MOVIE ROUND-UP: This Week’s New Film Releases, Fri May 10-Thu May 16

 

NEW RELEASES

Pokémon Detective Pikachu (PG)

 

Not even the most ardent Pokemon fan would have thought another animated feature would be a good idea, so relief all round that, directed by  Rob Letterman,who made Goosebumps, this is a live action/CGI reboot of the franchise, a sort of family friendly answer to  The Happytime Murders. Following his detective father Harry’s apparent death in a car accident, estranged son Tim Goodman  (Justice Smith) travels to Ryme City, a sprawling metropolis created by tech-visionary Howard Clifford (Bill Nighy) as a place where humans and their Pokemons can live together in peace and Pokemon battles are illegal (though they still happen). Here, Tim (a loner who has no Pokémon of his own) runs into his dad’s amnesiac, electricity-discharging furry yellow Pokémon partner, Pikechu (voiced in Deadpool sardonic manner by Ryan Reynolds), and discovers that, after inhaling the purple gas from a capsule in dad’s apartment, that, unlike other humans and Pokémons, they can understand one another. Unfortunately, the gas has a different effect on Pokémons, turning them ultra-violent. All of which, it seems, is part of a plan by Clifford’s resentful son Roger (Chris Geere) to destroy his father’s vision by unleashing mayhem during the upcoming celebratory parade, something in which a genetically created Mewtwo (seen sending Harry’s car off the bridge in the opening) would seem to be instrumental.

Naturally, as Tim and Pikechu join forces with Lucy Stevens (Kathryn Newton), an aspirant TV news reporter with a Nancy Drew streak and a  Psyduck Pokémon (basically a passive-aggressive walking bomb), not everything is as it seems.

A film noir for kids that echoes Who Framed Roger Rabbit? it possesses a knowing sense of humour, the wisecracking Pikechu sporting  a Sherlock Holmes deerstalker and a coffee addiction, to complement the often dizzying action sequences. An encounter with a jester-like Pokémon mime is particularly funny, but there’s many amusing throwaways to keep youngsters and grown-ups happy as the plot wanders through some inevitable bonding, friendship, father-son issues and keep them distracted from a somewhat obvious twist. Smith immerses himself in the whole Pokémon world to natural effect while Reynolds tosses off his snarky asides and one-liners with precision timing while Rita Ora puts in a brief flashback cameo as a Pokémon neurologist. For once, the prospect of a sequel is actually something to look forward to rather than dread.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

The Hustle (12A)

A shameless attempt to put a gender spin on the Michael Caine-Steve Martin con comedy Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (itself a remake of the Marlon Brando/David Niven Bedtime Story), this has Anne Hathaway doing a lightly comic turn as  Josephine  Chesterfield, a sophisticated con artist with an uptight English accent who, with the connivance of the local police chief (Ashley McGuire), her butler (Nicholas Woodeson) and apparently the entire local hotel staff,  works the Riviera from her luxury home in Beaumont-sur-Mer. Then, looking to up her game beyond New York, into her life comes blusteringly unsubtle low rent hustler Australian Penny Rust (Rebel Wilson) who calls her a “librarian’s corpse, but less lively” and is in turn described as a  big-titted Russell Crowe. First meeting on a train, Josephine’s attempts to eliminate any possible competition backfire as Penny turns up proposing to join forces, but settling for being an intern, unaware its part of a plot to make her leave.

A partnership of sorts if formed as the pair scam a stream of rich men lured into Josephine’s honey trap thinking she’s British royalty (the rationale being, as she explains, men will never believe a woman is smarter than they are) while Penny plays the deranged sister Hortense who sends them packing, always leaving a ring behind. But then the dynamic changes when the pair become rivals to see who, Penny posing as a blind woman and Josephine a German doctor, can, initially, con $500,000 out of a naïve tech millionaire (Alex Sharp) and then, when the stakes are upped, who can bed him first. The winner takes all, the loser takes off.

There’s some amusing banter and a couple of decent comic set pieces, but far too often the lines and the plot fall flat, frequently resorting to Wilson’s now rather tiresome routine of getting laughs out of her weight, while, unlike Caine and Martin, there’s just no chemistry or spark between the pair. Storylines are dropped at random, the plot increasingly makes no sense and anyone who can’t spot where the twist is coming has clearly never seen a con movie before. At one point Penny hides from her pursuers by posing as a garbage bag. In many ways that’s an apt metaphor for the film. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Loro (18)

The title loosely translated as ‘them’, set roughly between 2006 and 2009, director Paolo Sorrentino’s sprawling comedy drama (cut to 150 mins from two 100 mins parts) points the camera at the turmoil of Italian politics as seen through the fictionalised lens of its colourful ex-PM Silvio Berlusconi. Except, as played by Toni Servillo,  he doesn’t even appear until an hour in, the early focus being on Sergio (Riccardo Scamarcio), an ambitious chancer who reckons the way to the top is by providing an endless supply of cocaine and young women to those who call the shots and pull the strings in his efforts to get close to Berlusconi, at present nursing his wounded ego after being ousted in exile in the Sardinian home he shares with his neglected second wife Veronica (Elena Sofia Ricci), while he connives to secure a return to power, or at least persuade a rising football star to sign to the team he owns.

Meanwhile, Sergio’s assisted in his scheming by his ruthless wife Tamara (Euridice Axen), who he sends to seduce one of his targets, and high class femme fatale Kira (Kasia Smutniak), Silvio’s mistress, whose idea it is to invest in a rental villa teeming with half-naked, stoned women to get Berlusconi’s attention.

It’s a similar world of excess to that Martin Scorsese portrayed in Wolf of Wall Street, and rivals it for sex and drugs parties, intermittently lapsing into surreal psychedelia such as   scene where a truck crashes and suddenly everyone round a swimming pool is being showered in MDMA.

