MOVIE ROUND-UP:This Week’s New Film Releases, Fri Feb 1-Thu Feb 7

NEW RELEASES

Green Book (12A)

An inspirational road movie about redemptive friendship, this 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 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, it 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 multi-nominated film any less enjoyable.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Can You Ever Forgive Me (15)

Back in 1991, 51-year-old Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy) was a former celebrated journalist turned down on her luck New York biographer, unable to get her book about 30s stage and screen star Fanny Brice (as portrayed by Barbra Streisand in Funny Girl) off the ground and with an agent (Jane Curtin) who never returned her phone calls. She’s confronted with her faded star when, trying to sell some books to pay the rent and the vet bill for her sick cat, the store owner humiliatingly points out the huge mark-down on her latest work.

However, while researching Brice at the library she comes across some letters concealed inside one of the books and, discovering that there’s money to be made from signed letters, typed or handwritten, by dead celebrities, she hits upon the idea of forging them and passing them off as artefacts found among her cousin’s possessions. Some 400 to be exact, purportedly from the likes of Dorothy Parker, Marlene Dietrich and Noel Coward, perfectly capturing the tone and style of her subjects, enlisting gadfly Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant) and fellow gay alcoholic as her partner-in-crime, their  gullible book dealer dupes including a store owner and would be writer (Dolly Wells) who, for a moment, offers the potential for companionship (a  late brief appearance by Israel’s former lover adds resonance) and opportunist blackmailer  (Ben Falcone) upon whom they turn the tables. Meanwhile, the FBI are showing an interest.

Directed by Marielle Heller and scripted by  Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty from Israel’s best-selling memoir, it’s slow to unfold and suffused in a bitter-sweet melancholic ambience as it touches on themes of loneliness, self-loathing, failure and isolation as well as the contemporary desire for celebrity contact by association, while also being frequently wickedly funny.

Playing dowdy, combative, self-destructive and often unlikeable, McCarthy delivers an outstanding and deservedly Oscar nominated performance that eclipses her past comedic work and banishes memory of the atrocity that was  The Happytime Murders as she struggles to keep her world together and is superbly matched  and at time outshone – by the equally dominated Grant, clearly channelling large elements of his Withnail character into Hock. It’s slow in places, but there’s more than enough emotional rewards to carry it through such patches to the end credit titles that add even more to Israel’s story.(Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park; Everyman)

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.(Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; 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 late 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-pieces 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)

 

NOW SHOWING

Aquaman (12A)

H2O dear. Always something of a comic book minnow whose powers largely consisted of being able to talk to fish, introduced in last year’s Justice League movie, Aquaman (pronounced here Arqwaman) gets his own solo outing at the hands of director James Wan. At almost two and a half hours, it’s as bloated as things often get when they spend too much time underwater, only really taking off in the final stretch, and, even then, the action is dizzyingly hard to follow, while the dialogue often feels chiselled rather than typed.

On the plus side, unlike the recent spate of DC adaptations, Wan and his writers haven’t taken it too seriously, allowing for a lighter, often humorous (spot that Stingray clip), tone , one that Jason Momoa makes the most of as Arthur Curry. First seen rescuing a Russian submarine that’s been pirated, half Hawaiian/half Atlantean, he’s the heavily tattooed son of Massachusetts lighthouse keeper Tom (Temuera Morrison) and Atlanna (Nicole Kidman), the Queen of Atlantis (which sank beneath the sea centuries earlier under the weight of bad special effects) who washed up on the rocks, wounded after fleeing an arranged marriage. They fell in love and she gave birth to Arthur (an early signposting of the sword, or rather trident, in the stone reference that pops up later), only to have their idyll shattered when, somewhat belatedly, her intended husband’s stormtroopers burst in to take her home. She kills them all, but then decides to go back of her own accord anyway, leaving Tom to raise their son, who’s clearly an odd one since he chats to the fish in the sea-life centre and his eyes kind of glow greeny-yellow.

