MOVIE ROUND-UP:This Week’s New Film Releases, Fri Jul 19-Thu Jul 25

 

NEW RELEASES

The Lion King (PG)

Given that, there being no human characters unlike director Jon Favreau’s previous revamp of The Jungle Book, the fact this is all CGI  makes it a little disingenuous to call it a live action remake. However, such is the degree of photorealism as regards both the landscapes and animals, that it would be easy to believe this is actual flesh and fur, earth and water. It’s hard to imagine anyone who isn’t familiar with the 1994 animated original, itself a riff on Hamlet,  so, again opening with the Circle of Life gathering at Pride Rock,  this virtual shot by shot, line by line update  won’t hold any narrative surprises, indeed the main difference lies in ditching the annoying Morning Report song, rendered here as dialogue from Zazu, the red-billed hornbill factotum. The thrill comes, instead, from seeing the characters in such three-dimensional  form, the hyenas even more scary-looking while the CGI incarnations of warthog Puumba (Seth Rogan) and meerkat Timon (Billy Eichner) are a delight, especially in the way the former, all bristles and tusk, trots along like  dainty ballerina. They still sing Hakuna Matata and even get to make a filmic in joke about how, having fled the Pridelands believing himself responsible for the death of his father, Mufasa (James Earl Jones reprising his role), in a stampede, the young Simba (JD McCrary) grows into the adult lion (Donald Glover) in the course of the song while they still look the same. They also sing a snatch of Be Our Guest from Beauty and the Beast.

There’s no new additions (though a couple of hyenas are renamed), but all the familiar characters are present and correct with an impressive array of appropriately African-American vocal talent that includes Alfre Woodard as Sarabi, Simba’s mother, John Kani as mandrill shaman Rafiki, Beyoncé, in a slightly expanded role, as Nala, Simba’s childhood best friend and future love interest who not only gets to duet on Can You Feel The Love Tonight but has her own all new song, Spirit, while Shahadi Wright Joseph from the original Broadway cast is the young cub and Chiwetol Ejiofor is superbly sly as Simba’s treacherous uncle, Scar. Whether the revamp has any point beyond the technical accomplishments is open to debate, but it certainly deserves to be a  roaring success. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Vita & Virginia (12A)

Though little read today, back in the 20s and 30s, Vita Sackville-West was one of the most successful and feted of English novelists, though it wasn’t just her books that attracted public- and especially society – attention. Though married to British diplomat Sir Hgh Nicholson, theirs’ was an open marriage with both having same-sex affairs. Vita first caused waves when she took up with socialite Violet Keppell, often dressing as a man and posing as her husband, but her most famous lesbian relationship was with bohemian Bloomsbury Set doyenne Virginia Woolf, at the time a critically admired but decidedly less commercially successful author (Sackville-West had one of her books printed by the Woolfs’ Hogarth Press to help them out), one which spanned the decade between 1925 and 1935, though they remained friends long after the stopped being lovers. The relationship would provide the fuel for Orlando, Woolf’s bestselling centuries-spanning novel  with its sex-changing protagonist a thinly disguised  Vita.

It’s the heady three years between 1925 and 1928, that provide the basis for Chanya Button’s biopic, adapted from the original 1993 stage play by  Eileen Atkins based on the couple’s love letters. Its origins are all too often evident with mannered dialogue and stilted scenes,but  there are many other choices that make this often turgid going, not least the constant to camera close ups (often of just lips) of Vita (Gemma Arterton) and Woolf (Elizabeth Debicki) delivering love letter monologues, while, along with the wardrobe, make-up and Woolf’s chill-out trance dance,  an attempt to give things a contemporary edge by using electronic beats and hip hop spectacularly backfire and simply crash you out of the period setting.

Despite being saddled with often impossible to deliver dialogue, Arterton and Debicki do their best, the former alternating between flirtatious and manipulative, the latter all clipped and otherworldly (shorthand for her often mentioned mental health issues). However,  confronted with wedges of exposition and surrounded by one-dimensional characters, such as Nicholson (Rupert Penry-Jones) Woolf’s husband Leonard (Peter Ferdinado), sister Vanessa (Emerald Fennell) and her art critic husband Clive (Gethin Anthony), most of whom are only there to get the two women to tell each other how they feel, it’s a losing battle. Even the affair, when it finally gets physical, feels somehow tepid. At least Isabella Rosselli gets to add some spark as Vita’s imperiously disdainful, mother, Lady Sackville, threatening to have the children removed if her daughter doesn’t scrap her next novel, inspired by the Keppell scandal.

