MOVIE ROUND-UP: This Week’s New Film Reviews, Fri Dec 6-Thu Dec 12

 

NEW RELEASES

Motherless Brooklyn (15)

Making his first appearance behind the camera since his directorial debut in 2000, working from his own adaptation of Jonathan Lethem’s novel, Edward Norton has crafted a gumshoe film noir that can readily stand comparisons to Chinatown. Set in 50s New York as opposed to 1999 in the book, Norton plays Lionel Essrog, an orphaned  private eye with a photographic memory, nicknamed Brooklyn by his boss, mentor and only friend, Frank Minna (Bruce Willis), but also referred to as  “Freakshow” on account of being an obsessive-compulsive afflicted with Tourette syndrome and given to spontaneous tics (such as having to touch people) and often inappropriate or off-colour  verbal outbursts (“It makes me say funny things, but I’m not trying to be funny”, he regularly explains).

He’s first encountered with fellow snoop Gil (Ethan Suplee), shadowing Minna on some dodgy meeting about which he’s given them no details. Things turn sour and Frank winds up dead, but not before he orders them to grab his hat and whispers something about a coloured girl and what sounds like the word Formosa to Lionel.  While Tony (Bobby Cannavale), who takes over the agency (not to mention Frank’s wife, Leslie Mann), just wants to get on with things, Lionel, believing their boss was on to something big involving city hall, is determined to track down Frank’s killers, pretty much ending up doing it on his own, and, posing as a reporter, his pulling on the loose threads (a visual metaphor introduced at the start) leading him to a black jazz nightclub owned by the father (Robert Wisdom) of Laura Rose (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), an activist who lives upstairs  and who may well hold the answer to the case, and an unnamed musician (Michael K Williams) whose trumpet gets to play a crucial note. Also part of the jigsaw is Paul (Willem Dafoe), an engineer with a grudge, who has his own connection to Laura and Moses, as well as information that could topple empires.

Filmed in shadowy brows and greys, punctuated by assorted beatings and shooting, Norton’s film is steeped in classic hard boiled film noir tropes, even down to the matchbook that provides a vital clue, and, while the tangled and twisted plot is crammed with themes and messages, it never once loses its grip. Norton is terrific, at once witty, dogged, vulnerable, loyal and apologetically eccentric, making Lionel’s affliction a part of his character rather than merely a gimmick, and he also elicits strong performances from his fellow actors, Mbatha-Raw and Baldwin especially, confidently guiding his two hour plus narrative to a hugely satisfying finale, even if not everyone gets the comeuppance they should. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

2040 (PG)

Australian filmmaker Damon Gameau follows up his award-winning That Sugar Film, with another documentary that seeks to inform, enlighten and hopefully change habits. This time, his subject is climate change and the premise involves him setting out to find solutions – using only things that already exist – so that when his young daughter Velvet is 25 in 29040, there’ll still be a world she can live in.

Globetrotting, he visits various schools (and gets to camera comments from youngsters who are clearly well-sussed and concerned about the environment) and also meets visionaries who are already working on alternate energy sources to battle climate change and global warming, among them a young engineer who has  created a decentralised solar electricity grid in Bangladesh that allows home owners to store, trade and sell energy, an Australian farmer who has pioneered something called ‘pasture cropping’ and scientist Brian Von Herzen who talks about  a marine permaculture off  America’s East Coast that uses seaweed to counter ocean acidification while capturing carbon from the atmosphere. Other experts include ‘technology disruption’ proponent Tony Seba and Dr. Kate Raworth, the Doughnut Economics theorist.

At times, he plays it a little cute such as in simulations of life in the future with a grown Velvet and himself and his wife digitally aged, and, in a determination to provide a positive approach countering the doom and gloom merchants, it often avoids addressing such barriers as corporate reality and, for example those with vested interests in fossil fuel who would simply have to roll over and throw in the towel to achieve what Gameau envisions. But, the point is that what he’s talking about isn’t just speculation, much is already happening and needs awareness raised so that people can see just what is possible. It’s a film you really need to see. (Wed: MAC)

Judy & Punch (15)

Once a staple of British seaside children’s entertainment and still frequently performed, despite its politically incorrect scenes of domestic violence as Mr Punch takes his stick to wife Judy and other assorted characters, including a policeman and the devil, as well as possibly putting the baby into the sausage machine, this Australian made feature debut by writer-director Mirrah Foulkes offers the origin story behind the puppet characters.

Set in the inland 17th century British town of Seaside, where one of the popular entertainments is the public stoning to death of heretics, womanising, heavy drinking puppeteer Punch (a charismatically unpleasant Damon Herriman) has returned home to lick his wounds and, with the help of his gifted wife Judy (Mia Wasikowska, excellent), resurrect their act in the hope of being spotted by talent scouts from the Big Smoke. Despite protestations that he’s off the drink, Punch is easily persuaded to partake of a bottle or two, and on one fateful occasion, invited to take a glass with Scaramouche (Terry Norris) the senile husband of their elderly housekeeper (Virginia Gay), drink and some sausages stolen by the old man’s dog, Toby, unfortunately send the baby flying through the window. On hearing his drunken confession and the suggestion that they get on with things, Judy is understandably a bit miffed, resulting in his taking his stick to her, beating her senseless and burying her in the woods.

