MOVIE ROUND-UP:This Week’s New Film Releases, Fri Jan 11-Thu Jan 17

NEW RELEASES

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.

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

The screenplay  by Coogan’s long-standing writing partner, Jeff Pope, unfussily gets under each of the character’s skins to explore the person behind the popular image, musing on whether the private and public persona can ever be fully separated, the pair always seeming to be in character as they respond to each other’s quips, asking what their lines would be in such a situation. The film’s charm may be low key, but charm it most assuredly is. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Electric; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

The Front Runner (15)

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Lizzie (15)

According to the popular skipping rhyme of the day, in the  industrial bay town of Fall River, MA on August 4,  1892  “Lizzie Borden took an axe, And gave her mother forty whacks. When she saw what she had done, She gave her father forty-one”. However, at the subsequent trial, Borden was found not guilty of murdering Andrew Borden or his second wife, Abby, the jury refusing to believe anyone of such refined breeding could commit such acts.

Working from a screenplay by Bryce Kass, largely based around Ed McBain’s novel, director  Craig William Macneill takes her guilt for granted, fuelled by abuses suffered and her father’s will placing her  and her older sister Emma (Kim Dickens) under the financial thumb of  his late wife’s ne’er-do-well brother (Denis O’Hare). However,  while assigning Abby’s murder to Borden, the film has the father killed by the family’s Irish maid, Bridget, also known as Maggie, with whom Lizzie was rumoured to have had a lesbian relationship and who was also the reluctant subject of  Andrew Borden’s attentions.

Starring Chloe Sevigny, who also produced, as Lizzie with Kirtsen Stewart as Bridget, it’s a curiously cold and clinical, slow-paced affair  that, while indicating the abusive, tight-fisted Andrew Borden’s (Jamey Sheridan) controlling personality, her prickly stepmother (Fiona Shaw) and the stubborn, impulsive and epilepsy-prone Lizzie’s resentment at the repression in her home, never quite catches fire, a problem exacerbated by the film’s  drained colour scheme, which makes the extended post-murder scenes all the more lifeless for a narrative ostensibly driven by rage and passion that encourages you to understand if not even applaud the brutal axe killings.  (Until Wed:MAC)

Return of the Hero (12A)

A ripe French comedy with two sparkling lead performances, this stars Jean Dujardin as Capitaine Charles-Gregoire Neuville who, no sooner has he proposed to  Pauline (Noemie Merlant), the younger daughter of the well-to-do Beaugrand family, is called off to join Napoleon’s war against Austria. Although he promises to write every day, no letters arrive, placing the frail Pauline’s health at risk. To which end, her sister, Elisabeth (Melanie Laurent) decides to forge Neuville’s letters, intercepting her sister’s somewhat bawdy replies, spinning out a dashing tale of adventure and, when the war ends, consigning him to a post in India, becoming a successful businessman but, ultimately, facing death while trapped in a  fort resisting the British.

It’s all perfect, Pauline going on to marry younger nobleman Nicolas (Christophe Montenez) and have a child in the belief that her former fiancé has died a hero. Indeed, the town even erects a stature in his honour. Inevitably, however, things take an inconvenient turn when, while out in the town markets,  Elisabeth sees Neuville emerge from a coach, bearded, destitute and in rags. It seems that, rather than the glory she’s invented, he deserted. Understandably keen not to have the truth come out, she arranges for him to move on and continues to maintain the charade. Which is when, scrubbed up to his former self, Neuville rides back into the family’s life, looking to exploit his wholly fictitious reputation, forcing him and Elisabeth to concoct further stories to explain why he’s not dead and how he escaped, while greedy family associates practically beg to be allowed to invest in his a pyramid scheme non-existent diamond mine.

