Hidden Figures (PG)
There’s a reasonable chance that you might know that, in 1962, John Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth. It is, however, extremely unlikely you’ll have ever heard of Katherine Johnson. And yet, without her input, the Mercury program might have taken a lot longer to achieve its goal or, had the launch gone ahead on schedule, Glenn could have died on re-entry. It was Johnson who did the calculations necessary to ensure the safe point of re-entry, but only is her contribution, and that of many other African-American women who worked for the NASA space program, being recognised.
Directed by Theodore Melfi, this aptly titled true story puts the spotlight on Johnson (Taraji P Henson) and her co-workers, Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) and their vital roles in the program. A child maths prodigy, Johnson became one of the three black students to integrate into West Virginia’s graduate schools. In 1952 she got a job at Langley, working as one of the ‘computers’ in the segregated “West Area Computing” division (not machines, but an all black female unit of mathematicians) overseen by Vaughan and was eventually assigned to work on the equations necessary to compute the Mercury program flights, despite being given documents of redacted figures on account of not having security clearance. The same unit also included Jackson, a former maths teacher who became both the first black student to take an after-work course at the segregated Hampton High School, and, in 1958, NASA’s first black female engineer.
The film plays a little loose with the chronology of events (in the film, Vaughan – who teaches herself how to work the new IBM computer that baffles her male colleagues – is seen battling with the racist white department head – Kirsten Dunst – to secure the position of supervisor) while both the program manager, Al Harrison (an excellent Kevin Costner), and chauvinistic chief engineer Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons), who refuses to share either credit or coffee pot with Johnson, are composite figures, but the essentials are all true.
As well as charting the women’s fight to be taken seriously and achieve recognition and equality alongside their male and white counterparts, the film also finds space for a tender love story between the widowed Johnson and National Guard colonel Jim Johnson (Mahershala Ali).
Adopting a sophisticated approach to detailing the racism of the era and in the workplace without shouting from a soapbox, it quietly observes the conditions under which the ‘computers’ worked, as for example Johnson having to walk across the site to use the blacks only toilets in the West Compound, something that gives rise to a potent scene as Harrison literally tackles prejudice with a sledgehammer.
The dialogue and performances, especially those of the three female leads, are top notch, while Melfi deftly balances scenes like Johnson scrawling out calculations on the blackboard with archive footage from the era and recreations of meetings with the NASA team and its astronauts, delivering a film that is as entertaining as it’s inspiring, uplifting and illuminating. (Cineworld 5 Ways, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)
20th Century Women (15)
A quintessential Sundance film, as with Beginners, for which Christopher Plummer won an Oscar as the 75-year-old widower living his last years as a gay man, writer-director Mike Mills draws on his own family history and his mother for Dorothea (an outstanding Annette Bening) a fifty-ish divorced nonconformist mother trying to raise her teenage son Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) with a proper moral outlook on life.
A free-thinking, heavy-smoking independent woman, she owns a sprawling forever being renovated residence in southern California where she sublets rooms to Abbey (Greta Gerwig), a troubled art school would be photographer recovering from cervical cancer and William (Billy Crudup), a good guy handyman/mechanic but with no real sense of direction or purpose. The extended family also includes Jamie’s slightly older best friend, Julie (Elle Fanning), the complicated daughter of a therapist, who regularly sleeps over with him, but, while she’s sexually active, on a purely platonic basis. Jamie, of course, would like their relationships to become something more and the film, a coming of age story for all the characters, essentially is an observation of self-discovery, identity, wants, needs, the mystery of sex (Jamie gets into a fight about the value of clitoral stimulation) and family as Dorothea, who came up through the Depression, asks the other two women to help in raising her son.
Although Mills employs some quirky technical touches, including on screen quotes from such writers as Judy Blume, a clip from Godfrey Reggio’s Koyaanisqatsi, Jimmy Carter’s Crisis of Confidence speech and a reading from a feminist anthology, as well as voiceovers about the future of America and the characters, is very much an old fashioned and warmly poetic character study. At times reminiscent of both John Irving and Richard Linklater, it’s full of poignant and insightful moments in vignettes, among them Dorothea discovering the musical differences between Black Flag and Talking Heads in an attempt to understand Jamie and Abbey’s generation.
All the core performances are terrific, but this is undoubtedly Bening’s film, her Dorothea, graceful mischievous and anxious, part bemused, part scared by the world into which her son is growing, dispensing lines like “Wondering if you’re happy is just a shortcut to being depressed.” Given little by way of promotion and playing on very few screens, it’s likely to disappear without trace, but it’s one of the best films you won’t have seen this year. (Cineworld 5 Ways)
The Founder (12A)
A fascinating history lesson in how McDonalds came to be a globe-spanning franchise, John Lee Hancock’s film also comes with a moral dilemma for its audiences. Should they applaud Ray Kroc (an inspired reptilian Michael Keaton) for his drive and ruthless tenacity (“If my competitor was drowning, I’d go over and put a hose right in his mouth”) in building an empire out of what was a simple single mom and pop fast food takeaway or condemn him for the venality and greed that led him to walk all over the two McDonald brothers with whom he had gone into a Faustian partnership, breaking their contract and denying them their due royalties? Is the film being bitterly ironic or is it, like Wall Street, endorsing the idea that greed is good, especially when it is directly linked to the very idea of America? Given the recent American election, it couldn’t have come at a more timely divisive moment.
When we first meet Kroc, he’s a struggling 52-year-old travelling salesman with a collection of self-motivation records, a smooth line in patter and a long line of failed ventures behind him, his latest being trying to persuade diners and burger joints to invest in one of his multiple mixer machines for their shakes. No one wants to know until, to his disbelief, he calls the office and is told he has an order for six machines in San Bernardino, California. Heading out to from Illinois to see them, he finds eager-to-please Maurice McDonald (John Carroll Lynch) and his less trusting brother Dick (Nick Offerman) who tell him how they set up their burger stand and revolutionised it with their Speedee service system, delivering food in 30 seconds not thirty minutes, doing away with car hop service and plates. The world’s first fast food business.
Dazzled by the possibilities, silver-tongued Kroc persuades them to join forces and let him franchise the idea, opening up McDonald’s across the Midwest. Despite the traditionally-minder Dick’s resistance to many of Kroc’s ideas (“You and your endless parade of nos, cowering in the face of progress”), the concept becomes a huge success. The problem is, the deal they cut means Ray’s still struggling to pay the bills and Dick won’t renegotiate. At which point, the banks refusing to lend any more money, enter both Joan Smith (Linda Cardellini), the wife of one of the new franchisees and her ideas of introducing powdered milkshakes to save on the cost of refrigerating ice cream, and Harry J. Sonneborn (B.J. Novak), who, later to become Ray’s business manager, opened his eyes to the fact that real money lay in owning the land on which the restaurants were built. All of which eventually leads to the big break between Kroc (the wolf in the hen house) and the brothers.
“Business is war,” declares Kroc, and his is a take no prisoners approach, one in which his neglected, long suffering wife (Laura Dern) becomes collateral damage to his single-minded ambition and what ultimately turns out to be a David and Goliath battle between the ones with the integrity and the ones with the money, in which Goliath wins.
