MOVIE ROUND-UP: This Week’s New Film Releases, Fri Dec 13-Thu Dec 19

 

NEW RELEASES

Jumanji: The Next Level (12A)

The gang’s all back when, set some time after the last film, they get together to celebrate Bethany’s (Madison Iseman’s) return from her study abroad and Spencer (Alex Wolff) never shows. Going to his uncle’s house, they discover he’s gone back into Jumanji and decide to follow and rescue him. The drums start pounding, but this time their avatars get all mixed up. Insecure Martha (Morgan Turner), whose relationship with Spencer has hit a speed bump, is still Lara Croft-like Ruby Roundhouse (Karen Gillan), but high school sports star Fridge (Ser’Darius Blain) is now zoologist Professor Sheldon Oberon (Jack Black) and, instead of Spencer, Dr Smolder Bravestone (Dwayne Johnson) is now his infirm cranky uncle Eddie (Danny DeVito) whose estranged best friend and former restauirant partner Milo (Danny Glover) is backpack man Mouse (Kevin Hart). And Bethany’s not there at all.

Greeted as before by game host Nigel (Rhys Darby), they learn that this time they have to save Jumanji from Jurgen the Brutal (Rory McGann), a warlord who killed Bravestone’s parents and has stolen a precious stone, and unless it is again exposed to the sun, Jumanji and its people are doomed.

In many ways this serves up much the same as before with the cast  sending themselves up (such as Bravestone’s habit of breaking out into smouldering intensity), but now Johnson and Hart also get to channel DeVito and Glover who are delighted at the new lease of life (and, for the former, sexy lover) their avatars have given them.

Again directed by Jake Kasden, it romps along through a series of  set pieces, including a floating rope bridges encounter with a horde of angry mandrills and a desert chase pursued by a flock of ostriches before they arrive at Jurgen’s fortress, all down to their last life, during which further amusing avatar swaps occur (notably between Ruby and Sheldon), including the introduction of lockpicking Ming (Awkafeena), a whole new character,  and Bethany finally puts in a  very unexpected appearance along with Alex (Colin Hanks), the man they rescued last time round.

It takes a while to find its feet and it can be a bit shouty (Black, naturally), but once in the swing it romps along in hugely entertaining fashion and make sure you hang around for when, having all declared they’ll never go back, a mid-credits scene suggests that, for the next sequel, they won’t have to.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Black Christmas (15)

A remake of the cult 1974 slasher movie starring Olivia Hussey and Margot Kidder which proved  a seminal influence on the genre, most notably Halloween, it was previously remade in 2006  with Michelle Trachtenberg and Mary Elizabeth Winstead. That was truly dismal and this revival, given a  #MeToo treatment by writer-director Sophia Takal, is even worse. The basics remain the same, someone’s murdering a bunch of sorority as they prepare for their Christmas break, except this time the plot takes a ludicrous twist that involves the Delta Kappa Omega frat house, led by former president Brian (Ryan McIntyre), back for a visit,  turning new pledgers into possessed psychopaths through some never halfway adequately explained occult hocus pocus involving Hawthorne College’s founder and sending them out in hooded robes and masks to murder assorted sorority sisters who’ve pissed them off by, basically, dissing men.  Prime among these is Riley (Imogen Poots), the den mother of Mu Kappa Epsilon who had the audacity to kick up a fuss when he drugged and raped her, though, naturally, she was never believed. And then there’s Kris (Aleyse Shannon), the resident activist who campaigned to have the founder’s bust removed from display and is getting a petition together to sack creepy Professor Gordon (Cary Elwes) whose curriculum reflects his chauvinist tendencies. Both of them were part of a satirical song and dance number at the frat house that explicitly accused them all of being date rapists.

Learning some of her friends haven’t made it home, Riley gets concerned but, naturally, campus security don’t take her seriously, inevitably leading to the body count, including a couple from her close circle, continuing to mount as hooded figures with bows turn up and the whole thing becomes increasingly ludicrous, dispensing with whatever shreds of logic and plausibility it might have ever possessed as characters wander around shouting at the top  of their heads to blindly alert would be killers to their presence.

There’s a couple of token good guys, including shy romantic interest Landon (Caleb Eberhardt), but, not prepared to be hapless victims to male power, ultimately the sisters are getting their Jamie Lee Curtis on and doing it for themselves, the cast gamely going through all the staple genre clichés as it ticks the toxic masculinity and female empowerment boxes in the most unsubtle ways without ever summoning an ounce of tension. I can’t wait to see the sequel set up by the end as the next set of sisters are stalked by a possessed psycho cat. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

The Nightingale (18)

The second feature by The Babbadook writer-director Jennifer Kent unfolds in her native Australia, a penal colony in 1825 Tasmania, then known as of Van Diemen’s Land, to be precise where transported convicts are indentured into service until completing their sentence. After serving seven years for petty theft, Irish twentysomething Clare (Aisling Franciosi) expects to be set free to lead her life with husband, Aidan (Michael Sheasby), himself a former convict, and their baby. However, she’s tied to Hawkins (Sam Claflin), an arrogant and sadistic English Lieutenant enraged at his posting, who, in the first few minutes, after forcing her to sing to the drunken soldiers, among them his  loathsome sergeant, Ruse (Damon Herriman), brutally rapes her. Confronted over her release papers, he declares he has no intention of letting her go and both he and Ruse rape her; when Aidan attempts to stop them he’s shot dead and, ordered to stop the baby crying, Private Jago (Harry Greenwood) slams it against the wall and knocks Clare unconscious.

