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 eb a Tont 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, nevertheless, 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. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)
Essentially E.T. but white and furry in marketable plush fashion, this latest from Dreamworks animation opened well in the States, but its success is likely more down to a dearth of other family films rather than any inherent charm. Escaping from the laboratory where it’s being held captive, a young Yeti fetches up on the roof of the Shanghai building where teen loner Yi (Chloe Bennett from Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D, who, real name Wang, is, in fact American Chinese) lives with her widowed mother and gran, the latter frequently hidden behind the mountain of pork dumplings she’s constantly cooking. Soothing the creature with her late father’s violin (which she claims to have sold), Yi, with the help of vain childhood friend med student Jin (Tenzing Norgay Trainor, a direct relation to the Sherpa who accompanied Edmund Hillary on his 1953 Everest climb) and his nerdy cousin Peng (Albert Tsai) who live downstairs, sets out to take Everest, the name they’ve given their new chum, back to his home in the Himalayas, travelling across China on a journey her dad always meant to take. However, they’re being chased by a zoologist, Dr Zara (Sarah Poulson), who sports a pet gerbil on her shoulder like a pirate’s parrot and works for Burnish (Eddie Izzard), an aged collector who wants to prove yetis exist to dispel the humiliation he’s suffered for years, and has ordered her and his strongarm hirelings to recapture the creature. Although, it turns out Zara has her own agenda.
Pitched very much at younger kids, it’s all very predictable and, with its repetitive chase sequences, at times, somewhat dull. However, when not focused on the plot as such, the landscapes, including a musical interlude time out (cue Coldplay’s Fix You) at a 233-ft tall cliffside Buddha carved during the Tang dynasty, and the fact that Everest has magical powers to control nature offer some moments of ravishing beauty (and an attack by giant blueberries, prompting one of the film’s butt jokes) as the film dutifully ticks off life lessons about friendship, family, and finding your place in the world. Trailing the far more enjoyable Smallfoot, this has its heart in the right place but seems unlikely leave much of a footprint in the box office snow. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)
The Day Shall Come (15)
Nine years on from his audacious failed suicide bombers farce Four Lions, writer-director Chris Morris returns with an equally sharp but somewhat slighter political satire the thrust of which can be basically boiled down to the FBI inventing terrorist plots (“pitch me the next 9/11”) to foil and preventing staged fake attempted bombings to make themselves look good, supplying and paying for all the drugs, guns and supposed nuclear explosives deemed necessary. Their unwitting mark is Moses Al Shabaz (Marchánt Davis) a delusional (he talks to God through a duck and at one point he’s convinced God is acting through his horse), off his medication wannabe prophet and revolutionary incensed at the gentrification of Miami and resolved to overturn the “accidental dominance of the white people”. Or at least get enough money to save his farm. His Star of Six army, however, comprises just four people, two deadpan sidekicks (Andrel McPherson, ), his wife (Danielle Brooks) and young daughter. And, preaching non-violence, he refuses to use any weapons other than sticks and a toy crossbow.
So, he’s prime fodder to be set up by ambitious South Beach FBI agent Kendra Glack (Anna Kendrick) and her bumbling boss (Denis O’Hare), who set up a sting whereby an undercover agent poses as an IS representative offering Moses a ton of cash and Kalishnioakovs (he tried to defer accepting the guns) which further extends to supplying him with fake nuclear devices to sell on to a neo-Nazi group so he can then be arrested for terrorism. The further the innocent and oblivious Moses is pulled in, the more ludicrous it all becomes, leading to the incompetent and casually callous FBI having to declare a non-existent nuclear emergency so they can stop it, and radicalising a bunch of harmless oddballs along the way.
At one point, an over-enthusiastic cop asks, faced with an unarmed white man and unarmed black man, which is more likely to have gun which gives an idea of the thin line the film knowingly walks between satire and reality, just as the buffoonish actions of those supposedly in charge of keeping the world safe are as scary as they are wickedly funny.
Stuffed with barbed lines and ridiculous scenarios, nonetheless it makes some earnestly serious observations about the post 9/11 world and the bureaucratic need to invent enemies to citizenry, wisely never overstretching the plot and reeling it all in at a succinct 87 minutes and final what happened after ironic credits punch that goes a long way to explaining the mentality that put Trump in the White House. (Cineworld 5 Ways, Solihull; Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)
Neither WolfNor Dog (12A)
A one-man independent cinema project by Steven Lewis Simpson who serves as director, producer, cinematographer, editor and co-screenwriter, it’s based on Kent Nerburn’s semi-autobiographical Native American-themed novel and stars Christopher Sweeney as Nerburn who, having recently published an oral history of Native American folklore, gets call from a young Native American woman (Roseanne Supernault) who says her grandfather, Dan (a sly, wry Bald Eagle), a Lakota elder, has something important o discuss and wants to meet in person.
Despite the fact he lives on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, several hundred miles from Minnesota, Nerburn, his family away and his father having recently passed, decides to visit. On meeting Dan, he’s given a shoebox of of assorted words of wisdom about the relationship between the red man and the white man (“When white people won, it was a victory. When we won, it was a massacre”) which the mischievous old man wants him to publish.
