MOVIE ROUND-UP:This Week’s New Film Releases, Fri Mar 8-Thu Mar 14

NEW RELEASES

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;  Electric; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Border (15)

Adapted from a story by Let The Right One In author John Ajvide Lindqvist, who co-wrote the screenplay, this is a Nordic noir with a social commentary subtext and a bizarre twist that sends the narrative off into dark supernatural folklore territory. Scarred by a lightning strike, sporting a scar on her tailbone and with troglodyte features, Tina (Eva Melander under heavy make-up), who has more affinity with wild animals than humans, lives with her good-for-nothing Rottweiler owning boyfriend (Jörgen Thorsson), who’s fonder of his dogs (who don’t get on with Tina) than her, and makes regular visits to her dementia sufferer father. She also works at a Swedish portside border crossing, quite literally sniffing out those with something to hide. It seems she has the sixth sense ability to smell feelings like fear or guilt (not to mention knowing when deer are about to cross the road). It’s a gift that exposes a child pornography ring, a subplot in which she helps police track down the paedophile ring, that proves to have significant bearing on the main narrative. One day she sniffs out Vole (Eero Milonoff) who shares similar features, grunts and says he collects (and eats) live insects. On examination, it’s found he also has female rather than make genitals.

There’s a chemistry between them and Tina invites him to move into their guest cabin. It’s around this point, as they draw closer, that the film introduces its jaw-dropping twist in a truly weird sex scene, about which I can say nothing without spoiling what follows, but suffice to say neither Vole nor Tina are what they seem and that the revelation about Vole ties into the child porn strand, compounded by the fact that Tina’s neighbours have just given birth.

Subverting genres, Iran-born director Ali Abbasi takes his time in teasing out the mystery, building the tension and dropping clues, among which are a naked swim and Tina’s introduction to eating bugs, as she comes to learn more about who she truly is. As unexpectedly touching as it is unsettling, you’re unlikely to seen anything else quite like this year.  (Electric)

 

The Kindergarten Teacher (12A)

Driven by a terrific complex performance from Maggie Gyllenhaal, writer-director Sara Colangelo’s remake of the Israeli art house hit stays close to the original while adding some extra emotional layers. Gyllenhaal plays Lisa Spinelli, a caring kindergarten teacher in Staten Island who, once a week she takes the ferry to Manhattan for a poetry class run by Simon (Gael Garcia Bernal), but her writing, about flowers and butterflies, while earnest, lacks spark and finds no enthusiasm from her tutor or, back home, her distracted husband (Michael Chernus) or their two teenage kids (Daisy Tahan, Sam Jules), neither of whom, especially the social-media fixated daughter, have time for her.

Then, one day, at school, she catches one of her charges, Jimmy (a wonderfully blank Parker Sevak), a five-year-old from Indian heritage and a broken family, slipping into some kind of trace and reciting a poem he’s composed, one far beyond his age and awareness. Understandably excited, she writes it down, encourages his airheaded former coatcheck girl nanny Becca (Rosa Salazar) to do likewise if he does it at home, and takes both it and another to her class, reading it out to hugely positive response from her instructor.

At which point, it would seem that this is shaping up as a story about exploitation, with Lisa piggybacking her way to validation and success (not to mention having sex with Simon) on Jimmy’s poems. By that’s just falsefooting. While not entirely selfless, as its gives her a sense of purpose and self-worth in a life where she’s very much pushed to the side, the reality is that Lisa genuinely wants to nurture and preserve this rare talent, seeing him as poetry’s answer to Mozart, seeking to persuade his always too busy nightclub owner father (Ajay Naidu) to give him the attention he needs. He’d rather his son entered the business world than something artsy fartsy. As such, she spends an increasingly amount of time with Jimmy, gives him her number so he can call when he has a poem, has Becca removed so she can care for him, taking him to museums, poetry readings and, when the line’s clearly crossed into obsession and inappropriate behaviour, engineering abduction. Posing the ethical dilemma of doing the wrong thing for the right reason, the film builds tension while juggling moral ambiguity and slipping in observations on a society that’s become fixated on the instant and ephemeral rather than lasting value. With a lack of clearly explained motivations, the ending and the raises more questions, philosophically, morally and ethically, than provides answers. But in world with increasingly less time for those who “have a poem”, the film has a lingering resonance. (Cineworld 5 Ways)

 

Miss Bala (15)

Director Catherine Hardwicke blots her hitherto impressive copybook (Thirteen, Twilight, Red Riding Hood) with a messy remake of a Mexican thriller that was never much good the first time round. Jane the Virgin star Gina Rodriguez plays Gloria Fuentes, a Mexican-American Los Angeles makeup artist who finds herself caught up in the cross-border drug trade when she travels to Tijuana where her childhood friend Suzu (Cristina Rodlo) is entering the titular beauty contest. It turns out to be the wrong place at the wrong time when she witnesses the club being invaded by drugs cartel members looking to assassinate pageant figurehead and corrupt law enforcement official Saucedo (Damián Alcázar).

