MOVIE ROUND-UP:This Week’s New Film Releases, Fri Mar 29-Thu Apr 4

NEW RELEASES

Dumbo (PG)

Disney’s short but bittersweet fable of the baby elephant whose oversized ears enable him to fly is the latest to get the live action remake treatment, here under the auspices of director Tim Burton. Unfortunately, it’s as drab as it looks onscreen, ponderous and devoid of anything resembling the vibrant colour of the 1941 animation. In the original, it wasn’t until the final moments that Dumbo actually flew, a moment of wonderment, here it happens early on, rendering the subsequent flying scenes increasingly less magical despite the best attempts to build tension.

Set shortly after the end of WWI, Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell) returns from the front minus an arm, his wife having died in his absence, to rejoin his two children, science-obsessed Milly (Nico Parker, looking exactly like a young version of  mother Thadie Newton), who has her own mini mouse circus in a nod to Dumbo’s talking rodent best friend), and the younger Joe ( Finley Hobbins), and the circus where he was the star trick horse riding attraction.

However, the circus, run by Max Medici (Danny De Vito) has hit hard times, several acts having succumbed to influenza, and audiences dwindling. Medici has staked his fortunes on buying a pregnant elephant, looking to make her baby a draw. To Max’s consternation, Baby Jumbo turns out to be a freak with large flappy ears and Holt is consigned to caring for the them and working the new arrival up as a clown act. When a cruel circus hand causes Mrs Jumbo to cause mayhem and is killed in the process, she’s sold back to her original owner, sending the baby into depression. In attempting to cheer him up,  a stray feather reveals to the kids that the ears enable him to fly, and next thing you know, Dumbo earning his name when a stunt misfires,  the crowds are pouring in.

It also attracts the attention of V.A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton), a circus cum theme park entrepreneur with big ambitions who turns up along with his trophy French (though wouldn’t know it) girlfriend aerial act Collette (Eva Green,), makes Max a partner and ships the entire caboodle off to his Dreamland in New York where he envisions making a fortune by teaming pachyderm and girlfriend as a flying double act.

Needless to say, a calculating heartless exploiter, his promises to Max about his own troupe prove worthless and, discovering Mrs Jumbo is part of his wild beast attraction, Holt and the kids plot to free her and reunite mother and son, resulting in a moderately exciting climax as chaos erupts in the park.

Stuffed with familiar Disney tropes about family, faith in yourself and how being different doesn’t made you a freak, it plays the emotional scales by rote without ever striking and resonant notes, although the scene of Dumbo looking scared in his clown makeup on a circus platform might prompt a slight twinge in the heart while, laudably chiming with animal rights, the coda has Medici declaring how the circus should never have animal acts kept in cages, the message reinforced by a final sequence of Dumbo and his mom rejoining the herd in the wilds of Asia. With big sad blue eyes, the digital Dumbo is impressively rendered, the human cast less so. Keaton hams it up like a pantomime villain, DeVito hobbles the gamut from bluster to befuddled, Green lacks any spark (as does the lacklustre blossoming romance) and Farrell simply walks through the role of the dad who doesn’t know how to respond to his kids (they being at least a  breath of fresh air to proceedings), while the circus motley crew support cast is populated by amiable but one-dimensional characters like a kindly snake charmer (Roshan Seth) and the fat lady mermaid (Sharon Rooney),who gets to strum her ukulele and sing the original film’s memorable, tender song Baby Mine.  Burton also slips in a reference to When I See An Elephant Fly and does a good job of recreating the surreal Pink Elephants on Parade using shape-shifting soap bubbles, but they never feel more than knowing nods.

Although Dreamland’s science exhibit has some amusing visions of the future of technology, not to mention transgendering, while there are some individual moments of spectacle, such as the parade into Dreamland, given Burton’s past work, imagination is generally as thin on the ground here as is unforced emotion.  You might believe an elephant can fly, but the film never does. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Eaten By Lions (12A)

 

Half-brothers, when their parents were eaten by lions on a safari holiday, shy charmer Omar (Antonio Askeel) and sly humoured cerebral palsy sufferer Pete (Jack Carroll) were taken in by their gran. However, now that she too has passed, they’re faced with having to live with their racist domineering aunt and submissive uncle (Vicki Pepperdine, Kevin Eldon), Omar being forced to sleep in the closet under the stairs. So, when the couple declare they intend to adopt Pete, but not Omar, because he’s not really proper family, the latter decides to leave Bradford and go in search of his biological father, one Malik Chaudhry (Nitin Ganatra). Not, as Pete hopes, in India, but rather Blackpool.

Arriving at the seaside resort, presumably off-season given how empty it is, losing all their belongings when the tide comes in, they get to stay in a dodgy B&B (with no door to their room) run by the no less dodgy Ray (Johnny Vegas, less annoying than usual), who also kits them out with some naff clothing left behind my previous guests, the cross-dressing gay uncle of Amy (Sarah Hoare), the mouthy pink-haired teen who works at Sea Planet and takes a shine to Omar. Given Malik’s address by a tacky camp fortune teller (a funny Tom Binns), they set off to confront Omar’s dad, one of a wealthy local Pakistani clan who, along with other guests, have all assembled for his eldest daughter’s wedding (“it’s a bit like Gremlins isn’t it, Ramadan, similar rules”, remarks Pete), and who, rather inevitably denies parentage.

Suffice to say, there’s an amusing – and ultimately touching – twist involving his jack-the-lad brother Irfan (Asim Chaudhry), who runs a seedy seafront gift shop (providing a great gag with a pen with a picture of a scantily clad woman which, when turned upside down, reveals her clad in a burka) and gifts the brothers with fake Rolexes.

Written and directed by Jason Wingard, the comedy of misadventures unfolds on a raft of one-liners and emotional swings along with Britcom moments involving a yellow Rolls Royce, the pride and joy of the family patriarch (Darshan Jariwala), that sits languishing in the garage and Malik’s younger daughter Parveen (Natalie Davies), who pretends to be mute and take a sexually predatory interest in Pete.

Never attaining the heights of East is East, the template for such multi-cultural comedies, there’s no riotously funny moments and it’s all a bit predictable, but it rolls along with an undeniable charm and there’s a warm heart to the bond between the brothers, Askeel an affable low-key presence while Carroll gets the bulk of the best lines as the cynical, quizzical and sarcastic Pete who unexpectedly finds himself out of his league when he meets Parveen. A minor treat, but a treat nonetheless. (Cineworld NEC; Empire Great Park; Vue Star City)

 

Everybody Knows (15)

A Spanish-language thriller by Iranian writer-director Asghar Farhadi, this stars Penelope Cruz as Laura who arrives with her two kids, rebellious teenage daughter Irene (Carla Campra) and young son Diego (Iván Chavero), from Argentina for a family wedding, her husband Alejandro (Ricardo Darín) reportedly staying at home for business reasons. Her return also brings her back in touch with Paco (Javier Bardem), a local wine grower who, as local admirer Felipe tells Irene during a tryst, that it’s an open secret that he was once her sweetheart and, as we later learn, bought the vineyard off her to help out with some financial issues, although the family, and especially her coarse, aged father (Ramón Barea), still harbour resentment over the price he paid.

