MOVIE ROUND-UP:This Week’s New Film Releases, Fri Jun 28-Thu Jul 4

 

NEW RELEASES

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, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Apollo 11 (U)

We’ve already had First Man, but now, marking the 50thanniversary 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. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC; Empire Great Park)

We The Animals (15)

Based on Justin Torres’ semi-autobiographical first person novel of the same name, making his first venture into drama after two documentaries, shooting handheld on fuzzy 16mm director  Jeremiah Zagar unfolds the 90s-set story of, initially, three somewhat feral young brothers, Manny (Isiah Kristian), Joel (Josiah Gabriel) and Jonah (Evan Rosado),  living in the backwoods of upstate New York with their parents, referred to only as Ma (Sheila Vand, white) and Paps (Raúl Castillo, Puerto Rican) who share a somewhat volatile and at times abusive relationship and rarely interact in the sons’ lives. As the film develops, however, the focus shifts to the youngest brother, Jonah, to unfold as a baptismal coming of age story as he struggles with his emerging sexuality in his relationship with the rebellious nephew of a kindly neighbour who introduces him to the world of gay porn, leading Jonah to make some explicit drawings he keeps hidden under his bed.

Newcomer Rosado is a compelling presence as the kid trying to navigate a world from which he’s come adrift, but he’s let down by Zagar’s attempts to channel the mood of Moonlight and the magic realism and narcotic, hallucinatory feel of Terrence Malick, slipping in instances of animation and intrusive poetic voiceover while letting narrative moments such as the brothers robbing a store of the bruises on Ma’s face being  passed off as the dentist’s fault slip past without establishing a  hold. There’s time when it has flashes of what might have been, but these are too infrequent to deliver any sustained effect. (Wed/Thu: Mockingbird)

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, though it may also leave audiences hoping remake things take a turn for the better with the upcoming The Lion King. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Avengers: Endgame (12A)

Unquestionably the year’s biggest film, 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. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Everyman; Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Booksmart (15)

The directorial debut of actress Olivia Wilde, this high school coming of age comedy fully deserves to take its place alongside such evergreen as deserved The Breakfast Club, Mean Girls, Superbad and Pretty In Pink. About to graduate, best friends, openly gay activist Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) and lightly more well-built Molly (Beanie Feldstein, sister to Jonah Hill), are academic overachievers who’ve dedicated their entire school life to studying. Amy’s taking a  year off to volunteer in Botswana and Molly’s got her sights set on the Supreme Court. So,  when, while in the toilet correcting some graffiti, she overhears other students, who she snobbishly regards a time wasters, dissing her and, declaring they’ll never amount to anything, imagine her  horror to discover that they have all got into prestigious universities, or in one case, landed a six-figure job with Google– and didn’t have to not party to do so.

So, Molly persuades Amy that they’re going to spend their last night making up for lost time, partying hard, getting drunk, taking drugs and losing their virginity, Amy to the androgynous geeky skate-girl she has a crush on and Molly to the handsome class Vice-President, Nick (Mason Gooding) who just happens to be holding the hottest party in town. While they are unquestionably the film’s most potent chemistry, Dever and Feldstein are bolstered by an array of colourful but well-delineated supporting characters, most notably Triple A (Molly Gordon), a girl with a sexual reputation, Jared (Skyler Gisondo), whose spent his years in school trying to buy his schoolmates friendship, to no avail, and the ethereal, eccentric super rich Gigi (Carrie Fisher’s daughter Billie Lourd) who adopts Amy has her new BFF and pops up throughout the film where the girls may go.

While their contributions are smaller, the adult cast get to shine too with Jason Sudekis as the school principal who turns out to have a job on the side, Jessica Williams as a teacher who crosses the no fraternising line, Lisa Kudrow and Will Forte as Amy’s blissfully unaware supportive parents and Michael Patrick O’Brien as a pizza delivery guy who hilariously finds himself on the sharp end of Molly’s attempts to extort directions to Nick’s party.