Meanwhile, Atlanna apparently gave birth to his half-brother, Orm (a bland Patrick Wilson), before being consigned to death by sea-monster and, the screenplay taking a  leaf out of Thor’s book, he’s all a bit Loki  and wants to unite all the underwater kingdoms and, with the help of the revenge-seeking pirate from the prologue (who subsequently tools up as Black Manta), proclaim himself Ocean Master so he can wage war on the surface world  (cue a soon forgotten eco-theme about polluting he oceans). The only way to stop him is if Arthur takes up his Atlantean heritage and his claim to the throne, something red-haired, emerald-clad Mera (an uncommitted Amber Heard), the daughter of King Nereus (an unrecognisable Dolph Lundgren) has come to persuade him to do(making nonsense of the timeline, given he met her in the Justice League movie); except Arthur, who’s pissed Atlantis banished mom (the closest to angst he gets),  would rather hang out for happy hour  in the bar where guys who call him “that fish boy from the TV” want to pose for selfies.

Since that wouldn’t make much of a plot, he’s duly persuaded to do the right thing and, having been secretly trained in trident combat as a boy by Vulko (Willem Dafoe), Orm’s vizier, brother meets brother in a Black Panther battle for the throne ritual combat, before Arthur has to take off with Mera in search of the mythical Lost Trident of Atlan (apparently hidden in the Sahara) to prove himself the true king and ride into the big underwater battle everyone’s come to see on, on a giant seahorse.

Unfortunately, for all Momoa’s engaging charisma and impressive pecs, getting there is a laborious and often repetitive slog where the only depth is in the ocean and in which you feel you’re constantly swimming against the current. It’s doing massive business, but, all at sea, ultimately, it’s not waving, it’s drowning.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC;  Empire Great Park; Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Beautiful Boy (15)

Based on the twin, complementary memoirs of author David Sheff (Steve Carell) and his meth-addicted son Nic (Timothee Chalamet), directed  by Felix Van Groeningen this true-life drug addiction drama charts the struggle by the former to help the latter overcome is habit.

It opens with Sheff Sr interviewing a doctor (Timothy Hutton) for a proposed article on  drug addiction that quickly is made apparent to be have a more personal angle, asking how he can help, and flashes back and forth to show how Nic’s addiction was first discovered, his attempt to go clean, the failed rehab, a doomed romantic relationship (Kaitlyn Dever) on San Francisco’s seedy side, David’s journalistic investigations into addiction and the several acrimonious blame-apportioning confrontations between father and son before the ever-patient and supportive David, driven to the brink one time too many, adopted his eventual chosen path.

A bright, intelligent teen, Nic experiments with crystal methamphetamine and gets hooked. College goes out of the window and he’s enlisted in 26-week in a detox programme, moves to a halfway house, and then disappears. Somewhat unhelpfully, a counsellor tells David that relapse is part of the recovery.

There’s no real attempt to explore what led Nic into addiction, although a troubled childhood that’s aw his parents divorcing is unlikely to have helped. David now lives with second wife Karen (Maura Tierney) in Marin County and has a younger daughter. He has frequent phone conversations with his ex, Vicki (Amy Ryan), which inevitably quickly descend into bitter accusations and counter-accusations of blame. Perhaps that residue of toxicity led Nic to seek some sort of escape, the film never offers an opinion.

Both parents try to help their son, who swings between reaching out and self-destruction, lashing out by blaming his often overbearing father for trying to control him. It should be an emotional roller-coaster, but, despite the top notch Oscar-bait lead performances, frequently shot in close-up, Carrell all confused concern,  Chalamet channelling self-loathing in introspective funks and angry flare-ups, it somehow never engages, leaving the audience distanced spectators rather than involved in the drama, Nic often proving very hard to sympathise with.

