MOVIE ROUND-UP: This Week’s New Film Releases, Fri Sept 20-Thu Sept 26

 

NEW RELEASES

Ad Astra (12A)

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

The Farewell (PG)

“Based on an actual lie” reads the opening statement, writer-director Lulu Wang’s second feature, the dialogue mostly in Mandarin with some English,  an expansion of a true story about Wang’s own grandmother already told as an episode of the This American Life TV series. The lie in question is the decision by her extended, scattered family not to tell  family matriarch Nai Nai (Shuzhen Zhou) that, as her younger sister, Little Nai Nai (Lu Hong), informs them, has stage 4 lung cancer terminal cancer and only   months to live.

Instead, they use the excuse of a  grandson’s’ wedding to his Japanese girlfriend of three months (Aoi Mizuhara) to variously return home from America and Japan to Changchun for the marriage and the banquet Nai Nai is organising, to say their goodbyes, everyone under strict instructions not to let the cat out of the bag. That, most especially, includes her granddaughter Billi (Awkwafina) who moved to New York with her family when she was a child, but has kept up a close relationship. She’s horrified that Chinese practise means the diagnosis is being kept secret and, while her parents,  boozy, hangdog-looking father (Tzi Ma) and acerbic, emotionally distant  (“Chinese people have a saying: When you get cancer, you die”) mother (Diana Lin) insist she stay behind because she can’t hide her emotions, although financially strapped (and having just heard she’s not getting a  Guggenheim Foundation grant), she flies out anyway.

As such, what ensues is a finely judged farce of  deceptions that takes in a whole range of prickly family dynamics involving long simmering resentments, jealousies, snobbery and snide put downs, all of which Billi looks upon with increasing frustration and annoyance while also having to deal with her feelings of guilt,  detachment from her native country and what family and home really mean.

Hitherto best known for her broad comic turns in Crazy Rich Asians and Ocean’s Eight, Awkwafina proves she can also be a finely nuanced serious actress, conveying her emotional struggles with a look or a hesitation in the way she speaks. But she’s also supported by a  superb ensemble cast, most notably the wonderful Zhou as the granny who long since stopped filtering her feelings (and, given she did the same with her late husband, likely knows what’s going on but plays long), Lin with her barely contained hostility towards her China-based sister-in-law’s hypocritical social pretensions,  and, in a largely physical performance involving a drunken wedding karaoke session, Chen Han as  Hao,  the dim bulb son of   Hiyai’s elder brother, whose wedding  has been swiftly arranged (in an amusing scene Nai Nai insists they say they’ve been dating for a year so people don’t think the bride’s pregnant).

Bittersweet with a gentle disarming humour, it’s an affectionate portrait of family  and cultural identity that deftly steers clear of sentimentality to end on a swelling slo mo euphoria and feelgood dramatic irony note in the final credits, a film that leaves you with a warm, fuzzy glow and perhaps the feeling to reconnect with those distant elderly relatives you’ve not seen in years. (Cineworld 5 Ways; Electric)

The Kitchen (15)

Based on a somewhat obscure DC comic, Straight Outta Compton co-writer turned first time director Andrea Berloff, serves up a warmed over variation on Widows  considerably drained of flavour. Set in Hell’s Kitchen in the late 70s, when their respective husbands, low rent Irish-American mobsters Jimmy (Brian d’Arcy James), Rob (Jeremy Robb) and the gang boss’s brother Kevin (James Badge Dale) get sent down for three years in an attempted robbery, their wives, mother-of-two Kathy (Melissa McCarthy), abused Claire (Elizabeth Moss) and Ruby (Tiffany Haddish), who, being both black and uptown has never been accepted as part of the family, find themselves financially stretched. The ‘family’ support money promised by Kevin’s brother, bully boy Little Jackie (Myk Watford), not enough to cover the rent, Kathy persuades the others to join her in taking over collecting the neighbourhood protection money, promising the assorted businesses that they’ll be more effective than the men.  This, of course, doesn’t sit too well with Little Jackie or his mother, Helen (Margo Martindale) who’s still very much involved behind the scenes. And the three are warned that they should get out or face the consquences.  When the consequences come calling on Claire in an attempted rape by Little Jackie, she’s saved by the sudden reappearance of Gabriel (Domhnall Gleeson), a sociopathic former mob hitman and old flame timely back from Vietnam  to put a bullet in Little Jackie’s head and introduce the women to the fine art of dismembering and disposing of a body, a task Claire takes to with relish.

