MOVIE ROUND-UP; This Week’s New Film Releases, Fri Dec 7-Thu Dec 13

NEW RELEASES

Sorry To Bother You (15)

The debut of rapper turned writer-director Boots Riley, at the end of the day this Michel Gondry-inspired sociopolitical satire is a film built around an unsubtle word play. The word is workhorse and is applied here in a sort of body horror-comedy critique of the exploitation of the labour force and subsequent unionisation.

A rising star in the black firmament, Lakeith Stanfield is Cassius Green (pronounced Cash Is Green), a silver-tongued bullshitter who lives in his uncle’s (Terry Crews) garage with girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson),  a performance artist who wears designer activist slogan earrings and twirls advertising signs on the sidewalk. He lands himself a cold calling telesales job with Regalview largely on the account of, as his boss puts it, he has initiative and he can read, where the overriding rule is Stick To The Script. He’s making no headway until his veteran co-worker Langston (Danny Glover) advises him to use his ‘white voice’. Soon (dubbed by David Cross), as conveyed by a montage of silly celebratory poses, he’s racking up the sales, with the promise by his supervisor, Johnny (Michael X. Sommers)  that he may one day graduate to the literal next level and enter the golden gates elevator to join the mythical Power Sellers.

There is, however, discontent among his fellow workers,  now including Detroit (white voiced by Lily James), who’s apparently put her career on hold,  led by militant unioniser  Squeeze (Steven Yeun) who organises a down phones walk-out. Cash is on-board until he’s then given promotion to the elite, at which point,  moved upstairs to work under the eye-patched Mr. (Omari Hardwick, white voiced by Patton Oswald), kitted out in smart new duds, raking in obscene earnings and moved to a swanky upmarket apartment, loyalty and solidarity go out of the window, along with his relationship with Detroit.

His rise to superstar earns him an invite to a party/orgy hosted by laid back sarong-clad, coke-fiend Steve Lift (a quietly hilarious Armie Hammer who accepts all of the accusations against him as a compliment), CEO of Clearview which runs Worry Free, a voluntary slave-labour colony system against which radical activist collective Left Eye are leading protests.  He sees an opportunity in Cash’s ability to get into people’s heads  part of his own organisation. However, as Cash discovers when he takes a wrong turn looking for the bathroom, not in the way he’d assumed, with Lift involved in what, to avoid spoilers, will be simply called Equus-Sapiens.  Things take a far darker and more violent turn as matters spin out of control

There’s the nub of a strong satire here on capitalism, selling out, self-serving ambition and  genetic science excess and, for a while, it works well. The problem is Riley overloads the film with visual trickery (the cold calls drop Cash’s desk into the homes of his marks) and things like the self-explanatory titled TV game show I Got The Shit Kicked Out Of Me and how Cash becomes an internet sensation after being hit on the head by a protestor’s  soda can, leading to a sales boom in  bandaged-afro wigs which simply blunt the satirical edge the more wacky it all becomes. It doesn’t help either that the special effects, especially in the final scenes, look unfinished. Riley has a lot to say, it’s just unfortunate that so much of it gets lost in the noise. (Cineworld 5 Ways;  Electric; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza Luxe; Vue Star City)

 

The Old Man & The Gun (12A)

Rumoured to be Robert Redford’s last film, this is based on the true story of  the dapper, Forrest Tucker, who, as reported in a New Yorker article, in 1981, aged 76, was jailed for a series of small time bank robberies (indeed, starting out as a teenager, he’d been in prison and escaped 16 times previously), in which, always the gent, he’d calmly walk into a bank, ask for the manager, show  his unloaded gun and walk out with the money. Occasionally abetted by fellow senior citizen accomplices  (played here by Tom Waits and Danny Glover), they were dubbed the Over-the-Hill Gang.

There’s not a  great deal to the story. Introduced to Tucker as he carries out one of his heists, it then sees him stop mid get-away to help Jewel (Sissy Spacek), an attractive elderly horse ranching widow whose car’s broken down, takes her for a coffee and,  having confessed what he does for  a ‘job’, sparks up an autumn years romance.  Meanwhile, on his trail is soft spoken  Texas detective John Hunt (Casey Affleck, who also starred in director David Lower’s Ain’t Them Bodies Saints) who, humiliated after been waiting in line with his daughter during one of the robberies,  has made it his mission to bring them in, even as his appreciation and admiration for Tucker grows in the process, Even those he robs can’t help but like the old coot.

It’s a low key, warm and fuzzy affair, Redford exuding his trademark laid back charm, the wrinkle still in his blue eyes, that smile still a killer even if his face is now creased and lined.  But it’s never a one-man show, his co-stars all get their moments, Waits especially memorable for his account of why he hates Christmas. A leisurely paced character piece about loving hat you do, and with nothing that passes for an action sequence, this isn’t for those who want bangs for their buck, but audiences who appreciate acting craftsmanship, a dash of poignancy about a life left behind (a moving scene with  Elisabeth Moss as Tucker’s daughter) and a good story well told will swoon.  (Cineworld NEC;  Empire Great Park)

 

Three Identical Strangers (12A)

In 1980, on his first day at college, Robert Shafran was unexpectedly greeted like an old friend by people he didn’t know and who called him Eddie. He figured out that, adopted as a baby, he must have an identical twin brother. In fact, he had two, Edward Galland and David Kellman. Directed by Tim Wardle, the documentary begins with that first meeting and follows their talk show media celebrity path as they moved in together in Manhattan, and even made a cameo in Desperately Seeking Susan, staring at  Madonna walking down the street. As you might imagine, they made the most of their identical looks, conning health insurance and women alike before they eventually all married, settled down and opened a restaurant called Triplets. They even met their birth mother for a drink, though  the reunion went little further. So far, so fairytale happy.

But then the documentary takes a darker turn as the brothers learn why they were separated, a  backstory that becomes more sinister and unsettling as it goes. On learning that  their adoptive sons had identical siblings, the respective parents were not unnaturally angry, but attempts to file a lawsuit were discouraged by the well-connected Jewish New York adoption agency, Louise Wise Services. That was hardly surprising since, in fact, the triplets had been deliberately separated as part of a psychological experiment by noted child psychiatrist, Dr. Peter Neubauer, a  Holocaust refugee from Austria who seems to have had more in common with Nazi geneticists, who placed them placed them in different homes with carefully selected parents (affluent, middle-class, blue-collar) for a nature vs nurture study on child development and on parenting. Each set of parents were aware of this, but not that they weren’t the only guinea pigs. Indeed, as the brothers learned, they weren’t the only separated twins in Neubauer’s study, before he called an end to it in 1980 when it became too extensive.

Yet this is clearly only the top of a horrifying and disturbing iceberg, the study results never being published and the file under seal at Yale University until 2066, raising the question as to what else is being kept hidden and who is being protected. Featuring interviews with all three brothers as they recount being constantly studied as kids, growing more uncomfortable as they got older, this is mesmerising viewing. (Electric)

Tulip Fever (12A)

Directed by Justin Chadwick and adapted by Deborah Moggach and Tom Stoppard from the former’s 1999 novel,  this has been gathering dust since being filmed in 2014,finally limping out on a handful of screen for what will surely be a very short run. An art house bodice ripper that balances an erotic love story between an artist and his model with that of the world’s first speculative bubble and financial crash, that of the tulip bulb hysteria of 1630s Amsterdam where trading, usually carried out in pub back rooms, gripped the country and fortunes and lives were made and lost.

