MOVIE ROUND-UP:This Week’s New Film Releases, Fri Nov 29-Thu Dec 6

NEW RELEASES

Knives Out (12A)

In the grand tradition of star-studded ensemble Agatha Christie-styled drawing room whodunnits, taking a break from guiding the Star Wars saga, writer-director Rian Johnson delivers one of the year’s most ingenious, witty and absorbingly satisfying films. Wasting no time, it opens with a pan across a stately Massachusetts gothic mansion as the morning mists begin to clear, culminating in the kitchen and a mug bearing the inscription “My house. My rules. My coffee.” Bear it in mind.

The previous evening, the house was the 85th birthday party setting for the Thrombrey family patriarch, best-selling murder mystery writer Harlan (Christopher Plummer). This morning, he’s been found dead in his study by the housekeeper (Edi Patterson) with his throat slit. Seemingly a case of suicide.

The local cops, Detective Lt. Elliott (LaKeith Stanfield) and State Police Trooper Wagner (Noah Segan), have assembled the guests for questioning. Criss-crossing between four of them, it quickly becomes clear that, dysfunctional and hypocrites to the core, they’re not the closest of family. There’s the brittle eldest real estate magnate daughter, Lynda (Jamie Lee Curtis), her philandering husband Richard (Don Johnson), phonily sincere lifestyle guru widowed daughter-in-law Joni (Toni Collette), her snowflake-liberal college student daughter Meg (Katherine Langford), youngest son Walt (Michael Shannon) who runs the publishing company but has no actual control, his sour wife Donna (Riki Lindhome) and their budding-Nazi teenage son Jacob (Jaeden Martel). Backstabbers all, there’s little love lost between them and, to some extent or another, they all owe their  supposedly self-made fortunes and lifestyles to Harlan. Also in the house is the elderly and seemingly catatonic greatnana (K Callan) while, conspicuous by his absence, is Lynda and Richard’s son Ransom (Chris Evans), the irresponsible black sheep who stormed out following an argument with his roguish and intractable grandfather.

Sitting in on the questioning, occasionally stabbing out a  single note on the piano, is Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig with flowing Tennessee drawl), a  private detective who’s been hired by a  mystery client to investigate the death. To which end, he enlists the help of Marta (Ana de Armas), Harlan’s South American nurse (the daughter of an illegal immigrant), and the last person to see him alive. Unless, of course, it wasn’t suicide, but murder. And, as flashbacks and family secrets are revealed, there are plenty of suspects and motives. Aside from being Harlan’s closest confidante, Marta also has the unfortunate, but useful attribute of being unable to lie without throwing up. All the family vocally protest how much she is one of them  a not just the ‘help’ (at least until Franz Oz arrives to read the will), but it’s only Ransom who, seemingly the only decent one among them,  appears to have any real concern.

It’s not too far into the film before what happened to cause Harlan’s death is revealed, along with who was accidentally responsible and confirming his suicide. Except, of course, nothing is as clear as it seems (and observant amateur sleuths will have picked up the clue in the run up to the death) and the plot moves from who to how and why. It is, as Blanc puts it, “a case with a hole in the middle. A donut.”

Knowingly slipping in genre references and Easter eggs that range from Cluedo and a clip of Angela Lansbury in  a Spanish-dubbed episode of Murder She Wrote to a convoluted nod to The Last of Sheila, a 70s mystery written by Stephen Sondheim and Anthony Perkins, it’s a sharply scripted, gleeful, and deliciously acted (everyone gets their moment and nobody showboats), intricately plotted black comedy murder mystery with a clear undercurrent commentary on the dark, venal aspects of Trump’s America and white privilege that scores its points as much through sly humour and subtlety as it does grand flourishes. Cutting edge fun. (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)

Charlie’s Angels (12A)

A hugely popular TV series in the 70s starring Farrah Fawcett Majors, Jaclyn Smith and Kate Jackson as three, often scantily clad, female L.A. private detectives  working for the never seen Charlie, it made an enjoyable transition to the big screen in 2000 and a subsequent 2003 sequel with Drew Barrymore, Cameron Diaz and Lucy Liu. However, a television reboot in 2011 died a death, so quite why, given no evident demand, writer-director-actor-producer Elizabeth Banks would choose to resurrect the franchise, is hard to fathom. Of course, adopting a girl-power approach (“Women can do anything”), it could have worked.  But then it would have needed a coherent narrative, cast chemistry, snappy dialogue, smart humour and exciting action sequences, all of which this is singularly lacking in abundance.

Opening in Rio with a drawn out prologue that attempts to emulate the Bond and M.I. films with a thundering lack of success, it introduces the two main Angels, wise-cracking , cropped-hair, queer veteran Sabina (Kristen Stewart who frankly does not do comedy) and serious-minded former MI6 agent Jane (Ella Balinska) as they take down  gangster tycoon Jonny (Chris Pang) before  rolling in a bored Patrick Stewart as Charlie’s factotum Bosley. Except now, the  Townsend  agency has gone global and there’s any number of Bosleys around the world, with the original is now retiring, leaving things in the hands of Banks’ Bosley.