With their boss gone, the men soon fall into line and the trio  are ruling the roost, cleaning up the streets and pulling in a fortune. However, when Kathy decides she wants to help the Irish construction workers, of which her father is one, and pressures (a bullet in the head) the local Hasidic businessmen into employing them, she attracts the attention of Italian mob moss Coretti (Bill Camp) in Brooklyn who supply their own men for the jobs. However, a mutually beneficial deal is brokered but then the bombshell drops that the husbands are getting out early and that they’re going to want to reassume their old positions and ways and won’t take kindly to having their women doing men’s work. Clearly they or  the husbands have to go.

With an underwritten screenplay (which also entails  a scrappy subplot involving Common as an FBI agent) that pulls double crosses and confrontations out of thin air, the film loads up casual violence, sometimes to awkwardly comic effect, but never really conjures any sense of tension.  While Berloff never brings any real sense of character to Hell’s Kitchen itself, the leads do their best with the clunky dialogue and unfocused direction, Moss arguably the strongest of the three. However, while audiences are clearly intended to root for them over the way they’ve been treated in a  male dominated society,  their journey to self-empowerment (cued by such songs as Barracuda and Gold Dust Woman ) leaves an unpleasant taste given that, at least in terms of Ruby and Claire, they’re no less brutal or ruthless than their male counterparts, as the film hobbles towards its implausible and underwhelming conclusion. There’s no heat in this kitchen.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

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

 

NOW SHOWING

 

Angel Has Fallen (15)

The first film, Olympus Has Fallen, a knock off White House Down, the second essentially the same but in London, Gerard Butler returns for a third time as Secret Service Agent Mike Banning, personal bodyguard to Allan Trumbull (Morgan Freeman) who has moved up the political ladder to become President. Although still a one-man army, this time round, directed as by directed by ex-stuntman Ric Roman Waugh, Banning is feeling the effects of his close combat career, afflicted by an array of aches and pains (which he’s kept under wraps), and wondering whether he should take a desk job as the Secret Service Director, not that this seems to stop him racking up a small war bodycount as the film progresses.

While out on a fishing trip, along with numerous agents, the President is attacked by dozens of armed drones that leave everyone dead save for Banning (although targeted, the strike is cancelled); however, with Trumbull in a coma, having been saved by Banning, there’s no way to refute FBI  agent Thomson’s (Jada Pinkett Smith) assertion that he was responsible for the assassination attempt, especially given his DNA’s all over the van used for the launch and that he’s got millions in a secret offshore account, apparently funded by the Russians.

Escaping when his detail is ambushed en route to prison, the rest of the film sees him setting out to clear his name, take down those who’ve set him up, prevent a second attempt on Trumbull’s life and, in the process, reuniting with his estranged, conspiracy theory off the grid dad (a heavily bewhiskered scene-stealing Nick Nolte) from whom Banning clearly inherited an affinity or firearms and explosives.

Opening with a mock exercise testing out a training ground for best friend turned private contractor Wade Jennings (Danny Huston), you don’t need a degree in film analysis to know he’s going to be the bad guy (indeed, the film reveals as much early in), just as Tim Blake Nelson as the hawk-like acting President who, opposed Trumbull’s refusal to involve for-profit private contractors to supplement the military and wants to go to war with Russia is patently not to be trusted.

Although Banning’s wife is now played by Piper Perado rather than Rhada Mitchell (and rather shortchanged in the screenplay), pretty much everything else follows the template laid down in the previous films and as such delivers exactly what you expect, climaxing with an extended explosive hospital shoot out and  the bad guy’s wince-inducing last line. Generic nonsense, but Angel has sufficiently strong wings to keep it aloft.  (Cineworld NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Animals (15)

Adapted from her own novel by Emma Jane Unsworth, but relocated from Manchester to Dublin, director Sophie Hyde essentially offers up a female version of Withnail and I as, turning thirty and  marriage sees the bonds of a hitherto inseparable friendship between two party hard women start to unravel.

