MOVIE ROUND-UP: This Week’s New Film Reviews, Fri May 25-Thu May 31

 

NEW RELEASES

Solo: A Star Wars Story (12A)

Make of this what you will, but I saw midday public screenings of  both this and Deadpool 2; the latter was packed out, for this, however, there were just two of us. Does this mean there’s Star Wars fatigue? Probably not, but it does suggest there’s considerably less anticipation for a Han Solo prequel than 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 the 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 turns 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 roguish 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 Lando 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.  But whether there’s further adventures for the pre Mos Eisley Han  and Chewie rather depends on just how full those cinema seats get. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Electric; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

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. (Cineworld 5 Ways)

Edie (12A)

When, after decades of incapability following a stroke that trapped her in a loveless marriage, her husband finally dies, rather than be dumped in the care home her daughter has in mind, and regretful at her ‘wasted years’, octogenarian Edie (Sheila Hancock, who is onscreen for most of the film) decides to fulfil a trip she and her father once vowed to undertake and heads to Suilven in the outer reaches of Scotland to climb its mountain. To which end, she is inveigled into hiring local camping equipment shop owner Johnny (Kevin Guthrie) to serve as her trainer. Initially in it for the money (his girlfriend and business partner wants to expand the shop), assuming she’ll never go through with it, and despite a somewhat prickly relationship,  the closer he becomes to Edie the more he’s inspired by her resolve and courage as a friend rather than a guide.

Directed by Simon Hunter and written by Elizabeth O’Halloran, it’s a fairly formulaic affair that would seem to have an air of Harold and Maude about it, but, thanks to the strength of the central performances, with Guthrie’s easy going charm and Hancock’s superbly nuanced ability to convey Edie’s turbulent emotions and the memories that drive her to rediscover her true self, it rises well above its Scottish Tourist Board picture postcard appearance. (Cineworld NEC; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

The Little Vampire (U)

Previously adapted as a live action Uli Edel feature starring Richard E. Grant, Jonathan Lipnicki and Rollo Weeks, here Angela Sommer-Bodenburg’s children’s book gets the animation treatment. The set-up’s different, but the story’s pretty much the same.  Having been thirteen for three thousand years, Rudolph (Rasmer Haricker), the youngest of the aristocratic Sackville-Bagg vampire clan, wants to explore the world outside their crypts and coffins, something forbidden by his imperious father (Tim Piggott-Smith) because of the dangers it can present to the family. Such fears are quickly brought home when, secretly following his equally rebellious brother, he ends up having to save him from ruthless vampire hunter Rookery (Jim Carter reprising his role from the original film) and his new super-light weapon. Unfortunately, Rookery and Maney, his bumbling inventor assistant with a father complex, are now able to track them to the family’s lair in an attempt to kill or seal them away forever.

However, in fleeing from Rooker, Rudolph chances upon twelve-year-old Tony (Amy Saville), a young American vacationing in Transylvania with his mom and dad and who has a fascination for vampires. Offering to help Rudolph on condition there’s no neck-biting, the two become friends and, subsequently joined by the former’s sister, Anna (Phoebe Givron-Taylor), engage in a  race against the clock to stop Rookery from carrying out his dastardly plans.

The animation’s pretty basic with the figures having a plastic-like quality and the plotting overly repetitive as its goes from one Rookery scheme to the next (at one point involving a mid-air chase between the vampires and the former’s plane) and it rather indulges young children’s amusement at poo jokes by having one character being covered in dung from a vampire cow. That said, it flags up an always useful message about tolerance and understanding and has enough child-friendly humour and slapstick to keep  them entertained while the grown ups can appreciate Anna’s borrowing of Lauren Bacall’s classic line about whistling from To Have and Have Not. (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. (Cineworld 5 Ways; Electric)

 

Show Dogs (PG)

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

 

Good Night (12A)

The late John Hurt gives a performance far better than the film it serves in this adaptation of director Eric Styles’ adaptation N.J Crisp’s stage play about a celebrated ageing screenwriter, Ralph (Hurt), living in the Algarve with his younger Portuguese wife and former nurse, Anna (Sofia Helin), who, diagnosed as a terminal case, wants to put his affairs in order and reconcile with his estranged son Michael (Max Brown) before he dies. However, he doesn’t want Anna to know and has made  enquiries to employ the discreet services of a mysterious assisted suicide agency so as to make it all look natural.