It’s all fairly predictable, with Elisabeth inevitably finding herself drawn to the rogueish Neuville and, although there is a striking moment when, over a family dinner with a visiting General who’s arrived to deal with a local Cossacks problem, Neuville harrowingly recounts the story of a slaughter that was clearly the incident that led to his desertion, director Laurent Tirard plays it with a light, comedic touch that makes for enjoyably frothy viewing. (Sun- Thu: MAC)

 

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 schtick 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. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

NOW SHOWING

 

Aquaman (12A)

H2O dear. Always something of a comic book minnow whose powers largely consisted of being able to talk to fish, introduced in last year’s Justice League movie, Aquaman (pronounced here Arqwaman) gets his own  solo outing at the hands of director James Wan. At almost two and a half hours, it’s as bloated as things often get when they spend too much time underwater, only really taking off in the final stretch, and even then the action is dizzingly 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 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 bursts in to take her home. She kills them all, but then decides to go back of her own accord anyway, leaving Tom to raise their son, who’s clearly an odd one since he chats to the fish in the sea-life centre and his eyes kind of glow greeny-yellow.

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

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

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

Bohemian Rhapsody (12A)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bumblebee (PG)

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

Set in 1987, when the demand for the Tranformers toys was at fever pitch, it’s an origin story revealing how, the Autobots having had to abandon Cybertron, defeated by the Decepticons in the civil war, young scout B-127 is sent to Earth by Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen again channeling 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 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. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Colette (15)

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

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

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

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

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

The film ends with the 1910 publication under her own name of La Vagabonde, about women’s independence in a male society, written after her divorce and drawing on her vaudeville experiences, and, as such, focused on her twenties, this is really only part of Collette’s story, going on  to become acclaimed as France’s greatest female writer, be nominated for the 1948 Nobel Prize for Literature and have a no less colourful and scandalous private life. I’m sure Willy would have agreed that there are still stories  waiting to be told. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Creed II (12A)

A sequel to Ryan Coogler’s 2015 Rocky reboot was inevitable and, as such, it seems logical that in doing so it would revisit 1985’s  Rocky IV, the film in which Apollo Creed died in the ring during his brutal match with Ivan Drago, by pitching the two fighters’ sons against one another.

Directed this time around by Steven Caple Jr, it doesn’t have quite the same heft as its predecessor and the narrative arc is as predictable as such movies usually are, but the returning cast and a screenplay co-penned by Sylvester Stallone still land firm punches. Graduating to world heavyweight champ in the opening scenes, Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan) has no sooner proposed to his deaf musician girlfriend Bianca (Tessa Thompson), than he learns he’s been challenged to defend his title against Russian  boxer Viktor Drago (Florian Munteanu), whose father Ivan (Dolph Lundgren) is looking to regain the respect and status he lost – along with his wife (Brigitte Nielsen, putting in a cameo) – when Rocky beat him on home turf.

Still broken by what happened in the last Creed-Drago match, Rocky (Stallone in reassuring mumbling mode and still wearing his familiar black-leather jacket, grey T-shirt, and pork-pie hat)  declines to take Adonis’s corner and remain in Philadelphia and  Creed, feeling betrayed and now based in Los Angeles, calls on the son of his father’s trainer (Wood Harris) to get him into physical shape. What he can’t do, however, is get him into the mental shape he needs to overcome his ghosts and, since the match takes place early in the film, it’s fairly obvious that issues will remain to be settled.

Battered by Viktor, Adonis, now a father (whose daughter has inherited mom’s hearing loss), has stepped away from the ring but needs to fight to retain his title. And there’s no prizes for guessing who his opponent has to be, this time, prompted by Apollo’s worldly-wise widow (Phylicia Rashad), with Rocky again by his side, taking him out of his gym comfort zone for some rough training in the desert.

Given he’s working from a formula that can be tweaked but not changed, even if the conventionally staged fights don’t have the same impact, Caple Jr does a solid enough job, working from, as one character notes, the premise that “the belt ain’t enough, you need a narrative.” Or, in screenplay terms, faith.