At 32, reluctant barista Laura (Holliday Grainger) isn’t so much a  failed writer as a stillborn one, constantly jotting down notes,  but not having written more than ten pages in ten years. None of which she’s kept. She shares a flat with her landlady and best friend, Tyler (Alia Shawkat), the Withnail of the two, a somewhat feckless American  come to Ireland to escape  an abusive father and always ready to accompany Laura on her booze-fuelled jaunts round the city’s clubs and bars, and then to push her further.

However, when Laura’s younger sister Jean (Amy Molloy), once a wild child herself, announces she’s expecting, it sounds some sort of alarm bells and when she starts dating Jim (Fra Fee), a far more straitlaced, classical pianist on the rise, she’s the one who proposes.  Her nights she spends with Jim, who gives up drinking (for reasons of guilt revealed later), but still carries on her partying lifestyle. All of which  leaves confirmed caustic singleton and rebel Tyler not just bemused, but confused, resentful and angry, to the extent that, afraid of losing her,  she attempts to break them up by nudging Laura towards an affair with Marty (Dermot Murphy), a soulful poet professor. At the same time, Laura finds herself uncertain that she actually wants the settled and safe lives of Jim, Jean and her parents, yet nor is she sure she can continue down the same hedonistic path as Tyler.

Someone observes that Laura drinks “with a real sense of mortality”, and it’s very much this that the film explores, the search to find something to give life meaning when staring into the abyss, but always doubting if it really does, or if you’re going to go self-destructive  and ruin everything.  While they may be social animals, of a feral nature, Tyler and Laura have created their own hermetic world and are scared of leaving it, or, in Tyler’s case, of being left there on her own.  Liked Laura’s writing, both women’s lives are blocked and neither can move forward, always scribbling but never forming full paragraphs.

The supporting cast are solid and the two leads are terrific, both prickly and riddled with self-doubt, whether they acknowledge it or not, both fearful of being alone. The screenplay and the actresses make no attempt to render them especially likeable, indeed both can be cruelly hurtful and vindictive, ruthlessly selfish and manipulative, lashing out and yet at the same time are achingly vulnerable in their palpable hurt. The important thing is that they feel real and true,

Working with cinematographer Bryan Mason, Hyde and create an atmosphere so thick you can almost smell the streets and the bars, but equally overdoes her ‘animal’ symbolism  with shots of foxes prowling the alleyways looking for scraps to survive. Even so, this is up thre with Booksmart as one of the most  compelling, insightful and emotionally involving female friendship films in many a  year. (Mockingbird)

Blinded By The Light (12A)

Easily director Gurinder Chadha’s best work since Bend It Like Beckham, this may be predictable and clichéd, but its feelgood crowd pleaser vibe about the power of music to transform lives is impossible to resist. Co-penned by Chadha and husband Paul Mayeda Berges with British journalist Sarfraz Manzoor, it’s based on his book about how the music of Bruce Springsteen spoke to him and as a Luton teenager and rescued him from the late 80s austerity and mass unemployment of Thatcher’s Britain with its riots in response to the rise of neo-Nazi National Front

Here, Javed (star in the making Viveik Kalra) is an Anglicised  Pakistani British teenager with no sense of purpose or direction, he’s never had a girlfriend, writes songs for his best mate neighbour Matt (Dean-Charles Chapman) who is into the emergent synth pop (the soundtrack also features Pet Shop Boys and Cutting Crew) and politically-charged poetry for himself. He wants to be a writer, but his traditionalist factory worker father, Malik (Kulvinder Ghir) is determined he get a proper job as a doctor or lawyer while his mother Noor (Meera Ganatra) takes in piecework so the family, which also includes similarly-Anglicized older sister  Shazia (Nikita Mehta), can scrape by.

Three things happen that turn his life around. His supportive English teacher (Hayley Atwell) is taken with his writing and enters him for a competition. He starts dating activist classmate Eliza (Nell William). And, most importantly, Roops (Aaron Phagura), the only Sikh at his school, introduces him to the music of Bruce Springsteen by way of Born in the U.S.A and Darkness on the Edge of Town. While others, including Matt And the school’s amateur radio presenter, reckon the Boss is old news, it hits Javed like a thousand volts of electricity as he hears Springsteen expressing his own blue collar frustration and dreams (“I check my look in the mirror, I want to change my clothes, my hair, my face”).  Soon he’s wearing check shirts with torn sleeves and his room is full of Springsteen posters.

But then his dad gets laid off, and suddenly any hopes of becoming a writer, even though he’s given a chance to intern at the local newspaper (where he goes on write a front page lead about an attack on a mosque), seem even more remote.