Given that the film shows how the whole foundation of McDonald’s global empire is built on an act of deliberate theft, it’s patently not a glowing product placement eulogy (though it will likely boost post-screening sales) and kit doesn’t take much effort to draw the dots between the close almost evangelical identification of the Golden Arches with American values and the American dream (Ray’s explanation of why the Mac was a success whereas the Kroc would not be is especially to the point), a parable that won’t be lost on its post-Trump audiences. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Vue Star City)
The Great Wall (12A)
Zhang Yimou’s first major international release since 2007’s Curse of the Golden Flower, (2012 Christian Bale starrer Flowers of War barely troubling cinemas) this is by far the most lavish and ambitious of his films to date and, with Matt Damon in the lead, one guaranteed to reach audiences far beyond the usual Chinese martial arts fans. The Great Wall took some 1700 years to build and stretches for 5500 miles, inevitably giving rise to any number of legends about its purpose. Here, manned by a permanent army called the Nameless Order and divided into specialist units, many of whom have been there since childhood, it’s designed to keep out a legion of dragon-like monsters known as the Tao Tie, reputedly freed when a green meteor crashed into Gouwu Mountain two thousand years ago and which, led by their queen who’s fed by the bodies of their victims, attack northern China once every sixty years.
Mercenaries in search of the fabled black powder, William Garin (Damon, workmanlike but solid D) and Pero Tovar (Pedro Pascal as the vague comic relief) are captured by the Nameless Order, their leader, General Shao (Zhang Hanyu) impressed by the fact that Garin has with him the claw he severed in killing one of the creatures. While suspicious about their motives, they’re befriended by Lin Mae (Jing Tian), the English-speaking commander of the Crane Corps, female warriors who leap into battle from the wall tethered to ropes, and spared execution, Garin impressing them with his archery skills. When the Tao Tie attack, the pair prove invaluable help, Garin saving the life of a boyish young soldier (Lu Han). Seeing how Lin and the others are prepared to give their lives, not for money, but to protect mankind, Garin comes to reassess his own priorities. Meanwhile, however, Tovar is conspiring with Ballard (Willem Dafoe), a fellow European prisoner, to escape with a cache of gunpowder, fully expecting Garin to join them.
There’s not much more to the plot than that, Damon spelling out the message about finding something worth fighting and dying for, he and Lin developing a grudging mutual respect and friendship, and helping, with the aid of his magnet, to capture a Tao Tia in an attempt to destroy the queen.
Comparisons to Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones are fairly inevitable, especially in the battles against the seemingly endless monstrous hordes who prove rather more cunning than their opponents thought, leading to an epic battle, including giant hot air paper lanterns, in the capital once they breach the Wall. It’s also fair to say that character development and back stories aren’t major aspects of the film’s agenda, but if you want epic, acrobatic and bloody blockbuster action, elegant and agile camerawork, frenetic editing and bold use of colour and lighting, then this is suitably awesome in its scope and execution. (Cineworld 5 Ways, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)
John Wick: Chapter 2 (15)
As rammed preview screenings showed, Keanu Reeves may not be the world’s greatest actor, but he has a huge fan base. With John Wick having proven something of a surprise box office hit in 2014, a sequel was inevitable and this gets underway with what is, essentially, a coda to the original, tying up loose ends as taciturn assassin Wick (Reeves), nicknamed The Boogeyman, takes on the Russian crime organisation led by Abram (Peter Stormare), the brother of the crime boss he took out in the first film in revenge for the shooting of his dog, this time to recover his stolen classic Mustang. Having killed pretty much everyone else, and wrecked the car in the process, he and Abram, himself in awe of Wick’s skills (especially the legend of his killing three men with a pencil, a feat gorily reprised here) agree a truce and Wicks goes home to memories of his dead wife, buries his weapons and looks forward to retirement from the life of a professional hitman.
That doesn’t last long, however, as Santino D’Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio), an Italian criminal playboy to whom Wick owes a blood debt of honour, turns up to cash in his marker. Wick demurs, thereby prompting D’Antonio to blow up his house. Checking into the Continental, a luxury hotel for assassins run by Winston (Ian McShane) where rules demand no ‘business’ is enacted on its grounds, he’s reminded that he’s bound to honour the marker, D’Antonio’s request turning out to be the murder of his sister Gianna (Claudia Gerini), so he can take her seat at the High Table council of the world’s top criminals. Off to Italy and job grudgingly done, although Gianna herself goes a long way to relieving him of the burden, rather than being free to resume his life, Wick now finds himself the target of the city’s apparently countless undercover assassins (some posing as buskers, some as cleaners) when D’Antonio, cynically seeking to avenge his sister, puts out a $7m contract.
Having parked his new dog at the hotel, the rest of the film pretty much just involves Wick battling Gianna’s former bodyguard (Common), D’Antonio’s henchmen, led by mute Ares (Ruby Rose) and assorted assassins looking to cash in, delivering both kinetic, balletic action sequences and an incredibly high bodycount, Wick always ensuring to pop at last one final bullet into ever body, just to be sure.
Reeves’ stunt double in The Matrix, Chad Stahelski returns to the directing seat and delivers the bloody mayhem with stylish panache and visual flair, including a terrific climax in a hall of mirrors, while punctuating things with such flourishes as onscreen captions. Amid all the action and firefights, there’s a nice sense of humour at work too, underlining that things shouldn’t be taken too seriously, whether in the strict protocol governing assassin rules, the extensive network that takes in specialist tailors and Orthodox Jewish bankers, or a marvellous scene with Peter Serafinowicz as the Continental’s sommelier, advising Wick on choice of weapons as if they were fine wines. There’s also an appearance by Laurence Fishburne as inner-city assassin the Bowery King as well as brief turns by Franco Nero and David Patrick Kelly, while, dressed in his trademark cool three-piece black suit, Reeves makes hugely effective use of his expressionless style. It ends with Wick declared excommunicado for breaking hotel rules, setting up Chapter 3 in which the contract is extended worldwide. Can’t wait. (Cineworld 5 Ways, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)
Written and directed by Barry Jenkins and laden with Oscar nominations, though, surprisingly, not for any of the actors playing the central character across different ages, this is an arty but emotional look at life for gay black men in America, one that, other than one brief moment, discreetly shot from behind, deliberately avoids any sexual elements.
Divided into three chapters, it opens with Little, detailing the life of the titular black schoolboy Chiron (Alex Hibbert), growing up in 80s inner city Miami, struggling with his confused sexuality, school bullying and a junkie nurse mother, Paula (ferociously played by an unrecognisable Naomie Harris), and taken under the wing of Juan (Oscar nominee Mahershala Ali), a drug dealer who becomes his surrogate father and whom in one painfully poignant moment, is asked to explain what a faggot is. At school, Chiron strikes up a tentative friendship with classmate Kevin (Jaden Piner), developing feelings that play out across the following two chapters.
Juan having passed away, part two, Chiron, finds the boy now a teenager (Ashton Sanders), still harassed by school bullies (here Terrel played by Patrick Decile), still befriended by Kevin (Jharrel Jerome), who calls him Black, and still calling on Juan’s girlfriend Teresea (Janelle Monae) when things get bad at home. He’s learned to hide his sexuality and developed a tough attitude, but is still haunted by his uncertain identity, something that reinforces his position as an outcast. As the chapter moves to its conclusion, it shifts from the tender beach scene of the first sexual contact to Chiron exploding in anger at Terrel, who goaded Kevin into beating him up as part of a ‘game’, and being taken away by the cops.
The final chapter, Black, fast forward ten years, after spending time in juvenile detention, a bulked up Chiron (Trevante Rhodes) is now living in Atlanta and has followed Juan into pushing drugs. One night he gets an out of the blue call from Kevin (Andre Holland), apologising for what happened. He invites him to visit and, briefly stopping over to see his mother, now a burned out woman in a rest home, wracked with guilt over the way she treated her son, he drives to Miami for a reunion, not quite knowing what he expects to happen, especially on finding Kevin a married father, full of regret that life didn’t turn out as he anticipated.
