MOVIE ROUND-UP: This Week’s New Film Releases, Wed Oct 24-Thu Nov 1

NEW RELEASES

Bohemian Rhapsody (12A)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

            

The Hate You Give (15)       

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nonetheless, for all its sometimes blunt approach, there’s no denying the moral fire that is its engine, especially in the wake of the current spate of shootings of unarmed blacks by white officers, with Stenberg providing the high octane fuel of a new generation of young Americans, of all colours, that feeds it.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Also Released

They Shall Not Grow Old (15)

Showing in limited locations and in some cases just as a one-off, this is Peter Jackson’s contribution to events marking the 100th anniversary of the end of WWI, his own grandfather having served at the front. A massive undertaking, he’s taken archive newsreel footage from the Imperial War Museum  and painstakingly not only colourised black and white film and converted it to 3D, but, with the aid of lip-readers, voice-over actors and commentaries from post-war interviews, given voice to the men and women therein.   Adding sound effects such as the sound of artillery as well as casual background banter,  it’s narrated by unnamed soldiers (though each is identified in the end credits) as the film moves from the build-up to the war, through the  years of  slaughter and horror to the aftermath as people tried to rebuild their lives, scenes including a recruiting sergeant sending away enthusiastic but underage volunteers, advising them to come back when they’re seventeen as well as offering up images of the hell of trench warfare. A poignant, sometimes harrowing salute to those who gave their all, whether in death on the battlefield or a living death when they returned home to be met with indifference.  (Showcase Walsall; Fri/Tue/Thu: Electric; Mon: Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield)

 

NOW PLAYING

 

A Star is Born (15)

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

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

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

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

Alongside Elliott, whose backstory relationship with his brother also informs Jackson’s demons, the strong supporting cast also includes Andrew Dice Clay as Ally’s passive-aggressive father, Lorenzo, himself a failed singer who reckons he was better than Sinatra, and Dave Chappelle as one of Jackson’s more grounded friends; Alex Baldwin even cameos hosting Saturday Night Live.  But it’s the electrifying pairing of  Cooper, a grizzled cocktail of fractured love,  wounded pride and self-loathing, and Lady Gaga, the ugly duckling finding her inner swan, torn between achieving her dreams and standing by her broken husband, that galvanises the film. A refreshed take on an old story, this is what romance and tragedy on a grand Hollywood scale but with an intimate heart is all about.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Electric; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

First Man (12A)

Director Damien Chazelle’s follow-up to his Oscar-winning La La Land also reaches for the stars, or, rather the moon.  The true story of how, on July 21, 1969, Neil Armstrong came to be the first person to set foot on the lunar surface, following his journey through the NASA space programme of the 60s, it reinforces his skill as a filmmaker, taking the perspective of the astronauts in capturing the physical and claustrophobic nature of those early manned flights with more authenticity than any previous film, taking audience inside the cockpits as they roll and shake like high tech bucking broncos. But it also brings into focus the human ambitions, fears and doubts of those involved, whether they’re wearing the space suits or not.

It launches in 1961 with Armstrong (Ryan Gosling), a pilot engineer, walking away from yet another X-15 crash after bouncing off the Earth’s atmosphere. Back home he suffers a professional setback when he’s grounded and a personal tragedy when his young daughter, Karen, succumbs to cancer.   He and his wife, Janet (Clare Foye), have a son and, before long, a second is born, but living with loss continues to haunt Armstrong, both that of his child and of the fellow astronauts who die in the course of first the Gemini and then the Apollo missions. He remains stoical, well aware this is all part of what he and the others signed on to do, that “We need to fail down here so we don’t fail up there.”  Or, as Jan puts it, “we got good at funerals.”

 

With the Russians leading the space race, beating America to the first space walk, the pressure is on to get to the moon and Armstrong’s recruited to  join the Gemini programme alongside the likes of Ed White and Gus Grissom, who alongside  Roger Chafee would die when their capsule caught fire during a  test. Understandably, news that he’s been chosen for the moon mission makes both his wife and kids anxious and there’s a powerful scene when, on the night he’s setting off, she tells him to talk to his sons about how me might not return rather than spend the time packing so as avoid things. And even then he distances himself by treating it as a press conference, asking “Are there any other questions?”

