MOVIE ROUND-UP:This Week’s New Film Releases, Fri Mar 17-Thu Mar 23

 

NEW RELEASES

Get Out (15)

Bringing a  welcome injection of fresh blood to horror movies, actor-writer turned first-time director Jordan Peele deftly revives the genre’s element of social commentary. Previously memorably  exercised in the likes of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Stepford Wives, Society and, most recently, The Witch, as with Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, Peele has constructed his film as a racial satire, one which chimes powerfully in America’s current climate of exacerbated white on black violence. Indeed, Peele’s darkly funny film riffs on the idea of whites finding a new way of subjugating blacks to slavery.

A rising star in the photography world,  Chris (Brit Daniel Kaluuya) has been persuaded to visit the family of  his girlfriend of five months, Rose  (Allison Williams), in their upstate home. He’s just a little wary of what sort of reaction he might get, specifically since she hasn’t told them he’s black. Indeed, his best friend, Rod (LilRel Howery providing the broad comedy) , a Homeland Security agent with the TSA  who reckons white folk want black sex slaves, thinks it’s a really bad idea. However, Rose reassures him that they’re progressive thinkers, Obama fans, and will be totally accepting about it.

Indeed,  neurosurgeon Dean Armitage (Bradley Whitford) and somewhat distant hypnotherapist wife Missy (Catherine Keener subverting her amiable persona) prove to be just that, the former perhaps over-egging their white liberal credentials by recalling how his had ran alongside Jesse Owens in the 1936 Olympics. Even so, Chris isn’t totally at ease and, even though Dean says that he’s almost embarrassed to fit the cliché of wealthy whites having live-in black servants, handyman Walter (Marcus Henderson) and housekeeper Georgina (Betty Gabriel), but, kept on after caring for his elderly parents, they’re  like part of the family, Chris finds their almost zombie-like behaviour a little unsettling. Likewise, Rose’s spoiled brother Jeremy (Caleb Landry Jones) who reckons Chris’s “genetic makeup” would make him a great MMA fighter and Missy’s insistence on hypnotising him to cure his smoking habit.

Clearly all is not what it might appear. The visit coinciding with an annual bash when all the rich folks come over the house, Chris feels there’s something familiar about the quietly polite black husband (Lakeith Stanfield)  of one of the middle-aged women. Audiences will too, since he was the man seen abducted on a deserted street at the start of the film. When Rod suggests he take a photo on his phone and send it to him to check out, the flash causes something in the man to snap, his meek demeanour falls away and he lurches at Chris telling him to ‘get out!’

It is, of course, rather too late for that  and  it’s not long before Chris wakes up to find himself strapped to a chair and  discovering just what is going on, why the servants act like they do and why so many black men have been vanishing in the area. To say more would spoil things, but suffice to say The Stepford Wives and Body Snatchers are not idle comparisons.

Peele cleverly marries the growing tension and horror with full on comedy (he’s co-star of the American sketch show Key and Peele)  and  barbed casual racism before cranking things up to a bloody and gory climax as well as a final gotcha. Scary, funny, thought-provoking and resonantly timely, this has the makings of a future classic. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Beauty and the Beast (PG)

The first (and, to date, only) animation to be nominated for the Best Picture Oscar, following on from Cinderella and The Jungle Book, this is the latest of Disney’s toons to get a live action update. Directed by Bill Condon, this very much plays to the original’s Oscar winning score and songs to make it a  full out musical, complete with three new numbers, although, in the shadow of La La Land, while parts are very good, it never quite takes off  as a whole. Likewise, while the design generally looks terrific, especially the woods and the Beast’s gloom-frozen castle, Belle’s village feels very much like a backlot set. It’s a qualification that tends to apply throughout. The CGI animated household objects into which the servants have been transformed are brilliantly rendered, but as voiced by Ian McKellen (Cogsworth, the clock), Ewan McGregor (Lumiere, the candelabra) and Emma Thompson (giving an inexplicable Cockney accent to Mrs. Potts, the teapot, although she does shine on the title song), they’re also often very irritating. Gugu Mbatha Raw is less so as feather duster Plumette, largely because she has little to say, but sadly the same does not hold true for Audra McDonald’s singing wardrobe or Stanley Tucci as her harpispchord hubbie.

And then, on the one hand, you have a serious turn by Kevin Kline as Belle’s guilt-haunted inventor father and a solid theatrical villain from Luke Evans as the arrogant, narcissistic Gaston, while, on the other, an over the top Josh Gad is almost unbearably hammy as his adoring, camp closet case sidekick LeFou, Disney’s coy first ‘gay’.  The problem extends to the central characters too. Despite channeling Bill Nighy, Dan Stevens is magnificent under the prosthetics and CGI as the horned, hulking, tortured Beast (albeit rather less so when restored to his true prince form), but, unfortunately, an often hesitant Emma Watson is all too prettily winsome and vanilla as Belle, though she can handle a tune passably enough. Only in the final, and genuinely moving, moments, does she ever really come to life, meaning that much of what goes before is ever so slightly boring, feeling, to paraphrase the song, that  moments do seem to last forever.

You’ll know the fairy tale and the film’s opening voice over makes short work of delivering the exposition as to why the prince was cursed by an enchantress, transformed into a  beast for having no love in his heart, and cursed to remain that way when the last petal falls from the red rose in the glass case if he’s not found someone to love him for who he is.

Lost during a storm, Belle’s father takes shelter in the hidden castle and is locked up by the Beast after stealing a white rose from the garden on his way out, Belle duly taking his place and, assisted by the matchmaking Lumiere,  her tender and wise nature soothing the Beast’s rage, lifting his depression and causing him to care as, bonding over a love of literature, she comes to see his inner soul. In addition, the film also takes a trip to Belle’s birthplace in Paris to add some backstory about what happened to her mother and why dad’s so protective.

At its best, as with a showstopping acid-trip rendition of the Be Our Guest dinner sequence that tips the visual hat to Busby Berkeley, the LeFou and Gaston tavern table hopping  musical routine, the action finale and, of course, the iconic ballroom waltz with that yellow dress and blue tunic, it’s fabulous, equal  and occasionally superior to the animation. Unfortunately, when it isn’t, it’s all rather forgettable. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Electric; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Personal Shopper (15)

Having played  the personal assistant to Juliette Binoche’s actress in  director Olivier Assayas’s last film. The Clouds of Sils Maria, this time Kristen Stewart takes centre stage as Maureen, the introverted personal shopper to demanding  German supermodel/designer Kyra (Nora Von Waltstätten). She’s in charge of selecting and collecting the clothes, shoes and jewellery for her client’s appearances at assorted high profile events, but is under strict orders not to try anything on. She does, of course, both borrowing the items and staying in Kyra’s plush apartment whenever she’s out of town.

In addition to this, she’s also trying to make contact with her dead twin brother Lewis, who also a  medium and with whom she shares the congenital heart defect that killed him. They vowed that whoever went first would try and make contact with the other, which she’s trying to do in the decaying  old Parisien house where he died, as well as seeking to rid it of any lingering spirits so his former girlfriend  (Sigrid Bouaziz)) can sell it and move on.

She senses a presence, although, as a letter scary scene reveals, it’s not that of her brother. But this isn’t the only tension at play in the film. Midway in, Maureen starts getting texts from an unknown caller, who creepily seems to know her every move as well as her fears and desires, providing her access to a hotel room where they never meet. And then there’s a murder to add another level of intrigue, though this and the killer’s reveal seem almost like a shrug in the narrative.

