MOVIE ROUND-UP: This Week’s New Film Reviews, Fri Nov 16-Thu Nov 22

NEW RELEASES

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes Of Grindelwald (12A)

Again directed by David Yates and written by J.K. Rowling, the second in a planned five part Wizarding World series, this has been the subject of some scathing reviews. Ignore those, there may be flaws, but otherwise this is not only a visual spectacular that often surpasses the original, but it also deepens characters  and ventures into some dark corners in regards to its themes of family and politics.

It does, however, take a while to find its feet and, if you’re not up to scratch with the minutiae of Rowling’s world, both in terms of this franchise and its links to the Potter series, then you might need a reference guide to keep up with the dizzying early going, which, otherwise, has a tendency to be incoherent.

Opening in 1927 New York, with the dark wizard Gellert Grindlewald (a blonde-haired, pale-faced Johnny Depp on fine form complete with mismatched eyes) in prison after being captured by Magizoologist Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne, growing into the role in an increasingly complex manner) and his Tardis-like suitcase, only to escape, with the help of some turncoats, while being transported in a carriage drawn by Thestrals to stand trial in Europe. All of which happens in such a blur, it’s not always easy to keep up or work out what’s going on.

Grindlewald’s plan is to create a master race of pure-bloods who will rule both the wizarding and the human worlds, and to which end he is seeking out mystery man Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller), who devastated Manhattan in the previous film and who, unaware of his true identity, is torn between good and evil. Meanwhile in London, having again been turned down for permission to travel internationally because he won’t take sides,  Newt busies himself looking after his menagerie of creatures (the living green twig Pickett and the Niffler, along with a bunch of babies, among them) with the help of the adoring Bunty (Victoria Yeates), when who should turn up but Queenie Goldstein (Alison Sudol), the dizzy dame sister of glamourous Ministry of Magic auror,  Tina (Katherine Waterston), with whom Newt’s secretly in love (but who has cooled towards him after a misunderdstanding), accompanied by her American Muggle boyfriend baker Jacob (Dan Fogler), whose obliviation in the last film is quickly (and not credibly) dismissed, only for the pair to have a spat after Newt lifts a spell, she then flouncing off in a  huff.

Enter Dumbledore (a tweedy, waistcoated Jude Law), at this point a young Defence Against the Dark Arts professor, who reveals that both Grindlewald and Credence are in Paris but, for reasons explained later (and which link to the revelation of Albus’s sexuality), because he can’t move against the former, he wants Newt to go to France and deal with things.  Reluctantly, (and largely because Tina’s there) he agrees.

Around this point, the plot and its multiple storylines begin to gel. Credence is working in a freaks carnival in Paris with Nagini (Claudia Kim), an Indonesian Maledictus destined to later become Lord Voldemort’s snake, and is being hunted by both Tina, the mysterious French-Senegalese Yusuf Kama (William Nadylam) and a Ministry of Magic assassin (Ingvar Eggert Sigurosson) whose loyalties may well lie elsewhere. The swelling character list involved in trying to solve Credence’s identity also includes Leta Lestrange (Zoe Kravitz), Newt’s former Hogwarts crush, and  Newt’s brother, Thaddeus (Callum Turner), who works for the Ministry, and to whom she is now engaged. Added to this, there’s also aged alchemist Nicolas Flamel who gets to play a significant part in the final climactic showdown between those from the Ministry of Magic and Grindelwald and his acolytes.

Although it does take time out in the third act for a lengthy exposition scene in which everyone explains their connections to the other, the film generally gets on with delivering fast-paced, location switching action that involves a creature that resembles a Chinese New Year parade dragon, a fog shrouded London, underground vaults, the Ministry of Magic archives with its cat-like demon guardians, statues that serve as magical portals  and Père Lachaise Cemetery. And, of course, Hogwarts along with flashbacks to Dumbledore’s lessons with the young Newt. Indeed, the connections between the franchise and the Potter series begin to take very concrete shape, most especially in a reference to the Dumbledore line and phoenixes.

