MOVIE ROUND-UP:This Week’s New Film Releases, Fri May 31-Thu Jun 6

 

 

NEW RELEASES

Godzilla: King Of Monsters (12A)

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

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

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

 

High Life (18)

An airless science-fiction dystopian drama that evokes comparisons to Tarkovsky’s Solaris, and not in a good way, French filmmaker Claire Denis’s English-language debut stars future Batman Robert Pattinson in a monotone role as Monte, one of a crew of prisoners aboard a shipping container-like vessel, named 7, travelling through deep space towards the nearest black hole and headed up by Dr. Dibs (Juliette Binoche), herself a convict, who’s conducting a procreation experiment in which the men (Andre Benjamin, Lars Eidinger and Ewan Mitchell), other than the celibate Monte, have to donate their sperm in return for sleeping pills to impregnate the women (Mia Goth, Agata Buzek, Claire Tran and Gloria Obianyo),whose offspring are then taken away to grow in an incubator.

The film opening with Monte caring for a young baby and sending the lifeless bodies of the other prisoners into space, all this unfolds in non-linear flashbacks (including to Monte’s childhood) as Denis traces the dynamic and conflicts between the condemned criminals as violence inevitably erupts.

With scenes that include one of the women covered in useless breast milk, an impregnating rape and Binoche’s character thrashing about in the ‘fuckbox’ masturbation chamber astride a silver dildo, it’s resolutely provocative, dark and violent. Unfortunately, while visually intoxicating, it’s also drawn out, chilly and rather tedious and torpid, a film that invites you to appreciate its technical design and thematic but which is singularly impossible to enjoy.  (Until Wed: MAC)

 

The Last Witness (15)

In April and May 1940, Soviet Union forces executed some  22,000 Polish soldiers and civilians, members of the intelligentsia, the massacre being named after the mass graves found in the forest at Katyn in Poland. Russia, however, declared that the killings had been carried out in 1941 by the Nazis, a story upheld by both America and the UK, both countries at pains not to upset or alienate Stalin. After the war, Stalin’s secret police proceeded to eliminate any witnesses. It was not until 1990 that Russian acknowledged what had happened, events confirmed by the USA. It was not until 2003 that British government conceded its role in the cover-up. It has never been recognised as a war crime.

This serves as the basis for director Piotr Szkopiak’s film, adapted from a stage play by Paul Szambowski, a fictionalised account in which, in post-war England, a dogged West Country journalist, Stephen Underwood (Alex Pettyfer), starts digging deeper into a spate of the supposed suicides by  Polish soldiers which are being ascribed to trauma. Naturally, his editor (Michael Gambon) put under pressure, he’s fired from his paper and his theories rejected as an overactive imagination. But then, with the help of  officer lover Jeanette (Talulah Riley) and Polish Colonel Januzs Pietrowski (Will Thorp), he tracks down Michael Loboda (Robert Wieckiewicz), the real life last surviving witness.

It’s clearly a  story that needs telling, so it’s a pity that Szkopiak’s thriller, dedicated to his grandfather, one of the victims, is such a humdrum affair, stodgily directed, clunkily written and, for the most, flatly acted with a script that never really makes characters’ motivations clear while the chemistry between Pettyfer and Riley is virtually non-existent. The screening will be followed by a live Q&A with the director, producer and cinematographer. (Sat:MAC)

 

Styx (12A)

Although it’s not initially clear, the responder we see treating a car crash victim at the start of the film (the scene has nothing to do with what follows) is Rike (Susanne Wolff),a  German doctor who, when we next see her, is setting off on in her yacht, Asa-Gray, a one-woman  sailing holiday from Gibraltar to Ascension Island in the Atlantic. It’s 20 minutes in before there’s any audible dialogue, even longer 15 before the film’s central thrust kicks in when, the morning after a  storm, she comes across a damaged fishing trawler packed with refugees. Her yacht too small to accommodate everyone, she radios it in and the coastguard say they’ll send help. Hours pass and nothing happens. She gets closer and throws some water bottles into the sea. Seeing her, several jump into the ocean, but only one makes it to her boat, a young African teenager who calls himself Kingsley (Gedion Oduor) who she pulls from the water barely alive and nurse shim back to consciousness. He says his sister is on the boat and asks her to go back. He coastguard tell her in no uncertain terms to do no such thing. She hails another ship who refuse to help because it would go against company policy. Meanwhile, the trawler is in danger of sinking. Eventually she has to make a decision.