Matters are complicated, however, when Michael turns up with his no-nonsense American girlfriend Cassie (Erin Richards), infuriating the ever tetchy Ralph by not being able to get his son on his own for a heart to heart, although, even given the opportunity, he still prevaricates with resentment-fuelled arguments.

The title, of course, stems from Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night, Dylan Thomas’s classic meditation on dying and whose poems are frequently references, but, while it manages to avoid  theatricality, it still has suffers from a sluggish pace, repetition  and contrived conversations and never successfully works the white suited Charles Dance, as the agency’s representative, into proceedings, seemingly unable to decide whether to present him as  flesh and blood or the symbolic pale rider figure he so clearly is.

The resonance of Hurt’s own imminent demise gives it an undeniable poignancy and he makes the most of his irascible, cantankerous, at times self-pitying at others profoundly generous character, but the film, parched by a decidedly dry tone, only skirts its deep themes about old age, creation, life, death and relationships on its way to Ralph’s obligatory redemption. As  a last hurrah, Hurt exits with memorable grace notes, but the film isn’t one for his enduring legacy. (MAC)

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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. (Cineworld 5 Ways;  Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza; Showcase Walsall; 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; Electric; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Mockingbird; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza, West Brom; 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.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC;  Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza; Reel; Showcase Walsall)

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

Every Day (12A)

A novel spin on the body swap genre, and with an intelligence that belies its offbeat premise, based on David Levithan’s young-adult novel this entails a high school girl falling in love with a bodiless spirit that calls itself A who, every day, wakes up in a different person’s body, always of the same age and in the same area (most of them seem to go to the same school), but of different gender and race. However, Cinderella-like, at the stroke midnight, A has to leave ready to wake up in the next day’s body. A first shows up in the body of Justin (Justice Smith), the  mixed-race boyfriend of Rhiannon (Angourie Rice) who’s surprised to find he’s acting a lot nicer towards her as they skip school to spend the day together. The next day, however, he’s back to his old self and can’t remember anything about the previous 24 hours.  A, however, has been smitten and, breaking his own rule to never leave a trace,  over the course of the film and different bodies, among them a white cheerleader, a portly Asian boy (Jacob Batalon), a transgender student, a black boy (Rory McDonald) with a domineering mother and a dance happy guy at a party who turns out to be a devout Christian who subsequently believes he’s been possessed by the devil, he forms a friendship with an understandably initially sceptical Rhiannon. At one point, A even wakes up as Rhiannon. Having pushed himself (let’s assume A is male) to remain in the body of suicidal Asian girl long enough to get her (through ‘him’) to ask for help, he’s then able to extend his stay in  the body of another of  Rhiannon’s classmates, a shy but sensitive sort (Owen Teague) who is clearly a far more suitable match than Justin.

The subplot involving the troubled marriage of Rhiannon’s parents (Maria Bello, Michael Cram) following her father’s manic episode’ and subsequent depressive funk where he spends his time painting faces feels somewhat redundant other than in allowing for an epiphany, while her snooty but caring sister, Jo (Debbie Ryan) seems to have no story at all.

However, despite this, what emerges is a sweet, funny, tender fantasy about diversity, sexuality and pure romantic love, one which encourages its teenage audiences to look beyond the externals and find the soul of the person within. Ultimately, a sort of two-legged version of A Dog’s Purpose by way of Groundhog Day, it  ably compensates in originality and heart for what it lacks in depth. (Showcase Walsall)

 

The Greatest Showman (12A)

Closer to Baz Luhrman’s Moulin Rouge than La La Land, whose Benj Pasek and Justin Paul  also provide the songs here, first time director Michael Gracey and writers Jenny Bicks and Bill Condon (who, having penned Chicago and Dreamgirls, knows his way around a musical) 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 and the transition from screen to the Broadway stage  is surely a  given. (Reel; Vue Star City)

 

The Guernsey Literary And Potato Peel Pie Society (12A)

Alexander McCall Smith arguably started the current trend for quirky titles with the No 1 Ladies Detective Agency, finding further expression on the big screen with The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. Adapted from the 2008 novel by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows, this pitches for much the same audience with its bittersweet account of a tragedy that cast a shadow over the lives of the titular’s society’s members.

