MOVIE ROUND-UP:This Week’s New Film Releases, Fri Jan 31-Thu Feb 6

 

NEW RELEASES

Queen & Slim (15)

Driving back from a mismatched Tinder date that hasn’t gone as well as it might, though they’re never referred to as such throughout,  Slim,  god-fearing, teetotal blue collar employee Ernest (Get Out’s Daniel Kaluuya) and Queen (a starmaking turn by Jodie Turner-Smith), Angela, an upscale atheist defence lawyer with commitment issues, are pulled over by a clearly racist trigger-happy Ohio cop (Sturgill Simpson), resulting in Queen being wounded and Slim accidentally shooting the officer dead. With apparently no witnesses, realising two blacks involved in a cop killing aren’t going to get justice, she insists they drive off, refusing to let him call anyone or take her to hospital. But when a dashcam video of the incident goes viral they’re forced on the run, heading to Kentucky and from there to Florida, and are quickly dubbed the black Bonnie and Clyde, although Thelma and Louise would be a better analogy (substituting sexism for bigotry), forced the change their appearance (she ruefully shaving off her braids) and becoming folk heroes among the black community who variously conceal them and enable their journey. Among these are her Uncle Earl (Bokeem Woodbine), a New Orleans pimp who lords it over a harem of scantily-clad but sexually powerful women, a mechanic (Gralen Bryant Banks), his young son Junior (Jahi Di’Allo Winston) who seeks to emulate his outlaw heroes with tragic results, and a liberal white couple (Flea and Chloë Sevigny).

Barely friend at the start, the couple’s relationship develops into something more over the course of their odyssey as they live life to the fullest, video director Malina Matsoukas making her feature debut variously offering comedy (a white store clerk in awe of the Glock Slim’s carrying), tenderness in a juke joint drink and a dance, hope, crushing betrayal and, because the film really has nowhere else to go, the inevitable jarring but inspirational martyrdom ending. Vividly photographed by Tat Radcliffe and with a script by Lena Waithe, the couple’s story serves as emblematic of the Black experience in white America, the latter’s oppression and the former’s sense of community and pride.

Stretched over an episodic 132 minutes, it’s structurally far from perfect, with long aerial montages of cars on roads, little character development, overegged symbolism, a sketchy supporting cast and perhaps too few moments when the emotion truly hits home despite the leads’ powerful chemistry, but the cumulative effect is transfixing.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

A Beautiful Day In The Neighbourhood (PG)

Though largely unknown over here, Fred Rogers was a household name as the creator and presenter of Mr. Rogers Neighborhood, a children’s television show featuring songs and puppets that ran from  1968 to 2001. A relentlessly genial small screen saint who radiated compassion, kindliness, warmth and humility and never patronised his young viewers, his story was profiled by journalist Tom Junod’s 1998 Esquire cover feature ‘Can you say… hero?’  and it’s this which serves as the jumping off point for director Marielle Heller’s follow-up to her previous true-life drama, Can You Ever Forgive Me? Matthew Rhys plays world-weary and cynical journalist Lloyd Vogel who’s estranged from his boorish alcoholic father, Jerry (Chris Cooper), and his new girlfriend (Wendy Makenna), over his cheating on and abandoning his mother when she was dying, their volatile relationship shown early on in a confrontation at his sister’s wedding, and is unable to be a real father to his own infant son. Although his father apologises and seeks reconciliation, Vogel will have none of it.

Regarding himself as a serious investigative journalist, he baulks when his editor (Christine Lahti) assigns him to go to Pittsburgh and write a profile of Rogers (Tom Hanks) for the magazine’s upcoming Heroes issue. Reluctantly agreeing, on meeting him, Rogers asks how he got the bruise on his eye (during the fight with his dad) and seems genuinely concerned. And, although initially looking to find  some catch to Rogers’ behaviour, some dark flaw in the man, he gradually comes to realise that what you see is what you get and a friendship develops between them as Rogers turns things around and starts questioning Vogel about what’s troubling him, about a  special toy he had called Old Rabbit (cue a dream sequence on the show’s set) and the relationship with his dad,  eventually bringing about a catharsis, self-therapy and a healing as he learns about his father’s ailing health.

As narratives go, it’s a slim and somewhat very predictable one, but, like Hanks, whose soft, mannered speech perfectly captures Rogers’ distinctive unhurried singsong way of talking and his gentle sincerity, it offers a welcome touchy-feely fuzziness in a world where cynicism and scepticism tend to be the default mode; indeed, as Rogers asks Vogel to close his eyes and think of “all the people who loved you into existence” as an act of self-acceptance, Hanks gazes into the lens and the audience are invited to do the same.

Aside from confessing to sometimes banging on the piano to vent frustrations, the film never really looks behind Rogers’ public persona, but you’re left with the sense that there was very little difference to him off-screen. In many ways almost a therapist-patient bromance between the two men, with their respective wives (Maryann Plunkett, Susan Kelechi Watson) supporting players in their stories, the dynamic between the perfectly cast Hanks’s amiability and Rhys’s wounded cynicism is utterly engaging. Unlike Heller’s previous films, this has absolutely no edge and establishing scenes that play out within the miniature modelling look of the show’s set add an almost make-believe touch, but its effect is a soothing balm in a troubled world where the values Rogers espoused and embodied seem to have been forgotten.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

The Lighthouse (15)

Shot in stark black and white, strikingly captured by Jarin Blaschke’s cinematography, writer-director Robin Eggars’ follow-up to his period horror The Witch is an altogether far more existential and expressionist affair, a two hander starring Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson set in a 19th-century Maine lighthouse that has been not unreasonably described as Beckett’s Waiting For Godot with a lot more swearing and some added mermaid sex.

Dafoe is Tom Wake, the grizzled, limping old seadog veteran ‘wickie’ of the lighthouse, the flexibly-accented Pattison the less-bearded rookie Ephraim Winslow who, new to the job after lumberjacking in Canada, is replacing the former assistant who reportedly went mad and died. If he did, it’s understandable given that Wake has a hair-trigger personality that switches from jocularity to despotic in an instant, not something that bodes well for the month the men have to spend together. He also claims access to the light itself as his personal province, refusing Winslow to venture any higher than the mechanisms he has to keep clean and oiled.  When not doing that his menial duties entail carrying up the coal, collecting firewood, emptying the chamberpots, and whitewashing the tower.

Variously drawing on influences such as Coleridge, Herman Melville, German expressionist cinema,  Shakespeare and the writings of writings New England poet Sarah Orne Jewett, it’s a challenging but compelling affair as the two men circle each other in a toxic and homo-erotic dance of masculinity and power, drunk on kerosene when the booze runs out,  the gloweringly resentful Winslow having harrowing nightmares, furiously masturbating in the engine room to an ivory mermaid figure, and hallucinating sex with an actual mermaid and hauling up lobster pots containing drowned heads. Overwhelmed with rage, Winslow’s smashes hell out of an unfortunate seagull, which as anyone who knows their sea lore will anticipate, means he unleashes damnation itself.

Highly theatrical, oppressively claustrophobic (it’s show in the square-like 1.19:1 aspect ratio) and psychologically terrifying, it’s decidedly more art house territory than Eggars’ previous film but the experience is well worth the challenges it presents. (Electric)

The Man Who Killed Don Quixote (15)

As the title card announces, Terry Gilliam’s vanity project has been 25 years in the making, beset by all manner of financial, legal and technical troubles and having the two actors (Jean Rochefort and John Hurt) cast in the central role dying on him. Hardly surprisingly then that the finally completed project is an ungainly mess, at times dazzlingly inventive, at others incoherent and laboured.