Scripted by three women, it has an honest feel to the female relationships and the ability to talk about things like lesbian sex in a way that doesn’t feel like some sort of cheap gag a man might have thrown in. Boys may not get it but this should delight their more sussed counterparts. (Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe)

Brightburn (15)

An interesting idea that starts off well but has nowhere to go, this sort of blends together the origin of Superman with a dash of The Omen as Tori (Elizabeth Banks) and Kyle Breyer (David Denman), a childless farming couple from Brightburn in rural Kansas get their prayers for a miracle answered when a spacecraft crashes to earth containing a baby boy. They take him in, name him Brandon (a suitably creepy Jackson A. Dunn), hide the evidence and raise him as their own, but, come puberty, the kid starts zoning out, hearing voices and is drawn to the barn (naturally glowing red) where his folks have hidden his cosmic cradle. An encounter with the lawnmower reveals to Brandon he’s superstrong and impervious to harm, while his latent maliciousness manifests itself when he breaks the hand of a girl classmate (Emmie Hunter) after he’s been bullied. Clearly getting a taste for it, he proceeds to use his powers (superspeed, flight, laser beam eyes) to slaughter the family chickens before building up to dispatching anyone who crosses him, starting with the girl’s unpleasant waitress mother and moving on to the husband (Matt Jones) of his school counsellor aunt (Meredith Hagner) and two of the local cops before turning his attention to mom and dad who, by now, have discovered the drawings under his bed. Wearing a sack with peepholes over his head and a scrappy red cape, he also leaves a trademark symbol (his initials) at the scene of his crimes. Mom, meanwhile, remains determined to protect him despite everything.

Directed by David Yarovesky and written byBrian Gunn and Mark Gunn, respectively brother and cousin of producer James Gunn, the super-hero horror concept is promising, but once Brandon embarks on his murder spree, it’s clear none of them have much idea of where to take it other than throwing in more gore and some confused planetary domination babble as he keeps repeating ‘Take the world’.

Niceties such as character development, satirical wit and depth of narrative don’t get a look in, but you do get to see a sliver a glass in someone’s eyeball and a rather grisly severed jaw and admire how the cast can keep a straight face while delivering lines like “He’s not our son! He’s something we found in the woods!” While agreeably unpleasant in a B-movie manner, without even attempting to offer any explanation or motivation to Brandon’s actions (he protests to mom, “I want to be good” but shows no evidence of any inner struggle), this is ultimately more silly than scary, a sort of Drab Phoenix. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Child’s Play (15)

A different kind of toy story, this reboots the Chucky franchise, a sort of older male cousin to Annabelle. In the original, it was Good Guy doll which became possessed by the spirit of a dead serial killer seeking a human body to inhabit, here it’s a Buddi doll who, voiced by Mark Hamill, becomes a murder machine after its AI is sabotaged in the production plant. The remake follows the same basic set up  in that the doll’s bought by busy single mom Karen Barclay (Aubrey Plaza) as a companion for her adolescent (and, here, deaf) son Andy (Gabriel Bateman) and subsequently takes on a life if its own, getting a taste for butchery after watching The Texas Chainsaw Massacre II, and murdering the babysitter, for which Andy gets the blame and put in a psychiatric hospital. Variations this time around include a bunch of neighbourhood kids straight out of Stranger Things who team up to defeat the doll, mom’s  jerk boyfriend and  a creepy handyman with Mike Norris (Bryan Tyree Henry), the detective on the case, being the son of a neighbour. There are, naturally, plenty of grisly deaths (including by lawnmower), stupid decisions and some woolly cautionary messages about technology out of control and the toxic influence of mankind, but nothing to warrant resurrecting a franchise that had worn out its invention and welcome long before it got the axe.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Diego Maradona (12A) 

