MOVIE ROUND-UP:This Week’s New Film Releases, Fri Feb 15-Thu Feb 21

NEW RELEASES

Happy Death Day 2U (15)

One of the unexpected delights of 2017, the original teen horror-comedy offered an inspired cross between Groundhog Day and Scream with university student Tree Gelbman (Jessica Rothe) repeatedly being killed by someone wearing a  plastic baby mask and waking up in the bed of fellow student Carter (Israel Broussard) until finally figuring out the killer’s her nursing intern roommate Lori (Ruby Modine) and sending through the window.  So, here’s the sequel. Inevitably sequels simply recycle the same formula to generally ever diminishing returns.Here, however,  reuniting the same cast, including Modine, director Christopher Landon and fellow writer Scott Lobdell revisit exactly the same premise and material, in exactly the same setting, but in a brilliantly fresh, inspired and inventive way. The Babyface killer is back, but this time round the slasher element very much takes a back seat  to a plot that, essentially, comes down to a quantum physics-based love story about choosing between hanging on to the past or pursuing the future.

Having broken free of the loop, now dating Carter, Tree’s life is going just fine, until his science student roommate,  Ryan (Phi Vu) wakes up on Sept 19  to find he’s now caught in a similar loop with the same killer. And then wakes up again and again. It’s all down to the Sisyphus Quantum Cooling Reactor science project he and his fellow geeks,  Dre (Sarah Yarkin) and  Samar (Suraj Sharma), are working on which inexplicably powered up on its own. No problem, just reset it.  Unfortunately, things don’t quite go to plan and, while Ryan is freed from the time loop, Tree finds herself back in it, Sept 18, the day of her birthday, with Lori and psychokiller Tombs still alive. So, first things first, dispose of evil roommate again. Except, she isn’t. On top of which when, as in the first film,Tree turns up for her birthday lunch date with dad  there a shock addition to the party. It would appear that while Tree’s trapped in a loop, the machine somehow  sent her, Spider-Verse style, to a different dimension . One in which not only did the tragedy that scarred her not happen, but Carter’s dating sorority house queen bee Danielle (Rachel Matthews) and it’s Lori not Tree who’s been having an affair with hospital lecturer Gregory (Charles Aitken).

To return to her own dimension, she and the other four students, have to figure out the algorithm that will send her back, somewhat complicated by the fact the Dean (Steve Zissis) wants to confiscate the machine because it cuts out all the power  and that, because every time she’s murdered and comes back, the others are all oblivious, so she has to remember what equations didn’t work. Except, rather than wait for the killer to knife her, Tree stages her own deaths (in a very funny montage) to hurry things along.

Although the superlative Rothe’s winking performance is again the film’s energised centre as Tree undertakes a journey of self-healing, the support cast aren’t just props and Matthews gets a notable showcase turn pretending to a blind French student to distract the Dean while Landon, gleefully playing with the genre,  recreates scenes from the original film and gives them a new spin and, inevitably, engineers a scene where the teens get to discuss Back To The Future, while deftly balancing the laughs and thrills with a genuine emotional punch.  The whole point of recycling is take the original and turn it into something new, and that’s exactly what this does, and which, it is to be hoped, it can continue to do in the same ingenious manner. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Burning (15)

The first film from South Korean director Lee Chang-dong  in eight years, inspired by a short story by Haruki Murakami, sharing its Barn Burning titled with one by William Faulkner. Lee, this is slowly gathering psychological drama built around a romantic triangle infused with envy, jealousy, lies, longing and alienation.

Set in contemporary Seoul, Jongsoo is a working class aspiring writer (Faulkner is his favourite author) living on a run down one-cow farm near the North Korea border with an absent  father whose anger regularly seems him up in court and in jail for assault. In town, he meets Haemi (Jeon Jong-seo), who’s doing a store raffle promotion, who reminds him that they knew each other back in school and that he once rescued her from a  dry well and asks if he can look after her cat while she’s away volunteering in Kenya. Going back to her flat, there’s no sign of the cat but, reminding him he once called her ugly (she’s had plastic surgery since), she seduces him.

He dutifully visits the flat to feed the never seen cat and, while there, regularly masturbates while staring out of her window. Picking up from the airport on her return, he finds she’s hooked up with Ben (Steven Yeun), a wealthy bored yuppie who lives in a  plush apartment, drives a Porsche and confesses to Jongsoo that he regularly burns down the abandoned greenhouses littering the countryside, and intends the next to be one near the farm. Although there’s no indication that’s true, while Jongsoo himself is drawn to do the same. Throwing in another literary reference Ben’s likened to The Great Gatsby, reinforcing the film’s themes of class, economic and romantic conflict.