In the aftermath, Suzu is missing and. Falling victim to a corrupt cop,  Gloria lands in the hands of, first, drugs kingpin Lino (Ismael Cruz Córdova) and then a government agent (Matt Lauria) who, after she’s inadvertently involved in blowing up a D.E.A. safe house,  forces her to work for him in infiltrating the gang, which runs sex trafficking as a side line to the cocaine business, she looking to make Lino, who’s presented as brutal killer but with some lingering humanity, fall for her, so that he’ll come good on his offer to find  Suzu.

Rather than a comment on the muddy waters of moral ambiguity (the charismatic Lino delivers a speech justifying why, given social conditions, he has no choice but to do what he does) with Gloria trapped in an impossible situation, Hardwick turns it into a rote and dubious tale of kick ass female empowerment (cue scene of Gloria in a blood-red gown toting a semi-automatic) that not only brings nothing new to the table, but makes a pig’s ear of the caricatures and clichés too.

It’s indicative of how slapdash it is that Suzu’s young brother is totally forgotten for long stretches even though he’s been left alone at home with no news of his sister.

There’s a couple of frenetic shootouts, but even these feel confused, and the film ends with the second of two cameo scenes by Anthony Mackie as an undercover CIA agent looking to recruit her for a sequel. Neither of them should hold their breath waiting. (Cineworld 5 Ways; Empire Great Park; 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. (Electric)

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. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Alita: Battle Angel (12A)

On James Cameron’s to do list for the best part of two decades, he eventually handed over the reins to his adaptation of Yukito Kishiro’s 90s cyberpunk manga series to director Robert Rodriguez with Cameron serving as co-writer and producer.

Set in 2563, 300 years after an apocalyptic event referred to (but never explained) as the Fall, it’s a fairly standard issue plot in which an outsider hero rises to take on the tyrannical elite oppressing the dystopian society, here the latter being the survivors scratching a living in Iron City and the former being the wealthy elite in their floating city fortress of Zalem. The prime difference here been that the hero is a female cyborg with a mysterious past and destiny.

While foraging among the scrap that’s been jettisoned from Zalem, looking for parts to use in his cyber-surgery, Doctor Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz) comes the artificial head of a humanoid teenage girl containing an organic brain. Taking it back to his makeshift lab, he and his assistant (a barely used Idara Victor) attaches it to a metal body and, when she wakes up with no memory of her previous life or who she is, he christens her Alita (Rosa Salazar), the name of his murdered disabled daughter for whom the cyber-body was intended, thereby setting up the narrative’s surrogate father narrative strand, Geppetto to her Pinocchio.

As they both surprisingly discover when she suspects her new dad might be a serial killer, she’s both super strong and fast, possessed of an ancient fighting art known as panzer kunst, while Ido fesses up to being a part-time bounty hunter tracking down offenders in order to fund his lab. In fact, Iron City seems to have a glut of them, although all the others, among them  Nyssiana (Eiza González), creepy sabre-wielding pretty boy Zapan (Ed Skrein) and the hulking Grewishka (Jackie Earle Haley), are all cyborgs.

Meanwhile, sparked by her newfound abilities, Alita starts hanging out with a street gang, and in particular cute unicycle riding Hugo (a bland Keean Johnson), who introduces her to a street version of Motorball, a brutal, gladiatorial rollerblading basketball contest that is the stadium-filling Super Bowl of Iron City, the ultimate winner of which gets to go to Zalem, with those in need of repair coming to Ido. All of which sparks another plot thread, as Motorball is run by Vector (Mahershala Ali), the Iron City channel for evil Zalem scientist Nova (a briefly seen Ed Norton), and to whom, its revealed, Hugo and his gang are selling the parts they’ve jacked off other cyborgs. He also has a sidekick, Chiren (Jennifer Connolly), who’s  Ido’s ex-wife and naturally gets somewhat conflicted given her boss keeps sending his mercenaries to kill Alita. Through all of this, the latter starts getting flashbacks that suggest she was some sort of soldier waging war on the flying cities and which wind up with her getting a whole new souped-up body that can organically adapt itself to her wishes, all of which, rather inevitably, climaxes at a massive Motorball showdown.

Trimmed down for the original three hours screenplay, there’s an overload of loose ends, genres and narrative holes that raise more questions than they provide answers and often send the storyline into a spin. It’s considerably less philosophically profound that Ghost In The Shell, but, even so, using extensive CGI yet played out against real sets rather than green screen, it’s hugely visually impressive, especially in the pulpily kinetic Motorball sequences, and, while the supporting characters are somewhat undernourished, it does provide an involving emotional arc for Alita (and her relationship with Ido), even touching on human/robot romance as she and Hugo become closer. The litmus test, though, is how you react to the way Alita appears on screen. While the other cyborgs all have human heads, she’s very much a manga character imposed on a real world, especially given her (literal and metaphorical wide-eyed) stylised facial features. However, the strength of Salazar’s performance, both exuberant as she discovers the world around her and fiercely determined as she battles against those who seek to control it, provides the heart and emotional core needed to overcome such reservations. It ends with Alita sending out a vow to take the battle to Nova, which, alongside all the other mysteries waiting to be cleared up, clearly anticipates a sequel; hopefully, the box office will justify one. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Mockingbird; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