Directed in quasi documentary style by Wolfgang Fischer from a screenplay he wrote with Ika Kuenzel based on a true story, it’s a claustrophobically filmed affair, the title referring to the mythical river from this world to the next. As such, between her sense of an ethical obligation and the refusal of others to get involved or the lack of urgency in doing so, it addresses themes of racism, empathy and common humanity with a  backdrop of Western indifference towards refugees to compelling effect.  (Mon-Wed:MAC)

 

Thunder Road (15)      

Opening with cop Jim Arnaud (Jim Cummings) giving an emotional, long, cringeworthy, rambling and often embarrassingly free associating confessional eulogy that veers between tears and nervous laughter at his mother’s funeral, at which he can’t get the titular Springsteen song to work on the cassette player and resorts to a  theatrical performance in front of a dumbfounded congregation that goes viral on the Internet, this is very much a Marmite movie. If you don’t buy into that monologue, then the rest of the film, which follows Jim, who insists on reporting for work despite being clearly disturbed, as he gradually unravels under the weight of grief, humiliation, the fact his estranged wife (Jocelyn DeBoer) is divorcing him and he’s caught in a custody battle for his indifferent young daughter, Crystal (Kendal Farr), is going to be  painful watch. In fact, it is regardless.

His daughter shows him no affection even though he stays up nights learning the games she likes to play and, normally an efficient if overzealous patrol cop, he’s patently losing it, an argument with his African-American partner and best friend Nate (Nican Robinson) seeing him suspended from duty. Added to which, he physically threatens Crystal’s teacher (Macon Blair) he tells him she’s an acting-out problem child.

Basically, Jim’s life is a mess largely down to the fact he always outs his own need before anyone else’s, family included and refuses to see that things aren’t fine. However, an accident offers him an unexpected chance to mend his relationship with his daughter. He just need to work out what he has to do to become the best dad ever.

Cummings, who also wrote and directed (the film’s an expanded version of a short he made in 2016), immerses himself totally in the tragicomedy, his screenplay piling on the pathos alongside the palpable repressed rage so that you never quite know how to react as he exposes every raw nerve or in scenes such as the one where, his over-protective father instincts kicking in, he intervenes in what he sees as two boys coming on to a teenage girl in a parking lot.

Essentially a film about the damage repressed anger and self-loathing can do until life forces you to grow up, it strikes clear chords with the despair in America’s heartland as everything falls apart. It will irritate many, others it will tear to shreds. (Electric)

ALSO PLAYING

Ma (15)

Screening times meant there was no way to review this Octavia Spencer starring horror, but you can pretty much know what to expect from the trailer. An assistant to Alison Janney’s vet (and hence having access to all sorts of drugs),  Sue Ann (Spencer) is a smalltown Ohio loner with a traumatic past who, one day, is approached by Maggie (Diana Silvers), who’s just moved into town with her cocktail waitress mom (Juliette Lewis), to buy booze for her and her friends. She seizes on this as a chance to make some new friends of her own (one of them dubs her Ma), inviting them to come party in her basement, the only rules being no swearing, someone stays sober and nobody goes upstairs. Naturally, someone does and that’s when it hits the fan as Ma’s growing obsession  shifts from hospitality to horror with a narrative that can’t help but recall Misery and other such vengeful stalker fare. Spencer, who won as Oscar for The Help (also directed by Tate Taylor) may be slumming it in a predictable Blumhouse B movie in which a bunch of disrespectful teens get what’s coming to them, but there’s no denying the class she brings. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

NOW SHOWING

Aladdin (PG)

Released in 1992 and featuring a breathless voice performance by Robin Williams, Disney’s 90 minute animation became an instant classic. Now, the jawdroppingly 130 minute  live action remake follows the same path as the recent Dumbo in being engagingly enjoyable but not a patch on the spirit of the original.

Directed and co-written by Guy Ritchie without a trace of his own style or personality, it is, of course, set in the fictional Middle eastern city of Agrabah where, along with his trusty monkey,  the orphaned Aladdin (Mena Massoud), plies his trade as a light-fingered thief.  Then he meets and befriends Princess Jasmine (Anglo-Indian Naomi Scott), who’s stolen out of the palace in disguise to see how her people live  and, in the course of fleeing the guards, the pair strike a spark, though he’s under the impression she’s actually the princess’s handmaiden.

Sneaking into the palace to return her bracelet, he’s apprehended by the Vizier (Marwan Kenzari, who could have done with more menace) who reckons he’s the diamond in the rough he needs to retrieve a magic lamp from the cave in which its kept. You should know the rest, Aladdin rubs the lamp and out pops a puff of blue smoke which takes the form of a genie (Will Smith), who grants him three wishes, the first of which is to transform him into a  prince so he can win the Princess, who, Law dictates, can only marry into royalty. For his third wish, he promises to set the genie free. Passing himself as Prince Ali, the romance blossoms, but, of course, Jafar, with the help of his conniving parrot (Alan Tudyk), exposes his deception, sends him to his death and, finally taking possession of the lamp,  sets about his plan to replace Jasmine’s father as the Sultan. Needless today, this isn’t the last we’ve seen of Aladdin or his flying carpet.