The three of them hang out and get high, Jongsoo increasingly feeling like , but then Haemi disappears from the scene and, thinking Ben is involved, he starts following him, building to the film’s titular cathartic but shocking climax.  Heavy with never explained mysteries and with scenes that involve a meeting between Jongsoo and the mother who abandoned him and a stoned Haemi dancing topless to the strains of Miles Davis as the sun sets behind the farm, it suggests rather than states as Jongsoo,summed by a sense of inferiority, tries to bring a sense of order and meaning to a life spinning out of control, to distinguish between truth and lies. He never finds answers, and the film never offers viewers any either, but the questions linger long. (Sat-Wed:MAC)

 

Instant Family (12A)

Having moved into a house with more bedrooms than they need, spurred by a  jibe about them never going to have kids, house renovators Pete (Mark Whalberg) and Ellie (Rose Byrne) Wagner are persuaded by Octavia Spencer and Tig Notaro as an odd couple comedic social workers double act, to think about adopting three Hispanic kids, teenager Lizzy (Isabela Moner) and her younger siblings Juan and Lita, whose drug addict mother in in jail. With neither Ellie’s mother (Julie Hagerty) nor the rest of her family believing they can handle it, she and Pete resolve to give fostering try out and prove they can be good parents.  Naturally, this is more difficult than than thought since Lizzy, while sweet, has plenty of attitude and reacts badly to shows of affection, and, having taken care of them in mom’s absence, is overly protective of accident prone, oversensitive Juan and needy Lita, who refuses to eat anything except potato chips. And, of course, Pete and Ellie are themselves to navigate through uncharted waters. Then,  just when things seem to be going well, the kids’ real mother turns up wanting them back.

Directed and co-written by Sean Anders, who made Daddy’s Home and Daddy’s Home 2 and has experience of adoption, it mixes sitcom comedy with serious issues, including a striking scene when, during one of the sessions with potential foster parents, a young woman talks about how the system and her adoptive parents helped her work through her struggles with addiction caused by abuse.

Also starring Margo Marindale as Pete’s goodhearted but overbearing mother, it can be a tad predictable and scenes such as Pete and Ellie confronting a schoolkid they think  has sent Lizzy photos of his dick are geared more to laughs than reality, but ultimately, it’s a heartwarming and an often very funny tale of family bonding that genuinely earns its emotional moments. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

The Kid Who Would Be King (PG)

Opening with an animated telling of the legend, writer-director Joe Cornish follows up Attack The Block with a  similar adolescents saving this world tale, a teenager rework of the King Arthur story set against a divided Britain teetering on collapse (newspaper headlines read WAR! GLOOM! FEAR! CRISIS!), as, running into a London building site to escape the school bullies, Kaye (Rhianna Dorris) and Lance (Tom Taylor), ordinary 12-year-old schoolboy Alex (Louis Ashbourne Serkis, son of motion capture maestro Andy) stumbles upon and pulls a sword out of a block of concrete.

Meeting up with equally bullied best mate Bedders  (endearing newcomer Dean Chaumoo playing Sam to Alex’s Frodo), he jokes that it’s Excalibur, King Arthur’s mythical sword, as shown in the book his long absent dad left for him, dedicated to his ‘once and future king”. In fact, it turns out to be precisely that as weird,  gangly new kid in class Mertin (Angus Imrie) reveals himself to be Merlin (Patrick Stewart, sporting a Led Zep t-shirt) in disguise and warns that in four days, at the time of the forthcoming eclipse, Arthur’s evil step-sister Morgana (Rebecca Ferguson) will rise from her underground prison to enslave England. To stop her and her smouldering undead warrior army, Alex must unite his misfit friends and enemies as new Knights of the Round Table, here a  drop leaf coffee table. All of which involves persuading Kaye and Lance to join his cause and abide by chivalric roles, as, accompanied by Merlin (who can change into an owl by sneezing),  all four teens trek to Tintagel Island in Cornwall, birthplace of Arthur and gate to the underworld, by way of standing stones portals, Alex hoping to also find his estranged father.

Peppered with Arthurian references (Alex’s three friends all share names with the original Knights and he lives in Mallory close, named after Thomas Mallory who wrote the poem Morte d’Arthur), including several appearances by the Lady in the Lake (or at least her hand),  it mixes together the special effects and action sequences (climaxing with a school battle as all the pupils don souvenir shop armour to battle the undead with their flaming swords) with laughs, emotional setbacks and messages about family, friendship and unity in time of trouble and strife. The plot can be a touch repetitive in places, but the young actors do a solid job, the scene stealer being Imrie, the son of Harry Potter’s Celia Imrie, who weaves his magic not with words but by complicated hand movements, and there’s a very 80s feel about things (think The Goonies, Never Ending Story, Labyrinth, etc.) rather than slicker modern American style teenage fantasy adventure movies. It may not have their fanfare and budget but, Grange Hill by way of Star Wars with an enchanted sword instead of a light sabre, it’s undeniably a Camelot of family fun, even if the ingredients in Merlin’s recipe for restoring his energy may put you off junk food for a while.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

A Private War (15)

An award-winning war correspondent for the  Sunday Times, feisty American-born journalist Marie Colvin made her name covering such conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq, where she promoted the exhumation of a mass grave of Kuwaiti POWs and Sri Lanka where, embedded with the Tamil Tigers, she lost an eye when fired upon by the military, subsequently sporting  a distinctive pirate-like black patch, before being killed during the bombing of Homs in Syria in 2012.