Reporting her and the baby missing, he enlists the bumbling new constable, Derrick (Benedict Hardie), to investigate, swiftly accessing Scaramouche and his wife of roasting the baby and murdering Judy, the zealot Mr Frankly (Tom Budge) quickly eliciting a ‘confession’ and arranging a double hanging.

However, Judy’s not dead and, found under leaves by children from the secret heretics camp, is nursed back to health by Dr Goodtime (Gillian Jones), a healer forced to feel the puritan persecutions, and, while they try and persuade her otherwise, here given top billing, sets out to take revenge on her husband for his crimes who, in the meanwhile, has enlisted the local prostitute and her two kids as his new helpers.

Cleverly entwining all the well-known ingredients from the traditional show and giving them an even darker edge (sometimes provocatively played for laughs) with its portrayal of toxic masculinity, there’s a definite touch of Gilliam, Rabelais and the Grimms about its allegorical storyline which also affords Judy a showcase speech about intolerance of the ‘other’ that patently has a contemporary resonance to its grotesque fable. Given a stylised carnivalesque look, a soundtrack that includes Leonard Cohen’s Who by Fire and end credits with archive black and white footage recording children’s shocked, horrified but fascinated reactions to watching a traditional puppet performance, this is mesmerising viewing. That’s the way to do it, indeed.  (Electric)

StarDog And TurboCat (U)

An inoffensive but painfully overextended and repetitive British animation by a  Sheffield company specialising in short animations for them park rides, it feels like a 30 minute TV episode stretched to a 90 minute film. It opens in 1969 as Buddy (voiced by Nick Frost), is chosen by his master, Dave, to be launched into space to test a rocket. However, there’s a glitch after take off and, when Buddy finally returns to Earth, he’s time-travelled 50 years into the future and finds himself in Glenfield, an American town where everyone hates animals and the sinister Officer Peck is obsessed with rounding up strays and taking them to the pound, never to be seen again.

However, the animals do have their own self-appointed superhero, Felix (Luke Evans), who, dressed in a Batman-like cape and mask, calls himself TurboCat, lives in a kind of Catcave and has a sort of robot Alfred called Sinclair (Bill Nighy), although his crusade against the humans seems largely limited to spraying graffiti. After several laboured scenes, he and Buddy do finally join forces to try and find his missing space capsule, the film now introducing Cassidy (Gemma Arterton), the rabbit of Felix’s affections who heads up another anti-human organisation, G.U.A.R.D., where her head of security is a goldfish (Ben Bailey-Smith) in a bowl and her scientist colleague is building some kind of defence contraption for which he needs the glowing crystal in the capsule which, it transpires, has given Buddy super powers. Oh, yes, and there’s a double cross waiting in the wings.

Rather like a dog chasing its own tail, the film runs around in circles without really going anywhere, Buddy largely falling over a lot and protesting how Dave was a good guy and is surely out there still looking for him, while Peck naturally has a young daughter who doesn’t share her dad’s anti-animal feelings.  The slapstick and some of the jokes (one of which rips off Puss’s pleading look from Shrek) will keep undemanding six year olds entertained and there’s a half-hearted lesson about personal growth, but, low on charm and wit, with unambitious animation and pedestrian telling, the longer it goes on the less interested they are likely to become. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

ALSO PLAYING

The Dirty War on the NHS (15)

A timely new documentary from film-maker and journalist John Pilger in the wake of reports that Boris Johnson plans to provide open access to the NHS to American company. Pilger investigates the dismantling ‘by stealth’ of the National Health Service, journeying from the founding of the NHS in 1948, through to the Thatcherite 70s, the Blair government which allowed hospitals to be built with private capital, but saddled them with crippling repayments; and the Cameron/Clegg 2012 Health and Social Care Act which opened the door to private healthcare companies. It unfortunately misses the opportunity to address the current controversy about the post-Brexit scenario, but it remains a compelling report, with perhaps the most worrying moment being when a spokesperson for Babylon, a smartphone self-diagnosis app, assures Pilger that its diagnoses are “100% safe, but not all of the time”.  (Sun: MAC)

 

Meeting Gorbachev (12A)

Though punctuated with comments from other world figures, Werner Herzog’s documentary is basically a series of interviews with the former leader of the Soviet Union, now 87, as he reflects on his legacy and regrets. Opening with a quick resume of earlier Russian leaders and their assorted fates Gorbachev was named General Secretary in 1985, it details his reforms, the ending of the Cold War and, in its wake, the reunification of Germany. Lesser known facts include how he, in cooperation with Regan, reduced the world’s stockpile of nuclear weapons, largely prompted by the Chernobyl nuclear disaster of 1986. On a personal rather than political note, he also talks of his late wife Raisa, who died in 1999, poignantly still affected by her loss. (MAC)

Ordinary Love (12A)

This low key release sees Liam Neeson take a break from tracking own bad guys for an intimate drama about a health-conscious retired couple   Tom (Neeson) and Joan  (Lesley Manville) who’s happy life is upended when she  finds a lump in her breast and each looks to deal with what lies ahead in their own way, insisting that they’re both going through it, she responding that they’re not. Built around small details and keeping other characters to a minimum, it charts their relationship, bickering but affectionate, as each faces illness and the inevitable in their own manner and with their own frustrations. (Cineworld NEC; Empire Great Park; Vue Star City)

NOW SHOWING

21 Bridges (15)

Hitherto best known as the Black Panther (though you should check him out as James Brown in Get On Up), Chadwick Boseman gets to play his first screen cop as Andre Davis in TV director Brian Kirk’s somewhat routine police thriller.