It’s an issue that bubbles to the surface when, the night of the wedding celebrations, Irene disappears from her bedroom and Laura receives a text saying she’s been kidnapped, and not to tell the police or she’ll be killed, her bed strewn with newspaper clippings about a past incident in the area that ended badly. Intriguingly, Paco’s wife Bea (Bárbara Lennie) gets the same texts as Laura. With no access to funds to pay the ransom demand, the only person who could possibly help is Paco who first suggests he spread the word that he’s willing to sell his share in the vineyard to stall for time, and then does exactly that, even though it will likely destroy him and his marriage.

In Christie and Hitchcock fashion, Farhadi’s screenplay hints at any number of possible suspects, the vineyard workers fearing for their jobs, Paco out of revenge for being jilted (a dramatic, though not surprising, revelation surfacing in the second act), Irene as a prank, or even Laura herself given that, we subsequently discover, Alejandro, who eventually turns up declaring he’ll put his trust in God, is a bankrupt, unemployed former alcoholic. Of course, veterans of the genre will know that narrative misdirection inevitably plays a key part in the real culprits.

Exploring the ramification of past events on present circumstances (cue a cracked clock face in the village church tower), although but the script keeps the tension taut up to the almost throwaway reveal, the film’s less concerned with the kidnapping, essentially a plot McGuffin, and more about festering family secrets with their simmering conflicts and resentments. The chemistry between them crackling, the performances may be sometimes a little showy, but, although Darín too has a compelling confessional moment, Cruz and Barden dominate the screen, keeping you absorbed in their entangled fates even as the kidnapping drama itself ends on a limp note. (MAC)

Lords Of Chaos (18)

Back in 1984, Mayhem became the controversial pioneers of Norway’s black metal scene, one which, associated with Satanic worship, spawned a string of church burnings and saw one of their singers commit suicide and a former member murder one of the band.  Adapting the biography of the same name, Swedish director Jonas Åkerlund, who has a long history of music videos and founded black metal outfit Bathory, takes a gallows humour black absurdist comedy approach that doesn’t shrink from the dark, nihilistic aspects but which does have considerably more laughs (the bands’ actual answerphone message was “We can’t come to the phone right now because we’re too busy sacrificing children”) than you might expect.

It stars and is narrated by Rory Culkin who brilliantly plays Oystein Aarseth, the band’s founder who originally called himself Destructor before settling on Euronymous, recruiting the unhinged Per Yngve Ohlin (Jack Kilmer), who called himself Dead, worse corpse makeup and would frequently cut himself during gigs, as their vocalist, only for him to commit suicide by blowing his brains out in 1991, leaving behind a note saying “Excuse all the blood, cheers.” Aarseth immediately took photos of the body, one of which later ended up on the cover of a bootleg album.

Dead was replaced by Hungarian singer Attila Csihar while Aarseth also recruited bassist Varg Vikernes (a mesmerisingly unsettling Emory Cohen) on bass, a troubled neo-Nazi sympathiser who took the band into even more extreme territory than Aarseth who, the son of a middle-class family, was all theatrical front and pose rebellion rather than the real thing (he shut his shop when his parents complained), could handle. An argument between the two at Euronymous’s Oslo apartment in 1993 ended in Vang murdering him, allegedly stabbing him twenty-three times, and being subsequently imprisoned for murder and church arson.

Regardless of your feelings about the music and the death metal scene, this is considerably more fun than any film featuring severed pig heads, hung cats and hate-fuelled church burnings deserves to be. (Cineworld 5 Ways; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Out of Blue (15)

Subject to some incredibly scathing reviews, British director Carol Morley’s police procedural follow up to the no less enigmatic The Falling may be overambitious not to say often baffling in its pursuit of existentialism and cosmic significance (references to quantum physics thought experiment Schrodinger’s Cat abound) and flirting with magic realism but it’s never boring.

Adapted from Martin Amis novel Night Train and influenced by Nic Roeg (whose son produces), set in New Orleans it stars Patricia Clarkson as Mike Hoolihan, an on the wagon alcoholic looking to solve the death of retro-obsessive Jennifer Rockwell (Mamie Gummer), an astronomy professor and black holes expert at the local observatory who’s been found dead beside the telescope, the front of her face blown off.  Suspects involve her science lecturer boyfriend Duncan Reynolds (Jonathan Majors), whose sock is found at the scene, and fellow astrophysicist and observer manager Ian Strammi (Toby Jones) who has a swollen jaw.

However, when Hoolihan realises this was suicide not murder, it switches from whodunit to whydunit, a mystery that pokes around dark family secrets involving her sinister Vietnam war hero father (James Caan) who walks with a cane, her oddball mother (Jackie Weaver) and obstructive brothers Walt and Bray, who run the family electronics company, neither of whom seem especially torn up about her death. Has this all got something to with the unsolved case of the .38 calibre killer to which it has many similarities, not least the appearance of the victim?

With Gummer spouting lines like “We are all stardust” to her students on the eve of her death, constant verbal and visual references to masks, Devyn A. Tyler as a fellow alcoholic TV reporter, Stella Honey, who seems to be constantly popping up and is responsible for  giving Mike a crucial file and Hoolihan’s assorted visions/hallucinations, it essentially deals with repressed memory all of which falls into place in the final moments as the clues dotted around the flashbacks and flashforwards finally cohere, albeit in a melodramatic collision. At the end of the day, it’s somewhat messy and abstract, but, atmospheric to a fault, it holds your attention and interest and Clarkson, who at one point drunkenly joins the dancers onstage at a strip club, is mesmerising. It may test your patience, but it also rewards it.  (Cineworld 5 Ways)

Piercing (18)

Any film based on a novel byRyû Murakami, the author of Audition, is going to be challenging viewing with its S&M and extreme psychosexual themes. And, directed by Nicolas Pesce, this two-handed chamber drama certainly lives up to anticipations. Resisting the urge to stab his new baby with an ice pick, instead (imaging the kid is giving him instructions) closet psychopath Reed (Christopher Abbott) decides to satisfy his urges by killing a prostitute. Making meticulous notes in his diary, telling his wife (Laia Costa) that he’s going on a business trip, he rents a hotel room and orders up a call girl. While waiting for her, he wipes away his fingerprints and rehearses his moves, from greeting her, making small talk, pouncing and chloroforming her to dragging her imaginary body into the bathroom and dismembering her, all mimed with grisly sound effects.

However, things don’t go according to plan, the original girl being unavailable and Jackie (Mia Wasikowska) turning up in her place, a bob-cut blonde with her own kinky abuse predilections who, before he can do anything, takes herself off into the bathroom and starts stabbing her leg. Staunching the wound, he takes her to hospital and the film proceeds to play out a back and forth power game as each in turn takes the upper hand in this twisted traumas relationship while a sleazy sax wails in the background. Does Jackie want to die or is she playing a game of her own? Is Reed’s wife in on the plan, as is suggested by a phone call he makes to ask for advice, or is that just in his head?

