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

NEW RELEASES

John Wick: Chapter 3 (15)

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

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

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

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

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

 

Ash Is Purest White (15)

The title referring to how volcanic ash is supposedly the whitest (a metaphor of purity forged in fire), the latest from Chinese director Jia Zhangke, adopts a jianghu – gangster – setting for a bittersweet melodrama about loyalty, betrayal and friendship that, spanning the first 18 years of the 21stcentury, also serves as a snapshot  of the changing face of China. Not intimated by the male milieu of wannabe tough guys, the sassy streetwise  Qiao (Zhao Tao) is girlfriend to  Bin (Liao Fan) who, after his boss gets bumped off, becomes the de facto leader of the local honourable criminal fraternity in his depressed mining town.  However, the times are changing and such old fashioned notions as honour have been swept aside by the new generation of mobsters, leading to an attack on Bin by  aging of young thugs where Qiao comes to his aid in a way that, by refusing to incriminate Bin who owned the illegal firearm she discharged, will see her end up serving five years in jail, he getting off with a much shorter sentence.

On her release, she expects him to be waiting for her, although the fact he hadn’t visited after his release should have told her something, that and the fact he’s blocked her calls,  and what follows involves her journey to confront him so he can tell her it’s over between them himself.

Along the way, Jia balances images of a vanishing way of life (Three Gorges villages on the Yangtze destined to be flooded for a hydroelectric dam project)  with comedic episodes as, having been robbed of her belongs, Qiao uses her wiles to survive, such as crashing a wedding party and conning likely philanders into coughing up contributions for an supposed elder sister’s  non-existent pregnancy as well as earlier getting down to the Village People’s YMCA. There’s also an eccentric but touching scene involving a  cha cha cha dancing display for someone’s funeral.

The somewhat drawn out third act returns to Shanxi where she now runs her own gambling den and the reappearance of a now greatly debilitated Bin, a stroke survivor, her jianghu code prompting her to care for him while claiming she no longer has feelings.

Liao and Zhao are mesmerising in the dance that unfolds between them across their different journeys and, while the path may sometimes by rather long and winding, travelling with them is never a chore.  (MAC)

Beats (18)

In the Summer of 1994, in response to the  Castlemorton Common Festival two years earlier, New Labour, under Tony Blair, introduced the Criminal Justice and the Public Order Act which made it illegal for a gathering of more than 20 people to assemble in the presence of music ‘wholly or predominantly characterised by the emission of a succession of repetitive beats.’ Essentially, it looked to strangle rave culture at birth. Rather inevitably, there was a wave of protests, that saw beat bangers facing off against riot police and the rise of crusty outfits such as Spiral Tribe.

Adapted from a stage play by Kieran Hurly and directed by Brian Welsh, shot in symbolic black and white with just touches of red (save for an extended trance sequence), its setting amid the urban decay of West Lothian might prompt Trainspotting comparisons (not least since it includes Laura Fraser), but this is more of a Scottish Easy Rider, the protagonists here being Johnno (first timer Cristian Ortega), who, sporting a sensible haircut and bemusedly forever looking as if he’s expecting the worst, is best mates with Spanner (Lorn Macdonald, perhaps inevitably calling to mind Ewan Bremner’s Spud), a wiry, hyper-energetic teenager with a sort of pre-Peaky Blinders cut who lives under the shadow and the fist of his criminal hardman brother Fido (Neil Leiper).

The friendship is threatened however by the imminent move by Johnno’s mother (Fraser) and policeman stepfather Robert (Brian Ferguson) with his regulation moustache to a more ‘upmarket’ suburban home, that and the fact mom regards Spanner and his family as scum. In one last hurrah, Spanner persuades Johnno to come with him to an illegal outdoor rave party being organised by an older pirate DJ D Man (Ross Mann) and his female crew (Amy Manson, Rachel Macdonald, Gemma McElhinney) to which the Spanner contributes the wad of drug money notes he’s stolen off Fido, fully aware of the inevitable consequences.

