In a world without Roma, Nadine Labaki’s film about Lebanese poverty and a child surviving on the streets of Beirut would undoubtedly have scooped the Oscar for Best Foreign Language. Translated as ‘Chaos’, but also named for the city cursed by Christ, it follows resourceful, angelic-looking feisty street kid Zain (an astonishing performance by Syrian migrant Zain Al Rafeea) who, roughly 12 and one of several children, none of whom have documentation, runs away from his parents and their squalid flat after, in return for a few chickens, they marry his younger sister (Cedra Izam) off to their landlord, a shopkeeper for whom he does odd jobs.
Opening with Zain, handcuffed after being arrested for a stabbing, for which he’s serving five years, and being taken into court where (Labaki playing his lawyer) he declares wants to sue his parents for being born, the narrative unfolds in flashbacks leading up to this moment. We see Zain hustling on the streets, grinding Tramadol pills into powder to mix with water so his imprisoned older brother can reconstitute it and sell to his fellow inmates, playing with the other kids and generally hustling his way through life.
After running away, he’s befriended by Rahil (Yordanos Shiferaw), an illegal immigrant Ethiopian cleaning woman, and agrees to babysit her toddler, Yonas (a remarkable Boluwatife Treasure Bankole), who she has to hide from the authorities, while she’s at work. But when, one day, Rahil doesn’t return (having been arrested), he finds himself having to look after the infant full time, improvising a pushchair from a skateboard and a cooking pot to roam the streets looking for his mother and hawking goods, during which he meets up with another survivor, Maysoun (Farah Hasno) and hits on the idea of passing himself off as a Syrian refugee to get to Sweden, all of which involve him with another seedy stallholder, Aspro, who offers to take Yonas off his hands.
Variously evocative of City of God, The Florida Project and Slumdog Millionaire, the restless camera following Zain (almost always at his height) through the streets, markets and slums, the film’s vivid backdrop, taking in a variety of colourful characters (memorably an elderly fairground worker in a tatty Spiderman costume), but also pausing for lingering close-ups of his expressive eyes or tender moments such as a rooftop scene with him and his sister, always balancing the gritty realism with touches of humour and grace.
Angry, indignant and compassionate in equal measure, ending with a plea for justice and a heartwarming freeze frame, this is a modern masterpiece. (Electric)
The Aftermath (15)
Following on from WWI in Testament of Youth, director James Kent now immerses himself in post-WWII Hamburg, one of the most bombed German cities in the war, as the occupying British forces oversee the clean-up. However, adapted from Rhidian Brook’s 2013 novel, this has little to do with political or social issues regarding the victors and the defeated, but, rather, is a soapy eternal triangle melodrama with echoes of Brief Encounter.
Rachael Morgan (Kiera Knightley) arrives from England to join her husband, Captain Lewis Morgan (Jason Clarke) who’s in charge of the rebuilding effort, taking up residence in a palatial house requisitioned from architect Stefan Lubert (Skarsgård) and his daughter Freda (Flora Li Thiemann). It’s quickly established that Rachael and Stevan respectively lost a young son and a wife to the war, and, given that there’s tensions in her marriage, its patently obvious that her initial Germanphobic frostiness to Stefan, a confirmed anti-Nazi, will turn into an adulterous passion to fill the emptiness she feels.
Indeed, save for an undeveloped subplot in which emotionally confused Freda gets involved with a young Nazi guerrilla (Jannik Schümann), that’s pretty much the entire narrative, the pair consummating their attraction in tasteful soft focus when Lewis is called away to the Russian sector and she resolving to run away with him once he gets his papers, the film building to an emotional climax of sorts involving the repressed grief both she and her tightly wound husband feel over their son’s death in a bombing raid and its fall out on the marriage.
The destruction of Hamburg is well-reconstructed and there’s a brief moment when two entwined charred bodies are discovered that serves to contrast the lack of empathy by the average British soldier with the liberal compassion shown by Morgan, mocked by his intelligence officer colleague Burnham (Martin Compston), when he allows the Luberts to stay on rather than evicting them to a camp. There’s also some emotional bonding business involving the family’s Steinway.
There is, however, very little by way of emotional layering, the situations are contrived and the characters no more than what you see on the screen, and, while Knightley again sobs to dramatic effect, the performances are all a little stiff upper lip and the whole romantic notion of starting again from scratch never gets beyond the drawing board.
Those nostalgic for 40s sentimental romances might find something to appreciate amid the earnest looks and emotional syrup, ladled on with a glaringly obvious soundtrack, before the weepie trainside finale, but, rather than an impassioned aftermath, this just feels like reheated leftovers. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)
The Hole In The Ground (15)
Making his feature debut, Irish writer-director Lee Cronin draws on familiar horror tropes and themes of maternal guilt for this often tense and unsettling nightmare in which, recently separated from an abusive husband, Sarah O’Neill (Seána Kerslake) seeks to build a new life for herself and young son Chris (James Quinn Markey) in a backwood rural Ireland, renovating a house on the edge of the forest.
The opening scene of the pair looking at their distorted reflections in a hall of mirrors lays the thematic ground while a scene of them playing their favourite make a face game proves crucial as things gather to a head.
One night, Chris goes off into the woods and, searching for him, Sarah discovers a massive sinkhole. This is followed by a terrifying encounter with an aged dotty neighbour (Kati Outinen) who screams that Chris is not her boy, Sarah later discovering, from the woman’s husband (James Cosmo) that she had claimed the same about her own young son, killed in a supposed car accident. Initially dismissing it as the raving of a disturbed woman, small incidents begin to persuade Sarah that something isn’t quite right, the Chris is somehow different. And that the sinkhole is connected. Or, given she’s been put on medication, is it all in her mind? And, as her friend says, don’t kids always turn into little monsters!
Inevitably, once the suspicions give way to proof, in abandoning ambiguity the film loses much of the tension, resorting instead to generic shock moments and Sarah’s desperate struggle to save her child, the climax leaving much unanswered. Cronin is well aware of the clichés and plays to them accordingly, playfully nodding to the likes of The Shining, The Blair Witch Project and Goodnight Mommy, the film building a genuinely edgy atmosphere and featuring a creepy shot involving a spider. It’s B-movie horror funride rather than in the Get Out class, but it does what it does to enjoyable effect. (Cineworld 5 Ways)
Playing on a single screen (quite possibly as a gesture to Birmingham writer-director Steven Knight), this preposterous thriller hinges on the audacious twist revealed in the final moments that underpins the film’s question of reality and, supposedly, provides the emotional heft. Getting there, however, is a laborious slog.
Reversing the return to form that began with Mud, Matthew McConaughey is all moody sweat and stubble as Iraq war veteran Baker Dill, who, along with his assistant Duke (Djimon Hounsou) operates a struggling fishing boat hire in some secluded coastal town called Plymouth where everyone knows everything about everybody. Here, Baker divides his time between drinking at the only bar, screwing the local well-to-do (Diane Lane), who often bankrolls him, and obsessing, Moby Dick style, about catching some giant tuna dubbed Justice. Initially, you’re led to think this might be because the fish caused the death of his son, but that’s soon blown out of the water when we see the now pre-teen Patrick (Rafael Sayegh) playing on his computer games.
He lives with his mom, Karen (a blank Anne Hathaway), his high-school sweetheart ex, who’s now married to wealthy bully boy and mobster Frank Zariakas (Jason Clarke). He’s an abusive brute which is why Karen, in femme fatale mode, turns up at Baker’s boat, saying she’s booked a holiday for Frank and offering to give him $10million for her husband to die in an ‘accident’ while out fishing.
Baker refuses, until Frank turns up and it becomes clear his brutality also extends to Patrick, with whom Baker seems to share some kind of psychic link, and, despite Duke’s attempt to prevent him, agrees to Karen’s plan. At which point, the film pulls open the curtain and reveals what’s really been going on, although there’s more than enough clues along the way, especially some mysterious nerdy pencil pusher (Jeremy Strong) who’s constantly trying to get to meet with Baker to present him the contents of his briefcase and talk about ‘the rules’.
A playful spin on noir conventions and existential thrillers in which the clichés prove pointedly self-aware, it has the look and the atmosphere, but it’s also so clunkily mishandled that, when the gimmicky twist is finally revealed, you’re more likely to gasp in incredulity than surprise. Serenity is a piece that passeth all understanding. (Everyman)
What They Had (12A)
Drawing on the experiences of her own grandparents, actress Elizabeth Chonko turns writer-director for this finely crafted study of an already dysfunctional family being torn apart by the mother’s encroaching dementia. When Ruth (Blythe Danner), a former care nurse, walks off into the snowy Chicago winter night, her ex-military husband, Burt (Robert Forster) calls their middle-aged son, Nicky (Michael Shannon), who, in turn, calls his slightly younger sister, Bridget (Hilary Swank) who flies in from Los Angeles with her daughter Emma (Taissa Farmiga), who’s just been thrown out of her college dorm for drinking and, like her uncle, is all attitude.
Ruth’s found safe and sound, but, for Nicky, who’s stressed out running the bar he owns and whose relationship is on the rocks owning to his fear of commitment, it’s the last straw (at one point, his mom obliviously comes on to him) and he’s drawn up plans to put her into a home, with his dad moving into nearby assisted living. Burt, a devout Catholic who firmly believes in the marriage vows of in sickness and in health, and resolute in denial despite all the evidence, will have none of it.