Then the focus shifts to Berlusconi, who frequently bursts into song,  and with it the tone as it becomes more about smooth-tongued political manipulation, brilliantly encapsulated in an extended scene where he passes himself off as a salesman trying to flog a woman some as yet unbuilt real estate over the phone.

There are some inspired and often very funny moments, but, while a scene where an aspiring actress (Alice Pagani) turns down his advances, saying his  old man’s breath, makes for a change. the constant gratuitous visual assault of compliant naked female flesh, all in thrall to ‘him’, feels a bit uncomfortable in the present climate and it’s not always easy to keep track of the political machinations, not to mention the reason for the dead sheep or the silent game show episodes on the TV screen.  (MAC)

 

 

Vox Lux (15)

Written and directed by Brady Corbet, part-narrated by Willem Dafoe, this opens in 1999 with a Staten Island high school classroom shooting of which only 13-year-old Celeste (Raffey Cassidy) survives. Following convalescence for her spinal injury, she performs a song co-written with her more musically talented older sister Eleanor (Stacy Martin) in commemoration of the victims that, with a lyrical shift from I to we, turns her almost overnight into a superstar, picking up a never named sleazy cynical manager (Jude Law) and a major record deal brokered by high-powered publicist Josie (Jennifer Ehle), flying out to record an album and having a hedonistic Super 8 hitting the town montage in Stockholm, heading to L.A for a video shoot and losing her virginity to an angsty British goth musician who, as she observes, makes “the sort of music the boy who attacked me used to listen to.”

Genesis closing in the aftermath of 9/11, the second act fast forwards 18 years with Celeste (now played by Natalie Portman) has become something of a diva, and is attempting to make a comeback with a hometown stadium show after her career nosedived in a cocktail of scandals. She also now has a teenage daughter (Cassidy), who is closer to Eleanor, a not entirely suitable guardian, from whom Celeste is increasingly estranged.

Ironically, on the morning of the show, a terrorist incident takes place at a Croatian beachside resort, the gunmen mowing down tourists while wearing masks inspired by Celeste’s video, bringing things full circle. This obviously rakes up past painful memories, her tensions compounded by a prickly diner conversation with her daughter,  a meeting with the press and her subsequent getting wasted.

There’s little doubt that Celeste is something of a monster, but the film seeks to explain why she has become what she is (insecurity seems to be another reason given she’s not the world’s best singer and it’s her sister who writes the material), exploring themes of lost innocence and the walls erected to shield yourself that only serve to push others away (“I’m a private girl in a public world” run the lyrics of one of her songs).

Featuring throbbing electro pop by Sia, a jarring score by Scott Walker (his last work) and shot on 35mm in a dizzying style that swings between slo mo and pumped up montages to complement Celeste’s excess and over-the-top appearance, it fires off barbed but often wise lines that stick in the mind as well as the flesh. Portman is outstanding but full marks to Law too, giving one of his best  performances in years and if the climax in a lengthy concert sequence leaves questions unanswered, the paradoxical notions of the often toxic nature of celebrity set against the euphoria it can bring others resonate long after. (Electric)

ALSO PLAYING

The Corrupted (15
Set prior the 2012 Olympics and loosely based on real events, Tim Spall stars as Clifford Cullen, a corrupt property dealer whose reach embraces bent coppers in Scotland Yard, such as high ranking Hammond (Hugh Bonneville)  and into whose web falls Liam McDonagh (Sam Claflin), a boxer who, just released after serving a term for armed robbery, wants to reconnect with his young son Archie and his ex. Unfortunately, his brother’s, caught up in Collen’s circle, with no route out. Featuring Noel Clarke as a determined cop, it’s a standard issue Brit crime thriller but at least the trailer promises some decent performances and some hefty violence. (Empire Great Park; Showcase Walsall)

 

Destination Wedding (15)

Reteaming Keanu Reeves and Winona Ryder for the fourth time, but with considerably more shared screen time, writer-director Victor Levin brings them together as misanthropes Frank (Reeves) and Lindsay (Ryder) who, meeting at an airport and taking an instant dislike to one another, find themselves attending the same wedding  and gradually bonding as the realise that their dislike of everyone else outweighs their feelings about one another.

Pretty much a dialogue-heavy two-hander, it’s a familiar romcom set up but one which manages to spin some new angles while firing off one bitchy comment after another with a glee that’s hard to resist. (Showcase Walsall)

 

Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile (15

Already available on Sky, this biopic of notorious American serial killer Ted Bundy, a dramatised version of events by director Joe Berlinger who also made the Bundy documentary, Conversations With A Killer, is worth catching on the big screen, if only to fully enjoy a knockout performance from Zac Efron as the psychotic but incredibly charming Bundy (girls swooned over him at his trial) who also had a brilliant legal mind (he conducted his own defence after firing his attorney) in his attempts to persuade the jury – and America -that he as an innocent man fitted up by the police. It’s based on the memoir by Elizabeth Kendall (Lily Collins), Bundy’s single mother girlfriend who inadvertently played a significant role in bringing him to justice, with whom he lived a happy family life, even when he was out murdering other young women, while Kaya Scodelarion plays Carole Anne Boone, an old friend and colleague whom he married in court while she was testifying on his behalf. Also featuring  Haley Joel Osment as Liz’s co-worker who moves in when Ted’s imprisoned, Jim Parsons as the Florida prosecutor and a deliciously dry  John Malkovich as the murder trial judge, the film manages to be both funny and tender without ever diluting the horror and enormity of the crimes.  (Everyman; Showcase Walsall)

 

Irene’s Ghost(PG)

