MOVIE ROUND-UP: This Week’s New Film Releases, Fri Oct 18-Thu Oct 24

NEW RELEASES

 

Zombieland: Double Tap (15)

A knowingly self-referencing sequel to the 2009 gleefully politically incorrect Shaun of the Dead-styled cult hit, narrated direct to the audience in voiceover by Jesse Eisenberg, this reunites the original characters, all named for their hometowns, neurotic rules-obsessed Columbus (Eisenberg), NRA poster boy redneck Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson), snarky, moody Wichita (Emma Stone) and her sister Little Rock (Abigail Breslin) who, at the start of the film, decide to hole up in the White House. The zombies, as  a quick rundown and a nod to The Walking Dead explains, have evolved and, while there’s still the clueless Homers, there’s now seemingly indestructible T-800s, named, of course, after The Terminator in just one of the film’s countless pop-culture gags.

Less of a plot and more of a string of road movie encounters punctuated by a steady stream of hilarious, banter-riddled dialogue, things get underway when, Little Rock wanting to find someone her own age and Wichita nonplussed by Columbus’s proposal, the pair take off. However, when the former hooks up with  Berkeley (Avan Jogia), a pothead pacifist hippie – and worse, a musician – steals the car and heads out for a like-minded safety zone community called Babylon (after the David Grey song), Wichita returns to the fold to get help finding her, except, in her brief absence, Columbus has acquired himself  a dumb-blonde pink-clad airhead girlfriend named Madison (a terrific scene stealing Zoey Deutch) who’s been hiding out in a Mall freezer, rather naturally making for somewhat awkward tension between him and Wichita as they all set off  after Little Rock, a journey that will take them to a decayed Graceland and an Elvis museum saloon run by the feisty Elvis-obsessed Nevada (Rosario Dawson) and a brief encounter with Columbus and Tallahassee’s mirror images, monster truck driving Alpha-male Albuquerque (Luke Wilson) and the twitchy Flagstaff (Thomas Middleditch) before the final apocalyptic showdown with a horde of T-800s.

Barely a second goes by without some quip, sarcastic put down or visual gag, hitting the target more often than not, among them Elvis’s blue suede shoes, the animated on screen appearance of Columbus’s rules, a running gag about their minivan, a throwaway Zombie Kill of the Year moment, and an amusing revelation about the fate of Bill Murray. Yes, it essentially plays as a rerun of the original with some added quirky characters, but written by Deadpool duo Paul Wernick and Rhett Reese, directed by Venom’s Ruben Fleischer and gleefully acted by all concerned with tongues firmly in cheek,  it has verve, energy, irreverent hilarity and, of course, copious amounts of head-popping gore. All topped off with an inspired surprise cameo credits sequence.  Like the zombies, switch off your brain and enjoy.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Electric; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

A Shaun The Sheep Movie: Farmageddon (U)

Having made his spin-off big screen debut in 2015, Aardman Animation’s woolly mischief-maker returns to raise the baa with a second family friendly claymation feature (the title both a typical bad pun but also the name of a haunted house attraction at Farmer Ted’s in Ormskirk) to delight all ages, all without barely  a single distinguishable word of dialogue.  Life on Mossy Bottom Farm is pretty much business as usual with the farmer’s wardrobe not having extended beyond jumper and red underpants and his dog, Bitzer, clamping down on every attempt by Shaun to engage  in any non-sheep activities, one of which, involving  Frisbee, ends up in wrecking the combine harvester.

Meanwhile, in the woods, on the way back from the chippy, a man sees an alien spacecraft land, emerging from it a cute kiddie alien with big floppy telekinetic-power ears  and a talent for vocal imitation who, it transpires, is called Lu-La and who, playing around back on her own planet, accidentally managed to trigger the family spaceship and has ended up on Earth.

Discovered by Shaun hiding out in the barn and eating his pizza, the thrust of the story is he, the flock and, eventually, Bitzer, trying to help her return home to her parents, meaning they first have to find the device that powers the ship, the problem being that she’s been hunted by the men in yellow from the Ministry of Alien Detection and, for reasons of  her own, their alien obsessed boss. Meanwhile, all the talk of aliens has created a local media buzz, attracting all manner of UFO seekers, something Farmer looks to cash in on by getting the sheep to build  him a  sci-fi theme park, Farmageddon, and charging £30 a pop for admission so he can buy his new dream harvester.

As you would expect, the film is stuffed with sci-fi movie references, notably nodding to the monolith moment in 2001: A Space Odyssey, the coded notes of Close Encounters, the X-Files music and even an appearance by Doctor Who (Tom Baker version) with a portaloo Tardis. On top of which you get a reminder not to overdo those sugar-rush drink, a running gag about poor mobile phone reception in the countryside while the tacky Farmageddon itself nods to all those shoddy pop-up Santa experience rip-offs.

Making up for inspired silent-movie styled physical comedy for what it lacks in dialogue, while subtle claymation facial features  impart a wide range of emotional responses, this is glorious and very British fun. Shear enjoyment.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Maleficent: Mistress Of Evil (PG)

The first film took the story of Sleeping Beauty and the evil fairy Maleficent well beyond the fairy tale and Disney’s own animated telling, telling  events from the latter’s perspective and giving her her wings back and a moral makeover in her love for the princess Aurora, returning the Moors to their magical glory and making her god-daughter Queen.

Set five years on, this takes it even further into Game of Thrones territory (one of several obvious influences alongside Lord of the Rings and Avatar) as, not best pleased to learn from Aurora (an impossibly rosy-cheeked pale but interesting Elle Fanning) that she has accepted the somewhat interrupted marriage proposal by Prince Phillip (a charisma-free Harris Dickinson replacing Brenton Thwaites) and, invited to a meet the parents dinner at the palace by King John (Robert Lindsay) and Queen Ingrith (Michelle Pfeiffer), Maleficent (Angelina Jolie) throws a  stupendous tantrum when the latter says Aurora will now have a real mother, seemingly leaving the King comatose in a curse. Flying off,  she is, however, shot down  and sent crashing into the river by the palace guards using iron missiles, a never previously mentioned weakness  that, along with the fact a deadly toxin is made from flowers that bloom on the graves of dead fairies, is just one of several narrative contrivances.