In similar fashion to Sunshine on Leith and, to some extent, Sing Street (and, if you must, Mamma Mia), Chadha uses Springsteen’s songs often projecting the lyrics on screen, to both propel the narrative and mirror both Javed’s personal issues (such as Independence Day reflecting his relationship with his father) and the state of the nation, such as backdropping the 1987 riots to Jungleland. Naturally, they also serve as a romance booster as in both Prove It All Night and an obligatory crowd song and dance sequence where  he sings Thunder Road to Eliza in the local outdoor market, Matt’s dad (Rob Bryden) and everyone else  singing along. Rather inevitably, the highlight comes with Born To Run as Javed, Roos, and Eliza dance through the city streets and out into the fields.

Evoking thoughts of Nick Hornby and East Is East, it sets Javed’s struggle to claim his own identity against such familiar tropes as fractured friendships, immigrant generational clashes (those ties that bind!) and triumphing over the odds, giving the film an anthemic thematic and narrative quality that echoes the songs. The various narrative strands are deftly woven together, including a sequence where Shazia reveals an unexpected side to her dutiful daughter image and Javed and Roops stand up to a bunch of NF yobs, variously inducing laughter, tears and, above all, inspiration as it climaxes in speech about family, forgiveness and rock n roll that will have you reaching for the tissues and punching the air at the same time. (Mockingbird)

 

Crawl (15)

Basically Lake Placid reinvented as a home invasion movie, or Jaws in the basement with alligators rather than a shark, although characters seem perfectly capable of surviving having limps mangled or ripped off by the swamp killers, this is a perfectly respectable and tension-packed thriller.  With a Category 5 hurricane on the way and everyone being evacuated, when he doesn’t answer his phone , collegiate swimmer (and yes, that proves a crucial plot element) Haley Keller (Kaya Scoledario) heads out to her demanding ex-coach dad Dave’s (Barry Pepper), southern Florida home and finds the neighbourhood deserted and him badly injured in the crawlspace.  She revives and patches him up but, bad news, the rising flood waters have not just swamped the town, but they’ve brought with them dozens of murderous gators, at least two of whom are in the cellar. So, somehow, she’s got to get herself, dad and the obligatory family dog, to safety before they’re either drowned or eaten.

Virtually, save for some gator fodder, a two-hander (and four paws), it’s a simple B-movie set-up, one which  director Alexandre Aja mines for maximum effect as he piles on the suspense and injury and still finds room to throw in some surprises and character background regarding the father-daughter relationship. It’s popcorn, but it’s well-buttered and salted.  And don’t worry about the dog. (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. (Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; 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 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Electric; Everyman; MAC; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Fast & Furious: Hobbs & Shaw (12A)

The first of the Fast & Furious spin-offs, this reunites alpha male rivals Luke Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) and Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham) who are forced to reluctantly team up when the latters’s MI6 agent sister,  Hattie (Vanessa Kirby), prevents Snowflake,  a deadly bio-engineered virus, from falling into the hands of dastardly multinational Eteon who want to unleash it on the world by injecting it into her own body. On the run after being framed for killing her own team, L.A.-based Diplomatic Security Service freelancer Hobbs  and London-based Cockney mercenary Shaw  are respectively recruited by agents Locke (Ryan Reynolds, reunited with Deadpool 2 director David Leitch), Hobbs’ former partner and self-appointed best-friend, and Loeb (Rob Delaney) to track her down. Though initially refusing to work together, they have no choice when Hattie’s abducted by Eteon’s bionically-enhanced supersoldier, Brixton Lore (Idris Elba), a veritable ‘black Superman’ with super strength, and bulletproofing,who has history with former partner  Shaw (as in being shot between the eyes when he tried to kill him), which, the pair now framed as international terrorists, means getting the Russian scientist who created Snowflake (Eddie Marsan) to remove it from Hattie’s body before the clock counts down and it goes live.

All of which essentially serves as an excuse from a series of insult trading, dick-measuring banter between the two muscle men, various high speed car/bike/truck chases, over the top fights and globe trotting locations (Chernobyl included) before climaxing back at Hobbs’ home in Samoa, which he’s not seen since leaving (for reasons later explained) 25 years earlier and the family his young daughter Sam (Eliana Sua) doesn’t even know exists. Indeed, family provides the running theme here, Hobbs and Shaw both reconnecting with their respective estranged brother, engineer-whizz Jonah (Cliff Curtis), and sister, while Helen Mirren pops up in a  cameo as the Shaw siblings’ now incarcerated mom (Queenie).

