MOVIE ROUND-UP: This Week’s New Film Releases, Fri Jan 24-Thu Jan 30

 

NEW RELEASES

The Personal History Of David Copperfield (PG)

After the BBC’s sweary adaptation of A Christmas Carol, director Armando Iannucci’s take on Dickens’ sprawling class-themed picaresque classic comes as a true joy. While not entirely faithful to the original in its narrative, such is the exuberant joy and good humour, even in its darker moments, that it’s close enough not to quibble over the fate of assorted characters. On top of which, it adopts colourblind casting without making a fuss about it, such that the older David is played with puppy dog charm by the wonderful Dev Patel while several other characters, including Agnes (Rosalind Eleazar), the daughter of his forever sozzled landlord, Mr Wickfield (Benedict Wong), his aunt’s lawyer, who’s secretly in love with him, star racially diverse actors.

The story is framed by David presenting his life story in a  theatre, the hero of his own tale, and the film has a lot do with the art of storytelling, often appearing as an adult observing flashbacks to his younger self (Ranveer Jaiswal). He even races to Blunderstone Rookery to see himself born. Following his journey to find where he fits in, who he is and, jotting down his thoughts and people’s sayings, becoming a nascent author along the way, the film’s populated with an array of larger than life characters. On the upbeat side, there’s such  eccentrics as the kindly houseboat-dwelling housekeeper Peggotty (Daisy May Cooper) and her husband (Paul Whitehouse) who care for their ‘niece’ Emily (Aimée Kelly) and ‘nephew’ Ham (Anthony Welch) , the permanently debt-ridden Mr. Micawber (Peter Capaldi in knowingly broad form) forever trying to escape his creditors, temperamental donkey-hating aunt benefactor Betsey Trotwood (the marvellously comic Tilda Swinton), her slightly deranged cousin Mr. Dick (Hugh Laurie) who believes all of Charles I’s troubled thoughts now occupy his mind, and future wife Dora (Morfydd Clark, who also, following comparisons in the novel, plays David’s mother) as the wholly incompatible bubble-brained daughter of his employer, with whom he falls in love, though, in a nice touch,  her fate in the novel is quite literally rewritten out of the story. On the other side of the fence there’s his cruel stepfather Murdstone (Darren Boyd), who, abetted by his loathsome sister (Gwendoline Christie), beats him and send him to work in a  bottle factory, Steerforth (Aneurin Barnard), the snobbish student friend (whose black mother’s played by Nikki Amuka-Bird) who betrays his trust in seducing Emily, who’s engaged to Ham, and Wickfield’s obsequious and ambitious clerk Uriah Heep (a creepily unctuous Ben Wishaw in a bowl cut) who wheedles his way up the class ladder he despises.

Fizzingly delivered with a delightful sense of whimsy (not least having giant hands intrude into one of the scenes) and many laugh-out-loud moments, with David variously referred to as Trot, Daisy and Doady by different characters, this is an absolute joy that both softens Iannucci’s more familiar acerbic comedy and brings out the novel’s often overlooked humour And, if they ever decide to turn  the Dexy’s Midnight Runners story into a film, the sight of him shooing off a donkey suggests Patel is a shoo-in for Eileen-era Kevin Rowland. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Electric; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

The Grudge (15)

Originating in Japan in 2002 in the stream of J-horror movies that followed in the wake of The Ring, writer-director Takashi Shimizu’s film concerned a cursed house possessed by rage-filled spirits who bring about the death of any who enter. He himself helmed the 2004 American remake which was followed by a sequel two years later. Now  arthouse director Nicolas Pesce presents a second remake which, while opening in Tokyo, shifts events to America as, in the film’s creepiest moment involving an arm reaching out of a white plastic trash bag, Fiona Landers (Tara Westwood) leaves Japan and returns home to 44 Reyburn Drive, in Cross River, Pennsylvania, unwittingly taking the curse with her, where she proceeded to brutally murder her husband and young daughter before killing herself, thereby transferring the curse to their house.

