison is being used (in what seems unnecessarily complicated and hugely expensive) as a souped-up assassin as he then proceeds to go through the whole thing again, only this time the face of the wife-killer is different. From here, the whole thing becomes increasingly incoherent and farfetched as, discovering his memories may not be real, and finding an ally among the other enhanced along with  babbling genius  computer code nerd Wilfred Wigans (a wildly overacting Lamorne Morris), he naturally sets out, chest glowing red, to take down Harding.

Cobbled together  from far superior films, first time director David S.F. Wilson uses his visual effects background to striking effect, especially during a duel on a skyscraper’s exoskeletal elevator and the tunnel car chase where Garrison’s face is blown off and reassembles, but even this is just Terminator/Matrix redux. Pearce plays it sneeringly cool, González makes the most of a scrappily written role and Diesel does what Diesel does. Expect nothing else and you won’t be too disappointed, even so you may feel they spelled the title with one letter wrong. (Empire Great Park; Odeon Broadway Plaza; Showcase Walsall)

 

Da 5 Bloods (15)

Opening with Muhammed Ali’s famous 1978 speech about refusing to drafted for the Vietnam War and proceeding through a collage of footage of African American soldiers in the conflict, Kwame Ture’s declaration that “America has declared war on black people” and Angela Davis warning that “If the link-up is not made between what’s happening in Vietnam and what’s happening here, we may very well face a period of full-blown fascism very soon,”  all set to Marvin Gaye Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler) with its line about “trigger-happy policing”, it’s clear that Spike Lee’s latest resonates loudly with the current protests in America and beyond.

That, however, remains a subtext to this thematically sprawling, tonally inconsistent but undeniably compelling tale of a group of African-American veterans reuniting many years later to revisit Vietnam. Ostensibly, the reason is to recover the remains of their former squad leader, Stormin’ Norman (Chadwick Boseman), who was killed during an operation, and return them for burial. However, through a flashback to the mission, it’s quickly revealed that the overriding motive for most of them is to recover the caseful of US gold bullion intended for the South Vietnamese allies which they stumbled upon and buried to reclaim later since, as Norman puts it, “the USA owe us. We built this bitch.”

The four middle-aged buddies comprise Otis (a soulful Clarke Peters), Melvin (Isiah Whitlock Jr) and Eddie (Norm Lewis) and  Trump-supporting Paul (Delroy Lindo), the latter the most troubled of the group, haunted by guilt nightmares and suffering PTSD for reasons only revealed (not easy to surmise) in the final stretch when he loses it completely. Joining them, much to his father’s displeasure, is Paul’s concerned teacher son David (Jonathan Majors) while their guide for the trip is Vinh (Johnny Trí Nguyễn).

To get the gold out, through Tien (Lê Y Lan), a former prostitute who was Otis’ lover during the war (and by whom he discovers he has a daughter), they strike a deal with shady French businessman Desroche (Jean Reno), while, later in proceedings they cross paths with Hedy (Mélanie Thierry), founder of a landmine removal organisation, and her two colleagues. You don’t have to be a genius to know that, as the plot twist and personalities, motives and paranoias clash, there’s be fallings out, double crosses and at least one incident involving buried mine.

Nodding to a range of touchstones, among them Treasure of the Sierra Madre and, inevitably, Apocalypse Now (even down to using Ride of the Valkyries), it rattles along between the present quest and flashbacks to the fateful mission as the group dynamics swing from one extreme to another, one minute addressing the estranged father/son relationship, the next focusing on how Blacks were exploited as the war’s cannon fodder (cue a recreation of Hanoi Hannah broadcasting her propaganda) while maintaining a basic action movie narrative as it heads for the inevitable showdown between the Bloods, those who want to take the gold and Paul’s meltdown (a sterling turn by Lindo) as the truth of what happened to Norman back in the day emerges.

Co-written Lee’s  BlacKkKlansman co-writer Kevin Willmott, its convoluted and narratively messy, but, between an amusing nightclub dance sequence, a scene where two elderly ex-Viet Cong but the Bloods a round and the powerful central performances, it keeps you glued throughout its two hours plus. (Netflix)

Dark Waters (12A)

Treading corporate malfeasance and courageous lone crusader territory familiar from Erin Brockovich, Silkwood and The Insider, writer-director Todd Haynes turns attention to the DuPont chemical company which, it was revealed had, in the manufacture of Teflon and the chemical it contained, from the early 1950s, been knowingly (from their own research) systematically poisoning its employees and the American public for decades. Naturally, when it comes down to choosing between profit (at one point Teflon products were generating $1 billion per year) and health and safety, human life becomes collateral damage.

Things came to light when Wilbur Tennant (Bill Camp), an Appalachian farmer and one of his grandmother’s West Virginia neighbours in Parkersburg, approached Robert Bilott (Mark Ruffalo, who also produced), a reliable, convention and generally unspectacular  soon to be made partner at the high flying  law firm of Taft Stettinius & Hollister (headed up by Tim Robbins) specialising in defending chemical companies, asking him to take on his case, claiming that his herd of cattle had been poisoned by pollutants feeding into Dry Run Creek, which DuPont (run by Victor Gerber as the smarmy CEO) used as a waste dump for the nearby plant.

Initially reluctant to get involved, having visited the farm and seen the evidence (“You tell me nothing’s wrong here” growls Tennant), Bilott persuaded the firm to let him take on the case and sue DuPont as a simple case of damage control, expecting for a quick resolution. What happened, as he found more and more evidence in the boxes full of DuPont’s files of their complicity and cover-up, led to a string of  whistle-blowing revelation, major courtroom class-action lawsuits, triumphs and reversals that were eventually documented in the New York Times Magazine story The Lawyer Who Became DuPont’s Worst Nightmare on which the film is based. He also had to battle with a resentful community since DuPont, who had no oversight from government, was the biggest employer around Parkersburg and the impact of his single-minded determination to get justice on his own wife and family.