“A bit of cheating and a lot of genius”, someone says in summing up Argentinian football megastar Diego Maradona whose ‘Hand of God’ moment in the quarter final against England sealed the 1986 World Cup as Argentina went on to defeat West Germany 3-2. Directed by Asif Kapadia, but largely using existing TV footage alongside some modern day reminiscences from its subject, the two-hour plus documentary traces Maradona’s life and career from the slums of Buenos Aires through a less than glorious 80s stint at Barcelona to Naples and subsequent superstar status, the disastrous fall out of the Argentina vs. Italy clash in the 1990 World Cup  and a crash back down through  assorted extramarital affairs, pregnancy controversies, cocaine habit, mobster associations, weight gain, media ostracisation, drugs bust and despair.

Very much one for soccer enthusiasts, but even less than casual viewers are likely to be impressed by footage of the man in action; however, it’s the story away from the pitch, one fuelled by a toxic cocktail of fierce determination to win and rampant hubris that makes this, as one historian puts it, “tremendous and terrible” story worth going well into extra time.  (Odeon Birmingham; Vue Star City; Tue-Thu:Mockingbird)

 

Godzilla: King Of Monsters (12A)

At 132 minutes, this sequel to Gareth Edwards’ 2014 reboot is around 90% special effects action and 10% plot, but then who goes to a movie about a radiation-breathing giant lizard for the subtleties of the script! Picking things up five years on from the end of the previous film, having lost their son in Godzilla’s San Francisco rampage, scientists Emma (Vera Farmiga) and Mark Russell (Kyle Chandler) are now divorced, she still working for Monarch with teenage daughter Madison (Stranger Things’ Millie Bobby Brown), he out in the frozen wilds studying wolves. Together they invented the Orca, a device that can synthesise the cries of the assorted titans to communicate with – and importantly calm – them, but as she’s testing it out on Mothra, the facility’s invaded by British Army colonel turned eco-terrorist Jonah Alan (Charles Dance) and she and Madison taken captive. Naturally, Mark is pulled back in to help rescue them before Alan can use the Orca to awaken the other titans (17 of them apparently, though we only see a few, including a glimpse of Kong) in his deranged quest to restore balance to Earth by basically giving it back to its original rulers (apparently nature blossoms in their wake) and wiping out most of humanity. The early twist is that a misguided obsessional Emma is in on the Thanos kick too, resurrecting Monster Zero, aka  King Ghidorah, the three-headed, winged hydra-like serpent and Godzilla’s big rival for the titan throne.

From which the film descends into a series of peril-fraught visits to various holding facilities dotted around the planet (China, Colorado, Bermuda, Mexico, Antarctica), the cast list dwindling as it goes (Sally Hawkins’ scientist an early casualty), as Mark, Dr. Serizawa (Ken Watanabe), Dr. Rick Stanton (Bradley Whitford) and assorted colleagues and military types basically try and figure out if they want to kill Godzilla or recruit him to take Ghidorah who, it turns out is not of this world and has an agenda rather different to Emma’s on the others, and is trying to bring the other titans, among them the original angry bird, Rodin, under his control.

Scattered among the spectacular (albeit at times rather murky) destruction set pieces as assorted monsters go head to heads or wings to tails, trashing cities wholesale in their path, there’s a smattering of human stories designed to ground the emotions, including a couple of sacrifices to save the planet, but these are essentially just window dressing to the main event as it builds to its mega-sized nuclear bomb kick-start climax at Boston’s Fenway Park and the end-titled set up next year’s sequel Godzilla vs. Kong. Big and loud does it. (Cineworld 5 Ways; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

John Wick: Chapter 3 (15)

Save for Constantine, after the end of the Matrix series Keanu Reeves’ career was pretty much in the commercial doldrums, then, five years ago, along came John Wick and, while he can still be found in low budget indie fare like Replicas and Destination Wedding, his formerly retired soulful loner, one-man-army assassin has put him back in the A list.