Aside from the films various complicated family relationships, in Grindelwald’s address to his followers Rowling also mines a strong political thread that, both in its rhetoric and visuals of a world at war he claims he wishes to avoid,  recalls the rise of fascism in Nazi Germany, but also resonates with the climate in contemporary Europe. Both exhausting and exhilarating, it may at times confuse, but it never bores, setting up a wholly unexpected family crisis that promises a real cataclysm of a threequel. (Cineworld 5 Ways; NEC, Solihull;  Electric; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Mockingbird; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Dead In A Week Or Your Money Back (15)

As a black comedy controversially themed around suicide, the fact writer/director Tom Edmunds’ debut feature is playing on only one screen is perhaps understandable, but undeserved. It starts off somewhat falteringly as would be writer William (Aneurin Barnard) prepares to throw himself off a bridge in his seventh attempt to kill himself. At which point, he’s approached by a mysterious figure, Leslie (Tom Wilkinson), who asks if he can help in sending him on his way and leaves him with his business card.

When this attempt fails like the others before it, William decides to give him a  call. Leslie, you see, is an ageing suburban hitman who works for the British Guild of Assassins, he even produces a glossy brochure showing the different options he offers when the pair meet up in a café where William signs up for Leslie to kill him. Although, not being exactly flush, he has to go for the cheapest (a bullet to the head) rather than the heroic death.

However, William is then contacted by Ellie (Freya Mavor), who wants to publish his book.  So he asks Leslie to hold off for a bit. However, when he and Ellie meet up to discuss things, Leslie accidentally shoots her boss. Which throws everything into chaos and from which point the film shifts into a more confident gear. William has decided he now wants to love, Leslie wasn’t to complete the contract to fill his quota, and the head of the guild (Christopher Eccleston) isn’t happy about the screw-ups (“we don’t go around killing people”, he barks), and reckons it’s time Leslie was put out to pasture. And alongside all this, Leslie’s wife Penny (Marion Bailey) is worried her embroidered cushion might not be good enough to win a local needle-work competition.

Some might find the jokes about Michael J Fox’s Parkinson’s tremors in the aftermath of the accidental shooting in somewhat dubious taste, but, like many moments in the film, it’s undeniably funny. Bevan’s performance settles as the film goes along, Bailey’s a gentle delight, Wilkinsn’s on his best form in ages and Eccleston is wonderfully over the top in a very laid back British way. Indeed, the whole film is very British, it even has cups of tea and budgies. Suicide is, obviously,  no laughing matter, but the film’s actually about finding a  reason to live (love, obviously) than to die, so you can chuckle away with a good conscience. And, you’ll be glad to know there’s a message about the Samaritans at the end too. (Odeon Birmingham)

 

Hell Fest (18)

Arriving too late for Halloween, directed by Gregory Plotkin, who edited Get Out, while it may have a couple of imaginative sequences (two girls running through a passageway full of outstretched arms), this is still generic man in a grotesque mask slasher stuff that’s neither scary nor, save for perhaps the ‘test your strength’ moment,  gory enough for the Friday night audience it seeks.

The Hell Fest of the title is an extreme  horror attraction at a travelling fright-themed circus, the film opening with an unfortunate teenage female punter ending up dead and hanging among the gruesome props after discovering one of the figures is actually real and doesn’t handle rejection well.

Cut to a year or so later at its latest location and a bunch of friends are up for some thrills, among them recently reunited best friends Natalie (Amy Forsyth) and  Brooke (Reign Edwards)  and the latter’s new flatmate Taylor (Bex Taylor-Klaus) and their respective boyfriends. Needless to say, our unnamed slasher (Stephen Conroy) in his hoodie targets Natalie (after dispatching his first victim while she, thinking it’s part of the show, urges him on) , gradually working his way through her anonymous mates, adding their corpses to the plethora of fake bodies, en route to the climax.

Horror veteran Tony Todd puts in a cameo as a carnival barker and, visually, it looks fairly impressive, but, despite having six writers, there’s no actual plot as such and any hints there might have been one at some stage are quickly brushed aside, winding up with a daddy’s home coda that suggests Hell Fest 2 is only a scream away. (Cineworld NEC; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Vue Star City)

Suspiria (18)

Originally written and directed by Italian auteur Dario Argento back in 1977 and featuring a cult soundtrack by Goblin, this remake comes from Call Me By Your Name director Luca Guadagnino (with a score by Thom Yorke) and, while remaining true to the basic supernatural horror storyline (American newcomer realises her German ballet school is a front for a witch’s coven), it adds an extra hour to the running time radically departing from and expanding the narrative to embrace Dr. Klemperer (Tilda Swinton in male prosthetics), an elderly psychiatrist grieving over the loss of his wife (a sly cameo by Jessica Harper who played the original Suzy) when the city was divided after the war, who’s investigating the disappearance of Patricia (Chloe Grace Moretz), a dancer at the academy and one of his patients he’d marked down as delusional.  In addition, pointedly set in the same year as the original’s release, events play out against a backdrop of the Berlin Wall, in which shadow the academy stands,  and the Baader-Meinhoff terrorists with Germany’s climate of political rebirth as well as putting a very different and ambiguous spin on the central character of Susie Bannion (an impressive Dakota Johnson).