Clearly sporting the influence of Italian horror in general and Dario Argento in particular, largely set in the confines of either his room or her apartment, it’s all extremely stylised, from the visual aesthetic to the performances, playing out a black comedy of psychosexual perversion that makes 50 Shades of Grey look like a missionary position handbook. It doesn’t fully work, a third act flashback to Reed’s violent past too cursory and Jackie’s backstory left unexplored, but, Wasikowska an enigmatic, unsettling blank who may or may not be psychopathically needy and whose mental processes remain unfathomable, and Reed a weak neurotic man increasingly confused about what’s going on as his attempts to exercise power over the helpless are upended and he gets a taste for being dominated, the meticulously choreographed performances keep you transfixed as it builds to its final punchline. (Sat-Thu:MAC)

 

 

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Of Love and Law (15)         

Together for 15 years, two openly gay lawyers run a law firm in downtown Osaka in country where their partnership has no legal recognition. Gaining acceptance hasn’t always been easy, but the pair aren’t afraid to champion civil liberties despite the odds stacked against them. The cases that they take on in this documentary tell an illuminating, sometimes shattering story about a country where departures from often restrictive norms can lead to prosecution by law and alienation from society at large. (Mon/Tue:MAC)

 

The White Crow (12A)

The third film to be directed by Ralph Fiennes, this meticulous if somewhat dry affair tells of how the legendary and intensely egotistical ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev, born on a train in 1938, rose to fame and came to defect from the Soviet Union in 1961. Visiting the West for the first time with the Kirov Ballet, after not being allowed to dance on the opening night as punishment for disobedience, when the company arrived at Le Bourget Airport in Paris, the 23-year-old star refused orders from his Soviet minders to get on the plane home. Former dancer turned first-time actor, Oleg Ivenko wears Nureyev’s skin with ease while Fiennes takes on the role of his mentor, Alexander Pushkin, ballet master of the Vaganova Academy of Russian Ballet, and whose wife took an even greater interest in the young prodigy. Framing Nureyev’s childhood in black and white, the film, written by David Hare, is soaked in the paranoia and conspiracy of the Cold War period even if the narrative is often too extended rather than focusing on the core drama.

The title, as he tells sulky socialite Clara Saint (Adele Exarchopoulos) as they frolic around Paris, refers to his childhood nickname, a term for an outsider, prompting several flashbacks to his formative years in Ufa and Moscow and early signs of defiance of authority which tend to hinder rather than enhance the film’s momentum. (Electric; Empire Great Park)

 

NOW SHOWING

The Aftermath (15)

Following on from WWI in Testament of Youth, director James Kent now immerses himself in post-WWII Hamburg, one of the most bombed German cities in the war, as the occupying British forces oversee the clean-up. However, adapted from Rhidian Brook’s 2013 novel, this has little to do with political or social issues regarding the victors and the defeated, but, rather, is a soapy eternal triangle melodrama with echoes of Brief Encounter.

Rachael Morgan (Kiera Knightley) arrives from England to join her husband,  CaptainLewis Morgan (Jason Clarke)  who’s in charge of the rebuilding effort, taking up residence in a palatial house requisitioned from  architect Stefan Lubert (Skarsgård) and his daughter Freda (Flora Li Thiemann). It’s quickly established that Rachael and Stevan respectively lost a young son and a wife to the war, and, given that there’s tensions in her marriage, its patently obvious that her initial Germanphobic frostiness to  Stefan, a confirmed anti-Nazi, will turn into an adulterous passion to fill the emptiness she feels.

Indeed, save for an undeveloped subplot in which emotionally confused Freda gets involved with a young Nazi guerrilla (Jannik Schümann), that’s pretty much the entire narrative, the pair consummating their attraction in tasteful soft focus when Lewis is called away to the Russian sector and she resolving to run away with him once he gets his papers, the film building to an emotional climax of sorts involving the repressed grief both she and her tightly wound husband feel over their son’s death in a bombing raid and its fall out on the marriage.

The destruction of Hamburg is well-reconstructed and there’s a brief moment when two entwined charred bodies are discovered that serves to contrast the lack of empathy by the average British soldier with the liberal compassion shown by Morgan, mocked by his intelligence officer colleague  Burnham (Martin Compston), when he allows the Luberts to stay on rather than evicting them to a  camp. There’s also some emotional bonding business involving the family’s Steinway.

There is, however, very little by way of emotional layering, the situations are contrived  and the characters no more than what you see on the screen, and, while Knightley again sobs to dramatic effect, the performances are all a little stiff upper lip and the whole romantic notion of starting again from scratch never gets beyond the drawing board.

Those nostalgic for 40s sentimental romances might find something to appreciate amid the earnest looks and emotional syrup, ladled on with a glaringly obvious soundtrack, before the weepie trainside finale, but, rather than an impassioned aftermath, this just feels like reheated leftovers. (Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe)

Bohemian Rhapsody (12A)

“Is this the real life? was the question Freddie Mercury famously posed at the start of  Queen’s iconic six-minute hit Bohemian Rhapsody. For the film that takes its title, the answer is both yes and no.  With a troubled history that initially cast Sacha Baron Cohen as Mercury and which saw original director Dexter Fletcher replaced by Bryan Singer who was, in turn, replaced by Fletcher mid-way through the film (but who still has the directing credit with no mention of Fletcher), this would very much like to delve into the darker side of Mercury’s life, exploring his insecurities and his much reported/rumoured debauched lifestyle of excess in terms of his drugs usage, homosexual promiscuity and penchant for the more extreme aspects of gay leather clubs. However, it also wants to be a family friendly celebration of the music he made and Queen, the band he shared with Brian May, Roger Taylor and John Deacon. And you can’t have both, especially not when two of the band are producers. Not that it doesn’t try.

With Rami Malek delivering a career-defining performance that he’s unlikely to ever outdo, or at least escape, as Freddie, complete with an authentic recreation of his distinctive overbite, it opens with the prelude to Queen’s legendary performance as last minute addition to Live Aid, before flashing back to the then Farrokh Bulsara working as a Heathrow baggage handler, subjected to racist abuse as a Paki, despite being born in Zanzibar, living at home with his conservative Parsi parents (Ace Bhatti, Meneka Das) and younger sister Kashmira, who offers his services to Smile, the band he’s just seen play, whose lead singer has just quit. Next thing you know, he, May (Gwilym Lee), Taylor (Ben Hardy) and new bassist Deacon (a delightfully droll Joseph Mazzelo as the frequent butt of Mercury’s affectionate sarcasm) are working up Seven Seas of Rhye, being signed by Elton John’s manager John Reid (Aiden Gillen) and landing a  deal with EMI, headed up by label boss Ray Foster (a mercifully unrecognisable Mike Myers in a Wayne’s World in joke), which sees Killer Queen hitting #2 in the charts.