The title refers to the bridges connecting Manhattan to the mainland, all of which Davis orders to be shut down,  along with the tunnels, subways and trains (but with a four hour deadline), when several cops are murdered when they interrupt a pair of small time hoods, tough guy Ray (Taylor Kitsch,) and the more level-headed Michael (Stephan James) pulling a cocaine heist. However, other than this, they never figure as part of the narrative which unfolds in a fairly confined few blocks as Davis, paired with narcotics officer Frankie Burns (Sienna Miller), sets out to track down the surprisingly very easily identified perps with the precinct Captain, (J.K. Simmons) indicating that  Davis, the son of a cop killed in the line of duty)  and having  a reputation for not bringing cop killers in alive (he’s first seen during an IA hearing into his latest shooting) , should save the city the trouble and cost of a trial.

Given the speed with which the two criminals are cornered, that an unarmed go-between  is shot dead in a bar by two detectives and how the cops turn up during a deal with a money launderer, even a rookie would realise there’s more to the plot than some manhunt. So, no surprise to learn it involves a network of corrupt New York cops, all justified by poor pay  for a tough job.

Unfortunately, the narrative frequently makes no sense, initially suggesting the pair were set up and then putting it down to bad luck, while the final scene involving the incriminating evidence raises two huge how and when questions that make you wonder if things got a little over-enthusiastic   in the editing room.  A strong and engagingly intense performance from Boseman and Kirk’s slick, tense direction manage  to largely carry the film over the plot holes, but you can’t help feeling both deserve something a  little more complex than this. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

The Addams Family (PG)

Although the target audience is highly unlikely to be aware of the three 90s live action films two starring Anjelica Huston and one Darryl Hannah, let alone the original 60s TV series, this animated reboot helpfully opens with a quick summary of how vampiric Morticia (Charlize Theron) and rotund Gomez (Oscar Isaac) got wed, but then had to flee the torch-bearing villagers in their Eastern European homeland and, accompanied by Thing, the disembodied hand, fetched up moving into  deserted gothic mansion on a hilltop in New Jersey, where they enlisted the soulful piano-playing  Frankenstein monster-like Lurch (Conrad Vernon) as their butler and raised their two kids, the oval-faced morbid and cadaverous-looking Wednesday (Chloë Grace Moretz) and the pudgy explosives-obsessed Pugsley (Finn Wolfhard).

Cut to the present and as Pugsley is being reluctantly put through his paces in rehearsal for his family tradition ritual sword-juggling coming of age dance by his dad, grandma (Bette Midler) and Uncle Fester (Nick Kroll) have arrived early to help with the preparations and the family’s thrown into disarray when Wednesday meets Parker (Elsie Fisher), the daughter of  big-haired home makeover TV reality show presenter Margaux Needler (Allison Janney) and decides she wants to explore life beyond the mansion’s gates. And even go to school (cue amusing frog dissection class). Inevitably leading an emerging rebellious streak (she takes to wearing tacky accessories and girlie dresses as opposed to her usual black) just as she influences Parker to turn goth, each naturally falling out with their mothers as a result.

All of which comes as the mansion’s revealed to the folk below in Assimilation, the pastel coloured town Margaux is at attempting to create as her piece de resistance and sell off all the properties, the rest of the family and their arriving guests attempt to integrate and Margaux decides to make the Addams house her ultimate fixer-upper and be rid of the family.

Not that it means anything to the kids,  but the computer generated animation renders the characters extremely close to the Charles Addams’ cartoons while the theme of being true to yourself rather than conforming (at one point a bunch of Assimilation folk sing about fitting in rather than being individual) is staple for these sorts of films. Unfortunately, its tone is more Hotel Transylvania than the subversive creepy humour of the original and, while some of the lines and throwaways amuse and the voice cast, which includes Snoop Dogg as tiny hairball Cousin It, do their best with the material, aside from a suitably over-the-top Janney, they feel rather muted and the end result is all a bit bland. Unlike Thing’s fingers, it doesn’t really have the snap. (Showcase Walsall; Until Sun: MAC)

The Aeronauts (15)

If you have a fear of heights, then this, a sort of period Apollo 11, with its scenes set several thousand feet in the sky, may not be for you. Likewise, if you’re a stickler for historical accuracy, then you might want to keep an eye on the blood pressure. Yes, James Glaisher was a real Victorian scientist and meteorologist who went up in a hot air balloon to measure the temperature and humidity of the atmosphere at its highest levels and who, on 5 September, 1862, broke the world record for altitude, ascending to about 35,000 feet. However, he did it at the age of 53 and his aeronaut co-pilot was  Henry Tracey Coxwell, a decided difference to events portrayed in director Tom Harper’s film.