Declared unsuitable for promotion, Hawks, Ruse, Jago and three convicts, one a young boy, take off into the bush with their Aboriginal tracker heading for Launceston where he intends to demand what he sees as his due. Unable to get justice (“do you want me to take the word of an ex-convict over that of an officer?”), Clare resolves to follow and get revenge, to which ends she teams with Billy (Baykali Ganambarr), another tracker who has endured his own horrors at the hands of white colonisers during the so-called Black War that litters the path with aboriginal corpses hanging from trees.

Punctuated by some truly horrific and vividly visceral violence and address themes of  racism and sexism, the quest for vengeance is, of course, integrated with another journey as Clare, and Billy, who she initially insultingly calls boy like the other whites, gradually – but never easily – bond over shared injustices.

As such there’s long stretches when not a great deal happens other than pointed dialogue, or Billy using his ‘hocus pocus’ the heal Clare when she’s injured, but when the violence arrives it is both sudden, ugly and graphic. Hawkins is, perhaps, a touch too much the utterly obnoxious, one-dimensional villain with a vicious sense of privilege and killing those who annoy him without blinking, and Claflin indulges the part, but both Clare and Billy are complex characters, with Franciosi and Ganambarr giving them rich depth, the latter stunning in a scene where he breaks down over the kindness shown him by a white settler.

The issues at its heart no less resonant today, it’s an often difficult, but, from the opening scenes to the bittersweet closing moments, it is utterly compelling and deserving of far wider audiences. (Until Wed: MAC)

Sons of Denmark  (15)         

Chiming with the disturbing rise of nationalism and Islamophobia, making his feature debut writer-director Ulaa Salim sets his narrative in an alternative but unsettlingly familiar version of Denmark, opening with a terrorist bombing in Copenhagen that, a year later, has given rise to a surge in right-wing populism and anti-immigrant sentiment embodied in the neo-Nazi group of the title with its public face represented and fuelled by Martin Nordahl (Rasmus Bjerg), a fascist running for president on a policy of forced repatriation of all non-Danes.

Sickened by thing like severed pigs’ heads being left in his Muslim neighbourhood and racist messages daubed on the walls in blood, living with his loving mother and younger brother, 19-year old Zakaria (Mohammed Ismail Mohammed), whose girlfriend was killed in the opening blast, wants to do something and is soon recruited by local activist Hassan (Imad Abul-Foul), into a militant Islamic group where, trained by Ali (Zaki Youssef), he’s eventually given the job of assassinating Nordahl.

However, as he sneaks into the house, ready to shoot, the film suddenly switches tack and the focus switches from Zakaria to Ali, or rather Malik, an undercover officer for the Danish Security and Intelligence Service. Who, while assured by Nordahl that he’ll be okay after the election because he’s “one of the good ones”, becomes increasingly uncomfortable with the political situation. And, while relocated with his family out of the hot zone, is pulled back in to handle another agent, this time one embedded with the Sons of Denmark.

A incendiary, compelling political thriller that, like The Nightingale, addresses the racism dividing two cultures, the tension ratchets up to almost unbearable levels as Salim drives the film to a slightly predictable but nevertheless dramatic climax, Youssef delivering a carefully nuanced performance as a man torn between his duty and his growing concerns as violence spawns violence and idealism becomes a torch to set the world aflame. Essential viewing. (Electric)

Christmas Films

Die Hard (15) (Thu: Electric)

Elf (PG) (Mon: Everyman; Showcase Walsall; Until Mon: Mockingbird; Sat/Thu:Electric)

Gremlins (12A) (Mon: Electric)

Home Alone  (PG) (MAC; Sun/Wed: Electric; Sat/SunTue: Mockingbird)

Home Alone 2: Lost in New York (12A) (Sat/Wed; Electric)

It’s A Wonderful Life (U) (Mon-Wed: Electric; From Wed:MAC)

Love Actually (15) (Sat: Electric; Mockingbird)

Merry Christmas (Joyeux Noel) (12A) (Sun: Electric)

The Muppet Christmas Carol (U) (Sat/Tue:Electric)

The Polar Express (U) (MAC)

Scrooge (U) 1951 version with Alastair Sim as Ebenezer Scrooge. (Sun:MAC)

White Christmas (U) (Tue/Thu: Electric; Wed: Showcase Walsall)

NOW SHOWING

21 Bridges (15)

Hitherto best known as the Black Panther (though you should check him out as James Brown in Get On Up), Chadwick Boseman gets to play his first screen cop as Andre Davis in TV director Brian Kirk’s somewhat routine police thriller.