Arriving for an unscheduled audition for a place in an upcoming production of Volk, devised by imperious black-clad dance diva, Madame Blanc (Swinton again) who heads up the prestigious Markos Tanzgruppe troupe,  the Ohio-born Bannion (who, flashbacks reveals, fled an Amish upbringing on the death of her mother) quickly catches Blanc’s attention. It’s revealed early on that the place is run by witches (among them veteran actresses Angela Winkler and Ingrid Caven) who are searching for the right girl they need for a ritual involving the mysterious Mother Markos (also played by Swinton under a mound of prosthetic rot, but sporting cool sunglasses), ostensibly one of three mythological mothers  representing, among other things, Death.

Gruesome sets in early as Bannion’s dance moves are mirrored in a secret chamber where the lead dancer who’s just stormed out in a strop is bent out of shape and broken before being carted out on meat hooks. As in the original, Susie becomes friends with Sara (Mia Goth), herself a former friend of the missing Patricia, and who is also destined to play a major role in Blanc’s plans.

Mining sexual electricity, dark exoticism, dark hidden chambers that clearly carry psychological resonances, body horror, issues of faith, politics  and some mesmerising dance sequences, the film, shot in oranges and greys with flashes of red and divided into six acts and an epilogue (along with  a brief post credits scene), weaves nightmarish horror and art house intellectual profundity (the screenplay talks extensively of male arrogance, guilt, shame and grief) into an intoxicating, if not always easy to follow, tapestry.

There’s times when the dialogue is a bit too on the nose, such as Blanc declaring “There are two things that dance can never be again. Beautiful and cheerful. Today we need to break the nose of every beautiful thing” and Susie asking “Why are people so ready to believe the worst is over?”

It’s ultimately a little cold and there’s times when the pace slows to a crawl, but, while it may not summon fear in the way Argento’s did, the terror it offers is hard to shake.  (Cineworld 5 Ways; Empire Great Park; Reel; Vue Star City)

 

ALSO SHOWING

Female Human Animal (15)

Set in the contemporary art world with cameos from Marina Warner, Juliet Jacques, Adam Thirlwell and Tom McCarthy, director Josh Appignanesi delivers a dark psycho-thriller in which, playing a fictionalised version of herself, writer Chloe Aridjis lives alone with her cat and is the subject of unwanted sexual advances of a colleague (Angus Wright). She’s also curating a Tate retrospective of real life Anglo-Mexican  surrealist Leonora Carrington, who also  appears as herself in documentary-style interviews, but when an elusive, brooding figure she’s dreamed of spying on her actually materialises Chloe descends into a world of obsession, the question arises is she the hunter or  the hunted?

Shot on an 80s analogue camcorder and interweaving fact and fiction, it explores today’s  sexual politics as the lines between reality and dreams blur. The screening will be followed by a live Q&A with the director. (Thu:MAC)

 

NOW SHOWING

A Star is Born (15)

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

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

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

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

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

 

Bohemian Rhapsody (12A)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Grinch (U)

Originally adapted in 1966 for TV, Dr. Seuss’s  children’s classic How the Grinch Stole Christmas was given a live action treatment in 2000, directed by Ron Howard and starring Jim Carrey. The latest, produced under the Illumination banner,  returns to animation, shortening the title and giving it a contemporary music makeover with an R&B version of You’re A Mean One Mr. Grinch, but hewing very closely to the spirit and look of the original, albeit replacing the Seuss doggerel rhymes with new versions as well as adding a new character with Christmas-crazy neighbour Bricklebaum (Kenan Thompson).

You know the story, living alone on Mount Crumpit save for his loyal dog Max, the Grinch hates Christmas and, after 53 years, decides to put an end to it by stealing all the presents and decorations from every home in Whoville, only to have his heart (two sizes too small)  changed by little Who girl Cyndi-Lou. The book never gives a reason why he despises the festive season, but the Carrey film had him as misfit bullied at school and this version, in which the character’s winningly voiced in an American accent by Benedict Cumberbatch, it’s because, as a young  orphan, he was left all alone one Christmas  and has never been happy since.  It also indicates that there’s some lingering human decency in him since he’s kind and compassionate toward Max and to Fred, the overweight reindeer he co-opts to pull his stolen sledge.

