Don’t believe the hype that this is the scariest horror movie since The Exorcist (that would be the original Ring); yes, first-timer writer-director Ari Aster gradually builds from unease to a sense of stark terror, but the film also sports well worn clichés of unsettling noises, glimpsed figures, enigmatic symbols, dark rooms and even a bird flying into a window. And something in the attic.
It opens with the funeral for Ellen Taper Leigh, the highly secretive and not entirely much missed mother of Annie (a monumentally good Toni Collette), a miniaturist artist currently working on a series of highly detailed small rooms encapsulating her family and its experiences. Indeed, the only member of the family truly upset by the old dear’s passing is her brooding 13-year-old niece, Charlie (Milly Shapiro looking creepily unsettling), a strange autistic child with an intense gaze and given to making tongue clucking noises whose sketchpad of angry drawings suggests a decidedly troubled psyche, and whom Granma took it upon herself to raise, pretty much shutting Annie out of her daughter’s life. Charlie has her own workshop in her treehouse where she crafts bizarre effigies, at one point decapitating (a portent of much to follow) the aforementioned bird to add to her collection. The rest of the family comprises Annie’s voice of reason husband, Steve (Gabriel Byrne), who has no backstory at all, and their teenage affable stoner son Peter (Alex Wolff) whose role intensifies as the narrative unfolds.
The first inkling of chills comes when Annie thinks she sees her mother’s shade in her workshop and the film spends a considerable time hinting that the spookiness might all be down to Annie’s mental state (she sleepwalks and recounts one finding herself at the foot of her children’s bed with paint stripper and matches). But when, after a horrific accident (of which Annie crafts a model, much to Steve’s understandable revulsion), Peter, consumed with guilt, has his own ‘hallucination’, then it seems external forces are at work. Steve also gets a call to say his mother-in-law’s grave has been desecrated. And then there’s those shimmers of light dancing around Charlie.
All this is made more manifest when, in seeking to deal with her grief when Charlie is killed, Annie (who earlier found one of her mom’s books on spiritualism) is persuaded to take part in a séance with Joanie (Anne Dowd), a friendly soul who approaches her outside the counselling session where, following her mother’s funeral, she’d previously revealed her depressed father’s suicide by starvation and how her schizophrenic older brother hung himself, leaving behind a note accusing his mother of “putting people inside him.” Well, we all know what séances portend in horror movies.
At which point, the film becomes somewhat less successful as its heads into overfamiliar Rosemary’s Baby and The Shining territory involving cults (with both living and dead members), possession and malevolent demon lords looking for host bodies, at time resorting to dream sequences for exposition (though the one where Annie spills out a shocking highly unmaternal confession to Peter is effective). With the help of his cinematographer, Aster keeps the sense of dread, but can’t prevent the film from touching on the slightly silly even as its themes of dysfunctional family secrets, maternal guilt and mounting hysteria collide with the supernatural. Well-crafted, well-designed and well-acted, yes it is scary in parts (and has its sudden jolt moments too), but not so much that you won’t sleep at night. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Electric; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)
Jeune Femme (15)
Unceremoniously dumped after ten years together by her celebrated older photographer lover, Joachim Deloche (Grégoire Monsaingeon), who owes his success to a famous image of her, Julia (Laetitia Dosch) finds herself along and having to reinvent herself and survive on the streets of Paris, as well as care for her ex-lover’s fluffy white Persian cat which she’s managed to land herself with.
Directed by Léonor Serraille and with a predominantly female crew, it’s a celebration of female determination and endurance as Julia, who, to be honest, with her flakiness, personality swings, impulsiveness and lack of any discernible goal, can be undeniably annoying and frustrating, adapts herself and her supposed age to what ever situation she finds herself in and whoever she finds herself with. She’s an adept liar, applying for a job as a nanny to a sulky tweenage girl, she tells her employer she’s an art student, interviewed for a lingerie concession in a mall she says she’s calm and organised, when she’s anything but, when someone mistakes her for an old friend she goes along with it. She can also insult people without meaning too, but also, when challenged or rejected, she can get nasty. Indeed, in the opening scene, thrown out of Joachim’s apartment, she bangs her head so hard against his door she needs hospital treatment, stealing another patient’s red coat as she leaves.
The energetic film charts her journey to climb out of the train wreck of her life and become herself rather than be passively defined by her relationship to others and, on screen throughout, Dosch is mesmerising as she inhabits her chameleon-like character but there’s strong performances too from Nathalie Richard as her emotionally cold and distanced mother, and Souleymane Seye Ndiaye as Ousmane, the amiable mall security guard who takes a shine to her.
Throughout, there’s frequent references to the fact that she had differently coloured eyes, hazel and blue, and the film ends with a final shot of them staring into the camera, fiercely determined to take on an often unforgiving and inhospitable city and become more than driftwood in the lives of others. (Mon-Thu:MAC)
My Friend Dahmer (15)
One of the 20th century’s most notorious serial killers, between 1978 and 1991, mostly in Wisconsin, Jeffery Dahmer raped, murdered, dismembered and, some cases ate, 17 men and boys. Before he became the Milwaukee Monster, however, he was a high school teenager and, in the vein of the Bates Motel TV series, writer-director Marc Meyers has crafted a hugely involving earl years biopic, a dark coming-of-age dramady that, while certainly no apology for his subsequent actions does attempt to offer an understanding of how he became what he did, that, while genetics might have played a part, the monster he became was made not born. Adapted from the comic book of the same name, created by cartoonist John ‘Derf’ Backderf who knew Dahmer back in school, looking very much like the young Jeffery it affords a breakout role for former Disney Channel star Ross Lynch (just as it did for Jeremey Renner who played him in 2002), who gives a superbly nuanced and unsettling performance that, in his detached stare, subtly hints at the horrors to come but, more pertinently, explores the horrors that led to then. Set in Dahmer’s senior high school year, 1977-78, the film superbly details America in its transition from counterculture idealism in the wake of the Nixon scandal to Reaganomics. From the start, it’s clear there’s something off about young Jeffrey, an socially awkward outsider with no friends, a niggling awareness of his latent homosexuality (he becomes obsessed with a bearded male jogger) and parents heading for divorce, his chemist dad (Dallas Roberts) well-meaning but riddled with low self-esteem, his unstable mother (Anne Heche) forever teetering on the brink of another mental breakdown. At one point, having serve dup undercooked chicken, she shrieks, “We eat our mistakes”, a gallows humour foreshadowing of her son’s later proclivities. He also as a kid brother, who seems the only normal one in the family.
The first inkling as regards Dahmer’s weirdness is that his hobby is collecting roadkill, dissecting it and dissolving it in various acids to get to the bones. He has a telling fascination with innards. Dad, on the other hand, would much prefer he joined some school clubs, a wish that serves as an amusing prank later in the film. Bullied at school, he takes an extreme approach to getting both noticed and avoided, by pretending to ‘spazz out’. It’s this extreme variation on performance art that attracts the attention of three other nerdy outsiders, Neil (Tommy Nelson), Mike (Harrison Holzer) and Derf (Alex Wollf), the latter forming the Dahmer Fan Club with himself as president and forever drawing cartoons of him, who invite him into their circle. Even so, Dahmer’s well aware that he’s more of a pet freak than a friend.
As Jeffrey becomes increasingly unhinged and his personality even more fractured, two memorably affecting and deeply sad moments being his ‘command performance’ final ‘spazzing’ at the local mall and his prom night date involving a school wallflower, the film gradually builds the tension, Meyers deftly juggling urban horror, black humour and a deep well of empathy and emotion until he ends with Dahmer picking up a hitchhiker who would become the first of his victims. It makes for uncomfortable viewing for all the right reasons. (MAC)
Super Troopers 2 (15)
Had the sequel appeared a couple of years after the Broken Lizard troupe’s 2002 comedy about a bunch of incompetent prankster cops, it would have still been redundant. That it surfaces 16 years on, many of the target audience not having been born when the original appeared, makes it even more so. Again directed by Jay Chandrasekhar, it opens promisingly with a new cast headed by Sean William Scott and Marlon Wayans, Jr. and a chaotic and violent showdown. Unfortunately, that’s just a dream sequence and the film proper begins with the five Vermont state troopers now working construction after being fired for causing Fred Savage’s death on a ridealong. However, the discovery that, due to a cock up in the historical maps department, a huge chunk of Quebec is actually American, they’re reinstated, under their long-suffering chief (Brian Cox, at a loose end) and stationed in a log-cabin to patrol the borders until the switchover from Canada to the US is finalised.
