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, Solihull; Electric; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; 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)
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, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)
The feature debut by British writer-director Matthew Holness (aka horror writer Garth Marenghi), this is pretty much a two-hander surreal and expressionist art house psychological horror with Sean Harris as Philip, a disgraced children’s puppeteer haunted by a disturbing past.
Returning to his now near derelict former childhood Norfolk flatlands home, where his school satchel still hangs by the door opposite a crucifix, he spends most of the chronologically disjointed film trying to dispose of the titular Possum, a hideous human-headed spider puppet he created to go with the illustrated poem he’d written, and which he carries around in a doctor’s bag. However, burning, crushing and drowning it seem to have no effect as it’s always back hanging on the wall of his room or crawling toward him.
Sharing the house is his estranged loathsome uncle, Maurice (Alun Armstrong), who sits in the filthy kitchen, chain-smoking, cackling to himself, taunting Philip and offering him gobstoppers in a jar.
Clues as to past events are dropped out, Philip returns to his old school, there’s hints about a classmate who vanished, and Holness litters the film with religious imagery as, the madness gathering, it disorientingly makes its way to the reveal explaining the reasons for Philip’s guilt, self-loathing and trauma, symbolised in the creepy puppet. Exploring a central theme of abuse and psychological fall-out, mingling influences from Ted Hughes, Samuel Beckett, David Cronenberg and Freud, with a muddy pallete and an unsettling score by the former BBC Radiophonic Workshop , with its recurring nightmare structure, it’s an uncomfortable and at times repetitive watch, but it’s undeniably one that you’ll find hard to shake. (Thu: MAC + Q&A with Holness)
Tehran Taboo (15)
A rotoscope animated Iranian drama by Ali Soozandeh, this follows the lives of several strong-willed women and a young musician as their paths cross, the stories exposing the hypocrisies of modern Iranian society, where sex, drugs, and corruption coexist with its strict religious law. Circumventing prohibitions is an everyday sport and breaking taboos a means of personal emancipation, but women remain on the bottom rung of the social order wherein one needs an operation to ‘restore’, another has to submit sexually to an Islamic Revolutionary Court judge in exchange for a favourable ruling and the wife of an imprisoned drug addict is denied the divorce she needs to lead a new life. (Sat-Mon: MAC)
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, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)
Bad Times at the El Royale (15)
Anyone who saw writer-director Drew Goddard’s unhinged Cabin In The Woods will doubtless be expecting madness of a similar scale for this film-noir pastiche. They won’t be disappointed, even if there’s no similar twist reveal and you’re left with more questions than answers.
Inspired by the real life Cal Neva Resort & Casino in Lake Tahoe, the titular hotel, a seedy retro-kitsch establishment that’s seen better days, but still boasts some glorious art deco stylisngs, straddles the states of California and Nevada. Some ten years ago, in a guy checked in and hide a bag of loot under the floorboards of his room before being gunned down by a never identified visitor.
Fast forward to 1969 and, with the mild-mannered concierge (and apparently sole employee) Miles (Lewis Pullman) finally emerging from his narcotic stupor, three new arrivals check in: slick talking Southern travelling vacuum salesman Laramie Seymour Sullivan (John Hamm) who insists on staying in the Honeymoon Suite; Father Daniel Flynn (Jeff Bridges), a Catholic priest with incipient dementia; and Darlene Sweet (Cynthia Erivo), a back-up singer whose dreams of Motown stardom have ended up playing lounge bars. They’re subsequently joined by a fourth guest, the sharp-tongued Emily Summerspring (Dakota Johnson) or, as she signs the register, ‘Fuck You’.
Suspicions that they might not all be what they seem are soon confirmed when Sullivan starts removing surveillance bugs devices in his room and then discovers a secret corridor with two way mirrors into the rooms and a camera. Looking in on Emily, now armed with a shotgun, he sees her drag in an unconscious, gagged and bound girl (Cailee Spaeny) and tie her to the chair.