Style tramping over substance, devoid of narrative or psychological depth, as with the recent The Happy Prince, it’s an ambitious  attempt to do tackle the BritLit biography genre without being swamped in Merchant Ivory swaddling, but, given the potency of the subject matter, the passionless end result is something of damp squib. (Electric; MAC)

ALSO PLAYING

Ella Fitzgerald: Just One Of Those Things (12A)

Documentary following the life and career of the famed jazz singer from 1934, when, just 15, she won a talent contest in 1934 at the Apollo theatre in Harlem, across the following six decades  as she transformed her personal tragedies  and the racism of the times into inspirational music. (Thu:MAC)

 

 

NOW SHOWING

Aladdin (PG)

Released in 1992 and featuring a breathless voice performance by Robin Williams, Disney’s 90-minute animation became an instant classic. Now, the jawdroppingly 130 minute  live  action remake follows the same path as the recent Dumbo in being engagingly enjoyable but not a patch on the spirit of the original.

Directed and co-written by Guy Ritchie without a trace of his own style or personality, it is, of course, set in the fictional Middle eastern city of Agrabah where, along with his trusty monkey,  the orphaned Aladdin (Mena Massoud), plies his trade as a light-fingered thief.  Then he meets and befriends Princess Jasmine (Anglo-Indian Naomi Scott), who’s stolen out of the palace in disguise to see how her people live  and, in the course of fleeing the guards, the pair strike a spark, though he’s under the impression she’s actually the princess’s handmaiden.

Sneaking into the palace to return her bracelet, he’s apprehended by the Vizier (Marwan Kenzari, who could have done with more menace) who reckons he’s the diamond in the rough he needs to retrieve a magic lamp from the cave in which its kept. You should know the rest, Aladdin rubs the lamp and out pops a puff of blue smoke which takes the form of a genie (Will Smith), who grants him three wishes, the first of which is to transform him into a  prince so he can win the Princess, who, Law dictates, can only marry into royalty. For his third wish, he promises to set the genie free. Passing himself as Prince Ali, the romance blossoms, but, of course, Jafar, with the help of his conniving parrot (Alan Tudyk), exposes his deception, sends him to his death and, finally taking possession of the lamp,  sets about his plan to replace Jasmine’s father as the Sultan. Needless today, this isn’t the last we’ve seen of Aladdin or his flying carpet.

The narrative takes the shape of a story told by a father (Smith) to his two kids aboard their boat , which, given how we’ve already seen that there’s an instant attraction between the genie in his human form and the real handmaiden (Nasim Pedrad), rather undercuts the surprise twist. Some of the original songs have been resurrected or repurposed and, in places, given a Bollywood dance sequence makeover, although the new version of A Whole New World never soars, while, in keeping with the current climate, this Jasmine is an empowered woman who wants to take over the sultanate (but oddly never questions why if dad’s so benevolent, the people are living in poverty) and, as such, gets a new Frozen-style number called Speechless about, well, having a voice.

Give the indelible impression left by Williams, Smith has an almost impossible job in making the Genie his own, but generally pulls it off by resorting to his Fresh Prince brand of swaggering, sardonic humour, though the film can’t somehow decide if he has legs or a CGI smoke trail below his waist. Although the overlong running time and repetition (let’s face it, how many times can a magic lamp get dropped and recovered during a chase) will test the patience of younger kids, this manages to have enough action and magic to sustain it to the final feelgood set piece. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC;  Empire Great Park; Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City; From Sun:MAC)

Anna (15)

Even if this had not been beaten to the box office by both Atomic Blonde with its Cold War double and triple crosses and Red Sparrow, in which Jennifer Lawrence’s Russian ballerina is recruited to become an assassin using her sex appeal while scheming to outwit her handlers, not to mention Jodie Corner’s inspired turn as Soviet sociopath Villanelle in Killing Eve, Luc Besson’s thriller would still not be worth the ticket.

Wasting an impressive debut by Russian model turned actress, it offers up Anna as a Russian market street vendor, who,in 1990, is scouted  for a Paris modelling agency and soon becomes a high fashion star in a  lesbian relationship with a fellow model (Lera Abova). The first twist comes when she returns from the bathroom to the wealthy sleazeball looking to seduce her and puts a bullet in his head. At which point comes the first of any number of flashbacks and flashforwards to detail how, a former junkie and prostitute, she was recruited (after initially turning down the job by slitting her wrist) by the KGB (because she’s good at chess) in the form of  hunky romantic interest  Alex (Luke Evans) and his handler Olga (Helen Mirren in gleeful accent mangling form)  only to find the only retirement option is being shot. Subsequently, in an increasingly convoluted timeframe, she’s busted and recruited by the CIA, here in the form of smooth romantic interest Lenny (Cillian Murphy), naturally finding that playing both sides can be a dangerous game, leading to one final reshuffling of the deck and turning of the tables.