The basic narrative framework is that controlling, self-absorbed director Toby (Adam Driver) is in Spain making an insurance commercial based around Cervantes’ classic tale of the deluded old windmill tilting knight from La Mancha. An inveterate womaniser, he’s also screwing the predatory trophy wife (Olga Kurylenko) of his studio boss (Stellan Skårsgard) but, while they’re fooling around, he’s distracted by watching pirated CD acquired from a local hawker which turns out to be his own graduate film of the title which, shot nearby, was also a Cervantes adaptation.

At which point the film takes off on one of its many flashback diversions as we see him trying to encourage the old man to get into the part, something which, we later learn as, back in the present, he seeks him out again and find him being exploited as a sideshow attraction, persuaded that he really is the knight and that Toby is his former faithful companion Sancho Panza come to rescue him.

Interwoven into all this is a romantic subplot involving Angelica (Joana Ribeiro), the landlord’s daughter he seduced back when and which he hopes to rekindle, an incident in which Javier slays a couple of cops, the staging of a  costume ball at an ancient castle to impress a potential Russian financier  (Jordi Mollà) at which ‘Don Quixote’, astride a giant prop horse, is cruelly the main entertainment and a community of illegal Moroccan immigrants who didn’t expect to get raided by, yes, the Spanish Inquisition, all climaxing in a gladiatorial battle and fiery eruptions before a ride off into the sunset. A cinematic equivalent of a car crash  from which you can’t avert your eyes, it’s shambolic, chaotic, absurd, breathtaking, inspired, thrilling, boring and lunatic in equal measure, something perhaps only Gilliam could ever have made. Now that he finally has, curiosity alone should make it worth the experience.  (Until Tue: Electric)

The Rhythm Section (15)

Her parents, brother and sister killed in a plane crash, traumatised by survivor guilt (she was supposed to join them but didn’t) former top Oxford student Stephanie Patrick (Blake Lively) is now a heroin junkie sex worker. Then, one day, a journalist (Raza Jeffrey) posing as a client inexplicably (given his understandable paranoia) decides to confide in her that he’s been working on the story and his intelligence agency source has informed him it was a terrorist bombing not an accident, that it was all covered up and the bombmaker (Tawfeek Barhom), is at liberty in London.  It’s not clear what he thought might happen, but buying a gun off her dealer, off she sets determined to track him down and kill him, only to get cold feet.

Unfortunately, that ends up in the journo getting killed. Luckily for Steph, however, when she first went back to his place he’d rather sloppily left all the information she needed lying round, including, if you can believe it, the actual post code of his source, B.  Next thing you know she’s up by an Inverness lock where she encounters the bearded Boyd (Jude Law), a former MI6 agent who fouled up and is now living off grid Bear Grylls style. Though not so off grid that he doesn’t know about his contact’s death and everything about Stephanie. Playing Leon to her Nikita, he sets about some tough love training to turn her into an assassin before bundling her off on her first contract, posing as Petra, a German female assassin he’d killed for personal reasons. He also puts her in touch with Serra (Sterling K Brown), a former CIA operative turned supposed philanthropist but actually a trader in information.

Boyd tells her she’s not cut out for this sort of thing, and he seems to be right given that she fails to carry out either of her first two assigned kills, though luckily one dies from being unable to get his life support and Boyd, who isn’t so off grid he can’t nip over to Europe to keep an eye on things, is on hand to dispose of the other, albeit with some unintended collateral damage (“I’ll have to live with it the rest of my life”, he says, not very convincingly.

Anyways, eventually she’s back on the Reza’s trail and, through him, looking to expose the unidentified codenamed plot mastermind, who’s also busy clearing up any loose ends connected to him, which does at least result in a frantic if incoherent car chase through Tangiers and a tense fight on a Marseilles bus to take down a suicide bomber. Not to mention a variety of wigs, accents and locations. Otherwise, however, produced by the 007 stable to fill the boredom between Bonds, anonymously directed by Reed Morano and lifelessly adapted by Mark Burnell from his own assassin series with several pace-killing flashbacks to her happy family days, this is just a generic plod through the genre clichés as ridiculous as the title which is Boyd’s mantra for focusing heart and breathing when you’re going to shoot someone. Lively, sporting assorted shoot-up bruises, gives good intensity, anxiety and conflicted emotions (though Steph’s addiction seems to vanish overnight), but she’s far better than the material warrants. While the gritty gravitas befits the narrative, the occasional flashes of humour only serve to underline the huge gulf between this and, for example, other hitwoman greats like Hannah or Killing Eve. Surrender to the rhythm you won’t.(Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Richard Jewell (15)

Back in 1996, working as a security guard at the Atlanta Olympics, Richard Jewell discovered a suspicious backpack that eventually exploded, killing two and wounding many. Were it not for his actions, the toll would have been higher. He was initially hailed as a hero, until, following a call from the head of a college from where Jewell had been fired for using excessive enthusiasm as campus security, the FBI stepped in and decided that, a Forrest Gump-like overweight wannabe cop who lived with his mother, he fitted the profile of the attention seeking lone bomber who then plays the saviour and made him the prime suspect. This got out to the media and Jewell’s life fell apart, eventually turning to Watson Bryant, who he knew from once working as stationery supply clerk at a law firm, as the only lawyer he knew to call. What followed under the glare of the media spotlight was a fight to clear Jewell’s name and get him justice.

His story, with some inevitable adjustments to the facts, including controversy over implying that Kathy Scruggs (Olivia Wilde), a reporter for the  Atlanta Journal-Constitution, traded sex with her FBI contact (here Jon Hamm playing composite figure Tom Shaw) in exchange for information, now comes to the screen directed by Clint Eastwood. Working from a screenplay by Billy Ray, based on Marie Brenner’s 1997 Vanity Fair article, it stars Paul Walter Hauser as Jewell with a familiarly sardonic Sam Rockwell as his lawyer and the Oscar nominated (for her press conference speech) Kathy Bates as Jewell’s mother, and with the FBI and the media seen as distorting the facts, both intentionally (Shaw and his colleague try and coerce Jewell into giving a  false confession) and for the sake of headlines, while Eastwood has made clear his Republican sentiments, this and a sticker in Watson’s office declaring “I fear government more than I fear terrorism”, gives it a political edge in which the American Everyman becomes the victim of the system, trial by media and abuse of power.