In due course, this is inflicted on estate agent Peter Spencer (John Cho) and his wife (Nina Spencer), elderly occupants Faith (Lin Shaye) and husband William (Frankie Faison), Lorna Moody (Jacqi Weaver), the assisted suicide specialist he asks to help his demented wife, and even one of the detectives (William Sadler) investigating the Landers killings. Thrown into this is recently widowed, and newly arrived with a young son, Detective Muldoon (Andrea Riseborough) who is taken along by fellow cop Goodman (Demien Bichir) when a car is discovered in the woods containing Moody’s long decayed body.

Discovering the link to Reyburn Drive and the previous deaths, and intrigued that Goodman refuses to enter and wants her to drop the case, she duly goes along and finds Faith in the process of some serious self-mutilation and a rotting corpse in another room.  Of course, now Muldoon too is a target of the curse and it’s not long before she starts seeing ghostly figures.

Shifting across three different time periods in a not always easy to follow manner, it makes it clear that the curse draws on the characters’ feelings of grief, sadness and anger at the cards they’ve been dealt (the Spencers’ story is, perhaps, the hardest to bear) to manifest the hauntings, but never really capitalises on this. Riseborough is far better than the material deserves and Pesce does deliver some icy shivers (usually involving the appearance of the murdered girl in a pool of blood) among the generic jump moments and such series’ trademarks as guttural croaks and inexplicably wet figures with blacked out eyes, but ultimately, ponderously along, it’s more unsettling that scary, the real grudge being that of audiences who shelled out to see it. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

No Fathers In Kashmir (15)

Director Ashvin Kumar has previously explored the troubled nature of the divided Kashmir and its ongoing conflict with India, but this is the first time he’s addressed it in a feature film. A selfie-obsessed teenager, Noor (terrific newcomer Zara Webb)  returns from Britain to her childhood home in the Kashmir Valley with her mother(Natasha Mago) who, looking to remarry Wahid (Sushil Dahiya), a government servant, needs her in-laws’ (Soni Razdan,  Kulbhushan Kharbanda) signatures on a document to declare her long disappeared husband dead.  Here, striking up a friendship with local and equally fatherless boy Majid (first time actor Shivam Raina), she discovers that, rather than abandoning them or disappearing, their fathers were most likely ‘picked-up’ by the Indian forces, tortured, killed and buried in unmarked graves, the army denying all knowledge.  Together, they set out into the mountains and the forbidden area near the border, Noor determined to find out what happened and, in the process, uncover the part played by  venerated local radical Islamist leader, Arshid (Kumar), a former friend of her father’s who is clearly getting backhanders from the occupying forces even while hiding wounded militants.

A story involving betrayals, gruesome discoveries, oppression, corruption, loss and lives lived in fear, where photographs – especially on mobile phones – are both a threat to and a record of the truth, it also enfolds a tender blossoming love story set against an often stark but breathtaking backdrop, the film building to a climax when the two teens are taken prisoner, an innocently posed selfie implicating Majid as a terrorist. Through her future step-father’s intervention, Noor is eventually released and, with some loyalties reassessed, the village then joins together in collective action to secure Majid’s return too.

While exploring the plight of such half-widows and half-orphans as Noor, Majid and their mothers, Kumar is also sympathetic to those involved in perpetuating the complex state of affairs, at one point the Indian major  (Anshuman Jha) remarking  “Give me a clean fight. An enemy I can see. Every villager is an enemy, a countryman, who do I fight, who do I protect?”  A thoughtful, involving and poignantly human film, it deserves a far wider exposure than this single screen opening. (Vue Star City)

ALSO PLAYING

The Turning (15)