Set against this, is the fairly predictable love affair that sparks when aspiring young artist Jan van Loos (Dane DeHaan) is commissioned to paint a portrait of  successful spice merchant Cornelis Sandvoort ( Christoph Waltz) and his much younger second wife,  Sophia (Alicia Vikander), A former orphan in the local convent run by a sly, business-minded Abbess (a delicious cameo by Judi Dench) with a keen eye on capitalising on the tulip boom, she was married off to  Sandvoort because he wanted an heir. Unfortunately, while he’s genuine in his affections for her and she feels honour-bound to repay his kindness, he and his ‘little soldier’ seem to be shooting blanks. So, after three years of trying, he decides to seek immortality through a portrait instead. What ensues should come as no surprise. There’s a nice twist to the familiarity, however, when the couple’s domestic servant, Maria (Holly Grainger, also providing the narration), finds herself pregnant by her secret fishmonger lover Willem (Jack O’Connell), who has mysteriously vanished, presumed dead, after getting into the bulb business, Sophia hits on an ingenious sway to provide hubbie with a child by pretending to be pregnant herself and then passing the baby off as his, to which end they’re abetted by the ethically-challenged local doctor (Tom Hollander).

Meanwhile, looking to make enough money so he and Sophia can run off, Jan has also got involved in tulips, fortuitously coming into ownership of a particularly rare and, as such, valuable bulb in which the white flower is streaked with red.

The problem is that this whole subplot is so confused that, rather than adding intrigue, it drains away what little energy the film has and overshadows the marital deceptions, the romance itself not helped by the fact that, for all the naked entwining, neither of the bland lovers have much by way of depth, dimension or chemistry.

Grainger and O’Connell inject some life into proceedings and Waltz proves an unexpectedly poignant figure, but names like Kevin McKidd, David Harewood, Zach Galifianakis (as Jan’s drunken manservant whose appetite scuppers his master’s get rich quick sceheme) and Cara Delevingne are cast adrift in the busy but unfocused narrative. The attention to period is impressive, a pity more wasn’t given to the storytelling, ending up with a sort of poor relation to The Girl With The Pearl Earring that’s even more boring.   (Cineworld NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park)

 

White Boy Rick (15)

Directed by Yann Demange, while this stars Matthew McConaughey misfire, he’s not actually the central titular character. That will be his teenage son, Rick Wershe Jr (Richie Merritt) who, in 80s Detroit, to save his illegal gun-dealing father from being jailed, was recruited by the FBI (Jennifer Jason Leigh, Rory Cochrane, Bryan Tyree Henry) to become a drug dealer and informant  in the almost exclusively black neighbourhood’s crack cocaine network, only to find he had a taste for the action and the money and, although he got out at one stage when the arrangement came to an end after he was shot by one of the gang, plunged back in, dragging dad along, and, aged 17, wound being give life imprisonment, the state’s longest sentence for someone not involved in violent crime.

Both  Matthew McConaughey and Merritt, along with Bel Powley as Rick’s junkie daughter, Dawn, who they end up abducting from her crackhouse and putting her through cold turkey, give string performances. There’s also an amusing turn from Bruce Dern as  Rick’s rascally grandfather.  Unfortunately, the other mostly black characters, the various Curry Crew gang members (among then rapper YG and Jonathan Majors), who have ties to the mayor almost interchangeable, lack focus and are marginalised, while Eddie Marsan’s role as a white drugs kingpin is never really clear and Kyanna Simone Simpson, as the black girl by whom Rick Jr fathers a child, pretty much vanishes from the plot once her narrative purpose is served.

It’s all suitably surface gritty and grubby, but it lacks any real texture and the way Rick (whose actual shady criminal background is glossed over) is shafted by the authorities never summons the indignation it should, the film clearly built on anger but never coming over as more than slightly irked.  (Empire Great Park; Showcase Walsall)

 

 

 

NOW SHOWING

A Star is Born (15)

Originally filmed in 1937 with Janet Gaynor and Fredric March, the story’s been previously remade with Judy Garland and James Mason in 1954 and Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson in 1976, each retaining the central narrative with different storyline variations, the first two being set in the movie rather than the music business. Although the 54 and 76 versions  triumphed in the Golden Globes, the Oscars were less generous and, while nominated in various categories, the only wins have been for original song (1976) and writing (1937). This year, the third remake, could  well see it receiving its first Best Film nomination while, making his debut behind the camera Bradley Cooper is assured a Director nod and, possibly Best Actor, with Lady Gaga an odds on favourite to scoop Best Actress.

The setting here, in a screenplay co-written by Cooper, Eric Roth and Will Fetters, mirrors the Streisand/Kristofferson storyline with Cooper as Jackson Maine, a still famous gravelly voiced outlaw country-rocker who, having lost the spark and afflicted with tinnitus, is (in an echo of his father) on a downward alcoholic spiral. Following a gig, he winds up in a drag bar in search of booze and chances upon Ally (Lady Gaga), an ingenuous aspiring singer who, the only actual woman in the show, stuns him with her reading of La Vie en Rose. They hang out and bond over a  pack of frozen peas to nurse her bruised hand after punching out a disgruntled drunk, he learns she writes songs but doesn’t have the confidence to sing her own material, having been consistently knocked back by industry types saying she’s not pretty enough, largely (in a deliberate homage to Streisand, to whom Gaga bears a striking resemblance) on account of her nose. They become lovers and, alcohol and incipient deafness clearly not affecting his memory, he drags her up on stage to duet on Shallow, the song she mumbled  as they bonded. Predictably, she’s a huge hit and from this point the pair become an onstage as well as offstage item, and, equally inevitably, the business starts to take notice and along comes Rez (Rafi Gavron) who becomes her straight-talking manager (a shift from the previous storylines in which it’s a bitter publicist who proves the wedge between the two) and seeks to make her a star in her own right. In what is clearly a swipe at the way the industry seeks to mould talent into commercial product, out goes her country power ballads and in comes Ally R&B pop singer, dancer and sex goddess with a Tori Amos hair-do makeover.

As her star rises, so Jackson’s falls further, firing his older long-suffering manager brother Bobby (Sam Elliott), for whom he feels a seething torment of resentment and guilt, and climaxing in a scene of stark humiliation at the Grammy Awards that tears them apart, sends him into rehab and, echoing the first two films, lays the path for the final act of redemptive sacrifice.

It’s pure love story melodrama of course, but, from the terrific opening song, on which Cooper’s backed by long-time Neil Young touring band Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real, to the final moments, it always feels raw and authentic. Indeed, the music, and especially the Jason Isbell-penned Maybe It’s Time  and Gaga’s own Always Remember You This Way have safely seen the soundtrack following Mamma Mia and The Greatest Showman to No.1.