Initial attempts to create a narrative prove frustrating, ridiculed and rejected by Dan’s cynical friend Grover (Richard Ray Whitman), but when he decides to throw in the towel and go home, his truck conveniently breaks down and, while it’s in for repairs, he’s taken off on a road trip by Dan and Grover to get an insight into the realties of reservation life and issues such as racism, poverty and emotional recompense.
While laudable that Simpson should take on so many roles, he might have considered delegating hat of editor, given that the film is overlong, awkwardly episodic, sluggish and frequently extends sequences (such as a roadside cafe encounter with an alcoholic Native American) beyond their natural life.
Dan and Grover’s journey is clearly intended to educate white audiences to the plight of Native Americans, as opposed to Hollywood’s usual white saviour movies, but often lacks subtlety, reducing things to clichés such as “You have to listen before you can learn to see”, and Sweeney’s performance too often feels more confused than his character. On the other hand, Whitman and the then 95-year-old Bald Eagle, who passed shortly after filming, are compelling, having something of the trickster about them, and the latter’s monologue at a cemetery in memory of victims of the 1890 Wounded Knee massacre, is powerfully moving. It requires patience and forbearance. But, visually, politically and emotionally there are moments here well worth the effort. (Mon:MAC)
When his brother Steven (Giles King) repurposes their father’s vessel to use for tourist trips, gruff Cornish cove fisherman Martin (Edward Rowe) was left without a boat and the pair fell out. His childhood home now a get-away for wealthy Londoners, Martin is displaced to the estate above the harbour as his struggle to restore the family to their traditional place creates increasing friction with tourists and locals alike in a film about a modern community facing unwelcome change. (Electric)
The Fireflies Are Gone (15)
Award-winning Canadian film set in a former coastal industrial town as, school coming to a close for the summer, just turned 17 and only seeing her former union organiser father on occasional visits home, disaffected outsider Léo (Karelle Tremblay) meets reclusive and aimless guitarist Steve who takes up lodgings in her mother’s basement. Their budding platonic relationship, pivoted around his guitar lessons and her holiday job, enable her to finally spread her wings and escape her frosty mother and detested stepfather. (Wed:MAC)
Ad Astra (12A)
Essentially Apocalypse Now in space stirred with Solaris’s meditation on humanity and human emotion and a side helping of father-son issues, director and co-writer James Grayhas crafted a slow, psychologically taut existential sci-fi anchored by a pared back, internalised performance from Brad Pitt that should earn him a place among the Oscar nominations.
The son of fabled veteran astronaut Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), Roy (Pitt) is established in his opening voice over narration as a focused, emotionally compartmentalised stoic loner whose pulse rate never rises under pressure, which, as we soon learn, has caused his childless marriage (to Liv Tyler) to collapse. The film opens in a vertigo-inducing sequence with him carrying out repairs on the International Space Antenna, towering up from the earth, when an electrical surge hits, sending fellow workers plunging to earth, Roy turning off the power before he follows, eventually opening his parachute.
At the debriefing, he’s made privy to classified information regarding the mission to Neptune in search of intelligent life on which his father disappeared 30 years earlier, the top brass informing him that they think his dad’s till alive and, likely having had a Col. Kurtz-like meltdown, is responsible for sending these power surges that may have the potential to wipe out all life in the universe. Now they want Roy, as the film’s Willard, to undertake a top secret mission to Mars, via the regular lunar shuttle with its overpriced inflatable pillows, to ostensibly send a personal message out to his father, track down his Lima Project craft and bring him home.
In the process, as things go wrong and with an array of psychological evaluations, Roy finds himself increasingly contemplating his own failings (“I’ve let so many people down”), the ambiguous relationship with his equally emotionally distant father, the admiration that led him to pursue the same career and the fear of becoming the same emotionally closed, single-minded person. In the final act, in what has now become a rogue one-man search and destroy mission to Neptune (“In the end the son suffers the sins of the father” muses Roy as he prepares to face his demons), the two are reunited and abandonment issues are faced.
As such, despite moments such as a moon buggy mining war battle on the lunar surface (the Moon a tourist’s microcosm of Earth complete with Virgin Atlantic), a spacecraft confrontation with two crazed baboons, and Roy’s need to escape from Mars, it’s a fairly narratively simple affair, but one handled with a sense of measured, at times clinical, control and attention to detail that calls Kubrick to mind. It isn’t all smooth running, Donald Sutherland is briefly introduced as an old friend of Roy’s father who’s intended to accompany him and summarily removed from the plot once he’s delivered the necessary information, but, driven by the interior monologues, its visual and psychological ambition is huge, proferring the notion that setting out in search of new frontiers is not to explore but to escape. If you’re expecting some galactic action movie then steer clear, but if you want to take a journey into the mind’s inner space, then these stars will guide your path. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Mockingird; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)
Angel Has Fallen (15)
The first film, Olympus Has Fallen, a knock off White House Down, the second essentially the same but in London, Gerard Butler returns for a third time as Secret Service Agent Mike Banning, personal bodyguard to Allan Trumbull (Morgan Freeman) who has moved up the political ladder to become President. Although still a one-man army, this time round, directed as by directed by ex-stuntman Ric Roman Waugh, Banning is feeling the effects of his close combat career, afflicted by an array of aches and pains (which he’s kept under wraps), and wondering whether he should take a desk job as the Secret Service Director, not that this seems to stop him racking up a small war bodycount as the film progresses.