Clearly Besson was looking to revisit past hits such as La Femme Nikita, Leon and Lucy, but, while this has some great action sequences (most especially as Anna takes out a restaurant teeming with goons to meet Olga’s five minute deadline) it never really clicks as the story of a woman carving her own  identity and strength in the face of male (and Mirren) puppet masters. And let’s not get into its anachronistic technology. While passably entertaining, the fact that it’s been virtually disowned by the distributor in the wake of unproven accusations of Besson’s sexual misconduct, the only killing this is going to make in cinemas  is that delivered by Anna. (Vue Star City)

Annabelle Comes Home (15)

Following the wake of Chucky’s revival,  the current devil doll de jour makes a return appearance for a third outing in her bangs and red-bowed pigtails glory that, this time features (albeit in largely bookending appearances), loosely real-life based Conjuring characters Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson,Vera Farmiga) for a haunted-house thriller that pretty much entirely unfolds in their suburban home, where the electricity seems to be somewhat intermittent.  Relieving the  latest unfortunate owners of the doll’s influence, the drive home, when come to a halt by a graveyard, conveniently allows Lorrianne to muse that it’s not evil in itself (though it doesn’t exactly look beneficent, it serves as a conduit for evil. Back home, it’s duly locked away inside a sacred glass cabinet, it and the artefact store room, duly given one of  regular holy blessing. At which point, the devil hunters take their leave, handing the film over for the night to their 10-year daughter, Judy (McKenna Grace) who’s spending it with her high-school babysitters, blonde good girl Mary Ellen (Madison Iseman) and tellingly dark-haired Daniela (Katie Sarife). Fascinated by the Warrens’ reputation and having dead daddy issues, the latter naturally ignores signs like keep out or you’ll die and  don’t touch this or everyone’s fucked, and sneaks into the museum and, naturally, searches for the key to unlock that cabinet.

From which point on, the film works its way through the familiar checklist of  ghostly figures, devils, werewolves, inanimate objects moving, typewriters typing by themselves, lights going out, people doing obviously stupid things, although the scariest moments come with the anticipation rather than the event, before the girls finally manage to get the damned doll back where she belongs. It’s formulaic, but decently acted and delivers pretty much everything you pay your money to see, though you can’t help feeling this and and its associated franchise have been milked until they’re positively dehydrated. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Apollo 11 (U)

We’ve already had First Man, but now, marking the 50th anniversary of man landing on the moon, Todd Douglas Miller’s   documentary pulls together previously unseen NASA 70mm footage and some 11,000 hours of uncatalogued audio that that had been gathering dust in the archives to take audiences through the mission, going behind the scenes at Cape Canaveral, into Apollo 11 and the lunar module with Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins and out into the crowd that gathered to watch lift-off and follow the rocket into the skies and on the television screens  over its nine day mission. Relying totally on the archive footage and eschewing any narration or recreations, while the facts are familiar, the film brings them alive as if seeing it for the first time, that one giant leap still stopping your breath while in today’s troubled Trump times, recalling how this was the last time not only America but the entire world was united as one.  See it on the biggest screen you can. (Electric; Mockingbird; Until Wed: MAC)

Avengers: Endgame (12A)

Close to becoming the most succesful film ever, given that Marvel had only just launched the Black Panther, Doctor Strange and the rebooted Spider-Man series, while their characters, along with 50% of all human life on Earth, had been killed off by Thanos (Josh Brolin) in Infinity War, they would inevitably be resurrected in the sequel. The question wasn’t if, but how. The answer is a breathtaking three-hour epic that draws together strands from several previous Marvel films, interweaving them into an audacious and emotionally-charged climax that brings the current saga to a fitting close.

Again directed by brothers Anthony and Joe Russo, it opens at the end of the previous film as Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner) aka Hawkeye, who wasn’t featured, is teaching his daughter archery when his entire family turns to cosmic dust, setting him off on a new path we don’t catch up with until much later in the film. It’s no spoiler to reveal that, left stranded in space, the now good Nebula (Karen Gillan) and Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr) do return to Earth courtesy of Captain Marvel (Brie Larson), her appearances bookending the film, reunited with the surviving Avengers who are trying to move on. Five years later, he and Pepper (Gywneth Paltrow) are married with a daughter. Then, in a freak accident back pops Scott Lang (Paul Rudd), Ant-Man, left trapped in the quantum realm in his last film, with a theory that they may be able to use quantum physics to travel back in time and get the Infinity Stones before Thanos can use them. Stark refusing to get involved lest it just makes matters worse, Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), who has now managed to merge his human and Hulk selves, is recruited to help. Suffice to say, Stark does eventually join the ranks as Hawkeye, Iron Man, Banner and the other the remaining Avengers, Captain America (Chris Evans), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), War Machine (Don Cheadle) and Thor (Chris Hemsworth), who’s rather gone to pot in self-recrimination and now sports a beer belly, along with Lang, Nebula and Rocket (Bradley Cooper) are divided into three teams, each sent off on a quantum realm mission into different points in time (which involves them watching – and in one case battling – themselves in scenes from the previous films) to retrieve their assigned stones and then return to the present, destinations involving New York, Asgard, Vormir, Morag and, in 1970, the army base where Rogers was transformed into Captain America, two of which involve poignant moments between three of them and characters from their past.