As such, it travels a suitably crowdpleasing route with Rockwell always worth watching and Hauser excellent as a man whose blind deference to authority and inability to shut up often made him his own worst enemy, but even so it’s an uneven affair that, in the last act sees Scruggs, who now realises Jewell’s innocence,  pretty much vanish from the storyline while, as it splutters to a conclusion, there’s never indication as to what happened to the agents who sought to frame him, and remained convinced of his guilt, rather than track down the real bomber. Watchable, but it’s no Sully. (Cineworld 5 Ways, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

ALSO PLAYING

Amanda (15)

A terrorist attack in Paris results in David (Vincent Lacoste), an aimless twentysomething who arranges lettings for a dodgy landlord and does some occasional tree trimming in the local park, reluctantly becoming potential guardian to his single mother sister’s (Ophélia Kolb), 7-year-old daughter, Amanda (Isaure Multrier) while at the same time negotiating  romance with Léna (Stacy Martin),a  pianist who is also injured in the mass shooting and has PTSD, and estranged from his mother (Greta Scacchi), who lives in London, where he, his sister and Amanda were due to watch Wimbledon, all of which forces him to grow up and take responsibility for his life and those of those close to him. (Sun –Thu: MAC)

Mother (PG)

A moving documentary about Pomm,  a carer in Thailand for westerners with Alzheimer’s, who gives her European patients one-to-one care involving singing, joking, hugging and confiding, as well as the welfare basics. One such patient is Elisabeth, sent there since the care is cheaper than at home, who can communicate only in squeaks and other noises. Pomm, meanwhile, has her own problems, specifically lack of contact with her children who live some distance away, the documentary revealing how the support here is mutual. Later, she received another patient, Maya, from Switzerland as the film becomes a more emotionally difficult watch. (Wed:MAC)

Pink Wall (15)

Erstwhile Downton Abbey star Tom Cullen makes his directorial debut with a technically ambitious (each scene having a  different visual style) film about the relationship between two US expats, aspirant film producer Jenna and photographer  Leon, living in the UK where they met at art college. Played by Tatiana Maslany and Jay Duplass  their loving but also often fractious relationship is charted over the course of six years, although not in chronological fashion, opening in Year Four and then adopting flashbacks and flashforwards, as career clashes, insecurities, ambitions and the interference of others all have an impact. While other characters do appear, notably in a prickly dinner table sequence, it’s pretty much a two-hander and the leads rise to the occasion offering characters that are both likeable but also capable of being very selfish and annoying, yet who you want to see remain together even if Year Six’s ending remains teasingly inconclusive. (Thu: MAC)

 

NOW SHOWING

1917 (15)

Already recipient of Best Film and Director at the Golden Globes and nominated in both categories for the BAFTAs, the film, director Sam Mendes and DP Roger Deakins are also Oscar frontrunners for this bravura first world war drama, drawn from stories told by Mendes grandfather, about two young soldiers ordered to take a message across No Man’s Land and behind enemy lines to call of an attack that, lured into a German trap, can only end in disaster.

It’s been misleadingly touted as being one continuous take, whereas it’s actually a series of very lengthy takes (some shot up to eight times to get it right), seamlessly edited together as a fluid travelling narrative. Lance Corporals, Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Schofield (George MacKay) are woken from their peaceful naps and given the task by their General (Colin Firth) to deliver the order to stand down to Colonel Mackenzie (Benjamin Cumberbatch), the officer in charge, who, believing the Germans are on the retreat, intends to launch an assault, unaware of reconnaissance information revealing a new enemy line manned by heavy artillery. If not prevented, it will result in the massacre of the 1,600 men in his division, among them Blake’s older brother (Richard Madden). And they only have until the following morning to do so. To get there involves them crossing a devastated landscape of mud and ruined buildings, strewn with corpses of men and horses, infested with rats, tangled in barbed wire, littered with fallen trees  and pitted with shell craters, never quite sure as to whether the Germans have all left or not. And much of it must be undertaken in daylight.

At times unbearably tense and punctuated with sudden jolting moments, it grips throughout as the friends navigate through the exposed countryside and booby trapped abandoned enemy trenches (far better equipped than their own, with even the rats bigger), the camera sometimes following, sometimes in front of them, sometimes panning across the horrors that surround them. Without spoiling it too much, suffice to say that, following a  remarkable and agonising scene involving a crashed German plane, ultimately, only one of them makes it to Mackenzie, the perilous trek seeing him shot at by snipers, finding a brief moment of calm with a young Frenchwoman (Claire Duburcq) and a motherless baby (one of several almost surreal moments, another involving cherry trees), having to confront stray enemy soldiers, being swept along in a  raging river and racing across a battlefield under bombardment.

In the early part, it’s almost a two-hander between MacKay and Chapman, the film drawing you into their friendship and fears, but as the journey progresses there are several brief cameos, among them Mark Strong as an officer en route with his men to the bombed out village of Écoust, a staging point on the vital mission, that gives way to the surviving messenger stumbling out into night-time vision of hell.

Driven by a swelling score from Thomas Newman, it never trumpets anything resembling glory in wartime (at one point an officer sarcastically observes “Nothing like a patch of ribbons to cheer up a widow”) and its heroism is very much that of the courage of ordinary men facing extraordinary circumstances, and wishing they were anywhere else. Calling to mind other such war classics as Paths of Glory, War Horse and Saving Private Ryan, it’s poignant (most especially the still scene of a lone soldier singing Wayfaring Stranger to his comrades before they go into battle), tragic, thrilling and horrifying all at the same time, the human waste and needless destruction part of the fabric rather than a pointed agenda. Simply breathtakingly brilliant. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Electric;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield;  Everyman; Mockingbird; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Bad Boys For Life (15)

A so so turn in Aladdin aside, Will Smith hasn’t made a truly decent movie since Hancock back in 2008, hardly surprising then to see this reboot of arguably his most successful, though not necessarily best,  work. Directed by little known Belgian duo Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah, taking over from Michael Bay (who gets a cheeky cameo), with a screenplay that involved three writers, including od hands Peter Draig and Joe Carnahan, he reteams with Martin Lawrence after 17 years to revive the partnership of apparently incredibly well paid maverick Miami narcotics detectives Mike Lowrey (Smith) and Marcus Burnett (Lawrence), still on the streets bringing down the bad guys, even if a few grey hairs and some added weight are showing.

Mike behind the wheel of his blue Porsche, the film kicks off with they swapping banter during a frantic car chase involving several squad cars and bikes, though amusingly (albeit downright recklessly) not in pursuit of some villains but to get Marcus to the hospital where his grandson (who’s named after him) is being born. It’s an epiphany that sees Burnett decide to retire and put his feet up while Lowrey insists on carrying on (cue comparison scenes of the two friends going about their different daily lives), “running down criminals until I’m a hundred.” But then he’s almost killed in a drive-by shooting by a helmeted man in black on a motorbike, leading Marcus to tell God he’ll give up violence if his buddy pulls through and setting in the motion the core narrative in which recent  prison escapee Mexican witch Isabel Aretas (Kate del Castillo), the widow of a cartel boss, sends her sociopathic  sniper son, Armando (Jacob Scipio), to assassinate everyone involved in the case, leaving Lowrey to last (though he does try and jump the gun), in revenge.

With Marcus now having retired and Mike ordered by the captain (Jo Pantoliano) to get involved, the case is hand over to the newly formed AMMO tactical squad, headed up by one of Lowrey’s old flames, Rita (Paola Núñez), and featuring the regulation mix of one dimensional colourful oddballs, snarky Rafe (Charles Melton), an underused Vanessa Hudgens as ballistics expert Kelly  and  ripped tech guy Dorn (Alexander Ludwig) who has also renounced violence. Naturally, Mike’s not going to sit back and do nothing, so it’s not long before things are getting blown up and the body count rising as they try and track down who’s responsible.