While out on a fishing trip, along with numerous agents, the President is attacked by dozens of armed drones that leave everyone dead save for Banning (although targeted, the strike is cancelled); however, with Trumbull in a coma, having been saved by Banning, there’s no way to refute FBI agent Thomson’s (Jada Pinkett Smith) assertion that he was responsible for the assassination attempt, especially given his DNA’s all over the van used for the launch and that he’s got millions in a secret offshore account, apparently funded by the Russians.
Escaping when his detail is ambushed en route to prison, the rest of the film sees him setting out to clear his name, take down those who’ve set him up, prevent a second attempt on Trumbull’s life and, in the process, reuniting with his estranged, conspiracy theory off the grid dad (a heavily bewhiskered scene-stealing Nick Nolte) from whom Banning clearly inherited an affinity or firearms and explosives.
Opening with a mock exercise testing out a training ground for best friend turned private contractor Wade Jennings (Danny Huston), you don’t need a degree in film analysis to know he’s going to be the bad guy (indeed, the film reveals as much early in), just as Tim Blake Nelson as the hawk-like acting President who, opposed Trumbull’s refusal to involve for-profit private contractors to supplement the military and wants to go to war with Russia is patently not to be trusted.
Although Banning’s wife is now played by Piper Perado rather than Rhada Mitchell (and rather shortchanged in the screenplay), pretty much everything else follows the template laid down in the previous films and as such delivers exactly what you expect, climaxing with an extended explosive hospital shoot out and the bad guy’s wince-inducing last line. Generic nonsense, but Angel has sufficiently strong wings to keep it aloft. (Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)
Dora And The Lost City Of Gold (PG)
Debuting in 2000, while probably unlikely to have been named for the Stackridge song, the first animation to star a female Latina protagonist, part adventure, part educational, Dora the Explorer, a sort of junior wide-eyed innocent Lara Croft, ran on Nickelodeon for six years and is still screened as reruns. Now, directed by James Bobin, she makes her live action debut starring an indefatigably charismatic Isabela Moner, recently seen in Instant Family. Initially a seven year old, as in the TV series, after a brief set-up, this cuts to her as a young teen, living in the South American jungle with her archaeology professor explorer parents (Eva Longoria and Michael Peña), who are about to embark on a quest to find the fabled lost Inca city of Parapata. She’s hoping to join them, so is disappointed to find she’s being sent on a different adventure, exploring the world of American high school in Los Angeles where’s she’s reunited her cousin and childhood best friend Diego (Jeff Wahlberg).
Suffice to say, after a brief dalliance with familiar high school misfit sequences, during a trip to the local museum she’s abducted by a trio of mercenaries looking to track down her parents and seize the fabled treasure. She’s not alone, also taken captive are Diego and two classmates, nerdy outsider Randy (Nicholas Coombe) and bitchy, insecure queen bee Sammy (Madeleine Madden) who feels threatened by Dora’s intelligence. Arriving back in South America, they’re swiftly rescued by Alejandro (Eugenio Derbez), an old friend of Dora’s parents and, joined by Dora’s pet monkey, Boots (voiced by Danny Trejo), they set off to find Cole and Elena before the treasure hunters do.
Needless to say, the journey will involve an assortment of be yourself life lessons, a betrayal and, inevitably, Dora’s penchant for bursting into spontaneous made up songs (including one about doing a poo in the jungle) before climaxing in the lost city as they’re confronted by its guardians, led by an ancient Inca princess (Q’orianka Kilcher).
Resolutely pitched at a young audience, there’s virtually no concessions for the grown ups, who may well find Dora’s resolutely irrepressible upbeat nature and energy a tad irritating. Kids, on the other hand, should be swept up by what is, in essence, a return to the old days of Saturday matinees that also inspired the like of Indian Jones. In addition the puzzles to be solved, there’s nods to the original series when the characters inhale an hallucinatory pollen and find themselves transformed into cartoons, Boots retains his far from realistic-looking appearance and, along with early scenes of Dora talking to the camera, dispensing with any notions of reality, the bad guys are abetted by Swiper (voiced be Benicio Del Toro), the masked, talking fox from the cartoons. The film even sneaks in Dora’s talking backpack. Great fun. (Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)
Downton Abbey (PG)
Three years on from closing the front doors on the long-running TV series, the ensemble cast is back pretty much en masse (though Matthew Goode doesn’t turn up until the last act) for the much anticipated big screen feature. At which point I should admit that, while I’ve caught parts, and am certainly enough to be familiar with the characters and the storyline, I’ve never seen an episode. But, even if you’re not totally au fait, while knowing the backstory to the Crawley family and their staff helps, this works perfectly well as a standalone. The central plot is that, at the start of the film, the Earl of Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) receives a letter from Buckingham Palace announcing that King George (Simon Jones) and Queen Mary (Geraldine James) will be descending on Downton for one night as part of their tour of Yorkshire before proceeding to a Grand Ball. Which naturally throws everyone into a flap and Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) deciding that butler Thomas Barrow (Robert James-Collier) isn’t up to snuff asks Carson (Jim Carter), the former master of the house whose palsy seems to have conveniently cleared up, to come back and oversee things.