Following a montage that threatens to turn into a deodorant or sanitary towel ad, the first case to present itself involves a sustainable green energy device called Calisto created for tech billionaire Alexander Brok (Sam Claflin) by security engineer Elena (Naomi Scott, all Felicity Jones meets Sarah Michelle Gellar) who’s concerned that her superior (Nat Faxon) is pressing ahead with its launch despite a proven deadly flaw  that induces fatal strokes which, in the wrong hands, could turn it into an untraceable assassination weapon. She turns to the Townsend agency to play whistleblower but the Hamburg café meeting  is interrupted by a tattoed hitman (Jonathan Tucker),  leaving a Bosley (Djimon Hounsou) dead and her, Sabina,  Jane and their Bosley variously flitting between Istanbul,  Berlin and London in pursuit of the stolen Callisto device, female bonding and an increasingly unravelling narrative of double crosses and deceptions while taking time for a stop-over to introduce the Angels’ serenely chilled personal assistant, Saint (Luis Gerardo Méndez), who’s an expert in everything from  home-made kombucha to Buddhist therapy and fixing dislocated ribs. He’s  just of many ill-advised embarrassments in the dull, fizz-free car crash where even the score and songs (including a forgettable Ariane Grande, Miley Cyrus, Lana Del Ray collaboration) feel like reject pile leftovers. Following one of the least thrilling and ineptly staged showdowns in recent movie history, it continues to flap around like a dying fish with a who cares reveal that Charlie’s actually a woman disguising her voice and Elena going through her Angel training paces so that the likes of Hailee Steinfeld, sporting stars Aly Raisman, Chloe Kim and Ronda Rousey and even original Angel Jaclyn Smith (Jackson presumably having more self-respect) can make redundant cameos. It’s not quite the worst film of the year, but its disastrous box office performance ensures these angels’ wings have been permanently clipped. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 Invasion Planet Earth (15)

Written and directed by Nuneaton’s Simon Cox and extensively filmed in Birmingham and Kenilworth with some 900 extras, it’s taken almost seven years to bring this ambitious  UK answer to Independence Day to the screen, receiving a one-off theatrical showing before going to download and DVD, but it’s been worth the effort and time.

It opens back in the 80s (spot that Duran Duran album cover) where young Thomas Dunn, son of a garage mechanic, is a big fan of sci fi TV show Kaleidescope Man. Fast forward twenty odd years and he’s now a doctor (Simon Haycock)  in a mental health care centre (run by Toyah Willcox), but, consumed by grief over the death of his young daughter two years earlier (and, we later discover another family tragedy), he’s lost his faith. Things look up, however, when his primary teacher wife, Mandy (Lucy Drive), tells him she’s pregnant. Unfortunately, that same day, he and many others, including some of his patients, share a vision about the planet’s armaggedon. And then a spaceship appears in the sky and Thomas and three patients, schizophrenic Floyd (Danny Steele), man-hating Harriet (Julie Hoult) and manic depressive user Samantha (Sophie Anderson), are abducted by harvester ships and find themselves in pods where they share further hallucinatory visions (allowing Cox to also make a zombie movie).

Escaping, they seek to find answers to the alien invasion, meanwhile, back on Earth, international tension between the superpowers, the Middle East and terrorist factions has the planet on the verge of a nuclear apocalypse.

It gets a little confusing at times, with a section where all four get to face their demons and are ‘cured’ that seems a touch extraneous to the narrative, and, given the aliens abduct rather than kill anyone, audiences are more likely to suss the twist (Mandy’s lesson about Noah, God cleansing the Earth and second chances is an early clue) before Tom does. However, given the low budget,  while it often looks like an 80s TV show itself with assorted optical effects that suggest Doctor Who as a frame of visual reference and the dialogue can be a tad clichéd and clunky,  decent CGI, a thread of religious undertones and uniformly solid performances elevate it engagingly beyond its B-movie pay grade. (Thu: Electric + director Q&A; Vue Star City)

 

ALSO PLAYING

Jay & Silent Bob Reboot (15)

Other than a handful of stoners, it’s hard see the demand or need for Kevin Smith to revisit his Jay and Silent Bob saga, 13 years after Clerks II. Here the pair of them head to ChronicCon to stop Bluntman V, a reboot of the Bluntman & Chronic movie (based on the comic book based on themselves) in which Chronic has been given a gender makeover,  after the company takes out an injunction to prevent them  using their own names. En route, Jay (Jason Mewes) bumps into former girlfriend, Justice (Shannon Elizabeth) and learns he has a daughter, Millennium Falcon (Smith’s own daughter Harley Quinn Smith) who forces them to take her and her deaf sidekick Soapy to Hollywood so they can be extras in the film, picking up a podcaster and a Syrian immigrant named Jihad along the way. Essentially a remake of Jay And Silent Bob Strike Back serving as a coathanger for bad puns, embrassing self-referencing and cameos from the likes of Affleck, Damon and Chris Hemsworth (as a hologram of himself), it’s neither funny nor clever, hell it’s not even worth calling stupid.  (Electric; Empire Great Park; Mockingbird)

Marriage Story (15)

Another Netflix film, so again no preview available, this sees writer-director Noah Baumbach return to the family falling apart territory of his critically acclaimed, autobiographically inspired The Squid and The Whale seen from a  child’s-eye view.This time round, it’s an imploding marriage told from the perspective of the couple for whom custody of their child becomes an increasingly touchy issue and stars Scarlett Johansson, Adam Driver and Laura Dern alongside appearances by Ray Liotta, Alan Alda and Julie Hagerty. (Electric)

 

The Report (15)

Written and directed by Scott Z. Burns (who wrote The Bourne Ultimatum), this political thriller  tells the true story of Daniel J. Jones (Adam Driver), a staff member of the U.S. Select Committee on Intelligence who, in 2009, while working for Sen. Dianne Feinstein (Annette Bening), was charged with heading up a Senate investigative report into the CIA’s use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” (i.e. torture, as redacted from the opening title) on the key Middle Eastern figures captured and detained in the aftermath of 9/11.  It was sparked by the discovery that the agency had destroyed hundreds of hours of recordings of the interrogations, Jones spending five years and 6.3 million pages of documents to find out why.

Douglas Hodge plays Jim Mitchell, the psychologist in charge of the interrogations, something he’d never done before and who assumed that inflicting pain who bring answers, which  proved to be not the case at all.  It’s not just the horrific torture that Jones uncovers, but how ineffective it proved, the ‘revelations’ claimed by the CIA to justify their actions pieced together from information they already had, ultimately incentivising rather than curtailing terrorism.  Understandably, the CIA wants to bury the report, and much of the later stages of the film focuses on Jones’ determination to not let that happen, inevitably putting himself in the firing line in the process. Gripping. (Electric)

French Film Festival @ MAC

Fri 29

A Faithful Man (15)

Louis Garrel both directs and stars  in a Paris-set romantic comedy, playing a journalist whose girlfriend has got pregnant by his best friend and intends to marry him.  Set across the years, the plot also sees him getting involved with the impetuous younger sister of the man he was abandoned for.