It then dutifully charts their ascendency, offering background insights into how various songs came into being (including  a running joke about Taylor’s I’m In Love With My Car). Most notably the creation of We Will Rock You to give audience something to join in with after experiencing the mass crowd singalong to Love Of My Life and, naturally, Bohemian Rhapsody itself with its pioneering marriage of opera and rock, serving reminder that EMI baulked at the idea of releasing it and the reviews at the time all castigated, Mercury engineering its first airplay on Capital Radio through his (here only briefly alluded to) relationship with Kenny Everett.

Alongside all this standard pop biopic formula (falling out with manager, band disagreements, solo career enticements, etc.), the screenplay by The Theory of Everything writer Anthony McCarten looks to offer a parallel story of Freddie’s personal life, in particular his lifelong love for and friendship with Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton), the woman he referred to as his common-law wife, their relationship falling apart has he began to realise and explore his sexuality with any number of gay partners. It’s when the film moves into edgier territory even, if never in great depth, that it becomes more interesting and, ultimately, far more emotionally moving as Mercury, now sporting his Village People moustache, learns he has AIDS and begins his relationship with Jim Hutton (Aaron McCusker), who would be his partner for the six years leading up to his death.

Support turns by Tom Hollander as Jim ‘Miami” Beach, Queen’s third manager, and Allen Leach as Freddie’s personal gay Irish Catholic manager Paul Prentner, who blocked contact with Mary, never passed on details about Live Aid and, after being fired, essentially outed him on live television, are strong, while Dermot Murphy makes a decent job in his brief, appearances as Bob Geldof though it’s unlikely anyone will register Matthew Houston as U2’s Larry Mullen while, although Under Pressure is heard, any scenes involving Max Bennett’s Bowie clearly were lost in the editing.

However, it is in the recreation of the music and the interaction between the band that the film is at its strongest. It’s not just Malek, the casting of Lee, Hardy and Mazzello is equally inspired, the actors superbly embodying their real-life counterparts (Taylor presumably having no problems with being portrayed as the inveterate womaniser) and, while they may be lip-synching and miming the performances, there are times when these are so brilliantly recreated that you could be mistaken in thinking you’re watching the real thing.

It is, though, Malek who is the blazing heart of the film, capturing both Freddie’s onstage and offstage bravura performance of the character he created as well digging into his internal conflicting emotions, often conveyed with just a look in the eyes, at times disarmingly sweet, funny and charming, at others poisonously selfish and cruel.

It ends as it began at Live Aid, recapturing those event-stealing twenty minutes and, in hindsight, the poignancy of the lyrics Mercury chose to sing (even if, historically, he wasn’t diagnosed until two years after, the same year as his solo debut, an inconvenience that the screenplay ignores for dramatic effect and a band hug moment) and, while it may skip over large chunks of both Mercury and the band’s story and tiptoe politely through others, what it tells it tells in broad and hugely enjoyable strokes. Which pretty much sums up Freddie Mercury the showman which, at the end of the day, is what the film is all about.  And it will rock you. (Empire Great Park)

Captain Marvel (12A)

With a new titles sequence that pays homage to Stan Lee, following on from Black Panther,  this now flies the feminist flag and introduces the first female superhero to the cinematic Marvel Universe in the form of Vers (Brie Larson), a Kree warrior engaged in her planet’s ongoing war with the shape-changing lizard-like Skrulls and their quest for galactic domination.

When first introduced into the comics, Marvel was a male, Kree soldier Marv-Vell, the character later shifting to become Carol Danvers, a USAF pilot who absorbed his powers. To some extent, this adaptation, co-directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, both of whom are also involved in the screenplay, hews closely to the comic version, except there’s a significant twist to both the nature of the Skrulls and the Mar-Vell character, along with how Danvers acquired her powers.

All she knows is that she’s Vers (pronounced verse) an elite Kree soldier, mentored by her tetchy superior officer, Yon-Rogg (Jude Law), and that she’s been given photon blast powers which glow red and shoot from her hands. But she’s troubled by memories of her younger self that she can’t place and also a military scientist called Wendy Lawson (Annette Bening) who turns up in dreams of both a plane and a shoot-out and whom, unfathomably, is also the shape taken by her visualisation of the Kree Supreme Intelligence, which manifests as someone important to you. As such, the film pivots around her search to find her true identity, the notion that things and people are not always what or who they appear paramount to the plot mechanics.

The events take place back in 1995, long before the arrival of other super powered beings, as Vers finds herself marooned on Earth after an encounter with the Skrulls and seeking to reconnect with her Starforce squad (which includes Djimon Hounsou’s sword-wielding Korath, previously seen, along with Lee Pace’s Ronan The Accuser, in Guardians of the Galaxy), but not before eliminating the Skrulls who, led by Talos (Ben Mendelsohn), have also infiltrated the planet.

As such there’s several jokes about Earth’s backwards technology (pagers, poor internet, etc) compared with that of the Kree, while Vers’ explosive arrival (through the roof of a Blockbuster video store) attracts the attention of S.H.I.E.L.D in the form of a younger and still two-eyed Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) as well as rookie recruit Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg). Vividly convinced of the existence of aliens, Fury joins forces with Vers who explains she has to locate Lawson’s secret lab and destroy the plans for a lightspeed engine before the Skrulls can get to it. All of which reconnects her with Danvers’ former fellow test pilot and single mom best friend, Maria (Lashana Lynch), and her smart kid daughter Monica (Akira Akbar), both of whom believed her to have died in the crash that killed Lawson. Monica’s also responsible for the transformation of Vers’ Kree uniform into her iconic red and blue get-up. Oh yes. And there’s also a cat called Goose to which Fury takes a liking and which fits right in with the central theme.

While serving to provide a back story to the Tesseract and the Avengers Initiative, the end credits linking it to the upcoming Avengers: Endgame, this is very much focused on Vers’ search to find out who she is and what lies she’s been fed. As such, in true Marvel fashion, the film balances potent character development and emotional core with the dynamic action sequences (one of which is soundtracked by No Doubt’s Just A Girl to reinforce the female empowerment point) and special effects, misdirecting you as to who may or may not be the villains of the piece.

Cool and composed, Larson, all fire (literally at one point), swagger and snappy repartee, is mesmerising in her character’s arc, even eclipsing Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman  for screen charisma, while Bening, Law, Jackson, Lynch and Mendelsohn (who also gets to play Fury’s boss  when Talos takes his shape) all provide robust and commanding support. In the midst of taking on innumerable foes, Marvel’s eyes flash and she breaks out into a big grin and shouts ‘Yeah’. Chances are you’ll feel like doing the same thing.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Mockingbird; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Cold Pursuit (15)

A remake of the Scandinavian comic-thriller In Order of Disappearance by its director Hans Petter Moland, this affords Liam Neeson a chance to put a gallows humour spin on his familiar dad seeking revenge for harm done to his family. Here, he’s Nels Coxman, the surname cause for several obvious gags, who, as the film opens, is seen receiving Citizen of the Year for his work as a snow plough driver keeping the road passable in the remote an decidedly chilly town of Kehoe, Colorado. Celebrations are short lived when a cop arrives and  (in a mordantly funny scene in the morgue) he discovers his son, Kyle (Neeson’s real life son Micheál Richardson) is dead from a heroin overdose.  Devastated, following the funeral, his wife (Laura Dern) takes off, never to be seen again, and he’s about to commit suicide when  a bloodied youth (Wesley MacInnes) emerges from hiding in his workshop and reveals how he and his son worked together as baggage handlers at the airport and helped smuggle in cocaine shipments for a slick, trigger-happy Denver cartel boss  with a  Vegan obsession known as Viking (Tom Bateman) who lives in Modernist splendour in the mountains. However, when they ripped him off, retribution was duly meted out. So, naturally, Nels, his body disposal skills learned from crime novels, sets out for revenge, working his way up through assorted lackeys, all of whom have (as Neeson remarks) equally colourful nicknames, until he gets to the top of the food chain.