All Is True (12A)

Having taken a comedic approach to Will Shakespeare’s pre-fame days  in the TV sitcom Upstart Crow, Ben Elton  now offers a dramatic look at his little-known last three years when, having co-penned Henry VIII, originally known as All is True, he quit writing in 1613 after The Globe Theatre burned down during an early performance and returned to Stratford-upon-Avon and his family. Here directed by and starring Kenneth Branagh, we find him experiencing delayed mourning his young son, Hamnet, who died from plague 17 years earlier and who had been buried by the time he got home from London. And it’s around the circumstances surrounding boy’s death and the poem’s he written that his father cherished, that the plays event unfold, taking in the uneasy dynamic in the Shakespeare household: his wife, Anne (Judy Dench), resentful at being left alone for so many years, consigning him to the guest bedroom, embittered unmarried daughter Judith (Kathryn Wilder) who’s consumed by survivor guilt and accuses her father of thinking the wrong twin died, and her elder, literate sister Susanna (Lydia Wilson), trapped in a loveless marriage to Puritan clergyman John Hall (Hadley Fraser). At one point the latter’s accused of having an adulterous affair, the trial subsequently amusingly defused by her dad’s striking description of a scene and an actor in Titus Andronicus to her accuser. Will, meanwhile, just wants to tend to the garden he’s trying to cultivate in his son’s memory. “I can’t finish your story”, he tells a young lad at the start of the play, though, of course, that turns out to be exactly what the film does.

A perfectly respectable heritage drama, it’s a touch lifeless in the early going and only really begins to spark when hidden family secrets come to the surface, forcing Shakespeare to re-examine what he’s always assumed to be the facts about Hamnet as well as his relationship with the women in the family. There’s also a sense of Elton parading historical facts and speculations about Stratford’s most famous son, such as why his will bequeathed Anne his second best bed and, in a contrived visit by the Earl of Southampton (a scene stealing Ian McKellen in blonde heavy metal wig), his patron and long assumed to be the mysterious amorous subject of many of Shakespeare’s Sonnets. His arrival has him dismissing the creeping flattery of the oily Sir Thomas Lucy (Alex Macqueen) while his and Will’s intimate fireside chat, in which the former accuses the latter of leading a life far too ordinary for someone of his genius and concludes with them both reciting Sonnet 29, is unquestionably the film’s strongest sequence, but it also throws into relief the dullness of much that surrounds it.

The performances are, as you would expect, high quality, Dench registering profound emotions in just a facial expression, Branagh, with his trademark conversational delivery, portraying a man ruefully aware of his gifts as a playwright but also his failings as a husband and a father. However, the psychological depth is all on the surface and too often spelled out by Elton’s expository dialogue (Anne reminds him that when Hamnet died, he wrote The Merry Wives of Windsor), a screenplay the Bard would surely have given a serious overhaul. (MAC)

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 Oscar winner 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; Odeon Birmingham; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City; Fri-Mon/Thu: Everyman)

Can You Ever Forgive Me (15)

Back in 1991, 51-year-old Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy) was a former celebrated journalist turned down on her luck New York biographer, unable to get her book about 30s stage and screen star Fanny Brice (as portrayed by Barbra Streisand in Funny Girl) off the ground and with an agent (Jane Curtin) who never returned her phone calls. She’s confronted with her faded star when, trying to sell some books to pay the rent and the vet bill for her sick cat, the store owner humiliatingly points out the huge mark-down on her latest work.

However, while researching Brice at the library she comes across some letters concealed inside one of the books and, discovering that there’s money to be made from signed letters, typed or handwritten, by dead celebrities, she hits upon the idea of forging them and passing them off as artefacts found among her cousin’s possessions. Some 400 to be exact, purportedly from the likes of Dorothy Parker, Marlene Dietrich and Noel Coward, perfectly capturing the tone and style of her subjects, enlisting gadfly Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant) and fellow gay alcoholic as her partner-in-crime, their gullible book dealer dupes including a store owner and would be writer (Dolly Wells) who, for a moment, offers the potential for companionship (a  late brief appearance by Israel’s former lover adds resonance) and opportunist blackmailer  (Ben Falcone) upon whom they turn the tables. Meanwhile, the FBI are showing an interest.

Directed by Marielle Heller and scripted by Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty from Israel’s best-selling memoir, it’s slow to unfold and suffused in a bitter-sweet melancholic ambience as it touches on themes of loneliness, self-loathing, failure and isolation as well as the contemporary desire for celebrity contact by association, while also being frequently wickedly funny.