 

Sat 30

Portrait of a Lady on Fire (15)

Set in 18th-century Brittany, an Italian noblewoman (Valeria Golino) commissions Marianne (Noémie Merlant) to paint a portrait of her soon to be wed reclusive daughter Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), the only condition being that she can’t tell her subject that’s why she’s there. Instead, she has to pose as a hired companion, studying her while they spent time together, However, when she finally confesses what’s going on,a passionate lesbian love affair ensues.

 

Sun 1

Lullaby (15)

Lucie Borleteau directs an adaptation of Leila Slimani’s novel, The Perfect Nanny, in which mother of two Myriam decides to return to work despite her husband’s reservations. Nowshe needs a babysitter, finally settling on Louise, but while she quickly wins over the kids, the ensuing co-dependent relationship leads to tragedy.

 

Wed 4

When Margaux Meets Margaux (15)

Writer-director Sophie Fillières delivers a quirky dramedy in which Sandrine Kiberlain and Agathe Bonitzer both play the titular Margaux, one  as she enters adulthood, the other as she reaches middle age, the pair somehow managing to run into one another at a party, the older laid back version offering the younger impetuous one the benefit of her/their experience and both of them resurrecting an affair with ex-boyfriend Melvil Poupaud.

NOW SHOWING

21 Bridges (15)

Hitherto best known as the Black Panther (though you should check him out as James Brown in Get On Up), Chadwick Boseman gets to play his first screen cop as Andre Davis in TV director Brian Kirk’s somewhat routine police thriller.

The title refers to the bridges connecting Manhattan to the mainland, all of which Davis orders to be shut down,  along with the tunnels, subways and trains (but with a four hour deadline), when several cops are murdered when they interrupt a pair of small time hoods, tough guy Ray (Taylor Kitsch,) and the more level-headed Michael (Stephan James) pulling a cocaine heist. However, other than this, they never figure as part of the narrative which unfolds in a fairly confined few blocks as Davis, paired with narcotics officer Frankie Burns (Sienna Miller), sets out to track down the surprisingly very easily identified perps with the precinct Captain, (J.K. Simmons) indicating that  Davis, the son of a cop killed in the line of duty)  and having  a reputation for not bringing cop killers in alive (he’s first seen during an IA hearing into his latest shooting) , should save the city the trouble and cost of a trial.

Given the speed with which the two criminals are cornered, that an unarmed go-between  is shot dead in a bar by two detectives and how the cops turn up during a deal with a money launderer, even a rookie would realise there’s more to the plot than some manhunt. So, no surprise to learn it involves a network of corrupt New York cops, all justified by poor pay  for a tough job.

Unfortunately, the narrative frequently makes no sense, initially suggesting the pair were set up and then putting it down to bad luck, while the final scene involving the incriminating evidence raises two huge how and when questions that make you wonder if things got a little over-enthusiastic   in the editing room.  A strong and engagingly intense performance from Boseman and Kirk’s slick, tense direction manage  to largely carry the film over the plot holes, but you can’t help feeling both deserve something a  little more complex than this. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

The Addams Family (PG)

Although the target audience is highly unlikely to be aware of the three 90s live action films two starring Anjelica Huston and one Darryl Hannah, let alone the original 60s TV series, this animated reboot helpfully opens with a quick summary of how vampiric Morticia (Charlize Theron) and rotund Gomez (Oscar Isaac) got wed, but then had to flee the torch-bearing villagers in their Eastern European homeland and, accompanied by Thing, the disembodied hand, fetched up moving into  deserted gothic mansion on a hilltop in New Jersey, where they enlisted the soulful piano-playing  Frankenstein monster-like Lurch (Conrad Vernon) as their butler and raised their two kids, the oval-faced morbid and cadaverous-looking Wednesday (Chloë Grace Moretz) and the pudgy explosives-obsessed Pugsley (Finn Wolfhard).

Cut to the present and as Pugsley is being reluctantly put through his paces in rehearsal for his family tradition ritual sword-juggling coming of age dance by his dad, grandma (Bette Midler) and Uncle Fester (Nick Kroll) have arrived early to help with the preparations and the family’s thrown into disarray when Wednesday meets Parker (Elsie Fisher), the daughter of  big-haired home makeover TV reality show presenter Margaux Needler (Allison Janney) and decides she wants to explore life beyond the mansion’s gates. And even go to school (cue amusing frog dissection class). Inevitably leading an emerging rebellious streak (she takes to wearing tacky accessories and girlie dresses as opposed to her usual black) just as she influences Parker to turn goth, each naturally falling out with their mothers as a result.

All of which comes as the mansion’s revealed to the folk below in Assimilation, the pastel coloured town Margaux is at attempting to create as her piece de resistance and sell off all the properties, the rest of the family and their arriving guests attempt to integrate and Margaux decides to make the Addams house her ultimate fixer-upper and be rid of the family.