Wall to wall with rave classic from the likes of Leftfield, Orbital. The Prodigy, Plastikman and Joey Beltram, this is clearly targeted at a niche audience, one that can also hopefully understand the sometimes thick Scottish accents and, like its photography, the narrative is also pretty much black and white in drawing its lines between the establishment and rebellious and often disenfranchised youth, adults and their kids. But what it lacks in subtlety, it makes up for in the visual energy, its themes of tight friendship and the desire, indeed the need, to experience life before the lights go out, and the two terrific central performances by Ortega and MacDonald bonded by a love that has nothing to do with queer readings. The full-colour, psychedelic MDMA trip  may be excessively prolonged, leaving you feeling like you’re trapped in a Prodigy video, but otherwise Beats is slamming.  (Cineworld 5 Ways; Mockingbird)

 

Bel Canto (15)

Adapted from Ann Patchett’s pre 9/11 novel inspired by a 1996 Peru hostage crisis, this unfolds in an unnamed South American country to where Japanese industrialist Hosokawa (Ken Watanabe) has been invited to attend a diplomatic dinner intended to butter him up over investing in a new factory, although the real reason he’s accepted is because he persuaded them to book his favourite opera singer, the celebrated Roxanne Cross (Julianne Moore), as the entertainment.

However, she’s barely sung a few notes (dubbed by Renee Fleming) when armed rebels storm in looking for the President. However, he’s opted to stay home and watch his favourite soap, so commandant Benjamin (Tenoch Huerta)  finds himself unexpectedly  landed with a roomful of hostages, among them the French ambassador (Christopher Lambert), a Russian businessman (Olek Krupa), and Hosokawa’s  Japanese translator (Ryo Kase) who gets to serve as the go between in various conversations and also plays crucial role in a Stockholm syndrome romantic subplot involving one of the rebels (Maria Mercedes Coroy). Though  Sebastian Koch as Messer, the Red Cross negotiator, the rebels, with no real idea of what to do, demand the release of their political prisoner colleagues (their cause is seen as a just one even if their methods are not), the women and ill being let go as the drama plays out over and extended but never specified timeframe.  As such, friendships are formed between captors and captives, a fairly inevitable romance blossoms and sympathies are engaged before it predictably ends in  a bloodbath (prior to which only one hostage is accidentally shot). Directed by co-writer Paul Weitz with much of the dialogue subtitled, it offers several very human moments that makes the outcome all the more tragic and bitter. (MAC)

 

Breakthrough (12A)

In 2015, three Missouri boys fell through ice on a frozen lake, two clambered out but the third, John Smith (Marcel Ruiz)  sank to the bottom, spending 15 minutes underwater before firemen pulled him out and he was rushed to hospital. He had no pulse and attempts to revive him failed. But then his devout Christian adoptive mom, Joyce (Chrissy Metz), arrived and prayed to God, and he returned to life, the impossibly smiley Middle America community coming together to pray and he eventually fully recovering with no neurological damage. As directed by Roxann Dawson, this marks another entry into the Christian faith-based  genre, offering an inspirational story even if it never countenances any other possible explanations (such as the intense cold actually stopping him drowning), the soulful fireman  (Mike Colter) coming to re-examine his atheism and the surgeon (Dennis Haysbert) all but declaring it  a miracle. The only suggestion of doubt comes from John’s father, Brian (Josh Lucas), who gets to beat himself up for not having strong enough faith to think even God could pull this one off, but a widowed teacher’s question of why God choses to save some and not others is dismissed almost as soon as it’s raised in much the same way as John’s feelings of being unwanted or Joyce’s own backstory are just cursory narrative asides.

Regardless of whether you buy into the beliefs, there’s no denying the film has inspirational power (as well as paying due respect to the medical teams, although Joyce does berate one doctor for daring to talk negatively in her son’s comatose presence), most notably in a scene as the community and John’s schoolfriends gather outside the hospital to sing for him to wake up, the incident also bringing traditionalist Joyce and their  new progressive pastor (Topher Grace) together after  previously being at loggerheads. Ultimately, it’s preaching to the choir, but some of the notes have resonance beyond the church doors. (Cineworld NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Woman At War (12A)