Its title coming from the Latin phrase meaning ‘If you want peace, prepare for war’, this picks up immediately after the end of John Wick 2, with an hour to go before he’s declared ex-communicado after breaking the Masonic-like High Table’s rules by killing someone inside the Continental Hotel, after which, with a $14million bounty on his head,  he’s fair game for every assassin going. The first of the bone-crunching fights, in the New York Public Library, giving a new meaning to doing things by the book, what follows is pretty much two hours of constant bloody shootings and stabbings, including a knife through an eye, with occasional breathers to move the narrative to the next level as, calling on his Belarus heritage and bearing a talisman, Wick first calls in a debt and asks for passage to Casablanca from Anjelica Huston’s Russian crime boss The Director (who trained the orphaned young Wick in ballet moves and wrestling), then seeks out the local Continental’s manager, Sofia (Halle Berry), with whom he has a backstory (and another marker) that doesn’t occur in either of the first two chapters, to secure a meeting with her Italian boss (Jerome Flynn) and from there out into the Sahara desert to strike a deal with a High Table Elder (Saïd Taghmaoui), albeit at the cost of a finger.

Meanwhile, back in New York the script introduces a new character in the Adjudicator (a superbly frosty Asia Kate Dillon) who’s there to bring to account the Continental’s Manager, Winston (Ian McShane, as cooly imperious as ever), and the Bowery King (Laurence Fishburne) for helping Wick after the hotel killing and who recruits top Japanese assassin and Wick fan Zero (Mark Dacasos) and his goons (including Cecep Arif Rahman and Yayan Ruhian from The Raid) as muscle.

Again directed by Chad Stahelski and saturated with colour, it not only looks amazing but delivers one breathtaking and often close-up action set piece after another (notably a frenetic melee in a weapons museum lined with glass knife display cases) as Wick variously takes on his assailants with fists, guns, knives, swords, motorbikes and even the hind legs of a horse while, in the Casablanca shoot-out, teamed up with Sofia, they also have the help of her two German Shepherd attack dogs (echoing the canine theme running through the series) who know just where to bite a man, all climaxing in a showdown between Wick and Zero in a glass maze.

Reeves again delivers droll line delivery perfection alongside incredible physicality while those around him rise to the glorious absurdity and excess of the occasion as the film ends ready to launch into a revenge/payback themed John Wick Chapter 4. Bring it on. (Cineworld 5 Ways; Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Men In Black International (12A)

Seven years on from the third and final instalment starring Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones (who get a tip of the hat in a painting, and almost 22 since the MiB started protecting the Earth from the scum of the universe, director F Gary Gray reboots the franchise, reuniting Thor and Valkyrie, okay Chris Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson, for a more globe-spanning outing that take sin Paris, London, Naples and Marrakesh.

It opens with Agent H (Hemsworth) and Agent High T (Liam Neeson), the boss of the London bureau atop the Eiffel Tower, saving the world from The Hive, an alien race bent on galactic-scale destruction, “with nothing but their wits and series-70 atomizers.” Flashback twenty years with Molly witnessing her parents being neurolised by two MiB and helping a fluffball alien to escape, an incident that sparks a deep obsession that will, in the present, lead to her tracking down the MiB New York HQ and convincing station boss Agent O (Emma Thompson) to take her on as a probationer as Agent M complete with trademark Paul Smith suit, white shirt and skinny black tie.

To which end, she’s despatched to London and assigned to work with Agent H, who, as everyone observes, hasn’t been the same since Paris, generally assumed to be the result of breaking up with arms dealer Riza (Rebecca Ferguson). Given the job of babysitting visiting royalty, Vungus the Ugly, an old alien friend of H, things go pear-shaped when he’s murdered by two lookalike alien trackers (Larry Bouregois) who can absorb the appearance of those they have killed, but not before he passes on a purple crystal device to M, the only one he can trust.

