MOVIE ROUND-UP: This Week’s New Film Releases, Fri Dec 20-Thu Dec 26



Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (12A)

Forty-two years after the saga began,  JJ Abrams finally brings it to a close (that is save for the assorted spin-offs) with a finale that is both exhilarating and, at times, nigh incoherent in a sprawling narrative basically themed around questions of identity.  Luke having been absorbed into the force in The Last Jedi, Rey (Daisy Ridley, finally finding some charisma) is still doing her Jedi training while, having offed his dad in The Force Awakens, conflicted First Order commander Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) has forged a new alliance with the Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) who, despite being killed off in Episode III, is back and planning to wipe out all resistance and launch the Final Order, he just needs  Ren to dispose of Rey. For a good two-thirds of the two hour plus running time, the overly busy plot races from one episode to the next and, while it looks visually stunning and the action sequences are thrilling, it’s not until the final stretch that the narrative coheres with some sort of clear purpose as they planet hop in search of some crystal that will lead them to Exogol, the hidden land of the Siths, and  attempt to translate vital clue inscribed in Sith runes on a dagger which C-3PO is programmed not to translate.

Along the way, not only does Palpatine return from the dead, but there’s a couple of other significant cameos from hitherto deceased characters, along with the return to the saga for the first time since Return of the Jedi by Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams), not to mention voice cameos from the likes of Yoda, Obi Wan Kenobi, Darth Vader while the late Carrie Fisher appears as Leia courtesy of some clever archive footage manipulation. And, in keeping with past revelations about family blood lines, there’s another biggie of Luke/Vader proportions thrown in here too with flashbacks to the fate of Rey’s parents. Redemption, sacrifice, embracing/becoming one with the Force and a variety of character twists all pile up to give fanboys a massive Christmas present while also finding room to throw in new characters such as Richard E. Grant’s First Order general and  Jannah (Naomi Ackie) as another First Order deserter, a conscript who refused to carry out a massacre, alongside the return of Poe (Oscar Isaac), Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo), C-3P0 (Anthony Daniels) and Finn (John Boyega), who never does seem to get to tell Rey what he wanted to when he thought they were about to die.

The set pieces are awesome, most notably the final battle between the Rebel Alliance and the Empire’s fleet and a light sabre duel  between Rey and Ren atop the remnants of a rusting, corroded hulk surrounded by towering waves while the  last scene between the two of them and the coda manage to elicit an emotion that always eluded George Lucas, the final two words likely to have those who’ve taken the same journey erupt into floods of tears.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Electric; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Mockingbird; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Cats (PG)

Pussywhipped by the critics, while not purrfect, Tom Hooper’s adaptation of  Andrew Lloyd Webber’s  stage musical is far better than reviews would suggest. Drawing on TS Eliot’s 1939 poetry collection Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, it centres around a tribe of cats (the Jellicles, a breed of felines though the terms is never explained here) as they gather for the annual Jellicle Ball, the night one will be chosen by the aged Old Deutronomy (gender spin casting with Judi Dench, who appeared in the original stage musical as Grizabella, giving the finale here an extra resonance) to  ascend to the Heaviside Layer and be reborn into a new life. However, in this reworked narrative, Macavity (Idris Elba), the disreputable master criminal with magical powers, is determined to be the chosen one and proceeds to remove other contenders and those who might thwart his plans from the scene. These include aged theatre cat Gus (Ian McKellan), railway cat fat cat Skimbleshanks (Steven McRae giving a  tap dance showcase),  fat cat Bustaphor Jones (James Cordon) and Jennyanydots (Rebel Wilson, Dench again doubling up roles in the original production) aka the Old Gumbie Cat who rules the mice and cockroaches (some of which she eats in the middle of their Busby Berkeley-style dance routine).

Royal Ballet principal dancer Francesa Hwayard stars as Victoria, the abandoned cat taken in by the Jellicles who proves instrumental in the final choice, while the cast also features Jason Derulo as glam tomcat Rum Tum Tugger, Laurie Davidson as tuxedo-sporting magician Mister Mistoffelees, Robbie Fairchild as Munkustrap, Old Deuteronomy’s second in command who serves as the narrator, Ray Winstone as Macavity’s accomplice Growltiger holding his captives on a barge on the Thames and Naoimh Morgan and Danny Collins as mischief makers Rumpleteazer and Mungojerrie. Plus, of course, Taylor Swift as the red queen Bombalurina and Jennifer Hudson as Grizabella, the former glamour cat who has fallen on hard times and been ostracised by the Jellicles.   Pretty much all of the above get their own spotlight moments amid the ensemble production numbers, Swift’s Macavity: The Mystery Cat and Dench’s finale of The Ad-Dressing of Cats both strong, although the standouts are unquestionably Hayward’s Beautiful Ghosts, the sole new song,  and Hudson’s two emotionally shattering renditions of Memories, the show’s best known number.