Set over Christmas, the attempt to get Ruth into a home may be the film’s engine, but it’s the family relationships that are the gears, exploring the often thorny dynamics between Burt and his children and his impact on their self-esteem (he’s never foot inside Nicky’s bar), between the passive Bridget and aggressive Nicky whose banter hides guilt and resentment (her begrudges being left to shoulder the burdens while Bridget holds power of attorney and never acts) and Bridget and Emma, the former also feeling adrift from her loveless marriage, which she blames her father for bullying her into. In the midst of all this, Ruth ebbs in and out of awareness and logic, at times recognising her children and ‘boyfriend’, at others persuaded she’s still a child and her own mother’s waiting for her at home.
Often piercingly moving, it shades the poignancy with laughter, not least in the way the characters speak their minds, subtly understated rather than showy or sentimental in a disease of the week manner and built upon truthful, believable characters and performances it may not come with bells and whistles, trailing awards, but its insight and compassion hit straight to the heart. (Cineworld NEC; Odeon Birmingham; Vue Star City)
Alita: Battle Angel (12A)
On James Cameron’s to do list for the best part of two decades, he eventually handed over the reins to his adaptation of Yukito Kishiro’s 90s cyberpunk manga series to director Robert Rodriguez with Cameron serving as co-writer and producer.
Set in 2563, 300 years after an apocalyptic event referred to (but never explained) as the Fall, it’s a fairly standard issue plot in which an outsider hero rises to take on the tyrannical elite oppressing the dystopian society, here the latter being the survivors scratching a living in Iron City and the former being the wealthy elite in their floating city fortress of Zalem. The prime difference here been that the hero is a female cyborg with a mysterious past and destiny.
While foraging among the scrap that’s been jettisoned from Zalem, looking for parts to use in his cyber-surgery, Doctor Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz) comes the artificial head of a humanoid teenage girl containing an organic brain. Taking it back to his makeshift lab, he and his assistant (a barely used Idara Victor) attaches it to a metal body and, when she wakes up with no memory of her previous life or who she is, he christens her Alita (Rosa Salazar), the name of his murdered disabled daughter for whom the cyber-body was intended, thereby setting up the narrative’s surrogate father narrative strand, Geppetto to her Pinocchio.
As they both surprisingly discover when she suspects her new dad might be a serial killer, she’s both super strong and fast, possessed of an ancient fighting art known as panzer kunst, while Ido fesses up to being a part-time bounty hunter tracking down offenders in order to fund his lab. In fact, Iron City seems to have a glut of them, although all the others, among them Nyssiana (Eiza González), creepy sabre-wielding pretty boy Zapan (Ed Skrein) and the hulking Grewishka (Jackie Earle Haley), are all cyborgs.
Meanwhile, sparked by her newfound abilities, Alita starts hanging out with a street gang, and in particular cute unicycle riding Hugo (a bland Keean Johnson), who introduces her to a street version of Motorball, a brutal, gladiatorial rollerblading basketball contest that is the stadium-filling Super Bowl of Iron City, the ultimate winner of which gets to go to Zalem, with those in need of repair coming to Ido. All of which sparks another plot thread, as Motorball is run by Vector (Mahershala Ali), the Iron City channel for evil Zalem scientist Nova (a briefly seen Ed Norton), and to whom, its revealed, Hugo and his gang are selling the parts they’ve jacked off other cyborgs. He also has a sidekick, Chiren (Jennifer Connolly), who’s Ido’s ex-wife and naturally gets somewhat conflicted given her boss keeps sending his mercenaries to kill Alita. Through all of this, the latter starts getting flashbacks that suggest she was some sort of soldier waging war on the flying cities and which wind up with her getting a whole new souped-up body that can organically adapt itself to her wishes, all of which, rather inevitably, climaxes at a massive Motorball showdown.
Trimmed down for the original three hours screenplay, there’s an overload of loose ends, genres and narrative holes that raise more questions than they provide answers and often send the storyline into a spin. It’s considerably less philosophically profound that Ghost In The Shell, but, even so, using extensive CGI yet played out against real sets rather than green screen, it’s hugely visually impressive, especially in the pulpily kinetic Motorball sequences, and, while the supporting characters are somewhat undernourished, it does provide an involving emotional arc for Alita (and her relationship with Ido), even touching on human/robot romance as she and Hugo become closer. The litmus test, though, is how you react to the way Alita appears on screen. While the other cyborgs all have human heads, she’s very much a manga character imposed on a real world, especially given her (literal and metaphorical wide-eyed) stylised facial features. However, the strength of Salazar’s performance, both exuberant as she discovers the world around her and fiercely determined as she battles against those who seek to control it, provides the heart and emotional core needed to overcome such reservations. It ends with Alita sending out a vow to take the battle to Nova, which, alongside all the other mysteries waiting to be cleared up, clearly anticipates a sequel; hopefully, the box office will justify one. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)
Spike Lee’s biggest hit in 12 years and his first Oscar (for Adapted Screenplay), this is based on the unlikely true story of Ron Stallworth, a black Colorado Springs detective, the first African-American police officer in the department, who, in the late 1970s, acting undercover, infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan, albeit, being Black, only over the phone, with a fellow white officer, here Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) as the fictionalised conflicted Jewish version of his never identified partner, as his in-person stand-in. Based on Stallworth’s memoirs, it’s unclear just how much of what’s on screen actually happened and how much is Lee playing to the crowd, but what is true is that, an enthusiastic rookie, his first undercover assignment was to visit a nightclub where gor Black Panther activist Stokely Carmichael was speaking, that he responded to a Ku Klux Klan recruiting ad in a local newspaper posing as a white racist, became part of the local chapter and not only had phone conversations with Klan head David Duke (Topher Grace) but also got him to personally process his membership.
The surrounding characters, among them Black Student Union leader activist and Angela Davis-like romantic interest Patrice (Laura Harrier) and Zimmerman’s fellow narcotics agent Jimmy Creek (Steve Buscemi’s brother Michael), are pretty much all fictional as is, one would suspect, the hilarious set-up of Stalworth being put in charge of Duke’s security when he arrives in Colorado Springs for a Klan meeting and to initiate ‘Ron’ into the Organisation.
Opening with Gone With The Wind footage as a backdrop to Alex Baldwin’s white power extremist rehearsing a hate speech and featuring clips from Birth of A Nation, it stars John David Washington, son of Denzel, who, sporting 70s Afro, plays Stallworth to comic timing perfection, his phone interactions with assorted Klan members priceless moments, as is a selfie opportunity with Duke, while never undermining the drama. Indeed, the whole film consistently hits the mark when it comes to laughs. Unfortunately, never understated in putting over his message, Lee makes frequent overly self-conscious references to 70s Blaxploitation films like Superfly and Shaft and, given the film’s nature as abroad satirical comedy, also oversimplifies things, the Klan all shown as dumb rednecks, making them seen less insidiously dangerous than they are.
However, rather than letting audiences join the dots between the racial tensions of the 70s and the Black Lives Matter movement of Trump America (at one point Duke actually talks about making America great again) and the reports of white cops shooting black ‘suspects’, he frequently has to preach from the soapbox.
On the other hand, paralleled scenes of an aged activist (Harry Belafonte) recounting the brutal murder of retarded black youth Jesse Washington in 1916 Waco, who, accused of raping a white woman, was lynched, castrated, mutilated and burned alive is a blood chilling powerful moment, and footage of the 2017 Charlottesville white-supremacist rally protests when a car ploughed into activists killing Heather Heyer, a white woman, powerfully bring home how racism has become everyone’s battle. Maybe that’s why, save for one token racist cop who gets his crowd pleasing comeuppance, he’s shown as pretty much the exception and all the senior officers are enlightened and unprejudiced.
Even so, for all its flaws and sometimes heavy-handedness, while this may lean more to the box office friendly nature of Inside Man than the polemics of Do The Right Thing, it reminds that Lee still has a potent voice and remains unafraid of using it. (Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe)
Bohemian Rhapsody (12A)
“Is this the real life? was the question Freddie Mercury famously posed at the start of Queen’s 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 Oscar winner 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. (Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City; Fri-Mon/Thu: Everyman)
The first film from South Korean director Lee Chang-dong in eight years, inspired by a short story by Haruki Murakami, sharing its Barn Burning titled with one by William Faulkner. Lee, this is slowly gathering psychological drama built around a romantic triangle infused with envy, jealousy, lies, longing and alienation.
Set in contemporary Seoul, Jongsoo is a working class aspiring writer (Faulkner is his favourite author) living on a run down one-cow farm near the North Korea border with an absent father whose anger regularly seems him up in court and in jail for assault. In town, he meets Haemi (Jeon Jong-seo), who’s doing a store raffle promotion, who reminds him that they knew each other back in school and that he once rescued her from a dry well and asks if he can look after her cat while she’s away volunteering in Kenya. Going back to her flat, there’s no sign of the cat but, reminding him he once called her ugly (she’s had plastic surgery since), she seduces him.
He dutifully visits the flat to feed the never seen cat and, while there, regularly masturbates while staring out of her window. Picking up from the airport on her return, he finds she’s hooked up with Ben (Steven Yeun), a wealthy bored yuppie who lives in a plush apartment, drives a Porsche and confesses to Jongsoo that he regularly burns down the abandoned greenhouses littering the countryside, and intends the next to be one near the farm. Although there’s no indication that’s true, while Jongsoo himself is drawn to do the same. Throwing in another literary reference Ben’s likened to The Great Gatsby, reinforcing the film’s themes of class, economic and romantic conflict.