Forever winking at the camera, Johnson and Shaw make for hugely entertaining mismatched buddies, each with their own personal fighting styles (basically bludgeon/martial arts), the latter returning to his roots for the final showdown Samoan style, while Elba strides through with charismatic bad guy cool and Kirby suggests she could handle a franchise of her own., With a Reynolds end credits sequence setting up the sequel, Mirren, Eiza Gonzalez as Russian merc Madame M and a cameoing Chris Tucker as an air marshall keen to get back into the thick of things, all clearly lined up to join the team,  the only question is will there be a popcorn bucket big enough. (Cineworld NEC; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Vue Star City)

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

The Informer (15)

Directed by Andrea Di Stefano, clearly taking cues from Michael Mann and Antoine Fuqua, it’s an adaptation (part written by Roland Joffe) of a Swedish crime thriller relocated from Stockholm to New York  and, while fairly generic in a  90s sort of way, it never fails to grip.

An ex-con who got early parole by becoming an FBI informant, Polish former sniper Pete Koslow (Joel Kinnaman) is recruited by handler Wilcox (Rosamund Pike) to help in a  sting to nail Polish drugs lord The General (Eugene Lipinski). However, when one of the underlings decides to improvise a deal on the side, things go awry  when a cop gets killed, Pete finds himself being pressured by Wilcox’s boss, Montgomery (Clive Owen), to go along with The General’s demand that, as penance, he break parole so he can get sent back to prison and to act as The General’s inside , but, in fact, work for the FBI to bring down the behind bars networks. Knowing he has the tapes to show what he was doing, he reluctantly agrees. Meanwhile, NYPD cop Grens (Common) is investigating his buddy’s murder and has Pete pinned as prime suspect. Somewhat inevitably, at some point, cold fish Montgomery orders Wilcox to pull the plug and burn her contact, leaving Pete to survive, unsure of who wants to kill him most, the Polish inmates or the rival African American drug boss.

Throw in supportive Pete’s wife (Ana de Armas) and young daughter, who find themselves caught between Gens, the duplicitous FBI and the General’s goons and there’s plenty of fuse to keep the tangled plot burning.

Between the grim and grimy New York streets and a prison wall to wall with heavily tattooed thugs, the film is high on visual atmosphere and adopts a suitably cynical view of how the FBI use and throw away informants when the situation demands. Kinnaman does strong and soulfully silent to good effect while the supporting cast provide just what the screenplay asks, ranging from cold pragmatism to troubled conscience and doggedly loyal support as it builts to an implausible but nevertheless gripping hostage stand-off climax. There’s enough loose ends for the coda to suggest a sequel. Hopefully the box office will warrant one.  (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.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

The Lion King (PG)

Given, there being no human characters unlike director Jon Favreau’s previous revamp of The Jungle Book, the fact that this is all CGI  makes it a little disingenuous to call it a live action remake. However, such is the degree of photorealism as regards both the landscapes and animals, that it would be easy to believe this is actual flesh and fur, earth and water. It’s hard to imagine anyone who isn’t familiar with the 1994 animated original, itself a riff on Hamlet,  so, again opening with the Circle of Life gathering at Pride Rock,  this virtual shot by shot, line by line update  won’t hold any narrative surprises surprises, indeed the main difference lies in ditching the annoying Morning Report song, rendered here as dialogue from Zazu, the red-billed hornbill factotum. The thrill comes, instead, from seeing the characters in such three-dimensional  form, the hyenas even more scary-looking while the CGI incarnations of warthog Puumba Seith Rogan) and meerkat Timon (Billy Eichner) are a delight, especially in the way the former, all bristles and tusk, trots along like  dainty ballerina. They still sing Hakuna Matata and even get to make a filmic in joke about how, having fled the Pridelands believing himself responsible for the death of his father, Mufasa (James Earl Jones reprising his role), in stampede, the young Simba (JD McCrary) grows into the adult lion (Donald Glover) in the course of the song while they still look the same. They also sing a snatch of Be Our Guest from Beauty and the Beast.