Director Mike Newell’s first film in almost six years, it’s set shortly after the end of WWI, as, a celebrated author with the publication of her wartime-set first novel (though her critical study of Anne Bronte sold just 29 copies worldwide), Juliet Ashton (Lily James), writing under the name of Izzy Biggerstaff, receives a letter from Dawsey Adams (Michiel Huisman with a somewhat free floating accent), a Guernsey pig farmer and society member, who, having found her name in a secondhand book and there being no bookshops on the island, wonders if she could secure him a copy of Charles Lamb’s Tales From Shakespeare.

Intrigued by mention of the oddly named society (the potato bit comes from the wartime food shortage), and looking to write something of a less frivolous nature for a commissioned Times article, she informs her supportive agent and friend Sidney (Matthew Goode) that she’s off to the island to find out more. Invited to read at a society meeting (from her Bronte work rather than the bestseller), on mentioning her planned article, one of the circle’s elderly members, Amelia (Penelope Wilson), pointedly refuses to give permission, inevitably setting Juliet on the path of unravelling the mystery and, in the process, just engaged to American officer Mark (Glenn Powell), her feelings about her life in London.

The film opens during the German occupation of the island as, drunkenly returning from a clandestine gathering revealed later, Amelia, Dawsey, postmaster Eben (Tom Courteney), gin-making herbalist wallflower Isola (Katherine Parkinson making the most of an undeveloped character) and firebrand Elizabeth (Jessica Brown Findley) are stopped out by a  German patrol  and spontaneously come up with the name of the book club  as an excuse for being out after curfew, thereby forcing them to actually form it.

Variously flashing back between the occupation and the present day, the circle now joined by Eben’s voracious reader young nephew Eli (Kit Connor) and with Dawsey caring for the absent Elizabeth’s four-year-old daughter, the film, which considerably reworks some of the novel’s elements,  is, despite the second half reveal as to why Elizabeth is no longer on the island and narrative touching on the wartime scars of  collaboration and betrayals, is as predictable as it is blandly charming. Wilton has a particularly potent moment as the emotionally wounded Amelia, but, dispensing with any ideas about the power of literature early on, the tone generally favours humour and romance rather than tragedy and years. The locations (ironically not in Guernsey) are attractive and the performances are amiable enough, even if the chemistry between Juliet and Dawsey never really fizzes as it should, but, overstretched at two hours, it’s ultimately pleasantly undemanding fare which, like that pie, could have done with considerably more seasoning. (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 5 Ways, NEC;  Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza; 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 NEC; Empire Great Park; Vue Star City)

Peter Rabbit (PG)

It’s difficult to know which was the more ludicrous, calls to boycott the film for its scene involving someone with blackberry allergies being pelted with the fruit  or  director Will Cluck apologising for it. Especially when the real cause for complaint, at least from purists, for whom this will be a case of Myxomatosis , is the way it’s taken Beatrix Potter’s gentle tales about Peter, the flopsy rabbits and the other assorted Windermere wildlife that populated her books and delivered this brash, energetic live action and CGI version looking to put hip into the hop. Here, voiced by James Corden,  Peter is a bunny with attitude (and who resents being referred to as a rodent) leading his fellow flop-ears on daring raids into Mr McGregor’s (Sam Neill) garden until one day, just as it seems he’s destined to become pie after finally being caught, the old man keels over and dies. In celebration the animals run free over the land once more and take over the house. But then along comes McGregor’s nephew, Thomas (Domhall Gleeson) who, recently let go from his toy department managers  job at Harrods, has inherited the  place and intends to fix it up and sell it so he can open his own toy store. He also has an aversion to rabbits, though he’s at pains to keep this from his aspiring artist neighbour, Bea (Rose Byrne who also voices Jemima Puddle-Duck), to whom he’s taken a shine, and  who regards Peter and the other bunnies as almost family. What follows is Peter and the other rabbits’ attempt to rid themselves of the new McGregor and then, try and get him to come back when they realise it’s threatened Bea’s happiness and future.

Joined by the voices of Margot Robbie (Flopsy and narrator), Elizabeth Debicki (Mopsy), Daisy Ridley (Cotton-Tail) and Colin Moody (Benjamin) as the other rabbits with Sia as Mrs Tiggy-Winkle, it would love to be a countryside answer to Paddington, but it lacks the same innocent charm and humour, the rabbits’ antics often verging on the cruel (the rabbits wire the house to give Thomas electric shocks).