There are several ‘off-duty’ moments involving the space pilots and their families, underscoring that, whatever their job, they were still ordinary men who had a beer together and played with their kids. Likewise, the film largely avoids the backroom stuff about budgets and politics while scenes at NASA with NASA director Robert Gilruth (Ciarán Hinds) and Deke Slayton (Kyle Chandler), Chief of the Astronaut Office, serve to remind that they were essentially flying the seat of their pants and learning as they went, or, as Jan  puts it during one particularly tense episode, “You’re a bunch of guys making models out of balsa wood! You don’t have anything under control!”

The support cast are solid, Corey Stoll making the most of playing Buzz Aldrin as a loudmouth pain in the ass, while, increasingly chain-smoking, Foye rises above the familiar wife at home role to wear on the surface the emotions that her husband kept buried. However, it’s Gosling who delivers a deeply soulful and internalised performance as Armstrong, troubled but quietly commanding when the need arises, who anchors the film as someone who, calm under pressure, you’d want by your side when your space capsule and potential grave refuses to respond to commands.

Given the repetitive nature of the in-cockpit sequences and the constant baffling techno-chatter crackling over the radio, there are times when viewers might get restless, but ultimately Chazelle carries you with his crew and, even almost fifty years on, the sight of that first footprint on the moon dust still hold that same sense of wonder. But it pales beside the emotional impact of Armstrong’s moments alone on the moon, an act that is entirely speculative, but which rings heartbreakingly true. The film may celebrate a historic moment in man’s journey to the stars, but it is firmly planted in the human heart. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park; Everyman; Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween (PG)

The original Goosebumps, in which he played a fictionalised version of R.L.Stine, the books’ creator,  reignited Jack Black’s stalled career after a string of flops. For the sequel, however,  while his name doesn’t  appear in the credits, he only makes a fleeting appearance towards the end (albeit in a coda that sets up a third film), but does provide the voice of psychotic ventriloquist dummy Slappy, essentially Stine’s version of Chucky.

The film’s actual stars are a trio of kids, mid-teens Sarah (Madison Iseman), her younger, electricity-obsessed video game geek brother Sonny (Jeremy Ray Taylor) and his best friend Sam (Caleel Harris), the latter both regular victims of the school bully. Sam proposes setting up a business clearing unwanted junk, which brings them to Stine’s long abandoned house where they come across a locked book hidden in a secret compartment and, of course, open it.

Bad move, as this was Stine’s first and still uncompleted story, one in which Halloween comes alive and, before they know it, now freed from the book, Slappy has entered their lives and, rejected when he creepily tries to become part of their family,  determines to create his own, with Sonny’s mother (Wendi McLendon-Covey) as his own mom, putting the town under a Gremlins-like siege of Halloween spooks and monsters, including turning the local hardware store clerk (Chris Parnell) into a green ogre and animating the giant purple balloon spider monster in the garden of their Halloween obsessed next door neighbour  (Ken Jeong).

So it’s up to the kids to get the monsters back into the book and shut down the old electricity generating tower built by Nikola Tesla, which  Sonny has been trying to duplicate for his science project, and which is giving Slappy his power.

Featuring a  cameo by the real R.L. Stine, it’s far more fun than might be expected with inspired visual touches such as the two boys being attacked by giant fang-toothed gummy bears as well as a sly throwaway Stephen King gag involving a red balloon,  the young leads avoid the Scooby-Do cartoonishness into which such characters can descend, McLendon-Covey provides some smart grown-ups humour while director Ari Sandel handles the mayhem with energy and flair as well as delivering the central message about overcoming your fears.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Halloween (18)

Dismissing the  previous nine sequels, director David Gordon Green picks things up 40 years after the original. Still not having spoken a word, Michael Myers (Nick Castle), the Haddonfield serial killer in the William Shatner mask is in a  secure mental facilty, now under the supervision of Sartain (Haluk Bilginer), a prison shrink fascinated to know what Myers feels when he kills, while his intended victim, Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) lives in heavily fortified PTSD seclusion, largely estranged from her daughter Karen (Judy Greer), resentful of how she was raised in a  climate of fear, who tries to limit her contact with granddaughter Allyson (Andi Matichak).

In a plot device whose only purpose is to reunite Myers and his mask, a couple of British podcast reporters (Rhian Rees, Jefferson Hall) visit both Myers and Strode to try and get them to talk about that night. They inevitably wind up among his first victims when, in a manner only briefly mentioned, Myers causes the bus transporting him to a new prison to crash and escapes, setting off on another spree of butchery (presumably to counter a teen’s dismissive comment that the original film’s five murders was pretty lightweight compared the slasher films it inspired) as he makes his way to find Strode, she equally keen for a reunion so she can kill him.