Directed and co-written by Iceland’s Olafur Egilsson, there’s whimsical echoes of Finland’s Aki Kaurismäki in the way that three male musicians (piano, accordion, trumpet, tuba and drum) and three Ukranian female singers (in traditional dress) regularly appear in key scenes to provide the accompanying sound track  as both bystanders and commentators. They afford just one of the many delights in this enviro-protest themed comedy in which Halla (Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir), a Reykjavik choir director, conducts an anonymous one-woman eco activist crusade against the energy corporations which she believes are  affecting the climate  and the countryside, using a bow and arrow to bring down power lines. Dubbed Mountain Woman by the local press, she’s particularly keen to scupper a possible deal with the Chinese to build a power plant. The only one who what she’s up to is Baldvin (Jörundur Ragnarsson), one of the  choir and a ministry official, but now he’s getting nervous about the government backlash  and her increasingly dramatic actions. She’s also given a hand to evade the police by Sveinbjörn (Jóhann Sigurðarson), a gruff but kindly sheep farmer who might possibly be a cousin.

As Halla’s campaign heads to a climax, she gets a letter telling her that her long forgotten application to adopt (reinforcing the mother/caretaker theme) has been approved and there’s a young Ukrainian orphan girl waiting for her. Not of course that that’s going to happen if she’s nabbed by the authorities. At which point, it should be mentioned that Halla has an identical equally idealistic twin sister,  Ása (Geirharðsdóttir), a meditation and yoga teacher who’s about to take off to an ashram in India for two years. It’s not hard to see how this gimmick will play out, but that doesn’t detract from the gleeful manner in which the plot unfurls or the pleasure to be had in Geirharðsdóttir’s twin performances while Juan Camillo Roman Estrada puts in an amusing running joke as a luckless Spanish tourist who keeps getting arrested for Halla’s deeds. A deadpan joy. (Electric)

 

ALSO PLAYING

Amazing Grace (U)

 Shot in 1972 by Sydney Pollack, legal and technical issues have long prevented this concert documentary from being made public, not least Aretha Franklin’s own refusal to give permission and the fact that Pollock, unused to music documentaries, filmed it in a way that it was impossible to synch the sound and the pictures. Time and technology, and Franklin’s passing,  have finally solved all that, so here (albeit somewhat truncated) is the late Queen of Soul, then 29, recording her new live album at the New Temple Missionary Baptist church in Los Angeles, including Wholly Holy and a barnstorming version of the title song.  (Empire Great Park)

 

Asbury Park: Riot, Redemption, Rock & Roll (12A)

Part documentary on the history of  New Jersey’s Asbury Park itself, the seaside resort’s decline under unemployment and a revival of its fortunes through rock n roll and the Upstage club where Steven Van Zandt, Southside Johnny Lyon and Bruce Springsteen got their start. Featuring interviews with the musician and never before  seen  performances, this serves as a useful appetite whetter for Springsteen’s upcoming new album. (Wed: Everyman)

 

The Ponds (12A)

A documentary about the three swimming ponds in Hampstead Heath and the people who swim in them all year round, regardless the weather, shot over a year to capture the changing of the seasons. (Sat: MAC)

 

 

NOW SHOWING

A Dog’s Journey (PG)

The second adaptation of W Bruce Cameron’s two connected novels isn’t so much a sequel to A Dog’s Purpose as a retelling as the dog in question goes through another string of incarnations returning in different breeds and genders. Opening where the first ended, after assorted incarnations, Bailey (voiced by Josh Gad) is now reunited and living with his boy, Ethan (Dennis Quaid), on the farm he shares with wife Hannah (Marg Helgenberger), the childhood sweetheart he reunited him with. The couple are caring for their granddaughter CJ, her wannabe country singer mother, Gloria (Betty Gilpin), Hannah’s daughter-in-law, a heavy-drinking harridan since her husband died prior to their daughter’s birth.

After a particularly nasty outburst, Gloria takes the toddler and heads off out of her in-laws lives and as Bailey prepares to go to that great kennel in the sky, Ethan tells him to come back and look after CJ just as he did him.

And so it is that, some years later, Gloria more distant and obnoxious than ever, that, with the help of Asian best friend Trent (Ian Chen and Henry Lau as the older version) the 11-year-old CJ (Abby Ryder Fortson) comes to adopt stray spaniel Molly who looks after her, providing the love she doesn’t get from mom, chasing off unsuitable boyfriends before eventually ending up with the now grown CJ (Kathryn Prescott with shades of a young Jodie Foster), also following songwritinghttps://www.folkradio.co.uk/2019/05/the-maes-the-maes/ dreams but lacking self-confidence,  as Yorkshire terrier Max with an inherited plot device ability to sniff out cancer, bringing friends and families back together for reconciliations and redemptions and kickstarting another delayed romance.