Playing dowdy, combative, self-destructive and often unlikeable, McCarthy delivers an outstanding and deservedly Oscar nominated performance that eclipses her past comedic work and banishes memory of the atrocity that was  The Happytime Murders as she struggles to keep her world together and is superbly matched and at time outshone – by the equally dominated Grant, clearly channelling large elements of his Withnail character into Hock. It’s slow in places, but there’s more than enough emotional rewards to carry it through such patches to the end credit titles that add even more to Israel’s story.(MAC; Tue-Thu: Mockingbird)

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. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Destroyer (15)

Spending most of the film looking haggard, with red-rimmed, dark-shadowed eyes that seem like portals into the abyss, this is Nicole Kidman as you’ve never seen her, up there with her finest work alongside To Die For and Rabbit Hole. Directed by Karyn Kasuma, working from a  script by Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi, she plays Erin Bell, a burned-out LAPD detective still carrying the emotional and psychological scars from an undercover operation fifteen years earlier that cost the life of her FBI partner (Sebastian Stan) and left her with a broken nose, a drink problem and a now 15-year-old toxically estranged wild child daughter ((Jade Pettyjohn) who is in the custody of her father, Ethan (Scoot McNary) and in thrall to a twenty-something deadbeat (Beau Knapp). It opens with the discovery of a bullet-riddled body sporting a signature tattoo on his beck, a wobbling, hungover Bell turning up, much to the annoyance of her fellow cops, and declaring she knows who killed him. Receiving a purple stained $100 bill from a fateful bank robbery, it would seem that the volatile gang leader, Silas (Toby Kebbell), has resurfaced, setting Bell on a determined quest for both revenge and atonement, one that involves her going all Dirty Harry and tracking down some of the other former gang members, among them Petra (Tatiana Maslany), Silas’s ex-girlfriend, who may well know his whereabouts.

Framed in a loop that works its way back to the start with an unexpected reveal, the narrative shifts between Bell’s present day search for Silas and flashbacks to her training with Chris and their time in the gang, earning Silas’s trust, culminating in a bank robbery that goes pear-shaped. Steeped in noir atmospherics and themes of warped justice, it’s a riveting piece of work that finds a deeply committed Kidman, sporting black to match her state of mind, gradually revealing more about her morally complex character, climaxing in a wrenching confessional diner scene with her daughter, and what led to that fateful moment that changed her life. A little slow-paced at times, perhaps, but it holds you right to the final redemptive frame and its very limited distribution is unforgivable. (Sat-Wed:MAC)

 

Escape Room (15)

A step up from LaserQuest,  escape rooms are the latest immersive craze in which a group of contestants are locked in a room and have to solve puzzles to find the key to escape. It’s a concept just begging for a Saw-like horror franchise, duly obliged here by director Adam Robitel, taking his cues from 1997 thriller Cube (though the basic premise goes back to 1982 Ira Levin thriller Deathtrap), as six seemingly unconnected strangers from Chicago accept an invitation – via a small puzzle box – to compete for $10,000 and find themselves in a series of rooms that can literally kill them. Which, of course, they do, whittling down the cast until the film returns to its opening scene as some kid is about to be crushed by a  room that’s closing in on him.

The victims line up as ruthless alpha male exec Jason (Jay Ellis),  mouthy slacker Ben (Logan Miller), scarred Iraq war veteran and PTSD sufferer Amanda (Deborah Ann Woll), amiable middle-aged trucker Mike (Tyler Labine), shy maths whizz student Zoey (Taylor Russell) and escape room nerd Danny (Nik Dodani) who survives long enough to provide the necessary exposition on how these things work.

Starting out in a room which, cued by a  copy of Fahrenheit 451, threatens to burn them alive, they cast make it through to a cabin in a snowy, icy mountain wilderness where, in contrast, they’re likely to freeze to death, and from there to further ingeniously designed death traps (including an upside down pool hall bar where Petula Clark’s Downtown is on constant play) that are as illogically absurd as they are inventive (the game takes place in a multi-storey building, yet somehow there’s a river running through one of the floors?), not to mention prohibitively expensive given they have to be rebuild after each game.

It will come as little surprise that it’s all part of some voyeuristic kick for obscenely wealthy clients, nor that they do, in fact, all have something in common, just as you can pretty well guess who, despite a half-hearted misdirection, is going to make it to the end. The characters all get assorted flashbacks, but save for Russell’s, none of them have much more than token personalities or back stories to involve you in their fate.

Well made, the tension palpable (especially in a scene where a character’s hanging over a shaft by a phone cord) and the design and art direction classy, after a somewhat clunky confrontation with the Games Master it all ends several months later with an  inbuilt sequel set-up as the survivors decide to track down those responsible, a coda so anti-climactic it’s a puzzle as to why anyone would want one.(Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Vue Star City)

 

The Favourite (15)

Far darker than the trailer might indicate, director Yorgos Lanthimos expands his budget and horizons following The Lobster and The Killing Of A Sacred Deer and, working from a bitingly cold and scalpel-sharp script by Tony McNamara and Deborah Davis, fashions a period drama of political intrigue, sexual manipulation and ruthless ambition that, a sort of All About Eve/Dangerous Liaisons cocktail,  has both concentrated narrative focus and emotional heft, not to mention some  razor-sharp wit and inspired vulgarity.

Opening in 1704, it’s set during the reign of Queen Anne, the last of the Stuart monarchs, and, while juggling the timeline so as to eliminate her husband, who actually died in 1708, it mostly hews faithfully to history and relationships, garnishing it  with salacious rumours of the time and accounts from vindictive memoirs.