All this, as the film is quick to explain, has to do with the scheming, obsessed Ingrith’s plan to start a war between the humans and the fey who live in the Moors so she can destroy their kind forever. What she hadn’t counted on  was Maleficent being saved by the introduction of an origin story involving her hitherto unseen kin of fellow winged and horned Dark Fey, among them peace wanting Connall (Chiwetel  Ejiofor) and the more belligerent Borra (Ed Skein), setting the stage for  Ingrith’s intended genocide by luring them and the  inhabitants  of the Moors (among them returning fluttery fairies Imelda Staunton, Juno Temple and Lesley Manville) to the palace for the wedding – and their destruction.

While often undeniably enchanting in its depiction of the assorted fairy folk and other magical beings, given some truly dark moments and brutal deaths, at times reminiscent of Nazi atrocities, this is likely to give younger audiences  decidedly sleepless nights, not to mention  having them confused over its revisionist account of the infamous spinning wheel and its needle.

Sporting her horned headpiece, black wings and chiselled alabaster cheekbones, the strikingly formidable Jolie plays it to the max yet still managing to not tip things over into excessive camp while, in what is basically a showdown between competing power-dressing alpha mothers-in-law that climaxes in a humdinger of a battle, Pfeiffer delivers icy ruthlessness with aplomb, largely leaving the rest of the cast, a somewhat bland Fanning included, in their shadow with only Sam Riley as Maleficent’s  shape shifting sidekick raven Diaval not being eclipsed.

On a basic level, it’s all of an overly busy, overlong and often incoherent if visually dazzling mess in search of a story and complete with  final scene of a maternal Maleficent that should never have left the editing room, but  there’s no denying there are still copious pleasures here. And those cheekbones.(Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Official Secrets (15)

In 2003, as the Blair government prepared to join the United States in a war on Iraq to topple Saddam Hussein, Katharine Gun (Kiera Knightley), a British GCHQ translator, read a memo sent by a high ranking American official about monitoring  certain members of the UK Security Council so they could obtain material they could use to blackmail them into voting in favour of a war. Her conscience troubled by the fact that Tony Blair was lying to the British public about the threat Hussein posed  (“Just because you’re Prime Minister, it doesn’t mean you get to make up your own facts!”  she rails at the TV even more reading the memo) and that the United States was trying to strongarm its way into a second Gulf War, she leaked the memo to an anti-war activist friend and it eventually found its way into the hands of Martin Bright (Matt Smith), an investigative reporter at The  Observer, a  paper which, up to that point, had been supporting the government’s stance.

When, after validating its authenticity, they ran a front page splash about US dirty tricks, an investigation as to the whistleblower naturally followed with Gun, to save her  co-workers being put under constant pressure and surveillance,  eventually declaring what she had done (noting that her loyalty was to the British public not the British government), and that she had acted to try and prevent an illegal war and save potentially thousands of lives. She did so knowing that she could be imprisoned for breaking the Official Secrets Act and potentially putting her immigrant husband  Yasar (Adam Bakri),a Kurdish refugee from Turkey, at risk of being deported, a situation prompting a  race against the clock sequence here that may or may not be dramatic licence.

Give it’s all public record, it’s no spoiler to say that no less dramatic but entirely true is the fact that, less than half an hour into her trial, the prosecutor announced they were withdrawing all charges, the reasons having to do with damaging information her lawyer, Ben Emmerson (Ralph Fiennes) had gathered about Lord Goldsmith’s volte face to declare the war legal.

Directed and co-written by Gavin Hood, while no All The President’s Men or, indeed Vice, which also addressed the manipulation of the war,  and far less flashy than either, it is a solid political conspiracy thriller about events that continue to reverberate and provoke righteous outrage about the collusion between Bush and Blair to blatantly lie about weapons of mass destruction and imminent threat (an Official Secrets Act loophole Gun’s lawyers used to validate her actions in practical terms) to justify the war. It does sag slightly midway, but once the decision to charge Gun is made, the urgency,  intensity and the sense of threat (notably in her meeting  with a Scotland Yard inspector) crank up. Supported by a dishevelled Rhys Ifans as The Observer’s vocally volatile  D.C. correspondent Ed Vulliamy, Matthew Goode as Bright’s war-correspondent colleague Peter Beaumont and Conleth Hill as the paper’s  truculent editor Roger Alton, it’s Knightley’s well-nuanced performance, part moral indignation, part scared and vulnerable, that lift the film and keeps you engaged, even if you know how it all ended.  Here, as Gun, she declares that her only regret in doing what she did was that she failed. To stop the war perhaps, but to open the public’s eyes to the duplicity and corruption of their governments, far from it. And a reminder to be careful of using spellcheck. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Electric; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

The Peanut Butter Falcon (12A)

Clearly informed with the spirit of Mark Twain (who is referenced in the dialogue), this charming tale of a growing friendship between two society outsiders could prove the year’s biggest sleeper indie hit in much the same way that films like Juno and The Station Agent did before.

Dumped in an underfunded Richmond nursing home after being dumped by his parents,  Zak (Zack Gottsagen), a wrestling-obsessed Down syndrome 22-year-old is constantly trying to escape, finally managing to run off into the night, clad in only his underpants, with the help of  his aged, slyly surly roommate, Carl (Bruce Dern).

Hiding out under a  canvas sheet on a boat belonging to Tyler (Shia LaBeouf), a troubled crab fisherman who’s poaching from fellow fisherman Duncan (John Hawkes) and Ratboy (Yelawolf),when Tyler’s forced to take off  after setting fire to his rivals’ traps, the accidental buddies find themselves embarking on an odyssey by foot and raft down the Southeast coast after the initially reluctant Tyler promises to take him to a wrestling school in the Florida bayou run by his idol, The Salt Water Redneck (Thomas Hayden Church). On the run, Tyler’s being pursued by Duncan and Ratboy looking for revenge while Zak’s volunteer carer, Eleanor (Dakota Johnson), has been ordered to find him and take him back.