Of course, many of the locals, especially the Quebecois, are not exactly thrilled at becoming Americans, nor are the Mounties eager to let the troopers take over their jobs. Cue a wind-up war between them as the film recycles much of the same jokes and plot set ups that felt tired the first time round. So, sampling a drugs bust with hilarious results, the Americans impersonating the Mounties to ruin their reputation, speaking to American motorists in Pythonesque French, a steady stream of Canadian stereotypes (including Emmanuelle Chriqui’s cartoonish accent as a female cop) and cultural insults (though it does give Rob Lowe, as a Canadian mayor, the chance to slap a prosthetic penis) and, well, more of the same really, only more fitful and less funny. Had this been made 14 years ago, when the first film was still riding on the back of a surprise box office hit, then you could understand why. Today, it’s just inexplicable. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)
A Quiet Place (15)
After Sally Phillips in The Shape of Water, this takes it up a notch by, save for a couple of scenes, having all the characters converse in sign language. One character is deaf, hence why everyone in the family knows how to sign, but the reason why nobody speaks is because this is an apocalyptic future in which the slightest noise will get you killed by marauding monsters who, while blind, hunt their prey through sound.
Directed by John Krasinski, it opens on Day 89 with an eerie scene of the family, father Lee Abbott (Krasinski), mom Evelyn (Krasinski’s real life wife Emily Blunt), adolescent daughter Regan (an outstanding, complex turn by deaf actress Millicent Simmonds) and her younger brothers, Marcus (Noah Jupe) and Beau (Cade Woodward), are silently searching deserted store for medicines. When his sister secretly gives him the battery operated toy he’s been told he can’t have, Beau also picks up the batteries, resulting in a devastating tragedy and the film’s first jolting shock. A year or so later, the rest of the family are still living in their farm house refuge, signal lights surrounding it, walking barefoot on noise-dampening dust-covered pathways, dad working on the shortwave in the basement trying to make contact using Morse Code and trying to create Regan a more powerful cochlear hearing aid – a plot point that proved crucial in the climax. A careless mishap ramps up the tension and serves reminder how precarious their life is, especially so given Evelyn is pregnant, and childbirth and babies are not renewed for quietness.
There’s also tension within the family in that Regan thinks her father blames her for Beau’s death; she certainly blames herself. As such, resentful when dad takes Marcus off on a fishing expedition, she takes off on her own, thereby separating all the characters, leaving mom alone and about to give birth, inevitably placing everyone in peril in scenes that variously entail a nail protruding from the stairs, being trapped in a corn silo and creatures stalking the flooded basement where mother and baby are trapped.
Although there are scenes where characters speak (apparently it’s safe if there’s a louder noise to mask the sounds), this relies very much on conveying emotions through the eyes and facial expressions, something which ratchets up proceedings as Evelyn goes into labour aware that she cannot cry out.
Given the restrictions on speech, exposition is limited to newspaper cuttings about the creatures and the film sometimes plays fast and loose with its own logic (how is there still power, especially as having a generator would create noise?), but these are minor niggles in a film that, in a finale redolent of Aliens, gives a thrilling fresh spin to the monster invasion genre. (Vue Star City)
Avengers: Infinity War (12A)
The movie equivalent of going to an all you can eat buffet and still wanting more, this brings together pretty much every major superhero in the Marvel Universe (or at least the Disney manifestation thereof), and even those not on screen still get a mention, for the ultimate slugfest mashup as they take on the towering, ridged-chin world destroyer Thanos (a surprisingly soulful Josh Brolin) who is out to gather all six of the infinity stones (gems of indescribable power governing Mind, Soul, Time, Power, Space and Reality), so that he can bring balance to the universe by wiping out half of its inhabitants (as a flashback reveals he did to Gamora’s world before adopting her as his daughter), so that the remaining half have a chance to survive. It’s galaxy-wide genocide, but he means well.
Given the showdowns between Thanos and the various ad hoc team ups take place in various parts of the planet and the universe, the massive cast of characters don’t actually all occupy the same scene at any one time. Rather we have different pockets of resistance. After an initial confrontation in New York with Thanos’s icily effete and sadistic factotum and a couple of his enforcers, Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr), Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Spider-Man (Tom Holland with fetching new bio-suit) are paired up on both Thanos’s flying wheel and his home planet Titan; Captain America (Chris Evans), Black Widow (Scarlett Johannson), Falcon (Anthony Mackie), War Machine (Don Cheadle), Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan) and, with a traumatised Hulk reluctant to emerge, Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) face off in Wakanda with the Black Panther (Chadwick Bosemen), ultimately joined by Wanda (Elizabeth Olson) and Vision (Paul Bettany), who, lest you forget, has one of the stones in his forehead. As it turns out, Doctor Strange also has one nestling in his amulet.
After rescuing him from space following the opening massacre of Asgardians, The Guardians of the Galaxy, Star Lord (Chris Pratt), Drax (Dave Bautista), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Mantis (Pom Klementieff), stick-teen Groot (Vin Diesel) and Rocket (Bradley Cooper) join forces with Thor (Chris Hemsworth), described by Drax “like a pirate had a baby with an angel!”. The bruised and battered but still up for it God of Thunder and the ‘rabbit’, as he refers to him, taking off to forge a new hammer (leading to a wryly amusing scene in which Peter Dinklage dwarfs them both), while the others head for Knowhere, home of the Collector (Benicio Del Toro), who’s supposedly got one of the stones. Also in the mix is Thanos’s other ‘daughter, Nebula (Karen Gillan) and pretty much all of the other core characters from Black Panther, along with a Gwyneth Paltrow cameo as Tony Stark’s new fiancée, Pepper Potts and a surprise post-credits appearance of a long absent figure.
If you can get your head round that line-up, then you might just make it through the near three hours of cataclysmic jawdropping, eye-popping action that comes liberally laced with intense emotional beats, pop culture references and the sort of dry and droll humour you’ve come to expect, here primarily in the alpha male arrogance stand-offs between egotistical Stark and supercilious Strange, the testosterone tag match between Thor and an intimidated Peter Quinn (who deepens his voice to assert himself) and the former’s ever hilarious unintended casual put downs. Indeed, Hemsworth pretty much owns every scene he’s in, and his dramatic lightning flashing appearance armed with his new axe, Stormbringer, and a new eye, is one of the film’s major cheer out loud moments
All this directors Anthony and Joe Russo orchestrate with dazzling skill and confidence, never for a moment letting the pace sag, but knowing just when to ease back on the mayhem and introduce Marvel’s trademark tragic notes. Two shocking deaths occur in the opening moments and there’s both sacrifice and sef-sacrifice, while the film concludes in wiping out half of the main cast, though, given that includes the stars of recent new franchises, these don’t have quite the same impact and it’s a safe bet that, as the all knowing Strange implies, they’ll reassemble in a year’s time for the eagerly anticipated sequel. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)
Book Club (12A)
when you thought you’d seen the last of Fifty Shades of Grey on the big screen, along comes this senior citizens self-discovery romcom in which E.L. James’ trashy trilogy provides the product placement narrative engine.
Diane Keaton, Candice Bergen, Mary Steenburgen and Jane Fonda are, respectively, recently widowed (though the marriage died much earlier) Diane, Sharon, a divorced federal judge whose ex (Ed Begley Jr.) is marrying a much younger bimbo (Mircea Monroe), chef Carol, whose newly retired husband, Bruce (Craig T Nelson), has lost his sexual drive, and hotelier Vivian, a sexually active never married singleton with commitment issues. It’s the latter who introduces James’ novels to their wine-fuelled monthly Los Angeles book club (which began in the 70s with another sexual revolution handbook, Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying) in an attempt to inject a little spice into everyone’s lives, if only vicariously. She’s also thrown a curve when high-flyer Arthur (Don Johnson, a movie in-joke since his daughter Dakota played Anastasia Steele), an old boyfriend she’s not seen in 40 years after walking away from his proposal, turns up the hotel, clearly keen to resume the relationship.
Having set this up the film flits between the four upscale suburban friends as, inspired by the reading matter, they each look to embrace a new life or fix the one they have. Diane, whose two bossy, overprotective adult daughters (Alicia Silverstone, Katie Aselton) want her to relocate and live with one of them in Arizona, meets cute with charming airline pilot Mitchell (Andy Garcia), Sharon embarks on on-line dating (hooking up with Wallace Shawn and Richard Dreyfuss), Vivian finds herself wondering if maybe she could settle with Arthur and Carol slips Bruce Viagra, with amusingly unfortunate consequences and a confessional catharsis that puts the kybosh on the dance routine they’re supposed to be performing at a charity talent show.
Directed with a workmanlike hand by co-writer Bill Holderman, although there is a smattering of funny one-liners wrapped up in its celebration of older women and that romance and sex shouldn’t end with the menopause, it succeeds solely on account of the sparkling performance by the four leads who, although the dryly amusing Bergen, who delivers a wistfully affective final monologue, arguably, comes out best, all effortlessly balance comedy and poignancy, even if Keaton’s character does channel a fair degree of Annie Hall, right down to the beret. It’s superficial fluff that largely sidesteps any connection with reality, but it’s still hugely enjoyable fun. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)
Breaking In (15)
A home invasion movie that places a strong woman fighting to protect her kids front and centre, director James McTeigue may not offer any major twists on the well-worn set-up, but, anchored by a powerful turn from Gabrielle Union, this short and sharp thriller delivers solid tension and bursts of bloody action.