Directed in the same fashion he brought to his Syrian documentary, City of Ghosts, Matthew Heineman and starring Rosamund Pike as Colvin, the film details her crusading, passionate, driven determination to report the truth of what was happening to both her readers back home and the world at large, forcing  them not to look the other way. Opening with the Homs bombing where she exposed how Assad was targeting innocent women and children, it flashes back to Sri Lanka, counting down the ten years running up to her death as she covered some of the most world’s most dangerous conflict zones and even famously secured a face-to-face interview with Gadaffi shortly before his overthrow.

In Iraq, she teams up with freelance photographer Paul Conroy (Jamie Dorman) who would accompany her on her subsequent assignments, putting the graphic images to her uncompromising words, Pike portraying Colvin as a no-nonsense, stubborn, plain-speaking woman, tormented by a fear of growing old while dreading dying young, more at home under fire than back in the safety and comforts of London life or the awards ceremonies in her honour.  Haunted by the image of a dead girl on her bed, the film seeks to explore how such traumas are processed and the effects it can have on those enduring them, especially when drinking and chainsmoking no longer numb the  pain, Colvin essentially a PTSD addict.

With Tom Hollander as her editor, Sean Ryan, and Stanley Tucci as her wealthy businessman  lover, Tony Shaw, the film is at its best on the various battlefronts, the energy and power dissipating when not under fire, but, at a time when fake news is the watchword, Colvin’s story is raw truth. (Cineworld 5 Ways)

ALSO PLAYING

Hale County This Morning, This Evening (15)

An intimate portrait of a place and its people, the directorial debut of award-winning photographer and director RaMell Ross follows Daniel Collins and Quincy Bryant, two young African American men from rural Hale County, Alabama, over five years as Collins attends college and Bryant becomes a father. Documenting the experiences that shape their lives, both big and small, from church services to basketball games to family gatherings , the film explores themes of race, the region’s social and cultural past, and the complex and problematic legacy of the African American community’s collective image in the American imagination. (Tue: MAC)

 

 

NOW SHOWING

Alita: Battle Angel (12A)

On James Cameron’s to do list for the best part of two decades, he eventually handed over the reins to his adaptation of Yukito Kishiro’s 90s cyberpunk manga series to director Robert Rodriguez with Cameron serving as co-writer and producer.

Set in 2563, 300 years after an apocalyptic event referred to (but never explained) as the Fall, it’s a fairly standard issue plot in which an outsider hero rises to take on the tyrannical elite oppressing the dystopian society, here the latter being the survivors scratching a living in Iron City and the former being the wealthy elite in their floating city fortress of Zalem. The prime difference here been that the hero is a female cyborg with a mysterious past and destiny.

While foraging among the scrap that’s been jettisoned from Zalem, looking for parts to use in his cyber-surgery, Doctor Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz) comes the artificial head of a humanoid teenage girl containing an organic brain. Taking it back to his makeshift lab, he and his assistant (a barely used Idara Victor) attaches it to a metal body and, when she wakes up with no memory of her previous life or who she is, he christens her Alita (Rosa Salazar), the name of his murdered disabled daughter for whom the cyber-body was intended, thereby setting up the narrative’s surrogate father narrative strand, Geppetto to her Pinocchio.

As they both surprisingly discover when she suspects her new dad might be a serial killer, she’s both super strong and fast, possessed of an ancient fighting art known as panzer kunst, while Ido fesses up to being a part-time bounty hunter tracking down offenders in order to fund his lab. In fact, Iron City seems to have a glut of them, although all the others, among them  Nyssiana (Eiza González), creepy sabre-wielding pretty boy Zapan (Ed Skrein) and the hulking Grewishka (Jackie Earle Haley), are all cyborgs.

Meanwhile, sparked by her newfound abilities, Alita starts hanging out with a street gang, and in particular cute unicycle riding Hugo (a bland Keean Johnson), who introduces her to a street version of  Motorball, a brutal, gladiatorial rollerblading basketball contest that is the stadium-filling Super Bowl of Iron City, the ultimate winner of which gets to go to Zalem, with those in need of repair coming to Ido. All of which sparks another plot thread, as Motorball is run by Vector (Mahershala Ali), the Iron City channel for evil Zalem scientist Nova (a briefly seen Ed Norton), and to whom, its revealed, Hugo and his gang are selling the parts they’ve jacked off other cyborgs. He also has a sidekick, Chiren (Jennifer Connolly), who’s  Ido’s ex-wife and naturally gets somewhat conflicted given her boss keeps sending his mercenaries to kill Alita. Through all of this, the latter starts getting flashbacks that suggest she was some sort of soldier waging war on the flying cities and which wind up with her getting a whole new souped-up body that can organically adapt itself to her wishes, all of which, rather inevitably, climaxes at a massive Motorball showdown.