This, it turns out, is some sort of superweapon involving a compressed star that could potentially obliterate the planet and needleless to say, the two aliens aren’t the only ones who want to get their hands on it, plus there’s suggestions that the London office has been compromised, while priggish Agent C (Rafe Spall) seeks to put his oar into the mission and it all winds up back in Paris with a not too hard to see coming twist, albeit with a twist inside itself.

Visually, it sometimes falls short and Gray never quite manages to successfully integrate the live action with the action-heavy effects. But this is more than compensated by the hugely enjoyable screwball comedy interplay and banter between Hemsworth, in typical laconic mode, and Thompson as the eager to impress Agent M, boosted in the latter half by the amusing addition of Pawny (Kumail Nanjiani), a sort of living green alien chess piece in a red uniform that resembles an acorn pod, who adopts M as his new Queen.  Ultimately, it’s not all it might have been, but there’s more than enough fun and chemistry (as well as some unresolved plot lines) here to make you hope they’re back in black again in the not too distant future.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; 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? (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

The Secret Life of Pets 2 (U)

A rare case of the sequel surpassing the original, director Chris Renaud successfully juggles and interweaves three storylines, satisfyingly bringing them together for a thrilling train chase climax.  His owner now married and with a new baby, Jack Russell terrier Max (Patton Oswalt) has bonded with the kid but is now so overcome with helicopter parent anxieties about New York life he’s developed a psychosomatic scratching problem that sees him (following a very funny vets visit) in a plastic cone. He, slobbery shaggy Duke (Eric Stonestreet) and the family head off to an uncle’s farm for a holiday where Max meets up with self-assured gruff but cool sheepdog Rooster (a distinctive Harrison Ford in his animation debut) who helps him overcome his fears.

Meanwhile, he’s left his favourite squeaky toy in the care of Gidgit, the fluffy white Pomeranian (Jenny Slate), who manages to lose in in an apartment wall to wall with feral cats, prompting her to turn to the laid back smugly superior Chloe (Lake Bell), again stealing the film, to help her pass herself off as a cat so she can recover it, a subplot that involves a hilarious sequence with a red laser dot.

Meanwhile, Snowball (Kevin Hart), the deranged white rabbit who’s been dressed up as a superhero bunny by his owner, is enlisted by new character Daisy (Tiffany Haddish), a feisty Shih Tzu, to rescue an abused white tiger cub from a travelling circus. As the narrative finally brings them all back together to New York, the third act entails them working as a team to save the tiger from the wicked Eastern European circus owner, his pack of wolves and a psycho monkey sidekick.

Again, vibrantly colourful, the film features some well-observed moments of animal behaviour, a particular gem being Chloe’s attempts to wake her owner culminating in a furball, and how closely it can resemble that of humans (a point reinforced by the end credit real life pet and owner clips) and their neuroses. Laced with lightly-handled life lessons, mixing together kid-friendly jokes about pooping in boots  and weeing up trees with more anarchic and  subtly subversive adult touches, this is a real treat. Now, can we have a Chloe spin-off please. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Sometimes Always Never (15)

Written by Frank Cottrell-Boyce and directed in stylised fashion by Carl Hunter who, channelling Wes Anderson, evokes a 70s kitsch sensibility with his use of bright colours (mainly orange and green) and frequent shots through doorways or reflections in mirrors, this rather mannered but ultimately involving road trip tale unfolds the father-son relationship between Alan (Bill Nighy), an emotionally distant widowed Liverpudlian tailor, and his estranged grown younger son Peter (Sam Riley) who paints and makes jingles for ice-cream vans. They meet up for the first time in ages in Merseysideto view a body that may or may not be that of Peter’s brother, Michael, who walked out of the house one day many years back following an argument over using the word Zo in a game of Scrabble (or rather, as Peter reminds him, a knock off cardboard version since his dad always did things on the cheap) and never came back. Alan’s been trying to find him ever since while Peter feels he can never compete with the memory of his vanished sibling.