The three of them hang out and get high, Jongsoo increasingly feeling like , but then Haemi disappears from the scene and, thinking Ben is involved, he starts following him, building to the film’s titular cathartic but shocking climax. Heavy with never explained mysteries and with scenes that involve a meeting between Jongsoo and the mother who abandoned him and a stoned Haemi dancing topless to the strains of Miles Davis as the sun sets behind the farm, it suggests rather than states as Jongsoo,summed by a sense of inferiority, tries to bring a sense of order and meaning to a life spinning out of control, to distinguish between truth and lies. He never finds answers, and the film never offers viewers any either, but the questions linger long. (Mockingbird)
Cold Pursuit (15)
A remake of the Scandinavian comic-thriller In Order of Disappearance by its director Hans Petter Moland, this affords Liam Neeson a chance to put a gallows humour spin on his familiar dad seeking revenge for harm done to his family. Here, he’s Nels Coxman, the surname cause for several obvious gags, who, as the film opens, is seen receiving Citizen of the Year for his work as a snow plough driver keeping the road passable in the remote an decidedly chilly town of Kehoe, Colorado. Celebrations are short lived when a cop arrives and (in a mordantly funny scene in the morgue) he discovers his son, Kyle (Neeson’s real life son Micheál Richardson) is dead from a heroin overdose. Devastated, following the funeral, his wife (Laura Dern) takes off, never to be seen again, and he’s about to commit suicide when a bloodied youth (Wesley MacInnes) emerges from hiding in his workshop and reveals how he and his son worked together as baggage handlers at the airport and helped smuggle in cocaine shipments for a slick, trigger-happy Denver cartel boss with a Vegan obsession known as Viking (Tom Bateman) who lives in Modernist splendour in the mountains. However, when they ripped him off, retribution was duly meted out. So, naturally, Nels, his body disposal skills learned from crime novels, sets out for revenge, working his way up through assorted lackeys, all of whom have (as Neeson remarks) equally colourful nicknames, until he gets to the top of the food chain.
In the process, he also manages to spark a syndicate war between Viking and White Bull (Tom Jackson), who, as well as running an antiquities business, heads up a Native American cabal and who, when his son is brutally murdered by mistake and hung ona local roadsign, vows to have an eye for an eye, or rather a son for a son, namely Ryan (Nicholas Holmes), the young boy with whom Viking shares custody with his ex (Julia Jones) and who, in a neat twist, will end up bonding (Stockholm Syndrome style, as he knowingly observes) with Nels.
As the bloody body count piles up, each death being marked by a title card that includes their name and nickname, two bantering local cops, seen it all veteran ‘Gip’ (John Doman) and his new wide-eyed and eager partner Dash (Emmy Rossum) serve as a sort of Greek chorus. The script also puts a spin on the usual anonymous henchmen, two of Viking’s long suffering goons being secret gay lovers and White Bull’s crew engaging in a snowball fight before the climactic carnage. One hired gun even meets their end in a Fargo-referencing joke (the Coens being obvious influences) involving paragliding.
There’s a serious subtext about father-son legacies, corporate greed and cultural appropriation, but, opening with a wry quote from Oscar Wilde, mostly this is about bloody killings, dry quips and Neeson giving a self-aware performance that knowingly winks at his Taken persona. All that and a deflatory moment featuring Aqua’s Barbie Girl. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)
Spending most of the film looking haggard, with red-rimmed, dark-shadowed eyes that seem like portals into the abyss, this is Nicole Kidman as you’ve never seen her, up there with her finest work alongside To Die For and Rabbit Hole. Directed by Karyn Kasuma, working from a script by Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi, she plays Erin Bell, a burned-out LAPD detective still carrying the emotional and psychological scars from an undercover operation fifteen years earlier that cost the life of her FBI partner (Sebastian Stan) and left her with a broken nose, a drink problem and a now 15-year-old toxically estranged wild child daughter ((Jade Pettyjohn) who is in the custody of her father, Ethan (Scoot McNary) and in thrall to a twenty-something deadbeat (Beau Knapp). It opens with the discovery of a bullet-riddled body sporting a signature tattoo on his beck, a wobbling, hungover Bell turning up, much to the annoyance of her fellow cops, and declaring she knows who killed him. Receiving a purple stained $100 bill from a fateful bank robbery, it would seem that the volatile gang leader, Silas (Toby Kebbell), has resurfaced, setting Bell on a determined quest for both revenge and atonement, one that involves her going all Dirty Harry and tracking down some of the other former gang members, among them Petra (Tatiana Maslany), Silas’s ex-girlfriend, who may well know his whereabouts.
Framed in a loop that works its way back to the start with an unexpected reveal, the narrative shifts between Bell’s present day search for Silas and flashbacks to her training with Chris and their time in the gang, earning Silas’s trust, culminating in a bank robbery that goes pear-shaped. Steeped in noir atmospherics and themes of warped justice, it’s a riveting piece of work that finds a deeply committed Kidman, sporting black to match her state of mind, gradually revealing more about her morally complex character, climaxing in a wrenching confessional diner scene with her daughter, and what led to that fateful moment that changed her life. A little slow-paced at times, perhaps, but it holds you right to the final redemptive frame and its very limited distribution is unforgivable. (Mockingbird)
Escape Room (15)
A step up from LaserQuest, escape rooms are the latest immersive craze in which a group of contestants are locked in a room and have to solve puzzles to find the key to escape. It’s a concept just begging for a Saw-like horror franchise, duly obliged here by director Adam Robitel, taking his cues from 1997 thriller Cube (though the basic premise goes back to 1982 Ira Levin thriller Deathtrap), as six seemingly unconnected strangers from Chicago accept an invitation – via a small puzzle box – to compete for $10,000 and find themselves in a series of rooms that can literally kill them. Which, of course, they do, whittling down the cast until the film returns to its opening scene as some kid is about to be crushed by a room that’s closing in on him.
The victims line up as ruthless alpha male exec Jason (Jay Ellis), mouthy slacker Ben (Logan Miller), scarred Iraq war veteran and PTSD sufferer Amanda (Deborah Ann Woll), amiable middle-aged trucker Mike (Tyler Labine), shy maths whizz student Zoey (Taylor Russell) and escape room nerd Danny (Nik Dodani) who survives long enough to provide the necessary exposition on how these things work.
Starting out in a room which, cued by a copy of Fahrenheit 451, threatens to burn them alive, they cast make it through to a cabin in a snowy, icy mountain wilderness where, in contrast, they’re likely to freeze to death, and from there to further ingeniously designed death traps (including an upside down pool hall bar where Petula Clark’s Downtown is on constant play) that are as illogically absurd as they are inventive (the game takes place in a multi-storey building, yet somehow there’s a river running through one of the floors?), not to mention prohibitively expensive given they have to be rebuild after each game.
It will come as little surprise that it’s all part of some voyeuristic kick for obscenely wealthy clients, nor that they do, in fact, all have something in common, just as you can pretty well guess who, despite a half-hearted misdirection, is going to make it to the end. The characters all get assorted flashbacks, but save for Russell’s, none of them have much more than token personalities or back stories to involve you in their fate.
Well made, the tension palpable (especially in a scene where a character’s hanging over a shaft by a phone cord) and the design and art direction classy, after a somewhat clunky confrontation with the Games Master it all ends several months later with an inbuilt sequel set-up as the survivors decide to track down those responsible, a coda so anti-climactic it’s a puzzle as to why anyone would want one. (Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)
The Favourite (15)
Far darker than the trailer might indicate, director Yorgos Lanthimos expands his budget and horizons following The Lobster and The Killing Of A Sacred Deer and, working from a bitingly cold and scalpel-sharp script by Tony McNamara and Deborah Davis, fashions a period drama of political intrigue, sexual manipulation and ruthless ambition that, a sort of All About Eve/Dangerous Liaisons cocktail, has both concentrated narrative focus and emotional heft, not to mention some razor-sharp wit and inspired vulgarity.
Opening in 1704, it’s set during the reign of Queen Anne, the last of the Stuart monarchs, and, while juggling the timeline so as to eliminate her husband, who actually died in 1708, it mostly hews faithfully to history and relationships, garnishing it with salacious rumours of the time and accounts from vindictive memoirs.
Founded on three stupendous performances, the narrative fulcrum is the power and personal love triangle made up of Anne (Olivia Colman), petulant, needy, afflicted with gout and, no doubt exacerbated by having lost 17 children – for whom she has 17 rabbits as substitutes, not always of sound mind; her longtime friend Lady Sarah Marlborough (BAFTA winner Rachel Weisz), her favourite, well-known for refusing to flatter, the pair often referring to each other by their youthful pet names of Mrs Freeman and Mrs Morley, and the latter’s cousin Abigail Hill (Emma Stone), a noblewoman fallen on hard times who arrives at the palace seeking a position.
Prior Hill’s arrival, Sarah was very much the power behind the throne, a hugely influential and manipulative figure who controlled access to the Queen, managed her finances and supported the war against France (and the unpopular land tax to fund it), her husband (Mark Gattiss) in command of the British forces, However, initially, playing the grateful protégé working in the kitchens, it’s not long before Abigail schemingly works her way up the ladder, the pair becoming engaged in an ongoing battle of wits and one-upmanship with Anne’s favour and support as the prize, one that starts with choice of treatments for the Queen’s legs and, reflecting popular gossip, ends in her bed, jockeying for a position between them.