Returning to her estranged criminal father’s remote and fortress-like high-tech security mansion after he’s killed in a deliberate hit and run, Shaun (Union), who has had nothing to do with him for years, is just there for the weekend with her two kids, teen daughter Jasmine (Ajiona Alexus) and younger son Glover (Seth Carr), to arrange the sale. However, she’s not the only one. Tipped off that there’s a safe packed with millions of dollars, four thieves, Eddie (Billy Burke) and his associates, tattooed psycho Duncan (Richard Cabral), nervy Sam (Levi Meaden) and former military man Peter (Mark Furze), are determined to get their hands on it. However, they didn’t reckon on anyone else being there.
While Shaun’s outside, they take the kids hostage, setting in motion a taut game of cat and mouse as her maternal instincts take on a Liam Neeson hue (tellingly, it’s written by Ryan Engle who also penned Non Stop and The Commuter), using whatever’s at hand, broken wine glass, toy drone, to turn the tables and take the fight to the assailants who, in time-honoured tradition, prove to be conveniently inept.
Naturally, there’s plenty of sneaking round darkened corridors and lurking in shadows, punctuated by some bloodshedding via Duncan slitting the throat of the unfortunate estate agent and a remarkably resourceful Shaun doing a number on Peter before engineering her way back inside the house.
It’s thinly written and fairly one-dimensional in terms of character, but, for disposable female empowerment action that serves up the payback without troubling the brain cells, this does its job in efficiently effective style. (Odeon Birmingham)
Deadpool 2 (15)
The original movie made a fortune from taking the mocking piss out of itself and the whole superhero franchise genre, a self-referential orgy of meta-fiction that demolished the fourth wall, winked to the camera and the audiences and bundled together onscreen and offscreen personas (at one point Deadpool signs an autograph as Ryan Reynolds) in a gloriously violent and hilarious WTF of gargantuan proportions. This one tops it. Indeed, directed by Atomic Blonde’s David Leitch (or, as the opening credits have it, One of the Two Guys Who Killed John Wick’s Dog), it starts with scarred cancer victim wade Wilson aka Deadpool (Reynolds) turning on a dead Wolverine musical box before posing on a bunch of gasoline drums, tossing a lit cigarette and blowing himself to pieces. And then backtracking six weeks to explain why as, having gone into the scum-killing business fulltime (cue gallons of blood), the one that got away ends up killing girlfriend Vanessa (Morena Baccarin) just as she and Wade have decided to make a baby, sending him into a guilt-ridden, suicidal funk. Of course, the body parts gathered together by Colossus (voiced by Stefan Kapicic) and hauled back to the X-Men’s mansion, he regenerates and the plot kicks in.
It’s fairly simple, joining Colossus, Negasonic Teenage Warhead (Brianna Hildebrand) and her new girlfriend (Shioli Kutsuna), he gets to become an X-Men trainee, his first call to action being an attempt to cool down, fireball-hurling teenage mutant Randall (New Zealand’s Hunt for the Wilderpeople breakout star Julian Dennison) who’s threatening to incinerate the mutant hating headmaster (Eddie Marsan) of his orphanage. Suffice to say, things don’t quite work out as planned and both he and the kid end up in the high-tech mutants prison, the Ice-Box. At which point, enter uber-intense Cable (Josh Brolin), a bionic-enhanced super-soldier who’s beamed in from the future intent on killing Randall in revenge for turning his family to cinders. Cue Deadpool resignedly opting to play the surrogate dad (thereby earning his redemption stripes to reunite with Vanessa) and protect Randall, ultimately attempting to change the course of events that will lead to the present scenario.
Along the way there’s the formation of his own mutants spin-off, X-Force (“tough, morally flexible and young enough to carry this franchise another 10 to 12 years”, Bedlam (Terry Crews), Shatterstar (Lewis Tan), Vanisher (a blink of Brad Pitt), Zeigeist (Bill Skarsgård), Domino (a spin-off friendly Zazie Beetz), whose superpower is being lucky, and Peter (Rob Delaney), an ordinary schmuck who just saw the ad. Not that they get to stick around long, only one (and you can guess who from the powers) surviving to take the fight to Cable in one of the many spectacular action sequences, as it gathers to a vaguely Terminator salvational climax.
Bloodier, more visceral and far more foul-mouthed than the original, it sprays pop culture references and in-jokes like nail-bomb confetti, cameos including Alan Tudyk, a glimpse of three X-Men and a very surprising mid-credits appearance of a fourth, alongside returning characters Blind Al (Leslie Uggams), Weasel (T.J.Miller) and taxi driver Dopinder (Karan Soni) who wants in on the mercenary lark, not to mention Wade’s favourite unstoppable villain from the X-Men comics. There’s also deluge of references to and quips about the DC Universe, the Avengers (at one point Deadpool calls Cable Thanos), Robocop, Canada, James Bond , Frozen (how come no one else drew the Yentl comparison!), Annie, Say Anything and a hysterical Green Lantern gag set to Cher’s If I Could Turn Back Time, plus dozens more you’ll have to catch on subsequent viewings as well as its brazen acknowledgement of the plot holes. And the four post-credit scenes that change everything. Basically, it’s everything you loved about Deadpool – on Viagra. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)
The Greatest Showman (12A)
The year’s most successful film and album, with songs by La La Land’s Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, first time director Michael Gracey and writers Jenny Bicks and Bill Condon may take any number of liberties with the life of 19th century showman and legendary hoaxer Phineas T Barnum, but succeed in serving up a fabulous sugar rush, candy coloured helping of feelgood family entertainment about the man who pretty much invented modern day entertainment.
Bearing absolutely no resemblance to the real Barnum, who looked more like Mel Smith and didn’t get into show business until he was in his 60s, Hugh Jackman is clearly having the time of his life, positively exploding with energy in the musical routines (and let’s not forget he first made his name in musical theatre and won a Tony for the Broadway production of The Boy From Oz), but also hitting the key emotional notes when needed.
It opens with a brief background prologue, introducing the young Phineas (Ellis Rubin) as the son of a struggling tailor who falls for Charity (Skylar), the daughter of his dad’s stern and snobbish client who sends her away to put an end to the friendship. Barnum’s father dies and the kid’s reduced to stealing food on the streets, until befriended by a disfigured stranger, he’s inspired to become more than he is and chase his Million Dreams.
Fast forward and, having made something of himself as an office clerk, the now grown Barnum marries Charity (Michelle Williams, somewhat underused), again to her father’s disapproval, and they have two cute daughters, Caroline and Helen (Austyn Johnson and Cameron Seely), and, when the shipping company he works for goes belly-up, a flash of inspiration leads Barnum to open his American Museum, a collection of historical wax figures and stuffed exotic animals, in the hope of attracting the curious. A bedtime observation from one of the kids that it could do with an exhibit that’s not dead then prompts him to round up all manner of society’s freaks, among them bearded lady singer Lettie (Keala Settle), a 22-year old dwarf (Sam Humphrey) he dresses up as General Tom Thumb, a giant, Siamese twins, a fat man, the hairy Dog Boy and, brother and sister trapeze artists whose only ‘deformity’ is being African American, exaggerating their ‘freakishness’ for extra effect and nigger ‘humbug’.
Scamming the bank for a loan, he opens his theatre and, proving there’s no such thing as bad publicity, transforms a scathing review into an audience magnet with the New York crowds flocking in, restyling his show as a circus with himself as the ringmaster. Looking to move beyond lowbrow audiences, he then forms a partnership with Philip Caryle (Zac Efron in his first musical role since High School Musical and very loosely based on James Bailey of the Barnum and Bailey Circus), a bored theatrical producer with a hefty trust fund and the sort of connections that can earn the troupe an audience with Queen Victoria.
It’s here Barnum meets Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson), the feted opera singer known as the Swedish Nightingale, and sees an opportunity to move from the peanut to the champagne market. Gambling both his reputation and his wealth, he signs her up for first a New York showcase and then a mammoth American tour. Suffice to say, things do not go well, resulting in a marriage threatening scandal while, back in New York, the bigot mob protests about the ‘freaks’ get out of hand and the tentative road to romance between Philip and Anne (Zendaya), one half of the trapeze act, is hitting some racial prejudice bumps.
Naturally, setbacks are just a spur to bigger and better success and, as such the film is very much a hymn to the underdogs chasing the American Dream, not to mention a clarion cry for diversity that strikes a far more right on contemporary note about those on the margins than would have been the case in Barnum’s day, even if none of the troupe are given anything like a backstory.
