MOVIE ROUND-UP:This Week’s New Film Releases, Fri Aug 26-Thu Sept 1

NEW RELEASES

Bad Moms (15)

Considering this was written and directed by Jon Lucas and Scott Moore, the screenwriters of the Hangover trilogy, it will no surprise to learn that the comedy makes extensive use of  crude sexual gags and similarly coarse humour. What is a surprise is  how insightful and sympathetic it is about mothers trying cope with demanding kids, absent or useless fathers and, for some, hold down a  job at the same time. Chicago-based Amy (Mila Kunis) falls into all three categories. Pregnant and married at 20, her kids, neurotic overachiever Jane  and slacker  Dylan, expect to have everything done for them, she’s working far longer than her part-time agreement at a coffee company run by people barely out of training pants, has to all the shopping and housework and, to top it all, she’s caught her husband  (David Walton) having an online affair with someone on sex room website. When she says  the only thing she’s good at is being late, she’s only half joking.

No wonder she’s frazzled and doesn’t take kindly to the patronising attitude of bullying,  catty  privileged PTA president Gwendolyn (Christina Applegate) and her sidekicks, Stacy (an underused Jada Pinkett Smith) and the dim Vicky (Annie Murnolo). Blowing a fuse one night, she winds up in a bar  and bonding with brash, sexually forthright foul-mouthed single mom Carla (a go for it Kathryn Hahn) and Kiki (Kristen Bell), a clueless mother of four unruly kids whose controlling husband expects her to do everything (she fantasies of being hospitalised in a  car accident so she can get some rest). Agreeing that these days it’s almost impossible to be a good mom, they decide to be bad instead.

Which basically means slo-mo trashing a supermarket, making the kids get their own breakfast, cutting PTA meeting and even going to the movies during the day. Then, following a  Bake Sale incident with Gwendolyn, Amy decides to run against her for PTA president, which, in turn, means more slo-mo, this time at a boozy meet the candidate house party fuelled by cheap wine and dance music. There’s also the sub plot about the hot widowed decent dad (Jay Hernandez)  to whom Amy takes a shine, and the return of her husband looking to save the marriage (cue a very funny counselling session).

It’s a fairly predictable template in which the bully gets their comeuppance and the misfits come out on top, but, in great part down to the terrific energy and chemistry of the three leads (and some often hilarious improvisation, notably Carla using Kiki’s hoody to demonstrate how to have sex with an uncircumcised penis), it never feels tired while the one-liners are always dead on target.

It gets a little sentimental at the end (which includes a credits sequence of the stars with their own mothers, Bell’s being a dead ringer for Diane Keaton), but by this time it’s more than earned its right to tug at the heartstrings  too. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Redditch,  Star City)

Julieta (15)

julieta-pedro-almodovarFollowing excursions into romantic thriller (Broken Embraces), physiological horror (The Skin I’m In) and camp comedy (I’m So Excited), Pedro Almodovar’s 20th feature,  based on three Alice Munro short stories, marks a return to the ‘cinema of women’ embodied by the likes of Volver, Women On The Berge…., All About My Mother and Talk To Her. And, while it may be, relatively, one of his most conventional films, it’s also one of his best, and features two Oscar worthy turns from Emma Surazes and relative newcomer Adriana Ugarte who seamlessly play the respective older and younger versions of the title character.

Opening on a typical Almodovar shot of the folds of a red dress, we meet the older Julieta as she’s packing up her house in Madrid in readiness for a move to Portugal with her lover Lorenzo. But then, a chance encounter on the street with Beatriz (Michelle Jenner), her daughter’s childhood friend, changes all her plans. It transpires that Julieta has not seen her daughter, Antia, since she disappeared 12 years ago and is taken aback when Beatriz says she saw her recently and that she has three children.

Resolving to now stay in Madrid in the hope of seeing Antia again, Julieta sits down to write her a long letter, telling her everything she could never tell her at the time. And so the film flashes back to 1989,, introducing the younger Julieta, then a short-cropped, post-punky Classics teacher, as she meets her future partner, fisherman Xoan (Daniel Grao) on a  train. They spend a night together and then part, Julieta eventually visiting him in Galicia, unaware that his wife, who’d been in a  coma for some years, has recently died. He’s out and she’s given a frosty reception by his housekeeper (Rossy de Palma), but, already pregnant,  decides to stay, and the relationship gradually deepens while she also becomes friends with his childhood friend, Ava (Imma Cuesta), a sculptor who makes phallic bronze figures.

Without revealing more, suffice to say events leave Julieta a single mother and suffering  breakdown, nursed through by Antia, who now shares a Madrid apartment with Beatriz. Deciding she needs some calm, Antia arranges to stay at a retreat. That was 12 years ago.

With Julieta haunted by both her husband’s death and the suicide of a man on the train, the film is very much about guilt and  grief, compounded by the regret of consequences that can ensue when we keep things bottled up or tell half truths to avoid uncomfortable situations, as well as the sometimes claustrophobic bond between mother and daughter,

Mirroring subplots involving Julieta’s frail mother and her father’s affair with his younger housekeeper don’t have the same involvement, but  the core story is emotionally compelling, its darkness set against the film’s rich colours and landscapes, and soundtracked by Alberto Iglesias’s jazzy score. One of the year’s best.  (Cineworld 5 Ways;  Electric)

Mechanic: Resurrection (15)

mechanic-resurrectionThe 2011 remake original was hardly a box office record-breaker, so it’s hard to image there was much of audience demand for a sequel. Had they known what they were getting, it would have been even less. Having boosted his status with Spy, The Expendables and the Fast and Furious series, Jason Statham takes several steps back in reprising the role of Arthur Bishop, an assassin for hire whose specialty is making his hits look like accidents. After events in the last film, he’s retired and gone to ground,. But, at the confused start of what proves an increasingly confused plot, he’s tracked down by some woman (who subsequently barely figures) whose boss wants him to do three kills. Bishop declines in a somewhat physical manner and heads off to Thailand where Michelle Yeoh is hanging around wondering what happened to the rest of her scenes in the screenplay. At which point the film sort of starts all over again as Gina (Jessica Alba), who’s dedicated her life to looking after local orphans, is blackmailed into trying to trap him into taking the contract. Almost overnight she inexplicably becomes the love of Arthur’s life, which means she’s now ripe to be kidnapped and held to ransom until he carries out the murders. If you can follow the incoherent script, it seems that the Brit behind all this (Sam Hazeldine) has some sort of connection to Bishop’s past, but by now you may have given up the will to live let alone work out what and why. Anyways, it seems the ones he wants killed are all unsavoury arms-dealing characters, one of whom is an African dictator now in a  maximum security prison, one’s a multi-millionaire living in a high security Australian high rise and the third is a distracted Tommy Lee Jones with a naff goatee who’s turned up to collect the paycheck for a couple of hours playing someone in Bulgaria who has a pen full of nuclear submarines.

If you’ve seen the trailer with Bishop, suspended by suction pads,  cracking the class of  a  high rise swimming pool, you’ve seen the only moment of inspiration, the film eventually descending into a ludicrous showdown onboard  luxury boat. Statham puts in far more effort than the film deserves, but everything and everyone else is workmanlike at best. It does what it says on the tin, but that’s a very short sentence. Still, while you’re sitting there, you might want to ponder the irony of Bishop refusing to assassinate just three guys because he doesn’t kill people any more, but then has no qualms about leaving  behind him a whole mountain of  disposable henchmen. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

 Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping (12A)

popstar- It’s a terrible title, but this mock rockumentary from American comedy trio Andy Samberg, Jorma Taccone and Akiva Schaffer (who also direct) is very funny and barbed. The trio also play Connor, Owen and Lawrence,  respectively, childhood friends who became hip hop superstars as Style Boyz (cue fawning tributes from the likes of Nas, Ringo Starr, Simon Cowell and the self-declared most humblest person she knows, Mariah Carey) with their Donkey Roll dance moves. However, as things do, they broke up with Owen going off to run a  farm and stew in resentment for not being the credit he was due, while Conner reinvented himself as Connor4Real (with Owen as his onstage DJ), selling millions with his debut album of featuring such numbers as Finest Girl (where he lover wants to f**ed like the US military f***ed Osama Bin Laden). Unfortunately, things go wrong with the much anticipated follow up, first with the Equal Rights single where he assures everyone he’s not gay and then when he signs a deal with a white goods company (cue cameo by Maya Rudloph) whereby (in a  wicked piss take of U2’s backfired unauthorised uploading of Songs Of Innocence on mobile phones)  his new album (which has 100 producers) will automatically be played through fridges and the like. When this creates a city-wide power cut, there’s an immediate backlash, which sees Connor, with the help of his long-suffering manager (Tim Meadows), the forgotten Tonee? of 80s R&B trio Tony! Toni! Toné!,  and publicist (Sarah Silverman) going to increasingly desperate ends to salvage his freefalling career. This includes taking on ambitious rapper Hunter the Hungry (Chris Redd) to sell tickets and who naturally ends up stealing the shows, sticky Owen in a flashing robot helmet and even staging a media-attended lavish proposal to his girlfriend (Imogen Poots) complete with wolves (who end up savaging Seal). However, nothing seems to arrest the slide, until following his onstage ‘dickless’ humiliation and other bombshells, he jacks it all in and goes into a hermit-like depression. However, Owen’s not given up on the hope of reconciling Lawrence and Connor and sparking Style Boyz reunion.