Disappointingly, Bianca’s burgeoning music career subplot is dropped as soon as the baby’s born, though she does get to sing her husband into the ring in Russia (where he’s naturally the underdog) while Rocky’s guilt over his estrangement from his son and grandson plays a rather sentimental final card. However, but there’s plenty of reflection on the ways the legacies of fathers haunt their sons as well as the dynamic between masculinity and vulnerability, between both Rocky and Adonis and, although the backstory’s less subtle, Igor and Viktor, the former relentlessly driving his son, as a vehicle in reclaiming his own life (Rocky notes how Viktor’s been raised on hate), having become an outcast for embarrassing his country by losing to an American.

The film also draws comparisons to the way winners and losers are treated by their countries, Creed and his mother both living in luxury while Igor and Viktor are consigned to the drab environs of the Ukraine, only welcomed back into favour when they are of use to Russian propaganda. Rocky, of course, lives humbly in a modest house suburban house where the street lights don’t work, and still runs the restaurant named after his late wife, Adrian, where he makes pizza dough in the early hours. It doesn’t, ultimately, have that same electric jolt that Coogler applied to resuscitate the franchise, but there’s probably still enough juice to warrant another round. (Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Vue Star City)

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes Of Grindelwald (12A)

Again directed by David Yates and written by J.K. Rowling, the second in a planned five part Wizarding World series, this has been the subject of some scathing reviews. Ignore those, there may be flaws, but otherwise this is not only a visual spectacular that often surpasses the original, but it also deepens characters  and ventures into some dark corners in regards to its themes of family and politics.

It does, however, take a while to find its feet and, if you’re not up to scratch with the minutiae of Rowling’s world, both in terms of this franchise and its links to the Potter series, then you might need a reference guide to keep up with the dizzying early going, which, otherwise, has a tendency to be incoherent.

Opening in 1927 New York, with the dark wizard Gellert Grindlewald (a blonde-haired, pale-faced Johnny Depp on fine form complete with mismatched eyes) in prison after being captured by Magizoologist Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne, growing into the role in an increasingly complex manner) and his Tardis-like suitcase, only to escape, with the help of some turncoats, while being transported in a carriage drawn by Thestrals to stand trial in Europe. All of which happens in such a blur, it’s not always easy to keep up or work out what’s going on.

Grindlewald’s plan is to create a master race of pure-bloods who will rule both the wizarding and the human worlds, and to which end he is seeking out mystery man Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller), who devastated Manhattan in the previous film and who, unaware of his true identity, is torn between good and evil. Meanwhile in London, having again been turned down for permission to travel internationally because he won’t take sides,  Newt busies himself looking after his menagerie of creatures (the living green twig Pickett and the Niffler, along with a bunch of babies, among them) with the help of the adoring Bunty (Victoria Yeates), when who should turn up but Queenie Goldstein (Alison Sudol), the dizzy dame sister of glamourous Ministry of Magic auror,  Tina (Katherine Waterston), with whom Newt’s secretly in love (but who has cooled towards him after a misunderdstanding), accompanied by her American Muggle boyfriend baker Jacob (Dan Fogler), whose obliviation in the last film is quickly (and not credibly) dismissed, only for the pair to have a spat after Newt lifts a spell, she then flouncing off in a  huff.

Enter Dumbledore (a tweedy, waistcoated Jude Law), at this point a young Defence Against the Dark Arts professor, who reveals that both Grindlewald and Credence are in Paris but, for reasons explained later (and which link to the revelation of Albus’s sexuality), because he can’t move against the former, he wants Newt to go to France and deal with things.  Reluctantly, (and largely because Tina’s there) he agrees.

Around this point, the plot and its multiple storylines begin to gel. Credence is working in a freaks carnival in Paris with Nagini (Claudia Kim), an Indonesian Maledictus destined to later become Lord Voldemort’s snake, and is being hunted by both Tina, the mysterious French-Senegalese Yusuf Kama (William Nadylam) and a Ministry of Magic assassin (Ingvar Eggert Sigurosson) whose loyalties may well lie elsewhere. The swelling character list involved in trying to solve Credence’s identity also includes Leta Lestrange (Zoe Kravitz), Newt’s former Hogwarts crush, and  Newt’s brother, Thaddeus (Callum Turner), who works for the Ministry, and to whom she is now engaged. Added to this, there’s also aged alchemist Nicolas Flamel who gets to play a significant part in the final climactic showdown between those from the Ministry of Magic and Grindelwald and his acolytes.