The two women each have their political stooges, for Marlborough it’s the duck racing Prime Minister, Godolphin (James Smith), leader of the Whigs, while, though he may think he’s the one holding the reins, for Abigail it’s the foppish Harley (a superb Nicholas Hoult), the Tories leader who’s outraged at Marlborough pushing the Queen to raise taxes for the unpopular war. Of course, for all the bluster, it’s ultimately personal advantage rather than the national good that is at the heart of everyone’s motives. As one of the scullery maids put it: “They shit in the street round here. Political commentary they call it.”
Slowly, through a mix of veiled accusations and sexual wiles, Abigail turns Anne’s favour in her direction, though the sequence where Sarah goes missing after Hill poisons her is pure melodramatic invention designed to provide a window in which (in another licence with the timeline) she can engineer herself a title through marriage to the gullible besotted Marsham. Sarah is found and, strikingly scarred, returned to court, but by now the battle is all but lost.
Atmospherically filmed with a use of shadows and candlelight that swings between the tender and the threatening, with cinematographer Robbie Ryan employing fish eye lensing, slow motion and claustrophobic superimposition, but also widescreen landscapes, divided into chapters titled from lines of dialogue and with an often unsettling pizzicato score (and inspired end credits use of Elton John’s original harpsichord version of Skyline Pigeon), it’s at times broadly bawdy, at others intimately erotic, at times evoking the work of Pope and Swift, at others, such as in a courtly dance that pops rock n roll moves, striking a more contemporary note.
While definitely not making any compromises for the mainstream, even so this has proven an art house break-out success, the single close-up shot of Colman’s face imperceptively shifting from a brief moment of joy to desperate loneliness deservedly earning her the Oscar for Best Actress. (Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham; Reel; Vue Star City; Fri/Sat, Thu: Electric;)
Fighting With My Family (12A)
While Dwayne Johnson may loom large in the posters, don’t go along expecting him to be the star. Cameoing in his former persona as WWE wrestler The Rock as well as producing, he appears in just three scenes. It’s not his film and it’s not his story. Both belong to Florence Pugh, continuing her stellar big screen ascendancy as Saraya-Jade Bevis, the daughter of a working class Norwich wrestling family who, at 13, made her debut in the ring in 2005 as Britani Knight. Her parents, ex-jailbird ‘Rowdy’ Ricky Knight (Nick Frost) and former homeless junkie Julia (Lena Headey), aka Sweet Saraya Knight, ran the World Association of Wrestling, a name rather more impressive than its low rent reality. She also had two brothers, both wrestlers, the eldest Roy (Stephen Burrows) and Zak ‘Zodiak’ (Jack Lowden), the former serving time for drink-driving in the period the film covers and the latter coaching local young aspirant grapplers (including a blind kid who went on to become a professional wrestler).
Based on a 2012 documentary, it’s written by Stephen Merchant who, aside from making his directorial debut, also appears as Zak’s more refined future father-in-law (the meet the in-laws dinner is hilarious), and cheerfully ticks all of the underdog sports movie boxes as ‘Britani’and Zak are invited to try out for the WWE in London, where Johnson makes his first amusing appearance. Raya’s the only one of the hopefuls selected by the tough love coach, Hutch Morgan (Vince Vaughn playing Mickey to her Rocky), to proceed to the next stage in Florida, she following her dreams while Zak is left behind to stew in wounded pride and resentment with his motley students, girlfriend and new baby.
Adopting the ring name Paige after her favourite character in the TV series Charmed, the goth-like Saraya stands out like sore thumb among the curvy ex-model blondes and cheerleaders who are her fellow WWE candidates, and, as such, the narrative arc is very much about her discovering who she is, just as, back in Norwich, Zak has to come to terms with his life post-rejection, the film also placing great emphasis on the supportive bonds of family.
Condensing the story of Paige’s journey to become the WWE’s youngest Divas Champion, Merchant charts a predictable course, but does so with such crowd-pleasing heart and humour that the film is consistently hugely entertaining, perfectly balancing laughs and lump-in-throat poignancy, Johnson cheerfully sending himself up while Pugh (and her sparky back and forth with Vaughn in one of his better turns) lights up the screen with her mix of determination and insecurity. In reality, Johnson has admitted that Paige’s title fight was fixed, but there’s nothing fake about the film’s chokehold emotions. (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)
Free Solo (12A)
Not recommended for anyone with a fear of heights, husband and wife director team Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi’s Oscar winning documentary follows Alex Honnold as he seeks to complete his climbing obsession, becoming first to scale the 3,000 feet of sheer granite that is El Capitan in California’s Yosemite National Park, without any safety equipment, just fingers and some chalk. One slip and it’s all over. It takes nerve, courage, strength and discipline, especially when you’re being filmed by drones and remote-operated rigs, and with a camera crew dangling alongside, That Honnold didn’t die rather undercuts the tension, but even so hearts are likely to still be in mouths, and the sense of relief as he reaches the summit as powerful as the sense of triumph. Although there’s also film of test runs on other peaks, it’s not all rock face footage, the film intercut with interviews with fellow climbers and Honnold’s mother and girlfriend as well as doctors who reveal that his brain doesn’t respond to situations that would produce fear responses in others. Mesmerising, just don’t put doing something similar on your things do on the weekend list. (Mon/Thu:Electric)
Having regained his mojo with Split, M. Night Shyamalan proceeds to piss it up against the wall, bringing together that film’s abuse survivor Kevin Wendell Crumb (James McEvoy) and his protective multiple personalities (which he refers to as the Horde) with security expert David Dunn (Bruce Willis) and brittle-boned Elijah Price aka Mr. Glass (Samuel L Jackson), the protagonist and antagonist from 2000’s Unbreakable, the reference to them at the end of Split setting up this double-sequel. Both films took their influences from comic books, the former believing himself some kind of superhero after being the sole survivor of the train wreck engineered by the comic-books obsessed latter, and this expands on the idea. However, the result is all concept and mood and very little by way of coherent narrative.
It opens with Dunn, in his vigilante identity, the media having settled on calling him the Overseer (although also, sometimes, the Green Guard on account of his hooded poncho), tracking down and freeing the latest cheerleaders abducted by the Beast, Kevin’s ultimate primal super-strong personality, the pair of them ending up being captured and carted off to a psychiatric institute where the patronising Dr. Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson, given no direction, an implausible character and terrible dialogue) wants to study them as part of her research into people under the delusion that they’re superheroes. The facility also houses Elijah, apparently in a permanent comatose state, though anyone who doesn’t know from the outset that he’s faking it, really should get out more. Suffice to say, after an interminable slog through an overly talky plodding build-up, Elijah, conjuring up the Beast, engineers their escape with the masterplan of staging a confrontation between his new hulking partner and Dunn at the opening of Philadelphia’s tallest new building (hands up if you think that’s a Die Hard nod), with the aim of the resulting media coverage offering proof that super beings exist. However, being a Shyamalan film, there’s more than one masterplan going down here and, in signature fashion, the climax throws not one but two or even possibly three eyebrow-raising twists into the mix with Staple, in a narrative thread seemingly drawn from nowhere while implying it’s something you forgot from Unbreakable, proves to have a mysterious agenda far removed from research studies.
The problem is that while the first half has Shyamalan in smug, self-satisfied mode, the second, while the action sequences are punchy and Elijah’s multi-layered plans are meticulously worked out, has him being too clever for his and the film’s own good, leaving you wondering if you dozed off and missed some salient subplots or background set-ups.
McAvoy surfs through his personality changes with fluid skill, seemingly in continuous takes, while a largely dialled down Jackson uses his charisma to good effect, Willis, on the other hand, sort of walks through the film, though admittedly he’s better here than the recent spate of straight to DVD action crud he’s been recently churning out to pay the rent.
In a nice touch, Dunn’s son, Joseph, though not really given a great deal to do, is played by Spencer Treat Clark who played the same, younger, role in Unbreakable, Charlayne Woodard also reprising her turn as Elijah’s mother. Shyamalan also contrives, in a sort of Stockholm Syndrome way, to engineer the return of Anna Taylor-Joy as Casey Cooke, the girl the Beast let live in Split and who has a bond with Kevin.
There is, inevitably, extensive referencing of comic books and their conventions (at one point Elijah declares this to be an origins story), but again this feels more of a self-congratulatory touch on Shyamalan’s part rather than serving the plot’s thematic framework.
There’s some genuinely good moments, but far too few of them to sustain interest or involvement as it builds to its scrappily written somewhat anti-climactic denouement and tagged on viral footage coda. Definitely a case of Glass being half-empty rather than half full. (Empire Great Park; Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)
Green Book (12A)
The surprising winner of Best Picture, this inspirational road movie about redemptive friendship is based (loosely or accurately depending on which side of the controversy regarding the relationship you stand), on the real-life story of rough around the edges Italian for Copacabana bouncer Tony Vallelonga, aka Tony Lip, who was hired to drive celebrated, culturally refined and multi-lingual Jamaican-born jazz musician Dr. Donald Shirley (he was actually born in) on his tour of the racially segregated Deep South and its Jim Crow laws in 1962. The first solo project by director Peter Farrelly, the title refers to The Negro Motorist Green Book, a guide to motels and other venues that served black customers, although the book itself rarely figures, serving instead as the premise on which the narrative unfolds.