A highly personal documentary from Nuneaton’s Iain Cunningham who sets out to find out more about the mother who died when he was just three, but knows nothing about her or the circumstances. His father’s reluctant to help, but through friends and estranged family members he begins to piece together a picture of the women he never knew and of mental health issues that were kept hidden. Told through interviews, archive material and animation, it features a score by Birmingham-based Nuneaton musician Chris Tye  (Thu: MAC+ Q&A)

 

NOW SHOWING

A Dog’s Journey (PG)

The second adaptation of W Bruce Cameron’s two connected novels isn’t so much a sequel to A Dog’s Purpose as a retelling as the dog in question goes through another string of incarnations returning in different breeds and genders. Opening where the first ended, after assorted incarnations, Bailey (voiced by Josh Gad) is now reunited and living with his boy, Ethan (Dennis Quaid), on the farm he shares with wife Hannah (Marg Helgenberger), the childhood sweetheart he reunited him with. The couple are caring for their granddaughter CJ, her wannabe country singer mother, Gloria (Betty Gilpin), Hannah’s daughter-in-law, a heavy-drinking harridan since her husband died prior to their daughter’s birth.

After a particularly nasty outburst, Gloria takes the toddler and heads off out of her in-laws lives and as Bailey prepares to go to that great kennel in the sky, Ethan tells him to come back and look after CJ just as he did him.

And so it is that, some years later, Gloria more distant and obnoxious than ever, that, with the help of Asian best friend Trent (Ian Chen and Henry Lau as the older version) the 11-year-old CJ (Abby Ryder Fortson) comes to adopt stray spaniel Molly who looks after her, providing the love she doesn’t get from mom, chasing off unsuitable boyfriends before eventually ending up with the now grown CJ (Kathryn Prescott with shades of a young Jodie Foster), also following songwriting dreams but lacking self-confidence,  as Yorkshire terrier Max with an inherited plot device ability to sniff out cancer, bringing friends and families back together for reconciliations and redemptions and kickstarting another delayed romance.

It took four screenwriters to come up with this saccharine canine corn, shamelessly tugging at the tear ducts every few scenes even if it does touch on a few darker moments like pet death, but you’d have to be a real Cruella cynic to resist its puppy charm and eagerness to give you a big wet lick. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Avengers: Endgame (12A)

Unquestionably the year’s most eagerly anticipated film and on course to smash every box office record ever, given that Marvel had only just launched the Black Panther, Doctor Strange and the rebooted Spider-Man series, while their characters, along with 50% of all human life on Earth, had been killed off by Thanos (Josh Brolin) in Infinity War, they would inevitably be resurrected in the sequel. The question wasn’t if, but how. The answer is a breathtaking three-hour epic that draws together strands from several previous Marvel films, interweaving them into an audacious and emotionally-charged climax that brings the current saga to a fitting close.

Again directed by brothers Anthony and Joe Russo, it opens at the end of the previous film as Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner) aka Hawkeye, who wasn’t featured, is teaching his daughter archery when his entire family turns to cosmic dust, setting him off on a new path we don’t catch up with until much later in the film. It’s no spoiler to reveal that, left stranded in space, the now good Nebula (Karen Gillan) and Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr) do return to Earth courtesy of Captain Marvel (Brie Larson), her appearances bookending the film, reunited with the surviving Avengers who are trying to move on. Five years later, he and Pepper (Gywneth Paltrow) are married with a daughter. Then, in a freak accident back pops Scott Lang (Paul Rudd), Ant-Man, left trapped in the quantum realm in his last film, with a theory that they may be able to use quantum physics to travel back in time and get the Infinity Stones before Thanos can use them. Stark refusing to get involved lest it just makes matters worse, Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), who has now managed to merge his human and Hulk selves, is recruited to help. Suffice to say, Stark does eventually join the ranks as Hawkeye, Iron Man, Banner and the other the remaining Avengers, Captain America (Chris Evans), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), War Machine (Don Cheadle) and Thor (Chris Hemsworth), who’s rather gone to pot in self-recrimination and now sports a beer belly, along with Lang, Nebula and Rocket (Bradley Cooper) are divided into three teams, each sent off on a quantum realm mission into different points in time (which involves them watching – and in one case battling – themselves in scenes from the previous films) to retrieve their assigned stones and then return to the present, destinations involving New York, Asgard, Vormir, Morag and, in 1970, the army base where Rogers was transformed into Captain America, two of which involve poignant moments between three of them and characters from their past.

After assorted run ins, struggles and an act of sacrifice, they do, indeed, return and reverse the process. But there’s still a twist to come that sets up the final epic confrontation between Thanos and his hordes and, well, pretty much every super-hero from the Disney Marvel Universe, as the likes of Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), Spider-Man (Tom Holland), Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) get to weigh in too. Indeed, it seems anyone who’s ever been in one of the films – or TV spin-offs – puts in appearance, there’s even a (final?) cameo from the late Stan Lee in a 70s hippie incarnation.

Along with the grand-scale action, there’s plenty of the trademark humour, particular highlights between a drunk Thor, a gag about time travel movies and Hulk/Banner posing for a selfie with fans, not to mention several flourishes, one involving Thor’s hammer, that roused cheers from the audience, but there’s also tear-jerking sadness and pathos as the film draws a heroic line under or passes the torch in certain franchises. The culmination to which everything over the past years and twenty-two films has been building, it redefines the term spectacle while having a heart so big it needs an IMAX screen to contain it.  Fittingly, there no bonus end credit scenes pointing to the future, but whatever paths it takes  and whatever new partnerships are forged there’ll be a legion assembled ready to follow. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Electric; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Mockingbird; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Captain Marvel (12A)

Following on from Black Panther,  this now flies the feminist flag and introduces the first female superhero to the cinematic Marvel Universe in the form of Vers (Brie Larson), a Kree warrior engaged in her planet’s ongoing war with the shape-changing lizard-like Skrulls and their quest for galactic domination.