Not that it means anything to the kids,  but the computer generated animation renders the characters extremely close to the Charles Addams’ cartoons while the theme of being true to yourself rather than conforming (at one point a bunch of Assimilation folk sing about fitting in rather than being individual) is staple for these sorts of films. Unfortunately, its tone is more Hotel Transylvania than the subversive creepy humour of the original and, while some of the lines and throwaways amuse and the voice cast, which includes Snoop Dogg as tiny hairball Cousin It, do their best with the material, aside from a suitably over-the-top Janney, they feel rather muted and the end result is all a bit bland. Unlike Thing’s fingers, it doesn’t really have the snap. (Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Blue Story (15)

An expansion of his YouTube success, Shiro’s Story, Rapman aka Andrew Onwubolu, steps up to the big screen with his debut feature about two teenage black childhood best friends brought into opposition by London’s postcode turf war, here between Peckham and Lewisham gangs. With the director serving as a rapping Greek chorus commenting on the action, part based on his own experiences, it treads familiar narrative path with schoolfriends Timmy (Stephen Odubala) and Marco (Micheal Ward) attending the same Peckham school, the problem being that aspirational Timmy isn’t from that borough, where Marco’s big brother, Switcher (Eric Kofi Abrefa), holds sway. Things kick off when Marco’s beaten up by one of Timmy’s mates, prompting Switcher to seek revenge, things escalating the point where the tragedy that befalls Timmy’s girlfriend, Leah (Karla-Simone Spence) winds up pitting the former friends – and their respective gangs – against one another.

Punctuated by shootings and knifings, it unfolds in predictable manner as it builds to an inevitable fatal climax, and, while the regulation black clothing and hoodies can sometimes make it hard to work out who’s who and the street language and accents render huge chunks of dialogue nigh unintelligible to the untrained ear, the raw energy and the committed performances of the central cast, underpinned by the urban soundtrack, sustain engagement to the end credits wrap up, even if the tagged on reformed gang member turns to anti-violence mentor coda feels a little too clichéd in its attempt to end on an optimistic note. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Doctor Sleep (15)

It’s almost 40 years since Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of Stephen King’s novel saw the phrase ‘Heeeere’s Johnny’ enter pop culture legend and launched any number of films involving floods of blood as, possessed by the spirits inhabiting The Overlook Hotel,  Jack Nicholson’s alcoholic father tried to take an axe to his wife and son. Six years ago, King published a sequel that had very little to do with the Kubrick film and now  writer-director Mike Flanagan combines the two following the story of the now grown Danny Torrance (Ewan McGregor), a PTSD-wreck who has attempted to drown his paranormal gifts, the hearing of voices in his head that he calls the shining, in booze and anger, keeping them compartmentalised in mental ‘lockboxes’ as taught to him by spirit mentor Dick Hallorann (Carl Lumbly replacing the late Scatman Crowthers). However, after a night worse than most when he wakes up next to a cokehead woman, he hits the road and ends up in New Hampshire where reformed alcoholic Billy Freeman (Cliff Curtis) stakes him a room in a boarding house and takes him to the town’s AA meeting hosted by Dr. John (Bruce Greenwood) who fixes him up with the job as an orderly in the local hospice, a place where the resident cat can sense when patients re about to shuffle off and he eases their passage with his psychic powers; hence, Doctor Sleep

He also starts to get messages chalked on the wall of his room leading him to become mentally linked with Abra (Kyliegh Curran), a sassy tweenage African-American whose own power to shine is positively luminescent. What brings them together is a group of psychic vampire predators calling themselves the True Knot, who, as seen at the start of the film, are led by Rose the Hat (a mesmerising Rebecca Ferguson looking like some sensual 70s outlaw voodoo gypsy queen) who keep themselves semi-immortal by stealing the life essences, the steam, of psychically gifted children as they die in agonising pain which is then stored in metal thermos flasks, giving rise to the particularly disturbing scene as they murder a young baseball prodigy (a cameo by Jacob Tremblay), an act that brings the super-shiner Abra into both their and Danny’s lives.

From hereon in, the film because a game of supernatural cat and mouse between Rose and her followers and Danny and Abra, as each seeks to destroy the other, all of which, rather inevitably climaxes back in the Colorado Rockies at The Overlook, Danny finally having unlocked the powers he’s sought to repress.

At two and a half hours, it takes a while to find the flow, the early going coming across like a series of unconnected sequences (the whole turning of paedophile stalker Snakebite Andi could have been cut), but as the narrative slowly gels, while not scary horror as such, it casts a decidedly creepy spell as it plays out its predictable good vs evil drama even if having eight years pass before anything really happens seems pointless. While Ferguson steals every scene she’s in (you almost find yourself wanting a spin-off), McGregor is on good form while newcomer Curran is a quietly determined sensation calling to mind Elle from Stranger Things. There are, of course, several direct allusions to the Kubrick film, not least Danny peering through the hole in the hotel room door made by his father, but it was perhaps not the best idea to use not even vague lookalikes for flashbacks to mad Jack (ET.s Henry Thomas plays the bartender Danny speaks to as his father’s ghost) and terrified wife Wendy. That aside, this shines brighter than some reviews would have you expect. (Mockingbird; Vue Star City)

Frozen II (U)

Let’s say this from the start, neither the film nor the songs are a patch on the original. Show Yourself seem destined to be  favourite, but it’s no Let it Go. Set three years on, Elsa (Idina Menzel), still romantically unattached,  now rules Arendell,  snowman Olaf (Josh Gad) is now all permafrost and the hunky but still somewhat oafish Kristoff is trying to summon up courage to propose to the apparently insecure Anna (Kristen Bell). Not that you need reminding, but Elsa’s the one with the magic ice powers. However, why her? That’s the engine that drives the narrative, the film opening with a childhood flashback as their now late parents, King Agnarr (Alfred Molina) and Queen Iduna (Evan Rachel Wood),  tell them a bedtime story about  Ahtohalla, an enchanted forest to the north, ruled by the spirits of  earth, air, fire and water and how, 34 years earlier, their grandfather sought to forge a pact with the indigenous Northuldra, building a dam to hold back the sacred river mentioned in mum’s lullaby, only for hostilities to inexplicably break out, leading the forest and its inhabitants to be imprisoned by a wall of mist, but not before the young Agnarr was rescued by a girl from the tribe.