Here, giving it a more melodramatic thrust and a theme of redemption, as played by Eddie Redmayne, he’s considerably younger while, reunited with The Theory of Everything co-star Felicity Jones, his fellow traveller is Amelia (as in Earhart!) Rennes, a colourful, celebrated balloonist who forsook the skies following the tragic death of her husband (a brief cameo by Vincent Perez). However, to advance his belief that weather can be predicted and prove his mocking fellow Royal Academy colleagues wrong, he sets out to persuade her to  change her mind in the name of science and adventure. And, despite the best efforts of her sister Antonia (Phoebe Fox, who seems to possess only two frocks), she eventually agrees, the pair taking off amid much showgirl flamboyance (involving  a dog and a parachute, though how it pulled the ripcord I can’t explain) with the intent of ascending higher than anyone (especially the French) has done so previously, Glaisher taking scientific measurements as they go, while both also have very personal reasons for wanting to succeed.

Back on the ground, there’s brief turns by Himesh Patel as his supportive colleague Henry Trew and Anne Reid and Tom Courtney as his parents, the latter a watchmaker and amateur astronomer slipping into dementia, but otherwise this is a two-hander, which proves something of a problem given the lack of any real chemistry between the two otherwise individually impressive leads, though thankfully the film resists any romantic dynamic during the one-hour voyage.

Once in the air, other than  James having succumbed to the thinner air and fall in temperature and Amelia  being called on to save the day in what is, it must be said, a fairly striking and tense physical sequence atop the ice-encrusted balloon itself, while the pair exchange banter in their wicker basket, there’s not much by way of plot. However, you do get some visually striking moments such as a crowd of butterflies, but even these are offset by the rather less unconvincing CGI elsewhere as they soar over London. You also find yourelf wondering why, given Rennes’ experience, they ascend in particularly unsuitable clothing for the conditions and without a  pair of gloves or a warm hat between them. It’s not entirely a  lead balloon, but as high as the pair travel, the film rarely gets off the ground. (MAC)

Blue Story (15)

An expansion of his YouTube success, Shiro’s Story, Rapman aka Andrew Onwubolu, steps up to the big screen with his debut feature about two teenage black childhood best friends brought into opposition by London’s postcode turf war, here between Peckham and Lewisham gangs. With the director serving as a rapping Greek chorus commenting on the action, part based on his own experiences, it treads familiar narrative path with schoolfriends Timmy (Stephen Odubala) and Marco (Micheal Ward) attending the same Peckham school, the problem being that aspirational Timmy isn’t from that borough, where Marco’s big brother, Switcher (Eric Kofi Abrefa), holds sway. Things kick off when Marco’s beaten up by one of Timmy’s mates, prompting Switcher to seek revenge, things escalating the point where the tragedy that befalls Timmy’s girlfriend, Leah (Karla-Simone Spence) winds up pitting the former friends – and their respective gangs – against one another.

Punctuated by shootings and knifings, it unfolds in predictable manner as it builds to an inevitable fatal climax, and, while the regulation black clothing and hoodies can sometimes make it hard to work out who’s who and the street language and accents render huge chunks of dialogue nigh unintelligible to the untrained ear, the raw energy and the committed performances of the central cast, underpinned by the urban soundtrack, sustain engagement to the end credits wrap up, even if the tagged on reformed gang member turns to anti-violence mentor coda feels a little too clichéd in its attempt to end on an optimistic note. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Charlie’s Angels (12A)

A hugely popular TV series in the 70s starring Farrah Fawcett Majors, Jaclyn Smith and Kate Jackson as three, often scantily clad, female L.A. private detectives  working for the never seen Charlie, it made an enjoyable transition to the big screen in 2000 and a subsequent 2003 sequel with Drew Barrymore, Cameron Diaz and Lucy Liu. However, a television reboot in 2011 died a death, so quite why, given no evident demand, writer-director-actor-producer Elizabeth Banks would choose to resurrect the franchise, is hard to fathom. Of course, adopting a girl-power approach (“Women can do anything”), it could have worked.  But then it would have needed a coherent narrative, cast chemistry, snappy dialogue, smart humour and exciting action sequences, all of which this is singularly lacking in abundance.

Opening in Rio with a drawn out prologue that attempts to emulate the Bond and M.I. films with a thundering lack of success, it introduces the two main Angels, wise-cracking , cropped-hair, queer veteran Sabina (Kristen Stewart who frankly does not do comedy) and serious-minded former MI6 agent Jane (Ella Balinska) as they take down  gangster tycoon Jonny (Chris Pang) before  rolling in a bored Patrick Stewart as Charlie’s factotum Bosley. Except now, the  Townsend  agency has gone global and there’s any number of Bosleys around the world, with the original is now retiring, leaving things in the hands of Banks’ Bosley.