It’s a solid, worthy and predictable piece of work that, setting the sense of unease with an opening 1970s skinny dipping scene in the polluted waters, doggedly ploughs through the timeline of events (17 years from 1998) in documentary-like fashion while, although Anne Hathaway is cast as Bilott’s supportive good Catholic wife, she has so little to do the role could have been played by anyone. However, the more facts it throws up the more horrifying becomes the scale of the poisoning, with pretty much everyone on the planet having some level of residue of the chemical known as PFOA in the body, and which cannot be removed, not only acting as an indictment of corporate greed but also serving as commentary on how willing we are to accept things that make our lives easier, without questioning the science behind it. Ultimately, it’s not up there with the films mentioned earlier, but it is engrossing and full of outrage and, if nothing else, it might make you more wary of those non-stick frying pans in the kitchen. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC; Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe)

Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga (12A)

There may not have been an actual Eurovision this year, but, directed by David Dobkin,  this Will Ferrell comedy perfectly captures the contest’s self-parodying multi-cultural kitsch. Unfortunately, it takes an often laborious two hours for what is essentially a  sketch that, at best, should never have gone beyond 90 minutes. Obsessed with Eurovision from the moment he saw ABBA perform Waterloo on TV in 1974 as a child in his small fishing village, obliviously naïve Lars Erickssong (Ferrell in long blonde wig) has had only one goal, to win for Iceland. Though derided by his buttoned-up fisherman father (Pierce Brosnan, playing it relatively straight with a wink in the eye), who reckons his son’s wasted his entire life and the villagers, who only want to hear them play their banal risqué ‘hit’ Ja Ja Ding Dong, it’s dream shared by Sigrit Ericksdotti (Rachel McAdams), his elves-believing childhood best friend and platonic sweetheart who’s also his musical partner in Fire Saga.

Katiana (Demi Lovato) is already the foregone conclusion as the country’s entry, the rules see Fire Saga randomly selected to make up the numbers and failing badly. But, when the boat on which all the other contestants are partying explodes, killing everyone on board, the selection committee find themselves who choice but to enter the duo and their song Double Trouble, much to the relief of Victor Karlosson, the Central Bank of Iceland governor, who reckons winning would bankrupt them.

Arriving in Edinburgh for the contest, they get to meet all the other country’s entrants, most specifically Russia’s preening, fake tan lothario Alexander Lemtov (a brilliant Dan Stevens) with his homoerotic entry Lion of Love who sets his sights on seducing Sigrit, getting Greek contestant Mita Xenakis (Melissanthi Mahut) to distract Lars. The whole romantic subplot (Sigrit wants love, Lars is too scared to get involved) lumbers badly as the relationship strains at the seams, McAdams feeling somewhat constrained and uncomfortable in her performance while, by contrast,  Ferrell again serves up his silly man child excesses and penis jokes that have long ceased to be particularly funny.

There is, though, much fun to be had in the over the top costumes and musical elements, kicking off with Fire Saga’s wonderfully ridiculous Volcano Man video with Lars in Viking costume and running through the different country’s entries (any of which could have been actual Eurovision songs, such as Swedish hip-hop outfit Johnny John John’s Coolin’ With Da Homies) to the giant hamster wheel disaster during the duo’s semi-finals performance and the big finale where, hitting her semi-mythical “speorg note,”  Sigrit gets to sing her self-penned Icelandic anthem, Homeland.

There’s also an exuberant ‘song-along’ sequence at Lemtov’s house as all the guests, who include actual former Eurovision stars, among the Austrian drag queen winner Conchita, in a mash-up of Believe, Ray of Light, Waterloo and I Gotta Feeling, while 2017 Portuguese winner Salvador Sobral cameo as  piano-playing busker.  It slips up on some of the technical details (Eastern European hosts in Edinburgh?), but at least Graham Norton appears as his sarcastic self as the UK commentator, whose observations on the Icelandic entry might well also apply to the film itself.  (Netflix)

The Greatest Showman (12A)

Closer to Baz Luhrman’s Moulin Rouge than La La Land, whose Benj Pasek and Justin Paul  also provide the songs here, first time director Michael Gracey and writers Jenny Bicks and Bill Condon (who, having penned Chicago and Dreamgirls, knows his way around a musical) may take any number of liberties with the life of  19th century  showman and legendary hoaxer Phineas T Barnum, but succeed in serving up a fabulous sugar rush, candy coloured helping of feelgood family entertainment about the man who pretty much invented modern day entertainment.

Bearing absolutely no resemblance to the real Barnum, who looked more like Mel Smith and didn’t get into show business until he was in his 60s, Hugh Jackman is clearly having the time of his life, positively exploding with energy in the musical routines (and let’s not forget he first made his name in musical theatre and won a Tony for the Broadway production of The Boy From Oz), but also hitting the key emotional notes when needed.

It opens with a brief background prologue, introducing the young Phineas (Ellis Rubin) as the son of a struggling tailor who falls for  Charity (Skylar), the daughter of his dad’s stern and snobbish client who sends her away to  put an end to the friendship. Barnum’s father dies and the kid’s reduced to stealing food on the streets, until befriended by a disfigured stranger, he’s inspired to become more than he is and chase his Million Dreams.

Fast forward and, having made something of himself as an office clerk, the now grown Barnum marries Charity (Michelle Williams, somewhat underused), again to her father’s disapproval,  and they have two cute daughters, Caroline and Helen (Austyn Johnson and Cameron Seely), and, when the shipping company he works for goes belly-up, a flash of inspiration leads Barnum to open his American Museum, a collection of  historical wax figures and stuffed exotic animals, in the hope of attracting the curious. A bedtime observation from one of the kids that it could do with an exhibit that’s not dead then prompts him to round up all manner of society’s freaks, among them bearded lady singer Lettie  (Keala Settle), a 22-year old dwarf (Sam Humphrey) he dresses up as General  Tom Thumb, a giant, Siamese twins, a fat man, the hairy Dog Boy and,  brother and sister trapeze artists whose only ‘deformity’ is being African American, exaggerating their ‘freakishness’ for extra effect and nigger ‘humbug’.

Scamming the bank for a loan, he opens his theatre  and, proving there’s no such thing as bad publicity, transforms a scathing review into  an audience magnet with the New York crowds flocking in, restyling his show as a circus with himself as the ringmaster. Looking to move beyond  lowbrow audiences, he then forms a partnership with Philip Caryle (Zac Efron in his first musical role since High School Musical and very loosely based on James Bailey of the Barnum and Bailey Circus), a bored  theatrical producer with a hefty trust fund and the sort of connections that can earn the troupe an audience with Queen Victoria.

It’s here Barnum meets Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson), the feted opera singer known as the Swedish Nightingale, and sees an opportunity to move from the peanut to the champagne market. Gambling both his reputation and his wealth, he signs her up for  first a New York showcase and then a mammoth American tour. Suffice to say, things do not go well, resulting in a marriage threatening scandal while, back in New York, the bigot mob protests about the ‘freaks’ get out of hand and the tentative road to romance between Philip  and Anne (Zendaya), one half of the trapeze act, is hitting some racial prejudice bumps.