Following in the footsteps of Spinal Tap and Christopher Guest’s subsequent A Mighty Wind, it doesn’t reach the same heights of satiric absurdity, but gleefully referencing the likes of Justin Beiber  and Katy Perry and featuring cameos by the likes of  Usher, Pink, Snoop Dogg, Pharrell Williams and Michael Bolton as themselves, this makes David Brent pale into insignificance. (Cineworld NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park; Odeon Broadway Plaza; Vue Star City)

The Purge – Election Year (15)

purgeThe third (though not necessarily the last) of the series finds  Senator Charlie Roan (Elizabeth Mitchell), the only family  survivor from a purge 18 years earlier, now running as a presidential candidate with a pledge to bring Purge Night (for newbies, 12 hours where all crime is legal, to an end. A manifesto that doesn’t sit well with the elite NFFA (the New Founding Fathers of America) and their own hate-preaching candidate Minister Edwige Owens (Kyle Secor), to which end, the NFFA leader (Raymond J Barry) proposes changing the rules to make everyone, senators included, eligible targets.

Sold out, when her supposed safe house is blown, Roan ends up on the run, seeking to avoid both the mercenaries hired to kill her and the crazy fanatics (Purge Night’s become a tourist industry) who’d do it just for the fun. Initially, her only protection is her police officer turned Secret Service bodyguard, Leo Barnes (Frank Grillo), who attempted to kill the person who killed his son in the previous film. However, they’re soon rescued and reinforced by Joe Dixon (Mykelti Williamson), who, hit by jacked up insurance premium, has decided to protect his convenience store himself, and his assistant Marcos (Joseph Julian Soria), especially after being threatened by a couple of bad attitude schoolgirl shoplifters.  Also in the mix is Laney (Betty Gabriel), a former bad girl who now cruises the streets on Purge Night in a van giving medical aid to the wounded, and Dante Bishop (Edwin Hodge), the leader of the anti-Purge movement, who is planning to assassinate Owens during the Purge Mass.

Essentially a prolonged series of run, fight, hide, run rabble rouser sequences, complete with a liberal amount of killings,  it inevitably ends up with a race against the clock to save Roan from the NFFA, but director James DeMonaco orchestrates these with a relentless energy, even if, at times, it does feel like a re-run of   Olympus/London Has Fallen, and the performances are all perfectly serviceable for the demands required. Politically, its satirical liberal/fascist debate (the NFFA want to kill off the poor to cut back on benefit costs) and pop psychology about our inner beasts hasn’t significantly advanced over the trilogy, but it must be said that the Trump/Clinton showdown does give it a decided extra timely resonance. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Showcase Walsall; Vue Redditch,  Star City)

War Dogs (15)

war dogs 2A decided change of pace after directing the three Hangover movies, this finds Todd Phillips taking on a political moral fable that, much like American Hustle and The Wolf of Wall Street, shows the uglier side of the seduction of the American Dream. The screenplays central thrust is based on the true story  of  Packouz and Efraim Diveroli, two twentysomething former high school friends who, in the mid 2000s, joined forces  to become arms dealers, selling weapons to the U.S military, making millions by bidding on small scale contracts that the big boys weren’t interested in.

Attending a friend’s funeral, Packouz (Miles Teller), a professional masseuse,  reunites with the flashy if foul-mouthed Diveroli (Jonah Hill), who’s recently moved back to town and who invites him to a meeting at the makeshift office of his company, AEY (the name providing a particularly good joke later on) where he invites him to join the business. Basically, he explains, he scours the lists of military contracts up for tender to find the ‘crumbs’ that no one else is likely to bid on, then goes shopping on the military equivalent of  E-Bay to get the weaponry.  Although David and girlfriend Iz (Ana de Armas), are against the war, as Efraim argues, this isn’t about the war, it’s about money.  Also, David’s scheme to sell Egyptian cotton sheets to old folks homes has near bankrupted him and Iz is expecting; and besides, what she doesn’t know can’t hurt her.

Things get off to a hairy start when embargoes mean they end up driving truckload of pistols from Jordan to the US military base in Baghdad through Iraq’s so called Triangle of Death. However, it puts their name on the map and before long, bankrolled by a Jewish dry clean chain owner  (Kevin Pollak), the business is expanding. The crunch comes when (as happened) they win a $300 million US Government contract to supply the Afghan military, a deal that means them partnering (this didn’t happen) with Henry Girard (Bradley Cooper), a dodgy arms dealer who may well be on a  terrorist watch list. However, when David flies out to Albania to oversee the transport of millions of ancient  rounds of AK-47 ammunition, he discovers that they’re from China and, while the US military will deal with almost anyone, China isn’t among them. So, faced with coming up with a way round or losing the contract, David arranges to have them repackaged into cardboard boxes (this happened), ultimately leading them to being busted on any number of charges, but, principally, attempting to defraud the U.S. Government.

However, it’s not just a rags to riches to rags story, that’s just the backdrop to the relationship between the two friends, the innocent and a little naïve David trying to get a piece of the pie without doing anything technically illegal, and Ephraim, who has the ability to become the person people want him to be,  has a reputation for  backstabbing  and wants the entire pie.  As such this is also a con narrative, with America as the main mark.

The trailer plays up the buddy comedy humour, but, while it is often very funny, this is a remarkably dark piece of work about the economic imperatives of war and the lies it engenders,  fuelled by terrific  performances from Teller and an especially electrifying Hill, the latter adopting a trademark laugh that (like the giant Scarface poster on his office wall) says much about his character,  encouraging the audience to both root for its protagonists, one of whom is a complete asshole, for playing the system. This isn’t about the hangover, this is about getting drunk on the American Dream  and finding your drink’s been spiked. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Redditch,  Star City)

 

NOW PLAYING

Asterix & Obelisk Mansion of the Gods (U)

 asterixThe Goscinny and Uderzo comic books always seemed pitched at a much older readership with their social and political satire, which is perhaps why previous animated efforts have always felt as if they were trying to a fit a  kid friendly style around adult humour and wordplay. The latest, however, while still offering plenty of knockabout comedy and silliness for the under 10s(such as the Gauls haplessly trying to take on the Romans without the aid of their magic strength potion), is arguably the first to appeal primarily to the audience the originals intended.

Since he can’t conquer the Gauls, Caesar decides to assimilate them by hiring architect Squarehypotneuse to build an apartment comp, The Mansion of the Gods, next to the Gaul village, settling in Romans and letting their civilising influence go to work. With the help of the druid Getafix, Asterix and his bulky dimwitted chum Obelisk try to stop this, first by planting magic acorns to replace the fallen trees overnight and then giving the slaves the magic potion so they can go free. Except, this backfires with the slaves negotiating to get apartments for completing the job, the Centurions striking for higher pay and then the Gauls looking to exploit their new Roman neighbours by putting up prices and selling them supposed local artefacts. Then, when an angry Asterix declares he’s going to move in, Caesar announces he’ll give free apartments to all the Gauls, who move in and start acting like Romans!