The classroom incident aside, there’s no major dramas, but rather a small scale, slow burn examination of identity, both as black and gay, of the effects of poverty and of masculinity and how it can become toxic in the face of destructive external influences and cultural pressures. Making effective use of soundtrack and imagery, Jenkins avoids both cliché and sentimentality, but never softens the blows in showing how the stigma of being gay in a macho black culture can lead to both devastating alienation and self-destructive violence. (Cineworld 5 Ways; Empire Great Park; Odeon Broadway Plaza; Vue Star City)
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (12A)
J.K. Rowling makes a dazzling screenwriting debut as, with David Yates directing, she returns to the wizarding world for the first of five films based around the Hogwarts textbook of the title written by magizoologist and former student Newt Scamander (a superb Eddie Redmayne).
Expelled from Hogwarts over an incident regarding one such beast, at that time regarded as dangerous and feared by the wizarding community, the freckle-faced, tweed-jacketed and slightly clumsy Newt arrives in Prohibition-era New York carrying a suitcase containing a whole menagerie of creatures that he is trying to keep safe. Unfortunately, a faulty lock sees one of them, a Niffler (a sort of cross between a mole and a duck billed platypus with a penchant for collecting shiny objects) escapes and Newt’s search to recover it leads him to cross paths with Jacob Kowalski (a charming Dan Fogler), a portly No-Maj (as Muggles are called in America) factory worker with dreams of opening a bakery, with whom he accidentally switched cases. Soon there’s even more beasts on the loose and Newt is arrested by Porpentina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), a former aura with the Macusa (the US equivalent of the Ministry of Magic) trying to get back in its good books after an incident saw her demoted to clerical work.
With a dark wizard by the name of Grindelward waging a magical war on humans, things are edgy in America where the Macusa, headed by female president Seraphina Picquery (Carmen Ejogo), have outlawed all beasts and are doing everything to prevent their wizarding kind becoming known. Meanwhile, the puritanical Mary Lou Barebone (Samantha Morton), with her legion of adopted children, among them Credence (Ezra Miller) and his ‘sisters’ Modesty (Faith-Wood Blagrove) and Chastity (Jenn Murray), is crusading to expose the witches she claims to be threatening the American way of life, calling for a Second Salem.
Unbeknownst to her, Credence is having secret meetings with Percival Grace (Colin Farrell), a power-hungry senior aura looking to get his hands on the unidentified child host of the Obscurial (a swirling elemental force of dark magic) that is causing swathes of destruction throughout the city.
Now, joined by Joe, who he was unable to obliviate, Tina and her mind-reading sister Queenie (Alison Sudol), who takes a fancy to their Mo-Maj accomplice, Newt has to both recapture all the escaped creatures (one of whom just happens to be invisible) and prevent Grace from carrying out his hidden agenda.
The film keeps Newt’s backstory limited to just a few hints, allowing for more to develop over the course of the series, and keeps the focus very much on the central narrative, although it does find time for some stupendous diversions, such as the bank chase, a journey inside the suitcase to where the creatures are kept – one of whom, a sort of giant rhino, develops an unfortunate desire to mate with Joe – a magical dinner at Tina’s place and a visit to a wizarding speakeasy to get some vital info from low life goblin Gnarlack (Ron Perlman).
Barebone’s witch-hunt clearly serves as a political allegory for the fear and bigotry abroad in Trump’s America, providing for some very dark moments that include the murder of the Senator son of newspaper magnate Henry Shaw (Jon Voight) and the beatings of Credence by his ‘mother’. But, there’s much fun too and the breathtaking visuals mean there’s so much going on in the background you’ll need – and want – to see this over and over.
The closing reveal sets things up for the ongoing Potter/Voldermort styled battle between Scamander and Grindleward (a late Johnny Depp cameo), but, like the Potter movies, this is also a fully self-contained, toweringly spectacular adventure, and, dare I say it, even better than its Hogwarts predecessors. (Vue Star City)
Making its stage debut in 1983, August Wilson’s play won both a Tony and Pulitzer in 1987, but, despite attempts to bring it to the screen, Wilson refused permission unless it had a black director. It took 33 years, but, finally, Denzel Washington has taken on the mantle, both behind the camera and starring as Troy Maxson, a refuse truck collector in 50s Pittsburgh, embittered at how segregation cut short his career as a baseball player and the racist attitudes that have him at the rear of the truck rather than driving it. Washington played the same role on Broadway in 2010 and he’s brought several of the same cast with him, Mykelti Williamson as his brain-damaged war veteran brother, Gabriel, Russell Hornsby as his eldest son (by a previous marriage), aspirant and permanently broke jazz musician Lyons, and, most notably, BAFTA winner Viola Davis as Rose, his loyal, supportive wife of 18 years, a role she also played in the 1987 revival
However, Troy’s bitterness and self-pity has been eating away at both the marriage and their younger son, Cory (Jovan Adepo) who sees his tough love father’s refusal to support his aspiration to play college football as jealousy over chances he never had.
Largely set in Troy’s house or the backyard where he holds court, swigging gin as he jokes around, tells fanciful stories and bemoans life to best friend Bono (Stephen Henderson), it gradually builds to a reveal the devastating secret Troy’s been hiding from his wife, offering Davis the monologue that undoubtedly earned her Oscar nomination.
However, as good as both she and Washington’s complex, sympathy-shifting portrayal are, the film never escapes its theatrical origins, whether in the carefully appointed set, heavy-handed symbolism and metaphors or the cadence of the dialogue, reinforcing its comparisons to a black answer to Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. Also, after the slow burn build to the heartbreaking climax, the aftermath coda feels somewhat limp, never delivering the emotional epiphany it seeks. (Cineworld 5 Ways; Empire Great Park; Electric; Everyman; Vue Star City)
Fifty Shades Darker (18)
Hardware stores saw a boost in trade with the first adaptation of E.L. James’ S&M trilogy, but, while sales in pleasure balls may be boosted, part two puts more emphasis on the relationship between Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) and the ludicrously wealthy Christian Grey (Jamie Doran) than the kinky sex, though that’s not to say there aren’t some steamy – and indeed sexy – sequences and a visit to the Red Room. Picking up from the end of the first film, she’s now assistant to Jack Hyde, her red alert named senior editor at the publishing company, but miserable after breaking up with Grey. But then, suddenly, he’s back in her life, swearing he’s changed, that he wants her back, can’t live without her and even opening up about himself. He wants to renegotiate terms, so, she decides to give him another chance, provided they take it slow, with no rules and no secrets, and walk before they run. However, it’s not long before she decides she likes running and what loosely passes for a plot gets underway with Grey’s sexual mentor (Kim Basinger) warning Anastasia off, Hyde making a pass and the mentally disturbed Leila (Bella Heathcote), one of his earlier submissives, stalking her.
Since, written by Niall Leonard, this could easily fit into a half hour TV episode with room to spare, director James Foley fleshes out the running time with a swathe of increasingly opulent wealth-dripping scenes, including a masked ball, a lavish birthday bash, a yacht and any number of hugely expensive offices and houses. The longer it goes on the soapier it gets, becoming a sort of X-rated Dynasty complete with a helicopter crash and, not one, but two marriage proposal scenes, although the second is, admittedly, rather more extravagant than the first.
There’s a few more insights into why Grey is the way he is; his junkie birth mom died when he was four and, presumably, one of her lovers got off on stubbing cigarettes out on the boy’s chest, scarring him both physically and mentally, though it’s hard to resist the giggles when he has Anastasia a draw a lipstick boundary around his pecs to mark a no go area. He also apparently has a thing for Vin Diesel movie The Chronicles of Riddick. Unfortunately, insight into Anastasia doesn’t get much deeper than how nothing measured up to those Austen and Bronte romantic novels. The core cast are back too, among them thankless roles for photographer friend Jose (Victor Rasuk), flatmate Kate (Eloise Mumford), and Christian’s sister Mia (Rita Ora), though Marcia Gay Harden gets somewhat more to do as protective adoptive mom Grace.