As crafted by writer-directors Tyler Nilson and Mike Schwartz, it charts a well-worn coming of age, self-worth discovery road movie path with the friendship growing between the two unlikely travelling companions through their shared feelings of worthlessness and isolation as they head for their destination, try and evade their pursuers, encounter assorted adventures and eccentrics along the way and Zak takes up the wrestling name of the title.  The comedy is gentle and affectionate, with only Zak ever mentioning his affliction, poignantly describing  how he’s referred to as a retard but never losing his resolve or determination to follow his dream while, as self-appointed protector, Tyler gets to come to terms with the guilt that’s been haunting him. Eleanor’s impulsive decision to join them on the  journey feels a touch narratively contrived, but the blossoming romance between her and Tyler and the building of a new family is never forced. The chemistry between the two leads feels organic and genuine, their banter and interaction of an improvisational nature, a guileless La Boef  winningly low key as the irascible but warm-hearted Tyler while the more extrovert Gottsagen, with his good-natured humour and emotional nuances, engages empathy without ever asking for pity. It has a simple charm that lingers long after the end credits.  (Cineworld 5 Ways; Wed: Mockingbird)

 

NOW SHOWING

 

Abominable (U)

Essentially E.T., but white and furry in marketable plush fashion, this latest from Dreamworks animation opened well in the States, but its success is likely more down to a dearth of other family films rather than any inherent charm. Escaping from the laboratory where it’s being held captive, a young Yeti fetches up on the roof of the Shanghai building where teen loner Yi (Chloe Bennett from Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D, who, real name Wang,  is, in fact American Chinese) lives with her widowed mother and gran, the latter frequently hidden behind the mountain of pork dumplings she’s constantly  cooking. Soothing the creature with her late father’s violin (which she claims to have sold), Yi, with the help of vain childhood friend med student Jin (Tenzing Norgay Trainor, a direct relation to the Sherpa who accompanied Edmund Hillary on his 1953 Everest climb) and his nerdy cousin Peng (Albert Tsai) who live downstairs,  sets out to take Everest, the name they’ve given their new chum, back to his home in the Himalayas, travelling across China on a  journey her dad always meant to take.  However, they’re being chased by a zoologist, Dr Zara (Sarah Poulson), who sports a pet gerbil on her shoulder like a pirate’s parrot and works for Burnish (Eddie Izzard), an aged collector who wants to prove yetis exist to  dispel the humiliation he’s suffered for years, and has ordered her and his strongarm hirelings to recapture the creature. Although, it turns out Zara has her own agenda.

Pitched very much at younger kids, it’s all very predictable and, with its repetitive chase sequences, at times, somewhat dull. However, when not focused on the plot as such, the landscapes, including a musical interlude time out (cue Coldplay’s Fix You) at  a 233-ft tall cliffside Buddha carved during the Tang dynasty, and the fact that Everest has magical powers to control nature offer some moments of ravishing beauty (and an attack by giant blueberries, prompting one of the film’s butt jokes) as the film dutifully ticks off life lessons about friendship, family, and finding your place in the world.  Trailing the far more enjoyable Smallfoot, this has its heart in the right place but seems unlikely leave much of a  footprint in the box office snow.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Ad Astra (12A)

Basically Apocalypse Now in space stirred with Solaris’s meditation on humanity and human emotion and a side helping of father-son issues,  director and co-writer James Grayhas crafted a slow, psychologically taut existential sci-fi anchored by a pared back, internalised performance from Brad Pitt that should earn him a place among the Oscar nominations.

The son of fabled veteran  astronaut Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), Roy (Pitt) is established in  his opening voice over narration as a focused, emotionally compartmentalised stoic loner whose pulse rate never rises under pressure, which, as we soon learn, has caused his childless marriage (to Liv Tyler) to collapse. The film opens in a vertigo-inducing sequence with him carrying out repairs on the  International Space Antenna, towering up from the earth, when an electrical surge hits, sending fellow workers plunging to earth, Roy turning off the power before he follows, eventually opening his parachute.

At the debriefing, he’s made privy to classified information regarding the mission to Neptune  in search of intelligent life on which his father disappeared 30 years earlier, the top brass informing him that they think his dad’s till alive and, likely having had a Col. Kurtz-like meltdown, is responsible for sending these power surges that may have the potential to wipe out all life in the universe. Now they want Roy, as the film’s Willard,  to undertake a top secret mission to Mars, via the regular lunar shuttle with its overpriced inflatable pillows,  to ostensibly send  a personal message out to his father, track down his Lima Project craft and bring him home.

In the process, as things go wrong and with an array of psychological evaluations, Roy finds himself increasingly contemplating  his own failings (“I’ve let so many people down”), the ambiguous relationship with his equally emotionally distant father,  the admiration that led him to pursue the same career and the fear of becoming the same emotionally closed, single-minded person. In the final act, in what has now become a rogue one-man search and destroy mission to Neptune (“In the end the son suffers the sins of the father” muses Roy as he prepares to face his demons), the two are reunited and abandonment issues are faced.

As such, despite moments such as a moon buggy mining war battle on the lunar surface (the Moon a tourist’s microcosm of Earth complete with Virgin Atlantic), a spacecraft confrontation with two crazed baboons,  and Roy’s need to escape from Mars,  it’s a fairly narratively simple affair, but one handled with a sense of measured, at times clinical, control and attention to detail that calls Kubrick to mind. It isn’t all smooth running, Donald Sutherland is briefly introduced as an old friend of  Roy’s father who’s intended to accompany him and summarily removed from the plot once he’s delivered the necessary information, but, driven by the interior monologues, its visual and psychological ambition is huge, proferring the notion that  setting out in search of new frontiers is not to explore but to escape. If you’re expecting some galactic action movie then steer clear, but if you want to take a journey into the mind’s inner space, then these stars will guide your path.  (Cineworld 5 Ways; Vue Star City)

The Day Shall Come (15)

Nine years on from his audacious  failed suicide bombers  farce Four Lions, writer-director Chris Morris returns with an equally sharp but somewhat slighter political satire the thrust of which can be basically boiled down to the FBI inventing terrorist plots (“pitch me the next 9/11”) to foil and preventing  staged fake attempted bombings  to make themselves look good, supplying and paying for all the drugs, guns and supposed nuclear explosives deemed necessary. Their unwitting mark is Moses Al Shabaz (Marchánt Davis) a delusional (he  talks to God through a  duck and at one point he’s convinced God is acting through his horse), off his medication wannabe prophet and revolutionary incensed at the gentrification of   Miami and resolved to overturn the “accidental dominance of the white people”. Or at least get enough money to save his farm. His Star of Six army, however, comprises  just four people, two deadpan sidekicks (Andrel McPherson,  ), his wife (Danielle Brooks) and young daughter. And, preaching non-violence, he refuses to use any weapons other than sticks and a toy crossbow.

So, he’s prime fodder to be set up by ambitious South Beach FBI agent Kendra Glack (Anna Kendrick) and her bumbling boss (Denis O’Hare), who set up a sting whereby an undercover agent poses as an IS representative offering Moses a ton of cash and Kalishnioakovs (he tried to defer accepting the guns) which further extends to supplying him with fake nuclear devices to sell on to a neo-Nazi group so he can then be arrested for terrorism. The further the innocent and oblivious Moses is pulled in, the more ludicrous it all becomes, leading to the incompetent and casually callous FBI having to declare  a non-existent nuclear emergency so they can stop it, and radicalising a bunch of harmless oddballs along the way.