Naturally, setbacks are just a spur to bigger and better success and, as such the film is very much a hymn to the underdogs chasing the American Dream, not to mention a clarion cry for diversity that strikes  a far more right on contemporary note about those on the margins than would have been the case in Barnum’s day, even if none of the troupe are given anything like a backstory.

But social commentary is secondary to the spectacle and the songs, the rooftop dance routines,  the lavish circus ring bombast, and the cast and film deliver with exuberant gusto, standout  moments being Ferguson (albeit overdubbed by Loren Allred) singing out the pain of being the outsider with Never Enough, Settle leading the charge with the showstopper  This Is Me, Jackman and Efron’s  lithe shot glass shifting barroom negotiations dance routine and the literally soaring circus ring Rewrite the Stars sequence  with Efron and Zendaya. Climaxing with Jackman leading the rousing cast finale of From Now On, this is a fabulous celebration of the power of unadulterated  entertainment to raise the spirits and fill the heart. (Empire Great Park; Showcase Walsall)

Greyhound (12) 

A long-time project for Tom Hanks, he both adapted C.S. Forester’s 1955 novel The Good Shepherd and stars as Ernie Krause, a devoutly religious U.S. Navy Captain whose first command is to take charge of the Greyhound, leader of the light warships charged with overseeing a convey of 37 supply ships as cross the Atlantic to Britain, in 1942, a voyage with entails 48 hours without air support in a region known as the Black Pit where they are at the mercy of Nazi U-boats.

There’s a brief opening flashback to a scene between Krause and his long-time sweetheart (Elisabeth Shue) as they meet prior to his taking up command and she suggests now’s not the right time to get engaged, but other than that virtually the entire film takes place on the bridge of the Greyhound as Krause and the crew variously seek to hunt down and destroy or evade the marauding Grey Wolf pack of enemy submarines, including a taunting message from an unseen U-boat commander (Thomas Kretschmann) that comes across as unintentionally cartoonish.

As such, the featured cast is limited to Hanks, Stephen Graham as his navigator, Rob Morgan as the ship’s African-American cook, forever bringing the captain coffee and sandwiches, gunnery officer Manuel Garcia-Rulfo and Hanks’ son Chet as the sonar operator. And yet, it’s only Krause that has any real character depth, a mixture of insecurity at his first time of testing, his faith and, being Hanks, is deep humanity. Likewise, there’s not a great deal of scope for narrative development and, when not staging action sequences upon the turbulent digitised ocean (mostly dark and at night) as they either hunt or narrowly evade the subs, or a near miss between the Greyhound and an oil tanker, it revolves around the cast looking seriously at each other and trotting out various naval terms like “Hard rudder left!”  Basically, it’s a single scene repeated several times with just some minor variations. And while, directed by Aaron Schneider, it has a claustrophobic intensity and affords Hanks another chance to go minimalist and do his familiar stoicism, sincerity and integrity, it doesn’t exactly make for compelling viewing.  (Netflix)

The Invisible Man (15)

All the best horror films know that’s it’s what you don’t see is the scariest, letting the imagination build the tension. That’s the premise of writer-director Leigh Whannell’s reimagining of the HG Wells classic as a thriller that, for all its increasingly far-fetched developments and plot holes, is a genuinely suspenseful watch, the use of long shots and empty space adding to the creepiness in suggesting someone watching unseen.

The film opens in the middle of the night with architect Cecilia (Elizabeth Moss)  surreptitiously gathering her things and sneaking out of the high-tech and high security house she shares with her controlling, abusive boyfriend, Adrian (Oliver Jackson-Cohen),an inventor who specialises in light, leaving him drugged in bed.  She’s met by her sister, Emily (Harriet Dyer), driving off just as Adrian arrived and attacks the car.

Some weeks later, she’s taken refuge at the home of her Bay Area police detective friend James (Aldis Hodge) and his teenage daughter, Sydney (Storm Reid), too scared to step outside the house.  But then Emily arrives to say Adrian’s apparently committed suicide, so good news all round. She’s then surprised to learn from his attorney brother Tom (Michael Dorman), that he left her $5million, to be paid in monthly instalments, part of which she immediately puts into an account to pay for Sydney’s college. But then she starts feeling uneasy, as if someone’s watching her and, diagnosed as having excess Diazepam in her blood after fainting at an interview, her architectural drawings mysteriously no longer in her portfolio, she find the pills bottle she dropped in fleeing now in her bathroom and realises that someone Adrian is stalking her, somehow alive and invisible (using a suit and advanced digital imaging it’s later explained) rather than from beyond the grave.

Naturally no-one believes her and given events for which she’s seemingly responsible, including murder, she’s duly diagnosed as crazy and locked up in a mental hospital, unable to clear her name. And it just gets worse until she finally begins to fight back.

While Adrian is clearly gaslighting her, the film makes it clear that she’s not paranoid and imaging things, something that wouldn’t work if Moss, fresh from The Handmaid’s Tale, wasn’t so convincing when she’s shown struggling with an invisible presence throwing her around  the room and in also investing Cecilia with such emotional intensity as she, understandably, unravels. The supporting cast are disappointingly one-dimensional and only really there to serve the narrative, Whamell drawing on some tried and tested horror tropes such as doors opening by themselves and blankets being pulled of a bad to add to the chills, but also underlaying the screenplay with a commentary on abuse victims often being invisible themselves and remaining terrorised long after the abuser has vanished from the scene. It falls apart slightly at the all too conveniently pat ending, but otherwise  it’s a case of what you don’t see really getting you. (Empire Great Park; Showcase Walsall)

Joker (15)

Darker, both tonally and morally, than even Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, and devoid of any of flip humour, it’s not escaped  controversy regarding the extreme violence. And yes, yet in a dystopian early 80s Gotham, it is intense, brutal, graphic and bloody, but while Todd Phillips seeks to explain and understand, at no  point does he excuse, justify or glorify.

First introduced applying his clown for hire makeup, contorting his face into a deranged smile that might give Stephen King nightmares, Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) is a mentally disturbed, dead inside loser and loner, who, on medication and seeing  a social worker counsellor, lives with his single, infirm mother (Frances Conroy) in a crappy apartment and who suffers from a  neurological  condition that expresses itself as a sort of laughter version of Tourette’s. His Everything Must Go promotional placard snatched by a  bunch of kids, he’s left badly beaten, prompting  a fellow worker to slip him a gun with which he subsequently kills the three Wall Street bully boys who harass and attack him on a subway train, an act that, seized on my the media with its vigilante clown headlines, ignites the fuse to already simmering unrest in Gotham, and about the glaring divide between the poor (who adopt clown masks a la V for Vendetta) and the rich, as emblemised by Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen who,  here a loathsome rather than benevolent figure, is running for mayor having castigated the ‘mob’ as all clowns. Indeed, Phillips introduces several moments to enfold his vision within the Batman mythos and the connections between the Dark Knight and his ultimate nemesis.