Alongside Elliott, whose backstory relationship with his brother also informs Jackson’s demons, the strong supporting cast also includes Andrew Dice Clay as Ally’s passive-aggressive father, Lorenzo, himself a failed singer who reckons he was better than Sinatra, and Dave Chappelle as one of Jackson’s more grounded friends; Alex Baldwin even cameos hosting Saturday Night Live.  But it’s the electrifying pairing of  Cooper, a grizzled cocktail of fractured love,  wounded pride and self-loathing, and Lady Gaga, the ugly duckling finding her inner swan, torn between achieving her dreams and standing by her broken husband, that galvanises the film. A refreshed take on an old story, this is what romance and tragedy on a grand Hollywood scale but with an intimate heart is all about.  (Cineworld NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Bohemian Rhapsody (12A)

“Is this the real life? was the question Freddie Mercury famously posed at the start of their iconic six-minute hit Bohemian Rhapsody. For the film that takes its title, the answer is both yes and no.  With a troubled history that initially cast Sacha Baron Cohen as Mercury and which saw original director Dexter Fletcher replaced by Bryan Singer who was, in turn, replaced by Fletcher mid-way through the film (but who still has the directing credit with no mention of Fletcher), this would very much like to delve into the darker side of Mercury’s life, exploring his insecurities and his much reported/rumoured debauched lifestyle of excess in terms of his drugs usage, homosexual promiscuity and penchant for the more extreme aspects of gay leather clubs. However, it also wants to be a family friendly celebration of the music he made and Queen, the band he shared with Brian May, Roger Taylor and John Deacon. And you can’t have both, especially not when two of the band are producers. Not that it doesn’t try.

With Rami Malek delivering a career-defining performance that he’s unlikely to ever outdo, or at least escape, as Freddie, complete with an authentic recreation of his distinctive overbite, it opens with the prelude to Queen’s legendary performance as last minute addition to Live Aid, before flashing back to the then Farrokh Bulsara working as a Heathrow baggage handler, subjected to racist abuse as a Paki, despite being born in Zanzibar, living at home with his conservative Parsi parents (Ace Bhatti, Meneka Das) and younger sister Kashmira, who offers his services to Smile, the band he’s just seen play, whose lead singer has just quit. Next thing you know, he, May (Gwilym Lee), Taylor (Ben Hardy) and new bassist Deacon (a delightfully droll Joseph Mazzelo as the frequent butt of Mercury’s affectionate sarcasm) are working up Seven Seas of Rhye, being signed by Elton John’s manager John Reid (Aiden Gillen) and landing a  deal  with EMI, headed up by label boss Ray Foster (a mercifully unrecognisable Mike Myers in a Wayne’s World in joke), which sees Killer Queen hitting #2 in the charts.

It then dutifully charts their ascendency, offering background insights into how various songs came into being (including  a running joke about Taylor’s I’m In Love With My Car). Most notably the creation of We Will Rock You to give audience something to join in with after experiencing the mass crowd singalong to Love Of My Life and, naturally, Bohemian Rhapsody itself with its pioneering marriage of opera and rock, serving reminder that EMI baulked at the idea of releasing it and the reviews at the time all castigated, Mercury engineering its first airplay on Capital Radio through his (here only briefly alluded to) relationship with Kenny Everett.

Alongside all this standard pop biopic formula (falling out with manager, band disagreements, solo career enticements, etc.), the screenplay by The Theory of Everything writer Anthony McCarten looks to offer a parallel story of Freddie’s personal life, in particular his lifelong love for and friendship with Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton), the woman he referred to as his common-law wife, their relationship falling apart has he began to realise and explore his sexuality with any number of gay partners. It’s when the film moves into edgier territory even, if never in great depth, that it becomes more interesting and, ultimately, far more emotionally moving as Mercury, now sporting his Village People moustache, learns he has AIDS and begins his relationship with Jim Hutton (Aaron McCusker), who would be his partner for the six years leading up to his death.

Support turns by Tom Hollander as Jim ‘Miami” Beach, Queen’s third manager, and Allen Leach as Freddie’s personal gay Irish Catholic manager Paul Prentner, who blocked contact with Mary, never passed on details about Live Aid and, after being fired, essentially outed him on live television, are strong, while Dermot Murphy makes a decent job in his brief, appearances as Bob Geldof though it’s unlikely anyone will register Matthew Houston as U2’s Larry Mullen while, although Under Pressure is heard, any  scenes involving Max Bennett’s Bowie clearly were lost in the editing.

However, it is in the recreation of the music and the interaction between the band that the film is at its strongest. It’s not just Malek, the casting of Lee, Hardy and Mazzello is equally inspired, the actors superbly embodying their real-life counterparts (Taylor presumably having no problems with being portrayed as the inveterate womaniser) and, while they may be lip-synching and miming the performances, there are times when these are so brilliantly recreated that you could be mistaken in thinking you’re watching the real thing.

It is, though, Malek who is the blazing heart of the film, capturing both Freddie’s onstage and offstage bravura performance of the character he created as well digging into his internal conflicting emotions, often conveyed with just a look in the eyes, at times disarmingly sweet, funny and charming, at others poisonously selfish and cruel.

It ends as it began at Live Aid, recapturing those event-stealing twenty minutes and, in hindsight, the poignancy of the lyrics Mercury chose to sing (even if, historically, he wasn’t diagnosed until two years after, the same year as his solo debut, an inconvenience that the screenplay ignores for dramatic effect and a band hug moment) and, while it may skip over large chunks of both Mercury and the band’s story and tiptoe politely through others, what it tells it tells in broad and hugely enjoyable strokes. Which pretty much sums up Freddie Mercury the showman which, at the end of the day, is what the film is all about.  And it will rock you. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Creed II (12A)

A sequel to Ryan Coogler’s 2015 Rocky reboot was inevitable and, as such, it seems logical that in doing so it would revisit 1985’s  Rocky IV, the film in which Apollo Creed died in the ring during his brutal match with Ivan Drago, by pitching the two fighters’ sons against one another.

Directed this time around by Steven Caple Jr, it doesn’t have quite the same heft as its predecessor and the narrative arc is as predictable as such movies usually are, but the returning cast and a screenplay co-penned by Sylvester Stallone still land firm punches. Graduating to world heavyweight champ in the opening scenes, Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan) has no sooner proposed to his deaf musician girlfriend Bianca (Tessa Thompson), than he learns he’s been challenged to defend his title against Russian  boxer Viktor Drago (Florian Munteanu), whose father Ivan (Dolph Lundgren) is looking to regain the respect and status he lost – along with his wife (Brigitte Nielsen, putting in a cameo) – when Rocky beat him on home turf.

Still broken by what happened in the last Creed-Drago match, Rocky (Stallone in reassuring mumbling mode and still wearing his familiar black-leather jacket, grey T-shirt, and pork-pie hat)  declines to take Adonis’s corner and remain in Philadelphia and  Creed, feeling betrayed and now based in Los Angeles, calls on the son of his father’s trainer (Wood Harris) to get him into physical shape. What he can’t do, however, is get him into the mental shape he needs to overcome his ghosts and, since the match takes place early in the film, it’s fairly obvious that issues will remain to be settled.

Battered by Viktor, Adonis, now a father (whose daughter has inherited mom’s hearing loss), has stepped away from the ring but needs to fight to retain his title. And there’s no prizes for guessing who his opponent has to be, this time, prompted by Apollo’s worldly-wise widow (Phylicia Rashad), with Rocky again by his side, taking him out of his gym comfort zone for some rough training in the desert.

Given he’s working from a formula that can be tweaked but not changed, even if the conventionally staged fights don’t have the same impact, Caple Jr does a solid enough job, working from, as one character notes, the premise that “the belt ain’t enough, you need a narrative.” Or, in screenplay terms, faith.

Disappointingly, Bianca’s burgeoning music career subplot is dropped as soon as the baby’s born, though she does get to sing her husband into the ring in Russia (where he’s naturally the underdog) while Rocky’s guilt over his estrangement from his son and grandson plays a rather sentimental final card. However, but there’s plenty of reflection on the ways the legacies of fathers haunt their sons as well as the dynamic between masculinity and vulnerability, between both Rocky and Adonis and, although the backstory’s less subtle, Igor and Viktor, the former relentlessly driving his son, as a vehicle in reclaiming his own life (Rocky notes how Viktor’s been raised on hate), having become an outcast for embarrassing his country by losing to an American.