Even so, if you can put aside thoughts of Potter’s originals (not easy since the flashbacks are in the style of her drawings) , this has enough knockabout fun for the youngsters and several  in-jokes (including a  Babe reference, a literal deer in the headlights moment and a self-aware nod to movie cliches)  even socialist class commentary (Pigling Bland as an actual aristocratic  swine gobbling up everything)  for the grown-ups to earn its carrots, and comes with an underlying message about the English countryside belonging to those who actually live there.  (Odeon Broadway Plaza; Reel; Vue Star City)

Rampage (12A)

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. (Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

 

Ready Player One (12A)

Partly filmed in Digbeth (the car chase scenes), Steven Spielberg plunges into the world of virtual reality in this adaptation of Ernest Cline’s bestseller set in 2044, a future world on the brink of chaos and collapse. Here the only escape lies in the OASIS, an expansive virtual reality universe created by the nerdily eccentric James Halliday (Mark Rylance) and his erstwhile partner  Ogden Morrow (Simon Pegg) where the only limits are your imagination. When Halliday dies, Willy Wonka-style he leaves his wealth to the first person to find a digital Easter Egg he (in his Anorak avatar) has hidden somewhere in the OASIS, and which requires three keys to unlock, sparking a contest  that grips the entire world.

Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) is a  young gamer , or Gunter, who lives with his aunt and her abusive boyfriend in an Oklahoma  city  shanty town built of high-rise stacked trailer  homes and, via his VR headset,  a regular Oasis visitor in his Parzival avatar guise, where he hangs out with  mechanical genius mechanoid best friend Aech (Lena Waithe), although neither have ever met in their real lives. He decides he wants in on the challenge  (his avatar’s name refers to the Arthurian Knight who found the Holy Grail) , which brings him into contact with  romantic interest feisty motorbike riding Art3mis (Olivia Cook), who, in the real world, as Samantha, is part of a resistance group against  IOI, the corrupt corporate run by the ruthless Sorrento (Ben Mendelssohn) who’ll stop at nothing to take them out and gain control of the Oasis for himself. At which point, it all  turns into a David and Goliath story with Wade seeking clues in the museum holding Halliday’s memories  and the trio, augmented by Japanese players  Daito (Win Morisaki) and Shoto (Philip Zhao)  as the High Five, battling Sorrento and his forces, which include amusing and somewhat neurotic bounty hunter I-Rok (T.J. Miller) with a deadpan dry delivery,  both within and without  the virtual reality.

An eye-popping hyperkinetic crowd-pleaser rush that’s stuffed to overflowing with often blink and you’ll miss it pop culture references (among them a raft of DC superheroes, Back to the Future, Spider-Man, King Kong, Freddy Krueger, Lord of the Rings, Spielberg’s own Jurassic Park, Chucky  and, playing a  key narrative function,  Ted Hughes’ Iron Giant ) not to mention an extended riff on The Shining, this may not have much by way of a soul or character depth (although it does, ultimately, have Spielberg’s trademark sentimentality), but it’s unquestionably a video game adrenaline addict’s dream. (Tue-Thu:MAC)

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

The Strangers: Prey at Night (15)

Ten years ago, Liv Tyler and Scott Speedman played a couple terrorised by three strangers while staying in an isolated holiday home. Now, a decade later, comes this sequel in which, being reluctantly taken to boarding school after proving too much of a handful, stroppy teen Kinsey (Bailee Madison), her mom and dad (Christina Hendricks; Martin Henderson) and more conformist older Luke (Lewis Pullman), are taking a brief family vacation stopover at the trailer park run by her grandparents.

Arriving late at night, the place deserted, they settle into their cabin only to be disturbed by a knock at the door by some girl who’s apparently lost. Sulking, Kinsey takes off to explore the park, accompanied by Luke, and the pair wind up at their grandparents’ home only to find them butchered.  Racing home, Luke takes dad go off to show what they found and, while they’re away she and mom are attacked by a girl in a mask, Kinsey escaping and running of into the night to find the other two. And, with dad also soon despatched, the film grinds down into the siblings being hunted by the three silent, disguised killers, Dollface (Emma Bellomy), Pinup Girl (Lea Enslin) and, sporting a sack over his head, Man in the Mask (Damian Maffei), as they seek to survive.