With satires on urban sprawl, cultural pollution, gentrification, workers rights and price wars, this is  clearly going to go way over children’s heads, who probably also won’t appreciate the mosaic-themed climax, but sussed grown-ups slightly embarrassed at buying  ticket for a cartoon  can always drag the kids along as an excuse. (Cineworld 5 Ways;  Empire Great Park; Odeon Broadway Plaza)

The BFG (PG)  One of the attractions of Roald Dahl’s stories is that they are not all sweetness and light, there is a darkness and scariness to them in which children delight. Initially, it seems as though director Steven Spielberg and the late Melissa Mathison’s screenplay (she also wrote E.T.) might be remaining true to Dahl’s tone as it appears that, after plucking 10-year-old orphan Sophie (Ruby Barnhill, who makes her initially bossy character endearing without being cloyingly cute) from her orphanage bed after she sees him walking London’s night-time streets from her window, he may actually be preparing to fry her up for his dinner. However, inevitably such darkness gives way to a more soft, family friendly approach about the importance of dreams.

Although the ending is different, for the most part it’s faithful to the book’s setting (the 80s, including a reference to the Reagans) and  story as, carried away to Giant Country to stop her and telling everyone that giants are real, Sophie quickly becomes friends with her enormous-eared abductor, the Big Friendly Giant (Mark Rylance), or, as she calls him, the BFG. It turns out that, a  sort of country bumpkin, he too is a lonely misfit, bullied by his  far bigger water-phobic fellow giants who, unlike him, are cannibals (and love snacking on human beans while he eats stinky Snozzcumbers),  go by such names as Fleshlumpeater, Bonecruncher and Meatdripper and refer to him as Runt.

He also reveals that his visits to the land of humans are not about gathering tasty morsels, but to blow pleasant bottled dreams through the windows of sleeping children. He collects and crafts these dreams by travelling through a magical pool to the upside down world of Dream Country and netting the “phizzwizards” of which they are made. The scene where he takes Sophie along with him is like something out of Fantasia, even if John Williams’ orchestral score is (as throughout the film) rather overpowering.

However, when Sophie drops her handkerchief,  Fleshlumpeater (Jemaine Clement) puts his enhanced sense of smell to work and tries and track her down, prompting her to devise a plan to enlist the Queen (Penelope Wilton) in capturing the giants and stopping their children-eating raids. While It also entails the film’s  biggest child-friendly fart scene, one not in the book,  as the royal household, korgis included, quaff the BFG’s frobscottle, resulting in an outburst of “whizzpoppers”.

The film’s biggest attraction is the BFG himself, facially designed to look like a distorted version of Rylance who, speaking in Dahl’s “gobblefunk”, brings huge warmth, soul and humanity to the role.

On the  downside,  the plot simply isn’t enough to sustain almost two hours, meaning there’s an awful lot of repetition and, with very little happening, it often feels sluggish, likely to cause much fidgeting among the small  children  who are its main audience.  There are, indeed, times when it is a thing of wonder, but, unfortunately, also too many when it’s just hugely wearisome. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; MAC; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Redditch,  Star City)

 

 Blinky Bill The Movie (U)

blinky-bill-the-movie-02Based on the Australian children’s storybooks and TV series about young koala Bill, this full length animated movie sees our intrepid hero  sets off into the Outback to find his missing adventurer father with the help of fellow koala Nutsy, a manic frill-necked lizard, and two emus, Beryl and Sherul (both voiced by Toni Collette),  pursued by a vicious cat (Rufus Swell). It’s not up there in the Pixar, BlueSky or DreamWorks league, but, lively and colourful and featuring all things Australian (from kookaburras and kangaroos to boomerangs and Dame Edna Everage), it’s still plenty of fun. (Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Central Intelligence (12A) The latest in a long line of mismatched reluctant partners, this pairs Kevin Hart (small) with Dwayne Johnson (big), the former as motormouth Calvin Joyner, an accountant who feels he never lived up to his Student Most Likely To award back in High School, with the latter as Robbie Weirdicht who, as the school fat kid, (a CGI blubbery Johnson) was befriended by Golden Jet Joyner after a cruel prank left his naked in front of the whole school. These days, though, as Calvin’s shocked to discover after agreeing to meet up for a drink when he’s contacted via Facebook, he’s renamed himself Bob Stone and is  a pumped up  He-Man who effortlessly takes out a bunch of thugs in the café because he doesn’t like bullies. He also still goofily idolise the only person who was ever kind to him.

However, it also turns out that Bob works for the CIA and has actually hooked back up with Calvin because he needs his skills to track down the meeting place for an online auction deal to sell off stolen Americans satellite secrets by someone known as the Black Badger. On the other hand, could Bob himself be the traitor who, as CIA Agent Harris (Amy Ryan) tells Calvin, stole the secrets and killed his partner. Or maybe Bob’s been set up and Harris is actually the Black Badger.

It’s to the film’s credit that it actually manages to keep you guessing right up to the final showdown, but the ride there is never quite as much fun as it should have been.  There are some genuinely hilarious moments and, even though Hart’s pretty much wheeling out the same shtick as in Ride Along and Get Hard), he’s less irritating than usual while, once again, Johnson shows he has a real flair for comedy as well as the usual action man roles. He also brings a lot more character depth to the table than Hart, playing Bob as both the tough guy,  but also still a vulnerable insecure child haunted by his past humiliation, something that  pays off when he meets the now grown up bully responsible (Jason Bateman)  and is again cowed.

It’s let down by the  somewhat forced nature of the plotting, some underwritten secondary characters (such as Danielle Nicolet as Calvin’s high school sweetheart and now wife) and the fact that it stretches things out far longer than it need. However, there’s real chemistry between the two stars, who seem to be improvising many of their exchanges, such as lines about Taylor Swift’s ever-changing boyfriends and Calvin being like a black Will Smith (the outtakes also has Hart cracking a joke about the Rock) and it’s absolutely riddled with movie references, from Molly Ringwald and 16 Candles to Patrick Swayze and Roadhouse.

Also, the action sequences rip along (especially a shoot out at Calvin’s office)  and it’s pretty much devoid of the coarse vulgarity that seems to have become de rigueur in today’s comedies, and there’s also a surprise uncredited cameo at the high school reunion. It’s not up there in the Nice Guys league, but you won’t walk out feeling disappointed. (Vue  Star City)

 

David Brent’s Life on the Road (12A)

DBLOTR_STILL-09Thirteen years on from the end of The Office,  BBC2’s mockumentary sitcom about a Slough paper company and its employees, headed up by office manager David Brent (Ricky Gervais), Gervais has revived the character who, now working as a rep  for a sanitary company, is approached by the documentary team for a where are they now follow-up, Brent decides to take one last stab at finding fame as a rock star. Resurrecting his band, Foregone Conclusion, with all new members, as well as rapper protege and token black mate Dom Johnson (Doc Brown) and forever exasperated  road manager/engineer Dan (Tom Basden), taking unpaid leave and cashing in his pensions to fund everything in the hope of getting a record deal.

Despite being unable to get more than a handful of low rent gigs within a limited radius of his home, he still stumps up for hotel rooms and a lavish tour bus (although the band make him follow in his own car).  Needless to say, while the tunes are catchy, Brent’s excruciating songs are as cringe-inducing as he is, they can’t pull audiences and the band regard him as an embarrassing idiot, he even has to pay them to have after-show drinks with him.

The pathos and the  character’s not changed, Brent still does the knowing to camera looks and remains  willfully oblivious to his lack of social skills. There is, however, although it takes time to admit it, an awareness that he has no friends and the tour is, essentially, about trying to find acceptance.  Although he laughs off the fact that, save for  the equally socially-inept  Nigel (Tom Bennett), all his bullying colleagues think he’s at best a pathetic joke, he’s blind to the fact that the supportive Pauline (Jo Hartley) harbours a secret crush.

 

Gervais delivers a constant stream of humour that is as uncomfortable as its is funny, but he’s also found a sentimental streak that brings unexpected poignancy  and vulnerability; even songs like Don’t Make Fun of the Disableds  are written with a genuine if mishandled compassion. There’s even has a happy ending.