With her, Sartain and Officer Hawkins (Will Patton whose character wasn’t in the original despite what the screenplay claims), on his tail, Myers bloodily despatches (albeit mostly offscreen) a clutch of locals as they go about celebrating Halloween, among them some of  Allyson’s friends, though not, diappointingly, her jerk boyfriend, even if even, expanding his range beyond babysitters,  he draws the line at babies. Having satiated the casual slasher fans appetites, including throwing in a twist that’s dispensed with even before it really registers, things climax back at Strode’s where she and Myers play cat and mouse among what seems to be more rooms than your average hotel and Karen and Allyson take refuge in the secret basement.

Although the score retains Carpenter’s theme, the narrative rewrites the past by dismissing the notion, as in the 1978 film and subsequent sequals, that  Laurie and Michael are siblings as urban myth, but otherwise stays fairly true to the Carpenter blueprint, even if there’s rather less than it would like to thing to its  musings on the nature of evil and the way it can take its toll on and infect others, the camera lingering on the a knife held by one of the characters in the final shot would seem to nod to Rob Zombie’s  2009 remake.

Surrounded by a cast of largely annoying characters, Curtis revisits her final girl persona in solid style but, never especially scary and with no particular character depth, while diehards will enjoy the closure, the often confused and repetitive screenplay fails to create much by way of atmosphere or involvement to engage a generation largely unware of the franchise’s chequered history and reared on more flashy boogeymen.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Electric; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

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

A visually overstuffed fantastical romp (written in 1973, the source novel predates Potter, but the influences are clear in the film) Jack Black plays Jonathan Barnavelt who, when his sister and her husband are killed in a car crash, sends for  his orphaned, pilot goggles-wearing nerdy 10-year-old nephew Lewis (Owen Vaccaro) to share his eccentric mansion in New Zebedee, Michigan.

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

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

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

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

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

 

Hunter Killer (15)

Increasingly Scotland’s answer to Steven Seagal, having saved Earth from a climate apocalypse in Geostorm, Gerard Butler now helps prevent WWIII when, as the untested commander of a hunter killer submarine, this ill-timed pro-Russian nonsense sees him come to the rescue of Zakarin (Alexander Diachenko), the Russian president, who’s been taken prisoner in a coup staged by his Minister of Defence (Michael Gore) who reckons nuclear war will be good for his country’s morale.

Butler plays Joe Glass who, when first a Russian sub and then an American are blown up in the Arctic Ocean, is despatched aboard the USS Arkansas by Rear Admiral John Fisk (Common) to find out what happened.

Determining that the Russian sub was sabotaged, he rescues the survivors, among them his counterpart (Michael Nyqvist) and, although Admiral Charles Donnegan (Gary Oldman, phoning it in), who heads the Joint Chiefs of Staff, wants to go in hawkish and Def Con 1 hot, the clearly Hilary-modelled President (Caroline Goodall) authorises to go along with Fisk and NSA analyst Jayne Norquist’s (Linda Cardellini) plan to send in a bunch of Navy Seals (headed by Toby Stevens) to extract Zakarin so he can  cool things down.

The screenplay freely dispenses with any sense of logic or reality while the dialogue is carved out with the subtlety of a hammer and chisel, a clunkiness to which Butler duly rises as he delivers lines like “if it doesn’t suck, we don’t do it” and “We’re no different, you and I – we’ve been down here together for our whole careers.”

There’s a degree of underwater tension that comes with pretty much all submarine movies, but, with  a cast that basically falls into good Russians, bad Russians and heroic Americans, and some piss poor CGI adding to its many faults, this puts the sub into sub-par.  (Cineworld 5 Ways;  Empire Great Park; Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Johnny English Strikes Again (PG)

When a  hacker blows the cover of all of MI7’s agents, the only way to track them down is to recall one the retirees. Among them is Johnny English (Rowan Atkinson), currently working as a geography teacher with a sideline in training his pupils in espionage techniques. After accidentally eliminating the other candidates (cameos by Michael Gambon, Edward Fox and Charles Dance), MI7 boss Pegasus (Adam James) and the Prime Minister (Emma Thompson) have no choice but to assign the obliviously bumbling English to the job, who, along with his loyal sidekick Bough (Ben Miller) insists, in addition to a gun and other retro spy kit gadgets that are now out of fashion, on going totally analog so they can’t be tracked. This also includes him driving a weaponised snazzy red Aston Martin

Quickly, but not before burning down a French restaurant, English identifies the source of the attack as coming from a luxury yacht, Dot Calm, which, with one of the funniest throwaway gags involving magnets, they infiltrate and cross paths with Russian spy Ophelia Bulletova (former Bond-girl Olga Kurylenko).