With advance reviews embargoed until the day prior to opening, as you might suspect, this latest remake of Henry James’ chilling novella, The Turn of the Screw, is an underwhelming affair. Helmed by former music promo director Floria Sigismondi, it takes a contemporary approach set, as a newspaper headline reveals, at the time of Kurt Cobain’s death (and, as such featuring grunge soundtrack)  as enthusiastic teacher Kate (Terminator: Dark Fate’s Mackenzie Davis) takes up the  position as tutor  at Bly Manor, in charge of 7-year-old Flora (The Florida Project’s Brooklynn Prince), who’s traumatised from the death of her parents in a car crash just outside the estate’s grounds. The previous live-in nanny, Miss Jessel (Denna Thomsen), vanished under mysterious and sudden circumstances while the rambling gothic pile is looked after by the elderly grey-clad Mrs. Grose (Barbara Marten), who doesn’t give the new arrival an easy time of it. When Flora’s wilful, spoiled and toxic elder brother, Miles (Finn Wolfhard), returns unexpectedly from boarding school, the pair start to psychologically torment Kate, their cruel pranks and assorted ghostly apparitions (the place is supposedly haunted by Miles’ malevolent dead horse-riding instructor) among the many mirrors and doll parts, not to mention being groped by a disembodied hand, more than enough to consider a change of career. Of course, given her mother (Joel Richardson) is in a mental home, maybe madness is in the genes.

Despite its #MeToo contemporary resonance of how (Gaslight-style), women can be psychologically damaged by a refusal to believe their accounts or their own denial, the film is all showy style and no substance, lacking the sense of dread that characterised previous adaptations such as The Innocents while culminating in a narrative cheat finale (after false endings in false endings) that is bafflingly ambiguous. Great house though. (Cineworld NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Vue Star City)

 

NOW SHOWING

1917 (15)

Already recipient of Best Film and Director at the Golden Globes and nominated in both categories for the BAFTAs, the film, director Sam Mendes and DP Roger Deakins are also Oscar frontrunners for this bravura first world war drama, drawn from stories told by Mendes grandfather, about two young soldiers ordered to take a message across No Man’s Land and behind enemy lines to call of an attack that, lured into a German trap, can only end in disaster.

It’s been misleadingly touted as being one continuous take, whereas it’s actually a series of very lengthy takes (some shot up to eight times to get it right), seamlessly edited together as a fluid travelling narrative. Lance Corporals, Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Schofield (George MacKay) are woken from their peaceful naps and given the task by their General (Colin Firth) to deliver the order to stand down to Colonel Mackenzie (Benjamin Cumberbatch), the officer in charge, who, believing the Germans are on the retreat, intends to launch an assault, unaware of reconnaissance information revealing a new enemy line manned by heavy artillery. If not prevented, it will result in the massacre of the 1,600 men in his division, among them Blake’s older brother (Richard Madden). And they only have until the following morning to do so. To get there involves them crossing a devastated landscape of mud and ruined buildings, strewn with corpses of men and horses, infested with rats, tangled in barbed wire, littered with fallen trees  and pitted with shell craters, never quite sure as to whether the Germans have all left or not. And much of it must be undertaken in daylight.

At times unbearably tense and punctuated with sudden jolting moments, it grips throughout as the friends navigate through the exposed countryside and booby trapped abandoned enemy trenches (far better equipped than their own, with even the rats bigger), the camera sometimes following, sometimes in front of them, sometimes panning across the horrors that surround them. Without spoiling it too much, suffice to say that, following a  remarkable and agonising scene involving a crashed German plane, ultimately, only one of them makes it to Mackenzie, the perilous trek seeing him shot at by snipers, finding a brief moment of calm with a young Frenchwoman (Claire Duburcq) and a motherless baby (one of several almost surreal moments, another involving cherry trees), having to confront stray enemy soldiers, being swept along in a  raging river and racing across a battlefield under bombardment.

In the early part, it’s almost a two-hander between MacKay and Chapman, the film drawing you into their friendship and fears, but as the journey progresses there are several brief cameos, among them Mark Strong as an officer en route with his men to the bombed out village of Écoust, a staging point on the vital mission, that gives way to the surviving messenger stumbling out into night-time vision of hell.