Around this creator and screenwriter Simon Fellowes juggles numerous subplots, primarily the downstairs staff’s rebellion, led by ladies maid Anna (Joanna Froggatt) and valet Bates (Brendan Coyle), against the imperious takeover by the King’s retinue, most specifically his butler (David Haig), French chef (Phillipe Spall) and mistress of the house (Richenda Carey), the latter two respectively putting Mrs Patmore (Lelsey Nicol) and Mrs Carson’s (Phyllis Logan) noses out of joint; the reluctance by scullery maid Daisy (Sophie McSheera), who turns out to not be a big monarchist, to discuss her wedding to footman Andrew (Michael C.Fox); the unhappy marriage of the Princess Royal (Kate Phillips); the insouciant Mary’s thoughts about calling running Downton a day; and the feud between the Dowager (Maggie Smith with her usual waspish lines) and her estranged cousin, Lady Bagshaw (Imelda Staunton), the Queen’s widowed Lady-in-Waiting to name her maid, Lucy (Tuppence Middleton) as heir rather than Robert, the Earl.
Amid all this, there’s also still room for some half-hearted add ons such as the unmasking of a light-fingered royal servant, Irish widower son-in-law Tom Branson (Allen Leech) to foil an assassination attempt and even a sequence involving a secret gay club in York.
With the returning cast also including Elizabeth McGovern (Countess Grantham), Penelope Wilton (Isobel Grey), Laura Carmichael (Edith Crawley), Kevin Doyle (Joseph Molesley, overcome at the prospect of serving royalty) alongside pivotal sub-plot appearances by Stephen Campbell-Moore and Max Brown, it’s both as lavishly appointed and as frothily superficial as you’d expect with no real drama of any sort that can’t be overcome with the stroke of a computer key, everything ending happily, even given the swan song announcement by one of the major characters should Fellowes contrive a sequel. In a Britain where order seems to have taken leave, it offers a perhaps cosy reassurance of a time when everyone knew their place and duty, and as such its devoted audience will embrace its nostalgia with a big hug. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)
The Farewell (PG)
“Based on an actual lie” reads the opening statement, writer-director Lulu Wang’s second feature, the dialogue mostly in Mandarin with some English, an expansion of a true story about Wang’s own grandmother already told as an episode of the This American Life TV series. The lie in question is the decision by her extended, scattered family not to tell family matriarch Nai Nai (Shuzhen Zhou) that, as her younger sister, Little Nai Nai (Lu Hong), informs them, has stage 4 lung cancer terminal cancer and only months to live.
Instead, they use the excuse of a grandson’s’ wedding to his Japanese girlfriend of three months (Aoi Mizuhara) to variously return home from America and Japan to Changchun for the marriage and the banquet Nai Nai is organising, to say their goodbyes, everyone under strict instructions not to let the cat out of the bag. That, most especially, includes her granddaughter Billi (Awkwafina) who moved to New York with her family when she was a child, but has kept up a close relationship. She’s horrified that Chinese practise means the diagnosis is being kept secret and, while her parents, boozy, hangdog-looking father (Tzi Ma) and acerbic, emotionally distant (“Chinese people have a saying: When you get cancer, you die”) mother (Diana Lin) insist she stay behind because she can’t hide her emotions, although financially strapped (and having just heard she’s not getting a Guggenheim Foundation grant), she flies out anyway.
As such, what ensues is a finely judged farce of deceptions that takes in a whole range of prickly family dynamics involving long simmering resentments, jealousies, snobbery and snide put downs, all of which Billi looks upon with increasing frustration and annoyance while also having to deal with her feelings of guilt, detachment from her native country and what family and home really mean.
Hitherto best known for her broad comic turns in Crazy Rich Asians and Ocean’s Eight, Awkwafina proves she can also be a finely nuanced serious actress, conveying her emotional struggles with a look or a hesitation in the way she speaks. But she’s also supported by a superb ensemble cast, most notably the wonderful Zhou as the granny who long since stopped filtering her feelings (and, given she did the same with her late husband, likely knows what’s going on but plays long), Lin with her barely contained hostility towards her China-based sister-in-law’s hypocritical social pretensions, and, in a largely physical performance involving a drunken wedding karaoke session, Chen Han as Hao, the dim bulb son of Hiyai’s elder brother, whose wedding has been swiftly arranged (in an amusing scene Nai Nai insists they say they’ve been dating for a year so people don’t think the bride’s pregnant).