After assorted run ins, struggles and an act of sacrifice, they do, indeed, return and reverse the process. But there’s still a twist to come that sets up the final epic confrontation between Thanos and his hordes and, well, pretty much every super-hero from the Disney Marvel Universe, as the likes of Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), Spider-Man (Tom Holland), Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) get to weigh in too. Indeed, it seems anyone who’s ever been in one of the films – or TV spin-offs – puts in appearance, there’s even a (final?) cameo from the late Stan Lee in a 70s hippie incarnation.

Along with the grand-scale action, there’s plenty of the trademark humour, particular highlights between a drunk Thor, a gag about time travel movies and Hulk/Banner posing for a selfie with fans, not to mention several flourishes, one involving Thor’s hammer, that roused cheers from the audience, but there’s also tear-jerking sadness and pathos as the film draws a heroic line under or passes the torch in certain franchises. The culmination to which everything over the past years and twenty-two films has been building, it redefines the term spectacle while having a heart so big it needs an IMAX screen to contain it.  Fittingly, there no bonus end credit scenes pointing to the future, but whatever paths it takes  and whatever new partnerships are forged there’ll be a legion assembled ready to follow. NB: Now with added deleted scene. (Showcase Walsall)

The Dead Don’t Die  (15)

Inevitably already tagged an undeadpan comedy, Jim Jarmusch’s latest takes on the zombie genre in self-consciously mannered but disarmingly likeable manner. Driving back after having dutifully broached a recent case of chicken stealing with Hermit Bob (Tom Waits) who lives in the woods, Chief Cliff Robertson (Bill Murray) and deputy Ronnie (Adam Driver), a pair of cops from smalltown Centerville remark on how it’s still daylight despite the lateness of the hour and the radio and their watches are on the frizz. Something odd’s going on which, as Ronnie’s prone to remarking, will “all end badly”. The something turns out to be the result of polar fracking which has tilted the Earth’s axis, affecting the climate and, more importantly, bringing the dead back to life, initially just two (including Iggy Pop) who  turn two women at the local diner as snacks, and eventually the entire graveyard’s worth.

Variously involved in all this are obnoxious racist Farmer Miller (Steve Buscemi, sporting a Keep America White Again baseball cap), gas station film/comic book nerd Bobby  (Caleb Landry Jones),  amiable diner regular Hank (Danny Glover), inept fellow cop Mindy (Chloe Sevigny and the town’s enigmatic new Scottish accented, samurai sword-wielding mortician, Zelda (Tilda Swinton). There’s also three city hipsters (Selena Gomez among them) who make an unfortunate stop over at the town motel while Carol Kane cameos as the town’s lush who corpse revives in the police station cell. However, quite where the three kids in the juvenile correction facility fit into all this is anyone’s guess.

There’s no real plot as such, things just stumble along as the zombie situation just gets worse, the numbers occasionally thinned down by following the ‘kill the head’ mantra (also the name of the production company) while  throwing in a steady stream of references and in jokes. Bobby puts the hipsters right about the cabins in Bates Motel (Psycho having been written by Robert Bloch, who also wrote a short zombies story called The Dead Don’t Die),  George Romero naturally gets a mention, Adam Driver has a Star Wars key ring and makes frequent meta fiction comments, such as how the Sturgill Simpson country track is the theme song and that he’s knows it ends badly because he’s read the script.

Waits’ voice over narration at the end about zombies as a metaphor for consumerism (the teen zombies shuffle along mumbling wi-fi) and greed seems a tad redundant (genre fans know how these things work) and at one point it throws in a completely random and unexplained scene, but the  cast deliver their often witty lines as befits the film’s nature and clearly seem to be having as much fun as the audience. (Cineworld 5 Ways; Electric; Empire Great Park; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Midsommar (18)

Given it involves a troubled visitor to a reclusive, isolated community that practices ancient fertility and renewal rites, including a sacrificial offering, it’s hard not to think of this as a Swedish-set version of The Wicker Man. Except that was 88 minutes and this is almost an hour longer.

Written and directed by Ari Aster as his follow-up to Hereditary, it pivots on a terrific performance by Florence Pugh (increasily resembling a  young Kate Winslet) as the traumatised  Dani who, having experienced a family tragedy (a brilliant opening of panic and a wordless reveal that her unbalanced sister’s committed suicide and murdered their parents), is grudgingly invited by her less than committed boyfriend. Christian (Jack Reynor), to join him and his loosely sketched university friends, fellow PhD student Josh (William Jackson Harper),  ever horny Mark (Will Poulter), and the just graduated Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren) on a trip to the latter’s Swedish commune. Indeed,  the latter’s especially keen for her to come.