Driven by a swelling score from Thomas Newman, it never trumpets anything resembling glory in wartime (at one point an officer sarcastically observes “Nothing like a patch of ribbons to cheer up a widow”) and its heroism is very much that of the courage of ordinary men facing extraordinary circumstances, and wishing they were anywhere else. Calling to mind other such war classics as Paths of Glory, War Horse and Saving Private Ryan, it’s poignant (most especially the still scene of a lone soldier singing Wayfaring Stranger to his comrades before they go into battle), tragic, thrilling and horrifying all at the same time, the human waste and needless destruction part of the fabric rather than a pointed agenda. Simply breathtakingly brilliant. (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)

Bad Boys For Life (15)

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

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

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

All of this is formulaic stuff, but it’s given a darker, harder and more emotive edge when the somewhat far-fetched third act reveals Mike’s backstory and a connection between those seeking his death that is about more than it first appears. Smith and Lawrence skip comfortably back into their roles and clearly seem to be having fun rather than just taking the paycheque, riffing on the franchise  with constant repeats of their mantra and the theme song. Although most of the target audience were still toddlers when the last instalment came out, there’s no attempt to reinvent anything here, just to reignite the fun and put a little more grit and thought into the fuel. And, as such with the end credits setting up what promises to be an unusual family alliance  sequel, it does just that. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Bombshell (15)

Having been ignored by the BAFTAs, Charlize Theron deservedly gets an Oscar Best Actress nomination, Margo Robbie scoring a Best Supporting nod for director Jay Roach and screenwriter Charles Randolph’s   terrific account of one of the formative moments of the #MeToo movement. Set in 2016, with prosthetic making her look unnervingly like her character, Theron plays Megyn Kelly, one of the then star anchors on Fox News who, along with fellow presenter Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman), the host of Fox & Friends (a position she saw a demotion), were responsible for the demise of Roger Ailes (John Lithgow in fat suit), the right wing Fox network boss who, seemingly paternalistic, conducted a systematic campaign of sexual harassment, trading promotion for sexual favours.

Audaciously breaking down the fourth wall, the film opens with Kelly, a former lawyer, offering the viewer a guided tour around, introducing various players and showing the executive offices home to owner Rupert Murdoch (Malcolm McDowell putting in a last act appearance) and his sons Lachlan and Miles, and Ailes’ high security second floor with its private elevator to his lair so his chosen women can come and go unseen. The story itself gets underway with the Fox News-hosted  Republican debate in the 2016 presidential campaign with Kelly’s confrontation with Donald Trump over his misogyny (seamlessly stitching in actual footage)  prompting him to subsequently make a  veiled remark about her menstrual cycle, resulting in even bigger headlines. And yet, at this point, she’s still ready to play nice for the Network and Ailes, going relatively easier on Trump in a subsequent one-to-one interview.

Although it’s later revealed that Kelly’s also been subjected to Ailes lechery and sexual tyranny (he insisted his female presenters wear short skirts and sit behind plexiglass desks that exposed their legs), it’s Carlson who first calls him out, almost inevitably seeing her frozen out by her co-workers, the men especially but also women who, while they may to be victims, aren’t going to risk their careers. Eventually fired, she enlists lawyers to sue not Fox, but Ailes personally in a strategy that is more meticulously planned than it may first appear. However, to succeed, she needs other women to come forward. Which, when someone like Jeanine Pirro (Alanna Ubach) is demanding everyone be on Team Roger, might prove hard.

The third player in the events is Kayla Pospisil (Robbie), a fictional composite character, who, arriving at the network as a naive but ambitious  Christian millennial initially works alongside Carlson but swiftly engineers a move to Bill O’Reilly’s (Kevin Dorff) Fox News team, mentored by Jess (Kate McKinnon), a closet lesbian (and even more closet Hillary Clinton supporter) while, looking to move up the ladder and on-air, getting in with Ailes’ personal assistant  (Holland Taylor), wheedling an ‘audition’ with the big man and discovering what it will take – euphemistic ‘loyalty’ – behind closed to open the doors she wants. The scene as he asks her to keep lifting her skirt a little higher is genuinely horrific.

As the ball gathers speed, all three women will eventually come together in a united crusade, that ultimately resulted in Murdoch sacrificing Ailes to save the network (though notably his pay-off was far greater than the compensation paid to the women), but not without a cost to themselves.