An aspirant stand-up, Arthur is also a huge admirer of TV talk show host Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro, the Jerry Langford to Arthur’s Rupert Pupkin, conjuring King of Comedy echoes just as the film channels Mean Streets/Taxi Driver Scorsese) so, despite a clip of a stage act being screened on the show as a humiliating put-down, when he’s invited to appear, he naturally agrees. However, by this point, with yet more bodies to his count, having been confronted with the terrible truth about his childhood and his mother and, increasingly delusional as the joke turns in on itself, when he turns up in the familiar Joker outfit, dancing on his way to the strains of Gary Glitter’s Rock and Roll Part 2, no one in the audience should be expecting this to go well.

Given the impressions made by both Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger in the role, Phoenix clearly had hard acts to follow, but he brings a whole new dimension (and demented cackle) of his own to the character, both, with his skeletal frame and facial expressions, physically (his frequent dance routines infused with the tragic comedy and pathos of Chaplin), emotionally and psychologically, as we understand and empathise with the pain that drives him over the edge, but do not condone the horrific consequences. It’s a staggering performance that can’t help but eclipse those around him (Zazie Beetz particularly suffers from an underwritten role as Arthur’s single-mom neighbour and, we are led to believe, caring lover), but it fits perfectly with the world around him.

Driven by Hildur Gudnadóttir’s brooding  score and the ironic use of numbers like That’s Life and  Send In The Clowns, like The Purge, the film taps into  a disturbing powder keg zeitgeist of civil unrest (set to Cream’s White Room) and looming anarchic class war as, summing things up, Arthur asks Murray “What do you get when you cross a mentally ill loner with a society that abandons him and treats him like trash?” His and the film’s answer is ‘what you fuckin’ deserve’.  As Groucho Marx said, “The only real laughter comes from despair”. (Empire Great Park;Showcase Walsall)

My Spy (12A)

He’s not yet got the film opening profile of fellow wrestler turned actor Dwayne Johnson, but Dave Bautista is ably proving he has the chops to mix action and deadpan comedy to hugely entertaining effect. Here he’s JJ, a heavily tattooed former Special Forces soldier now with the CIA who’s assigned to a lowly surveillance job after his tough guy actions blew a mission and let a bad guy escape with one half of the means to build a nuclear weapon. Teamed (in an echo of Spy) with nerdy, hero-worshipping new tech support analyst Bobbi (Kristen Schaal), his boss (Ken Jeong)  gives him one last chance,  bugging and watching the Chicago apartment belonging to Kate (Pariza Fitz-Henley) the widow of a dead arms dealer, murdered by his terrorist mastermind brother Marquez  (Greg Byrk) on the offchance he turns up. Unfortunately, JJ’s cover is quickly blown by Kate’s precocious nine-year-old, Sophie (Chloe Coleman), who capturing everything on her phone, threatens to expose them unless, the new kid in town, friendless and bullied at school,  he agrees to take her ice-skating. It doesn’t end there, proving easily able to outwit him, he’s then inveigled into being her school show and tell buddy and even teaching her the tricks of the spy trade, such  as how to avoid being detected in a lie, at which she’s remarkably adept. And, of course, she’s soon setting him up as  prospective romantic interest for mum, self-imposed loner JJ learning once again how to relate to people and get in touch with his feelings.  At which point, having been on hold long enough, the nuclear plotline resurfaces when Marquez comes calling.

 

Directed by Peter Berg, while ostensibly pitched at  tweenies, the gay neighbours, a lesbian gag, a witty nod to Indiana Jones and the Lost Ark and the gunplay action clearly have an adult audience in mind too, the comedy (which in places recalls Mr Nanny and, Kindergarten Cop) appealing to both with some frequent laugh out loud moments as well as sly genre spoofs such as JJ teaching Sophie how to walk away from explosions in slow motion.

Bautista and Coleman share brilliant chemistry and comic timing, even if it’s Schaal who gets the lion’s share of the best one-liners, with Segal succeeding  in mining the kid and surrogate dad  sentiment without drowning in schmaltz. A reteaming would be most welcome.(Cineworld NEC; Empire Great Park)

The Old Guard (15)

Following on from Mad Max and Atomic Blonde, Charlize Theron further underscores her cool action movie persona as Ancient Greece warrior Andromache of Scythia aka Andy, the head of a small group of immortal mercenaries that also comprises Booker (Matthias Schoenaerts), who gained immortality after dying in the Napoleonic Wars and Joe (Marwan Kenzari) and Nicky (Luca Marinelli) who became gay lovers while fighting on opposing sides in the Crusades.  Keeping a low profile so as not to attract attention to themselves, they’ve fought on the side of right through the centuries, to which end, brought back together after a year apart, although, disillusioned by humanity’s continued inability to redeem itself, she declares “The world can burn for all I care”, she’s persuaded by former CIA operative Copley (Chiwetel Ejiofor) to rescue 17 schoolchildren abducted in South Sudan.

However, this turns out to be a set up aimed at capturing them and harvesting their DNA engineered by pharmaceuticals CEO Merrick (Harry Melling, unrecognisable from his role as Harry Potter’s Dudley Dursley) who claims he wants to end cognitive decline, but whose actual motives are rather less altruistic.

The corporate villain has become something of a cliché and the film, self-adapted by Greg Ruckahich from his graphic novels and which sees director Gina Prince-Bythewood spreading her wings after romantic dramas, never seems as assured in the basic plot framework as it does in handling the character interplay and the action sequences.

The quarter are soon joined by a fifth member, American Marine Nile Freeman (KiKi Layne) who, much to her confusion and the unease of her fellow soldiers, recovers from a fatal neck-wound in Afghanistan without so much as a scar. A psychic bond between fellow immortals leads to Andy rescuing her from the military base and, after a mano a mano fight aboard a transport plane, recruiting her to the cause, though she remains understandably freaked out about the whole set-up.

Not that, with Merrick’s paramilitary squad on their tail, anyone has a great deal of time to sit around reflecting on the cost of immortality and rapid healing, and never knowing when your time will be up.  The character depth is thickened by the revelation that Andy is haunted by guilt over the fate of her first fellow immortal, Quynh (Van Veronica Ngo) following their capture during the witchcraft trials.