The film also draws comparisons to the way winners and losers are treated by their countries, Creed and his mother both living in luxury while Igor and Viktor are consigned to the drab environs of the Ukraine, only welcomed back into favour when they are of use to Russian propaganda. Rocky, of course, lives humbly in a modest house suburban house where the street lights don’t work, and still runs the restaurant named after his late wife, Adrian, where he makes pizza dough in the early hours. It doesn’t, ultimately, have that same electric jolt that Coogler applied to resuscitate the franchise, but there’s probably still enough juice to warrant another round. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman;Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Disobedience (15)                                             

The English-language debut by A Fantastic Woman’s Chilean director, Sebastian Lelio, adapted from Naomi Alderman’s novel, this explores a same sex relationship and the notions of personal freedom in a close-knit North London Orthodox Jewish community.

On learning that her estranged widowed father, Rav Kruschka (Anton Lesser), a leading figure in the religious community, has dropped dead during his sermon on choice between  the sanctity of the angels and the desires of the beast, the first response of  New York based edgy portrait photographer Ronit (Rachel Weisz) is to visit a  bar, have stranger sex and go ice-skating, in that order.  However, she eventually flies back home. Having been away with no contact for many years and clearly having left under a cloud, the reception on her arrival is cool to say the least. Her good-humoured Aunt Fruma (Bernice Stegers) is welcoming,  but the other community members are politely disdainful, her Uncle Moshe (Alan Corduner) castigating her for not being there when her father fell ill (though no one bothered to tell her) and Dovid (Allesandro Nivola), a childhood friend and her father’s most gifted student and spiritual son (the Rav’s obituary pointedly read that he left no children behind), is stiff and distant, shrinking back when she tries to hug him because of his adherence to his religion’s prohibition of physical contact between men and women outside of family or marriage. However, he does invite her to stay rather than check into a hotel. She’s taken aback, however, to learn that he’s married and his wife is Esti (Rachel McAdams), the third side of their youthful triangle, now a schoolteacher at a Jewish secondary, and who  seems uncomfortable with the arrangement.

Given the looks that pass between the two women, it comes as no surprise to learn they were once lovers, duty and community pressure having forced Esti in a loveless marriage with once a week sex. Old flames are rekindled during a visit to Ronit’s childhood home which, she learns, has been willed to the synagogue, along with all the contents (although she can keep her mother’s candlesticks) and a passionate kiss reawakens buried feelings, further complicating matters when, after a night out, they’re caught in mid-snog by two of the community.

With Ronit the bohemian rebel, ruffling community feathers with her worldly attitudes and spiky outbursts, especially during a Shabbat dinner, and Esti struggling to reconcile her sexuality with her faith and role as  Dovid’s wife, the film sensitively addresses themes of grief, faith, repression, family, love and the freedom to be who you are. The central performances are low-key but beautifully played; Nivola a conflicted man of honour,  a deglamourised but magnetic McAdams gathering in strength and confidence as she seeks her own truth and Weisz especially good in conveying her character’s layered, often conflicting feelings. A particularly poignant scene between the two comes when, at her father’s house, she turns on the radio and tunes into The Cure’s Lovesong, the music taking the two women back to their time together.

There’s some subtly placed cues, Dovid and his yeshiva students are discussing the celebration of sensuality that is  Song of Songs while Esti is teaching Othello, and while the setting, the slow, deliberate pacing and the open ending may limit this to a niche audience, the rewards are immense. (Electric)

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes Of Grindelwald (12A)

Again directed by David Yates and written by J.K. Rowling, the second in a planned five part Wizarding World series, this has been the subject of some scathing reviews. Ignore those, there may be flaws, but otherwise this is not only a visual spectacular that often surpasses the original, but it also deepens characters  and ventures into some dark corners in regards to its themes of family and politics.

It does, however, take a while to find its feet and, if you’re not up to scratch with the minutiae of Rowling’s world, both in terms of this franchise and its links to the Potter series, then you might need a reference guide to keep up with the dizzying early going, which, otherwise, has a tendency to be incoherent.

Opening in 1927 New York, with the dark wizard Gellert Grindlewald (a blonde-haired, pale-faced Johnny Depp on fine form complete with mismatched eyes) in prison after being captured by Magizoologist Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne, growing into the role in an increasingly complex manner) and his Tardis-like suitcase, only to escape, with the help of some turncoats, while being transported in a carriage drawn by Thestrals to stand trial in Europe. All of which happens in such a blur, it’s not always easy to keep up or work out what’s going on.

Grindlewald’s plan is to create a master race of pure-bloods who will rule both the wizarding and the human worlds, and to which end he is seeking out mystery man Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller), who devastated Manhattan in the previous film and who, unaware of his true identity, is torn between good and evil. Meanwhile in London, having again been turned down for permission to travel internationally because he won’t take sides,  Newt busies himself looking after his menagerie of creatures (the living green twig Pickett and the Niffler, along with a bunch of babies, among them) with the help of the adoring Bunty (Victoria Yeates), when who should turn up but Queenie Goldstein (Alison Sudol), the dizzy dame sister of glamourous Ministry of Magic auror,  Tina (Katherine Waterston), with whom Newt’s secretly in love (but who has cooled towards him after a misunderdstanding), accompanied by her American Muggle boyfriend baker Jacob (Dan Fogler), whose obliviation in the last film is quickly (and not credibly) dismissed, only for the pair to have a spat after Newt lifts a spell, she then flouncing off in a  huff.

Enter Dumbledore (a tweedy, waistcoated Jude Law), at this point a young Defence Against the Dark Arts professor, who reveals that both Grindlewald and Credence are in Paris but, for reasons explained later (and which link to the revelation of Albus’s sexuality), because he can’t move against the former, he wants Newt to go to France and deal with things.  Reluctantly, (and largely because Tina’s there) he agrees.

Around this point, the plot and its multiple storylines begin to gel. Credence is working in a freaks carnival in Paris with Nagini (Claudia Kim), an Indonesian Maledictus destined to later become Lord Voldemort’s snake, and is being hunted by both Tina, the mysterious French-Senegalese Yusuf Kama (William Nadylam) and a Ministry of Magic assassin (Ingvar Eggert Sigurosson) whose loyalties may well lie elsewhere. The swelling character list involved in trying to solve Credence’s identity also includes Leta Lestrange (Zoe Kravitz), Newt’s former Hogwarts crush, and  Newt’s brother, Thaddeus (Callum Turner), who works for the Ministry, and to whom she is now engaged. Added to this, there’s also aged alchemist Nicolas Flamel who gets to play a significant part in the final climactic showdown between those from the Ministry of Magic and Grindelwald and his acolytes.

Although it does take time out in the third act for a lengthy exposition scene in which everyone explains their connections to the other, the film generally gets on with delivering fast-paced, location switching action that involves a creature that resembles a Chinese New Year parade dragon, a fog shrouded London, underground vaults, the Ministry of Magic archives with its cat-like demon guardians, statues that serve as magical portals  and Père Lachaise Cemetery. And, of course, Hogwarts along with flashbacks to Dumbledore’s lessons with the young Newt. Indeed, the connections between the franchise and the Potter series begin to take very concrete shape, most especially in a reference to the Dumbledore line and phoenixes.