A basic no frills slasher movie with a degree of sadistic nastiness that, back in the 70s would have seen it tagged a video nasty, it’s nihilistic and unpleasant, dwelling unnecessarily on the cruelty of the enigmatic assailants, the axe-wielding male proving inevitably almost unkillable in the final climax. 47 Metres Down director Johannes Roberts does a workmanlike job of assembling the characters and action, but fails to bring anything fresh to the genre or, indeed, much by the way of  scares, suspense or common sense.  Indeed, the scariest thing here is how Bonnie Tyler’s Total Eclipse of the Heart, Kim Wilde’s Kids in America and  Air Supply’s “Making Love Out of Nothing at All seem to have wandered in from the soundtrack of another film entirely. When Kinsey asks Dollface why they’re doing all this she simply says “Why not?” A response that pretty much sums up the film’s own existence. (Vue Star City)

 

Truth Or Dare (15)

A conceptual cousin to the Final Destination series, this brings together a cast of unknowns as a clique of houses sharing college kids, BFFs do-gooder Olivia (Lucy Hale)  and philandering Markie (Violett Beane), thelatter’s boyfriend Lucas ((Tyler Posey), who secretly fancies  the former, Brad (Hayden Szeto), who hasn’t come out to his cop father, prescription-forging wannabe med student  Tyson (Nolan Gerard Funk) and his vanilla girlfriend, Penelope (Sophia Ali). Taking a final Spring Break in Mexico, Carter (Landon Liboiron), a guy Olivia meets in a bar, lures them to an abandoned hilltop mission that’s been well and truly trashed, where, joined by obnoxious party crasher fellow student Ronnie ((Sam Lerner), he gets them to play a midnight game of truth or dare, and, when his turn comes round, admits he only got them there  because he has no problem with strangers dying so he can live.

Apparently, the rules of the game are  that if you cop out, you die, something that, back at college, manifests itself when Ronnie, refusing  a dare, immediately falls from a pool table and breaks his neck.  One by one the group’s whittled down as they first try to find the girl  at the start of the film who set fire to a woman in a Mexican store, then an old hermit ex-nun who was the only survivor of a massacre at the mission  and, finally, Carter who is the only one who can make the necessary sacrifice to end the game.  And while all this is going on, truths are revealed that threaten to destroy Olivia and Markie’s friendship, especially a big secret about the suicide of the latter’s dad.

Curse movies are usually founded on a fairly silly premise, but this really pushes the boat out, subsequently explaining  the  game as having been possessed by a  demon, changing the rules so two truths in a  row must be followed by a  dare and having the challenge delivered by possessing people and making them give an evil grin like someone doing a bad impression of the Joker. None of the characters have any personality depths  and,  although the film is sufficiently workmanlike in setting things up, ultimately frankly, you couldn’t give a toss who lives or dies,  as the screenplay flounders around, building to a finale that rather optimistically (and ripping off The Ring) seems to set itself up as franchise that cannot die.  Given it arrives stillborn, that seems unlikely.  (Vue Star City)

Tully  (15)

The third collaboration between director Jason Reitman and writer Diablo Cody reunites them with Young Adult star Charlize Theron as Marlo, a New York mother of two young kids, eight-year-old Sarah (Lia Frankland) and the younger Jonah (Asher Miles Fallica) who’s about to give birth to a third. Her husband Drew (Ron Livingston) works late and helps the kids with their homework before he goes to bed to play video games, but otherwise is oblivious to the demands of being a fulltime mother. On top of which, their son, Jonah, is demandingly ‘quirky’  (for which read autistic, though the film never uses the word) and his elite private school would really like him to have a private tutor (which the couple can’t afford) or place him elsewhere.

The arrival of baby Mia (though her name’s only revealed in passing) just adds to the pressures and, eventually, unable to cope any longer (cue a montage of nappy changing, feeding, etc.), and bearing in mind the never talked about depression she suffered after Jonah’s birth, she gives in and decides to take up the gift from her wealthier brother Craig (Mark Duplass) of a night nanny, someone who will come and take up the strain while she gets some sleep. Enter Tully (Mackenzie Davis) a free spirit in the Juno mould who, Marlo’s very own Mary Poppins, not only looks after Mia at night between feeds but cleans the house, bakes cupcakes, offers a friendly ear and even helps reignite Marlo and Drew’s sex life. She’s well-read, well-informed, speaks different languages and dispenses words of wisdom  such as “She’ll grow a little overnight. And so will we!” She is, as Marlo puts it, “a book of fun facts for unpopular fourth graders.”  She’s also welcomingly non-judgmental.