In the process, he also manages to spark a syndicate war between Viking and White Bull (Tom Jackson), who, as well as running an antiquities business, heads up a Native American cabal  and who, when his son is brutally murdered by mistake and hung ona local roadsign, vows to have an eye for an eye, or rather a son for a son, namely Ryan (Nicholas Holmes), the  young boy with whom Viking shares custody  with his ex (Julia Jones) and who, in a  neat twist, will end up bonding (Stockholm Syndrome style, as he knowingly observes) with Nels.

As the bloody body count piles up, each death being marked by a title card that includes their name and nickname, two bantering local cops, seen it all veteran ‘Gip’ (John Doman) and his new wide-eyed and eager partner Dash (Emmy Rossum) serve as a sort of Greek chorus. The script also puts a spin on the usual anonymous henchmen, two of Viking’s long suffering goons being secret gay lovers and White Bull’s crew engaging in a  snowball fight before  the climactic carnage. One hired gun even meets their end in a Fargo-referencing joke (the Coens being obvious influences) involving paragliding.

There’s a serious subtext about father-son legacies, corporate greed and cultural appropriation, but, opening with a wry quote from Oscar Wilde, mostly this is about bloody killings, dry quips and Neeson giving a self-aware performance that knowingly winks at his Taken persona. All that and a deflatory moment featuring  Aqua’s Barbie Girl. (Vue Star City)

Fighting With My Family (12A)

While Dwayne Johnson may loom large in the posters, don’t go along expecting him to be the star. Cameoing in his former persona as WWE wrestler The Rock as well as producing, he appears in just three scenes. It’s not his film and it’s not his story. Both belong to Florence Pugh, continuing her  stellar big screen ascendancy  as Saraya-Jade Bevis, the daughter of a working class Norwich wrestling family who, at 13, made her debut in the ring in 2005 as Britani Knight. Her parents, ex-jailbird ‘Rowdy’ Ricky Knight (Nick Frost) and former homeless junkie Julia (Lena Headey), aka Sweet Saraya Knight,  ran the World Association of Wrestling, a name rather more impressive than its low rent reality. She also had two brothers, both wrestlers, the eldest Roy (Stephen Burrows) and Zak ‘Zodiak’ (Jack Lowden), the former serving time for drink-driving in the period the film covers and the latter coaching local young aspirant grapplers (including a blind kid who went on to become a professional wrestler).

Based on a 2012 documentary, it’s written by Stephen Merchant who, aside from making his directorial debut, also appears as Zak’s more refined future father-in-law (the meet the in-laws dinner is hilarious), and cheerfully ticks all of the underdog sports movie boxes as ‘Britani’and Zak are invited to try out for the WWE in London, where Johnson makes his first amusing appearance. Raya’s the only one of the hopefuls selected by the tough love coach, Hutch Morgan (Vince Vaughn playing Mickey to her Rocky),  to proceed to the next stage in Florida, she following her dreams while Zak is left behind to stew in wounded pride and resentment with his motley students, girlfriend and new baby.

Adopting the ring name Paige after her favourite character in the TV series Charmed, the goth-like Saraya stands out like sore thumb among the curvy ex-model blondes and cheerleaders who are her fellow WWE candidates, and, as such, the narrative arc is very much about her discovering who she is, just as, back in Norwich, Zak has to come to terms with his life post-rejection, the film also placing great emphasis on the supportive bonds of family.

Condensing the story of Paige’s journey to become the WWE’s youngest Divas Champion, Merchant charts a predictable course, but does so with such crowd-pleasing heart and humour that the film is consistently hugely entertaining, perfectly balancing laughs and lump-in-throat poignancy, Johnson cheerfully sending himself up while Pugh (and her sparky back and forth with Vaughn in one of his better turns) lights up the screen with her mix of determination and insecurity. In reality, Johnson has admitted that Paige’s title fight was fixed, but there’s nothing fake about the film’s chokehold emotions. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Fisherman’s Friends (12A)

Very, very loosely based on the true story of how a bunch of Cornish fishermen from Port Isaac wound up becoming the first traditional folk group to have a Top 10 UK album with their a capella sea shanties, this is an old-fashioned Brassed Off-styled Ealing throwback British family comedy (it has a single four-letter expletive so as to avoid a PG cert) which may be unashamedly cheesy, unsubtle, predictable and clichéd, but is also hugely enjoyable, good-natured fun.

Arriving in Port Isaac for a stag weekend with three obnoxious music publisher colleagues, high-flyer London music exec Danny (Daniel Mays) is wound up by his boss, Troy (Noel Clarke), who tells him to get the local sea shanty singers to sign a deal, because their material is all out of copyright. They then promptly take off back to London to enjoy the joke. However, hearing them sing and getting to know them, Danny starts to really believe they have something different and special that could actually find a big audience.

The fishermen, headed up by proudly Cornish Jim (James Purefoy) and his crusty old dad Jago (David Hayman), naturally think he’s deluded, just another of the tossers from London who come to Cornwall to buy a second home they never live in, but his passionate belief wins them over, just as it alienates the smug Troy who refuses to sanction the signing.  So, Danny takes matters into his own hands, flying solo, recording a demo album and hawking it around the majors, to the inevitable non-plussed response. Until that is the group lands a spot on morning TV with a version of the ‘National Anthem’ that goes viral.

Alongside having to persuade the cynical, brooding Jim that he’s not some chancer who’ll change with the wind, the film weaves in a romantic subplot as lonely Danny falls for his landlady, Jim’s divorced single-mom, aspiring photographer daughter Alwyn (Tuppence Middleton), who, after her initial prickliness, begins to warm to him too. And then there’s another strand involving the local pub and its history, the heart of the village, where Jim’s mom, Maggie (Maggie Steed), works behind the bar, but which its young fisherman owner, Rowan (Sam Swainsbury), with a new baby and bills piling up, can no longer afford to keep on, Danny facilitating a sale to a smooth London property developer, who, despite his promises, the locals feel will inevitably trample all over its tradition.