As played respectively, and brilliantly, by Viggo Mortensen and Oscar Supporting Actor winner Mahershala Ali, Tony was brash, plain-speaking and casually racist while Shirley was refined, imperious and uptight, the unlikely relationship spurred by the fact the former was broke and the latter needed someone who could handle potentially volatile situations. Initially meeting at Shirley’s luxury New York apartment above Carnegie Hall (in real life even more ostentatious than on screen) where Shirley interviews him from what can only be called his throne, most of the film unfolds within the turquoise Cadillac Coupe de Ville in which they travel between shows (backing musicians bassist Mike Hatton and Russian cellist Dimiter D. Marinov taking their own car), with Shirley playing to high society rich white folks who applaud his music (“like Liberace but better”, according to Tony) but who wouldn’t dream of allowing him to their homes or treating him as an equal. Indeed, one of the film’s strongest scenes is in a hotel restaurant where, although he’s due to play for the clientele, Shirley is refused permission to dine.
As the journey unfolds, Tony’s impressed by his boss’s musical talent and his eyes are opened to the indignities he endures through segregation and racism in practice. He’s also coached, Cyrano-style, in how to write more romantically articulate letters home to his wife (Linda Cardellini) and gets to discover Chopin while Shirley gets to appreciate fried chicken and the music of Aretha Franklin and Little Richard, culminating in an improvised rock n roll session at a local honky tonk.
Deftly balancing humour and serious dramatic commentary, the Oscar winning Best Adapted Screenplay unfolds as a string of conflicts and compromises, each man learning from the other and, through their experiences, reassessing their identity within the context of the America of the period, always posing the question as to whether Shirley would be treated any differently by Tony and his associates back in the Bronx, as much in terms of class divided as colour. At certain points, both men become victims of their own demons, Shirley drowning his loneliness and feelings in booze (it skirts over suggestions of his being gay) and Tony’s hotheadness, when pulled over for breaking the sundown laws, landing them both in a Mississippi jail. As Shirley points out, underlining his own dignity in the face of humiliations, if you resort to violence, you’ve already lost. The ironic manner of their release is one of the films cheers out moments.
Peppered with both jazz and classical piano work, structurally, it’s a fairly predictable trip, right down to the feelgood group hug Christmas Eve ending back in New York, but while the social commentary may be largely enveloped in a family friendly Driving Miss Daisy warmth, that doesn’t make its observations on bigotry any less sharp or affective. Or the film any less enjoyable. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Electric; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City;)
Happy Death Day 2U (15)
One of the unexpected delights of 2017, the original teen horror-comedy offered an inspired cross between Groundhog Day and Scream with university student Tree Gelbman (Jessica Rothe) repeatedly being killed by someone wearing a plastic baby mask and waking up in the bed of fellow student Carter (Israel Broussard) until finally figuring out the killer’s her nursing intern roommate Lori (Ruby Modine) and sending through the window. So, here’s the sequel. Inevitably sequels simply recycle the same formula to generally ever diminishing returns. Here, however, reuniting the same cast, including Modine, director Christopher Landon and fellow writer Scott Lobdell revisit exactly the same premise and material, in exactly the same setting, but in a brilliantly fresh, inspired and inventive way. The Babyface killer is back, but this time round the slasher element very much takes a back seat to a plot that, essentially, comes down to a quantum physics-based love story about choosing between hanging on to the past or pursuing the future.
Having broken free of the loop, now dating Carter, Tree’s life is going just fine, until his science student roommate, Ryan (Phi Vu) wakes up on Sept 19 to find he’s now caught in a similar loop with the same killer. And then wakes up again and again. It’s all down to the Sisyphus Quantum Cooling Reactor science project he and his fellow geeks, Dre (Sarah Yarkin) and Samar (Suraj Sharma), are working on which inexplicably powered up on its own. No problem, just reset it. Unfortunately, things don’t quite go to plan and, while Ryan is freed from the time loop, Tree finds herself back in it, Sept 18, the day of her birthday, with Lori and psychokiller Tombs still alive. So, first things first, dispose of evil roommate again. Except, she isn’t. On top of which when, as in the first film,Tree turns up for her birthday lunch date with dad there a shock addition to the party. It would appear that while Tree’s trapped in a loop, the machine somehow sent her, Spider-Verse style, to a different dimension . One in which not only did the tragedy that scarred her not happen, but Carter’s dating sorority house queen bee Danielle (Rachel Matthews) and it’s Lori not Tree who’s been having an affair with hospital lecturer Gregory (Charles Aitken).
To return to her own dimension, she and the other four students, have to figure out the algorithm that will send her back, somewhat complicated by the fact the Dean (Steve Zissis) wants to confiscate the machine because it cuts out all the power and that, because every time she’s murdered and comes back the others are all oblivious, so she has to remember what equations didn’t work. Except, rather than wait for the killer to knife her, Tree stages her own deaths (in a very funny montage) to hurry things along.
Although the superlative Rothe’s winking performance is again the film’s energised centre as Tree undertakes a journey of self-healing, the support cast aren’t just props and Matthews gets a notable showcase turn pretending to a blind French student to distract the Dean while Landon, gleefully playing with the genre, recreates scenes from the original film and gives them a new spin and, inevitably, engineers a scene where the teens get to discuss Back To The Future, while deftly balancing the laughs and thrills with a genuine emotional punch. The whole point of recycling is take the original and turn it into something new, and that’s exactly what this does, and which, it is to be hoped, it can continue to do in the same ingenious manner. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)
How To Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World (PG)
The third and final entry into the animated Vikings and dragons saga sets out to explain why the latter vanished from the face of the earth, weaving in lightly handled themes of persecution, genocide and refugees in the process.
Some years after events in part two, Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) is now chief of the community on Berk where Vikings and dragons live together in harmony. However, as revealed in the opening sequence, the latter are in increasing danger from dragon hunters and their marauding ships, and, with the subsequent rescues stretching the population on Berk to its limits. As such, Hiccup realises that, if both they and the Vikings are to be safe, they need to move on from their home of many generations. Increasing the urgency, is the arrival on the scene of Grimmel (F. Murray Abraham), a ruthlessly obsessed dragon hunter who is determined to exterminate all dragons (though he uses his own, which he controls, to do so) and made his name by slaying every last Night Fury. So, learning of the existence of Toothless, the dragon alpha male and Hiccup’s devoted obsidian-coloured companion, he is consumed with finishing the job. To which end, he has a very special bait, the white, sparkling skin sole surviving female who, when seen by Hiccup and Astrid (America Ferrera), is dubbed a Light Fury by the latter, plotting to use the fact that the species mate for life to lure Toothless – and, in turn, all the other dragons, into his trap.
To save them, Hiccup resolves to discover the legendary Hidden World of Caldera, the original home of dragons, that his later father (Gerald Butler in flashbacks) spoke about where the two species can live in peace and safety. Things don’t work out quite as he hoped, the film playing on an if you love someone, you have to set them free theme that echoes Born Free, but, despite a sometimes repetitive narrative, getting to the finale is an often exhilarating ride, the central thrust complemented by the tentative relationship between Astrid and Hiccup, who Gobber (Craig Ferguson) reckons should get married.
The gang are all back for the finale, among them the boastful Snotlout (Jonah Hill) who has his eye set on Hiccup’s widowed Dragon Rider mother, Valka (Cate Blanchett), bickering buffoon twins Ruffnut (Kristen Wiig) and Tuffnut (Justin Rupple) and Fishlegs (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), all getting their turn in the spotlight. There’s also some amusing additions to the dragon cast with the small, rotund and fanged Hobgobblers, who seem to be constantly breeding. Sporting dragon scale armour and wielding a flaming sword, there’s more than a touch of Star Wars to Hiccup here, but, thankfully, the self-belief fuelled screenplay resists further allusions and gets on with delivering both thrilling action set-piece and visually entrancing worldess sequences such as the amusing clumsy mating dance between the two Furies that climaxes by literally taking flight, and the glorious vision of the hidden world itself. A some years later coda does open the possibility of returning to the characters, but, given the emotional arc and catharsis here, that would be a mistake. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)
If Beale Street Could Talk (15)
Give he’s acclaimed as one of American’s greatest black authors, with five novels and two plays to his name, this is actually the first of James Baldwin’s works, written in 1974 as a metaphor for any black community, to be adapted for the screen. Director Barry Jenkins’ follow up to Moonlight, it’s an earnest but uneven exploration of lover, family and racism in which its fragmented storylines often undermine rather than enhance the film’s overall thematic and narrative design (underscored by its voiceover commentary) about the harshness and injustices of African-American life, both then and now.
Set in 70s Harlem, childhood sweethearts, 19-year-old Tish (KiKi Layne) and her 22-year-old aspirant wood sculptor boyfriend Fonny (Stephan James) are planning on getting wed. But then he’s arrested and charged with raping a Puerto Rican woman. He’s clearly innocent, but there’s no way to prove it, since her evidence is inadmissible and the only other alibi, the three of them being together at the time, is his cynical best friend (Brian Tyree Henry), who, just out of jail on a trumped up charge (for car theft, even though he can’t drive), is regarded as unreliable testimony. In addition, the woman identified him in a line up, although she was told to pick him out by the bigoted arresting officer (Ed Skrein) who, it is revealed, wrongly tried to arrest Fonny some days earlier after he defended Tish against some local thug.