Although it does take time out in the third act for a lengthy exposition scene in which everyone explains their connections to the other, the film generally gets on with delivering fast-paced, location switching action that involves a creature that resembles a Chinese New Year parade dragon, a fog shrouded London, underground vaults, the Ministry of Magic archives with its cat-like demon guardians, statues that serve as magical portals  and Père Lachaise Cemetery. And, of course, Hogwarts along with flashbacks to Dumbledore’s lessons with the young Newt. Indeed, the connections between the franchise and the Potter series begin to take very concrete shape, most especially in a reference to the Dumbledore line and phoenixes.

Aside from the films various complicated family relationships, in Grindelwald’s address to his followers Rowling also mines a strong political thread that, both in its rhetoric and visuals of a world at war he claims he wishes to avoid,  recalls the rise of fascism in Nazi Germany, but also resonates with the climate in contemporary Europe. Both exhausting and exhilarating, it may at times confuse, but it never bores, setting up a wholly unexpected family crisis that promises a real cataclysm of a threequel. (Cineworld 5 Ways;  Empire Great Park; Vue Star City)

The Favourite (15)

Far darker than the trailer might indicate, BAFTA nominated director Yorgos Lanthimos expands his budget and horizons following The Lobster and The Killing Of A Sacred Deer and, working from a bitingly cold and scalpel-sharp script by Tony McNamara and Deborah Davis, fashions a period drama of political intrigue, sexual manipulation and ruthless ambition that, a sort of All About Eve/Dangerous Liaisons cocktail,  has both concentrated narrative focus and emotional heft, not to mention some  razor-sharp wit and inspired vulgarity.

Opening in 1704, it’s set during the reign of Queen Anne, the last of the Stuart monarchs,  and, while juggling the timeline so as to eliminate her husband, who actually died in 1708, it mostly hews faithfully to history and relationships, garnishing it  with salacious rumours of the time and accounts from vindictive memoirs.

Founded on three stupendous performances, the narrative fulcrum is the power and personal love triangle made up of Anne (Olivia Colman), petulant, needy, afflicted with gout and, no doubt exacerbated by having lost 17 children – for whom she has 17 rabbits as substitutes,  not always of sound mind; her longtime friend Lady Sarah Marlborough (Rachel Weisz), her favourite, well-known for refusing to flatter, the pair often referring to each other by  their youthful pet names of  Mrs Freeman and Mrs Morley, and the latter’s cousin Abigail Hill (Emma Stone), a noblewoman fallen on hard times who arrives at the palace seeking a position.

Prior Hill’s arrival, Sarah was very much the power behind the throne, a hugely influential and manipulative figure who controlled access to the Queen, managed her finances and supported the war against France (and the unpopular land tax to fund it), her husband (Mark Gattiss) in command of the British forces, However, initially, playing the grateful protegee 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 fo Elton John’s original harpsichord version of Skyline Pigeon), it’s at times broadly bawdy, at others intimately erotic, at times evoking the work of Pope and Swift, at others, such as in a courtly dance that pops rock n roll moves,  striking a more contemporary note.