Alan’s the Scrabble obsessive (good with words but useless at communicating), indeed, when he and Peter meet another couple (Jenny Agutter, Tim McInnerny) staying at the same B&B who have also come to identify the body as potentially their own missing son, Alan hustles the husband out of £200, much to Peter’s embarrassment.

Back home, Alan foists himself upon Peter’s family, sharing the bunk bed in their teenage son Jack’s (Louis Healy) room and taking over his computer to play online Scrabble, gradually convinced that his unknown opponent is actually Michael.  Playing alongside this is Peter’s emotional distance from Jack, who reaps the benefits of his grandfather’s dress sense, and how his wife (Alice Lowe, a low-key delight) helps engineer shy Jack’s romance with the girl at the bus stop.

Essentially a film that treats on loss, reconnecting and making the best of what remains behind, it draws excellent performances from Nighy and Riley (and an odd cameo from Alexei Sayle) and build to an understated emotional punch without resorting to sentimentality. You also get to learn why you can’t buy Marmite in Canada. The film’s title is apparently a reference to how the three descending buttons on a suit’s jacket should be fastened, though quite what it has to do with the narrative remains a puzzle. Alan would probably have a word for it. (MAC)

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 Antiquesand 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 1950spull-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; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

X-Men: Dark Phoenix (12A)

Set in 1992, ten years after the events of Apocalypse (and serving as a prequel to 2006’s The Last Stand), the X-Men are now national heroes, called on by the President in times of need. Such as when something goes wrong with a space shuttle mission and Raven/Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), already disillusioned with the direction things are going, Cyclops (Tye Sheridan), Beast (Nicholas Hoult), Storm (Alexandra Shipp), Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee), Quicksilver (Evan Peters) and Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) are despatched by Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) to save them. Arriving at the shuttle, they find it in the grip of a powerful cosmic energy force that’s tearing it apart and, using their teleporting and super speed powers, Nightcrawler and Quicksilver rescue the astronauts, only to find one’s still onboard. Nightcrawler returns, this time with Jean who uses her mental powers to keep the craft together. However, before she can return to the X-craft, the force engulfs the ship, flooding her with its energy. It should have killed her, but she somehow survives and is returned to Earth where a medical shows her to be perfectly fine. In fact, rather more than fine.

It would seem that the force she’s absorbed has interacted with her own powers, enhancing them to the extent that she’s now the most powerful being on the planet, her skin glowing with cracks revealing the pulsating inner light. Unfortunately, she’s not in control of them and the psychic walls Xavier put in place to protect her when he took her in after she was orphaned in a car crash as a child are starting to collapse, flooding her with suppressed memories. Worse, she likes the feeling she gets when she exercises the power. On top of which a shape-shifting alien race known as the D’Bari and led by Vuk (Jessica Chastain channelling Tilda Swinton) are on Earth to drain the power inside Jean so they can take Earth for themselves.

Turning her back on the X-Men after learning what a well-intentioned but misguided Xavier did to her as a child and in the wake of a tragedy caused by the inner Phoenix taking her over, a traumatised and increasingly out of control Jean initially seeks help from Magneto (Michael Fassbender), culminating in him joining forces with the Beast, who feels betrayed by Xavier (who seems to be on a  bit of PR ego trip),  in a revenge-driven attempt to kill her while the other X-Men seek to reach out to the inner Jean and the Vuk marshal their forces for first a tumultuous New York-set show down followed by the climax aboard a speeding train.

The culmination of the franchise, it’s dark affair that sees the death of two major characters and a change in the X-Men leadership but, it never quite has the same emotional punch as Wolverine’s send-off in Logan, Writer and first time director  Simon Kinberg (who also co-wrote The Last Stand), handles things well enough, welding the somewhat functional  narrative and dazzling effects together and lacing things with a vein of gender politics about powerful women, but somehow the film never really soars as it should. It may be the end, but it’s no Endgame.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; 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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