Tierney and Ryan are both underused and the rest of the supporting cast tend to just hover around the narrative edges. Despite the non-linear narrative, it’s all very one-note and straightforward, emotional cues driven by the soundtrack, which at one point includes  Perry Como’s version of Sunrise, Sunset. Although it moves to an upbeat, real-life conclusion, with Nic sober and a successful writer, it’s frequently tedious and repetitive, never quite sure about exactly whose journey the film is charting. By far the best moment comes with the end credits recitation of a Charles Bukowski poem by Chalamet that says more about the film’s themes and issues than  Van Groeningen does in the preceding 100 or so minutes. (Cineworld Solihull; Electric; MAC)

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 nominee 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, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Bumblebee (PG)

Having started off badly and become progressively more bombastic and incoherent, the prospect of another in the series so soon after the atrocious The Last Knight featuring a career low from Anthony Hopkins, was enough to make even the most devoted fan’s heart sink. So, in a month that’s had two spectacle movie car crashes, what a surprise to say that this sees the year out on a high. Veteran director Michael ‘if in doubt blow it up’  Baye has relinquished the reins to Travis Knight, making his live action debut after the fabulous award-winning animation Kobo and the Two Strings, who, partnered with the franchise’s first female screenwriter, Christina Hodson, and gifted a soulful performance from Hailee Stanfield, serves up a film that has thrilling effects-driven action but also a heart and character depth.

Set in 1987, when the demand for the Tranformers toys was at fever pitch, it’s an origin story revealing how, the Autobots having had to abandon Cybertron, defeated by the Decepticons in the civil war, young scout B-127 is sent to Earth by Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen again channelling Liam Neeson) to set up a refuge base, detailing how he lost and regained his ability to speak (voiced by Dylan O’Brien), how he came to be called Bumblebee and how, before his familiar Camaro mode, he was a battered yellow VW Beetle.

All of which comes about through his bonding with California amateur mechanic Charlie Watson (Steinfield), who, just turned 18, is still mourning the death of her father (and still working on the car they were fixing), has given up (for no explained reason) her trophy winning high diving  and doesn’t feel she now fits with the family alongside mom Sally (Pamela Adlon), younger brother Otis (Jason Drucker) and stepdad Ron (Stephen Schneider). Finding the VW in a junkyard, she takes it home to fix and discovers there’s more under the bonnet than meets the eye.

Essentially, it’s a cocktail of Herbie, the Iron Giant, Big Hero 6 and ET, not to mention a nod to 80s adopt an alien sitcom ALF, with Charlie initially hiding Bee, who, his memory wiped, is a gentler, cuter,  puppyish – and far more expressive – version of his later self, in her garage. Then, joined by shy fellow fairground worker Memo (Jorge Lendeborg Jr), battling against both snarky military commander Burns (John Cena) and ruthless Decepticons Dropkick (Justin Theroux) and Shatter (Angela Bassett) who’ve duped the army into an alliance, all of whom  want to find and destroy him.

As in ET, Charlie and Bee are two souls in need, he lost on a  strange world, she having lost herself, each providing mutual support;  full credit to the direction, writing, effects and performance that the emotion is fully charged.

Pitched more at the younger fans, but wholly satisfying for older audiences, it features some awesome CGI set pieces, including  a terrific car chase that cheekily  plays with expectations, finely balanced with moments of comedy (notably a  slapstick scene as Bee accidentally trashes Charlie’s house) and teenage life, all bolstered by 80s pop culture  (The Breakfast Club freeze frame has an inspired role) and music from the likes of The Smith, Tears for Fears and Sammy Hagar as well as Steinfield’s own Back To Life. A real transformation. (Empire Great Park; Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Colette (15)

“My name is Claudine, I live in Montigny; I was born there in 1884; I shall probably not die there.” These are the opening lines to Claudine at School, which, in 1900, took France by storm and, along with three sequels, elevated its self-promoting author, Henry Gauthier-Villars aka Willy (Dominic West), from being a relatively  successful music critic and literary “entrepreneur”  to being a publishing phenomenon. Except, he didn’t write them.

Indeed, through his workshops, Willy employed a series of ghostwriters who, while never receiving recognition, were guaranteed a wide readership and decent income, would put shape to his ideas which he would then edit. The Claudine novels were, however, the work of his much younger wife Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette (Keira Knightley), the provincial daughter of an old army colleague whom he married in 1893 and whisked off to Paris with its giddy world of literary salons.