At the end of the day, it’s an extended  Office spin-off. If you’re unaware of that,  this won’t be of interest and, if you are, you might wish Gervais had been bolder,  rather than just reheating things, but there’s still enough laughs to make it worth taking the trip. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Electric; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Redditch,  Star City)

 

Finding Dory (U)

dory 3Thirteen years after Finding Nemo  swam to Oscar glory, Pixar  have gone back into the water for a sequel, this time putting the focus on Dory (a terrific Ellen DeGeneres), the blue tang with short-term memory loss who helped grumpy clownfish Marlin (Albert Brooks) find and rescue his missing son, Nemo (Hayden Rolence).

Despite what the title suggests, it’s not just a simple rerun of the original. Yes, Dory goes missing and has to be rescued when she’s scooped up from the ocean and taken to the Marine Life Institute, a Californian fish hospital and conservation centre (with Sigourney Weaver as its audio tour guide) where its patients either become part of the exhibits before being returned to the ocean or are shipped to an aquarium in Cleveland.  However, this is less about Marlin and Nemo finding Dory, than Dory finding herself.

Following a flashback that shows her parents, Charlie (Eugene Levy) and Jenny (Diane Keaton), looking to protect her from coming to any harm because of her short-term memory loss and to always follow the shells that will lead her home, inevitably, things go wrong and Dory gets swept away, forgetting all about her home and her parents.  Fast forward to a year after Finding Nemo, and, after a knock on the head, the now grown Dory suddenly has a brief memory burst. She remembers her parents.

The details are fuzzy, but now she’s aware that she’s lost and  needs to find her family and home, which, as further flashes reveal, are  somewhere called Jewel of Morro Bay. And so, accompanied by Marlin and Nemo,  she sets off from the Great Barrier Reef  to California where she’s sure her parents will still be waiting for her.

And so, after a narrow escape from a giant squid ( in which Nemo’s almost killed, prompting Marlin to snap at Dory  “Go wait over there and forget. It’s what you do best”), the three friends finally arrive at the Institute.

Inside, Dory finds herself tagged and  informed by Hank (Ed O’Neill), a grumpy seven-tentacled octopus with chameleon-like abilities,  that this means she’ll be shipped off to Cleveland. However, if she agrees to give the tag to him (so he can have a peaceful specimen life in the aquarium), he’ll help her escape Quarantine and look for her parents.  What follows is a series of mishaps as Dory tries to get to the Open Ocean exhibit where she’s convinced her parents are being kept and Marlin and Nemo try to find Dory, all of which variously involves an excessively talkative oyster, a pair of territorial sea-lions (Dominic West and Idris Elba), a wild-eyed loon bird,  Dory’s short-sighted childhood whale shark friend Destiny (Kaitlin Olson) and Bailey (Ty Burrell), a beluga whale who’s convinced his echolocation no longer works.

As well the fraught journeys through the sunken wreck and the  Institute, unlikely as it may seem, the film also contrives to introduce a truck chase action climax that sees Ed taking a very tentacles-on role and is arguably the funniest sequence. In decided contrast to  the Touch Pool, which presents  the interactive exhibit from the terrifying perspective of those being handled and will surely make kids think twice next time they’re at some Sea-Life centre.

That Dory and her folks will be reunited is never in doubt, but even so the needle swings all across the emotional scales, surely likely to bring a lump to the throat when, echoing Marlin, our memory-challenged heroine asks herself  “what would Dory do?”   The theme of family is frequently sounded, but the film also reminds audiences to appreciate the moment and the things that make life worth remembering as well as, for all those who feel like outsiders, a reminder that they are not alone and to be who they are.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Vue Redditch,  Star City)

Ghostbusters (12A) 32 years since the original spook-hunters, Bill Murray, Dan Akyroyd, Harold Ramis and Ernie Hudson, director Paul Feig has rebooted the comedy franchise, but with an all female team. Paranormal researcher Abby Yates (Melissa McCarthy) and ditzy physicist Erin Gilbert (Kristin Wiig) once wrote a book claiming that ghosts were real. And were roundly ridiculed.  They’ve not spoken to one another for years, but now the book has resurfaced online, threatening Erin’s chance of tenure at her prestigious university.

However, they get the chance to prove they were right when, starting with an incident at a heritage museum, New York is suddenly plagued by all manner of supernatural and paranormal manifestations, that leads the pair, along with Abby’s genius engineer lab partner  Jillian Holtzmann (Kate McKinnon) and Patty Tolan (Leslie Jones in Hudson’s TBC role but getting rather more and better lines), a  subway ticket officer and  amateur historian who provides this film’s Ecto-1, a converted hearse,  to become a spook fighting team, subsequently dubbed the Ghostbusters,  and go proton pack to slime to save Manhattan from an army of ghouls that have been set loose to destroy the world by some disgruntled  nutter (Neil Casey) in revenge for being treated as a freak.

Joining the ensemble is Chris Hemsworth doing droll comic relief as their hunky but slightly dim  sexually objectified receptionist Kevin. Unfortunately, that and a ghost that takes the giant shape of the team’s logo are the only notes of originality here. Rather than try and establish a whole new Ghostbusters universe, the film seem set on reminding everyone of the original. Not only are there cameos from  Murray, Aykroyd (who gets to deliver  the “I ain’t afraid of no ghosts” line),  Hudson and Sigourney Weaver, but there’s the green glowing  Slimer, a rework of the theme song, a nod to the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man, the familiar  green ectoplasm vomiting and the same fire station HQ, not to mention the uniforms and weapons bearing  close resemblance to those in the  original. Indeed, the film just seems too busy reminding audiences of the earlier movie to give it an identity of its own. Although, at times, McCarthy and Wiig seem to be doing their usual routines, the foursome bounce off one another amusingly enough and the ghosts are slightly scarier. On the other hand, a brief one line cameo by Ozzy Osbourne as himself is squirmingly embarrassing. Although it’s opened well here to generally positive reviews, response in America has been less  enthusiastic and it’s been denied a release in China, the world’s second biggest market, suggesting that, whatever the end credits might hint, it’s unlikely to scare up a  sequel.  (Odeon Broadway Plaza; Vue Star City)

 

Ice Age: Collision Course (U) Five films in and it’s clear the scriptwriters are running low on ideas, there is, after all, only so many times you can serve up a plot which relies on the characters trying to save themselves from extinction. They’re at it again here, this time threatened by a meteor shower akin to the one that wiped out the dinosaurs, inadvertently triggered by Scrat who, in his constant quest to protect his acorn activates a flying saucer embedded in ice and got flung into space where, along with initiating the Big Bang, sends a huge  meteor towards Earth.

Back on the planet, the prehistoric pals  have other problems too. Manny (Ray Romano) can’t reconcile himself to the fact that daughter Peaches (Keke Palmer) is planning to marry and take off with, in his opinion, useless goofball Julian (Adam DeVine), all of which has led to him forgetting his and Ellie’s (Queen Latifah) anniversary.  Sabre-tooths Diego (Denis Leary) and Shira (Jennifer Lopez) would like to start a family, but are worried they’re too scary for the kids. And Sid the sloth is despairing of ever finding true love.

All this is temporarily put on the back burner when balls of rock start hitting the neighbourhood and they and the rest of the herd, among them Sid’s granny (Wanda Sykes) and annoying manic possums Crash and Eddie (Josh Peck, Seann William Scott), set off to find a way to divert the giant asteroid that’s heading their way.

Joining them in their efforts is Buck (Simon Pegg), the one-eyed dino-hunting weasel from the third film, who, returned from his subterranean world, is being pursued by a bickering family of three dino-birds whose egg-stealing activities he’s been thwarting and who are very keen to see the destruction go ahead.  For Manny and co, the  solution to preventing extinction  lies in travelling to the usual meteor crash site and using the magnetic crystals  from another asteroid to repel this one. However, a hollow rock, that’s become Geotopia, home to a bunch of New Agey  characters, among them an effervescent female sloth (voiced by Jessie J who also provides the obligatory song) and their spiritual leader, the Shangri Lama, as well as endowing them with eternal youth.