Now, the grown Elsa is hearing a voice calling her, so she determines to set off, as the other vaguely memorable song puts it, Into The Unknown, accompanied, naturally by Anna, Olaf, Kristoff and Sven the reindeer. As such, it’s a sort of origin story, though the revelations are unlikely to come as much of a surprise to any alert six year old, while getting there and learning the truth of what happened, albeit  featuring  a cute flaming salamander and a water horse, is something of a plodding and slightly incohesive affair, punctuated by a running gag about Kristoff’s failed attempts to propose.

The first film’s theme of finding yourself gets a retread, this time in the context of growing up and transitions (indeed, Olaf sings When I Am Older and philosophises on impermanence and the core cast warble how Some Things Never Change) and characters find themselves in mortal peril in protecting others (it flirts with darkness but  anything bad that happens ultimately unhappens), but it’s not until the final act that the thing really catches fire.  The animation is, of course, first rate, especially the scenes underwater, the characters remain likeable and  the mix of sentiment, action and humour is about right (though Anna’s remark about preferring Kristoff in leather was probably not intended to be as kinky as it sounds), but, when, at the end,  someone asks Elsa if they’re going to lead them into any more dangers, you kind of hope Disney means it when she says no. It’s been cool, but the thaw is setting in. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Gemini Man (12A)

Giving a wholly literal meaning to the phrase about being your own worst enemy, the storyline has been knocking around for over 20 years when it was originally down to be a Tony Scott film, the intervening years having seen other directors and the likes of  Harrison Ford and Mel Gibson supposedly attached. Finally, it lands in the lap of Ang Lee  with Will Smith as DIA  sharpshooter hitman Henry Brogan who, now 51, and carrying increasingly heavy baggage over the 72 kills he’s made, decides to retire to his home in Georgia after one last shot, lying in a  field and taking out a Russian bioterrorist who’s aboard a train speeding across Belgium. However, shortly after, he meets up with an old friend and fellow assassin who provides intel that the target wasn’t  what he was told and next thing he knows his former agency, led by  cold fish Lassister (Linda Emond) are trying to kill him.

Going on the run with Baron (Benedict Wong), another old colleague and crack pilot, and Danny Zakarweski (Mary Elizabeth Winstead holding  her ground in what is little more than an appendage role), the  DIA agent who’d been assigned to  run surveillance on him, they head to Cartegena where  he’s attacked by an assassin despatched by his former mentor Clay Verris (Clive Owen creaking through the rote self-justifying bad guy), who now runs high-tech mercenary agency Gemini,  and who turns out to look like a younger version of himself. In fact, that’s exactly what he is, a perfect DNA match Brogan clone created by Verris  and raised – and trained- as his ‘son’.

It’s an interesting narrative idea, but, ultimately, while loosely touching on themes of nature vs nurture, alienation and technology out of control,  there’s not too much you can do with it other than have the older Brogan try and prevent Junior (a computer-generated Fresh Prince era Smith) from making the same life choices mistakes he did and nudge him down the path of redemption.

The relatively thin,  predictable and logically flawed cat and mouse plot with its wooden expositionary dialogue are, however, greatly enhanced by Lee shooting   at a high frames per second rate, giving it incredibly fine detail and amping up the intensity of the many action sequences, including Junior taking on Henry using  motorbike as a weapon. Plus of course the sight of Will Smith fighting Will Smith, both delivering soulful performances, although the older version gets all the quips.  The five months later coda feels awkwardly tacked on and the film fizzles out rather than ending, but even so, the action races along and delivers enough of a  thrill to keep you engaged. Even so, it’s not the same as seeing Captain America battle himself in Endgame. (Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe)

The Good Liar (15)

When reviews of films are embargoed until the day they open, it’s usually a sign that they’re not  very good. And, despite some masterly work from its two leads, Helen Mirren and Ian McKellen, the latter reunited with director Bill Condon, this melodramatic adaptation of first-time Nicholas Searle’s con game novel is a case in point, crediting its audience with far less intelligence than they will have in rumbling what’s going on from the start, even if the final twists and revelations are so far-fetched as to be impossible to predict.

The film introduces Brian (McKellen) and Estelle (Mirren) arranging a meeting on a seniors dating app, the pair immediately confessing that their real names are Roy Courtnay and Betty McLeish, thereby laying the ground for the deceptions that ensue as the dates continue (one being a trip to see Inglourious Basterds). Roy, along with partner in crime Vincent (Jim Carter) is a con artist working financial scams (seen fleecing a bunch of gullible  investors in an early sequence) and reckons Betty,a wealthy widow with a two million nest egg, is a promising mark. Playing the charming twinkle-eyed English gent, he soon worms his way into her life, though her postgrad history student grandson Steven (Russell Tovey) is less persuaded by him. Roy and Vincent’s plan is to get Betty to put all her money into a joint account, and then withdraw everything and vanish. Things, rather, naturally don’t go to plan in a convoluted and increasingly implausible plot that involves a trip to the Brandenburg Gate, flashbacks to pre and-post war Berlin, sexual assault, Nazi hunters, identity switches and all manner of contrivances.

Anyone who reckons Betty is the smart but sweet, polite and a little bland middle-class suburban Londoner she appears, clearly has never seen a con movie the only thing  the film has up its sleeve being why not if she’s working the oblivious Roy. Less thrilling the longer it goes on, there are rewards in watching to of this country’s finest actors playing opposuite each other, but when, at the end, Mirren remarks “it’s deeper than it look”, you know you’ve been conned too.  (Cineworld NEC; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; MAC)

Harriet (12A)     

Born a slave in Dorchester County, Maryland, Araminta Ross, nicknamed Minty, when she and her husband were refused the freedom they were due and told they and any children they had would always be the property of the Brodess family, in 1849, aged  27,  learning she was to be sold, she fled the plantation, making it some 100 miles to safety (with a little help from anti-slavery sympathisers) to an abolitionist organisation in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, that ran the Underground Railway which smuggled runaway slaves to freedom. Taking the free name of Harriet Tubman after her mother and husband, she almost immediately returned and, travelling by night and in extreme secrecy, rescued, first, her relatives, and, over 13 missions as a ‘conductor’ eventually some 70 slaves, earning the alias of Moses and, when the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 was passed, she then helped guide escapees into British North America, and find work. When the Civil War broke out, Tubman became the first woman to lead an armed expedition in the warm  guided the 1863 raid at Combahee Ferry and liberating  more than 700 slaves.