For long stretches it goes flaccid and meanders along as if looking for some sense of direction, and then rushes headlong to the finale, the last shot reappearance of one of the characters setting up what promises to be more of a thriller styled conclusion, possibly finally giving Christian’s fleet of bodyguards something to actually do. Still, there’s more intentional humour this time around, making it rather more fun that the self-seriousness of the first film and even something resembling, if not heat, then at least a mild glow between Doran and Johnson. It’s not darker by any means, but, to borrow one of the lines, it’s not blandly vanilla either. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Electric; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)
Inspired by the story of Canadian mining prospector David Walsh who, in 1995, became the toast of Wall Street when his company struck gold in Indonesia, only for things to turn out to be not quite what they seemed, this is essentially another cautionary tale about greed can blind you. Directed by Stephen Gaghan, it stars Matthew McConaughey, sporting pot belly, seriously receding hairline and a snaggle tooth giving a deglamourised performance as Kenny Wells, a sweaty, ageing mineral prospector with the gift of the gab whose late father’s once huge mining company has gone under, he and the remaining salesmen now hustling out of the Nevada diner where girlfriend Kay (Bryce Dallas Howard) works. Then, one night, he quite literally has a dream about finding gold in the Indonesian jungle and, pawning the last of their valuables, jets out to hook up with Mike Acosta (Edgar Ramirez), a maverick geologist who made his name discovering a massive copper mine.
Acosta’s looking for gold, but can’t get finance, which is where Kenny comes in, promising to raise whatever it takes. Pretty much operating by the seat of their pants, unable to get any of the Wall Street big boys to buy in, things almost go under. But, when Kenny wakes from a severe bout of malaria, Mike tells him they’ve struck gold. In fact, it would appear they have found the biggest goldmine in decades. Inevitably, these same Wall Street boys now become vultures looking to get a piece of the action, among them his father’s old friend Clive (Stacey Keach), Brian Woolf (Corey Stoll), an investment firm go-getter who tries to swing a partnership, and heavyweight Mark Hancock (an oddly accented Bruce Greenwood) who wants to buy the pair out. And then there’s the corrupt politicians to contend with too.
Suffice to say that having gone from riches to rags and back to riches, Kenny finds himself back to rags again. Except, driven by his dream and his obsession rather than the money (he turns down $300 million), he and Mike manage to reverse fortunes yet again, even if he does lose Kay somewhere along the ride. But, as flashforward scenes of him being interviewed by an FBI agent (Tony Kebbell) about the overnight disappearance of several hundred million dollars indicate, the see saw isn’t over yet.
Without giving too much away, it seems not everyone was being totally honest about what went down in Indonesia (there’s a nice in joke magazine cover titled Fool’s Gold, a previous McConaughey film), although the screenplay keeps one card up its sleeve to twist in the final moments.
Events occasionally moved along by voiceover as well as constant stream of 80s hits, it is, undoubtedly, overlong with something of a repetitive narrative, while the screenplay doesn’t trust the audience to get the blinded by greed message and feels the need to drop in lines spelling it out. It never gets to play in the same big leagues as Wolf of Wall Street, Boiler Room or The Big Short, all of which it echoes, but, even so, McConaughey’s underdog trying to grab a better kennel keeps you engaged, even if the end leaves you to question everything you’ve just seen and heard. (MAC)
Hacksaw Ridge (15)
It would seem that Mel Gibson’s rehabilitation in Hollywood has taken a giant leap forward, the film landing both Best Picture and Best Director nominations. And deservedly so because, quite simply, this is the first great war movie of the 21st century. Earning himself an Academy Best Actor nod to go with his BAFTA nomination, Andrew Garfield gives an outstanding performance as Desmond Doss, a Seventh-day Adventist from smalltown Virginia who, having taught himself medicine, believing it his duty to enlist in WWII, signed up with the intention of serving as a medic. He found himself assigned to an infantry company, but his beliefs and faith would not allow him to touch a gun (another, more personal reason, is revealed towards the end), leading him to be ostracised by the other men.
Although faced with court-martial, he was finally allowed to serve without carrying a weapon, going on to take part in the fighting at Okinawa where, in the bloody battle for the titular escarpment, after the survivors has retreated, he remained and single-handedly saved 75 of his fellow soldiers, becoming the only conscientious objector to be awarded the Medal of Honor in WWII.
The first half of the film lays out Doss’s childhood and background, the son of housewife Bertha (Rachel Griffiths) and carpenter and WWI veteran father Tom (Hugo Weaving) who, traumatised at seeing his friends killed, has become an abusive alcoholic. Dropping out of school to support the family, it follows his goofily smiling courtship of Dorothy (Teresa Palmer), a nurse at the local hospital, and, to his father’s anger, his decision to follow his brother Harold (never mentioned again after he joins up) and enlist.
The second half divides itself between basic training, with Vince Vaughn providing a nice line in drill sergeant humour, and the problems his beliefs create for him with his fellow infantrymen and superior officers who try and force him to quit, before the scene shifts to the battle for Okinawa. From the moment the first soldier climbs on to the top of the ridge, the film becomes the visceral vision of hell glimpsed in the opening teaser, quite literally splattered with blood and guts as Americans and Japanese alike are ripped apart or incinerated while, repeating the mantra of “God, please help me get one more”, Doss tries to save the same men who had treated him like a leper.
As with Saving Private Ryan, it involves you with the other men too, in particular tough guy Smitty (Luke Bracey) who regards Doss as a coward, and, naturally, as they see him in action under fire, contempt turns to respect, powerfully summed Unec, p in a scene between Doss and his commanding officer (Sam Worthington). But this is no easy ride for either him or the audience, Gibson expertly choreographing the action as themes of courage, duty and faith make this a war film with a potent moral and ethical struggle core. There’s not much chance of its upsetting the expected La La Land sweep, but it deserves its badge of honour every bit as much as Doss himself. (Odeon Broadway Plaza; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)
La La Land (12A)
Having scored all of the big BAFTAs except Best Actor, and likely to do the same at the Oscars, where it’s received a staggering 14 nominations, its title a reference to its Hollywood setting, writer-director Damien Chazelle’s follow-up to Whiplash is a love letter to the golden age of musicals that manages to be timeless while simultaneously striking contemporary notes, combining the polish of 50s song and dance movies with the energetic flash of things like Fame.
It opens in spectacular style with a one-take sequence staged on and around cars queuing on an LA freeway flyover wherein the film’s central couple, Mia (Emma Stone), an aspiring actress working in a coffee shop on the Warner Bros studio lot, and Seb (Ryan Gosling), a jazz pianist purist with dreams of opening his own club, have a fleeting heated interchange.
Beginning in Winter, the film first follows Mia as, after another unsuccessful audition, she’s persuaded to join her flatmates for a night out and winds up drawn into a jclub by the sound of a jazz piano. Here she sees Seb, just as he’s being fired by the manager (JK Simmons) for slipping in one of his free-jazz improvisations, but he brusquely brushes past her as she tries to introduce herself. The film starts again, this time following Seb who lives in a run-down apartment, telling his exasperated sister that he’s just waiting for life to get tired of beating up on him, at which point he’ll make his move.
Moving on a season, fate contrives to have Mia and Seb meet again at a party where he’s slumming it with an 80s syth rock covers band and their connection begins to take root. They dance together on the hills overlooking LA and again at the Griffith Observatory in a magic realism waltz through the stars. Moving in together, she continues with her auditions and Seb lands a keyboard gig with an old friend (John Legend) who now has his own jazz-rock outfit called The Messengers.