At one point, an over-enthusiastic cop asks, faced with an unarmed white man and unarmed black man, which is more likely to have gun which gives an idea of the thin line the film knowingly walks between satire and reality, just as the buffoonish actions of those supposedly in charge of keeping the world safe are as scary as they are wickedly funny.

Stuffed with barbed lines and ridiculous scenarios, nonetheless it makes some earnestly serious observations about the post 9/11 world and the bureaucratic need to invent enemies to  citizenry, wisely never overstretching the plot and reeling it all in at a succinct 87 minutes and final what happened after ironic credits punch that goes a long way to explaining the mentality that put Trump in the White House. (Cineworld 5 Ways; Electric; Vue Star City)

Dora And The Lost City Of Gold (PG)

Debuting in 2000, while probably unlikely to have been named for the Stackridge song, the first animation to star a female Latina protagonist, part adventure, part educational, Dora the Explorer, a sort of junior wide-eyed innocent Lara Croft,  ran on Nickelodeon for six years and is still screened as reruns. Now, directed by James Bobin, she makes her live action debut starring an indefatigably charismatic Isabela Moner, recently seen in Instant Family. Initially a seven year old, as in the TV series, after a brief set-up, this cuts to her as a young teen, living in the South American jungle with her archaeology professor explorer parents (Eva Longoria and Michael Peña), who are about to embark on a quest to find the fabled lost Inca city of Parapata. She’s hoping to join them, so is disappointed to find she’s being sent on a different adventure, exploring the world of American high school in Los Angeles where’s she’s reunited her cousin and childhood best friend Diego (Jeff Wahlberg).

Suffice to say, after a brief dalliance with familiar high school misfit sequences, during a trip to the local museum she’s abducted by a trio of mercenaries looking to track down her parents and seize the fabled treasure. She’s not alone, also taken captive are Diego and two classmates, nerdy outsider Randy (Nicholas Coombe) and bitchy, insecure queen bee Sammy (Madeleine Madden) who feels threatened by Dora’s intelligence. Arriving back in South America, they’re swiftly rescued by Alejandro (Eugenio Derbez), an old friend of Dora’s parents and, joined by Dora’s pet monkey, Boots (voiced by Danny Trejo),  they set off to find Cole and Elena before the treasure hunters do.

Needless to say, the journey will involve an assortment of be yourself life lessons, a betrayal and,  inevitably, Dora’s penchant for bursting into spontaneous made up songs (including one about doing a poo in the jungle) before climaxing in the lost city as they’re confronted by its guardians, led by an ancient Inca princess (Q’orianka Kilcher).

Resolutely pitched at a young audience, there’s virtually no concessions for the grown ups, who may well find Dora’s resolutely irrepressible upbeat  nature and energy a tad irritating. Kids, on the other hand, should be swept up by what is, in essence, a return to the old days of Saturday matinees that also inspired the like of Indian Jones.  In addition the puzzles to be solved, there’s nods to the original series when the characters inhale an hallucinatory pollen and find themselves transformed into cartoons, Boots retains his far from realistic-looking appearance and,  along with early scenes of Dora talking to the camera, dispensing with any notions of reality, the bad guys are abetted by Swiper (voiced be Benicio Del Toro), the masked, talking fox from the cartoons. The film even sneaks in Dora’s talking backpack. Great fun. (Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Downton Abbey (PG)

Three years on from closing the front doors on the long-running TV series, the ensemble cast is back pretty much en masse (though Matthew Goode doesn’t turn up until the last act) for the much anticipated big screen feature.  At which point I should admit that, while I’ve caught parts, and am certainly enough to be familiar with the characters and the storyline, I’ve never seen an episode.  But, even if you’re not totally au fait, while knowing the backstory to the Crawley family and their staff helps, this works perfectly well as a standalone. The central plot is that, at the start of the film,  the Earl of Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) receives a letter from Buckingham Palace announcing that King George (Simon Jones) and Queen Mary (Geraldine James) will be descending on Downton for one night as part of their tour of Yorkshire before proceeding to a Grand Ball. Which naturally throws everyone into a  flap and Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) deciding that butler Thomas Barrow (Robert James-Collier) isn’t up to snuff asks Carson (Jim Carter), the former master of the house whose palsy seems to have conveniently cleared up, to come back and oversee things.

Around this creator and screenwriter Simon Fellowes juggles numerous subplots, primarily the downstairs staff’s rebellion, led by ladies maid Anna (Joanna Froggatt) and valet Bates (Brendan Coyle), against the imperious takeover by the King’s retinue, most specifically his butler (David Haig), French chef (Phillipe Spall) and mistress of the house (Richenda Carey), the latter two respectively putting Mrs Patmore (Lelsey Nicol) and Mrs Carson’s (Phyllis Logan) noses out of joint; the reluctance by scullery maid Daisy (Sophie McSheera), who turns out to not be a big monarchist, to discuss her wedding to footman Andrew (Michael C.Fox); the unhappy marriage of the Princess Royal (Kate Phillips); the insouciant Mary’s thoughts about calling running Downton a  day; and the feud between the Dowager (Maggie Smith with her usual waspish lines) and her estranged cousin, Lady Bagshaw (Imelda Staunton), the Queen’s widowed Lady-in-Waiting to name her maid, Lucy (Tuppence Middleton) as heir rather than Robert, the Earl.

Amid all this, there’s also still room for some half-hearted add ons such as the unmasking of a light-fingered royal servant, Irish widower son-in-law Tom Branson (Allen Leech) to foil an assassination attempt and even a sequence involving a secret gay club in York.

With the returning cast also including Elizabeth McGovern (Countess Grantham), Penelope Wilton (Isobel Grey),  Laura Carmichael (Edith Crawley), Kevin Doyle (Joseph Molesley, overcome at the prospect of serving royalty) alongside pivotal sub-plot appearances by Stephen Campbell-Moore and Max Brown, it’s both as lavishly appointed and as frothily superficial as you’d expect with no real drama of any sort that can’t be overcome with the stroke of  a computer key, everything ending happily, even given the swan song announcement by one of the major characters should Fellowes contrive a sequel. In a Britain where order seems to have taken leave, it offers a perhaps cosy reassurance of a time when everyone knew their place and duty, and as such its devoted audience will embrace its nostalgia with a big hug.  (Cineworld NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Gemini Man (12A)

Giving a wholly literal meaning to the phrase about being your own worst enemy, the storyline has been knocking around for over 20 years when it was originally down to eb a Tont Scott film, the intervening years having seen other directors and the likes of  Harrison Ford and Mel Gibson supposedly attached. Finally, it lands in the lap of Ang Lee  with Will Smith as DIA  sharpshooter hitman Henry Brogan who, now 51, and carrying increasingly heavy baggage over the 72 kills he’s made, decides to retire to his home in Georgia after one last shot, lying in a  field and taking out a Russian bioterrorist who’s aboard a train speeding across Belgium. However, shortly after, he meets up with an old friend and fellow assassin who provides intel that the target wasn’t  what he was told and next thing he knows his former agency, led by  cold fish Lassister (Linda Emond) are trying to kill him.