Weaving between states of mind and shifting genres, psychological or supernatural horror one moment, Hitchockian thriller the next, the film  is as enigmatic and hard to read as its central character, who may or may not be psychotic, consumed by guilt or riddled with a dark desire to be something or someone she is not. Stewart delivers a compellingly blank performance, one which makes the emotions all the  more powerful in the moments when they actually surface even when the film is frustratingly ambiguous, as for example, whether the mysterious texts are, she messages at one point, from the living or the dead.

Even if does at one point  deliver the CGI ectoplasmic  shock audiences expect, it is, as you might surmise, all rather arty and experimental, exploring notions of dislocation, physically and psychologically, as well as fetishism and auto-eroticism,  summoning an air of dread and foreboding, not least in a scene where doors open automatically to let through, well, apparently nobody . Its frequent fades to black and the open-ending won’t satisfy those who like things neatly tied up, but for those willing to succumb to its guile it has many rewards. (Cineworld 5 Ways)

 

NOW PLAYING

Elle (18)

Earning star Isabelle Huppert a Best Actress Golden Globe and several other gongs, the latest controversial offering by director Paul Verhoeven underlines her status as one of the best actresses of her generation.

Decidedly French, as such contains an inevitable  couple of awkward dinner table scenes, one involving a Christmas part that sees Michele Leblanc (Huppert) running her foot up the crotch of Patrick (Laurent Latiffe), the hunky neighbour married to devoted Catholic Rebecca (Virginie Efira),  who we’ve already seen her masturbating over while watching him through binoculars.

The other is a small get together with her ex-husband Richard (Charles Berling), best friend Anne (Anne Consigny), with whom she runs a company specialising in sexually charged violent video games, and her husband, Robert (Christian Berkel), who she just happens to be screwing. It’s here that she drops the bombshell about a masked intruder breaking into her apartment and violently raping her. They’re understandably shocked, all the more so that she hasn’t reported it. However, given she’s the daughter of a mass murderer who butchered 27 people on their street and, as a child, was seen as guilty by association, she’s keen not to attract either police or media interest. Especially as dad’s mounting his latest appeal.

There’s also the fact that Michele’s a decidedly psychologically complex, emotionally damaged  character who’s drawn to risky relationships and  may or may not actually have gotten off on the assault, which both opens the film and is revisited in increasingly savage – and ultimately fictionalised – flashbacks. After the attack, she simply sweeps up the mess and has a bath. The next day she has the locks changed, buys some self defence gear and carries on as normal. Is that trauma or something else entirely?

When she realises the rapist is stalking her, the waters are further muddied by  a list of possible suspects, among them a  game designer she suspects might have created the simulation of her being violated by a monster. Indeed, Michele’s life seems to involve many different kinds of monsters, she as much of one as any.

She’s also having to deal  with her feckless son Valentine  (Jonas Bloquet) and his bullying pregnant girlfriend (Alice Isaaz), the baby, when born, clearly having nothing to do with him, as well as the prickly relationship with her mother who’s shacked up with a much younger man.

The actual identity of the rapist is revealed relatively early one, but subsequent events and relationships only further serve to compound the film’s problematic amoral and ambiguous nature. At times, it is also darkly funny.

Addressing themes of the connections between sex, violence and  power, it unfolds as a revenge thriller unlike most, never looking to underplay the effect of the rape, but also not defining the controlling Michele as powerless victim. It’s no easy watch and, arguably, it does falter in the schematic last act as Michele seeks, if not redemption, then at least to cleanse herself of the demons and guilt that have shaped her. Nevertheless, fuelled by Huppert’s mesmerising performance, this is raw and potent stuff.  (Electric)

 

Fallen (12A)

 When civil war broke out in Heaven,  those angels who had not declared for either Team God or Team Lucifer were apparently cast out and sent to Earth. Several millennia later, it appears that a  good many of them have wound up disguised as sulky teens at the Sword and Cross reform school. It’s to here that Lucinda (Addison Timlin), a  troubled kid prone to visions and  strange abilities, is sent after being wrongly blamed for killing a classmate in a  fire and where she finds herself in a  tug of love  between charismatic bad boy Cam (Harrison Gilbertson) and sullen Daniel (Jeremy Irvine), the latter seeming inexplicably familiar. Meanwhile, as the students and teachers  variously line up on the side of good and evil, Lucinda finds herself also having to make a choice.

 

Marking a decided  career low for director Scott Hicks, who made the Oscar-winning Shine, this is a sort of Twilight-lite, with angels rather than vampires and werewolves, but, between the functional direction, risible dialogue, ham-fisted acting and general visual cheesiness (check out the dismal superimposed CGI silvery wings shimmering a good foot away from Daniel’s back), it feels like a bad parody. It may attract stray readers of the bestselling young adult novels, but they might be better advised saving their money and picking it up from the DVD reduced bin a couple of months time.  (Empire Great Park; Showcase Walsall)

 

Fences (15)

Making its stage debut in 1983, August Wilson’s play won both a Tony and Pulitzer in 1987, but, despite attempts to bring it to the screen, Wilson refused permission unless it had a black director. It took 33 years, but, finally, Denzel Washington has taken on the mantle, both behind the camera and starring as Troy Maxson,  a refuse truck collector in 50s Pittsburgh, embittered at how segregation  cut short his career as a baseball player and the racist attitudes that have him at the rear of the truck rather than driving it. Washington played the same role on Broadway in 2010 and he’s brought several of the same cast with him, Mykelti Williamson as his brain-damaged war veteran brother, Gabriel, Russell Hornsby as his eldest son (by a previous marriage), aspirant and permanently broke jazz musician Lyons, and, most notably, Oscar winner Viola Davis as Rose, his loyal, supportive wife of 18 years, a role she also played in the 1987 revival

However, Troy’s bitterness and self-pity has been eating away at both the marriage and their younger son, Cory (Jovan Adepo) who sees his tough love father’s refusal to support his aspiration to play college football as jealousy over chances he never had.

Largely set in Troy’s house or the backyard where he holds court, swigging gin as he jokes around, tells fanciful stories and bemoans life to best friend Bono (Stephen Henderson), it gradually builds to a reveal the devastating secret Troy’s been hiding from his wife, offering Davis the monologue that undoubtedly earned her Oscar nomination.

However, as good as both she  and Washington’s complex, sympathy-shifting portrayal are, the film never escapes its theatrical origins, whether in the carefully appointed set, heavy-handed symbolism and metaphors or the cadence of the dialogue, reinforcing its comparisons to a black answer to Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. Also, after the slow burn build to the heartbreaking  climax, the aftermath coda feels somewhat limp, never delivering the  emotional epiphany it seeks. (Vue Star City)

 

Fifty Shades Darker (18)

Hardware stores saw a boost in trade with the first adaptation of E.L. James’ S&M trilogy, but, while sales in pleasure balls may be boosted, part two puts more emphasis on the relationship between Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) and the ludicrously wealthy Christian Grey (Jamie Doran) than the kinky sex, though that’s not to say there aren’t some steamy – and indeed sexy – sequences and a visit to the Red Room. Picking up from the end of the first film, she’s now assistant to Jack Hyde, her red alert named senior editor  at the publishing company, but miserable after breaking up with Grey. But then, suddenly, he’s back in her life, swearing he’s changed, that he wants her back, can’t live without her and even opening up about himself. He wants to renegotiate terms, so, she decides to give him another chance, provided they take it slow, with no rules and no secrets,  and walk before they run. However, it’s not long before she decides she likes running and what loosely passes for a plot gets underway with Grey’s sexual mentor (Kim Basinger) warning Anastasia off, Hyde making a pass  and the mentally disturbed Leila (Bella Heathcote), one of his earlier submissives, stalking her.