Marlo gets to have at least part of her life back (“It’s like I can see colour again”) and no longer feels wiped out every waking moment. But then, following a car accident after a girls’ night out in Marlo’s old stomping grounds, comes a reveal that forces you to reassess everything you’ve just seen, even if, logically, it doesn’t quite hang together.

Littered with Cody’s trademark snappy patter (Elaine Tan, as Craig’s spoiled wife Elyse, benefitting from some of the best) and driven by a raw-nerved, unglamorous  and fearless performance from Theron, drained of life through exhaustion one moment, verbally lashing out at the school principal the next, although the dreamlike imagery of mermaids doesn’t quite fit and it overstretches the metaphors in the final stretch, it’s an empathetic, intelligent and insightful examination of the darker side of motherhood they only tend to talk about in the problem pages while putting on that serene glow for the world. At the end of the day, it’s not as hilarious as Juno or as lacerating as Young Adult, but, constituted of a cocktail of ingredients from both,  it’s most definitely one that stressed-out moms should drag their husbands to see. (MAC)

 

 

 

Screenings courtesy of  Odeon and Cineworld

CINEMAS

Cineworld 5 Ways – 181 Broad St, 0871 200 2000

Cineworld NEC – NEC  0871 200 2000

Cineworld Solihull – Mill Ln, Solihull 0871 200 2000

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

Empire – Great Park, Rubery, 0871 471 4714

Empire Sutton Coldfield – Maney Corner, Sutton Coldfield

0871 471 4714

The Everyman – The Mailbox 0871 906 9060

MAC – Cannon Hill Park 0121 446 3232

Mockingbird, Custard Factory  0121 224 7456.

Odeon Birmingham -Birmingham, 0871 224 4007

Odeon Broadway Plaza – 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

Black Panther (12A)         

First seen in Captain America: Civil War, the Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) is T’Challa, who became King of the African nation of Wakanda and took on the animal spirit powers passed down through the generations of its rulers when his father as killed during the attack on the Vienna International Centre. The world believes Wakanda to be Africa’s poorest nation, one of Trump’s shithole countries, but, hidden behind a veil of technological secrecy there exists a hugely advanced and prosperous country, a melding of the futuristic and the ancient dubbed Afrofuturism, complete with sonic-powered railways and insect-inspired aircraft, founded upon vibranium, the hardest metal known to man, from a comet that crashed to Earth  millennia ago and gave birth to the purple flower from which the potion endowing the Black Panther’s strength and speed are derived. It’s also the metal that forged Captain America’s shield. However, like his father before him, T’Challa intends to keep all this secret, protecting Wakanda from incursion and subsequent chaos by the outside world.

However, others are of a different opinion. His gutsy sometime girlfriend Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), first seen rescuing kidnapped girls from a Boku Haram-styled scenario,  believes it is her responsibility to help less fortunate African countries, though nevertheless respects his wishes. But then there’s Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), a CIA assassin from Brooklyn who, it is revealed, has personal ties to the Wakandan throne and wants to use vibranium to instigate a global race war to over throw those who have oppressed Blacks for centuries, to which end he’s struck a  deal with Klaue (Andy Serkis), the rogue Afrikaner mercenary who stole a supply of vibranium way back, from which he’s crafted his weaponised artificial arm, and has been itching to get his hands on the rest.

As such, while the basic oppositions remain true, this isn’t your usual super-hero movie, playing out more in the manner of a Greek tragedy that involves fratricide, flawed fathers, misguided nobility and betrayal alongside issues that embrace isolationism vs internationalism, racism, colonialism, refugees and the opposing policies of passive resistance and militarism that pointedly evokes the contrast in thinking between Martin Luther King and Malcolm X.

Following the historical prologue as to the origins of Wakanda, the film shifts to 1992 Oakland as two men, both of Wakandan origin, ready plans to carry out an armed assault, only to be interrupted by “two Grace Jones lookin’ chicks”, the spear-wielding bodyguards of King T’Chaka (John Kani), T’Challa’s father, who, to protect one of the men kills the other, his own brother, thereby setting in motion a quest for vengeance that will lead to the present day narrative.

