MOVIE ROUND-UP: This Week’s New Film Releases, Fri Oct 12-Thu Oct 17

NEW RELEASES 

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, NEC, Solihull;  Electric; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; 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. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

           

Smallfoot (U)

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, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza Luxe. West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

NOW PLAYING

A Simple Favour (15)

Served up as Gone Girl meets Gaslight with more twists than your average hairpin bends, Paul Feig puts a dark spin on his familiar female-centric buddy comedies that situates this closer to Spy and The Heat than Bridesmaids. Widowed following a car accident that killed her husband and step-brother (revelations about which add further spice to the mix), over-enthusiastic single Connecticut mom Stephanie (Anna Kendrick) hosts a mommy video blog offering cookery tips and homespun wisdom, the first of which sees her bringing new viewers up to speed on the disappearance of her best friend, high-powered, masculine-dressing fashion and fragrance company PR exec Emily (Blake Lively). Flashback then to their first meeting at school  where their respective kids, Miles (Joshua Satine) and Nicky (a super-annoying Ian Ho) want a playdate, leading the clearly supercilious Emily to reluctantly invite Stephanie back to the palatial luxury but monochrome home she shares with writer husband Sean (Henry Golding), who’s never followed up his first and only bestseller. Over the course of a few weeks, the pair, neither of whom seem to have ever had a BFF,  get down to some serious bonding over high strength martinis, even though the never less than candid Emily, snapping at her for taking her photo, cautions about being her friend. One day, Stephanie gets a call asking if she can do her a favour and pick up Nicky after school because she’s got a crisis to handle. This she duly does, but as the night wears on she starts to get increasingly concerned. The more so, given Emily’s not answering her phone and a visit to her office and a skirmish with her arrogant boss prove unproductive, other than to discover a photo with a cryptic  message scrawled on it under Emily’s desk. The cops are duly called in, Stephanie spends time with Sean helping out and things spark between them and, when Emily’s body turns up in a lake, they become lovers.

However, the fact that he took out a massive life insurance policy before she vanished, and the fact they were having financial troubles,  starts to stir muddy waters. Could he have been behind her death?  But, working from Darcey Bell’s novel, the plot has further surprises up its sleeve, with Stephanie, whose blog updates are going viral,  now beginning to think she may have been set up.

Revealing more would ruin the first of several twists, though sussed audiences will have already guessed what’s going on, as Feig continues to build the suspense and thrills, throwing in misdirections here and there and scattering a steady helping of with solid  comic support provided by Andrew Rannells as judgemental, gossipy fellow parent Darren.

Each defined by their wardrobes, black-suited Lively is super cool as the oversharing Emily who loves to shock while pink-cardigan Kendrick extends her familiar likeable if somewhat naïve always ready to help enthusiasm into Nancy Drew territory, only Collins letting the tangled three-way relationship down with a character lacking any real sense of depth. The observations about the pressures of motherhood and being a woman in a man’s world tend to be little more than set-dressing, but, even if the old appearances and reality routine is well-worn, Feig and screenwriter Jessica Sharzer still squeeze an extra dose of frisson from things as truths from all quarters (“Secrets are like margarine — easy to spread, bad for the heart”) begin to surface while a soundtrack of French pop, notably Serge Gainsbourg, fizzles in the background. At the end of the day, there’s actually less here than meets the eye, but that’s more than enough to be an enjoyable guilty pleasure. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC;  Empire Great Park; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

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 should safely see 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 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Electric; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Black 47 (15)

Set in Connemara, Lance Daly’s stark revenge drama plays out against the backdrop of the devastating Great Famine of  19th century Ireland when the potato crop failed and, unable to pay the rents,  tenant farmers were evicted into poverty and, frequently, death in the harsh, freezing conditions.