On top of which, Tish learns that she’s pregnant and the film variously follows her visits to the jail while he’s awaiting trial and the efforts to track down the alleged victim and persuade her to tell the truth, something which involves both hiring a white lawyer and Tish’s mother (Oscar winner Regina King) travelling to Puerto Rico to plead her and her future son-in-law’s case. By parental contrast, Fonny’s own fundamentalist Christian mother (Aunjanue Ellis), and his two prissy sisters are condemnatory of both him and Tish, who they regard as an unsuitable match, an antagonism that affords one the film’s strongest and hardest-hitting scenes.
Such friction and spark is, however, in distinct contrast to the soft focus and intense close up fuzziness of the burnished romantic scenes between the two lovers (softened and glossed up from the flawed versions in the novel) and Jenkins often seems too wrapped up in textural atmospherics than an involving plot, that and the all too leisurely pace allowing the audience to drift away and then trying to pull them back in.
The two leads give solid, warmly engaging performances, but it’s among the supporting cast where the film shines brightest, most notably King and Teyonah Parris as Tish’s plain-speaking sibling Ernestine whose rousing “Unbow your head, sister” sounds the film’s loudest inspirational note.
It doesn’t wrap up with a fairytale ending where justice prevails, but, refusing to give in to pessimism, it does celebrate the power of true love to help people face and to accept difficult circumstances. It’s just unfortunate that getting to that epiphany feels like an endless journey. (Empire Great Park; MAC; Mockingbird; Vue Star City; Sat, Tue/Wed: Electric)
Instant Family (12A)
Having moved into a house with more bedrooms than they need, spurred by a jibe about them never going to have kids, house renovators Pete (Mark Whalberg) and Ellie (Rose Byrne) Wagner are persuaded by Octavia Spencer and Tig Notaro as an odd couple comedic social workers double act, to think about adopting three Hispanic kids, teenager Lizzy (Isabela Moner) and her younger siblings Juan and Lita, whose drug addict mother in in jail. With neither Ellie’s mother (Julie Hagerty) nor the rest of her family believing they can handle it, she and Pete resolve to give fostering try out and prove they can be good parents. Naturally, this is more difficult than than thought since Lizzy, while sweet, has plenty of attitude and reacts badly to shows of affection, and, having taken care of them in mom’s absence, is overly protective of accident prone, oversensitive Juan and needy Lita, who refuses to eat anything except potato chips. And, of course, Pete and Ellie are themselves to navigate through uncharted waters. Then, just when things seem to be going well, the kids’ real mother turns up wanting them back.
Directed and co-written by Sean Anders, who made Daddy’s Home and Daddy’s Home 2 and has experience of adoption, it mixes sitcom comedy with serious issues, including a striking scene when, during one of the sessions with potential foster parents, a young woman talks about how the system and her adoptive parents helped her work through her struggles with addiction caused by abuse.
Also starring Margo Martindale as Pete’s good-hearted but overbearing mother, it can be a tad predictable and scenes such as Pete and Ellie confronting a schoolkid they think has sent Lizzy photos of his dick are geared more to laughs than reality, but ultimately, it’s a heartwarming and an often very funny tale of family bonding that genuinely earns its emotional moments. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)
The Kid Who Would Be King (PG)
Opening with an animated telling of the legend, writer-director Joe Cornish follows up Attack The Block with a similar adolescents saving this world tale, a teenager rework of the King Arthur story set against a divided Britain teetering on collapse (newspaper headlines read WAR! GLOOM! FEAR! CRISIS!), as, running into a London building site to escape the school bullies, Kaye (Rhianna Dorris) and Lance (Tom Taylor), ordinary 12-year-old schoolboy Alex (Louis Ashbourne Serkis, son of motion capture maestro Andy) stumbles upon and pulls a sword out of a block of concrete.
Meeting up with equally bullied best mate Bedders (endearing newcomer Dean Chaumoo playing Sam to Alex’s Frodo), he jokes that it’s Excalibur, King Arthur’s mythical sword, as shown in the book his long absent dad left for him, dedicated to his ‘once and future king”. In fact, it turns out to be precisely that as weird, gangly new kid in class Mertin (Angus Imrie) reveals himself to be Merlin (Patrick Stewart, sporting a Led Zep t-shirt) in disguise and warns that in four days, at the time of the forthcoming eclipse, Arthur’s evil step-sister Morgana (Rebecca Ferguson) will rise from her underground prison to enslave England. To stop her and her smouldering undead warrior army, Alex must unite his misfit friends and enemies as new Knights of the Round Table, here a drop leaf coffee table. All of which involves persuading Kaye and Lance to join his cause and abide by chivalric roles, as, accompanied by Merlin (who can change into an owl by sneezing), all four teens trek to Tintagel Island in Cornwall, birthplace of Arthur and gate to the underworld, by way of standing stones portals, Alex hoping to also find his estranged father.
Peppered with Arthurian references (Alex’s three friends all share names with the original Knights and he lives in Mallory close, named after Thomas Mallory who wrote the poem Morte d’Arthur), including several appearances by the Lady in the Lake (or at least her hand), it mixes together the special effects and action sequences (climaxing with a school battle as all the pupils don souvenir shop armour to battle the undead with their flaming swords) with laughs, emotional setbacks and messages about family, friendship and unity in time of trouble and strife. The plot can be a touch repetitive in places, but the young actors do a solid job, the scene stealer being Imrie, the son of Harry Potter’s Celia Imrie, who weaves his magic not with words but by complicated hand movements, and there’s a very 80s feel about things (think The Goonies, Never Ending Story, Labyrinth, etc.) rather than slicker modern American style teenage fantasy adventure movies. It may not have their fanfare and budget but, Grange Hill by way of Star Wars with an enchanted sword instead of a light sabre, it’s undeniably a Camelot of family fun, even if the ingredients in Merlin’s recipe for restoring his energy may put you off junk food for a while. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)
The Lego Movie 2 (U)
Essentially serving up more of what made the original 2014 movie such a treat, there’s times when you feel repetition has supplanted inspiration, but, even so, the ride through its often surreal brickverse is well worth taking.
Having revealed at the end of the first film that the adventures of construction worker Emmett (Chris Pine) were being enacted by a kid in the real world playing with his LEGO toys, the sequel has several flashes behind the storyline, showing the same boy ordered by his dad (Will Ferrell) to share his LEGO play with his younger sister, the pair squabbling as each seeks to control the game, though it also blurs the line between what’s plastic and what’s real.
Set some time after builder Emmett Brickowski saved the world from Lord Business, the former’s dreaming of remaking Bricksburg, now called Apocalypsburg as a paradise for himself and Lucy Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks) to share, though she’s less convinced his sunny optimism is really the sort of man she wants. She also thinks his new house is an alien magnet. Which, indeed, it turns out to be, as DUPLO toy General Mayhem (Stephanie Beatriz) arrives from the Sistar System to capture their leader and, living up to her name with weapons that include exploding pink love hearts and yellow stars, makes off with Lucy, her now shapeshifting robotic cat Princess Unikitty (Ailson Brie), pirate Metalbeard (Nick Offerman) spaceship obsessed Master Builder Benny (Charlie Day) and Batman (Will Arnett), the latter of whom is intended to be wed to the equally shapeshifting DUPLO horse Queen Watevra Wa-Nabi (Tiffany Haddish). Although she attempts to persuade them, through a song entitled Not Evil, that she’s not wicked, Emmett, who’s come to rescue his friends, is convinced the wedding ceremony will bring about the Ourmomageddon of his nightmare where (cue cameo by Maya Rudolph protesting “I’m not the bad guy in this story, I’m just an amusing side character”) they all get consigned to oblivion.
In his rescue mission, Will is joined by Rex Dangervest (Pratt), a cosmos-roaming adventurer with a crew of dinosaur sidekicks (named Ripley, Connor and the other one), whose origin story provides the film’s big twist, as well the character gleefully referencing Pratt’s roles in the likes of Jurassic World and Guardians of the Galaxy.
Peppered with clever/cringe-inducing wordplay and a torrent of pop culture references, notably to the DC Universe with cameos by Superman (Channing Tatum), Green Lantern (Jonah Hill), Wonder Woman (Colbie Smulders), Harley Quinn (Margot Robbi) and Aquaman (Jason Momoa), as well as a plethora of new characters such as the emotionally unstable Ice Cream Cone (Richard Ayoade), sparkling vampire DJ Balthazar, sentient banana Banarnar as well as Bruce Willis voicing himself as Die Hard’s John McClane, and even Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the plot is pretty much subservient to the giddy animation, self-referencing satire and the infuriatingly infectious songs with both a reprise of Everything Is Awesome (and Everything Is Not Awesome) and the even more annoying Catchy Song. It may ultimately be a case of rearranging the bricks, but watching them take shape is still huge fun. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)
Mary Queen Of Scots (15)
While sparing any grisly detail of the execution (it took three blows to sever her head) which opens the film and adopting the dramatic licence of having the two queens meet (records give no indication they ever did), theatre director Josie Rourke’s feature debut mostly hews to historical accuracy in this period political drama about Mary Queen of Scots (Saoirse Ronan) and Queen Elizabeth I (Margot Robbie).
In 1561, following the death of her husband, King Francis II, 18-year-old Mary Stuart returned from France, where she had spent the past five years, to take up her claim as Queen of Scotland. As a Stuart, she had a stronger claim to the English throne than Elizabeth, but, as a Catholic, any suggestion that she could succeed were Elizabeth to die without an heir was anathema to the ruling Protestant cause. As such, she clearly posed a political threat although, the film, adopting a feminist take on history, makes it clear that this danger was only perceived and acted up by the all-male councils to the throne rather than the women themselves. Indeed, history itself records that Elizabeth (who is shown as tacitly in agreement with Mary succeeding her) gave her sanctity in England when she was forced to abdicate and was reluctant to order her cousin’s execution when she was accused of allegedly conspiring in a plot to depose her.