Peppered with groan inducing puns such as the group being called a ‘buoy band’, a line about sucking on a Fisherman’s Friend, a contrived Reservoir Seadogs gag and broad fish out of water comedy when the lads head down to London and are aghast at the price of a pint (not to mention fish), even so it’s hard to resist its soft centre or even the clunky espousal of tradition and community values lost in today’s fast-paced, self-serving world. With the cast that also features I, Daniel Blake star Dave Johns, a balance of laughter and tears (naturally someone has to die), betrayal and redemption, and some lusty singing that includes the group improbably getting a pubful of London Millennials to join in with What Shall We Do With A Drunken Sailor, this is the catch of the week. (Cineworld 5 Ways, Solihull; Electric; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Five Feet Apart (12A) 

The latest addition to the fatally ill star-crossed lovers teenage romance subgenre, this stars  Haley Lu Richardson from the little seen Columbus and Cole Sprouse as two hospital patients with cystic fibrosis, which, as per the title  means they cannot come into close contact lest the one exacerbate the other’s illness. Stella (Richardson) is in hospital awaiting a lung transplant when. She meets the irreverent, cavalier cartoonist new arrival Will (Sprouse), who, enrolled in a clinical trial, carries a bacteria that would be dangerous to her and they’re told by the maternal head nurse (Kimberly Hebert Gregory) to stay six feet apart, the distance a germ can travel through the air. She suggests they make it five.

Initially mismatched, naturally love blooms and along with it all the inevitable obstacles, not to mention an obligatory fellow longtime patient gay best friend (Moises Arias) and survivor guilt about a dead sibling. But, naturally, very little by way of parental presence. Initially promising to offer insights into living with CF, it soon hurtles headlong into romantic melodrama clichés as we wait to see if they will risk death for a moment of life. Richardson reinforces the promise shown in previous films, but, paired with an actor of limited range and a script creaking under the weight of hackneyed dialogue. The Fault In Our Stars and Me and Earl and The Dying Girl showed just how high this sort of material can be elevated. This simply shows how far it can sink. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Green Book (12A)

This inspirational road movie about redemptive friendship  is based (loosely or accurately depending on which side of the controversy regarding the relationship you stand), on the real-life story of rough around the edges Italian for Copacabana bouncer Tony Vallelonga, aka Tony Lip, who was hired to drive celebrated, culturally refined and multi-lingual Jamaican-born jazz musician Dr. Donald Shirley (he was actually born in) on his tour of the racially segregated Deep South and its Jim Crow laws in 1962. The first solo project by director Peter Farrelly, the title refers to The Negro Motorist Green Book, a guide to motels and other venues that served black customers, although the book itself rarely figures, serving instead as the premise on which the narrative unfolds.

As played respectively, and brilliantly, by Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali, Tony was brash, plain-speaking and casually racist while Shirley was refined, imperious and uptight, the unlikely relationship spurred by the fact the former was broke and the latter needed someone who could handle potentially volatile situations. Initially meeting at Shirley’s luxury New York apartment above Carnegie Hall (in real life even more ostentatious than on screen) where Shirley interviews him from what can only be called his throne, most of the film unfolds within  the turquoise Cadillac Coupe de Ville in which they travel between shows (backing musicians bassist Mike Hatton and Russian cellist Dimiter D. Marinov taking their own car), with Shirley playing to high society rich white folks who applaud his music (“like Liberace but better”, according to Tony)  but who wouldn’t dream of allowing him to their homes or treating him as an equal. Indeed, one of the film’s strongest scenes is in a hotel restaurant where, although he’s due to play for the clientele, Shirley is refused permission to dine.

As the journey unfolds, Tony’s impressed by his boss’s musical talent and his eyes are opened to the indignities he endures through segregation and racism in practice. He’s also coached, Cyrano-style, in how to write more romantically articulate letters home to his wife (Linda Cardellini) and gets to discover Chopin while Shirley gets to appreciate fried chicken and the music of Aretha Franklin and Little Richard, culminating in an improvised rock n roll session at a local  honky tonk.

Deftly balancing humour and serious dramatic commentary, the screenplay unfolds as a string of conflicts and compromises, each man learning from the other and, through their experiences, reassessing their identity within the context of  the America of the period, always posing the question as to whether Shirley would be treated any differently by Tony and his associates back in the Bronx, as much in terms of class divided as colour. At certain points, both men become victims of their own demons, Shirley drowning his loneliness and feelings in booze (it skirts over suggestions of his being gay) and Tony’s hotheadness, when pulled over for breaking the sundown laws, landing them both in a Mississippi jail. As Shirley points out, underlining his own dignity in the face of humiliations, if you resort to violence, you’ve already lost. The ironic manner of their release is one of the films cheers out moments.

Peppered with both jazz and classical piano work, structurally, it’s a fairly predictable trip, right down  to the feelgood group hug Christmas Eve ending back in New York, but while the social commentary may be largely enveloped in a family friendly Driving Miss Daisy warmth, that doesn’t make its observations on bigotry any less sharp or affective. Or the film any less enjoyable.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC;  Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe;Showcase Walsall)

How To Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World (PG)

The third and final entry into the animated Vikings and dragons saga sets out to explain why the latter vanished from the face of the earth, weaving in lightly handled themes of persecution, genocide and refugees in the process.

Some years after events in part two, Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) is now chief of the community on Berk where Vikings and dragons live together in harmony. However, as revealed in the opening sequence, the latter are in increasing danger from dragon hunters and their marauding ships, and, with the subsequent rescues stretching the population on Berk to its limits. As such, Hiccup realises that, if both they and the Vikings are to be safe, they need to move on from their home of many generations. Increasing the urgency, is the arrival on the scene of Grimmel (F. Murray Abraham), a ruthlessly obsessed dragon hunter who is determined to exterminate all dragons (though he uses his own, which he controls, to do so) and made his name by slaying every last Night Fury. So, learning of the existence of Toothless, the dragon alpha male and Hiccup’s devoted obsidian-coloured companion, he is consumed with finishing the job. To which end, he has a very special bait, the white, sparkling skin sole surviving female who, when seen by Hiccup and Astrid (America Ferrera), is dubbed a Light Fury by the latter, plotting to use the fact that the species mate for life to lure Toothless – and, in turn, all the other dragons, into his trap.

To save them, Hiccup resolves to discover the legendary Hidden World of Caldera, the original home of dragons, that his later father (Gerald Butler in flashbacks) spoke about where the two species can live in peace and safety. Things don’t work out quite as he hoped, the film playing on an if you love someone, you have to set them free theme that echoes Born Free, but, despite a sometimes repetitive narrative, getting to the finale is an often exhilarating ride, the central thrust complemented by the tentative relationship between Astrid and Hiccup, who Gobber (Craig Ferguson) reckons should get married.