Visually, this is every bit as good as past outings, but, relying heavily on fart and body parts gags, the humour is pitched very much at a juvenile level and, with little dramatic tension, snappy dialogue or emotional pull, the film and its over-padded plot offer few diversions for anyone over the age of 10. At one point, Manny says “This isn’t working.” It’s time the filmmakers accepted the fact and let evolution takes its course (Vue Star City)

 

Jason Bourne (12A)

jason 2 Nine years after what everyone assumed would be the last of their Bourne partnership, Matt Damon and director Paul Greengrass have reunited for a third  outing that adds further details to Bourne’s backstory and introduces another CIA black ops programme with even wider global ramifications than Treadstone.

It involves a clandestine alliance between bureau director Dewey (Tommy Lee Jones at his craggiest) and Kallor (Riz Ahmed) a social media guru about to launch a new platform called Deep Dream that promises total privacy; except, that’s not quite the case behind the scenes. Information on this, an operation known as Iron Hand, and all other CIA black ops has been hacked by former operative Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles) who’s now working with liberty activist Christian Dassault. Dewey needs to shut Parsons down before she goes public, to which end he assigns a professional hitman, known only as the Asset (Vincent Cassel) to take her out.

Unfortunately, she’s made contact Jason Bourne (Damon) who, memory back, has gone off the grid and spends his time at bare knuckle fights. She draws him in by revealing there was more to his father’s part in Treadstone that he knows. And more about his own involvement too. Flashing back to his father’s death, allegedly at the hands of terrorists, Bourne senses all is not what some want him to think, and so agreement is made.

It’ll come as no surprise to learn that Parson’s doesn’t make it to the end credits, leaving Bourne globe-hopping (Greece, Berlin, London, Washington, LA), pursued by the Asset (for whom this kill is personal), in his search for the truth behind his father’s death and to expose those responsible for the latest conspiracy, Dewey especially. Also in the mix is Heather Lee (Alicia Vikander), an ambitious operative who persuades (or so she thinks) Dewey to let her take charge and try and bring Bourne back in. Needless to say, there’s double crosses and secret agendas wherever you look.

Featuring two breathtaking ultra-octane chases through the streets of Athens and LA, respectively, there’s not an ounce of fat anywhere, be it the complex screenplay with its various twists and turns, or in Greengrass’ dizzying direction which races from one hard-hitting sequence to the next.

It goes without saying that Damon is electrifying as the perfect weapon who also has a conscience and sense of guilt about who and what he is, while Cassel is a perfect ruthless  assassin, Jones is his usual dry and complex self and Vikander, with her ambiguous motives,  reps a solid entry into the franchise should a further instalment be on the cards.   (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza; Vue Redditch,  Star City)

The Legend of Tarzan (12A) David Yates’ attempt to reboot the live action adventures of  Edgar Rice Burrough’s iconic hero combines  origin flashbacks and sequel narrative into one story, as well as a revisionist message about slavery, but the result is both cumbersome and turgid.  Some years after reclaiming his heritage as Lord Greystoke, John  Clayton III (Alexander Skarsgard) is approached by the Prime Minister (Jim Broadbent) to return to Africa at the behest of  King Leopold II of Belgium who wants to parade the good works he’s carried out since colonising the Congo. Except, since Leo’s  up to his eyeballs in debt and the PM reckons this would be  a good opportunity for the Brits to step in and take over.

Clayton refuses, but is persuaded to change his mind by George Washington Williams (Samuel L Jackson) who, a Civil War veteran,  wants to travel gather evidence on  Belgium’s use of slavery. Naturally, a determinedly feisty Jane (Margot Robbie) insists on accompanying her husband.

The invite, however, is all a ruse by Leopold’s envoy, Leon Rom (Christoph Waltz doing his familiar suave sociopath) who has  struck  deal with a tribal chief (Djimon Hounsou) to deliver up Tarzan (who killed his son) in exchange for the fabled Opar diamonds, which Leopold intends to use to pay for an army of mercenaries to enslave the whole Congo.

Unfortunately, the film never gets off the starting block in delivering any real thrills or action, and things swiftly devolve into a lengthy plod as Tarzan and Williams cross the jungle to rescue Jane, who’s been taken prisoner by Rom, briefly punctuated by Tarzan’s rumble with his former gorilla brother. Skarsgard presents an impressive physical figure, but lacks any screen charisma and has more chemistry with his gorilla mother than with Robbie. Another problem is that, while the landscape looks terrific, the CG effects involving  animals are decidedly less persuasive, although the stampede of buffalos through the port is an effective touch. When he first appeared, Tarzan was the king of the swingers, but these days he’s withered on the vines. (Vue  Star City)

 

Lights Out (15)

lights-outProduced by James Wan, but directed by first timer David Sandberg, this is based on his short film of the same name in which a woman switches a light on and off, and every time it is a off a female figure is framed in a doorway, the film ending in a scream. It remains the most effective thing here, this time taking place in a textile factory and culminating in the death of the owner, Paul. He’s father to young son Martin (Gabriel Bateman) who’s concerned that his mentally-ill mother, Sophie (Maria Bello) seems to spend a lot of time talking to an imaginary friend. That and the noises he hears a night mean he’s not sleeping, to which end the school nurse contacts his older step-sister, Rebecca (Teresa Palmer), who, recalling her own similar experiences,  takes him off to the flat above a tattoo parlour she sometime shares with arms-length boyfriend Bret (Alexander DiPersia).

So much for set up. With Martin having to return to his mom. Rebecca starts digging round and miraculously comes across cassette tape from her mother’s childhood days in a mental hospital  that, conveniently  starting from the necessary expositionary moment, reveals she had a mentally disturbed fellow patient friend named Diana who died during the course of some experimental light treatment. Could it be the same Diana mom talks to and whose long-taloned, wild-haired figure is framed in the  bedroom doorway back home and attacks both her and Martin! So they and Bret decide to stage an intervention with bipolar Sophie.

All of which makes for some predictable but clunky  jolt moments and various characters’ (including two cops) obligatory stupid decisions as everyone contrives to find different (and, it must be said, sometimes ingenious) ways to keep the place lit up. Which is fine as far as it goes. Unfortunately, it doesn’t go that far. The screenplay feels half-formed and has some woefully bad dialogue while the whole subject of mental illness is never used for anything more than a plot device. And, despite  his grisly death at the start, there’s barely any subsequent mention of Paul and it remains vague as to what happened to his predecessor. As the original short suggested, there was real scare potential in the concept. A pity so little of it made its way into full length version.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Redditch,  Star City)

 

Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates (15)

m&dIn 2013, Mike and Dave Stangle were told they had to take dates to their cousin’s wedding to stop them hitting on all the girls there. So, they posted a personal ad on Craigslist, which then went viral, bringing them masses of replies and instant media celebrity.  That’s now been turned into a raunchily crude comedy with Adam Devine and Zac Efron as the respective screw-up brothers. Here, though, it’s  younger sister Jeanie’s  (Sugar Lyn Beard) Hawaii wedding to nice but boring Eric (Sam Richardson) to which their parents (Stephen Root and Stephanie Faracy) demand the boys take dates on the grounds that every other family gathering they’ve attended has (as seen in the home videos) ended in a drunken disaster.

A  series of amusing interviews with opportunist candidates yield no one suitable; however, having seen the guys on TV, party girl Tatiana (Aubrey Plaza) resolves to land the all expenses paid trip for her and best friend Alice (Anna Kendrick), who’s just been jilted at her own wedding, by posing as nice girls.

A staged accident lands them the job, so posing as a teacher and hedge fund manager, it’s off to Hawaii where Mike and Dave do their best to avoid trouble and Tatiana does her best to seek it out. While she  acts the seductive tease with an increasingly frustrated Mike, Alice and Dave begin to form a real connection.

Inevitably, things do not go as smoothly for a variety of reasons, not least Alice’s gift of a hilarious erotic massage for Jeanie and an ecstasy wedding nerves pick me-up, and Tatiana’s sauna room involvement with the brothers’ cool bisexual cousin Terry (Alice Wetterlund). That  an unfortunate incident involving an encounter between a quad bike tyre and Jeanie’s face. All of which naturally entails a constant stream of  crude genitalia gags.

Initially, both Mike and Dave and Tatiana and Alice come across as self-centred, but, as the film progresses,  insecurities are revealed and the inevitable personal growth takes place, they do become far more endearing, though not, necessarily, less annoying.