Founded on three stupendous performances, the narrative fulcrum is the power and personal love triangle made up of Anne (Olivia Colman), petulant, needy, afflicted with gout and, no doubt exacerbated by having lost 17 children – for whom she has 17 rabbits as substitutes,  not always of sound mind; her longtime friend Lady Sarah Marlborough (BAFTA winner Rachel Weisz), her favourite, well-known for refusing to flatter, the pair often referring to each other by  their youthful pet names of  Mrs Freeman and Mrs Morley, and the latter’s cousin Abigail Hill (Emma Stone), a noblewoman fallen on hard times who arrives at the palace seeking a position.

Prior Hill’s arrival, Sarah was very much the power behind the throne, a hugely influential and manipulative figure who controlled access to the Queen, managed her finances and supported the war against France (and the unpopular land tax to fund it), her husband (Mark Gattiss) in command of the British forces, However, initially, playing the grateful protégé working in the kitchens, it’s not long before Abigail schemingly works her way up the ladder, the pair becoming engaged in an ongoing battle of wits and one-upmanship with Anne’s favour and support as the prize, one that starts with choice of treatments for the Queen’s legs and, reflecting popular gossip, ends in her bed, jockeying for a position between them.

The two women each have their political stooges, for Marlborough it’s the duck racing Prime Minister, Godolphin (James Smith), leader of the Whigs, while, though he may think he’s the one holding the reins, for Abigail it’s the foppish Harley (a superb Nicholas Hoult), the Tories leader who’s outraged at Marlborough pushing the Queen to raise taxes for the unpopular war. Of course, for all the bluster, it’s ultimately personal advantage rather than the national good that is at the heart of everyone’s motives. As one of the scullery maids put it: “They shit in the street round here. Political commentary they call it.”

Slowly, through a mix of veiled accusations and sexual wiles, Abigail turns Anne’s favour in her direction, though the sequence where Sarah goes missing after Hill poisons her is pure melodramatic invention designed to provide a window in which (in another licence with the timeline) she can engineer herself a title through marriage to the gullible besotted Marsham. Sarah is found and, strikingly scarred, returned to court, but by now the battle is all but lost.

Atmospherically filmed with a use of shadows and candlelight that swings between the tender and the threatening, with cinematographer Robbie Ryan employing fish eye lensing, slow motion and claustrophobic superimposition, but also widescreen landscapes, divided into chapters titled from lines of dialogue and with an often unsettling pizzicato score (and inspired end credits use of Elton John’s original harpsichord version of Skyline Pigeon), it’s at times broadly bawdy, at others intimately erotic, at times evoking the work of Pope and Swift, at others, such as in a courtly dance that pops rock n roll moves,  striking a more contemporary note.

While definitely not making any compromises for the mainstream, even so this has proven an art house break-out success, the single close-up shot of Colman’s face imperceptively shifting from  a brief moment of joy to desperate loneliness deservedly earning her the Oscar for Best Actress.  (Empire Great Park; Reel; Vue Star City; Wed/Thu:Electric)

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

Free Solo (12A)

Not recommended for anyone with a fear of heights, husband and wife director team Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi’s Oscar winning documentary follows Alex Honnold as he seeks to complete his climbing obsession, becoming first to scale the 3,000 feet of sheer granite that is El Capitan in California’s Yosemite National Park, without any safety equipment, just fingers and some chalk. One slip and it’s all over. It takes nerve, courage, strength and discipline, especially when you’re being filmed by drones and remote-operated rigs, and with a camera crew dangling alongside, That Honnold didn’t die rather undercuts the tension, but even so hearts are likely to still be in mouths, and the sense of relief as he reaches the summit as powerful as the sense of triumph. Although there’s also film of test runs on other peaks, it’s not all rock face footage, the film intercut with interviews with fellow climbers and Honnold’s mother and girlfriend as well as doctors who reveal that his brain doesn’t respond to situations that would produce fear responses in others. Mesmerising, just don’t put doing something similar on your things do on the weekend list. (Tue: Everyman; Wed: MAC)

Glass (15)

Having regained his mojo with Split, M. Night Shyamalan proceeds to piss it up against the wall, bringing together that film’s abuse survivor Kevin Wendell Crumb (James McEvoy) and his protective multiple personalities (which he refers to as the Horde) with security expert David Dunn (Bruce Willis) and brittle-boned Elijah Price aka Mr. Glass (Samuel L Jackson), the protagonist and antagonist from 2000’s Unbreakable, the reference to them at the end of Split setting up this double-sequel. Both films took their influences from comic books, the former believing himself some kind of superhero after being the sole survivor of the train wreck engineered by the comic-books obsessed latter,  and this expands on the idea. However, the result is all concept and mood and very little by way of coherent narrative.