The title refers to the bridges connecting Manhattan to the mainland, all of which Davis orders to be shut down,  along with the tunnels, subways and trains (but with a four hour deadline), when several cops are murdered when they interrupt a pair of small time hoods, tough guy Ray (Taylor Kitsch,) and the more level-headed Michael (Stephan James) pulling a cocaine heist. However, other than this, they never figure as part of the narrative which unfolds in a fairly confined few blocks as Davis, paired with narcotics officer Frankie Burns (Sienna Miller), sets out to track down the surprisingly very easily identified perps with the precinct Captain, (J.K. Simmons) indicating that  Davis, the son of a cop killed in the line of duty)  and having  a reputation for not bringing cop killers in alive (he’s first seen during an IA hearing into his latest shooting) , should save the city the trouble and cost of a trial.

Given the speed with which the two criminals are cornered, that an unarmed go-between  is shot dead in a bar by two detectives and how the cops turn up during a deal with a money launderer, even a rookie would realise there’s more to the plot than some manhunt. So, no surprise to learn it involves a network of corrupt New York cops, all justified by poor pay  for a tough job.

Unfortunately, the narrative frequently makes no sense, initially suggesting the pair were set up and then putting it down to bad luck, while the final scene involving the incriminating evidence raises two huge how and when questions that make you wonder if things got a little over-enthusiastic   in the editing room.  A strong and engagingly intense performance from Boseman and Kirk’s slick, tense direction manage  to largely carry the film over the plot holes, but you can’t help feeling both deserve something a  little more complex than this. (Cineworld 5 Ways; Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Vue Star City)

The Addams Family (PG)

Although the target audience is highly unlikely to be aware of the three 90s live action films two starring Anjelica Huston and one Darryl Hannah, let alone the original 60s TV series, this animated reboot helpfully opens with a quick summary of how vampiric Morticia (Charlize Theron) and rotund Gomez (Oscar Isaac) got wed, but then had to flee the torch-bearing villagers in their Eastern European homeland and, accompanied by Thing, the disembodied hand, fetched up moving into  deserted gothic mansion on a hilltop in New Jersey, where they enlisted the soulful piano-playing  Frankenstein monster-like Lurch (Conrad Vernon) as their butler and raised their two kids, the oval-faced morbid and cadaverous-looking Wednesday (Chloë Grace Moretz) and the pudgy explosives-obsessed Pugsley (Finn Wolfhard).

Cut to the present and as Pugsley is being reluctantly put through his paces in rehearsal for his family tradition ritual sword-juggling coming of age dance by his dad, grandma (Bette Midler) and Uncle Fester (Nick Kroll) have arrived early to help with the preparations and the family’s thrown into disarray when Wednesday meets Parker (Elsie Fisher), the daughter of  big-haired home makeover TV reality show presenter Margaux Needler (Allison Janney) and decides she wants to explore life beyond the mansion’s gates. And even go to school (cue amusing frog dissection class). Inevitably leading an emerging rebellious streak (she takes to wearing tacky accessories and girlie dresses as opposed to her usual black) just as she influences Parker to turn goth, each naturally falling out with their mothers as a result.

All of which comes as the mansion’s revealed to the folk below in Assimilation, the pastel coloured town Margaux is at attempting to create as her piece de resistance and sell off all the properties, the rest of the family and their arriving guests attempt to integrate and Margaux decides to make the Addams house her ultimate fixer-upper and be rid of the family.

Not that it means anything to the kids,  but the computer generated animation renders the characters extremely close to the Charles Addams’ cartoons while the theme of being true to yourself rather than conforming (at one point a bunch of Assimilation folk sing about fitting in rather than being individual) is staple for these sorts of films. Unfortunately, its tone is more Hotel Transylvania than the subversive creepy humour of the original and, while some of the lines and throwaways amuse and the voice cast, which includes Snoop Dogg as tiny hairball Cousin It, do their best with the material, aside from a suitably over-the-top Janney, they feel rather muted and the end result is all a bit bland. Unlike Thing’s fingers, it doesn’t really have the snap. (Until Sun: MAC)

The Aeronauts (15)

If you have a fear of heights, then this, a sort of period Apollo 11, with its scenes set several thousand feet in the sky, may not be for you. Likewise, if you’re a stickler for historical accuracy, then you might want to keep an eye on the blood pressure. Yes, James Glaisher was a real Victorian scientist and meteorologist who went up in a hot air balloon to measure the temperature and humidity of the atmosphere at its highest levels and who, on 5 September, 1862, broke the world record for altitude, ascending to about 35,000 feet. However, he did it at the age of 53 and his aeronaut co-pilot was  Henry Tracey Coxwell, a decided difference to events portrayed in director Tom Harper’s film.

Here, giving it a more melodramatic thrust and a theme of redemption, as played by Eddie Redmayne, he’s considerably younger while, reunited with The Theory of Everything co-star Felicity Jones, his fellow traveller is Amelia (as in Earhart!) Rennes, a colourful, celebrated balloonist who forsook the skies following the tragic death of her husband (a brief cameo by Vincent Perez). However, to advance his belief that weather can be predicted and prove his mocking fellow Royal Academy colleagues wrong, he sets out to persuade her to  change her mind in the name of science and adventure. And, despite the best efforts of her sister Antonia (Phoebe Fox, who seems to possess only two frocks), she eventually agrees, the pair taking off amid much showgirl flamboyance (involving  a dog and a parachute, though how it pulled the ripcord I can’t explain) with the intent of ascending higher than anyone (especially the French) has done so previously, Glaisher taking scientific measurements as they go, while both also have very personal reasons for wanting to succeed.