On arrival, they link up with two English tourists, Connie and Simon, who are essentially redundant to the mix other than for body count purposes, and they’re all invited to take part in a nine-day celebration that’s only held once every 90 years. With everyone wearing white, forever waving their hands in the air, an unexplained caged bear and ritualistic group meals, it’s all a bit odd. Things take a rather more startling turn, however, when, following tradition, two elderly members of the community hurl themselves from a cliff to be dashed, in gruseome rubbery rootage, on the rock below.  Dani is understandably rattled, but her travelling companions seem less so, Christian and Josh seeing it as anthropologicaly fascinating and the culturally insensitive Mark, well, frankly not giving a toss since he only appears to have tagged along to get laid. Which will, of course, not turn out for the best.

From hereonin, things start to get creepier, what with all those disturbing paintings in to the communal sleeping quarters, the assorted ululations and hallucinogenic drinks, until the group’s been whittled down to just Dani and the increasingly bemused Christian, the former invited to take part in the dance to choose the May Queen and the other  reluctantly becoming a central player in an impregnation ritual. And, for those unaware of  Edward Woodward’s wicker man fate, we’ve still to find out why the bear’s there.

Making effective use of the constant daylight, Aster takes his time in building the gathering sense of dread, dropping in small suggestions and details, relying on imagery rather than carnage, while the narrative’s peppered with bursts of humour (some more intentional than others as it descends into giggle-inducing silliness) as it finally builds to a  genuinely disturbing finale that gives Pugh the last unsettling freeze frame.

It’s a muddled and mostly predictable journey in which much happens off camera and, as obligatory in such films, no one ever says let’s get the fuck out of here,., but while it will try the patience, those last fifteen minutes are well worth the wait. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC; Electric; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

The Queen’s Corgi (PG)

Given to the Queen (Julie Walters) by Prince Philip (Tom Courteney) as a present, Rex (Jack Whitellla) becomes her favourite corgi. But, when he disgraces himself during a  state visit by Donald and Melania Trump when they want him to mate with their dog, he’s persuaded by cunning rival Charlie (Matt Lucas), who wants to be topdog (spot the in-joke), to leave the palace and finds himself locked up in an animal shelter. Here he falls for slinky Saluki Wanda (Sheridan Smith), which sees him fall foul of shelter bully Tyson (Ray Winstone). Now he has to persuade the other dogs to help him survive a showdown, escape and get back to Buckingham Palace  before Charlie officially takes his place.

A competently made and functionally written Belgian animation revoiced with an all star English cast, this has its amusing moments (and, of course, pooh and widdle jokes) and the canine capers will entertain younger kids, though parents might have a tough time explaining the Fight Club references, pole dancing and corgi couplings. Not exactly Secret Life of Pets pedigree, but Trump taking a selfie with Liz and telling Melania to ‘grab some puppy’ offer some compensation. (Cineworld NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Rocketman (15)

The uncredited midwife to Bohemian Rhapsody in its later stages, director Dexter Fletcher now gives birth to another popstar biopic under his own name, albeit one that’s distinctly less feelgood and decidedly more raw. Working with Billy Elliot’s Lee Hall as scriptwriter, it conceives the rise of a young Reginald Kenneth Dwight from childhood piano prodigy to global superstar Elton Hercules John as a musical fantasy that casts its eye over his rise to fame as flashbacks during an AA meeting into which he storms as he resolves to exorcise his demons (wearing, a pointedly unsubtle over-the-top red winged, sequin-horned demon costume) and get clean from a battery of addictions ranging from drink and drugs to sex and shopping. As such, as the rating suggests, there’s a ready supply of family unfriendly moments, whether that be hoovering up mountains of cocaine, gay sex (an aspect Bohemian Rhapsody largely avoided) or a stream of expletives.

Within all this, Hall and Fletcher (under the production auspices of John and David Furnish) offer a portrait of a musical genius crippled by self-doubt and the feeling that he could not be loved, the finger of blame pointing fairly and squarely at his emotionally shut-off homophobic father (Steven Mackintosh) and dismissive, don’t give a toss mother (Bryce Dallas Howard), the only support coming from his gran (Gemma Jones), and subsequently compounded by the toxic relationship with his domineering, exploitative and casually cruel personal manager and sometime lover John Reid (Richard Madden in a fright wig).