As such, the film jumps around from Africa and Southern Asia to rural Paris as the group elude pursuit and seek to track down Copley before, after a betrayal and two abductions for experimentation,  it all climaxes in an extended shoot-out at Mannix’s London HQ.

Dressed in black (though flashbacks have her in Amazonian armour) with a bob-cut, Theron strides confidently through the film, delivering action and conflicted character complexity and psychological baggage with equal skill, and she’s well-supported by her four peers, Layne especially strong while Schoenaerts provides soulful melancholia and Kenzari and Marinelli introduce a degree of humour and tenderness.

With one of the group apparently losing their immortality and a six months later end credits scene that sets up further mystery and intrigue, this is clearly envisioned as an ongoing narrative, both as  high octane action and exploring what it means to be human; it most certainly deserves a sequel. (Netflix)

Onward (PG)

The latest outing from Pixar may not reach the emotional heights or inspired storytelling of the Toy Story series, but, even so, it’s still leagues above its rivals in the family animation stakes.  It takes a familiar and well-tested coming-of-age scenario about chalk and cheese siblings learning to work together and understand each other as well as dealing with loss and hurt and gives it a fantasy setting in a world where magic once ruled but has fallen into disuse with the rise of technology such as lightbulbs and planes. Now unicorns scavenge in New Mushroomton’s dustbins and dragons are family pets.

Directed by Dan Scanlon the protagonists are elfin brothers Ian Lightfoot (Tom Holland), an awkward, insecure teenager   overshadowed by his extrovert stoner-like metal-head older brother Barley (Chris Pratt), a snarky  role-playing fantasy gamer and history nut who believes the games are based on old realities and drives a battered van he’s dubbed Gwniver. Together, they live with their outgoing widowed mom, Laurel (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), who’s dating macho centaur cop Colt Bronco (Mel Rodriguez).

On Ian’s 16th birthday, mom presents him with something left by their late father (Scanlon lost his own father when he was one and has no memories of him), which turns out to be a wizard’s staff, a gem and instructions on how to bring dad back to life for a day. Naturally, Barley assumes he has the necessary magic powers, but it turns out that they actually run in Ian’s DNA. Unfortunately, he’s not quite up to the task and the spell falls apart midway, leaving dad as just a pair of legs, prompting the brothers to set off on a quest to find a second gemstone to complete the spell and finally meet and say goodbye to their father before the sun sets.

So, dressing the trousers up Weekend at Bernie’s style with a puffy jacket floppy torso and sunglasses, the pair hit the road (Ian wants to take the shortest route, Barley the path of peril) as the film unfolds into an episodic quest adventure, Bronco and mom in pursuit, that variously involves a run in with a biker gang of tiny flightless pixies, the Manticore (Octavia Spencer), the fabled lion-scorpion-bat warrior whose titular tavern is now a cheesy themed fast food joint that contains the map to the gem’s location (she and mom teaming up as a formidable double act to get to the boys before they unwittingly unleash the curse) and a somewhat rushed climax that pits everyone against a giant rock dragon made up of the town’s demolished school. There’s some delightful moments en route, including a dance scene between brothers and dad’s legs and disguise cloak that only works if the wearer tells the truth (making for an awkward brotherly moment), as Ian learns to become more confident and eventually realise the strength of his relationship with Barley who’s essentially tried to be the dad he never had.  It’s not Up, but it’s definitely facing the right direction. (Empire Great Park; Odeon Broadway Plaza)

Parasite: Black and White Edition (15)      

The first non-English language film to win  a Best Picture Oscar, this is a tour de force social satire by South Korean writer-director Bong Joon Ho and his outstanding cast. Evocative of the Japanese family in Shoplifters, this focuses on a morally and financially bankrupt  but resourceful Seoul family who live in a  squalid semi-basement apartment where the toilet, the only place they can get wi-fi, leached from the neighbours, sits atop of shelf and drunks piss up against their only window. There’s Kim Ki-woo (Choi Woo-sik), his dissolute father Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho), tetchy mother Chung-sook (Chang Hyae-jin) and smart sister, Ki-jung (Park So-dam), all of whom earn a  pittance folding pizza delivery boxes.

However, their prospects look up when Ki-woo’s university friend says he’s going abroad and, since he trusts him not to ruin his romantic intentions (a trust very quickly betrayed), suggests he takes over as tutor to his naïve but horny student Da-hye (Jung Ziso), the daughter of wealthy executive, Mr. Park (Lee Sun-kyun), and his attractive but ‘scatterbrained wife Yeon-kyo (Cho Yeo-jeong). With a university diploma forged by his sister (justifying it as receiving the paperwork  in advance of actually studying) and a backstory, he quickly suckers his way into the household, impressing the wife with his ‘analysis’ of her traumatised hyper-active, “Indians”-obsessed young son Da-song’s (Jung Hyeon-jun) drawings. Indeed, he also suggests he knows an art teacher who could act as his the kid’s art therapist, his sister, naturally. Before long, taking advantages of the Parks’ social prejudices (the father bangs on about the servants not crossing the line), the family have managed to engineer the dismissal of both their driver and the long-serving loyal live in housekeeper Moon-gwang (Lee Jung-eun) with an unusual and exploitable allergy, substituting the father and mother in their respective positions, the Parks blissfully unaware that they’re all related.

Despite having to navigate a few issues, notably the young son wondering why the new employees all smell the same (from using the same soap), it’s all going swimmingly, the whole family making themselves at home as cuckoos in the nest in the palatial glass and rock mansion with  its food and drink, even contemplating Kim-woo becoming the son-in-law, while the Parks are off on a camping trip, when a ring at the door,  the reappearance of the housekeeper and the revelation of a secret basement and the secret within it suddenly and brilliantly switches the film’s tone from farcical levity (hiding under tables while the Parks screw on the couch)  to pitch blackness and unbearable suspense, culminating in an unexpected climax of carnage. And then there’s the torrential rain serving as both a foreboding of disaster and, in a stunning overhead shot of the flooded streets by cinematographer Hong Kyung-pyo, the physical manifestation of such.