Aside from the films various complicated family relationships, in Grindelwald’s address to his followers Rowling also mines a strong political thread that, both in its rhetoric and visuals of a world at war he claims he wishes to avoid,  recalls the rise of fascism in Nazi Germany, but also resonates with the climate in contemporary Europe. Both exhausting and exhilarating, it may at times confuse, but it never bores, setting up a wholly unexpected family crisis that promises a real cataclysm of a threequel. (Cineworld 5 Ways; NEC, Solihull;  Electric; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

The Girl In The Spider’s Web (15)

The inspired creation of the late Stieg Larsson, rebellious bi-sexual Swedish punk-hacker Lisbeth Salander was a central figure in three gripping novels, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played With Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, and subsequently, played by Noomi Rapace in the original film adaptations and Mara Rooney in David Fincher’s less successful version of the first novel.

The character, and her journalist associate, Mikael Blomkvist, were resurrected for two further novels penned by David Lagercrantz, the first of which serves as the source for this screen resurrection, directed by Don’t Breathe’s Fede Álvarez and co-written by Steven Knight, Salander this time being played by Claire Foy with a cold and clipped Scandinavian accent with Sverrir Gudnason as a much younger Blomkvist.

But this is not Larson’s Salander. The novel reworks her back story to give her a twin sister (barely alluded to in the books), Camilla (Sylvia Hoeks), the pair separated when the young Lisbeth fled their abusive paedophile father and Camilla elected to remain. Dad, it transpires, headed up a Russian crime syndicate and, since his death, it appears that Camilla has been running things, the Organization now rechristened the Spiders.

All his comes later. First up, the film offers Salander as some motorbike-riding, black leather-clad #metoo vigilante (she’s quite literally seen as an avenging angel) providing justice for women abused by powerful men before she’s hired by Frans Balder (Stephen Merchant), an American programmer who devised software called FireFall capable of hacking into the world’s nuclear arsenals and no wished he hadn’t and wants her to steal it from the Americans. This, naturally, is no problem. The problem is in trying to crack the password. That and the fact that Balder’s had a change of heart and turned to the Swedish Secret Serice, NSA security agent  Edwin Needham (Lakeith Stanfield) has come to Stockholm to recover it and that the Spiders, in the figure of Camilla’s blonde-haired sociopath henchman Holtser (Claes Bang), want it too. To which end, Balder’s maths savant 6-year-old son August (Christopher Convery) is a key figure.

Dispensing with Lisbeth’s photographic memory and amping up her hacker skills to the extent of taking control of an airport’s entire security system, the film turns her into some sort of female Bond or Ethan Hunt super-spy, getting stuck into brutal fights and riding her bike corss a frozen river to escape the cops. As such, this works perfectly well, the action kicks along, the villains are suitably psychopathic and Foy does complex, cold, tormented and turbulent anti-heroine to fiercely solid effect. But whatever she may have on her back, the girl with the dragon tattoo she is not. (Cineworld 5 Ways;  MAC; Vue Star City)

The Grinch (U)

Originally adapted in 1966 for TV, Dr. Seuss’s  children’s classic How the Grinch Stole Christmas was given a live action treatment in 2000, directed by Ron Howard and starring Jim Carrey. The latest, produced under the Illumination banner,  returns to animation, shortening the title and giving it a contemporary music makeover with an R&B version of You’re A Mean One Mr. Grinch, but hewing very closely to the spirit and look of the original, albeit replacing the Seuss doggerel rhymes with new versions as well as adding a new character with Christmas-crazy neighbour Bricklebaum (Kenan Thompson).

You know the story, living alone on Mount Crumpit save for his loyal dog Max, the Grinch hates Christmas and, after 53 years, decides to put an end to it by stealing all the presents and decorations from every home in Whoville, only to have his heart (two sizes too small)  changed by little Who girl Cyndi-Lou. The book never gives a reason why he despises the festive season, but the Carrey film had him as misfit bullied at school and this version, in which the character’s winningly voiced in an American accent by Benedict Cumberbatch, it’s because, as a young  orphan, he was left all alone one Christmas  and has never been happy since.  It also indicates that there’s some lingering human decency in him since he’s kind and compassionate toward Max and to Fred, the overweight reindeer he co-opts to pull his stolen sledge.

Bright and colourful with some highly detailed animation (especially the weave on the sweaters), it delivers its message about caring and kindness (here, the Grinch is redeemed when the button-nosed Cindy-Lou says she doesn’t want presents, just for her mom to be happy), the design of Whoville and the Grinch’s cave all wonderfully ramshackle, and throws in some sly touches for the grown-ups, such as the Grinch playing All By Myself a la Phantom of the Opera on a pipe organ and going on an emotional eating binge.  Go green. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Mockingbird; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Nativity Rocks! (U)

Four years on from the frankly dreadful Nativity3: Dude Where’s My Donkey? the franchise is given a new lease of life through the success of the stage musical, writer-director Debbie Isitt brings things back to her Coventry hometown  for a new Christmas outing, this time with an all-new cast, but, as in the first film, a finale in which Coventry Cathedral plays a major part.

The premise is pretty much the same, St Bernadette’s Junior School, now with a new head in the form of Mrs Keen (Celia Imrie) is gearing up for the annual Christmas musical, this year to be a rock opera as part of  Coventry’s bid to be Christmas City of the Year.

Enter Jerry Poppy (Simon Lipkin from the musical) who, having discovered Desmond Poppy is his long lost brother, has come to Coventry to find him, only to learn he’s gone to Australia. However, since he’s sporting a jacket with rock badges on, the head immediately enlists him as the new classroom assistant to help the reluctant Mr. Johnson (Daniel Boys) to put together material to audition for the opera in front of celebrity diva guest director Emmanuel Cavendish (Craig Revel Horwood) who wants to make Herod the leading character with himself in the role. And several of the others. The other problem is that Jerry, who is every bit the exuberant man child as his brother, has history with Cavendish.

Running alongside this is a second storyline involving young Syrian refugee Doru (Brian Bartle) who got separated from his dad (Ramin Karimloo) when they came ashore and has ended up in Coventry under the care of social worker Miss Shelly (Helen George) while his father’s looking for work down Shropshire way.

Plot strands come together as Jerry and Doru, neither of whom have family, bond and link up with Barnaby (Rupert Turnbull), a lonely kid from the rival posh school whose workaholic parents (Anna Chancellor, Hugh Dennis) are too busy to give him any attention.

And so it is that all the plotlines and characters, including Ruth Jones’ friendly farmer and, reprising her role from Nativity 2:Danger in the Manger, Jessica Hynes as Angel Matthews, converge on Coventry for the extended and emotionally moving musical climax with its big production songs and messages about family, forgiveness and, yes, the spirit of Christmas.

Of course, it’s silly and rife with poo and pee jokes, the children mystifyingly know all the words to songs like Born To Be Wild, We Built This City and Since You’ve Been Gone and the Syrian refugee storyline feels a tad contrived, but everyone throws themselves into the thing, an energetic Lipkin managing to be more endearing than he is annoying, Horwood relishing the permatanned panto villain routine and all the kids being as winningly cute as you could wish. It’s childish, it’s corny and it’s cheesy, but it’s also cheery fun with a  heart as big as a cathedral. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Nobody’s Fool (15)

Yet another from the Tyler Perry production line,  this is a foul-mouthed rom-com in which overachieving ad exec Danica (Tika Sumpter) can’t decide to go with the sensitive nice guy who wants to be with her or  hold out in the hope something better comes along while Tiffany Haddish does trash talk as her black-sheep sister Tanya back on the scene after a five-year prison stretch and Whoopi Goldberg pays the rent as their dope dealing mother.