Using a mix of fantasy and recreated musical moments involving some of John’s iconic hits, none of this would have worked without the transformative performance by Taron Egerton  as the grown Elton (though special mention must be made of the indelible work by Matthew Illesley and Kit Connor as the younger and adolescent Reggie, the former  scoring an early emotional highlight with the words “aren’t you going to give me a hug”) who not only becomes rather than channels Elton (although the size of the gap in his teeth fluctuates), but, unlike Remi Malek, also does his own singing (you’ll recall he sang I’m Still Standing and other Elton numbers as Guy the Gorilla in Sing). Whether in torment or euphoria, working out notes on the piano or in full-on concert mode, Egerton is quite simply phenomenal.

But, as in Elton’s real life, the screen dynamic works because of the relationship with is long-standing lyricist Bernie Taupin (an unshowy but quietly commanding turn by Jamie Bell) with whom he formed a lifelong platonic friendship and whose lyrics often offer insights into his writing partner’s psychological makeup, just as Fletcher uses the musical sequences in the same way.

All the trappings are there, the meticulously recreated flamboyant costumes, the array of glasses, the tantrums, the self-destructive hedonistic excesses, but the film rises above such narrative props to form an emotionally compelling portrait of a man drowning in his own insecurities and seeking to numb his pain in any number of addictive palliatives.

Although Your Song arrives early into the story, there’s no real attempt to set the songs in anything like chronological order, Daniel most certainly never being an early DJM demo for his first publisher, Dick James (Stephen Graham), such that the teenage Elton morphs into the adult during a local pub performance of Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting, set, of course, to a brawl.

At times, in keeping with classic Hollywood musicals,  Fletcher captures both the actual moment and the feel, such as Elton and the audience levitating to Crocodile Rock during his debut Troubadour performance and blasting into space for Rocket Man. There’s times when it rushes over elements, such as his short-lived marriage to Renate Blauel (Celinde Schoenmaker) which, the film argues triggered his descent to suicidal hell, and, while it does find room to include the recordings of Don’t Go Breaking My Heart with Kiki Dee, none of his long-serving band (which included Ray Cooper, Nigel Olsson and Davey Johnston) with whom he played almost 4000 shows get mentioned by name, but these are minor niggles given such dazzling scenes as the Benny and the Jets sequence or the poignancy of the opening lines to Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. It ends with Egerton taking another stab at I’m Still Standing in a perfect recreation of the original Cannes-set video, where, of course, this film had its premiere and a perfect closing statement of resilience and a testament to almost 30 years of sobriety. Though he still likes to shop. Bohemian what? (Empire Great Park; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Spider-Man: Far From Home (12A)

Faced with the daunting challenge of being the first outing of the  Marvel Cinematic Universe in the aftermath of the game-changing Avengers: Endgame (it opens with a high school in memoriam tribute to the fallen heroes),  returning director Jon Watts wisely avoids its dramatic and emotional intensity and, for at the first half at least, adopts a playful, light tone with witty repartee and quips as, adjusting to life after returning from ‘the blip’, Peter Parker (Tom Holland) is beset with both grief over the death of his mentor, Tony Stark, deep reservations about being touted as his successor and, more importantly, trying to summon up the courage to tell MJ (an endearing sassy Zendaya) how he feels about her. Especially given fellow classmate Brad (Remy Hii), who has become a real hunk in the five years Peter was ‘dead’, is making moves. On top of which he’s not too sure how he feels about the fact that Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau) seems to be flirting with Aunt May (Marisa Tomei).

As he tells best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon), he intends to take her up the Eiffel tower during the upcoming Europe-trotting school trip and open his heart. Naturally the best laid plans of mice and Spider-man oft gang awry, here thanks to the intervention of Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson), whose calls he’s been avoiding, who turns up in Venice and  recruits him in the fight against the Elementals, creatures that embody the power of the four elements. Or rather the last of them, fire, since the other three, including the water monster that trashed Venice, was taken out, with help from Spidey, by Quentin Beck, or, as the Italian media dubs him, Mysterio (Jack Gyllenhall), the sole survivor of an alternate Earth, a superhero who emits green vapour trails and fires laser beams from his wrists and has joined forces with S.H.I.E.L.D. He and Peter quickly bond over their shared sense of loss. A little interference from Fury sees the trip to Paris relocated to Prague where the fire monster is scheduled to appear, climaxing in the two engaged in another sensational battle, this time with Peter in a new black outfit to avoid anyone putting two and two together that  has Ned christening him Night Monkey.

Given the film is only half-way in, it’s obvious there’s a twist up its sleeve, and without giving too much away, it’s worth remembering the theme of illusion and appearances on which the film’s founded.

Rattling along, it questions what it means to be a reluctant superhero while juggling the romantic suplot, including Ned hooking up with aspirant class reporter Betty Brand (Angourie Rice), comic relief involving dickhead Parker-baiting Spidey fan Flash Thompson (Tony Revolori) while dropping in a  poignant Robert Downey Jr cameo flashback, a crucial plot device in the form of high-tech intelligence system glasses named Edith (with which Peter inadvertently calls in a  drone strike on Brad before passing them on to whom he regards as their true worthy successor) and, yes, the Peter Tingle.