This is, though, no dry history lesson and, aside from the compelling incentive of seeing two of this generation’s leading female actresses at the top of their game, it comes riddled with intrigue, conspiracy, betrayal and murder at times recalling Shekar Kapur’s brilliant 1998 drama Elizabeth.
Although monarchs in name, the screenplay by House of Cards creator Beau Willimon underscores how their power and decisions were manipulated by the men behind the throne, among them her half-brother, the Earl of Moray (James McArdle), with Mary manoeuvred into first marrying the ambitious Lord Darnley (Jack Lowden) who had a relationship with the openly gay David Rizzio (Ismael Cruz Cordova), one of Mary’s inner-circle, and who, exiled from Mary’s company after the birth of their son, James, was murdered in order, as the film has it, to force Mary into a marriage with James Hepburn, 4th Earl of Bothwell, who was rumoured to have been behind the plot.
Also raised against her was John Knox (David Tennant), the theologian Reformist who founded the Presbyterian Church of Scotland, who denounced Mary as a strumpet and a whore and joined forces with Moray in a rebellion against her rule.
The intrigue at the Scottish court is mirrored in England, Elizabeth’s advisers, primarily Cecil (Guy Pearce) were concerned that, while she had Robert Dudley (Joe Alwyn), Earl of Leicester as a lover (and who, at one point, was proposed as Mary’s husband) the Queen would die without an heir allowing Mary to claim her right to the succession.
Rourke very much takes revisionist approach to her formidable central characters, rejecting the popular image of Mary as promiscuous and portraying her as a highly intelligent, and tolerant, woman constantly struggling to outwit the men seeking to usurp her, while Elizabeth is seen as a strong but vulnerable woman, hardened by circumstances and scarred by the pox, forced to act against her personal inclinations so as to protect her throne, two women with much in common forced into becoming reluctant rivals.
Switching back and forth between the two courts, although the film’s latter half is more focused on Scotland, it is packed with sort of dramatic twists, backstabbing and political chess games that are a staple of Game of Thrones, set against rugged Scottish scenery and, while the physical action is limited to a single skirmish and Rizzio’s bloody murder, the intellectual combat is riveting.
With a cast list that also includes Gemma Chan, Adrian Lester, Simon Russell Beale and Ian Hart, this compelling, dark-veined telling brings history thrillingly alive while chiming with today’s #MeToo moment in exploring how women are exploited and manipulated by power-hungry men. (Cineworld Solihull)
On The Basis of Sex (15)
While she’s far better known in America, where (the subject of the Oscar nominated RGB documentary) she’s something of a cultural icon, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is unquestionably one of the greatest living legal legends of our time. Taking, in 1970 and as a courtroom novice, a tax case to the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals on the grounds that it discriminated against her client, Charles Moritz (Christian Mulkey), who had been refused tax relief for caring for his aged mother because he wasn’t a woman, she reversed 100 years of legal precedent and set in motion the movement to remove gender discrimination in hundreds of laws, changing forever the lives of generations of women.
Somewhat thematically echoing The Post, in which Meryl Streep had to prove herself a newspaper boss, directed by Mimi Leder and written by Ginsburg’s nephew, Daniel Stiepleman, it opens in 1956 with the young Ginsburg (Felicity Jones) becoming one of the first women to attend Harvard Law School, her husband, Marty (an all charm Armie Hammer) in the year above her. While compressing time periods and omitting some steps along the way, it mostly faithfully proceeds to chart the next 15 years and the difficulties and barriers she had to overcome, starting with taking Marty’s classes as well as his own to help him study while recovering from testicular cancer, moving to New York and Columbia to complete her degree, raising first one and then two kids, and her attempt to practice law constantly coming up against the profession’s deeply ingrained sexism.
The latter’s primarily embodied in the priggish Harvard Law dean Erwin Griswold (Sam Waterson), who at a welcome dinner asks the nine women to justify why they had a place that would have gone to a man, and the chauvinistic Harvard professor Ed Brown (Stephen Root) who wound up as opposing counsel in the 1970 case. Ultimately, she ended up teaching law as a professor at Rutgers University in New Jersey.
As such there’s numerous scenes involving sitting in rooms poring over books, typing up papers or arguing the finer points of law, but this is far from the dry film that would suggest. Aside from following a familiar underdog arc, the film also spends a considerable time inside Ginsburg’s home, showing her as a wife and a mother, at times at loggerheads with daughter Jane (an excellent Cailee Spaney in her teenage years), a rebel, social activist and every bit as stubborn and determined as her mother, but coming at things from a different generation. It’s a pity then that, while they operate on an equal footing and he was her co-counsel in the Moritz case (a tax lawyer,he suggested it to her as a means of tackling sex discrimination), the marriage between Ruth and Marty never quite sparks as it should, that more provided by her sometimes combative friendship and professional relationship with Mel Wulf (Justin Theroux), the colourful legal director of the ACLU.
Another criticism is that, just as Marty’s cancer is never again mentioned after he recovers, the film only fleetingly touches on the issue of anti-Semitism he and, more especially, Ruth would have faced. Nonetheless, with a brief but memorable cameo from Kathy Bates as activist lawyer Dorothy Kenyon and, while they look nothing alike other than being short, a focused and commanding performance, part steely determination, part self-uncertainty, by Birmingham-born Jones, this could well be the best sex you have this year. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Electic; Empire Great Park; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City).
A Private War (15)
An award-winning war correspondent for the Sunday Times, feisty American-born journalist Marie Colvin made her name covering such conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq, where she promoted the exhumation of a mass grave of Kuwaiti POWs and Sri Lanka where, embedded with the Tamil Tigers, she lost an eye when fired upon by the military, subsequently sporting a distinctive pirate-like black patch, before being killed during the bombing of Homs in Syria in 2012.
Directed in the same fashion he brought to his Syrian documentary, City of Ghosts, Matthew Heineman and starring Rosamund Pike as Colvin, the film details her crusading, passionate, driven determination to report the truth of what was happening to both her readers back home and the world at large, forcing them not to look the other way. Opening with the Homs bombing where she exposed how Assad was targeting innocent women and children, it flashes back to Sri Lanka, counting down the ten years running up to her death as she covered some of the most world’s most dangerous conflict zones and even famously secured a face-to-face interview with Gadaffi shortly before his overthrow.
In Iraq, she teams up with freelance photographer Paul Conroy (Jamie Dorman) who would accompany her on her subsequent assignments, putting the graphic images to her uncompromising words, Pike portraying Colvin as a no-nonsense, stubborn, plain-speaking woman, tormented by a fear of growing old while dreading dying young, more at home under fire than back in the safety and comforts of London life or the awards ceremonies in her honour. Haunted by the image of a dead girl on her bed, the film seeks to explore how such traumas are processed and the effects it can have on those enduring them, especially when drinking and chainsmoking no longer numb the pain, Colvin essentially a PTSD addict.
With Tom Hollander as her editor, Sean Ryan, and Stanley Tucci as her wealthy businessman lover, Tony Shaw, the film is at its best on the various battlefronts, the energy and power dissipating when not under fire, but, at a time when fake news is the watchword, Colvin’s story is raw truth. (Tue-Thu:Everyman)
Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse (PG)
Spider-Man is dead, killed by the hulking man mountain Kingpin (Liev Schreiber). Or at least he is in the world inhabited by Miles Morales (Shameik Moore), a biracial (Puerto Rican/black) comic book loving 13-year-old whose tough love dad (Brian Tyree Henry) is a cop who wants the best for his son, as in sending him to an elite boarding school, where he has no friends, rather than encouraging his street art. Fortunately for Miles, his black sheep uncle Aaron (Mahershala Ali) is more supportive, taking him to an abandoned underground facility to practice. It’s here where he both sees Peter Parker (Chris Pine) killed and gets bitten by a radioactive spider. Next thing you know, like puberty gone crazy, his hands keep sticking to things – walls, books, the hair of new girl in school – and keeps getting tingling sensations when things are about to happen, and having an ongoing internal monologue, flashed up on screen like comic book captions.
At which point enter Peter Parker. Or, more accurately, Peter B Parker (Jake Johnson), the Spider-Man from a parallel dimension who, his marriage to Mary Jane (Zoe Kravitz) having fallen apart, has gone to seed, all unshaven, beer gut and cynicism. Hurled into Miles’ world by a sort of super-collider which, with the help of Dock Ock (Kathryn Hahn), Kingpin is hoping will restore his dead wife Vanessa (Lake Bell) and his son, he grudgingly agrees to coach Miles, who, having kitted himself with a fancy dress Spider-Man costume, has vowed to avenge the dead Spidey and foil Kingpin’s plans, which, naturally, will prove catastrophic for all the different worlds, in the art of being a webslinger.