It took four screenwriters to come up with this saccharine canine corn, shamelessly tugging at the tear ducts every few scenes even if it does touch on a few darker moments like pet death, but you’d have to be a real Cruella cynic to resist its puppy charm and eagerness to give you a big wet lick. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel; 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. (Mon-Wed: MAC)

 

Avengers: Endgame (12A)

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

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

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

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

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. (Sat-Thu: MAC)

Captain Marvel (12A)

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.  (Odeon Broadway Plaza; Vue Star City)

The Curse of La Llorona (15)

Yet another off the horror conveyor belt involving some scary female demon who takes it upon themselves to make an unfortunate family’s life hell, this one’s based on the Mexican legend of the Weeping Woman (a sort of Hispanic answer to the Woman in Black) who is the ghost of a woman who drowned her two sons in revenge for her husband taking off with a younger woman, her appearance always heralding misfortune. Here, it’s a bit more specific in that, sporting the obligatory white dress, her spirit (Marisol Ramirez) goes around killing the children of poor mothers.

Set in 1973, her latest target is widowed LA social worker Anna Garcia (Linda Cardellini), called up as a curse by a grief-mad mother (Patricia Velásquez) whose two sons were drowned by La Llorona after Garcia put them into foster care. Now, she has her sights and bony hands set on Garcia’s kids Samantha (Jaynee-Lynne Kinchen) and Chris (Roman Christou).  A priest, Tony Amendola in a franchise cross-over as Annabelle’s Father Perez declines to get involved because of his experiences with the possessed doll, leaving the job of seeing her off to priest turned faith healer Rafael (Better Call Saul’s Raymond Cruz).

First time director Michael Chaves dutifully works his way through the genre manual with squeaking doors, shadowy figures, jump scares, shrill score, although only a bathtime scene even remotely works, while the cast have the endure their own horrors of delivering the exposition heavy dialogue while struggling to hold on to characters that have less substance than La Llorona herself. Awful. (Cineworld 5 Ways; NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

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 Thandie 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.  (Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile (15

Already available on Sky, this biopic of notorious American serial killer Ted Bundy, a dramatised version of events by director Joe Berlinger who also made the Bundy documentary, Conversations With A Killer, is worth catching on the big screen, if only to fully enjoy a knockout performance from Zac Efron as the psychotic but incredibly charming Bundy (girls swooned over him at his trial) who also had a brilliant legal mind (he conducted his own defence after firing his attorney) in his attempts to persuade the jury – and America -that he as an innocent man fitted up by the police. It’s based on the memoir by Elizabeth Kendall (Lily Collins), Bundy’s single mother girlfriend who inadvertently played a significant role in bringing him to justice, with whom he lived a happy family life, even when he was out murdering other young women, while Kaya Scodelarion plays Carole Anne Boone, an old friend and colleague whom he married in court while she was testifying on his behalf. Also featuring  Haley Joel Osment as Liz’s co-worker who moves in when Ted’s imprisoned, Jim Parsons as the Florida prosecutor and a deliciously dry  John Malkovich as the murder trial judge, the film manages to be both funny and tender without ever diluting the horror and enormity of the crimes.  (Showcase Walsall)

 

The Hustle (12A)

A shameless attempt to put a gender spin on the Michael Caine-Steve Martin con comedy Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (itself a remake of the Marlon Brando/David Niven Bedtime Story), this has Anne Hathaway doing a lightly comic turn as Josephine  Chesterfield, a sophisticated con artist with an uptight English accent who, with the connivance of the local police chief (Ashley McGuire), her butler (Nicholas Woodeson) and apparently the entire local hotel staff,  works the Riviera from her luxury home in Beaumont-sur-Mer. Then, looking to up her game beyond New York, into her life comes blusteringly unsubtle low rent hustler Australian Penny Rust (Rebel Wilson) who calls her a “librarian’s corpse, but less lively” and is in turn described as a  big-titted Russell Crowe. First meeting on a train, Josephine’s attempts to eliminate any possible competition backfire as Penny turns up proposing to join forces, but settling for being an intern, unaware its part of a plot to make her leave.

