MOVIE ROUND-UP: This Week’s New Film Releases, Fri Nov 30-Thu Dec 6

 

Creed II (12A)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Disobedience (15)                                             

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

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

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

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

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

Ralph Breaks the Internet (PG)

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Shoplifters (15)

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

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

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

Surviving Christmas With The Relatives (15)

A somewhat unlikely semi-autobiographical offering from writer-director James Dearden, who penned Fatal Attraction and Pascali’s Island, this is a familiar comedy about spending the festive season with your nearest and dearest, and wishing they were neither, but one given a distinctive British touch of restrained farce rather than the hyperactivity of American counterparts.

Having given up London to renovate her old family farmhouse in the countryside (actually, it looks more like a stately home) and embark on a  The Good Life-style existence, Miranda (Gemma Whelan) and architect husband Dan (Julian Ovenden) have invited her sister, Lyla (Joely Richardson), a US-based actress in a crappy soap that seems likely to be cancelled, her alcoholic and unemployed American husband Trent (Michael Landes) and their two kids, sulky teenager Bee (Sophie Simnett) and bratty Tyler (Harvey Fisher) to spend Christmas with them and their three kids, the first since mom and dad died. They’re to be joined on Boxing Day by Harry (Jonas Moore), Dan’s son by a previous marriage to Miriam (Sally Phillips), who has a cannabis problem.

Also along for the celebrations are assorted members of the extended family, Dan’s bohemian half-sister Vicky (Ronni Ancona), their aunt Peggy (Patricia Hodge), and Uncle John (James Fox) which, it turns out has some bad news for Miranda about their parents’ will. There’s also a bunch of Polish builders and Soon (Jade Ma), who Trent’s brought along for a treat as he’s trying to do a  deal with her a Chinese businessman father.

Rather inevitably, drink, hormones, money problems, malfunctioning ovens, leaking roofs, a rehab clinic, drunken gropes and a dog on Viagra all conspire to make this a particularly eventful Christmas as everyone’s tested, secrets are exposed, romances spark, siblings clash and, eventually, the feelgood spirit triumphs.  There is, perhaps, a surfeit of interconnected storylines and Miranda and Dan’s attempts to keep up family traditions, such as inviting the villagers over for Christmas Eve drinks and a festive football match serve to real purpose, but, while it may not ultimately deliver anything new or  be bedecked with the hilarious and   heartwarming Richard Curtis tinsel of a Love, Actually, this should jingle a few pleasure bells. (Empire Great Park; Vue Star City)

 

ALSO SHOWING

Fahrenheit 11/9 (12A)

Playing on the title of his previous documentary about the Twin Towers tragedy (the numbers referring to the day after the 2016 election), Michael Moore’s latest directs its scattershot  aim at the rise of Donald Trump and those  to blame, taking in Clinton, Comey, Putin, the Republican party establishment, the New York Times and the millions who inexplicably vote for him thinking they were getting the star of  The Celebrity Apprentice as opposed to a deluded, ignorant, philandering megalomaniac. No, hang on, that was the star of The Celebrity Apprentice.

Unfortunately, no previews were made available and, given very little promotion,  the film, which took in all manner of only loosely related topics (the water crisis in Flint, Bernie Sanders, teachers strikes, the Parkland shooting) tanked in America. Reviews were not generous, though  overlaying Trump’s dialogue on footage of Adolf Hitler certainly hits the spot as does the conclusion that Trump is a symptom not the cause, a call to action with Moore’s finger pointing at  the way democracy has been made subservient to  the dollar.  (Sat-Wed: MAC)

The Possession of Hannah Grace (15)

Opening without previews, this is another knock-off horror  with  Shay Mitchell as a cop who, just out of rehab takes  the graveyard shift in the basement of the local morgue. When she takes delivery of a disfigured corpse, the victim of  an exorcism gone wrong, she starts to experience horrifying visions and suspects the body, which gets up off the slab, may be possessed by a demonic force seeking a new vessel. Set the expectations low. (Empire Great Park; Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