There’s no new additions (though a couple of hyenas are renamed), but all the familiar characters are present and correct with an impressive array of appropriately African-American vocal talent that includes Alfre Woodard as Sarabi, Simba’s mother, John Kani as mandrill shaman Rafiki, Beyoncé, in a slightly expanded role, as Nala, Simba’s childhood best friend and future love interest who not only gets to duet on Can You Feel The Love Tonight but has her own all new song, Spirit, while Shahadi Wright Joseph from the original Broadway cast is the young cub and Chiwetol Ejiofor is superbly sly as Simba’s treacherous uncle, Scar. Whether the revamp has any point beyond the technical accomplishments is open to debate, but it certainly deserves to be a  roaring success. (Cineworld NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Once Upon A Time In Hollywood (18)          

Reuniting with both Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio, and teaming them together (in masterclass performances steeped in gleeful self-irony) on screen for the first time, Quentin Tarantino’s  ninth film is again awash with 60s pop culture references, from the music of the era to spaghetti Westerns and vintage American TV shows.   Some are obvious, others, such as a brief glimpse of a Kid Colt comic are throwaways while others let savvy audiences draw the dots, such as a Playboy Mansion party that (aside from a cameo by Damien Lewis as Steve McQueen) captions Michelle Phillips from the Mamas and Papas knowing that viewers will automatically know her more amply proportioned friend is Mama Cass.

A revisionist take on Hollywood lore and history, the loose plot pivots around Rick Dalton (DiCaprio), the this functioning alcoholic faded star of a TV Western called Bounty Law  whose action movie career never took off and is now reduced to playing the bad guy opposite the new rising names, and his long-time stunt-double, driver, general gofer and best buddy Cliff Booth (Pitt) an easy going,  self-assured war hero (and, echoes of Natalie Wood, wife killing) who lives in a crappy trailer next to a drive-in with his Rottweiler, Brandy.

Currently being directed by Sam Wanamaker (Nicholas Hammond) as the guest villain to Timothy Olyphant’s hero in a Western series called Lancer (which also features Scoot McNairy and the late Luke Perry), although initially reluctant, an opportunity for Rick to reinvent himself comes via fan and agent Marvin Schwarz (Al Pacino) who hooks him up with the second best director of Spaghetti Westerns to make things like Kill Me Quick, Ringo, Said the Gringo and Bond knockoff Operazione Dyn-o-mite, and from which he returns a married man.

Running parallel to this is a storyline involving Rick’s new neighbours on Cielo Drive, hot new director Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha) and his actress wife Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) the latter of whom was murdered (while heavily pregnant) along with four friends (including ex-fiance, Jay Sebring, here played by Emile Hirsch) by four of Charlie Manson’s followers on, as the Neil Diamond song presages, a hot August night which was regarded as the end of an era. The narratives are further interlinked when (as allegedly did Dennis Wilson from The Beach Boys) Cliff gives Pussycat (Margaret Qualley) a toke-dealing hippie a lift to her commune on the disused Spahn Movie Ranch where he has a run-in with her fellow cult members, notably the intimidating Squeaky (Dakota Fanning), and a brief cameo with Bruce Dern.

Littered with vintage clips, pastiches, billboards, posters, cinema marquees (at one point Tate goes to watch herself in a Dean Martin Matt Helm movie) and punctuated with a wealth of songs from the era, as the film builds nail-bitingly to its climax, Tarantino, brilliantly abetted by  cinematographer Robbie Richardson, production designer Barbara Ling and costumer Arianne Phillips, delivers one knockout sequence after another. Notable standouts among these include a fight between Cliff and a smug Bruce Lee (Mike Moh) on the set of The Green Hornet (which also features a Kurt Russell cameo) and a backlot moment involving Rick and  a precocious eight-year-old method actor (Julia Butters) on the set of Lancer, which, after he flubs his lines due to too much booze, results in a gripping take which she tells him was the best acting she’s ever seen. You’re inclined to agree.