Back on the ground, there’s brief turns by Himesh Patel as his supportive colleague Henry Trew and Anne Reid and Tom Courtney as his parents, the latter a watchmaker and amateur astronomer slipping into dementia, but otherwise this is a two-hander, which proves something of a problem given the lack of any real chemistry between the two otherwise individually impressive leads, though thankfully the film resists any romantic dynamic during the one-hour voyage.

Once in the air, other than  James having succumbed to the thinner air and fall in temperature and Amelia  being called on to save the day in what is, it must be said, a fairly striking and tense physical sequence atop the ice-encrusted balloon itself, while the pair exchange banter in their wicker basket, there’s not much by way of plot. However, you do get some visually striking moments such as a crowd of butterflies, but even these are offset by the rather less unconvincing CGI elsewhere as they soar over London. You also find yourelf wondering why, given Rennes’ experience, they ascend in particularly unsuitable clothing for the conditions and without a  pair of gloves or a warm hat between them. It’s not entirely a  lead balloon, but as high as the pair travel, the film rarely gets off the ground. (MAC)

Blue Story (15)

An expansion of his YouTube success, Shiro’s Story, Rapman aka Andrew Onwubolu, steps up to the big screen with his debut feature about two teenage black childhood best friends brought into opposition by London’s postcode turf war, here between Peckham and Lewisham gangs. With the director serving as a rapping Greek chorus commenting on the action, part based on his own experiences, it treads familiar narrative path with schoolfriends Timmy (Stephen Odubala) and Marco (Micheal Ward) attending the same Peckham school, the problem being that aspirational Timmy isn’t from that borough, where Marco’s big brother, Switcher (Eric Kofi Abrefa), holds sway. Things kick off when Marco’s beaten up by one of Timmy’s mates, prompting Switcher to seek revenge, things escalating the point where the tragedy that befalls Timmy’s girlfriend, Leah (Karla-Simone Spence) winds up pitting the former friends – and their respective gangs – against one another.

Punctuated by shootings and knifings, it unfolds in predictable manner as it builds to an inevitable fatal climax, and, while the regulation black clothing and hoodies can sometimes make it hard to work out who’s who and the street language and accents render huge chunks of dialogue nigh unintelligible to the untrained ear, the raw energy and the committed performances of the central cast, underpinned by the urban soundtrack, sustain engagement to the end credits wrap up, even if the tagged on reformed gang member turns to anti-violence mentor coda feels a little too clichéd in its attempt to end on an optimistic note. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Showcase Walsall)

Charlie’s Angels (12A)

A hugely popular TV series in the 70s starring Farrah Fawcett Majors, Jaclyn Smith and Kate Jackson as three, often scantily clad, female L.A. private detectives  working for the never seen Charlie, it made an enjoyable transition to the big screen in 2000 and a subsequent 2003 sequel with Drew Barrymore, Cameron Diaz and Lucy Liu. However, a television reboot in 2011 died a death, so quite why, given no evident demand, writer-director-actor-producer Elizabeth Banks would choose to resurrect the franchise, is hard to fathom. Of course, adopting a girl-power approach (“Women can do anything”), it could have worked.  But then it would have needed a coherent narrative, cast chemistry, snappy dialogue, smart humour and exciting action sequences, all of which this is singularly lacking in abundance.

Opening in Rio with a drawn out prologue that attempts to emulate the Bond and M.I. films with a thundering lack of success, it introduces the two main Angels, wise-cracking , cropped-hair, queer veteran Sabina (Kristen Stewart who frankly does not do comedy) and serious-minded former MI6 agent Jane (Ella Balinska) as they take down  gangster tycoon Jonny (Chris Pang) before  rolling in a bored Patrick Stewart as Charlie’s factotum Bosley. Except now, the  Townsend  agency has gone global and there’s any number of Bosleys around the world, with the original is now retiring, leaving things in the hands of Banks’ Bosley.

Following a montage that threatens to turn into a deodorant or sanitary towel ad, the first case to present itself involves a sustainable green energy device called Calisto created for tech billionaire Alexander Brok (Sam Claflin) by security engineer Elena (Naomi Scott, all Felicity Jones meets Sarah Michelle Gellar) who’s concerned that her superior (Nat Faxon) is pressing ahead with its launch despite a proven deadly flaw  that induces fatal strokes which, in the wrong hands, could turn it into an untraceable assassination weapon. She turns to the Townsend agency to play whistleblower but the Hamburg café meeting  is interrupted by a tattoed hitman (Jonathan Tucker),  leaving a Bosley (Djimon Hounsou) dead and her, Sabina,  Jane and their Bosley variously flitting between Istanbul,  Berlin and London in pursuit of the stolen Callisto device, female bonding and an increasingly unravelling narrative of double crosses and deceptions while taking time for a stop-over to introduce the Angels’ serenely chilled personal assistant, Saint (Luis Gerardo Méndez), who’s an expert in everything from  home-made kombucha to Buddhist therapy and fixing dislocated ribs. He’s  just of many ill-advised embarrassments in the dull, fizz-free car crash where even the score and songs (including a forgettable Ariane Grande, Miley Cyrus, Lana Del Ray collaboration) feel like reject pile leftovers. Following one of the least thrilling and ineptly staged showdowns in recent movie history, it continues to flap around like a dying fish with a who cares reveal that Charlie’s actually a woman disguising her voice and Elena going through her Angel training paces so that the likes of Hailee Steinfeld, sporting stars Aly Raisman, Chloe Kim and Ronda Rousey and even original Angel Jaclyn Smith (Jackson presumably having more self-respect) can make redundant cameos. It’s not quite the worst film of the year, but its disastrous box office performance ensures these angels’ wings have been permanently clipped. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Vue Star City)