Following a montage that threatens to turn into a deodorant or sanitary towel ad, the first case to present itself involves a sustainable green energy device called Calisto created for tech billionaire Alexander Brok (Sam Claflin) by security engineer Elena (Naomi Scott, all Felicity Jones meets Sarah Michelle Gellar) who’s concerned that her superior (Nat Faxon) is pressing ahead with its launch despite a proven deadly flaw  that induces fatal strokes which, in the wrong hands, could turn it into an untraceable assassination weapon. She turns to the Townsend agency to play whistleblower but the Hamburg café meeting  is interrupted by a tattoed hitman (Jonathan Tucker),  leaving a Bosley (Djimon Hounsou) dead and her, Sabina,  Jane and their Bosley variously flitting between Istanbul,  Berlin and London in pursuit of the stolen Callisto device, female bonding and an increasingly unravelling narrative of double crosses and deceptions while taking time for a stop-over to introduce the Angels’ serenely chilled personal assistant, Saint (Luis Gerardo Méndez), who’s an expert in everything from  home-made kombucha to Buddhist therapy and fixing dislocated ribs. He’s  just of many ill-advised embarrassments in the dull, fizz-free car crash where even the score and songs (including a forgettable Ariane Grande, Miley Cyrus, Lana Del Ray collaboration) feel like reject pile leftovers. Following one of the least thrilling and ineptly staged showdowns in recent movie history, it continues to flap around like a dying fish with a who cares reveal that Charlie’s actually a woman disguising her voice and Elena going through her Angel training paces so that the likes of Hailee Steinfeld, sporting stars Aly Raisman, Chloe Kim and Ronda Rousey and even original Angel Jaclyn Smith (Jackson presumably having more self-respect) can make redundant cameos. It’s not quite the worst film of the year, but its disastrous box office performance ensures these angels’ wings have been permanently clipped. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Frozen II (U)

Let’s say this from the start, neither the film nor the songs are a patch on the original. Show Yourself seem destined to be  favourite, but it’s no Let it Go. Set three years on, Elsa (Idina Menzel), still romantically unattached,  now rules Arendell,  snowman Olaf (Josh Gad) is now all permafrost and the hunky but still somewhat oafish Kristoff is trying to summon up courage to propose to the apparently insecure Anna (Kristen Bell). Not that you need reminding, but Elsa’s the one with the magic ice powers. However, why her? That’s the engine that drives the narrative, the film opening with a childhood flashback as their now late parents, King Agnarr (Alfred Molina) and Queen Iduna (Evan Rachel Wood),  tell them a bedtime story about  Ahtohalla, an enchanted forest to the north, ruled by the spirits of  earth, air, fire and water and how, 34 years earlier, their grandfather sought to forge a pact with the indigenous Northuldra, building a dam to hold back the sacred river mentioned in mum’s lullaby, only for hostilities to inexplicably break out, leading the forest and its inhabitants to be imprisoned by a wall of mist, but not before the young Agnarr was rescued by a girl from the tribe.

Now, the grown Elsa is hearing a voice calling her, so she determines to set off, as the other vaguely memorable song puts it, Into The Unknown, accompanied, naturally by Anna, Olaf, Kristoff and Sven the reindeer. As such, it’s a sort of origin story, though the revelations are unlikely to come as much of a surprise to any alert six year old, while getting there and learning the truth of what happened, albeit  featuring  a cute flaming salamander and a water horse, is something of a plodding and slightly incohesive affair, punctuated by a running gag about Kristoff’s failed attempts to propose.

The first film’s theme of finding yourself gets a retread, this time in the context of growing up and transitions (indeed, Olaf sings When I Am Older and philosophises on impermanence and the core cast warble how Some Things Never Change) and characters find themselves in mortal peril in protecting others (it flirts with darkness but  anything bad that happens ultimately unhappens), but it’s not until the final act that the thing really catches fire.  The animation is, of course, first rate, especially the scenes underwater, the characters remain likeable and  the mix of sentiment, action and humour is about right (though Anna’s remark about preferring Kristoff in leather was probably not intended to be as kinky as it sounds), but, when, at the end,  someone asks Elsa if they’re going to lead them into any more dangers, you kind of hope Disney means it when she says no. It’s been cool, but the thaw is setting in. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall;

The Good Liar (15)

When reviews of films are embargoed until the day they open, it’s usually a sign that they’re not  very good. And, despite some masterly work from its two leads, Helen Mirren and Ian McKellen, the latter reunited with director Bill Condon, this melodramatic adaptation of first-time Nicholas Searle’s con game novel is a case in point, crediting its audience with far less intelligence than they will have in rumbling what’s going on from the start, even if the final twists and revelations are so far-fetched as to be impossible to predict.

The film introduces Brian (McKellen) and Estelle (Mirren) arranging a meeting on a seniors dating app, the pair immediately confessing that their real names are Roy Courtnay and Betty McLeish, thereby laying the ground for the deceptions that ensue as the dates continue (one being a trip to see Inglourious Basterds). Roy, along with partner in crime Vincent (Jim Carter) is a con artist working financial scams (seen fleecing a bunch of gullible  investors in an early sequence) and reckons Betty,a wealthy widow with a two million nest egg, is a promising mark. Playing the charming twinkle-eyed English gent, he soon worms his way into her life, though her postgrad history student grandson Steven (Russell Tovey) is less persuaded by him. Roy and Vincent’s plan is to get Betty to put all her money into a joint account, and then withdraw everything and vanish. Things, rather, naturally don’t go to plan in a convoluted and increasingly implausible plot that involves a trip to the Brandenburg Gate, flashbacks to pre and-post war Berlin, sexual assault, Nazi hunters, identity switches and all manner of contrivances.