Going on the run with Baron (Benedict Wong), another old colleague and crack pilot, and Danny Zakarweski (Mary Elizabeth Winstead holding  her ground in what is little more than an appendage role), the  DIA agent who’d been assigned to  run surveillance on him, they head to Cartegena where  he’s attacked by an assassin despatched by his former mentor Clay Verris (Clive Owen creaking through the rote self-justifying bad guy), who now runs high-tech mercenary agency Gemini,  and who turns out to look like a younger version of himself. In fact, that’s exactly what he is, a perfect DNA match Brogan clone created by Verris  and raised – and trained- as his ‘son’.

It’s an interesting narrative idea, but, ultimately, while loosely touching on themes of nature vs nurture, alienation and technology out of control,  there’s not too much you can do with it other than have the older Brogan try and prevent Junior (a computer-generated Fresh Prince era Smith) from making the same life choices mistakes he did and nudge him down the path of redemption.

The relatively thin,  predictable and logically flawed cat and mouse plot with its wooden expositionary dialogue are, however, greatly enhanced by Lee shooting   at a high frames per second rate, giving it incredibly fine detail and amping up the intensity of the many action sequences, including Junior taking on Henry using  motorbike as a weapon. Plus of course the sight of Will Smith fighting Will Smith, both delivering soulful performances, although the older version gets all the quips.  The five months later coda feels awkwardly tacked on and the film fizzles out rather than ending, but even so, the action races along and delivers enough of a  thrill to keep you engaged. Even so, it’s not the same as seeing Captain America battle himself in Endgame. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

The Goldfinch (15)

Predicted to be one of the biggest flops in cinema history, while it has its flaws it’s hard to fathom why American audiences didn’t flock watch the birdy. However, likely more discerning literary-minded viewers here will better embrace this adaptation of Donna Tartt’s award-winning serendipitous novel. Opening with his adult self (Ansel Elgort) washing blood from his shirt and lining up a fatal overdose in his hotel room, the film flashes back to 13-year-old Theo (Oakes Fegley) admiring both the titular 17th century painting of a chained bird by Fabritius and the girl standing next to him at  the  New York Metropolitan Museum of Art when a terrorist bombing kills his mother, leading to him being taken in by the wealthy family of   nerdy schoolfriend Andy (Ryan Foust) where he grows close to art-loving matriarch Samantha Barbour (Nicole Kidman in familiar chilly mode). He also strikes up a friendship with Hobie (Jeffrey Wright), an antique furniture restorer whose business partner was killed in in the same explosion and who is now guardian to his granddaughter, Pippa (Aimée Lawrence), the girl from the museum who also suffered trauma.

However, just at the point it seems likely the Barbours will adopt him, his errant father Larry (Luke Wilson) re-emerges along with his trashy girlfriend Xandra (Sarah Paulson) and carts him off to an otherwise unoccupied road at the edge of the desert where he strikes up a friendship with fellow outsider Boris (Finn Wolfhard), a Ukrainian whose abusive father’s work has seen him move from country to country, who introduces him to both drink and drugs, the latter for which he develops  a particular fondness.  But then yet another family upheaval sees him flee back to New York where he reunites with Hobie and, as the film switches focus to the adult Theo, become his new salesman partner cum surrogate son and, eventually become engaged to the Barbour’s daughter, Kitsy (Willa Fitzgerald). Through all of this, Theo carries with him a yellow bag contaiing a package wrapped in newspaper, which he clutches close when in need of comfort. Inside is the Fabritius painting, a link to his mother but also a mark of the guilt he feels about her death. How he came to take it and obtain the ring he first presents to Hobie are explained towards the end, by which time Theo is being threatened by a client (Denis O’Hare) to whom he sold a doctored ‘antique’ and who has worked out that he has the painting, which has apparently been used as collateral by a Miami drug gang.

It’s a tangled storyline into which also arrives the now grown Boris (Aneurin Barnard) whose dodgy dealings have made him quite a success as well as the return of Pippa (Ashleigh Cummings) to a life reforged but build on deceptions, just as his impending marriage is looking more about the head than the heart.  However, despite the fractured narrative and, even if things slip into the melodramatic in the last act, director John Crowley and screenwriter Peter Straughan keep you involved and wanting to know where Theo’s journey is taking him and what has led him there, the strong core performances carrying it over some of the more uneven patches and the admittedly emotional coldness for much of its running time. At the end of the day, it warrants ignoring the sour word of mouth and giving it your trust.  (MAC)

Hitsville: The Making of Motown (12A)

Unquestionably the most iconic, most successful and most influential record company in the history of black music, Motown was founded by Berry Gordy, a Detroit kid and budding entrepreneur who saw no reason why blacks and whites couldn’t share a love of the same music. A budding songwriter, he borrowed $800 from his father and sisters and acquired a small house at 2648 West Grand Boulevard in Detroit, joined forces with a guy named Smokey Robinson and changed the face of music. Taking its title from the name given the label’s home as well as the punch line in the company song (sung, after other embarrassed former employees demur, claiming to have forgotten the lines, by the two men over the end credits), this documentary by British filmmakers Ben and Gabe Turner charts how the label, modelled on the Ford Motor Company production line where Gordy worked, became an assembly line turning out hit records and stars in a well machined manner with company divisions all responsible for certain aspects. Archive sound recordings of company meetings (such as Gordy, Robinson and A&R head as Mickey Stephenson arguing over releases) and vintage footage of recording sessions are just part of this fascinating insight that includes rare film of The Temptations rehearsing My Guy, electrifying film of the young Michael Jackson and Diana Ross performing two very different live takes on You’re Nobody Till Somebody Loves You on a Motown Revue tour, a song that almost saw her and Gordy parting company.