An Irish Ranger deserter from the English army,  Feeney (James Frecheville) returns from the Afghanistan wars in to find his mother dead after refusing to take the ‘soup’ (basically renouncing Catholicism in order to get food), his brother hanged for stabbing a bailiff and his sister-and-law and her children starving in the only house on the estate of Lord Kilmichael (a suitably hateful Jim Broadbent) not to have been tumbled, or rendered uninhabitable. When they’re  turfed out, her son shot and she and her daughter freeze to death, Feeney sets out to seek revenge on those responsible, slaughtering several of the local constabulary for starters. Enlisted to catch him are arrogant young blonde British officer Captain Pope (Freddie Fox) and, in return for not being tried for murdering prisoner, embittered, world-weary ex-policeman Hannah (Hugo Weaving), who served with Feeney in Afghanistan, along with the callow Private Hobson (Barry Keoghan) as yet unaware of the privations and, inveigling himself a job as translator (much is in subtitled Gaelic) and guide, the pragmatic  Conneely (Stephen Rea).

Moving inexorably from one bloody killing to the next (including a decapitation with a pig’s head place on the body), the net gradually closes in with the climax coming as Feeney finally (and with an ease that would shame Rambo) gets to confront the smirkingly obnoxious  Kilmichae who declares that he looks forward to the day when “a Celtic Irishman in Ireland will be as rare a sight as a Red Indian in Manhattan.”

Drawing deliberate comparisons to the widescreen Western genre (the film often feels like a Gaelic Outlaw Josey Wales), it’s touch slow in places, but, relentlessly grim with its skeletal extras and pared down narrative and performances, it grips you from the start to end credits. (Sun-Tue;MAC)

Crazy Rich Asians (12A)

Not, as you might have assumed, one for the Bollywood audience, following swiftly on the heels of Searching  starring South Korea-born John Cho, as directed by Jon M. Chu this goes an ethnic step further with the entire cast either Sino-American or hailing from South-East Asia, as in China, Indonesia, the Philippines, etc., the first such film out of Hollywood since The Joy Luck Club back in 1993. Unapologetically lavish and wall to wall with wish-fulfilment images of  mind-bogglingly ostentatious wealth, it opens with the arrival of Young family matriarch Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh, superbly playing what might have been a cold dragon-lady) and her kids at a New York hotel to be given short shrift by snobbish, racist staff. A crowd-pleasing pay off and several years later, the now grown, Oxford-educated and ultra-handsome Singaporean Nick Young (Henry Golding) wants his Chinese-American economics professor girlfriend Rachel Chu (Constance Wu) to come with him to his best friend Colin’s (Chris Pang) wedding back home so he can introduce her to the family. What she doesn’t know is that the Young family are multi-millionaires and run a global real-estate empire, though you suspect she might have got an inkling when they get on the plane and he has his own private suite.

All seems to be going swimmingly, Nick’s grandma, Ah Ma (Lisa Lu) and family CEO, seemingly especially taken with her, until, that is,  Eleanor takes her aside her aside and  politely but very firmly informs her  that, not being pure Chinese and raised by a single-mother working class immigrant (Kheng Hua Tan), she’s not good enough for the Young heir apparent and that family comes before everything.

And what a family. Aside from mom’s class prejudice,  one of Nick’s cousins, Bernard (Jimmy O. Yang) is an obnoxious preening frat boy, another, the flamboyantly gay Oliver (Nico Santos), is the family’s self-proclaimed rainbow sheep while a third, Astrid (Gemma Chan), who hides her extravagant purchases so as not to embarrass her insecure lower-class husband, has her marriage falling apart around her. The latter two, however, become Rachel’s  allies, while also in her corner are her rich, wide-eyed ultra-exuberant old college roommate, Peik Lin (Awkwafina) and her no less eccentric and hopelessly inappropriate father (Ken Jeong).

A sweeping romance mingled with a satire on the conflict between old-money attitudes and nouveau-riche ambition, it takes in an all-expenses paid  shopping orgy hen part on a private island and an international waters bachelor party aboard a luxury  liner, but even these pale beside the wedding itself that has the bride gliding down a watery aisle and performances by both the Vienna Boys’ Choir and  Cirque du Soleil, the whole thing ending atop Singapore’s most extravagant hotel. Yet, balanced against this there’s also small intimate moments, such as a scene between Nick and Rachel concerning what he’ll have to give up to be with her and a pointed game of mahjong between her and Eleanor.