But social commentary is secondary to the spectacle and the songs, the rooftop dance routines, the lavish circus ring bombast, and the cast and film deliver with exuberant gusto, standout moments being Ferguson (albeit overdubbed by Loren Allred) singing out the pain of being the outsider with Never Enough, Settle leading the charge with the showstopper This Is Me, Jackman and Efron’s lithe shot glass shifting barroom negotiations dance routine and the literally soaring circus ring Rewrite the Stars sequence with Efron and Zendaya. Climaxing with Jackman leading the rousing cast finale of From Now On, this is a fabulous celebration of the power of unadulterated entertainment to raise the spirits and fill the heart which, as predicted here, has been announced as being turned into a Broadway musical. (Vue Star City)
I Feel Pretty (12A)
While undeniably flawed, this Amy Schumer comedy, working a similar riff to Trainwreck, is far better than some of the scathing reviews would suggest and comes with book/cover and be who you are/self-esteem messages that would do Disney proud. Schumer plays New Yorker Renee Bennett who works for the online department of mega cosmetics company Lily LeClaire, albeit ferreted away in a dingy Chinatown office with her slobby co-worker (Adrian Martinez) because the company only wants beautiful things in its Fifth Avenue HQ. She and her equally ‘ordinary’ friends, Vivian (Aidy Bryant) and Jane (Busy Philipps) post photos on a dating site but get no views, further persuading Renee that looks are everything (though one wonders how, if they get no views they can be rejected on their appearance) and, one night, after watching bodyswap comedy Big, fed up of being ignored in bars and stores, she impulsively rushes out into the rain and throws a coin into a wishing fountain asking to be beautiful.
The next day, attending Soul Cycle class (basically a keep fit workout on a fixed bike), she falls and bangs her head and, when she comes round and looks in the mirror she sees the figure she wants to be. Physically, she looks exactly the same, but persuaded she’s now drop dead gorgeous, her confidence crawls out from under its shell and she applies for the job of receptionist at Lily LeClaire. As the first face visitors see, she’s understandably not the sort of person the interviewing panel of CFO Helen (Naomi Campbell) and squeaky-voiced CEO Avery LeClaire (Michelle Williams making the most of a gag that rapidly wears thin) are looking for. But, having been recently given an earful by her company founder grandmother (Lauren Hutton) about appealing to the ‘ordinary’ consumer in launching their new budget line, Avery, who has her own self-esteem issues, hires her. And, not only does she land a swanky job, but she also acquires a sensitive boyfriend in the shape of Ethan (Rory Scovel) following a meet cute in the dry cleaners where she takes the initiative. On top of which, she’s also given the eye by Avery’s hunky brother Grant (Tom Hopper), although that subplot never really goes anywhere.
As per narrative requirements, Renee’s elevation to a new social circle, and the fact that the company call on her for her sensible marketing advice for the new product, means she shuts out her old friends (spelled out all too blatantly when she dumps them at a restaurant to gain access to an exclusive party). And, of course, there’s inevitably another bump to the head that removes the ‘magic’, right on the eve of a major conference where she’s supposed to deliver the important pitch. No longer thinking she looks the way she thought she did, she can’t bring herself to face LeClaire or, indeed, Ethan. She first has to realise who she was all along.
Given that Vivian or Jane could easily point out she looks exactly the same despite her saying they probably don’t recognise who she is, it’s a somewhat flawed premise, but, even so, there’s an infectious sweetness to it with Renee a likeable character while Schumer, who has built a stand-up career on ironic self-deprecation and the superficiality of society, always shines when the material doesn’t. Screenwriters Abby Kohn and Marc Silverstein, who fared far better with He’s Just Not That Into You and How To Be Single, never seem quite sure how to get to the final destination of their positive body-image moral, such as Renee taking part in a bikini contest, which, while amusing, negates the admiration for her balls since she’s oblivious to the fact that he clearly looks nothing like the other curvy contestants.
At the end of the day it’s basically Bridget Jones’ Diary meets The Devil Wears Prada with a dressing of ‘magic’ and all too obvious soundtrack beats like Alicia Keys’ Girl On Fire and Meghan Trainor’s Me Too to point the audience in the right direction, but you shouldn’t judge it just on how it looks. (Cineworld Solihull; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)
Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (12A)
The Jurassic World theme park abandoned and decayed after events in the previous movie, the surviving dinosaurs are now facing an endangered species extinction level event with the volcano on Isla Nubar threatening to blow its top. Advised by dino expert Ian Malcom (an unusually subdued Jeff Goldblum who bookends the film with his life finds a way message) to let nature takes its course, the American government declines to spend money on saving them. Which is when Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard, complete with in-joke about her absurd high heels in the last film), the park’s former manager turned pro-dino activist gets summoned to the palatial Lockwood estate where Eli Mills (Rafe Spall), right hand man to Benjamin Lockwood (James Cromwell), John Hammond’s former partner in InGen and co-creator of the original genetically cloned dinos (though this is actually the first film the character’s ever mentioned), who explains they intend to rescue 11 of the species and relocate them to a new sanctuary. However, they need her help and that of her now ex-lover, raptor-wrangler Owen Grady (Chris Pratt), because of his special bond with Blue, the intelligent raptor he reared and trained. So, accompanied by dino vet Zia Rodriguez (Daniella Pineda) and nerdy T.Rex phobic systems analyst Franklin Webb (Justice Smith), off they go to, never for a moment thinking that all the military type guys with big guns might be a bad sign.
However, as the opening sequence involving an underwater mercenary team recovering a DNA sample from the now dead hybrid dino Indominus rex has already indicated, there’s another nefarious agenda in play. Yup, unbeknownst to Lockwood, Mills is planning to stage a lucrative animal trafficking auction (managed by Toby Jones) of the rescued species for others to clone, the main attraction being an Indoraptor, reengineered and weaponised (it can even open doors) by series returning geneticist Dr. Wu (B.D.Wong).
Left to die by the mercenaries’ leader, managing to escape the erupting volcano in one of the rolling glass spheres, Claire and Owen, and to a lesser extent Webb and Rodriguez, with, of course, a timely assist from Blue, now have to try and put a stop to this. All of which, after long stretches with no dinosaur action at all, the creatures mostly locked in cages and tranquilised, climaxes with assorted giant lizards running amok around the mansion, bodies being duly thrown through the air, stomped on or eaten. Introduced into the mix is also Lockwood’s dinosaur-loving young granddaughter Maisie (Isabella Sermon), a startling reveal about whom is simply tossed away.
Directed by J.A. Bayona (who made A Monster Calls which gets a sly reference here), visually, what with volcanic eruptions, stampeding dinosaurs, a reworking of the first film’s hunter-prey stalking kitchen scene, this time amid a hall of Jurassic tableaux, it delivers the goods, the murky prologue even offering a Jaws homage to Spielberg. But, since you know none of the good guys are going to get killed off, there’s not a huge amount of tension or, indeed, awe to what is essentially staple disaster movie fodder with some box ticking social messages, while the only notable emotional note is poignant sight of a brachiosaurus, left behind at the jetty, roaring as its swaying neck is swallowed up by smoke and lava. Clearly confident there’s still a huge audience for its narratively preposterous and logically flawed paleothrills, it ends with the auctioned creatures being shipped off to their new owners and Blue surveying a sprawling urban landscape in what seems to be setting up a sort of Planet of the Dinosaurs third act. It might not offer much that’s new, but given its entertaining Rampage in a big house with dinosaurs popcorn fun, the series’ extinction at the box office is likely to be some way off yet. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Electric; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)
Life of the Party (12A)
Following on from Amy Schumer’s underachieving I Feel Pretty, now it’s the turn of Melissa McCarthy to misfire in her third teaming with writer-director husband Ben Falcone. Pitched as a mother-daughter slash female buddy back to school comedy, McCarthy plays middle-aged mom Deanna (Melissa McCarthy) who, just minutes after dropping their daughter Maddie (Molly Gordon) off at Decatur University for her senior year, is told my hubbie Dan (Matt Walsh) that he wants a divorce so he can marry high powered real estate agent Marcie (Julie Bowen).
Understandably depressed, back at her parents and confronted with a midlife crisis, Deanne resolves to finally complete her archaeology degree, enrolling at Decatur which she attended years back before dropping out 24 years ago after becoming pregnant. Initially not taken with the idea of having her doting, frumpy mom as a fellow student, Maddie’s soon persuaded, not least since her sorority sisters, most particularly insecure Debbie (Jessie Ennis) and snarky online celeb Helen (Gillian Jacobs), returning after eight years in a coma, think she’s just wonderful.
Before long Deanne’s the campus hit, albeit not with obligatory mean girl Jennifer (Debby Ryan) and her personality-free sidekick, to the extent of embarking on a sexual fling with a much younger fellow student, Jack (Luke Benward), the subject of an awkward reveal later in the movie (but which is never really followed through). Hopping between assorted scenes and set-ups involving parties, sorority initiations, a dance-battle, a class presentation meltdown (that, in character terms makes no sense) before a final fund raiser party top pay for Deanne’s fees which the girls claim Christina Aguilera is going to attend, it never really actually goes anywhere or gets beyond the basic find who you are, be true to yourself, self-reliance messages.