In a breathtakingly audacious move only Tarantino would have the nerve and the ability to bring off, the accumulating tension ends with the bloodbath of August 8, 1969 as, armed with knives and a pistol,  Family member Tex and three girls make their way up Cielo Drive. Real movie stars, a real director, a helluva movie. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark (12)

Based on assorted tales in the young adult horror series of books by Alvin Schwartz, directed by Andre Ovredal and produced by Guillermo del Toro, who’s also one of the several  writers, set at  Halloween 1968  in the Pennsylvania town of Mill Valley against the backdrop of the Vietnam War (though any political point is never clear)  and opening to the strains of Donovan’s Season of the Witch, this sees three friends, Stella (Zoe Colletti), who feels she’s to blame for her mom leaving, Auggie (Gabriel Rush) and Chuck (Austin Zajur), along with Latino drifter in town Ramon (Michael Garza) who helps protect them from Tommy (Austin Abrams), the local bully, sneak into a creepy abandoned old house. The former home of a paper mill baron and his family, legend has it that the daughter, Sarah Bellows poisoned several of the town’s children and wrote scary stories in their blood, before hanging herself.

Exploring, they stumble upon  a secret room, where Sarah was kept confined, along with her book of stories, which Stella, herself as aspiring writer takes away with her. The creepiness begins when Tommy finds himself being stalked by Harold, the scarecrow on the farm, which he constantly batters with a baseball bat, and being transformed into a man of straw himself. Events which Stella witnesses being written in red in Sarah’s book as they unfold.  Tommy’s just the first. Next comes a story in which Auggie is beset by a female corpse looking for her missing toe (it’s in his stew), Chuck’s sister has an infestation of spiders grow inside her cheek and, during a visit to the hospital to research Sarah’ background,  her brother is cornered in the ‘Red Room’ by a white faced female ghoul.

This just leaves Ramon and Stella, the latter realising that the book reads them and writes their stories, and, naturally, the local cop refuses to believe a word. Until another creature turns up looking for Ramon. All of which means, Stella has to somehow put an end to things by telling the hidden truth of Sarah’s own story, although at this point the film seems rather confused as to the link between them.

Stories hurt and stories heal is the film’s motto and the episodic screenplay (structured much like Final Destination) doggedly unfolds how both work, playing rather like a Scooby-Doo yarn without the dog and, despite some chilling moments, and, unfortunately largely with about the same degree of scariness. (Vue Star City)

Spider-Man: Far From Home (12A)

Faced with the daunting challenge of being the first outing of the  Marvel Cinematic Universe in the aftermath of the game-changing Avengers: Endgame (it opens with a high school in memoriam tribute to the fallen heroes),  returning director Jon Watts wisely avoids its dramatic and emotional intensity and, for at the first half at least, adopts a playful, light tone with witty repartee and quips as, adjusting to life after returning from ‘the blip’, Peter Parker (Tom Holland) is beset with both grief over the death of his mentor, Tony Stark, deep reservations about being touted as his successor and, more importantly, trying to summon up the courage to tell MJ (an endearing sassy Zendaya) how he feels about her. Especially given fellow classmate Brad (Remy Hii), who has become a real hunk in the five years Peter was ‘dead’, is making moves. On top of which he’s not too sure how he feels about the fact that Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau) seems to be flirting with Aunt May (Marisa Tomei).

As he tells best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon), he intends to take her up the Eiffel tower during the upcoming Europe-trotting school trip and open his heart. Naturally the best laid plans of mice and Spider-man oft gang awry, here thanks to the intervention of Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson), whose calls he’s been avoiding, who turns up in Venice and  recruits him in the fight against the Elementals, creatures that embody the power of the four elements. Or rather the last of them, fire, since the other three, including the water monster that trashed Venice, was taken out, with help from Spidey, by Quentin Beck, or, as the Italian media dubs him, Mysterio (Jack Gyllenhall), the sole survivor of an alternate Earth, a superhero who emits green vapour trails and fires laser beams from his wrists and has joined forces with S.H.I.E.L.D. He and Peter quickly bond over their shared sense of loss. A little interference from Fury sees the trip to Paris relocated to Prague where the fire monster is scheduled to appear, climaxing in the two engaged in another sensational battle, this time with Peter in a new black outfit to avoid anyone putting two and two together that  has Ned christening him Night Monkey.

Given the film is only half-way in, it’s obvious there’s a twist up its sleeve, and without giving too much away, it’s worth remembering the theme of illusion and appearances on which the film’s founded.

