MOVIE ROUND-UP:This Week’s New Film Releases, Fri Jan 18-Thu Jan 24

 

NEW RELEASES

Mary Queen Of Scots (15)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Beautiful Boy (15)

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

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

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

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

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

Tierney and Ryan are both underused and the rest of the supporting cast tend to just hover around the narrative edges. Despite the non-linear narrative, it’s all very one-note and straightforward, emotional cues driven by the soundtrack, which at one point includes  Perry Como’s version of Sunrise, Sunset. Although it moves to an upbeat, real-life conclusion, with Nic sober and a successful writer, it’s frequently tedious and repetitive, never quite sure about exactly whose journey the film is charting. By far the best moment comes with the end credits recitation of a Charles Bukowski poem by Chalamet that says more about the film’s themes and issues than  Van Groeningen does in the preceding 100 or so minutes. (Cineworld 5 Ways)

Glass (15)

Having regained his mojo with Split, M. Night Shyamalan proceeds to piss it up against the wall, bringing together that film’s abuse survivor Kevin Wendell Crumb (James McEvoy) and his protective multiple personalities (which he refers to as the Horde) with security expert David Dunn (Bruce Willis) and brittle-boned Elijah Price aka Mr. Glass (Samuel L Jackson), the protagonist and antagonist from 2000’s Unbreakable, the reference to them at the end of Split setting up this double-sequel. Both films took their influences from comic books, the former believing himself some kind of superhero after being the sole survivor of the train wreck engineered by the comic-books obsessed latter,  and this expands on the idea. However, the result is all concept and mood and very little by way of coherent narrative.

It opens with Dunn, in his vigilante identity, the media having settled on calling him the Overseer (although also, sometimes, the Green Guard on account of his hooded poncho), tracking down and freeing the latest cheerleaders abducted by the Beast, Kevin’s ultimate primal super-strong personality, the pair of them ending up being captured and carted off to a psychiatric institute where  the patronising Dr. Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson, given no direction, an implausible character and terrible dialogue) wants to study them as part of her research into people under the delusion that they’re superheroes. The facility also houses Elijah, apparently in a permanent comatose state, though anyone who doesn’t know from the outset that he’s faking it, really should get out more.  Suffice to say, after an interminable slog through an overly talky plodding build-up, Elijah, conjuring up the Beast, engineers their escape with the masterplan of staging a confrontation between his new hulking partner and Dunn at the opening of Philadelphia’s tallest new building (hands up if you think that’s a Die Hard nod), with the aim of the resulting media coverage offering proof that super beings exist. However, being a Shyamalan film, there’s more than one masterplan going down here and, in signature fashion, the climax throws not one but two or even possibly three eyebrow-raising twists into the mix with Staple, in a narrative thread seemingly drawn from nowhere while implying it’s something you forgot from Unbreakable, proves to have a mysterious agenda far removed from research studies.

The problem is that while the first half has Shyamalan in smug, self-satisfied mode, the second, while the action sequences are punchy and Elijah’s multi-layered plans are meticulously worked out, has him being too clever for his and the film’s own good, leaving you wondering if you dozed off and missed some salient subplots or background set-ups.

McAvoy surfs through his personality changes with fluid skill, seemingly in continuous takes, while a largely dialled down Jackson uses his charisma to good effect, Willis, on the other hand, sort of walks through the film, though admittedly he’s better here than the recent spate of straight to DVD action crud he’s been recently churning out to pay the rent.

In a nice touch, Dunn’s son, Joseph, though not really given a great deal to do, is played by Spencer Treat Clark who played the same, younger, role in Unbreakable, Charlayne Woodard also reprising her turn as Elijah’s mother. Shyamalan also contrives, in a sort of Stockholm Syndrome way, to engineer the return of Anna Taylor-Joy as Casey Cooke, the girl the Beast let live in Split and who has a bond with Kevin.

There is, inevitably, extensive referencing of comic books and their conventions (at one point Elijah declares this to be an origins story), but again this feels more of a self-congratulatory touch on Shyamalan’s part rather than serving the plot’s thematic framework.

There’s some genuinely good moments, but far too few of them to sustain interest or involvement as it builds to its scrappily written somewhat ant-climactic denouement and tagged on viral footage coda. Definitely a case of Glass being half-empty rather than half full. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

ALSO PLAYING

RBG (PG)

Documentary charting the life and career of octogenarian U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg who, alongside her reputation on the bench, has become something of a pop culture icon. Balancing observations on her private self, such as her children’s sparse scrapbook entries on Times When Mom Laughed with professional moments such as her 1993 confirmation hearing before the Senate and her discussion of key cases she brought to the Supreme Court in the 1970s, and her fight to establish equal rights for both women and men by tackling discrepancies in employers’ benefits and social security. (Electric)

 

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

Bumblebee (PG)

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

Set in 1987, when the demand for the Tranformers toys was at fever pitch, it’s an origin story revealing how, the Autobots having had to abandon Cybertron, defeated by the Decepticons in the civil war, young scout B-127 is sent to Earth by Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen again 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; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Colette (15)

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

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

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

Locked in a room and forced by Willy into penning sequels (often tellingly semi-autobiographical) , as Claudine’s success continues to grow, now encompassing a stage play, along with further affairs(Willy indulging sexual fantasies  with women who pretend to be Claudine),  so too does Collette’s resentment of being denied acknowledgement of her literary skills, even as a co-author,  and a growing sense of gender rebellion that begins with a  haircut and ends in wearing trousers (which could get women arrested), 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; Odeon 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. (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 of Elton John’s original harpsichord version of Skyline Pigeon), it’s at times broadly bawdy, at others intimately erotic, at times evoking the work of Pope and Swift, at others, such as in a courtly dance that pops rock n roll moves, striking a more contemporary note.