However, as director Wash Westmoreland’s film soon makes it clear, while their love for one another may have been strong,  as his new wife soon learns, Willy’s libertine nature was not so easily tamed, with a string of affairs digging into the monthly income. Accepting this as what men do, but demanding he at least be honest about it, her schoolgirl recollections (spiced up by Willy)  came at a most opportune moment for their fortunes and, Collette, as she later decides to call herself as a mark of growing independence,  also found extra-marital distractions, although hers too were of the female variety. At one point, however, she discovers that the bored, married bored Louisiana millionaire Georgie Raoul-Duval (Eleanor Tomlinson) with whom Willy has tacitly sanctioned an affair, is sleeping with him too!

Locked in a room and forced by Willy into penning sequels (often tellingly semi-autobiographical) , as Claudine’s success continues to grow, now encompassing a stage play, along with further affairs(Willy indulging sexual fantasies  with women who pretend to be Claudine),  so too does Collette’s resentment of being denied acknowledgement of her literary skills, even as a co-author,  and a growing sense of gender rebellion that begins with a  haircut and ends in wearing trousers (which could get women arrested), culminating in her love affair with transgender pioneer Mathilde de Morny, the Marquise de Belbeuf, or Missy (Denise Gough) with whom, in  a play Willy produced at the Moulin Rouge in 1907,  she shared Paris’ first  same-sex kiss on stage, causing uproar, his bankruptcy and prompted her new career as a  vaudevillian.

Whether as period pieces or of a more contemporary bent, films depicting gender inequality in the creative arts  and the fight for female empowerment aren’t exactly new, indeed Collete’s story was told to rather lesser effect by Danny Huston back in 1991 with Becoming Collette, Where this benefits is in the strength of its two leading stars, West giving one his finest performances, somehow managing to make Willy charmingly engaging even at his cruellest and most self-regarding, and, as his sexual prowess starts to flag, unexpectedly pitiful, while (despite a wincing line about her perfect teeth) Knightley, back in corsets again, is on peak form, smart, witty, sexy and strikingly charismatic.

The film ends with the 1910 publication under her own name of La Vagabonde, about women’s independence in a male society, written after her divorce and drawing on her vaudeville experiences, and, as such, focused on her twenties, this is really only part of Collette’s story, going on  to become acclaimed as France’s greatest female writer, be nominated for the 1948 Nobel Prize for Literature and have a no less colourful and scandalous private life. I’m sure Willy would have agreed that there are still stories waiting to be told. (Until Wed:MAC)

A Dog’s Way Home (PG)

A companion rather than sequel to A Dog’s Purpose, also adapted from a book by W. Bruce Cameron but with the spirit of Disney’s classic The Incredible Journey hovering in the wings, this is shamelessly manipulative and sentimental, designed to have not just dog lovers but animal buddies in general welling up every few minutes.

Bella (played by Shelby with Bryce Dallas Howard in voiceover) is a stray pup raised by ‘mother cat’ in a derelict suburban Denver building after her mother is taken to the pound and subsequently taken in and named by med school student  Lucas (Jonah Hauer-King) who, along with fellow student romantic interest  Olivia (Alexandra Shipp), also volunteers for animals in need. Bella immediately becomes Lucas’s dog and he her person, learning to play games like ‘stay’, ‘sit and ‘fetch’. Bella’s also embraced by his depressed mom Terri (Ashley Judd) and her fellow war veterans down the  local VA here she helps lift their spirits.

Rather less keen on Bella and her new family is property developer Gunter (Brian Markinson), whose plans for the site are been constantly thwarted by Lucas, who lives opposite, in his animal protection capacity. Consequently, he reports them to  Chuck (John Cassini), an obnoxious animal control officer who, declaring Bella to be a pit bull (basically any dog without a defined breed or, as Olivia puts it, racism for dogs) and, as such, dangerous and banned under city laws, threatens to  impound her if he finds her on the street. So, Bella learns a new game, ‘Go Home’. However, when, Chuck seizes his opportunity, Olivia arranges for Bella to temporarily go and live with relatives in New Mexico. Unfortunately, hearing the words ‘go home’ naturally triggers her instinctive response and she sets off to return to Lucas.