There are some decent moments, notably an 80s themed party at which McCarthy, in a spangled blue jump suit, gives good dance moves and shows her physical comedy skills, but too much is driven by the script rather than the story. McCarthy is fluffily solid enough, but, given surprisingly few sharp one-liners, she’s overshadowed throughout by Heidi Gardner as her weirdo dormmate Leonor, Maya Rudolph as sex-hungry best friend Christine and, especially Jacobs, scene stealing with just a roll of her eyes or a facial expression. A film full of ideas but with no real clue what to do with them and with not enough jokes to satisfy trade descriptions, it flops along watchably enough until it simply runs out of steam and just stops. If you want a truly funny house mother/sorority comedy, then search out Anna Faris in The House Bunny, meanwhile this is the sort of party where you make your excuses and leave early. (Cineworld Solihull; Vue Star City)
Colourful and controversial in equal measure, Lee Alexander McQueen was constantly shocking the fashion world, but no more so than when, age 40, he hung himself on 11 February 2010, a week after the death of the mother he adored. Directed by Ian Bonhote and Peter Ettedgui, this documentary makes extensive use of talking heads from the fashion world, both new and archive, among them Isabella Blow (who’s generally credited with discovering him), Jodie Kidd, Alice Smith, designer nephew Gary James McQueen, as well as family members and interview footage of McQueen himself, tracing his career chronologically, from his startling debut show Jack The Ripper Stalks His Victims to his gradual slide into drugs, mental deterioration and suicide.
A workaholic, gay East End working class lad with no formal training other than a brief stint working for a Savile Row tailor and a spell at Central St. Martin’s art college, driven by both resolute determination and huge insecurity, McQueen’s unique, often dark visions and radical styles, using materials such as plastics and feathers, transformed the industry as he became both artistic director of Givenchy and launched his own successful label, a skull the signature motif of his McQueen design house.
The footage of collections such as 1995’s Highland Rape, vilified in the media for its supposed misogyny, 2001’s Voss, and 2007’s elegy to Blow, La Dame Bleue, all underscore his declaration that he wanted audiences to be either exhilarated or repulsed, while the interviews afford an insight into both his creative genius and the demons that stalked it. There’s omissions, no mention, for example, of his unofficial husband George Forsyth, but, powered by a score from Michael Nyman, himself a McQueen collaborator, this is a fascinating and illuminating portrait of one of the most important and influential figures in fashion in the last two decades.(Electric)
Dwayne Johnson scores two family friendly popcorn triumphs in a row, following Jumanji with this giant monsters destroy cities entry loosely based on the 80s arcade game but also clearly inspired by the likes of King Kong and mutated beast B-movies such as Godzilla. Godzilla and Reuniting with San Andreas director Brad Peyton, Johnson plays Davis Okoye, a San Diego Wildlife Preserve primatologist (and conveniently former military action man) who has a special bond with George, an albino gorilla he rescued from poachers and with whom he converses in sign language. That bond is put to the test, however, when a case containing samples from a covert genetics experiment in a spacelab comes crashing to earth near his compound at the zoo. The experiment, which got out of hand, leading to the destruction of both the spacelab and the escape pod containing the samples, was all about weaponising genetic editing, basically combining aspects of different species, and promoting rapid growth and strength in the subjects.
The morning after inhaling the fumes, George is found in the bears’ compound where he’s not only killed a grizzly but grown several feet and piled on the weight. Unfortunately, he’s not the only one affected. Out in Wyoming, a wolf has also become a giant predator and, although not putting in an appearance until later, so has an alligator in the Everglades. All of this is down to ruthless Clare Wyden (Malin Ackerman), who heads up a genetic corporate along with her brother/husband? Brett (Jake Lacy) and also just happens to have a Rampage game (which featured, that’s right a gorilla, wolf and croc) in her office. They’re out to make a bundle regardless of who gets hurt, so naturally would like to get their hands on one of the creatures to extract the formula, so, when an attempt to bring down the wolf by a bunch of heavily tooled-up mercenaries ends in a bloody mess, she decides to engage a homing beacon atop their Chicago HQ to send out painful sonic signals that will draw the creatures there to shut them down.
On the side of the good guys, you also have Dr. Kate Caldwell (Naomie Harris), the geneticist whose work was perverted by the Wydens and who ended up doing time in trying to stop them, plus Harvey Russell (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), a good’ ole Texas boy from one of those secret government agencies that don’t even have a name, who sums up his role as “When science shits the bed, I’m the guy they call to change the sheets.”
So, there you have it. Driven by a beserker spirit, George, wolf and the alligator all start tearing apart Chicago, Davis and Kate have to try and get their hands on the antidote while avoiding falling buildings (blink and you’ll miss how it gets delivered) and get George back on side before the hard hat military commander calls in the mother of all bombs to level the city.
The CGI is, perhaps, not all it could be (the scene of the wolf leaping through the air to bring down a helicopter is particularly hokey), but in terms of mass destruction the film ably lives up to its title for a third act that is essentially one long set piece. Johnson does his familiar sensitive muscle man routine, also flexing his comic biceps to amusing effect, even if Morgan, a sort of cross between Robert Downey Jr and Jack Nicholson, steals every scene with his droll one liners. Akerman and Lacy play their cartoonish villains with a sly wink at how silly it all is and Harris holds her own as more than just the female sidekick. However, the film’s biggest laughs come courtesy of George’s signed insults, making you root even more for the big guy when the army’s hitting him with all it has. And if you’re wondering about Rampage 2, just ask yourself what happened to that rat in the glass cage. (Mockingbird)
Sherlock Gnomes (U)
The original movie, Gnomeo & Juliet, was a playful, funny, inventive and charming rework of Romeo and Juliet, but with a happy ending. The sequel, which teams the now married lovers with a gnome version of Conan Doyle’s famous sleuth, is none of the above. Settling into their owners’ new London home, Juliet (Emily Blunt) is too busy working to get the garden right to give much time to Gnomeo (James McAvoy), who duly has a major sulk and tries to get her attention back on him. Meanwhile, some dastardly villain is kidnapping all of London’s gnomes, to which end master detective Sherlock Gnomes (Johnny Depp) and his assistant Dr. Watson (Chiwetel Ejiofor) are on the trail, the former’s cruelly dismissive treatment of the latter mirroring the domestic disharmony in the garden. When their friends and relations also get snatched, Gnomeo and Juliet join forces with the detectives to track them down in what is a game of wits played out (Toy Story-like) across London between Holmes and his arch nemesis, the supposedly dead Moriarty (Jamie Demetriou), a garish yellow pie mascot in a purple nappy and bowtie, with just 24 hours before they’re smashed to pieces.
The film’s executive producer is Elton John and don’t you just know it, with an Elton lookalike gnome, either snatches of his songs or in-jokes references to them (Gnomeo’s codename is Tiny Dancer), while, with his teeth, Moriaty even looks a bit like him. It’s well-animated with lots of detail, but unfortunately that attention doesn’t extend to the frantic but meandering plot (though it does have a clever twist) or the bland characters. Devoid of wit, the film thinks the sight of a gnome in a pink mankini flashing his buttocks is so hilarious it keeps returning to him while relegating Michael Caine and Maggie Smith to mere cameos as Lord Redbrick and Lady Blueberry. It also contrives to have a sequence set in a doll museum as an excuse to wheel out Mary J Blige to perform a number as Holmes’ ex, Irene. It’s probably best summed up when, in a TV report about the gnome thefts, the announcer says “Some say it’s a job for Sherlock Gnomes!” before adding, “Others say it’s a slow news day!” Bored kids and adults are likely to opt for the latter. (Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)
Show Dogs (U)
“No one’s making talking animals movies any more”, bemoans a white Chihuahua in an in-joke to director Raja Gosnel’s previous Beverly Hills Chihuahua. This interminable, mind-numbingly unfunny buddy cop comedy is a good reason why. A Rottweiller with the NYPD, Max (Chris ‘Ludacris’ Bridges) is on a stakeout involving a stolen baby panda only to accidentally foul-up an FBI sting leading to him and Frank (an understandably embarrassed-looking Will Arnett), the agent involved having to reluctantly work together posing as an owner and his dog entering the prestigious Canini Invitational show at Caesar’s Palace in L.A. to try and flush out the mastermind behind an international animal smuggling ring. Neither much wants to work with the other, and Max reckons the dog show world is full of fakes and poseurs; however, inevitably friendship and mutual respect blooms and Max learns, in the heavy-handedly spelled out message, to not judge others who have a different worldview. In-between there’s supposedly hilarious moments as Max has to submit to being groomed and having his testicles felt in the cause of the competition while having to use his street skills to win each round as they suspect the smugglers are planning to kidnap the eventual Best In Show. A four-pawed Miss Congeniality cross-bred with Tom Hanks’ Turner & Hooch (to which the references seemingly never end), it features an assortment of celebrity voices, among them Stanley Tucci as Max’s mentor, Philippe, an embittered former champion pampered Papillon who went a little crazy; Alan Cumming Dante, a self-important Yorkie who took Philippe’s place; Jordin Sparks as our hero’s romantic interest, Australian Shepherd Elizabeth, owned and entered by FBI grooming consultant Mattie (Natasha Lyonne); RuPaul as fashionista designer mixed breed Persephone; Shaquille O’Neal as Karma, the dreadlocked Zen-spouting Komondor belonging to prime suspect Gabriel (Omar Shaparo) ; and Gabriel Iglesias as Sprinkles, an overly enthusiastic Pug. There’s laboured in jokes (Arnett’s Lego Batman included) and pop culture references, a random Elton John show poster and three especially annoying comic relief pigeons and the whole thing creaks and groans it way to a spectacularly badly staged climax. In discussing Max’s chances as a show dog, although it does have the good grace to save the inevitable dog fart until midway. At one point, discussing Max going undercover as a show dog, someone says “I cannot polish the turd, but perhaps I can roll it in glitter.” Save for Max and Frank in an inspired recreation of that classic Dirty Dancing moment, glitter is in very short supply here. (Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza; Vue Star City)
Solo: A Star Wars Story (12A)
A case of Star Wars fatigue perhaps, the box office response to this Han Solo prequel has been decidedly lacklustre, certainly nowhere near the fervour there was for Rogue One. Nor, playing it on a lighter note more along the lines of the Young Indiana Jones than its predecessor’s drama, is it as good a film.