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

Holmes and Watson (12A)

It would have taken a stupendous effort 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, as, er) 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. (Mockingbird; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

The House That Jack Built (18)

Danish director Lars von Trier’s latest opens with a black screen. It gets a whole lot darker.  Pushing audiences to the limit with its graphic, brutal violence, that includes the murder of two children and the mother then being forced to feed them pie in a grotesque parody of a picnic, it’s a two and a half hour journey through the disturbed mind of a serial killer that accompanies the butchery with meditations on the nature of art, William Blake, mankind’s propensity  for unimaginable violence, the absence  or otherwise of God, black and white footage of jazz pianist Glenn Gould, the nature of killing, a clip from one of the director’s earlier films  and a hellish epilogue titled Katabasis,  Greek for descent, which evokes Dante’s Inferno.

It all begins when independently wealthy architect/engineer Jack (Matt Dillon) is flagged down by a stranded woman (Uma Thurman) who asks if he’ll drive her to a nearby garage to repair her broken car jack. Persistently needled by her mocking put downs, he eventually slams the jack into her skull.  This is, the first of what will be the five ‘incidents’ over a 12-year period he describes to  unseen commentator Verge (Bruno Ganz) as a sort of self-aggrandisement  among the serial killer ranks.

Jack, it would seem, has  always had a cruel streak, as evidenced by a childhood flashback in which we see the young lad calmly cutting off a fluffy young duckling’s leg and throwing it back to watch it flap around. However, the film never sets out to provide explanations as to why he is what he is. Instead it builds in horror as it proceeds, from the murder of a gullible widow, the shootings of the children and their mother, and the savage killing and mutilation of a topless young woman (Riley Keough), one of her breasts being turned into a wallet, all the bodies being stored in a deep freeze he owns. Throughout, Jack. Believing himself an artistic genius in his chosen field, seeks to impress Verge, who tauntingly remains unconvinced, accusing him of clinging to a  pathetic dream of something great.

It’s unquestionably hard viewing, but it’s also brilliantly shot through with black comedy, such as Jack’s OCD  constantly sending him back into the house of his most recent murder to check he’s cleaned away all the blood, even as he hears a police siren closing in, or the final chapter where, having lined up a series of victims to be killed with a single bullet, he has a hissy fit when one of them points out the cartridge isn’t  a full metal jacket and he storms off to the shop to complain.

The title would, initially, seem to refer to the hillside construction on which we see him working, but eventually proves to have a far more grotesque appliance involving the frozen corpses through which he escapes as the cops close in  and the film shifts into the surreal. Dillon delivers a remarkable performance of a hugely difficult role and, even when the film descents in the baffling realms of philosophical existentialism and tortured artistic autobiography, while it could never, except in the most perverse sense, be described as enjoyable, it is unrelentingly compelling. (From Mon: Mockingbird)

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; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza Luxe; 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 Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Sorry To Bother You (15)

The debut of rapper turned writer-director Boots Riley, at the end of the day this Michel Gondry-inspired sociopolitical satire is a film built around an unsubtle word play. The word is workhorse and is applied here in a sort of body horror-comedy critique of the exploitation of the labour force and subsequent unionisation.

A rising star in the black firmament, Lakeith Stanfield is Cassius Green (pronounced Cash Is Green), a silver-tongued bullshitter who lives in his uncle’s (Terry Crews) garage with girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson),  a performance artist who wears designer activist slogan earrings and twirls advertising signs on the sidewalk. He lands himself a cold calling telesales job with Regalview largely on the account of, as his boss puts it, he has initiative and he can read, where the overriding rule is Stick To The Script. He’s making no headway until his veteran co-worker Langston (Danny Glover) advises him to use his ‘white voice’. Soon (dubbed by David Cross), as conveyed by a montage of silly celebratory poses, he’s racking up the sales, with the promise by his supervisor, Johnny (Michael X. Sommers)  that he may one day graduate to the literal next level and enter the golden gates elevator to join the mythical Power Sellers.

There is, however, discontent among his fellow workers,  now including Detroit (white voiced by Lily James), who’s apparently put her career on hold,  led by militant unioniser  Squeeze (Steven Yeun) who organises a down phones walk-out. Cash is on-board until he’s then given promotion to the elite, at which point,  moved upstairs to work under the eye-patched Mr. (Omari Hardwick, white voiced by Patton Oswald), kitted out in smart new duds, raking in obscene earnings and moved to a swanky upmarket apartment, loyalty and solidarity go out of the window, along with his relationship with Detroit.