It’s a 400-mile journey that will take two and a half years and involve her in rescuing a mean dog owner (Chris Bauer) from an avalanche, learning to hunt by hanging out with a pack of foraging mutts, being  taken in by first a gay couple and then a homeless vet (Edward James Olmos),who chains her to his belt and promptly dies and, most significantly, becoming ‘mother cat’ to an orphaned  (and impressively CGI-rendered) baby cougar, who she calls Big Kitten and who becomes her road buddy.

Throwing in a last reel cameo by West Studi as the deux ex machina in another standoff with the authorities, it often stretches credibility and overeggs the syrupy pudding on its emotional rollercoaster, but set amid breathtaking  landscapes and mixing together themes of cross-species friendship with anti-hunting and environmental messages, it’s heart and soul are undeniably in the right place, that lump in the throat genuinely earned.   (Cineworld NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

The Favourite (15)

Far darker than the trailer might indicate, Oscar nominated 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 (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 is going to prove an early art house break-out success with all the awards that ensue, the only real question being whether it’s Weisz or Stone that picks up the Best Supporting Actress, the single close-up shot of Colman’s face imperceptively shifting from  a brief moment of joy to desperate loneliness pretty much guaranteeing adding BAFTA and Academy Best Actress to her Golden Globes triumph.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Electric; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

The Front Runner (15)

For a brief moment in 1988, it seemed that Democratic senator Gary Hart was a shoo-in to replace Reagan as America’s President. Then, over the course of three weeks, everything went pear-shaped as the Miami Herald ran an article implying he had been involved in an extra-marital affair, articulating long held rumours among the Washington press corps as to his infidelities,  and everything snowballed out of control as the other papers, the Washginton Post among them, were forced to become part of the tabloid journalism witch-hunt into Hart’s private life and, therefore, his moral fitness to hold office.

Based on Matt Bai’s novel All The Truth Is Out: The Week Politics Went Tabloid, who serves as co-writer alongside political consultant Jay Carson and director Jason Reitman, it inevitably juggles fact and fiction for dramatic effect, but the essence of the story holds true.

Unfortunately, opening with Hart’s earlier campaign against Walter Mondale to win the Democratic nomination, the hubbub of the newsreel footage and the busy camera work weaving in and around the campaign workers, makes it almost impossible to make out what’s going on and, while it eventually settles down, the chance to hook the audience has been squandered.

Hugh Jackman is very good as the good-looking, personable and passionately idealistic Hart whose policy focused on improving the lives of working-class Americans, but whose ‘it’s none of your business’ response to allegations that he was cheating on his wife with local model Donna Rice (Sara Paxton, not given sufficient backstory), whom he met aboard the unfortunately named yacht Monkey Business,  merely served to fan the media flames, even though public opinion believed that he was being treated unfairly.

Reitman crafts a solid film around the attempts at damage limitation by Hart team, fronted by J.K. Simmons as his beleaguered campaign manager, Bill Dixon, and the increasingly intrusive probing by the press, adopting National Enquirer  tactics,  the Miami Herald, largely embodied by  in over his head reporter Tom Fiedler (Steve Zissis), pretty much forcing the other papers into pursuing the story. In both major and minor roles, the performances throughout are strong, Vera Farmiga as Hart’s supportive rock wife (from whom he had been briefly separated) heading up a cast list that includes  Alfred Molina as the editor of the Post, Molly Ephraim as one of Hart’s team sympathetic towards the fallout experienced by Rice and her subsequent treatment by Hart, and Mamoudou Athie as fictional Post reporter A.J. Parker.