The narrative takes the shape of a story told by a father (Smith) to his two kids aboard their boat , which, given how we’ve already seen that there’s an instant attraction between the genie in his human form and the real handmaiden (Nasim Pedrad), rather undercuts the surprise twist. Some of the original songs have been resurrected or repurposed and, in places, given a Bollywood dance sequence makeover, although the new version of A Whole New World never soars, while, in keeping with the current climate, this Jasmine is an empowered woman who wants to take over the sultanate (but oddly never questions why if dad’s so benevolent, the people are living in poverty) and, as such, gets a new Frozen-style number called Speechless about, well, having a voice.

Give the indelible impression left by Williams, Smith has an almost impossible job in making the Genie his own, but generally pulls it off by resorting to his Fresh Prince brand of swaggering, sardonic humour, though the film can’t somehow decide if he has legs or a CGI smoke trail below his waist. Although the overlong running time and repetition (let’s face it, how many times can a magic lamp get dropped and recovered during a chase) will test the patience of younger kids, this manages to have enough action and magic to sustain it to the final feelgood set piece, though it may also leave audiences hoping remake things take a turn for the better with the upcoming The Lion King. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

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.  (Mockingbird; Mon: Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe)

 

Avengers: Endgame (12A)

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

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

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

Along with the grand-scale action, there’s plenty of the trademark humour, particular highlights between a drunk Thor, a gag about time travel movies and Hulk/Banner posing for a selfie with fans, not to mention several flourishes, one involving Thor’s hammer, that roused cheers from the audience, but there’s also tear-jerking sadness and pathos as the film draws a heroic line under or passes the torch in certain franchises. The culmination to which everything over the past years and twenty-two films has been building, it redefines the term spectacle while having a heart so big it needs an IMAX screen to contain it.  Fittingly, there no bonus end credit scenes pointing to the future, but whatever paths it takes  and whatever new partnerships are forged there’ll be a legion assembled ready to follow. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Booksmart (15)

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

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

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

Scripted by three women, it has an honest feel to the female relationships and the ability to talk about things like lesbian sex in a way that doesn’t feel like some sort of cheap gag a man might have thrown in. Timely arriving mid the GCSE season, boys may not get it but this should delight their more sussed counterparts. (From Mon: Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Greta (15)

 It’s been 14 years since director Neil Jordan made anything halfway resembling  a decent film. This plodding, overwrought Single White Female-styled stalker psychothriller doesn’t see him turn the corner. Initially, it promises well. Finding an expensive handbag on a New York subway train, upmarket restaurant waitress (Chloë Grace Moretz) doesn’t, as her sensible flatmate Erica (Maika Monroe) berates her, call the bomb squad, but takes it home so she can return it to the owner the next day. This turns out to be  Greta (Isabelle Huppert), a French widow whose daughter has gone off to Paris to study. They chat and Frances offers to go dog shopping with her to get a canine companion. Despite Erica’s caution that it’s all a  bit weird, they become friends, Frances, having recently lost her mother, in need of a surrogate, Greta wanting  a replacement daughter. But then Frances finds something in Greta’s closet that suggests she’s not the first to be lured  into her spider’s web. Understandably, she makes her excuses and leaves. But Greta won’t let go and a bombardment of texts is soon followed by her standing outside the restaurant and staring in. All the police can do is advise Frances to ignore her. Naturally, that’s not going to work. An attempt to make a break  winds up with Frances imprisoned in the inevitable hidden room in Greta’s apartment, a grisly discovery in the cellar and the swift despatch of Stephen Rea’s cameoing private investigator.

By this point, after not one but two sleight of hand gotcha scenes, the film and its almost total lack of characterisation has lumbered into ever more ludicrous, logic-challenged B-movie territory with Greta giving Bette Davis’ Baby Jane a run for her money in the demented crazy old woman stakes. There’s even a throwaway moment suggesting she may be a disgraced nurse with a drug habit. It’s almost impossible not to collapse into laughter at the sight of her hysterically pirouetting round her room waving a gun about or reappearing after being knocked out for one more jump moment. And let’s not even mention the yawning chasm of plausibility as she texts Frances photos of Erica as she follows her from a bar, apparently right behind her but nowhere to be seen when Erica turns round. And what self-respecting New Yorker still uses a landline!