When first introduced into the comics, Marvel was a male, Kree soldier Marv-Vell, the character later shifting to become Carol Danvers, a USAF pilot who absorbed his powers. To some extent, this adaptation, co-directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, both of whom are also involved in the screenplay, hews closely to the comic version, except there’s a significant twist to both the nature of the Skrulls and the Mar-Vell character, along with how Danvers acquired her powers.

All she knows is that she’s Vers (pronounced verse) an elite Kree soldier, mentored by her tetchy superior officer, Yon-Rogg (Jude Law), and that she’s been given photon blast powers which glow red and shoot from her hands. But she’s troubled by memories of her younger self that she can’t place and also a military scientist called Wendy Lawson (Annette Bening) who turns up in dreams of both a plane and a shoot-out and whom, unfathomably, is also the shape taken by her visualisation of the Kree Supreme Intelligence, which manifests as someone important to you. As such, the film pivots around her search to find her true identity, the notion that things and people are not always what or who they appear paramount to the plot mechanics.

The events take place back in 1995, long before the arrival of other super powered beings, as Vers finds herself marooned on Earth after an encounter with the Skrulls and seeking to reconnect with her Starforce squad (which includes Djimon Hounsou’s sword-wielding Korath, previously seen, along with Lee Pace’s Ronan The Accuser, in Guardians of the Galaxy), but not before eliminating the Skrulls who, led by Talos (Ben Mendelsohn), have also infiltrated the planet.

As such there’s several jokes about Earth’s backwards technology (pagers, poor internet, etc.) compared with that of the Kree, while Vers’ explosive arrival (through the roof of a Blockbuster video store) attracts the attention of S.H.I.E.L.D in the form of a younger and still two-eyed Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) as well as rookie recruit Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg). Vividly convinced of the existence of aliens, Fury joins forces with Vers who explains she has to locate Lawson’s secret lab and destroy the plans for a lightspeed engine before the Skrulls can get to it. All of which reconnects her with Danvers’ former fellow test pilot and single mom best friend, Maria (Lashana Lynch), and her smart kid daughter Monica (Akira Akbar), both of whom believed her to have died in the crash that killed Lawson. Monica’s also responsible for the transformation of Vers’ Kree uniform into her iconic red and blue get-up. Oh yes. And there’s also a cat called Goose to which Fury takes a liking and which fits right in with the central theme.

While serving to provide a back story to the Tesseract and the Avengers Initiative, the end credits linking it to the upcoming Avengers: Endgame, this is very much focused on Vers’ search to find out who she is and what lies she’s been fed. As such, in true Marvel fashion, the film balances potent character development and emotional core with the dynamic action sequences (one of which is soundtracked by No Doubt’s Just A Girl to reinforce the female empowerment point) and special effects, misdirecting you as to who may or may not be the villains of the piece.

Cool and composed, Larson, all fire (literally at one point), swagger and snappy repartee, is mesmerising in her character’s arc, even eclipsing Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman  for screen charisma, while Bening, Law, Jackson, Lynch and Mendelsohn (who also gets to play Fury’s boss  when Talos takes his shape) all provide robust and commanding support. In the midst of taking on innumerable foes, Marvel’s eyes flash and she breaks out into a big grin and shouts ‘Yeah’. Chances are you’ll feel like doing the same thing.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC; Empire Great Park; Odeon Broadway Plaza; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

The Curse of La Llorona (15)

Yet another off the horror conveyor belt involving some scary female demon who takes it upon themselves to make an unfortunate family’s life hell, this one’s based on the Mexican legend of the Weeping Woman (a sort of Hispanic answer to the Woman in Black) who is the ghost of a woman who drowned her two sons in revenge for her husband taking off with a younger woman, her appearance always heralding misfortune. Here, it’s a bit more specific in that, sporting the obligatory white dress, her spirit (Marisol Ramirez) goes around killing the children of poor mothers.

Set in 1973, her latest target is widowed LA social worker Anna Garcia (Linda Cardellini), called up as a curse by a grief-mad mother (Patricia Velásquez) whose two sons were drowned by La Llorona after Garcia put them into foster care. Now, she has her sights and bony hands set on Garcia’s kids Samantha (Jaynee-Lynne Kinchen) and Chris (Roman Christou).  A priest, Tony Amendola in a franchise cross-over as Annabelle’s Father Perez declines to get involved because of his experiences with the possessed doll, leaving the job of seeing her off to priest turned faith healer Rafael (Better Call Saul’s Raymond Cruz).

First time director Michael Chaves dutifully works his way through the genre manual with squeaking doors, shadowy figures, jump scares, shrill score, although only a bathtime scene even remotely works, while the cast have the endure their own horrors of delivering the exposition heavy dialogue while struggling to hold on to characters that have less substance than La Llorona herself. Awful. (Cineworld 5 Ways; NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Dumbo (PG)

Disney’s short but bittersweet fable of the baby elephant whose oversized ears enable him to fly is the latest to get the live action remake treatment, here under the auspices of director Tim Burton. Unfortunately, it’s as drab as it looks onscreen, ponderous and devoid of anything resembling the vibrant colour of the 1941 animation. In the original, it wasn’t until the final moments that Dumbo actually flew, a moment of wonderment, here it happens early on, rendering the subsequent flying scenes increasingly less magical despite the best attempts to build tension.

Set shortly after the end of WWI, Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell) returns from the front minus an arm, his wife having died in his absence, to rejoin his two children, science-obsessed Milly (Nico Parker, looking exactly like a young version of mother Thandie Newton), who has her own mini mouse circus in a nod to Dumbo’s talking rodent best friend), and the younger Joe ( Finley Hobbins), and the circus where he was the star trick horse riding attraction.