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

Free Solo (12A)

Not recommended for anyone with a fear of heights, husband and wife director team Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi’s character portrait National Geographic documentary follows Alex Honnold as he seeks to complete his climbing obsession, becoming first to scale the 3,000 feet of sheer granite that is El Capitan in California’s Yosemite National Park, without any safety equipment, just fingers and some chalk. One slip and it’s all over. It takes nerve, courage, strength and discipline, especially when you’re being filmed by drones and remote-operated rigs, and with a camera crew dangling alongside, That Honnold didn’t die rather undercuts the tension, but even so hearts are likely to still be in mouths, and the sense of relief as he reaches the summit as powerful as the sense of triumph. Although there’s also film of test runs on other peaks, it’s not all rock face footage, the film intercut with interviews with fellow climbers and Honnold’s mother and girlfriend as well as doctors who reveal that his brain doesn’t respond to situations that would produce fear responses in others. Mesmerising, just don’t put doing something similar on your things do on the weekend list. (Electric)

The Grinch (U)

Originally adapted in 1966 for TV, Dr. Seuss’s  children’s classic How the Grinch Stole Christmas was given a live action treatment in 2000, directed by Ron Howard and starring Jim Carrey. The latest, produced under the Illumination banner,  returns to animation, shortening the title and giving it a contemporary music makeover with an R&B version of You’re A Mean One Mr. Grinch, but hewing very closely to the spirit and look of the original, albeit replacing the Seuss doggerel rhymes with new versions as well as adding a new character with Christmas-crazy neighbour Bricklebaum (Kenan Thompson).

You know the story, living alone on Mount Crumpit save for his loyal dog Max, the Grinch hates Christmas and, after 53 years, decides to put an end to it by stealing all the presents and decorations from every home in Whoville, only to have his heart (two sizes too small)  changed by little Who girl Cyndi-Lou. The book never gives a reason why he despises the festive season, but the Carrey film had him as misfit bullied at school and this version, in which the character’s winningly voiced in an American accent by Benedict Cumberbatch, it’s because, as a young  orphan, he was left all alone one Christmas  and has never been happy since.  It also indicates that there’s some lingering human decency in him since he’s kind and compassionate toward Max and to Fred, the overweight reindeer he co-opts to pull his stolen sledge.

Bright and colourful with some highly detailed animation (especially the weave on the sweaters), it delivers its message about caring and kindness (here, the Grinch is redeemed when the button-nosed Cindy-Lou says she doesn’t want presents, just for her mom to be happy), the design of Whoville and the Grinch’s cave all wonderfully ramshackle, and throws in some sly touches for the grown-ups, such as the Grinch playing All By Myself a la Phantom of the Opera on a pipe organ and going on an emotional eating binge.  Go green. (Empire Great Park)

Holmes and Watson (12A)

It would have taken a stupendous to surpass the banality and puerile crassness that characterised Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly’s previous teaming, Step Brothers, but, to their credit they and director Etan Cohen have made a sterling effort. Here they take on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s detective duo who, when a  dead body is found baked in a party cake, stumble on a plot to kill Queen Victoria (Pam Ferris) inside Buckingham Palace, the murders being committed to look like the work of Moriarty (Ralph Fiennes in line reading mode)/ There seems little point elaborating the plot, given the writers didn’t both to, but suffice to say there’s a stream of gross out anachronistic slapstick (including an interminably dragged out gag about taking a selfie) that essentially portrays the unstoppable sleuths as buffoons and endless synonyms for onanism.

There are some saving graces, an early boarding schooldays scene showing how Holmes was bullied, leading him to becoming a cold fish, for one and Steve Coogan hoovers up what crumbs there are as one-armed tattoo artist, but Hugh Laurie is wasted as Sherlock’s older brother Mycroft and Reilly (so good as the voice of Wreck It Ralph) and Ferrell (so good, er, mmm) simply flap around like kids in a playpen indulging in supposedly hilarious political incorrectness. Downey and Cumberbatch both proved that you could bring wit to Holmes, but this doesn’t even touch on the elementary basics.  (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 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Electric; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Ralph Breaks the Internet (PG)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse (PG)

Spider-Man is dead, killed by the hulking man mountain Kingpin (Liev Schreiber). Or at least he is in the world inhabited by Miles Morales (Shameik Moore), a biracial (Puerto Rican/black) comic book loving 13-year-old whose tough love dad (Brian Tyree Henry) is a cop who wants the best for his son, as in sending him to an elite boarding school, where he has no friends,  rather than encouraging his street art. Fortunately for Miles, his black sheep uncle Aaron (Mahershala Ali) is more supportive, taking him to an abandoned underground facility to practice. It’s here where he both  sees Peter Parker (Chris Pine) killed and gets bitten by  a radioactive spider. Next thing you know, like puberty gone crazy, his hands keep sticking to things – walls, books, the hair of new girl in school – and keeps getting tingling sensations when things are about to happen, and having an ongoing internal monologue, flashed up on screen like comic book captions.