They become a huge success and, forever away on tour, Seb encourages Mia to write and star in her own one-woman play. It is from here that things, because they go right for their conflicting ambitions, start to go wrong for them as a couple as the film focuses on the sacrifices that need to be made to achieve your dreams.
Neither of them professional singers or dancers, Stone and Gosling are terrific, their chemistry, in both the musical and dramatic sequences, lighting up the screen. Sprinkling the film with nods to Hollywood history and icons like Bergman and Monroe while also injecting some barbed commentary on the contemporary industry, it may have a certain cynicism, but it never loses sight of the heart that drives the narrative.
The film ends with a postscript, set five years on, catching up with the pair’s lives and fortunes with a scene that echoes their first actual meeting and offers both the real life ending and the fantasy happy ever after one of Hollywood musicals. It’s an exhilarating, heartburstingly romantic sweep you off your feet affair that will put a spring in your step and seems destined to become every bit a classic as the films to which it pays homage. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)
The Lego Batman Movie (U)
The follow-up to 2014’s The Lego Movie is an irreverent send-up of Batman and the world of DC superheroes in general, but balances the comedy with a strong no man is an island message about not shutting yourself off from friends and family. Or, indeed, your enemies as, hurt that the humourless, narcissistic Batman (Will Arnett) won’t recognise they have a mutual hate relationship and refuses to accept he’s his greatest foe, the secretly sensitive Joker (Zach Galifianakis) hatches a plot to get sent to the Phantom Zone so he can free all the bad guys there to help him destroy Gotham. And, as if that wasn’t enough, Batman has to contend with eager new sidekick, Robin (Michael Cera), alias Dick Grayson, the orphan he accidentally adopted while dazzled as the Major (Mariah Carey) introduced the new Police Commissioner Barbara Gordon (Rosario Dawson), who wants him and the law to work together, and the attempts by tough-love butler Alfred (Ralph Fiennes) to get him to face his greatest fear – family.
Opening with a Batman voiceover saying how every important movie starts with a black screen, the film is playfully self-referencing (there’s even a clip from the Adam West TV series) and plunges right into the action as Batman takes on and defeats a whole army of super-villains, is hailed as Gotham’s saviour once again and then goes home to the emptiness of Wayne Manor. Still scarred by his parents’ murder, Wayne has shut himself off from any emotional feelings or relationships, that way he can’t get hurt. He even watches the Tom Cruise romance Jerry Maguire as if it’s a comedy.
While the Dark Knight probed Batman’s dark side, it never went as deep into what makes him tick as this one does. And yet, for all its serious psychoanalytical observations, it remains a huge explosion of fun, which, let’s face it, is what the audience have gone for.
Goaded by The Joker, Batman plans to steal the weapon needed to banish him to the Phantom Zone (leading to an amusing scene as he visits Superman’s Fortress of Solitude to find the Man of Steel (Channing Tatum) hanging out with the other Justice League superheroes at a party to which he’s not been invited). Ignoring Commissioner Gordon’s warnings, Batman falls victim to Joker’s manipulations, leading to the escape from the Zone of the worst of the worst villains, among them Sauron, the Gremlins, Voldemort (Eddy Izzard), Godzilla, King Kong, Oz’s flying monkeys and even the Daleks.
To defeat them, he has to realise that it’s okay to accept help, just as it’s okay to accept family (and finally let Dick call him dad) as he joins forces with not only Alfred (wearing a retro Batman costume), Barbara and Robin (the origin of the costume another cute joke), but also pretty much every DC super hero and villain you can think of, including Harlequin, Bane, Green Lantern (Jonah Hill) and, er, The Condiment King. Although there are moments of quite melancholy, for the most part this is a dizzying hyperkinetic whirlwind of nonstop entertainment. Top that Ben Affleck! (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)
One night in 1986, Saroo (Sunny Pawar), a five-year-old Indian boy from an impoverished village near Khandwa, where his illiterate mother (Priyanka Bose) works as a manual labourer, accompanies his older brother Guddu (Abhishek Bharate) to a railway station. While Guddu goes to look for work, Saroo is left to sleep on a bench. Awaking, with Guddu not returned, he tries to look for him, climbs aboard a decommissioned train and falls asleep. When he wakes, he’s miles away and, unable to disembark, remains on the deserted train until it stops in Calcutta, 930 miles from his home, two days later. Wandering the streets, he’s eventually taken to an orphanage for street kids and, when attempts to find his village and family prove fruitless, it’s arranged for him to be adopted by a kindly Australian couple, John and Sue Brierley (David Wenham, Nicole Kidman), who live in Tasmania.
Some 20 years later, now with another adoptive brother, the troubled Mantosh, studying for hotel management and memories of his previous life having faded along with his ability to speak Hindi, a plate of jalebis prompts sensory memories of his childhood and, plagued by thoughts of his lost brother, mother and sister Shekila, Saroo (BAFTA winner Dev Patel, bizarrely Oscar nominated as Best Supporting Actor) begins an intensive Google Earth search to track down his birthplace, Ganestelay, of which no one had ever heard, a quest that drives him to the edge of breakdown.
Making a few inevitable dramatic changes (fictional American girlfriend, Lucy, played by Rooney Mara, is based on his actual then girlfriend Lisa), director Garth Davis works directly from Brierley’s acclaimed memoir, A Long Way Home, to provide a first person perspective, though, thankfully, without any annoying voice over exposition.
A career best performance by Patel is well matched by an understated, but powerful Oscar- nominated turn from a deglamourised Kidman with Pawal especially endearing and vulnerable as young Saroo. However, while it never goes for manipulative sentimentality as it addresses themes of isolation, identity, family and brotherhood, the second half of Saroo’s story is never quite as engaging as the first with its images of life for India’s homeless and lost children. That said, as it reaches the eventual reunion, audiences will be reaching for their tissues. And the title? Like Saroo’s village, that’s a lexical misunderstanding you’ll have to wait until the final scenes to uncover. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)
Manchester By the Sea (12A)
BAFTA Best Actor winner, Casey Affleck gives a low key career best performance as Lee Chandler, a taciturn, socially withdrawn and short-fused Boston janitor, who, called back to his Massachusetts hometown on the death of his older brother Joe (Kyle Chandler), learns that, the boy’s alcoholic mother (Gretchen Mole) long having abandoned the family, he’s been named as guardian for his 16-year-old nephew, Patrick (Oscar nominee Lucas Hedges), something for which he feels singularly ill-equipped. Not least on account of the heartrending tragedy that led to his divorce from wife Randi (Michelle Williams, also nominated) and forced him to leave several years earlier and which has tormented him ever since.
Returning to the scene, where people still give him looks, brings the pain to the surface once more as he tries to deal with both his and Patrick’s emotions and find a way to offload the responsibility to someone else, possibly Joe’s friend George (CJ Wilson). Yet, when his now dry and remarried former sister-in-law makes unexpected contact, he’s wary of her re-entering Patrick’s life.
Written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan, it’s earned best director, screenplay and film nominations at the upcoming Oscars. Opening in winter and set over the changing seasons as flashbacks gradually fill in the backstory, it’s a sprawling, slow burn, subdued and carefully measured character-driven work, punctuated by occasional explosive outbursts, and, as such, requires focus and patience for its power and the overwhelming sense of grief with which it is suffused to be fully felt.
Not that it’s unrelentingly downcast. With the lippy Patrick juggling two girlfriends, as well as an awkward dinner table moment involving Mol and Matthew Broderick, there’s an element of humour. But this too is coloured by the way Patrick deals with his father’s death by trying to hang on to the life he has as well as wanting to renovate the creaky and near clapped-out trawler in which the two of them (and, in earlier days, Lee) went fishing.