Although ostensibly another arrested adolescence bro comedy, while  the manic Devine and straight man Efron are  very good, it’s arguably girls behaving badly Plaza and Kendrick who score the most comedic points. Not for the easily offended, obviously, but often very, very funny.  (Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza; Vue  Star City)

 

Nerve (15) 

nerve 4A cautionary satire on the dangers of social media peer pressure and cyberspace obsession, driven by an terrific performance from Emma Roberts, this is arguably the best sci-fi thriller since Ex Machina. Directed by Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, who made the Facebook-fuelled documentary Catfish, with  a neon glow lighting design that contrasts with the narrative’s dark heart, the premise revolves around an online game in which those involved are either Watchers or Players. Players receive dares to complete, for which they’re rewarded by payments to their bank account, while the Watchers watch  on their mobile phones and computers and  are encouraged to come up with dares.

A risk-averse high school senior who lives with her nurse mom (Juliette Lewis) and whose elder brother died shortly after graduation, Vee (Roberts) is goaded by wild child friend and Nerve star Syd (Emily Meade) into becoming a  player, much to the disapproval of Tommy (Miles Heizer), the obligatory loyal friend with a secret crush. Her first dare is to kiss a stranger, who  Vee elects to be the guy in the diner who just happens to be reading her favourite book, To The Lighthouse. Naturally, this also turns out to be no accident. Motorbike-riding Ian (Dave Franco) is also a player and the book is down to the fact that, once you join Nerve, all your online information is hacked into the system.

And so, Ian and Vee embark on a series of escalating dares that range from trying on expensive clothes to riding the motorbike  at 60mph blindfolded. As Vee soars to the top of the ranking, prompting friction with Syd. another player (who has history with Ian) also enters the equation; things get dangerously out of control, leading Vee to talk to a cop. Which, in Nerve, is a no no as “snitches get stitches”, leading to the final life or death mob mentality gladiatorial climax while Tommy races against the clock to try and shut the game down.

Eat times echoing The Hunger Games, it’s a cautionary critique of the digital age where people use fake online ids and a vicarious cyberspace existence numbs their actual humanity, served up as a pulse-pounding, visually striking thriller that keeps you hooked even when you know you’re being played.  (Cineworld NEC;  Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza; Showcase Walsall; Vue Redditch,  Star City)

 

Nine Lives (PG)

9 livesA self-absorbed, ego-driven billionaire, Tom Brand (Kevin Spacey), CEO of Firebrand,  is obsessed with building the biggest building in New York. Unfortunately, it turns out a rival in Chicago may be 60 foot taller, something his top executive (Mark Conseulos) failed to be aware of.  With the opening just a few days away, Brand is so consumed with the building that he’s totally forgotten daughter Rebecca’s (Malina Weissman) upcoming 11th birthday. But that should be no surprise, career-driven Brand’s single-minded obsession with being the best and wealthiest, means he’s always putting family second. It’s already seen him divorced from one wife, Martini-swigging Madison (Cheryl Hines), and he could be well on the way  to a second, from Lara (Jennifer Garner). Nor does he have much time for  David (Robbie Amell), the  son from his first marriage, who works for him, but who he regards as ineffectual and weak.

In trying to come up with a suitable gift for Rebecca, he’s eventually persuaded to get  her what she actually wants, a cat, despite the fact that he personally hates them. To which end, he fetches up at Purrkins, a back alley pet shop run by Felix Perkins (Christopher Walken) who instinctively judges Brand to be in  need of a moral awakening.  However, taking a  detour to meet with Ian en route to Rebecca’s party, Brand ends up falling from his building’s roof, crashing through a window and landing in a  coma. His consciousness, however, winds up inside the cat and,  while his body lies in hospital, Mr Fuzzypants is taken in by his wife and daughter.

Brand’s  best attempts to let his family know he’s trapped in the cat come to nothing and, visited by Purrkins, he’s told he will stay there until he understands why it happened – but that time is running out. Meanwhile, despite David’s efforts to stop him, Ian’s pressing ahead with his plan to sell off the company.

Directed by Barry Sonnenfeld, it’s received almost unanimously scathing reviews. And yes, it’s no masterpiece. Spacey is fine in human form as the supercilious Brand, but his  work as the cat’s inner voice sounds phoned in. The parenting message about discovering what matters in life is family is nothing new and,  while clearly aimed at kids, the whole storyline about corporate backstabbing won’t mean a thing to them.

However, that said, Walken  is a sly treat  and the Fuzzypants footage (clearly inspired by YouTube cat videos), which includes the cat pouring itself a bowl of Scotch,  is frequently very funny  and never less than entertaining. And, who hasn’t wanted to use his ex-wife’s expensive handbag as a litter tray! (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park; Odeon Broadway Plaza; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Redditch,  Star City)

Now You See Me 2 (12A) Playing on the public’s fascination for the art of illusion, the original film was one of 2013’s biggest hits of, so a sequel was inevitable. Unfortunately, it falls into trap of many such follow-ups in looking to serve up the same ingredients, but on a bigger scale. However, where the first film hooked viewers with its sleight of hand, this time round audiences already know to look beyond what they see, which rather takes some of the fun out of things.  On top of which the film reworks some of the original set-ups and character back stories in a way that feels like cheating, not to mention  not making any actual sense.

Set  a year after their exposure of  corrupt businessman Arthur Tressler (Michael Caine), the Horseman have gone to ground and, after initiating them into the secret magic circle of The Eye, Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo) has gone back to his FBI day-job where he spends his time trying to keep the agency off their trail. With Isla Fisher dropping out, her place on the team is taken by Lizzy Caplan as Lula, a cocky illusionist recruited by Rhodes to join Atlas (Jesse Eisenberg), McKinney (Woody Harrelson) and Wilder (Dave Franco) for a comeback sting to expose a high tech company’s CEO’s plans  to launch a product that that can access any laptop or mainframe on the planet.

Except they’ve been set up, a debacle that leads to them jumping down a construction tube in New York and emerging in Macao where they’re taken to meet wealthy presumed dead inventor Walter Mabry (Daniel Radcliffe) who tells them his former-partner’s privacy-breaching chip was actually his creation and he wants them to steal it back. They also meet up with a Chinese mother and son who run the world’s most famous magic store and discover that McKinney has an crazy evil twin, Chase (a hugely pointless and irritating addition), who’s working with Mabry. And, just to tie things together, the plot also contrives to reintroduce Tessler and Thaddeus Bradley (Morgan Freeman), the magic debunker last seen behind bars as part of Rhodes’ revenge for the death of his father  when (as revisited again in flashback here) a trick went wrong. Again, nothing is what it seems.

Director Jon Chu races the endless misdirection along entertainingly enough, but the banter and dynamic between the Horsemen feels forced and the whole concept of The Eye (which makes the film a sort of magicians’ version of Charlie’s Angels) is extremely contrived, as is the love interest between Caplan and Franco that seems to have been thrown in as an afterthought. Admittedly, the illusions are well executed, as are the subsequent reveals, though the big one, while offering a pleasing grin, defies practical logic in its preposterousness.  A second sequel has already been announced, but audiences might like to recalls the phrase, fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me.  (Vue  Star City)

 

Pete’s Dragon (PG)

A re-imagining of Disney's cherished family film, PETE'S DRAGON is the story of Pete and his best friend Elliot, who just happens to be a dragon.

The original 1977 version of the latest Disney remake was a strange mix of live action, animation and songs involving a young orphan who hooks up with a magical green and pink dragon, whom he names Elliot and whose unseen antics get the boy labelled as a source of bad luck by the local fishing village folk. The plot also involved a shortage of fish, a medicine show charlatan and a lighthouse.

Mercifully very little of this has made its way into the new 80s-set version, wherein four-year-old Pete (winningly played by Oakes Fegley) is orphaned in a car crash o and winds up spending the next six years living in the forest (touches of The Jungle Book) with his invisibility-powered green friend and protector dragon, whom he names Elliot after the dog in his storybook.

One day, spotting  forest ranger Grace Meacham (Bryce Dallas Howard) exploring near their cave, he steals her compass and, curious, sneaks down to the lumber company camp run by her fiancé, Jack (Wes Bentley), and his brother, Gavin (Karl Urban), for a closer look. Spotted by Jack’s young daughter, Natalie (Oona Laurence), he’s taken into town to be looked after. Naturally, Elliot, unaware of what’s happened to his young chum, comes looking. Meanwhile, ignoring his brother’s orders to ease up on the logging, Gavin also stumbles across Elliot and determines to capture him as a sideshow attraction.