Moretz does a reasonable job of the grieving doe-eyed girl looking for maternal comfort and sinking into submission under Greta’s cruelty, but, while this camp nonsense may all be what Jordan intended. But even if it’s a nudge and a wink, the end result is such that, after picking up an Oscar nod and  a Golden Globe for 2017’s Elle, Huppert could find herself getting a Golden Raspberry nomination next year. Jordan may well keep her company. (MAC) 

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. (Empire Great Park; Vue Star City)

John Wick: Chapter 3 (15)

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

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

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

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

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

Rocketman (15)

The uncredited midwife to Bohemian Rhapsody in its later stages, director Dexter Fletcher now gives birth to another popstar biopic under his own name, albeit one that’s distinctly less feelgood and decidedly more raw. Working with Billy Elliot’s Lee Hall as scriptwriter, it conceives the rise of a young Reginald Kenneth Dwight from childhood piano prodigy to global superstar Elton Hercules John as a musical fantasy that casts its eye over his rise to fame as flashbacks during an AA meeting into which he storms as he resolves to exorcise his demons (wearing, a pointedly unsubtle over-the-top red winged, sequin-horned demon costume) and get clean from a battery of addictions ranging from drink and drugs to sex and shopping. As such, as the rating suggests, there’s a ready supply of family unfriendly moments, whether that be hoovering up mountains of cocaine, gay sex (an aspect Bohemian Rhapsody largely avoided) or a stream of expletives.

Within all this, Hall and Fletcher (under the production auspices of John and David Furnish) offer a portrait of a musical genius crippled by self-doubt and the feeling that he could not be loved, the finger of blame pointing fairly and squarely at his emotionally shut-off homophobic father (Steven Mackintosh) and dismissive, don’t give a toss mother (Bryce Dallas Howard), the only support coming from his gran (Gemma Jones), and subsequently compounded by the toxic relationship with his domineering, exploitative and casually cruel personal manager and sometime lover John Reid (Richard Madden in a fright wig).

Using a mix of fantasy and recreated musical moments involving some of John’s iconic hits, none of this would have worked without the transformative performance by Taron Egerton  as the grown Elton (though special mention must be made of the indelible work by Matthew Illesley and Kit Connor as the younger and adolescent Reggie, the former scoring an early emotional highlight with the words “aren’t you going to give me a hug”) who not only becomes rather than channels Elton (although the size of the gap in his teeth fluctuates), but, unlike Remi Malek, also does his own singing (you’ll recall he sang I’m Still Standing and other Elton numbers as Guy the Gorilla in Sing). Whether in torment or euphoria, working out notes on the piano or in full-on concert mode, Egerton is quite simply phenomenal.

But, as in Elton’s real life, the screen dynamic works because of the relationship with is long-standing lyricist Bernie Taupin (an unshowy but quietly commanding turn by Jamie Bell) with whom he formed a lifelong platonic friendship and whose lyrics often offer insights into his writing partner’s psychological makeup, just as Fletcher uses the musical sequences in the same way.

All the trappings are there, the meticulously recreated flamboyant costumes, the array of glasses, the tantrums, the self-destructive hedonistic excesses, but the film rises above such narrative props to form an emotionally compelling portrait of a man drowning in his own insecurities and seeking to numb his pain in any number of addictive palliatives.

Although Your Song arrives early into the story, there’s no real attempt to set the songs in anything like chronological order, Daniel most certainly never being an early DJM demo for his first publisher, Dick James (Stephen Graham), such that the teenage Elton morphs into the adult during a local pub performance of Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting, set, of course, to a brawl.

At times, in keeping with classic Hollywood musicals,  Fletcher captures both the actual moment and the feel, such as Elton and the audience levitating to Crocodile Rock during his debut Troubadour performance and blasting into space for Rocket Man. There’s times when it rushes over elements, such as his short-lived marriage to Renate Blauel (Celinde Schoenmaker) which, the film argues triggered his descent to suicidal hell, and, while it does find room to include the recordings of Don’t Go Breaking My Heart with Kiki Dee, none of his long-serving band (which included Ray Cooper, Nigel Olsson and Davey Johnston) with whom he played almost 4000 shows get mentioned by name, but these are minor niggles given such dazzling scenes as the Benny and the Jets sequence or the poignancy of the opening lines to Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. It ends with Egerton taking another stab at I’m Still Standing in a perfect recreation of the original Cannes-set video, where, of course, this film had its premiere and a perfect closing statement of resilience and a testament to almost 30 years of sobriety. Though he still likes to shop. Bohemian what? (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull;  Electric; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

The Secret Life of Pets 2 (U)

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

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

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

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

 

 

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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