Bright and colourful with some highly detailed animation (especially the weave on the sweaters), it delivers its message about caring and kindness (here, the Grinch is redeemed when the button-nosed Cindy-Lou says she doesn’t want presents, just for her mom to be happy), the design of Whoville and the Grinch’s cave all wonderfully ramshackle, and throws in some sly touches for the grown-ups, such as the Grinch playing All By Myself a la Phantom of the Opera on a pipe organ and going on an emotional eating binge.  Go green. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

The Hate You Give (15)       

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Johnny English Strikes Again (PG)

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Nutcracker And The Four Realms (PG)

Published in 1816,  E.T.A. Hoffmann’s The Nutcracker and the Mouse King was a wisp of a story, but it has endured over the years in many forms, most famously as Tchaikovsky’s ballet. It now surfaces as the basis for Disney’s new visually spectacular Christmas offering. Disappointingly, despite an impressive cast that includes Keira Knightley, Morgan Freeman, Richard E Grant and Helen Mirren, visual spectacle is pretty much all it has to offer, directors Lasse Hallstrom and Joe Johnston, who did the reshoots,  serving up  a soulless, largely charm-free affair that plays a cruel trick with one its best-loved characters and in which the best bits are unquestionably Misty Copeland  dancing to the ballet’s classic melody, once with a full cast (heralded by a nod to Fantasia in which it famously featured) and again solo over the end credits.

It’s Christmas in Victorian London, but, having recently lost her mother, mechanically-minded Clara (Mackenzie Foy) is in no mood to celebrate. The only upside of having to go to a ball with her grieving but stoical father (Matthew McFaddyen), sister and brother is to see her grandfather, Drosselmeyer (Freeman), who’s hosting the lavish affair, to ask his help in opening the locked silver egg left to her by her mother as a Christmas Eve present, but which, despite an accompanying note reading “Everything you need is inside”, has no key.

As such, she ends up following a golden thread that leads her out of fallen tree trunk (as opposed to a wardrobe) into wintery magical land where she finds the key hanging from a tree only to have it stolen away by a mouse. In pursuit, she encounters the Nutcracker, here, in a nod to his creator, called Captain Hoffman (a stiff Jayden Fowora-Knight) and learns that she’s actually a princess and that mom was queen of the four realms, all of which she seems to take pretty much in her stride. He also tells her that their world has fallen on bad times, and that the Land of Flowers, ruled by glittery Hawthorne (Eugenio Derbez), the Land of Snowflakes, ruled by walking icicle Shiver (Grant, utterly wasted) and the Land of Sweets, ruled by the lavender-shaded candyfloss Sugar Plum Fairy (Knightley), are threatened by  Mother Ginger (Helen Mirren, phoning it in) with her cracked-porcelain face, who rules what is now only referred to as the Fourth Realm, and where the mouse who stole the key lives with its multitudinous brethren.

Persuaded by Sugar Plum, that retrieving the key will save them, Clara, the Captain and members of the Royal Guard (among them unfunny comic relief Omid Djalili and Jack Whitehall), head into the Fourth Realm to confront Mother Ginger.  However, in yet another Disney message about overcoming grief, finding who you are and female empowerment, not everyone who’s a friend is a friend and not everyone who’s a foe is a foe as they find themselves beset by an army of tin soldiers.

Despite some particularly unconvincing back projection, the set design, costumes and CGI are spellbinding, most especially the giant mouse swarm creature and the forbidding Realm of Amusements, conceived as a  run-down theme park  with a massive circus tent in the form of Mother Ginger and a bunch of roly poly circus clowns who pop out of each other  like living Russian Dolls.

Unfortunately, it’s so relentlessly visually overstuffed and the script is so muddled and leaden, there’s little room for passion, emotion, character or thrills, not helped by a bland, flat Foy, with only Knightley providing anything like fun and spark. Clearly Disney learned no lessons from letting Tim Burton loose on Alice In Wonderland, God forbid they ever think of reworking The Wizard of Oz. It’s like opening a lavishly packaged Christmas present and finding a lump of coal inside. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Overlord (18)

Taking its title from the codename for the D-Day invasion,  produced by JJ Abrams, written by Billy Ray and directed by the lesser-known  Julius Avery, this is basically a WWII movie with zombies, wherein, shot down over France en route to destroy a Nazi radio tower  so the invasion can have air support, the surviving American soldiers, explosives expert mission leader Corporal Ford (Wyatt Russell, son of Kurt),  Private Boyce (Jovan Adepo) and unblooded rookie who, at boot camp, couldn’t even kill a mouse, war photographer Chase (Iain De Caestecker),  and Bronx loudmouth Tibbet (John Magaro),  hook up with local villager Chloe (Mathilde Ollivier), who hides them in her attic.