A sexually charged espresso machine adjustment lands Tanya a job at the coffee shop run by Frank, who is sweet on Danica, but she’s hung up on Chalie, someone she’s met online but never seen. Suspecting he’s a con, Tanya hires the Catfish team to check him out, at which point the film focuses on Danica learning to look beyond appearances to find love and Haddish pretty much vanishes from the film along with whatever comedic energy it ever possessed.  (Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Vue Star City)

The Nutcracker And The Four Realms (PG)

Published in 1816,  E.T.A. Hoffmann’s The Nutcracker and the Mouse King was a wisp of a story, but it has endured over the years in many forms, most famously as Tchaikovsky’s ballet. It now surfaces as the basis for Disney’s new visually spectacular Christmas offering. Disappointingly, despite an impressive cast that includes Keira Knightley, Morgan Freeman, Richard E Grant and Helen Mirren, visual spectacle is pretty much all it has to offer, directors Lasse Hallstrom and Joe Johnston, who did the reshoots,  serving up  a soulless, largely charm-free affair that plays a cruel trick with one its best-loved characters and in which the best bits are unquestionably Misty Copeland  dancing to the ballet’s classic melody, once with a full cast (heralded by a nod to Fantasia in which it famously featured) and again solo over the end credits.

It’s Christmas in Victorian London, but, having recently lost her mother, mechanically-minded Clara (Mackenzie Foy) is in no mood to celebrate. The only upside of having to go to a ball with her grieving but stoical father (Matthew McFaddyen), sister and brother is to see her grandfather, Drosselmeyer (Freeman), who’s hosting the lavish affair, to ask his help in opening the locked silver egg left to her by her mother as a Christmas Eve present, but which, despite an accompanying note reading “Everything you need is inside”, has no key.

As such, she ends up following a golden thread that leads her out of fallen tree trunk (as opposed to a wardrobe) into wintery magical land where she finds the key hanging from a tree only to have it stolen away by a mouse. In pursuit, she encounters the Nutcracker, here, in a nod to his creator, called Captain Hoffman (a stiff Jayden Fowora-Knight) and learns that she’s actually a princess and that mom was queen of the four realms, all of which she seems to take pretty much in her stride. He also tells her that their world has fallen on bad times, and that the Land of Flowers, ruled by glittery Hawthorne (Eugenio Derbez), the Land of Snowflakes, ruled by walking icicle Shiver (Grant, utterly wasted) and the Land of Sweets, ruled by the lavender-shaded candyfloss Sugar Plum Fairy (Knightley), are threatened by  Mother Ginger (Helen Mirren, phoning it in) with her cracked-porcelain face, who rules what is now only referred to as the Fourth Realm, and where the mouse who stole the key lives with its multitudinous brethren.

Persuaded by Sugar Plum, that retrieving the key will save them, Clara, the Captain and members of the Royal Guard (among them unfunny comic relief Omid Djalili and Jack Whitehall), head into the Fourth Realm to confront Mother Ginger.  However, in yet another Disney message about overcoming grief, finding who you are and female empowerment, not everyone who’s a friend is a friend and not everyone who’s a foe is a foe as they find themselves beset by an army of tin soldiers.

Despite some particularly unconvincing back projection, the set design, costumes and CGI are spellbinding, most especially the giant mouse swarm creature and the forbidding Realm of Amusements, conceived as a  run-down theme park  with a massive circus tent in the form of Mother Ginger and a bunch of roly poly circus clowns who pop out of each other  like living Russian Dolls.

Unfortunately, it’s so relentlessly visually overstuffed and the script is so muddled and leaden, there’s little room for passion, emotion, character or thrills, not helped by a bland, flat Foy, with only Knightley providing anything like fun and spark. Clearly Disney learned no lessons from letting Tim Burton loose on Alice In Wonderland, God forbid they ever think of reworking The Wizard of Oz. It’s like opening a lavishly packaged Christmas present and finding a lump of coal inside. (Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

The Possession of Hannah Grace (15)

Another knock-off horror  with  Shay Mitchell as a cop who, just out of rehab takes  the graveyard shift in the basement of the local morgue. When she takes delivery of a disfigured corpse, the victim of  an exorcism gone wrong, she starts to experience horrifying visions and suspects the body, which gets up off the slab, may be possessed by a demonic force seeking a new vessel. Set the expectations low. (Empire Great Park; Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Ralph Breaks the Internet (PG)

While it’s hard to decide whether this is an affectionate sequel or a massive exercise in product placement, there’s no denying that, akin to the Emoji movie which adopted a similar premise,  the experience is a visual animated rollercoaster ride, shot through with familiar Disney messages about friendship, family and self-discovery.

Now firm pals following the first film, oafish but loveable  Ralph (John C. Reilly) and snarky but cute Vanellope (Sarah Silverman) hang out together at Litwack’s Arcade, although it’s clear she’s getting a tad bored with her life. Two things are about to change that. The arrival of the Internet in the Arcade and someone breaking the steering wheel (because Ralph has gone off script and diverted Vanellope into a candy swamp) on her Sugar Rush game. Although all the characters get out before the plug’s pulled, it looks like the game is headed for the scrapyard, unless they can get the spare part they need. Which involves Ralph and the occasionally glitching Vanellope riding the circuit into the Internet – a neon metropolis of towering edifices like  Google, YouTube, Instagram etc, etc, etc – and buying the last remaining one off eBay.

However, new to the online world, they don’t realise they have to pay for what they bid for, which means having to raise the necessary money before the deadline. Which, in turn, involves a click-merchant, a scavenger hunt, Ralph becoming a viral sensation on BuzzzTube (reverse leaf blowers suck up heart-shaped likes for his videos) and, ultimately, getting into the Dark Web and infecting and breaking the Internet with a virus of himself (cue King Kong reference) when he thinks Vanellope’s abandoned him.

And, of course, as seen in the trailer, the Magic Kingdom satirical send-up gathering together of all the Disney Princesses, including  a particularly feisty Cinderella, with Moana and Ariel teaching Vanellope to find her personal desire song (a big production number A Place Called Slaughter Race), an in-joke about  Merida’s Scottish accent, and a fabulous punch line that, chiming with Disney’s female empowerment drive,  turns the table on the traditional fairytale gender roles.

It’s all delivered at a dizzying ADHD pace, switching between set-ups, scenes and new characters such as tough leather-jacketed girl racer Shank (Gal Gadot) from a Grand Theft Auto-like game, BuzzzTube head algorithm Yesss (Taraji P. Henson), search engine personification KnowsAll (Alan Tudyk) and any number of annoying Pop-Ups as well as a plethora of  cameos by such Disney characters as Buzz Lightyear and Eeyore. There’s even a valedictory appearance by Stan Lee.

However, while the giddy amusing  tsunami of Internet icons is undeniably inspired (Twitter’s a forest of blue birds), as with the original, the film is strongest when it plays its emotional notes, essentially here a variation on if you love someone, set them free. Get your kicks on Router 66. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Robin Hood (12A)

It seems that every generation gets their own version of 12th century folk hero outlaw Robin Hood, the latest, with a twinkle-eyed Taron Egerton behind the bow, geared very much for the  superhero audience, complete with fast and furious kinetic action, slo-mo effects, anachronistic haircuts and clothing, street sass, secret identity and messages about  corrupt authorities, religious hypocrisy  and international terrorism.