Frozen II (U)

Let’s say this from the start, neither the film nor the songs are a patch on the original. Show Yourself seem destined to be  favourite, but it’s no Let it Go. Set three years on, Elsa (Idina Menzel), still romantically unattached,  now rules Arendell,  snowman Olaf (Josh Gad) is now all permafrost and the hunky but still somewhat oafish Kristoff is trying to summon up courage to propose to the apparently insecure Anna (Kristen Bell). Not that you need reminding, but Elsa’s the one with the magic ice powers. However, why her? That’s the engine that drives the narrative, the film opening with a childhood flashback as their now late parents, King Agnarr (Alfred Molina) and Queen Iduna (Evan Rachel Wood),  tell them a bedtime story about  Ahtohalla, an enchanted forest to the north, ruled by the spirits of  earth, air, fire and water and how, 34 years earlier, their grandfather sought to forge a pact with the indigenous Northuldra, building a dam to hold back the sacred river mentioned in mum’s lullaby, only for hostilities to inexplicably break out, leading the forest and its inhabitants to be imprisoned by a wall of mist, but not before the young Agnarr was rescued by a girl from the tribe.

Now, the grown Elsa is hearing a voice calling her, so she determines to set off, as the other vaguely memorable song puts it, Into The Unknown, accompanied, naturally by Anna, Olaf, Kristoff and Sven the reindeer. As such, it’s a sort of origin story, though the revelations are unlikely to come as much of a surprise to any alert six year old, while getting there and learning the truth of what happened, albeit  featuring  a cute flaming salamander and a water horse, is something of a plodding and slightly incohesive affair, punctuated by a running gag about Kristoff’s failed attempts to propose.

The first film’s theme of finding yourself gets a retread, this time in the context of growing up and transitions (indeed, Olaf sings When I Am Older and philosophises on impermanence and the core cast warble how Some Things Never Change) and characters find themselves in mortal peril in protecting others (it flirts with darkness but  anything bad that happens ultimately unhappens), but it’s not until the final act that the thing really catches fire.  The animation is, of course, first rate, especially the scenes underwater, the characters remain likeable and  the mix of sentiment, action and humour is about right (though Anna’s remark about preferring Kristoff in leather was probably not intended to be as kinky as it sounds), but, when, at the end,  someone asks Elsa if they’re going to lead them into any more dangers, you kind of hope Disney means it when she says no. It’s been cool, but the thaw is setting in. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Harriet (12A)     

Born a slave in Dorchester County, Maryland, Araminta Ross, nicknamed Minty, when she and her husband were refused the freedom they were due and told they and any children they had would always be the property of the Brodess family, in 1849, aged  27,  learning she was to be sold, she fled the plantation, making it some 100 miles to safety (with a little help from anti-slavery sympathisers) to an abolitionist organisation in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, that ran the Underground Railway which smuggled runaway slaves to freedom. Taking the free name of Harriet Tubman after her mother and husband, she almost immediately returned and, travelling by night and in extreme secrecy, rescued, first, her relatives, and, over 13 missions as a ‘conductor’ eventually some 70 slaves, earning the alias of Moses and, when the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 was passed, she then helped guide escapees into British North America, and find work. When the Civil War broke out, Tubman became the first woman to lead an armed expedition in the warm  guided the 1863 raid at Combahee Ferry and liberating  more than 700 slaves.

All of this forms part of  writer-director Kasi Lemmons’ biopic, a long overdue telling of Tubman’s story, albeit a somewhat prosaic one which is unevenly paced with a sluggish midsection and variously  the look of a 30s Western epic or a 70s TV series. Inevitably, in the interest of crafting a thrilling narrative, facts have been bent, timelines shifted and incidents invented and, while Minty was indeed ‘owned’ by the Brodess family, the character of the son Gideon (Joe Alwayn) whom she supposedly nursed to health as a child and who, obsessively and secretly self-loathingly in love with her, leads a quest of Slave Hunters to recapture her, is pure fiction, as is her jumping from a bridge to avoid being recaptured. On the other hand, that she would often fall into faints during which she would experience supposed divine premonitions is true, caused by a traumatic head wound as a child.