There are, however, dastardly deeds afoot in the nearby church, where a suitably despicable Nazi scientist is experiment on the locals, bringing the dead back to life with a  serum  designed to create superhuman soldiers to achieve the Thousand-Year Reich. However, he’s not perfected it yet, meaning they’re churning out rabid, mutated zombies that either have to be burned to a  crisp or locked in cells for future experimentation. Chloe’s aunt was one of the volunteers, and is now secreted away at home, disfigured and with what sounds like a very bade case of asthma.

Send on a  scouting mission, Boyce gets into the bunker, discovers what’s going on (cue body bags with goo and guinea pigs) and, being the film’s conscience, insists they have to stop it. Ford, on the other hand, insists the mission comes first. All of which is further complicated by the fact that the Nazi Commander, Wafner (Pilou Asbæk), who has forced Chloe into a sexual arrangement to spare, turns up at the house.

Firmly balanced between utterly bad Germans  and good Americans (albeit Ford following his Sgt’s advice to be as ‘rotten’ as the enemy in securing their objective), the highly atmospheric opening, all orange glare, mist and parachutes and bodies hanging from trees, giving way to a lashing of gore and body horror special effects as the group head into the church to detrory the mast, blow up the lab and rescue Chloe’s cute young brother from the clutches of the hideously transformed Wafner.

A big budget war horror B-movie with solid cinematography, a robust sound design and plenty of bloody shoot-em-up action, it may play fast and loose with historical accuracy and, despite some brutal torture,  is less concerned about challenging  audiences  over  what’s morally defensible in the pursuit of what’s right  than it has at amping up the tension and scares. Don’t be surprised to see a video game spin-off. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Possum (15)

The feature debut by British writer-director Matthew Holness (aka horror writer Garth Marenghi), this is pretty much a two-hander  surreal and expressionist art house psychological horror with Sean Harris as Philip, a disgraced children’s puppeteer haunted by a disturbing past.

Returning to his now near derelict former childhood Norfolk flatlands home, where his school satchel still hangs by the door opposite a crucifix, he spends most of the chronologically disjointed film trying to dispose  of the titular Possum, a hideous human-headed spider puppet he  created to go with the illustrated poem he’d written, and which he carries around in a  doctor’s bag. However, burning, crushing and drowning it seem to have no effect as it’s always back hanging on the wall of his room or crawling toward him.

Sharing the house is his estranged loathsome uncle, Maurice (Alun Armstrong), who sits in  the filthy kitchen, chain-smoking, cackling to himself, taunting Philip and offering him gobstoppers in a jar.

Clues as to past events are dropped out, Philip returns to his old school, there’s hints about a classmate who vanished, and Holness litters the film with religious imagery  as, the madness gathering,  it disorientingly makes its way to the reveal explaining the reasons for Philip’s guilt, self-loathing  and trauma, symbolised in the creepy puppet.  Exploring a central theme of abuse and psychological fall-out, mingling influences from Ted Hughes, Samuel Beckett, David Cronenberg  and Freud, with a muddy pallete and an  unsettling score by the former BBC Radiophonic Workshop , with its recurring nightmare structure, it’s an uncomfortable and at times repetitive watch, but it’s undeniably one that you’ll find hard to shake. (Electric)

 

Smallfoot (U)

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

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

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

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

There are, however those who believe him; fluffy purple Gwangi (LeBron James), Kolka (Gina Rodriguez) and Meechee (Zendaya), who’s actually the Stonkeeper’s daughter and Migo’s secret crush, comprise the secret Smallfoot Evidentiary Society and  they come up with a plan to lower Migo below the clouds to find the evidence he needs.

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

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

 

Venom (15)

Following on from the 2015 Fantastic Four bomb, this, also developed by Sony rather than under the Disney-mantle, marks the second misfire in the Marvel Universe.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The now obligatory mid-credits bonus scene introduce a flame-haired Woody Harrelson promising carnage for a sequel, one which, given the massive box office, seems assured. Let’s just hope next time Venom affords less word-of-mouth poison. (Vue Star City)

 

Widows (15)

For his much anticipated follow-up to 12 Years A Slave,  director Steve McQueen and co-writer Gillian Flynn have updated Lynda LaPlante’s 1983 TV series, relocating it from London to Chicago, giving it a multi-racial makeover and adding a heady vein of political corruption.