Since, written by  Niall Leonard,  this could easily fit into a half hour TV episode with room to spare, director James Foley fleshes out the running time with a swathe of increasingly opulent wealth-dripping scenes, including a masked ball, a lavish birthday bash, a yacht and any number of hugely expensive offices and houses. The longer it goes on the soapier it gets, becoming a  sort of X-rated Dynasty complete with a helicopter crash  and, not one, but two marriage proposal scenes, although the second is, admittedly, rather more extravagant than the first.

There’s a few more insights into why Grey is the way he is; his junkie birth mom died when he was four and, presumably, one of her lovers got off on stubbing cigarettes out on the boy’s chest, scarring him both physically and mentally, though it’s hard to resist the giggles when he has Anastasia a draw a lipstick boundary around his pecs to mark a no go area. He also apparently has a thing for Vin Diesel movie The Chronicles of Riddick. Unfortunately, insight into Anastasia doesn’t get much deeper than how nothing measured up  to those Austen and Bronte romantic novels. The core cast are back too, among them thankless roles for photographer friend Jose (Victor Rasuk), flatmate Kate (Eloise Mumford), and Christian’s sister Mia (Rita Ora), though Marcia Gay Harden gets somewhat more to do as protective adoptive mom Grace.

For long stretches it goes flaccid and meanders along as if looking for some sense of direction, and then rushes headlong to the finale, the last shot reappearance of one of the characters setting up what promises to be more of a thriller styled conclusion, possibly finally giving Christian’s fleet of bodyguards something to actually do.  Still, there’s more intentional humour this time around, making it rather more fun that the self-seriousness of the first film  and even something resembling, if not heat, then at least a mild glow between Doran and Johnson. It’s not darker by any means, but, to borrow one of the lines, it’s not blandly vanilla either. (Cineworld NEC;  Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Fist Fight (15)

Back in 1987, in Three O’Clock High a nerd finds himself challenged to an after-class playground fight by the school bully. Thirty years later, Richie Keen revisits the plot, except this time the nerd and the bully are teachers. The former is Andy Campbell, an English teacher at Roosevelt High. It’s the last day of school and the leavers are running wild, pulling all manner of extreme pranks. Meanwhile, the staff are all attending meetings with the Principal (Dean Norris)  to find out if they’re going to be laid off. With a young daughter and another kid on the way, Campbell can’t afford to lose his job, and, as a result, is something of an eager to please bundle of nerves.

Taking on the bully role, Ice Cube is Mr. Strickland, the volatile history teacher who’s stressed out about the school’s  lack of discipline and antiquated facilities and intimidates pupils and staff alike. Things explode when he summons Campbell to explain why the VHS he’s trying to play the class keeps shutting down. Campbell susses that one of the kids is using a mobile phone to turn off the machine, proving the final straw as Strickland takes a fire axe to the student’s desk.

Summoned before the Principal, the pair are told that, since no one’s owning up to what happened, one of them will be fired. At which point, Campbell fingers Strickland and, in turn, Strickland challenges him to a parking lot fight after school.

Given there’s little doubt that Andy’s in for a beating, the rest of the plot sees him trying to get the fight called off through inept efforts which variously entail bribing the student to lie to the Principal and planting drugs on Strickland in an attempt to get him arrested. Meanwhile, he also has to somehow get to the interview about his job and across to his daughter’s talent show before the showdown.

Populated by an assortment of oddballs who include an oblivious  football coach (Tracy Morgan), the meth junkie guidance counselor (Jillian Bell) with the hots for one of the students, and the  drama teacher (Christina Hendricks) who, thinking Campbell’s a pervert, encourages Strickand to knife him.

Crude and vulgar, although it takes some time to build up its energy, it’s often very funny, even inclining towards the hilarious in the final stretch as Andy both gets increasingly desperate and overcomes his wussiness to get as mad as hell and stand up for himself. It also makes some pointed observations about the nature of the education system that sees  teachers as expendable, while it’s hard not to admire its comedic nerve  in having Campbell’s 10-year-old (Alexa Nisenson) deliver a particularly explicit Big Sean rap at her own school bully. (Odeon Broadway Plaza; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

The Founder (12A)

A fascinating history lesson in how McDonalds came to be a globe-spanning franchise, John Lee Hancock’s film also comes with a moral dilemma for its audiences. Should they applaud Ray Kroc (an inspired Michael Keaton) for his drive and ruthless tenacity in building an empire out of what was a simple single mom and pop fast food takeaway or condemn him for the greed that led him to walk all over the two McDonald brothers with whom he had gone into a Faustian partnership, breaking their contract and denying them their due royalties? Is the film being bitterly ironic or is it, like Wall Street, endorsing the idea that greed is good, especially when it is directly linked to the very idea of America?

When we first meet Kroc, he’s a struggling 52-year-old travelling salesman with a smooth line in patter  and a long line of failed ventures behind him, his latest being trying to persuade diners to invest in one of his multiple mixer machines for their shakes. No one wants to know until, to his disbelief, he’s told he has an order for six machines in San Bernardino, California. Heading out to from Illinois to see them, he finds eager-to-please Maurice McDonald (John Carroll Lynch) and his less trusting brother Dick (Nick Offerman) who tell him how they set up their burger stand and revolutionised it with their Speedee service system, delivering food in 30 seconds not thirty minutes, doing away with car hop service and plates. The world’s first fast food business.

 

Dazzled by the possibilities, silver-tongued Kroc persuades them to join forces and let him franchise the idea. Despite traditionally-minded Dick’s resistance to many of Kroc’s ideas, the concept becomes a huge success. The problem is, the deal means Ray’s still struggling to pay the bills and Dick won’t renegotiate. At which point, the banks refusing to lend any more money, enter both Joan Smith (Linda Cardellini), the wife of one of the new franchisees and her ideas of introducing powdered milkshakes to save on the cost of refrigerating ice cream, and Harry J. Sonneborn (B.J. Novak), who, later to become Ray’s business manager, opens his eyes to the fact that real money lies in owning the land on which the restaurants are built. All of which eventually leads to the big break between Kroc  and the brothers.

“Business is war,” declares Kroc, his a take no prisoners approach in which his neglected, long suffering wife (Laura Dern) becomes collateral damage to his single-minded ambition and what ultimately turns out to be a David and Goliath battle between the ones with the integrity and the ones with the money, in which Goliath wins.