Trimmed down for the original three hours screenplay, there’s an overload of loose ends, genres and narrative holes that raise more questions than they provide answers and often send the storyline into a spin. It’s considerably less philosophically profound that Ghost In The Shell, but, even so, using extensive CGI yet played out against real sets rather than green screen, it’s hugely visually impressive, especially in the pulpily kinetic Motorball sequences, and, while the supporting characters are somewhat undernourished, it does provide an involving emotional arc for Alita (and her relationship with Ido), even touching on human/robot romance as she and Hugo become closer. The litmus test, though, is how you react to the way Alita appears on screen. While the other cyborgs all have human heads, she’s very much a manga character imposed on a real world, especially given her (literal and metaphorical wide-eyed) stylised facial features. However, the strength of Salazar’s performance, both exuberant as she discovers the world around her and fiercely determined as she battles against those who seek to control it, provides the heart and emotional core needed to overcome such reservations. It ends with Alita sending out a vow to take the battle to Nova; unfortunately, given predictions that the film is poised to become a monumental box office flop, that and all the other mysteries waiting to be cleared up in the planned sequel, seem to be heading, if not for the scrapheap, then a wait that will make the time between Avatars seem like the blink of an eye. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

All Is True (12A)

Having taken a comedic approach to Will Shakespeare’s pre-fame days  in the TV sitcom Upstart Crow, Ben Elton  now offers a dramatic look at his little-known last three years when, having co-penned Henry VIII, originally known as All is True, he quit writing in 1613 after The Globe Theatre burned down during an early performance and returned to Stratford-upon-Avon and his family. Here directed by and starring Kenneth Branagh, we find him experiencing delayed mourning his young son, Hamnet, who died from plague 17 years earlier and who had been buried by the time he got home from London. And it’s around the circumstances surrounding boy’s death and the poem’s he written that his father cherished, that the plays event unfold, taking in the uneasy dynamic in the Shakespeare household: his wife, Anne (Judy Dench), resentful at being left alone for so many years, consigning him to the guest bedroom, embittered unmarried daughter Judith (Kathryn Wilder) who’s consumed by survivor guilt and accuses her father of thinking the wrong twin died, and her elder, literate sister Susanna (Lydia Wilson), trapped in a loveless marriage to Puritan clergyman John Hall (Hadley Fraser). At one point the latter’s accused of having an adulterous affair, the trial subsequently amusingly defused by her dad’s striking description of a scene and an actor in Titus Andronicus to her accuser. Will, meanwhile, just wants to tend to the garden he’s trying to cultivate in his son’s memory. “I can’t finish your story”, he tells a young lad at the start of the play, though, of course, that turns out to be exactly what the film does.

A perfectly respectable heritage drama, it’s a touch lifeless in the early going and only really begins to spark when hidden family secrets come to the surface, forcing Shakespeare to re-examine what he’s always assumed to be the facts about Hamnet as well as his relationship with the women in the family. There’s also a sense of Elton parading historical facts and speculations about Stratford’s most famous son, such as why his will bequeathed Anne his second best bed and, in a contrived visit by the Earl of Southampton (a scene stealing Ian McKellen in blonde heavy metal wig), his patron and long assumed to be the mysterious amorous subject of many of Shakespeare’s Sonnets. His arrival has him dismissing the creeping flattery of the oily Sir Thomas Lucy (Alex Macqueen) while his and Will’s intimate fireside chat, in which the former accuses the latter of leading a life far too ordinary for someone of his genius and concludes with them both reciting Sonnet 29, is unquestionably the film’s strongest sequence, but it also throws into relief the dullness of much that surrounds it.

The performances are, as you would expect, high quality, Dench registering profound emotions in just a facial expression, Branagh, with his trademark conversational delivery, portraying a man ruefully aware of his gifts as a playwright but also his failings as a husband and a father. However, the psychological depth is all on the surface and too often spelled out by Elton’s expository dialogue (Anne reminds him that when Hamnet died, he wrote The Merry Wives of Windsor), a screenplay the Bard would surely have given a serious overhaul. (Cineworld 5 Ways; Empire Great Park)

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.  (Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; 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. (Mockingbird)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Boy Erased (15)

A gender switch companion piece to The Miseducation of Cameron Post, Joel Edgerton’s second film as director, based on the memoir of Garrard Conley, also turns its focus on the controversial subject if conversion therapy whereby members of the gay community are subjected to ‘healing’ in the name of God.

Shot in a non-linear fashion that juxtaposes flashbacks with present day events, it follows the ordeals of Jared Eamons (Lukas Hedges) who, having been forcibly outed to his devout Christian parents by the fellow college student (Joe Alwyn) who raped him, Arkansas Baptist pastor and car dealer father Marshall (Russell Crowe) and hairdresser mother Nancy (the presently ubiquitous Nicole Kidman), is carted off to the Love in Action conversion centre run by Victor Sykes (Edgerton), mom moving into a nearby motel during his 12-day stay.

Here Sykes tells his ‘patients’, that their sexual proclivities are the result of poor parenting rather than genetic and requires them to draw up “moral inventories” of themselves and their families, demanding that what happens in the centre stays within the centre. Alongside Jared, others there to be ‘cured’ include Jon (Xavier Dolan) who is fanatically dedicated to conversion and Troy (Theodore Pellerin), who confides that he’s just playing the part so he can get out, while, the therapy group leaders also include the abusive Brandon (Flea). Things come to a head when one of the attendees, Cameron (Britton Sear) is not only humiliated and intimidated by Sykes but also, at his behest, beaten with bibles by both the therapists and his own family.

The film pulls no punches in showing the harsh treatment meted out and the bigoted nature of those in charge, supposedly doing the Lord’s work, nor does it pull back from its criticism of Jared’s parents, his intransigent father in particular, yet, at the same time, it never suggests that they don’t love their son, but rather that such love is misguided. Equally, there are moments of tenderness amid the abusiveness at the centre, and it’s fairly obvious that Sykes has issues of his own.