With a supporting cast that also includes Mark Duplass as Kelly’s husband and Allison Janney in terrific form as Ailes’ ferocious lawyer, Susan Estrich and Connie Britton as his wife, the film freewheels along balancing gripping drama and sharp humour to masterful effect and while its three  female leads are outstanding in the emotional shadings they bring to their characters, Lithgow also deserves special mention for making Ailes both terrifyingly corrupt and pathetically human just as the women are often guilty of self-interest and selfishness, underlining the observation of how such toxic environment cannot thrive without a degree of complicity. As the title suggests, this is explosive. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Electric; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; 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 and has now been given some emergency surgery to improve the CGI effects so the ats look less weird. 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. (Showcase Walsall)

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. (Odeon West Brom; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

The Gentlemen (18)

Having played nice for the family with the live action Aladdin, Guy Ritchie returns to his Lock  Stock mockney roots for  a swaggeringly stylised and convolutedly plotted London gangster  action comedy with a surprisingly low body count but a through the roof tally of four letter expletives, mostly C bombs.

It’s largely told in flashback via a duologue between  sleazy, goateed  and camp tabloid private eye Fletcher (Hugh Grant on top form, relishing the irony) and the softly spoken Raymond (Charlie Hunnam) as he offers to bury all the damning evidence he’s acquired for an expose of his Oxford educated, marijuana magnate American boss, Mickey Pearson (Matthew McConaughey in smirk mode), for £20 million.  The basic plot is that, looking to retire, Mickey wants to sell his business (a nationwide empire built through deals with financially impoverished British aristocrats to use their estates as cannabis farms) to well-connected would-be buyer, Jewish-American billionaire Matthew Berger (Jeremy Strong) for£400 million. But ambitious Chinese rival Dry Eye (Henry Golding) wants to take control and, as such, the narrative power play jockeys back and forth across assorted time jumps for a steady stream of new twists, revelations, misdirections, double crosses and set-ups, with a colourful cast of characters that include junkies, assorted musclemen, a rapping crew of boxers, Chinese drug lords, teenage thugs with cameraphones and Russians with Eddie Marsan as the newspaper editor with a personal vendetta against Mickey, Colin Farrell in a plaid tracksuit as the handy with his fists Irish club boxing coach and Michelle Dockery as Rosalind, Mickey’s Essex ice queen who runs a chop shop business.

Ritchie packs it full of self-referential film jokes, from Fletcher pitching his story as a screenplay for a movie called Bush shot old school on 35mm to allusions to Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation and London gangster classic, The Long Good Friday as well as a poster for  Ritchie’s The Man From U.N.C.L.E. on an office wall inside Miramax, the film’s distributor. It rattles anecdotedly along, constantly shooting off knowing witticisms and  mannered dialogue, backdropped in Tarantino fashion by a cool soundtrack.  “If you wish to be the king of the jungle, it’s not enough to act like the king, you must be the king”, observes McConaughey. Ritchie has come back for the crown.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park;  Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Jojo Rabbit (12A)

Making a satirical comedy about Nazi Germany isn’t easy, Chaplin pulled it off with The Great Dictator as did Mel Brooks in The Producers, whereas, Oscars notwithstanding, Roberto Benigni’s Life Is Beautiful was squirm-inducing schmaltz. Now, following up on Thor:Ragnorak,  writer-director Taika Watiti throws his hat into the Third Reich ring and,  taking  from Christine Leunens’s decidedly serious novel Caging Skies, comes up trumps with an audaciously absurd Oscar nominated coming of age tale of a young member of the Hitler Youth whose imaginary friend is none other than Adolf himself.