From this point on, things get seriously twisted and bloody. Told in chapters that unfold the characters’ backstories and replaying events from different perspectives, everyone has a secret to hide, things building to a blood climax with the arrival of Manson-esque cult leader Billy Lee (Chris Hemsworth) looking to recover something that’s been taken from him.
Tapping into the Cal Neva’s mythology of it being bought by Sinatra and his mob cronies and used as a pervy shag retreat for high ranking politicians, we learn very little about the hotel’s shadowy owners who employ Miles (who is in desperate need of confession) to film guests for subsequent blackmail, but such murkiness is part and parcel of the film’s pulp thriller charms, holding back Miles’ story until last for very obvious reasons.
It’s hard not to view this as all a bit Tarantino-lite with a nod to Hitchcock for good measure and Goddard takes rather too long in teasing the audience with the realities behind the appearances. However, those sufficiently patient to indulge him will be rewarded with not just a whole bunch of classic soul numbers (many sung unaccompanied by Erivo) but a barrage of unexpected jolts and thrills as they start to root for at least some of these losers to make it through, unwittingly as much the voyeurs as those watching through those one-way mirrors. (Until Tue:MAC)
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; Mockingbird; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)
First Man (12A)
Director Damien Chazelle’s follow-up to his Oscar-winning La La Land also reaches for the stars, or, rather the moon. The true story of how, on July 21, 1969, Neil Armstrong came to be the first person to set foot on the lunar surface, following his journey through the NASA space programme of the 60s, it reinforces his skill as a filmmaker, taking the perspective of the astronauts in capturing the physical and claustrophobic nature of those early manned flights with more authenticity than any previous film, taking audience inside the cockpits as they roll and shake like high tech bucking broncos. But it also brings into focus the human ambitions, fears and doubts of those involved, whether they’re wearing the space suits or not.
It launches in 1961 with Armstrong (Ryan Gosling), a pilot engineer, walking away from yet another X-15 crash after bouncing off the Earth’s atmosphere. Back home he suffers a professional setback when he’s grounded and a personal tragedy when his young daughter, Karen, succumbs to cancer. He and his wife, Janet (Clare Foye), have a son and, before long, a second is born, but living with loss continues to haunt Armstrong, both that of his child and of the fellow astronauts who die in the course of first the Gemini and then the Apollo missions. He remains stoical, well aware this is all part of what he and the others signed on to do, that “We need to fail down here so we don’t fail up there.” Or, as Jan puts it, “we got good at funerals.”
With the Russians leading the space race, beating America to the first space walk, the pressure is on to get to the moon and Armstrong’s recruited to join the Gemini programme alongside the likes of Ed White and Gus Grissom, who alongside Roger Chafee would die when their capsule caught fire during a test. Understandably, news that he’s been chosen for the moon mission makes both his wife and kids anxious and there’s a powerful scene when, on the night he’s setting off, she tells him to talk to his sons about how me might not return rather than spend the time packing so as avoid things. And even then he distances himself by treating it as a press conference, asking “Are there any other questions?”
There are several ‘off-duty’ moments involving the space pilots and their families, underscoring that, whatever their job, they were still ordinary men who had a beer together and played with their kids. Likewise, the film largely avoids the backroom stuff about budgets and politics while scenes at NASA with NASA director Robert Gilruth (Ciarán Hinds) and Deke Slayton (Kyle Chandler), Chief of the Astronaut Office, serve to remind that they were essentially flying the seat of their pants and learning as they went, or, as Jan puts it during one particularly tense episode, “You’re a bunch of guys making models out of balsa wood! You don’t have anything under control!”
The support cast are solid, Corey Stoll making the most of playing Buzz Aldrin as a loudmouth pain in the ass, while, increasingly chain-smoking, Foye rises above the familiar wife at home role to wear on the surface the emotions that her husband kept buried. However, it’s Gosling who delivers a deeply soulful and internalised performance as Armstrong, troubled but quietly commanding when the need arises, who anchors the film as someone who, calm under pressure, you’d want by your side when your space capsule and potential grave refuses to respond to commands.