All of this is formulaic stuff, but it’s given a darker, harder and more emotive edge when the somewhat far-fetched third act reveals Mike’s backstory and a connection between those seeking his death that is about more than it first appears. Smith and Lawrence skip comfortably back into their roles and clearly seem to be having fun rather than just taking the paycheque, riffing on the franchise  with constant repeats of their mantra and the theme song. Although most of the target audience were still toddlers when the last instalment came out, there’s no attempt to reinvent anything here, just to reignite the fun and put a little more grit and thought into the fuel. And, as such with the end credits setting up what promises to be an unusual family alliance  sequel, it does just that. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Bombshell (15)

Having been ignored by the BAFTAs, Charlize Theron deservedly gets an Oscar Best Actress nomination, Margo Robbie scoring a Best Supporting nod for director Jay Roach and screenwriter Charles Randolph’s   terrific account of one of the formative moments of the #MeToo movement. Set in 2016, with prosthetic making her look unnervingly like her character, Theron plays Megyn Kelly, one of the then star anchors on Fox News who, along with fellow presenter Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman), the host of Fox & Friends (a position she saw a demotion), were responsible for the demise of Roger Ailes (John Lithgow in fat suit), the right wing Fox network boss who, seemingly paternalistic, conducted a systematic campaign of sexual harassment, trading promotion for sexual favours.

Audaciously breaking down the fourth wall, the film opens with Kelly, a former lawyer, offering the viewer a guided tour around, introducing various players and showing the executive offices home to owner Rupert Murdoch (Malcolm McDowell putting in a last act appearance) and his sons Lachlan and Miles, and Ailes’ high security second floor with its private elevator to his lair so his chosen women can come and go unseen. The story itself gets underway with the Fox News-hosted  Republican debate in the 2016 presidential campaign with Kelly’s confrontation with Donald Trump over his misogyny (seamlessly stitching in actual footage)  prompting him to subsequently make a  veiled remark about her menstrual cycle, resulting in even bigger headlines. And yet, at this point, she’s still ready to play nice for the Network and Ailes, going relatively easier on Trump in a subsequent one-to-one interview.

Although it’s later revealed that Kelly’s also been subjected to Ailes lechery and sexual tyranny (he insisted his female presenters wear short skirts and sit behind plexiglass desks that exposed their legs), it’s Carlson who first calls him out, almost inevitably seeing her frozen out by her co-workers, the men especially but also women who, while they may to be victims, aren’t going to risk their careers. Eventually fired, she enlists lawyers to sue not Fox, but Ailes personally in a strategy that is more meticulously planned than it may first appear. However, to succeed, she needs other women to come forward. Which, when someone like Jeanine Pirro (Alanna Ubach) is demanding everyone be on Team Roger, might prove hard.

The third player in the events is Kayla Pospisil (Robbie), a fictional composite character, who, arriving at the network as a naive but ambitious  Christian millennial initially works alongside Carlson but swiftly engineers a move to Bill O’Reilly’s (Kevin Dorff) Fox News team, mentored by Jess (Kate McKinnon), a closet lesbian (and even more closet Hillary Clinton supporter) while, looking to move up the ladder and on-air, getting in with Ailes’ personal assistant  (Holland Taylor), wheedling an ‘audition’ with the big man and discovering what it will take – euphemistic ‘loyalty’ – behind closed to open the doors she wants. The scene as he asks her to keep lifting her skirt a little higher is genuinely horrific.

As the ball gathers speed, all three women will eventually come together in a united crusade, that ultimately resulted in Murdoch sacrificing Ailes to save the network (though notably his pay-off was far greater than the compensation paid to the women), but not without a cost to themselves.

With a supporting cast that also includes Mark Duplass as Kelly’s husband and Allison Janney in terrific form as Ailes’ ferocious lawyer, Susan Estrich and Connie Britton as his wife, the film freewheels along balancing gripping drama and sharp humour to masterful effect and while its three  female leads are outstanding in the emotional shadings they bring to their characters, Lithgow also deserves special mention for making Ailes both terrifyingly corrupt and pathetically human just as the women are often guilty of self-interest and selfishness, underlining the observation of how such toxic environment cannot thrive without a degree of complicity. As the title suggests, this is explosive. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Electric; Empire Great Park; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Frozen II (U)

Let’s say this from the start, neither the film nor the songs are a patch on the original. Show Yourself seem destined to be  favourite, but it’s no Let it Go. Set three years on, Elsa (Idina Menzel), still romantically unattached,  now rules Arendell,  snowman Olaf (Josh Gad) is now all permafrost and the hunky but still somewhat oafish Kristoff is trying to summon up courage to propose to the apparently insecure Anna (Kristen Bell). Not that you need reminding, but Elsa’s the one with the magic ice powers. However, why her? That’s the engine that drives the narrative, the film opening with a childhood flashback as their now late parents, King Agnarr (Alfred Molina) and Queen Iduna (Evan Rachel Wood),  tell them a bedtime story about  Ahtohalla, an enchanted forest to the north, ruled by the spirits of  earth, air, fire and water and how, 34 years earlier, their grandfather sought to forge a pact with the indigenous Northuldra, building a dam to hold back the sacred river mentioned in mum’s lullaby, only for hostilities to inexplicably break out, leading the forest and its inhabitants to be imprisoned by a wall of mist, but not before the young Agnarr was rescued by a girl from the tribe.

Now, the grown Elsa is hearing a voice calling her, so she determines to set off, as the other vaguely memorable song puts it, Into The Unknown, accompanied, naturally by Anna, Olaf, Kristoff and Sven the reindeer. As such, it’s a sort of origin story, though the revelations are unlikely to come as much of a surprise to any alert six year old, while getting there and learning the truth of what happened, albeit  featuring  a cute flaming salamander and a water horse, is something of a plodding and slightly incohesive affair, punctuated by a running gag about Kristoff’s failed attempts to propose.

The first film’s theme of finding yourself gets a retread, this time in the context of growing up and transitions (indeed, Olaf sings When I Am Older and philosophises on impermanence and the core cast warble how Some Things Never Change) and characters find themselves in mortal peril in protecting others (it flirts with darkness but  anything bad that happens ultimately unhappens), but it’s not until the final act that the thing really catches fire.  The animation is, of course, first rate, especially the scenes underwater, the characters remain likeable and  the mix of sentiment, action and humour is about right (though Anna’s remark about preferring Kristoff in leather was probably not intended to be as kinky as it sounds), but, when, at the end,  someone asks Elsa if they’re going to lead them into any more dangers, you kind of hope Disney means it when she says no. It’s been cool, but the thaw is setting in. (Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

The Gentlemen (18)

Having played nice for the family with the live action Aladdin, Guy Ritchie returns to his Lock  Stock mockney roots for  a swaggeringly stylised and convolutedly plotted London gangster  action comedy with a surprisingly low body count but a through the roof tally of four letter expletives, mostly C bombs.

It’s largely told in flashback via a duologue between  sleazy, goateed  and camp tabloid private eye Fletcher (Hugh Grant on top form, relishing the irony) and the softly spoken Raymond (Charlie Hunnam) as he offers to bury all the damning evidence he’s acquired for an expose of his Oxford educated, marijuana magnate American boss, Mickey Pearson (Matthew McConaughey in smirk mode), for £20 million.  The basic plot is that, looking to retire, Mickey wants to sell his business (a nationwide empire built through deals with financially impoverished British aristocrats to use their estates as cannabis farms) to well-connected would-be buyer, Jewish-American billionaire Matthew Berger (Jeremy Strong) for£400 million. But ambitious Chinese rival Dry Eye (Henry Golding) wants to take control and, as such, the narrative power play jockeys back and forth across assorted time jumps for a steady stream of new twists, revelations, misdirections, double crosses and set-ups, with a colourful cast of characters that include junkies, assorted musclemen, a rapping crew of boxers, Chinese drug lords, teenage thugs with cameraphones and Russians with Eddie Marsan as the newspaper editor with a personal vendetta against Mickey, Colin Farrell in a plaid tracksuit as the handy with his fists Irish club boxing coach and Michelle Dockery as Rosalind, Mickey’s Essex ice queen who runs a chop shop business.