Rattling along, it questions what it means to be a reluctant superhero while juggling the romantic suplot, including Ned hooking up with aspirant class reporter Betty Brand (Angourie Rice), comic relief involving dickhead Parker-baiting Spidey fan Flash Thompson (Tony Revolori) while dropping in a  poignant Robert Downey Jr cameo flashback, a crucial plot device in the form of high-tech intelligence system glasses named Edith (with which Peter inadvertently calls in a  drone strike on Brad before passing them on to whom he regards as their true worthy successor) and, yes, the Peter Tingle.

Giving a hugely engaging performance, Holland has really grown into the role as the guileless  boy not sure if he’s ready to become a man while Gylllenhaal juggles earnest and diva to perfection, arguably rendering this the most satisfying Spider-Man movie yet. And ensure you stay for the post-credits sequence which, in addition to reintroducing a cast member from the original Sam Raimi movies (Brant’s a hint), delivers one more slap in the face twist that sets up a whole new nightmare for Peter to face in the eagerly anticipated follow-up.  (Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Vue Star City)

Toy Story 4 (U)

The fourth and final entry sees the Toy Story out on an emotional high as it pulls together the themes that have run throughout the saga for a finale that will have audiences welling up. It opens several years earlier when Woody (Tom Hanks) and the other toys, among them Jessie (Joan Cusack), Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen), Rex (Wallace Shawn) and Hamm (John Ratzenberger), were still owned by Andy as Woody (motto ‘leave no toy behind’) daringly rescues a toy car that has got lost and is about to be washed away in the gutter. However, before Woody can climb back through the window, it’s slammed shut as he watches Bo Peep (Annie Potts) and her three-headed sheep, Billy, Goat and Gruff, the porcelain lamp belonging to Andy’s sister Molly, being boxed up to go to a new home.  He attempts to rescue her, but she insists it’s time to move on to a new child and invites him to join her. Loyal to his kid, Woody refuses.

Fast forward to the present and his new kid, Bonnie (Madeleine McGraw) is off to kindergarten orientation and, ignoring the advice from the other toys, Woody, who she hasn’t played with in weeks (indeed, she even gives his badge to Jessie) and has lost his lost his role as keeper of the room to Dolly (Bonnie Hunt), sneaks into her backpack to ensure she’s ok. At school, he helps by providing her materials from which she makes herself a new plaything, Forky (Tony Hale), a plastic spork with pipe-cleaner arms, popsicle-stick feet and googly eyes. He’s her new favourite toy, but it takes a real effort for Woody to convince him that he’s a toy not trash (he keeps trying to get into the rubbish bins in a montage set to Randy Newman’s I Can’t Let You Throw Yourself Away) and that he’s important to Bonnie. The ironic symmetry is obvious, one is a toy who fears becoming trash, one is trash who doesn’t want to be a toy.

At which point, the family take a road trip to Grand Basin National Park and an amusement park where, separated from the others while he explains things to Forky, Woody comes across Second Chance Antiques and spots Bo Peep’s lamp in the window. For the past seven years, in turns out she has embraced the life of a lost toy, enjoying the freedom of the park and become something of feisty kick ass (another of Disney’s female empowerment touches), riding around the park in a motorised skunk.  “Who needs a kid’s room,” she asks, showing Woody the panoramic view of the park, “When you can have all of this?”

The reunion is, however, overshadowed by the fact that the store also contains Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks), a creepy vintage 1950s pull-string doll who, assisted by four Chucky-like ventriloquist dummy henchdolls, takes Forky hostage because she wants to replace her broken pull string voice box with Woody’s in the hope of getting a kid of her own.

What ensues are two extended rescue missions variously involving Bo, Buzz and Jessie (Joan Cusack) alongside new characters joined at the paw plushies Bunny (Jordan Peele) and Ducky (Keegan-Michael Key), mini-toy rescue cop Giggle McDimples (Ally Maki) and Canadian stunt biker Duke Caboom (Keanu Reeves) whose plagued by a sense of failure after being discarded when his abilities didn’t measure up to his marketing.

Exploring themes such as finding your purpose, self-worth, abandonment, loyalty, responsibility, selflessness, and that letting go and moving on doesn’t mean you stop loving or being loved, it will touch chords in both children and adults alike while also providing thrilling action sequences, dark and scary moments, affecting poignancy, laughs (not least in Buzz thinking his pre-programmed recordings are his ‘inner voice’) and moments of breathtaking beauty. From a joyful reunion to a moving parting of the ways farewell, this will take your heart to infinity and beyond.  (Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; 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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