Eventually realising that her grizzled wood-carver father’s (Robert Redford) tall tales of having seen the so-called Millhaven dragon when he was young aren’t that tall after all, Grace, her dad, Pete and Natalie also set off to find Elliot.

Unfolding at a gentle pace, well-acted, delivering a nicely understated, but deeply emotional message about friendship, home and family and sensitively directed by David Lowery, this is an  old-fashionedly wholesome  delight that successfully balances state of the art CGI with real character depth. It should, however, be said that the crash which leaves Pete orphaned and his subsequent encounter with wolves are genuinely dark and scary and likely to upset very young children.

However, from the moment the dragon appears, despite the tense action sequences later in the film, the tone is far warmer, his dog-like features and personality, not to mention the flying sequences, bringing to mind The Never-Ending Story, just as the bond between Pete and Elliot recalls How To Train Your Dragon. The original film may have been one of Disney’s less successful outings, but this is up there among its very best.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Redditch,  Star City)

 

The Secret Life of Pets (U) The latest from the team behind Despicable Me suggests that, when you leave the house in the morning, your pets aren’t just curled up in their baskets waiting for you to come home. When his owner brings home  Duke (Eric Stonestreet), a scruffy mongrel with abandonment issues, her terrier, Max (Louie CK), finds his life isn’t as cushy as it used to be. However, in his attempt rid himself this rival, following a run-in with a bunch of collar-stealing alley cats, the pair end up captured by New York’s Animal Control, prompting a rescue mission across Manhattan from their four-legged friends, among them sardonic fat cat Chloe (Lake Bell) and headed up by  Gidget (Jenny Slate), a feisty Pomeranian with a big crush on Max and some hidden kung fu skills, who enlists the help of red-tailed hawk Tiberius (Albert Brooks) and Pops (Dana Carvey), a half-paralysed old Basset Hound bloodhound fitted with a set of wheels.

Meanwhile, Max and Duke have to learn to work together when they’re first forced to join up with and then find themselves on the run from Snowball (Kevin Hart), a crazy former magician’s white bunny who’s assembled an army of abandoned pets, the Flushed Pets, who live in the sewers and have vowed revenge on all domesticated pets and their owners.

Essentially, it’s an animal version of Toy Story with Max as Woody and Duke as Buzz Lightyear, the interloper competing for their owner’s affections, but it doesn’t have the same emotional depth, nor is it as clever as Disney’s recent  Zootopia. There’s also too many peripheral characters to give them all the time they warrant and, after an often hilarious start, the plot gradually descends into a series of action movie chases.

However, impressively animated and taken at a nifty pace, it’s never less than fun and serves up an inevitable message about friendship and family. Just keep the kids away from the pet shop on the way home. (Cineworld NE;  Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Showcase Walsall; Vue Redditch,  Star City)

The Shallows (15) 

shallows3It’s been 13 years since the last decent shark movie (Open Water), but finally, Spanish director Jaume Collet-Serra has come up with another good reason not to go into the water. Dispensing with subplots and  supporting characters (unless you count a seagull with an injured wing), this strips everything down to basics with just Blake Lively as Texan Nancy Adams, a med student who’s thinking of dropping out following her mother’s death from cancer and has come to surf the same secret Mexican beach mom went to when she was pregnant, both in honour of her mother and to try and make sense of the loss. Given a lift to the beach by one of the local, when she arrives, there’s a couple of local guys already surfing, but, as a young boy watching footage on a helmet camera in the preamble shows, they’re not going to be around long.

Everything’s perfect  until her board is rammed by a shark, which also leaves her leg with a gaping wound. Managing to make it to, first a dead whale and then a jagged reef,  she fails to attract the guys’ attention and, resigned to having to spend the night there, improvises some self-surgery on the wound. Hope is briefly raised the next day, only to be quickly dashed, and, when the Mexican brothers meet their grisly end, she’s again left alone with the wounded gull. The tide is rising, meaning the rock will soon be submerged, and the great white’s circling, but Nancy’s determined that she’s not going to die here. If only she can make it to the bobbing metal buoy just a few yards away.

That’s all there is to the plot, but, although the tacked on sentimental coda is a decided anti-climax,  Collet-Serra wrings every ounce of tension from his survivalist thriller, delivering any number of shark-eye shots of Lively’s board and legs and a false shock before the man-eater swims into the picture and it becomes a duel to the death.

Lively gives a terrific physical and emotional performance as the resolute Nancy  and, despite some iffy effects shots of the shark, the final showdown is a real crowd rouser. If you want to go deep, you can see the whole thing as a metaphor to find a reason to go on living with the seagull as her guardian angel mother, but far better to just enjoy it for the quality B-movie pulp that it is. (Cineworld Solihull;  Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza; Showcase Walsall; Vue  Star City)

Star Trek Beyond (12A) The third in the rebooted franchise sees Fast and Furious director Justin Lin behind the camera with Simon Pegg, who also plays Scotty, stepping up to share screenplay duties.  As such, once it gets going, you know it’s going to go full throttle, serving up some of the most visually spectacular set pieces in the series. The problem is that the plot and the action are sometimes unclear and  hard to follow.

The crux is that  Krall (Idris Elba), the  lizard-faced alien who brings down the USS Enterprise, is after some ancient artefact  so he can destroy the Federation, although quite how the thing works is never really specified and, even when his motivation is finally revealed in the last real, it’s still somewhat vague. However, , rather like the dynamic involving Kirk (Chris Pine) and his crew, it’s not dissimilar to that of Khan in Into Darkness, albeit with a different personal twist. And, of course, the whole thing about a multicultural team working together for each other as a family is something with which Lin is very familiar.

While the Enterprise crew are on downtime during their ongoing five year mission, with Kirk reflecting on his upcoming birthday and Spock (Zachary Quinto) contemplating a return to New Vulcan, a female alien arrives at Yorktown, a mammoth orbiting Federation outpost, telling how her crew have been stranded on a rocky planet. Only the Enterprise has the capacity to rescue them, but travelling through the unstable nebula will put them out of communication with HQ.  Naturally, the whole thing’ a trap, Krall using a swarm of bee -ike mechanical drones and  pretty much tearing the Enterprise apart, forcing the surviving crew to abandon ship as it crash-lands on the planet.

Initially separated,  Scotty (who, whaddya know, gets a lot more screen time) encounters Jaylah (Sofia Boutella), a warrior with kabuki-like black face markings who tells him she escaped from Krall’s prison compound (where he drains the life force of captives to keep him alive) and  turns out to be living in an early model Starfleet ship that went missing decades earlier.

Meanwhile, elsewhere Bones (Karl Urban)  is tending to a wounded Spock and keeping their friendly bickering going, while, having discovered the deception,  Kirk and Chekhov (the late Anton Yelchin) are intent on keeping Krall from getting his hands on the artefact and finding the rest of the crew, who, Uhura (Zoe Saldana), whose romance with Spock has broken up, and Sulu (John Cho) among them, are being held prisoner.

Suffice to say, those still free eventually get back together and set out to rescue the others, although, too late to stop Krall and his drones taking  off to attack Yorktown, thereby setting up the final showdown that makes effective use of  Jaylah’s inherited “loud and distracting” music library.

All of this is solidly told, but never quite gets into fifth gear excitement. On the other hand, it does echo  the spirit of the original TV series with the character relationships, banter and general philosophy. The performances are, as you would expect, accomplished, the cast fully settled into their characters, Quinto especially good as Spock (the film also has a nod to the passing of Leonard Nimoy, as well as a nostalgic photographic tip of the hat to the original cast).