It opens with Dunn, in his vigilante identity, the media having settled on calling him the Overseer (although also, sometimes, the Green Guard on account of his hooded poncho), tracking down and freeing the latest cheerleaders abducted by the Beast, Kevin’s ultimate primal super-strong personality, the pair of them ending up being captured and carted off to a psychiatric institute where  the patronising Dr. Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson, given no direction, an implausible character and terrible dialogue) wants to study them as part of her research into people under the delusion that they’re superheroes. The facility also houses Elijah, apparently in a permanent comatose state, though anyone who doesn’t know from the outset that he’s faking it, really should get out more.  Suffice to say, after an interminable slog through an overly talky plodding build-up, Elijah, conjuring up the Beast, engineers their escape  with the masterplan of staging a confrontation between his new hulking partner and Dunn at the opening of Philadelphia’s tallest new building (hands up if you think that’s a Die Hard nod), with the aim of the resulting media coverage offering proof that super beings exist. However, being a Shyamalan film, there’s more than one masterplan going down here and, in signature fashion, the climax throws not one but two or even possibly three eyebrow-raising twists into the mix with Staple, in a narrative thread seemingly drawn from nowhere while implying it’s something you forgot from Unbreakable, proves to have a mysterious agenda far removed from research studies.

The problem is that while the first half has Shyamalan in smug, self-satisfied mode, the second, while the action sequences are punchy and Elijah’s multi-layered plans are meticulously worked out, has him being too clever for his and the film’s own good, leaving you wondering if you dozed off and missed some salient subplots or background set-ups.

McAvoy surfs through his personality changes with fluid skill, seemingly in continuous takes, while a largely dialled down Jackson uses his charisma to good effect, Willis, on the other hand, sort of walks through the film, though admittedly he’s better here than the recent spate of straight to DVD action crud he’s been recently churning out to pay the rent.

In a nice touch, Dunn’s son, Joseph, though not really given a great deal to do, is played by Spencer Treat Clark who played the same, younger, role in Unbreakable, Charlayne Woodard also reprising her turn as Elijah’s mother. Shyamalan also contrives, in a sort of Stockholm Syndrome way, to engineer the return of Anna Taylor-Joy as Casey Cooke, the girl the Beast let live in Split and who has a bond with Kevin.

There is, inevitably, extensive referencing of comic books and their conventions (at one point Elijah declares this to be an origins story), but again this feels more of a self-congratulatory touch on Shyamalan’s part rather than serving the plot’s thematic framework.

There’s some genuinely good moments, but far too few of them to sustain interest or involvement as it builds to its scrappily written somewhat anti-climactic denouement and tagged on viral footage coda. Definitely a case of Glass being half-empty rather than half full. (Empire Great Park; Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Vue Star City)

Green Book (12A)

The surprising winner of Best Picture, 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 Oscar Supporting Actor winner 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 Oscar winning Best Adapted 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, Solihull;  Empire Great Park;   Electric; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall)

Happy Death Day 2U (15)

One of the unexpected delights of 2017, the original teen horror-comedy offered an inspired cross between Groundhog Day and Scream with university studentTree Gelbman (Jessica Rothe) repeatedly being killed by someone wearing a plastic baby mask and waking up in the bed of fellow student Carter (Israel Broussard) until finally figuring out the killer’s her nursing intern roommateLori (Ruby Modine) and sending through the window. So, here’s the sequel. Inevitably sequels simply recycle the same formula to generally ever diminishing returns. Here, however,  reuniting the same cast, including Modine, director Christopher Landon and fellow writer Scott Lobdell revisit exactly the same premise and material, in exactly the same setting, but in a brilliantly fresh, inspired and inventive way. The Babyface killer is back, but this time round the slasher element very much takes a back seat  to a plot that, essentially, comes down to a quantum physics-based love story about choosing between hanging on to the past or pursuing the future.

Having broken free of the loop, now dating Carter, Tree’s life is going just fine, until his science student roommate,  Ryan (Phi Vu) wakes up on Sept 19  to find he’s now caught in a similar loop with the same killer. And then wakes up again and again. It’s all down to the Sisyphus Quantum Cooling Reactor science project he and his fellow geeks,  Dre (Sarah Yarkin) and  Samar (Suraj Sharma), are working on which inexplicably powered up on its own. No problem, just reset it.  Unfortunately, things don’t quite go to plan and, while Ryan is freed from the time loop, Tree finds herself back in it, Sept 18, the day of her birthday, with Lori and psychokiller Tombs still alive. So, first things first, dispose of evil roommate again. Except, she isn’t. On top of which when, as in the first film,Tree turns up for her birthday lunch date with dad  there a shock addition to the party. It would appear that while Tree’s trapped in a loop, the machine somehow  sent her, Spider-Verse style, to a different dimension . One in which not only did the tragedy that scarred her not happen, but Carter’s dating sorority house queen bee Danielle (Rachel Matthews) and it’s Lori not Tree who’s been having an affair with hospital lecturer Gregory (Charles Aitken).

To return to her own dimension, she and the other four students, have to figure out the algorithm that will send her back, somewhat complicated by the fact the Dean (Steve Zissis) wants to confiscate the machine because it cuts out all the power  and that, because every time she’s murdered and comes back the others are all oblivious, so she has to remember what equations didn’t work. Except, rather than wait for the killer to knife her, Tree stages her own deaths (in a very funny montage) to hurry things along.