At which point enter Peter Parker. Or, more accurately, Peter B Parker (Jake Johnson), the Spider-Man from a parallel dimension who, his marriage to Mary Jane (Zoe Kravitz) having fallen apart, has gone to seed, all unshaven, beer gut and cynicism.  Hurled into Miles’ world by a sort of super-collider which, with the help of  Dock Ock (Kathryn Hahn), Kingpin is hoping will restore his dead wife Vanessa (Lake Bell) and his son, he grudgingly agrees to coach Miles, who, having kitted himself with a fancy dress Spider-Man costume,  has vowed to avenge the dead Spidey and foil Kingpin’s plans, which, naturally, will prove catastrophic for all the different worlds, in the art of being a webslinger.

However, as they soon discover, this Parker  isn’t the only parallel arachnoid adventurer. There’s also Gwen-Stacey aka  Spider-Gwen (Hailee Steinfield), in whose world Peter also died, the cloaked Spider-Man Noir (a dry Nicolas Cage) from a  sort of  black and white Dashiell Hammett dimension, Peni Parker (Kimoko Glenn), a  futuristic Japanese anime girl who’s bonded with a Spidey-bot and even Peter Porker aka Spider-Ham (John Mulaney) from a world of talking animals.  Now, together, and with a helping hand from a  kickass Aunt May (Lily Tomlin), they determine to defeat Kingpin, his henchmen, Doc Ock, the Green Goblin, the Scorpion,  Prowler and Tombstone,  and destroy the collider before they all blink out of existence.

It’s a wild animated and attitude-fuelled ride that rushes along like a psychedelic whirlwind, the backgrounds often seeming like graffiti 3D effects without the glasses, mirroring Deadpool and the Lego movies in its knowing in-joke use of superhero comic book conventions, complete with repeated voice over origin flashbacks (recreating scenes from Tobey Maguire’s debut), and framing. However,  in-between the laughs (Cage’s Rubik Cube gag especially funny) and the action, it also finds  room for Marvel’s trademark introspective emotional heft, predominantly in Miles’ struggle with insecurity and family tribulations (although Parker also gets a shot at redemption), on top of which there’s another animated Stan Lee cameo to bring a tear to the eye. You may come out with a migraine, but that big smile on your face is more than compensation. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park; Mockingbird; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Welcome To Marwen (12A)

On April 8, 2000, artist/photographer Mark Hogancamp was brutally attacked by five neo-Nazis outside a New York bar having told them he had a fetish for wearing women’s shoes. Hogancamp spent 40 days in hospital, nine in a coma, and, when discharged, had no  memory of his previous life as a WWII comics book illustrator, of friends, failed marriage, his collection of 200 pairs of women’s shoes, anything.

Unable to afford therapy to address his trauma, he created his own by building Marwen, a ⅙-scale World War II-era Belgian town (the name a conflation of his and Wendy, the barmaid who found him), in his backyard, populating it with dolls representing himself, his friends, and his attackers, building new memories to replace those he’d lost in a world of his own creation where he was the hero. Discovered by photographer David Naugle, his story was the subject of the award-winning 2010 documentary named for his creation and now gets a factional retelling by director Robert Zemeckis starring Steve Carrell as Hogancamp.