A sort of pumped up Meet the Parents by way of a Chinese Cinderella with a soundtrack that includes Chinese versions of Material Girl and Money (That’s What I Want), it’s a real feast. (Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Star City)

 

The House With A Clock In Its Walls (12A)

Preceding the Goosebumps sequel in which he doesn’t star, Jack Black might be wondering if that might not have been a better option than this visually overstuffed fantastical romp (written in 1973, the source novel predates Potter, but the influences are clear in the film) in which he plays Jonathan Barnavelt who, when his sister and her husband are killed in a car crash, sends for  his orphaned, pilot goggles-wearing nerdy 10-year-old nephew Lewis (Owen Vaccaro) to share his eccentric mansion in New Zebedee, Michigan.

Already troubled by things (moving pictures, etc) he catches from the corner of his eye, when Lewis discovers Uncle Jonathan prowling the house and attacking the walls with an axe, having heard rumours of a murder having happened there, he packs his bags and seeks to flee. Which is when Jonathan reveals that he is a warlock and his lilac-clad interconnecting neighbour Florence Zimmerman (Cate Blanchett), with whom he keeps up a banter of affectionate mutual insults, is a sorceress.

Now Lewis wants to learn magic too, which gives rise to some amusing but redundant moments before  director Eli Roth, dialling down from his usual horror fare, remembers the plot, which entails, as per the title, a clock hidden in the walls by the deceased Isaac Izzard (Kyle MacLachlan), his uncle’s former showbiz partner and even more powerful wizard who went away to war and came back on the dark side.

Suffice to say, young Lewis is tricked into ignoring the one house rule and ends up raising Izzard from the dead, thereby putting into motion the plan hatched by himself and his wicked supposedly murdered wife Selena (Renée Elise Goldsberry) to turn back time and eventually eradicate mankind. Yes, the clock is literally ticking and now it’s up to Lewis, Jonathan and Florence (whose spells have been on the frizz since a past tragedy) to save the world.

There are some individually strong moments, such as the trio battling killer pumpkins (though even that’s worked past its shelf life), but otherwise the script is thin and repetitive with too many stretches that drag on with nothing much happening.

Vaccaro, who probably peaked in the two Daddy’s Home clunkers, is cute but miscast and the subplot involving him and the school bullies only seems to exist to set up the school gym scene in the trailer, Black is thankfully in mostly restrained silliness mode while, winking at the camp, Blanchett sports the distant expression of someone who knows there’s a paycheck at the end of the day. The house makes a persuasive bid for a set design Oscar, even if some of the CGI (the pet living armchair and a topiary Gryphon that supplies the film’s toilet humour – shitting twigs) is on the dodgy side, while  toys that come to threatening life should scare younger kids into dropping their popcorn. But, as its all winds down,  for a film about magic, enchantment is sorely lacking.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; 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 recalls 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, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

King Of Thieves (15)

The third film to relate the events of the 2015 Hatton Garden safe deposit burglary, director James Marsh takes his cue from classic British heist movies, even including clip from The Italian Job for a flashback to the younger version of Brian Reader (Michael Caine knowingly playing to type).

Reader was the recently widowed 77-year-old thief who masterminded the obligatory one last big score robbery eventually carried out by his  crew of dodgy pensioner old lags, the intimidatingly volatile Terry Perkin  (Jim Broadbent), the partially deaf  lookout John Kenny Collins (Tom Courtenay), ineffectual Carl Wood (Paul Whitehouse) and bruiser geezer Danny Jones (Ray Winstone), later to be joined by the not entirely with it incontinent Billy the Fish (Michael Gambon). Plus, the younger, tech-savvy comrade calling himself Basil (Charlie Cox) who, having entry into the building, took the idea to Reader and who has never been identified.

Adopting a very late 60s style, the film’s divided into two halves, the first the setting up of the heist and the second, Reader having pulled out over a dispute, the when thieves fall out section as the spoils are divvied up and those who feel they’ve been cheated out of their dues seek to get their proper share. Meanwhile, the cops are on the case following the CCTV trail.