Meanwhile, following yet more cyber attacks, the PM, looking for a way to bolster her image at the upcoming G12 summit,  is trying to recruit smarmy and slick billionaire tech genius Jason Volta (Jake Lacy), who immediately fixes the latest attack and, recommending she divert all the country’s servers to his,  agrees to come on board. He also happens to own the Dawn Calm.

Reprising his 007 spoof character after a seven year gap, in keeping with a world where the likes of Spy and Kingsman have restyled such parodies, there’s a little less slapstick and a little more self-aware sophistication  this time round. Even so, the screenplay still finds plenty of room for Atkinson’s unique brand of physical comedy, including scenes involving letting him loose on the London streets in a virtual reality headset and displaying his caffeine-high dance moves.

The climax, set in a Scottish castle, in which English attempts to stop Volta while wearing suit of armour is a touch drawn out and the screenplay frequently obvious and telegraphed, but, ably supported by Miller’s ever reliable straight man, Kurylenko providing the glamour and Thompson on fine comic form as the flustered, and exasperated PM looking to put her own prestige and survival before the country (drawn your own satirical conclusions), Atkinson mixture of accidental heroics, smug self-delusion, elastic expressions and perfect timing ensures that this is far more family friendly fun than some reviews would have you believe. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

King Of Thieves (15)

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

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

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

As per its obvious Ealing influences, it leans heavily on humour, but always with the sense that things could turn nasty as greed and paranoia take hold, keeping the suspense right to the end where, along with the Caine clip, Marsh also assembles footage of the others in their own earlier crime movie outings. It drags slightly in places, but, for the most, this might not blow the bloody doors off, but it’s still safecracking entertainment.  (Tue-Thu: MAC)

 

The Little Stranger (12A)

Based on the Sarah Walters novel and set in late 40s Warwickshire, director Lenny Abrahamson’s period Gothic horror follow-up to Room teases a ghost story but is actually about possession of a different nature.

It’s grandeur fading, Hundreds Hall is a stately pile belonging to the Ayres famil, matriarch (Charlotte Rampling), her former RAF pilot son Roderick (Will Pouter), badly burned and scarred, physically and mentally,  in the war, and daughter Caroline (Ruth Wilson), who’s returned home to care or her brother.  Called to treat the maid, Betty (Liv Hill), Dr. Faraday (Domnhall Gleason), recently back from London to become a partner at the local surgery,  offers to apply a new procedure he’s developed to ease the pain in Roderick’s leg. It also transpires that he became enthralled with the place when he visited with his mother herself a former maid there, for a garden party back in 1919 where he took part in a group photo, only to be obscured by Suki, the young Ayres daughter who died of diphtheria shortly after. As revealed later, he also took a memento.

As he continues to treat Roderick, Faraday grows closer to Caroline. All the more so when, following an incident her brother is removed to a psychiatric hospital. He, like Betty, is of the belief that there’s something malevolent in the house but it’s not until late in the film, as a little girl is injured, servants’ bells start to ring of their own accord and markings are found in the nursery, that  that the film raises  suggestions of a poltergeist nature, possibly to do with the dead girl. Faraday meanwhile seeks to try and further cement his relationship with Caroline while yet another tragedy befalls the family.

Affecting the clipped speech of those vintage classic stiff-upper lip drawing room British melodramas, a poker-faced Gleeson is terrific, hinting at perhaps ambiguous motives in insinuating himself into the family while Wilson soars as the emotionally wounded Caroline, crushed by disappointment and suffocating under the burden of the house, her family and the past.

Dropping in references to the advent of the NHS and the lands sales under the new Labour government and the parallel decline of the old ruling class, it subtly addressing matters of social class, envy and aspirations with village-stock Faraday serving as the not necessarily reliable narrator with his buttoned-up demeanour, but occasional private displays of intense rage. Complemented by an eerie score and the muted brown tones, much unfolding at night or in shadows, never resorting to the cheap scares of something like The Conjuring, the gathering dread and notion of a psychological-manifestation haunting build to the final shot revelation that will either leave you chilled or baffled. (Sat-Wed: MAC)

 

Night School (12A)

The funniest thing here is in the opening sequences when audiences are expected to buy Kevin Hart as a teenage high school student, although, once you get past the unnecessary fart and vomit gags, and, of course, Hart’s tendency to mistake shouting and using a high-pitched voice as acting, there are  a few other amusing moments. The film also raises a salute to inspirational teachers, though probably taking students into a boxing ring to smack them in the face or pin them with wrestling moves to get them to focus might not get the Oftsed approval.