It’s incredulous that the studio initially considered Julia Roberts for the role of Harriet, the casting eventually resolving on British actress Cynthia Erivo who, perfectly capturing Tubman’s piercing stare, delivers a rivetingly powerful performance of anger, fear, passion and determination even when the script doesn’t measure up. Featuring solid but somewhat one-dimensional support turns from Janelle Monáe as a born-in-freedom rooming-house proprietor, Leslie Odom Jr as abolitionist William Still and Clarke Peters as Harriet’s father, it’s a heartfelt and worthy story of heroism and charismatic leadership in the face of injustice, but it’s nevertheless several months short of 12 Years a Slave. (MAC)

 

Joker (15)

Next year’s Best Actor Oscar a foregone conclusion, chances are that, having triumphed at Venice,  this will also make strong running for Best Film and Todd Phillips as Best Director. Darker, both tonally and morally, than even that Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, and devoid of any of the flip humour likely to characterise the upcoming Harley Quinn movie, Birds of Prey, it does not arrive without controversy regarding the extreme violence. And yes, yet in a dystopian early 80s Gotham, it is intense, brutal, graphic and bloody, but while 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”. (Vue Star City)

Knives Out (12A)

In the grand tradition of star-studded ensemble Agatha Christie-styled drawing room whodunnits, taking a break from guiding the Star Wars saga, writer-director Rian Johnson delivers one of the year’s most ingenious, witty and absorbingly satisfying films. Wasting no time, it opens with a pan across a stately Massachusetts gothic mansion as the morning mists begin to clear, culminating in the kitchen and a mug bearing the inscription “My house. My rules. My coffee.” Bear it in mind.

The previous evening, the house was the 85th birthday party setting for the Thrombrey family patriarch, best-selling murder mystery writer Harlan (Christopher Plummer). This morning, he’s been found dead in his study by the housekeeper (Edi Patterson) with his throat slit. Seemingly a case of suicide.

The local cops, Detective Lt. Elliott (LaKeith Stanfield) and State Police Trooper Wagner (Noah Segan), have assembled the guests for questioning. Criss-crossing between four of them, it quickly becomes clear that, dysfunctional and hypocrites to the core, they’re not the closest of family. There’s the brittle eldest real estate magnate daughter, Lynda (Jamie Lee Curtis), her philandering husband Richard (Don Johnson), phonily sincere lifestyle guru widowed daughter-in-law Joni (Toni Collette), her snowflake-liberal college student daughter Meg (Katherine Langford), youngest son Walt (Michael Shannon) who runs the publishing company but has no actual control, his sour wife Donna (Riki Lindhome) and their budding-Nazi teenage son Jacob (Jaeden Martel). Backstabbers all, there’s little love lost between them and, to some extent or another, they all owe their  supposedly self-made fortunes and lifestyles to Harlan. Also in the house is the elderly and seemingly catatonic greatnana (K Callan) while, conspicuous by his absence, is Lynda and Richard’s son Ransom (Chris Evans), the irresponsible black sheep who stormed out following an argument with his roguish and intractable grandfather.

Sitting in on the questioning, occasionally stabbing out a  single note on the piano, is Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig with flowing Tennessee drawl), a  private detective who’s been hired by a  mystery client to investigate the death. To which end, he enlists the help of Marta (Ana de Armas), Harlan’s South American nurse (the daughter of an illegal immigrant), and the last person to see him alive. Unless, of course, it wasn’t suicide, but murder. And, as flashbacks and family secrets are revealed, there are plenty of suspects and motives. Aside from being Harlan’s closest confidante, Marta also has the unfortunate, but useful attribute of being unable to lie without throwing up. All the family vocally protest how much she is one of them  a not just the ‘help’ (at least until Franz Oz arrives to read the will), but it’s only Ransom who, seemingly the only decent one among them,  appears to have any real concern.

It’s not too far into the film before what happened to cause Harlan’s death is revealed, along with who was accidentally responsible and confirming his suicide. Except, of course, nothing is as clear as it seems (and observant amateur sleuths will have picked up the clue in the run up to the death) and the plot moves from who to how and why. It is, as Blanc puts it, “a case with a hole in the middle. A donut.”

Knowingly slipping in genre references and Easter eggs that range from Cluedo and a clip of Angela Lansbury in  a Spanish-dubbed episode of Murder She Wrote to a convoluted nod to The Last of Sheila, a 70s mystery written by Stephen Sondheim and Anthony Perkins, it’s a sharply scripted, gleeful, and deliciously acted (everyone gets their moment and nobody showboats), intricately plotted black comedy murder mystery with a clear undercurrent commentary on the dark, venal aspects of Trump’s America and white privilege that scores its points as much through sly humour and subtlety as it does grand flourishes. Cutting edge fun. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Everyman;  Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Last Christmas (12A)

Devised by Emma Thompson and husband Greg Wise and directed by Paul Feig, this is the first of the year’s festive features, a bittersweet romcom with more than a touch of It’s A Wonderful Life and Xanadu in its DNA. Titled after the Wham! Hit, it stars Game of Thrones’  likably engaging Emilia Clarke as Kate (don’t call me Katerina), who, as a child, was forced by the war to flee former Yugoslavia with her parents and older, rival, sister  (Lydia Leonard). Now, having lost the accent, she’s estranged from both, unreliable, self-centred, lacking a sense of direction, moving from one friend’s crash pad to the next (until she does something careless to get thrown out), drinking too much and picking up one-night stands. So far, so Fleabag, then. Although she still harbours childhood ambitions to be a singer, she  half-heartedly works as an assistant in a Covent Garden Christmas store  (which makes you wonder what it does for business the other ten months of the year) owned by the ultra tolerant Santa (Michelle Yeoh) where she has to dress as an elf. We also learn that the family problems stem for a heart condition she suffered a year earlier and her mother’s (Thompson with  thick comedy Eastern European accent) hypercritical manner (her husband, a former surgeon now a cabbie, spends as much time away as possible while Kate’s ringtone is She Drives Me Crazy). Then enter handsome mysterious stranger Tom (Crazy Rich Asians star Henry Golding) who hangs around outside the store who wants to take her on walks to show her sights of London to which she’s been oblivious (street art, narrow alleys, hidden gardens, etc) and always tells her to ‘look up’.  He makes her smile, takes her to learn ice-skating for a Frozen musical audition and  works as a night volunteer, at a homeless shelter (where it seems no one knows him), but doesn’t have a phone and is given to mysteriously disappearing off on his bicycle. He does, though, have a knack of always turning up when she’s particularly low, but seems wary of becoming romantically involved.