The often balletic choreography is top notch throughout and both the leads and the ensemble cast, given digital fur and whiskers, are terrific, while there’s some playful notes in the background such as a cinema playing Cat On A Hot Tin Roof and the theatre with The Mousetrap.  On the downside, however, Hayward sports a wide-eyed innocence look for the entire film and the scale is haphazard to say the least with the cats sometimes framed as human size and at others far too diminutive against the props. The melancholic Memories aside, what it lacks, of course, are the sort of crowd pleasing songs that fuelled The Greatest Showman, and, as such, it sometimes lacks the necessary propulsive energy to move things along, but, while clearly aimed at fans of the stage phenomenon and musicals in general, while you may not come away beaming like the cat who got the cream, you’ll likely still be feline fine. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Electric;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)


Christmas Films

Die Hard (15) (Mon: Empire Great Park)

Elf (PG) (Cineworld 5 Ways/NEC/Solihull)

Home Alone  (PG) (Sat/Sun: MAC)

It’s A Wonderful Life (U) (Until Tue:MAC; Sat/Sun, Tue:Electric)

The Grinch (U) (Sat/Sun: Empire Great Park)

The Muppet Christmas Carol (U) (Sun:MAC)

The Nightmare Before Christmas (PG) (Sat:MAC)

The Polar Express (U) (MAC)

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


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, naturally leading to the body counting, including a couple from her close circle, continues 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. (Empire Great Park; Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)


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; Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; 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. (Empire Great Park)

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; MAC; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Judy & Punch (15)

Once a staple of British seaside children’s entertainment and still frequently performed, despite its politically incorrect scenes of domestic violence as Mr Punch takes his stick to wife Judy and other assorted characters, including a policeman and the devil, as well as possibly putting the baby into the sausage machine, this Australian made feature debut by writer-director Mirrah Foulkes offers the origin story behind the puppet characters.

Set in the inland 17th century British town of Seaside, where one of the popular entertainments is the public stoning to death of heretics, womanising, heavy drinking puppeteer Punch (a charismatically unpleasant Damon Herriman) has returned home to lick his wounds and, with the help of his gifted wife Judy (Mia Wasikowska, excellent), resurrect their act in the hope of being spotted by talent scouts from the Big Smoke. Despite protestations that he’s off the drink, Punch is easily persuaded to partake of a bottle or two, and on one fateful occasion, invited to take a glass with Scaramouche (Terry Norris) the senile husband of their elderly housekeeper (Virginia Gay), drink and some sausages stolen by the old man’s dog, Toby, unfortunately send the baby flying through the window. On hearing his drunken confession and the suggestion that they get on with things, Judy is understandably a bit miffed, resulting in his taking his stick to her, beating her senseless and burying her in the woods.

Reporting her and the baby missing, he enlists the bumbling new constable, Derrick (Benedict Hardie), to investigate, swiftly accessing Scaramouche and his wife of roasting the baby and murdering Judy, the zealot Mr Frankly (Tom Budge) quickly eliciting a ‘confession’ and arranging a double hanging.

However, Judy’s not dead and, found under leaves by children from the secret heretics camp, is nursed back to health by Dr Goodtime (Gillian Jones), a healer forced to feel the puritan persecutions, and, while they try and persuade her otherwise, here given top billing, sets out to take revenge on her husband for his crimes who, in the meanwhile, has enlisted the local prostitute and her two kids as his new helpers.

Cleverly entwining all the well-known ingredients from the traditional show and giving them an even darker edge (sometimes provocatively played for laughs) with its portrayal of toxic masculinity, there’s a definite touch of Gilliam, Rabelais and the Grimms about its allegorical storyline which also affords Judy a showcase speech about intolerance of the ‘other’ that patently has a contemporary resonance to its grotesque fable. Given a stylised carnivalesque look, a soundtrack that includes Leonard Cohen’s Who by Fire and end credits with archive black and white footage recording children’s shocked, horrified but fascinated reactions to watching a traditional puppet performance, this is mesmerising viewing. That’s the way to do it, indeed.  (MAC)

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)

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; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; 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; Odeon Birmingham; 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. (Empire Great Park; Showcase Walsall)


Screenings courtesy of  Odeon and Cineworld


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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