Bittersweet with a gentle disarming humour, it’s an affectionate portrait of family and cultural identity that deftly steers clear of sentimentality to end on a swelling slo mo euphoria and feelgood dramatic irony note in the final credits, a film that leaves you with a warm, fuzzy glow and perhaps the feeling to reconnect with those distant elderly relatives you’ve not seen in years. (MAC)
Needing to make money to care for her elderly grandmother (Wai Ching Ho scoring an amusing moment telling how she danced with Frankie Valli), Destiny (Constance Wu) takes a job as pole/lap dancer at Moves, a New York strip club where, her tips from the leering creeps are largely taken as ‘commission’ by management and bouncers, she’s taken under the wing of single mother star turn Ramona (Jennifer Lopez) who teachers her how to get Wall Street types in the profitable private session champagne room peeling off those $100 bills and to “Drain the clock, not the cock”. Things are good until the crash of 2008 pretty much wipes out their clientele. For a while the women go their separate ways, Destiny gets pregnant and finds it hard to get employment., But then the two are fortuitously reunited with Ramona introducing her to the art of fishing, luring in their marks, getting them drunk and then maxing out their credit cards. Joined by fellow dancers Annabelle (Lili Reinhart), who can vomit on cue (and also on other less fortunate occasions) and Mercedes (Keke Palmer), they turn from drink to drugs, spiking their marks’ booze and taking them for all they can. Cue shopping, champagne swigging and singing and dancing sequences. Inevitably, at some point, one of the targets decides to bite the bullet of his shame and go to the cops.
Based around the true story of the New York gang of women who, led Samantha Barbash, hustled, drugged and fleeced a string of Wall Street (here soundtracked to Scott Walker’s Next) and adapted from an article by journalist Jessica Pressler (Julia Stiles to whom Lopez and Wu tell their stories), writer-director Lorene Scafaria has crafted a Scorsese-like (though he actually passed on the script)_ female Goodfellas about female empowerment and friendship with bonds that can even survive self-protecting betrayal set in a milieu where, as well as making loads of money, weaponising their sexuality, the women excuse the morality of what they’re doing as a form of modern day Robin Hood (as the press termed it) revenge on the bankers and the like who screwed the public, caused economic disaster and walked away from it unpunished. It’s hard not to feel these guys with their sense of entitlement get all they deserve. Especially when they go back for more. As Ramona puts it, “This whole country’s a strip club. You’ve got people tossing the money and people doing the dance.”
Electrifyingly directed, photographed and acted with razor-sharp dialogue, it’s bolstered by small but hugely effective turns from the likes of Cardi B, Lizzo and Madeleine Brewer as fellow dancer-hustlers, Mercedes Rhuel as the dancers’ protective and complicit mother figure at the club and even a cameo by Usher as himself. However, it’s Wu (who, as the initially innocent Destiny affords the moral centre when she has qualms about one of their marks) and, more particularly, Lopez who are the film’s fierce heart, the latter delivering a commanding performance (and a dazzling display on the pole to Fiona Apple’s Criminal) that obliterates in a moment all the crap she’s appeared in recent years and which is already generating Oscar buzz. A film for the MeToo times and one that, given the end credit notes, makes you want to find out more about the real Samantha and Roselyn Keo and where they are today. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)
It: Chapter Two (15)
Doggedly nudging well past the two and half hour mark, returning director Andy Muschietti’s sequel to the film that prompted the Stephen King screen revival picks things up 27 years on from the original, a somewhat random period time that will mark the return of Pennywise (Bill Skarsgård, not given as much to do this time round), the fearmongering supernatural killer clown. So when, following the clown’s return in the wake of a gay bashing murder (that’s never mentioned again), kids start vanishing again from the Maine town of Derry, the now grown Mike (Isaiah Mustafa) gets back in touch with his fellow former members of the Losers Club, all of whom left Derry and forged new lives. So, that’s former fat kid Ben (Jay Ryan) who’s become a hunky, wealthy property developer, the ever nervous hypochondriac Eddie (James Ransone), now a risk assessor, Bill (James McAvoy), who’s parlayed a career as a bestselling novelist into a Hollywood screenwriter (who, in an in-joke about criticism of King, can’t write a satisfactory ending), bespectacled Richie (Bill Hader) is a bitter stand-up comic, while erstwhile tomboy Beverly (Jessica Chastain) is stuck in a marriage to a rich but abusive husband.
Getting the call to return to Derry, all duly gather in the local Chinese, the only one of the original crew missing being Stan (Andy Bean), for reasons presaged early one, revealed later and given resonance in the final scenes, but it seems none them can actually clearly remember what happened back when they were kids. Now, this might be because It’s not dead, it might be they repressed the trauma or perhaps because the screenwriters want to pad out the narrative with subplots in which each of them have to face the ghosts of their past (such as Ben still blaming himself for his brother’s death and seeking redemption by trying to save the kid who now lives in his old house) in order to gather the personal ‘artefacts’ needed to complete the ancient Native American ritual Michael says will kill It forever.
Suffice to say that after the five diversions, they all gather at It’s hidey hole (the creature having been revealed as arriving from outer space millennia ago) to carry out the ritual. Naturally, it doesn’t go smoothly.
Interspersed with flashbacks to their younger days (reuniting the original young cast of Jaeden Martell, Wyatt Oleff. Jack Dylan Grazer, Finn Wolfhard. Sophia Lillis, Chosen Jacobs and Jeremy Ray Taylor), it explores the personal traumas and demons that haunt them still while also, in a somewhat unnecessary tangent, also reintroducing the murderous Henry Bowers (Teach Grant) who’s been locked up in a mental institution since the first film.