At this point anyone who’s not clicked what’s going on really should remember the opening line of that George Michael song as the film gets down the business of Kate with reconnecting friends, family, self and life in general, while the screenplay also shoehorns in Santa (not her real name, you’ll be amazed to hear) with her own romance and a brief moment of Brexit anti-immigrant hatred aboard a bus that seems to have wandered in from another film entirely.

Set around familiar Brick Lane area locations, dressed with assorted George Michael songs (Heal The Pain obviously) and featuring an obligatory closing singalong and cameos by the likes of Peter Serafinowicz and Patti LuPone, it ladles out its message about showing kindness to bring more happiness to the world with shameless, eye-moistening feelgood sentimentality, it’s modestly undemanding and unlikely to enter the classic Christmas movie ranks but, if you’ll excuse the plot twist pun,  it has its heart in the right place.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Le Mans ’66 (12A)

In the mid-60s, Ferrari dominated the world of motor racing. However, in 1963, Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts) declared that he intended his company to enter the sport. The problem was they didn’t make racing cars. So, he proposed to take over Enzo Ferrari’s (Remo Girone) financially struggling manufacturers. However, the demand that Ford have budget control meant it all went sour,  so, seeking revenge, he declared they would build their own car and form their own team with the singular purpose of beating its rivals in the gruelling 1966Le Mans 24 hour race which it had won for five successive years.

To do this, they enlisted Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon), the 1959 Le Mans winner who had had to quit racing because of a heart condition and had become an auto designer, achieving great success with the Daytona Coupe in and the first Cobra sports car. Owner of the Shelby-American team, he agreed, but on condition that he brought his friend, hugely talented but volatile Birmingham-born daredevil racing driver and highly skilled mechanical engineer Ken Miles (a mesmerising Christian Bale) on board behind the wheel. Together they worked on improving the Ford GT40, bringing it to a level whereby it could take on the Italian cars, Miles eventually, despite senior level machinations by Ford racing director Leo Beebe (a deliciously lizard-like Josh Lucas) to exclude him in favour of more of a team player, driving one of the eight Fords entered into the La Mans 66 race (Milers actually raced in 65 but lost) taking on Ferrari’s two. As history records, neither of the Italian cars completed the race while, again down to Beebe’s pressure, three Fords, Miles among them, crossed the finishing line together, although he was robbed of first place on a  technicality.

All this director James Mangold, working with a script by British writers Jez and John-Henry Butterworth in collaboration with American Jason Keller, brings to the screen with a pungent mix of testosterone and the smell of burning rubber and brakes in what is, essentially, a classic underdog sports movie bolstered with a strong buddy relationship core as the pair battle both the odds and the suits. And, in one wonderful scrapping scene, each other.

While it’s clear Ford and his executives, among them Vice-President Lee Iacocca (Jon Bernthal were in this for the prestige and the money a win would engender, it’s equally clear that Shelby and Miles were driven by a pure passion and both Damon, sporting a 10-gallon hat and take no shit swagger, and Bale, all attitude, deliver dynamite performances, the latter ably supported in more intimate scenes by Catriona Balfe and Noah Jupe as his devoted wife and hero-worshipping young son.

There’s inevitable tweaking of history and the facts (the real Miles had a very highbrow British accent), but, electrified with a dry sense of humour alongside the behind the scenes conniving and the sensational racing sequences,  while the sight of gears shifting, pedals being pushed, brakes sparking red hot (courtesy cinematographer Phedon Papamichael) and the sounds of wheels squealing and engines roaring to Marco Beltrami’s score, is sheer carporn, the film, like 2013’s Rush about Formula One rivals James Hunt and Niki Lauda, has an appeal far beyond boy racers and should most definitely have a place on the starting grid come next year’s Oscars. (Cineworld 5 Ways, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall)

Motherless Brooklyn (15)

Making his first appearance behind the camera since his directorial debut in 2000, working from his own adaptation of Jonathan Lethem’s novel, Edward Norton has crafted a gumshoe film noir that can readily stand comparisons to Chinatown. Set in 50s New York as opposed to 1999 in the book, Norton plays Lionel Essrog, an orphaned  private eye with a photographic memory, nicknamed Brooklyn by his boss, mentor and only friend, Frank Minna (Bruce Willis), but also referred to as  “Freakshow” on account of being an obsessive-compulsive afflicted with Tourette syndrome and given to spontaneous tics (such as having to touch people) and often inappropriate or off-colour  verbal outbursts (“It makes me say funny things, but I’m not trying to be funny”, he regularly explains).