The gang are all back for the finale, among them the boastful Snotlout (Jonah Hill) who has his eye set on Hiccup’s widowed Dragon Rider mother, Valka (Cate Blanchett), bickering buffoon twins  Ruffnut (Kristen Wiig) and Tuffnut (Justin Rupple) and Fishlegs (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), all getting their turn in the spotlight.  There’s also some amusing additions to the dragon cast with the small, rotund and fanged Hobgobblers, who seem to be constantly breeding. Sporting dragon scale armour and wielding a  flaming sword, there’s more than a touch of Star Wars to Hiccup here, but, thankfully, the self-belief fuelled screenplay  resists further allusions  and gets on with delivering both thrilling action set-piece and visually entrancing worldess sequences such as the amusing clumsy mating dance between the two Furies that climaxes by literally taking flight, and the glorious vision of the hidden world itself.  A some years later coda does open the possibility of returning to the characters, but, given the emotional arc and catharsis here, that would be a mistake. (Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Instant Family (12A)

Having moved into a house with more bedrooms than they need, spurred by a jibe about them never going to have kids, house renovators Pete (Mark Whalberg) and Ellie (Rose Byrne) Wagner are persuaded by Octavia Spencer and Tig Notaro as an odd couple comedic social workers double act, to think about adopting three Hispanic kids, teenager Lizzy (Isabela Moner) and her younger siblings Juan and Lita, whose drug addict mother in in jail. With neither Ellie’s mother (Julie Hagerty) nor the rest of her family believing they can handle it, she and Pete resolve to give fostering try out and prove they can be good parents.  Naturally, this is more difficult than than thought since Lizzy, while sweet, has plenty of attitude and reacts badly to shows of affection, and, having taken care of them in mom’s absence, is overly protective of accident prone, oversensitive Juan and needy Lita, who refuses to eat anything except potato chips. And, of course, Pete and Ellie are themselves to navigate through uncharted waters. Then,  just when things seem to be going well, the kids’ real mother turns up wanting them back.

Directed and co-written by Sean Anders, who made Daddy’s Home and Daddy’s Home 2 and has experience of adoption, it mixes sitcom comedy with serious issues, including a striking scene when, during one of the sessions with potential foster parents, a young woman talks about how the system and her adoptive parents helped her work through her struggles with addiction caused by abuse.

Also starring Margo Martindale as Pete’s good-hearted but overbearing mother, it can be a tad predictable and scenes such as Pete and Ellie confronting a schoolkid they think  has sent Lizzy photos of his dick are geared more to laughs than reality, but ultimately, it’s a heartwarming and an often very funny tale of family bonding that genuinely earns its emotional moments. (Cineworld Solihull;  Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

The Lego Movie 2 (U)

Essentially serving up more of what made the original 2014 movie such a treat, there’s times when you feel repetition has supplanted inspiration, but, even so, the ride through its often surreal brickverse is well worth taking.

Having revealed at the end of the first film that the adventures of  construction worker Emmett (Chris Pine),were being enacted by a kid in the real world playing with his LEGO toys, the sequel has several flashes behind the storyline, showing the same boy ordered by his dad (Will Ferrell) to share his LEGO play with his younger sister, the pair squabbling as each seeks to control the game, though it also blurs the line between what’s plastic and what’s real.

Set some time after builder Emmett Brickowski saved the world from Lord Business, the former’s dreaming of remaking Bricksburg, now called Apocalypsburg as a paradise for himself and Lucy Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks) to share, though she’s less convinced his sunny optimism is really the sort of man she wants. She also thinks his new house is an alien magnet. Which, indeed, it turns out to be, as DUPLO toy General Mayhem (Stephanie Beatriz) arrives from the Sistar System to capture their leader and, living up to her name with weapons that include exploding pink love hearts and yellow stars,  makes off with Lucy, her now shapeshifting robotic cat Princess Unikitty (Ailson Brie), pirate Metalbeard (Nick Offerman) spaceship obsessed Master Builder Benny (Charlie Day) and Batman (Will Arnett), the latter of whom is intended to be wed to the equally shapeshifting DUPLO horse Queen Watevra Wa-Nabi (Tiffany Haddish). Although she attempts to persuade them, through a song entitled Not Evil, that she’s not wicked, Emmett, who’s come to rescue his friends, is convinced the wedding ceremony will bring about the Ourmomageddon of his nightmare where (cue cameo by Maya Rudolph protesting  “I’m not the bad guy in this story, I’m just an amusing side character”) they all get consigned to oblivion.

In his rescue mission, Will is joined by Rex Dangervest (Pratt), a cosmos-roaming adventurer with a crew of dinosaur sidekicks (named Ripley, Connor and the other one), whose origin story provides the film’s big twist, as well the character gleefully referencing Pratt’s roles in the likes of Jurassic World and Guardians of the Galaxy.

Peppered with clever/cringe-inducing wordplay and a torrent of pop culture references, notably to the DC Universe with cameos by Superman (Channing Tatum), Green Lantern (Jonah Hill), Wonder Woman (Colbie Smulders), Harley Quinn (Margot Robbi) and Aquaman (Jason Momoa), as well as a plethora of new characters such as the emotionally unstable Ice Cream Cone (Richard Ayoade), sparkling vampire DJ Balthazar, sentient banana Banarnar as well as Bruce Willis voicing himself as Die Hard’s John McClane, and even Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the plot is pretty much subservient to the giddy animation, self-referencing satire and the infuriatingly  infectious songs with both a reprise of Everything Is Awesome (and Everything Is Not Awesome)  and the even more annoying Catchy Song. It may ultimately be a case of rearranging the bricks, but watching them take shape is still huge fun. (Cineworld NEC; Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe)

The Prodigy (15)

The latest contribution to the bad seed horror genre about creepy kids, this lays out its  narrative from the start when the cops gun down a Hungarian serial killer pervert (Paul Fauteux) in Ohio, who dies clutching the severed hand of the woman who just escaped him, and at the same moment, over in Pennsylvania, Sarah (Taylor Schilling) gives birth to Miles, the child for which she and husband John  (Peter Mooney) have been trying for years. The baby’s chest has blood marks that correspond exactly to the bullet hole son the killer’s corpse.

As Miles (Jackson Robert Scott) grows, he proves, as the title suggests, to be a wunderkind, with an IQ that’s off the scale that sees him enrolled in a special school for gifted children. However, his eyes of different colours, he also begins to show disturbing and sometimes violent behaviour, such as taking a  monkey wrench to a classmate who wouldn’t share. He also speaks a strange language in his sleep which Sarah tapes and give to his shrink, who, in turn, calls in a behaviour specialist (Colm Feore), who tells her Miles is speaking  a rare Hungarian dialect and that he believes him to be inhabited by a reincarnated soul that has returned to complete unfinished business. Naturally neither she nor her husband take this seriously, until that is…

You can pretty much see where all this is heading, but while it does so in predictable  and inevitably often illogical fashion, it also crafts some satisfying scares and dread anticipation (did I mention the family dog?) as the third act throws in a  twist that builds to a shockingly unexpected payoff. The performances from the adult cast are pretty run of the mill, but Scott, who starred as an equally possessed child in It, is terrific in his nuanced shifting, both facially and in his physical performance, between Miles’ innocent and evil aspects (one telling Halloween scene has him sporting half skeleton face, half normal), perfectly complementing the film’s largely less is more approach to building the suspense. (Vue Star City)

Ray & Liz (15)

Birmingham-born Turner Prize nominated photographer Richard Billingham makes his directorial debut with this grim and relentlessly depressing 16mm portrait of dysfunctional family life inspired by his own parents and upbringing, something he’d previously documented in his mid-1990s photos of his shiftless, spineless, alcoholic dad, Ray, obese, heavily tattooed chain-smoking, jigsaw puzzle obsessive mom, Liz, and younger brother, Jason, who was taken into care when he was 11, collected together for the book Ray’s a Laugh and featured in the same Sensation exhibition that included Damien Hirst’s shark in formaldehyde and Marcus Harvey’s portrait of Myra Hindley.