In both script and design, the satire on the gulf in class divisions and the social system is clear, but there’s much more lurking under the film’s surface as Bong questions his audience as to who is the more deserving of sympathy, the Parks are snobs but not especially horrible, and whether the means justify the ends or if the ends are a punishment of the means. Quite gobsmackingly awesome.  (Odeon Broadway Plaza)

Proxima (12A)

French writer-director Alice Winocour brings a new twist to the career mother dilemma with Eva Green as perfectionist Stella Loreau, who, as a last minute addition, is joining  fellow astronauts Mike Shannon (Matt Dillon) and Anton Ochievski (Aleksey Fateev) on a lengthy period on the International Space Station. Despite Shannon’s  chauvinism (he jokes that it’s good to have her on the team because, being French, she can cook), it’s a dream come true. The only problem is it means leaving her young daughter Stella (Zélie Boulant-Lemesle) behind for many months while she’s off training, communicating only by phone or video, or from behind a sealed window, not to mention everything about her daughter’s growth she’ll miss during the year in space.

“Will you die before me?” her daughter asks before mum sets off for training at the European Space Agency (filmed in actual training facilities in Europe, Russia and Kazakhstan),  a question all the more pressing given the risk of the rocket exploding on take-off.  As such, while the technological details are finely observed, this is very much a mother-child relationship psychological family drama about   separation anxiety, caught between selfishness and selflessness. Especially given that Stella is now having to adjust to a new school and home.

Sarah is a separated from but on good terms with Stella’s astrophysicist father, Thoma (Lars Eidinger), who now has to take up the parenting slack (not always reliably so), but the lack of contact with her daughter begins to tell on her training and the need keep emotions in check, compounded by concerns over how Wendy, the psychologist (Sandra Hüller) in charge of guiding the family through the process, is handling things and jealousy of her acting as surrogate mother.

In addressing Sarah’s conflicting needs and emotions, Green gives one of the best and most nuanced performances of her career while, playing with a quiet intensity, Boulant-Lemesle is a terrifically assured young actress and Dillon deftly plays the sexist macho alpha male who has more to him than the character initially suggests. A space movie for women, it’s a slow moving affair and the ending refuses to provide simplistic emotional catharsis, further provoking thoughtful debate on the choices made. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull)

 

Queen & Slim (15)

Driving back from a mismatched Tinder date that hasn’t gone as well as it might, though they’re never referred to as such throughout,  Slim,  god-fearing, teetotal blue collar employee Ernest (Get Out’s Daniel Kaluuya) and Queen (a starmaking turn by Jodie Turner-Smith), Angela, an upscale atheist defence lawyer with commitment issues, are pulled over by a clearly racist trigger-happy Ohio cop (Sturgill Simpson), resulting in Queen being wounded and Slim accidentally shooting the officer dead. With apparently no witnesses, realising two blacks involved in a cop killing aren’t going to get justice, she insists they drive off, refusing to let him call anyone or take her to hospital. But when a dashcam video of the incident goes viral they’re forced on the run, heading to Kentucky and from there to Florida, and are quickly dubbed the black Bonnie and Clyde, although Thelma and Louise would be a better analogy (substituting sexism for bigotry), forced the change their appearance (she ruefully shaving off her braids) and becoming folk heroes among the black community who variously conceal them and enable their journey. Among these are her Uncle Earl (Bokeem Woodbine), a New Orleans pimp who lords it over a harem of scantily-clad but sexually powerful women, a mechanic (Gralen Bryant Banks), his young son Junior (Jahi Di’Allo Winston) who seeks to emulate his outlaw heroes with tragic results, and a liberal white couple (Flea and Chloë Sevigny).

Barely friend at the start, the couple’s relationship develops into something more over the course of their odyssey as they live life to the fullest, video director Malina Matsoukas making her feature debut variously offering comedy (a white store clerk in awe of the Glock Slim’s carrying), tenderness in a juke joint drink and a dance, hope, crushing betrayal and, because the film really has nowhere else to go, the inevitable jarring but inspirational martyrdom ending. Vividly photographed by Tat Radcliffe and with a script by Lena Waithe, the couple’s story serves as emblematic of the Black experience in white America, the latter’s oppression and the former’s sense of community and pride.

Stretched over an episodic 132 minutes, it’s structurally far from perfect, with long aerial montages of cars on roads, little character development, overegged symbolism, a sketchy supporting cast and perhaps too few moments when the emotion truly hits home despite the leads’ powerful chemistry, but the cumulative effect is transfixing.  (Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe)

Radioactive (12)

Based on a graphic novel by Lauren Redniss, director Marjane Satrapi charts the story of Polish scientist Maria Sklodowska, better  known after her marriage as Marie Curie, the woman who, along her husband Pierre (Sam Riley) created radium, a discovery that, although it was initially only offered to her husband, would earn her the Nobel Prize (twice, the only person to do so)  and eventually be used as both a treatment for cancer and  for the bombs that fell on Hiroshima (cue serene city and Japanese boy pointing to something falling from sky), and, of course, result in the Chernobyl disaster.

The film opens in 1934 Paris with Curie dying of radiation poisoning (she did, after all, sleep with a phial in her bed) and her story is then told in flashback, detailing her dedication to the facts after the death of her mother, spending a lengthy period reclusive and refusing to speak,  her early research days in 1890’s Paris as she clashed with the pompous sexist member of the Academy, her support from Pierre who became both her professional and, leaving his wife, personal partner (his amusing pick up line here “Are you interested in microbiology?”), and, following his death under a horse’s hooves, her turning away from pragmatism to the mysticism he espoused.

Through all this, Rosamund Pike  delivers a consummate and suitably prickly performance as the blunt but often self-doubting Curie, whether in flashes of anger at the snobbish French scientific community  or in the hurt and defiance when, a widow with two children (daughter Irene – Anna Taylor-Joy, who herself won a Nobel for developing artificial radioactivity), she takes up an affair with her late husband’s married student Paul Langevin (Aneurin Barnard), and Paris –not to mention his wife, condemn her as a Polish whore. And yet, for all its feminist agenda, somehow the film is easier to admire than enjoy, the flashforward almost psychedelic sequences showing how her discovery was used disrupting the flow (a scene where the film imagines her kissing a dying Chernobyl fireman on the head seems particularly crass) and further muddying the debate about the positive and negative aspects of radiation.

There’s some nice touches, such as Marie grinding 40 tons of uraninite ore and how private entrepreneurs looked to cash in on this new discovery by adding it to toothpaste, chocolate, face cream and, talking of overegging the pudding, cigarettes, until users started coughing blood, but the plodding by the numbers narrative and dialogue like “being surrounded by death and radiation have brought me very little happiness” do it few favours.  (Amazon Prime)

The Rental (15)

The directorial debut of James Franco’s baby brother Dave starts out well. To celebrate acquiring seed money for his company, Charlie (Dan Stevens) rents a secluded  Oregon clifftop villa for the weekend as a treat for himself, wife Michelle (Alison Brie), underachieving ex-con brother Josh (Jeremy Allen White), and his Middle Eastern heritage girlfriend Mina (Sheila Vand), who’s also Charlie’s business partner.  After a somewhat brusque encounter with the caretaker, Taylor (Toby Huss), who does little to disguise his racist attitudes, they settle down to enjoy the stay with some booze, drugs, walks and a hot tub. By the time of the second night there will have been cheating sex in the shower, the discovery of hidden cameras, a missing dog and a dead body in the bath.