Ultimately, it doesn’t hit push any frontiers or boldly go anywhere the franchise hasn’t already been, but it does deliver  solid  interstellar fun. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC;  Odeon Broadway Plaza; Showcase Walsall; Vue Redditch,  Star City)

 

Suicide Squad (15)

SS-08502rv2Despite overwhelmingly bad reviews, this has so far notched up some $465 million and, while undeniably flawed, it’s nowhere near the unwatchable disaster critics claim.In a nutshell, following the death of Superman, single-minded secret-service hawk Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) plans to recruit a squad of super-villains, most of them currently in a top security prison courtesy of Batman (Ben Affleck), as a disposable asset to combat any possible future  meta-human threat. When one of them goes rogue, the others, led by their military handler, are sent in to evacuate a top asset from Midway City, which is  under attack by a two super-powered supernatural entities planning to destroy humankind.

All of this requires a lengthy set-up, opening with Waller running down her proposed Task Force for the benefit of her fellow suits. And so, those not familiar with the minor bad guys in the DC universe get lengthy individual bios and flashbacks about: deadly assassin but caring father Deadshot (Will Smith); punk Harley Quinn (Robbie), a  former Arkham Asylum psychiatrist who fell for the Joker (Jared Leto) and lost her mind after being electroshocked; Australian bank robber Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney); reluctant firestarter Diablo (Jay Hernandez);  the reptilian Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje); and Enchantress (Carla Delevingne), a witch from another dimension who inhabits the body of  archaeologist Dr. June Moone, who happens to be  the girlfriend of Navy SEAL Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman) who has the job of keeping them all in line, and detonating the explosive in the neck if they step out of it.  For the mission, they’re also joined by rope  artist Slipknot (Adam Beach) and deadly Samurai warrior Katana (Karen Fukuhara), one of the good guys whose sword holds the soul of her dead husband. As you might imagine keeping tabs on everyone is often unwieldy (spoiler –the cast will be smaller in the sequel), especially whenever  it takes time out to add extra backstory to give them a sympathetic side.

Anyways, having  cut loose from Flag and resurrected her brother, the Enchantress is setting  about building an army of transformed humans  and some sort of machine that will end the world (like all such gizmos, this involves a lot of lightning and things swirling round in the sky). Meanwhile, the Joker is determined to get his girl back.

Although it sometimes stumbles, director David Ayer  manages to just about hold things together and the set pieces and battles are undeniably well handled and thrill-packed. Inevitably, some characters fare better than others, Smith gets plenty of smart lines and Robbie is clearly the main male-fantasy visual attraction as well as the most vibrant presence. Diabolo’s internal conflict makes him interesting, but the  other squad members don’t really register, a badly-served Delevingne especially coming off  a blank.  On the other hand, it’s arguably Wills who gives the most chilling performance as the ‘whatever is necessary for national security’ Waller.

Despite the advance hype, while the laugh may be effective, Leto’s Joker is something of a let down, having none of the sly Nicholson charm or Ledger’s inspired lunacy, although at one point he does seem to be channelling Marlon Brando’s Godfather.

The film wants to be dark, but ends up  not quite  having the courage of its convictions, to the extent of delivering messages about the value of family that wouldn’t be out of place in a Disney movie. Whatever fun this may have to offer,  that surely  can’t be what anyone expected.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Redditch,  Star City)

 

Swallows and Amazons (PG)          

swallows 2Published in 1930, Arthur Ransome’s  novel is a relic of a bygone era, when childhood thrills were  to be found in playing pirates and camping out and children’s stories espoused good old fashioned wholesomeness with plucky fresh-faced boys and girls overcoming adults who were frequently up to no good.  This new adaptation, the first feature by Phillipa Lowthorpe, the director of the BBC’s Cider With Rosie, makes no attempt to modernise things, and often has the feel of one of those old Children’s Film Foundation outings, but does expand on the book by drawing on Ransome’s own background to make the character of Jim Turner (Rafe Spall) a travel writer who doubles as a spy and  is being pursued by a  couple of Russian agents looking to retrieve the military secrets  he stole.

This expands on the book’s original adventure that sees the four Walker children, Susan (Orla Hill), somewhat petulant John (Dane Hughes)  and youngsters Roger (Bobby McCulloch) and Tatty (Teddie-Rose Malleson-Allen), taken to the Lake District for the summer holiday by mom (Kelly Macdonald) while dad’s away with the Royal Navy, sailing out in Swallow, the dinghy owned by the couple (Harry Enfield, Jessica Hynes) with whom they’re staying, and laying claim to an island in the middle of Coniston Water. However, having set up their tents, they discover the island is also claimed by two other children, Nancy (a star turn by Seren Hawkes) and Peggy (Hannah Jayne Thorp) Brackett, whose boat is named Amazon and whose  tetchy uncle is  Turner, whom the Walker kids encountered on the train down and who lives on a houseboat.

The rivalry over ownership of the island and the abduction of Turner come together to provide the film’s narrative, an old fashioned melodrama that has to do with themes of courage, friendship and being jolly good sorts. Filmed in a straightforward manner with some lovely landscape shots, terrific period design and solid performances by the five young leads, this may not very zeitgeist, but it’s as cosily entertaining and  British as tea and buttered toast on a Sunday afternoon.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Redditch,  Star City)

Wiener-Dog (15)

wienerWriter-director Todd Solentz’s first film since 2010’s Dark Horse finds him revisiting the central character from his debut feature, 1995’s Welcome To The Dollhouse. It is not, however, a sequel. Here, Greta Gerwig plays an older version of  Dawn Wiener in one of four short stories, all of them linked by the titular canine (better known in the UK as a sausage dog, or, more accurately, Dachshund), although only the first two have a continuity connection.

In the first episode, we’re introduced to the dog when its rescued from the pound by Danny (Tracy Letts) as a present to his nine-year-old son Remi (Keaton Nigel Cooke) who’s recovering from an unspecified illness, much to the displeasure of his wife (Julie Delpy). Her worst fears are confirmed when Remi accidentally gives the dog acute diarrhoea (cue a lovingly slow motion sequence following a trail of shit puddles set to Debussy’s Clare de Lune), leading his dad to take it to vets to be put down. Here, it’s again rescued, this time by the nurse, a still gawkily awkward Dawn, who, appropriately names it doo-doo, and takes it with her when she bumps into Brandon (Kieran Culkin), the old classmate who used to bully her, and he invites her on a road trip with him, visiting his brother and sister-in-law, both of whom are Down’s Syndrome.

There follows a spoof animated intermission featuring the dog in The Ballad of Wiener-Dog before the narratively unconnected third story in which the animal now belongs to Dave Schmerz (a terrific Danny DeVito), a once successful screenwriter who’s now a  discontented  film school professor who can’t get his agent to read his new script and whose indifferent students think he’s a negative relic. Faced with a life of failure and compromise, Dave takes drastic measures. And so to the final, again unconnected, episode, this time the dog (named Cancer) owned by an embittered grandmother (Ellen Burstyn) who’s visited by her druggie granddaughter (Zosia Mamet) looking for a handout to bankroll her pretentious animatronics artist boyfriend, Fantasy (Michael Shaw). As (suggested) in the preceding story, the dog’s fate is not so sunny. It does though inspire the centrepiece of Fantasy’s exhibition, bookending the film with it again in a form of cage.

As anyone familiar with Solentz’s work will know, while there may be humour the tone is generally mordant and this is no different with its musings on death, loneliness, resignation to fate, an indifferent universe, Hollywood, art, the insubstantial nature of existence and even, in Delpy’s story of a rapist dog, Islamophobia, all concluding in possibly the bleakest sequence of any of his films. Of the four, only one story has anything like a happy ending. For Solontz, that’s a major triumph. (Until Wed: MAC)

 

 

CINEMAS

Cineworld 5 Ways – 181 Broad St, 0871 200 2000

Cineworld NEC – NEC  0871 200 2000

Cineworld Solihull – Mill Ln, Solihull 0871 200 2000

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

Empire – Great Park, Rubery, 0871 471 4714

Empire Sutton Coldfield – Maney Corner, Sutton Coldfield

0871 471 4714

The Everyman – The Mailbox 0871 906 9060

MAC – Cannon Hill Park

Odeon Birmingham -Birmingham, 0871 224 4007

Odeon Broadway Plaza – Ladywood Middleway, 0333 006 7777

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

Reel – Hagley Rd, Quinton Halesowen 0121 421 5316

Showcase Walsall – Bentley Mill Way, Walsall 0871 220 1000

Vue Redditch – Kingfisher Centre, Redditch 08712 240 240

Vue Star City – Watson Road, 08712 240 240

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