Edgerton and Hedges provide the solid foundation on which the film is built, but the performances throughout are strong and truthful, Kidman especially moving as she ultimately breaks away from the patriarchal oppression of her community and heartachingly confesses and apologises to her son for her complicity in his sufferings. On the downside, the pace drags somewhat, the dialogue is often uneven and the emotional ride too marked by peaks and troughs to fully engage as it intends, but, even so, as a parent-child drama, this is vastly superior to the overrated Beautiful Boy. (Cineworld 5 Ways)

 

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. (Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; 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. (Electric)

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.   (Vue Star City)

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;  Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; 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 (BAFTA winner Rachel Weisz), her favourite, well-known for refusing to flatter, the pair often referring to each other by  their youthful pet names of  Mrs Freeman and Mrs Morley, and the latter’s cousin Abigail Hill (Emma Stone), a noblewoman fallen on hard times who arrives at the palace seeking a position.

Prior Hill’s arrival, Sarah was very much the power behind the throne, a hugely influential and manipulative figure who controlled access to the Queen, managed her finances and supported the war against France (and the unpopular land tax to fund it), her husband (Mark Gattiss) in command of the British forces, However, initially, playing the grateful protégé working in the kitchens, it’s not long before Abigail schemingly works her way up the ladder, the pair becoming engaged in an ongoing battle of wits and one-upmanship with Anne’s favour and support as the prize, one that starts with choice of treatments for the Queen’s legs and, reflecting popular gossip, ends in her bed, jockeying for a position between them.

The two women each have their political stooges, for Marlborough it’s the duck racing Prime Minister, Godolphin (James Smith), leader of the Whigs, while, though he may think he’s the one holding the reins, for Abigail it’s the foppish Harley (a superb Nicholas Hoult), the Tories leader who’s outraged at Marlborough pushing the Queen to raise taxes for the unpopular war. Of course, for all the bluster, it’s ultimately personal advantage rather than the national good that is at the heart of everyone’s motives. As one of the scullery maids put it: “They shit in the street round here. Political commentary they call it.”

Slowly, through a mix of veiled accusations and sexual wiles, Abigail turns Anne’s favour in her direction, though the sequence where Sarah goes missing after Hill poisons her is pure melodramatic invention designed to provide a window in which (in another licence with the timeline) she can engineer herself a title through marriage to the gullible besotted Marsham. Sarah is found and, strikingly scarred, returned to court, but by now the battle is all but lost.

Atmospherically filmed with a use of shadows and candlelight that swings between the tender and the threatening, with cinematographer Robbie Ryan employing fish eye lensing, slow motion and claustrophobic superimposition, but also widescreen landscapes, divided into chapters titled from lines of dialogue and with an often unsettling pizzicato score (and inspired end credits use of Elton John’s original harpsichord version of Skyline Pigeon), it’s at times broadly bawdy, at others intimately erotic, at times evoking the work of Pope and Swift, at others, such as in a courtly dance that pops rock n roll moves,  striking a more contemporary note.

While definitely not making any compromises for the mainstream, even so this hasproven prove an art house break-out success with all the awards (7 BAFTAs) that ensue, the only remaining question being whether it’s Weisz or Stone that picks up the Best Supporting Actress Oscar, the single close-up shot of Colman’s face imperceptively shifting from  a brief moment of joy to desperate loneliness pretty much guaranteeing adding Academy Best Actress to her BAFTA triumph.  (Cineworld 5 Ways;  Empire Great Park; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City; Wed/Thu:Electric)

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 anti-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; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

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 BAFTA winner Mahershala Ali, Tony was brash, plain-speaking and casually racist while Shirley was refined, imperious and uptight, the unlikely relationship spurred by the fact the former was broke and the latter needed someone who could handle potentially volatile situations. Initially meeting at Shirley’s luxury New York apartment above Carnegie Hall (in real life even more ostentatious than on screen) where Shirley interviews him from what can only be called his throne, most of the film unfolds within  the turquoise Cadillac Coupe de Ville in which they travel between shows (backing musicians bassist Mike Hatton and Russian cellist Dimiter D. Marinov taking their own car), with Shirley playing to high society rich white folks who applaud his music (“like Liberace but better”, according to Tony)  but who wouldn’t dream of allowing him to their homes or treating him as an equal. Indeed, one of the film’s strongest scenes is in a hotel restaurant where, although he’s due to play for the clientele, Shirley is refused permission to dine.

As the journey unfolds, Tony’s impressed by his boss’s musical talent and his eyes are opened to the indignities he endures through segregation and racism in practice. He’s also coached, Cyrano-style, in how to write more romantically articulate letters home to his wife (Linda Cardellini) and gets to discover Chopin while Shirley gets to appreciate fried chicken and the music of Aretha Franklin and Little Richard, culminating in an improvised rock n roll session at a local  honky tonk.

Deftly balancing humour and serious dramatic commentary, 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; Electric; Everyman; MAC; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

How To Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World (PG)

The third and final entry into the animated Vikings and dragons saga sets out to explain why the latter vanished from the face of the earth, weaving in lightly handled themes of persecution, genocide and refugees in the process.