Giving a hugely engaging performance, Holland has really grown into the role as the guileless  boy not sure if he’s ready to become a man while Gylllenhaal juggles earnest and diva to perfection, arguably rendering this the most satisfying Spider-Man movie yet. And ensure you stay for the post-credits sequence which, in addition to reintroducing a cast member from the original Sam Raimi movies (Brant’s a hint), delivers one more slap in the face twist that sets up a whole new nightmare for Peter to face in the eagerly anticipated follow-up.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Stuber (15)

You can almost imagine the conversation. “Hey what if an Uber driver was called Stu. He’d be Stuber.” “Yeh, and what if he was a sardonic, touchy wimp who found himself teamed up  with a hard-nosed humourless cop.” “And the cop had a vision problem, so he needed Stu to help him on his case!” What a funny  mismatched buddies action comedy that might that be!”

Well, no, actually.

His partner (Guardians co-star Karen Gillen) killed in the opening moments, although his boss (Mira Sorvino) tells him to take time out, hulking workaholic L.A. cop Vic (Dave Bautista) is determined to take out the heroin gang mastermind killer (Iko Uwais). He’s given a tip about where a big drugs deal is going down, but, recovering from laser-eye surgery,  he can’t see properly and ends up commandeering the newly leased Prius driven by Stu (Kumail Nanjiani), a put-upon store clerk who wants to open a woman’s gym with his one-time best friend with benefits Debbi (Betty Gilpin) who he’s never had the courage to tell how he feels. Vic, meanwhile, hasn’t had time for his artist daughter (Natalie Morales).

And so the film spends its time chasing around the city, Vic constantly bumping into things, Stu’s car getting increasingly battered while he’s frustrated that he can’t get over to Debby who called because she dumped her jerk boyfriend and wants a sympathy screw.  Lot of people get shot, Stu finds  himself reluctantly getting further and further involved in the violence(at one point he accidentally shoots someone) and it all ends up with Vic confronting his target only to learn he’s in cahoots with someone on the force.

There’s some mildly amusing banter between about men expressing their emotions, Stu winds up giving counselling to a male stripper and the shoot out at a vets involving cans of dog food is pretty good, but the script short changes its stars, both of whom have proven their comedic skills, by piling on the genre clichés (though the riff on Jaws is amusing) and giving them no character shading at all. Don’t keep the meter running.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC;  Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Toy Story 4 (U)

The fourth and final entry sees the Toy Story out on an emotional high as it pulls together the themes that have run throughout the saga for a finale that will have audiences welling up. It opens several years earlier when Woody (Tom Hanks) and the other toys, among them Jessie (Joan Cusack), Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen), Rex (Wallace Shawn) and Hamm (John Ratzenberger), were still owned by Andy as Woody (motto ‘leave no toy behind’) daringly rescues a toy car that has got lost and is about to be washed away in the gutter. However, before Woody can climb back through the window, it’s slammed shut as he watches Bo Peep (Annie Potts) and her three-headed sheep, Billy, Goat and Gruff, the porcelain lamp belonging to Andy’s sister Molly, being boxed up to go to a new home.  He attempts to rescue her, but she insists it’s time to move on to a new child and invites him to join her. Loyal to his kid, Woody refuses.

Fast forward to the present and his new kid, Bonnie (Madeleine McGraw) is off to kindergarten orientation and, ignoring the advice from the other toys, Woody, who she hasn’t played with in weeks (indeed, she even gives his badge to Jessie) and has lost his lost his role as keeper of the room to Dolly (Bonnie Hunt), sneaks into her backpack to ensure she’s ok. At school, he helps by providing her materials from which she makes herself a new plaything, Forky (Tony Hale), a plastic spork with pipe-cleaner arms, popsicle-stick feet and googly eyes. He’s her new favourite toy, but it takes a real effort for Woody to convince him that he’s a toy not trash (he keeps trying to get into the rubbish bins in a montage set to Randy Newman’s I Can’t Let You Throw Yourself Away) and that he’s important to Bonnie. The ironic symmetry is obvious, one is a toy who fears becoming trash, one is trash who doesn’t want to be a toy.

At which point, the family take a road trip to Grand Basin National Park and an amusement park where, separated from the others while he explains things to Forky, Woody comes across Second Chance Antiques and spots Bo Peep’s lamp in the window. For the past seven years, in turns out she has embraced the life of a lost toy, enjoying the freedom of the park and become something of feisty kick ass (another of Disney’s female empowerment touches), riding around the park in a motorised skunk.  “Who needs a kid’s room,” she asks, showing Woody the panoramic view of the park, “When you can have all of this?”