Anyone who reckons Betty is the smart but sweet, polite and a little bland middle-class suburban Londoner she appears, clearly has never seen a con movie the only thing  the film has up its sleeve being why not if she’s working the oblivious Roy. Less thrilling the longer it goes on, there are rewards in watching to of this country’s finest actors playing opposuite each other, but when, at the end, Mirren remarks “it’s deeper than it look”, you know you’ve been conned too.  (Odeon Birmingham)

Harriet (12A)     

Born a slave in Dorchester County, Maryland, Araminta Ross, nicknamed Minty, when she and her husband were refused the freedom they were due and told they and any children they had would always be the property of the Brodess family, in 1849, aged  27,  learning she was to be sold, she fled the plantation, making it some 100 miles to safety (with a little help from anti-slavery sympathisers) to an abolitionist organisation in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, that ran the Underground Railway which smuggled runaway slaves to freedom. Taking the free name of Harriet Tubman after her mother and husband, she almost immediately returned and, travelling by night and in extreme secrecy, rescued, first, her relatives, and, over 13 missions as a ‘conductor’ eventually some 70 slaves, earning the alias of Moses and, when the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 was passed, she then helped guide escapees into British North America, and find work. When the Civil War broke out, Tubman became the first woman to lead an armed expedition in the warm  guided the 1863 raid at Combahee Ferry and liberating  more than 700 slaves.

All of this forms part of  writer-director Kasi Lemmons’ biopic, a long overdue telling of Tubman’s story, albeit a somewhat prosaic one which is unevenly paced with a sluggish midsection and variously  the look of a 30s Western epic or a 70s TV series. Inevitably, in the interest of crafting a thrilling narrative, facts have been bent, timelines shifted and incidents invented and, while Minty was indeed ‘owned’ by the Brodess family, the character of the son Gideon (Joe Alwayn) whom she supposedly nursed to health as a child and who, obsessively and secretly self-loathingly in love with her, leads a quest of Slave Hunters to recapture her, is pure fiction, as is her jumping from a bridge to avoid being recaptured. On the other hand, that she would often fall into faints during which she would experience supposed divine premonitions is true, caused by a traumatic head wound as a child.

It’s incredulous that the studio initially considered Julia Roberts for the role of Harriet, the casting eventually resolving on British actress Cynthia Erivo who, perfectly capturing Tubman’s piercing stare, delivers a rivetingly powerful performance of anger, fear, passion and determination even when the script doesn’t measure up. Featuring solid but somewhat one-dimensional support turns from Janelle Monáe as a born-in-freedom rooming-house proprietor, Leslie Odom Jr as abolitionist William Still and Clarke Peters as Harriet’s father, it’s a heartfelt and worthy story of heroism and charismatic leadership in the face of injustice, but it’s nevertheless several months short of 12 Years a Slave. (Vue Star City)

 

Joker (15)

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

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

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

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

Driven by Hildur Gudnadóttir’s brooding  score and the ironic use of numbers like That’s Life and  Send In The Clowns, like The Purge, the film taps into  a disturbing powder keg zeitgeist of civil unrest (set to Cream’s White Room) and looming anarchic class war as, summing things up, Arthur asks Murray “What do you get when you cross a mentally ill loner with a society that abandons him and treats him like trash?” His and the film’s answer is ‘what you fuckin’ deserve’.  As Groucho Marx said, “The only real laughter comes from despair”. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Knives Out (12A)

In the grand tradition of star-studded ensemble Agatha Christie-styled drawing room whodunnits, taking a break from guiding the Star Wars saga, writer-director Rian Johnson delivers one of the year’s most ingenious, witty and absorbingly satisfying films. Wasting no time, it opens with a pan across a stately Massachusetts gothic mansion as the morning mists begin to clear, culminating in the kitchen and a mug bearing the inscription “My house. My rules. My coffee.” Bear it in mind.

The previous evening, the house was the 85th birthday party setting for the Thrombrey family patriarch, best-selling murder mystery writer Harlan (Christopher Plummer). This morning, he’s been found dead in his study by the housekeeper (Edi Patterson) with his throat slit. Seemingly a case of suicide.

The local cops, Detective Lt. Elliott (LaKeith Stanfield) and State Police Trooper Wagner (Noah Segan), have assembled the guests for questioning. Criss-crossing between four of them, it quickly becomes clear that, dysfunctional and hypocrites to the core, they’re not the closest of family. There’s the brittle eldest real estate magnate daughter, Lynda (Jamie Lee Curtis), her philandering husband Richard (Don Johnson), phonily sincere lifestyle guru widowed daughter-in-law Joni (Toni Collette), her snowflake-liberal college student daughter Meg (Katherine Langford), youngest son Walt (Michael Shannon) who runs the publishing company but has no actual control, his sour wife Donna (Riki Lindhome) and their budding-Nazi teenage son Jacob (Jaeden Martel). Backstabbers all, there’s little love lost between them and, to some extent or another, they all owe their  supposedly self-made fortunes and lifestyles to Harlan. Also in the house is the elderly and seemingly catatonic greatnana (K Callan) while, conspicuous by his absence, is Lynda and Richard’s son Ransom (Chris Evans), the irresponsible black sheep who stormed out following an argument with his roguish and intractable grandfather.