As you might imagine, there’s not a particularly upbeat vibe to the film, although there is rather more dark humour than you might expect, not least in how, left alone to care for  two-year-old Jason (Callum Slater) while Ray (Justin Salinger), Liz (Ella Smith) and Richard (Jacob Tuton) go shoe-shopping, feeble- minded  Uncle Lol (Tony Way) is persuaded by Will (Sam Gittins), the family’s psychopathic tenant, to drink the hidden stash of booze, Ray and Liz returning home to find him senseless, drooling vomit and Jason playing with a kitchen knife.

Mostly though this is an unrelentingly grim working class portrait of appalling alcoholism, child neglect and poor hygiene, but one that observes rather than seeks to apportion blame and which often betrays a sneaky bittersweet affection for its horrendous subjects, even at their most grotesque.

Structurally it’s comprised of three shorts, one of which was released to attract crowdfunding, and with intense close-ups and sustained shots, the third section showing the now nine-year-old Jason (Joshua Millard-Lloyd) and teenage Richard (Sam Plant) fending for themselves on bread and pickled cabbage in their cramped tower-block with their parents comatose in bed before social services finally intervene.

It also interlaces scenes of the now much older Ray (Patrick Romer) whose daily routine consists of waking up, staring out the window and drinking the homemade beer supplied by neighbour Sid (Richard Ashton), at one point visited by his now estranged wife (here played by Deirdre ‘White Dee’ Kelly). Strikingly shot by cinematographer Daniel Ladin with minute detail provided by production designer Beck Rainford, you’re given the feeling of watching the animal in the cages of a human zoo, horrified but transfixed. (MAC)

Us (15)

Writer-director Jordan Peele follows up his hugely successful Get Out with another horror, this one a spin on the home invasion/doppelganger genres, laced, as with his previous film, with political, social and racial commentary and the zeitgeist anxiety and fear of the ‘other’.

With title credits explaining how there are thousands of tunnels beneath the USA, the film opens with a 1986 Hands Across America commercial, when six million people formed a human chain to raise money for the homeless, and a shot of dozens of rabbits in a room walled with cages.  Cut then to an African-American family’s visit to Santa Cruz beach in which, wearing Michael Jackson Thriller t-shirt,  their young daughter, Adelaide (a facially expressive Madison Curry), wanders off into a hall of mirrors attraction inviting visitors to Find Yourself. Inside, she comes face to face (or initially face to back of head) with a child who looks exactly like her. She screams and we next see the parents talking to a shrink about how the girl’s not spoken since she was found.

The film then switches to the present day when the now grown Adelaide Wilson (Lupita Nyong’o), over enthusiastic husband Gabe (Winston Duke) and their two kids, disaffected Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph and horror obsessive Jason (Evan Alex), the latter always sporting a Halloween Wolfman mask, heading to a Northern California beach house and she being reluctantly persuaded by Gabe to visit the Santa Cruz beach and meet up with their wealthy white neighbours Kitty (Elisabeth Moss) and Josh (Tim Heidecker).

All seems well until night falls when they see four figures standing in the driveway. Dressed in red and each looking exactly like them, carrying golden scissors and, either talking in hoarse gravelly tones or simply howling, they proceed to force their way into the house, sending each family member off in different directions, pursued by their lookalike.

Without giving too much away, it would seem clear that the other-Adelaide is the girl from the mirror maze and, after a dose of blood-letting, the action shifts to the neighbours for another bout of carnage as they are attacked by their own doppelgangers, with, at one point, Zora taking bloody control of the fight. Meanwhile there’s television reports of a wave of similar incidents across the country, with images of figures in red linked hand in hand.

Peele plays the provocative card early on when Adelaide asks her double ‘What are you?” and she replies “We’re Americans”, though she also later refers to themselves as The Tethered,  while the film, which is littered with assorted horror movie references, makes sparingly effective use of jump scares while the score and light and shadow build the sense of threat. However, despite an oiver-explained last act scene in which Adelaide’s double reveals her past and motives, the film is never as thematically direct as Get Out, leaving audiences to draw their own conclusions to what’s going on and what it’s trying to say about, well, whatever, the title pronoun obviously also carrying  US resonances in echoing naval commander Oliver Hazard Perry’s 1813 report that “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”

Is it as simple as a convoluted riff on we’re our own worst enemy, or this there more going on beneath the surface (as there is indeed in the film’s narrative). It’s hard to be certain, and the film never seems quite sure either. But either way, you might not look at yourself in the mirror the same way for quite a while afterwards.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, Solihull; Electric; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

What Men Want (15)

A gender spin remake of Mel Gibson’s  2000 comedy in which he suffers an accident and awakes to find he can hear women’s thoughts, this  uses the concept to address themes of  boardroom chauvinism, glass ceilings and  female empowerment with a sparky turn from Taraji P. Henson as Ali Davis, an Atlanta sports agent who, the only woman in an office of testosterone-fuelled ego-centric wannabes, is constantly passed over for promotion.

Passing out and banging her head after being given spiked tea by an eccentric psychic (Erykah Badu, who dominates the end credits outtakes), Ali wakes to find she can hear what men are thinking, a fact confirmed by her geeky sports fanatic and inevitably gay assistant Brandon (Josh Brener), an ability she can use to get one over on her ultra-competitive rivals as she seeks to sign rising basketball star Jamal Barry (Shane Paul McGhie). This, in turns, leads her to pass off  her one night stand too nice to be true widowed single father Will (Aldis Hodge) and his young son as her family because she ‘hears’ the thoughts  of Jamal’s manager dad (Tracy Morgan in 30 Rock mode) about not trusting a woman without one.

While Gibson’s character learned to appreciate women, there’s no such intent here, Brandon aside pretty much anyone male proving irredeemable sexists who regard women as their intellectual inferiors. This is about Ali discovering herself and not liking the person she’s become. As such, with a support cast that includes Richard Roundtree as her dad and Phoebe Robinson, Wendi McLendon-Covey and Tamala Jones as her neglected female friends, the film doesn’t really have anywhere to go other than for Ali to prove the capabilities she already possesses  and realise that she’s becoming just like her self-absorbed, ruthlessly scheming colleagues in a quest to be one of the boys while the romantic comedy subplot fizzles along. There’s some amusing moments, most notably Ali owning a men only poker game, and Henson gets to finally show off her physical comedy chops in a leading role,  but as films about workplace sexism go this is not Hidden Figures.(Cineworld 5 Ways, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; 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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