The reunion is, however, overshadowed by the fact that the store also contains Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks), a creepy vintage 1950s pull-string doll who, assisted by four Chucky-like ventriloquist dummy henchdolls, takes Forky hostage because she wants to replace her broken pull string voice box with Woody’s in the hope of getting a kid of her own.

What ensues are two extended rescue missions variously involving Bo, Buzz and Jessie (Joan Cusack) alongside new characters joined at the paw plushies Bunny (Jordan Peele) and Ducky (Keegan-Michael Key), mini-toy rescue cop Giggle McDimples (Ally Maki) and Canadian stunt biker Duke Caboom (Keanu Reeves) whose plagued by a sense of failure after being discarded when his abilities didn’t measure up to his marketing.

Exploring themes such as finding your purpose, self-worth, abandonment, loyalty, responsibility, selflessness, and that letting go and moving on doesn’t mean you stop loving or being loved, it will touch chords in both children and adults alike while also providing thrilling action sequences, dark and scary moments, affecting poignancy, laughs (not least in Buzz thinking his pre-programmed recordings are his ‘inner voice’) and moments of breathtaking beauty. From a joyful reunion to a moving parting of the ways farewell, this will take your heart to infinity and beyond.  (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)

Yesterday (12A)

Another film that comes with an inspired idea but struggles to find anything much to do with it beyond the initial premise and singularly fails to navigate the plot holes it opens up. That premise is that, after 10 years, talented but struggling 27-year-old Anglo-Indian singer-songwriter Jack Malik (Himesh Patel) is fed up of playing the same round of Sussex bars to people who don’t want to listen. So, he tells Ellie (Lily James in uber girl next door mode), his childhood best friend and manager (naturally, neither tells the other they love them) that he’s going to pack it in and return to teaching. On the way home, the entire country has a blackout (art mirroring in Argentinean life) and he collides with bus in the dark. He wakes up in hospital missing a tooth. That’s not the only thing that’s gone missing. Down the pub he strums a song on his new guitar his mates and is gobsmacked when they’re greatly impressed with what he’s written. Except he hasn’t. The song is Yesterday, but they’ve never heard it before. Nor have they ever heard of The Beatles. Indeed, racing home to his computer, Jack discovers that, in this new reality, they’ve never existed. He’s the only one who remembers them. And, more importantly, their songs. So, next thing you know he’s scrabbling to remember all the lyrics (he goes to Liverpool to visit Strawberry Fields and Eleanor Rigby’s grave) and passing them off as his own. This first gets him the attention of a smalltime producer and studio owner who invites him to record some demos, which leads to an interview and airing on the in-house TV channel of the supermarket where he works  and, subsequently, none other than Ed Sheeran turning on his doorstep asking him to play  some support slots and, from there, it’s just a short step to Ed’s supercilious, sarcastic American manager, Debra (Kate McKinnon in broad but very funny music exec send-up mode) to sign him up, dollar signs and beachside mansions flashing in her eyes, as she prepares to groom him for superstardom, leaving Ellie behind nursing heartbreak in a rebound romance.

Does Jack get to realise fame built on a lie means nothing? Does he get to realise that wants he really wants his Ellie? Well, since this is written by Richard Curtis of course he does. But, while getting there has its sweet and amusing moments, this is far from his best work. Nor is it a highpoint in director Danny Boyle’s career either.

The narrative is all over the place and, throwing logic to the wind, frequently makes no sense. Jack’s stalked by an elderly couple carrying plastic yellow submarine who, it turns out also remember The Beatles, though quite how or why is never explained.  In this new reality, the Fab Four aren’t the only thing that have vanished. Nobody’s heard of Coca Cola or Harry Potter, or indeed Oasis, which makes nonsense of Ellie’s flashback to watching Jack perform Wonderwall at the school talent show.

There’s a wholly misguided moment when Jack meets a now elderly John Lennon, an artist who, in a telegraphed wake up to call to Jack, got to spend his life with the woman he loved, but there’s no hint of George, Ringo or Paul. Though Jack does get to wear a very familiar cardigan.

Naturally, there’s a generous helping of Beatles hits performed by Jack, including an amusing scene where he attempts to play Let It Be to his distracted parents (Meera Syal, Sanjeev Bhaskar) and a self-effacing moment from Sheeran, who declares himself Salieri to Jack’s Mozart, when he suggests Jack should call his new song Hey Dude while, alongside a pointless James Cordon cameo, Joel Fry offers some running comic relief as Jack’s idiot roadie. But, even in its confess the truth and true love comes together moment, the underwritten screenplay has simply none of the emotional spark Curtis brought to Notting Hill or Love, Actually. A Twilight Zone romcom that ferries across the Merseybeat but never gets to port, this Yesterday’s not here to stay.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

 

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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