Essentially an origin tale, we first meet Han (Alden Ehrenreich), not yet named Solo, as, having stolen a vial of coaxium, an indescribably valuable spaceship fuel, he and fellow thief romantic interest Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke) seek to escape the oppression of Corellia to follow his dream of becoming a pilot. He makes it past the gate, she doesn’t, and, to avoid capture, he impulsively enlists with the Empire, earning his surname in the process, vowing to return for her when he has his own ship.
Some years later, thrown out of the Imperial Fleet for insubordination, he’s a grunt caught up in one of the Empire’s planet conquering wars when he encounters Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson) and his fellow smugglers, Val (Thandie Newton) and chimp-like multiple-armed pilot Rio Durant (Jon Favreau) with whom, after a brief interlude in a mud pit prison where he teams up with imprisoned Wookiee, Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo), he joins forces in a plan to steal a consignment of coaxium from a transport train. This too doesn’t quite work out, both thinning down the gang and leaving them in debt to Beckett’s ruthless gangster employer Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany), who fronts the sinister crime cabal the Crimson Dawn, and facing the likely fatal consequences of failing. They do, however, talk him into giving them another opportunity, this time to steal coaxium directly from the mines and then processing it before it has the chance to explode. For this, however, they need a ship. So, enter dandy-ish hustler Lando Calrissian (scene stealer Duncan Glover) who owns, as fans will be aware, the Millennium Falcon (we also learn Hans’ unnamed father used to build Corellian YT-1300 freighters before being laid off) and, along with his sassy droid, L3-37 (Phoebe Waller-Bridge), agrees to come aboard for a take of the payout. It should also be mentioned that, along the way, Han finds himself unexpectedly reunited with Q’ira who now reluctantly works for Dryden as his top lieutenant. There’s also the slight problem that there’s another gang of thieves, headed up by Beckett’s arch-enemy, who also want the coaxium.
So, there you have it, surname, ship, Wookiee, blaster, trademark clothes, all character’s trademark details ticked off as the core narrative finally kicks in leading to assorted fights, narrow escapes, double crosses, a Warwick Davis cameo, betrayals and surprise twists, including a last act entry by the Alliance rebels and the appearance of a figure from the franchise that doesn’t really actually fit with the timeline.
Although the early chase sequences are suitably kinetic, the narrative’s slow to gather momentum until the gang set off to steal the raw coaxium, involving a tense escape aboard the Falcon through the Maw and Maelstrom as Solo gets to show off his flying skills and L3 turning into a robot Spartacus to liberate her fellow droids from slavery, but even then the who can you really trust plotting gets a bit repetitive. There’s no Force or lightsabres, though Dryden’s weapon does make a slight nod to the latter, but replacement director Ron Howard and father-son screenwriters Jonathan and Lawrence Kasdan ensure the Star Wars sensibilities remain well polished. Dropping in plenty of franchise references along with the poetry in-joke character names. And it rarely looks less than amazing.
Ehrenreich is hugely enjoyable channelling the young Han with his rogueish smile, body language, gait, recklessness and charm, so it’s a bit unfortunate that he looks as though he’s more likely to grow up into Dennis Quaid than Harrison Ford. It’s also unfortunate that the chemistry between him and Clarke never fizzles, indeed there’s more spark between Llando and L3 (who reckons her boss has the hots for her). Everyone else is serviceable enough, though sadly Newton’s not round long enough to make good on her first impression, and, at the end of the day, it serves up a fun slice of big screen adventure in the tradition of those Saturday morning matinees that inspired Star Wars in the first place. However, given the dramatic fall off in bums on seats after the opening week, the likelihood of further adventures for the pre Mos Eisley Han and Chewie seems increasingly unlikely. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Electric; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)
Screenings courtesy of Odeon and Cineworld
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 – 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
The Happy Prince (15)
It is a part he was born to play, and he does it with exactly the right kind of poignantly ruined magnificence. Rupert Everett has written, directed and starred in this gripping drama about : his disgraced exile-agony in Naples and Paris on being released from prison after the conviction for “gross indecency”. This was the result of his indiscreet affair with , whose enraged, reactionary father, the Marquess of Queensberry, had provoked Wilde’s catastrophic libel action following an accusation of his “posing as a somdomite”. Queensberry’s famously odd misspelling is silently corrected in this film’s opening titles. Over the closing credits – like , about Alan Turing – it gives us the infuriating information that its subject has been posthumously “pardoned” by the British authorities. It’s Wilde (and Turing) who should be doing the pardoning.
Everett’s movie is expertly interspersed with flashbacks to Wilde’s great days and to his initial wary optimism on first arriving in France on the boat train. But the movie shows him living and dying in squalor and illness, succumbing to the delayed shock of his prison nightmare, jeered at and spat on by the expatriate Brits who recognised him, unprotected by his quibbling pseudonym “” – that two-word creation which was his final literary work of drollery.
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Out of prison, Wilde had horrified his friends by resuming the destructive relationship with the exquisite, duplicitous Bosie (Colin Morgan), which causes the termination of the tiny allowance from his humiliated ex-wife Constance (Emily Watson) and endangers Bosie’s own income, leaving them nothing to live on. It’s the beginning of the end. Oscar treats his loyal allies Robbie Ross (Edwin Thomas) and Reggie Turner (Colin Firth) with ungrateful negligence, but Everett imagines him, in extremis, befriending a young Paris rent boy and his tough kid brother and whimsically holding them spellbound with his fairytale The Happy Prince. In happier times, he would recite to his equally entranced sons this story of a statue who allows a swallow to denude him of all his gold to feed the poor. In Everett’s hands, the tale becomes an ambiguous parable for Wilde’s passion and (possible) redemption, the unhappy prince who makes a lonely discovery that love is the only thing worth worshipping.
The story of Wilde’s post-prison ordeal is something most movies nervously turn away from. Stephen Fry’s film (1997) halted after a sentimental embrace between the reunited Oscar and Bosie in Naples; Ken Hughes’s (1960) had Oscar – played by Peter Finch with the trace of an Irish accent – coolly refusing to speak to Bosie on the railway station platform before he headed off to his unimaginable future. As in those films, Everett likes to give us the famous lines from in voiceover: “Each man kills the thing he loves …” But Everett takes us through the moment-by-moment horror of humiliation and poverty, which Wilde brazens out with gallows humour and wit as best he can. He vomits in agony on his deathbed before declaiming: “Encore du champagne!” Everett has clearly been influenced by David Hare’s 1998 stage play , in which Everett played Wilde, and also perhaps by Peter Ackroyd’s 1983 novel .
Everett has a great moment when Oscar bursts into tears on being reunited with Bosie – and another, when he is recognised in France by a bunch of British rowdies who are hateful and homophobic (although that second concept is not something that anyone present would have recognised, perhaps not even Wilde himself). The hooligans chase Oscar, Robbie and Reggie into a church where Oscar faces them down by yelling: “The natural habitat of the hypocrite is England! Go there and leave me in peace!” Hypocrisy is the key. Polite society was prepared to turn a blind eye to homosexual assignations if they were conducted within a proper carapace of secrecy and shame. There was no immediate objection to casual sex with the lower orders, who could be bought and bought off. A flaunted connection with the Queensberry family was a class transgression. Shrewdly, Everett shows Wilde with a portrait of Queen Victoria by his deathbed. He died one year before her, and the film hints that Wilde’s vindictive treatment was part of the ugly sense of shame and mortification at Romantic and aesthetic indulgence which the manly slaughter of the first world war was supposed to redeem.