Set a year after the attack, with Mark both readying an exhibition of his work and in trepidation of facing his assailants in court and giving a victim impact statement, it adds a further dimension to the story by bringing to life through digitised body motion animation to events depicted in the staged photographs. As such, it opens with Mark’s Action Man-style surrogate, Cap’n Hogie, crash landing his plane and donning a pair of women’s shoes to replace his burned boots. He’s surprised by a bunch of Germans who, seeing his footwear, threaten to emasculate him, only to be mowed down by a Tarantino-esque group of female fighters who take him to Marwen for safety. They’re representations of various women who have been significant in Mark’s real-life: Julie (Janelle Monáe), his GI therapist,  Roberta (Merritt Wever), who runs the local hobby store and whose doll complains of constantly having her blouse ripped off, Caralala (Eliza Gonzalez), his co-worker at the local bar, Anna (Gwendoline Christie), his Russian careworker, and Suzette (Leslie Zemeckis), his favourite (porn) actress. Into their company comes Nicol (Leslie Mann), Mark’s new neighbour (for whom the town becomes Marwencol in her honour) who sparks  romantic turns to the narratives in both the real and the doll world where, kitted out in glossy anachronistic black stilettos, she (unlike her human counterpart) falls in love with Hogie. Importantly, none of them judge him for his thing for heels, which he describes as wearing because “they connect me to dames. I like dames.”

He, however, is scared of getting close because there’s also green-haired doll named Deja Thoris (Diane Kruger), a witch who always prevents Hogie from finding happiness. It’s indicated early on that she represents the pills he takes to relieve his pain which, in fact, have him trapped in addiction, unable to find closure, hence the fact that the doll Nazis, to whose ranks are eventually added an SS officer representing Nicol’s  abusive ex (Neil Jackson), always return to life.

Embodying Mark’s consuming sadness and vulnerability, Carrell is terrific, albeit at times a touch creepy; however, while it deftly blends and mirrors its real and plastic worlds, the film is more lauded for its ambition than its achievement, delivering an upbeat emotional payoff, but, ultimately, in retreading the same ground and telling Hogancamp’s story through a sentimental lens (the Nicol character storyline is completely fictional), proves far less dramatically effective than it is visually. (Cineworld 5 Ways)

White Boy Rick (15)

Directed by Yann Demange, this stars Matthew McConaughey, but he’s not actually the central titular character. That will be his teenage son, Rick Wershe Jr (Richie Merritt) who, in 80s Detroit, to save his illegal gun-dealing father from being jailed, was recruited by the FBI (Jennifer Jason Leigh, Rory Cochrane, Bryan Tyree Henry) to become a drug dealer and informant  in the almost exclusively black neighbourhood’s crack cocaine network, only to find he had a taste for the action and the money and, although he got out at one stage when the arrangement came to an end after he was shot by one of the gang, plunged back in, dragging dad along, and, aged 17, wound being give life imprisonment, the state’s longest sentence for someone not involved in violent crime.

Both  Matthew McConaughey and Merritt, along with Bel Powley as Rick’s junkie daughter, Dawn, who they end up abducting from her crackhouse and putting her through cold turkey, give strong performances. There’s also an amusing turn from Bruce Dern as  Rick’s rascally grandfather.  Unfortunately, the other mostly black characters, the various Curry Crew gang members (among them rapper YG and Jonathan Majors), who have ties to the mayor almost interchangeable, lack focus and are marginalised, while Eddie Marsan’s role as a white drugs kingpin is never really clear and Kyanna Simone Simpson, as the black girl by whom Rick Jr fathers a child, pretty much vanishes from the plot once her narrative purpose is served.

It’s all suitably surface gritty and grubby, but it lacks any real texture and the way Rick (whose actual shady criminal background is glossed over) is shafted by the authorities never summons the indignation it should, the film is clearly built on anger but never come over as more than slightly irked.  (MAC)

Screenings courtesy of  Odeon and Cineworld

CINEMAS

Cineworld 5 Ways – 181 Broad St, 0871 200 2000

Cineworld NEC – NEC  0871 200 2000

Cineworld Solihull – Mill Ln, Solihull 0871 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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