His rise to superstar earns him an invite to a party/orgy hosted by laid back sarong-clad, coke-fiend Steve Lift (a quietly hilarious Armie Hammer who accepts all of the accusations against him as a compliment), CEO of Clearview which runs Worry Free, a voluntary slave-labour colony system against which radical activist collective Left Eye are leading protests.  He sees an opportunity in Cash’s ability to get into people’s heads  part of his own organisation. However, as Cash discovers when he takes a wrong turn looking for the bathroom, not in the way he’d assumed, with Lift involved in what, to avoid spoilers, will be simply called Equus-Sapiens.  Things take a far darker and more violent turn as matters spin out of control

There’s the nub of a strong satire here on capitalism, selling out, self-serving ambition and  genetic science excess and, for a while, it works well. The problem is Riley overloads the film with visual trickery (the cold calls drop Cash’s desk into the homes of his marks) and things like the self-explanatory titled TV game show I Got The Shit Kicked Out Of Me and how Cash becomes an internet sensation after being hit on the head by a protestor’s  soda can, leading to a sales boom in  bandaged-afro wigs which simply blunt the satirical edge the more wacky it all becomes. It doesn’t help either that the special effects, especially in the final scenes, look unfinished. Riley has a lot to say, it’s just unfortunate that so much of it gets lost in the noise. (Mockingbird)

 

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;  Empire Great Park; Mockingbird; Odeon Birmingham,  Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Stan And Ollie (12A)

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Upside (12A)
A remake of the French true story-based Les Intouchables, directed by Neil Burger this swaps Paris for Manhattan with Kevin Hart dialling down his usual 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)

The Wife (15)

Again underlining her status as one of the greatest actresses of her generation, until she finally explodes at the film’s ending, Glenn Close gives a Golden Globe winning master class in understatement and restrained tension as Joan Castleman, the sixty-something wife of older celebrated author, Joe (Jonathan Pryce), her former struggling university professor (Harry Lloyd) who divorced his wife to marry her, his star student (Annie Starke). As the film opens, persuading her to have sex to calm him down, he’s nervously awaiting news from Sweden, the pair subsequently bouncing up and down on the bed to celebrate his winning the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Their daughter due to give birth at any moment, they take their son, David (Max Irons) himself an aspiring writer and resentful of his father’s seeming lack of support or interest, with them to receive the award as, between being fussed over by Swedish officials and flashbacks to university days and their ensuing affair,  the film slowly unfolds the relationship between Joan and her husband. Flirting with the young official photographer (Karin Franz Korlof) assigned to shadow him in Sweden, we learn Joe’s had several affairs, to which Joan, who enjoys the comforts of being married to such a prestigious writer, has turned a stoical blind eye. But there’s more to it. The flashbacks reveal that, back in the day, she herself had literary aspirations, her university essay ‘The Faculty Wife’, based on Joe’s marriage, held in high esteem. However, at a literary function, a minor female author (Elizabeth McGovern) cautions her to give up all hopes of being taken seriously or read, publishing being a highly chauvinistic domain. And so, it would seem, that Joan abandoned the idea and settled into becoming the dutiful, long-suffering wife, coaching him on his responsibilities and manners. At cocktail parties, Joe always acknowledges her as his inspiration and muse, but  adds that, no, she doesn’t write. And Joan smiles and carries on. However, Joe’s would be warts and all biographer, Nathaniel Bone (Christian Slater), who’s contrived to also be in Sweden for the awards, has his own theories and is determined to wheedle out the truth, even if Joan refuses to spill the beans.

Anyone who knows the story of French authoress Collete, will have sussed out the marriage’s creative dynamic well before the subsequent revelations, summed up in a line about how “there’s nothing more dangerous than a writer whose feelings have been hurt.” As such, the logic feels flawed as to why such a clearly strong-willed  and talented woman would meekly accept the  situation, not even wishing to bask in reflected glory, or why she finally says enough is enough following the awards-ceremony in which he showers her with praise, saying he could not be the writer he is without her. Indeed, as the flashbacks show, it was she who, working at a publishers, got them to look at his work and facilitated his masterpiece, The Walnut.

Adapting Meg Wolitzer’s 1992-set novel, director Bjorn Runge has a keen eye for the trappings, amusingly drawing out the red tape and absurd protocol of such events, the couple even being awakened to a candle-lit serenade. But, he lacks imagination, the flashbacks have none of the main narrative’s brittle edge and he also overdoes the resonances and narrative design, with David’s work in progress mirroring his mother’s essay in depicting a marriage in crisis while Joe’s chat up line involving James Joyce quote about falling snow is made literal in the final moments.

Pryce does a decent job in shaping Joe as not a bad man but one who’s weak and narcissistic, while Slater is excellent as the slippery journo, the café chat between him and an inscrutable Joan a particular highlight, but this is unquestionably Close’s film, rising above the flaws in the material to command the screen and keep you engaged even as you’re questioning the plausibility. (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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