Although Egerton’s initial voiceover warns that this isn’t the story you know (and it certainly plays fast and loose with history), for a while it sticks largely to familiar legend, Nottinghamshire nobleman Robin of Loxley, a skilled archer,  going off to to fight in the Third Crusade in ‘Arabia’ (amusingly, here’s he served his call-up papers in a parchment scroll) returning home to discover his lands have been seized by the Sherif of Nottingham (an icy Ben Mendelsohn in a variation of his Star Wars uniform) who’s forcing crippling taxes on the people, prompting him to institute his own  take on (as he actually says here) the redistribution of wealth. He’s also in love with Marian (Eve Hewson, daughter of Bono), although in this version she’s one of the local yokels he first encounters when she’s trying to steal one of his horses for a poor farmer, and she’s Irish.

That’s just one of several new spins. Over in the Crusades, where the enemy is mowing down the English with the crossbow equivalent of a machine gun, Robin proves his skill in battle but takes exception when his commander, Guy of Gisbourn (Paul Anderson), starts executing the prisoners. He fails and is wounded in interceding to prevent one young Arab lad having his head lopped off, but earns the gratitude of the lad’s father (Jamie Foxx, not given nearly enough to do), whose name conveniently translates to John, who stows away and follows Robin when he’s shipped off back to England. Back home,  not only does he find the ancestral pile deserted and in disrepair, but he also discovers the Sheriff declared him dead and now Marian’s taken up with Will Scarlet (Jamie Dornan), who, also Irish, sees himself as the voice of the people, all of whom appear to live and work in the mines (though mining what is never clear) while being taxed into poverty to pay for the Sheriff’s war chest.

With John, who wants to put an end to the rich on all sides oppressing the people and stoking up wars and racial prejudice for their own gain, as his left-hand man, instructing him in the art of shooting three arrows at once in rapid succession, they decide to liberate the money and return it to the people. With Robin disguising himself to go about his thievery,  Friar Tuck (Tim Minchin) pre-empts the Arrow TV series by  naming the mysterious masked man The Hood.

Suffice to say, the plot also has the Sheriff in league with the Church, embodied in the venal Archdeacon (Ian Peck) and, subsequently, a Cardinal (F. Murray Abraham) from Rome  in, not just raising taxes, but a (wholly illogical) conspiracy against the crown, The Hood doing battle while simultaneously wheedling his way into the Sheriff’s inner circle as “spoiled toff” Robin.

With arrows that slam into walls and bodies like rounds from a high calibre automatic, the battles, Robin letting loose arrows while spinning in mid-air, while bloodless, are frenetic and dizzyingly choreographed by director Otto Bathurst channelling Guy Ritchie for his feature debut, albeit openly borrowing blatantly from other films, seemingly including the Ben Hur chariot race. Ending with Robin and the villagers heading off into Sherwood Forest and an unexpected twist in setting up the sequel’s villain, this is fully fletched fun.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Shoplifters (15)

The latest from Japanese writer-director Hirokazu Koreeda, this is a bittersweet exploration of family that juggles poignancy and humour with a deft hand. On a trip to a supermarket, a young boy, Shota (Jyo Kairi), is signalled by his part-time labourer father, Osamu Shibata (Lily Franky), to slip goods into his bag while the store staff can’t see. On their way home, they come across a little girl, Juri  (Miyu Sasaki), who is shivering on her balcony while her parents fight in the house, Taking pity thinking she’s been abandoned, Osamu takes her home where, having discovered signs of abuse, she’s accepted by his laundry shift worker wife Nobuyo (Sakura Ando), grandma Hatsue (the late Kirin Kiki) and teenage daughter Aki (Mayu Matsuoka) who works at a peep show.

However, as it transpires, none of the people living in the cramped apartment are actually related, rather they are a family of circumstance and mutual support, their income depending on a variety of scams (even grandma’s drawing her dead husband’s pension and freeloading off his son from a previous marriage) and, as per the title, shoplifting, a way of life into which, under Osamu’s Fagen-like instruction,  young Rin is quickly introduced, even though it is now apparent that the authorities believe she’s been abducted. Shotu, however, is a little resentful of his new ‘sister’ and reluctant to call Osamu dad, as he would like, resulting in a moment of impulse that brings everything crashing down.

Proceeding in an unhurried and unshowy manner, Koreeda and cinematographer Ryuto Kondother conjure profound emotions in simple shots while the performances, totally devoid of any self-consciousness (Sasaki a particular delight), are both natural and involving, the film ultimately unfolding its socially-conscious message about how the vulnerable slip through the net and authorities that prefer to hide the wound with a plaster rather than prevent it from happening. (Sun-Thu;MAC)

Suspiria (18)

Originally written and directed by Italian auteur Dario Argento back in 1977 and featuring a cult soundtrack by Goblin, this remake comes from Call Me By Your Name director Luca Guadagnino (with a score by Thom Yorke) and, while remaining true to the basic supernatural horror storyline (American newcomer realises her German ballet school is a front for a witch’s coven), it adds an extra hour to the running time radically departing from and expanding the narrative to embrace Dr. Klemperer (Tilda Swinton in male prosthetics), an elderly psychiatrist grieving over the loss of his wife (a sly cameo by Jessica Harper who played the original Suzy) when the city was divided after the war, who’s investigating the disappearance of Patricia (Chloe Grace Moretz), a dancer at the academy and one of his patients he’d marked down as delusional.  In addition, pointedly set in the same year as the original’s release, events play out against a backdrop of the Berlin Wall, in which shadow the academy stands,  and the Baader-Meinhoff terrorists with Germany’s climate of political rebirth as well as putting a very different and ambiguous spin on the central character of Susie Bannion (an impressive Dakota Johnson).

Arriving for an unscheduled audition for a place in an upcoming production of Volk, devised by imperious black-clad dance diva, Madame Blanc (Swinton again) who heads up the prestigious Markos Tanzgruppe troupe,  the Ohio-born Bannion (who, flashbacks reveals, fled an Amish upbringing on the death of her mother) quickly catches Blanc’s attention. It’s revealed early on that the place is run by witches (among them veteran actresses Angela Winkler and Ingrid Caven) who are searching for the right girl they need for a ritual involving the mysterious Mother Markos (also played by Swinton under a mound of prosthetic rot, but sporting cool sunglasses), ostensibly one of three mythological mothers  representing, among other things, Death.

Gruesome sets in early as Bannion’s dance moves are mirrored in a secret chamber where the lead dancer who’s just stormed out in a strop is bent out of shape and broken before being carted out on meat hooks. As in the original, Susie becomes friends with Sara (Mia Goth), herself a former friend of the missing Patricia, and who is also destined to play a major role in Blanc’s plans.

Mining sexual electricity, dark exoticism, dark hidden chambers that clearly carry psychological resonances, body horror, issues of faith, politics  and some mesmerising dance sequences, the film, shot in oranges and greys with flashes of red and divided into six acts and an epilogue (along with  a brief post credits scene), weaves nightmarish horror and art house intellectual profundity (the screenplay talks extensively of male arrogance, guilt, shame and grief) into an intoxicating, if not always easy to follow, tapestry.