All of this forms part of  writer-director Kasi Lemmons’ biopic, a long overdue telling of Tubman’s story, albeit a somewhat prosaic one which is unevenly paced with a sluggish midsection and variously  the look of a 30s Western epic or a 70s TV series. Inevitably, in the interest of crafting a thrilling narrative, facts have been bent, timelines shifted and incidents invented and, while Minty was indeed ‘owned’ by the Brodess family, the character of the son Gideon (Joe Alwayn) whom she supposedly nursed to health as a child and who, obsessively and secretly self-loathingly in love with her, leads a quest of Slave Hunters to recapture her, is pure fiction, as is her jumping from a bridge to avoid being recaptured. On the other hand, that she would often fall into faints during which she would experience supposed divine premonitions is true, caused by a traumatic head wound as a child.

It’s incredulous that the studio initially considered Julia Roberts for the role of Harriet, the casting eventually resolving on British actress Cynthia Erivo who, perfectly capturing Tubman’s piercing stare, delivers a rivetingly powerful performance of anger, fear, passion and determination even when the script doesn’t measure up. Featuring solid but somewhat one-dimensional support turns from Janelle Monáe as a born-in-freedom rooming-house proprietor, Leslie Odom Jr as abolitionist William Still and Clarke Peters as Harriet’s father, it’s a heartfelt and worthy story of heroism and charismatic leadership in the face of injustice, but it’s nevertheless several months short of 12 Years a Slave. (Cineworld 5 Ways; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Vue Star City)

Joker (15)

Next year’s Best Actor Oscar a foregone conclusion, chances are that, having triumphed at Venice,  this will also make strong running for Best Film and Todd Phillips as Best Director. Darker, both tonally and morally, than even that Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, and devoid of any of the flip humour likely to characterise the upcoming Harley Quinn movie, Birds of Prey, it does not arrive without controversy regarding the extreme violence. And yes, yet in a dystopian early 80s Gotham, it is intense, brutal, graphic and bloody, but while Phillips seeks to explain and understand, at no  point does he excuse, justify or glorify.

First introduced applying his clown for hire makeup, contorting his face into a deranged smile that might give Stephen King nightmares, Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) is a mentally disturbed, dead inside loser and loner, who, on medication and seeing  a social worker counsellor, lives with his single, infirm mother (Frances Conroy) in a crappy apartment and who suffers from a  neurological  condition that expresses itself as a sort of laughter version of Tourette’s. His Everything Must Go promotional placard snatched by a  bunch of kids, he’s left badly beaten, prompting  a fellow worker to slip him a gun with which he subsequently kills the three Wall Street bully boys who harass and attack him on a subway train, an act that, seized on my the media with its vigilante clown headlines, ignites the fuse to already simmering unrest in Gotham, and about the glaring divide between the poor (who adopt clown masks a la V for Vendetta) and the rich, as emblemised by Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen who,  here a loathsome rather than benevolent figure, is running for mayor having castigated the ‘mob’ as all clowns. Indeed, Phillips introduces several moments to enfold his vision within the Batman mythos and the connections between the Dark Knight and his ultimate nemesis.

An aspirant stand-up, Arthur is also a huge admirer of TV talk show host Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro, the Jerry Langford to Arthur’s Rupert Pupkin, conjuring King of Comedy echoes just as the film channels Mean Streets/Taxi Driver Scorsese) so, despite a clip of a stage act being screened on the show as a humiliating put-down, when he’s invited to appear, he naturally agrees. However, by this point, with yet more bodies to his count, having been confronted with the terrible truth about his childhood and his mother and, increasingly delusional as the joke turns in on itself, when he turns up in the familiar Joker outfit, dancing on his way to the strains of Gary Glitter’s Rock and Roll Part 2, no one in the audience should be expecting this to go well.

Given the impressions made by both Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger in the role, Phoenix clearly had hard acts to follow, but he brings a whole new dimension (and demented cackle) of his own to the character, both, with his skeletal frame and facial expressions, physically (his frequent dance routines infused with the tragic comedy and pathos of Chaplin), emotionally and psychologically, as we understand and empathise with the pain that drives him over the edge, but do not condone the horrific consequences. It’s a staggering performance that can’t help but eclipse those around him (Zazie Beetz particularly suffers from an underwritten role as Arthur’s single-mom neighbour and, we are led to believe, caring lover), but it fits perfectly with the world around him.

Driven by Hildur Gudnadóttir’s brooding  score and the ironic use of numbers like That’s Life and  Send In The Clowns, like The Purge, the film taps into  a disturbing powder keg zeitgeist of civil unrest (set to Cream’s White Room) and looming anarchic class war as, summing things up, Arthur asks Murray “What do you get when you cross a mentally ill loner with a society that abandons him and treats him like trash?” His and the film’s answer is ‘what you fuckin’ deserve’.  As Groucho Marx said, “The only real laughter comes from despair”. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Last Christmas (12A)