NOW SHOWING

A Star is Born (15)

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

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

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

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

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

 

Bohemian Rhapsody (12A)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes Of Grindelwald (12A)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Girl In The Spider’s Web (15)

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

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

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

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

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

The Grinch (U)

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

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

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

 

The Hate You Give (15)       

Adapted from the best-selling young adult novel by Angie Thomas and liberally pointing out the title associations with Thug Life, the name of Tupac’s first group and the tattoo he wore, George Tillman Jr.’s film plays like a poster child for the Black Lives Matter movement, undeniably effecting and affective, but also schematic and didactic in its portrayal of contemporary race relations.

Six years on from making her mark as Rue in The Hunger Games and putting behind her the recent misfire of The Darkest Minds, Amandla Stenberg gives an outstanding performance as Starr Carter, whose radical father Maverick (Russell Hornsby) and family-first mother (Regina Hall) have sacrificed to send her and her brothers Seven (Lamar Johnson) and Sekani (TJ Wright) to a mostly white prep school in an affluent neighbourhood rather than the local high school which their peers from her low-income, high-crime predominantly black Garden Heights community attend.

As such, Starr has to play two roles. At home, she’s Starr Version 1, the black urban teen raised by her father in the precepts of the Black Panthers, while, at school, she’s Starr Version 2, the serious academic who is never remotely ghetto and even whiter than her white friends, like BFF Kayleigh (Sabrina Carpenter) and boyfriend Chris (KJ Apa), both of who use urban black slang in an attempt to be down with the street. The liberal-minded Chris even tells her that he doesn’t see colour, which, as Starr points out, is precisely the problem, telling him “If you don’t see my blackness, you don’t see me.”

Starr’s two worlds collide when, on the way home from a  party with childhood crush Khalil (Algee Smith), they’re pulled over and, while Starr duly carries out her father’s instructions of compliance,  he’s shot by a white police officer (Drew Starkey) while reaching into the car for a hairbrush, Starr watching him bleed out.

Protests duly ensue as those from her different worlds react in different ways. Her white friends protest, but more as excuse to take a day off school, while black lawyer and activist  (Issa Ray) wants her to speak out, even if anonymously, as the witness to the shooting. Her father wants her to use her voice, but her mother wants to keep her safe. Matters are further complicated by the fact her uncle Carlos (Common) is himself a policeman (with a  pretty good income judging by his house) and Seven’s actual mother is married to  King (Anthony Mackie), the local gangster for whom Maverick used to work and did time. Khalil too has links to King and, as such, we see how the system and the media skew the shooting to turn the focus on him rather than the cop who shot him.

Starr’s quest for justice will eventually place her too in the spotlight, putting herself and her family in danger from King as she looks to do the right thing by her dead friend, while when her separate lives are exposed, a rift inevitably opens up between her and her high school clique.

All this is undeniably powerful and provocative and the film frequently alludes to real life examples of racial murder, like those of  Michael Brown, Sandra Bland and Emmett Till, but much comes across as schematic and, at times, manipulatively sentimental in its calls for change and understanding.

Nonetheless, for all its sometimes blunt approach, there’s no denying the moral fire that is its engine, especially in the wake of the current spate of shootings of unarmed blacks by white officers, with Stenberg providing the high octane fuel of a new generation of young Americans, of all colours, that feeds it.  (Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe)

Nativity Rocks! (U)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nobody’s Fool (15)

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

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

The Nutcracker And The Four Realms (PG)

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

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

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

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

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

Unfortunately, it’s so relentlessly visually overstuffed and the script is so muddled and leaden, there’s little room for passion, emotion, character or thrills, not helped by a bland, flat Foy, with only Knightley providing anything like fun and spark. Clearly Disney learned no lessons from letting Tim Burton loose on Alice In Wonderland, God forbid they ever think of reworking The Wizard of Oz. It’s like opening a lavishly packaged Christmas present and finding a lump of coal inside. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Electric; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Overlord (18)