What was Wilde’s life in exile really like? Has this movie imagined a world of tragically defiant barbs where, perhaps, none existed? Were his final days actually spent in a kind of defeated silence, the theatrical facade of his former celebrity blowtorched away? It’s impossible to know. But this film is a deeply felt, tremendously acted tribute to courage. Rupert Everett summons the ghost of the ruined and ruinous Oscar Wilde – and the flickering shades of Visconti – for his directorial debut, and also stars as the Irish poet, playwright and wit at the end of his tragically short life. Wilde’s mighty struggle with himself, with his heavenly talent and earthly lusts, and the meaning of it all resonates so strongly with the direction and performance that The Happy Prince is easily elevated past period Victoriana (and that wallpaper) to move and engage in equal parts. Wilde’s heart-breaking children’s story The Happy Prince weaves in and out of the narrative, and actorly indulgences, particularly towards the climax, should be forgiven. After all, Wilde himself would be the last to ruin a deathbed scene by cutting it short.
Parts tragic, defiant, and gleefully self-indulgent, Everett coarsens his features with prosthetics
Commercially The Happy Prince will have to carve out its own niche in the small but prestigious area between Death In Venice, Call Me By Your Name, and Shadowlands. Everett’s performance marks a career-best and many will be drawn by it, though he’s subsumed enough to be almost unrecognisable. It’s his own tender screenplay, however, and a burnished combination of empathy and realism that makes the picture, with its all-Europe sets and lustrous lighting and design, a strongly cinematic statement from an actor whose intelligence, up to now, has always outshone the films he has appeared in.
Everett starred as Wilde in the 2012 revival of the play Judas Kiss, and the pair are an immaculate fit. His clear sympathy for and identification with Wilde seems to come on many levels, not least that the actor also saw his professional world shrink when he came out at the age of 25.
Although they play small roles in comparison, Everett has also guided his co-stars to shine. His Another Country co-star Colin Firth as Wilde’s friend Reggie Turner, Colin Morgan as Lord Alfred ‘Bosie’ Douglas, Emily Watson as Wilde’s wife Constance and newcomer Edwin Thomas as his stalwart friend and erstwhile lover Robbie Ross all deliver strong, grounded performances. The much-villified Bosie is treated in a way that isn’t sympathetic yet is unusually perceptive, thanks to Morgan’s portrayal of an indulged schoolboy.
This is a new treatment of Wilde – no Stephen Fry-style floppy-haired hagiography with Oscar dropping lilies and epigrams as he mooches towards death. Here, ravaged and dissolute, Wilde tumbles headlong into his downfall, dying destitute in St Germain De Pres at the age of 46 having ripped his life apart heedlessly, determinedly, and poignantly in a series of rash decisions. The Happy Prince sees Wilde alone and drunk in Paris, cadging money from former friends, almost willing himself to death. His soul is irreparably damaged after two years of hard labour in Reading Gaol for gross indecency and he wants to see his children, yet reunites with Bosie knowing what that will mean. “I am my own Judas,” he says.
Everett, for whom this is a long-held passion project carefully patched together through an elaborate network of European finance out of Germany (with assistance from the BBC and Lionsgate in the UK), carefully modulates his performance. Parts tragic, defiant, and gleefully self-indulgent, Everett coarsens his features with prosthetics to catalogue the final years of a wandering, impecunious, drunk and nihilistic Wilde. The film is set in Naples, Paris and Normandy, with sets in Belgium and Germany (Bavaria) and Everett and his team rarely put a foot wrong. The British sets slightly disappoint (Clapham Junction, Reading Gaol) in comparison with the exquisitely realised European sequences.
Everett doesn’t dial down Wilde’s darker side. It’s a tough look at the sexual appetites (his “mauve moments” with street boys) and heavy drinking and druggy ways of a voracious man who was dangerous to those who came close. (“Each man kills the things he loves” – or, as his first lover and final love Ross warns, “he’ll eat you”). Calling himself Sebastian Melmoth, Wilde leaves Reading in boisterous high spirits, an “exiled fairy”, but it’s a bitter slide down his trough of despond.
With a running theme of “The Boy I Love Is Up In The Gallery’ (a performance Everett relishes), The Happy Prince switches moods at the tip of Wilde’s hat; score is by Gabriel Yared, while Everett holds a writing credit on the rambunctious “Vive Le Trottoir”. The velour wallpaper, drapes and dark Victorian interiors may battle with Everett and Wilde, but they never win. The European light, the efforts Wilde makes with rouge and panstick, and a sequence on a beach seems to deliberately call to mind Thomas Mann and Visconti, but The Happy Prince has further to travel in its examination of the artist and the choices he made.
Quoting De Profundis, Wilde’s testament from prison, Everett tracks the end of the man who was greedy for “the fruit of all the trees in all the world”, and was viciously punished for it. The posthumous pardon for Wilde’s prison sentence, as the credits note, was only delivered last year, giving The Happy Prince an immediate point of relevance, and a poignant one at that. Reunited in Rouen after a pained separation, Oscar Wilde and his young lover Alfred “Bosie” Douglas adjourn to the privacy of a small, dim, chintzily decorated hotel room. Clothes come off, the lights go out… and just like that, “The Happy Prince” hits us with a cutaway to a train going through a tunnel. Cribbed shamelessly from Hitchcock, it’s the kind of lightly saucy visual gag you might expect in a film directed by waggish thesp Rupert Everett, but its daintiness strikes a false note in a biopic otherwise dedicated to the honest passions and anguish of a man best known for his archness. It’s neither the first nor the last well-meaning misstep in Everett’s ornate writing-directing debut, which chronicles Wilde’s destitute final years in France as a tangle of memory streams, boozy vignettes and flashbacks within flashbacks, but sometimes loses sight of the man behind the aesthete.
A big-screen vehicle for Everett as Wilde has, of course, been a long time coming. The out-and-proud Brit established his affinity for Wilde’s limber, witty language in Oliver Parker’s springy screen adaptations of “An Ideal Husband” and “The Importance of Being Earnest,” before getting more seriously into the skin of the Irish literary giant for David Hare’s biographical play “The Judas Kiss” — a work with which “The Happy Prince” partially overlaps in its focus on the toxic disintegration of Wilde’s and Bosie’s affair.
So it comes as no surprise that the actor, his aquiline features smudged and blunted under makeup and prosthetics, makes a fine Wilde — brittler than Stephen Fry’s interpretation from 1998, but persuasively so. At points, Everett rather touchingly essays the protective irony that endures in a spirit otherwise crumpled by heartbreak, imprisonment and public shaming; he moves with the shambling body language of a larger-than-life man now doing his level best not to be seen.
As a final, permanent showcase for a role Everett was born to play, then, “The Happy Prince” does the job. For all its passion-project hallmarks, however, it makes a shakier case for him being the filmmaker to bring it to screen. Everett’s original screenplay shoots for an ambitiously unruly hall-of-mirrors structure, flitting non-chronologically around Wilde’s final years as recollections and hallucinations come to him on his deathbed in a Parisian fleapit. Yet the writing is more literal than literary, awash with such woolly sentiments as, “Suffering is nothing when there is love… love is everything,” while the breeze-blown timeline, under Everett’s heavy, decorous direction, turns a bit stuffy.
For any viewers unfamiliar with the facts, introductory title cards explain the essential circumstances of Wilde’s social ruin, following his 1895 conviction for “gross indecency with men.” We flash immediately back to gentler times in the Wilde household, as he puts his sons to bed with a reading of his own eponymous children’s story; the beloved tale of a gilded statue who comes to know the gravity of human suffering, it’s recurringly referenced in Everett’s script, seemingly as a metaphor for Wilde’s own depleted, once-golden existence. The fable is repeated, more wistfully, to Jean (Benjamin Voisin) and Leon (Matteo Salamone), the Parisian street urchins whom Wilde takes under his withered wing in his last days, his storytelling powers outclassing his bodily strength.
Skipping back and forth across his exile period, “The Happy Prince” winds up principally sketching a rough love triangle between Wilde, the teasing, manipulative Bosie (a pristine, suitably petulant Colin Morgan) and Wilde’s more tenderly devoted literary executor Robbie Ross (Edwin Thomas), which alternately intensifies and dissipates across years and European borders. (A German-Belgian-Italian co-production, the film duly puts its multinational production credits up on screen.)
Ross’s weary, take-and-take relationship with his client, friend and sometime lover gives the film its most quietly moving thread, buoyed by Thomas’s stoic, softly sorrowful performance. Would that Emily Watson, largely wasted in her few brief scenes as Wilde’s estranged, embittered wife Constance, were given as many notes to play; a typically reserved Colin Firth, also taking an executive producer credit, adds little but marquee value in an extended cameo as Wilde’s loyal friend and peer Reggie Turner.