Given the repetitive nature of the in-cockpit sequences and the constant baffling techno-chatter crackling over the radio, there are times when viewers might get restless, but ultimately Chazelle carries you with his crew and, even almost fifty years on, the sight of that first footprint on the moon dust still hold that same sense of wonder. But it pales beside the emotional impact of Armstrong’s moments alone on the moon, an act that is entirely speculative, but which rings heartbreakingly true. The film may celebrate a historic moment in man’s journey to the stars, but it is firmly planted in the human heart. (Cineworld 5 Ways; Mockingbird; Showcase Walsall)
Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween (PG)
The original Goosebumps, in which he played a fictionalised version of R.L.Stine, the books’ creator, reignited Jack Black’s stalled career after a string of flops. For the sequel, however, while his name doesn’t appear in the credits, he only makes a fleeting appearance towards the end (albeit in a coda that sets up a third film), but does provide the voice of psychotic ventriloquist dummy Slappy, essentially Stine’s version of Chucky.
The film’s actual stars are a trio of kids, mid-teens Sarah (Madison Iseman), her younger, electricity-obsessed video game geek brother Sonny (Jeremy Ray Taylor) and his best friend Sam (Caleel Harris), the latter both regular victims of the school bully. Sam proposes setting up a business clearing unwanted junk, which brings them to Stine’s long abandoned house where they come across a locked book hidden in a secret compartment and, of course, open it.
Bad move, as this was Stine’s first and still uncompleted story, one in which Halloween comes alive and, before they know it, now freed from the book, Slappy has entered their lives and, rejected when he creepily tries to become part of their family, determines to create his own, with Sonny’s mother (Wendi McLendon-Covey) as his own mom, putting the town under a Gremlins-like siege of Halloween spooks and monsters, including turning the local hardware store clerk (Chris Parnell) into a green ogre and animating the giant purple balloon spider monster in the garden of their Halloween obsessed next door neighbour (Ken Jeong).
So it’s up to the kids to get the monsters back into the book and shut down the old electricity generating tower built by Nikola Tesla, which Sonny has been trying to duplicate for his science project, and which is giving Slappy his power.
Featuring a cameo by the real R.L. Stine, it’s far more fun than might be expected with inspired visual touches such as the two boys being attacked by giant fang-toothed gummy bears as well as a sly throwaway Stephen King gag involving a red balloon, the young leads avoid the Scooby-Do cartoonishness into which such characters can descend, McLendon-Covey provides some smart grown-ups humour while director Ari Sandel handles the mayhem with energy and flair as well as delivering the central message about overcoming your fears. (Cineworld NEC; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)
Dismissing the previous nine sequels, director David Gordon Green picks things up 40 years after the original. Still not having spoken a word, Michael Myers (Nick Castle), the Haddonfield serial killer in the William Shatner mask is in a secure mental facilty, now under the supervision of Sartain (Haluk Bilginer), a prison shrink fascinated to know what Myers feels when he kills, while his intended victim, Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) lives in heavily fortified PTSD seclusion, largely estranged from her daughter Karen (Judy Greer), resentful of how she was raised in a climate of fear, who tries to limit her contact with granddaughter Allyson (Andi Matichak).
In a plot device whose only purpose is to reunite Myers and his mask, a couple of British podcast reporters (Rhian Rees, Jefferson Hall) visit both Myers and Strode to try and get them to talk about that night. They inevitably wind up among his first victims when, in a manner only briefly mentioned, Myers causes the bus transporting him to a new prison to crash and escapes, setting off on another spree of butchery (presumably to counter a teen’s dismissive comment that the original film’s five murders was pretty lightweight compared the slasher films it inspired) as he makes his way to find Strode, she equally keen for a reunion so she can kill him.