Given that the film shows how the whole foundation of McDonald’s global empire is built on an act of deliberate theft, it’s patently not a glowing product placement eulogy and it doesn’t take much effort to draw the dots between the almost evangelical identification of the Golden Arches with the American dream, a parable that won’t be lost on its post-Trump audiences.  (Sun-Wed: MAC)

 

The Great Wall (12A)

Zhang Yimou’s first major international release since 2007, this is his  most lavish and ambitious to date and, with Matt Damon in the lead, likely to reach beyond the usual Chinese martial arts fans. The Great Wall took some 1700 years to build and stretches for 5500 miles, inevitably giving rise to any number of legends about its purpose. Here, manned by a permanent army called the Nameless Order and divided into specialist units, it’s designed to keep out a legion of monsters known as the Tao Tie, reputedly freed when a meteor crashed into a mountain two thousand years ago and which, led by their queen, who’s fed by the bodies of their victims, attack northern China once every sixty years.

Mercenaries in search of the fabled black powder,  William Garin (Damon) and Pero Tovar (Pedro Pascal) are captured by the Nameless Order, their leader, General Shao (Zhang Hanyu) impressed by the fact that Garin has killed one of the creatures. While suspicious about their motives, they’re befriended by Lin Mae (Jing Tian), the English-speaking commander of the Crane Corps, female warriors who leap into battle tethered to ropes, Garin impressing them with his archery skills. When the Tao Tie attack, the pair prove invaluable, Garin saving the life of a boyish young soldier (Lu Han). Seeing how Lin and the others are prepared to give their lives, not for money, but to protect mankind, Garin comes to reassess his own priorities. Meanwhile, however, Tovar is conspiring with Ballard (Willem Dafoe), a fellow European prisoner, to escape with a cache of gunpowder, fully expecting Garin to join them.

There’s not much more to the plot than that, Damon spelling out the message about finding something worth fighting and dying for, he and Lin developing a  grudging mutual respect and friendship, and helping, with the aid of his magnet, to capture a Tao Tia in an attempt to destroy the queen.

Comparisons to Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones are fairly inevitable, especially in the battles against the seemingly endless monstrous hordes who prove rather more cunning than their opponents thought, leading to an epic battle, including giant hot air paper lanterns, in the capital once they breach the Wall. It’s also fair to say that character development and back stories aren’t major aspects of the film’s agenda, but if you want epic, acrobatic  and bloody blockbuster action, elegant  and agile camerawork, frenetic editing  and bold use of colour and lighting, then this is suitably awesome in its scope and execution. (Vue Star City)

Hidden Figures (PG)

There’s a reasonable chance that you might know that, in 1962, John Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth. It is, however, extremely unlikely you’ll have ever heard of Katherine Johnson. And yet, without her input, the Mercury program might have taken a lot longer to achieve its goal or, had the launch gone ahead on schedule, Glenn could have died on re-entry. It was Johnson who did the calculations necessary to ensure the safe point of re-entry, but only now is her contribution, and that of many other African-American women who worked for the NASA space program, being recognised.

Directed by Theodore Melfi, this aptly titled true story puts the spotlight on Johnson (Taraji P Henson) and her co-workers, Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) and their vital roles in the program. A child maths prodigy, Johnson became one of the three black students to integrate into West Virginia’s graduate schools. In 1952 she got a job at Langley, working as one of the ‘computers’ in the segregated “West Area Computing” division   (not machines, but an all black female unit of mathematicians) overseen  by Vaughan and was eventually assigned to work on the equations necessary to compute the Mercury program flights, despite being given documents of redacted figures on account of not having security clearance. The same unit also included Jackson,  a former maths teacher who became both the first black student to take an after-work course at the segregated Hampton High School, and, in 1958,  NASA’s first black female engineer.

The film plays a little loose with the chronology of events (in the film, Vaughan – who teaches herself how to work the new IBM computer that baffles her male colleagues – is seen battling with the racist white department head – Kirsten Dunst – to secure the position of supervisor) while both the program manager, Al Harrison (an excellent Kevin Costner), and  chauvinistic chief  engineer Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons), who refuses to share either credit or coffee pot with Johnson, are composite figures, but the essentials are all true.

As well as charting the women’s fight to be taken seriously and achieve recognition and equality alongside their male and white counterparts, the film also finds space for a tender love story between the widowed Johnson and  National Guard colonel Jim Johnson (Mahershala Ali).

Adopting a sophisticated approach to detailing the racism of the era and in the workplace without shouting from a soapbox, it quietly observes the conditions under which the ‘computers’ worked, as for example Johnson having to walk across the site to use the blacks only toilets in the West Compound, something that gives rise to a potent scene as Harrison literally tackles prejudice with a  sledgehammer.

The dialogue and performances, especially those of the three female leads, are top notch, while Melfi deftly balances scenes like Johnson scrawling out calculations on the blackboard with archive footage from the era and recreations of meetings with the NASA team and its astronauts, delivering a film that is as entertaining as it’s  inspiring, uplifting and illuminating. (Cineworld 5 Ways;  Empire Great Park; MAC; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza; Vue Star City)

John Wick: Chapter 2 (15)

Keanu Reeves may not be the world’s greatest actor but he has a huge fan base. With John Wick having proven something of a surprise box office hit in 2014, a sequel was inevitable and this gets underway with what is, essentially, a coda to the original, tying up loose ends as taciturn assassin Wick (Reeves), nicknamed The Boogeyman, takes on the  Russian crime organisation led by Abram (Peter Stormare) to recover his stolen classic Mustang. Having killed pretty much everyone else, and wrecked the car in the process, he and Abram, himself in awe of Wick’s skills (especially the legend of his killing three men with a pencil),  agree a truce and Wicks goes home to memories of his dead wife, buries his weapons and looks forward to retirement from the life of a professional hitman.

That doesn’t last long, however, as Santino D’Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio), an Italian criminal playboy to whom Wick owes a debt of honour, turns up to cash in his marker. Wick demurs, thereby prompting D’Antonio to blow up his house. Checking into the Continental, a  luxury hotel for assassins run by Winston (Ian McShane), where rules demand no ‘business’ is enacted on its grounds, he’s reminded that he’s bound to honour the marker, D’Antonio’s request turning out to be the murder of his sister Gianna (Claudia Gerini), so he can  take her seat at the High Table council of the world’s top criminals.  Off to Italy and job grudgingly done, Gianna herself going a long way to relieving him of the burden, rather than being free to resume his life, Wick now finds himself  the target of the city’s apparently countless undercover assassins when D’Antonio, cynically seeking to avenge his sister, puts out a $7m contract.

Having parked his new dog at the hotel, the rest of the film pretty much just involves Wick battling Gianna’s former bodyguard (Common), D’Antonio’s henchmen, led by mute Ares (Ruby Rose) and assorted assassins looking to cash in, delivering both kinetic, balletic action sequences and an incredibly high bodycount, Wick always ensuring to pop one final bullet into every body, just to be sure.

Chad Stahelski returns to the directing seat and delivers the bloody mayhem with stylish panache and visual flair, including a terrific climax in a hall of mirrors. Amid all the action and firefights, there’s a nice sense of humour at work too, underlining that things shouldn’t be taken too seriously, whether in the strict protocol governing assassin rules, the extensive network that takes in specialist tailors and Orthodox Jewish bankers, or a marvellous scene with Peter Serafinowicz as the Continental’s sommelier, advising Wick on choice of weapons as if they were fine wines. There’s also an appearance by Laurence Fishburne as inner-city assassin the Bowery King, while, dressed in his trademark cool three-piece black suit, Reeves makes hugely effective use of his expressionless style.  It ends with Wick declared excommunicado for breaking hotel rules, setting up Chapter 3 in which the contract is extended worldwide. Can’t wait.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC;  Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Kong: Skull Island (12A)

Following Peter Jackson’s bloated 2005 remake, director Jordan Vogt-Roberts takes another swing at reviving cinema’s most famous ape. And  knocks it out of the park.