Hart is Teddy Walker, a high school dropout working as a BBQ grills salesman and living beyond his means to impress high class design executive girlfriend, Lisa (Megalyn Echikunwoke). Things look to be on the up when he’s promised he’ll take over the business, but no sooner has he proposed to Lisa than the whole thing goes up in flames  and, deep in debt, he’s forced to look for another job. His friend and former classmate Marvin (Ben Schwarz) would hire him as a financial analyst, but first he needs to get his high school diploma, having walked out of the test 17 years earlier.

While telling Lisa that he’s got the job, he returns to his old school to sign up for night school only to discover his former geeky nemesis, Stewart (Taran Killam), is now the principal, an uptight power freak with a  habit of using black talk, and still harbours a grudge for an old humiliation. However, overworked teacher Carrie (Tiffany Haddish), with whom Teddy’s had an earlier run in at the traffic lights, agrees he can join her class, a bunch of other underachievers all working for their GED comprising  robot conspiracy nut Jaylen (Romany Malco), dorky Mac (Rob Riggle), Mila (a teenager trying to avoid juvenile detention) Mexican immigrant and aspiring singer Luis (Al Madrigal), a former waiter who got fired in Teddy’s attempt to avoid paying the bill, Bobby (Fat Joe), taking lessons from prison via Skype, and Theresa (comic highlight Mary Lynn Rajskub from 24) as a put-upon, sexually frustrated mother of three.

What little plot there is entails the class bonding, breaking into Stewart’s office to steal an upcoming test, and Teddy getting expelled, reinstated and dumped by Lisa as well as working behind the counter of, in an inspired touch, a Christian Chicken takeaway serving God’s own poultry. Unfortunately, such imagination highs are few and far between in a screenplay that plods a wholly predictable route (though it does avoid any student-teacher romance) en route to Teddy discovering why’s he academically-challenged and fulfilling his potential.

It’s a given that Hart is very much a  Marmite presence,  but Haddish rises above the script’s bitch slap clichés to make Carrie a straightshooter and dedicated teacher while the film is at its best when the class works together in rhythm. Even so, despite the pro-education message and the occasional touching moment, as directed by Girl Trip’s Malcom D Lee, with at least three endings,  it all feels like an extended series of sketches looking for a sitcom. A pass grade at best. (Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

The Rider (15)

Based on real events and people, female Chinese director  Chloé Zhao takes on a genre almost exclusively associated with red blooded American males, the Western, and comes up a winner. The film tells the part-fictionalised story of Brady Jandreau, playing himself but here named Blackburn, a 20-year-old horse wrangler and rodeo rider of Sioux heritage, whose life is thrown a curve when an accident in the ring leaves him with a metal plate in his head and his one hand clenching up. Faced with the prospect of never being able to ride again and enjoined by his buddies to ‘cowboy up’, pushing himself to get back in the saddle before he’s healed, he’s forced to question what it means to be a man when you’ve grown up to live your dream and that life and your sense of fulfilment are taken away. There’s a particularly poignant moment when, working in a local supermarket to earn some money, he’s approached for an autograph by two young fans, the sense of what he’s lost is almost crushing.  Equally numbing is a scene toward the end of the film involving Brady and the horse he bought and trained, one that brings home both the cruelty of fate, but also how for some, there are chances to rise above and begin anew.

Jandreau give a deeply soulful and internalised performance that suggests he may well have found that new career, while the cast of non-professionals also include terrific turns from his own father Tim and Asperger’s teenage sister Lilly playing versions of themselves, the lagtter full of unbridled optimism, the former a tough love widower with a drink and slot machine problem that’s placed the farm in jeopardy. Perhaps the most haunting self-portrayal though is ex-rodeo star, Lane Scott, left permanently a speech-deprived paraplegic following his own riding tragedy, watching footage of himself in his rodeo days. The tattoo on his back, “Say I won’t, and I will”, serves as Brady’s motivation to overcome his misfortunes.