Devised by Emma Thompson and husband Greg Wise and directed by Paul Feig, this is the first of the year’s festive features, a bittersweet romcom with more than a touch of It’s A Wonderful Life and Xanadu in its DNA. Titled after the Wham! Hit, it stars Game of Thrones’  likably engaging Emilia Clarke as Kate (don’t call me Katerina), who, as a child, was forced by the war to flee former Yugoslavia with her parents and older, rival, sister  (Lydia Leonard). Now, having lost the accent, she’s estranged from both, unreliable, self-centred, lacking a sense of direction, moving from one friend’s crash pad to the next (until she does something careless to get thrown out), drinking too much and picking up one-night stands. So far, so Fleabag, then. Although she still harbours childhood ambitions to be a singer, she  half-heartedly works as an assistant in a Covent Garden Christmas store  (which makes you wonder what it does for business the other ten months of the year) owned by the ultra tolerant Santa (Michelle Yeoh) where she has to dress as an elf. We also learn that the family problems stem for a heart condition she suffered a year earlier and her mother’s (Thompson with  thick comedy Eastern European accent) hypercritical manner (her husband, a former surgeon now a cabbie, spends as much time away as possible while Kate’s ringtone is She Drives Me Crazy). Then enter handsome mysterious stranger Tom (Crazy Rich Asians star Henry Golding) who hangs around outside the store who wants to take her on walks to show her sights of London to which she’s been oblivious (street art, narrow alleys, hidden gardens, etc) and always tells her to ‘look up’.  He makes her smile, takes her to learn ice-skating for a Frozen musical audition and  works as a night volunteer, at a homeless shelter (where it seems no one knows him), but doesn’t have a phone and is given to mysteriously disappearing off on his bicycle. He does, though, have a knack of always turning up when she’s particularly low, but seems wary of becoming romantically involved.

At this point anyone who’s not clicked what’s going on really should remember the opening line of that George Michael song as the film gets down the business of Kate with reconnecting friends, family, self and life in general, while the screenplay also shoehorns in Santa (not her real name, you’ll be amazed to hear) with her own romance and a brief moment of Brexit anti-immigrant hatred aboard a bus that seems to have wandered in from another film entirely.

Set around familiar Brick Lane area locations, dressed with assorted George Michael songs (Heal The Pain obviously) and featuring an obligatory closing singalong and cameos by the likes of Peter Serafinowicz and Patti LuPone, it ladles out its message about showing kindness to bring more happiness to the world with shameless, eye-moistening feelgood sentimentality, it’s modestly undemanding and unlikely to enter the classic Christmas movie ranks but, if you’ll excuse the plot twist pun,  it has its heart in the right place.  (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Le Mans ’66 (12A)

In the mid-60s, Ferrari dominated the world of motor racing. However, in 1963, Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts) declared that he intended his company to enter the sport. The problem was they didn’t make racing cars. So, he proposed to take over Enzo Ferrari’s (Remo Girone) financially struggling manufacturers. However, the demand that Ford have budget control meant it all went sour,  so, seeking revenge, he declared they would build their own car and form their own team with the singular purpose of beating its rivals in the gruelling 1966Le Mans 24 hour race which it had won for five successive years.

To do this, they enlisted Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon), the 1959 Le Mans winner who had had to quit racing because of a heart condition and had become an auto designer, achieving great success with the Daytona Coupe in and the first Cobra sports car. Owner of the Shelby-American team, he agreed, but on condition that he brought his friend, hugely talented but volatile Birmingham-born daredevil racing driver and highly skilled mechanical engineer Ken Miles (a mesmerising Christian Bale) on board behind the wheel. Together they worked on improving the Ford GT40, bringing it to a level whereby it could take on the Italian cars, Miles eventually, despite senior level machinations by Ford racing director Leo Beebe (a deliciously lizard-like Josh Lucas) to exclude him in favour of more of a team player, driving one of the eight Fords entered into the La Mans 66 race (Milers actually raced in 65 but lost) taking on Ferrari’s two. As history records, neither of the Italian cars completed the race while, again down to Beebe’s pressure, three Fords, Miles among them, crossed the finishing line together, although he was robbed of first place on a  technicality.

All this director James Mangold, working with a script by British writers Jez and John-Henry Butterworth in collaboration with American Jason Keller, brings to the screen with a pungent mix of testosterone and the smell of burning rubber and brakes in what is, essentially, a classic underdog sports movie bolstered with a strong buddy relationship core as the pair battle both the odds and the suits. And, in one wonderful scrapping scene, each other.

While it’s clear Ford and his executives, among them Vice-President Lee Iacocca (Jon Bernthal were in this for the prestige and the money a win would engender, it’s equally clear that Shelby and Miles were driven by a pure passion and both Damon, sporting a 10-gallon hat and take no shit swagger, and Bale, all attitude, deliver dynamite performances, the latter ably supported in more intimate scenes by Catriona Balfe and Noah Jupe as his devoted wife and hero-worshipping young son.

There’s inevitable tweaking of history and the facts (the real Miles had a very highbrow British accent), but, electrified with a dry sense of humour alongside the behind the scenes conniving and the sensational racing sequences,  while the sight of gears shifting, pedals being pushed, brakes sparking red hot (courtesy cinematographer Phedon Papamichael) and the sounds of wheels squealing and engines roaring to Marco Beltrami’s score, is sheer carporn, the film, like 2013’s Rush about Formula One rivals James Hunt and Niki Lauda, has an appeal far beyond boy racers and should most definitely have a place on the starting grid come next year’s Oscars. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Maleficent: Mistress Of Evil (PG)

The first film took the story of Sleeping Beauty and the evil fairy Maleficent well beyond the fairy tale and Disney’s own animated telling, telling  events from the latter’s perspective and giving her her wings back and a moral makeover in her love for the princess Aurora, returning the Moors to their magical glory and making her god-daughter Queen.

Set five years on, this takes it even further into Game of Thrones territory (one of several obvious influences alongside Lord of the Rings and Avatar) as, not best pleased to learn from Aurora (an impossibly rosy-cheeked pale but interesting (Elle Fanning) that she has accepted the somewhat interrupted marriage proposal by Prince Phillip (a charisma-free Harris Dickinson replacing Brenton Thwaites) and, invited to a meet the parents dinner at the palace by King John (Robert Lindsay) and Queen Ingrith (Michelle Pfeiffer), Maleficent (Angelina Jolie) throws a  stupendous tantrum when the latter says Aurora will now have a real mother, seemingly leaving the King comatose in a curse. Flying off  she is, however, shot down  and sent crashing into the river by the palace guards using iron balls, a never previously mentioned weakness  that, along with the fact a deadly toxin is made from flowers that bloom on the graves of dead fairies, is just one of several narrative contrivances.