Up until this point, the film does a good job of  teasing out the relationships between the four characters, throwing in small but effective twists, such as the fact that at least one of them has kept secrets from their other half, and building the suspense once the cameras are discovered, with the threat that exposure of the footage presents. But then the screenplay reverts to tired horror clichés with the homicidal maniac in a mask appearing out of the mist carrying a hammer and, while there a nice touch in watching the never fully seen killer dismantling his surveillance, the film just expires along with its cast, the coda setting up a repeat scenario in another home feeling less like setting up a sequel and more that Franco had no idea how to end it. (Amazon Prime)

Saint Frances (15)

“I’m not an impressive person,” says directionless thirty-something Bridget towards the end of first time director Alex Thompson’s engaging character study, but that’s not something you could say about screenwriter and star  Kelly O’Sullivan who shines in both capacities.

Having dropped out of her creative writing course, Bridget now works as a ‘server’, striking up a relationship with a fellow, but much younger, restaurant worker, Jace (Max Lipchitz), she meets at a party.  They have sex in one of several matter of fact scenes that involve some messy bloody sheets and underwear, initially from her period and later as the aftermath of an abortion following an accidental pregnancy.

This, however, is not the film’s core relationship. That’s between Bridget and precocious 6-year-old Frances (Ramona Edith-Williams), the daughter of  affluent mixed-race liberal Chicago lesbian parents Maya (Charin Alvarez) and Annie (Lily Mojekwu), to whom, after a previous rejection, she becomes nanny as the women juggle long work hours and Maya’s postpartum depression following the birth of Frances’ baby brother.

In many ways, the film follows a familiar  narrative of  an emotionally adrift adult learning to become responsible,  grounded and feel self-worth through their relationship with a child wise beyond their years,  but O’Sullivan’s script makes it feel fresh, the subplots involving her relationship with the impossibly sweet Jace (who keeps an emotional journal of feelings she refuses to address), an affair with Frances’ older guitar tutor, Maya’s depression and the resulting strain on the marriage all adding emotional depth as the film explores what being a  woman and the different experiences involved can entail.

O’Sullivan is a delight and is perfectly matched with Edith-Williams who, in her early attempts to outsmart her inexperienced nanny and the bond that eventually grows, proves a natural screen presence which, compounded by the strong supporting cast, make this a small but charming delight.  (Amazon Prime; Empire Great Park)

Sonic The Hedgehog (PG)

Surprisingly not the disaster that was anticipated, especially given it had to go back to the drawing board and redesign the look of its titular Sega character after fans were up in arms, this is the latest video game to become a live action feature film, and, mercifully, much better than the abject failure that was Super Mario Bros.

After a cursory back story explaining who this furry blue alien speedball is and why he’s on earth, director Jeff Fowler gets on with the film’s two narratives, the mismatched buddy one as the lonely Sonic (voiced by Ben Schwarz) accidentally causes a major power outage across the entire Pacific  Northwest that sees him teaming up with Tom Wachowski (James Marsden), the sheriff in small town of Green Hills who wants to move to San Francisco so he can get to save somebody’s life and who, dubbed the Do-Nut Lord, Sonic has been secretly stalking (along with Tom’s veterinarian wife, an underused Tika Sumpter) in order to feel part of a surrogate family. The second is, of course, the pursuit of the hero by the crazy megalomaniac bad guy, here in the form of  cyber-genius Dr. Robotnik (Jim Carrey in, for once, enjoyably vintage over the top form with black coat  and waxed panto villain moustache) and his drones, sent in by the military to capture the alien source.

All of which, after Tom pops Sonic with a  tranquilizer dart that causes his bag of transporter rings to fall though a portal, means they have to head for San Francisco and recover them, Robotnik on their tail, bonding while checking off Sonic’s bucket list, which includes starting a bar fight with a bunch of bikers.

Lighthearted and hugely enjoyable, it romps along with some pretty decent visual effects and a constant stream of rapid fire quips from Sonic along with amusing in-jokes like him watching Speed on TV and reading Flash comics, as well as a message about the need for human contact. With a coda that promises a sequel that seems likely (and welcomingly) to happen,  this may not be supersonic but it’s infinitely more fun  than anyone could possibly have imagined.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Showcase Walsall)

Summerland (12A)

One of the upsides of social distancing and lockdown isolation is that you can cry your eyes out over this soft-centred wartime drama without anyone knowing. Operating a flashback within a flashback structure, it opens in 1975 with the elderly Alice Lamb (Penelope Wilton) giving an earful to a couple of kids whose charity collecting has interrupted her bashing way on the typewriter. Cut to the younger Alice (Gemma Arterton) living in isolation in a small secluded coastal cottage in wartime Kent where she’s working on her latest scientific book providing rationale scientific explanations for mystical and  mythical phenomena, her latest being the phenomenon of “floating islands”.  The film title itself comes from the pagan concept of the afterlife.

A prickly loner who callously buys chocolate in front of a child whose mother doesn’t have enough coupons, leading the girl to think it’s for her, she’s understandably not much liked by the villagers, the local boys forever dumping twigs through her letterbox and calling her a witch. So, she’s not best pleased when she discovers she’s been landed with a London evacuee, the endearing if overly boisterous Frank (Lucas Bond), whose dad’s in the RAF and whose mother works for the Ministry, reluctantly agreeing to have him for a week while another placement is found.

Naturally, the film being what it is, as the days pass, she finds herself thawing towards him, explain her research and indulging his love of chips. Frank also becomes friends with spiky, self-styled maverick tomboy classmate Edie (upcoming The Secret Garden star Dixie Egerickx).

At this point the film starts flashing back to the 1920s where we learn that Alice struck up a lesbian interracial love affair with Vera (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), although, given the times, social attitudes and Vera’s maternal desires, it’s doomed not to last, hence explaining Alice’s current emotional barricades. Under his probing,  when she admits her old relationship to Frank, he’s  perfectly – if somewhat unbelievably – open-mindedly accepting of it all, deepening her feelings towards him.