Some years after events in part two, Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) is now chief of the community on Berk where Vikings and dragons live together in harmony. However, as revealed in the opening sequence, the latter are in increasing danger from dragon hunters and their marauding ships, and, with the subsequent rescues stretching the population on Berk to its limits. As such, Hiccup realises that, if both they and the Vikings are to be safe, they need to move on from their home of many generations. Increasing the urgency, is the arrival on the scene of Grimmel (F. Murray Abraham), a ruthlessly obsessed dragon hunter who is determined to exterminate all dragons (though he uses his own, which he controls, to do so) and made his name by slaying every last Night Fury. So, learning of the existence of Toothless, the dragon alpha male and Hiccup’s devoted obsidian-coloured companion, he is consumed with finishing the job. To which end, he has a very special bait, the white, sparkling skin sole surviving female who, when seen by Hiccup and Astrid (America Ferrera), is dubbed a Light Fury by the latter, plotting to use the fact that the species mate for life to lure Toothless – and, in turn, all the other dragons, into his trap.

To save them, Hiccup resolves to discover the legendary Hidden World of Caldera, the original home of dragons, that his later father (Gerald Butler in flashbacks) spoke about where the two species can live in peace and safety. Things don’t work out quite as he hoped, the film playing on an if you love someone, you have to set them free theme that echoes Born Free, but, despite a sometimes repetitive narrative, getting to the finale is an often exhilarating ride, the central thrust complemented by the tentative relationship between Astrid and Hiccup, who Gobber (Craig Ferguson) reckons should get married.

The gang are all back for the finale, among them the boastful Snotlout (Jonah Hill) who has his eye set on Hiccup’s widowed Dragon Rider mother, Valka (Cate Blanchett),  bickering buffoon twins  Ruffnut (Kristen Wiig) and Tuffnut (Justin Rupple) and Fishlegs (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), all getting their turn in the spotlight.  There’s also some amusing additions to the dragon cast with the small, rotund and fanged Hobgobblers, who seem to be constantly breeding. Sporting dragon scale armour and wielding a  flaming sword, there’s more than a touch of Star Wars to Hiccup here, but, thankfully, the self-belief fuelled screenplay  resists further allusions  and gets on with delivering both thrilling action set-piece and visually entrancing worldess sequences such as the amusing clumsy mating dance between the two Furies that climaxes by literally taking flight, and the glorious vision of the hidden world itself.  A some years later coda does open the possibility of returning to the characters, but, given the emotional arc and catharsis here, that would be a mistake. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

If Beale Street Could Talk (15)

Give he’s acclaimed as one of American’s greatest black authors, with five novels and two plays to his name, this is actually the first of James Baldwin’s works, written in 1974 as a metaphor for any black community, to be adapted for the screen. Director Barry Jenkins’ follow up to Moonlight, it’s an earnest but uneven exploration of lover, family and racism in which its fragmented storylines often undermine rather than enhance the film’s overall thematic and narrative design (underscored by its voiceover commentary) about the harshness and injustices of African-American life, both then and now.

Set in 70s Harlem, childhood sweethearts, 19-year-old Tish (KiKi Layne) and her  22-year-old aspirant wood sculptor boyfriend Fonny (Stephan James) are planning on getting wed.  But then he’s arrested and charged with raping a Puerto Rican woman. He’s clearly innocent, but there’s no way to prove it, since her evidence is inadmissible and the only other alibi, the three of them being together at the time, is his cynical best friend (Brian Tyree Henry),  who, just out of jail on a trumped up charge (for car theft, even though he can’t drive), is regarded as unreliable testimony.  In addition, the woman identified him in a line up, although she was told to pick him out by the bigoted arresting officer (Ed Skrein) who, it is revealed, wrongly tried to arrest Fonny some days earlier after he defended Tish against some local thug.

On top of which, Tish learns that she’s pregnant and the film variously follows her visits to the jail while he’s awaiting trial and the efforts to track down the alleged victim and persuade her to tell the truth, something which involves both hiring a white lawyer and Tish’s mother Regina King) travelling to Puerto Rico to plead her and her future son-in-law’s case. By parental contrast, Fonny’s own fundamentalist Christian mother (Aunjanue Ellis), and his two prissy sisters are condemnatory of both him and Tish, who they regard as an unsuitable match, an antagonism that affords one the film’s strongest and hardest-hitting scenes.

Such friction and spark is, however, in distinct contrast to the soft focus and intense close up fuzziness of the burnished romantic scenes between the two lovers (softened and glossed up from the flawed versions in the novel) and Jenkins often seems too wrapped up in textural atmospherics than an involving plot, that and the all too leisurely pace allowing the audience to drift away and then trying to pull them back in.

The two leads give solid, warmly engaging performances, but it’s among the supporting cast where the film shines brightest, most notably King and Teyonah Parris as Tish’s plain-speaking sibling Ernestine whose rousing “Unbow your head, sister” sounds the film’s loudest inspirational note.

It doesn’t wrap up with a fairytale ending where justice prevails, but, refusing to give in to pessimism, it does celebrate the power of true love to help people face and to accept difficult circumstances. It’s just unfortunate that getting to that epiphany feels like an endless journey.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Electric; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

The Lego Movie 2 (U)

Essentially serving up more of what made the original 2014 movie such a treat, there’s times when you feel repetition has supplanted inspiration, but, even so, the ride through its often surreal brickverse is well worth taking.