With her, Sartain and Officer Hawkins (Will Patton whose character wasn’t in the original despite what the screenplay claims), on his tail, Myers bloodily despatches (albeit mostly offscreen) a clutch of locals as they go about celebrating Halloween, among them some of Allyson’s friends, though not, diappointingly, her jerk boyfriend, even if even, expanding his range beyond babysitters, he draws the line at babies. Having satiated the casual slasher fans appetites, including throwing in a twist that’s dispensed with even before it really registers, things climax back at Strode’s where she and Myers play cat and mouse among what seems to be more rooms than your average hotel and Karen and Allyson take refuge in the secret basement.
Although the score retains Carpenter’s theme, the narrative rewrites the past by dismissing the notion, as in the 1978 film and subsequent sequals, that Laurie and Michael are siblings as urban myth, but otherwise stays fairly true to the Carpenter blueprint, even if there’s rather less than it would like to thing to its musings on the nature of evil and the way it can take its toll on and infect others, the camera lingering on the a knife held by one of the characters in the final shot would seem to nod to Rob Zombie’s 2009 remake.
Surrounded by a cast of largely annoying characters, Curtis revisits her final girl persona in solid style but, never especially scary and with no particular character depth, while diehards will enjoy the closure, the often confused and repetitive screenplay fails to create much by way of atmosphere or involvement to engage a generation largely unware of the franchise’s chequered history and reared on more flashy boogeymen. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; 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. (Cineworld 5 Ways; Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)
Johnny English Strikes Again (PG)
When a hacker blows the cover of all of MI7’s agents, the only way to track them down is to recall one the retirees. Among them is Johnny English (Rowan Atkinson), currently working as a geography teacher with a sideline in training his pupils in espionage techniques. After accidentally eliminating the other candidates (cameos by Michael Gambon, Edward Fox and Charles Dance), MI7 boss Pegasus (Adam James) and the Prime Minister (Emma Thompson) have no choice but to assign the obliviously bumbling English to the job, who, along with his loyal sidekick Bough (Ben Miller) insists, in addition to a gun and other retro spy kit gadgets that are now out of fashion, on going totally analog so they can’t be tracked. This also includes him driving a weaponised snazzy red Aston Martin
Quickly, but not before burning down a French restaurant, English identifies the source of the attack as coming from a luxury yacht, Dot Calm, which, with one of the funniest throwaway gags involving magnets, they infiltrate and cross paths with Russian spy Ophelia Bulletova (former Bond-girl Olga Kurylenko).
Meanwhile, following yet more cyber attacks, the PM, looking for a way to bolster her image at the upcoming G12 summit, is trying to recruit smarmy and slick billionaire tech genius Jason Volta (Jake Lacy), who immediately fixes the latest attack and, recommending she divert all the country’s servers to his, agrees to come on board. He also happens to own the Dawn Calm.
Reprising his 007 spoof character after a seven year gap, in keeping with a world where the likes of Spy and Kingsman have restyled such parodies, there’s a little less slapstick and a little more self-aware sophistication this time round. Even so, the screenplay still finds plenty of room for Atkinson’s unique brand of physical comedy, including scenes involving letting him loose on the London streets in a virtual reality headset and displaying his caffeine-high dance moves.
The climax, set in a Scottish castle, in which English attempts to stop Volta while wearing suit of armour is a touch drawn out and the screenplay frequently obvious and telegraphed, but, ably supported by Miller’s ever reliable straight man, Kurylenko providing the glamour and Thompson on fine comic form as the flustered, and exasperated PM looking to put her own prestige and survival before the country (drawn your own satirical conclusions), Atkinson mixture of accidental heroics, smug self-delusion, elastic expressions and perfect timing ensures that this is far more family friendly fun than some reviews would have you believe. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)
Night School (12A)
The funniest thing here is in the opening sequences when audiences are expected to buy Kevin Hart as a teenage high school student, although, once you get past the unnecessary fart and vomit gags, and, of course, Hart’s tendency to mistake shouting and using a high-pitched voice as acting, there are a few other amusing moments. The film also raises a salute to inspirational teachers, though probably taking students into a boxing ring to smack them in the face or pin them with wrestling moves to get them to focus might not get the Oftsed approval.