Ritchie packs it full of self-referential film jokes, from Fletcher pitching his story as a screenplay for a movie called Bush shot old school on 35mm to allusions to Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation and London gangster classic, The Long Good Friday as well as a poster for  Ritchie’s The Man From U.N.C.L.E. on an office wall inside Miramax, the film’s distributor. It rattles anecdotedly along, constantly shooting off knowing witticisms and  mannered dialogue, backdropped in Tarantino fashion by a cool soundtrack.  “If you wish to be the king of the jungle, it’s not enough to act like the king, you must be the king”, observes McConaughey. Ritchie has come back for the crown.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park;  Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

The Grudge (15)

Originating in Japan in 2002 in the stream of J-horror movies that followed in the wake of The Ring, writer-director Takashi Shimizu’s film concerned a cursed house possessed by rage-filled spirits who bring about the death of any who enter. He himself helmed the 2004 American remake which was followed by a sequel two years later. Now  arthouse director Nicolas Pesce presents a second remake which, while opening in Tokyo, shifts events to America as, in the film’s creepiest moment involving an arm reaching out of a white plastic trash bag, Fiona Landers (Tara Westwood) leaves Japan and returns home to 44 Reyburn Drive, in Cross River, Pennsylvania, unwittingly taking the curse with her, where she proceeded to brutally murder her husband and young daughter before killing herself, thereby transferring the curse to their house.

In due course, this is inflicted on estate agent Peter Spencer (John Cho) and his wife (Nina Spencer), elderly occupants Faith (Lin Shaye) and husband William (Frankie Faison), Lorna Moody (Jacqi Weaver), the assisted suicide specialist he asks to help his demented wife, and even one of the detectives (William Sadler) investigating the Landers killings. Thrown into this is recently widowed, and newly arrived with a young son, Detective Muldoon (Andrea Riseborough) who is taken along by fellow cop Goodman (Demien Bichir) when a car is discovered in the woods containing Moody’s long decayed body.

Discovering the link to Reyburn Drive and the previous deaths, and intrigued that Goodman refuses to enter and wants her to drop the case, she duly goes along and finds Faith in the process of some serious self-mutilation and a rotting corpse in another room.  Of course, now Muldoon too is a target of the curse and it’s not long before she starts seeing ghostly figures.

Shifting across three different time periods in a not always easy to follow manner, it makes it clear that the curse draws on the characters’ feelings of grief, sadness and anger at the cards they’ve been dealt (the Spencers’ story is, perhaps, the hardest to bear) to manifest the hauntings, but never really capitalises on this. Riseborough is far better than the material deserves and Pesce does deliver some icy shivers (usually involving the appearance of the murdered girl in a pool of blood) among the generic jump moments and such series’ trademarks as guttural croaks and inexplicably wet figures with blacked out eyes, but ultimately, ponderously along, it’s more unsettling that scary, the real grudge being that of audiences who shelled out to see it. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Jojo Rabbit (12A)

Making a satirical comedy about Nazi Germany isn’t easy, Chaplin pulled it off with The Great Dictator as did Mel Brooks in The Producers, whereas, Oscars notwithstanding, Roberto Benigni’s Life Is Beautiful was squirm-inducing schmaltz. Now, following up on Thor:Ragnorak,  writer-director Taika Watiti throws his hat into the Third Reich ring and,  taking  from Christine Leunens’s decidedly serious novel Caging Skies, comes up trumps with an audaciously absurd Oscar nominated coming of age tale of a young member of the Hitler Youth whose imaginary friend is none other than Adolf himself.

Set in a small German town in the last year of the war, ten-year-old Jojo Betzler (winning newcomer Roman Griffin Davis), so nicknamed because he wouldn’t bring himself to bill a bunny during a youth camp exercise, really wants to be an exemplary fascist but, despite encouragement from his petulant fantasy Führer  (cartoonishly played with relish by Watiti channelling Michael Palin with a stream of hipster anachronisms) whenever he needs counselling, when it comes down to the wire, his heart’s just not in it. An unfortunate face-scarring accident with a grenade and at the insistence of his mother Rosie (nicely underplayed BAFTA and Oscar Best Supporting Actress nominee Scarlett Johannsen), means he’s now relegated to carrying out postman duties for the swaggering one-eyed gay squad commander, Captain Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell) whose psychotic underlings include Rebel Wilson and Alfie Allen, while his bespectacled chubby best friend, Yorki (Archie Yates) gets to play proper soldiers.

Humiliation, however, soon becomes the least of his worries as the film takes a turn into Anne Frank territory when he discovers his mother, who’s less a fan of the Fatherland than he is,  is hiding Elsa Korr (Thomasin McKenzie, the film’s calm, measured centre),  a Jewish girl, in a secret compartment in their attic. When she warns that turning her in will mean both her and his mother’s death, instead he decides to hang out and learn more about Jews from the source, compiling a notebook and sketches  to answer such pressing questions as “Where does the queen Jew lay the eggs?”  Inevitably, a friendship begins to form as she tells him he’s not a Nazi, just “a 10-year-old boy who likes dressing up in a funny uniform” and he comes to understand the lies he’s been fed (Jews have scales and horns) and the suffering that’s been inflicted.

Opening with documentary clips of World War II Germany accompanied by the Beatles’ German-language version of I Want to Hold Your Hand (Bowie’s Helden also features), at times calling to mind   Wes Anderson, Chris Morris and Armando Iannucci, Watiti underscores his ridiculing of anti-Semitism through absurdist off-beat humour while playing the film’s Nazis, as epitomised by Klenzendorf, as buffoons, although he does upend the caricature and clowning with sympathy in unexpected ways. Which isn’t to say, there isn’t also an air of chilling threat, manifested in the parodic portrayal of the black clad Sieg Heiling Gestapo (headed up by an unctuous Stephen Merchant) who descend on Jojo’ house while, pivoting on a pair of shoes, things suddenly switch from hilarity to gut punch horror as the tone shifts in a heartbeat.

Clearly designed to strike a timely chord with the disturbing rise of neo-Nazism, it’s a provocative anti-hate dark satire with heart, humanity, hilarity and, in its moving final moments, hope. Not to mention an hysterical German Shepherd gag. (Cineworld 5 Ways; Empire Great Park; MAC; Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe)

 

Joker (15)

Leading the Oscar nominations, including Film and Director and Screenplay,with Best Actor surely a foregone conclusion darker, both tonally and morally, than even Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, and devoid of any of the flip humour likely to characterise the upcoming Harley Quinn movie, Birds of Prey, it’s not escaped  controversy regarding the extreme violence. And yes, yet in a dystopian early 80s Gotham, it is intense, brutal, graphic and bloody, but while Phillips seeks to explain and understand, at no  point does he excuse, justify or glorify.