It’s directed by Ryan Coogler who made the true-life based Fruitvale Station and Creed, the one dealing with racial tension and prejudice the other about a  young black man coming to terms with his heritage, themes which coalesce here in an Afrocentric fusion of the modern and folklore. Save for some minor extras, Serkis and Martin Freeman (returning as CIA agent Everett K. Ross), are the only white characters in a film heavy with  black acting talent, which, in addition to those mentioned, includes Danai Gurira as General Okoye, commander of the all female elite bodyguards; Get Out’s Daniel Kaluuya as T’Challa’s allegiance-shifting ally, W’Kabi;  Winston Duke as M’Baku, the leader of a rival tribe who challenges T’Challa for the throne in traditional ritual combat on the edge of a steep waterfall; Forest Whitaker as Zuri, basically the Wakandan medicine man; Angela Bassett as T’Challa’s mother, Ramonda;  and, especially,  Letitia Wright as his wisecracking techno-whizz kid sister Shuri who’s designed the upgraded kinetic energy absorbing version of the Black Panther costume and is essentially Q to his 007.

Boseman provides the film’s gravitas, a conflicted leader faced with difficult decisions regarding the future of his people and, in scenes which involve two visits to a mystical afterlife to meet with T’Chaka, comes to learn his father, faced with similar choices, was not all he had assumed him to be. Naturally, balancing such heavyweight concerns, there’s a ready supply of blockbuster gadgetry and action, including a casino shoot-out, a remotely-driven car case through Busan, South Korea and a final all-out battle between T’Challa and Killmonger’s supporters that involves armour-plated rhinos, finally climaxing in the showdown between the two rivals for Wakanda’s future and its poignant coda.

The Black Panther isn’t Hollywood’s first black super-hero, but, ranking alongside the very best of the Marvel canon, he’s its most important. (Vue Star City)

 

Lean On Pete (15)

Making his American debut, British director Andrew Haigh’s adaption of the existential third novel by Willy Vlautin, frontman with alt-country outfit Richmond Fontaine, with its heady Steinbeck and Cormac McCarthy influences, the film shaping up as an episodic coming of age road movie that provides a contemporary snapshot of the American underclass as it and its young protagonist undertakes its slow-burning, if slightly overstretched journey.

Set in Portland, Oregon, it features a tour de force performance from Charlie Plummer, recently seen in All The Money in The World, as Charley, a 15-year-old from a broken home who, the air recently relocated from Washington,  lives with his good-hearted but irresponsible young father Ray (Travis Fimmel). Charley’s drawn to the local racetrack where, in the films longest section, he gets a job helping cantankerous horse owner Del (Steve Buscemi) by looking after the horses and preparing them for the races as they travel the run down racetracks and carnies across the Pacific Northwest.

He forms a particular bond with Lean On Pete, a five-year-old sprinter coming to the end of his days on the track without ever fulfilling what Charley sees as his potential. He also strikes up a friendship with Bonnie (Chloe Sevigny), a jockey who rides for Del and who has seen her own share of knockbacks, pointedly noting how “There are only so many times you can fall off a horse and get up.”  Charley wants her to ride Pete, to give him a chance, but she demurs, also warning him “You can’t think of them as pets.”

Two life-charging incidents set Charley on his journey, the death of his father following a run-in with a jealous husband and a hospital foul-up and Del’s decision to sell Pete after his last dismal race, to be shipped off to Mexico to become horsemeat. Faced with the prospect of being taken in by social services, with nothing to keep him in Portland and wanting to save Pete, he steals the horse and Del’s truck and hits the road, heading across the badlands to Wyoming in search of a new home to try and find his dad’s estranged sister, Aunt Margy.

Along the way, on a journey loitered with isolated truck stops and homes, his path variously crosses with a couple of chancers, a kindly waitress on whom he pulls a dine-and-dash, a sad, overweight girl stuck with her verbally abusive grandfather, itinerant  Mexican workers and, eventually, Silver (Steve Zahn), a trailer-living street smart guy whose seemingly easy-going nature hides a nastier side.

Directed in a stripped down style given to lingering widescreen vistas of the American West’s landscape, as the two down-on-their luck outcasts make their way together, Charley delivering confessional monologues to the horse as they wander the desert,  its narrative centres on one of characters’ remark that “When you don’t have anywhere to go, you’re kinda stuck.” Offering vignettes of small acts of human kindness alongside the harshness and trials that face society’s vulnerable members, it has a haunting poetic resonance and emotional power that, along with Plummer’s soulful, internalised performance sustains it through some of the longueurs as it heads to a redemptive finale, but not without a sudden unexpected shock moment that hits like a hammer blow. It’s a long haul, but the company it keeps make the journey worth it. (Electric)

 

 

Funny Cow (15)