Clocking in at a tightly packed two hours, it balances explosive action, breathtaking effects, throwaway humour and some respectful nods to the original (effectively recreating that iconic Fay Wray/Kong moment) to wildly entertaining effect. However, the most striking thing  is that, set in 1973, it’s essentially Apocalypse Now with a  100 foot gorilla, Coppola’s movie very clearly referenced in any number of  shots  recreating that iconic image of the red streaked sun, both with and without helicopters blaring out rock music. In Samuel  L Jackson as Lt Col. Preston Packard, the army officer who doesn’t want to the war to end, especially not in ‘abandonment’, as he terms it, it also has its own crazed Kurtz.

Opening with a brief WWII  prologue as two young pilots, one American, one Japanese, are fighting to the death after crashing on some island when two giant hairy hands appear on the cliff top, it fast forwards to Bill Randa (John Goodman), who heads up  Monarch, a secret agency seeking  “massive unidentified terrestrial organisms” as he convinces  a senator (Richard Jenkins) to back an expedition to a hitherto uncharted island “where myth and science meet.”

 

Requisitioning a military escort headed up by Packard and his  chopper squad (among them Shea Whigham, John Ortiz, Jason Mitchell and Toby Kebbell) most of whom serve as cannon fodder along with the assorted scientists, Randa  and his team (Corey Hawkins, Tian Jing) also recruit ex SAS officer Conrad (Tom Hiddleston) as their tracker  while, sensing a story, war photographer Mason Weaver (Brie Larson) also inveigles a place on the mission.

However, no sooner have they battled their  way through the electrical storm shrouding the island  and started dropping seismic bombs, than they’re  being swatted out of the sky by an angry Kong.

Initially separated, the film charts their attempt to survive as they head for the pick up point, Conrad, Weaver and the rest of his group encountering Hank Marlow (John C. Reilly), the American pilot from the opening, who has been living with the natives ever since andwarns of even more dangerous beasts, against which Kong, the last of his kind, has become the island’s protector. Which means they now have to stop Packard from blasting the monkey to pieces.   With familiar  don’t screw with nature messages and observations on how war can make a man see enemies everywhere, it wastes little time on exposition and  gets on with mounting its spectacular action, introducing docile giant water buffalos, towering killer spiders and a humongous  octopus before finally bringing on lizard-like monsters  to raise the bloody body count tally further.

Essentially a prequel to Godzilla, given the thrills assembled here, those who hang around for the post credits scene will be pleased to note  references to such  other celebrated Japanese movie monsters as Mothra and Rodan, suggesting this monkey business is far from over yet.   (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

La La Land (12A)

Picking up six Oscars, including Best Director and Actress,  its title a reference to its Hollywood setting, writer-director Damien Chazelle’s follow-up to Whiplash is a love letter to the  golden age of  musicals that manages to be timeless while simultaneously striking contemporary notes, combining  the polish of 50s song and dance movies with the  energetic flash of things like Fame.

It opens in spectacular style with a one-take sequence staged on and around cars queuing on an LA freeway flyover wherein the film’s central couple, Mia (Emma Stone), an aspiring actress working in a coffee shop  on the Warner Bros studio lot, and Seb (Ryan Gosling),  a jazz pianist purist with dreams of opening his own club, have a fleeting heated interchange.

Beginning in Winter, the film first follows Mia as, after another unsuccessful audition, she’s persuaded to join her flatmates for a night out and winds up drawn into a jclub by the sound of a jazz piano. Here she sees Seb, just as he’s being fired by the manager (JK Simmons) for slipping in one  of his free-jazz improvisations, but he brusquely brushes past her as she tries to introduce herself.  The film starts again, this time following Seb who lives in a run-down apartment, telling his exasperated sister that he’s just waiting for life to get tired of beating up on him, at which point he’ll make his move.

Moving on a season, fate contrives to have Mia and Seb meet again at a party where he’s slumming it with an 80s syth rock covers band and their connection begins to take root. They dance together on the hills overlooking  LA  and again at the Griffith Observatory in a magic realism waltz through the stars. Moving in together, she continues with her  auditions and Seb lands a keyboard gig with an old friend (John Legend) who now has his own jazz-rock outfit called The Messengers.

They become a huge success and, forever away on tour, Seb encourages Mia to write and star in her own one-woman play. It is from here that things, because they go right for their conflicting ambitions,  start to go wrong for them as a couple as the film focuses on the sacrifices that need to be made to achieve your dreams.

Neither of them professional singers or dancers,  Stone and  Gosling are terrific, their chemistry, in both the musical and dramatic sequences, lighting up the screen. Sprinkling the film with nods to Hollywood history and icons like Bergman and Monroe while also injecting some barbed commentary on the contemporary industry, it may have a certain cynicism, but it never loses sight of the heart that drives the narrative.

The film ends with a postscript, set five years on, catching up with the pair’s lives and fortunes with a scene that echoes their first actual meeting and offers both the real life ending and the fantasy happy ever after one of Hollywood musicals. It’s an exhilarating, heartburstingly romantic sweep you off your feet affair that will put a spring in your step and seems destined to become every bit a classic as the films to which it pays homage. (Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

The Lego Batman Movie (U)

The follow-up to 2014’s The Lego Movie is an irreverent send-up of Batman and the world of DC superheroes in general, but balances the comedy with a strong no man is an island message about not shutting yourself off from friends and family. Or, indeed, your enemies as, hurt that the humourless, narcissistic Batman (Will Arnett) won’t recognise they have a mutual hate relationship and refuses to accept he’s his greatest foe, the secretly sensitive Joker (Zach Galifianakis) hatches a plot to get sent to the Phantom Zone so he can free all the bad guys there to help him destroy Gotham. And, as if that wasn’t enough, Batman has to contend with eager new sidekick, Robin (Michael Cera), alias Dick Grayson, the orphan he accidentally adopted while dazzled  as the Major (Mariah Carey) introduced the new Police Commissioner Barbara Gordon (Rosario Dawson), who wants him and the law to work together, and the attempts by tough-love butler Alfred (Ralph Fiennes) to get him to face his greatest fear – family.

Opening with a Batman  voiceover saying how every important movie starts with a  black screen, the film is playfully self-referencing (there’s even a clip from the Adam West TV series) and  plunges right into the action as Batman takes on and defeats a whole army of super-villains, is hailed as Gotham’s saviour once again and then goes home to the emptiness of Wayne Manor. Still scarred by his parents’ murder, Wayne has shut himself off from any emotional feelings or relationships, that way he can’t get hurt. He even watches the Tom Cruise romance Jerry Maguire as if it’s a comedy.

While the Dark Knight probed Batman’s dark side, it never went as deep into what makes him tick as this one does. And yet, for all its serious psychoanalytical observations, it remains a huge explosion of fun, which, let’s face it, is what the audience have gone for.

Goaded by The Joker, Batman plans to steal the weapon needed to banish him to the Phantom Zone (leading to an amusing scene as he visits Superman’s Fortress of Solitude to find the Man of Steel (Channing Tatum) hanging out with the other Justice League superheroes at a party to which he’s not been invited). Ignoring Commissioner Gordon’s warnings, Batman falls victim to Joker’s manipulations, leading to the escape from the Zone of  the worst of the worst villains, among them Sauron, the Gremlins, Voldemort (Eddy Izzard), Godzilla, King Kong, Oz’s flying monkeys and even the Daleks.