He’s first encountered with fellow snoop Gil (Ethan Suplee), shadowing Minna on some dodgy meeting about which he’s given them no details. Things turn sour and Frank winds up dead, but not before he orders them to grab his hat and whispers something about a coloured girl and what sounds like the word Formosa to Lionel.  While Tony (Bobby Cannavale), who takes over the agency (not to mention Frank’s wife, Leslie Mann), just wants to get on with things, Lionel, believing their boss was on to something big involving city hall, is determined to track down Frank’s killers, pretty much ending up doing it on his own, and, posing as a reporter, his pulling on the loose threads (a visual metaphor introduced at the start) leading him to a black jazz nightclub owned by the father (Robert Wisdom) of Laura Rose (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), an activist who lives upstairs  and who may well hold the answer to the case, and an unnamed musician (Michael K Williams) whose trumpet gets to play a crucial note. Also part of the jigsaw is Paul (Willem Dafoe), an engineer with a grudge, who has his own connection to Laura and Moses, as well as information that could topple empires.

Filmed in shadowy brows and greys, punctuated by assorted beatings and shooting, Norton’s film is steeped in classic hard boiled film noir tropes, even down to the matchbook that provides a vital clue, and, while the tangled and twisted plot is crammed with themes and messages, it never once loses its grip. Norton is terrific, at once witty, dogged, vulnerable, loyal and apologetically eccentric, making Lionel’s affliction a part of his character rather than merely a gimmick, and he also elicits strong performances from his fellow actors, Mbatha-Raw and Baldwin especially, confidently guiding his two hour plus narrative to a hugely satisfying finale, even if not everyone gets the comeuppance they should. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC)

Ordinary Love (12A)

This low key release sees Liam Neeson take a break from tracking own bad guys for an intimate drama about a health-conscious retired couple   Tom (Neeson) and Joan  (Lesley Manville) who’s happy life is upended when she  finds a lump in her breast and each looks to deal with what lies ahead in their own way, insisting that they’re both going through it, she responding that they’re not. Built around small details and keeping other characters to a minimum, it charts their relationship, bickering but affectionate, as each faces illness and the inevitable in their own manner and with their own frustrations. (Electric)

The Report (15)

Written and directed by Scott Z. Burns (who wrote The Bourne Ultimatum), this political thriller  tells the true story of Daniel J. Jones (a terrific turn by Adam Driver), a staff member of the U.S. Select Committee on Intelligence who, in 2009, while working for Senator Dianne Feinstein (Annette Bening, superbly low key), was charged with heading up a Senate investigative report into the CIA’s use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” (EIT aka torture, as redacted from the opening title) on the key Middle Eastern figures captured and detained in the aftermath of 9/11.  It was sparked by the discovery that the agency had destroyed hundreds of hours of recordings of the interrogations, Jones spending five years and reading 6.3 million pages of documents to find out why.

In many ways  an American companion piece to Official Secrets, although Jones never took on an Edward Snowden role, (though the film suggests he may well have had publication of the report been blocked), while the brutal acts carried out by the CIA are condemnable, it’s the underpinning absurdity that is the most disturbing and frightening. The pain-inflicting EITs, specifically waterboarding, used to obtain information were basically the invention of two smugly self-satisfied psychologists, but primarily Jim Mitchell (Douglas Hodge), neither of whom had any experience of interrogation, but the truly damning things is that they were implemented despite the CIA knowing full well that were totally ineffective. So, since it would be illegal to use them if they did not produce information, they basically invented it from things they already knew or based on lies told by the prisoners to stop the pain.  President Bush was deliberately kept out of the loop (making for an embarrassing moment when his denials of torture coincided with film of the same), but Dick Cheney and Condoleezza Rice knew exactly what was going on.

The film details the lengths to which the CIA and its supporters went to suppress or discredit Jones’ findings and the risks he took to bring matters into the public and media eye and the final senate hearings hit like a real life version of the moment in conspiracy and cover-up thrillers of the 70s when the humiliated bad guys find they’ve been totally rumbled, except, of course, these bad guys were never brought to task and, indeed, many were promoted, one to become the head of the CIA.  Although there’s several hard to watch flashbacks to show EITs in action, it largely involves people in a room talking, along with a brief ‘deep throat’ car park moment involving Tim Blake Nelson as a medical officer who can no longer stomach what he sees, but, nevertheless, echoing All The President’s Men, it is as grippingly entertaining as it is important. (MAC)

 

 

Screenings courtesy of  Odeon and Cineworld

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

Empire – Great Park, Rubery, 0871 471 4714

Empire  Coldfield – Maney Corner, Sutton Coldfield

0871 471 4714

The Everyman – The Mailbox 0871 906 9060

MAC – Cannon Hill Park 0121 446 3232

Mockingbird, Custard Factory  0121 224 7456.

Odeon Birmingham -Birmingham, 0871 224 4007

Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe – Ladywood Middleway, 0333 006 7777

Odeon West Bromwich – Cronehills Linkway, West Bromwich  0333 006 7777

Reel – Hagley Rd, Quinton, Halesowen 0121 421 5316

Showcase Walsall – Bentley Mill Way, Walsall 0871 220 1000

Vue Star City – Watson Road, 08712 240 240

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