Although the superlative Rothe’s winking performance is again the film’s energised centre as Tree undertakes a journey of self-healing, the support cast aren’t just props and Matthews gets a notable showcase turn pretending to a blind French student to distract the Dean while Landon, gleefully playing with the genre,  recreates scenes from the original film and gives them a new spin and, inevitably, engineers a scene where the teens get to discuss Back To The Future, while deftly balancing the laughs and thrills with a genuine emotional punch.  The whole point of recycling is take the original and turn it into something new, and that’s exactly what this does, and which, it is to be hoped, it can continue to do in the same ingenious manner. (Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Vue Star City)

The Hole In The Ground (15)

Making his feature debut, Irish writer-director Lee Cronin draws on familiar horror tropes and themes of maternal guilt for this often tense and unsettling nightmare in which, recently separated from an abusive husband, Sarah O’Neill (Seána Kerslake) seeks to build a new life for herself and young son Chris (James Quinn Markey)  in a backwood rural Ireland, renovating a house on the edge of the forest.

The opening scene of the pair looking at their distorted reflections in a  hall of mirrors lays the thematic ground while a scene of them playing their favourite make a face game proves crucial as things gather to a  head.

One night, Chris goes off into the woods and, searching for him, Sarah discovers a massive sinkhole. This is followed by a terrifying encounter with an aged dotty neighbour (Kati Outinen) who screams that Chris is not her boy, Sarah later discovering, from the woman’s husband (James Cosmo) that she had claimed the same about her own young son, killed in a supposed car accident. Initially dismissing it as the raving of a disturbed woman, small incidents begin to persuade Sarah that something isn’t quite right, the Chris is somehow different. And that the sinkhole is connected. Or, given she’s been put on medication, is it all in her mind? And, as her friend says, don’t kids always turn into little monsters!

Inevitably, once the suspicions give way to proof, in abandoning ambiguity the film loses much of the tension, resorting instead to generic shock moments and Sarah’s desperate struggle to save her child, the climax leaving much unanswered.  Cronin is well aware of the clichés and plays to them accordingly, playfully nodding to the likes of The Shining, The Blair Witch Project and Goodnight Mommy, the film building a  genuinely edgy atmosphere and featuring a creepy shot involving a spider. It’s B-movie horror funride rather than in the Get Out class, but it does what it does to enjoyable effect.  (Cineworld 5 Ways)

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. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; 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 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

The Kid Who Would Be King (PG)

Opening with an animated telling of the legend, writer-director Joe Cornish follows up Attack The Block with a  similar adolescents saving this world tale, a teenager rework of the King Arthur story set against a divided Britain teetering on collapse (newspaper headlines read WAR! GLOOM! FEAR! CRISIS!), as, running into a London building site to escape the school bullies, Kaye (Rhianna Dorris) and Lance (Tom Taylor), ordinary 12-year-old schoolboy Alex (Louis Ashbourne Serkis, son of motion capture maestro Andy) stumbles upon and pulls a sword out of a block of concrete.

Meeting up with equally bullied best mate Bedders (endearing newcomer Dean Chaumoo playing Sam to Alex’s Frodo), he jokes that it’s Excalibur, King Arthur’s mythical sword, as shown in the book his long absent dad left for him, dedicated to his ‘once and future king”. In fact, it turns out to be precisely that as weird, gangly new kid in class Mertin (Angus Imrie) reveals himself to be Merlin (Patrick Stewart, sporting a Led Zep t-shirt) in disguise and warns that in four days, at the time of the forthcoming eclipse, Arthur’s evil step-sister Morgana (Rebecca Ferguson) will rise from her underground prison to enslave England. To stop her and her smouldering undead warrior army, Alex must unite his misfit friends and enemies as new Knights of the Round Table, here a  drop leaf coffee table. All of which involves persuading Kaye and Lance to join his cause and abide by chivalric roles, as, accompanied by Merlin (who can change into an owl by sneezing),  all four teens trek to Tintagel Island in Cornwall, birthplace of Arthur and gate to the underworld, by way of standing stones portals, Alex hoping to also find his estranged father.

Peppered with Arthurian references (Alex’s three friends all share names with the original Knights and he lives in Mallory close, named after Thomas Mallory who wrote the poem Morte d’Arthur), including several appearances by the Lady in the Lake (or at least her hand),  it mixes together the special effects and action sequences (climaxing with a school battle as all the pupils don souvenir shop armour to battle the undead with their flaming swords) with laughs, emotional setbacks and messages about family, friendship and unity in time of trouble and strife. The plot can be a touch repetitive in places, but the young actors do a solid job, the scene stealer being Imrie, the son of Harry Potter’s Celia Imrie, who weaves his magic not with words but by complicated hand movements, and there’s a very 80s feel about things (think The Goonies, Never Ending Story, Labyrinth, etc.) rather than slicker modern American style teenage fantasy adventure movies. It may not have their fanfare and budget but, Grange Hill by way of Star Wars with an enchanted sword instead of a light sabre, it’s undeniably a Camelot of family fun, even if the ingredients in Merlin’s recipe for restoring his energy may put you off junk food for a while.  (Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel; 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 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel; Vue Star City)

On The Basis of Sex (15)

While she’s far better known in America, where (the subject of the Oscar nominated RGB documentary) she’s something of a cultural icon, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is unquestionably one of the greatest living legal legends of our time. Taking, in 1970 and as a courtroom novice, a tax case to the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals on the grounds that it discriminated against her client, Charles Moritz (Christian Mulkey), who had been refused tax relief for caring for his aged mother because he wasn’t a woman, she reversed 100 years of legal precedent and set in motion the movement to remove gender discrimination in hundreds of laws, changing forever the lives of generations of women.