Taking its title from the codename for the D-Day invasion,  produced by JJ Abrams, written by Billy Ray and directed by the lesser-known  Julius Avery, this is basically a WWII movie with zombies, wherein, shot down over France en route to destroy a Nazi radio tower  so the invasion can have air support, the surviving American soldiers, explosives expert mission leader Corporal Ford (Wyatt Russell, son of Kurt),  Private Boyce (Jovan Adepo) and unblooded rookie who, at boot camp, couldn’t even kill a mouse, war photographer Chase (Iain De Caestecker),  and Bronx loudmouth Tibbet (John Magaro),  hook up with local villager Chloe (Mathilde Ollivier), who hides them in her attic.

There are, however, dastardly deeds afoot in the nearby church, where a suitably despicable Nazi scientist is experiment on the locals, bringing the dead back to life with a  serum  designed to create superhuman soldiers to achieve the Thousand-Year Reich. However, he’s not perfected it yet, meaning they’re churning out rabid, mutated zombies that either have to be burned to a  crisp or locked in cells for future experimentation. Chloe’s aunt was one of the volunteers, and is now secreted away at home, disfigured and with what sounds like a very bade case of asthma.

Send on a  scouting mission, Boyce gets into the bunker, discovers what’s going on (cue body bags with goo and guinea pigs) and, being the film’s conscience, insists they have to stop it. Ford, on the other hand, insists the mission comes first. All of which is further complicated by the fact that the Nazi Commander, Wafner (Pilou Asbæk), who has forced Chloe into a sexual arrangement to spare, turns up at the house.

Firmly balanced between utterly bad Germans  and good Americans (albeit Ford following his Sgt’s advice to be as ‘rotten’ as the enemy in securing their objective), the highly atmospheric opening, all orange glare, mist and parachutes and bodies hanging from trees, giving way to a lashing of gore and body horror special effects as the group head into the church to detrory the mast, blow up the lab and rescue Chloe’s cute young brother from the clutches of the hideously transformed Wafner.

A big budget war horror B-movie with solid cinematography, a robust sound design and plenty of bloody shoot-em-up action, it may play fast and loose with historical accuracy and, despite some brutal torture,  is less concerned about challenging  audiences  over  what’s morally defensible in the pursuit of what’s right  than it has at amping up the tension and scares. Don’t be surprised to see a video game spin-off. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC;  Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Vue Star City)

Robin Hood (12A)

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Venom (15)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Widows (15)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The men have lesser weight, and, playing laid-back, Farrell sometimes feels to be drifting, but a ferocious Duvall makes the most of his few scenes, Henry channels implicit threat  while Kaluuya is pure cold psychotic violence.  Although the densely packed plot does sometimes resort to shorthand and  there’s times when confrontations and characters (especially Coon’s) feel  slightly shortchanged, the pace never slackens and  you get full value for every moment of its two hour plus running time.   (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC;  Empire Great Park; MAC; Mockingbird; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza Luxe; 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 Solihull – Mill Ln, Solihull 0871 200 2000

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

Empire – Great Park, Rubery, 0871 471 4714

Empire Sutton Coldfield – Maney Corner, Sutton Coldfield

0871 471 4714

The Everyman – The Mailbox 0871 906 9060

MAC – Cannon Hill Park 0121 446 3232

Mockingbird, Custard Factory  0121 224 7456.

Odeon Birmingham -Birmingham, 0871 224 4007

Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe – Ladywood Middleway, 0333 006 7777

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

Reel – Hagley Rd, Quinton, Halesowen 0121 421 5316

Showcase Walsall – Bentley Mill Way, Walsall 0871 220 1000

Vue Star City – Watson Road, 08712 240 240

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