Working from Lonergan’s insightful BAFTA-winning screenplay which less concerns redemption than the struggle to cope, Affleck is outstanding as a man living – or just existing – with unimaginable grief and guilt, his brooding demeanour, implacable expression and distant gaze stare a mask to his inner anger and self-loathing, but it’s arguably Williams (earning supporting actress nominations) who makes the biggest emotional impact with a brief but devastating scene towards the end that underscores the film’s comparisons to Ordinary People. One it well deserves. (Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza; Walsall Showcase; Sat/Tue:Electric)
The latest in Disney’s line of empowered princesses, Moana (Auli’i Cravalho) is the daughter of Sina (Nicole Scherzinger) and Tui (Temuera Morrison), the chief of her Polynesian tribe, who live on the Pacific island of Motunui. It’s paradise, everyone happily living off coconuts and fish and content with the way things are. Well, not everyone. Moana is drawn to the ocean and wants to know what lies out there. However, haunted by a past tragedy, dad firmly insists that no one ever venture beyond the reef and that Moana should focus her attention on preparing to take her place as his successor. She’s encouraged, however, by her eccentric gran, Gramma Tala (Rachel House) who reveals to Moana the secret of the tribe’s past that has been long kept hidden.
She’s also the one who, in the opening scenes, is telling toddler Moana (Louise Bush) and the other kids, about how shape-shifting demigod Maui (Dwayne Johnson) stole the jade-coloured heart of Te Fiti, the island goddess, unleashing lava monster Te Ka, who knocked him from the skies, sending his magical fishhook, the source of his powers, into the water. It is, of course, all just myth. Or so Moana thinks until, one day by the water’s edge, a wave comes to life and deposits a shiny green stone in her path. Which is when dad turns up and spoils everything.
Fast forward several years and things aren’t looking so good. The coconut trees are dying and there’s no fish. According to Gramma, the only way the curse can be lifted is if Maui returns the heart he stole. Fortunately, she’s been holding on to it all this time, waiting for the moment when Moana is ready to embrace her destiny as the ocean’s chosen one.
And so, telling no one, accompanied by her stowaway cross-eyed chicken Heihei (clucked by Alan Tudyk) and assisted by a helpful wave, she duly sets off to find the macho Maui, the film becoming a reluctant mismatched buddies quest as she learns to be who she is and he learns humility, of sorts. Marrying Disney’s staple have the courage to be who you are meant to be message with a cautionary ecological tale, it draws on Samoan, Tahitian and Fijian oral traditions to engaging effect. It is also self-aware enough to poke fun at the Disney clichés, such that when Moana protests she’s no princess, Maui quips “If you wear a dress and have an animal sidekick, you’re a princess” while, later he warns her against bursting into song.
Cravhalo brings a lively spark to Moana, while, his character sporting animated tattoos, including a Mini-Maui which serves as his conscience, Johnson is a self-mocking joy, providing the bulk of the film’s laughs, but also serving to explore nature of being a hero and the power of friendship. The film also comes with a couple of terrific set pieces, one involving the pair being attacked by an armada of diminutive pirates in coconut shells and the other a giant crab (Jemaine Clement) version of Gollum that collects pretty shiny things, Maui’s fishhook among them. And, to balance the new agey spirituality, there’s also some gags about peeing in the water.
The songs may not have the mass appeal of Let It Go, but nevertheless girl power anthem How Far I’ll Go is a belter and Clement’s Bowie-channelling Shiny another highlight. Whether it has the innovation to challenge Zootopia, also written by Jared Bush, for the animation Oscar remains to be seen, but it certainly knocks Finding Dory out of the water. (Vue Star City)
Resident Evil: The Final Chapter (15)
Although the final scene keeps the door open for continuing adventures, this, the sixth in the series all written and mostly directed by Paul W.S. Anderson and starring wife Milla Jovovich, does draw a line under the long-running post-apocalypse saga of the battle between the Umbrella corporation and Alice (Jovovich), the enhanced is she/isn’t she clone of Alicia Marcus, the daughter of the corporation’s murdered, co-founder, whose mind was used to create the Red Queen artificial intelligence programme which takes the hologram of a little girl, in a world devastated by the zombies created as a side effect of the T-Virus designed to eradicate all illnesses. It turns out that the apparently not dead Umbrella CEO Dr Isaacs (Iain Glenn) to unleash an airborne antidote to cleanse the world so that the rich and powerful, cryogenically frozen in The Hive, can then take over. Which is why, picking up a few weeks after the last installment and blithely dispensing with logical narrative continuity, the Red Queen (Ever Anderson), who wanted to destroy humanity in the previous film but now wants to save it, tells Alice she has to get back to Raccoon City, where it all began and stop them. Of course, as she herself is infected, that means she’ll die too, Got all that?
Which basically boils down to a long Mad Max aping chase/battle with Isaacs in his armoured tank and the undead hordes in his wake and then another one at the survivors’ stronghold in Raccoon City, where she’s reunited with Claire Redfield (Ali Larter) from Extinction for another battle against Isaacs, this time inside The Hive itself.
As such, it does what’s expected of it, no more, no less, with an assortment of CGI creatures (this adds a dragon to the tally in a particularly inventive opener as she battles it with a Hummer), relentless explosions and fights, scenery chewing from Glen and the flat but ever-entertaining delivery by a leather-clad Jovovich, along with her impressive athleticism, which this time includes taking out a bunch of tooled-up goons while suspended upside-down from a harness. In a plot twist as incredulous and improbably as it is ingenious, she also gets to play another version of herself. Hardly great art or great cinema, nonetheless the series has been an entertaining ride and, if this really does close the book, it goes out in fine style. (Cineworld 5 Ways; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza)
Just like the recent Blair Witch reboot, this latest attempt to resurrect the 1998 Japanese horror is as redundant as it is dull, passing itself off as a sequel while essentially simply recycling the original. The premise, if you missed the genuinely terrifying original or the mediocre American ring cycle remakes, is that you watch a certain videotape and then, seven days later you die, unless you copy it and show it to someone else. The most spine-chilling moment in the original film is when Samara, the ghost girl in the well, black hair draped across her face, appears on a flickering TV screen and then crawls out of it into the room. However, that’s now been done so often it warrants only a passing shiver. Director F. Javier Gutiérrez tries to re-inject some of the terror in the opening sequence, which takes place on a plane, as Samara appears on all the passengers TV screens leading to, well, you know what. After this handy reminder, the film switches to the narrative protagonists, Julia (Matilda Lutz), who stays behind to look after her sick mom when boyfriend Holt (Alex Roe) leaves for college, keeping in touch with him via nightly Skype calls. Until, that is, he disappears, promoting her to head out to try and find him. Enter surly Professor Gabriel (Johnny Galecki) whose research team (and yes, Holt was one of them) is investigating the source of the alleged death tape, rather recklessly by taking it in turns to watch it, and Samara’s background. But, basically, isn’t that what Naomi Watts tried to do in the previous sequels?
Sure there’s tension, it looks good and the cast provide solid enough performances, but it doesn’t go anywhere the ideas hasn’t been before while the whole idea of videotapes now seems like something off the ark, although, to be fair, that is subsequently for to the file sharing generation. So, creepy small town, creepy house, creepy old lady and creepy blind man (Vincent D’Donofrio) all get wheeled out, but all to yawn effect. Bored of the Rings, indeed. (Odeon Broadway Plaza; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (12A)
The signature John Williams theme may be absent, but the first of the standalone Star Wars spin-offs sets a high standard , serving as a prequel to 1997’s A New Hope (hope being a word that occurs repeatedly) to detail how Princess Leia came to be in possession of the knowledge about the fatal flaw that enabled the rebellion to destroy the Death Star.