It doesn’t touch on her decision to quit The Supremes or other darker moments like Marvin Gaye’s murder or David Ruffin’s drug problems and prison terms but it doesn’t shy away from how Stevie Wonder demanded his the terms of relationship with the label be rewritten when he turned 21 so he could do what he wanted or how Gordy, who remarks how he only gave artists freedom within certain parameters, didn’t want Gaye to go protest with What’s Goin’ On. However, while personal politics and issues of behind the scenes control are interesting, it’s the way the film brings the creation of the music alive and forgotten facts such as how I Heard It Through The Grapevine was a No 1 for Gladys Knight before Gaye, who originally only released it on an album before going on to become the label’s biggest selling record ever, that the Supremes had a  string of flops before they recorded You Can’t Hurry Love after Martha Reeves had turned it down or, indeed that a pre-Buffalo Springfield Neil Young was signed to the label as part of The Mynah Birds fronted by Rick James. Essential viewing for anyone with even the vaguest interest in the history of modern music.  (Mon:Mac)

Hustlers (15)

Needing to make money to care for her elderly grandmother (Wai Ching Ho scoring an amusing moment telling how she danced with Frankie Valli), Destiny (Constance Wu) takes a job as pole/lap dancer at Moves, a New York strip club where, her tips from the leering creeps are largely taken as ‘commission’ by management and bouncers,  she’s taken under the wing of  single mother star turn Ramona (Jennifer Lopez) who teachers her how to get Wall Street types in the profitable private session champagne room peeling off those $100 bills and to “Drain the clock, not the cock”. Things are good until the crash of 2008 pretty much wipes out their clientele. For a while the women go their separate ways, Destiny gets pregnant and finds it hard to get employment., But then the two are fortuitously reunited  with Ramona introducing her to the art of fishing, luring in their marks, getting them drunk and then maxing out their credit cards.  Joined by fellow dancers Annabelle (Lili Reinhart), who can vomit on cue (and also on other less fortunate occasions) and Mercedes (Keke Palmer), they turn from drink to drugs, spiking their marks’ booze and taking them for all they can. Cue shopping, champagne swigging and singing and dancing sequences. Inevitably, at some point, one of the targets decides to bite the bullet of his shame and go to the cops.

Based around the true story of the New York gang of women who, led Samantha Barbash, hustled, drugged and fleeced a string of Wall Street (here soundtracked to Scott Walker’s Next) and adapted from an article by journalist Jessica Pressler (Julia Stiles to whom Lopez and Wu tell their stories), writer-director Lorene Scafaria  has crafted a Scorsese-like (though he actually passed on the script)_ female Goodfellas about female empowerment  and friendship with bonds that can even survive self-protecting betrayal set in a milieu where, as well as making loads of money, weaponising their sexuality, the women excuse the morality of what they’re doing as a form of modern day Robin Hood (as the press termed it) revenge on the bankers and the like who screwed the public, caused economic disaster and walked away from it unpunished.  It’s hard not to feel these guys with their sense of entitlement get all they deserve. Especially when they go back for more. As Ramona puts it, “This whole country’s a strip club. You’ve got people tossing the money and people doing the dance.”

Electrifyingly directed, photographed and acted with razor-sharp dialogue, it’s bolstered by small but hugely effective turns from the likes of  Cardi B, Lizzo and Madeleine Brewer as fellow dancer-hustlers, Mercedes Rhuel as the dancers’ protective and complicit mother figure at the club and even a cameo by Usher as himself. However, it’s Wu (who, as the initially innocent Destiny affords the moral centre when she has qualms about one of their marks) and, more particularly, Lopez who are the film’s fierce heart, the latter delivering a commanding performance (and a dazzling display on the pole to Fiona Apple’s Criminal) that obliterates in a  moment all the crap she’s appeared in recent years and which is already generating Oscar buzz. A film for the MeToo times and one that, given the end credit notes,  makes you want to find out more about the real Samantha and Roselyn Keo and where they are today. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC; Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Vue Star City)

It: Chapter Two (15)

Doggedly nudging well past the two and half hour mark, returning director Andy Muschietti’s sequel to the film that prompted the Stephen King screen revival picks things up 27 years on from the original, a somewhat random period time that will mark the return of Pennywise (Bill Skarsgård, not given as much to do this time round), the fearmongering supernatural killer clown. So when, following the clown’s return in the wake of a gay bashing murder (that’s never mentioned again),  kids start vanishing again from the Maine town of Derry, the now grown Mike (Isaiah Mustafa) gets back in touch with his fellow former members of the Losers Club, all of whom left Derry and forged new lives. So, that’s former fat kid Ben (Jay Ryan) who’s become a hunky, wealthy property developer, the ever nervous hypochondriac Eddie (James Ransone), now a risk assessor,   Bill (James McAvoy), who’s parlayed  a career as a bestselling novelist into a Hollywood screenwriter (who, in an in-joke about criticism of King, can’t write a satisfactory ending),  bespectacled Richie (Bill Hader) is a bitter stand-up comic, while erstwhile  tomboy Beverly (Jessica Chastain) is stuck in a marriage to a rich but abusive husband.

Getting the call to return to Derry, all duly gather in the local Chinese, the only one of the original crew missing being Stan (Andy Bean), for reasons presaged early one, revealed later and given resonance in the final scenes, but it seems none them can actually clearly remember what happened back when they were kids. Now, this might be because It’s not dead, it might be they repressed the trauma or perhaps because the screenwriters want to pad out the narrative with subplots in which each of them have to face the ghosts of their past (such as Ben still blaming himself for his brother’s death and seeking redemption by trying to save the kid who now lives in his old house) in order to gather the personal ‘artefacts’ needed to complete the ancient Native American ritual Michael says will kill It forever.

Suffice to say that after the five diversions, they all gather at It’s hidey hole (the creature having been revealed as arriving from outer space millennia ago) to carry out the ritual. Naturally, it doesn’t go smoothly.

Interspersed with flashbacks to their younger days (reuniting the original young cast of  Jaeden Martell, Wyatt Oleff. Jack Dylan Grazer, Finn Wolfhard. Sophia Lillis, Chosen Jacobs and Jeremy Ray Taylor), it explores the personal traumas and demons that haunt them still while also, in a somewhat unnecessary tangent, also reintroducing  the murderous Henry Bowers (Teach Grant) who’s been locked up in a  mental institution since the first film.