There’s some effective CGO in the film’s many hallucinatory moments such as the creepy creatures emerging from fortune cookies, the old dear in Bev’s childhood apartment who transforms into a naked monster hag, a decapitated head on spider legs and, of course, the various forms Pennywise takes on. Along the way, there’s numerous references to other horror series, such as Nightmare On Elm Street and even a reprise of that famous line from The Shining as Bev finds herself in a toilet filling with blood, the film, variously scary and comic, finally resolving itself as a story of friendship, self-acceptance (with a half-hearted romantic triangle tossed in) and finding closure, for not just the Losers but the saga itself. And, while the ride’s compelling, not before time. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Odeon Broadway Plaza; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)
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 (Franes Conroy) in a crappy apartment and who suffers from a neurological condition that expresses itself as a sort of laughter version of Tourettes. 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 harrass 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; Electric; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman;Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)
Based on Peter Quilter’s Tony-nominated stage play End of the Rainbow about the last months of Judy Garland’s life when she played a colourfully variable season at London’s Talk of the Town (sometimes dazzling, sometimes drunk) , inevitably, directed by Rupert Goold and written by first timer Tom Edge, reality and what you see on screen are often very different things. Certainly she was pelted with food by the audience when she appeared late, drunk and slurring, but it’s unlikely, even as a gay icon, she ever went back to a flat shared by two gay fans (for post-show scrambled eggs and the final scene where they boost her in time of mid-song crisis is most certainly fiction. That said, this is very faithful in portraying the desperate loneliness and insecurity that crippled the former child star of The Wizard of Oz, even if Rene Zellweger’s electrifying, note perfect (and inevitably Oscar scooping) performance is far better than the film that contains it.
Opening the story at the tail end of 1968, deep in debt Garland return to her hotel from a show (for which she’s paid the princely sum of $150) featuring her youngest children, Lorna (Bella Ramsey) and Joey (Lewin Lloyd), she’s informed she’s been thrown out because of her unpaid bills. With nowhere else to go, she winds up at the home of her ex-husband, Sidney Luft (Rufus Sewell), with whom’s she’s involved in a custody wrangle, who makes it very clear what he thinks of her parenting.
Given her reputation of being difficult and unreliable, if she wants to raise the money she needs to keep her children, she has to accept a five week season at the Talk of the Town, under impresario Bernard Delfont (Michale Gambon), although the kids have to remain behind.
Arriving in London, she’s feted as a superstar, but a combination of crippling insecurity, insomnia, pills and drink, leave her refusing to rehearse and having to be frog marched on to the stage by exasperated but sympathetic (real) production assistant Rosalyn Wilder (Jessie Buckley) where, once in the spotlight, she knocks them dead with a rendition of I’ll Go My Way by Myself. It’s kind of downhill from that point, hitting rock bottom when her impulsive brief marriage to the much younger Mickey Deans (Finn Wittrock), a chancer with an eye on making a fortune off her name, blows up in her face and she’s sacked. On top of which, Luft turns up with some unwelcome news about what the children have decided for their future.
All this is regularly punctuated with flashbacks to the young Judy (Darci Shaw) who, as Dorothy Gale won the world’s hearts with Over The Rainbow, but was bullied and verbally (and it was rumoured sexually) abused by tyrannical movie mogul Louis B. Meyer (Richard Cordery) who, to get what wanted on camera had her dosed up with appetite suppressants to keep her thing, amphetamines to keep her awake and sleeping pills for her anxiety-induced insomnia, an addiction that stayed with her as she grew, compounded by alcoholism. If you weren’t already aware Garland’s nightmare existence at MGM, from which she was eventually ‘let go’ in 1950, this is a real wake up call., and further serves to elicit empathy and understanding when you see the adult Judy acts like a diva and collapsing into self-destruction.
The problem is that Zellweger’s performance is so intense, so fierce and so compelling, and her self-performed musical numbers so exhilarating, that the film around her pales into a somewhat rote biopic of underwritten supporting characters (though Buckley does emerge with honours) with brief interactions between Garland and the likes of daughter Liza Minelli (Gemma-Leah Devereux), Talk of the Town musical arranger Burt Rhodes (Royce Pierreson, skiffle star Lonnie Donegan (John Dalgleish), whose show she most definitely did not usurp as seen here, and, as her younger self, frequent co-star Mickey Rooney, a potential young romance rejected here in favour of the roar of the crowd.