There’s times when the dialogue is a bit too on the nose, such as Blanc declaring “There are two things that dance can never be again. Beautiful and cheerful. Today we need to break the nose of every beautiful thing” and Susie asking “Why are people so ready to believe the worst is over?”

It’s ultimately a little cold and there’s times when the pace slows to a crawl, but, while it may not summon fear in the way Argento’s did, the terror it offers is hard to shake.  (Until Mon: MAC)

Venom (15)

Following on from the 2015 Fantastic Four bomb, this, also developed by Sony rather than under the Disney-mantle, marks the second misfire in the Marvel Universe.

Tom Hardy plays investigative San Francisco reporter Eddie Brock, presenter of regular half hour TV exposes (that it’s referred to by three different titles give you an idea of the film’s inherent problems) who, when sent to interview biotech corporate bigwig Dr Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed) about the company’s plan to launch a second exploratory space mission after the first ended in disaster, goes off-topic and starts asking about using the homeless for reportedly usually fatal tests.

This results in him being canned and his lawyer fiancé Anne Weying (Michelle Williams), whose files he hacked for information, also getting fired and calling off the engagement.

Jobless, alone and reduced to living in a squalid apartment, Eddie’s thrown a line to redemption when, shocked by what she’s become a part of, one of Drake’s employees (Jenny Slate) offers to blow the whistle. As audiences will already know, the crashed rocket was returning carrying writhingly alien protoplasm symbiotes to be used to meld with human hosts in his misguided attempt to reshape humanity and save the planet. There’s two problems. One of the specimens escaped the crash and the experiments always end in the deaths of both the ‘volunteer’ and, as they cannot survive on their own in an oxygen atmosphere,  the symbiote.

Slipping into the lab to gather evidence, Eddie himself becomes ‘infected’, starts hearing a voice talking to him (‘Hungry”, it growls) and, when Drake’s goons turn up to recover the stolen ‘property’, developing super strength and tentacle-like black appendages. This’ll be Venom then, although the familiar black figure (first introduced in 1988 as a Spider-Man nemesis and subsequent anti-hero) with its snakelike head, wicked grin, shark-like teeth, white slit eyes and lascivious tongue takes forever to put in an actual full (and rather underwhelming CGI) appearance.

What follows is a fast-paced, but not especially thrilling sequence of events as Drake seeks to bring Eddie in and he and Venom, who takes exception to be called a parasite, come to some sort of co-existence arrangement, the former having to promise not to eat people’s heads, as they seek to thwart Drake who, as you’’ have doubtless guessed by now, has become host to the other symbiote.

Hardy’s on record as saying film’s best thirty or so minutes have been cut, presumably including the bits that make sense of the otherwise glaring plot hole between the big climax between the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ symbiotes and the coda. Even so, as anonymously directed as a sequence of clichés by Ruben Fleischer, it’s hard to see how these could salvage what remains with its interminable motorbike chase, jettisoned plot strands and frequently clunky dialogue and risible screenplay, (at one point Venom says he’s his planet’s equivalent of Eddie, a loser). An overplaying Ahmed is, quite frankly, terrible, a personality-drained Williams is underused (though the film does playfully nod to Weying briefly becoming She-Venom in the comic books) while Hardy stumbles and mumbles along in apparent discomfort with the film’s demented comedy moments, such as wolfing down a live lobster while sitting in a restaurant’s fish tank. Hardy always has presence, unfortunately this time he doesn’t have a character to go with it.

The now obligatory mid-credits bonus scene introduce a flame-haired Woody Harrelson promising carnage for a sequel, one which, given the massive box office, seems assured. Let’s just hope next time Venom affords less word-of-mouth poison. (Vue Star City)

 

Widows (15)

For his much anticipated follow-up to 12 Years A Slave,  director Steve McQueen and co-writer Gillian Flynn have updated Lynda LaPlante’s 1983 TV series, relocating it from London to Chicago, giving it a multi-racial makeover and adding a heady vein of political corruption.

It opens by cutting between scenes from four marriages, some tender, others less so, and a police chase following a heist gone wrong, the thieves, one of them wounded, headed up by Harry Rawlins (Liam Neeson) take refuge in a warehouse and transfer to a van, but as they open the doors to drive off, a SWAT team open fire, the van explodes and they’re all killed.

Aside from losing their husbands, three of  widows, Veronica Rawlins (Viola Davis),  abused Alice (Elizabath Debicki) and feisty storeowner Linda (Michelle Rodriguez), discover they have also lost their livelihoods. More so, Veronica’s paid a visit by Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry), who’s running for alderman, who informs her the $2million that was lost in the raid, and she’s now responsible for Harry’s debt.

Discovering her husband left her a notebook containing details of all his jobs along with one for the next, she makes contact with the other widows. One, Amanda (Carrie Coon), doesn’t show for the sauna room meeting, but both Linda,, having lost the store and struggling to raise her kids, and Alice, who’s been strong-armed into becoming a high class escort by her touch cookie  other (Jackie Weaver), both sign up for the job. They just have to first identify the building on the blueprint.

Connected to all this is a parallel plot involving Manning, his ruthless thug brother, Jatemme (Daniel Kaluuya) who also operate a local criminal network,  and politician Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell) who, is looking to retain the alderman seat his family’s held for 60 years now that his father, Tom (Robert Duvall), is stepping down on account of his health. While not as openly racist as his old man, who’s still a mean, tough bastard,  his vote-catching programme designed to empower minority women with their own businesses, is more exploitative, corrupt and cynical than it appears.

With Alice using her high-powered real estate client (Lukas Haas) to identify where the vault containing the $5 million is located, the loss of  their designated driver means they need someone new behind the wheel. At which point, enter no nonsense bleached blond hairdresser Belle (Cynthia Erivo) and things swing into action. Rather inevitably, it doesn’t all go as smoothly as hoped and, if you’ve not paid attention to the casting,  there’s an unexpected twist in the final act that turns everything its head.

Unfolding in a  world rife with treachery, corruption, betrayal, revenge and brutal violence,  McQueen sustains the gritty and suspenseful tone throughout, never pulling the punches either in the action or the dialogue, the screenplay layered with a subtext of women empowering themselves in a male dominated world. A flashback also explicitly echoes with the Black Lives Matter message in The Hate You Give.

The four female leads are exceptional, each creating very different characters sharing a single-minded purpose of survival, Davis moving from grief to a feral determination (and, in what proves an important plot point, always carrying her dog with her), Rodriguez in familiar tough but likeable mode, Debicki trying to find herself  rather than being defined by her sexuality and Erivo, in her big screen breakthrough, is  simply a bull-headed force of nature.

The men have lesser weight, and, playing laid-back, Farrell sometimes feels to be drifting, but a ferocious Duvall makes the most of his few scenes, Henry channels implicit threat  while Kaluuya is pure cold psychotic violence.  Although the densely packed plot does sometimes resort to shorthand and  there’s times when confrontations and characters (especially Coon’s) feel  slightly shortchanged, the pace never slackens and  you get full value for every moment of its two hour plus running time.   (Cineworld 5 Ways;  Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall)

 

 

 

Screenings courtesy of  Odeon and Cineworld

CINEMAS

Cineworld 5 Ways – 181 Broad St, 0871 200 2000

Cineworld NEC – NEC  0871 200 2000

Cineworld Solihull – Mill Ln, Solihull 0871 200 2000

The Electric Cinema  – 47–49 Station Street,  0121 643 7879

Empire – Great Park, Rubery, 0871 471 4714

Empire Sutton 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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