However, the circus, run by Max Medici (Danny De Vito) has hit hard times, several acts having succumbed to influenza, and audiences dwindling. Medici has staked his fortunes on buying a pregnant elephant, looking to make her baby a draw. To Max’s consternation, Baby Jumbo turns out to be a freak with large flappy ears and Holt is consigned to caring for the them and working the new arrival up as a clown act. When a cruel circus hand causes Mrs Jumbo to cause mayhem, and is killed in the process, she’s sold back to her original owner, sending the baby into depression. In attempting to cheer him up,  a stray feather reveals to the kids that the ears enable him to fly, and next thing you know, Dumbo earning his name when a stunt misfires, the crowds are pouring in.

It also attracts the attention of V.A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton), a circus cum theme park entrepreneur with big ambitions who turns up along with his trophy French (though wouldn’t know it) girlfriend aerial act Collette (Eva Green,), makes Max a partner and ships the entire caboodle off to his Dreamland in New York where he envisions making a fortune by teaming pachyderm and girlfriend as a flying double act.

Needless to say, a calculating heartless exploiter, his promises to Max about his own troupe prove worthless and, discovering Mrs Jumbo is part of his wild beast attraction, Holt and the kids plot to free her and reunite mother and son, resulting in a moderately exciting climax as chaos erupts in the park.

Stuffed with familiar Disney tropes about family, faith in yourself and how being different doesn’t made you a freak, it plays the emotional scales by rote without ever striking and resonant notes, although the scene of Dumbo looking scared in his clown makeup on a circus platform might prompt a slight twinge in the heart while, laudably chiming with animal rights, the coda has Medici declaring how the circus should never have animal acts kept in cages, the message reinforced by a final sequence of Dumbo and his mom rejoining the herd in the wilds of Asia. With big sad blue eyes, the digital Dumbo is impressively rendered, the human cast less so. Keaton hams it up like a pantomime villain, DeVito hobbles the gamut from bluster to befuddled, Green lacks any spark (as does the lacklustre blossoming romance) and Farrell simply walks through the role of the dad who doesn’t know how to respond to his kids (they being at least a  breath of fresh air to proceedings), while the circus motley crew support cast is populated by amiable but one-dimensional characters like a kindly snake charmer (Roshan Seth) and the fat lady mermaid (Sharon Rooney),who gets to strum her ukulele and sing the original film’s memorable, tender song Baby Mine.  Burton also slips in a reference to When I See An Elephant Fly and does a good job of recreating the surreal Pink Elephants on Parade using shape-shifting soap bubbles, but they never feel more than knowing nods.

Although Dreamland’s science exhibit has some amusing visions of the future of technology, not to mention transgendering, while there are some individual moments of spectacle, such as the parade into Dreamland, given Burton’s past work, imagination is generally as thin on the ground here as is unforced emotion.  You might believe an elephant can fly, but the film never does.  (Cineworld NEC;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Eighth Grade (15)

In the American education system (about which a drill in the event of a possible shooter says much), eighth grade is the final year before moving on to high school, an awkward period of transition that mirrors the step from adolescence to teenager. It can be cruel, especially for those who don’t fit into the accepted cliques. Apporoaching the end of middle-school, Kayla (Elsie Fisher, the voice of Agnes in Despicable Me), is one such; a pimply, acne-prone, awkwardly inarticulate outcast who lives with her widowed supportive but at times overbearingly supportive father (Josh Hamilton) and embarrassingly wins the school award for ‘most quietest’. At home, she shuts herself away in her room and ironically uploads motivational ‘be yourself’ videos (“The hard part of being yourself is that it’s not easy”) to her YouTube channel, signing off with her “Gucci!” catchphrase and  a somewhat fruitless request for likes.

Ignored rather than bullied at school, she’s badgered into accepting  a reluctantly given invitation to eighth grade queen bitch Kennedy’s (Catherine Oliviere) birthday pool party, another occasion of huge embarrassment where she stares longingly at Aiden (Luke Prael), the class jock who always seem to move in slow motion, but does at least find the confidence to sing karaoke. She also has a brief interchange with the birthday girl’s geeky but genuine cousin Gabe (Jake Ryan), a relationship that gives rise to an amusing but squirmingly uncomfortable condiment-laden dinner date.

As an introduction to high school life, she also assigned a buddy, Olivia, (Emily Robinson) who, for Kayla is the epitome of cool and  who takes her under her wing, showing that her future life may be a vast improvement on her current one, although there’s also a life lesson as, in a  game of truth or dare, Riley,  one of Olivia’s friendship group attempt to make out with her.

Written and directed by comedian Bo Burnham, making his feature debut, it’s a painfully true adolescent girl’s coming of age story that will inevitably draw comparisons to the likes of Thirteen, Lady Bird and, most especially, Todd Solondz’s Welcome to the Dollhouse, but, even though it does touch some raw nerves, it’s  a far gentler and more compassionately comic work. There are some lovely individual moments, not least Kayla practising giving blow jobs with a banana when her dad walks in, the feeling when she opens her sixth grade time capsule box addressed to ‘The Coolest Girl in the World’ and a tenderly moving confessional moment between her and her father, but, cumulatively, it’s a testament to Fisher’s guileless, unaffected, vulnerable and vanity-free performance that carries the emotional heart that this is such a moving, uplifting and unforgettable experience. (Electric)

Little (12A)

A gender and race spin on the Tom Hanks film Big directed and co-written by Tina Gordon,  here, bullied by the mean girl (Eva Carlton) at eighth grade in the 90s, nerdy Jordan Sanders (Marsai Martin) grows up to become the high-flying boss (Regina Hall) of her own tech company and, in a  form of twisted revenge for the abuse she suffered , because as her dad told her “no one bullies the boss,  a workplace bully in her own right, demandingly making life hell for her employees and especially loyal P.A. April (Issar Rae) who, we’re quickly shown, has  her own under-appreciated tech talents and who, although she gives the A for available come on to the studs she meets, also has a secret attraction to fellow worker Preston (Tone Bell) even if that strand never really goes anywhere.