Climaxing with a fragile, vulnerable, vocally cracked performance of that song it’s undeniably a compelling and well-crafted portrait of the final days of a tragic star, but other than Best Actress, I suspect next year’s gongs are going to be somewhat thin on the ground. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Electric; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza Luxe; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)
The Lion King (PG)
Given, there being no human characters unlike director Jon Favreau’s previous revamp of The Jungle Book, the fact that this is all CGI makes it a little disingenuous to call it a live action remake. However, such is the degree of photorealism as regards both the landscapes and animals, that it would be easy to believe this is actual flesh and fur, earth and water. It’s hard to imagine anyone who isn’t familiar with the 1994 animated original, itself a riff on Hamlet, so, again opening with the Circle of Life gathering at Pride Rock, this virtual shot by shot, line by line update won’t hold any narrative surprises surprises, indeed the main difference lies in ditching the annoying Morning Report song, rendered here as dialogue from Zazu, the red-billed hornbill factotum. The thrill comes, instead, from seeing the characters in such three-dimensional form, the hyenas even more scary-looking while the CGI incarnations of warthog Puumba (Seth Rogan) and meerkat Timon (Billy Eichner) are a delight, especially in the way the former, all bristles and tusk, trots along like dainty ballerina. They still sing Hakuna Matata and even get to make a filmic in joke about how, having fled the Pridelands believing himself responsible for the death of his father, Mufasa (James Earl Jones reprising his role), in stampede, the young Simba (JD McCrary) grows into the adult lion (Donald Glover) in the course of the song while they still look the same. They also sing a snatch of Be Our Guest from Beauty and the Beast.
There’s no new additions (though a couple of hyenas are renamed), but all the familiar characters are present and correct with an impressive array of appropriately African-American vocal talent that includes Alfre Woodard as Sarabi, Simba’s mother, John Kani as mandrill shaman Rafiki, Beyoncé, in a slightly expanded role, as Nala, Simba’s childhood best friend and future love interest who not only gets to duet on Can You Feel The Love Tonight but has her own all new song, Spirit, while Shahadi Wright Joseph from the original Broadway cast is the young cub and Chiwetol Ejiofor is superbly sly as Simba’s treacherous uncle, Scar. Whether the revamp has any point beyond the technical accomplishments is open to debate, but it certainly deserves to be a roaring success. (Empire Great Park; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)
Rambo: Last Blood (18)
Eleven years on from the underwhelming eponymous fourth and supposedly final entry into the franchise, Sly Stallone resurrects his troubled army vet for yet another final outing. Now retired and living in his ranch which he shares with family friend, Maria (Adriana Barraza), and her granddaughter Gabrielle (Yvette Monreal), who, after being abandoned by her dad, he treats like his own niece, when she says she’s tracked her father down and wants to visit him in Mexico to get closure he forcefully advises against it. Naturally, she goes anyway and, betrayed by a supposed friend, winds up being abducted by a sex trafficking cartel. Inevitably Rambo goes after her and, after exerting some bone cracking pressure on the middleman supplier, tracks down the gang headed up by the ruthless Martinez brothers, Hugo (Sergio Peris-Mencheta) and Victor (Óscar Jaenada),only to end up getting a bludgeoning, leaving him with a vicious scar on his face (same cheek as in First Blood Part II), a punishment also afflicted, along with a forced drug addition, by Gabrielle, and left alive by Hugo to endure the pain of knowing her fate.
However, patched up (though warning of concussion effects are summarily forgotten) with the help of an investigative journalist (a cursorily functional Paz Vega) who has her own grudge with the cartel, he returns, smashes a few skulls, decapitates Victor and takes off with the girl, who dies in in the seat next to him. Knowing Hugo will come after him, he plans out his revenge booby-trapping the farm, the house and the tunnels under the land (it’s never explained why he actually has tunnels or why the place is like a small armoury) and then, like the audience, sits back to await the Mexicans as they rush to their bloody deaths in a sort of grislier version of Home Alone.
There’s a cursory moment where he confesses that his savage side’s never gone away, just kept pushed down (cue swallowing handfuls of pills), and is duly let loose for yet another killing spree. With the Mexicans all utterly despicable sadistic bad guys who patently deserve that they get, while Stallone taking the occasional moments to soulfully emote his emotional pain, once it gets to the third the film moves efficiently (and with a concise 89 minutes running time) from bloody and gruesome death to the next, head being blown off, bodies skewered, riddled with bullets, set aflame dismembered while saving Hugo to the last to he can feel his heart being ripped out like Rambo did.
The fact that he keeps his shirt on throughout signifies this as Stallone in serious dramatic rather than muscleman mode and there’s some affecting moments between him and his niece, but otherwise this is standard revenge-thriller stuff, albeit with the carnage and gore amped up to the max, ending a bizarre credits montage of clips from the earlier films he rides off the classic Western hero into the sunset and, presumably, given the likely box office, yet another final final arterial spray. (Empire Great Park; Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)
Ready Or Not (18)
When orphaned Grace (Samara Weaving) married Alex Le Domas (Mark O’Brien), scion of the blueblood Le Domas games dynasty, she never thought till death us do part would apply so literally or so soon. As part of the initiation into the family, at midnight new members are required to play one of the many games the family has devised or marketed over the years. And everyone has to abide by the rules, established by the great grandfather Victor in a deal with mysterious benefactor Le Bail, so as to avoid unspecified consequences. The card the new arrival most certainly does not want to draw is hide and seek. Which unfortunately, is precisely what Grace does, for the first time since the events of the 30-years earlier prologue. She just has to stay hidden until dawn. The problem is that, while her husband, only just returned to the family fold, demurs and tries to help, everyone else in the family, armed to the teeth with old-time crossbows, axes and guns, is required to hunt her down so she can become ritual sacrifice in the ‘games room’. So now, Grace, still in her full and increasingly torn and bloodied wedding get-up has to try and avoid demented patriarch Tony (Henry Czerny), Alex’s indifferent mother (Andie MacDowell), ambivalent black-sheep brother Daniel (Adam Brody), his sisters, cokehead Emilie (Melanie Scrofano) and the ill-named Charity (Elyse Levesque), her numbskull husband Fitch (Kristiann Bruun) and, looking like a refugee from the Addams Family, the coldblooded Aunt Helene (a gloweringly wonderful Nicky Guadagni), not to mention Emilie’s two kids and the butler (John Ralston), and stay alive. Something the three maids, through a series of mishaps, find rather harder to accomplish. If she succeeds, legend has it that the family, in some sort of diabolic deal, will pay the price instead.