A partnership of sorts if formed as the pair scam a stream of rich men lured into Josephine’s honey trap thinking she’s British royalty (the rationale being, as she explains, men will never believe a woman is smarter than they are) while Penny plays the deranged sister Hortense who sends them packing, always leaving a ring behind. But then the dynamic changes when the pair become rivals to see who, Penny posing as a blind woman and Josephine a German doctor, can, initially, con $500,000 out of a naïve tech millionaire (Alex Sharp) and then, when the stakes are upped, who can bed him first. The winner takes all, the loser takes off.

There’s some amusing banter and a couple of decent comic set pieces, but far too often the lines and the plot fall flat, frequently resorting to Wilson’s now rather tiresome routine of getting laughs out of her weight, while, unlike Caine and Martin, there’s just no chemistry or spark between the pair. Storylines are dropped at random, the plot increasingly makes no sense and anyone who can’t spot where the twist is coming has clearly never seen a con movie before. At one point Penny hides from her pursuers by posing as a garbage bag. In many ways that’s an apt metaphor for the film. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Little (12A)

A gender and race spin on the Tom Hanks film Big directed and co-written by Tina Gordon,  here, bullied by the mean girl (Eva Carlton) at eighth grade in the 90s, nerdy Jordan Sanders (Marsai Martin) grows up to become the high-flying boss (Regina Hall) of her own tech company and, in a  form of twisted revenge for the abuse she suffered , because as her dad told her “no one bullies the boss,  a workplace bully in her own right, demandingly making life hell for her employees and especially loyal P.A. April (Issar Rae) who, we’re quickly shown, has her own under-appreciated tech talents and who, although she gives the A for available come on to the studs she meets, also has a secret attraction to fellow worker Preston (Tone Bell) even if that strand never really goes anywhere.

However, when Preston’s rude to Stevie, the daughter (Marley Taylor) of a mobile donut van salesman, who does  ‘magic’ tricks outside the office, the weird kid waves her magic wand and wishes Jordan was little. And, indeed, the next day, she wakes up to find herself back in the body of her big hair 13-year-old self, having to delegate running the company to April, just when their obnoxious biggest client (Mikey Day) has given them 48 hours to impress him or he walks,  and forced by social services to go to her old school where she’s inevitably once more picked on by the class mean girl (Carlton again), hanging out with the other social rejects and, naturally, learning some life lessons about humility, being who you are, being nice to people, not thinking you have to be a bitch and emotionally aloof to protect yourself from being hurt  and generally not becoming the same as those who try to hold you back. Meanwhile, April, who now has to pose as her boss’s aunt, has the chance to vent some hidden feelings about Jordan as well as find courage to let her own light shine.

Along the way, there’s also some amusing/touching moments as the miniaturised Jordan befriends class misfits Riana (Thalia Tran), Isaac (JD McCrary) and Devon (Tucker Meek) and gets to hear her grown up occasional lover, Trevor (Luke James ), who thinks she’s Jordan’s daughter, confess how he feels about her ‘mom’.

The adult/child body transformation genre has been well-worked over the years, but while this is the first black take it never addresses the race or gender aspects as any sort of issue, preferring to follow more of a Devil Wears Prada tack. It repeatedly lays repeats its message right up to the closing line  just so you don’t miss the point and it has to be said that the scenes between schoolgirl  Jordan making eyes or coming on to both her dreamboat teacher (Justin Hartley), and  Trevor are somewhat uncomfortable viewing. It also totally glosses over explaining, especially to the wanna-be step-dad, the disappearance of her ‘daughter’ once Jordan reverts to her grown-up self.