All this, as the film is quick to explain, has to do with the scheming, obsessed Ingrith’s plan to start a war between the humans and the fey who live in the Moors so she can destroy their kind for ever. What she hadn’t counted on  was Maleficent being saved by the introduction of an origin story involving her hitherto unseen kin of fellow winged and horned Dark Fey, among them peace wanting Connall (Chiwetel  Ejiofor) and the more belligerent Borra (Ed Skein), setting the stage for  Ingrith’s intended genocide by luring them and the  inhabitants  of the Moors (among them returning fluttery fairies Imelda Staunton, Juno Temple and Lesley Manville) to the palace for the wedding – and their destruction.

While often undeniably enchanting in its depiction of the assorted fairy folk and other magical beings, given some truly dark moments and brutal deaths, at times reminiscent of Nazi atrocities, this is likely to give younger audiences  decidedly sleepless nights, not to mention  having them confused over its revisionist account of the infamous spinning wheel and its needle.

Sporting her horned headpiece, black wings and chiselled alabaster cheekbones, the strikingly formidable Jolie plays it to the max yet still managing to not tip things over into excessive camp while, in what is basically a showdown between competing power-dressing alpha mothers-in-law that climaxes in a humdinger of a battle, Pfeiffer delivers icy ruthlessness with aplomb, largely leaving the rest of the cast, a somewhat bland Fanning included, in their shadow with only Sam Riley as Maleficent’s  shape shifting sidekick raven Diaval not being eclipsed.

On a basic level, it’s all of an overly busy, overlong and often incoherent if visually dazzling mess in search of a story and complete with  final scene of a maternal Maleficent that should never have left the editing room, but  there’s no denying there are still copious pleasures here. And those cheekbones. (Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

Terminator: Dark Fate (15)

Ok, forget Genisys, Rise of the Machines and Salvation, consign them to another timeline, this reboot, the sixth in the series, directed by Tim Miller,  comes more or less as a follow-up to T2, although, in terms of plot elements, it’s also essentially a rerun of the first film, and even some of its classic lines. It wastes no time in getting down to the action as a naked, crop-haired woman, Grace (Mackenzie Davis from Blade Runner 2049), a bad ass female empowerment bionically-enhanced human, arrives in Mexico City from the future with a mission to search out Dani Ramos (Natalia Reyes, conjuring Michelle Rodriguez), a young woman working with on a car factory assembly line with her brother, who’s ironically about to be replaced by a machine. Grace is soon followed by another figure, a Rev-9 (Gabriel Luna), an all-new, creepily smiling state of the art Terminator, who’s on the same mission. Except the former is there to protect her and the latter to kill her. And, having already dispatched her father and brother, it looks like he’s about to succeed when, bang, enter the now much older, but equally bad ass Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton), all shades, fuck off guns and terse dialogue, who, since her son John was killed by the original T-800 in the post-Judgment Day prologue, has, thanks to receiving anonymous texts,  spent her life living, as she puts it, off  drink and vengeance while tracking down and destroying other machines sent back from the future.

So, now we have her and Grace both out to keep Dani alive, although no one thinks to ask why she’s so important or offer any explanation until well into the film, but, suffice to say, her role in the great scheme is as basically the surrogate Sarah from the first film. Well, kind of. The problem is that the new Terminator, a robotic cocktail of T-1000 and T-800, seems pretty much unstoppable; blow it up and it turns into black lava and reassembles and also has the twofer ability to separate its human form from its endoskeleton with both of them functioning independently.

So, they’re going to need some help and, therefore, welcome the much anticipated reappearance of Arnold Schwarzenegger as, with Skynet destroyed (to be supplanted by an AI called Legion with the same destroy humanity agenda), the now reformed T-800 who’s not only got himself a family (who don’t know what he is) but calls himself Carl and (giving rise to some particularly amusing lines) runs a drapery business. But still has a shedful of guns.

As anyone familiar with the franchise will expect, there’s any number of timeline twists regarding Grace and Dani, their connection and the real reasons she’s so important to the fight in the future, but that ultimately just dressing on the constant stream of action as the foursome and the Rev-9 go at it hammer and tongs, things blowing up or being sliced and diced left, right and centre, and including a hairy zero-gravity mid-air assault and escape on a parachuted Humvee that then plunges into a reservoir before the power plant showdown.

There’s a welcome vein of humour as well as some charged socio-political commentary  with the scenes set around the Mexican border and the core cast all deliver strong performances and, while Arnie is, well Arnie (“I’m very funny”, he quips), there’s a soulfulness between him and Hamilton who, returning to the franchise after 30 years, is sensational. Which is a good thing since, with this ending with a Logan moment, and hinting at a new beginning rather than a conclusion, it seems those Sarah Connor Chronicles might be in for at least one more chapter. She’ll be back. (Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)

 

Screenings courtesy of  Odeon and Cineworld

CINEMAS

Cineworld 5 Ways – 181 Broad St, 0871 200 2000

Cineworld NEC – NEC  0871 200 2000

Cineworld  – Mill Ln, Solihull 071 200 2000

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

Empire – Great Park, Rubery, 0871 471 4714

Empire  Coldfield – Maney Corner, Sutton Coldfield

0871 471 4714

The Everyman – The Mailbox 0871 906 9060

MAC – Cannon Hill Park 0121 446 3232

Mockingbird, Custard Factory  0121 224 7456.

Odeon Birmingham -Birmingham, 0871 224 4007

Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe – Ladywood Middleway, 0333 006 7777

Odeon West Bromwich – Cronehills Linkway, West Bromwich  0333 006 7777

Reel – Hagley Rd, Quinton, Halesowen 0121 421 5316

Showcase Walsall – Bentley Mill Way, Walsall 0871 220 1000

Vue Star City – Watson Road, 08712 240 240

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