Sitting in on the questioning, occasionally stabbing out a  single note on the piano, is Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig with flowing Tennessee drawl), a  private detective who’s been hired by a  mystery client to investigate the death. To which end, he enlists the help of Marta (Ana de Armas), Harlan’s South American nurse (the daughter of an illegal immigrant), and the last person to see him alive. Unless, of course, it wasn’t suicide, but murder. And, as flashbacks and family secrets are revealed, there are plenty of suspects and motives. Aside from being Harlan’s closest confidante, Marta also has the unfortunate, but useful attribute of being unable to lie without throwing up. All the family vocally protest how much she is one of them  a not just the ‘help’ (at least until Franz Oz arrives to read the will), but it’s only Ransom who, seemingly the only decent one among them,  appears to have any real concern.

It’s not too far into the film before what happened to cause Harlan’s death is revealed, along with who was accidentally responsible and confirming his suicide. Except, of course, nothing is as clear as it seems (and observant amateur sleuths will have picked up the clue in the run up to the death) and the plot moves from who to how and why. It is, as Blanc puts it, “a case with a hole in the middle. A donut.”

Knowingly slipping in genre references and Easter eggs that range from Cluedo and a clip of Angela Lansbury in  a Spanish-dubbed episode of Murder She Wrote to a convoluted nod to The Last of Sheila, a 70s mystery written by Stephen Sondheim and Anthony Perkins, it’s a sharply scripted, gleeful, and deliciously acted (everyone gets their moment and nobody showboats), intricately plotted black comedy murder mystery with a clear undercurrent commentary on the dark, venal aspects of Trump’s America and white privilege that scores its points as much through sly humour and subtlety as it does grand flourishes. Cutting edge fun. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman;  Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Last Christmas (12A)

Devised by Emma Thompson and husband Greg Wise and directed by Paul Feig, this is the first of the year’s festive features, a bittersweet romcom with more than a touch of It’s A Wonderful Life and Xanadu in its DNA. Titled after the Wham! Hit, it stars Game of Thrones’  likably engaging Emilia Clarke as Kate (don’t call me Katerina), who, as a child, was forced by the war to flee former Yugoslavia with her parents and older, rival, sister  (Lydia Leonard). Now, having lost the accent, she’s estranged from both, unreliable, self-centred, lacking a sense of direction, moving from one friend’s crash pad to the next (until she does something careless to get thrown out), drinking too much and picking up one-night stands. So far, so Fleabag, then. Although she still harbours childhood ambitions to be a singer, she  half-heartedly works as an assistant in a Covent Garden Christmas store  (which makes you wonder what it does for business the other ten months of the year) owned by the ultra tolerant Santa (Michelle Yeoh) where she has to dress as an elf. We also learn that the family problems stem for a heart condition she suffered a year earlier and her mother’s (Thompson with  thick comedy Eastern European accent) hypercritical manner (her husband, a former surgeon now a cabbie, spends as much time away as possible while Kate’s ringtone is She Drives Me Crazy). Then enter handsome mysterious stranger Tom (Crazy Rich Asians star Henry Golding) who hangs around outside the store who wants to take her on walks to show her sights of London to which she’s been oblivious (street art, narrow alleys, hidden gardens, etc) and always tells her to ‘look up’.  He makes her smile, takes her to learn ice-skating for a Frozen musical audition and  works as a night volunteer, at a homeless shelter (where it seems no one knows him), but doesn’t have a phone and is given to mysteriously disappearing off on his bicycle. He does, though, have a knack of always turning up when she’s particularly low, but seems wary of becoming romantically involved.

At this point anyone who’s not clicked what’s going on really should remember the opening line of that George Michael song as the film gets down the business of Kate with reconnecting friends, family, self and life in general, while the screenplay also shoehorns in Santa (not her real name, you’ll be amazed to hear) with her own romance and a brief moment of Brexit anti-immigrant hatred aboard a bus that seems to have wandered in from another film entirely.

Set around familiar Brick Lane area locations, dressed with assorted George Michael songs (Heal The Pain obviously) and featuring an obligatory closing singalong and cameos by the likes of Peter Serafinowicz and Patti LuPone, it ladles out its message about showing kindness to bring more happiness to the world with shameless, eye-moistening feelgood sentimentality, it’s modestly undemanding and unlikely to enter the classic Christmas movie ranks but, if you’ll excuse the plot twist pun,  it has its heart in the right place.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Le Mans ’66 (12A)

In the mid-60s, Ferrari dominated the world of motor racing. However, in 1963, Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts) declared that he intended his company to enter the sport. The problem was they didn’t make racing cars. So, he proposed to take over Enzo Ferrari’s (Remo Girone) financially struggling manufacturers. However, the demand that Ford have budget control meant it all went sour,  so, seeking revenge, he declared they would build their own car and form their own team with the singular purpose of beating its rivals in the gruelling 1966Le Mans 24 hour race which it had won for five successive years.