As with last year’s The Force Awakens, George Lucas’ contribution is limited to inspiration and acknowledgement, and, like its predecessor, the film is all the better for it. Directed by Nuneaton-born Gareth Edwards, taking an even greater leap into the blockbuster leagues after 2014’s Godzilla, and with a screenplay by Chris Weitz (Cinderella) and Tony Gilroy (the Bourne films), it opens on the volcanic planet of Lah’mu with Imperial-scientist-turned-farmer Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen) being tracked down by the hissably terse white-caped Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn), the man in charge of the Death Star project, and, his wife murdered, forced to return to finish the work he began on the weapon of mass destruction. His young daughter, however, escapes capture and is rescued and raised by Rebel fighter Saw Gerrera (Forest Whittaker).
Fast forward 20 years and, going under an alias, the now grown Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) is a thief doing time on a labour camp prison, until, that is, she’s broken out by Rebellion spy Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) and his scene-stealing hulking reprogrammed Imperial security droid K-2SO (drolly voiced by Alan Tudyk providing the bulk of the spare sarcastic comedic lines).
It seems that her father persuaded an Imperial fighter pilot, Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed), to defect, giving him a message about the Death Star to pass to Gerrera, now a maverick zealot, with several mechanical body parts. The Rebellion need Jyn to get to Gerrera, to find out what the message contains.
In many ways, this is an old fashioned war movie (particularly in the aerial combat sequences as the film cuts from one Group Leader to the next, each delivering their couple of lines of gung ho dialogue) and, in many ways, the plot to infiltrate the Imperial base to find Jyn’s father and retrieve the vital information recalls the likes of ultimate sacrifice WWII dramas such as The Heroes of Telemark, Where Eagles Dare or even The Dirty Dozen.
While there’s references to the Jedi, there aren’t actually any in the film, although you do get blind Jedha monk Zatoichi martial artist Chirrut Imwe (Donnie Yen) striving to connect to the Force and who, along with sidekick Baze Malbus (Wen Jiang), eventually forms part of the Rogue One team leading the assault on the Imperial stronghold.
Likewise, not until the final moments is there even a glimpse of a lightsabre, although it has to be said, the moment it appears, flashing red in the hands of one of the two brief appearances by Darth Vader (voiced again by James Earl Jones), the thrill is palpable.
Although you do get a cameos by C-3PO and R2-D2, there’s none of the playing young tone evident in the original Episodes, indeed, from Cassian shooting an informant in the back (Daniel May’s performance well deserving his fate) to the slaughter-crammed climax, this is predominantly very dark and grown up. Edwards handles the set pieces well and the special effects rise to the occasion, not least in the Hiroshima-like destruction of Jedah and the spectacular attack by the Rebel X-wing fighters on the Imperial fleet. However, by far the most impressive is the digital resurrection of Peter Cushing, who died 20 years ago, playing Death Star commander Moff Tarkin, the role he took back in 1977. Indeed, his is one the film’s best performances. Given the fact it’s been splashed all over the media, it’s no spoiler to say there’s also another digital cameo, with a brief final shot of the young Carrie Fisher as Leia.
While not, perhaps, as physical or charismatic a performance as Daisy Ridley’s Rey, Birmingham-born Jones is undeniably very good in what is, essentially, very much an ensemble cast, while Luna, Ahmed, Mendelsohn and, albeit slightly underused, Whittaker, are all impressive finding depth in their sometimes lightly sketched characters. Long time fans also get to see Genevieve O’Reilly reprise her Revenge of the Sith role as Rebellion Senator Mon Mothma. A rare occasion of the prequel being better than the film it sets up, this may well prove to be the very best of the Star Wars franchise (Vue Star City)
Essentially an animal version of The X-Factor, Brit director Garth Jennings charts the well worn plot (last served in The Muppet Movie) of putting on a show to save the theatre. Here, the strapped impresario is a koala named Buster Moon (Matthew McConaughey) who’s inherited his love of theatre, and the theatre itself, from his father,. However, times have changed and his productions have all been flops. He’s broke, the place has seen better days and his llama bank manager is looking to repossess the building.
So, he tells his wooly childhood chum Eddie (John C, Reilly) he’s going to mount a singing contest to pull in the crowds, pooling the last of his cash to offer a $1000 prize. Unfortunately, a slight mishap on the part of his doddery chameleon assistant Miss Crawly sees the posters printed up as $100,000 and spread all over town, inevitably attracting a whole host of hopeful contestants.
The auditions include a snail singing Ride like The Wind and three butt shaking bunnies, but the final selection comes down to Johnny (Taron Egerton), the soulful-voiced gorilla son of a local criminal, Ash (Scarlett Johannson), the talented half of a porcupine punk duo, Mike (Seth MacFarlane), an arrogant egotistical sax-playing mouse with a thing for Sinatra swing, the pairing of Teutonic hog Gunter (Nick Kroll) with Rosita (Reese Witherspoon), the beleaguered mother of 25 piglets and Meena (Tori Kelly), an elephant with serious stage fright issues.
Things play out pretty much as you’d expect with the backstage and homelife stories, things all falling apart (quite literally when Buster introduces a squid light show complete with a water tank to impress Eddie’s retired diva granny, Nana, into bankrolling him), the revelation that the prize money’s non-existent and, of course, everyone coming together to put on the show anyway.
It’s not hugely original, but it is colourful and energetic, packed with a bundle of familiar pop hits, plenty of laughs, some emotional touches and two knockout scenes, one involving Rosalita dancing in a supermarket’s aisles to The Gipsy Kings’ Bamboleo and Meena’s showstopping rendition of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah while, as the young Nana, Jennifer Hudson also gets to deliver a stunning operatic version of Lennon and McCartney’s Carry That Weight. It’s never climbs Zootopia or Secret Life of Pets heights, but it’s infinitely more fun than anything Simon Cowell’s put his name to in recent years. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)
The Space Between Us (PG)
Director Peter Chelsom’s first since 2014’s dismal Simon Pegg dramady Hector and the Search For Happiness, this stars Asa Butterfield as 16-year-old Gardner who was born on Mars since his astronaut mom didn’t realise she was pregnant when they set off to become the planet’s first colonists. She died in childbirth and, his existence kept secret from those back on Earth, he was raised by caregiver Kendra (Carla Gugino) under the watchful eye of colony head honcho Nathaniel Shepherd (Gary Oldman). Gardner’s struck up an online relationship with Colorado foster teen Tulsa (Britt Robertson), though she’s naturally unaware that he’s calling her from space, (he tells her he lives in a New York penthouse which he can’t leave because of a bone disease) and now he wants to visit Earth to meet her and try and find his father.
Despite Shepherd’s objections, he’s given permission, but, with tests showing that, even with skeletal implants, his body can’t cope with Earth’s environment, he realizes they’ll want to send him back. So, while there’s still time and he and Tulsa take off to try and find the father he’s never known.
A cocktail of fish out of water, teen romance and search for identity and place road trip plot, a sort of adolescents answer to Starman, it may not be a patch of Chelsom’s earlier child-centred feature, The Mighty, Oldman and Butterfield are always good value and the intrinsic sweetness and poignancy at the film’s heart may just about overcome the clunkiness that surrounds it. (Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)
Having made a tentative return to form with The Visit, writer-director M Night Shyamalan finally gets his mojo back with this Dissociative Identity Disorder abduction thriller that also affords star James McAvoy one of the best performances of his career.
Wasting no time, the film opens with outsider teen Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy) and classmates Claire (Haley Lu Richardson) and c Marcia (Jessica Sula) being chloroformed and abducted by a stranger who gets into the car.
They awake in a bunker-like room and a panicked Claire suggests that, whoever their kidnapper is, they attack him when he comes in. Casey, who was never part of the original plan, is calmer and more reasoned, observing they should find out what’s happening first. Their kidnapper reveals himself as Dennis (McAvoy), a stern, shaved head OCD control freak in black who informs them they are to be ‘sacred food’ for who or whatever is coming.