The pursuit of Hart over his private life, ultimately putting an end to his presidential ambitions, marked a turning point in terms of American politics and the media and, while earlier, the press had, for example,  turned a blind eye to the shenanigans of the Kennedys, from this point anyone running for office was seen as fair game and opened the floodgates to today’s tabloid journalism. It’s unfortunate that the performances and the subject matter are wrapped up in a film that too often falls stylistically and dramatically flat, even if it leaves you wondering how  Hart’s sexual indiscretions cost him the presidency, while, three decades later, Trump rode into the White House on a rollercoaster  of sleaze and chauvinism allegations. (Mockingbird)

Glass (15)

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 ant-climactic denouement and tagged on viral footage coda. Definitely a case of Glass being half-empty rather than half full. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Mary Poppins Returns (U)

Fifty-four years on since Julie Andrews helped a spoonful of sugar go down in the Walt Disney adaptation of PL Travers’ children’s story, director Rob Marshall dips back into the bowl for a sequel that’s sweet rather than saccharine, with a bunch of new songs, echoes of familiar notes and a  winning turn from Emily Blunt as the magical, umbrella-flying nanny  who returns 20 years on from the original to again help the Banks children. The time is now Depression era London and, recently widowed, Michael Banks (Ben Wishaw, overly wimpish), a teller at the same bank where his father worked, is in a financial pickle and faces losing the family home in Cherry Tree Lane to Wilkins (Colin Firth), the two-faced bank Chairman, unless he can repay his loan before the midnight deadline. The good news is that his late father had shares in the bank, the bad news is they can’t find the certificate to prove it.

As despondency hangs like  a dark cloud over him, activist sister Jane (Emily Mortimer) and his three young kids, Anabel (Pixie Davies),  John (Nathanel Saleh) and Georgie (a scene stealing Joel Dawson), so their former magical nanny returns, by way of Michael’s old kite being flown by Georgie, moves in and sets about putting magic back into their lives and helping the children to save the day. There’s no sweeps  around this time, Bert apparently off on his travels, but she does have a cheery helping hand in the form of  Jack (Lin-Manuel Miranda with reasonable Cockney accent), one of the London lamplighters or ‘leeries’ plus, of course, her talking parrot-head umbrella.

Adopting an exaggerated English accent and with a more worldly (and at times self-satisfied) demeanour, Blunt is a delight and, as with Emma Stone in La La Land,  proves an adept song and dance trouper, especially so in such set pieces as an underwater bathtime sequence,  the big circus number with the animated animals (including voice cameos by Chris O’Dowd and Mark Addy) and  the leeries’ Trip The Light Fantastic production number, all bicycle wheelies and acrobatics around lampposts. The songs themselves don’t have quite the same instant memorability as in the original (from which several musical cues as well as references to Feed The Birds and Let’s Go Fly A Kite surface), though The Royal Doulton Music Hall and A Cover Is Not The Book are standouts along with the poignant The Place Where Lost Things Go.

Although following an almost identical structural and narrative arc to the original, it rarely comes across as pastiche, and while Meryl Streep’s hammy scene as Mary’s Fiddler on the Roof- accented cousin Topsy is a bit of a sore thumb, Julie Walter’s housekeeper is surplus to requirements and, given she can fly, it makes no sense for Poppins to let the leeries do the dangerous climbing in the climactic sequence, these are amply compensated by a brief but sparkling cameo by Dick Van Dyke, still a perky song and dance man at 93, as Mr Dawes Jr and the sheer whimsically exuberant high-spirits and its old fashioned heart-tugging glow. As Mary says, it’s practically perfect in every way. (Cineworld NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; MAC; Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; 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 withJames 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 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Electric; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel; Showcase Walsall)

The Mule (15)

Potentially Clint Eastwood’s swansong as both actor and director, this is based on the true story of Leo Sharp, a   World War II veteran and horticulturist who, when his business  fell foul of online commerce, was recruited by the Sinaloa cartel as a drugs runner, working on the premise that the cops were less likely to stop an octogenarian white man in his truck than a Mexican. Sharp  transported millions of dollars of cocaine into Detroit and other cities, earning round $100,000 a drop and was only ever arrested once, serving just one year.