It opens by cutting between scenes from four marriages, some tender, others less so, and a police chase following a heist gone wrong, the thieves, one of them wounded, headed up by Harry Rawlins (Liam Neeson) take refuge in a warehouse and transfer to a van, but as they open the doors to drive off, a SWAT team open fire, the van explodes and they’re all killed.

Aside from losing their husbands, three of  widows, Veronica Rawlins (Viola Davis),  abused Alice (Elizabath Debicki) and feisty storeowner Linda (Michelle Rodriguez), discover they have also lost their livelihoods. More so, Veronica’s paid a visit by Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry), who’s running for alderman, who informs her the $2million that was lost in the raid, and she’s now responsible for Harry’s debt.

Discovering her husband left her a notebook containing details of all his jobs along with one for the next, she makes contact with the other widows. One, Amanda (Carrie Coon), doesn’t show for the sauna room meeting, but both Linda,, having lost the store and struggling to raise her kids, and Alice, who’s been strong-armed into becoming a high class escort by her touch cookie  other (Jackie Weaver), both sign up for the job. They just have to first identify the building on the blueprint.

Connected to all this is a parallel plot involving Manning, his ruthless thug brother, Jatemme (Daniel Kaluuya) who also operate a local criminal network,  and politician Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell) who, is looking to retain the alderman seat his family’s held for 60 years now that his father, Tom (Robert Duvall), is stepping down on account of his health. While not as openly racist as his old man, who’s still a mean, tough bastard,  his vote-catching programme designed to empower minority women with their own businesses, is more exploitative, corrupt and cynical than it appears.

With Alice using her high-powered real estate client (Lukas Haas) to identify where the vault containing the $5 million is located, the loss of  their designated driver means they need someone new behind the wheel. At which point, enter no nonsense bleached blond hairdresser Belle (Cynthia Erivo) and things swing into action. Rather inevitably, it doesn’t all go as smoothly as hoped and, if you’ve not paid attention to the casting,  there’s an unexpected twist in the final act that turns everything its head.

Unfolding in a  world rife with treachery, corruption, betrayal, revenge and brutal violence,  McQueen sustains the gritty and suspenseful tone throughout, never pulling the punches either in the action or the dialogue, the screenplay layered with a subtext of women empowering themselves in a male dominated world. A flashback also explicitly echoes with the Black Lives Matter message in The Hate You Give.

The four female leads are exceptional, each creating very different characters sharing a single-minded purpose of survival, Davis moving from grief to a feral determination (and, in what proves an important plot point, always carrying her dog with her), Rodriguez in familiar tough but likeable mode, Debicki trying to find herself  rather than being defined by her sexuality and Erivo, in her big screen breakthrough, is  simply a bull-headed force of nature.

The men have lesser weight, and, playing laid-back, Farrell sometimes feels to be drifting, but a ferocious Duvall makes the most of his few scenes, Henry channels implicit threat  while Kaluuya is pure cold psychotic violence.  Although the densely packed plot does sometimes resort to shorthand and  there’s times when confrontations and characters (especially Coon’s) feel  slightly shortchanged, the pace never slackens and  you get full value for every moment of its two hour plus running time.   (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Electric; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

 

 

Screenings courtesy of  Odeon and Cineworld

CINEMAS

Cineworld 5 Ways – 181 Broad St, 0871 200 2000

Cineworld NEC – NEC  0871 200 2000

Cineworld Solihull – Mill Ln, Solihull 0871 200 2000

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

Empire – Great Park, Rubery, 0871 471 4714

Empire Sutton Coldfield – Maney Corner, Sutton Coldfield

0871 471 4714

The Everyman – The Mailbox 0871 906 9060

MAC – Cannon Hill Park 0121 446 3232

Mockingbird, Custard Factory  0121 224 7456.

Odeon Birmingham -Birmingham, 0871 224 4007

Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe – Ladywood Middleway, 0333 006 7777

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

Reel – Hagley Rd, Quinton Halesowen 0121 421 5316

Showcase Walsall – Bentley Mill Way, Walsall 0871 220 1000

Vue Star City – Watson Road, 08712 240 240

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