First introduced applying his clown for hire makeup, contorting his face into a deranged smile that might give Stephen King nightmares, Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) is a mentally disturbed, dead inside loser and loner, who, on medication and seeing  a social worker counsellor, lives with his single, infirm mother (Frances Conroy) in a crappy apartment and who suffers from a  neurological  condition that expresses itself as a sort of laughter version of Tourette’s. His Everything Must Go promotional placard snatched by a  bunch of kids, he’s left badly beaten, prompting  a fellow worker to slip him a gun with which he subsequently kills the three Wall Street bully boys who harass and attack him on a subway train, an act that, seized on my the media with its vigilante clown headlines, ignites the fuse to already simmering unrest in Gotham, and about the glaring divide between the poor (who adopt clown masks a la V for Vendetta) and the rich, as emblemised by Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen who,  here a loathsome rather than benevolent figure, is running for mayor having castigated the ‘mob’ as all clowns. Indeed, Phillips introduces several moments to enfold his vision within the Batman mythos and the connections between the Dark Knight and his ultimate nemesis.

An aspirant stand-up, Arthur is also a huge admirer of TV talk show host Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro, the Jerry Langford to Arthur’s Rupert Pupkin, conjuring King of Comedy echoes just as the film channels Mean Streets/Taxi Driver Scorsese) so, despite a clip of a stage act being screened on the show as a humiliating put-down, when he’s invited to appear, he naturally agrees. However, by this point, with yet more bodies to his count, having been confronted with the terrible truth about his childhood and his mother and, increasingly delusional as the joke turns in on itself, when he turns up in the familiar Joker outfit, dancing on his way to the strains of Gary Glitter’s Rock and Roll Part 2, no one in the audience should be expecting this to go well.

Given the impressions made by both Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger in the role, Phoenix clearly had hard acts to follow, but he brings a whole new dimension (and demented cackle) of his own to the character, both, with his skeletal frame and facial expressions, physically (his frequent dance routines infused with the tragic comedy and pathos of Chaplin), emotionally and psychologically, as we understand and empathise with the pain that drives him over the edge, but do not condone the horrific consequences. It’s a staggering performance that can’t help but eclipse those around him (Zazie Beetz particularly suffers from an underwritten role as Arthur’s single-mom neighbour and, we are led to believe, caring lover), but it fits perfectly with the world around him.

Driven by Hildur Gudnadóttir’s brooding  score and the ironic use of numbers like That’s Life and  Send In The Clowns, like The Purge, the film taps into  a disturbing powder keg zeitgeist of civil unrest (set to Cream’s White Room) and looming anarchic class war as, summing things up, Arthur asks Murray “What do you get when you cross a mentally ill loner with a society that abandons him and treats him like trash?” His and the film’s answer is ‘what you fuckin’ deserve’.  As Groucho Marx said, “The only real laughter comes from despair”. (Vue Star City)

Jumanji: The Next Level (12A)

The gang’s all back when, set some time after the last film, they get together to celebrate Bethany’s (Madison Iseman) return from her study abroad and Spencer (Alex Wolff) never shows. Going to his uncle’s house, they discover he’s gone back into Jumanji and decide to follow and rescue him. The drums start pounding, but this time their avatars get all mixed up. Insecure Martha (Morgan Turner), whose relationship with Spencer has hit a speed bump, is still Lara Croft-like Ruby Roundhouse (Karen Gillan), but high school sports star Fridge (Ser’Darius Blain) is now zoologist Professor Sheldon Oberon (Jack Black) and, instead of Spencer, Dr Smolder Bravestone (Dwayne Johnson) is now his infirm cranky uncle Eddie (Danny DeVito) whose estranged best friend and former restaurant partner Milo (Danny Glover) is backpack man Mouse (Kevin Hart). And Bethany’s not there at all.

Greeted as before by game host Nigel (Rhys Darby), they learn that this time they have to save Jumanji from Jurgen the Brutal (Rory McGann), a warlord who killed Bravestone’s parents and has stolen a precious stone, and unless it is again exposed to the sun, Jumanji and its people are doomed.

In many ways this serves up much the same as before with the cast  sending themselves up (such as Bravestone’s habit of breaking out into smouldering intensity), but now Johnson and Hart also get to channel DeVito and Glover who are delighted at the new lease of life (and, for the former, sexy lover) their avatars have given them.

Again directed by Jake Kasden, it romps along through a series of  set pieces, including a floating rope bridges encounter with a horde of angry mandrills and a desert chase pursued by a flock of ostriches before they arrive at Jurgen’s fortress, all down to their last life, during which further amusing avatar swaps occur (notably between Ruby and Sheldon), including the introduction of lockpicking Ming (Awkafeena), a whole new character,  and Bethany finally puts in a  very unexpected appearance along with Alex (Colin Hanks), the man they rescued last time round.

It takes a while to find its feet and it can be a bit shouty (Black, naturally), but once in the swing it romps along in hugely entertaining fashion and make sure you hang around for when, having all declared they’ll never go back, a mid-credits scene suggests that, for the next sequel, they won’t have to.  (Cineworld NEC; Empire Great Park; Odeon West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Just Mercy (12A)

Another drama based on real life events, director Destin Daniel Cretton delivers a film that may well be formulaic biopic in its story of the pursuit of justice in the face of prejudice, but is also stirringly inspirational.

In 1985, Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan), a recently Harvard graduated black lawyer, moved to Alabama to head up the regional office of the Southern Center for Human Rights where, working alongside  paralegal Eva Ansley (Brie Larson), he founded the non-profit Equal Justice Initiative which  guaranteed  defence of anyone in Alabama sentenced to the death penalty, the only state that did not provide legal assistance to death row inmates and also having the highest per capita rate of death penalty sentencing.

Ironically unfolding in Monroeville, the home of Harper Lee, whose To Kill A Mockingbird, was a legal drama about race and justice in the Jim Crow South (Stevenson being often advised to visit the museum), one of his first cases was that of Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx), known as Johnny D,  the owner of his own logging company with no prior records who, in 1987 was arrested by newly elected sheriff Tom Tate for the murder of  Ronda Harrison, a teenage dry cleaning assistant, and, despite having been at a fish fry at the time of the incident and with no physical evidence was convicted on the word of two compromised witnesses and sentenced to death. He was even placed on Death Row before his trial to get a ‘taste’.

While the film tells a parallel story of Stevenson’s unsuccessful attempt to gain a reprieve for Herbert Richardson (Rob Morgan, superb), an army veteran who was electrocuted for unintentionally killing a young girl with a nail bomb while suffering from PTSD, it’s Willie’s case that is the central focus as Stevenson battles the inflexible new DA, Tommy Champan (Rafe Spall) who refused to grand a new trial, arguing Macmillian’s guilt despite a confession from the only witness, convicted criminal Ralph Myers (Tim Blake Nelson), who was moved off Death Row after he testified, that he had, under pressure from the police, invented his entire story.