Set in a small German town in the last year of the war, ten-year-old Jojo Betzler (winning newcomer Roman Griffin Davis), so nicknamed because he wouldn’t bring himself to bill a bunny during a youth camp exercise, really wants to be an exemplary fascist but, despite encouragement from his petulant fantasy Führer  (cartoonishly played with relish by Watiti channelling Michael Palin with a stream of hipster anachronisms) whenever he needs counselling, when it comes down to the wire, his heart’s just not in it. An unfortunate face-scarring accident with a grenade and at the insistence of his mother Rosie (nicely underplayed BAFTA and Oscar Best Supporting Actress nominee Scarlett Johannsen), means he’s now relegated to carrying out postman duties for the swaggering one-eyed gay squad commander, Captain Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell) whose psychotic underlings include Rebel Wilson and Alfie Allen, while his bespectacled chubby best friend, Yorki (Archie Yates) gets to play proper soldiers.

Humiliation, however, soon becomes the least of his worries as the film takes a turn into Anne Frank territory when he discovers his mother, who’s less a fan of the Fatherland than he is,  is hiding Elsa Korr (Thomasin McKenzie, the film’s calm, measured centre),  a Jewish girl, in a secret compartment in their attic. When she warns that turning her in will mean both her and his mother’s death, instead he decides to hang out and learn more about Jews from the source, compiling a notebook and sketches  to answer such pressing questions as “Where does the queen Jew lay the eggs?”  Inevitably, a friendship begins to form as she tells him he’s not a Nazi, just “a 10-year-old boy who likes dressing up in a funny uniform” and he comes to understand the lies he’s been fed (Jews have scales and horns) and the suffering that’s been inflicted.

Opening with documentary clips of World War II Germany accompanied by the Beatles’ German-language version of I Want to Hold Your Hand (Bowie’s Helden also features), at times calling to mind   Wes Anderson, Chris Morris and Armando Iannucci, Watiti underscores his ridiculing of anti-Semitism through absurdist off-beat humour while playing the film’s Nazis, as epitomised by Klenzendorf, as buffoons, although he does upend the caricature and clowning with sympathy in unexpected ways. Which isn’t to say, there isn’t also an air of chilling threat, manifested in the parodic portrayal of the black clad Sieg Heiling Gestapo (headed up by an unctuous Stephen Merchant) who descend on Jojo’ house while, pivoting on a pair of shoes, things suddenly switch from hilarity to gut punch horror as the tone shifts in a heartbeat.

Clearly designed to strike a timely chord with the disturbing rise of neo-Nazism, it’s a provocative anti-hate dark satire with heart, humanity, hilarity and, in its moving final moments, hope. Not to mention an hysterical German Shepherd gag. (Cineworld 5 Ways, Solihull; Empire Great Park; MAC; Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall)

 

Joker (15)

Leading the Oscar nominations, including Film and Director and Screenplay,with Best Actor surely a foregone conclusion darker, both tonally and morally, than even Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, and devoid of any of the flip humour likely to characterise the upcoming Harley Quinn movie, Birds of Prey, it’s not escaped  controversy regarding the extreme violence. And yes, yet in a dystopian early 80s Gotham, it is intense, brutal, graphic and bloody, but while Phillips seeks to explain and understand, at no  point does he excuse, justify or glorify.

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

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

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

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

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) 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 restaurant 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; Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Just Mercy (12A)

Another drama based on real life events, director Destin Daniel Cretton delivers a film that may well be formulaic biopic in its story of the pursuit of justice in the face of prejudice, but is also stirringly inspirational.

In 1985, Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan), a recently Harvard graduated black lawyer, moved to Alabama to head up the regional office of the Southern Center for Human Rights where, working alongside  paralegal Eva Ansley (Brie Larson), he founded the non-profit Equal Justice Initiative which  guaranteed  defence of anyone in Alabama sentenced to the death penalty, the only state that did not provide legal assistance to death row inmates and also having the highest per capita rate of death penalty sentencing.

Ironically unfolding in Monroeville, the home of Harper Lee, whose To Kill A Mockingbird, was a legal drama about race and justice in the Jim Crow South (Stevenson being often advised to visit the museum), one of his first cases was that of Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx), known as Johnny D,  the owner of his own logging company with no prior records who, in 1987 was arrested by newly elected sheriff Tom Tate for the murder of  Ronda Harrison, a teenage dry cleaning assistant, and, despite having been at a fish fry at the time of the incident and with no physical evidence was convicted on the word of two compromised witnesses and sentenced to death. He was even placed on Death Row before his trial to get a ‘taste’.