To do this, they enlisted Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon), the 1959 Le Mans winner who had had to quit racing because of a heart condition and had become an auto designer, achieving great success with the Daytona Coupe in and the first Cobra sports car. Owner of the Shelby-American team, he agreed, but on condition that he brought his friend, hugely talented but volatile Birmingham-born daredevil racing driver and highly skilled mechanical engineer Ken Miles (a mesmerising Christian Bale) on board behind the wheel. Together they worked on improving the Ford GT40, bringing it to a level whereby it could take on the Italian cars, Miles eventually, despite senior level machinations by Ford racing director Leo Beebe (a deliciously lizard-like Josh Lucas) to exclude him in favour of more of a team player, driving one of the eight Fords entered into the La Mans 66 race (Milers actually raced in 65 but lost) taking on Ferrari’s two. As history records, neither of the Italian cars completed the race while, again down to Beebe’s pressure, three Fords, Miles among them, crossed the finishing line together, although he was robbed of first place on a  technicality.

All this director James Mangold, working with a script by British writers Jez and John-Henry Butterworth in collaboration with American Jason Keller, brings to the screen with a pungent mix of testosterone and the smell of burning rubber and brakes in what is, essentially, a classic underdog sports movie bolstered with a strong buddy relationship core as the pair battle both the odds and the suits. And, in one wonderful scrapping scene, each other.

While it’s clear Ford and his executives, among them Vice-President Lee Iacocca (Jon Bernthal were in this for the prestige and the money a win would engender, it’s equally clear that Shelby and Miles were driven by a pure passion and both Damon, sporting a 10-gallon hat and take no shit swagger, and Bale, all attitude, deliver dynamite performances, the latter ably supported in more intimate scenes by Catriona Balfe and Noah Jupe as his devoted wife and hero-worshipping young son.

There’s inevitable tweaking of history and the facts (the real Miles had a very highbrow British accent), but, electrified with a dry sense of humour alongside the behind the scenes conniving and the sensational racing sequences,  while the sight of gears shifting, pedals being pushed, brakes sparking red hot (courtesy cinematographer Phedon Papamichael) and the sounds of wheels squealing and engines roaring to Marco Beltrami’s score, is sheer carporn, the film, like 2013’s Rush about Formula One rivals James Hunt and Niki Lauda, has an appeal far beyond boy racers and should most definitely have a place on the starting grid come next year’s Oscars. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Maleficent: Mistress Of Evil (PG)

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

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

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

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

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

On a basic level, it’s all of an overly busy, overlong and often incoherent if visually dazzling mess in search of a story and complete with  final scene of a maternal Maleficent that should never have left the editing room, but  there’s no denying there are still copious pleasures here. And those cheekbones. (Odeon Birmingham)

Monos (15)

Even were it not for a pig’s head on a spike, it would be hard not to think of Lord of the Flies in director Alejandro Landes’s Colombian thriller about a dysfunctional group of child soldiers in some unnamed South American country as their lives and makeshift family turn to shit.

These are the monos, a small band of teenage guerrilla fighters for the vaguely titled Organisation and known only by nicknames such as Rambo (Sofia Buenaventura),   Smurf (Deibi Rueda), Boom Boom (Sneider Castro), Swede (Laura Castrillón) and Dog (Paul Cubides) – who, when the film starts, are first seen playing blindfolded football against just one of the many visually breathtaking landscapes captured by cinematographer Jasper Wolf. There’s an innocence about them and the way they interact, idling away the days on the mountain guarding an abducted American  (Julianne Nicholson) they refer to as Doctora and who, while captive, is still invited to join in their games, such as the rather more vicious version of the bumps meted out to one on his birthday. Occasionally, they’re visited by their short, stocky and demanding commanding officer, known only as The Messenger (Wilson Salazar) who puts them through their paces and even gives permission for two of them, Wolf (Julián Giraldo) and Lady (Karen Quinter), to partner up.  He also brings them a cow, Shakira, to provide milk, with the strict reminder that it’s only on loan and has to be returned intact and unharmed.

Needless to say, an enthusiasm for strong drink, partying and shooting off their semi-automatics unfortunately puts paid to that and also leads to Wolf, who as leader is responsible, shooting himself  and the amoral Bigfoot (Moises Arias) taking over. It’s the start of the disintegration, gathering pace as the group are forced to move to a new location, during which time, trekking through the rainforest, Doctora attempts to escape, resulting in severe punishment or those in charge of her, the unit winding up cut off from the chain of command and gone rogue as civilisation slips further away and chaos gathers to a head.

Driven by Mica Levi’s score (which incorporates the sound of birds and insects), it builds with often unbearable tension and a sense of unpredictability caught up in the hallucinatory delirium of Apocalypse Now, an underwater sequence in a raging river and a terrifying mosquito attack among the several nerve-shredding moments in a film that laces its cruel absurdity with the kids getting high on mushrooms growing in cowshit and TV footage of workers in a German Gummy Bears factory. (Mon-Thu: MAC)

 

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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