A showcase turn for Maxine Peake, director Adrian Shergold’s film takes its influences from 60s British kitchen sink drama and gives them an art house makeover (you can’t miss the symbolic nod to 1956 French short  The Red Balloon) in an acerbic comedy about a female stand-up comic that comes leavened with themes of domestic abuse, self-esteem and alcoholic despair. Divided into ‘bits’, it unfolds the life of a woman only ever known as Funny Cow (Peake), journeying from her northern childhood in the backstreets of post-war Britain where she learns to use humour to counter her abusive father (Stephen Graham who also plays Peake’s grown up brother) and the local bullies, through her impulsive teenage romance and subsequent marriage to Bob (Tony Pitts, who also wrote the screenplay), in which the cycle of marital abuse and controlling violence repeats itself, to a relationship with gentle but overly needy bookseller Angus (Paddy Considine) and her rise from playing seedy working men’s clubs with its racist and homophobic gags to comedy stardom in the 70s and 80s (emblemised by a red sports car and flashy clothes). In the latter part of the film, this is narrated with brutal honesty straight to camera through a televised monologue that feels like a far darker Dave Allen or Victoria Wood, herself a major influence on Peake.

It’s often unapologetically grim, most especially in the scenes of domestic violence and those involving Funny Cow’s now aged mother (Lindsay Coulson) who, following her husband’s death, took to the bottle, but also viciously funny, the humour aggressively crude, as in a potent sequence where she delivers put downs to a misogynistic heckler. At times Pitt’s screenplay indulges clichés and stereotypes even as it seeks to deconstruct them, but it never blunts its emotional heft even if it does rather stretch credibility that a bookseller in a northern town would be able to afford such a plush home as Angus owns.

There’s cameos from Vic Reeves as a crap ventriloquist, Corrine Bailey Rae and Richard Hawley (who also wrote the songs) as a singing duo and, in an early pub scene, you may even recognise Kevin Rowlands while Pitts does his writing full justice as the abusive Bob.

As a woman out of whom the ability to love has been beaten, Peake commands the majority of the film with her molten energy and magnetic presence, but the first section and a couple of subsequent flashbacks belong to Macy Shackleton who plays her younger self, Funny Calf, while Alun Armstrong is terrific as Funny Cow’s world-weary mentor whose told the same tired jokes too often and to ever diminishing returns, a state of perpetual misery and unhappiness that also infects Funny Cow’s often defiantly self-destructive life. And yet, perversely, there’s moments, such as a scene in a pub where they sing Mule Train, with Funny Cow bashing herself and others  over the head with a  beer tray, where she and Bob actually seem to be happy together. In Funny Cow’s world, success and finding yourself doesn’t heal, it simply makes for a sharper punchline. (Electric)

Redoubtable (15)

With iconic French auteur Jean-Luc Godard having just dazzled Cannes with his latest, The Image Book, Michel Hazanavicius’s timely biopic, its title a frequently alluded to reference to the French nuclear submarine launched in 1967, casts  back to 1968 when Godard and a group of other French directors got the festival cancelled  as a mark of solidarity with the Paris revolutionaries. Starring Louis Garrel as Godard, it recalls when, feeling that he’s getting old, becoming irrelevant and pricked by accusations that cinema hasn’t taken up the revolutionary fervour and nursing irritation that his Chairman Mao-extolling satire La Chinoise has had a critical and commercial drubbing, he renounces both the industry that made him a visionary legend and such feted past work as Breathless and Le Mepris, and, along with his new teenage wife and La Chinoise star Anne Wiazemsky  (Stacy Martin), on whose memoir the film is based, goes on a self-righteous political and artistically experimental bender. Increasingly churlish and embittered, he joins the protestors (cue a running joke about getting his glasses broken), insults and alienates old friends, indulges in fatuous shock tactics (the famous Jews are the new Nazis speech at a debate on Palestine)  and plunges into the realms of communal cinema and radical film-making, the marriage, ultimately, unable to take the strain.

Amusing and dramatic by turn, the film rather overdoes its affectionate Godardian pastiche with its intertitles, black and white moments, polarization, jazz  and nudity to the extent that style often comes at the expense of substance in its examination of his artistic crisis and the collapse of the marriage, although it’s never less than savagely unsentimental in portraying the nastier and narcissistic side of Godard during these times. You do, of course, have to have substantial working knowledge of Godard, French cinema and 60s politics to even think of buying  ticket, but those that do will be rewarded.

 

 

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