However, when Preston’s rude to Stevie, the daughter (Marley Taylor) of a mobile donut van salesman, who does  ‘magic’ tricks outside the office, the weird kid waves her magic wand and wishes Jordan was little. And, indeed, the next day, she wakes up to find herself back in the body of her big hair 13-year-old self, having to delegate running the company to April, just when their obnoxious biggest client (Mikey Day) has given them 48 hours to impress him or he walks,  and forced by social services to go to her old school where she’s inevitably once more picked on by the class mean girl (Carlton again), hanging out with the other social rejects and, naturally, learning some life lessons about humility, being who you are, being nice to people, not thinking you have to be a bitch and emotionally aloof to protect yourself from being hurt  and generally not becoming the same as those who try to hold you back. Meanwhile, April, who now has to pose as her boss’s aunt, has the chance to vent some hidden feelings about Jordan as well as find courage to let her own light shine.

Along the way, there’s also some amusing/touching moments as the miniaturised Jordan befriends class misfits Riana (Thalia Tran), Isaac (JD McCrary) and Devon (Tucker Meek) and gets to hear her grown up occasional lover, Trevor (Luke James ), who thinks she’s Jordan’s daughter, confess how he feels about her ‘mom’.

The adult/child body transformation genre has been well-worked over the years, but while this is the first black take it never addresses the race or gender aspects as any sort of issue, preferring to follow more of a Devil Wears Prada tack. It repeatedly lays repeats its message right up to the closing line  just so you don’t miss the point and it has to be said that the scenes between schoolgirl  Jordan making eyes or coming on to both her dreamboat teacher (Justin Hartley), and  Trevor are somewhat uncomfortable viewing. It also totally glosses over explaining, especially to the wanna-be step-dad, the disappearance of her ‘daughter’ once Jordan reverts to her grown-up self.

Nonetheless, for all the haphazard plotting and misfiring moments (the gag about the late Diff’rent Strokes child star Gary Coleman gag feels tasteless), there’s breezy laughs to be had about child/adult world clashes (mostly involving booze and Jordan’s BMW) along with the inspirational moments and, inevitable makeover (clothes as confidence statements) and gratuitous song sequences (as April and young Jordan mime to Mary J. Blige’s “I’m Going Down in a restaurant). Even so, it’s the central performances rather than the story or the moral that elevates this, Hall making the most of her bookending appearances, Rae, impressive as the awkward, insecure April,  and Martin who, swaggering into school in a hot pink pantsuit, is an absolute dynamo. Having pitched the film’s concept when she was 10 and, at 13,  Hollywood’s youngest ever exec producer, it’s clear she’s already a power player in the industry on an Opra Winfrey trajectory. Here’s hoping she takes the film’s lessons to heart on her journey. (Cineworld NEC; Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Long Shot (15)

Not only is Charlize Theron the sexiest actress on screen today, she’s also one of the most talented and versatile, switching from action to drama to comedy without skipping a beat. And it’s her comedic side that illuminates Jonathan Levine’s political parody veined romcom, one which trawls its narrative variously from Notting Hill, Dave and Love, Actually by way of some stray semen a la Something About Mary. She’s Charlotte Field, the elegantly poised US Secretary of State, a passionate environmentalist since high school who, when the blustering incumbent President (Bob Odenkirk) tells her he’s not going to run for re-election because, an ex TV star (playing the President), he wants to transition to movies, declares she’s going to run for office, with his endorsement.

Her aides, Maggie (a slyly hilarious June Diane Raphael) and Tom (Ravi Patel), tell her she needs to beef up her image a little and make her speeches punchier. To which end enter Fred Flarsky (Seth Rogen), a tell it like it is scruffy liberal Brooklyn journalist who, before he resigned after sleazy corporate media magnate  Parker Wembley (a Rupert Murdoch send-up with Andy Serkis sporting a bulbous prosthetic nose) took over the paper, wrote columns with titles such as Why The Two-Party System Can Suck A Dick. Field, then his neighbour, used to babysit when he was thirteen and he still harbours a crush, not to mention an embarrassing memory of a tweenage stiffie. They meet up again at a swanky party featuring a Boyz To Men set to which, still wearing the windbreaker that seems to comprise his entire wardrobe,  he’s been taken by his high-flyer best friend (O’Shea Jackson) and where, after telling Wembley what he thinks of him, Fred goes flying down the stairs with the video (in a taste of what’s to come) going viral. Nonetheless, Field’s impressed (Maggie less so) and he’s hired on to punch up her speeches, initially by adding a few jokes but then in writing the whole thing.

One of the reasons he agrees is her commitment to her campaign to forge an international environmental agreement, the only stumbling block being certain vested interst who’d rather it didn’t happen, Wembley naturally being one of them.

It’s no spoiler to say that, the more time they spend together, the closer the ostensibly chalk and cheese Fred and Charlotte grow, especially after a terrorist attack. Not to say that the path to true love doesn’t come without some bumps and potholes involving personal and political compromise, climaxing, and I use the term advisedly, with a blackmail proposition that could make or break Field’s campaign.

It’s fairly standard romcom stuff, but Liz Hannah and Dan Sterling’s smart and witty screenplay lifts it several notches while, ably assisted by Patel and Raphael,  Rogen and Theron’s  chemistry and flawless comic timing and delivery keep it there. Watching a stoned Field negotiate a hostage crisis is a particular highlight.