Naturally, this being war, at some point there’ll be that dreaded news and the dilemma of how to break it, setting up the third act’s massive melodramatic revelation (though, if you pay close attention you can see it coming) and emotional payoff before returning to  where it started.

Written and directed by  Jessica Swale making her feature debut, it’s beautifully shot and  finely acted by Arterton and Bond, Tom Courtney providing a lovely turn as the local schoolmaster having to cope with Alice’s acerbic nature, the screenplay gently addressing themes of parenting and female independence, albeit from  somewhat contemporary perspective.  Stock up on the tissues.  (Empire Great Park; Showcase Walsall)

Trolls World Tour (U)

The sequel to the surprisingly fun 2016 hit, this brings back Anna Kendrick and Justin Timberlake as Queen Poppy and her best friend Branch who saved the Pop trolls world in the first film and now find themselves having to do it again. Except this time, it’s not just Pop world.

As Poppy’s dad reveals, they’re not the only trolls. In fact, there were once six tribes, all of whom had a different type of music, pop, country, techno, funk, classical and rock (with apparently sub-tribes involving yodelling  and K-pop trolls) who lived together until they began to argue about which music was better, leading to them all being split up and confined to their own lands, each with  the string embodying their music from the universal guitar, their new generations unaware of the others’ existence.

But now, however, Queen Barb by Rachel Bloom from the Rock trolls is determined to reunite them all under one music – Hard Rock! But to do this, she needs to eliminate all other musical forms, starting with an invasion of the Techno trolls’ underwater rave party.

What follows is a sort of  sugar rush on steroids with explosions of swirling and pulsating colour, psychedelic musical sequences and a virtual non-stop jukebox of familiar songs, from Girls Just Want To Have Fun to  The Scorpions’ Rock You Like a Hurricane and Daft Punk’s One More Time. Also back on board among the voice cast is James Corden as Biggie with his pet worm Mr. Dinkles, Gwen Stefani as DJ Suki and Ron Funches as Cooper, the pink, green-capped giraffe-like troll who discovers just why he’s always felt a bit different to the other Pop trolls, while joining them are Kelly Clarkson as the Country trolls leader Delta Dawn (a joke country fans will get), Sam Rockwell as Country troll named Hickory,  Jamie Dornan as a Smooth Jazz troll, called what else but Chas, George Clinton and Mary J. Blige as King Quincy and Queen Essence from the Funk trolls,  Kenan Thompson as Tiny Diamond, the newborn hip-hop son of glittery Guy, and, inevitably, Ozzy Osbourne as Thrash, one of the Rock trolls.

Naturally, amid all of this there’s a message about diversity, acceptance and inclusion being important (here, through music) if we want to live together as well as finding your inner happiness. Grown-ups might find it a bit of a headache to watch, but, in these days of gloom and isolation, realising that music can bring us all together has to be worth a watch. (Empire Great Park)

 

Unhinged (15)

Life for single mum hairstylist Rachel (Caren Pistorius) isn’t going well. She’s  been fired by her biggest client and harassed by her ex over the divorce and now, having overslept, she’s running late getting to work, her son in the car. It’s about to get worse when she has a confrontation with another driver  (Russell Crowe) who, when he doesn’t move his massive pick-up when the lights turn green, honks hard on her horn, drives round his vehicle and gives him a hand gesture. Pulling up next to her at the next stop, he attempts to apologise and expects her to do likewise. She’s not giving one, words are exchanged. And he decides to show her what a bad day really is as, an extreme case of psychopathic road rage,   he tails her, steals her phone and systematically sets out to murder all her contacts, generally proving her worst nightmare

With a pre-title sequence that has a scowling Crowe, seething over a bitter divorce,  striding from his car, breaking down  the front door of the nearest house, taking his axe to the couple inside and setting it on fire before driving off into the rainy night, you know you’re in for an intense trip, one that  involves spectacular car crashes, explosions and vehicular mayhem. Crowe goes all out with an intensity that glues you to the screen as the carnage escalates and Pistorius embarks on increasingly elaborate fight back strategies. It’s a B movie running on high octane fuel. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Odeon Broadway Plaza; Showcase Walsall)

A White White Day (15)

Iceland’s submission for last year’s Oscars  opens with a car veering off  through the barriers on a cliff road in the rain and then proceeds through a montage of shifting fixed camera images of an isolated house as it and the landscape changes over the months and seasons. Finally we are introduced to middle-aged police chief Ingimundur (Ingvar Eggert Sigurdsson), who was widowed in the opening accident (and is undergoing therapy), who has brought pre-teen granddaughter, Salka (Ída Mekkín Hlynsdóttir) to live there with her mother. As the film slowly progresses, he comes across evidence that his wife might have been having an affair, and  starts stalking the man he suspects,  even to the extent of joining a rival soccer team. The more disturbed he becomes, the more it affects his relationship with  Salka.

Maybe it’s something to do with the Icelandic sensibility, but it’s a strange, at times detached, film. At one point, Ingimundur throws a large rock he drives over on the clifftop road over the edge and the camera watches it plunge into the ocean over 13 different shots  and then there’s the scene where he tells Salka a bedtime ghost story that would be enough to have anyone hiding under the sheets in terror and a kids TV show featuring an astronaut screaming to viewers how everyone’s going to die. And then there’s the ending.

Enigmatic and challengingly patience-testing to say the least, but let it slowly creep up on you and it becomes a haunting experience of grief, loss and emotional breakdown. (VoD)

 

 

CINEMAS

Cineworld 5 Ways – 181 Broad St, 0871 200 2000

Cineworld NEC – NEC  0871 200 2000

Cineworld  – Mill Ln, Solihull 071 200 2000

The Electric Cinema  – 47–49 Station Street,  0121 643 7879 (currently closed)

Empire – Great Park, Rubery, 0871 471 4714

Empire  Coldfield – Maney Corner, Sutton Coldfield

0871 471 4714 (currently closed)

The Everyman – The Mailbox 0871 906 9060 (currently closed)

MAC – Cannon Hill Park 0121 446 3232 (reopens 2021)

Mockingbird, Custard Factory  0121 224 7456 (currently closed)

Odeon Birmingham -Birmingham, 0871 224 4007 (currently closed)

Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe – Ladywood Middleway, 0333 006 7777 (Fri-Sun)

Odeon West Bromwich – Cronehills Linkway, West Bromwich  0333 006 7777 (currently closed)

Reel – Hagley Rd, Quinton, Halesowen 0121 421 5316 (currently closed)

Showcase Walsall – Bentley Mill Way, Walsall 0871 220 1000

Vue Star City – Watson Road, 08712 240 240 (currently closed)

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