Nonetheless, for all the haphazard plotting and misfiring moments (the gag about the late Diff’rent Strokes child star Gary Coleman gag feels tasteless), there’s breezy laughs to be had about child/adult world clashes (mostly involving booze and Jordan’s BMW) along with the inspirational moments and, inevitable makeover (clothes as confidence statements) and gratuitous song sequences (as April and young Jordan mime to Mary J. Blige’s “I’m Going Down in a restaurant). Even so, it’s the central performances rather than the story or the moral that elevates this, Hall making the most of her bookending appearances, Rae, impressive as the awkward, insecure April,  and Martin who, swaggering into school in a hot pink pantsuit, is an absolute dynamo. Having pitched the film’s concept when she was 10 and, at 13,  Hollywood’s youngest ever exec producer, it’s clear she’s already a power player in the industry on an Opra Winfrey trajectory. Here’s hoping she takes the film’s lessons to heart on her journey. (Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Vue Star City)

Long Shot (15)

Not only is Charlize Theron the sexiest actress on screen today, she’s also one of the most talented and versatile, switching from action to drama to comedy without skipping a beat. And it’s her comedic side that illuminates Jonathan Levine’s political parody veined romcom, one which trawls its narrative variously from Notting Hill, Dave and Love, Actually by way of some stray semen a la Something About Mary. She’s Charlotte Field, the elegantly poised US Secretary of State, a passionate environmentalist since high school who, when the blustering incumbent President (Bob Odenkirk) tells her he’s not going to run for re-election because, an ex TV star (playing the President), he wants to transition to movies, declares she’s going to run for office, with his endorsement.

Her aides, Maggie (a slyly hilarious June Diane Raphael) and Tom (Ravi Patel), tell her she needs to beef up her image a little and make her speeches punchier. To which end enter Fred Flarsky (Seth Rogen), a tell it like it is scruffy liberal Brooklyn journalist who, before he resigned after sleazy corporate media magnate  Parker Wembley (a Rupert Murdoch send-up with Andy Serkis sporting a bulbous prosthetic nose) took over the paper, wrote columns with titles such as Why The Two-Party System Can Suck A Dick. Field, then his neighbour, used to babysit when he was thirteen and he still harbours a crush, not to mention an embarrassing memory of a tweenage stiffie. They meet up again at a swanky party featuring a Boyz To Men set to which, still wearing the windbreaker that seems to comprise his entire wardrobe,  he’s been taken by his high-flyer best friend (O’Shea Jackson) and where, after telling Wembley what he thinks of him, Fred goes flying down the stairs with the video (in a taste of what’s to come) going viral. Nonetheless, Field’s impressed (Maggie less so) and he’s hired on to punch up her speeches, initially by adding a few jokes but then in writing the whole thing.

One of the reasons he agrees is her commitment to her campaign to forge an international environmental agreement, the only stumbling block being certain vested interst who’d rather it didn’t happen, Wembley naturally being one of them.

It’s no spoiler to say that, the more time they spend together, the closer the ostensibly chalk and cheese Fred and Charlotte grow, especially after a terrorist attack. Not to say that the path to true love doesn’t come without some bumps and potholes involving personal and political compromise, climaxing, and I use the term advisedly, with a blackmail proposition that could make or break Field’s campaign.

It’s fairly standard romcom stuff, but Liz Hannah and Dan Sterling’s smart and witty screenplay lifts it several notches while, ably assisted by Patel and Raphael,  Rogen and Theron’s  chemistry and flawless comic timing and delivery keep it there. Watching a stoned Field negotiate a hostage crisis is a particular highlight.

A couple of misogynistic Fox-News styled talk show hosts and  Alexander Skarsgard channelling  Justin Trudeau as the dorky would be playboy Canadian PM (and his fake laugh) add to the laughs while the script slips in some never overplayed observations about political double standards, compromise and female empowerment. Hugely enjoyable and if, rather like the Hugh Grant storyline in Love, Actually, the crowd-pleasing feelgood ending  may be an unrealistic romantic fantasy, it does show a winning optimism about the American voter.(Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Mockingbird; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Pokémon Detective Pikachu (PG)