Having revealed at the end of the first film that the adventures of  construction worker Emmett (Chris Pine),were being enacted by a kid in the real world playing with his LEGO toys, the sequel has several flashes behind the storyline, showing the same boy ordered by  his dad (Will Ferrell) to share his LEGO play with his younger sister, the pair squabbling as each seeks to control the game, though it also blurs the line between what’s plastic and what’s real.

Set some time after builder Emmett Brickowski saved the world from Lord Business, the former’s dreaming of remaking Bricksburg, now called Apocalypsburg as a paradise for himself and Lucy Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks) to share, though she’s less convinced his sunny optimism is really the sort of man she wants. She also thinks his new house is an alien magnet. Which, indeed, it turns out to be, as DUPLO toy General Mayhem (Stephanie Beatriz) arrives from the Sistar System to capture their leader and, living up to her name with weapons that include exploding pink love hearts and yellow stars,  makes off with Lucy, her now shapeshifting robotic cat Princess Unikitty (Ailson Brie), pirate Metalbeard (Nick Offerman) spaceship obsessed Master Builder Benny (Charlie Day) and Batman (Will Arnett), the latter of whom is intended to be wed to the equally shapeshifting DUPLO horse Queen Watevra Wa-Nabi (Tiffany Haddish). Although she attempts to persuade them, through a song entitled Not Evil, that she’s not wicked, Emmett, who’s come to rescue his friends, is convinced the wedding ceremony will bring about the Ourmomageddon of his nightmare where (cue cameo by Maya Rudolph protesting  “I’m not the bad guy in this story, I’m just an amusing side character”) they all get consigned to oblivion.

In his rescue mission, Will is joined by Rex Dangervest (Pratt), a cosmos-roaming adventurer with a crew of dinosaur sidekicks (named Ripley, Connor and the other one), whose origin story provides the film’s big twist, as well the character gleefully referencing Pratt’s roles in the likes of Jurassic World and Guardians of the Galaxy.

Peppered with clever/cringe-inducing wordplay and a torrent of pop culture references, notably to the DC Universe with cameos by Superman (Channing Tatum), Green Lantern (Jonah Hill), Wonder Woman (Colbie Smulders), Harley Quinn (Margot Robbi) and Aquaman (Jason Momoa), as well as a plethora of new characters such as the emotionally unstable Ice Cream Cone (Richard Ayoade), sparkling vampire DJ Balthazar, sentient banana Banarnar as well as Bruce Willis voicing himself as Die Hard’s John McClane, and even Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the plot is pretty much subservient to the giddy animation, self-referencing satire and the infuriatingly  infectious songs with both a reprise of Everything Is Awesome (and Everything Is Not Awesome)  and the even more annoying Catchy Song. It may ultimately be a case of rearranging the bricks, but watching them take shape is still huge fun. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; 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; Empire Great Park; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Mary Queen Of Scots (15)

While sparing any grisly detail of the execution (it took three blows to sever her head) which opens the film and adopting the dramatic licence of having the two queens meet (records give no indication they ever did), theatre director Josie Rourke’s feature debut mostly hews to historical accuracy in this period political drama about Mary Queen of Scots (Saoirse Ronan) and Queen Elizabeth I (Margot Robbie).

In 1561, following the death of her husband, King Francis II, 18-year-old Mary Stuart returned from France, where she had spent the past five years, to take up her claim as Queen of Scotland. As a Stuart, she had a stronger claim to the English throne than Elizabeth, but, as a Catholic, any suggestion that she could succeed were Elizabeth to die without an heir was anathema to the ruling Protestant cause. As such, she clearly posed a political threat although, the film, adopting a feminist take on history, makes it clear that this danger was only perceived and acted up by the all-male councils to the throne rather than the women themselves. Indeed, history itself records that Elizabeth (who is shown as tacitly in agreement with Mary succeeding her) gave her sanctity in England when she was forced to abdicate and was reluctant to order her cousin’s execution when she was accused of allegedly conspiring in a plot to depose her.

This is, though, no dry history lesson and, aside from the compelling incentive of seeing two of this generation’s leading female actresses at the top of their game, it comes riddled with intrigue, conspiracy, betrayal and murder at times recalling Shekar Kapur’s brilliant 1998 drama Elizabeth.

Although monarchs in name, the screenplay by House of Cards creator Beau Willimon underscores how their power and decisions were manipulated by the men behind the throne, among them her half-brother, the Earl of Moray (James McArdle), with Mary manoeuvred into first marrying the ambitious Lord Darnley (Jack Lowden) who had a relationship with the openly gay David Rizzio (Ismael Cruz Cordova), one of Mary’s  inner-circle, and who, exiled from Mary’s company after the birth of their son, James, was  murdered in order, as the film has it, to force Mary into a  marriage with James Hepburn, 4th Earl of Bothwell, who was rumoured to have been behind the plot.

Also raised against her was John Knox (David Tennant), the theologian Reformist who founded the Presbyterian Church of Scotland, who denounced Mary as a strumpet and a whore and joined forces with Moray in a rebellion against her rule.