“The Happy Prince” gains some heated, enlivening pique when it touches on the subject of Wilde’s continued homophobic bullying by onlookers and the system alike, played in terms that still strike an anxious chord in 2018. Elsewhere, there’s not much urgency to its melancholic ramble through the writer’s ailing consciousness. Cinematographer John Conroy favors chiefly autumnal, varnish-darkened shades, which join Gabriel Yared’s stately score in lending proceedings an elegiac tone from the outset: fair early warning for audiences that Oscar Wilde the blithe humorist will be making sporadic appearances, at best, in a biopic that places great importance on being earnest. “Why should a perfectly divine leopard change his spots?” Wilde asks, though Everett’s film, at once indulgent and somewhat undernourished, captures its subject some way past his era of divinity. Oscar Wilde ended his days lost in a miasma of bankruptcy, public infamy and viral agony, never returning to Britain after his release from Reading Gaol, but exiled to the continent. Bravely, it’s this period of his life that Rupert Everett has chosen to focus on for his directorial debut, The Happy Prince, letting him expand on his celebrated performance in the 2012 West End revival of David Hare’s The Judas Kiss.
Everett has danced around the role of Wilde throughout his career, notably as the idle bachelors Oscar wrote in An Ideal Husband and The Importance of Being Earnest, both plays landing on screen during the peak Miramax era as a pair of nattily cast Oliver Parker divertissements. But it’s here that the writer-director-star truly gets to grips with the grisly decay of the author’s life, sparing us nothing as he plunges into a destitute purgatory with little in the way of comic relief. With only brief upward glances at Wilde’s faded star as the one-time toast of London society, these are very much the gutter years.
Physically, Everett is a long way here from the louche-but-dapper, black-tie-ready figure he cut a decade or two ago. Jowly and lumbering, mush-faced under prosthetics, his Wilde is on a fast track to oblivion, frittering away his last centimes on pleasures of the flesh, including “purple moments” with the rent boys whose absinthe-sodden company he sought in Paris and Rouen. The legendary wit flickers here and there, but ruin and tragedy are written all over the man, and creatively he’s a spent force.
First announced in 2012, The Happy Prince has evidently been a passion project for Everett, difficult to fund in the intervening years, and some of its wobbly, free-associative technique can be put down to strenuous labour. But there are real virtues to its comparative lack of polish: this story gains a seamy power from the rough edges, the exploratory style, even the slightly unstable editing. Everett summons the shade of Visconti’s Death in Venice, when Wilde takes the air and hides from his persecutors at a French seaside resort. But there’s much in the vision of sordid demi-monde carousing which suggests an influence closer to home: the acrid and challenging work of John Maybury, especially his 1998 Francis Bacon biopic Love is the Devil.
The supporting cast help the general cause. Everett’s old cohort Colin Firth, as his loyal friend Reggie Turner, and Edwin Thomas as his literary executor Robbie Ross, are admittedly way too far apart in age to play these exact contemporaries: Firth’s mainly here to be a sellable name, not a convincing 28-year-old, but such is life.
A bleached-blond Colin Morgan, meanwhile, has the just right sort of Caravaggio pulchritude to play Bosie, with whom Wilde was briefly but tempestuously reunited before his final descent. Better yet is young French actor Benjamin Voisin, outstanding in the presumably composite role of Jean, a sympathetic French street urchin. Emily Watson, typically thoughtful as Oscar’s despairing wife Constance, doesn’t get quite the screen time that Jennifer Ehle had in 1997’s Wilde, but given the couple’s separation at this late stage, it’s hardly surprising. In that more sanitised film, Tom Wilkinson played Wilde’s notorious nemesis, the Marquess of Queensbury, and funnily enough turns up with a small role here serving the exact opposite function: he’s the Irish priest who forgivingly ministered on Wilde’s death bed, while all his remaining well-wishers clustered around.
Everett overdoes the lachrymosity right at the end, the one part of the film where a more subdued rigour would have served him better. At the very least, though, it’s a command performance he puts in front of us, an uncompromising feat of empathy in the role he’s made his own more than any other. (Vue Star City)
On Chesil Beach (12A)
Adapted by Ian McEwan from his own novel, set predominantly on one Dorset evening in 1962, punctuated with flashbacks and moving on to codas in 1975 and 2007, and the feature debut of theatre director Dominic Cooke, this tells of the wedding night of newlyweds, working class history graduate Edward (Billy Howle) and Florence (Saoirse Ronan), a graduate, CND activist and string quartet leader from a privileged background. It’s not a happy one. From the start, as they look across the table at each other in the honeymoon suite while two of the staff knowingly exchange looks and make innuendo-laced comment as they serve dinner, it is clear there is tension between the pair. As the evening slowly moves towards consummating the marriage, the film flashes back to show how they met (at a CND meeting in Oxord, he anxious to tell someone, anyone, that he’s just got a first) as well as detailing their family settings. He lives in country village with his two younger sisters, his gentle primary shool headmaster father (Adrian Scarborough) and artist mother (Anne-Marie Duff) who has brain damage after being struck by a moving train door, often can’t remember who he is and has a tendency to wander around naked. She, on the other hand, comes from a wealthy family headed up by competitive, toxic male engineering factory owner Geoffrey (Samuel West), with a younger sister and an arrogant, snobbish Oxford don mother (Emily Watson) given to chatting on the phone with Iris Murdoch.
Both are virgins, lacking knowledge about sex (in one scene she reads about erections and penetrations with a sense of horror) and how to handle relationships, with no experience of physical intimacy beyond kissing. So, when they finally fumble their way round to it, it’s not too surprising that it ends in tears, he ejaculating prematurely, she fleeing the room in disgust. Meeting up on the pointedly pebble beach, confessions are made and a proposition of how to handle that side of things put forward. The love lasts forever. The marriage last six hours.
This is the film’s strongest part, a sympathetic and sensitive critique of the British way of love and sex prior to the Swinging Sixties and, dominating the screen, both Ronan and Howle give terrific, she adopting a perfectly clipped English accent and registering profound emotional depths with just an expression. Things are slightly less effective and more narratively contrived in the later scenes, Ed running a record store in the 70s and part of the free love movement, and living by himself in 2007 when he hears of a farewell concert by Florence’s now famous quartet, respectively prompting both a Chuck Berry moment and a sentimental but nevertheless moving scene, each of which has been set up earlier in the film.
The problem is that it’s only in those final moments that the film really finds an emotional beat as opposed to the somewhat distanced gaze – and slightly mannered dialogue – that characterises the bulk of the narrative, even if it is supposed to echo the society of the time when sex wasn’t something discussed in polite families. Very much an art house offering, as underscored by its limited, selective release, it forgoes storms of passion for muted heartbreaks.
The Breadwinner (12A)
Nominated for both the Golden Globes and Oscars, the solo debut of Nora Twomey, who co-directed The Secret of Kells is an animated adaptation of Deborah Ellis’ young adult book, based on interviews with Afghan refugees in Pakistan, about Parvana (voiced by Saara Chaudry) an 11-year-old Afghan girl in 2001 Taliban-occupied Kabul who, when her disabled former teacher father, Nurullah (Ali Badshah), is arrested (by a former pupil) and hauled off to prison, takes it upon herself to keep the family, her mother, sister and baby brother fed. Rather this than see her sister married to as distant cousin offering to take them out of the city and abandon Nurullah,
However, given the Taliban’s brutal control over women’s lives, which forbids women to venture outside without male company and the fact that shopkeepers are too scared to sell to her for fear of retribution, in order to do so – and ultimately to go in search of her father and take him the crutch he need to walk- she has to disguise herself as a boy, because, as Shauzia (Soma Chhaya), a kindred street smart spirit also passing as a boy, points out, boys can go anywhere.
So, she cuts her hair and wears her deceased older brother’s clothes (his story only revealed later) and ventures out into the city markets, earning money by selling what few goods the family has left and in using her literacy skills to read the letters of a friendly illiterate customer (Kawa Ada), who will prove instrumental in her quest. Meanwhile, her mother is planning to escape to the sea.
Among the items for sale is an ornate tunic which, at the start of the film, her father employs to spin a story about Afghanistan’s history, a narrative conceit that develops further in the fables Parvana tells her baby brother and which form a central motif in the film’s message about the power of imagination and the value of traditional culture as the action is punctuated by her tales of a young boy’s courage in confronting and overcoming the terrifying Elephant King, the animation in these moments adopting a stylized and colourful cutout style as opposed to the simple line drawings elsewhere.
With careful attention to cultural accuracy, it balances its hard hitting political content with deep emotion as it recounts background stories alongside that of Paravana and her family, building to a powerful dramatic finale against a backdrop of renewed conflict, pitting the power of love and friendship against the power of hate and division.