A couple of misogynistic Fox-News styled talk show hosts and  Alexander Skarsgard channelling  Justin Trudeau as the dorky would be playboy Canadian PM (and his fake laugh) add to the laughs while the script slips in some never overplayed observations about political double standards, compromise and female empowerment. Hugely enjoyable and if, rather like the Hugh Grant storyline in Love, Actually, the crowd-pleasing feelgood ending  may be an unrealistic romantic fantasy, it does show a winning optimism about the American voter.(Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Electric; Empire Great Park; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Red Joan (12A)

Her name may head up the cast list, but, while Judi Dench does her usual solid work, her role is very much a framing device with Sophie Cookson carrying the bulk of the film as the younger version of her character, Joan Standing, who, at the start of the film, now a widowed octogenarian, is arrested by Special Branch and accused of being a Russian spy.

Directed by Trevor Nunn from his adaptation of Jennie Rooney’s factional novel based on the true story of Melita Norwood who, in 1999, aged 87 and dubbed the ‘granny spy’ confessed to having passed state secrets to the Russians for some 40 years, most notably about the British atomic bomb project codenamed Tube Alloys where she worked as secretary to the project director, but was never prosecuted on account of her age.

That much remains in the film. However, here young Joan is a mousy First Class Physics graduate from Cambridge (as opposed to the University of Southampton) who gets involved with a campus communist group headed up by firebrand Leo (Tom Hughes, a sort of lightweight Benedict Cumberbatch), a Russian emigré German Jew whose manipulative Mata Hari sister, Sonya (Tereza Srbova), brings them together. She’s smitten and they become lovers, even though he remains emotionally unavailable and then disappears off to Russia. When she lands a job as assistant to unhappy married (yes, you can see what’s coming) Prof. Max Davis (Stephen Campbell Moore), the only man not to patronise her, Leo resurfaces looking to get her to pass secrets to the Russians, arguing that, while Allies, they have been shut out of the research. She refuses, but, when Project Manhattan comes to fruition, horrified by the loss of life at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the idealistic if naïve Joan changes her mind and is soon using a standard issue spy camera to snap documents and blueprints and pass then to Sonya.

Meanwhile, back in the present, Joan’s being questioned and denying everything, her high flyer son Nick (Ben Miles looking like the young Terence Stamp) acting as her lawyer until he discovers mom’s been lying all these years and accuses her of betraying her country. Joan, remains unrepentant, her argument being that she did what she did to create a level playing field and in doing so prevent mutually assured destruction, citing the fact of there being no war between the superpowers as evidence of her success.

A cerebral spy story – with somewhat lukewarm romantic interludes – it plays like a cosily polite John Le Carre, glossing over her radicalisation (she’s taken to see Battleship Potemkin) and the script seemingly never quite sure of its stance on Joan’s actions and settling for a fuzzy ‘I did what I did for the living” statement in Dench’s powerful showcase moment front garden press conference. That said, while it may run slow in places, throws in a somewhat pointless and undeveloped revelation about the siblings and the fact that old Cambridge chum William, a high ranker in the Foreign Office, is batting for both sides (both politically and sexually) serves only as clunky final act plot device, it nevertheless holds your interest as it moves back and forth between its authentic period detail timelines, Dench’s consummately underplayed performance impressively complemented by Cookson. (Cineworld Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; MAC)

 

Shazam! (12A)

The original Captain Marvel when he first appeared in Whiz Comics 1940, adopting the Shazam name when relaunched by DC in 1972, by which time Marvel had their own Captain. The name comes from the magic word orphaned misfit Billy Batson speaks to transform into his adult super-hero alter ego, taking on the powers transferred to him by the ancient wizard Shazam.

Here, Billy (Asher Angel) isn’t an orphan but, having lost his mother at a fairground when he was much younger, he is a troubled 14-year-old who’s been through an array of foster homes, ending  up becoming part of Victor (Cooper Andrews) and Maria (Marta Milans) Vasquez’s extended multi-ethnic Philadelphia foster family which includes gaming nerd Eugene (Ian Chen), college student den mother Mary (Grace Fulton), shy Pedro (Jovan Armand), young but extrovert Darla (a winning Faithe Herman) and disabled sarcastic super-hero nut Freddy (scene-stealing Jack Dylan Granger).

Shortly after Billy intervenes as Freddy’s being set on by the school bullies, he takes the subway train only to suddenly find himself stepping out into a mysterious underground cavern occupied by the aforementioned ancient wizard (Djimon Hounsou) who’s been waiting years to find someone pure of heart to whom he can cede his powers. Indeed, the film opens with him testing another youngster, Thaddeus Sivana, only for the kid to be tempted by the power offered by the stone figures embodying the seven deadly sins. Billy, however, for all his attitude, is the real deal and, commanded in a knowing double entendre to place his hands on the old man’s staff, lighting flares and he finds himself transformed into the buffed adult Shazam (Zachary Levi) sporting the famous red costume with its white cape and yellow lightning bolt insignia.

Revealing himself to Freddy, the latter’s first concern is what super powers he possesses, while Billy tests out his new grown-up self by buying beer, the film having great fun with the concept of an innocent young kid revelling at being inside an adult body, in much the same way as did Tom Hanks in Big. Or Tom Holland’s undisguised glee at being Spider-Man.

The fun, however, comes to an abrupt end when, having spent a lifetime researching stories about those who had a similar experience to himself, now a grown and wealthy scientist estranged from his contemptuous father and brother Sivana (Mark Strong making the most of a so so bad guy) sets out to first become host body to the seven deadly sins, which materialise from him to his biddings, and then wrest Shazam’s power from Billy for himself.