However, as they soon discover, this Parker isn’t the only parallel arachnoid adventurer. There’s also Gwen-Stacey aka Spider-Gwen (Hailee Steinfield), in whose world Peter also died, the cloaked Spider-Man Noir (a dry Nicolas Cage) from a sort of black and white Dashiell Hammett dimension, Peni Parker (Kimoko Glenn), a futuristic Japanese anime girl who’s bonded with a Spidey-bot and even Peter Porker aka Spider-Ham (John Mulaney) from a world of talking animals. Now, together, and with a helping hand from a kickass Aunt May (Lily Tomlin), they determine to defeat Kingpin, his henchmen, Doc Ock, the Green Goblin, the Scorpion, Prowler and Tombstone, and destroy the collider before they all blink out of existence.
a wild animated and attitude-fuelled ride that rushes along like a psychedelic whirlwind, the backgrounds often seeming like graffiti 3D effects without the glasses, mirroring Deadpool and the Lego movies in its knowing in-joke use of superhero comic book conventions, complete with repeated voice over origin flashbacks (recreating scenes from Tobey Maguire’s debut), and framing. However, in-between the laughs (Cage’s Rubik Cube gag especially funny) and the action, it also finds room for Marvel’s trademark introspective emotional heft, predominantly in Miles’ struggle with insecurity and family tribulations (although Parker also gets a shot at redemption), on top of which there’s another animated Stan Lee cameo to bring a tear to the eye. You may come out with a migraine, but that big smile on your face is more than compensation. (Vue Star City)
Stan And Ollie (12A)
Unquestionably among Hollywood’s biggest stars between the late 20s and mid-40s, Lancashire-born Stan Laurel and Georgia’s Oliver Hardy were first officially teamed as a double act in 1927, their brand of physical slapstick, with Laurel the childlike stooge to the pompous Hardy, proving hugely popular among international audiences. By 1944, however, their stars had waned, they’d left Hal Roach studios (to whom they were under separate contracts) in 1940 and gone on to join 20th Century Fox and MGM for a series of less successful B movies. In 1945, they embarked upon a tour of low rent theatres in the UK, and again, their final performances, in 1953, Jon S Baird’s film set during the latter but also drawing on that first tour during which time they were supposed to make a Robin Hood spoof, Rob ‘Em Good, scripted by Laurel, but which never secured financing.
It’s a little known period in the duo’s lives, allowing the film a degree of artistic licence in exploring the relationship between them and the involvement of their respective wives who joined them on that final tour.
Opening with a 1937 prologue on the set of Way Out West, with Stan complaining about their financially-restrictive contracts with Roach (Danny Huston), the core of the film unfolds during that 1953 tour, arriving at a rainy Newcastle, put up in a squalid boarding house and booked into low rent theatres by smooth-talking impresario Bernard Delfont (a gleefully hamming Rufus Jones) whose more concerned about his latest protégé, Norman Wisdom, than these financially stretched has-beens. Not until he persuades them to start doping to promotional work, do audiences begin to fill the seats, the pair gradually proving to be huge hits in the nostalgia market as they revisit their best known routines, the Dance of the Cuckoos included.
Steve Coogan (Laurel) and John C.Reilly (Hardy) are note perfect in bringing their characters to life, brilliantly recreating the classic sketches as well as the never-before-filmed skit Birds of a Feather, and subtly capturing the chemistry and friendship between them but also the frictions that were fraying their partnership, most notably Laurel’s resentment at the increasingly frail Hardy, who, in 1939, had made Zenobia with Harry Landgon while Stan’s contract with Roach was in dispute. They’re perfectly complemented by Nina Arianda and Shirley Henderson as their respective sceptical wives, prickly Russian ex-dancer Ida Laurel and the more consoling Lucille Hardy, who, bickering among themselves but fiercely protective of their husbands, form an almost mirror image double act of their own and deliver some of the film’s best laughs
The screenplay by Coogan’s long-standing writing partner, Jeff Pope, unfussily gets under each of the character’s skins to explore the person behind the popular image, musing on whether the private and public persona can ever be fully separated, the pair always seeming to be in character as they respond to each other’s quips, asking what their lines would be in such a situation. The film’s charm may be low key, but charm it most assuredly is. (Empire Great Park; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)
The Upside (12A)
A remake of the French true story-based Les Intouchables, directed by Neil Burger this swaps Paris for Manhattan with Kevin Hart dialling down his usual shtick and given an unusually nuanced performance as Dell, an unemployed ex-con who. Needing to find a job to keep on the good side of his parole officer as well as build bridges with his ex (Aja Naomi King) and son (Jahi Di’Allo Winston), applies for the position of auxiliary nurse to Phillip (Bryan Cranston), a billionaire author and investor who’s paralysed from the neck down as a result of a hang-gliding accident. Understandably bitter and confined to his Park Avenue penthouse he hires Dell as almost an act of rebellious defiance against his watchful and devoted assistant, Yvonne (Nicole Kidman), working on the notion that he seems more likely than most to follow his Do Not Resuscitate orders.
Naturally, while chalk and cheese in terms of personality and status, their pair form a bond, each expanding the other’s horizons (Dell gets to appreciate The Marriage of Figaro, Phillip’s turned on to Aretha Franklin), as Dell reintroduces the depressed and self-destructive Phillip to life. The rework retains the original’s somewhat clichéd Driving Miss Daisy-like racial stereotypes that drive the mutual redemption, and cannot resist slipping into Hollywood sentimentality for its feelgood finale, but, taking an irreverent approach to handicap jokes (not to mention a very funny scene about changing a catheter) and with sparkling chemistry and sharp exchange between the two leads, Cranston conveying a wide range of emotions and reactions with just facial expressions, this may adopt a don’t fix what isn’t broken approach, but the gears mesh perfectly. (Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe)
Everything The Front Runner was not, Adam McKay’s Oscar nominated political satire strikes similar notes to The Thick Of It as it charts the quietly Machiavellian rise to power of Dick Cheney, who, as, the film argues, America’s most influential and dangerous Vice President, became the power behind George W Bush’s throne and the instigator of the post 9/11 invasion of Iraq on the fake grounds of weapons of mass destruction.
Morphing from a thin screw-up 22-year-old Wyoming drunk, shamed into changing his ways by his wife, Lynne (Amy Adams), and a Yale dropout into a blobby arch strategist assuming control in the wake of 9/11, tearing up the rules of combat and torture in the process, Christian Bale, following in Gary Oldman’s prosthetic footsteps, gives arguably the best performance of his career, delivering a brilliantly acerbic performance as, over the decades, Cheney shrewdly plays his cards and manoeuvres those around him, among them sometimes Nixon associate Donald Rumsfeld (a fine Steve Carell), to secure his own agenda, his quiet (“We have conservative TV and radio to do our yelling for us”) but sure rise to power accompanied by that of the equally ambitious Lynne.
Like Armando Iannucci’s series, it addresses serious political issues through razor sharp comedy, adopting a documentary-like flow across the different administrations in which Cheney served, following his various rises (including Chief of Staff to Ford) and falls as the Presidency changed hands and parties (a position in Congress when Carter took power), his various heart attacks (he had five and a transplant), his move from politics into the private sector as CEO of oil giant Halliburton (cue further controversy involving Iraq’s oil fields) following Clinton’s victory and his brilliantly engineered return to power under Bush (a terrific Sam Rockwell). Alongside this, the film takes in family matters involving choosing to support and protect his lesbian daughter Mary (Alison Pill), splitting with other Republicans over his liberal attitudes to gay marriage, although when his other daughter, Liz (Lily Rabe), develops political ambitions, this is tacitly withdrawn, opening up a major rift. And, behind all these machinations, it’s Lynne who is Cheney’s co-conspirator (at one point the film fantasises them in bed delivering Shakespearean dialogue) and arguably the power behind his throne.
Along with voiceovers and to camera moments breaking the fourth wall involving a character (Jesse Plemons) whose purpose is withheld until the third act crucial twist and metaphorical fly-fishing sequences, McKay pulls another audacious stunt in the Gore/Bush campaign, adopting the premise that the former actually won the election (as many claimed) and playing the end credits midway in complete with captions as to what happened to the central players, before, in the light of the shock result, snapping back to reality.
Featuring support turns and cameos by Tyler Perry as Secretary of State Colin Powell, pressured into endorsing the WMD claim, an uncredited Naomi Watts as a reporter, Alfred Molina in an inspired a surreal scene as a maitre’d explaining the dishes of the day to his assembled Bush administration power players, among them Guantanamo Bay and “a fresh war powers interpretation” as well as archive footage of Blair delivering his Iraq invasion speech, it’s a brilliantly executed and revelatory account of how this, to a large extent, private background figure in the White House corridors, changed the political landscape of America and the world to the mess it is today. (Vue Star City; Until Wed: MAC)
Screenings courtesy of Odeon and Cineworld
Cineworld 5 Ways – 181 Broad St, 0871 200 2000
Cineworld NEC – NEC 0871 200 2000
Cineworld – Mill Ln, Solihull 071 200 2000
The Electric Cinema – 47–49 Station Street, 0121 643 7879
Empire – Great Park, Rubery, 0871 471 4714
Empire Coldfield – Maney Corner, Sutton Coldfield
0871 471 4714
The Everyman – The Mailbox 0871 906 9060
MAC – Cannon Hill Park 0121 446 3232
Mockingbird, Custard Factory 0121 224 7456.
Odeon Birmingham -Birmingham, 0871 224 4007
Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe – Ladywood Middleway, 0333 006 7777
Odeon West Bromwich – Cronehills Linkway, West Bromwich 0333 006 7777
Reel – Hagley Rd, Quinton, Halesowen 0121 421 5316
Showcase Walsall – Bentley Mill Way, Walsall 0871 220 1000
Vue Star City – Watson Road, 08712 240 240