Not even the most ardent Pokemon fan would have thought another animated feature would be a good idea, so relief all round that, directed by  Rob Letterman,who made Goosebumps, this is a live action/CGI reboot of the franchise, a sort of family friendly answer to  The Happytime Murders. Following his detective father Harry’s apparent death in a car accident, estranged son Tim Goodman  (Justice Smith) travels to Ryme City, a sprawling metropolis created by tech-visionary Howard Clifford (Bill Nighy) as a place where humans and their Pokemons can live together in peace and Pokemon battles are illegal (though they still happen). Here, Tim (a loner who has no Pokémon of his own) runs into his dad’s amnesiac, electricity-discharging furry yellow Pokémon partner, Pikechu (voiced in Deadpool sardonic manner by Ryan Reynolds), and discovers that, after inhaling the purple gas from a capsule in dad’s apartment, that, unlike other humans and Pokémons, they can understand one another. Unfortunately, the gas has a different effect on Pokémons, turning their ultra-violent. All of which, it seems, is part of a plan by Clifford’s resentful son Roger (Chris Geere) to destroy his father’s vision by unleashing mayhem during the upcoming celebratory parade, something in which a genetically created Mewtwo (seen sending Harry’s car off the bridge in the opening) would seem to be instrumental.

Naturally, as Tim and Pikechu join forces with Lucy Stevens (Kathryn Newton), an aspirant TV news reporter with a Nancy Drew streak and a  Psyduck Pokémon (basically a passive-aggressive walking bomb), not everything is as it seems.

A film noir for kids that echoes Who Framed Roger Rabbit? it possesses a knowing sense of humour, the wisecracking Pikechu sporting  a Sherlock Holmes deerstalker and a coffee addiction, to complement the often dizzying action sequences. An encounter with a jester-like Pokémon mime is particularly funny, but there’s many amusing throwaways to keep youngsters and grown-ups happy as the plot wanders through some inevitable bonding, friendship, father-son issues and keep them distracted from a somewhat obvious twist. Smith immerses himself in the whole Pokémon world to natural effect while Reynolds tosses off his snarky asides and one-liners with precision timing while Rita Ora puts in a brief flashback cameo as a Pokémon neurologist. For once, the prospect of a sequel is actually something to look forward to rather than dread.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Shazam! (12A)

The original Captain Marvel when he first appeared in Whiz Comics 1940, adopting the Shazam name when relaunched by DC in 1972, by which time Marvel had their own Captain. The name comes from the magic word orphaned misfit Billy Batson speaks to transform into his adult super-hero alter ego, taking on the powers transferred to him by the ancient wizard Shazam.

Here, Billy (Asher Angel) isn’t an orphan but, having lost his mother at a fairground when he was much younger, he is a troubled 14-year-old who’s been through an array of foster homes, ending  up becoming part of Victor (Cooper Andrews) and Maria (Marta Milans) Vasquez’s extended multi-ethnic Philadelphia foster family which includes gaming nerd Eugene (Ian Chen), college student den mother Mary (Grace Fulton), shy Pedro (Jovan Armand), young but extrovert Darla (a winning Faithe Herman) and disabled sarcastic super-hero nut Freddy (scene-stealing Jack Dylan Granger).

Shortly after Billy intervenes as Freddy’s being set on by the school bullies, he takes the subway train only to suddenly find himself stepping out into a mysterious underground cavern occupied by the aforementioned ancient wizard (Djimon Hounsou) who’s been waiting years to find someone pure of heart to whom he can cede his powers. Indeed, the film opens with him testing another youngster, Thaddeus Sivana, only for the kid to be tempted by the power offered by the stone figures embodying the seven deadly sins. Billy, however, for all his attitude, is the real deal and, commanded in a knowing double entendre to place his hands on the old man’s staff, lighting flares and he finds himself transformed into the buffed adult Shazam (Zachary Levi) sporting the famous red costume with its white cape and yellow lightning bolt insignia.

Revealing himself to Freddy, the latter’s first concern is what super powers he possesses, while Billy tests out his new grown-up self by buying beer, the film having great fun with the concept of an innocent young kid revelling at being inside an adult body, in much the same way as did Tom Hanks in Big. Or Tom Holland’s undisguised glee at being Spider-Man.

The fun, however, comes to an abrupt end when, having spent a lifetime researching stories about those who had a similar experience to himself, now a grown and wealthy scientist estranged from his contemptuous father and brother Sivana (Mark Strong making the most of a so so bad guy) sets out to first become host body to the seven deadly sins, which materialise from him to his biddings, and then wrest Shazam’s power from Billy for himself.