Hart is Teddy Walker, a high school dropout working as a BBQ grills salesman and living beyond his means to impress high class design executive girlfriend, Lisa (Megalyn Echikunwoke). Things look to be on the up when he’s promised he’ll take over the business, but no sooner has he proposed to Lisa than the whole thing goes up in flames and, deep in debt, he’s forced to look for another job. His friend and former classmate Marvin (Ben Schwarz) would hire him as a financial analyst, but first he needs to get his high school diploma, having walked out of the test 17 years earlier.
While telling Lisa that he’s got the job, he returns to his old school to sign up for night school only to discover his former geeky nemesis, Stewart (Taran Killam), is now the principal, an uptight power freak with a habit of using black talk, and still harbours a grudge for an old humiliation. However, overworked teacher Carrie (Tiffany Haddish), with whom Teddy’s had an earlier run in at the traffic lights, agrees he can join her class, a bunch of other underachievers all working for their GED comprising robot conspiracy nut Jaylen (Romany Malco), dorky Mac (Rob Riggle), Mila (a teenager trying to avoid juvenile detention) Mexican immigrant and aspiring singer Luis (Al Madrigal), a former waiter who got fired in Teddy’s attempt to avoid paying the bill, Bobby (Fat Joe), taking lessons from prison via Skype, and Theresa (comic highlight Mary Lynn Rajskub from 24) as a put-upon, sexually frustrated mother of three.
What little plot there is entails the class bonding, breaking into Stewart’s office to steal an upcoming test, and Teddy getting expelled, reinstated and dumped by Lisa as well as working behind the counter of, in an inspired touch, a Christian Chicken takeaway serving God’s own poultry. Unfortunately, such imagination highs are few and far between in a screenplay that plods a wholly predictable route (though it does avoid any student-teacher romance) en route to Teddy discovering why’s he academically-challenged and fulfilling his potential.
It’s a given that Hart is very much a Marmite presence, but Haddish rises above the script’s bitch slap clichés to make Carrie a straightshooter and dedicated teacher while the film is at its best when the class works together in rhythm. Even so, despite the pro-education message and the occasional touching moment, as directed by Girl Trip’s Malcom D Lee, with at least three endings, it all feels like an extended series of sketches looking for a sitcom. A pass grade at best. (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; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)
On August 16, 1819, between 60 and 80,000 demonstrators, men, women and children, gathered peacefully at St. Peter’s Field in Manchester, at the heart of the city’s linen mills trade, to hear famed radical orator Henry Hunt (a magnificent Rory Kinnear) speak out to demand the reform of parliamentary representation, the city itself having no representative at Westminster. Determined to suppress what they feared might lead to an English version of the French Revolution, especially given the unrest over the Corn Laws that had created huge poverty in the north, the Prime Minister, Lord Liverpool (Robert Wilfort) and Lord Sidmouth (Karl Johnson), the Home Secretary, working with the local magistrates, arranged for several hundred troops, among them the 15th Hussars and cavalry from the Manchester and Cheshire Yeomanry to disperse the crown once Hunt had been arrested. Ten minutes later, around 11 of the crowed were dead and over six hundred injured. The press dubbed it the Peterloo Massacre (one of the dead was a young soldier who’d survived Waterloo) while the government claimed the actions were justified, However, while the immediate aftermath saw a crackdown on the reform movements, subsequent protests eventually led to virtually all of the demands being met.
It’s a story made to be directed by Mike Leigh, who duly turns in a two and half hour epic that, while frequently didactic and leaving no doubt as to the heroes and villains of the hour (the authorities are obnoxious to a man, the Yeomanry are seen getting drunk before the protest, although one Hussar does register his revulsion at the way the militia are acting), is a compelling work that never feels its running time. What might have been a dry and dusty history lesson becomes a film full of outrage and political passion, one that clearly has resonance in contemporary politically divided Britain where very little has changed in the terms of social justice.