As per its obvious Ealing influences, it leans heavily on humour, but always with the sense that things could turn nasty as greed and paranoia take hold, keeping the suspense right to the end where, along with the Caine clip, Marsh also assembles footage of the others in their own earlier crime movie outings. It drags slightly in places, but, for the most, this might not blow the bloody doors off, but it’s still safecracking entertainment.  (Empire Great Park; 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. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

The Nun (15)

Continuing to milk The Conjuring franchise, this is positioned as a prequel to The Conjuring 2, bookended with cameos from Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga and kicking off with the latter’s painting of a scary-looking nun and the figure appearing in the hallway. Cut then to 50s Romania  and a remote castle abbey from where, following some spooky stuff down in the catacombs, a young nun hangs herself.  Her body discovered by young French-Canadian  Frenchie (Jonas Bloquet) while delivering vegetables, the Vatican duly send specialist priest Father Anthony Burke (Demián Bichir)  and  young novitiate Irene (Taissa Farmiga, though nothing’s ever made of the connection) given to psychic visions to investigate.

Naturally, before long they’re up to their rosaries in dark passages, graveyards, walking dead and a plethora of black habit-clad nuns who may or may not be real.

It’s all down to the good old standby of some demon from hell, this one’s called Valak,  having broken through to the other world and seemingly roaming the castle in the guise of the aforementioned  malevolent nun who’ll haunt Lorraine Warren a couple of decades later, meaning our intrepid trio have to cast him back and seal the portal, for which they’ll need some drops of Christ’s blood which, wouldn’t you know, happen to be concealed somewhere within the walls.

Director Corin Hardy barely goes a couple of scenes without having some shadowy figure in a  habit scurry across the screen or loom behind one of the characters, occasionally switching tack for a boo moment by having a nun loom over someone with their face contorted into blood dripping fangs. Oh, and snakes. Presumably, this is designed to stop the audience noting that there’s no actual coherent plot (a flashback to a failed exorcism by Burke and undeveloped appearances by the boy he failed seem to come from screenplay pages they forgot to shred) and at times the film threatens to collapse into a campy Hammer spoof rather than sphincter-tightening scares that, as in the Conjuring itself, might have a passable grounding in reality. The result is an entertaining enough Tales from the Crypt knockoff. Never boring but still palpable stuff and nunsense. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Vue Star City)

 

Skate Kitchen (15)

Inspired by an Instgram feed, documentary film-maker Crystal Moselle makes her feature debut with a free-flowing, unhurriedly paced coming of age/ identity portrait of a posse of teenage female skateboarders from Long Island going by the name of Skate Kitchen who hang out at East Park. Having met them on a train and used for a Miu-Miu commercial, here she works with the actual Skate Kitchen girls, each given a fictional around which to hang he seemingly improvisational the dialogue, it follows  Latino founding member Rachelle Vinberg as Camille who, having fallen out with her mother (Orange is The New Black’s Elizabeth Rodriguez), who demands she gives up skateboarding after a gynaecological accident, starts hanging out with the other, much sassier girls down the park, among them brash lesbian Kurt (Nina Moran) and Janay (Dede Lovelace) whom she moves in when her mother throws her out.

They hang out, the banter about tampons and other such things teenage girls banter about, confront the boy skaters who think they own the park and generally enjoy the freedom of being who they are. But then Camille gets involved with Devon (Jaden Smith, the film’s only other professional actor), a  fellow skater and amateur photographer who works at the store where she gets a job, inevitably precipitating a fallout among the sisterhood. In a film built on a natural documentary-like flow, it’s the film least convincing and most contrived element, one ultimately resolved far too summarily with a simple sorry text. That’s said, while observing how women are often subsumed into male cultures and  reflecting on “the loneliness you have even in a crowded room”,  it wisely refrains from running any life lesson morals or messages about self-assertion or sisterhood up the flagpole, but, in allowing the characters and the cast to breathe in their own environment as they deal with boys, parents and their own relationships, Moselle has made a film you’ll be pleased you took time to hang out with. (Until Tue: MAC)

Venom (15)

Following on from the 2015 Fantastic Four bomb, this, also developed by Sony rather than under the Disney-mantle, marks the second misfire in the Marvel Universe 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 introduced a flame-haired Woody Harrelson promising carnage for a sequel, but whether he ever gets to wreak it will depend on whether, after what will doubtless by a blockbuster opening, Venom proves word-of-mouth poison. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Screenings courtesy of  Odeon and Cineworld

CINEMAS

Cineworld 5 Ways – 181 Broad St, 0871 200 2000

Cineworld NEC – NEC  0871 200 2000

Cineworld 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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