Somewhat thematically echoing The Post, in which Meryl Streep had to prove herself a newspaper boss, directed by Mimi Leder and written by Ginsburg’s nephew, Daniel Stiepleman, it opens in 1956 with the young Ginsburg (Felicity Jones) becoming one of the first women to attend Harvard Law School, her husband, Marty (an all charm Armie Hammer) in the year above her.  While compressing time periods and omitting some steps along the way, it mostly faithfully proceeds to chart the next 15 years and the difficulties and barriers she had to overcome, starting with taking Marty’s classes as well as his own to help him study while recovering from testicular cancer, moving to New York and Columbia to complete her degree,  raising first one and then two kids, and her attempt to practice law constantly coming up against the profession’s deeply ingrained sexism.

The latter’s primarily embodied in the priggish Harvard Law dean Erwin Griswold (Sam Waterson), who at a welcome dinner asks the  nine women to justify why they had a place that would have gone to a man,  and the chauvinistic Harvard professor Ed Brown (Stephen Root) who wound up as opposing counsel in the 1970 case. Ultimately, she ended up  teaching law as a professor  at Rutgers University in New Jersey.

As such there’s numerous scenes involving sitting in rooms poring over books, typing up papers or arguing the finer points of law, but this is far from the dry film that would suggest. Aside from following a  familiar underdog arc, the film also spends a considerable time inside Ginsburg’s home, showing her as  a wife and a mother, at times at loggerheads with daughter Jane (an excellent Cailee Spaney in her teenage years), a rebel, social activist and every bit as stubborn and determined as her mother, but coming at things from a different generation. It’s a pity then that, while they operate on an equal footing and he was her co-counsel in the Moritz case (a tax lawyer,he suggested it to her as a means of tackling sex discrimination), the marriage between Ruth and Marty never quite sparks as it should, that more provided by her sometimes combative friendship and professional relationship with Mel Wulf (Justin Theroux), the colourful legal director of the ACLU.

Another criticism is that, just as Marty’s cancer is never again mentioned after he recovers, the film only fleetingly touches on the issue of anti-Semitism he and, more especially, Ruth would have faced. Nonetheless, with a brief but memorable cameo from Kathy Bates as activist lawyer Dorothy Kenyon and, while they look nothing alike other than being short, a focused and commanding performance, part steely determination, part self-uncertainty, by Birmingham-born Jones, this could well be the best sex you have this year.  (Cineworld 5 Ways; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham).

Second Act (12A)

Candyfloss fluff, this sees Jennifer Lopez back on the screen for the first time since 2015 with a light tale of female self-empowerment in the face of class and educational stereotyping. She may have dropped out of high school, but Maya (Lopez) is a just turned 40 chain-store assistant manager in Queens with a natural instinct for marketing and a celebrity basketball coach boyfriend (Milo Ventimiglia). However, after pitching her latest idea to her boss (Larry Miller), she’s till  passed over for promotion in favour of a more highly qualified Ivy League white jerk (Dan Bucatinsky) because she has no college degree.

To which end, as a birthday gift, Dilly (Dalton Harrod),  the computer whizz son of her best friend and co-worker Joan (a scene stealing Leah Remini), secretly decides to pimp her Facebook profile, rename her Maria and give her a Cinderella makeover, next thing she knows, she’s being approached for a position at high end Manhattan cosmetics firm run by Anderson Clarke (Treat Williams) alongside his daughter, Zoe (Vanessa Hudgens), in the belief that she’s a Harvard graduate with any number of impressive skills and accomplishments to her name.

Looking to green up their products without incurring costs or reducing profits,  Clarke sets a challenge to two teams, one, headed by the competitive Zoe and the obnoxious Ron (Freddy Stroma), will tweak an existing product, while Maya and her assistants, tightly wound Hildy (Annaleigh Ashford), oddball Ariana (Charlyne Yi in as the now obligatory cutely eccentric Chinese comic relief)  and  insecure chemist Chase (Alan Aisenberg), will come up with a whole new organic one.

However, the screenwriters seeming to have become bored with their glass ceiling plot, halfway in it delivers a major plot twist that links back to why Maya is reluctant to have a family (leading to the break-up of her relationship) from which the film never recovers, sinking into a fuzzy sentimental mother-daughter reunion/bonding  storyline in which the whole issue of female self-worth and career barriers for women largely fall by the wayside.

It’s warmly watchable enough and the leads are more than capable at playing the emotions, even if Hudgens’ character is wildly inconsistent, but, given previous moments such as a hilarious dinner scene with a prospective Chinese client where Maya is fed Mandarin through a remote earpiece by a vet and inadvertently translates an aside about anal glands, it all feels like a lesser and more confused movie. As bland fairytales go, this is better than most, but bland it is. (Walsall Showcase)

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

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here