With a strong cast that includes Maxine Peake and Pearce Quigley as the hard scrabble parents of the doomed former soldier and Tim McInnerny as the bloated Prince Regent providing part of the film’s dark humour, Leigh recreates events and historical figures in precise detail, never airbrushing the friction that often sparked between the reformists, among them Lancashire firebrand Samuel Bamford (Neil Bell), John Saxton (John-Paul Hurley), co-founder of the Manchester Observer, and the more cool-headed fellow journalist John Knight (Neil Jackson), as regards courses of action and is at pains to show the involvement of the local women in the reform movement too. There are also a couple of government figures advising restraint and caution, if only to avoid criminal charges.
Inevitably, a great deal of it involves people talking and it could have possibly lost the scenes with a woman singing a folk lament and a trio of men rehearsing tune on the hillside while a couple of women look on admiringly, but it never loses your interest, investing you in the movement’s figures, whether at the centre or on the fringes, as it gradually builds to its shocking tightly focused climax, making the impact bloody events even more powerful. (Cineworld 5 Ways, Solihull; Electric; Empire Great Park)
Slaughterhouse Rulez (15)
Simon Pegg and Nick Frost reteam for another genre spoof, but, a massive box office turkey, this has very little of the wit or laughs of either Shaun of the Dead or Hot Fuzz. A sort of eco-horror spin on Michael Palin’s public school satire Tomkinson’s Schooldays, with a knowing reference to Lindsay Anderson’s If (writer-director Crispian Mills they may have also been among the few to have seen 2006 Alaskan oil-drilling thriller The Last Winter) and a Caligula pastiche orgy, events unfold at Slaughterhouse, a sprawling elite public school in the countryside to which northern lad Don Wallace (Finn Cole) has been sent by his widowed mom (Jo Hartley) in the belief she’s doing what his late dad would have wanted. Here, roomed with world wearied Willoughby Blake (Asa Butterfield), he discovers, as per cliché, the place is populated by privileged fascist upper class sixth formers, the ‘gods’ (embodied by Tom Rhys Harries’ blonde psychopath Clegg) who sport surnames like Brunose and bully the ‘plebians’ (embodied by scene stealer Kit Connor as Wootton), is run by a preening megalomaniac (a wildy over-acting Michael Sheen) calling himself the Bat and staffed by a mixture of weirdos (Jane Stanness as Matron) and ineffectuals, namely Pegg as Meredith Houseman, the cricket-obsessed housemaster pining for his lover (a Skype cameoing Margot Robbie) who’s gone off to volunteer in Africa. On top of which, last term a pupil hung themselves.
On the plus side, there’s top tottie like Clemsie (Hermione Corfield), but on the decidedly downside, the Bat has done a deal with a fracking company (rather unsubtly named TerraFrack and headed by a pair of smug cartoon villains providing the fart gags) to mine for gas under the school. And where’s the fracking, there must be eco-warriors, here headed up by drugs-dealing Woody (Nick Frost) with his metal-capped teeth who has a personal grudge against the school and its head. They reckon the fracking will end in disaster, which it does, but not quite in the way they imagined as a sinkhole opens up unleashing slug-like creatures with sharp fangs which proceed to chomp their way through most of the cast while Don, Willoughby, Clemsie, her mate Kay (Isabella Laughland), Wooton and his brainy chum Hargreaves (Max Raphael) are left trying to escape and save the day.
While time-wastingly entertaining enough, despite copious blood and severed limbs, its rarely scary (except perhaps for how awful the dialogue is, the best line being a cinema in-joke involving a dog named Mr. Chips) as assorted narrative strands flop around looking for something to cling to in the muddled screenplay. Still, you do have the pleasure of seeing the wildly unfunny Frost meet a grisly death. (Reel; Vue Star City)
Form and content are at distinct odds in this latest musical animation, an amusing family friendly perspective reversal concept tale about Yetis and humans for the post-Trump, fake news generation.