Here, as scripted by Nick Schenk, who wrote Eastwood’s Gran Torino, he becomes Earl Stone (Eastwood), a cantankerous, casually racist old coot who, having been more concerned about his work than his family, has ended up divorced from long-suffering wife Mary (Dianne Weist) and estranged from his daughter, Iris (tellingly played by Eastwood’s own daughter, Alison), whose wedding he missed on account of a floral engagement. The only member of the family with whom he has any positive contact is his granddaughter,  Ginny (Taissa Farmiga). It’s at her engagement party, after a flare up, that he’s approached by a cartel associate with the prospect of some lucrative work. Intrigued, Earl turns up and, told not to look inside, is given a package to deliver, for which he’ll get paid at the other end. Initially, he sees it as a one-off, but, faced with foreclosure, he’s soon making regular runs,  using the money to pay off the bank, refurbish the local veterans’ hall and  buy the drinks at Ginny’s wedding, presumably as some attempt at atonement.

Along the way, he attracts the attention of the cartel boss,Laton (Andy Garcia), who takes a shine to him and invites him to a party where, in a scene that makes Woody Allen’s onscreen attempt to boost his sexual persona seem tame, he has a threesome (in fact Earl has a couple of threesomes). However, his handlers are becoming concerned about Earl’s blasé attitude, especially when  his dips out of a  run to visit his bed-ridden ex. Meanwhile the DEA, in the form of local boss  Laurence Fishburne and one-dimensional agents Bradley Cooper and Michael Pena, are looking to make some busts.

All of this unfolds in a series of ploddingly flat scenes laden with heavy-handed dialogue before its painfully sentimental scene in which Earl finally puts family first. However, while this may be Eastwood working out some of his personal issues, it makes for a frankly rather dull movie, added to which it’s difficult to know how we’re supposed to respond to Earl’s politically incorrect attitudes, such as calling a couple of Mexicans ‘beaners’ or telling the  black couple whose flat tyre he fixes that he “likes to help negroes’. Are we supposed to be shocked, or find him wryly amusing, in the same way that he grumbles about everyone’s reliance on the internet? Especially when the film goes to some lengths to point out racial profiling  when an innocent Hispanic is pulled over by the agents simply for who he is.

Eastwood still has charisma, but, thinly written, poorly plotted, slack in tension and with no moral stance taken as regard Earl’s drug running, he himself never questions his involvement, The Mule ends his screen career as a bit of an ass. (Cineworld 5 Ways, Solihull;  Empire Great Park; Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Ralph Breaks the Internet (PG)

While it’s hard to decide whether this is an affectionate sequel or a massive exercise in product placement, there’s no denying that, akin to the Emoji movie which adopted a similar premise,  the experience is a visual animated rollercoaster ride, shot through with familiar Disney messages about friendship, family and self-discovery.

Now firm pals following the first film, oafish but loveable  Ralph (John C. Reilly) and snarky but cute Vanellope (Sarah Silverman) hang out together at Litwack’s Arcade, although it’s clear she’s getting a tad bored with her life. Two things are about to change that. The arrival of the Internet in the Arcade and someone breaking the steering wheel (because Ralph has gone off script and diverted Vanellope into a candy swamp) on her Sugar Rush game. Although all the characters get out before the plug’s pulled, it looks like the game is headed for the scrapyard, unless they can get the spare part they need. Which involves Ralph and the occasionally glitching Vanellope riding the circuit into the Internet – a neon metropolis of towering edifices like  Google, YouTube, Instagram etc, etc, etc – and buying the last remaining one off eBay.

However, new to the online world, they don’t realise they have to pay for what they bid for, which means having to raise the necessary money before the deadline. Which, in turn, involves a click-merchant, a scavenger hunt, Ralph becoming a viral sensation on BuzzzTube (reverse leaf blowers suck up heart-shaped likes for his videos) and, ultimately, getting into the Dark Web and infecting and breaking the Internet with a virus of himself (cue King Kong reference) when he thinks Vanellope’s abandoned him.