Atmospherically photographed by Joshua James Richards, who was also cinematographer on God’s Own Country, it’s slow and sombre, but, suffused with the spirit of a Cormac McCarthy or  Larry McMurtry , it leaves you with the message that being a  man isn’t about getting back in the saddle, it’s about being able to walk away from it. (Fri-Sun: MAC)

 

           

Smallfoot (U)

Form and content are at distinct odds in this latest musical animation, an amusing family friendly perspective reversal concept tale about Yetis and humans for the post-Trump, fake news generation.

Living high up in the Himalayan mountains, beyond the cloud cover, Yetis live a contented life governed by the rules handed down over the years in the form of the ‘stones’. They believe that they originated from the backside of the great yak in the sky, that their mountain is held up by giant woolly mammoths who have to be kept cool by machines that generate water from ice, that the sun is a giant snail that has to be woken every morning to travel across the sky and that there is no such creature as a smallfoot, it’s just something to scare the kids.

But then, one day, Migo (Channing Tautum), eager to take over from his dad (Danny DeVito) as the one responsible for waking the snail every day (by firing themselves at a giant gong and striking it with their protective helmet, witnesses a plane crashing into the show and – even more – his first sight of a human: a smallfoot.

However, when the wreckage is swept away, he has no proof and is firmly reminded by the tribe’s elder, the Stonekeeper (Common), that the sacred stones say that the smallfoot doesn’t exist, and claiming they do is tantamount to saying  that their whole belief system is a lie. When Migo refuses to recant, he’s banished from the village.

There are, however those who believe him; fluffy purple Gwangi (LeBron James), Kolka (Gina Rodriguez) and Meechee (Zendaya), who’s actually the Stonkeeper’s daughter and Migo’s secret crush, comprise the secret Smallfoot Evidentiary Society and  they come up

with a plan to lower Migo below the clouds to find the evidence he needs.

Which is where he crosses paths with Percy Patterson (James Cordon), a nature show presenter who, in an attempt to boost his flagging viewing figures, wants his assistant to dress up as a Yeti so he can fake the discovery.  To cut to the chase, Migo ends up taking him back to the village where he proves something of a hit, even though neither understands the others language (Yetis hear high pitched squeals, humans hear fierce growls), all of which threatens forces the Stonekeeper to reveal some historical truths to Migo in order to get him to tell everyone he’d made a mistake.  Further to which, Meechee having herself gone down the mountain to take the ailing Percy home, she and Migo get a personal taste of the Stonekeeper’s account of how humans treat so called ‘monsters’.

Save for Common’s Let It Lie rap about Yeti history (good) and Cordon’s karaoke version of Under Pressure (hideous), the songs are  basically Frozen-lite, but, despite  the repetitive narrative (and inconsistent character scales), the cartoonish physical  comedy and colourful characters will keep the kids amused while the grown ups ponder such heavy messages about questioning religion, authority and society’s rules and whether a lie is sometimes better than the truth that are a long subversive way from the familiar be yourself, love everyone Disney life lessons of your usual kid’s movie.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Venom (15)

Following on from the 2015 Fantastic Four bomb, this, also developed by Sony rather than under the Disney-mantle, marks the second misfire in the Marvel Universe and looks set to lower the odds on star Tom Hardy stepping into Daniel Craig’s 007 shoes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The now obligatory mid-credits bonus scene introduce a flame-haired Woody Harrelson promising carnage for a sequel, one which, given the massive box office, seems assured. Let’s just hope next time Venom affords less word-of-mouth poison. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Mockingbird; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

 

 

Screenings courtesy of  Odeon and Cineworld

CINEMAS

Cineworld 5 Ways – 181 Broad St, 0871 200 2000

Cineworld NEC – NEC  0871 200 2000

Cineworld Solihull – Mill Ln, Solihull 0871 200 2000

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

Empire – Great Park, Rubery, 0871 471 4714

Empire Sutton Coldfield – Maney Corner, Sutton Coldfield

0871 471 4714

The Everyman – The Mailbox 0871 906 9060

MAC – Cannon Hill Park 0121 446 3232

Mockingbird, Custard Factory  0121 224 7456.

Odeon Birmingham -Birmingham, 0871 224 4007

Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe – Ladywood Middleway, 0333 006 7777

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

Reel – Hagley Rd, Quinton Halesowen 0121 421 5316

Showcase Walsall – Bentley Mill Way, Walsall 0871 220 1000

Vue Star City – Watson Road, 08712 240 240

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