The intrigue at the Scottish court is mirrored in England, Elizabeth’s advisers, primarily Cecil (Guy Pearce) were concerned that, while she had Robert Dudley (Joe Alwyn), Earl of Leicester as a lover (and who, at one point, was proposed as Mary’s husband) the Queen would die without an heir allowing Mary to claim her right to the succession.

Rourke very much takes revisionist approach to her formidable central characters, rejecting the popular image of Mary as promiscuous and portraying her as a highly intelligent, and tolerant, woman constantly struggling to outwit the men seeking to usurp her, while Elizabeth is seen as a strong but vulnerable woman, hardened by circumstances and scarred by the pox,  forced to act against her personal inclinations so as to protect her throne, two women with much in common forced into becoming reluctant rivals.

Switching back and forth between the two courts, although the film’s latter half is more focused on Scotland, it is packed with sort of dramatic twists, backstabbing and political chess games that are a staple of Game of Thrones, set against rugged Scottish scenery and, while the physical action is limited to a single skirmish and Rizzio’s bloody murder, the intellectual combat is riveting.

With a cast list that also includes Gemma Chan, Adrian Lester, Simon Russell Beale and Ian Hart, this compelling, dark-veined telling brings history thrillingly alive while chiming with today’s #MeToo moment in exploring how women are exploited and manipulated by power-hungry men. (Cineworld 5 Ways, Solihull;  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. (Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe)

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. (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. (Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; 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 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. (MAC; Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Vue Star City)

Stan And Ollie (12A)

Unquestionably among Hollywood’s biggest stars between the late 20s and mid-40s, Lancashire-born Stan Laurel and Georgia’s Oliver Hardy were first officially teamed as a double act in 1927, their brand of physical slapstick, with Laurel the childlike stooge to the pompous Hardy, proving hugely popular among international audiences.  By 1944, however, their stars had waned, they’d left Hal Roach studios (to whom they were under separate contracts) in 1940 and gone on to join 20th Century Fox and MGM for a series of less successful B movies. In 1945, they embarked upon a tour of low rent theatres in the UK, and again, their final performances, in 1953, Jon S Baird’s film set during the latter but also drawing on that first tour during which time they were supposed to make a  Robin Hood spoof, Rob ‘Em Good, scripted by Laurel, but which never secured financing.

It’s a little known period in the duo’s lives, allowing the film a degree of artistic licence in exploring the relationship between them and the involvement of their respective wives who joined them on that final tour.

Opening with a 1937 prologue on the set of Way Out West, with Stan complaining about their financially-restrictive contracts with Roach (Danny Huston), the core of the film unfolds during that 1953 tour, arriving at a rainy Newcastle, put up in a squalid boarding house and booked into low rent theatres by smooth-talking impresario Bernard Delfont (a gleefully hamming Rufus Jones) whose more concerned about his latest protégé, Norman Wisdom, than these  financially stretched has-beens. Not until he persuades them to start doping to promotional work, do audiences begin to fill the seats, the pair gradually proving to be huge hits in the nostalgia market as they revisit their best known routines, the Dance of the Cuckoos included.

Steve Coogan (Laurel) and John C.Reilly (Hardy) are note perfect in bringing their characters to life, brilliantly recreating the classic sketches as well as the never-before-filmed skit Birds of a Feather, and  subtly capturing the chemistry and friendship between them but also the frictions that were fraying their  partnership, most notably Laurel’s resentment at the increasingly frail Hardy, who, in 1939, had made Zenobia with Harry Landgon while Stan’s contract with Roach was in dispute. They’re perfectly complemented by Nina Arianda and Shirley Henderson as their respective sceptical wives, prickly Russian ex-dancer Ida Laurel and the more consoling Lucille Hardy, who, bickering among themselves but fiercely protective of their husbands, form an almost mirror image double act of their own and deliver some of the film’s best laughs

The screenplay  by Coogan’s long-standing writing partner, Jeff Pope, unfussily gets under each of the character’s skins to explore the person behind the popular image, musing on whether the private and public persona can ever be fully separated, the pair always seeming to be in character as they respond to each other’s quips, asking what their lines would be in such a situation. The film’s charm may be low key, but charm it most assuredly is. (Empire Great Park; MAC; Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe ; 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)

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. (Mockingbird)

 

Screenings courtesy of  Odeon and Cineworld

CINEMAS

Cineworld 5 Ways – 181 Broad St, 0871 200 2000

Cineworld NEC – NEC  0871 200 2000

Cineworld  – Mill Ln, Solihull 071 200 2000

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

Empire – Great Park, Rubery, 0871 471 4714

Empire  Coldfield – Maney Corner, Sutton Coldfield

0871 471 4714

The Everyman – The Mailbox 0871 906 9060

MAC – Cannon Hill Park 0121 446 3232

Mockingbird, Custard Factory  0121 224 7456.

Odeon Birmingham -Birmingham, 0871 224 4007

Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe – Ladywood Middleway, 0333 006 7777

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

Reel – Hagley Rd, Quinton, Halesowen 0121 421 5316

Showcase Walsall – Bentley Mill Way, Walsall 0871 220 1000

Vue Star City – Watson Road, 08712 240 240

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