Shortly afterwards, they see a woman through the crack in the door and call out. She enters, but, to their shock, turns out to be Denis, or rather the matriarchal British Patricia, just one of apparently 23 different personalities the inhabit the body of Kevin, one of whom, flamboyant fashion designer Barry, we see visiting Dr. Fletcher (Betty Buckley), the psychiatrist treating his/their case. Citing cases of one personality not having the disability of another, she believes her study could lead to a breakthrough in understanding the potential of the human brain.
Meanwhile, back in the cell, the girls encounter another of Kevin’s personalities, Hedwig, a lisping nine-year-old who is not as easily manipulated as Casey believes him to be.
Escape attempts eventually lead to the three girls being locked in separate rooms, as Dennis announces that the time is coming when the Beast, a hitherto unseen 24th personality, will come to claim then, turning things into a race against the clock.
Punctuated with flashbacks to the young Casey’s abused childhood and scenes with Fletcher dispensing exposition as she tries to work out why Barry is sending constant emails asking for urgent help and who is the actual personality turning up for sessions purporting to be him.
Building a genuinely gripping sense of claustrophobic tension, anticipation and dread as its cat and mouse game heads towards the final confrontation, sometimes changing clothes, sometimes with just a facial expression, McAvoy brilliantly switches between personalities, often in the same line, making effective use of pauses (and delivering a truly creepy dance routine to Kanye West), while Taylor-Joy subtly manages to hint at her own dark torments and the way she has learned to act and think in order to survive.
As ever, Shyamalan makes his usual cameo and, of course, delivers his trademark twists, one of which delivers an audacious self-referencing moment that hints at a very intriguing prospect for the sequel. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)
T2 Trainspotting (18)
For many Trainspotting was the defining film about 90s Britain. Now, 21 years later, the original team, minus Kevin McKidd (but to whom homage is paid) return for the sequel, adapted from Irvine Welsh’s Porno. Returning from Amsterdam, where he’s been living for the 20 years since running off with the money he and his mates stole, Mark Renton (Ewan McGregor) first hooks up with Spud (Ewan Bremner), who’s back on heroin after his life and marriage fell apart, just in time to save him from suicide. Next on the reunion list is Simon, Sick Boy, who’s running a sex tape blackmail scam with his Bulgarian girlfriend Veronika (Anjela Nedyalkova). He’s rather less pleased to see Mark, but decides to pretend to be friends so he can stitch him up like he did to them. This entails enlisiting him to raise the money to transform the run down pub he’s inherited into a brothel, with Veronika as the madam. Meanwhile, Begbie (Robert Carlyle), as much as a hard man psycho has ever, engineers an escape from prison and sets about resuming his life of crime, roping son Frank in as reluctant accomplice. Although Simon keeps Mark’s return from him, the pair eventually bump into one another (in a very funny scene involving adjacent toilet cubicles), fuelling Begbie’s determination to get kill him.
With none of the four’s lives having amounted to anything in the past two decades, basing the narrative on the mantra ‘first comes opportunity, then comes betrayal’, that’s pretty much it for the plot. Mark and Sick Boy enlist Spud’s help in redesigning and refurbishing the pub while he himself comes off the scank and, encouraged by Veronika (with whom, naturally, Mark has sex) starts writing down stories about their past misadventures (essentially an excuse to revisit the original, both verbally and in flashbacks).
A run in with the law facilitates a contrived cameo from Kelly Macdonald as Diane Coulston, now a lawyer, as well as fleeting moments from James Cosmo as Mark’s dad and Shirley Henderson as Gail, now Spud’s estranged wife, but otherwise, as before it’s the dynamic between the four central characters that drives things along.
At one point Sick Boy accuses Mark of wallowing in nostalgia rather than moving on, and, to an extent, the same could be leveled at the film which looks to recreate the feel of the original with its hyperkinetic camerawork, trippy sequences and constant throbbing soundtrack. Some things work, others don’t. The plot isn’t especially inspired, so the film relies on the characters and the themes of friendship, self-interest and betrayal, but, while more melancholic this time around, it doesn’t have anything new to add to the original, history repeating itself in the final turn of events.
There’s a very funny vein of often dark humour and, rather like playing out the greatest hits, an updated revisiting of Renton’s Choose Life monologue where the film identifies mobile phones and social networking as the new heroin. As indeed is nostalgia, effectively using it to illustrate the danger of how, in trying to relive the past, we end up running to stand still. Which, to some extent, rather sums up the film itself. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Electric; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; MAC; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)
xXx – The Return of Xander Cage (12A)
Last seen in 2005, extreme sports action hero and agent for the xXx-program, Xander Cage is resurrected for a franchise reviving bout of all action popcorn nonsense that remembers to never take itself too seriously.
When a satellite plummets from orbit and crashes into New York, killing xXx-program founder Gibbons (Samuel L Jackson) just as he’s recruiting a new agent and then a multi-cultural team invade a top secret briefing entailing assorted top government suits, take out all the security and steal the gizmo responsible, the so called Pandora’s Box, then new NSA head honcho Jane Marke (Toni Collette) seeks out the long presumed dead Cage (Vin Diesel), who’s actually living it up in the Dominican Republic, putting his skills to effective use to ensure the locals can watch the big match on cable TV.
Persuaded to return to action and having identified where the crew responsible for the attack are hanging out, as well as reclaiming his trademark fur coat, Cage insists on recruiting his own team of thrill-seekers, comprising punky green-haired crackshot Adele (Ruby Rose), crazy adrenaline junkie stuntman Tennyson (Rory McCann) and Nick, a DJ known as the Hood. To which end, they duly set off to the Philippines where the other team of mercenaries, leader Xiang (Donnie Yen), fellow martial arts expert Talon (Tony Jaa), strongman Hawk (Michael Bisping) and the sexy but lethal Serena (Deepika Padukone) are hanging out, to recover the device. To complicate matters, Serena thinks it should be destroyed while Xiang wants to hang on to it, all of which is just an excuse for the three of them to play a game of pass the grenade and for Xiang and Diesel to have a surfing motorbikes on water skies scene across the ocean.
At which point, it all starts to get a bit confusing to keep track of the good guys and bad guys, as well as even noisier and more action packed, a bit like Mission Impossible’s snotty OCD little brother.
Suffice to say, everyone ends up working together to track down the real bad guy and the other bigger and better Pandora’s Box, a nuts and bolts plot that serves to allow any number of fast cut fire, fist and feet fights, more eye-popping stunts, deliberately cheesy dialogue, and copious amounts of scenery chewing, much courtesy of the straight-faced Collette, as well as a delightful comic turn from Nina Dobrev as Marke’s bumbling geeky tech-op assistant.
Directed by D.J. Caruso, predictable and illogical in equal measure, its knowingly self-aware and comes with the obligatory surprise revelations, a grin-inducing cameo and, of course, the epilogue set-up for another sequel. Bring it on. (Odeon Broadway Plaza; Vue Star City)
Cineworld 5 Ways – 181 Broad St, 0871 200 2000
Cineworld NEC – NEC 0871 200 2000
Cineworld Solihull – Mill Ln, Solihull 0871 200 2000
The Electric Cinema – 47–49 Station Street, 0121 643 7879
Empire – Great Park, Rubery, 0871 471 4714
Empire Sutton Coldfield – Maney Corner, Sutton Coldfield
0871 471 4714
The Everyman – The Mailbox 0871 906 9060
MAC – Cannon Hill Park 0121 446 3232
Mockingbird, Custard Factory 0121 224 7456.
Odeon Birmingham -Birmingham, 0871 224 4007
Odeon Broadway Plaza – 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