Being honest, it’s not much of a plot and what there is touches familiar bases involving friendship, loyalty, the importance of family alongside the staple slugfests between hero and villain. What makes it such a delight, however, is the sheer exuberant fizz a constantly beaming Levi and director David F. Sandberg bring to proceedings and the knowing self-awareness of its cheesy, corny nature, the film both an irreverent Deadpoolish superhero satire and an unabashed affectionate love letter to the genre complete with plentiful mentions of both Batman and Superman, including a hilarious ‘leap tall buildings at a single bound’ gag.

It’s a little less successful when it plays the emotional cards, such as Billy tracking down the mom who abandoned him and the sentimental family bondings, but, unlike recent DC Universe offerings and the current interwoven Marvel saga, this plays light rather than dark, from a montage of Freddy testing out Billy’s new powers to a last act introduction to the whole Shazam! Family (with cameos that include Adam Brody and Meagan Good) that, along with obligatory end credits scene, sets things up for a welcome sequel. The word is good. (Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Tolkien (12A)

The Tolkien estate has disavowed this biopic of  JRR Tolkien’s early years prior to writing The Lord of the Rings. Which might lead you to think director Dome Karuskowsi has played fast and loose with the author’s legacy. Not so. Unfolding as a journey of experiences that would inspire his fantasy classics, the film does get the chronology wrong in that, on arriving from South Africa, the young John Ronald Reuel (Harry Kilby), brother Hilary (largely absent from the story) and widowed mother Mabel (Laura Donnelly) actually lived in Kings Heath before relocating to the then Worcestershire village of Sarehole (the film having it the other way round) and eventually Rednal, where Mabel died from diabetes, but otherwise it seems fairly factually accurate. It is, however, largely plodding, going to heavy handed lengths to have you associate people, places and events with Tolkien’s famed books.

The story begins in earnest when, after Mabel’s death, the two brothers move into an Edgbaston boarding house and John, who, home schooled by mom. can recite Chaucer from memory, in the original, and has invented his own language, gets accepted into King Edwards and forms a bond with fellow pupils Christopher Wiseman (Ty Tennant/Tom Glynn-Carney), a sensitive poet, aspirant composer Geoffrey Bache Smith (Adam Bregman/Anthony Boyle) and headmaster’s son Robert Gilson (Albie Marber/Patrick Gibson), the four of them forming the T.C.B.S. literary society, named after their favourite local tearoom. Clearly templates for Frodo’s chums,  the fellowship (as the film stresses) continues when Tolkien and Smith go to Oxford and the others to Cambridge.

With Nicholas Hault as the grown Tolkien, the film’s framed between a sick Tolkien searching for an old friend at the battle of the Somme (helped by a soldier tellingly named Sam) and his flashbacks, among these being his growing relationship with future wife Edith Bratt (Lily Collins), a free spirited fellow orphan with a prophetic thing for Wagner’s Ring Cycle, who also lived at the boarding house, working as companion to the prissy Mrs. Faulker (Pam Ferris). They embark on a romance but, when Tolkien fails his first Oxford entrance exam, he’s told by his priest guardian (Colm Meaney) to choose between Edith (who’s a Protestant) and academia.

Cut back to Oxford where, having been sent down after a drunken incident following some bad news, Tolkien gets a second chance when he switches classes to that of Philology Professor Wright (Derek Jacobi) but, no sooner has he done so than war’s declared and all four friends head off to do battle.

The film is good at the small details (John and Edith did actually throw sugar lumps into the hats of fellow tearoom diners) and there’s an amusing Peter Jackson in-joke when one character remarks that six hours is a bit long to tell a story about a  ring, but the framework on which these are hung is all rather predictable and pedestrian. While Hault does his best with the screenplay, there’s not much meat on its bones to feed off and, while he and Collins have chemistry, the romantic spark never ignites, while the battle scenes take off into Tolkien’s hallucinated CGI monsters and dragons designed to evoke his subsequent literary masterpieces, the film ending on the word Hobbit.  Reverential and sympathetic to its subject, it’s a polite addition to the BritLit period canon which could, perhaps, have done with a little more fire to have given the estate grounds for outrage. Still, at least you learn how to actually pronounce Tolkien.(Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Electric; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Reel; Showcase Walsall)

 

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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