To defeat them, he has to realise that it’s okay to accept help, just as it’s okay to accept family (and finally let Dick call him dad) as he joins forces with not only Alfred (wearing a retro Batman costume), Barbara and Robin (the origin of the costume another cute joke), but also pretty much every DC super hero and villain you can think of, including Harlequin, Bane, Green Lantern (Jonah Hill) and, er, The Condiment King.  Although there are moments of quite melancholy, for the most part this is a dizzying hyperkinetic whirlwind of nonstop entertainment. Top that Ben Affleck!  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Lion (PG)

One night in 1986, Saroo (Sunny Pawar), a five-year-old Indian boy from an impoverished village near Khandwa, where his illiterate mother (Priyanka Bose) works as a manual labourer, accompanies his older brother Guddu (Abhishek Bharate) to a railway station. While Guddu goes to look for work, Saroo is left to sleep on a bench. Awaking, with Guddu not returned, he tries to look for him, climbs aboard a decommissioned train and falls asleep. When he wakes, he’s miles away and, unable to disembark, remains on the deserted train until it stops in Calcutta, 930 miles from his home, two days later.  Wandering the streets, he’s eventually taken to an orphanage for street kids and, when attempts to find his village and family prove fruitless, it’s arranged for him to be adopted by  a kindly Australian couple, John and Sue Brierley (David Wenham, Nicole Kidman), who live in Tasmania.

Some 20 years later, now with another adoptive brother, the troubled  Mantosh,  studying for hotel management and memories of his previous life having faded along with his ability to speak Hindi, a plate of jalebis prompts  sensory memories of  his childhood and, plagued by thoughts of his lost brother, mother and sister Shekila, Saroo (BAFTA winner Dev Patel) begins an intensive  Google Earth search  to track down his birthplace,  Ganestelay, of which no one had ever heard, a quest that drives him to the edge of breakdown.

Making a few inevitable dramatic changes (fictional American girlfriend, Lucy, played by Rooney Mara, is based on his actual then girlfriend Lisa), director Garth Davis works directly from Brierley’s acclaimed memoir, A Long Way Home, to provide a first person perspective, though, thankfully, without any annoying voice over exposition.

A career best performance by Patel is well matched by an understated, but powerful Oscar- nominated turn from a deglamourised  Kidman with Pawal especially endearing and vulnerable as young Saroo. However,  while it never goes for manipulative sentimentality as it addresses themes of isolation, identity, family and brotherhood, the second half of Saroo’s story is never quite as engaging as the first with its images of life for India’s homeless and lost children. That said, as it reaches the eventual reunion, audiences will be reaching for their tissues. And the title?  Like Saroo’s village, that’s a lexical misunderstanding you’ll have to wait until the final scenes to uncover.  (Cineworld NEC;  Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Logan (15)

The third and final chapter in Wolverine’s standalone  story wears its template on its sleeve in both referring to and showing clips from classic Alan Ladd Western Shane, the story of a loner drawn into a fight not of his making but which becomes inescapably personal. Not to mention Terminator 2.

Set in 2029, Logan (Hugh Jackman) and Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) are the last of the X-Men (it’s never stated what happened to the others, but an enigmatic reference suggests a cataclysmic tragedy) and something has blocked the birth of any new mutants. The conflicted Logan is now old, grizzled, limping,  his eyesight failing, his healing powers on the blink and the adamantium in his body poisoning him. Deadening his physical and emotional pain with drink, he’s working as a limo driver in Texas, shacking up at an abandoned industrial site near the Mexican border where, along with albino mutant Caliban (Stephen Merchant), a former mutant-tracker, he’s looking after the  nonagenarian Professor X, who, hidden in a  rusting toppled water tower and suffering from Alzheimer’s, needs constant medication to prevent his powerful mental powers running out of control and causing seizures for anyone in the vicinity.

In one of his lucid periods, Xavier insists that he’s senses a new mutant, something Logan dismisses. Until, that it is, he encounters  Gabriela (Elizabeth Rodriguez), a Mexican nurse offering a considerable wad of cash to drive her and her Hispanic daughter Laura ((Dafne Keen) to Canada. However, arriving at the motel to collect them, he finds the woman dead and, on returning to his hideout, discovers the girl had stowed away in the car. Although, she says nothing, it seems she is the mutant Xavier sensed. As to her powers, they’re bloodily revealed with the arrival of  Pierce (Boyd Holbrook), the cyborg head of the paramilitary  Reavers. Much to Logan’s shock, she too sprouts deadly adamantium claws and has the same fast healing abilities. It transpires that she was genetically bred, along with other young mutants, by Dr. Rice (Richard E. Grant), who runs shady bioengineering program Transigen, using Logan’s DNA. As Xavier points out, basically, she’s his daughter.

From here, the film becomes a chase road movie as the three set out to find Eden, the supposed mutant safe haven in the Dakota hills, despite Logan insisting it’s merely something dreamed up in one of the X-Men comics for which he has no time, with Pierce, Rice and the latter’s genetically created secret weapon, in pursuit.

Given Jackman’s stated this is his last outing as the character, the way things end won’t come as any real surprise. The fact that it is profoundly moving may well. Directed by James Mangold, from the opening scene as Logan slices his way through a bunch of would be carjackers, the film is spectacularly violent, both Logan and the feral Laura’s claws ripping off limbs and slashing through skulls in graphic detail. Yet this is balanced with moments of humour and  the tender ruminations on family (if Laura’s Logan’s genetic daughter, Xavier is his surrogate father), loneliness and redemption.

Giving a superbly nuanced performance, ranging from extreme rage to heavy weariness the mesmerising Jackman is terrific, as indeed is Stewart who lends the film his own imposing gravitas, while, in her debut role, an impressive eleven-year-old Keen, although wordless until the final stretch, has striking presence and a penetrating stare, something that bodes well should the Wolverine saga spin off to a second generation. In recent years, superheroes have become darker and more grown up, ending with an inspired final image this is among the best of them.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman;Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Moonlight (15)

Winner of the Best Film Oscar, written and directed by Barry Jenkins, this is an arty but emotional look at life for gay black men in America, one that, other than one brief  moment, discreetly shot from behind, deliberately avoids any sexual elements.

Divided into three chapters, it opens with Little, detailing the life of the titular black schoolboy Chiron (Alex Hibbert),  growing up in 80s inner city Miami, struggling with his confused sexuality, school bullying and a junkie nurse mother, Paula (ferociously played by Oscar nominee Naomie Harris), and taken under the wing of Juan (Oscar winner  Mahershala Ali), a drug dealer who becomes his surrogate father and who, in one painfully poignant moment, is asked to explain what a faggot is. At school, Chiron strikes up a tentative friendship with classmate Kevin (Jaden Piner), developing feelings that play out across the following two chapters.