Living high up in the Himalayan mountains, beyond the cloud cover, Yetis live a contented life governed by the rules handed down over the years in the form of the ‘stones’. They believe that they originated from the backside of the great yak in the sky, that their mountain is held up by giant woolly mammoths who have to be kept cool by machines that generate water from ice, that the sun is a giant snail that has to be woken every morning to travel across the sky and that there is no such creature as a smallfoot, it’s just something to scare the kids.
But then, one day, Migo (Channing Tautum), eager to take over from his dad (Danny DeVito) as the one responsible for waking the snail every day (by firing themselves at a giant gong and striking it with their protective helmet, witnesses a plane crashing into the show and – even more – his first sight of a human: a smallfoot.
However, when the wreckage is swept away, he has no proof and is firmly reminded by the tribe’s elder, the Stonekeeper (Common), that the sacred stones say that the smallfoot doesn’t exist, and claiming they do is tantamount to saying that their whole belief system is a lie. When Migo refuses to recant, he’s banished from the village.
There are, however those who believe him; fluffy purple Gwangi (LeBron James), Kolka (Gina Rodriguez) and Meechee (Zendaya), who’s actually the Stonkeeper’s daughter and Migo’s secret crush, comprise the secret Smallfoot Evidentiary Society and they come up with a plan to lower Migo below the clouds to find the evidence he needs.
Which is where he crosses paths with Percy Patterson (James Cordon), a nature show presenter who, in an attempt to boost his flagging viewing figures, wants his assistant to dress up as a Yeti so he can fake the discovery. To cut to the chase, Migo ends up taking him back to the village where he proves something of a hit, even though neither understands the others language (Yetis hear high pitched squeals, humans hear fierce growls), all of which threatens forces the Stonekeeper to reveal some historical truths to Migo in order to get him to tell everyone he’d made a mistake. Further to which, Meechee having herself gone down the mountain to take the ailing Percy home, she and Migo get a personal taste of the Stonekeeper’s account of how humans treat so called ‘monsters’.
Save for Common’s Let It Lie rap about Yeti history (good) and Cordon’s karaoke version of Under Pressure (hideous), the songs are basically Frozen-lite, but, despite the repetitive narrative (and inconsistent character scales), the cartoonish physical comedy and colourful characters will keep the kids amused while the grown ups ponder such heavy messages about questioning religion, authority and society’s rules and whether a lie is sometimes better than the truth that are a long subversive way from the familiar be yourself, love everyone Disney life lessons of your usual kid’s movie. (Cineworld 5 Ways, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)
They Shall Not Grow Old (15)
This is Peter Jackson’s contribution to events marking the 100th anniversary of the end of WWI, his own grandfather having served at the front. A massive undertaking, he’s taken archive newsreel footage from the Imperial War Museum and painstakingly not only colourised black and white film and converted it to 3D, but, with the aid of lip-readers, voice-over actors and commentaries from post-war interviews, given voice to the men and women therein. Adding sound effects such as the sound of artillery as well as casual background banter, it’s narrated by unnamed soldiers (though each is identified in the end credits) as the film moves from the build-up to the war, through the years of slaughter and horror to the aftermath as people tried to rebuild their lives, scenes including a recruiting sergeant sending away enthusiastic but underage volunteers, advising them to come back when they’re seventeen as well as offering up images of the hell of trench warfare. A poignant, sometimes harrowing salute to those who gave their all, whether in death on the battlefield or a living death when they returned home to be met with indifference. (Sun: Electric; Vue; Until Sun: Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Showcase Walsall)
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 and looks set to lower the odds on star Tom Hardy stepping into Daniel Craig’s 007 shoes.
He 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. (Cineworld NEC; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)
Screenings courtesy of Odeon and Cineworld
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