Being honest, it’s not much of a plot and what there is touches familiar bases involving friendship, loyalty, the importance of family alongside the staple slugfests between hero and villain. What makes it such a delight, however, is the sheer exuberant fizz a constantly beaming Levi and director David F. Sandberg bring to proceedings and the knowing self-awareness of its cheesy, corny nature, the film both an irreverent Deadpoolish superhero satire and an unabashed affectionate love letter to the genre complete with plentiful mentions of both Batman and Superman, including a hilarious ‘leap tall buildings at a single bound’ gag.

It’s a little less successful when it plays the emotional cards, such as Billy tracking down the mom who abandoned him and the sentimental family bondings, but, unlike recent DC Universe offerings and the current interwoven Marvel saga, this plays light rather than dark, from a montage of Freddy testing out Billy’s new powers to a last act introduction to the whole Shazam! Family (with cameos that include Adam Brody and Meagan Good) that, along with obligatory end credits scene, sets things up for a welcome sequel. The word is good. (Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

The Sisters Brothers (15)

An art-house Western, the first English language film by French director Jacques Audiard, set in 1850s Oregon it stars John C Reilly and Joaquin Phoenix as the bickering titular brothers, Eli and Charlie Sisters, a pair of bounty hunters come hitmen for hire who work for the mysterious Commodore (Rutger Hauer) whose latest assignment is to track down and kill one Hermann Kermit Warm (Riz Ahmed), a chemist who has somehow crossed their boss’s path.

They’re not the only ones on Warm’s trail, private investigator John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal) is after him too, his task being to establish his location and let the brothers know. However, he links up with Warm, who has discovered a chemical formula that will make gold prospecting a lot easier, and is always a few days and at least one town ahead of the pair. On top of which, there’s a bunch of other mercenaries on their tail, unaware that Eli and Charlie despatched their brother-running boss a while back.

Although it climaxes in a brutal dramatic sequence before a low-key coda, getting there is slow-paced journey, punctuated with the more sensitive Eli regularly whingeing about how the louder-mouthed Charlie, who’s forever going on a bender, has been designated the lead killer. Along the way, the film also explains how their family background and abusive father led Charlie to being who and what he is.

There’s some excruciating moments, such as spider crawling up to Eli’s mouth as he sleeps, but also gentle humour such as in Eli, the more aspirational of the two, enthusiastically buying into the new invention of a toothbrush, while Audiard pointedly explores the theme of male loneliness, outsiders, the relationship with the environment and, as in There Will Be Blood, the toxic nature of ambition and obsession. (Until Wed:MAC)

Tolkien (12A)

The Tolkien estate has disavowed this biopic of  JRR Tolkien’s early years prior to writing The Lord of the Rings. Which might lead you to think director Dome Karuskowsi has played fast and loose with the author’s legacy. Not so. Unfolding as a journey of experiences that would inspire his fantasy classics, the film does get the chronology wrong in that, on arriving from South Africa, the young John Ronald Reuel (Harry Kilby), brother Hilary (largely absent from the story) and widowed mother Mabel (Laura Donnelly) actually lived in Kings Heath before relocating to the then Worcestershire village of Sarehole (the film having it the other way round) and eventually Rednal, where Mabel died from diabetes, but otherwise it seems fairly factually accurate. It is, however, largely plodding, going to heavy handed lengths to have you associate people, places and events with Tolkien’s famed books.

The story begins in earnest when, after Mabel’s death, the two brothers move into an Edgbaston boarding house and John, who, home schooled by mom. can recite Chaucer from memory, in the original, and has invented his own language, gets accepted into King Edwards and forms a bond with fellow pupils Christopher Wiseman (Ty Tennant/Tom Glynn-Carney), a sensitive poet, aspirant composer Geoffrey Bache Smith (Adam Bregman/Anthony Boyle) and headmaster’s son Robert Gilson (Albie Marber/Patrick Gibson), the four of them forming the T.C.B.S. literary society, named after their favourite local tearoom. Clearly templates for Frodo’s chums,  the fellowship (as the film stresses) continues when Tolkien and Smith go to Oxford and the others to Cambridge.

With Nicholas Hault as the grown Tolkien, the film’s framed between a sick Tolkien searching for an old friend at the battle of the Somme (helped by a soldier tellingly named Sam) and his flashbacks, among these being his growing relationship with future wife Edith Bratt (Lily Collins), a free spirited fellow orphan with a prophetic thing for Wagner’s Ring Cycle, who also lived at the boarding house, working as companion to the prissy Mrs. Faulker (Pam Ferris). They embark on a romance but, when Tolkien fails his first Oxford entrance exam, he’s told by his priest guardian (Colm Meaney) to choose between Edith (who’s a Protestant) and academia.

Cut back to Oxford where, having been sent down after a drunken incident following some bad news, Tolkien gets a second chance when he switches classes to that of Philology Professor Wright (Derek Jacobi) but, no sooner has he done so than war’s declared and all four friends head off to do battle.

The film is good at the small details (John and Edith did actually throw sugar lumps into the hats of fellow tearoom diners) and there’s an amusing Peter Jackson in-joke when one character remarks that six hours is a bit long to tell a story about a  ring, but the framework on which these are hung is all rather predictable and pedestrian. While Hault does his best with the screenplay, there’s not much meat on its bones to feed off and, while he and Collins have chemistry, the romantic spark never ignites, while the battle scenes take off into Tolkien’s hallucinated CGI monsters and dragons designed to evoke his subsequent literary masterpieces, the film ending on the word Hobbit.  Reverential and sympathetic to its subject, it’s a polite addition to the BritLit period canon which could, perhaps, have done with a little more fire to have given the estate grounds for outrage. Still, at least you learn how to actually pronounce Tolkien.(Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Electric; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

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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