There’s some effective CGO in the film’s many hallucinatory moments such as the creepy creatures emerging from fortune cookies, the old dear in Bev’s childhood apartment who transforms into a naked  monster hag, a decapitated head on spider legs  and, of course, the various forms Pennywise takes on. Along the way, there’s numerous references to other horror series, such as Nightmare On Elm Street and even a reprise of that famous line from The Shining as Bev finds herself in a toilet filling with blood, the film, variously scary and comic, finally resolving itself as a story of  friendship,  self-acceptance (with a half-hearted romantic triangle tossed in) and finding closure, for not just the Losers but the saga itself. And, while the ride’s compelling, not before time.  (Empire Great Park; Vue Star City)

Joker (15)

Next year’s Best Actor Oscar a foregone conclusion, chances are that, having triumphed at Venice,  this will also make strong running for Best Film and Todd Phillips as Best Director. Darker, both tonally and morally, than even that Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, and devoid of any of the flip humour likely to characterise the upcoming Harley Quinn movie, Birds of Prey, it does not arrive without controversy regarding the extreme violence. And yes, yet in a dystopian early 80s Gotham, it is intense, brutal, graphic and bloody, but while Phillips seeks to explain and understand, at no  point does he excuse, justify or glorify.

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

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

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

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

Judy (12A)

Based on Peter Quilter’s Tony-nominated stage play End of the Rainbow about the last months of Judy Garland’s life when she played a colourfully variable season at London’s Talk of the Town (sometimes dazzling, sometimes drunk) , inevitably, directed by  Rupert Goold and written by first timer Tom Edge, reality and what you see on screen are often very different things. Certainly she was pelted with food by the audience when she appeared late, drunk and slurring, but it’s unlikely, even as a gay icon,  she ever went back to  a flat shared by two gay fans (for post-show scrambled eggs and the final scene where they boost her in time of mid-song crisis is most certainly fiction. That said, this is very faithful in portraying the desperate loneliness and insecurity that crippled the former child star of The Wizard of Oz, even if Rene Zellweger’s electrifying, note perfect (and inevitably Oscar scooping) performance is far better than the film that contains it.

Opening the story at the tail end of 1968, deep in debt Garland return to her hotel from a show (for which she’s paid the princely sum of $150) featuring her youngest  children, Lorna (Bella Ramsey) and Joey (Lewin Lloyd), she’s informed she’s been thrown out because of her unpaid bills. With nowhere else to go, she winds up at the home of her ex-husband, Sidney Luft (Rufus Sewell), with whom’s she’s involved in a  custody wrangle, who makes it very clear what he thinks of her parenting.

Given her reputation of being difficult and unreliable, if she wants  to raise the money she needs to keep her children, she has to accept a five week season at the Talk of the Town, under impresario Bernard Delfont (Michale Gambon), although the kids have to remain behind.

Arriving in London, she’s feted as a superstar, but a combination of crippling insecurity, insomnia, pills and drink, leave her refusing to rehearse and having to be frog marched on to the stage by exasperated but sympathetic (real) production assistant Rosalyn Wilder (Jessie Buckley) where, once in the spotlight, she knocks them dead with a rendition of  I’ll Go My Way by Myself. It’s kind of downhill from that point, hitting rock bottom when her impulsive brief marriage to the much younger  Mickey Deans (Finn Wittrock), a chancer with an eye on making a  fortune off her name, blows up in her face and she’s sacked. On top of which, Luft turns up with some unwelcome news about what the children have decided for their future.

All this is regularly punctuated with flashbacks to the young Judy (Darci Shaw) who, as Dorothy Gale won the world’s hearts with Over The Rainbow, but was bullied and verbally (and it was  rumoured sexually) abused by tyrannical movie mogul Louis B. Meyer (Richard Cordery)  who, to get what wanted on camera had her dosed up with appetite suppressants to keep her thing, amphetamines to keep her awake and sleeping pills for her anxiety-induced insomnia, an addiction that stayed with her as she grew, compounded by alcoholism. If you weren’t already aware Garland’s nightmare existence at MGM, from which she was eventually ‘let go’ in 1950, this is a real wake up call., and further serves to elicit empathy and understanding when you see the adult Judy acts like a diva and collapsing into self-destruction.

The problem is that Zellweger’s performance is so intense, so fierce and so compelling, and her self-performed musical numbers so exhilarating, that the film around her pales into a somewhat rote biopic of underwritten supporting characters (though Buckley does emerge with honours) with brief interactions between Garland and  the likes of daughter Liza Minelli (Gemma-Leah Devereux), Talk of the Town musical arranger Burt Rhodes (Royce Pierreson,  skiffle star Lonnie Donegan (John Dalgleish), whose show she most definitely did not usurp as seen here, and, as her younger self, frequent co-star Mickey Rooney, a potential young romance rejected here in favour of the roar of the crowd.

Climaxing with a fragile, vulnerable, vocally cracked performance of that song it’s undeniably a compelling and well-crafted portrait of the final days of a tragic star, but other than Best Actress, I suspect next year’s gongs are going to be somewhat thin on the ground.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Electric; Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

The Last Tree (15)

Adopting the same child to man tripartite structure as Moonlighting and also concerning with questions of identity and culture, writer-director Shola Amoo weaves an at times dreamlike spell across his semi-autobiographical account of a young Nigerian-British boy’s coming of age and journey of self-discovery.

Femi (an endearing Tai Golding) is first introduced living an idyllic life with his white foster ‘nan’ Mary (Denise Black) in rural Lincolnshire, playing happily with his white schoolmates. But then his  mother, Yinka (Gbemisola Ikumelo) resurfaces and takes him away to live with her in a cramped tower block in inner city London where she imposes strict parenting, feeding him Nigerian food and beating him for any transgression while the other boys in his class mock his full name (Olufemi), getting him into trouble on his first day. Transition via a flickering screen to his teenage years (now played by Sam Adewunmi) and, feeling doubly betrayed by his foster and his birth mother,  he’s hanging with a  bad crowd, has developed an attitude and is failing in school. He’s a prime recruit as apprentice in waiting for slightly older smalltime drug dealer Mace (Demmy Ladipo) in what increasingly seems to be the only option open to him.