Juan having passed away, part two, Chiron, finds the boy now a teenager (Ashton Sanders), still harassed by school bullies (here Terrel, played by Patrick Decile), still befriended by Kevin (Jharrel Jerome), who calls him Black,  and still calling on Juan’s girlfriend Teresea (Janelle Monae) when things get bad at home. He’s learned to hide his sexuality and developed a tough attitude,  but is still haunted by his uncertain identity, something that reinforces his position as an outcast. As the chapter moves to its conclusion, it shifts from the tender beach scene of the  first sexual contact  to Chiron exploding in anger at Terrel, who goaded Kevin into beating him up as part of a ‘game’, and being taken away by the cops.

The final chapter, Black, fast forwards ten years,  a bulked up Chiron (Trevante Rhodes)  now living in Atlanta and has followed Juan into pushing drugs. One night, he gets an out of the blue call from Kevin (Andre Holland), apologising for what happened and inviting  him to visit. Briefly stopping over to see his mother, now a burned out woman in a  rest home, wracked with guilt over the way she treated her son, he drives to Miami for a reunion, not quite knowing what he expects to happen, especially on finding Kevin a  married father, full of regret that life didn’t turn out as he anticipated.

The classroom incident aside, there’s no major dramas,  but rather a small scale, slow burn examination  of  identity, both as black and gay, of the effects of poverty and of masculinity and how it can become toxic in the face of destructive external influences and cultural pressures. Making effective use of soundtrack and imagery, Jenkins avoids both cliché and sentimentality, but never softens the blows in showing how the stigma of being gay in a macho black culture can lead to both devastating alienation and self-destructive violence. (Cineworld 5 Ways. Solihull;  Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza; Showcase Walsall; Tue/Wed Electric )

 

Patriots Day (15)

Mark Whalberg reteams up with Lone Survivor/Deepwater Horizon director, Peter Berg, for a third true  life drama, here about the events of April 15, 2013 when, towards the end of the  annual Boston Marathon, two bombs exploded in the crowds, killing three and wounding many others,  leading to a four day citywide manhunt for those responsible.

However, there’s nothing crassly jingoistic flag-waving here, simply a procedural thriller designed to honour those involved in the tragedy and seeking to protect their city.

Whalberg, as  fictionalised cop Tommy Saunders, is at the centre of the narrative, providing the audience’s eyes as things unfold. On duty just a few yards from the finishing line when the explosion occurs, he’s shocked, but swiftly swings into action  until the FBI, led by  Richard DesLauriers (Kevin Bacon), take over. But, although we get scenes of him with wife  (Michelle Monaghan), he’s only one of those in the spotlight as the film intercuts between different stories.

There’s the station Sergeant (JK Simmons) who’ll be at the heart of the eventual shoot-out, a newly married couple who’ll both lose their legs,  MIT campus cop Sean Collier (Jake Picking) who was killed when he refused to let the terrorists take his gun, and Dun Meng (Jimmy O. Yang), the young Chinese immigrant who was taken hostage when they hijacked his car, but risked his life to escape and call 911. All of whom get enough backstory to make them feel real rather than simply plot devices.

As the authorities desperately try and track down the bombers, DesLauriers is at loggerheads with the Police Commissioner (John Goodman) and governor (Michael Beach) about not releasing details of the suspects prematurely, Berg, using handheld cameras, grippingly captures the urgency of the situation.

It’s to the film’s credit too that the bombers, Chechen-born brothers Tamerlan (Themo Melikidze) and Jahar Tsarnaev (Alex Wolff), aren’t cardboard cut out bad guys either, as the screenplay addresses their relationship and motivations, perhaps the most memorable moment from this perspective being the  scene between Tamerlan’s imperturbable white  American Muslim convert wife Kathleen Russell (Melissa Benoist)  and her equally implacable female interrogator  (Khandi Alexander).

As it heads towards the foregone conclusion, the action cranks up as the net closes in, leading to the fire-fight between the brothers and the cops and the eventual apprehension of  the second suspect in backyard boat. But, as well as celebrating the everyday heroism, it also poses the question as to what’s justified in  the fight against terrorism when Tommy is taken aback to learn orders have been given not to read the suspects their rights if captured.

Tommy’s monologue about good and evil, love and hate, is a misstep in an otherwise level-headed  avoidance of simplifications, but, as its  ends by merging docudrama  with documentary  footage of Red Socks’ Boston Strong celebration and the actual cops and victims involved, it serves reminder that sometimes, like in Hacksaw Ridge, Hollywood heroism is actually the stuff of real life. (Vue Star City)

 

Sing (U)

Essentially an animal version of The X-Factor, Brit director Garth Jennings charts the well worn plot (last served in The Muppet Movie) of putting on a show to save the theatre. Here, the strapped impresario is a koala named Buster Moon (Matthew McConaughey) who’s  inherited his love of theatre, and the theatre itself, from his father,. However, times have changed and his productions have all been flops. He’s broke, the place has seen better days and his llama bank manager is looking to repossess the building.

So, he tells his wooly childhood chum Eddie (John C, Reilly) he’s going to mount a singing contest to pull in the crowds, pooling the last of his cash to offer a $1000 prize. Unfortunately, a slight mishap on the part of his doddery chameleon assistant Miss Crawly sees the posters printed up as $100,000 and spread all over town, inevitably attracting a whole host of hopeful contestants.

The auditions include a snail singing Ride Like The Wind and three butt shaking bunnies, but the final selection comes down to Johnny (Taron Egerton), the soulful-voiced gorilla son of a local criminal, Ash (Scarlett Johannson), the talented half of a porcupine punk duo, Mike (Seth MacFarlane), an arrogant egotistical sax-playing  mouse with a thing for Sinatra swing, the pairing of Teutonic hog Gunter (Nick Kroll) with Rosita (Reese Witherspoon), the  beleaguered mother of 25 piglets and Meena (Tori Kelly), an elephant with serious stage fright issues.

Things play out pretty much as you’d expect with the backstage and homelife stories, things all falling apart (quite literally when Buster introduces a squid light show complete with a water tank to impress Eddie’s retired diva granny, Nana, into bankrolling him), the revelation that the prize money’s non-existent and, of course, everyone coming together to put on the show anyway.

It’s not hugely original, but it is colourful and energetic, packed with a bundle of familiar pop hits, plenty of laughs, some emotional touches and two knockout scenes, one involving Rosalita dancing in a supermarket’s aisles to The Gipsy Kings’ Bamboleo and Meena’s showstopping rendition of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah while, as the young Nana, Jennifer Hudson also gets to deliver a stunning operatic version of Lennon and McCartney’s Carry That Weight.  It’s never climbs Zootopia or Secret Life of Pets heights, but it’s infinitely more fun than anything Simon Cowell’s put his name to in recent years.  (Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Split (15)

Having made a tentative return to form with The Visit,  writer-director M Night Shyamalan  finally gets his mojo back with this Dissociative Identity Disorder abduction thriller that also affords star James McAvoy one of the best performances of his career.

Wasting no time, the film opens with outsider teen Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy) and classmates  Claire (Haley Lu Richardson) and c Marcia (Jessica Sula) being chloroformed and abducted by a stranger who gets into the car.

They awake in a bunker-like room and a panicked Claire suggests that, whoever their kidnapper is, they attack him when he comes in. Casey, who was never part of the original plan,  is calmer and more reasoned, observing they should find out what’s happening first. Their kidnapper  reveals himself as Dennis (McAvoy), a stern, shaved head OCD control freak in black who informs them they are to be ‘sacred food’ for who or whatever is coming.