Based on Stevenson’s best-selling account of the case, it burns with righteous anger as the extent of the perversion of justice in exposed while Stevenson himself is subjected to harassment by the police bomb threats and even a strip search when he first visits prison to meet his clients.  While there are, inevitably, rousing big speeches, much is also conveyed through simple looks, Foxx and Jordan both giving their strongest performances in a while as despair slowly finds a glimmer of hope, only to be rocked by an unbelievable court ruling, while Larson makes the most of an underwritten role. Alongside Nelson weaselling felon and Spall’s morally conflicted DA, there solid support turns too from O’Shea Jackson and Rob Morgan as Willie’s fellow inmates. It’s not a subtle film and some of the dialogue could have been written with a chisel, but as social justice crowdpleaser it’s a soaring triumph. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC; Empire Great Park; Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Little Women (U)

Louis May Allcott’s evergreen 19th century novel gets another rework as a coming of age dramady at the hands of  Lady Bird director Greta Gerwig  (Oscar nominated for Best Film but snubbed as director). Set during and after the American Civil War, it tells of the four March sisters, the eldest, family beauty Meg (Emma Watson), independent-minded aspiring writer Jo (BAFTA and Oscar Best Actress nominee Saoirse Ronan), petulant Amy (BAFTA and Oscar Supporting Actress nominee Florence Pugh) and  piano-playing Beth (Eliza Scanlen), as they search to find their identities. Here, Jo is already tutoring in New York and working on becoming an author, hot-headed Amy is in Paris studying painting and acting as companion to her cantankerous, imperious spinster aunt (Meryl Streep) who’s attempting to steer her into  the marriage market, Meg has given up acting ambitions and is married to impoverished schoolteacher John Brooke (James Norton) with two kids, and Beth, the youngest, well, she’s the sickly tragic one. Laura Dern is quietly excellent as their mother, Marmie,  trying to cope in reduced circumstances with her abolitionist husband (Bob Odenkirk) away at war serving as a chaplain, and Timothee Chalamet (who starred with Ronan in Lady Bird) is puckish, childhood friend Laurie who, living a dissolute life having fled to Europe heartbroken  when Jo rejected his proposal, may well still be a flame in Amy’s heart, except, of course, she’s resentful of being second best to Jo.  Meanwhile,  Friedrich Bhaer, the German academic and Jo’s fatherly mentor in  has been reinvented as a considerably younger French language professor romantic interest (Louis Garrel), although his forthright opinions on her work don’t get things off to a promising start,  while Chris Cooper is perfectly cast as the family neighbour,  Laurie’s grandfather, who takes a fatherly interest in Beth.

Its feminist note is struck early one as Jo negotiates the anonymous publication of one of her – or rather’ ‘a friend’s’ stories with Mr. Dashwood (Tracy Letts), editor of the Weekly Volcano, who advises that, if she has a heroine then she has to be married at the end, or dead, opting to retain her own copyright and haggling over the fee. The film’s title, of course, refers to the quasi autobiographical novel about her and her family’s life, one of sibling rivalry (including a particularly vindictive act by Amy) and romantic and health crises, and the scene of Jo watching it being assembled and printed is a wonderful reminder of  an almost lost art.

It’s all a bit overly busy early on and the constant switching between past and present can prove confusing, but it eventually settles down, it looks terrific, the performances are uniformly excellent, with Ronan and Pugh especially brilliant, and staying true to the book’s knowing  compromise of a happy ending while simultaneously celebrating female empowerment this is destined to become a modern classic. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Electric;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Marriage Story (15)

Already available on Netflix but continuing its theatrical roll out in the wake of six Oscar nominations, including Best Film, Screenplay (writer-director Noah Baumbach), Actor (Adam Driver), Actress (Scarlet Johannson) and Supporting Actress (Laura Dern), this is a powerful and emotionally moving dissection of a divorce and how what may begin amicably can turn vicious once lawyers get involved.

Driver plays Charlie, a Brooklyn-based experimental theatre director whose wife Nicole (Johannson) swapped her early teen-movie Hollywood fame to join his ensemble of actors. However, she now has the opportunity to star in a TV pilot for a potential series and follow her own dreams. On top of which, after ten years, the relationship has run its course and they’re splitting up, keeping things friendly the sake of their son Henry (Azhy Robertson). However, a friend advises Nicole to see a lawyer, hot shot go for the throat  Nora Fanshaw (Dern), meaning Charlie too has to find one (initially the amiable  Alan Alda, later $950-an-hour courtoom pitbull Ray Liotta ), and before long things turn nasty, the divorce becoming less about the couple but more about the battle between the attorneys with their clients as the weapons in what essentially comes down to whether they’re a New York (where Charlie’s wife and son are now based) or (as he claims) L.A. family.

Baumbach brilliantly captures the small details of a relationship where the two partners know each other intimately, but such traits and foibles are then transformed from endearing tics into courtroom ammunition. Driver, Johannson and a ferociously showboating Dern all fully deserve their nominations while Baumbach delivers his best work since The Squid and the Whale, another film about a fragmenting family, in what is unquestionably the best divorce film since Kramer vs Kramer.  (Sat/Sun: MAC)

No Fathers In Kashmir (15)

Director Ashvin Kumar has previously explored the troubled nature of the divided Kashmir and its ongoing conflict with India, but this is the first time he’s addressed it in a feature film. A selfie-obsessed teenager, Noor (terrific newcomer Zara Webb)  returns from Britain to her childhood home in the Kashmir Valley with her mother(Natasha Mago) who, looking to remarry Wahid (Sushil Dahiya), a government servant, needs her in-laws’ (Soni Razdan,  Kulbhushan Kharbanda) signatures on a document to declare her long disappeared husband dead.  Here, striking up a friendship with local and equally fatherless boy Majid (first time actor Shivam Raina), she discovers that, rather than abandoning them or disappearing, their fathers were most likely ‘picked-up’ by the Indian forces, tortured, killed and buried in unmarked graves, the army denying all knowledge.  Together, they set out into the mountains and the forbidden area near the border, Noor determined to find out what happened and, in the process, uncover the part played by  venerated local radical Islamist leader, Arshid (Kumar), a former friend of her father’s who is clearly getting backhanders from the occupying forces even while hiding wounded militants.

A story involving betrayals, gruesome discoveries, oppression, corruption, loss and lives lived in fear, where photographs – especially on mobile phones – are both a threat to and a record of the truth, it also enfolds a tender blossoming love story set against an often stark but breathtaking backdrop, the film building to a climax when the two teens are taken prisoner, an innocently posed selfie implicating Majid as a terrorist. Through her future step-father’s intervention, Noor is eventually released and, with some loyalties reassessed, the village then joins together in collective action to secure Majid’s return too.

While exploring the plight of such half-widows and half-orphans as Noor, Majid and their mothers, Kumar is also sympathetic to those involved in perpetuating the complex state of affairs, at one point the Indian major  (Anshuman Jha) remarking  “Give me a clean fight. An enemy I can see. Every villager is an enemy, a countryman, who do I fight, who do I protect?”  A thoughtful, involving and poignantly human film. (Sun: MAC + Q&A)

The Personal History Of David Copperfield (PG)

After the BBC’s sweary adaptation of A Christmas Carol, director Armando Iannucci’s take on Dickens’ sprawling class-themed picaresque classic comes as a true joy. While not entirely faithful to the original in its narrative, such is the exuberant joy and good humour, even in its darker moments, that it’s close enough not to quibble over the fate of assorted characters. On top of which, it adopts colourblind casting without making a fuss about it, such that the older David is played with puppy dog charm by the wonderful Dev Patel while several other characters, including Agnes (Rosalind Eleazar), the daughter of his forever sozzled landlord, Mr Wickfield (Benedict Wong), his aunt’s lawyer, who’s secretly in love with him, star racially diverse actors.