It will take an attraction to fellow outsider, blue braided Tope (Ruthxjiah Bellenea), who has her own issues with race and bullying, some tough love by his mother, an understanding dedicated teacher (Nicholas Pinnock), a return visit to Mary and a somewhat contrived trip to Lagos to finally meet his arrogant Christian pastor father before he can comes to terms with his heritage, his family, himself and who he wants to and could be

Amoo offers subtle indications of the confusion Femi feels, such as posters of Tupac on his bedroom wall and The Cure on his Walkman, and Adewunmi captures all this with a seething internalised performance that only really erupts in a moment of uncontained anger and another molten catharsis.  Ikumelo is excellent too in brining empathy to a figure who initially comes across as unsympathetic in her harsh treatment of her son, Amoo gradually revealing the paths she’s had to also journey. On the downside, the Tobe relationship doesn’t really go anywhere and the attempts to humanise Mace by suggesting he has turned to what he does as the only option to look after his family never really gel with the subsequent brutality he has dished out. At times bearing an early Ken Loach influence, at others, especially in the final stretch, that of Truffaut, juggling the poetic with harsh realism, this is an insightful; and important film, even if the title remains a mystery. (Until Wed: MAC)

Rambo: Last Blood  (18)

Eleven years on from the underwhelming eponymous fourth and supposedly final entry into the franchise, Sly Stallone resurrects his troubled army vet  for yet another final outing. Now retired and living in his ranch which he shares with family friend, Maria (Adriana Barraza), and her granddaughter Gabrielle (Yvette Monreal), who, after being abandoned by her dad, he treats like his own niece, when she says she’s tracked her father down and wants to visit him in Mexico to get closure he forcefully advises against it. Naturally, she goes anyway and, betrayed  by a  supposed friend, winds up being abducted by a sex trafficking cartel. Inevitably Rambo goes after her and, after exerting some bone cracking pressure on the middleman supplier,  tracks down the gang headed up by the ruthless Martinez brothers, Hugo (Sergio Peris-Mencheta) and Victor (Óscar Jaenada),only to end up getting a  bludgeoning, leaving him with a vicious scar on his face (same cheek as in First Blood Part II), a punishment also afflicted, along with a forced drug addition, by Gabrielle, and left alive by  Hugo to endure the pain of knowing her fate.

However, patched up (though warning of concussion effects are summarily forgotten) with the help of an investigative journalist (a cursorily functional Paz Vega) who has her own grudge with the cartel, he returns, smashes a few skulls, decapitates Victor and takes off with the girl, who dies in in the seat next to him. Knowing Hugo will come after him, he plans out his revenge booby-trapping the farm, the house and the tunnels under the land (it’s never explained why he actually has tunnels or why the place is like a small armoury) and then, like the audience, sits back to await the Mexicans as they rush to their bloody deaths in a  sort of grislier version of Home Alone.

There’s  a cursory moment where he confesses that his savage side’s never gone away, just kept pushed down (cue swallowing handfuls  of pills), and is duly let  loose for yet another killing spree.  With the Mexicans all utterly despicable sadistic bad guys who patently deserve that they get, while Stallone taking the occasional moments to soulfully emote his emotional pain, once it gets to the third the film moves efficiently (and with a concise 89 minutes running time) from bloody and gruesome death to the next, head being blown off, bodies skewered, riddled with bullets, set aflame dismembered while saving Hugo to the last to he can feel his heart being ripped out like Rambo did.

The fact that he keeps his shirt on throughout signifies this as Stallone in serious dramatic rather than muscleman mode and there’s some affecting moments between him and his niece, but otherwise this is standard  revenge-thriller stuff, albeit with the carnage and gore amped up to the max, ending  a bizarre credits montage of clips from the earlier films he rides off  the classic Western hero into the sunset and, presumably, given the likely box office, yet another final final arterial spray. (Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Ready Or Not (18)

When orphaned Grace (Samara Weaving) married Alex Le Domas (Mark O’Brien), scion of the blueblood Le Domas games dynasty, she never thought till death us do part would apply so literally or so soon.  As part of the initiation into the family, at midnight new members are required to play one of the many games the family has devised or marketed over the years. And everyone has to abide by the rules, established by the great grandfather Victor in a deal with mysterious benefactor Le Bail, so as to avoid unspecified consequences. The card the new arrival most certainly does not want to draw is hide and seek. Which unfortunately, is precisely what Grace does, for the first time since the events of the 30-years earlier prologue.  She just has to stay hidden until dawn. The problem is that, while her husband, only just returned to the family fold, demurs and tries to help,  everyone else in the family, armed to the teeth with old-time crossbows, axes and guns,   is required to hunt her down so she can become  ritual sacrifice in the ‘games room’. So now, Grace, still in her full and increasingly torn and bloodied wedding get-up has to try and avoid demented patriarch Tony (Henry Czerny), Alex’s indifferent mother  (Andie MacDowell), ambivalent black-sheep brother Daniel (Adam Brody), his sisters, cokehead  Emilie (Melanie Scrofano) and the ill-named Charity  (Elyse Levesque),  her  numbskull husband  Fitch (Kristiann Bruun) and,  looking like a refugee from the Addams Family, the coldblooded Aunt Helene (a gloweringly wonderful Nicky Guadagni),  not to mention Emilie’s two kids and the butler (John Ralston), and stay alive. Something the   three maids, through a series of mishaps, find rather harder to accomplish. If she succeeds, legend has it that the family, in some sort of diabolic deal, will pay the price instead.

Essentially, this is another in spooky house cat and mouse genre, but, as written by Guy Busick and R. Christopher Murphy and directed by Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett, it marries the often bloody horror with the sort of sardonic  Gothic pastiche that distinguished the likes of  What We Do in the Shadows and  Tucker and Dale Meet Evil, the gallows humour (notably a scene involving Grace trying to steal a car that’s overriden by the service agent) increasing along with the blood and a rather gruesome encounter with the Goat Pit as it gathers to its confessedly Heathers-inspired climax.

You can read it as social/class satire, but it’s best enjoyed by just sitting back and watch the excellent, playing it knowingly straight Weaving transform from wide-eyed blonde to fuck you female rage and delivering the final line with crowd applauding aplomb.  (Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

 

Screenings courtesy of  Odeon and Cineworld

CINEMAS

Cineworld 5 Ways – 181 Broad St, 0871 200 2000

Cineworld NEC – NEC  0871 200 2000

Cineworld  – Mill Ln, Solihull 071 200 2000

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

Empire – Great Park, Rubery, 0871 471 4714

Empire  Coldfield – Maney Corner, Sutton Coldfield

0871 471 4714

The Everyman – The Mailbox 0871 906 9060

MAC – Cannon Hill Park 0121 446 3232

Mockingbird, Custard Factory  0121 224 7456.

Odeon Birmingham -Birmingham, 0871 224 4007

Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe – Ladywood Middleway, 0333 006 7777

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

Reel – Hagley Rd, Quinton, Halesowen 0121 421 5316

Showcase Walsall – Bentley Mill Way, Walsall 0871 220 1000

Vue Star City – Watson Road, 08712 240 240

 

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