Shortly afterwards, they see a woman through the crack in the door and call out. She enters, but, to their shock, turns out to be Denis, or rather the matriarchal British  Patricia, just one of apparently 23 different personalities the inhabit the body of Kevin, one of whom, flamboyant fashion designer Barry, we see visiting Dr. Fletcher (Betty Buckley), the psychiatrist treating his/their case. Citing cases of  one personality not having the disability of another, she believes her study could lead to a breakthrough in understanding the potential of the human brain.

Meanwhile, back in the cell, the girls encounter another of Kevin’s personalities, Hedwig, a lisping nine-year-old who is not as easily manipulated as Casey believes him to be.

Escape attempts eventually lead to the three girls being locked in separate rooms, as Dennis announces that the time is coming when the Beast, a hitherto unseen 24th personality,  will come to claim then, turning things into a  race against the clock.

Punctuated with flashbacks to the young Casey’s abused childhood  and scenes with Fletcher dispensing exposition as she tries to work out why Barry is sending constant emails asking for  urgent help and who is the actual personality turning up for sessions purporting to be him.

Building a  genuinely gripping sense of claustrophobic tension, anticipation and dread as its cat and mouse game  heads towards the final confrontation, sometimes changing clothes, sometimes with just a facial expression, McAvoy brilliantly switches between personalities, often in the same line, making effective use of pauses  (and delivering a truly creepy dance routine to Kanye West), while Taylor-Joy subtly manages to hint at her own dark torments and the way she has learned to act and think in order to survive.

As ever, Shyamalan makes his usual cameo and, of course, delivers his trademark twists, one of which  delivers an audacious self-referencing moment that hints at a very intriguing prospect for the sequel.  (Vue Star City)

 

T2 Trainspotting (18)

For many Trainspotting was the defining film about 90s Britain. Now, 21 years later, the original team, minus Kevin McKidd (but to whom homage is paid) return for the sequel, adapted from Irvine Welsh’s Porno. Returning from Amsterdam, where he’s been living for the 20 years since running off with the money he and his mates stole, Mark Renton (Ewan McGregor) first hooks up with Spud (Ewan Bremner), who’s back on heroin after his life and marriage fell apart, just in time to save him from suicide.  Next on the reunion list is Simon, Sick Boy, who’s running a sex tape blackmail scam with his Bulgarian girlfriend Veronika (Anjela Nedyalkova). He’s rather less pleased to see Mark, but decides to pretend to be friends so he can stitch him up like he did to them. This entails enlisiting him to raise the money to transform the run down pub he’s inherited into a brothel, with Veronika as the madam. Meanwhile, Begbie (Robert Carlyle), as much as a hard man psycho has ever, engineers an escape from prison and sets about resuming his life of crime, roping son Frank in as reluctant accomplice. Although Simon keeps Mark’s return from him, the pair eventually bump into one another (in a very funny scene involving adjacent toilet cubicles), fuelling Begbie’s determination to get kill him.

With none of the four’s lives having amounted to anything in the past two decades, basing the narrative on  the mantra ‘first comes opportunity, then comes betrayal’, that’s pretty much it for the plot.  Mark and Sick Boy enlist Spud’s help in redesigning and refurbishing the pub while he himself comes off the scank and, encouraged by Veronika (with whom, naturally, Mark has sex) starts writing down stories about their past misadventures (essentially an excuse to revisit the original, both verbally and in flashbacks).

A run in with the law facilitates a contrived cameo from Kelly Macdonald as Diane Coulston, now a lawyer, as well as fleeting moments from James Cosmo as Mark’s dad and Shirley Henderson as Gail, now Spud’s estranged wife, but otherwise,  as before it’s the dynamic between the four central characters that drives things along.

At one point Sick Boy accuses Mark of wallowing in nostalgia rather than moving on, and, to an extent, the same could be leveled at the film which looks to recreate the feel of the original with its hyperkinetic camerawork, trippy sequences and constant throbbing soundtrack. Some things work, others don’t. The plot isn’t especially inspired, so the film relies on the characters and the themes of friendship, self-interest and betrayal, but, while more melancholic this time around, it doesn’t have anything new to add to the original, history repeating itself in the final turn of events.

There’s a very funny vein of often dark humour and, rather like playing out the greatest hits, an updated revisiting of Renton’s Choose Life monologue where the film identifies mobile phones and social networking as the new heroin. As indeed is nostalgia, effectively using it to illustrate the danger of  how, in trying to relive the past, we end up running to stand still. Which, to some extent, rather sums up the film itself.  (Vue Star City; Sun/Tue: Electric)

 

Vicerory’s House (12A)

Anxious to divest itself a troublesome part of the Empire it could no longer effectively or economically rule, in 1947  the British government stitched up the Indian people by partitioning the country into India and Pakistan. The film, a strong comeback by director Gurinda Chadha and her writer-husband Paul Mayeda Berges after the misfiring It’s A Wonderful Afterlife  and Mistress of Spices, indicates (though some would disagree) that  it also stitched up Lord Mountbatten (Hugh Bonneville), who was charged with finding a solution and overseeing the handover, unaware that a deal had already been done with Nehru by Churchill  for the creation of Pakistan.

Arriving with his wife, Lady Edwina (a perfectly accented Gillian Anderson), Lord Louis Mountbatten is to be the last Viceroy of India, his job to smooth the path to independence and self-governance, not an easy task given the  country’s in turmoil with increasing conflict between Hindus. Sikhs and Muslims, the latter wanting their own nation. As such the film follows two parallel stories. The first focuses on the Mountbattens, she the voice of reason  keen to see the people’s lot improved, he looking to maintain diplomacy while dealing with his own officials, notably Hastings ‘Pug’ Ismay (Michael Gambon), who aren’t necessarily telling him everything, and the prime movers for independence, Nehru (Tanveer Ghani),  Jinnah (Denzil Smith) and Ghandi (a brief but striking turn by Neeraj Kabi), as well as Cyril Radcliffe (Simon Callow), the man brought in for the nigh impossible task of drawing up the actual Partition boundaries that would divide not only the country, but families and communities.

In much the same manner as the recent United Kingdom, set in the same year, all of this affords an insight into the duplicitous nature of English politics and the motives behind the way the Partition was eventually set, while, set against this, is the fictional account of  two civilians,  Jeet (Manish Dayal) and Aalia (Huma Querishi), he part of the Viceroy’s retinue, she part of his wife’s. They are in love, but he’s Hindu and she’s Muslim and has already been promised in marriage by her father (the late Om Puri), a former political prisoner who went blind, but was looked after in jail by Jeet.

Their story is a rather schematic and clichéd contrivance designed to serve the narratyive microcosm  and, for all its romantic tribulations and some anguished moments, is less compelling than the account of the problems facing Mountbatten in trying to prevent the whole place descending into ever more ferocious bloodshed than it’s experiencing already.

Nonetheless, impressively mounted with some striking images and good use of original Movietone news footage, it holds the attention and casts light on a now rather overlooked period of British history, the end credits revelation of Chadha’s personal family investment in the telling bringing powerful resonance.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

 

 

CINEMAS

Cineworld 5 Ways – 181 Broad St, 0871 200 2000

Cineworld NEC – NEC  0871 200 2000

Cineworld Solihull – Mill Ln, Solihull 0871 200 2000

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

Empire – Great Park, Rubery, 0871 471 4714

Empire Sutton 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 – 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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