The story is framed by David presenting his life story in a  theatre, the hero of his own tale, and the film has a lot do with the art of storytelling, often appearing as an adult observing flashbacks to his younger self (Ranveer Jaiswal). He even races to Blunderstone Rookery to see himself born. Following his journey to find where he fits in, who he is and, jotting down his thoughts and people’s sayings, becoming a nascent author along the way, the film’s populated with an array of larger than life characters. On the upbeat side, there’s such  eccentrics as the kindly houseboat-dwelling housekeeper Peggotty (Daisy May Cooper) and her husband (Paul Whitehouse) who care for their ‘niece’ Emily (Aimée Kelly) and ‘nephew’ Ham (Anthony Welch) , the permanently debt-ridden Mr. Micawber (Peter Capaldi in knowingly broad form) forever trying to escape his creditors, temperamental donkey-hating aunt benefactor Betsey Trotwood (the marvellously comic Tilda Swinton), her slightly deranged cousin Mr. Dick (Hugh Laurie) who believes all of Charles I’s troubled thoughts now occupy his mind, and future wife Dora (Morfydd Clark, who also, following comparisons in the novel, plays David’s mother) as the wholly incompatible bubble-brained daughter of his employer, with whom he falls in love, though, in a nice touch,  her fate in the novel is quite literally rewritten out of the story. On the other side of the fence there’s his cruel stepfather Murdstone (Darren Boyd), who, abetted by his loathsome sister (Gwendoline Christie), beats him and send him to work in a  bottle factory, Steerforth (Aneurin Barnard), the snobbish student friend (whose black mother’s played by Nikki Amuka-Bird) who betrays his trust in seducing Emily, who’s engaged to Ham, and Wickfield’s obsequious and ambitious clerk Uriah Heep (a creepily unctuous Ben Wishaw in a bowl cut) who wheedles his way up the class ladder he despises.

Fizzingly delivered with a delightful sense of whimsy (not least having giant hands intrude into one of the scenes) and many laugh-out-loud moments, with David variously referred to as Trot, Daisy and Doady by different characters, this is an absolute joy that both softens Iannucci’s more familiar acerbic comedy and brings out the novel’s often overlooked humour And, if they ever decide to turn  the Dexy’s Midnight Runners story into a film, the sight of him shooing off a donkey suggests Patel is a shoo-in for Eileen-era Kevin Rowland. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Electric; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Seberg (15)

British stage director Benedict Andrews details how Jean Seberg, the American actress and activist who became an icon of the French New Wave, had her life and career derailed by the FBI’s COINTELPRO program under the guidance of J. Edgar Hoover, when, coming to Hollywood in the late 60s to make Paint Your Wagon, she was targeted for her support of the Black Panther movement and variously harassed, intimidated and spied on, with damaging rumours about her personal (she had an adulterous affair with and was allegedly made pregnant by Black Panther activist Hakim Abdullah Jamal, played by Anthony Mackie) and political life, ultimately leading to several suicide attempts, culminating in her death in 1979 (although only noted here in the end titles). As Seberg, Kristen Stewart’s performance has been critically applauded, but the film itself, in which veteran bigot Vince Vaughn and sympathetic rookie Jack O’Connell play the FBI agents assigned to the case, has been dismissed as generically proficient but prosaic and with blunt dialogue, offering only superficial insight into its subject, it’s powerful last act bringing things together too late to save the film.(Until Tue:MAC)

 

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (12A)

Forty-two years after the saga began,  JJ Abrams finally brings it to a close (that is save for the assorted spin-offs) with a finale that is both exhilarating and, at times, nigh incoherent in a sprawling narrative basically themed around questions of identity.  Luke having been absorbed into the force in The Last Jedi, Rey (Daisy Ridley, finally finding some charisma) is still doing her Jedi training while, having offed his dad in The Force Awakens, conflicted First Order commander Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) has forged a new alliance with the Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) who, despite being killed off in Episode III, is back and planning to wipe out all resistance and launch the Final Order, he just needs  Ren to dispose of Rey. For a good two-thirds of the two hour plus running time, the overly busy plot races from one episode to the next and, while it looks visually stunning and the action sequences are thrilling, it’s not until the final stretch that the narrative coheres with some sort of clear purpose as they planet hop in search of some crystal that will lead them to Exogol, the hidden land of the Siths, and  attempt to translate vital clue inscribed in Sith runes on a dagger which C-3PO is programmed not to translate.

Along the way, not only does Palpatine return from the dead, but there’s a couple of other significant cameos from hitherto deceased characters, along with the return to the saga for the first time since Return of the Jedi by Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams), not to mention voice cameos from the likes of Yoda, Obi Wan Kenobi, Darth Vader while the late Carrie Fisher appears as Leia courtesy of some clever archive footage manipulation. And, in keeping with past revelations about family blood lines, there’s another biggie of Luke/Vader proportions thrown in here too with flashbacks to the fate of Rey’s parents. Redemption, sacrifice, embracing/becoming one with the Force and a variety of character twists all pile up to give fanboys a massive Christmas present while also finding room to throw in new characters such as Richard E. Grant’s First Order general and  Jannah (Naomi Ackie) as another First Order deserter, a conscript who refused to carry out a massacre, alongside the return of Poe (Oscar Isaac), Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo), C-3P0 (Anthony Daniels) and Finn (John Boyega), who never does seem to get to tell Rey what he wanted to when he thought they were about to die.

The set pieces are awesome, most notably the final battle between the Rebel Alliance and the Empire’s fleet and a light sabre duel  between Rey and Ren atop the remnants of a rusting, corroded hulk surrounded by towering waves while the  last scene between the two of them and the coda manage to elicit an emotion that always eluded George Lucas, the final two words likely to have those who’ve taken the same journey erupt into floods of tears.  (Cineworld Solihull; Empire Great Park; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

The Turning (15)

This latest remake of Henry James’ chilling novella, The Turn of the Screw, is an underwhelming affair. Helmed by former music promo director Floria Sigismondi, it takes a contemporary approach set, as a newspaper headline reveals, at the time of Kurt Cobain’s death (and, as such featuring grunge soundtrack)  as enthusiastic teacher Kate (Terminator: Dark Fate’s Mackenzie Davis) takes up the  position as tutor  at Bly Manor, in charge of 7-year-old Flora (The Florida Project’s Brooklynn Prince), who’s traumatised from the death of her parents in a car crash just outside the estate’s grounds. The previous live-in nanny, Miss Jessel (Denna Thomsen), vanished under mysterious and sudden circumstances while the rambling gothic pile is looked after by the elderly grey-clad Mrs. Grose (Barbara Marten), who doesn’t give the new arrival an easy time of it. When Flora’s wilful, spoiled and toxic elder brother, Miles (Finn Wolfhard), returns unexpectedly from boarding school, the pair start to psychologically torment Kate, their cruel pranks and assorted ghostly apparitions (the place is supposedly haunted by Miles’ malevolent dead horse-riding instructor) among the many mirrors and doll parts, not to mention being groped by a disembodied hand, more than enough to consider a change of career. Of course, given her mother (Joel Richardson) is in a mental home, maybe madness is in the genes. (Cineworld NEC)

 

Screenings courtesy of  Odeon and Cineworld

CINEMAS

Cineworld 5 Ways – 181 Broad St, 0871 200 2000

Cineworld NEC – NEC  0871 200 2000

Cineworld  – Mill Ln, Solihull 071 200 2000

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

Empire – Great Park, Rubery, 0871 471 4714

Empire  Coldfield – Maney Corner, Sutton Coldfield

0871 471 4714

The Everyman – The Mailbox 0871 906 9060

MAC – Cannon Hill Park 0121 446 3232

Mockingbird, Custard Factory  0121 224 7456.

Odeon Birmingham -Birmingham, 0871 224 4007

Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe – Ladywood Middleway, 0333 006 7777

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

Reel – Hagley Rd, Quinton, Halesowen 0121 421 5316

Showcase Walsall – Bentley Mill Way, Walsall 0871 220 1000

Vue Star City – Watson Road, 08712 240 240

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