While the film tells a parallel story of Stevenson’s unsuccessful attempt to gain a reprieve for Herbert Richardson (Rob Morgan, superb), an army veteran who was electrocuted for unintentionally killing a young girl with a nail bomb while suffering from PTSD, it’s Willie’s case that is the central focus as Stevenson battles the inflexible new DA, Tommy Champan (Rafe Spall) who refused to grand a new trial, arguing Macmillian’s guilt despite a confession from the only witness, convicted criminal Ralph Myers (Tim Blake Nelson), who was moved off Death Row after he testified, that he had, under pressure from the police, invented his entire story.

Based on Stevenson’s best-selling account of the case, it burns with righteous anger as the extent of the perversion of justice in exposed while Stevenson himself is subjected to harassment by the police bomb threats and even a strip search when he first visits prison to meet his clients.  While there are, inevitably, rousing big speeches, much is also conveyed through simple looks, Foxx and Jordan both giving their strongest performances in a while as despair slowly finds a glimmer of hope, only to be rocked by an unbelievable court ruling, while Larson makes the most of an underwritten role. Alongside Nelson weaselling felon and Spall’s morally conflicted DA, there solid support turns too from O’Shea Jackson and Rob Morgan as Willie’s fellow inmates. It’s not a subtle film and some of the dialogue could have been written with a chisel, but as social justice crowdpleaser it’s a soaring triumph. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Little Women (U)

Louis May Allcott’s evergreen 19th century novel gets another rework as a coming of age dramady at the hands of  Lady Bird director Greta Gerwig  (Oscar nominated for Best Film but snubbed as director). Set during and after the American Civil War, it tells of the four March sisters, the eldest, family beauty Meg (Emma Watson), independent-minded aspiring writer Jo (BAFTA and Oscar Best Actress nominee Saoirse Ronan), petulant Amy (BAFTA and Oscar Supporting Actress nominee Florence Pugh) and  piano-playing Beth (Eliza Scanlen), as they search to find their identities. Here, Jo is already tutoring in New York and working on becoming an author, hot-headed Amy is in Paris studying painting and acting as companion to her cantankerous, imperious spinster aunt (Meryl Streep) who’s attempting to steer her into  the marriage market, Meg has given up acting ambitions and is married to impoverished schoolteacher John Brooke (James Norton) with two kids, and Beth, the youngest, well, she’s the sickly tragic one. Laura Dern is quietly excellent as their mother, Marmie,  trying to cope in reduced circumstances with her abolitionist husband (Bob Odenkirk) away at war serving as a chaplain, and Timothee Chalamet (who starred with Ronan in Lady Bird) is puckish, childhood friend Laurie who, living a dissolute life having fled to Europe heartbroken  when Jo rejected his proposal, may well still be a flame in Amy’s heart, except, of course, she’s resentful of being second best to Jo.  Meanwhile,  Friedrich Bhaer, the German academic and Jo’s fatherly mentor in  has been reinvented as a considerably younger French language professor romantic interest (Louis Garrel), although his forthright opinions on her work don’t get things off to a promising start,  while Chris Cooper is perfectly cast as the family neighbour,  Laurie’s grandfather, who takes a fatherly interest in Beth.

Its feminist note is struck early one as Jo negotiates the anonymous publication of one of her – or rather’ ‘a friend’s’ stories with Mr. Dashwood (Tracy Letts), editor of the Weekly Volcano, who advises that, if she has a heroine then she has to be married at the end, or dead, opting to retain her own copyright and haggling over the fee. The film’s title, of course, refers to the quasi autobiographical novel about her and her family’s life, one of sibling rivalry (including a particularly vindictive act by Amy) and romantic and health crises, and the scene of Jo watching it being assembled and printed is a wonderful reminder of  an almost lost art.