Essentially, this is another in spooky house cat and mouse genre, but, as written by Guy Busick and R. Christopher Murphy and directed by Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett, it marries the often bloody horror with the sort of sardonic Gothic pastiche that distinguished the likes of What We Do in the Shadows and Tucker and Dale Meet Evil, the gallows humour (notably a scene involving Grace trying to steal a car that’s overriden by the service agent) increasing along with the blood and a rather gruesome encounter with the Goat Pit as it gathers to its confessedly Heathers-inspired climax.
You can read it as social/class satire, but it’s best enjoyed by just sitting back and watch the excellent, playing it knowingly straight Weaving transform from wide-eyed blonde to fuck you female rage and delivering the final line with crowd applauding aplomb. (Cineworld 5 Ways; Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)
Toy Story 4 (U)
The fourth and final entry sees the Toy Story out on an emotional high as it pulls together the themes that have run throughout the saga for a finale that will have audiences welling up. It opens several years earlier when Woody (Tom Hanks) and the other toys, among them Jessie (Joan Cusack), Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen), Rex (Wallace Shawn) and Hamm (John Ratzenberger), were still owned by Andy as Woody (motto ‘leave no toy behind’) daringly rescues a toy car that has got lost and is about to be washed away in the gutter. However, before Woody can climb back through the window, it’s slammed shut as he watches Bo Peep (Annie Potts) and her three-headed sheep, Billy, Goat and Gruff, the porcelain lamp belonging to Andy’s sister Molly, being boxed up to go to a new home. He attempts to rescue her, but she insists it’s time to move on to a new child and invites him to join her. Loyal to his kid, Woody refuses.
Fast forward to the present and his new kid, Bonnie (Madeleine McGraw) is off to kindergarten orientation and, ignoring the advice from the other toys, Woody, who she hasn’t played with in weeks (indeed, she even gives his badge to Jessie) and has lost his lost his role as keeper of the room to Dolly (Bonnie Hunt), sneaks into her backpack to ensure she’s ok. At school, he helps by providing her materials from which she makes herself a new plaything, Forky (Tony Hale), a plastic spork with pipe-cleaner arms, popsicle-stick feet and googly eyes. He’s her new favourite toy, but it takes a real effort for Woody to convince him that he’s a toy not trash (he keeps trying to get into the rubbish bins in a montage set to Randy Newman’s I Can’t Let You Throw Yourself Away) and that he’s important to Bonnie. The ironic symmetry is obvious, one is a toy who fears becoming trash, one is trash who doesn’t want to be a toy.
At which point, the family take a road trip to Grand Basin National Park and an amusement park where, separated from the others while he explains things to Forky, Woody comes across Second Chance Antiques and spots Bo Peep’s lamp in the window. For the past seven years, in turns out she has embraced the life of a lost toy, enjoying the freedom of the park and become something of feisty kick ass (another of Disney’s female empowerment touches), riding around the park in a motorised skunk. “Who needs a kid’s room,” she asks, showing Woody the panoramic view of the park, “When you can have all of this?”
The reunion is, however, overshadowed by the fact that the store also contains Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks), a creepy vintage 1950s pull-string doll who, assisted by four Chucky-like ventriloquist dummy henchdolls, takes Forky hostage because she wants to replace her broken pull string voice box with Woody’s in the hope of getting a kid of her own.
What ensues are two extended rescue missions variously involving Bo, Buzz and Jessie (Joan Cusack) alongside new characters joined at the paw plushies Bunny (Jordan Peele) and Ducky (Keegan-Michael Key), mini-toy rescue cop Giggle McDimples (Ally Maki) and Canadian stunt biker Duke Caboom (Keanu Reeves) whose plagued by a sense of failure after being discarded when his abilities didn’t measure up to his marketing.
Exploring themes such as finding your purpose, self-worth, abandonment, loyalty, responsibility, selflessness, and that letting go and moving on doesn’t mean you stop loving or being loved, it will touch chords in both children and adults alike while also providing thrilling action sequences, dark and scary moments, affecting poignancy, laughs (not least in Buzz thinking his pre-programmed recordings are his ‘inner voice’) and moments of breathtaking beauty. From a joyful reunion to a moving parting of the ways farewell, this will take your heart to infinity and beyond. (Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe; Vue Star City)
Screenings courtesy of Odeon and Cineworld
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