And, of course, as seen in the trailer, the Magic Kingdom satirical send-up gathering together of all the Disney Princesses, including  a particularly feisty Cinderella, with Moana and Ariel teaching Vanellope to find her personal desire song (a big production number A Place Called Slaughter Race), an in-joke about  Merida’s Scottish accent, and a fabulous punch line that, chiming with Disney’s female empowerment drive,  turns the table on the traditional fairytale gender roles.

It’s all delivered at a dizzying ADHD pace, switching between set-ups, scenes and new characters such as tough leather-jacketed girl racer Shank (Gal Gadot) from a Grand Theft Auto-like game, BuzzzTube head algorithm Yesss (Taraji P. Henson), search engine personification KnowsAll (Alan Tudyk) and any number of annoying Pop-Ups as well as a plethora of  cameos by such Disney characters as Buzz Lightyear and Eeyore. There’s even a valedictory appearance by Stan Lee.

However, while the giddy amusing  tsunami of Internet icons is undeniably inspired (Twitter’s a forest of blue birds), as with the original, the film is strongest when it plays its emotional notes, essentially here a variation on if you love someone, set them free. Get your kicks on Router 66. (Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Second Act (12A)

Candyfloss fluff, this sees Jennifer Lopez back on the screen for the first time since 2015 with a light tale of female self-empowerment in the face of class and educational stereotyping. She may have dropped out of high school, but Maya (Lopez) is a just turned 40 chain-store assistant manager in Queens with a natural instinct for marketing and a celebrity basketball coach boyfriend (Milo Ventimiglia). However, after pitching her latest idea to her boss (Larry Miller), she’s till  passed over for promotion in favour of a more highly qualified Ivy League white jerk (Dan Bucatinsky) because she has no college degree.

To which end, as a birthday gift, Dilly (Dalton Harrod), the computer whizz son of her best friend and co-worker Joan (a scene stealing Leah Remini), secretly decides to pimp her Facebook profile, rename her Maria and give her a Cinderella makeover, next thing she knows, she’s being approached for a position at high end Manhattan cosmetics firm run by Anderson Clarke (Treat Williams) alongside his daughter, Zoe (Vanessa Hudgens), in the belief that she’s a Harvard graduate with any number of impressive skills and accomplishments to her name.

Looking to green up their products without incurring costs or reducing profits,  Clarke sets a challenge to two teams, one, headed by the competitive Zoe and the obnoxious Ron (Freddy Stroma), will tweak an existing product, while Maya and her assistants, tightly wound Hildy (Annaleigh Ashford), oddball Ariana (Charlyne Yi in as the now obligatory cutely eccentric Chinese comic relief) and  insecure chemist Chase (Alan Aisenberg), will come up with a whole new organic one.

However, the screenwriters seeming to have become bored with their glass ceiling plot, halfway in it delivers a major plot twist that links back to why Maya is reluctant to have a family (leading to the break-up of her relationship) from which the film never recovers, sinking into a fuzzy sentimental mother-daughter reunion/bonding  storyline in which the whole issue of female self-worth and career barriers for women largely fall by the wayside.

It’s warmly watchable enough and the leads are more than capable at playing the emotions, even if Hudgens’ character is wildly inconsistent, but, given previous moments such as a hilarious dinner scene with a prospective Chinese client where Maya is fed Mandarin through a remote earpiece by a vet and inadvertently translates an aside about anal glands, it all feels like a lesser and more confused movie. As bland fairytales go, this is better than most, but bland it is. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC;  Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

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 the 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.

It’s 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. (Cineworld NEC; Odeon Birmingham; 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 20thCentury 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.

BAFTA nominee 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. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Electric; Everyman; MAC; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; 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; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Vice (15)

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 (and potentially his Oscar triumph), 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. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Electric; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Screenings courtesy of  Odeon and Cineworld

CINEMAS

Cineworld 5 Ways – 181 Broad St, 0871 200 2000

Cineworld NEC – NEC  0871 200 2000

Cineworld Solihull – Mill Ln, Solihull 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

 

 

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