It’s all a bit overly busy early on and the constant switching between past and present can prove confusing, but it eventually settles down, it looks terrific, the performances are uniformly excellent, with Ronan and Pugh especially brilliant, and staying true to the book’s knowing  compromise of a happy ending while simultaneously celebrating female empowerment this is destined to become a modern classic. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Electric;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Mockingbird; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

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; Empire Great Park; Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Uncut Gems (15)

Earning Adam Sandler some of his best reviews since Punch Drunk Love revealed him as powerful dramatic actor and not just a peg for puerile comedies, not to mention a string of award nominations (though no Oscar nod), this makes a brief theatrical outing before hitting Netflix on Jan 31.

Playing an obnoxious, self-absorbed character is no stretch for Sandler, but the knowingly named Howard Ratner has to be the most despicable of them all, the motormouth New York jeweller owner of a ramshackle office who’s cheating in his wife (Idina Menzel) with employee Julia (Julia Fox). Coming into possession of an uncut black opal, smuggled out of an Ethiopian mine, he devises a convoluted scheme to make even more money, and get out of hock to a bunch of short-tempered mobsters, as, introduced to basketball pro Kevin Garnett (playing himself) by an opportunist broker (Lakeith Stanfield), refuses to sell it agrees to loan it to him as a good luck charm for the upcoming NBA playoffs, in return for holding on to his Championship ring. This he immediately pawns to bet on the game, reckoning he’ll make an absolute killing, repay the loan, return the ring and then auction the gem. Needless to say, things don’t quite go his way, winding up with him dragging long a confused family friend (Judd Hirsch) to the audition to try and salvage the disaster.

There’s barely a moment of the frantic dialogue that isn’t delivered at a shout or a scene that doesn’t race along at hyperventilating speed, often making things almost visually incoherent and migraine inducing.  Even so, directors Bennie and Josh Safdie and cinematographer Darius Khondji turn all this into a rush of energy that simply sweeps you along as it mixes high-wire comedy with psychological tension, the film brilliantly embodying the chaos that is Ratner’s life not to mention indulging in several surreal moments such as plunging into the molecular structure of the opal or surfing through Howard’s colonoscopy. Watching it is almost as stressful as Howard experiencing it, but, like him, it’s hard to get off the ride. (Mockingbird)

Waves (15)

The third feature from writer-director Trey Edward Shults has been called a tender, bruising and exuberant film that further explores family dynamics with a mixed cast of unknowns and familiar faces such as Sterling K. Brown and Lucas Hedges. A film of two halves and two teenage love stories connected by the separate twin protagonists’ sibling relationship, high school athlete Kelvin Harrison Jr and introspective younger sister Taylor Russell.

The first concerns Tyler, girlfriend Alexis (Alexa Demie) and his relationship with his tough love, humourless construction business owner father (Brown) who is also his wrestling trainer. Riding high and feeling indestructible, Tyler is heading for a fall as injury sends him spiralling into addiction and alienation.

The second more upbeat part focuses on Emily, a bit player in her brother’s story but the star of her own as she strikes up a romance with equally awkward fellow student Luke (Hedges), the film taking on a calmer pace in search of a healing that will mend rifts and bring family salvation and redemption. (Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe)

 

Screenings courtesy of  Odeon and Cineworld

CINEMAS

Cineworld 5 Ways – 181 Broad St, 0871 200 2000

Cineworld NEC – NEC  0871 200 2000

Cineworld  – Mill Ln, Solihull 071 200 2000

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

Empire – Great Park, Rubery, 0871 471 4714

Empire  Coldfield – Maney Corner, Sutton Coldfield

0871 471 4714

The Everyman – The Mailbox 0871 906 9060

MAC – Cannon Hill Park 0121 446 3232

Mockingbird, Custard Factory  0121 224 7456.

Odeon Birmingham -Birmingham, 0871 224 4007

Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe – Ladywood Middleway, 0333 006 7777

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

Reel – Hagley Rd, Quinton, Halesowen 0121 421 5316

Showcase Walsall – Bentley Mill Way, Walsall 0871 220 1000

Vue Star City – Watson Road, 08712 240 240

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